Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong

Ah Zhu and Qiao Feng from the 1996 TV adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Ah Zhu is possibly the most intelligent character in the story. It’s really lucky for Qiao Feng that she falls in love with him, because he really needs someone smart on his side. But Ah Zhu’s agenda seems to always being serving her master Murong Fu (male), helping Qiao Feng, or saving her father; she never seems to have an agenda which is about something other than helping a male character.

There is a rule which applies to pretty much every major female character in the fiction of Jin Yong: she must be beautiful and/or intelligent.

Most major female Jin Yong characters are both beautiful and intelligent, but some are beautiful without being intelligent, and a very few – such as Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) from The Young Flying Fox (飛狐外傳) are intelligent – without being beautiful.

This rule does not apply to major male characters – a few are described as being physically handsome, and some of them are intelligent, but many of them – even the protagonists – are neither handsome nor intelligent.

The physical appearance aspect is fairly straightforward – the female characters are meant to appealing to readers who are attracted to females, whereas Jin Yong most of the time did not offer much to readers who are attracted to males (the most notable exception is Yang Guo, the only male protagonist who is described as being handsome – in fact, he is so handsome that he wears a mask to stop women from getting crushes on him). Feminist critics generally – and in my opinion, correctly – would say this is an example of objectification of women without equivalent objectification of men.

The intelligence aspect is a little trickier. In the Anglophone world, most feminist critics say they want more intelligent women in fiction, particularly women in leadership roles. Jin Yong’s fiction is not only full of intelligent women, some of them also rise to significant leadership roles through their own merits – for example, Huang Rong becomes the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, Ren Yingying not only leads the Sun Moon Holy Cult, she also returns the Wulin back to a state of peace, and so forth.

The rub here is that, whereas intelligence is generally considered to be good in the Anglophone world, it is not associated with goodness in the fiction of Jin Yong. The most intelligent protagonists are Yang Guo and Wei Xiaobao – Yang Guo is mischievous and considers helping the Mongols in their mass murder of Chinese, though in the end he works for good. Wei Xiaobao is an obviously immoral antihero, and Jin Yong himself says that it is wrong to follow his example. By contrast, the Jin Yong protagonists who are most obviously good in a moral sense are not very smart – and often need smart women to get them out of the fire. And many of the smartest characters in Jin Yong’s fiction are either morally grey or outright antagonists. In Jin Yong fiction, intelligence tends to make characters think that they don’t have to follow the rules or care about consequences to others, and if they are not restrained in some manner (by being taught Confucian principles and/or Buddhist principles, falling in love with a person more moral than themselves) they are bound to do more harm than good.

This is how the female characters get objectified for their intelligence – they are there so that the good male characters can make use of their intelligence without being tainted by the immorality which comes with intelligence. Furthermore, the female characters ‘need’ their less intelligent male lovers to offer them a moral center so that they do not sink into immorality. One of the many examples of this is Zhao Min and Zhang Wuji – Zhao Min is a badass, conniving Mongol princess who is both ruthless and clever enough to both take over her own family and rule all of China – but that all ends when she falls in love with Zhang Wuji, who is a Super Nice Guy and she wants him to like her. An even more extreme example is Ah Zi and Qiao Feng (though, to be fair, Ah Zi is not especially intelligent – but she is very sadistic) – to quote TV Tropes:

Morality Pet: A rare example of an older, stronger man being a young girl’s morality pet can be found in Demi Gods and Semi Devils. Xiao Feng is the only person who can bring out any sort of redeeming qualities in Ah Zi. Any good deed that Ah Zi ever attempts has been in the effort to seek his approval.

Meanwhile, Qiao Feng also gets a ton of use out of Ah Zi’s very intelligent (and mischievous) sister Ah Zhu.

There are, at most, two counter examples. One is maybe, maybe Wei Xiaobao and Shuang’er – Shuang’er is very subservient to Wei Xiaobao (even though he does not deserve it), but with her obedient goodness, she occasionally persuades Wei Xiaobao to be a bit less blatantly immoral. But I think this is a very borderline example. The better example is Yang Guo and Xiaolongü – he helps ground him so he is less inclined to being implusive and mischievous (and this is the only major example in Jin Yong fiction – well, except for Wei Xiaobao and some of his wives – of an intelligent male character being lovers with a not-particularly-intelligent female character).

I love the work of Jin Yong, and I love that it is full of so many complex and diverse female characters. But I cannot help but notice that the female characters are there to be used by the male characters – whether they are used for they physical appearance or used for their brains. And I am not sure that being objectified for one’s brains is much better than being objectified for one’s physical appearance.

And this raises the question: why do feminists often say they want more intelligent female characters? Do we really want more intelligent female characters, or are we really seeking something else and we just think having more intelligent female characters would be expedient to reaching that other goal?

How I Recommend Getting Access to Ace Fiction

In the past half-year or so, I ended up reading and reviewing a lot of ace fiction. Obviously, I had to gain access to it, and unsurprising, I now have Thoughts About How to Access Ace Fiction.

Generally, I recommend two methods of gaining access to ace fiction:

1) Borrowing ace fiction from libraries
2) Buying ace fiction

A method which I strongly discourage is piracy. It denies writers and publishers the income they have earned (libraries at least make some payment towards writers/publishers). First of all, it’s unfair. Second of all, writers/publishers not getting paid = less incentive to write/publish ace fiction.

A method which I neither encourage nor discourage is seeking review copies. Some writers and/or publishers are willing to formally or informally offer free copies in exchange for reviews. Since I have never tried to use this method, I cannot offer much advice.

Anyway, to my recommended methods…

Borrowing Ace Fiction from the Library

I have always lived in a place which has some kind of public library, and where I could get a library card. Thus, I do not have personal experience of living in a place without a public library, and cannot say anything useful to people in that situation.

