Patriotic Lobsters: An American Mystery

We regularly drive from Boston to Southern Vermont to visit my partner’s family, up through the Green Mountains. The little two-lane road is deeply atmospheric, in that creepy Ichabod-Crane sort of way: it passes through a few little villages with economies that appear to be largely dependent on flea markets and small-batch artisan pottery. It was as we passed thorough one of these towns that I spotted the Patriotic Lobster, slapped confidently on the side of an otherwise mundane home. It was a wooden lobster painted in red, white, and blue colors, with a bit of rustic flair, the sort of thing you could imagine an old, half-blind lobsterman lovingly crafting in a shack. I had to have it.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find one. You can buy so many weird things in so many places online, but there is one thing you cannot buy online, and that is a hideous red-white-and blue lobster wall-hanging that I can offend my neighbors with. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I think about stealing that Patriotic Lobster, right off the side of the house: I imagine creeping up in a ski-mask and snatching it, then vanishing into the night. I could also, I guess, knock on the door and offer to buy it, a roll of $20s in my hand. (I don’t know what the market value of a wooden Patriotic Lobster is, but it’s priceless to me). But no. I won’t steal it, and I won’t buy it, either. I don’t have the heart, the ruthlessness, to deprive someone of their own horrible lobster.

I have to keep looking.

A French wine merchant apparently thought this was a great way to advertise to Americans, with the terrible baby-clowns and the cruelly-abused draft lobsters. I would like to find out, someday, if it actually worked.

While I haven’t found my very own Patriotic Lobster, I have found lots of other patriotic lobster products. So many that I could probably open up my own highly specialized boutique. Flags. Clothing. Onesies for children. Semi-tasteful wall hangings (which are, obviously, not what I’m searching for). Some even featured crabs or shrimp or crawfish. But the vast majority centered around lobsters, proving that Americans surely must consider lobsters the most patriotic of our native sea-bugs. Lobsters have actually been linked to rah-rah patriotism before, overcoming their initial cultural status as dubious sea-bugs fit only for the tables of the desperate.

During World War II, the U.S. Government found itself with a hefty supply of surplus lobster on its hands, due to the collapse of the export market: the Fisheries Department put out an advertising campaign framing consuming the leggy beasts as an act of patriotism. A 1918 issue of Munsey’s Magazine (which is a danged good name for a publication) noted that it “is a patriot’s duty nowadays to eat lobster,” as a person who consumes less lobster must necessarily eat less pork, beef, and wheat. I also was able to dig up this postcard from early 1900s, which appears to be a French pun about Americans who, you know, ride gigantic lobsters about on the summer shores of Southern France.

But while there is a certain linkage between lobster and heady feelings of country-love, I don’t think this adequately explains the existence of all the patriotic lobster-crap you can buy on the Internet. What message are these object’s makers trying to send here, exactly? Does hanging a flag outside your home with a red and white blue lobster simply symbolize a smidgen of coastal pride, a fondness for lobster rolls? (Which does not explain why one of these Patriotic Lobsters would show up in darkest, landlocked Vermont). Or does it really mean that you love America so much that you’d like to crack its hard exterior exoskeleton and devour the tender flesh within it? Do we wish to extract the essence of America and serve it with some drawn butter on a picnic table in Cape Cod?

God, I don’t know.

All I can say with confidence is that something lurks within the American psyche – within my psyche, I’ll freely confess – that makes us want to make and buy shit with festive red-and-white crustaceans on it. Come with me on a journey through the world of Patriotic Shellfish.

It was the summer of 1999, and innovation was in the air. A Cuffy’s of Cape Cod employee had a brilliant, scandalous idea. You can buy this vintage, “pre-worn” item on eBay.

Your father always did have his lucky lobster-clutching-things collection of belts, for all evening occasions and relevant superstitions. A lobster clutching a Christmas ornament. A lobster clutching a shamrock. A lobster clutching a skull (for Halloween). And then there was this, for the Fourth of July. You hated that belt. Also, I am unsettled by the fact that this product is labeled as “‘patriotic pinchers.”

