Monday, July 30, 2007

10 & 2

I never took any formal driving classes when I was growing up, but we all know the standard hand positions for the steering wheel: 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock. I presume this has been studied over and over and that these studies have conclusively and without question found that these positions offer the greatest stability and control for the driver who abides by the 10 and 2 prescription.

But what isn't taught are the more practical benefits of such positions for your hands while driving. How often I have been engaged in a lengthy drive to meet people for a special occasion. Perhaps it was an interview. Perhaps it was a reunion with old friends. Perhaps it was a quixotic journey to discover why the chicken crossed the road. Either way, when I step out of that car, I want to appear fresh, not expired; huggable and lovable, maybe. Next time you're in your vehicle, take note of the location of your vents: in nearly every vehicle, the vents are strategically located to supplement the 10 and 2 hand position for those hot days when a long drive (or, I suppose nerves, if you're a nervous sweater) could produce unseemly moisture under your arms. How so? When putting your hands in the 10 and 2 position, the vents can be directed directly up the cuffs of your sleeves, cooling you right where you need it to maintain that fresh feeling and appearance until you arrive at your final destination.

What is more, the 10 and 2 position provides for optimal finger drumming during your melodious migration. This is not to be understated, as any worthwhile driving should be accompanied with a fusillade of phalanges that would make Danny Carey proud.

Let those fingers fly, and let those pits be purified...all at 10 and 2.

Currently listening to: "Hours" by TV on the Radio
Previous activity: Emailing Northwest Airlines regarding my recent flight cancellation
Next thing on the agenda: A glass of water and some reading

Monday, June 25, 2007


1) Could someone please circulate a memo throughout the major media outlets to convince everyone to simultaneously stop covering anything related to Paris Hilton? If they all do it at the same time, no one needs to be concerned about losing out in the ratings. Would an outlet that continues to provide coverage of that vapid whore actually gain ground in the ratings? Unfortunately, it wouldn't surprise me if they did. That said, the news is not entertainment. That is, it is not the news' duty to provide us with what we want to watch, but with what we need in order to be informed citizens in a participatory democracy. The dissolution of the wall between the public service and the business of news, however, has led to the stag hunt (in a Rousseauian sense) that is the modern media environment, producing this constant evolution toward the lowest common denominator, nevertheless to the demise of informed citizenry.

2) Who are the stubborn idiots responsible for the Travelocity marketing campaign with the "travel gnome"? Someone got paid for that, which is almost as much of a travesty as 50 Cent and Sum 41 getting paid for what they do. The gnome is not now, nor has it ever been funny, yet it has been around for years, or so it seems. Not only is it unfunny and uninformative, but it's flat out annoying due to just how terribly it misses in its attempts at humor, to the point where I (and surely others) actively avoid the company's services as retaliation against their marketing ineptitude. Could someone please present the company with a better idea? It wouldn't be that hard. Please. I would be more than happy to grovel on my hands and knees if it were guaranteed to produce change and prevent me from having to sit through another 30 second gnome-filled spot.

3) The whole paradigm of speed enforcement is due for a shift. Granted, I may be saying this in part because I've received two speeding tickets in the last month, which is not at all a good thing, but that doesn't detract from the fact that there really is a major logical problem with the way speed is enforced: the slippery slope. Is 66mph really that much of a risk in a 60mph zone that it merits punishment, whereas 65mph is to be considered safe and not suitable for punishment? Does a police officer cruising at 75mph in a 70mph zone really have the right to punish someone else driving at 78mph in the same area, even though they are both in clear violation of the written law? I would argue that the officer does not possess the right to pass that judgment; 71mph is as guilty as 72 mph is as guilty as 73mph, etc etc. The law does not recognize gradations of guilt when it comes to speed enforcement, only gradations of punishment, and the guilty have no right to judge the guilty. It would be much more satisfactory for the state to simply acknowledge whatever speed they are willing to tolerate as a maximum, and to clearly state it in what would be a true speed limit: anyone exceeding this limit, which would be higher than current limits (since it is clear that the state is willing to tolerate a speed higher than any posted speed limit, since no one gets pulled over for exceeding present speed limits by 5mph), would be pulled over and ticketed, with exceptions only in emergencies. The clarity of the law would evoke a greater respect for law and its agents of enforcement, as guilt is no longer subjective. Removing subjectivity from guilt goes further to eliminate room for discrimination, which lessens possible tension between officer and citizen, not to mention it lends a sense of predictability to enforcement. The speeds mentioned in this email, by the way, are not at all the speeds involved in my recent violations.

4) Come see me in Chicago in the coming years. The University of Chicago is officially my final destination for medical school, after they lured me in with a very generous financial aid package and a few smiles. Of course, I'm not complaining; I like smiles.

Currently listening to: "Cemetery Gates" by Pantera
Previous activity: Filling out an application for an apartment in Hyde Park
Next thing on the agenda: Perhaps some din-din and reading

Sunday, June 03, 2007

May we all be so lucky

(Ger)Trude trimmed her hedges herself on Wednesday evening, with Memorial Day a recent memory and her 90th birthday approaching. It was as if she was putting things in order, preparing for her departure. That night she went to bed for one deep and final rest. May we all be so lucky.

Trude was my Great Aunt, and, while seeing her was not an uncommon thing as a resident of the same tiny town, I can't say I knew her by anything more than her name, our relation, and the distant but unwaveringly kind and caring demeanor characterizing her and most elderly women I've known. The details of her life story remain unpopulated in the version I hold, and, as such, the funeral was not an exceptionally emotional event. Naturally, I intend that to be understood with no disrespect and with full understanding that she, for all I have known, truly was a great woman. That said, funerals are a funny thing for those of us with an outlook hosting a belief in some wonderful afterlife rewarding a good and loving life on earth, perhaps known as Heaven. If someone with such a worldview--or, otherworldlyview--cries at a funeral, or is struck with pangs of sadness, from where can those tears be said to be falling? If it is believed that the deceased did indeed live a good and loving life, then it follows that it is believed that the deceased will enjoy their just reward after death. If this is believed, then certainly those tears cannot be shed for the deceased, even if one feels that the deceased was unable to accomplish on earth all that they intended.

What, then, is left? Tears falling in response to a reflection of one's own mortality; for the reminder of the interminably ticking clock that may prevent us from achieving all that we, ourselves, are setting out to do; selfish tears shed for the hardships that may befall us due to the death of a loved one; selfless tears of concern shed for the fear of another's emotional or physical capacity to sustain themselves through the death and mourning of their loved one; or, perhaps the most compelling: tears of frustration and shame at all that we, in our pride or fear or embarrassment, allowed to go unsaid before another's ticking clock reached its final second. Looking around at a funeral, it's pointless to speculate as to what may be the genesis of anyone's tears. We would, of course, never know.

As for the final possibility enumerated, it is interesting that the feelings that merit the greatest eloquence are the same feelings that are commonly expressed in the least eloquent way imaginable. Everyone has trouble conveying how they feel to someone they truly care about. So often when we must express ourselves as powerfully, as eloquently, and as urgently as we can, we turn to writing; we write down our feelings rather than speaking them directly to whomever we must express ourselves. We don't feel the requisite level of comfort with our emotions to verbalize them to a person's face; rather, we so often seek the shield of time by expressing ourselves in a way in which we can edit our emotions: the letter. No one except the writer knows of the mistakes and moments of imperfection in its production, and only a final product that has met the satisfaction of the writer is delivered, unlike in speech where every mistake and imperfection is immediately known to the person to whom we are speaking. Everyone should train themselves to speak with greater precision and confidence--confidence, rather than false pride, fear, or embarrassment. Yet, simultaneously, perhaps in matters of the heart, the mistakes and imperfections of the spoken thought are exceedingly valuable and telling, and, therefore, worth speaking. It could go either way.

Currently listening to: "House Gone Up in Flames" by The Nightwatchman
Previous activity: Watching some C-SPAN
Next thing on the agenda: Reading the ol' book, The Man Without Qualities

Thursday, May 31, 2007

CNN violates patient's right to privacy

While watching CNN for a moment this morning, the anchor flippantly said, "There has been a lot of debate between the patient's right to privacy versus the public's right to know," as they flash the picture and name of the man who is receiving so much media attention for being infected with a relatively rare, highly drug-resistent form of tuberculosis (TB). I should preface this post by noting two things: 1) that other news networks have likely done this same thing and I just happened to see and hear it on CNN, and 2) I'm little more than a dilettante with legal matters. Though CNN has made the information public domain, I will not be repeating it here out of principle:

The Atlanta lawyer who contracted a hard-to-treat form of potentially fatal tuberculosis is ______, 31, multiple medical and law enforcement sources told CNN. Hospital officials have not identified the man and his family has refused to talk to the media. (from


Dr. Charles Daley, head of the infectious disease division at National Jewish
[Hospital], said the hospital has treated two other patients with what appears
to be the same strain of tuberculosis since 2000, although that strain had not
been identified and named at the time. He said the patients had improved
enough to be released. (from

With these tidbits in mind, combined with the already official release of information relevant to seeking out those who may have been exposed to the individual and thus were at risk for infection, what is the public's right to know in this case? Where is the media's justification for violating the patient's right to privacy, when the treating hospital and patient's family obviously wished to respect his right to privacy?

