Kowloon Walled City: the modern pirate utopia

My article on the lawless labyrinth that was the Kowloon Walled City is up on Coilhouse:

Sunlight comes only rarely, with a sliver slicing down between the ramshackle towers. The light here is fluorescent and the people packed sardine tight amongst twisting corridors. Some of the lower levels are widely considered uninhabitable due to trash. Up the street (if it can be called that) there’s a drug parlor with an unlicensed “doctor” open for business upstairs. They exist openly: there are no police because there is no law.

The above is not a description of a dystopian (or utopian) fantasia, but of the Kowloon Walled City which was very real. From 1945-1993, a political loophole created a zone of Hong Kong where there was no law. The resulting anarchic, hodge-podge monolith was the descendant of the pirate utopias of old: a testament to humanity’s ingenuity, greed, violence and tenacity. Here is a glimpse within the walls of one of the strangest human settlements ever.

It’s getting a really good response and I’m quite pleased.



In the course of researching a future column on hangover cures, I’ve just downed a Prairie Oyster. I am, to the best of my knowledge, still alive. That is all.

Yes, I get enthusiastic about flaming booze

That’s the picture of me holding a Painkiller that’s now up at the Mountain Xpress site, along with (just in cased you missed it earlier) this video:

An old story of dead ambassadors

It goes something like this:

The legendary diplomat Talleyrand was once awoken by one of his aides. “The Russian ambassador has died in his sleep!” the young man exclaimed.

Talleyrand sat up and thought for a moment.

“Hm. I wonder what his motive for doing that was.”

It’s probably apocryphal, but the lesson is one all of us writers, thinkers, political types and would-be analysts need to keep in mind.

VP Breakdown

538 has the full story

Long story short: Biden plays well with Dems (though not as well as Clinton), about average for a Dem with Republicans and best of the major VP contenders amongst independents (Clinton played the worst). For us crunchy numbers junkies, it’s an interesting article.

Joe Schmo

I ain’t thrilled about him, but as I’ve looked at the other big options for VP over the last few weeks (Hillary, Kaine, god forbid Bayh), he’s probably the least worst. All the good options (Sebelius) sadly aren’t well known enough yet.

This is a pure tactical decision: Biden plays well with older rust belt voters and for all his many flaws is a capable attack dog when someone else (Obama) is pulling his strings. His Iraq war record is bad, but no worse than any of the other establishment Dems mentioned (remember that among the three Presidential front-runners in the primary only Obama had opposed the war). Also, Biden’s not the sort I can ever see getting anywhere with a run for President after Obama’s term.

If (hopefully when) Obama wins, it will also remove Biden from the Senate, and given that Delaware is a fairly liberal state, get some much-needed fresh blood in there. At the same time, Biden has the decades of connections to help with what would be one of an Obama presidency’s hardest tasks: pulling the establishment Dems into line to get out of Iraq, get health care through, etc. The problems with Biden (his primary era criticisms of Obama, for example) are ones he would have faced with just about any well-known Dem selection (since most of them were either in the race themselves or backed Hillary) and can easily be countered by playing plenty of McCain’s own contradictory statements or his repeated fervent support for Bush over the years.

Again, I don’t like Biden, but I don’t like any of the other establishment Dems either. From the manipulation side it’s a canny play that simultaneously pulls one of the establishment players out of the Senate, puts him in Obama’s corner, boosts his candidacy in some key regions/demographics and gives his campaign the ground-level knife-in-gut political brawler that Barack can’t publicly be due to the approach his campaign is taking and the image he’s built.

I think the office of VP has been given some inflated importance by the role Cheney’s played. Frankly one of the things I look forward to about an Obama Presidency is putting the office back in its relatively insignificant place.

Jacques Barzun and Culture’s New Face

My Coilhouse piece on the coming future and the curmudgeonly scholar who’s (mostly) called it is up:

“Let us face a pluralistic world in which there are no universal churches, no single remedy for all diseases, no one way to teach or write or sing, no magic diet, no world poets, and no chosen races, but only the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race.”

“Finding oneself was a misnomer; a self is not found but made.”

-Jacques Barzun

Last November, historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun turned 100. In his time, he’s written 37 books on a wide range of topics (38 is in the works), led a prestigious university and received a warehouse full of accolades. He is one of the world’s last living links to the intellectual life of the Belle Époque and the Roaring ’20s (he began teaching when Calvin Coolidge was in office). The word eminent is usually attached to any description of him, no matter who’s writing. It seems to fit.

He thinks the current time is decadent. Not just any decadence, but the sort that ends eras. But it’s not in the signs the usual staid wielder of that word might see: sex, uppity women, kids on the lawn. No, Barzun’s decadence is the end of motion, it is when scholarship becomes “the pretentious garbled in the unintelligible” and “the feeling of being hemmed in by rules matched that of being hemmed in by people.” Above all Barzun’s decadence is a failure of nerve: an unwillingness to face the future and what it demands of us.

For these observations and others, he has been often dismissed as a relic, a snobbish champion of the dead white male tradition. Even among his admirers, he might well go down in history simply as the guy who said that thing about baseball.

But it’s worth taking a look around, at the constant stream of imitative art, at politicians with heads firmly planted in the same tired sand — and at philosophies that serve mainly as elaborate excuses for doing nothing.

So, when Barzun sees things finally running down, with the grand ideas that have driven our culture since the Renaissance crumbling, it’s time to consider something else: he may be a curmudgeon, he may be old-fashioned, he may even be out of touch. He may also be right.

I’m pretty proud of this particular rant of mine and hope it sparks some interesting discussion.

Also, Coilhouse’s first print issue is going on sale very, very soon. You should get one.