Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Accidental Tourist

The nice thing about visiting someone in their exotic home country is that you see lots of things you wouldn't otherwise.

This always ends up a bit surreal, however, since you outsource the planning to someone who knows what they're doing.

You see their best places, but since you didn't do any research or logistics to get there, you don't know what you're looking at.

This is basically how I ended up in Valparaiso, Chile.

My Chilean friend put me in the car, drove, parked and told me to get out.

'We're here,' she said.

'Where?' I said.

We wandered around, the native leading the interloper.

People stopped us and told us to put our cameras away.

'Chileans will steal them!' they said.

'Damn,' I told my friend. 'Chileans are hella racist against Chileans.'

She started introducing me as 'this gringo', possibly as punishment for this remark.

Neither of us knew anything about the city, so we recklessly speculated about all the buildings. This is where Spanish colonialists watched professional wrestling, we decided.

The rest of these buildings are all former locker rooms, obviously.

This is where they fed Christians to lions. That was the Spanish that did that, right?

'How come the power lines are all over the place like East Baltimore?' I asked my friend.

'So Chileans can charge all the electronics they steal from gringos,' she replied.

1 Comment

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

The World’s Ugliest Hotel

Though it's nice to know that if the Flintstones are ever in Reñaca, Chile, they will feel at home.



Filed under Pictures, Travel

We Are All Texas Oil Millionaires

I’m reading Bryan Burrough’s The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of The Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes. Burrough quotes a 1962 Nation article about Texas oil millionaires meddling in politics:

He believes his riches were in no way the result of luck but of his own foresight, courage, and initiative–all made possible by the American Way of Life. […]

Although he may never have got as far as high school, he is an authority on textbooks, the tariff and winning football formations, the Constitution, geophysics, currency inflation, and how to get rid of warts.

He is fond of writing letters to office-holders and potential office-holders advising and/or threatening them about the course they should follow. Given half a chance, he will, out of his accumulated wisdom, drop homilies, maxims, aphorisms, texts, proverbs and parables for the benefit of his fellowman, whom he professes to love dearly. 

Fifty years later, it’s still true about businessmen, and an increasingly accurate description of politicians themselves.

1 Comment

Filed under Books

Foreign Countries Have The Greatest English Books

Comments Off on Foreign Countries Have The Greatest English Books

Filed under Books, Travel

Construction Work, Perchance to Dream

Valparaiso, Chile


Comments Off on Construction Work, Perchance to Dream

Filed under Pictures, Travel

Chilean Food is Disgusting-Slash-Awesome



I still fucking ate the whole thing though.

1 Comment

Filed under Food, Pictures, Travel

Are We There Yet?

I just finished Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. It’s basically an attempt to construct a narrative of how human beings went from talking chimpanzees to hunter-gatherers to tribesmen to farmers to workers to us.

It’s surprising to me how little thought I’ve thought about this before. Here’s what I learned from the book:

