Barefoot and starved, Spartan boys underwent grueling combat training to join the most formidable army of all time

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“These Are Sparta’s Walls”

According to one of the greatest Greek historians, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, more commonly referred to as Plutarch, when anyone would question the city’s lack of fortification and dared to ask the king “where is your wall,” he would simply point in silence towards his Spartans as an answer.

They held a not so humble belief that “a city is well-fortified when it has a wall of men instead of brick,” (Lycurgus) for bricks can fall and be conquered, but a Spartan never will. And rightfully so.

The army of Sparta is recognized as the most formidable in the history of man, and according to Plutarch’s book On Sparta, their men were trained to be tougher than a brick indeed. Every male child belonged to and was raised by the state. He was put through a vigorous training unlike any other child in history and endured such harsh education that the word “spartan” literally became an adjective for “showing, or characterized by, austerity or a lack of comfort or luxury,” a synonym for an austere way of living.

If you were born a Spartan, you were born a soldier, and there was no way around it. Men were not merchants, nor writers or poets, nor farmers. They were soldiers first and foremost and everything else was just a side job, and all those other things a man could do were only trivial things he could do in his free time, which was almost nonexistent. Every healthy baby was enlisted as a soldier from birth and his education made sure he stayed as such for life.

Let us assume that it is the year 398 B.C., the Peloponnesian War (431–404) has just ended and Sparta, exiting as the victor against their enemies, is probably at its strongest point under the rule of King Agesilaus II. It’s been almost 500 years since Lycurgus, the legendary law-giver, reformed the state with his military laws and made Sparta, Spartan.

Now let’s say a baby is born, a good and healthy baby boy. He’s been checked by the state doctors. His fate will be nothing alike the infant next door, who unfortunately was born with a sign of birth defect so his father had to take him to the Apothetae, a pit down the hillside, where, defenseless, the baby was left to starve to death under the scorching sun. According to Plutarch, the practice was to toss every ill-born spartan baby boy from Mount Taygetus into the abyss. However, judged from a practical point of view, this is probably a myth developed over the years and it was the pit nearby for these poor babies rather than far up to the mountain.

So our baby, named Demetrius by his parents, meaning Lover of Earth in Latin, has passed his first test. He is now put into a bucket full of wine and washed with it instead of water so he can be tested again to see if he is worthy enough to be raised. If he breaks into a crying tantrum or exhibits signs of any kind that he rejects this experience, he is regarded as ill with some hidden, incurable disease such as epilepsy, or at the very least deemed unfit and unworthy to be raised and sent off to slavery and a life as a helot (slave).

Luckily, our Demetrius seems to enjoy the wine-bathing, and now will continue to be raised by his mother until the age of seven, but never cuddled. He will be left alone in darkness on purpose so he would never fear darkness nor solitude. But he is lucky, for more than a half of the babies never even make it this far.

Everything goes as it should and Demetrius, alive and healthy, is about to celebrate his seventh birthday. And as a present, just as any other seven-year-old in Sparta, he is removed from his parents’ home and sent to the military barracks so he can start his education, the Agoge, which meant to mold him and all other young boys into skilled warriors, and the best possible versions of themselves. Here, under a strict regime and tutored by his “Warden,” our boy begins to learn the rules of combat. By engaging in stealth practices, athletic exercises and hunting in the nearby woods, he is preparing his body for warfare, whilst all the time not neglecting his scholastic education and learning everything about music, math, and philosophy. While these were the things he could never become to do full time, the knowledge of them is meant to give him an advantage in combat and determent the outcome of any battle.

And it isn’t easy, not for him nor any other kid for that matter. By the age of 12, every participant in the agoge is stripped of all his clothes and common luxuries. Barefoot and almost naked he was left to sleep out in the open, and fed so little so he can only survive the day, but enough to know what is good and feel the need to hunt for himself in the evening, steal it, or fight for it with the other boys and survive. However, while they were left and encouraged to scrounge for food in any way, they were severely punished, whipped and beaten almost to death if they were caught for stealing or left to their own demise and the mercy of the boy whose food was stolen. On special occasions, they were even dragged to a pit and with cheese placed in the middle, and ordered to fight for it.

Agility, strength, and perseverance aside, to test their academic advancement and ability to make quick but well thought out decisions, every night when the supper was over, a warden (their teacher) will sit among his students and ask a tricky question. Kind of like today’s quiz shows, when contestants are called to buzz first and give an answer. The questions ranged from “Who is the strongest boy in this group” to “Why are you left out in the open without clothes and hungry” or even, “Why is knowing math important to us?” Their answer had to be reasoned, swift, sharp and well thought-out, even witty at times, or, as stated by Plutarch, a boy was to be bit on the thumb by another boy of his choosing. And for those who failed to answer whatsoever, a whip to the legs, so he can not hunt or steal for days. Our beloved Demetrius learns this the hard way.

If this was not enough, for them to be shaped as true “Spartans,” at the age of 20 the boys had to pass a rigorous test, and graduate as full citizens and real soldiers. Every year in Sparta a special festival called Diamastigosis was held. Among the many things, the most anticipated event of the festival was also the most brutal one, and this activity was the boys’ test of manhood. In a public manner, in front of every single Spartan and guests from abroad, all who made it this far were taken out and whipped until their conscience serves them. It seems like torture, but for Spartans it was the greatest honor of all, and all boys were eager to volunteer and withstand the pain and abuse longer than everyone else. These boys were trained to face abuse and never surrender under any circumstances. They weren’t just trained to be an unmovable brick in the Spartan wall, they were trained to be the unconquerable wall itself. They were trained to be Sparta!