If you are lucky, your local library already has a decent selection of ace fiction and all you have to do is borrow it like you would any other book.

However, at least in the year 2017, the odds are that you local library does not have a decent selection of ace fiction. This requires more effort on your part – specifically, requesting that your library adds more ace fiction to their shelves.

My local library’s website has a page called ‘Suggest a Title’ where I can ask them to add new titles. I fill out information such as title, author, publisher, and year of publication. They also give a little box where I can offer additional information. I always put the ISBN in this box to make it easier for the librarians to find the book, and they I put in a short blurb about why the library ought to add this book to their shelves. My blurbs typically are something like this:

I am asexual, and when I was growing up, I did not read any novels with characters who were explicitly asexual like I am. I want people like me to be able to read novels with characters like us, and right now, the library does not have a great selection of books with asexual characters. This book has an asexual character, and furthermore, it’s well-written, and that’s why it belongs on the library’s shelves.

(Feel free to copy and paste that as a template, though I recommend customizing the message for each request)

My success with getting my local library to get new ace fiction is about 50% – which means that my local library has substantially improved its selection of ace fiction since I started these requests (because the selection was not good to start with).

I cannot speak from all libraries, but my local library is willing to buy books from small publishers, and I once even got the library to buy a self-published book (it wasn’t ace fiction, but it still proved that the library is willing to add self-published books to the collection).

Of course, whether a library will acquire ace fiction partially depends on local factors. For example, an underfunded library is less likely to acquire new books. Likewise, a library which, say, primarily stocks books in Chinese may be reluctant to acquire books in English or other European languages (and most of the ace fiction I know about is only available in English and/or other European languages).

Even if you decide to buy a book rather than borrow it from the library, I recommend suggesting titles to you local library anyway to help other readers access ace fiction.

Now for my other recommended method…

Buying Ace Fiction

If you are in a financial secure position, I highly recommend buying your ace fiction. It supports the writers and publishers most directly. Plus, you never have to return your copy to the library. Or, more importantly, you can get access even if it’s not available at your local library.

Most of the ace fiction I’ve read in the past year I’ve bought myself. I admit that, when it was available at the library, I generally chose to borrow it, but I still feel I’ve done my part to financially support ace fiction, and borrowing from the library helps me stretch my money for buying more ace fiction. I also think that, even if one is financially secure, but new to ace fiction and uncertain, that it’s fine to choose the library over direct purchase if that makes it easier to give ace fiction a chance.

But how to go about buying ace fiction?

First of all, for various reasons, I refuse to buy anything from Amazon unless it is something I really want and find extremely difficult to buy elsewhere. Ace fiction does not fall in this category, because I have ways of getting ace fiction without Amazon. Also, I ONLY buy eBooks which are available without DRM. There are a couple of ace fiction titles which I was interested in but are sold exclusively sold through Amazon and with DRM, therefore I did not buy them. I even contacted one of the writers, and she promised that she would soon make it available for purchase through a store other than Amazon, and over a year later it’s … still only available through Amazon with DRM. Therefore, I have neither bought nor read it.

Right now, I’m not going to persuade you to avoid Amazon in generally, but I am going to make the case that it is bad to buy ace fiction from Amazon unless it’s the only store selling it. Why? To quote the Riptide Publishing FAQ

Both our authors and ourselves get to keep a much larger share of the purchase price when you buy directly from us (or any other publisher site), which makes it easier for your favorite authors to spend more time writing new books. Third-party vendors such as Amazon may keep as much as sixty-five percent of your sale price, leaving as little as thirty-five cents on the dollar for the publisher and author to share.

That’s right, Amazon sometimes take a 65% cut of the sales price, leaving only 35% for both the writer and the publisher to split. So why to publishers still sell through Amazon? Because so many buyers will only buy through Amazon, thus they will lose out on sales if they refuse to work with Amazon. And it is precisely because Amazon has such market power that they are able to abuse small publishers this way (yes, I think Amazon taking a 65% cut of the sales price is abusive). I think there are other reasons to avoid Amazon, but I think this reason alone is pretty compelling.

As far as I know, other book retailers do not take such huge cuts, but they still take some kind of cut. I know that with small publishers in general, writers get paid the highest royalties for sales done directly through the publisher, and that publishers make more money per book from direct sales than from sales through third parties. Therefore, PLEASE buy direct from small publishers so that money goes towards the writers, editors, etc. rather than to Amazon.

To further sweeten the pot, small publishers frequently run sales to encourage readers to buy direct rather than buy through Amazon. Sometimes the discounts are as much as 40% (and more rarely, even more than 40%). Even with these discounts, the writer/publisher still makes more money than if you bought through Amazon. You save money, they make more money than if the sale had gone through Amazon, it’s a win/win. If you want to save money, it may be worthwhile to wait a while for a sale to occur (Cyber Monday tends to be a great time to get discounts, but there are often sales at other times of the year, such as holidays).

Self-published books are a little different since they rarely have a dedicated website for direct sales. When possible, I buy self-published fiction directly through Smashwords since they tend to give writers a better cut than other sellers. If it’s not available through Smashwords, I buy through the Kobo Store (which I find irritating, but given a choice between Kobo and Amazon, I will always choose Kobo). And if it’s only available through Kobo with DRM (which has happened to me once), then I refuse to buy (though I was eventually able to borrow a print copy of that book from the library, so I read it anyway).

But what if it’s legally available for free?

Well then, that makes things simpler (and much cheaper), and I don’t think you need much advice. Generally, fanfic and webcomics are free, and occasionally, prose ace fiction is also legally available for free.

