Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

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You Don’t Want to Delete Your Facebook (And That’s OK)

Everyone should stop Facebook. Everyone is not going to stop using Facebook this week. That’s OK. There’s a middle ground between deleting your account forever and between spending all of your waking, earthly hours refreshing your Facebook feed. And we should be telling our relatives and friends about that middle ground, instead of telling them they have to stop using Facebook right away.  We can counter the sense of helplessness that many people feel about their relationship to Facebook and to other social media platforms – but we’re going to need to do it in an incremental, careful way. 

You’re reading this and you don’t live under a rock, so you’re probably very much aware that Facebook is under an immense amount of heat right now. Last weekend, the world found out that the eminently-creepy (albeit over-hyped) Cambridge Analytica voter profiling company scraped 50 million Facebook users profiles, information that they used to on behalf of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It was the latest in a year and a half long succession of failures and embarrassments for Facebook, from their widely derided failure to do something about Russian bots to their ham-fisted attempts at fighting fake news to their disturbing treatment of their underpaid moderators.

Facebook seemed invulnerable for a very long time, but this latest scandal, on top of all the others, actually seems to have wounded it: Facebook’s stock valued dropped by as much as 8 percent in the US and the UK, and Mark Zuckerberg had lost already $9 billion of his net worth by Tuesday. The leviathan has been hit, there’s blood in the water, and it’s easy for us privacy paranoiacs to feel like Captain Ahab.  For the first time that we can remember, there’s an opportunity to take Facebook down, or at least to weaken it by reducing its user base. 

“You’ve got to delete your Facebook profile, it’s the only way!” we tell our friends and relatives, waving around our harpoons. Whereupon our friends and relatives smile (so as not to provoke us) and back away. They don’t want to delete Facebook entirely, or maybe they can’t due to their job, or because it’s the only way to communicate with their families. It’s not like it matters, they think. Facebook already has all my information. 

The Captain Ahab approach is not a good way to get people to alter their social media habits, and it’s not a good way to convince people to better protect their privacy from companies like Facebook. When we get all Captain Ahab, we’re forgetting some important realities about human beings and how most human beings feel about Facebook. 

 

“Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!

First: we forget that most people don’t know much about how their Facebook data is used and abused. Endless news stories about the evils of Facebook may fill them with unease and distrust, but they’re not getting much good information on what to do about it.   A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 47% of Americans lacked confidence in their knowledge of what companies actually do with their personal data.  This 2016 survey from the UK found that while 74% of Internet users believed that they adequately protected their online data, only 28% of respondents had actually turned off location tracking on the platforms they use, and only 31% had changed their social media privacy settings. This confusion is  in part because Facebook and other social media companies have done a bang-up job of obfuscating what they’re up to: another recent study found that Facebook’s privacy policy became much less transparent and much harder for mere mortals to understand in the decade from 2005 to 2015. 

Your conflicted Facebook-using friends and relations are living in what frustrated security researchers call the “privacy paradox”: most people will swear up and down that privacy is important to them, and then will continue to share their personal information widely on the Internet. This is not because they are stupid.  It is because they believe that they live in a dark, howling Internet panopticon from which they cannot escape. (I’m exaggerating, but only kinda). This 2016 focus-group study found that young people were aware of the risks of sharing their information online. They just didn’t think they could do anything about those risks: they felt that “privacy violations are inevitable and opting out is not an option.” They’ve  fallen prey to privacy cynicism, which is defined rather succinctly by these researchers as ” an attitude of uncertainty, powerlessness and mistrust towards the handling of personal data by online services, rendering privacy protection behavior subjectively futile.” 

I met a traveler in an antique…look, you get it, hint hint.

Many people also feel powerless because they think Facebook is unkillable. The average person viewed Facebook as a doofy college-kid rumor service back in 2007: now, most see it as a bit like an unstoppable, inescapable international hive-mind. I’m sure Facebook would be just fine with being viewed sometime decades hence as an inscrutable but appeasable deity: provide your data tribute, and the crops will flourish! Withold your tribute and face its wrath! Facebook knows no past or present or death! 

Thankfully, this is horseshit.

In the last 20 years, we’ve watched former juggernauts like AOL, Yahoo, MySpace, Ask Jeeves, and many many more weaken and die. From one point of view, Facebook is already dying: young people have correctly identified that Facebook is now dominated by their elderly and incoherent relatives, and they’re ditching the platform in droves.  For the first time in a decade, Facebook usage has decreased amongst Americans, dropping from 67% to 62%,  while Google and YouTube usage continues to grow.

These people might be backing away because they’ve lost trust in Facebook. Trust is everything for social media companies like Facebook: people’s willingness to share the data that social companies must feast upon to survive is dependent upon how much they trust the platform not to wantonly abuse it.  A 2017 study from the UK found that only one in four Britons trust social media, and a majority believe that social media companies aren’t adequately regulated. A mere 35 percent of Bay Area residents say that they trust social media companies. A study from October found that while a majority of responders do believe that Facebook’s effect on society is positive overall, they also trusted Facebook the least of the “big five” tech companies (and only 60% knew that Facebook owns Instagram). We can work with this. 

Yep, that’s a hideous dolphin figurine.

Second:  People are absolutely horrible at going cold-turkey at things.  Look, I’ve spent many, many hours of my fleeting and precious life sitting slack-jawed on my couch, refreshing Facebook like a Skinner-box trained rat. I know that it’s fiendishly hard to stop using social media. Some scientists now believe that social media can be the focus of a true psychological addiction, just like World of Warcraft or gambling or collecting hideous dolphin figurines. A PLOS One study found that heavy Internet users exhibit physical “withdrawal” symptoms and anxiety when they suddenly stopped using social media. 

Changing your relationship with the Internet and social media is particularly difficult because they are such fundamental parts of modern life: abstinence isn’t really an option. You can live a normal, productive life without WoW or cigarettes, but it’s just about impossible to live normally without the Internet. It can also be hard to go without Facebook: many people do need it for their jobs, or to stay attached to relatives who may not be as up for getting off Facebook as they are. 

So what can we ask people to do? What are some realistic, relatively easy things that people can do to better protect their privacy? How can people scale back their Facebook usage and the data they share with Facebook, without deleting their profile entirely? Here’s some suggestions. 

  • Figure out the motivation behind your compulsion to use Facebook. “Cyber psychologist” John Suler (what a great job title) suggested this type of scrutiny in a Quartz article: “Is it a need for dependency, to feel important and powerful, to express anger, to release oneself from guilt? In compulsive behaviors, people are expressing such needs but rarely does the activity actually resolve those needs.” If you know why you’re spending hours combing through your colleague’s second-cousin’s dog photos, you’ll have a better sense of what you need to do to stop. You can also try restriction apps, like Self Control – they’ve helped me reduce my own “pigeon pecking at a button” behavior immensely. 
  • Turn off location sharing. I do not use location sharing on any of my devices. There is no good reason for Facebook to know where you are. 
  • Turn off Facebook’s platform feature. This feature is what allows third-party apps and other websites to integrate with Facebook, and it’s also what permits these third-party apps to slurp up lots and lots of your data. Shut that sucker off. No, you won’t be able to play Farmville anymore, you deviant. 
  • Review your third-party app settings. If you don’t want to take the nuclear option of turning off Facebook’s platform –  though you really, really should – you can still review your third party app settings and revoke access to apps you distrust. (Don’t trust any of them). Buzzfeed has a good guide here. You should do this for all the social media sites you use, not just Facebook. 
  • Stop liking things. “Likes” give Facebook useful information on how to advertise to you. Do not do that. 
  • Stop Facebook from tracking you across the Internet. Facebook extensively tracks users, both on the platform and on sites that have a Facebook “like button” – yes, they’re following you even when you aren’t on Facebook itself.  There’s a number of good ways to stop this tracking, on your computer and on your phone: I like the uBlock Origin browser plug-in, and the 1Blocker app for mobile devices. 
  • Lock down your privacy settings. Review your privacy settings at least once a month: Facebook has an infuriating habit of resetting them. 
  • Delete as much information as you can possibly stand from your Facebook profile. Delete as many old posts as you can possibly stand. You can download your Facebook archive if you don’t want to lose those memories entirely. 
  • Facebook targeted ads are majestically creepy, and you should opt out of them right now. You can do this in your Facebook account settings. HowToGeek has a nice guide to opting out of these ads on multiple platforms.
  • Read these other guides to protecting your privacy on Facebook. Here’s a good one from the Guardian. Here’s one from CNBC. Here’s one from Motherboard,

Don’t get me wrong. We do not live in a perfect world. Us Captain Ahabs are not going to convince every Facebook user to rise up and delete their profile as one in a Glorious Attention Revolution, in which Facebook evaporates into a puff of dark and oily mist, and all the Facebook money is redistributed to the world’s privacy-loving children, and Mark Zuckerberg is forced to live in penitent exile in a hole in the forest on a very remote island. We are not going to harpoon this stupid privacy-hating white whale right now. 

