Cheems, the most famous Shiba Inu in Mexico

This is a post about a Shiba Inu from Hong Kong named Balltze who is a superstar in Mexico, where he is known as Cheems. KnowYourMeme traces the birth of “Cheems” to r/dogelore, an American Reddit group focusing on dog memes, in June 2019. In his original incarnation, Cheems was a floating dog head that could only mispronounce the word “cheeseburger.”

The question of why he has become so famous in Mexico was not clear initially. My first thoughts went something like this:

  • People like memes of dogs
  • Cheems is lovably overweight
  • There are some really great memes coming out of Mexico

After some cursory research, I found what might be the reason: the viral “Swole Doge vs. Cheems” meme format was born from a May 2020 post from Mexican meme page Doges artesanales. This readily adaptable format compares a muscular strong “doge” (dog) from a previous era with the weak “doge” of today. It has since spread around the world in multiple languages since it can be easily adapted to dream up new historical and political memes.

Swole doge vs. Cheems

For example, in the meme above, “Swole doge” on the left is a 20th-century musician “a little tired” after an 8-month world tour and two days to record his new album while 21st-century Cheems on the right is complaining to his mom that his music software crashed again.

We could say that this was the moment Cheems finally “made it” in Mexico, but that wouldn’t necessarily be true. Doges artesanales has memes of Shiba Inus going back years. However, until Nov-Dec 2019, the main dog on the site is Kabosu, also known as the inspiration for Dogecoin. Below is a screenshot of the facebook page and the moment the first “Swole dog vs. Cheems” meme entered the world.

The original Swole doge vs. Cheems meme is in the middle of this page

Cheems has become famous enough in Mexico to have spawned dozens, even hundreds of memes and even a handful of pandemic-era home businesses. The pun-based menus below are from a cheesecake bakery and a restaurant selling chilaquiles.

Cheems’s cake (cheesecake)
Chimlaquiles (chilaquiles)

Cheems has even inspired artwork. it’s unknown where this mural below is painted though it’s by a Spanish-speaking artist.

“Hhmm…painting”

Cheems had even been integrated with traditional Mexican holidays. Cempasúchil is the flower used during Day of the Dead celebrations.

It’s “cheemspasúchil” season, referring to the traditional Mexican flower

I’m not really sure how to close out this post, so here’s a history of Mexico told through a Cheems meme:

Making hot cocoa from scratch

This past week we were out of hot cocoa mix and Chocolate Abuelita so I looked up how to make hot cocoa out of baker’s chocolate powder. Believe it or not I’d never done this before.

Turns out it’s quicker than melting Chocolate Abuelita and tastes better. It’s one of those rare “from scratch” recipes that’s actually quicker. Here’s the recipe:

  1. Mix about 1/3 cup water, 1/4 cup cocoa, and 1/4 cup powdered sugar in a pot
  2. Heat the mixture and stir until blended
  3. Add 3-4 cups milk and blend
  4. Heat until desired drinking temperature. Take care not to boil it
  5. Pour into mugs

That’s it! Enjoy your hot chocolate, everyone.

Scoring internet points: Open source espionage in Russia and Ukraine

The internet has been scoring points against the Russian military lately. “Hacktivists” disrupted the Belorussian Railways (Wired). Viral TikTok has been tracking Russian vehicle movements (ABC News). The drama of political negotiations over the standoff between Russia and Ukraine is happening in the public eye, but what is happening in the background is really interesting, since a lot of what would normally be hidden is out in the open.

The way I see it, there are several participants in the information game, from most to least formal and decentralized:

  • The government
  • Media
  • Think tanks
  • Political risk consultants
  • Open-source intelligence
  • Social media

What’s fascinating is the role of the last two groups and the ways in which they are feeding the groups above them. The sources at the bottom are aggregating information that even governments didn’t have access to only a few years ago.

Still, it’s a bit too early to say that social media is “upending the spread of information” any more than it already has in recent conflicts and uprisings, like Crimea or Eastern Ukraine in 2014-15, but it does feel like this is the first large-scale military escalation that has been subject to this level of social media scrutiny.

I’m going to write a bit about the various players and their

Government and media

Government and media are the most institutional of those providing information. They rely on official press releases and proclamations and seem to have a symbiotic relationship where the media reports breathlessly on whatever the latest negotiation or policy shift has been.

