Start with the People: Building a Community Wireless Network in Mount Pleasant

This was originally posted at the Open Technology Initiative website.

If you are not yet familiar with Mount Pleasant, here’s a chance to learn about one of DC’s most vibrant neighborhoods. It’s a diverse area not far from downtown DC, featuring a main street lined with locally-owned businesses. Many of these shops and restaurants are owned and run by the area’s large Latino community, which has long been central to shaping the neighborhood’s character. However, over the past decade rising housing prices have pushed many in the Latino community east towards Georgia Avenue.

In May, I moved to Mount Pleasant and started to learn about the area. In order to encourage community-building and local empowerment and to increase local information-sharing and opportunities for civic engagement, I decided to use skills and ideas garnered from my work at the Open Technology Initiative to organize a community wireless network. Despite my excitement to get started, I didn’t want to rush in without first connecting with the people, the histories, networks, skill sets, and local knowledge already present in the community.

My first step was technical: with the help of my OTI colleagues, I specified the hardware for the network and prepared the technology for installation. The first-stage plan was to install a few “nodes” (wireless access points) in order to establish the form and structure of the mesh network – open, interoperable, unfiltered, and decentralized. Then, at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market, I handed out fliers directing people to an online survey gauging their interest in organizing a community wireless network in the neighborhood. I also posted a few of the fliers in local businesses on Mount Pleasant Street. But I needed to go deeper in order to really connect with the existing social networks of people and projects.

Several of my neighbors suggested that I meet Anya Schoolman, a community leader who organized the Mount Pleasant Solar Co-Op. Anya and her son Walter have worked on the co-op for several years, and through this process they have helped residents install solar panels on the roofs of over 100 homes in the neighborhood, which enables them to share solar-generated electricity with the rest of the community. Anya generously offered to host a gathering at her house in July, which we promoted through the listservs she created for the co-op. Thanks to her work in the community, Anya and her home enjoy “community anchor institution” status as a hub of activity in Mount Pleasant. Neighbors know and trust her, and since she provided an introduction to my invitation email on neighborhood listservs, recipients understood the context of participatory community building and neighborhood improvement.

About ten people came to the house gathering. We discussed the potential of the network and how to get it running, and five people (myself included) committed to becoming neighbor-links by installing a mesh router on top of our roofs – a process people were already familiar with due to their association with the solar co-op. Thus far we’ve installed two nodes and are planning to install at least three more in the coming months – and new folks have come forward who want to add to the network as well.

Bill Sets the Mounting Brackets

As we move forward, our plan is to focus on working with underserved groups in Mount Pleasant — people who may not be able to afford monthly contracts, or who are looking for tools to organize to address the effects of displacement of longtime residents due to rising housing costs. We hope to provide a framework that allows the diverse neighborhood to organize together in order to address the trends that affect everyone’s quality of life.

Stay tuned.

Year End Self-Analysis 2010

In the spirit of former endeavors, I think it’s a good idea to take another look at myself.

Accomplishments

Failures

  • Did not start learning Chinese as early as I had planned
  • Did not land a paying job in DC by the end of the year
  • Didn’t get to cooking enough on my return to the US
  • Gained back some of the weight I lost in China
  • Didn’t get a solid workout schedule going yet in DC
  • Did not couchsurf as much as I would have liked
  • Fell off the BrainCanvas wagon for a while
  • Did not move forward with Entropy after receiving scathing reviews from the business plan analysts
  • Have not picked music back up yet
  • Did not stay out longer to contemplate the Universe at Nam Tso
  • Didn’t take enough risks

Five Pictures to Sum Up 2010

  1. _mg_0933
  2. img_0300
  3. Trippy Buddhist Art
  4. All You Ever Need in China
  5. Walking the Path in Inner Mongolia

Status of NYE 2011 Vision

  1. Making Waves in Washington, DC: I am in DC and I have an excellent internship.  I’ve only just started getting involved in the community though and I don’t yet have a permanent position.  At least I’m here; not sure that I’m making too many waves.
  2. Working Out my Mind, Body and Soul: My mind is getting a serious workout at the Open Technology Initiative.  I have failed to keep my body in shape recently, something I will correct imminently.  And in the rush of getting settled in a new place, I have neglected specific soul-nurturing.  However, being in the same place as Kelsey has improved my general mood and optimism tenfold.
  3. Learned Conversational Chinese: Done.  However, it’s slowly rotting away sans practice.
  4. My Writing is Referenced in Influential Publications: I was hoping this would happen for BrainCanvas, but I did write two pieces for OTI which have been retweeted nearly a hundred times by some focus-specific thought leaders.
  5. Making Music Regularly: Total failure.  Disappointed in myself.

