How to start learning a language by Tom (Antimoon)
I’m trying to use your method to better learn Spanish. I speak some Spanish having lived abroad for a couple years, but I can’t watch a movie, read a book, or participate in a conversation without getting lost very quickly. I have tried to start “getting input” – reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a videogame in Spanish, however it’s very difficult and confusing and like I said – I get lost pretty quick. And this is with enough skill with the language that I can “get by” (ask questions, order food, etc.) in Spanish already.
I’m sure you’ve counseled people in the past who’ve started out with a language at the very beginning or at least earlier than me. What am I missing? Is it just patience to pore through movies and books and make whatever sense of them I can for much more time? Or is there some other method I should be supplementing at the very beginning (e.g. Pimsleur) until I am able to get through a movie & use a Spanish-Spanish dictionary?
There are three routes you can take when you’re starting to learn a language:
Regular content + patience + dictionaries. Diving headfirst into foreign-language content, even with a dictionary by your side, is a real challenge. As with any challenging activity, it can be very satisfying if you succeed, but also very frustrating if you get lost. Simplified content + dictionaries. Simplified books (AKA graded readers) can teach you basic vocabulary and grammar quickly in a fun way. Some may be available in audio form as well. You may also want to look into podcasts for beginners. (More advice on simplified books) SRS/flashcards. Learn 1,000 most common words and basic grammatical patterns using an SRS (Anki, SuperMemo, etc.) or regular paper flashcards. The goal of this is to get you reading regular books (or at least advanced graded readers) and listening to real Spanish as quickly as possible. This method can give you a head start, but learning vocabulary and grammar without any meaningful context can get a bit tedious and requires a fair bit of persistence. Obviously, you also need good resources to study from, which can be hard to find, depending on the language.
Personally, I would go with (2) in most situations.
(1) I find intellectually stimulating, but inefficient.
(3) is efficient, but I always prefer to learn vocabulary in context, in a more “organic” way. I’d choose this method if I was under time pressure (for example, if I had to acquire a working knowledge of Spanish in 3 months) and I had access to a good SRS collection or flashcard deck – or at least a list of most common words, a basic grammar book, and a good learner’s dictionary (then maybe I’d make an SRS collection myself out of the examples in the grammar book and the dictionary). Note: if I was making my own collection, I wouldn’t spend too much time on each item – as these would be basic items, I’d probably stop reviewing them in a few months anyway. In other words, I’d use the collection as a sort of scaffolding.
One more thing: it’s entirely okay to start with bilingual dictionaries. You can move on to monolingual dictionaries when you feel ready. If you then find you’re getting confused by a monolingual dictionary, you can go back to a bilingual one. It all depends on the dictionaries and your personality. Don’t work against your brain just to follow a method! The Willpower Trick (Wired)
January is the month of broken resolutions. The gyms are packed for a week, Jenny Craig is full of new recruits and houses are cleaned for the first time in ages. We pledge to finally become the person we want to be: svelte, neat and punctual.
Alas, it doesn’t take long before the stairmasters are once again sitting empty and those same dirty T-shirts are piling up at the back of the closet. We start binging on pizza and beer – sorry, Jenny – and forget about that pledge to become a kinder, gentler person. Human habits, in other words, are stubborn things, which helps explain why 88% of all resolutions end in failure, according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman.
The reason our resolutions end in such dismal fashion returns us to the single most important fact about human willpower – it’s incredibly feeble. Consider this experiment, led by Baba Shiv, a behavioral economist at Stanford University. He recruited several dozen undergraduates and divided them into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then, they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.
Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Shiv, is that all those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain – they were a “cognitive load” – making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the conscious mind is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before it becomes impossible for the brain to resist a piece of cake.
This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of Haagen-Dazs. (In fact, one study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that just walking down a crowded city street was enough to reduce measures of self-control.) A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems and run down by the world, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.
The problem is only compounded by studies showing that the very act of dieting can make it even harder to resist temptation. In a 2007 experiment, Roy Baumeister -the influential psychologist behind the ego-depletion model of willpower and co-author of the interesting Willpower – gave students an arduous attention task, in which they had to watch a boring video while ignoring words at the bottom of the screen. Then, the students drank a glass of lemonade. Half of the students got lemonade with real sugar, while the other half got a drink made with Splenda. On a series of subsequent tests of self-control, the group given fake sugar performed consistently worse. The literal lack of sugar in their prefrontal cortex, that neural “muscle” behind willpower, made it even harder to not give in.
Is there a way out of this willpower trap? Are there secret exercises that can make it easier to stick with our new year resolutions? Not really. Baumeister has found that getting people to focus on incremental improvements, such as the posture of the back, can build up levels of self-control, just as doing bicep curls can strength the upper arm. Nevertheless, it’s not clear that most people even have the discipline to focus on their posture for an extended period, or that these willpower gains will last over the long-term.
But there is a neat way to circumvent the intrinsic weakness of the will, which helps explain why some people have a much easier time sticking to their diet and getting to the gym. A fascinating new paper, led by an all-star team of willpower researchers including Wilhelm Hofmann, Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, gave 205 participants in Würzburg, Germany a specially designed smartphone. For seven days, the subjects were pinged seven times a day and asked to report whether they were experiencing a strong desire. The participants were asked to describe their nature of their desire, how strongly it was felt, and whether it caused an “internal conflict,” suggesting that this was a desire they were attempting to resist. If a conflict existed, the subjects were asked to describe their ensuing success: did they manage to not eat the ice cream? The researchers suggest that this is the first time experience sampling methods have been used to “map the course of desire and self-control in everyday life.”
Christian Jarrett, at the excellent BPS Research Digest, summarizes the results:
The participants were experiencing a desire on about half the times they were beeped. Most often (28 per cent) this was hunger. Other common urges were related to: sleep (10 per cent), thirst (9 per cent), media use (8 per cent), social contact (7 per cent), sex (5 per cent), and coffee (3 per cent). About half of these desires were described as causing internal conflict, and an attempt was made to actively resist about 40 per cent of them. Desires that caused conflict were more likely to prompt an attempt at active self-constraint. Such resistance was often effective. In the absence of resistance, 70 per cent of desires were consummated; with resistance this fell to 17 per cent.
But not everyone was equally successful at resisting the psychological conflict triggered by unwanted wants. According to the survey data, people with higher levels of self-control had just as many desires, but they were less likely to feel that their desires were dangerous. Their desires also tended to be less intense, and thus required less inner strength to resist.
These findings are incredibly revealing, as they document the banal secret of willpower. It’s not that these people have immaculate wills, able to stare down tempting calories. Instead, they are able to intelligently steer clear of situations that trigger problematic desires. They don’t resist temptation – they avoid it entirely. While unsuccessful dieters try to not eat the ice cream in their freezer, thus quickly exhausting their limited willpower resources, those high in self-control refuse to even walk down the ice cream aisle in the supermarket.
This experience sampling study neatly confirms the influential work of Walter Mischel, which I wrote about in the New Yorker. In the late 1960s, the Mischel began a simple experiment with four-year old children. He invited the kids into a tiny room, containing a desk and a chair, and asked them to pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Mischel then made the four-year olds an offer: they could either eat one treat right away or, if they were willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, they could have two treats when he returned. Not surprisingly, nearly every kid chose to wait.
At the time, psychologists assumed that the ability to delay gratification — to get that second marshmallow or cookie — depended on willpower. Some people simply had more willpower than others, which allowed them to resist tempting sweets and save money for retirement.
