How the U.S. Army taught its soldiers to tell Japanese and Chinese people apart
Have you ever wondered how to tell Japanese and Chinese people apart? The American army in Asia in World War Two sure did, since one was the enemy and the other was an ally. Since Asians are apparently so hard to tell apart, the army gave its soldiers a pocket guidebook containing a helpful comic, now reproduced online, called How to Spot a Jap. And by "helpful" I mean "appallingly racist".
It's interesting how they assigned all the more "othering" or inferior characteristics to the Japanese, while the Chinese get all the good, more humanizing or closer-to-white-people characteristics. E.g. Japanese are supposed to be shorter, hairier, have slantier eyes and buck teeth, shuffle when they walk, etc. I wonder: if history had been different and the Japanese were our allies and the Chinese our enemies, would this pamphlet have assigned all the same qualities in the opposite way?
It's weird that anybody ever thought you could tell people's nationality apart this way with any degree of accuracy, as if people were different species of birds or something. As if the normal huamn range of variation didn't exist in both populations. You would think that, being in a war and all, they would be very careful to teach people only the most accurate and reliable ways to identify the enemy, but apparently the need to dehumanize the enemy trumped any strategic concerns.
The only thing in the pamphlet that I've ever noticed to be remotely true in real life is the difference in accents (e.g. Chinese speakers have no trouble separating R and L sounds, Japanese speakers do.) Maybe the thing about the geta toes was true back then, I don't know.
Apparently the army realized it wasn't working, because they took the comic out of the second printing of the booklet, probably trying to forget it ever existed.
It's also interesting how they published this but they never published a guide to telling French and Germans apart, eh?
Chinese history for beginners
I decided that it's time to study Chinese history. Learn the order of the dynasties and all that good stuff. Luckily, I have the best possible teacher — Sushu, who is both Chinese, and a history teacher, and sometimes a Chinese history teacher.
The best part about Chinese history is that there's so much of it. The worst part about Chinese history is that there's so much of it.
I took a bunch of notes on what she was teaching me, and later I cleaned it up and turned it into this blog post, which is highly irreverent and probably inaccurate past the first order of approximation. I welcome corrections in the comments.
WARNING! CONTAINS SPOILERS! Of real events.
Background: The cradle of Chinese civilization was in the Yellow river valley, and later the more southern Yangtze river valley. These river valleys, along with the southeastern coastal bulge, are the richest agricultural areas with the best rice-growing climate and the greatest population. Think of this as the heartland. It is the home of China's majority ethnic group, the Han. To the northeast, north, northwest, and southwest are outlying lands peopled by different ethnic groups: the Manchus, the Mongols, the Uighurs, the Tibetans, etc. Chinese history is generally taught with the Han as protagonists, so just keep in mind the potential enthnocentric bias.
There are several cycles to watch for in Chinese history. One cycle is the cycle between rule by the Han and rule by "foreign barbarians" — although most of these foreign barbarians are people we now think of as Chinese in their own right. In fact, many of them invaded, set up empires, and then became civilized and started to think of themselves as Chinese.
Another is the cycle of expansion and contraction: at its greatest exent, a dynasty might rule all of Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjian, Tibet, etc; when it shrinks back down it rules only the Han heartland. Wikipedia has an awesome animated gif that shows this cycle in action.
The third cycle is the life cycle of a dynasty: An dynasty dies when it gets too soft, corrupt, and weak to defend itself from invaders/rebellion/natural disasters/etc. Then there is chaos and suffering. Then after the chaos a new dynasty arises from the rebellion or the invaders or whatever, and the new dynasty is usually good for a while until it too gets soft and corrupt.
With that in mind, here are the dynasties, with approximate dates and major events.
- The Mists of Prehistory: ? - 2000bc-ish
Great feats are attributed to legendary progenitors like the Yellow Emperor, Hwang Di, and his buddy the Flame Emperor, Yen Di. The Yellow Emperor is said to have four faces so he could look in all directions at once; the Flame Emperor is said to have invented everything from agriculture to medicine. These accounts may be, um, slightly exaggerated.
Think like King Arthur, or Romulus and Remus.
- The Xia Dynasty: about 2000 to 1500bc-ish
Nobody knows much about this dynasty for sure — even whether it really existed or not. But it is the same as Sushu's family name, which is pretty cool.
- The Shang Dynasty: 1500 - 1000bc-ish
Invented writing, so now we have some actual history to go on. They made crazy cool bronzework, carved primitive versions of chinese characters on tortoise shells, and worshipped their ancestors.
- The Zhou Dynasty: 1000bc - 221bc:
The longest dynasty, so we divide it into parts:
- Western Zhou: Life is pretty good. The capital is in the great western city of Chang-An (now Xi-An). But then, Western barbarians attack! They mess up the Zhou nation pretty bad, so it is forced to retreat to the east, leading to:
- Eastern Zhou: During which the old Zhou territory gradually broke up into warring states ruled by local warlords. (This will be a recurring theme.) Further divided into:
- Spring and Autumn period: Named after a famous history book, the Spring And Autumn Annals. As in all times of chaos, philosophers arise to seek answers to questions like: Why does life suck so bad? How could we make it suck less next time? The two big names are Lao Tzu, who writes the Dao De Jing and founds Daoism, and Kong Dzu, better known to you and me by his Latin name Confucius.
- Warring States period: Everybody fights everybody else until the Zhou "emperor" ruled nothing but the capital city, and the rest of the country was controlled by warlords. (Not unlike present day Afghanistan.)
- In 221 bc, an overachiever named Qin Shi Huang shows up, decides he's sick of warring states, and unifies China through combination of diplomacy, strategy, ass-kicking, and back-stabbing. Proclaims himself the first Emperor and begins the imperial era with the Qin Dynasty (pronounced "chin"): 221-202 bc. In just 19 years, besides unifying China, the Qin dynasty built the Great Wall and the famous terracotta soldiers; and standardized the writing system, weights and measures, and the widths of roads. They also burned confucian books and buried scholars alive. Dynasty lasts for only one more emperor before giving way to the
- Han Dynasty: 202bc - 200ad
The Han Dynasty is like, "hey Qin thanks for uniting the empire, we're gonna live in it now". While Qin did the military unification, Han did the cultural unification. This was widely considered The Awesome Dynasty. It was so awesome the Han people named themselves after it. They revived the teachings of Confucius that were supressed by Qin, they invented paper, they traded with the Roman Empire along the Silk Road, and they created the division into provinces, prefectures, and villiages that is still used today. In the middle of Han there was an internal coup d'etat for about 25 years, but they got stuff straightened out and went back to being Han. Until 184, when the Yellow Turban Rebellion happened, beginning another era of chaos and (not again!) warlords.
- The warlords beat on each other until there are just three major kingdoms left: called Wei, Shu, and Wu, these are the three kingdoms in the famous historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (also available in manga form).
- The chaos continues. Proto-Turks, Proto-Mongols, and Proto-Tibetans all carve out pieces of the action.
- Eventually China settles into a northern empire and a southern empire. This is called the Southern and Northern Wei period. The northern side develops stirrups and heavy cavalry; the south (with capital at Nanjing) develops their art and culture. Buddhism is introduced from India; it's controversial for a while but is eventually accepted. Mulan is set in this period — the original poem, that is. The Disney movie is a mish-mosh of all different time periods.
- Then in 589, the Sui dynasty conquers everybody and re-unifies everything. They are known as a harsh and arrogant regime. Like Qin, they are good at conquering an empire but not go sood at holding it together long term, so they rapidly fade into the...
- Tang dynasty: 600-900ad
Which is a second golden age, considered to be on the same level of awesomeness as the Han dynasty. The capital is back to Chang-An (world's largest city at the time), the silk road trade starts up again, and everybody loves Buddhism. The famous story Journey to the West is set in this period. Around this time Japan shows up and says "Hey we're looking for a culture, you've got a very nice one, mind if we copy it wholesale?" Tang has a prettty good run but then it gets soft and falls to rebellion, leading to...
- Five dynasties and ten kingdoms which is a polite way of saying "Oh great, more warlords and chaos".
- The Song dynasty: 900-1200ad controls only like a third of what used to be the Tang dynasty territory. They live in fear of the Jin dynasty of the Jurchen ethnicity to the north, and the Western Xia dynasty of the Tangut ethnicity to the west. The Song is what we would call a nerdy dynasty: bullied by its neighbors, it turned inward, and made great advances in art and science. Scholars wrote poetry and made gardens, inventors perfected the science of gunpowder weapons and compasses, etc. But not even gunpowder will be enough to protect them from...
- Genghis Khan!! Oh crap, it's Genghis Khan! Around 1200 he storms down out of Mongolia, plows right through Jin, and conquers Song, along with the rest of the known world. His grandson, Kublai Khan, is slightly more civilized and decides that instead of just pillaging China, he's going to start acting Chinese and found a dynasty of his own, which is the...
- Yuan dynasty: 1271-1368 ad.
The Mongols are now running the show. Between the deaths from the Mongol invasion and the deaths from the Black Plague, which also hits about now, the Yuan dynasty rules over a population that is only about half what it used to be. They move the capital to Beijing. Marco Polo shows up and is like "Hey cool! Noodles! Mind if I take these back to Italy?" The Han don't like being ruled by Mongols, and rebel. Eventually, they succeed, and found the...
- Ming dynasty: 1368-1644 ad.
The Ming kicks out the Mongols, renovates the Great Wall, builds up the Forbidden City, makes a standing army and navy, uses it demand tribute from our neighbors, prints books with movable type, and creates a gigantic bureacracy that it uses to impose stability and legalistic order. The Han are pretty happy to be in charge of China again, but then...
- Oh crap here come the Manchus! They invade from their home base in Manchuria and conquer China, establishing the Qing dynasty (pronounced "ching") 1644 - 1912.
The Manchus kill 25 million people, and make everybody else wear ponytails on pain of death. They are none too popular with the Han, as you might expect. They expanded China's territory to the current borders of China + Mongolia. Late in the Qing dynasty, the European colonial powers show up. They are like "Hello, we are the European colonial powers. We have warships with cannons and can kick your butts. Please to be getting addicted to Opium and giving us parts of Shanghai as concessions.". In 1894 Japan showed up and was like "Me too! Me too!" In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion attempted to kick out the colonial powers using only kung-fu and fanatacism. (It didn't work.)
- In 1911, everybody gets sick of the Qing not protecting China from colonialism. The Qing gets overthrown. The people are like "Emperors suck! let's be a republic!". Sun Yat-Sen becomes the first president of The Republic of China. But he can't hold it together; Guess what happens? Not warlords again? Yes, warlords again. Sun Yat-Sen and his Nationalists make a deal with the devil, allying with the Communists to form a united front to beat down the warlords and unify China once again. However, before they can do that...
- Japan shows up again, and spends 1931 - 1945 being all like, rape murder pilliage enslave burn occupy colonize! "What's a matter?", they say, "Don't you want to be part of the Greater East-Asia Co-Propserity Sphere?"
- In 1945, with the help of the Allied powers, Japan is finally beaten. Yay, the Japanese are gone! Now the Nationalists and Communists no longer have a reason to team up, so they get back to killing each other and there is a civil war from 1945-1949.
- Communism wins. The Nationalists retreat to Taiwan, which to this day calls itself the Republic of China; and since they never signed a peace treaty with the communists, they are still technically at war. Meanwhile, the communists form The People's Republic of China, 1949-present. Despite their best idealistic intentions, communism soon turns into a fanatical Mao Tse-tung personality cult, and imposes totalitarian rule that makes most science-fiction dystopias look like Norway. Maoism kills about 70 million of its own citizens.
- In 1976, Mao finally kicks the bucket; the ensuing power struggle is won by Deng Xiaoping, who institutes economic reforms that begin transforming China from a one-party communist state with no tolerance of dissidents to a one-party still-communist-in-name-but-functionally-capitalist state with no tolerace of dissidents.
Shanghai history for beginners
Shanghai was just a sleepy little town on the Yangtze river delta until the Qing dynasty, when it suddenly exploded into a bustling seaport and became one of the major trading hubs of east Asia.
In the 1800s, the European were buying a lot of Chinese goods (silk, porcelain, you name it) but they didn't have much that the Chinese wanted in exchange, so they were running up a trade deficit and seeing all their silver disappear into China.
Then Britain had the bright (and by bright I mean incredibly evil) idea of getting the Chinese addicted to opium, which Britain had a ready supply of since conquering India. So the British East India company started acting as drug dealer to the Orient, and the silver started flowing back the other way. When the Chinese emperor noticed that opium addiction was having a devastating effect on society he banned it, and when smuggling persisted he made smoking opium punishable by death.
Like any good drug lords, the British didn't take kindly to the narcs, so they sent in the warships. Thus began the Opium Wars. The European powers defeated China's outdated navy and forced China to sign unequal treaties surrendering large chunks of Shanghai's downtown to the invaders. Shanghai became a semi-colonized city, and remained that way until the Japanese invaded in World War 2. Only after the war was Shanghai finally able to govern itself once again.
There are parts of the downtown that are still known as the British Concession, the French Concession, the Japanese Concession, etc. Especially famous is a riverfront street called The Bund (that's its British name) which has rather nice examples of all different styles of European architecture. "Nice", that is, if you can ignore the unfairness of the history that led to those buildings being there.
This history of occupation and semi-colonialism did make Shanghai one of the first cities anywhere to undergo what we now call globalization; it is a City Of The World and all that.
The Great Wall post
We took the obligatory trip up to the Great Wall on Friday, by train.