Looking Forward to NYE 2012

  1. Self-Actualization, or rapidly approaching it
  2. Active participation in creative communities – especially musical
  3. Reaching “Authority” Status on a Useful Topic
  4. Have started something influential
  5. Traveled somewhere new and amazing with Kelsey

Joe Walker, the Myth of the American West and Its Modern Consequences

Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker
Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker

Last week I finished reading an engaging historical work titled Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker by Bil Gilbert.

I came to know of this book during my adventures in genealogy, which I undertook in October whilst resting in Alabama after returning from my year in China.  In the course of my research I found the location of my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s land, in modern-day Zack, Virginia.  Archibald Rhea was my first paternal ancestor to come to America, and his story is wound up with that of all the original Scotch-Irish migrants to America.  He came over in the late 1720s, settled first in Pennsylvania (around what I believe is now Norristown or Eagleville) and eventually went south and west through the Appalachian Valley to settle that land.  He was a founding trustee of New Providence Presbyterian Church in Raphine, only a few miles from the site of his home.  His family had to flee the area, along with most of its residents, after the threat from Native Americans intensified during the French and Indian War in 1755.

I learned all of this while also preparing to move up to my current residence in Washington, DC.  It so happened that I would be traveling, in reverse, the path my paternal ancestors took from that first foothold down into what is now Etowah County, Alabama.  After seeing the site of my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s land and grave in what is now Happy Valley, TN, I continued up the Great Valley alone and drove near the site of his father’s land in Wythe County, VA.  The next day I came to Zack, where the only thing I knew for identification was the bit about founding the church and that the “Kennedy-McCray” mill is on the site of what was once Archibald’s land.  I happened to meet a man named McCray there, who said he currently owns the land, and he talked to me for a while about the history of the area and I told him what I knew from my research.  He told me that the creek on which my ancestor’s land stood is called Walker’s Creek, named after the first white man to settle this far west in the Colonies, John Walker.  His reconstructed cabin was just a couple of miles down the stream.

John’s grandson Joseph Walker was an even more ambitious mountain man, being the first to lead a white party of significant size to California over the Sierra Nevada.  Joe is the subject of the book that Mr. McCray strongly recommended to me, Westering Man.  Mr. McCray mentioned that the book’s early pages delved into the social and economic reasons for the Scotch-Irish migration to Appalachia, before focusing on the Walker family.

Two things struck me about this book before I was halfway through reading it: Joseph Walker and his family were at once superlative characters, and yet exemplary of the white pioneers who made the white American journey west the singular cultural remembrance in American society.  That story – “How the West was ‘Won’” – is very different than the one I was told in school.

Gilbert leaves no stone unturned in his literary quest to animate this amazing man.  He masterfully segues each paragraph into the next, and progressively fleshes out the details in a highly informative and fascinating way. I stole any five-minute interval I could to read this amazing work, which combines the history of the Scotch-Irish in Appalachia, the economic and social realities of life on the “old frontier” before the American Revolutionary War, and the circumstances of an extraordinary man whose legacy sheds a new light on the things we consider “American” to this day.

The most poignant character contrast is that of Walker with his contemporary and sometime employer, “The Pathfinder” John C. Frémont. Frémont (or the stories Frémont tells about himself) characterizes the common archetype of the of the Western frontiersman: an ambitious white man running roughshod over unseen lands, then standing nobly atop high peaks and declaring the glory of the Republic and Manifest Destiny, all interspersed with violent episodes with the native peoples. He was (mostly) the total opposite of Walker, who held a deep fascination with exploring but not “civilizing” new lands and had a real respect and camaraderie with Native Americans. Walker was generally kind to those he guided, heavily favored diplomacy over guns, and made it a point to not tell tall tales about himself.