What we can do is slowly starve Facebook: by cutting down on our time using Facebook and the amount of information we share with it, we can reduce its ration of nutrient-rich data krill. Facebook’s advertisers are dependent on your attention and knowledge about you, and their job gets a lot harder if you provide less of it. By starving Facebook, we reduce its power over us and its power over our government and over our minds. It’s absolutely true that users can only do so much: we are going to need regulation with teeth to truly loosen Facebook’s grip over our societies. Still, we can help bring about that regulation and help alter how our communities approach Facebook by altering our own behavior and helping others do the same.

I don’t necessarily want Facebook to die (though I’m not sure I’d be very sad). I do want it to be humbled. I want Facebook and its leaders to realize that we do live in a world where actions have consequences, and where the actions of gigantic companies that control mind-exploding quantities of data have some of the most important consequences of all.  We can do our small part to make this happen. In short: Facebook users of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but constant interaction with your racist uncle. 

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Why Young People Live in Big Cities, Since This Needs to Be Explained Somehow

The Unicorn Latte is not the primary driver behind millennial geographic mobility. Who knew?

“I just don’t understand why you young people complain about high rent in the city – you could just move to the Midwest and buy a big house, if you’d get over yourselves.”

You’ve heard this argument before if you live in a city. It is usually delivered by some horrible relative who is holding a strong alcoholic beverage in one hand and a cocktail shrimp in the other, delivered with that particular type of sloshed bravado particular to horrible relatives. The Magical Cornfield Solution is one of those arguments that is so intrinsically, obviously stupid that it is hard to believe people are sincere about it . But they are. These people really believe that young American’s problems with finding housing and decently-paying work would magically vanish if we all just moved to a very attractively-priced soybean field somewhere near the geographic center of the country. They are convinced that young people are paying ever-spiraling urban rents because we are too proud, too fancy for life in a place without bizarrely-colored lattes and metaphysical yoga classes. 

Here are some reasons why moving to the country is not a magical panacea for high rents and housing inequality. I cannot believe I have to explain this, but then again, it is 2018, and I am always disappointed.

Rural areas are also experiencing housing shortages and affordability crises. We just never hear about them – I certainly didn’t know this until I began researching this blog post. A young person who lives in an expensive area and spends a lot on rent who moves to a rural area (as your shitty Uncle Chad advises)  will almost certainly be penalized by a lower-income job: it is by no means guaranteed that they’ll be able to buy a home in return.  While housing is cheaper in rural areas, incomes are also lower, which means that many people don’t have the resources to improve the housing they’re already in. Some scenic rural areas suffer from affordability problems caused by second-home buyers, who buy properties that working families might live in year-round. Completely unsurprisingly, the declining economic activity and populations in rural areas are also linked to declines in home-building, home improvement, and the availability of home loans. While Nebraska has plenty of jobs, there’s not enough housing for people who might move to fill them – yes, that’s right, there’s a housing shortage in rural Nebraska.  Making matters worse, low-income new arrivals in rural and remote areas add to already over-burdened health and social services: this article looks at how this is playing out in rural Canada, a country with socialized health-care, unlike some other countries we know. 

Lots of people are from cities, and they’d like to stay in those cities. There is a certain type of smug soybean-field-pusher who assumes that everyone in the entire country is originally  from a picket-fence small town or a suburb.  This is a problem, because a lot of people are born in cities and stay in those cities. Which are the same places where their families are. The U.S. Census Bureau inconveniently doesn’t collect data on whether people were born in the cities that they live in, but it does collect data on whether people were born in the same state as the city they currently reside in. 58.5% of Chicago’s residents (to use one example) were born in Illinois, while 70% of Philadelphia’s residents were born in Pennsylvania. 2016 data from New York University’s Furman Center found that 47.9% of New York City residents were born in the state of New York. We can safely extrapolate from this that there’s a lot of people out there who’ve never known anything but city life.

  A lot of people are not white, cis-gendered,  born in the United States, or heterosexual. Many of these people would like to live in places where they will not be isolated from others like them. Hate crimes are becoming more common in the Trump era, and groups that don’t fit the white, straight norm likely are finding it more important than ever to be amongst their own communities.  2010 U.S. Census Data found that a whopping 78% percent of the population in rural and small-town American communities was white and non-Hispanic. Immigrant groups in small communities may lack access to the resources they need to combat hate, as this article on rural South Asians describes. The U.S. census doesn’t collect information on LGBTQ people, but there’s evidence that LGBTQ Americans – especially youth – find rural and small-town life a challenge. A 2016 study from a University of Kansas professor on gender and sexual minority youth in nonmetropolitan communities identified four areas of particular need:  “reduction in isolation, social acceptance and visibility, emotional support and safety, and GSM identity development.” White, straight Americans shouldn’t assume that rural America is as welcoming to everyone as it is to them.  

Urban areas have infrastructure. That includes fast Internet and mobile service. You’re not going to be able to work that well-paying remote job your horrible relatives assume you can get in Real Rural America if you can’t get a fast Internet connection or mobile reception. The Internet crisis in rural America is acute: a whopping 39% of rural Americans lack broadband service, as opposed to just 4% of urban Americans, and the sordid death of Net Neutrality means that this shameful problem is unlikely to get better anytime soon. Rural areas have the highest healthcare premiums in the United States, which is linked to higher healthcare costs due to a lack of doctors and hospitals. The rural doctor shortage, a long-time problem, is expected to worsen thanks to the Trump administration’s idiotic and racist visa policies. Groceries may actually be cheaper in big cities, as opposed to smaller ones. You’ve got to own a car, and you’ve got to regularly gas it up. And what exactly should people who can’t drive do if they find it harder and harder to afford living in an urban area? Rural areas in the United States are, after all, not exactly known for their public transit – though some groups are wisely working to change this.

Many well-paying and fulfilling careers require you to live in cities, at least for a while. (I don’t mean “fabulous wealth and power” here, either, I mean ‘you’re not absolutely miserable and you can afford health insurance’).  Good jobs are increasingly clustered into a few metro areas, especially in the comically lucrative tech world, and most of those metro areas are relatively expensive. Some of these good careers, careers which help all of humanity sometimes, are limited to one or two cities in the entire world: if you don’t want to live in those cities, you are welcome to fuck off and do something else. You are going to have a very hard time advancing to better-paid and more responsible positions if you do not live in these expensive cities. Many of the young people currently living in expensive cities appear to be interested in leaving once they’ve got the money to buy a house somewhere cheaper (though it’s debatable if cities have really hit “peak millennial” or not). 

Most people probably don’t move because they want more unicorn lattes (or other amenities).  2017 data from the US Census Bureau found that the largest group of millenials (18.0% percent) moved because they wanted to establish their own household, followed by 16.1% who wanted new or better housing, and 11.9% who moved for a new job or a job transfer.  People are moving much less than they used to in general. In 2017, America’s household mobility rate was 10.9%, which is the lowest since the Census Bureau started keeping track 50 years ago. This is not actually a good thing, Uncle Chad the Idiot Trump Voter, it’s yet another disturbing sign that America is stratifying into a lousy place where rich, educated people live in cities and continue to get richer, while poor people get stuck in more rural areas with fewer opportunities. Much-maligned flighty millennials are actually moving less than prior generations of young adults, per Pew Research, for a number of reasons that no one seems to be able to agree upon. Pew’s Richard Fry theorizes that this is because millennials are still suffering from the economic impact of the Great Recession, and still aren’t finding job opportunities worth making a move for. Relocation subsidies have also become a thing of the past, making it financially harder to move for a job. 

Opportunity clusters. It just does, even in our Internet era. We live in a stupid and comically non-meritocratic world in which networking and running into people at parties is paramount to success (or just economic stability and comfort), and that is a whole lot easier when all the people who can help you advance are in the same geographic area as you, and are thus easier to access. One recent study found that people who attend college in big cities go on to make more money in life: the operating theory is that this is because big-city universities offer superior networking opportunities.

