Completing the Circuit

Today begins the long slog of flights home. The impending departure ginned up some introspection yesterday as I hit the pavement and took in Tokyo.

Why a trip around the world? Well, I thought, as I slipped through the bloody, frantic cobblestoned lanes of the Central Wholesale fish market near the waterfront, it's sort of an Edmund Hillary thing. For one, it's there. The globe. Almost taunting you, spinning coyly on the desk for years, teasing you with exotic and historic names.

Second, I wanted to do it. I wanted to travel around the world to the point of needing to do it as a sort of counterbalance to the heightened domesticity of the past year. Wanderlust, grown monstrous, overfed with books, stories, and acquaintances abroad, had to be appeased.

Tokyo, somehow, made for a fitting final stop on the journey to join ranks with Sir Francis Drake, Captain Cook, and Magellan's crew. Last night, I narrowly missed meeting up with Paul G, whom I had spent time with in London. I found out on that other small expensive island on the opposite side of the Eurasian landmas that he would arrive here just as I would. I was looking forward to a jam session in a music store - and even found one with mini accordions...

But Shinjuku Station, at the heart of the glimmering chaos that is Shinjuku, proved too much. I felt as if I had missed Mars after painstaking calculations and a long journey through space. But oh well - I'll try another meeting of two shots in the dark at my brief San Francisco layover, when I hope to meet my aunt and cousin for a bite to eat.

Shinjuku, though, is the bright lights go-go future-is-now Tokyo. It's the backdrop to portions of Lost in Translation. It's definitely where the 18-25 set hangs out.

The day prior to Shinjuku was chock full of Tokyo, though. The fish market was incredible - squid, urchins, snakefish, shells, flounder, lobsters, seaweed. Men in galoshes ran around with styrofoam boxes of all sorts of creatures on ice. Tuna carcasses the size of ponies were carved with long knives. Organisms and smells I'd never encountered before moved in the alleyways, glistened under the lights, big blank eyes staring up.

I strolled through gardens along Tokyo Bay as well, half expecting to see the U.S.S. Missouri out in the distance. The butterflies here, I noticed, are pretty crazy - blue, black, and even a black with cyan wingspots. The native pines, too, give off a mystical vibe as the skyscrapers tower overhead.

Moving down to the Zojiji Temple near the Tokyo Tower, I caught a band of Buddhist monks droning as they marched around the outer patio of the shrine. Inside, a golden Buddha loomed in the shadows of a columned hall where pilgrims threw coins and lit incense that smelled of cedar.

After that, it was on through the busy streets with high, narrow buildings to a park near the Imperial Palace. Ancient men sat on the park benches watching as a flim crew traced the moves of a girl near a fountain. I couldn't tell if it was TV or a movie.

Crossing the moat, I was amidst the giant stone block foundations of the old Edo Castle. It provided a great panorama of the downtown from a height, and the sun finally came out in full force, a welcome thing after the drab days in China.

One of the most powerful and interesting experiences came just before I reached the subway station to Shinjuku. The infamous Yasakuni Shrine. Japanese prime ministers always take heat from China when they visit. It's dedicated to military heroes, including some men who took part in the notorious acts in China in the 1930s. The shrine itself is built in the old style with torii gates leading to it. But the nearby military museum was the most intriguing by far. How would "the opposition" from World War II present its side of the story?

According to the few English translations in the Pacific War section, Japan declared war almost entirely for reasons of economic necessity and to counter US support for Kuomintang forces in China's civil war. One officer's letter to FDR on display also claimed, ironically, to be fighting against imperialism. However, some of Emperor Hirohito's writings on display belied a very ancient warrior sentiment at the core of the move. The exhibits also made a strong effort to illustrate, through quotes, that FDR and the US military brass knew by late November of nineteen forty one that an attack on US Pacific forces by Japan was highly likely.

Because of the international dateline, the attack on Pearl Harbor was listed everywhere as happening on December 8 instead of December 7.

There was also an exhibit honoring the men of the kamikaze forces who went into action late in World War II. I tried to put myself in the shoes of someone from Japan, but it was too difficult. The hairs on my arms went up as I looked over the admiring portraits of those who suicide bombed American ships. It was a dark, sickening, tingling, overpowering feeling of anger and revulsion I've never experienced before. I know an old man in Kiel, navy vet, who served on one of those ships, who told me the chilling stories of his vessel getting hit. It was a lot to try to comprehend all at once.

Japan today, though, is so very different. The city of Tokyo, really, is a micrcosm of the periodic rebirth that typified the place - conflagrations, earthquakes, wars. Each disaster brings flowers forth from the ruin, a new phoenix of a city each time.

It's a comforting thing, really. I'm ready to get home and start anew myself. Become not just a Wisconsinite, but an American.

Life, as they say, is about the journey, not the destination. When the destination is the beginning point, it surely seems to ring true.


Tokyo rose

before me from the train window, crisp, chilled green, sprawling. Hushed.

The agricultural areas seemed modern, geometric, a far cry from the outskirts of Kathmandu. Bamboo copses whizzed past, other trains, tall orderly jumbles of apartment buildings. The city seemed clean and well designed, strangely lighted and quiet between rain clouds.

Nobody talked on the subway train. Not when it was underground, not when it was aboveground. The wide cars permit two rows to stand comfortably in addition to the rows of seating. Both rows faced out, away from each other. Not a single well-dressed person spoke in the packed cars, nobody looked at each other.

It was a bit eerie. I can see how this might be fertile ground for a high suicide rate.

But that was just the first mouthful, so to speak, as I traveled the ungodly long route from Narita Airport to my cheap backpacker's hotel in the northeast side of the metropolis [Zadie Smith's engrossing White Teeth kept me from contemplating a jump, although it, too opens with an attempt]. And I have a full day to devote downtown and in the bustling spots tomorrow. It's expensive, few people speak English, and understanding the transit grid is a fool's errand. But people are nice when we do communicate. So it should be fun. I hope to find some good sushi.

Walking around here to find food this evening, posters from the weekend's parliamentary election still spangle the walls and corners of shops along the streets. Shinzo Abe, his ruling coaltion smacked down as of today, seems ironically cheery, content in his big bright red and blue mugshot broadsides.

The streetscapes, while cozy and compact, are highly modern to my eye - even newer than America. The quiet, discreet shopfronts make me a bit uneasy as darkness falls early under an overcast sky.

They're modern, I remind myself, looking out from my faux-traditional bedding on the floor of my room, because of the B-29s.

Good Bye Beijing

I left China today.

It's a good thing, although I miss my Australian and German friends already. After nearly a week, it was like leaving a place of some anxiety.

In Beijing, one lives under the near-constant threat of scams; a perpetual, gray, sense-dulling haze; and a sense of government/military overzealousness. I was wary of how much to say in my posts.

But China proved a moving, dynamic, eye-opening experience I will not soon forget.

Communism or "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics," is dead. The lid hasn't been nailed on the coffin yet, but for all intents and purposes, the ideology has flatlined as a way of ordering the lives of Chinese in Beijing. Economically, socially, and even architecturally, the West and market-based signifiers are slipping in swiftly. Lip service to the corpse remains.

Last night, I heard what I take to be it's death knell, the hammer pounding on the pine box.

Returning to the hostel with Simon and Marika from a breath-takingly hip hutong street in the north, a young Chinese man strode onto the plain Mao-era subway car on our final leg. Long black hair, bare arms, shades, black scruffy attire, guitar in hand. The antithesis of a red star. He seemed nervous as the doors shut, standing with his back to us at one end. Shortly after we left the platform, though, he turned and began playing something reminiscent of Green Day or David Bowie, singing in Chinese as he made his way down the aisle.

It was strangely electrifying. I watched everyone else in the seats, all Chinese, as he approached. Some were old enough to have been around in 1949 for the Revolution itself. Some turned away, looked dead ahead, tried to ignore him. Some were mesmerized. Some nodded along. No one made a sound, interfered.

