Internet Hunting and Gathering – May 6th and 7th

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As my friend and I observed last week at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco, hipsters never really change. Jerome Young’s painting appears to be channeling the same sort of people who regularly show up at prog rock festivals, or at least the kind of people who attended Tulane with me and went to the same parties I did.

Anywho, as far as the Internet goes…

The Children’s Illustrated Clausewitz

This is both expressive and rather surprisingly useful. (Yes, I’ve read Clausewitz – but I didn’t know I could just do THIS…)

Long a Survivor in Syria, a Dutch Priest is Slain – New York Times

“I don’t see Muslims or Christians, I see, above all, human beings,” he said, who “hunger to lead a normal life.” As the only priest left in the Old City to help the people there with their suffering, he said, “how can I leave? This is impossible.”‘

Do You Know Why You Hate Gluten?

The consensus seems to be “I have no idea whatsoever, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.” After all, who wouldn’t like an excuse to gently terrorize an underpaid waitress at Denny’s?

Journalists Angered by Repeated Violence During Demonstration Coverage – VOA Cambodia

It’s getting more dangerous for journalists in Cambodia, as recent government responses to protests in Freedom Park have demonstrated.

Farley Mowat, Canadian Writer and Wildlife Advocate, Dies at 92 – New York Times

I loved Farley Mowat’s work in elementary and middle school. Lyrical and beautiful. RIP.

Someone Ate This

This is an entire website devoted to horrifying images of food that people 1. created, 2. consumed and 3. thought it would be a good idea to share with the entire world. The psychology on display here is deeply unsettling. Good for a laugh, do not look at before lunch.

And a rather trenchant observation on the relative priorities of Boko Haram from my friend Dan Trombly:

Drone Journalism Survey and a Sacramento River Video

stanford kit drone

If you’ve spent any time at all around me in recent months, you are probably aware I’m really, really interested in UAVs — often called “drones.” I did a brief story on consumer-level UAV technology for school, realized how unfathomably cool they were, and joined the Stanford University UAV club.

Now, I own a Phantom 1 with a camera gimbal and am hoping to build my own. I’m also planning on going overseas with a couple of camera UAVs and putting them through their paces on the Southeast Asia correspondence beat. One way or another.

Now, you can help me out by filling out a survey I’ve put together for my digital entrepreneurship class at Stanford. I’m interested in figuring out a way to put together a NGO or a small business using UAVs to gather both images and data, and your input would be most helpful.

Find the survey here.

Here’s a quick and dirty video of the Sacramento River in spring near my parents house in Carmichael. Why Paganini? Why not Paganini?


Internet Hunting and Gathering – May 4th and 5th

This weekend at Half Moon Bay.
This weekend at Half Moon Bay.

A quiet weekend in California, whereupon I mostly fixed and flew my Phantom 1 a bit. Next step is adding an Ardupilot APM. Planning to learn how to do 3D mapping with Autodesk. My hobbies are very chic.

In recent Interesting Internet News…

Boko Haram ‘to sell’ Nigeria girls abducted from Chibok – BBC News

The truly horrifying saga of these girls continues. Make no mistake: they are not “child brides.” They are child slaves, sold for $12 a head.

Disaster in the age of McMansions: America’s dangerous addiction to suburban sprawl – Salon

A fascinating look at the history and probably downfall of the suburbs. Millennials who spent their overprotected childhoods with their asses firmly welded to the backseat of a minivan: don’t you all rush out to buy massive homes in the burbs’ at ONCE.

40 Maps That Explain the Middle East – Vox

This explainer exemplifies what’s wrong with the Vox model: 7th-grade level writing and analysis that is (inexplicably) aimed to a well-educated and well-informed audience. You can do much better than this, folks — although I’m glad someone has informed me in my woeful ignorance that “The Phoenicians… were pretty awesome.”

DustDuino: A plan to crowdsource environmental reporting with low-cost dust sensors – Mental Munition Factory

Check out the DustDuino project, which aims to crowdsource enviromental reporting on air pollution with the assistance of desk-top dust sensors.

Rough Justice in Southern Thailand – UCA News

Not nearly enough international attention has been paid to the ongoing sectarian conflict in Thailand’s south. Southeast Asian Muslims are treated as second class citizens here, too.

The Thankless Work of a Fixer – CJR

Shamefully, many foreign correspondents don’t bother to credit the fixers who help them get the story out. We all need to get better about this.

The Man Behind the Vampire Squid: An Interview with Matt Taibbi – Mother Jones

Love him or hate him, Taibbi is interesting. And coined the phrase “vampire squid” which does make me like him.

