29 January 2011

Preview: Thailand and Cambodia

I'll write up a proper travelogue when I'm all done, as is my habit, but for now here's a few bits from my three-week vacation/honeymoon to Thailand and Cambodia.

A Burmese ladyboy, leaning over and giggling as he asks for a cigarette. He's dressed in vanishingly small shorts and a muscle tee with curling edges that hands loosely off of his slender frame. He came from a small village to work at a Bangkok hostel three years ago, and goes back as often as he can afford it. He loves eyeliners, and has many tubes in a row in the room where he sleeps with his boyfriend.  They curl up with one sheet on a mattress on the ground. Last year the waters of the river rose so high they flooded over the concrete wall and into the hostel, and he laughs as he talks about a guest so stoned he didn't realize until the next day that the waters were soaking him and his laptop.

...

Crossing a Cambodian street is like a negotiation. Perhaps more than any other place I've been - including China and Thailand - the roads are lawless. You wait for a gap not in traffic, but only in the flow of larger vehicles like cars and trucks. They get their own way, and it would be too bold to step out in front. Tuk-tuks and motos are more your equals, and it depends on the size of the group of crossing pedestrians whether or not they will stop. Usually they do not, cruising around on a course designed to cut past you by a few inches. It's best not to stop or run, instead trusting to their competence and hoping they won't misjudge this time.

...

Elephants stood in a row under a wooden shelter, chained to wooden beams. Most of them have been driven insane by captivity, and they perform the repetitive and heart-breaking motions of the mad: swaying forward and raising their trunk, then bobbing back and doing it again with a slight shift of stance. They don't respond to voice or touch, and their eyes are so dead that they might as well be machines. The enchantment of "hey, elephants!" wears off quickly as they dance their endless mad dance. They only come to life when we buy a basket of rough wild pineapple as a treat for them. I buy the big basket so we can give each of them at least one or two. I want them to have something. Each one seizes their pineapple and shoves it in. One of the younger, sane ones, responds to the urging of a nearby trainer to "thank" us, and raises his trunk in a salute against his forehead, thumping it lightly and then reaching out for another treat.

...

The streets of Koh Kong are unlit at night. It's startling to realize how accustomed I am to streetlights - not all the time, of course, but in any urban area. To me, that's one of the things that makes a place a city: at night, there are lights to show you the way. There are no lights in Koh Kong, and the way is indistinct. I walk one night down the back streets, shadowed by a small group of young Cambodian boys who share cigarettes and giggle, propositioned by a handful of masseurs and tuk-tuk drivers and drug dealers and one middle-aged prostitute. I feel in danger (though really a 6'4" guy with $20 and no watch is not in danger) and am not sure why, as I reflect that really this is far more normal than the well-lit pseudo-day to which I am used. I look up at the sky and see so very many more stars.

...

The American Embassy in Bangkok is a fortress. I do not exaggerate at all. The walls are concrete and steel two feet thick and fourteen feet high. The gate is guarded by many men with guns. These guards are not the slack casual men of the Thai military or the unmoving police who occupy stoops and corners like useless ornaments. They are grim fellows of indeterminate ethnicity who hold assault rifles and stand rigid and formidable. They are not having fun and they are not for show. They stand around a gate of huge swiveling teeth of metal that swing up out of the ground as each car passes, clanking into place implacably. Entering the embassy is a long process of turning over goods to be locked in separate sealed bags, and a metal detector, and two forms to fill out while you are attentively examined. And for all that it's all intimidating in this fortress, I am reassured. This is a place where people and things are kept safe and things get done. This is a place of American power. And to all appearances, that power is significant.

...

