The Weight of History

 

in the distance you can see the chimneys that are all that remains of barrack upon barrack.
The beautiful weather added a surreal edge to the experience.
 
Auschwitz exerts a gravity of its own. You can travel to Kraków without visiting it, but you’ll remain aware of it, the many signs advertising tours tugging at you, reminding you of the black hole of history, lurking just beyond the horizon.

A friend of mine told me, when I mentioned that I intended to visit the concentration camp, that they couldn’t bear to do so. I can understand that. I’m not the most sensitive person, but even I can’t help but feel unease at the incomprehensible nature of what happened there. Still, I wanted to go, to be part of the effort to remember and not forget, and so I did.

(Apologies is some of the below is upsetting.)

That the visit was on the warmest, sunniest day I’d experienced in years was somewhat incongruous. In fact, the whole start of the tour, around the original Auschwitz I camp, felt a little off at first. To sanitised, too carefully restored and preserved, too occupied by tour groups. I was beginning to wonder if I was missing something. Then we reached the room full of human hair.

In one of the restored barracks buildings, fully half of a long room was taken up by a mass of human hair, taken from the scalps of the dead, with traces of Zyklon B still detectable when the Soviets liberated the camp. In further rooms were the dead’s belongings: eyeglasses, coats, suitcases with names written on them, shoes, children’s shoes. As much as anything else, the weight of these objects lay in the fact that they were the only remaining scraps of evidence that the Nazis hadn’t gotten around to destroying or using

We had been meant to see these first – a long queue meant that our guide took us around those more sanitised buildings first. Like some of the concentration camp victims, I was lulled into a false sense of security, feeling that seventy years since the camp was liberated had deprived it of its power to shock. Preserved behind glass though it may be, it still reaches out.

A mile or two down the road from Auschwitz I is Auchwitz-Birkenau. Dreadful as it was, Auschwitz I was in effect a trial run – Auschwitz-Birkenau is an order of magnitude larger and was the place that the Nazis applied industrialised methods and an inhuman level of detachment to their “final solution.” Here, though they tried to burn and demolish the traces of what they’d done, can still be seen the ruins of the crematoria and the shells of the barracks that housed the dying and the doomed.

Auschwitz I retains the indelible image of all that the Nazis took from their victims. Auschwitz-Birkenau demonstrates the scale to which they brought that collective sin. Moreover, it’s the decaying nature of Auschwitz-Birkenau that lends a final reminder of reality: this is not a preserved exhibit in a museum. This is a place where more than a million people were murdered. It needs to be remembered and I’m glad I visited, though that visit will stay with me.

If there was one thing that I missed, it was some sense of why this happened. Auschwitz preserved the “how,” but it makes less effort at showing how a nation can slide so irrevocably into horror. How centuries of looking down on Jews and other “others” curdled into contempt and hatred. How political leaders could take that hatred and bind it to a “solution” that led step by step to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

At a time when Europe and the U.S. are convulsed with fear of immigrants, and when our politicians are advocating ever more draconian measures to deal with this problem, we need to remember where that path leads. We already have them in camps, after all. We are hearing calls for them to work for their keep, to earn the right to live among their betters. It’s a reasonable proposal, isn’t it? It always is, at the start.

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Eastern European Odyssey

I do like the idea that on reaching Bucharest, I'll be able to divide into three...
Follow the Lime Green Railroad to the Wonderful Wizard of Uncertain Destinations…

So, I’m doing it again. One year after Greece, four years after the Trans-Siberian and six years after Norway, I’m once more taking an August-September travelling holiday, hitting a bunch of new (to me) locations. Once again, rail is the medium for my peregrinations, and this time the locale is as much of the former Soviet Bloc as I can fit into three weeks. (No, I’m not visiting Belarus as part of this trip, and as much as I’d like to drop in on Ukraine, it might be better to leave that for later too.)

That map above gives the general outline of the trip: Krakow, Poznan (briefly), Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava (briefly), Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, Bucharest, and then … options. This is one of those trips where the early stages have been nailed down and booked, whereas the latter ones are more reliant on train availability and everything that goes before. Which, even though it might rub my obsessive compulsive tendencies the wrong way, is still appealing. Not knowing exactly where I’m going to wind up probably won’t do my mother’s blood pressure any favours, but I’m happy enough to keep a loose leash on the days ahead.

