Cat and Car: A Study in Ethics

Last night, I went hunting for a late dinner in Mexico City. It was a Sunday night, so most of the food shops in my neighbourhood were closed. I decided to roam a bit more than usual, and had to cross a busy main road. While waiting at the light, a black-and-white cat ran recklessly into oncoming traffic. Before it could go past the midpoint of the road, it got knocked flat by a car.

A local man waiting at the light with me glanced at me with shock and horror. We watched the cat lay limply on the road as cars continued to zoom past it, their tires coming horribly close to its immobile body. The seconds I spent waiting for the light to change felt like hours.

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Sorry, But Your Food Isn’t Very Good

I loved living in Manila, but it wasn’t for the food. Or to put it more charitably, living in Manila is what made me love cooking.

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t great food in the Philippines. I’d put the seafood, vegetable dishes, tasty soups and amazing tropical fruits in Davao City on par with most of my favourite food anywhere. The kinilaw (kind of a Filipino ceviche) is absolutely amazing, and damn, people in the southern Philippines really know how to barbeque a chicken. I don’t even eat pork, but I understand they really know how to roast a pig, too. Bicolano food is a little one-note, but it’s seriously hard to go wrong with chili and coconut milk, and good pinangat is one of my favourite dishes, period.

But on average, the food in the capital is pretty dire. In terms of freshness, variety, nutritiousness, serving size, and value, the typical food of Manila just isn’t very good. Homestyle cafeteria-type places (or karinderya) can occasionally be very good, but the food on offer tends to be chunks of pork slowly fermenting in a various semi-indistinguishable brown sauces for hours on end. They are served in tiny plates alongside huge portions of low-grade rice, with the heavy sauces of the food used to add some flavour and colour (yellow or brown) to these mountains of broken rice grains. Read More

The Great and Terrible Lie of “Today’s Special”

Part 1

Right before I moved away from the Philippines, I made one of the most remarkable purchases of my life. I felt like it was time for a new phone, and upon visiting my neighbourhood mall I was bewildered by the number of kiosks selling a range of completely unrecognizable, totally no-name Android phones at dirt cheap prices. In the end, I settled on a model from Firefly Mobile, which boasted remarkable specs for a remarkably low price of approximately $100 US. The phone ended up serving me well, its 3GB of RAM allowing me to clutter up the memory space with idle apps, and the Sony camera lens took some pretty good pictures – Even if most of the pictures in my blog don’t exactly bear this claim out.

I began raving to my friends about my magical cheapie phone, though my ardour was somewhat dampened by the fact that I left the Philippines two weeks after buying this seemingly Philippine-only brand. I only encountered one other person who ever owned a Firefly phone, and I accepted that Firefly was doomed to be one more thing among many that only I, the great bearer of that terrible burden of solitary enlightenment, can truly love and appreciate.

A year later, I returned to the Philippines to catch up with old friends and, most importantly, to see the dogs that I had given up for adoption. I stayed in an Airbnb, a tiny studio unit in a condo complex attached to a mall. The mall had its own forlorn little Firefly kiosk, which I would pass by each day. The kiosk would either be staffed by an extremely bored-looking woman with no customers, or would be empty.

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Little Lifetimes: Kuala Lumpur

When I finally left the Philippines, never to live there again, I felt lost. No matter how much I had traveled before that, often for months at a time after moving out of my latest Manila condo, I always knew that I had a country to come back to in the end – a place to settle down for another year and live something like a sane life. (And no, my birth country of Canada doesn’t count, because my feelings toward that place are so weighed down with painful memories and bad associations that I feel hesitant applying a warm and fuzzy word like “home” to it.) When I left the Philippines, I felt relieved to be free – free to travel and move around, without having to worry about my furniture, appliances and dogs. But I also knew I didn’t have the energy to embark on a whirlwind around-the-world backpacking adventure. So I paced my travel plans, let myself stop to soak up the local atmosphere in different countries, and that’s how I began living little lifetimes – Those periods when I stayed in one place for a month or less, but where the experience was so intense, and my feeling of immersion was so deep, that I felt like a different person living a different life. These little lifetimes had their own dramatic arcs, beginning with initial enthusiasm, following into frustration, and ending in peaceful acceptance of the limitations of my new, temporary life. And each of these lives would feel disconnected from everything that came before and after.

