Canada Slim and the Forgotten

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 30 May 2017

Marriage ain’t easy.

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“My successful marriage is built on mistakes.

It may be founded on love, trust and a shared sense of purpose, but it runs on cowardice, impatience, ill-advised remarks and low cunning.

But also: apologies, belated expressions of gratitude and frequent appeals for calm.

Every day is a lesson in what I am doing wrong.”

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“Twenty years ago my wife and I embarked on a project so foolhardy, the prsopect of which seemed to us both so weary, stale and flat that even thinking about it made us shudder….

We simply agreed – we’ll get married – with the resigned determination of two people plotting to bury a body in the woods.”

(Guardian columnist Tim Dowling, How to Be a Husband)

Since autumn of 2016 I have been teaching technical English to a company in two locations: Amriswil in Canton Thurgau (the Canton where I reside) and in Neuhaus in Canton St. Gallen (the Canton where I mostly work) on the border of Canton Zürich.

From Neuhaus it is closer to visit Zürich than it is for me to return back to Landschlacht, so when my schedule as a freelance English teacher finds me with a free afternoon after the company class I take myself down to Zürich.

Zürich possesses many temptations for me: museums, bookshops, the Limmat River, the Lake of Zürich, restaurants and cafés.

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And as well Zürich is where my wife resides from Sunday afternoon to Thursday evening every week.

And somewhere buried deep within our marriage contract in words only my wife can read is a clause that insists that I occasionally be nice and visit the Wife, aka my own personal She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Upon my arrival in Zürich yesterday a bus ride and a train journey later, I still had a few hours to myself with which I had the illusion of freedom to do what I wished before my wife, the doctor, finished work at her hospital.

I foolishly forgot that most museums in Switzerland are closed on Mondays and I had this explained to me politely by a security guard at the Swiss National Museum.

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But like every bibliophile bookworm I never travel without literature for such situations, so with Duncan Smith’s Only in Zürich: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Ununsual Objects in hand I once again set out to discover Zürich before meeting the wife who would then set my agenda for me.

All guidebooks to Zürich mention the fact that Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) spent time in the city during the years leading up to the First World War.

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Seven years and eight months (1896 – 1900 / 1909 – 1911 / 1912 – 1914 / 1919), to be precise, at six different addresses (Unionstrasse 4 / Klosbachstrasse 87 / Dolderstrasse 17 / Moussonstrasse 12 / Hofstrasse 116 / Hochstrasse 37).

Albert Einstein’s name is now synonymous with genius and his face has become a 20th century icon.

But what about his wife during this time, the gifted mathematician Mileva Maric (1875 – 1948)?

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Few books mention her name and even fewer mention that she was buried in an unmarked grave in Zürich.

Albert Einstein arrived in Zürich in October 1896 to study at the Federal Polytechnic Institute (Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum) – today the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule)(ETH).

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A wall plaque at Unionstrasse 4 marks one of the addresses where Albert lived during this period.

In the same year Mileva attended the same institution and the two soon became close friends.

Born to wealthy parents in Titel (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today a part of Serbia), Mileva was the first and favourite child of an ambitious pesant who had joined the army, married into money and then dedicated himself to making sure his brilliant daughter was able to prevail in the male world of mathematics and physics.

Mileva spent most of her childhood in Novi Sad and attended a variety of ever more demanding schools, at each of which she was at the top of her class, culminating when her father convinced the all-male Classical Gymnasium in Zagreb to let her enroll.

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Above: St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb, Croatia

After graduating there with the top grades in physics and math, Mileva made her way to Zürich, where she became, just before she turned 21, the only woman in Albert’s section of the Polytechnic.

More than three years older than Albert, she was afflicted with a congenital hip dislocation that cause her to limp.

She was prone to bouts of tuberculosis and despondency.

Mileva was known for neither her books nor her personality.

One of her female friends in Zürich described her as “very smart and serious, small, delicate, brunette, ugly”.

But she had qualities that Albert, in his romantic scholar years, found attractive: a passion for math and science, a brooding depth and a beguiling soul.

Her deepset eyes had a haunting intensity, her face an enticing touch of melancholy.

Mileva would become, over time, Albert’s muse, partner, lover, wife, bête noire and antagonist and she would create an emotional field more powerful than that of anyone else in Albert’s life.

Mileva would alternately attract and repulse Albert, with a force so strong that a mere scientist, a mere man, like himself would never be able to fathom it.

Mileva and Albert met when they both entered the Polytechnic in October 1896, but their relationship took a while to develop.

They were nothing more than classmates that first academic year, but they did, however, decide to go hiking together in the summer of 1897.

“Frightened by the new feelings she was experiencing” because of Albert, Mileva decided to leave the Polytechnic temporarily and instead audit classes at Heidelberg University.

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Mileva and Albert corresponded, her letters a mix of playfulness and seriousness, of lightheartednes and intensity, of intimacy and detachment.

Albert urged her to return to Zürich.

By February 1898, Mileva made up her mind to do so.

By April she was back, in a boarding house a few blocks from him and now they were a couple.

They shared books, intellectual enthusiasms, intimacies and access to each other’s apartments.

Friends were surprised that a sensuous and handsome man such as Albert, who could have almost any woman fall for him, would find himself with a short and plain Serbian who had a limp and exuded an air of melancholy.

But it is easy to see why Albert felt such an affinity for Mileva.

They were kindred spirits who perceived themselves as aloof scholars and outsiders, rebellious toward others’ expectations, intellectuals who sought as lovers someone who would also be a partner, a colleague and collaborator.

Above all else, Albert loved Mileva for her mind.

She would eventually gain the same score in physics as Albert.

In 1900 Albert presented his first published scientific paper to the Annalen der Physik, Europe’s leading physics journal, in which his unified physical law of relativity was already apparent.

In February 1901, Switzerland made Albert a citizen, but his parents insisted that he go with them to Milan and live there if he could not find work in Zürich.

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Both in Zürich and in Milan, Albert was unsuccessful at attaining fulltime employment.

He spent most of 1901 juggling temporary teaching assignments and some tutoring.

Waiting for a decent post to materialise, Albert accepted a temporary post at a technical school in Winterthur for two months, filling in for a teacher on military leave, while Mileva remained in Zürich.

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To make up for his absences, Albert proposed that they have a romantic getaway by Lake Como.

It was early Sunday morning, 5 May 1901, Albert waited for Mileva at the train station in the village of Como, “with open arms and a pounding heart”.

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Mileva became pregnant by Albert.

Back in Zürich preparing to take her exams and hoping to go on to get a doctorate and become a physicist, she decided instead that she wanted Albert’s child – even though he was not yet ready or willing to marry her.

Perhaps as a consequence of her pregnancy or her dissatisfaction that Albert went on summer vacation with his parents and sister in the Alps instead of finding employment after Winterthur as he had promised her, Mileva failed her exams and gave up her dream of being a scientific scholar.

In the fall of 1901, Einstein took on a job as a tutor of a rich English schoolboy at a little private academy in Schaffhausen.

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Mileva was eager to be with Albert, but her pregnancy made it impossible for them to be together in public, so she stayed at a small hotel in a neighbouring village.

Their relationship became strained, as Albert came only infrequently to visit her claiming he did not have the spare money.

Albert was desperately unhappy with his job in Schaffhausen so it was with some relief that his friend Marcel Grossmann told him that a job as a Bern patent office clerk would soon be his.

Albert moved to Bern in late January 1902, while Mileva returned to her parents’ home in Novi Sad to have their baby, a girl they called Lieserl.

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Above: Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Though Albert wrote to Mileva asking about Lieserl, his love for the child was mainly abstract.

Albert did not tell his friends or family about his daughter and never once publicly speak of her or even acknowledge she existed.

Albert found a large room in Bern but Mileva would not be sharing it.

They were not married and an aspiring Swiss civil servant could not be seen cohabitating in such a way.

After a few months Mileva moved back to Zürich to wait for Albert to marry her as he had promised.

She did not bring Lieserl with her.

Albert and Lieserl never laid eyes on each other.

Lieserl was left back in Novi Sad with relatives and friends, so that Albert could maintain both his unencumbered lifestyle and respectability he needed to become a Swiss official.

The fate of Lieserl remains unknown.

Albert finally was rewarded the position on 16 June 1902.

Albert married Mileva at a tiny civil ceremony in Bern’s registry office on 6 January 1903.

Their son Hans Albert Einstein was born on 14 May 1904.

After gaining his doctorate in 1905 while working in the Swiss Patent Office, assessing the worth of electromagnetic devices, Albert wrote four groundbreaking articles: one concerning the photoelectric effect (for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921) and another containing his now famous mass-energy equivalence equation: E=mc squared.

In 1909 Albert and Mileva along with Hans moved back to Zürich, where Albert was made Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Zürich.

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The Einstein family lived on the second floor at Moussonstrasse 12, where in 1910 their second son Eduard “Tete” Einstein was born.

In March 1911 the family relocated to Prague, where Albert became full professor at Charles University.

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Einstein’s fame would lead him to wander around Europe giving speeches and basking in his renown, while Mileva stayed behind in Prague, a city she hated.

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She brooded about not being part of his scientific circles that she had once struggled to join.

She became even more gloomy and depressed than her natural disposition had often led her to before.

So it was in this instability between them that Albert travelled alone to Berlin during the Easter holidays of 1912 and became reacquainted with a cousin, three years older, whom he had known as a child, Elsa.

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Elsa Einstein had been married, divorced and now at age 36 was living with her two daughters in the same apartment buildings as her parents.

Albert was looking for new companionship and thus began secret romantic correspondence between them.

But after returning to Prague from Berlin, Albert began to develop qualms about his affair with his cousin.

What remained between Mileva and Albert was a feeling that living among the middle class German community in Prague had become wearisome, so they decided to return to the one place they thought could restore their relationship: Zürich.

In July 1912 the Einsteins returned once more to Zürich, where Albert took up a professorship at the Polytechnikum.

Life should have been glorious.

They were able to afford a modern six-room apartment with good views.

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Above: Hofstrasse  116, Zurich

They were reunited with old friends.

But Mileva’s depression continued to deepen and and her health to decline.

After a year of silence, Elsa wrote to Albert.

So, when a few months later, Einstein received an offer to work in Berlin and be with Elsa, he was quite receptive.

This time they lived at Hofstrasse 116 where they remained until February 1914, when Albert became professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

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Mileva was unhappy in Berlin and their marriage was dissolving.

She had become more depressed, dark and jealous.

He had become emotionally withdrawn.

Mileva became involved with Zagreb mathematics professor Vladimir Varicak who challenged Einstein’s theories.

In July Mileva moved out with the two boys into the house of her only friend Clara Haber and her husband the chemist Fritz.

Albert was prepared to take her back if she agreed to a brutal ultimatum of her duties and responsibilites.

He was prepared to live with Mileva again because he didn’t want to lose his children but it was out of the question that they would resume a friendly relationship but he aimed for a businesslike arrangement.

Mileva and the two boys left for Zürich on 29 July 1914.

She filled her time giving private lessons in mathematics, physics and piano playing.

Einstein returned to Zürich once more in January/February 1919 to lecture on his Theory of Relativity, staying at Hochstrasse 37.

That same year Albert divorced Mileva, giving her the proceeds from his Nobel Prize for her and their children’s support.

Mileva invested the money in three properties in Zürich, occupying one of them herself at Huttenstrasse 62, which has been identified by a memorial plaque since 2005.

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Hans Einstein (1904 – 1973) would go on to study engineering at Zürich Polytechnic, get married, become a father to two sons and a daughter with his first wife Frieda, move to the United States becoming a professor of hydraulic engineering at Berkeley, remarry after Frieda’s death, father two more children.

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Above: Hans Einstein’s final resting place, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA

Eduard Einstein (1910 – 1965) was smart and artistic.

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Obsessed about Freud, Eduard hoped to be a psychiatrist, but he succumbed to his own schizophrenia and was institutionalised in Switzerland for much of the rest of his life at Zürich University Psychiatric Hospital.

Albert would go on to access even greater fame and award, eventually marrying his cousin Elsa.

And what of Mileva?

By the 1930s, the costs of treating Eduard for schizophrenia had overwhelmed her.

She was forced to sell her two investment properties and to transfer the rights to Huttenstrasse to Albert so as not to lose it.

Although he made regular payments to her Mileva died penniless in 1948.

She is buried in an unmarked grave in Zürich’s Nordheim Cemetery and mostly forgotten.

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It was not until 2009 that a memorial gravestone was erected by the Serbian Diaspora Ministry, just inside the cemetery entrance on Käferholzstrasse.

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I visited the places Mileva had known in reverse order from the cemetery to the first apartment she had shared with Albert.

And I found parallels with my own past…

I too had been left behind by my parents like Lieserl.

My mother lies buried in an unmarked grave, but unlike Mileva there is no society to put a plaque on Fort Lauderdale´s cemetery.

Like Mileva I have married a partner more successful professionally than myself, though unlike Mileva I have no illusions about my ever having the same aptitudes as my wife possesses, nor do I feel jealousy or resentment for her success.

Mileva’s partner required that she uproot her life several times to different locations in Zürich and to other cities like Prague and Berlin.

As my wife´s career is more stable than mine, I have moved with/for her from the Black Forest to the Rhine River border near Basel up to Osnabruck and then to this wee village by the Lake of Constance here in Switzerland.

I, like Mileva, am less attractive and outgoing than my spouse.

I, like Mileva, have my own quiet struggles with depression, but, so far, these bouts seem far less serious than those she suffered.

I came from work at the company in Neuhaus dressed for executive type work.

The temperature in Zürich yesterday was 32°, hot and humid.

Elves could have taken a bath in the pools of sweat gathered under my armpits.

Zürich like Rome is built upon hills so seeing the former abodes of the late Mrs. E demanded energy.

Happily if one gets thirsty in Zürich there is no need to find a café or a supermarket because it is quite acceptable to drink from a public fountain.

One never has to travel far to find a fountain because there are few cities with more fountains than Zürich, again compareable to Rome.

At last count, this city boasts a total of around twelve hundred fountains.

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Above: The Napfbrunnen Fountain

With portable Starbucks cup in hand, I drank deeply and often.

Albert, with his great intelligence, achieved great fame and fortune.

Mileva, also possessing great intelligence, gave up fame and fortune for her family.

If Albert was a bad husband and father, history has no record in Mileva’s handwriting.

Her secrets and potential lie buried somewhere beneath the earth of the sprawling necropolis in the metropolis she chose to call home.

Daughter of Serbia, wife of a genius, mother to an abandoned daughter, sons becoming a wandering engineer and an ill schizophrenic, a victim of depression, genetics and passion, Mileva Maric Einstein was many things.

Now she is just a historical footnote lost in the shadows of an uncommunicative cemetery visited by a sweaty Canadian with too much time on his hands.

Mileva had her flaws and made her mistakes, but in the end analysis I am glad I found out about her.

I meet the wife later for a quick bite after her work and before her tango dance lesson and as I watch her speak with drama and passion, and as I consider both are good and bad times I can quietly smile and know that I have met my match, muse, partner, lover, wife, bête noire and antagonist.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I will say that she has made my past quite interesting.

Being a husband ain’t easy, but it sure isn’t boring.

Sources:

Tim Dowling, How to Be a Husband

Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe

Duncan J.D. Smith, Only in Zürich

Wikipedia

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Canada Slim and the Great Expedition

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 May 2017

We live in an age where we take for granted many things and we only seem to question things when they don’t happen as we think they should.

We live in an age where we casually accept what is, without questioning how it came to be.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that there is no such thing as coincidence.

We may not understand why things happen, but I believe that things happen (or don’t happen) for a reason, even if we don’t know what that reason is.

“God only knows.

God makes His plans.

The information is unavailable to the mortal man.

We work at our jobs.

Collect our pay.

Believe we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact we’re slip-sliding away.”

(Paul Simon, “Slip-Sliding Away”)

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I recently discovered a book called Literaturführer Thurgau, which has me looking anew at the region where I live, through the eyes of writers who have experienced this region.

(See Dreams of Dragonflies of this blog for the start of my walking adventures tracing the literary figures of Canton Thurgau.)

Reading this book and as well about recent events have led me to consider the topic of flying.

I am very much like the John McClane character, portrayed by Bruce Willis, in the Die Hard movie series….

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I hate flying.

Or, put another way, I am the composite antithesis of the Ryan Bingham character, portrayed by George Clooney, in the film Up In the Air, whereas Bingham lives to fly, I will fly only when I truly feel I have no other choice.

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I am an English teacher who has found himself, much to my own surprise, teaching aircraft technicians and engineers, pilots and cabin crew, the necessary English they need to do their jobs more professionally.

So, ignorance is bliss…

For knowing what keeps a plane functioning, what allows it to fly, land and take off safely, and what passengers know and don’t know about the flight happening around them…

This knowledge does not comfort me.

I know what can go wrong.

I like to travel and to do so I have flown across continents and oceans.

I have been buffeted by winds that have caused my pants to get stained by coffee.

I have been bumped up to first class and have been bumped off flights that had been overbooked.

I have missed flights due to changes in either the airline schedule or my inability to meet the airline schedule.

All part of the experience…

Overbooking, also known as overselling, is the sale of a good or service in excess of the actual supply,  or ability to supply, that good or service.

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It is a common practice in the travel industry, because it is expected that some people will cancel or miss their flights.

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By overselling, the supplier is ensured that 100% of the available supply will be used, resulting in the maximum return on the supplier’s investment.

But if most customers do wish to purchase or use the good or service, this practice of overselling leaves some customers lacking the good or service they paid for and expected to receive.

Overselling is regulated, but rarely prohibited.

Companies that practice overbooking are usually required to offer large amounts of compensation to customers as an incentive for them to not claim their purchase.

