Jonathan Brun

Russia part II – Catherine the great palace, Moscow, Irkutsk, Listvyanka

The Catherine the Great palace lies 1 hour outside of St. Petersburg and was truly stupendous. The original castle was completely destroyed during the second world war and the famous Amber room was stolen by the visiting Nazis. Over the past 60 years, 29 of 55 palace rooms have been restored to their former glory, including the amber room which was just opened and is as amazing as I had imagined. Three different architecture is found throughout the building, neo-classical, empire and traditional Russian style.

We then took an overnight train to Moscow, our first russian train. It was much more luxurious than we anticipated – clean sheets, TVs, hot water, if only Lenin knew! In fact, our first stop in Moscow was to see the man himself, who now rests less than 500 meters from a McDonald’s. The old patron, Lenin, is unfortunately the worse for wear, growing more and more translucent, there is even talk of removing him from his mausoleum.

After visiting the main sites in Moscow – Kremlin, Museums, Churches; we bought our “real” train tickets, 3rd class on the Irkutsk Express – three and half days. Life on the train was lively and all aboard were more than friendly. They happily gave us more salted fish than we could chew along with gallons of beer to wash it down. Since the Russian government has raised taxes on Vodka, many comrades have turned to beer, which is not really considered alcohol in the motherland.

On the train, we met families, soldiers, grandmas and children. All of whom offered us their food and hospitality. Jon, the father of a cute young girl, even insisted we visit his brother in Irkutsk, he gave us salty fish and said we had an amazing aura. Sadly, we could not take him up on his offer, maybe next time.

At Novosibirsk, the Ulan Ude Tai Kwon Doe team got on the train after placing second at the Siberian Open. Their conquest of our car culminated in the renaming of the train to the Karate express.

We came to Lake Baikal to rest and visit the oldest, deepest lake tin the world. In the small village of Listvyanka we set out to find rooms for a night or two. This proved harder than expected, the town seemed to have more dogs than people and even less signs for hotels. After crossing a group of Australian tourists, we were informed of the Russian word for rooms, which we now realised, was plastered on every other home. We rang at one door clearly marked Rooms for Rent, to be politely told, “Hello, Go home!”. Luckily the hostess changed her mind and let us in.

During our visit,  we climbed up to a run-down soviet hotel called, you guessed it, Lake Baikal. The place has certainly seen better days, not that long ago, the rooms were likely full of powerful soviet politicians. Today, it still retains its 1950s Shining charm, superb view over the lake and surprisingly delicious food.

After our stint on the great lake, it was back to Irkutsk where my girlfriend and I headed south to Mongolia and my brother continued to the majestic, or is it magical, city of Vladivostok.

Published on March 18, 2010

Most Inspirational Motivational Videos

For when you are feeling down and want something to lift your spirits, check out these very inspirational and motivational videos. Let me know what I missed out and I will add it.

Ben Zander at Davos 2008 (10 minutes)

Ben Zander at Davos 2009 (78 minutes)

Ben Zander at TED 2008 (20 minutes)

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan with Videos (5 minutes)

Gary Vaynerchuck at Web 2.0 (20 minutes)

Compilation of movie moments (2 minutes)

Rocky 6 Motivational speach (3 minutes)

Jill Bolte Taylol on having a stroke and oneness with the universe (TED 20 minutes)

Famous talk by Hans Rosling on the improvment in the world (TED 20 minutes)

Miniature earth video – if the world were a village (5 minutes)

Published on March 15, 2010

Review: James Cameron’s Avatar’s Failed Message

James Cameron’s Avatar has two fundamental problems. Most criticism centers around the simple story-line, but beyond simplicity there is something more profoundly wrong. Fundamentally, the film departs too far from reality – I am not referring to the aliens, special effects or foreign planet. The film does two things which do not hold up to inspection. First, it presents a caricature of both the indigenous and the foreigners rather than a nuanced portrait of conflicting interests. Second, it pretends that a small, poorly equiped group of individuals can do head on battle with a superiour force and win – that just does not happen.


