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Duke Study in China (Summer 2009)

Econ/Finance (Fall 2009 - Fall 2010)

Europe (Winter 2010 - Spring 2011)

 

Reflection (6/26/2011)

It's been ~ 2 months since I've returned, and (predictably), the question I get the most is something along the lines of "How was it?" It's impossible to comprehensively answer in the context that it was asked (i.e. small talk) so I just use some very general positive adjective in my answer, and answer: "It was amazing." or "It was incredible." If I'm feeling ambitious, I'll add on a second sentence that broadly addresses the impact it had on me, with something like "It changed the way I looked at a lot of things, e.g. in the future I think I'll be more sympathetic towards welfare systems." The second question I get is "What was your favorite country?" to which I reply: "Besides China, Germany, because the people are really friendly, Berlin is awesome, and the beer is amazing." To be honest, the decision to elevate Germany as my "favorite European country" was made more on a gut feeling I had, and not any reasoned analysis. Even though no one really cares about the answer, I still feel that I'm disrespecting history to paint these countries with broad swathes, summarizing them in three sentences or less and judging the entire experience based on something as random as the wifi connection that my Hostel had. Anyways, my point is that all I've said about my trip has felt, at best, incomplete. My hope is that this reflection will be more satisfactory.

To recap (Bible style): I went to London, then Frankfurt, then Berlin, then Munich, then Berlin, then Madrid, then Lisbon, then Rome, then Madrid, then Paris, then Frankfurt, then Beijing, then back home.

My main take-aways had to do with the European way of life, which seems slower, more relaxed, and with a bigger focus on 'working to live' instead of 'living to work'. People generally seemed to not really care so much about train times (except in Germany where they have a near fetishistic desire for punctuality)/etc; deadlines seemed more fluid, and working class people generally seemed happier than those in America. This is all obviously largely influenced by Europe embracing socialism and a much more robust welfare system and healthcare system than that in the US.

The laid back/more carefree attitude isn't all good, though. I found generally that services in America are rendered a lot faster; in Europe people are more content to wait around, and if an employee really sucks at his job you probably can't fire him anyways. The result is slower service. Also, generally people seemed less ambitious (not making a value judgement on this), but that could be explained in large part just due to contentment and overall life satisfaction as a result of socialism. However, this is where I first realized the meaning of the phrase "American optimism." John Steinbeck famously said: "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." Its also exemplified by this awesomely american song. Most of my friends, as well as myself, are pretty ambitious (though growing up in Bethesda and going to Duke probably has an effect on this...), but I got the sense that Europeans seemed more content with their lot in life and, as I mentioned earlier, "work to live." Another cool thing about America, that is related to this, is that a lot of Europeans view America as "the country where anyone can be rich/successful." Generally I heard this in the context emphasizing our more ridiculous success stories, like Ke$ha, but it holds equally true for Oprah, Sergei Brin, and Obama; there's more economic and social mobility in the states, and people generally have the desire to move upwards in both, whereas I found more complacency in Europe. Another interesting point is the entrepreneurial culture in America is a lot stronger; I read somewhere that something like 30%+ (okay baseless statistic that was made up on the spot, but it was surprisingly high) of Americans would like to start their own company one day. Whether they actually do it is another thing, but the high percentage is important in itself. To be straight forward, at this point in my life I feel that while Europe is a great place to take a vacation, it's not as dynamic as America and I wouldn't want to live there for an extended period of time.

I also noticed that Europeans tend to be more culturally elitist. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they're xenophobic, it's just that there's a non-nebulous notion of what it means to be "German" or "French" or "Spanish." I think part of the reason behind this is in part the rich culture/complex interconnected histories of European countries, as well as just the fact that everyone pretty much looks the same and you need some way to differentiate yourselves. The result of this is that I feel that if I moved to a European country, I feel like I would never truly feel like I belong to the country. This certainly exists in the midwest/south of America, but I would argue not nearly to same extent in America's cities which are generally ethnically/culturally diverse. America is built by and for immigrants; Europe, not so much. Again, I'm not positing that Europeans are xenophobic; just that the analogous notions to what it means to be a "true American" in the South/Midwest is pervasively held much more widely throughout different European countries. It's a pretty minor issue, but something that would bother me if I were to live there.

So that's my summary/reflection of my current thoughts about Europe, drawn from what I gathered during my four month vacation there: beautiful cities, relaxed/content/generally happier people who by and large have more progressive/liberal social and fiscal values, but more culturally exclusivist and less dynamic than America, and though I wouldn't mind living there (or any first world country, honestly), I prefer the States.

 

 

Rest of the blog:

Intro

Hi! This is the blog I'll be maintaining during my time in Europe and China. I'll be organizing it by country, instead of chronology, because a) I don't want to update it daily (I also don't have the pretence of expecting to have noteworthy things to say all day, every day), and b) that's also how I'm framing the trip more broadly- as a country-to-country exposure to the cultures and lifestyles of different Western European countries.

It's important to note that I'm not coming to Europe as an "omg-America-is-so-corporate-and-cultureless" type; I support the US and most of the ideals that it represents (free market capitalism, etc), and my econ degree, if nothing else, has inculcated within me a healthy skepticism of European socialism. I acknowledge that this is somewhat parochial, so my goal is to be as open-minded as possible and come back with a world view that has been altered by my time here.

Most of all though, I just want to eat well, drink well, "see the sights," hang out with friends and enjoy myself.

 

Germany

 

First a note on how I'll be rating the food. It's completely subjective, so this is how German food (and English/French/Spanish/etc) food compares to American food. And not only American food, but American food that I'm familiar with, so I'll be trying to compare apples to apples. I'm not an expert on fine dining in America, so my point of comparison will be Chipotle, which will be set to a 5/10. I'm also going to assume that the quality of cuisine in the world is normally distributed, and I'll arbitrarily set the standard deviation of that to 2.5. So a rating of 7.5/10 would not mean 75% or a C or mediocre, it would mean one standard deviation better than Chipotle, which is pretty damn good, because Chipotle is ambrosia wrapped in a flimsy tortilla shell (side note -Krishnan introduced me to the idea of pouring Vinagrette INSIDE the burrito before it's wrapped: TRY IT.) As per a normal distribution, roughly 5% of the time a restaurant would fall outside of the 0-10 range, so it would be possible to have an 11/10, -15/10, 20/10, but I'll just be rounding those down (or up) to 10 (or 0).

 

food rating bell curve

Food: 6.25/10

Okay, the food here can be divided into two categories -- meat & vegetables. Under the meat category, Germany wins big, especially when it comes to Bratwurst. See below for confirmation:

[ i'll upload a pic of this delicious cheesy sausage meal here ]

There's melted cheese INSIDE the sausage. How's that for German engineering?

However, one crucial area where Germany falls short though is in the vegetables. I generally try avoid things that weren't at one time breathing and moving around, but I read somewhere that you need to eat green things to give you minerals, so, alas, I have no choice. I feel like the only vegetables they grow in Germany are cucumbers and tomatoes. In America, I only begrudgingly eat tomatoes in burgers, and cucumbers are the most useless vegetable apart from lettuce. I never thought I'd lust after brocolli, but after three weeks of tomatoes and cucumbers, a dish of brocolli and corn and peas sounds as tasty as a sausage McGriddle at 5am (divine).

