September 30, 2005

Snelling Lake

Snelling Lake in Fort Snelling State Park. One of my favorite places. Beautiful running and the chance to watch the planes landing.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:35 PM

Helpful advice from an "instruction cookie"

I guess any informal help I've given people ain't worth anything ...

Posted by robe0419 at 1:27 PM

September 29, 2005

Ineffective opposition

Governments don't win a fourth term, they get lucky and face lousy opposition.

I haven't written much about politics lately. There ain't an election on, at least not in any country I'm particularly interested in, and I do have more interest in elections than the times in between. Now, I could have written about the NZ election and tried to make it seem interesting to foreigners. But try as I might, after five years away I couldn't make it seem that interesting to myself.

For at least as long as I can remember—that would be as far back as 1992, the last century, in fact—there's been talk that the Democrats are in trouble, blah, blah, have no policy, are only sustained by Clinton, blah, blah ... Some of this is not so much disinterested commentary, as it is very interested partisan opinion. So it sure made me sit up a little when I read E.J. Dionne this week. The title the sub-editors have given it, Democrats in Disarray, is perhaps a little stronger than his argument, but no matter. Dionne is not someone who follows the Washington political reporting herd.

And then I read Mark Schmitt's blog today, another person who's not reflexively critical saying the Democrats have a way to go before they'll be competitive in next year's elections.

It all made an interesting compare and contrast to Max Hastings' Guardina op-ed which said that the [British] Conservative leadership contest is "a battle for the honour of losing the next election." The Democrats are not as dysfunctional as the Conservatives, but there's only one more election between the Democrats and that fate.

These are all predictions, not actual results, and the Democrats may yet find a way to regain control of one house in 2006. If you can't actually win elections, they should try to avoid becoming what the British Conservative party is now, or what the Canadian Conservative party was for a good decade in the 1990s, or the Australian and New Zealand Labo[u]r Parties were between 1949 and 1972, or the British Labour Party in the 1980s, or lest we forget, the Republican party between about 1954 and 1994, and the Democratic party in the early twentieth century. Parties that can't win elections or majorities despite ample opportunities.

You can explain some of these cases by reference to peculiar social or political cleavages of the time (Australian Labor in the 1950s, Canadian Conservatives in the 1990s) that parties got caught on the wrong side of. But don't let that get in the way of a good generalization from history.

It is said that oppositions/minority parties don't win elections, governments lose them. What was once snappy insight is now cliche. The story of most elections can be arranged to suit the phrase, even though it would be a highly useful stylized fact if it were only true 2/3 of the time.

The cliche that "oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them" is a necessary, but not sufficient condition. It really does suppose an effective opposition party, one that isn't just waiting for the government to fall in, and has some sort of programmatic and philisophical statements that voters can identify with it, distinct from being the "other party." I don't think the Democrats are at that pathological level of being unable to win winnable elections, but I do think we'll see if they are in just over eleven months.

I think it should be a cliche that any majority party that succeeds in going beyond three terms in control is aided by a defective opposition.* It's difficult for me to think of a case where any government or majority party was not showing strains or tiredness by the time it reached year 9 to 12 of its tenure in office.

Obviously it plays out differently in different cases, but if oppositions can't win when majorities are going for a fourth term, they can remain out of office for a long, long time. For a start, the election was normally winnable, and there's enough people that feel they weren't responsible that parties can turn on themselves. Moreover, after about a decade in opposition, parties start to lose the experience of people who have been in a majority who retire, and gradually you get an opposition party that has spent most of its time in the minority. The collective knowledge of how the party can win, and what to do once you're there, really starts to wither.

This can beget an even longer term decline. When and if the party does take office, they are full of inexperienced people and are more than usually prone to over-reaching and just governing badly. Exhibit A here are the Australasian Labo[u]r parties from 1972-1975, but there are others, the SPD won office in Germany in the 1970s after a long time in opposition, and weren't the most competent administration you've ever seen. There is also the danger of the inward turn, and sometimes I think the Democrats may be on their way to that. Politicians like to win, and if they can't beat the opposition, they'll place a more than usual importance on winning unimportant internal contests. Bad cycle for a party to get caught up in.

2006 is that critical election for the Democrats. If they can't win this, then why should they win others. Given the gross gerrymandering in the House, their best hope is to take back the Senate. And even then, they should forget about gerrymandering, they should campaign as if it doesn't matter, and maybe it won't.

