Saturday, January 31, 2015


As I was writing that last post, my parents called. And casually, after discussing other things, informed me that a family friend had passed away. They thought they'd told me before, but they hadn't. They asked whether I'd be able to come up for the memorial service, but by now it's too short notice. I'm shaken, even though I haven't been in touch directly with the family for year. But when I was a kid, we were really close. Our parents met in ESL class soon after both families had immigrated. We spent every Thanksgiving together, until we didn't. He'd been ill for a while, but it's still so hard to accept.

Saturday roundup: Chaitgate edition

I try to check Twitter at work periodically because I use Twitter primarily to keep up on work-related matters; I skim past the other stuff, maybe star it to read later. Sometimes I can't help but notice that something's up, or trending, as the kids say these days. And earlier this week, Jonathan Chait was certainly trending.

I saw hundreds of Chait-slamming tweets long before I could actually read the offending essay. There were one or two tweets in his defense--from Julia Ioffe. When I did read the essay, I found it rambling and incoherent: while I found each of the examples aggravating, Chait failed to convince me that they supported his narrative. The first example in particular wasn't an example of political correctness gone wild; it was an example of a hate crime. And singling out Melissa Harris Perry for deviating from the "original" meaning of "mansplaining"?

And yet, I don't entirely disagree with the point he tried to make (actually, scratch that: I do; but I don't disagree that there's something to it). And I have to admit, I was frustrated by some of the reactions (by people I otherwise respect). Many fit the point Chait was trying to make: they were deflecting with unrelated things, and, as he wrote in his (better) follow-up, unnecessarily ad-hominem. Yes, the Marissa Alexander case was a travesty and the day Chait's piece was published was the day she was released from jail. No, it wasn't petty of Chait  to (try to) raise the issue of internet discourse just because there were Serious Things going on that day. There are always serious things going on--and that argument is just as silly from the left as it is from the right (i.e., don't complain about street harassment because women in some other countries don't get to vote). I also didn't get the sense that Chait was trying to shut anybody up (nor did I get that sense from Michelle Goldberg's piece, although I thought she was unnecessarily hostile to Mikki Kendall). Chait's detractors say that disagreement isn't censorship, and that goes both ways. Jon Hodgman's response--I wish someone would storify it, as he didn't link them--was spot on. He acknowledges the phenomenon Chait attempts to describe as "an actual thing." Here, I'll embed the key tweets:

Furthermore, Chait stepped in it by excerpting from a private online community.

I get the passion on the detractors. I get that women--particularly women of color, as I observe the relentless bull$hit they have to contend with online--are having none of it. I get that disagreement isn't the same as censorship, that faux calls for civility, as well as tone-policing, are often wielded to reinforce the status quo (one where marginalized voices are blunted). I get that there are limits to reasoning and that there's a fine line between areas of civil disagreement and abuse. We can civilly debate--another of Chait's examples--whether Mt. Holyoke was misguided in dropping "The Vagina Monologues" (and I would argue that it was, and this comment from a trans woman says it better than I could); we can't, shouldn't be able to abuse or dehumanize trans people online, or anyone else for that matter.

But wouldn't we all benefit from a more forgiving environment? Or at least one less forgiving of trolls and abusers and more forgiving of those appearing in good faith--even the misguided ones? I've seen pile-ons and snowballing attacks. For example: Twitter did well to communicate to Ani DiFranco, unequivocally, that hosting an event at a former slave plantation would be horrible. Ani DiFranco did well to get the message and apologize. What does it accomplish to throw her in with people who make racism their life's work, when she has otherwise been on the side of social justice her entire life? Not because of hurt feelings, but because of collective energy, resources, etc.

Conor Friedersdorf successfully takes on the conversation that Chait attempted to launch. In fact, he directly poses the questions, "Is an even better conversation possible?" and "What if everyone involved in this conversation is ill-served by the present state of public discourse?" I supported Laurie Penny's response to Scott Aaronson (as I wrote in December). I wouldn't have supported Amanda Marcotte's, reprinted at the end of Friedersdorf's piece. We have to be able to tackle these ideas head-on without misrepresenting the view (Penny does; Marcotte does not).