Resources for Finding Ace Fiction

You could look at my book reviews, but maybe you don’t like my reviews or want to learn about ace fiction I haven’t reviewed.

A great resource is the Ace Reads tagpacker, as well as the Ace Reads tumblr with its reviews (obviously, I sometimes disagree with Agent Aletha, but I have great respect for her as a reviewer, and when we have reviewed the same work I recommend reading both of our reviews, especially if we disagree).

I also greatly appreciate the the ace fiction reviews at Just Love (though I do not always agree).

There are also the Aro and Asexual SF fiction database, these lightning reviews of ace webcomics, the Demisexuality in Fiction database, and this database of ace fanfic.

Two publishers, Less than Three Press and Riptide Publishing, also have good filters for asexual fiction: The Less than Three Press Asexual Filter and the Riptide Publishing Asexual Spectrum filter.

May you all find ace fiction that you like!

The Soundtrack of My Recent Pacific Crest Trail Section Hike

I recently returned from my trip to San Diego county. The main thing I did there was hike the southermost 101 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) (for the PCT geeks out there, I did most of Section A, but I did not hike the 8 or so miles between Barrel Spring and Warner Springs, and if you’re wondering why not, it’s because there is no public transit to Warner Springs, even though it’s actual community with a fire station, a post office, an elementary school, and a small shop, whereas Barrel Spring, which is just a water source next to a road, has public transit).

This is Barrel Spring. When I told the hikers there that a bus had dropped me off, they were astonished, because this is not at all the type of place one would expect to be accessible by public transit.

Anyway, one aspect of hiking the PCT is: playing music. A lot of hikers take music players with them, and listen while they hike. If they are really obnoxious, they play the music so loudly that other people hear them. If they are only mildly obnoxious, then they simply become dangerously unaware of their surroundings. There was one hiker listening to music who was so oblivious that he did not see that I was right in front of him until he was inches away from me and I said ‘boo’ in his ear. That turned out to be okay because I saw him and stepped out of his way, but if he could not notice a full-grown human blocking his path, I don’t know how he spots more hazardous obstacles.

That said I am fine with hikers choosing to listen to music as long as they are not obnoxious, and most are not obnoxious. However, personally, I fail to understand the point. Then again, I’ve never carried walkmans, iPods, or any other portable music playing device. I am quite capable of playing music in my head at will, and sometimes I have music playing in my head when I don’t want it. Why bother with the hassle of carrying a music player?

That said, here is the music which played in my head the most during my 101 mile hike through eastern San Diego County:

The “Raseir” theme from Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire – of all of the computer games I’ve ever played, with all of their theme music, why this theme? It’s certainly not a particularly good music theme. On the other hand, Raseir is a (fictional) city in the desert mountains, and I was hiking through desert mountains, so I suppose it might have been appropriate, but I think that this was just random.

The Anza-Borrego Desert, as seen from Mount Laguna (specifically from the Storm Canyon lookout point)

“You’re the Best in the World,” both the original Cantonese version and the new Mandarin version – yes, the Cantonese version is better, but I also like the Mandarin version, and both versions played in my head during my hike. The lyrics about the comparative heights of mountains were especially appropriate.

This is the peak which looms above Hauser Canyon. During this trip, hikers were actually comparing canyons more than mountains. Getting out of Hauser Canyon is the tough climb for northbound hikers, especially those who try to hike out of there in the afternoon when it’s hot and there is no shade (if you plan to do this hike northbound, here is my advice: DO NOT CLIMB THIS IN THE AFTERNOON! Do it in the cool, shady morning, in the late evening, or even at night, but not in the afternoon!). However, for southbounders, like myself, getting out of Hauser Canyon isn’t such a big deal – getting out of Chariot Canyon is the big uphill challenge for us. Meanwhile, none of the northbound hikers I met felt that hiking out of Chariot Canyon was notable (except that Chariot Canyon is the only place sheltered from the wind on that segment, but that’s more important for camping than hiking).

“Walker,” a Cantonese song (here is music video with graphic violence, and audio only) – sure, it’s a song which glorifies violence and dishonesty, but it’s also about being fearless and doing what it takes to reach one’s goals. Most importantly, it’s catchy, at least for me (bonus: it’s obviously not a romance song). And even the title “Walker” is fitting – I did a heck of a lot of walking!

I walked through a few burns during my hike. I don’t know what caused this specific burn, but most wildfires are started by humans.

“Roar” – you all already know about this song, right? I suppose it’s thematically appropriate, and more importantly, it’s catchy, so yes, it got stuck in my head.

I did not see any mountain lions during my trip, or any other animal which can roar (except humans), but I saw a lot of bunnies on the trail.

“Dao Jian Ru Meng” specifically the version by Dong Zhen – since I’ve already written a blog post about this song, I feel no need to say any more.

I didn’t see any swords or sabres during my trek, though I did see a few knives (I even had my own knife). There were a lot of yucca plants on the trail, and I learned through first-hand experience that the leaves are sharp enough to draw blood (thankfully, I was not seriously hurt).

The theme of the TV show Kung Fu – contrary to what the title suggests, this song is from a Hollywood Western, not an Asian martial arts drama. And I feel this was the most appropriate of all of the bits of music I frequently had playing in my head during my hike. I was, after all, trekking through the American West. Once one goes east of the San Diego metropolitan area, things get rural very fast. A local explained that it is because ‘East County’ (that is, the eastern part of San Diego county) does not have enough water to sustain a high human population density, therefore, the population density is permanently low. Historically, East County had mining booms, mining busts, bandits, gunfights, vigilantes, stagecoaches, and there still is cattle ranching (though not much, due to limited water) and the desert mountain landscape today.