* Obviously (obviously) after 12 years in control, the Republicans are going for their 7th term in charge, not their fourth. But, the American House terms are in some ways artificially short. It makes more sense to think of the electoral cycle as four years, on a par with many other countries. This is not so contrived as the Presidential term is four years, and the interaction with the executive is an important factor in legislative politics and elections.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:52 PM

September 28, 2005

Random things I have learned

Madge, the Palmolive detergent lady, was American! (via this review, reprinted in the Guardian Weekly). When I was a kid Madge was on New Zealand TV (TV2, because the other channel—just two channels until I was 15—did not have commercials). But Madge had an Australian accent: "You're soaking een eet," was how her signature line came across.

I also learned why some people don't like running in the rain. I've learned this before, but the rain here is so seasonal that I forget. Used to run in the rain a lot owing to the "maritime climate" I grew up in. That's a euphemism for "It can rain a lot, anytime of the year." Now my precipitation comes in a different form—that would be snow—and how nice it is to run when snow is falling. Rain, not so much. Now I just tolerate it.

Bloglines "Mark All Read" feature could be labeled "Get Work Done!" Today I have just read my "Local" (that's all you folks in the Twin Cities) and Running feeds.

I did take time to read this article in the Washington Post about high school cross-country training, in which they re-discover that some high schoolers are running 80-100 mile weeks in summer. It's a pretty balanced article on a topic that can generate a lot of emotion. There'll never be a resolution of this question because high schoolers can be at such varying levels of physical development, even at the same age. Personally, I had a great year running in [the equivalent of] my senior year after putting in a summer in which I ambled around for up to 80 miles a week. On trails. That was pretty key -- the trails kept it fun and the impact on the body is so much lower. Speedwork (IIRC) consisted of fartlek, some tempo runs (a new thing then), and 10 x 1 minute with and 10 x 30 second (even recovery) closer to races. In between the cross country (June-August) and track (October-December) seasons I recall going back to the trails and not doing much, if any, speedwork at all. Out of all that I got myself a low 17 5km (road), and more importantly a 20:48 6km (road race) in the national secondary schools race I was peaking for. I'd be happy to be running those times again.

Back to the 19th century ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:57 PM

September 24, 2005

3:40 does not equal 2:29:xx

I've seen this New Balance advertisement in several recent running magazines (linked to a larger version)

Now, when they say "Cracking 2:30:00" and have a photo of someone clearly finishing the 2004 Chicago marathon, I assumed that (1) they mean cracking 2:30:00 for the marathon, and (2) Mr. 20394 actually did this.

But I was wrong about (2) -- that the person pictured actually cracked 2:30:00. I was suspicious because—and not to be mean—Mr 20394 looks a little chunkier than most sub 2:30 marathoners. Most sub 2:30 marathoners look like they are several weeks of hearty meals short of the low end of healthy weight guidelines.

Curious about whether Mr. 20394 had broken 2:30:00, I went to the results. Mr 20394 had broken 2:30—for 30km—and got home in 3:40:34, which you can see for yourself. And just to check that this was the same guy, you can see his other photos here.

In case you're wondering how Mr 20394 came to have his photo stand in for the achievements of people nearly 9 miles ahead of him, it's because when you enter a road race you sign a waiver basically saying that anyone can use a photo taken of you during the event for whatever the organizers choose.

It's not Mr. 20394 that I feel disappointed in. He may well not know of his sort-of-fame, and I'll assume that he wouldn't have chosen to overstate his achievements so much. In fact, that's why I won't name him here, though anyone could find it out -- public information and all.

You can see bunches of people breaking 2:30:00 at this site, including these guys who are just slipping under, and they all look a little less photogenic.

It's New Balance that I'm disappointed in. They must know that less than 170 Americans ran under 2:30:00 for a marathon in 2004. Even if all these people all wore New Balance, and all changed their shoes every month, that's only 2000 pairs of shoes a year. Not a lot really.

No, the real money is to be made further down the distribution of times. It sounds much less exclusive to say "Cracking 3:15" but the truth is that it's among these runners that more of these shoes will be sold. Why they just can't be honest, and market the shoes towards that group, and with someone who ran the time, I don't know!

Posted by robe0419 at 4:31 PM

September 23, 2005

Conference papers

The formal session is dead. Long live the formal session!