  • The overall arc of human development turns out to be a battle between bureaucratic efficiency and human vice. Humans are driven by our natures to favor our kin, hoard our wealth and protect our security at the expense of others. The most successful early societies, just like the most successful societies now, are the ones that put rules in place to keep people from gaming the system to benefit themselves and their families.
  • The earliest manifestation of this principle is ancient China. Being constantly at war with their neighbors forced each little territory to come up with education and military training based on talent rather than family connections. Like March Madness, the best-organized armies defeated the others, consolidated their territory and challenged larger opponents. After about a thousand years of this, China went from being 10,000 small principalities to one totalitarian empire.
  • This same process was never able to happen in India, Fukuyama says, because it got religion. At just the time when it could have consolidated, Brahmanism took over and introduced the caste system.
  • Since it was basically impossible for people to rise from lower to upper castes, Indian elites  never devised a way to promote people through talent or grit. Under Brahmanism, you only rise or fall in caste after you die and are born again. Not only is it unlawful to reach a higher caste in your lifetime, it’s a sin. India never got efficient bureaucracy because the upper castes only drew talent from their own ranks, and based status on birth, not merit.
  • In Europe, efficient states developed about 1,500 years after China, and only by imitating the administrative structures of the Catholic Church.
  • Priest celibacy, which was only introduced in the 11th century AD, ensured that priests had no children or families to favor with wealth or appointments. So the church had no way of promoting people other than merit. This drove the Catholics to develop sophisticated  structures to administer all their tithe-collecting and heaven-selling.
  • Since the Catholic Church was basically the world’s first international institution, states started imitating its practices as a way of efficiently collecting taxes and ending disputes between citizens.
  • It’s basically an accident that Britain ended up as the first ‘modern’ society, meaning it had a strong state, rule of law and democratic accountability. The parliament was just a leftover institution for the feudal lords to protect their property, but since it was already there, it became a vehicle for the lower gentry and eventually commoners to represent their interests.
  • I especially geeked out over the section about Denmark. Fukuyama says Denmark’s highly efficient state is a result of historical accident too. After the Reformation, Denmark was one of the only countries in which Lutheran priests were given the duty of teaching all the commoners to read and write. Smart little villages became efficient little towns, which became a progressive little country.
  • We like to think of political development as gradual progress toward a goal like peace or wealth or stability, but what really stands out from the book is how many societies reached high levels of sophistication and development, only to squander them by backsliding into their old habits
  • China, for example, after getting all efficient by 200 BC, let nepotism creep back in once the empire was unified and basically sat development out for 1,000 years.
  • In the Middle Ages, the Hungarians apparently had their own Magna Carta (Called ‘The Golden Bull’ whuuut) that made their king accountable to his subjects. Great, right? Well, it turns out it gave so much accountability that king had to convince the nobles and gentry to protect the country against outside invaders, and eventually it was taken over by the Byzantines and then the Ottomans.
  • The level of corruption in early societies is monumental. The French and the Spanish governments in the 1700s basically operated like organized crime families. They literally sold noblemen the right to collect taxes. So each nobleman got an army together and bayoneted whatever taxes he wanted out of the peasants, while completely avoiding paying taxes himself. One of the reason the British Navy was able to dominate Spanish and French was simply because they had a centralized state that collected taxes, rather than a bunch of Pierre Sopranos.

I’ve been reading a lot of this kind of long-term, comparative history lately, and I’m constantly struck by the degree to which every generation thinks that the world as they found it has always been that way. Societies in the Middle Ages died defending status quos that were sometimes just 30 years old. In our own lifetimes, we constantly forget that the entire concept of a nation-state is less than 200 years old, and the borders of most existing countries have been significantly edited just in the last century.

Sometimes, in the midst of a culture obsessed with where we’re going, it’s nice to look back at where we’ve been.


Filed under Books, Denmark

High Resolution

The gym has been packed this week.

‘Is this the effect of everybody making New Year’s Resolutions?’ I asked my friend the avid gymmer
‘Yep, happens every January,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, they’ll all be gone by Groundhog Day.’

I know I shouldn’t take micro-phenomena and turn them into metaphors, but I’m finding it difficult not to see something poignant and sad and human in a mass of people simultaneously signing up for the gym and then, three weeks later, simultaneously abandoning it. We all want to leave our current habits for sunnier, healthier ones, but we inevitably get pulled back home.

In a related story, I skipped German class this week on account of not-feeling-like it. I may even have eaten something I’m allergic to on purpose, just so I’d have an excuse to go home and sink into the couch. I’m sure foreign-language teachers are sitting in a break room somewhere, having the same conversation.

I wonder if we’d all be nicer if we remembered that everyone we meet is trying really hard to be a better version of themselves.

Comments Off on High Resolution

Filed under Personal, Serious

Going to the Gym is Not a Sport

One of my favorite activities when I lived in Denmark was doing gymnastics. The high bar, the rings, the floor, it was a blast.

Since I moved to Berlin, I haven’t been able to find a place with proper gymnastics equipment. Instead I’ve been going to the gym a few times a week–the power of homosexuality compels you!–but it feels like an obligation, not a hobby.

