Sunday, December 21, 2008

An All-Volunteer Army?

Among my daily reading-fodder is George Packer's blog at the New Yorker's site called 'interesting times.' Two weeks back, he posted an embedded video from Doctors Without Borders about the continuing chaos in Africa's Great Lakes region. Something about my firefox settings makes it so that every time i load the blog, the video starts playing. I'd call this annoying, but it's hard to be dismissive, considering the content of the video. I don't know if Mr. Packer did this intentionally, but for literally two weeks now, almost every day, readers are reminded of the depressingly increasingly hopeless hell that people live in. Combine this persistent nagging with stories like this from the Times about massacres being carried out less than a mile away from the U.N. Peacekeeper's base, and you really take a gulp.

I won't claim to know very much about the Hutus and the Tutsis and Warlordism, or even the local culture. But I know why Peacekeeper forces are stretched hopelessly thin, and it has everything to do with George Bush. Between the public ridicule of the U.N.'s missions, non-payment of dues, and reckless international politicking, Mr. Bush has done significant material harm to the U.N. and its missions. Furthermore, the wars he started already precluded his more competent successor's use of U.S. troops as peacekeepers in any of the places they are really needed.

It occurs to me that while the armed forces are having trouble meeting their recruiting goals as they attempt to fight an overly-costly but unpopular war, The President Elect could knock out a whole flock of birds with one stone by opening up a new branch of the Armed Forces--one dedicated to U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping missions. Besides being wildly popular abroad, a peacekeeping force could draw in prospective recruits who are either ideologically opposed to the present wars, risk-averse, or both. By offering potential recruits the guarantee that they would not be sent on missions which had not specifically been mandated by the U.N. security council, and offering training beyond that of traditional armed forces--namely a greater emphasis on conflict-resolution--but also the radical ideologies that General Petraeus brought to Iraq.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Boo On Scientists

Consider the last time you asked someone to keep something confidential:

Excuse me, could I have my chocolate slightly more Aryan?

From Putong-Kong

But was it a State Sponsored Hangover?

Friends, for the benefits of inquiring minds, I have assembled a brief summary of three locally available beers (though there are plenty more). I'll start with "Blue Ice Beer," a purchase I made in the hopes that it was a re-branded version of Snow, the Chinese JV with SABMiller which recently became the most consumed beer in the world. See for yourself; with the ice and mountain theme, I was hopeful:

From Putong-Kong

Alas, Blue Ice, it turns out, is a down-label San Miguel. Which itself is a beer I'd never touch, and for good reasons. Blue Ice is probably the worst beer I've ever had. I don't consider myself an expert in this field, and I wouldn't ever call my tongue refined, but I don't ever recall having such a bad reaction to the taste of a beer before (except perhaps my first beer ever--a 'Tecate.' pleasant memories of Tijuana...).

The nifty thing about Blue Ice, though, is its packaging. It feels retro--and closer inspection shows why. Not only does Blue Ice fail to instruct one to drink responsibly, remember to recycle the can, or even fill us in on its ingredients (label contains name of beer, and name of importer), it even has a nifty pull tab like the one that kid from the movie in the 80s use to hack that payphone. I'm pretty sure I watched it on VHS.

From Putong-Kong

Second is Pearl River Lager, suspicious only because of the option of two different colored labels in the store, but no difference in text. Both were called pearl river lager. I chose Yellow and black:

From Putong-Kong

I don't have a whole lot to say about this beer. It was actually quite nice, a meaty kind of lager devoid of powerful hops (this is China), but still scrumptious. Plus their the official beer sponsors of Chinese Basketball. A telling endorsement, perhaps, but not quite as strong as


From Putong-Kong

I don't care if you people don't think this is hilarious, but I think it's great. Yanjing features that one ingredient of all great beers: Rice.

It was 'aight. Ill say more when there's more to say. Until then I'm Jonesin' for a Sierra Nevada. Or at least a Champagne.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Yeah, he aught to go.


