Athens, like many European towns, is awash in motorcycles and scooters. They are seeming everywhere, at any time. If you are getting ready to cross the street, or even to take a casual stroll down a purely pedestrian walkway, keep your ears tuned for the trademark revving of an engine, and then a motorized cycle weaving through the walkers. They pay no attention to stop signs, or red lights, or pedestrian only zones.
I’m convinced the real reason Athenian motorcycle riders wear helmets is that they don’t want to be recognized when they are flouting traffic laws.
Turkey is in the midst of an election campaign. The incumbent, Tayyip Erdogan, has held the Turkish Presidency for 20 years; he faces a challenge from Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The race will be decided by a run-off vote tomorrow.
I don’t know who will win, but I do know this: the two candidates aren’t shy about posting their faces and their campaign slogans anywhere and everywhere. Erdogan’s campaign put up a colossal bedsheet poster above one of the streets near the Grand Bazaar that billowed in the breeze like a living thing, whereas both candidates took advantage of the heavy foot traffic near the Galata Tower to get some free publicity for their campaigns. Not being able to read Turkish, I’m not sure what the campaign themes are, but I’m guessing that the incumbent focuses on “experience” and the challenger promises “change.” (According to Google, “soz” in Turkish means “promise.”)
Of course, as tourists we have no insight into who might win. We didn’t bring up politics with anyone, but we did hear some grousing about inflation being an issue in Turkey. It also isn’t clear whether people feel strongly about the outcome. We did see a street brawl where one Turk knocked another Turk to the ground before they were separated and began shouting (apparent) insults at each other, but we didn’t know whether politics was the cause of the dispute or whether it was just your standard Turkish tussle in a male-dominated culture.
Istanbul is a true water town, and the various waterfronts are a big part of city life. To the south lies the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean. The Bosporus then splits the city in two and, running south to north, links the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea; in so doing, it also separates Europe from Asia. Istanbul, which has expanded to both banks of the Bosporus, therefore has the distinction of being a city that spans two continents. Another body of water, the Golden Horn, runs west from the Bosporus and then curls north, dividing the old town section of Istanbul from the newer parts of the city.
We took a sunset cruise on the Bosporus, which is thought by many to be the most beautiful body of water in the world. I suppose that’s debatable, but it’s not hard to see why the Bosporus is in the running. The water is a deep blue, and there is a lot of boat traffic. The waterway is spanned by some beautiful bridges, with mosques, buildings, and other points of interest on both sides of the waterway. And what other cruise allows you to see one continent on one side and another continent on the other?
Our cruise guide noted that the two sides of the waterway are distinctly different. The Asian side, shown in the photos above and below, is the wealthier, preferred side, with more wooded areas, countless mosques, and many waterfront mansions. Most of the mansions are seasonal residences and weren’t open yet. The European side is more developed with commercial buildings and multi-family residences. There were lots of people on the waterfront on both sides.
There is plenty of water traffic between the two sides of the river. Ferries run back and forth on regular schedules until late at night, and the ones we saw were packed. Our guide also noted that cruises on the Bosporus are popular for weddings. We saw a number of boats hosting possible wedding parties pass by, with young people on the upper deck dancing both traditional Turkish dances and modern dances with abandon. The lighthouse in the middle of the Bosporus works to keep order.
We started our cruise by heading north on the Bosporus, then turned around just as we saw the Black Sea in the distance. On the way south we went past our point of departure to the tip of the old town area, shown in the photo below. The sun was beginning to set, leaving the sky filled with a soft light that framed Hagia Sofia, which towers over the old part of the city, and the Blue Mosque below it, as shown in the photo below.
The sun hung low in the west as we continued our cruise, leaving a large cruise ship and some smaller watercraft shadowed in the gloaming. Istanbul is a popular destination for a number of cruise lines, with as many as five being docked at a given point in time. When so many of the cruise ships are in town, it can mean long lines for the most popular attractions and a tough time getting tables in restaurants. Fortunately for us, the high cruise season hadn’t hit yet, and only one or two of the big boats had docked.
