03.31.10

Becoming an air-head

Posted in Society, Travel at 0:57 by RjZ

Surprisingly, my current job means I have a lot of down time. I am traveling a crazy amount and living part time in another country, but I have few friends there or any regular activities. I also spend a lot of time waiting: waiting for trains, busses, planes, and colleagues. Down time that you didn’t plan on can be less relaxing and more boring than I’d hoped.

I am gone for a month at a time, and I find myself a bit starved for entertainment. On the first trip, I read four books and listened to two audio books. I read another four this time, even though I was busier than before. I tortured myself through German television, and I downloaded some movies which I ended up watching twice. Yet I still find myself bored. Except, there is plenty I could be doing; writing more interesting blog postings for example, and I am not doing them.

I think the problem is that I, like most everyone in modern society, am a victim of over-stimulation. I’ve always been a procrastinator and multi-tasker, but recent studies are claiming that actually, multi-taskers aren’t nearly as effective as they think they are. Other studies are showing that all the structured play children engage in, from soccer practice to music lessons, without any time to roam around unsupervised and act like idiots gives them little opportunity to develop what is known as “executive control.” Many think this contributes to attention deficit disorder (ADD) and general unruliness of modern kids–and adults. I had plenty of unstructured play as a kid, but I suspect that executive control isn’t a skill learned once and for all; it requires some practice.

I run. Well, let’s be honest, I try to run, because I can’t bring my bike with me, and I imagine I would like to do something impressive like running really far sometime. In fact, though, I hate running and don’t do it nearly enough. I make the excuse that it’s because I was in one country last week and another this one. When I (finally get around to) run, I find the activity meditative. I thought about bringing a music player with me, but the ear plugs kept falling out of my sweaty ears (gross) so I decided it wasn’t worth it. Then I realized that this could be the point. Running can be pretty boring. There’s no TV, no music (in my case), not much scenery, and it’s likely you’ve seen it already (and if you haven’t, why are you running past it? Stop and take a look!) You are alone with the rhythm of your breath and your feet hitting the trail. You can concentrate on your form, or the painful stitch in your side, or you can just zone out and let your mind empty out, filled again by your breathing (or gasping, in my case, but filled with breathing was more poetic.)

Paul Theroux writes in an essay in Fresh Air Fiend that the isolation of travel was key to him becoming an author. Being alone and an outsider and having no phone, television, electricity, or facebook, flickr, or e-mail, gave him time to think. Running may not be exercise for my legs and lungs alone. It may be the much needed exercise for my brain. It takes some serious effort, to switch off. To grow accustomed to not being entertained. To let your brain do its job and think, all by itself. To see what comes out after being filled with air alone.

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03.30.10

Tile

Posted in Society, Travel at 10:20 by RjZ

In the last three weeks I’ve been in six countries on two continents. Just to prove how far from glamorous this travel schedule has been, one of my observations is about tile.

Manufactured ceramic tile is, clearly, a global business. Bathrooms, hotels, airports, and businesses use the exact same tile that U.S. Americans can buy from their local hardware store to decorate their homes. This stuff for example can be seen gracing a business bathroom in South Africa and the lobby of a hotel in Germany.

For my work, I visit places that make tile. I don’t happen to know where the example above is made (I’d guess China) but they are doing a much better business than their competitors. I visit those places because making tile is a process that involves combustion which pollutes. The company I work for makes instruments to help reduce that pollution. Which is why I’d guess that tile is made in China.

Wealthy countries have exported not only the manufacture of tile (and steel, and other smelly things) but also the pollution that it generates. If we bought our tile from local facilities we’d save on transport costs (small, compared to the price of the manufacturing plant) and we might be able to manage the pollution they generate through regulations (the same regulations that drove steel manufacturing away from Western Europe and the United States, but this sword cuts both ways doesn’t it.)

Globalization effects tile, but also where and how pollution is generated. Tile, then, becomes one of the reasons that it is so difficult to make progress on international global warming policies. And it’s why I think the tile is made in China where they have embraced the downside of pollution as a necessary stepping stone on the path to growth. The west, meaning Europe and the U.S., did the same, it’s just that most of us aren’t old enough to remember.

For me, the unforeseen consequence, is that from Russia to South Africa, lobbies and bathrooms truly are starting to look the same. I can’t imagine that twenty years ago, fake Italian tile was the fashion almost literally at both ends of the world. And for me it’s even more boring than all the hours spent in the plane.

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03.23.10

Graffiti and health care in Germany

Posted in Society at 6:37 by RjZ

The whole world is upside down, as far as U.S. Americans are concerned, because congress either made made the first step toward bringing U.S. Americans out of the third world, or began the slide down the deep tunnel towards socialism, by passing the health care overhaul bill. The proposed health care changes will bring the U.S. quite a bit closer to a system that has been working in Europe for some time now; without even many of the freedom shrinking consequences conservatives are warning about. Meanwhile, in Germany, people are beginning to wonder how they can continue to pay for the very health care system approximately half of Americans so envy.