The Times reports that prices on recycled raw materials have plummeted (in line with every other kind of raw material), thus endangering recycling programs all around the country. With drooping consumer demand across the board, suppliers of raw goods cannot find buyers. This is pushing down prices, driving up inventories, and in the case of some municipal-run programs, governments are throwing up their hands and quitting.

This is bad news for the world at large (and especially the maldives), but it doesn't need to be. Last night I met a guy who works for a hedge fund here in Hong Kong, and asked him rather abruptly if his fund had managed to stay true to its original identity--a fund that could make money in good or bad markets. He was a shy fellow, and admitted they were up 3-4% for the year (beating most developed economies, I should point out), but was quick to say that "it wasn't like it had been in the past."

This is the same piss-poor attitude that will destroy an excellent ecological opportunity. When the market drops, you buy. When the cost of environmentally beneficial commodities drops, you legislate. Now is the time to take legislative advantage of record-low prices for recycled materials.

The first and easiest way to do this would be to quickly enact mandates on post-consumer content in packaging. This can be sold as a protectionist measure for any number of causes, but in reality it is a long-overdue consideration of where the vast majority of waste comes from. Furthermore, a well executed framework could provide the basic structure for far more sweeping environmental provisions.

Another, almost obvious act does not even require legislation: sort this out. Presently, due to food-contamination concerns, the FDA restricts the use of post-consumer materials in food packaging. To gain approval, each individual use by an individual company requires a submission and review process. While this may be no big deal for Coca-Cola, virgin materials are cheaper for whoever produces the styrofoam trays that the halal-lunch cart sells (or the thai place, or Wong's Wok on fourth and A...)

A quick way to reduce the amount of virgin material used in plastics would be a comprehensive petroleum tax, rather than a gas tax. Presently the money state and federal governments charge on your gas goes to support public transportation infrastructure. But if you're using that petroleum to make coke bottles, it flows like...well, oil. Re-using the bottle would look a lot more attractive if all of a sudden coke was paying another fifteen cents to the gallon on virgin materials.

Crack down on strip mining. Just. Seriously. This one is so simple. By reducing the supply of metals (oh, and coincidentally, not destroying Kentucky, West Virginia, the Baja peninsula, western Australia, chunks of Canada, etc...) the price will make recycled materials more competitive with virgin materials. Structural steel may need new ore, but Aluminum can be refined over and over forever, and it is 20 times more energy intensive to source a can from raw materials than post consumer. Letting metals recycling fail would a terribly foolhardy, short-sighted policy failure which will be remembered in the future by salvage workers who dig up old landfills for aluminum scrap.

Actually there are a million things I can think of, but the point is the same. When recycled materials get cheap, its time to make people use them, not to stop recycling them.

K, I'm done.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Yet another example of why people should pay me to do graphic design.

Lets compare. This is a poster in Hong Kong Island's super-touristy Stanly Village which warns tourists to watch out for fiendishly large-headed men with fishing poles:

... And this is some throwback, Nixon-era sacrelige:

See, I'm better.

Nationalism is Dead

Okay, the proposition is arguable (and oft argued), but no one can deny it's lost its appeal in the west. This cynical generation will not be found on a couch chanting "USA! USA!" as Michael Phelps demonstrates how democratic virtues facilitate improved hydrodynamics. And perhaps more interestingly, the same generation being less familiar with the term and its past is notably less cynical about being "citizens of the world."

At the same time, the word "Europe" has slowly shifted meaning over the last decade from a geographical fact to a political aspiration, as it appears the challenges of global competition have awoken the European everyman (say, Jacques the plumber) to the civic virtues of not hating the person on the other side of the river (say, Johannes the plumber--unless they happen to be named Ferka the plumber).