I finally found a weekly gymnastics team here in Berlin, so tonight I attended for the first time by to see what kind of shape I’m in after trading in my unitard for trackpants seven months ago.

Apocalypse. I can’t do any of the shit I used to love doing, including handsprings and front flips, which were basically the only thing I achieved in my 20s. During my downtime every moving part of my body seems to have become a coal-fired little pain factory.

The surprising thing is, despite how monotonous and horrifying it is, I’ve actually been pretty diligent about going to the gym since I moved here. It’s literally next to my work, and lifting iron bars up and down, it turns out, is a pretty decent way to de-spreadsheet on your lunch break.

I thought at least some of my new gym muscles would come in handy when I started doing gymnastics again. Weight, motion, it’s all the same thing, right?

No, punk, my body replies in aches and weakness. You’re gonna start from the scratch I give you.

This just confirms everything I hated about the gym in the first place. Working out doesn’t make you good at anything, it just makes you better at working out. If sports were kitchen utensils, the gym would be an apple corer. It performs precisely one function–one for which other utensils easily suffice, I might add–and it doesn’t take skill or finess to use, only force.

I realize this is a preference, not a principle. In a society where no one ever forces us to get up and move around, all exercise is equally arbitrary. In my experience, the gym is the only kind that feels that way.


Filed under Berlin, Serious

I Went Skiing!

Comments Off on I Went Skiing!

Filed under America, Pictures

Can You Imagine Seeing This Road Sign in the United States?

Mexico City is still the most terrifying place I’ve ever ridden a bike, but I almost tipped over when I saw this.


Filed under America, Pictures, Travel

It Is Easy To Be Beautiful; On The Outside, Less So

Yeah I’m not gonna bother reading anything about Rick Santorum. I’m sure he has unacceptable opinions on any number of important policy issues. I’m sure that the media will reveal hypocrisy between these opinions and his personal conduct. I’m sure there are skeletons in his closet waiting to be illuminated by the reporters and paraded on a stick by the bloggers.

But really, what’s the fucking point? He’s not going to win the nomination, nor the presidency. It’s only been five weeks since Herman Cain quit the primaries, and I’m already thinking that all those minutes I spent gathering news and opinion about him could have been spent reading a short story, or learning German, or shitting into my cupped hand and throwing it at my neighbors.

Looking back on this election in five years, whatever its outcome, I don’t see myself saying ‘Drat, I wish I had spent more time gathering information about the personality, achievements and thoughts of Richard John Santorum.’ Maybe I don’t have better things to do, but I do have other things to do.


Filed under America, Journalism

Valle Girl

After three days in Mexico City, I headed out to the countryside.

Nothing says 'gringo on the bus!' like being the only one taking pictures out the window.

The internet suggested Valle de Bravo as a nice little retreat from the onslaught of the capital.

And it was! The lake is artificial, but the city is real.

It's apparently a big weekend destination for Mexico Citians, and I felt like the only American there.

In situations like this, foreign tourists tend to actively avoid each other.

Tourism, unlike most mass activities, becomes less valuable the more people do it.

You feel like an anthropologist wandering around places like this.

Until you hear else someone speaking English, then you feel like a spectator.

When I saw the water, I thought 'Yeah, there's no fucking way I'm swimming in a man-made lake in Mexico'.

Then felt racist for thinking that.

When I got back to Mexico City and told people I had been in Valle de Bravo, the first thing they said was, 'Shit you didn't swim did you?!'

Then I felt vindicated. Racist assumptions are fine as long as they turn out to be correct, right?

The only thing I asked the internet about Valle de Bravo before I arrived was whether it has tarantulas.

I have never seen a tarantula in real life

and genuinely believe I would lose a tonsil screaming if I ever did.

The city does apparently have tarantulas, but they're hibernating in December.

Somehow that's even more terrifying. If they're sleeping, they would be vengeful if I were to inadvertently wake them.