A video displaying that curious anthropological oddity of  a bunch of white, straight guys apologizing.

The Ultimate Guide to Shutting Down Conservative Anti-Piketty Hysteria – Salon

One wonders how many have actually read our society’s most recently-popular doorstep book. (I in fact have – there’s a Kindle edition, you fools, there’s NO excuse!)

Painting Things With the Galaxy Note 8

The Galaxy Note 8 doesn’t spring to mind as a potent art tool, but with its Wacom enabled stylus, I’ve been incredibly impressed. Excellent control and flow.

I’m using Autodesk, which is a very useful art tool. Still growing accustomed to its features. Now, need to find out just how big I can push these images if I want to print them or use them on something other than the Internet.

Painting below dashed off over the course of a few classes. I like bitey things.

bitey painting

Another sketch. Love the layering abilities of Autodesk.

naked lady autodesk sketch

Revisiting the Communist dogs I used to draw during my high school years, when I had very normal interests.

soviet dogs


Your Daily Internet – April 30th, 2014

putin pug
Here is a picture of Putin with a pug.

People regularly inform me that they get most of their news from my Facebook feed. I’m happy to do it.

However, this also means Mark Zuckerberg is indirectly profiting off my incessant information hunting-and-gathering, and that bothers me on an existential level. Especially considering that I drive by Facebook’s large and pleasingly manicured headquarters on a bi-weekly basis.

On that note, I’ll be sharing my latest Interesting Stuff I Found Online over here, and regularly.

Rohingya health crisis in west Myanmar after aid groups forced out – Reuters

Fascinating (and disturbing) report on the continuing suffering of the Rohingya minority group in Burma.

Literally Unbelievable

We have all encountered that gullible, slightly obnoxious individual who becomes deeply indignant about an Onion article, preferably one that deals with pressing social issues. This glorious website has collected these responses from the satire-impervious into one convenient location.

Putin’s Useful Idiots – New York Times

“The irony is that by standing beside Russia and pointing fingers at fascist phantoms in Ukraine, Western intellectuals are aligning themselves not just with the autocrat in the Kremlin, but the legions of far-right parties across Europe that have come to Russia’s defense, among them Hungary’s Jobbik, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Austria’s Freedom Party, Italy’s Lega Nord and the French Front National. Who says Russia needs propaganda? It already has its useful idiots.”

Nevada Militia Sets Up Armed Checkpoints, Demands to See Drivers ID – Gawker

What could possibly go wrong? Added irony: militia man whinging about the government has previously served in the military; worked as public school teacher.

Private Security Guards Are a Sign of Inequality, but Are Firefighters and Detectives? – Quartz

Interesting economic analysis of inequality. (Yes, I’m reading Piketty. Really. I swear).

An open letter to the future Mrs. Clooney: Congrats on proving Princeton Mom wrong – New York Post

“There’s no greater aphrodisiac than a happy woman with a full life, who is passionate about something besides getting a ring on her finger. Just ask George Clooney.”

I have never been so happy to link to the New York Post.


Sherpas In The Possessive Voice

The deadly Khmbu Icefall.
The deadly Khmbu Icefall.

It’s a contentious spring in the Himalayas. Sherpas have decided that the 2014 Mt Everest climbing season is too dangerous, after the avalanche deaths of 16 high-altitude workers on April 18th.

I’m no expert on the affairs of the men and women that work on Everest, nor am I going to pretend to be.

But I have, over the years, noticed an interesting verbal tic in English-language writing on Himalayan mountaineering: not naming Sherpas at all, or naming them suspiciously late in the story.

We find out in this recent Associated Press piece that US mountaineer Jon Reiter was trekking through the notoriously dangerous Khumbu Icefall when his guide – identified repeatedly only as “his Sherpa” — pushed the 49-year-old out of the way of the deadly April 18th avalanche. The Daily Mail waits a good three paragraphs to name him. (The CNN article notes that this heroic man is properly named Dawa Sherpa).

This story, and others like it, bring to me this observation: Sherpas, even incredibly heroic ones, are perennially referred to in the possessive, as if they’re interesting, contract-subject luxury objects — somehow both more and less than a plain old “guide.”

A Sherpa guide at the Khumbu Icefall.
A Sherpa mountain guide (named Pem Dorjee Sherpa, per Wikipedia) at the Khumbu Icefall.

The possessive usage of “Sherpa” stands out particularly because our society has at least made some kind of effort to eliminate old White Man’s burden tropes from the language.

“My black boy,” “my punkhawallah,” “my coolie,” “my kaffir” and the like spring immediately to mind, as servile tropes that we in Western society once regularly used as a good bit of horrible colonial fun, but have by now mostly been purged from the language by decent, liberal humans.

