Sunday, August 2, 2020

From ‘Land of the Midnight Sun. My Arctic Adventures’ by Alexander Armstrong



The Lofoten Islands themselves are famous for many things, chiefly their beauty. You’ll never find a more pleasing rugged-coastline-and-soaring-mountains combination……..the celebrated Lofoten fish. The islands are a kind of lush Eden for the codfish ……..every year the world’s largest cod shoal (indeed the planet’s only growing cod stock) drops by for the famous ‘skrei’ season. By virtue of the happy confluence of the Gulf Stream and inch-perfect submarine direction-finding, each February millions of these wonderful fish swim here all the way from the Barents Sea, over a thousand kilometres away……thanks to the Norwegians’ innate knack for practical forward thinking, they have never fished the things to extinction – au contraire, they have caught them through patient line fishing, always being particularly strict on themselves to respect their quotas, never taking more than is sustainable.
The way the shoal has grown and grown over the centuries remains an exquisite if rare example of man and nature living in per-fect har-mo-nee.

Driving in the Arctic……..is a good deal less perilous than you might expect. Yes, the road surface is invariably compacted snow and ice, but all the tyres are fitted with studs and this makes an astonishing difference

Strangely, even as you drive through the most mountaineous passes of Northern Norway, the radio signal stays remarkably constant…….I find that eerily impressive.

Narvik is the northernmost port in Norway – and famously the only deep-sea port in the Scandinavian Arctic to remain ice free throughout the year. This distinction has made Narvik strategically vital to the Norwegians …….as it means that the colossal iron-ore extraction just over the border at Kiruna in Sweden can be shipped from there all year round. Such useful attributes can come at a terrible price, though. Poor Narvik was the scene of vicious fighting in 1940 as Hitler went all out to bring Norway to heel…….the old town was completely destroyed by a series of battles that raged between April and June that year.
We travel by train along the iron-ore line over the Swedish border to Kiruna. This is said to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world

Kiruna……is on the site of an ancient Sami settlement, but the modern town wasn’t founded till 1900. The Samis are the indigenous people of that area of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula of Russia ………The Samis, who’ve been living in this region semi-nomadically for over twelve thousand years …….have been bullied terribly one way or the other by the dominant cultures of mainland Europe over the centuries, suffering the worst kinds of ethnic cleansing right up to the middle of the twentieth century…….At the first sniff of heavy industry and its riches the Samis seem to get shunted fairly unceremoniously to one side……..iron ore has been dug out of what is now called Kiruna since the seventeenth century…….It was only when the railway came along in 1903 that the output rose to anything like its current levels and the town expanded vastly. The Kiruna mine produces over 26 million tonnes of iron ore a year, which is exported all over the world……..To put that in context, the annual iron-ore output of the US is 47.5 million tonnes……..

Polar bear training is mandatory for anyone visiting Svalbard and involves a lesson in rifle shooting…….Its a sobering fact that on Svalbard all front doors have to remain unlocked so that people fleeing polar bears can run in and take shelter. That’s how often people run from polar bears, and presumably how a great many Svalbardian romances start……..One thing you see an awful lot of in the Arctic is stuffed polar bears…….

….Norway ….I have fallen heads over heels in love with it. The countryside is so heartbreakingly beautiful……Best of all, though, are the people…… I have come across such humanity and decency in Norway, such intelligence, such advanced social ideas (I haven’t even touched on their revolutionary penal system, which has all but eliminated reoffending), such entrenched contentedness and warmth. It turns out its not an act at all, they’re just wonderful, wonderful people.

Norway poses for photographs from the minute you arrive……..The tiny little bit of Iceland we’ve seen so far doesn’t seem to do this so much, or at least not in February…..

In Norway and Sweden they are aware of – and celebrate – their Viking past but it seems to survive more as a sort of colourful historic sideshow…..Iceland’s Viking heritage, on the other hand, is a chapter that hasn’t closed – they are still Vikings – its all around you all the time….its culture is proudly held up as the origin of all Icelandic life, its politics, even its religion. Until fifteen years ago, when outsiders started coming here to live and work, every single person on the island knew exactly what their Viking origins were, which branch of which clan they belonged to.

Its not just the people who are still Vikings – every species on the island seems to have some sort of Viking pedigree….Apparently there are also Viking sheep.

Ilulissat – formerly Jacobshaven – is a small town of just under 5,000 people (which still makes it the ‘third-largest city’ in Greenland)…..

He seems to have that thing that people on second marriages often have of being very careful to be fair and even-tempered at all times…….

