Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Kitsch & Culture

Posted by metaphorical on 25 November 2007

If you need to encapsulate the entire American Christmas experience in 20 minutes, you could hardly do better than to spend your time at Fountains of Wayne.

In turn, the Fountains of Wayne experience is so weird that if you have to describe it in a sentence, you could hardly do better than the one above. It’s a place that sells outdoor furniture and other stuff during the regular year, and Christmas stuff during the season. But 30 years ago it began to create life-sized Christmas-themed dioramas. The served their intended effect — to get more people into the store — and then took on a life of their own. Downstairs there’s a fairly normal set of incredibly crafted displays.

But upstairs, the displays are beyond kitsch. Not all are about Christmas — a Parisian rodent chef cooks dinner; a pirate cove paradise hideaway, repleat with grass-skirted women. But most are.


There’s Santa playing poker at a casino; snorkling in shark-infested waters; running for political office; sleeping in on Christmas Eve (as Ms Santa waves a calendar at him to no avail); surviving on the tv show “Survivor”; and riding a jetski while Ms Claus sunbathes. You can find Santa waiting for dinner at a sushi bar that’s also, for some reason, a hangout for Harley Davidson bikers.





Fourtains of Wayne is such a weird place that a rock band chose its name for its own. (I don’t know how well-known they are nationally, except for a 2003 breakout hit, “Stacy’s Mom.”) The place itself has been featured on Roadside America.

The thing that makes Fountains of Wayne such as exceptionally weird place for me, and ultimately representative of more than just a uniquely American blend of kitsch and commerce — and make no mistake about it, a place that sells $1200 artificial Christmas trees is about commerce — is that its owners care almost as much for the religous meaning of Christmas as the commercial and kitschy ones. Various other dioramas depict the Three Wise Men and Joseph and Mary in the stables.


I don’t really know what to make of it. I generally don’t have much regard for Christian values as such. They’re either the right values to hold or not, and if right, they’re only degraded by not being held for their own sake.

Then too, some people find out-of-control Christmas-shopping-mania to be inconsistent with the core Christian values behind the Bible stories of respecting the poor and throwing the moneylenders out of the temple. Fountains of Wayne doesn’t have that problem. There are collection pots to help the local poor, and for the rest, their Christmas values can presumably be discounted 15% — 20% with an Internet coupon — along with everything else in the store. Come on down.

Posted in philosophy, pop culture, travel | 1 Comment »

China vs the good life

Posted by metaphorical on 14 July 2007


In an e-mail note, longtime reader and commenter ClaireDePlume takes me to task for my high tolerance for China’s leaders and their economic and political policies. (See for example my travel memo here, but more formally, in a recent article about China and sustainability here, and one two years that explicitly discusses Chinese censorship here.)

Ms DePlume has graciously permitted me to turn our private exchange into fodder for this blog. She gets the first and last words.


As we discussed, here is the clip (YouTube, here) of auto workers actually inside a press. China vies for global economic status at a great cost—”modern”manufacturing in a country with a highly expendable workforce and inadequate labour laws. Meanwhile, Western capitalists salivate dollar bills as they court their newest potential money mate.

I did a brief search for statistics and fatalities but information is not as quick to find as hoped. China controls it’s stats and appears not to share this data, at least not in the obvious places. Most of their data is provided to lure business, not shock Western labour lobbyists & human rights groups.

Thank you for the link. I’m of two minds on China, though one of them is not a very popular view.

The Chinese economy started in 1980 from almost zero. That year, the first Special Economic Zone, the fishing village of Shenzhen had a population in the hundreds. Less than 30 years later, it is one of the largest and most vibrant cities in the world. The second economic zone, Pudong, now has a skyline more beautiful than New York’s, a huge and spectacular airport, and the world’s only functioning Maglev train. Pudong’s success is one of the things making Shanghai twice the size of New York, soon to be the largest seaport in the world, and the world’s largest shipbuilder as well. Shanghai gets much of its power from the Three Gorges Dam, one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the past 100 years. Yet, as successful as they are, these projects are one side of a coin that has economic and cultural disaster depicted on the other. The cultural genocide of Tibet of course is disaster #1. Three Gorges displaced several million peasants into almost completely dysfunctional new and artificial cities. The Forbidden City and the Great Wall are cheap theme parks now. The list goes on.