 

 

beer bell curve

Beer: 8/10

Okay, cliche, but the beer here is awesome. I think the biggest difference is actually in the 'lower-end' of German beer, which is roughly equivalent to the middle-upper of American beer. It's as if America has a sub-basement floor for alcohol that simply doesn't exist here because it wouldn't be tolerated, and, as a result, everything ends up being better. I think that this has to do with corporate responsibility -- where American beer companies ask "can we?" I think German beer companies, imbued with some sense of nationalism, ask "should we?" As a result, Natty Light was born to fill the college-fueled demand for "cheap and alcoholic and technically beer." That demographic that looks at Krogers' "price per oz" of beer to find the lowest (Miller 40s is the clear winner...)? Their need was sated in America, which is awesomely capitalist, but not in Germany, which apparently decided against selling lukewarm urine in an oversized bottle. Elitist? Maybe.

The second cool thing about Germany is just the pub culture in general. Cocktails and shots in general seem a lot rarer, and more people go to bars to just relax and drink good beer/wine. It's less this, and more, well, the opposite of that.

"No Hope, No Cash" 12.21.2010

The first thing I noticed since getting here is that people don't typically use "guten tag" (they say hello - 'hallo', actually) as a greeting, which is unfortunate because it was the only German word I knew coming in. In the last few days however, I've learned a decent amount of German just by being here. My next observation with Germany has to do with its public transportation system -it has casued me to wait in several multi-hour lines so I feel European already. To be fair, I think that the lines were more just a function of my decision to travel in Europe during Christmas season. The line to drop bags off in Heathrow and Frankfurt International were 2.5h long, and that morning in Heathrow I saw more people in one area that I've ever seen (outside of China, where I see that every time I turn the corner). The public transportation infrastructure itself, however, is pretty spectacular, but not as good as Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong; it's still better than in America, but good public infrastucture is to be expected when everyone's surrendering over half of their earnings to Herr Onkel Säm.

Anyways, the day I arrived, I managed to take to the German railway to a satellite branch of the Frankfurt station (the name escapes me), and waited for my friend to pick me up. It was really late at night, and I had about an hour to kill before being picked up. The tiny rail-station was completely deserted and silent, except for the sound of muffled German coming from behind two wooden doors on the side of the hallway. I walked through, and behold -- a bar! I said 'hallo' to the bartender, sat down, and asked for a beer (kann ich ein Bier?). The only other people at the bar, a geriatric couple who both looked sort of like plump and seasoned bratwurst, took an interest to me because of my brown skin and abysmal German. They asked me where I was from, and I said "America -- Washington DC," and their eyes lit up. The old guy said "Oh! Near Obama's house!" He sipped his beer, thought for a moment, and said "I like America - it has Obama and Johnny Cash." He asked me if I knew who this German was (whose name I forgot), I said I didn't, he then asked me another name and I didn't know again and then asked me if I knew any famous Germans. I didn't want to drop either of the H-bombs (Hitler, though I think he was Austrian actually, or Hasselhoff) so I said Angela Merkel. Then he asked if I knew who "Gutenberg" was; I have a feeling he wasn't referring to the Gutenberg Bible Gutenberg but I wanted him to get to his point so I just said yes, whereupon he proudly (and a bit drunkenly) yelled out "America has Obama and Johny Cash: Hope and Cash! Germany has Merkel and Gutenberg: no hope, no cash!" and started laughing loudly.

I'm fairly sure this was just a lame joke and not something that could be interpreted as some sign of national malaise in Germany, but growing up and living in mostly liberal hubs in America where most people seem to focus on what's wrong with America (there is a lot) and fetishize Europe, it was refreshing to see some of the "grass-is-greener" counterparts to that in Germany. Germany is by no means a poor country; it has the world's 4th largest GDP and is the economic growth engine for the entire Eurozone. However, the national mood in America seems so despondent all of the time, with everyone focusing on the 'gate-rape' TSA scanners, the existence of Sarah Palin, the national debt (though other countries are still buying Treasuries at like 2.5%), the fact that the Tea Party movement actually has political clout, the meteroric rise of China, and the unemployment rate, that it's easy to lose focus on the fact that the USA is still viewed as an economic and cultural leader of the world. It's even more obvious now, living in another country, of the massive reach that America has. All of the major companies that are on the cutting edge of changing the way that people live and communicate with one another -- Google, Apple, Facebook -- are American. Also, the majority of the TV shows and movies that people watch abroad are also American. I was watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother in the common room, and someone came up to me and said that they watch that show all of the time in German; NYC is still idealized and globally disseminated culturally as it was in the 90s with Seinfeld/Friends and in the early 00s with Sex and the City (not endorsing any of these shows, except Seinfeld which is amazing). I realize that this isn't exactly a profound realization, but it's something that I haven't really thought about much in the US because I guess it's hard not to get at least a little bit caught in the national panic and hysteria that you get from the media that makes it seem like next week we'll all be speaking Mandarin, Islam will be banned, Sarah Palin will be president, public enemas will be mandatory before boarding planes, and the dollar will be pegged to the yuan. That might be coming, but the sky isn't falling quite yet.

----

Heidelberg Castle, McDonalds (12.29.2010)

I've been staying in a dorm room in Frankfurt and there's still about 2 feet of snow out, but I've still managed to see a decent amount of the city so far - that's mostly because there isn't too much to see here. Frankfurt is more of a financial capital rather than a cultural one. However, one day I took the train 1.5h (with my gracious friend who has finals - sorry about that) to Heidelberg to see a Castle! I've seen some forts in America (actually that's a lie, I don't think I've seen any forts. I went to Williamsburg in 5th grade though), and some old temples in China, but seeing a legit castle is more exciting because it engenders thoughts of trebuchets, ballistas, knights and archers (and, yes, orcs and Monty Python). This is much better than Williamsburg, which makes you think about the Amish, which are as exhilarating as lukewarm potatoes, and an old temple, the hallowed ground upon which people for centuries have sat down and thought really hard to themselves. This was actually just some rich guy's house, but that doesn't really matter because I don't know much about German history anyways, so the experience was worthwhile more just for "seeing a castle" rather than experiencing German history. After returning, I felt a scholarly duty to find out the actual history of the place I just visited, so I went on wikipedia and, nope, it's not that interesting: it was built in the 1214 AD, and existed during several wars, but never really directly engaged with or was involved in any part of German history - the castle eventually just started decaying and then it was turned into a tourist trap because it was really old. It's more engaging to me as the abstract idea of a "castle" rather than as "Heidelberg Castle: piece of German history."

heidelberg castle

On a completely unrelated note, I've now been to McDonalds in the US, Canada, Germany, China, Sri Lanka, Britain, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Ranking -

1. China: Delivery. This trumps everything else. Also, the delivery men wear these bright red McDonalds helmets - that's shame spelled with a capital M, but so convenient. Imagine the glorious hedonism of having 20 piece nuggets delivered to your door by a man in a red helmet.

2. Taiwan: Not sure if there's delivery or not, but it has the DOUBLE big mac, an inspired bit of masochism. Also, I was in Taiwan two years ago wandering around late at night from my hotel looking for a snack, and I chanced into some Duke kids at a Taiwanese McDonalds who I had never met before but now know pretty well. That story is completely irrelevent to the quality of Taiwanese McDonalds, but the shout out to Herng is to make up for ranking China ahead of Taiwan.

3. Germany: No delivery. Lacking many menu options. More expensive. But it makes up for all of this by serving beer. Also, the flavored mayo that they give out with fries is actually pretty delicious (I know, it sounds disgusting).