An alternative to overbooking is discouraging customers from buying services they don’t actually intend to use by making reservations non-refundable or requiring them to pay a termination fee.

An airline can book more customers onto a flight than can actually be accommodated by the aircraft, allowing the airline to have a full aircraft on most flights, even if some customers are denied their flight.

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Airlines may ask for volunteers to give away their seats or refuse boarding to certain passengers in exchange for a compensation that may include an additional free ticket or an upgrade on a later flight.

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Airlines can do this and still make more money than if they booked only to the plane’s capacity and had taken off with empty seats.

Some airlines do not overbook as a policy that provides incentive and avoids customer disappointment.

By making their tickets non-refundable, these airlines lower the chances of passengers missing their flights.

A few airline frequent flier programs allow a customer the privilege of flying an already overbooked flight, requiring other customers being asked to deplane.

Often it is only Economy Class that is overbooked, while higher classes are not, allowing the airlines to upgrade some passengers to otherwise unused seats while providing assurance to higher paying customers.

Chicago O’Hare Airport, 9 April 2017

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Early April 2017 saw severe weather on the east coast of the United States, causing many flight cancellations.

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Due to the large number of stranded passengers trying to board flights, many flights were far too overbooked.

On this date of 9 April 2017, United Airlines Express Flight 3411 was scheduled to leave O’Hare at 5:19 pm/1719 hours.

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After passengers were seated in the aircraft, bound for Louisville, Kentucky, but while the plane was still at the gate, the flight crew announced that they needed to remove four passengers to accommodate four staff members who had to cover an unstaffed flight at another location.

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Passengers were initially offered $400 US in vouchers for future travel, a hotel stay and a seat on a plane leaving more than 21 hours later, if they voluntarily deplaned.

No volunteers.

The offer was increased to $800 in vouchers.

Still no volunteers.

A manager boarded and informed the flight that four people would be chosen by computer (based on specific factors such as priority to remain aboard for frequent fliers and those who had paid higher fares).

Three of the computer-selected customers agreed to deplane.

The 4th selected passenger, Asian American 69-year-old Dr. David Dao of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, refused, saying he needed to see patients the next day at his clinic.

 Dr David Dao has been revealed as the man who was dragged from a United flight in Chicago on Sunday. He is pictured with his wife, Teresa, and one of their grandchildren. It was his wife who alerted authorities to his inappropriate relationship with a patient

Above: Dr. David Dao (on the left) with his family

United Airlines decided it required assistance from Chicago Department of Aviation Security officers.

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A security officer threw the Doctor against the armrest of his seat, causing injuries to the physician’s head and mouth (a broken nose, the loss of two front teeth, sinus injuries and a concussion), before dragging Dao down the aisle by his arms unconscious.

Other passengers on the flight recorded the incident on video using their Smartphone cameras and the incident was quickly and widely circulated on social media and was picked up by the mainstream media agencies.

The violent methods used by the security personnel distressed a number of passengers who voluntarily left the aircraft along with the three passengers who had been selected for deplaning.

Four United Airlines staff promptly sat in the now vacated seats.

The flight departed at 1921 hours – two hours and two minutes behind schedule – and arrived at Louisville at 2101 hours – two hours behind schedule.

Back in Chicago, Dao was taken to hospital and would require reconstructive surgery.

No one has been fired as a result of this incident, which could have been avoided had United simply had the computer choose another passenger when Dao had refused to leave.

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 May 2017

Imagine how differently things might have been had the effects of overbooking and a methodology had been practiced to deal with dissatisfied customers by United.

In fairness, running an airline is not an easy task.

So far we have considered ourselves only with the issue of assigning and seating the passengers, but now let’s think about the men and women who actually pilot these aircraft.

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What must they plan for?

Part of a pilot’s job is straightforward and traditional: inspecting the aircraft about to be piloted.

The pilot looks at the external surfaces of the aircraft for signs of damage, then he/she checks the nose undercarriage for excessive wear and the tires for any cuts.

The leading edges of the wings are inspected for damage, the fastenings on the engine cowling are checked and the visible fan blades on the engine are examined.

Moving along the fuselage to the tail, the pilot does the same visual checks over all surfaces before ensuring that all cargo doors and access hatches are securely fastened.

All pretty standard operating procedure….

But not only must the pilot be concerned as to whether the craft can fly, but as well thought must be brought to bear on the actual flight itself.

In the very early days of powered flight, pilots were contented with simply getting airborne and flying short distances.

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Navigational aids did not exist and the basic technique followed was pilotage – flights were at low altitudes and the pilot simply looked out the window and navigated with reference to known landmarks.

In some cases, it was just a question of the pilot following a road, river or railway to the desired destination.

Planes nowadays fly further, so they need a method to find their way safely and efficiently to their final flight arrival.

As well an airplace can only carry a limited amount of fuel.

Failure to reach a destination before the fuel runs out might have fatal consequences.

In modern times all flights operate under VFR (visual flight rules) or IFR (instrument flight rules).

A VFR pilot is qualified and authorised to fly only in good weather conditions and is responsible for maintaining separation from other aircraft and obstructions based on what can be seen.

An IFR pilot is permitted to fly in all weather conditions, including when visibility may be low, relying on flight instruments and navigational aids to follow a safe course.

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While an IFR pilot may still use VFR pilotage techniques, it is advisable for all pilots that their flights be planned careful before taking off, using detailed navigational charts.

Pilots plan their routes, taking into consideration natural obstacles and airspace which may be restricted, which they then mark on their charts.

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Planning a flight is dependent upon a number of factors: topographical, geographical and meteorological.

An area needs to have been mapped out, navigational beacons established, geographical features noted and the weather conditions monitored.

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But in the pioneering days of public air transportation, there were few maps, few beacons, few airports and few refuelling locations.

Before satellites, there was only one way to ascertain what route lay ahead, someone had to go there first.

As well, as any reader of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War can tell you, one cannot defeat a potential enemy if one is unprepared for the terrain upon which one might be forced to battle.

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So geographical knowledge is not only an exercise in exploration, it is crucial for the planning of strategy, both politically and militarily.

Konstanz, Germany, 4 January 1927

It was a time of great change.

Germany was still the Weimar Republic and to reduce the state’s cost of funding two airlines, Deutsch Aero Lloyd and Junkers Luftverkehr, a merger of the two under the composite name of Deutsche Luft Hansa (German Air Hanseatic) was born on 6 January 1926.

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British and Belgian troops had left German soil and many of the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, that marked Germany’s World War One defeat, had been lifted, enabling Deutsche Luft Hansa to expand its routes beyond the borders of Germany worldwide.

Luft Hansa planned an airline connection between Berlin and Beijing and needed to know the meteorological conditions of the land over which it planned to fly – Mongolia, the Gobi Desert and the Chinese province of Xinjian (then known as East Turkestan) – as well as possible locations for landing, weather monitoring and refuelling.

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The top man for such an expedition, the only man capable of leading such an expedition, was someone who had experience in such matters.

Swedish geographer, topographer, explorer, photographer, travel writer and illustrator Sven Anders Hedin (1865 – 1952) was the man chosen to lead this Sino-Swedish Expedition of 1927 – 1928.

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Already Hedin had made four expeditions to Central Asia, explored the Himalayas, located the sources of the rivers Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej, mapped the “wandering lake” Lop Nur and discovered the remains of cities, grave sites and the Great Wall of China in the deserts of the Tarim Basin.

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Hedin had visited Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, India, China, Russia and Japan, in an age where air travel was not common, trains were not everywhere and where the automobile had yet to be developed to a point of affordable utility.

Hedin would enter uncharted territory and literally put these places on the map, filling the “white spaces” up with his discoveries.

On the Sino-Swedish Expedition, Hedin, age 62, would be accompanied by a multinational team of 29 men, among them a humble bookkeeper who would serve as the Expedition’s logistics manager.

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This bookkeeper, the son of a Konstanz pharmacist, would later write about his adventures in Mongolia (and his explorations of the Lake of Constance upon his return home), which would be published by a small Lengwil publisher.

Fritz Mühlenweg (1898 – 1961), educated as a chemist in Bielefeld and taking over his family’s business when his father died, left Konstanz for Berlin and began to work for Deutsche Luft Hansa.

On this day of 4 January 1927, Mühlenweg said his final farewells to his family in Konstanz and boarded a train bound for Berlin where the Expedition would begin, not knowing when or if he would ever return.

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Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 May 2017

Through Mühlenweg’s youthful eyes – he was 29 at the start of the Expedition –  and masterful writing, not only is the reader exposed firsthand to countries that, even today, few Westerners visit, but as well the reader is given the common man’s perspective of travelling with a legendary explorer.

 Fritz Muehlenweg, Drei Mal Mongolei

 

 

 

I have been inspired by the writing of Fritz Mühlenweg, for he sought not just to see the places he visited but to understand what he saw, to see the romance in the commonplace, the exotic in the familiar and the familiar in the exotic.

Like Mühlenweg, I intend to expose my readers to both the exotic and familiar in the hopes that they too will see the wonder of the world as I do.

Men like Mühlenweg and Hedin have been mostly forgotten and our ability to traverse oceans and continents taken for granted.

Journeys that once took months now take only hours.

Journeys that once demanded much time and money are now expected to be quick and affordable.

We now move through and over landscapes that once meant something, that have now been reduced to simply spaces of transit, where everything is temporary and everyone is just passing through.

The wonder of the distinctiveness of a place has been replaced with a disdain for the local and an indifference to the uniqueness of every locality.

Human progress is now measured out in air miles, while communities find their common ground in cyberspace rather than terra firma.

We live in an age where we wish the world to be fully codified and collated, a world where ambiguity and ambivalence have been so sponged away that we know exactly and objectively where everything is and what it is called.

We want to arrive, instead of travel.

The case of Dr. Dao and United Airlines is a malaise particular to our modern age.

We conveniently forget that for every gain there is a loss.

Completeness removes the possibility of exploration, escape and hope.

We need the unnamed and the unexplored.

We need to examine our discarded sense of place and explore places both distant and at our doorstep.

For romance needs place and in a world “fully” discovered exploration must never stop.

The idea of exploration now needs to be reinvented.

We must not only see a place but as well observe it for its uniqueness and romance.

Let’s go on a journey – to the ends of the Earth and the other side of the street, as far or as close as we need to go to get away from the familiar and the routine prisons we have built for ourselves.

Whether they be good or bad, scary or wonderful, we need unruly and unexplored places that defy our expectations and make us question our preconceptions.

Love of place can never and should never be extinguished or sated.

Utopia (from the Greek for “no place”) is a happy land.

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Sometimes the most fascinating places are often also the most disturbing, entrapping and appalling and often temporary.

In ten years’ time, most places will look very different.

Some will no longer exist, because nature is often horrible and life is transitory.

Love of place is not finding a place that is cute and cuddly, but rather love of place is a fierce love, a dark enchantment, that runs deep and demands our attention.

As Herman Melville wrote, in Moby Dick, when the first mate of the Pequod was describing his home:

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“It is not down in any map. 

True places never are.”

File:The Earth seen from Apollo 17.jpg

Sources:

Alastair Bonnett, Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia

Albert M. Debrunner, Literaturführer Thurgau

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Fritz Mühlenweg, Drei Mal Mongolei

Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

Slave to the Machine / One Flew Over the Internet

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 12 March 2017

I like Facebook.

Logo von Facebook

There I said it.

I like the variety of news items that appear, the exchange of ideas, the casual contact with friends and family close or far away, and I find Facebook gives me a forum to share my thoughts.

But a few days ago I began to notice a problem and I wrote about it in Facebook:

“Oh, Father Facebook, forgive me for I have sinned.

It has only been mere moments since I was online posting things that caught my eye and looking up from my phone screen I was embarrassed to realise that a morning went by without my noticing it.

I have become like those I once mocked and ridiculed for their electronic addiction.

I find myself spending too much time reading about life, instead of living life.

A to-do list goes undone.

Walking weather goes unused, literature unread, music unappreciated.

On Monday evening, Switzerland experienced a 4.5 on the Richter scale earthquake and I cannot honestly say whether it was felt here by the Lake of Constance and I was distracted by electronics, or whether there were no tremors this far north of its epicentre.

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And this is just….sad.

So, Father Facebook, we need to re-evaluate our relationship.

I value what I have read and am always intrigued by the new items that keep appearing.

But you are creating bad habits in me by capturing my curiosity.

You show me life while I am neglecting my own.

So, Father Facebook, we need to spend less time with one another.

So, one hour a day, six days a week is my new belated New Year’s resolution.

There is life out beyond the flat screen.

I will report in on what I find.

In the name of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the Ghost in the Machine.

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Above: Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)

Amen

Problematic Internet use, also called compulsive Internet use (CIU), Internet overuse, problematic computer use, pathological computer use, problematic Internet use (PIU) or Internet addiction disorder (IAD), all refer to excessive Internet use that interferes with daily life.

Above: The Internet Messenger, Buky Schwartz, Holon, Israel

IAD began as a joke.

Dr. Ivan Goldberg found the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to be overly complex and rigid, so as a combination hoax and parody he invented IAD, describing its symptoms: “important social or occupational activities that are given up or reduced because of Internet use”, “fantasies or dreams about the Internet” and “voluntary or involuntary typing movements of the fingers”.

Goldberg felt that to receive medical attention or support for every single human behaviour by giving each one a psychiatric name was ridiculous.

He felt that if every overdose behaviour can be labelled an addiction then this could lead us to have support groups for individuals that consistently cough or are addicted to books.

Goldberg took pathological gambling, as diagnosed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as his model for the description of IAD.

To Goldberg’s surprise, IAD receives coverage in the press.

The possible future classification of IAD as a psychological disorder continues to be debated and researched in the psychiatric community.

Online habits, such as reading, playing computer games, or watching very large numbers of Internet videos, are troubling only to the extent that these activities interfere with normal life.

IAD is often divided into subtypes by activity, such as gaming, online social networking, blogging, emailing, Internet pornography, or Internet shopping.

Internet addiction is a subset of the broader category of technology addiction.

Mankind’s widespread obsession with technology goes back to radio in the 1930s and television in the 1960s, but this obsession has exploded in importance during the digital age.

Above: Bakelite radio, Bakelite Museum, Orchard Hill, England

A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking has suggested that the prevalence of Internet addiction varies considerably among countries and is inversely related to quality of life.

(Cecilia Chang and Li Angel Yee-Lam, “Internet Addiction Prevalence and Quality of Real Life: A Meta-Analysis of 31 Nations Across Seven World Regions”, Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, Issue 17, December 2014)

A conceptual model of IAD has been developed based on primary data collected from addiction researchers, psychologists and health care providers as well as older adolescents themselves.

(Moreno/Jelenchik/Christakis, “Problematic internet use among older adolescents: A conceptual framework”, Computers and Human Behaviour, Issue 29, 2013)

(Kim/Byrne, “Conceptualizing personal web usage in work contexts: A preliminary framework”, Computers and Human Behaviour, Issue 27, June 2011)

These studies have identified seven concepts that make up IAD: psychological risk factors, physical impairment, emotional impairment, social and functional impairment, risky Internet use, impulsive Internet use, and Internet use dependence.

It is not just the amount of time spent on the Internet that puts people at risk, but how the time is spent is also important.

There is a problem if you are unable to maintain a balance or control over your Internet use in relation to everyday life.

It is difficult to detect and diagnose someone with IAD as the Internet is a highly promoted tool.

Addiction to cyber sex, cyber relationships, Internet compulsions, information and research and computer gaming are often considered to be related to IAD, but this variety of rewarding and reinforcing stimuli online might not be addictions to the Internet itself but rather the Internet is the fuel to other addictions.

A 1999 study discovered that over half the people considered to be Internet dependent were new users of the Internet and are therefore more inclined to use the Internet regularly.

Non-dependent users had been using the Internet for more than a year, suggesting that overuse of the Internet could wear off over time.

(Yellowlees/Marks, “Problematic Internet use or Internet addiction?”, Computers in Human Behaviour, Issue 23, March 2005)

What creates in some these compulsive behaviours?

Accessibility: Because of the convenience of the Internet, users now have easy and intermediate access to gambling, gaming and shopping at any time of the day, without the hassles of everyday life, like travelling or queues.

Control: Internet users are in control of their own online activity.  With the use of the latest technology, such as tablet computers and smartphones, users can go to the bathroom or another private place to engage with the Internet, without others knowing about it.

Excitement: Internet users often get an excited feeling of a rush or a buzz when they win an online auction, a video game or online gambling.  This positive feedback can result in addictive behaviour.  Some users use the Internet as a way of gaining this emotion.

