The road less travelled – part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

 
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By Christian Nielsen

As Christian Nielsen takes the road less travelled this summer, he uncovers the volatile, violent past hidden under the tranquil, peaceful present of the Dutch village of Overloon.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Monday 23 July 2018

Set in the verdant woods of Overloon, in the Dutch province of North Brabant, is one of the first and finest museums to recount and remember World War II’s European chapter.

Started in 1946, just one year after hostilities ended, the cavernous Oorlogsmuseum Overloon takes visitors on a journey from the ominous failure to reset the world order after WWI ended in 1918, to the seeds of national socialism and resulting polarisation leading to a sense of German exceptionalism and eventual invasions of Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and so on.

The sombre exhibits capture the utter despair of life in occupied Netherlands, the deprivation, humiliation, torture, fear … what it was like as a child, parent, student, worker, etc. It dutifully recounts the systematic rounding up by the Germans of the Jewish population during the war years until liberation by the Allied forces in 1945.

In one segment, visitors meet a 10-year-old Jewish girl and her family as they struggle to survive. The loneliness and heartache she faces as her mother dies of a brain tumour, her brothers are taken to a labour camp, followed by her father, cousins, aunts … They all disappear from her life in the space of five years.

She goes into hiding with her grandparents, moving from one place to the other, and eventually to a secluded farm. After liberation, she is reunited with her grandparents, and they soon learn the fate of her parents and brothers – all lost in the camps.

Multimedia displays including clips from the period projected on to walls, floors and windows surround the visitor. The overwhelming collection of original mementos, artefacts and machinery would be hard to beat anywhere.

The military hardware in the adjoining hall is thoughtfully displayed to capture what it might have been like in the dying days of the war as the Allies pushed through to the German border in late 1944.

Operation Market Garden was an Allied push through Belgium and Holland to cross the Rhine at Arnhem and get round the German’s heavily fortified Siegfried Line in preparation for a final drive to Berlin.

It was a make-or-break moment and the Germans knew it. They pushed back and met the Allies across a looping front that also took in Belgium (best known for the Battle of the Bulge) and German territory (fierce fighting in Hurtgen Forrest). These clashes were an all-in effort by a German army that literally had everything to lose. And it was in Overloon that Market Garden reached a crescendo between 30 September and 18 October 1944.

The story of the Overloon Battle is told with great care and detail in a panorama room with a replica shelter below, which tells the trials and tribulations of thousands of frightened civilians who waited out the nearly three-week-long ordeal.

A number of sculptures line the pathway to the entrance of the museum, symbolising the twin evils of war: shattered lives and destroyed livelihoods. One installation (see photo) sits incongruously beside a WWII-era tank with its turret poised in the air.

The €15 price to enter the museum seems steep at first but as the sheer magnitude of the place begins to open up, and the attention to detail (the personal stories juxtaposed against the carefully arranged machinery of war) is appreciated, the money feels well spent. Curators are everywhere, dusting Howitzers and arranging life-like mannequins into new scenes like the battlefield mess tent and mobile tool shop. Combined with several military memorials and cemeteries in and around Overloon, as well as a new playground and nature activities, this is a day well spent … and not only for history buffs.

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

Read part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

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The road less travelled: Navigating without algorithms

 
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By Christian Nielsen

As I embark on my summer travels, I have resolved to ignore the recommended routes on my satnav and to get off the beaten track. Join me.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Literature and popular culture are littered with mentions of the ‘road less travelled’. It is ensconced in our lexicon like a tick between the toes, so much so that its meaning becomes more baffling for every new song or misquote.

M Scott Peck’s eponymous book, which came out in 1978, probably started the confusion with its focus on what it takes to be a fulfilled human being, venturing into forests of soul-searching stuff like love, discipline, ethics, religion, spiritual growth, serendipity, grace, lying, suffering … and evil. With the knack of an acupuncturist’s needle, Scott’s book had anticipated the ailments of an emerging ‘self-help’ generation.

To Scott, a psychiatrist by trade, the potted road of spiritual development could be travelled in four stages, from chaos to blind faith to scientific scepticism and finally reaching the end destination where you can enjoy the mystery and beauty of nature and existence.