The film portrays the ruthless conqueror, hungry for gold, against a peaceful and harmonious native communities. This idealistic view of native tribes, the noble savage, presented by Rousseau and other enlightenment figures simply does not hold up to inspection. Many studies of indigenous tribes demonstrate very high levels of violence. While resource hungry conquerors have many crimes to account for, they also bring technology, medicine and new ideas.

Through the alien world, Cameron clearly hopes to help us realize the nature of our crimes. Placing people and events in a new setting can sometimes help us see their true nature; however, most Avatar viewers came away with little new morality. Cameron has changed the world, but he keeps pushing a known stereotype. The average person knows modern civilization abuses nature and minorities and the sensitive native is in touch with nature. This is well laid out in films such as Dances with the Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Pocahontas and others. Emphasizing the most known characteristics of a people simply reinforces the stereotype instead of dispelling it. If we really want people to realize our common societal problems (pollution, health-care, violence..), we need to show them the unexpected in both the dominated and the dominator.


Avatar fails to enlighten us because its story conflicts with our history. On earth, when the weak fight a vastly superiour force they rarely emerge victorious. When they do, it is not through a head on battle on the conquerors terms – but rather through guerilla tactics (Vietnam), non-violent protest (India, Civil Rights in the US) and this always takes a long, long time. There are examples of David vs Goliath, but perhaps it does not happen like Avatar – take for example, the fight against South African Apartheid.

In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “A Long Walk to Freedom”, he recounts his childhood in a traditional african village with a benevolent ruler. He both confirms and dispels the tribal stereotype through the description of rituals and injustices between people in these villages. Still a young boy, Mandela, leaves the village and enters the oppressor’s system of schools and institutions. After years of admiring the white man for his technological advances and institutions, he eventually realizes the true nature of South Africa. It is a country where the blacks are servants to the whites. Their submission to the whites is not due to any particular inferiority; the whites simply arrived and overwhelmed them militarily, politically and economically.

After his studies, Mandela embarks on a struggle against white rule, and quickly realizes of the odds he is facing. He struggles through both non-violence and violence, ending up in jail for over twenty years. Throughout the struggle, he never compromises his morals, always indulges the enemy in patient explanations of the struggle and eventually shows the world why white rule is bad. The story of Mandela is similar to other freedom fighters – King, Gandhi, and others before them. To defeat a vastly greater opponent, one must be patient, stubborn, and infinitely resourceful.

Avatar denies the challenge of freedom struggles by compressing the Naavi’s struggle in time, emotion, and complexity. Story book endings with the natives rising up, confronting the oppressor and emerging victorious never happen.

Whenever a guerilla force fights against an overwhelming power, it takes two things to succeed – time and effort. Never does a frontal assault work. By portraying this tactic as victorious, Cameron reinforces completely unrealistic expectations that play to the advantage of the dominant force. The dominant power wants you to play be their rules, but the only way to beat them is to change the playbook.

Avatar is an amazing feat of engineering and art, but it fails to convey the message Cameron wishes us to understand: Our insatiable thirst for resources is consuming the world.

Two possible endings would have been far more instructive to the world. In one scenario, the natives are annihilated and we mine the resources, this is a sad, but common reality on earth. In another, the natives embark on a long and treacherous fight using non-violence and violence to show to the human population their own faults – eventually converting them to the cause. Though those endings may not be typical crowd pleasers, perhaps they would have been more instructive.

Published on March 10, 2010

Review: What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science

What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science

Dispatches from the future is a collection of essays by young scientists on the cutting edge. The topics vary from dark energy, to linguistics to neuroscience. All the essays are interesting and reveal young fields which will surely develop in the next decade. Some of the essays offer little major revelations, they simply explain a phenomenon or area of research.

Of the fifteen essays, two stuck out for the implications with respect to social interactions and behaviours of societies:

* Mirror Neurons and whether our ability to mimic others enables us to be more compassionate and ethical. (A similar article found here)

* How our mother tongue affects the way we think about objects, people, and our place in the universe.

A bunch of these essays (I think) can be found on the amazing website,

Buy the book here:

Published on March 8, 2010