30 September 2010

Christine O'Donnell

It's difficult to believe the succession of bizarre news about Christine O'Donnell, the Republican (Tea Party) nominee for a Delaware Senate seat.

During the nineties, she founded and led a group called Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT) dedicated to promoting abstinence and discouraging masturbation. Seriously. Unfortunately, SALT has avoided filing a tax return with the IRS for three years now and will soon lose its nonprofit status.

O'Donnell has repeatedly lied about her education. In 2005, she sued the Studies Institute, an intercollegiate study group, stating that she had lost the chance to get a master's degree at Princeton because of their discrimination - even though she didn't yet have a bachelor's degree at that time, so it's hard to see how that could be anything but a lie.

More recently, her LinkedIn profile stated that she attended Claremont Graduate School and the University of Oxford. But instead, she actually received a fellowship from a conservative think-tank called the Claremont Institute, and she once attended a summer seminar given by the Phoenix Institute that rented space at Oxford.

O'Donnell has defended herself by claiming that some malicious person created that otherwise-accurate profile years ago, in order to... um... well it wasn't her, liberals! Oh and they also made one at a similar site called Zoominfo, even impersonating her email address. Villainy!

LSG

A favorite hangout of mine from last year, the Lost Shepard Girl Freehouse, was just voted one of the ten best bars in Korea by 10 Magazine. Pretty cool. Congratulations to the owner and my friend, Shawn!

China: Beijing


Part Three: Beijing (北京)


2,500 years ago, China was a riot of many different small feudal kingdoms, each holding their own scrap of territory and warring for more. But things were changing. New iron weapons were replacing the old bronze ones, while at the same time new philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism were giving form to the emerging Chinese civilization. Generals like Sun Tzu began to study war as an art. Scholars like Han Fei began to craft law from principles and reason instead of whim. And in only a few decades of the 3rd century before the current era, the smallest kingdoms were swallowed up into the major powers of Han, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Chu, Qin, and Yan. The world must have seemed a new place.


The historian Sima Qian (c.145 ~ c.86 B.C.E.) tells us in his Records of the Grand Historian about a city called Ji. It was founded by the emerging Kingdom of Yan, along a trading route that wound from the central plains of China up to the high steppes. It had fresh water from the Yongding River.


Wars raged among the kingdoms, as they allied together to oppose the strongest or betrayed each other for a chance at conquest. In 232 B.C.E., the prince of Yan, Prince Dan, was taken hostage by the neighboring Kingdom of Qin. Only after many years could he escape back to his beautiful city of Ji. He huddled there, humiliated by Qin and fearful of their powerful armies.


Seeing no chance for his people in war, Prince Dan asked that his faithful retainer Jing-Ke assassinate the King of Qin. General Fan Yuqi cut his own throat, so that Jing-Ke could bring the head of a Yan general as a gift - and so get close to the King of Qin. Jing-Ke rode out of Ji with a poisoned dagger he had purchased for 100 measures of gold. As he rode, he sang:

The winds cry xiao xiao,
Yi waters are cold.
Brave men, once gone,
Never come back again.

When he reached the Kingdom of Qin and was given an audience, Jing-Ke seized the King and raised the dagger. But he hesitated. The King tore himself free - leaving his sleeve in Jing-Ke's hand - and cut down the assassin with his sword.


In his anger, the King of Qin, Qin Shi Huang, marched all his forces on the city of Ji. Its capture signaled the end of the Kingdom of Yan and indeed all the kingdoms; Qin Shi Huang crowned himself the first Emperor of China six years later. He subjugated all: the Empire of China had risen.


Ji survived.

---

We arrived mid-morning in Beijing. The sleeper train was strange to me - I am not a veteran of many train rides, and this one was strange, with its smooth plastic cabin, narrow bunks, and accompanying duo of Chinese mother and son. A recessed screen played American movies dubbed into useless Chinese, and metal pegs popped out from the wall when necessary so that you can climb up into your bunk and painfully rap your head on the ceiling. There was a window, though, from which we could watch as ragged dirt roads and crumbling buildings gave way to suburban apartments and finally to lofted skyscrapers.

Beijing! For many Americans like myself, it's a name filled with mystery and a definite sense of Other. Even after the better part of a week in China, there was something special about even the idea of Beijing. The capital and seat of communist power in the modern world, propping up crazed Pyongyang and weak-sauce Hanoi. Home of Mao. Monument to authoritarian collectivism. Scary stuff.

Of course, familiarity breeds contempt. When we first went to take the subway and saw the pair of guards in dress uniform, holding guns and standing stiffly, one on a little stool to make their height even - well, it was off-putting. But it wasn't long before we were wondering about whether the height-adjusting stools were custom-made to compensate for each short guard's deficiency or if there was a stack of assorted stools somewhere, with guards standing next to each other before their shifts to work out what was needed.

Beijing started out in perfect form. The weather was not only several degrees below flesh-boiling, it was actually cool enough to be only comfortably warm. The trip north and recent weather shifts meant we could walk around without feeling grimy with sweat. And what was more, we discovered our hostel was positively delightful. The Lotus Hostel was right near the thick of things, too. More on it later.

We had a loose itinerary, in the sense that we knew what we wanted to see and where those things were located, but no exact schedule. It's the best way to travel, in my opinion. Be prepared (Scouting is ingrained in me) but stay loose. The most important thing was also one of the most famous: the Forbidden City. Eager and wary of not having enough time later, we went immediately.

It was not easy to work out exactly how to get there and inside. We took the subway with no difficulty, but the huge breadth and width of the People's Square (aka Tienanmen) and the Forbidden City means that if you make a wrong turn, you have to walk for twenty minutes before you discover you're going the wrong way. I imagine it was much like visiting a strange planet of aliens twenty feet tall: the place just wasn't at the right scale for human beings. They say a million people can fit in the Square, and I believe it (if they crowd in a lot).


We knew we were getting close when everything opened up; the street was eight lanes across, Mao's tomb towered behind an obelisk, and the Forbidden City's gates half-emerged, screened by a milling mass of Chinese tourists posing for pictures and buying 20-cent popsicles.

Gleefully, we squirmed in through to the courtyard of the compound that had housed dozens of Chinese Emperors for hundreds of years. This was one of the places I wanted to See Before I Die: a deep breath was called for.


And there it was, the Forbidden City, built of zhennan logs, marble, gold, and hundreds of rows of carefully-crafted and baked tiles and bricks. The courtyard was huge, with large paving tiles laid down and limned with sparse grass. People crowded in at the gates, gaping at the bronze water clocks and measuring weights that had once been the standard for measurements to a nation of millions. Marble steps and decorations were kicked at by tromping feet, and some enterprising little boys took their bottles or toys and whacked at ancient carvings gleefully. In some Korean museums, the artifacts were deemed so precious that they weren't even on display, but here in Beijing we witnessed ancient architecture exposed to callous treatment that had already left it pitted and dulled.

The people swarmed to see the Palace of Heavenly Purity (the imperial audience hall) and other relics of ancient times. Just to get a look, it was necessary to crowd into a mess of tourists, all of whom held umbrellas (to shield from the sun) at just the right height to risk blinding me. Fighting the thick knots of people was getting tiring.