The Centre for Online Addiction claims that IAD is a broad term that covers a wide variety of behaviours and impulse control problems, and categorises IAD into five specific subtypes:

Center for Online Addiction

  1. Cybersexual addiction: The compulsive use of adult websites for cybersex and cyberporn.  Internet pornography use is increasingly common in Western cultures and the mental health community has witnessed a dramatic rise in problematic Internet pornography use.  At present there is no widely accepted means of defining or assessing problematic Internet pornography use and the notion of Internet pornography addiction is still highly controversial.
  2. Cyber-relationship addiction: Overinvolvement in online relationships. A cyber-relationship addiction has been described as the addiction to social networking in all forms.  Social networking, such as Facebook, and online dating services, along with many other communication platforms create a place to communicate with new people.  Virtual online friends start to gain more communication and importance over time to the person becoming more important than real life family and friends.  Some people are attracted to the silent, less visually stimulating, non-tactile quality of text relationships, especially those who are struggling to contain the overstimulation of past trauma.  Text communication is a paradoxical blend of people being honest and close while simultaneously keeping their distance.  People suffering with social anxiety or who have issues of shame and guilt may be drawn to text relationships because people cannot be seen.  Text enables them to avoid the issue of physical appearance which they find distracting or irrelevant to the relationship.  Without the distraction of in-person cues, they feel they can connect more directly to the mind and soul of the other person. Cyber-relationships can often be more intense than real life relationships, causing addiction to the relationship.  With the ability to create whole new personas, people can often deceive the person they are communicating with.  Everyone is looking for the perfect companion, but the perfect companion online is not always the perfect companion in real life.  Although two people can commit to a cyber-relationship, while offline one of them could possibly not be the person they are claiming to be online.  There are people who deliberately create fake personal profiles online with the intention of tricking an unsuspecting person into falling in love with them.  These people are known as “catfish”. (The term “catfish” is derived from the title of a documentary film released in 2010, in which New York photographer Nev Schulman discovers the woman he had been continuing a cyber-relationship with had not been honest whilst describing herself.)Catfish film.jpg
  3. Net compulsions: Obsessive online gambling, shopping or day-trading. According to David Hodgins, Professor of Psychology at the University of Calgary, online gambling is considered to be as serious as pathological gambling.  The online gambler prefers to separate himself from interruptions and distractions. Online, the problem gambler can indulge in gambling without social influences swaying his decisions.  Online stock trading, like online gambling, gives the participant an addictive rush.  Traders have ownership towards when and how they trade stocks and distribute their money.  There are no second parties, no bosses, no schedules, so the trader feels a sense of empowerment in his own little world outside reality.LogoAbove: Logo of the University of Calgary
  4. Information overload: Compulsive web surfing or database searches
  5. Computer addiction: Obsessive computer game playing.  Video game addiction is a problem around the world.

IAD is usually linked with existing health issues, most commonly depression, and effects the addict socially, psychologically and occupationally.

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Above: Belgian singer Jonathan Vandenbroeck aka Milow, known for his hit single cover, Ayo Technology

Pathological use of the Internet can result in negative life consequences, such as job loss, marriage breakdown, financial debt and academic failure.

70% of Internet users in South Korea are reported to play online games, 18% of these are diagnosed as game addicts.

Centered taegeuk on a white rectangle inclusive of four black trigrams

Above: The flag of South Korea

The majority of those afflicted with IAD suffer from interpersonal difficulties and stress, while those addicted to online games specifically hope to avoid reality.

A major reason why the Internet is so appealing is the lack of limits and the absence of accountability.

“There were lots of reasons why we pulled the plug on our electronic media…My children don’t use media. They inhabit media…as fish inhabit a pond.  Gracefully and without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there.  They don’t remember a time before email, instant messaging or Google.

The letters of "Google" are each purely colored (from left to right) with blue, red, yellow, blue, green, and red.

They download movies and TV shows and when I remind them piracy is a crime, they look at one another and laugh.  These are children who shrug indifferently when they lose their iPods, with all 5,000 tunes plus video clips, feature films and TV shows….

(Who watches TV on a television anymore?)

…”There’s plenty more where that came from.”, their attitude says.

And the most infuriating thing of all?

They’re right.

The digital content that powers their world can never truly be destroyed.

…I had always been an enthusiastic user of information technology, but I was also beginning to have doubts about the power of media to improve our lives – let alone make them “easier”.

I had noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to function together as a family.

And on a broader scale, the more facts we have at our fingerprints, the less we seem to know.

The “convenience” of messaging media (email, SMS, IM) consumes ever larger amounts of our time.

As a culture we are practically swimming in entertainment, yet remain more depressed than any people who have ever lived.

We began “The Experiment”, a six-month period during which we stopped using much of our electronic media, such as computers, televisions, game consoles and mobile phones.

Our family’s self-imposed exile from the Information Age changed our lives infinitely for the better.

I watched as my children became more focused, logical thinkers.  I watched as their attention spans increased, allowing them to read for hours at a time.  I watched as they began to hold longer and more complex conversations with adults and among themselves.  I watched as they began to improve their capacity to think beyond the present moment.

They took the opportunity to go out more, to notice food more, to sleep more.”

(Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect)

“And so it came to pass that in the winter of 2016 the world hit a tipping point…the moment when we realised that a critical mass of our lives and work had shifted away from the terrestrial world to a realm known as “cyberspace”… a critical mass of our interactions had moved to a realm “where we are all connected but no one is in charge.”

After all, there are no stoplights in cyberspace, no police officers walking the beat, no courts, no judges, no God who smites evil and rewards good…

If someone slimes you on Twitter or Facebook, well, unless it is a death threat, good luck getting it removed, especially if it is done anonymously, which in cyberspace is quite common.

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Above: Company logo for Twitter

Yet this realm is where we now spend increasing hours of our day.

Cyberspace is now where we do more of our shopping, more of our dating, more of our friendship making and sustaining, more of our learning, more of our commerce, more of our teaching, more of our communicating, more of our news broadcasting and news seeking and more of our selling of goods, services and ideas.

It’s where both the US President and the leader of ISIS can communicate with equal ease with tens of millions of their respective followers through Twitter – without editors, fact checkers, libel lawyers or other filters.

Flag of the United States

Black Standard[1]

Even President Barack Obama was taken aback by the speed at which this tipping point tipped:

Obama standing with his arms folded and smiling

“I think that I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation, for cyberhacking and so forth, to have an impact on our open societies.”, Obama told ABC News This Week.

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Alan Cohen, chief commercial officer of the cybersecurity firm Illumio, noted in an interview on siliconAngle.com that the reason this tipping point tipped now was because so many companies, governments, universities, political parties and individuals have concentrated a critical mass of their data in computers.

Illumio - Security That Works Anywhere

Work has to start with every school teaching children digital civics, that the Internet is an open sewer of untreated, unfiltered information, where they need to bring skepticism and critical thinking to everything they read and basic civic decency to everything they write.

A Stanford Graduate School of Education study published in November 2016 found…

…”a dismaying inability by students to reason about information they see on the Internet

Students had a hard time distinguishing advertisements from news articles or identifying where information came from.”

Stanford University seal 2003.svg

Professor Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the Stanford report, said:

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there.

Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

In an era when more and more of our lives have moved to this digital realm, that is downright scary.”

(Thomas Friedman, “Our lives are digital. Be careful.”, New York Times, 12 January 2017)

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“Many men, women and children spend their days glued to their smartphones and their social media accounts.

No doubt you have seen the following scenarios many times:

  • Young couples out to dinner pull out their smartphones to check messages, emails and social networks before scanning the menu and check their phones repeatedly during the meal.
  • Shoppers and commuters standing in line, people crossing busy streets, even cyclists and drivers, have their eyes on their phones instead of their surroundings.
  • Toddlers in strollers playing with a digital device instead of observing and learning from the world around them.
  • People walking down the street with eyes on their phones, bumping into others, tripping over or crashing into obstacles.

Observations like these have prompted a New York psychotherapist to ask: “What really matters?” in life.

In her enlightening new book, The Power of Off, Nancy Colier observes that:

“We are spending far too much of our time doing things that don’t really matter to us.”

“We have become disconnected from what really matters, from what makes us feel nourished and grounded as human beings.”

The near universal access to digital technology, starting at ever younger ages, is transforming modern society in ways that can have negative effects on physical and mental health, neurological development and personal relationships, not to mention safety on our roads and sidewalks.

As with so much in life, moderation in our digital world should be the hallmark of a healthy relationship with technology.

Too many of us have become slaves to the devices that were supposed to free us and give us more time to experience life and the people we love.

Ms. Colier, a licensed clinical social worker, said:

“The only difference between digital addiction and other addictions is that this is a socially condoned behaviour.”

While Colier’s book contains a 30-day digital detox program, she offers three steps to help curb one’s digital dependence:

  1. Start by recognising how much digital use is really needed and what is merely a habit of responding, posting and self-distraction.
  2. Make little changes.  Refrain from using your device while eating or spending time with your friends.  Add one thing a day that is done without your phone.
  3. Become very conscious of what is important to you, what really nourishes you and devote more time and attention to it.The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World

Linyi, Shandong Province, China, 17 January 2017

Flag of the People's Republic of China

Above: The flag of the People’s Republic of China

Shandong Province is known for many things.

Map showing the location of Shandong Province

This stumpy peninsula jutting into the Yellow Sea, Shandong has a history that can be traced back to the origins of China itself.

Confucius, China’s great social philosopher, was born here and lived out his days here.

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Above: Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC)

His ideas were championed by the great Confucian philosopher Mencius who also hailed from here.

Mencius.jpg

Above: Mencius (372 BC – 289 BC)

Other local heroes include Wang Xizhi, China’s most famous calligrapher, and Zhuge Liang, a great military strategist.

Above: Wang Xizhi (265 – 420)

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Above: Zhuge Liang (181 – 234)

Film star Gong Li, who set new benchmarks for Chinese beauty, grew up in this province.

Gong Li Cannes 2011.jpg

Shandong has a firm foothold in China’s martial arts history: Wang Lang, the founder of Praying Mantis Fist –  one of the most distinctive of the Chinese boxing arts, emulating the movements of the stick-like insect famed for its ferocity and speed – called Shandong home.

Shandong is home to one of China’s four major schools of cooking.

It is here that the Yellow River, the massive waterway that began in the mud of Tibet and exists as part of the myths that form this mighty land, exits China.

Hukou Waterfall.jpg

Above: Hukou Waterfall of the Yellow River (Huang He), 2nd longest in Asia, 6th longest in the world

Shandong is one of China’s wealthiest and most populous provinces, with much to attract the tourist.

Southern Chinese claim to have myriad mountains, rivers and geniuses, but Shandong citizens smugly boast they have one mountain (Tai Shan), one river (the Yellow River) and one saint (Confucius) – all that is needed.

Tai Shan is not only the most revered of China’s five holy Taoist peaks, it is the most climbed mountain on Earth.

泰山 南天门.jpg

It is said that if you climb Tai Shan you will live to be 100.

In ancient Chinese tradition, the sun began its westward journey from Tai Shan.

Tai’an is the gateway town to the sacred Tai Shan and the hometown of Jiang Qing, Mao’s 4th wife, ex-actress and the leader of the Gang of Four, on whom all of China’s ills are often blamed.

Above: Jiang Qing (1914 – 1991)

The Dai Temple is in the centre of town.

The Temple is a magnificent structure with yellow tiled roofs, red walls and ancient towering trees.

It is one of the largest and most celebrated temples in China.

100 km south is the dusty rural town of Qufu, the birthplace, residence and final resting place of Confucius – a teacher largely unappreciated in his lifetime.

Apricot Platform in the Confucius Temple

Above: The Apricot Platform, Confucius Temple, Qufu, Shandong Province, China

Qufu is a harmony of carved stone, timber and imperial architecture, of airy courtyards, cypress trees and green grass, of twisted pines and mighty steles, singing birds serenade the seated souls upon quiet benches, unpolluted streets with little traffic, dusty, musty, home to the Confucius Temple, Confucius Mansions, the Confucian Forest…

To the south of the peninsula, the picture perfect town of Qingdao (also called Tsingtao)(Green Island) is called China’s Switzerland, which is surprising as its appearance is more reminiscent of a kind of Bavaria by the sea: cool sea breezes, balmy summer evenings, excellent seafood from dried fish shops, a Lutheran church, a German palace, and beaches of coarse sand covered in seaweed and bordered by concrete huts and stone statues of dolphins.

Clockwise from top left: Qingdao skyline, St. Michael's Cathedral, Qingdao harbour by night, a temple at the base of Mount Lao, and May Fourth Square

Above: Pictures of Qingdao

Jinan, the provincial capital is for most travellers a transit point on the road to other destinations, a city more famous for the celebrities it produced than for any virtues the city itself may possess: the film star Gong Li; Bian Que, the founder of traditional Chinese medicine; Zou Yan, the founder of the Yin and Yang five element school; Zhou Yongnian, the founder of China’s public libraries; and a number of nationally and internationally recognised writers.

Clockwise from top: Jinan's Skyline, Quancheng Square, Daming Lake, Furong Street, and Five Dragon Pool

Above: Pictures of Jinan

Chinese woodcut, Famous medical figures; Portrait of Bian Que Wellcome L0039317.jpg

Above: Bian Que (or Qin Yueren)(died 310 BC)

Among these writers is the Song Poet.

Above: Statue of Li Qingzhao (1084 – 1155), Li Qingzhao Memorial, Jinan

Li Qingzhao is famed for her elegant language, strong imagery and her ability to remain unpretentious in her poetry:

Above: Li Qingzhao Memorial, Baotu Spring Garden, Jinan, Shandong Province, China

“Alone in the night, the warm rain and pure wind have just freed the willows from the ice.

As I watch the peach trees, spring rises from my heart and blooms on my cheeks.

My mind is unsteady, as if I were drunk.

I try to write a poem in which my tears will flow together with your tears.

My rouge is stale.

My hairpins are too heavy.

I throw myself across my gold cushions, wrapped in my lonely doubled quilt and crush the phoenixes in my headdress.

Alone, deep in bitter loneliness, without even a good dream, I lie, trimming the lamp in the passing night.”

As I type these words I wonder whether 16-year-old Chen Xin ever read these words of the Song Poet and felt herself identify with this poem, when she was growing up 1,000 km north of Shandong in the sub-Siberian wilderness of Heilongjiang Province, or when she was involuntary a resident of Linyi, or later when she returned to Heilongjiang traumatised from her Linyi experience.

Linyi (“close to the Yi River”) is a city in the south of Shandong Province and though it is not far from Yellow Sea ports and it sits astride the G2 Beijing-Shanghai Expressway, and though it has a history of over 2,400 years and possesses an attractive Confucian temple, Linyi’s claim to fame lies in it being a major centre of human rights abuses in China.

Linyi Confucius Temple

Above: Lin Yi Confucius Temple

Though Linyi has been home to many historical figures, notably Zhuge Liang (former Prime Minister and considered to be the most accomplished strategist of his era akin to Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War) and Wang Xizhi (considered to be the greatest master of Chinese calligraphy that ever lived), most modern Chinese might recall the names of Chen Guangcheng (the barefoot lawyer) and Yang Yongxin (the brain waker) and, as a result, feel some compassion for the sad tale of Chen Xin.

Chen Guangcheng is the youngest of five brothers of a peasant family from the village of Dongshigu, Yinan County, Shandong Province.

Chen Guangcheng at the US Embassy in Beijing on 1 May 2012

When Chen was about six months old, he lost his sight due to a fever that destroyed his optic nerves.

His village was poor, with many families living at a subsistence level.

Chen’s father worked as an instructor at a Communist Party school.

When Chen was a child, his father would read literary works aloud to him and helped impart to his son an appreciation of the values of democracy and freedom.

In 1989, at the age of 18, Chen began attending school at the Elementary School for the Blind in Linyi.

In 1991, Chen’s father gave him a copy of The Law Protecting the Disabled, which elaborated on the legal rights and protections in place for disabled people in China.

In 1994, he enrolled at the Qingdao High School for the Blind where he remained until 1998, where he began developing an interest in law and would often ask his brothers to read legal texts to him.

Chen first petitioned authorities in 1996, when he travelled to Beijing to complain about taxes that were incorrectly being levied on his family.

(People with disabilities, such as Chen, are supposed to be exempt from taxation and fees.)

The complaint was successful and Chen began petitioning for other individuals with disabilities.

Chen became an outspoken activist for disability rights within the China Law Society.

His reputation as a disability rights advocate was solidified when he agreed to defend an elderly blind couple whose grandchildren sufered from paralysis.  The family had been paying all of the regular taxes and fees, but Chen believed that, under the law, the family should have received government assistance and exemption from taxation.  When the case went to court, blind citizens from surrounding counties were in attendance as a show of solidarity.  The case was successful and the outcome became well-known.

Chen studied at the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine from 1998 to 2001, specializing in acupuncture and massage – the only progrms available to the blind.  He also audited legal courses, gaining a sufficient understanding of the law to allow him to aid his fellow villagers when they sought his assistance.

While studying in Nanjing, Chen learned that a program the leaders of Chen’s home village – implementing a land use plan that gave the authorities control over 60% of the land, which they then rented out at high cost to the villages – was illegal, he petitioned central authorities in Beijing to end the system.

In 2000, Chen returned from his studies in Nanjing to his village of Dongshigu in an effort to confront environmental pollution.

A paper mill constructed in 1988 had been dumping toxic wastewater into the Meng River, destroying crops and harming wildlife, as well as causing skin and digestive problems among villagers living downstream from the mill.

Chen organised villagers in his hometown and 78 other villages to petition against the mill.  The effort was successful and resulted in the suspension of the paper mill.

In addition, Chen contacted the British Embassy in Beijing, informing them of the situation and requesting funding for a well to supply clean water to locals. The British government responded by providing funds towards a deep water well, irrigation systems and water pipelines.

After graduation from Nanjing, Chen returned to his home region and found a job as a masseur in Yinan County Hospital.

Chen met his wife, Yuan Weijing, in 2001, after listening to a radio show.  Yuan had called into the show to discuss her difficulties in landing a job after graduating from the foreign language department of Shandong Chemistry Institute.  Chen, who listened to the program, contacted Yuan and relayed his own story of hardship as a blind man.  Moved by the exchange, Yuan travelled to Chen’s village to meet him.

The couple eloped in 2003.  Yuan, who had been working as an English teacher, left her job in order to assist Chen in his legal work. Their son, Chen Kerui, was born later that year.

In March 2004, more than 300 residents from Chen’s village filed a petition to the village government demanding that they release the village accounts – which hadn’t been made public for 10 years – and address the issue of illegal land requisitions.  When Dongshigu authorities failed to respond and villagers escalated their appeals to the township, county and municipal governments without response, village authorities began to threaten the villagers.

In November 2004, Chen acted on behalf of the villagers.

In 2005, Chen spent several months surveying residents of Shandong Province, collecting accounts of forced, late term abortions and forced sterilization of women who stood in violation of China’s one-child policy.