I noticed it right away. I hadn’t been back to Germany more than one time since living there years ago. After spending a month in Frankfurt area, I was surprised by something I rarely noticed when I lived in Germany nearly a decade ago—graffiti. It isn’t only in Frankfurt and it isn’t only in rougher parts of town. It’s not quite out of hand, but you can see it everywhere. Subways and building walls, sidewalks and old town architecture, you name it, someone’s tagged it. It will never cease to amaze me how tagging, regardless of the language, looks nearly identical; is there a school for this?

Graffiti in the Bremen old city center

Graffiti in the Bremen old city center

Crime hasn’t been skyrocketing. But the fact is, there are only a limited amount of resources available, even in wealthy Germany. Back when graffiti wouldn’t last more than a week before being painted over, health care costs were lower in both the U.S. and Germany.

There is a fundamental difference between the German philosophy, as stated in their constitution and that of the United States. In Germany, the constitution forbids putting a value on a human life. That is, when faced with a decision such as, if we pass this law, this person would die, but it would save us 100,000 €, the German government must always choose to spend the money. In other words, health care is a right, not a privilege.

It is this very problem that both countries face in the future. If health care really is a right, like the pursuit of happiness, and holding property, may we ever draw the line? When it costs $10 million for brain surgery, with a 1 in a million chance of survival for an 83 year old woman, does she still have a right to it? Does she still have that right if receiving that surgery deprives thousands of others from basic healthcare or so limits government services that we are afraid to step in our cars or eat food we didn’t grow? We continue to improve of the quality of life and quality of care. Much can be done to keep costs in control, but MRIs cost more than bandages, and tomorrows technology may cost more still. Things haven’t gotten that bad in Europe, and they won’t for awhile, but graffiti is already on the rise, what’s next?

Welcome, U.S.A., to the first world of universal health care. Now it’s time to learn a bit more from our European counterparts who are a few steps ahead of us on this path. The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee health care as a right. Let’s make sure we understand the consequences before make that mistake.

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03.22.10

Handy stereotypes

Posted in Society, Travel at 7:56 by RjZ

“Sure, Germans are cold and stand-offish, but once you make a friend with a German, it’s a deep relationship that lasts forever.”

I love stereotypes; honestly, they save time and they’re true enough that if you don’t get hung up on forcing people into them even when they don’t actually fit, they can be very handy. Indeed, building relationships, personal or business, stereotypes can be a critical perspective into understanding how others may think differently than you expect at first.

“Americans are very friendly, but it’s all very surface, none of the people I met there during my exchange year are still my friends.”

Much of my blog, essentially, is about stereotypes. If I make a generalization about the Thai, the Chinese, the Germans, or the Americans, am I not stereotyping? I got to thinking about this whole stereotyping thing thanks to recent travels and it’s raised some confusing questions. For example, is that whole friend thing really just about definitions of “friend?” If one language reserves the word for deep, long lasting relationships, and the other uses the translation more freely, then couldn’t this explain why one groups thinks the other is frivolous without realizing that Americans may just qualify for clarity (as I have been forced to do here) when they mean, you know, real friend?

“Italians are just warmer. Generally people from warmer climates are just more full of life. You can’t seriously tell me you haven’t noticed that!”

Each of these examples, reasonably true to some extent, is also patently absurd. Really? Americans don’t make friends that last a long time? Germans, statistically, are less mobile than Americans, but in spite of the distance, I am still friends with the guy I used to deliver newspapers with in the seventh grade. I lived in Germany and Holland for almost a decade and made almost no lasting friendships. Well, there you go, “almost none.” In other words, make a friend in these cold climate cultures and they last forever, see? I guess I must have proven the point after all. Except there really is no real correlation. How many deep, long lasting friendships is any one person likely to have? More likely is that some of the friends we make result in long lasting relationships and some don’t and it has little to do with where you or the friend are from, so long as you connect.

Anyone who has even been to an Italian family dinner can tell you how warm and friendly they can be. It’s hot in Thailand where their friendliness has grown into a country-wide stereotype: “the land of smiles.” Of course, Russians are famous for deep relationships founded on a bottle of vodka but I hear it’s pretty cold there. Doesn’t it seem ridiculous to assume that these surface characteristics mean dinner with a Finnish family is as cold as Helsinki winter? Indeed, very cold climate countries have traditions of letting anyone who comes by late at night in for lodging lest they freeze in the cold. Of course, maybe they’re mean to you if you use this privilege.

Certainly, social mores and cultural biases result in groups of people withholding personal information about their families while for others it’s a condition of conversation. Of course, some groups, on the surface, appear one way or another from the viewpoint of someone outside of their culture; but what’s getting me is that it seems crazy to assume that cold climates make for cold people who can’t make friends, but that these same people, when they finally make a friend, are better at it than any body else. The whole story seems contradictory to me, which is exactly what happens if you bother to analyze stereotypes any further than the shorthand for which they are actually useful.

I’d love to hear what you think? Are Germans really colder? Can’t American’s make deep friendships. Ever met an Italian who was cool and reserved? Or a boistrous Thai? What do the exceptions mean for the stereotypes anyway?