I had been working at the Mozilla China office all week, but Friday midday I said my farewells to them and met Sushu at the KFC near Beijing North train station. Or, well, I tried to meet her there. The layout of the subway / train station junction / food court area was really, really confusing, and the instructions I had for how to get to the KFC didn't work because a lot of the area was under construction. I spent a lot of time wandering around in a growing panic.
Just as I was about to give up, I finally found Sushu, then gobbled down a quick chao mien lunch (note: chao mien is pretty much the exact same thing as yakisoba) and got to the train station just in time... only to find out that they stop letting people on five minutes before the time the train leaves, so we actually just missed it.
Well, we decided to wait for the next train, so we hung around the train station studying Chinese and talking to a slightly creepy dude who wanted to practice his English on me and was coming on just a little too strong about it. Meanwhile Sushu had come down with the sniffles.
The train car smelled funny, but we had it nearly all to ourselves, and the view outside the window was gorgeous:
We went to the Badaling area, which is one of several touristy places where you can go see the Great Wall. It's only about an hour by train north of Beijing. About halfway there the mountains start getting really pretty. There are bits and pieces of various walls visible on many of the mountain ridges. The Great Wall is not a single straight line; it has lots of spurs and branches and offshots and additions built at various times.
Can you spot the wall segment in the above picture?
In the touristy areas, the wall is kept in good repair, but as you move away from those areas there are large stretches of both the main wall and the outliers which have fallen into ruin, or been pilfered for building stones by the local people.
Because we took a later train than we planned, we only had about 40 minutes between the time we got there and the time we had to get on the train back to Beijing. And it takes 15 minutes to walk from the Badaling train station to the actual wall. Oops!
So Sushu, who has seen the wall before, decided to stay at the train station and wait for me, while I ran ahead on the uphill road to the wall, spent about ten minutes there snapping photos, and then ran back.
The bus stop / parking lot of the Great Wall. This is the part nobody takes pictures of; they all angle their cameras to create the false impression that the Wall stands on pristine mountainsides miles away from anything. Which is true about some parts of the wall, of course, but those aren't the parts that people visit.
The ticket office of the Great Wall at Badaling.
If you've ever looked at those famous pictures of people walking around on top of the wall and wondered how they got up there, here's the answer. Of course I assume all the staircases are only on the south side of the wall; it would defeat the purpose to have them on the north side, where the barbarians are.
Behold! The Wall in all its glory. Despite all my sarcastic comments, it is actually pretty awesome.
In Chinese it's called the 万里长城, Wanli-changcheng, the "10,000 Li Long Wall" (where a Li is an old-fashioned measure of length.)
Look closely at the image above: notice how the crenelations/battlements are only one one side? That's the north side, where the barbarians are.
The wall hugs the tops of the ridges, to give the defenders a better view and to make it harder to attack. As you can see, it's not very high, it's just... incredibly long. According to Wikipedia it goes from the fortress of Shanhaiguan, which guards the First Pass Under Heaven on the Pacific coast, all the way to the fringes of the Taklamakan desert, where its western end has long since disappeared into the sand.
Every few hundred feet is a small square tower, which were used as barracks, for weapon storage, etc. Here's the view out from the window of one of the towers.
Some parts of the wall are quite steep, since it follows the underlying hillsides. This part was like 45 degrees. My legs were pretty sore the next day after running up and down this part.
This picture also shows another little-noted aspect of the wall, which is the people who have to clean up the trash from the tourists.
There are these signs all over telling people not to make graffiti...
They are ineffective.
Speaking of graffiti, unfortunately someone decided to deface the hillside right next to the wall with this ugly and instantly dated 2008 Olympics sign.
The Starbucks of the Great Wall!
The KFC of the Great Wall!
On my way back to the train, a woman approached me and tried to sell me a book of postcards. I did want some postcards to send to Aleksa, but the woman wanted 15 yuan so I said 不用 (buyong, "don't need") and went to walk away. She blurted out 十块! (10 yuan) so then I was like "aha, now you're talking" and bought it. She also tried to sell me some hats but I didn't want any.
As I was jogging back to the train I realized, hey! I just haggled for the first time ever! And I saved a whole... five sevenths of a dollar!
How effective was the Great Wall as an actual defensive strategy? Let's look at the history.
Several chunks were built during the Warring States period, and then the first complete wall was connected and unified under the Qin dynasty, at a location rather further north than the current wall. (Really cool map.) Then it was improved and extended by the Han dynasty, all to keep out the northern barbarians. Much later, the Yuan dynasty let the wall fall apart, because they were like, "Keep out the northern barbarians? Um, we ARE the northern barbarians."
Then the Ming dynasty rebuilt it in its current location, in a much sturdier form, to once again keep out the northern barbarians (this time the Manchus). At its peak the Ming dynasty manned the wall with one million men. It worked for quite a long time, and the Manchus couldn't break through, until 1644 when Wu Sangui, the general in charge of guarding Shanhaiguan, got fed up because the emperor had stolen his favorite concubine, and opened the gates to get revenge. Seriously. There may also have been some bribery and murders involved.
Anyway the Qing dynasty once again let the wall fall into disrepair, because "Keep out the northern barbarians? Um, we ARE the northern barbarians." Chinese history, it moves in cycles.
So, how effective was the Great Wall? Effective enough that many successive dynasties kept reviving the idea and rebuilding the wall. Not effective enough to prevent the northern barbarians from taking over China several times. Effective only as long as it was manned, with a million men, and only as long as the guy in charge of the gates is satisfied with his concubines.
Oh, and no, the Great Wall is not visible from space.
The Giant Wheel Formation: Would it work in real life?
There's an epic movie called Red Cliff, based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which came out in China and is coming out next month in America. It looks pretty bad-ass! It's like the Lord of the Rings but based on real events! They had it on the airplane flight to/from China but there were no English subtitles so I gave up trying to watch it (in favor of trash like Dragonball: Evolution, sadly). I am looking forward to seeing a subtitled version.
You see that giant wheel formation? It's at about 1:19 in the video I linked to above. There's a whole army in a huge elaborate freakin' wheel formation, with spokes and counter-rotating inner circles and all kinds of craziness.
Me (watching the video): What the hell are they doing? What's that giant wheel formation?
Sushu: It's a JUN. When the enemy tries to attack the formation, they are forced to enter an ever-changing maze of traps and counterattacks, and they get all confused and dispersed.
Me: That's an utterly ridiculous strategy that would never work in real life.
Sushu: It did TOO work in real life! Sun Tzu wrote all about it in "Art of War"!
Thus begain a three-days-and-counting argument between us about whether or not the giant wheel formation is effective/realistic. (That's right, our marital arguments are about ancient Chinese military tactics. We're such nerds.)
Sushu grew up reading Chinese historical epics where jun featured prominently in climactic battles, so she's convinced that it is A. awesome and B. totally the way to win.
Although I can see how it makes for a cool story, I have a hard time believing that it wouldn't be easily defeated by a much simpler tactic. Why would you enter the enemy's maze at all? That's what they want you to do! Why wouldn't you ignore the whole ring-around-the-rosie and detour around them to take the city (or whatever your objective is)? Why wouldn't you mass a cavalry charge into a single point on the ring and overwhelm them through local force superiority while the majority of their manpower is tied up in human maze-walls all the way on the other side of the circle, where they can't counterattack effectively?
Then again, all my ideas about military tactics come from games, so what do I know about realism anyway.
Anybody else have any thoughts on this? Sushu, do you want to correct anything I got wrong about your argument?
Edited to add: Sushu's response here.
Who else has gotten the Nobel Peace Prize?
Like most people, I said WTF when Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Like, for what? He hasn't done anything yet. Certainly nothing Nobel Peace Prize -worthy anyway. Are we now awarding prizes for things people have promised to do? (In which case, I promise to make Israel and Palestine stop fighting. Where's my prize?) Or is this just the "congratulations, you're not George W. Bush" prize?
Anyway I decided to take a look through the previous recipients of the NPP to see what kind of company Mr. O is in. Here's the complete list.
Along with many names you'd expect to see, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, etc. *, the NPP has been given to:
- Theodore Roosevelt, who rose to fame as a war hero in the Spanish-American war, then as President supported a revolution in Panama against Columbia in order to get a Panamanian government willing to cede us the land to build a canal;
- Yasir Arafat, who in 2000 at Camp David rejected an offer by Israel that would have given Palestinians 90%+ of what they wanted, a choice which led directly to the Second Intifada and the current miserable situation;
- Henry Kissinger, champion of Realpolitik, who at the time had just finished secretly bombing Cambodia, a neutral country, to get an advantage in the Vietnam War, a strategy which may have worsened the Cambodian civil war, which led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. Many years later Kissinger supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and advised the Bush administration on the details — and we know how that turned out.
Even I have trouble thinking of a snarky comment to describe the irony of these guys getting the Nobel "Peace" Prize.
Also on the list, in the last decade:
- Jimmy Carter
- Al Gore
Noticing a pattern? Well-meaning but relatively unaccomplished Democratic party politicians seem to be a very popular choice with the committee of late.
Ultimately, Obama's prize should be taken as what the Nobel Peace Prize has always been a relatively arbitrary honor based on the entirely subjective political views of five random Norwegians, and nothing more than that.
* - (They would have given it to Gandhi in 1948 but he died and they decided not to do posthumous prizes.)
Red Cliff rocks!
Finally got to see Red Cliff, a John Woo movie based on a (fictionalized version of a) famous battle from the warring states period of Chinese history (circa 200 AD). It kicks a lot of ass. Sushu blogged about it here.
The Red Cliff battle is just one chunk of a much longer epic called the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. So this movie is like if they made a film of just the Helm's Deep battle from Lord of the Rings and nothing else. Even so, it was still five hours long... in the Chinese edition. They cut out about half of it to make a two-and-a-half hour American version. If you care about stuff like that you might want to seek out the DVD version. The stuff that they cut out includes a lot of scenes of the Han emperor feeding birds, Kongming helping to birth foals, etc.: parts that humanize the characters and establish that they have a life and an identity outside of their role as warriors. Without those humanization scenes, and not being real familiar with the original story, it's sometimes hard to keep track of who's who. Especially when the characters have their armor and helmets on, which makes them hard to tell apart. (Sushu's tip: focus on the facial hair!)
I talked to some Chinese people who didn't like the movie because they thought it wasn't very faithful to the original story.
But if you're not so concerned with accuracy and you just want to see martial arts butt-kicking, woven together with grand battle strategies and counterstrategies and dirty tricks by brilliant generals trying to predict each other's moves, then Red Cliff is hard to beat. It is a beautifully choreographed ballet of glorious violence. It's the kind of gleefully unrealistic movie where one named character is the equal of hundreds of nameless mooks.
Even the whole elaborate wheel formation comes off a lot more plausible in the movie than I guessed from the preview. The strategists even acknowledge that it's "an outdated formation", but "still quite effective in the right circumstances". They even hide it behind a dust cloud so the enemies don't know what they're getting into.
There's this bit where Zhou Yu leaps in front of an arrow meant for his lord. He rips it out of his shoulder, looking really pissed, and spots the mounted archer who shot it charging towards him. He runs straight at the mounted archer, jumps up in the air over the blade that's swinging towards him, and stabs the guy with his own arrow in the back of his neck, killing him. The whole audience burst into applause at that point. It's just that kind of movie.
Links about the pre-history of role-playing
Interview with David Wesley (on the train to GenCon).
This is an absolutely fantastic interview - thanks to Chris for the link (and thanks to Clyde for doing it!). Major David Wesley, now in his 60s, ran a little game called Braunstein way back in 1967 for his historical wargaming club in Wisconsin.
In the interview, he talks about how, in pursuit of realism, his wargaming club used more and more complex rule sets for resolving combat. Besides taking a long time, the complex rules sets exacerbated the problem of Rules Lawyering to the point where people were spending more time arguing than playing. To fix this problem they appointed referees to arbitrate disputes. The referees got bored because they weren't getting to fight, so to have something to do the referees would come up with more and more elaborate scenarios, launch surprise events mid-game, or have hidden information that players would need to send scouts to discover.
And then he ran a game set in the German town of Braunstein. Instead of just two opposing armies, he created lots of non-combat roles, such as the mayor, the leader of a rebel student group, etc., each with their own agendas, and assigned these to his various players. The idea is that they could do a lot of Diplomacy-style secret dealmaking which would influence what the situation was when the main armies entered the town. It sounds like the negotiation was intended to be just a prelude to the wargame, but it took on a life of its own.
A referee creating a scenario with various roles in conflict, and then having people play them out, negotiating between their various agendas, and allowed to announce any action they liked, which the referee would interpret. (He even made up a rule on the fly when two people wanted to duel with swords.)
Sound like anything you recognize? That's right, Braunstein was the first recognizable ancestor of the role-playing hobby as it exists today. David even came up with the idea of using pythagorean solids as dice to generate different probability curves (although he denies any credit, assuming that other people surely came up with the same idea independently of him).
Anyway, the interview is a historical treasure and should be required listening for every RPGamer.
Braunstein inspired another Dave, Dave Arneson, to do something similar, but in a fantasy setting. His campaign was called Blackmoor, set in and around the Castle Blackmoor. For his combat system, he used a medieval miniatures wargame called Chainmail created by one E. Gary Gygax.
(Arneson and Gygax later got together and created Dungeons & Dragons as a sort of fantasy-role-playing add-on for Chainmail; and the rest is history. Gygax is well-remembered, Arneson slightly less so; but David Wesley is almost unknown among gamers, even though he predated both of them. It's a shame; he seems like a really cool guy.)
So here's another crazy awesome link:
Greg Svenson on the First Dungeon Adventure.
