If You Only Read One Book This Summer

This is “Summer Book List” time of the year, but it’s unlikely you’ll find “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom” on many lists of books to “take to the beach”.

The purveyors of those lists think we’re incapable of drawing upon many of our brain cells during June, July, or August; which is too bad because Blaine Harden’s book is as compelling and consequential as any I’ve read in a long time.

I’ve been a fan of Harden’s since reading Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, a book he wrote while reporting on Africa for the Washington Post in the late 80’s (yes youngsters, there was a time when newspapers had foreign bureaus). It doesn’t matter if you’re interested in Korean history or geopolitics, give Harden a chance and he’ll reel you in with engaging details coupled with clean and concise prose.

Loyal PressingPausers know I’ve become keenly interested in North Korea. In all of my extensive reading on the peninsula, this is the first work that has left me feeling complicit in the creation and continuation of the nightmare state. That’s what’s known as a “tease”.

Stick it to everyone recommending superficial summer fare by taking Harden to the beach. Exercise your mind. Then let me know what you thought.

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Best Of 2013

Most widely read Pressing Pause blog post—What Engineers Get Wrong. Thanks to a pissed off A-list blogger who linked to it.

Grooviest place to blog from—my current location, Tenth Floor of the Seattle Public Library.

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Endurance sports tweet—Will Farrell via Bonnie Ford, “Pretty sure nobody would run marathons if they were never allowed to talk about running marathons.”

Novel—Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Nonfiction book—Blaine Harden, Escape From Camp 14.

Best under the radar book by Blaine Harden—A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia.

Investment—Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund.

Television moment.

Adult television series—Breaking Bad.

Netflix original series—House of Cards.

Application—Pressreader—The world’s newspapers at your fingertips. They’ve renewed me for another three months. To quote Kurt Warner after his SupBowl victory, “Thank you Jesus.”

Song—Passenger, Only When You Let Her Go (I was late to that party, a 2012 creation.)

Film—12 Years a Slave.

Text abbreviation my students taught me—tbh (to be honest).

Lunch my sister will still poke holes in.

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Pope of the Year—Francis.

Worst excuse for losing a race—the other guy spent more on his bike—Black Hills Half Iron.

Workout—solo ascent of Mount Saint Helens with new friend.

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New friend—Cervelo R5.

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Richardson, Schmidt, and North Korean Naivete—Making Matters Worse

It’s Bradley K. Martin’s fault. A decade ago, his outstanding history of contemporary North Korea, “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” sparked my deep-seated curiosity about life in North Korea.

Next I read Barbara Demick’s harrowing “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” Then Adam Johnson’s brilliant “The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel.” Last week, Blaine Harden’s riveting “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.” Next in the queue, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” by Melanie Kirkpatrick.

If you’re more a viewer than a reader, watch “Inside North Korea” and “Camp 14: Total Control Zone.”

One can’t read those books and watch those films and not be alternately repulsed, saddened, horrified, angered, and ultimately, changed.

I believe most people are rational, well intentioned, and deserving of respect. From the time my daughters first started talking, I took time to explain to them my expectations, decisions, and actions. In turn, I tried to defuse conflicts by listening to them. I believe in non-violent social change. Like Gandhi, I believe that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I believe diplomacy always holds more promise for international conflict resolution than military action.

And so why did former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s trip to North Korea anger me so much last week? Because my North Korea self-study has challenged much of what I believe to be true about global politics. I’m not sure anything I wrote in the previous paragraph applies to North Korea. The leadership is not rational and the regime isn’t just evil in the context of contemporary world politics, but in the course of human history. I have absolutely no faith that diplomacy will bring about any meaningful change. I’m not sure of the best course of action, but I know Richardson and “Rock Star” Schmidt are making matters worse by helping delude the outside world that North Korea is changing for the better.

It’s reprehensible for Richardson to say, “the naming of a new U.S. secretary of state could also help reset dialogue”. Yeah right, North Korea is the way it is because of Hilary Clinton. That’s an embarrassingly stupid statement for someone with Richardson’s credentials to make. And when a CNN television anchor interviewed Richardson, all she was concerned about was 44 year-old Kenneth Bae, an American being held in North Korea. No concern for the 23 million ordinary North Koreans whose lives are the most hellish on the planet.