As the train finally screeched into the glare of our drab tiled station, he passed me and wrapped up the impromptu performance as the wheels halted on the rails. I put my Brewers hat on backward in the one gesture I thought would vaguely show solidarity and started clapping. I walked off the train. Many others clapped, too.


Spittin', Bullfrogs, and Gettin' Buddha with It

Trivial things start to stand out on a whirlwind trip. Like cultural norms. Like social customs. Like local cuisine.

As I've moved east, I've noticed an uptick in the frequency, ferocity, and acceptance of spitting in public. In Dubai, the men spit more often than I was used to seeing. In Kathmandu, the most lady-like of women, sitting side-saddle on the back fenders of bicycles with umbrellas in their saris, were spitting right along. Here in China, both sexes will loudly work up a nice big wad as you walk by and let it go, whether you're on a sidewalk or in the bus.

Men here also seem to revel in baring their midriffs. It's rarely a full lack of shirt, but rather a flip of the shirt up just below the pectorals. For some of the better-fed middle aged men, I couldn't help but note the likeness to the traditional depicted physique of the Buddha.

And, of course, the food changes. Dubai was almost too cosmopolitan to pin down. Kathmandu got very curried. Bangkok presented paper thin squids hanging on lighted bicycle stands. And China has been a menagerie.

Last night, we tried Peking Duck, a glazed roasted duck carved up by the chef. It's eaten with thin pancakes, cucumber slices, onion slices, sauce, and salt. Not bad, but you don't get much of the duck for the price. The night before, we had bullfrog. And two nights prior, we had a smorgasbord of squid, octopus, and some grisly skewered thing called "little bird." Dog is currently out of season. Rice, noodles, and vegetables usually accompany. I've seen carp, turtles, sturgeon, flounders, and more swimming in tanks at the entrances to dining establishments.

For dessert last evening, on a bit of a dare from the Germans, we did shots of "schlongenschnapps" or snake liquor "Ganbei" style. It wasn't too bad. I just couldn't look at the jar the stuff had come from.

Thinking of the snake curled up inside of it made me gag enough as it was.

Bang a Gong, Get It On

I searched everywhere. The whole place is like a vast warren of red walls, marble stairways, plazas, and golden roof tiles. I braved the hordes of mostly Chinese tourists (today is Saturday, I discovered). I doubletraced my steps. I trudged on for hours in quest of my goal. But I was ultimately disappointed.

Alas, there is no longer a Starbucks in Beijing's Forbidden City.

The mammoth palace complex, used by 24 Chinese emperors, is a marvelous treasure, though, an architectural time capsule of temples, gardens, and halls dating from 1420. Entering from the south, one must pass under the giant portrait of Mao smiling down benevolently from Tiananmen Gate itself.

Tonight I'm heading out for some Peking Duck, the city's classic dish, with a group of friends from yesterday's excursion to The Great Wall. As far as a tourist attraction, it exceeds the hype. It was an all day affair with long bus rides, but I hit the wall at Simatai, a more remote and less refurbished section of the wall northeast of Beijing. In the process, a fun group coalesced including me, two Australians who teach English in Harbin in the north and three Germans, two of whom are working in Shanghai these days.

We had a blast climbing for a few miles to and on the wall itself, ascending over 800 meters in a few hours time. The wall, at least at the less touristy Simatai site, is more like a huge, fantastical staircase that climbs and snakes along the back of an incredibly high and narrow ridge. It's very steep in places, and we all got quite a workout up on the dizzying heights, the wall stretching out behind us into the haze, towers looming above us in front. That's me below giving the Chinese sign for seven at the seventh tower up.

Even on the arduous trek, we couldn't escape from the hounding of souvenir hawkers who also try to attach themselves like remoras to provide unwanted guide services. It was funny to watch one member of our group arguing and negotiating over t-shirt prices atop a high section of wall, the valley spreading out thousands of feet below him, providing a comically dramatic backdrop to a petty market squabble.

Some of the odd English translations on signs along the wall had me in stitches. For example: "All that belong to the nation belong to the world. Civilization is the most important." Photos of those to come - I could probably present an entire facebook album of them.

The trip out to the wall also provided me with a good opportunity to talk architecture with a Frenchman who works in Switzerland. Beijing is budding with new buildings, including a number by Rem Koolhaas. They are welcome additions in a city with the likes of The Great Hall of the People - which I toured today - that are poster children for the rather ungainly socialist style. Right behind it, though, the new National Theater is growing up, looking like a giant silver spaceship just landed.

Using the internet here is an interesting affair. I had to register my nationality here at the Qian Yi Internet Cafe on the southeast corner of Tiananmen Square...


Dispatch 1: No Clever Title

So, I'm about a month in to my stay in Azerbaijan -- "the 'Baijan," if you will. Life is good in this dusty, oil-rich little part of the world.

We arrived in Baku after a shoddy Turkish Air flight from Istanbul, on which I nevertheless had an interesting seatmate; he was here to teach mediation and conflict resolution, which seemed apt. It wasn't aimed at gov't officials dealing with Karabagh, but rather at businessmen -- apparently, Americans don't trust the Azeri set of regulations, and vice-versa, but neither side wants to sue and lose the business relationship.

Once in Baku, we promptly risked life and limb (well, not really, but still) to go to Quba (pronounced Goo-ba) in the north. The major highway running between the two began as a somewhat bumpy two-lane road with no shoulder, and got down to a rutted dirt road at points. This is made all the more adventuresome as the drivers would plunge into the passing lane as traffic charged toward us, diving back into our own lane only at the last possible second. Azeri drivers stop for no man.

At Quba, we stayed at the Olympic training center, which housed one of the most bombed-out looking soccer pitches I've ever seen; not only wer emany of the plastic chairs completely shattered, the concrete stairs had, in places, been turned into a ramp of rubble. At the complex, I met an Azeri Paralympics Judo gold-medalist. During the conflict (they never call it a "war"), he'd been shot in the head (in between the eye and ear on one side, out on the other) and blinded in one eye. He'd recently beaten a Frenchman someplace in Europe, and was on his way to Brazil.

I now live in the tiny town of Tagiyev, just outside the larger town of Sumqayit, itself just a little north of Baku on the Absheron Peninsula, the most polluted region in the world.

I punch my alarm at 7.30 most days, not really getting up until my host mother knocks on my door about 8. Breakfast is scrambled eggs with tomato, and I usually forego the ever-present bread. I do drink the tea - two cubes of sugar makes it just right. I slip through the courtyard and out the heavy metal gate that's fixed firmly in the sandy-gray brick wall and into the dust and dirt of our alley. Around the corner is the road that was just paved - in less than three hours it went from no sign of activity to being fully blacktopped. Things move faster, I suppose, when you don't feel the need to clear the garbage from the street before you pave it. I asked my host father how this came about; he said: "Our neighbor called his uncle." I left it at that.

Just because the road is paved doesn't mean there won't be animal droppings, and the cows are as common as cars here, so I watch my feet as I walk up the street, past the square that seems to also act as one of the main trash dumps. Some mornings there's even an old man there, shovelling the trash into his dump truck. He never quite manages to get it all. Not even the trash fires at night do, but that's all right. I am greeted by goats and children as I walk through the gates into the school yard, but only the human kids ask "Steve, what is you name?" or say "hello" (heavy accent on the first syllable). I shake hands with every boy who greets me, and walk up to the school holding hands with the one little boy who can't be more than 5, and has the cutest, missing-front-teeth smile you've ever seen. We've had near riots over who gets to listen to the iPod and who gets to touch the camera, so these American toys don't come out much any more.

