Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The IAAF has no idea what it's talking about

Whatever success the sport of track and field achieves and whatever popularity it enjoys is likely in spite of the IAAF, which is about as useful as the UN in promoting or managing the sport. Watching the utter aloofness of the IAAF, which is quite possibly one of the poorest sources of information about the sport, and does virtually nothing to promote it. This is significant for a sport that's dying in front of us who still care about it.

If you watch any of the World Championships in Daegu, you would notice that the stands are almost always empty. Even on Sunday night, with Usain Bolt scheduled to run the final of the men's 100, the stands seemed about half full. Tonight, they were mostly empty for the men's 400 and the two finals that preceded it. The website, however, will tell you that tickets are sold out.

Part of the problem is putting the championships in Daegu, one of three cities which was willing to put in a bid for the event (Moscow and Brisbane were the others). Daegu is at best the third choice for a major event in Korea. I can't think of any Korean who would go there willingly. While many people go there, it's to visit family or to work there.

I don't deny that Korea does a good job of organizing and hosting such events, but there is almost no public interest here in track and field, and what little interest there could be is extinguished by the fact that there is not a single noteworthy Korean competing at these championships.

This explains why someone would go so far as to spend money on these tickets and stay home, or why the local rights owner, KBS, feels that infomercials outdraw the world's third or fourth-biggest sporting event. To be fair, of course, track has a very low profile in just about the entire world; it gets to be one of the biggest sporting events in the world because just about anyone can do it and because of the diversity of competitions.

At any rate, what sparked this diatribe against the IAAF is this sentence from its website about the men's marathon here on Sunday:

The 35-year-old.(sic) proving age isn't a barrier even at this distance. mastered South Korea's harsh heat and humidity when winning the Seoul Marathon in March.

The runner in question is Abderrahim Goumri, who did indeed win the Seoul International Marathon here in March, running 2:09:11. That time is about four minutes slower than his personal best, but not because of the heat and humidity. I ran the same race on March 20 and, as anybody who knows anything about Korea could tell you, it is very cold here in March.

I remember the day as being cold and rainy, but don't take my word for it. Data shows that the temperature was 4 degrees in the morning. Here is an IAAF recap of Goumri winning the race even though he is oddly overdressed for the balmy weather Seoul apparently gets in March.

I don't except the IAAF's writers to know all about the Korean climate, nor do I expect them to have a photographic memory of every international marathon, but presumably they get paid for writing what they do. Even two minutes of research could have proven that Seoul is cold in March (average high of 10, low of 1) and that the race in question was also run on a cold day.

Resorting to outright fabrications, as the writer did, is indicative of laziness and is also a window into the sort of careless, amateur operation the IAAF runs as it governs what is, for better or worse, one of the world's largest sports.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Drama in Daegu

For me, and I suspect for many others, tonight was the most important night of the World Championships in Daegu. For most, I suppose, it was the men's 100-metre final featuring Usain Bolt, but for me, the highlight of any major competition is the men's 10,000. I'm not alone in this view, but it certainly is a minority view to focus on a twenty-five lap event, to the point that no one wants to put a 10,000 in their track meet.

The race was hard to predict, at least on paper, because of the uncertainty around Kenenisa Bekele. It wouldn't have been a surprise if Bekele had won or if he had foundered. Bekele was never really a factor in the race, as it turned out. The pace was pushed by Tadesse, Martin Mathathi and others whose name I don't know because I missed about half the race thanks to the women's long jump.

The race started slowly, going through the first kilometre in 2:57, which wouldn't really shock me if a woman did it. Halfway was 13:58, and a couple of laps at 63 and 64 seconds were enough to drop Bekele, though anyone watching on TV would have missed this. Farah kicked at 400 and it looked like Merga and Jeilan would fight for silver as late as 250 to go, but by 200 it looked like Jeilan had a chance. At 150 it was a race again and by 100 he had more or less pulled even. Farah was able to hold him off until 10 metres to go when Jeilan went by.

As much acclaim as Bekele has gotten over the distance, this was no doubt the most dramatic and exciting championship 10k since the Gebrselassie-Tergat duel at the Sydney Olympics. Bekele was so good that he would kick at 400 and the race was over with 395 to go.

Now for the second-guessing. My first reaction, as Farah opened up a huge lead, was that he had gone too soon. If he had waited before kicking, or at least not spent himself so quickly, he might have had a chance. On the other hand, if he had held back, he wouldn't have had such a big lead. The fact is that Farah was 10 metres or so away from winning.

My second reaction is that Farah and Tadesse, especially, would have had a better chance if the race had been faster up until the end. Tadesse did a great job in leading against Bekele two years ago. He pushed the pace tonight, but a faster ninth kilometre might have dropped enough people to let him medal, if nothing else.

My third reaction is that Bekele dropping out is no surprise after almost two years of not racing. He has pulled out some fantastic performances over the past decade, and he may yet do so again, but it wasn't going to happen. This was his first time to ever run a 10k on the track and not win.