My first little lifetime was in Taipei, where I spent a month in a craggy old apartment in a colourful, historic neighbourhood, literally across the alley from a night market. I met a pretty Taiwanese woman on the subway, and we had an intense, aching, laughter-filled, strangely chaste month-long romance with a built-in expiry date. But my overall experience of Taipei remains so raw that I am not yet ready to write about it. My second little lifetime was in Kuala Lumpur. Read More

Facebook IDs Are A Thing, People!

When I try to add someone on Facebook, their ignorance often transforms what should be a simple act into an agonizing ordeal. Even people who seem fairly tech-savvy don’t seem to be aware that there is a better way to be found on Facebook than by searching for their name, which is usually shared by hordes of people. (The fact that these people usually look nothing like them sort of feels like a betrayal, but that’s another story.) “Just search for Jane Smith,” the individual will helpfully suggest. “I’m the one with the face.”

Admittedly, I am sure there are times when these individuals – say, the ones who were female and weren’t necessarily keen to have any ongoing contact with me – didn’t want to make the process of adding them any easier than it had to be. But there are other people who have shown genuine enthusiasm about forming friendships while also displaying an amazing ignorance of the basic workings of the world’s largest social media platform.

In case you want to be my friend and don’t consider me creepy and annoying (or, if you happen to like making friends with creepy and annoying people), let me help you out: Your Facebook account has a unique ID that makes it possible for you to be found instantly, just by being entered into a Facebook search box. So in a rare public service, let me show you where you can find it:

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How To Get Banned From A Houston Karaoke Bar

Whenever I fly to Latin America from Canada, I try to get the longest layovers that I can in the United States. I will strategically tweak my flight times on Google Flights so that I can stay in one city for as close as 24 hours as possible – but not more, because going over 24 hours will effectively make it count as two separate tickets and easily double the ticket price. There’s an art to it, but I’ve gotten quite good at squeezing in these little American mini-vacations on the way to my actual destination.

Now you may ask, how much can you really do in 23 hours? And if you ask this, you’ve probably never spent 23 hours in Houston. Hell, even a layover at the unfortunately named George Bush Intercontinental Airport(!!!) tends to be an experience: The airport is an incredible mix of different kinds of people, with a preponderance of gregarious Latinos traveling through this major gateway to Latin America. I also enjoy seeing how many Wendy’s I can find throughout the many terminals – I’d estimate there are about 4-5, though I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. One of my great American memories remains landing in Houston en route to my first trip to Mexico and having a Real American Breakfast at Wendy’s: a piece of fried chicken wedged between two biscuits, soaked in pancake syrup. Canadian Wendy’s is way too passive-aggressive to serve anything that awesome.

But if you can get into the city itself, Houston is really something else. I’ve tremendously enjoyed American friendliness and hospitality in comparatively sane cities like Seattle and Chicago, but each of my 23-hour stopovers in Houston has been an experience too intense and delirious to easily describe. In fact, my visits to Houston greatly strengthen my suspicions that I am actually living inside a simulation (more on that in another post). Read More

The Tinder Transsexual Conundrum

As online dating apps have evolved, they have refined shallowness to a fine art. Whereas before there might have been a nominal risk of learning about someone’s personality before judging their desirability, newer generations of dating apps have shifted the emphasis even more overwhelmingly onto the initial reaction to the first photo. So, if you’re looking for matches you’d better look good, or at least know which angles can temporarily dupe your prospects into thinking you do. And in Southeast Asia, especially in places like Manila and Bangkok, many of the women with the prettiest faces, the most flattering filters and the nicest angles are transsexuals. (I’m not sure if the word “ladyboy” is appropriate, although many of these individuals do self-identify in that way.)

And because these apps discourage you from knowing much about your prospective partners aside from what’s in their pictures, it’s quite easy to distractedly swipe right on a pretty woman and later realize, after the dust has settled and you’ve actually taken a look at her profile, that she’s a transsexual. To be honest, I’ve done this a lot, not least of all because a lot of these trans women look good. And why not? Considering the effort and money involved in transforming yourself from a man to a woman, the extra effort involved in making yourself into a really sexy woman seems like a minimum additional investment.

And yet, I find it hard to wrap my head around the idea of being sexually attracted to someone who used to be a man. To be fair, I’m happy to report that I’ve come a long way from my old transphobia – A decade ago I remember being quite squeamish about the notion of a trans woman (or man), and I vividly remember pointedly using the word “him” when talking about my friend Ruby’s trans female friend (who wasn’t present), much to Ruby’s obvious annoyance. Since then, I’ve adopted the sort of live-and-let-live attitude that most decent human beings eventually grow into if they don’t end up curdled and bitter. (To be fair, a lot of people do end up curdled and bitter.)