Such justification cannot be found in concerns for public health. Firstly, the patient is not very contagious because he was carrying only a very little amount of the bacteria in his system, according to medical officials. Secondly, all of the information necessary for finding the individuals for testing who may have been exposed to the patient has already been revealed and officials are in the process of finding and testing all the people who were at risk. Thirdly, the man is under quarantine until it can be determined that he is not a risk to the public. In other words, there is no reason to reveal the man's name, because all appropriate and necessary steps are being taken to diffuse the risk to public health, and the release of the man's identity is requisite for none of them.

Regarding the "public's right to know"

The "public's right to know," as we so often hear, has no basis in the First Amendment, nor any other clause in the Constitution, and is in relation to the right for people to access information held by the government. Rather, its basis is in a law called the "Freedom of Information Act" (FOIA), first signed into law in 1966 by Lyndon B. Johnson, and is relevant only to government records--federal government information, at that, though most states have passed their own freedom of information acts, which are generally less transparent and thus require state governments in general to divulge less information. Importantly, I can find no indication that the federal law--that is, the more transparent of freedom of information laws--allows for the violation of a patient's right to privacy, especially when there is no risk to public health brought about by not violating the patient's right to privacy. To the contrary, two of the nine explicitly stated exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act are these: 1) "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," and 2) "[information that is] specifically exempted from disclosure by statute provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld." The former's application is obvious, while in the case of the latter, statutes do indeed exist dictating the privacy and handling of medical records. Thus, the media has misleadingly distorted the nature of the "public's right to know," in violation of its law of origin, for its own selfish benefit in reporting.

The media reported it because they are scrupleless bastards who are constantly clawing at any new morsel of information to feed into their morbidly voracious 24-hour news cycle, at the expense, in this case, of the patient's right to privacy legally recognized by this society. If there indeed had been much debate in the newsroom between this right and the "public's right to know," that debate was extremely poorly executed by a room apparently full of myopic dimwits.
Now, complicating factors? Well, the patient was essentially banned from flying, which he did anyway, and more or less snuck back into the country, tacitly admitting his knowledge of his wrong-doing. He needlessly and recklessly put a lot of people at risk, and surely must have made himself a target for those ever-litigious Americans, or a target of the government directly. I would imagine that it is only at the point of litigation that a name could or should be revealed.

Currently listening to: "Billie Jean" by Chris Cornell (Michael Jackson cover)
Previous activity: Waking up
Next thing on the agenda: Showering, dressing, eating

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The police presence paradox

Tomorrow morning, I'm embarking upon a 4200 mile road trip to California and back, with a few worthwhile diversions along the way to visit friends whom I have not seen in quite some time. The espoused purpose of the trip is to assist my older brother and his wife in packing and moving, though of course I'm more interested in its social and scenic aspects. (I'm also hoping to finally see the Grand Canyon while I'm out West.)

In light of this road trip, I will raise a certain rumination of mine: I believe that the presence of recognizable police cars acutely increases the likelihood of unsafe driving or an accident.

The chances are good that you have been involved in a traffic back-up that had no logical reason to exist. After minutes or miles of waiting or driving bumper to bumper at 5mph on an interstate, you finally reach daylight and are able to resume the legal (or "legal-plus" speed) without seeing any obstruction that should have caused such a delay. In my own experiences, the explication for these inexplicable back-ups is just ridiculous: a huge traffic back-up due purely to drivers rubbernecking, staring at an accident entirely on the other side of the median, for example. This should serve as an important illustration of the capacity of distraction or interest in an extraneous visual to change one's driving habits in the moment, even when the source of distraction bears no relevance to the actions at hand.

Every observant driver will notice a marked police car in his or her presence. Even a legal driver--that is, a driver abiding by every law of the road--will take notice, as no one wants to get pulled over. I speak as an historically hasty driver, of course, and one must understand and critique my personal psychology from this perspective, but with that said, even when I am very consciously driving legally, I find myself taking my eye off the road to watch the police car in front of me and disappearing behind me in my rearview mirror, to watch my speed, to watch anything but the road in front of me--ostensibly becoming overly cautious with regard to the police car, but in reality driving more unsafely. Oftentimes, I instinctively tap my breaks to needlessly reduce my already-legal speed, "just in case." In other words, the sight of a police car changes my driving behavior immediately and, for all intents and purposes, erratically and inexplicably, for any car behind me who may need to react to my sudden changes. I use myself as an example, but I'm confident that almost any driver can either remember or recognize such situations when they have either behaved this way or had to respond to someone who was. The presence of a police car, in other words, can be said to cause a ripple in the normalcy of the flow of traffic, and a ripple in normalcy surely must produce conditions favorable to accidents. If a study were designed and conducted to analyze this, I would love to see the findings.

Of course, I recognize that the intangible yet omnipresent threat of traffic enforcement via police surely must rein in the more malignant motorists, but I do indeed believe that the actual perceived presence of the police must heighten the risk to those on the roads, for reasons mentioned and alluded to above.

Currently listening to: "Soul Singer in the Session Band" by Bright Eyes
Previous activity: Watching the worthless news
Next thing on the agenda: Sleeping, so I can hit the highway bright and early

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Well, the shouts are "amnesty!" not "sanctuary!" Nevertheless, as immigration talks are once again occupying Congress--and perhaps this time fruitfully--it seemed an appropriate time to make a few points on this contentious issue. Like many in politics, the issue of illegal immigration seems to be one so mired in the act of politics, wrapped up in obstinate ideology on both sides of the aisle detached from any reality or research, that any real, fruitful deliberation is a rarity. The left shouts "amnesty!" with gleeful fervor; the right shouts "amnesty?!" with reproachful disbelief. The left ignores the fact that illegal immigrants are criminals by definition and uncontrolled illegal immigration is a danger to our economy and security; the right ignores the impossibility of deporting every single illegal immigrant within our borders, the impossibility of keeping every would-be illegal immigrant out of our borders, and that our economy is in many respects dependent on outside workers. Neither side is willing to wholly address the bigger picture of the issue within our country, let alone the cross-boundary issue. The latest proposal seems to cut through at least some of this myopia, and is garnering a fair amount of respect among politicians in this, a lame duck presidential year.

Perhaps the following thoughts and facts can help provide a bit of a framework with which to understand the current discussion and any future immigration discussions we, as informed citizens, may witness.


Don't let these first parts provide assumptions that I'm simply bashing Mexico; that isn't at all the case. Nevertheless, let's start with our friends to the south. Mexico, for its part, has among the most rigid stances on immigration in the world: coming into Mexico illegally has been punishable by up to 2 years in prison (a felony by most standards) since 1974. Furthermore, concerned by illegal immigration from their own southern border, former President Vicente Fox sent thousands of Mexican troops to their southern territory about five years ago--a moved praised by Mexicans. Fox had given legal status to only 15,000 foreigners without papers in the course of his Presidency (Contreras, 2005), compared to 240,000 illegal immigrants who were apprehended by Mexico in 2005 alone, nearly all of whom were deported. The irony, of course, is that Mexico was simultaneously condemning the increased border patrol deployment on our southern border and the efforts to criminalize undocumented aliens in the United States, while lobbying for the status of millions of illegals from Mexico to be upgraded by the US government. You remember these stories in the news, right? According to Jose Luis Soberanes, president of Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, "one of the saddest national failings on immigration issues is the contradiction in demanding that the North (the United States) respect migrants' rights, which we are not capable of guaranteeing in the South (along Mexico's border with Guatemala)" (AP, 2005).

The notoriously poor treatment of illegals within Mexico stems from its Constitution, which allows for a number of restrictions and punishments that would likely be reviled as racist--and perhaps rightly so--if codified in the United States. Mexico's General Population Act, specifically, makes illegal immigration punishable by up to two years in prison plus a fine (Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution), or up to 10 years imprisonment if the individual is deported and later is caught re-entering (article 118). It allows local police to join with federal immigration agents in enforcing immigration laws (Article 73). J. Michael Waller (2006) of the Center for Security Policy also notes that private citizens may make citizens arrests on illegal immigrants, and immigrants of all kinds may be expelled from the country at any time and for any reason without due process. More broadly, immigrants are to be admitted into Mexico on the basis of their potential to "contribute to national progress" (see parallel here with one component of the bill currently being passed around Congress) and must have income to support themselves, but immigrants (legal or illegal) are still forbidden to take part in the political affairs of the country (Articles 9 and 33). In the United States, on the other hand, the only thing from which a legal immigrant is barred is serving as President, and even that is openly debated in some circles thanks to the selective popularity of Arnold.

At the same time, the Mexican Constitution serves as many Mexican governmental officials' scapegoat when pressed for why they cannot prevent its citizens from emigration--that is, to run/jump/swim north to the United States: Article 11 guarantees a "freedom of transit," granting citizens the right to move freely throughout Mexico and the world, even if they are barred from a destination country (Newell, 2006). A reasonable person would likely note that this provision falls in contradiction with the laws of other sovereign states.