All who cried for mercy under the whip for were labeled as perioeci, a middle class. They were still soldiers of Sparta, but a low life who later struggled to find a mate and form a family of their own. As for all the others, they were awarded aristocratic citizenship and continued to live their lives as soldiers within the barracks until their 30s, when they were deemed ready form a family and produce Spartans of their own.

As for Demetrius, well he learns to endure the pain, never shed a single tear or a cry for help. He lives on to fight the Battle of Leuctra against Thebes in 371 B.C. under King Agesilaus II. He lives to have the honor to be pointed at by his king as the wall of Sparta. He survives the battle and outlives his king as well, and lives to reach the age of 60 when he retires from any military activity, as Spartan Laws clearly stated.

He has a wife and family of his own, but never a Spartan boy. He has two little daughters, who in the same manner as the boys when they’ve reached the age of seven are taken from his home and sent to school to learn a few things. To fight, wrestle, and be proficient gymnasts, javelin throwers, and endure physical pain. For only a Spartan mother could bear a strong Spartan child later on.

Our Demetrius, who we only imagined so we can tell a tale of Sparta and how it came to be feared for centuries, dies right after his daughters are taken away from him, but never buried under a tombstone. For that was an honor reserved only for those who died in combat.

By Martin Chalakoski

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How a German city changed how we read

Despite the far-reaching consequences of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, much about the man remains a mystery, buried deep beneath layers of Mainz history.

The German city of Mainz lies on the banks of the River Rhine. It is most notable for its wine, its cathedral and for being the home of Johannes Gutenberg, who introduced the printing press to Europe. Although these things may seem unconnected at first, here they overlap, merging and influencing one another.

The three elements converge on market days, when local producers and winemakers sell their goods in the main square surrounding the sprawling St Martin’s Cathedral. Diagonally opposite is the Gutenberg Museum, named after the city’s most famous inhabitant, who was born in Mainz around 1399 and died here 550 years ago in 1468.

The printing press marks the turning point from medieval times to modernity in the Western world

It was Gutenberg who invented Europe’s first movable metal type printing press, which started the printing revolution and marks the turning point from medieval times to modernity in the Western world. Although the Chinese were using woodblock printing many centuries earlier, with a complete printed book, made in 868, found in a cave in north-west China, movable type printing never became very popular in the East due to the importance of calligraphy, the complexity of hand-written Chinese and the large number of characters. Gutenberg’s press, however, was well suited to the European writing system, and its development was heavily influenced by the area from which it came.

Mainz, Germany, is the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable metal type printing press (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

The German city of Mainz is most notable for being the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable metal type printing press (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

 

In the Middle Ages, Mainz was one of the most important cathedral cities in the Holy Roman Empire, in which the Church and the archbishop of Mainz were the centre of influence and political power. Gutenberg, as an educated and entrepreneurial patrician, would have recognised the Church’s need to update the method of replicating manuscripts, which were hand-copied by monks. This was an incredibly slow and laborious process; one that could not keep up with the growing demand for books at the time. In his book, Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age, Dr Bill Kovarik, professor of communication at Radford University in the US state of Virginia, describes this capacity in terms of ‘monk power’, where ‘one monk’ equals a day’s work – about one page – for a manuscript copier. Gutenberg’s press amplified the power of a monk by 200 times.

At the Gutenberg Museum, I watched a demonstration of a page being printed on a replica of the press. First, a metal alloy was heated and poured into a matrix (a mould used to cast a letter). Once the alloy cooled, the small metal letters were arranged into words and sentences in a form and inked. Finally, paper was placed on top of the form and a heavy plate was pressed upon it, similar to how a wine press works. This is no coincidence: Gutenberg’s printing press is thought to be a modification of the wine press. Since the Romans introduced winemaking to the region, the area around Mainz has been one of Germany’s main wine-producing areas, with famous grape varieties such as riesling, dornfelder and silvaner.

The page that is always printed at the Gutenberg Museum replicates the original style and font (Gothic Textura) of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, the first major book ever to be printed using movable type in the Western world. It is the first page of St John’s Gospel, in the Bible, which begins: “In the beginning was the word…”

Gutenberg’s printing press made it easier for the Church to replicate religious manuscripts (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Gutenberg’s printing press made it easier for the Church to replicate religious manuscripts (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Writing is often considered the first communication revolution, while Gutenberg’s printing press brought with it the revolution of mass communication. After about 15 years of development – and huge capital investment – Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1455.

“Gutenberg’s Bible is an extraordinary work of craftsmanship,” said Dr Kovarik, who suggests we can read a strong religious motivation into the perfection of his work. “This wasn’t unusual at the time – for example, a stonemason would try to achieve a perfect sculpture in a remote corner of one of the great cathedrals, not really for the people who would be worshipping there, but rather as an expression of personal faith.”

Gutenberg’s printing press brought with it the revolution of mass communication

Of his original print run of about 150 to 180 Bibles, only 48 remain in the world today. The Gutenberg Museum has two on display. Both are slightly different, because after printing, the pages would be taken to a rubricator (specialised scriber) who would paint in certain letters according to the tastes of their customers. Gutenberg’s Bibles turned out to be bestsellers.

