Sunday, March 30, 2008
- It is true that one of the main reasons we can't expand the LA subway's Red Line west to the ocean is that Beverly Hills won't allow it. But also, much of West LA sits atop the one-two punch of heightened seismic activity and pockets of natural gas - so another reason we can't expand the line, or that it would be more difficult than normal, is explosions. That's right. Explosions.
- Another way that Beverly Hills is an asshole is that it refuses to synchronize its traffic lights with the surrounding ones in LA.
- LA Metro Rapid Buses (the red "express" ones, not the orange local ones) are starting to have a gadget that allows them to extend the life of a green light (a so-called "stale green") and to change red lights to green. Of course during gridlock there is nothing to be done, but cool, huh?
Mr. Frierson is also one of California's State Athletic Commissioner, concentrating on Mixed Martial Arts. He's also 78 years old. He's also a Democratic Party Superdelegate. He's promised his support to... someone, but wants that person to drop out now so that he can switch without suffering political consequences. He also told me something very fascinating about the rationale behind superdelegates, which deserves its own paragraph.
I've always thought that Clinton's position on Florida and Michigan is disingenuous because of her pledge to abide by the DNC's sanction of those contests. She knew the rules going in. But I also have thought that the Obama campaign had been engaging in a slightly similar rule-reinterpretation when it claims that superdelegates should not go against the majority of pledged delegates. Superdelegates were first introduced in the 1984 election, and I thought that their very purpose was to protect the establishment against a challenger, to do the very thing that Clinton is asking of them. And I think I read somewhere that this idea was introduced to stop the Gary Hart campaign. Now, in the light of day, that particular reason seems a little far fetched because it ascribes to the DNC a little more organizational and machiavellian agility than is believable. But I did think that the point of superdelegates was elitism and that this was the system agreed to in advance, and though I agree with the Obama campaign's extrapolitical reasoning behind its claim, and I think what Clinton is doing is far more disingenuous, I was sensitive to the charge that he's "trying to change the rules." But this was not the original intention of having superdelegates, according to Mr. Frierson, who has been in the DNC since 1976. The idea was actually hatched in 1980, and merely implemented in 1984, and its purpose was to bring mayors and governors closer to the national party. According to him, the purpose of having superdelegates was always more abstract and ceremonial than procedural.
1) Jeddah – the second largest city in Saudi Arabia, and by the far the most cosmopolitan, progressive, and ethnically mixed – has more public art than I can recall seeing anywhere. Maybe it just stands out more here – when you see a huge vagina in the middle of a roundabout in the most circumspect place on earth, it gets your attention.
2) This drives me crazy: I leave a hotel room in the morning and turn off the lights and the A/C. I come back and all the lights are on, allowing me to see my breath. Oh I hate that so much.
3) “One day there will be no oil.” Chief Economist, National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia, on the 6th day of our trip. He is the first to acknowledge this sentiment even obliquely.
4) Security in Riyadh, where we arrived today is much, much tighter than anywhere else we have been. Credit for this observation goes to Payson Tucker and Ted Carstensen.
Friday, March 28, 2008
**Note: I wrote this a few days ago, but am only getting online to post it now. More coming about subsequent experiences that have been variously uplifting, disheartening, unfamiliar, and universal.
Slavery was abolished in the Kingdom in 1962. Several Saudiss have explained this shocking fact to me with bits of mitigating information: it's not like western slavery; they were really members of the family; when King Faysal outlawed slavery, many slaves refused to leave; Islam recognizes it as a virtue to free a slave. Still, slavery was permitted in the Kingdom until 1962, and many of those protestations sound familiar. Last night, it was not hard to notice that the 20 or so wizened men who danced and sang in traditional Arabian song all had dark skin. "Because they are descendents of slaves," explained the Saudi McGill graduate next to me.