Greg's character, Sven, a simple man-at-arms, was the sole survivor of the first ever dungeon adventure, which Dave Arneson ran on his basement ping-pong table in St. Paul, Minnesota over Christmas break of 1970-71. Check out that link (it's a quick read) and find out how the rest of the party met their grisly fates.
Two interesting things stand out. One is that the scenario involves the baron of the castle sending 30 men-at-arms down into the dungeon. In modern terms, that's a party of thirty first-level fighters. Pretty weird, but a totally normal thing for wargamers. (And think about it -- isn't that about who you would send on such a mission, if you were a baron?) Only six of them were player characters; the rest were NPCs under their command.
The other interesting thing was that the DM (Dave Arneson) assigned players for the two villains (the evil wizard and the balrog). I guess, coming from a wargame background, it's only logical that you would have two sides playing against each other, and a referee to arbitrate things. It's not clear from the write-up just how much of what happened in the dungeon was the result of decisions by the villain players, but I suspect it was a lot.
Also note that they were already introducing LARP elements like turning off the lights and screaming...
If you want to track the history of role-playing even farther back, before Arneson and Wesley, read
Rob MacDougall's article "Dungeon Master Zero". He talks about Charles Adiel Lewis Totten, a crazy 19th-century military tactician who wrote Strategos: the American Art of War, the book which David Wesley found in the library that inspired him to try appointing a referee...
Just finished this book: Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History.
It took us a while since we were taking turns reading it out loud to each other at bedtime. It's a very slow way to get through a book but it's a fun couple activity.
It's an absolutely fascinating book that combines chemistry and history in a unique way. Each chapter focuses on one compound or family of compounds and explains what it is about the molecular structure that gives that compound its special properties, and then explains the molecule's effect on history.
The title comes from the fact that Napoleon's army wore buttons made of tin, and tin gets brittle at low temperatures, which meant that when they tried to invade Russia in winter their buttons were disintegrating and they couldn't keep their coats on properly. Not that invading Russia in winter would have been a great idea even with better buttons, but it's just one example of how a small difference in the properties of a molecule can have a huge effect on history.
Further chapters explore...
- Piperine, the molecule that gives pepper its taste, and how pepper drove Europe's age of expansion. ("Curses! There's this huge, useless, pepper-less continent blocking our route to Indonesia!")
- DDT, how it kills mosquitoes, how it helped wipe out malaria throughout much of the world before we realized its side effects and stopped using it.
- Sugar, why it tastes sweet, how our body processes it, and how it drove the plantation system and thereby the Atlantic slave trade.
- Vitamin C, why our bodies need it and why we die from scurvey if we don't get it, and why it took sailors so long to figure out that they needed to be eating some fresh fruit once in a while.
- Silk, the molecular structure that gives it its amazing softness and durability, and the lengths people went to trying to break China's monopoly on it by smuggling live silkworms out of the country in what must have been history's earliest example of industrial espionage.
- Isoeugenol, the active ingredient in nutmeg, its medicinal properties (people wore it around their necks to ward off the Black Death - it's a natural insecticide so it may have been killing the fleas that carried the plague!). Growing naturally on a few islands in Indonesia, nutmeg was once more valuable than gold, and the Dutch colonialists burned down nutmeg groves rather than let anyone challenge their monopoly.
And then there's plastics, dyes, explosives, disinfectants, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine, rubber, salt, norethindrone (the active ingredient in the birth control pill)...
Each of these molecules had an enormous effect on human history, either because of the technologies it enabled, the social changes it instigated, or in some cases because of the journeys undertaken and the battles fought over the limited supply of a highly desired substance.
Each of these molecules, compounds that we take for granted today, had to be either discovered in nature, or invented. Often the difference between a useful substance and a useless one, or between a chemical vital to life and a deadly poison, is often something tiny like an OH group being on the other side of a carbon ring.
But maybe my favorite thing that I learned from this book is that the name "Heroin" is actually a trademark of the Bayer corporation!
Bayer wanted to follow up on the phenomenal success they had had with aspirin (originally refined from willow bark). So Bayer took morphine and tried to chemically alter it to remove its harmful side effects and make it less addictive. What they came up with was heroin. They made up the name "hero-in" because it was a "hero" drug! From 1898 - 1910 it was sold over the counter as a pain reliever and cough suppressant.
Just think about that image for a second. Rows of little bottles next to the aspirin in the grocery store, cheerfully labeled "Bayer brand Heroin, cough suppressant"!
It took them that long to realize that their experiments had backfired and that instead of making morphine less addictive, they had in fact created the most addictive molecule known to man. Oops.
Anyway, Napoleon's Buttons. Great read, very informative, highly recommended.
Code Rush - the end of Netscape and beginning of Mozilla
This video sure is a blast from the past: Code Rush - a documentary about the time Netscape open-sourced their code base, named "Mozilla".
Back then, everybody was thinking of it as the end of Netscape. In retrospect, it wasn't an end, it was a beginning.
Random observations I jotted down while watching Code Rush:
- Oh man Netscape! They used to sell Netscape in a box for money, can you believe it?
- Bug lists on paper! Mozilla on disks! N64 games! The first tech stock bubble! Bill Gates in front of the Senate! Back when the Internet was new and exciting and people would invest in a company just because it added ".com" to its name! I'm... not really nostalgic for any of that, except the "Internet was new and exciting" part. I kind of miss that feeling now that the Internet is ubiquitous.
- Netscape had 2000 employees at the time! That's huge. Mozilla today has less than one fifth of that number. And yet the number of Firefox users today is greater than the entire Internet population in 2000, and probably double the Internet population of 1998. We're doing a lot more with a lot less.
- In retrospect I think Microsoft did the world a favor by destroying Netscape's business model. (They didn't do the world a favor by flouting web standards, failing to fix security holes, or disbanding their browser team and letting IE stagnate, or by the monopoly tactics they used to try to keep competitors off of their operating system...) But by giving IE away for free and destroying the "sell browsers for profit" model, they drove the cost of browsers down to "free" where it has stayed ever since, to the benefit of users. Anyway I'm happy that we've gotten back at Microsoft in the free market instead of getting back at them in court.
- I love the explanation for "Zaroo Boogs", which you will still see today if you do a search on Bugzilla that returns no results. It's as if the concept of zero bugs is so unthinkable, so far beyond this fallen mortal realm, that it would be blasphemy even to say the words "Zero Bugs", so we misspell it on purpose just like orthodox Jews leave out letters from the Name of God.
- Back then Netscape had a hard time explaining to the press what the hell "releasing the source code" even means. Today when you say a software project is open source, it's so normal that nobody bats an eyelash. They're like "which license?"
- At about 27 minutes we get to see Brendan Eich and Stuart Parmenter who still work with me today! At 45 minutes we see Chris Hoffman who is sitting about 5 feet away from me right now. Those three are the only people I recognize.
- I like the guy at 37:22: "Stock options are a scam". Mozilla doesn't even have stocks. And I've never heard anybody here talk about becoming a millionare overnight. So those bits of the video seemed very foreign.
- Nice quote about Netscape getting bought by AOL: "Netscape lived fast, died young, and left a tired corpse."
- At 44:20 we see a glimpse of the aluminum-can-sculpture of the Golden Gate Bridge. That thing was still stuffed into a corner of the office until 2009 when we moved and finally got rid of it.
- Netscape only lasted for four years as an independent company! That's astounding; didn't it seem like much longer than that? I've now been at Mozilla for more than 3/4 of Netscape's lifespan.
The thing that struck me most was how much everybody in the video is burning themselves out with these all-night desperation coding runs for weeks at a time. Mozilla's not like that. A few of the key engineers at Mozilla choose to work late when we're close to shipping but I've never seen this kind of death march atmosphere. We'd rather push release dates back if software isn't done yet. We all seem to have a pretty good work-life balance and we still shipped Firefox 4 in a reasonable time. We're doing better with fewer people working less hours. So what is it that we're doing right today that we were doing wrong at Netscape? Is it the volunteer contributions Mozilla gets that make the difference? Was it a failure of Netscape management that led to unsustainable schedules? Or was it the intense pressure of having to satisfy stockholders while competing with Microsoft?
Discussion question: Is it just me or does the internet/software world seem much slower-paced and less exciting today than it was back then? Maybe it's just my perspective, because back in the 90s working in software was something I aspired to, and today it's something I gotta get out of bed and commute to every day. But if there is a real difference, what do you think it is and what do you think made it change?
The Story of Thanksgiving
Gather round, let me tell you a story for Thanksgiving.
So you may have heard of this Indian dude named "Squanto" who taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn or something. Right?
He had a fascinating and tragic life. First of all, "Squanto" wasn't his real name; it was short for Tisquantum, which in Algonkian means something like "Wrath of God", or more specifically the wrath of Manitou. One of John Smith's minions lured Tisquantum and several of his friends on board their ship, then kidnapped them at gunpoint and took them across the Atlantic with the intent of selling them as slaves in Spain. Tisquantum escaped to England, learned English, gained his freedom, and spent about five years finding his way back across the ocean to Newfoundland and then hitchhiking south to Massachusetts Bay.
When he finally came home he discovered that all his friends and family were dead, his entire Patuxet tribe wiped out by European diseases to which they had no immunity. His village had been destroyed, and the Pilgrims had built Plymouth on top of the ruins.
For all the terrible things that the colonizers did on purpose -- enslavement, genocide, forced religious conversions, and treaty breaking -- possibly the worst thing was what they did by accident: bring their germs across the sea. An estimated 90% of the population of the Americas died between the time of Columbus and the time of the Pilgrims, wiped out by wave after unstoppable wave of smallpox, hepatitis, measles, bubonic plague, and tuberculosis. Every disease that the European gene pool had gradually built up resistances to got dumped into the unprepared American gene pool all at once. It was probably the biggest single mass die-off in human history.
Those tribes of nomadic plains hunters so romanticized in modern depictions? Their lifestyle was probably very different from the lifestyle of their ancestors a few generations earlier. There's evidence that before Columbus most of the indigenous population of the Americas grew crops and lived in villages. The nomadic plains hunters were the scattered few who had survived the pandemic; they were survivors of the apocalypse, roaming the landscape like Mad Max or something. Their technology level had been significantly higher before the pandemic wiped out their villages and towns. In fact, there's evidence that much of the American landscape was the result of human intervention (e.g. the Plains Indians had used controlled forest burning to artificially expand the Great Plains, in order to increase the range of the bison.)
Back to Tisquantum. Given that the English had 1. kidnapped him, 2. tried to sell him into slavery, 3. wiped out his entire tribe between the ones they murdered directly and the ones they infected with their mystery plagues, and 4. moved in on top of their unmarked graves, why did he decide to help the Pilgrims survive the winter?
I think it's safe to say it wasn't because he liked them; instead it was because he needed their guns. The Wampanoag confederation, of which the Patuxet tribe had been a part, had been nearly wiped out and the surviving members were too few in number to defend themselves against their old enemies, the Narraganset alliance to the west. The Wampanoag survivors allowed the Pilgrims to stay only provided the Pilgrims allied with them against the Narraganset; Massasoit, the sachem (leader) of the Wampanoag survivors, sent the English-speaking Tisquantum to make the deal and secure the Pilgrims' superior firepower. Meanwhile Tisquantum had his own agenda, planning to overthrow Massasoit and become sachem himself by playing the Pilgrims and Wampanoag against each other.
The Wampanoag survivors made a critical miscalculation: They feared subjugation by the Narragansett more than they feared the strangely-dressed, sickly strangers with their tall ships and metal weapons. They didn't yet realize that these Pilgrims were the thin end of a wedge that would end their civilization.
This is a pattern that happened again and again in first contact between Europeans and American Indians -- a tribe or nation would try to ally with the newcomers, seeing the Europeans' superior weapons as an opportunity to gain the advantage over some ancient enemy. Then they'd start dying of mysterious diseases. As soon as they were weakened, the Europeans would betray their alliance, kill or enslave everyone, and take over the land.
The Pilgrims that Tisquantum was negotiating with were extremely poorly prepared for living in America. They apparently didn't bring any farm animals or proper fishing equipment, they didn't know how to grow New World crops, and they were unprepared for Massachusetts winters, colder and snowier than England's. They were a group of religious extremists; maybe they though God would provide everything for them if they prayed hard enough. Their leaders made a bunch of stupid decisions which would have resulted in everyone's deaths. If it hadn't been for the Wampanoag going "no, you idiots, look, THIS is how you grow maize, now shoot some Narragansetts for us please", the Pilgrims would be remembered as a cult that led its followers on a suicide mission -- a 17th century version of Heaven's Gate or James Jones's kool-aid drinkers.
Maize, by the way, was domesticated somewhere in central Mexico, and a funny thing is that modern botanists are still not sure how the ancient Mesoamericans did it. The closest surviving wild relative of maize is a grass called teosinte which has tiny, inedible cobs and reproduces in a way that makes it hard to breed selectively. Ancient Mesoamerican farmers apparently knew something that modern botanical science still doesn't. They also figured out a technique to keep the soil fertile indefinitely by growing maize in the same field with beans and squash. The three crops form a sustainable nutrient cycle (e.g. the beans fix nitrogen into the soil as fast as the maize and squash draw it out) so they could farm the same plot of land continuously for generations.
The presence of maize and related agricultural techniques in what is now called New England is evidence of a continent-wide network of trade and communication. Which would have been a pretty interesting thing to learn about; too bad we have to reconstruct it from archaeology because European colonists killed most of the people who could have told us about it.