At first, the Church welcomed the new availability of printed bibles and other religious texts. Printing enabled the Church to spread the Christian message and raise cash in the form of ‘indulgences’ – printed documents that forgave people’s sins. However, the disruptive power of the printed word soon became apparent. With the rapid spread of printing technology – by the 1470s, every European city had printing companies, and by the 1500s, an estimated four million books had been printed and sold — came the spread of new and often contradictory ideas, such as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, in which he criticised the Church’s sale of indulgences. Luther is said to have nailed his text to a Wittenberg church door on 31 October 1517. Within a few years 300,000 copies of it had been printed and circulated, leading to the Reformation and a permanent split in the Church.

Of the 150 to 180 Bibles Gutenberg originally printed, only 48 remain in the world today (Credit: Credit: Ann Johansson/Getty Images)

Of the 150 to 180 Bibles Gutenberg originally printed, only 48 remain in the world today (Credit: Ann Johansson/Getty Images)

But despite the far-reaching consequences of Gutenburg’s press, much about the man remains a mystery, buried deep beneath layers of Mainz history. A plaque marks the place where he was born on corner of Christofsstraße, but the original house is long gone. Today, a modern building stands there, occupied by a pharmacy.

Another plaque outside the nearby St Christoph’s Church marks the place where he was likely baptised. The church was bombed during World War II and remains in ruins as a war memorial, although the original baptismal font from Gutenberg’s time is still intact.

The graveyard where Gutenberg was buried has been paved over, and even though there are statues of him are everywhere in the city, we don’t know what he looked like. He is commonly depicted with a beard, but it is unlikely that he had one. Gutenberg was a patrician and during his time, according to my tour guide Johanna Hein, only pilgrims and Jews wore beards. In fact, the man we all know as Johannes Gutenberg was actually born Johannes Gensfleisch (which translates to ‘goose meat’). If it weren’t for the 14th-Century trend of people renaming themselves after their houses, we would perhaps be referring to his invention as the Gensfleisch Press today.

Despite the far-reaching consequences of his printing press, little is known about Gutenberg today (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Despite the far-reaching consequences of his printing press, little is known about Gutenberg today (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

But although the traces of the man have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere: a poster advertising cosmetics; a woman reading a newspaper in a cafe; the menu on a restaurant table. Furthermore, our current communications revolution, made possible by the internet, digital technology and social media, is a progression of what started with Gutenberg.

“Every time the cost of media declines rapidly, you enable more people to speak out, and you have a greater diversity of voices,” said Dr Kovarik, explaining that this impacts the distribution of power in society, and sparks social change.

Although the traces of Gutenberg have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere (Credit: Credit: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy)

Although the traces of Gutenberg have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere (Credit: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy)

Paradoxically, however, our digital revolution can also be seen as a return to the pre-print era, according to a theory called The Gutenberg Parenthesis by Dr Thomas Pettitt, affiliate research professor at the University of Southern Denmark, who argues that there are parallels between the pre-print age and our own internet age.

In the absence of print, news has lost its authenticity, and, as in the Middle Ages, is synonymous with rumour

“Print conferred stability on discourse; works in books were authorities; news in print was true. In the absence of print, news has lost its authenticity, and, as in the Middle Ages, is synonymous with rumour. We are now in a post-news phase, where purveyors of fake news can accuse the legitimate press of purveying fake news and get away with it,” Dr Pettitt said.

Whatever the impact of the 21st-Century digital revolution, just like the printing revolution before it, the effects will reverberate for hundreds of years to come.

By Madhvi Ramani 8 May 2018

The cost of changing an entire country’s alphabet

The Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan is changing its alphabet from Cyrillic script to the Latin-based style favoured by the West. What are the economics of such a change?

The Economics of Change

The change, announced on a blustery Tuesday morning in mid-February, was small but significant – and it elicited a big response.

“This one is more beautiful!” Asset Kaipiyev exclaims in surprise. The co-founder of a small restaurant in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, Kaipiyev had just been shown the latest version of the new alphabet, approved by President Nursultan Nazarbayev earlier in the day.

The government signed off on a new alphabet, based on a Latin script instead of Kazakhstan’s current use of Cyrillic, in October. But it has faced vocal criticism from the population – a rare occurrence in this nominally democratic country ruled by Nazarbayev’s iron fist for almost three decades.

(Credit: Piero Zagami)

In this first version of the new alphabet,apostrophes were used to depict sounds specific to the Kazakh tongue, prompting critics to call it “ugly”.

The second variation, which Kaipiyev liked better, makes use of acute accents above the extra letters. So, for example, the Republic of Kazakhstan, which would in the first version have been Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy, is now Qazaqstan Respýblıkasy, removing the apostrophes.

“It is more beautiful than the former variant,” says Kaipiyev. “I don’t like the old one because it looks like a tadpole.”

Then it hit him. His restaurant, which opened in December, is called Sa’biz –spelt using the first version of the alphabet. All his marketing materials, the labelling on napkin holders and menus, and even the massive sign outside the building will have to be replaced.

In his attempt to get ahead by launching in the new alphabet, Kaipiyev had not predicted that the government would revise it. He thinks it will cost about $3,000 to change the spelling of the name on everything to the new version, Sábiz.

What Kaipiyev and other small business owners are going through will be happening at a larger scale as the government aims to transition fully to the Latin-based script by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal in a nation where the majority of the population are more fluent in Russian than in Kazakh.

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Asset Kaipiyev, co-founder of Sa’biz, changed the spelling of his restaurant – now he has to change it again (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Mother tongue

According to the 2016 census, ethnic Kazakhs make up about two-thirds of the population, while ethnic Russians are about 20%. But years under Soviet rule mean Russian is spoken by nearly everyone in country – roughly 94% of the more than 18 million citizens are fluent in it. Kazakh fluency is at second place, at 74%.