The six Americans in my neighborhood walk to the store just a few minutes away from school during break to buy cold water. Somehow, we don't get the sore throats and dire colds that the Azeris seem sure are the natural result of drinking cold water, and the store, realizing we are coming, has stocked up on cold, non-carbonated water. The 15-year old behind the counter always smiles and chuckles.

We walk back up past the cow in the square; when classes are done, we each walk home accompanied by our own small parade of children still shouting "hello" "what is you name" and "my father (or mother) is", and the courtyard feels like a refuge. By this time the geese my host father keeps have left for their daily patrol of the streets, the courtyard has been washed, and usually, the dusty alley has even been swept -- Azeris are clean, except when they have trash to throw on the ground. My host sister is usually watching music videos (Turkish or sometimes Russian -- I haven't seen an Azeri one yet). Afternoons are languorous after a big lunch: I nap, or relax in the bigger garden just down the street. It's about 30' x 40', and seems to be a plot for the extended family and neighbors. There's corn that reminds me of home, watermelon, sunflowers, and cuccumber and eggplant, but under the peach tree is the best spot. Back again in the evening for another big meal and guests -- both key parts of Azeri culture. We have a neighbor, Ferhad, who comes over every day to see me. He's in his late twenties and speaks some English and good Russian, so we chat. It gets trying at times, as I never have the choice to see him or not, but it's a routine.

Excitement punctuates very little of the day, but every once-in-a-while something happens -- like the wedding a while back. We'd picked out my clothes the night before, passing muster with both host parents as well as the friends of my host father who were over at the time. Music -- an oboe (I think), a horn, and an accordion -- was coming from the groom's courtyard; he marched out, and then it was off in a swarm of cars to the bride's apartment. We all barrelled down what would be a narrow one-way street in the States, spreading out to three wide at times, all racing and cutting each other off to jockey for position. The musicians again jumped out of their car, and a parade was led up the narrow, dark staircase to the bride's door. After a short ceremony that involved tying a red sash around her waist, we were off again, playing demolition derby past the looming hulk of the power plant that slowly rots for most of the way from Tagiyev to Sumqayit, past the merry little metal man who waves to passerby from the gate that leads to the one new building in the entire complex, and up to the statue of Heydar Aliyev, the bold and strong ex-KGB first president of this equally bold and strong country.

The wild, Arabic screaming of the music was taken up again for the wedding march in the restaurant where the actual ceremony was held, and all the guest began eating as soon as they arrived. The food was as much of a focal point as the bride and groom signing their names (it was only a civil ceremony; religious weddings are extremely uncommon). Then the bride and groom, unsmiling throughout as befitted a formal occasion, went up to their own table from which they presided over the dancing and eating, which went on in combination for hours. I got my share of both, and the camera crews filming the event seemed to delight in following my dancing as much as I delighted in sitting back down again.

We left around 10.30, just after the bouquet was tossed, and daredevilled it back along the now dark highway (another two lane road that the Azeris magically expand to three or four lanes). They talked about the wedding for a week, and watched the whole thing multiple times once they had the video.

And so things go. The president and his father continue to smile benevolently from billboards and statues everywhere, the troops of geese still have not gotten into a turf war with the goats over the pile of garbage, the schools continue to smell vaguely of excrement in the heat, and I love it all.

Impressions so far: Baku -- oil fields interspersed by houses if various states of completion; Quba -- the smell of burning trash, the mooing of cows, and a Judo practitioner; Tagilev -- cows wandering the streets, and the attendant smells. I love it all.

Just stoppin' in

I'm still alive over here in Azerbaijan, and doing well -- hopefully, there will even be a post on the country soon. But for now, more Madison-centric issues are on my mind: namely, a new student blog called Beyond the Madison Bubble (or so its author e-mails me; the apparent title is "Beyond the Bubble." The point is made all the same.).

From what I can see, it looks to be a fantastic blog, and I wish Eric all success. I also hope that his current volume of posting continues, and perhaps acts as a catalyst to other bloggers.


Live From Beijing

So it seems I can post through blogger, but not see LIB itself at all. Here goes nothing.

Beijing is immense. Tiananmen Square and the buildings that ring it, especially, are monumental in scale. The city also has an omnipresent haze and funk that reminds me of reptiles, sulfur, and dirty socks mixed together.

Construction sites are ubiquitous - everywhere, old hutong alleys of gray one-story construction with small shopfronts are giving way to tall glass and steel buildings. The entire city and its inhabitants are gearing up for the Olympics with gusto and belief in their ability to make things happen in just over one year. The government, many English novices explain to me, has told people to start learning English in advance.

That didn't help me much last night at the little hutong hole-in-the wall restaurant where there were only characters on the menu and original plastic covered Mao posters on the bamboo mat walls.

As dirty as it is in many respects, Beijing gets a number of things right. It's not afraid to use pedestrian underpasses. The parks here are phenomenal - not geometric Frederick Law Olmstead style at all, but winding and natural and inviting.

Today I toured the Temple of Heaven complex with its ancient temples and altars. The park surrounding it, though, is the real gem. Its vast expanses spread out, a green oasis in the city. Paths wander about through lots of trees planted close together. Old people - who are noticeably more active in public life here - gather in the morning to do Tai Chi.

Today people were excercising, hanging their bags on the tree branches as they moved gracefully on paths circling the trunks of gnarled old junipers. Others danced together on pavement areas. A few flew kites. Some sang in a cappella chorus at one of the gate archways. They walked, fanning themselves. Still others zipped a large top-like device up and down on a string. One very old man got up from his wheelchair periodically to paint water calligraphy on the sidewalk. Another took his small caged bird out for a few hours.

It was all very ethereal, almost mystical admist the trees and green corridor vistas. This is a very deeply rooted culture.

At the same time, the market is a natural part of Chinese life. I ventured into the Pearl Market this afternoon to bargain for a few souvenirs. Boy, was I in for it. While I did get a few great bargains, I was accosted in the shoe section by a mob of girls shouting. They completely hemmed me in physically within a few seconds, all screaming the prices and thrusting shoes into me. Somewhat flustered, I tried to retreat, but couldn't. Two girls, the most aggressive of all, locked onto my wrists. I began laughing at the absurdity of it all as I leaned forward with all of my weight trying to get away, but failed to do so.

In America, I thought, I could file assault charges for this kind of behavior. I didn't buy any shoes.

That was nothing, though, compared to yesterday. Walking along west of Beihai Park, I guess I took a photo in the wrong area because I was summoned fiercely by an armed soldier to an army checkpoint nearby. There, officers were called in and I was taken inside while one officer reviewed my over 1,000 photos on a 2 gig camera card. After ascertaining that I wasn't in the U.S. army, I was released. It was rather nerve-wracking.

Tomorrow, it's out to The Great Wall.


Vogel Goes to China

Pssst - I'm here!


One Night in Bangkok

No, really. That's the extent of my time here. It was either an uncomfortably long layover at the airport - even though it's brand new, or a chance to live out a song lyric. I chose the latter, naturally.

Leaving Nepal was tough. I feel as if I have unfinished business there. And yes, I did finally wrench my camera free from the mugger from a few posts back...I went on to see the open air cremations at Pashiputinah amidst monkeys at the ancient temple complex along the holy river Bagmati. This morning, I drove up to a village northeast of Kathmandu in one last-ditch effort to see the mountains just in case the clouds broke. It being monsoon, they didn't. But I did get one last dose of wild west traffic in the incomparable thoroughfares of Nepal.

Here in Thailand (infrastructure!), I cabbed downtown to my hotel just off Khao San Road and ventured out to see the famed touristy street. Before I found it, though, I ran into a giant political rally opposing the current prime minister, who was installed in a military coup not long ago. Everyone was wearing yellow on the Sanam Luang, a large greensward downtown near the university as speakers took to the stage. I just read in the paper on the flight here about violent demonstrations at the prime minister's house yesterday. I believe his name is Prem.