And yet, I still have trouble wrapping my head around the idea of being sexually attracted to a woman who was born a man, no matter how charming and pretty they are. So after I realize my oversight, I unmatch. Back when I started making these mistakes – when dating apps were still more oriented toward matching based on anything other than a gut reaction to a photo – I would sometimes tell these women how pretty they were, but that I wasn’t really used to dating a trans woman. In retrospect, I have no idea whether this was nice or appallingly rude and inconsiderate. Now I just unmatch without a word.

But with that strain of hyperactive empathy that weirdly intermingles with my borderline sociopathy, I can’t help but imagine what it must be like for them. Occasionally I will match women (especially western women) who are so unattainably attractive that I assume they must have made a mistake in matching me. Unfortunately, this is often the case, as I watch their profile disappear from my list of matches without a word. Not that I’m comparing myself to a hot babe, but I can relate to those initial, hesitant feelings of hope, wondering if you’ve really found someone who’s cool and open-minded, only to have their picture disappear forever without a word – and to have it happen over and over again, all because a bunch of morons on the Internet thought you were a babe until they realized you weren’t a cis babe.

I can imagine that in a few decades, people will find it downright quaint that older generations were so concerned about a person’s sex at birth. It may well seem insignificant, like whether someone was delivered naturally or by C-section. And so I find myself in the position of being just a little bit of a curmudgeon, while also aware that I am, as everyone has been at times, on the wrong side of history. I comfort myself with the thought that my current mild prejudice is fairly harmless compared to my earlier transphobia, but I still nurse some guilt over the number of times I’ve been that disappearing face on the list of matches in some lovely, kind-hearted trans woman’s Tinder app. But the real beauty of the brief human lifespan is that regressive opinions will naturally die out, to be replaced by younger generations who wonder why anyone ever really gave a shit in the first place. And until then, I wish everyone out there, whoever they are, all the best of luck in finding love.

 

You Know, Humans Are Damn Weird-Looking

Have you ever thought about how unusual humans look? Our nearest cousins, the apes, seem to have a consistency and cohesiveness of design that we completely lack. Our lumbering, awkwardly bipedal limbs have none of the elegance of fish, snakes, or birds as they effortlessly navigate their environment. Our bodies are a collection of evolutionary wrong turns and dead ends, all piling up in a twisted wreckage of mismatched DNA. Like the English language, the human form is too muddled and eclectic to really be beautiful.

Consider the case of a hairless cat. Cats are animals that, we can probably agree, look much nicer with a smooth, even coat of fur. Without fur, they look fairly appalling. Humans are the simian analogue of the hairless cat, although with thick hair in weirdly specific places – Imagine a hairless cat with isolated tufts of hair on top of its head, above its eyes, stuffed away in its armpits (assuming cats have armpits), and its feline genitalia. It is not a kitty that you would wish to stroke affectionately.

I sometimes ponder the instincts at play when I find myself attracted to a woman (or, if you prefer, a human female). Instinctively, I feel a strong attraction to this strange-looking organism. (Men are arguably even stranger-looking with their flopping phalluses, but as far as I know I’m not attracted to them.) But when I step back and try to reflect on and analyze my impulse, I find it quite weird that I feel a burning desire for a semi-hairless ape that walks around on its hind legs like some sort of featherless mammalian bird.

So if humans are ungainly, unsexy creatures, what kind of organism is really worthy of our aesthetic and sexual appreciation? Maybe a swan, or a tiger. Now mind you, I don’t feel an attraction to swans, tigers, or any non-human animals (well, maybe some orangutans), but I recognize that this is because my reproductive instincts have, in their infinite wisdom, drawn me to reproduce (or, uh, reproduce without reproducing) with animals of the same species. But if attraction were a true beauty contest, rather than simply a manifestation of our zombielike urge to mate, I totally know some gazelles I’d like to get with. (But maybe not tigers – that would be taking the phrase “love hurts” a bit too literally.)

Waiting for My Robot Wife

As the grim realities of aging have started getting harder to ignore, I have found my thoughts wandering more often into the future. Of course, there is plenty of fun to be had pondering the great and terrible mystery of death, but the idea of death remains more abstract and confusing than genuinely horrifying. On the other hand, I can easily extrapolate from the current gentle wearing-down of my body to a future where I am alone, scared, and uncontrollably shitting myself. They say your body begins breaking down at 30, and the fun has just begun!

