Thursday, December 27, 2012

Found in notes (12-13-2012)

Fellow martyr—
          lie with me.

Cover the earth with the spread of our corpses;
fall into overturned furrows,
the clean soil and the gravity,
body pressed against the chiseled neatness of lined earth.

Such peaceful sleep. We will come to rest,
hand in hand,
the other wing returned
to level ground.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Lunar Times

Neat! This site from Helmer Aslaksen of the National University of Singapore describes how to calculate the Lunar New Year and other important Chinese holidays, based on the movements of the moon. In Ancient China, there used to be a government body, the Board of Mathematics, to carry out this function, though in the modern age, calendar-making has been privatized. My parents bring back a stack of lunar calendars from Taiwan every year, to distribute to family and friends.

If the goal is preserving tradition in daily life, it seems like it would be extremely useful for a society to have institutions whose sole cause is planning cultural affairs and defining and maintaining customs. That's why an executive ministry to govern cultural issues, with a real commitment to tradition, would be so interesting! (Not to sound monarchist, but an imperial body that claims a centuries-long legacy would potentially have more investment in cultural preservation and the esprit de corps to match).

Then again, in setting dates, the Board of Mathematics did not simply pinpoint occasional, optional celebrations. Lives and livelihoods were in the balance, as farmers relied on the agricultural calendar to time the sowing of crops. It was a genuine public service; the creation of the calendar helped to frame the activities of a whole year. So perhaps this is more like an NBER or an EIA, but with cultural implications.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Such a lovely tragedy,
repeated knife wounds to the heart.
The clean, sharp cuts of a well-honed blade,
metallic and ruthless,
shimmering in the dark.

Precise, proportioned jabs,
each with the force
to separate
              flesh    from     bone
pare the emotions;
such deliberate strokes!

Each cut liberates anew.
Each incision draws out a clean line of blood,
unraveling the tangled wires of emotional attachment.
We will clear this thicket yet!

Each slice, another
Gordian knot unwound,
coming loose,
falling uselessly away.

No need for such bindings any longer.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

There's a story in here somewhere

At the end of the quarter, with exams looming and deadlines imminent, there's always the feeling of "Damn, I could have used that hour. I wish I hadn't wasted all that time last week on --------." It's in those moments that I wish we could bank free time and use the roll-over minutes when we need them. Instead of procrastinating on YouTube, I'd just make a deposit now and jump forward to the next assignment.

However, if we were actually graced with such a beneficent arrangement, it'd probably be a good idea for the Universe to impose a limit on the use of roll-overs per project. Otherwise, you might accidentally use up the precious minutes where you could have saved the Titanic, on a problem set -- and then really regret it

#storyidea #timemanagement

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Invited Inspiration

One of these days, we are going to have the Facebook record of a literary or artistic group, a Generación del 27 or a Ballets Russes perhaps. We will be able to look back and see all the luminaries and balletic lights gathered for a Christmas party, or a hike to the woods, or a holiday dinner. It won't be mythical or poetically imagined, a wooden table under a tree by the dusty road side, oh Andalucía!, but have a name and a place and an address.

Scholars will delight as they comb through the records of our new Lorca's timeline, or discover a 21st-century Diaghilev hosting Nijinsky and asking Lydia Sokolova to bring loose-leaf tea. In 2020, the next Lawrence Ferlinghettii will still reference and publish the next Giinsberg, but readings at Ciity Liights could be traced online. We will have the URL of the next first reading of "Howll" -- what a page! -- and probably the podcast too.

When that day comes, Facebook will not just be a functional intermediary; it will also give us a sense of context and place, becoming both historical artifact and historian, by golly. We will marvel at how Zhimo 志摩 and Shih-qiu 實秋 and Hu Shih 胡適 all gathered together, and the Crescent Moon will be at once mysterious, and lofty, and wonderful, and tangible.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Escape. Such is dignity and grace.

Lin Huiyin devoted herself to the study of traditional Chinese architecture, as part of her generation's mission of social reform and renewal. She recognized “the necessity to winnow the past and discriminate among things foreign," while thinking with great care about "what to preserve and what to borrow.” It was a great loss that she died young, of tuberculosis in 1955; but perhaps there was some element of grace, for Lin was spared the nightmares that were to come. The horrors soon to engulf her husband Liang Sicheng, and their circle of friends and colleagues, would not have left her untouched.

