Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Che Guevara: A Fighter Against Freedom and Democracy

I just re-started my subscription to The Economist, arguably the best political and economics publication on planet Earth. While reading, I came across a good article on the cult of Che Guevara and its complete separation from reality. I like this part:

The wider the cult spreads, the further it strays from the man. Rather than a Christian romantic, Guevara was a ruthless and dogmatic Marxist, who stood not for liberation but for a new tyranny. In the Sierra Maestra, he shot those suspected of treachery; in victory, Mr Castro placed him in charge of the firing squads that executed “counter-revolutionaries”; as minister of industries, Guevara advocated expropriation down to the last farm and shop. His exhortation to guerrilla warfare, irrespective of political circumstance, lured thousands of idealistic Latin Americans to their deaths, helped to create brutal dictatorships and delayed the achievement of democracy.

Sadly, Guevara's example is invoked not just by teenagers but by some Latin American governments. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez wants to create the guevarista “new man”, just when Cuba is having second thoughts. As Jorge Castañeda, one of Guevara's biographers, notes, Che's lingering influence has retarded the emergence of a modern, democratic left in parts of Latin America. Sadly, most of those who buy the T-shirt neither know nor care.

I wonder if Soderbergh's new film will mention any part of the reality of Guevara. Judging by past movies on his life, I doubt it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Yo Majesty at DC9: Angry Awesome Rappin' Lesbians ROCK It, Awesomely

I don't go to live music shows much anymore but when I do, I make sure I'll be seeing something gangbusters nutsoid. That's why I agreed to go see Yo Majesty (NSFAnyone) at DC9 on Sunday.

Usually Yo Majesty is a rap trio including one lead rapper and her two overweight-and-proud back up rappers --- one who regularly goes topless halfway through their shows, back-tits and front-tits a-floppin'.

There's no way I WASN'T going to this show after watching a few youtube videos (NSFAnyone) of them playing live.

The show was a blast. The ladies I went with got blotto on Schlitz and even danced on stage. Unfortunately, only the lead rapper performed but she was amazing. I've never heard rapping that fast in a live venue. She was heavy on the lesbian front, making it clear that she was a proud, church-going lesbian who didn't care what anyone else thought. The beats were simple and Mac-produced, a-la Peaches.

Lately, I've wondered if any of this takes talent, and even more importantly, whether that matters. Yo Majesty was the funnest, most interesting show I've seen in three years.

"Get down, white people!" Ok, we will:

The dancing on stage bit:

My wife and sister get down with some hipster dude in a wig:

The first thing I noticed in this picture was how dusty the top of the ceiling fan is:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I am certain of this: pigs are the ugliest mammal on the planet.

My wife and I have a long-running argument about the cuteness of pigs: she thinks they're too adorable to eat; I think they're completely disgusting looking and am now considering not eating them because of it.

I know what you're thinking: pigs are cute when they're young. Well, I concede that, but they only stay cute and young --- like any animal on earth --- for a short while. The true judge of the cuteness of an animal is its overall visual appeal, not how they look for only a few weeks.

And god damn, if you search for "pig" you may give up bacon for good. There's a reason why most of the world's religions have forbidden eating this monstrous-looking animal.

And I don't care how smart they are; smart does not make beautiful. Even if a pig could contemplate astro-physics, they're still NASTY. They're not even so-ugly-they're-cute cute.

I submit to you the following pictures:

(Flickr Link)

(Flickr Link)

(Photo Link)

(Flickr Link)

(Flickr Link)

(Flickr Link)

I will also remind you that this animal regularly eats feces and rolls in mud. Dogs do the same, but at least they're cute and charming. Pigs aren't charming in any way!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Domino's & Durian

"I have eaten bizarre foods all over the world from turtle feet to pig brains, but durian fruit is the most disgusting thing I've ever put in my mouth." - Andrew Zimmern

I've left the dust and traffic of Jakarta for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where I'm running on an hour's sleep and the chemical after-effects of a week-long Ambien addiction.

As the taxi was driving me to the hotel, I spotted a Domino's a few blocks away and the craving for it would not leave me be. After checking in, as I walked down the street from the hotel, I smelled what I thought was an over-full dumpster rotting in the tropical sun, but in fact it was this guy selling the infamous durian fruit out of the back of his small van:

The durian is legendary. It's a tropical Asian jungle fruit that has evolved a noxious odor and sharp spikey shell as a biological defense against animals eating it. Leave it humans to ever think of putting it in their mouths.