Finally, there was clear proof that LetsRun's America-first jingoism produces idiotic fans. The amount of attention given to also-ran Americans compared world-beating Africans is absurd and always will be. This is why, as soon as Jeilan won, we saw comments like these in the race thread:

"Ethiopian,,, Gelad or something"
"And unknown Ethiopian Jeilan" (sic)
"Who the hell is this Jeilan guy? I've never even heard of him before."

Except, of course, that Jeilan made waves five years ago when he ran 27:02 (still his PB) supposedly at the age of 17. Until today, he had never quite fulfilled the potential he showed in 2006, but he is hardly an unknown. If he had been American, of course, the LetsRun crowd could no doubt have proven with their six-degree game (he beat such-and-such by so many seconds and such-and-such once had dinner with the Duke of Wellington, so we know that...) that he was obviously going to win.

An hour after all this was the men's 100-metre final. I saw Dwayne Chambers get disqualified for a false start in the semi-finals and noted that the new rule seems overly punitive. When Bolt lined up, I said that he was going to win easily unless he did something stupid, and he made the most likely mistake, which was a false start.

Ironically, Bolt was the last person who needed to be jumpy and nervous, but it happened anyway. The crowd, the announcers and, if I could have heard it, the Internet was stunned. Bolt had been the reason that the stadium in Daegu was even half full. To be disqualified so suddenly and, for a casual fan, inexplicably, must have been a huge let-down.

I don't support the rule. I remember how annoying it used to be to get a 100-metre final off without a false start, but even without special consideration for Bolt and his status within the sport, it seems unfair to punish what is obviously a common mistake. The old rule, if it ever actually existed, of allowing one false start for anyone and then disqualifying whoever is responsible for the second false start, seems a bit more reasonable as it has a warning element to it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On airports and feelings

Airports, as George Clooney's character demonstrated in Up in the Air, are perhaps the least sentimental place on earth. The air, the food, the pleasantries and just about everything about the experience is completely fake. Most people, he says, hate it, but he thrives on it. I have a love-hate relationship with airports. While I love travel and I love airports, I absolutely hate flying.

Airports are a self-contained world of their own, as Jerry Seinfeld noted almost twenty years ago. When I had a layover at the Beijing airport last year, I remember paying four dollars for a piece of cake and six dollars for a cup of instant coffee. The airport in Dalian had a $13 cup of organic, fair-trade coffee, for which they may have very well never found a buyer outside of spite or novelty. To wit, Seinfeld said:

Do you think that the people at the airport that run the stores have any idea
what the prices are every place else in the world? Or do you think they just
feel they have their own little country out there and they can charge anything
they want? You're hungry? Tuna sandwich is nine dollars. You don't like it;
go back to your own country.

At any rate, one of the things I love about airports is that, at least in the developed world, they're completely cultureless. Airports in Toronto, Tokyo, Tianjin and Tampa are virtually indistinguishable from each other. There are the high-end stores, the vaguely ethnic restaurants, the booksore-cum-convenience store with $14 copies of Sports Illustrated and $8 bottles of water, and the well-intentioned but nearly universally-garbled attempts at helping people stay connected (Bangkok invented a weird flat computer with a metal keyboard that runs on credit cards).

Someone asked me recently whether I felt more comfortable around Pakistanis or Canadians (though, I suppose, technically Korean was also a possibility), to which I replied that the answer was neither. I would have to say that I'm most comfortable around people who don't use words like "normal food" or "those people", people like the Namibian guy I met in China who had evidently studied abroad for much of his life, if not his entire life, or the Dutch girl I met in Vienna who spoke no Dutch.

Airports are like that too, although to be fair, they're more like taking food from a dozen different cultures, putting it into a blender and serving it up in $14 cups a a new take on cuisine. However, there comes a time in every trans-Pacific flight, around that two-thirds mark when you can't sleep any more, you can't watch another movie and you can't open the windows, that your fried, confused brain thinks about just what it is that you're doing.

It's at that moment that, hopefully, for me, at least, I can assure myself that as much as my sense of time and space have been obliterated, that I'm okay at the present moment. Not only that, but if I can tolerate the flight, I can probably also tolerate anything in life. The emotional crises induced by the chaos of travel, I like to think, in my case at least, produce a healing catharsis along with everything that they take from me.

If you get a chance to recover in between flights, as I'm doing right now at the Hong Kong airport, you'll probably realize that the emotional insights and panic on the plane were both sheer nonsense. Having gone through it all, however, it's possible to learn something, even if it's that there's nothing at all to worry about.

