Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Rebirth of Media

I grew up in the 80s, and while some people love 80s pop culture, I was never a fan. The music was, in my opinion, abysmal and what got played on radio or made it to you in records or cassettes went through very few large music labels. While I'm no fan of Madonna or Michael Jackson, I do respect that pop-culture is something very difficult to do well, because you have to appeal to such a large segment of society. We got to choose between very inane sit-coms like ALF, Who's the Boss, Family Ties, and the Wonder Years. In the early 90s we all watched 90210 because everyone else did...and this may be one of the worse uses of my time given to me on this planet. I saw the birth of MTV, a channel who's sole purpose was to try and tell teens what is cool, and I really despise few things in pop culture more than the stupidity that flows from MTV. Anyway I lived with pop culture and although I may have never embraced it there weren't many alternatives out there as far as media sources.

Today pop culture may be even dumber than it was in my youth. Shows like The OC, Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of (some city)  are shows that appeal to only the lowest common denominator in all of us. Musicians (I use the term lightly for some) that appear today are in many ways even more vapid then the pop stars who came before them. While I'm sure some are very impressed with the likes of Lady GaGa or some of these American Idol types that fill up gossip columns and entertainment headlines more often than the airwaves, there is a very good sized part of the population that won't pay them much attention. The internet is killing pop culture and I couldn't be happier about it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wanting to Write Something Positive

The more settled I get in Nepal the harder it is for me to find things to write about it, as nothing seems all that different to me. So just like back home, conversation and thought about the country turns to the events and politics that the country engages in. In this area it is quite difficult to say anything positive about Nepal, and so I have put off writing about it. For instance I really wanted to write something about Nepal Tourism Year 2011, but as I started writing about it, I found that the entire piece was cynical and disparaging. Indeed it is hard to look at what has been done for this and come up with a single good thing to say, and what makes it worse is that the general population seems to have high expectations of it.

Sure people should come to Nepal, it's a great destination, it has the best trekking on the planet, it's temples, people and culture are something that can be spellbinding, and places like Chitwan offer some of the best jungle safari's in the world. For all these reasons and more people should come to Nepal, and more tourists could certainly help the economy here, but that really isn't the issue. The issue is that Nepal declared 2011 tourism year, and then proceeded to create no new incentives to come here, did not reduce the archaic paperwork or ease the terrible visa process, they actually upped the fees for tourists at places like Bhaktapur and infrastructure throughout the country continues to get worse instead of better. There were no new trekking routes opened, no permit requirements eased on some of the more interesting trails, etc. At the airport the visa lines are still terribly long, but there is a nice shiny newly painted gate as you leave the airport that declares "Welcome to Nepal". Sigh.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Asian Opportunity

After my last post there was a short exchange in the comments about how where you live has an effect on how you live and what you can do. While I am the first to recognize that much of what shapes your outlook on life comes with you as mental traits that can be changed in one location just as easy as in any other, I also feel very strongly that opportunities and life style can be strongly shaped by where you choose to live. My thesis is that what I am currently doing, or have been doing could not have been done if I had stayed in the States. I figured I'd make this into a full post because I realized I've never really fully explained much of the differences clearly and have only alluded to them in ways that someone who has never been to Asia might miss. So my response in this way also isn't fully aimed at Rob, who will undoubtedly already be familiar with some of the things I go over, but instead I'm turning it over to a more general accounting to readers in the west who have only some or little experience in the east.

Below are the relevant parts of the previous discussion;

Robert Hartman: Great post, but I tend to think circumstances are a lot like zip codes... I've had a lot of friends move to lots of different places over the past few years, pursuing a lot of different dreams and most seem to be discovering that, "Wherever you go, there you are."

Brian Smith: No doubt that you take yourself with you wherever you go, but to ignore the difference in opportunities that exist in some places over others is to turn a blind eye to the reality of vastly different terrain, economic, cultural, and weather differences. I simply couldn't do the things I'm currently doing in the US, I wouldn't have the time that I have, and the costs are much higher. Ultimately different environments allow for different living habits. Now had I not made a drastic move and just went to some other spot in the US, then I would agree, not enough of a difference to really change the circumstances of what your doing.