The children on the Sihanoukville beach are all practiced in a common series of techniques and patter. One after another they approach with coat-hangers twisted to hold clinking rows of cheap bracelets and crude woven toys. They want you to buy something for your girlfriend, your wife. Hey man, you buy something. Open your heart and open your wallet (recited by rote). I will come back later, and you will buy something then. Your sunglasses are so old, plastic, here these are glass. Very good, only five dollar. Where are you from? Hey maybe you buy something now. Look at this coin, from Australia and Euro, you buy from me. Sometimes they stop and sit on Lizzie's lap or hang from her shoulder - she's young and pretty and a girl, the essence of nonthreatening to them - and chat to each other in rapid Khmer, laughing at jokes and discussing us. They pass up and down the beach, and answer with dismissive confidence questions about school or parents. They're fine, yes. They go to school. Everything is okay. Buy a bracelet?

08 January 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Washington: A Life", "Overqualified", "Bartleby the Scrivener", "Waiting for Godot", and "Casino Royale"

Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow

I had been looking for a decent biography of George Washington for a long time, and so I was pleased as punch last October to hear that Ron Chernow had written a book on Washington, following on the heels of his biographies of Rockefeller and Hamilton. My Aunt Kathy was nice enough to get it for me for Christmas.

In my experience, you have to be extremely careful with biographies. Any non-fiction book can give a false picture of things, and history in particular can succumb to the biases (conscious or not) of the author. But biographies above all are in danger from prejudice. I learned this lesson sharply some years ago, when I consumed a half-dozen biographies of Hemingway. They ranged from invaluable and balanced (if dated) Ernest Hemingway by Carlos Baker, to the sarcastic and bitter Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, to the pure worship of A.E. Hotchner's Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, among others. They're all good in their different ways (although perhaps the best is Mellow's Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences) but they drove home the fact that male biographers writing about male hero-figures can easily become lost in their refutations or adulations. It's understandably hard to keep your head when you write about titans.

Admittedly, I have high standards for biographies. They should be clear-eyed, with no dissembling or apologetics. They should depict real people, not caricatures - while not being afraid to be up front about ridiculousness or legendary happenings. And they should be meticulously sourced and carefully comprehensive.

I am happy to say that this biography by Chernow is all for which I could have hoped. The book takes in the whole sweep of Washington's life, never losing sight of its reality or mistakes, while still presenting with warm prose the lusty life of a man whose abilities sometimes pass belief. Chernow never loses sight of the truth, and that's a hard thing to do with Washington. Because, truly, the man was one of the greatest leaders of memory.

Starting out with hubris and poor judgment (which he would later overcome) and a too-healthy avarice (which he never lost), Washington was harrowed in the fires of frontier combat during the French and Indian War. Losing badly and struggling through the aftermath, he improved his military skills and polished his reputation. Chernow combs through the thousands of letters Washington carefully preserved for posterity, giving us a picture of a born patrician who was whetted to sharpness just as the knife was needed. His genteel upbringing sent a proud elitist to the head of the Continental Army, and over eight years of a desperate war discovered the steel at the heart of a great man. Despite mediocre tactical skills, Washington found his gift in leading men, and single-handedly held together an army of threadbare and itinerant militia. He didn't win the war alone. He had able generals and invaluable help from the French. But if not for him, it could not have been fought. For years, it was his example and deft hand alone that kept the flame alive.

It must have been difficult to avoid making his life into a parable - the elitist finds humility and is forged into a leader, yada yada happy ending - but Chernow manages to avoid that pablum admirably. And he gives us the astonishing facts of the end of the war, and relates how Washington, undisputed master of a victorious army, gives over power to the civilians of the Congress.

It's good to have heroes, but I had been expecting that my idea of Washington would be tarnished by a serious knowledge of the facts of his life. I was happy to discover otherwise. Washington could have made himself king, but turned aside the crown not just once, but twice. He ran for only two terms when he could have been President for life (indeed, almost everyone expected that). He was a leader and patriot for everyone to emulate.

Forgive my gushing. My faith and love for the founder of my country was confirmed by this detailed and intimate biography. It's a hearty thousand pages in length, but it's well-worth the effort.

