Thursday, June 27, 2013

Nice one, SCOTUS

Wow, back to back semi-political posts. Sorry about that. But, as I noted here, stuff like removing legal barriers from gay marriage is worth writing about.

As you no doubt have already read in a million different places, the Supreme Court ruled that the ironically named Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. The ruling itself is a little dry, but has some nice snippets:
The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others…

This status is a far-reaching legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the State worthy of dignity in the community equal with all other marriages. It reflects both the community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.
Eloquently put. I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but to me it really seems like an uncomplicated decision to make. Rather than being about gay marriage, it's about equality. So I'm happy that in the eyes of the federal government, at least, everyone I know--instead of just some or most--is equally able to marry the person they love.

I am reminded of another case you may have heard of, a little decision called Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education. The key verbiage:
We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does... We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
That reasoning seemed radical at the time. It's simply common sense now. I suspect that United States vs. Windsor--the official name of the DOMA ruling--will look much the same 60 years from now.

It is so ordered.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Snowden-storm

What's this? Yes, that's right--it's time for a current events post.

Today's current event: Ed Snowden leaves Hong Kong. And oh, how he did leave:

HONG KONG — The Hong Kong government announced on Sunday afternoon that it had allowed the departure from its territory of Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has acknowledged disclosing classified documents about United States government surveillance of Internet and telephone communications around the world.
The basic timing of this is that the U.S. last week asked Hong Kong to arrest Snowden. But, the Hong Kong government said, the U.S. didn't put the cover sheet on its TPS form. That meant that rather than being on a list that said "please arrest me when I try to leave the country," Snowden was able to hop on a commercial flight.

Hong Kong also managed to gently extend a middle finger at the NSA in the process:
Meanwhile, the HKSAR Government has formally written to the US Government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by US government agencies. The HKSAR Government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong.

Very subtle, Hong Kong. Very subtle. So Hong Kong avoids having to deal with a fugitive they aren't particularly happy with, and also gets a little payback for being on the business end of some spy operations.

Snowden, of course, is on his way to Cuba and eventually Venezuela, according to Russian media reports on Sunday night. And that choice of cities is just one symptom of why I think his actions are problematic. Strictly speaking, he is not a whistle-blower; he did not reveal any illegal practices.

There is a strong argument that the troubling aspects if PRISM--spying on innocent Americans, for one--are unethical. And I can see why someone's conscience might drive him to tell the world about it.

But shedding light on U.S. hacking in China just seems like pot-stirring to me. Yes, the U.S. spies on other countries. That is neither shocking nor revelatory. And it came at an extremely politically sensitive time between America and China. It's hard to defend revealing all that in the name of liberty or justice.

Traveling to so many countries on the Cold War Hit Parade en route to avoiding prosecution doesn't seem like the smartest public relations move to me, either. It's hard to come across as anything other than a fugitive when the only places you're fleeing are ones that are, to some degree or another, hostile to your home country. (I won't even talk about how WikiLeaks is involved now.)

Venezuela, if that is indeed Snowden's final destination, seems to tick a lot of important boxes for him. It is a democracy, in name if not in fact. It is a comfortable place; there are, for instance, beaches. And its government has just enough animosity toward the U.S. to accept him as a political refugee instead of a fugitive.

So, Edward Snowden: congratulations on leaving the Special Administrative Region. It was fun having you here, creating a spy novel here in our quiet neck of the woods. (By the way, great premise for a novel: a guy carrying sensitive data is fleeing from intelligence agents. Everyone wants a piece of him. But to get to safety, he has to spend a night in a Moscow airport in transit. Go!) But I have a feeling the fun is really only getting started.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I win!

So, it turns out that Read Ink has been nominated for--and unilaterally declared winner of--a Leibster Award. As fellow blogger and Friend of the Blog Kirstin explains at her excellent Champagne- and expat life-focused blog, Rues de Geneve,

It's the Liebster Award, a sweet medal of honor (Liebster means Love, or Favorite, in German) that's to be passed from one blogger to another, recognizing those with under 200 followers (uhm, yeah sure, I qualify). It comes with a few caveats: One, answer some questions posed by the person giving you the award, two, pass it on to another blogger.