However, after watching hundreds of kids participate in the marshmallow experiment, Mischel concluded that this standard model was wrong. He came to realize that willpower was inherently weak, and that children that tried to outlast the treat — gritting their teeth in the face of temptation — soon lost the battle, often within thirty seconds.
Instead, Mischel discovered something interesting when he studied the tiny percentage of kids who could successfully wait for the second treat. Without exception, these “high delayers” all relied on the same mental strategy: they found a way to keep themselves from thinking about the treat, directing their gaze away from the yummy marshmallow. Some covered their eyes or played hide-and-seek underneath the desk. Others sang songs, or repeatedly tied their shoelaces, or pretended to take a nap. Their desire wasn’t defeated — it was merely forgotten.
Mischel refers to this skill as the “strategic allocation of attention,” and he argues that it’s the skill underlying self-control. Too often, we assume that willpower is about having strong moral fiber or gritting our teeth and staring down the treat. But that’s wrong — willpower is really about properly directing the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. It’s about realizing that if we’re thinking about the marshmallow we’re going to eat it, which is why we need to look away.
The same lesson applies to adults. Although we might not be able to resist the delicious temptations of the world – they are simply too tempting – we can outsmart them, finding ways to avoid that internal conflict in the first place. The only way to boost willpower is to recognize the inherent weakness of the will.
Extinct Giant Tortoise May Still Be Alive in Galapagos
Genetic traces of a supposedly extinct giant tortoise species have been found in living hybrids on the Galapagos island of Isabela.
A few pure Chelonoidis elephantopus almost certainly still exist, hidden in the island’s volcanic redoubts. The hybrids have so much C. elephantopus DNA that scientists say careful breeding could resurrect the tragically vanished behemoths.
“To our knowledge, this is the first rediscovery of a species by way of tracking the genetic footprints left in the genomes of its hybrid offspring,” wrote researchers led by Yale University biologists Ryan Garrick and Edgar Benavides in a Jan. 9 Current Biology paper.
At the beginning of the 16th century, before humans arrived, an estimated 250,000 giant tortoises representing 15 different species lived in the Galapagos. Once fully grown, the tortoises had no natural predators — except people.
For whalers and pirates, the slow-moving animals weighing up to 900 pounds were like walking grocery stores. Their flesh was tasty and rich in oil. They could survive for months, even years, without eating or drinking, and sailors stored tortoises alive in the hulls of their ships for future consumption.
By the time a young Charles Darwin surveyed the tortoises, they were being indiscriminately slaughtered. (“The inhabitants believe that these animals are absolutely deaf; certainly they do not overhear a person walking close behind them,” he wrote.) Five species, including C. elephantopus, would eventually go extinct. But the tortoises’ long-term storage convenience had one unexpected benefit. 'A rare opportunity to resuscitate a species that we thought we'd lost.'
“If a ship was under siege, sailors would unload it by throwing things overboard,” said Garrick. “The first thing to go was stuff stored in the hull. Tortoises don’t swim, but they float like wine corks, and it so happens that the prevailing current runs northeast through the islands. The last place a tortoise might catch land before being swept into the ocean was the northern part of Isabela island. This is where they would have washed up.”
Three years ago, Garrick and Colleagues sequenced the genomes of museum specimens of C. elephantopus and Chelonoidis becki, a closely-related tortoise found on the northern part of Isabela island. They found C. elephantopus genes in a few C. becki, suggesting that some castaway tortoises historically made landfall and mated with the locals.
For the new study, the researchers traveled to Isabela island. On the island’s northern tip, on the slopes of Volcano Wolf, they took genetic samples from 1,600 C. becki individuals. Of these, 84 contained so much C. elephantopus DNA that at least one recent ancestor must have been a purebred C. elephantopus.
None of the purebreds was spotted, but because of the strength of the genetic signals and the hybrids’ youth — many were juveniles — the researchers estimate that about 40 purebreds still survive. Given their extraordinarily long lifespans — individual tortoises from other Galapagos species have lived for 170 years in captivity — a few of the survivors could conceivably have been thrown from ships themselves.
Later this year the researchers will return to Isabela, where they hope to establish a captive breeding program using hybrids and, if they can find them, a few true C. elephantopus. The tortoises could roam again, their slaughter an evolutionary chapter rather than an end.
“The way they were moved around creates a rare opportunity to resuscitate a species that we thought we’d lost,” said Garrick.
Tweet Your Blood Cells With New Microscope Smartphone Adapter (Wired)
Although a microscope smartphone adapter always seemed like an inevitability, that doesn’t make it any less cool now that it’s here.
Andy Mill and Tess Bakke from SkyLight stopped by the Gadget Lab to show us a prototype for their upcoming project: a plastic adapter for a microscope that allows a user to mount almost any smartphone and photograph/view microscopic images.
What is the need for a microscope adapter, you might ask. They explained it this way on their Kickstarter page: “While working on a low-cost microscope for developing countries Andy saw a need for a device that could help overcome a global shortage in trained healthcare workers. The SkyLight has the ability to connect doctors from far away to patients in rural locations using existing technology (microscopes) and equipment that is becoming widely available (smartphones).”
While the intended uses of the SkyLight were for improved healthcare access across the world, another added benefit for photographers and science nerds alike is the ease with which you can create beautiful, sometimes abstract pictures of anything you can put on a slide. Armed with a microscope and two boxes of slides (left to us for a few hours by Andy and Tess), it was hard not to feel like I was back in grade school, peering through the eyepiece in science class and trying to sketch skin cells with a number 2 pencil.
Photographing through tiny lenses has always been a challenge with a standard DSLR, but being able to casually use my iPhone to take pictures of tongue cells and ants left me with an arsenal of interesting (and sometimes mildly disgusting) images to show my friends. It made me wish I still had my first childhood microscope set.
The SkyLight isn’t on the market yet, but after a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign, the team is beginning its first production run. The first round will go toward Kickstarter supporters as well as SkyLight’s “5 to 1 Promise,” described on its website as donating one Skylight “to either a global health or science education cause” for every five that are sold. For those of you who are interested in the next possibility of pre-order, you can sign up for their mailing list on the website, where you’ll be notified when they’re available for mass consumption.
Almost 1 In 3 U.S. Warplanes Is a Robot (Wired)
Remember when the military actually put human beings in the cockpits of its planes? They still do, but in far fewer numbers. According to a new congressional report acquired by Danger Room, drones now account for 31 percent of all military aircraft.
To be fair, lots of those drones are tiny flying spies, like the Army’s Raven, that could never accommodate even the most diminutive pilot. (Specifically, the Army has 5,346 Ravens, making it the most numerous military drone by far.) But in 2005, only five percent of military aircraft were robots, a report by the Congressional Research Service notes. Barely seven years later, the military has 7,494 drones. Total number of old school, manned aircraft: 10,767 planes.
A small sliver of those nearly 7,500 drones gets all of the attention. The military owns 161 Predators — the iconic flying strike drone used over Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere — and Reapers, the Predator’s bigger, better-armed brother.
But even as the military’s bought a ton of drones in the past few years, the Pentagon spends much, much more money on planes with people in them. Manned aircraft still get 92 percent of the Pentagon’s aircraft procurement money. Still, since 2001, the military has spent $26 billion on drones, the report — our Document of the Day — finds.
The drones are also getting safer. (To operate, that is; not for their targets below.) Drone crashes get a lot of attention; 38 Predators and Reapers have crashed in Iraq and Afghanistan thus far; most recently, Iran looks like it got ahold of an advanced, stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel. But the congressional report finds that the Predator, for instance, has only 7.5 accidents per 100,000 hours of flight, down from 20 accidents over that time in 2005 — meaning it’s now got an accident rate comparable to a (manned) F-16.
