Archive for April 2009
One memory I have of freshman year in college is Jim’s first English assignment (everyone’s first assignments were momentous that year), for which the notoriously difficult-to-please professor asked everyone to write an essay on “What is Reading?”. No – I remember now – it was not his first assignment, but the paper he had to write in a single night in order to stay in the class he’d already registered for, due to an over-booked roster. I have no idea what he wrote, but it had something to do with interlocutors.
My Kindle arrived today (together with a handsome leather case, not shown), and I think it will change the answer to that question, but not very much.
First impressions: It’s an attractive device, and feels “solid” – the buttons aren’t flimsy, for example. It will disappoint you, however, if you expect it to behave like a computer – response times are long for things like scrolling through a menu of options. It seems clear that the designers were mostly concerned about two experiences: buying things to read, and reading those things. The rest of it (annotations, searching, etc.) takes a bit of patience.
Shopping on the Kindle is a snap – browse categories, type a search term, click buy, start reading. Quite impressive. Everything is delivered wirelessly over the Sprint cell network (which my Kindle says gets 5 bars here at my desk), without the need to sign up for or pay for any kind of wireless service. Entire books are downloaded very quickly (~20 seconds). You can delete the book from the device (not that you need to, seeing as it can store hundreds or thousands of volumes), and then re-download it later from your Kindle, computer, iPhone, or second Kindle.
Reading, the raison d’être of the Kindle, is equally smooth. Click the “Home” button, select a book, start reading. It appears that the Kindle book format allows for many different typefaces and typographical treatments. Re-size the text to suit your liking. At the most read-able text size, there is about a half-page of text on a screen, compared to an “actual” book. Turning pages takes about three-quarters of one second from button-press to new display. The table of contents is a button + click away. The screen itself is easy to read in both low-medium light and full-on sunlight, and does not induce eye-strain at all (there is no backlight). Integrated dictionary.
What is reading, indeed? Some things that reading on the Kindle is not: skimming, flipping through, jumping around, multi-chromatic. This is fine when you read a novel – a completely linear task. Start at page one, keep going until you finish. But with books like programming tutorials or references, I think the Kindle will not offer the best experience because using a book in a non-linear fashion is slow (page turn, page turn, page turn… or menu, scroll, scroll, click, scroll, scroll, click on “index”…).
But that’s okay! The Kindle doesn’t have to (and won’t) make books obsolete. The Gutenberg analogy only goes so far. In that case, illuminated manuscripts became relatively worthless – except for aesthetics, printed texts were superior in almost every setting and in almost every way. With e-books, though, only some settings and book types are improved. In my case, the Kindle will lighten my daily commuter bag about 2-3 pounds, and save me about $10 per book. But it won’t replace textbooks.
Those are my thoughts. So far very pleased.
The anti-Twitter backlash is happening, followed closely by a wave of Twitter-ridicule.
I like Twitter for several reasons, including the fact that I can choose to follow or un-follow whomever and whenever – spam does not exist in this dojo.
The 140-character limit enforces a kind of pithy “cleverness” – a potential drawback. That is to say, choose your follows carefully, and don’t hesitate to weed out the poseurs. In the end, though, your Twitter feed is likely to look something like the high school “quote of the day” lists, where you keep a running list of out-of-context utterances. “That mayonnaise sandwich would make a good flip-flop.” Ha ha ha!
Whether you’re a Twitter-hater or -lover or -indifferent, you’ll enjoy a new meta-Twitter comedy blog called “Keith Starky Explains Twitter”. Written by a “leading researcher in the field of Advanced Sparse-Tree Social Networking Systems,” the blog is “part of his ongoing research in humor propagation and fluid reputation dynamics.” In it, he “explains” selected tweets, one at a time.
The central conceit of the “tweet” in this case is the idea that Ninjas, which are black-clad martial artists who employ tactics of stealth to both defeat their opponents and avoid waking people up at night when they go to the bathroom, could partake in some of the worldly pleasures of the non-Ninja world (e.g., crunchy snacks) if that non-Ninja world consisted entirely of people wearing noise-canceling headphones3. Henceforth we refer to this world as Headphone-World.
Also worth reading: McSweeney’s Understanding Twitter.
Twitter seems to be, first and foremost, an online haven where teenagers making drugs can telegraph secret code words to arrange gang fights and orgies… In order to become a “follower” on Twitter, teens first must flash their high-beam headlights at an oncoming motorist on the highway. Then, if that motorist flashes his or her high-beam headlights back in reply, the teen must kill the motorist in order to be initiated into “following” the online gang.
I’m doing a little rising from the dead myself today, fighting intense fatigue at the strange hours of my travel east. There’s also something a bit supernatural and/or miraculous about arriving somewhere before you leave.