In this incredibly peaceful, self-aware, and shockingly generally reasonable world order, I am always struck, and sometimes profoundly confused by the pockmarks of a more turbulent past. I wasn't around for the great war, or its global sequel (World War II: Deutschland with a Vengance). I have fuzzy pictures of the Vietnam conflict buzzing around in my head, but they're all set to Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes, and it's clear that whoever edited this montage did so without me in mind. I learned the word colonialism in middle school because it was set in bold on page 327, and that meant it could be on the quiz on Monday. And in 1992, I was familiar with the names Lenin and Lennon, but had never read either, and was perfectly unaware that there was any difference.

Instead, the world I have grown up in has been marked by less war than at any point in history, a greater degree of affluence (or what an historian might call subsistence-plus) than ever before, and a world which is now more democratic than not (ish, but trending. depends where you get your facts from). I have grown accustomed to this world, and to this way of thinking.

So now, on the other side of the world, I find myself confronting quaint but troublesome problems like the inability to acquire a visa. As you may or may not know, I have developed some vested interests in Eastern Europe. It is incredibly cheap to get across the Asian continent by train, but the real problem is visas.

It seems that a few years back the United States of America, in its infinite unilateral wisdom, decided that people on this continent that look and talk just like people on canal street, aught to be double checked before they could come on over (a decision that can be made rather lightly given that it only affects one out of every five people in the world). In a pissy kind of tit-for-tat way, China said the same thing. The situation is similar with Russia, and the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan...

So what does this mean? It means a potentially wonderfully cheap and energy efficient way to travel may have to be supplanted by more planes just because of some out dated notions of nation-state. It means the lingering bad vibes of generations past are totally about to harsh my mellow. And my generation doesn't like that sort of thing.

This rant is not a well-thought-through appeal for a new approach to international relations (say one based a little less on reciprocal antagonisms?), or even a scheme to tangibly streamline the logistics of personal mobility. No, this is just a slightly drunk complaint from someone who is getting their first view of a world based on all the wrong ideas and all the pig-headed, discourteous, and bad behaviours of generations past.

For someone who can,more often than not, identify with the ambitions and attitudes of his peers around the world, regardless of national identity, the current regime which prevents me from actually every sharing a beer with those people for a good-natured chat is a little jarring.

Accuse me of idealism and call me naive. Accuse me of impracticality and raise myriad counterexamples. But none of that makes this any less retarded.

The world has accomplished the deceptively great feat of general peace. It would be nice to be able to exploit it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Boats --or-- From Me to You

The people of the United states, according to a recent survey by unisys, are the fifth biggest scaredy-pants in the world. But even though Hong Kong is even more scaredy (ranking #2--something to do with communist bird flu/THEIR ENTIRE ECONOMY IS INVESTMENT BANKS!), I could walk right up to the water's edge at an active international shipping port.

I did so today, because I got bored and wondered if I could. It took me hardly five minutes to find the closest one--it seems that piles of shipping containers always lurk upon the horizon, here. I sat on a steel guard rail (the kind for cars, not people) and watched the incredibly ancient process of longshoremen unloading boats.

The particular boat I watched was a small one--nothing that would have broken international headlines had some Somali pirates hijacked it--and I doubt it ever left the pearl river delta. Plenty of business is to be done between Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The boat held what looked like two or three layers of containers within its hull, and then who-knows-how-many more on top. It had its own crane, which makes me think it was probably a pier service boat, moving containers from pier to pier, rather than anything long haul.

The process of loading and unloading was fascinating to watch. It is easy to live in New York and never see manual labor, but watching these fellas run after swinging cable hooks on top of containers lurching back and forth on a boat helps lend some depth to Marlon Brando's character in On the Waterfront. These are bold people.

A diesel engine housed in an incredibly shabby steel shack is connected via a transmission to a series of pulleys. These run cables up and down the length of a 120-odd foot steel beam that serves as the crane arm. From this beam, more cables dangle the impressive distance down to the deck. These are heavy steel cables, with heavy steel joists and heavy steel hooks at the end. The motor is imprecise and grunts the beam in each direction. The hooks swing wildly as two men scramble to grab them and attach them to a container.