Our sunset cruise finally took us to the famous Galata Bridge just past the entrance to the Golden Horn, with the New Mosque dominating the scene on one side, shown above, and the Galata Tower doing likewise on the other side, shown below. The bridge itself is a treat for pedestrians, with an upper area where fishermen line the rails and a lower area with lots of seafood restaurants. After our cruise ended we hoofed it back to the Galata Bridge to have a really excellent seafood meal. From our vantage point on the lower level, we saw the lines of the fishermen on the upper level of the bridge above us falling to the water below. From time to time, the fishermen caught a fish and we saw the wriggling creatures being hauled up past us to the upper level above. Not surprisingly, the fish we were eating tasted just that fresh. .
I’m paying my first-ever visit to Istanbul, and aside from some mishaps getting here and a bad case of jet lag that caused me to doze off in the middle of a sentence at lunch, it has been great so far. I’ll have a lot more to say about Istanbul, but for now I simply want to point out that this is a town with a serious sweet tooth. Whether it’s candy, cookies, ice cream or fine pastries, we’ve seen virtually every kind of sweet being consumed by the locals, with relish.
These photos were taken as we walked through the thriving old town section of Istanbul at about 11p.m. on a Wednesday night, as people were out eating ice cream or having a last tea and baklava before heading home. This store was open and selling high-end confections that looked delicious. I’ve always though of Vienna, Paris, Florence and Munich as the capitals of sweets, but Istanbul belongs in that conversation, too.
The Turks may look fierce, but they obviously have a soft spot for the sugary end of the spectrum.
I would have thought everyone, everywhere, could agree on one thing: we’re glad the COVID-19 pandemic has officially been declared “over” and the mandatory closures and lockdowns are over. But I would be wrong. Some people are confessing to feeling a sense of “lockdown nostalgia.” Even as they give a nod to the fact that many people died and many more became sick, they feel a certain wistfulness about those enforced, stay-at-home days during 2020 and 2021. Here’s an example of such a piece.
Basically, the underlying message of those claiming to suffer from “lockdown nostalgia” is that the COVID lockdowns made the world a simpler place and modern life a lot less complicated. Before the lockdowns, they say, their lives were hectic and difficult as they raced from place to place. When the lockdown orders were issued, of course, that all stopped–and they had the chance to enjoy spending time at home, reconnecting with family and enjoying the simple pleasures of binge-watching TV and reading books.
I suspect that many of the people who may be experiencing even a twinge of “lockdown nostalgia” are introverts who didn’t like going out to do things in the first place. For many of the rest of us, however, the idea that we would be pining for a time when government edicts kept us penned up, cost many people their jobs and their businesses, and prevented people from visiting sick and dying relatives–or even attending their funerals–is inconceivable.
If you’re thinking that you enjoyed a simpler life during the COVID lockdown period, the answer isn’t another lockdown, it’s looking at your life and making your own decisions about simplifying it. We don’t need the government or lockdown orders to do that.
In the modern world you get used to the notion that a big part of your life is influenced, directed, or controlled by invisible, and unknowable, computer code. If you use a computer at work or at home, as many of us do, it’s as much a part of the routine as that essential morning cup of coffee. Every once in a while, however, you realize that, somewhere out in the internet ether, clicks have been analyzed, cookies have been implanted, and huge amounts of data about you have been compiled, and that data is being used to define you and your corner of the world.
I thought about this when I went on Facebook recently, and the first thing that popped up was a Beatles day-by-day post. I like the Beatles and their music, and some months ago someone sent me a link to a Beatles post. It looked interesting, I clicked it, and since then the Facebook computers have served me a steadily increasing diet of not only posts about the Beatles and their music, but also about individual members of the Beatles and their solo careers, and now other artists from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s pretty obvious that some server, somewhere, is trying to test just how broad my interests are and to define, ever more precisely, the exact nature of my existing musical and cultural preferences.