Several times already on this trip, I have been surprised to find myself muddled between cultural norms. My philosophical tradition demands relativism, and a skeptical posture with respect to my doubt in the face of a functioning, unfamiliar, ancient social order. But slavery in 1962? The women I have met – not a representative sample – don't feel oppressed, but neither can they travel freely, drive, decide whom to marry, go most places without a male escort to whom they are either married or related, or seek justice when raped. Our hosts say "you see how we truly are, and how unfairly the media represent us, how misunderstood we are." But, in fairness, our extremely circumscribed view of the country, while enriching my understanding of Saudi culture, history, and people, has only added to my knowledge, and dispelled nothing for its transparently selective representation. Incompletely understood, certainly; misunderstood, less so.
The other thing women can't do is vote; a condition that they share with men, the exception being the 30,000 some-odd members of the royal family, who now vote to select the heir to the throne from among that sub-set of their own members who are direct descendants of the great founding King Abd al-Aziz, who ruled for the first half of the 20th century. Two of those members sat with us yesterday evening and patiently and articulately answered questions, including some about what the Kingdom's role should be in Iraq and Israel/Palestine ("We must play one"), the status of women ("I like having a driver") and the status of royalty in the workplace ("We are treated just like everyone else. I was often held up as an example of a hard worker.") Prince Faysal (relation, but distant – there are a lot of Faysals) spent four years in Boston studying business and public policy, and his instantaneous and unblinking answer to a question about the policy priorities of the Kingdom in the coming years was nuanced in its emphasis on education and demographics. He is a real thinker, and a leader. By birth, though, he and his wife have wealth while grinding poverty and political oppression crush the less fortunate, many of whom are the permanent underclass of foreign guest workers. I suppose nothing in that last sentence is different from home. But it is an important distinction that the US constitution strives for an ever more perfect union, whereas the Kingdom's is, literally, the revealed and immutable Sha'aria of Islam.
I feel guilty and ungrateful – another cause of this unexpected ethical confusion. This is like a business trip, and I am learning a great deal within that framework. Our hosts have been as generous, kind, and earnest as any I have ever encountered. Our leaders – a Saudi MIT Sloan student and two of his cousins – have eagerly served as uncommonly skilled links between two worlds that are as uncomfortably bound to one another as any on the planet, and they have been relentlessly focused on our experience and on us. I am purely grateful to them, and I am indeed learning about the Kingdom and the beauty of its people. But to claim, as the professor who is traveling with us did to the Prince and Princess, that this trip is creating 21 ambassadors, is, like many diplomatic expressions heard in the course of bridge-building between cultures that contrast but markets that synergize, either partially disingenuous or mostly expedient, or both. We have differences. The north star of my socio-politics is that those differences can only be bridged by openness, sunshine, discussion, and debate.
The above paragraphs read as judgmental and critical. To the extent that they are, it may be my own impatience and impulsiveness. At best, I offer them not as judgment or criticism, but only as observations that, until they can be discussed and debated and incorporated into a system of justice, are not well understood.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Sunday, March 23, 2008
For the first several days of the trip, we are being hosted by Saudi Aramco – the state-owned oil company – in Dhahran, on the east coast, next to Bahrain. Saudi Aramco has several compounds in the region, the main one of which, where we are staying, feels a bit like what I imagine a permanent military base must feel like. It’s completely self-contained, with a grocery store, hospital, gas station (biodiesel available – psych!), lovely residential streets, Texans, a golf course that was recently converted to grass from asphalt, and the guest house, which is really a hotel, from which I write this post.
Today, we took a 30-minute bus ride from Dhahran to the Saudi Aramco Airfield, and then a 90-minute prop-plane trip to the Shaybah oil field in the Empty Quarter. (As you can see, Saudi Aramco has kept us on the straight and narrow. We’ll see if that guided-tour-of-what-we-want-you-to-see approach reigns for the remainder of the trip – I’ll let you know, again, at the end.)
The Empty Quarter is nearly beyond description. Flying there, the desert was like a white, then pink, then red ocean of ripples and ridges and flats. Nothing, forever. Then a single road as we descended. And then, at the end of our descent, the contoured plain was revealed to be made of mountains of marble-smooth sand a thousand meters high. Mars. As one of my classmates said this evening, as we came in to dinner from watching the sunset over the red dunes, “This explains why the Bedouins were such poets.”