Unlike in Nepal, people here love the King, however. His picture is everywhere - even a gilded shrine in front of the Highway Department building. You'd think it might be a despot-like endeavor, but it's not. A girl at the hotel counter had a rubber bracelet on expressing her love of the king.

The Buddhist temples here are also magnificent - where Nepal's temples are given a mystique by their location and worn authenticity, the huge, colorful, steep-roofed places here are downright ostentatious.

And then there's Khao San Road. Yes, I was solicited numerous times on my way to get something to eat and a requisite Tiger Beer. Took tooks and rickshaws ramble around. There's a noticeable hippy culture feel to the place...lots of dreads and the like. There's also a bit of an Asian punk rocky scene. A band called "Spitfire" or "Speak Fire" was on the plane here with me from Kathmandu - I initiated conversation with one member who was sporting a fine AC/DC cap. Sadly, I'll miss their gig here, which is first on the 27th.

Anyway, the bhat is gaining ground against the falling dollar something fierce as of late. I better get off the internet and get some shut eye before the big flight early tomorrow.



A look at a problem that has no right answer—The Tragedy of the Commons

For those of you who may have taken basic economics, this is also commonly known as the prisoners’ dilemma.

Sorry, I’m not educated enough to apply the tragedy of the commons to the development of altruism or evolutionary biology, both of which are pretty abstract topics to me. But reading about these topics would be great—so if anyone has any good info on the topics feel free to share.

Garrett Hardin has written on the topic extensively; however I have only read one of his works, Filters Against Folly. This is a great book although some of the arguments as they pertain to global/environmental problems are dated—it was written in the 80’s. Quoted items come straight out of this book.

As I look at this problem there is one underlying action that causes this tragedy or dilemma, the combined “commonization of costs and privatization of profits.”

The only two ways (I can think of) to solve this underlying problem:
commonize all profits—which I don’t think is the best way to go about it
privatize costs—the free market way

For the sake of argument, assume that burning gasoline in vehicles has a substantial effect on climate change and ecological degradation. This answer will be a gross oversimplification of a complex topic, but hopefully it’ll spur a good debate.

One way to “privatize costs” is to decide on a set of acceptable gas consumption levels, ration use, and enforce these levels by treaty or government force. Or decide on an arbitrary cost of how much money it takes to clean-up the environmental damage caused by each gallon burned and enforce a price floor. These would be government fixes to “privatize costs”— slightly ironic. The main problem with this method is that the process of deciding on a set of acceptable gas consumption levels creates arbitrariness, and would lead to the government picking winners and losers.

Or if you think there is a problem, and there are a huge amount of others who agree with you, pool together and find a method of energy usage that doesn’t commonize the costs. Educate people on the pitfalls of using gasoline; how it will hurt them, others, the next generation—and why your product is rationally a better decision for each individual.

Assuming people act rationally which is a tenet of this problem, tragedy will be averted.

Elephants, Whitewater, and Life in Nepal

I'm back. In Kathmandu.

I ventured south here in Nepal, although it's monsoon, on a death-defying bus ride through the foothills on a cliffside highway to Royal Chitwan National Park. While there, I went on safari atop an elephant and spotted the rare one-horned Indian Rhinoceros in the jungle (pictured), met a smart Canadian blogger named Sean, ate water buffalo, mingled with the locals, and went whitewater rafting with some big, fun Finns, one of whom works at the Helsinki casino. They were on their way from Beijing to Mumbai via Tibet. Sure had some stories to tell - like riding a yak and a camel.

The geographical contrasts in the country are phenomenal. The bus adventure, rafting, and the safari down on the Tarai provided me with some great insight on real life here in Nepal outside the tourist haven of Thamel here in Kathmandu. It was also a refreshing break with some peace and quiet in the middle of my trip.

Chitwan is located in the southern flatlands and wetlands close to the Indian border. I wandered out yesterday to one of the native Tharu villages in the park and got shown around by some children, which was probably the most memorable and moving experience yet. The village consisted of mud/stick walled huts with thatch roofs amidst the rice paddies. Each house had water buffalo for milk and labor. It was real. The kids showed me the temple and the great pipal tree at the town crossroads as a gentle rain fell.

The villages clinging to the highway between here and Chitwan were also fascinating peeks into the real life of Nepal. So poor in our eyes, yet so beautiful.

UPDATE: I can finally upload photos at a reasonable rate here in Thailand, so I'll bulk this one up a bit.

I also went to Durbar Square, or Royal Square, in Kathmandu. Although I wouldn't have guessed it, Nepal is actually the home of the pagoda architectural form. A Nepali architect went to China in the 1300s with a delegation to teach the design. The many temples in the square, some dating back to the 1200s make for a spectacular setting.


Where in the World is Brad Vogel Today?

After reading Brad's posts about gallivanting around the world, writing my posts and reading other blogs, it seems like lots of the issues we discuss are insignificant in the total scope of humanity, earth and just the whole thing--whatever that means to you.

Do goats in Shangri La care about Wisconsinites health care? How many Kathmanduers (if that’s the correct termonlogy) can point out Wisconsin on a map? How many Wisconsinites can point to Kathmandu on a map?

I think creating a little contest like The Today Show used to do for Matt Lauer will spice this trip up a little, for all of us. So for anyone who posts correctly in the comment section of this post where Brad will be next (country and/or continent) before he makes a post with another great story I will either:

1. post about any economic topic that person chooses or 2. learn and post something about the country/contitent Brad is in

Commence the guessing/researching past posts.


If life gives you bureaucracy...

Conservatives miss out on tons of opportunities because of being (typically) opposed to big government.

In some instances it seems like small government-minded people fight the wrong way. Government expansion results in bureaucracy. Conservatives should start making some lemonade.

How about Ron Paul at the FCC?
Or Rep. Lasee in charge of Wisconsin's law school?
What would happen if a couple Americans for Prosperity members got on the Healthy Wisconsin Directing Board (if/when it is created)?

You're probably thinking the people listed above aren't qualified for these positions. Are legislators qualified to make/mandate small business decisions? In many cases, no. But they do it anyways.

Live from Shangri La

Perfect peace and absolute bedlam. It's just another day here in Kathmandu.

This ain't Kansas, Toto. It's not your hermetically sealed white suburban America with proper infrastructure, sanitation, animal control, and cookie cutter zoning. It's a zoo - cows, dogs, and monkeys are all holy, so they generally have the run of the place. Although the streets are a bit more pleasant now because the outrageous piles of garbage I encountered initially were due to a strike by the trash collectors, which just ended today according to The Kathmandu Post. I don't gag quite as much anymore at intersections.

Sharing a near-death taxi ride with an Australian this morning, I visited Boudhanath, the largest stupa in the world (above) today, the prayer wheels spinning around the base, prayer flags flying overhead.

Traipsing onward on my own, I wandered through the northeast neighborhoods of Kathmandu to get out of the outright touristy areas. It was amazing.

Up in the foothills of the Himalayas, I wandered through pine forests rife with prayer flags and then stumbled onto a few monasteries, including Kopan Monastery, with fantastic panoramic views out over the Kathmandu Valley. I talked with a monk named Kharma at a tea kiosk above one set of hillside stupas. I think he was trying to recruit me as I drank an ice cold glass bottle of Coke (the Coke and Pepsi War is still on here, although Danish beer has a near monopoly - it's all Carlsberg and Tuborg in the hundreds of little family open shopfronts - and I saw the Carlsberg plant in the center of town).

Then it was back into town through rice paddies and dusty streets as uniformed school children wandered home, shirts, skirts and ties looking strangely out of place on the dilapidated thoroughfares with ramshackle storefronts, mask-less welding shops, and construction projects using bamboo scaffolding, mortar made on site, and local bricks.