Overqualified, Joey Comeau

After the potent depth of the biography, I wanted something light. I heard that Joey Comeau, author of the webcomic A Softer World had written a funny book. I read a few sample bits online, and it seemed decent, and my mother got it for me as a gift. Hurrah!

The book is written as a series of cover letters accompanying résumés to various companies, like Bell Canada or a manufacturer's. The cover letters put up some brief facade of stating qualifications for open jobs, then quickly devolve into amusing discussions of bizarre proposals. As the book goes on, though, more and more frequently the applicant begins to refer to his dead brother and the ruin of his life. Soon we get a look at his jagged hopes.

This isn't a tight book; it's a little sloppy and has its flaws. It was clearly written in a manner matching its makeup - brief letters composed at different times. The problem, though, isn't that the letters are unrelated but rather than they're too related; Comeau hammers home his few themes with great zeal. It's a tactic well-suited to a blog spun out over the weeks, but not for a compact sequence of chapters read in succession.

That said, there are some very funny moments as the protagonist first dissembles in his attempts at cover letters and then eventually just lets himself go. It's a shame these moments are scattered amongst the false maudlin notes about his lost brother, written so bluntly that one would suspect there was an even deeper meaning if it weren't for the surface-skipping nature of the book.

I could take or leave this one - it might serve well as a commuter's book, picked up at intervals. There's no need to worry about a lost plot.


Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville

This bewildering story about a broken man - a law-copyist who presents a complete puzzle to his employer - is an amazing classic that I was happy to reread. Serving as a good starter to Melville but without the formidable challenge of Moby-Dick, it's one of those stories that is inaccurately called "Kafkaesque" by weekend reviewers. But unlike the hopeless twists of a cruel Kafkaesque fate, Melville's story is one of quiet avoidance and pity - and it's a story with a cause, unlike the spontaneous madness of Kafka's bureaucracies. You read a sad story about a sad man, and at the end you find out the why of it.

One interesting thing about the story, I believe, is that it is a sort of Platonic ideal of a story. There's a distinct form to it (narrative), there's a beginning with a light-hearted set-up, there's the introduction of the central character and theme, and then there's an extended and perfectly linear elaboration that climaxes with finality, and is followed by an explanatory epilogue. Throughout, Melville is interesting and engaging. And while Melville's characters often represent a single trait above all, they're never flat. They're the very idea of "character," executed perfectly.

Read it.


Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

Moving on to another of my Christmas gifts, this one from my brother Patrick, I read Waiting for Godot. I had briefly glanced at this play a long time ago, but I thought it was time for a dedicated and close read.

The edition I chose turned out to be a strange one. The publishers scanned the book pages in picture form, cropped each paragraph into its own image, and then assembled the book from these images arranged in order. It's a queer way to do things, but it certainly looked pretty. Here's a screencap of the Godot; note the distinctive font and careful formatting:



Compare with a page from Washington: A Life. It's much more simply presented:


I think this is a reflection of the difficulty in properly formatting plays for ebooks. A play has to be paginated and broken in specific ways, and italics are sometimes vital to their passage. A book, on the other hand, can often flow freely without much danger to the work. It's an interesting problem that will eventually have to be addressed by the committee that writes up EPUB (the dominant ebook format) standards. The danger, of course, is that instead each publishing platform (Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble) will try to fix the problem in their own specific way that doesn't work for anyone else - so a Kindle user wouldn't be able to read an Apple version of a book.

Returning to the topic at hand, I thought Waiting for Godot was quite good. Famous for being a play where the characters wait for a man who never arrives, it's been very influential in world stagecraft and is so popular it's probably being performed right now, as you read this.

The whole play conspires to vagueness. Very little can be established with certainty. For example, halfway through the play a tree suddenly has leaves when it had none the day before, making us suspect (in combination with the nondescript location otherwise) that the characters have shifted setting without even knowing it. They acknowledge this possibility, but do not seem disturbed by it. Nothing much seems to disturb Beckett's Estragon and Vladimir, two characters who fail to become upset not because they are calm, but rather because they put forth a constant and gloomy air of doom. Godot, they admit, might not even be coming.

