Monday, 16 February 2009

Tweet Tweet

Alex Pasternack is why is it called "tweeting"? Just sounds wrong.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Nothing new here really

Facebook Settles with ConnectU

People are always saying, hey, if you have a good idea you better get working on it now!! Or else someone else will do it!!!

And that's exactly why I started this blog.

But, uh, hey, wait a minute. Aren't all ideas copies? I mean, as my friend the Classical Scholar said recently, there is nothing new under the sun. Even that was not his own phrase. I think that Steve Jobs said that. (But then I thought about all those geniuses that work late at night, and, well, what about the moon?)

Consider that Facebook is a copy of Connect U. And also that two of my friends have copied my Facebook profile almost verbatim. But I took my profile picture from the website of the Iranian president.

People will also point out, inevitably, especially people like my friend the Mac User, that Microsoft copied its entire idea from Apple. When they do that, you can remind them that Apple copied their idea from Xerox. So Xerox had the original idea. You know, for our lives.

They will probably get bored with the conversation and glance at their iPhone.

But then someone else, like Ovid, is going to say something like, wait, isn't Xerox completely built on copying?

And then that's when you respond with something, like, really original.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Icon inferno: OMA's TVCC Burns

When the TVCC building, a hotel and theater complex that is part of Rem Koolhaas's bold new headquarters for China Central Television, I was almost unsurprised.

I didn't expect it to happen. For the record, I was not nearby at the time. But the project and the city of Beijing -- now symbolized as much by the wildly futuristic CCTV project as by the Temple of Heaven -- seems almost primed for this sort of chaotic thing right now. I haven't read Suketu Mehta's book on Mumbai, "Maximum City," but Beijing seems like the Indian capital's more elusive older brother: not nearly as dense nor as hectic as "maximum" might imply, and not as collected as "city" suggests. Rather, it is sprawling, fragmentary, a labrynth and a palimpsest of many different spaces and times, each with their own imperial and fantastical associations, all with a difficulty hinted at by the English name of the emblematic walled "city" at its center: "Forbidden." It's not "maximum city" so much as "voluminous cities." And in such a place -- and in a year already plastered with significance and fraught with uncertainty -- anything is possible. I could almost hear the sirens in the background.

And part of my unsurprise is borrowed from another impulse: to think about it, cooly, distantly -- as Rem Koolhaas himself might have imagined it. The architect has expressed his admiration for Beijing's perpetual rise and fall, the cycle of construction and destruction that Marx attributed to capitalism (China's not-so-secret modus operandi) and others attributed to modernity, and which also defined the metropolis of Koolhaas's early book-length ode, "Delirious New York."

In that book, as Bert de Muynck reminds us, Koolhaas described New York's ultimate creation-destruction metaphor: an early 20th century Coney Island boardwalk attraction called "Fighting the Flames," which consisted of a fake tenement building set ablaze and rebuilt multiple times a day. (A tenament building.) Set at a park called Dreamland, "the entire spectacle," Koolhaas wrote, "defines the dark side of Metropolis as an astronomical increase in the potential for disaster only just exceeded by an equally astronomical increase in the ability to avert it."

If it weren't his building, and even if it is, Koolhaas might have appreciated the inversion, a century later, of Coney Island's equation of chaos plus control. (Read what you will into the fact that the building that burned, TVCC, was in many ways the sideshow to the larger domineering building whose name it inverts, CCTV. And consider: the fears implicit in Coney Island's burning of a tenement building versus the hopes of Beijing's migrant construction workers, setting off fireworks). 

In fact, the inversion already happened: in 1911, the lighting in the devils that decorated the facade of "End of the World," another Dreamland amusement, short-circuited. Weeks before a fire-fighting apparatus had been installed, but had not yet been connected to the Atlantic. Koolhaas relishes the Boschian scene, a collapse of the circus and the civic: 
Elephants, hippos, horses, gorillas run amok, 'enveloped in flames.' Lions roam the streets in murderous panic, finally free to kill each other on their way to safety: 'Sultan...roared along Surf Avenue, eyes bloodshot, flanks torn and bleeding, mane afire...' For many years after the holocaust, surviving animals are sighted on Coney, deep in Brooklyn even, still performing their former tricks...

In three hours Dreamland burns to the ground.

But back to the Beijing circus: the TVCC inferno is not just a symbol of the end of our early 21st century architectural exuberance, or some expression of the danger and violence thought to be underneath the strange surfaces of post-modern buildings, or the most vivid transmutation of architectural spectacle ever. The strangely beautiful burning of TVCC -- what OMA has referred to as the "fun palace" -- just months before its opening might be the ultimate metaphor for a city hell bent on shiny construction, and the ugly destruction that demands. And at a time of economic and social upheaval, it also hints at the gradual loss of control by the authorities that oversee that metropolitan rise and fall.

I wrote about CCTV fairly recently: "Strange Loop," The National

Other thoughts:
Matthew Niederhauser
Bert de Muynck
Geoff Manaugh

Thursday, 5 February 2009

In-the-red humor

From a story on Reuters:
A bank worker calls a colleague, goes one joke on the bulletin

"Hey, how's it been going?"

"Not so bad."

