Friday, April 27, 2007

Beijing Olympics: Making Rain, Angering Governments

I read a fascinating article today that connects to yesterday's book review of The Worst Hard Times, by Timothy Egan. During the worst years of the Dust Bowl, the drought-stricken region saw many individuals who purported to be rain makers--people who could shake the moisture from the sky. Many would collect money for their services and simply skip town. Others, like Amarillo-based Tex Thornton, would launch dynamite into the clouds hoping to explode the clouds and release their rainfall.

Apparently the Chinese are also working on how to artificially cause rain. I have previously written about China's air pollution problems, which I experienced first-hand in Beijing. One morning in Beijing, we headed out after a long night of rain, and some locals told us that we were very lucky to get to see blue sky. Well, given the high chance of rain during the Beijing Olympics next August, the Chinese hope to artificially trigger the rain early to avoid rain during competition. Moreover, they hope to cause the rain in order to clean the air.

Let's just hope they are more successful than Tex Thornton.

On a side note, the Beijing Olympics are set to be a very big deal for a variety of unusual, political reasons. In fact, the most contentious Olympic torch relay in history is already in the works. China wants to run the torch to the top of Mount Everest in Tibet as well as through Taiwan. Taiwan, which has never accepted China's stance, is livid about the plans. The run to the top of Everest has caused controversy of its own. Many around the world do not accept China's occupation of Tibet, and, after visiting Tibet, it became clear that most ethnic Tibetans do not accept the continued Chinese occupation of Tibet. The plans to run a torch up Everest has already sparked protests landing several US climbers in jail.

Beyond the political message, others oppose using Everest for a political statement. After all, the mountain is called Chomolungma by the locals, "Goddess Mother of the World," and climbers engage in a "puja ceremony" before climbing to ensure that their climb is blessed religiously. Moreover, this season the Chinese have sent a large team up the North side of Everest to test the viability of a torch placement. In the process, the team has taken extra large campsite areas with armed guards stationed to protect the gear. These "preparation" efforts destroy the sanctity of the mountains and really taints the climbing experience for the north side climbers this year . . . climbers who are very well aware of other misdeeds by the Chinese military in the Himalaya region . . . typified by the massacre at Nangpa La near Cho Oyu last year.

This blog intends to keep an eye on these developments. China is a fascinating place, and these games give an opportunity to spotlight the good and the bad.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Book Review: The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

One of my new favorite movies has to be The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, starring Tommy Lee Jones. The story revolves largely around a young Border Patrol officer who committed a terrible crime. While his crime is appalling, the bulk of the film traces his punishment--part human inflicted and part seemingly inflicted by nature itself. The story of this officer is one of karma . . . with teeth. By the end of the movie, the viewer wonders whether the officer's sins are worth the repeated punishments: the beatings, the snakebite, the grueling journey, and the corpse companion.

Timothy Egan's book, The Worst Hard Time, reflected a similar theme, this time rooted in history. Set in the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma Panhandle, Baca County Colorado, and parts of Kansas and Nebraska, Egan traces the broad history of the Dust Bowl from cause to windy conclusion. Just like a viewer watching Three Burials, the reader becomes very well aware of the farmers' fault in contributing to the Dust Bowl but later concludes that no one deserves the hell that followed.

Hubris. It's a word that appears frequently in Egan's work--probably because it's the perfect choice to explain the growth of that part of the country. The entire region was founded on hubris. The grasslands had been home to millions of very well-adapted plains buffalo who fed on equally well-adapted grass in a region of high wind and low rain. In an effort to settle the central portions of the US, railroad marketing programs and US government incentives led farmers into this arid region with promises of limitless fertile croplands. An area that had been home to the Native Americans became the home of cowboys until the farmers appeared and plowed millions of acres.

At this point, the history began to remind me of Collapse by Jared Diamond. Diamond studied societies defined by their hubris (or at least ignorance) in good times, hubris which became their downfall in times of environmental or economic change. The good times were really good on the plains. World War I left grain prices soaring, and the early part of the 20th century saw unusually high amounts of rain. Towns exploded, and banks responded with risky lending practices, allowing farmers to acquire new cars, homes, and farm equipment--which created more plowed land. That part of the world was built in a guarantee of continued good conditions, environmentally and financially, and, when the world began to change, it all came crashing down. With the grass gone and crop prices plummeting, that world of hubris vanished in a massive cloud of dust. The plains had a collapse rivaling any detailed in Diamond's book, leaving the population propped up, and barely, on pure grit and government subsidy.