But the report doesn’t mention some of the unique vulnerabilities of the drones. There’s no mention of the malware infection that reached into the drone cockpits at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, a story Danger Room broke. Nor does it go into the workload problems for military imagery analysts caused by the proliferation of the drones full-motion video “Death TV,” which is pushing the military toward developing selective or “thinking” cameras. The ethical issues attendant to remote-control war also go unexplored.
Still, the report does explore the downsides of the Pentagon’s drone obsession. There are way too many redundant drones, it finds, and the expensive sensors they increasingly carry drive the costs of a supposedly cheap machine up. They’re also bandwidth hogs: a single Global Hawk drone requires 500 megabytes per second worth of bandwidth, the report finds, which is “500 percent of the total bandwidth of the entire U.S. military used during the 1991 Gulf War.” And it also notes that a lot of future spy missions might go not to drones, but to the increasing number of giant blimps and aerostats, some of which can carry way more sensors and cameras.
And the current fleet of flying robots is just the start. The Navy’s developing a next-gen drone that can take off and land from an aircraft carrier. Future missions, the report finds, include “stand-off jamming” of enemy electronics; “psychological operations, such as dropping leaflets” over an adversary population; and even measuring the amount of radiation in the earth’s atmosphere. The military’s working on increasingly autonomous drones — including tiny, suicidal killers — and on increasing the number of drones a single ground station can operate.
The Air Force even holds out hope for a “super/hyper-sonic” drone by 2034. It’s a good time to be a flying robot.
Congressional Research Service reports typically aren’t public. But we’re embedding it here, so you can read it in full for yourself. It compiles and updates a lot of useful information about military drones:
Aussie Brains Move Chip Design to Quantum Realm (Wired)
The law of the land is Ohm’s Law — even when the land is really, really small.
Contradicting what was previously thought, researchers at the University of New South Wales have announced that the law governing electrical resistivity — how readily electrical current flows through a material — extends into the quantum realm.
This has major significance for chipmakers, who are starting to wrestle with the forces of quantum physics as transistors and interconnect sizes shrink down to a few dozen nanometers. These forces are among the barriers threatening to bring another famous law to a halt. Moore’s Law holds that number of transistors you can fit on a chip doubles about every 18 months.
Computer chips are made of millions of transistors, tiny semiconductor switches that control the flow of electricity. Groups of transistors are combined to make logic gates, which are the building blocks of all digital devices, and connecting transistors requires wires — very tiny wires.
Previous research showed that resistance in wires narrower than 10 nanometers on silicon chips increases exponentially, but the Australian researchers were undeterred. They built electrical wires that are four atoms wide and one atom tall, and these are as conductive as the copper wiring in your house. One implication is that Moore’s Law will last a few generations longer than expected — at least as far as interconnect wiring is concerned.
“We can make interconnects in silicon all the way to the level of atoms,” says Michelle Simmons, a physics professor at the University of New South Wales.
The researchers made the wires by depositing phosphorus atoms on silicon. By placing the atoms less than a nanometer apart, they overlapped the atoms’ wavefunctions — the quantum fuzziness that governs where and how electrons move around the atoms.
A critical step is encasing the phosphorus atoms in more silicon. Otherwise, electrons moving along the phosphorus atoms would become stuck at the exposed surfaces. “By encapsulating the wires in silicon and having such a high density of phosphorus atoms, we can protect the central conducting core of the wire,” says Simmons.
Of course, the researchers built their wires using a scanning probe microscope, a laboratory tool useful for building one-offs but wholly inadequate to the task of mass-producing computer chips. “To date this technology is not industry compatible,” says Simmons. “That said, there are companies working toward ‘atomically precise manufacturing,’ such as Zyvex Labs.”
Innovations are continuously being developed in the lab, but only a small percentage actually find their way into the outside world. “The technology must allow for volume manufacturing at high yields and at a reasonable cost before it will ever be implemented,” says Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist for market research firm In-Stat.
There are three pillars to chipmaking innovation: lithography, materials, and transistor design. The Australian advance is in the area of materials. “Right now, lithography appears to be the biggest challenge,” says McGregor.
The industry is looking to packaging technology as the next major advancement. It can change the dynamics of Moore’s Law by stacking layers — going tall as well as small. This should allow for at least a few more generations of innovation, acccording to McGregor.
Even if the phosphorus atom wires never see the inside of a commercial chipmaking plant, they’re a big step forward for quantum computer chips. Simmons and her colleagues built the wires as part of a more-than-a-decade-long project aimed at building chip-based quantum computers. Simmons directs the Australian Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology.
The team has built quantum bits, or qubits, from individual phosphorus atoms embedded in silicon. Atoms spin, not unlike a child’s spinning top. By subtly controlling this spin, researchers have been able to perform quantum logic. Quantum computers — still largely confined to be laboratory after several decades of research — promise to be faster than any ordinary computer ever could be at solving certain problems, including cracking secret codes.
“We realized fairly early on that to control these single-atom spins we would need interconnects at the same scale as the atoms themselves,” says Simmons.
Thus were born the atomic-scale conducting wires. Within the world of quantum computing, this is a fairly big deal. Most prototype quantum computers are made of bulky laboratory equipment like ion traps. To be practical, quantum computers will need to be made from chips, just like ordinary computers. And for this to happen, qubits, like ordinary transistors, will need to be connected by very tiny wires.
So while Intel probably views this research as one of thousands of advances to take note of and file away, somewhere, some nascent quantum computer startup is probably very excited.
Jan. 9, 1643: Astronomer Sees Ashen Light of Venus (Wired)
1643: Italian astronomer Giovanni Riccioli discovers a faint glow on the night side of the planet Venus. Other astronomers over the ensuing centuries will also observe the Ashen Light, but one of the longest-running mysteries of astronomy still defies conclusive explanations.
Riccioli was an astronomer of some repute. Working in the first generation after Galileo, he discovered that Mizar (the middle star in the handle of the Big Dipper) is actually a double star — the first one known. He also discovered satellite shadows on Jupiter and published a map of our moon’s surface. The names he assigned (e.g., Sea of Tranquility, Sea of Storms) are still used today.
The faint luminescence Riccioli saw 366 years ago has been seen many times since, by professionals and amateurs alike. It’s also not been seen by many who were looking for it. Its apparent intermittence and the lack of a satisfactory explanation has led some to chalk it up to observer error, distortion caused by Earth’s atmosphere and/or artifacts induced by telescope optics.
But, still: 366 years of similar observations? Those who’ve seen the Ashen Light of Venus report it looks a lot like the reflected “Earthshine” that sometimes casts a dull glow on the moon, but not even that bright. It’s most easily sighted when the dusk edge of the sunlight on Venus faces Earth.
The U.S. Pioneer mission and the Soviet Venera 11 and 12 landers looked for it without any luck. The Keck I telescope in Hawaii did spot a faint, green glow consistent with the 558-nanometer emission of oxygen atoms. It seemed possible that UV sunlight breaks abundant carbon dioxide molecules into carbon monoxide molecules and oxygen, with the single oxygen atoms emitting green light when they recombine into two-atom oxygen molecules. However, that emission would be too weak for all the amateur telescopes to have detected over the years.