We landed on an airstrip in a long flat valley between high dunes that was later revealed to have originally been two neighboring valleys, linked by the removal of 100 million cubic meters of sand. Fine, soft sand, frolicked upon and then calculated to take only 10 to the 25th grains to make this desert that is a quarter of Saudi Arabia. Give or take.
That sand-removal process was one part of a massive three-year construction project to begin oil production at the Shaybah oil field, which was first discovered 40 years ago, but which was only deemed economically feasible 10 years ago. In order to wring 500,000 barrels of Arabian Extra Light Crude from the red, scorched emptiness, Saudi Aramco put 15,000 people to work building 630 km of pipeline, 400 km of road, three gas-oil separation plants, a major expansion of the port refinery that would handle the increased capacity, a desalination plant, four 60 MW power plants, an airport, a small town, and 140 state-of-the-art horizontal wells, each of which is drilled roughly 3000 meters down to the field, then as far as 12 km horizontally. All this in three years, in one of the most hostile, remote places on earth.
Once production started, Shaybah broke even in 11 months. Ladies and Germs, this is an oil boom.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Yeasayer – I’ve been trying to see this band for months, getting shut out of sold out shows in LA and Boston. True, they followed:
-a band called Indian Jewelry that I thought was called Indian Jewery;
-another band with a frontwoman who looked like an 8th grade boy dressed in pajamas and dangling her left arm like a gorilla (which, by the way, I loved, because they were the first band I saw at SXSW, and they blew my doors off);
-me missing the 10 pm deadline to pick up my wristband because my flight was delayed;
-my flight being delayed;
But nevertheless, they’re good. Minimalist, high pitched, driving.
Billy Bragg – Each year at SXSW, we seem to stumble on a low-key day show that has the feel of an impromptu lap-dance, and that ends up being basically my fondest memory of the festival. Two years ago, it was Brit Daniel. Last year it was the Pony’s (because we snuck in!). This year, it was Billy. What a treat. 3 songs and a lecture, for Minnesota Public Radio. He had no voice after 4 shows the day before, but he tells the truth.
The Virgins – We went to The Bowery showcase on Friday night to see the Little Ones, but the Virgins turned out to be the show. Marfan-ish front man, fun dancing guitarist, snappy tunes – maybe like Apples in Stereo with a little more distortion? I’m trying here…
The Slits – Honestly, this is not my finest moment in journalism, because it was like 3 am and it was at the Red Bull Party (free Red Bull and Vodka, so you can imagine where that party went), but what I remember clearly is that she kept saying the word “Slits.” Sometimes just the singular “Slit.” Reggae, British, punk. I guess they’ve been around for a while – search me. All women, of course.
She and Him – This is M.Ward and Zoe Deschanel. You may have fallen in love with her in “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.” I know I did. Well, fell in love with her all over again. Their songs are simple and catchy – I’ve been singing “This Is Not A Test” more than I care to admit. I’m getting the album.
Thurston Moore – Of Sonic Youth. Probably the best musician I saw. Stoner rock, I guess. But really tight, complex, and riveting. I would really recommend seeing him if you have the chance.
The Most Serene Republic and The Constantines – I group them together because we saw them back to back at the Arts and Crafts showcase. This is the label that has Broken Social Scene, Stars, Apostle of Hustle, and The Stills, so I’ll always make sure to see their showcase. I think both these bands need a little more seasoning, but both have a lot going for them. MSR has a bug-eyed dude with a mustache in front, and a woman with a voice like buttah really attacking her guitar. They need to stop it with all the 11:4 crap, but they’re good. The lead singer of the Constantines had the thickest voice of anyone we saw.