Yesterday was our last in Bangkok. I insisted on a trip to the Jim Thompson store (no time for the House). I had never heard of him – his story is interesting (it includes a mysterious demise, or I should say concludes) and his merchandise is really quite stunning.
I also insisted on a massage, anticipating this long day of flying. It was also quite stunning, emphasis on stun. Some of it I wouldn’t wish on an enemy.
Now, to pass along some general interest inter-net things for your amusement. First is an infographic from Good Magazine showing you how water consumption can vary widely depending on choices you make like whether to have the steak or chicken. According to my calculations, eating a pound of beef uses as much water as taking a 65-hour shower.
The second is something called Layer Tennis. On Friday afternoons, Coudal Partners (a design firm) gets two talented designers to “compete” using graphics passed back and forth, changing every 15 minutes, posted live as the “volleys” are completed, the whole “match” often using a guest commentator and a twitter feed. See the latest one here. To navigate through the volleys, use the   … links just below the image on the right side of the page (where it says “View Match”). It’s not for everyone – the players often make heavy use of internet memes past and present (e.g. the Fail Whale makes an appearance in the lastest match). I think it’s remarkable when you remember that each iteration represents only 15 minutes of work.
That’s all I got for now. To conserve water, I’ll opt for an airport shower instead of Bul Go Gi.
Back in Bangkok.
So, after Tuesday’s delectable dinner we went to bed in our bungalow, resting up for the next day’s tour.
In the morning, breakfast was served – eggs and bacon and so forth. At about 10 am, the two of us hopped in a truck with a European couple and a tour guide. First stop: elephants. The driver took us about 45 minutes into the mountainous forests outside Chiang Dao. On the way, the guide chattered about the various crops people grow in the area (rice, corn, etc.), the trees (teak, rubber, etc.), ecological concerns, and the local mythology of the hill-tribe villagers. I think I understood about half of what he was saying.
We disembarked next to a wooden staircase… to nowhere. About 15 minutes later, two enormous elephants came trundling down a path, driven by two little wirey fellows, each sitting comfortably directly on top of each beasts head. They screamed instructions (go, stop), nudging the animals behind their ears with their bare feet to indicate the direction they wanted them to go. Each pair of tourists climbed the empty staircase to jump into a little bench balanced on a kind of elephant saddle and away we went. “Away we went” has a connotation of speed, with breeze in our hair. The reality was that each elephant seemed inclined to move at their own pace – a ponderous step or so every few seconds, interrupted by as much time as they could negotiate in each shady spot along the trail. The sun was brutally hot. The benches were tiny. At some points on this mountain trail, the elephants were expected to navigate a slanted hairpin turn only a few feet wide, with a steep drop-off to one side. Greg and I commenced strategizing the best way to jump off a falling elephant in such a way that it does not land on us.
Another lovely feature of riding elephants: every minute or two, the elephant expectorates with a loud gurgle and sprays what I can only assume is a water-based liquid on one or both of his ears (presumably to keep cool without sweating). An unfortunate side effect of this process is that any and all riders are thourougly soaked in his elephant phlegm.
After about 90 minutes of beautiful scenery, that healthy bit of nervous fear, and constant attempts to avoid ingesting too much nose-water, we arrived at a small “hill-tribe” village. We rewarded our mount with a few bunches of bananas (he seemed genuinely excited about it – we have pictures I’ll show you all soon).
Next on the itinerary was a “trek” through the forest to another few villages. All of the villages we visisted were similar in a few ways: their houses were simple wooden structures on stilts, the women and girls surrounded us at every opportunity ,hoping to sell us some handicrafts for a few pennies, and there was some kind of Christian mission. In one village, we encountered a little white girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, squatting beneath a hut in plain clothes, peering at a chicken. The missions were all engaged in various public works projects: water pipes, building schools, etc.
The trek itself was difficult – we were all at the end of our water bottles and drenched in sweat (on top of the elephant phlegm). As the Lonely Planet quips at some point, “if everything starts to inexplicably suck, you are dehydrated.” That about sums up the trek.
After we made it through the forest and rice fields, then a short bagged lunch, we were carried to the third and final stop – a bamboo raft down a river. It was a pleasant ride – our navigator was a 19-year-old university-bound student working a summer job – but like everything on the tour, just a tad unpleasant. Still, completely worth the boiling sun to see the countryside pass by our raft at a leisurely pace, children swimming and hitching a ride for short streches.
We rested, showered off the muck and grime of the day, had an afternoon beer back at the hotel, then sat down for a Thai dinner. The star of the night was a northern Thai dish – slow-cooked buffalo in a dark, salty broth, served in a heated clay pot. Amazing.