OK, but what does wearing a tank top with a patriotic lobster on it say about one’s heterosexual masculinity? Is it a straight-up expression of country-love, or sort of a leering joke? Who goes out and specifically orders this sort of thing? Have I just not spent enough time in Maine to understand? I would like to hear your theories.

This is another exceedingly masculine patriotic lobster t-shirt, except it’s a spiny lobster and not the more mundane, less dangerous-to-wrangle American Lobster, which are of course exclusively fished and consumed by delicate pansy wimp-boys. I’ve probably just entirely made up a whole macho rivalry around people who fish for different sorts of lobsters – but what if I haven’t? What if it’s real?

My Patriotic Lobster has taught me this: Americans are absolutely ecstatic over the possibility of dressing their offspring in patriotic crustaceans. I find it a bit tragic, in a way. Why is it assumed that anyone over the age of 10 must surely have too much dignity to adorn themselves in a bunch of nationalistic sea-bugs? Perhaps I too would enjoy a summer swimming set with color-coordinated lobsters. You don’t know me.

If you’d like your little boy to adopt an air of masculine, casual coolness to the world – set him on that path towards success – then you must dress him in inspiring Patriotic Lobsters. I guess this is a thing, for some people.

A number of different outfits sell this patriotic lobster garden flag, which leads me to believe that an actual human being – maybe multiple human beings – has bought one before. I will probably do the same. It calls to me.

This is the best thing I found, of course. It’s an actual, living crawfish that was born patriotic, rendered that way by the semi-benevolent hand of human selective breeding. While I can’t exactly stick it on my wall (that would be mean to the crayfish), I could absolutely buy one of these beauties, put it in a tank, and make all my friends admire it whenever they come over. But I would also have to keep it alive, which is a bigger responsibility than just owning some terrible art. My search will probably continue, but I’m glad to know this guy is at least an option.

Japan Blog Post: Narisawa

I found out about Narisawa a while ago on one of those Best Restaurants in The World For Terrible Snobs websites. I’d been looking for high-end restaurants in Tokyo for our upcoming family trip, and was struck by a picture that appeared to show people eating a mossy chunk of bracken in the forest. It was actually a picture of one of chef Yoshihiro Narisawa’s better known creations, named “The Essence of the Forest,” featuring scattered local ingredients meant to resemble the forest floor, as well as a bamboo cup of purified, oak-infused water from a forest spring. Narisawa explicitly wanted to make his high-end diners scrabble for little tidbits through leaves on the forest floor, like a foraging badger.

I read more about him, and was charmed by his down-to-earth reliance on local ingredients, and self-confident (but well-considered) weirdness. He calls his food “Innovative Satoyama”: the word “Satoyama” in Japanese refers to the liminal zone between mountainous foothils and the flat land where most people live. Narisawa interprets this term as a reflection of human coexistence with, and proximity to, nature and natural ingredients. The food the restaurant serves is meant to be a visual expression of these values, something he describes as “Satoyama Scenery.” I wanted to see what it was that he was talking about, and also, I just wanted to eat that fucking forest bracken. Luckily my family did, too.

Narisawa has two Michelin stars and has been getting a lot of press recently thanks to Chef Narisawa’s recent appearance on that “Final Table” show on Netflix. Reservations can be a challenge, both due to its popularity and the fact that there’s only one dinner service a night. They do mercifully open their reservations up to a month in advance, freeing you from having to make concrete dinner reservations a year out. The restaurant is located in central Tokyo, in a pretty modernist building, with an entrance that faces away from the street and towards a small garden. The dining room is fairly austere (as is often the case in fine Japanese restaurants), because the focus is meant to be on the food, as well as on the open picture window that shows the chefs darting around the kitchen during the dinner service

The lighting was excellent, which I appreciate. So many of today’s nice restaurants have dank and forbidding lighting. If I’m going to do an many-course tasting menu at a place like this, I really like it when I can actually see the food. The lighting also made it very easy to take nice-looking photographs of the food, which may even be intentional – without asking, the servers would cheerfully tilt dishes towards my iPhone camera so I could catch a better angle. How vindicating! Chef Narisawa was there in the kitchen, overseeing the dinner service (we watched through the window), and he in fact came out to say hello to us and to ask us if we were enjoying the food midway through our meal.