Years under Soviet rule mean Russian is spoken by nearly everyone in country – roughly 94% of the population is fluent in it

Frequency of usage depends on the environment. In the Russian-influenced northern provinces and city centres, like Almaty and the capital Astana, Russian is used both on the street and in state offices. But in the south and west, Kazakh is more regularly used.

That the Kazakh language is currently written in Cyrillic – and the persistent use of Russian in elite circles – is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s rule, one that some of its neighbouring countries sought to shed right after the union’s collapse in 1991. Azerbaijan, for example, started introducing textbooks in Latin script the next year, while Turkmenistan followed suit in 1993. Kazakhstan is making the transition almost three decades on, in a different economic environment that makes the costs hard to predict.

(Credit: Piero Zagami)

The cost of change

So far, state media has reported that the government’s total budget for the seven-year transition – which has been divided into three stages – will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge ($664m). About 90% of that amount is going to education programmes the publication of textbooks for education programmes in the new Latin script, including for literature classes.

According to state news media, the government has allocated roughly 300 million tenge each ($922,000) for 2018 and 2019; this money will go towards education in primary and secondary schools, says Eldar Madumarov, an economist and professor at KIMEP University in Almaty.

The government’s total budget for the seven-year transition will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge, or $664 million

Meanwhile, the translation of teaching kits and textbooks will begin this year, according to state media, while teachers nationwide will start teaching pre-school and first grade students the new alphabet in 2020, adding a grade each year until 2025, when all levels from pre-school to the final grade will have fully transitioned.

“BBC

There is also budget for developing a language converter IT program to recode Cyrillic script into Latin in the third quarter of 2018 (approximately $166,000), improving the qualifications of secondary school teachers ($33.2m), and hiring influential bloggers to push forward an awareness campaign for the final stage of the transition, beginning in 2024 ($1.4 million).

But without a clear breakdown provided by the government, some economists have found it difficult to properly assess the direct costs of this massive undertaking. (The ministries of foreign affairs, education, and culture did not respond to requests for comment and clarification.)

Hidden costs

The piecemeal reporting of how the transition will happen makes one economist worried about the unexpected costs.

“If this reform is not properly implemented, the risks are high that highly qualified people from the Russian-speaking majority, which includes also ethnic Kazakhs, may want to consider emigration,” says Madumarov. “The risks may be that some of their opportunities would be cut.”

If this reform is not properly implemented, highly qualified people from the Russian-speaking majority may want to consider emigration – Eldar Madumarov

In late February, the extent of the issue was on display when Nazarbayev – who is comfortably bilingual – ordered that all cabinet meetings be held in Kazakh. Since Russian has long been the lingua franca of state affairs, government officials’ command of Russian often surpasses their Kazakh. One meeting was broadcast over TV, and it showed officials struggling to express themselves. Some even opted to wear translation headsets.

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

City librarians take a class on the new alphabet at the National Library in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 21 February 2018 (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Bureaucratic characters

There’s also the cost of changing the language of government affairs. IDs, passports, printed laws and regulations – all the paperwork that governments need in order to function will have to be translated. While this has been reportedly part of the second and final stage of the transition, there has been no listed amount for this expense, says Kassymkhan Kapparov, director of the Almaty-based Bureau for Economic Research of Kazakhstan.

For things like passports and IDs, there is already a fixed fee to renew, “so the only thing that would change is that the letters would just change in the software,” Kapparov says, adding that a new passport costs roughly $60 while an ID card is about $1.50. “The government left it blank. I think the logic is that it would not cost anything.”

But he remains most curious about the third stage, which reportedly begins in 2024 and includes the translation of internal business documents within the central and local state bodies, while state media would also need to implement the new alphabet.

“For the state’s own media to use the new alphabet, you have to train people first of all, then you have to change all the IT infrastructure to embed this script. And then you have to change all the planks [signboards] and the letterheads and stamps and signs,” he says. “For that, they didn’t provide the estimate… based on my estimates, it would be somewhere between 15 to 30 million [dollars].”

That number is only for the public sector, though. “For the private sector, of course they would have to do it themselves. It could be double, it could be ten times,” Kapparov says. “It depends on how hard the government goes about it, like would they require it to change in a single year? It’s possible. With our government, you never know.”

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

It will cost about $3,000 for Sa’biz restaurant to change the spelling of its name the new version, Sábiz (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Kapparov also worries that people, especially the older generation, would struggle to read and write in the new Latin script, so communications within the public sector may have to be in several languages at once.

“You can call it the language burden, because when you write a letter inside the public sector, you would have to write it in Russian, in Kazakh, and in Kazakh in the new script… and for that you would need to employ translators,” he says. “This creates additional costs and additional inefficiencies and of course the government doesn’t show it in their budget. But it will create an additional burden on the government.”

When it comes to direct costs, Kapparov is confident that his estimates – which he did in 2007 after the first feasibility study came out and again in January of this year when budgetary information started trickling out via state media – would not be more than $1bn for the entire transition.

But the director of Kazakhstan’s Centre for Macroeconomic Research, Olzhas Khudaibergenov, believes the whole transition will cost far less than Kapparov’s estimate. He thinks all paper documents costs will just be folded into the government’s usual budget. “Real expenses will be only for informational and explanatory programmes to support the transition.

“I estimate that the annual budget will not exceed two to three billion tenge [$6.1m-$9.2m] within 2018 to 2025.”