Wow, look at those roving packs of friendly people at your city bar who know a guy who can get you a job! Roaming the plains, wild and free!

Most jobs (and networking) still can’t be done “from anywhere,” at least not long-term. Many companies still regard telework with extreme suspicion, and teleworkers are still penalized when it comes to advancement upward.  Location also matters to freelancers, and I know, because I’ve been one, like every other sentient being under the age of 30 in 2018.  Even freelance writers – a famously antisocial and isolated species – have got to meet and interact with people who will publish and promote them, at least some of the time. This doesn’t have to mean living in that particular bit of Brooklyn that is (far as I have read) absolutely jam-packed with tiresome men who write big fancy novels about insecure professors with sexual problems, and thank God for that, but it often does mean living in some sort of urban area with a media scene. There are a lot less of those outside of the urban United States.

Insofar as I am aware, there are few friendly hiring managers who are already two margaritas in and know this guy who happens to be looking for someone with your exact skill-set wandering the vast and empty plains of middle-America. There are no migratory herds of avuncular mentors who will help you get that meeting with his friend Roberta the Nicest CEO, though I mean, that sort of ecological destruction is just what you get when you decimate our formerly mighty long-grass prairies. 

Blade Runner is not real.

City living is the way of the future. I don’t mean that in that depressing dystopian cyberpunk way, that particular vision that is weirdly shared by every single “serious” science fiction show: you know, everything’s grimy, everyone has mohawks, people are eating cyber-rats out of desperation. That’s not real, but the advantages of urban dwelling are. Larger, denser cities are widely considered to be more energy efficient: emissions appear to reduce as metros grow larger. Productive cities that can attract more people get more productive in turn, contributing more to GDP. There’s a well-proven, direct relationship between city density and human capital. The benefits aren’t just economic. There’s a reason so many famous art and social movements originated in cities: cities allow creative and diverse people to find one another and come up with new concepts and ways of living, in ways that still can’t be replaced by the quotidian delights of social media. Cities drive economic growth, though, as this research shows, they don’t have to be ginormous mega cities. Even small cities produce economic benefit in “developing” nations. It is not realistic or desirable for every American to reside on 10 acres of isolated farmland, even if it’s really, really cheap to live there. (Build your own shack! Defend yourself against the roving night-coyotes!).

Advising young people to stop their whining and move out of the city, where they can be isolated from one another and from centers of culture and political power, is remarkably short-sighted. It is ahistorical, to an extent that makes me extremely suspicious. Venerating the noble countryside can really be taken too far: I wonder how many of the horrible uncles promoting a millennial exodus to Missouri are aware of how that particular experiment went for Mao Tse-Tung, or for the Khmer Rouge. Nothing good comes from these naive, dangerous demands to empty the cities, to stop putting on airs. Moving to cities is one of humanity’s most persistent historical trends: that of clustering and aggregation and great cities rising and doing great and awful things. Uncle Chad is not going to somehow stop this millennia drive toward urbanization by braying about how inexpensive possum-filled mansions are in his town in East Dakota. Do not put up with Uncle Chad. 

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FashMaps: Locating White Supremacists in Space

Are you worried that your neighbors are actually Nazis? Do yowling white men in polo shirts with suspect haircuts continue to hide from you, no matter how carefully you scrutinize your neighborhood? Seek no further.

There is now “Fashmaps,” an activist-run website that uses public web postings to figure out where white supremacists claim to be located and where they will be congregating for meet-ups. Each point on the “Nazis in your Neighborhood” map (imprecisely) locates a user of the infamous Daily Stormer Neo-Nazi web forums. It’s possible because some Daily Stormer users knowingly post their locations, while some of their meet-ups have publicly viewable locations.

The map displays only locations and meet-up events that are freely and public posted on the Daily Stormer website. It pointedly excludes additional, corroborating information that might be used to locate individual users more precisely: the website clearly states that it is not intended for violence, stalking or harassment. All it purports to do is to locate American white supremacists in place and time, to document the spatial realities of our current, burgeoning alt-right problem.

It may surprise you that Daily Stormer users are so willing to publicly post their locations. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Our modern-day fascists are surprisingly poor at — or so confident as to be uninterested in—operational security.

Consider how the delightfully-named Unicorn Riot media collective was able to obtain (via an anonymous source) and publish logs from the Discord chatrooms used by the Charlottesville tiki-torch wielders. These logs are now being used by lawyers in the court-case against the Charlottesville planners, strengthening the argument that their actions constituted a criminal conspiracy. Just like Daily Stormer users, the Charlottesville planners failed to even consider that someone might be watching them.

I’ve read many dim-witted and oh-so-earnest tactical conversations in advance of anti-Trump protests and dubiously-named “free speech” rallies on public 8Chan boards: they are often as self-aware as that spider from the video industriously covering itself in sand, blissfully ignorant of the fact that we can still see it.

In these conversations, there is always lots and lots of back-and-forth about making Secret Plans that AntiFa and the Liberal Media Will Never See Through: I’d scan through these postings and I’d wonder: “Aren’t they aware that I can see this, on this public and widely-known board? Don’t they know these boards aren’t an exotic secret? Do they lack a theory of mind or something?” (Well, yes, to that last one)

Perhaps it’s because they’re newly emboldened, and feel they no longer have to cover their tracks. Perhaps it’s because the FBI — as was recently demonstrated by their total failure to act on a tip about the school shooter in Parkland — are still bizarrely incapable of following up on potential criminal activity if people are talking about it in the great and mysterious land of Online. Perhaps it’s because many people involved with these online-hate groups simply haven’t realized that doxxers can also be doxxed in return.

Is FashMaps effective? Well, that depends on what we mean by “effective.” Do we want the tool to discourage white supremacists by exposing their (general) locations, or do we want it to be effective as a tool for awareness and research tool? Insofar as I can tell — and I’m going to do more digging—it’s decidedly unclear if the threat of being mapped helps to actually discourage and disorganize white supremacists. While the Southern Poverty Law Center regularly is complained about (and occasionally sued) by the groups it names in its Hate Map, it’s not clear if the Hate Map actually deters white supremacist activity — such a causal link might be a real pain to prove, anyway.

We don’t know if the threat of being located in space is a deterrent to white supremacists. We do have decent anecdotal evidence that the threat of being doxxed —in which someone’s personal information, such as their address, is dug up and widely disseminated online—has “terrified” many white supremacists. It will be extremely interesting to see if fewer white supremacists and alt-righters turn up to real-world marches and rallies in 2018, as left-wing activists step up their efforts to publicly expose them.

We have more concrete evidence that mapping projects like FashMap are potentially useful tools for awareness and research, giving law enforcement, policy makers, and researchers a better way of visualizing and drawing connections between hate groups.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateMap.

For starters, it’s not exactly the first such effort to map hate and violence online: it’s part of a very long tradition of web-mapping for some kind of political or activist purpose. The Usahidi web-mapping platform was launched in 2008 to track political violence during the Kenyan elections, and is still being used today: it served as the inspiration for the roughly-gazillions of similar interactive mapping projects that popped up after it. The still-running “Rechtes Land” web map, created by a data journalist, has tracked Neo-Nazi activity since 2017.

Visualizing the spread of hate is powerful, and maps represent a potent and easily-understood way of performing that visualization. Hate groups are “geographical phenomena,” as this 2017 paper from the Annals of the Association of American Geographers states: it goes on to observe that “The connection of hate and place stems from the social construction of place and its link with identity formation and stability (Gallaher 1997).”

The aforementioned Southern Poverty Law Center HateMap may or may not discourage white supremacists, but it’s indisputable that it’s one of the best existing resources for reporters and researchers who want to better understand American hate groups. FashMaps is really just another interesting instance of how cartography and the aggregation effect can be combined, can even be turned into a sort of political weapon.

Is FashMaps ethical? Yes, I think it pretty much is. As criminology professor Brian Levin acknowledged in a Vice article about FashMaps, the DailyStormer’s Internet Nazis are revealing their identities in the “public square” of the Internet. It’s the equivalent of posting the location of your gross Nazi party in a mimeographed flier stuck to a telephone pole: if you don’t want to be located by people who don’t like Nazis, you probably shouldn’t be willy-nilly sharing your location. There is no reason why Neo-Nazis, who (lest we forget, which a lot of us weirdly seem to these days) vocally wish to exterminate their fellow human beings, should be permitted more geographic privacy than anyone else. The law seems to agree with this as well, at least for now. Legal challenges to the SPLC’s Hate Map from the named groups, for example, have largely hinged on defamation and trademark violation, not on the actual act of geographically locating these groups.

