Monthly Archives: July 2013

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Invisible Cities – Cities and Motion 2

Cities & Motion


Look at the city of Tailan and you may see a train, but do not be fooled by its thin foundation. Look again and see the public square covered in people: festival tents shading an art exposition, a centuries-old maple trunk that forks and rejoins, voices singing from a far-off temple spire. See the wide boulevards and deep wells. Feel the smoke spout from the coal funnel and blow through the city in the ever-present wind, which the city’s people use to tell direction when they stumble home late at night. Never once have they thought of the thin metal rails, stretching in straight lines to infinity, that hold their city of grass and pavement. That Tailan floats five inches above the ground is the city’s great secret.

The tracks that carry Tailan sometimes meet others, steel lines that run perpendicular, parallel, in turns. And sometimes but rarely, another city will approach rolling on the tracks, thus beginning a trade. Men grab bushels of fruit from the market, furniture from the store, old cows from the field, and rush to the edge for that brief moment when the cities come side-by-side. Hundreds of outstretched arms, half second barters, and the trade is over, the two cities rolling apart to the distance.

If you look closely, you could almost see the outlines of a dining car in the walls of the jail, the hint of overnight cots in the greenhouse beds, the frame of a caboose holding up the tall radio tower. But these are faint; the city has taken hold of whatever used to be and made of it something new.

The residents of Tailan have no memory of how the city began, only that they were raised there by their parents, as their own children will be. They see no tracks, no caboose, no path in the distance, only the city built around them. They have mastered the art of always moving but going nowhere.


A short story in the style of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Full series here.


Invisible Cities – Cities and Motion 1

Cities & Motion


As the traveler approaches Camerone, he sees on the landscape the city twist upon itself. Much as his water boiled as he broke camp, Camerone bursts forth in heaves: rolling over and swaying the very hills that support it; grass sparkles as the sun hits its seething mounds. Drawing closer, he sees children tossed in the air as the grounds lurch, buildings bend and scrape the stones, horses lose their step, apples spill from a market stall. To enter the city is to risk life as men fall from the gate.

But it happens that when the traveler passes through into the city, he sees that all is still. All is the same here as in his home city: a school, a squeaking bar sign, children throwing rocks, alleys not quite safe at night, a carved stone fountain. He sets his mug upon the ground and when none spills on the dirt, he smiles and finds an inn. In the street the owl hoots and the beggar shifts in the dirt; the city sleeps.

The next day the city gathers to watch him go, a circle around the gate. They cannot understand why these travelers leave, why anyone would want to abandon the safety of the city for the heaving, chaotic, spinning world outside.


A short story in the style of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Full series here.


A Fascinating Look at Corrupt 7-year-olds and their Plots to Gain Power

I recently stumbled across a documentary with a great concept: take a class of Chinese 3rd graders, tell them that rather than the teacher picking the next class monitor, they will be voting on the choice, and give them a week to campaign. See what happens. It quickly becomes clear that while ostensibly this was conceived to explore the contrast between the CCP and Democratic styles of government, this child’s contest is nothing more than a classic power struggle, with all the delicious backstabbing, plotting, and conniving that goes along with it. Frank Underwood style.

We quickly get a cast of candidates:

Cheng Cheng – A pudgy 7-year-old boy, who can’t seem to keep his shirt on in front of the camera. Why he wants to be class monitor? “I want to boss people around.” You got to give him points for honesty. But he wants to watch TV instead of practice campaign speeches with his parents. That won’t get you far, Cheng Cheng. It seems pretty hopeless until you notice the magnetic charisma he uses to try to convince his mom. Kid’s got charm.

Luo Lei – A skinny, bright-eyed 7-year-old boy who was the past class monitor. You can’t help but admire the kid at first – he tells his parents he can win under his own strength, and when asked how he will win, responds, “I don’t want to control others, they should think for themselves. People should vote for whoever they want.” Brings tears of idealism to my eyes. But then the camera pans to his smiling parents. “You need some tricks,” his mother says. His father, the police chief, corrects her. “Techniques.”