Though her early death was tragic, some solace might be found in the idea that she was spared the descent into hell on earth: chaotic, tempestuous, murderous times, with punishments and executions levied for categorical faults, for free speech and thought crimes. Such was the country under Socialism, characterized by the onslaught of enormous political campaigns that consumed countless innocents.

We can weep for China, but I wonder if we should be glad that Huiyin escaped.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Modern Viennese Dance

For Thursday's Viennese Ball rehearsal, the choreographers declared, "All follows should wear white. And all the leads must wear a black-colored top." So the men of Opening obliged:

Here's how the choreographer reacted ...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Origin and Future

I've been reading a variety of articles about the leadership transition in China (the 18th Party Congress of the CCP is underway) and the positions of different leaders, including their support for liberalization/resistance to reform. In particular, this essay by Paul Monk, which makes some insightful historical allusions and references key Chinese intellectuals at the turn of the last century, provoked a reaction in me. I jotted these lines in response, as we await the ascendance of the new leadership:

A wellspring is memorial

Democrats hail from Thomas Jefferson,
the Republicans are the party of Lincoln.
You, leaders and adherents: whence came your Party?
Whose portrait hangs above your colonnades of gold and crimson?

Can you disavow the crimes of the past to begin anew?
Have courage! What pride is there in poisoned roots?
Or do you slink along with eyes firmly closed --
Set mute all tragedy! Dampen the truth!

Surrounded by memories in the streets assembling,
flooding the steps, the square is swelling.
With phantoms trailing in your wake,
pulse swiftly racing, you dash up the staircase 
-- and slam the door behind you.
Such is the portal to high office!

The ghosts do not disappear, but gather below
handfuls and hundreds outside your window.
Ones tens ten-thousands, deepen, upwell, 
the severals and scores become concerts and choruses.
It's an ocean of hope -- a broad, smooth sea
a wide river delta joined by many streams.

They lift misty eyes bright with
the iridescence of June morning, still shimmering from promises of May.
There once was spring ... 

They are not vengeful spirits, but martyred sons and daughters,
a stillborn dream, a dream still borne;
they will yet set you free!

They carry no hatchets in their sleeves,
they hide no garrotes in their pockets;
No sickles, no daggers,
no bullets or hammers;
only bright blossoms and streaming pens:
the poetry of lofted banners, the symphony of chained hands.

Take heart, for the streets do not run red.
They are filled with warbles of ev'ning song instead.
Beneath the gentle chatter, the shuffling gait of citizens on stroll,
the cobbles radiate the living patience -- the lifelong forbearance! -- of a gentle people.

Step down from such high places!
Open your heart to the melodies of day and night.
Prick your ears for a tune of utter freedom,
Hear our sacral song take flight.

for we will absolve you

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tagore, City and Village

Tanushree, this passage I read today made me think about the question you posed, and which we periodically discussed: "What does a prosperous village look like?"

Can we have people thriving in a modern agricultural context, able to cultivate the land and live in solid, comfortable homes? With access to economic opportunity, supportive family ties and healthy psychologies? Enough mobility, while feeling rooted, with a sense of place? That kind of stable, yet worldy and connected, community would be an important salve for the anomie of urbanized life. It provides an alternative approach to what we currently see as the model of "development."

From a book review:
"Tagore was drawn to the agrarian milieu of pre-capitalist India, to the villages where divinely ordained dispensation had a spiritual context. Urbanizing, modernizing India is fleeing from Tagore’s ideal, a circumstance Mishra has examined to beautiful effect in 'Butter Chicken in Ludhiana' (1995) and 'Temptations of the West' (2006), non-fiction books covering the contemporary Indian and Asian scene. Tagore’s radiant words enshrine a wisdom against which India’s geopolitical ascendancy can be measured."
So perhaps we can add to the list of the characteristics of a prosperous village a reverence for the natural world and a relationship to the divine.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Fitzgerald, meet Huxley

"Can someone please invent soma?"

"I forget what that is. Isn't that from Brave New World?" his friend asked.

Oh soma ... "the warm, the richly coloured, the infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday." "she swallowed six half-gramme tablets of soma, lay down on her bed, and within ten minutes had embarked for lunar eternity. It would be eighteen hours at the least before she was in time again."