In all my travels to Asia, I had never eaten durian so I HAD to buy one. But I was freaking starving and was worried about polluting my empty stomach with such a toxic substance. I walked up to his van and tried to negotiate buying a small bite-sized sample but he would only sell me a whole one at over one kilogram (2.2 lb). Fuck it. I'd get my pizza and if I had money left over I'd spend it on durian.

You have to imagine what this stuff smells like. It is so stinky that the 20 foot perimeter around this man's van reeked to high hell --- REALLY --- like rotting garbage. That's the best description of the durian's smell. It's so bad that there are "No Durian" signs like this in hotels all over tropical Asia:

During lunch I was actually nervous and thought of abandoning the plan, but after I finished the pizza and was walking past the van, I couldn't resist. He cut me up a kilo's worth of durian for only $4.68. Not bad for a putrid after-lunch snack! I sat on a concrete slab next to a closed Japanese restaurant and proceeded to try it.

The shell is so spikey that I had to be careful not to cut myself when handling it. Those are some serious spikes. Good job, evolution!

The fruit itself has the texture of a dead animal's decaying flesh and is the color of medium-yellow urine. It's a bit slimy. The stink began to emanate toward my nostrils and I thought about turning back and leaving it there on the sidewalk. Then something came over me and I fingered up a small piece and shoved it quickly into my cake hole before I could hesitate. I chewed slowly, thinking about what was now on my tongue.

I am actually surprised that it didn't taste SO bad. Don't get me wrong, it's definitely not GOOD, but far from deserving all this legendary status when judging by taste alone. It has a slight jungle-like skunky flavor that hits the sides of your tongue kind of like jack fruit, durian's less-stinky cousin. The taste is so far from anything I am used to that I cannot think of a comparison to any other food. But god damn, this texture was just gross! But I forced myself to take a second bite and that was it. Enough. I left it by a pile of trash like nature intended.

The worst part of durian is your burps afterward. For hours your burps smell the same as that guy's van: like hot garbage. I'm glad I have bragging rights now but I probably will avoid it in the future.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

“Already going hell, just pumping that gas.” - M.I.A.

Sitting here in the Surabaya airport waiting for a flight to Jakarta, the song Paper Planes by the Sri Lankan-British artist M.I.A. came up on the iPod and it gave me an eerie sense of foreboding like I haven't experienced in a while.

The chorus of Paper Planes goes:

All I wanna do is … [sound of gunshots] … and a … [sound of gun reloading, ending with sound of a cash register opening] … and take your money.

This, laced over a driving rhythm like the heat waves and dust rising off a cram-packed Third World highway.

I just read that the Indonesian government plans to eliminate fuels subsidies one month from now. The people here currently pay $1.89 per gallon despite the fact that the per capita income is $3,400. I know this because as I was sitting at a gas station here I looked to my left, pulled out a calculator and did the currency conversion. This annual $3,400 doesn’t accurately pinpoint the big cities because it takes into account the entire country which includes all the people living on remote islands --- Borneo, New Guinea etc --- making pennies a day. So let's say it's about double that in the cites at $6,800/year.

To put that in perspective, the per capita American income is $46,000 and we now pay $3.73 per gallon. If Americans paid an equal percentage of their income as Indonesians for gasoline, they would currently be paying $12.78 per gallon. It's true that Indonesians don't own as many cars as Americans do --- many ride motorbikes --- but after running around this country for a week at break-neck speed in three population centers, I can say with confidence that Indonesia is FULLY dependant on cars and trucks. There's more traffic here than anywhere I've been.

The coming price increases will likely result in riots and increased misery for these people. It's happened before here. First, it started with student protests against the government in the 1960s which ended in a military coup and the murderous liquidation of the Communist Party of Indonesia which consisted of three million people. As Joseph Stalin said, “Death solves all problems: no man, no problem.”

And in 1998, after the Asian financial meltdown, first the students protested, then the massive price increases, then the pogroms against the Chinese business owners. I know this because my business partner here is Chinese-Indonesian and he told me his friend (a Muslim) hid him in her house for a week because the local Muslim leaders had whipped up the local people into a murderous frenzy to commit violence against the Chinese "pig-eating parasites." Their houses were burned and many were straight murdered.

I don't claim to fully understand the situation here, but you think the USA has bad race problems? Shiiiit ...

I just read in the Jakarta Post that the students have already begun to protest the government's plan to raise prices in June. I love this country and wish the people here all the best, but I'm glad I'm leaving tomorrow.