(In 2005, Chen and Yuan had a second child, a daughter named Chen Kesi, in violation of this one-child policy.)

Though Chinese central authorities have sought to curb the coercive enforcement of the one-child policy since 1990 by replacing measures such as forced abortions and sterilisations with a system of financial incentives and fines, Chen found that coercive practices remained widespread, documenting numerous cases of abuse.

Chen’s survey, based in Linyi, found an estimated 130,000 residents in the city had been forced into “study sessions” for refusing abortions or violating the one-child policy, imprisoned for days or weeks and beaten.

The case garnered international media attention.

The local authorities in Linyi retailiated against Chen, placing him under house arrest and embarking on a campaign to undermine his reputation, portraying him as working for “foreign anti-China forces”.  The authorities threatened to levy criminal charges against Chen for providing state secrets or intelligence to foreign organisations.

Xinhua, the news agency of the Chinese government, stated that on 5 February 2006, Chen instigated others to damage and smash cars belonging to the Shuanghou Police Station and the Linyi government as well as attack local government officials.

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Time reported that witnesses disputed the government’s version of events and Chen’s lawyers argued that he couldn’t have committed the crimes as he was already on house arrest and under constant surveillance by the police.

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On the eve of Chen’s 18 August 2006 trial, all three of his lawyers were detained by Yinan police.

Neither Chen’s lawyers nor his wife were allowed in the courtroom for the trial.

Chen was sentenced to four years and three months for “damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic”.

Frank Ching, Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada) columnist criticised the verdict:

“Even assuming Chen did damage doors and windows, as well as cars, and interrupt traffic for three hours, it is difficult to argue that a four-year prison sentence is somehow proportionate to the offence.”

Amnesty International declared Chen to be a prisoner of conscience, “jailed solely for his peaceful activities in defence of human rights.”

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Above: The logo of Amnesty International

After his release in 2010, Chen was placed under house arrest against Chinese law and was closely monitored by security forces.  Legally, he was proclaimed by the government to be a free man, but in reality the local government offered no explanation for the hundreds of unidentified agents monitoring his house and preventing visitors or escape.

Chen and Yuan attempted to communicate with the outside world via video tape and letters, describing beatings they were subjected to, seizure of documents and communication devices, cutting off of electric power to their residence, placing metal sheets over their windows, harassing Chen’s daughter by banning her from attending school and confiscating her toys, harassing Chen’s mother while she was working in the fields…

In 2011, the New York Times reported that a number of Chen’s supporters and admirers had attempted to penetrate the security monitoring Chen’s home, but were unsuccessful and subsequently pummeled, beaten and robbed by security forces.  US Congressman Chris Smith attempted to visit Chen but was denied permission.  Actor Christian Bale (Batman Begins) attempted to visit Chen along with a CNN crew, but was punched, shoved and denied access by Chinese security guards.  Video footage showed Bale and the CNN crew having stones thrown at them and being pursued in their minivan for more than 40 minutes.

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Above: Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey

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Above: Actor Christian Bale

On 22 April 2012, Chen escaped from house arrest.  Under cover of darkness and with the help of his wife, Chen climbed over the wall around his house, breaking his foot in the process.

When he came upon the Meng River, Chen found it to be guarded, but he crossed anyway and was not stopped.  He fell more than 200 times during his escape, but reached a pre-determined rendezvous point where He Peirong, an English teacher and activist, was waiting for him.  Human rights activists then escorted him to Beijing.

Chen was given refuge at the US Embassy in Beijing.  On 4 May, Chen made clear his desire to leave China for the United States.  On 19 May, Chen, Yuan and their two children, having been granted US visas, departed Beijing for Newark, New Jersey.

Following his arrival in the US, the Chen family settled in a housing complex of New York University, in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

On 16 October 2013, Chen made his first public appearance, delivering a lecture at Princeton University.

Chen reminded the audience that even small actions undertaken in defense of human rights can have a large impact, because…

“Every person has infinite strength. Every action has an important impact.  We must believe in the value of our own actions.”

Chen’s memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer, was published in 2015.

In February 2016, a young girl, Chen Xin, was forcibly taken away from her home in northern Heilongijang Province by two strange men in a car and driven to Linyi.

At the Internet Addiction Treatment Center, a boot camp at Linyi Mental Hospital, more than 6,000 Internet addicts – most of them teenagers – not only have their web access taken away, they are also treated with electro-shock therapy.

The boot camp is run by the “brain-waker” Yang Yongxin.

Yang, born in Linyi, graduated from Yishui Medical School, with a degree in Clinical Medicine in 1982.  After graduation, Yang was aasigned by the state to the Linyi Mental Hospital, where he specialises in treating schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Yang started to investigate Internet addiction in 1999, when his teenage son began to show “addictive behaviour”.  He began practicing electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in 2006.

Initially the Chinese media viewed Yang’s work with great enthusiasm, publishing a book called Fighting the Internet Demon and producing a documentary film of the same name.

Yang was awarded as one of 2007’s Top Ten Outstanding Citizens of Shandong Province “for protecting the minors of Shandong”.

Yang caused widespread controversy in China when China’s most viewed TV channel, state-run CCTV, aired a special coverage of Yang’s treatment centre in July 2008.  The program, Fighting the Internet Demon Who Turned Our Geniuses into Beasts, reported positively on Yang’s ECT and sharply criticised the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, Irvine, California), then popular in China, blaming the game for many teenagers’ Internet addiction.  The program caused an uproar in China’s World of Warcraft community, spreading to most of China’s Internet community.  Yang’s critics revealed Yang’s controversial practices…

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Yang claimed that patients with Internet addiction suffered from cognitive and personality disorders and he promoted electroconvulsive therapy as a means to remedy such disorders.

Yang’s patients ranged from 12 to 30 years old, most of whom were abducted by their parents or by “the Special Operation”, a branch of the treatment centre that would reward more senior patients to abduct new patients.  The parents (even those of adult patients) would then sign a contract with the treatment centre, in which the parents would place the patients into foster care by the treatment centre.

Qu Xinjiu, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing said that the belief that parents have supreme jurisdiction over their children, and that even police officers have no right to intervene in family affairs, is widespread in China.

“That’s why there are so many parents sending their kids for electroshock therapy, even when outsiders think it’s wrong to do so.”, Professor Qu said.

After they were admitted, Yang’s patients were placed into a prisonlike environment, where they were forced to give away all online accounts and passwords.  Yang managed his patients in a military style, where he encouraged the patients to act as informants and threatened resisting patients with ECT, as a means of torture.

In addition to electroconvulsive therapy, Yang used psychotropic drugs without the consent of the patients or their parents, claiming that the drugs were dietary supplements.  The centre also has mandatory sessions with psychiatric counselors, where patients were taught absolute obedience to Yang and forced to call him “Uncle Yang”. He also warned the patients against asking their parents to take them home, another offense punishable by electroconvulsive therapy.

(All of this reminds me of the movie, starring Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)

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In 2009 China Youth Daily published the news of a patient who had escaped Yang’s treatment centre.  The escaped patient jumped out from a second floor window at the treatment centre.  Yang’s ECT / psychotropic medication treatment, which Yang dubbed xingnao (brain-waking), triggered cardiac arrhythmia (uneven heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats) in the escaped patient, questioning the safety of Yang`s treatment.

Also the same year, a 15-year-old boy from southern Guangxi Province died after being beaten by staff two days after arriving at a camp treating Internet addiction.

Yang claimed that 96% of the patients treated by his electric therapy had shown improvement.

In 2009, the Chinese Health Ministry issued guidelines against using electroshock therapy for Internet addicts, but despite the Health Ministry’s policy, “punitive practices continue to victimise China’s youth” in Internet detox camps”, said Dr. Bax, assistant professor of sociology at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea.

In 2014, researchers from universities in Chian, Taiwan and Germany wrote in the journal Asia-Pacific Psychiatry that the highest prevalence of “problematic Internet use” had been observed in Asia.

A series of scandals have erupted in previous years over the treatment of patients at similar camps in China.

In 2014, a 19-year-old woman died at a treatment centre in Henan Province after being given treatment that involved being lifted off the ground and then dropped, the South China Morning Post reported, while another suffered head and neck injuries.  Staff suspected the woman was feigning injury and continued to kick her on the ground, according to a China National Radio report.

Chen Xin’s parents had become concerned about her behaviour after she dropped out of school.  On the suggestion of an aunt, the Chen family decided to send Xin to the camp, which had claimed to have cured 7,000 children of Internet addiction in the past two decades. The camp had become a last resort as they had become exasperated by their child’s habit of playing online games for hours.

Xin escaped the Internet Addiction Centre four months later.

In an online journal Xin complained that the centre’s trainers had beaten patients for no reason and ordered those who did not behave to eat in front of the pit latrine (sewer).

Thepaper.cn said it had received calls from several patients at the camp since they ran Chen’s story.  They complained of being beaten, cursed at and insulted, of being watched even when using the toilet.

One former patient told Thepaper.cn:

“When the toilets clogged up, we were asked to empty the toilets with our hands.  You get beaten up in the toilet and get beaten up again if you dare say no.  You get beaten up if you are found to be in a relationship.”

In a journal post published 25 August 2016, Xin wrote:

“When you mentioned it to your relatives, they all said: ‘Isn’t it all in the past?  We love you.  You should forget all those things.’

I am angry.  People point at my nose and call me unfilial (unloving daughter) and worse than a beast. 

It was them who sent me there.  It was them who cursed me and beat me.  It was them who sabotaged my life and libelled my character, but it was also them who said they loved me.

My friends here, if it were you, what would you do?

I will use their money to practice boxing and martial arts and ambush them later.  I will make them disabled, if not die.”

On 16 September 2016, Xin stabbed her father with a knife after they argued.  He was hospitalised.

She tied her mother to a chair, shot photographs and a video of her mother, demanding money from her aunt to release her so Xin could go to a physics school in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province.

The money was sent the following week, but by then Xin discovered her starving mother was already dying.  She called an ambulance, but it arrived too late.

Xin’s mother died on 23 September 2016.

In January 2017, the Chinese government drafted a law that will crack down on the camps’ worst excesses.

Medical specialists welcomed the law.

“It’s a very important move for protecting young children.”, said Dr. Tao Ran, director of the Internet Addiction Clinic at Beijing Military General Hospital.

Dr. Tao has seen several Chinese teenagers return from Internet addiction boot camps showing signs of lasting psychological trauma:

“They didn’t talk, were afraid to meet people and refused to leave their homes.  They were panicked even to hear the word ‘hospital’ or ‘doctor’.”

The legislation also limits how much time each day that minors can play online games at home or in Internet cafés.  Providers of the games are obliged to take measures to monitor and restrict use.

Many users of Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, were even more critical, saying policing teenage behaviour online is impractical and ill-informed.

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Above: The logo for Sina Weibo

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 12 March 2017

As I read over what I have written I am struck by a memory of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953.

Cover shows a drawing of a man, who appears to be made of newspaper and is engulfed in flames, standing on top of some books. His right arm is down and holding what appears to be a paper fireman's hat while his left arm is wiping sweat from the brow of his bowed head. Beside the title and author's name in large text, there is a small caption in the upper left-hand corner that reads, "Wonderful stories by the author of The Golden Apples of the Sun".

The novel presents a future American society where books are outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found.  Bradbury described the book as a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature.

In Part One of the book, my mind’s eye can still recall Guy Montag, the book’s protagonist, and the other firemen ransacking the book-filled house of an old woman.  She refuses to leave her house and her books, choosing instead to burn herself alive.  Like Montag I am discomfited by the woman’s suicide.

Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty, personally visits Montag to see how he is doing.  Sensing Montag’s concerns, Beatty recounts how books lost their value, how over the course of several decades people embraced new media and sports and a faster pace of life.  Books were ruthlessly abridged or degraded to accommodate a short attention span.  Books were burned in the name of public happiness.

In Part Two, I recall Montag telling his wife that maybe the books of the past have messages that can save society from its own destruction. But Mildred is only interested in their large screen television.  She invites her friends over to watch TV with her. Montag tries to engage them in meaningful conversation, but they are indifferent to all but the trivial.

And I wonder:

Is this the future?

Above: A visualisation of a portion of the routes on the Internet

Have we become a society that has become addicted to distraction?

A society oblivious to everything, everyone, unconnected, disconnected to flat screens or headphones?

It is easy to condemn the acts of the Chinese state for attempting to gain control over its citizens seduced by technology and mass media, or for using technology or mass media to control its populace, but perhaps, both in the Orient as well as the West, it is the people, us, who are as much culpable as the state.

Perhaps the enemy we seek lies in the reflection cast by our flat screens?

Sources:

Wikipedia / Thomas L. Friedman, “Our lives are digital. Be careful.”, 12 January 2017, New York Times / Mike Ives, “China seeks to curb Internet addiction camps”, 17 January 2017, New York Times / Rough Guides China / Lonely Planet China

 

 

That which survives 2d: A matter of perspective

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 30 December 2016

There are many things that are unpleasant about getting older: diminishing senses, unflattering changes to one´s body, memory lapses, acquisition of a world-weariness…

But for myself, especially in 2016, it has been the loss of one´s heroes.

Yet another musical legend passed away over Christmas: George Michael, age 53.

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Famous for many songs, including “Last Christmas I gave you my heart”, George died from a sudden heart attack.

In a truly crappy year of celebrity deaths (Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher…to name only a few) George Michael´s demise has affected me more than the rest as his age at death is disturbingly near my own at present.

Prince´s death was pharmaceutically linked, Bowie had cancer, Cohen was not a young man…all tragic but somehow not so bone-chillingly uncommon to my own life status.

If a man only two years my senior can suddenly be no more, can I truly take for granted the time left to me?

Barring accident or lingering disease, how much time do I truly have left?

What follows is not so much resolutions I intend to pursue as they are affirmations of what I have come to realise.

Many a friend has commented to me that it is important that I write.

They have said that my past is somewhat unique, that I can on occasion string words together, that I have my moments when I have written something of significance.

I am also reminded of something that David Bowie once said in an interview: “Don´t play to the gallery.”

Bowie smiling

I have taken this to mean that I should write what matters to me.

If others love it, great.

If not, I must still continue to write what matters to me.

This blog, The Chronicles of Canada Slim, is written to express my ongoing feelings and to represent my memories and emotions that led me here to this time and place.

My other blog, much neglected, Building Everest, is meant to tell stories outside of myself.

It is my hope that those who read this particular post will feel the excitement of travel, the thrill of discovery and an appreciation of the past that I felt as I wrote what follows:

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, but now also the capital of Europe, buzzes with economic, financial and political activity.

And as I recall time spent there in 1993 and 1997 I think of Brussels as I would Ottawa, the capital of Canada, as I would have others think of me, perhaps boring at first glance, but a closer look reveals continuous momentum, regular heroics, relatable villainy, spectacular moments and a vulnerability to capture both the imagination and interest.

In reading Charlotte Bronte´s The Professor one senses that she never really liked the Belgians, especially the Flemish, but did she like Brussels itself?

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The Professor was based on her own experiences in Brussels, a story of love and doubt, of a teacher seeking fortune and love while being severely tested by beguiling sensuality and manipulation.

If a city could be compared to a woman, could our assessment be affected by our experiences?

“Our likings are regulated by our circumstances.

The artist prefers a hilly country because it is picturesque, the engineer a flat one because it is convenient.

The fashionable young gentleman admires the fashionable young lady – she is of his kind.

The toilworn, exhausted, probably irritable teacher, blind almost to beauty, insensible to airs and graces, glories chiefly in certain mental qualities: application, love of knowledge, natural capacity, docility, truthfulness, gratitude are the charms that attract his notice and win his regard.

These he seeks, but seldom meets.

These if by chance he finds, he would fain retain forever.

And when separation deprives him of them he feels as if some ruthless hand had snatched from him his only ewe lamb.” (Charlotte Bronte, The Professor)

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These I seek, but seldom meet.

“Zoé” had many positive aspects, but what had been felt the year previous seemed lacking within myself.

I told myself “Act as if what is wished is reality until the wish becomes reality.”.

Though she could hardly afford it, Zoé was determined to show me Brussels in the hopes that I would transfer my love for the city with similar feelings towards her.

Zoé was a maniac driver, but no more than many Europeans I would encounter in the following decades.

Breathlessly, my heart a-pounding furiously, we arrived at Bruparck.

Bruparck is close to Metro Station Heysel and is part of Heysel Park.

The Heysel / Heizel is in the north of Brussels where the Brussels International Exposition of 1935 and Expo ´58 took place.

The Brussels International Exposition of 1935 was held between 27 April and 6 November 1935.

Officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions, 25 countries officially participated and a further 5 were unofficially represented.

The theme was colonisation, on the 50th anniversary of the establishmnet of the Congo.

The fair attracted some 20 million visitors.

Belgian architect Joseph van Neck was the principal architect of the fair and of the Art Deco Palais des Expositions with its interior concrete parabolic arches and four heroic bronze statues on piers.

Among many other contributors, Le Corbusier designed part of the French exhibit.

Belgian modernist architect Victor Bourgeois designed the Grand Palace, Restaurant Leopold II and the Pavilion Soprocol.

The Belgian art exposition prominently displayed the work of contemporary Belgian artists, including Paul Delvaux, René Magritte and Louis Van Lint, boosting their careers.

Expo ´58 (the Brussels World´s Fair) was held from 17 April to 19 October 1958, the first major World´s Fair after World War II.

Nearly 15,000 workers spent three years building the two square kilometre site on the Heysel plateau, using many of the buildings from the Brussels International Exposition of 1935.

Expo ´58 was the 11th World´s Fair hosted by Belgium and the 5th in Brussels, following the fairs in 1888, 1897, 1910 and 1935.

Since 1958 Belgium has not arranged any more world fairs.