I was in awe on a sunny day with calm seas--and they have a thing here called "monsoon season."

Shipping containers can weigh up to 67,000 lbs. Each one is attached by four--or sometimes two--cables, and then yanked up as the engine spits out a poof of next week's acid rain and lung cancer. The 33 and a half tons take to the air awkwardly, swinging back and forth, and spinning around. Because the crane is nothing more than steel cables, there is no-one can control what the container does. The operator, pushes the beam out over land, and momentarily the giant steel box follows. He stops early to account for overshoot, but it doesn't really matter, as when a box comes down, it comes down. Frequently, the box is at the wrong angle to be stacked neatly and the operator slams it against a neighbor to straighten it out. When this happens, the pier-side longshoremen duck and dodge to avoid the inevitable cloud of dust that shoots out from between the two. Then as soon as the box stops moving, they jump on top and unhook it. The whole process goes by like a flash, and I wonder how quickly longshoremen get used to working so closely with such catastrophic forces--all is steel and seawater. All is rust.

I also wondered at the vast number of men around the world doing this very same activity. Shipping has a long history, and even a causal role for Modern Hong Kong (the city began as the British port for Canton (Guangzhou)), and there are many men like these, swinging cables, blasting diesel engines between idle and full load (spurting clouds of poorly-burned fuel), pushing steel boxes on bigger steel boats across the world. All this for things we take very much for granted. The Campbell's soup I eat here came from the same place my Campbell's soup did back home, and the headphones I just bought came from right across the border. In consumption, whether here or there, there is no difference. The stores look the same, and the little rush of opening the package feels the same. But I then I think about my $1000 plane ticket...

God, the New York Times is totally in the tank for The American People

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving Part II --or-- Dear Internet, I have the best girfriend ever.

I make no equivocations when I say that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday ever. Christmas and Easter perhaps celebrate the more important occasions, but are both too bogged down in meaningless tradition and serious commercialism. Thanksgiving is amazing in that our collective society has managed to agree on it as a bulkhead against the heavy seas of 'holiday' capitalism. It is only in America that the Christmas season would begin on 'black friday'. Don't even get me started on Armistice day.

Having said this, Thanksgiving has two fundamental components whose interrelationships are as ancient as they are rooted in our psyche. Food and Family work together, as an evolutionary psychologist might claim, as the fundamental unit of society. The pack functions to help us get better food, and food attracts more into the pack.

But this has nothing to do with what I'm trying to say. I received a package yesterday from one C. Twigg, and it blew me away. Prior to this packaged, I would have argued that the Idea of delivering thanksgiving to one's doorstep was flawed from the start. But in less than a few Kilograms, here it was.

Besides an incredibly creative and apt take on all the traditional Thanksgiving trimmings, my wonderful friends contributed drawings of hand turkeys (you know the type; where you trace your hand and then draw feathers and beaks and make it say things...).

There were tidbits of warm, fireside conversation (in the form of Economist clippings), and even a silly picture of Brooklyn,

So to everyone who contributed to this wonderful gift, Thank You. It's made my thanksgiving. And as I sit here munching on turkey jerky, dried cranberries, and pecan pie-flavoured chocolates, I'd just like to say I am thankful for my wonderful friends, family, and this year especially Ms. Twigg.


Friday, November 28, 2008

A very Hong Kong Thanksgiving (Part I)

So as Thanksgiving--that truly Americanest of all holidays approached, I steadfastly avoided thinking about it. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday by a long shot. The meaning of the holiday is still palpably at hand, most likely because it has evolved over time into whatever we wanted it to be, and unlike the progress of other holidays, Thanksgiving at least glorifies things worth glorifying.