4. US: Classic. Has all the favorites.

5. Canada: Like the US, but a little bit lamer. This is standard.

6. Sri Lanka - objectively, slightly worse than in the US in every way. Also, I might be wrong but they might not serve beef burgers. However, it gets major bonus points for being one of the only buildings with air conditioning in a country that can get really humid and really hot.

7. Hong Kong: I don't really remember much about the McDz in Hong Kong (because I ate there after LKF) but I remember not being very impressed. Unfair, I know.

8. Britain - Expensive, uninspired. Still decent though, because the golden arches are a global brand.

 

Seltzer, Club, and Tonic (1.2.2011)

My hangover cure is pretty simple - water, darkness, and soothing sounds. At Duke, when I'm not feeling lazy, I also sometimes throw in the tomato bisque at the Loop, but it's not essential. For water, I settle for tap, or, if blessed with it, water from a fountain or Pur filter. For darkness, I nestle my head under the cold side of my pillow. Finally, for soothing sounds, that's probably some Radiohead or Oasis or Pink Floyd song played on loop - or, just silence, where the void is instead filled by the blunt, incessant beats of agony emanating from my temples and reverberating inside my skull like a shrapnel grenade going off in a glass museum.

Anyways, this is immediately relevant because two major events took place during the past four days: I turned 22, and the calendar turned 2011. I've been in need of water, and because of this need, what I at first brushed off as a harmless European quirk quickly became devastating and malicious.

Germans love seltzer water. Actually, maybe it's all Europeans as I haven't been to Italy, Spain, France, etc yet, but in America if you go into a restaurant and ask for some water, they give you tap water; in Germany, they give you seltzer water. When I first noticed this, it made sense: carbonated water strikes me as very German - it's bold, aggressive, dominating. When you drink uncarbonated water, it's refreshing. The water settles in your mouth - it's inert and it passively cools you down, then you swallow and the water placidly slides into your stomach. With seltzer water, a legion of bubbles attacks every bit of cheek, gum, or taste bud in your mouth. The only decision you make after sipping seltzer water is how long you wait to send the carbonated torture from the anteroom of your mouth to your throat, where it can ravage your esophagus. Maybe I just hate seltzer water, whatever. With soda and beer, carbonation adds texture; however, water is flavorless, which completely changes the texturing dynamic. I mean I can see how one could enjoy it on special occasions, but to see it as a wholesale replacement of normal water is ridiculous. Another thought that occured to me was that maybe the ubiquity of seltzer water is driven by a water sanitation deficiency and maybe tap water is unsafe to drink here. However, that doesn't make sense because this is Germany, not the Congo- I'm sure Deutschland's water sanitation is as good as if not better than ours, and that also wouldn't explain why bottled seltzer water is given instead of bottled purified water.

carbonated water

Regardless, the prevalence of seltzer water became significant over the last few days when I ate at the dorm cafeteria and breakfast places with a pretty bad hangover, got a large bottle of water to go with my meal, and was very rudely surprised to find out I got seltzer water (mid-chug). Drinking carbonated water to cure a hangover is like carving through your own viscera with a scalpel to find the key that releases you from one of Jigsaw's games before the bomb explodes: you need to do it, but you just might kill yourself in the process. It's pretty easy to fix, you just ask for " wasser mit kohlensaure nicht " or water "without gas," but man those first unsuspecting gulps of carbonated water really sucked. Some people actually advocate drinking Alka Seltzer/water to cure a hangover, and who knows maybe that actually does work for some people, but it definitely doesn't work for me.

As I thought about hating carbonated water, I realized that I didn't really know the difference between seltzer water, club soda, and tonic. I had always used the three more or less interchangably for my entire life. It had been one of those fairly insignificant confusions that I had never really bothered to clarify, like how to pronounce Cannes in the Cannes Film Festival (turns out it's 'can' - the 'can' film festival; I had always thought it was the "cans" or "khan" film festival). Anyways, it turns out that club soda and seltzer water are identical - water with carbonation and nothing else. "Seltzer" is actually from the German town Selters, which became famous for bottling and manufacturing carbonated water - the term "seltzer water" became popular in the 1950s in the US and Canada. Tonic is different from club soda/seltzer water because it has quinine in it, which is a chemical initially used as a prophylactic against malaria (hence 'tonic' water). Tonic used to have a lot of quinine in it, and was used mostly in Africa and SouthEast Asia to help prevent malaria. Now, quinine is added in much smaller quantities (or just quinine flavoring is added) for its bitter taste, and tonic is used mostly for making gin & tonics.

Little Differences (1.11.2011)

As Vincent Vega said in Pulp Fiction, with Europe, it's all about the little differences. In that spirit, here are a couple of scattered observations. As a side note, Germany is awesome. I'm in Berlin currently and will be here until late January; then it's off to Spain.

1) When they answer their phones they start just by saying their last name. Not "Hi." I feel like I'm in an episode of 24.

2) Standing in contrast to #1, Germans are some of the most polite people I've ever met. Even more polite than Canadians. Every time anyone passes anyone else, both parties say "Hi" or "Guten tag" to one another. That includes crowded hallways with several people in them. Efficiency and politeness are at least a bit in conflict with one another, so I find this strange.

3) The Seltzer water thing

4) Elevators here have their "steady state" or whatever set to the ground floor. So if you call an elevator on the 4th floor, and dont get in, the elevator automatically resets and goes back to the ground floor with no one touching it. I'm pretty sure that's not how our elevators work in America.

5) Even though the country is known for its beer, everyone drinks wine all of the time. Even though this isn't saying much, I've probably had more wine in the last three weeks than I've had in the last three years. I've begun to appreciate it more (also watching the movie Sideways helped), and though this sounds weird, there's something very alluring about it aesthetically.

6) Germans listen to our pop music all the time. China has its own music -- why doesn't Germany? I mean, besides Rammstein. I mean, I guess more people in Germany understand English than Chinese people so it's more easily transferable, but I've also encountered a lot of Germans who don't know any. In America, when I hear Firefly or Raise Your Glass on the radio it's fairly upsetting (okay, I admit, not Firefly, that song is catchy), but hearing it on the radio in Germany instills an odd sense of patriotism in me. In America, the sense is like "oh, well we made this crap and it's popular and of course it's on the radio." but hearing that same stuff in Germany made me think "hah, it might be crappy music but you guys are stuck listening to our crappy music." There's also something funny about "Damn you's a sexy bitch." being repeated over and over again at a coffee shop where I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who really understands what he's saying. That's not to say Germans can't make good (or bad) music - one of my favorite albums, recommended to me by my friend James, is Neon Golden by a German indie band called the Notwist. Check some of the songs out, they're amazing: Pick Up The Phone, Consequence, Trashing Days

7) The level of nationalism among different European countries is pretty funny. I guess America's relative isolation and the lack of real competition with Mexico and Canada (sorry Mexico, Canada), has taken this out of America. But it's not uncommon to hear a father tell his son "Keep your back straight like a German. Don't slouch like a Spaniard" or various put-downs against the French or British. I think soccer also has something to do with this. Also, if you want to make a German angry, ask them how they feel about the euro crisis and the Greeks.