Listening to M.I.A.’s song makes this all seem even more unnerving, especially when she playfully sings, “Sum sum summa summa murder”, right after she coolly says, “M.I.A. … Third World democracy …”

M.I.A., Paper Planes:

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Most Shrimp You Eat Are from Ponds Like These

Shrimp ponds smell like a cross betwen a mid-July salt marsh and a neglected fish tank --- one where the glass is covered in algae and you can't see what's inside or identify that fuzzy thing floating on top.

The only vegetation between the ponds is the kind of grass that grows through city sidewalks. I can't imagine anything else being able to grow in the crusty dirt that crunches under my shoes.

The paddle wheels churn greenish white water with an electric drone, and the void of plant life intensifies the sun's heat on my neck --- hardly bearable. The area around the sprawling pond complex is gorgeous green jungle and mangroves, but within the farm operation, it's 100% utilitarian with zero aesthetics. A few beat-up dogs limp around or sleep in the shade (maybe they're dead?). Empty bags of shrimp feed lie around the windless oven-like earth. Never seems to be any wind --- hardly a breeze. The shush of the paddle wheels never ceases.

But all this doesn't mean I'm not interested to explore it.

It's increasingly rare that the shrimp you eat comes from the open sea. Near 60% of the world supply comes from manmade ponds, and one day that may be 100% if the ocean goes the way the scientists say.

Below are pictures from the shrimp ponds I visited today. They are typical of the Intensive farms I've seen in four different countries. This operation totals 17 hectares (2.47 acres = 1 hectare) and includes 24 ponds, of which only nine are active. Massive amounts of shrimp shit and uneaten feed lie on the pond bottoms which causes extreme build-up of acid and other nasties like hydrogen sulfide. It's the logical result of culturing 150+ shrimp per square meter.

At the end of my meeting today, the farmer showed me some print-outs of this area on google maps. It's located less than one kilometer from the open sea. He says he's going to purchase a second location five kilometers down the road which will be 20 to 30 hectares big. On the map, that location is currently pristine mangroves which will look like the below pictures in a few years once his crew have dug it into a new operation.

The shrimp industry is improving the lives of thousands of people across southeast Asia but who knows what it's doing to the environment. I'm concerned by the environmental issues that shrimp ponds pose, but I've met enough shrimp farmers and understand a bit about their lives and situations; they're just trying to make it in this world like you and I. Plus, they're always such nice folks.

This wheel controls the dike which opens and closes the flow of water from one pond to the next. In the background you can see where they're burning trash. All those sticks going into the water are aeration stones providing oxygen for the shrimp:

This little roof covers the industrial electric water pump. Shrimp ponds take water from the sea, and hold it in a resovoir until it's needed. That's it there in concrete in the bottom right:

These are the running paddle wheels that provide oxygen to the shrimp stocked at 150-per-square-meter below the surface of this water. That plastic blue perimeter is actually there so when the shrimp jump out onto the shore --- yes, they jump --- they'll fall back into the water:

More paddle wheels. There are the mangroves far in the background. This area was probably once all mangroves or rice paddies:

This is the shrimp farmer. He had a nine-speaker karaoke system in the small house on the pond premises. He had a huge collection which he played for us. We actually watched Led Zepplin live on karaoke DVD while we talked and later he sang Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton in a perfect accent. Otherwise, he didn't speak a word of English.

This pond is lying dormat. Again, they can't run 100% of the ponds all the time. They have to drain them, treat them with calcium carbonate and sometimes other chemicals and let them sit vacant to recover:

Another dormat pond there in the background:

Here's an empty bag of shrimp feed stuck onto a post:

Dormat ponds are ugly, really:

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Wooden Cargo Ships of Sunda Kelapa (Jakarta, Indonesia)

Had some time to kill this morning in Jakarta so I went to the 600-year-old port of Sunda Kelapa where a fleet of working wooden cargo ships were being loaded with fertilizer. The freight is loaded onto the ships old style; the workers carry 50 kilo bags on their backs and walk on board across thick wooden planks. The freight is motored from Jakarta to Borneo over a period of four days. Most of these decrepit wooden ships are underpowered sometimes with --- I was told --- 200 horsepower motors!