So it was with denial that I approached my most revered holiday, as I feared that a remembrance of the day that celebrates one's family and loved ones would only digress into a sappy mope-fest. But then something struck me on the train home Thursday evening, and I decided that even without my favorite people I would celebrate them blog-style. So here goes, this posting is dedicated to everyone I'm thankful for. Which is most everyone I know.

Deciding that one wants to cook themselves a Thanksgiving feast on the afternoon the day of was not as impossible a task as it might sound. Remember, for everyone here, it was just Thursday. But even before departing for the grocery store, one fact rang in my head. I haven't seen turkey for sale the entire time I've been here. According to K, my housemate, "Chinese don't like turkey." K is an exception apparently, he got heavy into ground turkey during college in the states (as did I!).

So with turkey off the list, I decided that rather than a literal T-Day feast, I'd go for a more symbolic menu, with the target being to create a truly American feast, of the kind modern-day settlers might partake in. So here's what I got:

The first dish I settled on was pizza. Pizza is, I would argue, America's second dish. Coming after the hamburger (good luck finding ground anything here...), pizza can be found anywhere English is spoken. The down side is that the frozen pizza's at the local park and shop came in two flavors: Pepperoni (the picture looked like a pizza with Chicken Pox), and Seafood (I'll take the crab juice...). Realizing the futility of this avenue upon first glance, I became excited by the prospect of assembling pizza from the available ingredients. I'm not going to lie, there's no cheese here:

This is a pan-fried dough disk. Its sort of like nan but with more oil. They came from Singapore, and were in the freezer section, each individually wrapped. Tomato sauce was easy to find, but cheese limits you to cream cheese, cheese spread, or kraft singles. I found an off-brand singles pack labeled mozzarella and shrugged: What harm could it do?

Here's my pan fried pizza getting its melt on:

Second, I needed some garlic bread. Okay, this one isn't so so American, but the packaging is. Inside the box is a plastic bag containing an aluminum tray and 18 think slices of bread, frozen, and covered with margarine and garlic. What could be more wasteful? Clubbing a baby seal and then not using its skin as a coat:

When you spread them out and toast them, they actually come out quite delicious:

The last of the main dishes was sausage. I saw these in the freezer and couldn't help myself. Sausage is awesome (I know, I was this close to being all veggie...) boiled and stir fried with onions and red peppers produced an actually palatable course:

Of course, I purchased some buns for the sausage--they were labeled cocktail buns, and came three to a pack. When my sausage was done I sliced one open:

Thats right, filled with some kind of coconut cream. Just plain weird.

Beverages were not a hard choice. Thanks to this globalization we got goin' on, PBR and Coke were plentiful. Hunter Thompson would be very happy.

For desert, there was cake, but I forgot to take a picture. Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!!!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Freckles in November?

Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus is Dead.
Those are freckles, popping up on my typically daisy-bright whiteman skin. Apparently, my body thinks it's time for serious defenses against this tropical sun...

...or I'm breaking out in a case of early-onset malignant melanoma--frankly, I was expecting this.

Regardless, these freckles came as a surprise, especially today. It has been in the low 80s/high 70s for the last two weeks, but two days ago I was warned by a sober-faced flat-mate that today would be very cold, and I should be prepared. Well, folks I spent yesterday afternoon browsing for a jacket that I could justify buying (naturally, I didn't bring one), and having found none, confronted today's cold-snap with a flannel shirt.

About ten metres out the door I rolled up the sleeves.

Apparently cold is just not that cold. This isn't even a local trend. It's getting like this all over the world. And it's going to stay that way. Which is why I'm going to talk about Mitt Romney.

Okay, I'm actually just going to mention him, and his bit in the Times on the Detroit bailout hullabaloo. Mssr. Romney proposes a managed bankruptcy for the major U.S. carmakers. Possibly, for the first time ever, Mitt Romney (or the Romner as we used to call him back in grade school. Ah, memories...) has said something I agree with: a $25bn cash 'bridge-loan' to GM, Ford and Chrysler (a.k.a. Cerberus) would be tragic.