We frequently hear of the abuses against illegal immigrants in our country, as well we should when they so egregiously occur. In December of 2005, however, a report released by the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico--the same group who planned the distribution of border crossing maps for entry into the United States--noted the widespread abuses against illegal immigrants within Mexico, committed in good part by Mexican government officials. The report, however, barely made any headlines and had not been mentioned by any Mexican presidential candidate as of mid-June (Campbell, 2006), and so far as I could find, no mentions were made in the remainder of the campaigns.

Interestingly, a 2002 Zogby poll showed that 73% of Mexicans believed Americans to be racist, intolerant, and not very hard-working, while 78% of Americans see Mexicans as hard-working (Elder, 2006; McLean, 2006). While government policy may not be the best barometer of the sentiments of a population, the immigration policies of the United States pale in comparison with those of Mexico when searching for signs of xenophia. Had the National Human Rights Commission's report received its fair amount of attention either by the press or politicians of Mexico, the negative views of Americans harbored by Mexicans may be partly rectified through an examination of their own culture.

Given the apparent hypocrisy--the strict policy enforced on Mexico's southern border combined with their sharp scrutiny of American policy and any attempt to fortify it (sometimes quite literally, a la "the wall")--some contend that the United States should more closely mirror the policies of our southern neighbor so long as they remain so rigid themselves. The proponents of this view most often are seeking to limit access to our own southern border. For this reason, they should be thankful for Mexico's policy, as those Central Americans that do make it into Mexico are typically headed further north to the United States. It is conceivable, then, that Mexico's perceived self-interest is not in protecting its economy from outsiders, but in preventing non-Mexicans from making the immigration situation in the United States even more politically salient, hurting Mexicans' chances of crossing the border in the process.

Moreover, the notion of protecting the United States from illegal immigrants by way of strict border enforcement should be closely inspected. With remittances back to Mexico from Mexicans working within the United States reaching $16 billion in 2004--Mexico's second largest source of revenue after oil exports (AP, 2006)--it is clear that the economic incentive for crossing the border is in large part to support family at home.

This is, of course, indicative of the economic situation of the immigrants coming from Mexico. As a whole, the country is a top-fifteen economy whose per capita GDP is approximately $10,000-relatively healthy by global standards. Of the population, though, a 2002 report from the Mexican government stated that up to 42% of the rural population lives in extreme poverty compared to only 12% of urban citizens who face such conditions (Steorts, 2006). Steorts suspects that this is in large part a byproduct of communal farms whose plots have become increasingly small--so small that farmers cannot grow crops at competitive prices. The land, further, cannot be bought or sold by Mexican law, but only passed to an hear, keeping the small plot structure intact and preventing real ownership rights. This rural population makes up perhaps the bulk of the Mexican immigration influx in the United States. Of political importance, those Mexicans with the strongest incentive to demand domestic reform--the poorest Mexicans--are those that leave their country altogether, thus perpetuating the status quo.

If conditions within Mexico do not change, half of the incentive for illeglas to come to the United States remains unaddressed. But beyond this, the means of addressing the American side of the border should be considered in a fuller context. According to Daniel Griswold (2003), most Mexicans who come to the United States com ewith the intention of solving "temporary problems of family finance" by sending money home in the form of remittances, rather than with the intention of permanently settling in the US. The numbers, from an historical perspective, support this. Between the end of the Bracero program in 1964 until the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, Mexicans had essentially free passage back and forth across the border. In this period, nearly 80% of Mexican immigrants chose to eventually return to their homeland. This follows suit with the notion that immigration is driven by demand for labor in the United States, as it is far more expensive to be unemployed in the United States than it is in Mexico, by virtue of cost of living discrepancies. With fewer restrictions on the border, workers know that they can go home when work is unavailable and return when it is once again available to them. This, rather than having unemployed illegal immigrants sittling idly by with no income, intuitively seems infinitely preferable, as the absence of such individuals would surely contribute to a drop in petty crime and ease the burden on our overpopulated jails.

When the Immigration and Naturalization Service doubled the number of Bracero visas in the 1950s in order to meet the demand for labor in the United States, illegal immigration from Mexico became nearly nonexistent (Griswold, 2003). This demonstrates the strong preference for channels of legal entry into the US when such channels are available.

Now, with tighter borders, the crossing becomes more hazardous and more expensive, as would-be immigrants have to pay "coyotes" to help smuggle them across the border. Additionally, their illegal status artificially depresses their wages once in the United States, as they have no bargaining power. The combination of a more hazardous and expensive crossing with lower wages translates into longer stays once inside the States, in order to make the crossing worthwhile. The median stay for undocumented Mexican migrants was 2.6 years before the IRCA was passed, and rose to 6.6 years after Clinton's border tightening (Griswold, 2003).

Thus, in order to quell the tide of illegal immigration and alleviate the pressures on human rights for those that do seek work in the United States, perhaps we should do the simple thing: legalize it. If a sufficient number of temporary work visas are granted to meet the demand for labor within the United States, workers will come through safe, legal, trackable and taxable channels. With the workers legalized, wages will no longer be artificially suppressed and immigrant workers will therefore not receive a competitive advantage over American laborers. (Higher wages for laborers in order to satisfy US law is something that simply must be accepted by employers and consumers alike, if one is to recognize the need to address illegal immigration. You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.) Additionally, as suggested by Griswold (2003), the temporary visas, if desired to do so by our domestic political agendas, can exclude their holders from welfare benefits, ending the argument that the immigrants are drains on the economy and preventing them from staying in the country on a work visa if they are not working. With the demand for labor met, illegals will no longer risk the dangerous and expensive path to an already satisfied labor market where it is far more expensive to be unemployed than where they came from. It would, of course, be necessary within such a system to stringently enforce the employment of only legal workers--a point often made in our own legislative chambers.

While properly arranged and apportioned temporary work visas may be in large part a solution to the current immigration debate in the United States, changes within Mexico should be fostered in order to increase regional stability. The benefit of temporary work visas may extend across the border into Mexico in this regard. Allowing for free legal passage across the border for visa holders, Mexicans can return to their homes as they so often prefer to do when given the opportunity. Therefore, while bringing money into the Mexican economy, this disenfranchised population also gain the incentive to work for political change within their home country, perhaps producing the necessary impetus to move beyond the status quo.

AP (2005). Mexico acknowledges poor treatment of migrants in its territory.
AP (2006, January 25). Border wall would fall.
Campbell, M. On road to U.S., danger lurks at every turn. (2006, June 16). San Francisco Chronicle.
Contreras, J. (2005, June 5). Stepping over the line. Newsweek, 38.
Elder, L. (2006, April 10). How does Mexico treat its illegals? Human Events, 62(13), p17.
Griswold, D.T. (2003, March). Confronting the problem of illegal Mexican immigration to the U.S. USA Today Magazine, 131(2694), p10-14.
McLean, R.T. (2006, April 13). The crisis of Mexico.
Newell, J. Mexico treats illegal immigrants in its midst harshly. (2006, April 30). San Bernardino County Sun.
Steorts, J.L. (2006, July 17). Mexico, heal thyself. National Review, 58(13), p25-27.
Waller, J.M. (2006). Mexico's glass house. Center for Security Policy.

Currently listening to: "God Rocket" by I Mother Earth
Previous activity: Continuing to read Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities
Next thing on the agenda: Scrubs!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility

Since the last time I posted, I finally finished up the Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature, which admittedly was not quite what I was expecting it to be. The "human nature" aspect to it was mostly approached from the perspective of linguistics, which I probably should have seen coming, but it was not what I was hoping to read. Either way, it became more interesting when it delved into politics. After that book, I made it through Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Both of those were just great.

But, I'm beginning a novel that is blowing my mind with every page, and it's 1800 pages long. In other words, this is going to be a lot of mind-blowing. It's Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, which apparently is seldom read (probably by virtue of its size) but considered by many to be the greatest novel of 20th century Europe, steeped in philosophy, history, and politics throughout. I thought I would share one chapter here to give you a taste for what it is. Fortunately for me, one chapter of which I was especially fond happened to be available online in full, so I could just copy and paste the text to here:

If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility

To pass freely through open doors, it is necessary to respect the fact that they have solid frames. This principle, by which the old professor had lived, is simply a requisite of the sense of reality. But if there is a sense of reality, and no one will doubt that it has its justifications for existing, then there must also be something we can call a sense of possibility.

Whoever has it does not say, for instance: Here this or that has happened, will happen, must happen; but he invents: Here this or that might, could, or ought to happen. If he is told that something is the way it is, he will think: Well, it could probably just as well be otherwise. So the sense of possibility could be defined outright as the ability to conceive of everything there might be just as well, and to attach no more importance to what is than to what is not. The consequences of so creative a disposition can be remarkable, and may, regrettably, often make what people admire seem wrong, and what is taboo permissible, or, also, make both a matter of indifference. Such possibilists are said to inhabit a more delicate medium, a hazy medium of mist, fantasy, daydreams, and the subjunctive mood. Children who show this tendency are dealt with firmly and warned that such persons are cranks, dreamers, weaklings, know-it-alls, or troublemakers.

Such fools are also called idealists by those who wish to praise them. But all this clearly applies only to their weak subspecies, those who cannot comprehend reality or who, in their melancholic condition, avoid it. These are people in whom the lack of a sense of reality is a real deficiency. But the possible includes not only the fantasies of people with weak nerves but also the as yet unwakened intentions of God. A possible experience or truth is not the same as an actual experience or truth minus its "reality value" but has - according to its partisans, at least - something quite divine about it, a fire, a soaring, a readiness to build and a conscious utopianism that does not shrink from reality but sees it as a project, something yet to be invented. After all, the earth is not that old, and was apparently never so ready as now to give birth to its full potential.

