Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Indiana State Fair.

Last weekend, my friend Alex drove down here to my new abode in Lafayette, Indiana. Since I'm still relatively new to the Midwest (going to school in Chicagoland does not count, in my opinion), we decided to get a feel for its culture by going to the Indiana State Fair down in Indianapolis, about an hour drive from where I live.

Deep-fried foods being a quintessential element of all state fairs, it was a gluttonous day. We started out with a "pepsi burst", which Alex is seen munching on here. Fried dough balls, coated with cinnamon sugar and doused in a pepsi-based syrup. I was hoping more for a fried ball with carbonated pepsi inside which would gush out when chewed. Oh well.

It is difficult to resist the sight and smell of gigantic turkey legs being roasted on a grill. Despite the legs being as big as my face, it was not difficult for us to finish one off, doused in black pepper and hot sauce.

The culinary highlight of the day was the infamous donut burger, which is exactly what it sounds like. A grilled beef patty, with melted cheese, onions and pickles, between two Krispy Kremes. The prospect of clogging my arteries with the thing terrified me until I ate it. It was an interesting blend of sweet and savory, and tasted oddly like a Big Mac. Not something that I'd do every day, but I certainly enjoyed the novelty of it.

And then there was the hot beef sundae, which I had been meaning to try since seeing it at the Tennessee State Fair a few years ago. It was delicious, but not quite as cool as it sounds, being a normal concoction of mashed potatoes over chunks of beef, topped with corn and gravy.

The most hilarious moment of the fair was when we discovered a machine called VibraBody Slim, meant to shake your fat off with varying speeds of vibrations. When you turn it on, the platform on which you stand begins to shake back and forth, and your entire body begins to jiggle - a sight that had me doubled over in laughter for a good ten minutes. Speeds increase all the way up to level 30, at which point my vision blurred and I became quite nauseous, and could feel my brain vibrating within my skull. We revisited the machines at the end of the day, and discovered that 3 out of their 5 display models had been sold. Oh, oh, Indiana.

The rest of the time, we just strolled around, enjoying the sight of carnival rides, tractors as big as houses, smaller farm vehicles from the '60s and '70s, hogs, goats, draft horses, blacksmith demonstrations, smoke-emitting wood-chopping machines, and many other things that I find charming about rural America.

This thing cost as much as my parents' house!

A word about these pictures: I no longer own a digital camera, having ruined my previous one with an unfortunate water spill. However, my dad gave me his old Canon EOS Elan II, a 35mm SLR camera made in the late '90s. Having never used a film camera before, it was a challenge to fiddle with settings without being able to immediately see the results, and to be limited to just 36 pictures for the entire day. However, I'm largely happy with how they turned out, and I think the grainy quality almost highlights the rustic feel of the all-American Midwest.

There are some instances when I feel that advanced digital cameras are almost too perfect in how they capture reality, whereas slight imperfections can give an image a quality of dreaminess, which I'm drawn to. I'd really like to use this Canon as a base for learning more about film photography.

End tangent. The weekend was a good one. I'm settling into Indiana just fine.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pandas in Chengdu.

No trip to China is complete without going to see pandas! Needless to say, the welfare of pandas is taken very seriously in China, and Chengdu's Panda Breeding and Research Center is no exception. Though these animals are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, to this date the Chengdu base has successfully bred 88 surviving pandas.

I arrived early in the morning during their feeding time. Apparently, they spend sixteen hours a day snacking away and the rest of the time napping. Not surprising given that all the energy they consume for their big bodies come from tiny, fibrous stalks of bamboo.

Feeding time for the red pandas.
Playful things.
Sleepy things.

So badly did I want to just pick one up and squeeze it, but that option would have cost me 1000 yuan ($150)! Maybe next time.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Last day in Yangshuo.

On my last day in Yangshuo, I spent the morning biking out to Moon Hill and then doing a short hike to the foot of it.

Later in the afternoon, I visited the Yangshuo market in search of some snacks for my trip. The place was enormous.

Two warehouse-size spaces of this size.
Cured, smoked meat.
Chickens and ducks. Purchased one day and on dinner plates the next.

Guangxi province is known for its fondness of dog meat. I used to reject this part of Chinese cuisine when I was younger (not least because it made me the butt of many jokes in high school), but I can't see anything wrong with it now. Of course, I've never owned a pet dog, and concede that I may feel differently if I have, and I can't say that I'd be totally devoid of squeamishness if I was presented with a plate of it. But certainly I wouldn't hesitate to try it, though I haven't yet been given that opportunity.

Dog meat is still rarely eaten in most parts of China; this is probably the second time in my life that I've seen meat for sale in this fashion. When and where it is served, it is one of the more expensive meats, so a suspicious foreigner needn't fear that it be used as a cheap substitute in 'pork' dishes. The meat is reportedly very lean and flavorful, and has been on the Chinese menu way before westerners domesticated dogs.