Actually, Bryan Lowder's take was quite good (I avoided initially because I didn't think the man was capable of critical thinking after his inane piece about how vegetarians should eat chicken).

I thought about whether I'd ever felt "censored" on Twitter. I've seen things I've found offensive and needlessly antagonistic, but I decided that it wasn't my place (or that it wasn't worth my time) to pipe in. That's not the same as censorship. Most recently, I came upon a (re)tweet that made me roll my eyes, but I thought better of it; it wasn't up to me to question or undermine someone else's experience. Specifically, someone had written about the burden of constant code-switching, something that every immigrant knows well. I thought, yeah, it's tough, but once you master it, the ability to do it effortlessly becomes an advantage--and most of the world does full-time. But I hadn't mastered it until after college, and the tweeter deserved her own reaction to her own experiences. I would have been responding to the overall statement, but it would have come off as a personal attack. Even in this case--where my experience is valid--it's not my place to pipe in. When the tweeter's my age, she'll have learned that immigrant code-switching is a growth experience, not a burden. It's not my place to derail her experience with my own, except to be supportive.

The point of all that is, there's value in knowing when to shut up and listen.


Saturday roundup (normal edition)

Nepal's child grooms' tough life.

For the gazillionth time: yes soy means deforestation, but that's mostly the soy animals eat, not the soy people eat.

Do what you will with this information, but the article has a very handy and reasonable take on what veganism is and isn't about.

Why does government research have to support animal torture?

It's silly to call vegan food "fake." Coconut milk and soy milk, for example, have always been called milks.

Cory Booker explains that plant-based eating shouldn't be considered subversive.

Factory farms continue to be the nightmare that keeps on giving.

As a child of Blockade survivors: I cannot overstate how f*ed up the concept of a 'Leningrad Blockade Diet' is. 

The haters can suck it; Picky Woman has found love.

Algorithms aren't everything.

Medical errors are significant.

Don't take medical advice from celebrities and certainly don't steam your genitalia.

Have you ever seen a small child try to crawl into a uterus? Are you confused when it's appropriate to refer to women as females?

Sadly, Tom Stoppard's latest appears to be disappointing, at least in the science department.

This week has me thinking I've been unfair to Alexandra Petri; I've found her column to be a waste of space, or at least mostly so, but her take Obituaries for Men are brilliant (though you could also check out #myozobituary). Her other column this week was only a 50 percent waste of space; she made some excellent points, but could have made them in half as many words. So really, maybe it's just that her editor is falling down on the job. Because Petri really nails the leggings issue:
It is not your responsibility to protect men from themselves. Or to protect people from themselves. It is your responsibility to be yourself, as beautifully and fully as loudly as you wish. That should include being considerate, of course. That should include being polite, sure. It would be lunacy never to take anyone’s possible reaction into account. That’s the essence of politeness — making allowances for others. But you are not answerable for the thoughts and reactions of others. They are.
You are not here for their convenience.
That's it for this post... I need a whole other post for Chaitgate, and even then I'm not going to spend a lot of time on it.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday roundup

The (sex-related) things people google about.

What's not awesome about Cambodia is its sweatshops.

Have we talked about the environmental impact of meat?

If your marriage can be undone by yoga pants... and yet, I agree that we needn't ridicule that woman.

Indochina travel notes: epilogue/ramble

I've been back for exactly a week now, almost to the hour. The jetlag is milder than any I've experienced upon returning from Asia (or Australia). I'm adjusting to less-fresh food, and to having to cook it myself. But I do love staying put night after night, at least for now. I've been shaking the dregs of my cold; I was pretty much over it by the time I got back, but I was still having residual coughing fits on the return flights, and it wasn't until Tuesday that my ears cleared. It was actually good to come back to work, good to see my work family. Gracie was thrilled to see me; she was more affectionate than ever. It's even been easy to adjust to winter, perhaps mostly because I brought the good weather back with me; it's been mostly pleasant ever since I returned. We weren't here for the 0-degree days.