To try to readily distinguish the realists from the possibilists, just think of a specific sum of money. Whatever possibilities inhere in, say, a thousand dollars are surely there independently of their belonging or not belonging to someone; that the money belongs to a Mr. Me or a Mr. Thee adds no more to it than it would to a rose or a woman. But a fool will tuck the money away in his sack, say the realists, while a capable man will make it work for him. Even the beauty of a woman is undeniably enhanced or diminished by the man who possesses her. It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it. Even so, it will always be the same possibilities, in sum or on the average, that go on repeating themselves until a man comes along who does not value the actuality above the idea. It is he who first gives the new possibilities their meaning, their direction, and he awakens them.

But such a man is far from being a simple proposition. Since his ideas, to the extent that they are not idle fantasies, are nothing but realities as yet unborn, he, too, naturally has a sense of reality; but it is a sense of possible reality, and arrives at its goal much more slowly than most people's sense of their real possibilities. He wants the forest, as it were, and the others the trees, and forest is hard to define, while trees represent so many cords of wood of a definable quality. Putting it another and perhaps better way, the man with an ordinary sense of reality is like a fish that nibbles at the hook but is unaware of the line, while the man with that sense of reality which can also be called a sense of possibility trawls a line through the water and has no idea whether there's any bait on it. His extraordinary indifference to the life snapping at the bait is matched by the risk he runs of doing utterly eccentric things. An impractical man - which he not only seems to be but really is - will always be unreliable and unpredictable in his dealings with others. He will engage in actions that mean something else to him than to others, but he is at peace with himself about everything as long as he can make it all come together in a fine idea. Today he is still far from being consistent. He is quite capable of regarding a crime that brings harm to another person merely as a lapse to be blamed not on the criminal but on the society that produced the criminal. But it remains doubtful whether he would accept a slap in the face with the same detachment, or take it impersonally as one takes the bite of a dog. The chances are that he would first hit back and then on reflection decide that he shouldn't have. Moreover, if someone were to take away his beloved, it is most unlikely that he would today be quite ready to discount the reality of his loss and find compensation in some surprising new reaction. At present this development still has some way to go and affects the individual person as a weakness as much as a strength.

And since the possession of qualities assumes a certain pleasure in their reality, we can see how a man who cannot summon up a sense of reality even in relation to himself may suddenly, one day, come to see himself as a man without qualities.

Currently listening to: "The Lovesong Writer" by Thursday
Previous activity: Reading from the aforementioned novel
Next thing on the agenda: Reading some news, sleeping, and hoping the flood doesn't escalate

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Some time ago, I was asked if my car (a black Dodge Avenger) had a name. This was not the first time I had been asked; I never had any response, any name. I had never committed any thought to an answer prior to the time I actually gave one. In this instance, I responded extemporaneously that my car's name was Napoleon, as it was carrying me with fortitude through adversity but was bound to leave me broken down in a winter wasteland. Long has it been my expectation that Napoleon's end would come in the form of a Russian winter. Recently, I was proven wrong.

Two days ago, Napoleon and I met our Duke of Wellington in the form of a pick-up driving redneck in the town of Carrollton; our Waterloo was the intersection of East 4th and Leslie.

After a visit to the grocery store, I was heading home. Traveling down East 4th Street, I approached what was to become my Waterloo. Obeying the speed limit as I truthfully was, I saw out of my peripheral vision a truck barreling toward the intersection. However, a house that clung to the intersection like a fat kid to cake, combined with a shrub (that is, the house, not the fat kid, was combined with a shrub to impede my vision), prevented me from seeing this truck until it was right on the intersection--actually, right about even with the stop sign that was ordering the vehicle to hault, only to be scoffed at by the negligent redneck. I myself was only around 15 feet from the intersection by the time I spotted my assailant.

Seeing the other vehicle, which I estimate to have been traveling at around 35 mph, I slam on my brakes as I break the threshold of the intersection--the intersection that hosted no stop sign for my street. The Duke of Wellington had obviously forgotten what the word "STOP" meant when enclosed in a red octagon; he continued through the intersection, heading toward brave Napoleon. My foot, hasty to reach the brakes, was able to slow down Napoleon just enough to resign my attacker to hit my front left corner rather than squarely on my driver's side door. Thus, rather than being "T-boned," the collision was angular, and angled the redneck Duke into a nearby telephone pole, while simultaneously lessening the impact for me.

Though Napoleon is likely totaled (yes, sadly, his reign may have reached its end), it was merely a Pyrrhic victory for the Duke of Wellington, who had to be towed away from the battlefield.

Happy Easter, everyone.

Witness Waterloo! Again, the majority of the damage was to my front left corner, so this is not the greatest angle for illustrative purposes.

Update (04.09.07): The Duke of Wellington asserts that he stopped at the stop sign (ha!) and that the accident was the fault of me speeding. The insurance company, however, assures me that his claim stands no chance.

Update (04.18.07): Napoleon is officially totaled, and of course the other guy's insurance is paying for it. I'm driving my mom's old car for the time being, and will not attempt to replace Napoleon until I figure out where I'm going to med school.

Currently listening to: "Said the Spider to the Fly" by The Paper Chase
Previous activity: Hanging out with the parents
Next thing on the agenda: A phone call to Ashley, then an early bedtime

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

British Romans, British Greeks, British Persians

Why is it that seemingly all ancient non-English-speaking foreigners in movies (such as the cast of Gladiator, 300, etc) speak English with an English accent? Sure, it makes perfect sense to me why the movie might be made so that the actors are speaking English, because that's the primary language of the films' primary markets, but why do they speak it with an English accent? Absurd. British colonialism has now stretched back in time.

Currently listening to: "Frustration Train" by The Rainmakers
Previous activity: Having links removed from my watch band
Next thing on the agenda: Planning my trip to Chicago

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The waning waving woes

Growing up in the middle of nowhere that I fondly call home, there were certain characteristics of the area that I took for granted in my youth. Of course, youth is a relative term; I turned 23 only a week ago, and while that is a far cry from "old," I speak now of my cognizant adolescence. In that period, perhaps I was unaware of what awaited anyone who ventured outside of my county. Perhaps it is because of this ignorance that I was able to take for granted the more endearing aspects of my home. However, having now traveled over a fair portion of the country and the world for someone of my age, and reflecting upon the memories of my youth, there is one thing that I remember of my home that I really do appreciate and enjoy: When driving down the road, whether it is within town or on the highway, every driver would wave to passing motorists. This happened irrespective of whether the oncoming vehicle was recognized or merely a foreign vessel. Everyone just waved. (When I say everyone, my recollections suggest that the rate at which this occurred was upwards of 80%.)

Things have changed.

I have spent the majority of the past four and a half years away from home. Though I seem to remember a decline in the habit of waving in my final few years of home life, that well of goodwilled neighborliness has altogether gone dry. I have been lingering around home for a couple weeks now and have actively tried to elicit waves from oncoming drivers as recollected in my childhood memories, but not only do waves not befall me unprovoked, but I am greeted by none in response to my own, with only one exception: I recall one individual, who looked to be a relatively older farmer, returning my gesture.

So what has happened in the interim? Why do people no longer wave to their fellow community citizens? I blame globalization and the media. Ha! Lofty assertions, you say? I'm reading into the trend too much, you say? I'm not so sure about that. Globalization, as its name implies, has the effect of making the world seem much more accessible. One effect of this, though, is that the uniqueness and isolation of your home community is lost to the homogenization of the world at large. The very sense of community fades as you begin to feel that your neighbors are not just those living next to you, but everyone in the world, producing an environment where you don't really know your neighbors at all--they're foreign. The problem, however, extends beyond the sense that one no longer knows their neighbors or shares a unique community with them. The problem leaks down onto the level of trust, and this is the result of our modern media. Five minutes spent watching the local news will reveal to any viewer a multitude of recent murders, kidnappings, and burglaries. This, combined with pet stories, accounts for the majority of vapid local news programming; the lack of worth or value to society is of course not limited to local news, but extends into the national news networks, as well. Either way, such reporting has been demonstrated to produce fear in viewers and a lack of trust towards one's neighbors and community. With these notions summed, it is little wonder that those touched by globalization and the media may lose the requisite sense of goodwilled neighborliness to continue the waving trend. The old farmer who still waved is likely so isolated from the changing world that it has been unable to jade him to a degree necessary to end his waving ways.

Currently listening to: "Publisher" by Blonde Redhead
Previous activity: Reading from The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature
Next thing on the agenda: Perhaps a little South Park

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"H." as a struggle for self

This is a throw-back to times past, when, shortly after reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand in 2003, Tool's song, "H.," randomly began playing on my treasured playlist. The fortuitous timing of the song's appearance on my playlist provided me the opportunity to listen to the song with new ears, having the spirit of The Fountainhead in my head--that spirit of stubborn defiance to any force that would alter one's own self-definition. Like many, I used to believe that "H." (which is likely my single favorite song...well...ever) was very basically about being close to someone who is hurting you, but not being able to pull yourself away. In a way, this still holds some truth for me, but not in the same fashion as before. If you don't mind reading a little, feel free to take a look at my interpretion of "H." as a testimony to the effects of allowing others to define who you are--to define your "self." Recognizing that putting more than a cursory glance into the meaning of a song may be somewhat high school-esque, I believe that Tool is one of the very few bands whose lyrics actually merit more legitimate thought and interpretation. I apologize for breaking up the continuity of the lyrics; please, if nothing else, read the lyrics straight through to enjoy the song for yourself.