We arrived for the earliest seating, and behind us were a group of Americans who we were pretty sure were from a band, except none of us were cool enough to know who they were. We’d picked the middle option for the tasting menu, which came out to a dozen courses focused on different Japanese ingredients and regions of the country. The menu is variable and extremely seasonal: we were eating the “Winter Collection,” which differs markedly from what you might be served during other times during the year. . One of us selected the wine pairing, and one of us selected the sake pairing as well: the wine pairing featured exclusively Japanese wines (which were pretty good, but the sakes, unsurprisingly, are better). The sake selection is truly remarkable, and I enjoyed trying varieties I’d never heard of before.


Here’s the “Satoyama Scenery and Essence of the Forest.” The forest bracken on a plate! I loved this. They encourage you to eat this with your hands, much to the horror of some of the usual jerkholes on TripAdvisor. I didn’t actually lick the plate, but I probably could have, if I really had no sense of shame.

This was followed by Japanese Yam from Saga and Botargo from Fukuoka. This was served hot in a sheet of paper, and we ate them fast, which is why I don’t have a photograph. Our waiter told us the dish was meant to evoke the handheld wintery street-food of the chef’s youth. It was a surprisingly delicious, comforting bite, with the fishy quality of the roe matching nicely with the dense, carby yam.


These are skewers of soft-shelled turtle from Shizuoka, brushed with a light teriyaki sauce and with just a bit of buzz from the Japanese equivalent of Sichuan peppercorns. “You are fine with eating turtle?” the waiter asked us at the beginning of the meal, just in case we were turtlephobes. (We were not. We hail from New Orleans, where we take angry, hissing bog turtles and turn them into refined soups).


This was a turnip from Shizuoka was filled with crab from Hokkaido. This was the best turnip I’ve ever had. It made me want to eat more turnips, except I know very well that any turnip I cook will not be filled with butter and Hokkaido crab. All my future turnips shall pale in comparison with this perfect, Ur-Turnip. My turnip life has peaked.


Spanish mackerel from Yamaguchi was served with mixed grains from Gifu. Like the finest high-end breakfast cereal you’ll ever taste. Some unnoticeable detail with the sauce was wrong on my plate, so the waiter apologized profusely and brought me a new one (I hadn’t noticed anything was wrong, so I didn’t ask). Impressive!


This is rosy seabass from Ishikawa served with kombu (seaweed) from Rebun Island off Hokkaido.


Free range chicken from Shizuoka with wild mushrooms from Hokkaido. It is a known thing that a very good restaurant that dares to have chicken on the menu will make exceptionally good chicken. By their chicken, ye shall judge them.

This langoustine hails from Shizuoka and was part of a dish named “Luxury Essence 2007″: the crustacean is served in a truly remarkable broth, which apparently is made from chicken, pork, and ham. It is now among the Two Best Langoustines I’ve Ever Eaten. The first was a langoustine I ate back in 2009 at Extebarri, the famous Basque all-grill restaurant. Eating that was like being punched in the front teeth by a delectably smoky mantis shrimp.

The Narisawa langoustine was totally different from that langoustine, much more subtle and aromatic, but it was equally sublime: eating it was more like being gently caressed by a mantis shrimp. I dismembered my langoustine with extreme throughness. It died for my sins, after all. I also dismembered my mother’s langoustine, as she is not nearly as committed as I am to digging for very tiny pieces of meat inside of multiple layers of hard chitin. I ended up with a fairly large boneyard of langoustine parts on my plate, and a profound sense of happiness with the world, in that particular moment. (How many good langoustines does one life get, I wonder?)