Hansen – Yup. Hansen. Andrew got a text message in the middle that said “If they don’t play mm-bop you guys need to burn that mother down.” They didn’t play it. We burned down La Zona Rosa. Who do they think they are? The funniest thing – they were good, but it was more funny – is that even though they’ve clearly re-made themselves, they’re sort of doing the same thing; they are very pretty young men, and they definitely travel as a unit…
David Garza – This guy has been around Austin for a while, but at 1 am on Sunday morning, he had us dancing faster than 24 other bands. 4 words: Blinking Neon Hoola Hoop.
White Jackson – Debuted at 4 am Sunday morning. Guitarist Dan Berwick, Drummer Jacob Parisa’s Friend. Once we figure out how to work that guitar amp properly, we are going to melt some faces.
PS: If you haven't seen the Obama speech from today, watch it.
Monday, March 17, 2008
My friend Hedda Gabler is in an airport parking shuttle - it's very late and she's the only passenger. She's busy on her blackberry. Suddenly the driver, Plaxico Burress, speaks up.
PB: So, what do you for a living?
HG: (A little startled) Uhh... I'm a lawyer.
PB: Ooooooohhh! Laaaaaddyyyy lawyer.
PB: Do you have kids?
HG: Uh, no.
PB: Are you at least married?
HG: Um, no.
PB: Well whatcha waiting for?
HG: (lying) I'm a lesbian.
PB: (nodding) Yeah. I dated a midget once.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Here's my latest rationalization, though, and it comes to you in the form of a coinage post. The social obligation of being on time involves not mere lateness but percentage late.
The formula for percent late is tardiness over duration of event. It's the benchmarking concept we late people have been looking for. Different genres of appointments have different acceptable percentages. On the extreme end of the spectrum is a house party, especially with aggravating factors of: very young (early to mid 20's) hosts and guests, large number of guests, and a BYOB provision - at such an appointment, you may be as much as 75-80% late without having done anything rude. On the other hand, a dinner party, especially if it includes parents and non-disposable plates and utensils, you've really got to get there by 5-10%.
[UPDATE: In Los Angeles, due to an extremely high local tolerance of flakiness, there are many social engagements for which 100% is acceptable, as in this town, saying you will be some place means nothing except that you are aware of the event.]
If you exceed the appropriate percentage late, you can always plead ignorance of the duration of the event - this is the beauty of the formula. You thought the dinner party with parents would last until 1am - that explains your arrival time, right? At least you remembered to bring wine.
If you are always 0-3% late then you are a punctuality nerd, and you are probably imposing on the hosts, who probably aren't ready for you yet.
Percent late is useful only for social appointments. Doctor appointments, you should be on time for, even though the doctor him/herself may be thousands percent late. Job interviews, you should be 5% early.
Here's a tricky one: five hour booze cruise. (Just as an intellectual exercise; The Pickle does not endorse booze cruises.)
Thursday, March 13, 2008
No matter! The Pickle is going to take a turn for the cultural this week, as I travel to my adoptive home town of Austin Texas and give y'all a taste of what has, in each of the past two years, been the most fun thing I have ever done. With me as always will be Andrew Iliff, my bro in law, and just a huge music fan. I may let him captain the keyboard at times.
Ooops, that's American Airlines pretending they are finally going to let us fly. Gotta run.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Their main argument – my favorite one, at least, and the one I remember best – is that the public water supply is fine in almost all cases, and the bottled water industry undermines confidence in it, and, by extension, in publicly provided goods more generally. I thought that was fascinating. I added it to my list of reasons to carry around a small nalgene and fill it from water fountains. Which I do. Which makes me virtuous.
But then this, from my friend at MIT Sloan Jon King, saying that our drinker water supply is mildly contaminated with pharmaceuticals. He remembered that I mentioned this non-profit, and his email just included the link and said “I’m guessing this one’s gonna cause your friend some headaches.” It’s a weird article, to be sure, and it’s probably not a big deal, but in our hypochondriac, hyperafraid society, it’s just the kind of thing that drives $10 billion dollars of bottled water sales annually. That’s more than beer. And we’re not even counting Brita.
