Saturday, July 7, 2007

There's a fine line between heroism and insanity

[written July 1]

But then, I'm the one going to Amsterdam after sleeping less than one out of the past thirty hours. In my defense, I had three good reasons for doing so. After riding the trains from Schipol to Amsterdam to Haarlem, my five-Euro ticket had yet to be checked, so I had a free ride there. Further, everything was closed in little Haarlem, my hotel TV didn't work, and I was hungry for some Indonesian wok-fried noodles. Most importantly, I knew that going to sleep in the hotel at 4pm would mean waking up in the wee hours of the morning with nothing to do. Thus, on to Amsterdam!

I set out for the train station from my hotel. Just as I walked out into the Grote Markt, there was a big commotion and the sound of a car engine revving. A crowd of people had gathered around the front of Haarlem's ancient city hall, and I saw what had caused both the noise and the crowd: a red Ferrari, followed by a parade of other high-end and classic automobiles.

I admired the Ferrari like everyone else, and guessed that some concert or event drawing a bourgeouis crowd was about to start. Walking away, I heard a sudden cheer from the crowd, and turned around to see what I presumed to be a celebrity or dignitary getting out of the Ferrari. Figuring I was only missing some notable Dutchman whom I'd never heard of, and being adverse to celebrity-worship in general, I continued on to the train station. There were free copies of a Dutch daily tabloid on the train, and, to my great amusement, I learned that Tom Cruise was visiting the Netherlands and had made an appearance in Amsterdam the day before.

After arriving a little after 4pm, and still sour about possibly missing a chance to see the prophet of Scientology in person, I set out for a drugstore that I remembered from a few years ago. Unfortunately, Amsterdam's beautiful Centraal Station is still covered by scaffolding and surrounded by an unsightly work site. The light rain and much-colder-than-expected temperature didn't help, but the construction has been going on since at least 2004. Thankfully, the store was where I remembered, and I was able to buy all the things that I forgot or could have blown up the plane with, including nail clippers, a comb, and bottles of shampoo larger than three ounces.

My plan to buy a British newspaper and enjoy a cup of coffee in a sidewalk cafe was made impossible by the weather, so I spent a good deal of time fighting exhaustion and looking through touristy little shops for something to beat back the rain and cold. Sadly, Amsterdam is a very expensive city with little that fits my budget, except ... the Lemongrass Wok. This little place is on the Damrak (Amsterdam's main drag, perpendicular to Centraal Station) below a hotel that one of my globe-trotting friends recommends. The Indonesian people that work there make absolutely the best non-German food in Europe, and I was more than happy to wait in the small, cooktop-heated interior while my chili-pepper chicken noodles were prepared.

During my first decent meal since lunch in Orlando, Florida more than a day earlier, the city and its weather became much more pleasant. I guess that's what a full belly can do for you. After practically thirty-two hours awake, the train ride and walk back to the Hotel Amadeus seemed longer than it should have, but the TV had started working when I arrived, and was still on and working when I woke up the next day without having undressed. I guess that's what a full belly and total exhaustion can do for you.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

See Iceland in Two Hours! Only $1100!

[written June 30]

On 30 minutes' sleep, no less. I've never boarded an airplane from the tarmac. But then, I'd never been to 66 degrees north latitude, either. Iceland's airport seemed to be roughly the same size as Orlando-Sanford International, but lacked the gate tunnels that sanitize boarding a passenger jet. This meant two things, from my point of view.

First, I've actually been to Iceland, outside the airport, albeit only for 45 seconds or so. It's very cold there, about 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Amusingly, the locals were wearing shorts. I guess summertime is a relative thing. Second, I realized that I flew all the way across the Atlantic Ocean in what is essentially a large winged tin can with rockets hanging on the sides. It's a bit unsettling.

I have a skewed perception of Iceland, not only because of the duration of my visit, but also because I was there at 6am local time. Like most of Europe, the security personnel were not nearly as intimidating as our TSA screeners. In fact, their uniforms were a bit cartoonish and they seemed completely disinterested in looking at my bag. In general, the locals are good-looking people, mostly tall, fit, and fair-haired, but they seemed shy.