Blaine Harden and Suzanne Scholte explain the problem this way.

“In a media culture that feeds on celebrity, no movie star, no pop idol, no Nobel Prize winner stepped forward to demand that outsiders invest emotionally in a distant issue that lacks good video. Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. North Koreans have no one like that.”

In part, that’s why I resolve to use this humble blog from time to time to inform others about North Korea, to agitate on behalf of impoverished and imprisoned North Koreans, and to criticize naive, misguided public figures.

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Erring on the Side of Student Smarts

When asked what was most memorable about high school, my first year university students talk about play performances; athletic competitions; service club activites; and jazz band, choir, or orchestra concerts and trips. Their coursework is forgettable, too often even mind numbing. Why?

In part, because they’re rarely asked difficult open-ended questions upon which reasonable people in the “real world” disagree. Too few adults respect students’ intelligence. Also, we lazily and artificially carve up the subject matter into smaller pieces called math, science, language arts, social studies, foreign language, and art—and thereby fail to frame lessons, units, and courses around especially challenging questions.

I’m in the earliest stages of a new project—curriculum writing for a team of explorers who hope to engage large numbers of students in different parts of the world through their expedition to the South Pole in eleven months.

My plan is to err on the side of student smarts and engage middle and high school students through a series of challenging case studies that rest on open-ended questions upon which reasonable people disagree. If successful, the cases will help teachers help students not just learn factual information about fresh water flashpoints around the world, but also to listen, read, and write with greater purpose; think conceptually; and develop perspective taking, teamwork, and conflict resolution skills.

I’m just getting started. Last week I finished an excellent book about the Columbia River that I highly recommend, A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia (second edition). The author, Blaine Harden, is an excellent story teller. It’s required reading if you live in the Pacific Northwest. The primary question raised by Harden is what’s the best way to operate the world’s largest hydroelectric system? Harden’s story centers on a confounding mix of economic interests, biological imperatives, and environmental values.

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Most of the players in the drama defend the numerous dams that have turned the Columbia into a “machine river”—electric utility providers; irrigators and farmers; tow barge operators; boaters, windsurfers, and waterskiers; Google, Amazon, and Microsoft with their newish server farms; and elected officials and lobbyists who look out for the interests of utilities, irrigators, the internet goliaths, and other river users. The “other side” consists of Indians whose economic, nutritional, and spiritual lives were built around salmon, and fish biologists and Western Washington environmentalists who advocate for environmental restitution.

Students will research, debate, and decide among three possible outcomes:

  1. In the interest of maximum economic growth and inexpensive electricity, maintain the status quo of the “machine river”.
  2. In the interest of compromise and moderate economic growth, allow more water to flow over the dams thereby slightly reducing the total electricity available while simultaneously increasing the number of salmon in the river.
  3. In the interest of environmental restitution, the return of historic salmon runs, and revitalized Indian life, remove the dams and allow the river to return to it’s natural state.

Teachers will assess the relative thoroughness and thoughtfulness of each team’s proposed outcome. More specifically, they’ll be deciding which is most persuasive and why. Interestingly, this “Machine River” case study has real urgency because a federal court in Portland has given the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration until January 1, 2014 to submit a plan on how best to proceed. Many people whose livelihood’s will be dramatically effected by the outcome are anxiously awaiting the Court’s plan.

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Even more challenging than evaluating the costs and benefits of the different possible outcomes, is extrapolating “lessons learned” from the Columbia to other river systems in other parts of the world. For example, Vietnam is upset that Laos is planning to dam the Mekong River. Here’s a question upon which I’ll base an “extension” or “enrichment” activity: Based on Columbia River “lessons learned”, how would you advise Laotians and Vietnamese officials to proceed on the Mekong River? Why?

Even more challenging than applying Columbia lessons to the Mekong is developing a set of principles for 21st Century development more generally. How can local communities, sovereign nations, and international groups maintain healthy economies without compromising natural environments? Or more simply, how do we build vibrant, sustainable communities?

I have more questions than answers. Which is the single best formula for revitalizing schooling.

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