The conditions of the factory workers are horrific, both for working and for living. And yet they come from the countryside, many probably expecting a better life, many surely knowing, from friends and relatives, exactly what to expect. And they keep coming.

They keep coming despite the fact that the first thing the post-Mao governments did in the 1980s was stabilize the rural economy, the agrarian sector, so that no one would starve. These people do not have to leave the farms in the west for the cities in the east. They choose to come, looking for a better life. The conditions they live and work under are the same – the very same – as those my grandmother and grandfather, who chose, separately, to come to the U.S. 100 years ago. And today they still come. The faces are different – they are browner, and yellower, and the jobs are different – perhaps a meatpacking plant in Iowa, instead of a sewing shop in New York City or an auto assembly line in Flint, but still they come.

We in the U.S. so easily condemn the Turks for the Armenian genocide, when in the early 20th century the blood had barely stopped flowing from our own Native American genocide. So too, our immigrants chose to sacrifice themselves for a generation to make a better life for their children and their grandchildren, and yet we so quickly condemn the Chinese for making the same choice. (And the blood had just started flowing on the killing fields of Europe. We are so quick to allow 30 or 30,000 to die in battle for nothing, but not 30 to build an economy. But that is too callous a calculation for even me.)

We are like the California immigrants who move to Seattle and then five years later complain about all the Californians still coming. “I’ve got mine, now close the door.” We built an economic engine that can now comfortably keep us in food and iPods even in second gear, and we want to close the door and say, “From now on, everyone has to get here without 14-hour days and sleeping 14 to an apartment.” Even though that’s what it took for us to get here.

Leave the comparisons between the Somme and the sweatshops to others more cynical than us. But can we ask ourselves whether we could have the North American economy we do without allowing 43,000 to die annually on highways? We want the economy we have, which would be impossible without the mobility we have. And so we each enter a lottery with our bodies as the stakes every time we open the car door, and every year, 43,000 people lose that lottery. (We could, for example, close the highways from midnight to 6:00am and save half those lives.) The Chinese workers in their car plants know that their fingers and arms and entire bodies are the stakes in their lottery.

Would we prefer not to have these games of chance? That every factory be safe? That our roads be safer? Of course. Will be accept that cars be more expensive, that the meat from the meatpacking plant cost more, that we must drive slower and less often? Apparently not.

I hate what the Chinese are doing. And I hate our hypocrisy in condemning it. And so I say let us clean up our own house. And let us let them come to the city, to the factory, to a modern economy. If they themselves find it to be a better life, let them come into it.


I’ve read your letter about China 3 times—trying to wrap my mind around this situation without taking a personal stance. I appreciate the background—it helps me to see more clearly (I hope). and Yes, I’ve thought much on your observations in order to understand – understand why people play the life lottery with odds most often stacked in favour of the house, not the players.

China has been cocooned from the west and capitalism for ages, but the visual age of communication is dawning there too, and their politics can no longer “protect” them, and maybe there is no wish to protect any longer. The apple has been bitten once again.

No doubt, when others “see” what they perceive as life in a capitalistic society, they see only the best. They do not know of the soul sucking and life robbing price people pay for this, now or in the past. Nor do they care. They do not see the earth littered with the bones of others; they see only fertile soil for growing all of their dreams. Whether these dreams are visions of their own creation or ones of desire planted from other pollinating sources is immaterial. All they know is that they want a better life, and they are oblivious to the cost. Like all brave new wanderers in a new land, they are cavalier when they must answer the question, “at what cost?”.