Thinking about different nationalities and also Duke about to start the 2nd semester reminded me of a profound moment I had at Duke while eating with my friends in a diner (well, as profound a moment as one can have while waiting for fried chicken and sweet tea). I was sitting with my friends Pat, Wei, Pauline, Daniel, and Jason, and we were waiting for our food to come. Randomly, this old lady in a booth next to us turns around and starts talking to us, asking if we all go to Duke. We said yes, then she asked "Are you all from North Carolina?" We said no - then told her that I'm from Maryland, Pat is from Boston, Wei and Pauline and Daniel are from Singapore, and Jason is from Hong Kong. She didn't really react, but I saw a look of shock in her eyes for a fraction of a second; then she continued with the conversation. I thought about that look in her eyes during dinner; our meal obviously didn't feel particularly special as we've all eaten together plenty of times before and we're all friends. But looking at things from an outside perspective -you have 6 people who all live between 300 and 9000 miles away from North Carolina all sitting together in some random diner very casually. It felt very normal and it's one of those things that you end up taking for granted but it's also pretty unusual and special. That was one of my favorite parts of college (meeting people from all over the world) and is something I'm looking forward to in New York City.

Carnivale & German Self-hate (1.17.2011)

I will, unfortunately, be missing German Carnival, which happens next month. Like its more famous Brazilian cousin, it consists of five days of debauchery and people wearing costumes. It's sort of like an awesome, five day, adult Halloween, without any of the depressing blandness of candy corn. It's called Fastnacht in German, and starts on a Thursday with what was crudely translated into English for me by my German friend as "crazy womans Thursday," where women of all ages basically drink the entire day and dress up.

I saw some signs for it in the CBD in Berlin. Also, I was in a large convenience store buying toothpaste (the name escapes me at the moment, but it sounded very German), and I got into a conversation with a random guy named Thomas with a hilarious mustache and leather jacket who identified me as an American because of how I dressed, sigh. Anyways, I had just been on the autobahn, so I mentioned how awesome it was, and then he started talking about how powerful the German Auto industry is, and then somehow segued into how the rest of the world will never really give Germany the respect it deserves because of the Nazis and WW2. I was pretty shocked, because as you can imagine, discussing the Nazis with a German isn't the most comfortable thing. But it wasn't the first time it's happened, and this sort of self-hate and defensiveness I guess isn't surprising given the amount of scarring on your national identity that something like WW2 and the Holocaust would have. At the same time, no country is without its national embarrassments (the Native American genocide, Japanese internment, GW Bush), and Germany seems to be one of the more successful countries as of late: they did extremely well during the financial crisis, didn't really have a housing down turn, have a pretty awesome healthcare system, and the biggest new story right now is about how their defense minister plagiarized his PhD thesis - my friend Martin basically summed it up with, we don't have enough problems in Germany so we worry about this stupid shit. Anyways, I was expecting to have to defend myself for being an American, which I was more than ready to do, and it caught me off guard to see Germans hating on themselves. It was fairly refreshing actually, because I've lived my whole life in liberal hubs like Bethesda and Duke and during the Bush years, so I've actually never really experienced a first hand account of someone talking about Europe as anything but Disneyworld, and America as anything but a declining power being overrun with obese bible-thumping mouth breathers; it's too bad I had to experience that in Europe and not America. I'd be lying to say I didn't experience a bit of schadenfreude.

P.S. Awesome quote by Merkel to in response to Tony Blair praising Germany for being a small country, yet (then) being the largest exporter in the world: "We still make things in this country, Mr. Blair." lololo finance ftw

Spain

Food: 4/10

Meh, I'm honestly not that big of a fan of Spanish food in general. It's like Mexican food, but without all of the stuff that makes Mexican food awesome (i.e., grease). I also have what may be an Asian bias, in that if I have rice on my plate I'd much rather it be complemented with Chinese or Indian or Japanese food.

Beer: 3/10

The beer itself is fairly mediocre -- San Miguel is pretty bad. I'd take Blue Moon or Sam Adams over it any day. Spanish WINE, on the other hand, is pretty awesome. I'm still very new to wine and don't really know anything about it, but EVERYONE in Europe drinks it constantly, especially the Spanish. I learned more about wine while in Europe, but not too much; enough to appreciate it and not look like an idiot**, but not enough to confidently douche it up at a good restaurant. Spanish drinking culture on the other hand, is pretty awesome and very relaxed -- there are these really laid back bars/lounges where people chill, drink, play guitar, and smoke cigarettes (another pretty common thing here). Smoking cigarettes is even more retarded for me because of my asthma, but I have to say they looked like they were living the life.

** = not without exception, I ordered some chianti, pronouncing it chee-an-tee (and not kee-an-ti). To be fair, the only time I had heard of the wine before was at the end of Silence of the Lambs, so I was trying to remember how Hannibal Lecter said it but apparently remembered incorrectly.

Ozymandias! (2.13.2011)

My first few days in Spain went sort of like this:

 

because I have to stay in a hotel for a few days because my friend's girlfriend is visiting him. I'm in a fairly nice hotel in the meantime. So I'm going solo in Madrid for the time being, but it is nice to have a nice room and bed all to myself. Anyways, I've been making the most of it, having seen Museo Nacional Del Prado, a historic fine art museum that has one of the biggest art collections in all of Europe. I've never taken an art history class, so I probably didn't get as much out of it as possible. It's pretty unfortunate, because I think that context is half of appreciating art. For example, if Rihanna made "Whip My Hair," it would be derivative and terrible; however, it was made by 10 year-old Willow Smith, which makes it instantly amazing. A less embarrasing example would be how Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton meant a lot more to me after I realized that it was written about the death of his four year-old son. So I had to enjoy the art at El Prado at face value, without any context. That being said, it was pretty awesome. It's easy to enjoy the art at El Prado because it's not modern art. A lot of the paintings by Velazquez and Rembrant etc are just really dark and creepy and highly detailed (if you haven't noticed I don't know how to talk about art). Anyways, a lot of it is cool:

This is the most famous painting in the museum and the one with the biggest crowd around it. The description under it mentioned something about the "complex and enigmatic composition raising questions about reality and illusion." I didn't have any existential crises while looking at it, but I'll give Velazquez the benefit of the doubt. I also don't want to be a dull sledgehammer and try to beat the beauty out of art by demanding an explanation, because that would be pretty hypocritical of me, as someone who sees Thom Yorke's distorted, crooning voice over dissonant synths as the most gorgeous sound on the planet.

Also, the beer in Spain isn't as good as in Germany. If you're afraid that I'll return a beer snob, don't worry because after a month in China drinking Qingtao and Baijiu that tastes like jetfuel, my taste buds will again be duller than a paint huffing lobotomy patient.

Luckily, after I make a quick trip to Portugal, I'll get to be social and see a BULLFIGHT, which I'm looking forward to a lot; Bullfighting season starts in late February and goes until October. Although I heard somewhere that Bullfighting is being shut down because of claims of animal cruelty. I don't have a concrete opinion on the matter, but it still would be really cool to see. Another reason I want to see a Bullfight etc is because one of the reasons I'm seeing so many countries so quickly and at a relatively superficial level (except Germany and China), is because I want to be really touristy and do all of the "you need to do this in XYZ" country, so that when I come back in the future I enter with some level of familiarity and spend more time on the more fun part of travel, which is generally found away from tourist traps. This logic is sounding less sound now that I type it up, but I'm also someone who forced himself to watch Citizen Kane because it's supposed to be a classic (SO BORING, blasphemous - I know), and endured all 500 or so pages of 100 Years of Solitude, despite starting to hate it on page 20 (I really really really hate that book), because so many people have told me that it's "the best book ever" and it "changed their lives."

