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Written by FreeState

April 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Thoughts on North Korea: An interview with Bradley K Martin

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Kim Il Sung - North Korea Mass Games

Much of what we know about North Korea is the result of the work of Bradley K Martin, whose book Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader  – all 700 odd pages – is a masterly (impassioned, too) analysis of the cult of the Kim dynasty. After our last post, posted shortly after the death of Jong il, we were fortunate enough to catch up with Martin. The following short interview was conducted by email on 22.2.12.

FreeState: Could you say something about Jung-un [Jong il’s successor]. How experienced is he? Who does he rely on? Are they really going to be able to build a third generation cult centred about his personality?

Martin: Kim Jong-un could not be very experienced since he’s only about 28 years old. However, he apparently has the backing of his late father’s ruling apparatus, including Uncle Jang Song-taek, who is married to Kim Jong-il’s sister, the young ruler’s aunt. The cult-builders are already at work idolizing him and even if mature North Koreans take all that with a grain of salt, you’ll have a new generation efficiently indoctrinated in how dazzlingly great he is.

Aningara Mass Games

FreeState: You’ve met North Koreans outside North Korea. We’re keen to get an idea of how much they knew about what goes on in the rest of the world? How shocking is, for example, South Korea to a North Korean?

Martin: Those who defect tend to be people who have listened secretly to external radio broadcasts, been in touch with returnees from abroad or otherwise gained more knowledge of the outside world than the regime wished them to have. The trend is for more and more North Koreans to have this knowledge as the regime’s information-blocking measures become steadily less effective. Nevertheless, few North Koreans are really prepared for life in a place as different as South Korea. Many defectors fail to make good adjustments there – a fact that points to the difficulty of any future efforts to reunify Korea.

Kkot-bo-sal-deul - Song Byeok

FreeState: In terms of information on countries like North Korea and Somalia, we – Europe, America – are very much steered by government fed media stories. How accurate is it to say that North Korea is a genuine nuclear threat? And to who?

Martin: Scientists have been to North Korea and seen some of the nuclear facilities there, so they can do pretty good calculations of how far along the North Koreans are toward their goal. I tend to credit reports that they have multiple nuclear devices and are hard at work on improving their delivery systems. It’s no exaggeration to say that South Korea and Japan, the nearby countries that the North Koreans are taught to hate, should worry. Of course the regime wants Americans to worry also, because it is developing longer-range missiles. I don’t think, though, that for the time being we’re as likely a target as, say, Japan, in case the North Koreans get to the point they feel they are backed into a corner and decide to lash out. It’s ironic that Japan got to that point in 1941 and bombed Pearl Harbour.

Crowd propaganda

FreeState: Is any genuine art being made in North Korea?

Martin: I have frequented the Pyongyang stores selling North Korean artwork when I visited, looking for something worth buying, and I’d say the answer is probably a big NO. There are artisans skilled in reproducing ancient scroll paintings but I didn’t see anything original. Even some of the traditional works are ruined by the intrusion of incongruous modern elements: a concrete park bench or a tour bus in a traditional brush painting of a scene from nature, for example. It may be that the people who develop the requisite skills need to leave the country before they are able to do what we would consider art. An example of this is Song Byeok, who has made art out of parodying propaganda paintings and who just exhibited successfully in Atlanta.

Take Off - Song Byeok

Written by FreeState

February 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Navigators from the Planet Hippocampus

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Hackney cab sign, London

If you’re a regular user of London taxis, you may have come across something called The Knowledge. A significant part of the world’s most exacting taxi qualification examinations, it tests drivers’ navigational knowledge of London’s streets and points of interest.

Not easy. London’s a labyrinth, 6 square miles of navigational hell. The Blue Book, or Guide to the Knowledge of London, contains all of London’s 25,000 streets, plus ‘points of interest’. It takes three years – an average of 12 attempts – to master the Blue Book. The dropout rate is enormous. It’s like learning the bible. Properly knowing it is a serious feat of memory, so serious, in fact, that it involves physically growing parts of the brain. No joke.

Our understanding of the function of memory is today in a good place. Old one-stop-memory shop models are out. Studies of damaged brains, aided by the rise and rise of magnetic resonance imaging technology, show how different parts of the human brain have evolved systems specific to types of memory. Many of these studies took place on one brain. It belonged to Henry Gustav Molaison. Molaison was an American epileptic whose correctional surgery – he was operated on in 1957 – included the removal of nearly all the hippocampus, an area located above both temples. The operation resulted in anterograde amnesia: Molaison was unable to commit new events and meaning to long term memory. He died in 2008.

Molaison’s case is useful to our understanding of the brains of London cabbies. The Blue Book works the hippocampus hard. This area of the brain – as Molaison’s surgery indicated – is largely responsible for what in the business is known as the declarative memory system. An example of a declarative memory is remembering that you went for a drive today (where you went, how long it took etc) – as opposed to knowing how to drive, which is a procedural memory function. Given, therefore, that a significant part of the training for The Knowledge consists of (motor)biking around London, committing tens of thousands of (brain manufactured)experiences to memory, it will come as no surprise (perhaps) to learn that a study in 1999 found that Blue Book brains have larger posterior hippocampi than the rest of us.