This book, though a historical work, makes me ponder the kinds of imagery and justifications our leaders today take when they authorize gunship diplomacy, unilateral intervention and a conflict-based “survival of the fittest” mantra. What Gilbert makes clear through Walker’s pioneering and leading of the Westering movement is that violence did not win the West. Of course, neither was the process completed via some kind of idealistic peace-waging with the natives.  Nevertheless, Joe Walker was a man the likes of which we miss in our characters today; a respectful, understanding, and eager explorer, not a conqueror.

Kashgar, the Khunjerab Pass, Eid ul-Fitr, and the Way Back

Kashgar, alas and alack, did not impress. I built the concept, the wispy words of friends and former blog posts describing that something which lives in the storied culture of travelers from millennia ago to the present age as “Kashgar,” in my mind too much as a place completely different from China.  In many ways it does differ from the culture of its political overlord, but it’s also disappointingly clad in the same architecture and layout as other Chinese cities.  To make matters more depressing, the old town is under the ball and hammer in a classic example of Chinese “restoration.”

We got a room at the Chini Bagh, which used to be the British Consulate in Kashgar during the “Great Game” of the 19th Century.  I thought we would go to Tashkurgan the following day, but we decided to stay in Kashgar to arrange better transportation opportunities and secure passage to Urumqi.  I gave my dirty clothes to be laundered, and it turned out to be 84 kuai – about five times higher than I ever paid to launder clothes at hotels in China.  Furthermore, the Chini Bagh’s service was generally awful, despite its reputation as one of the more famous hotels in Kashgar.

After eating at a local place, I used the Internet for an hour – had to stay fresh on the job search.  The next morning we secured the room for another night before embarking on some haphazard sightseeing.  Per the Lonely Planet’s one-size-fits-all recommendations, we taxied to a nice mausoleum, the Abakh Hoja Maziri,  and a livestock market with no livestock.  I also came down with a sore throat due to the inefficient, overpowered air conditioner in the hotel room.  It didn’t help that I drank a couple of delicious Sinkiang Dark beers in the cafe of the hotel, thus lulling my immune system into a relaxed state.

Glazed Tile Detail at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Glazed Tile Detail at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Construction Tools at the Abakh Hoja Maziri
Construction Tools at the Abakh Hoja Maziri
Restorative Construction Worker at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Restorative Construction Worker at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Penitent outside Id Kah Mosque
Penitent outside Id Kah Mosque

In the afternoon we strolled around the half-rubble old town.  Historically (i.e. until about 2008) Kashgar’s Old Town was the largest intact authentic Silk Road town, dating from the days when it served as a vibrant hub for the many cultures that passed through its streets bearing all the goods one could want in Eurasia.  The extent to which it has been destroyed is painful to witness, and I think that it is exemplary of cultural-related development in modern China: demolish the real McCoy and put up a fake version of it.  The story unfolding in Kashgar’s old town ties together many of the themes of China’s “growing pains:” transition from old infrastructure to new, forced displacement of residents from traditional community spaces into new high-rise apartments, an overriding focus on municipal district-level quarterly GDP growth, the bizarre preference of Chinese tourists for “Disneyland” culture to authentic artifacts and places, and the central government’s efforts to exert control over restive minorities by undermining their shared cultural heritage.  Note that the images below are not unique to Kashgar; different versions of these scenes are found all over China.

A Hall of Doorways through Walls
A Hall of Doorways through Walls
You Can't Come In
You Can't Come In
The Neighborhood Path to Nowhere
The Neighborhood Path to Nowhere
Uighur Women Walking in the Old Neighborhood
Uighur Women Walking in the Old Neighborhood
A Silk Road Homefront
A Silk Road Homefront
What Happened to the Neighbors Out Back?
What Happened to the Neighbors Out Back?
Historic Neighborhood Restoration in the People's Republic of China
Historic Neighborhood Restoration in the People's Republic of China