The next morning, we checked out and hiked up to the Chiang Dao caves – a deep system of caves near town. The legend of the caves is a that a hermit lived inside for a thousand years. There are many buddha images in the front chambers, but the real experience is going with a guide carrying a gas lantern down into the depths… It was the spookiest thing I’ve ever done. Around our feet scrambled spiders the size of your hand, above our heads flew hundreds of bats, one chasm was 70 meters deep, and the darkness was intense – broken only by a tiny gas flame. We walked 800 meters into the dark maze, sometimes crawling on our bellies to get from one chamber to the next. Not for the faint of heart, or anyone with even an ounce of claustrophobia.
Instead of a bus back to Chiang Mai, we opted for a more expensive back-of-truck ride ($20 for the 80-mile ride instead of $0.50 for the bus). A little more time picking up things at the night market, then we collapsed in our suite, nearing the end of our energy.
This morning, we made our way to the Chiang Mai airport for a short flight to Bangkok. Tomorrow I think we’ll stop by the Jim Thompson house, and maybe a massage in preparation for my 24-hour trip home.
Greg gave me the several hundred photos of our trip on a memorty stick, so I’ll be posting those before the end of this weekend – stay tuned for that.
Sitting in the Chiang Mai airport right now, waiting for a flight to Bangkok. We’re having coffee at Black Canyon, a chain of gourmet cafes found mostly in Asia. The logo is a cowboy sipping coffee, a lone star at his shoulder.
So, to continue the story where we left off: the bus to Chiang Dao dropped us in the middle of a very small town – no indication of how to get anywhere. A smiley man in a truck swooped in to help us find our way to the hotel we’d booked. The Chiang Dao Nest is a dozen or so bungalows a few miles outside of town, with forested mountains towering above. We were surrounded by wildlife – birds, lizards, bugs – none of it offensive or irritating, apart from the odd mosquito. The air was cooler and free of the city smog in Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
This little hotel has a remarkable operation – despite the remote setting, they boast one of the best restaurants in Thailand, according to the local zagat-like reviewer. And it was. In fact, the best two meals we’ve had so far where at the CD Nest European restaurant and their sister Thai restaurant down the road. On the first night, we dined outside with a bottle of white wine to cool us off, steak and confit of duck to fill us up.
Ok, off to catch my flight. To be continued when I get to Bangkok.
Sorry for being incommunicado the last few days. Internet access is not as convenient up here as in more populated areas. I’m writing this from a small hotel in Chiang Dao, a town in northern Chiang Mai province. I’ll explain how we ended up here…
Since my last post, we boarded the train to Chiang Mai, which is a relatively large city north and west of Bangkok. There were only “second class” sleepers available, so we opted for that. It turned out that these were reasonably comfortable. If not for the length of the journey, I would recommend the night train. But because we spent 16 hours (!) cooped up in our tiny compartments, I was glad to de-train.
Chiang Mai has a lot of energy, and plenty of culture and night life. We stayed at the Montrara Happy House, a small guesthouse near the “old city” of Chiang Mai, which served as a kind of capitol city for one or more ancient monarchies.
Our first stop after checking in was the nearby Libernard Cafe, a little coffee shop off the main street with a shady outdoor area. It caters to the foreign set, and it almost certainly would not exist in its present form if not for the Lonely Planet – this is true of several of our stops on the trip so far.
After filling up on a decent breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast, we set out to see the various “wats” (temples) that Chiang Mai is known for. It was a brutally hot day for walking, unfortuneatly, so we didn’t get to all of them, but stopped at another Lonely Planet recommendation – the Writer’s Club and Wine Bar – to partake of a glass of white wine and some philosophical debate.
Wandering around for some lunch, we stumbled on a local Thai joint, where we tasted our way (tentatively) through a sampler platter of different Thai sausages. They also served us what they called a “baby eggplant salad” – a deliciously crispy and spicy dish.
After lunch, we were in the mood for more sitting and talking, so we managed to locate the UN Irish Pub. Greg’s camera came in handy when a moth bigger than your hand spread wide landed on a branch next to my head.
Later that afternoon, a tuk-tuk (mini-cab powered by motorcycle) drove us to the Chiang Mai night market, a bazaar of trinkets and scarves and silks and other souveniers. As we people-watched from a cafe there, we had a bizarre conversation with a fundamentalist Christian ex-military volunteer covert medical trainer, who illegally accesses Thai-Burma border areas to train local villagers in field medicine. He seemed to relish in recounting the various atrocities he attributes to the Burmese army, who evidently treat these border villagers harshly. I don’t know what he said that was true – it was fun to hear his Obama-related theories. Apparently, Obama’s primary goal is to bankrupt America. When asked why he would care to do that, this fellow’s reponse was simply “because he is a Muslim.” I guess that’s supposed to mean something sinister.