But “Sherpas” are still someTHING that, for a temporal period of time, is “yours” — or at least that’s how the English usage of the term makes it sound.

Here’s a sentence I’ve read some variant on many times before, in my perusal of climbing writing: “I was out for a trek in Nepal when my Sherpa suggested we stop for a butter tea break.”

Not “My trekking guide, Lakpa Sherpa, suggested…”

Which is, of course, how one might refer to a guide of your own race in English.Say, “My trekking guide, Bob D. Smith, recently of  Palo Alto, suggested we stop and hella tear into those Clif bars.”

No, it’s “my” Sherpa, as if your relationship with this autonomous adult human being is considerably more intimate and exotic than a fairly pedestrian exchange of money for physically arduous services rendered.

The possessive terminology of “my Sherpa” is regularly used in a fond sort of way by people who fancy themselves as progressive, inclusive types who do lots of yoga and donate to charities. There’s even a New Jersey IT company called MySherpa.

I have yet to overhear one of these well-traveled, enlightened people fondly refer to their tour guide at Angkor Wat as “My Cambodian” or “my  coolie,” though Christ knows that I’m not ruling it out.

Perhaps the “owning” thing goes rather deep indeed.

As Jemima Diki Sherpa wrote on her excellent blog : “Still, it is undeniable that, in “post”-colonial democracies where ethnic minorities carry the burden of insidious and vicious prejudices at every turn, Sherpas are fortunate. Everyone loves us, everyone trusts us, and everyone wants their own collectable one of us. Internet listsicles call us ‘badass’ and we have a very large, very coveted piece of real estate in our back yard. It is a stereotype, sure, but a positive one.”

I’m quite willing to hear out the argument that the turn of phrase “my Sherpa” is not meant to turn people into possessions, and is instead a pleasant honorific. But I’d like to hear that argument from a Sherpa, not from one of the climbers that regularly uses their services.

Sure, it’s just language. Just terminology. But considering that the Sherpas are currently embroiled in a very public fight for recognition and increased wages, perhaps we should be taking a closer look at how they are addressed — and respected — by their Western clientele.

On a semi-personal note, different pay grades for local workers and international workers are an unsavory aspect of expat life Southeast Asia, where the operating logic is that it takes much more money to persuade a highly educated Western worker to give up their life of glamour and iPhones to reside in a foreign country with weird food.

Mt Everest.
Mt Everest.

I’ve definitely been paid more than local colleagues to do the same sort of thing. Most Southeast Asia expats have had the same experience. However. When you’re sitting side by side to someone in an office and doing the same sort of things, with the same level of proficiency — but one of you is foreign, and thus getting paid much more —  well, one wonders.

I would imagine the intensity of this discomfort and resentment is amped up considerably when your day job involves very regular exposure to being crushed to death by falling ice.

Something to think about.

At the very least, this horrible climbing disaster has led to an interesting public dialogue about Sherpas and the Western mania for conquering big, expense-heavy peaks.  Here’s some links to good writing.

Three Springs – Jemima Diki Sherpa

The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest – Outside

Everest’s Sherpas Fear for Livelihood After Killer Avalanche –  The Guardian

Addendum: It has come to my attention that there are two Special Western Teenagers who are deeply, deeply butthurt that their Mystical Everest Dream has come to a traumatizing end. That’s because 16 people were uncool enough to up and die while paving the way for them to climb the mountain.

To which I say: wow, sucks to be you.


Khmer New Year in America

devi and man
Altar at Khmer New Year celebration in Stockton, California.

When I lived in Phnom Penh, Khmer New Year was that time of year when everyone took off work for a week and all the businesses shut down. The normally traffic-besotted streets of Phnom Penh became quiet and empty during the holiday, and everyone who could scramble the vacation days (and that was most people) returned to their native village or headed over to the shore side to marinate in the sun for a bit.

I worked at the newspaper and we didn’t get the time off, the march of progress waiting for no one, and especially for no reporter. But the holiday was interesting: the Theraveda Buddhist temples choked with adherents paying their respects, the small sea of food dedicated to the monks as reverence for the harvest-time, the traditional games. People of all ages broke out small plastic shuttlecocks and kicked them to each other during the dim-yellow lights of the street at night, as I rode home on a motorbike: I did not know anyone well enough to get invited to a family celebration, but I liked to think of a time when I might.

Cambodian New Year has crossed the ocean, of course. This is Northern California, where a huge population of Southeast Asians moved after the bloody 1960s and 1970s and still resides. California is home to the biggest Khmer minority in the United States, with an estimated 86,244 — per US census data.