When I sent this clip to you, I was the 5 or 6th recipient in an e-mail chain. Most of the comments to introduce this clip were glib and mocking and derisive—made by the more worldly apes of the west more seasoned and knowing than the naive players new to the game of working off one’s ass. Then there was some discussion in the office by those I work with, equally callous and condescending. Those brief, careless words coloured my opinion of the role we play as “older students of capitalism.”

While we are no more able to change the world than we are able to circumnavigate the universe or explain the meaning of life, it doesn’t give us permission to turn our backs on exploitations such as this. If Columbus had been operating under the watchful eye of his own society, would he have plundered the New World so easily and freely? If the British had managed only a tacit peace with other nations to master the Americas, would they have exploited the settlers and the Native peoples as they did?

To know oneself, is to know your own behaviour when you think no one is looking… and as we are evolving more and more into a visual society more than an auditory one, then when we “see” the apple being bitten into, perhaps it’s time to raise a red flag – one high enough, and bold enough it cannot be ignored?

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics, technology, travel | 2 Comments »


Posted by metaphorical on 5 July 2007

I’ve been on a little hiatus, a 5-day weekend spent mostly rock climbing in the Adirondacks. Before heading out though, I picked up the greatest artifact in human history since the lightbulb, and finally, today, blogged at work about taking the iPhone to that land of trout streams, mountains, meadows, and minimal cellular coverage.

One of our interns and I spent Friday afternoon waiting together on line at the Times Square AT&T store, customers #13 and #14. His terrific blog entry, describing his day, is here. If you don’t read my entry, at least read his.

Posted in pop culture, technology, travel | 3 Comments »

What goes to Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay in Vegas

Posted by metaphorical on 25 March 2007

My regular rock climbing partner, M., won’t be climbing this weekend. His wife wants to go to Atlantic City to, in his words, “blow $100 in quarters.”

I said to M, “You both love the movies. For the same $100 you could come to Manhattan, see two movies, and have a nice dinner in between.” I know the Ms don’t have a lot of money, so the Atlantic City trip was even more puzzling than it might have been for another couple.

Moreover, humans as a species are generally risk-averse. If fact, studies show that people, on average, need nearly 2x return on a wager to accept it, as a very nice write-up, here, of some recent research shows.

In other words, the average person will turn down a 50-50 bet, such as a coin flip, even if they’re offered $75 if they win against a $50 loss if they lose. To pass up an investment with a 50 percent rate of return is a somewhat irrational level of risk aversion.

Yet every year, millions of people vacation in Las Vegas, and gamble away billions. My friend K., who was a Sloane management Fellow at MIT and has been a project manager for some very big, important projects has favorite rant that’s relevant.

“Do you like to bet at casinos?” she asks. “Okay, I can save you the trouble. Hand me a dollar. Okay, good. Now hold out your hand.” She then hands the person 97 cents. “Wasn’t that fun?” she asks. “Want to go again?” (This is a very funny routine, when you get to see the stunned look on the other person’s face.)

Some people, the new research argues, aren’t so risk averse. MRI studies suggest that their sense of reward is dulled, compared to other people, but so is their sense of risk. Rock climbers might fall in that category, the researchers argue. But it seems a lot of people aren’t risk averse.

Today’s NY Times Real Estate section has an article, “The Danger in the Fine Print,” about people who buy condos in New York before construction on the apartment building is complete. Then, buyer “are sometimes in for very big surprises, some of them infuriating.”

Rooms are often smaller than advertised. The Viking stove isn’t there, but a stove described as being of “similar quality” is. The view is not at all what the buyers imagined.

Were they deceived?

Not necessarily. In many cases, neither they nor their lawyers read the offering plan carefully.

The article describes a couple who were more than infuriated.

Margery Germain said neither she nor her husband, Mark, noticed the fine print in the offering plan explaining that although their Chelsea apartment had been marketed at 1,500 square feet, it really wouldn’t be that big because the figure measured the space to the unit’s exterior walls and included space that they could neither see nor use.