"Oh, sorry, I've definitely called the wrong number."

Others adopt a similar tone, but riffing off Communist propaganda slogans.

"In the face of the financial crisis, I have bravely stood up and am
marching forward! That's because ... I can't pay back my loans and the bank
has repossessed my car."

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Put a sing on it

Monk mood at the Whitney last weekend. William joined me. We sat next to an Icelandic myth. Words exchange.

Sounds; songs.

Terror trivia

Simon Norfolk

From this PBS documentary on the NSA (hi Fort Meade!).

Phone numbers of Osama bin Laden and a Yemeni associate in San Diego, circa 2000:

001-858 279 1159

Coincidence no. 1:

If General Hayden [at the NSA] had simply looked out his window ... a few miles away he might have been able to see the motel where the terrorists were staying.

You have two groups: the terrorists who were planning the biggest attack on the US in history, and the analysts who were listening to some of their phone calls for years. And they were living in the same neighborhood.

Ships passing

me: what are the chances that two lovers-never-meant-to-be would share space in the same magazine, on the same date?

"For example, I lived in Europe for many years before coming here, and the majority of African communities were refugees, people who fled, and they all depended on the state for their livelihood, for social security and welfare and these kinds of things. That is the trend even now, even now in London and elsewhere. But I found that these guys were different: they are traders, so they are self-employed, they don’t depend on the state. And they even employ people, they even employ young Chinese as their interpreters. That is one striking difference."

We have been on The Island for only a couple of weeks, and our collective state can already be described as exhausted, self-critical, neurotic, and paranoid. We spend most of our time convincing rotating members of our group that they are neither fat nor destined for failure nor going to die alone having never been loved.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

इफ इ हद अ हार्ट

The Knife threw the heart. That is, "If I Had a Heart."

Monday, 19 January 2009


I can mostly remember how I felt when I first heard Barack Obama speak because I remember how different it was from everything else then. Basics: I was sitting in a conference room at the New York Sun in the summer of 2004. That was a hot summer, summer of love, of confusion, unknowns, before a senior year of college that had already begun to burn with bright blankness. The summer that I had already spent half in London, mostly alone and feeling sheepish about being an American abroad, baffled and disappointed by the enterprise of journalism, by the shrinking of newspapers, the shrinking of certain ambitions. It was also the summer that I would also spend, as if in another lifetime, making new friends and loves, mapping Manhattan again for the first time, peeking at the city from rooftops, bridges, from low-slung Soho restaurants, from sweaty clubs, from close ups of faces, from mechanical rush hour subway rides and the edge of a still gaping hole in Lower Manhattan, the edge of an adolescence nearly over and an adulthood that would equal a sum, or add on more, of what I couldn't tell but skirted around in the hopes of getting a glimpse or venturing a guess. The summer as a fast-forwarded life, from the expansiveness of going abroad to dreary tabloid fonts on the Underground, emerging from the jazz rhythms of the 6 train stopping short downtown, from the possibilities of lower east side walkups to an end of summer countdown, told in colored alerts and alarming swift boat campaigns and the promise of a Bosch-like cataclysm around Madison Square Garden, just where I one day thought the world might end, but this time the Knicks were nowhere to be seen. If I was wondering about careers, about my idealism, part of me was also being smacked around: A summer of remembering the trifling days and ways of electioneering, scouring the streets reporting on the chaotic, begrieved sidelines of the GOP convention, a moment of nonsense and fear. 

I saw people getting thrown on the sidewalk, and police afraid, people searching for reasons to fight and tied up by police and lined up in the sweltering night. 

One night, I went to a party at Rockefeller Center, thrown by Senator Bill Frist, to celebrate the end of the convention and raise money for charities fighting AIDS in Africa (many of them evangelical Christian ones). Bono was there. He spoke about strange alliances in spite of parties, strange bedfellows, the better angels of our nature perhaps, and in the crowd, amidst the young blonde congressmen and gowns and glasses of rum, I heard two men who were bankers laugh at the Irish rock star under their breath.

When at last I, dressed in a tweed blazer and red pants, clutching my recorder, moved in to ask Bill Frist a question (about Bono, about medicine, about Africa, though I didn't know about this), I was very nearly tackled by the Secret Service. "It's okay, he's okay," said Frist. I forgot what I asked him, because he didn't really answer anything.

Cut back to that room. He says things about an America that could be one, and it sounds so hopeful and beautiful that I think I suspected then how removed my own wishes are from the siren-blaring New York all around me.

China, 2008. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold when people want things they know they deserve.

Philadelphia, 2008. Let America be America again.

Chicago, 2008. Let America be America again, again.

The room again, 2004. But the politics of the improbable, of the prophetic, of potential, is the politics of a country built on a revolution and a daring piece of paper and a thousand symbols, punched through, waved wildly, torn up, and again reread, with feeling, means.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Good Winter Sounds

Present pop music

You probably know that I am in a long term relationship with music. But given my commitment to Honesty, and after careful discussions with my family, I have an admission to make: this year I have had passionate if brief liaisons with these songs (which can be heard in the player on the left, and downloaded here). Thank you, friends who introduced us.