Telling my friend about soma, I thought of John at the end of "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" murmuring softly to Kismine: "Turn up your coat collar, little girl, the nights full of chill and you'll get pneumonia. His was a great sin who first invented consciousness. Let us lose it for a few hours."

John could have used the right prescription. Oh the benefits of somatake us away from here! More bright descriptions from Huxley of this luminous dot:
"Benito was notoriously good-natured. People said of him that he could have got through life without ever touching soma. The malice and bad tempers from which other people had to take holidays never afflicted him. Reality for Benito was always sunny. "

"'You look glum! What you need is a gramme of soma.'"

"The return to civilization was for her the return to soma, was the possibility of lying in bed and taking holiday after holiday, without ever having to come back to a headache or a fit of vomiting, without ever being made to feel as you always felt after peyotl, as though you'd done something so shamefully anti-social that you could never hold up your head again. Soma played none of these unpleasant tricks. The holiday it gave was perfect and, if the morning after was disagreeable, it was so, not intrinsically, but only by comparison with the joys of the holiday." 
"'All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.'"

"half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon..."
This particular quip, along with other descriptions of how taking soma ends thought, made me think it could be a bit like bottled meditation:
"Was and will make me ill,
I take a gram and only am."
Perhaps that's giving it a bit too much credit. Instead of self-awareness, and the moment ceasing thought, the effect of this drug could potentially just be un-inhibition, so no consideration of future or past is countenanced. I haven't taken any, so I'm unsure.
"'Every soma-holiday is a bit of what our ancestors used to call eternity.'"
In the end, let's just sing: "Hug me, honey, snuggly bunny; Love's as good as soma." Virtually, almost, nearly as good as soma. That love, it's something, ain't it!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

From Vienna: "the hymn of acxiom (1st draft demo)"

Vienna Teng released a track to encourage folks to vote on Election Day. If you cast a ballot (of any kind), she sent you the link for the following song:

What a haunting piece! I don't know if it's reassuring to be constantly understood, or if it verges on Orwellian. It feels like church music, except we're praying at the altar of Big Data -- a hymn to digital life. It also begs the question: if the receiver doesn't think or feel, even if it hears everything and says all the right things in response, are we truly understood?

The novel "The Quantum Thief" is a really great read that might strike a similar chord in readers. The story touches on the creation of new online worlds, private and public space, and the meaning of shared experience. Here's a glowing review of the book from the WSJ:

I was about to head out to practice with the folk band when I heard this song, and it really set the mood for my morning. Thanks, Vienna!

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Civic Culture

Time to take part in our national ritual! In the United States, our civic religion is democracy, and our liturgy is voting. As we celebrate hard-fought, hard-won rights (from Revolution to Abolition, from Equality to Full Enfranchisement), we join hands in this political process to venerate freedom and sustain our civic culture.

Long life to the Republic! Remember that it is strengthened by our participation and aided by our commitment to democratic principles.

See this moving series of photos from The Atlantic Wire: "The Length Americans Are Going to Cast Ballots."

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Wash it white

This line from an article in The New York Times on Asian Americans and affirmative action kind of pisses me off:
"More important, some argue, Asian-Americans themselves benefit from the campus diversity the system produces. Schools where admission is purely through a test, like the elite public New York City high school Stuyvesant, often have large percentages of Asian-Americans. The University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles are more than half Asian. That doesn’t help them integrate effectively, to pierce what some call the bamboo ceiling in the corporate and political worlds."
So we should "integrate effectively" by acting white? The problem of discrimination originates with the person who discriminates, not with the victim.

While I support diversity, and believe it is vital to respect and learn about the experiences of other cultural groups, this backward line of reasoning appears to delegitimate the heavily "Asian American" experience of students at UCB and UCLA. Somehow, they're "too Asian", and that's why they can't break through the bamboo ceiling? Maybe the bamboo ceiling is the problem, and the AsianAm culture extant at Berkeley is actually a legitimate form of being.

There may be features of the culture at those institutions that can be adjusted -- we can always talk about that -- but just because they don't mimic the dominant forms of the mainstream doesn't make them wrong.

