Road of Bones: A visit to a Gulag city with Harry Wu

TriQuarterly has just published my essay/memoir on visiting the Gulag region of Kolyma with Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu, along with a ex-cop who claimed he won a wife in a card game. Here’s an excerpt:

1. The Mask of Sorrow

From a hilltop above the North Pacific seaport of Magadan, Russia, The Mask of Sorrow—a 50-foot monument that resembles an Easter Island head—overlooks the city. You keep glimpsing this concrete memorial from afar as you move about town, passing Stalin-era buildings downtown, skirting abandoned construction sites, puzzling over the sight of two fighter jets perched on a huge steel structure over a creek, as if they had snagged themselves while flying under the radar. The giant face, by the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, is pocked on one side with lesions that resemble the “lion’s mask” of leprosy described by the Gulag author Varlam Shalamov. One of its eyes discharges blobby tears.

The monument honors the victims of the Kolyma Gulag camps, once centered here in Magadan. In Stalinist times, these people—millions, perhaps—were worked to death felling timber or frozen in punishment cells or simply called from their barracks and shot to meet the day’s quota of executions. Certain citizens of Magadan are proud of the monument: camp survivors, their children, people of conscience who preserved the memory of Soviet crimes. Few cities in Russia have ever created such a prominent memorial, and the organizers in Magadan had to overcome a hostile rear guard that asserted the past was a long time ago and never really happened anyway. Now, the organizers longed for the approval of a guest they were showing around town: a Chinese American human rights activist named Harry Wu.

But to his hosts’ surprise, Wu seemed dissatisfied. Wearing an elastic scowl and glasses that magnified his mournful eyes, he marched around with his hands clasped behind his back, in the manner of Chinese prisoners. One of his hosts, Miron Etlis, was a psychiatrist and Gulag survivor with a beard that had slipped down his throat like a muffler. He kept grabbing Wu by the elbow, as if to drag a word of praise out of him. But Wu told his hosts to pack up the monument and truck it down to the city center.

“You have to remove all the Lenin and Stalin statues and put up Gulag monuments,” Wu said, jabbing a finger at his hosts. “That’s the only way to keep it from coming back.”

Read more here.

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The Sony Hack (cont.): Dirty Russkies?

IdiotsMy Russian wife, who thinks her countrymen were behind the Sony hack, finds support in The New York Times. (Alternate theory: It’s an inside job by a disgruntled ex-employee.)

On Wednesday, one alternate theory emerged. Computational linguists at Taia Global, a cybersecurity consultancy, performed a linguistic analysis of the hackers’ online messages — which were all written in imperfect English — and concluded that based on translation errors and phrasing, the attackers are more likely to be Russian speakers than Korean speakers.

Such linguistic analysis is hardly foolproof. But the practice, known as stylometry, has been used to contest the authors behind some of history’s most disputed documents, from Shakespearean sonnets to the Federalist Papers.

Shlomo Argamon, Taia’s Global’s chief scientist, said in an interview Wednesday that the research was not a quantitative, computer analysis. Mr. Argamon said he and a team of linguists had mined hackers’ messages for phrases that are not normally used in English and found 20 in total. Korean, Mandarin, Russian and German linguists then conducted literal word-for-word translations of those phrases in each language. Of the 20, 15 appeared to be literal Russian translations, nine were Korean and none matched Mandarin or German phrases.

Mr. Argamon’s team performed a second test of cases where hackers used incorrect English grammar. They asked the same linguists if five of those constructions were valid in their own language. Three of the constructions were consistent with Russian; only one was a valid Korean construction.

“Korea is still a possibility, but it’s much less likely than Russia,” Mr. Argamon said of his findings.

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Sacred War: Sony and North Korea

It’s interesting that North Korea’s official propaganda site still hasn’t gloated about Sony’s capitulation. As best I can tell, Korean Central News Agency hasn’t reported on the hack since Dec. 7, when it denied Pyongyang was responsible. But what does it say about U.S. cyber security when a country that doesn’t even allow the Internet is able to penetrate a private corporation’s computer network with ease? KCNA’s website is based in Japan; how can a country incapable of hosting its own official website steal every closely guarded trade secret from a major media company? My wife, who is Russian, thinks her countrymen were involved. I say it’s China, which adores its tantrum-throwing little brother.

Here’s a quote from KCNA’s statement on the 7th.

The south Korean puppet group [i.e., the South Korean government] went the lengths of floating the false rumor that the north was involved in the hacking that happened in the U.S., a country far across the ocean.