Another possibility is multiple lightning flashes. During Venus flybys in 1998 and 1999, the Cassini spacecraft failed to detect the high-frequency radio noise that lightning would be expected to generate — like AM radio static during terrestrial thunderstorms. On the other hand, “observations of Venus’ ionosphere … reveal strong, circularly polarized, electromagnetic waves with frequencies near 100 Hz [that] have the expected properties of whistler-mode signals generated by lightning discharges in Venus’ clouds.”
It’s also possible the Ashen Light of Venus is caused by solar particles energizing the atmosphere like the terrestrial Aurorae Borealis and Australis — hence its evanescence.
Or it’s some previously unknown combination of things we understand.
Or something we don’t understand at all.
Alt Text: Fun Facts From the Future (Wired)
Excerpted from The Huge Book of Fun Facts About Neat Stuff, 2050 Edition:
Solitaire was originally played using small pieces of paper called “cards.” Sometimes laying out a new game took more than three minutes.
bug_altextThe first cars were driven by human beings rather than computers. There were many crashes, but no packs of feral Mini Coopers running down and devouring hitchhikers.
The national anthem of the United States is “The Star Spangled Banner,” the national bird is the bald eagle, the national sport is baseball, and the national flavor is cool ranch.
Baseball used to be played by human beings instead of historical re-enactment bots.
The United States’ first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, was elected in 1961. Its first African-American president, Barack Obama, was elected in 2008. Its first female president, as well as its first lesbian president, Candace Gingrich-Jones, was elected in 2020. The first atheist president is projected to be born in 2083.
The last dodo died in 1693, the last passenger pigeon in 1910, the last kakapo in 2029, the last California condor in 2035 and the last Angry Bird in 2041.
Parents used to worry that chewing gum, rock music, comic books, rap music, heavy metal, videogames, texting, immersive death-simulation chambers, spermcore music, hateplay and recordings of terrified 911 callers set to ominous military drumming were bad for kids. Now we recognize that the main threat to children is, and always has been, freeze tag.
At the turn of the millennium, common symbols of winter were snowmen, mittens and ice skates, rather than rockmen, tank tops and water-reclamation pumps.
“Dave” used to be a very common name for boys, until it became a term for an unspeakable sex act involving live eels.
Scientists in a state-of-the-art laboratory are even now attempting, using genetic material extracted from deep within an ice floe in the northernmost reaches of Canada, to re-create the right to privacy.
High-fructose corn syrup used to be legal for people, even kids, to eat and drink. Now its use is confined to industrial delubrication, biogenic warfare and inmate control in governmental free-speech camps.
The first bonobo, Bubblecups, was “uplifted” to human intelligence and consciousness in 2042. The first human was “downlifted” to a happy, naked, pansexual, semisapient ape in 2046. As of this writing, five more bonobos have been uplifted and 3 million people have chosen to become “humapes.”
Milk used to come from cows.
Money used to take the form of pieces of paper and chunks of metal. After that, it came in the form of plastic cards. After that, it came in the form of subdermal radio-frequency tabs, then iridian badges, then aumnID aura profiles, then He-Man action figures for some reason, then plastic cards again, and then in 2038, Amazon PreCog just started delivering goods to people before they even wanted them and, in payment, psychically extracted the buyers’ life-force.
New Ways to Measure Science (Wired)
Leo Szilard, a physicist involved in the Manhattan Project, was known for his generosity of ideas and helpfulness toward his colleagues. This generosity was extremely useful, leading to such inventions as the electron microscope and the nuclear reactor, despite having only published fewer than 30 scientific papers over his lifetime. However, Szilard, despite his importance, is little known today, in comparison to physicists such as Einstein and Oppenheimer, and was not generally given his due even in his own time.
For too long, the measurement of scientific contribution has centered on the publication. Whether through the number of articles, the citations those articles have by other articles, or even other far more complicated metrics, most scientists are still measured by a derivative of the research article, the basic technology of scientific publishing that is well over 300 years old.
But science is much more than that. It’s ultimately about being involved in making discoveries and creating new knowledge. It’s creating data, helping others, commenting on previous work, and even using Twitter and blogging. If you help someone out or mentor a student, isn’t that worthwhile as well? How can we begin to measure a person such as Szilard?
Let’s take the example of being helpful. Alexander Oettl of Georgia Tech has studied the importance of this trait, despite its lack of appreciation. He combed through acknowledgments within the immunology literature, in order to find the most helpful scientists — those who read article drafts, provide helpful research advice, or even just act as sounding boards for ideas. And then he looked at what happened when these extremely helpful people died.
Oettl found that even if these people had only been moderately productive when it came to actually authoring papers, the productivity of their collaborators dropped by over 10 percent when these cooperative scientists died. Unfortunately, while simply being helpful is an important contribution to science, it often gets overlooked in academia.
Luckily, there is a growing movement within the scientific establishment to better measure and reward all the different ways that people contribute to the messy and complex process of scientific progress. This movement has begun to gather loosely around the banner of “altmetrics,” which was born out of a simple recognition: Many of the traditional measurements are too slow or simplistic to keep pace with today’s internet-age science.
Altmetrics are being explored in a whole host of areas not served by the traditional article. The simplest example is data. The lifeblood of quantitative research is the availability of datasets that can be used to test hypotheses and reach novel conclusions. But the accumulation of data, even if it doesn’t result in a publication, is an important contribution to the scientific endeavour. There are now projects, such as DataCite, working to create a framework and culture where it is both acceptable and relatively straightforward to cite data sources from other people.
Unpublished work can now be part of the scientific conversation, whether measured in the form of working papers or even how a scientist shares the slides of a presentation at a conference. There are even ways to publish experimental procedures in a peer-reviewed format. Jason Priem, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, who is helping to spearhead this movement toward altmetrics, is even exploring the idea of how to give the scientific seal of approval of peer review to such non-traditional forms as blog posts. If Priem’s idea of creating the availability of peer review for non-traditional forms of contribution can work, this would open whole new areas for acceptable scientific contribution. As Priem argues, the “identification of good science need not be limited by venue.”
Even more informal contributions to science such as mentorship have potential for quantification. There are proposals and initial implementations for metrics that calculate how many students a scientist has advised or served on doctoral committees, and metrics that allow the citational success of one’s students to redound to oneself.
Of course, there are some shortcomings. Many of these metrics are not yet accepted. And even fairly well-established measurements, like number of patents, are only now becoming acceptable for some scientists’ tenure packages. For example, Texas A&M has only included patents in the tenure process since 2006. These changes will take time, led by the early adopters, who pull the rest along.
Ultimately, properly measuring the multifaceted contributions to science, and rewarding them accordingly, opens a whole host of possibilities. While there is always the concern that tenure committees might reduce this all to a single number, the profusion of metrics now gives universities more nuanced options. As Priem noted to me, if a university only cares about citations, or even grant money, they can measure that. But if a university values blogging, online conversations, or the kind of informal helpfulness that only gets mentioned as acknowledgments, they now have the tools to make that possible.
The world of altmetrics allows us to move from rewarding what we can easily see to finally having a discussion about what truly furthers science, and what we ultimately value when it comes to the scientific endeavor.
Guest Post: Shame on Shaun Rein by C. Custer
The following is a guest post by Tom of Seeing Red in China. Of note also is a similar piece on The Peking Duck.
Yesterday Shaun Rein published a piece in Forbes bashing CNN’s lack of journalistic integrity when it helped Christian Bale organize a trip to Linyi. The main point of his article is sound, CNN did clearly cross a line from reporting news to creating news, but in Shaun’s efforts to hawk his new book and attack CNN, he grossly misrepresents what is going on in Linyi, exposing his own shameful lack of journalistic integrity.