This huge event was a showcase for Belgium and 40 other countries.

More than 41 million visitors visited the Expo, which was opened with a call for world peace and social and economic progress, issued by King Badouin.

Three million visitors travelled in the cable car which soared above the Expo.

Eight babies were born on site.

With the slogan “Building a world for the modern man”, Expo ´58 sent out a message of boundless optimism, confident and enthusiastic about the future of humanity.

In spite of its message of peace and friendship between nations, Expo ´58 was not immune from the tensions of the Cold War.

Beneath the Atomium, the United States and the Soviet Union defied each other in symbolic confrontation.

The Soviet pavilion was a large impressive building, which they folded up and took back to Russia when the Expo ended.

Within the pavilion the Soviets displayed a facisimile of Sputnik, the world´s first artifical satellite, and a model of the Lenin, the world´s first nuclear icebreaker, representing the success of a Communist society.

The icebreaker Lenin, former St. Alexander Nevsky

The Sputnik copy mysteriously disappeared and the US was accused of stealing it.

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The American pavilion was quite spacious and vaunted the American Dream – the consumer society and the comforts of modern life.

The US pavilion included a fashion show with models walking down a large spiral staircase, an electronic computer that demonstrated a knowledge of history, and a colour TV studio behind glass.

The Philips pavilion played the Poeme électronique from 425 loudspeakers placed throughout the park.

Expo58 building Philips.jpg

The Austrian pavilion included a model Austrian Kindergarten which doubled as a daycare for the employees, the Vienna (Wien) Philharmonic playing behind glass and a model nuclear fusion reactor that fired every five minutes.

An original manuscript of Mozart´s Requiem was placed on display.

Someone somehow gained access to the manuscript and tore off the bottom right corner of one of the pages containing the words “Quam olim d:C” in Mozart´s handwriting, possibly the last words Mozart wrote before he died.

During the six months of the Expo, 300 friendly, multilingual and devoted young ladies welcomed and guided millions of visitors who flocked to the site.

Dressed in red jackets and blue hats, disciplined and flirtatious at the same time, the Expo ´58 hostesses were considered the epitome of the modern woman of those times.

Joyful Belgium, a reconstitution of a village from olden times, was a place of entertainment with a festive atmosphere, constantly bursting with crowds of visitors eating, drinking and having fun.

20,000 workers, including 500 gardeners, served 20,000 meals every day in the 70 restaurants on the Expo site.

Belgian beer flowed copiously bringing joy to many who staggered on cobblestones filled with spirit and memories.

But every event has its dark side which the Art of Design Atomium Museum (ADAM) will not seek to draw the visitor´s attention to…

Inside the Belgian pavilion was the Congolese village, a human zoo, showing exotic humans living in their natural state, to emphasise the cultural differences between Europeans and those people they regarded as primitive in a display that was highly degrading and racist.

Congolese in cages in a nude or semi-nude state forced to work on typical village tasks pretending that the gawking visitors did not exist.

Belgian King Baudouin visited the fair in the company of actress Gina Lollobrigida.

Expo ´58 remains a part of the Bruxellois psyche as its best known site still remains a symbol of the city of Brussels.

The Atomium is a giant model of a unit cell of an iron crystal, expanded 165 billion times, with each of its nine spheres representing an atom.

Designed by the engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak, it stands 102 metres / 335 feet tall.

Its nine 18 metre / 60 foot diameter stainless steel clad spheres are connected by tubes of 3 metre / 10 foot diameter.

These tubes enclose stairs, escalators and a lift in the central, vertical tube allowing access to the five habitable spheres containing exhibit halls and other public spaces.

The top sphere contains a restaurant with a panoramic view of Brussels.

Jessica Canepa of CNN in her 24 January 2013 report “11 of Europe´s most bizarre buildings” named it Europe´s most bizarre building.

When Zoé and I visited the Atomium in 1993, the Atomium´s spheres were clad with aluminum.

Following renovations in 2007, the aluminum was replaced with stainless steel.

The aluminum was sold to the public as souvenirs to pay for the renovations.

A triangular piece about 2 metres / 7 foot long sold for €1,000 in 2006.

Three of the four top spheres lack vertical support and are therefore not open to the public for safety reasons, although the sphere at the pinnacle is.

Waterkeyn´s original design called for no supports.

The sphere was simply to rest on the spheres.

Wind tunnel tests proved that the Atomium would have toppled in an 80 km/h wind.

(140 km/h winds have been recorded in Belgium.)

Support columns were added in 2006 to achieve enough resistance against overturning.

(Though a building weighing 2,500 tonnes will take one hell of a gust to topple it…)

The Atomium is open every day of the year from 10 am to 6 pm and receives 2,300 individual visitors every day or 600,000 visitors per year.

The record number of visitors in one day: 4,700 on 17 August 2008.

Each year on average the Atomium is visited by 10 heads of state, privately or officially.

Visitors are provided audioguides in 28 languages.

There are 873,000 references to the Atomium on the Internet with more than 13,000 Facebook fans.

In addition to its unique architecture, the Atomium already boasted the fastest lift in Europe in 1958, with a speed of 5 metres per second / 18 kph.

What breath had been regained from Zoé´s driving was once again swept from me by this heady ascent as the entrails of the central tube sped by at a pace hummingbirds would have been impressed by.

And the view…

It has been boasted that on a clear day one can see Antwerp to the north or the Atlantic to the west, but on 8 November 1993 I recall only seeing the Palais des Expositions, the Planetarium and Mini-Europe, the Grand Place, the Royal Palace and the EU district.

For Expo ´58 a new airport terminal was added to the Melsbroek National Airport, on the west side of the Airport, on the grounds of the municipality of Zaventem, which has since become the name of the International Airport.

(Zaventem Airport might register in the minds of today´s readers as it was the first target of the 22 March 2016 Brussels bombings.

At 07:55 Ibrahim El Bakraoui (29), Najim Laachraoui (24) and Mohamed Abrini (b. 1984) arrived at Zaventem in a taxi.

At 07:58, in check-in row 11 and check-in row 2 of Zaventem´s departure hall, Bakraoui and Laachraoui committed suicide by exploding nail bombs in their suitcases nine seconds apart.

Abrini failed to detonate his bomb due to the force of Laachraoui´s explosion.

At 09:11 Khalid El Bakraoui and Osama Krayem committed suicide in the middle carriage of a three-carriage train at the Maalbeek metro station.

The bombings killed 32 civilians and injured more than 300 people.

The bombings were the deadliest act of terrorism in Belgium´s history.)

(Heysel Park also brings to mind another tragedy of a different sort:

On 29 May 1985, Liverpool were the defending European Champions Cup winners facing Juventus –  both this English club and their Italian competitor club were considered the best two teams in Europe at the time.

Despite Heysel Stadium´s status as Belgium´s national stadium, it was in a poor state of repair by the time of the 1985 European Final.

The 55-year-old Stadium had not been sufficiently maintained for several years and large parts of the Stadium were literally crumbling.

A few years before Arsenal fans called Heysel “a dump” when Arsenal had played there.

Both Juventus and Liverpool had urged the UEFA to choose another venue, claiming that Heysel was not in any condition to host a European Final, but UEFA refused to consider a move.

The Stadium was crammed with 60,000 supporters, with more than 25,000 for each team, between them a neutral area reserved for neutral Belgian fans.

Brussels has a large Italian community and many Juventus fans were in the neutral zone, causing Liverpool fans to perceive that Juventus fans had been accorded more seating rights than they had.

At 7 pm, an hour before kick-off, trouble began.

Liverpool and Juventus supporters were mere metres apart – the boundary between them was marked by a temporary chain link fence and a central thinly policed no-man´s land.

Fans began to throw stones across the divide, using the crumbling terraces under their feet.

As kick-off approached, the throwing became more intense.

Several groups of Liverpool fans broke through the boundary separating them from the Juventus fans, overpowered the police and charged the Juventus fans.

Juventus fans began to flee toward the perimeter wall.

The wall could not withstand the force of the fleeing Juventus supporters and a lower portion collapsed.

The collapse allowed fans to escape, but 39 fans died and 600 fans were injured by suffocation or from being crushed against the wall before its collapse.

Bodies were carried out from the Stadium on sections of iron fencing and laid outside, covered with giant football club flags.

In retaliation for the neutral zone attack, Juventus fans in their end of the Stadium then rioted, fighting the police with rocks and bottles for two hours.

Despite the scale of the disaster, UEFA officials, the Belgian Prime Minister, the Brussels mayor and the city´s police force felt that cancelling the match would incite further trouble and violence.

The match eventually kicked off after the captains of both teams spoke to the crowd and appealed for calm.

Juventus won the match 1 – 0.

29 Liverpool fans were charged with manslaughter, 14 of them convicted.

On 29 May 2005, a sundial sculpture was unveiled at the new Heysel Stadium to commemorate the disaster.

Thirty-nine lights shine, one for each who died that night.)

At the foot of the Atomium, Mini-Europe is a miniature park with reproductions of monuments in the European Union on show, at a scale of 1:25.

Image illustrative de l'article Mini-Europe

Roughly 80 cities and 350 buildings are represented.

The park contains live action models, such as trains, mills, an erupting Mount Vesuvius…

(There is something just wrong about trivialising one of the most volcanic eruptions in European history.

Mount Vesuvius spewed a deadly cloud of gas, stones and ash to a height of 33 kilometres (21 mi), ejecting molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second, a hundred thousand times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima bombing.

Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945.

Several Roman settlements were obliterated and buried, the most well known being Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The remains of about 1,500 people have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but the overall death toll is still unknown.)

…and cable cars.

A guidebook gives the details on all the monuments.

At the end of the visit, the Spirit of Europe exhibition gives an interactive overview of the European Union in the form of multimedia games.

As fascinating as it is to play the role of Lemeul Gulliver among the Lilliputians, I wanted to experience these wonders of Europe first hand without a sneak peek so I chose not to visit Mini-Europe.

As I type these words there remains much I have yet to see of Europe, but my feelings have not changed in this respect.

In Bruparck there stands an aquatic park – It was winter when we visited. –  slated to close on 1 October 2018, Océade offers 14 waterslides, a wave pool, a rope bridge, interactive video games, an aquatic playground, three saunas (a hammam, a jacuzzi and a Finnish ice bath) – all with a Pirates of the Caribbean feel.

It is said to be the best-equipped aquatic park in Belgium.

Zoé reminded me that Océade was still trying to rebuild its reputation from the July 1992 incident when two children, ages 5 and 7, drowned in the park.

Thierry Den Doncker, the director of Océade, was found guilty of involuntary homicide by default in December 1996.

Still Océade has maintained its reputation as a fun place, receiving 230,000 visitors to the park every year.

The waters are subtropical at a temperature of 29° Celcius, just perfect on a winter´s day.

Nearby the giantic Kinepolis offers 27 cinemas and IMAX.

As enjoyable as exploring Brussels with Zoé was, and I was extremely grateful to her for spending time and money to be my guide to the city, part of me wanted to discover the city for myself.

Seeing a place through a local´s eyes gives one a perspective that a tourist rarely experiences.

Stubbornly I wanted to make Brussels my experience rather than simply sharing Zoé´s experience of it.

I wanted to get lost and discover the city serendipitiously.

Zoé took this as a rejection of her.

It took an infinite amount of long discussions, debates, persuasion and patience to get Zoé to grant me a few hours of liberty from her side.

Granted liberty, I headed for the downtown core of Brussels to do the mundane activities that a tourist does when abroad: mailing postcards, checking e-mail in an Internet café and finding a café or tavern one can call one´s own.

Over cafés au lait, political discussion at the Café Arcadi with two Belgians and another Canadian (a young lady from Lake Nipissing)…

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Belgium is not a country, the two young Bruxellois university students informed us, but rather a political creation.

Unity between the Flemish and Walloons remains fleeting, a mere whisper in the wind barely heard but desperately sought.

But it is this ability for Belgians to have two diametrically opposed peoples share one country that convinces our local drinking companions that it was the Belgians that created “civilisation”.

To talk to a Belgian is to talk with the world-weary, for Belgium is more than chocolate and diamonds, medieval buildings and comic books, it is a land riddled with corruption, seediness, tension and scandal.

Belgium remains in a mind a country that is a breath away from coming undone.

And to listen to a Belgian speak is to court depression, for there seems to be a litany of problems to worry one´s self sick over in Belgium.

Milk causing cancer, arms deals with greased palms, the constant hiss of secessionism, the spectre of paedophilia, bizarre murders and crimes that would have challenged Agatha Christie´s Hercule Poirot, the sale of passports to criminals, reunions of Nazis, a history of colonial genocide…what topic do you wish to talk about first?

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Above: David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

And living with your neighbour does not mean loving your neighbour.

The Flemish and the Walloons are locked in a marriage of convenience but not comfort.

In the port city of Antwerp, Belgium´s second-largest metropolis, the world´s biggest distributor of diamonds, one finds a hotbed of tension.

Known as the Jerusalem of the West, Antwerp is home to 20,000 Jews, most of which live in the old Jewish quarter.

Right next door is the Arab quarter, home to the city´s 30,000 Moroccans and Turks.

Thrown into this volatile mix Antwerp is also the headquarters of the anti-immigrant party Vlaams Blok, whose main objective is for Flanders to secede.

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Both past and present Belgium is a battlefield.

A strange battlefield of baroque buildings, thick forests, fantastic restaurants, swan-filled canals, crumbling housing, dodgy areas, port crime, war cemeteries, blood-soaked battle grounds, ethnic turmoil, language barriers, racist graffiti, corruption so common it´s casual, a lack of planning and it no longer seems strange that Belgians like to drink.

Happily drinking is one of the best things to do in Belgium, as the country has over 400 beers of amazing flavours.

But to this casual observer, Belgium feels like it was thrown together without any vision, without any rhyme or reason.

The young Bruxellois lads were, of course, curious about Canada, for it too is a land that remains sharply divided along linguistic lines: English vs French.

But as visiting Anglophone Canadians to Brussels we held fast to a unity that we cherish, but as complex as English-French relations are in Canada the difficulties of Ottawa pale by comparison to politics in Belgium.

In Canada, Canadians have one national Parliament and each province has its own legislature.

In Belgium there are six individual Parliaments with each national party split in two – one representing Flanders in the north and one representing Wallonia in the south.

60% of Belgians speak Flemish, but in Brussels 80% of the population speaks French.

In 2001, I would later read that a train crash in Belgium that killed 8 people was caused because the signalmen – one Walloon, one Flemish – spoke different languages and couldn´t communicate.

But for all their problems it must be admitted that Belgians are interesting.

Take a few examples:

King Albert II (reigned from 1993 to 2013) loves motorcycles and riding them fast, to judge by the number of times he has been pulled over.

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Jean-Michel Nihoul, Brussels businessman and self-proclaimed “Monster of Belgium”, suspected for numerous crimes, won´t be prosecuted because he can name too many government officials involved in his sex parties.

King Leopold II (1835 – 1909), responsible for opening up the Congo to Belgian development and genocide and making a fortune in the process, loved nothing more than riding around on an oversized tricycle and sneaking off to court his teenage French lover.

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Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989), celebrated for his Inspector Maigret stories, was unique:

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Simenon wrote at least 4 books a year – totalling more than 500 by the time he died – in between having sex three times a day.

Known as “the man of 10,000 women”, Simenon still managed to write 80 pages a day, typically meeting his goal of finishing a book within two weeks.

(“Francois”, Zoé´s father, with two mistresses, clearly found his role model.)

René Magritte (1898 – 1967) brought the absurd to the commonplace and the everyday to the bizarre in precise frozen images that always contained a snippet of logic and the whisper of a joke, but Belgians didn´t appreciate him.

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In 1927, Belgian art critics so demonized his first show of reality-questioning, surrealistic paintings that Magritte moved to France.

It took Magritte another two decades for his work to be acclaimed as innovative.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525 – 1569) is worth mentioning for several reasons:

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Above: Pieter Brueghel the Elder´s The Painter and the Buyer (1565)

Brueghel, unlike his 16th century contemporaries, dared to paint other themes outside of religion or portraits of the wealthy.

His landscapes weren´t just Biblical backdrops, but vibrant village life captured in all its bawdy detail and glory.

No detail is insignificant in a Brueghal picture, for each minutae is a vignette that tells a tale of life in the 16th century more dramatically than a library of historical tomes ever could.

And in a sense Brueghal captures the essence of Brussels, not just in illustrating life then but as well a message about life now.

When I recall my conversation in Café Arcadi, the drownings at the Océade, the Heysel Stadium tragedy, the bombings of Brussels, the paintings of Brueghal and the recent death of George Michael, I am left with one final impression:

Seize the moment.

Appreciate the moment.

Capture and keep that moment close.

For God only knows how many more moments are left to us.

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Sources: Wikipedia / Charlotte Bronte, The Professor / Melissa Rossi, The Armchair Diplomat on Europe

Water Wars

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 6 December 2016

We Stand On Guard #1

Why does the United States invade a country?

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Historically, wars are fought over scarce resources, with religion or politics as convenient excuses or triggers for the commencement of hostilities.

So what does Canada possess in greater abundance than the United States?

(Besides being the 2nd biggest country in the world while the US is simply the 4th biggest?)

Fresh water.

Canada has 40% of the world´s total fresh water.

Now the idea of Canada and the United States going to war over water…

Unthinkable.

Right?

Well, let´s consider a few factors.

Historically, war between Canada and the United States wouldn´t be a novelty, for it has happened before.

Americans wanted to invade Canada during the US Revolution.

The siege of Yorktown ended with the surrender of a second British army, paving the way for the end of the American Revolutionary War

We fought one another in the War of 1812 (1812 – 1814).

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America claims it was a war against the British and that they won.

But the British were mostly preoccupied with Napoleon on the European continent and so it was mostly Canadians who fought to protect their homes.

