Friday, November 20, 2015

Review: Trees on Mars

Published 14 November 2015 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future
By Hal Niedzviecki
Seven Stories Press, 320 pages, $19

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

There's a scene in the 1986 film Half Moon Street in which a banker at a dinner party says the world isn't billions of people, but only a few thousand; there are smatterings of individuals in the globe's major cities who matter, he's saying, and all the rest of us don't.

Early chapters of Toronto writer Hal Niedzviecki's thought-provoking fourth non-fiction book (he's also a novelist) bring that scene to mind as he describes how lucrative "challenges" and competitions sponsored by the ultra-rich incentivize tech geniuses to come up with ways to improve civilization with forward leaps in innovation.

That competition approach is supplemented by high schools, colleges and universities with corporate-sponsored programs designed to, in Niedzviecki's words, "prepare students to get to the future first." By which he means anticipating or "knowing" what comes next and developing the right innovations to make the most of the future.

It's an elitist outlook. Like the pompous man in the movie, proponents of this perspective think only a small percentage of humanity (the very wealthy and the very smart) matters and the rest of us are relying on them.

Niedzviecki contends the way we think of the future has changed in two key ways: We now think we can control it, and there seems to be a consensus we must compete with each other to "own" it. This is "a vast systemic shift in our consciousness," he says.

The elite-centred drive to own or "win the future" is all about competition, profit, private greed and individualism. There's not much talk of community or the masses, except as a market for future-conquering innovations.

It wasn't always so, Niedzviecki points out. Getting to the moon was presented as something for all of America in the 1960s. The world's fairs were showcases of technology with the promise of making everybody's life better.

Now the future is a source of anxiety. Youth feel pressure to be among the winners, because life for the losers won't be easy.

Anxiety about "owning the future" comes through when Niedzviecki meets with nine recent university graduates in Toronto. He asks them to jot down a few words on "what you think about when you think about the future," and the group mostly responds with expressions of "their present-day yearning for jobs, stability, a clear path." They don't declare bold dreams of a better world for humanity; they want economic security for themselves and worry they'll not see it for a long while, if ever.

Whether the owning-the-future ideology really is as pervasive and influential as he says is open to debate, but Niedzviecki makes a convincing case it is ultimately toxic.

He also entertains the reader along the way with accounts of visits to academic institutions and tech conferences, not to mention interviews with interesting people such as an Alberta woman who aspires to be among the first Earthlings to live on Mars.

When Trees on Mars is not causing you to worry a little about where society is headed, it is a fun ride. It makes you look forward to what its inquisitive author will produce in the future.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Review: Operation Nemesis

Published 27 June 2015 in the Winnipeg Free Press:
Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide
By Eric Bogosian
Little, Brown and Company, 376 pages, $31

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

A sensational murder trial in Germany is at the core of this provocative work of popular history.

On a Berlin street in March 1921, Soghoman Tehlirian killed Mehmet Talat Pasha by shooting the exiled Turkish statesman in the back of the head. There were plenty of witnesses, and Tehlirian freely admitted to the homicide, but a jury acquitted him after a short trial.

The jury sympathized with the 25-year-old defendant, who said he was avenging the 1915 massacre of his parents, siblings and countless other Armenians at the hands of Turkish nationalists led by the man he shot.

What the jury -- indeed, the world -- didn't know at the time was that the slaying of Talat Pasha was part of an international conspiracy to assassinate those behind what would eventually be known as the Armenian genocide of 1915-1916.

Operation Nemesis is the first non-fiction book for Eric Bogosian, an Armenian-American writer and actor best known as the star of the Oliver Stone film Talk Radio (based on a play Bogosian wrote) or as Capt. Ross in a few seasons of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. He set out to write a screenplay about Tehlirian, but instead has produced this moving examination of crimes against humanity and vigilante justice.

The tome has three parts. In Part I, Bogosian traces Turkish-Armenian relations back to early Christianity and explains key events leading up to the "ethnic cleansing" of Christian Armenians by Muslim Turks in the Ottoman Empire when the First World War was young.

The second section is about Tehlirian and the Nemesis conspiracy, named after the Greek goddess of retribution.

Bogosian's skills as a storyteller come out in these middle chapters. Tehlirian is a fleshed-out, three-dimensional character here, an introspective young man so tortured by what might be termed "survivor's guilt" that he is perplexed and disappointed by the cheerfulness of Nemesis teammates in Berlin. His single-minded dedication to the cause makes him a fascinating and sympathetic protagonist.

There's even a love story woven into the narrative. Tehlirian meets a beautiful young Armenian when he's stationed as a soldier in Tbilisi, Georgia, during the war, and reunites with her after the trial. They marry and eventually move to San Francisco, where an Armenian-American millionaire gives the hero a job.