While I was writing this, I also thought about just why it is that I like airports if they're the equivalent of a vast 7/11. It can't be the people, because all you really see are the richest, say, ten percent of the world, hardly an interesting idea. It's not diversity either, because seeing people with four different colours of skin was never that interesting in high school. Much like a train station, an airport gives you the chance to go anywhere in theory. Airports being far less pleasant an experience than a train station, I prefer train stations much more.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The IAAF World Championships come to Daegu

This is an intersection of the generally non-intersecting themes of this blog, Korea and running. I went to Daegu for the first time last september and I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the local government if underwhelmed by the city itself. Now the time is here for the IAAF World Championships in Athletics, or track and field, if you will, to come to Daegu.

When I heard that the championships would be in Daegu a few years ago, I thought it was too bad, because there was no chance I'd be here. Now that I'm still here, albeit working, it's safe to say that I'll just be able to see all of the championships live and maybe catch a marathon. In theory, however, I could leave after work to catch a night event thanks to Korea's small size and excellent high-speed rail network mean that it's easier for me to travel the 200-300 kilometres to Daegu than it is to, say, go from one side of greater Toronto to the other.

You can catch previews of all the events here, though I prefer LetsRun if only because they're more critical, even though they're a little (okay, a lot) centred on white Americans, Americans and Europeans (and in that order).

The most interesting event, for me anyway, is the men's 10,000 where Kenenisa Bekele is expected to race for the first time in almost two years and try to win his fifth straight world title. Challenging him will be Mo Farah of Britain and then the usual list of Zersenay Tadesse of Eritrea, Sileshi Sihine and Imane Merga of Ethiopia. Merga and Farah look to be the strongest of Bekele's challengers, if only because Bekele hasn't bested them the way he has beaten Sihine and Tadesse for years now.

I probably will try to go down for the men's marathon next Sunday, September 4, if for no other reason than the fact that I want to go hiking this Sunday, when the women's marathon happens. The course is basically three loops, making it possible to catch the leaders about six times near the start and finish of the loop if you're careful.

Seeing either marathon is great because the hot weather will both make you grateful that you're not running and appreciate the ability of whoever (look, this is as much a crapshoot as it is talent and preparation) manages to come out on top. I imagined that Beijing and then Daegu would be comparable to Osaka where no man ran faster than 2:17 and few broke 2:20, but Beijing disproved it (partly due to superior talent), but Osaka is also inhumanly hot. Daegu is hot, but I think not as hot as Osaka can be. Times should be classically slow, not so slow that you think they ran 44 km or someone forgot to hit the stop button on their watch.

For North Americans, LetsRun has a schedule for Eastern time. For Canadians, I imagine that the CBC coverage is better than whichever American network has it, at least it used to be the case. In Korea, thanks to the largesse of state-owned broadcasters, we will probably be able to watch pretty much everything live.

I'm also a fan of watching heats, boring as they are, not for the reason that it's a rare chance to watch running on TV, but because I think it's instructive to watch someone run very fast and yet hold something back. So much bad running and so many depressing results come from trying to give a hundred percent all the time on every run, every workout and every race.

A rare article on running tips that gives actual running tips

Maybe because this was written by Alex Hutchinson, no slouch at running himself, it's a far better resource for recreational runners than much of what you find elsewhere. On the other hand, there's no shortage of tripe written by former Olympians with credentials superior to Hutchinson, so maybe it's not a function of Hutchinson's running ability.

So much of the running advice you find on the Internet, particularly in mainstream publications, is of two sorts. The first makes it seem like you're about to undergo some obscure heart surgery in the Sahara, reminding you not to overdo it and covering legal liability by wrapping the whole thing in medical advice and disclaimers.

The second type is the sort that makes news for its sheer novelty. If Meb Keflezghi, Olympic silver medalist and New York Marathon champion, adds twenty-five minutes of blowing bubbles with his spit to the fifteen-or-so hours of running he does every week, this will make news. If it's not blowing bubbles with his spit, it'll be doing yoga, pilates, weights or running in those shoes George Costanza bought from "Jimmy" to help him run faster.

Indeed, it's better journalism for one article to posit a new idea, from a "study", of course, that maybe watching TV helps you run a faster marathon than running everyday. This is the same reason that if you're a scientist who can publish a study showing that eating chocolate helps you lose weight, beer makes you smarter, or any other counter-intuitive drivel, you're guaranteed to wind up published in newspapers around the world.

The analogous problem in history would be the cottage industry of people who make a living arguing that a prominent historical figure was gay, had an incredible affair, or did something so different from their usual public image that the publication in question can't help but print this, no matter how non-sensical or baseless the claim might be.

What, by the way, are these tips?

Many inexperienced runners make the mistake of always running at the same pace for the same distance, says Jerry Ziak, a top Canadian marathoner and Olympic hopeful who coaches about 35 runners in Vancouver.

This approach – a mix of easy and hard running, instead of doing everything at medium effort – is typical of the training elite runners do, and produces much greater gains in fitness.

Just as important as the run itself, he says, is what you do before and after: warming up with dynamic stretches, and taking the time to do strength and mobility drills for the core and hips.