And as I reflect on all of the interesting ways that my body will surprise me during its gradual, controlled, genetically pre-programmed breakdown, I further wonder whether I will, indeed, have to experience this whole process by myself. Barring a complete personality change, it’s looking increasingly likely that I won’t be having any children to join me on this ride. (And even if I did, whether they would be loyal and supportive or ungodly little ingrates would be impossible to predict – although, if I’m anything to go by, I wouldn’t expect too much.) I’m slightly more optimistic about finding an adult companion to join me on this wild ride, but the fact that I can only spend so much time with a woman before one or both of us ends up hurt, frustrated, or just plain bored makes me a little pessimistic on this point, as well.

This pessimistic outlook had me quite depressed until I realized something that seems, in retrospect, pretty obvious: by the time I am old enough to require constant care and companionship, the technology will exist for me to receive this care and companionship – along with some simulacrum of love and affection – from a lifelike humanoid automaton.

I’m not just talking about the idea of an emotional connection with an Artificial Intelligence, an idea that has already been mined to death in movies like Her, Blade Runner 2049, and various other works of science fiction. These beings have been presented as companions to protagonists who are physically capable in spite of their loneliness and sorrow. What I’m actually thinking of is a being that, in addition to being able to express humanlike thought and emotion, will also be able to pick me up when I fall, and will spray me with its high-powered robot hose when I shit myself. It will be a combination of a wife, a caregiver, and a home entertainment system.

You could quite understandably object that this idea has been framed in quite a sexist manner, and I can’t entirely disagree. To call this robotic being a “wife” is to fall into the trap of sexist notions of how women are supposed to care for their male partners, often without any clear expectation of reciprocity. And how could someone as repugnantly selfish as me really expect another human being to selflessly care for me as I slowly deteriorate into an uncontrolled drip (and occasional spray) of bodily fluids, anyway? That’s exactly why a robot caregiver-slash-companion would be the perfect solution for the conundrum created by my extreme selfishness and general intolerability. If I refer to this robotic being as a “wife”, I do so out a wistful sense of romanticism, rather than literally or with any belief in the subservience of women. After all, women will be fully entitled to their own robot slave-husbands, too.

You might object that it’s all good and fine to have a robot to change my diapers, but that it would be sad and self-deluding to seek emotional comfort in the metallic arms of a being that isn’t “really” alive. Well, I’m not really convinced that our humanity comes from anything more than the sum of our neural wiring, and I don’t see why an elegantly wired machine should ultimately be any less alive than we are. Current thinking in cognitive science suggests that there’s no such thing as a soul, that consciousness is just a byproduct of a certain stage of  cognitive development, and that free will does not exist. If we sweep aside all of these romantic constructs and accept the humbling truth, there is no reason why a futuristic robot won’t be fully worthy to be my companion and life partner as I enter my twilight years.

Perhaps this futuristic fantasy is too much of a cop-out, a way of reassuring myself that I won’t ultimately pay a terrible karmic price for all of the people I’ve pushed away and continue to push away in my life. Aside from whether my predictions are accurate – and I leave it to the future, or at least to the futurologists, to determine that – it seems like my hope for an android bride might not promote the healthiest attitude toward my fellow human beings in the here and now. But if the alternative is despair over a future where I’m too covered in open sores to be loved by anyone who’s not blinded by the baffling perceptual distortions of devoted love and compassion, I’ll gladly accept that cold, metallic love as an alternative. And so, let the aging continue!

Zoe

For the last few months, I have been using Kuala Lumpur as a base for Southeast Asian travel. As a city that is modern but affordable, bustling but not chaotic, and friendly but not overbearing, it makes for a perfect two- or three-week pit stop between month-long explorations of the disorganized joy of Indonesia or the Philippines.

For my last KL pit stop, I spent three weeks in an AirBnb in a slightly run-down condo in the Maluri area. Located just outside the center, it’s a relatively lower-end area – but, being that “low-end” is relative term in a prosperous and developed city like KL, it just ends up having a bit more local colour than some of the more posh areas of the city. The Chinese and Malay neighbourhoods nearby are ridiculously overstuffed with tasty (albeit sugar- and palm oil-laden) food options, and the whole area gives off a chilled-out, family-oriented, quasi-suburban vibe.

Underneath my condo complex there was a shopping mall that has seen better days, if indeed those better days ever existed. The inside of the mall is nearly deserted, with a few comparative glimmers of commercial life in the street-facing shopfronts. A Thai restaurant caters to the sizeable local community of Thais. But these are only small glimmers of hope in a mall that is mostly a hollowed-out shell, with the vast majority of the storefronts devoid of shops, or at least of customers. Read More