Evil, he suggests, is understood as much by what we do as what we don’t do: evil fuelled by self-deception as people try to maintain perfect self-images, to which they must deceive others, the scapegoats of their lives…

Confusing? Well, I think so. Why can’t the road less travelled be simpler or perhaps more literal, something like not being afraid to get off the beaten track or swerving away from the high road, for the sake of keeping the metaphor going.

This occurs to me as I plan my road trip to our cottage south of Stockholm, an annual summer pilgrimage, that the life of order, routine, comfort (for many) is rooted in arterial thinking. The idea being to channel as much stuff through the major arteries, or motorways of life, to be sure we get from A to B with the least disruption or disharmony. There are only so many hours in a day, only so many foreseen or unforeseen alternate passages for this ‘lifeblood’ before we revert to form, take the easy way out, the fastest route.

That’s fine, most of the time, because even the most free-spirited souls still need some regularity. They have to eat to live, sleep to dream, imbibe to create … But for the vast majority of people it means narrowly interpreting what an alternate route would look like, the points of interest along the way and what may or may not constitute something ‘scenic’.

The long way round may once have been wise to avoid highwaymen, but today it strikes most ‘busy’ people and casual observers as wasteful, unnecessary, and costly (in time, money and perhaps spiritual ‘energy’). And besides, plying the byways of life has become so damned hard when easy options abound.

More and more of us delegate life-planning to artificial intelligence, the neat algorithms like Google Drive that navigate our journeys for us – complete with eerily accurate deviation ‘costs’ in terms of the time it takes out of our lives. We are left wondering whether we are really in charge. It seems almost impolite to ignore the recommended readings by Amazon’s helpful AI assistant and the suggested viewing by Netflix’s digital curator, or ‘Lord Netflix’ to the truly flix-addicted whose numbers are growing by the minute.

So, the ‘road less travelled’ today could simply be ignoring the recommended route to Stockholm, avoiding the trending films or suggestions, reading books picked up at flea markets … It could mean choosing slower means of transport and, by default, taking longer to get from A to B.

But that sounds okay to me when the main arteries get clogged up with everyone else making a beeline to Peck’s stage four of spiritual development, sustained just barely by a gut-full of gas-station grease and coffee. Join me as I find out what is in store as I venture off the algorithms.

_____

Read part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

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What happens when science fiction crosses into science fact?

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Cloaking devices are the stuff of magic realms and deep-space exploration, not real life. Think again! Making photonic chips invisible to one another could pave the way to computing at the speed of light.

A beamsplitter for silicon photonics chips that is ne-fiftieth the width of a human hair. Image: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

A beamsplitter for silicon photonics chips that is ne-fiftieth the width of a human hair. Image: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

Thursday 24 November 2016

Researchers at the University of Utah have developed a cloaking device for truly tiny photonic integrated devices — the building blocks of photonic computer chips that run on light instead of electrical current. While that still sounds fairly fantastical and fanciful, it’s a huge breakthrough for the computer industry, data centres and mobile device-makers, not to mention the environment.

It paves the way for efficient photonic chips which shuttle data around as light photons instead of electrons. This breakthrough in nanophotonic cloaking, making neighbouring devices invisible to one another, was published in the latest edition of the science journal, Nature Communications.

Photonic chips will wind up being much faster, consume less power and give off less heat than today’s silicon-based chips. Think of the possibilities for foresighted entrepreneurs.

Potentially billions of photonic devices could be stuffed inside a chip, each with a specific function in much the same way as transistors work in today’s microchips. One set of devices could perform powerful calculations or programmed simulations while another group processes requests and others maintain everyday functions and updates.

Back-chatting chips

But light is no-one’s slave and cramming so many of these microscopic photonic devices too close together causes leakage. When light leaks the resulting back-chat or cross-talk acts like radio interference. Not good.

Spacing them further apart solves the problem, but this makes the chips too large, especially for mobile devices. The lab guys worked out that using a special nanopatterned, silicon-based coating between photonic devices acts like a “cloak”.

The principle is similar to the Harry Potter invisibility cloak, says Utah’s Rajesh Menon who led the research. It’s like a barrier it pushes the light back into the original device. It is being fooled into thinking there is nothing on the other side.”

