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02 May 2016

Book Review: Pacific

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's SuperpowersPacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers by Simon Winchester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love well-researched but readable and accessible histories. This is one of them.

Broken up into long-article length chapters (Winchester says this "structural vade mecum" was inspired by a book by Stefan Zweig, most recently translated with the title Shooting Stars. A "slender collection of ten ruminative essays...about what Zweig considered to be seminal moments in the tide of human experience."

Pacific is not slender but it is ruminative and I would agree that most of the 10 incidents Winchester chose could be considered seminal.

I learned how carbon dating works.

I learned that the bikini is called the bikini not because natives wore something similar on the Bikini Atoll, as I had always assumed, but because of the nuclear testing there; "Like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating."

I learned that the Japanese concept of mentsu probably had a role in limiting scientific progress. "The socially lethal consequences of losing face (mentsu) or, more dangerously, of causing others to lose it, may well have inhibited certain kinds of scientific progress, in large part because such consequences militate against experimentation, which invariably embraces failure, even public failure. Picking oneself up and beginning again, making the experiment subtly different, and performing many experiments until one finally works--such is the essence of scientific advance. And this was not always an easy concept for Asian scientists to accept."

I learned that the founder of Patagonia might be considered the founder of flex time. "Let my people go surfing. None of us ever dreamed of working in a normal business environment, so we hired self-motivated and independent folks; surfers and climbers. We leave them to decide when and how to do their jobs. So far it has worked out very well."

I learned some of the vagaries and odditites of the colonial ideal in the Pacific islands; near the end WWII, a British commander in Vietnam, commanding an infantry of kukri-wielding Gurkah battalions from Nepal, armed imprisoned Japanese soldiers and compelled them to fight the Viet Minh nationalists who were actually rebelling against French colonial rule. "The notion that Japanese troops would be armed by those who had recently vanquished them and that they would then be compelled to fight under a British flag alongside Nepalese soldiers for a French colonial ideal against a Vietnamese force that was demanding its own people's independence is well-nigh incomprehensible."

Or in the New Hebrides, there were two bureaucracies; one French and one British. "Since 1906, these islands had been run for complicated reasons by a condominium of two uninvited European powers, the British and the French...the French official in charge of drains in Port-Vila, for example, had a British counterpart who was charged with exactly the same task. The language of New Hebridean administration had to be translated twice, Canadian style, and sometime thrice, since the doubly colonized citizens actually spoke a third, Creole tongue called Bislama...Two police forces, their officers wearing different uniforms, did their best to keep civil order in turns, performing their respective duties on every other day...National holidays were so numerous and so keenly celebrated in the perpetually torrid climate that little work was performed anyway--and in time, the whole unholy and intractable mess of governance exhausted everyone, collapsed internally, and was finally called to a halt in 1980..."

Or the surreal reality of the Korean DMZ. "At the time of the signing of the 1953 armistice, a group of supposedly neutral countries agreed to monitor the cease-fire. The North had nominated as its two countries Poland and Czechoslovakia; the South had selected Sweden and Switzerland." But in recent times, the monitoring system had become "comically absurd...Absurd mainly because of what had happened since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the abandonment of communism by the North's two chosen neutral nations, Poland and Czechoslovakia (and the division of the latter into two brand-new and entirely capitalist countries). North Korea had responded to the apostates by kicking their observers out of the country, leaving only the Swiss and the Swedes to maintain the monitoring. Except that the Poles kept on trying to send at least one delegate to maintain the fiction that the commission still existed...each Tuesday the countries' representatives meet in formal session--about thirty-five hundred meetings have taken place since the cease fire in 1953--and discuss and take notes of all the various alleged breaches of the cease-fire and other such matters (tunnel diggings heard, snips in the barbed wire noticed), and write a report. They place these written reports in a mailbox marked KPA, for Korean People's Army. But since 1995 no North Korean has ever picked up the mail, and so every six months an official from the commission empties the overflowing mailbox and puts all the reports into a file cabinet, just in case Pyongyang ever demands to see them. As it happens, the door of the commission's hut opens directly into North Korean territory, and for a while the Swiss general would unlock it and wave the latest report at the soldiers a few yards away. They turned their backs and ignored him, never came to collect the document, and later complained that the waving constituted an offensive gesture."

I learned, or re-learned, that "...if the Pacific Ocean is the principal generator of the world's wather, then the ultimate source of all the Pacific's extreme meteorological behavior is the initial presence of its massive aggregation of solar-generated heat. This changes the long-term phenomenon we know as the climate. The climate in turn brings about the short-term phenomena we know as weather." Winchester is not a denier of environmental and climate change but he's not an alarmist, either; "Locally, there will be mayhem. Globally, less so. The planet, perhaps, will manage to heal itself. The world and its creatures will survive, and all will eventually allow itself to come back into balance, just as the geologic record shows that it survived and returned to balance after any number of previous cycles of excess and danger. And once that happens, the Pacific Ocean will be seen, uniquely, for what many climatologists are coming to believe it to be: a gigantic safety valve, essential to the future of the planet."

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