What's coming through is alive.
What's holding up is a mirror.
But what's singing songs is a snake
Looking to turn my piss to wine.

The narrator begins to reflect on who he is, seeing himself for his true self, in his true light. The “snake” however, has other plans for what the figure should be. The “snake” sings songs of grandeur, planting images of a great someone-else that the figure should become. As soon as the narrator embraces these versions of a person he could be, any convictions of self that the figure formerly held are lost and forgotten.

They're both totally void of hate,
But killing me just the same.

Neither his own thoughts of change nor the thoughts proposed by the “snake” are vicious in intent, but both are killing him. They take away his conviction of self that leads to the absence of his true self—its murder—and the creation of a false one suggested by his surroundings; suggested by the “snake.”

The snake behind me hisses
What my damage could have been.
My blood before me begs me
Open up my heart again.

He has made the change; the “snake” is now behind him, telling him how wise of choice he has made to make the change. However, the self’s instinct--his blood--begs him to open up his heart again in order to see the truth.

And I feel this coming over like a storm again,

He realizes the futility in this grand change he has made. He has only become another person with whom he is unhappy, no different than the situation he faced before. This is not who is to be. The emotions, the frustration and confusion, build up within him like a mounting storm.

Venomous voice tempts me,
Drains me, bleeds me,
Leaves me cracked and empty;
Drags me down like some sweet gravity.

Again the lies of the “snake” promising a better self break down any convictions of self that the figure may have had. He is left cracked and empty, nothing but a shell to be filled by others’ versions of what he should be. These versions presented to him seem to be so promising and good, though; he doesn’t mind accepting them.

The snake behind me hisses
What my damage could have been.
My blood before me begs me
Open up my heart again.
And I feel this coming over like a storm again.

Again he makes the suggested change. He becomes the version of a person the “snake” wanted him to become, and again his heart begs him to open up and see the truth. This is not any better. This is not right. The desperation builds within him.

I am too connected to you
To slip away, to fade away.
Days away I still feel you
Touching me, changing me,
And considerately killing me.

The narrator is far too connected, too reliant, too dependent on those around him. This built up dependence doesn’t allow him to sever his connection and define his person on his own. Rather, his surroundings continue to dictate who he is, and kill who he should be.

Without the skin,
Beneath the storm,
Under these tears
The walls came down.

It is in this time, when the “storm” of emotions overtakes him, that he becomes vulnerable. His walls--his defences--are torn down.

And the snake is drowned, and
As I look in his eyes,
My fear begins to fade
Recalling all of those times.
I could have cried then.
I should have cried then.

It was after his heart opened up and he saw what he had become for the falsehood that it was that he felt he had conquered the “snake” that had in essence created it. Recognizing a lie destroys it, right? His fear subsides and he looks back on what had happened time after time. He laments his gullibility and shared culpability.

And as the walls come down, and
As I look in your eyes
My fear begins to fade
Recalling all of the times
I have died and will die.
It's all right,
I don't mind. I don’t mind. I don’t mind!

The emotional climax of the song witnesses the conquering narrator feeling the strength in his revelation. His walls down, he welcomes his surroundings without malice, finding comfort in them as they approach him without malice, perhaps even soothing and congratulatory for his conquest. His fear fades; he feels at peace. However, he is only encountering another “snake,” just like all the others. In his vulnerability, with his walls down, the “snake” surreptitiously imposes on him who he should become, just as has been happening cyclically in the figure’s past. He comes to realize that it has happened and will likely happen again. Resigning himself to this sentiment through forced self-persuasion (“I don’t mind. I don’t mind. I don’t mind!”), he accepts it and becomes indifferent towards it. In so doing, he has ultimately sacrificed his self completely.

I am too connected to you
To slip away, to fade away.
Days away I still feel you
Touching me, changing me,
And considerately killing me.

Returning to the sad cycle of reliance and allowing his surroundings to define his self, he continues to die time and time again, a new person emerging each time but with no real conviction. His surroundings, those around him, perhaps had no malicious intent and could have even been sincere in their suggestions, but ultimately, determining who another is to become is murder, killing the person he should be and should discover on his own. The “snake” is anyone who suggests or imposes such versions of self that the figure becomes enticed to accept and become. There are many “snakes” one faces, and this symbolism is apt since the snake is commonly associated with deceit, tracing back to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. This is appropriate, as any concept of whom a person should become presented by an outsider is inherently deceitful. Only the individual can determine who he is to truly be. Anything accepted by the individual aside from his own conception is an act and a lie, and cannot be held with conviction.

A testimony to the destructive effects of accepting another’s image of who someone should be or become, the song serves as motivation to dispel the “snakes” one faces in life and embrace the self that one can and has created for oneself. This, and only this, is who a person is meant to be; this, and only this, can anyone hold with any conviction and live to any effect. However, the choice is yours to be made.

Finally, it must be mentioned that Maynard James Keenan, the lyricist/singer, has made at least two explicit references to the meaning (or hints of a meaning) of the song. One I referenced in the opening paragraph, the other is in reference to his son, whose middle initial is H. Neither is what I elucidated above. I recognize this, yet the explanation I offered is the significance I am able to extract from the song. Of course, you can make your own decision as to its meaning--afterall, thinking for yourself is one of the key tenets to the point I believe the song is making.

Currently listening to: "H." by Tool
Previous activity: Renewing my driver's license
Next thing on the agenda: Perhaps some reading

Monday, March 12, 2007

On Nastasya Filippovna

Fyodor Dostoevsky provides the origin of this rumination through Prince Myshkin, the main character of Dostoevsky's novel, The Idiot.

[Prince Myshkin speaking to Aglaia about Nastasya Filippovna]
"That unhappy woman is firmly convinced that she is the most fallen, the most vicious creature in the whole world. Oh, don't cry shame on her, don't throw stones at her! She has tortured herself too much from the consciousness of her undeserved shame! And, my God, she's not to blame! Oh, she's crying out every minute in her frenzy that she doesn't admit going wrong, that she was the victim of others, the victim of a depraved and wicked man. But whatever she may say to you, believe me, she's the first to disbelieve it, and to believe with her whole conscience that she blame. When I tried to dispel that gloomy delusion, it threw her into such misery that my heart will always ache when I remember that awful time. It's as though my heart had been stabbed once for all. She ran away from me. Do you know what for? Simply to show me that she was a degraded creature. But the most awful thing is that perhaps she didn't even know herself that she only wanted to prove that to me, but ran away because she had an irresistible inner craving to do something shameful, so as to say to herself at once, 'There, you've done something shameful again, so you're a degraded creature!' Oh, perhaps you won't understand this, Aglaia. Do you know that in that continual consciousness of shame there is perhaps a sort of awful, unnatural enjoyment for her, a sort of revenge on someone. Sometimes I did bring her to seeing light round her once more, as it were. But she would grow restive again at once, and even came to accusing me bitterly of setting myself up above her (though I had no thought of such a thing) and told me in so many words at last, when I offered her marriage, that she didn't want condescending sympathy or help from anyone, nor to be elevated to anyone's level. You saw her yesterday. Do you think she's happy with that set, that they are fitting company for her? You don't know how well educated she is, and what she can understand! She really amazed me sometimes."

Now, there are a number of passages that I earmarked in the course of reading The Idiot, but this was by far my favorite, and has been most frequently revisited by me since finishing the book. My first question is this: Do you know anyone whom this would describe? I admit myself to demonstrating to a much lesser extent the basic flaw of Nastasya; that is, I often place upon myself an undeserved guilt, or a feeling of being unworthy of this or of that. However, in me (and I'm sure in many others), it does not translate into performing some shameful act in order to prove to myself that I am indeed a "degraded creature." My reason for posting this passage, then, is really just that it seems a great one for reflective purposes. It quite eloquently states a relatively common fault, to varying degrees, of many great people. Further, I've always felt there to be some truth in the notion that among the best ways to surmount a character flaw is to be flatly confronted with it. If this is you, you will see yourself within it, yet you will still recognize it for the flaw it is and may feel compelled toward change.

So what is the psychology of such a sentiment? Is it symptomatic of self esteem issues of a youthly origin--some kind of Freudian delusion? Is it an actual psychopathology of sorts? How should one go about addressing it in a friend or loved one? Of course, these are the questions, and the answers will surely vary for each relationship. I suppose my main curiosity is whether such a sentiment is as widespread as it seems it could be.

Currently listening to: "Four Winds" by Bright Eyes
Previous activity: Mailed a couple "thank you" cards to Cornell
Next thing on the agenda: Reading "Pale Fire" by Nabokov

Travel logs from China

From January 10 until February 10, I was traveling with my friend Ting all around China. The following is a set of emails over the course of this trip that I had sent to family and friends.

