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.