The hulls are entirely made of wood. You can see the rust stains from the bolts used to hold the hulk together:

This one was in really bad shape. I think it may be out of commission and just used as some one's home:

A few of the ships carry small sails as supplemental power:

You can see the workers loading 50 kg bags of fertilizer into the cargo hold in the center. They don't use a crane --- just walk across on those planks at right carrying bags one by one:

You can see the caulk used to seal the wooden hull in the unpainted ship at right:

These guys paddled me around so I could get a close look at the ships. You can't see it in this picture, but the water is full of thousands of floating plastic bags and assorted trash:

This guy is sitting on one of the massive wooden logs that're swung down to keep the ship on course. The sterns are so wide that I assume the rudder alone is not large enough to keep it straight in heavy seas. In that case, they drop this tree-sized piece of wood down the side into the water and lash it in place:

Wooden boats constantly take water so they have these bilge pumps going just to keep them afloat:

This was written on the sea wall separating the port from the slums on the other side:

You can see the Jakarta slums in the background here. When the taxi dropped me off, I got lost for about 40 minutes back there trying to find the ships. You ever strolled through a bona fide slum? Smells like fresh human poop, dirty dishwater and rotten fish:

This doesn't look very seaworthy! The sidestays for the mast are held down with lanyards. I saw lots of unseaworthy-looking rigs today:

Saturday, May 03, 2008

48 Hours to Kill in Jakarta, Indonesia

I just arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia on business and have nothing to do until I start work Monday morning.

What the hell am I going to do?

There aren't sidewalks in this massive 3rd World metropolis so I can't take a stroll. I asked my local business partner what I should do and he recommended taking a taxi to the mall because "it's safe". Wait, is this city dangerous?

I'm on the 14th floor of a Muslim-owned hotel. As far as I can see out the windows, there are low-rise red-roofed buildings sprawling into the haze and pollution hovering on an ill-defined horizon --- a few skyscrapers rising up like sore dicks.

I hear the din of thousands of car horns below --- not so loud though, because the 14 story layer of carbon particles hovering in the city air muffles the noise before it gets through the window glass. It looks hot outside --- liquidy, heavy air --- like the Chesapeake in mid-July but without the water, the wind, or the charm; come to think of it, Jakarta is nothing like the Chesapeake in mid-July except for the hot wet air.

There's a mosque with an aquamarine-colored roof far down to my left. I can barely make it out, but I can see someone walking on the sun-beaten roof carrying a shovel. Weird. Luckily, I paid extra for broadband Internet and an expansive view from two big windows. The above picture is what I see.

Indonesian food sucks and so does their beer. It's all bony fish and fried rice under uninspired sauces. They have a brew called Bintang (means "star") which is like a sweeter Miller Lite. I'm drinking one from the mini-bar now. The top of the can smells like dust so I wiped it off with the underside of the t-shirt I've been wearing on my 35-hour plane trip here. On my previous trip to this country, I seemed to be the only one who drank the stuff. Being the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesians are mostly teetotalers. What fun!

Shit, suddenly it's POURING rain --- the drops coming down in skyscraper-sized slanted lines onto the grimy motorbikes and tuk-tuks below.

I can't wait till I'm talking to shrimp farmers come Monday morning, but until then, I've got 48 hours to kill in a over-populated 3rd World city.

UPDATE: All the tourist forums said this about Jakarta: leave and go to Bali. Since that's not an option, I've found two things to do for tomorrow: 1) The sauna. It's filthy and a bit rust-stained but stays hot and has a nearby one-person cold water pool; 2) the Sunda Kelapa port where I can see a bunch of old schooners. Cool!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

In high school, we used to make each other pass out just for fun.

As a supplement to alcohol in high school, we got "high" from a special breathing and pushing technique that would force someone to pass out, making the willing victim collapse into a crumple on the floor and sometimes jerk around in twitchy seizures for a minute. And it felt so cool.

The technique required two people: one "Breather" and one "Pusher". The Breather would stand with his or her back flat against a wall and take 10 deep breaths to the point of hyperventilation. The Pusher would stand facing the Breather. When the Breather had finished 10 deep breaths --- holding the final one on the 10th inhale --- the Pusher would push both hands with all his might upward onto the Breather's chest. This would force the Breather's back up the wall about six inches.

Then, the Pusher would let go and the Breather would exhale, leaning forward in a stooped position. Every time, without fail, the Breather would then fall into a crumpled pile on the floor and be passed out for about one minute. Sometimes we'd laugh as the Breather twitched, lying on the floor. This is what we did for kicks!

I suppose this activity was dangerous but god damn it was fun --- gave a nice head rush and felt WEIRD, a bit like the effect of a drug. This activity was a trend for a while among my circle of friends. We'd all periodically do this to one another when hanging out on weekends. If there was someone who'd never seen it before, we'd all get excited and try and get them to do it.

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