So a play where nothing happens in an uncertain place, enacted by characters who are comical in their fatalistic disinterest in their own fate. Unable even to come up with a piece of rope with which to hang themselves, they resign themselves to waiting. And waiting.

I'm a dilettante when it comes to plays, having only the necessary big ones under my belt. But even I could see the influence this play had on Harold Pinter, as well as the (perhaps more palatable) Christopher Guest film Waiting for Guffman. But be warned: this is a play you might want to pick up on a sunny day, when you have some optimism to spare as casualty.


Casino Royale, Ian Fleming

I grew up with the Bond films, as did everyone my age - and most other people, since Dr. No was released way back in 1962. And so of course I've long been familiar with all the different takes on James Bond, and I've had that familiar debate: "Who's the best Bond?"

But I had also been aware for some time of the Ian Fleming novels that created the character, who was quite distinct from the brash Don Juan of the movies. And so when I had the opportunity to grab Casino Royale, the first (and some say best) book about Bond, I jumped at the chance.

The book is great. I won't say that the literary Bond is better, but he is wholly his own creature. He's cold, misogynistic, and methodical. One of the defining traits of the cinematic Bond is his willingness to leap first and think second; the literary Bond is the opposite. No fancy gadgets, of course; Fleming had experience in real intelligence work, and his literary Bond reflects the scrupulous care that a successful spy must cultivate.

If you enjoy Bond, and especially if you enjoyed the movie of the same name that is surprisingly close to this book, you should definitely check out this book.

05 January 2011

"if you like my poems let them", by E.E. Cummings

if you like my poems let them
walk in the evening,a little behind you

then people will say
"Along this road i saw a princess pass
on her way to meet her lover(it was
toward nightfall)with tall and ignorant servants."

04 January 2011

Jennifer Rubin is terrible

Rubin has had a column at the Washington Post for some time. It's called "Right Turn," and it is usually pretty mediocre or - at worst - mildly silly. But she's taken a bright bold leap into the realm of truly terrible with her latest column. It's all about the sober seriousness of the incoming Republican House.

Democrats had predicted -- hoped, really -- that Republicans would fire up a host of nonsensical investigations of the Obama administration, thereby demonstrating the GOP's hyper-partisanship and unfitness to govern. But reality should be dawning on Democrats and the media that this Republican majority is far more disciplined and sober than was the Newt Gingrich majority. Already, one of the most aggressive Republicans, Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.), has disclaimed interest in probing the alleged job offer Joe Sestak got to encourage him to leave the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania. Sestak lost, the Republican candidate won, and the public now could care less about this incident.

I'm not sure Rubin should be pronouncing any dawning realities, considering how it doesn't appear she and reality are on speaking terms. It seems more like she made an unwitting faux pas around reality at a Christmas party, perhaps after too much eggnog, and now reality is holding her at a chilly distance. I think Jennifer Rubin can only get reality's answering machine.

I think this because her prime example for the sober seriousness of the new GOP is Issa, who only today has been sort-of backpedaling his previous declaration that Obama is "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times." Now Issa just says he has "one of the most corrupt administrations."

And of course there are other reasons to think that the Boehner class of 2010 isn't even as serious as the Gingrich class of 1994. One of them is that the class of 1994 came into their offices with a serious legislative plan, the Contract with America - it outlined specific legislative goals. The class of 2010 has the Pledge to America, instead, which is essentially empty and inflammatory rhetoric: "goals" rather than any serious legislation.

So while it's a bizarrely backwards statement to call this new herd of elephants "disciplined and sober," it's especially bizarre in comparison with the batch from 1994.