It should be well aware that it can not evade the severe punishment by the anti-U.S. sacred war to be staged all over the world if it blindly curries favor with the U.S. as now.

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Things you can buy, pay for, do, or underwrite for the cost of Jay Cutler’s $126.7 million contract

Heck, we’re all excited about the Bears-Vikings game this weekend here in Chicagoland. Win or lose, we’ll know that we’re taking part in the grand American experiment in income redistribution, in this case to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who signed a $126.7 million, multi-year deal not long ago, only to lead the team to a 3-6 record.

If you are with the Bears management—or are simply a billionaire seeking ways to burn through excess cash—here are my suggestions for getting rid of your next $126.7 million.

Backfill: Without bothering to Google this, I’m sure this idea isn’t original. This is just my contribution to an important discussion of the day.

  1. Make the movie “Gravity” ($110 million)

Bonus: meeting Sandra Bullock. Downside: meeting George Clooney, the only person on earth more irksome to the majority of American males than Cutler.

  1. Send a probe to Mars, with the help of India ($74 million)

“Our program stands out as the most cost-effective,” gloats Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who no doubt has lived at some point in Green Bay. “There is this story of our Mars mission costing less than the Hollywood movie ‘Gravity.’”

Downside: this doesn’t clean out nearly enough of that $127 million you’re trying to get rid of. You’ll have to hire a crew of “undocumented immigrants” to work around the clock flushing the remaining $53 million down the toilet. Noted Chicagoan Barack Obama promises they will be getting their social security cards and work permits within a week or so.

  1. Buy Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” ($120 million)

Then go sit alone a barely lighted room and shriek at it after every Bears loss.

  1. Buy the Maltese Falcon ($120 million).

No, not the prop from the Bogart movie. I mean the yacht owned by Elena Ambrosiadou, co-founder and chief executive of Ikos Partners (whatever that is). Sail it out to sea, torpedo it, and sink it. Surely you can find a torpedo for $7 million.

  1. Cover the $120 million in retirement and disability benefits paid out in perpetuity to dead federal employees

“The Inspector General for the U.S. Office of Personnel management found that ‘the amount of post-death improper payments is consistently $100 million – $150 million annually, totaling over $601 million in the last five years.’”

Sort of like the way we’re stuck with Cutler’s salary until he dies, and, probably, forever thereafter.

  1. Buy the De Beers Centenary Diamond ($100 million)

Diamonds are incredibly hard. Most likely they aren’t easy to hammer into dust, like the hopes of Bears fans. But buy this, and with your remaining $20 million, you’ll have plenty of money to take a luxury cruise to Reykjavik, find a volcano, and hurl your precious gem into the fiery cauldron of molten rock. Bring your suitcase with the rest of your cash and shake it out over the inferno. Watch the bills burst into tongues of flame that float away like a hopeless Pentecost without any apostles.

  1. Buy 1.8 million goats for needy Congolese

Samaritan’s Purse, the organization whose brave doctors and nurses are fighting Ebola, also has other relief work around the world. Why not buy a couple million goats for needy Congolese displaced by the ruthless Lord’s Resistance Army?

The best thing is, this is far more purposeful than running after a failed NFL quarterback and begging him to please take more of the cash you’re trying to stuff into his pockets. Plus, you can graze your herd on the rich Astrotuf at Halas Hall while you wait to ship them abroad.

  1. Equip an army of 2.47 million with potato cannons (at $51.21 apiece)

“Never underestimate the power of the City Slicker. Its [sic] actually the world’s most popular potato gun. Why? Because it’s easy to handle, easy to carry and easy to store. But it still packs a powerful punch. Due to the City Slicker’s compact size, it has a very loud discharge and shoots an 18″ flame out the end! If you use your tennis ball attachment in the city, you might never see your tennis ball again. The Quarter Mile Cannon City Slicker is perfect for the backyard, park, and field.”

“Packs a powerful punch.” We’re optimistic that these words will describe the Bears’ play this weekend. But if not, here’s what your money would do: arm the better part of the population of Chicago to launch a potato cannon assault on Soldier Field tomorrow as the Bears slink off the field after giving up another fifty-odd points.

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Beheading in Islam: What would Muhammad do?

The news that the Islamic State is threatening an Indiana man with beheading, and that a Muslim convert in Oklahoma beheaded a coworker has again raised the question: Why do people keep decapitating others in the name of Islam?