Since Kashgar was underwhelming, covered in nasty dust and we had a few days to kill before Eid ul-Fitr, we sought out transport to the Khunjerab Pass, the highest motorable border pass in the world at 4,693 meters – nearly as high as that low-oxygen, high-star count night at Nam Tso in Tibet.  We first sought the services of the folks at CITS, which has an office right next to the Chini Bagh.  Their price to see both Karakul Lake and the Pass was 1,700 RMB for the both of us – pretty expensive.  He called the border office in Tashkurgan to ask about foreigners getting to the border, and the officer told him that foreigners without a forward visa (to Pakistan) could not go up to the Pass.  This disappointed us, but we still wanted to get up into the scenic highlands of Tashkurgan.  The fellow who runs the cafe at the Chini Bagh offered to do the trip for only 1,000 RMB.  We sealed the deal, albeit without the Pass as a part of the package, and proceeded to eat WAY too much da pan ji and tasty yogurt at some place that night.

We awoke the next morning to leave for Tashkurgan at ten on the Karakoram Highway.  The driver pulled over to allow us to buy hot naan bread on the way, surprisingly tasty for breakfast.  We passed Karakol Lake about three hours into the journey; it is beautiful, but the weather was too cloudy for it to be really majestic.  After that, I fell asleep until at some point we had to get out of the taxi and present our passports at a police checkpoint.  In this part of Xinjiang, they also have the silly registration-checkpoint speed limit that Tibet has.  The road was badly washed out in some spots on the Highway.

Arnab on the Karakoram Highway
Arnab on the Karakoram Highway
Me on the Karakoram Highway
Me on the Karakoram Highway

I awoke in Tashkurgan at 15:00, five hours after leaving Kashgar.  We lodged at the ubiquitous jiaotong bingguan or “traffic hotel” where we rested for 30 minutes, then got some laghmian for lunch.  Arnab and I sat around waiting on the driver for an hour or more (during which I burned through more of Team of Rivals) until he finally came down to the lobby and drove us to a couple of sites.  The river delta-meadow at the east end of Tashkurgan is beautiful and idyllic, ringed by massive mountain ranges.  This great peace of cool weather, clean(-ish) air and pastoral quiet was totally sullied when a family living in a concrete yurt there, no doubt spurred on by the presence of tourists, switched on the fake ethnic music.  It was as loud as a rock concert and echoed off all the mountains – and worst of all, the amplifier was pointed directly at the walkway into and out of the middle of the field, where we were strolling.  After we escaped that visual siren’s trap, we climbed up to the ancient fort ruins where I took some more landscape pictures. We then returned to the hotel, ate dinner including Arnab’s precious tudou si, and slept.  By the end of the day, we found out that we wold be able to see the Khunjerab Pass, and we agreed to pay 350 RMB extra to the driver for this purpose.

Welcome to Tashkurgan Deceptively Pastoral Meadow
Welcome to Tashkurgan Deceptively Pastoral Meadow
River in Tashkurgan Meadow
River in Tashkurgan Meadow
"Princess Castle" in Tashkurgan
"Princess Castle" in Tashkurgan
Tashkurgan River Delta Meadow
Tashkurgan River Delta Meadow

The next morning, the 9th of September, we left for the Khunjerab Pass.  The Karakoram Highway here rolls through amazing, epically beautiful scenery through a long straight valley set on either side by world-class mountain ranges, the Karakoram.  Tajiks abound in this part of China, especially in Tashkurgan and the southern valley.  To reach the Pass we had to pay ten kuai and turn in our passports at the customs station just south of Tashkurgan; this earned us a permit to move forward to, but not far beyond, the border.  Along the Highway we passed within about 20 km of Tajikistan, 80 km of Afghanistan, and 40 km of Kyrgyzstan.  One kilometer before the border with Pakistan, we stopped for what seemed like an hour – it was hard to tell since we were 4600 m up and our heads hurt.  When enough tourists queued, the border army police opened the gate, one of the army men sat in our taxi, and we drove up to the border itself at the pass, which is quite wide and long.  The Chinese road is paved right up to the line itself, at which point it abruptly ends.  The Pakstani side of the Highway is a rough dirt track.  We stood in Kashmir, currently controlled by Pakistan, for a bit.  I had to wear Arnab’s coat since it was so cold up there and I was not prepared.  Some Pakistani border guards came and we shook hands with them.  One of them said Arnab “looked Pakistani,” which made him laugh ironically since he’s of Indian ancestry.  After maybe ten minutes, we were shooed back into the cars by the Chinese police.