Rubin continues with examples where she thinks oversight has been lacking from the Pelosi House:

Democrats, however, should be concerned about real oversight, the sort we've not seen in the last two years while the Democratic Congress displayed precious little interest in examining the executive branch's performance on a slew of policy issues. Why didn't the House Foreign Affairs committee grill the Obama administration on cutting aid to the Green Movement, or its continued participation in the U.N. Human Rights Council, or its shocking muteness on human rights? Why did the House Judiciary Committee not hold hearings on the politicization of the Justice Department (on everything from reversing a decades-old position on the constitutionality of voting rights for D.C. to the second-guessing of career attorneys who declined to prosecute CIA operatives who used enhanced interrogation techniques, to the New Black Panther scandal, to the lack of enforcement of military voting rights)? Why didn't we see hearings on recidivism by released Guantanamo detainees? Well, because all of this would have proved embarrassing to the administration.

Cutting aid to the Green Movement? What Is Rubin suggesting that we were giving financial support to the Iranian opposition movement?

She doesn't link any articles or cite anything, but I find it kind of hard to believe that this was the case, at least not in any open way that could be then publicly cut. There are two reasons for this: (a) it's considering highly improper in the international community for one nation to directly fund a political party in another nation (even if it does happen secretly, a lot) and (b) it would be really counterproductive for the USA to openly fund the Greens, since that would then make the Greens despised by the Iranian public. Statements of moral support, access to media, maybe a few other things.

After some searching, though, I think I found to what Rubin refers: it seems that last year the Obama administration stopped funding several Washington think tanks that are dedicated to aiding Iranian opposition. This is obviously a far cry from "cutting aid to the Green movement," and frankly I'm pretty much on board with this. I'm not much of a deficit hawk, but government-funded "social-networking programs" seem like a smart thing to cut in these thin times.

Rubin's other evidence seems of the same quality. Her link about Obama's "shocking muteness on human rights" is an article about a speech Obama gave to the U.N. on the topic of... human rights! He must have spoken shockingly quietly. The article is pretty critical about Obama's human rights efforts in general, but it also calls those efforts "notoriously weak" - not something with which I agree but certainly not evidence of a lack of push-back on the President.

There is no reason to think the new House will be more serious about oversight, unless their wild shotgun blasts of subpoenas happen to stumble on something real.  They'll probably manage to find something to make into a scandal, of course - there's always something, especially if you're willing to manufacture outrage.  But this is a Republican House whose very first priority is a vulgar joke of a bill, not legislation of import.

Seriously, this is a terrible column. Jennifer Rubin is terrible.

03 January 2011

House makes a move to repeal Obamacare... sort of.

Republicans in the House are planning to introduce a bill to repeal Obamacare on the first day of the new session. They aren't bothering to hold hearings or anything, and it's never going to pass the Senate, but it's important to note that it's not a "symbolic" vote as some are saying. The GOP is going to note who voted which way, forcing everyone to make a choice. Then they can hammer those who don't vote the way they want between now and the time when they (maybe) have the votes to actually repeal.

But my favorite part of the whole thing is the name of the bill: "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act."

Even as far as House bills go, this is pretty shameless. Why not just call it the "Trying to Stop the Socialist Democratic Babykilling Law Act"?

EDIT: Politico reports that the GOP is going to make an exception to their "cut-as-you-go" rule for the repeal proposal. The rule (dubbed "CutGo") is a relaxed version of the Democrat's "PayGo," which required all tax cuts or new spending to be offset by tax increases or spending cuts; the GOP version only has that requirement for new spending, permitting tax cuts to be added on to the deficit. But they're not willing to do even that much for their repeal law, so they're just exempting it from the requirement.

On an unrelated note:

“No one believes that the job-killing healthcare law will lower costs, because it won’t,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for incoming House Speaker John Boehner. “That’s why we’ve pledged to repeal it, and replace it with common-sense reforms that will actually work.”

Boehner's spokesman is Michael Steel? That must get real confusing around RNC Chairman Michael Steele.