A more personal insight that I've gained while living in the relative luxury of a three and a half star hotel compared with my ersatz bed in Germany is that I really just need friends, a place to sleep, and a computer to be happy. I'm pretty much on my own so far in Madrid, and, as a result, Germany has been a much better experience, despite the fact that I'm living in a hotel like a B-list celebrity (like, say, NPH) right now. This was also made clear to me last semester, as I was perfectly content with sleeping for 4 months in a sleeping bag in a mostly barren room. This is a good thing because, given the ridiculous Manhattan housing market, my apartment in NYC will likely make Abu Ghraib seem like a pretty decent place to live. Reflecting on this reminded me of two things: one, a quote; the other, an old poem; both about the meaninglessness of materialism. They both sort of have the same effect as looking up at the sky when it's dark - that deep feeling of insignificance at a cosmic level that begets serenity because every problem looked at far enough away becomes meaningless; that is, to feel like the Dragon in Grendel - "No wind. No light. Nothing stirring, not even an ant, a spider. A silent universe. Such is the end of the flicker of time, the brief hot fuse of events and ideas set off, accidentally, and snuffed out, accidentally, by man. Not a real ending of course, nor even a beginning. Mere ripple in Time's stream." It might seem dark but I think it really just helps keep things in perspective.

Here's the first, a sonnet called Ozymandias by Percy Shelly (1818):

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stampted on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away"

 

Here's the second, a quote from Rabbah Ecclesiastes (5:14):

"A baby enters the world with hands clenched,

as if to say, "The world is mine; I shall grab it."

A man leaves with hands open,

as if to say, "I can take nothing with me."

 

The King of Limbs (2.17.2011)

UPDATE 2.22.2011

Well, I'm glad I waited a while before reviewing this album. In the past (excluding Pablo Honey), Radiohead has had two types of albums: consummate masterpieces like OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows, which are near perfect except for maybe one song (Electioneering, In Limbo, and Faust Arp, respectively); and very good albums like The Bends, Hail to the Thief, and Amnesiac, which are marred by mediocre or even terrible songs but are more than redeemed by amazing songs that are as good as anything on OKC, KA, or IR.

Unfortunately, I think that with The King of Limbs, Radiohead made an album that is as cold and distant as Kid A, but not nearly as interesting musically; like Thom Yorke's solo effort, The Eraser, it sounds like that the rest of the band has been marginalized. In Rainbows is my favorite Radiohead album because it sounds like, for the first time, they're extremely comfortable with themselves and made music that is not only warm, but even a little bit happy. Instead of continuing in this vein, they closed up in TKOL behind the warbling electronic blips and drum machines and strangled nearly everything that might be mistaken for a melody.

It's not terrible - Little By Little, Lotus Flower, and Give Up The Ghost are excellent. Codex is decent as well. TKOL just isn't at the level of any of Radiohead's other albums. However, that's fine; Radiohead wouldn't be Radiohead if they released two albums that sounded similar, which is why I look forward to whatever they make next.

UPDATE 12.18.2011:

It's out a day early! 8 songs, 37 minutes. It starts off frenetic and distant and becomes progressively more mellifluous. There's a distinct shift in tone in the album after the mid-point instrumental track "Feral," after which the album "blooms" and becomes a lot warmer. You can even hear birds chirping at the end of "Codex" and the beginning of "Give Up The Ghost." Pretty fitting for an album named after an old tree.

My favorite songs atm are Little by Little, Lotus Flower, and Give Up The Ghost.

I'm going to withhold judgement because honestly I'm not being objective right now and if they released 37 minutes of colicky babies I'd probably think it's the greatest thing ever. I'll come back to it in a week. On a side note, Portugal in two days!

In the biggest news of this young decade, Radiohead announced that their new album would be coming out THIS Saturday (sorry Egyptians, but honestly, you'll probably screw it up like the rest of us before the year is over).

8th wonder of the world

This is only germane to me being in Madrid in that after the album was announced, I no longer cared that I was in Madrid. I've been in a near catatonic state for the last three days, blindly watching Radiohead videos on Youtube and indulging in idle (and pointless) speculation about how the new album will sound. I was considering, to pass the time, ranking all of my favorite songs like my friend Dylan did - but I realized that was pointless because different songs fall in and out of favor, and every single one of their songs has probably been my favorite at one point (besides Hunting Bears...that song sucks).

Instead, I thought I'd share some of their less heralded songs that I really like, some great live performances, and some really good covers (which are hard to pull off) of their songs.

Sit Down, Stand Up (Hail to the Thief)

This song begins with a really simple beat and keeps on adding layers. Try to count how many different loops are going on simultaneously before the climax.

 

Life in a Glass House (Amnesiac)

Starts off as a funeral dirge and adds a lot of jazz elements. Powerful ending.

 

Morning Bell (Kid A)

Warmest track off Kid A. About divorce (I think).

 

Here are some selected live performances:

Arpeggi (Copenhagen, 2007):

More energetic than the album version (which is also amazing). This is probably my favorite of their non-studio live performances.

 

Down is the New Up (Chicago, 2006):

This song had the potential to be one of the best songs on In Rainbows, but they completely changed it for the album and made it worse.

 

The National Anthem (Paris, 2001):

A simple, driving bass-line that Thom wrote when he was 16 over increasing chaos in the background. Also, Thom Yorke is the only person on the planet who can get away with dancing like that. And yes, that is lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood "playing" television loops.

 

Now for some stand-out covers:

Hana Pestle coving Exit Music for a Film:

She has an amazing voice and managed not to screw up the song (like Vampire Weekend did).

 

Obadiah Parker covering Idioteque:

The best covers reinterpret instead of photocopy.

 

Regina Spektor covers No Surprises:

I might be the only person who doesn't attend a Seven Sisters college who is a fan of Regina Spektor, but whatever, I think she does a great job here.

Well...two more days til' The King of Limbs. Obviously, I've already ordered the 'newspaper' album, and no, stfu, I don't know what I'm going to do with the two vinyls.

*twitch*

 

Whiskey & Kindle time (4.4.2011)

So I've stayed in Madrid longer than I initially intended, but it has been totally worthwhile. Mostly I've been reading books on my Kindle (greatest device ever), and wandering around to different bars and lounges during the day. It's amazing how easy it is to make friends. You just have to show up to a place a few times and be open to spontaneous conversation, and you meet all sorts of interesting people. Some of my favorites have been Del Diego, Bristol Bar, and the questionably named Bar Cock.

I tend to read in month-long spells, where I devour four or five books, and then go into literary hibernation for four to six months, then enter another book-reading phase. I'm currently in a book reading phase. As for the books themselves, my preferences are for modern fiction (my opinion probably differs from literary theorists, but I define "modern" as "the author is still alive"), and I tend to like fiction books that either give you something to think about or those where the author has an interesting writing style (e.g. Marisha Pessl).

While I've been doing this, as I tend to go to lounges/bars, I've also been trying out different spirits, either neat or on the rocks, while reading on my Kindle. This is mostly driven by the bartending classes I've had, it seems like such a shame (and slightly disengenuous) that I know how to make all of these different cocktails with different drinks without even really knowing what the base liquor tastes like by itself. E.g. a 7&7 is a popular cocktail, but I didn't know what straight Seagrams tasted like. I also don't want to give anyone the image that I am charging into random bars wearing nothing but Bear fur, cursing in Russian, testosterone fueling through my veins, and soon thereafter inhaling their entire bottom shelf, snorting cocaine, and bringing the trembling Spaniards to their knees faster than crashing silver prices (the only thing I learned in AP World). Gentlemen sip, which I have been.