There are bright spots here and there in the media landscape, but media coverage is often in more narrative rather than analysis of intentions. Lately though, the question “will Russia invade Ukraine?” has been prompting some really interesting coverage in mainstream outlets:

The Final Pieces: Three New Signs of Russian Invasion Plans (Sky News)

No, Russia Will Not Invade Ukraine (Opinion) (Al Jazeera)

Whatever the federal agencies like the intelligence services have behind the scenes, that doesn’t generally enter into the equation because unless there’s another Edward Snowden-type event, we’re just not on that “mailing list” and never will be.

This isn’t the first time that government has been “scooped” by social media nor even the first time it has happened to Russia and Ukraine. As the ABC News article above goes into, Russia’s parliament passed a law forbidding soldiers to post on social media in 2019, a rule previously ordered by the Defense Department.

Think tanks

The next group on our list, think tanks, are non-profit policy and research organizations that employ academics and politicians. In some cases, they can serve as a kind of “bureaucracy in waiting” for the party that doesn’t hold office, as many of them have a unstated political agenda and are headquartered in Washington, DC or some other capital. They offer big-picture analysis and bullet point guidance that elected officials may or may not read.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has their own analyses of Russia’s geopolitical motives, published over the last several years:

The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe (2016)

The Kremlin Playbook 2: The Enablers (2019)

The Kremlin Playbook 3 (2021)

This last one describes the doctrine of “Strategic Conservatism” as a lens through which to understand Russia’s geopolitical moves. It’s the most interesting in my opinion as it explains a bit of why Russia was so popular with the Trump crowd and how that fits into a political strategy.

Here’s some additional assorted coverage by think tanks, though honestly when there’s a conflict brewing, most international relations-focused think tanks will weigh in in some way or another:

Crisis Group: Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas: A Visual Explainer

Foreign Policy Research Institute Ukraine coverage

Political risk consultants

Political risk consultants are somewhere between a think tank and a private intelligence agency. They may openly offer policy analysis while cultivating a specialized approach behind the scenes that is tailored to political and primarily commercial clients. They answer questions like, “what will happen to my investments in X given the instability in Y”. It’s hard to tell the extent of their operations, but they hire ex-intelligence officers, so there’s that.

Eurasia Group Top Risks of 2022: Russia (#5)

Stratfor Ukraine conflict coverage

How Russia Could Respond to Western Sanctions With Cyberattacks (Stratfor)

“The Internet”: Open-source intelligence and social media

Lastly, we have social media and internet nerds more generally. What’s been really fascinating to me is the way in which social media is bringing things out into the open. Russian tanks and military equipment are going “viral” on TikTok. The Ukraine conflict is essentially what happens when you take the Russian dash cam video and give it a worldwide audience.

I suppose the assumption here is that things like troop movements and weapons deployments should be done in secret because, well, it’s the military. However, the Cold War games of compellence and deterrence could still be at play here. That is, now that everyone expects these things to show up on the internet, what’s to stop a country from using social media to its advantage.

For one, good journalistic practice suggests you cross-reference your sources. Open-source intelligence group Bellingcat did just that, using a pair of cute puppies to verify that soldiers in Ukraine came from Russia’s Far East. Lately, Bellingcat has been using license plate tracking, a nerdy hobby in Russia, and social media posts to figure out who and what is arriving to the border with Ukraine. Conflict Intelligence Team (Twitter) has been doing the same, with their dispatches picked up widely by the mainstream media.

It’s hard to know the impact of what might amount to some creative internet sleuthing. It does seem to have removed some of the element of surprise. Whether it can alter the calculus of military buildup or stop military conflict remains to be seen. It’s a high stakes game with a lot of bluster on both sides.

The many versions of Scott Pilgrim: The Game from Limited Run

Paola got me into the classic movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) a few years back. It’s a superhero epic centered around an average 20-something from Toronto in a rock band. It has themes pulled from video games and Japanese manga and anime.

Around the same the movie was released they came out with a 16-bit style video game following the movie and the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley that inspired it. It was available for a while digitally then it wasn’t, then it was again.

Earlier this year, Limited Run rereleased the game as a physical cartridge with a few different editions and covers. The three editions are:

  • The Game
  • The Game: Complete Edition
  • The Game: K.O. Edition
The three editions of the Scott Pilgrim game from Limited Run’s site

This game was Limited Run’s most successful release to date and like many people we missed the original order window for the special editions. Luckily for us the Complete Edition shipped last week and we were able to find a copy at a local shop.

Best Buy also has a cartridge-only version of the release above, also labeled Complete Edition and also from Limited Run, but the cover is different and its only extras are two trading cards. I believe it’s reversible to get the cover above but we never opened our copy as we were able to get one of the special editions.