The posterior? Yes. It seems that this part of the hippocampus is responsible for storing a specific subset of the declarative memory system, one that is ‘a spatial representation of the environment.’ It maps space.  It’s our GPS. Logical, then, that people who rely heavily on navigational skills have bigger ones.

MRI showing growth (left to right) of the hippocampus in taxi drivers - image courtesy of Elenour Maguire, Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology, University College London

And that’s less than half the story. The study also showed that Blue Book brains have correspondingly smaller anterior hippocampi than the rest of us. Subsequent experiments – conducted by Hugo Spiers – suggest that this area keeps an eye on the straight line distance between you and your destination. In the same way that your Sat Nav goes bonkers once you go wrong – and especially if you go wrong several times – so ‘the activity in the front end of the hippocampus ramps up and up’ the further you get from your destination. That’s the rest of us. We get lost. Travel twice the distance. Blue Book brains – unless there’s traffic, or someone’s pulling a fast one – take the most direct route. Ergo, the Blue Book anterior hippocampus is smaller.

More. In the same way that neuroscientists discovered that aspects of Henry Molaison’s spatial memory remained intact post-surgery (he could draw a detailed floor plan of his house), and fairly surmised therefore that spatial representation is not solely the remit of the hippocampus, so the London taxi driver’s navigational brain operates from different localities. For example, a study using a bastardised version of Sony’s The Getaway – a simulated experience of Blue Book brain driving through London – shows that, once planned, the journey hardly uses the hippocampus. It goes into cruise control. Unexpected events are handled by the right prefrontal cortex; the expected – landmarks etc. – by the retrospenial cortex. The hippocampus only kicks into gear once there is a change in destination.

All of which means that next time you get into a London cab, know – please – that you are dealing with a superior life force. A brain grower. You are.

MRI scan of brain

Written by FreeState

February 14, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Follow the Yellow

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Jia Chai - Phuket, Thailand - image courtesy APF

If Wassily Kandinsky’s feel for yellow rings wrong, then get thee to Phuket, Thailand, to the Vegetarian Festival, where yellow is warm, calm and very violent.

Held in the first nine days of the ninth lunar month, in honour of the Jade Emperor and the Nine Emperor Gods, the Festival of Jia Chai is known for the practice among devotees of ritualised self-mutilation.

While mortification rituals are as old as god itself, those particular to the Jia Chai originate in 1865, when the local Chinese community, tin miners in the main, devastated by ‘fever’, probably malaria, was saved by a travelling opera company’s emergency recourse to a strict vegetarian diet and to a variety of associated acts of purification.

Devotee - image courtesy Reuters / Dario Pignatelli

The festival begins on the first night, at midnight, with the gods descending from heaven by way of a holy pole. The following nine days are filled with ceremony. Processions carrying representative gods in sedan chairs make their way through streets lined with yellow flags. The flags are signs that the food on sale is pure vegetarian. Everyone wears white.

A god called Pak Tai – Supreme Emperor of the Dark Realm – watches over the dead, and over the Ma Song, the devotees, in whom warrior and warrior horse spirits temporarily reside. Possessed, the devotees pass objects – metal rods, knives, swords, umbrellas, exhaust pipes, bicycles, guns – through their cheeks and tongues. They climb bladed ladders. They walk on fire coals. They bathe in hot oil. Yellow headdresses and yellow T-shirts stand out against the smoke.

The reaction to all this is predictable. Visitors are stunned, amazed at the feats of the Ma Song. For local Taoists, it is normal. The so-called ‘entranced horses’ are, for the rest of the year, their brothers, their sisters, their parents and children. During the festival they are gods, devil catchers. They are cleansing themselves. They are making peace with animals. They are living in heaven and in hell. They are making things all good.

Procession - image David Longstreath / EPA

Written by FreeState

February 10, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Some Meanings for Yellow

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Wassily Kandinsky - Yellow, Red, Blue

Yellow has many meanings. It is the colour of the sun, and of wheat, and candle light. For some, it is the colour of cowards and xenophobes, of disease, of growing old. It has been the colour of terror, of madness and of kings.  In one or two countries, the yellow joke is adult, as are yellow movies. In others, it is divine, holy, the earth and the sun and everything.

In physics, strange to say, yellow is simply the colour of a light with wavelengths of between 570 and 590 nanometres. Light like this excites the medium and long wave cone cells of the retina. Indigo blue – for reasons of the length of its own wave – is yellow’s perfect compliment. Fully fledged tritanopes are blind to both yellow and blue. If this means nearly nothing, then be at peace. Just know that your brain is a very clever thing indeed.

For Vincent van Gogh, yellow was the colour of hope. Van Gogh lived in a yellow house. Yellow is everywhere in his work. There have been number of theories as to why. Digitalis is one. Van Gogh was prescribed digitalis for his mania. Highly toxic, one side effect of digitalis is its propensity for producing yellow tinged hallucinations in users. Suspected glaucoma is another (theory).  More (bio)physics: glaucoma is a disease of the eye; if you get it, your cornea swells and light sources are perceived as being surrounded by halos – a bit like those that sometimes surround the moon.