What’s more, FashMaps is locating these DailyStormer users in an extremely gentle and considerate fashion. FashMaps could be much less gentle. That’s because it’s usually very easy, trivially easy, to find out exactly where most Internet users live, work, and meet up. Most people — including Neo-Nazis — just don’t understand that security online is more difficult than setting up two-factor authentication and not using your dog’s name as a password. They don’t realize that it’s possible to find somebody, find out a lot about somebody, by just linking a few different sources of publicly-available, freely-given and seemingly innocuous information.

I just wanted an excuse to add a funny Roman mosaic picture.

This is sometimes called the “mosaic effect”: it’s what you do when you combine multiple sources of data to reveal a full picture about a individual. In today’s social media world, where people willingly share scads of information about themselves and where they’re going and what they’re eating, pulling together these bits of information requires only a bit of deductive ability, not technical brilliance.

FastMaps and the ethical questions it evokes can be plugged comfortably into the much larger, long-running debate surrounding the ethics of aggregating publicly-available data in ways that the initial posters may not have anticipated. It’s actually almost quaint, considering that it’s not in any way automated, does not involve an algorithm or artificial intelligence or any of the stuff that today’s ethicists are currently verklumpt over: per the site owner, it’s just one guy and some volunteers combing through Daily Stormer for location clues.
“Fine, whatever, but won’t the Neo-Nazis and their sympathizers turn around and geolocate us?” you ask me.

Good point: but unfortunately, that’s already happening. In 2017, online alt-righters used a public petition from anti-Trump group RefuseFascism to collect and disseminate the addresses and personal information of hundreds of signees. A German Neo-Nazi group released a “Jews among us” web map on Facebook in 2016, which mapped “synagogues, day care centers, schools, memorials, businesses, restaurants and cemeteries.” The American Family Association created a “Bigotry Map” in 2015 that located LGBT organizations, though it vanished in just a few months.

FashMap isn’t particularly novel and we really have no way of knowing if it will actually deter the Daily Stormer’s user-base from doing horrible things. I am still glad it exists. It has prompted me to think about how the Internet has facilitated these map-against-map conflicts, or made them much more visible. What happens when we’re all busily attempting to out-locate the other? And why are we still — everyone, not just Neo-Nazis — still so incredibly bad at defending ourselves against being mapped when we don’t want to be?

Consider the recent outrage over the Strava activity-mapping service, which even people who ought to be highly security minded — soldiers on patrol, foreign agents — inadvertently permitted to track their activities. While we recognize the power of maps, as those howling over the SPLC Hate Map obviously do, we still willingly share plenty of geographic information about ourselves.

We are all eagerly mapping each other, and we are all still so terrible at not being seen.

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Why You Should Go to Sicily

I drove around Sicily back in October. I had a business trip in Rome, and I had this general impression that I should go somewhere. Somewhere warm, because I live in Boston and Boston winters are a cruel meteorological joke, and October is when I start wondering if this winter will be the one that sees me wander into the snow out of sheer desperation to die. Sicily, I was aware, is warm, reasonably sized, and has very good food. I had also never seen Greek ruins and I figured seeing Greek ruins is something a person should do if they’re lucky enough to have the opportunity. Someone told me it was surprisingly inexpensive. So, I went, drove around the island for a week, and became one of those annoying people who tells everyone they should go to Sicily. Hey, you should go to Sicily!

I describe my itinerary below: the main thing to remember is I started from Palermo and drove clockwise around the island. I’d like to spend more time in the interior of the island next time, particularly to see the Roman mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale. Here are some general thoughts on these places.

Obnoxiously perfect view from the Greek theatre at Taormina.

Taormina: Taormina is a town that is somehow Superglued/cemented/mysteriously affixed to a cliff near Mt. Etna. It is spectacularly gorgeous and is absolutely horrifying to drive in. It had the most tourist presence of anywhere I went in Sicily, but that does make sense what with the Greek theatre and the incredible views. It’s a good place to take long walks at night. There is a beautiful park built by an English heiress who married a local royal, and there’s also the San Domenico Palace Hotel, which has hosted a lot of famous writer and historical figure types. I am not fucking kidding about the terrors of driving here, or the fact that Google will egregiously lie to you about this. It is worth it. I also drove up Mt Etna during one of the days I stayed here, which was fantastic. 

Siracusa: Siracusa is just Syracuse, which should sound familiar if you’ve retained any Greek history. It’s the hometown of Archimedes, which they actually don’t play up as much as you’d think (I didn’t see a single offensive Archimedes t-shirt). It’s a quiet, small Mediterranean city with a lot of the tourist attractions and activity confined to the ancient fortress island of Ortygia. The remains of the Greek theatre and Roman amphitheater outside of town are large and impressive, with wind rustling through cedar trees and lemon groves and not a lot of people around, at least in the fall. You can walk into the maybe natural or maybe man-made NONE CAN SAY “ Ear of Dionysius” cave, which the eponymous tyrant supposedly used to spy on particularly stupid Athenian prisoners. You can also drive out to the Plemmirio natural reserve and walk along the cliffs by the ocean: you will pass by Greek tombs cut out of the rock in the backyard’s of people’s villas.

Agrigento: I didn’t actually visit Agrigento proper: everyone comes here for the Valley of the Temples, an enormous UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains some of the planet’s best-preserved Greek ruins. The ancient Greek city of Akragas. which dates back to the sixth century B.C.,was built on a ridge with a strategic view of the ocean: it is drier now than it was back then, I think, and the desolate desert landscape is gloriously juxtaposed with the enormous white marble temples, many of which are improbably still standing. (One was preserve by being converted into a Christian church). The temples that have collapses are overgrown by olive trees and gigantic bulbous prickly pears. There are also many mysterious and slightly creepy Paleo-Christian necropolises carved into the ridge, some of which you can go into with special tours. There’s the Edenic garden of Kolymbetra, which was originally an enormous Greek-built artificial lake built out of an aqueduct. The Moors realized that the spot would make a great garden, and cut irrigation channels from the original pool to water it: it was spruced up not long ago and is now a gorgeous and nice-smelling botanical garden.

Palermo: Palermo is one of those places that I had no prior mental image of whatsoever, which meant that it was a really pleasant surprise when I arrived. Arab-Norman, Baroque, and rococo architectural styles meld here into something particularly weird and fantastic (which may permeate your dreams). It’s a great walking city, where you’ve got interesting things going on and people roaming the streets late at night and lots of street food. I wandered into the Vucciria market, which I’m sure every tiresome Instagrammer does, but it really is a wonderful thing: it reminded me a lot of the markets I’ve been to in Southeast Asia and India, including the creative arrangement of animal innards and the rhythmic shouting. I only spent a day in Palermo but I would like to spend more.

Craters at Mt. Etna.

I have a few general suggestions for seeing Sicily.

  • I rented a car. This is what you should do if you go to Sicily. I’ve read you can use public transit to get around the island and I have no reason to doubt this, but it also sounds like a much clunkier affair than getting in a car and driving places. A lot of the interesting stuff in Sicily does not appear to be easily accessible by railway. Also, Sicily is one of those places that really rewards one of my favorite travel activities: very long drives through gorgeously intimidating landscapes that allow you to think a lot. Surprisingly enough, I was even able to rent an automatic car – I am still learning to drive manual – and the markup wasn’t that terrible.

When you say you’re going to be driving in Sicily, people will look horrified and say things like “but they’re such horrible drivers there, aren’t you afraid?” I had no great retort to this, beyond pointing out that I’ve ridden motorcycles in Cambodia and am still alive. I can now confidently say that drivers in Sicily are probably better than drivers in Boston, and are also quite a bit more polite. If you can drive in Boston, you can drive in Sicily. There are a few weird little quirks of Sicilian driving, sure. People are a little less slavishly attached to staying in their lanes than American drivers, which leads to some haphazard merging in cities, but this actually is pretty logical if you sort of mind-meld yourself with what’s going on (imagine you are a sardine, in an immense school!) and everything will be fine. Probably.

The most annoying thing about driving in Sicily is actually not intimidating, thick men in suits in Ferrari’s off to go commit crimes rumbling by you at 100KM an hour. It is very elderly small people in very elderly small cars putting along the highway at 15 kms an hour, unbothered and uninterested in the youthful bullshit of the people whooshing past them. Sometimes you will get stuck behind one of these Sicilian grandparents for thirty minutes or more on two-lane roads, and you will wonder if they are doing this on purpose, if they are asserting their dominance over callous youth by forcing you to crawl, slug-like, behind them through the Sicilian countryside. There is nothing you can do about this. Accept it.