The Border Permit
The Border Permit
Station South of Tashkurgan
Station South of Tashkurgan
Goats on the Karakoram Highway
Goats on the Karakoram Highway
Karakoram Highway Ascent to the Khunjerab Pass
Karakoram Highway Ascent to the Khunjerab Pass
The Highest Border Gate in the World
The Highest Border Gate in the World
The Border of Kashmir and Xinjiang
The Border of Kashmir and Xinjiang
Arnab in "Occupied Kashmir"
Arnab in "Occupied Kashmir"
Me Straddling Pakistani Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang
Me Straddling Pakistani Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang
Arnab and Me with Pakistani Border Guard
Arnab and Me with Pakistani Border Guard
The Sign Says it All
The Sign Says it All

Thus, on the fifth anniversary of my joining AIESEC, I visited the highest border crossing in the world and stood astride two worlds.

We ate da pan ji in Tashkurgan for lunch and had to pay for the driver’s share.  After we got our passports back, we had an uneventful return to Kashgar.  Upon our return there commenced an episode in which the Chini Bagh did not honor our reservations, so we got a room at the much more pleasant Home Inn just down the street.  At first the concierge said “no foreigners, you don’t have a permit” so I showed him my visa, when he replied “oh, yes you do.”  Do they really believe that foreigners can / do get into the country without the proper paperwork?

I slept fitfully that night and awoke on Eid ul-Fitr, Friday the tenth. We saw about twenty thousand penitents pray at Id Kah Mosque.  I felt disliked by the locals and very out of place.  This was right around the time when Obama had announced the “end” of “combat missions” in Iraq, and it was the day before September 11 and when that guy in Florida said he would burn a Koran.  It may have been my imagination, but it sounded like the imam said “Obama” a lot during the prayer.  This was the first time I had ever seen any kind of Muslim religious ceremony, and I think that Eid ul-Fitr counts as the top example of such an occasion.

The Islamic Faithful along the Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
The Islamic Faithful along the Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
A Man and his Son at Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
A Man and his Son at Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Men Pray on Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
Men Pray on Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
On Knees for Allah on Eid Ul-Fitr
On Knees for Allah on Eid Ul-Fitr
The Thousands Ruk'u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
The Thousands Ruk'u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque

After the morning ceremony, I relaxed most of the day.  At the infamous Fubar, just outside the Chini Bagh, I met a friendly fellow named Brian from San Francisco.  We talked for awhile about the Karakoram Highway – he was looking to cycle up to Karakul Lake – and agreed to meet for dinner later that night.  Despite it being Eid we had a hard time finding a proper restaurant; the place where we wound up was rather dirty.  At Arnab’s insistence we got da pan ji again.  Arnab, not being much of a drinker, retired after this to prepare for our 24-hour train journey to Urumqi the next day.  I joined Brian at Fubar for a drink.  Before we even reached the bar I started feeling a bit queasy.  In the middle of our conversation at Fubar I had to excuse myself to employ the facilities.  Post-facilities I felt fine again, so it was clear that the da pan ji was bad, though I was the only one to get ill.

The next morning, my final act before departing to the train station was to check my email for any news on DC employment updates.  Fortuna had smiled upon me – I was accepted to a three-month internship at the New America Foundation‘s Open Technology Initiative!  My search for some form of employment had finally come to an end.  I sent a quick positive reply, and we began our grueling nine-day journey from the farthest point in the PRC from Beijing back to the city that had been my home for a year.  Thus commenced my final fortnight in China.