Some years ago we were looking for some new light fixtures. We eventually made our selections and our purchases, but for months thereafter light fixture ads seemed to dominate every website we visited. It was only after months of non-light fixture activity that the algorithms finally gave up and started to probe into other areas. The light fixture data is out there somewhere, brooding yet poised so that a single ill-advised click or search for a lamp could expose us to a new avalanche of ads featuring the latest lighting products.
I’m sure Facebook would argue that this process is a good thing: by learning more about us, it, and Google, and Amazon, and all of the other algorithm users can provide us with targeted information, products, goods, and services designed to appeal to our specific preferences. Of course, that ignores the risk that some bad guy hacks into the database where this wealth of information is stored, and can use it for theft, fraud, and other nefarious purposes. But it also ignores that this process of identifying and targeting interests puts you into an ever-shrinking box, and a kind of thought prison of your own devising. If I’m seeing that daily barrage of Beatles posts, that means I’m not seeing other stuff–stuff I’m not aware of, stuff that might challenge my views or broaden my horizons or shift my perspective. You can see how the algorithms can have a pernicious effect, especially when it comes to information, news, and political thought. Your clicks put you into an echo chamber.
Consider how different this is from the world of the past, when no one or no thing was trying to sculpt the world to suit your expressed tastes. On the school bus, in the newspaper, at the department store, and at the workplace you got whatever came your way. Businesses offered what they thought might appeal to a wide array of consumers–not just you. The world didn’t revolve around you, and the need to cater to your individual tastes. You might actually hear or read about different political views, see products that you weren’t specifically looking for, and so forth. The world seemed to be a much wider place because of it.
Of course, we’ll never go back to that world–at least, not if we’re going to be spending time on computers. But the sense of being confined is worrisome, and now makes me refrain from clicking and responding, just to be a bit of a contrarian and to leave some open questions about my interests, and views, and preferences. I prefer the wider world.
“Resilience”–generally defined as the ability to respond and adapt to challenging situations and to keep going in the face of trauma and adversity–is a prized commodity these days. Many businesses seek to encourage the development of enhanced resilience skills in their employees and offer training to help them become more resilient. Indeed, in many jobs where performance often has to occur in times of stress or under trying circumstances, resilience is a quality that may prove to be the difference between success and failure.
The study, undertaken by the University of Michigan, shows that gorillas are amazingly resilient–more so than humans and other animal species. The study focused on examining gorillas who had experienced trauma, such as the death of their mother, at an early age. In many species, such early life adversity is associated with shorter life spans and additional problems later in life. Gorillas apparently are different. The U of M research revealed that the more adversity gorillas experienced, the more likely they were to die young–but if they survived to the age of six, their lifespans were not shortened. In fact, gorillas who survived three or more early childhood traumas were more likely to live longer than other gorillas.
Why are gorillas more resilient than other species? The researchers who undertook the study believe that one reason is the tight-knit social structure of gorilla communities, where a young gorilla whose mother has died is not left alone, but instead is adopted and supported by the whole clan. They also suspect that the resource-rich environment in which gorillas live helps, by not adding additional stresses, like the need to constantly search for sufficient food, on top of the trauma. And, in some respects, the ability of certain gorillas to overcome devastating life-reversals may simply be an example of “survival of the fittest.”
We can learn from gorillas, and anyone who has worked under stressful circumstances will likely agree on one lesson: adversity and stress are more easily borne if they are shared, and it is a lot easier to be resolute and carry on if you are part of a good team.
The “lost” subterranean city was called Elengubu and is now called Derinkuyu. It’s in an area of Turkey that is famous for its soft stone, which caused many inhabitants to dig beneath their homes and create additional rooms underground. There are apparently many such underground rooms in the area, but none are as elaborate as Elengubu, which has 18 levels, reaches depths of 270 feet below ground, and is sizeable enough to house 20,000 people. The underground city features massive support pillars, more than 15,000 air shafts, water wells, spaces for livestock and a wine press, and security stones that can be rolled into place to keep out the unwanted.