This may be a leap – it may be a leap because the government is probably doing its job just fine in almost all cases when it comes to providing clean, safe, cheap drinking water, which is really an impressive thing. But when Jon sent me that article, it put me in mind of the astute observation that a couple of people really nailed after Katrina – if you are in charge of the government and have supreme confidence in your uncommon abilities, intuition, judgment, and rectitude, and the government can’t get things done right, of course it looks to you like “Government” can’t get things done right. What’s really a shame is that, in this day and age, you can build a really powerful political movement that way. Screw everything up, and a lot of people will lose faith in government. And then more and more people end up paying $2-a-pop for water, and pretty soon the only people who need the government to make sure there’s free water are the poor and disenfranchised, and then pretty soon after that the government stops caring about making sure there’s free water.
True, I’ve gone a few steps beyond current reality, but in a rich society with a growing Gini coefficient, I’m calling it like I see it…
Monday, March 10, 2008
We'd also like to add an element of interactivity - we'll change the metaphor every week (I suppose on Mondays), and would love suggestions from readers. If you think this is lazy outsourcing, you are way too cynical. So send something in to luvh.rakhe[at]gmail.com or dberwick[at]gmail.com. We'll actually change the current one sooner than Monday, hopefully, and hopefully to something less dated.
Hamlet Quote Section remains, of course, unchanged.
Friday, March 7, 2008
The House Committee on Oversight and Investigations hauled a bunch of finance CEOs up today to scold them about their high salaries. When this happens, it always makes me sad, because it’s such disingenuous cover for Democrats, like NAFTA-baiting. Doubtless it is huge fun to be a fulminating, publicly outraged Congressman, but trying to shame corporations is an empty gesture that I suspect they know is empty.
The financial establishment believes that CEOs are worth their pay, and it’s hard to get in the way of that. By scolding/asking them to moderate their own behavior, our reps are furthering the mistaken anthropomorphization of corporations, wagging their fingers as if a corporate boardroom would – or should – take into account values other than the bottom line, such as equality, charity, or even reasonableness. You know, human values.
I think this is particularly damaging cover, because it not only gets Dems off the hook, but it co-opts real attempts to address inequality. Ultimately, the only thing we could do about CEO pay, if we ever do anything, is to tax it a lot. Would this result in a huge withdrawal of CEO labor? Well, at the rate they're paid, a CEO’s supply of “talent” is probably pretty inelastic – which makes sense, since the marginal effort to get your 400 millionth dollar is so low. Greg Mankiw, certainly no pitchfork-wielding prole, walks us through how this inelasticity might work in this old blog post.
And if it did result in the kind of withdrawal that Mankiw describes, well, there’s not exactly a shortage of people who want to be CEOs. Now, a CEO justifying his (was about to use his/her! good one!) salary would cite his rare talent for increasing market capitalization. You couldn’t just switch him out for someone else, right? But the very paper Mankiw’s talking about offers this:
If we rank CEOs by talent, and replace the top CEO by CEO number 250, the value of his firm will decrease by only 0.016%. However, these very small talent differences translate into considerable compensation differentials, as they are magnified by firm size. The same calibration delivers that CEO number 1 is paid over 500% more than CEO number 250.
Of course, I have no idea how they calculated this, so if someone wants to read the paper and explain it to me, especially if I’m misconstruing/misunderstanding it, I’d welcome it.
Thursday, March 6, 2008
[UPDATE: in order to maintain the standards of generality and relevance we try to uphold here at The Pickle, let me offer the following observation. Trying to pick your favorite one of these hilarious science fair projects is like trying to pick your favorite Beatles song; it typically just turns out to be the one you are currently thinking about.]
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
That’s what we call “momentum.”
So where does that leave us? Well, the math that I’ve outlined in previous posts still holds. There is essentially no chance that she will catch him among pledged delegates. The questions remain the same: How willing are the superdelegates to give the nomination to the loser of the pledged delegate race? How small does Obama’s pledged delegate lead have to be for Clinton to successfully call it a tie, and throw the nomination open?