There are lots of these tunnels on the eastern side of Sicily. You have to drive through them: I guess that’s a function of building a civilization on a small rocky island, and then adding highways at a later date. They are poorly lit and slightly terrifying. Some of them drip and are covered in vines. You should also become accustomed to this.

Order the thing on the menu that is least familiar to you. It will probably be really great and will taste different from any other sort of Italian food. Sicilian food combines North African and Mediterranean flavors in really marvelous and unusual ways, which is sort of what you get when your island has been occupied by the Greeks, by the Romans, by the Normans, by the Moors, by the Spanish, and by the French at one point or another. Eat anything that involves: sardines, swordfish, pistachios, sea urchin. Most things involve one of these ingredients so you’re probably going to do OK. People don’t eat before 7:30 at the very earliest, so don’t be some gauche American asshole by entering a restaurant at 7:00 sharp and staring blankly at the servers until they do something about it.

Sicily has lots and lots of prickly pear.

People in Sicily, in my massively limited experience, are very friendly and helpful. Such as the two guys who helped me navigate my car out of one of those stupid treacherous alley-ways in Taormina (remember, it is built onto the side of a mountain and affixed there by some sort of weird black magic Superglue, it’s like a nightmare Habitrail for cars). It is a very easy place to travel for this reason. Even if you are being intensely stupid people will probably help you out of a sense of basic human decency. I speak OK Spanish, which for some reason means that my brain actively repels Italian words: they always just come out as Spanish but with more strangled “i” sounds at the end of words, which makes me sound even worse than I’d sound if I just spoke English. I cannot make up the difference with hand gestures. Sicilians still managed to tolerate this. Please be nice to them in return. (They are also, like most people in Italy, really fashionable in a very distinct “tight jeans and elegant designer athletic shoes” way). 

Sicily is very safe. You are highly unlikely to find yourself in the middle of a shooting Mafia war over an ancient and long-contested stand of orange trees or whatever pops into your mind when you consider the topic. Shooting wars between the Mafia are not a thing you are going to somehow stumble into while you are looking for a poorly sign-posted winery on the slopes of Mt. Etna. Far as I can tell, Sicily is significantly lower-crime than pretty much any urban area in the United States. Insofar as I can determine the main dangers of Sicily are prickly-pear cactus spines, aggressive sunburn, and driving the wrong way down little teeny tiny roads (which may empty out over a sea-cliff). Organized crime or any crime at all is not in the equation of fear is what I’m trying to say. I spent many happy hours wandering around at night in Sicily and felt completely unthreatened. Probably don’t wander about with your wallet and iPhone dangling out of the buttpocket of your jeans, but 1. You shouldn’t do that anywhere and 2. Come on, why are you displaying expensive consumer goods on your butt? Who does that? Weird.

Sicily is a good place to stay at little bed and breakfasts. I did not use Air BnB: I just used TripAdvisor and Hotels.com to identify places that looked decent, then tried to book directly at the property through their website. I stayed at a succession of little hotels that were really inexpensive and really pleasant. You get some great bang for your buck for your hotel dollar in Sicily. Hotels will pretty much always offer some kind of breakfast as well, although this ranges from “eh” to “fresh home-made cannoli.”

See lots of Greek ruins. Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples were incredible. I loved wandering around the pines and into the caves at Siracusa. The lonely Greek ruins at Selinunte, right by the sea cliffs – which I pretty much had to myself – will be an indelible memory forever. You should also check out the regional museums whenever you can, as they seem to contain ridiculous quantities of amazing stuff, the sort of stuff that would be marquee pieces at US museums and here are just “oh, ugh, that old thing.” You’ll be wandering around ruins and see some incredible Roman mosaic that is just sort of sitting there in plain sight unbothered and unguarded.You could probably go up and lick it if you wanted to.

It gets fucking cold on the summit of Mt. Etna. I was aware of this before I left, but somehow managed to not factor this into my packing and did not bring along my good hiking boots. Or pants. It was going to get into the thirties (F) on the summit, and I decided not to be that person who pays € 63 to go up to the summit (including the cable car and a jeep trip) and then ends up getting hypothermia. I plan to return wth appropriate clothing to hike up to the summit. The main point is that you cannot get away with flip-flops and shorts on Mt Etna, and while they will rent you cold weather gear, do you really want to rent cold weather gear? Other people’s dubious hiking boots? No, surely you do not.

I’ll put up some individual posts about the places I went in Sicily as I get to them. 

View from Taormina.

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The Weather Channel’s Soothing Music: Millennial Rebellion

I find the Weather Channel soothing, on a primordial level. It turns out that I’m not alone in this among my generational cohort, among those nasty millenials.

 

So. I went to search for some pleasingly jazzy Weather Channel music and quickly found an entire online subculture of people in their twenties and thirties who remember the antediluvian days of the early First Weather Network, memories usually associated with home and childhood and amorphous feelings of comfort. See:

 

“My dad would always fall asleep on the couch because his snoring would wake up my mom, and i remember being like 9 and walking out, and there would be like 1 dim light on and just music like this from the weather channel,” commented “Oddsie” on the S L O W WE A T H E R J A M Z YouTube video.

“When I was a kid and would be visiting my grandparents, I would sometimes wake up at like 4 AM and find my grandpa eating ice cream and watching the weather channel,” observed someone who calls themselves “cam the cam man cam.” 

 The Weather Channel music has wedged its way into our brains, imprinted itself from an early age. So many of us now associate that particular genre of inoffensive smooth jazz with feelings of home, the 1990s variety: home where you had little soaps in the shape of sea-shells, homes where you had aggressively wood-accented kitchens with lots of white appliances and everyone had very brightly colored windbreakers in various shades of teal and purple. The Weather Channel is stability. It was a time before we knew fear. 

I have my own comforting memories of the Weather Channel, all linked to my grandparent’s house in Tampa: I’d walk in the door to start a visit and the big brown-sided TV – very fancy for the mid-nineties – would be playing either muted golf or the muted Weather Channel, which no one would actually be watching. The background sounds of golf would be hushed, reverent speech and occasional bursts of clapping (like wind rustling in the pines), but the commentary was too distracting. Far better was the Weather Channel, which played little bursts of Kenny G and interpreted ragtime piano at gentle volumes over changing, animated images of suns, clouds, and moons. “Your Local on the 8s.” Little intro scenes to the local forecast featuring people in Southern magnolia-infested suburbia walking golden retrievers. Forecasts from men with incredible moustaches and women with very vertical hair. The quiet, consistent recitation of the weather and thus your future, at least for a week.

The Weather Channel was almost always a placid delivery mechanism for smooth jazz and temperature forecasts, but sometimes, just sometimes, you’d hear that BZZAAP sound. That meant an actual weather warning – a tornado, a hurricane, impending derechos or whatever other fell thing – and you’d rush over to see what the Weather Channel had to say about it. The Weather Channel in these moments recited not just innocuous weather forecasts but your honest-to-God fate: was your house doomed to be gathered up in a howling tornado and splintered to pieces? Would you be found clinging to your roof and videotaped in your underpants from a helicopter? Only the Weather Channel could tell you, and this was especially true in the confused and groping era before smartphones.

Nostalgia seekers and the simply weird have put up hundreds of videos of the Old Weather Channel on YouTube. Through these videos, you discover that on multiple dates throughout the 1990s and 2000s, somebody sat down with a VHS tape and recorded minutes and sometimes hours of the Weather Channel continuing its constant, gentle scroll. (Here’s two full hours from July 15, 1995, preserved for reasons that are unexplained and mysterious).

A few videos explain that they made the recording to capture a particularly interesting weather event (one man filmed his TV screen with a camcorder to capture an unusual Derecho). Most do not: they simply exist as the video equivalent of time capsules, a small and mundane capture of life in 1996 or 1993 or 2002. (The 2001 video features pre-ad bumps with an animated American Flag textured over it, a reminder of the brief mainstreaming of mandated patriotism after 9/11).