- DJ Al Jazzera

White Winter Hymnal / Fleet Foxes
Like Edgar Allen Poe with the Raven, Fleet Foxes carefully take the best ingredients of Charles Ives and the Garden State soundtrack to create a nearly perfect winter holiday song. 

"You were always on my mind."

Sabali / Amadou & Miriam
I thought I might be able to make it through 2008 without falling in love with Amadou and Miriam again, but I was wrong. Again.

Oh No / Andrew Bird
Oh yes yes yes yes. I want to be Andrew Bird's friend, and cry together, and whistle together. I know he's not, but I still think he's saying calcium minds, as in calcified minds, but he's actually taking about mining. The layering of the bum-bum-bum kills me. He wrote about the song on a blog at New York Times (?):
In the instance of this song I was on a flight from New York back to Chicago and a young mother and her 3-year-old son sat in front of me and it was looking to be the classic scenario of the child screaming bloody murder. However, I was struck by the mournfulness of this kid’s wail. He just kept crying “oh no” in a way that only someone who is certain of their demise could. Pure terror. Completely inconsolable. It was more moving than annoying.

So when I got home I picked up my guitar and tried to capture the slowly descending arc of that kid’s cry. It fit nicely over a violin loop that I had been toying with which moves from C-major to A-major.

We could be friends, us harmless sociopaths. I can learn the guitar. There was a New Yorker piece recently by John Seabrook about sociopathy and psychopathy, terms which tend to overlap, but which refer to "the condition of moral emptiness that affects between fifteen to twenty-five per cent of the North American prison population, and is believed by some psychologists to exist in one per cent of the general adult male population." 

I think that number should be a lot higher. Anyway, in the piece, John Seabrook subjects himself to an experimental test for sociopathy that involves looking at some distrubing images while being brain scanned by a functional magnetic residence imaging machine. The other night on 60 Minutes, a brain scientist was saying that within five years we should be able to read people's thoughts, based on the colorful computer maps created by fMRI scans. Pretty at least. But Seabrook:
The scanner was housed in a tractor-trailer parked behind the prison’s I.D. center. We followed a correctional officer through an internal courtyard to the rehab wing, which consisted of a large common area surrounded by two-man cells. The prisoners were standing at attention outside their cells, some holding mops and brooms. I entered a vacant cell and saw the occupant’s brain, a grainy black-and-white image on a piece of a paper, its edges curling, tacked up over the desk.
Then we walked through the common room and out a door at the other end, passing under a large poster with lines that read, “I am here because there is no refuge, finally, from myself.” 

Bag of Hammers /Thao Nguyen


Half Asleep / School of Seven Bells
Running away without watches, skipping alongside dandelions, riding unicorns with your friends from camp. 

But it's just a virtual reality machine; you're actually on board a spaceship, shooting into the sun.

Obama / Extra Golden
Once my passport was stolen. How is too embarassing to say. But I spent three nights combing the streets of Cambridge in vain looking for it, in the outside chance someone had just taken the pretty stamps and left the rest behind. My desperate, insane hunt likely had something to do with the timing. Within days, my passport was due at the Russian embassy in Washington, DC, where it would receive a stamp allowing me to begin a Siberian exile. Sure, that might sound like a strange thing to get worked up about, but that was just how it was back then. Phone calls ensued. Yelling and accusations. Often at automated phone operators.

Eventually I spoke with a man named Dastagir Samee. Emailed. Wrote. Via FedEx, I handed off photos, information, money to Dastagir. Days later, a passport, with a sturdy three-month Russian visa. I was not then in the mood to sing a song of praise to Dastagir Samee. But I perhaps knew half of the struggle of getting a visa to the U.S.  

Until We Bleed/ Kleerup
An eternal night that ends before you realize it. Eternal relationship that hasn't started yet. 

Love Lockdown (Flying Lotus Remix) / Kanye West
"Keep a secret code / So everybody else don't have to know." The song sounds like a brute force attack on the password. But: do alien frying pans and autotune cancel each other out?

Shake That Devil / Antony and the Johnstons
Bitch hunt turned sock hop.

What Is Not but Could Be If / Silver Jews
For the longest time I thought this song was in the past conditional. And then recently I realized it was just conditional.

Red, Yellow and Blue / Born Ruffians
It is pretty. And it probably won't offend anyone, unlike this (which I saw happen, and also filmed).

Fatalist Palmistry / WHY?
One thing that musicians, unlike painters or filmmakers, don't have to worry about is lighting. 
Or do they?

Flaming Home / Mount Eerie
The illogical conclusion of Bag of Hammers, above.

Librarian / My Morning Jacket
When I was recently in California, I visited three libraries in the space of a week. It was really the only place to go. 
Still I miss no one more than the one that never missed me

Day n Nite / Kid Cudi
The song is sort of about lonelieness and desperation and stubborness and loss and failed dreams. Not exactly top 40 material. And yet it totally is. According to one Internet commenter, 
this kid is a official hype beast. this is the beginning of official hype beasts making it into the music world.

And that's the promise of America.

Bruises / Chairlift
Isn't it pretty to think so. And dance to.

Sad Song (RAC remix) / Au Revoir Simone
A song to bring you home.