Mr. Laan often finds runners place too much emphasis on a single long run – running 35 kilometres on a Sunday morning but only 15 kilometres the rest of the week, for example. It’s better to spread training out more evenly.

Especially refreshing about the article is that it doesn't make mention of useful extras like weightlifting, cross-training or various nutritional products that offer quick fixes. A great deal of any lifestyle, no matter what, is what you can buy while doing it. Roughly comparable activities like cycling, skiing or hiking offer no shortage of expensive items to buy, and the sort of person who makes a habit of reading the Globe also makes a habit of buying these things.

However, running flies in the face of the consumerist lifestyle. Cycling, skiing and mountaineering at their highest levels are dominated by wealthy countries, but the most successful countries in long-distance running are Kenya and Ethiopia, with a total of about 120 million people and a combined economy of $60 billion, about the size of Delaware, New Hampshire or Saskatchewan.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Guns, Germs and Steel

I read Guns, Germs and Steel a few weeks ago when I was in China, making this post a few weeks old. I didn't realize, moreover, that the book was almost fifteen years old, published in 1997. That puts it in the sweet spot of irrelevance in a sense, because it's not so old that no one has ever heard of it, effectively making it new, nor is it so new that everyone's talking about it. It should be something of a required reading today given how fashionable scientific racism seems to be getting, at least on the Internet.

Guns, Germs and Steel seeks to answer the question of why it is that Eurasian societies advanced faster and further than societies in Australia, Africa and the Americas, ultimately becoming able to colonize them. The central answer it posits is geography.

Societies in Eurasia, generally speaking, were placed in locations where agriculture was possible. Geography, particularly, agriculture is so central to the fate of the world today that Diamond seems to be overreaching in the explanatory power he assigns to geography and agriculture. Agriculture, Diamond writes, was possible in the presence of favourable topography and climate, as well as the presence of plants and animals which were conducive to farming.

Nevertheless, it is a good explanation: societies which developed agriculture went on to evolve into densely-poplated states with large population bases. Contrast this with societies on Australia, where agriculture was prohibitive, population and population density very low and, consequently, there was no organization into societies which were large enough to conquer others.

Diamond is as much trying to answer a question that usually never gets answered seriously or gets answered with simplistic racism as he is trying to write a book against racism. That we over-extend by viewing things in terms of race is easy when you consider that one Maori tribe which conquered another, hitherto an equal, with the help of modern weapons would not be regarded as intrinsically superior, but Europeans who conquered indigenous Americans with the help of Chinese-developed weapons do get regarded as superior for doing so.

On the other hand, Diamond makes some leaps that are the sort of "reverse racism" (about as meaningful of a term as 'PIN number') practiced by well-meaning but misguided high school teachers. In particular, he argues that tribes living in Stone Age conditions on New Guinea are more intelligent than those of us in industrialized society because there are things they can do which we can't. While Diamond is able to correctly identify the fact that we can do things others can't because we have been trained to do so from childhood, he does not extend that some courtesy to explain why we can't do what the New Guineans can do.

As I read the book, I leaned more and more to the conclusion that even if Diamond is wrong and whites are smarter than blacks, what difference does it make? Modern racists on the Internet sometimes allow for the inclusion of Jews and some Asians as superior. Generally all racists, whether strict exclusionists or the more flexible, inclusive type, can agree on the inferiority of blacks and Hispanics.

If different ethnic groups are different in many ways, the argument goes, are differences in intelligence not possible? I personally would not be shocked if there were intellectual differences between ethnic groups, but one group would no more be "smarter" than one Jews are "healthier" than blacks by not having the gene for sickle cell anemia.

Moreover, the reality is that differences in the intellectual capacity of ethnic groups are only meaningful if that's how you see the world. If those of Russian descent are smarter than those of German descent, what does this information do for us? Should we let in more Russian immigrants than German immigrants? The smarter policy would be to simply let in those immigrants who can meet a certain standard, but that wouldn't work for those who see the world as consisting of various races, nations, ethnic groups or whatever allows them to feel superior.

What has been unfortunate for white racists has been their reliance on IQ tests, because those usually put scholastically-inclined East Asians and Jewish ethnic groups at the top. The options from there have been to broaden their appeal to include Jews, as Jared Taylor at American Renaissance has done, or to move away from being white supremacists to white nationalists preserving the uniqueness of the white race, as is more common nowadays.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why the decline of message boards is unfortunate

This blog post takes a look at the slow decline of message boards, pretty much all of whom are dying a slow death as people move towards blogs, Facebook, Twitter and similar sites. I'm reminded of the first message board I ever used, the BaseballBoards, which then became FanHome, which in turn was absorbed by some unholy conglomerate which may have been absorbed by ESPN.