Side comment: I wonder if foreigners' reception of dog meat would be more open if it was called something different than just 'dog', in the same way that we say 'beef' and not 'cow meat'. Would that make it seem less ethnic and more civilized?

The rest of the day was spent in transit, northwards several hours by bus to the ‘Dragon’s Backbone’ rice terraces in Longsheng district.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Reflections on Atlas Shrugged.

My friend Justin wrote a great post about his thoughts on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and I thought I would take a break from my China updates to write some of my own reactions on the novel. I was too lazy to give a synopsis for those who haven't read it, but there is one on the wiki page, and Justin gives some background as well.

I'm glad that I read Fountainhead first. I loved that book, not only because it gave me a profound new appreciation for architecture, but because it introduced me to a writer who worships self-sufficiency and individualism. In that respect, it was an overture to Atlas Shrugged; it was a "light version" of the more challenging magnum opus. All the heroes in Atlas Shrugged are models of Howard Roark in Fountainhead, in that they operate their lives by their own rational intellect and depend on nothing else to live, even if it brings them at odds with society. Rand implies that John Galt is the ideal man and Dagny Taggart the ideal woman, and I can definitely see why. (Ah, Dagny Taggart. What a woman! The brains behind a massive transcontinental railroad, brilliant and beautiful to boot. New-wave feminist I am not, but the book was a major celebration of girl power, which energized me more than I'd like to admit.)

There are some points that Rand gets right. For example, there are several sections of the book stressing how all industries are connected. You take out one industrial powerhouse, and all the small enterprises leading up to it are wiped out in turn. Affecting one section of the economy will affect many, and the unintended consequences can be great and often unexpected. True.

Another point which underlines Rand's distrust of government, is her observation that politicians often use flowery words in the spirit of altruism in order to pass legislation that is first and foremost for the benefit of themselves and special parties, and only slightly for the actual public interest. Rand strikes that warning home with the likes of James Taggart and all those honey-talking Washington men.

It's interesting, I finished Atlas Shrugged just as I was starting to read Mao Zedong's biography (by Jonathan Spence, a Chinese historian who makes books on Chinese history quick and enjoyable, if you can imagine that). As to be expected, Mao's ideal world of communism resembles closely the dystopia of the book. Ayn Rand herself, being an advocate of pure laissez-faire, pure capitalism (in her life she wore a dollar sign pinned to her shirt), was vehemently against any kind of ideology in which the state systematically interferes with the economy and society, i.e. communism, fascism, socialism.

Rand's theme is "ethical egoism". Individualism reigns. Her ideal world is a state of traders, where to gain something of value one must produce and return something of equal value. To get, one must create. Because people are free to act in their own self-interest, the incentive is to produce more in order to get more.

Mao's ideal world was one of the community, where nobody else is less important than yourself. If you create more than you neighbor, you must give to your neighbor. Here, the incentive is to produce as little as possible, and when a society is based on that kind of incentive, it will come to a standstill. Marx's famous line "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is anathema to Rand. John Galt rejected society as soon as he saw that it was operating by that standard.

Rand stresses selfishness. Marx stresses selflessness. Reading about both camps side-by-side was an interesting thought-experience, and, putting aside whether or not I agreed with what I read, I appreciated the challenge of being forced to think about the Rand's theoretical world.

However, my appreciation stops there. The number one reason why the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged cannot be applied to real life is because the world of the book is not the world that we know. The characters and situations are purposefully exaggerated to prove a point, and because of that, their reactions to events cannot be generalized to include human beings. When ardent objectivists try to shed practical light on the theories of the book, they are making the false assumption that we have pure John Galts and pure Wesley Mouches in this world. Extreme characters necessitate extreme plot points that would be overkill in real life.

Rand creates a world with a handful of creative, productive geniuses, and the rest are weak-willed, incompetent freeloaders. There is no such divide in real life, nor is there a direct correlation between needy and incapable. To suggest that people achieve success purely by their own work, ability, and ideas is just hooey. It's easy to pin success on handfuls of prominent individuals, but in actuality, wealth is made possible collectively, even though the benefits are often spread unequally. One way of seeing this is in the way empowering the poor builds markets, which are necessary for producers to do what they do. The big people do need the little people.

I just cannot accept an author who denounces emotion in favor of total rational selfishness in every aspect of life. People feel. People are connected. No matter how much they value rational thinking, people cannot and do not act in a vacuum.

I will give Ayn Rand one thing though: she can write an engaging novel. Sure, the writing was melodramatic at times, and the plot was mostly predictable, and the torture machine bit prompted a slap on the forehead (although I suppose that a dystopian novel based on a purely intellectual hell needs some physical threats too, to round things out a bit). But to all those liberals with sour grapes who instinctively avoid Rand just because of her political and economic views (and her conservative, libertarian followers), I say: Read the thing with not a grain of salt but a bag of it, and enjoy it along the way.