I find it less scary to hang from the clouds on a 20-foot-wide piece of canvas than to encounter a playing-card-sized nonpoisonous animal. I realize the un-logic of this.

Still, I tried to keep noise to a minimum, and refused to look at the ceiling in my hotel room in case I got Arachnophobia'd.

Looking down is always easier than looking up.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Journalism Has Genres Too

I reorganized my bookmarks today. Four years of promiscuous ctrl+d-ing has left me with an disheveled list of names and urls, most of which I seldom read anymore or don’t remember ever liking.

As I sorted them into categories, I found the experience a bit depressing. Every publication, website and blog is a source of information. When you’re deleting them, you’re essentially saying ‘I can’t be bothered to hear what they want to tell me.’

Even more depressing is confronting what you actually use each of your bookmarks for. The internet has an essentially unlimited capacity to tell you the same thing over and over. News blogs recapitulate the same information. Entertainment blogs ‘analyse’ the same press releases.

Looking at your history and curating a list of your favorite information sources is essentially a blueprint for the kind of person you are. Do you want a brief, snarky take on American politics? Feminist analysis of celebrity gossip? Gay album reviews?

Lately I’ve been feeling like unlimited reading options has turned literature into music. If it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, I want to listen to Low Roar or Portishead. If I’m about to go out dancing, I want to listen to Rye Rye or The Avalanches.

In the same way, early in the morning I want to read a website that gives me sober, straightforward news, something Reutersy. At work I want something I can read, digest and forget in about 15 minutes. On weeknights I want a site that tells me something I didn’t know before or shows me something I knew in a new way.

This concept isn’t anything new, obviously. The written word, from newspapers to magazines to novels, have always set a particular tone, and we always choose to read something that reflect ourselves back at us.

What I’ve been struck by lately, though, is that I also have moods for content. I want to read an article about how stupid libertarians are. Or I want a minority to tell me that they’re empowered. Or I want to read a blog where someone tells me that my favorite TV shows are their favorites too.

The internet allows us to cultivate not only the facts we get and the conclusions we draw, but our emotional reactions too. What ever I feel like feeling–confirmation, outrage, optimism, apocalypse–I can access it instantly.

In the end, I just sorted my favorites into ‘heavy’ and ‘light’. The sites contained in both of them give me information. But one group plays me something I haven’t heard before, and the other just repeats the same old melody.


Filed under America, Journalism, Personal, Serious

How to Avoid Being Kidnapped In Mexico City

Land in the early morning. Don't bother bringing luggage, it will only be shredded by the stray dogs prowling the airport conveyor belts.

Upon arrival in the city center, repeatedly call out 'Truce!'

Bringing your own weed to Mexico is like bringing your own omelette to Denny's. Buy local.

Spend your daytimes exclusively in buildings that look like the inside of Lady Gaga's uterus

Kidnappers can't see you if you remain perfectly still.

If approached by a local resident, freeze and look away. They will think you have disappeared.

When purchasing a newspaper, make sure you buy the Standard rather than the Proof of Life edition.

If you suspect a local resident of ill intent, direct their attention to a local carnival ride. If are instantly mesmerized, they are a drug baron.

Be aware that Mexico City doesn't have a police force. At night neighborhood watch organizations just shine the Bat Signal into the streets.

Have you seen The Wire? Then you are fully qualified to approach Mexican street gangs. Do so freely.

Remember: Spanish is simply a dialect of English. Roll your Rs and add an O to the end of all nouns and verbs. 'Yo needo to rento el car-o', for example, is a sentence that demonstrates full fluency.

Keep in mind that this is just a standard phone booth. Everyone south of the US border is three to six inches tall.

Solidify good relations with locals: At every opportunity, remind Mexicans that holidays are more special when celebrated in America.

Point out the tragedy of having a corporate-sponsored Christmas tree in their city center. Refer to Pepsi as 'the Mexico of soft drink brands'.

Scam alert: Locals will try to lure you into their churches by pretending they are older than America's.