Eventually, FanHome re-emerged independent as TheScoreBoards, but only as a shell of itself. That the most active part of it is its off-topic political discussion board tells us something about the power of the Internet, as people who on the surface can't stand each other start what might well be their second decade of discussing politics with each other. My affiliation with the site in its various incarnations goes back eleven years.

The main difference between Facebook and Twitter underlines the importance of message boards. If I have something intellectual to share, I'll put it on Twitter. If it's something more personal, I'll put it on Facebook. For a majority of people, I suppose the latter is more common, and understandably so, but the practice of talking to strangers on the Internet is vastly underrated.

I learned to write by debating strangers about baseball, politics and later football and running over the Internet. It's how I learned to evaluate the strength of an argument and someone's reasoning, a process that I would formalize years later in university, but it began with the Internet. Indeed, much of what I know, I've learned by discussing a variety of topics with strangers on the Internet.

A future talking only to people you know is in many ways a dull future because it's a closed loop. Talking to people you know about the things you know takes us back to the '80s when information was exceedingly hard to access and someone interested in Bactrian camels would simply be out of luck if he or she did not know any other enthusiasts of Bactrian camels.

Up until recently, the Internet was a fantastic way to learn in that strangers around the world could be united by their enthusiasm over a common topic and learn from each other. If this phenomenon becomes less common, we'll just read about things we agree shared by people we agree with.

More than a decade ago, I became interested in white nationalist message boards, first reading the Vanguard News Network until its profanity made it illegible, and then migrating to the paranoid, deluded and yet more-or-less comprehensible Stormfront. Some might argue that there is no edifying component here, but I would also like to add message boards like Cool Running and LetsRun, especially the former, where I learned a great deal from runners much better than myself.

If now I'm supposed to use Facebook or Twitter to connect with other runners, there simply won't be that depth of discussion you can find on LetsRun. LetsRun, the message board of choice for people who believe that you have no business running unless you are presently an Olympic gold medalist, but also that your gold medal was the result of doping, is a website that made me a much better runner.

Stranger-based communication allows for people in dissimilar situations to connect. But if it's going to be replaced by talking to runners you know in real-life, like with anything else, the discussions simply won't be as passionate. The anonymity of message boards allows for ideas to be examined and criticized with greater scrutiny than you might present in real-life.

If I sit next to someone at a wedding who believes that there are only 42 elements in the periodic table, I can either gently correct them or politely accept their world view. On the Internet, I can let them know in detail, with references, just how wrong they are. Maybe this exhibits some anti-social tendencies, but for the wider audience and maybe also the original poster, it presents a learning opportunity of how to call out someone for their nonsense.

But someone that I know in real-life who posts on Facebook that compression socks allowed them to run a half marathon forty-five minutes faster, I'll probably just click the 'like' button instead of pointing out that they'd have been lucky to get forty-five seconds of benefit from the sucks.

Admittedly, civility on many message boards is lacking, though the better message boards out there are far closer to real-life interaction than, say, the comments on newspaper articles, which by far trend to the absolute lowest of human interaction with near universality, a trend that I have never understood. But it's also true that a great deal of people have never read or never posted on a message board for the reason of manners, among others. Message boards might not have been for everyone, but for those who used them and have used them, the benefit was great.

Some of the message boards I've read over the years, which are still standing:

LetsRun, since 2003
Stormfront, since 2001 or 2002
TheScoreBoards, since 2000 in its first incarnation

Pictures from Beijing

As much as I have to say about the Chinese government and Chinese politics, I had a fantastic time in Beijing and Harbin. I probably did about a half dozen identifiable things and spent the rest of my time simply roaming the city to the point that central Beijing became convenient enough to walk around without resorting to buses, taxis or the subway.

I grew to hate Beijing taxis during this trip. It was impossible to find one late at night or during rush hour, much of Beijing's core is an awkward place to catch a taxi and taxis don't venture there to begin with. If you do find a line of taxis waiting in a busy area, odds are that they'll quote $8 for a $2 trip.

For most tourists, most tourist attractions can be walked (eg it should take no more than an hour or so to walk from the Temple of Heaven to the Drum Tower) and you'll learn a great deal along the way.

You'll also find that if you're going to or from the core of the city, buses will likely go where you're going and will do so for 1 yuan (about 15 cents). Bus stops tend to be written entirely in Chinese, but it's also time to consider the fact that Chinese simply isn't that hard. Just as Chinese newcomers adapt to new countries by matching letters, you might do the same by matching characters.

Consider Tiananmen Square, which is shorter in Chinese than English (天安门), or Beijing station (北京站). If you learn even these six characters during your stay there, your trip will be a much more interesting one. The alternative mindset, of course, is that an expensive overseas trip is no time to start learning the world's most common language. That time is best spent isolating yourself with other backpackers discussing your travels to other locales prefaced by the verb 'to do', as in "yeah, I did Italy and Switzerland when I was in university, it was pretty chill".

That rant aside, here are some of the things I saw while I was in Beijing.

