Raymond Soltysek's Blog

Things I want to see in Kazakhstan (2)…

Posted in Environment, Kazakhstan, Travel by raymondsoltysek on October 30, 2012

Male Saiga

I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a disaster tourist, but…

Kazakhstan is a country blighted by environmental disasters.  One of the most heart-rending is the plight of the Saiga, a tiny, bulbous nosed antelope of the Steppe whose population has crashed during the last twenty years, largely due to poaching to fuel a medicine market in China that has been denied rhino horn.  From a population of well over two million, 95% have died since the turn of this century, and the animal is now critically endangered.  There are signs of hope now, though; they almost became extinct in the 1920s for much the same reasons – ironic that their safest time was during the Soviet years – and they recovered then: with protection, they can recover again, helped by their high reproductivity (males apparently often shag themselves to death, with spectacular results in the baby stakes).  However, just as conservation is taking the matter seriously, the depleted herds are now falling victim to diseases like Pasteurellosis.  My chance of seeing these animals is pretty remote, but a visit to the Steppes is a must, so hopefully I will.  I’ve a much better chance of seeing wolves, mind you; despite the loss of Saiga, their prey, wolf packs are on the increase in Kazakhstan, to the extent where they are becoming a real menace in rural areas; they are turning to attacking cattle and occasionally people.  While other wolves get a bad press, Kazakh wolves really are mean motherfuckers.

Let’s not let the Soviets off the hook too quickly, though. Of course, everyone has heard of the disaster of the Aral Sea.  Desertified by Soviet incompetence in virtually draining it to irrigate crops that were never going to grow there anyway, a bustling fishing and shipping economy literally dried up and blew away.  The meddling never stopped: as the salinity levels increased and the freshwater fish died, salt water species were introduced to try to prop up fishing communities.  Now, as water management and damming offers some hope to save the Kazakh northern lake, these salt species themselves face extinction.  Never, ever trust technology to solve an environmental problem: it ony seems to make matters worse.  Best to try to return it to Mother Nature, I reckon.  But the towns along what was the coast are apparently eerily beautiful, poignant, lost places, dotted with ship graveyards where camels graze between the rusting hulls.  Disaster tourism isn’t pretty, but at least we can get a first hand  look at Man’s stupidity to Man.

Aral sea desertification

Or Man’s utter inhumanity to man.  In the far east of the country, Semey is the city once known as Semipalatinsk.  A pretty city with Tsarist buildings and connections with Kazakh and Russian literature (including Dostoevsky), it was the centre of the Russian nuclear weapons testing facilities during the Cold War.  Four hundred and fifty-six weapons were tested in the area, over 150 in the atmosphere over the people’s heads.  Slowly recovering, there are still areas within what was called The Polygon that are unsafe to go, and where visitors have to wear Geiger Counters at all times.  The history of disease and birth malformation in the area is horrific – whatever you do, do not put the search term “Semipalatinsk” through Google image search, because the results will haunt you for days.  Why do I want to go there?  Well, its people’s sufferings drove the current Kazakh government to pledge themselves to rid the country of nuclear weapons – President Nazarbayev apparently narrowly avoided Soviet incarceration because of his unilateral decree to end tests in the country, and post independence, they successfully managed the transition to a nuclear free state.  If anyone deserves good schools and committed teachers, it’s those people.  If I can help with that, I’m up for it.

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A Kindle for Christmas: no thanks…

Posted in Environment, IT, Technology by raymondsoltysek on January 5, 2012

The best thing since the printing press? I don't think so...

A former student of mine was thinking of getting a Kindle recently, and asked her Facebook friends for views that might help her decide whether or not to buy one.  Lots of them jumped in because they’d given one or been given one for Christmas, and they all said the same thing: they’re great, get one, I love it, you will too!

Well, I had to think about why I want to resist them for as long as possible, and in putting forward some counter arguments, I developed my gut feelings into something of a rant.  It’s such fun, and it’s the first of the year…

First, I’ve always thought they’re just ugly, soulless things.  Let’s face it, is anyone going to go in to a museum in 500 years and marvel at the beauty of a Gutenberg Kindle?  Are there monks somewhere devoting their lives and ruining their eyesight to create the wonder of a Medieval Illuminated E-reader?