Robert Hartman: I don't claim that changing your circumstances can't positively or negatively impact your life. We should all exert all our effort to live the life we want to live... but ultimately if you are satisfied with whatever life you end up with that is a product of how you approach it, regardless of circumstance. In my limited understanding of buddhism, that seems to be a central theme.

One man's exotic locale is just someone else's backyard. I'm glad you are happy where you are, I really am, I'm just saying that if you are willing to put up with a stale fridge and lack of hot water for extra time in the day, you can pretty much do that anywhere.

I work all day with people who made the opposite migration and they see the opportunities in exactly the opposite way. I think there is a grass is always greener element here. Knowing you can always return home and be living in the world's upper middle class within 6 months is very different than having that door permanently closed to you.

Again, I'm not criticizing you personally, I'm just saying that opportunity looks very different depending on where you come from.

Ok, so where to start. First I want to be clear that I agree with almost everything Rob said in the last post, well at least in the first and the last paragraph and I essentially take issue with the two in the center. The issues I want to cover here are costs, opportunities, and finally the education/learning/social aspects of living abroad and how these vary widely from just migrating within the first world and varies considerably from staying within your home country.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What A Year in Nepal and Fight Club Have in Common

My favorite movie of all time is David Fincher's Fight Club, and it's not even close- this movie wins for me by a good mile. As a testament to how bad the marketing was for it, I was reluctant to go see it when it came out, believing it to be an action movie with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. A little bored while in Dublin at the end of a backpacking trip around Europe, Kim convinced me to go see it as she was keen to get a look at a shirtless Edward Norton even if the movie sucked. If you haven't seen it, or if you did and didn't pay attention, you might think the movie is about fighting, violence, and male bravado. It's not. The movie, at it's core, is about someone wanting to change their life and finding a way to get himself out of what he finds as an unfulfilled existence. If you haven't seen the film, or you missed this point entirely, I highly recommend watching it. While Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorite authors, and the book is quite good, this is the only movie I can think of where the movie is as good, if not better, than the book....and it's a good book.

-Warning: Movie/Book Spoiler-

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Daniel Denett on Free Will & Determinism

Of all modern philosophers Daniel Dennett may be my favorite. He has repeatedly written on topics that are, in my opinion, some of the most relevant to understanding the human condition. His books Consciousness Explained, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Freedom Evolves and Elbow Room are among some of my top rated and influential books I have read in my life. His insights are very keen and he does an excellent job of getting past the holdovers of the old ways of looking at things while keeping central themes relevant. His familiarness with evolutionary biology and pragmatic approach to really answering questions sets him apart from many other philosophers. Below is a lecture he gave at Edinburgh University concerning free will and determinism and he rightly shows that these are in fact two separate concepts.

Something else I find fascinating here is the use of the key texts that made morals relevant to Stoic philosophers like Epictetus. The crux is in the pursuit of what we have determined as a good based on imperfect knowledge the will to get and avoid that which we deem as fitting into such categories. What I admire so much about Dennett is that while he takes the arguments of those who propose some unlikely philosophical situation seriously (Laplace's Demon), he never the less bases his own answer in remembering what we face in reality. He formulates his answer not in hypotheticals, but instead in the way things are. He points out that it is an important fact that we, as agents, do not have perfect knowledge and that our clear understanding of good and bad decisions is based on our proficiency in considering what information we have and using that to attain or avoid that which we are confronted with.

With this all said I need to get back to writing about moral agency.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Finding Kathmandu

Just because you land on the ground here doesn't mean that you get here really. Kathmandu has a certain mental component that needs to be overcome before you can really enjoy it here, and on arrival from Thailand that took me a few days to find. While there are certainly some aspects of living here that seem like unnecessary hardships in light of what the vast majority of the planet enjoys as simple staples to modern living, Kathmandu offers its own subtle charm. The people that you meet up with and are friends with here are never dull people, you have to be at least a little adventurous to live here. These facts combined with avoiding the 9-5 grind that makes life unbearable in the west for me makes for a unique place that I am quite happy to have made my home.

