Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category


Banned books – Slaughterhouse Five

Apparently, when Slaughterhouse Five was stricken from the public schools of Oakland County, Michigan in 1972, the circuit judge called it

“depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.”

Yes, it is great. I think that same sentence could be used to describe war, which is what this book is about.

This is the story of Billy Pilgram – he has come unstuck. In the book this manifests as time travel but what I understand is a man broken by war from the moment he arrives, unarmed, and having to retreat from the Battle of the Bulge. After being dragged unwillingly by former school-yard bully made soldier, Roland Weary, for an indeterminate amount of time, the two are captured by German soldiers and become prisoners of war. Roland doesn’t survive the journey back into Germany. As a POW Billy is in Dresden when it gets bombed by the allied forces. So it goes.

Billy was never born to be a soldier. At one point the Germans look at the rag-tag collection of American soldiers they’ve captured and wonder at the group. All the good soldiers have been killed and this lot is all that’s left. Billy is a particularly pathetic specimen. Due to lack of supplies he wraps himself in a blue sheet to keep warm and wears some silver boots. Everyone laughs at Billy; some seem to think he is trying to make some unfunny commentary with his clothing.

slaughterhouse five red.jpg

It is very tough and very funny; it is sad and delightful; and it works.

Slaughterhouse Five is one of those books that people frequently seek to get banned. Unlike the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I can see why some people would want to ban this book. It paints a picture of war that is not heroic or patriotic or any of those positive tints we try to give to the killing of others in the name of some cause or other. Its much more Catch-22 than Band of Brothers. But, like Hunchback of Notre Dame, this is a great book that should be available to all.


North Korea and the Panama Papers

The Panama Papers are a massive data leak from the tax-avoidance specialist firm, Mossack Fonseca (MF). And even the most amateur North Korea watcher knows that where ever there is secrecy and grey legal areas you are sure to find North Korea lurking around trying to make illicit trade deals and otherwise hanging out with like-minded criminals and criminal states.

So far it seems that MF acted on behalf of

at least 33 company shareholders, directors and other beneficiaries who were under sanctions by the U.S. Treasury department, the European Union and the United Nations”.

North Korea is being highlighted in two cases. The first is DCB Finance involving British banker Nigel Cowie and North Korean official Kim Chol Sam. The company is alleged to have helped finance North Korea’s weapons programmes. Nigel apparently moved to North Korea 1995 and lived there for a decade, which means he was there when the famine was at its worst and in 2003 when North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He denies any knowledge of any illegal dealings. Hmmm.


MF did end its relationship with DCB in 2010 after someone suggested they look at their own paperwork showing that the company was registered in Pyongyang. One employee acknowledge that this ‘should have been a red flag’. Though to be fair, when you’re dealing with tax-avoiding elites, corrupt officials, dictators and other nefarious characters and countries it can hard to spot an actual sanctioned company from the ones which should be sanctioned.

(Source: Washington Post)

The other case involves two Australian-based men who apparently set up two companies which announced mining deals with North Korea and registered on the Australian Stock Exchange. An ex-UN official on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts for North Korea sanctions spoke to the ABC in Australia to clarify that “the deals involved North Korean entities under sanctions” and that he was “absolutely stunned” by the lack of attention paid, presumably by the Australian authorities, to the public announcements of the companies mining deals.

But of course it’s not just North Korea accessing the services of MF. In South Korea, 195 individuals have been identified so far. This includes former President Roh Tae-woo’s son, Roh Jae-heon. He’s claiming that he never did anything with the companies. Hmmm.


Happy Birthday VH – banned author #1

Today happens to be Victor Hugo’s birthday. I wouldn’t normally pay any attention to this but since I just finished reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame it seemed like a good day to blog about how much I liked the book – a lot! This was the first of at least six banned books which I plan to read this year. It is absolutely crazy that someone(s) somewhere tried to have this book banned. How dare they!!

(Picture source: Life and Legends)

Sometimes you need to be wary of classics. In my mind they fall into one of two categories: 1. great stories that are amazingly well told, or 2. commentaries on an era which are often depressing and can make little sense unless you understand more about that time period.  Fortunately THND is in the first category (although some chapter did drag out a little).

For the next banned book I’m now reading Brideshead Revisited. This wasn’t on the long list of banned books presented earlier on this blog site but it has been banned, it was on sale and I’ve always wanted to read it.


HRW – World Report entry on North Korea’s human rights situation (spoiler: its bad)

Human Rights Watch has issued its annual report on the human rights situation in some selected countries. As usual, North Korea is one of the countries worthy of attention for its abysmal human rights record. Like last year’s entry there is more about civil and political rights than economic, social and cultural rights – that’s not necessarily a criticism as much as an observation.