This was eel from Aichi with fresh wasabi from Shizuoka. The eel was delicious, although at this point in the meal we were starting to flag, and it was just a little dry.


This was the piece de resistance, the biggest fanciest thing: the “Sumi 2008” Kobe beef from Hyogo, which is served to you as a gigantic carbonized thing that looks like a space rock from Planet Zarg that might be cursed. It is the most delicious cursed alien space rock you will ever eat. The black charcoal on the exterior of the meat is carbonized leek. I looked up a recipe for the carbonized umami leek dust and I’m pretending I’m going to try to replicate it someday.

The beef was sliced and served to us with a single piece of steamed taro, and a drop of an extraordinarily densely-flavored reduction sauce, with notes of soy and vinegar.


A strawberry from Fukuoka was served with deliciously light magnolia sorbet from Gifu. Intensely essence-of-strawberry flavored here – I loved it. Japan does strawberries much better than anywhere else.


Finally, we were served whiskey ice cream in a whole pear (like the turnip!), with walnuts from Yamagata. The waiter politely told us that we shouldn’t eat the walnuts. I bet they’ve had some fucking guy at Narisawa before who shrugged and tried to eat the walnuts. Tragedy ensured. Christ, don’t eat the walnuts. Please. One of my walnuts rolled on the table, because I am very clumsy and bad at eating, and I had another thought. About the walnuts. Has someone, some déclassé couple perhaps, got into an actual hissing and spitting fight here, right at the point that the walnut course is served? Has anyone yeeted a whole entire walnut at their spouse’s face at Narisawa before? I hope they haven’t, as the restaurant is so nice and the staff are so nice, but you have to wonder, when a place serves people who’ve gone through six or seven wine pairings little hard projectiles on a plate.


Finally, we ended with some subtle tea cookies made with yame matcha from Fukuoka and Azuki beans from Kyoto.
Our meal at Narisawa was incredible, and it was interesting as well. Interesting is the highest compliment i can give a restaurant: I mean that it is a place that works with local ingredients that I have never tried before and does things with them I have never experienced before. It is a perfect way to sample the flavors of Japan at a restaurant that is actively engaging with modern, international food culture.

Tokyo Day 2: 7-11, the Meiji Shrine, and Harajuku

A morning view of Hamarikyu Gardens and Tokyo Bay.

When I can’t sleep because I’m jet-lagged, I like to go for a walk, particularly in those early-morning hours before the streets fill with people. By 6:00 in the morning in Tokyo, I was wandering around the Shiodome area trying to figure out where the 7-11 was. I had two reasons for this: one, 7-11 stores usually have international ATMs, which are otherwise hard to find in Japan, and I needed to pull some cash. Two, I wanted to buy some novelty potato chips and an energy drink as a precursor to the hotel breakfast. I took the convenient, High-Line-esque above ground walkway from my hotel to the Shiodome Caretta building, a hefty half-moon shaped complex of shops and restaurants that theoretically had two 7-11s inside of it. It ended up taking me about 20 minutes to figure out how to actually get inside the building, but I did.

Wonderful 7-11 mayo potato things.

The 7-11 was everything I had been promised it would be. I’ve been to really good 7-11s before – Bangkok does them particularly well – but Japanese 7-11s are the OG, based in the country that had truly created the unskeezy, gourmet 7-11 concept, taken it from mysterious rotating hot dogs to a beloved phenomenon. (While 7-11 was founded in Dallas and still has headquarters there, the Japanese have owned the chain since 2005).

I looked happily at the pretty rows of triangle-shaped rice balls, tonkatsu sandwiches, and pre-prepared pasta carbonara bowls, fresh noodle salads, and nigiri assortments, and selected a crab-and-mayo filled nori roll. The potato chip aisle was even better, with everything from cheese-and-cod filled variants on the inferior American Combo to caffeinated chewing gum, whole dried crabs, and strawberries coated in mochi: I settled on freeze-dried potato wedges with mayonnaise. I should probably note here that I absolutely love mayonnaise:I am one of those Mayo People who goes through a thing of Kewpie mayonnaise approximately once a month. If you’re one of those poor, weird souls who can’t stand the stuff, you may want to tread carefully in Japan. Because they put it on or in everything here.