You have got to say this for Fairbanks; five minutes out of town and you’re in some of the finest and most majestic scenery on earth.


Saturday, April 11, 2020

From ‘To the Baltic with Bob’ by Griff Rhys Jones



[on a boat] Sometimes, the fainter light was closer than the brighter. Sometimes a small and distant light would suddenly rush upon you and pass close by, the light itself rocking on what was now a black cone, speeding by a few yards away and back into the night. Sometimes the light that had begun to worry you, seemingly hovering aboard an obstacle and about to collide, gradually resolved itself into a star, millions of miles away and hanging low in the sky.
So at night, on a boat, you stare. You stare ahead, opening your eyelids wider, frowning hard……….peering into the black. After a while, your forehead hurts and your eyeballs ache and the back of your neck goes tense. And, you remember the chilling fact that a large boat can charge up from its hidden place on the other side of the horizon to be on top of you in seven minutes.

The Kiel Canal was built in the nineteenth century for strategic reasons. Germany wanted to be able to get her battleships into the Baltic. It was designed for, and still took, big ships, but of course the canal was largely redundant now. Real big ships were too big for it in the modern world. In fact real big ships could no longer enter the Baltic at all. The waters of the Kattegat were too shallow for ocean-going bulk carriers to pass through the Danish entrance and the canal was now far too small.

‘Why do you think, Griff, that I drive that battered old thing?’…………’Here, in Denmark, I could not be seen driving in a top-of-the-range Porsche or Ferrari, even though I could easily afford one. Danish people don’t like anybody to show off.’ ………The Danes do have an enormous social conscience and they pay massive taxes to support it. It is part of the fabric of their society. After the Napoleonic Wars, when they backed the wrong side and were mercilessly punished, losing Norway, bombed by Congreve rockets and shot to pieces by Admiral Nelson the Danes became a small nation and the conscience of Europe. …….Danes are very proud of their tolerant history……Hence the flags, and the patriotism. …..Spare, modern, practical and uncomfortable, that was Danish: nothing frilly or ornamental, please.

Danes are immensely proud of Denmark. This is because they are the most sophisticated of the Baltic nations. I was told this not only by the Danish, but also in Estonia, Sweden and Finland, without a trace of irony. Nobody said, ‘They think they’re the most sophisticated’, as we British might about the French. It was taken as a matter of course. Denmark looked south. A Finnish sound engineer solemnly told me that the Danish had much more in common with Italy than the Arctic circle. ‘They even drink more espresso coffee.’

At the beginning of the last millennium, the woods and bogs of Pomerania cut off the wilderness of Estonia and Latvia. There was no settled government up there. The fjords and bays were populated by individual pagan tribes. Russian hunters had come out of the east, via Byzantium, working their way to Novgorod. The Vikings came from the west by boat. Close behind them, the Teutonic Knights roved up from the south. These particular, ruthless crusaders helped establish trading posts, and a dominant class of expatriate merchants to rule them, but outside their walls it remained every man for himself. It was a lawless wild west of northern Europe. The Russians, the Germans and the Swedes have fought for control of the area ever since. Estonia and Latvia achieved their independence only in 1991.

The history of Russian involvement with the Baltic is the history of Russia’s urge to move west, to become European. St Petersburg was built by Peter the Great to modernize his country, to leave the exotic, Boyar Moscow behind, in the past…… But it only ever became an outpost. The real Russia stretched away across the steppes to the edge of Japan.

In the eighteenth century foreign visitors were struck by Russian stoicism. St Petersburg was a city of appalling disease and grinding poverty. Sixty out of every 1,000 people were expected to die every year, because they lived on top of a festering cesspit. Crime was inevitable and punishments were draconian. Things got considerably worse in the nineteenth century. Dostoyevsky himself was thrown into the dungeons on the island …………He was kept in solitary confinement in a cell that regularly flooded with the sewage-laden waters of the Neva.
Executions were so commonplace that the people on one side of the town could hardly be bothered with the beheadings taking place on the other. The visitor from London, used to high levels of public interest in this sort of thing, put it down to the Russian ability to absorb suffering. And, by any account, St Petersburg has been a city of suffering.

We were passing through by far the most exquisite scenery we had yet seen on the journey…….The southern coast of Finland, the northern coast of the Gulf, was dotted with over 80,000 islands. And every one was beautiful.
The border had moved back and forth along this fragmented shore many times in the last 1,000 years. The Swedes had been beaten back home by Peter the Great. For 300 years Finland had been part of Russia…..Russia had only let go of this wonderland, where the tsar had yachted, in 1917, where the Finns negotiated their independence with Lenin.

