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View from Vitalia: Of snow, sloth and waste disposal

Britain has just demonstrated another failure of its technologies and resources in the face of a snowfall, but can technology be a bit excessive at times? Particularly in the privacy of our bathrooms...

My acquired, yet progressively strong, sense of British patriotism gets routinely tested at this time of the year - in the beginning of winter. Provided, of course, it is a snowy winter, which luckily (for my sense of patriotism that is) does not happen every year.

Search me, as they say in the States, but after nearly 30 years in this country, I still find it hard to comprehend why the first gentle snowfall (if any) – a popular subject of poetic ruminations in my native Russia and Ukraine – never fails to cause such all-permeating disruption of transport, schools, services and almost everything else in Britain. To make it worse – just like the annual bush fires down under – it always comes as a huge surprise, as if those who are in charge of transport, schools and services, had no idea that sometimes it actually snows in winter. I could refer them to my first English manual asserting categorically that “in summer it is hot and in winter it is cold (and so we can expect some snow!)”. I somehow managed to learn that unsophisticated dictum at the tender age of five, whereas the reaction of many responsible Brits can be compared to that of the African first-year university student in my native Kharkiv, who, having seen the snow for the first time in his life, ran out of the hostel screaming: “White flies! White flies!”   

Is there really a pressing need to shut down thousands of schools and to cancel hundreds of flights and trains all across the country at the first sign of a gentle – and in the words of a poet, ‘almost regretful’ – snowfall, as they did  in England earlier this week? Minus ten degrees of frost is actually very good for one’s health, especially for children, who are allowed to play snowballs and to make ‘snow people’ (the raging PC stops me from using the good old ‘snowman’), but are not allowed to walk half a mile to school with backpacks on their backs.

In Ukraine, we were allowed to stay at home when the temperature went below minus 20 C. But only while at primary school,  i.e. until we turned 10. After that, no degree of cold was an excuse for truancy. On the contrary – frost was regarded as something invigorating and capable of galvanising some brain activity even in total blockheads.

The coldest temperature I ever experienced was minus 41 Celsius. It was in Moscow on the New Year eve of 1978. Or 1979, can’t be sure… The city’s water, electricity and gas supply systems collapsed, unable to cope with the skyrocketing consumption. But, believe it or not, the roads were still being cleaned by countless Shiva-like snow ploughs, grabbing the slush with their dexterous metallic hands. The city kept functioning, and one could see people making bonfires on their balconies and trying to cook their New Year dinners on them (in 41 degrees of frost!!).

I had a chance to witness severe snowfalls in Helsinki and Bratislava, in Vienna and Amsterdam, in Montreal and Washington DC, even in Tasmania (!)  - and, you know what, in every single case, the snow was dealt with promptly, cars were happily running along the roads and kids to schools (at times, on skis, as I myself did occasionally as a child in Kharkiv). One could be forgiven for believing that winter was actually fun and not a nuisance, or – worse – insurmountable disaster and catastrophe, as it is often perceived in Britain for no other reason than – let’s call a spade a spade – laziness.

There were no spades, let alone snow ploughs in sight anywhere in the Hertfordshire town where I lived last Sunday, when snow began to fall. The traffic stopped completely, and not a single car passed under the windows of my cottage (in a normally fairly lively street) for over four hours (I counted!). Where was the much-praised world’s fourth largest economy with its no-less-praised groundbreaking technology, not capable, as it appeared, to dig through a bit of the snow? And then – the sad, almost mournful, voices of TV and radio news presenters spilling out the heart-rending statistics of the national catastrophe caused by a handful or two of merrily dancing snowflakes: thousands of schools closed, roads paralysed, flights cancelled, factories stopping – the end of the world, no less!  

Sorry for the rant, but this massive annual capitulation in the face of a moderate and friendly natural phenomenon is one of the very few things I find hard to understand or to embrace in my adopted homeland of Britain (alongside tea with milk, warm ales and Christmas puddings).