"Live from Hong Kong"
January 12, 2007

Hey everybody,

I just thought I would send a little email while I had the chance to stop in an internet cafe here in Hong Kong. My friend Ting and I arrived around 11:30pm local time last night (it's 7:30pm local time right now) and immediately went out on the town because we were both starving and in need of a drink after 24 hours of planes and airports. Fortunately for us, Hong Kong seems to never sleep, so we had no problem finding some food. I got my hands on some roasted pigeon and fried noodles--the pigeon was good and was made better by the little roasted pigeon head being on the plate along with the meat. I made the comment to Ting that half the girls I saw looked like prostitutes to me, but she thought I was crazy. Turns out, when we met with a family friend of hers this morning, he confirmed that the area where we were that night actually is rife with prostitution, so I may have been right. I guess my ho-dar is right on target. We've also seen these "reflexology" places all around the city, which offer foot massages meant to stimulate all these different parts of your body via pressure points. Many are open around the clock. Anyway, a guy we spoke to on the plane said that he tried it one time and his feet were in pain for 3 days (and our guide book says that the best part about the "reflexology" is when they finally stop). They apparently get pretty rough with your doggies, but we're thinking that we need to try it out at some point just to see what it's all about.

We're staying in a hotel in Kowloon, a little east of where the mafia operates. Apparently, most of the electronics stores that display only the brand name (e.g. Sony) but not a store name are mafia fronts. This morning, we went by the Po Lin monastery to see the "big Buddha," which was big. We've been wandering around Hong Kong Island since then, stopping in some crazy antique shops, an old temple, and a locally famous hole-in-the-wall restaurant with some really good beef and noodles. Hong Kong is kind of tricky; usually, English gets us by, but in some places, like holes-in-the-walls, English doesn't cut it and nothing is in English. Why this is tricky is that Ting speaks Mandarin but Hong Kong is a predominantly Cantonese city, so her Chinese is often ineffective here. We've been surviving just fine, though. Tonight, we're either going to go up Victoria Peak for an aerial view of the city by night (sooooo many more skyscrapers than any American city), or going to a highly recommended jazz club since we kind of feel it's too cloudy today to really enjoy the view. The cloudiness will be apparent in pictures we took that you may see in the future of the big Buddha. There's also a nightly light show that's put on using synchronized lights on the city's skyscrapers bordering the harbor that we are hoping to catch.

Tomorrow, we're taking a day trip to Macau, the Las Vegas of China. We're kind of playing it by ear and are not entirely sure what we're hoping to see, but we'll be back in Hong Kong for tomorrow night and will leave for Guangzhou the next day. We've read and have been told that in the month leading up to the Chinese New Year, crime increases dramatically, largely in the form of robberies, muggings, and the like, because people get desperate for money in their desire to get home for the holiday. Well, the month that we'll be here is the month leading up to the Chinese New Year, so we're being as vigilant as we can be, wearing our little money belts under our shirts and all of that business (a la Eurotrip).

I'm going to conclude the email here, but I hope everyone is doing very well. Feel free to email me, and you can expect a few more random emails over the course of the trip.

Forever studly,

"Live from Guangzhou"
January 15, 2007

Hey everyone,

Tonight is actually our last night in Guangzhou, a city consisting largely of commerce and industry. It isn't exactly a place where one would travel in order to see history or traditional Chinese culture. However, it has provided me my first opportunities to break away from the typical tourist routes and hotspots and see behind the glitz and glamour of China. It's been interesting; for the first time in my life, I've been the target of stare after stare simply for being white. Oftentimes, people look confused when they hear Ting ask directions when I, the white boy, am standing there, as she doesn't have an accent and therefore easily passes as native Chinese, rather than Chinese-American. They seem to wonder what she's doing with me. Other times, when we're just walking around the city at night, they look at her as if she must be a hooker, because obviously an Asian girl walking down the street at night with a white guy must be a hooker (or so goes their thinking). I suppose in this regard, we've both been receiving our fair share of weird looks.

Guangzhou, moreso than most places in China, seems to highlight the dichotomy between the haves and have-nots in China. The poverty--the homeless, the beggars--are much more visible here, and typically bear some sort of physical malady, such as being an amputee. Whether they were an amputee (or born without the limb) before becoming homeless, or they lost a limb due to being homeless and suffering from who knows what health problem, I can't say. Either way, when they see a white person walking down the sidewalk, they perk up, as anyone who can visibly be discerned as a foreigner is assumed to be rich. Countless beggars have picked me out of the masses of people to ask for money, and I usually oblige, so long as I have some relatively small denominations handy and don't have to dig around my pockets too long. I've discovered that if you stop walking to hand it to them, beggar after beggar will converge on you seeking some sort of monetary gift. What really caught me off guard, though, was when I was walking down the street our first night here, and a little boy grabbed my pinky finger and was walking along with Ting and I. I laughed at first, thinking he was confused and that his parents were just behind him, but he kept walking, clutching my finger. It eventually dawned on Ting and I, when we realized that no parents seemed to be walking behind him, that he wanted money. When I gave him a yuan, he walked away. (Really, the beggars are not that terrible so long as you keep small denominations handy, as they're all very grateful for a single yuan, which amounts to about 15 cents.)

Given the industrial base for much of this city, the smog here is terrible. If you've been to Los Angeles or know of the smog there, this is Los Angeles times ten or twenty. The many skyscrapers begin to disappear into the distance even when they are really only...maybe 10 blocks away? Between the smog and the cigarette smoke, which permeates everything, including our hotel, I woke up this morning with a bit of a cough.

The main touristy site that we visited here was the Temple of the Six Banyans, which possesses a tall pagoda tower: 9 levels on the outside, but 17 floors on the inside. It was originally built around the year 1100. We snapped quite a few pictures in the course of climbing up the tower, so I'm sure most or all of you will eventually see some of the images, either directly from me or on facebook or something. Aside from that temple, Guangzhou actually has a beautiful waterfront district, which kind of reminded me of Paris along the Seine. There's a colonial history here, at least in that part of the city, which is evident in the architecture. Now, this area is home to the US Consulate, and many Americans (and other Westerners) have to come here to pick up their adopted babies, almost all of whom are girls.

Tomorrow morning, we're flying to the Yunnan Province, where, according to my guide book, we will see a lot of "mountains and minorities." We'll be visiting a few different cities within the province, so it should offer a variety of things to see and do. Of course, I'll write more when I get a chance. To everyone: Keep in touch and let me know what you're up to. (If you reply, be sure to only reply to me and not the entire list by accident.)

Forever studly,

"Live from Dali"
January 18, 2007

Welcome, everyone, to the latest edition of my travels.

Tonight I'm writing from a bar in Dali on (fittingly) "Foreigner Street." I know, you may be thinking that if the street is named after the '80s rock band, it is out of context and unfitting, but I believe it's named after all of the foreigners that frequent this particular street. Dali is a small city in the northwest part of the Yunnan province flanked by mountains on its west side and a lake on its east. The mountains seem pretty imposing; I suppose they could be called the foothills of the Himalayas, as Tibet is pretty darn close. Both Ting and I really wanted to go there, but the weather this time of year is prohibitive. Dali, on the other hand, remains pretty temperate year-round. The city is beautiful, and enclosed within an old city wall. There are tons of shops selling finely chiseled jade merchandise from the vast jade deposits which are supposedly around here somewhere. I picked up a couple items. Our cab driver from the train station to our hotel (which itself is pretty... pretty) seemed to be really nice and knowledgeable of the area, so we hired him to take us around the area today. It was quite a bit cheaper than hiring separate cabs for each trek. We went by a small fishing village and had a couple of the villagers take us out on their rickety boat as they pushed it around the lake with a long pole. We also stopped by a Bai (the ethnic minority most prevalent here) village where they introduced us to a lot of their customs. While there, most of the visitors were more enthralled by me, the whitey, than by everything that was going on in the village area. One man in particular had his camera on me for probably five minutes straight; I eventually took a picture with him, causing him some embarrassment. Others asked if I was a celebrity (seriously).

Before Dali, we were in Kunming, another city in the Yunnan province. We found some really good, really cheap food here. I tried out a straight razor head shave for the first time, and liked it quite a bit. It was out of necessity, though, since my hair clippers were blown out by an outlet in the previous hotel. Kunming provided what is probably my favorite site to date--some monastery or temple or something built largely during the Ming dynasty up in the mountains (I forget its name at the moment). Largely a series of stone corridors and stairways built into the mountain, with temples scattered around, it was pretty incredible and overlooked the city. We made the mistake of walking down rather than taking the minibus, though; our feet were killing us after the hike. However, it allowed us to walk through a more impoverished part of the city where probably no white guy has ever walked before, which was pretty cool. It was definitely off the beaten trail. We also stopped by a very awesome temple outside of town, known in English as the Bamboo Temple, I think. There were over a hundred really intricately carved, life-sized figures, as well as just a very beautiful temple. The pictures we took should demonstrate this. Though the pictures of the carved figures are contraband, we managed to snap a few anyway. Also while in Kunming, we found a large military surplus market--really a series of small shops selling military surplus from the PLA and the US and British armies, surprisingly. I found a few souvenirs here. Another thing we've seen a lot of in shops such as these, and in regular clothing stores, is Che Guevara stuff. His image is almost as common as Mao's.