The utter collapse of these corporations provides the American Society, and thus the world with a fantastic opportunity--not just the kind of find-your-worst-enemy-piss-drunk-and-convince-him-he-aught-to-pay-a-visit-to-his-girlfriend's-parents-revenge-type opportunity--I mean the real kind that helps people.

The Romner correctly points out that offering a bailout to Detroit--presumably to cover operational costs and debt obligations until demand picks up again--is sheer folly. People will always need cars (Detroit has at least left us that legacy). The question is which cars do they want?

Sales have suffered in the last few years for two main--but very different reasons. The first was an unprecedented rise in oil costs. Oil shot up to over $140/barrel and everyone acted surprised. They even blamed oil traders for creating a 'speculative bubble.' As it turns out, oil reached high prices because the Chinese showed up and asked for some. And they have a lot of money.

When gas got to $4.xx/gallon, people started to drive less. In an exceedingly un-bubble-like fashion, the price of oil eased off its height, and settled in the $120s (or like 13% off its peak). More importantly, people started buying less-big cars (my suspicion is that these were people in the market for cars anyhow, and just adjusted their priorities). This is the same point people who write articles for a living started using the words "burning" and "hemorrhaging" do describe what GM was doing with their money. This is also where Mitt gets off calling GM uncompetitive.

Then the shit really hit the entirely unrelated fan. Lehman blah blah AIG blah blah blah. No one could get loans to buy cars. And those who could get loans to buy cars said "Fuck, no! My car works just fine!" Plus their old gas-chugger was still okay because those nasty oil traders speculated that economic collapse would lead to a decrease in demand and oil prices fell to like $50 or whatever they are now. Fuckers.

So with no one buying cars, GM (and the other, less interesting, longer named companies) flat ran out of money. Or at least they're about to. And now, the story goes, they need cold cash to keep the doors open and the balloons filled and the crazy wind-sock-men that blow around on the side of the highway full of air--at least until demand picks up again, and all this silly 'people don't want our cars stuff' blows over.

Unfortunately, there is no going back to the past (unless Obama pulls a 180 and gets serious about full-spectrum-dominating the middle east back to $20/barrel oil)--we are stuck with one situation or the other. I prefer a functioning economy with $140 oil, but I'm not the decider. If/When the economy recovers, it will mean we are back to buying all those plastic goodies the Chinese make for us. with oil. And that means it will be very expensive to drive a car that seats an NBA starting lineup. And that means GM will still be insolvent. Just a couple months down the line. This much the Romner's got.

Unfortunately Capt. Romnetron missed the incalculable trauma GM's (and Ford's and the other one's) collapse would have on the consumer psyche. I remain convinced in this; the most important part of recovering from a recession is to kick the dour. And tossing out a couple tens- or hundreds-of-thousands of line worker's from one of America's most classic professions would only one step better from issuing a new series of 'Rosie-the-Riveter pissing on the American Flag' stamps. There's that and all the people who would lose their pensions and healthcare too. That would be way bad.

So we can't pull the plug. And we cant plug the hole (damn, i'm hot!). Why not push through and socialize the whole thing?

Alright, I didnt mean it. But really, a major restructuring is unavoidable. Romney makes an excellent point in that the Unions would be much easier to handle (read: put down) in a chapter 11 situation. Unfortunately, that needs to happen at least to some extent. It would be a tremendous waste to scrap the whole deal and allow 'the workings of the free market' to conjure up some magical new companies to compete just as fiercely with Toyota. Especially because it wouldn't happen.