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/prestonrhea/5016453503/” title=”_mg_3403.cr2 by preston.rhea, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4152/5016453503_989b15c418.jpg” width=”500″ height=”399″ alt=”_mg_3403.cr2″ /></a>

Hong Kong

The Great Silk Road Trip began when my time as a Beijinger ended:  at 20:00 on Sunday, August 22, 2010 when I boarded the T107 train at Beijing West Railway Station bound for Shenzhen.  It was a hard sleeper, thankfully, so I spent a little less than half of the train’s 27-hour journey sleeping or lying on my top-level bed.  On Monday, while the train chugged through Jiangxi Province, I chatted for an hour with a Hong Kong Cantonese who set up the Hong Kong Delivery Company two decades ago, and is now a successful businessman.  He encouraged me to sign up for courier work to enjoy free flights.  Too bad I no longer have a valid Chinese visa!  I also spoke with a guy from Los Angeles who is developing flight routes to a new airport in the Bay Area, and an older guy from Hong Kong near my seat who told me about how to cross the border from Shenzhen to Hong Kong.

Snow warned me that this train was frequently a couple hours late, and this was true tonight; the train pulled in at 21:00 to a lightly raining Shenzhen.  I walked across the border; it was a bit hard to understand the process due to bad signage.  I changed money on the Hong Kong side – a mistake, as the rate on the China side was HK$ 112 to RMB 100, but in it was HK$ 108 to RMB 100.  I took the MTR to Sai Wan Ho, which takes over an hour from the border station since Sai Wan Ho is on Hong Kong Island and requires about three transfers.  On the metro I serendipitously met Paul Wilson, an AIESEC EP from Bristol, UK who had just finished a two-month ET in Changsha. My Chinese SIM card didn’t work in Hong Kong so he texted my couchsurfing host, Warren, that I was nearing his metro station.

I met Warren and Flo, an Italian couchsurfer, in Sai Wan Ho, a cool residential area that isn’t so overwhelming as the rest of HK Island’s North side. Warren and Flo were on the hunt for dessert but I was yet un-sated with an evening meal.  Our first destination, then, was a delicious street food noodle vendor.  Fried noodles with chicken and sausage was HK$20. We then went for dessert, where I got a papaya milkshake thing with tapioca balls.

Warren is a fantastically nice human being.  he’s a New Zealander by birth, a geography teacher at an international school in Hong Kong by day, and the founder and lead operator of Hong Kong Pub Crawl, Hong Kong’s first backpacker pub crawl, by night.  We said goodbye to Flo after dessert and Warren and I went to his tiny but amply rooftop-ed flat. I slept for six hours, showered and ventured to the visa office. While waiting for my number to be called, I met a guy from Birmingham who is an architect in Shanghai at the visa office.  We chatted about mutual acquaintances.  It took 45 minutes of waiting and walking in 4 wrong doors and 2 wrong elevators to complete the visa process.

After leaving my passport with the Chinese consular services, I went to Tsim Sha Tsui to get a camera lens for Patrick and myself; I took the Star Ferry from Wan Chai pier.  The Star Ferry is the most interesting, and also cheapest, way to get around Hong Kong. After getting the lenses and a new camera bag, I ate shrimp wonton noodle soup in a small place near Nathan Rd. for HK$23, then I Star Ferry’d it back to Wan Chai. A HK$6 public light bus which took a while landed me at Warren’s and I got to see some of the city from the windows. I dropped things off and rested while it rained outside. I was off to see the city again at 3 PM.

I walked around the central escalator near Soho / Central and fell asleep sitting on a bench in a small park for half an hour.  Then I met Warren and Shaun for their rugby league, which Warren kindly invited me to join.  It was a touch game, and it being my first time to play I sucked hard; but it was fun, and the seaside at the HKU sports fields made it even better.  After two hours of vigorous rugby, I left to meet Charlie for dinner and drinks and shisha in Wan Chai.  It was great to see him for the first time in a year.  I then retired to Warren’s.

I picked up my China L, or tourist, visa the morning of the 25th.  Next, I took the tram to Victoria Peak, but regrettably I left my camera at home that day.  The view from Victoria Peak is one of the world’s great vistas, and I was lucky to be in Hong Kong on a fogless, not-too-cloudy day.  You can see many of the islands that make Hong Kong so interesting.  When I was done gazing, I walked down Old Peak Road, which is a nice, green nature preserve until you reach the lower levels.  Less than thirty meters away from the preserve’s border, within plain view of massive condominium windows, I saw a big snail with a healthy-looking shell slicking its way across a rock while a small army of strange ants paraded around it.  As I contemplated the wonder of the scene, vibrant life contrasted with the height of modern cosmopolitan living, I said aloud: “Hong Kong is very cool.”

