Tibet

It’s one of those countries that smacks of differentness. People think of Everest, of Shangri-La, of remote little villages and little wizened people climbing through the mountains. It is remote, and for that remoteness, pristine and beautiful. Even the real experience of being there heightens the idea of mystical experience – the air is thin enough to cause mountain sickness and hallucinations. Due to a renewal in the popularity of eastern religion, at times it is seen as a place more holy and special than others. It’s a land starkly contrasted between very arid scrubby lowlands and extreme elevations capped with unmelting snow.

My experience there was also one of extremes. I had both the best and worst bathroom experiences of my life there. I was constantly torn between admiration for the people and discomfort with what they believed. They are of stern convictions, but do not allow this to impede their happiness or friendliness. potala-palace-at-lhasa-2.jpgI saw little unrest, but I would assume such things would be hidden from foreigner eyes. But the excesses of Buddhist decoration, gifts, and ostentation are not things I admire of that religion, and I found many temples strangely disquieting. I had the most magical time at the Potala Palace, but that was from small things. I remember getting close enough to see that dyed sticks piercing the walls make up the dark red ribbons that top Potala’s buildings. I remember the songs of workers as they stamped and damped down the (mud?) roof of one building. I will try to find the video so I can put it up here.

With the 2008 Olympics and all the recent protesting that’s been going on, it’s not hard to see this extremism rising to the surface again. But its history is here more occluded. Though the protesters present themselves as simply wishing the return of their religious and spiritual head, they are not just advocates of freedom. Tibet was formerly theocratic, in particular at its heyday as a major stop on the Silk Road. But even in those days, power was torn between rival religious leaders, namely the Panchen and Dalai Lamas. Both leaders were extremely political, and the choice of new lamas was often contended. Fatalities were frequent, and intrigue, rife. The PRC changed all that through military force and the subsequent rules, proscriptions, abductions, and importation of Han Chinese people.

I don’t claim to know who is the rightful ruler of this land, or who would be the best one. I don’t know if claims of continued oppression and violence on the part of the Han Chinese are true. I don’t even know what the population statistics for each ethnic group now living there are. I do know that the situation is highly charged and highly political – implications are extensive, in particular for Taiwan. I know compromise between the Chinese government and the Tibetan government in exile is dying. I also know that, despite the history of extremism in the area, violence and suicide will not renew that compromise.

Consumption

Last nigh as a part of a little double date action, I took part in Boston’s 2008 ‘Restaurant Week’. I’ll get back to why I’m using quotes here shortly. Despite a really good time and way too much food, there were some issues. Two of the people in our little foursome tried out the prix fixe menu that is the whole point of restaurant week – three courses of showcase dishes for one low price. This allows those of us who are cheap to fancy up and go someplace nice, and gives the restaurants an influx of potential new customers. That’s great, and usually I’m a fan of it – I like food, especially trying new things. The problem comes when two of us didn’t like our dinners. I’m not naming names or pointing fingers when it comes to the restaurant – it could just be a matter of personal taste. And I suppose it’s good that we were an even split, with only one prix fixe main course dislike, and one from the regular full menu. So it wasn’t restaurant week that was the problem.

But it did get me going a bit, and got the ol’ brain juices flowing. Mike characterized his own decision to order from the main menu explains my shared feeling in part – if you’re going to spend that much money, better make sure it has full value. So he got a more expensive menu item with tons of pricey foods in it, and I got a prix fixe option which included the expensive appetizer my heart was set on. Still, was it really worth its value? Could we have gotten something equivalent for less someplace else? And is it morally questionable to eat someplace so snobbish, taking into account the economic, energy, and environmental costs of rarer foods?  IS there a more dastardly purpose behind the extension of “restaurant Week’ into two full weeks?

I didn’t really want to end with a question yet again, so I’ll leave you with this happy thought. Most times, I eat a little of my restaurant fare and take the rest home, always conserving. And though I did take my oyster crackers home, the rest of the three-course meal ended up in me or one of my dinner partners. I went home happy, if poorer, and nicely rotund. Yum.