So there you go. Here's the award logo:

And here are my answers to...

The Questions!

Do you get up at the first ring of the alarm?
Depends on what you mean. I almost never use the snooze function, but often lie in bed for a while after the alarm goes off, contemplating why I'm awake. The length of contemplation depends on how early it is (and whether I have a flight to catch).
What’s the last non-essential thing you spent money on?

What do you like/hate most about blogging?
Blogging is a wonderful outlet for ideas that are interesting--at least to me--but too small to warrant, say, a novel. And as an expat, it's a good way of staying in touch with the folks back in the United States of Awesome. I can't say that I hate anything about it, exactly, but I dislike the feeling that I should post something--even if I don't have anything particularly interesting to say that day--just to keep it up to date. 

Yes, thanks. A medium skim latte with an extra shot would be great. Hmm, maybe I should change my "non-essential" answer. 

What’s one place to visit on your bucket list?
Just one? OK. I would love to go to Mars. I'd settle for the Moon. 

Fess up: What’s your guilty pleasure TV show?
This one is going to leave a mark. My wife got me hooked on "So You Think You Can Dance." There, I said it. 

You get four main ingredients to cook with for a month (spices, oils, salt and pepper not included)--name them:
Barbecue sauce, ribs, brisket and beer. (I hope there is a gym nearby this theoretical kitchen.) 

Would you still write if no one were reading?
Funny you mention that. I don't get a ton of comments on the blog, so sometimes it DOES feel like no one is reading (although I know from looking at the site's metrics that I get a good amount of traffic). So yeah, I'd still write. It's good exercise for my brain and fingers, if nothing else.

What’s your worst habit?

Do you drink all 8 glasses of water a day, every day? 
Nope. However, I drink a lot of other things, and they are all well over 90 percent water… so I'm hydrated.

Coming soon... a post linking to the next nominee and winner. Stay tuned!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

10 airports, six cities, and an infinite number of fish tacos

Greetings, dear readers--or at least the few that have stuck around through the last few weeks of radio silence. Mrs. Blog and I were on our annual sojourn to the United States of Awesome, a land where portions huge and old friends plentiful.

This is our second trip back to the U.S. since landing in Hong Kong. The first was just a few months after we moved here; we were still settling into the 852 and had not really acclimated or explored the city, let alone experienced all four seasons and the multitude of festivals that crop up throughout the year.

That first trip was pegged to my grandmother's 100th birthday, but beyond that it was a chance to relate the move and our first impressions of Hong Kong to our friends and family firsthand.

This time was a little different. Hong Kong is an incredibly dense place. Space is at a premium; everything is designed to be efficient, if not aesthetically pleasing. Housing is stacked on top of stores, and those buildings are stacked on top of a ruthlessly well-run public transit system. Sidewalks are crowded. Subways are crowded. The harbor is crowded. Even the parks--more remote and larger than you might think--can be crowded.

So when I landed in Chicago (not a small place), it was a little jarring. Where were all the people? Why did all these buildings only have one or two stories?

The city of broad but very spread out shoulders.

It was also shockingly cold. As Mrs. Blog, who served as the advance scouting on this journey, told me: "it's colder than you expect." And yet even with that expectation, I was surprised. And jacketless. But thanks to lots of warm times with good friends, I survived... and even grilled outdoors.

The "wow, things are really spread out!" nature of the trip faded after a week or so. Other things did not. I know America gets rung up all the time for having high rates of obesity and cities get mocked for instituting regulations on restaurant meals and Slurpees, but WOW are the portion sizes big in the U.S. On more than one occasion, I found myself uncomfortably full, or eating more than I wanted just because it was there.

Quick political aside: yes, I do believe in personal responsibility and that people should have the right to be unhealthy--including smoke, drink and overeat--but it seems to me that when there is a collective downside to this kind of individual behavior, we need to consider doing something about it. There is a lot of unfounded complaining about illegal immigration's drag on the economy (it is actually a net positive), but the shared costs of obesity, heart disease and so on should really spur the same kind of outrage. OK, I'll get off my nonexistent soapbox. Back to the travelogue.