You know why this building (from the late 19th century) is built like a stone fortress? It’s because the first Gaskill Store was attacked by bandits and had multiple holes left by bullets in the walls, so the owners wanted their store to have better protection. Some of the bandits escaped, but the ones which did not were hung by cowboys passing through town from a tree which was RIGHT ON THE PRESENT-DAY PACIFIC CREST TRAIL (though the tree died in 1975 and is no longer there). That is one of the more gruesome bits of PCT lore I’ve encountered.

So, now you know what songs were getting stuck in my head as I walked a hundred and one miles through arid hills and mountains. It seems the connecting themes, aside from a vague association with arid mountains, is that most of these songs are about exerting oneself and overcoming obstacles while remembering what’s important in life. When one is carrying water (which is heavy) through heat and/or wind, either going uphill or downhill (downhill puts a different strain on the body), possibly with little shade, it’s good to have a song about overcoming obstacles and appreciating the wonders of life in one’s head.

Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 2)

One of the advantages Amtrak has over domestic airlines is that passengers are treated with a lot more dignity. There is no TSA – all you have to do to board an Amtrak train is show a photo I.D. and a ticket (and conductors don’t always check photo I.D.). Baggage policy is more flexible (which, do be fair, is partially due to technological differences). While different conductors are stricter than others, they generally try to help passengers have a good experience.

Furthermore, while Amtrak employees have complaints about their work (like most workers), the general impression I’ve gotten from my conversations with Amtrak crews is that they believe they have decent jobs, and a quick internet search indicates that most Amtrak crew members are paid a living wage (unlike many airline crew members). While I have encountered Amtrak crew members of all races, a disproportionate number of them seem to be African-American. That might be partially because working on trains has historically be culturally coded as a ‘black’ job, but it may also reflect that the federal government, as an employer, tends to discriminate less on the basis of race than private employers.

Amtrak is owned by the government. It is essentially a government-owned utility with the purpose of serving the people, not making money.

The Trump administration’s attempt to cut down Amtrak is not a new trend. Some Republicans in Congress have been trying to attack Amtrak for a long time, saying that it ought to pay for itself through passenger fares. However, this reflects the views of only certain types of Republicans and other right-wingers – there is another set of right-wingers who support Amtrak.

I remember one time, when I was on an Amtrak train (one of the train lines which might be eliminated under Trump’s budget proposal), I was talking to a libertarian who told me that government is too big and ought to shrink down. I pointed out to him that he was riding Amtrak, which receives government subsidies. His response was that Amtrak was useful, unlike some other government activities, and that highways and airports are also subsidized by the government, so he couldn’t avoid using a mode of transit which is subsidized by the government. The thing was, he lived in a rural area. I suspect that, if he were a Silicon Valley libertarian rather than a rural libertarian, he would be in favor of cutting Amtrak’s subsidies.

Generally, I have found that rural people – regardless of their political affiliation – like passenger train service, and are opposed to cutting Amtrak. When riding on Amtrak, I have found that a lot of passengers live in rural areas. This is partially because a) many rural areas are not served by an airport and b) even if there is an airport, travel by train is sometimes significantly cheaper. For example, I learned that travelling between Arizona and Texas – especially if one buys tickets at the last minute – is much cheaper by train than by airplane. Now, maybe if the airline industry were not an oligopoly without sufficient public control, the airfare between Arizona and Texas would be more price competitive with train tickets. But that is how things are now.

Speaking of price, cutting Amtrak subsidies is a class issue, not just a rural issue. Aside from Amtrak crew jobs being better than airline crew jobs, people who ride Amtrak – especially the train lines which Trump’s budget might cut – tend to be poorer than airline passengers. Also, it is a disability issue, since some people, for medical reasons, cannot travel by airplane.

Anyway, back to the rural issue. Yes, it is true that some major metropolitan areas might also lose all passenger train service under the proposed budget. I find it particularly shocking that New Orleans might be completely cut out, since New Orleans is currently one of the major passenger train hubs. On the other hand, New Orleans does have a couple of airports as well as Greyhound and Megabus, so losing Amtrak would not be as devastating to NOLA as would be to a rural town.

Oh, and Greyhound? I’ve heard that their prices went way up after they bought Trailways, their main competitor. They also eliminated a lot of routes. This is another great example of how reducing competition increases prices and reduces service. Usually, travel by Amtrak is cheaper than Greyhound, though Greyhound is sometimes faster and usually has better wifi than Amtrak. If Amtrak gets seriously cut back, I predict Greyhound will become even more expensive, and their service might get crappier. MegaBus pretty much only serves major metropolitan areas because that is the most profitable market for long-distance buses.

As it so happens, last week (assuming everything went according to plan – I scheduled this post to go online about two weeks after I wrote it) I went from San Francisco to San Diego by train. Guess what? Neither of the train lines I used (the San Joaquin and the Pacific Surfliner) are directly threatened by Trump’s budget. In fact, I think the proposed cuts to Amtrak, if they come to pass, would barely affect the San Francisco Bay Area. We would still have the Amtrak lines which are not affected by the cuts, as well as Greyhound, Megabus, Caltrain, the airports, etc. The attitude of most San Franciscans towards Amtrak is that it’s nice, and they do not want to cut its subsidies, but they do not consider it particularly important.

Let’s compare that to Dunsmuir, California.

Dunsmuir is in Siskiyou County, which consistently leans Republican. Amtrak has tried to end passenger service to Dunsmuir before, but the people of Dunsmuir insisted on keeping passenger service, and eventually the City of Dunsmuir made a deal with Amtrak. Dunsmuir does not have an airport with scheduled flights, nor does it have Greyhound (and the nearest airport with scheduled flights is only served by two airlines – one of them is United Express). If Dunsmuir were to lose passenger train service, then the only remaining means of long-distance transit would be the interstate highway (technically, it would also still be accessible by freighthopping, which is illegal, and by foot and horse, but that is not enough to keep a town alive in this day and age). Losing Amtrak would be a much bigger deal to Dunsmuir than to San Francisco.

