Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

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FashMaps: Locating White Supremacists in Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateMap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why You Should Go to Sicily

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

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

Obnoxiously perfect view from the Greek theatre at Taormina.

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

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

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

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

Craters at Mt. Etna.

I have a few general suggestions for seeing Sicily.

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

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

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

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

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

Sicily has lots and lots of prickly pear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

View from Taormina.

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The Weather Channel’s Soothing Music: Millennial Rebellion

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Afternoon Drone Photos from Phnom Penh

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

olympic stadium

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

train tracks and canadia

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

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

train tracks in PP

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

sunset boueng kak lake

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

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

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On the Way to Tagong – Western Sichuan

 

Mean streets of Tagong.

Mean streets of Tagong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagong in progress.

Tagong in progress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tibetan house in Tagong.

Tibetan house in Tagong.

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

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

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

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

Tibetans in Tagong.

Tibetans in Tagong.

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

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

Yak burgers: surprisingly tasty.

Yak burgers: surprisingly tasty.

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

Candles at the Tagong Monastery.

Candles at the Tagong Monastery.

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

Tony and a prayer wheel.

Tony and a prayer wheel.

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

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

Views from Pasu River View Guesthouse.

Views from Pasu River View Guesthouse.

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

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

Party room at Pasu Riverview Guesthouse.

Party room at Pasu Riverview Guesthouse.

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

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

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

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

 

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Some Thoughts on Shanghai and What to Do There

shanghai through the window (1 of 1)

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

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

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

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

Shanghai downtown night view.

Shanghai downtown night view.

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

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

Jazz singer in the French Concession.

Jazz singer in the French Concession.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steel toys for sale in Tianzifang.

Steel toys for sale in Tianzifang.

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

Shanghai drink sellers.

Shanghai drink sellers.

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

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

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

 

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Taiwan: Paoan Temple and Confucius Temple

dragon fountain

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

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

bao an temple

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

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

taiwan evening

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

dragon roof background

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

battling fish people

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

chinese lantern

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

confucius temple

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

 

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Taiwan: Lin Family Mansion and Garden + Beef Noodles

city garden

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

big house

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

forest path

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

lotus blossoms

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

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

Bed of green water plants in a pot.

Bed of green water plants in a pot.

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

Making beef noodles.

Making beef noodles.

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

beef noodles derp

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

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

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

Taiwan business district street.

Taiwan business district street.

HOW TO GET THERE:

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

big ancient tree

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Taiwan: The National Palace Museum Taipei and Some Cabbage

national palace museum

On Thursday we went to the National Palace Museum, which I’ve been hearing about from my Asia-dwelling family members for approximately forever. Located a bit outside of the center of the city in the green and hilly environs of Shilin, it’s one of the biggest collections of Chinese art in the world, with a whopping 696,000 artifacts spanning a (mere) 8,000 years of history.

Treasures fleeing the Japanese in the 1930s.

Treasures fleeing the Japanese in the 1930s.

Why is all this glorious stuff here in Taiwan and not in, say, Beijing? The vast riches of the Chinese empire were stored in the Forbidden City until the Japanese invasion in 1933, when the artifacts were evacuated. Returned to Nanjing after World War II, they changed hands again after Chiang Kai-shek realized that the Communists would defeat him. A total of 2,972 crates of artifacts (roughly 22 percent of the total collection) were shipped to Taiwan, representing some of the finest objects ever produced in the entirety of Chinese history. Considering the incredibly rough period of history these artifacts were evacuated in, it’s a wonder that many of these delicate, small, and exceedingly valuable pieces have survived.

Needless to say, the People’s Republic of China considers the collection to be stolen, although relations appear to be thawing somewhat in this regard — in 2009, China and Taiwan agreed to the first-ever joint exhibition of artifacts. Who knows what will happen in the future?

What matters for the purposes of this brief blog post is that you’d be a real dumbass to visit Taipei without making a visit here, to put it delicately. Prioritize appropriately.

