Questioning Hour for the President

Two days after the State of the Union address, President Obama went to speak in front of the Republican Caucus at their meeting in Baltimore.  In what I gather is an unusual event, he not only spoke to them but took questions for more than an hour, something I’ve never seen.  Part debate, part “Question Time” from the UK Parliament, this was one of the more helpful things I’ve seen politically.

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Here’s the entire one hour, seven minutes of the Q&A from C-SPAN.  Well worth a view for my American readers.  Others may be less interested.

I liked it because, for one of the first times, I’ve seen an environment where the merits of the President’s positions and the truth of the claims of those positions and the opposition’s views relative to them can be discussed and debated openly and in more depth than on a cable talk show.  It went beyond the usual talking heads and punditry to something more articulate and more substantial.

Truly, I like this format and would encourage the President to engage in more of these meetings both with Democrats and Republicans members of congress.

Additionally, I’d like to see political debates held in this style where the rules and questions are not so tightly scripted, allowing the sides to discuss back and forth, to call each other out on false choices and untrue assertions.  It gets us beyond the soundbytes.

 

Street Vendors

Krungthep is a city that eats on its feet.  Thais have this snacking habit, unintentionally following the “five small meals a day” advice that so many weight-watchers hear.  Whether a mid-morning snack of khanom krok, little salty-sweet rice flour and coconut milk pancakes, an afternoon snack of freshly sliced tropical fruit, or a quick bowl of guaytiaw – rice noodles – to stave off hunger, there is always plenty to choose from along a Thai sidewalk.

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This picture accurately captures a dilemma that is increasingly common here in Thailand.  Alongside the plethora of street vendors is an equally-abundant number of convenience stores.  The difference between the two is not price – neither the 7-11 snacks nor the ones from street vendors will bust your budget – but quality.

“Fast food” when it comes from street vendors is made from fresh ingredients, is very rarely more than a few minutes (or at most a few hours) old, has no preservatives, and generally is more nutrient-dense than calorie-dense.  “Fast food” when it comes from the convenience stores and Western fast food chains that are increasingly common is quite the opposite, offering few redeeming values other than a quick way to expand your waistline.

And, sadly, that expanding waistline is just what we’re seeing.  Childhood obesity is growing rapidly in Thailand and especially here in Krungthep you see more and more children who are wearing X-Large size school uniforms.

In the months to come, I’d like to write more about Thai street vendors and snacks.  They are often a bit self conscious when it comes to taking pictures, but I’ll look for some opportunities to share with you more about the foods we eat here.

 

To Amphawa Floating Market with David

Last week I enjoyed a visit from another Xanga friend, David from London.  While he doesn’t post as frequently as he once did, I’ve enjoyed his photos and entries from his travels around the globe and was glad he contacted me in advance of his visit to Thailand – his first return in more than a half-dozen years.

We drove to Samut Songkhram province (the smallest of Thailand’s 76 provinces) to visit the Amphawa nighttime floating market.  I’ve been there and written about my visits many times before.  Each new visit, though, provides some interesting sights I haven’t seen before.  Plus, there’s lots for a photobug like David to shoot.

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Samut Songkhram province is known, among other things, for its sea salt.  Located adjacent to the Gulf of Thailand, the highway through the province is lined with evaporation ponds.  This reminds me a bit of the giant evaporation ponds in the South Bay Area near San Francisco.  While many of those ponds have been returned to marshland as part of environmental protection land-swaps, when I was growing up we would drive past these vast fields of water slowly changing hues as the water evaporated and different algae would flourish.

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While is wasn’t harvest season in most of the ponds, there was one where workers were raking up the salt crystals into small piles and then carting them away.  It is visually interesting to look at.

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Upon arrival to downtown Amphawa, the small town that hosts the successful nighttime Friday-Sunday floating market, we explored one of the nearby temples.  This temple, Wat Amphawan Chetiyaram, was built on the spot where King Rama II was born in 1766.  There is also a nearby park commemorating his birth.