Xu Xiaofei – A quiet 7-year-old girl. She’s got no confidence, which ultimately makes her forgettable. Oh Xiaofei, this won’t be pretty.

The first event is a talent show, where the candidates all get to show off some sort of musical ability to the voters. But true politics is won before the show begins. The lineup is uneven, Xiaofei is out of her depth, and it’s time for an early kill. Cheng Cheng meets his best friend in private before the show and confides in him. “When Xiaofei gets up there, I want you and everyone else to shout ‘You’re terrible!'” The friend eagerly agrees to rally the classroom. Cheng Cheng goes in and sits down, Xiaofei stands up, and the whole room erupts. She never stood a chance.

Xiaofei runs out into the hallway crying, and Cheng Cheng follows, knowing that she never saw him do anything. “I want to apologize on behalf of myself and Luo Lei.” Conniving bastard. They return to the classroom and Cheng Cheng grabs both his best friend and Luo Lei and pushes them up to the front of the class to apologize. The latter are both in tears, having genuinely felt like they’ve done wrong to hurt Xiaofei, and sob out apologies. Cheng Cheng stands behind them, unable to hide his smile.

Cheng Cheng pushes his scapegoats to the front.

Cheng Cheng (center) pushes his scapegoats to the front.

The rest of the talent show plays out like you might expect it would. Xiaofei cracks under pressure and botches her flute performance, Cheng Cheng gets the class singing along with him and literally has the whole class crowding around him trying to touch him to receive ‘karma’, and Luo Lei’s supporters get into a chanting match with those of Cheng Cheng. The day ends with a decisive Cheng Cheng victory. Xiaofei is by all accounts out of the race and Luo Lei decides that he want to quit.

Until, that is, he gets home and talks with his father. Time for some techniques.

The next day, the teachers announce that they’re going on a surprise field trip to the city’s brand new monorail. “I want to spend some time getting to know you all better,” Luo Lei announces, and diplomatically decides how to tell them that the trip didn’t cost anything: “It’s my treat.” With megaphone in hand, he leads the class in song, while a bewildered Cheng Cheng can’t realize how his power trip wore off so quickly. He complains to his mother, “Luo Lei has bought off one of my assistants.” Point Luo Lei.

Luo Lei stands off against Cheng Cheng.

Luo Lei stands off against Cheng Cheng.

The voters are wising up. They’ll no longer commit to one side or the other, saying that they want to wait for the final debate to decide. And they grow stronger, not letting Cheng Cheng or Luo Lei strong-arm or bribe them into voting for them.

The final debate essentially comprises a laundry list of complaints about the other person’s leadership. Cheng Cheng’s platform? These past years, Luo Lei has hit you all a lot. I will be a manager, not a dictator, someone who will be equal to others instead of beating them. Even with his manipulative tendencies, that’s pretty compelling if you ask me. For all his faults, Cheng Cheng is a good-natured guy.

Unfortunately for Cheng Cheng, Luo Lei has a silver bullet. Earlier in the show, Cheng Cheng had promised Luo Lei that he would vote for him, out of pity. Upon hearing that, Luo Lei’s father told him, “During the debate, ask who he will vote for. If he says you, ask him how he can lead without believing in himself. And if he says himself, well, he’s a liar.” It’s the ironclad sort of logic a child loves.

During the debate, Luo Lei executes flawlessly. “Liar!” he screams, “A class monitor must be honest and you told me you’d vote for me no matter what!” When confronted about his violence, he explains, “You think it is for no reason? I must be strict with you like a parent, or else you would not learn.” Cheng Cheng pushes back with superior oration, but the damage is done and the debate is over.