Yes, you guessed it. The proposed budget cuts to Amtrak might end Amtrak service to Dunsmuir, a town which needs it more, not to San Francisco, a city which needs it less.

Of course, though losing Amtrak would be bad for Dunsmuir economy (and Dunsmuir’s economy isn’t doing so great in the first place), the people of Dunsmuir also have cultural reasons for keeping Amtrak. Dunsmuir was founded as a railroad town, and Southern Pacific is still one of the biggest employers in town. Trains are a key part of their heritage. To them, losing passenger train service would be like San Francisco losing its cable cars. And yes, the city government tried to eliminate San Francisco’s cable cars in the 1940s and 1950s, and it took citizen activism to keep the cable cars running, just as Dunsmuir had to make a fuss in order to keep Amtrak. San Francisco cable cars have much less utility than Amtrak trains, and also require subsidies from local taxpayers to keep running, yet shutting down cable cars would be as unpopular today as it was in the 1940s/1950s because San Franciscans recognize their cultural value (and their tourist-economy value, which is derived from their cultural value).

By the way, one of the conservative/right-wing arguments for subsidizing Amtrak is that Amtrak is preserving a piece of the United States’ cultural heritage.

Though I have not done the research to confirm this, based on what I’ve read, it seems that Republicans from rural areas tend to like Amtrak and favor having Amtrak serve their communities. For example, Doug LaMalfa, the Republican who represents Dunsmuir in Congress, has voted in favor of Amtrak subsidies (he is opposed to California’s high speed rail program, but that might be because HSR, unlike Amtrak, would not serve his district). I recall reading years ago that Republicans in southern Mississippi also tend to be pro-Amtrak, and a quick internet search yielded this article (which is obviously out-of-date, but also supports my hunch than rural Republicans tend to support Amtrak). IIRC, the article I read years back quoted a Mississippi politician as saying something like “the Yankees are trying to take away our trains”.

It seems to me that Republicans who most aggressively Amtrak are from affluent-to-rich suburban or urban areas, or are just plain wealthy (Trump obviously belongs to this group).

Likewise, the politicians – both Republican and Democrat – who most favor ‘deregulation’ of the airline industry and allowing high market concentration by ignoring anti-trust laws are so wealthy that they can afford to travel by private jet, or rely on campaign contributions from people who are wealthy enough to travel by private jet.

I hope that the Democrats and rural Republicans can work together to prevent these cuts to Amtrak’s budget. Even though some Amtrak lines are not directly threatened by the budget cut, the way it works is that because Amtrak currently serves so many rural areas, there are a lot of representatives in Congress who have a stake in sustaining Amtrak service in their district. If a bunch of congressional districts lose Amtrak, then there will a bunch of members of Congress who will have much incentive to, say, vote to increase funding to the Northeast Corridor.

Yes, the national network train lines operate at a net loss, but they increase revenue on other lines thorugh connecting passengers. For example, a national network train (the Coast Starlight) might bring a passenger from Portland to Sacramento, and then they will take the San Joaquin to Fresno. Without the Coast Starlight, they probably would not choose to use the train, and thus the San Joaquin misses a potential passenger.

And we get back to national cohesion. You either have the principle that one tries to serve as much of the nation as feasible because this nation is for everybody, or you’re only going to serve the people it’s ‘profitable’ to serve, which in the case of Amtrak would mean that people in the Northeastern United States would have Amtrak service and nobody else (not even California).

And transportation supports national cohesion in another way. You probably think that there is some region of the United States where a lot of people have very messed-up ideas. If so, and you want people in that region to have less messed-up ideas, you want the United States to have a good transportation network. The better (by ‘better’ I mean affordable and convenient) the transportation network, the more people in that region will travel, the more they travel, the more ideas they will be exposed to, and the more ideas they are exposed to, the more likely they will replace some of their very messed up ideas with less messed-up ideas. Though all forms of transportation support the flow of ideas, I think that trains, because they foster more social interaction between strangers than other forms of long-distance transit (except certain types of boats), serve this purpose particularly well.

So to wrap this all up – transportation, like water and electricity, needs to be treated as a utility. This is necessary to ensure fair treatment of passengers – both in terms of price and dignity. When transportation is offered by private companies, it needs to be regulated by the public. It’s also sometimes a good idea for transportation to be delivered by a government-owned utility, like Amtrak. Sometimes, offering transportation to some places requires operating subsidies, but the benefits to society as a whole can justify the cost of those subsidies.

Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 1)

Note: This post is scheduled to go online a little less than a week after I wrote this, while I do not have access to the internet. It might already be out of date by the time it is posted, and due to lack of internet access, I may be slow to moderate/respond to comments.

***

I’m guessing that just about everyone who is reading this post knows that, on April 9, 2017, United Airlines (or more specifically, United Express) called in Chicago Aviation security officers to forcibly remove a passenger who was already boarded and seated and posed no threat to anybody, and those officers broke the passenger’s nose, gave him a concussion, and caused him to lose two teeth. This has sparked a lot of discussion, including (but not only) the fact that the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly, and that this situation (the broader situation, not just oligopoly) exists partially because the government chose to hand over airline regulation away from democratic systems and towards airline managers.

Though it was published before April 9, this article explains how enforcing anti-monopoly/oligopoly laws is necessary to preserve/expand civil liberties. That article focuses on African-Americans, but I think its points can be applied more broadly, and I think the United Airlines incident is an example of the link between concentrated market power and violation of civil liberties.