Egan paints the story of the impending struggle clearly and beautifully. His language carries the feel of an old time Panhandle slang, and he leaves the reader almost tasting dirt in her teeth at times (then again, this reader grew up in the Panhandle and is very familiar with that particular flavor of dirt). While the farmer obviously carries the blame for plowing up land fit only for grass, Egan makes it clear that the punishment for that sin outweighed any normal sense of justice. Egan quotes a diary entry from the time: "Those who coined the phrase 'There's no place like Nebraska' wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don't have to die to go to hell."

The people who survived that time period are a tough lot, and I wondered, while reading, whether I could have weathered that decade. More importantly, I wondered whether I would have to survive conditions like that and then look back on another period of hubris. Let's hope not.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Inn of the Anasazi: Santa Fe, New Mexico

A loud noise appears somewhere in the walls around me, and I woke up in a haze.

"Megan, did you hear that?"

Given the volume, I was sure she had to have heard, but it was 3 AM. We were in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the previous evening had involved a nice amount of wine with the folks--so perhaps she wouldn't have heard.

"Yes, and you need to do something about this."

Right. So I sprung to action. We were lodged at the Inn of the Anasazi, frequently rated in the top 500 hotels on the planet. And the place had, so far, lived up to this expectation. The staff was amazingly helpful. The rooms were spacious and charming, and the location could not have been superior.

But now it was 3 AM, and the walls were making a groaning sound of epic proportions. I was pretty sure this was the sound a dinosaur would make if it were having bamboo wedged under its toenails. As I walked toward the bathroom, the volume increased. I turned on a faucet, thinking that perhaps our pipes somehow had some air pressure that needed releasing (obviously I had no idea what I was doing), and the volume just increased. So, I called the front desk.

"Ummm. This is Brad Knapp in room 226, and a loud, groaning noise is coming from the bathroom." Immediately I realized that this probably sounded delusional, if not perverted, to the night manager. "It's like a loud, echoing screech." Maybe that would help.

"Well," he began in a voice that notified me that I definitely woke him, "we have someone in the basement working on the plumbing. Maybe that is it. See if it goes away."

Translation: I don't want to deal with this right now.

So, I laid back down, and the sounds continued. Megan and I mused that the sound was the ghost of the Anasazi coming to warn us about something (I was reading Collapse, which details the collapse of the Anasazi civilization, collapse triggered by a long period of resource depletion followed by a drought). Megan is not a fan of ghost stories however, so we quickly focused on our annoyance.

Meanwhile, I heard doors opening and shutting in the hallway, leading me to believe that the problem affected many. I didn't realize that my father was, at that moment, walking the hallway in his own investigation.

I decided to call the desk again. "Yes, this is really, really loud. Is everything alright?" The noise continued.

"Wait, is that the noise in the background? Wow! Okay, we'll get on that." Finally, the proof had been transmitted by phone, and action would take place. I felt better--if this hotel is among the best in the world, I would need to see proof and quick.

About twenty minutes later, the noise ceased. Shortly therafter, I heard a knock at the door. I quickly tossed on one of the soft robes featuring the hotel's monogram and opened the door. In front of me was an older gentleman in a denim shirt and jeans. He appeared to be completely soaked in water.

"I'm sorry for the noise, sir. A pipe exploded in the basement draining all of the water in the boiler and gushing cold water as well. The noise should be finished now."

I was speechless. I choked out a "thank you" and closed the door. I felt like an enormous jerk. I had spent the previous morning on the ski slopes enjoying a late March snowstorm that left me with empty slopes and gorgeous powder. That evening we had dined at The Compound, my favorite restaurant in Santa Fe. We had enjoyed gorgeous afternoon sunshine in one of the prettiest settings on earth. After all of that,I had crashed on a very soft mattress surrounded by down blanketing, and I had slept beautifully until briefly disturbed by the noise.

Meanwhile, this messenger came to the door after spending an hour, at least, getting soaking in a cold basement at 3 AM. He then was sent, by the management, to apologize to me, which, of course, made me feel like a horrible brat. I went back to bed feeling guilty but finally drifted into sleep.

The next morning the hot water was gone. Other guests were complaining about the situation, and, at this point, I decided I'd just keep my mouth shut. I'd shower later. For now, we'd just let the ghosts of the Anasazi work their mischief on someone else.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Thoughts on Wine . . . and Resource Depletion

Well, we really weren't kidding when we extolled the beauties of the Cape Town area wineries. Apparently the New York Times has caught on as well.

