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