Nemesis operatives assassinated six more former Turkish leaders in Europe in the year or so after the Berlin shooting.

The Tehlirian/Nemesis tale has great movie potential. It's like the story told in Steven Spielberg's Munich, about Israeli operatives getting revenge for slayings committed at the 1972 Summer Olympics.

Unlike the Israelis in Spielberg's film, the Nemesis participants didn't have the resources of a wealthy state (or any state) at their disposal. Also, they were working in a time when international communication was by telegraph.

The book concludes with a few chapters on the emergence of Turkey out of the old Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, Turkey's official denial of the Armenian genocide, and Armenians' continued quest for justice and acknowledgment of the genocide.

The official position of Turkey is that Armenians were not systematically killed and therefore it wasn't genocide. Bogosian contends the Turkish position is hogwash, and has done the research to back up his assessment.

Though he doesn't portray Tehlirian and company as flawless heroes, he clearly sympathizes, saying they "were appealing to a higher, final justice. One that exists somewhere between heaven and earth."

History buffs, especially those who like their history spiced with drama, should appreciate the fine job Bogosian has done in turning an obscure corner of the past into a genuine page-turner.

Sunday, June 28, 2015


How did we get to the state
where love and reason lose to hate?
A Dixie boy gets smiling faces
and loathes because they’re not his race’s.

He pledged allegiance to the flag
of the United States of White Supremacy.
Dad got him a Glock for his birthday
because what else to do for a racist son
of Strom Thurmond’s state.

Congregants showed him love —
they saw a visitor and welcomed him
as a brother; he saw witless prey,
victims, sacrifices to his hateful god —
his idol the Statue of Bigotry.

For shame, Dixie. Look at what heritage hath wrought —
a shot, then many more, and many dead.

How did we get to this place
where humanity’s trampled by race?
What’s the route to peaceful end
and a country’s lasting mend?

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Review: The Looting Machine

Published 28 March 2015 in the Winnipeg Free Press:
The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers and the Theft of African Wealth
By Tom Burgis
Public Affairs, 336 pages, $35

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

For his first book, British journalist Tom Burgis tackles a much-noted paradox: Africa is rich with natural resources, yet the vast majority of Africans live in abject poverty.

Some chalk it up to what's called the "resource curse," but that's more a description than an explanation. Burgis, for years an Africa correspondent for the Financial Times, aims for a deeper understanding and hits his target in The Looting Machine.

The resource curse is, essentially, the idea that countries with lots of mineral wealth tend to have lousy economic development. A wee few in a resource-rich country will become very affluent themselves, while the masses live in crushing destitution.

It's not unique to Africa, but the resource curse seems to apply especially well to the sprawling land mass that's the cradle of our species and home to about 15 per cent of humans but only two per cent of global GDP.

The continent has 40 per cent of the world's gold reserves, 15 per cent of petroleum reserves, 80 per cent of platinum reserves, and much of the planet's diamonds and copper, yet the economic reality for the masses living in African countries flush with those sought-after commodities is rather bleak.

Consider Angola as an example. The former Portuguese colony has an abundance of oil, sizable diamond mines and impressive economic growth that has outpaced China's in some of the 13 years since a protracted civil war ended there. Yet three in four residents of Angola's capital city, Luanda, live in crime-ridden slums without reliable supplies of electricity, and 40 per cent of Angolans live in what the World Bank defines as "extreme poverty."

It's a similar story in oil-endowed Nigeria, where two-thirds live in extreme poverty, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) with its vast wealth of gold, cobalt, copper, diamonds and tantalum. Extreme poverty is reality for about nine out of 10 people in Congo.

In these and other sub-Saharan countries, having great volumes of minerals and gems in the ground has not at all meant economic security for the average citizen.

Explanations vary. Some put the blame on Africa's exploitative colonizers of the past and the International Monetary Fund's neoliberal conditions for "helping" countries in crisis. Others say Africans constantly stymie development with their own "tribal" strivings for greater shares of the wealth.

Cynics and apologists for global capitalism contend that Western journalists and charities are painting a false picture and Africans are, by and large, doing OK.

Burgis, with the benefit of his years of reporting from many locations, gives us his take on the situation. His book details how Africa is being looted by indigenous elites in concert with powerful multinational corporations.

And the big foreign companies aren't just European and North American anymore. China has wedged its way into the racket, largely through the dealings of a shadowy corporation with a mysterious captain named Sam Pa. The 88 Queensway Group, or China International Fund, forged a partnership with Angola's state-owned oil company several years ago, and has since made deals with resource kingpins in other mineral-rich African states.

Through Queensway and its many companies, China has staked its claims on resources to become part of what Burgis describes as a modern colonial-type system that revolves around unholy alliances between "unaccountable African rulers" and rapacious foreign capitalists.