Reyjavik International has many large glass windows providing interesting views of the scenery, such as it is. There are mountains in the distance, but the terrain looked very barren, with little ground cover and no trees. Everything was brown and a bit depressing, even though it's summer.

All that said, I was running on 30 (poor) minutes' sleep when I saw the place, and my opinion should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

Wait, I thought I was leaving the country tomorrow...

[written June 29]

My day at Universal Studios with my mother and cousin was everything I expected (and more). The ExpressPass, which is included for all guests in the park-controlled hotels, was worth every penny, because it allows one to literally bypass the lines at every ride. The longest wait we had was about ten minutes, for our second turn on Revenge of the Mummy, which, incidentally, was Mom's favorite ride.

What I hadn't anticipated was the number of foreigners I'd be skipping ahead of in line. The park was full of adolescent tour groups from Brazil not staying in a park-controlled hotel, which made the express line that much sweeter. The most memorable moment with these folks was on the JAWS ride, which involves a boat tour gone horribly wrong. Our boat was about 75% Brazilian kids in identical white shirts. The actor driving our boat probably deviated from his script when he said, "The kids in the white shirts have no idea what I'm saying, but they'll cheer anyway! King Kong, woohoo!" The Brazilians did, in fact, cheer King Kong on the JAWS ride. Poor kids probably waited in line for an hour to do that.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Universal theme parks is the quantity and quality of human actors. I thought the rides would be largely automated, with robotics and pyrotechnics the order of the day. While there were many impressive explosions and robotic sharks and dinosaurs, a majority of the rides and attractions had human talent playing an integral part in the experience. The dungeon keeper at the Shrek 4-D show summed it up well, saying, "Come on people, if I can fake this enthusiam all day, you can do it once! Flogging!" [Crowd responds, "Oh no!"].

In addition to the undiscovered thespians running the rides, I was impressed with the participation of many A-list Hollywood types in the attractions based on their movies. Steven Spielberg welcomes guests to the E.T. ride, Helen Hunt does the same for 'Twister', and, most impressively, the governor of California reprised his role from the movies in Terminator 3D. Sadly, Jeff Goldblum does not get eaten by a dinosaur on the Jurassic Park ride. Aside from that, the whole experience was great, and I heartily recommend both parks (Universal Studios and the newer Islands of Adventure). Stay in a park hotel, though, or you'll be in line with all the Brazilian kids.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Methinks they doth protest too much...

I saw all the stuff on Drudge over the weekend about the big New York Times feature that was supposed to shake Rupert Murdoch's media empire to its core. This article is apparently part of it, and deals with Murdoch's efforts to cultivate a market in China for his TV channels and satellite services. In a nutshell, Murdoch's been sucking up to a bunch of ChiComs for years to make money in the potentially enormous Chinese satellite TV market. Predictably, to do so, Murdoch's had to agree to all sorts of censorship-type things, such as removing BBC News from his Chinese satellite network after the Brits showed some uncomfortable footage from Tiananmen Square, and speaking poorly of the Dalai Lama.

While I understand the knee-jerk reaction to participating in ChiCom censorship and propaganda (it's bad), I think Murdoch may actually be on to something very good. I grant that supporting totalitarian regimes that repress freedom is something to be avoided. However, it's important to "play the long game" (credit to my friend Jason for that phrase) and not forget what we hope to accomplish thirty years from now.

By giving the Chinese leadership the concessions they want, Murdoch is doing something that our pure idealism will never do: reaching the ears of systematically oppressed people. At this point, the West is not going to get free journalism to the Chinese people. However, we might get a sanitized version of our way of life onto their television sets, and that's not a bad thing. Any television controlled by an entity other than the Chinese communist party is a step forward, even if censored.

By courting the favor of the Chinese power structure, Murdoch is doing more than making inroads for his business interests. He's laying the groundwork for liberalized media in a society that has no such thing. If that media starts out with the sanction of the country's leaders, we can expect many in the country to soon have access. In other words, lots of Chinese will be able to watch Murdoch's satellite TV. At first, they'll get news and culture carefully filtered for political reasons. Over time, however, as the system becomes entrenched (imagine how ubiquitous cable TV is for us), it will be increasingly difficult for the communist party to control the content.

In a country as large as China, a satellite TV system with several tens of millions of subscribers would seemingly be impossible to shut down. First, the technology is such that the government couldn't physically shut down the source, but would instead have to confiscate individual dishes from end users. Second, popular sentiment might not prevent censorship, but would be against losing services the people became accustomed to having. Finally, if Murdoch is smart (and he must be), he'll make sure the government gets its share of the profits, and consequently won't be quick to pull the plug on a lucrative high-tech business.

I don't like supporting communism, but sometimes the good fight involves laying with dirty bedfellows. If the only way to reach the oppressed people of China is to play ball with their government, that's the path we have to take. I hope that's where Murdoch's venture goes.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Frightening Ignorance

Apparently Cameron Diaz recently showed up at Machu Picchu in Peru carrying a purse decorated in a Chinese communist motif, complete with red star and 'Serve the People' emblazoned on the side. This is highly offensive to many Peruvians who watched the local communist guerillas, Shining Path, terrorize their countryside during the late 20th century. The nutcases in that organization based their particular brand of communism in part on Maoism, and their leadership publicly rejected the idea of human rights (see Wikipedia article for citations).

I don't expect better from Madame Diaz, whose attempts at political discourse in the past have included:

Women have so much to lose... I mean, we could lose the right to our bodies. If you think rape should be legal then don't vote. But if you think you have a right to your body and you have a right to say what happens to you and fight off that danger of losing that, then you should vote. (see Wikipedia for citation)

Hear that ladies? If you don't vote, you must think rape should be legal. Not even worth commenting on.

However, the communist style thing is pretty scary. Several times in college, I saw people on campus wearing 'USSR' shirts. I wonder whether those folks or dear Cameron would like a bag emblazoned with a swastika and Deutschland ueber alles? After all, the Nazis killed far fewer people than Mao's communists.

I'm just shocked that anyone who went to public school in my country could think that the symbols of a murderous ideology are high fashion. I'm willing to write off the fad as mere ignorance of reality, but it's still scary. American journalism (which, by the way, gives to Democrats 9-to-1 over Republicans) has done a good job of painting opposition to communism as 'McCarthyism' or warmongering, but there's still no excuse for making murder glamorous.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Never thought I'd say this...

... but thank God for the Eastern Europeans! This editorial in the Financial Times, written by Vaclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic, is right on point in the global warming debate. Klaus suggests that the greatest threat to free people is not climate change, but climate-change politics. This man, who lived most of his life behind the Iron Curtain, fears environmentalism more than communism. I agree with him.

This interests me because I've believed for years that the modern environmental movement is little more than a safe haven for anti-free-market types. Without suggesting there is a conspiracy cooked up in some smoke-filled room in Moscow, I believe that western Marxists have collectively realized in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union that they cannot be honest with the public about their desires, and have taken refuge behind a cloak of environmentalism. Because the Soviet system failed, outright collectivism doesn't sell in the West anymore. However, tree-hugging still does.

Klaus's astute description of modern political correctness (there is "only one permitted truth" and "everything else is denounced"), coming from an Eastern European politician, gives me hope that the newly-freed countries of that region haven't yet fallen victim to the worst parts of modern liberalism, which is seductive but misguided. True or classical liberals (which included many of the men who signed our Constitution) should protest loudly the suggestion that a "scientific consensus" on a theory developed in the past decade is sufficient to roll back personal and economic liberties throughout the free world.

Perhaps people who lived under the tyranny of post-WWII communism in Eastern Europe remember more vividly how quickly the masses will give up their freedom in exchange for protection against mythical hobgoblins created by those seeking power. Authoritarian features of East German communism, notably the Berlin Wall, were ostensibly necessary to defend against facist aggression. In reality, of course, the aggressors were already on the eastern side of the wall.

I don't mean to suggest that global warming is unworthy of consideration as an international issue. On the contrary, I believe that addressing the problem, if indeed it exists, is a unique opportunity for the free people of the West to show the superiority of our systems of government. I think Klaus understands this.

Al Gore's documentary, despite its name, was an argument on one side of the debate. There are many prescient arguments on the other side. Our philosophical tradition would have us settle the dispute in the public forum, with all sides allowed to throw in their two cents. Unfortunately, a tactic incompatible with the philosophical underpinnings of western government has grown strong roots in recent years, and has been employed most notably by the environmental movement. As Klaus implies, environmentalists often don't want to convince you they're right; instead, they aim to use the power of political correctness to deny everyone else a rebuttal. Don't believe me? Read how they argue:

Ellen Goodman - Denying global warming is like denying the Holocaust
Al Gore - Global warming is a moral, not political, problem
MSNBC report - Head of NASA forced to retreat from statements skeptical of global warming
U.N. special envoy on climate change - "Completely immoral" to question the reports currently published on the subject, or to question the issue itself, or to question whether immediate action must be taken

That last one would be very scary if it came from an organization other than the U.N. The point remains, however. Environmentalists don't want to be bothered with a debate, or criticism, or reevaluation (all part of the scientific method, a real scientific consensus). This is simply not the way western republics should work. Our freedoms and way of life should only be sacrificed if the electorate is fairly convinced that there is no other way.*

I hope that Klaus's editorial is representative of a widely-held understanding in the new republics of Eastern Europe. Because many of these people have first-hand knowledge of how totalitarianism works, they may understand through practical experience what I, as an American, can only understand in the abstract. The environmental movement, possibly the modern home of Marxist ideology, seeks insidiously to use political correctness, a not-so-distant cousin of totalitarian propaganda, to circumvent the protections of individual liberty that are part of the western democratic process and convince us to give up our economic freedom in exchange for protection from the scary monster under the bed: global warming.

* "Fairly" means that no viewpoint is completely denied a forum. Modern political correctness often denies controversial viewpoints a voice through different means but to the same ends as totalitarian propaganda; the Nazis simply arrested or killed those with opposing views to silence them and leave government propaganda as the only viewpoint, while the PC police destroy careers and reputations, also to achieve their silence, leaving only politically correct viewpoints available. I would also qualify "electorate" as including countermajoritarian protections such as judicial review, not just a simple majority of the voters.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


As the Old World excitedly awaits my return later this month, I've decided to make my Euro-blog idea a reality. Within this little corner of cyberspace you will soon find a riveting, day-by-day account of my summer study abroad.*

Because I'm a veteran of only two cross-Atlantic adventures totalling just six weeks away from free (American) soil, this trip initially provided me with an exciting opportunity to test a couple of ideas I've been toying with for a while. I'm gonna spell out these ideas in detail on this blog before leaving, then evaluate them as I go.

First, I'm not flying with a big airline. I saved $300 over a comparable Delta itinerary with IcelandAir. I fly from Orlando, Florida to Reykjavik, Iceland, then on to Amsterdam. In addition to the cost savings, I think avoiding big airports (New York's JFK is miserable) and breaking up the long flight will make the trip more pleasant. Because the transatlantic great circle route nearly passes over Iceland anyway, the flight time is about the same. We'll see whether the stress of changing planes is worth it.

Second, I'm packing very light. The content of my scholastic program in the Netherlands and Germany requires business attire (suit and tie), so I'm forced to lug a garment bag halfway 'round the world. Other than that, I'm going with a bookbag and a prayer; no suitcase or duffel bag. Based on the advice of travel guide Rick Steves and my jet-setting rock star friend, I'm taking just five days of clothes. I think the light load will outweigh the inconvenience of doing laundry, and buying clothes as souvenirs has served me well in the past.

* For the law-trained reader, "riveting" and "day-by-day" are mere sales talk intended to create no warranty of quality. The reader should not rely on any of the author's assertions as to the frequency or coherence of the postings to this blog.