10 to 100 times less power

One of the obvious benefits of chips using light photons instead of electrons to transfer data is the energy savings, anywhere from 10 to 100 times less power consumed, according to the Utah team.

Data centres like Google and Facebook will no doubt like the sound of this, but the afterglow of nano-sized photonic devices could light up a range of sectors, from app-makers to serious games to green tech.

In the United States alone, data centres consume around 70 billion kilowatt hours (2014 figures), which is some 1.8% of total electricity consumption, according to research by the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. With the growth in cloud computing and other rapid IT developments, that power usage is expected to rise another 4% by 2020.

By going from electronics to photonics we can make computers much more efficient and ultimately make a big impact on carbon emissions and energy usage for all kinds of things,” concludes Menon.

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Can peace be as simple as child’s play?

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Palestinian and Israeli children are victims of the conflict they have inherited. So can joint schools help them learn to live together?

Sunday 7 August 2011

Palestinian and Israeli children are born into a protracted and bitter conflict and conflict is the ‘normal’ backdrop to their childhoods, which can have serious long-term psychological and emotional repercussions.

In terms of the future, perhaps the most worrying aspect of childhood here is that animosity is almost a birthright, a jealously guarded heritage that is handed down from one generation to the next, perpetuating the hatred, distrust and fear that fuel the conflict.

One way of breaking this intergenerational cycle of hostility is through joint education, where Israeli and Palestinian children study together as peers rather than foes. This is just what the Hand in Hand network of bilingual schools seeks to do.

Set up in 1997 by an Israeli-American social worker, Lee Gordon, and a Palestinian-Israeli teacher, Amin Khalaf, the Hand in Hand network is currently made up of four schools. The largest school, with some 500 pupils, is in Jerusalem.

A few days before I went to the state-of-the-art $11-million Jerusalem campus, the Colombian pop star Shakira, who is of part-Lebanese heritage, also visited the school in her capacity as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, much to the delight of the school kids.

Lacking her talent and celebrity, the buzz of excitement and the frenzied commotion surrounding me had nothing to do with my presence but were what you’d expect from hundreds of youngsters counting down the long hours to their summertime freedom on the last day of term. The key difference was that the kids in question were speaking an organic mix of Hebrew and Arabic.

Given that Arabs and Israelis tend to believe they come from different planets, one thing that immediately strikes you is how similar all the pupils appear, and how hard it is, without language and dress as a guide, to tell them apart.

And the children themselves, especially the younger ones, often can’t tell one another apart or don’t care to. “The children at the school don’t look at each other as ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs’, they use their own criteria,” explains Ira Kerem, an American-Israeli social worker who works for the charity running the schools and my guide for the day. “What they’re interested in are things like is this person good friend material, is this kid cool, how good is he at football?”

And this was confirmed to me by some of the pupils we came across in the
corridors. “There’s no difference here between the Jewish kids and the Palestinian kids. Unlike outside the school, here we feel equal,” agreed Mu’eed and Jouhan, two Palestinian teenagers studying at the school.

But the reality of the divided city remains just outside the school gates. When I probed the youngsters about whether they socialised with their Jewish friends, both answered in the affirmative, but noted that Jewish and Palestinian neighbours were not always as tolerant and understanding.

In addition, the conflict is never far away, especially at times of heightened tension. “During the Gaza war, we had some very heated arguments with our Jewish classmates, but we didn’t let it get in the way of our friendships,” describe Mu’eed.

Hand in Hand promotes honest and mutually respectful dialogue among pupils and parents alike. It also gives equal time and attention to both Israeli and Palestinian narratives and tries to strike a balance between them, perhaps in the hope of helping create a new, more inclusive history.

This contrasts strongly with the experiences of Palestinian-Israelis who grew up with the official Israeli state curriculum. “Palestine’s history was a missing link in our history lessons,” observed Hatem Mater, a father at the Jerusalem school, in a special book profiling the parents of Hand in Hand’s pupils. “I want my children to know the Palestinian story and the Israeli story. I want them to know the truth.”