Blackfly Rag / Carl Spidla
He's got so much to say and really should not stop.

Do Your Best / John Maus
The colors of points of light, waves of shadows, out the window late at night are not describeable in words, but they don't need to be because they don't belong to words, they don't belong to anything, and for a moment, when our eyes are both stuck in cycles of auto-focus in and out, they belong to me and you. Whoever you are.

Keep Yourself Warm / Frightened Rabbit
I am embarassed by the words, but it's the kind of glorious rock that I need to hear once and awhile. I'd like to see them take fellow Scots Snow Patrol in a fight. And Bono. Their Christmas one, which appeared on Alex-mas 2008, also verges on epic and kept me warm. Also: a lighter.

Family Tree / TV on the Radio

Dinosaur on the Ark / Esau Mwamwaya & Radioclit
The whole great album is free hereTengazako and I are still on dancing terms.

Malawi, where Esau Mwamwaya comes from, was once known as Nyasaland. Nyasa means lake and it also means rubbish, or bad. Wikipedia opines that the colonists might have thought that about the "undeveloped" land there. In other places visited by British colonists, the word used was "waste," which was often synonomous with the word "wasteland." Waste, they reasoned, was a problem to be solved, like the Native Americans, who clearly didn't know how to "use" their largely untouched land. But thing is, nobody did.

Generations later, this thinking would yield phrases like "manifest destiny." As much as I detest waste in so many of its forms (fiscal, emotional, temporal, sometimes it's like my whale), but that's probably because I can't get enough of waste, its potential, its lack of logic, its pleasure, its pain (o the white waste!).  And this waste -- in the sense of the un-used, waiting to be used, developed, transformed -- I love it. I love what its old usage says about colonialism, about capitalism, about blindness, etc. But I really love its double-meaning, its infinite-meaning, its potential, its space, its full emptiness. If you think about it, a lake is like a waste in a way, a perfect waste. It is non-land, a space that cannot be used, cannot even be walked upon, an amorphous body, a collection of an excess. It is just there, just beautiful.

So the dinosaur (the fiance of MIA, not Esau) is walking through a waste land. "Africa, Africa!" sings Esau. Is it Nyasaland? I don't know. But boy is he happy.

Drive on Driver / Magnetic Fields
The bad thing about L.A. is you have to drive everywhere. The good thing about L.A. is I don't know how to drive.

Bluster in the Air / No Kids

Listen for when he sings "time."

1259 Lullaby / Bedouin Soundclash
I think it works as a sequel to Justice's "One Minute to Midnight."

re:stacks / Bon Iver

Someone asked me why women don't gamble as much as men do, and I gave the commonsensical reply that we don't have as much money. That was a true and incomplete answer. In fact, women's total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage.
- Gloria Steinem

And concerning the number of books and the establishment of libraries and the collection in the Museum, why need I even speak when they are all the memory of men.

- Athenaeus, the Deipnosophistae

Monday, 5 January 2009

Beijing Subway Is Fast. I Am Not (An Appreciation)

Video by Josh Chin, Wall Street Journal

One of my new year's resolutions is to be faster. More efficient, yes, but also faster. Like lasers, and the Beijing subway, which makes up for what it lacks in panache (privet, Moscow!) with sleek zippy trains that get built at record speed. (I make up for what I lack in panache with fingernail biting.) The subway isn't the most complete in the world (O Moskva!) but over the past 14 months, with the opening of line 5, and then lines 10, 8 and the Airport Express, it grew by almost half (!), and suddenly people were being zipped to places in the city they probably had never heard about, much less visited. It was like manna from the underground (Actually, I think you can buy some good dark khleb in the Moscow Metro, but not in the Beijing ditie). 

Look, I don't love the Beijing subway, at least not in its current prepubescent stage (as opposed to its future Three-Gorges-size version), but there's nothing like a city with a terrible, sprawling urban plan to make you really appreciate a subway. 

Not long after it opened -- just in time for the Olympics -- Josh Chin at the Wall Street Journal interviewed me about line 10, which he calls, correctly, "the iPhone of subways." Come to think of it, that, coupled with photos of the NYC subway, might actually be a really good marketing slogan to appeal to Beijing's rising middle class, who are buying cars the way New Yorkers buy iPhones (the Beijingers are buying iPhones too). If you want to see me, look for the guy in the video who is sporting a treehugger(.com) beard and speaking slower than the G train. I'm assuming this is why more of our interview wasn't used (to Josh's credit). 

Among the things left on the cutting room floor were my meditations on Beijing's smart cooperation with MTR, the private company that operates Hong Kong's Swiss watch of a subway in exchange for getting to own all the land above the subway too. MTR is developing Beijing's western line 4, and owns Ginza Mall, a Japanese watch of a shopping center that connects (surprise!) to the Dongzhimen metro station. I probably also talked about the pleasures of bicycles and pearl tea. Also: the problem with music criticism today.

I think we spoke for about half an hour, which means that by the time Josh left my apartment (to be accosted by a police officer checking registrations), somewhere in Beijing a new subway station had been planned, designed and built. 