I returned to the hotel to meet up with my partner. The Villa Fontaine hotel breakfast was lovely, although I’d pregamed as mentioned above and didn’t eat much. Japanese breakfast buffets usually feature a nice salad bar, which I appreciate deeply and wish was more of a thing in the US. There was also beef Japanese curry, Japanese omelette (tamago), natto, rice porridge with fresh octopus and other toppings, Western-style bacon and eggs, and a selection of Japanese sweets.

You should get a Pasmo card in Japan.

We met up with my parents, and we collectively decided that we’d make our way towards the famous Meiji Shrine, after which we’d head towards Harajuku. My mother had wisely purchased Pasmo cards for all of us at the airport, which are refillable smart cards that can be used for a wide array of travel services, including buses and trains (and even some shops). After some initial, inevitable confusion over which line we should get on, we were on our way. As Boston-dwellers, my partner and I marveled at how much nicer the Tokyo trains were than our gazillion-year old, mildly urine-scented T. While it is nice that we have some semblance of public transit in the U.S, I’m regularly reminded of how desperately underfunded and out of date it is whenever I travel abroad.

We got off at Harajuku station, but before we went to the Meiji Shrine, we needed to have lunch. I’d picked out a place called Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki, which is located on the third floor of a building on Omotesando Avenue, very close to the train station. We had to remove our shoes in the bamboo-lined entry of the restaurant, after which our server led us through the impressively quiet restaurant to our table, which overlooked the tree-lined street. Matsubara-an focuses on handmade soba (buckwheat) noodles and the snacks that accompany them: they have a selection of set menus from ¥1,500-¥3,810 at lunch time, which come with noodles and a selection of appetizers.

Appetizers at Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki.

Our appetizers included some deliciously vinegary cold noodles, a bit of fried taro, tofu with preserved beans, and a few slices of cold duck.

We also tried the super-light vegetable tempura (some of the best we’d have on our trip) There’s a dizzying array of options on the menu, from soba with shrimp and squid tempura, to soba with fried eel, to hot soba with clams. I considered trying the cold soba, which I’m partial to, but it seemed somehow wrong in the depths of winter.

Three of us ordered the duck soba, which isn’t exactly commonplace on U.S. menus. We didn’t regret it: the super-rich broth matched perfectly with soft leeks (very popular in Japanese winter cuisine), soft and fatty duck breast, and a little bit of shungiku (chrysanthemum greens).

Suitably fortified, we walked roughly five minutes to the entrance to the Meiji Shrine, or 明治神宮, Meiji Jingū. The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of the departed Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken:  The Meiji Restoration of 1868 that toppled the Togukawa Shogunate and restored Japan’s emperors to power was carried out in this Emperor’s name. The Meiji Period from 1868 to 1912 was a period of incredible change in Japan, as the nation industrialized and opened itself up to Western commerce and to Western technologies and cultural influences. Meiji’s reign also coincided with Japan’s two successful wars against China from 1894 to 1895, and with Russia from 1904 to 1905, announcing the arrival of Japan as a major world power to other wealthy nations. The Meiji shrine is sometimes confused with the much more controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which Emperor Meiji dedicated specifically to Japan’s war dead – including people found to be war criminals by International Military Tribunal for the Far East – and which is still favored by nationalists and conservatives today.

Torii gate standing at the entrance to the Meiji Shrine, made of 1,500 year old cypress wood.

Emperor Meiji’s time may have been especially action-packed, but the Shinto shrine dedicated to him is decidedly not, at least if you don’t go there during the peak of sweaty, jostling tourist season in the summer. The shrine sits in the middle of a 170-acre forest park (which is attached to Yoyogi Park), and we found it to be a delightfully quiet departure from the buildings that surround it. When we arrived, the late-afternoon light was absolutely superb, painting everything in wonderful golden and green shades.