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03.21.10

China Travelogue-15: Tourist clusters

Posted in Travel at 7:29 by RjZ

Bicycles are easy to rent in Yanghsuo. Your budget hotel is surely hoping you’ll rent from them to make some extra cash, and they can surely offer you a guide to take you to the sights as well. Even fancier hotels, which really expect you to take a taxi or a coach to the local sights still has bikes (much better ones) available. It’s such a common way to see the scenery; the limestone cliff and rice fields, of the area that it’d be a shame to miss it.

We thought we’d get a tandem. We’d seem them rolling around town and thought this would be the chance to try one. There are bikes everywhere for rent, and they’re very inexpensive (as little as 10 RMB per day) but don’t expect a high performance machine for this kind of cash. Actually, depending on where you’re going, you can get a mountain bike or a “lady bike,” a tough old single speed with a sloping top tube, coaster brake, and a sit up and grin attitude. The tandems were the same style, but the selection was poorer and time was slipping away while we were trying to find one that had the pedals sync’ed up enough that we wouldn’t have to wobble along while learning how to ride together. Eventually, we gave up and got two beat up, but reliable bikes from our hotel. They sold us a map (5 RMB) and offered to guide us too, but, we figured we’d find our own way. Hope springs eternal and all.

Maps are not, however, the strong suit of the Chinese. This one, combined with lots of extra cycling, got us where we were going, even if we were rarely sure we were on the right route. We rode along the main tourist thoroughfare, once we’d found it, and when we’d had enough, we turned around and went back the same way.

Yangshou is like many touristy towns around the world. In Thailand I was surprised that the elephant tour, monkey show and snake display were all on the same street, but then, it makes sense and I’ve seen this clustering of things to see and do as far as India and as close as the queen of clustered tourist attractions: Orlando, Florida. Like any market, clustering means you compete more vigorously for customers, but you save on marketing since people may not know about the snake tamer until the happen to see it across the street from the elephant soccer match.

In Yangshou, we checked out the Big Banyan Tree (20 RMB), a park with a big banyan tree, a rock exhibit (Chinese love picking up large pretty rocks that look like they could be paintings, shining them a bit and then exhibiting them on very fancy stands. It’s great, actually.) There was also a chance to go punting on the the trash cluttered little river flowing through the park, pay some locals to make some tortured little monkeys perform for you, or by souvenirs. We skipped most of the attractions, but naturally bought a souvenir. There weren’t many western tourists here which might explain the surprisingly good price (20 RMB for a fake bone carving and a statuette of a Chinese traditional god.)

We then hiked up to Moon Cave (15 RMB), famous for it’s views of the area, which, even through the haze were impressive, and only mildly marred by the women who, in spite of the full water bottles we were already carrying, followed us pretty far up the hike pestering us for more the whole time.

We were puzzled by this behavior; the hike is vigorous and the women following us up were heavily laden with water bottles (and ice!) It was back breaking work, and clearly, just waiting strategically for thirsty tourist might be just as effective. We finally concluded that essentially this is a sort of begging; many who don’t need the water are so impressed by the efforts of the old women following them up the hill that they likely buy water to save them another trip. This doesn’t work, of course. The determined ladies continue following hoping for another handout in trade for water. They are certainly working for it. Mind you, we simply insisted, strongly, we weren’t going to buy any and that it would not be worth it to follow. (Yes, I know, I am heartless; but unless this is the first post you’ve read in the blog, you already know that. Think of it this way: I try not to support child labor or hard labor for seniors by not perpetuating the problem.)

Finally, on our bike back, I couldn’t help stop at spot with a top-rope and a big sign advertising climbing. The Yangshou area has many impressive climbing opportunities. These top ropes along the side of the road probably weren’t the best of them, but it was convenient. It was also expensive, 105 RMB for three climbs! It almost makes sense. There are almost no fixed costs at Moon Cave, save for cleaning and maintenance of the trails. Here, these guys actually have some belaying skills and are renting you their equipment which, you hope, is in good shape.

I didn’t quite want to pay this much to climb easy routes, but I was able to convince a passing Australian to join me. He’d never climbed before, but was considering a bigger tour the following day. After negotiating with him and our Chinese guides, I went on two climbs and he one. It was incredibly simple climbing on big bowl holds, like those at Heuco Tanks, Taxas. The rock that had a bit too much vegetation to make for optimum climbing but it was great fun, and worth my 70 RMB for the experience alone. Of course, if you made it to the top, you could grab a stuffed creature. Too bad, I couldn’t convince my traveling partner to keep the pink kitten-bear and carry it all the way back from China. No accounting for taste.

Awesome pink kitten-bear, a worthy reward for a climb well done.

Awesome pink kitten-bear, a worthy reward for a climb well done.

It was nice to get a compliment from the Chinese about my climbing. One of the many perks of living in Boulder (where my skills are eclipsed by the average 10 year old girl.)

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03.15.10

Next up: horses suing for divorce

Posted in at 15:16 by RjZ

One thing leads to another and you’re bound to sound absurd and stupid. At least that’s how slippery slope arguments go. Take former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, (R-Arizona) for example. He thinks folks might want to marry horses in Massachusetts.

By the way, sorry for the delay. Lot’s of stuff, including the last half of the China trip coming soon.

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