Please bear with me as I pick apart the worst paragraphs of the piece:
“My issue here is not with Bale. In general, I believe one should follow the laws of nations that one visits, and that Bale should do so, but I also generally believe in free speech, no matter how misguided.”
It should be noted that it is not against the law to visit the city of Linyi. At no point did uniformed police officers or even the thugs that chased him away claim that what he was doing was against the law. Rein’s implication that it was in someway illegal serves only to obscure the issue.
One of the reasons I wrote my upcoming book, The End of Cheap China, was to dispel myths and distortions in the Western world about China, by covering both the good and bad of its evolution and trying to bring nuance where organizations like CNN bring activism. Far too many news organizations in the West perpetuate outdated or simply wrong views of the Chinese government and its people for the sake of getting eyeballs or, perhaps, to try to help contain the country. It is sad when CNN’s coverage of China becomes more like tabloid fodder than the gold standard it once was.
Here Shaun speculates that CNN might actually be trying to contain China, when it was covering what actually happened when Christian Bale tried to enter the village. Yes, it was 100% wrong for CNN to hire the van at Bale’s request, but CNN didn’t hire the thugs that kept Bale from visiting Chen Guangcheng. Pretending that human rights abuses don’t happen in China is hardly what I would call “nuanced” or balanced. It’s on par with Global Times pretending that the pollution in Beijing is harmless fog, hardly something worthy of Forbes.
I have a chapter in The End of Cheap China on the lessons I’ve learned from China’s sex industry and how it seems contradictory at first glance that brothels exist in the open everywhere, without local police molestation, while the central government cracks down on Internet porn. A closer look shows that China’s sex industry actually is a friction point between the central and local governments, a juncture where interests often diverge.
The central government might try to shut brothels but is stopped by corrupt local officials. President Hu has called local corruption a serious problem and has made rooting it out a major goal of his administration. My book tries to shed light on the interplay and often diverging interests between local and central government officials and why improvements are sometimes much slower than the central government wants.
Through censoring web searches for information on Chen Guangcheng and Linyi, the Central gov’t has clearly displayed that it actually has a similar interest in keeping Chen’s illegal detention a secret within China. While Shaun’s point about the difficulty of controlling prostitution might be true, Chen’s initial detention was the result of him opposing local implementation of a national policy. In this case the central gov’t’s interest in keeping Chen silenced does align with the local gov’t’s interest in saving face.
As a Chinese co-worker told me the other day, when there is one corrupt official, it’s a problem with that official, when there are hundreds of corrupt officials, it’s a problem with the system.
Bale and CNN’s publicity stunt indicts an entire political system without delving deeper into the reality of Chen’s detention and the interplay between the central and local governments. I have no idea about Chen’s detention, and if he is being wronged or not, but if there are issues with his case, I am not convinced that calling the entire political class “disgusting,” as Bale does, can help.
When I pressed Shaun on his ignorance pertaining to Chen’s detention, he said again that he would not comment on something he had no knowledge of. The documentation of Chen’s abuse has been widely reported for nearly three months. To have “no idea” about it seems like he is feigning ignorance, otherwise he must have only been reading People’s Daily (even Global Times reported on Chen). It’s fine that he isn’t convinced that Bale calling the system disgusting is helpful, but how can he complain that CNN didn’t delve deeper into the reality when he himself has no idea about it?
Far too many in the West indict China’s whole governing class and system when a single local official does something stupid or brutish. Yet they criticized only a lone thuggish police officer in New York for pepper-spraying Occupy Wall Street protesters. They didn’t called [sic] President Obama evil for what that one officer did, or call for an overthrow of all of America. Yet Bale did that in China’s case, and, worse, CNN helped him.
So much is wrong with this paragraph that it hurts. Firstly, what is happening in Linyi absolutely involves the entire political system. Local officials who were initially involved in Chen’s case have been promoted to provincial level offices, and the brief mention in Global Times indicates that the central gov’t is aware of this illegal detention. Yet, the central gov’t has yet to take any action to help Chen.
The imprisonment of Chen does not rely on a “single local official” but involves village leaders, city level leaders, and provincial level leaders along with a squad of hired thugs.
Shaun pretends that this is in some way comparable to thuggish cops pepper spraying protesters. This would be similar if 1) the police in the pepper spray incident involved faced no punishment, ever 2) similar events happened throughout the US several times each day and 3) domestic newspapers were not allowed to report on the incident and information related to it was scrubbed from the internet. However, Shaun did say that he had “no idea about Chen’s detention”, so I guess it isn’t too surprising how wildly inaccurate his comparison is.
The last thing the world needs is increased tension between the world’s two superpowers. CNN should be ashamed for becoming more like a tabloid and inserting itself into the story rather than maintaining journalistic integrity and providing an objective view of its subjects.
I would argue that it is actually not a journalist’s job to be concerned about whether or not the story they are publishing creates tension between China and the US. The role of the journalist however almost certainly demands checking the facts and reporting the whole story when it does appear.
Shaun argued more eloquently at the beginning of the piece, CNN should not have involved itself so closely in the creation of this story, but it would have been a much stronger piece if he had demonstrated any of the integrity he expects from CNN.
Han Han and the “Suzhi” Argument by C. Custer
You may have missed it with the holidays, but Han Han celebrated with a trio of essays (“On Revolution”, “On Democracy”, and “On Freedom”) that got lots of people talking. Certainly, you should check out ESWN’s translations of all three essays; John Kennedy’s translations of various comments from Chinese thought leaders for Global Voices is also very worth a read. Finally, if you’re the podcast-listening sort, you can listen to me discussing these essays with Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn, Gady Epstein, and Edward Wong in the latest episode of the Sinica podcast.
Here, I want to ignore most of Han Han’s essay and focus on the germ of one particular argument that he uses which I find to be particularly unconvincing. But first, the obligatory disclaimers: I agree with Han Han in his general assertion that a violent revolution tomorrow would be a disaster for China. His arguments beyond that are harder for me to get on board with, but I want to discuss only one here and now, the suzhi [素质] argument.
Suzhi is a Chinese term that means roughly “quality” or “character” and often refers to people in specific or the characteristics of a type of person in general. In the context of discussions of democracy in China, the “suzhi argument” is essentially this: the Chinese people as a whole are not qualified for democracy; their suzhi level is not high enough, and thus any attempts at democracy would be unsuccessful.
All kinds of evidence has been trotted out in favor of this argument, which is espoused primarily by Chinese pro-government commentators. Most foreigners, even those who agree with the general sentiment about democracy in China, wouldn’t dream of advancing this argument for fear of being labeled racist. Such labels would not be entirely unfair, and in fact, even Chinese purveyors of this viewpoint have often met with a harsh blowback of angry public opinion. Jackie Chan learned this the hard way.
In any event, rather than talking about it in the abstract, let’s look at Han Han’s arguments about suzhi in particular. At the end of his first piece, “On Revolution”, Han Han writes:
Revolution and democracy are two terms. These two terms are completely different. A revolution gives no guarantee for democracy. We proved this already. History gave China an opportunity, and our current situation is the result of the choice of our forebears. Today, China is the least likely nation in the world to have a revolution. At the same time, China is the nation which needs reform the most in the world. If you insist on asking me about the best timing for revolution in China, I can only say that when Chinese car drivers know to turn off their high beam lights when they pass each other, we can safely proceed with the revolution.
Such a country does not need any revolution. When the civic quality [suzhi] and educational level of the citizens reach a certain standard, everything will happen naturally.