Economic benefits?

Kapparov says this alphabet transition is “hard to sell” for the government, and there won’t be a direct return on investment.

The alphabet change should be seen as more of a social and cultural development programme – Kassymkhan Kapparov

Rather, it “should be seen as more of a social and cultural development programme of the government,” he says.

Khudaibergenov agrees. “It is more a question of national identity which we are trying to find, and are ready to pay for that.”

KIMEP University professor Madumarov believes the economy could be slowed by political ramifications of the language change. While some have speculated that Nazarbayev’s decision to switch might signal cooling ties with Russia, the gradual shift to a Latin-script language could also weaken trade relations with post-Soviet countries.

Currently, up to 10% of the current trade flow between Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine can be explained by the convenience of a shared language, which in some ways translates to a shared culture and mentality, says Madumarov. This also means that Russian-speaking Kazakhs have more economic mobility between countries. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and Georgia, nations that are not as fluent in Russian, have weaker trade links.

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Russian is the language of choice in Kazakhstan’s cities, such as the capital Astana (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Inversely, he says that the benefits to having a Latin-script alphabet means being better integrated with most of the Western world. As an example, Turkey, which switched to a Latin-based alphabet from its former Arabic script in 1928, has managed to form alliances with the European Union and was in negotiations – up until recently, when the government moved towards a more autocratic direction – to be a member.

Turkey has long been used as an example of how modernisation of the language and legal systems led to its position today as an economic power, says Barbara Kellner-Heinkele, a Berlin-based expert in Turkic languages and Turkic history. But she says this progress is due more to growing literacy and republic founder Ataturk’s firm grip over every aspect of society.

Turkey’s 1928 switch to a Latin script “was done in no time”, but back then, few Turks could read and write: Ataturk needed educated people for his country to be on the same level as Europe and the US, “and part of the education drive was the new alphabet”, she says.

An independent nation

Kazakhstan’s transition is more about setting itself apart from its Soviet past than literacy or economics, Kellner-Heinkele says. “It is a political argument to show that they are an independent state and they are modern and they are a nation.”

Fazylzhanova Muratkyzy, a linguist who worked with the government to create the new alphabet, echoes this assessment, and says many Kazakhs associate the Cyrillic-based script to Soviet control.

Young people, especially, are welcoming the change.

Based on surveys that her linguistic institute have conducted over the last decade, Muratkyzy says that 47% of the younger generation – aged 18 to 25 – supported a switch to a Latin-based script in 2007; that number jumped to 80% in 2016.

47% of the younger generation supported a switch to a Latin-based script in 2007; that number jumped to 80% in 2016

“It is the choice of the people, of the nation. And with this new alphabet, it is connected to our dreams and our future,” she says. “It shows that our independent history is finally beginning.”

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Head of national academics Munalbayeva Daurenbekovna discusses the new alphabet at the National Library in Astana (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Munalbayeva Daurenbekovna, head of the National Academic Library, has been holding open classes for librarians and other interested parties to help them get used to the Latin script. She is optimistic the that young people especially will have no trouble learning the new script.

“Teachers would have to learn every day for one month. For children, it would only take 10 lessons, because children learn faster than adults.”

For Kaipiyev, the owner of Sa’biz, moving away from the Cyrillic script – no matter how tedious it is for him as a small business owner – is something he fully supports. “We want to connect with Europe and America, and with other foreign countries. This will help us turn the page to the next chapter,” he says.

As for changing his restaurant material to reflect the latest version of the alphabet?

“I think I will leave it the same for now,” Kaipiyev says, after a moment’s consideration. “We will change it when the people can actually read it.”

By Dene-Hern Chen 25 April 2018

Additional reporting by Makhabbat Kozhabergenova. Additional research by Miriam Quick.

The US-Canada border runs through this tiny library

The Haskell library straddles two nations, with one foot in the US and the other in Canada.

Step into the Haskell Library and you’d easily mistake it for a typical small-town American library. Sure, it’s a bit more elegant, with original woodwork from 1905 and upholstered reading chairs but, still, a library like any other.

The library straddles two nations, with one foot in the US and the other in Canada

Soon, though, questions nag. Why do the librarians toggle effortlessly between English and French? Why do the stacks contain so many books on French-Canadian history? And, most perplexing of all, what is that black line traversing the floor?

The Haskell, it turns out, is a library like no other. It straddles two nations, with one foot in the US and the other in Canada. That black line running along the floor – a strip of masking tape – marks the international border, separating the towns Derby Line, Vermont, from Stanstead, Quebec. The front door, community bulletin board and children’s books are in the US; the remainder of the collection and the reading room is in Canada.

The Haskell Library sits on the border between Vermont in the US and Quebec in Canada (Credit: Credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

The Haskell Library sits on the border between Vermont in the US and Quebec in Canada (Credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

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• The dessert that’s blocked at borders

The tape looks worn. No wonder – it’s the source of endless attention. Not an hour goes by, according to Nancy Rumery, the library’s director, when visitors don’t pose for photos with the line. They pose while making faces, or while lying across the tape. They pose with Flat Stanley, a paper cut-out of the children’s book character. Some families queue on either side of the line, others in descending height order.

Lately, Rumery has noticed something even odder: some visitors freeze before the black line, as if it were emitting an invisible force field. They’ve seen an internet rumour claiming it’s illegal to cross the line. In fact, it is encouraged. The library relishes its role as a sort of free-trade zone for humans, a reprieve from a border that, while not exactly the Korean DMZ, is no longer the loosey-goosey frontier of decades past. Why such a fascination, though, with an innocuous strip of black masking tape?