Look, I get that there are advantages in learning to "play nice" and interact with people of different races. That's all well and good. But you shouldn't have to pretend to be something you are not in order to get ahead. That's like telling Tibetan minorities in China, "You should learn Mandarin and stop acting so Tibetan. That way you can reap the benefits of China's economic growth." That may be a personally strategic course of action, but you shouldn't have to do that just to live a decent life or be treated with dignity. Otherwise, you deny the validity of the minority community's way of life.

Just my off the cuff reaction.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

逆光 Against the Light

Three former officers in the Taiwanese military were arrested today for acts of treason. (From the WSJ: "Taiwan Arrests 3 for Spying for China") I've jotted down my reaction to this enormous betrayal; for to betray Taiwan is no ordinary crime, but one that sentences a dream to die.

Against the Light

I cry because you are selling out a democratic island—a bastion of freedom and tolerance holding strong amidst the swelling waves. You seek to tear down this radiant lighthouse, a resolute beacon in a sea of oppression. You shatter the dream that might yet be; a world of liberty and love that shines so brightly it pierces then dispels the enveloping gray fog.

For the sake of greed and material gain, you have betrayed our fiercely beloved: the caring society that birthed and raised you, that touches you still. This green land, of diverse views, utter kindness and open hearts. It is the land of your children and of your children's children. How can their freedom mean nothing?

Intolerable treason! You say that nothing we hold dear should stand sacred; that the impulse of money and the lure of power overcome faith and comity and trust. We reject this. We pity you, and we disdain your twisted ways.

Where is it written that liberty must inevitably be slain by economics? That ideals must surrender to avarice? No, it is the daily killing—the subtle knife of complacency, of nonchalance, of corruption—that leads to its death, not some foregone historical pronouncement.

You have destroyed conscience for personal gain. How can you sacrifice so many? Your only mission in life is to fight tyranny in all its forms, and in so doing, express your love for country and for all humanity. This betrayal cuts to the core, for you would that people be deprived of their freedom—freedom to think, to speak to, to be. You sentence not only we who are of your homeland
, la patria, but the multitudes who yet live under the yoke, or may one day be born captive.

Can the hopes and aspirations of so many be worth so little? Be a thief, but do not murder the dream that is to be lived.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Up until now, I thought of "voter suppression" as a mildly annoying problem that had some faint potential to swing the election. An inconvenience really, but not a critical issue except in close races. But while reading today's profile of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted's serial attempts to cut early voting options and throw out certain types of ballots (props to Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic for his reporting), it suddenly dawned on me that voter suppression is much more pernicious than I'd once thought. It is indicative of graver issues, reflecting a dangerous undercurrent of intolerance in America.

The behavior of Republicans like Husted and many others like him, who attempt to restrict legitimate participation in the electoral process, makes me feel like these white voters just don't like the way minority voters cast their ballots and will do what they can to make sure our voices aren't heard.

I'm sorry, but I grew up thinking that the 1960s were over -- that we lived in a tolerant, pluralistic, democratic society. I was wrong. It's so scary and sad that the older you get, the more clearly you see that life isn't the storybook we call "history." Reality is far more sordid.

In suppressing the vote, the idea being communicated is: "Let’s keep those minorities from voting! They’ll vote for change, they’ll vote for things different than what we want!" (Which so often these days seems to be a white-washed version of America, or at least a white-dominated America with minorities kept in their place). "So we’ll just make sure their votes don’t count and their voices aren’t heard. We don’t want them as part of the political process."

You know what that implies? Those minorities aren’t people; they aren’t legitimate citizens; and therefore they shouldn’t be included as part of the political process. Maybe not even as part of America. It’s so dehumanizing, I feel sick to my stomach.

Racism is not gone. It doesn't matter that we are taught not to discriminate when we are young; people still do it. Proudly, it sometimes seems. Racism exists, whether it's draped in the justifications of partisan combat ("Hey, it's just politics, so all this behavior is perfectly legitimate when contesting an election.") or the supposed "defense" of the ballot box by the gathering hordes committing voter intimidation. Their campaigns are not the selfless act of citizenship they purport them to be, but in actuality, a movement motivated by partisan aspirations. Voting fraud is a bad act, but there isn't evidence of any widespread attempts to commit it; it is a rare crime indeed. In any case, this suspicion of minority participation in elections appears to be rooted in a deeper problem of race.