Mrs. Germain walked through the building for the first time last September, she said, and was devastated when she stepped into the space that would be her two-bedroom apartment: “I was horrified. I ran out and called my husband and said: ‘It’s tiny. What are we going to do?’ Compared with the floor plan we had been given, every room had lost some square footage. It wasn’t what we expected.”

The Germains were lucky; the fine print worked for them as well as against them. An escape clause “allowed them to walk away from the deal and get their deposit back because the building was not ready for occupancy when it was supposed to be, by the end of 2006.”


The Germains, who are empty nesters looking forward to downsizing from their home in Scarsdale, N.Y., and moving into the city, decided that buying from a floor plan wasn’t for them. They have since signed a contract for a loft at the Tribeca Summit, a converted warehouse that is not yet completed. “But we’ve seen the space,” Mrs. Germain said, “and we know what we’re getting this time.”

Clearly, this is not a couple that are risk-averse. So is that what’s going on? Lots of people, including Ms M, and millions of Atlantic City and Las Vegas vacationers, aren’t risk-averse?

I don’t think that’s true. In fact, they’re at least as risk-averse as anyone, is my guess. They take these vacations because of an entirely different calculation from the one that K enacts. And it’s a calculation that’s so rational that it’s almost hard to see why you’d want to take a vacation anywhere else. M put his finger on it himself. He said of his wife, “She thinks she’s going to come back with money.”

That’s the calculation in a nutshell. A person sets aside $100, or $600, or $1600 dollars, for a vacation. They’re going to spend that no matter what. If they go to dinner and a movie, the money is gone. If they go to Hawaii or the Grand Canyon or Paris, the money is gone. If they to Las Vegas, they might come back with $100, or $5100 in their pocket. The odds are low, but they’re higher than zero.

Vegas knows this, of course, and they do everything they can to make this calculation come out right. In the same way that a cruise vacation or a package tour is very predictable—remember, people are risk-averse!—with all expenses accounted for except for time spent in gift shops, the Vegas vacationer knows what the hotel will cost. Food is so cheap as to be negligible—about $10, tip included, will buy you a breakfast that will last until your $19 all-you-can-eat buffet dinner. Everything else is just walking around the strip, seeing the sights, and deciding which casino’s slots to drop those quarters into.

Why do people take other vacations? Because they want to actually see Paris, swim in the Hawaiian sea, or the take in the Grand Canyon and maybe even hike it. But there’s a large group of people for whom a large number of vacations are interchangeable. Cruises to nowhere. Florida beaches with open bars. And Las Vegas. Only one holds out hope of being free.

Posted in technology, travel | 2 Comments »

Success, summits, and self-sufficiency

Posted by metaphorical on 9 March 2007

Big Jim Whittaker, as he is called by climbers, has an op-ed piece in today’s NY Times. He takes up the question of whether Oregon law should regulate climbing, for example by requiring search beacons, as the state legislature there is considering. Whittaker was the first American to summit Everest, co-founded the outdoor equipment retailer REI, and served for decades on volunteer mountain rescue crews in the Cascades.

Though rescue beacons help find climbers, seemingly saving lives in two ways—finding climbers while they’re still alive, and making rescuers more efficient, letting them get off the mountain more quickly— Whittaker thinks that all things considered, such legislation, if not the beacons themselves, is a bad idea.

This might seem a no-brainer: there are many lightweight, relatively inexpensive safety devices on the market today. Signaling beepers — more accurately called “emergency position indicating radio beacons” — as well as cellphones (which one climber in the February incident used to alert rescuers), global positioning systems and avalanche beacons have all saved many lives and will continue to do so. Mandating such equipment, however, does not offer a quick and easy solution to the problem of those in distress. In fact, reliance on technology often creates new dangers, not only to climbers but also to rescuers.  