I learned all this stuff from a book called 1491 - New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles Mann. I started reading it on the plane to Turkey and I could barely put down until I was done. It puts together the last several decades of archaeological and anthropological research to form an absolutely fascinating picture of North and South America before and during the European invasion. (The chapters about the Incas and their knot-based writing system are particularly cool.) I recommend getting the book, but you can also read a short version of the Tisquantum chapter on the Smithsonian magazine website.
Actual history is messy, complicated, fascinating, and often horribly tragic. The true history of first contact bears little resemblance to the bowdlerized fairy-tale version of the Thanksgiving story we tell kids.
In that version, "Friendly Indians" have no history of their own: just appear out of the woods like magical fairies to reward white colonists with goodies. Everybody is friends and has a good meal, yayyyy! Both groups have funny hats appropriate for construction-paper craft projects. Then the Indians conveniently sort of vanish from the story when the white colonists want to take all the land.
The whitewashed Thanksgiving story is just one example of the disgraceful way Native Americans are treated in the cultural mythology of mainstream modern America -- they're either savages or they're helpless victims, but either way they're NPCs in a story where the white colonizers are the protagonists.
The modern, white-liberal-guilt stereotype has them as wise, mystical, inherently peaceful, environmentally conscious, living in harmony with nature, but ultimately innocent and helpless children doomed to be slaughtered and be replaced by a more "advanced" culture. Elves, basically. Or maybe you could call it a myth of mankind in its pre-fallen state: pre-Columbian America as Garden of Eden.
I mean yes, OK, this is a more positive stereotype than the one we used to have, the stereotype of the primitive and bloodthirsty savage that was used as a propaganda tool to promote genocide. But it's still deeply problematic in several ways. To pretend the American Indians were these perfect pacifistic nature children denies them human agency, makes them props in somebody else's morality play. There's also a weird subtext, like, what, genocide is only wrong if the victims are cute and cuddly? Finally, the "Garden of Eden" type narrative renders invisible the continued existence of over 4 million people (1.5% of the US population) in the "American Indian or Alaska Native" Census category. Parents telling their kids about the origin of Thanksgiving don't want to have to connect it to the reservation down the road where people live today in poverty on the worst possible land, with rampant unemployment and alcoholism, as a result of the U.S. government repeatedly breaking treaties for hundreds of years. Easier to pretend the Indians are a vanished people and it was all very tragic but it happened a long time ago and has nothing to do with us, right?
What I really liked about reading 1491 was that it let the people and nations it covered be the protagonists of their own stories. The Wampanoag and the Narragansett (and the Mayans, Navajo, Amazonians, and many other nations covered) were not hapless children, bloodthirsty savages, or magic forest elves. They were human cultures with plans of their own. They were going places before their history was interrupted by the European invasion. They had both wise and foolish individuals. They were more populous, more technologically advanced, and had more of an impact on the land than we used to think. They had their own agendas, their own motives, their own inventions, languages, philosophies, wise and foolish decisions and everything else, good and bad, that defines human culture. The book really let me see things from their point of view, as best it could be reconstructed from archaeological evidence and interviews with their descendents.
What the white man did to them is a horrible, tragic story, but it's one that needs to be told, not glossed over or whitewashed.
Me and my family are Yankees from Connecticut. One of the less wholesome aspects of the culture I grew up in was that people around me tended to look down upon, and make fun of, Southerners.
(I never even got to try Southern food until grad school. Which is, like, a crime, because Southern food is freakin' awesome. I took my first bite of collard greens at age 24 and I was like WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE. These days I go to "Home of Chicken and Waffles" in Oakland every chance I get.)
Anyway one of the main disses that Northerners like to use against Southerners is to claim that (white) southerners are all, like, super-racist.
When I was younger I accepted this view uncritically. Later I realized that "southerners are all racists" is something that northern white people like to repeat because it makes them feel superior -- it is a way of distancing themselves from racism without actually confronting it or addressing it: just make it sound like somebody else's problem.
But racism in America has never been just a southern problem. The South had slavery and Jim Crow, but the North had "sundown towns."
Never heard of sundown towns? Neither had I, until recently. It's not something that tends to get covered in history class.
You should read this 2006 Washington Post article about them: "When Signs Said 'Get Out'". It was an eye-opener. (Here's a single-page version so you don't have to keep clicking Next.)
They were called "sundown" towns because they had signs warning black people not to let themselves be caught in the town after the sun went down -- or else risk being murdered by a mob of white supremacists. And they were all over the Northeast, Midwest, and West.
According to the article, a town in my home state of Connecticut had a sign saying, "Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark". Darien, CT (a wealthy NY suburb) forbid Jews as well as black people.
This went on from about the 1890s through the 1950s - from the backlash against Reconstruction until the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. This was the era of Jim Crow laws in the South; it was horrible and I don't want to minimize that fact, but white people in the rest of the country weren't exactly innocent either. It's just that instead of making black people sit at the back of the bus and use a separate washroom, the northern variety of white supremacists preferred not to let black people live in their towns at all, using violence, intimidation, and discrimination laws (e.g. not allowing black people to buy houses in certain neighborhoods) to enact what was effectively ethnic cleansing.
The small towns in Connecticut where I grew up were almost entirely white, and now I'm wondering if that's a demographic accident, or if they were made that way on purpose and the history has been covered up.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a parallel wave of ethnic cleansing was going on against Chinese immigrants. Chinatowns in cities all over California, Oregon, and Washington were burned down and their citizens forced out by armed lynch mobs. Chinatown in San Jose, for example, was intentionally burned down in 1887 and apparently several other times as well.
I wish I was making all this up, because it's horrible, but I'm not. Anyway, the main point I wanted to make is that racism was, and still is, a big problem in all parts of America, not just the South. And to my fellow (white) yankees: implying all southerners are racist hicks is not cool. I know a lot of southerners who are very enlightened. Try meeting a few and getting to know them personally. If somebody you meet turns out to be racist, by all means give them a hard time about it. But maybe learn some more about your own history before judging a whole region of the country.
Peru Kicked my Ass, Part 1 - Lima
Alright, the picture uploader works, so it's time to start showing you my photos from Peru!
We were there for about 8 days. We flew into Lima and then went up to Trujillo and Chiclayo, on the north coast, in the desert; then flew down to Cusco, in the Andes, to see the Sacred Valley and Macchu Picchu. The coastal desert and the Andes are very, very different places, so this was kind of like two trips in one. There's a lot of pictures so I'm going to break this up into several posts.
The clouds lined up just right and formed a circular rainbow around the airplane's shadow. Apparently this phenomenon is called a "Glory", and the optics behind it are pretty funky.
Our flight from Houston to Lima did not have TVs, so I didn't get to do my usual intercontinental-flight pastime of watching incredibly crappy movies this time.
When we landed at the airport in Lima, we met a guy holding a sign that said "Xia", so we followed him. We almost got in his car before realizing that the hotel he wanted to take us to wasn't the hotel where we had a reservation. Turns out he was waiting for a different Xia family. Oops!
So we went back inside and found another guy with a Xia sign, looking very worried that we hadn't shown up yet.
Our hotel was the Hotel EspanÌa. There were skulls on display in the lobby. "Momias", explained the nice lady behind the counter. ("mummies"). She wanted to know where the rest of our luggage was and couldn't believe we had traveled to Peru with only one backpack each, then shrugged at the strange ways of us sketchy foreigners.
The hotel had oil paintings, chandeliers, and plaster statues everywhere, packed into every available nook and corner like passengers on a crowded subway. It was an orgy of fake colonial opulence.
After a while I realized that they were the same oil paintings and statues over and over again. It was like being in a Castlevania level where the background textures keep looping.
Our room had four beds, each with a hideous gold fitted blanket. It had zero windows and a very noisy fan.
I was woken up early by an incessant squawking noise. I followed the sound up the stairs to the roof, where I found these huge parrots hanging out in a rooftop garden.
Those weren't the only "pets" in the hotel. This tortoise was just strolling around like it owned the place.
We didn't have time to really do anything in Lima except sleep and then get back to the airport for our flight to Trujillo.
This was a random plaza we passed on the way. I don't know the name. Plazas like these are an essential feature of pretty much all Spanish colonial cities.
I'm glad to see the old "tie their shoes together and throw them over the telephone wire" prank transcends all national boundaries.
I don't remember who this statue is supposed to be, but it's probably SimĂłn BolĂvar. It usually is. They love that guy! Not just in Peru, but all over Spanish-speaking South America.
Fun fact: if the revolution had gone the way he planned, most of South America apart from Brazil would now be one enormous country called "Gran Colombia".
Despite his best efforts, he couldn't keep it together. But he is still known as "El Libertador" throughout Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia (the country that named itself after him.)
Before going to Peru I had no idea that cacti could even get this big. They're the size of trees!
Our first taste of Peruvian cuisine (if you can call food from the airport food court "cuisine").
Sushu's having corn, yuca, and anticuchos (grilled spiced beef heart on a stick -- better than it sounds!) I had a very nice tamale with chicken, onions, and olives inside.
Note the enormous size of the kernels on that corn cob! They're like starchy grapes. It's very different from North American corn.
More fun facts: you get funny looks in Peru if you introduce yourself as "American". Peruvians think of themselves as American too; "Norteamericanos" (North Americans) is what they call us.
Next: Trujillo, and the ruins of the Moche civilization.
Pictures of Suzhou
Suzhou is a famously beautiful town a short train ride west of Shanghai. It may not be very well-known to Westerners, but to Chinese people it's one of the country's top tourist attractions. There's even a saying: "In heaven there is paradise, but on earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou."
It was the capital of the state of Wu during the Spring and Autumn period (500s BC), but really reached its height during the Song dynasty (~1000s AD) when it was the center of silk production. In those days it was a city of criss-crossing canals, navigable by boat, and it still likes to call itself "the Venice of the East".
We took a day trip there one rainy, foggy weekend in July. Here are the pictures from our trip.
Suzhou train station.
Random trivia: The character "Su" in Suzhou is the same as the "Su" in Sushu's name.
A miniature model of classical Suzhou, on display at the Silk Museum, shows the pattern of canals and bridges.
Besides silk production, Suzhou is famous for its gardens.
The one we went to was built by a wealthy government official from the Ming dynasty. He retired and became a fisherman. But since he was still high-status, you can't just call him "fisherman". So they called him "The Master of Nets".
The back alley that leads to the Garden of the Master of Nets.
A map of the garden grounds.
This antique palanquin is one of the estate's many treasures on display.
A cool room full of fancy stuff. There were a lot of these.
Covered walkways crisscross the garden grounds so people could enjoy the fresh air while keeping out of the rain.
This carefully-designed pond is the centerpiece.
One of the key elements in a traditional Chinese garden is the reproduction of mountain landscapes in miniature.
More pretty pond view...
I like how this ancient tree is carefully propped up with supports to keep it growing just so. No tree in this garden is just growing haphazardly - they're all carefully designed and crafted to produce the desired views.
There were little details everywhere like this fish in the cobblestones.
...and artificial caves.
All of the rooms and buildings had windows and doors carefully chosen to frame different views of the garden.
Also, notice how each window in this wall has a different pattern!
None of the paths are straight; they're all zig-zagged.
According to Chinese legends, evil spirits only travel in straight lines - they can't turn corners. This is one of the traditional explanations for the architecture, but it's also likely they just build stuff that way to encourage people to walk slowly and enjoy seeing the view from different angles.
This round portal reminds me of something from a spaceship on a sci-fi TV show.
A pomegranate tree.
There's a tiny boat stuck under there for riding around on the pond.
My hot wife!
Goldfish in the pond.
No evil spirits getting across this bridge!
Beware of the pond!
Cool fancy rocks.
Bat mosaic. "Five bats" is a Chinese pun. It sounds like a phrase for good fortune ("wu fu").
OK, we're out of the garden now.
I'm pretty sure that's not the actual Google building.
One of Suzhou's surviving canals.
We had hot pot for lunch!
Motorcycles are super popular in China. Check out all those motorcycles!
COLONEL SANDERS IS WATCHING YOU.
Our next stop after lunch was a Daoist temple complex called the "Temple of Mysteries" (Xuanmiao).
Not just a historical monument, the temple is also an active place of worship.
The Chinese Communist party tried to stamp out religion during the Cultural Revolution, with horrifying results. But the 1978 constitution allows freedom of religion (within certain bounds - e.g. no Falun Gong).
I've been to lots of Buddhist temples but I've never been to a Daoist temple before. Of course they're not exclusive - lots of people follow principles of both Buddha and the Dao (as well as Confucius, and Chinese folk religion). It's all very syncretic.
The architecture and rituals (such as lighting incense) are very similar to a Buddhist temple, but there's yin-yang motifs everywhere instead of lotuses.
And then inside the temple, instead of Buddha statues there are statues of various Daoist deities.
They had a row of sixty statues - one for each year in the complete Chinese zodiac cycle. (Twelve animals times five elements = 60 years.) You could find the one corresponding to your birth year and make an offering.
Most of them just look like sages and warriors, but this one dude freaked me out, with tiny arms coming out of his eye sockets. I wonder what his deal is.
This is the Daoist god of money; you pray to him for prosperity.
At some point somebody must have decided that what his shrine really needed was a disco-style laser light show.
Huge incense burner outside the front gate.
It's always kind of weird being in a place which is simultaneously a tourist attraction, charging money for tickets, and also a sacred place for the locals. It was the same way at the mosques in Istanbul, and the Catholic churches in Peru. I try to be quiet and respectful, but still I imagine the people who are there to pray must resent the intrusion of foreigners who are there to gawk.
The Chinese ancestor of the Japanese taiko drum.
Cool statues of an old man and a child. I don't know what, if any, significance they have.
Some cool paintings from the hall of Wen Chang, Daoist god of literature and patron of students undergoing exams.