The progression of the Weather Channel over time is slow, gentle, likely intended to avoid angering the sort of person who actively records an hour of the evening forecast. The animations improve a little, and the bumpers change a little, and music is occasionally updated. But the people, the people still are angry about the Weather Channel changing. “This will always be MY WEATHER CHANNEL,” someone comments on a YouTube video, which invites the obvious conclusion that today’s Weather Channel is NOT HIS and he would reject it if anyone claimed it was. Bear no false Weather Channel witness.

Weather Channel music is beloved by the sort of inoffensively weird people who make vaporwave. Vaporwave is a genre of remixed and mashed-up music that draws heavily from the commercial music of the late 80s and 1990s: the idea is to take chipper Coca-Cola jingles and speedy electronic anthems from un-loved car movies of the era and weird them up a little, modulate and twist them into something new.

Listening to vaporwave is like listening to a dream-memory of 1990s television, and of course, that is also why the Weather Channel appeals. There is an entire, excellent album of vaporwave music produced from the raw material of Weather Channel smooth jazz, and listening to it gives you the ability to feel cool and intensely nostalgic for the homey things of childhood at the exact same time, which is usually impossible. Some people in my unpopular age bracket also love vaporwave because it is the exact realization of that Calvin and Hobbes strip, the one where Calvin notes that the best way to annoy his rock-loving elders was to play muzak *quietly.*

Intense nostalgia for Weather Channel music baffles many of our elders on a deep, essential level. i supppose this is because they spent their youths being told and telling others that they should reject corporate bullshit, but also (many of them) produced corporate bullshit, which is what one does when you have children and a home. There would be no inoffensive 90s corporate music and no Weather Channel jazz without the people of our parents generation, who now react with deep bafflement when they come across us listening to remixed versions of music they barely noticed when it was new and young.

There is a entire genre of meme-y YouTube videos featuring Hank Hill listening to Bobby’s vaporwave music on a Walkman: Hank is taken on a brief pyschedelic journey (3D-animated dolphins, fragmented and color-shifted old ads, poorly Photoshopped joints) and rips the headphones off in indignation. “That music…that’s all just toilet sounds!” he cries. Precisely.

The Weather Channel is very self-aware about all this. They’ve realized their own albums: Selections from the Weather Channel, featuring the sort of placid, human-free landscape imagery that’s used on the networks, with tracks that one assumes the companies powers-that-be find particularly representative of their aesthetic. The Weather Channel and parent company The Weather Company has worked to create its own fandom: ads on the website will request that particularly avid users contribute their weather photos and accounts to “WeLoveWeather,” the Weather Company’s social network site. How many people use it for dating? How many people use it to find romantic partners who also are weirdly into viewing unusual types of lightning? As one man commented: ” I pray and hope that The Weather Channel stays on the air for another fifty years (at least).  I have graciously watched TWC since I was born thirty years ago. “

In the sort of meta-irony that exemplifies our age, the Weather Channel appears to be using vaporwave music for its Local on the 8s forecasts now. I hope someone is awake at 4:00 AM and filming large chunks of Today Weather Channel with an iPhone, so we can look upon it and be comforted in twenty years. 

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Afternoon Drone Photos from Phnom Penh

Took the DJI Phantom 2 out in Phnom Penh this afternoon. Hit up Olympic Stadium, and the area Formerly Known as Boueng Kak Lake. Even managed to get some shots of the dilapidated railway area for the price of $5 and having a security guard show us a photo album with pictures of all her relatives.

olympic stadium

Here’s Olympic Stadium, which has not actually held an Olympics, but was built by King Sihanouk in 1963 in the hopes of attracting such an event in the future. This, sadly, never did happen, but football matches are still regularly held here.

train tracks and canadia

Here’s the now semi-defunct area around the Phnom Penh train station, known as the Royal Railway Station back in its heyday. Trains run every so often from here, mostly transporting oil, but seeing one is rather like spotting a unicorn. Mostly, a lot of people displaced by the sand fill-in of Boueng Kak Lake live out here in shacks, which are in danger of being torn down at any time in the (perhaps unlikely) event of more train service being added. Note the cool German made train refueling nozzles, which probably date from around 1932, when the station was first built.

As for the “Fink” graffiti…I dunno, you tell me.

train tracks in PP

Another view. Great moody skies this afternoon. A bit windy, but the Phantom performed admirably, and I had a bit of fun keeping it under control while correcting for the pushback. You’re looking towards the Tuol Kork area of Phnom Penh here.

sunset boueng kak lake

A sunset over the sandy expanse of what was once Boueng Kak Lake. The saga of the people who were evicted from their homes here without compensation continues, and I saw them protesting a few days ago – a gathering quickly broke up by riot police. The area on the other side of the lake used to be the primo spot for backpackers to convene, and supposedly, some still show up at the struggling businesses that persist on the now water-free lake. (My theory is old copies of the Lonely Planet).

For now, Boueng Kak is a rather peaceful place with a couple of roads cutting through it, and kids playing soccer in the sandy areas.

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On the Way to Tagong – Western Sichuan

 

Mean streets of Tagong.

Mean streets of Tagong.

The morning broke in Kangding slightly cloudy, as myself and the British couple I was to trek with anticipated catching a ride in the morning to Tagong. This was a fairly relative measure, as are most things in Sichuan. Angela, the American-born owner of the Khampa Cafe in Tagong and the organizer of our impending trek on the plateau, arrived for breakfast and told us that while she wasn’t going to Tagong after all, she had found a driver for us, and he was attempting to locate more people to help defray the cost.

Happy enough about getting a slightly later start, we hung around the Zhilam Hostel, drinking surprisingly good French-press coffee and watching backpackers stream in and out of the landing.

We would be staying at Isabel’s guesthouse in Tagong, by the riverside a bit outside of town. This was because some sort of stomach bug was preying on the foreigners that went there, afflicting them with impressive attacks of barfing (and more!) just as they were growing accustomed to the high altitude. “We don’t really know how it’s getting around,” said Angela,”but I think it’s the water. It’s best not to eat anything in Tagong,or drink anything. Maybe don’t touch anything.”

Overwhelmed with vivid visions of being struck with some sort of exploding Mao Zedong’s Revenge-type ailment four miles into a horse trek, we agreed to stay out of town.

Angela then informed me about the peculiarities of the huge Larong Gar Buddhist monastery a day’s drive from Tagong, which few Westerners seem to know about, but numerous Chinese help financially support – many of whom have converted to Tibetan Buddhism in recent years.

“They’ve got this sort of Disneyfied Sky Burial,” she said of the place, referring to the practice in which Tibetan Buddhists ritualistically feed their dead to vultures and other scavengers.

“They’ve got this big cement skull, and then inside of it, there’s real skulls. Some of the monks lets the tourists come inside and see.”

I resolved to have a look, one way or another.

Tagong in progress.

Tagong in progress.

By 11, the driver was duly rustled up, and we bumped down the hill from Zhilam Hostel to the Kangding Hotel with our luggage  to meet him. He had a brown van and a large tan Tibetan cowboy hat, and he was now very eager to leave. Tony and I decided we needed to buy emergency provisions, as well as make a final ATM run, and we decamped towards the surprisingly large supermarket, leaving Allie to guard our bags.

The driver was exceedingly irritated at us for taking 20 minutses to locate snacks and a reasonably hygienic place to pee, and was more so when Allie realized she needed to do the same – altitude, we deduced, being a true diuretic when combined with buckets of coffee. But soon enough, we were off.

The road to Tagong climbed up out of the well-like valley in which Kangding sits, quickly breaking through the lush high-altitude forest and into a grassy and green plateau. We saw numerous miserable looking cyclists as we drove, some pedaling resolutely upwards with their freakishly bulging calves, others morosely pushing their bikes uphill through the cloud banks.

“If we get lost up here and desperate, we can always eat one of them,” I pointed out cheerily. The fact that the couple didn’t react to this with disgust (hey, I think cannibalism is hilarious) is one reason I like traveling with British people.

Soon, we went over the pass and the land truly opened to the Tibetan Plateau, with rolling hills denuded of trees, dotted with white boulders and numerous rainbow-colored prayer flags. It was at this plateau that the Chinese government had, for entirely mysterious reasons, decided to build the Kangding Airport.

It had an exceedingly optimistically huge main terminal, and an immensely long runway, accounting for its tremendous altitude and the amount of lift a large airplane requires at altitudes where the air is thin. “There aren’t any planes out there, are there?” asked Tony, as we looked at the lonely expanse. “I think there’s only one flight a day.”