If Clinton can build her momentum through the rest of the primary calendar, she could go to a brokered convention where she is the one party leaders think has the oomph, but he has more pledged delegates. Every time we’ve thought one or the other candidate was about to break away, this race has come back toward center. There aren’t many ways to get to a brokered convention, but last night sure was a step in that direction.
Next, we’ll see how Mississippi and Wyoming change the landscape. Isn’t it amazing: thousands of people and pundits can and do speculate on what is about to happen each time any state goes to the polls, but you really have to watch it unfold to write the correct narrative. I’m getting tired of it, but that doesn’t make this contest any less fascinating.
But it occurred to me this evening that a third movement would break McCain's way if Clinton wins, and that's Obama disillusionment. While most Hillary voters would still vote for Obama if he's the nominee, I am not sure the opposite is completely true. I doubt very much that current Obama supporters would vote for McCain, but I think there are a great many, particularly among the newly engaged supporters that have been driving his success, who would not vote at all.
I don't think this should be construed as either an ultimatum or a tantrum, and I don't think it has anything to do with Hillary hatred. It's just that the Obama movement is conditioned upon there being an Obama. He may be able to marshal the movement without being the nominee, but I like the Dems' chances better with him at the top of the ticket. (Oh yeah, fourth consideration: Congress.)
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
As of now, Texas has reported half the precinct, and all the early vote. Obama has big margins in enormous Harris and Dallas counties, and they have reported 14% and 36% respectively. She's winning big in Corpus Christi (co-Pickle founder Luvh Rakhe's home town, incidentally) and medium big in San Antonio, but Corpus is almost all in, and San Antonio is half in. Only 12% of medium-sized El Paso has reported, though, and she's going to murder him there.
So I still think that signs point slightly toward Obama, but she does keep extending that slim lead. It will depend on the punch that Houston and Dallas can deliver.
It's only one scenario of what could be going on, but if it's the right one, we might see her continue to close that gap - even take the lead - but it should swing the other way once the urban precincts start coming in. If you remember what happened with MO on Super Duper Tuesday, when it took St. Louis a while to get its act together, this is the same phenomenon, but plus the early vote, which, again, Barack won big. So instead of a big Clinton lead disappearing at the end, like in MO, it's a big Barack lead switching to a dead heat, and, according to my guess about what's happening, widening again a little later in the evening.
On the other hand, the exits seem to say that she won among late-deciders, so if there's enough of them, that could swamp the early vote. But election day voters really would have to go big for Hillary for that to work.
Though CNN, and Wolf Blitzer in particular, is embarassing itself by not seeming to understand that 850,000 votes can't come from 1% of the precincts in Texas, a little back of the envelope should clear up that they can't:
850,000 times 100 = 85 million votes
For reference, Texas has roughly 30 million people, not all of whom can vote. Also, I believe - though this is purley surmise - that some of them prefer to vote republican.
For now, consider this. If you saw the debate in Ohio last week, you undoubtedly noticed that, when pressed on their anti-NAFTA positions, both Obama and Clinton had difficulty sounding really convincingly convinced. This makes sense – they are both smart people who understand that protectionism is not sustainable, and the way to compete against cheap labor in a globalized world economy is to invest in education and innovation. What if Obama had said that, instead of going after Hillary on the subject?
Barack really only just needs to win one of the big states tonight, I think. If he wins one, she has to get out, doesn’t she? (Note – PA is seven weeks away, which is almost as long again as it’s been since Iowa.) Well, we’ll look at that question in more detail once the results are in. But in the meantime, Texans and Buckeyes vote and the final volley of polls threaten us with 2 more months of campaigning, so it’s a good time to ask what might have been. How would the race have unfolded had Obama staked out a more balanced position on trade? Surely, it would have made it very difficult – perhaps impossible – for him to win Ohio today, where many blue-collar workers – communities – have been killed by free trade. For that matter, it might have made it very difficult for him to win Ohio in November, and perhaps the conversation ends there. But NAFTA has written a different story for Texas – a largely positive one, featuring economic growth and job creation. It also could have helped him with Hispanics in south Texas, a group that will certainly be talked about tonight by the best political team on television. So it’s possible that, in a tight contest, that could have netted him a few percentage points.