A narrow alley we explored after leaving the Temple of Mysteries.
It was pretty cool, but only led to a dead-end.
This is a famous pagoda in Suzhou, but we didn't have time to visit it - we had a train to catch and we still wanted to see the Silk Museum to see first.
Silk cultivation has been going on in the Suzhou area for five or six thousand years.
Some cool statues out front of the silk museum.
The silkworm is actually a moth larva, and it eats only mulberry leaves.
Closeup of the live silkworms.
When it's ready to turn into a moth, it spins a fuzzy cocoon like these. You boil the cocoon, killing the larva before it hatches, so that the cocoon can be unraveled into one continuous thread.
A complex loom for silk-weaving.
After the silk museum, we had dinner at a classy restaurant.
Their menu showed symptoms of having been Google Translated - the English names given for dishes were questionable and in some cases hilariously bizzare:
"Nestle honey-of-idyllic chicken"
"Miscellaneous bacteria squid"
"Born ridiculous amount of beans"
"Acid turnip intestinal duck blood"
But the food was very good!
The purple stuff was given the unappetizing English name of "Taro mud" on the menu, but it was a very nice taro pudding.
It started to rain very hard as we crossed the river on foot, hurrying to get back to the train station in time for our train back to Shanghai.
I can't believe TED gave this guy a podium oh wait yes I can
I don't know if TED has gone downhill or if they were never good in the first place, but geez do they promote a lot of pseudo-intellectual garbage.
A random TED talk has about as much intellectual content as picking a random book out of the non-fiction new releases and reading the blurb on the dust jacket. It makes you aware that an idea exists and that somebody is promoting it; that's about all.
Some individual TED talks are decent and even good -- just as that random book with the interesting dust-jacket blurb might actually be good -- but so many are junk that the TED brand is useless as an indicator of quality.
The marketing around TED is carefully designed to make you feel smart and superior for watching them. The production values, the big-name speakers, the high price of tickets, the illusion that you're part of an elite audience... all designed to flatter the viewer and make the contents seem like something more than the shallow sound-bites they are.
And the Silicon Valley culture seems to have eaten it up. "Did you see the TED talk about..." is a standard conversation-opener at work. People think they're an expert on some topic because they watched a guy give a ten-minute slideshow about it in front of a bunch of rich people. Giving a TED talk is the ultimate status symbol in this culture.
It doesn't hurt that TED has a serious ideological bias towards things that make the target audience of rich, mostly white, industry insiders feel good about themselves for being rich, mostly white, industry insiders.
Case in point: The Six Killer Apps of Prosperity, a talk by Niall Ferguson.
The title alone... Ugh.
He's trying to explain how "The West" got so far economically ahead of "The Rest". He's talking about the importance of social institutions, but he tells his mostly-software-industry audience "you can't understand institutions so I'm going to compare them to something you do understand". Does the audience even realize how badly he's insulting them?
His list is: Competition, science, property rights, modern medicine, consumer society, and work ethic.
It should be obvious that property rights, competition, work ethic, and the consumer society existed in plenty of pre-modern and non-western societies. And "modern medicine" is begging the question of how you get to the point of inventing modern medicine. But even if we let those points slide, there's a glaring ommision from this list. Think for second; can you spot it?
He illustrates the wealth gap by showing how for centuries Europe was relativeley poor, but in the 1850s the UK shot way ahead while China and India got much poorer.
Gee Niall Ferguson, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY HAVE HAPPENED IN THE 1850s THAT WOULD EXPLAIN WHY THE UK BECAME WEALTHIER RELATIVE TO CHINA AND INDIA? It's a complete mystery, I can't figure it out at all.
So yeah, he's forgetting the "Killer App" where you use your superior military to invade another country, take their natural resources, kidnap their people as slaves, force unequal trade treaties on them, and deliberatly hold their devleopment back with an unequal colonial administration designed to make them second-class citizens in their own country.
The countries that have the lowest human development indices today are almost all former resource-extraction colonies of European empires. The ones with the highest indices are Western Europe itself, its former settlement colonies, a few Mideastern oil states, and Japan -- which did quite a bit of colonialism of its own.
Colonialism isn't the whole explanation because it doesn't explain how Europe achieved its military advantage that allowed it to do all this conquest and extortion in the first place. And obviously some of the wealth gap is due to the Industrial Revolution starting in Europe, which probably does have something to do with science and competition and so on. But I am highly dubious of any explanation for "The West vs The Rest" that glosses over the fact that The West spent centuries literally stealing wealth from The Rest.
Gee Niall Ferguson, WHY AM I SO MUCH RICHER THAN MY NEIGHBOR WHOSE HOUSE I JUST ROBBED? It must be because of my superior work ethic and my respect for property rights!
Ferguson brings up imperialism only to dismiss it with a couple of glib sentences. He says imperialism can't be the answer because "Asia had empires too" and because the peak of the wealth gap came in the 1970s, after colonialism ended.
These explanations are incredibly weak. Asia had empires too, yes; and in their day they were extremely wealthy and effective! If there were TED talks in the 16th century they would be attmepting to explain why Ming China and the Ottoman Empire were so far ahead of backwards Europe. All this comparison proves is that the advantage of empire doesn't last forever. Also the Ottomans and the Mings didn't have a military advantage over their neighbors remotely comparable to the military advantage that colonial Europe had over Africa and the Americas.
The wealth gap peaking in the 1970s? A mere few decades after the end of World War 2 and the beginning of the slow process of decolonization? When the rich nations had just finished reaping all the benefits of colonialism and the newly independent former colonies were just beginning their climb out of poverty? This is exactly when we would expect the wealth gap to peak if colonialism was the main reason for it. Ferguson is actually undermining his own argument by pointing out this fact.
And this illustrates the problem with TED: the format of TED videos makes this kind of sleight-of-hand easy to pull off. A couple of pretty slides, a nerdy joke or two to disarm the audience, and an appeal to your authority as a Famous Person are all it takes to paper over fundamental weaknesses in your argument.
There's a lot more to pick apart in Ferguson's terrible TED talk. Nobody should be surprised that he worships Adam Smith, but taking time to insult Gandhi for being poor? Classy.
Then he tops himself, when talking about property rights (which he says are more important than democracy itself: an interesting glimpse into the priorities of the ultra-rich.) He says one of the reasons America was able to "generate" so much wealth is because "most people in rural North America owned some land". Uh, yeah, they had lots of land after fucking stealing it from the American Indians. He's using land taken by force, and taken by broken treaties, as his example of the importance of property rights. Which presumably include the right to not have your property stolen. The audacity of this guy!
Then we get to the moral panic -- "is the west deleting its own apps?" OH NO! Here is a picture of some teenagers wearing hoodies! I'm not sure what that's supposed to prove, unless it's a clever way to invoke racism against black teenagers without actually showing any black teenagers. Ferguson then talks about the rest of the world catching up, which is a wonderful thing, a happy thing, what we should all be hoping for. Then he segues straight into "but Western decline isn't inevitable". Interesting that he equates worldwide equality with Western "decline", like we're only doing OK as long as we can keep the rest of the world poor.
He finishes with a picture of Obama bowing to Hu Jintao to illustrate that the great divergence is over. (Like no world leader ever bowed to another world leader during the last two centuries? It's a meaningless gesture to grease the wheels of diplomacy.) Nice way to invoke both Siniphobia and the baseless right-wing meme of Obama being apologetic for America.
So that's Ferguson's TED talk. That's the kind of thing TED thinks deserves a megaphone.
Ferguson teaches at Harvard. He's not dumb. He's not overlooking the history of colonialism by accident; he's trying to construct an explanation of the wealth gap that very specifically avoids mention of colonialism. This is part of a project to whitewash history, to promote a world view where the rich and the privileged are not beneficiaries of historical injustice but rather deserve to be rich and privileged due to their superior moral qualities.
That TED gave him a pulpit for this project says a lot about TED. Either they share his views, or they just don't care. At the very least, it says that TED doesn't care enough for this massive level of intellectual dishonesty to disqualify anyone from speaking there.
I have written software that has been featured in a TED talk on two different occasions: Ubiquity was shown off in a TED talk by Aza in 2009, and Collusion in a TED talk by the Mozilla CEO in 2012. But after seeing this video, I'm embarassed to have been associated with TED in any way.
Voter suppression laws
There's a spirited argument going on in the comments of a previous post about whether it makes sense to vote at all. My current thinking is to vote for the lesser evil while trying to get real change through other means.
And I think, before you decide voting is stupid, it's worth remembering the generations who fought and in some cases died for your right to vote. The women's suffrage movement started in 1848 but the 19th amendment wasn't passed until 1920, after 72 years of suffragette activism! Despite the 15th amendment passing in 1870, Blacks were in practice denied the vote by Jim Crow laws throughout the southern US until the Civil Rights movement led to the voting rights act of 1965, less than 50 years ago. So we're not talking ancient history here; we're talking people who are still alive today. Appreciate the sacrifices they made, and beware of modern efforts to disenfranchise people.
John Lewis, rep from Georgia, is one of those who marched for civil rights in the 60s, facing down deadly white-supremacist violence to do so. He draws a straight line from disenfranchisement under Jim Crow to the new voter ID laws that Republican state legislatures are pushing today.
Which brings me to the thing I want to talk about -- partisan voter-disenfranchisment efforts that come in the guise of "preventing voter fraud".
Of course we should prevent voter fraud! Who could possibly be against that? ... is what they're hoping we'll say, and not look too closely at the likely effects of the laws.
When the Republicans won control of many state legislatures in 2010, one of the first things they did was to start passing laws restricting early voting and requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls. 19 states have passed laws along these lines since the 2010 elections.
Who is eligible to vote but disproportionally lack photo IDs? People without drivers' licenses, which is to say people who don't own cars. The young. The poor. People who live in urban centers, which is to say disproportionately minorities. All of these groups reliably lean Democrat.
"More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack such identification, and the numbers are even higher among constituencies that traditionally lean Democraticâincluding 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans."
"These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012."
"So what", you may say, "Go get a photo ID if you want to vote; what's the big deal?"
Well, as an example, more than 5% of Texas voters lack a photo ID, and 1/4 of Texas counties lack a DMV office, meaning some Texans would need a 250 mile round trip to get photo ID! Which is pretty hard if you don't already have a drivers' license. (warning: link has auto-play video about 80-year-old nuns in indiana turned away for not having photo IDs)
Getting photo ID also requires going to deal with bureaucracy during business hours on a weekday, which means taking days off of work, which if you're poor and working to support your family you often can't afford to do. So yeah, for some people, having to get a photo ID (after being able to vote for years without one!) is not an insignificant barrier.
The South Carolina Election Commission Executive Director answers questions about how easy it will be for partisan poll-watchers to challenge every voter they don't like, and how hard it will be for voters to overcome these challenges.
OK, so a lot of poor, young, and minority people will have a harder time voting under these laws. That's too bad, but maybe it's just an unfortunate side-effect of laws that we desperately need in order to save democracy from an onslaught of voter fraud!
Turns out... not so much. The only fraud scenario that photo ID requirements prevent is in-person voter impersonation fraud. Somebody who's not eligible to vote walking into a polling place and pretending to be somebody else.
I've been reading up on election fraud, and everything I've read says that this type of fraud is incredibly rare. Like, a recent study found ten cases of voter impersonation since 2000 rare. Ten.
Election fraud has happened in this country, but not by people walking into a polling place and impersonating someone else. The most effective methods of voter fraud all involve corrupt officials inside the system, involved in counting the votes at the precinct or county level. They can tamper with electronic voting machines, "lose" or invalidate a bunch of ballots marked for the other guy, or get ahold of a bunch of extra blank ballots that should have been thrown away and use them to stuff the box. Or they can simply report made-up numbers.
For instance, many people suspect that Mayor Daley of Chicago stole the 1960 election for Kennedy by tampering with Chicago vote totals enough to swing Illinois. If true, the fraud wasn't based on individuals showing up and voting who shouldn't have been allowed to vote. It was based on election officers who were part of Daley's machine making up thousands of Kennedy votes from thin air.
Individual voter impersonation is just too inefficient to swing an election. It's far more efficient for bad guys to work the system from the inside.Requiring photo IDs or shortening the time the polls are open does nothing to prevent this. You need more independent auditing of the tallying process.
Another way to cheat is buying votes, which is apparently fairly common... but photo ID laws do nothing to stop it. Someone with a valid ID can still be selling their vote.
Theoretically you could also cheat by registering a lot of fake absentee voters and requesting mail-in ballots for them ("Yes, there are ten eligible voters living in my house..."), thus getting a bunch of extra ballots you can fill in yourself. Again, requiring photo IDs at the polling place or shortening the time the polls are open does nothing to prevent this. The way to prevent this one would be stricter checking at the registration stage that someone is a real person.
Is election fraud real? Yes. Should we try to stop it? Yes. Is requiring photo IDs an effective way of combating election fraud? No.
OK, so Republicans got into power in the states and passed a bunch of laws that are ineffective at fighting voter fraud and will have the effect of suppressing voting among democratic-leaning demographics. But maybe that's just a coincidence; none of that proves that Republican state leaders are deliberately trying to...
"Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done", said Pennsylvania state House Republican leader Mike Turzai.
Laws in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Florida, and Pennsylvania specifically disqualify student IDs. Is there any reason to do this except to discourage college students, who lean liberal, from voting? The speaker of the New Hampshire state house, speaking to a Tea Party group, basically admitted that that's the reason: "foolish" college kids are liberals, "just vote their feelings". So... we should stop them from voting?
John Boehner, Speaker of the House, really lays it out on the table when he says out loud he hopes Blacks and Lations won't show up for this election.