Growing up, I believed we lived in an enlightened society -- that America had learned the lessons from the horrific apartheid conditions enforced in the South by the power of the state and the virulence of the mob. But in some sense, we haven't really. How can I look my international friends in the eye and proclaim the beauty and inclusiveness of democracy when we haven't even achieved this at home?

I never thought I would have to fight these battles in my own country. Maybe I was lucky: I'm from California where race isn't as much of an issue. Perhaps that's because we are a diverse state, with enough immigrants from around the world to fill our classrooms, patronize our shops, share our supermarkets. Almost everybody is from elsewhere, but we all contribute to Silicon Valley, this place we call home. Yet there's so much of this country where that is absent. I have to remind myself from time to time that in most places in the United States, people of Asian descent are a minority. We often aren't seen as part of the social fabric because we simply don't exist! On the occasion that we make an appearance, we are exotic curiosities, "that Asian family" that just moved into town because the father got a job at the nearby state school doing bioengineering research. (And that poor little Asian girl -- she's going to grow up rejecting her culture and striving to be white. But that's another story.)

By enacting policies of voter suppression, elections become tools to control and to oppress, rather than expressions of a common belief in democracy. When the registrars organizing Election Day make voting about partisanship, rather than a celebration of our democratic ideals, they undermine the power of this rite to unite the nation, to bind us together as a polity. Elections are a contest, no question about it, but participation in the act of voting is supposed to be universal because at our core we share the belief in citizenship and the franchise.

If you don't believe in the idea of "one person, one vote" just say it. If you don't believe all of us should have a voice in the political process, just say it. Then we can have a fight about what democracy really is. It's a question of whether "democracy in America" should be inclusive or exclusive; if society should embrace our myriad families with all our distinct backgrounds, ideas and beliefs; if America should gather all her children together in her arms, or if certain elements should be locked out of the house because they are different -- and then chased across the street and eventually hounded out of town.

The issues here are intertwined and complicated, because it's not just about racism; it's about the franchise. I contend that there's a difference between voting based on ethnic/racial/class/community/cultural identity (a legitimate expression of politics), compared to voting for a partisan platform that aims to suppress other groups and validates government action to suppress other groups' participation in politics. Perhaps then, my problem with these government and citizen campaigns to intimidate and discount voters isn't just the racist aspect of it, which is problematic in its own right, and thoroughly undesirable, hearkening back to Jim Crow. It's that these voter suppression efforts are deeply undemocratic. In a mature and functioning democracy, you don't win elections by taking the right to vote away from other people; you contest ideas.

Partisan identification maps to culture, and I'm fine with that. I can decide not to vote for a party that has an exclusive, backward-looking vision of America that has no room for my siblings, my parents, my friends and colleagues, that has no room for me. However, it's not just the fact that these people dislike minorities -- that's their personal, possibly unenlightened, preference. It's that they are taking that dislike and proclaiming "those kinds of people don't get to vote." In a democracy, that's unforgivable. (But again, it hits especially hard when you realize people are eliminating your vote on the basis of race.)

In the battle for voting rights, we are not taking taking up the struggle against racism -- at least not head on. But we do have to fight for a voice, because we can't be a democratic society if we deny people the right to vote. I'm pretty confident [okay, I'm somewhat confident; but hey that's what we've got to work with here] that in a truly free, fair, liberal and open democratic system [UPDATE: buttressed by a civic culture and with broad opportunities for educational attainment], minorities won't be as easily intimidated or abused or cordoned off or deprived of rights; and over time, we can change how different groups in society perceive of each other. But if the participatory democratic machinery can't even function, we've got a real problem on our hands.

Racism is a fight for the long haul, and we won't be able to end it now, however nice that would be. But the fight for democracy is a fight for now, and we have to demand it and build it and protect it every single day.