Later, in “On Democracy”, he writes:
The poorer the quality [suzhi] of the citizens, the lesser the importance of the intellectuals [...] The quality [suzhi] of the citizens will not prevent democracy from arriving, but it can determine its [democracy's] quality.
In “On Freedom”, the term suzhi does not appear at all.
It’s interesting that in his original essays, Han treats the “poor quality” of Chinese citizens as essentially a given, without offering a whole lot of evidence to back up that claim. Nor does he really support the assertion that a “poor quality” people make for a poor quality democracy.
Perhaps in response to challenges on this issue, after posting it, Han Han actually expanded on his second essay (“On Democracy”) in a paragraph that Soong didn’t translate, presumably because Han Han added it after Soong had already completed his translation and moved on1. We can’t very well proceed without a translation of that section, though, so here you go:
Adding on an additional question, with regards to suzhi and democracy, people say to me: I’ve been to developed countries and beyond the appearance of suzhi on the surface, people’s natures are the same [as Chinese people's], so only a good system can guarantee a high level of suzhi [for a country's people].
I answer: I completely agree. But we’re talking about superficial suzhi. Don’t underestimate the importance of superficial suzhi just because the underlying nature of people is whatever it is. The quality of a democracy is determined by the superficial suzhi of its people. When someone turns off their high beams, it may appear that they’re courteous and respect social mores, but then in discussion with them [you may discover] they are weak, greedy, selfish, narrow-minded…so what about that? There’s no meaning in discussing suzhi and human nature together. Of course American and Chinese people have more or less the same essential natures, human nature is more or less the same the world over. So what we have here is a chicken-and-egg question: is it that first a nation’s people have a good suzhi and then comes the good system [of government], or does the system come first? There’s actually no doubt, at times when a good system can be made, it should be guaranteed to be made regardless of [the people's] suzhi because a good [political] system is long-lasting, wide-spreading, and real, whereas suzhi is empty.
The problem is that during times when a good system can’t be created for whatever reasons, we can’t be waiting around for one to drop from the sky before we start working on anything else, otherwise even a good suzhi isn’t necessary [for democracy], it’s slow-moving and not necessarily effective. There are two ways that good systems and good democracy arise; one is where there is a day of commemoration2 and the other is where there’s no specific day but it comes from the hard work of generations. I think we need to be a bit realistic, the reason the US Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Amendments are as good as they are is that their political parties and people implemented them. Our [Chinese] Constitution is also good, and our ruling Party has declared some things that were as good as the Declaration of Independence, but most of them weren’t implemented. They [Chinese leaders] won’t look at these declarations and reflect on their shortcomings, the cost of revolution is too high and it’s too uncontrollable, reform is slow and [easy to] delay, it really seems like [we're in] a tight knot. But I still choose to believe in reform. Violent or nonviolent revolution [as ideas] can only serve as a bargaining chip in supervising reform, it can’t actually be put into practice.
I think Han Han is right in distinguishing suzhi here from human nature because what we’re really talking about is civic/social consciousness and education. That said, I think Han Han — and other less eloquent purveyors of the suzhi argument — are completely wrong.
Since Han Han made the comparison with America’s democracy, and since I’m at least somewhat familiar with American history, let’s take a moment to do something I often try to avoid on this site: compare the US and China. Since we’re talking about the emergence of an operational democratic system, though, we’ll have to compare the China of today with the US of the 1700s.
Immediately, this raises a number of issues, and many of you are no doubt thinking of things like the three-fifths compromise and wondering why China would want that sort of democracy. It’s a fair point, but I’ll argue that slavery is actually an example of how low suzhi doesn’t prevent a real democracy from being implemented. And while admittedly that led to horrible abuses and finally a catastrophic civil war, the fact that the American system of government has lasted and remained firmly grounded3 by the principles laid out in its founding documents is, I think, evidence that a people’s low level of suzhi is not a disqualifier for a democracy, nor is it a particularly accurate indicator of how that democracy will turn out in the long run.
And it must be said that by nearly every measurable metric I can think of, Chinese people are light-years ahead of eighteenth-century Americans. For example:
Education: It’s difficult to find reliable national statistics for the 1700s, but by all accounts, most Americans at that time weren’t attending much school. A 1773 survey of German immigrants to Pennsylvania, for example, found that only 33% of their children received any education in the two years prior. Education in New England was more widespread, but nowhere near current levels in terms of either implementation or quality. In contrast, according to China’s Ministry of Education, 99% of Chinese children attend primary school and 80% attend both primary and secondary school. Of course, there are significant concerns about the quality of that education, but I think very few people would choose an 18th century American education over a modern Chinese one, especially given that a large part (in many cases, all) of 18th century education in the US was religious education. Literacy: Literacy rates in colonial America were surprisingly high, apparently: between 70% and 100%, although those numbers come just from New England and the overall number would almost certainly be lower. China’s current literacy rate is about 92%, which, although not comparable to the 21st century US, certainly compares equally or even favorably with literacy rates in colonial and early independent America. Again, it’s also worth mentioning that most American education at the time was religious; people learned to read so that they could read the Bible, not to stay informed on current events. Social Conscience: This is admittedly an extremely subjective thing to try to assess, but it’s difficult for me to believe that any people could rate below colonial Americans, who by and large believed it was okay to enslave other people, even after it became clear that moral concerns aside, this issue was causing a tremendous rift that threatened to (and nearly did) completely destroy American society. Chinese drivers may leave their high beams on at night — though the fact that Han Han is so convinced this is a Chinese characteristic is only proof he hasn’t spent much time driving at night in America — but it’s hard to believe that betrays a level of social conscience lower than that of Americans who were, at the moment their democracy emerged, engaged in enslaving a race of people (not to mention stealing from and massacring another race of people).
Hindsight, of course, is 20-20, but I don’t think that many people in the 1700s would have been particularly optimistic about the nascent American democracy if they shared Han Han’s belief that its quality would be impacted by the suzhi of its people — a people that were by and large literate but poorly educated, preposterously religious, and dedicated to the belief that owning slaves was totally cool. Certainly, this picture of Americans at the turn of the 19th century makes the complaints most often levied against Chinese people’s suzhi — they spit in public, they can’t queue properly, they only care about watching TV — seem benign in comparison.
The history of other countries could likely provide counter-examples, but that’s not the point. I am not arguing that China could easily implement a democracy; rather, my point is just that the argument that China couldn’t implement democracy because its people still spit on the sidewalk or leave their high beams on at night is total horseshit.
That said, by way of epilogue, I’ll offer a few brief words on Han Han’s implication in his add-on paragraph that China is currently in a period when it’s not possible to implement democracy. He doesn’t really explain specifically why he believes that’s the case, but looking at American history again, there certainly would have been reasons to suggest the same thing about an independent America in the 1700s. The colonists, after all, wanted to challenge the most powerful military and economic power on earth. They ended up succeeding for reasons that might seem obvious in retrospect, but my guess is that many outside observers before the revolution began might have suggested that democracy was “impossible” for America at a time when England was so powerful militarily, especially since the economic losses they stood to suffer if they lost the colonies made it more or less a given that they would resist any efforts at independence quite…robustly.
I’m well aware that there are plenty of issues with any analogy involving the 18th century US and modern China. My point is simply that Han Han’s offhanded dismissal of the possibility of democracy in China perhaps deserves a bit more questioning than it has gotten.