The technology has made it easier to rely more on search-and-rescue personnel, and less on skill and knowledge. For example, as cellphones have become common, well-equipped and trained hikers have used cellphones to call for rescue, although in hindsight they could have descended on their own.

In these cases, the high-tech devices wasted rescuers’ time and cost taxpayers huge sums of money.

The accidents on Mount Hood remind us that nobody can move in a severe mountain storm, not even a rescuer. Sending a distress call could result in rescuers being sent out into a life-threatening situation for no good reason, which is why most rescue workers oppose the law. And waiting for rescuers summoned by beacons can be more deadly than moving on.

Whittaker is referring obliquely to a phenomenon variously called “risk compensation and “risk homeostasis.” It pervades not just climbing but any activity with a significant component of risk. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in politics, technology, travel | 5 Comments »

The housing market: everything you know is wrong

Posted by metaphorical on 4 March 2007

The power of graphical representations to drive complex relationships straight into the understanding is often nothing short of amazing. I’ve mentioned Strange Maps before; last month’s selection included a terrific map showing right-handed vs left-handed driving. Almost in passing it gives a U.N.-level representation of the decline of the British Empire and the coincident American Century.


Dark blue: drives on left (mainly British ex-colonies).
Light blue: used to drive on right, now on left (Namibia).
Purple: used to have mixed system, now drives on right.
Light red: used to drive on left, now on right.
Dark red: drives on right.

The countries still in blue are all former colonies, as are a couple of the purples—most prominently Canada, which I didn’t know ever drove on the left, though after thinking about it for a moment; of course they did! And it certainly makes you want to run to Wikipedia and see what the hell Namibia’s story is. (Apparently it started out as a German colony and ended up under South Africa’s control after WWI. And indeed, Wikipedia gives 1918 as the year it started driving on the left.)

Not all graphical representations are maps. Some are, well, graphs.

For about a week I’ve been looking at “A History of Home Values.” In a single wavy line, it calls into question most of what I thought I knew about residential real estate as an investment.

For example, “A home is a good investment.” Uh, no. It wasn’t for most years between 1890 and the end of WWII. Since then, it’s kept up with inflation, but every spike has been met with a decline. I always thought the effect of the up and down was always a net up—not so until then early 1990s. Then, home prices started a steep upward movement that never wavered.

Looking at the graph you see that the current housing boom is so unconditionally aberrantly anomalous that anything you thought you know about the market is surely wrong, or at least, unsupported by anything like historical antecedent.

Posted in language, travel, writing | 6 Comments »

Are you geeky enough?

Posted by metaphorical on 4 March 2007

You can’t create a measure of geekitude with a single link. This one comes close, though. The link is “How to crash an in-flight entertainment system” on the CSO magazine website.

Here’s a quote a fair bit of it, which will cut into the joy you’ll experience when you read the whole thing. But I promise you it just gets better and better—if you’re geek quotient is sufficiently high. Or, just click here now.

The writer is Hugh Thompson, on a flight from Las Vegas to Orlando. The game in question is Tetris.

To give myself the biggest advantage in the game, I pressed the + control as many times as it would allow and got to the maximum value of 4. I then put on my “bad guy” hat on and asked: How *else* can I change the value in this field? Near my armrest was a small phone console; you know, the one where you can make very important calls for a mere $22 per minute. I noticed that the phone had a numeric keypad and that it also controlled this television monitor embedded in the seat in front of me.

I then touched the screen in front of me to highlight the number “4” in the options configuration shown in Figure 1. I tried to enter the number 10 into that field through the phone keypad with no luck: it first changed to the number “1” followed by the number “0”. Frustrated, I then made the assumption that it would only accept single digit values. My next test case was the number “8”; no luck there either, the number didn’t change at all. I then tried the number 5: success! ‘5’ is an interesting test case, it’s a “boundary value” just beyond the maximum allowed value of the field which was ‘4’. A classic programming mistake is to be off by 1 when coding constraints. For example, the programmer may have intended to code the statements:

0 < value < 5

When what actually got coded was

0 < value <= 5

I now had the software exactly where I wanted it, in an unintended state; the illegal value 5 was now in my target field.