The mystery is that no one knows who built this huge underground complex, or why. No one knows precisely when it was created, either. It may have been constructed to allow for a refuge in case of invasion, or to allow residents to find cooler temperatures during the hot Turkish summers. It was evidently in use for thousands of years by different civilizations until the Cappadocian Greeks left Turkey in the early 1920s. The city was then promptly forgotten until it was rediscovered by the chickens, and their astonished sledgehammer-wielding owner, some 40 years later.
I wonder if the last person who left the underground city in the 1920s had any idea that they would be contributing to a mystery that would confound people only 40 years later? Sometime the only thing that is needed to create a mystery is forgetfulness, and time.
When we think about the future, we tend to take current realities and project them forward to develop our vision of what is to come. At the height of the Apollo program in the late ’60s, the Moon base and voyage to Jupiter in 2001 were entirely plausible. When the world was concerned about The Population Bomb and the perils of overpopulation, Soylent Green seemed like a grim, but possible, future. And to an America in the grips of car culture in the early ’60s, of course the future would have those cool flying vehicles in The Jetsons.
But the actual future has a way of turning out differently from the forecasts of even the most dedicated futurists. There aren’t any Moon bases–not yet, at least–and the mass starvation and terrible poverty that were supposed to accompany the exponential growth of humanity didn’t happen; instead, the birth rate reversed itself in many places, and now many countries worry about not having enough people, rather than too many. And regrettably, there are still no cool flying cars that make those soothing, blurbling sounds that George Jetson heard every morning on his way to work at Spacely Sprockets.
Why are our visions of the future so frequently off base? At bottom, it is because modern human society is simply too complicated to try to model and project into the future. There are too many imponderables, from the actions of power-hungry individual leaders to the impact of new unexpected technology to the abrupt social and cultural developments that change the nature of basic human interaction–among hundreds of other variables. And unknowable curve balls, like the COVID-19 pandemic, produce shifts that no one could foresee, which then have ripple effects of their own. I don’t remember anyone forecasting that, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the American workforce would, in many business segments, move from office-based to home-based, with all of its vast implications for social interaction, the commercial real estate market, energy use, and technological dependence, among countless other areas.
It makes you wonder whether it makes any sense to even try to forecast the future. Perhaps the better course is to commit to personal flexibility in outlook, remain willing to learn and adapt, and be amenable to accepting the unexpected changes that inevitably come our way. The future seems more manageable if you take it one change at a time.
Over the weekend, U.S. defense and intelligence officials dealt with the fallout of a huge intelligence leak. An array of highly classified documents that had been posted on-line exposed details about a number of different American intelligence-gathering activities and analyses, ranging from tactical information about the fighting in Ukraine to more specific–and potentially damaging, long-term–information about U.S. recruitment of human agents in foreign countries, the penetration of Russian military leadership, U.S. eavesdropping abilities, and the U.S. satellite surveillance program, including a new form of technology that may not have been publicly acknowledged before.
U.S. officials fear that the leak might allow the targets of the American intelligence efforts revealed by the leak, like Russia, to track down sources of information and thwart future intelligence-gathering efforts. Ukrainian officials are concerned that the leak discloses damaging information about obviously sensitive topics such as Ukrainian ammunition shortages and the possibility that Ukrainian air defense systems might become depleted.
According to an article about the leak from the Washington Post, many of the documents appear to be summaries or briefing documents, many of which look to have been prepared for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military officials. The Post reports that the documents had been sitting, largely unnoticed, on a gaming chat platform since being posted on February 28 and March 2 before the New York Times reported the leak last week. The U.S. responded to the leak by clamping down on access to intelligence reports–a development that concerns some American allies, who want to share in our information-gathering activities.
The leak is viewed as the most significant since the Wikileaks leak 10 years ago–but it is also weird. Why post a cache of confidential U.S. documents on a gaming platform, where they apparently sat unnoticed for weeks? Why would “pro-Russian elements” want to broadly leak information about other U.S. activities–unless of course they hoped by doing so, they would direct attention away from themselves? As always seems to be the case when dealing with intelligence activities, normal people can’t appreciate the personal and political motivations, the paranoia, or the skullduggery of those directly involved.