In light of this, my dad and I decided it’d be a good idea to hire a guide for two hours, to give us some grounding in the massive scope of the exhibits and explain what we were looking at. The cost came out to $150 and I’d say it was worth it. Jennifer Tang proved to be a lovely woman with a long background in Chinese painting, and came at the exhibit with an obvious and profound affection for everything we saw — pointing out fine details or providing the background story of how one object or another came to be, and came to enter the imperial collection.

jadeite cabbage

The most famous item here is probably a carved jade cabbage, which is accompanied by another piece of jade that looks remarkably like a piece of roasted meat. These two venerated art objects may sound rather pedestrian, but when you actually push through the crowd to gaze upon these Rocks That Look Like Food, you’ll be more impressed than you anticipated.

The Jadeite Cabbage, which is white at the bottom and tapers to a luxuriant green at the top, has a locust and a katydid concealed amidst the leaves, and was supposed to be a present symbolizing fertility for the Kuang-hsü Emperor’s Consort Chin. It could also be mean to “chastise fatuous officials.” Or it could be a remarkably attractive and valuable representation of a bug-infested vegetable. You make what you want of it .

meat shaped stone

Here is the Meat-Shaped Stone. You thought I was kidding, didn’t you? I knew it was a glorious work of art because it suddenly and irrevocably made me hungry.

Other highlights here include remarkably intricately carved ivory boxes, which allegedly took so long to execute that a single piece might be passed down for three generations (assuming, presumably, that three generations did not produce someone with awful hand-eye coordination). Our guide said that legend has it these fine carvers — working in mediums as tiny as peach-pits — sometimes did their work without even opening their eyes. “They had a very special feel for it,” she said, reverently.

Jade Bixie amulet, of which I now own a paperweight.

Jade Bixie amulet, of which I now own a paperweight.

Ritual jades from the exceedingly antique Xia and Shang dynasties were also very interesting, including facial covers and plugs for funerals. “There was always a chance that the dead would come back,” our guide said.

bamboo spring

Tang Yin’s remarkable renderings of bamboo.

Paintings are of course a major draw here and the exhibits rotate regularly, and the current exhibit features Ming Dynasty master Tang Yin. His contemplative nature paintings are gorgeous, and his life story — a brilliant middle-class academic screwed by the Imperial system, a poet, an artist, and business-man — adds flavor to the works themselves. I was particularly taken with his simple renderings of bamboo, in which he used dark and light washes of ink to portray leaves shaking in a rainstorm.

If you do not have a guide, it is best to simply wander around and look at what catches your fancy. This is a wonderful place to get totally lost in, and there’s always more to see — an immense scroll here, a massive jade disc there, an exhibit of antique medical textbooks in Chinese tucked into a back gallery, and son on and so forth. There are interpretative signs in English, and many interesting interactive exhibits, as well as an audioguide.

SOME TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS

It is best to come either early or rather late. The middle of the day finds the museum absolutely overrun with tourists, mostly clumping together in sardine-like tour group packs. Someone will be shouting at them and waving a flag around in your face. Avoid at all costs. (There is a brief let-up during the lunch hour). Budget at least 3 hours here, especially when factoring in queuing time if you manage to come here right at the very peak of Milling Tour Group. You can take a taxi here, or you can take the MRT to the Shilin stop and then board a shuttle bus.

There are no photos allowed and no backpacks either, but the nice ladies at the coat-check will keep your things for you unmolested. You can bring your phone in, but expect to be collared by an irate guard if you try to Instagram something — we saw this principle in action.

We liked stopping at the tea-house at the very top of the main gallery, which had a menu of noodles and light dim-sum snacks, and a good view of the little green valley that the museum is set in. It was surprisingly uncrowded around lunchtime.

Finally, the museum shops are excellent and have a pleasing selection of stuff from fine art reproductions to hilariously awesome kitsch, and you should probably know that I absolutely adore ridiculous, mildly personally humiliating souvenir opportunities. Our family now has more key-chains and magnets featuring plastic representations of a jade cabbage than we know what to do with. I also have a t-shirt with the Jadeite cabbage on it, although I picked that up at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. Don’t leave Taiwan without one.