These lounges also happen to be a great way to meet other travelers. A lot of people come up to me and start talking to me while I'm doing this, which is really cool. I'll also inititate if I see someone who looks relatively un-homicidal and is clearly traveling alone. Yesterday I talked to a 50 year old lady from Japan who had left just before the earthquake. I couldn't imagine being away from home at a time like that (the worst we have in America is the government shutting down...which doesn't mean too much, as all "essential" public employees still stay on).

England

I was only here for a night during a stop-over at Heathrow. I'll be back in April, hopefully, to stay with a friend when he's free.

Food: 1/10

Recipe for all British foods: Cook until gray.

The Indian food is delicious though.

Beer: ?/10

Sample size = 1 so I don't want to judge. I'll update this after DB training in London.

Watching NBA Highlights on BBC while at Heathrow Airport:

"The Celtics game had some really high-class moments...here's a Shaquille O'Neal dunk...and, there's the celebration."

As someone dishes to Shaq for an ally-oop, where he proceeds to dunk and then does what can best be described as awkward goose-stepping. British properness doesn't translate well to NBA dunk commentary.

 

France

Food: 6/10

delic

Beer: ?/10

Didn't try any. My impression though is that the French prefer wine.

Cici n'est pas une city

I was trying to think of the most pretentious name for a subheader, and that won out. Anyways, I just spent an afternoon here, which is much less than the city deserves. Everyone who I've talked to who has been to Paris has fell in love with it, and it's easy to see why. The city doesn't seem like a real city, it's as if it comes straight from a story book -- I think it's a mixture of the architecture, the beauty of the french language, the amazing smell of French food, and the fact that a lot of stories actually take place in Paris to begin with. Anyways, I spent so little time in Paris that the impression that it made on me was more the feeling you get when you wake up from a dream that you're already beginning to forget. Whatever, I'll be back.

Italy

Food :8/10

The food here is incredible. I love pasta -- the cheeses and the herbs, omfg -the best food I've had in Europe.

Beer: ?/10

Didn't have any "Italian" beer in Italy. According to Germans, Italian beer is "okay," but it seems more like a wine country.

Rome & The Colosseum (3.29.2011)

 

Portugal

Food: 4.5/10

Pretty good. In general, bolder and more tasteful than Spanish food.

Beer: 5/10

Okay.

Weekend in Lisbon (2.14.2011)

 

Misc

One of the best parts of having free time is that I now have time to read everything I've been putting off. A list of the books I'm reading (what I have in my Kindle):

Freedom: A Novel, by Jonathan Franzen - About half-way through this one. I'm reading it because it seems to be a polemic in the literary world, if such a thing can exist. The NYTimes Book review basically said the novel is the apotheosis of modern American fiction, while others believe that the book is misanthropic, pretentious, and overly didactic. Moreover, Jodi Picoult accused the NYT of gender bias, alleging that had Franzen been a woman then the NYT would've been more hesitant to call the book an "American masterpiece."

update (12.26.2010) - Finished the book. I have mixed feelings about it. I really liked the ambitious scope of the novel, and I think Franzen is really good at writing dialogue and the book has some pretty devastating/hilarious descriptions about "how we live now" (e.g. of an overweight high school girl: "She was like a walking advertisement of the late-model parenting she'd received: 'You have permission to ask for things! Just because you aren't pretty doesn't mean you don't!' "). Also, I really liked most of the characters and thought they had believable, engaging story arcs. However, I don't really like Franzen's writing style, which I think is pretty vanilla. Also, the middle of the book has a 200 page "autobiography" written by one of the main characters, Patty, but the voice of the autobiographer and the voice of the narrator (which is third person omniscient) are nearly identical. Moreover, despite the story being very good, there are two incidents that happen near the end of the novel that I found too convenient and unrealistic. The book centers around the regret, disappointment, and acceptance that comes with middle-age though, so maybe I'll revisit it in 20-25 years.

All the Devils Are Here, by Bethany McLane and Joe Nocera- I read this on the plane. A well researched look at the events that ultimately lead up to the financial crisis. If Andrew Sorkin's Too Big To Fail is a good "How?" (play-by-play) of the financial crisis, this book is the genre's corresponding "Why?".

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Schteyngart - A quarter through this. Schteyngart is a really funny satirist (see - Absurdistan). The book is about America in the near-future, where the dollar is pegged to the yuan, the government is ruled by the "Bipartisan Party," and society is consumed by hyper social networking and superficiality.

update (2.1.11): Great book. The satire got a little old by the end, though, and actually stopped being funny and started just being scary. Schteyngart remains one of my favorite authors, and this book was a big leap forward for him because it's actually resonates emotionally on top of being funny.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert - This novel is one of the classics, and is about the extraordinariness of an "ordinary," banal, insignificant life. These are generally my favorite types of books - Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro have written a lot of novels with this central theme.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace - I became interested in this novel after reading an insightful graduation speech that Wallace gave (reprinted here) shortly before he killed himself. I haven't started it yet, but I look forward to it.

Norweigan Wood, by Haruki Murakami - My friend Wei recommended this book to me a while ago, but I never got around to reading it. From what I've heard, Murakami is the literary equivalent to a Charlie Kaufman movie or a Pink Floyd album.

update (3.21.11): Almost done with this. The book is actually much more straightforward than I would assume given Murakami's reputation. The prose is simple, and the story is elegiac. It's a book for a particular state of mind, which I didn't really happen to be in, but I can appreciate it nonetheless.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov - Middle aged guy who loves a 12 year old? Considered a classic novel? Hookayy.

update (4.14.2011) About a third of the way through this, and honestly it's one of my favorite books ever so far. Nabokov's prose is gorgeous. The book is also extremely witty, and very disturbing.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman - My roommate Pat recommended this to me. I generally dislike science fiction and fantasy novels (exceptions: "Never Let Me Go," which is technically sci-fi but doesn't read like it and is my favorite novel, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Heinlein, and, of course, Ender's Game). I've always wanted to give sci-fi/fantasy another chance, and Gaiman is supposed to be good.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova - written by a neurologist, this book is supposed to be a devastating, depressing and exhasuting look into how Alzheimers Disease tore apart the life of Dr. Alice Howland and how it affects her friends and family. I'll be reading this as a pick-me-up.

Update (4.11.11)

Okay, this is the most horrifying book I've read. It's about a middle-aged woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, which I am now convinced is the most cruel disease (worse than Ebola, my usual go-to). Her condition deteriorates over the course of the book, which takes place over two years, and she goes from a brilliant research scientist to an infantile husk of her former self who is completely dependent on others and doesn't recognize her daughters or her husband. The most heartbreaking parts of the novel (it's fiction, but written by a neuroscientist) occur during the first half of the book, where she realizes that her condition isn't bad yet, but she knows that she will inevitably deteriorate to the point where she is unable to perform basic tasks and she one day will not know anything about herself or the life she has lived. Towards the end of the novel, she isn so far gone that she exists in a state of almost blissful ignorance, in that she is not suffering constant anguish at what she has become, but she is still somewhat aware of what she has lost to the disease. Overall, a great book, but definitely not an upper. My complaints with it would be the writing style, which is stilited; also, the book is fairly predictable in that you know in the beginning when the author is doing something somewhat important, she will show a symptom of her disease (before she is officially diagnosed). Finally, the ending is awkward. The book's penultimate chapter ends on an extremely poignant note. And then the concluding chapter feels completely out of place and ruins the beauty of the penultimate chapter's ending note.