Although this is commendable, how much difference can Hand in Hand and other schools like it really make in such an apparently intractable situation. Kerem explains that the schools role is not to resolve the conflict but, in a context where Palestinians and Israelis who live or work together are seen as collaborators or traitors, to show that coexistence is possible.  This motivation is similar to the one that drove the Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli families of Neve Shalom/Wahat el-Salam (Peace Oasis) to settle together for the past four decades.

“We have no illusions that this school will bring about peace between Israelis and
Palestinians,” one Israeli-Jewish father admitted to me. “But you have to do something and every little bit counts – change comes in drips. And you have to start with yourself.”

And this gradual change can be viewed in the shifting attitudes of the parents
themselves. “My association with Arab parents at the school has had a great effect on me,” writes Sigalit Ur, a Jewish mother at the school who defines herself as Orthodox, which shows that, despite stereotypes, it is not just secular, leftist Jews who are for peace and coexistence. “Once I used to take for granted that singing patriotic songs on national holidays was the right thing to do. Now I am more aware of the problematic nature of those songs.”

“This school offers a glimmer of hope for the future, and for the sake of our children, we need to provide them with every bit of hope we can,” a Palestinian mother told me.

Sadly, with Hand in Hand and other bilingual schools struggling to survive, even this glimmer risks being snuffed out. And if broader action to resolve the conflict is not taken, and if tolerance and coexistence are not taught across the board, then the enlightened voices of these youngsters may be drowned out by the overwhelming currents of hatred around them.

This article first appeared in The National on 29 July 2011.

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When the skies fell silent

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Silent nights, genuinely clear blue skies and the sense that nature is finally fighting back… Am I the only one who enjoyed Iceland’s volcanic eruptions of late?

28 April 2010

Humanity’s obsession is to create order in a world that is essentially chaotic. Earthquakes, tidal waves and now volcanic eruptions are, and have always been, just round the corner. And yet, the master species – as I’m sure we’d like to be recognised – thinks it can create laws, charters and ideas to govern what is essentially ungovernable… nature.

Attempts to mitigate such disasters are always well intended but usually turn out to be pretty pointless. People still die, planes get grounded, businesses go broke, and politicians and leaders make ever-more grand statements on how it will be prevented next time. If it weren’t so tragic it would definitely be comical.

Especially when you think that seemingly our most successful effort to have a real, discernible impact on the planet so far has been to bugger it up with greenhouse gases causing what most people now believe to be man-made climate change.

And this is where Iceland’s volcanic plumes come in, adding a somewhat ironic twist to this ill-feted human desire to control everything, to shape everything in our own image, if you will. The days the planes were silent left Europe’s skies clearer than I can recall in 20 years, free of the lattice of contrails (those puffy trails that follow an aircraft) that disperse and create a haze that blights the sky.

What’s more, the early morning and night flights that have become a part of my usual sleep-deprived existence, living not far from Belgium’s busiest airport, also fell blissfully silent. Again, I’m looking for the downside to this eruption.

Sure, it left people all over the world stuck wondering if they would ever see their loved ones again – the last time the vocano Eyjafjallajökull fired up in 1821 it apparently lasted over a year. It even affected a colleague who was covering a conference I should have attended in Valencia on the Thursday and Friday when it first erupted. He e-mailed me with the subject line “stuck in Valencia”.

My first thought was that my Manchester-based colleague could do worse than being stuck in sunny Spain for the weekend, but when the story started to develop it really did look like he could be there for untold days… and on my payroll!

Anyway, long-story-short, he jumped a bus on Friday night to Lyon, a TGV to Paris, the Eurostar to London, a train to Derby and his wife drove down and picked him up in the early hours of Sunday morning. I’ve since learned that, compared to tens of thousands of stranded travellers, he (and as it happens my budget) got off quite lightly.

So despite this little personal hick-up, I have to say I’ve enjoyed the volcanic fallout. Alas, as I write this just days after the all-clear was given, plane after plane thunders overhead as arilines desperately try to clear the backlog of airmail, perishable tropical fruit and passengers.

Still, I wonder if this little taste of ‘quiet Earth’ might leave a fallout of another kind: we’ve now seen that perhaps we can do without long weekends in Egypt, business confabs in California and New Zealand lamb.

Yes, the skies were silent but I could hear the faintest sound of a wind change.

Published with the author’s permission. © Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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