Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cloud City - Beijing has really polluted air

My wife and I argue all the time about where to raise kids.  I think Asia or Europe would be fantastic, and she totally disagrees.  One of my really smart buddies, who lived as an expat in Asia for some time, shared with me his reasoning on raising a family in Asia.  He basically felt that you want to give your kids the best opportunity to grow and thrive, and with certain external factors being unacceptable, they may not have as much developmental success.  In short, water and air pollution can have terrible effects on a child's development.  he recently moved back to the United States after starting a family.  It definitely got me thinking, and while Zurich still sounds awesome, maybe Shanghai not so much.  It made me realize that if I do have kids, then we will not live in any of the Chinese mega-cities - especially not Beijing.  Whoa, look at the graph.

What this chart is saying, basically, is that the air quality in Beijing is considerably worse than in a smoking room in a U.S. airport.  Have you ever been in a smoking room?  They are top notch depressing and make you smell like an ashtray for hours.  Even when I smoked, I would usually pass on those dens of reekdom.  Picture a bar that still lets people smoke, multiply the stench by 50, industrialize any sort of ambiance into the core function of smoking, and add glass windows so that outsiders can quietly judge on their way to catch a flight for Orlando.  That IS a smoking lounge.  And, Beijing's air quality is worse than that.  This has massive health implications for pretty much every person in Beijing, from pregnant mothers to kids to the elderly.  How do you fix something like this?  Is it the systemic reality of growing too much too fast too soon?

The other effect of this pollution is these surreal pictures (below and after break), which the folks over at Kotaku likened to Cloud City:

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What Businessweek thinks about me

Businessweek did a write-up about me yesterday, and it was pretty flattering stuff (text below after break).  This kind of stuff always embarrasses me to some extent, but I am pleased to be featured and hope that I can continue to create interesting stories with my life.  In other news, my dog Lou looks longingly at Kristin out of the corner of his eyes as she cooks black bean burgers for dinner.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Shinjuku dreams

The clouds that hovered in Tokyo never seemed to lift, blanketing skyscrapers where Japanese corporate leaders once flew dangerously close to the sun.  Japan's culture pervades society in a way that encompasses even the most minute detail - even the reflections off of a damp pavement seem decidedly "Japanese."  It is a culture that owns its country, and a country that owns its culture.  Nowhere else is the visitor lead into the ephemeral quality of culture so obviously, and yet, when just mm away from understanding, it dissipates like a cool morning fog you can just barely smell.  That is Japan.

Now when I close my eyes, the lights of Shinjuku still linger like phantoms on the back of my eyelids.  So bright and yet to fade.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The world's most crowded islands

From an island microslum in Colombia to a haute enclave in central Paris, the ten most crowded islands in the world bear scant similarities in class or culture. In fact, every entry in the top ten comes from a different country. But being islands, each shares the common thread of scarcity - whether it be land, resources, or housing. In general, these islands are prophetical microcosms for an overcrowded earth - finite spaces where self sufficiency governs and demand pierces supply.

With the world's population racing higher and higher, and the "megacities club" accepting new members yearly, some day the earth could bear the traits of one of these densely packed islands.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The precipice on a rainy night in Sri Lanka

A storm approached the shoreline of Sri Lanka.  It was a dark and broody wall of grey that stirred up the winds, knocking around our window shutters at the Galle Face Hotel - an old colonial gem, seemingly built when time began.  Waiters raced around the courtyard below, making hurried arrangements with stiff arms and shouting in an unknown tongue.  There was a party later that evening, and the Sinhalese workers slowly built some sort of cover from the rain over a chessboard dance floor, however impermanent. Beyond the courtyard, Boardwalkers scampered to get to their destination in double time.  It seemed that everyone was bracing for an event - the storm.  We were too zoomed out to really notice.  Looking at the world from a google map view can make a storm seem insignificant.  From our perch, we could only see the future.  We had a long way home.

The time was June of 2011, we had just been married, and in front of us was business school, our first house as a couple, a move from Texas to Indiana, and whatever else the future may bring.  We had to find home.

Looking back, that rainy night feels like the last night of a different age, an age where I learned how to feel the earth under my feet, an age where I learned to shift slowly with the globe, an age where I dusted off all the failures and stupidity that had accumulated around me and realized - Hey, I am still here, and now, I plan to do something about it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Swiss countryside

Cities are humanity.  They are where we grab great dinners, check out storied art, meet other "cool" people, and stroll around while connecting dots and curiously peering in windows.  When "we" travel, especially in Europe, it seems the city is the institution that we visit.  Sure, the countryside races by on rolling train rides between Europe's great centers, but it is the city that grabs the traveler.  Paris, Barcelona, London, Prague - the city is the reward and destination, the places we write home about.  But to know the whole story of any country, one must read passed the opening chapter.  One must travel beyond the city walls.