Finland’s entire history, like that of so many of the small countries of the area, had been driven by a wholly justified fear of its neighbours. The disputes, the civil wars, the blood-letting, even the internal political geography were caused by the aggressive policies of Russia, Germany and, before them, Sweden.

He [said] ….. ‘The Danes look down on the Swedes, who look down on the Finns, and the Finns look down on the Estonians, and the Estonians look down on the Latvians. And the Lithuanians, I’m afraid, are right at the bottom.’
And everybody still feared the Russians, if not for their military intentions, then most certainly for their criminal intentions ………..[gangs coming over]


Monday, March 9, 2020

From ‘How to Ikigai. The ancient Japanese secret. Lessons for finding happiness and living your life's purpose’ by Tim Tamashiro



“I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder.”
-          Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Ikigai map has four simple directions to follow:
1.      Do what you love
2.      Do what you’re good at
3.      Do what the world needs
4.      Do what you can be rewarded for

……iki translates to life, gai means worth. Ikigai = life’s worth.

Dr.Santos demonstrates that studies show you can improve your well-being through regular efforts at eight things
1.      Acts of kindness
2.      Exercise
3.      Social connection
4.      Meditation
5.      Time affluence
6.      Good sleep
7.      Gratitude
8.      Goalsetting

“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

Kara means empty + te means hand. So karate ……translates to empty hand.

…..Angela Duckworth…… “grit is about having a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do.”

Start with a list of the things that you love to do and what you’re good at. Take action to do something from your list each day.

Your true Ikigai is something that you would do for free if you were given the chance.

Start a list of things that you’re good at……..Look for a thread that connects your strengths.


Thursday, January 16, 2020

From ‘Love and War in the Apennines’ by Eric Newby



It was very difficult to get out of a prison camp in Italy. Italian soldiers might be figures of fun to us, but some of them were extraordinarily observant and very suspicious and far better at guarding prisoners than the Germans were. It was also very difficult to travel in Italy if you did get out. The Italians were fascinated by minutiae of dress and the behavior of their fellow men, and the ingenious subterfuges and disguises which escaping prisoners of war habitually resorted to and which were enough to take in the Germans …………were hardly ever sufficiently genuine-looking to fool even the most myopic Italian ticket collector and get the owner past the barrier, let alone survive the scrutiny of the occupants of a compartment on an Italian train……unless he was a professional actor or spoke fluent Italian. And in Italy, before the Armistice, there were no members of the Resistance or railway employees of the Left, as there were in France, to help escaping prisoners out of the country along an organized route.


Wednesday, January 1, 2020

From ‘Perhaps Tomorrow. The Memoir of a Sri Lankan housemaid in the Middle East’ by Pooranam Elayathamby with Richard Anderson



Egyptians were known to be especially cheap when it came to paying for services. How many Sri Lankan housemaids before me had spent months doing arduous work in the Gulf States only to return home empty-handed.

As the days wore on, I asked if I could have some time off to look about the neighbourhood and city……….. “I really wouldn’t mind going by myself”……… “I don’t think you understand your contract. You work for me. You can only leave the home with either Sayed or me. You’re here to work. You’re not here in Kuwait to be a tourist. This is why we keep the door locked. If you want to contact any of your family, you can write letters, and I will post them.”
I was shocked. What kind of country was this? No one had said anything about this kind of treatment. Who would know if anything should happen to me? ……..Several weeks of retrictions made my time in the house very monotonous.

I also noticed that very few of the clerks and general market help were Kuwaitis – most were Egyptians, Iranian, Bangladeshi or Indian. The men who collected the money or attended the sales were usually Lebanese or Palestinians.

Unlike Kuwaitis, Saudi men tended to show far greater respect to women.

As Saudi Arabia is primarily a Sunni nation, the abaya is the preferred covering that most women choose. Hannan further explained to me that women who favored western dress and did not cover were frequently insulted by nasty sexual comments or sometimes even assaulted.    

Except for recent generations, Kuwaiti are primarily the descendants of Iraqis, Iranians, and Saudis, as people from these countries were the firsts to occupy this area of western Iraq.

For the most part, it was largely the Bedouins in Saudi Arabia who gave from their hearts to help people in need. Their life in the desert had made them that way, and it was a wonderful thing. Recent generations of Bedouins liked to trumpet this stereotype, but for them it was largely a myth.