Now, there's a curious thing about travel (especially in Asia) that Lizzie has pointed out: if you go off the beaten path just a little, then often you'll find you've escaped the crowd. On this trip we'd already seen it with such sightseeing spots as the Shanghai World Financial Center (deserted and lovely though only fifteen yards from an hour-long line to go to an adjacent floor). And here again, the Law of Traveling Sheep proved true: after we elbowed our way through the gates of the Forbidden City and through a few masses of people, we found the Palace Museum off to the side. Not being central and not being as cinematic, it was almost deserted. It was also very cool.

I'm not a potter or a historian. I had little context or (frankly) even taste with which to judge. But the hundreds of pieces of delicate porcelain and pottery that populated the museum, spotlit in their dark cases - well, they were beautiful. They spoke of a past world of phenomenonal dedication, an imperial world where the august rulers could pay a man to spend a hundred hours crafting and painting a single intricate vase.

Two of my favorite examples:

This jar is from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 C.E.), made for use in the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the residence of the Empress of China. The inscription on the top indicates it was used in sacrificial rites. The Qing Dynasty revived traditional Chinese shamanic worship in the Forbidden City, so perhaps this jar would have held blessed incense or ground bark used in rituals. It is decorated with Peaches of Immortality and the Chinese character for longevity.
These pieces are ancient, dating from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 B.C.E.) They'res not even the oldest pieces they had on exhibit - China has some of the earliest pottery known to man, including Paleolithic and Neolithic pottery. These are from the tombs of the Shang Emperors, who preferred white pottery; perhaps because of Chinese medicine - the Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon, a 2,000-year-old handbook of Chinese medicine, places the "white heaven" and "white qi" above all other colors.

After this marvelous museum, we entered the gardens (restored partially with American money) and smaller rooms of the Forbidden City. While the front half of the City is devoted to vast spaces and stand-alone palace buildings, the rear half is a dense block of small garden courtyards and narrow wooden corridors, filled with weather wooden decorations and display cases. As we reached the final few stretches, we paused to buy some Cokes and relax in a garden about the size of my classroom: a smattering of trees and artfully arranged boulders were accompanied by a graying concessionary and graying attendant as well as a huge and elegant marble table and chairs, all gathered around a central display of jade. The jade was one big piece six feet in length and four feet in height; its pale green surface had been carved in detail with a depiction of monks climbing a wooded mountain to a temple. The eyes of the monks were tiny, but had been picked out of the soft jadeite carefully.

I was glad that the jade was protected by a plexiglass case. Nearby, a fat teenage boy climbed up on a stone chair and tried to jump onto a decorative pillar, chortling as he missed.

As the sky darkened with approaching night, Lizzie and I left the Forbidden City, pausing again to look at the size of the residence of the Son of Heaven. The bloodline lives on, though no Emperor is crowned: the young man who is second in line to the throne works as an electrical engineer at an agricultural complex. His ancestral home remains as vast and glorious as it ever will.


In the evening, we ate at a Japanese restaurant that looked good. It was. We had marinated bean curd, a plate of potatoes and beans, some spinach in peanut sauce, braised mackerel perfectly cooked, and spiced cucumber in soy sauce. At the hostel, we drank Asahi beer and planned the next day, chatting about the things in the neighborhood and what we'd witnessed at the Forbidden City. This eighth day in China had been a great first day in Beijing.

---

After one thousand years, Ji had been renamed Youzhou, and had seen fourteen Chinese dynasties rise to the Imperium before each, in their turn, sinking into ruin. Civil wars occurred occasionally, but a strong man always rejoined the fractured parts of China within a few decades. The Empire was strong, and Youzhou grew.


In the north, though, the nomadic peoples had been stirring. A young man named Temüjin had engineered ascension to leadership of his tribe, and had then in quick succession forged an alliance among the seven horse-peoples of the plains. At the council where he was acknowledged the Khan of the steppes, he took a new name: Genghis. And Genghis Khan was hungry for conquest.


The Emperor Weishaowang of the Jin Dynasty had scoffed at the threat, once. He had said that China was the sea and Mongolia but the sand. By 1213 C.E., he was scoffing no more. He had taken up arms against the horde, marshaling the armies of China to resist the endless arrows and sharp swords of the Khan. The Chinese forces lay in wait behind the Yanshan mountains, hiding at the mouth of Badger Pass. The Emperor waited in nearby Youzhou - the city that had once been Ji.


The Chinese army had half a million in cavalry and infantry - five times the number of Mongol invaders - and the close confines of the pass would neutralize the Mongol horsemanship and superior bows.


The Mongols crushed them.


The Great Khan sent his forces over the mountains to either side of the pass, a feat thought impossible.  They swept up the pass from the rear as the main body of the Mongols attacked.  The Chinese cavalry routed, and the Mongols slaughtered the Emperor's army - almost to a man.  A handful of sand had swallowed the sea.


Genghis Khan and his descendants went on to conquer almost the whole of China, swallowing it up in great bites as they galloped south.  When the seventh Great Khan, known as Kublai Khan, came to power after killing his brother, the Mongol Empire had swelled to contain a fifth of the Earth's habitable surface.  And for the capital of this mighty empire, Kublai Khan chose Youzhou.  He renamed it again, now calling it simply the "Great Capital," or Dadu.


Dadu prospered.

---

Our hostel, the Lotus Hostel, was spectacular. It was located in the middle of one of the hutong, the narrow alleys of the old city. This location was both good and bad. For the good, it meant that we could walk down past old and traditional houses, some held together with baling wire and spray-on adhesive, and even see into some of the courtyards that remained into the present, even if they were now filled with old bicycles and piles of cardboard. For the bad, it meant that much of these small houses shared a public bathroom in the alley, and sometimes a rotund but ever-smiling man would stand shirtless in the alley and accost everyone who passed.

The hostel was based around a central courtyard, with rows of rooms and a long and narrow restaurant surrounding it (an antiquated bomb shelter was below). It was extremely pleasant to sit outside and have a quiet dinner there, or read over a couple of beers.


I think Lizzie's favorite things, though, were the cats. A tomcat and his mate had produced a litter of kittens, who resided with their mother in a big basket that was kept in the courtyard. Lizzie spent significant time playing with the tomcat, whom she christened Chairman Meow (we later discovered his real name actually was Meowmeow) and the big basket of kittens. They squirmed bonelessly around on their old blanket bed, gazing with unfocused eyes and kneading their siblings' backs.

It was good that the hostel was so pleasant, because the next day was rainy. It was really the first inhospitable day that China had offered so far (not counting the previous heat and a few drizzles) so it was hard to complain too much, especially after the majesty of the previous excursion. We were content to have a low-key day, and decided to just try and check out a few nearby sights.

The Geological Museum of China was just a skip and jump away from the Lotus Hostel, so that was first. We trotted over to it with our umbrellas whipping about as we tried to hold them perpendicular to the surprising winds.

We were expecting to be amused, and frequently we were. A chart showed man's evolution from ape into Spanish dandy, and their huge globe had suffered some damage and seen a large section of landmasses replaced with water (cheaper to paint). The paleontology section, on the other hand, was a little creepy: the large display of replica dinosaur bones was collapsing, leaving velociraptor legs without a torso and a suspended tyrannosaur head.