The question has made the news periodically ever since the death of Daniel Pearl, and more recently amid the carnage in Iraq and Syria under the Islamic State. David Cameron (“They are not Muslims, they are monsters“) and Barrack Obama (“ISIL is not Islamic“) seem to believe that such actions are without precedent in Islam. Besides, to their credit, some “Muslim groups condemned the violence and offered condolences to the families of its victims.” In the light of this, it would be ridiculously unfair to suggest that Muslims as a whole condone such brutality. No doubt the vast majority worldwide are disgusted by the brutality in Syria and Iraq. Anyway, Mexican narco-terrorists also behead their victims and the biblical prophet Samuel hewed the Amelakite king Agag to pieces, so Muslims are not alone in committing such crimes.

And yet. Is it possible to ask about Muhammad’s position on decapitation without getting one’s own head lopped off by those who believe the act is consistent with their religion? Allah states in the Quran (8.12:), “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.”

Quoted out of context? Then let’s look to the medieval biography, “The Life of Muhammad,” where author Ibn Ishq (704-767? A.D.) offers clues about the Apostle’s thoughts on beheading. I quote from the Alfred Guillaume translation (Karachi: Oxford University Press, pg. 464):

Then they [the Banu Qurayza, a Jewish tribe in Medina] surrendered, and the apostle confined them in Medina in the quarter of d. al-Harith, a woman of B. al-Najjar. Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah Huyayy b. Akhtab and Ka`b b. Asad their chief. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900. As they were being taken out in batches to the apostle they asked Ka`b what he thought would be done with them. He replied, “Will you never understand? Don’t you see that the summoner never stops and those who are taken away do not return? By Allah it is death!” This went on until the apostle made an end of them.

Huyayy was brought out wearing a flowered robe in which he had made holes about the size of the finger-tips in every part so that it should not be taken from him as spoil, with his hands bound to his neck by a rope. When he saw the apostle he said, “By God, I do not blame myself for opposing you, but he who forsakes God will be forsaken.” Then he went to the men and said, “God’s command is right. A book and a decree, and massacre have been written against the Sons of Israel.” Then he sat down and his head was struck off.”

A Jewish woman was also killed. She seemed to find the slaughter of her kinsmen funny, so said Aisha, child wife of Muhammad. “I will not forget that she was laughing extremely although she knew that she would be killed.” A cheerful optimist, able to look at the bright side of the massacre, perhaps. Then again, maybe she went mad. The rest of the women and children were distributed among the Muslims as slaves.

As The New Republic argues, “If ISIS is not Islamic, then the Inquisition was not Catholic.”


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Surviving a bears game

Da Bears? Those bums! But here’s what I did during the game yesterday to avoid that feeling I have that I’ve wasted 3+ hours whenever I watch them play:

1. Early lunch with Nonna and Russian-Ukrainian friend while discussing the situation in her homeland. (TV off until 12:30.)

2. Work out in front of the tube while Lev draws picture of Jay Cutler with stickers on his helmet that read “I’m stupid” and “Total Failure.”

3. Clean gerbil cages while Cutler throws another interception. Lev says, “I can’t stand this anymore!” and rushes outside to see if his friends are around.

4. Trim warts on bottom of foot and dribble them in Dr. Scholl’s wart acid as Bears collapse in overtime.

Great afternoon.

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Self featured in new edition of Crab Orchard Review

While I’m tooting my own horn, the latest issue of the Crab Orchard Review is just out, with a story of mine on a disabled Korean-American day laborer. It’s not online but can be found the old-fashioned way, at your local bookstore.

Here’s the award announcement from the Illinois literary journal:

We are pleased to announce the winners of last year’s Special Issue Feature Awards for our special issue “The West Coast and Beyond,” CRAB ORCHARD REVIEW, Volume 19, Number 2 (Summer/Fall 2014). The winners were selected by the editors of Crab Orchard Review.

In poetry, our winner is Terry Lucas of Mill Valley, California, for his poem “Contra Costa.” In fiction, the winner is Russell Working of Oak Park, Illinois, for his story “The Day Job.” And in literary nonfiction, the winner is Debra Gwartney of Finn Rock, Oregon, for her essay “Her Hair.” The winner in each genre category—Poetry, Fiction, and Literary Nonfiction—is published in “The West Coast and Beyond,” CRAB ORCHARD REVIEW, Volume 19, Number 2 (Summer/Fall 2014) and received a $2,000.00 award.

Congratulations to my fellow winners, and thank you to Managing Editor Jon Tribble and everyone at Crab Orchard for the chance to publish in their great review.

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