The rest of the walk down to Admiralty was confusing and urban.  I eventually met Van next to a sports complex.  We had a tasty lunch of some spicy Hong Kong noodles, then we took a subway to the end of the line on Lantau Island; one of her coworkers had recommended a place there to rent a bike and ride a trail on the island.  We didn’t find an especially natural trail, but we did find someone’s secluded Confucian shrine at one abrupt end of the bike path against the beach, and we sought in vain to take our bikes on the sky gondolas that go past the Big Buddha.  We also had by far the most delicious Oreo milkshake ever created; it was so good that after I finished mine I said “what will life be like now after that?”

On the way back to the apartment, I bought my ticket for the 06:50 bus to Shenzhen airport.  A quick apartment stop was the prelude to meeting Warren at Temple St. on Kowloon to dine on street food.  He promoted his bar crawl heavily to the passers-by and never slowed down on the witty, intelligent banter.  I was lucky to have such good hosts, which improved my Hong Kong trip by an order of magnitude.  Van and I had a beer each at Dusk til Dawn in Wan Chai and tried to guess if people in the bar were pilots or not (they have a special for flight crew members).  Then I crashed for four hours before awakening, saying goodbye to Warren, and catching the bus.  I REALLY wish I had stayed in Hong Kong one more day, if not one more week (though that would have killed my savings).  It’s a great place with such a diversity of experiences.

All my Hong Kong photos (few though they are) can be found here.

Choosing Three Wishes

It crossed my mind today: if a higher being with the power to grant requests asked me what three things I would like to receive, what would I choose?

Given this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I would not be mentally prepared to know what to ask for if the offer came suddenly.  Supernatural beings who can give you anything you want don’t seem to be the type to patiently wait while you study text, myths, triumphs and failures to discern how to best maximize your gains.

There are different ways to approach answering the question.  The two most basic I can identify are deciding what will best benefit your interests and situation by providing you with the necessary keys and environment to achieve your goals, or alternatively determining how a supernatural being thinks and makes choices so the things you ask for will be granted in such a way as to maximize your interests.  A major component of the granting is how the deity interprets your wishes.  In a simplistic example you could say “I want to be the richest man in the world” and receive an amount of money in your bank account and some kind of inheritance and that’s it.  But in the legends and fairy tales we hear of people who receive supernatural gifts, whether earned or not; such statements are always counterbalanced with disasters.  Your inheritance could be disputed by a powerful criminal cartel, you could come under immediate IRS investigation, or you could be overcome by selfish greed and fulfill the adage of “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”

Thus, if you subscribe to the more simple granting scheme it would probably be better to ask for the means to solve a specific problem.  “Get me out of poverty” or “make my family financially secure” may be looked upon more favorably because it is not asking to put you on the level of the god granting you the wish.  The life of a human is limited; this is our gift, and knocking that out of balance with something so absolute would be disastrous.

I would approach it from the other perspective: the deity will in some way make a judgment about your wishes and that will affect the granting.  For this reason I think it would be unwise to ask for “absolute power” because power is fleeting, power corrupts, and the deity knows all of this.  The deity will be disappointed and likely you will become its slave as a result of the granting.  Even as the billions cry for mercy in the grip of your fingers, how much more your own throat will be clutched by the vise of the god to whom you owe your power.

Thus I reject completely selfish gains and would seek instead to receive divine gifts, not take divine powers. Yet the division between selfishness and selflessness still ought to be considered.  Would the deity mock you if you only wished for “world peace?”  Or would it consider you small-minded if you only wished for things for yourself?  Should you choose one personal skill, one personal pleasure and one let’s-benefit-everyone or some other combination?

I would try to play the role of the hero who receives the gifts of the father / heaven and takes them back to make the world better.  I would try to make one of the wishes give me pleasure as well as responsibility, but the others would purely empower me to solve problems or help improve the world.  What they would be, though, I am not sure.

If I had asked myself this question a year and a half ago I think I would know at least half the answer.  That I don’t know it right now says something.

My Year-End Self-Analysis

Per the advice of LifeHacker.