Here’s hoping he doesn’t need them.
Saturday, March 1, 2008
Ok, I’m back, and I’ve shaken off the jet lag, finally waking up this morning at a time appropriate to my socioeconomic and employment status. The story coming out of India for the past few years has been rapid, glitzy growth and the increasing resemblance of cities like Bangalore to Western cities. It is an impressive change, to be sure, and I haven’t ever been to Bangalore, but to my foreign eye, India’s most striking (and thought provoking) physical setting remains its streets.
The story coming out of India for the past few years has been rapid, glitzy growth and the increasing resemblance of cities like Bangalore to Western cities. It is an impressive change, to be sure, and I haven’t ever been to Bangalore, but to my foreign eye, India’s most striking (and thought provoking) physical setting remains its streets.
Before I get any further, let me exclude from this post any discussion of Indian poverty, a book-size rather than blog-size topic. Rather I want to focus on two aesthetic superficialities of the streets in Mumbai: traffic and litter.
The traffic is tough to describe, especially if you are trying to be descriptive and not necessarily pejorative. There are lane markers but no adherence to them. There are traffic lights but my uncle tells me no one follows them once it’s about 9pm. Interstitial space lasts for about one second before an autorickshaw or a scooter carrying a family of four zooms into it. A u-turn may be attempted/made on a major thoroughfare during rush hour and no one bats an eyelash. And all this space-filling and jockeying results, as it only can, in a maddening glacial drift more or less parallel to the street.
And once you finish your soda, out the window. Littering is part of the process. There are piles of rotting, sometimes burning, garbage scattered about the roadside. And the red spots you see all over the sidewalk are pan-stained spittle (pan is spiced chewing tobacco).
These two phenomena point to a lack of certain conventions of social cooperation. Though it is expedient to toss out my litter here in the U.S., I don’t, and for social reasons – i.e. giving a hoot and not polluting – as opposed to trying to avoid a fine. And I won’t cut someone off on the road, or run a red light, for similar reasons (though this convention has a somewhat weaker hold on some of us it seems). There are clearly individualistic safety considerations that come into play when following traffic rules, but we are clearly willing to trade some personal expedience in exchange for more orderly and efficient traffic. These trades don’t happen in Mumbai – or they happen at a much different level than they do here.
This surprises me because it seems to run counter to some of the axioms of Indian/Hindu culture. On the personal and household level, Indian culture (upper/middle class culture, that is) has a nearly zero tolerance policy on dirt. As a rule, shoes are not allowed beyond the doorway. Floors are swept multiple times a day. There’s no such thing as skipping a shower. And most significantly, trash disposal is far more austere than it is over here. An entire family will have a small rubbish bin in the kitchen (like, a gallon or two), and this is the only trash receptacle in the house. The understanding is, keep your trash under control, and please don’t produce that much of it.
There’s less of an analogue to street traffic in a household, but it is worth noting that Indian/Hindu culture generally and traditionally has not had much room for American-style self-actualizing individualism. In Indian life, as opposed to roadways, personal interests and aims do not figure into the decision calculus the way they do here. There are many examples of this, none more potent than that of arranged marriage. I was, in fact, in India for the arranged marriage of my cousin. Now, this post is getting long, and I do have more to say on the topic of arranged marriage, so for now, suffice it to say that the values upheld in Hindu arranged marriage are societal and familial continuity, not whether you’re in love.
Admittedly, I’ve simplified things a great deal. Of course there are some conventions at work in Mumbai traffic, and it is a system that has evolved and, therefore, works. High speeds are nearly impossible, removing a lot of the danger we worry about here. And drivers have coped with unpredictability by increasing awareness.
Again, nothing necessarily pejorative here. Just different, and interestingly opposite of what we’ve got here, where public spaces are relatively more convention-laden and personal life is quite individualistic.