But this only reminds me of our latest wine problem. Cape Town made us South African wine converts. In fact, Megan and I normally avoided white wines altogether until we were introduced to the sauvignon blancs of the Western Cape. While we were greatly restricted in the amount of wine we could bring back with us, we soon began the quest for the perfect Cape Town-area sauvignon blanc at our local wine store.

And after arduous testing and tasting, we encountered the Southern Right, a wine named for the whale that thrives in the waters of the South Atlantic. This encounter left us hooked.

The first bottle went fast, and we restocked. Those bottles complemented grilled fish, pork, salads, air, water, etc., and they were soon gone. We returned to our store to find at least a dozen bottles left, so we acquired three more.

Those passed quickly as well, and when we returned to the store, we found just three bottles stashed away in the back of a wine refrigerator. Our resources, it seemed, had been depleted at an unsustainable rate. As a result, our attitude toward the wine changed drastically.

The first bottle in the new stash went relatively quickly--after all, we had two more, and maybe we could find another supplier in the meantime? Despite my best efforts, no new supply was forthcoming. Monday night, we consumed bottle two. This leaves just one bottle of the precious elixir. This last bottle now has an elevated status: it has transformed from a nice complement to sauteed fish to a "special occasion" wine. We will likely hold onto the bottle until some point of celebration, preserving that resource as best we can.

Meanwhile, we have begun the hunt for a sauvignon blanc that reaches the quality of the Southern Right and at about the same price (around $12 a bottle). If any reader has a suggestion, please, please, let us know. And Golden Kaan doesn't cut it. Neither does Arabella.

I suppose we should feel fortunate that our only depleted resource, at this point, is wine. After all, it's hardly necessary to our continued existence, and we can safely stash this bottle away without any economic penalty. I just wonder what happens when the rest of our resources start vanishing. For example, if instead of sauvignon blanc, we were stashing away our last bottle of clean water, I think we would be in a drastically different situation.

That situation, however, is not entirely unimaginable. Perhaps I am paranoid having just finished Collapse, the terrific book by Jared Diamond, but, unless folks across the globe make some big changes, we might be savoring each drop someday in the not-too-distant future.

For now, though, we are blessed to simply need a good white wine. Suggestions?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Shelter from the Storm

It's been a remarkable evening here in the DFW. The local news has fixed its attention for three days now on the "massive" storms that would reach Dallas this evening. All week I assumed this incessant coverage was just a result of slow news (I know, Anna Nicole Smith's baby's daddy was discerned . . .). After this evening, I realized they really weren't kidding.

The storm has moved very quickly--in and out of Fort Worth in a matter of minutes, leaving behind tennis ball, baseball and, apparently "teacup-sized" hail.

And Brad Remembers One Fateful May Evening . . .

As the reports came in, I had flashbacks to a May night in my grandmother's basement in Amarillo. Tornadoes approached town, and baseball-sized hail ravaged rooftops and car dealerships all over town. Meanwhile, safely in the basement, my then 8-year-old sister began wailing, "Why does today have to be today!?!" Megan comforted her while Dad and I fulfilled her one urgent request, "Brad (sob), would you (sob) please go get (sob) my blue bunny (prolonged wail)?" And how can you say "no" to that?

Dad and I rushed around the cul-de-sac, sprinted into the house, and, alas, I spotted the blue bunny. We returned to Mommer and Grandad's basement, and, to Em's disappointment, I had grabbed the wrong blue bunny. While this created a moment of distress, I think she simply appreciate the effort . . . either that or, at 8-years-old, she had already inherited that universal joy at seeing men jump through hoops on a lady's behalf . . . maybe a bit of both.

Anyway, we escaped that hail storm with a few broken skylights, and Megan had finally seen a real humdinger of a West Texas storm. My grandparents ended up with a broken window and an imperative to replace their shingles. Otherwise, we were unscathed, a fact I credit to the strange powers of my grandparents' basement to ward off danger.

Back to the Present

The storm raced this direction from Fort Worth. Sirens began wailing, and, simultaneously, the news began showing the destruction in a small burb north of Fort Worth. Quickly, I assessed my situation.

With Mommer and Grandad's basement roughly 398 miles to the north and west, I considered the structural integrity of our building . . . something I should have considered before leasing I suppose. Very quickly, I recalled our utter lack of faith in this structure. At night, Megan and I feel the building shake whenever anyone sets foot on the stairs. The walls are remarkably thin, and the windows shake with passing breezes. More importantly, we sit on the third floor . . . on a building supported by 12" diameter concrete stilts . . . and enjoy an entire wall of windows.

As I imagined our glorious windows with their stunning downtown views converting into massive machete-like projectiles, I realized that the central closet was my only hope. Sirens began wailing, and I prepared my shelter.