One of the nicest of things about this trip is that I’ve never been to most of the countries I’ll be visiting—the only ones I’ll be returning to are Germany and Austria, and even there, Berlin or Vienna will be entirely new. In fact, once this trip is over, the only European nations remaining unchecked will be fall into three groups: the Russian fringe (Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and maybe Moldova), the Balkans (Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia), and a scattering of others (Switzerland, Portugal and most of the microstates—Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, San Marino, and Monaco). Which brings me close enough to a complete collection to prompt a few more holiday ideas at least.

For now though, an Eastern European Odyssey is the order of the day. Preparations have been made, maps have been consulted, and tickets have been booked where possible. And as many considerations as I can consider have been considered.


Rail Travel: As mentioned, rail is the way to go here, and the resource worth relying on is The Man in Seat 61. It’s served me well in the past and it did here too, though booking tickets beyond Vienna has proved less useful than just showing up at the station in person. Sleeper services will be taken of wherever possible, and there might be a brief river trip between Vienna and Bratislava if the Danube isn’t too drought-stricken. When I get to Bulgaria and Romania though, my timetable will be at its most flexible. It’s just a pleasant coincidence that my options will be opening up as Europe reaches its most alluring.

Accommodation: The open nature of the latter end of my travels means that I can’t book too far ahead, but even if I could, I’m going to be taking a leaf out of my Greek odyssey: stick to booking a day or two ahead of time, using the Booking.com and AirB&B apps on my phone. Sleeper services are to be preferred, but hostels and B&Bs are just as valuable, mostly for their showers and laundry facilities. If I’m travelling light, cleaning my clothes will be a necessity at some stage.

Flights: Normally, the two things I’d book first would be my flights there and back. Well, I’m flying into Kraków to kick things off, but where I’ll be flying back from? That’s still undecided. I’d like to visit Moldova (because why not, when you have the chance?) but flights back from there are at least twice as expensive as from neighbouring Romania. So we’ll see. I have a ticket tracker running using the Kayak app, and the sudden availability of a cheap option may well determine how and where my journey ends.

Technology: Technology-light is the rule of the day. As in Greece, nothing more than my phone is to be brought. Even my new Pebble Time is getting dropped in favour of a Timex Weekender with a battery that lasts five years instead of five days. This will make it a little tricky to update the Travel section of this site as I go, but I’ll do my best. Those long train journeys will definitely give me time, at the very least. Still, my poor old iPhone 5S is suffering from geriatric battery syndrome these days, so one more piece of tech is needed. I’ve bought myself an Anker Astro E7 external battery, and having tested it for the past week, I’ve deemed it good. At the cost of a little extra weight to my backpack, I should be able to keep my loyal iPhone, and more importantly its camera and booking capabilities, running for as long as I need them.

Reading Material: This is an issue. Travelling light rules out carrying more than two books, and with one of those slots taken up by a Lonely Planet guidebook, that leaves little wiggle room. A friend has loaned me an ageing Sony eReader, but that runs up against both the low-tech rule and my personal preferences. I might rely on second-hand bookstores instead, or just read on my iPhone. (The latter option might seem a poor one, but I’ve read the Bible and War and Peace on my phone before, so it is an option. Maybe Moby Dick this time…)

Writing Material: Of course, without reading to take up my travelling time, and assuming that staring out the window can only occupy one for so long, writing will have the field to itself. So pens, some ink refills, and a notepad or two will be packed. How much I’ll get to write (beyond the requisite journal of my travels) remains uncertain, but the idea of letting my brain wander on the Danube plain is a huge draw. Even when I’m not strolling the city streets, there’s be imaginative highways and byways to explore.

Missing: What will I be missing while I’m gone? Well, not a huge amount. As the next category shows, the timing of this trip has worked out rather well. The start of the Pro12 rugby season and a few pre-World Cup friendlies is about the height of my sporting interests. Missing the Irish Craft Beer Festival stings a bit though. As for work, it’s been packed away for the next few weeks, and when it comes to keeping an eye on the state of the Internet, that’s something I could do with less of.

