Saturday, January 30, 2016

Iowa: Day 2

Working on a campaign is a young person's sport. After a day of knocking on doors followed by a bit of data entry, I am beyond exhausted. When I left the campaign office at 7:30, the young people there (about 30 to 40 of them) were still as amped as could be. Then again, my food choices today were far from optimal.

Breakfasts here are a little different. They use slices of American cheese everywhere. There's a slice in that Denver omelet. I was offered a slice on top of the hash browns. I demurred. The potatoes were actually pretty good. The waitress proudly told me that she grated them fresh earlier this morning.

The diner was next door to Martin O'Malley's campaign office. It was sad to see just two guys in there, sitting on the couch, sullen and hopeless.

I knocked on 64 doors today. That was a lot of walking. It got up to 46 degrees this afternoon, which was quite balmy. After every couple of hours, I would drive to a local gas station for a bottle of water and to take a piss. I came across this 1986 VW Quantum Syncro on my way to a gas station break. That's a steep price tag.

For lunch, I tried Maid Rite loose meat sandwiches. I ordered way too much. One sandwich was enough. I also got deep fried mushrooms with ranch dressing. And that huge Pepsi. After an entire afternoon, I only drank 20% of it.

They serve the sandwich with a spoon.

I took this picture on the way back to the hotel. Tomorrow, Sanders will be here. The caucus is on Monday at 7 p.m. A huge storm that will bring 18 inches of snow is coming Tuesday morning. If it shows up early, the caucus will be chaotic.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Iowa: Day 1

Today was a long and educational day. It started with this video. David Brock runs a Clinton Super PAC and has been spreading rumors to make Sanders look bad. A generation ago, Brock was a conservative and wrote a book that destroyed the reputation of Anita Hill, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. 

It's kind of amusing to see Sanders so pissed off:

I landed last night at 11:00 in Des Moines, Iowa's capital. This morning, every TV commercial was either for or against a presidential candidate. I feel really sorry for Iowa residents. I bet they can't wait for all this to be over next week.

I then drove two hours to Waterloo. The landscape was flat and desolate. It was around 28 degrees for much of the day.

My job was to knock on the doors of Democrats and to encourage them to go caucus on Monday evening. I knocked on almost 60 doors. It took much longer than I anticipated. Based on this very small sampling, I would guess that Hillary and Sanders are tied right now.

I saw a lot of Pontiacs and Saturns. A lot.

I ended the day with a pork tenderloin sandwich, Iowa's specialty. The restaurant is a local institution. Not a single hipster or millennial was in sight and I was the only out-of-towner. I had pre-judged the clientele and assumed they were all Republicans. I was wrong. Every table was talking about Bernie. At the table next to mine, a 50 year old lady was taking her "Vietnam Vet" baseball cap-wearing father to dinner. She was reminiscing about voting for Dennis Kucinich (remember him?!)

I suspect that I'll be knocking on more doors tomorrow. On Sunday, Sanders will be holding a rally in town. I'll be there!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Eating the Globe: Greece

Gyro from Simply Greek.

Countries tried so far:
Africa: Ethiopia
Asia: Burma, China, India, Japan, Lebanon, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam
Europe: Germany, Greece, Italy, Sweden
North America: Mexico, USA
South America: Chile

Monday, January 25, 2016

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Eating the Globe: Ethiopia

I've been on a little streak of delicious meals-- Chile, Germany, Taiwan, and now, Ethiopia.

We went to Cafe Colucci in Oakland. We had:

  • bone-in lamb in turmeric sauce, ginger, garlic and onion;
  • fried whole fish with fried potatoes;
  • veggie combo: lentils, chickpeas, collard greens, cabbage, potatoes, carrots.

Countries tried so far:
Africa: Ethiopia
Asia: Burma, China, India, Japan, Lebanon, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam
Europe: Germany, Italy, Sweden
North America: Mexico, USA
South America: Chile

Burmese instant noodle

Lotus Eclat

I saw this LaForza ad and wondered if that blue car in the background was a Lotus Eclat. I see them parked in the wild once in a while. None of them have moved in the last decade and they all have moss growing on them.