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In and of itself, it is a temple like many others.  But inside the main bot, or chapel, there are some beautifully elaborate (and well-maintained) murals.  These not only depict stories from the Buddha’s life but also feature scenes from the early years of the Chakri Dynasty and life in Krungthep (Bangkok) in the late 1700s.  In fact the mural behind the Buddha statues shows Rattanakosin Island, the “old city” of Krungthep.  Just to the left of the main Buddha image you can see an open field that is still there today, known as Sanam Luang (royal field).  To the right of the Buddha image is the Grand Palace and to the right of that, Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

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Outside the bot we watched a monk tend to the grounds.  In my years here I have never seen a monk use a weed whacker.

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Before the crowds grew heavy and the sun set, we hired a boat and went for a 90-minute tour of the Mae Khlong river (not to be confused with the Mae Kong which borders Laos) and the surrounding canals.  Above, a ferry takes a group of secondary school students home.

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We returned to Amphawa just as the action was picking up.  This market is very popular with Thais, although I am noticing an increased presence of foreigners.  Too many people reading this blog and adding Amphawa to their itinerary, I guess.  (Yeah, right!)  The market has a live announcer and DJ who plays traditional Thai music.  There is also karaoke and this man (#66) was really getting into his song, dancing around as he sang.

Ploy David and I settled down along the footpath and started ordering food from the vendors who are on boats in the canal below.  One of the vendors, a woman selling fruit, cried out upon seeing me, “Teacher Chris!  Teacher Chris!”  Startled, I had to take a second look.  “It’s Ploy’s mother,” she said, referencing one of my birghtest and kindest sixth graders (pictured right) when I volunteered as an English teacher in the nearby village of Bangkhonthinai.

We had a nice chat and I was surprised to hear that Ploy’s already in ninth grade.  Has it been so long already?  I was also very happy to hear that she is continuing to study English and that it is one of her favorite subjects.  When Ploy moved to secondary school (after sixth grade) she achieved the third-highest score on the English proficiency exam in the entire province, something I was very proud of.  The fact that she’s still studying and enjoying it is a good thing.

I asked her mother to send my regards and suggested that Ploy should stay in touch.  After I finished teaching, I continue to occassionally send postcards to my former students, hoping that this will inspire them to be curious about the world and, especially, the world outside their province.  After teaching there for more than a year, I and the friends who helped with the teaching always hoped that at least a few of the students would be inspired by the experience and achieve more than their modest beginnings might otherwise inspire them to.

Anyhow, that was the fun trip to Ampahwa.  It was really nice to spend time with David and to hear his stories and experiences.  Hopefully once he returns to bitterly cold London he’ll post some of the pictures from his trip to Thailand.

 

Dreaming of Silks

Our friend Trish is a small businesswoman whose product is custom-made silk dresses.  Over the past two years I’ve written about her visit to search for silk factories (including this interesting video about the silk-making process) as well as a photo shoot I did for her last summer.  She’s such a fashion-forward woman and is so enthusiastic about her product that Tawn and I really enjoy helping her.

This weekend we spent several hours at Old Siam, a fabric market in the heart of the old city, shopping for silk for Trish.  Saturday’s visit was spent finding various silks and photographing them – some four dozen options in all.  Then I processed the files, color corrected them as best I could so as to get an accurate representation, then send the pictures to Trish.

Sunday morning, after Trish had reviewed and narrowed the selections to just a dozen, Tawn and I returned to Old Siam, negotiating prices and quantities.  By the end of the weekend, my head was spinning with silks.  Truly, when I tried to go to sleep on Sunday night, it took me several hours as I kept dreaming of being buried under bolts of colorful silk!

Here are the fabrics that Trish settled on:

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The binder appears as something off which I could later white-balance the picture.  It is a 6×9″ binder so can also provide some sense of scale of the prints and plaids.  Next time, I should have a little ruler measured out on the paper, shouldn’t I?

Anyhow, it was a fun weekend spent silk shopping.  Personally, I go for the plaids in the vibrant colors.  Maybe I’ll make a few jackets out of those.  That would catch some attention!

 

Second Singapore Border Run

A few weeks ago I did another border run to Singapore.  No need to make a video about it this time – you know the routine.  I did take some pictures along the way that I thought I would share with you.

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An interesting assortment of airliners.  Business Air and Nordwind Airlines I’m unfamiliar with.  They are a Thai travel agency that runs charters to Korea and a Russian charter airline, respectively.  Iran Air (third plane back) is one I don’t see very often.  I’m curious what flying them is like.  I’ve long wanted to visit Iran.  It is supposed to be a very beautiful country and despite what the US media publishes, it does have a long and rich history and culture.