It will be interesting to see where the investigation of this leak leads–if we ever find out.
A photo of the Pope in a puffy coat, shown above, “went viral” on social media recently, with lots of people offering comments about the Pope’s apparent choice of cold weather gear. There was only one problem: the photo wasn’t real. Instead, it was a “deepfaked” image, generated by a new and improved edition of AI software, that fooled millions of people.
The images of the Pontiff followed wide circulation of deepfaked images that supposedly showed scenes of former President Trump being arrested by New York City police officers. Those photos were featured on many websites. People knew that an indictment and arrest hadn’t happened yet, but the images were so remarkably “real”-looking that they became a hot topic on the internet and social media apps.
It’s time to recognize that we now live in a deepfake world, folks.
The problem, of course, is that people won’t do that kind of detailed analysis, unless they suspect that there is a reason to do so. As one person said in the article linked above, she accepted the Pope deepfakes as real without a second thought. The Pope wearing a poofy coat isn’t major news. The Trump arrest deepfaked images, on the other hand, involved what would have been a huge development and could easily be checked against the news websites for confirmation.
This suggests that the issue of deepfaked images is going to be problematic at the plausible margins of our world, with purported photos of celebrities, politicians, and world leaders wearing something, eating or drinking something, or otherwise doing something the social media world might be interested in. I hadn’t seen the deepfaked photos of the Pope because I don’t really do social media. But if you do dip your toe in the social media waters, you might want to pause before reposting an image that might not be real.
If the great leaps forward in AI image generation capabilities cause people to think for a minute before making a snarky comment about a purported photo they have seen, that would be a good thing. I’m not holding my breath that this will happen, but wouldn’t it be ironic if AI deepfakery caused the social media world to be a bit more cautious?
Power is the foundation on which a modern, civilized society is built. Technology, which is proffered as the basis of so many solutions to humanity’s problems, requires power to operate. Without electricity, lights won’t light, appliances won’t operate, computers won’t compute, heaters won’t heat and air conditioners won’t cool . . . and the list goes on and on.
These examples reveal an easily overlooked truth: power generation is one of those basic points that should always be on the agenda for modern governments. Before edicts are issued requiring people to buy and drive electric vehicles, or purchase smart technology, let’s make sure that we have sufficient power to reliably supply all of these devices–and let’s also look ahead at how the demands on our power generation capabilities and power grids will be equipped to handle the expected demand five, ten, or twenty years into the future. Nuclear power plants, hydroelectric dams, and offshore wind farms don’t get built and linked into power delivery systems overnight.
NPR has an interesting article on this phenomenon that is worth reading in full. Among other things it discusses the “why” question–namely, how can it be that a rich, scientifically advanced country that spends buckets of money on health care fares so poorly in comparative mortality data? The NPR article cites a study done 10 years ago by the National Academy of Sciences called Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. The study tried to identify systemic factors that contribute to the bad statistics.
A few things stand out: first, Americans are more likely to die before age 50, thanks to factors like the opioid epidemic, suicides, other drug use, criminal gun violence, teen pregnancies, and highway deaths. Second, Americans are far more likely to be obese, to smoke, to have bad diets, and to have sedentary lifestyles that contribute to poorer health. These societal elements, which together mean that Americans are far more likely to die young, account for a big chunk of the difference in average life expectancy with countries like, say, Japan.
On the bright side, the U.S. has a better record than other countries in keeping people who make it to 75 alive–but that is cold comfort to those who don’t make it to 50. And when you look at the causes identified by the NAS study, you can’t help but think that a big part of the problem is socioeconomic. Americans who are fortunate to live in comfortable suburban neighborhoods, for example, don’t face the same mortality risks as those who have been born into the south side of Chicago.
The mortality statistics are embarrassing, but in the 10 years since its release the NAS study hasn’t made much of a dent in public consciousness. Regrettably, in America “live fast, die young” isn’t just a good line from a ’40s novel, it’s a summary of reality.