Blog blog blog

I was drawn in online by the Observer‘s “The World’s 50 Most Powerful Blogs” today.  It’s a nice little list, if you have spare time and want a new load of fun things to read.  It seems I’ve recently been drawn more and more to the Observer‘s articles.  Usually I just hit up CNN for interesting stuff, but recently somehow the Observer‘s just caught my eye.  And I wonder, what do those crazy little islanders got that we don’t got?

There are, of course, superficial differences.  The Observer‘s website is clean, minimal, and sparse.  It uses thin lettering, just like its parent, the more serious Guardian.  It has a few ads that are small and relegated to the sidelines.  It uses bright colors (also like the Guardian to distinguish different topics and headings, which is a bit childish but also fun.  CNN takes itself more seriously.  Its colors – red, blue, and white, cause we’re American.  Its font is bolder, and sections are broken off into white boxes outline by the faint gray background.  There are more videos and podcasts, which I prefer less than actual written articles.  Ultimately it seems more cluttered to me, but that’s probably personal preference.

The thing that really strikes me between the two is the headings.  On CNN, the first row of headings (ostensibly the most important sections) are as follows: home, world, U.S., politics,  crime, entertainment, health, tech, travel, living, business, sports, and Time.  On the Observer: news, sport, comment, culture, business, money, life & style, travel, environment, blogs, jobs, and a-z.  Second row for CNN is all about ‘hot topics’, currently listing the sections of Spitzer, your money, Iraq, and election center.  Second row for the Observer is the sub-headings of the first row, which for news is UK, world, comment, sport, escape, review, magazine, business, cash, and woman.

What does this say about our respective values?  Does the US value world news over its own, unlike the UK?  Does the UK value culture and the environment while the US values technology and crime?   Does the UK value sports and business more than the US?  IS it significant that the Observer considers business, cash, and money as separate categories?

Your NEW shoes.

I was surprised to discover a nice little MIT article this morning about abalone shell and virus-made films that may be used for batteries, although a bit dissappointing.  One of the opening sentences, “Thanks to those sea snails [abalone] and a eureka moment, Angela Belcher, Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering, is developing smart nano-materials”, left me sure that the article would be about turning shell into battery. How amazing!

In reality, it’s about using viruses to make what we want them to make. True, this is still kinda amazing, but a little old-hat. It’s like manufacturing vs. handcrafted goods. I’m more fascinated with someone who comes up with an original way to glaze pottery, perhaps using some new plastics, than someone who builds a better porcelain machine. I want to see recombinations of old and new materials and techniques working together in a truly unique way. But that’s just me.

Despite my disappointment, the article still had several high points for me. First, a water-repellent battery film is pretty cool, even if it’s made using viruses, not shell. Second, I was pleased by Angela Belcher’s continued study of the abalone for new inspiration, as well as her humane treatment of even these low-form animals. Third, the whole thing inspired me to actually go find out how abalone produces its shell, and how that shell is both extremely rough on the outside and delicate and colorful on the inside. It turns out both the outer edge of the shell and the inside part, which are entirely different substances, is secreted by the mantle, which kinda surrounds the protruding foot of the animal. Also, the actual substance of the shell itself is so hard and impact-resistant because it’s made up of a series of chalky ‘brick’ units held together by an elastic protein acting as a mortar. When something hits the shell, the bricks caroom to the side, sliding and yet still held by the protein. Since the protein has a very high tensile strength and can be pulled out like a large spring, this allows the shell to stay intact both under a sudden force, or under sustained pressure (the rigid chalky parts acting strongly to resist compression).

The whole thing reminded me of the Super Mario movie (Which should have had a sequel, by the way. I’m still waiting patiently). The abalone protein is like the super-springy fungus, protecting the brothers at every turn. So while I doubt the advantages of rocket boots, I wonder what this combining of material types synthetically will now spawn. Heated winter boots that are solar cells on the outside to provide the heat? Sneakers that are alive enough to custom-model to your feet? ‘Duck boots’ with natural water-repellent oils?