Returning: On the other hand, within a week of my return, I’ll have the return of Doctor Who, the start of the Rugby World Cup, a new niece to be a godfather to, and one of those birthdays with a “0” at the end of it. So I’d better be well rested when I take off from somewhere near the Black Sea (presumably). Because I’ll be hitting the ground running.

Let’s Try This One More (Pebble) Time

The optional watch face mimics the Apple Watch, which I didn't realise until I was using it.
Authentically scuffed Pebble Time: model’s own.

Depending on who you believe, the wearables revolution is underway, has not yet started, or has already failed. While I don’t wholly agree with any of those viewpoints, the fact that I’m now on my second smartwatch does suggest that I don’t agree with the last.

Those who follow this blog and are aware of my devotion to the Cult of Mac may be surprised to learn that my new toy isn’t an Apple Watch. Those who follow this blog in slightly closer detail might be able to guess what it is: a Pebble Time. Several years ago, in one of my early Kickstarter forays, I stumped up for a first-generation Pebble smartwatch, which adorned my wrist for all of a month or two.

Its short lifespan wasn’t down to the fact that it was a bad product. Beyond being a first-generation device (part of my reason for eschewing the Apple option this time) with somewhat dodgy Bluetooth wireless and limited functionality, its only major flaw was that it was uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Unfortunately, that’s also why it was in my pocket instead of on my wrist during a fateful bus journey, and the fact that it fell out of the pocket somewhere was entirely my fault, not the watch’s.

But enough of my ongoing habit of losing things (which seems to come in waves – whenever I lose one thing, I known that at least two more will vanish in the short-term future), what of the Pebble Time? Well, the first thing to note is that it’s much more comfortable to wear, with a slightly curved back to the watch body and a much improved rubber strap. While I’ve had to take it off for comfort reasons a few times, this has been the result of sweating due to exertion, not general day-to-day use.

So score one for the Pebble Time there. In addition, the straps now include easy-release clips that, while not as clever as the Apple Watch’s high-end version, allow access to a full range of standard-gauge watch straps.

In fact, the Pebble Time is a solid version 2.0 in a lot of ways. A colour e-ink screen replaces its monochrome predecessor, the Bluetooth connection seems much more solid, the vibration function is hard to miss, and the build quality overall seems much better, with buttons that avoid feeling too spongy despite being plastic. My gunmetal grey version has picked up a few scratches after a month or two of use, but stumping up a little more money for the Pebble Time Steel could gain you an even more polished experience.

In use, the Pebble Time is easy to figure out. Hit the single button on the left of the watch to navigate backwards to the home (watchface) screen. Hit the centre right button to dive into and select menu options and the buttons above and below it to navigate up and down through lists. Changing settings, accessing apps, changing watchfaces, etc. are trivial tasks. To actually install apps or watchfaces, you’ll need the companion smartphone app, but once installed, they can connect to the phone via a Bluetooth connection for extra processing power. Pebble’s own app store, accessible via the smartphone app, makes installing new apps easy, but finding the app you want can be tricky, as the browsing experience feels a little haphazard.

As with any smartwatch, the Pebble Time is reliant on its connection to a smartphone. Lacking that, it can tell you the time and offer access to any standalone apps that you’ve installed, and not much more. A connected smartphone offers instant access to weather, music, and more advanced apps. For example, I’ve installed the Tripadvisor app, which can point me towards nearby restaurants or attractions, should I so desire. It’s limited, but the interface is responsive and fun to use.

In fact, fun is a good description of the Pebble Time overall. The Pebble team seem to have put a lot of thought into making their device as easy to use and enjoyable to own as possible. For example, there’s no need to install an app to use the Pebble Time as an external display for Runkeeper’s smartphone app—it happens automatically. This good user experience is further helped by the Pebble Time’s battery life, which will stretch out to five days. Changing your watchface to one that displays the battery level will help you keep an eye on that, but it’s far ahead of the Apple or Android watches in this regard at least.

Some commentators have raised concerns that transferring notification from the phone to the wrist just makes us even more tied to that “always on” mentality. The reality has proven very different: an initial flood of notifications trained me to turn off any that weren’t vital. Moreover, even though vibrations on your wrist make notifications hard to miss, it’s it’s far quicker and easier to dismiss those notifications by glancing at summaries of them on a watchface than by digging your phone out of your pocket or purse to see what they are. Yes, notifications probably aren’t wholly a good thing, but if you’re going to opt in, this is the way to go.