Out of This World intro

I heard this song last night and it reminded me of this TV show intro. I definitely remember watching the intro as a kid, but I can't remember watching any full episodes.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Driving a Model T

Machine solves Rubik's cube in a second

Occupied geopolitics drama on Netflix

This 10-episode program is worth binge watching. It's the most expensive show ever to come out of Norway ($11m). The premise is this: We are in the near future. The U.S. is energy independent and pulled out of NATO. The Middle East is at war and producing no oil. Norway just suffered 700 deaths due to a hurricane fueled by climate change. A Green Party politician becomes prime minister and immediately stops all oil and gas production. The EU is pissed and asks Russia to take over Norway in order to make sure oil and gas production resumes.

The show has subtitles, but I couldn't find a YouTube trailer with subtitles. I've watched one episode so far, and it is compelling.

How hot dogs are made

Friday, January 22, 2016

Interview with a Singaporean car nut

I met Benson by happenstance while he was vacationing in California. Enjoy the interview!

1. Singapore has a reputation for extremely expensive cars. Like, a Honda Civic pushing $100,000 US. Is there any truth to this? What makes the cars so expensive? Tariffs? Taxes? Something else?

Definitely a lot of truth to this. I previously wrote about this in 2011. Since then not much has changed, a Toyota Corolla is slightly cheaper now at around 100k SGD (70k USD, USD has strengthened against the SGD as well since 2011).

I don't really blame the Singapore government for initiating such a scheme, yes granted it is a monetary based scheme. But other alternative car control schemes end up costing more taxpayers money to implement and end up not being fair and accessible to people who need it.

There are about 3 layers to owning a car in Singapore. The first and foremost is a piece of paper called the Certificate of Entitlement (COE). They release these pieces of paper according to number of cars scrapped and an annual growth rate. I.e. if 1500 cars were scrapped in Jan 2015, then in Feb 2015 the number of COEs will be 1500*(3%/12). The paper will then be released for auction to the general public, further broken down in engine categories. So Cat A (1600cc engine capacity and less) will have the most number of such papers available for auction. Whilst Cat B (1600cc engine capacity and more) will have the least. Taxis and Commercial vehicles also have their own set of papers to auction for. So this auctioning system is highly dependent on demand, since supply is restricted. During a strong economy there will be high demand, which explains the price for the paper at 90k SGD for Cat A at one point in 2015. 

The 2nd layer are some miscellaneous car taxes, including import duty and other things that altogether add up to 250% of the market value of the car (determined by cost of purchase and market cost in the market of import). 

The 3rd, less visible, layer is the actual financing for the car. 

Cars are seen as a link to economic needs. For example if you are a sales agent doing real estate then the monthly installments for the car should be offset by the commission from the sales of the real estate. But even if you loan the car there is a 20% deposit that is required. So you would still need to put up 20k for the Corolla upfront, before you can drive it away. And pay off the remaining 80k within 5 years. It's definitely not a right, but a luxury. 
2. Is there a vibrant car culture in Singapore? What is it like?

Yes, there is a vibrant car culture, but much less diverse and in much smaller numbers. But when you do find a rarity, you will find it to be the most ridiculously maintained car in the world. I saw a pristine Jaguar E-Type Coupe in completely original form, I dare say it would not be out of place in a Pebble Beach event. But the most amazing aspect of living in Singapore, is that seeing high-end exotic sports cars like Aventadors, Californias, Enzos, 911 Turbos, etc. are so commonplace that I barely turn my head nowadays. But instead my interest is piqued when I see a RX7 FD Efini, 22B STi, CRX, etc. simply because they are much rarer to see.

There are a lot of secret meets throughout the island, as an outsider it would be very difficult to find such a car meet. And when there is a meet you see a wide variety of cars in the same meet, JDM, exotica, sleepers, classics... it's always different. 

3. Singapore is a tiny city-state. Where do people drive if they want to go fast for long distances?

Well, usually it's the North South highway to Kuala Lumpur along with a stop at Sepang GP track for a blast around. Other than that we don't really have much alternative. Often people go on driving holidays in Australia or New Zealand. It's our outlet :)

4. I understand that you recently had some military obligations. What is expected of Singaporean men and women with respect to the National Service?