Khmer trinkets at the Stockton celebration.
Khmer trinkets at the Stockton celebration.

That Friday, last week, I’d been to a political event for the CNRP in Milipitas. Dozens of well-dressed, middle aged and elderly Cambodians streamed into a red-and-gold convention hall to hear Kem Sokha, second in command of the CNRP, and Yim Sovann, a party leader, talk. The mood in the air was thickly political, and images of Hun Sen portrayed as an animal and as a sock puppet of the Vietnamese flashed upon a television screen. This was the face of Cambodian-America deeply concerned with the home-country, and ready to donate both money and time to influence the situation.

I talk to old Cambodian-Americans and most harbor dreams of buying property back in Phnom Penh or in the countywide, of retiring there at least part of the year. But Hun Sen’s regime stands in their way, they say, this pervasive sense of uncertainty, of corruption.

monk alms

The politics was shed over the weekend. I attended a Khmer New Year celebration at one of San Jose’s three Khmer temples, Wat Khemara Rangsey.  The crowd numbered a couple hundred with an impressive array of ages. The women around the back hustled to make copious quantities of fried rice and curry with bamboo shoots and spring rolls. Before everyone ate, monks blessed the food inside the interior of the wat (a small converted house), as people streamed in and removed their shoes and streamed out again.

Then, everyone lined up outside the wat, and handed small scoops of rice to the monks in their saffron robes. Then, the feasting began – egg rolls vanishing first, great mounds of food in silver urns and white Styrofoam containers, and candy and chips for the kids, doled out outside. The air was familial: for an American with our provincial perspectives, approximately the same as Thanksgiving, but with more flavorful food.

lighting altar khmer new year

An old man in a white collared shirt hovered around the sand-filled urn for offerings. As people knelt to light incense, some unaware of what to do, he advised them, pointing here and there. “This way,” he said, in Khmer. When they got up to go, he adjusted the little sticks again, which had elaborately cut out sheets of white paper stuck to them, evocative of ghosts.

Playing music during Khmer New Year in Stockton.
Playing music during Khmer New Year in Stockton.

The next weekend, I went to Stockton, where something around 20,000 Cambodians reside. It has the biggest Khmer New Year celebration in Northern California, at the opulent Wat Dammanak temple. Huge plaster and fiberglass images of the Buddha, monks in a row, and a fountain resided over by spirits dot the grounds.

Families milled around and slapped sunscreen on each other. Most had spread out a blanket under a chosen patch of shade and consumed great quantities of rice and stuffed chicken wings and curries from home.

The monks came in a line through the grounds of the temple at least twice while I was there, guided at the helm by a small orchestra. An old man played an electric Chinese violin, which had an amp wheeled around in a shopping cart. The monks smiled and waved and squirted passer-by with aromatic perfume. They walked to the sand stupa near the back of the temple grounds, which was bedecked with fake flowers and ribbons, and had many sticks of burning incense in it. They lit incense, too.

Monks in Stockton.
Monks in Stockton.

Outside observers want to stick a Khmer Rouge narrative on essentially everything Cambodians do. I am prey to this. But that’s not the point here, as multiple Cambodians assured me.  There is a holiday for remembering the dead. That’s Pchum Ben, a 15 day religious festival when ancestors are fed rice, and when families venerate those who have passed.

But that is not what Khmer New Year is really about. Khmer New Year is a harvest rite, a time for fun, for gorging yourself on food and throwing shuttle-cocks at family members.  I am glad it is here, in the US — that you can drive down a dusty road in Stockton and make a right, and find yourself in a small outpost of Cambodia, one that is dotted with many US and Cambodian flags.

How We Write About Dead Smart Young People

What angels should properly look like.
What angels should properly look like.

My mother regularly threatens me with writing a really terrible obituary if I die before my time.

“It’ll be full of puppies and rainbows,” she says. “It’ll go on about how sweet and kind and inspirational you were. A little angel sent down from a sunbeam to live among us.”

She knows this would wound me to the core. This is a clever way to ensure against my early demise, or at least to ensure that I look both ways when crossing the street.

My utter revulsion towards this often-repeated, happy narrative about nice young white girls cut down against their time also gets me thinking. How do we eulogize the young and dead unfortunately? Why do we do such a sugary job of it, most of the time?

Marina Keegan was the latest example. Struck down in 2012 at the age of 22, on the way to Cape Cod, after graduating from Yale with the love of her peers and professors alike. Already tapped for a coveted New Yorker gig. Full of potential. Her essays now are seeing the light of day, republished on the New Yorker and blasted across the Internet.