For me it was settling back into that slower way of life, coming to terms with the fact that if I wanted to get groceries it does mean stopping by at least four different locations; Bhat Betini, European Bakery, my vegetable stand down the road, a stop at the dairy place around the corner, and the local butcher if I want meat. Although it sounds like a chore, it's nice to see the individual people I buy from and appreciate my business. The people at the vegetable stand were curious where I had been and wanted to hear about my trip,  and were all smiles to see me back in the neighborhood. While super markets back home do offer savings and convenience, I do enjoy interacting with the people that run each of these small stores.

It has also helped tremendously that Kim is back from the US now. After travelling by myself for over three weeks and then coming home and being stuck by myself in Kathmandu I am thrilled to have her company again. A person you love makes even the darker and colder nights in Kathmandu that much brighter and warmer just by their presence. Being able to talk to each other and catch up on our trips has been fun and I enjoy cooking a lot more for multiple people instead of just myself (french toast and fresh strawberry syrup with scrambled eggs this morning). 

Aside from yesterday when it rained for what I think is only the second time since October the sky has been so clear in the afternoon that from almost any decent rooftop in the city you can see the mountains of Langtang in the north and out toward the Everest range in the east. While I love being in the mountains, just seeing the massive snow covered peaks out on the horizon brings a smile to my face, just knowing that they are out there and waiting to be trekked around come the warmer months. Speaking of which, it looks like I may be doing the Everest Base Camp route all the way from Jiri come the end of February (god it's going to be cold) with my friend Donnie who I trekked through Langtang and Gosainkund last year and also accompanied Kim and I to Tibet. That is likely the best trek in all of Nepal and I'm looking forward to the pizza at Khumbu Lodge in Lukla!

So while arriving in Kathmandu can be a bit of a shock to the system, it just takes a moment to settle back into the flow of life and remember those things that do bring a smile to your face. It's not every day that people get to live in such a different place filled with so many opportunities for great experiences, and I count myself as a very lucky person. Having, after a few days, found that mental niche that is required to enjoy Kathmandu, I can finally say it's good to be home. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Return to Kathmandu- Losing all Focus

So I'm finally back in Kathmandu after a short tour of Cambodia and Thailand. Before I get to the topic of this post I have to give some serious praise to Thai Airways. I've flown them before and they must be one of the best run and most customer friendly airlines I have ever used. While normally US based companies have superior service than overseas competitors, I find our airlines are terrible. Thai airlines have always been very helpful, and their planes are clean, the food isn't bad and their in flight entertainment isn't bad at all. They also don't charge extra for drinks on the planes like some outfits do now. My flight back was with Thai airways to Dhaka in Bangladesh, and then I had a connecting flight through the local carrier to KTM. When I checked in the woman at the counter upgraded me to a direct flight, and it was a flight that departed earlier getting me home three hours early and on a much better plane. So big thanks to them, and I can't recommend them highly enough.

Sometimes it's strange how your perspective of things can change so much in a short time. Before I left for this trip, I'll be honest I wasn't really all that excited about it. Sure I was happy I would finally get to go see Angkor Wat and I was looking forward to being at the ocean again, but mostly I saw it as cutting into a really good rhythm I had gotten myself into that had me writing some of the best stuff I had put together in my life and a running schedule that had put me in some of the best shape of my adult life. Then there was that sync I had finally found with the flow of life in Nepal, picking up supplies, making meals, everything had kind of found its place, so the idea of getting out of that gave me a bit of worry that I might lose a bit of it by the time I returned. This was a well placed concern.

Stepping back into Nepal the other day I couldn't help but feel a bit confused as to what I was actually doing here.  I got home and after unpacking a bit and taking a quick nap I got a chance to Skype Kim back in the states and chat a bit. She asked me, "So what did you miss about Kathmandu?" I was stumped.  kind of stared at her over the screen for a minute while my brain frantically searched for an answer, I stuttered a bit. "I missed running out to Boudha. It will be good to make some more salsa and see people at the market. In the evening before sunset I missed being able to look out at the Himalaya on the horizon. Once it warms up a bit it will be nice to get back out into the mountains, I really do enjoy it out there." But the answers all felt at least a little bit empty.