Done while listening to Neil Young’s “Harvest” Album

Accomplishments

  1. Started a relationship with a wonderful woman
  2. Graduated Georgia Tech with a BS in Electrical Engineering, a Spanish Minor, an International Plan and Co-op Certificate, and a 3.06 average
  3. Took my sister on a cool trip to Spain
  4. Had a fantastic cross-country roadtrip
  5. Summited Half Dome
  6. Drew up plans with Kelsey for Entropy
  7. Got a fine job in Beijing
  8. Started the AIESEC Beijing Trainee Committee
  9. Started BrainCanvas with King
  10. Learned a good bit about my ancestry and shared it with the family
  11. Had a wonderful Blue Plate Special shift on WREK


Failures

  1. Didn’t get distinction for graduating
  2. Lost out on my bid for the MindValley traineeship
  3. Didn’t make it into the NOI BootCamp in DC in July
  4. Didn’t get the Eben Tisdale Fellowship
  5. Didn’t make it past the first round in the Unreasonable Institute selection
  6. Got no job offers from the career fair
  7. Fell off of good updating for BrainCanvas
  8. Haven’t started learning Chinese
  9. Started, then stopped working out again
  10. Poorly handled turning down the AIESEC Official Expansion Mongolia invitation

Five Pictures to Sum Up 2009

  1. Revolutionary Beers at City Tavern
  2. Spain Trip 2009 304
  3. California Roadtrip 2009 433
  4. img_9344
  5. img_9075

Looking Forward to NYE 2011

  1. Making Waves in Washington, DC
  2. Working Out my Body, Mind, and Soul
  3. Learned Conversational Chinese
  4. My Writing is Referenced in Influential Publications
  5. Making Music Regularly

Winds Blow East

Again it has been too long since I have recorded anything in this blog. How unfortunate as well, as it has been a truly great summer with a lot of experiences, thoughts, and mental progress I think.

In short, since my last post Arcadiy and I completed our great journey West to California, where Kelsey met me and we had a fantastic two weeks in Big Sur, San Jose, Berkeley / Oakland / San Francisco, Napa / Sonoma Valleys, and finally at Get Golden with AIESEC San Jose at Yosemite National Park where we climbed to the very top of Half Dome – my greatest summiting feat. Then I flew out to New York to see some friends including Tiffany and A. King, who were on the cusp of beginning their terms as the first duly elected AIESEC US Member Committee team members in twelve years. I returned to Alabama, where Kelsey came down to visit again for a weekend, and I worked out and relaxed. In July I went up to stay with Kelsey for three weeks in Chapel Hill while also catching Independence Day in Washington, DC. After another week in Gadsden, I helped her move into a new home in DC, where we spent two weeks and said “see you later” for a year (or six months or so) the day before she started her new job this week.

The “see you later” is because on Monday morning I fly out to China for one year to work at a startup content delivery network company called Prime Networks in Beijing. It is a technical traineeship through AIESEC.

That came after a great deal of wrangling with three different opportunities over the summer, and this is what came out on top. Thankfully so, I believe. In China I will get to spend a year in a totally foreign culture, as the only time I’ve been to “Asia” was when I was on the eastern side of Istanbul for a month in August 2007. I will have the opportunity to learn as much as I can of a major world language, Mandarin. I will be working in an area that is related to my degree, and not just teaching English. I will be working for a start-up, to immerse myself in the entrepreneurial environment. From my perspective, although I don’t want to get ahead of myself too much, I am getting a pretty good deal.

I know a lot of people get stressed and anxious and even teary-eyed when they go on a journey like this, leaving their homes and their loved ones. The leaving is not lost on me. I recognize and understand my feelings of separation from my good friends, my family, and my girlfriend very much. The same goes for the places I won’t see for a year. But the drive to know and experience more, to know more people and be a part of more places and learn more from the wide world is orders of magnitude greater than the sadness. I have never been homesick before. I don’t think I will start to in China. I feel propelled towards it, with the wind at my back and the path leading East for now. So much to learn and so much opportunity is a bell-clear beckoning on an early morning.

I must abed now, but soon I will be in Shanghai for two weeks to complete immigration. And then the task begins!