(A tiny part of) the Mekong Delta

After we crossed the border out of Cambodia--after the travel agencies herded us around--it dawned on us that the bus we were on--destination, Saigon--didn't have a dedicated stop at My Tho. My Tho was on the way, and this bus was the travel agency's quickest way of getting rid of us. I was concerned that we'd have to go all the way to Saigon and backtrack. Jay was concerned that they'd drop us at the side of the road and we wouldn't be able to get a cab to the guesthouse. Rick had had it, period, and threatened to get off at Rach Gia. That wasn't an option as far as I was concerned; we were flying out of Saigon the following night. So we stayed on the bus as it honked its way across the Delta. The part of the ride for which we had daylight was, at least, beautiful. But at that point, none of us reacted much to rice paddies, with or without water buffalo. It got dark. I slept intermittently (the seats reclined fully). Around midnight, we stopped at a truck stop for a half-hour break. I marked my territory by way of my very productive coughing.

Around 1am, the bus did indeed drop us off the side of the road at My Tho, but it wasn't long before we saw a cab. We showed the driver where to go... except Google Maps got it wrong, so we took him slightly the wrong way. He had to call the guesthouse, and the owner directed him. We didn't blame him one bit for not speaking English, even though, in practice, it made communication a challenge. But it all worked out. We got there, the hostess and staff showed us to our rooms, we slept it off (or at least I did). I'm a good sleeper; my body will sleep, and if it doesn't for whatever reason, it'll make up for it next time. I set up my mosquito net and used my earplugs. I don't remember whether we were woken up by roosters (we were elsewhere, even in Snooky; in Luang Prabang, it was monks, who drum at 4am).

Cambodia (other than Angkor)

I didn't tell you much about Siem Reap in the other post. The photos were getting unwieldy, but you can't begin to convey Angkor without photos. I'm not sure you can convey it with photos; part of what's mind-blowing about it is the scale. I can show you the details, but the awesome is in the whole--in how many details there are. It's a big city of awesome details. Actually, it's multiple cities of awesome details. Let me quote my Insight Guide earlier than intended: "Angkor must be seen to be believed."

The Angkor Complex

Our wariness was growing as we left Luang Prabang. We didn't want to leave; we all could of used another day or two there. I'd like to go back and just do a bike tour of Laos. But we had some of the most amazing ruins in the world to see, so onward we went. 

Arriving in Cambodia was a $hit show, worse than that of Laos. The visa is basically an employment program, and they have ten people sitting there to process them. Of course, they also stop everyone to have you fill out a health form. They take the visa fees in dollars, and we'd brought a bunch but also spent a bunch (you can pay for many things in Indochina in dollars, and a lot of prices are quoted that way). What we hadn't realized was that Cambodia uses dollars almost entirely (small change is given in rials). So as we shelled over our last dollars for visas and the cab to our hotel, we fretted about how to get more. We laughed at the irony of getting rials from the ATM and having to change them to dollars at a bank. Until we went to the ATM and realized that they only distributed dollars, because that was what the country used.

We cabbed it to our hotel, only to realize later that the hotel would have picked us up for free. The cab driver offered us his services as an Angkor driver, and we tried to ask him how much he charged, but he couldn't understand us and answered a different question. At the hotel, too, the receptionist had some trouble communicating with us. Now, you know I'm not one to complain about people in other countries not speaking English... but if you work in tourism and English is the lingua franca among tourists, it would really help to speak English. We asked the receptionist about a tuk-tuk to Angkor; there was some nonsensical interlocution, and eventually, we reserved a driver. The next day, a couple of Chinese guests were trying to explain to him that they wanted to check in rather than check out.

The hotel itself was pretty awful. It was in the shadow of a nicer hotel, which probably explains the rave reviews (the rating was mixed up with those of the main hotel). We'd gone for mid-range throughout the trip, but all the mid-range was sold out by the time we booked for Siem Reap, and, given the high ratings, we opted for this very inexpensive place. And we got what we paid for. The three of us were in a cramped room with one functioning overhead light and a shower that drenched the entire bathroom. It's typical for showers to just be showerheads in the bathroom, with the water draining into holes in the floor if not an actual drain, but in other places you could turn on the shower without soaking the entire bathroom. It was fine, I guess--it was what it was--but it compounded our wariness.