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Hobby Lobby: No, Preventing Cheap Access to Contraceptives Won’t Save You Money

The font of all evil.

The font of all evil.

Amidst the explosion of justifiable online rage over the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby ruling, it’s worth remembering one thing: subsidizing birth control saves taxpayers money.

Many supporters of the Supreme Court ruling noisily claim that they’re opposed to insurance-covered contraception because it will cost them money. “But I don’t want to paaaayyy for it!” they say. “Self-actualized adults should pay for their own medical care!”

Cute idea, I suppose, if you never quite outgrew that extravagantly selfish Ayn Rand phase. But this “fiscally conservative” stance happens to be unsupported by fact.

Let’s refer back to a 2011 Brookings Institution study, which found that unintended pregnancies are expensive: really expensive. Researchers found that US taxpayers shell out about $12 billion annually for unintended pregnancies.

And there’s a lot of them: almost half of all US pregnancies are not expected, a proportion that hits 60 percent when one is dealing with teenaged, unmarried, or low income women.

While the numbers are grim, there’s an easy solution: public policy that hits the problem on multiple fronts, including access to inexpensive birth control. Per Brookings: “There is strong evidence that expansions in access to publicly subsidized family planning services can affect rates of contraceptive use and unintended childbearing.”

Ok, but what about those poor, long-suffering insurance companies?

It’s true that it’s less clear if insurance companies themselves save money on providing contraception. Factcheck.org concludes that evidence is distinctly murky either way, eventually concluding that while the President’s contention that contraceptive insurance will pay for itself cannot currently be proven right, it’s also impossible to prove it wrong. 

Most evidence certainly seems to suggest that the up-front costs of providing coverage are minimal. US government data claims adding contraceptions to an insurance coverage planwould only increase premiums by 0.5% annually, while a 2011 study estimated a cost of $26 per enrollee per female.

I believe many of us happily spend that much per week on fast food,  and it’s a particularly low cost to take into account when one contemplates how expensive unplanned pregnancies are for everyone.

Does even that small amount of money sound usurious and cruel to you? I weep, but I will also point out that you probably do pay taxes. Which means that the $12 billion in expenses Brookings documented will come out of your pocket eventually, one way or another.

The source of all this recent, frenzied Internet.

The source of all this recent, frenzied Internet.

What’s more: all kinds of basic preventative care cost insurers money. These would include measures that get a lot less frothy media play, such as basic cancer screening, cholesterol drugs, routine checkups, and other boringly quotidian measures. This is done because a wise collective risk pool prefers to spend a little money now rather than lot of money later. That applies to major health events from heart attacks to — yes — unintended pregnancies.

There’s also the fact that American women themselves seem to have saved an immense amount of money on contraception since Obamacare came into play. A recent IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics study found that women saved $483 million in out of pocket contraceptive costs in 2013 alone.

If one operates under the at-times-controversial notion that sexually active women are legitimate taxpayers like everyone else, that means a very substantial portion of the population is finding subsidized birth control to be wonderfully thrifty.

And the money those women are saving will help them improve their lives, in many ways beyond a less stress-filled sex life. A 2013 Guttmacher study documents the positive improvements women reported in their own lives due to contraceptive access, while there’s profuse evidence from around the world documenting how access to family planning services improves the lives of everyone — women and men included.

Finally, many women use birth control pills for reasons that have nothing to do with being a Big Slutty Slut — myself included. They’re used for painful and disfiguring medical conditions from polycystic ovary syndrome to cystic acne to dangerously heavy menstrual periods.

Here, of course, is where it gets tricky. Many women, per Guttmacher, use the pill for both medical reasons and for its contraceptive capabilities. If you’re a proponent of a small, un-intrusive government, you should agree that I’d rather not have my insurance company monitoring my house or covertly rummaging through my trash for signs of an active sex life.

So, let me ask you again, “fiscally conservative, small government” defenders of Hobby Lobby: why do you want to cost the taxpayer money? Why do you want to potentially invade women’s privacy?

And if you admit that you don’t actually care about the well-documented savings contraceptive access provides, then what really bothers you about birth control pills?

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