If, like me, you’re laughing already, click here.

Posted in technology, travel | Leave a Comment »

Security theater of the absurd

Posted by metaphorical on 2 March 2007

I love theater, but not security theater. Bruce Schneier, the smartest guy I know when it comes to computer security, or any security for that matter, defines security theater as “measures designed to make us feel safer but not actually safer.” Living in New York, post-9/11, it’s easy to feel all the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players… Sans shoes, sans belts, sans water bottles, sans everything.

This morning, on the way to work, I stopped off at school to get my new ID. As I may or may not have mentioned here, I’m finishing a master’s program in creative nonfiction. Why the school chose the middle of the school year to create a new ID is something I’ll never know. I’m in my final semester; if they had waited till September I would have avoided the hassle entirely.

I’d seen the new ID and all I knew about it was it’s swipeable. It eliminates the need for a separate ID for, say, the meal card used in the cafeterias. None of the cafeterias are open in the evening, so no one I know uses them anyway. Whatever.

I got the ID, picked up some lunch to go, and got back to office around 1:00. Now one thing you need to know about my office is that it’s in a 43-story building in midtown Manhattan. Some office buildings in Manhattan have real security; mine isn’t one of them. After 9/11, my building required that you show some ID, briefly. Then it issued its own IDs and required, again briefly, that they be produced, before settling into an inconsistent and extremely lazy practice of requiring them sometimes, but not for UPS, FedEx, attractive women, food deliverers, and most visitors.

Some buildings have instituted real security, installing turnstiles that only admitted only those wielding badges, which have to be swiped. In such buildings, visitors have to get a picture taken and a temporary badge is made. My building isn’t one of them, and it’s hardly the only one to engage in half-hearted security.

At the time of 9/11 I was seeing a physical therapist at one of the hospital buildings in the NYU medical system; there, as at my building, IDs had to be produced, but for no real reason and you could show just about anything that had a picture. To test the outer limits of this theater of the absurd, I bought a fake ID on 42nd Street and used that all over town. I even wrote about it; the article is no longer on-line, but the first half of it can be found here.

I should mention that those of us working in my office have two IDs, one the post-9/11 building card for the downstairs RFID reader and the other a company card for the reader that lets us into the doors that lead from the elevator lobby. The downstairs lobby has no turnstiles or doors, so swiping your card only produces a green light on the reader, a certain beeping sound, and your photo being thrown up from a data file onto a PC screen behind the desk. No one, as far as I can tell, ever looks at that screen.

The two cards interfere with one another, by the way, and in the summer of 2005, I noticed that the company card produced the green light in the lobby, and the pleasant beeping sound as well. So beginning on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, I put the building card in my backpack and started using the upstairs one in the downstairs lobby, using, in other words, my company ID not just to get in the door up on the 17th floor, where our offices are, but in the lobby as well. My photo didn’t get thrown up on the PC screen, but no one seems to have noticed, for over 17 months now and counting, hypnotized, I guess, by the soothing beeping sound. If security guards in lobbies throughout New York are satisfied by security theater, then those in my building are satisfied by radio drama; the merest sound effects of security are sufficient.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, technology, travel | 3 Comments »


Posted by metaphorical on 27 January 2007

I’ve always been a diffident tourist. I love new places, but I hate being out of place. So I can sit my room for hours on end with a world of colors and tastes and languages just outside the hotel lobby doors. Having broadband in a hotel just makes it worse, of course, but I’ve always been like this. T spent one entire college summer in Berkeley without ever going to Candlestick Park, even though, back home, I had been going to Shea Stadium on my own for almost half a decade.