The most interesting bit of the whole trip so far also happened here in Kunming. I had to take my parents off of the mailing list for this one, though; I'll update them on the more PG material separately. Ting and I went to get a massage (yeah, you already know where this is going) before catching our overnight train to Dali. It was only going to cost about 50 yuan, or around $7, for an hour-long full-body massage, which is about the going rate. We head back in the parlor, which was nice and clean and everything else. So we start getting our massages as one would expect, but when it's time for me to roll over from laying on my stomach to laying on my back, the masseuse, who spoke scarcely a word of English, seems to think it's time to start with the "happy ending." Her hands started to wander more than I would've cared for them to. It took about 20 minutes to convince her that I really just wanted a massage and had no desire to pay extra for a "happy ending," despite her telling me that it's "very good... veeery good." I suppose that "full body massage" is intended to be as literal as imagineable, but I left feeling both violated and cheated, as the 20 minutes spent defending my conscience were 20 minutes of massage time lost. The train ride afterward, however, was pretty uneventful, although cramped in submarine-style sleepers with cots stacked three-high.

Tomorrow, we're taking a bus to Li Jiang, another city in northwest Yunnan, edging ever-closer to Tibet. I hope everything is going well with all of you.

Forever studly,

"Live from Xi'an"
January 25, 2007

Howdy All,

Since my last email, I've moved north to the city of Xi'an. But before I describe my time in Xi'an, I'll take a few steps back and lead up to where I am now. Given as this trip so far has felt like one long weekend, my sense of time has become even more distorted than it normally is, so I apologize for any confusion of days in the course of writing.

Traveling from Dali to Li Jiang, the three hour bus ride through the countryside and mountains highlighted something that I had already noticed. If you recall early on in learning English grammar the principle of the understood "you," where everyone recognizes the existence of the word "you" even in certain situations where the word is not actually present ( i.e. "[You] Go to the store."), then you can also understand one rule of the roads here. Consider a two-lane road, opposing traffic, such as that traveled by the bus en route to Li Jiang. Even with this winding mountain road, the principle of the understood third lane is obvious. This understood third lane, which is by no means marked on the road, normally exists directly on the center line, making it the space between the opposing lanes of unyielding traffic daftly but frequently used by bold drivers to pass the myriad slow-moving vehicles (such as the three-wheeled jalopies crawling down the road at 5mph), squeezing between the vehicle to be passed and the oncoming traffic. Though normally on the center line, the understood third lane is sometimes shifted deeper into the oncoming traffic, carelessly forcing them to merge onto the shoulder (if it exists), depending on how little the passing driver values life. The principle of the understood third lane becomes confused when applied to urban areas, however. As the roads become wider, explicitly consisting of multiple lanes for each direction of traffic flow, it would make more sense in reality for the lines to be eliminated altogether, as urban drivers hold no concept of "lanes" and prefer to follow the path of least resistance, regardless of how perilously close it may bring them to other cars, concrete barriers, small children or the infirm. Knowing that the roads here are full of Asian drivers only exacerbates one's concern. (I keed! I keed!) The cramped bus ride to Li Jiang was actually pretty nice, as the Yunnan province offers a respite from the smog plaguing much of China and the views of the beautiful landscape were thus unhampered.

Li Jiang would be an incredible city to see if not for how touristy Old Town (or Ancient City) has become. This ancient district, full of winding cobblestone streets that stretch back centuries, are no doubt beautiful, but the equally beautiful buildings that line them are now full of shops touting the same wares over and over again targeting the many tourists, domestic and international. The lack of diversity and authenticity to these shops damages the overall impression, and makes Old Town more beautiful to see when the shops close their often beautifully carved doors. Nevertheless, the city, with its small, stoned-in streams that are split in every direction to follow nearly every street in Old Town, is quite endearing. Within the city, we visited a very picturesque place called the Black Dragon Pool Park, or the Jade Spring Park, on the edge of town, and at the base of Elephant Hill. We took plenty of pictures here, so you'll get a chance to see it. But in search for the authentic (granted, the Black Dragon Pool Park has its history and is exempt from my comment about Li Jiang's artificial feel), Ting and I journeyed outside of Li Jiang to a Naxi (another ethnic minority) village bordering a large lake, flanked by imposing mountains. We ventured out onto the lake in another old beat up boat pushed through the shallow waters by a pole in the hands of an able villager in order to catch a glimpse of the many nearly extinct species of birds that call the area home. I won't lie; my knowledge of birds is dismal and I probably could not appreciate what we saw as much as some could (such as Dr. Russell, for those of you who have went through the BMZ 115 and 116 course series at Miami). We had the option of riding horses around the lake, but in the interest of my ability to walk comfortably for the following few days, I elected not to do this. Despite the natural beauty of the area, our favorite site at this stop was the Naxi man who greeted us; his shaggy yak fur (just a guess) cloak combined with the hip black-framed sunglasses, except without any lenses in them, and the moustache he wore only on one half of his upper lip, created a look strange enough to be envied by the edgiest of fashionistas. Our stop here was just on our way to the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. I haven't been to the Grand Canyon before, and the geography cannot be said to be extremely similar anyway, but I imagine the Gorge is almost (but not quite) as breathtaking, with its raging river flowing between sheer cliffs and mountains shooting up 3900 meters, according to one sign. The water took on a jade color, just as the stone so often intricately carved in the area. While walking the trail through the Gorge, a couple of the military-looking personnel who stand along the trail to make sure the visitors behave, are safe, and don't damage the "environmental hygiene" (as the many signs put it), stopped Ting and I. They asked her to ask me if I would record on their megaphone a message stating, "Be careful. Falling rocks. Please stay to the inside of the trail." I laughingly obliged and recorded the message, so if you ever visit the Gorge and hear such a message, listen closely as it could be me warning you of impending danger.

In order to get to Xi'an from Li Jiang, we needed to return briefly to Kunming, as no flights went directly from Li Jiang to Xi'an. Our flight from Kunming to Xi'an was delayed for a few hours due to some heavy fog in the area, and it never really cleared before they finally okayed the flight anyway. When we landed in Xi'an, it seemed the same fog was present, and I came off as pretty naive when I asked about it. It turns out that the smog here in Xi'an, the cradle of Chinese civilization, is even more intense than what I saw in Guangzhou. Walking around the city, where the buildings even at the end of some of the longer blocks become nearly invisible, leads one to believe one must have cataracts. The smog extends well beyond the edges of the city of about 7 million people; visiting the famous Terra Cotta Warriors, which is 20 miles east of the city, smog still envelopes everything. The Terra Cotta Warriors did not disappoint, as the scale of such a mausoleum, built well into the years B.C., is astounding. We also visited the Huaqing Hot Springs and Pools east of Xi'an, which I actually thought was one of the more beautiful sites (and interesting histories) we've visited on this trip--at least, the original portions. Other parts have merely been rebuilt to exhibit the unearthed ancient hot springs pools used by the emperors of numerous dynasties and their concubines. We were able to wash our hands in fountains pouring out the springs' hot waters, and actually had the option of bathing in it, which we declined for time considerations. The waters were really nice; I wouldn't mind having my own hot springs. Since Ting has family and family friends here in Xi'an, and since one of them is an official in the government, the Chinese government treated us to a free trip to both of these locations, covered our entrance fees and tour guide fees, and treated us to a very nice and large lunch at an expensive restaurant. Her family friend, who is the government official, could not come on the trip with us himself, but another government spokesman and the chauffeur accompanied us to the meal. I guess I can never again claim that I have never received anything from Communists. (It is worth noting here that Communism in today's China means something very different from the Communism normally conjured up in one's mind. China is very capitalistic, indeed.)

Within Xi'an, we have checked out the city wall, which cannot be missed if you tried. Wrapping around almost the entire city--forming a 5 by 6 mile box, I believe--it is the largest intact city wall in China. The Shaanxi History Museum was well worth our visit there, as it houses a history of the area and of Chinese civilization stretching back to the first traces of human life in the region. As the cradle of Chinese civilization, there is plenty to display from the Shaanxi province. We also stopped by the Bell Tower (which is of far different design than any of you Miami University friends would be familiar with) and the Muslim Quarter, which contains several stretches of shops and restaurants and is just past what is called the Drum Tower. Oh, and of course I would be mistaken to not mention our VIP entrance at some Xi'an club, where we drank our share of aged Scotch. Even the hotel here told Ting's parents (who, do not forget, are Chinese) that "there are foreigners in those rooms. You can't disturb them," when they called the hotel and asked to be connected to her room.

So how about the roads in Xi'an? The understood third lane principle is still in effect. I will dub this brief segment of the email, "Why did the table cross the road?" in honor of its random and adventurous nature. Riding around Xi'an has been an experience unto itself. The game "Frogger" has been brought to life here; I've seen people rolling tables like giant wooden wheels across busy streets, I've seen little kids pop a squat and potty through their slit pants on street curbs (I also saw this at the base of an escalator in a tunnel that passes under one of the busier streets), and, I ask you, how do you make a left turn at an intersection where the very heavy cross traffic does not have a stop sign or stop light, and is three (official) lanes thick in each direction? Naturally, you drive partway out into the cross traffic, driving in the wrong direction between these lanes of traffic until you can cut over the rest of the way onto the correct side of the road.