But here's what could:
Allow GM to go bankrupt. Spend some more money (hell, China's still good, right?) and back up warranties, pensions, and healthcare (they'll get merged into the forthcoming free & perfect universal system, right? right??). Let the companies restructure themselves--But make gas wicked more expensive. I propose something like $4.50/gal, pegged nominally to inflation--but the more expensive the better.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, families are spending less on petrol than ever least they were as of Q3 2007

Wow! thats a bitter pill. Yeah it would never sell, but it would fucking work. First thing, its absolutely no different than sending them $25 billion, or however much more they'll need in February, except that it's actually today's taxpayer's money, not next generation's. Second, it allows the good parts of capitalism to work-ish. No one wants to kill Chevrolet, but this will force them to change. And unlike Romney's retarded idea that new companies will somehow be able to compete with Toyota, Toyota will be dealing with the same new situation. Fact is, if CAFE standards were raised, and the price of gas doubled, everyone would have to make new cars. Not just the weakened, disadvantaged domestic companies.

Oh, and it would also help prevent catastrophic global warming, though we should never let considerations of drastic, permanent damage to the planet trump the economy, stupid.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


For context in the upcoming public transport post, here is a map of the transit system:

Also, I changed it so everyone can comment. Sorry about that.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


It is tempting, when one begins to study another language, to question the usefulness of particular rules. This temptation perhaps reaches epic heights when users of phonetic alphabets confront the users of pictographs--particularly so when the would-be polyglot is the type who finds inane "told-you-so" joy in pointing out inefficiencies in others' designs.

Namely, myself.

Humbly I approach the mantle of the Chinese language, appreciating full well the vast and advanced cultural history it has supported. Indeed, there are many unexpected qualities to the Chinese writing system. One example would be the many-layered meanings contained within a word's characters. There is a sort of anchor to the past which English (indeed, phonetic) writing systems lack. Sort of an oral vs. written history, etc.

But I will be severe and discriminating in the following judgment: The Chinese character for zero is just plain (and I mean objectively) dumb.

Now that probably sounds harsh. Indeed it is. It is meant to be. How else can one expect a couple billion people to reform themselves? ...I kid. But seriously, lets take a look, shall we?

Counting, and numbers play a pivotal role in social life. Technologies, Economies, indeed the fabric of modern life would dissolve without numbers. And what's more, they are a part of the language which our brains use to reason with the senses. Numbers, and our systems of using them have lodged themselves deeply within our minds.

But there are two kinds of numbers--or at least two ways they are represented through language. You may say that three and 3 are essentially the same--different only in the label applied. Likewise, zero and none. But this is a pitfall. Three-thousand, or 3000, is not three-none-none-none. I'm not trying to say anything profound here, I'm just pointing out linguistic differences. Three-thousand, or three-hundred and fifty-two, for that matter, is an amount. Three-zero-zero-zero, or three-five-two, are digital representations of those amounts. Thus, we simplify things by abstracting the notation a step farther, and call them 3000 and 352. Blah blah blah.

In Chinese, If I would like a beer (which I would--as I'm pretty good here), I ask for "yi ping pi jiu," or "一瓶啤酒." Now the word I used for "a" is "yi" or one. It is the same I would use if I wanted a thousand, or "yi qian," or "一千." Here qian means thousand. But it is the same character I would use if I wanted 1000, or "一零零零." The difference is subtle, but important. It is as if I asked for 1 beer, please (rather than one). Maybe not such a faux pas among the text-mongers of yesteryear's nokias, but no one with a blackberry could get away with this. Both languages have digital and counting-based number systems, but in English, we have specialized characters for that digital system.

Now comparing our numbering systems, we have

Remember that the Chinese character is essentially the same as the word.

Excepting Zero.

The special case of zero arises from it's non-numerical meanings. One has a very intuitive place in the linguistic tradition. There is one beer. With luck, there will be two beers. Someday we could have 102 beers. But we will never have one-none-two beers. None is an entirely different concept than one, two, or the whole ilk of counting numbers. None has no place in counting numbers. But when we mark things digitally, none is an essential concept.

Thats when zero got invented. Zero is only related to none only by abstraction. The zero in one-zero-two means none tens, but represents 100. It is useful because digits are not directly related to any tangible, countable numerical meaning.