Yesterday I had an entire day to myself here in Shanghai, my first without appointments and work e-mailed from the office. I frittered the morning away, just as I might on a lazy Saturday morning back home. Finally, driven, not by adventurousness but the needs of my disfunctional metabolism, I left the room around 12:30.

The day before, while visiting the Sino-Italian Cooperation Program for Environmental Protection, I grabbed a booklet, “Shanghai/Tempo libero/Curiosita/Indirizzi utili.” The booklet is mostly in Italian, but not hard to decipher. There was a whole section on Italian restaurants, including a “MoCA Caffe”—‘MoCA’ being, I gathered, a now-universal abbreviation. The first Museum of Contemporary Art I ever went to was in Los Angeles, and it’s still one of my favorite museums anywhere—compact and beautiful, thought-provoking without exhausting.

The booklet gave the address as ‘231 Nan jing Road,’ essentially the street my hotel is on, and ‘People’s Park.’ “This is close enough to walk to?” I asked the conceirge. He looked dubious, more comfortable putting his guests into taxis than sending them into the city defenselessly. “Maybe 15 minutes,” he allowed. On a map, he put a dot right in the middle of a green patch.

People Park is a rare respite from Shanghai’s density, which is 50 percent greater than New York or Tokyo. There are few green patches on the city map, and if People’s Park were placed alongside the bottom of Central Park it would barely reach as far north as the Sheep Meadow. The green is a bit misleading too, with nearly as much concrete as grass. Still, it seems much beloved by the Shanghainese and deservedly so. A maze of walkways are lined by low trees with twisted trunks and branches. Bare in winter, they invite you to look through to the city’s skyline.

People’s Park

People’s Park

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in language, travel | Leave a Comment »

Getting neither the message nor the massage

Posted by metaphorical on 25 January 2007

“Rolex? Omega?”

“You want massage?”

“Handbag, handbag.”

“You want Chinese girl? Very young. Pretty.”

A lot of people in Shanghai speak English, but not a lot of it. If you stay in the tourist areas you get by without too much trouble, but once you leave the shore, any step can be the one with the drop-off and suddenly the water is neck-high. It’s hard not to fear you’re about to drown in an alien culture.

I take cabs to all my appointments. I ask the concierge desk to write out in Chinese the address I’m going to, and even then, the bellhop at the door calls the cab and discusses the destination with the driver. The bellhop then nods to me that the driver understands, and off I go. I have the hotel’s card, which I use to get back. Tomorrow, I’ll go from one appointment directly to the next; the concierge will have to write out both for me and I’ll hope for the best on the risky middle leg.

The street behind the hotel is an enormous shopping strip that goes on for a kilometer or so. It has no curbs, and cars apparently can’t drive down it, though there are streets that are allowed to cross it. There are no curbs, but some traffic lights, and people walk everywhere; the cars and bicycles weave through the pedestrians who sometimes wait for the light and sometimes don’t. At night the main street is crowded with neon signs and brightly lit stores and hotels and shops. People walk and mill about by the hundreds. But the side streets that don’t have traffic lights are dark, narrow alleyways that you can’t see down and haven’t changed since the invention of the light bulb.

During the day, I get asked a lot about watches and handbags, but at night it’s mostly about massages. I’ve learned to keep walking, but they sidle up beside me, keeping pace, leaning in so our arms are brushed up against one another, and they ask incessantly. “You want massage?” “You want Chinese girl?”—one question per stride. I look straight ahead and keep walking. After about a dozen paces with no response, they drop off, looking, I guess, for the next white face in the crowd. Sometimes it’s women who are doing the asking, and I can’t tell if they’re asking for themselves. I want to look them over but I keep my eyes straight and keep walking.