We walked through the huge torii gate at the entrance of the park (which is made of 1,500 year old cypress) and meandered up the forest path to the main shrine, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the few trees that still retained blazing-bright fall colors. We watched a few people who appeared to be some flavor of Instagram influencer take many, many supposedly casual shots of themselves posing in front of the huge collection of decorative sake barrels at the shrine. Sake factories from all over Japan contribute barrels here. I was very happy to spot a gigantic yellow and black Jorō spider in its web, which it had built in one of the lamp posts lining the walkways.

Main buildings at the Meiji Shrine.

The main shrine is a reproduction of the 1920 original, which was destroyed by US air raids during World War II: this particular iteration was completed in 1958. The shrine’s 100th anniversary takes place in 2020, so there’s some renovation work going on in the area, which means that the treasure house building is closed.  There’s also an inner garden area, which requires an entrance fee. We didn’t visit this because the light was fading, but I’d like to see it sometime, especially during the spring flower season.

The shrine itself was beautiful, but what we were most struck by was what appeared to be an intense crow civil war happening in the trees above it. Tokyo is absolutely full of jungle crows, which are hefty, 18-23 inch long beasts that are quite happy to make unblinking, fuck-you eye contact with you if you happen to walk by one as it’s tearing apart a badly-secured trash bag. Which I don’t mind, because I love crows. I deeply appreciate their incredible disinterest in taking human bullshit, and I’m fascinated by how eerily similar they are to us when it comes to both their personal habits and their intelligence.

The Japanese jungle crow population has soared in recent years, quite possibly due to a rise in the quantity of delicious, unprotected garbage produced by the Japanese public. Tokyo first began to wage wars on crows back in 2001, when former governor Shintaro Ishihara was viciously attacked by one while he tried to play golf: deeply pissed-off, he told the Washington Post that he intended “to make crow-meat pies Tokyo’s special dish.” Efforts to ward off marauding, bitey crows in the capital city have ranged from the traditional (shooting, trapping) to the, um, creative, like using swarms of bees to scare them off.  The crow extermination campaign that began then obviously hasn’t succeeded. Tokyo’s crows are still the bane of people who must put out their garbage. There are also plenty of people, like me, who enjoy them for their attitudes and their intellect: there’s even a 2012 documentary, “Tokyo Waka,” that delves into the parallel lives of urban crows and people.

Remaining fall foliage at the Meiji shrine. We were all startled by how late fall colors persist in Japan.

It was getting dark by the time we left the main shrine, and the park was closing, as the loudspeakers arrayed throughout the park at regular intervals helpfully reminded us, complete with a very recognizable, gently-cajoling “please leave” chiming sound. So we did, walking towards Harajuku, because we figured we ought to see it. If you’re even vaguely aware of Japanese culture, you’ve probably heard of Harajuku before, a district of Tokyo that has become internationally famous as a bastion of weird fashion and particularly daring street-youth-culture styles.  Harajuku first became “cool” in the 1990s, as colorful Japanese youth fashion became internationally famous, thanks to the efforts of talented fashion photographers and a media world increasingly fascinated by the prospect of an ascendant Japan. Tourists began to go to the area to gawk at groups of kids, while many of the kids in turn became justifiably annoyed at being treated like zoo animals dressed in exqusite gothic-Lolita attire (or whatever, there’s a lot of possibilities when you’re talking about Harajuku fashion through the ages).

In 2018? Well, influential Tokyo street-fashion photographer and magazine publisher Shoichi Aoki feels that the scene isn’t what it used to be, diminished by millenials and Gen-Zers who prefer the muted tones of Uniqlo to wearing fifteen thousand day-glo accessories. Others, of course, beg to differ, noting that many of Japan’s most daring boutiques are still in the area, and fashion-conscious kids these days continue to hangout in the area, including local art and fashion students who presumably have a far better sense of what’s actually cool than anyone who’s old enough to grumble about how everything was better when they were young.