A border runs through the middle, yet it brings people together

Borders fascinate us, always have. There is something about the divide between two worlds that intrigues – and frightens. Let’s face it, borders can be scary. They hint at darkness and danger out there, on the other side. That is what makes the Haskell Library so refreshing. It refuses to cave to this fear.

“A line on a map is supposed to separate us, supposed to be what divides us,” said Canadian Hal Newman. “But that is what makes the Haskell so spectacular. Yes, a border runs through the middle, yet it brings people together. How fantastic is that?”

Library patrons can freely cross the black tape that marks the international border (Credit: Credit: Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Library patrons can freely cross the black tape that marks the international border (Credit: Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Newman is the former director of the adjoining Haskell Opera House, which also straddles the border. He calls it ‘the impossible room’, as in impossible that such a venue exists. The stage is in Canada, most of the seats in the US. The border, in fact, slices through some of those seats, making the Haskell “the only opera house in the world where you can have one cheek on both sides of the border,” he said.

This is by design, not accident. The Haskell family purposefully built the library and opera house along the border more than a century ago to promote cross-border interaction and friendship.

Managing a bi-national enterprise “is absolutely complex,” said Rumery, who, while Canadian, uses ‘we’ when referring to Canadians or Americans. There are international exchange rates to contend with (the library accepts both currencies; there are no fines, but they sell postcards and other mementos); and two sets of safety regulations (the library uses whichever is strictest). Going out to lunch requires crossing an international border (it’s easier to order in). Rumery must negotiate not only with readers hunting for the latest Stephen King novel but also with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, US Homeland Security, and the International Boundary Commission, among others.

The Haskell Opera House’s stage is in Canada while most of the seats are in the US (Credit: Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

The Haskell Opera House’s stage is in Canada while most of the seats are in the US (Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

Then there was the time 15 years ago when the library wanted to install a new lift. The lift was in Canada, but bringing the crane, which was in the US, to that side – even for a few hours – meant paying hefty duties. The solution? Leave the crane on US soil and hoist the lift through Canadian airspace.

“Sometimes I wish I worked for a plain old cinder block library,” Rumery said, but the mischievous twinkle in her eyes gave her away. She was only kidding. She wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.

The library is more than a geographic curiosity; it is, in this age of geopolitical tension and talk of walls, a reminder that borders are fictions created by humans that are precisely as real, and as menacing, as we choose to make them.

I’ve been visiting this stretch of borderland for years. The cottage I rent with Canadian friends represents something of a compromise; located in Vermont, but so close to Canada you can walk there – which is exactly what I did this summer. I also drove and cycled across the border, each time dutifully clearing US and Canadian customs and immigration.

While kayaking on Lake Memphremagog, the author crossed the US border into Canada (Credit: Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

While kayaking on Lake Memphremagog, the author crossed the US border into Canada (Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

One sunny morning, though, I decided to do something different. I hopped into a kayak and paddled across the border, the boundary marked only by a small white obelisk perched on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Memphremagog. It was wrong, I knew, but also exhilarating. There is something deliciously delinquent about crossing an international border surreptitiously, even one as seemingly benign as the US-Canadian border. I had thrown shade on the Treaty of Westphalia, the 17th-Century accord that created the concept of modern nation-states that prevails to this day.

Borders are not static places. They change with the mood on one, or both, sides of the line. The big change to this sleepy border crossing came after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Streets that traversed the border were closed to traffic. Large potted plants were installed in front of the library, a barrier that would have been unthinkable on 10 September. Today, a US Homeland Security vehicle sits outside the library’s entrance 24 hours a day.

Back in the day you wouldn’t think twice about crossing the border to get a slice of pizza

The biggest change, though, is the steady flow of asylum seekers – ‘northbounders’, as they’re known – from the US to Canada. “I remember one day I saw a van driving up a street on the US side and this family gets out and they run across the border,” Newman recalled. “It’s minus 20C outside and the kids are wearing flip-flops. I’ll never forget that.” People separated by the border arrange to meet at the library, embracing among the copies of Philip Roth and Robertson Davies.

Among long-time residents here a strain of border nostalgia persists. Back in the day you could cross the border effortlessly. Back in the day, the customs agents knew your name and waved you through with a smile. Back in the day you wouldn’t think twice about crossing the border to get a slice of pizza. Back in the day – it isn’t said but understood – life was better.

Before the attacks of 11 September 2001, you could cross the border effortlessly (Credit: Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

Before the attacks of 11 September 2001, you could cross the border effortlessly (Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

“I used to have as many Canadian friends as American friends,” said Buzzy Roy, the pharmacist at Brown’s Drug Store in Derby Line. “You didn’t think of them as Canadians or Americans. They were just friends. In our minds, the border didn’t exist.” Today, the two towns still share a water system but, aside from fond memories, not much else. The library and the adjoining opera house are the last places where residents regularly interact.

You didn’t think of them as Canadians or Americans – they were just friends

Roy’s pharmacy occupies a precarious position, a sort of No Man’s Land between the US and Canada. Cars entering from Canada must drive about 100m before reaching the US customs and immigration post, which means that, while on US soil, they have yet to officially enter the country. The pharmacy stands in this gap. “It’s very confusing, very abnormal. You don’t see many borders like this,” he said, adding that occasionally people walk into his store not knowing which country they’re in.