Meanwhile, another piece of news which has gotten far less attention (for obvious reasons) is the Trump administration’s proposal to cut all funding of Amtrak’s national network trains. You know those trains which I rode last year? Those routes might be eliminated if the budget passes in its current form.

The common thread in these two news stories is that they are about how transportation policy in the United States has been moving towards giving the private sector, as opposed to public sector, more control over transportation, and that this is bad for societal cohesion. In other words, the United States is moving away from treating transportation as a utility.

Let’s go back to airlines. It has been more than ten years since I was ever on a domestic flight in the United States, and most of my experience with U.S. domestic flights was with an airline which no longer exists (TWA). Thus, I do not have personal experience with current conditions on domestic U.S. flights. However, I do have recent experience (within the last five years) with domestic flights in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, and I can tell you that they have much better customer service than what people describe with domestic airlines in the United States at much lower prices. Now, some of that is because people are going to talk more about their horrible experiences with airlines than their boring experiences with airlines. However, it does seem to me that Americans are dissatisfied with airline service in the U.S. in a way that most East Asians are not dissatisfied with their domestic airlines. Furthermore, the domestic airlines in those countries either have government price controls (Taiwan) or are much more competitive than the regional air markets of equivalent size in the United States (Japan and South Korea).

Some of you are probably thinking ‘Domestic flights in Taiwan / Japan / South Korea? That’s ridiculous! Those countries are so small!’ Well, it’s not ridiculous because Taiwan and Japan are island countries, and South Korea has an entire province (Jeju) which is not on the Korean peninsula, just as the United States has an entire state (Hawaii) which is not part of the North American landmass.

Since I know most about Taiwan, I will focus on the airline industry there. Most domestic flights in Taiwan connect the main island to the outer islands. There is also ferry service to the outer islands (except Kinmen), but since air travel has some advantages over sea travel, having both air and sea connections means better transportation than having only sea connections. Since some islands are only served by a single airline and can only sustain a limited number of flights (for example, Qimei, an island with about 3,700 inhabitants, has only two flights per day), market competition clearly cannot keep airfares reasonable. Thus, the government imposes price controls. And when the airfares go up, the islanders make a big stink about it, and it is reported in the news.

Obviously, Taiwan’s regulation of domestic air travel has big problems because this happened (note: I once took a TransAsia flight from Taipei to Kinmen – if the timing had been different, I could have been on that flight). However, Taiwan’s approach – treating airlines as a utility – is the approach which best serves its interests. When I interacted with airlines in Asia, I generally felt I received good customer service. For example, I once got a refund for my ticket with very little fuss for a flight where I was a no show (I did not cancel – I was a no show). That airline had a monopoly for that particular route, so the most plausible reason why they gave me a refund so easily is that they were legally required to do so.

Now, one may ask ‘who cares if the outer islands, which have a total population of less than 300,000 people, have good, affordable transportation?’ First of all, good transportation is critical to maintaining the economies of the outer islands, but that is arguably not important to the 23 million people who live on the main island (the total population of all of the outer island is less than 300,000). The most obvious benefit to the people on the main island is military security – in every single instance in history when there was warfare between China and Taiwan, it started in the outer islands because they are the buffer zone. It is in Taiwan’s interests to keep the loyalty of the people in the outer islands, and for the outer islands to have sufficient resources to support Taiwan’s military (which is heavily concentrated in the outer islands).

But beyond the question of how helping the outer islanders benefits the main islanders, there is the basic principle that they are all part of same society, and that it is the duty of a society to take care of its own people.

Here one might say ‘yeah, that’s Taiwan’s situation, how is that relevant to anywhere else.’ True, people in New York City do not depend on upstate New York to serve as a buffer against military invasion (though I suppose that, if there were any serious threat of Canada invading the United States, that could change). However, the point about broader social and national cohesion applies just as much to the United States as to Taiwan. That is the case made by this blog.

One of the issues I’ve seen come up again and again in discussion about United Airlines is that some people cannot avoid using United Airlines if they want to travel to/from certain places by air because United Airlines is the only feasible option. Though I do not know the details, apparently Louisville (the destination of the flight) is one of those places where flight options are limited. Thus, one cannot rely on the power of the market to ensure good service – if the government does not step in, then the managers of the airlines will just do whatever the heck they want, which is probably to make themselves richer at the cost of both passengers and employees (it turns out the employees who were working on that flight are grossly underpaid, which might be related to why they performed so badly – employees who can’t take care of themselves can’t take care of passengers).

I have zero sympathy for United Airlines, and I would not feel sorry at all for them if they go out of business because of this scandal. However, because the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly which does not have sufficient public control, I do not expect eliminating United Airlines will improve conditions for passengers. On the contrary, I think increasing market concentration might make the surviving companies even less inclined to treat passengers fairly.

Now let’s get back to trains…

(To be continued in Part 2)

Being Terrified by the Unfamiliar

I have never felt classic culture shock – the type which goes in stages such as ‘honeymoon period’ ‘frustration’ ‘acceptance’ etc. (some models of culture shock have four stages, some have five, but they tend to be similar). The closest I came was when I lived in Mountain View, and I’ve even told a lot of people that that is when I felt classic culture shock, but now I think … if so, it was a really mild case of culture shock. I think at this point, I had been trying to fit my experiences in Mountain View into the culture shock model just to find any way to relate to the idea of multi-stage culture shock.

I recall, about six months after I moved to Taiwan, I was talking with another American, and she said ‘oh, you haven’t felt culture shock yet, but you will, it will hit you.’

In the three years I was in Taiwan, I never experienced anything like the four-stage or five-stage models of culture shock.