We hadn't really figured out what we'd do in Angkor. We'd done well thus far by winging it, i.e., showing up at a place with a vague plan and seeing where our wandering, combined with local suggestions, would take us. I nonetheless tried to get my head around the Angkor complex, but my head is not that way; I couldn't understand it until I saw it. Jay also looked at the books, but also struggled to know what was what. Rick was even further out there ("so, what's this Angkor thing? Is that, like, the main attraction here?"). Over dinner at Peace Cafe (Jay noted that this trip took him to the hippy-dippiest places ever), we tried to come up with a basic plan. Luckily for us, the tuk-tuk driver for the hotel was awesome (and this almost redeemed everything else about the hotel). He asked us if we had a plan, and when it was clear that we didn't, he just took us around to where he thought best. The next day, I added some places. But it worked out really well.

None of us knew what to expect. I'd always wanted to go, but I didn't quite know why. Jay loves ruins, so he really, really wanted to go. Rick... well, we've covered him. So we pull up, get our tickets, and reach the moat and one of the gates of Angkor Thom. And our minds our blown.

Luang Prabang (and Kuang Si)

We were ready to leave Hanoi, but the wear of travel was starting to get to us. We'd been going for over a week at this point--this was our second flight in Indochina, and it followed that overnight train trip and the four-hour bus rides to and from Ha Long Bay. We'd already stayed in five hotels (not including the overnights on the boat and in the the train), and we were ready to be in one place for a while. That said, we were in awe of all that we'd seen, and we were only half-way through our trip. I thought about how I was happy to be traveling; I felt no pull for home.

I couldn't wait to see Laos; I'd fought to keep it in the itinerary. Well, "fought" is an exaggeration because Jay was on board, and Rick was happy to leave the decisions to us; but I would have fought had it come down to it. It was costly to fly there, with the alternative of a 24-hour bus that regularly took more like 72 hours. Rick hated propeller jets; to me, they were just another plane, and a much steadier one than I expected--I was thinking of the Cessnas I took around Nicaragua. Jay and I--probably especially Jay--were happy with how happy Rick was with the trip thus far, given that he didn't really know what he was getting into, didn't know what to expect. I didn't mind that he wasn't participating in the planning, because he wasn't complaining about anything but the conveyances. Jay was relieved that the flight hadn't been cancelled for rain (he'd read that they could be cancelled at the drop of a hat), and it was pouring it down pretty much all over Asia (it wasn't supposed to be, as our innkeeper in Luang Prabang told us; it was dry season). I was upset: we had two days in Laos, and it was raining?? Would we be able to see anything, do anything?

We landed, crossed the tarmac with airline-provided umbrellas, and got in line for our visas-on-arrival. It was a $hit-show, but I won't bitch about it here. We found a functioning ATM and were overcharged for a super-shuttle-type operation to our guesthouse. The hostess at the guesthouse was confused about us--for which we blame Agoda; when we'd booked through or, the management got in touch with us to offer us a ride or make other arrangements (that was how I was reassured about finding am after-hours dentist in Hanoi). Agoda doesn't share contact information. Anyway, the confusion was resolved and we settled into our respective rooms. I cursed the rain.

By morning, the rain had let up slightly, i.e., it was still raining but not in sheets. We got a tuk-tuk (through the guesthouse) to the falls.

 The scenery on the way was stunning, and I was at peace with having come to Laos.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

We'd read great things about the night trains in Vietnam, and perhaps, had we taken the one originally intended--the slightly faster one, which was out of beds in the same compartment--from Hue to Hanoi, maybe we'd have appreciated what the fuss was about. Instead, we spent a long evening and night on a noisy, smoky train (no, smoking wasn't allowed but the people in the next compartment were doing it anyway and it wafted in). The views out the window were great while they lasted, but, though we wouldn't quite grow tired of the scenes of villages and rice paddies, we grew accustomed to them and they ceased to insire any emotions among us.