Our Lonely Planet is a few years old, so many of the restaurants and cafes we attempt to locate don’t exist anymore, which was true of our intended dinner locale. Instead we ended up at Brix, an upscale place overlooking the river, complete with cover band rocking out to “Hotel California”. Is it just me, or is that song the single most-covered-by-restaurant-bands-outside-the-United-States?
The next morning, while having breakfast (again) at the Libernard Cafe, we starting thinking that maybe we should keep moving north instead of taking all our time in Chiang Mai. So we hatched a plan to visit one more wat (the “Forest Wat” – Wat U Mong) and then take a bus to Chiang Dao.
Wat U Mong was beautiful. Outside of town, surrounded by trees, and thus quiet and not so smoggy, the temple compound was peaceful and cool. We got some great photographs of what looked like a Buddha graveyard – hundreds of broken, be-headed, chipped and crached Buddha images the local monks had salvaged from abandoned monestaries around the countryside.
Then on to the bus station – and straight into a sauna for the 90-minute ride to Chiang Dao.
…There is a lot more to tell you about our two days in Chiang Dao – the stunning views, the elephants, trekking, bamboo rafting, and missionaries. I have to finish up now because our cab is on the way to take us back to Chiang Mai… So, I’ll write more when I get back to Chiang Mai tonight.
After my last note, Greg and I tried taking a taxi back to our hotel… unsuccessfully. Greg almost blew a gasket as we sat waiting for a red light to change – we got out of the car at the 25 minute mark and started walking.
Downtown Bangkok is not really pedestrian-friendly, and the smog from all those cars makes strolling around a bit of an effort. Add to that the 95-degree heat, and the fact that it looked like it was about to rain on us at any moment. I’ll skip the rest – we finally made it back after a 2-hour trek.
A disco nap, then we were off to Bed Supperclub. This place is unlike any restaurant I’ve ever been to. The building itself is like some kind of spaceship – an elliptical cylinder (follow the link to see pictures). For weekend nights, they give you a carefully choreographed “experience” – at precisely 9 pm, following a pre-dinner drink, the meal starts. It is a “surprise” menu, which means they give you the course then tell what it is after you’ve eaten it. During each of these courses, they have [a] massage ladies (each wearing t-shirts labeled “Madame Relax”), [b] a tarot card reader, and [c] a mini-Broadway show. Bizarre and wonderful.
After dinner we hopped a cab to Patpong, the (in)famous red-light district. Another bizarre place, perhaps not so wonderful. I couldn’t take two steps without being accosted by some skeezey guy asking if I wanted to see a “ping pong show”. We passed a bit of time people-watching from an out-door table at a bar along one of these streets.
Today, we’re hanging around the air-conditioned mall. This afternoon we’re heading to the train station to see about getting an over-night train to Chiang Mai, where we’ve booked a few nights at the “Montrara Happy House” (a hotel recommended by Matt Flanzer). The hotel has free wireless internet, so I’ll be able to post some pictures tomorrow.
I’m writing this from an internet cafe on khaosan road, a backpacker’s destination in Bangkok (of The Beach movie fame). [Remind me to reset every password I have...] Unfortunately, this means no photos for now.
Getting to the city proved difficult – I arrived at about 2 am last night after well over 24 hours of travel. Miraculously, like a cat landing on its feet after a fall, I am somehow on the right sleep schedule.
Today Greg and I went to the Grand Palace, which is a compound of many buildings and minor temples, culminating in a visit to the building housing the Emerald Buddha. This small statue (about 75 cm) is a highly revered symbol of both the local religion and embodies a nationalism due to its history of theft by foreign invaders and subsequent re-acquisition by war over the centuries. One interesting thing about it is that it has three sets of “clothing”, one for each season (hot, cool, rainy). These bejeweled garments are changed by the king himself in a solemn ceremony at the beginning of each season.
We’re off now to one of the weekend markets, then a late lunch. Tonight, we’re planning dinner at a place called the “Bed Supper Club” – meals are served on large beds. And what a ridiculous name – I have to see it. Tomorrow we’ll find our way to Chiang Mai via overnight train.
More later from the road…
High winds in San Francisco and volcanic ash in Alaska conspire against me today. So I’m waiting an extra hour or so in Seoul after 12 hours in the air. Fortunately I have the Traditional Korean Cultural Experience Zone to keep me occupied.
I wrote that a bit sarcastically, but it’s pretty nice – they have a 24-hour Korean craft space where you glue and paint your way to a traditional Korean cultural experience. At least in the airport, there is a kind of pride in the service employee’s clean uniform that I never see in the US. The third-world roots reveal themselves only indirectly, for instance, in the labor intensity of said service operations.
In the end, though, I’m happy being here because in Seoul I’m a tall man.