In English, we have zero or 0. In Chinese, zero had to be invented as well, and they called it ling. Ling serves the same role in Chinese as zero does in English. Ling is not none, but is related to none for the same reasons as zero.

And here is my complaint: Ling is stupidly complicated to write. Take a look at it.

There are 13 strokes in that behemoth. And it's not even a word. It's just a digit. Now granted, those who are accustomed to writing Chinese script will nail down 13 strokes in the blink of an eye. But that doesn't mean it makes sense. Si, or four, with five strokes is the next most complicated character. Ling is just stupid. But what really bugs me is the late inception of this character. Apparently, in its present form, the character showed up somewhere around the 14th century--right around the rise of the Ming dynasty. You know, the expansive, powerful, trading Ming dynasty? The one that built chunks of the great wall, sent out exploratory fleets, built the forbidden city, and had a standing army of over one-million men?

Or did they not know that... I guess it takes a while to write 1,000,000. Or 一零零零零零零.

Just sayin' is all...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Goodbye Yellowbrick Road...

The Chinese Sir Elton?
You be the jury.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

City in a Garden Revisited

Those who know me well (or even cursorily) will know my very public loathing for Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvessant Town. Robert Moses' unprovoked assault on Manhattan's Lower East Side (aka the Lower, my dukes) has blighted the otherwise magnificent skyline irreparably. The cookie-cutter towers spaced among empty grass lots were supposed to put a blighted urban 'slum' back into touch with nature (and maybe even help to reform those paupers!). But even the most manicured lawn is not nature, and all that Moses' City-in-a-Garden accomplished was to destroy the cultural, political, and economic fabric of urban society.

With this bitter pill still on my tongue, I considered my move to Tin Shui Wai in Hong Kong something of a personal challenge. Tin Shui Wai, or "City of Misery" as it it sometimes called, is the north-westernmost town in Hong Kong's expansive New Territories, and like all of Hong Kong's 'new towns,' it is vertical, isolated, and from my Brooklyn-grime-loving perspective, eerily Kafkaesque.

The 'town' consists of about fifty towers, divided into about a dozen developments. I'm living in one of the oldest ones, at eight years old. From the 18th floor, I have an expansive view of about a dozen more forty-storey buildings. What is particularly remarkable about this level of density is that Tin Shui Wai is only one of dozens of these types of developments in Hong Kong. Urban-style development as New Yorkers might consider it stopped at the pre-1890s Hong Kong border. In fact, just over half of Hong Kong's 6.9 million people live in similar-styled housing developments in the New Territories. For example, just two stops down on the metro is Tuen Mun, where 550,000 people live.

Here's the clincher:
Getting around is incredibly easy. True, the only way in or out of Tin Shui Wai is via bus or rail. I can see China from my window, but even researching how to stroll over to the waterline is an exercise in complexity. But Hong Kong has made massive investments in public transport infrastructure. Given the considerable distance between my room and Central Station on Hong Kong Island, it is a wonder that I can be there in 45 minutes. This is like living in Sheepshead Bay and getting to midtown, with one transfer, reliably in 45 minutes. The stations are clean, spacious and intuitive, trains run regularly, and the system is thoroughly utilized. Even in this distant enclave few people own cars. I know people in Williamsburg who own cars.

Gosh, I wont even go into the other environmental benefits. Suffice it to say, they are plenty.

But this raises a terrible dilemma. Sure its fun to read Jane Jacobs and fantasize about the complexity of an organic and unfettered urban culture. Social laissez-faire. But as much as I love NYC's Subway (and i love the subway), Hong Kong's works better (of course it closes at midnight, but thats another rant). Where does planning work, and where does it fail? Hong Kong is a natural stage for this question, caught between the centralized Chinese and drunk-on-liberty colonial British political cultures, and it is a question I hope to more thoroughly flesh out here in the future.