Moreover, I hope we can all agree once and for all that the suzhi argument is a load of crap. If a bunch of uneducated slave-owning religious fundamentalists could take on the world’s greatest power and establish one of its longest-lasting (representative) democratic states, why is it so impossible that Chinese people could do the same thing?
(Whether or not they would is another question, perhaps for a future post. This one is already way, way too long.)
that’s just a guess i.e., democracy arrived swiftly and suddenly, likely after the overthrow of the previous system Though less so in recent years
Sunzi and Soft Power by Sam Crane
I guess when you get quoted in The Economist you should post a link to the story. And so, here it is: Sun Tzu and the art of soft power. (I don't appear until about 2/3 of the way down).
The gist of the piece is that China has been barking up the wrong soft power tree (so to speak) in its attempts to develop Confucianism into a soft power resource:
But Confucius is problematic. Mao and his colleagues regarded Confucius’s philosophy as the ideological glue of the feudal system they destroyed; and so attempts to promote him are vulnerable to the growing split in the Communist Party. In January, with great fanfare, the National History Museum unveiled a bronze statue of him standing 9.5 metres (31 feet) high in front of its entrance by Tiananmen Square. Three months later the statue was quietly removed. The sage’s appearance so close to the most hallowed ground of Chinese communism had outraged hardliners. They saw it as an affront to Mao, whose giant portrait hung diagonally opposite.
As regular readers of The Useless Tree (both of you) know, I have pressed this argument further, and anyone interested in just how far I press it can look at this post on "Why Confucianism will not provide 'soft power' to the PRC"
I also think The Economist piece gets it right on Sunzi. Generally, Sunzi is easier to integrate into contemporary modernist and post-modernist political and social practices. Indeed, it has already been so integrated, as evidenced by its invocation in business and military and political and, even, dating books (I haven't read it - obviously - but I'm sure Confucianism will not produce a title quite like this: The Art of War for Dating: Master Sun Tzu's Tactics To Win Over Women). This may seem frivolous but I think that "soft power" cultural resources have to be flexible and popular and fun to create the kind of "attractiveness" that the notion implies. And, long story short, that is a big part of the reason why Confucianism is just not working as a source of soft power: it is too serious and demanding.
But Sunzi, as the article suggests, poses a problem for the PRC's soft power strategy, because it does not project the image of China that Party propagantists want to project. Notice these line:
Sun Tzu may have written about stratagems for warfare, but Huimin’s [in Shandong province] assembled scholars prefer to tout him as a peacenik. Their evidence is one of the sage’s best-known insights: “The skilful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting.” What better proof, say his fans in China, that the country has always loved peace?
Of course Sunzi is not a "peacenik". He is a military strategist who believed that battles can be avoided if the protagonist has amassed such superior power and strategic positioning that the adversary simply recognizes the futility of a fight. It is a very "hard power" calculation. But the idea that China has "always loved peace" is a political and historical fiction inscribed into contemporary Chinese national identity, and it is a theme that Party and military powerholders find useful in propagating, especially to other regional states, like Vietnam and Japan, that are concerned with the growth of PRC military capabilities.
Thus the paradox of Sunzi's "soft power:" the strategic vision of Sunzi is widely known and studied and respected, but it creates an image of China as a potentially devious, deceptive (remember, for Sunzi, war, and by Clausewitzian extension, politics, is all about deception) and self-interested power, not quite the picture Beijing wants to paint. Better to have the avuncular smile of Confucius than the calculating glare of Sunzi...
And here, for posterity, is the textual equivalent of fifteen minutes of Economist fame:
Yet a closer look reveals Sun Tzu’s flaws as a tool of soft power. Chinese attempts to remould him as a man of peace stumble over the fact that his book is a guide to winning wars, avidly studied by America’s armed forces as it was by Mao. Sam Crane of Williams College in Massachusetts says that during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq he delighted in telling students attending his Sun Tzu classes (some of whom were preparing to join the army) that the “Art of War” advised that prisoners be treated kindly. But, he says, “I think the thing that makes [the book] universal in a grim way is war and competition. War is not a Western construct: the Chinese have been really good at war for a long time.”
Kim Jong-il was not Confucian, Kim Jong-un is not Confucian by Sam Crane
Heard the news today (oh boy...): The Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, is dead. Not much of a surprise really. He had been seriously ill for a long time and had already set up his son, Kim Jong-un as a successor. But such transitions are never wholly set in stone. Get ready for some North Korean politics in the coming months...
I have a particular interest here, however, one that I have expressed on various occasions. And that is: we should not look at North Korea as some sort of demonstration of political Confucianism. Or, to put it more bluntly: North Korea is not Confucian. I do this because, from time to time, we see in the press stories that construe hereditary succession of tyrants as some sort of illustration of political Confucianism. This is wrong on several fronts.
First, we cannot assume a simple historical continuity in North Korea running from the Confucian past to the Stalinist present (if I were to pick a single political term to summarize the NK regime, "Stalinism" would come the closest...thought Stalin had a bit of a problem with succession also...). Korean culture now, especially North Korean culture, should not be assumed to be a revised expression of what came before. The twentieth century, with Japanese colonization and horrible war and national division and modernization, is just too much of a disjunction. There may be certain historical continuities but they would appear to pale in comparison to the events and institutions created in the past one hundred years. Thus, contemporary North Korea political culture owes more to the dictates of the modern Stalinist state than it does to the values and principles of The Analects and Mencius.
Second, "Confucianism" when it is invoked in relation to North Korea, is often simply reduced to obedience to authority and respect of elders, especially older political leaders. This is, of course, not what Confucianism is all about. For a country to more accurately be labeled "Confucian," there would have to be an extensive and voluntary public enactment of Duty, as flexibly defined to suit particular social and familial situations, according to Ritual (the conscientious and constant attention to right action) to move toward Humanity (ren - 仁 ). I don't see anything like that in NK, dominated as it is by the authoritarian, or even totalitarian, regime.
Third, on the particular matter of hereditary succession, there is nothing particularly Confucian about this. It is to be found in virtually every part of the globe at various historical times. It is not the ideal form of political succession for Confucianism, which would champion something closer to a meritocracy based on virtue, as expressed in the story of Shun. It is true that Mencius certainly accommodated his political thinking to the aristocratic society that surrounded him. He warned us "...don't offend the great families" (126) and gave only royal ministers the duty of overthrowing a tyrant. But these were compromises to the political realities of his day. In the best of all Confucian worlds, hereditary succession would not be the primary mechanism for regime reproduction.
So, please, don't say North Korea is Confucian, or that the succession from one Kim to another is somehow consistent with Confucianism.
I have been looking at the press thus far this morning and I can report: so far, so good. I have only found a couple of invocations of Confucianism, and they have been conditioned and qualified. Take this, for example, from The Guardian:
In a country that, despite its communist doctrine, retains a Confucian respect for seniority, Kim Jong-un could have expected to give way to his older siblings, but reportedly emerged as his father's favourite after impressing him with his single-mindedness and leadership qualities.
This is a stretch: if the supposed "Confucian" expectation (choose older siblings) doesn't appear relevant under the circumstances, and in the context of "communist doctrine," why even invoke it?
Or this from the National Journal:
There is a reason why the regime of the Kims survives while, all around it, the Soviet bloc disintegrated and the Chinese opened up and reformed. The North Korean regime's ideology, called juche, is often simplistically defined as Korean self-reliance and ridiculed in the West. But to the North Korean elites, juche is still a powerfully intoxicating brew of traditional Korean xenophobia and nationalism, Confucian respect for authority and utopian Marxism-Leninism. The party embodies all of these ideals--nationalism, filial respect, utopia. Exploiting this confluence of philosophies and experiences, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il created "an impermeable and absolutist state that many have compared to a religious cult," wrote longtime Korea observer, Don Oberdorfer in his 1997 book, "The Two Koreas."