And a war where no real gain is made is not a victorious war.

Neither side gained as much as a single hectare of the other side´s territory.

Though in retrospect, both Canada and the United States have this war to thank for the strengthening of their own national identities.

Flag of Canada

It was the burning of Baltimore and Washington DC that resulted in the Star-Spangled Banner and the White House.

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It was the defence of our land that forged the Canadian identity and the determination of maintaining our identity separate from the Americans.

So throughout both our histories US-Canada relations have not always been in agreement and Canada is quite fine with that.

We shared the same battlefields at times but not always.

We both fought in both World Wars, the Korean War and Afghanistan.

The US had other allies in Vietnam, in Iraq and other theatres of war it has chosen to involve itself in.

We were America´s steam valve for escaped slaves, Vietnam draft dodgers and unhappy political exiles.

Being separate from America, Canada has avoided civil war (though we have had rebellions), McCarthyism (though Communism did worry us from time to time), racial unrest (though our record is not unblemished), the banking crisis or a Wild West.

Canada is happy not to feel afraid of our neighbours foreign or domestic, despite not having anywhere near the military power the US possesses.

Education in Canada is not cheap, but certainly not as expensive as the American equivalent.

We have universal health care which we treasure and which works well for the most part.

We pride ourselves on our openness, our politeness, our multiculturalism.

We don´t hate America, but we remain vigilant and wary, but not to the point of paranoia.

We share many values, have signed many cooperative agreements, are members in many of the same international organisations.

But do Canadians completely trust America?

No.

For America has a history of maintaining its own self-interests paramount over any previous agreements with other nations it may have had.

So, could Canada find itself one day being invaded by the United States over the question of water?

It is not as unthinkable a scenario as one might imagine.

Let´s look at America environmentally.

In the news, debate still rages over Standing Rock and the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Energy companies in their quest for profits gladly risk the destruction of the environment for short term revenues.

As rivers lead to oceans and petroleum-bearing sea vessels, building pipelines that follow the course of these rivers seems to be the path of least resistance for the planning of pipeline routes.

The real and probable danger of damage to the American environment is simply an accident waiting to happen.

The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world´s largest aquifers, lies under 174,000 square miles (450,000 square km) of portions of eight US states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas) and irrigates 30% of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States or 80% of the High Plains area – the Breadbasket of America, the provider of much of the food that Americans consume.

The Ogallala Aquifer makes much of the livestock, corn, wheat and soybean production and consumption in the United States possible.

Intensive farming has reduced the Aquifer´s storage capacity by nearly 10%.

Belated conservation practices (terracing, crop rotation, more efficient centre pivot irrigation and drip irrigation practices) have barely made a dent in the drainage of the Aquifer.

Once depleted it would take over 6,000 years to replenish the Aquifer naturally through rainfall.

The proposed construction of the 1,661 mile / 2,673 km Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from the Athabaska oil sands of Alberta to refineries near Houston, Texas, crosses the eastern part of the Nebraska Sandhills and risks the possibility of contamination from spilled dilute bitumen into the Ogallala.

Destroy the Ogallala and life in America is gravely damaged.

Let´s look at global warming.

Despite naysayers and conspiracy theorists, global warming and its resulting climatic changes is and has been scientifically measureable.

Above: 2015: The warmest global year on record (since 1880), NASA

Global warming, no matter what post truth feelings one wishes to embrace, is real.

Global temperatures and sea levels are rising and deserts are expanding.

Extreme weather events are more frequent, including droughts, heat waves, flooding, abnormally heavy snowfalls and increased levels of acidification of our oceans.

This can lead to less food as a result of decreasing crop yields and depleted numbers of fish.

Some of the effects of global warming are already being felt all over the planet, while others even more dangerous may not occur for decades, centuries or even millenia.

But increasing population growth resulting in increased levels of the production of methane and carbon dioxide due to our reliance on fossil fuels hastens the process of global warming.

We are our own enemy.

The American and Chinese economies are responsible for the greatest amounts of carbon dioxide emissions produced every year, yet it is these economies that remain the least concerned about the effects they are producing.

Could the Dust Bowl return to America?

The Dust Bowl, also known as the Dirty 30s, was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American Great Plains and the Canadian prairies during the 1930s.

During the drought of the 1930s, the soil turned to dust and many crops failed, making the Great Depression even more of a nightmare for many Americans.

And the possibility of another Dust Storm ravaging America once again caused by pollution, global warming or chemical attack is not so unforeseeable as the 2014 sci-fi film Interstellar showed us.

A ringed spacecraft near a wormhole, here depicted as a massive reflective sphere.

In the Dirty 30s, Canada too was affected by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, but the possibility of Canada being isolated from a future Dust Bowl striking America might be possible as the American environment is being destroyed more rapidly than the Canadian one.

In the graphic novel We Stand on Guard (pictured above), it is suggested that America uses the terrorist destruction of the White House as an excuse to invade Canada.

(We did do this during the War of 1812, though America used as an excuse to begin hostilities the British highhandness on the high seas, searching American ships during the Napoleonic blockade and forcing into service of the British Navy any able seamen found abroad captured ships.)

Then, as now and in the future, Canadians were badly outnumbered by the Americans, so our strategy was to act defensively and allow the invaders to make mistakes.

In the graphic novel, the Americans possess greater numbers and superior technology, but Canadians succeed in repelling America in a similar fashion to how Russia repelled invasion by the French and the Germans.

Now one might think that a war over water is quite unlikely, but according to the United Nations water organisation UN Water, the total usable freshwater supply for ecosystems and humans is only about 200,000 cubic kilometres – less than 1% of all freshwater resources.

And water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of this last century´s population increase.

It is predicted that by 2025, a mere 10 years from now, that 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and two thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions.

Although an overwhelming majority of the Earth´s surface is composed of water, 97% of this water is saltwater.

The fresh water used to sustain humans is only 3% of the total amount of water on Earth.

The competition for water on an overpopulated planet is a major threat to human stability and could even lead to a world war fought over the control of diminishing water supplies.

And war over water is not a new phenomenon in world history.

As far back as Ancient Times, war has been fought over control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Israel fought to secure its water resources during the 1967 Six Day War.

The countries and regions suffering most water stress are North Africa, the Middle East, India, Central Asia, China, Chile, Columbia, South Africa, Australia and South Asia.

Though it is true that water desalination is increasingly more effective – worldwide over 13,000 desalination plants produce more that 12 billion gallons of water a day, according to the International Desalination Association – the energy intensive nature of desalination with its associated economic and environmental costs raises questions if desalination is economically viable or environmentally sustainable for the foreseeable future.

So as I prepare myself to go to work by anticipating taking a shower, boiling water for my coffee and for my lunch, I recall Kevin Costner´s movie Waterworld and again Christopher Nolan´s Interstellar.

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These films don´t feel so fictional after all…

Above: The famous shower scene, Alfred Hitchock´s Psycho (1960)

Sources: Wikipedia / Brian Fagan, Elixir: A Human History of Water

 

 

 

 

 

Oil and Blood in the Heartland 1: Hope and Despair

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 8 November 2016

King Solomon of Israel (970 – 932 BC) once wrote about life on Earth in his day:

“A generation goes and a generation comes…

All things are full of weariness. 

A man cannot utter it. 

The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be. 

What has been done is what will be done.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new.”?

It has been already in the ages before us.

There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be, among those who come after.”

(Ecclesiastes 1: 4 – 11, Holy Bible, New International Version)

This is especially true in the Information Age.

Every day we see an endless procession of visual images and listen to an endless stream of sounds.

Yet, after all our looking and listening, our eyes and ears are not satisfied.

We still want to see and hear more.

So we take in more of the endless procession of sounds and images.

Enough is never enough.

There is always one more show to watch, one more game to play, one more song to listen to.

We keep texting, webcasting, Facebooking, Twittering and Flickring.

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And it is all futile.

Life is more boring than modern man cares to admit.

Empires rise and fall.

War is followed by peace, then followed again by war.

As Yogi Berra said: “It´s déjà vu all over again.”

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What really changes?

The message or just the methods and speed?

Sickness or just the diagnostics and treatment?

Relationships?

Politics?

Morality?

The methods have changed, but the essence remains the same.

What was, is.

What is, will be.

Issues thought long past once again revisit.

The past unresolved meets the present moment, creating tensions for the future.

Again the winds of change blow across a familiar landscape.

Economics struggles against nature and tradition.

To be fair, there are moments of optimism.

“Eight miles off the coast of Long Beach, California, the oil rig Eureka, which has stood there for 40 years, looking like just another artifact of the modern industrial landscape, has beneath the waves a vast and thriving community of sea life – one of the richest marine ecosystems on the planet.

The location of Eureka and other rigs like it in this area, where a cold current sweeps down from Canada, has become a perfect habitat for fish and other sea life settling around the massive concrete pylons.

Momentum is gathering to convert rigs into artificial reefs once the rigs are decommissioned.

Awareness is increasing of the value of rigs as permanent homes for sea life.

But leaving rigs in place is controversial and is seen as benefiting the oil industry.

The Eureka, owned by the Houston oil company Beta Offshore, is one of 27 oil rigs off the California coast.

Several major oil spills have occurred since they were built half a century ago, giving rise to a passionate environmental movement that has long advocated complete removal of the rigs.

An enormous oil spill in 1969 released 100,000 barrels of crude, leaving a slick over 40 miles of coastline and killing thousands of animals.

In 2015, a pipeline sprung a leak that released 3,400 barrels of crude into the ocean, fouling several just-created marine protected areas.

The process of removing a rig and cleaning the site, known as decommissioning, is complicated and expensive, and includes plugging and cementing wells to make them safe.

A total decommissioning means the removal of the entire structure.

In a typical rigs-to-reefs effort, only the top portion is removed, usually to a depth of 80 feet, so that they don´t pose any risk to ship hulls.

The rest of the rig remains in place as a haven for sea life and for recreational diving or fishing.

The potential savings to the oil industry from converting all the rigs off the coast of California to reefs could be more than $1,000,000,000, but under US law oil companies would be required to put at least half the money they save into state coffers to fund conservation programs.”

(Erik Olsen, “Oil rigs gushing with marine life”, New York Times, 7 March 2016)

Reading of nature quietly reclaiming places despoiled by man does give me hope that no matter how man wrecks our planet that over time nature will repair itself.

But mankind acts swifter than nature reacts.

“Among Scots and tourists alike, the bonny banks of Loch Lomond have long been renowned as a relaxing place to enjoy some of the country´s most beautiful scenery.

Loch Lomond, looking south from Ben Lomond.jpg

The Australian company Scotgold Resources has spent most of the last decade developing a gold mine in the dramatic surroundings of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

Local campaigners are voicing their concerns that the infrastructure and waste created by the operation could damage the national park.”

(The Independent, 25 February 2016)

“The juniper mesas and sunset-red canyons in a corner of southern Utah are so remote that even Republican Governor Gary Herbert says he has probably only seen them from the window of a plane.

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This is a paradise for hikers and campers, a revered retreat where generations of the Original Peoples have hunted, gathered ceremonial herbs and carved their stories onto the sandstone walls.

Today, the land known as Bears Ears – named for twin buttes that jut over the horizon – is a battleground in the fight over how much power Washington exerts over federally controlled Western landscapes.

The President has the power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create national monuments on federal lands.

A coalition of native tribes, with support from conservation groups, is pushing for a new monument in these red rock deserts, arguing it would protect 1.9 million acres of culturally significant land from new mining and drilling.

But Utah lawmakers are so angry with federal land policies that in 2012 they passed a law demanding that Washington hand over 31 million acres, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, to the state.

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The federal government – the landlord of 65% of Utah´s land – has not complied, so Utah is considering a $14,000,000 lawsuit to force a transfer.

Conservative lawmakers across the state have lined up to oppose any new monument.

Ranchers, county commissioners, business groups and even some local tribal members object to a monument as a land grab that would add crippling restrictions on animal grazing, oil and gas drilling and road building in a rural county that never saw its share of Utah´s economic growth.

For the coalition of tribes and nature advocates seeking preservation, a new national monument in Bears Ears would preserve a stretch of mountains, mesas and canyons six times the size of Los Angeles.

It could also create a new model for how public lands are managed.

The tribal coalition of Navajos, Zunis, Hopis, Utes and Ute Mountain Utes wants to jointly manage the land with the government.

“You can´t talk about who we are as a people without talking about the land.

The same kind of love that we have for relatives is no different than the love we have for the land.

Our traditional people know and understand these lands as living, breathing beings.” (Eric Descheenie, chairman of the intertribal coalition)

Utah´s Republican representatives in Salt Lake City and Washington overwhelmingly oppose President Obama and are pushing a bill that would conserve some stretches of land while allowing energy development in other parcels.

Environmental groups have largely denounced the plan, saying it would lead to more roads and traffic in the back country and open eastern Utah to tarsands extraction and new oil drilling.

Tribal groups pushing for a monument say they would have a far weaker voice in how the area was managed.

The Navajos have hunted and lived in the Bears Ears region long before Utah was called “Utah”.

People still go there to hunt elk or deer, gather wood for fence posts and herbs for ceremonies.”

(Jack Healy, “Remote Utah landscape becomes conservation battleground”, New York Times, 12 March 2016)

In a previous blog I wrote about how Oklahoma is being forced to put limits on oil and gas wells because the underground disposal of industrial wastes have triggered large earthquakes and how a health outreach initiative in Colorado is trying to dispel the notion that all tap water is harmful and how tourism operators are urging the Australian government to tackle climate change.

I spoke about how poachers have almost eliminated rhino species in Tanzania and how Australian company Mineral Commodities wishes to mine titanium on traditional South African land thus threatening social tradition and destruction of the local environment.

(See RIP Earth of this blog.)

Change challenges.

Economics versus tradition is a theme that never seems to fade.

Of course, there are voices that suggest there are other ways to satisfy our never-sated hunger for energy and profits, but these voices seem as distant from kind receptiveness as Bears Ears is from Salt Lake City…far away thus forgetable.

Yet some light does shine through the fog…

“In Britain, drivers of hydrogen fuel cell cars will soon be able to fill up at a network of stations that generate their fuel on site from renewable energy.

A ITM Power station in Teddington, southwest London, has opened with the capacity to produce hydrogen during periods when wind turbines are producing more power than the grid needs.

The station uses electrolysis to generate hydrogen from tap water.

The electrolyser takes power from the grid and can be switched on and off remotely to help the network remain in balance when there is excess supply of electricity.

Fuel cell cars combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which powers the motor.

The Teddington station, based at the National Physical Laboratory, can claim to provide genuinely zero emission fuel when its electrolyser is running on renewable power.

ITM Power is opening several more hydrogen fuelling stations this year.

Fifteen are already in operation and the government is helping to fund a further 40 by 2020.

The Teddington station is part of the HyFive Project, an EU scheme that is supporting clusters of fuel cell cars and stations in Britain, Denmark and Germany.”

(Ben Webster, “Eco-filling station hopes to fuel rise of green cars”, The Times, 10 May 2016)

A reduction in carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels is needed.

The average European emits around 12 tonnes of carbon a year into the atmosphere.

Carbon emissions are causing climate change.

But in some places like the US getting folks to reduce their carbon footprint is difficult.

SUVs (sport utility vehicles)(also known as 4 X 4s) are incredibly popular in the US, despite being dangerous both for pedestrians and the environment.

One in four vehicles sold in the US is an SUV.

SUVs are also gaining popularity in Europe.

SUVs are the most polluting form of passenger transport available.

Each gallon of petrol/gas burned emits more than 12 kilograms of CO2 and SUVs are gas guzzlers, doing as little as 13 miles per gallon.

I recall with bittersweet amusement the animated film Over the Hedge where RJ (a raccoon voiced by Bruce Willis) explains to the foraging animals he recently met how the world of humans operates:

Over the Hedge Poster.jpg

“THAT is an SUV. 

Humans ride around in it, because they are slowly losing their ability to walk.”

(Penny, the mother porcupine, voiced by Catherine O`Hara): Jeepers, it´s so big.

(Lou, the papa porcupine, voiced by Eugene Levy): How many humans fit in there?

(RJ): Usually? One.

The West is a car culture.

We love our cars, despite traffic noise, polluted air, dangerous driving, jam-packed streets and urban chaos.

We breathe in dangerous air pollutants and suffer from eye and throat irritation, cancer and damage to the body´s immune, neurological, reproductive and respiratory systems.

We destroy without compassion or concern our ponds, streams, fields and forests to produce electricity for our homes and to power our transportation.

When I read articles like the ITM Power hydrogen fuel station I feel a spark of optimism, but often I fear the world is heading madly towards becoming an environmental dystopia, as predicted by futurists like Thomas Malthus, Harry Harrison and George Orwell, or as feared in movies like Blade Runner, Elysium, No Blade of Grass, Silent Running, Soylent Green and WALL-E.

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“The world´s first international treaty that bans or phases out fossil fuels is being considered by leaders of developing Pacific island nations after a summit in the Solomon Islands in June.

The leaders of 14 countries agreed to consider a proposed Pacific climate treaty, which will bind signatories to targets for renewable energy and ban new or the expansion of existing coalmines, at the annual leadership summit of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF).

The treaty proposal was received very positively by the national leaders, who seemed convinced that the treaty is an avenue where the Pacific could again show or build on the moral and political leadership that they showed earlier in their efforts to tackle climate change.

The treaty will bind parties to not approve any new coal or fossil fuel mines and not provide any subsidies for fossil fuel mining or consumption.

The parties will ensure universal access to clean energy by 2030 and will establish a Pacific framework for renewable energy to achieve that goal.

The treaty, to be signed next year, will establish compensation for communities that have suffered climate change-related losses.

The treaty also has provisions on climate-related migration and adaptation.”