Changing the Desire

If you think of the architects that we love the most, the ones that have really affected us, they didn’t simply build what they were asked to build – they built something that was surprisingly better than what they were asked for. They changed the desire. The good architect is the one who makes you realize that your desires could be more adventurous, and then who satisfies those new desires in ways that are very, very positive. That – that – is a really important social mission. If you say that the traditional architect monumentalizes existing desires, that doesn’t sound like such a hot mission anymore. 

-- mark wigley in an interview withbldgblog.

it might be obvious, but isn't that what we want from every leader, and what we only get from the visionaries? the possibility for possibilities. 

but is it good enough that only architect (or the client) is actor? where is there room for the public?

Monday, 15 December 2008

Holiday Pageant

To prove that I'm not a total Scrooge, the "legendary" holiday mix is here.

A Holiday is a Terrible Thing to Waste
December 15, 2008 | Huffington Post

When I think of Christmas, I see all the stuff under trees: toys and books and computers, DVD players and colorful paper.

I don't mean the Christmas tree. During the holidays in my neighborhood in New York, I often see this stuff left under the spindly black trees that line sidewalks, waiting to be carted away to the landfill, or wherever else it goes (more on that later). It's estimated that Americans generate about 5 million more tons of waste than usual between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

Now, I don't want to sound like the green Grinch, raising sobering concerns about consumption in the middle of the holiday cheer, the cavorting under the mistletoe, or the egg nog-soaked sweater fashion shows around the new flat-screen TV, where everyone's watching "It's a Wonderful Life."

For a while it was a wonderful life, and if anyone needed proof, our Blackberries and laptops and gas-guzzling cars provided some of it.

Now that one era of excess is over, concerns about waste may seem moot. We're already cutting back our spending, and if anything, economists argue we should be worried about too little consumption, not too much. Now, the angel Clarence might say, every time a Wall Street opening bell rings, a kid gets less things.

Some of us are staring at that reality (and the contents of our wallets) with a kind of dumbfoundedness. Others with more fluid cash flows may find ways to keep buying presents as usual, almost as if it were Christmas 2005. A recent Bloomberg article reported on ultra-rich buyers like an American interior decorator who called off her 10th anniversary party because it "didn't feel right to send out invitations" and yet still managed to buy "some 2,000 euro dresses from Lanvin and Balmain for year-end festivities, 600 euro shoes from Jimmy Choo and a 5,500 euro brown Birkin."

But for those of us still living on earth, the downturn is nothing if not a good learning opportunity. It's a moment to consider not just how Wall Street's excess speculation drove us into the hole, but also how our own unfettered consumption has been burying us and the rest of the world in another kind of debt.

It's also an opportunity to think about what does make life so wonderful.

I've been thinking about these issues a lot since I moved to China. On the streets of Beijing, where I live, it's hard to find the garbage piles that populate the streets of New York around Christmas time. It helps that China doesn't celebrate Christmas -- not yet. But even if it did, China's culture of thrift breathes new life into old or broken objects before they reach the garbage pile; when they finally do, the city's informal army of scrap collectors dutifully picks out what can still be recycled. For a while, when I took the garbage out, I was often intercepted by a neighbor, Mr. Li, who would thank me profusely before pouring my bags onto the pavement and picking through them. Now, I leave the trash out for him.

Western countries have a similar if unspoken arrangement with China. In scrap towns down south, the country that makes most of our electronic stuff also recycles it: from DVD players to monitors to iPods, much of our holiday junk will end up being mined for their precious metals through a kind of alchemy with toxic results. Recently researchers announced that in the town of Guiyu, China's biggest e-waste purgatory, pregnancies are 6 times more likely than normal to result in miscarriage, and 7 out of 10 children have too much lead in their blood. The story -- repeated in towns across southeast Asia and the Ivory Coast -- puts concerns about toxic imported toys (and toxic assets) into perspective.

Yet e-waste recycling is a big business, and it can be a viable way of saving energy and conserving materials. And governments around the world, including the Chinese, are working to improve environmental standards. But in practice, recycling our old fax machines and videogame players is often literally sickening--and fed in part by our buy-and-toss culture, which in turn is abetted by the virtuous feeling that we get from recycling.

Even if we could ensure that recycling were a healthy affair, we still could not ensure that our stuff will actually end up being recycled. Only 19 percent of our plastic is being reused. A day's sail from Los Angeles towards Hawaii partially reveals what happens to the rest of it: there the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a steadily growing flotilla that is said to be larger than the United States, continues to suck in everything from discarded shoes to toothbrushes to plastic bags.

Then there is the other collateral ecological debt fed by our spending sprees. The cloud of pollution that hangs over Asia is like a scarier, airier version of the garbage patch, with a similarly eerie name: the Atmospheric Brown Cloud. It's not relegated to Asia either, but tends to float across the Pacific, across the garbage, to pollute the skies over the United States. The effects of our Middle Eastern oil addiction--fed in part by our use of all-too-disposable plastic--are too obvious and regrettable to need a mention.

The answer is not to stop buying presents. But I think we need to think more carefully about what we're buying. If it breaks, it may be repairable, not just replaceable; if it's old, and still works, it still works. There's nothing wrong with giving the gift of an experience, like a dinner or a trip. And there's nothing impolite about re-gifting presents we don't want or need to someone who does; in fact, we should be proud to do so.