My not-quite-first thought upon arriving in Hue was, what the f* are we doing in Hue? The truth is, you really never know what's worth a visit. There are things every guidebook and every person recommends that you'll hate or at least dismiss. Luckily, Hue wasn't that place. Well, Hue itself maybe; but the surrounding countryside made it worth the stop.

We wouldn't figure that out until the next day, though, and in the meantime, we weren't thrilled with Hue, especially after the peaceful, small-town feel of Hoi An. The motorcycles were relentless (I got stuck in the middle of the street during our walk, and only wanted to avoid street crossings for the remainder of our stay), and the hawkers were in our face. We made it to dinner with just a few street-crossings, and it was an amazing, "authentic" (you know I hate that word), local, open-air vegetarian place. The waiter was very patient with us, and we just kept ordering and ordering (Jay tried to stop me but I really was that hungry).

The next day, we hired a driver (through our hotel) to take us around to the surrounding sites. We found, throughout our travels, that three was the magic number: it cost about the same to hire our own transit, guide, etc. as to go with a group tour. He dropped us off at our first site--Khai Dinh's tomb--and I was at peace with having come to Hue.

Hoi An

Hoi An was lovely in almost every way--almost because motorcycles. And yet, the motorcycles there were manageable; there were natural, albeit short, lulls in the onslaught of traffic during which you could make your way across the street.

We flew to Danang

and cabbed it from there (unbeknownst to us, there was a new shuttle service, and another from Hoi An to Hue, but at that point we'd already bought our train tickets). The guy at the train station was very helpful and efficient. He didn't speak English, but we had everything written down and he triple-checked to make sure everything was right before booking our tickets. He even changed us to a different train to Hanoi from Hue, after pointing out that the one we wanted didn't have three beds in the same compartment. And this was our experience throughout Vietnam: people were extraordinarily, out-of-their-way helpful and efficient. I'd spoken before the trip to a coworker who'd been recently, and he told me he was surprised at how easy it was to travel in Vietnam--how the trains ran on time, literally and proverbially. It was really true. Jay marveled at how unlike India it was--India being shorthand for inefficiency and unhelpfulness. We wondered whether we'd have hated Vietnam the way we did India had we gone during the worst time of year, as we had to India (whereas it was the best time for most of Vietnam), but concluded 'probably not.'


We flew over some mountains

to get to Dubai.

We stayed in Deira, which was hopping. We'd been told that Dubai wasn't at all walkable and that we shouldn't even try, but that's really only the case downtown; Deira is all about the walking, and it was bustling.

We went for a walk, around the streets and the souks, the night we got in. It reminded me a lot of Istanbul... I'd tweeted that it was Istanbul meets Tokyo, with a dash of Shanghai and Jaipur.

Indochina: prologue

I needed to go on vacation, badly. I hadn't been on a real vacation in years (2.5 years, precisely), and I'd been agitating. I'd considered joining a friend of mine who was going to Switzerland for work, but I'd been there (lived there, actually), and the timing wouldn't work. But by late October, my report was out and, as Jay's contract would end at the end of 2014, he grew more responsive to my agitating. One morning, as I sat in a meeting--I don't normally bring my phone to meetings, but I knew the one in question would be brutal--we texted back and forth about possible destinations. We were all over the world: Puerto Rico, southern Africa, Macchu Pichu, Yellowstone, Argentina, Indochina... and so on. We started throwing out places in the morning, and by late afternoon, we narrowed it down.

Too hot in Namibia; rainy season in Macchu Pichu. I'd always wanted to go to Indochina. 

So we settled on that and proceeded cautiously and expeditiously. My manager blessed the trip (i.e., my monthlong absense, two-three weeks of which were during the holidays anyway so who cares). We booked flights--Emirates offered the best deal--so we added a stopover in Dubai. The guys wanted to go to Ferrari world, which, by the way, you can see from low-earth orbit. We booked lots more flights, and lots of hotels. We left some arrangements unmade--some things were better arranged in-country--and though we had a rough idea of what to do in each place, we mostly winged it in terms of activities. We made trade-offs: it was an ambitious trip, with four countries in two and a half weeks, and there was so much to see. You can always spend more time somewhere, and it's a matter of personality whether you want to take it slowly and really get into a place or hop around and see a little bit of everything. We were scolded over our choices: you need two weeks just for Vietnam! Skip Laos! You need five days for the Angkor complex!