(Michael Slezak, “Pacific island nations consider world´s first treaty to ban fossil fuels”, The Guardian, 14 July 2016)

Even my part-time employer seems concerned about the environment…

“Starbucks is to try a fully recyclable cup as part of efforts to cut the amount of waste sent to landfills each year.

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The coffee shop chain will be the first retailer to test the Frugalpac, which, according to its manufacturer, is much easier to recycle.

More than 2.5 billion coffee cups are used in the UK every year, but only one in 400 is recyclable, with the rest sent to landfills or incinerated because they are made from paper laminated with plastic, making them hard to process.

Starbucks, which has 850 shops in the UK, has said that it will test the new cup in some of the shops “to see if the Frugalpac cup meets Starbucks standards for safety and quality.”

(Andrew Ellson, “Starbucks leads the way with fully recyclable coffee cup”, The Times, 22 July 2016)

But old habits and old attitudes die hard…

Let´s take a gander at my home and native land of Canada, a country which seems to be experiencing a love-in from many other countries and much of the media, like The Economist (“Liberty moves north: Canada´s example to the world”, 29 October 2016) or Monocle (“Canada calling: why it´s time to take a fresh look north”, November 2016).

Flag of Canada

According to The Economist, Canada is “a citadel of decency, tolerance and good sense” and says “the world owes Canada gratitude for reminding it of what many people are in danger of forgetting: that tolerance and openness are wellsprings of security and prosperity, not threats to them.”

Yet one does not get the sense that Canada is superior when it comes to deciding between profits and the environment.

“Fort McMurray, Alberta (or “Fort Make Money” as some Canadians nicknamed it) was the kind of place where second chances and fat paychecks beckoned.

Aerial view of Fort McMurray with Athabasca River

Those who settled there were trained engineers, refugees from wartorn countries and dreamers from across Canada and beyond, drawn to a dot on the map in northern Alberta, a city carved out of the boreal forest in a region gushing with oil riches.

Even after the price of crude began to collapse in late 2014, erasing thousands of jobs, many residents managed to hang on, tightening their belts while waiting for the good times to return.

Then on 1 May 2016, smoke and ash filled the sky, the first harbingers of a catastrophic wildfire sweeping around the city.

Landscape view of wildfire near Highway 63 in south Fort McMurray (cropped).jpg

The entire population of about 88,000 was forced to evacuate, most in a frantic rush.

The blaze consumed whole sections of Fort McMurray, ranking as one of the most devastating fires in Canada´s history.

The fire destroyed over 2,400 homes and buildings, forcing the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta history.

The inferno continued to spread across northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan, consuming forested areas and impacting the Athabasca oil sands operation 70 km north of Fort McMurray.

A quarter of Canada´s oil production, equal to one million barrels of oil a day, was halted as a result of the fire.

The fire spread across 1.5 million acres before it was declared to be under control on 5 July 2016.

It is estimated that the damage reached about $4 billion, making this the most expensive damge in Canadian history.

The cause of the fire is suspected to be human caused, starting in a remote area 15 km from Fort McMurray.

But even as displaced residents filed insurance claims and picked through piles of donated clothing, many remain adamant about rebuilding the city that gave them a financial lifeline as rare as the source of its prosperity, the largest oil sands reserve in the world.

Athabasca Oil Sands map.png

Until environmentalists challenged the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the city and the Alberta oil sands reserve were little known outside of Canada and the world´s oil companies.

(More on Keystone to follow…)

Attempts to convert its deposits of tarlike bitumen into fuel go back decades and Fort McMurray´s fortunes have risen and fallen with them.

(New York Times, “A Canadian oil boom town left in ashes”, 8 May 2016 / Wikipedia)

But not enough is said about the oil sands operation in respect to environmental impact or indigeous rights before the wildfire struck.

The Athabaska oil sands are large deposits of bitumen or extremely heavy crude oil.

They consist of a mixture of crude bitumen (a semi-solid rock-like form of crude oil), silica sand, clay minerals and water.

The Athabaska deposit is the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world and the largest of three major oil deposits, along with the nearby Peace River and Cold Lake deposits.

Together, these oil sand deposits lie under 141,000  sq. km / 54,000 sq. mi. of boreal forest and peat bogs and contain about 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen in place, comparable in magnitude to the world´s total proven reserves of conventional petroleum.

Canada´s total proven reserves are the third largest in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

The Athabaska oil sands are named after the Athabaska River which cuts through the heart of the deposit.

Traces of the heavy oil are readily observed on the river banks.

The bitumen was used by the indigenous Cree and Dene First Nations to waterproof their canoes.

In the sands there are very large amounts of bitumen covered over by water-laden peat bog, clay and barren sand.

The oil sands themselves are typically 40 – 60 metres / 130 – 200 ft deep, sitting on top of flat limestone rock.

Bitumen is extracted from the oil sands by surface mining and in situ steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD).

20% of the Athabaska sands are shallow enough to recover bitumen by surface mining, using the biggest power shovels (100 or more tons) and dump trucks (400 tons) in the world.

After the bitumen is excavated, hot water and caustic soda (NaOH) is added to the sand.

The resulting slurry is piped to the extraction plant where it is agitated and the oil skimmed from the top.

About two tons of oil sands are required to produce one barrel (1/8 of a ton) of oil.

SAGD is an advanced form of steam stimulation in which a pair of horizontal wells are drilled into the oil reservoir, one a few metres above the other.

High pressure steam is continously injected into the upper wellbore to heat the oil and reduce its viscosity, causing the heated oil to drain into the lower wellbore, where it is pumped out to a bitumen recovery facility.

Critics contend that government and industry measures taken to reduce environmental and health risks posed by these large-scale mining operations are inadequate, causing unacceptable damage to the natural environment and human welfare.

Mining destroys the boreal forest, which is clear cut to allow for mining excavation and bitumen extraction to occur.

Since the beginning of the oil sands development in 1967, there have been several leaks into the Athabaska River polluting it with oil and tailing pond water.

In 1997 Suncor admitted that their tailing ponds had been leaking 1,600 cubic metres of toxic water per day.

This water contains naphtenic acid, trace metals such as mercury and other pollutants.

The Athabaska River is the largest freshwater delta in the world, but with Suncor and Syncrude leaking tail ponds, the amount of polluted water will exceed 1 billion cubic metres by 2020.

Athabasca River, Icefields Parkway (2987364327).jpg

Natural toxicants derived from bitumen in northern Alberta pose potential ecological and human health risks to residents living in the area.

Oil sands development contributes arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and other metal elements toxic at low concentrations to the tributaries and rivers of the Athabaska.

A car filled with fuel from Canada´s oil sands emits 15% more carbon dioxide into the air than average crude oil.

Oil development activities bring an enormous number of people into a fragile ecosystem.

Water is easily polluted because the water table reaches the surface in most areas of muskeg (peat bog).

With the ever-increasing development and extraction of resources, wildlife are recipient to both direct and indirect effects of pollution.

Woodland caribou are particularly sensitive to human activities and as such are pushed away from their preferred habitat during the time of year when their caloric needs are greatest and food is the most scarce.

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Humanity´s effect on the caribou is compounded by road construction and habitat fragmentation that open up the area to deer and wolves.

Wildlife living near the Athabaska River have been greatly impacted due to pollutants entering the water system.

An unknown number of birds die each year.

Particularly visible and hard hit are migrating birds that stop to rest at tailing ponds.

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There have been numerous reports of large flocks of ducks landing in tailing ponds and perishing soon after.

There has also been a large impact on the fish that live and spawn in the area.

As toxins accumulate in the River due to the oil sands, bizarre mutations, tumors and deformed fish species have begun to appear.

First Nations communities that live around the River are becoming increasingly worried about how the animals they eat and their drinking water are being affected.

There is a higher rate of cancer in their communities caused by the contamination of the River and the oil sands as well as uranium mining.

The world´s largest production of uranium is also in this area.

In July 2015, one of the largest leaks in Canada´s history spilled 5,000 cubic metres of emulsion – about 5 million litres of bitumen, sand and wastewater – from a Nexen Energy pipeline at an oil sands facility.

In January 2016, an explosion left one worker dead and another seriously injured.

(Wikipedia)

So, let´s look at another oil boom region: North Dakota.

North Dakota´s big shale oil boom, which in its heyday produced 810,000 barrels a day, was described as being similar to the California gold rush but in North Dakota in the 21st century.

The Bakken Shale Formation boom was so large that it cut the number of US imports of crude oil and petroleum products in half.

The boom created thousands of jobs and generated millions in wealth, but at a cost…

It took a massive toll on the environment.

Since 2006, there has been more than 19 million gallons of oils and chemicals that have been spilled, leaked or misted.

(New York Times, “The downside of the boom”, 22 November 2014.)

Since 2006, at least 74 workers have died in the Bakken oilfields.

On average that means someone dies in the Bakken oilfields every six weeks.

Oil workers were hired on a 20/10 basis: 20 days working / 10 days off, with some working shifts of 69 hours straight.

And there are few incentives for the oil companies to care about their workers.

The US Department of Labor reported that “the current general industry standards inadequately address the unique hazards encountered on oil and gas wells.”

USDOL Seal circa 2015.svg

(Department of Labor´s Occupational Safety and Health Administration  (OSHA) report on oil and gas well drilling and servicing, The Federal Register, 28 December 1983)

There are fewer than 10 OSHA inspection officers for the entirety of both North and South Dakota.

It would take decades for OSHA to inspect every worksite in North Dakota.

US-OSHA-Logo.svg

On 14 September 2011, at an Oasis Petroleum site in western North Dakota near the town of Williston, an oil well explosion killed 21-year-old derrickman Brendon Wagner and injured three others.

Of the three injured men, one would later die from his injuries, another would have his legs amputated and the third would commit suicide.

OSHA found that the site had been missing many important safety features.

“None of the employees were provided flame retardant clothing…The servicing rig did not have a safety slide.”

(OSHA report, September 2011)

But Oasis was not liable for the damages their oil well caused because the workers had been subcontracted from Carlson Well Service and the “Oasis company supervisor” was contracted from Mitchell´s Oil Field Service.

Meaning that no one working on Oasis´ well that day was actually an Oasis worker.

In an Oasis service contract, dated 21 July 2010, it reads that Carlson had the authority to control and direct the performance and safety of the work and that Oasis was interested only in the results obtained.

Now, the subcontracting of workers is not unique to North Dakota, but what is special to North Dakota is how friendly regulatory authorities are to oil companies operating in the state.

“We have created a friendly business climate in North Dakota.

Taxes and insurance rates are low.

The regulatory environment is very reasonable.

North Dakotans are friendly towards business and will work hard to help their employers be successful.”

(North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, 2012)

Jack Dalrymple 2013.jpg

Governor Dalrymple heads up the three-person Industrial Commission which overseas the state´s oil and gas regulations and excises fines for the majority of spills.

One of the biggest oil producers in the state is Continental Resources, which has spilled a greater volume of spillage (1.6 million gallons) than any other operator in North Dakota.

Since 2006, Continental has been fined only $222,000, but has paid only $20,000 as the fines are reduced because the Industrial Commission typically settles for 10% of the assessed penalties.

Lynn Helms of the Commission claimed that this system works well due to the conditions which are attached to the penalties:

The penalised company agrees to cut a cheque, which is unappealable if the same or a repeat violation occurs in a one-to-five-year period after the penalised offence.

“In five years, no companies have had a repeat violation. 

It´s like Prohibition and really changes behavior.”

(Lynn Helms interview, Associated Press, 20 March 2012)

In 2014, Petro Hunt received a 90% discount on a $20,000 fine after an incident where they spilled 3,000 gallons of oil.

Five months later, in an oil spill one mile northwest of Keene, Petro Hunt had another incident where 600 barrels of oil leaked from a well and was not contained on site.

600 barrels of oil = 2,500 gallons of oil

North Dakota´s regulations extend to political campaign financing.

On 21 July 2014, the Center for Public Integrity reported that “the oil sector is the biggest single source of political contributions in the state of North Dakota”.

“When I first ran for office and was visiting with other candidates I always asked, “If you had any money left in the campaign account at the end of the campaign what do you do with it?”.

One of the most fascinating answers I received was: “What´s wrong?  Put it in your checking account.  It´s yours.  That´s income.”.”

Photo Corey Mock

(Utah Democrat Representative Corey Mack)

North Dakota does not have an Ethics Commission.

North Dakota also allows the oil industry to use “indemnification to avoid civil liability”.

A typical service contract, 21 July 2010:

“Contractor agrees to indemnify and hold harmless the Company against all claims without limit and without regard to the cause or causes thereof or the negligence or fault with any party in connection herewith Contractor´s employees on account of bodily injury or death.”

Jobs and money shouldn´t come at the expense of land and lives.

(HBO Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 10 November 2015 broadcast)

Comfort and convenience, speed and progress, should not mean the sacrifice of lands and lives, the environment or our survival.

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

Walks of Life: The Apple and the Grape

Landschlacht, Canton Thurgau, Switzerland, 6 November 2016

It is true.

I often feel quite critical of this country in which I have resided in these past six years.

I criticize its government and its xenophobic policies.

I criticize its people and their parochial ways.

I criticize its economy with its soulless greed.

But what I cannot find fault with is Switzerland´s natural beauty.

Switzerland is a paradise for hikers, regardless of their ambition or health.

I came to this country because my German wife, the doctor, found better employment opportunities here.

I remain in Switzerland, not only because I remain married, but because I love the landscape, the countryside, the wilderness, of this nation.

I am reminded of the pure joy that this country inspires whenever I look back at photos of walks I have done since I moved here back in 2010.

Three walks I have done remain steadfast in my memory:

Altnau, Canton Thurgau, Switzerland, Autumn 2015

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Just down the road from Landschlacht, Altnau is apple country.

The modern town of Altnau was first mentioned in 787 and has always been known for its agriculture.

And though attempts have been made since the 19th century to boost the economy by improving its infrastructure and attempting to attract tourists, Altnau remains 70% farmland, 15% forest and only 13% settlement.

Of the farmland, 47% is used for growing crops and 24% is used for orchards and vineyards.

Altnau has a population just under 2,200 residing in 418 buildings, and of which the people are 95% Swiss German speakers, 50% Protestant / 32% Catholic, 80% post-secondary school educated, 51% male / 49% female, 34% middle aged.

There isn´t much to see or do in Altnau.

You can visit the Reformed Church or the Catholic Church or sit by the harbour and watch the sailboats drift in with the tides.

Other than dairy products or farm / orchard produce, very little seems to have gotten any attention in Altnau.

As for famous folks, Altnau has produced two, both little known outside of Switzerland.

Hans Baumgartner (1911 – 1996) was a Swiss photographer and teacher.

Born in Altnau, Baumgartner taught in Steckborn and Frauenfeld from 1937 to 1962.

Baumgartner was a professional photographer from 1929 onwards.

In a career portfolio of over 120,000 photographs, Baumgartner took photos for famous German language publications (Camera, du, Der Schweizer Spiegel, Die Schweiz, Föhn, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) and the Thurgauer Zeitung), focusing often on Canton Thurgau and bringing painter Adolf Dietrich into the spotlight.

Baumgartner also photographed trips he made to Paris, Italy, the Balkans, southern France, North Africa and the Sahara, Croatia, Burgundy, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, the US, Hungary, Belgium, Asia and North America.

A resident in Altnau since 2007, Mike “Rocky” Rockenfeller is a German professional racing driver, currently driving Audi cars on professional courses like Le Mans.

Mike Rockenfeller in Zandvoort 2011

Rocky was the champion in various races from 2005 to 2013, presently ranking 19th in the world´s fastest driver list.

What drew Rocky to call Altnau home?

Perhaps a reason can be found by walking the Altnauer Apfelweg (the Altnau Apple Path), a 9-km teaching path that shows the walker how apples are cultivated and collected, the different types of apples that Thurgau Canton produces, and puzzles, recipes and jokes connected with apples and pears.

It is both a sensory and an educationial pleasure to follow this path through the streets and alleyways of the town and between row upon row of apple trees majestic and proudly vibrant in the fields outside town.

The wanderer learns that the apple tree is not unique to Thurgau or Switzerland but found worldwide, descended from Turkish ancestors.

Red Apple.jpg

Apple cultivation is not new, for they have been grown for thousands of years in Asia and Europe and brought to the Americas by European colonists.

The apple is so ancient to mankind´s knowledge that it has religious and mythological significance in many cultures, including Norse, Greek and European Christian traditions.

In Norse mythology, the goddess Iounn gave apples to the gods to maintain their eternal youthfulness.

In Greek mythology, Heracles, as part of his Twelve Labours, was required to travel to the Garden of the Hesperides and pick the golden apples off the Tree of Life growing at its centre.

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Eris, the Greek goddess of discord, annoyed that she had not been invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, crashed the party by tossing a golden apple inscribed with the words “For the most beautiful one” and caused three goddesses (Hera, Athena and Aphrodite) to wrestle to claim the title.

Eris Antikensammlung Berlin F1775.jpg

Paris of Troy was appointed to select the recipient.

Hera and Athena bribed him, but Aphrodite cleverly tempted Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta.

Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite, stole Helen away from Sparta and thus caused the Trojan War.

In ancient Greece, to throw an apple at someone was to declare your love.

Catching the apple is to show your acceptance of that proferred love.

Also in Greek mythology, Atalanta raced all her suitors to avoid marriage, outrunning them all.

Hippomenes defeated her by cunning, not speed, by throwing three golden apples in her path causing Atalanta to become distracted.

Alexander the Great found dwarf apples in Kazakhstan in 328 BC, which he brought back to Macedonia.

Though the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden is not identified, Christian tradition says that it was an apple that Eve shared with Adam, as the Latin words maelum (an apple) and maalum (an evil) were often confused.