People stare at me all the time. I've at least learned "Namaste," the local greeting, so I can respond and end the awkwardness. Some people walk along and talk, wanting to practice their English. On finding I'm from America (I say I'm from near Chicago - ugh!), most people ask why I would come to Nepal. To experience it, I say.

Wandering along past dirty, dirty rivers with people peeing right in them out in the open, I made my way along the high road toward Pashiputinah (sp?), a holy temple on the holy Bagmati River. Only Hindus can enter the ancient temple's inner sanctum.
I found this out after a man tried to steal my camera on the hill overlooking the place. It was pretty intense and a bit frightening. At first I thought he was simply trying to prevent me from taking a photo near the temple. Then I realized, as he gripped hard and started trying to wrestle it out of my hands, that I was being mugged on a cow-filled hilltop on the east side of Kathmandu. Well, he didn't realize how much I love my blogging camera. And,


I'm Goin' to Kathmandu

Well, actually, I'm here.

It's a beautiful, dirty madness here in the capital of Nepal.

Driving in from the airport - where I was thronged by men trying to carry my bags and get me to take their taxi service - I had to work to keep my composure as I talked to the driver.

Outside the open windows of the van, wandering bulls nosed through reeking garbage piles in the street. Little urchins ran up to try to sell newspapers trailed by mangy dogs. Meat lay out in the open for sale at shops. Motorcycles, vans, rickshaws, bikes - there basically are no traffic laws or lanes, it's just beep and swerve at the last minute and hope you make it through. Next to us at one intersection, someone was carrying multiple goats in the back seat of some tiny, wretched Japanese car.

And there are monkeys. They run along the walltops. And beggars. The Madison homeless, on encountering them, would be ashamed. And noise. It's an absolute cacophony of animal sounds all the time - birds, dogs, insects - not to mention the sounds of music and traffic. And fumes. The vehicles have terrible exhaust and the old streets here in Thamel neighborhood are narrow.

It's really been quite a culture shock. Add that to the altitude and my cold from the hot/cold of air conditioned Dubai and I'm taking it quite slowly.

The Maoist propaganda posters are still up on walls, too. We drove in past the palace - "That's where the King lives," the driver said. "He has no power anymore."

As dirty and chaotic as it is here, it's very real. And there's a beauty to it.

The mountains lie off in the distance...

I support "reckless profiteering"

Sen. Erpenbach stated:
"Reckless profiteering for drug and insurance companies will have a home in Wisconsin as long as the Republicans run the Assembly"

The Healthy Wisconsin government-run health care plan has been debated from about 100 different angles already so I pose one question that hasn't been debated:

Is it possible to have health care coverage for all Americans without any government involvement?

Anyone who wants to start-up a business or organization to help those who don't currently have health care are free to do so. That's the beauty of America. Perhaps those individuals who have made smart investments (which is my code phrase for "reckless profiteering") in the current health care system will choose to take their money and create an efficient system of giving health care to those who cannot currently afford it.

I wonder. Is it possible for wealth created in the private sector to be used to solve society wide problems?

Maybe we should ask Bill or Warren.


Billy found the distortion pedal

Zeitgeist is a return to the Pumpkins early power chord roots. Couple of quick hits on this album:
-The guitar rifts are a bit hurried
-The drums play a much more prominent role that in any other Pumpkins album and they rock
-This album is a complete contrast from Ave Adore--a return to Siamese Dream

Buy this album if you you have an insatiable need for a fresh shot of 90'ish head banging rock.

Warning: Album may induce a flash back to songs like Geek U.S.A. and Mayonaise.
Disclaimer: If you're looking for pop-like, Kiss-FM'ish, imitation rock, do not purchase.

Skiing in Dubai

Today was one helluva day.

Walking down to catch a cab near the clocktower in Deira, I decided I wasn't going to be able to get everything in before I left at such a slow pace. Plus, the cabs are rather annoying, always honking at you instead of waiting to be hailed (and I'm always getting honked at because I'm white and I'm wearing shorts and I'm generally walking around when and where few would expect). This "city" is a huge megalopolis, parts of it separated by miles of desert or low-income housing.

So I rented a car.

At less than 30 dollars American, the scratched up little silver Toyota Echo gave me enough freedom to cruise Dubai in my final 24 hours and hit up all the activities and sights on my checklist.

And, despite the apparent lack of both mountains and snow here beside the Persian Gulf, my first priority was to go skiing.

I headed down the high speed freeway through the canyon of Sheikh Zayed Boulevard all the way to the giant Mall of the Emirates. The huge silvery bulk of Ski Dubai, a giant indoor ski hill, loomed in the sandy haze like a spaceship touched down in the desert construction around it. Inside, robes and headclothes bustled in the mix to get downhill skis and gear on quickly.

Walking through the portal onto the hill itself, I couldn't help but laugh. It was unbelievable. Sky blue walls stretched out, twisted up and around, skiiers and snowboarders zipping down. The air smelled like laundry detergent and milk, kind of a nearly sick-sweet, but good. I fell off the test run lift-track much to my amusement, but after that, it was all downhill.

I took the lift up with an English couple who, like me, hadn't been skiing in sometime. It didn't seem to matter, though. I was soon whizzing downhill on all runs, even the big one with an "experts only" sign halfway down on a steep turn. Pretty exhilirating all around. Soon, I was going down all of them no-hands, some Texan snowboarders carving around me. On my final run, I caught some air toward the end of the run, which was sweet.

I shot a few video clips as I swept down for future viewing, too. One of them ends with Roberto, a knowledgeable little German immigrant who lives here in Dubai who was present for his ski lessons. On several trips on the lift, he welcomed me to Dubai and told me all about the new Transformers movie in great detail.

What to do after an indoor ski adventure in Dubai? Well, go to the beach, of course.

I hopped back in my trusty silver steed and gunned it toward the waterfront at Umm Sequiet, right next to the sail-like Burj al-Arab Hotel on the Persian Gulf. Confirming my prior night's hypothesis, the beach was a brilliant white, the waves a lovely green, not too rough and not too calm. And warm. Shells spangled the beach and people went a frolicking along the waterline.

Driving on down the coastline, I ran up what I think was the stem of the Jumeirah Palm, one of the giant man-made archipelagoes off the shore. It's hard to tell - unless you're up in a giant tower, you can't really see them all that well. Given the towering builidngs and construction on the horizon, it seemed to be the place, though.

I went even further west down the shore into the Dubai Marina area (the linked photo shows just the original nucleus). I almost crashed the car a few times as I tried to get photos. It was simply stunning. The absolute forest of brand new and half-finished skyscrapers took my breath away. It looked like someone's bizarre SimCity experiment. Dump trucks, Landrovers, dusty buses brimming with drooping Indian workers, BMWs, payloaders. Concrete, glass, and re-rod rose all around to dizzying effect.

I headed back east and then south into the desert, almost getting myself killed by construction vehicles at nearly impossible multi-lane rotaries out in the scrub. Further out, I suddenly saw camels running around. Way south, I rounded another rotary roaring with construction activity and flanked by the grandiose Dubai Autodrome and some theme park embryo with a spaceship.

Going east again, I traversed the vast stretch of desert freeway that will soon be home to DubaiLand, a giant DisneyWorld times 50, so to speak. I felt like someone back in the 1940s driving through what would become the Strip in Vegas. The signs were up or being built for places yet to come. Arabian City. Global Village. Some place with a dinosaur, one with a globe. The first inklings of Arabian Ranches were already up and in place.

But for now, most of it is scrub desert land with dusty palms along lonely freeways. Crazy.

Made it back just in time to run up to the Spice Souk for some neat stuff before all the shops closed, too. On the verge of uber-tired, though!

Dubai in July. It's one hott place. I've tried to ponder, for a bit, what it all means. It's globalization come home to roost in a desert nest by the Gulf. And in some ways, it is a beautiful bird. Not perfect, but certainly mesmerizing. And alive.