----

The Best/Worst Movie Continuum of 2010

Usually I'd try to make a top-10 best and worst movies list, but I didn't see that many movies this year (by my standards) because I was really busy. So when I was trying to put together a list, I realized that there wasn't much of a difference between the 10th best movie and the 10th worst movie, so I thought that a continuum would be more appropriate than discrete lists in reflecting the actual quality of the movies on the lists. It starts with the best and flows through to the worst.

 

Best

 

1. The Social Network dir. by David Fincher, written by Aaron Sorkin

Usually the movies I really like are flawed, difficult, unique and ambitious, like There Will Be Blood or Pan's Labyrinth. The Social Network isn't that kind of movie, but it's equally admirable because although it doesn't do anything new, it's excellent technically and nearly flawless in its execution.

2. Never Let Me Go dir. by Mark Romanek, based off the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

This movie had unfair expectations because it's based off my favorite book. However, Mark Romanek did a really good job adapting a difficult source material (e.g. it's written in first person). This movie is exceptionally bleak, as is the book, but I highly recommend it.

3. Somewhere dir. and written by Sofia Copolla

This one's not for everyone. The movie's about a movie star and it's mostly a meditation on the anesthetizing effect of fame and money. If you liked Lost in Translation, you'll probably like this a lot also.

4. Toy Story 3 dir. by Lee Unkrich, made by Pixar

Another amazing Pixar movie, not much to say really. I liked Toy Story 2 the best, though.

5. 127 Hours dir. by Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle is an outstanding director - he's made several very good movies, and they're all very different from one another:Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire and now 127 Hours, about that guy whose arm was trapped under a rock - he had to cut it off to survive. With a blunt object. And, yeah, they show it. It's not always the easiest movie to watch, but it's really well done and it's good for perspective - I've been in some bad situations before, but I've never been trapped, alone, and forced to self-amputate with a blunt object.

6. Blue Valentine dir. by Derek Cianfrance

A raw, disturbing look at a marriage disintegrating.

7. The Kids Are All Right dir. by Lisa Cholodenko

This year's "quirky indie comedy" in the vein of Juno and Little Miss Sunshine; it's about a lesbian couple raising kids who want to meet their sperm donor.

8. Kickass dir. by Matthew Vaughn

This movie is so ridiculous and awesome. Just watch this scene. Or this scene. It even features a redemptive role from Nicholas Cage, who has been sort of on a bit of a losing streak these past few decades ("NOT THE BEEEESSSS!!").

9. The Town dir. by Ben Affleck

Ben Afflek is still clawing back his dignity from Bennifer. He's succeeding - this movie isn't anything new, but it has some amazing shoot-outs/car chases. And those masks are incredible.

10. The Karate Kid dir. by Harald [sic] Zwart, starring Jaden Smith & Jackie Chan

Okay, I admit this movie, objectively, probably isn't very good. But I laughed a lot during it (mostly unintentional humor), and it's about someone with dark skin learning Chinese, so I was able to relate with Jaden Smith, famously known as the less talented older brother of Willow Smith.

11. Inside Job dir. by Charles Ferguson

A documentary about the financial crisis. Nothing really new here, but it's well done and comprehensive.

12. Inception dir. and written by Christopher Nolan

This one gets the fulcrum because I'm so ambivalent about it. I felt like there was so much potential to make this the next Matrix if Christopher Nolan had approached the movie more philosophically instead of just "really-trippy!" So, we're left with a really amazing action movie that had the potential to be more.

11. Catfish dir. by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman

The trailer for this movie is really misleading; it's not a thriller at all. *SPOILERS* It's a documentary about a sad, lonely, woman who creates a fantasy life for herself on Facebook.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1 dir. by David Yates

Not particularly bad in any way, but I was really bored the whole time. Maybe Harry Potter just isn't as magical to me anymore. At least it has Emma Watson in it.

9. The Human Centipede dir. by Tom Six, starring people who will have trouble securing another role

I had just finished playing Edward 40-hands (well, hand) when I sat down to watch this, but I'm pretty sure I didn't miss much.

8. Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps dir. by Oliver Stone, starring Michael Douglas

What kind of prop trader is allowed to take walks in the afternoon in the park during a workday? Also, this movie has a ridiculous ending that ruins the character of Gordon Gekko.

7. Scott Pilgrim vs The World dir. by Edgar Wright, starring Michael Cera

Too gimmicky.

6. Splice

The charming story about a scientist couple raising an alien. And then the guy scientist has sex with said alien.

5. Unstoppable dir. by Tony Scott

Like Speed, if the bus were on a track and there was no bomb.

4. Black Swan dir. and written by Darren Aronofsky, starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis

I didn't like this movie for the same reason I didn't like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude; both stories operate under the conceit of "magical realism," which means they can be as ridiculous as they want and still take themselves seriously. It ends up just being unintentionaly funny and frustrating. Darren Aronofsky is really talented, and that definitely also comes across when you're watching, but I didn't like this movie at all.

3. Dinner For Schmucks dir. by Jay Roach, starring Paul Rudd and Steve Carell

A disgraceful misuse of Paul Rudd. And okay, I have to admit, I don't find Steve Carell funny at all. He's just an affable idiot in every single role; he's like a beta Adam Sandler.

2. Saw 3D (Saw VII) dir. by Kevin Greutert

Yeah, I should've see this one coming. But I've seen Saw's 1-6, so I had to finish out the series! Terrible.

1. Devil dir. by John Erick Dowdle, story by M. Night Shyamalan

Shyamalan's career trajectory: Movie_Quality = 10 - (Movie_Count)^2

I think we're on Movie_Count = 7 now. To be fair, Shyamalan didn't write or direct this one, but he seems to be the anti-Midas.

 

Worst

 

 

Some things I learned in College (1.25.2011)

In the weeks leading up to graduation, I was so busy making sure I actually graduated with a respectable last semester GPA that I didn't really have much time to reflect upon the fact that I would soon be closing an important chapter in my life. That's not to say I wasn't aware of the fact - the last month at Duke, by the way people looked at me I felt like I was a dead man walking ( the looks, I believe, a mixture of both sadness that I would be leaving and uneasiness that I reminded them that they would be graduating soon as well). What I mean to say is that I was only superficially aware of it, and that I hadn't really thought completely about its implications.

Anyways, one of the benefits of having so much free time is that allows for guiltness introspection. College is great because you are offered enormous amounts of freedom and yet you're not in the real world so you're sheltered from doing any real damage to anything. If you're an engineer, stay up all night doing a problem set and make a couple of careless mistakes, no actual bridges will collapse. If you drink too much and pass out, it doesn't really matter because "it's not alcoholism until you graduate" (fuck). Add in the fact that you're often times physically separated from everyone else in your past life, and you have the ideal place to make mistakes and grow from them. I think I've changed a significant amount during college as a result of making mistakes and experimenting and learning from the results.

The first and most important lesson I learned was that hard work goes further than intrinsic intelligence. This one sort of came as a shock to me after high school, which was essentially four years of reinforcing the exact opposite. I didn't learn anything in high school except for how to manipulate the system. My friends and I knew we were smart; we managed to get very good grades by doing next to no work. I viewed my classes, and high school more broadly, as a route to an elite university. I didn't go to classes to learn, but to get an A at the end of the semester. Because that was my goal, I viewed getting an 89.5% (the lowest possible A) as better than getting a 99%, because it means I did less work and achieved the "same" outcome. My typical day in HS was doing homework for period N in period (N-1). And it worked: I did minimal work, got As, learned nothing, and graduated with a ticket to a good schoool. Ironically, my most intellectually fulfilling semester of high school was my last one, and also the one where I got the worst grades. It was the first time I really learned for learnings sake, and it's when I started to read a lot -- I ended up skipping class and going to library and reading some really good books that ended up shaping the way I thought about a lot of things.