The larynx in the human throat has been called Adam´s apple, because the forbidden fruit was said to remain in the throat of Adam.

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There are more than 7,500 apple varieties, each with its own unique characteristics and uses.

Apples are cooked, eaten raw or used in the production of juice, vinegar, alcohol, oil and cider.

Apples provide humanity with toffee apples, caramel apples, honeyed Rosh Hashanah apples and dried apple slices.

Apples are said to reduce the risk of cancer, but have also been known to cause allergies or even toxic reactions in some people.

So, the proverb “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” might have some validity.

Worldwide production is over 80 million tonnes, with China accounting for 50% of the total.

Depending on the breed of apple, the apple tree shows its blossoms  sometime in May and is harvested sometime in Autumn before Daylight Savings Time.

Farmers must fight against pests and diseases attacking their orchards, the most common being mildew (grey powder appears on the plants), aphids (bugs that suck out the juice from the fruit causing it to weaken and wither) and scabs (fungus that turns the fruit brown, giving it a cork-like consistency).

As well, the farmer must also be wary of blight bacteria and black spot fungus, moths and maggots, mice and deer.

(Mickey and Bambi enjoy apple tree bark during the winter months.)

Nothing brings me more pleasure than seeing apples heavy on the branch, tempting me to taste their sweet essence.

The Altnauer Apfelweg is actually three paths that intersect with each other, called Lisi, Emma and Fredi.

Lisi the Red, 4 kilometres long, has 14 stations (signposts) that tell the reader about the intense labour required in apple production.

Emma the Green, 3 kilometres long, has 10 stations that speak of the types of apple the region produces.

Fredi the Yellow, 2 kilometres long, is meant to entertain.

All three apple trails done consecutively will take the walker about 4 1/2 hours to complete.

Altnau, despite its relative obscurity, has shops and restaurants and banks.

It can be reached by train (Schaffhausen – St. Gallen line), bus (Postbus Line 923 from Kreuzlingen), car (Highway 13) (parking at the harbour) or boat (in summer, the Bodenseeschiffe company).

The path has its own website (German language only): http://www.apfelweg.ch.

Arbon, Canton Thurgau, Spring 2016

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Arbon, about 20 km east of Altnau and still on the Swiss side of the Lake of Constance, is more interesting for the visitor.

The Altstadt (old quarter) is filled with medieval buildings and narrow streets.

The climate is mild year-round.

The Lake is popular for sailing and wind surfing and freezes in winter once per century.

The winds are warm and bring to Arbon heavy rainfall and electrical storms, but this has never daunted people from coming and settling here since the Stone Age.

Early man lived in stilt houses built upon the swampy shore.

The roaming Romans built fortifications here upon the hills overlooking the Lake, naming the place Arbor Felix (“happy tree”) and attracting the Emperor Gratian (b. 359, d. 383 / ruled 367 to 383) who resided here from 378 to 383.

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Whether it was the beauty of Arbon that influenced Gratian to favour Christianity over traditional Roman religion, history does not say.

In 610, Irish monks settled in Arbon, (among them St. Gallus, the future founder of the monastery of St. Gallen, died in Arbon in 627), naming their small Christian settlement Castrum.

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In 720, the Franks built fortifications on the site of present day Arbon Castle, naming the place Pago Arbonese.

Over time, Arbon became part of the territory of the Bishopric of Constance and continued to grow and expand, incorporating the surrounding towns into the parish of Arbon.

Arbon became famous for its linen production and agricultural trade.

In 1255 the town surrounded itself by city walls.

The crumbling fortress was rebuilt in 1334.

Arbon would suffer the ravages of two Great Fires that destroyed much of the old city, in 1390 and 1494, the latter Fire set by the disgruntled sons of a hanged thief.

When Canton Thurgau was conquered by the Swiss Confederation in 1460, the Bishops of Constance retained Arbon, but in the Swabian War of 1499, they lost the territory to the Swiss.

The Reformation reached Arbon in 1525 and by 1537 only a small minority of the population remained Catholic.

It wasn´t until 1712 that Canton Thurgau declared equality for the competing Christian faiths.

In 1798, Arbon was occupied by French troops, along with the rest of Switzerland, until the end of the French Revolution.

In the 19th century, Arbon developed into an economic and manufacturing centre due to the pioneering efforts of industrialist Franz Saurer who moved his foundry from St. Gallen to Arbon in 1863.

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Starting in 1888, the Saurer factory built all kinds of machinery and motors, producing trucks, buses and military vehicles.

At its high point, the factory employed 5,000 workers and Arbon´s population was over 10,000 residents at the turn of the century and was known as the biggest city in Canton Thurgau.

Today the Saurer factory produces only textile machinery.

The Saurer Museum in Arbon is well worth a visit and is extremely interesting for anyone who loves old machinery.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Arbon has has a large non-Swiss minority.

Tensions between ethnic groups led to riots with many fatalities in 1902.

Today at least 30% of the population are foreign nationals, though 85% of Arboners speak Swiss German.

Many of these foreign nationals are Kosovo Muslims.

10% of the population are Islamic, 40% are Catholics, 32% are Swiss Reformed.

In 1911, Arbon was the site of the International Socialist Congress.

For three decades (the 1920s to the 1950s) the Social Democratic majority held power in the city, leading to the nickname Red Arbon.

Unlike Altnau, Arbon has attracted many notable people who have resided here:

Besides the aforementioned St. Gallus and the Saurer dynasty begun by Franz Saurer (1806 – 1882), Arbon has been the birthplace and/or residence to bishops, writers, philosophers, explorers, politicians, actors, journalists, industrialists and athletes.

Three persons really merit attention…

Alfred Kaiser (1862 – 1930) (also known as Alain el-Mahdi) was a Swiss Sinai Peninsula and Africa explorer.

Max Daetwyler (1886 – 1976) was a Swiss radical pacifist and conscientious objector against both World Wars.

The 11th child of 12 children of an Arbon hotelier, Max, after an apprenticeship in Wattwil, would work as a sommelier in Rome, Paris and London, and later as a hotel manager in Berne.

At age 27, with the call to mobilization in 1914, Max protested against the Great War and was as a result forced to undergo psychiatric internment for his beliefs in the commune of Zumikon.

Upon his release the following year, Max created the Army of Peace (Friedensarmee) to demand an end to hostilities.

On 15 November 1917, he helped organise a protest against the War, rallying the workers of two munitions factories in Zürich to go on strike.

He was again arrested and again interred in a psychiatric clinic.

Released in 1918, he married and raised a daughter and a son and maintained a farm producing chickens, vegetables, flowers and bees, but he never stopped advocating pacifism his entire life and could be found everywhere anti-war demonstrations were held: Geneva, Paris, East Berlin, West Berlin, Moscow, Washington, Havana, Cairo, Jerusalem…

He became known as “the apostle of the white flag” and would use the example set by Gandhi in his advocacy of pacifist change.

Felix Baumgartner, born in Salzburg, Austria, and resident in Arbon, is made of different stuff…

Felix is best known for jumping to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere, setting world records for skydiving height and speed.

Felix was the first person to break the sound barrier without a vehicle, has the world record for the highest parachute jump from a building, was the first person to skydive across the English Channel, has the world record for the lowest BASE jump (from Rio´s Christ the Redeemer statue), was the first person to BASE jump the Millau Viaduct, the Malmö Turning Torso building and the Taipei 101 building.

Viaduc de Millau

Turning Torso

Taipeh 101 (englisch Taipei 101)

And this isn´t the controversial part of his story…

In 2012, Felix was asked in an interview with the Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung whether a political career was an option for his future, he responded by saying that the “example of Arnold Schwarzenegger showed that “you can´t move anything in a democracy” and that he would opt for a “moderate dictatorship led by experienced personalities coming from the private sector of the economy“, though he himself “didn´t want to get involved in politics”!

One month after the interview, Felix was convicted of battery after punching a Greek truck driver in the face.

(Donald Trump would love this guy!)

My wife Ute knows that, if left undisturbed, I might remain at home during my leisure time and not experience the natural wonders of the area we are fortunate enough to reside in.

Knowing my passion for hiking, she searches each Sunday´s NZZ (Neue Züricher Zeitung) newspaper for new hiking ideas that we both might enjoy.

She found, and we walked, the Apfelblüten Paradies Weg (the apple blossom paradise trail) that is a circular walk of 13 km distance / 3 1/2 hours’ duration starting and ending in Arbon, through Burkartsuelishaus, Fetzisloh and Wiedehorn, and best enjoyed from mid-April to mid-May.

Though it is not an official path nor a teaching way, this trail offers delight at every turn.

Apple trees covered in white and pink fragrant blossoms with a view above the Lake of Constance (Bodensee) is well worth the effort.

(Check out http://www.thurgau-bodensee.ch/bluescht for more details, in German only.)

Arbon, like Altnau, is accessible by boat, car, Postbus and train.

And Arbon itself is known not only for the Saurer Museum, but as well as for the Bleiche (a prehistoric lakeshore settlement), Arbon Castle and Historical Museum, the ruins of the Roman fortifications and a beautiful harbour setting. (http://www.arbon.ch)

Das Saurer Museum zeigt die Geschichte dieser einst weltbekannten Firma, die schwere Nutzfahrzeuge, ...

Im mittelalterlichen Schloss Arbon befindet sich das grösste lokal- und regionalhistorische Museum im Thurgau

Weinfelden, Canton Thurgau, Switzerland, 29 October 2016

Blick Richtung Ottenberg

I admit it.

I may have pre-judged the place when I wrote about Weinfelden in the past.

(See No-smile zones of this blog.)

I did this for Weinfelden was always associated in my mind with work.

I had worked in Weinfelden for two schools and neither school sent me students I enjoyed.

They cancelled classes and courses without notice.

Work and payment that should have been accomplished weren´t.

And I felt generally those folks I met who served the public, either in restaurants or stores, were unfriendly at best and impolite at worst.

Trust my wife to offer me a different perspective on the place…

For much of 2016, I have spent the majority of my weekends working for Starbucks, so when I injured my shoulder mid-month and was told that manual two-armed work was denied me until the 8th of November, Ute found that she was no longer neglected for three weekends.

Ute spends a lot of time working as a doctor, both in Münsterlingen and in Zürich, and as a result spends a lot of time indoors.

So a sunny day when both of us aren´t working…

Well, this was an opportunity that shouldn´t be wasted, despite my arm in a sling.

Ute turned, once again, to the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper for ideas.

Weinfelden, some 20km from where I reside, lies in the centre of Canton Thurgau.

It is an old town, already existing in 124 AD where the Romans had built a bridge over the Thur River and named the settlement Quivelda (“wine fields”).

Weinfelden is the biggest town in Canton Thurgau, mostly known throughout Switzerland for its hockey team, HC Thurgau, which plays in the Swiss National League B.

Sadly, there seems, at first glance, little reason to linger after the hockey game, for once Bachtobel Castle with its wine press has been visited, sins forgiven in the Catholic or Reformed churches, the Thomas Bornhauser fountain and the Pestalozzi secondary school seen, the hanging bridge over the Thur River crossed and a movie watched at the Liberty Cinema, the temptation to abandon the town and take a train away from the station is strong.

Weinfelden´s claims to fame are its demands for freedom.

In 1798, Paul Reinhart and his committee led Thurgau to thirst for liberty from the domination of the Swiss Confederation.

In 1803, Thurgau became an independent Canton, through the later mediation of Napoleon, with Frauenfeld as its capital.

In 1830, Thomas Bornhauser spoke to a large crowd in Weinfelden, demanding a liberal constitution, a first in Switzerland.

Portraits of both Reinhart and Bornhauser hang in the Rathaus (town hall).

Weinfelden has been home to priests and publishers, composers and politicians, mathematicians and moderators and writers.

Its two most famous sons are:

Heinz Rutishauser (1918 – 1970) was a Swiss mathematician and a pioneer of modern numerical mathematics and computer science, developing the first Swiss computer, the ERMETH, and programming languages like Superplan and ALGOL.

Peter Stamm (b. 1963) is a Swiss writer who grew up in Weinfelden.

Peter studied in Zürich and lived in New York, Paris and Scandinavia.

He has written articles for many magazines and newspapers as well as novels, radio dramas and plays.

He is known for his cool and sparse writing style and several of his works have been translated into English, including Seven Years, Agnes, Unformed Landscape, On a Day like This and In Strange Gardens and Other Stories.

Weinfelden (German for “fields of wine”) has a Weinweg (a wine trail) that leads the hiker from the Bahnhof (train station) in Weinfelden, through town to the Gasthaus zur Rebe (guesthouse / inn of the grape), up to Thurberg and Weinberg (Thur mountain / Wine mountain) and back via the hamlet of Boltshausen to Weinfelden station.

To start upon this path first requires a visit to the Kiosk store at the station where one purchases a CHF20 kit containing a wine glass, two disposible cups, hard bread, a rain poncho, a carry bag, a trail map, and, most importantly, a security code (valid for 8 days only) to a fridge/wine cellar found a 1/3 of the way from the start.

Like Altnau´s Apfelweg, Weinfelden´s Weinweg (www.weinweg-weinfelden.ch) is a teaching trail with signposted stations that educate the hiker as to how wine is produced, how a vineyard is maintained, the many types of wine and what makes Canton Thurgau wine special.

Sommervogel beim herbstlichen Sonnenbad in den Reben. (Bild: aky.)

Ten wine producers of the area are represented: Schlossgut Bachtobel, Weingut Bosch, Broger Weinbau, Büchi Hofgut, Weingut Burkhart, Weingut Familie Forster, Weinbau Markus Held, Rebgut Sunnehalde, Weingut Wolfer and Zahnd Weine.

Dean Martin, that little ol´wine drinker he, would have loved the fridge with 24 bottles of wine just waiting to be sampled.

I am not certain after the half hour spent trying all the wine we could whether our walking improved or worsened, but I do know we found we didn´t care anymore about it!

Grapes hung heavy on their vines, apples shone from tree branches, sheep cavorted and fellow hikers smiled.

For an uncivilised beer swilling barbarian such as myself, there is much to be learned about wine – the fermentation process; a wine´s special characteristics as defined by geography, geology, climate, viticultural methods and plant genetics; the plants other than grapes that wine can be created from; a history as fascinating as that of the apple; its religious significance; its health effects; the professions that viticulture has created; vintages and classifications; the many uses and methods used in the selling, tasting and consumption of wine.

Red and white wine 12-2015.jpg

Switzerland does not usually bring to mind fine wine, and, in fact,the Swiss are more renowned for their consumption of wine rather than its production.

(The Swiss rank #5 for wine consumption per year, drinking over 5 litres of wine per capita on a regular basis.)

Swiss wine is produced from nearly 15,000 hectares of vineyards and mainly produced in the west and south of Switzerland.

Much like their money, the Swiss don´t like to share the wine they produce.

Less than 2% of the over 1.1 million litres of wine produced is exported, and of the wine the Swiss consume more than 2/3 is imported.

And this is somewhat surprising for the tradition of wine and viticulture in Switzerland is very old, dating back to the Celtic and Roman eras.

As early as 150 BC, the Celts in the Valais region offered wine to their dead then drank the wine themselves.

Swiss wines are labelled to show their geographic origins and most viticulture is done in the Vaud, Valais, Neuchatel and Ticino regions.

The two most common grape varieties in Switzerland are the red Pinot noir and the white Chasselas, but more than 90 grape varieties are cultivated in areas of 1 hectare or larger.

Visitors to Canton Thurgau are often surprised that vineyards are found here and they really shouldn´t be, for the mild climate, the slate and moraine soil, the regular rainfall and the mentality of its hard-working inhabitants make Canton Thurgau a fine location for viniculture.

Map of Switzerland, location of Thurgau highlighted

Granted that the vines may be exposed to frost at times and that the climate north of the Alps does not permit vines that ripen late in the year, still one can find many wine cellars, viniculture cooperatives and wine growers in this region.

After all this discussion of apples and wine, you might be thinking that it isn´t necessary to walk the aforementioned trails as I have already shared so much information.

And this would be a shame, for walking these trails lends to the hiker a unique sense of communion with both society as well as nature.

There is something elemental needing to be discovered about seeing how what we eat is actually produced.

There is little sense of the hard work and loving attention required to bring produce from the fields to the supermarket when one has only seen the end products stacked on store shelves.

Roving through orchards and between row upon row of hanging vines makes one marvel at the abundance man convinces Nature to provide.

We are not removed from civilisation or Nature by strolling through farmland, but rather we become part and parcel of both.

And for those who feel they need a reason to walk beyond the physical health benefits, one could consider these walks as tiny adventures of discovery.

The Swiss, for all their greed, have understood that no wealth can buy or equal the benefits of leisure, freedom and independence that a walk in the country or in the wilderness can provide and thus the Swiss have transvered the nation with countless numbers of trails across their beautiful landscape.

Teaching trails like Altnau´s Apfelweg and Weinfelden´s Weinweg provide the fodder for the hiker to ruminate and marvel as he/she walks and ponders on the interconnectiveness of man with nature and the immensity of Time itself.

For not only do farms communicate the ancient stability that cultivation creates civilisation, but as well viewing the changes that the seasons manifest upon nature lends the hiker a sense of the wondrous circle of Life.

Spring with its blossoms and new birth, summer with its toil and warmth, autumn with its harvest and winter with its rest are also reflections of the stages of Life we mere mortals also experience.

And it is this experience that no electronic words can adequately express.

As the winds stir one´s blood and the sun warms one´s soul, any walk away from the roads and the shops and the offices will carry the pedestrian to a new prospect and a great happiness – a harmony between the landscape within and the landscape without.

A trail teaches, whether with or lacking signposts, that Life is a tapestry best savoured slowly and we are all patterns within that tapestry.

Welcome.

Sources: Wikipedia, Thurgau Tourism.Smiley.svg