Strangely, one of the visiting exhibits had almost nothing to do with geology or the earth sciences at all. It was instead a display of artifacts from the Cultural Revolution and associated events, such as the rifle of one of Mao's lieutenants. Nearby pictures appeared to show some soldiers near a large hole, but I can't vouch that it really had anything to do with the study of rocks.

The museum displays were usually accompanied by an English translation, except for a few obscure blocks of text that were probably just descriptions of cobalt or something. One security guard helpfully followed us around at a distant of five paces, perhaps just in case we came up with any urgent questions or decided to steal their prized cinnabar crystal, "The King of Cinnabar."

Lizzie and I each made building-block structures, to see whose edifice would be more resistant to an imitation earthquake. As it turns out, neither of us should be seeking a career in architecture.

Near the Geological Museum was a pearl and jade emporium. It was much nicer than the other markets we'd visited in China, and stocked hundreds of jade bracelets and necklaces of varying quality. Interestingly, it seems that in order to store and display jade, it is necessary to keep a container of water nearby to maintain humidity. Without moisture in the air, jade may crack, warp, or discolor.

The evening was devoted to kittens and reading and beer, with great success on all fronts.

---

Eventually, of course, the Chinese recaptured their own country, and a Chinese Emperor ruled once more. The north was reconquered and the Mongols fled, and the Ming Dynasty was followed by the Qing Dynasty. Dadu was renamed after the Mongol palace was razed. It would be known as Beijing, the "Capital of the North."

In this new Beijing, center of the country, great things were done. Amazing buildings rose into the sky on the backs of peasants: the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Yuyuan Gardens, the Summer Palace. To stop any future Khans, a Great Wall burst into being in long stretches - one in particular followed the lines of the mountains where Genghis had attacked, once upon a time.

And even as the city and country were redone with beauty, so too was China dealing with serious threats. Western powers began trading, then began controlling, and finally began warring. And the people of China, who for so many years had labored uncomplainingly in obedience to Confucian ideals... well, at first there were just murmurs.

China has long prized collective thinking and action. An old saying has it, "無重至禍不單行" - "a single day of winter will not make three feet of ice." But it had been cold for so many years in China. People had starved, people had gone homeless, people had died. There was a great deal of ice.

In 1911, the people rose. They rose with many voices and in conflict, as Nationalist forces and Communist forces began to conflict. And in a few years, the Japanese had begun attacking and had imposed a puppet government on the northern section of China called Manchuria. Everyone fought with everyone. Nationalists and Communists cooperated to attack the Japanese puppets, and then betrayed each other. When the war ended and the Japanese and puppets were gone, there was a full war in a way that had not been seen in China for many centuries.

The conflict ended in 1949, finally, when Chiang Kai-shek fled with the remains of his Nationalist forces. Mao Zedong, head of the Communist Party of China, took control, and the People's Republic of China coalesced. The capital was Beijing, and it was stripped of ancient things and false things and filled with monuments to new leaders and new ideals and new lies.

The last Emperor of China, the reigning ruler Aisin-Gioro Pu yi of the Qing Dynasty, was humbled by the changes. His Empire fell, was torn, was attacked, and finally wholly remade. He had been seized by the revolutionaries and the Japanese and the Russian Communists and then finally his own people. He was set to work in a university's botanical garden, turning the earth slowly with a spade. Mao rose like a dragon, and all of China was reshaped to his desires. Mao was China.

Beijing flourished.


---

And so on the tenth day: the Great Wall of China.



It's something like 5,000 miles long - in several sections - built between the fifth and second centuries B.C.E. Millions labored to build it. Hundreds of thousands died in the process. When it comes to world monuments, it stands almost alone in fame and prestige and grandeur.

While there are many accessible areas, the most frequented is the Badaling section just to the north of Beijing. This area is almost completely rebuilt and refurbished, and has lines and crowds and whatever else. Unwilling to go to DisneyWall, Lizzie and I instead hired a van to drop us off at the Jinshanling ( 金山岭) portion of the Wall. This turned out to be the best decision we could have made: Jinshanling has both rebuilt and original sections, only a sparse handful of tourists, and it runs over an achingly beautiful tract of land.

Even this distant section still had amenities. A small cluster of buildings sat at the foot of the main trail: a restaurant, a small hotel, a tourism center, and a long shed-like building where vendors sold overpriced water and mementos. And only five minutes up the trail was a clattering old cable car, saving us the exertion of climbing to the top of the mountain in exchange for a mild risk of death. Its thick windows were scratched and the metal walls were battered and dented in a distinctly dangerous-looking way. Also, I swear I heard a bolt pry itself loose and fall free, just because it was a jerk.

The Great Wall of China was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. It ran across mountaintops and ridges, dipping and rising. The air was cool and clear and I could see far, but the loops and towers of the Wall danced off far beyond the limits of my vision. We were well away from any human development except for one or two roads that ran north, and even they were so distant they just looked like a thread of asphalt peopled with ants. The hills and mountains were thick with bushes and trees, and the sky was so very blue - streaked with cirrus. I felt a deep awe of the majesty of nature and a burst of pride: man can build such things!

The large stones were neatly-cut where we first ascended, but as we moved to the unmaintained portions they became rough and rounded. The mortared towers became ruinous, yielding to only the remains of walls and large stacks of fallen stones. Eventually, we got to points where the wind-borne dirt had accumulated over the years and become carpeted with green grass. I plucked a yellow flower from the top of the Great Wall.

Our route on Jinshanling (map) was east from the cable car, towards the Simatai portion of the Great Wall (currently closed to visitors). We hiked along the top to Zhandoukou Pass, moved on a little further to the collapsed West Five-Eye Tower, and then doubled back to the pass where we went off the Wall and back to the parking lot. We went about six kilometers, all in all. We stopped repeatedly to take pictures, eat snacks, or just plain marvel.


After about twenty minutes, Lizzie and I noticed we had company. There were a few groups of people near the top of the cable car, but once we were a kilometer away there were only a handful of other people in sight... yet two of them kept pace with us. They were both middle-aged Chinese women with bags in hands. They paused to scoop up the one or two discarded bottles we encountered, but then would catch up with us. If we stopped to drink some water or eat a dumpling, they stopped. Always smiling, always smiling.

Were they just overly friendly? They seemed to be trying to be helpful. They told us how old the Wall was, what this particular section was for, what the names of the towers were. They even tried to take a picture of Lizzie and I (tried being the operative word). But no matter how much we made haste or tarried, they stuck with us.

The other shoe dropped when we finally stopped at a platform and waved them on. We ignored their protests, and with as polite a manner as possible, in our best pleasantly firm voices, told them they could go on without us. Immediately they began telling us how they didn't have jobs and didn't have farms and would we please give them some money?

Lizzie gave me a wry look. She had understood what was going on long before I did. She is gifted in such matters.

We waited awkwardly and with broad fake smiles until we were left alone. The panhandlers went in search of better prey. To their credit, they were still in good humors.

In the third century C.E., Chen Lin wrote a poem.

A drinking horse at the foot of the Great Wall,
The chill of the water hurts its bones.
Go talk to the local officer,
Stay not, young man, is all his advice.
The authority follows only its own schedule,
Hounding more and more countrymen into the project.
Who should have died in the battlefield,
Rather than labouring gloomily here day and night.
The Great Wall is extending all the time,
Well exceeding three thousand miles in length.
At the construction sites many men, young and healthy,
Only widows stay behind thousand miles away at home.
Some were clever and wrote, telling their wives:
Marry soon and wait no more. Take good care
Of your new family and remember
Your lost husband once in a while.