The Wall Street Journal carried an interesting article about travel recently. It reiterated the ultimate travelers’ dispute, between a free form trip (“winging it”) or a far more structured travel itinerary (“planning it”). If you’re a subscriber you can read the article, which is behind the WSJ paywall, here.
The Journal isn’t the first publication to pose the “wing it” versus “plan it” question; it’s been debated in travel circles for years, if not centuries. (It’s also the subject, incidentally, of vigorous debate in other areas, like setting career paths and writing a novel.) The tug of war is between making sure that you see what you want to see and can go where you want to go (planning) or letting the karma and the creativity flow and hoping that you’ll find that magical travel moment that isn’t addressed in any guidebook (winging it).
In my view, the key point is “know thyself.” I’m called the “Uptight Traveler” in our household because I like to get to airports and train terminals early. I’d feel unsettled totally winging it and going somewhere without an understanding about where I am staying and when I am moving from point A to point B, and how I’m doing that. The angst I would experience would interfere with enjoyment of the trip, obviously. I also think it’s important to consider what you really want to see at a place and doing enough research to identify those places, and then checking to see whether you need to reserve a spot to do so. I would kick myself if I went to a faraway place and missed out on seeing a crucial site because I hadn’t paid attention to that kind of detail. Doing some research and planning in advance and understanding the requirements also is a way of showing respect for the local culture and local rules.
At the same time, I don’t want to be on a regimented schedule that is accounting for every minute of my time. I want to see sites and visit museums and churches, but I also like to build in free time, to allow for some random exploring, meandering about, and down time at a cafe or coffee shop or tea house. You obviously can’t get a complete understanding of a different culture in a short trip, but you’re going to get a much better sense of a place and its people if you’re not constantly on the top deck of a tourist bus listening to a tour guide. A crammed itinerary can also be exhausting, and building in some down time where everyone in your travel party can spend that time as they see fit is essential.
One of my favorite personal travel moments came during such down time, on a beastly hot day in Assisi on June 12, 2003. We had just hiked up to the fortress at the top of the town and come back down, and I decided to duck down a small street and visit a church that had caught my eye. I went in, sat down in a pew in the dark coolness of the church, caught my breath, and listened to a recording of Gregorian chants as I watched a monk get the beautiful little church ready for an upcoming service. It was a quiet, lovely, calming moment that I will always remember. I believe in building in a sufficient amount of “winging it” time to allow those special moments to occur.
We’ve been working our way through Outlander, a six-season Netflix series about a woman who is somehow able to travel 200 years into the past through the magic of the stones in an ancient, mystical, Stonehenge-like circle in Scotland. In her visits to the past she has many adventures, and a seventh season, with more adventure, is on the way. The show is part historical fiction that gives you a glimpse of life in Scotland and the world of the 1700s, part Scottish travelogue, and part torrid bodice-ripper about the ever-passionate love and marriage between the time-traveling Claire and Jamie, her devoted Scottish stud.
I won’t spoil the plot for those of you who haven’t watched Outlander. The show definitely makes us want to visit the Scottish highlands, which are presented to beautiful effect. But more specifically, the show makes me appreciate the richness of the Scottish language–so much so that I want to talk like a Scotsman, sporting a thick brogue and having a chance to toss around some Gaelic and Scottish words. The writers for the show clearly understand this element of its appeal: I swear that they just look for opportunities to have one of the characters refer to a “bairn” and pronounce the word as if it has three syllables.
I, too, want to say “dinna fash” and “dinna ken.” I want to refer to young people as “bonny lasses” and “lads” and tell a pub server I’d like a “wee dram.” I’d like for someone to say that I look “braw”–and actually mean it. But most of all, I’d like to have someone ask me a question so that I can pause for a heartbeat, and then say “aye” in a dramatic way.
I can’t travel to the past through picturesque, monumental stones, but I do hope to travel to Scotland one of these days and have the opportunity to participate in some Outlanderspeak.