Nor should we be ashamed -- especially at a time of economic turmoil -- to give cash, either as gifts to our loved ones, or in their names to charity. Red envelopes of money are considered lucky presents in China, a country that also happens to have an enviable ability to save.

In many ways, concerns about consumption come down to how we save things, from money to oil to time. If companies could think more these kind of savings -- if they could think creatively about how sustainable and durable their products are (Detroit's cars, for instance, or Apple's iPhones), we'd be better off ecologically and economically.

Similarly, if politicians could get creative with regulations on manufacturing and tax policies, and if we could think better of buying, say, a new video game system when we don't really need one, we won't just be better prepared to cope with an economic downturn. We'd be resisting a downturn in resources, in health, in a precious natural world that no stimulus package or bailout could save.

"It's a Wonderful Life" is a wonderful movie, and an appropriate one for now: it's about a man driven nearly to suicide by financial ruin, before learning that there's more to life than money.

The movie and it's lesson gets tossed around a lot during Christmas. And yet the holidays remain the captive of the "holiday shopping season." For all the good cheer spilling out onto the streets, there's just as much trash spilling out there too.

Perhaps more than any other in recent memory, this recession holiday has given us an unexpected present. It's a reminder about how we're all connected, as countries, economies and as people. And it's an opportunity to consider what the holidays, and the other days, are really about, rather than wasting them on things we don't need.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Touch Down

A middling Hollywood film from the mid 90s. Actually you don't know if it's from the mid 90s or the late 90s or the late 80s -- it doesn't matter -- but the first thing you notice, somehow, is the sloppy set design and beige colored walls and corny background music. And then the cornier half aware acting, all framed by angles and techniques described in the early chapters of film school textbooks. The lighting alone makes you want to want to sit far away from the TV, crawl into the corner of the foreign hotel room. But it also, all of it, sucks you in too. And though you could have sworn you've seen it before, you can't help but watch it, can't even help but watch the terrible advertisements that interrupt it all. The way you want to watch a big wreck.
Some excerpts from the film:

"In the worst case scenario...I have to sleep here." - man on cell phone with slicked hair

"I asked for an early holiday. They didn't tell me I could only take off two weeks before Christmas!" - handsome man with a TSA jacket

"Go beyond the image, the controversy...CNN Showbiz" - television

"Tomorrow night, Larry King talks to Caylee's grandparents." - tv

"...but today Oprah weighs 200 pounds. She says she's embarassed." - tv

"Whether the economy is up exponentially or down exponentially, things here keep rolling along very well." - a man from the DC government

"What a modern airport." - my father, upon landing at Dulles, 20 years ago

"Modernist funeral home." - me, upon landing at Dulles, last week

An old couple never looked so scared to me.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Election Day Notes

It wasn't a moment for words -- or rather, it was a moment for words, just words. Because only words, poetry, can be imperfect enough -- more perfect enough -- to capture how strange and unformed and provisional and playful and new the moment felt. When the founders declared independence, they were making poetry in the old Greek sense: poetry, poesis, the act of creation. They were declaring, declaring their independence to stake a claim not just for a new nation but for an old imagination that could bring people together in peace and prosperity. And it was an imagination would necessarily have to be expressed in words, that would have to try and fail to use and be ready to amend words to make life more like that imagination. Unalienable rights were alien until the word “unalienable.” And even then, they would have to be tirelessly defended, with words.

And words were a perfect symbol too for this always new country, tools that connect, however clumsily, however imperfectly, our thoughts to our feelings to our world to our things to each other and to us. They are the formulas that describe our emotional physics. Divinations that make anyone an oracle. Bridges, they are bridges for the gaps that make our world interesting, and they are never bridges to stand on but ones to run across and run back and stare across and gawk at. Rivers to ride across, like Washington across the Delaware -- or Walt Whitman coming over from Brooklyn. He asked

What is it, then, between us?

What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.

That vision is a moving one. And what does moving mean anyway? Not just “emotional.” I am moved to say that this adjective describing feelings is still connected to the physical act of moving. That something moving is something that transports you between two places: the real and the imaginary, the actual and the ideal, the reality and the dream. It's not the destination but the journey to it and back that "moves" me. The lingering in the midst of crossing that makes you see not one side or the other, but both, and the possibility of getting where you're going, where you've been, and the great spaces between them.

To say something is moving is to propose the possibility that there distance doesn't matter, place doesn't matter, because you're crossing between the two points, you're already closing the gap. It's like a dream in which you can't tell the difference between what's part of your waking life and what's part of your imagination. But it doesn't matter, what matters is you're moving suddenly from past to future and the present is a present, revealing something you didn't realize about how you felt, and showing you how you feel. It's the surprise of that moment that's moving. The sublime, the suspension of disbelief – and suddenly everyone's breathing together. The image is: beating chests and holding and waving together like flags that are torn but not faded. Again, Whitman the American bard:

But I was Manhattanese, friendly and proud!