“I wish them all the best with their tourism endeavors,” I said, as we drove past – finding ourselves encountering our first bank of nomad camps. The camps involved plain-looking white tents, surrounded by small and scrawny horses and plentiful herds of shaggy, small yaks, in shades of black and white and grey. The nomads wore black clothing accented with bits of color, including vibrant pinks and yellows.

Tibetan house in Tagong.

Tibetan house in Tagong.

Some of the nomads sat in small conclaves outside the tents and drank tea and smoked pipes, their huge and savage dogs wandering the perimeter with their noses to the ground and their flag-like, waving tails in the air. We were all very concerned about dogs, and seeing them so often did little to alleviate the tension.

A grim conversation about how to best subdue an angry dog ensued. (I mentioned a small bit of lore I had heard from protection dog trainers- to wit, if a dog is biting someone and you need it to let go, you can try sticking your finger up its butthole. I have not tested this personally, but I’ve heard good things).

Beyond the eternally grim dog topic, we enjoyed the scenery – green fields dotted with handsome Tibetan villages, the large houses made with grey brick and magenta accents. It reminded me of a rather Medieval scene, and it is also probable that the construction style has not changed much from that contemporary time period.

Everywhere were rainboe colored prayer flags and prayer banners, some arranged into attractive patterns. Stones were painted with Tibetan sacred characters, and torn-apart banners emanated from the tops of particularly attractive stones. White stupas – the same as one finds everywhere in the Buddhist world – occasionally poked their heads out from gulleys or behind sharp turns in the road.

Tibetans in Tagong.

Tibetans in Tagong.

Tagong was a truly Wild Western town, as if we had stepped into some left-over Blazing Saddles set-piece that had been taken over by a Kung fu movie – the extras occupying the exact same liminal space in their choice of outfits. Men with yak-skin ponchos and brightly colored clothing rumbled into town on large, mud-spattered motorbikes, while women in traditional Tibetan clothing wandered up and down the dusty streets, doing their shopping. People shouted “Tashi delay” in greeting at us, and smiled widely.

Numerous souvenir stores all seemed to be selling the same Tibetan jewelry and bric-a-brac, while many more general stores sold everything from faded basketball posters to fluffy pink towels to work boots. Trucks pulled up beside the road deposited lush-looking peaches and apples, while groups of Tibetans gathered around to trade jewelry, shouting happily at one another. Construction was underway to widen the sidewalks (or some sort of improvement along those lines), and a bulldozer made its way down the not-exactly busy streets, the driver peering at me with mild curiosity as I passed by.

Yak burgers: surprisingly tasty.

Yak burgers: surprisingly tasty.

We had lunch at the Khampa Cafe, where I ordered a yak burger – this time, the American style yak burger, on a house-made bun with real cheddar cheese. It was surprisingly delicious, with a homemade taste that reminded me, oddly enough, of the burgers my dad makes when occasionally moved to do so. This was served with potatoes baked in – you guessed it – yak butter, as well as a tomato and cucumber salad that made me have nostalgic thoughts about countries that have good relationships with fresh vegetables. I was happy.

Candles at the Tagong Monastery.

Candles at the Tagong Monastery.

We walked into Tagong’s main monastery, which had a large courtyard used for traditional performances on holidays. It was not exactly a holiday, and the staging area reminded me something of a motel, with yellow, numbered doors denoting where the monks lived. We walked inside to the smoky main vestibule and watched as two monks quietly lit small butter lamps and recited sutras. A skinny white horse grazed outside.

Tony and a prayer wheel.

Tony and a prayer wheel.

We had planned to secure a ride to Isabel’s guesthouse – also known as the Pasu Riverview Guesthouse – but it was proving harder than we had assumed. Late in the afternoon, and all the drivers had better things to do with their time, or had already retired to the hills, or something. After a solid two hours or so of sitting in the Khampa Cafe and drinking tea with ever-increasing nervousness about how exactly this stomach bug was transmitted anyway, we secured a ride.

Isabel was not there, having gone to Danba to get more appealing Western food for the Swiss group that was coming in, but Tashi, her husband, was present. He was not quite aware that we were coming, or so it appeared, but he punted masterfully.

Views from Pasu River View Guesthouse.

Views from Pasu River View Guesthouse.

The couple had build a huge stone house in the traditional Tibetan style, with Tashi’s brother and his family occupying the ground floor, and the guesthouse occupying the upper two floors. We were shown to clean and simple wooden rooms with white beds built into the floor, with windows looking out over the river, which had white and brown horses grazing beside it.

Tashi seemed eager to talk. He had, he said, worked at a Burger King in Basel and then an old folks home, while at the same time attending six months of German language lessons. “I like it better here,” he admitted, in his deep-accented but entirely understandable English. “In Switzerland, they are much too busy.”

Party room at Pasu Riverview Guesthouse.

Party room at Pasu Riverview Guesthouse.

He had studied Buddhist philosophy in Dehradun in India, he told us, but he had been born here, in the river town outside of Tagong. Isabel had met him while she was on vacation from a teaching post at Chengdu University.The two had lived in Switzerland until this year, when they moved here for a while to allow their five-year-old daughter to improve her Tibetan skills. The house was strewn with her small drawings and Western DVD covers, as well as books on Tibetan and German language.

Tashi proudly showed us their gorgeously painted karaoke and party room on the second floor. “Scottish students came here last week, and they sang and danced,” he said, noting a karaoke and sound system set-up, as well as burners for fires in the winter. It was highly impressive – and even more impressive, there were incredibly hot showers. We slept soundly.

If you need a place to stay in Tagong, do consider the Pasu Riverview Guesthouse/Isabel and Tashi’s. Contact information is here:

Tashi Tsering
pasuriverview.jimdo.com
pasu.riverview@gmail.com

 

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Some Thoughts on Shanghai and What to Do There

shanghai through the window (1 of 1)

I haven’t been to China since 2007. Eighteen at the time, I spent a summer in Beijing ostensibly studying English, but devoting considerably more time to wandering around in hutongs, drinking baijiu, and feeling incrementally more alienated. (As well as coughing up black chunks of indeterminate material on a regular basis, due to the air). My impression of China was ultimately Interesting But Difficult, and I was happy to return in 2014 to see if any of that initial, smoggy impression had changed. Go to Shanghai to blog about a microfinance conference? No problem.

What do I think about Shanghai, and what advice do I have for someone who’s making the trip? What are some general, almost entirely unrelated observations? Here you go. Also, some pictures.

Pleasantly cosmopolitan. Shanghai is most certainly the New York to Beijing’s DC, to make a rather trite comparison between the two cities. Bustling, international, and aggressively new, it’s a city of bizarrely variable architecture, immense crowds, and billboards that flash and blink well into the stratosphere. It’s also surprisingly clean, with very little of the public spitting and dead-rat ambiance I’d grown accustomed to in Beijing. Those who have no palate will probably be pleased to know that every cuisine known to man exists here, including a number). of Southern BBQ places. (I am sad I did not get pictures).

It is also a city of shameless, impressive commerce, best exemplified by the time I walked by the Nike store on a Friday in the rain and saw an immense line to get in.

Shanghai downtown night view.

Shanghai downtown night view.

Cars and Crap Motorcycles – Tiny little electric motorcycles with bits of them taped on the are the norm in Shanghai. If you don’t have a crappy little electric motorcycle, you are probably driving a Jaguar. There seems to be rather little middle ground. I eventually figured out that gas-powered motorbikes are often regulated out of Chinese cities for reasons of both noise control and pollution, fostering a booming market for the little buzzing jobs you see here. Save the Earth.

On that note, I’ve noticed drivers here do give you slightly more quarter than they might in, say, Phnom Penh. But don’t get sassy in your pedestrian activities, pleasingly cosmopolitan as Shanghai may initially appear to be.  Cars seem to turn left or right into the turn lane at random. I would not recommend walking and texting here,unless you’re fine with being a meaty splat on the pavement.

Jazz singer in the French Concession.

Jazz singer in the French Concession.

The French Concession – Land of the Expat on a Fixed Gear Bicycle in a Business Suit, but also leafy and pleasant with lots of old buildings and a distinctly European flavor. As the name should abundantly indicate, it was the French portion of old Shanghai, and was established in 1849 when the French Consul to Shanghai was given permission to found it from the Circuit Intendant of Shanghai at the time. It was held by the French until 1946, and during that time period, became one of Shanghai’s most renowned and exclusive residential areas.

It still is – and the foreigners like it. I can see why, speaking as a foreigner: , it’s a very nice area to walk around in, with lots of boutiques, interesting bars, and restaurants of all manner of cuisines. I drove by some guys selling US and European craft beer off the street so you can be assured that you’ve found one of Shanghai’s hipster lairs.

