Sunday, May 24, 2015

Dead Mountain, the Dyatlov Pass Incident - a book review

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass IncidentDead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best whodunnit/whatdunnit I have ever read. The Dyatlov Pass Incident is to Russian conspiracy theorists what the assassination of JFK is to American and spawned as many books. Everyone has heard of it and everyone has their own idea of what happened.

In mid-January 1959, 10 university students, led by Igor Dyatlov set out from Yekaterinburg for Ortortin Mountain at the far north end of Sverdlosk Oblast. Experienced hikers all, this trip would earn them the Class III designation they all coveted. They traveled by train, bus, truck and sleigh to the end of the road and began to hike in. At this point, one of the group turned back, suffering excruciating back pain from recurring rheumatism. A group diary and photographs recorded their trip. On February 1 they set up their tent on the eastern slope of Holatchahl Mountain (Dead Mountain in the local Mansi language). That night something drove them from their tent in a panic bordering on lunacy. Their bodies were found weeks and months later scattered down slope about a mile from the tent, without winter clothes and all without boots.

After the bodies were transported back to civilization, the forensic analysis proved baffling. While six of the nine had perished of hypothermia, the remaining three had died from brutal injuries, including a skull fracture. According to the case files, one of the victims was missing her tongue. And when the victims' clothing was tested for contaminants, a radiologist determined certain articles to contain abnormal levels of radiation.
After the close of the investigation, the authorities barred access to Holatchahl Mountain and the surrounding area for three years. The lead investigator, Lev Ivanov, wrote in his final report that the hikers had died as a result of "an unknown compelling force," a euphemism that, despite the best efforts of modern science and technological advances, still defines the case fifty-plus years later.

The author, an American documentary film maker, stumbled on the 50 year old case by accident and after exhausting internet information, decided to go to Russia in 2011 at his own expense to investigate the mystery further. It was not only the mystery that compelled him but also the chance to travel back into Soviet times. He returned again in 2012 to retrace the route of the hikers. With the invaluable help of three Russians, including the director of the Dyatlov Foundation in Yekaterinburg he accumulated all the historical files and photos and conducted many interviews.

The book, amply illustrated with photos old and new, skillfully weaves the events of 1959 with the authors journey of discovery, drawing together as he eventually reaches a conclusion. His conclusion, which in fact had been suggested and partially investigated previously, (I found it on a 2011 blog post) was confirmed as the most plausible by a group of American and Russian scientists, experts on the subject. However the conspiracy theorists remain.

Map from the book

Holatchahl Mountain, 1959.  Tent location middle right centre.  From the book
Google Earth of general area but I could not get more specific details

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Looking at a Map of Russia

Trying to draw a globe on a flat surface has challenged cartographers since they decided the world was round.  Mercator maps, where lines of longitude aka meridians, are drawn parallel, work pretty good between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and not too bad between 45°N and 45°S.  But the closer to the poles you get the worse the distortion becomes.  Greenland looks bigger than South America. But most of us are used to Mercator and when we want to see where point A is relative to point B, we tend to think in straight lines.

This does not work for the Russian Federation.  If you have ever looked at a Mercator scale map of Russia, it looks ridiculous - long and skinny. So it is usually drawn using another kind of projection called Azimuthal. Here the North Pole is the centre and the parallels of latitude are drawn as concentric circles around it while the meridians radiate outwards in straight lines from the centre. So you have to think along the curve.

Relief map of Russian Federation
Russia is huge.  Most of it fits within 50°N Lat and 70°N Lat, and 30°E Long to 180° Long but the extremities stick out in all directions much further, for example from 20°E Long to 170°W Long.  It is 10,400 km from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok.  By comparison it is only 7,500 km from Victoria BC to St Johns Nfld.

I am always searching for the coordinates of some Russian city to see where its Canadian counterpart might be on the Parallels of Latitude, especially in Western Canada which also has a continental climate.  For example Kyiv, capital of Ukraine is on the exact same parallel as Regina Saskatchewan at 50°27'.  Moscow at 55°45' is slightly farther north than High River in Alberta's Peace River country at 55°26' and quite a ways north of Flin Flon Manitoba at 54°45'.  Abakan, where Tanya's family live in south central Siberia  at 53°43' is slightly farther north than Edmonton Alberta at 53°33'. Vladivostok is way south at 43° while Magadan, mining town and location of the former infamous Gulag camp Kolyma, is way north at 59°34, pretty much on par with Fort smith NWT or Watson Lake Yukon

Relief map of Canada
Not only is Russia NORTH, it is also much more oriented north than say Canada.  Canadians by and large are crowded into a 250 km strip along the USA border while Russians live all over their country. Canada drew a line on the 60th parallel to top the four western provinces and declared everything above it to be North.  so we don't think about it much.  In Russia, the administrative lines tend to run all the way north,  for example, Krasnoyarsk Krai runs from the Sayan Mountains in the south all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

Something to keep in mind about Russia, though, is that for all its size it has no year round easy access defensible ports with easy access to open ocean..  There is the Baltic, with lots of bottle necks before you hit the North Sea, the Black Sea with the world's best choke point through the Bosporus and Dardanelles and then Gibralter before you see the Atlantic. Vladivostok is 10,000 km away and Murmansk/Arkhangelsk is iced over much of the year.