All Singaporean males above the age of 18 need to serve in either the Army, Navy, Air Force, Police Force or Civil Defence Force. It's 2 years of full time obligation during which you are given a very small allowance and spend a lot of time in the camp. After the 2 years you will still be called back every year for a maximum of 1 month at a time to do refresher training for 10 cycles (basically a cycle is about 7-14 days of training and usually only once a year). You are also liable for National Service until the age of 40 for ranks up to NCOs and 50 for officers. The ladies do not have to serve, but lately there has been discussion about doing some sort of national service like in healthcare, social welfare, or even the armed forces. Failure to serve when you are 18 leads to an automatic criminal offence. A lot of people have been caught out by this.  

5. Does Singapore have any defense treaties or agreements with other countries, like Australia?

Definitely. Singapore is a resupply base for US naval vessels like aircraft carriers and submarines. And has a permanent station of 2 LCS vessels here. Singapore is part of the 5 Power Defence Treaty, which includes the US, Brunei, Malaysia and Australia. Singapore outspends all other ASEAN countries, this to me is amazing for such a small country, Singapore even outnumbers and is more modern than the Australian airforce. Singapore participates in RIMPAC as well and has been asked to be exercise commander on more than one occasion. Interestingly Singapore does not have much military ties with either China or India, other than once in a while goodwill port visits and smaller exercises (usually rescue situations). 

6. How would you describe Singapore’s relationship with nearby Malaysia and Indonesia?

I think ties with Malaysia have been great as of late. A lot of joint projects and developments. Even things like a High Speed Rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore by 2025 and joint development of multi billion projects in Singapore and Johor Iskandar. 

But with Indonesia I think there will always be some tension. It's a product of Konfrontasi, but with ASEAN there will always be a joint sense of purpose in the greater arena of South East Asia. But this is what happens in an area with such ethnic diversity and multiple languages all spoken at the same time. There will always be an element of distrust when your neighbour does not know what you are talking about when they don't speak your language. 

7. Back to cars. What kind of cars do you like? What have you owned?

I don't particularly have a type of car that I especially love, except maybe kei sports cars (simply because of the amazing engineering). But to give you an idea I would say this is my 10 car dream garage, as of now:
a. Tesla Model S P85D
b. Weld Toyota Chaser JZX100 Tourer V
c. Honda S660
d. Toyota Sports 800
e. Singer Porsche
f. Citroen DS (with working hydropneumatic suspension)
g. Lancia Integrale Evo 2
h. Buick Grand National GNX (reinforced transmission from GN1)
i. Jaguar XK120 
j. Walkinshaw GTS W507 (VF)

I have owned a Honda Civic EG6, Nissan Skyline R33 (unfortunately the GTS variant and a 4 door), Toyota Mark II JZX90, Honda Prelude BB4, Toyota Chaser JZX100 Tourer V and Toyota Corolla AE101 (with AE111 BZR suspension, engine and gearbox). 

8. You’re also interested in exporting cars from Japan. Tell us more about that.

Actually that is for the 7Tune Group business which Adam and I started some time back to try and give 7Tune a more sustainable future as a content provider. So we have utilised our contacts in Japan to offer great prices on not just exported cars, but also parts like engines and gearboxes. But more importantly we wanted to give the community a viable alternative to faceless corporations, we give back to the community with our coverage of the community and organising events. We are also able to secure parts and cars that you normally wouldn't be able to find, like a pristine Devil Z 240Z or a low-kms Championship White Honda NSX.  

9. You recently visited California. What are your impressions of the cars here, based on what you saw on the streets and freeways?

I feel like the States seems to lack diversity in the day-to-day driving. I see Priuses and Odysseys everywhere. But at the same time the number of classic exotics that you see as well as Teslas are amazing. So there seems to be a large trough between real car enthusiasts and normal daily driver purchasers. Why aren't daily drivers more enthusiastic about the choices they have? Surely there are a lot more choices in the North American market than anywhere else in the world. 

10. Why do you love cars?This is a tough question to answer, I guess I could have the cliche answer of it being a part of my DNA since early childhood. But I don't just appreciate the cars as objects by themselves, but also the culture behind them. I've grown up appreciating different aspects of car culture, from observer to driver.  It's always been a part of my life, even as I moved around from country to country. It was the one constant that I felt passionate about. 