I enjoyed the pleasingly retro JZ Club, which features nightly live jazz and a surprisingly robust line-up of international acts. The Cotton Club, right down the street, is also known for jazz music.

I also enjoyed visiting Madame Sun Yat-Sen’s house, which was highly colonial and proper, had a nice green lawn, and was filled with mild propaganda addressing both Communist and feminist themes.

Not Enough Street Food – I was told there’d be more street food. I was lied to. Admittedly, I was pretty much stuck in the rather sterile area around the Shanghai Marriot, but the pickings were rather slim even in the relatively food-heavy area of Fangbang Lu. Be informed. And perhaps research some good restaurants to try out instead.

This is probably especially pressing if you’re one of those idiots who don’t speak any Chinese, which would be me. I hope you fare better in the street food department.

Steel toys for sale in Tianzifang.

Steel toys for sale in Tianzifang.

The Bund Is Pretty But You Should Be Rich – The Bund is lovely. It is probably even more lovely if you are on a fat expense account or fabulously wealthy. If you are not, you would be rather foolish to stay in one of the budget hotels or hostels in the immediate area, considering there’s just about nowhere to go for a reasonably priced alcoholic beverage. Go to the French Concession and take the Metro to go look at the Bund, which is indeed majestic and well-worth it. Even go poke your head inside the Fairmont Peace Hotel and try to imagine what it would be like to be that guy with the white Ferrari parked outside with fuzzy dice.

Shanghai drink sellers.

Shanghai drink sellers.

Taxis are Cheap – My time to poke around the city was rather limited as I had a conference to go to, so I took the coward’s route and took taxis most places. I was pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive the taxis were, and how pleasant the cabbies were about using the meter. 13 RMB was the standard flagfall, and I never had a ride go beyond 26 RMB for a fairly considerable haul from the French Concession back to my hotel in traffic.

For Fuck’s Sake! No Tea Ceremonies! – It’s a scam. I have heard this story so many times that it fills me with no small measure of amusement that people still get away with it. I should also add that a single look around modern Shanghai and what The Kids seem to do with their time here should disabuse one of the notion that they’re all really into tea ceremonies. No. They are into annoying music and bootie shorts, like everyone.

I did have two girls ask me to take their picture in front of a very boring stretch of wall – with the Bund right there! – and they tried to start a conversation, but I faked not speaking any English and strode away quickly, leaving them debating with one another on a street corner. Did I miss a chance at a Very Special Tea Ceremony? How sad.

 

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Taiwan: Paoan Temple and Confucius Temple

dragon fountain

I have never come across a temple with as many conflicting, alternative spellings as Taipei’s Paoan Temple. Attempting to Google this beautiful structure is a remarkable tour through wildly different philosophies about spelling out Chinese words in English. It’s also called Bao’an, or Baoan, or….you get the idea.

Regardless, you should Google it, because the Paoan Temple is gorgeous, and well worth a special visit and perfectly easy to get to on the MRT.  Taipei’s Confucius Temple is, even more conveniently, right next door.

bao an temple

Like most temples, the Paoan is best enjoyed around sunset, especially if you’re hoping to take photographs. It’s an easy walk from the Yuanshan MRT stop, and as always in Taipei, there are nice English signs for people who are too stupid to read Chinese.

The grounds around the temple are lovely and feature the usual spitting dragon fountain, as well as cement statues of tigers, lions, and other animals, as well as the requisite deities.

taiwan evening

The adjoining neighborhood is nice as well, with small shops (many of them devoted to auto repair) and a busy night food market a few blocks away.

dragon roof background

I am exceedingly fond of Taiwanese temple roof decorations, and I feel strongly that they should be featured in more tract housing. Everywhere.

battling fish people

I would be very grateful if someone could explain this image to me. It looks to me like a traditionally-built warrior woman doing doughty battle with a concerned-looking fish person. Or do I even want to know? Just that summary is good enough for me already.

chinese lantern

The Paoan Temple has been lavishly renovated once and again over the years, and is now a gloriously well-maintained confection of wood, paintings, and paper lanterns. The effect is something out of a half-remembered fantasy of a Chinese temple you might have somewhere in the back of your brain, highly influenced by kung fu movies with very large budgets. It is well-worth seeing.

confucius temple

The Confucius Temple is also worth a quick stroll, through austere grounds befitting the greatest of Chinese scholars. There’s a small museum attached, though it was closed when we visited.

 

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Taiwan: Lin Family Mansion and Garden + Beef Noodles

city garden

Taipei’s Lin Family Mansion and Garden is an off-the-beaten track type of tourist destination, ideal for getting away from tour groups and the profound heat of summer in tropical Asia.  This lush and quiet park was constructed as the personal dwelling of the Lin Ben Yuan family, one of Taipei’s most wealthy and prominent families. Militiamen were stationed here until the Japanese occupation began in 1895, as mainland Chinese immigrants from Zhangzhou and Quanzhou battled it out.

big house

Lent by the Lin Family to shelter mainland soldiers in 1949, part of the garden was donated in 1977 to the city of Taipei. It was restored from neglect and occupation by squatters in 1986, and (per the inscription outside) has been periodically spruced up ever since. The main mansion and museum here is currently under this exact sort of restoration, and will be open again…eventually.

forest path

Regardless of the museum, this is an elegant, low-key example of a high born Chinese families residence and grounds, with specialized flower-viewing pavilions, elegant terraced ponds with covered walkways and lotuses, and carefully marked plantings of local trees. Entry is free, and in the summertime, the park is largely occupied by locals taking a stroll and students gathering together to do their homework or sketch the buildings for art classes.

lotus blossoms

While at the garden, I briefly talked to an older man in a white sun visor, who worked for the Taiwanese FCC equivalent. We were both trying to identify a bird, which eventually landed on a branch near us — resembling a fat and unusually saucy magpie.

Neither of us were able to appropriately identify the bird, but we chatted for a bit beneath the shade of an enormous banyan, looking over the little red and blue bridges that cross the landscaped ponds. He told me: “I’ve gone to the US maybe 12 times. It’s a beautiful country. It’s very hot here.”

Bed of green water plants in a pot.

Bed of green water plants in a pot.

I reassured him that Washington DC, which he visited regularly during the cooler months, was just as loathsome in the summertime. I could tell if he was unsure whether to believe me. I was reminded again that the Taipei Taiwanese are exceedingly friendly for a bunch of harried urbanites — striking up conversations on the MRT, lending directions, combing their cellphones intensely for the titles of restaurants if you express mild concern over directions.

Making beef noodles.

Making beef noodles.

Lunch time beckoned, and I decided to try out Lin Dong Fang Beef Noodles, which gets a slavering amount of online attention for their particular rendering of the Taiwanese speciality. I got back on the blue line and headed for the Zhōngxiào Fùxīng Station, then made my way to No. 274 Bādé Road Section 2, following the metro line then turning left. (The map in the MRT station was much more specific than the rather gauzy English-language map offering of the hotel).

beef noodles derp

There was nothing approximating English signage, as one should quite justifiably expect in Taiwan, but a line of hungry looking business people and a massive pot of stewed beef seemed to indicate I was in the right spot. I waited for a few minutes and was shown to a table right by the open kitchen. I pointed at the man next to me’s bowl of steaming beef noodles and was served promptly — grabbing a couple of the vegetable side dishes on offer to accompany my soup.

The flavor was rich and herbal, reminding me of a slightly sweetier, earthier rendition of good old Vietnamese pho. The noodles were thick and chewy, rather like udon. The beef shank had been cooked long and slow and had taken on a velvety, fall-apart texture, with remarkably attractive fatty marbling.

I tried reaching for the chili paste and was firmly pushed in the direction of Lin Dong Fang’s signature condiment, a combination of chili and lard that added fatty, smoky unctuousness to the soup. My only mistake? Not knowing how to order the beef AND tendon combo. Next time.

Taiwan business district street.

Taiwan business district street.

HOW TO GET THERE:

Located on Ximen Street in Taipei’s Banqiao District, it’s easiest to just hop on the MRT to get here. Get off at the Fuzhong Station on the Banqiao or “blue” line, and then follow the eminently convenient English language signs to the gardens itself. There are plenty of nice little street cafes and coffee shops in the area, and it makes for pleasant strolling after you’re finished with the gardens proper.

big ancient tree

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