I was call'd by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,

Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,

Saw many I loved in the street, or ferry-boat, or public assembly, yet never told them a word,

Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,

Play'd the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,

The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,

Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

If I had to guess where I was when the election was over, how I was being moved – and again, how I will be moved on inauguration – it was somewhere between the politically correct rhetoric of a multicultural education -- the kind that attached words like "historic" and "racial barrier" to momentous occasions -- and the sharply vivid sense of injustice that has weighed down on people in the America like a curse, a tree growing in reverse weighing heavily on the dark soaked dirt, on the strange unborn fruit. It was somewhere between my sense of what had happened and what had actually happened. The feeling of years, of decades of injustices, and then, again, more years of injustices, weighing down on me somehow and seeping out, dripping, pouring out, from a small, hard pit inside -- and the feeling that they had become so deep that I didn't notice them there, so ingrown, that I could not care anymore.

Or the feeling that I had not given up after all, that I did actually care, and, for a moment, I realized just how much.

(I don't know why I cried. That's probably why I cried even harder.)

The first thing I did -- the thing that triggered this moving sensation, the feeling of being rocked by waves -- was find a poem. Partly because I guess only words -- faulty, grasping words -- could approximate on the outside what I was feeling inside, could ride the gaps between the facts, the results, the news, and the long string of things that had led there, and the long stirring of what was beneath it.

And partly because I just had to find this poem. With no intention, with no idea that I would think of it at that moment, but as if on cue when Wolf Blitzer or whoever said it, I pressed my hands to the keys and found it. It was as if it had been waiting in the back of my head for years, sitting there fallow in the attic of my brain with a pile of other high school poems, heavy in the dust of explanation and context and connotation and history, waiting to be dusted off, and seen again. Langston Hughes:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

The feeling that we are not one thing but many things. There is much talk now of healing divisions and coming together as one. That is beautiful. And at the same time, also beautiful, is the fact, the possibility that we can be one and many together. That we can each contain multitudes and sing ourselves and each other and everything and and and and --

It's the beauty of the deepest love, the deepest strangeness, the promise of the past and the future meeting, of people brought together despite the odds against them.

And just as I was reading the first poem, another poem caught my eye on the side of the page—I was scanning for more oracles, more explanations, more séances for a catharsis – through the beating of the election drums, the beading of my eye. The poem is great, the reference is Whitman, and the title is

Let America Be America Again

Whatever we want to say about this country, bad or good, it's beauty lies in the revolutionary cauldron in which it was born, and which, thank the blankest verses of the Constitution, it has never quite left. It takes time for the revolutions to come, but it always comes back to being America again. It always rewrites itself, reinvents itself, Our Greatest Poem.

I think I knew about that. But I had forgotten about that. The words reminded me.

Forgive my excesses here and my melodrama. I'm not very patriotic; I haven't really felt this way before and may not feel it again the same way. And I'm skeptical too. But this moment, this feeling, it's a moment to take in. And it's not a moment that ever really leaves. You see, I don't think this is about something as blind and repetitive and devotional as patriotism. It's almost about its equal and exact opposite.

It's about the words, the metaphors and the symbols we use to convey our imaginations. It's about the imperfect relation between each of us, between us and generations before and to come, between us and what we want to be, between dreams and actions, and how we try to make the relationship more perfect all the time. It's why we voted – which is poetry made political, a “yes” or a “no,” times millions and put into law – and why we said yes, yes we can.

It's why I wrote these imperfect words, why I tried to move across the gap for a brief moment again, and it's why you are reading it.

Friday, 8 August 2008

New Beijing New Beijing

Xi Dawang Lu, Summer 2007

Fortunately it's still easy to get lost in Beijing. From the center, which harbors a labyrinthine imperial palace with a fabled 9,999-rooms, the old capital rambles in a maze of narrow alleys that can be as befuddling as they are charming, with their secret gardens, endless detours, dead ends and sometimes maddening lack of orienting landmarks. Many of the hutong – those that remain, that haven't yet been turned into shopping strips – look so identical and are so secluded from large buildings that they can feel like anywhere in Old Beijing, at almost anytime in history. Not knowing exactly where you are or what street you'll end up on is part of the ancient city's delight.

But as one city was dawdling and wandering in the hutong, another city was preparing for its biggest event ever. Even decades before the Olympic bunting went up and the buildings came down, New Beijing had the triumphal architecture and collectivist spirit, the security machine and love for spectacle that are the necessary ingredients for a grand international gathering. The city's ancient south-north axis is a perfect showpiece for the Games, sprouting the Olympic Green and getting a major face-lift under the auspices of Albert Speer, Jr. (the son of the man who reshaped Berlin for the 1936 Olympics). And then there's the general ambition, parallel to that of the Olympics themselves, not only to rally national spirit, but to spark development, investment and international connections on an unprecedented scale. Just as intense as the most heated track finals will be the race for foreign and local businessmen to forge billion-yuan deals that will continue to remake the city and the country. Even the Games' motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius," or "Faster Higher Stronger," seems to describe this country better than any other Olympic host, and better than all of the other Olympic slogans plastered around the city.