China in the Future

Napoleon once declared that "[w]hen China awakes, it will shake the world." This was one of the earliest examples of a trend that has grown increasingly common: the description of China as the new superpower, either opposing or even replacing America in the current unipolar world.

I don't buy it.

To me, this idea of an unstoppable China is generated mostly by graphs like this one from the Council on Foreign Relations, showing China's huge trade surplus and its steady trend:


It's an impressive rising line, to be sure - more about it later.  Graphs of the same ilk have spawned countless lines of newsprint, hand-wringing about how America will survive in the new century as its dominance fades. Thomas Friedman at the New York Times is a serial offender, wedging his concerns about China in with annoying frequency but impressive rephrasing:

12/14/10:
The world system is currently being challenged by two new forces: a rising superpower, called China, and a rising collection of superempowered individuals, as represented by the WikiLeakers, among others. ... China has put on a sound and light show these past few weeks that underscored just how much its rising economic clout can be used to warp the U.S.-led international order when it so chooses.

9/22/10:
For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station — where, unlike New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work.

9/18/10:
But the totally bogus “discrediting” of climate science ... helped scuttle Senate passage of the energy-climate bill needed to scale U.S.-made clean technologies, leaving America at a distinct disadvantage in the next great global industry. And that brings me to the contrast: While American Republicans were turning climate change into a wedge issue, the Chinese Communists were turning it into a work issue.

1/12/10:
All the long-term investments that China has made over the last two decades are just blossoming and could really propel the Chinese economy into the 21st-century knowledge age, starting with its massive investment in infrastructure. Ten years ago, China had a lot bridges and roads to nowhere. Well, many of them are now connected. It is also on a crash program of building subways in major cities and high-speed trains to interconnect them. China also now has 400 million Internet users, and 200 million of them have broadband. Check into a motel in any major city and you’ll have broadband access. America has about 80 million broadband users.

That's just a small sample from just one columnist. There are a lot of similar ones out there. The idea is such a common one that it was even the plot of an episode of The Office!  To many people, it's almost a truism that China will rise up to oppose or surpass America.

But I just don't see the juggernaut everyone else sees, for a variety of reasons.

The big reason has always been environmental. The smog has become legendary (NYT: only 1% of Chinese citizens breathe air that meets EU safety standards) but far worse is the results of rampant carelessness in their industrialization and the huge scale of their construction projects.  Projects like the Three Gorges Dam might be awe-inspiring in their size, but they're also terrifying in their damages. Landslides have been increasing, their resources are being stripped open, and their waters are souring.

In many ways, China's engaged in the same rush towards development once experienced by America and Europe, years ago. New technologies and methods have combined with a new political environment, and mines has been opened and rail has been laid in a mad hurry. This rush did serious damage to the environment in the West, back in the day - the bubbling pits of cyanide in Montana for leeching gold testify to the lasting harm.

The obvious retort is that it didn't hold America back very much, but the reply is that we live in different times. Decades ago, no one could have built something like the $60b rerouting of the Yangtze, which includes canals of up to ten times the length of the whole Panama Canal. With modern technologies and an autocratic government, China has been doing staggering damage to its land, with no signs of respite.

Eventually - probably in not too long - all this damage is going to start catching up to them.

Another reason for my skepticism about China-as-juggernaut is economic/industrial. It's true that there are a lot of scary graphs, like the one I showed above, but they're misleading. The trendlines all slope upward, but that's because China started with nothing.

Look at this graph of cars in the parking lot of my school, over time. Starting from the morning, the number of cars parked there has steadily increased. At five in the morning, there were zero. By noon, there were more than twenty. A scary trend: cars in the parking lot might be the new superpower. Except there's one thing wrong with further expansion: the parking lot is full.

In the same way, China started off with a lot of people and resources but no development, so they were just a big empty lot waiting for industries to come park. But as they all start using the Internet and buying shoes and exporting lamps, the lot is getting full. The easy gains have been made, and then they had to start loosening political restrictions to keep up the growth. Before too long, they will no longer be developing, they'll be developed. And considering how far back behind America they still are - their GDP is less than a third of ours - I just don't think they have enough easy gains left in them.