In the same article, a Republican county-level party chair in Ohio says this about closing down early voting: "I guess I really actually feel we shouldnât contort the voting process to accommodate the urban â read African-American â voter-turnout machine... Letâs be fair and reasonable."
Hey dude, what exactly is wrong with "the urban - read african-american - voter-turnout machine"? They got a right to vote; what's fair and reasonable about blocking it?
You guys aren't even pretending not to be racist anymore.
Registered voter polls are regularly a few percent more democratic than likely voter polls. Republicans know that if everyone who is eligible votes, they lose. So they are trying to make it harder for the young, minorities, and the poor. They know that their voter suppression laws won't register as problematic to many people thanks to their superficially reasonable terms. "Photo ID? Of course! Who doesn't have one of those?" thinks the middle-class white guy.
Many of the Jim Crow laws designed to prevent blacks from voting didn't explicity mention race. They were couched in terms of poll taxes and literacy tests. History teaches us that attempts at legal disenfranchisement come in disguise; therefore, we should closely examine any law that puts restrictions on voting.
There is good news: Some of these state laws have already been challenged, overturned, or put on hold by the courts. The federal DOJ has been investigating whether several state laws violate the Voting Rights Act. The Pennsylvania one just got blocked today, thankfully; Mississipi's has been put on hold, and early voting is going on in Ohio now.
In the long term, we should all be speaking out against voter suppression laws and opposing them wherever possible.
But for right now, make sure you know the voting requirements for your state and check whether you're registered! (Due to voter roll purges, you might think you're registered but actually not be -- they might have taken you off the rolls because you have a name similar to a felon or a dead guy, and it's not like they notify you when they do it.) Make sure anybody you know in IN, FL, TN, MI, SD, ID, LA, KS, NH, or GA knows that they currently need a photo ID to vote!
The ACLU state-by-state voting rights site and a site called Let My People Vote 2012 have a lot of links to relevant information.
Hangzhou: Land of Snake-Spirits and Tea
In July, a few weeks after our trip to Suzhou, we took a weekend trip to Hangzhou, once the capital of the southern Song dynasty.
When we got on the train for Hangzhou, I had that feeling in the back of my throat that lets me know I'm coming down with a cold. But I was determined not to let it ruin our trip!
It's slightly farther away than Suzhou, about an hour and a half by train southwest of Shanghai. It's the other city mentioned in that saying: "In heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou."
It's famous mainly for West Lake (Xihu), said to be the most beautiful lake in China; and for tea production, and for a very cool legend which I'll get to in a little while.
...although in the last few years Hangzhou has also started to be known as a center for the emerging Chinese animation industry. Here's a billboard for an animation convention.
A rickety wooden trolley/bus that we took from the train station to our hostel.
Hangzhou's super-modern downtown.
This Spongebob doll seemed slightly out of place hanging from the ornately carved wooden rafters in the office of the hostel.
A lot of places around West Lake had these very poetic and grandiose names, like "Orioles Singing in the Willows".
Map of the ferry lines, bridges, causeways, and interesting points around West Lake.
Sushu in a pubic garden.
We rode one of these ferries out to an island.
Looking back towards the city skyline.
Sushu told me that the design of classic aristocratic Chinese gardens is largely inspired by a desire to recreate Xihu in miniature in one's backyard.
It is quite photogenic.
That's Leifeng Pagoda over there. It has a cool story to it. We'll get there later.
The island was very crowded with Chinese tourist families. Hangzhou is one of those places that may not be very well known outside China (at least, I had never heard of it) but is very popular with Chinese people.
The island was full of lagoons and the lagoons were criss-crossed with bridges (all zig-zags, of course).
Those cranes are actually part of the window frame.
Cool rock formation & lily pads
Feedin' the ducks.
This is one of three stone lanterns rising from the waters of the lake. In the autumn festival they row out and light all three of them. This area is known, poetically, as "Three Pools Reflecting the Moon".
Here's all three of the lanterns (left, middle, right).
They're kind of dinky, but they're also super famous so everybody has to go see them.
Sushu likes to remind me that I overpaid for this fan, because I didn't haggle and I paid almost three whole dollars for it.
I don't care. It's awesome. I used it every day for fanning as well as for blocking the sun off my face and for fidgeting with in class.
Our lunch after getting back from the island.
My cold was getting worse by this time, so I was grateful for a hot meal and some fluids. Then I took a nap in the hotel room for a couple of hours. After that I felt well enough again to go out on some afternoon adventures.
Not sure what this golden bull statue is doing in the lake. Sushu says it's "some kind of Daoist bull" or maybe "just a tourist attraction".
Found this sign in the youth hostel.
Refuse to synthetic drugs! You and I were involved!
(It really says something like 'refusing synthetic drugs takes everyone's participation')
The tiny deformed skeletons cavorting among the poppies are an especially nice touch.
After some confusion about times, places, and prices, we managed to rent a couple of bicycles for an afternoon ride.
The bicycles were kind of crappy - rickety, with loose seats and poor steering. Mine made a horrible ear-piercing screech every time I hit the brakes to avoid crashing into a pedestrian, a motorcycle, or another bicycle going the opposite way on the sidewalk. The traffic was quite terrifying.
One of the readings in my Chinese textbook called China the "Kingdom of Bicycles", but I would have to spend a long time acclimating to the traffic patterns before I would feel comfortable biking there.
Our destination was the pagoda that we saw earlier from the boat - the Leifeng Pagoda. Here we have parked the bicycles and are crossing a sort of moat on our way there.
A souvenir shop selling portraits and pictures of the pagoda... wait, is that Obama? What is he doing there?
"Pagoda" is a weird word. Did you ever wonder why we call them that?
It's not a Chinese word at all. It's Portuguese. (As is the word "Mandarin"). Portuguese got it either from the Persian word for "temple", or possibly from Dravidian.
In Chinese these buildings are just called "ta" (3), which means "tower". This is Leifengta, "Thunder Peak Tower".
It's not much of a "peak", but still, who wants to climb all those stairs? Thus, escalator.
Leifeng pagoda is famous because of its role in Hangzhou's most famous folk story, the Legend of the White Snake (No, not that Whitesnake). A scholar named Xu Xian meet a beautiful woman Bai Suzhen on the bridge over West Lake. Xu is unaware that Bai is actually a white snake who transformed herself into a human using Daoist magic. They fall in love and get married. The bad guy is a monk named Fahai who wants to ruin their love because he thinks Bai is an evil demon. He tricks her into revealing her true form, which causes Xu to die of fright. (He gets better.) Then Fahai imprisons Bai in Leifeng pagoda. A bunch of other stuff happens that depends on what version of the story you're following. Sometimes Bai has a sidekick, a green snake named Qing who also turns into a woman. Sometimes there's reincarnation involved. In some versions she gets rescued from Leifeng, in other versions she's imprisoned there forever.
This story originated in the Tang or Song dynasty as oral tradition, was written down during the Ming dynasty, and has been adapted into many operas and movies.
The current pagoda is a reconstruction built in 2002. The original one was built in 975, in the Song dynasty. It survived being attacked by Wukou (Japanese pirates), but its structure was seriously weakened because so many pilgrims wanted to carry away pieces of its walls as good-luck charms. It was almost a thousand years old when it collapsed in 1923.
In the basement of the new one you can see the remnants of the original foundation. There's a glass case to discourage any more collecting of good-luck charms, so people have to be satisfied with tossing coins inside.
Pagodas are a descendant of Indian stupas (domes built to house Buddhist relics), crossbred with traditional Chinese architecture.
They're supposed to always have an odd number of storeys.
Just a cool railing detail.
Inside the pagoda: The line for the elevator.
Thanks to the lake breeze, Hangzhou was not as hot as Shanghai, but we were still sweating plenty.
Views from the top storey of Leifengta. To the south: more of the temple complex.
What's that cool fortress-looking building on the hill over there???
I checked my map and asked a bunch of people but nobody seemed to know what it was.
Turns out it's just a modern hotel/restaurant done in an antique style. Not a Song-dynasty castle. :-(
The ceiling is covered with countless golden Arhats (Buddhas' disciples).
Here's us trying to get a self-shot, not very well.
On the second floor of the pagoda was a series of amazing three-dimensional woodcarvings showing scenes from the White Snake story.
Here's Bai and Xu meeting for the first time.
The forced perspective in these is really something. For instance, that umbrella is not a circle.
The gathering of immortals...
Bai Suzhen flees to the mortal world.
Check out the craftsmanship here - the delicate cranes and wisps of cloud, the sense of depth when looking "down" at the lake below.
She reverts to her original snake form on the day of the Dragon Boat festival...
She steals a magic herb from Kunlun Mountain (in order to bring Xu back to life). Some epic martial arts action going on here.
Imprisoned in the pagoda by Fahai...
Causing the lake to flood with her magic, in order to lead an army of aquatic creatures to attack Fa Hai. (I guess this is after she escaped or got rescued from her imprisonment?)
No, seriously, check out how awesome this is. She's leading an army of clam soldiers...
and shrimp soldiers. So cool!
A slightly better picture of us...
When we left it was that special time of late afternoon when the light is golden and everything looks amazing, tempting amateur photographers to go crazy. Check out the way the light hits those beasties on the corner of the roof.
On our way back, we stopped at this Indian restaurant for dinner. Not sure what the deal is with the Muppet-eyes on this lion statue outside.
The kitchen had glass walls, so you could see the chefs working from inside or outside the restaurant. I think they were trying to show off how authentically Indian their chefs are. Like "Look! We got real Indian chefs! We put them in this box for you to look at!" It was kind of weird.
The food was overpriced and not that great, plus they were playing weird techno music. But I was still battling a cold and the food made me feel alive again.
Our next stop was the north end of the lake, to take a stroll on the causeway. A series of bridges and dams stretches most of the way across the lake. One of the bridges here is the one where Bai and Xu supposedly met.
It was quite nice, if crowded. It was soon too dark to photograph. There were patches of lotuses and floating restaurants docked nearby.
We also encountered a colony of bats, swooping and diving to catch the evening gnat swarms.
Contrary to everything video games have taught me, the bats did not try to kill us by knocking us off the bridge into the water. They didn't even fly in sine waves!
Getting back to our hostel was harder than we imagined. We tried to catch a taxi on one side of the street; they told us they weren't going that way. We tried the other side of the street; they told us they weren't going that way either. Hangzhou has weird traffic patterns!
We did finally get a taxi, but it took a lot of negotiation.
The next morning we got together with Sushu's aunt, uncle, and cousin, who took us to Longjing tea plantation, in the hills west of Xihu.
Longjing ("Dragon well") tea is fairly famous.
Here's some rows of tea bushes growing on a hillside.
The just-sprouted new leaves at the tips of the branches are the ones you collect to make tea out of. The older leaves are much too bitter.
The best quality tea comes from leaves harvested in the spring, when they're very tender. It's the summer, so tea-harvesting season was already over.
Mostly it was just nice to take a walk through the hills by the river.
My cold was getting worse at this point. Sushu's uncle kept trying to have a conversation with me but it took all my energy just to keep walking.
Another hillside covered with tea bushes.
This stream keeps snaking back and forth, so the path crosses it nine times.
We saw a lot of Chinese families camping in tents by the riverside; kids shooting each other with squirt guns, etc.
We stopped at a small tea-house for a lunch of vegetable dishes and chicken soup.
This is how you enjoy tea in the Chinese countryside: sitting on a shady porch, eating sunflower seeds. They don't strain the leaves out of your teacup so you just have to carefully sip around them. And the tea is always hot, no matter how hot the weather is. Drinking cold liquids is bad for you, in Chinese medicine.
I was feeling pretty sick by this point. Day 2 of a cold is usually the day when I have to blow my nose constantly, so I was carrying tissues everywhere.
More tea plantation.
The entrance of the Hangzhou Tea Museum.
(Character: "cha", meaning tea, of course.)
Tea grinding wheel
They had all these exhibits on the origins of tea and the history of tea culture through various dynasties. Here's a Tang dynasty silver tea set.
The original tea plant was actually a large tree that grew wild in the mountains of Yunnan province. Centuries of selective breeding turned it into the small bushes we saw earlier.
Wax-people diorama of Song dynasty tea market.
Massive hand-driven tea-rolling machine. The circular motion forms the tea leaves into little balls, which you'll sometimes see if you buy fancy dried whole-leaf (not powdered) tea.
Proportion of Chinese Tea Output.
You can make green tea, black tea, white tea, oolong tea, etc. all from the same plant, just by following different steps of fermenting/roasting/drying/grinding.
Some HUGE tea cakes. (Processed and dried tea leaves pressed into bricks for storage and long-distance trade).
I think I was making this dorky pose because I saw one of the wax-museum guys doing it earlier and I was joking about what an unnatural pose it is.
As always, KFC is everywhere. It's thoroughly integrated into modern Chinese life. Has to be one of the biggest corporate localization success stories ever.
One last look back at West Lake on our way to the train station. In the background is the famous bridge from the White Snake story.
As soon as we got back to the apartment in Shanghai, I succumbed fully to the cold that I had been fighting all weekend, and collapsed in bed. Sushu brought my dinner to me. <3
Happy Mayan Non-Apocalypse
The idea that the world is going to end tomorrow due to Mayan prophecy is so silly that it hopefully needs no debunking.
Even if the Maya did predict the world would end on Dec 21, 2012, there's no reason to think that prediction would be any more accurate than any of the other predicted doomsday dates that have come and gone without incident. But the Maya didn't predict the world would end on Dec 21, 2012. Nothing of the sort.
Since I enjoy tracing the lineage of crackpot ideas, I looked into where and how this nonsense started.
