Recommendations for April 25, 2015

25 Apr

Video: Time Lapse Video of the Eruption of the Cabulco Volcano in Chile

There are many great photos of the recent Chilean volcano eruption available online, but this video allows you to see the process of the eruption on a timescale more readily grasped. It is, predictably, both frightening and beautiful.

 

Article: “A Simple Task” by Brendan O’Connor

A lot of the articles I pick to post here fall into the “Hey, did you know that ______ exists?” This one falls squarely into that category. Apparently, every year, teams of students from colleges around the country compete to build Rube Goldberg machines— complex mechanisms that perform simple tasks, saving neither time nor effort. The best of these go on to the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest college nationals, which this piece describes. It’s also about Goldberg himself, his cartoons, and the origin of the ides of his eponymous machines. I’ve read a lot of family depressing stuff in the last few weeks, but the fact that smart young people give up their time to participate in something so entirely about creativity and ingenuity for its own sake is heartening.

 

Images: “Nail Houses” in China from The Atlantic. (Various photographers.)

As usual, the Atlantic makes it impossible to include any images here, but these are all pretty striking. “Nail houses” are single homes or other buildings, located on land desired for new developments, whose owners have refused to move, either because they don’t want to or because they consider the compensation they’ve been offered inadequate. he result it that, at least for a time, their houses stand alone in the midst of ongoing construction, a single “nail” standing in an otherwise leveled field. It’s pretty much the perfect image of the economic and social dislocations that have accompanied China’s economic boom.

 

Article: “The People’s Republic of Cruiseland” by Christopher Beam

On the other side of that boom, American and European pleasure cruise lines are reaching out to China as a new market for their particular brand of indulgence and relaxation. Cruises in China are a relatively small but growing industry, and as it grows it presents a number of challenges, economic, political, and social. Most interesting to me in this piece is the idea that this particular kind of “fun” is not immediately or automatically appealing to Chinese people; there’s a process of mutual learning and adaptation that has to occur, by which consumers learn the appeal of paying a lot of money to do as little as possible for several days, while the cruise lines figure out how to smooth out and speed up that learning process. As Beam puts it:

“Localization itself is nothing new; brands from KFC to Oreo as well as Hollywood studios have tailored their products to the Chinese market, with varying levels of success. For cruise companies, it’s more complicated than hiring a Chinese celebrity spokesperson or throwing in a green tea flavor. They must rethink the entire cruise experience, from food to décor to how a rapidly capitalizing society thinks about class and luxury.”

He makes a brief allusion to David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” but somebody needs to do a parallel reading of the two pieces; there are clear echoes of Wallace when Beam describes one of the cruise line employees thus:

“A well-ballasted man with a cue-ball dome and a trim goatee extended his hand. ‘Welcome aboard,’ he said, introducing himself as Marco Civitella, the hotel director. His job was to make sure every passenger lived in a state of constant if not escalating bliss. “

And, in his withering description of the failure of some of the on-deck activities, like Tai Chi, which, on the moving deck of the ship, “…looked like a physical therapy session for victims of inner ear damage.”

What made the strongest impression on me, though, was what the experience said about class in China, and the growing economic divide between rich and poor. One of the passengers complains that “’They’re treating everyone the same,’ he said. Ticket prices ranged from $1,162—about a third of the average Chinese person’s annual disposable income—to $6,456. ‘People here are from very different backgrounds. They should be treated with more prestige.'” And, a bit later, Beam asks one wealthy cruiser “how he reconciled his early faith in Mao with his penchant for VIP vacations. ‘There must be class divisions,’ he said. ‘If there’s no stratification, there’s no motivation to work hard.'” Good to see that the spirit of Hayek is alive and well in the PRC. This also seems like it should provide some insight into how the situation of the “nail houses” comes into being.

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