The introduction section gives us a run-down of events at the UN, including the Commission of Inquiry report and developments in the Security Council, Human Rights Council (HRC) and the UN General Assembly (UNGA).  Key developments are the recommendations by the HRC and the UNGA that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court and the opening of the UN Office in Seoul dedicated to documenting human rights violations in North Korea.

The report then focuses on six topics:

  1. Freedom of movement – Kim Jong-un’s increased measures to prevent people leaving North Korea and China continues to send people back. Women are at risk of forced marriage and trafficking.
  2. Freedom of Information – the risks of accessing information or using technology to communicate with the outside world
  3. Labour Rights – North Korea refuses to join the International Labour Organisation and there are sub-par labour standards in Kaesong Industrial Complex
  4. Political Prisoner Camps – they still exist and they are still awful places where lots of people suffer and die
  5. Forced Labour – even if you aren’t in a political prison camp doesn’t mean you are free from the risk of punishment through forced labour
  6. Key International Actors – very brief mention of issues/events with the UN (already discussed), Japan (abductees), South Korea (family reunions) and US (sanctions and the Sony hacking case)

This is all very similar to last year’s entry. Last year’s entry had headings on torture and inhumane treatment and executions which are not in this year’s report. This year adds the new heading of forced labour. Updates of what has been happening at the UN level are new but the information about human rights violations is all familiar stuff. I’m a bit disappointed that there is no video to go along with this year’s entry.


bank loans and court rulings – update

Earlier this month I commented about the dispute about mortgage loans in Mongolia. The government has now amended the rules and apparently things are back on track to offer the lower 8 per cent mortgage loans to the public.

However, not everyone sees these loans as a good idea. Jargal, a prominent economist in Mongolia who has a regular news column which is translated in English and published by the UB Post, has dedicated his latest column to highlighting key problems with the private apartment market in Ulaanbaatar, including corruption, lack of transparency and poor planning.

2 Songino 6 construction site I

(Photo: construction of apartment buildings in Songino Khairkhan district)

Diverging a little from the private side, the UB development plans also includes the re-housing of those who exchange their land on which the new apartment buildings are built. The government wants it to seem that everyone who exchanges their land for an apartment is super-happy about getting a new apartment. But this is not always the case. A lot of the development projects have run into serious delays. Like the private market, a weak legal framework, an inexperienced and corrupt government, and lack of transparency are all contributing (among other factors) to delays and disputes. The result is continually expanding ger areas and all the problems that go along with that, including serious air and soil pollution.


Books – 2015 and plans for 2016

I read 40 books this year, 32 fiction and 8 non-fiction. I might try to get a better balance between fiction and non-fiction in 2016. My favourite 5 for the year (first link is to the book, link on the author is to a review):

  1. The English MonsterLloyd Shepherd
  2. Strange Weather in TokyoHiromi Kawakami
  3. The State of Africa: A history of fifty years of independenceMartin Meredith
  4. Parrot and Olivier in AmericaPeter Carey
  5. Yellow, Blue, TibiaAdam Roberts

2016’s book theme will be banned books. I’ve got a long list from which I will read a minimum of 6. Turns out there are LOADS of banned or challenged books so there was lots to choose from:

  1. Brave New World
  2. Grapes of Wrath
  3. Slaughter-house five
  4. Cat’s Cradle
  5. Metamorphisis
  6. Lolita
  7. Ulysses
  8. All Quiet on the Western Front
  9. American Pyscho
  10. Catch 22 (already read it but might read it again because its so great)
  11. Gone with the Wind
  12. The Call of the Wild
  13. Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  14. Clockwork Organe
  15. Of Mice and Men
  16. Lord of the Flies
  17. Hunchback of Notre Dame (already got a copy ready to read as my first book for 2016)
  18. Farewell to Arms
  19. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  20. Grimm’s Fairytales

2015 in review

January: Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris

February: Temp job finished; several job interviews

March: Unemployed; more job interviews

April: start new job; got ridiculously and inappropriately drunk at a party

May: Birthday month; UK elections leading to Tory government (ugh); attended music festival in Helsinki, got job offer based in Mongolia

June: attend friend’s hen do

July: attend friend’s wedding

August: vaccinations for Mongolia

September: Week in Hong Kong and then onto Mongolia to start new job

October: Visa problems, went to Jeju for a week

November: Attacks in Paris, Nigeria, Lebanon, Mali

December: Christmas and work


July 2018
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