Perhaps, this time I have taken this helplessness particularly badly having just returned from one of the world’s most efficient technology-ridden countries – South Korea.  Mind you, the economic boom that long-suffering nation is experiencing now was largely the result of its citizens’ devotion and hard work. It is an astounding fact, but the annual per capita GDP in South Korea, a nation that has no mineral resources and always had to import them, has grown… wait for it … 300 times since 1967 and now exceeds $27,000.  It is also relevant to remember that South Korea’s unprecedented prosperity was developed literally under the barrel of a gun. Or to be more exact, 8000 cannons and rocket launchers permanently aimed at its capital Seoul from the nearby North Korean border, according to the New York Times.

Technology was of course the major player in that ‘great leap forward’, which unlike the much-publicised Mao Tse Dung’s one in China, had carried he country from the Third World straight into the First one.

Wherever you go in South Korea, you see technology in action – starting from the immigration control at Seoul airport where every arriving passenger is subjected to quick biometric tests while he or she minces from one foot to the other in front of a TV screen with pictures of sumptuous Korean cuisine dishes – the images that are supposed to help you relax your facial muscles while being photographed by a mini-camera on the officer’s desk.

The country has one of the world’s fastest broadband speeds, and free WI-Fi is readily available not just in hotels, but also in the underground, on trains and buses, and in most passenger-carrying cars.

Next year Winter Olympics in PyeongChang (“Don’t confuse it with Pyongyang, or you will be disappointed,” as my facetious Korean guide liked to say) promise to be the most technologically advanced in history, with a variety of state-of-the-art ICT innovations, including a 5G mobile phone connection service, Ultra High Definition (UHD) TV, new virtual and augmented reality apps, pioneering broadcasting  technologies and lots of AI. Having visited the Olympic sites briefly, I could see for myself that snow (and there was a lot of it around) was not a problem. On the contrary, lots of additional artificial snow kept being blown on the uncomplaining slopes of the beautiful Taebaek mountains (to be used as ski jumps) by the ever-so-tireless snow-making machines.

Banking, trains, underground, buses etc. were all fully automated,  electronic and easy to use. In short, there was so much technology around that on a couple of occasions it began to appear somewhat superfluous, or rather intrusive...

Let me explain.

Each hotel in Seoul where I stayed had one thing in common: electronic toilet with a control panel above the seat. The buttons on the panel were: (from left to right): Flush, Urinal Flush, Stop, Wash, Bidet, Enema (!!- VV), Dry, Move, Massage, Rhythm. They all looked scary. Particularly the ‘Enema’ one!

I decided to stay away from most of the buttons and use the sophisticated bathroom gadget in an old-fashioned way. The seat, by the way, was pleasantly warm and did not feel threatening  until, driven by the same kind of curiosity that reportedly killed a feline, I ventured to press the ‘Wash’ button. Nothing happened for ten seconds or so. “Aha, even in South Korea, this hub of technology, certain things do not work – like in Britain,” I was thinking fiendishly, momentarily feeling almost at home. I was wrong. The moment I lifted myself from the seat, a stream of hot water… I’d better cut it here…

Since then I stopped having doubts about Korean technology’s high state of operational readiness.

While in Seoul, I vowed to avoid electronic toilets for all I was worth. But it was easier said than done. In another Seoul hotel, in addition to the above-mentioned ones, the toilet’s control panel had two different flush buttons, installed, I am sure, with the noblest of intentions to save water and thus help the environment.  One read simply: “1.6 Gallon Solid Waste”, the other: “0.8 Gallon Liquid Waste.” Hmm…

 It took me a while to realise what exactly these two inscriptions implied. And when I did, I was very tempted to call the reception and ask if I was supposed to weigh up all those “gallons” myself and whether they could supply me with portable scales for that purpose?

That was why returning home was a bit of a relief (in more than one sense) this time. Until the snow started to fall, that is…

Having fallen head over heels in love with South Korea, its people, its food, its technology, I was still able to conclude that even technology can at times be excessive. For once, I was quite happy to use my good old little bathroom: the often malfunctioning, low-flow shower, and the simple, yet faithful and familiar, toilet, with its endless – bubbling and hissing, yet also deeply soothing – night-time monologues.

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