Timothy Burke is all for eliminating the "formal session" from the American Historical Association conference. He says:

The formal session is a kind of loathsome ritual of humanities and social science academia, a lacerating gesture of masochism. Three, sometimes four, panelists read dully through a pre-written paper. Every once in a great while, one of them has actually written a shorter version of the paper designed to be read aloud, that has some vague hint of a performative gloss to it. Mostly though presenters just put red lines through paragraphs they want to skip, rush through the end, make amendations on the fly, read prose intended for formal publication.

... and goes on to say this ...
I suppose someone could say that's not how it should be, that formal sessions could be run better, but why reform it? The formal session is an inevitable bore. The only time conference meetings on papers work is when papers are precirculated (and read by the audience), and there will be some of these at the next AHA meeting. (emphasis added)

Burke's thoughts must be shared, as the email I got about my Organization of American Historians session next April said
The OAH has made a commitment to provide a more dynamic, innovative, and interactive annual meeting. We strongly encourage participants to present or "talk" their papers from notes, speaking directly to the audience, rather than reading their work line-by-line ... To allow for more audience participation during paper sessions and the more colloquial presentation mentioned above, the OAH provides the option of posting papers on our gated website prior to the meeting. Posting your paper will allow attendees to read it before the Annual Meeting and be prepared with questions and comments.

Yet I know the frustration of which Burke speaks. I once attended a session at Social Science History Association—where most of the papers and presentations are quite good, in the British sense of quite—that represented the nadir of the "formal session." While the papers were on closely related topics, one presenter had pulled out. It was the first session of the conference, which traditionally at SSHA means low numbers, due to people not arriving until later on Thursday. The first speaker, a graduate student (on the job market, I could tell before he even alluded to this, because he was wearing a suit. At SSHA, yes, at SSHA, a very informal conference) read his paper in a monotone. As the only audience member for some time I felt that I could not leave, but I knew the speaker would not notice for he not once raised his eyes from his task of reading his paper verbatim. I had high expectations for the next speaker, a full professor at a Big Ten university whose books were models of lucid prose. But no, it was worse. She also read her paper. The nadir came when she described a cartoon. She did not interest her audience (now doubled) with an overhead or handout of this cartoon, she took several minutes to describe it.

Despite this experience I am here to praise the formal session, not to bury it. It's not hard to learn how to distil 30 pages into 7 (7 pages is about 15 minutes talking), and present it to an audience. It's not hard, even for historians, to learn how to operate an overhead projector, and display some pictures to their audience. Not hard at all, it really just takes a little practice.

Perhaps it is different at the large mega-conferences, I have tended to go to more specialist ones where the papers are often on cognate topics, and someone in the audience often knows some background, and can ask good questions.

It is, I think, a good discipline for presenters to have to assume that their audience has not read the paper, and may not know much about their topic. I worry that if people were just allowed to pre-circulate papers and discuss them, that people would begin treating major conferences like in-house workshops and seminars. The value of the formal session for the presenter should be that it provides some incentives to distil their research into a concise presentation for intelligent people who may be ignorant of the precise topic.

When you pre-circulate papers the readership rate is typically between 0 and 1. It's very rarely 1, and more often 0, I'd wager.

If everyone read the papers circulated, then this model would work fine. Questions would mostly be devoted to what is in the paper, and some discussion would ensue. And if the presenter knows that the readership rate is going to be 0, then they have every incentive to make a good presentation, and get some feedback from that.

But when it's between 0 and 1—some read the paper, some don't—not so great. Without being able to deny entry to people who haven't read the paper, what does the speaker do? Well, typically they discuss the paper assuming that people have read it, and rightly so, from the presenter's point of view. But then you get the inevitable questions from people who haven't read the paper, asking for clarification and explanation. "It's in the paper," is one response, and perhaps you could say "No questions without having read the paper," but you be the chair or discussant that tries to enforce that ... I'm not sure that would work so well.

My point is that the formal session is a good idea gone a little wrong. It's a good idea because it should help the presenters/authors think about what's truly important and interesting in their work. The solution is not to abolish the formal session, but for historians to improve their presentations. The costs of this training are remarkably low, it could very, very easily be incorporated into the structure of existing graduate seminars or courses.

If you think this difficult to achieve, I would just invite you to attend conferences outside North America. The dull, monotone reading of the paper is a North American problem -- it's much less of a problem in Europe and Australasia where the standard seems to be a snappier 15 minute presentation, not quite ad-libbing it, but speaking from notes.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:05 PM

Bobbing along

David Greenberg says something that often gets lost: Bob Dylan made great albums in the 1960s, and he's making great albums now.