Tonight I asked the concierge to recommend a place to eat. Up to now, I haven’t wanted to be bothered. For the first few nights, I wasn’t able to synch with the time zone, so I’ve collapsed at 5:00 or 6:00 pm, gotten up at 9:00, and then rushed off to the Royal Meridien hotel next door, which serves dinner until 10:00. The food there is pretty good, but with my weird and hard-to-match diet, there’s only a couple of things on the Chinese menu for me. The Italian restaurant has a single dish—an overpriced spaghetti in oil and garlic. It’s nice and garlicky, but with a glass of overpriced wine and a small bottle of Perrier that costs the same as the wine the bill is about RMB 300. Divide by 7.7 and you’ve spent $40 on a light dinner in what should be, at least for meal prices, still a third-world country. Two years ago, traveling with Jen Liu, we would routinely stuff ourselves at restaurants she knew for under RMB 100 total.

“You want restaurant?”

Two nights ago, instead of Rolexes or massages, a teenager asked about restaurants. He had a menu in one hand; with the other he pointed upward. Across the street, up on the third floor, I could see the windows of what might have been a restaurant. It was after 9:00 pm, and I was looking for a dinner, but it seemed a little weird—out on the streets of Shanghai, every sentence drips with double meaning and is tinged with risk.

The next day, I ventured back in the bright sunlight of lunchtime. The same teenager was there and this time I let him lead me up and elevator, through a department store, and into a Chinese restaurant. It was tasty and cheaper than the Meridien, but not third-world cheaper.

So tonight I asked the concierge. He wants to know what kind of food and I say Chinese. “You want Shanghainese food?” he asked. I have no idea what the differences are so I say sure. He writes out an address and a very crude map. It’s out the front door and only about a 10 minute walk, with only one turn. “41. Just look for the number,” he says. “41.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in language, travel | 2 Comments »

Not getting the massage

Posted by metaphorical on 22 January 2007

It started in the climbing gym a week ago. I pointed out a new hard route in a section of the gym that I usually enjoy. Mike couldn’t get it, then I told him how I thought it ought to go, and it worked. So then I had to try it. There’s a weird part where two walls meet at an angle. I wedged myself in to get the weight off my arms., pressing my back hard against one wall—so hard that I hurt it pretty badly. I finally just let go, but the damage was done.

That was a week ago Sunday. I got to the chiropractor on Tuesday with muscles so tight it was hard to walk. He loosened them, which is when the real pain started. It turns out those muscles were tense for a reason—to protect the one severely pulled muscle underneath. It was not going to be the best week to spend fourteen and a half hours on single plane. Even a comfortable plane.

I don’t know whether seat 26H was designed by the top sadist over at Boeing or just an idiot. Have you ever slept on a pull-out sofa bed where there’s a bar running across the middle of your spine? This was a sitting-up version of that. For fourteen and a half hours. Then came the 40 minute queue at Customs. Have you ever been at JFK and looked over at the lines for everyone with a foreign passport and thanked god you weren’t one of them? That’s the line I was on at the Shanghai airport. If JFK and PVG are in some kind of retaliatory arms race, then we need a new round of strategic abuse limitations talks. I only mention this because I had to pick up my bags and move them, and me, two feet up about 230 times during those 40 minutes. Then came the taxi line.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in language, travel | 1 Comment »

19 hours, 7700 air miles, and 13 time zones

Posted by metaphorical on 19 January 2007

To my thousands and thousands of devoted readers and subscribers: I leave for Shanghai early Saturday morning, returning the evening of the 31st. Posting may be sporadic, and might take a travelogue-like turn. But don’t expect the stylistic second coming of Paul Bowles (more like Jane Bowles, I would think). Mambo-king: I expect to see a draft of your first assignment, no matter where I am.

Oh, and for the sticklers: the figure of 19 hours is door-to-door, or at least terminal-to-terminal, including a 2-hour layover in Chitown. I’ll only have 17 hours in the air, and only 14:30 on the main leg. Luckily I’ll have about 137 hours worth of reading material with me.

By the way, might be a good time to point out, as Brooklynite does on his blog, that this is National DeLurking Week 2007!

More posts from Shanghai here and here.

Posted in travel, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »