The 50 Meter Great Leap Forward

August 13, 2008

Welcome to the 2008 Summer Olympics in beautiful Beijing! Be sure to stop by the gift shop, where you can help imbalance the trade deficit and maybe pick up an oxygen tank or two. Also, French judges are on sale! Hope you enjoy your stay, and just remember that if a policeman cracks you on the side of your head with a baton and drags you to a dark, cold cell, it’s only because you spoke out against the government. Salut!

The Chinese government did a lot to prepare for these Olympics. While the nation of China has modernized quite a bit lately—and via a much different method than other attempts at modernizing in the past (cough, cough)—Beijing was expected to be ready for a massive restructuring of their society to welcome the hungry eyes of the world.

They first had to deal with protestors. China has had a lot of history to protest against, from the move for Tibetan independence to the recognition of the Falun Gong, to the court-martial of General Tso for making chicken too damn tasty. There were also protests that the Chinese armed forces were going to forcibly participate in the games under a new sport, the 1500 km dash to Taipei.

There have also been concerns about the environment. Upon landing at the shores of the celestial empire, the first thing most foreigners notice is that it looks like Pittsburgh circa 1890. The fog is so thick you can barely see any of the nine year olds that make your shoes. This was a concern, especially of top-tier athletes used to breathing in the crystal clear air of Turin or Paris or Johannesburg, that their oxygen intake may impair their athletic prowess, giving the native Chinese athletes, who have been filtering iron particles through their lungs for decades, an unfair advantage. Even Yao Ming, China’s most popular and richest athlete and who grew up in the country, was appalled at the filthy conditions in which the world’s best athletes were asked to compete, though he did concede that it was still preferable than playing for the Houston Rockets.

One of the more bizarre controversies involves the little Chinese girl who sang at the opening ceremonies. The opening ceremonies has been lauded as an impressive feat, the product of what can happen when an authoritarian regime spends an assload of money and utilizes underpaid workers to create an impressive song-and-dance spectacle when they just put their collective minds to it. However, it turns out that the girl that sang wasn’t actually singing; another girl, not as cute but with a better voice, sang instead. For some reason the act of lip-synching at a major event seems to have caused outrage amongst many media pundits, apparently equating the evils of the Chinese government with the worst sins of Ashley Simpson and Milli Vanilli.

Of course, despite all of these problems, Beijing had a fairly recent successful example to follow. In 2004, Athens was able to prepare for the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics much more efficiently, mostly by making sure all the goats were herded off before the torch made it to the market square, and security was tightened by certifying both of their police officers in anti-terrorism tactics, which mostly involved eating too many lamb gyros the night before and sleeping until noon.

Despite all of these concerns, the Chinese government has an incentive to make sure all of the sporting events go off without a hitch. The Beijing Olympics are the single most important cultural event that has occurred in modern China’s history. Or, rather, this has to be the case, since every American reporter mentions it approximately every other sentence in every report they give, even if the subject of the report is the ongoing war in Georgia or Lindsay Lohan dropping a bag of cocaine on the dance floor of the Coot Scoot. Although, to be fair, then mention that a lot less than they mention the fact that the Olympics started on 8-8-08, and 8 invokes the word “prosperity” in the Chinese language. Really! You don’t say! Every other minute!

Of course, the best news so far for the Americans from these Olympics—aside from the fact that our President was trying to get some strange from the women’s beach volleyball unit—is swimmer Michael Phelps. He’s already won the most gold medals of anyone in Olympic history; he is on track, barring any sudden unexpected appearances by Jeff Gillooly, to break the record of winning the most gold at any one single Olympics. Of course—and not to detract from Phelps’s rather impressive accomplishments—but it appears that it’s not that hard to get eight gold medals when there are approximately six billion different events with variations of swimming back and forth in a pool built specifically for the purpose by six billion different Chinese slave laborers.

Still, there are plenty of events yet to go, and there is most likely going to be a lot more interesting things still to come. And while I can’t criticize the Olympics too much—I get light-headed changing light bulbs and vomit at the thought of a light trot up a flight of stairs—I think credit is deserved where credit is due. I will feel unrecognized until the International Olympic Committee awards me my medal, since I feel that I deserve at least the gold for going an entire column without making one the-Chinese-eat-dogs joke. I’m just sayin’.

Smoke, Smoke, Smoke Le Cigarette

January 5, 2008

This year began the greatest assault against mankind has been unleashed in the unlikely streets of Paris, Toulouse, and Bordeaux.

Smoking is hereby banned in the nation of France.

News of the smoking ban may come as a shock to most American observers, at least those that don’t immediately skip the International News section of the local paper to see how badly the Knicks got beat last night. Cultural snapshots of the French in the American psyche aren’t particularly numerous, but one of the most indelible ones is that of the erudite French intellectual, sitting in a chair on a sidewalk café wearing a beret and some fruity glasses, sipping a small cup of expensive coffee and smoking a cigarette. That impression, in and of itself, defines the French in American eyes are equally parts distinguished, rebellious, and self-important. And hot, if she’s a chick.

While this may be an unfair generalization of an entire nation, it’s valid because the human race is lazy and wants quick answers to stuff that normally takes effort to research. The French in particular are quite an enigma for Americans, it seems. It’s one of the odder disconnects of international perceptions, really. In theory, France and America have a lot of history in common; they threw in a common cause during Revolutionary times and rarely did international conflicts find the two on opposing ends of the negotiating table. They both had revolutions to solidify the concept of democracy in social life, France’s admittedly being a lot more bloody and prone to heads being chopped off and priests being flayed alive in front of screaming, hysterically orgasmic crowds, and America’s being a bit more about freezing from hunger in Valley Forge. And many felt it was poetic justice that after Lafayette’s contributions to the revolutionary cause at the founding of our civilization, we aided them against Hitler’s blitzkrieg by holding a little sit ‘n’ sip on the beaches of Normandy.

Then something went terribly, terribly wrong.

Perhaps it was Vietnam. The French had it first, mind you, and one suspects a bit of willful blindness when Eisenhower bought the whole mess without checking their feedback rating too closely. (“This Algeria keeps falling apart, many attempts at fixing it will not work; repeated attempts to contact seller failed.”) Perhaps it was the commies; the French were sympathetic to not being caught in the middle and blown up in a vaporizing cloud of nuclear fallout when the US and Russkies traded backslaps, so they figured might as well tip their hand and maybe weasel a 30-hour workweek out of the deal as well. Perhaps it was the Cirque de Soleil.

In any case, France and America seem to have evolved into a love-hate relationship. Americans blatantly generalize the French as unproductive laggards unconcerned with facing up to the real challenges of modern life, having no problem with letting other nations solve the world’s problems while they avoid the costs. France, on the other hand, views America as an imprudent cowboy sloshing around its agenda like an entitlement to stick its middle finger at the world while guzzling barrels of oil and exporting crappy movies to push a capitalistic agenda with such heavy-handed ideological films as National Treasure. Both of these perceptions, of course, are largely right, though one has to make allowances for the existence of Eva Green.

Today, the cultures of America and France often seem to be vastly different in values and priorities. Certainly, a large proportion of this is exaggerated; I’m positive in a chase for a sackful of cash or a quick game of grabass all cultures are equally intrigued. And yet both seem highly dismissive of each other. Americans tend to think of French culture as the bastion of upper-class pretension, with scary, rich, and expensive cuisine and confusingly paced and ultimately bore-ass cinema, though most French movies have an admittedly higher chance of seeing a lot more exposed breasts swaying gently across the screen. The French, of course, are highly defensive about their culture to the point of purging English-influenced words from their language, such as “le hands free,” “le hoodie,” and “le overtime.”

This is particularly odd, since France and America tend to have a lot more in common as leaders of Western Civilization than either think. The differences appear appalling to those undergoing culture shock, but compared to, say, the Sierra Leone, where arson and rape are written into the constitution as “mildly discouraged,” or Kuala Lumpur, where engineering a destructive computer virus or creative a lucrative stock-option scam is A-OK so long as you’re not spitting on the sidewalk, it’s pretty tame. Not enjoying obscure cheese or Disney movies is intellectual chump change when someone in Tokyo who doesn’t spend their business hours looking at tentacle porn is considered out of the mainstream.

Still, with the smoking ban in effect, the French now knows how it feels to have the overreaching iron fist of paternalistic government micromanage the pleasures of everyday life. At least, in this, we stand as brothers.

Chinese Fire Squad

July 16, 2007

In America, we throw around baseless and selective accusations against established, well-entrenched institutions and frequently are then awarded Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature.

In Italy, they frequently elect street criminals to parliament and consider political corruption a check against an overreaching government, but still have the national pride to put all of the faith in the Catholic Church.

In China, they shoot Food and Drug administrators.

To each, as they say, their own.

China has awoken, and found itself capitalist. Okay, it’s not capitalist in the capital-C, Adam Smith-worshipping, unsolicited-fellation-from-the-Heritage-Foundation manner; let’s just say that the People’s Paradise seems to have a lot more clothing boutiques and upscale coffee shops than Mao cooked up in a five-year plan. Note that “capitalist” doesn’t also mean “democracy,” since the Chinese version of participatory government is that most citizens are permitted to grumble approvingly in lieu of actual votes.

Many in America are fearful of the Celestial Empire. Not because of the fact that they probably have nukes or that their army is approximately 5 billion people strong or that any day now they’re going to invade Formosa and trigger World War Five, it’s because they may be able to undercut us by pricing generic-brand detergent and chew bones below cost.

Me, personally, I am concerned about the Chinese military. I mean, the guys invented fireworks about eight hundred years ago and haven’t done much with it since. I strongly suspect they’ve invented something cool and/or insanely destructive, and are just waiting for Hong Kong to misplace a decimal point or Taiwan to forget to pick up the kinds on Sunday before they drop the big one, as it were, which I can only assume will explode in the air and appear above the sky as a red, white, and blue eagle before it rains hellfire down upon the battlefield. Their other invention, paper, I’m much less impressed with.

There’s been a recent scare of trade woes from China where the product quality is somewhat wanting:

·There was toothpaste that turned out to have traces of an antifreeze thickening agent, an additive not found to have a significant impact on dental care, though it does have the side effect of irreversible weight loss.
·Pet food was found to have contaminated wheat gluten in doses strong enough to pass through human gastronomical systems but not for Fido and Peachtree, a rather odd oversight considering that “crab” Rangoon I ate last week.
·Certain items in the Thomas the Symbol of Capitalist Repression Through Bourgeoisie Transportation Methods catalog was found to contain trace amounts of lead in the decorative paint. This is doubly unfortunate, since anyone who has ever watched a child under the age of four for more than two seconds knows that, if handed an item the size of Thomas the Tank Engine, the child will immediately determine whether this is something that can be placed and held inside of their mouth by immediately trying to swallow it.

Americans take a lot of crap from foreigners, whether it be diplomatic rebuffs, holier-than-thou self-satisfaction, or Jude Law. But mess with our teeth, pets, or child’s chance of getting into a good preschool without drooling all over the entrance exam, and it’s time to take the gloves off.

China is trying to improve its reputation for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s an emerging power and despite its autocratic government and patchy progression levels, the Chinese know a bad PR move when they see one. Without selling plastic Naruto dolls and novelty cake decorations to distracted Yanquis trying to find something to spend their greenbacks on before they throw it into a big pile of burning garbage, so long as they don’t accidentally pay off more than the minimum mortgage payment, the Chinese economy would crumble like a deck of cards and they’d have to go back to trying to melt steel in their back yard. And by “back yard” I mean “Japan.”

Most importantly, though, the Olympics are set to begin in Beijing in 2008. Cracking open China to all of the reporters of the world is going to be a first. Certainly, the press in China has been freer than it has in the past—investigative reporters are only having their children threatened to be shot instead of actually being shot—for many this will be the first time reporters are allowed relatively free access to an area that engages in a foreign, baffling, and ultimately mysterious culture unseen since Salt Lake City.

All of these factors, alas, coincide rather unhappily with poor ex-FDA-or-whatever-they-call-it-in-China chief Zheng Xiaoyu. To fill the pharmaceutical company’s coffers, he repeatedly granted approval for several types of drugs that turned out to be fictitious. Although how that’s any different than marketing Xanax I’ll never know. He was lax in enforcing existing food regulations, and dozens of people from around the world became ill and in some cases died from subpar rice cakes, drinking water, and heart medication.

Some nations will publicly execute a traitor as an example to others. Some citizens will string up a tinpot dictator to send a message that liberty is worth fighting for. Some nations pin their hopes and dreams on fruitless brushfire wars and unmistakably immoral terror strikes. And some government choose to execute their bureaucrats to send a forceful message about misappropriating the regulation of diethylene glycol, so that all others who wish to disregard the growing menace of trace amounts of diethylene glycol in exported goods should learn.

To each, as they say, their own.

Loch and Load

June 28, 2007

People have always had a fascination with the mysterious. The unexplained holds a lot of draw to those easily fascinated by it, whether it be things such as Bigfoot, UFOs, or Dennis Kucinich. And a lot of new press has recently been generated over one of the oldest mysteries of the Western world: the Loch Ness Monster.

Of course, the people of Loch Ness want to believe. The proprietors selling little plastic Nessies really do believe. The existence of the monster is ingrained in the history and the culture of Scotland, and people continue to believe even though the frequency of sightings appears, on average, to be somewhere in the likelihood of once every seventy years.

The field of investigation imaginary animals is called “cryptzoology,” a word I’m very uncomfortable with. It makes me think that these are people interested in collecting animal carcasses and devising new and creative ways to preserve them in giant stone monoliths. I mean, yeah, it sure as hell beats scrapbooking, but you gotta wonder what disturbing Ranger Rick article they read when they were nine to make “proving creepy-ass fictional animals actually exist” a valid career choice.

The first sighting occurred in 565 AD when the legendary Columba, no doubt uninfluenced by the fermentation of mead, saved the life of a Pict being attacked by the monster. The monster, not being savvy in PR management, ducked undersea to appear infrequently to newspaper reporters, the only additional appearances being those told by husbands when searching for an excuse as to why they came home at five in the morning smelling of beer and rotting oak.

This all changed in 1934, when what is euphemistically known as the “Surgeon’s Photo” was published. (Robert Kenneth Wilson, the surgeon in question, was a gynecologist; apparently, no one wanted to get too specific about his branch of medicine to avoid awkward questions, or at least anything more awkward than “You’re a professional doctor, and you’re wasting your evenings taking pictures of shadowy figures in murky lakes?”) This was famously revealed to be a hoax in the mid-90’s, when a confidant of the doctor, on his deathbed, declared that it was a “project” (read: an idea cooked up with airtight preparation one drunken stupor with an overly imaginative friend) which concluded with making the figure from a “submarine” (read: random piece of floating junk he found in his garage) with “molding” attached to it for the head (read: some elongated cylinder-type thing he picked up at a flea market).

Since all of the sightings have been in poor lighting, from a distance, or by disreputable sources, not unlike Marlon Brando, any claims to its existence have to be taken with a grain of salt and a lot of whiskey. This widely cast net of supposed sightings also leaves a rather large cast of characters as to what the Loch Ness monster looks like: a long-necked seal, an eel, a dolphin, a largish dog, a plesiosaur, an enormous salamander (!), an otter, a mollusk of some sort, a mysterious coelacanth, trees (?), the fictional kelpie, and, apparently, a brick of Styrofoam with a Pringles can superglued to the top of it.

I’m particularly intrigued with some of these theories. Many of these suggestions represent animals that are extinct—namely, the long-forgotten plesiosaur. The coelacanth lends itself to this particularly well, since it was thought to be extinct for a few million years but turned up off the coast of Madagascar (his excuse: “Had a dentist’s appointment up in Yorkshire”). If the eerie-looking coelacanth (He looks like a fish pasted together for a grade school project, and the last kid who was absent that day got to glue on all the extra remaining fins) can come back from being extinct, well, why can’t Nessie be “extinct” (please note pretentious quotation marks)? I’m also a bit puzzled about the dog theory. Sure, I’m certain that Scots can spend their evenings in various stages of being where their perception may be, ah, altered, but even the wispiest of denizens could tell the difference between a legendary reptilian creature and a Great Dane who forgot his boogie board.

The most recent sighting is a video uniformly described as a “jet black thing” that looks like a “forty-five foot long eel-like creature” and is “moving quite fast.” There is, rather remarkably, a good bit of skepticism about the new video. For once thing, the video does not exactly give any kind of reference to length or lighting, so it’s nearly impossible to determine whether it’s forty-five feet or really all that black. One suspects the video has the quality of that episode of ALF I taped back in 1988 and have left on the dashboard of my car for the past ten seasons.

But, still, any press is good press for the Loch Ness tourism industry. Any few bits of information that leak out are always good for some rampant speculation. And it’s mostly harmless fun, anyway: despite major scientific efforts through SONAR, undersea expeditions, and an infinite number of BBC documentaries, the evidence is inconclusive at best. It’s not Nessie they want; it’s the thrill of ambiguity. Most hedge funds, dollar-store pregnancy tests, and California-based religions have been founded on much less.

Canadian Lament

May 23, 2007

It had been quite some time since I was in Canada. To be fair, even those times in my childhood when I had ventured into the Great White North, it was no further than Niagara Falls. No offense to the folks at the National Parks Bureau or the Cheap Plastic Bottles Of Water Supposedly Filled From The Raging Waters And Charge A Sawbuck For The Damn Things Retailers Association, but saying that Niagara represents the Canadian spirit is like saying you’ve experienced the isles of ancient Greece by getting Combo #2 at the Gyro Hut down at the strip mall.

So during my much-needed but as-yet blissfully wasted vacation, I decided to visit Canada for a short trip to meet a friend. A trip to Canada is not one to be taken lightly. Due to the events of September 11th, of course, traveling from Canada to the United States, and vice versa, is the equivalent of Defcon Five. Visiting the AAA educated me to the fact that I (or, more accurately, my mother) would have to rifle through what I estimate to be six million cardboard boxes in our attic to find my birth certificate and cross my fingers, knock on wood, and chant the name of Tom Cruise’s agent that it had the divine Raised Seal on it. Thankfully, it did, and so my ticket to the frozen paradise was assured, assuming that a disgruntled Al Quaeda nutjob didn’t hijack a moose and toss a pipe bomb on the ice at Game Five of the Sens-Sabres game.

I decided that it was also time to invest in a passport. I didn’t really feel the need to have one up to this point; the only time I was going to go to any other foreign country besides Canada was the one time I almost hitched a boat to Bombay when it seemed my Dell computer was threatening to not be shipped out in an appropriately timely manner. Unfortunately, I found out that passports are to be personally inspected by the conjured dead ghost of Dean Rusk, since it costs approximately two month’s salary and takes about three presidential terms to arrive. Needless to say, the passport application sits contentedly on my desk, staring balefully at me, knowing that some day I’ll get the urge to book a trip to, say, Austria in three months and then who is going to be sorry, huh?

Driving to Canada, of course, was a chore unparalleled, unequaled no doubt since the days of Sieur de La Salle. There are four highways, all interchangeable, that are required in order to get to the Toronto area. They all have the same droning pitch that lulls you to sleep, the same food court amphitheaters with the same Sbarro pizza and KFC/Pizza Hut shops, and the same lack of adequate bathroom facilities if one discounts particularly hardy scrubgrass as cover. About the only thing to differentiate these highways is the fact that if you’re unfortunate enough to be using the T9 text entry mode on your cell phone, the Queen Elizabeth Way, conveniently abbreviated to QEW, also spells out SEX, which can create some highly amusing communications for those of us who are foolishly paying more attention to driving than typing.

Many people will tell you that, all things considered, America and Canada share enough cultural influence that it’s not all that different. To me, it’s comfortingly familiar yet exhilaratingly different. It’s like the entire nation is on Daylights Savings Time and no one has told me. They export comedians and decent beer and we send them ugly chain restaurants. That said, the culture shock is more than social, it’s mathematic. I can’t imagine the shock and amusement I provided to my fellow North Americans with the following exchange:

Canadian: So, are you cold up here?
Me: Nah, when I left Pennsylvania it was like sixty degrees out.
Canadian: Sixty!
[Awkward Pause]
Canadian: Oh, Fahrenheit.

The Metric Question was paramount in every accomplishment I made in Canada, which seemed to pretty much be relegated to irritating store clerks with American money and getting gasoline. The latter, I should point out, is a true-blue DP of a transaction in Canada, because you have to worry about the Liters-to-Gallon ratio as well as the Canadian-to-American-Dollar conversion. I could have been buying fifty gallons of leaded kerosene for a thousand dollars and I doubt I would have realized it.

Of course, this is nothing compared to the Tim Hortons-to-infinity ratio, which I’m pretty sure was close to one. I had always heard stories about how addictive Tim Hortons coffee was, and how there much be some sort of habit-forming additive in the recipe; an obvious elaborate fiction, much like how the makers of Carmex are accused of adding ground-up glass to their jars, crack cocaine is added to frozen Zingers, or how nicotine was surreptitiously added to cigarettes. But, damn, it was good coffee, and I would have gladly also partaken on what probably would have been the single best baked good of my choice had my companion not reminded me that my sugar intake for the trip would have rivaled Violent Beauregarde’s the time that Eastern morning fell on Halloween.

However, my friend also treated me to a breakfast pizza, which I found to be a quintessentially pleasing experience. Now, we certainly have breakfast pizzas in America, but all of the ones that I have managed to eat have garlic sauce and instead of meat have some sort of synthetic pig-related product that is crunchier than the cardboard used as its crust. These are almost exclusively found in horrible gas station kitchens, an insult to the word kitchen, and the occasional two-for-one special down at the hardscrabble convenience store. This breakfast pizza, though, was made with a wonderful red sauce, had real bacon on it, and the best cheese I’ve encountered since the last time I sat through Terms of Endearment. It was a delight, and I know no matter what ingredients I purchase, or what small nearly bankrupt mom-and-pop coffee shops I knock on the door of, I won’t match anything close to what I ate that morning.

One of my favorite things to do in Canada is look at the candy bars. Don’t know why, of course, since you can only rearrange chocolate, nuts, and nougat so many different ways. And yet the Canadians, via what appears to be a monopoly by the Nestle corporation, manage to do it pretty well. There was something called “spongy toffee,” a lie perpetuated by my companion into thinking it was sponge-like in texture, when in reality it was just toffee with a bunch of air bubbles blown into it and hardened to the consistency of a constipated diamond. And Canadians are apparently into bubbles-in-their-confections. I purchased about a half dozen versions of the “Aero” candy bar, which as far as I can tell is pretty much a chocolate bar that someone forgot to turn some random air valve off on when it was being molded into squares. They’re also really into maple, which is as close to a war crime as Ottawa is going to get to.

Traffic has an amusing spin about it, too. I noticed that plenty of roads seemed to have X’s painted on them, and I grew somewhat concerned that there was some metric traffic law I was not complying to. I was then informed that in Canada that simply means that there are railroad tracks ahead. A bit confusing, of course, since in America X’s on a road generally mean that construction crews have removed a bridge about 300 yards hence. There are other rather comical traffic oddities, such as bewildering flashing green arrows and the rule that apparently U-turns can be performed pretty much anywhere without repercussion, an act that in America sends you to Gitmo. There’s also the rather annoying habit of streets being renamed every fifty feet (excuse me, every fifteen and a quarter meters) to some completely unrelated and apparently random, which adds about fifteen unnecessary extra steps on Google Maps directions.

All in all, though, it was great to reconnect with the preferred vacation spot of my childhood. I got to connect with a good friend, experience a culture that is slightly different than my own, and realize just how forgiving the New York State Police are to speeding drivers. Eh?

Red Zeppelin

April 24, 2007

Some days, I swear, there is some vastly undiscovered rule of journalism that requires news reporters to occasionally create stories and headlines composed of randomly selected words, and there is a jovial competition as to which correspondent can build the most absurd story out of these various selected parts. Perhaps there is some prize journalists vie for, like a Pulitzer or having a pay scale above minimum wage. I can bet there’s a boiler room in the basement of the Associated Press building New Utopia, Holidayland, where a young doe-eyed stringer right now is pulling Scrabble tiles out of a velour sack and giggling over that universally euphoric joy of making shit up. I’m pretty much certain this is how we got “Jimmy Carter Get Attacked By Swimming Rabbit,” “Bill Clinton Tells Journalists He Had Astroturf in the Back Seat of His Car,” and “Evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction Found In Iraq.”

This concept seems to have recently been exorcized back to life recently, as I foolishly decided to scan the recent headlines to see what was going on in this world the other day. To my equal parts astonishment and dismay, the headline that caught my attention was “Venezuela Launches Zeppelin To Combat Rampant Crime.”

Now, there are several things inherently wrong with that headline.

Firstly, it’s about Venezuela. Venezuela is one of the more…well, shall we say, deceptively progressive communities in the Western hemisphere. Its leader, Hugo Chavez, was elected to its presidency twice now, in accordance with the fact that during these races the laws governing the definition of “election” were somewhat more relaxed than what occurs on a yearly basis down at the local AFL-CIO chapter. Presumably this is a mandate so engineered that all future elections will be foregone conclusions, assuming that the method of vote is not cast in the form of bullets purchased in bulk by the CIA or the United Fruit Company. Venezuela has managed to be a reasonably prosperous standout in a South America community beset with cyclical poverty, mostly due to its rather stable oil production. This revenue permits a rather large amount of latitude for Chavez to experiment with far-reaching communistic programs—or, more accurately, programmes—without worrying too much about the consequences. Oh, if only Havana had an operational offshore drilling rig.

As is the rather usual trajectory, however, Chavez has taken his populist mandate and slowly been carving it into a Latin American-style dictatorship, with draconian decrees and Martha-Stewart-style force of will. Part of this can be justified in the failed coup against him that occurred in 2002, but not by much. He’s also specialized in becoming kind of a third-world spokesman for anti-Americanism, an issue that has been a persistent thorn in the side of Fidel Castro, whose own legacy has pretty much been left as being a pain in the ass to the United States and perhaps the accelerated integration of major league baseball.

Chavez’s economic management has met with some resistance, however, as his largely anti-corporate stances have scared off many efficient companies and driving the economy to more resource-gathering activities, such as coffee and more Venezuelans. Thank goodness, though, that their major commodity is the largely constant cash cow of oil, assuming out any commodities that aren’t inserted into your body either nasally or intravenously.

The second question mark, and the more important one, in that whole headline is the zeppelin. I mean, a what? A zeppelin? You’re talking about the big, lumbering things that are pretty much known for nothing constructive unless it involves selling tires, hippies with mud shark fetishes, or catching on fire? Apparently, the idea is that the zeppelin will be able to more effectively patrol the streets by getting a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade view of Caracas. Its main point is to combat the major points of crime in the city, mostly looking out for rogue individuals handing out copies of The Road to Serfdom and selling Valvoline out of the trunk of their cars, or at least theoretically, if they could afford cars.

Then again, how is having a big, awkward rigid airship whose usefulness ended with the advent of fire any different than security cameras or computer chips implanted directly into your spinal cord? (Oh, like you don’t know already.) At least with a freaking blimp hovering overhead, you know that Big Brother is watching you. Who knows what the NSA is watching you do in the privacy of your own bedroom? You sick jerk. (They also keep track of what you buy at the drug store and your web site visits by volume, so don’t pretend to look so innocent.)

Still, the rather ludicrous notion that a zeppelin is an effective crime-fighting method will either be hailed as a creative way to solve the eternal problem of lawlessness, or decried as the expensive and desperate gasp of a tinpot dictator. Given the tested attributes of tinpot dictators in that region, though, we’ll have a good 40 years to find out.