Derby Line, like many small towns, is hurting economically, as the boarded-up storefronts attest. Competition from big box stores is partly to blame, but so is the border, according to Roy. “Too much hassle for too little reward,” he said. Sometimes borders fuel the local economy, other times they starve it. Never are they neutral.

The library's community bulletin board and children’s books are in the US while the rest of the books are in Canada (Credit: Credit: Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The library’s community bulletin board and children’s books are in the US while the rest of the books are in Canada (Credit: Bloomberg/Getty Images)

“I can see the need for tightening the reins from 30 or 40 years ago, but some of the things they do are unnecessary,” said Brian Smith, a Vermont state representative who has lived virtually his entire life in Derby Line. Smith relayed a story about an 85-year-old Vermont man who drove to visit his Canadian girlfriend. When he returned, the US Homeland Security computers were down, so the agent – who knew the man – insisted he wait for an hour until they came back on line. “That’s ridiculous,” Smith said. “Canada is not our enemy.”

True, but in recent years some have tried to exploit the border’s relative porousness. In 2011, a Montreal man was arrested for allegedly smuggling a rucksack filled with guns through the library’s restroom. (He was recently extradited to the US to face charges there.) It was a shock to the library staff; “a violation of sacred space,” Newman said.

It also raised fears that, in the current climate, the library’s future is uncertain. Shuttering the library, though, wouldn’t happen without a fight, predicted Smith.

“You would see citizen outrage,” he said. “On both sides of the border.”

By Eric Weiner 6 November 2017

 

Canada’s vital role in the communications revolution

I carefully framed the iceberg over my left shoulder and snapped the perfect selfie. A few taps of my phone later, the image was soaring through cyberspace from my location in St John’s, Newfoundland, to my various social media channels and followers around the world.

I smiled, wondering if, when Guglielmo Marconi stood on this spot in December 1901 to receive the world’s first wireless transatlantic transmission, he had any idea of where his success would lead. Would Marconi have taken a selfie on this spot?

Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, is where the first wireless transatlantic transmission was received (Credit: Credit: Wayne Barrett & Anne MacKay/Getty Images)

Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, is where the first wireless transatlantic transmission was received (Credit: Wayne Barrett & Anne MacKay/Getty Images)

I was on Signal Hill, a massive piece of bedrock about 140m above the Atlantic Ocean on Canada’s eastern shore. It’s a dramatic spot where the ocean merges into St John’s Harbour, creating a waterway appropriately called The Narrows. Fishing boats and trawlers pass through each morning just as the sun begins to illuminate the route, and again in the early evening hours to bring seafood to the local restaurants and canneries.

They, too, make vivid images to share on social media.

A paved trail from downtown St John’s follows the harbour shoreline to the bottom of the hill before winding around and up via a series of switchbacks and steps that make the hike an energetic workout. When I explored on a Saturday afternoon, the hillside was dotted with picnickers, dog walkers and people enjoying the beauty of the day. Two wedding parties with photographers in tow were taking advantage of this exceptional setting as a backdrop for their special day.

But its popularity was not what brought Marconi to Signal Hill. Indeed, the number of visitors was a concern as he considered the needs for his experiment.

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America, but it’s protected from North Atlantic storms (Credit: Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/Getty Images)

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America, but it’s protected from North Atlantic (Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/Getty Images)

The child of a wealthy family in Bologna, Italy, Marconi was well-educated, and from an early age was fascinated with science, specifically the transmission of electromagnetic waves through the air. He was the first to discover that by grounding a transmitter and receiver, and raising the height of an antenna, he could extend a signal’s range.

That was big news in 1894. But few in Italy were impressed, so Marconi moved to Great Britain where he patented the invention and found investors to continue his work. The big question of the day was whether a long-distance radio wave could follow the curvature of the Earth or whether it just shot out into space.

Marconi scoured several locations on North America’s eastern seaboard for this experimental, transatlantic transmission. His first choice was a rocky outcropping in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but a series of storms on both sides of the ocean that battered antennae and other equipment eventually led him further north.

Marconi needed to use balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright (Credit: Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Contributor/Getty Images)

Marconi needed to use balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright (Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Contributor/Getty Images)

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America; that would be Cape Spear, a little further south. But Signal Hill is slightly more protected from the North Atlantic’s furious storms by a natural recess in the coastline. On a clear day, you feel as though you could shout a greeting to someone on England’s rocky coast, about 3,500km to the east.

Marconi had already chosen his ideal location on the other side of the Atlantic: Poldhu on the Lizard Peninsula in South Cornwall. Although the original transmission station is gone, a monument and visitors centre today marks the spot and interprets what was going on here while Marconi and team worked on the other side of the ocean.

The transmission was sent from Poldhu, South Cornwall, where a monument to Marconi now stands (Credit: Credit: incamerastock/Alamy)

The transmission was sent from Poldhu, South Cornwall, where a monument to Marconi now stands (Credit: incamerastock/Alamy)

Those in England worked in isolation, struggling with weather conditions of their own, not knowing at all what was transpiring in Newfoundland. It had been weeks since they had communicated with Marconi and team.

For several days, at an appointed time each day, the scientists at Poldhu transmitted three simple dots – the Morse code signal for the letter ‘s’. Marconi was battling against the violently cold and windy winter up here, and needed to use a series of balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright. But each day, at the designated time, he donned headsets and listened.

Finally, on 12 December 1901, it happened. Dot-dot-dot.

It was one of Marconi’s radios that received wireless transmissions from the sinking RMS Titanic (Credit: Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

It was one of Marconi’s radios that received wireless transmissions from the sinking RMS Titanic (Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Marconi was instantly a name known around the world, comparable today perhaps to Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. He made millions from his inventions and received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909.