Tomorrow, in the Mayan Long Count calendar, is the end of the 13th B'ak'tun. Contrary to popular culture, the calendar doesn't "end" tomorrow, it just rolls over to the next B'ak'tun. The date will be 184.108.40.206.0. It's not a prediction of doomsday any more than the Gregorian calendar predicted doomsday by rolling over to a new millenium in 2001. I guess if computers used Mayan dates we might be dealing with a kind of "y220.127.116.11.0" problem right now, but that's about it.
There are plenty of references to dates after 18.104.22.168.0 in ancient Mayan writings like the recently discovered wall carvings in Xultun. So they clearly didn't think the world was going to end. There is only one Mayan text that predicts anything at all happening on 22.214.171.124.0, and it is merely a vague reference to an appearance by the god Bolon Yokte. It seems more likely they thought of the end of the cycle as a date to celebrate than as the end of anything.
Present-day Mayans are certainly not real impressed by the 2012 hysteria.
That's the other weird part of this 2012 doomsday business -- we keep talking like the Mayans are a vanished people. They're not. Despite the genocidal attempts of Europeans, there are about 7 million Mayan people (i.e. descendants of one of the Maya groups and/or speakers of one of the Maya languages) living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras today.
We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.
-- Rigoberta MenchĂș, Guatemalan of Mayan ancestry, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
As I've written before, pretending that native Americans had some kind of magic powers is perhaps slightly better than pretending they were savages, but it's still a falsehood based on racist stereotypes.
Anyway, where did the prediction of apocalypse on December 21, 2012 come from? Not from the Maya themselves, but from a German scholar, Ernst FĂ¶rstemann. In the early 1900s he examined a Mayan book of dates and astronomical predictions called the Dresden Codex. At that time, the only part of the Mayan writing system that westerners had translated were the dates; so all FĂ¶rstemann had to go on was the dates and the pictures. The last page of the Dresden Codex features a illustration of a sky lizard vomiting water. Speculating wildly, FĂ¶rstemann interpreted it as a prediction of an apocalyptic flood at the end of the B'ak'tun cycle.
FĂ¶rstemann's interpretation of the Dresden Codex says more about the western Judeo-Christian tradition (obsessed as it is with floods and doomsday prophecies) than it says about Mayan culture.
An American archaeologist named Michael Coe reproduced FĂ¶rstemann's ideas about the significance of the date in his 1966 book The Maya. It became popular with various 60s new-age hippie gurus, who interpreted 126.96.36.199.0 (conveniently falling on the Winter Solstice, 2012) not as the apocalypse but as a date of spiritual transformation or awakening. But in recent decades American popular culture (the X-files, that horrible disaster movie, pseudoscience specials on the Discovery Channel, etc) got ahold of the idea and turned the hippies' spiritual transformation back into an apocalypse.
So what we're dealing with here is a Hollywood misunderstanding of a new-age misunderstanding of an archaeological misunderstanding of a Mayan tradition that didn't predict anything in particular.
Some 2012 doomsayers even believe they know the precise agent of the apocalypse: There is an urban legend, or conspiracy theory, or something, about a rogue planet called Nibiru which is going to make a close approach to the earth; its gravity, or maybe its magnetic field, is going to wipe out civilization. This idea was started in 1995 by a woman who believed that she was recieving messages from aliens in her brain. She originally predicted Nibiru would destroy civilization in 2003. But since nothing happend in 2003, she moved the date to 2012 to coincide with the Mayan date 188.8.131.52.0.
A hilarious part of the conspiracy thoery is that a missing patch data in Google Sky was intentionally blocked out to hide the existence of Nibiru. (Hint: if Nibiru was really appraoching, blocking out Google Sky wouldn't do anything. Anybody could point a telescope at that part of the sky and see it for themselves.) What's not funny at all is that some people - children even - have been freaking out over the Nibiru rumors, to the point of considering suicide. NASA scientist David Morrison, who answers questions on the site "Ask an Astrobiologist", has has had to become something of an expert in trying to talk people out of their irrational fears.
Doomsday scenarios: Not harmless, no matter how goofy they sound. And yet, debunking them never seems to do any good. When the world doesn't end tomorrow, I'm sure the doomdsay crowd will simply pick a new date to fixate on. Some people need to believe the world is about to end. Who knows why? Maybe it helps their personal problems seem smaller, maybe it gives more historical significance to the time they happened to be born in, maybe it's a way of avoiding having to plan for the future. Maybe people react to the overwhelming change and complexity of modern civilization by imagining a future drastically simplified by cataclysm.
But whatever. Appropriating (and misunderstanding) other cultures' beliefs doesn't make your doomsday predictions any more believable. And Mayan culture should really not be blamed for this kind of crackpottery.
Back to 1942
week year I saw a Chinese movie about the Henan famine of 1942. A bad drought combined with the Japanese invasion (and a Chinese central government pulling grain out of drought-stricken Henan to feed its army) caused about 3 million people to starve to death, no joke.
The English title is "Back to 1942". It is amazingly well-crafted, ambitious, and beautiful, but emotionally devastating. All I could do for an hour afterwards was make this face:
Most movies about real-life tragedies are too heavy-handed. One horrible event follows another until they start to lose their emotional impact. Even though the movie isn't any good, you feel bad criticizing it, because the subject matter really is important. But a movie that's all "THE WORLD MUST NEVER FORGET" instead of telling a story is the cinematic equivalent of having to eat your vegetables.
1942 avoided that pitfall. It didn't make me emotionally numb because it had nuance and contrast and variation, weaving together stories of many different people making choices on many different scales. It had a lot to say about politics and human nature beyond just "Famine sucks".
...Like, how crises peel away the veneer of civilization to reveal humanity as frightened, hungry mammals. We see the social structure in complete collapse. People stripped of all dignity and culture, caring only about survival. Pointing guns at their starving neighbors because, well, my own family comes first and we don't have anything to spare for you and I know you're going to try to steal it. Nothing personal.
There are all sorts of cool subtle parallels. We see corrupt provincial ministers politicking over how relief grain shipments are to be distributed, and we see refugees fighting over a packet of crackers. The ministers have nicer clothes and use more polite words, but the underlying dynamic, the desperate need to grab what you can before someone else does, is exactly the same.
The scene where the Japanese planes are bombing the refugee lines was really hard to watch. After some movies where horrible things happen I can tell myself "it's just a movie". Not this one, though. Sushu's grandparents lived through this. They fled to Sichuan province where they took refuge from Japanese bomber runs by hiding in caves.
The portrayal of Chiang Kai-Shek is very nuanced. For years, due to Communist censorship, mainland Chinese movies only showed him as the villain; a corrupt tyrant who gets overthrown by the heroic Communists. So it's kind of amazing how not-villainized he is in this film. He comes off as a well-meaning man who is just waayyy out of his depth. A good soldier but not a good politician, thrust into a no-win situation, surrounded by men who are afraid to tell him bad news, making mistakes which contribute to a lot of deaths.
Aside from the clear-cut evil of the Japanese invaders, 1942 isn't much interested in identifying heroes and villains for the audience. I'm used to American movies where heavy-handed music and dialogue constantly remind you who you're supposed to like and who you're supposed to hate. 1942 is like: here are these people faced with horrible choices. This guy made this choice, and he lived. This guy made the other choice, and he died. Like there's a bit where the Japanese are toying with two prisoners of war. One guy refuses to submit to their humiliations, and they kill him. The other guy submits, and lives. In some movies the guy who refused would be a hero, meant to rouse us all with his defiance. Here, he's just dead.
But seeing as how, two months into the famine, the living are utterly without hope, and openly envying the dead... who's to say the alive guy is better off? It makes you think some really cold thoughts, this movie.
Major spoilers: The ending scene hit me hard. Dongjia (a main character) is sustained through most of the story by the need to protect his family and project hope to keep them going. But he loses them all - one by one, they either die or they get sold into slavery for a few pints of grain. By the end, he has nobody, and so he has nothing left to live for; he's just waiting to die, walking east so he can die closer to home. But then he finds a random girl whose whole family has died, too; he kind of "adopts" her. Suddenly he has a reason to live again.
It got me thinking: Humans survive by making some kind of meaning out of their situation, no matter how horrible. Even if it's a meaning as small as keeping someone else company while you shuffle weakly down the barren road together in search of your next meal. Even those of us who are lucky enough to have houses to live in and food to eat and who aren't getting shot at (and we are very lucky indeed) even for us lucky ones, this fact about life is the same. We're all on a road with death at the end, and maybe finding someone to care about, to create some meaning along the way, is the best any of us can hope for.
You should watch 1942. Just be prepared to experience absolute despair.
Oh, and if I ever complain about food again, somebody punch me please?
Journey to the West: where death is no match for guanxi
I'm reading Journey to the West, the classic Chinese novel, or rather I'm reading the abridged translation of it by Anthony C. Yu.
(If you're not familiar: Journey to the West is based on the true story of a Chinese Buddhist monk, named Xuanzang or Tripitaka, who journeyed to India in order to bring a copy of the original Buddhist scriptures back to China during the Tang dynasty, ~800s AD. But over the centuries it's been embellished into a mythological fantasy, starring Tripitaka's companion, Sun Wukong the Monkey King, who steals the spotlight for much of the story. Sun Wukong is the inspiration for Goku in Dragonball and numerous other adaptations in Asian pop culture as well.)
Since it's Significant Cultural Literature and also hella old, I expected it to be somewhat dry. But it's fun! It's totally whimsical and humorous. The irrepressible Sun Wukong basically wages a prank war against heaven, running rampant through the pantheons of three religions, extorting tribute from the Dragons of the Four Seas, stealing the Peaches of Immortality and beating up the Ten Kings of the Underworld with his superior kung-fu, before he's finally out-pranked by the Buddha himself. Buddha imprisons him in a mountain for 500 years and then binds him into Tripitaka's service.
The story is told in this digressionary style that keeps going off on random tangents. Even the tangents have tangents. It takes fourteen chapters before anybody even starts journeying west! And that's in the abridged version! I hate to think how many side-quests the full version has. It's also constantly busting out poetry. When they cross a mountain there's poetry about how scary the mountain is; when they put on armor there's poetry about how cool the armor looks; when they fight there's poetry about how fierce the battle is. There's more poetic interruptions than Lord of the Rings.
Anyway, I wanted to share a quotation with you because I think it says something interesting about Chinese culture. This bit is from a tangent within a tangent. Taizong, the Tang Emperor, is dying due to a curse. The ministers and the Queen Mother are already arranging his funeral. But his loyal advisor Wei Zheng has a plan. Wei Zheng says:
"Let Your Majesty be relieved. Your subject knows something which will guarantee long life for Your Majesty."
"My illness", said Taizong, "has reached the irremediable stage; my life is in danger. How can you preserve it?"
"Your subject has a letter here", said Wei, "which I submit to Your Majesty to take with you to Hell and give to the Judge of the Underworld, Jue."
"Who is Cui Jue?", asked Taizong.
"Cui Jue", said Wei, "was the subject of the deceased emperor, your father: at first he was the district magistrate of Cihou, and subsequently he was promoted to vice-president of the Board of Rites. When he was alive, he was an intimate friend and sworn brother of your subject. Now that he is dead, he has become a judge in the capital of the Underworld, having in his charge the chronicles of life and death in the region of darkness. He meets with me frequently, however, in my dreams. If you go there presently and hand this letter to him, he will certainly remember his obligation toward your lowly subject and allow Your Majesty to return here. Surely your soul will return to the human world, and your royal countenance will once more grace the capital."
When Taizong heard these words, he took the letter in his hands and put it in his sleeve; with that, he closed his eyes and died.
I love the idea that dying is just another formality which you can easily work around if you have connections in the underworld bureaucracy. Also, your bros are so important that a little thing like being dead won't stop you from paying back a favor. Such is the power of guanxi.
Yo Russell Crowe, I'm happy for you and I'ma let you finish, but Norm Lewis is the best Javert of all time. OF ALL TIME!
Saw the new movie version of Les Miserables with Sushu's family on Christmas morning. Thought it was really good! I cried a little.
That might have had less to do with the quality of this particular adaptation and more with the fact that this is the first time I followed the story all the way through. Kind of ashamed to say it, but when I saw the stage version years ago, I couldn't follow the plot. I was like, who are all these new characters who just showed up? What are they singing about now? What the heck is this barricade they're fighting over? (Answer: it was a failed student uprising in Paris of 1832, between the second French Revolution and the third French Revolution.)
I found the movie a lot easier to follow. There's a lot of stuff from the book that is really hard to portray on a stage but can be shown in a movie -- like Valjean dragging Marius through the sewers; I had no idea that was a thing that happened until seeing the movie version. So this was the first time feeling the emotional impact of the story. I could do without so much of Marius' man-pain and I wish Cosette got some character development of her own instead of just being a symbol to inspire the men, but overall for a story written in the 1860s it's pretty good.
And it's got some amazing songs. I've been kind of obsessed with it. Me and Sushu sang a lot of numbers from Les Mis on our road trip to Seattle. I'm gonna ask my accordion teacher if I can learn some of those songs next!
Sushu told me that, back when she was in high school, she once planned out an epic Les Mis / Rurouni Kenshin crossover fanfic. (She had to abandon writing it because she couldn't reconcile 1830s France with 1890s Japan in a historically accurate way. Of course.) That's my awesome wife for you, everybody!
Lessons from Martin Luther King
I've been reading A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. It tells the story of the USA from Columbus to the War on Terror, from the perspective of the downtrodden: Indians, slaves, women, poor tenant farmers, immigrants, factory workers, etc. It contrasts the "official" story, the one based on presidents and other powerful people, with the first-hand accounts of the people on the bottom who lived through these events.