Here's a question: why do people in NK "respect authority"? Is it because they have some deep-seated traditional understanding of Confucianism? Or is it because they have learned that if they challenge authority they are as good as dead? I don't think you can simply assume the former when the latter is such a strong possibility. So let's just avoid the facile invocations of "Confucian respet for authority."
To all my journalist friends out there: don't do it. Don't make the lazy move to describe NK as "Confucian." I'm watching, and I will call you on it. Of course, if you want to dig a bit deeper and sort throught the historical disjunctions and show how something like "Confucianism" (which would have to be defined clearly as something more than simply respsect for authority or hereditary succession) may tell us something about contemporary NK, by all means do it. But be ready for a critique...
Because saying NK is Confucian is pretty much like saying DR Congo is democratic...
UPDATE: This NYT piece gets it about right:
The only precedent is the last transition in the current ruling dynasty, when Kim Jong-il took over after the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il-sung. In that case, the son observed a three-year period of traditional mourning before formally taking over control of the nation, a move that reflects the regime’s odd mixing of the trappings of ancient Confucian monarchy with a 20th-century Stalinist cult of personality.
"Trappings" is about as Confucian as it gets...
Discussion Section: Cultural Warfare, Cultural Weapons by C. Custer
You may have seen in the news recently reflections on Hu Jintao’s essay in official Party gibberish1 theory magazine Qiushi. Here’s a good piece on it, but if you’re too lazy to click, the general gist is this: the West2 is waging cultural warfare against China to Westernize and divide it.
I don’t have much interest in discussing that argument, but rather, let’s talk about how — or with what — China might respond in a cultural war. I must admit here that some of my thoughts here are essentially stolen from the folks I did the Sinica podcast with last week, as this is something we discussed over dinner after recording the show. I don’t recall exactly who said what, but to be safe, just assume anything smart I say came from one or all of them, and anything dumb I say is something I came up with myself3.
So, what would China bring to a theoretical cultural war? It strikes me that especially if you interpret China as the mainland, it has very little to offer. (Of course, Chinese people tend to consider anything remotely connected to someone of Chinese descent to be “Chinese” — including but not limited to the current American ambassador — but for our purposes here, let’s assume by China I mean the PRC and by Chinese culture I mean mainland culture, i.e., the culture that exists under the laws and regulations of the CCP.)
Take, for example, literature. Can you think of any really great Chinese literature from the past five years? I can think of a couple books by mainland authors, but one of them was only published outside of the mainland, and the other was published domestically but in an inferior (read: censored) form.
Admittedly though, literature is an unfair category for expats and non-native speakers, since people tend to read books in their native languages and aren’t necessarily going to be aware of what’s great in Chinese even if they read Chinese.
So fine, let’s move on to films. Can you think of any really great films China has produced in the past five years? Note that by great, I don’t just mean cool martial arts flicks, but a film that has some sort of lasting artistic value. Again, I can think of a couple that sort of fit the bill, but it’s an awfully short list unless you count independent productions which aren’t allowed to be screened in theaters in China.
TV is even more of a disaster. Chinese TV is bad and, by and large, getting worse. The only real exceptions to this that I’m aware of are some of the online TV shows that exist outside the regular system (like the wonderful and occasionally crazy Kuang Kuang animated series).
This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with Chinese culture from the perspective of the producers of culture. In contrast, the work of authors outside (or published outside) of China can be incredible, and Chinese indie film directors in both narrative and documentary fields have made some films that are goddamn amazing. In TV, there’s shows like Kuang Kuang.
It’s not always about politics, either. Plenty of indie Chinese films have little to do with politics except that the filmmakers’ creativity has essentially forced them to become outsiders because SARFT doesn’t want to take any risks when it comes to cultural output. There’s nothing “political” about time-travel TV shows (which SARFT banned last year). It’s just about control. The CCP clearly feels that a lack of control will inevitably lead to political and social problems, so they grasp the reins as tightly as they can.
Unfortunately, that means that in any kind of cultural competition with the West, they’re going to be bringing a fist to a bazooka fight. And the worst thing is that it’s a fight China probably could compete in, to the benefit of everyone (the West could use some competition) if it wasn’t forcing all its best players to sit on the bench.
Honestly, this is more a dig at the intentionally vague and hard-to-understand writing style than it is the ideology, though I don’t agree with much of that either because that’s a real thing… almost certainly the truth
Another Daoist Christmas by Sam Crane
...And in honor of the day, here is my annual reflection:
I have blogged on a Taoist view, or my Taoist view, of Thanksgiving. But what about Christmas? What would a Taoist make of that?
First, and most obvious, a Taoist would stand apart from the central function of the holiday: celebrating the birth of the earth-bound expression of a singular, transcendent God. On both the question of birth and the question of God, a Taoist would have reservations.
Philosophic Taoism does not recognize a transcendent God in the manner of Christianity. God might be found in Taoism (i.e. we could read Him into Taoist texts), but God was not a part of the Taoist worldview in ancient times, and need not be a part of a modernized Taoism. As to birth, the Tao Te Ching tells us that Tao (Way) encompasses both being and non-being; so, the passage from pre-birth (whatever that might be) to birth, and from birth to death, are not all that important. We (or the stuff we are made of) are still part of Tao even as we make these transitions. That is why Chuang Tzu was able to get over the death of his wife fairly quickly: he realized that she had simply moved into another form along a ceaseless path of continual change. Birth, then, need not be celebrated, and God need not be celebrated. Not much room there for Christmas.
But there may be one element of the Christmas story that a Taoist could relate to: the child in the manger.
Taoism views the infant as closer to Tao than most adults. As we grow, we fill ourselves with all sorts of human learning, much of which takes us away from our natural selves and catches us up in shallow social conventions. The mind of an infant is empty, and it is precisely that sort of emptiness that Taoism strives for. Thus, in passage 55 of the Tao Te Ching, we read:
Embody Integrity's abundance and you're like a vibrant child
hornets and vipers can't bite, savage beasts can't maul and fierce birds can't claw,
bones supple and muscles tender, but still gripping firmly.
The child, in all of his innocence, cannot be harmed by human knowledge and practices, which are utterly alien to him. The child, then, is something to celebrate.
And the idea of a poor child, a child of meager means, born in a manger, resonates with the Taoist notion that the low will be high, the dark light, etc.. All the more reason to rejoice at the Christmas scene.
But the purpose of Taoist rejoicing (which, in any event, would be circumspect) would not rest on the promise of the ultimate transcendence of the Christ child. Rather, the child would be celebrated for his immanence; that is, in recognition that each thing holds within itself the fullest expression of itself and, under sufficient conditions of freedom, will grow into itself fully.
This may not be too far off the Christian message of the equality of all things before God, just without the God. Chuang Tzu tells us that in Way (Tao) everything "moves as one and the same." Each thing has its place in Tao, its Integrity, and Tao is the perfect summation of all things. Each thing thus deserves equal respect. Furthermore, we should strictly limit our actions, lest they interfere with the integrity of other things. The meaning and significance of each thing comes from within it. We cannot improve upon anything and we should nothing that might dominate or impose our expectations on it.
So, it would be in that spirit - a cautious, respectful, inward-looking spirit - that a Taoist would celebrate the integrity and beauty of the child in the manger.