The crowd in the ticket hall at Beijing station. I'm convinced that this scoreboard does nothing but sow panic.

The aforementioned National Museum of China.

Officers from the People's Armed Police march at Tiananmen Square. They are technically a paramilitary force responsible for internal security. Unsurprisingly, they number 1.5 million across the country.

The Chinese Communist Party built itself a 90th birthday present at Wangfujing, one of many across the city.

Yao Ming in an ad next to, I presume, his mother, who is 6'3" herself.

Evening at Beihai Park in Beijing, a remarkable public space in Beijing.

The view from the sixth-floor cafe at the King's Joy Hotel in Qianmen. Note the dilapidated buildings in the foreground with the Forbidden City and the state apparatus in the background.

The Qianmen pedestrian street.

Between the pedestrian street and where I was staying was this unsightly relic from the past.

The ornate but far-too-small waiting room at Beijing station. The cafe in the waiting room was mostly empty. None of the people standing or sitting on their luggage wanted to pay $4 for a cup of tea and the soft booths that came with it.

Beijing station.

A taxi driver and a passenger discuss a destination on a map in front of Beijing station.

One of the preserved historical houses (I think this is actually the entrance to a collection of houses) on Beichang Street just west of the Forbidden City. This shady street with well-preserved architecture and occasional glimpses of the forbidden Zhongnanhai complex connects Tiananmen Square with Beihai Park. It makes for an excellent walk.

The north end of the Forbidden City, Beijing's imperial palace for five centuries.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Toonies or Tweeting, it doesn't matter

I went to my first Jays game in three years today. I can't be sure, but I feel like my last game was a post-apocalyptic Toonie Tuesday where drunken shirtless hooligans began fighting with each other and with SkyDome security, doing their part to disabuse the city and outside observers of the notion that this is Toronto the Good. Somewhere between now and then, they did away with the idea of two-dollar tickets for the third deck.

I can't be in favour of a raise in ticket prices for a team that, no matter how you spin it, hasn't made the playoffs since Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister and lately has been in the process of ridding itself of its best players. However, if you had been to some of these games, it was clear that a two-dollar ticket made it absurdly affordable (a round trip subway fare was triple the price of the ticket!) for large numbers of drunken men to congregate in one place and be fueled by the just-not-good-enough mediocrity of the Blue Jays. I will gladly pay an extra nine dollars for third-deck tickets behind home plate if it keeps some of the douchebags away.

When I got to the stadium tonight, I saw that the new paradigm for Tuesdays was Twitter. Tuesdays are now Tweeting Tuesdays, the obvious step for a decidedly lame team is to tie itself to Twitter, following CNN into irrelevance. The reasons are different: CNN is delegating much of its journalism to random people on Twitter, acting as an excellent example of why the ancient Greeks feared democracy. The term had the connotation of mob rule, and similarly, this 24-hour news channel can't find enough journalists to come up with stories or opinions, so they turn to mob rule.

Case in point is this clip from the Daily Show, starting at 3:20. An anchor actually says, "tell me what you're doing this weekend, I wanna know." Stewart concludes that "CNN has given up, they've put the power of the news in your hands."

The Jays, meanwhile, are seemingly trying to be hip, but their minor league lameness comes out with events like 90's Night. Tweeting Thursday just takes the old system of encouraging fans to waste fifty cents texting some nonsense for a small chance at winning a prize, but it allows for more of it. Perhaps the worst way to use Twitter at a live sporting event (is there a good way? Let me know at @a_ahmad) where you're already there was when the Jays were down 4-1 in the middle of the ninth inning. They took someone's Twitter comment that read along the lines of "rally time" and put that up on the big screen.

Now, odds are that I use Twitter far, far, far more than you do. So, why do I use Twitter if I think that Twitter is a slide into irrelevance? The problem is not with Twitter, it's with the use of Twitter for marketing purposes by a baseball team that has finished third or worse in fifteen of the last sixteen seasons, save for one second-place finish. This season's Jays are on track for their fourth-straight fourth-place finish. It's a tough division, sure, but every other team in the division has managed to do more since the Jays last made it to the playoffs in 1993.

The only thing that can make it fun to go to a baseball game are the fans. Team-directed fun is about as fun as, well, the microwaved $6 hot dogs they sell (I fully stand to be corrected if the hot dogs are $4 instead of $6). Developing and maintaining a larger fan base is difficult in a hockey-crazed town with a so-so team. The Jays were twelfth last year and I'm sure that one of the EQA-equipped baseball illuminati has a complete answer to how to develop a fan base, but better, cheaper food would be a start.

In the absence of winning, a smaller ballpark with less cement and a far smaller capacity would do wonders for this team. The popularity of Jays hats from the '80s and '90s is in part indicative of the popularity of nostalgia itself but also nostalgia for what was a great team playing with powdered-blue uniforms. The current team, called the Blue Jays but wearing black and white uniforms, playing in a half-empty concrete cavern with fans busy Tweeting, is the antithesis to the team in powder blue playing in a anachronistic stadium subject to wind and snow from the lake and with awful sightlines.