I've always been the kid with that playmat with the road on it. Endlessly moving them around on a playmat for hours, imagining different scenarios. I remember sitting in the car watching cars drive past and naming all the cars. Knowing that the cars were taking people to different locations. But this was all the theory, so I was really excited when i got to take my driving test. 

When you get behind the wheel the experience is different again, you are in control and you are free to go anywhere you want. I think this has been my favourite experience with car culture so far, that feeling when you get behind the wheel. 

And finally getting the modifying, customising and tuning aspect of car culture, this is a great exercise in truly appreciating cars, because you are forced to understand how components come together to form this amazing machine. You start fiddling, adding, taking away and sooner or later you are hooked on the process. Then you come to interacting with fellow car enthusiasts, swapping stories of your journey with the car, your plans and discovering new parts and techniques. Car enthusiasts speak in a lingo unlike any other, talking in chassis codes, engine codes and random numbers. I enjoy that camaraderie, regardless of language, race, religion or nationality. When you go to a car show you don't need to understand what he is saying, because looking at how a car is done up will tell you all you need to know. 

Eating the Globe: Taiwan

Absolutely delicious. I got the braised pork bento. Yelp page here.

Countries tried so far:
Asia: Burma, China, India, Japan, Lebanon, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam
Europe: Germany, Italy, Sweden
North America: Mexico, USA
South America: Chile

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Iowa in a week

Over the past week, Iowa has been hit with blinding snow, ice, and high winds. Yesterday, a van carrying Ben Carson volunteers lost control on an icy Interstate 80, crossed the center median, was broadsided by a Chevy Avalanche, and rolled. A 25 year old man was killed.

This is my biggest fear. I have almost zero experience driving in icy weather. Right now, the forecast for the end of next week is a small chance of snow and temperatures hovering around 30 degrees.

Not only would the roads be treacherous, but bad weather would significantly curtail voter turnout. Clinton and Sanders are tied right now in Iowa. The biggest single factor will be who can get the most voters to show up at 7 p.m. on Monday, February 1. Another factor will be who 3rd place holder Martin O'Malley's supporters' second choice is. Under the caucus system, if a candidate has less than 15% of the room's support, that candidate's supporters will have to pick someone with more than 15% support. Even if O'Malley has less than 5% of the support, it could tip the scale either way for Clinton and Sanders.

NBA Chinese New Year ad

Flag Enthusiast Interview

Scott from the Portland Flag Association was kind enough to answer my questions. If you're into flags, geopolitics, or history, you are sure to find his responses fascinating.

1. What aesthetic characteristics should a country’s flag ideally have?
Just in terms of aesthetics, the most important thing for a nation's flag is to look good flying in the wind atop a flag pole, holding its own next to other nations' flags.  This sounds obvious, but in this age of electronic media I think people can get seduced by how a flag looks close up, stationary, on a screen, often in isolation from other flags.  And in the US, we're all very familiar with the current American flag, a complicated affair of at least 64 different elements (50 stars, plus the blue field that they're on, plus 13 stripes).  This familiarity actually has a big influence on our sense of aesthetics.  Psychologists talk in terms of the mere-exposure effect or familiarity principle, which holds that, all other things equal, people will prefer perceptual stimuli they are familiar with, whether it's a melody, or a phrase, or a design.  So I think the beauty we find in the American flag may make us perceive far more simple flags, like the tricolors popular in Europe, say, as relatively boring and lackluster -- even though those tricolors are a lot less visually busy when flying in the wind than the Stars and Stripes.

When it comes to flags, it's probably more helpful to see them as designed objects that have a communicative job to do, "well" or "poorly", rather than simply aesthetic objects that are "beautiful" or "not".  And as designed objects, national flags are for the most part actually quite well designed -- they do their jobs well.  (State flags, city flags, and corporate flags, on the other hand, are a whole other story -- check out Roman Mars' TED talk on city flags to hear a designer tearing into some examples of really bad design.)  Vexillologists (people who study flags) have over many years looked at national flags and other examples of good design, and my friend and fellow member of the Portland Flag Association Ted Kaye compiled their insights into a little pamphlet titled Good Flag, Bad Flag that lays out five basic guidelines:

1. Keep it simple
2. Use meaningful symbolism
3. Use 2 or 3 basic colors
4. No lettering or seals
5. Be distinctive -- or be related

I could go on and on about this subject, as there are many interesting details and exceptions, but I've found Good Flag, Bad Flag to be great starting point.