Exhausted, we dozed in the van ride back to the hostel. When I woke with the van still humming along the highway, I flipped through the pictures on my camera, already remembering.

We rested the remainder of the day, until the evening, when we decided to go out to see something I'd heard about with glee: the night market and snack street of Wanfujing (王府井).

This is one of the bigger shopping districts. On that evening, it was crammed with people. They went in and out of the stores, which ranged from silk warehouses to haberdasheries to tea sellers. Most famous western brands were represented with huge signs and tall shopfronts. And neon: everywhere, neon. Under the brunt of streetlights and advertising, there were barely even any shadows underfoot.

I bought a jar of honey yogurt, mostly for the jar itself. But the saleswoman made me return the jar, which I guess they reuse.

I was really there for more interesting fare, though. I wanted to try some weird things.

The snack street is a long alley that sprouts off of Wanfujing. A thousand card tables are arranged in sequential U-shapes, and then stacked with big stoves and mini-fridges and cutlery other - stranger - paraphernalia. Above are hung signs advertising their wares.

Here were some offerings: Candied fruit. Veggie pancakes. Lamb kebabs. Grasshoppers. Beef noodles. Rat. Snake. Sheep testicles. Centipedes. Seahorses. Lamb intestine. Scorpions.

I have always been an adventurous eater. I ate a snake, some seahorses, and some scorpions.

The snake was tough and unpleasant. It was overcooked. I ate a snake at high adventure camp in Scouts once, and it was much better then (chopped and stewed). This snake was gritty, and after five solids minutes of chewing I had barely made any headway. I gave up on it, and regretfully tossed the rest of it in the trash. I didn't have all night to gnaw charcoal.

The seahorses were much easier to eat. They didn't taste much of the sea, and instead tasted like what they were: twisted bits of gristle and cartilage, greasy with over-used cooking oil. I understand seahorses can be palatable, if not delicious, if cooked in soup. I have my doubts.

I was zero for two at this point. But I was not discouraged, even if I didn't feel hungry enough to tackle a starfish (they looked pretty big).

I ate some scorpions.

The vendor had a big bin of them to one side. He'd pick them up and then slide a thin wooden skewer along under the carapace on their back. Three to a skewer. Then the vendor would put them to one side until someone ordered them. They hung there, legs moving gently and their stinger coming down listlessly on the skewer.

I ordered two skewers. They were very cheap. The vendor tossed them in oil with salt and pepper for a few seconds, then handed them to me. They were still steaming. I dragged one off the skewer with my teeth. It was tasty! Crispy and salty and peppery, but underneath that a definite and distinct flavor - earthiness. I ate the rest happily and eagerly.

The next day was our last day in China. With only a few items remaining on our list of things to see, we packed our backpacks and left them at the hostel's front desk, then got on the subway. We went to the Temple of Heaven (天坛) where the Emperor had once been responsible for the sacred rites that would ensure a good harvest. The central building is made completely from wood. It's very pretty, to be sure. But the real show was... well, everything else at the park surrounding the temple.

It seems that this was where the citizens of Beijing went to spend much of their leisure time. The pavements were filled with two separate dance classes, whose members (fifty people? a hundred?) bopped to the swing music spewing from battery-powered speakers or sashayed to ballroom dance. Several groups of musicians practiced their art; most of them were proficient, but one brass band appeared to be for beginners and its discordant warblings were audible for far too long. Chinese men played an interesting game where they threw two-foot wooden rings at each other from twenty yards in turns, then ducked and jumped to try to catch the rings around their necks. It was amazing.

---

Mao died in 1976. His mausoleum is of granite and pine and porcelain, and his body is displayed under sheets of crystal.

Deng Xiaoping took power of the Communist Party of China through a complicated series of political ploys and treachery. During the eighties, the rising banking system and market entrepreneurs helped spur on agitators for democracy, leading to brutal repression by the Deng and the Party. As he faded into the background, power began to slip away from the strong men at the center, even as they fight to succeed to a position of lessening authority. Jiang Zemin found himself unable to be absolute. Hu Jintao has had to bargain with leaders of the market. There is talk of unions.

The latest edition of high school history textbooks in Shanghai devote only one chapter to socialism and dedicate only one sentence to Chinese communism before 1979. There is only a single mention of Chairman Mao. It is in a chapter on etiquette.

Once again, China is changing.


---

Lizzie and I left China after ten nights and eleven days.

In Shanghai we saw the city laid out like a toy and the nations of the world made into commercials and a market that not only sold but also produced antiques.

In Hangzhou we saw a lake that was nearly a poem of beauty and three mirrors for the moon and a camphor tree that scraped the sky.

And here in Beijing we'd seen a City and a Wall and a metropolis that was bursting with history even as it bustled into the future.

Well worth the trip.

29 September 2010

O'Keefe

James O'Keefe is in the news again. And it just keeps getting uglier.

You probably remember O'Keefe from the ACORN videos. These heavily-edited videos featured O'Keefe pretending to be a sleazy guy seeking borderline-illegal advice. Even though he dressed as an elaborate pimp (fur coat and gold cane) when introducing the videos, in fact he was clad as a young professional during his sessions with ACORN operatives; after visiting a dozen offices, he managed to get some of them to give him advice that sounded pretty bad. His clever editing and some sloppy reporting meant that the entire thing was exaggerated, so that people believed that O'Keefe in his ridiculous get-up had been offered advice on how to pimp young girls. ACORN subsequently went down, and O'Keefe became a hero to everyone who believed that ACORN was evil.

ACORN was not evil, of course. They helped the poor get loans, negotiate through red tape, and engaged in crucial get-out-the-vote initiatives. Because the poor tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat, a certain other group disliked ACORN. Now they don't have to worry.

O'Keefe was arrested some time later breaking into the offices of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, having impersonated a telephone repair tech. He claimed he was not trying to tap her phones, but only trying to discover if Landrieu was ignoring the phone calls of constituents. How he was going to find out what phone calls she was ignoring without tapping her phones was not explained. I guess he was just going to stand next to the phone cabinets and listen real hard.

Anyway, he's back in the news.

A female CNN reporter alleges that O'Keefe tried to dupe her into getting onto a boat with him, where he would, unbeknownst to her, have champagne and strawberries waiting. The plan, allegedly, was to videotape himself hitting on her in an attempt to embarrass her and CNN.

One of his cronies, visibly uncomfortable with the plan, gave him up before the event. The CNN reporter just shut him down and left after meeting him at the boat. The same crony, Izzy Santa, has also given over to CNN a planning document for the event that has to be seen to be believed, and some emails. O'Keefe is trying to deny he was ever on board with the plan, but in one of the emails he asks an associate, "Do you really think we can get her on the boat?"

Here's an excerpt from the planning document, which is so bizarre that the CNN reporter says she thought it itself might be part of a second elaborate prank.


All future investigative journalism should require dildos in some form.