For what it's worth, my top ten list of Bob Dylan albums. This is un-ordered, my top ten has been fairly stable over time, but the order would change frequently.

  • Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
  • Blood on the Tracks (1975)
  • Desire (1976)
  • Oh Mercy (1989)
  • Time out of Mind (1997)
  • Love and Theft (2001)
  • Blonde on Blonde (1966)
  • Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
  • The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
  • Planet Waves (1974)

If you want eleven dollar bills I'll offer up Infidels as my 11th choice.

Best song: Desolation Row
Worst song: If Dogs Run Free.

All this is inspired by the release of No Direction Home. The album is great, the movie sounds awesome too. David Yaffe reviews the movie in Slate.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:23 PM

September 22, 2005

Articles from my past

Publications are a little like purchases on the credit card—payment and pleasure are quite separate.

My article on economic evaluations of community mental health care—jointly with two fine colleagues, Jackie Cumming and Kathy Nelson—came out in Medical Care Research & Review today. As best as I can understand the terms of the copyright do not allow me to post a copy on my own website, but do allow me to say that I can email you a copy if you're interested. In such a manner they protect their subscription revenues. 41 pages. Not to put you off. Some may find a cure for insomnia in what I offer.

Not to sound old or wise before my time, but a little reflection here on the value of persistence for academics. You might not have the time now to get that paper done, but never let the motivation to get it published die entirely. Just because it is a couple of years since you worked on something, doesn't mean you can't pick it up and take it somewhere. I think this particularly applies to people who have nearly-publishable things while nearing dissertation completion (this is a reminder probably more to myself than it is to any actual readers I have). The dissertation needs the most attention, but tell yourself that you will publish the other stuff later. Unless someone is likely to scoop you, or there's a debate that cries out for your input, you can probably put the non-dissertation manuscript in the filing cabinet until next year.

I started work on this paper in November 1997, it went through several iterations in-house, we first shipped it out for review in April 2000, sent it to MCRR in early 2001, and then shepherded it through a revise and resubmit, updating the paper to reflect changes in the literature since initial submission, and final acceptance.

Working with co-authors has real benefits, but at various times the paper fell off everyone's metaphorical desk, with the more pressing tasks of dissertations and exams and reports due to people who actually pay good money for my co-authors' advice on health care.

I thought that once the paper was done I might be able to have a ritual dumping of some of the files associated with it (literature reviews generate lots of photocopied articles lying round your desk) but I flatter myself with the thought that a reader may write me with clarification on some trivial point. So perhaps I should keep them for a while ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:49 PM

September 21, 2005

Welcome to Canada!

I was up in Canada again over the weekend

For the curious, I was in Toronto at the Economic History Association conference, and at the University of Guelph to give a seminar. If you're ever in Toronto, do make time to go to Dufflet Pastries. Good stuff.

Now, this may be old news to non-U.S. citizens, but to the Americans used to tripping across the border with just their drivers license, do I have news for you: the Canadian immigration officials are the most inquisitive of any I have ever met. This includes communist countries, and post-9/11 America ...

The only time I've been asked more questions by an immigration official was the first time I entered the U.S. on a student visa. Every subsequent time—yes, even since September 2001—I have had nothing but the most perfunctory enquiries about my purpose in the United States. Now, I concede that I have several things going for me that may account for my welcome, (1) my visa sponsor has been the Department of State, (2) my home country is a small, harmless country not known for its religious fanaticism, and (3) I'm white. I say the last, not because I think it should smooth my way, but because I'm sure it does. Positive supposition, not normative suggestion.

But back to Canada ... every time I've gone, multiple questions about the purpose of my visit. When I was there in April, they asked me more questions about historical census microdata than I've heard in a long time! Who was I meeting? Where was I meeting? My experience was not unique, my Scandinavian colleagues (Norway, big enemy of Canada if you'll recall ...) were also amazed at the level of inquiry about the meeting and their purpose in Canada.

And then, this always gets me, remember I'm going into Canada, they ask about my status in the United States. Guess that student visa must be intriguing ...