Baseball can be a uniform sport in that there are 162 games a year which can blend into one, but what fans love is what's unusual about the game. Marketing the Jays isn't easy, as about a dozen failed marketing approaches over the "maybe a wild card" years have shown, but going heavy on corporatization isn't the answer. Of course, with a topic such as this one, discussing what more people are going to like, maybe corporate standardization is the answer, though someone who knows why attendance surged to as high as 29,000 per game (besides cheap tickets) from 2006-2008 could answer that.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Visiting the National Museum of China

Please bear with me as I type up the posts I wrote by hand during the long stretches of offline time in China. I already won't post again about the Chinese Northeast for a while.

The New York Times wrote in April about the newly-reopened National Museum of China and its many difficulties, namely that of trying to have a world-class museum in a country where many topics are off-limits, up to and including that country's history.

Having read about it beforehand and the weather in Beijing being 35 degrees, it was natural to spend most of a day at the museum. I wasn't alone: there was no shortage of people sitting around in the lobby of the museum. Like many other public places in China, the part that was free was crowded with hundreds of people, but the part where you had to pay (a cafe with nice chairs) had only about eight people, most of them Westerners.

What had struck me about the building the previous day was its architecture. It looks like a North Korean monument: massive to the point of making anyone in front of it feel like an ant, concrete, and firmly in the socialist style. The throwback style of architecture is definitely in keeping with China's recent Communist Party revival movement.

In the searing heat, I was dismayed to see that there was a line of several hundred people and it was moving slowly. When I got to the front, I saw that the two windows I'd been seeing didn't sell tickets, they were responsible for taking baggage that was too big to take inside.

The ticket window itself was a room with the doors opened. In the doorway was a table with a single man sitting at it. He was handing out tickets to a crowd that had lined up but instantly disintegrated into a mob. The tickets were being handed out as fast as they could be printed, employees behind him were feeding them to him like ammunition for a machine gun.

Some people showed ID but he didn't even glance at them, though my ticket says that admission is only with valid ID. I didn't have my passport since, well, there's no need to take your passport to a museum, so it worked out well. Clearly, the museum was not off to a great start if this was the sort of absurd, inefficient way it handled something as simple as entry.

The museum itself is something of an embarrassment to one of the world's greatest civilizations, mostly due to the fact that it's very much an initiative guided by the highest levels of the Communist Party, but in part because many important artifacts were taken by the Guomintang to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war. Nevertheless, I would guess that maybe twenty or thirty percent of the available space is empty.

The central hall is a collection of paintings depicting various scenes from China's communist revolution and the anti-Japanese resistance, with descriptions only in Chinese. The upper floors have an exhibit on Chinese pottery, described only in Chinese, and Buddhist sculptures, this time with English accompanying the Chinese.

There are three foreign exhibits at the museum which I didn't check out because of a lack of interest. It's worth noting that they're relatively innocuous, uncontroversial and dull. Enlightenment art is in fact controversial for the party, which is why it was carefully arranged to avoid references to troublesome things like human rights.

The best part of the museum, ironically, was in the basement. It was a fascinating, thorough exhibit about Chinese history from prehistoric times up until the collapse of imperial China with the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Signs were bilingual and the museum did a good job of stringing together that much history with unifying themes, though it was self-serving to a great extent. There were numerous references to China's ethnics (sic) and the contribution they had made in multi-ethnic Chinese states going back centuries, no doubt part of China's attempt to harmonize its present minorities (Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians and others) by casting them as always having been part of a multiethnic China.

Another interesting project was that any and all maps of China, at the museum and elsewhere, now depict China with the entirety of the South China Sea as part of China. This is a hotly-disputed claim that involves many countries, but China just went ahead and glossed it right over.

According to the New York Times article, there was a section on modern Chinese history, which was euphemistically titled "Road to Rejuvenation". I had a hard time finding it, variously ending up at a bathroom or an exhibit hall that had nothing in it as of yet. Considering that the museum is organized like an M.C. Escher sketch, I don't think it's gone, but it wouldn't surprise me if it has been removed for making references to the difficulties of implementing socialism, itself a nice way of mentioning the millions who starved to death during the Great Leap Forward.

Where will we catch a glimpse of high society in 2050?

Forty years ago, with China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution and the Soviet Union more or less as strong as ever, you would have never predicted that Russians born then would travel to provincial China for material goods as adults. And yet, that's exactly what's been happening in the Russian Far East for some time now, as Russians cross the Amur River into China's Heilongjiang province for business and for fun.