An Ounce of Gold

Columbia Journalism Review points out that a few organizations failed at basic reporting yesterday; gold rose to $1,306 an ounce, which is a nominal record but not an inflation-adjusted one. In other words, gold isn't really worth a record amount. As CJR reminds us:

When reporting on price changes over long periods of time, you have to account for inflation. It doesn’t make sense not to do that. Otherwise you’re about as valuable as your pops remembering the good old days when a loaf of bread cost 51 cents (which it did in 1980). The value of a dollar has fallen 62 percent since then.

So what newspaper made such a basic mistake? Well, the Wall Street Journal's front page. And the Financial Times. And Bloomberg. Reuters, Associated Press, ABC, Marketwatch, CNN, Fox News... pretty much every single news agency and newswire.

This is just embarrassing for American media.

28 September 2010

From "Slaughterhouse-Five," by Kurt Vonnegut

Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair.  Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground., to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

From the Obama Rolling Stone Interview

Very cinematic.

[Signaled by his aides, the president brings the interview to a close and leaves the Oval Office. A moment later, however, he returns to the office and says that he has one more thing to add. He speaks with intensity and passion, repeatedly stabbing the air with his finger.]

One closing remark that I want to make: It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having gotten certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we've got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward.

The idea that we've got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.

Everybody out there has to be thinking about what's at stake in this election and if they want to move forward over the next two years or six years or 10 years on key issues like climate change, key issues like how we restore a sense of equity and optimism to middle-class families who have seen their incomes decline by five percent over the last decade. If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we'd better fight in this election. And right now, we are getting outspent eight to one by these 527s that the Roberts court says can spend with impunity without disclosing where their money's coming from. In every single one of these congressional districts, you are seeing these independent organizations outspend political parties and the candidates by, as I said, factors of four to one, five to one, eight to one, 10 to one.

We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard — that's what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we've got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place.

If you're serious, now's exactly the time that people have to step up.

Realistic Spending Cuts

So there's an insane budget problem in the States. That's no secret. This budget problem comes from a drop in revenue caused by a recession and a set of big tax cuts, as well as the spending of two wars and a set of entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) as well as health costs.

Everyone wants to solve this big budget problem - or at least wants to be seen trying to solve it, while still making everyone happy. But the problem is that this is hard to do. The GOP has been keeping it vague, even though their Pledge to America promises to "repair our economy." The Democrats have made some tentative motions to tackle the problem, most notably by trying to reform health insurance to stop at least that one section from spiraling out of control in the future.

But would an actual serious adult - imagine some sort of Platonic wise autocrat - go about balancing our budget by 2015? What are some examples of the kinds of cuts that are necessary to close a gap of billions and keep it closed?

Well, I don't know. But the Center for American Progress has some very smart people (Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden) who threw together some numbers. Their report is called "A Thousand Cuts," and it is grim reading.

Their goal is a good one: outline some possible scenarios.

The purpose of this report is to examine what spending cuts could look like under several scenarios for hitting a deficit target of primary balance in 2015: either all through spending cuts, two-thirds through spending cuts, half through spending cuts, or one-third through spending cuts. Tax increases would have to make up the difference for those plans that don’t hit the target entirely through spending cuts— although we leave to another day detailing what such tax hikes might look like.
...
The cuts we identify are not chosen to scare, but represent a sincere effort to minimize the harm that would be done. Our goal is, to the extent possible, to preserve necessary spending that promotes economic growth, protects the most vulnerable, keeps the country safe, and fulfills our national obligations. But that isn’t easy. The truth is that, contrary to popular wisdom, most federal government dollars go to good and popular things.
...
Our deficit reduction target is $255 billion in 2015. This is the amount by which the deficit would have to be reduced in 2015, relative to the president’s current budget plan for that year, to bring the budget into “primary balance.” Primary balance is when total government revenues are equal to total government spending, with the exception of interest on the debt. A budget in primary balance means that all government services, benefits, and programs are paid for and require no additional borrowing to support.

So what did they come up with? Let's look at the half-spending plan: the plan that cuts $128 billion in spending, which would leave politicians to raise another $128 billion in tax revenue. What might some cuts look like that try to maintain our country's vital services and minimize harm?

Well, I excerpted it to the right.  Among the splashier casualties, you can see that it includes a 7% cut to defense spending, a 55% cut to agriculture subsidies, a 30% cut to the Universal Service Fund (telecommunications for rural areas and schools), an elimination of all kinds of tax breaks, a 10% cut to the Federal Highway Administration, a 19% cut to the FAA, and a full 33% cut to the Bureau of Land Management.

I am not an expert, but I can see one serious problem: we're still just crawling out of a recession, and one of the best ways anyone ever gets out of a recession (at least at a time when the Fed has interest rates already at rock-bottom) is by putting money into infrastructure building to provide direct jobs now and indirect jobs later.  A guy with a shovel builds the road and in ten years a guy with a truck drives down it. But here we're making some big, big cuts in infrastructure programs.  And even more to this point, the report essentially recommends achieving these cuts by having the FHA devote itself to maintenance rather than expansion.

Naturally, a few things make me smile.  I hate agriculture subsidies in general, and seeing those get slashed would give me a nice warm feeling.  But a lot of these things are truly painful cuts.  The authors admit as much, concluding their paper:

Well, that was miserable.

Perhaps there were moments of joy for you when some particular cut struck a chord, or dealt with a long-disliked program. Maybe you’re a pacifist and reducing the number of men and women in arms and cuting down weapon systems is deeply satisfying. Or perhaps you think that highways ought to be paid for by local governments that put tolls on them or that we spend too much on health research.

But it’s evident that cuts of the scope and magnitude we have laid out really will do harm to the country, especially for the plans that cut the most. They are cuts that we’ll end up paying for one way or another. We may pay for them in delays at the airport or in the emergence of a new disease without a cure. It may cost us in traffic jams and rough roads or in unsafe food. It may mean lower economic growth as the infrastructure crumbles, education suffers, and investments in research and the technologies of the future languish. Or our armed services may be late-arriving at an international hotspot. Whatever the consequences, and you can go through the list and imagine them, there will be some. And as bad as the consequences might be from what we’ve outlined here, the consequences from the alternatives we considered were, in our view, worse.

But these are, in fact, the kinds of choices we’re going to have to make. Are we going to cut or are we going to raise taxes? What cuts? What taxes? These plans are not designed to shock. It’s just what you end up with when you go through the process of actually identifying what would have to be cut. The work ahead over the coming years as we seek to address the unsustainable deficits of our future, once the economy is back on solid ground, will entail these sorts of tough decisions of what to cut, what to tax, and how much of each.

Wise words. Eventually, my generation will have to pay for what the Baby Boomers have bought.

24 September 2010

Interrobang!

It's National Punctuation Day, and I'd like to take the opportunity to tell you about my favorite bit of punctuation, the interrobang. It is, in the simplest way, a combination of the exclamation point and question mark.

From Wikipedia:

American Martin K. Speckter invented the interrobang in 1962. As the head of an advertising agency, Speckter believed that advertisements would look better if copywriters conveyed surprised rhetorical questions using a single mark.

I am not a terribly efficient guy in many ways, but I like the idea of simple changes to shave off wasted seconds. Have you ever been angry at someone online, chatting on an instant messenger or in an email or on Facebook, and tried to express your incredulousness? "How can you be so stupid?!" Well, imagine cutting literally a whole 4% from the time you take to type! If you use the interrobang (and have already programmed into your keyboard a universal hotkey for it) then you've saved that time! And every time you want to express both shock/excitement and a questioning tone, that's another fraction of a second you've saved!