How The Irish Saved Discount Instrumental CDs

March 14, 2007

The Irish have a rather proud and distinctive heritage, mostly centered around distilled spirits, monopolizing the self-aggrandizing benefit concert racket, and starring in every cop movie set in the eastern seaboard. So much so that they’ve earned their own holiday in the United States, much like the Italians have for Columbus Day and the communists have Labor Day. Facets of this culture have waged a perennial battle of becoming mainstream versus maintaining its unique appeal, kind of like high school lacrosse or those kids that wear black, play bass, and cut themselves.

Irish folk music is a rather unique facet of this emerald culture. Irish folk music evolved from its lowly beginnings in the rural beer hall, where Irish shepherds and potato farmers would gather nightly and drink beer and compose songs, most of which were involuntarily participatory in nature. And the lyrics are a form of democracy in action, as no one would know the words at any given time and so the swaying stanzas would kind of flow to the lowest common denominator.

Not that it would matter, since early Irish songs were performed in their native language. This language is Gaelic, a fictional form of speech where random letters are pulled from the alphabet, indiscriminately assigned an order, and are then pronounced in a manner unrelated to the type or order of the letters involved. Because of this, the lyrics of many of these traditional Irish songs are a mixture of forgotten slurs, hums, and vague, off-key segways from chorus to verse.

The subjects of these songs were usually variations on a theme, and this is where the old world charm kicks in. While it’s usually about some lad with wayward devotions and the occasional song about the evil bottled spirits themselves, the theme could also frequently be downright quaint. There are entire songs about the benefits accrued from engaging in the act of carting a sack of barley to the market on a particularly Irish day, for instance, or perhaps the trials and tribulations of a lonely sheep that did not follow the ordinary path to its field.

There are many classics that even uncultured folks are at least familiar with. And one can only imagine centuries ago what these composers thought they were writing and the what kind of impact they would have today. What would one say about today’s performers singing the grammatically questionable Green Grow the Rushes Oh or even The Lakes of Pontchartrain, a song about Creole love in Louisiana that the Irish somehow decided fit naturally into their taste and culture? Many of these songs that are sung as traditionally Irish songs are, in fact, adapted from other cultures and pounded square-peg-wise into a collection of oddly constructed instruments sung by young redheads in constantly flowing white gowns with one name that resembles something from the Kia line of automobiles.

The instruments used for this folk music are varied and disturbing. There’s a nice collection of standard instruments that you would find in any modern band, but are reliably Irish-sounding so long as they are either wooden, carved, enhanced with a stretched sheep bladder, or blessed by the Pope (or, if one is lucky enough, all of the above). And then there are some, such as the delightfully Gaelicly-spelled Uillean pipes, the result of a sinful copulation between a bagpipe and a defunct blast furnace. And there is the musically mysterious bouzouki, a Japanese-sounding Greek instrument that the Irish have literally developed to an art form, continually adapting the tuning of the strings and style of pitch until the number of people who can actually play it number in the low teens.

Irish folk music didn’t die across the ocean. When the mass of immigrants came over to America for its easy social opportunities, increased chances of being more employable than a black (though still less than a German), and access to basic cable, they brought along with it the traditional folk tune. Soon, pubs in which you would have had previously heard O Alte Burschenherrlichkeit now heard Sweet Rosie O’Grady, and taverns stopped serving sauerbraten and started taking out insurance claims for physical property damage.

Sometimes, when listening to the strains of the barroom fiddle or the soothing chords of the hand accordion, it’s hard to imagine that the piece being played is the cumulative effort of generation after generation of singers, writers, dancers, and the occasional copyright lawyer. And yet one has to wonder what had to happen to create that deviant strain of musical evolution that eventually concluded with the outcome of Bono.

Obviously, the Irish folk tune isn’t about the beer or the license to act silly after a hard day’s work. Those are mere perks; the folk song is greater than that. The subject matter is unifying, and vague platitudes about family, peace, or the betterment of society are all wonderfully appropriate things. But the overriding theme of Irish folk music is about one, undeniably important thing: hatred of the English.