Slate reported two years ago on the border cities of Blagoveshchensk and Heihe, the former as ignored now as it was under the USSR, and the latter an unremarkable Chinese city no one would have ever heard of if it wasn't next to the Russian border. The relationship is lopsided enough that Blagoveschchensk has a monument to suitcase traders, Russians who have crossed the border into China to bring back goods they sold in Russia.

Harbin, similarly, also has Russian tourists with signs and facilities catering to them, a relationship that notably is not reciprocated in Russia. Admittedly, there's less to attract Chinese to Russia than vice versa, but clearly only one governement is interested in the region.

The Chinese Northeast is the country's rust belt, part of the first industrialization of China when Manchuria was under Japanese control in the early twentieth-century. Like North Korea, which was established as a communist state around the same time, China used the Japanese industrial base for its fetishized socialist heavy industry.

For China, the focus moved South towards Hong Kong and Guangdong province thirty years ago, and the Northeast never really recovered. North Korea, on the other hand, never really moved its focus. Ironically, the Chinese Northeast is in part pinning its hopes on North Korea opening up to China the way China opened up to Hong Kong.

At any rate, what struck me about the sight of Russian tourists getting a look at the good life in Harbin was how dramatic the change in status was. It's not the shift in Sino-Russian relationships, but how absurd this would have seemed forty years ago, like Chinese tourists from Dandong being drawn to Sinuiju by its bright lights.

Parenthetically, while China's rise might seem surprising going by the twentieth century, it's absurd that the country which had been the world's most advanced for centuries and was the world's largest economy as late as 200 years ago, would not be able to regain that position absent the turmoil of the Qing dynasty's collapse and Mao's catastrophic planned economy.

Nevertheless, it is surprising that it happened because it might not have. Another example would be the fall of the Soviet Union, obvious to everyone in retrospect, but a shock to everyone at the time. While China will not be a rusting, abandoned hulk like much of Central Asia is in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, but that the world is intensely unpredictable, as much to us as to those who make a living making predictions about it.

Staying within Northeast Asia, there is perhaps no better place to accept that we might simply have no idea what the future will hold than in North Korea. People have been predicting its demise for years now, partly because that makes better headlines than "North Korea to keep on keeping on into the future", but the more it becomes a Chinese protectorate, the less likely it is to go anywhere. Whatever the case, it's safe to say that we don't know what North Korea will be like in 2050.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

To Harbin and back

I spent the middle of this trip traveling to and from Harbin. It's a fifteen-hundred kilometre trip that I made by train.

The Z1 train going to Harbin was surprisingly comfortable. The 40-dollar soft  seat ticket got me an actual soft seat, comparable to the sort of seat you might get on a train in Korea or elsewhere.

Actually, I would describe this train as more or less comparable to the Korean Mugunghwa trains, the lowest class. The ten-hour trip was overnight but my car was quieter than most Mugunghwa trains I've been on.

Harbin itself was one of those places I know well from having planned to go there about a half dozen times. It's most famous for its ice festival in the winter but a trip in the summer is well worth it.

From the moment I entered the Friendship Hotel in Harbin, I knew I'd hit the jackpot. Communist countries love the word friendship and this hotel claimed to have hosted Soviet leaders in the past.

It was a grand but worn hotel, so the four-star experience was mine for fifty dollars. The hotel, maybe by design was next to the Songhua river and Stalin Park, which runs next to it.

The air was much cooler and cleaner in Harbin owing to its location by the Russian border. Between the hotel and the weather alone the trip was worth it, considering that daytime highs in Beijing had been about 35 degrees. Harbin is also home to a collection of Russian architecture in varying states of repair and cheesy restoration.

Stalin Park meets the European-inspired Zhongyang Dajie (Central Avenue) at a very socialist and rather dramatic monument to flood control. I've never seen anything of the sort outside of a place on the outskirts of Budapest that collects old Soviet sculptures and statues and charges tourists for the right to stare at them.

Most of the Russian architecture in Harbin was the work of Jews who numbered in the tens of thousands there at one point. Its condition ranged from the good to The ostentatious to the beautiful.

Harbin is not an especially wealthy city by Chinese standards and development would likely threaten many of these buildings with either demolition or Las Vegas-style eternal life.

I would prefer it if Harbin and Heilongjang province became a sanctuary for architecture and nature respectively instead of being turned into another monstrous Chinese city, but I really have no knowledge of the forces at work in the city or the region.

I took the dingy T72 train back to Beijing, which charged the same despite taking sixteen hours and being far less clean or comfortable. Arriving at Beijing station made the trip somewhat more worth it.

I suspect that I'm the only one who loves that horribly undersized building and its peculiar shape, not to mention the fact that it has train service to Vietnam, Mongolia, North Korea and even Moscow.

I walked through the station's square at midnight on my way back after a late-night snack. There were people arriving and leaving, and there were also those hard on their luck roaming the area, but most numerous were those passengers who had camped out on the filthy, garbage-strewn ground on mats or their own luggage, waiting for their own train.