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After a couple of weeks in Eastern Europe, I'm departing by night train to Zurich.

Here's my super-quick review of everything:

Riga (Latvia) – There's not too much to see here monument-wise, but the city is bustling, and the country's story of standing up to the USSR is inspiring. The biggest surprise -- the prevailing fashion among women here involves dressing like either supermodels or backup dancers in a pop music video... and that's during the day. This doesn't correspond to backward gender roles; they have had a female prime minister. Also, despite the general mediocrity of the cuisine I experienced, they have the second-best supermarket I have ever seen – Stockmann's. This place has everything, including tropical fruit I last saw in Vietnam (for 1/20 the price).

Vilnius (Lithuania) – It's a lovable old town that's much more chill than Riga. There also isn't too much here of note, but the people are nice and it's a pleasant place to relax. There's a small and untouristy bohemian culture in an eastern suburb.

Warsaw (Poland) – This city was thoroughly devastated during World War II. Its enormous Jewish poulation was wiped out, and over 200,000 residents died during a failed uprising against the Nazis in 1944. It has since been rebuilt to a good deal of splendor, and is now a fairly interesting place to visit.

Krakow (Poland) – Krakow itself is a fascinating, though touristy, place with a compact old town. It boasts the best hostel I've ever stayed at (Greg and Tom's). Around Krakow are a lot of things of note, including Auschwitz and the Weilizca(sp?) Salt Mine.

Budapest (Hungary) – Budapest is quite large and there's a lot to see, but I didn't find the city overall to be particularly inspiring.

Prague (Czech Republic) – Prague has been the highlight of my Eastern Europe tour. It's full of beautiful buildings, it has impressive monments and museums, and it's rich with history. However, most importantly, it's continuing to grow and evolve. There's a huge music and arts scene here and a strong sense of national cultural pride. The residents want Prague to rival the great cities of Western Europe. Yes, beers are still $1.

Note that Prague is also jampacked with tourists, so do yourself a favor and don't go in midsummer.
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This painting (from the main art museum in Warsaw) more or less sums up how I feel about religions that attempt to control human sexuality.

P1070311 by you.

Facial expressions are a lot clearer and more seductive in the full size version.

Here we have an old sinner about to die, and Death brings with an allegorical personified vision of each of the Seven Deadly Sins he committed. (Quick, match them up!) Presumably this was commissioned by the church to scare sinners into repentance or confession. In reality it inspires all kinds of sinful thoughts in at least half its viewers. The artist probably was a patron of certain sins; usually these sorts of artists are the ones with the vivacity and passion to paint that sort of subject well. So we have an institution that wants to control natural human impulses commissioning a passionate indulger of natural human impulses to paint an image of the evils of these natural human impulses. The result is pure Reefer Madness, a work that espouses the virtues of what it's supposed to condemn.
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Every city I've been to in Eastern Europe is full of small moneychanging booths. Most of them offer horrifically bad exchange rates but disguise these rates via confusing rate charts. Some of them take as much as 30% off of the transaction. If we assume the same number of customers, these shady shops pull in 10x as much money as the banks that offer the same services. Their cost of doing business is practically nothing – they just need to rent a tiny bit of real estate and pay one person to man the booth. Thus it must be an extremely profitable business... every few minutes a tourist comes in, and the exchange earns somewhere between $10 and $100. In these areas, where salaries are a fraction of what they are in the US, this is a lot of money. There are several of these things per block in touristy areas and there's never a line... I see them and wish the space could be put to better use other than as traps to fleece the uninformed.

While I am against regulation in a lot of areas (and my libertarian friends even more so) his is the sort of thing where I would rather have the government step in to prevent the formation of businesses that do nothing productive, hurt their country's reputation, and clutter up valuable downtown real estate. Of course the government curently stands to profit (at least in the short run) from these things, so they would lose some tax revenue when they are replaced by somewhat less profitable businesses.
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At Auschwitz I employed my usual strategy of arriving at big touristy areas an hour or two before closing so that the tour groups have cleared out. In the past, this has helped me imagine Petra, Ancient Egypt, Ankgor Wat, and other places as bustling cities instead of modern ruins full of tour groups. For Auschwitz, it made the whole experience severely unsettling, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Standing in the small gas chamber and crematorium in silence, I began hearing the screams of dying prisoners along with the whirring machinery of the creamatorium. It's hard to describe how chilling the place is. I have a picture of the room, but the picture provokes a far stronger reaction in my mind than it probably would in yours unless you've been there. The pictures seem like they're burning a hole in my camera... when I'm browsing through my photos and I see them wedged between snaps of salt mine adventures and happy friends trying out my drink concoctions, I have an urge to delete them.