This time I decided to show my British passport, and see if the purple passport of the mother country didn't get me a little more respect than the bad photo in my New Zealand passport ... Not so much as it happens. Multiple questions again. How long was the conference? Why was I going to Guelph? (Actually, Guelph was very pleasant to visit, in case you wonder) etc ... And then, what was my status in the United States. I replied that I was a student, and they asked to see my other passport with the other visa ...

After that, I was away and into Toronto to eat pastries, enjoy the comforts of the Westin, and be enthused about economic history. But those Canadians, more aggressive immigration officers than you might suspect!

Posted by robe0419 at 4:24 PM

Watching the river road

Seems like demands for improvements to the West River Road are gathering force.

While they're at the project they could replace the concrete (!) pedestrian paths with asphalt ones. When I'm not running on the trail beneath the road, or the grass strip between the river road and Edmund Blvd, I'm on the bike path.

You will never catch me on the pedestrian path. I'm not going to accumulate any more impact on my legs than I have to, and they reckon concrete is several times worse for your bones and joints than even asphalt.

By way of today's trivial cultural exchange between our two great countries, most of the pavements/sidewalks in New Zealand are asphalt, not concrete. Of course the trail running is something else again, so I never did run much on the pavement.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:08 PM

September 19, 2005


Rebecca Goetz is conducting a survey of graduate students in the humanities and social sciences who blog.

She asks

  1. Your blog’s title and URL
  2. Whether or not you are on the job market
  3. If you include your blog on your CV or other job applications material
  4. If you’ve interviewed before, were you asked questions about your blog? Did blogging come up at any other time in the process?
  5. Briefly or not so briefly, why do you blog?

Follow the link to respond.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:45 PM

New Zealand is the world's oldest democracy

112 years ago today (or yesterday, because of the dateline) New Zealand became the first country in the world to enfranchise women.

Appropriate, I suppose, that we now look likely to have a three term Labour government led by Helen Clark.

This is good. When people ask me to express the differences between New Zealand and America I sometimes say that the difference is that New Zealand has a childless agnostic woman (with a different last name than her husband) as Prime Minister. It just wouldn't have been quite the same contrast with Don Brash.

Correspondence from other nations defending their right to be regarded as the world's oldest democracy eagerly entertained!

Posted by robe0419 at 11:29 AM

September 14, 2005

Blogging is not so different

Via various sources (Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Cliopatria) I see that the pseudonymous Ivan Tribble is back, saying he was just trying to be helpful by warning people away from blogging.

I don't have the time or the inclination today to write much more on the matter, but will just beat this idea again: don't make blogs appear much more exotic than they really are.

All they are is a form of written communication -- the standard conventions about good social behavior carry over from spoken conversation and other modes of writing. Think about what you are going to say, who might read it, and what the consequences of those words might be.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:49 PM

September 13, 2005

Swinging on the front range

Two contradictory images of women in public life in Colorado. First, this float in front of the State Capitol suggests ... well, I don't quite know ... A chocolate fish for the best interpretation

And this, from the Colorado Historical Society bookshop. It sort of explains itself ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:16 PM

Business friendly

One thing often claimed by commentators and the right wing parties in the New Zealand election debate is that Labour has re-regulated the economy somewhat.

So, what to make of the rankings by the World Bank's private sector development group that put New Zealand at the top of the "Ease of Doing Business index"? It's a minor thing this late in the campaign, but can't hurt the government.

(via Marginal Revolution)

Posted by robe0419 at 11:58 AM

September 12, 2005

Highway 61

The first time I drove down Highway 61 I wasn't that excited. Every subsequent time has been more special.

The New York Times has a good writeup of a roadtrip on 61 in this week's travel section.

Highway Five, though. sounds pretty bad. But worth seeing in a macabre kind of way.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:09 PM

Not since I was a boy ...

England have won the Ashes for the first time since 1989.

The Ashes (amateur fan site here, wikipedia here) are the regular series of test [international, five day long] cricket matches between England and Australia.

By way of keeping my mostly American readers up with the old Empire, take my word that this is a major, major sporting and cultural event. It's probably not quite up there with the Miracle on Ice as far as the international-political overtones of the contest, but cricket—unlike ice hockey—is a sport with long-term, nation-wide popularity in both countries.

Baseball, sadly, lacks these emotional international contests—making up for it with passionate urban rivalries—so there's no good comparison there. At least in Australia, cricket is the national game, as the football codes are fragmented regionally. (Another topic entirely).

Posted by robe0419 at 2:45 PM

Bush will not run again

These are the insights they pay me for ...