Arabs abhor manual labor, and with the new constitution guaranteeing every Kuwaiti a government job, there is virtually no incentive for anyone to accept a menial job until a middle management position opens in some ministry, agency, or local bureaucracy. However, there are many Kuwaitis who do own private companies, but most manage to start them through deals with foreign corporations that are required to turn over majority ownership of their local business operations to them. An enterprising Kuwaiti who starts and builds a business totally on his or her own is a rare exception.

People from northern India invariably looked down their noses on Tamils from South India as well as on Indians from places such as Hyderabad, Kerala and Goa.

An occasional policeman would notice me and ask to see my bataka, but it was largely a ruse as he, like many others, just wanted to flirt with me. The Kuwaiti policeman seemed to take a great interest in a woman’s appearance, but unlike foreign workers who just made catcalls or whistled, they were somewhat constrained as they were in uniform, so they would use a ploy of gratuitous ID checking just to meet girls ………It was all just part of the routine for foreign women working in Kuwait.


From ‘Bullets and Bylines. From the frontlines of Kabul, Delhi, Damascus and beyond’ by Shyam Bhatia



…..Indira Gandhi ……..Select journalists had been invited to see the body and pay their respects…….Rajiv Gandhi …..was standing by the body………I brazenly asked if he knew about the revenge attacks that had resulted in the deaths of so many innocent Sikhs. He replied, ‘What can I do? My mother’s been killed.’……..Later that day – too late – he did order a crackdown on the rioters.

[after American invasion of Iraq] ……Gradually, the mob started to melt away. One or two men ……..wanted to talk more. ………one of the men ……..suddenly shouted alour…. ‘……..you’re Indian.’ Unsure about what this implied, I muttered something noncommittal………But there was no need to be concerned, as far as the Iraqis were concerned, this newly discovered India link was a cause for celebration.
‘I’m sorry if we frightened you,’ said the man who was questioning me. ‘My people are in love with India.’ …..more Iraqis gathered next to me and extolled the virtues of Bollywood. One ……said, ‘I love Indian films and Indian actors, especially Rajesh Khanna.’ Another asked, ‘Have you seen Amitabh Bachchan in Muqaddar ka Sikandar?’ He went on…….. But tell Amitabh all Iraqis love him.’
To my utter, open-mouthed astonishment another older man with a red bandana tied …………started talking about the 1964 classic Sangam, directed by Raj Kapoor……

………..in many key countries like Afghanistan and Iran, it was my Indian core that proved priceless. I will never forget the experience of arguing with Iranian guards along the border with Azerebaijan, who arrested me as a suspicious character……..they softened when I started talking about my Indian childhood and memories of watching Bollywood films.
What saved me was the desperate singing of a famous Raj Kapoor song remembered from my Doon School days. ‘Mera joota hai Japani, yeh patloon Inglistani, sar par laal topi Roosi ….phir bhi dil hai hindustani’……….As I came to the end of this impromptu, amateur concert, the previously sullen and aggressive armed men around me were transformed. It turned out they were all fans of the Indian film industry who laughed and clapped, returned my passport and treated me to copious amounts of cream, honey, naan bread and distinctly illicit and secretly brewed un-Islamic local vodka.


From ‘We are All Stardust. Scientists who shaped our world talk about their work, their lives, and what they still want to know’ - Conversations with Stefan Klein



Neuroscientist V.S.Ramachandran on consciousness

……at that time a man had appeared in my lab with a huge bejeweled cross and told me about his conversations with God. He said he had understood the true meaning of the cosmos.

A madman?

No, not in the least. Based on previous work by Norm Geschwind, we conjectured that a region in this man’s temporal lobes, a cerebral center behind the ears, was much more active than normal. That’s often true of epileptics. His religious experiences might have to do with this heightened activity.

…………
Those effects have actually been known for a long time. People who suffer from overactive temporal lobes – for example, during an epileptic seizure – report mystical experiences. Some neurologists have even attempted to explain famous experiences of religious revelation, such as those of Saint Paul and Saint Teresa, as cases of temporal epilepsy.


Molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn on aging

………ciliates…….single-celled organisms…….They can reproduce asexually by simply doubling themselves……..Ciliates are immortala…..can divide endlessly, perpetually beginning a new life.

………..telomerase. it helps form a sort of protective sheath on the chromosome – the telomere, to which ciliates owe their endless life.

As we age, more and more cells die off without replacement. As a result, our bodily functions deteriorate. But humans have telomerase too. ….scientists found that in families with members who don’t produce enough telomerase due to genetic disease, those members suffer unusually early from age-related afflictions. This proved that telomerase delays aging for us as well.