2. What is an example of a good national flag? Why?
I, like a lot of other flag nerds I think, really admire the Canadian maple leaf flag.  (It just last year celebrated its 50th anniversary.)  It replaced a very complicated "shield on a British Red Ensign" design, and initially the very much simpler maple leaf design was absolutely hated by many Canadians.  It wasn't familiar, and so looked strange, and it signaled a very different message about national identity and autonomy the Canadian government wanted to tell the world, and, to use a cliche, change is hard.  But given a few years, it really grew on people, and now it's hard to imagine the Canada without its bold red and white flag.

Why does it work so well?  Well, in terms of principle 2 (use meaningful symbolism) it picked a single, longstanding symbol of Canada, and went pretty much all-or-nothing in calling attention to it.  Canadian culture is contentiously split between English and French speakers, not to mention its First Nations on one hand, and its thriving immigrant communities from Asia, Africa, and all over the world, but here was a kind of neutral-yet-meaningful symbol that everyone could rally behind.

And aesthetically the red and white looks great against a blue or grey sky. Also there's a geometric trick to the design I never noticed until some vexi-people pointed it out: the red maple leaf is set against a perfectly square area of white, flanked by two half-square rectangles (in heraldry-speak, this is called a "Canadian pale").  This makes the design beautifully balanced. 

3. What country’s flag is in desperate need of a makeover? Why?
Well, everyone used to pick on Libya's when it was just a featureless green rectangle, but when Qaddafi was overthrown they went back to a more interesting earlier flag.  But even that probably wasn't in "a desperate need of a makeover" since it was so distinctive, and it had great meaning to Qaddafi, if not to his people.

This brings up the issue of flags that do a good job of representing a country's rules, vs. are actually embraced by the population.  You could argue if these get too much out of alignment, the flag needs a populist makeover. But who gets to be the judge of this?  And you can find examples of repressive regimes, like North Korea, who through sheer indoctrination and "mere-exposure" have populations who see no mismatch at all, and truly love their flags.

So it's probably best to dodge this question, but for the sake of argument I'll play along and say: Turkmenistan. Like North Korea (but without the nukes) it's a repressive regime ruled by a nepotistic leader at the center of a cult of personality, and so its flag could be argued represents the ruling strongman rather than the Turkmen people as a whole.  And unlike North Korea, which has a bold and simple flag, Turkenistan's is the world's most complicated.  Its designers apparently saw little difference between a flag and a carpet, and so literally placed five different, intricate carpet designs into the illegible reddish vertical stripe near the hoist.  Each design represents a different tribe, so it expresses disunity rather than unity -- though at least each tribe's pattern is equally illegible.  It's a mess.

4. What is the flag-enthusiast community’s take on countries that still have the Union Jack on their flags?
I don't think there's a consensus in the community.  Some absolutely adore the Union Jack for its complex, eye-grabbing design and its ability to propagate itself across the world, thanks to Britain's colonies and former colonies.  There's also a sense that it's a bit of an endangered species, what with major former dependencies like India and Canada having cast it off, and movements afoot in New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji to follow in those footsteps.  There's also the pesky Scots, who would leave a much-less-United Kingdom behind if they eventually secede.  But I think others, myself included, think the world of flags would be a more visually interesting and democratic place if more peoples and flags blossomed as the Union Jack faded a bit more into history.

5. Assuming the United States of America is still around 200 years from now, what do you think it would look like?
Pretty much the same.  It would take a revolution or splitting up of the country to change it.  One could imaging it eventually making sense, democratically, to reduce the number of states (and thus stars) if the great plains continue to depopulate and the coastal areas continue to grow.  And there is also what looks to be massive flooding in the next couple centuries as the ice caps melt, which might change the composition of the states.  But I imagine the system will equilibrate, and basic logic of the flag will persist.