The edge of the city does not announce itself, and through years of travel, I have grown appreciative of the subtleties of reaching open space, which is both dramatic in relativism and quiet in introduction.  After days of bathing in humanity and the shuffle of urban life, I find myself looking longingly at maps for quaint places that I have never heard of, picturing peace, simplicity, and adventure.  Rivers look curious, lakes have a sort of splendid solidarity, and national parks invite the traveler with a promise of wild edges and marooned corners of ecological decadence too wild to birth civilization.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The world's creepiest abandoned cities

I wrote this piece right before Kristin and I married, almost 2 years ago.  Over a million people read it, and I just noticed that I never published it on goboogo.  So, here it is.  Here is the original run.

Some cities die. The people leave, the streets go quiet, and the isolation takes on the macabre shape of a forlorn ghost-town - crumbling with haunting neglect and urban decay. From Taiwan to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, these abandoned cities lurk in the shadows of civilization. Their histories are carried in hushed whispers and futures stillborn from the day of their collapse. Some have fallen victim to catastrophe while others simply outlive their function. I think we can all agree on one thing - they are all very creepy.

abandoned cities

Location: Pripyat, Ukraine - 100km from Kiev
Story: On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl reactor began its tragic meltdown. The incident was a huge blow to the viability of the nuclear energy platform, and still today, the town of Pripyat is an abandoned shell of a city frozen in a 1980's Soviet time-warp. While the failed reactor has been entombed in a an appropriate sounding casing called a "sarcophagus," the area remains unsafe for human life. The town has thrived in one aspect though. Wildlife has returned to the area in droves. Wolves silently hunt among the towering apartment buildings, and boars forage for food in the abandoned amusement park - which strangely opened the day after the reactor explosion in the midst of evacuation.
Abandoned since: 1986

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Tokyo Kawaii - Overdosing on cute in the heart of Japan

Kristin and I jumped over to Tokyo for a few nights last summer.  While there, we had a great time, checking out a bunch of amazing stuff.  Tokyo immediately vaulted towards the top of our list of favorite cities.  I took thousands of pictures, but some of my favorites are from the cute, or kawaii, side of Tokyo.

We prowled the shopping district of Ginza, bathing our eyes in untouchable Hermes bags, eating delicious baked sweets, and racing into toy stores to buy stuffed capybaras and to gawk at the multiverse of cute shoehorned into every floor.  We hit the apex of cute at Hakuhinkan Toy Park and just sort of rode the tide all the way back to the Haneda airport, where we departed, better for having visited Tokyo.

You start seeing things and it just seems normal.  "Of course," you think, why wouldn't Elmo be sitting at a table inside a bank seemingly in the middle of a conversation about CDs?  Why wouldn't the emergency exit explanation in the subway include an exit diagram with dinosaurs and other interesting trappings?  Japan seems to stamp some badge of character onto anything, and it is refreshing, and usually pretty damn cute. 

Enjoy the pictures.

The ten oldest bars and restaurants in the world

I once drank at a pub in Ireland where Vikings had commiserated after invading the Green Isle.  It was older than you or I, our great grandparents, or even the Magna Carta.  It was from the dark ages for sure, and where once Vikings swilled brews, today, tourists eat fish and chips while locals complain about Eurozone politics.  If you look closely enough and kind of squint at the Brazen Head, you can just barely picture middle ages Dublin.  You can almost smell the smoke.  If those walls could talk, they would tell the tale of mankind's ascent into a sophisticated society, for better and worse.  I wondered while I sat at the bar scribbling into my little notebook, how many other really old places are out there?

It is rare for a restaurant or bar to last a very long time - where a long time is determined with a measuring stick notched in decades.  The public houses, inns, and restaurants on this list evade conventional measurement, lasting centuries atop centuries.  These are places where arguments took place about the events we only read about in history class.  The oldest companies in the world are Japanese, but every spot on this list is European.  The Germanic people, it seems, are especially adept at building things that last a very long time. They dominate this list.

Monday, January 7, 2013

All travel is just beyond the edge

When we were young, we would explore the edges of our suburban sprawl.  We would take our bikes through neighborhoods passed gas stations and soccer fields and gargantuan power lines pumping a modern lifestyle into thousands of mcmansions, lined up like fractals from the sky.  We would ride as far as our fears would allow, conjuring myths about abandoned houses and devil worshipers, about high schoolers and coyotes.  We would push into seemingly fantastic realms, into fields untouched by development, where the fractals did not reach.  We would explore the edges, because the edges were there.