It’s neck and neck going into the final speeches before the vote. Cheng Cheng gives a solid speech, Xu Xiaofei gives a bland one, and Luo Lei gives a pretty good one. But right at the end of his speech Luo Lei whips out his final technique. “Sunday is the Mid-Autumn Festival, and I want to give you all these cards as presents. Now let’s vote.” And with this eleventh-hour giving of gifts, Luo Lei, of course, wins.

Luo Lei wins ... and promptly starts beating people again.

Luo Lei wins by a landslide … and promptly starts beating people again.

So the corrupt dictator won, over the corrupt manager who didn’t. Cheng Cheng was the better candidate and will go farther in life, I feel, though Luo Lei already has the connections to jumpstart the ladder-climbing process. But mostly I was struck by how similar our adult elections are to this childish facsimile. The voters listen to their candidates through weeks of attack and counterattack that don’t go anywhere, the people watching the documentary on tv are thoroughly entertained, and in the end it’s all decided by a few unsubstantial gifts that are perfectly timed as to sway the vote at the last-minute. Makes you wonder who’s really making the decision at all.

Video: Why Democracy – Please Vote for Me (请投我一票), from Vimeo.


Setting My Sights

Do you know that feeling where you’ve got the next few years all figured out but everything past that is a giant white hole of nothingness? In middle school, high school was this great unknown, in high school I had absolutely no mental image of what college life would be like, and now here going into my junior year of college, it seems like all the goalposts here will soon be passed. Past that, I have no idea what to expect. What’s next? Where do I set my target as I start adult life?

I’ve been reading a lot about financial independence in the past few days, because financial independence is an ancillary goal that makes a lot of other life goals possible. Specifically, I tore through Rich Dad, Poor Dad, No More Harvard Debt, and the blog of Mr. Money Mustache (MMM, who is quickly becoming a personal hero). And I’ve realized just how skewed my view of money is. I was lucky enough to have been taught well enough by my parents to never carry a credit card balance and pay off your debts early, but that information on its own was only probably ever enough to keep me from seriously shooting myself in the foot. I didn’t know that the way the rich made money- through the interest off of investment – was something anyone could reasonably do. And  I had never thought of dollar bills as little workers, who, when put to work in the right places, will give you 7-8 cents every year, forever. Gamechanger.

Of course, I’m not inheriting any family nest eggs that will turn me a steady profit the rest of my life. I’m going to have to build one myself. Luckily, as Mr. Money Mustache points out, this won’t be hard at all. It just takes a willingness for frugality and a focus on what you really need. The idea behind financial independence is simple: for every dollar that passes into your hands, treat it like a quarter. Invest the other 75%. In 7 years, you will be done.

How long it takes to retire at give savings rates

The magic graph: the time to retire based on your savings rate. At 75%, it’s 7 years. At 60%, it’s 13 years. At the recommended 10% savings rate? 51 additional years. Most people die before then.

7 years! I’m going to graduate college at the age of 22 1/2. At this high savings rate it will take me half a year to pay off student loans, meaning that on my 30th birthday as I cut the cake, I could retire, financially free for the rest of my life. And yes, this all includes inflation.

The catch is that the remaining 25% of your gross income becomes your working income. So if I make (hypothetically) $80k per year in a decent engineering job, I’ll actually take home $20k. But considering  that after the first 7 years this $20k/year is absolutely free, that’s not such a bad deal at all. And especially considering that of all of the things that make us happy, such as close loved ones, good and active health, freedom of choice, and purchasing experiences over things, a gross high income is not among them. The rest of MMM’s blog is dedicated to cutting out the financial fluff that, in the end, isn’t necessary and doesn’t really do anything to make you happier. It’s the difference between the wealthy and the rich.

Retiring at 30 doesn’t mean I’ll never work again – it simply means I won’t have to. I’ll finally have the freedom and choice to live how I want to and work on the projects that matter to me. Isn’t money supposed to buy us freedom?

All the same, past that 30 year mark is the same white unknown that has presented itself again and again. I don’t know what I’ll do once I get there, and I have no idea what’s in store along the way. But that’s to think about another day, and for now my sights are set.