Vincent van Gogh - Self-portrait

Whatever the truth (and there is no evidence for either), Van Gogh clearly felt yellow more keenly than most. Wassily Kandinsky would have sympathised.’ Kandinsky heard his yellows. Literally.  And Kandinsky wasn’t mad. Or sick. Or addicted to drugs. He understood yellow as the noise of warmth, of fire, even. Yellow, he said, is ‘terrestrial’, violent, a colour both ‘painful and aggressive’, which – like hope sucked of warmth – describes perfectly Van Gogh’s own private yellow hell.

Actually, we’re misrepresenting Kandinsky. He did not think yellow the colour for madness. He called it eccentric, by which he meant off-centre, in the same way that engineers or mathematicians speak about off-centre wheels and circles. He was a synesthete. Yellow, like the sound of a violin, soars, is strident, calms, punches holes in compositions – hence its capacity for warmth and for violence. Like the sun. Like humans.

staging of Wassily Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound

Written by FreeState

February 7, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Yellow Truths

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Oscar Wilde

When Oscar Wilde appeared in court, on 26th April 1895, to be charged on several counts of gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, he was carrying a yellow book. Nearly all – friends, enemies, the press – thought it an issue of The Yellow Book, a London based quarterly, illustrated and art edited by Aubrey Beardsley.

It wasn’t.  It was an advance copy of Pierre Louys’s AphroditeAncient Manners. But it didn’t matter. People thought it was; and if people thought it was, then The Yellow Book it was – so to speak. Anyway, most of them – the newspapers, crowds, Christians etc. – didn’t like the things Wilde liked. Windows were broken, Beardsley sacked and The Yellow Book, says its publisher, John Lane, was ‘killed.’

So, why think it was? The Yellow Book, we mean. Well, one, it was typically Wildean; two, Beardsley had previously illustrated Wilde’s Salome (best mates); three, it was yellow. Case closed.

Wait. Yellow? Really? Yup, yellow. Yellow was the colour of the hour. It covered libertine French books. The Pre-Raphaelites loved yellow. So had Swinburne.  Ruskin too. And Walter Pater. Sir Richard Burton had yellow breakfasts. William Morris’s sunflowers plastered influential walls. Yellow meant aesthete. It meant decadence. It meant Beardsley, The Yellow Book and – to finish – it meant Oscar Wilde.

True, but also not true. Wilde never did write for The Yellow Book. He didn’t like it, said it was ’not yellow at all’, and he (reportedly) didn’t like Beardsley, or his Salome pictures. Unlikely, therefore, that he would have been caught dead with a copy, let alone on his way to court.

So there you go.

Plate 33 - from The Yellow Book - Aubrey Beardsley

Written by FreeState

January 11, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Death of a Bad God

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Pyongyang, North Korea - memorial for Kim Jong-il - 1 million estimated mourners - image KCNA - Reuters

Seen it already? Probably. It was all over the TV, YouTube’s full of it and now everybody knows a new thing about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Kim Jong-il, Supreme Leader (Our Father, Dear Leader, Our General) died at work, on a train, of a heart attack, just before Christmas.

It’s made us – the rest of the world, capitalists, China too – afraid. The Great Successor, Kim Jung-un, is young, inexperienced, an unknown quantity. He takes over an isolated, totalitarian nuclear state. He’s 28. He likes basketball. He suffers from hypertension. He’s surrounded by a bunch of savvy, purge-avoiding, super political generals. It’s serious.

But more than this, it’s made us look at something different: the spectacle of a country in grief, the spectacle of a country that is all about spectacle making. Is it real? What makes millions of people cry uncontrollably, slap the ground, all for one man? Why (sometimes) do it in perfect lines, in such uncrowd-like shapes? We’re curious. Morbidly so.

mourners lining Jong-il's funeral procession - image KCNA - Reuters

Well, one answer is that North Korea is the finest propaganda machine the modern world has ever seen. Supported by the party, the media (there is no news in this place), and by a litany of public holidays, cultural events and special occasions, Jong-il was god. Literally. He made time bend, the land live. He was why we are happy. A god has died. Mourn him. Mourn him big.

Yes, but was he his dad? Well, no, because he wasn’t a war hero; and he was transparently narcissistic (he invented the hamburger, you know); and he didn’t have a big toothy grin (really). Still, he had his dad’s ruthlessness, bags of it, and the army, a secret police force, a self-serving constitution, a policy induced famine and a punishment apparatus to rival anything anywhere.

So, millions of ranked mourners. What’s really going on? Mass choreographed or no? From what we know, and knowing isn’t easy, even dad’s 10 days of mourning was overwhelmingly organised, and mainly in Pyongyang, capital and home to the privileged, the loyal, the believers. So, neat million strong crowds of the genuine, the co-opted, the deeply afraid. We think.

Kim Jong-il

For more on North Korea, see Bradley Martin and Jiro Ishimaru, Kim Dong Cheol and the work of a number of North Korean insiders.

Written by FreeState

January 10, 2012 at 2:52 pm