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Airbus A310 from Pakistan Int’l Airlines – with the “Defender of the Land” slogan on the side.  Airlines from the greater Middle East abound in Bangkok.  In fact, the largest growth segment for Thai tourism is in the Middle East market.  To hear some tell it, it is because they can find in Bangkok the things which are unavailable or illegal in their home countries!

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I flew Air Asia and was surprised to see that they are now carrying Krispy Kreme donuts on select flights.  I guess they have stores in Jakarta and Hong Kong, although that doesn’t seem to be enough to supply all their flights.

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Air Asia has pretty reasonable buy-on-board food, although it doesn’t win any beauty contests.  Compare the real nasi lemak to that pictured in the magazine.  Where’s the garnish?!

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I wasn’t in Singapore long enough to do anything other than run down some issues of Vogue for Tawn along with a book titled “Hue” that he was looking for.  Three bookstores later, I had found British and Australian Vogue but sadly no American Vogue.

Because I arrived after lunch and left for the airport by rush hour, Singapore seemed strangely deserted.  Walking through Clark Quay, above, there just weren’t many people out.  Hello-o-o… anybody home?

 

Dead? Just Paint it Green

Every so often I see things that just make me laugh.  Well, scratch my head and laugh at the same time.  That’s why I have my camera with me nearly everywhere I go.  The spray-painted dead palm tree is just such a thing.

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Siam Paragon is one of our largest, most glitzy malls.  Located right next to the central transfer station of the Skytrain rail system, it enjoys a prominence that other malls’ marketing directors must envy.  Knowing that appearances are so very important in cases like this, I was a bit shocked to see that one of the palm trees in front of the main entrance appears to have died.

And then I noticed that the other “healthy” green palm tree wasn’t looking so natural.  It, too, was dead and some industrious worker bee from the facilities department had decided to pull out a can of paint and color the dead fronds green!  If only that plan had worked out as intended.

 

DC Awash in Cash, Our Interests Washed Down the Drain

lobbyist_money Corporations are not people.  They do not have the same inalienable rights of people.  These are two core beliefs I hold.  The individual people who are owners of corporations have their individual rights but the corporation itself, a legal contract between those owners, does not have the same rights as if it were a human being, too.  Contracts are pieces of paper, not living, breathing human beings.

Sadly, five members of the United States Supreme Court disagree with me and decided today that corporations are in fact people and have the same rights to free political speech as individuals do.

Why does that matter?  Already, the degree of influence of corporate money through lobbyists, direct donations and other political actions has reached startling proportions.  One look at the messy legislative process in creating the competing health care reform bills and you can see the dirty handprints of corporate money all over the place.  One deal cut after another until all the “reform” has been removed from the final product with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel but with far uglier consequences.

But at least there were some attempts at limits to corporate influence such as the McCain-Feingold Act.

It matters because we as individuals, even if we all became actively involved in politics, still don’t have the financial resources of corporations.  We can’t afford to hire lobbyists, produce attack ads and smear campaigns and let millions of people know what we think.  As individuals (true human beings) we will have a limited influence on friends, family and community – and that’s only if we get involved.  Most people don’t.  The corporations will inevitably have outsized influence on the democratic process because they have deeper pockets and the infrastructure to pay attention and get involved.

You see, I’m not anti-corporate.  I don’t bemoan the spread of Starbucks or McDonald’s.  Corporations that are successful are a great example of capitalism at work – a system that I believe in.  But democratic capitalism has to respect the needs of the individual citizens as much as (if not more so) than the needs of the shareholders and consumers.  This is an important balance discussed by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in his book Supercapitalism.

But as we sit here bemoaning why our legislators can’t seem to step up to any of the real challenges we face, make the tough decisions, etc. we need to realize that they can’t do those things because it costs a lot of money to run for election and in order to win (and win again and again) they are beholden to the coffers of big business.

Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Socialists, your political views don’t matter here.  The question is whether you believe that corporations and their billions (yes, billions) of dollars should be allowed equal footing with you in the arena of political ideas.  I like a sumo wrestling match as much as the next guy, but only if both opponents are sumo-sized.  In this case, it is more like an ant fighting a sumo wrestler.  And I’m afraid to tell you, we’re the ant!