How can you let yourself waste that time‽

I have done some calculations, and if you express excitement and a question just once a day then over the course of your life you can save a whole fourteen minutes! You've extended your life by fourteen minutes you otherwise would have lost forever.

Immortality, you're within our grasp.

23 September 2010

From my father.

"I can't have any more ice cream. No more butter pecan. You'd never know I was the same guy who thumbed across the country twice and fought with a knife."

22 September 2010

GOP's new "Pledge to America"

So I wrote a while ago about the various Republican contracts - the Contract with America, Contract from America, New Contract with America, YouCut, and AmericaSpeakingOut. Well, there's a new one that has the full backing of the GOP: the "Pledge to America." That's right: the Republicans have endorsed some specific policies.

In another recent post of mine, I belabored the GOP for never moving away from generalities when it came to positive changes on things like deficit spending and healthcare reform. So let's see how this measures up.

This is a leaked copy of the "Pledge to America," but since they're releasing it tomorrow it can't be too different. Here's how it goes.

Boilerplate
First in the 21-page document, there's some standard ideological boilerplate for 5 pages: smaller government, make Washington listen, eliminate job-killing taxe hikes, etc. No surprises.

Finance
  • Extend all the Bush tax cuts.
  • New tax cut for small businesses (20 percent of income).
  • Unspecified "red tape" removal.
  • Repeal the 1099 provision of the health care reform.

This section will cost a lot of money. The Democrats also want to extend most of the Bush tax cuts (except the top 1%) and reform the 1099 thing, but the GOP's additional tax breaks will cost some hundreds of billions.

Spending
  • Cancel unspent stimulus funds.
  • Unspecified discretionary spending cuts.
  • Enact a budget cap.
  • Cut Congress' budget.
  • Hold weekly votes on "YouCut" proposals.
  • Cancel what remains of TARP.
  • End government control of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
  • Government hiring freeze.
  • Require a sunset provision in new laws.
  • Benchmark Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

The actual specified items will save something like $200 - 300 million, from what I can tell. About half the stimulus bill's unspent funds are tax cuts, and I think we can safely assume they won't actually repeal those.

Health Care
  • Repeal.
  • Tort reform.
  • Retain popular aspects of health care reform (pre-existing conditions, interstate purchase).
  • Prohibit funding of abortion.

If you repeal the parts of reform that keep costs down, then costs will skyrocket. Tort reform has been estimated to save something like $16 billion, a drop in the bucket of the massive costs of keeping the good parts but dropping the hard parts of health care reform.

Congressional Reform
  • Publish all bills online three days before debate.
  • All bills must cite Constitutional authority.
  • No legislative packaging. Each bill must address a single subject.

This sounds fine, although Constitutional authority in a huge number of bills will cite the Elastic Clause or the Commerce Clause and not leave anyone more enlightened. And of course there's absolutely no chance the GOP would stop legislative packaging.

National Security
  • No riders on troop funding bills.
  • Keep Gitmo open.
  • No civilian court trials.
  • Spend more on missile defence.
  • "Tough enforcement of sanctions on Iran."
  • Spend more on the border patrols.
  • Better visa review.

Obviously, this will cost a huge amount. No specifics are given on how much spending will be increased for things, but considering how Obama already massively increased the military budget we're going to see some crazy numbers here.

So overall, not a whole lot of specifics. I pretty much called it. Most everything that's specific will cost a lot of money, increasing the deficit. The entitlement cuts and spending cuts are either tiny or unspecified. No surprises.

You can read the Pledge to America here.

EDIT: In its first day, the Pledge has not been a success. Some of the conservative base are contemptuous; Erick Erickson at Redstate calls it "dreck" full of "compromises and milquetoast rhetorical flourishes." And on the left... well, it's a big fat target. Wonk Room has already begun mocking the Pledge for vowing to replace health care reform with identical provisions. And while everyone at the New Republic is piling on, Jonathan Bernstein is particularly damaging when he points out that the "foreign policy section is...amateurish and pathetic."  Ouch.

"Mossbawn: Sunlight" by Seamus Heaney

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose's wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith's scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

21 September 2010

Rome: Total Realism

So for a long time, they only games I really liked have been Baldur's Gate II and Civilization 4. The former is the apex of roleplaying games - the best one ever created, bar none, with an amazing script and a huge scope of possibilities in plot and characters, all balanced with a superb combat system. The latter is the renowned and latest release in Sid Meir's Civilization series, allowing you to control any of dozens of civilizations throughout the scope of history and incorporating diplomacy, war, religion, and a thousand other factors. And even though they're both showing their age, they're still amazing games that I have played through many times, an average of once or twice a year every year.

And now - finally - a third game has been added to the repertoire.

Rome: Total War is a pretty decent game. You can control one of several Roman factions (Julii, Scipii, Brutii) or one of many other civilizations around the era of 250 B.C.E. You control different cities and wage war, capturing them through siege or combat in the field. There are many kinds of units you can train and control, and you can fill your cities with many kinds of buildings. The combat is a great representation of military generalship (even if no past general ever had the benefit of an overhead view and absolute obedience).

So there are a lot of great things about it. But it throws historical accuracy out the window in some ways. Egypt is the Egypt of a thousand years previous, not the depicted era. Sensational units are snatched from history's rumor and made prominent forces, like Celtic "head hurlers" (who throw preserved human heads) and Germanic "shrieking women" (female berserkers). It's a little disappointing, and takes me out of the game completely.

But! A modification for the game exists. Rome: Total Realism (Wiki; official site) strips away all the nonsense, eliminates the Roman families so you just play as the Roman people, and replaces the pseudohistorical peoples with the actual peoples who existed then (i.e. "Spain" is downsized into "Iberia.") You can command real Rome. You can command the real legions.

The excellent structure and programming of the game is turned to its best advantage, and all those hours of Gibbon and Commentarii de Bello Gallico and Theodore Ayrault Dodge have filled me with possibilities.

A restaging of Cannae as Hannibal, and then Zama as Scipio Africanus.

An enactment of Issus or Tyre as Alexander.

The entire conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar can be replayed, or I can resist as Vercingetorix!

I'm pretty psyched about the whole thing, in case you can't tell.

If you like games and history, this is probably the one for you.

20 September 2010

Vote Republican, because they'll get back to you.

If you promise to eliminate specific negative things, you can appeal to all the people who hate those negative things. And if you promise to eliminate general entitlements, then you can appeal to all the people who want a smaller government (at least in theory) because no one imagines that their entitlement is the problem. It's all the money going to other people. Their Social Security/Medicaid/charter school/health inspection/water standards/road maintenance is important, it's all the waste that's the problem.

We'll lower taxes by 5% across the board, allowing our most productive people to get back to creating jobs. We'll eliminate the estate tax permanently, so no one is penalized for dying. And we'll slash the corporate tax rate down from its astonishing heights.

How will you compensate for all the lost revenue when we're already running a serious budget deficit? If we tax less, we will bring in less money.

Spending cuts.

What spending cuts?

We'll get back to you.
But we'll also eliminate the individual mandate in the new healthcare law so no one is forced by the government to buy a product or choose a government-sanctioned product over the one they want. And we'll eliminate the 1099 reporting requirement, so small businesses aren't burdened with so much paperwork over frivolous matters. We'll repeal this health care junk and replace it with something that works.