What I like about the book is that most of it is quotations from original sources. So even if you don't like Zinn's commentary, you can read for yourself what people were saying about the times they lived in, and draw your own conclusions. There is a lot of powerful, defiant, inspiring stuff written by people who were ground down for centuries.
I spent most of yesterday on buses and airplanes, so I had a lot of time to read. Since it was MLK day I decided to flip forward to Zinn's chapter about the Civil Rights movement.
Confession time: When I was younger I was one of those sheltered white kids who didn't really understand why Martin Luther King was such a big deal. The story we hear in school is heavily sanitized: The south had segregation, it was unfair, but then MLK made a lot of inspiring speeches, and now there's no segregation anymore, hooray!
To understand the true extent of Dr. King's heroism you have to understand the evil and brutality of the entrenched power structure the Civil Rights movement was working against.
Zinn analyzes the roots of racism as a strategy by elites in the early days of American colonization: plantation owners knew that if poor whites ever teamed up with slaves, they'd have the strength to overthrow the aristocracy. By teaching poor whites to hate blacks, the elites pitted the two groups against each other and secured their own position on top. Not sure that's the only explanation, but it sure is thought-provoking.
By winning the Civil War, the North could force the South to end official slavery, but it couldn't end the hatred of black people that whites had had drilled into them for centuries. The Fifteenth Amendment could guarantee voting rights to blacks on paper, but without sustained federal intervention it couldn't guarantee them in practice: As soon as the Reconstruction governments went home, whites started using mob violence to stop blacks from voting (this was the period when the Klu Klux Klan was first formed) and southern state governments went to work re-implementing every part of the white-supremacist power structure except slavery.
(Sad fact I discovered: California voted against ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment, because it was afraid of having to give the vote to Chinese immigrants. True story. Shame on you, California!)
And this system of white supremacy, enforced by violence, was still in force by Dr. King's time. Jim Crow wasn't just about having to go to different schools and drink out of different water fountains: it was about the fact that a mob of white vigilantes would beat you up, or lynch you and hang you, if you were a black person trying to claim your equal rights. And the police would watch and do nothing. Or join in the violence. Or arrest the victims. And the courts (where you weren't allowed to serve on a jury) would acquit the murderers.
So the story of the Civil Rights movement is the story of standing up to this violence. When activists peacefully staged sit-ins at the counters of whites-only diners, they were beaten and arrested. When activists boycotted segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, white supremacists firebombed Martin Luther King's house. When activists registered black people to vote in the summer of 1964, white supremacists murdered them. When the Freedom Riders rode through Birmingham, the white local police joined with the KKK in attacking them. When the Civil Rights movement marched on Washington, white supremacists retaliated by bombing a church, killing four innocent girls.
And the Civil Rights movement appealed to the federal government to protect them from racist violence, and the federal government paid lip service to the idea, but they had the FBI infiltrate and subvert Civil Rights groups. They put Martin Luther King under illegal FBI surveillance, all as part of a heavily-classified program called COINTELPRO, under the pretense of suppressing Communist activity. Meanwhile conservatives in Congress staged the longest filibuster in history against the Civil Rights bill.
Somehow the version of Civil Rights history we got in school glossed over the extent of the murderous evil they were up against. Possibly on purpose, to avoid offending the powerful.
Against all this evil, Dr. King didn't just have courage, moral imagination, charisma, and inspiring speeches. Those are all important, but they're not enough to end a system of oppression as entrenched as Jim Crow. But Dr. King had something else: He had a strategy. A smart one.
The strategy was to, by peaceably demanding their rights, provoke a violent backlash from white supremacists, and then to turn the other cheek and maintain the moral high ground. Thus they'd show to the world the violence, brutality, injustice, and evil of the forces maintaining the status quo. And by so doing, get public opinion on their side, in order to create the needed political pressure to get civil rights legislation passed and (more importantly) actually enforced by the national government.
In his letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King says:
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored...
...and then later...
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Some say this was naiive, that non-violent resistance alone would have led only to more lip-service (e.g. the earlier civil rights acts which congress had passed but were not enforced at the state level) without Malcom X and the Black Panthers to be the "bad cops" and show America that black people were ready to fight violence with violence for their equality if they couldn't get it through nonviolent pressure.
Nevertheless, Dr. King kept going out in public and organizing and making speeches and doing his thing even though he knew people were literally gunning for him. When your strategy involves provoking a violent reaction from the forces of evil, you have to be prepared to get beat up, to go to jail, to get shot. Dr. King was ready to die for his cause, and he would not be intimidated into giving up, because he wasn't going to let the terrorists win. (Yes, terrorists. White supremacists were using murder and assassination to scare black people away from political action: that's the definition of terrorism.)
Political power comes from the barrel of a gun, and if you really want to change the power structure, you're going to be looking down the barrel of that gun sooner or later. The American power structure talks a nice game about equality and peace and democracy but when it feels itself being seriously challenged, the velvet gloves come off and the iron fist comes out, just like any other government.
It's interesting to contrast the civil rights movement against, say, Occupy Wall Street. The civil rights movement, at great cost, achieved the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights act. (not to say that prejudice is over or that everyone has equality of opportunity - there's clearly far to go.) Occupy may have injected some much-needed ideas back into the national conversation, but it didn't exactly accomplish concrete political goals.
I'm not sure anybody knew what its goals were. Lots of people agree that banks have too much influence over the government; but what, exactly, do you want us to do about it? There was a moment when I think a lot of people had sympathy for Occupy (Something about passively resisting students getting pepper-sprayed in the face by cops). But unlike Civil Rights, Occupy wasn't able to channel that sympathy into anything. It lacked a strategic and charismatic leader like Dr. King. It lacked a forceful message like "End Segregation" to rally people behind.
Occupy Wall Street really should have learned more lessons from Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. (It's not like this is ancient history: there are still Civil Rights veterans alive to learn from, if Occupy was willing to listen.) Anybody who wants to change the world today should study these lessons intently.
One more quotation from Birmingham Jail:
We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation....We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Rocket Science Games - a tale of corporate hubris and epic failure
When browsing the web today I found a retrospective by serial entrepreneur Steve Blank about a failed startup company he started 20 years ago, and the lessons he learned from its failure.
The company was called Rocket Science Games.
Wait a minute... I think I've heard of them. Back in 1993-94 I saw some magazine article about how they were going to revolutionize gaming by fusing Hollywood with Silicon Valley and bringing cinematic storytelling to games, or some buzzword-laden hype like that.
What this meant in practice is that they released a few desultory CD-ROM rail-shooters and Myst clones packed with horrible grainy video clips and lousy gameplay, then disappeared without a trace.
Here's a Wired article about them from the time.
It's fascinating to read the inside story directly from the CEO responsible for this fiasco. He admits his hubris led to their destruction. Rocket Science thought they were hot shit because they built cutting-edge video compression tools to stream FMV off of a CD-ROM faster. They spent millions of dollars building a cool office in San Francisco and hiring all these hotshot Hollywood scriptwriters and cinematographers. But nobody was in charge of game design. It's like they didn't even know game design was a thing. The CEO never even asked to see the gameplay of the games they were making!
He obviously didn't know the first thing about video games, and from his retrospective it seems like he still doesn't. He can barely conceal his contempt for gaming and gamers (neither can the author of that Wired article). He talks about gameplay like it's just some button-mashing to be grudgingly included in between their beautiful video clips. Everybody involved had this attitude that gaming was a terrible adolescent boy pastime about mindless violence and they were going to come in and elevate it with their highbrow focus on Story.
It certainly provides some insight into why the CD-ROM game craze of the mid-90s happened, and why most of the games so quickly ended up in the bargain bin; they were funded by people riding a hype bubble who didn't particularly want to be making video games at all and lacked the curiosity to try to understand what they were making.
If your prime directive is "must use all these video clips" and nobody's in charge of game design then you're going to turn out rail shooters and Myst clones by default (two of the shallowest, most boring, most mindless game genres).
A company that's 100% focused on the technology gimmick they're trying to push and 0% focused on what their potential customers actually want from a product will, unsurprisingly, make things that nobody wants.
The roots of anti-Chinese stereotypes
TeoTheo asked a question on an old post of mine ("How to Make Up Bullshit About China and Get It Published"). I'm responding in a new post, because nobody will see his question or my answer on the old post.
"One of my professors used the theory about why Chinese work harder than Americans in his class. He went through the entire script that Chinese worked the rice fields and that it took them six hours or something to get a result, while the US Farmers had to work simply 40 hours per week to get results in the wheat fields. Is there an explanation as to why the Chinese work harder, or is this just a statement based off prejudice?"
You're skipping a step here. Before asking "why do the Chinese work harder" you should stop and say "Hey, is it a true fact that Chinese people work harder?". A lot of people skip this step, in all sorts of contexts. They jump straight to "why" before they check whether the "fact" they're explaining is actually a fact.
And if you ask "Do Chinese people work harder?" then you should ask "Compared to who?" And "How do we measure how hard someone works?" Average hours worked per week? Worker productivity per hour? Where do we get the data to make this comparison? Are we talking about Chinese people in China or Chinese-Americans?
If your professor actually said that US farmers only had to work 40 hours a week in the wheat fields, he's probably full of shit. The 40-hour work week we have in America has nothing to do with how long our farming ancestors had to work -- it was a hard-won achievement of the labor movement during the industrial revolution, along with a lot of other worker treatment standards that we take for granted today.
If workers in China work longer hours (under worse conditions, for less pay) compared to workers in America, it's probably not because they want to -- it's because China has shitty worker protection laws (ironic, for a country that still claims to be Communist), and because it's got a ton of people from poor rural provinces competing for a limited number of factory jobs in the cities. If you're trying to explain a difference between the hours people work in China vs America, there's no need to invoke ancient agricultural habits -- look at labor laws, look at political systems, look at basic economics.
If you're talking about Chinese-Americans versus other groups of Americans, then you bet your ass this is a statement based off prejudice. To see how the prejudice got started, all you have to do is look at racist 19th-century political cartoons and the arguments supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The following is a very, very rough overview of this period of history. Sushu and Bankuei both know a lot more about it than I do. (Maybe they will add some details?)
Lots of Chinese people came to America in the 19th century trying to escape poverty and earn some money to send back to their families. White Americans wanted cheap labor power (to work in the mines and to build the transcontinental railroad
, among other things) and could get away with paying Chinese immigrants shitty wages because the immigrants had little to no negotiating power.
But at the same time as we wanted cheap labor, white Americans were scared of Chinese people because oh my god, they look different and they write different and they have a different religion and they wear their hair funny (queues were mandatory on men until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 or so).
We were so freaked out that we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese people, unlike any other nationality, were forbidden from immigrating to the US. This lasted from 1882 until fucking 1943. We also passed a bunch of laws banning Chinese people from professions that we thought were too good for them. (You know the stereotype of Chinese people running laundromats? It's kind of an old one, I think it's finally dying out, but the reason that started was because America had legally excluded Chinese people from so many other professions that in some cases laundry was all they were allowed to do.)
This was all justified by, first of all, paranoid ranting about how the Chinese immigrants were all secretly preparing America for invasion and conquest by China (aka "The Yellow Peril" aka "White people's fear that they would be treated the same way they'd been treating everyone else for the past few centuries")
...and second, by making white people afraid that Chinese immigrants were going to steal their jobs, because Chinese people could work longer hours for lower pay, because unlike white people Chinese people had no wives or children to support and were happy living in conditions of unimaginable squalor and were generally not quite human. Conveniently ignoring the fact that it was the white business owners who were making them living in conditions of unimaginable squalor by forcing them to work long hours for low pay in the first place! And they didn't have wives or children with them because the racist immigration laws had forbade them to bring their wives and children with them from China!
This is how racism works: it creates its own self-justifying circular logic.
If you dig into how a lot of stereotypes got started, they're basically "The majority group passed laws to keep you poor, and now we make fun of you for being poor." Like, you know the stereotypes about what kinds of food African-Americans supposedly like? The traditional cuisine of black people in the south was the result of making the best they had with cheap ingredients, because they couldn't afford to eat anything better, because centuries of slavery and Jim Crow laws had made sure they were poor.
Over time, the Chinese stereotype slowly morphed into the more positive, but still prejudicial attitude of "Oh those Asians, they're so hard-working". But America's racism towards underpaid immigrant workers hasn't improved that much since then; it's just that most of the hate has transferred from Chinese immigrants to Hispanic "illegals".
Even though it seems positive on the surface, "Chinese people are hardworking" has a dark side -- it's called the "model minority myth". It implies that if any other ethnic group hasn't done as well as the Chinese, it's their own fault for being lazy and they just need to try harder.
Today I learned: the origins of Memorial Day
How Memorial Day Was Stripped of Its African-American Roots | Dominion of New York
What we now know as Memorial Day began as âDecoration Dayâ in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. It was a tradition initiated by former slaves to celebrate emancipation and commemorate those who died for that cause.
As I'm now learning from reading Howard Zinn, there was a period in the late 1800s when most of the gains African Americans had made during Reconstruction were rolled back. The Northern Republicans in power essentially reneged on their promise to push for full equality for black people. Deciding it was more important to get the South on board with the project of nationwide industrialization, they stopped pursuing Reconstruction policies in order to appease racist Southern Democrats.
It was in that context that the modern version of Memorial Day as an apolitical holiday, honoring dead soldiers in general, got propogated. Celebrating emancipation was considered too divisive by a national government trying to bring the South back into the fold.
I did not know this! Memorial Day is going to have a whole different meaning for me from now on.