What I am sure about is this: I am hilariously unqualified to ascertain if a certain area is actually cool, and I will make no assessments of the coolness level of Harajuku here, because that would make me look like an idiot.  Our arrival at Harajuku lined up perfectly with the end of school, and the street was heaving with both high school kids dressed in uniforms and rubbernecking, ambling tourists, many of them eating enormous puffs of rainbow cotton candy with fuzzy ears and LCD lights stuck into it.

Attractive people dressed in maid outfits and extremely tight pants handed out leaflets for shows, maid cafes, and fashion sales. I browsed through a few boutiques, but I was starting to get tired already thanks to the effects of jet lag, and my heart wasn’t really in it, even if I do happen to love things like sweatshirts with creepy two-legged brains on them. We stuck our heads into a sock store to escape the crowds, and then we bought a bunch of practical, cute pairs of socks with little Shiba Inus on them. Being an adult is terrible, but, then, you also have warm feet.

The Ghibli-designed clock at the Shiodome, which we didn’t actually see go off, to my endless regret.

We headed back to the Shiodome-Ginza area afterwards on the train, which had become a little bit more busy as rush hour began, but still hadn’t attained the nightmarish, sardine-like heights you often see on American TV shows about how exotic and weird Japan is. (It really isn’t).  Daniel and my dad were going to go out with some of my dad’s former Japanese colleagues, so my mother and I had decided to go get sukiyaki, one of our favorite Japanese dishes, and something that is oddly difficult to get in the United States.

Raw Wagyu beef at Seryna in Ginza.

The hotel concierge had recommended Seryna, one of Ginza’s startlingly large number of high-end sukiyaki and shabu shabby restaurants. It is in fact located in the basement level of the Tiffany building, in case there were any doubts about what you’re getting into. We opted for the sukiyaki set that wasn’t made with ultra-high end Wagyu beef (complete with a birth certificate), just the regular, bog-standard Wagyu beef, which is still the best beef you’ll ever eat ever.

We began with a delicious stuffed crab appetizer and drinks. I ordered yuzu wine, which has a marvelously tangy, light flavor, and is very refreshing served over ice.

Sukiyaki is often presented as a pre-cooked meal in the USA, but in Japan, it’s cooked in front of you in stages. A very nice young woman in a kimono swirled beef fat in a cast-iron pot as the first stage, then began to put in a few slices of beef. This flavors the broth that the rest of the ingredients, including vegetables and tofu, are cooked in. She spoke some English: we mentioned to her that my parents live in Orange County. “Wow, Orange County?” she said. “I was just there. Visiting Disneyland!” (A lot of Japanese people that I spoke to during our vacation had recently visited Disneyland, in what I found to be an amusing cultural exchange. Jesus, is that the most exciting thing about the United States to non-Americans? Don’t answer that).


She passed the beef to our plates with tongs. It really was the most exquisite beef I’ve ever had. It melted in my mouth exactly like all the ad copy for high-end Japanese beef says it should. We also were given bowls of raw egg to dip the beef into, which I did: it’s a nice unctuous compliment.

At this point in the evening, the jet-lag was hitting me hard, but I was determined to finish this meal. Our server added vegetables – chrysanthemum greens and onions – to the cast-iron pot next, which took on an exquisite beefy flavor. This was alternated with beef, then tofu. It was a small portion of beef, but it was really all you needed. I was about to pass out into my rice bowl by the time we ate our last slice of beef, so we headed back to our hotel through the pretty, lit-up streets of Ginza, which had been decorated for the Christmas holiday. Well, I’d managed to stay awake past 10:00, anyway. That’s an achievement.

Restaurants:

Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki
鎌倉 松原庵 欅
Location: Harajuku Quest 4F, 1-13-14 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Website: https://matsubara-an.com/shops/keyaki.php

Seryna Ginza
瀬里奈
Location: Ginza Tiffany Building, B1, 2-7-17, Ginza, Chuo-ku,Tokyo
Website: https://www.seryna.co.jp/en/seryna/ginza/

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. 

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. 

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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