How can you keep healthcare affordable without a mandate - won't people just avoid enrolling until they're sick, making costs skyrocket? How can you pay for the popular parts of the healthcare reform (no screening for pre-existing conditions, interstate purchasing, etc.) if you get rid of the unpopular parts that fund the program?

We'll eliminate waste.

What waste?

We'll get back to you.
But we'll fix this disastrous foreign policy, and get rid of the START treaty. No more will we have to get rid of more nukes than Russia, and allow them to build more launchers while we have to dismantle ours. Plus, we'll get tough with North Korea and Iran in various ways that will force them to become responsible international citizens.

How will you keep Russia from building as many nukes or launchers as they want if you get rid of the hard-negotiated START treaty, that's endorsed by virtually every responsible figure on both sides of the aisle? And what ways will you use to approach North Korea or Iran that aren't being used right now? What ideas do you have about these things? What commitments will you make about these things? What does the GOP have to offer in the way of any credible leadership at all?

We'll get back to you.

19 September 2010

Caruba's Hot Air

Alan Caruba has a new column up. No, sorry, let me begin again.

Alan Caruba has a new "column" up. Yeah, there we go.

Any scientist who has not sold his soul to the environmental movement will tell you that the reason that greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2), do not cause any warming is due to the fact that they have to conform to the laws of thermodynamics. The first law states that “energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only change form.”

Energy produced by coal, natural gas, oil, or nuclear is energy that has changed from one form of matter to another. The attack on these sources of energy is a direct attack on the economic success of America and it is one that is at a dangerous peak of activity generated by the Obama administration, primarily through the Environmental Protection Agency.

The depth of his scientific ignorance is staggering. It would be ideal to take the number of things Caruba doesn't know about science, and use that as a fuel... to all appearances, that would rival the sun's output in power.

He could actually serve a useful purpose. If we just take the first paragraph of his column and show it to schoolchildren, they will look at it and be immediately motivated to learn, so that they can avoid being like Caruba.


[G]reenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2), do not cause any warming is due to the fact that they have to conform to the laws of thermodynamics. The first law states that “energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only change form.”

No energy is being created. The nuclear fires of the sun produce light in copious amounts, and the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere merely helps retain that light. This is pretty much the most fundamental fact of global warming, and Caruba's astonishing level of ignorance is enough to disqualify the rest of his column. But of course there's more!


Under the Clean Air Act, however, the EPA does not have this authority as CO2 is exempt from such action. Moreover, as noted, there is zero need to control CO2 as a threat to the environment because, without it, all life on Earth would not exist. It is CO2 that is the vegetative equivalent of oxygen that maintains all animal life. The two are symbiotic and have been for billions of years.

Yes, nearly all life on earth depends on CO2. Similarly, nearly all life on earth depends on water. And yet I'm pretty sure people can still drown, because too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

In the shortest of short term thinking, CO2 could possibly help plants. But they would probably hurt a lot worse by the dramatic shifting of water tables, depriving them or swamping them (depending); by forest fires caused by unusually parched conditions; by population migrations of people and animals; and so on.

Here is a great energy idea: let's power our civilization by producing steam from Caruba's hot air. He spews enough to keep us going for a long time.

EDIT: Caruba replies in the comments below! Well, sort of replies. He says some words, anyway.

17 September 2010

China: Hangzhou


Part Two: Hangzhou (杭州)

In the eighth century, Bai Juyi (白居易) came to the city of Hangzhou, where he had been appointed as governor. It was his first important post in the seven years since he had been disgraced for his failure to catch a murderer. He had been sent into exile, and only now did he have a second thin chance. He was eager to prove himself capable.

Hangzhou is centered around the West Lake (西湖). The Lake is very beautiful today, but when Bai arrived in Hangzhou, it was forever running low because of the poor repair of the dykes. Local farmers could no longer depend on it. He had the dyke repaired and causeways built, settling the lake at a useful level. In the process of making it practical, he also discovered how beautiful was this shining lake. He began to walk along its edges daily, absorbing the sight.

In his exile, Bai had honed his skills at poetry.


孤山寺北賈亭西
水面初平云腳低
幾處早鶯爭暖樹
誰家新燕啄春泥
亂花漸欲迷人眼
淺草才能沒馬蹄
最愛湖東行不足
綠楊陰里白沙堤
Gushan Temple is to the north, Jiating pavilion west,
The water's surface now is calm, the bottom of the clouds low.
In several places, the first orioles are fighting in warm trees,
By every house new swallows peck at spring mud.
Disordered flowers have grown almost enough to confuse the eye,
Bright grass is able now to hide the hooves of horses.
I most love the east of the lake, I cannot come often enough
Within the shade of green poplars on White Sand Embankment.

We arrived in Hangzhou in the early afternoon. Lizzie and I were badly stressed, since we had been worried about our train and our time in Shanghai had been as strenuous as it was rewarding. Hangzhou immediately made things worse. There were no taxis to be had. Thumping down the sidewalks with our heavy packs, we walked from one side of the dirty concrete station to the other, and then back again. Chinese people milled about and jumped into buses and pedicabs and cars. We looked for people getting taxis, but found ourselves unable to imitate them... the taxis just drove past us and picked up someone who was Chinese instead. I don't ascribe it to explicit racism; a Chinese person getting a taxi from the station was almost certain to be going farther and be a better fare than a laowai (老外; a foreigner). But it was still extremely frustrating not to be able to get a cab because of my ethnicity.

After twenty minutes of tramping in the sun and staring angrily at passing taxi drivers (I had the feeling that if I could just get them to turn and look at me, they'd have to feel guilty enough to stop) we finally managed to get a rip-off taxi. This unlicensed tumbledown van lurched through traffic and overcharged us for a brief ride to our hostel, the Westlake Youth Hostel.

We were frayed down to threads.

It's amazing, though, what an afternoon nap will do to cure what ails you. We slumped down into the big bed of the hostel room, and after some time asleep in the blessedly quiet room, we walked out to the lake.  The Shanghai bustle and misery of the trip from train to hostel faded from us, as we strolled hand-in-hand down the narrow cement path through the trees.

It was near sunset. The sun hung fatly across the lake, smearing red across its surface, and finally dipped into it, and was gone. I discovered that the West Lake is very beautiful in the twilight.


一道殘陽鋪水中
半江瑟瑟半江紅
可憐九月初三夜
露似真珠月似弓
A strip of water's spread in the setting sun,
Half the river's emerald, half is red.
I love the third night of the ninth month,
The dew is like pearl; the moon like a bow.

The next morning - our sixth day in China - we rose to take a more serious look around Hangzhou, feeling rested and cheerful despite the continuing heat.

We never really saw much of the city center; but then, reportedly there's not much to see. A grimy smallish Chinese city, with some temples and silk merchants and whatever else. Instead, we stayed around the lake, which was ringed with pathways, temples, arches, and parks.  It was all small and close and fun.