To be honest what I hadn't missed was the load shedding, the lack of warm water or water at all. I hadn't missed the dark cold nights, the polluted rivers and trash strewn roads. I hadn't missed the dust that covers everything here. I hadn't missed the honking, or the terrible driving habits, or the lack of any shared sense of what common courtesy is. Even though Thailand and Cambodia are extremely different from where I am from, Nepal is another whole dimension.   I hadn't missed the unreliable access to goods, especially certain food, and I hadn't missed the constant hassle that is dealing with everything that is life in Nepal. Coming back home to Nepal, I had completely forgotten why I was here.

I'm now sitting in Imago Dei since my internet isn't working at the house and trying to gain a little focus back. Over the last year I've had a chance to read some of the best, and most important books, I've ever read. Without a doubt I've written the best stuff I've ever written. I've had a  chance to travel to some of the most amazing places I've ever been, and I've interacted with people who I'll never forget. When you look to see where you are geographically and ask why you're there the answer may not always be one of social or practical efficiency. When I really sat and thought about why I was here now, it was mostly because time is cheap and can be purchased at a fraction of the price you get it for in the west. what I missed most about not being in Nepal is the slow rate of wealth depreciation over time, which allows for a stronger focus on the things that you really want to concentrate on and devote energy toward.

I had been so focused before I left that all of the impediments to life that Nepal brings to the fore had melted away as a small cost for what it was allowing me to concentrate on. Now having lost that rhythm, having lost that strong focus the reality of where you are sitting stares you in the face, and without a little mental concentration and a focus on perceptions it's easy to become frustrated with my surroundings. Strangely coming back to Kathmandu I feel further away from it than I have in almost all of my time here. Maybe it's a passing disorientation from my recent trip, maybe it's something more, only time will tell. For now I'm back in Kathmandu, and it's been an awkward homecoming.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

No Go-Go: South Asia & South East Asia Are Worlds Apart

While I was in Cambodia I was sitting at an American owned restaurant and overheard a couple of American male expats who essentially summed up that happiness is abandoning woman in the west for those in the east. The argument went something like how eastern woman understand the simple things that men want and appreciate; a focus on family, a certain amount of catering like making a sandwich or getting them a drink when they got home, and apparently a lack of nagging. Later while I was on Ko Samui I overheard a group of what I think were a mix of British/Australian/Canadian woman commenting on all of the men they saw with Thai woman, and how they were all just dirty old men or little boys that couldn't handle strong woman. Somehow I think the truth is lost somewhere between both views, and while there might be a bit to both thoughts neither approaches from the right direction.

What is clear is that it's simply a trade off of what men think they want and what woman think they want. For men it's young woman that, at least in the short term, hang on their every word, inflate their egos, and cater to them at all times. For woman it's money, and potentially the easiest way to a huge amount of social mobility. From conversations I had with some people it appears that factory workers outside of Bangkok make roughly 10$/day, for roughly nine hours of work. Now imagine people are visiting your country and they make in one day what many people in your home make in a couple of weeks or months. For many of these girls, landing a western spouse means that they can live abroad and provide serious financial support for family members back home. For western men, it's simply a way to get woman that would otherwise be light-years out of their league, and  for many the perception of a spouse that respects a certain amount of dominant male authority, though I'm skeptical that this exists in practice and is more likely a simple difference in approach. It also highlights that men are far less interested in what woman do for work, or what their earning prospects are, where as that is the primary concern for the flipside of this equation.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Photos & Angkor Wat

It's taken me a while but I'm finally getting a post up on the Angkor Temple complexes. Part of the difficulty in this was trying to select photos that captured what made the place so impressive. In the end I think that is an impossible task, as what makes for a very thrilling first hand experience often does not translate into a good picture. In real life we experience depth and atmosphere in a very different way, and we are far less concerned with color contrast or lighting. In many ways I feel that photography is a vex on travel. While it's great to be able to show people what you saw, the pictures in many ways lie about the destination, making it more or less than it actually is. Some sites. like the Taj Mahal, photograph beautifully and yet are dull in first hand experience, where as sites like the Grand Palace in Bangkok are quite interesting they fail to photograph in a way that captures everything interesting about the site.