Unsurprisingly, when I arrived at Duke, I kept many of my same attitudes towards studying. In my FOCUS classes (Visions of Freedom) and Econ 51, I finally was really interested in what I was learning. However, I also carried the hubris from high school that told me I could do no work and still get by. It's extremely predictable and pretty much a Duke cliche so I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, but Econ 51 destroyed me -- I ended up with a generous C+ in the class (my back-of-the-envelope calculation put me at the 19th percentile) and my advisor told me to consider becoming a Pub Pol major. Pub Pol is basically Econ for people who can't do math. A pub pol major? That stung. Even though economics is a "social" (read: "not-a") science and comes up middling on the purity scale of majors, at least the field has mathematic/scientific pretensions, which is more than one can say for public policy. Luckily, the same arrogance that screwed me in Econ 51 told me to stick with the major. My grades quickly got a lot better over the following semesters, as I realized the trick behind college - you just have to put forth some effort, and it's pretty easy. 99% of the time, the people who dominate their classes aren't materially more intelligent than anyone else, they are just organized and put in consistent work. The other 1% are Singaporean. When I decided to work harder at college, I also had to decide to put aside my pride. I had to fight the instinct to just brush it aside and decide I was above studying hard, and not become that person who is "too lazy to care" about school - who is intelligent but consistently doesn't fulfill his potential because he is just indifferent. I don't want to seem like too much of an armchair psychiatrist, but I'm very familiar with that ethos and I think that at its root is a fear that "if I try and fail, what does that say about my assumed intelligence?" -- so it's better off not trying and therefore not risking failure. It's not glamorous, and "effortless perfection" would be nice, but I found that an earnest, consistent effort is not only humbling but also yields dividends.

The second thing I learned was that drinking alcohol isn't necessarily breastfeeding from Satan. More broadly, I think this rule can be defined as: if it was fun, and it didn't kill you or cause permanent reputational damage, it was probably worth it. For whatever reason, in high school I never touched alcohol or any other drugs. I'm not saying getting drunk is the best thing ever, or is a worthwhile action in itself, but alcohol is a social lubricant and can be fun. I also don't believe there is anything inherently wrong with teetotaling, but in high school I had the wrong attitude towards alcohol in that I assumed that if one drop touched my tongue I would burn out, get a job at Denny's, and live the rest of my life toiling away in irrelevence and mediocrity. Ironically enough, throughout college my level of alcohol consumption and my GPA were actually fairly positively correlated.

scale normalized to my range of experience, if this were on the "frat" scale all numbers would range from 0-1.5

 

I've taken enough statistics to know that the effect isn't a causal one, but mostly because I stopped playing DoTA (the crack of computer games not named World of Warcraft) freshman year and started being more social. This also isn't to say that alcohol can't be dangerous, it obviously can be; luckily, most of my 'over-the-top' experiences with alcohol happened in China, where the physical and reputational fall-out was more or less contained. Also related to this is the lesson that the interactions that you have with other people are the stuff of life. As Lester Freeman somewhat morbidly put it in The Wire: "A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come." Now I'm still optimistic enough to believe that those "moments" will (and have) come, but I realize that if you just live your life with laser-guided ambition and nothing else, you'll look back on a life that is at once a superficial marvel and a spiritual lacuna. That's not to say I didn't put off being social in order to study or hole away in the library - I did, a lot - but I also don't regret the times I put off studying to hang out and enjoy myself.

The last important thing that I'll write about was the importance of relationships ("networking"). I might edit this later and be more eloquent as I'm getting lazy now and this has gone on for far too long. Basically, my thoughts are that 99% of people have the ability to do any job, and what's important is knowing the right people. At first, this struck me as unfair, but now I don't mind it because 1) other means of determining merit are either pretty easily manipulated (resumes, GPA) or not all that informative (SATs/GMATs -- sure, they're 'objective' measurements, but anytime you can study for a test and materially improve your score it's not really a good indicator of any intrinsic ability). Also, we use personal relationships and information so often in other facets our lives -- if someone who I trust recommends something to me (a movie, etc), I value that much more than the RT rating (think GMAT...also, RT gave Unstoppable an 85%) or commercial (think resume). Also, more cynically, while the importance of relationships sucks right now because I don't really know anyone, it becomes more and more beneficial as you know more and more people and you get older because the system ultimately works to favor the status quo and those who are currently in and works at the expense of those trying to break in to whatever field/industry.

Anyways, that's it.

March Madness (3.14.11)

The opening four days of March Madness are honestly my favorite four days every year.

Here's a link to my bracket: [link]

My Final Four is Ohio State, Kansas, Duke, and St. Johns. Although SJU is a 6 seed, their region (the southeast) is absolutely devoid of talent. The seeds above them are Pitt, which is always chokes in the NCAAs, Florida, which somehow got a 2 seed despite getting blown out by Kentucky (a 4 seed), BYU, the 3 seed, a team led by Mormon wonderchild Jimmer Fredette but lost their best inside presence because he had consensual sex with his girlfriend (oh, Mormons..), Wisconsin, the 4 seed, scored 33 points TOTAL in their last game, and Kansas State, the 5 seed, is propelled solely by the intimidating stare of their coach Frank Martin.

I think Duke has a pretty good shot to make the Final Four again, especially with Irving coming back. Texas is over seeded in our region at 4, and UConn might be dangerous, but SDSU is probably terrible (them and BYU are mutually reinforcing bad teams)

First weekend update:

Well, SJU lost. hahaha gg my bracket. I actually picked a decent number of the other upsets. Duke is back in the Sweet 16.

3.25.2011 update:

Duke gets blown out in the second half by an Arizona team that apparently activated Beast Mode in the half time locker rooms, fuck me. Sigh.

Go Butler, I guess. Or VCU or Florida State. I find most of the other teams fairly reprehensible -- UNC, Kentucky, Ohio State (sorry, THE Ohio State), Florida (they stole Kenny Boynton :\)

I'm honestly not that upset though because we were definitely outplayed by Arizona and they were deserving of moving on. Also, Singler and Smith will be graduating decorated, national champions, both of whom deserve to have their Jerseys retired.

One part of the match I want to highlight that really defines Singler is when he dove across the court head first to prevent Arizona from getting an easy basket, getting some nasty court burn in the process. Here is a senior, future first round draft pick, who has already won a national championship, playing with the same hunger and passion and wanton disregard for his own well-being that he showed as a freshman. Keep it real, Singler.

4.3.2011 update:

aaaaand the final is between Butler and UConn. Sweet. Go Butler!

But more importantly -- I hope Austin Rivers is preparing well.

4.6.2011

And UConn wins. Here's a recap of the game:

 

4.9.2011

And Irving declares for the draft. That's perfectly fine; I wish him the best. It's hard to blame someone from turning down guaranteed millions. Especially when next year our interior presence will yet again be questionable, with Miles & Mason being inconsistent and fairly mediocre this year.

I just really hope he didn't read this entitled, condescending column from the Duke Chronicle. And I really hope he doesn't get drafted by Cleveland, where he will inevitably be publically berated in Comic Sans by Dan Gilbert.