It is impossible to know how things might have turned out differently if, say, the Olympic Committee had said "Paris" instead of "Beijing." It was one of Beijing's main competitors, the "most romantic" city in the world, that set the modern standards for Olympic-sized urban renovations. The Baron Haussmann called for untold numbers of the French capital's small alleys to be eviscerated in order to widen streets into massive, car-friendly boulevards that could also, if necessary, serve to make streets more accessible to soldiers and tanks. An inspiration to Mao's planners, Haussmann uprooted whole neighborhoods to bring the modern city to ferocious life, a transformation which might have become soul-crushing had Paris not retained the gorgeous, human-scale lanes that make it so charming and, boycotts aside, popular with Chinese tourists.

Thanks to the inescapable countdown clocks, Beijing's own preparations have progressed with the tick-tick-tick suspense of a new millennium, a space rocket launch, or something more sinister. But the city was already keeping pace with another set of timepieces. Old buildings crumbled like hourglass sand, new subways coursed through the city's ramshackle circuitry like status bars for a new software installation, while civility campaigns and hygiene campaigns and tree-planting campaigns enforced international compatibility. Amidst the uneven upgrade of hardware and software, there was hand-wringing and fighting and crying, but mostly it all happened so quickly that there wasn't much time to consider what had been erased. Just time to get in (an orderly) line, move on (or move out to the suburbs), and stare slack-jawed at what replaced it all. And then keep moving. That's Beijing.

Unlike everything else in the city, the new generation of Great Projects – like the famous ten monumental structures built in the city center in 1959 - seemed to transcend timelines. They were built in "no time," at least compared to construction in the West, as monuments to China's unforeseeable future. Thanks to the Olympics, they will also have all the airtime in the world too, becoming, overnight, as famous as the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building. In the New York Times last month, Nicolai Ouroussoff offered only the latest gushing admiration. "There is no question that its role as a great laboratory for architectural ideas will endure for years to come," he wrote. "One wonders if the West will ever catch up.”

But to what exactly is the West supposed to catch up? Yes, these buildings are spectacular, but next to the cozy scale of the hutong, their enormous scale, futuristic skins, steel acrobatics and sheer daring make them mostly just spectacular. To our mere early 21st century senses, they do not really compute. The egg and the water cube and the nest and the dragon and the big shorts/pants are convenient monikers for buildings that don't look like any other buildings, or any thing we've seen before. Dazzle and provoke they do, but these surreal buildings also come close to confusing and alienating. Amidst a forest of gated communities and mammoth highways, those are qualities that perhaps should be less of a priority.

Even how they were made - their modes of production, Marx and Mao note, smiling - is well concealed, right down to the construction workers, who have been asked to leave Beijing as quickly as they came. The sensation of building something as massive as the airport or the stadium -- or merely looking at them -- is one that Franz Kafka imagined in "The Great Wall of China," a short story narrated by a worker on that epic project:

Could there really be a village where houses stand right beside each other covering the fields and reaching further than the view from our hills, with men standing shoulder to shoulder between these houses day and night? Rather than imagining such a city, it's easier for us to believe that Peking and its emperor are one, something like a cloud, peacefully moving along under the sun as the ages pass.

The posters ask us all to believe New Beijing is part of a similar pristine unity, one world, one dream. But what is this New Beijing, really? Was it decreed by the government and implemented by thousands of workers? Was it named by property developers and their wealthy clientele? Was it dreamt up by the media? In a city where things can so easily get lost, is it so hard to imagine something else?


For a brief time, before the hyperbolic real estate billboards would be taken down and replaced with Olympics logos, a piece of scaffolding surrounding a construction site near the Central Business District offered an oracular take on one of Beijing's mantras. "One Word One Dream," it said.

What must have been a typo, a pretty funny one, also seemed like an apt description of how Beijing would remake itself for its close-up and its continued growth: not just through wrecking balls and steel and glass and concrete but by a marshaling of words, by a state-sponsored, privately-owned or street-bound poetic imagination.

Consider the names of buildings. If the nicknames given by citizens to Beijing's new architecture are signs of intimacy and a desire to make some sense of them, the names doled out by the real estate industry speak to middle class aspirations and a desire to make cents. Some luxury housing complexes and gated communities are simply bootlegs: Central Park, Upper East Side, Orange County (who knows what Regentland and Space Montage are meant to evoke). New words were added to Beijing's realty poetry by two shopping malls: at The Place and The Village one is hard pressed to find a sense of place or the feel of a village, not anymore at least.

But the point is that how the city develops depends on how it is seen, and, more importantly, how it sees itself. "One Word One Dream" secretly an empowering idea, an Emersonian idea plopped into the Kafkaesque city. Beijing's future depends on the dreams – or the nightmares – of all its people, from the slogan makers to the slang-slingers.

I asked Mike Meyer, the author of simply the best new book there is on Beijing, Last Days of Old Beijing, what kind of a city the world will see when it arrives for the Olympics. "The world will see the Beijing it wants to see," he said. "Cities are not jars of clay, but ever-changing rivers, open to multiple interpretations. I have 'my' Beijing, and you have yours." By the same token, Beijing will show the world what it wants to show it. Afterwards, others will continue to decide what Beijing is. Surely there will be more timelines and new slogans and big countdowns. But like so much else, these will probably get lost in the maze of worlds and words and dreams that make the city every day, and that count towards a place that is more than just "New."