Compare that with the American sea coasts and  you can understand how locked in Russia is when it comes to ocean access.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman - a book review

The Guns of AugustThe Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Barbara Tuchman never disappoints. The Guns of August, first published in 1962, reissued as a paperback in 1994 with a forward by historian Robert K Massie, remains one of the most readable histories of the events leading to and the first month of the Western Front. The author herself was witness to the brief naval battle in the Mediterranean on August 8, as the British tried unsuccessfully to halt German ships Goeben and Breslau, headed for Istanbul which eventually brought the Ottoman Empire in on Germany's side. Tuchman's writing style draws the reader into the story and her personality sketches of the leading characters are sharp and to the point, as Massie illustrates with "the Kaiser: 'possessor of the most uninhibited tongue in Europe'"

Her opening paragraph which took her eight hours to write became the most famous in all her works. It begins "So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration". And ends "The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the dock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Germany is itching for a fight to settle France once and for all time. The Schleiffen Plan, created several years earlier, envisions the German army holding the French at their eastern border while a massive attack through neutral Belgium envelops the French army and seizes Paris all in six weeks. The Plan is based on overwhelming strength of their right and Belgian acquiescence to the German army crossing its territory.

The French remember the bitter humiliating defeat of 1870-71 and are determined that they will get revenge and recover Alsace and Loraine. They expect the Germans to attack as they did before, between Switzerland and Luxembourg, and have prepared Plan 17 which is all attack and no defense. They discounted an attack through Belgium as it would certainly bring Britain into the war on side of France.

Britain is determined to stay out of European Wars though the French desperately need their support and Britain knows if Europe falls to the Germans their own position is in danger. The ONLY thing that will bring them into the war is if Belgium's neutrality is violated. The flat plains of Belgium, ideal for the movement of armies, had been the scene of so many battles over the centuries including Waterloo, that in 1830 Britain created and jealously guarded a neutral Belgium.

Russian nobility from the Kaiser on down, with its head firmly up its rear as to events unfolding at home, was most worried, and rightly so, about clashes with Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, leading to war with Austria and automatically then with Germany that they had signed an agreement of support with France. The Germans plan to attack France first because it will take several weeks to mobilize the Russian army by which time they will have disposed of France and therefore avoid fighting on two fronts. France expected this and has a promise from Russia to attack Germany with all speed ready or not.

Thus the stage is set for another "shot heard round the world" which triggers the war. The events of the first month Were to set the stage for the war of attrition which followed and that would exhaust all Europe and extinguish a generation of men. So many IFs.

If Moltke had stuck with the Schleiffen Plan and not been tempted by a double envelopment. If Joffre has listened to Lanrezac who warned him over and over of the huge German army approaching through Belgium. If Belgium had not resisted the Germans so bravely and foolhardily, disrupting both their schedule and their supply lines. If Jilinsky had been able to coordinate his two armies against the German 8th Army at Tannenburg or even understood that the 8th Army was not retreating but reforming to face the Russian Second Army. If Moltke had not been frightened into sending two divisions from his left wing to the Eastern Front. If Moltke had recognized two days earlier that the French 6th Army and the BEF were a serious threat to his right flank. If Joffre had not held the French Army together during the retreat to the Marne. And on and on.

Most of the history books of the war itself that I read were written by English and focus on the English and Allied contribution to the point where you think the BEF saved France and the British did all the fighting. I am still looking for a book that covers the French in the war in detail. Tuchman makes it clear that in the first month, the French army did the fighting, losing 300,000 men, most in teh first four days of fighting. After their initial defeat at Mons, the BEF under Sir John French simply retreated and could hardly be induced to fight. It took personal intervention by Joffre to get French to agree to participate in the Battle of the Marne.

The Guns of August is a must read for anyone seeking an understanding of why WWI unfolded as it did.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Love and Marriage

Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage* according to Frank Sinatra.  The last several years have seen a monumental shift in public opinion about gays and lesbians marrying#.  One more step in being recognized and treated as human beings.  Trying to understand the great fuss about it hurts my head.

The whole religion thing gets to me.  Marriage, contrary to what you may have heard from the pulpit is NOT religious, it is civil.  You can have all the religious ceremonies you want but until government acknowledges it, you are NOT legally married.  Not saying the religious accouterments are a bad thing, just that they are non-essential.  Marriage is about heirs and property and whatever other benefits governments see fit to bestow on couples who are married. If you think that isn't so, try getting a divorce.