Remind them that Mexico was discovered in 1961 by a Minnesota family who fled southward to escape their winter.

And kidnapped the second family to arrive.

Fun Fact: Nearly 90 percent of Mexico's population is now American retirees. Mexico's drug war is being fought over Propecia.

All taxi license plates begin with the letter A or B. A means you will be taken to your destination. B means you be driven to an ATM machine and forced to type your pin incorrectly three times. You will then be driven to your hotel, where you will have to make a long-distance call to re-activate your card. This will cost you a fortune.

Make sure you bring cash to the airport as you depart. One of the baggage-dogs may request a bribe.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

My Hometown Is Better Than Yours

Seattle is objectively superior to the place you grew up.
Three mountain ranges, four lakes and a fucking Sound. That’s a geographical feature your hometown hasn’t even heard of.
These buildings are made from the compacted dust of the City Halls of every other city on the planet, and symbolize Seattle’s undisputed domination over them.
The ground floor of that church is a Starbucks. Which Seattle invented.
This was taken at noon. We don’t even have daytime. Just sunset, 12 hours per day.
If you wave your arm from the top of the Space Needle, all the waterskiers will get out of your photo.
Bellevue, our eastern suburb. Every single one of those buildings is a mall. People who have a Bellevue stamp in their passports aren’t allowed into Seattle.
You’re only allowed to move away if you sign a non-disclosure agreement promising not to tell anyone how perfect it is.
Ferries, motherfucker. Yeah, that’s how we get to 7-11.
In the ’60s, the federal government tried to confiscate this mountain range under the principle that it’s not fair for one city to have so much view.
All of our pizzas are delivered by seaplane.
We also use them to drop hot dogs on football fans like rice on famines.
See that green space at the bottom of the lake? Microsoft paid for that shit. Our city government is so efficient that billionaires provide all of our public goods.
Seattle is so generous it built a whole synagogue for its six Jews.
Our World’s Fair was so amazing that Seattle is still listed in the thesaurus as a synonym for The Future.
We held an Olympics the same year, but it was so amazing that everyone agreed never to tell the rest of the world about it.
Abandoned gasworks, yeah boooy. The arsenic tainting our lakewater is thicker and more rainbow-colored than yours.
Seattle invented bricks and mortar in the 5th century BC. Then in the 20th century AD, it invented and made them obsolete.
The sun is literally always shining. Those clouds were artificially pumped in because there were out-of-towners visiting and we didn’t want them to stay .
In the ’70s, Seattle’s mayor ordered the curvature of the earth to be flattened here so residents can always see the mountains.
See how there’s nobody biking? Seattle traffic is so generous and efficient that a woman sued the city in the ’80s because it took her more than 7 minutes to get to work.
Seattleites are so inherently well-informed that we decided we didn’t need more than one newspaper to tell us what’s going on in the world.
This is a totem we erected to protect us from Courtney Love.
It’s illegal to serve food in Seattle without a waterfront view. Inland residents regularly starve to death.
Our port is so productive and our people so content that all the union dock workers have voluntarily left for lower-paying jobs.
We shop exclusively at the Pike Place Market. Fish can only be consumed if they’ve been thrown into an old newspaper.
Our library is big enough to service everyone in Seattle who can read.
It was designed and built in complete secrecy. If the governor, mayor or city council had found out about it, they would have blocked it for being creative and aesthetically pleasing.
They have never been allowed inside, obviously.
Our municipal court is so pleasing and efficient that people regularly spend months there before trial because they enjoy it so much.
All that corn that keeps Americans so lithe and healthy arrives here. Seattleites subsist entirely on smoked salmon and cougar-meat. 
The bodies of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner en route to Xzibit’s house to be pimped.
Bill Gates had this mountain installed outside of his house. When he claps twice, the sun goes down.
Those clouds are made from the vapor of 3 million cappuccinos.
It’s true: From far away, your hometown is less ethereal and photogenic than mine.
Seattle could teach you, but it would have to charge.


Filed under America, Personal, Pictures