One of the most confusing parts of searching online was the proliferation of versions and cover art. It turns out there aren’t that many variations, but the product itself has many elements. So to help others, here are photos of the various covers, alternate covers, and included items:

Complete Edition cardboard wrap cover
Complete Edition cardboard wrap back cover
Interior of Sega Genesis-style case holding Switch game
Side by side of Genesis case, Complete Edition Switch case, Best Buy edition Switch case (L-R)
Exterior of Sega Genesis-style case
Ephemera packaged in Genesis-style case behind Switch game
Flip side alternate label for Sega Genesis-style case
Contents of Switch case

Biking in New York is better since CitiBike

For the last few years, Paola and I have been proud annual members of CitiBike, New York’s bike share program. It’s completely transformed the way we get around the city. It’s the quickest way to get crosstown, period, and it’s less per month than the cost of a single tax ($169/year or $14/mo+tax, as of May 2019).

Here’s a bit of history: Way back in 2012-2013, I was in Washington, DC and the local Capital Bikeshare was arguably the most successful bike share program in the US. I was a member and would use it occasionally, mostly for times when I didn’t ride my bike to work but wanted to get somewhere quickly.

New York launched big in, with 6,000 bikes and hundreds of docks in Manhattan and Brooklyn in April 2013. This move instantly made it the largest system in the US (Here’s a bit of history). I was following the news and was a bit skeptical that New York would be able to launch a program as good as the one in DC. In a sense, I was right, at least at first.

When I tried the system later that year, I found broken and unresponsive docks and I checked out a bike that had a loose steering column, i.e. the handlebars were ready to come off. Sure, the system was big, but it seemed to be facing some serious growing pains. This wasn’t the kind of system that I’d trust as an annual subscriber because it just wasn’t reliable.

In October 2014, the month after Paola and I moved to New York from DC, CitiBike came under new ownership and hired Jay Walder, former MTA executive, as its CEO. The company turned a corner almost immediately. The backlog of broken bikes and docks was slowly being addressed (incidentally, this is called asset management, and it’s what the MTA has been dealing with as well).

We gave CitiBike another try the following year and were kicking ourselves that we didn’t try it earlier. It turned 20-minute walks into 10-minute bike rides and it turned getting to work crosstown from a slog on crowded sidewalks into a breeze, comparatively, on crowded roads. Even better, it took bike riding from a leisure activity that required carrying bikes up and down three flights of stairs to just another thing, like coffee and a muffin, you can pick up on the street on your way to work.

As any urbanist will tell you, we dedicate too much space to moving cars instead of moving people efficiently. We now use a sliver of that underutilized road space, effectively the half-lane between the parked cars and the standstill traffic. Protected north-south bike lanes have been slowly introduced on 1st/2nd, 5th/6th, B’way, and 7th/8th/9th Avenues. As part of the L train shutdown along 14th Street, the city DOT has put in protected east-west lanes on 12th and 13th Streets.

All of which is to say, biking in New York is not bad, it can be a pleasant experience, and it’s getting better year over year. Especially for short trips in good weather, it’s both quick and cheap, much better than watching a taxi meter run while stuck in traffic.

Thanks to everyone at NYC DOT and CitiBike for keeping things running! I suppose the best way to show thanks for everything is to use it, so I’ll see you all out there.

John Muir was right about Yosemite

Back in grad school, I was teaching assistant for a course called History of the American Environmental Movement. Each semester, I would grade perhaps 70 to 80 essays, including a section on John Muir, an advocate of preserving nature for nature’s sake, and Gifford Pinchot, who advocated responsible conservation of resources for human use.

While Pinchot was the rational business-minded one, I considered John Muir the passionate activist, one who had the writing skills to make the “tough sell” of protecting faraway lands from development.

John Muir said this about Yosemite, which was the first land in the US set aside specifically for preservation:

“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”

I always figured Muir was just a spiritual writer who connected in a different way with nature. This line about nature being a temple, I took that as hyperbole and as a metaphor. I was wrong. Muir was right.

After one visit to the Valley, Yosemite speaks for itself.

There is a temple in Yosemite, and it’s formed by the cliffs themselves. In the Valley, the interplay of light and shadow off three thousand-foot cliffs creates the sensation of being in a giant hall of worship.

The sun filters through a slight haze, making everything in the far distance look like a backdrop from a movie. As you wind down the mountainside into the Valley, breathtaking views in the far distance materialize in more-than-life-size miles as you realize you’ll be standing in the middle of that movie.