I've been trying to post photos and even YouTube some of the videos, but they're not working (#%&*@!) I'll keep trying in my next stop after a pitstop tomorrow in Bahrain again - Kathmandu, Nepal.


Skyscrapers, Gulf Waves, & Iranians

The trick is to keep hydrated. Thank you, exchange rate, because I've gone through almost twenty bottles of juice, water, milk, soda, and even a frappuccino in the past 12 hours. It's 1:30 AM here in Dubai, and I'm back from a long haul that started late in the afternoon.

Earlier, after hiking with all my gear for several miles through the intense heat, I washed up at my new hotel further South in Deira.

Soon after, I departed by cab over the Creek with an Indian man for the World Trade Center at the eastern end of Sheick Zayed Boulevard, which skyscraper central here in Dubai. It's colossal in scope, like some boomtown canyon of verticality on Coruscant. A video game thorughfare, really. The wonders, I suppose of no taxes.

Indian workers in blue trooped out of some mammoth steel and glass construction projects as I arrived on the scene. Universally, they were sweated through, carrying their yellow hard hats.

The great Burj Dubai, slated to be the world's tallest building, rose off in the distance, crowned with cranes. Orange-clad Indians scurried around with dustbins cleaning the sidewalks. Businessmen - some of the only caucasians I've seen in town - strolled by, displaying the finest wardrobes. Bands of workers went by, tired. Traffic whizzed past on multiple lanes.

Desert sneaked through in places, though, despite the futuristic feel. Some spaces along the road are vacant, cars for buildings are still parked in simple ground lots. And they are very dusty most of the time.

At the far end, as the sun went down, I caught some Indian workers in red jumpsuits and hardhats on the bridge over Zayed Road. They were headed to the Burj Dubai, which was beginning to bristle with white lights now in the dark. Where do you work, I asked, the top? Yes. Good money? Not for one, but for groups. This project? All Indians.

As darkness fell, I started the long march to Jumeirah, a newer portion of the city on the Gulf. The houses were largely lower, walled, and white with palms or flowers overhanging.

Halfway, I saw men milling all over in front of a large walled complex. It was the Ministry of the Interior. Asking some men at the busstop, I learned the crowd outside was waiting for immigration. Oh, I said. They want work. No, I was told. They are trying to leave. The queues start at 5, and they are not working out well. Again, most of the men were Indian.

After some time, I hit the beach. Even in the dimness, I could tell it was a nice white sand. The waves rolled from clusters of light marking the islands of The World manmade archipelago offshore. Down the shore, I saw the giant Burj al Arab, a huge sail-like hotel, for the first time. I could also see a glowing mass somewhere amidst the fronds of the Jumeirah Palm, another manmade series of islands.

People were driving their SUVs on the beach in the dark, parking here and there. I, being without a car, found some pretty sweet shells along the waterline and waded in. Then, not wanting to have any regrets, I took a little dip, the waves rolling in from Antarctica in front, the Burj Dubai a spear-like constellation directly behind. And then I headed out.

Luckily, the shuffle was tossing out good tunes. With Zeppelin, Ray Charles, Elliot Smith, the Stones, Architecture in Helsinki, and The Postal Service playing, I rolled several miles down Jumeirah road past the great mosque in the dark, a glass Pepsi bottle in hand. (They have pull tab cans here, too, which I find ironic given the frequency of sandals...)

I was going to call a cab when I got to Satwa around 11 p.m., but I decided to keep hoofing it. I rocked all the way down Mankhool Road to the abra docks in Bur Dubai and zipped across the creek for a single dirham with full boatload. Our Bangladeshi driver, iPod on and feet on the steering wheel, cut across the bow of a large incoming dhow. Lots of fun.

Just before the hotel, I checked out the big dhow wharves and ended up sitting down and talking with three Iranian dhow crewman. I say talked, but they were all from Iran (where all dhow traffic seems to be heading) and we got along as best we could between English, Farsi, and hand gestures.

The wharves are lined with materials bound for Iran. Diesel fuel. "Vegetable oil." Syringes. Food. Doors. Fragile stuff. Metal tubing. You name it.

I don't know how many miles I've covered, but, as one German lady who took my picture on Zayed Road noted, this city sure is a lot more spread out than you'd realize from the map. And it's a lot hotter than you'd imagine, too.

I hope to get some pictures and links up at some point, but for now, color me exhausted. And I really, really have to go to the bathroom.

Holding Hands in Dubai?

Dubai is a progressive place socially when contrasted to other officially Islamic countries.

Wandering around the busy streets here in the marketplace areas last night, though, I was surprised to see men holding hands. As in seven or eight pairs of Middle Eastern men. And, I further realized, there really aren't many women out after dark at all. Maybe 10-15 percent of the hordes streaming around the streets (probably all the opportunistic workers coming to Dubai looking for quick dirhams).

Hmmmm. This is quite the enclave, I thought. You don't even see that on Willy Street in Madison, Wisconsin.

Well, it turns out it's an Islamic custom that's normal for men who are friends:

You will invariably see men holding hands throughout the country, this is not seen as a sign of homosexuality, but a strong sign of friendship between men.

The lights are bright on the streets until at least midnight - and the shops stretch for miles, lining every available square inch of street frontage - and back and side alleys, too. It looks a lot like old Reno or Vegas in places, although there's a notable lack of human imagery for the most part, in accordance with custom.

After oversleeping - probably catching up on lots of sleep lost on redeye flights - I'm off to a new hotel, which is probably in a less exciting part of town. Note to any future travelers: pick one hotel in the heart of a town, if you're visiting for about 3-4 days. Even if you think you'd like to go with the flow and spend a night in new areas, the hassle of moving isn't worth it, as it eats up to much time and causes unnecessary headaches.

I hope to get to the beach, skyscraper row, or skiing today.


Arabian Nights

If you ever go to Dubai in July, get ready to sweat. A lot. Profusely. Right through the shirt. More than you've ever sweat before. Buy a few cheap dress shirts before you come knowing you'll throw them away after two days.

Walking out of Dubai International Airport this afternoon was like opening the old oven door and hopping in to bake. It was safely over 100 degrees Farenheit in the shade. After a flight over Istanbul to the Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain, we flew over the Gulf into the thriving metropolis at the heart of the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai. Gleaming desert skyscrapers line the horizon while traditonal dhows loaded with goads line the wharves of Dubai Creek, an inlet of the Gulf. Swarms of "abras," small traditional wooden craft, ferry people across the strait where a bridge would obviously make sense. But it's great fun and highly picturesque with the palms and prayer calls undulating out from minarets. Off in the distance, the Burj Dubai, soon to be the world's tallest building, rises out of the desert haze. This is not some sustainability advocate's fantasyland.

This is a commerce town that happens to be picturesque. My cheap hotel is located in the heart of the old Souk, or market areas in Deira, one of the old parts of town near the Gulf. I talked to one dhow crew who said they were full and ready to run goods to Iran, their home country. It was an interesting queasiness as we shook hands, sort of shrugging off all geopolitics. There are shop fronts galore and each stand's owner will make an aggressive, persistent pitch, sometimes bordering on disturbing. It happened to me several times in the Spice Souk, where bins of frankincense, dried lemons, bay, and other items are heaped. Old men sit around with carts ready to port anything purchased.

Bolts of cloth. Rip off watches. Toys. Jewelry. Shirts. Lighters. Shoes. You name it, there will be several shops here ready to sell. I was offered women twice already, too.

The city, despite its bustle and rampant construction, has people out cleaning the streets. Men spit something fierce all over the place. People collect aluminum cans out of the garbage and sift through garbage piles for anything useful. Beads of sweat line many faces. Turbans perch over some. Veils cover much of a few, too.

The alleys are narrow, filled with tailors, typists, cleaners, technology stores, kitchen ware shops, cloth shops, trading companies. Signs blare out in Arabic and English.