In all the coverage of President Bush's poor response to Hurricane Katrina, one salient fact often (but not always) seems to escape notice. President Bush will pay no electoral price for his failings. He ain't running again, and if he ever was tempted to move to Lousiana and run for Governor there, he probably isn't now.

This may seem strange, but the Democrats need to start thinking and acting as if President Bush was irrelevant. In electoral terms he is irrelevant. Sure, he will put in some appearances in 2006 and 2008, but the man isn't on the ballot. He doesn't have to do much if he doesn't want to.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:11 PM

September 10, 2005

Meeting married women for coffee?

Curious as I am about who stumbles upon my little corner of the internet I keep an occasional eye on who has visited with StatCounter (good, free service if you're on the lookout for a page counter, by the way).

I get a lot of short-term non-returning visitors looking for information about composting their coffee grounds, and coffee shops, and the Welsh camp revivalist from 1904 who shares my name.

But today there was a new one ... someone who searched Google about "meeting married women for coffee."

Hmmmm ... not sure what that's about ... And I don't think I can help them either ...

Posted by robe0419 at 7:10 PM

September 9, 2005

Simple questions

Random unrelated questions semi-worthy of public comment ...

Do any individuals buy a Chevrolet Classic new from the dealer? These cars seem to have no acceleration, no power up hills, a horrible automatic transmission, and banal color schemes. You too can rent one from any of America's fine car rental companies. But does anyone buy one new? Or do they all end up in off-airport lots?

Why does Minneapolis provide such poor pedestrian lighting on the parkways? The parkways are the equivalent of Chicago's lakefront, or Wellington's waterfront, to speak of two cities where I have run or walked late at night and never felt the slightest danger from the shadows, because there were no shadows. There was enough light. Yet along the West River Road or round Lake Calhoun you can go 100 yards between street lights. It's OK in summer when the footing is sure, and the only danger is the pot-smoking youth in the shadows, but in winter it's a menace when the footing is bad.

The magic of Google finds a city council report that calls the system "past ... useful life and failing," but gives no details on costs or timetable for new lighting. I'll probably be done with my phd by the time there are new lights.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:44 PM

September 8, 2005

Cup office

A p.s. to the previous entry, and farewell to the Minnesota State Fair for another year.

Wandering behind the back of the Food building we spied the not-so-well-known "Cup Office," where the vendors get bulk pricing on cups. I do not claim that this is the most interesting thing you'll ever see at the Fair, but it was a little peek behind the scenes.

(Click on image for larger view)

Posted by robe0419 at 11:31 AM

September 7, 2005

More fun at the fair

Went back to the Fair just once last week, and indulged on many of the fine delicacies it offers.

The seed art picture of Bob Dylan must qualify as the ultimate union of two Minnesota icons. Though you will note that the artist is from Washington State. Oh well, the fair and Bob Dylan are both worthy of wide audiences.

The seed art also featured several political pieces. All were opposing the war in Iraq and the current President. I did not notice any pro-Bush seed art, but perhaps Republicans don't realize the importance and propaganda value of effective seed art yet. Seed art, it's the new direct mail ...

As always, the dairy princesses were a site to see. This was the first time I'd seen a dairy princess with glasses. A butter sculpting challenge no doubt.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:19 PM

So many places, so little time

The New York Times visits central Vietnam (Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An). Fabulous places, the month I spent in Vietnam, with a week in that area, was one of the best trips of my life.

The only odd note in the article is this comment on a Western hotel in Hue: "[it] has a friendly staff, as long as you can tolerate the lobby's flea market atmosphere and bad Internet service. Web rates start at $80 for a double room."

The "flea market atmosphere" is found throughout Vietnam. It's part of being there, and at first it feels like a hassle, like you're an easy mark for the sellers, but after a week or so most people find that they adopt just the right pose of indifference that they can watch and browse without being hassled to buy something. And this hassling is really nothing more than being approached by Vietnamese people eager to sell you something. It's rarely physically threatening. I never felt threatened in the markets.

"Bad internet service"? Well, whatever. A week away from your email is called a holiday.

If you can make the arrangements, staying in the cheaper, less-Westernized, hotels in Vietnam gives a much more authentic experience. You'll be sharing the corridors with the rapidly growing Vietnamese middle class who are out to see their own country, often for the first time ever. And you'll meet actual Vietnamese people, some of whom are genuinely interesting to talk to.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:17 PM