The West Lake is very famous within China, and is one of the top tourist destinations for Chinese people in their own country. It's only semi-famous outside of China, falling into the category of "Chinese-Cities-That-Are-Not-Shanghai-Hong-Kong-or-Beijing," along with X'ian, Chengdu, and Nanjing. It wasn't too hard to see why the Chinese loved it: despite being wholly and completely artificial in almost every way, it was very pretty. It had no wildness to it, but instead the West Lake and its surroundings had the sculpted attraction of an outdoor garden - a garden subsequently packed with a thousand guys trying to sell you a boat ride.

Hangzhou has a useful bike system. For a $45 deposit you have essentially free use of the public cycles. You just swipe your card over one of the locking stations at the numerous kiosks ringing the lake and other areas, then pull free one of the uniformly shoddy red-painted bikes. In actual practice there are some problems: it's kind of a hassle to get the card and to get your deposit back; most of the bikes have some mechanical problem; all of the bikes are too small for tall people; sometimes the locking stations stubbornly refuse to relinquish their bike. But overall, well worth the money. We biked and toured around all day, and ended up not paying a dime for the privilege. The only cost was to my bruised knees as they battered low handlebars.

We saw some temples and some monuments, such as the Temple of Yu Qian and the Memorial Hall of Zhang Cangshui. Unwittingly, we actually visited the memorial halls for each of the three "Heroes of the West Lake": generals who had been caught up in the shifting alliances of the Ming dynasty and acted virtuously in some obscure manner.

Scattered among the 15th and 16th century halls and tombs were memorials of a more recent vintage, to heroes of the revolution. They were small and we skipped them, barely even noticing them as we did.

Without question, Lizzie's favorite thing in Hangzhou (perhaps in all of China) was a tree. An enormous camphor tree, specifically. It was extremely old and extremely big, propped up on braces so it didn't collapse under its own weight. It was hidden up a hill on a thin road, and has proven impossible to find on any maps or guide-books; I don't know where it was.

For food, we had noodles with vegetables and vegetable-fried rice. To solve the vegetarian hurdle without being able to speak Chinese, I had taken the time to create a set of small laminated cards to show restaurateurs, reading, "I eat vegetables." It seemed this was the best way to express my desires, after some examination of the language. Once we got to China and I discovered that people mostly just squinted at the card and stared at me, it occurred to me that this might not get the message across. They must be thinking, "He eats vegetables. So why tell me? Of course I was going to give him vegetables with his huge chunks of greasy beef."


So I borrowed a guide book and memorized the Chinese for, "Do you have any vegetarian food?" I memorized this phonetically (laoweilao sushi chichen?) with particular care for the intonations that are so important to the language (lăowéilăo sùshí chíchèn). It never made much difference. Either there was a secret code or (more likely) Chinese is as hard as hell to master even in a small piece.

Incidentally, I also learned the word for "water" (schwei) but never succeeded in ordering that at a restaurant, either. I always had to resort to English, which was instantly understood.

In the evening, it rained lightly. We relaxed and drank beer and read quietly and happily.

山僧對棋坐
局上竹陰清
映竹無人見
時聞下子聲
Two monks sit facing, playing chess on the mountain,
The bamboo shadow on the board is dark and clear.
Not a person sees the bamboo's shadow,
One sometimes hears the pieces being moved.

The Westlake Youth Hostel was restful and friendly overall, with good food and nice people and clean rooms. But I don't think I could ever recommend it to people because of a single extremely important reason: it had bedbugs.

I hate the very idea of bedbugs. They're extremely hard to kill, and their eggs are almost impossible to eliminate. They spread faster than kindergarten pinkeye and stow along with you unnoticed. So to wake up in the night and find two or three slipping away from the kindled bedside lamp - it bothered me a great deal.

So you probably should not go to this hostel, because bedbugs are almost invulnerable and the Westlake Youth Hostel will probably still have them.

There were other - more sanctioned - pets present. The dog, Cocoa, scuttled around the place on those stubby little trotters possessed by small dogs. As we ate fries and sandwiches in the late morning, Cocoa was fun to play with, snapping his head back and forth with wide eyes.

The recent rains, brief as they had been, were enough to alleviate at least some of the heat. It was finally less than evisceratingly hot when we went outside. It wasn't much less than eviscerating - possibly hovering around the "sweltering" mark - but any temperature below the point where I feel like my innards are going to melt was an improvement.

There are numerous little boats on the lake, and we bought a ticket to go out on one. We were heading for one of the highlights of the area, the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon (三潭印月).

The boat ride was interesting. The boat was big and made of plastic and metal paneled over with fake teak, and the twenty people with tickets all crowded on to try to get the spots under the roof and protected from the sun. As the motor throbbed and we slowly moved out onto the lake, a guide jabbered in rapid Mandarin about the wonders of the lake. And it really was quite beautiful. Willows hung low over the edges, small wooden bridges leapt the narrow tributaries flowing in from the north, and inscribed pailou stood tall on the shores.

One of the pailou that deserves mention was one we visited on foot later, the Kungfu Landmark (功夫标式). The English translation they gave on the arch was actually something like the Memorial Arch of Supreme Martial Accomplishment (or something like that), but after an hour (!) of extremely laborious Mandarin translation from the picture, I think the more modest name is the accurate one. It represented a little landmark to... well, martial arts in general.

As our boat slid next to the dock on the island of Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, Lizzie and I stepped out of it and looked around for a moment, hesitating. In both directions were large ponds filled with lotuses and crossed by long wooden walkways, studded with pavilions. Every which way looked identical. A perhaps-helpful mother on our boat commanded us to go left, and we obliged obediently.

The islands are artificial, with Three Pools Mirroring the Moon resembling a solar cross. The original island was much differently-shaped, but was built up and then reshaped to contain it large lotus pools. Interestingly, the "three pools" are not the pools of water, but rather a set of three pagodas where a famous poet once declared the view of the moon was especially beautiful when joined with the nighttime lanterns.

The view is actually one of the "Ten Views of Hangzhou" (西湖十景), ten canonical sightseeing spots described by the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong. We didn't make much attempt to try to track them all down, since many of them are dependent on a specific time of day or year, like "Remaining Snow on the Bridge in Winter" (斷橋殘雪). I'm not sure it would have been worth it even if possible, since the ones we did see, like "Orioles Singing in the Willows" (柳浪聞鶯), were probably among the most heavily commercialized areas on the West Lake.


Still, "Three Pools Mirroring the Moon" (三潭印月) remains beautiful enough to be memorialized on the one yuan bill. The lotus flowers were beautiful and simple as they always are, especially the sparkling gems of water sitting in the cup of the lotus leaves. Under some of the bridges, fat koi thrashed around and fought over scattered crumbs. There were a few entertainers, including a guy with two parrots that he sprayed down with water regularly to keep cool and left them sullenly flapping sodden feathers.



That was essentially the end of our time in Hangzhou. We saw a few more things, but mostly we just relaxed some more and got ready for the next and final leg of our Chinese journey, Beijing. Hangzhou had been a welcome respite from big cities, and had shown me what artificial garden sculpture can be when taken to enormous sizes by a dedicated city council.

Hangzhou was quiet and sedate, and so was our experience.  With relaxed minds and brimming with anticipation, that night we caught the sleeper train to Beijing.


小娃撐小艇
偷采白蓮回
不解藏蹤跡
浮萍一道開
A little child paddles a little boat,
Drifting about, and picking white lotuses.
He does not know how to hide his tracks,
And duckweed's opened up along his path.