While London was expensive (2 dollars for 1 pound), Dubai is a bit cheaper, coming in at about 3.4 Dirham for every dollar. Labor is cheap - tons of people from everywhere else, especially India, are here to work. While much of Dubai's mystique is super luxury, parts of it, at least can be done on the cheap. Take the bus instead of cabs. Take abras. Hydrate yourself something fierce and walk.

Dubai is, in the first few hours, turning out to be a fantastically interesting place astride the Islamic world and the extremes of the Western free market frenzy. It's after 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday night and as prayers are still being called, emanating eerily from the mosques. The streets are bright, packed, and selling like mad. The abra boats are still buzzing across the Creek, running dangerously across the bow of incoming luxury yachts in the dark. Horns blare there and in the crowded, winding streets. Men are carrying giant carpets somewhere. It's a bit like the Wild West.

Indeed, the first cheap hotel I saw as I stepped off the bus in the main downtown station flashed a fittingly gaudy sign: Texas Hotel.
*That's my hotel on Al Sabkha Road looming in the right to center of the photo above.



Staging a huge photo shoot of municipal workers at the Bank of England in The City.

Fish stall at the lively Borough Market under the bridge, Southwark.

After visiting the Tate Modern (where I mocked Rothko and other paintings openly), I stopped at Turkish Fest for a drink with Dan and Ben, fellow hostelers from the Midlands.

Here Comes the Sun

Ramses II at the British Museum with Paul G and the Family G, just down from the Rosetta Stone. The mummified crocodiles, cats, and ibises were cool, too.

"Paul is dead," I said as I took off my shoes and walked across Abbey Road, captured here by one of the Japanese tourists onhand. The French kids on the other side gave me hi-fives since we all almost died. Traffic coming through the intersection isn't exactly light.

The London Eye, a monumental ferris wheel writ large alongside the Thames.

Tubin' on the Underground.

Picadilly Circus, London. Don't wear shorts ("trainers"). Don't wear sandals. Don't wear baseball caps.

London's been a real treat. I'm heading off to meet some of my English roommates from the hostel down at the Tate Modern in a bit to round things out.

Then, it's off to the sunny shores of the Persian Gulf in Dubai.


Krauthammer hits the nail on the head

Charles Krauthammer's column in today's Washington Post lays out the current situation in Iraq better and more eloquently than I ever could.

Here's a little bit:

We don't yet know if this strategy will work in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods. Nor can we be certain that this cooperation between essentially Sunni tribal forces and an essentially Shiite central government can endure. But what cannot be said -- although it is now heard daily in Washington -- is that the surge, which is shorthand for Gen. David Petraeus's new counterinsurgency strategy, has failed. The tragedy is that, just as a working strategy has been found, some Republicans in the Senate have lost heart and want to pull the plug.


A month ago, Petraeus was asked whether we could still win in Iraq. The general, who had recently attended two memorial services for soldiers lost under his command, replied that if he thought he could not succeed he would not be risking the life of a single soldier.

Huckabee to Moore: Put down the double cheeseburger!

Personally, I think this is hilarious and pretty much right on. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee had this to say about Sicko star Michael Moore and his push for universal health care:

"Frankly, Michael Moore is an example of why the health care system costs so much in this country. He clearly is one of the reasons that we have a very expensive system. I know that from my own personal experience," said Huckabee, who lost more than 110 pounds and became an avid runner after he was diagnosed with diabetes.
"I know how much more my health care cost when I didn't take care of myself than when I do take care of myself, not only in terms of doctor visits but regular diseases, illnesses, chronic things that come up, monthly prescription bills," Huckabee said. "All of those things have gone dramatically down since I've taken care of myself and worked to live a healthier lifestyle."

The more I hear from Huckabee, the more I like him.

Werewolves of London

"I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain"

It's a lovely day here in London! Yesterday, I met up with Paul G, my fellow busker from back home at the Farmer's Market in Madison. He's here with his family.

After meeting up at the Nelson Monument in Trafalgar Square (great big lions!), we wandered around in Soho trying to find a music store with instruments and ended up in China Town. Soho is definitely the trendy, hip area of town - and clearly the center of the gay community, too. It's rather seedy in portions, with XXX theaters and the like. But, with Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar on the flanks, it's buzzing with activity.

We finally found a store and Paul rocked out downstairs on acoustic bass and 12 string guitar. I took a turn on the store's melodeon (what they called a button squeezebox). Quote of one guy passing by me in the store, according to Paul and his brother Eric: " That's badass..."

We ate at Sherlock Holmes pub down near the river and hit up the National Portrait Gallery, which has a great impressionist section. After a stunning Evensong in the grandeur of Westminster Abbey (sitting over the tombs of William Pearce and Gladstone, watched by the statues of Disraeli and Gladstone), we had a fun dinner at Westminster Arms, where we tried the much discussed dessert - "spotted dick with custard." It's not bad, but Treacle Sponge is better.

In the evening, we tried out a few drinking establishments - looking hardcore overly casual with our iconoclastic baseball hats - including one eclectic place with a live Roma band and ended up in the Craven Passage packed into "The Snug" at the Ship and Shovel.

Anyway, I'm late to meet up at the British Museum! Pics later, with luck.


Truth about the Assembly budget

A lot of Democrats have been complaining that the budget passed by the Assembly earlier this week "guts" education and countless other programs.

The problem is that it's not true. With very, very few exceptions there were no actual cuts to government spending in the Assembly budget. The cuts that Democrats are referring to is simply the difference between the Senate and Assembly versions of the budget. If you were to look at the budget versus the last biennium you would see that the Assembly actually increased overall spending.

As an example of this, Rep. Brett Davis issued this memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. It shows very clearly that the Governor's proposal for this budget increased K-12 funding by $448 million. The amount that Assembly Republicans increased that funding? $464 million - an increase of $16 million over what the Governor had asked for. Could someone please explain how that is a cut?

From Across the Pond

Last evening, I ventured down to the south bank of the Thames and wandered about in Southwark, Shakespeare's old haunts. This is the heart of the city - streets are barely streets, narrow and winding.

I also found an interesting connection to my trip - Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hinde, the classic sailing ship he used to circumnavigate the globe centuries ago, docked amidst office buildings.

It's a funny feeling to be in the heart of London, the dome of St. Paul's towering over the skyline and bridges glowing as the sun sets and the tide returns noisily. The historical city is almost too familiar from literature - Dickens, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Oliver Twist...the list goes on. Architecturally, there are many remnants of those eras, like Winchester Hall and the Tower of London.

However, I'm reading Zadie Smith's White Teeth while I'm here. Set in contemporary London, it's appropriate. There's lots of new architecture, too. The Millennium Bridge over the Thames makes for a thrilling silvery axis between old St. Paul's and the newly reinvigorated hulk of the Tate Modern. Cranes line the skyline. And in The City itself, futuristic towers rise over Christopher Wren's churches and the remnants of Roman walls.

Sitting down to some fish and chips (and traditional mushy peas) with a fun bunch of South Africans* at The Anchor, I realized London, as much as its towering past is inescapable, is moving along, rapidly throwing its webs out to catch the future, swing into it headlong from the great web of its Eye.

Still, the Victorian Tower Bridge seems to pin things down pretty well. The age of empire colors much of life. Londoners seem to have an uber-dry sense of humor, a solid sense of propriety, and a sweet amalgam of accents. Subway cars here look like the dream scenes of University of Wisconsin admissions booklet designers. It's neat.

*Note: The South Africans had never encountered Starbucks before in their home country, but they love it...franchising opportunity, if you ask me. Tea habits in the dominions could prove fortuitous.

Lady Bird

On seeing the headline for this, how many American thought this instead?


"You can get a tan from standing in the English rain"

A gentle rain and overcast skies greeted me this morning as I popped out of the Underground station at Hyde Park Corner. I'll do some rambling, I thought.