China's doing well by its arrangements with African kleptocracies, as are Western mining and oil companies, but the poor remain very poor.

If you're curious about why the masses in resource-rich Africa are so painfully impoverished, this hard-hitting and eye-opening exposé is worth a look.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Indian Days

Published in Travel Bug 2015:
Nestled in with The Pas along the Saskatchewan River, Opaskwayak Cree Nation is a vibrant northern Manitoba community with more than 4,500 residents and, among other things, a Junior A hockey team called the OCN Blizzard.

As lively as OCN is year-round, it really lights up in August when it hosts the seven days of celebration and competition known as Opaskwayak Indian Days. This year’s festivities run August 17-23.

“It’s a celebration of our community,” Indian Days events coordinator Kirby Sinclair says. “It’s a weeklong event open to everybody and anybody. We’ve had people come from as far away as England and Germany, with good reviews from them.

“We have canoe teams that come from Minnesota and Quebec and B.C. to race in our big Canoe Classic. We have people coming for the square dance contest from Prince Albert (Saskatchewan), Moose Lake, Cross Lake and Peguis. So it’s basically for everybody.

“We showcase our traditions and we open it up for the public so the public can see what we do as First Nations people and they can partake as well.”

This year’s Indian Days is the 50th anniversary edition. It’s bigger than ever before, and far bigger than the first one.

Indian Days started as a one-day event with running races, canoe races and “a little more,” Sinclair says, adding that organizers planned to expand it in subsequent years.

It certainly has grown in participation and scope, with numerous components that now include fishing, jigging, softball, soccer, bicycling, a parade, a scavenger hunt, archery, singing and much more.

Opaskwayak Indian Days 2015 kicks off Monday, August 17, with a pageant to crown Princesses in three age categories: Tiny Tots (5 to 9 years), the mid-level Juniors and the Senior category of 14-18. The Princesses are selected after speeches and talent demonstrations.

Featured on the last day, Sunday, are the finals of slo-pitch and soccer tournaments and a fun fishing derby.

In between, there’s a panoply of activities that appeal to all ages. The agenda for Wednesday for instance, includes bicycle races, canoe races, indoor events at Gordon Lathlin Memorial Centre, and a parade from the Otineka Mall to Pike Lake.

At the parade’s end, everyone’s greeted by OCN’s chief plus dignitaries from The Pas and the provincial government. “They make opening remarks, and then our chief shoots a flaming arrow into the lake, starting off celebrations officially,” Sinclair says.

“Then with that we have canoe races for the kids all day, and a few races for the adults,” he continues. “And on Wednesday evening we go back to Gordon Lathlin Arena, where we have adult and children events going on.”

Other events include archery, flour packing, horseshoes, a youth singing competition, bannock baking and (on Friday evening) a community talent showcase.

And there’s so much more – “at least 40 events in total, and we’re striving to have a bit more every year,” Sinclair notes.

What’s in it for city folk? Why should they consider Indian Days for their summer travel plans?

“Well,” says Sinclair, “for one thing, there’s a weeklong schedule of competitions and culture. People from out of town could see the way we showcase our events, not only with the competitions going on, but with other things like the powwow demonstrations where people can see how our culture is.

“It’s not only for native people but it’s for others as well, and they can partake in the events. It’s friendly competition, not fierce competition. We are opening up our culture to everybody in fun competition ways.”

He adds that “all competitions are basically from the way we live our life.”

Opaskwayak Indian Days saw tremendous growth in its first couple of decades, expanding to a seven-day event by the 1980s. “To this day,” Sinclair says, “we’re still adding events – one or two a year. Sometimes we’ll take some out and put on new ones.”

Asked how Indian Days could develop in the years ahead, he says he’s not sure, “but I think in another 50 years the festival will still be alive, for sure. We’ve gotta keep our traditions alive. If we keep those traditions alive, we know where we stand as a First Nation, as a people.”

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Review: Humans 3.0

Published 14 March 2015 in the Winnipeg Free Press:
Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species
By Peter Nowak
Goose Lane, 248 pages, $20

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

Where most of us see amusing gadgets, Toronto journalist Peter Nowak sees profound human progress.

His stimulating second book (after 2010's Sex, Bombs, and Burgers) contends that our species is going through a second major technology-driven "upgrade."

In the first upgrade, millennia ago, we transitioned from cave dwellers utterly dominated by nature to tool-wielding Humans 2.0, using crude technology to more easily coexist with nature. Now we're well into the process of using computers, robots and other high technology to "become the main determinants of all of the world's systems, including biology and environment." It's the dawning of an age in which our species pretty much does whatever the heck it wants.