6. The Nazi and Confederate flags are now pretty much relegated to history books and museums. Are there other flags around the world that have met similar fates that we may not be familiar with?
Well, the breakup of the USSR led to a whole bunch of Soviet era flags that are now very much collector's items, but that's a pretty familiar example.  It's a good question for some vexillologist out there to ponder! 
7. What is your take on American flags on everything, from bikinis to beer cozies?
According to the US Flag Code these are all verboten, but the Supreme Court has ruled that enforcing these "anti desecration" rules is unconstitutional as it conflicts with First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.  I've never been a fan of the Flag Code, and think that one of the things that makes the US flag so vibrant and alive is the endless ways it can be appropriated into "speech" of all sorts.  Sure a lot of what you see is tacky, but its a symptom of underlying health I think.

8. Are there any recent trends or controversies in flag design?
I think what happened, and is happening, in New Zealand is fascinating. The government there is spending is 26 million dollars on a series of referendums that it hopes will end up creating a new flag with a public mandate behind it (and, finally, doing away with endless confusion of the NZ flag with the nearly identical flag of its closest neighbor, Australia). It looks highly likely to fail, which raises a really interesting question:  Can it be in the public interest, the public good, to change a national (or regional, or city) flag even if the majority of the population is against it?  I think examples like Canada show that the answer is yes.  But in that case, in the absence of a broad public mandate, what's a fair and prudent (I mean, $26 million?) way of doing this, especially in an age of crowd-sourcing and marginalization of the design professions.  (There wasn't a single design expert appointed to the flag change committee in New Zealand.)

Related to this question of what should replace the crowd-sourcing of designs and democratically-created inertia is the phenomena of flag designs that have mobilized viral internet campaigns behind them.  In New Zealand it took the form of the Red Peak movement, based on a very slick Tumblr site,  The "Red Peak" design made it out of the 10,292 flags submitted for consideration onto the "long list" of 40 flag designs, but not onto the short list of 4 "finalist" designs chosen to spend lots of money polling the public on to decide an a single "challenger" to the current flag.  This failure to make it into the final round really mobilized its advocates into an online campaign to demand that it be added as a 5th option -- and it worked! The Prime Minister agreed to add it to the ballot, which became a choice of 5 options, not 4.  (Well, actually just 4, because 2 of the 5 were essentially the same, but that's another issue.)  Red Peak went on to poll very poorly in the public at large -- it used, after all, the least familiar symbology. But it demonstrated the power of internet organizing.  (Another nice example in the last year was The International Flag of Planet Earth,, a school project by a Swedish design student that went viral on the internet last May based on its slick web presentation.)

9. What’s a flag-related piece of trivia that you think fans of history and geopolitics may not know?
Well, those outside of Brazil may not know that the Brazilian flag shows the stars that were visible above Rio de Janiero on a particular date in history: November 15, 1889, the day the Brazilian Republic was proclaimed.  And that not only are these actual stars (Sirius, Antares, Spica, etc.) but that, unlike on the US flag where individual stars don't correspond to individual states, each of these real stars is assigned to a particular Brazilian state.  

So even though it looks very different, the Brazilian and US flags have this strong similarity. In both countries, adding a state to the republic necessitates changing the flag.  And for a short time the similarity of flags was even greater: from Nov 15-19, 1889, the Brazilian flag used the same stars-and-stripes design as the US, but with gold and green stripes and a smaller blue canton (the numbers of stars and stripes were different, too).

10. Why do you love flags?
It really started in childhood. I grew up outside of Boston, and one time went to visit relatives in New Brunswick.  They gave me a little provincial stick flag with a cool Viking-looking ship on it.  I was bitten with the flag bug at an impressionable age.

Nowadays I love flags because each represents the tip of a historical iceberg, and you can learn a lot about history, politics, and design by delving into them.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Glenn Frey The Heat Is On video

Another great musician has passed.

When I moved to America, I got my first bicycle. I used to ride around the neighborhood, like a big shot, humming this song.

Siberian hermit

Homer Simpson versus Seafood Buffet

When The Simpsons was funny...

Meet the Patels trailer

We enjoyed this documentary. It's about an Indian-American actor who is pressured by his traditional parents to find a wife. It's on Netflix.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Gorbachev Pizza Hut ad

I just asked his people for an interview.