"It will destroy traditional marriage".  If the only thing keeping your marriage together was the fact that your wife/husband couldn't marry their girlfriend/boyfriend then you have more problems than you think. By the way, there is nothing traditional about a marriage being between one man and one woman.  Ask Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov who just approved a second (forced) marriage between an unwilling 17 year old and a 59 year old police chief, already married.

And of course, people keep running to the Bible to defend their positions.  Why?  The Bible is not really relevant  to the situation.  Here is why.  Go back 175 years to times when people were arguing about slavery.  There are a great many verses in the Bible supporting slavery and many that can be used to oppose it.  It split the Baptist Church as the Southern Baptists followed the pro-slavery verses.  Of course the anti-slavery folks won about 150 years ago at some huge cost in lives to the American nation because it was the right thing to do.  And other than at some White supremacist gatherings you are unlikely to hear verses from the Bible quoted to prove that Blacks are inferior and should be held in slavery because God said so.

With any amount of luck, in a few years, other than from bigoted homophobic cults, the same will be said for homosexuality and all related LGBTQ folks.

*Of course, if you study Latin before Philosophy you end up with Horace before Descartes
# I am all in favour.  Why should they be happier than the rest of us?.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Spanish Holiday - Salvador Dali

One of our excursions was a 7 am to 7 pm trip, about 140 km NE of Barcelona, to tour the Gala Dali Castle in Pubol, close to the city of Girona and the Salvador Dali Museum at his birthplace of Figueres.

This was Tanya's dream tour.  She is very knowledgeable about art while I am more of a Charlie Russell or Glen Scrimshaw kind of guy. When you say Salvador Dali to me, two pictures came to mind: The Persistence of Memory which every one knows and "The Agony of Love (The Unicorn)",a numbered print of which which our neighbours had in their dining room. So I had a lot to learn. He was of the Surrealist art school as was Picasso.  If it was artistic he could do it, including superb classical (??) painting and sculpture as well as some really strange stuff. 

Gala Dali, born Elena Invanovna Diakonova in Kazan Russia, had already been through a few Surrealist painters by the time she settled on Salvador Dali in 1929.  She was his love, his muse, his model and his business manager.  Judging from the number of paintings and sculptures in which she features and the number of men she bedded before and after her marriage with Dali, she seemed to spend most of her life with her clothes off.  Fortunately she had a perfect body for that sort of thing.

Salvador Dali bought her this castle in 1968.  It was already over 1000 years old and in pretty bad condition.  They carefully renovated it to restore the interior but leave the exterior showing the ravages of time. She spent the summers there and Dali was only allowed to visit her with specific advance written invitation.  When she died in 1982, she was buried in the castle and Dali moved in.  It became his final home and studio.

Houses in the village of Pubol area s old as the castle
The castle - three stories
Another view
Passage to the Italian garden
A Dali sculpture in the garden
Another Dali elephant sculpture
The museum is huge and filled with so many of his paintings, sketches, and sculptures, it kind of boggled my mind.  I managed an hour and a half but finally had to get out before my brain melted. 
Dali is buried in a vault in the the museum.

The main entrance to the museum

No idea of the name but I call it "My daughter cooking supper"

Look directly at the picture, it is a portrait of his wife.  Look through the camera and it is Abe Lincoln.
This is sort of half and half

Apparently this is famous.  A loaf of bread for a hat,
corn cobs for a necklace and ants crawling over her face


Painting or sculpture
Big concrete lady on expensive car
More of same.  Also tractor tire pillar in back
Big bird's cousin
Here's lookin' at you.

I liked this one.  Sort of stairway to heaven kind of thing.

Street front of museum
My kind of abstract sculpture!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Spanish Holiday - The Abbey of Montserrat

We booked three excursions, one of which was to the Abbey of Montserrat, located about 45 km west of Barcelona The link above is to the Abbey's website.  See also Wikipedia. And Google Montserrat Images for more pictures than you will find here.

It was an incredible experience.  Located nestled high among the peaks of Montserrat, 4000 feet above the valley floor, the highest point on the Catalan plain, it can be accessed by car or by rack-railway.  We took the railway up and the bus met us at the top to come down.  As we navigates the hairpin turns going down, with 1000' drop offs, I kept hoping the bus driver had no suicidal tendencies.

There is far more to it than just 70 monks. The place is huge, with a basilica, museum and lodging for pilgrims of which there are many.  There is a boys' choir and a large staff. Tourism appears to make the place pay for itself.

At the Rack-Rail station. The Abbey is "somewhere up there"

The Abbey of Montserrat

A large open Plaza

The front of the basilica

Jesus and the Twelve O'Possums (from a Sunday School paper)


Black Madonna and Child

Listening to the Boys Choir

There are several km of trails along the face of the mountain connecting shrines and holy places

A small church on the face of the mountain

Looking down into the valley

Looking towards Barcelona