Tomorrow is our last full day in Xi'an, and on Friday, we catch a train to Beijing. I apologize for the verbosity of this particular email, and until next time, I hope all of you are doing well.

Forever studly,

"Live from Shanghai"
February 8, 2007

Hello friends and family,

I'm writing this time from Shanghai, which is now (I'm pretty sure) the largest city in the world that I've visited.

But since the last email, we've visited Beijing, Harbin, Suzhou and Hangzhou--the latter two were more of a side trip from Shanghai, as they're both pretty close. Beijing offered quite a few must-see spots, including the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall just outside of town, and a couple other less famous sites whose names I can't recall at the moment. I even got to see the infamous--and dead--Mao Tse-Dong in person. After he died, they had his body preserved and put on display in his mausoleum, which borders Tienanmen Square across from the Forbidden City. The line to see his body was enormous, and we were shuffled through very quickly, but many people took a moment to honor their former Communist dictator with a rose (so many, in fact, that I would guess there to have been around 4,000 roses laid in his honor by the time Ting and I walked through). Ting suspects, and I agree, that the flowers, like Mao, are preserved so that they may be collected at the end of each day and resold to visitors each day after; in other words, we suspect there to be quite the profitable capitalist scheme right at the mausoleum for one of the world's most famous communists. Tienanmen Square itself was pretty bland and unscenic--just a bunch of pavement. The Forbidden City, on the other hand, was quite impressive if for nothing else than its scale. "City" really is a fitting word for its name, because it is plenty large to be one. I might be wrong, but I suspect the ol' hometown of Norborne would fit inside it a couple of times. Unfortunately, two of the main palaces were under renovation when we visited, so we weren't able to see everything perfectly. I would have liked to have been able to go inside the main palaces that were closed off simply so I could compare the level of decadence with Versailles outside of Paris.

While around every turn was another picturesque detail (the garden in the rear of the Forbidden City was, in my opinion, its most impressive feature), my personal favorite site while there was not extravagant at all, but was very simple: at one point, I turned my head after Ting drew my attention to see a mother holding her child (perhaps two or three years old? I'm terrible at guessing kids' ages) so that the child could poop on the ground, on the centuries-old paving stones in one of the Forbidden City's courtyards. I apologize for not taking a picture to prove it to you, but it made my day anyway. The Temple of Heaven and Great Wall offered no similar experiences, but the Great Wall was probably my favorite site we have visited. The portion we visited was more tame than many of its access points around Beijing, but we did not feel like crawling up stairs on all fours (which is required at some other sections) when the possibility existed that our hands could be numbed from the cold. As it turned out, the weather was not so bad that day. Ah, and I could not finish describing Beijing without mentioning the Silk Market, which is a large market touting every counterfeit product imaginable. The difference between these counterfeits and most others, though, is that these are for the most part well made (sometimes very well made) and quite convincing. Of course, I would never be able to tell the difference anyway, but for those with a more discriminating eye, they would face a challenge with most of these products. The bargaining is fierce, and as a white guy, they expect to get much more out of me because I'm supposed to be more ignorant yet wealthy. The problem they faced was my utter apathy in regards to whether or not I left the market without the item altogether, combined with small-town frugality. Rather than bargaining, I would simply state some really low price that I might actually consider paying and not budge from that price. This frustrated the vendors, who would sometimes grab my arms as I walked away, because they wanted me to stay and haggle and offer a little more money. I was unwilling, and one time had to literally lift a girl up and set her aside so I could get out of her stall--she kept stepping in front of me and trying to push me back in, so drastic measures had to be taken. Despite all this, I did leave with one backpack that I really liked (for which I paid about 1/9 of the price they originally stated: "I give to you for special price!" "What is this special price you speak of?" "Normally 500, but for you, 450." "No, I'll pay 50." ...everything is always a "special price").

We took a train to Harbin in the northern stretches of China after visiting Beijing. As soon as we got off the train, we were greeted by much colder weather--I don't believe it ever got over 10*F while we were there. That probably doesn't sound too bad to many of you back home right now, though, because I've seen a few global weather forecasts that have not been so kind to the American northeast and upper midwest. Anyway, Harbin was included in our trip because of its amazing Ice Lantern Festival, which is just a huge ice and snow sculpture extravaganza--the scale of the sculptures is massive, to the point where the creations are the size of buildings (and often are recreations of famous buildings that you can walk through and climb atop of). To make it better, the sculptures are all lit up beautifully, often from inside the ice so that the entire thing is glowing. It made for one of the more amazing things I've seen here. Unfortunately, both of our cameras had battery issues the night that we went to see the ice sculptures, so we weren't able to take nearly as many pictures as we would have liked. Oh, and they also had ice rinks with part-bicycle/part-iceskate contraptions that you could ride around 'til your heart's content (or, in my case, 'til my hands were numb), as well as big ice slides. My butt was hurting after I decided to slide down a large banister made of ice on one of the ice buildings, though, because I neglected to look at the surface on which I would be landing.

Also in Harbin, which was actually built and settled by the Russians along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, we stopped by the best example of Russian architecture we could find, which was St. Sophia's Church. I had saved the last chapter of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky (the book I had been reading) to finish while here in Harbin, figuring that I may as well finish the Russian author's novel in as Russian a setting as possible. After Harbin, we flew south to warmer weather in Shanghai and spent a couple days here before taking our side trip to Suzhou and Hangzhou, and, as an age-old Chinese proverb boldly asserts: "Up in Heaven there's paradise. Down on Earth there's Suzhou and Hangzhou." Additionally, Suzhou has often been referred to as the Venice of the East, in light of its many canals that crisscross the city. Suzhou is largely known for its amazing Chinese gardens. We only took the time to visit one--The Humble Administrator's Garden--but it did not disappoint. In fact, visiting the garden made me question whether the administrator could have possibly been humble. Perhaps something was lost in translation. Nevertheless, these Chinese sure know how to make a nice garden; they would surely provide plenty of inspiration for any modern landscaper or architect. The best thing about Suzhou, though, was the selection of foreign goods markets where one could (and we did) buy one's share of very nice goods meant for export to Western markets, but sold for cheap in China instead. Unlike many stores in China, the name brand items sold here are actually real. For example, I bought something like 16 Armani and Louis Vuitton silk ties for about USD $65 altogether. I was more interested in looking for such dress clothes because, naturally, I had a three piece suit made for me before leaving Shanghai.

Following Suzhou (which, other than the gardens and one or two scenic roads, I actually thought looked rather dumpy), we took a bus to Hangzhou, which seemed like a pretty affluent city. Marco Polo once described it as paradise, or something to that effect, and the famous West Lake, on which the city has a waterfront, has inspired centuries of poetry, music, and paintings. I, personally, did not feel compelled to write any poems, compose any songs, or paint any paintings, but it was quite nice, nevertheless. We took a boat around the serene lake to scope out it and its islands. Almost all of the city was destroyed at some point by an invasion or something, so that whatever Marco Polo saw was nearly entirely gone, but it was still nice--just not as old feeling as I would have hoped. One of Ting's uncles in the area took us out to a pretty amazingly produced theatrical show taking us through the history of the Song Dynasty by way of music, dance, acrobatics and the like. The most amazing part, though, really was the production, which I'm sure would rival if not beat anything on Broadway. Outside of the theater, there was this weird park area that had a series of very much reminded me of several of the challenges on Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. It was hilarious to watch people, but Ting was the only person I saw fall in. (Sorry Ting, it was funny!) Also nearby, but before dinner, we picked up her little cousin from an international school (K-12) that he attended. It was definitely one of the strangest sites I saw while in China, but unfortunately did not have a camera handy. The school, on its campus, had a full-sized replica of the White House and the Washington Monument, as well as a massive, nearly full-sized, recreation of Mount Rushmore outside. So bizarre. I've since read about some newly wealthy Chinese businessman building a full-scale reproduction of the US Capitol outside of Shanghai.

Now, back in Shanghai, we're just rounding out our last couple of days before catching the flight back to New York City. We still have a few things to see around the city, but nothing too special. Shanghai is a pretty modern place and doesn't host quite as many historic sites as one might suspect--at least, not to my knowledge.

A few extra thoughts on China: everyone really loves to spit (specifically, to hawk up phlegm) all over the place. At first, this immediately noticeable phenomenon I thought might have been due to the smog, but I myself never felt compelled to spit, despite breathing the same air for a month. It seems that it really must be cultural. I've heard, actually, that Beijing is trying to outlaw this unusual-to-Western-eyes practice in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Also, from my observations here, the Chinese seem to have a fascination with all things that glow. Their cities have all been lit up like Las Vegas--everywhere that neon lights can be afforded and can fit, they're placed, it seems. Also, the Japanese influence of really bad perms (that is, for hair) has spread in full-force to China. I've now seen the worst hair styles on this planet. My only disappointment is that while I have seen all sorts of Engrish/Chenglish on signs all over China, I have not come across a good place to buy Engrish/Chenglish t-shirts, as I had so wished to do. Anyway, I will end this ridiculously long email now and offer my best wishes that everyone is doing well.

Forever studly,