"We're not evolving, we're upgrading, just like software," he declares in the opening chapter. "In the third age of humans, as people master nature rather than coexisting with it or being subjugated by it, we are becoming Humans 3.0."

Some see that as more bad than good, what with global warming and other great environmental problems we hubris-filled hairless apes have caused. Not Nowak -- he's optimistic and thinks it is, on balance, a rather good thing.

Technology is driving economic development everywhere, and thus strengthening international ties and filling people with the hope that comes with prosperity. Increasing numbers of us are using technology to follow our "true entrepreneurial nature," and personal expression and creativity have blossomed.

Internet-related connectivity has enabled the forging of friendships and communities that span the globe as individuals use the web to find others who share their interests and predilections. Human health and lifespans have improved thanks to advances in medical science.

Environmentalists see serious negative consequences arising out of our detachment from nature, but Nowak says we need not be so worried. He acknowledges that human-caused climate change could "wreak havoc on all aspects of life," but reckons our brilliant problem-solving abilities will save us in the end.

Just how we'll tackle that problem, he doesn't say. But, you know, we will. If we can make all these whiz-bang high-tech gadgets and apps to minimize dirty work and instantly update people in far-off places about our lives, then by golly we can avert mass extinction, right? Right?

Likewise, he acknowledges that the recent economic recovery has been short on jobs because businesses are using technology to cut their payrolls. But Nowak reassures the reader that things will balance out in the end, and that we'll be okay. Exactly how, he can't say -- but then he's not an economist.

Nowak sees "a new Golden Age of individualism," and won't let environmental and social-justice concerns harsh his mellow. He maintains a relentlessly sunny outlook on our prospects, which is perhaps unsurprising if you know he's a blogger for Canadian Business. He seems a true believer in the magic of a can-do attitude combined with some entrepreneurial spirit and tech smarts.

You don't have to buy into his aw-shucks wonder and optimism, though, to appreciate Nowak's crisp writing and abundance of interesting facts and insights. Did you know, for instance, that the 250,000 self-published books churned out in the U.S. in 2011 was nearly four times as many as in 2006? Or that futurist Ray Kurzweil projects computer intelligence to surpass human intelligence by 2045?

Humans 3.0 is a good, smart read. You can buy your analog copy today, via the Internet or at an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar store.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Review: Severed

Published 29 November 2014 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found
By Frances Larson
Granta, 336 pages, $30

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

With Islamic State's decapitation of hostages making headlines and leading newscasts the world over, the subject of British anthropologist Frances Larson's new work of popular history is timely.
Larson, an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford, has written a smart and engaging history of how Western society's fascination with human heads has extended to collecting and displaying them.
Severed is written for a general audience, though some prospective readers may cringe at its subject matter. Those who get past their discomfort are in for a treat.
The brutal execution videos from Syria have understandably repulsed and horrified people here. Yet it wasn't so long ago that Europeans crowded town squares to watch heads get lopped off, and centuries-old heads are on display in churches and museums.
Saint Oliver Plunkett's more-than-300-year-old head, with some hair still clinging to its slowly decaying flesh, is in a glass case at a church in Ireland, just as Saint Catherine of Siena's is kept as a divine relic in Italy.
Perhaps the most famous and talked-about part of Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum is its collection of shrunken heads from South America.
The place decapitation still holds in popular culture is reflected by enduring figures of speech such as "head on a platter" (a reference to John the Baptist's execution) and "don't lose your head."
Fascination with heads and their separation from bodies is hardly surprising, Larson notes, when you consider that our faces express our personalities and our heads host four of the five senses.
Chopping a head off, then, is a powerful denunciation of what a person has done, and keeping a head on display at a place of worship is an expression of profound reverence.
Sometimes keeping a head or skull can be an expression of deep respect or admiration, such as when a church sexton in Vienna swiped composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's skull.
Other times it has nothing to do with respect and admiration. Larson writes that the shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum are remnants of "an international trade in exotic collectibles" in the 19th century, when European colonials offered cash and goods for human heads.
In the 20th century, some American soldiers in Vietnam and the Second World War's Pacific theatre kept skulls as trophies. Life magazine sparked outrage in 1944 by publishing a photo of a pretty Arizona woman with a gift her navy boyfriend had sent her: a Japanese soldier's skull.
Indeed, Larson remarks, "The physical detachment of a person's head is often preceded by an assumed social detachment that separates the perpetrator from his victim. This social detachment has often taken the form of racism."
Perceptive and well-written, Severed is a great read even if its subject seems at odds with the holiday season.
It's also, as one might expect of an academic's work, thoroughly researched. The bibliography runs to nearly 30 pages, and Larson promises "detailed notes" at her website.
Larson has a good head. This book is evidence of that.