I recently read Pacific Crest Trials by Zach Davis and Carly Moree, which talks about how to psychologically prepare for long distance thru hikes (i.e. hiking over 3000 km on foot). Though it does not explicitly link the mindset of thru hikers to the culture shock models, it seems to be describing something pretty similar. They even use the term ‘honeymoon period’. And it makes sense that adjusting to life on a thru-hike would be like adjusting to life in a completely different culture. That is, first of all, it is a different culture (hiker culture is very distinct), but also, even though most people who do thru-hikes in the United States grew up in the United States, and some people do them in their states of residence/origin, life on the trail is really different from life at home, even if one’s home just happens to be a trail town (a trail town is a town near one of the trails frequented by thru-hikers – for example, Big Bear City in California is a ‘trail town’).

An example of how life is different is, even though most hikers carry watches, people generally do not live by the clock when they are on trail (unless they have to go into town and be there when a post office is open or something). Water is generally only available once every few miles (or less – one might sometimes travel 20+ miles between water sources, depending on which trail and under what circumstances). Food – well, a little foraging is sometimes possible, but generally food is only available in towns. I could keep going, but I think you get it by now that life in trail!United-States is different from life in most of the United States.

Anyway, so if I don’t go through classic culture shock, what do I experience?

I remember, when I was a girl, I dropped something on a sidewalk near my home. I wanted to go back and fetch it. My parents told me to go by myself to fetch it. I had never walked outside without adult supervision before. I was astonished that my parents thought it was okay for me to go outside by myself. Yes, it was my neighborhood, so the odds of me becoming lost were practically zero, and though people occasionally get murdered when they are outside in my neighborhood (in fact, IIRC, there had been a murder on the very street where I went to retrieve whatever I had dropped), the odds of myself becoming the victim of a violent crime were really low. But since I had never done it before – I had it ingrained in my habits (at that age) that I do not go outside without an adult – I was really nervous and terrified.

Nowadays, if you suggested that it would be a bad idea for me to go outside on my own without the supervision of my elders, I would be baffled. I’m a freaking adult right now, I don’t need to be escorted just to walk around my own neighborhood.

That is the pattern I experience. When I am thrust into an environment that is too unfamiliar – especially if I am alone – I experience terror.

I experienced the terror in Taiwan – twice, once when I first arrived in Taiwan, and the second time, when I moved to Taoyuan City. I liked the idea of moving to Taiwan when it was far in the future, but when it became imminent – and then it happened – I was frightened. It was the first time I had ever been outside of the United States by myself, and I had no return ticket. What made me stick with it – both staying in Taiwan and staying in Taoyuan – was that those decisions were difficult to reverse. That made me tough it out until the terror passed and I had adapted.

By contrast, when I hiked up Ishizuchi in Japan years later, I had read about how scary the ascent to the highest peak is (in fact, most hikers do not go to the highest point because it is so scary). When I got there I found … much of the path is a slanted uneven rocky scramble, with a sharp drop of hundreds of feet on one side – and it did not look that scary to me. I had done so many hikes with similar (or more extreme conditions) in Taiwan, that the final scramble of Ishizuchi felt familiar – it even gave me a sense of nostalgia. In short, I was not scared of that slope because it felt familiar to me.

This is me in Taiwan (yes, I am the person in this photo). Specifically, this is me at Wuliaojian.

Last year, I went on three section hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail. On none of those trips did I complete my planned itinerary.

One time, my choice to quit was very sensible – there was a heat wave (temperatures over 90℉ / 33℃), and the next section of the trail was steep, uphill, exposed to the south (i.e. very little shade), and all of the water sources for the next 14 miles were dry. I have ZERO regret about quitting at that point. I still want to hike that section, but I want to do it when it’s cooler and the water sources are actually sources of water. Besides, I had already hiked over fifty miles during that trip.

But the other two times? It wasn’t due to trail conditions, it was because I was not prepared for the psychological shock. I’ve read a lot of hikers can get through the beginning of the hikes on the ‘honeymoon’ euphoira and the psychological shock hits them later, whereas for me, it seems the shock is front-loaded.

I do not like admitting this publicly on my blog, because it runs counter to how I see myself – or rather, how I wish I were. I like thinking of myself as intrepid. These experiences do not give me the self-image I want.

Well, when something is hard to do, and you want to get better at it, it’s sometimes a good idea to TRY AGAIN. And that’s what I’m doing this week. I’m going to attempt another section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Specifically, I plan to hike from Barrel Spring (it’s literally just a spring near a road – it’s four miles away from the nearest town) to the border with Mexico.

It will be a backpacking trip unlike anything I’ve tried before. I’ve never hiked through a desert before, so yes, I will carry a lot of water, but at least the slopes are fairly gentle in this section, and because I will go south, I will hike uphill on the northern (cooler) slopes. Also, I’ve never had to deal with temperature swings of 25-90℉ (-4-33℃) within 24 hours while sleeping outdoors, so that will be interesting. I look forward to the novelty and challenge, while I am also aware that I might not like it at all.

For some reason, I am fixated on the danger of rattlesnakes. This is bizarre because Taiwan has snakes which are deadlier than rattlesnakes (most rattlesnake bites will not kill an adult human, even without treatment – Taiwan has snakes whose bite kills any human who does not get timely treatment), and the Taiwanese venomous snakes do not even warn you of their presence with a rattle, and yet I was never scared of them. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised in a culture which fears ‘hundred-pacers’, whereas I was raised in a culture which fears rattlesnakes. Rattlesnake bite is far from the most common reason why hikers need medical evacuation in this section (the most common reason is dehydration – which, thankfully, is preventable with good planning), but it’s still what has grabbed my imagination. Oh well, hopefully my paranoia will at least make my odds of being bit by a rattlesnake even lower (and yes, I have a plan for what to do if I do get bitten by a rattlesnake). What I’ve read is that many hikers freak out when they first see a rattlesnake, but after the third or fourth time they encounter a rattlesnake, it’s much less terrifying.