At this point, I realized that preparing a shelter was more a psychological boost than anything that would actually sustain my continued existence. For those minutes, I felt like I might be doing something to assist my survival . . . even if that something proved utterly futile.

The closet is crowded and something had to go, so I tossed my entire rack of pants on the floor of the bedroom. When the fury of Nature hit, I would have no need for pants, after all. Since Megan is safely in Chicago, I had a small temptation to make some extra space by tossing her shoes out of the shelter--then I realized that sacrificing her shoes might be an amateur new-husband mistake, so they stayed in. If I was going to live, these shoes, also, would live on.

The sirens continued wailing, and I quickly realized, as I listened to the massive drops of rain, that a hail stone the size of a teacup could pierce the ceiling and smash my skull (that May storm in Amarillo sent hailstones through the ceilings of several two-story houses). Ever the quick thinker, I located my bicycle helmet . . . just in case.

Then I realized that massive hailstones would also hurt my body, so I tossed some pillows and blankets into the shelter. And when we lost electricity, I'd need lighting, so the headlamp joined me, my blanket, my bike helmet, and Megan's footwear.

The sirens began again, the news reporters shouted for us to take shelter, and I dove into my hovel. Two minutes passed, and apparently the storm had already set its sights on Rockwall County. The sirens turned off, the wind died down, and I came out of hiding.

It turns out I am safe . . . and now I have all this stuff to pick-up. What a night.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

That Time of Year Again

Yes, the time has come once again for the weather to taunt Dallas-ites in various evil and carefully planned ways.

Naturally, the Easter holiday weekend came with menacing clouds, snow flurries, and chilly temperatures. This transformed a planned camping trip in Dinosaur Valley State Park into a day hike. It turned a usually raucous Easter dog parade into a more subdued event, two hours of toughing it out in the cold followed by fleeing indoors.

As can be expected, the return of the work/school week brings sunny skies and perfect temperatures, a light breeze and, naturally, a mountain of work to prepare for final exams. When these forces conspire, I have to work really hard to get myself to walk into a classroom. Once inside, I forget about the ramifications of Uniform Commercial Code section 9.323 on the continued priority of a security interest after a future advance, and I focus entirely on the idiotic decision-making process that carried me indoors in the first place. After all, Dallas is probably two weeks shy of 100+ degree temperatures--these perfect days must be enjoyed while they last! While I don't welcome the impending heat, it will at least help with one task . . . forcing myself indoors to study, this time for this alleged "bar exam."

Anyway, we hope to have Dinosaur Valley pictures up soon. Megan and I found a thick field of bluebonnets that became the perfect setting for a very cheesy photo opportunity. Megan's travels take her to Chicago this weekend (a city neither of us have visited despite frequent stops in O'Hare airport), while my "travels" will likely take me between the law library and coffee shops.

Were we in Africa four months ago? Sometimes it really doesn't feel like it . . .

Monday, April 2, 2007

Flight of the Baton Twirlers

Well, April has arrived, and it appears as though I can return to my usually laid-back 3rd year pace. After two intense weeks of work, I can now focus again on writing random stories and book reviews and what not.

Yesterday offered an interesting travel experience. I went to the Amarillo airport to fly back to Dallas at about 5:30 or so, and I noticed a lot of strange-looking young girls. They had bizarrely sculpted hair with enough metal pins to surely set off the metal detectors. Some wielded trophies or strange velvet tubes. All had a mother plodding behind carrying a massive garment bag.

It turns out that I happened to catch the same flight as about 25 competitive baton twirlers who had recently competed in some regional event up in the Texas Panhandle (I think Pampa . . . not sure). I made several observations about this lot. First, I was stunned at the choice of hair style--they looked like minature versions of a bad movie about Dallas in the 80s. Not sure why this style persists.

Secondly, this was a very annoying lot to fly with. I don't know what it is about groups flying together that makes them inherently obnoxious. I used to fly places with a speech and debate team, and I assume we could occasionally be annoying--then again, my main flight memory was having an older teammate explain why everyone should read Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (by the way, he's right--everyone should). Okay, so I guess that's almost as obnoxious as the conversation about Justin Timberlake I endured on this flight.

Finally, I had flashbacks to the last time I flew to Dallas with a plane load of strangely perky women wearing way too much make-up. I caught an Atlanta to Dallas flight along with about three dozen women headed to the international Mary Kay cosmetic salesperson convention. Perhaps they had traded in their own batons for pink cadillacs. Regardless, I think I'll be a more conscientious group traveler in the future.
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