Well, London, it turns out, is ginormous.

I wandered about Hyde Park and ended up at Buckingham Palace. I presumed something extra important was underway, as huge crowds had massed outside the famed gates, much to the consternation of some mounted bobbies. It turned out to be the Changing of the Guard, which is far more elaborate, complex, and ceremonial than I realized. I had pictured something like the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in the U.S. Not at all. It was neat, though, to see a contingent of beefeaters carrying what looked like M-16s.

I'm at my hostel now, an 800-person giant called The Generator. Arriving from the tube, it looked like a twist between Laundry101's garish hip cladding and the spooky slums from Oliver Twist. The "chill out room" has an interesting aroma to it... But overall, it's lively and in the heart of things, which should be great.

Other observations: 1) There are a lot more giant sycamore trees here than I would've guessed; they're the main staple in the big parks 2) Everyone is well-dressed and life in general has a more formal shade to it 3) The city is very multicultural.

More to come from along the Thames...


"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

And so I take the first in mine.

I'm off for O'Hare by bus shortly.

As Mike Williams would say, and as he and Burbs would show at Mifflin, it's time to live the dream:

(Yes, that is yours truly briefly at the opening of the video gesticulating for good effect)


Can we believe it if they say it?

I've been a supporter of the war in Iraq for a long time. I have argued many times that a premature or hasty withdrawal by our forces would mean certain civil war and fracturing of the country.

Such a withdrawal would also result in a further destabilization of the region - just look at the last two paragraphs of the story for proof.

So my question is: when the Iraqi Foreign minister says the same things, can we start taking it a little more seriously? Can we stop and rethink this whole "redeployment" strategy now?

Navy Blues

Mahan would be pissed.


I have band-aids on both of my arms from last-minute vaccination shots.

My room looks like an auction/disaster site.

The backpack's contents are not yet fully determined - "He who would travel happily must travel light."

And one of my fellow online New Orleans house hunters has just backed out of the venture...!

Still, the dawn and the bus stop beckon.

Ghosts of Frank and Otis



I highly recommend these - the churchkeys under the arches have come in most handy this summer.

This was small and convenient enough to finally convince me to buy an Apple product. Secondhand. Works swell.

A great gift from a relative who works with the machines. Real in ruralia, hip in the city.


Ron Paul - Bigger Coffers Than McCain?

Apparently so:

Though often regarded as a longshot candidate for president, Republican Ron Paul tells ABC News that he has an impressive $2.4 million in cash on hand after raising an equal amount during the second quarter, putting him ahead of one-time Republican frontrunner John McCain, who reported this week he has only $2 million in the bank.

That's good to hear. While I don't go along with Paul's absolutist non-intervention stance on foreign affairs, I think he's a great contribution to the GOP debate.

The meaning of American political conservatism, having been driven off the cliff by President Bush, is in need of some clarification. Paul injects real concerns into the discussion, raising issues about freedom, the size of government, individual liberty, The Constitution, and excessive spending (although it seems he's not exactly walking the walk on that front).

The big issue is whether his financial support spike will translate into votes at the polling place. As is often pointed out, he barely registers in national polls. Perhaps it's because cell phone users are undersampled in surveys. But why such a noticeable disparity? Could he actually hit third in a primary?

Whether it translates into electoral support or not, Ron Paul's position fills a political void. Younger non-Democrats, increasingly alienated philosophically and policy-wise by the Bush Administration's twist on the Republican Party, need some outlet for their political energies. Paul's attractiveness as a candidate is due in large part to the excesses of the current Administration, which make him appear as a crucial counterbalance in many regards. Despite his socially liberal stances, Giuliani's terrorism rhetoric has prevented him from fully seizing such a mantle.

If Ron Paul stood for a significantly less interventionist foreign policy instead of complete non-intervention, I might be able to support him fully. As it stands, the Commander in Chief needs to see that such an absolute policy in today's world is rather naive. I hope he continues to rake in the dough, though, if only to shake things up a bit.


Madison, Wisconsin - Retrospective 1

Fair town, arrayed in robes of white,
How visionary ye appear!

All like a floating landscape seems

In cloud-land or the land of dreams,

Bathed in a golden atmosphere!

- Longfellow, The Four Lakes of Madison

Granite white, the dome rose over everything, anchoring the panorama as we swept in along the lake on John Nolen. It was, one decade ago, my earliest exhilirating image of Madison.

Bicycles. Rows upon rows of them in the racks. It was my first vague impression of the campus in eighth grade as we drove past what I now know is the Chemistry Building on Johnson Street. This, thought the small town boy, is one big place.

Grinding up Observatory Drive in a big yellow bus a few years later, I stared up mesmerized at the towering bulk of Science Hall, the lone oak silhouetted against Mendota on the curve above Helen C. It was the spring of 2000, my sophomore year of high school. I stepped out onto Bascom Hill for state forensics and fell in love. I forgot how nervous I was for a half hour and went off exploring. Larches on Muir Knoll, great white columns, worn sandstone, drumlins, a Black Hawk War marker, a campanile, a blue ash, a glacial erratic, effigy mounds, towering buildings, incomparable lake views.

This was a land of dreams, unlike anything I'd encountered before.

272 Bascom, our homebase for three years, looked like something out of a St. Petersburg palace and became a familiar point from which to launch pre-speech expeditions for Babcock Ice Cream, Sugar Shack Records (where I first heard "Victoria" on vinyl), and exotic greenhouses. Looking down from the crowds near Abe, it became clear that this was what a college campus was meant to be. Wrapped in that sense of place, I swirled swiftly into the orbit of Madison.

In the fall of 2000, I shadowed a fellow Kielite who lived in Kronshage for a day with a few members of my family. I caught a class watching "The Triumph of the Will" in 2650 Humanities and Professor Marquez talking about ethnicity in America (he used "millieu" and "segue" too many times). After tagging along on a class on medical terminology in the basement of Van Hise, we were offered a few tickets to a rally on the Square by my host, who couldn't use them.

What was it? It was quintessential Madison. We passed through long lines past people protesting the speaker and some giant Frankenfoods inflatables. On the Square itself, we were pressed up against the esplanade railing; I could barely see the stage on the Isthmus corner from my tiptoes. Snipers perched on all the buildings above. Melissa Ethridge opened with a live performance. And then, Al Gore spoke. I don't remember a thing he said during that momentous campaign stop. But I do remember the green bereted college Greens infiltrating the massive crowd and shouting, mid-speech, "Al Gore, corporate whore!"

That sealed the deal for me. There was no way I wasn't applying to go to school in this big, crazy, wonderful, beautiful place.

Gasp - Sheboygan Brat Eating Contest Canceled!

How could they!

A year after drawing thousands of spectators and national television coverage to Sheboygan’s Kiwanis Park, the Johnsonville Brat-Eating World Championship has been stricken from Sheboygan’s Brat Days schedule.

I was on hand for last year's spectacle when ESPN cameras caught Kobayashi crushing the Black Widow's old record with a whopping 58 brats in 10 minutes.

It was the one notable thing that put Sheboygan, the city of my birth, on the map.

Alas, old man Mertz has gotten his morals in the way.


Recalling the Quarry

Looking at the photo in today's WSJ story on the quarry death and injuries just outside Madison, I realized I've been in the quarry itself.

Two years ago, our glaciology class measured and analyzed glacial striations on the rock ledges on the northern and eastern sides of the quarry during a field trip (It even inspired a horribly kitschy extra credit song that somehow made it online - and yes, we did perform it in front of class).

The open rock edges at the top of the quarry walls are unfenced once a person is inside the quarry complex. The rock faces in the most northerly corner, where we did our investigations, seemed like a 50-65-foot sheer drop when we were there.

It's not a place to be drinking in the dark by any means.