Aproach to Angkor Wat

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Question Worth Asking

While spending time on the beach in Thailand, I'm trying desperately to get some writing in and not waste all my time here. If nothing else some time on the beach and in the ocean gives a little time to think. Increasingly I have become convinced that volition and human action should not only be the focus, but are almost the only question worth asking in philosophy, possibly aside from some more minor ones having to do with epistemology and logic. What follows is a new addition on the role of philosophy.

There has been a fear that philosophy may never get so far as to state a problem that is capable of being answered, one that is a genuine and capable of being tackled. Philosophy has, in its modern form, seemed to flounder, with its reliance on top down structural cohesion by a supreme law giver torn away under the most trivial scrutiny the void of nihilism and relativism that greeted it seemed to loom like an insurmountable storm. Yet on closer inspection the threat of nihilism seems to me to be more like a hangover caused by the continuation of thinking in an outdated patterns and asking questions that are no longer relevant. We make the mistake of acting like there should still be supreme answers, ultimate realities and absolutes hidden somewhere underneath all that we observe, we have it seems never come to terms with accepting a system that might be more open ended and we have had trouble accepting that we ourselves may be the final arbiters of the value of what we encounter. In the realms of physics, cosmology and the other sciences, the philosopher, has been relegated to the sidelines, occasionally offering helpful, and possibly almost as often unhelpful, commentary on the advances of human knowledge brought about through the research of the scientific community.

So as modern philosophy stumbles into the 21st century it has all but rendered itself a sideshow offering it seems very little in human understanding. From one fad to the next we have meandered through a sea of ill defined isms, content with deconstructing all of our questions to meaningless quibbles. Yet, despite the final say of what seems to be the recurring voice of 20th century mantras of relativism and nihilism there seems to be within them a failing, an ignoring of the real question of what philosophy needs to answer. In all of the theory and proclamations, philosophy forgot to consider that we are all still here in the real world, and despite all that it might assert about some actions being no better than others, or the arbitrariness of what actions we might take, we know that some actions taken are preferred to others, that some outcomes are better than others, and that despite the relative foundations of all we experience this does not mean that there is not enough of a foundation with which to assault the most important question of philosophy, “What do I do now?”

To me the central question of philosophy is simply the one that confronts the most basic question in need of an answer for the human condition, and that is the question of agency. That is not to say whether there is human agency or questions of determinism, such questions are near meaningless, the question that philosophy must answer is; what do we do next? This is a question that is forced upon us at every moment of our lives, and at each moment we act (or choose not to) and in this way it is the central concern of the human condition, and it becomes in my mind the most important question that philosophy can answer for the individual. Even those who insist at the top of their lungs that all endeavors or actions are equally worthless cannot escape that at every moment they themselves choose one action over another, and it is this reality of the human condition that lends itself to a non arbitrary application of our decision making powers to the outcomes of our lives.

This in my mind brings philosophy back to its roots and plants it back within the soil from which it was born, making it the study and application of how to live a human life. The art of using philosophy to create for us lives worth living has been at its core through much of its history, and it seems only in modern times that it has lost its way and deviated from this course. The core of philosophy lives in three fields; epistemology, logic and above all ethics.  For in answering the question of what it is that we should do next, we are asking our self an ethical question, we are asking ourselves what is the right action for me to take? In answering such questions philosophy also needs to come down from its theoretical heights and spend some time in the muck of actual human experience. This is where it is most needed, where it was meant to be practiced as made clear by most of the ancients such as the Stoics, Epicureans, Pyrrhonists, Buddhists, and many others. We have forgotten in the modern age that philosophy is not meant to just be discussed, that in order to be relevant it must also be lived. That is a key component that must be reintroduced to philosophy if it is to remain relevant.