I haven’t tested the limits of what I can do with the Pebble Time yet, having only installed a couple of apps and watchfaces. Though far less powerful than the Apple Watch or its Android competitors, the Pebble Time offers plenty of variety in terms of what it can already do. Everything that I have experienced with it so far has made me pretty happy with my purchase. The cluttered app store is the only minor fly in the ointment, whereas everything else is pleasingly smooth.

You Are The Product

(With invisible close buttons.)
Our grim, multicolour, flashing future.

One of the quieter announcements that Apple made during its WorldWide Developers Conference recently was that its forthcoming MacOS and iOS updates will give developers the ability to create “Content Blockers” for its mobile and desktop Safari browsers. While the exact content blocked is up to the developer (you could block the Daily Mail if you want—and you really should), no one is under any illusions as to the target of this feature: ads.

Ad blockers already exist as extensions to most existing browsers, but the majority of users probably don’t avail of them, especially in the mobile sphere. Apple’s decision to push this feature and the reaction to its quiet announcement says a lot about the current state of the mobile web and the dominant role that ads have come to play in it.

Faster computers, mobile phones and broadband have contributed to a smoother experience online, but this has helped to hide the fact that the vast majority of what we download is ads and spyware. Blocking out most of that would massively speed up browsing and have the simultaneous benefit of cutting down on the amount of activity tracked online.

As pleasant an outcome as this sounds though, there’s a downside: online advertising pays the bills for many of the sites we enjoy, some of them from smaller content providers. Killing off that revenue stream would likely kill off a lot of the richness and the niche content that the web provides. It’s not like the people running these sites are preying on you through the ads either—they’re often stuck in a system that they don’t like, making do as well as they can.

The power blocs behind online advertising inform the nature of the system and the conflict that Apple is wading into. Facebook and Google ensure that web users have access to a wealth of content for free by harvesting their data and selling it, funnelling a portion of the proceeds back to the content creators in order to keep the whole thing going. This is the system that’s driven the growth of the web to date, but it’s far from perfect, and web site bloat is just one of the symptoms.

Whatever your thoughts on Apple—you won’t look at the comments on any Apple article on a non-Apple site for long before you find mentions of ‘iSheep’ or ‘Apple fanboys’—the fact is that Apple’s profit model is completely different from that of the web titans. Apple’s iAds platform is distinctly small scale, and its money comes from the sale of hardware instead. Providing an improved user experience is vital to enhancing the sale of that hardware, and enabling the creation of content blockers achieves that.

Safari is a minority browser on desktop machines, but it’s a major player on the mobile web, and iOS users are a lucrative market. So while this initiative isn’t going to bring down the current financial underpinnings of the mobile web, it’s a definite shot across Google’s bows. (Less so Facebook, which has a closed ecosystem of its own that it can profit from.) For users, it raises the question: are we happy to receive things for free, with the understanding that we’re being sold in return, or are we going to accept that we should pay for the things we value?

There’s an interesting parallel to be seen in the U.K., where the Tory government is once again taking the knives to the public broadcaster, the BBC. U.K. TV viewers have long been accustomed to paying a TV licence, and in return they’ve gained a globally renowned service that entertains, educates, and informs. Of course, a publicly funded broadcaster has a head start over its private sector rivals, and in the view of the Tories, that’s unfair competition. Speaking as someone who was raised on a diet of BBC television, I’d call the licence fee a small price to pay, but the future that the private sector envisions could look a lot like YouTube: ostensibly free to use but scattered with pop-up ads and laden with user tracking.

When we’re offered something free, it’s convenient to overlook the fine print. We’re okay with being the product as long as it’s not thrown back in our face. It would be nice to think that users’ desire for speed and convenience would eventually find a balance with providers’ need for compensation. But while Apple’s intervention might be to our benefit, Apple doesn’t fund web content, only content provided through its own app store ecosystem. So if its ad blocking does gain traction, either we’re going to have to learn to pay for our content or some of those content providers are going to go under.