Here's a good example: Megan McArdle at The Atlantic shows how China's port cities are all now superdeveloped, forcing further industrialization to either move west and pay an increasingly higher overhead or stay put and increase wages and autonomy. She also mentions the economic cost China has paid for its forced growth, with banks saturated with mandatory bonds and inflation looming.

Now, I'm not an economist, but a much-talked-about paper (pdf) from Timothy Kehoe and Kim Ruhl out of the National Bureau of Economic Research at Cambridge has suggested a theoretical underpinning for this reasoning, as well. It's interesting - if technical - reading, but the very simple upshot is:

We sketch out a theory in which developing countries can grow faster than the United States by reforming. As a country becomes richer, this sort of catch-up becomes more difficult. Absent continuing reforms, Chinese growth is likely to slow down sharply, perhaps leaving China at a level less than Mexico’s real GDP per working-age person

Yet other reasons can be found for skepticism, such as social. China has famously long had a "one-child policy" restricting some families to one child, and otherwise does a lot to encourage a lower birthrate. As a consequence, the birthrate dropped from an average of five children per family to fewer than two children per family. But while this ameliorated some problems somewhat, like overcrowding in urban centers, it has also led to others: most prominently an approaching collision of age cohorts: one working child trying to support two parents and four grandchildren (known in China as the "4-2-1 Problem").

So for these reasons and others, I take a skeptical view whenever someone wails about the yuan appreciating, or faster increase in per capita income in China, or the faster change of real GDP growth, or whatever.  I just remember that it's a lot easier to park cars in an empty lot.

And before too long, the lot is full.

01 January 2011

From "Dialogue of Pessimism," ancient Akkadian text, anonymous

Slave, listen to me!
Here I am, master, here I am!
Quickly! Fetch me my chariot. I am going to hunt!
Drive, master, drive! A hunter gets his belly filled!
The hunting dog will break the bones of the prey!
The raven that scours the country can feed its nest!
The fleeting onager finds rich pastures!
Ah no, slave, I will not hunt!
Do not go, master, do not go!
The hunter´s luck changes!
The hunting dog´s teeth will get broken!
The raven that scours the country has a hole in the wall as a home.
The fleeting onager has the desert as his stable.

...

Slave, listen to me!
Here I am, master, here I am!
I want to lead a revolution!
So lead, master, lead!
If you do not lead a revolution, where will your clothes come from?
And who will enable you to fill your belly?
Ah no, slave, I do not want to lead a revolution!
Do not lead, master, do not lead a revolution!
The man who leads a revolution is either killed or flayed,
Or has his eyes put out, or is arrested and thrown to jail!

Slave, listen to me!
Here I am, master, here I am!
I want to make love to a woman!
Make love, master, make love!
The man who makes love to a woman forgets sorrow and fear!
Ah no, slave, I do not want to make love to a woman!
Do not make love, master, do not make love!
Woman is a real pitfall, a hole, a ditch,
Woman is a sharp iron dagger that cuts a man´s throat!

...

Slave, listen to me!
Here I am, master, here I am!
I want to perform a public benefit for my country!
So do it, master, do it!
The man who performs a public benefit for his country:
his actions are disposed to the circle of Marduk!
Ah no, slave, I do not want to perform a public benefit for my country!
Do not perform, master, do not perform!
Go up the ancient tells and walk about.
See the mixed skulls of plebeians and nobles.
Which is the malefactor and which is the benefactor?

Slave, listen to me!
Here I am, master, here I am!
What then is good? 
To have my neck and yours broken 
Or to be thrown into the river, is that good?
Who is so tall as to ascend to heaven?
Who is so broad as to encompass the entire world?
Ah no, slave, I will kill you and send you first!
Yes, but my master would certainly not survive me for three days!