Keegan’s brief life is being heralded as an inspiration, the sort of thing meant to make you weep with the Joy of Life over your computer keyboard. We’ve seen this before. Keegan is being re-purposed, posthumously. A sort of passionate Deepak Chopra figure, here to give us life lessons from her lovely young life — reaped before its time.

To be quite frank, this post-death exultation makes me a little ill. And it is not because of her, or her writing, which is perfectly good from the snippets I’ve read. It is because I would like to talk to her and see what she made of it. Part of me wonders if she would despise being re-purposed in such a way, rendered an inspirational figure — eulogized in USA Today, a Sad But Gentle Soul.

It brings me back to a greater observation. How often do we conclude about a young woman smacked down by fate about her time that she was not only brilliant but also at times difficult, snarky, complicated?

Truth. Young men and boys dead early are also portrayed through rose-colored glasses. But their naughtiness is also (at least more often) exposed. A lazy Google search for “obituary mischievous young boy” reveals dozens upon dozens of hits. Such a search substituting “girl” receives nothing of the sort. Young women are, more often, portrayed as magical angels come to live among us, here to blow the fairy dust of hope amidst us sad, earthbound beings.

This is, of course, bullshit.

The Whore of Babylon is dressed down by an angel.
The Whore of Babylon is dressed down by an angel.

Young women, especially the kind that are very good at writing, are usually just as cynical and wretched as their male counterparts. I believe this very strongly. Yet this is not how we honor them. We honor them by taking away the peculiar bits of their existences that defined them, denuding them of complexity, of blemish. We render early-dead young women eternally grinning, pretty little positive dolls. The reality of the young woman herself is irrelevant.

I don’t like Christopher Hitchens much. I liked Gore Vidal more. Both died relatively recently. Both their eulogies, on the whole, captured their intractable, loathsome asshole sides. To reiterate: I am not saying that Keegan, or any other Cut Down Before Her Time woman, was a secret curmudgeon. These are extreme cases.

But all of humanity, and especially those who are particularly creative, have their strange and ambiguous traits. These made them human. Perhaps it’s simply much harder to eulogize the dark and weird sides of young people who are not terribly famous, who do not have an immense body of work, whose grieving families are more able to take the wheel of such remembrances.  But why is this so?

I am young, and thus a terrible, malevolent idiot.  So too are many of my peers, or at least the ones I really like. Must you possess a certain gravitas (so often denied women of any age) to be remembered as both brilliant and as a miserable asshole? Does the flower of youth automatically disqualify you as being seen as a terrible curmudgeon? Should we let these early flowerings of cynicism and holy rage go unnoticed, even if they were the primary concerns of the young and early-dead?

death be not proudThere is one book I have read that did a good job of eulogizing a very young and very clever man. It is John Gunther’s “Death Be Not Proud,” which I picked up in a used bookstore the day after a friend and colleague died. Johnny Gunther died from a brain tumor when he was 17, a preternaturally sharp high-schooler who corresponded once with Einstein on a mathematical problem. Gunther documents his son’s more inspirational utterances, that is true: “God is what’s good in me,” for example.

But he also documents Johnny’s decline, the details of his suffering. He describes it when Johnny grows angry at his affliction, when he is exasperated, when he succumbs to his own humanity. And so, with these details, the obituary suddenly becomes more complete than any other I’ve come across. I read this memoir — published in 1949 — and feel the same sort of thump in the chest: both John Gunther and Johnny Gunther are dead now, and yet I feel them keenly. That’s how it’s done.

I do not know a thing about Marina, beyond the somewhat inadequate descriptions of what she was like that are being shuffled about the Internet. Perhaps she would have happily agreed to this sort of lurching inspiration machine generated around her death. That is her right.

But I also concern myself with the posthumous notions of the young and horrid. Call it self-preservation. I do not feel there is much in my story that anyone in their right mind could deem Inspirational, but — and but – perhaps with some airbrushing some Story of Triumph and Adversity could be re-animated, voodoo-like, from beyond my personal veil. The beer truck hits, and I am transfigured.

Should we attach a rider to our wills, that states that our obituaries be brutal and truthful? That no one describe us as “Full of Love And Life,” or we come back and haunt their closets, and permanently tie their shoes together, and attract moths to their underthings?

I think I will. I shall make it legal, or at least scribble a note in the margins of my legal documentation, or something.  If you’re going to make the effort at all, don’t remember me as an Angel of Love, or a Gentle Beacon of Light. Remember me as a frightened, smallish, oft-difficult human, trying at times to make a legitimate effort.

PS: My friend Heather Houlahan wrote a very good essay on approximately this same topic: Angels and Daemons – Raised by Wolves