We probably could have spent two weeks just in Vietnam, but I have no regrets about going to the other places, nor about choosing to visit Hue or Hoi An. We certainly did not need five days in Angkor. I mean, there are advantages to having more time--you can hit more temples first thing in the morning, before the rest of the masses descend on them, and that makes a huge difference--but you can definitely see as much as you (or at least we) want to see before getting templed out, in two days. As for Laos, we didn't want to leave; it was lovely.

It did take a lot out of us to change places, hotels every night or every other night. In fact, the only place where we stayed three nights was the crappiest hotel ever, so it didn't really help. But hopping around was the choice we'd made, and it we saw a lot as a result.

We all worried about things. Jay worried that flights would get canceled, or that our Vietnam visas would get confiscated, or that we'd have to bribe someone to get back in the country from Cambodia. He worried that the trains would sell out (well, I kind of did too) or that we wouldn't always be able to get around. He worried about all the cucumbers that might manifest themselves in his food. Rick didn't like small planes, or most boats, so he worried about those. He also worried about food poisoning and malaria. I worried about bad weather--scorching heat in some places, rain in others, and fog in Ha Long Bay. I worried we wouldn't find a good Ha Long Bay cruise, and maybe that we wouldn't find our way around the Mekong Delta. I worried I'd have to eat a lot of seafood. Later, I worried about getting hit by a motorcycle.

But not a lot went wrong, especially not at first. The flights all flew, and the hotels were all fine except one. I lost a tooth (crown) at Ha Long Bay, but a dentist in Hanoi put it back in that evening in ten minutes, for $10. I caught a cold between Luang Prabang and Siem Reap, but it didn't stop me from doing anything. Rick did lose his camera, which super-sucks, but he'd gotten all of his photos off of it beforehand. All in all, as weary as we were upon returning, we had a blast and saw some really cool stuff.

Saturday roundup

Here's the Times obituary of King Abdullah but don't miss the story of his encounter with Queen Elizabeth.

Will Africa's economic growth also usher in greater food security?

Inconscionable state sponsorship of animal cruelty, all on behalf of the meat industry.

On combatting food waste.

The oceans are hurting.

Carmen Guadelupe Vasquez has been pardoned, but this travesty never should have gone this far.

Letting your kids walk around on their own is now apparently a crime.

Posting graphic pictures of your kids' colds should be a crime.

Yup any woman who takes issue with things is just jealous.

The problem with exclusively health-motivated vegans is that they often go too far and then give up.

Immigration: a photo essay.

Is dumb-shaming anti-vaxxers not the best way to go?

An excellent critique of media exaggeration/distortion, with the longterm impact and the position it puts experts in:
Stories like this make analysts like me crazy. It’s obviously careless reporting, yet I will encounter claims of a Second Artillery Unit “near Baekdusan” for years, if not the rest of my miserable life. I’ll have to deprogram graduate students and be the jerk who corrects people in meetings. All because no one at the Chosun Ilbo bothered to check with a single competent expert before running that story. What? Mark Stokes doesn’t have email? Henry Boyd at IISS was on vacation? There are literally half a dozen people who would have been happy to correct Chosun Ilbo had they bothered to send a single, solitary email.
So, no China is not deploying nuclear-armed missiles on Mount Baekdu. Instead, the 810 Launch Brigade out of Dalian froze their balls off spending a month reenacting the opening battle sequence on Hoth from Empire Strikes Back.

Monday, January 19, 2015

I'm back... you may have noticed from the mini-roundup. I'll try to get you some travel notes within the week. Here are some random, unedited photos for now. You can play "guess the place" in the comments (hint: four countries represented; one especially is not like the others).

Quick Monday roundup

Agrichemicals are killing farmers in Sri Lanka.

Affluenza-afflicted man-child killed his father.

QVC hosts not sure whether the moon is a star or a planet.