So, why am I doing this hike if I expect it to be uncomfortable, and suspect I may hate it? First of all, there are my ego issues (described above), but if that was all there was to it, I would stop myself because there are easier ways to address ego issue. I am also really curious what it is like to hike in a desert, and even if I never do it again, I want to know what it feels like. Furthermore, I am fascinated by hiker psychology, and while one can learn about hiker psychology just by reading books, it’s not the same as first-hand experience (in particular, a book cannot tell me how *I* will react in certain conditions). I also hope that, maybe, just maybe, I’ll gain a little mental resilience which I may need later in life. Finally, I enjoy hanging out with the type of people who hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and the best place to find them is, obviously, the Pacific Crest Trail.

Why am I posting all of this on my blog. Remember how I mentioned the book Pacific Crest Trials, about how to psychologically cope with the trail? One of their recommended techniques is to tell everyone, and to announce your hike on your website, so that peer pressure will help you get through the tough parts. I’m trying this technique right now. I’ll see if implicit peer pressure will help me deal with the psychological shock better than before. But I’m not sure it will work, since most people I know think that hiking a hundred miles through desert mountains is so far out there that they aren’t going to think less of me if I do not complete the hundred miles – even my parents, who are calmer about this and find it less impressive than anyone else I know, wouldn’t hold it against me.

Comments on the “Love Minus Sex or Romance” Section of Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator

I just got a copy of Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life by Amy Gahran. Amy Gahran is also known as ‘Aggie Sez’, and used to blog at Solo Poly, most well known for the blog post “Riding the relationship escalator (or not).” I have not had time to read the whole book, but I did skip ahead and read all of Part 5, “Love Minus Sex or Romance.”

The first chapter in Part 5 is “Asexual and Aromantic: Part of the Rainbow.” A lot of this chapter is Asexuality and Aromanticism 101.

My biggest complaint is that it seems to imply that asexuals never want to have sex, and the only reason asexuals would consent to sex is procreation. It is true that most aces prefer not to have sex. Furthermore, most of the book’s research came from responses to an in-depth online survey, and I suppose it is possible that all of the aces who responded to the survey said that they do not want sex. However, I think it would have been better if it had noted that, while the majority of aces do not want sex in their personal relationships, a few do (including non-procreational sex).

What I found most interesting in the “Asexual and Aromantic: Part of the Rainbow” chapter was this part:

Being asexual or aromantic means that one’s intimate relationships will probably diverge from Relationship Escalator hallmark #4: sexual and romantic connection.

The writer goes on to explain that ‘mutual attraction’ is one of the features of the relationship escalator, and though asexual and/or aromantic people can perform every other hallmark of the relationship escalator, this is one part they cannot do. This is why the writer chose to single out asexuality and aromanticism, and not specifically address any other orientations – she claims that no other orientation precludes riding the relationship escalator all of the way.

To be clear, the introductory section (which I also read), the writer says that, while getting legally married and having children are highly encouraged on the relationship escalator, they are not hallmarks in contemporary American culture, and thus not ‘hallmarks’ of the relationship escalator. “Sexual and romantic connection” is one of the five hallmarks, therefore any relationship which lacks that is by definition not on the relationship escalator. Again, I wish the writer were clearer about the distinction between attraction and behavior – if someone does not experience sexual attraction, but they choose to have sex anyway, does that count as a sexual connection?

The next chapter is “More Nonsexual Relationship Options” which discusses nonsexual intimate relationships in general, not specifically relationships ace people have. The beginning of this chapter says that 40% of the people who responded to the survey said that they have had an important nonsexual and/or nonromantic intimate relationship, and 20% said they were open to such relationships (I do not know what percentage of the people who took the survey are ace and/or aro – I’d be interested in seeing the percentages for people who do NOT identify with asexuality or aromanticism). There are also a few pages about kink, and how kink relationships can be nonsexual and/or nonromantic.

It included various personal stories taken from the survey. The story which caught my eye the most is from ‘Theresa’. Theresa formed a clear agreement with her partner to stop having sex, though she does not know why they stopped wanting sex with each other. She has felt internal shame at having a sexless relationship with her significant other, even though it’s something they both wanted. She is afraid of her friends finding out that she does not have sex with her partner.

The last chapter in this part of the book is “Choosing Celibacy” which does not have any significant new information or insights for me, though I think it’s a good thing that this chapter is in the book for readers who know less about it.

One of the things which struck me while I was skimming through the book is that stories from asexuals who responded to the survey are throughout the book, not just in the asexuality & aromanticism chapter. The writer herself says:

One of the most unexpected and enlightening parts of my survey was hearing from dozens of people in the ace (slang for asexual) community, as well as many more who have been intimately involved with asexual partners.

These were some of the most eloquent and thoughtful responses I received. But in retrospect, that is isn’t very surprising: if you want to think really, really hard hard about intimacy and relationships, try taking sex and/or romance out of the picture.

Is this book worth reading? If one is primarily interested in asexuality and/or aromanticism and NOT the rest of the book, I would say no. The Invisible Orientation by Julia Sondria Decker goes into much more depth about asexuality, and while I am not aware of any good nonfiction book about aromanticism, one would still be better off researching aromanticism on the internet, or even reading about aromanticism in The Invisible Orientation, than tracking down Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator. However, I have not read most of the book yet. I am guessing other parts of the book will be more informative for me because they are about topics that I know less about. Based on my skimming, this does seem like a very good book about close personal relationships, particularly unconventional close personal relationships.