Now. Let me be clear about something: the food in the U.S. is outstanding. So many good restaurants in Chicago alone. And indeed, Mrs. Blog and I were craving what I think every American expat craves: Mexican food. Great Mexican food just does exist outside North America. So it is a major part of the agenda whenever we return home. In fact, of all the cities on our itinerary--Chicago, Kansas City, Anaheim, San Diego, Seattle, Sequim, Wash.--K.C. was the only one in which we didn't at least have chips and guacamole. Getting outstanding Mexican food was in fact so engrossing that I didn't even bother to take pictures of any of it.

So you'll just have to take my word for it that I had tacos and a torta just outside the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School in Miramar, Calif. You might know it better as Top Gun.

Things I do have pictures of: A trip to Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, where Mrs. Blog got her first taste of Royals baseball, i.e., a heartbreaking loss.

It looks way better than the last time I was there, but the result was the same.

The hills of Anaheim:

The mountains in the distance never come out as well as I want them to.

The beaches of San Diego:

... which I never actually set foot on, sadly. Hey, I was wearing nice shoes.

The amphibious assault ships of Bremerton, Wash.:

A terrible picture of a nifty vessel.

And of course the sandwiches of Chicago. (The backstory here is that we went to Vietnam and couldn't find a banh mi in Hanoi as good as the ones from the shop around the corner from our old place in Lincoln Square.)

How do you say "drool" in Vietnamese? (photo courtesy Mrs. Blog)

In Anaheim Hills I also got this video of our dog--now retired and living in Orange County--doing what she does best, i.e. getting excited at the prospect of chasing a tennis ball. (also shown: the Sister-In-Law of the Blog and Her Black Dog.)

So if you're keeping score here, you'll see that we hit six cities during our stay. I was in the U.S. for 17 days, not including travel time. And so even my atrophied math skills can do the grim calculation here: I was flying roughly once every three days. We got to see a lot of dear friends and family. But what we never really got to do was unpack and catch our breath. That's why when we wound up in the final leg of the trip--Sequim, where the Parents In Law of the Blog have a home in the hills--the natural surroundings were even more relaxing than they might otherwise have been.

Seriously. We drove into Olympic National Park, where the view from Hurricane Ridge is like a scene out of the Sound of Music, complete with a deer in repose:

The hills are alive with the sound of me breathing deeply.

Amazing, right? Mrs. Blog stayed there a bit longer to help her parents, but it was time for me to head back to the 'Kong.

And as it turned out, there was one more story to tell. On the flight back to the Special Administrative Region there was a long leg, Seattle to Tokyo, and a short leg from there.

On the long leg, I had quite an interesting seatmate: an apparent international taekwondo champion, author and current star of a multilevel marketing empire called Kyani. It was probably the longest and most interesting conversation I've had on a plane with a person not named Mrs. Blog. She told me about how she competed well into her 50s, how she spoke fluent Spanish (with no hint of her Georgian accent, apparently), how she was a competitive horse jumper once upon a time, and of course about the benefits of Arctic blueberry-derived health supplements. So that was cool.

And then on the short leg, serendipity:

That's right. Legroom AND champagne.

Business class. Thanks to a family friend with a long career at the airline we were using, there was a chance of an upgrade on each leg. It finally happened between Tokyo and Hong Kong. Sure, it was only a four-hour flight. But being able to put my size 15s up on a padded footrest and watch a bad movie is like gold.

Now I'm back in Hong Kong. The city remains much as it did before I left, except rainier: it's monsoon/typhoon season. My desk has an extra monitor now, giving it the "command center" look:

Yes, the larger monitor is sitting on a book. It's a metaphor.

So after nine flights*, I'm right back where I started. Now all that's left is to meet up with friends here and tell them all about how great the fish tacos are in America... and how many of them there were.

*Yes, nine flights but 10 airports. Airports utilized on this trip: Hong Kong, Narita, Detroit, O'Hare, Midway, Kansas City, Denver, Orange County, Long Beach and Seattle.