December 23, 1990, was a murky, drizzly day in Ljubljana. One would prefer to stay indoors reading a book, watching a movie, or cooking for friends. Perhaps decorating a Christmas tree. Instead, the entire population was on its feet, taking part in the vote on the independence of the Republic of Slovenia, at the time an integral part of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Hands hesitated with heavy responsibility before casting the ballot; we all knew that little gesture would make history, but the vote was also a step toward uncertainty. Such fear comes with the freedom to decide.
This is a short note on the horrific killing in Las Vegas, where 64-year-old Stephen Paddock moved into the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, together with his 23 guns, and three days later killed 59 and injured around 500 people. Apparently, he needed about 11 suitcases to move his arsenal into the suite. He probably was cleaning and oiling his guns before he arranged them on the tables in front of the two windows that covered the area of the concerts, where country music played to 22,000 people packed into the square at the moment of the massacre. Even on that night, Paddock did not need to aim his guns, he was studying and rehearsing how to kill as many people as possible in the shortest time. Paddock was evil, but he was not crazy; he was scientific in everything he did. How he set security cameras outside of his suite and in the lock of the door tells you that Paddock had a method. He was almost as meticulous as the murderer of the JFK.
Recently, Aeon.com published a piece called “This ancient mnemonic technique builds a palace of memory.” I pricked my ears when I read “memory palace.” The last time– according to my memory– this notion was used was more than 500 years ago.
Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit who arrived in China in 1583, had mastered the Chinese language by 1596. He was able to discuss his theory on memory and teach the Chinese people mnemonic techniques. In his little book on the art of memory, he explains in Chinese how to build a memory palace:
On October 18, the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party begins in Beijing. It is an uneventful and dull meeting and yet, since this gathering will choose a new leadership that will lead the country for next five years, the Congress is considered the political event of the year.
The proceedings of the Congress, however, are not at all transparent. It is for this reason that past Congresses have been compared to the Conclave, that unique gathering of the princes of the Church, the Cardinals, convened in Rome every time there is a need to select a new Pope. Except that the close-mouthed meetings behind the sealed doors of the Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals discuss the matters of the Church before they cast their secret ballots, can be, compared to the election of Chinese Party secretary, considered an authentic democratic process.
Last Tuesday, Apple opened the doors of its new 175-acre campus, built in the shape of a gigantic UFO, where 12,000 employees will be working. It will cost Apple five billion dollars– five times as much as Nasa’s Juno, which traveled to Jupiter. Because of the design of the main building, the Apple Park has already been renamed by popular agreement into the Spaceship campus. But the question is, will Apple’s spaceship, mother of all high technology, be able to take off?
From a silent residential street, dominated by tall ginkgo trees, D.C.’s busy 14th Street NW is just a few steps. And yet, when you turn the corner, it feels like you’ve stepped into a different city. The change is immediate; the street is full of bars, restaurants, and shops, the sidewalks crowded by fast walking young and slim people. At certain hours of the day, most of them are wearing tights or shorts and carrying rolled yoga mats over their shoulders. A young army of people with jobs, practicing yoga and gripping their smartphones. The future.
In this omnipresent, glittering digital world, a story of the never-before-heard languages from the remote and dusty past is a blast. A few days ago the Smithsonian.com enamored us with the smooth recovery of a collection of enigmatic manuscripts, carefully stored behind the walls of a 1500-year-old monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. The library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest continually operating library in the world. Among its thousands of ancient parchments are at least 160 palimpsests—manuscripts that bear faint scratches and flecks of ink beneath more recent writing. These faint marks are the only clues to words that were scraped away by the monastery’s monks between the 8th and 12th centuries, to reuse the parchments. Some were written in long-lost languages that have almost entirely vanished from the historical record.
In May 1999, I visited North Korea. I was based in Beijing as a correspondent for a Slovenian newspaper and it was impossible not to visit the country that had aroused so many questions and offered so very few answers. One just needed to see the place. So I did. I joined a hypocritical game: I used my Chinese contacts to deal with the other side, added some money, and provided a letter that I was researching revolutionary art, a cover to facilitate my contact as he would never be able to issue a visa to a journalist. As I said, it was a hypocritical game, my passport and a Chinese visa within it evidence that I was head of a Slovenian news organization in Beijing. They never noticed.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a short piece on what was becoming an unsustainable situation at American colleges. And it is a phenomenon not limited to universities, but also some American private high schools, in their thirst for money, who could not resist Chinese cash. Two years later, John Pomfret wrote a remarkable piece on what is now a more quickly deteriorating situation, changing the model of American education.
Compared to today, 2012 was a romantic period in the brief course of human history. Four years into Obama’s government, things were relatively calm; after 9/11 and eight years of George W. Bush hovering in the White House, there was an effort to put the toothpaste back into the tube, at least.
It was in the summer of 2012 that I became aware of the Westboro Baptist Church, notorious for its angry, anti-gay protests at military funerals. More than a religious congregation, the Westboro church, led by pastor Fred Phelps, is a family-organized hate group that believes God will punish the United States for “the sin of homosexuality through events including soldiers’ deaths”. The scenes of the funerals of young soldiers, killed in foreign lands and buried by their shattered families while the hate group is shouting and insulting them, requesting the dead soldiers not be buried on American soil, is madness itself.