Marconi was instantly a name known around the world

Signal Hill is now a National Historic Site. And about 64km south is Cape Race, the first permanent Marconi station in North America. It was here on a cold night in April 1912 that wireless transmissions from the RMS Titanic were received and shared with the rest of the world.

Both places are worthy of a selfie, thanks to Guglielmo Marconi.

By Diana Lambdin Meyer  2 September 2017

 

A Serbian flight attendant who survived a plane crash from 33,000 feet in the sky afterward asked to return to her job

Featured image
Photo: clipperarctic CC BY-SA 2.0

Italian master fantasist Dino Buzzati in 1966 wrote about the Ragazza Che Precipita or “The Falling Girl,” a story about Marta and her great descent from the rooftop of a gigantic skyscraper.

Buzzati masterfully used Zeno’s mathematical paradox in his narrative to slow down time as if it were not passing at all for the little girl, forcing her to contemplate her life. Many say that when people are in a state of emergency and faced with grave danger, time moves very slowly for them as well. In truth, the feeling is just an illusion and our brains are simply working faster on such occasions.

That being said, who knows how fast was it going for Vesna Vulovic in 1972 and what dreams and goals she felt she would miss as she was descending, not from a tall skyscraper, but while stuck within an airplane that burst into flames 33,000 feet up and falling ablaze, quickly accelerating towards the inevitable crash that was getting closer and closer with every passing second.

Was she thinking about all the things she would never have a chance to have? Was she thinking about her parents, about her loved ones? About everything she was about to lose. Of kids perhaps? She was 22.

All memory of the plane crash stayed forever suppressed as fragments tucked away in a far corner of her brain–a brain that luckily survived intact after her skull was completely shattered along with both of her legs, two vertebrae bones, her whole pelvis, and several ribs. She was smashed, shattered, and broken all over, yet she survived and miraculously recovered. She had no memory of what went wrong or what happened on the way down. Nor of what she was doing the whole time. Remarkably, she asked to be reinstated in her old position as a flight attendant.

Vulovic was working on board the McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 aircraft, Flight 367 for JAT Yugoslav Airlines, that exploded mid-air and split into two over Czechoslovakia. She was not even supposed to be on the plane. She had had a day off but was mixed up with another flight attendant with the same name and was called by mistake. An hour into the flight, as they were headed from Stockholm to Belgrade, a bomb went off in the cargo hold. Twenty-seven of the 28 passengers and crew members on-board died–either in the initial explosion, sucked out of the jet plane into subfreezing temperatures on the way down, or killed when they hit the snow near the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany, in the small village of Srbská Kamenice.

Roughly 250 people lived in the village that frosty day of January 6, 1972. One of them heard the helpless women screaming for help in agony. His name was Bruno Honke and he found her nearly dead with her legs visible in the plane wreckage. She was losing a lot of blood, but a rescue team arrived quickly and took her to a hospital.

“The first thing I remember is seeing my parents in the hospital. I was talking to them and asking them why they were with me,” she said to Green Light Limited, a London based security training firm who approached her for an interview in 2002, three decades after her devastating crash.

“When I saw a newspaper and read what had happened, I nearly died from the shock,” she said in the New York Times in 2008. An investigation concluded that when the bomb went off and detached the cockpit from the rest of the plane, she found herself trapped in her seat by the food cart that miraculously kept her stuck in place the whole time.

 She was in a coma for a couple of weeks after the incident but fortunately for her, the snow was thick and the plane crashed in the trees of a forested hillside that probably softened the blow enough to spare her life.

Though she was paralyzed from the waist down at first, within months she made a full recovery and went on to live a normal life (with a limp though), for the next 40 years, or until December 23, 2016, when a neighbor found her dead in her apartment in Belgrade.

“I was broken and the doctors put me together again. Nobody ever expected me to live this long,” she confessed in the same interview for the New York Times.

And nobody did indeed expect her to survive the injuries. As nobody ever imagined that, right after her recovery, she would ask her employer to resume working as a flight attendant. However, JAT Yugoslav Airlines believed that putting her back up in the air could bring bad press and risk terrifying the passengers who would be with her on the same plane and would recognize her. “They didn’t want me because they didn’t want so much publicity about the accident,” she said for Green Light.

Instead, they gave her an office job, and Vesna Vulovic, who continued to travel by air, never really was seen as a threat by passengers. On the contrary. “People always want to sit next to me on the plane,” she said. After all, she was a real hero in her country and was recognized as “the woman who cheated death” throughout south-east Europe. So in a way perhaps they saw her as a lucky charm on their flights.

As of what might have happened, it is still unclear to this day. One theory states that a bomb was placed in the luggage compartment right below the cockpit during their stop-over in Copenhagen, and another one stipulates that the plane had some problems and was looking for a safe landing in Czechoslovakia but got really low, really fast–and close to a nuclear weapons storage facility and was shot down by fighter jets. However, black boxes were never recovered, no one was arrested, and nothing was ever proven.

For what is worth, Vulovic, who unintentionally holds the record for surviving the highest free fall without a parachute, and was credited in the Guinness Book of Records of 1985, made sure to live a life worth living and make every second count.

After the devastating accident, she used all her popularity and public persona to fight against injustice and the dictatorial governance in her home country, led by President Slobodan Milosevich, who later stood trial in Hague accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, and was labeled as the “Butcher of the Balkans.”

 Martin Chalakoski