…….we’ve witnessed a tsunami of insights on the connection between aging, diseases and telomere length.

What determines how well our cells regenerate?

The circumstances of life play an important role – especially chronic stress. ……The greater the number of terrible experiences they had to cope with, the more their telomeres had shortened on average.

As if each blow of fate cut off some of the thread of life.

Stress early in life seems to leave particularly deep traces in the nucleus. These results make one thing quite clear: how critical it is to protect our children. There are people, however, who can get over even great hardship amazingly well.

Apparently, how long we live is also hereditary.

……….To live to 120 is clearly permitted by the current gene pool of our species.

…….The three big killers of the elderly, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, clearly are influenced by the state of our telomeres.

……..Telomere length by itself predicts a particular life expectancy only in statistical terms……..It is the combination of many factors that matters.

…….I’ve tried to exercise thirty minutes a day. That’s the only magic bullet against physical decline that I accept. The evidence for it is compelling.

……..Not even an expert can tell the difference between the organs of a young turtle and those of a hundred-year-old turtle.

Apparently, those amphibians have extremely efficient repair mechanisms………..an animal can either reproduce mainly in its younger years, as we do, in which case a longer life offers no biological advantage, or it can produce offspring until it dies, as the turtle does, in which case each year is a gain. However, it costs the organism a lot of energy to constantly stave off decline.


Physician and social scientist Nicholas Christakis on human relationships

……Every culture is rooted in a social network in which people reinforce one another’s attitudes.


Biochemist Craig Venter on the human genome

I have two copies of very fast metabolizing genes, and so I can drink lots of coffee and it has no impact. People who have slow metabolism or even medium metabolism for caffeine have a greatly increased risk of heart arrhythmias or heart attack if they have multiple cups of coffee, so it helps explain all the confusing information in the scientific literature about caffeine’s being good or bad for you. It totally depends on your metabolism.


Neuropharmacologist Walter Ziegigansberger on pain

The truly bad pain is the agony that begins very gradually – the slight ache in the back that gets more and more intense and over the years comes to define a whole life.

Sensitivity to pain is hereditary. And there are even people who are, as a result of their genetic endowment, completely insensitive to pain. Gender also plays a role. Most women are more sensitive to pain than men. That has to do with the female nervous system. Red-haired women, however, have an advantage. They have a genetic variant that makes them particularly responsive to certain opioids.

Whether the painkiller comes from outside or inside ultimately doesn’t matter. With techniques like meditation and yoga, you can induce the brain to use its own substances.


What actually causes the perception of pain?

Almost everywhere on your body, there are sensors known as nociceptors, which respond to heat, intense pressure, or chemical stimuli. When you’re injured somewhere, the nociceptors send a signal to the spinal cord, where something important happens: The pain signal takes precedence over all other messages from your body. In addition, the information is divided. One channel leads into areas of the cerebrum that localize the injury. Other impulses enter the deeper brain regions and trigger the unpleasant sensations.


You once asserted that dangerous pain isn’t intense, but faint.

The body is prepared for an acute injury. Opioids are released; in the worst case scenario, you pass out. But a nagging, recurring back pain, say, always slight, slight …..it can drive people to despair. All day long you’re focusing on whether its coming back. Gradually you get anxious. And then something fatal happens, You become more and more sensitive to the pain, because your nervous system is beginning to change. When the neurons are stimulated again and again, they amplify the incoming signals more and more. That’s how the brain learns – through repetition. In this case, it unfortunately learns pain. In that way, the initially slight sensation becomes stronger and stronger. In the end, the pain defines your whole life.


…….to doctors who cause anxiety. Because they don’t know for sure, they make diagnoses like: “Well, your back, its not the strongest. Even if you don’t have any serious problems now, you probably will in twenty years.” Out of fear, patients begin to pay attention to every little ache in their back. In that way, they program themselves for pain. And because they believe they have to go easy on their bodies, their muscles weaken and tense up all the more at the next opportunity.

There’s even a name for that process: iatrogenic, which refers to an adverse condition caused by a doctor.

……….We doctors should at least watch what we say – especially when we’re actually looking at healthy people. Language is the sharpest of all swords.



Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy on motherhood

Because women by nature have a slightly lower threshold for responding to a baby’s cries than men do. Even if both parents have the best intentions, she will get there before him to comfort the baby. Thus the baby becomes more attached to the mother than the father. In that way, a slight genetic difference between the sexes in the threshold of responding to infant cries develops into a great asymmetry.