While other questions may weigh in on this central question of agency, all other questions stand trivial beside it as the weight of circumstance bears down upon each of us in each passing moment of our lives. Questions of the nature of the universe, the origin of our species, the basis of reality, the reality of volition, all of these become peripheral to dealing with what circumstance has lain before us right now. Why am I here, what is my purpose, why is there something instead of nothing; all of this falls before the more immediate question; I have to pee, do I hold it or go to the bathroom despite the fact that someone is talking to me? The most important questions are not with the fundamentals of the universe, but the everyday questions that we are confronted with every moment of our being.

Thailand: Back when I was a kid...

When I first started traveling, a decade and a half ago, you would always here people talk about how a place use to be, or how it had changed so much and become so touristy. They lamented the once cheap and plentiful local food had been replaced by dishes catered to tourists tastes at triple the price and the once homey accommodations had been replaced by resorts and those styled for hipster backpackers. They even lamented the type of traveler they had to share their holidays with, adventurous backpackers had been replaced, or at least engulfed by package tourists, or the Lonely Planet crowd. Sentences started something like, "Man, when I was here ten years ago..."

Well now I'm getting older and it's my turn to lament the missing travel destination that I had once known. Thailand, at least what I have seen thus far, is just a shadow of what it once was. In many ways it is a much 'nicer' destination, but that grit and novelty that had been here on my first visit about a decade ago is very much gone. The simple thatched bungalows that once lined the beaches and the sands once full of young backpackers has been replaced by resorts and middle aged package tourists. The simplicity that made, in my oppinion, an almost perfect beach get away is just very hard to find here now.

Although my experience in Cambodia was somewhat mixed, I kind of wish I had looked more into vacationing on some of their coastal beaches or islands, as I'm starting to think that all of old Thailand migrated to Cambodia. In fact as I sit here writing this now I'm at some overly trendy espresso bar, surrounded by people on dive trips that are sipping lattes and talking about how cheap it is here. While some of the prices aren't much higher then they were before in baht, it feels more expensive to me because the US dollar has taken such a dive over the last decade. Food prices aren't bad when you can find local stuff, but most of that has been cramped out in favor of these western style BBQ places and bars that cater exclusively to western tastes.

So to be honest I kind of miss the Thailand of my youth, though I'm sure it's still out there somewhere...I'm just not certain where to look.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A call to innovators

The following article was written by Akshay Sthapit, co-founder of, and was in the Kathmandu Post as a special for New Years. He makes some excellent points about not only starting up a business in Nepal but also calls out some very simple changes that Nepal could make to really invigorate new business and and investment in Nepal.

It's been an interesting journey, the last five months, which is how long it took to go from concept to launch to steady operation. While it's not the first company that I have started, this was my first in Nepal, and I have learnt a lot of lessons unique to Nepal. Some of the many lessons I learnt along the way might be useful for other Nepalis looking to start their own companies. It could also help convince many young and talented Nepalis who are either abroad or thinking of going abroad that opportunities do exist in Nepal—in the long run you will be better off developing a technology-based business in countries like Nepal where the cost of living to quality of life ratio is low rather than moving to a developed country and spending all your capital on rent and other living expenses. So start a company in Nepal, not just because it's your country and it's patriotic to create jobs and keep talent in the country, but because it makes business sense—there are a lot of problems in search of solutions in Nepal with potentially large payouts and it's a great place to be in startup mode to develop products for other countries as well.

The good news is that, from a purely technological perspective, it's easier than ever to create products that can scale. Advances in cloud computing mean that you can develop massive applications with nothing more than a laptop and if business picks up, you can add resources on a need-to basis. No longer do companies with deep pockets have an advantage just because they can afford more servers and bandwidth. Internet speeds in Nepal, although not nearly as fast or as reliable as I would like, are getting better and it's finally possible to hold video conferences with our warehouse in Florida and use screen sharing to collaborate remotely with partners abroad. And I am happy to see that labs and student groups in Nepal are using to order hard-to-find items to move their projects along so they are no longer constrained by what is available in the local market.

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