Can any sort of electronic device capture the real beauty of an art book that replicates great works of art on paper?  One of my favourite books is a catalogue I got at the Rodin Museum in Paris in 2006 of his Cambodian Dancers paintings.  It was a book I pored over: I stroked the glossy paper, stuck my nose between the sheets to smell that glorious new-book smell.  That’s the thing: books are a complete sensory experience. The nicest thing an ex-pupil ever said to me was, “Thanks for everything, Mr Soltysek. Because of you, I still smell books before I buy them.”

And then, what about children’s pop up books?  Even when e-readers are developed to include 3D holographic imaging, could they ever be as beautiful or as sensual as a jungle or a ship in full sail rising out of a gatefold spread?

But it’s what e-readers are designed to do that concerns me: they want to replace books, and one of the main reasons touted is that they save trees.  Well, it’s not quite as simple as that: it never is when companies try to sell us new technology.

The carbon footprint of the average book’s manufacture is 4Kg.  That’s a hefty whack of environmental damage.  However, the carbon footprint of a Kindle’s manufacture is somewhere in the region of 30Kg, and its subsequent lifetime footprint is up to 160Kg.  That’s the equivalent of 47.5 books.

In 2008, there were 338,000,000 books sold in the UK: that’s about 5.2 per person.  So it would take around nine or ten years before there was a carbon footprint benefit.  Of course, not everyone is going to buy a Kindle, just as not everyone buys books, and so my stats are no doubt wonky (I’m an English teacher, give me a break): but the environmental benefits of the e-reader are that not clear cut.

Then there’s the problem of resources used to make them.  Books are made from either recycled paper or trees.  One is good, and the other is good too.  Trees are a renewable resource: for every tree cut down to make paper, we can plant three in its place, as one bog roll manufacturer proudly boasts.  We should be planting more trees.  But the resources to make a Kindle – hydrocarbons for the plastics, silicates for the glass – are non-renewable, exhaustible resources that can never be put back in the ground.  In addition, there are extraordinarily rare materials used in the processor manufacture, and lithium used in the batteries. And at the end of a book’s life, it is bio-degradable; the Kindle is less so by several thousand years, and there’s the problem of toxicity from batteries and chemicals.

It’s the life of a book that swings it for me.  In our libraries, we have books that are hundreds of years old still available to anyone with a membership card.  What’s the life span of an e-reader?  Are they being built with that longevity in mind?  Of course not – we’ve already had several “generations” of the Kindle – and it’s doubtful if consumers will be happy with their 2011 model at the end of 2012, or 2013, or…

I’m by no means a technophobe, and in the last twelve years have changed my home computer three times, my work desktop three times and my laptop four times.  And yes, I feel guilty.  And despite always saying all a mobile phone needs to do is make calls and send texts, I bought my first Android smart phone last year, and am too stupid to use it.  So given how seductive technology upgrades are and given how aggressively manufacturers promote the latest product and ensure that older products are obsolete by withdrawing support, it’s difficult to see how any Kindle buyer will ever make a positive environmental impact by switching from paper to an e-reader they will probably replace every three years as new functionality is added.

I was in a meeting just before Christmas.  There were perhaps forty people in the room.  I had a library book in my bag.  I could return it to the library, and all forty could then have access to that book.  Forty uses for 4KG of carbon footprint.  If the library had an e-lending facility – and I don’t know if such things are possible – each of those forty people would need a Kindle to read it.  That’s 1200 KG of carbon footprint to access the same text. The only advantage of the Kindle would be that they would all have  access to the book at the same time – no waiting for it to be returned, and I’m hopeless at returning books;  but is that a good enough reason for such an environmental impact?  Are we so desperately attached to the modern idea of convenience?  Do we all suffer from I want it now! syndrome?

When I buy a book, I read it.  It then languishes on my shelf for a while before I take it to the charity shop.  I then imagine it being bought and enjoyed by a wee old woman, who perhaps passes it to her daughter, who then gives it to her friend, who then donates it to a charity which ships books to Africa where a mother who will never be able to afford a Kindle can read it to her child.  That’s a wholly romantic fantasy – but books are romantic fantasies.  E-readers, on the other hand, are a consumer product.

So, no thanks.  I’ll stick to books, and to crinkly paper that crackles when you flex the spine and has texture and smells of… something.  Anything.  And no, a new, upgraded scratch’n’sniff Kindle won’t persuade me otherwise.

As for my former student: she says I’ve convinced her.  She always did have great judgement.