The other exhibits give you a visceral sense for the scale of the Holocaust -- massive piles of braided hair, shoes, and other personal effects. However, Auschwitz was the smaller of the two camps in the area. The second camp, Birkenau, is where the largest-scale killings took place. Over one million people died there. The scale of this camp is enormous. It takes ten minutes to cross it in either direction.

It was also bizarre to look at the engineering, logistics, and bureaucracy at work in service of the death camp operation. A Nazi doctor performed a variety of experiments on prisoners to determine the most efficient methods of killing large numbers of prisoners. He invented new poisons and tested their effectiveness. A team built small gas chambers and crematoria, tested out the procedures, and then built a massive "productized" factory employing the same techniques to kill thousands of people per day. A large bureaucracy handled logistical issues, documented production levels, and generally kept everything running. This white-collar work, aside from the terrible meaning of it all, seemed so ordinary. People spent all day with a pen and paper filling in spreadsheets that tracked the rates of slaughter.

I didn't know this, but apparently a lot of the dirty work involved in the killings was handled by Jewish prisoners and other inmates. These prisoners were often given a choice between immediate death or following Nazi orders, and those who were dehumanized or scared enough to follow the orders handled the gassings and cremations. Originally, the Nazi bureaucracy had used German guards for this purpose but they found that many of them were being driven insane by the work. These prisoner-collaborators were usually killed after a couple of months and replacements were found.  The mass killings were so radioactive to the human soul that the Nazis had to keep even their indoctrinated people at a safe mental distance from the acts taking place.

I at first wondered about the psychology of the Nazi guards who were able to calmly carry out these acts, thinking that they must have chosen the most sociopathic people they could find to do the job every day without breaking.  However, I soon remembered my psychology. Very few people have no moral conscience whatsoever. While the most independent-thinking and empathic Germans were unlikely to become prison guards, most of the people involved were ordinary Germans.  It was the strategy of the legitimizing power structure that made it all possible. It was the barrel that was bad, not the "few bad apples" as Bush used to say in reference to Abu Gharaib. The Nazi leaders had skillfully executed the Eight Stages of Genocide such that most people involved with managing the horrific acts could carry them through so long as their hands didn't get too dirty.  While I don't relieve the guards of responsibility for their actions, it's extremely important to realize that it's the actions and policies of the authorities that makes these things possible.

The banality of evil has been a subject of interest to psychologists for a while, and experiments such as the Milgram Experiment and the more famous but far less scientific Stanford Prison Experiment have confirmed that a good portion of any population will commit acts of torture if  instructed by a legitimate-looking authority, so long as they don't have  to do too much dirty work.

I'm interested to read more.

In any case, I highly recommend that you all visit Auschwitz if you get the chance.  Getting a visceral sense of what a genocide is really like and how it can occur should be something everyone is exposed to.  Unfortunately, while the exhibits do a powerful job of conveying the horror of the Holocaust, they focus entirely on documenting the acts themselves as opposed to the psychological work the Nazis did to make it happen.    The educational system should fill in the gap, teaching children about the techniques employed to enact genocides so that they can recognize and stop them in the future.

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I'm going to Auschwitz tomorrow. Every European city I've been to so fat has a big emptied-out Jewish quarter. It's starting to give me a sense for the scale of the Holocaust. Sure you can use metaphors like "Imagine killing off every resident of the San Francisco Bay Area" but most people can't really process what that really means until they see firsthand evidence. As Stalin (who killed even more civilians than Hitler) said, "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."
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According to my guide at the incredible Wieliczka Salt Mine, this one mine once accounted for 1/3 the GDP of Poland.  (This was a few hundred years ago.)

Looking at the incredible sophistication of all the pre-Industrial-Revolution machinery made me realize that I was basically seeing the 16th century equivalent of the oil industry (and not just in the getting-things-out-of-the-ground sense).  In a pre-refrigeration world, salt was the only way to store most kinds of food for later use, so demand for it was enormous.  It drove a huge amount of engineering innovation as well as excavation and other logistical efforts on a grand scale (there are over 300km of passageways).

Now I know what the 16th century equivalent of me would have enjoyed working on.  I'd be the guy on the surface designing the whole system -- building little scale models of new mining machines and using "advanced" math to figure out how to most efficiently allocate everything to get the salt out.  At night I'd take people deep underground and throw parties.


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February 2011

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