We are often awestruck by the magic of the “golden hour” before sunset. In Yosemite, this awe-inspiring moment lasts all day. Light shifts and transforms on the Valley walls from sunrise to sunset, as you’re surrounded on three sides by sheer granite faces too close to let sun stream through in full.

While Yosemite’s landscape is unique, the sensation of sun streaming through clouds, reflecting off the natural landscape is not. It’s what we felt in Storm King, in the Hudson Valley, which explains why the painters of the Hudson River School made their way West to capture Yosemite’s natural beauty on canvas. Their paintings, in part, encouraged thousands to move West.

Though as much as John Muir can rhapsodize in verse or as large as the Hudson River School painters may paint their larger-than-life portraits, it has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

Move Complete

I’ve put enough time and effort into the blog that it felt like time to take it to the next level with its own domain and custom design. This is that new site, hopstrains.com.

Your feedback on the design and functionality of the site will only help me make it better.

With that said, expect a return to normal posting and more original content in the coming weeks.

Making it Mexican Street Food

Mexico, despite popular misconception, is not the land of crunchy tacos, ground beef, and shredded cheddar cheese. It is the land of chili, lime, cilantro, and onion. Lime, chili, cilantro, and onion (and meat) on a tortilla are the essence of a taco.

IMG_1057

Likewise, in Mexico, lime and chili (hot sauce, especially Valentina brand) can be added to nearly anything, from popcorn or potato chips, to fruit, to beer to make a legitimate snack.

Generally, Mexican street food starts with:

  • corn (tortillas, dough or corn-on-the-cob)
  • meat (pork, chicken, beef, goat/lamb, fish or shrimp), and often
  • fruit

It makes use of the following toppings:

  • lime
  • chili (powder, salsa or pepper)
  • cilantro
  • mayonnaise
  • cream
  • onion
  • lettuce, tomato

Some famous Mexican street foods containing the above elements:

  • tacos (right, below)
  • tamales
  • tortas
  • quesadillas / sopes
  • chilaquiles (left, below)

Some famous examples of normal food that has been “Mexicanized”:

  • michelada: beer, lime, and hot sauce
  • Hot Nuts: Japanese peanuts, chili, lime
  • tamarind pulp with chili and lime
  • mango slices with chili and lime

In this way, you too could become Mexican by dousing yourself in lime and chili, but then you would have to be eaten.

In a future post, we will explore the taxonomy of Mexican street foods, from the tame and American-friendly, to the parts of the pig you thought were inedible. Stay tuned.

Xochimilco, Mexico City

Xochimilco is known as the Venice of Mexico for its picturesque canals. It also happens to be the hometown of my wife and thus our home for the holidays during the last week of December and first week of January. The photos included here are from the streets, market, and and show my take on the most fascinating and brightly-colored parts of town.

Statement of Purpose

Hand-drawn map from Jack Kerouac’s diary (Source)

Journey With Maps. In part, an homage one of my favorite writers, Graham Greene, whose first travels outside Europe led to the travelogue Journey Without Maps, as well as Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, and others.

As one of the worst winters in memory fades away comes the urge to get outside and explore the neighborhood, the city, and further afield. My goal is to inspire, to chronicle trips planned, trips taken, and to look forward to those all-encompassing journeys that take more time and planning than we may have at the moment.
Expect entries of the following types:
  • Day and weekend explorations around New York City and environs;
  • Feasible weekend getaways (i.e. short rides or cheap flights);
  • Long odyssey-type trips spanning multiple days and stretching across multiple states or countries;
  • Maps and other travel curiosities.
In general, I’m more interested in the possibilities of non-car based trips, since you tend to meet people, notice the details, and relax when you move at a slower pace. This will include walking, biking, bus, train, and some combination of the above.
From what I’ve found, the travel blog genre mostly consists of tips on how to travel on the cheap, hotel, event and restaurant reviews, and the dreaded “listicle” (e.g. 5 Public Restrooms You Never Knew Existed, 17 Types of Backpackers You Will Meet in Thailand). Since I’m not the the first person to sail those waters, I’ll try to keep the content fresh and unique and not reproduce what can be found on Yelp or in your typical travel guidebook.
Each entry will likely be a trip idea with a special focus on the path used to get there. I will not purport to have the answers on how to get cheap airline tickets. Since I love maps, I will try to scan some of those that have inspired me that are unavailable elsewhere on the internet. In the course of developing a story, especially one about a potential trip, I may link respectfully to the work of others that have done a better job than I ever could.
Please comment freely, positive feedback is what keeps me going.
Kyle