  • I thought "voter suppression" just constituted a few marginal votes being cut out, which is somewhat annoying, but not terrible, except when it tilts a close election.
  • Then I realized this constitutes institutional suppression of the opposition. That is WRONG and a subversion of democracy. Regimes that subvert democracy include Mubarak's Egypt and Putin's Russia.
  • Even worse, that suppression is guided by racist hatred. Even today, in 2012. SCARY!
  • However, the way to address the problem isn't to end racism now. It's impossible to turn over culture so quickly.
  • Instead, we must defend the democratic process and fight for our right to vote, for our own voice, and the voices of everyone in our community, and in all communities.
  • Only by safeguarding civic rights as enshrined in the Constitution can we protect minorities from abuse by the majority and combat injustice, even as the larger campaign for a freer and fairer society takes place.
Relevant articles:
"The Ballot Cops" (The Atlantic)
"Voting Wrongs" (The New York Review of Books)
James Fallows' roundup of numerous articles

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Typing in Spanish with accents: accented vowels & other letters

Here are the ASCII codes for Spanish letters with accents. To type characters with accents, you can memorize these codes and then input them when typing, holding down ALT and entering the 3-digit code on the numpad. (Make sure numlock is on). Or you can install the Spanish keyboard in Microsoft Windows. I used "Spanish: Spain, International Sort" and under the ¨Keyboard¨options selected ¨Spanish¨. (Do not select "US" because it still doesn't let you type according to the keyboard layout pictured below!)

(en español)

Los códigos ASCII para letras con acento. Se los usa cuando escribe en español por computadora: 

á     160           Á     181
é     130           É     144
í      161           Í      214
ó     162           Ó     224
ú     163           Ú     233
ñ     164           Ñ     165
¿     168           ¡       173          

Memorízalos, e introduzca el código de tres dígitos mientras que pulse la tecla ALT para escribir letras con acento.

El alternativo es instalar el teclado español en Microsoft Windows. Bajo opciones de lenguaje, eliga "Spanish: Spain, International Sort". En la opción de teclado, eliga "Spanish". (No eliga "US" porque esa opción todavía no le permite escribir los acentos usando el formato en la ilustración.)

Por los sitios siguientes: (ilustración) (en inglés) (en español)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Poem, found

[from the Harvard Divinity Bulletin]

by Richie Hofmann

—from the leafy, walled-in courtyard beside the house,
where fountain-water trickled

from a river-god’s mouth
into the unseasonable heat of that afternoon, we watched

the heavy bees, clumsy in their flight, humming
against the bricks and orange tree blossoms.

Everywhere we walked, you would point out how the Japanese honeysuckle clings
to the walls and fences like mayflies.

Each star-shaped flower scattered its breath into fragrant burrs,
which the heavy, humid air held around us,

until, as if no longer able to hold,
a downpour,
all the aroma flushed away in the sky’s own sighing—


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Following the Prize

We’ll talk a little good talk, about space and freedom and acceptance of all views—even the ones that seem craven, or feckless, or intentionally blind, or just a bit too convenient.

Yes, no, sometimes, always. The artists and writers on both sides of the debate get skewered. But the real perpetrators, the thugs on the street and in the boardroom, the ones strolling the red carpeted hallways under vaulted ceilings and granite archways—they walk away untouched. They never pay a price, maybe never will; and the wheels keep churning on.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

十十 Double Ten Day, Taiwan’s National Day!

Long live the Republic! Today is Taiwan’s national day, October 10.

#democracy #Asia
Who knew these could coexist?

Plus these things: #eco #tech #culture #tradition #modernity #entrepreneurial #GoodEats #freedom #dissent #elections #vote #MandoPop #iPhone5 #bicycle #compassion #TzuChi

It’s a vibrant and free society with a lot to offer the world. Drop by some time for a visit!

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Dreaming Mind and the End of the Ming World

An event description I quite liked:

“The mid-sixteenth through the mid-seventeenth century saw a notable efflorescence in attention to dreams and dreaming among Chinese intellectuals and constituted a distinct phase in the long history of Chinese ‘dream culture.’ The reasons for this are intimately related to virtually every trend — in philosophy, religion, the literary arts, examination competition, politics, and the fate of the country — that affected the subjective consciousness of literati during the late Ming. This efflorescence was carried into the very early Qing period by survivors of the Ming collapse but petered out when the ‘conquest generation’ passed away. It lost salience with the decline of the cultural matrix that uniquely identifies the late Ming, but it sent certain significant influences onward into the middle Qing period.”

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Requisition Order: 1 Kid Wrangler

I laughed aloud at this job announcement, which was sent to the Dept. of Mechanical Engineering job list.

Sent: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 1:06:48 PM
Subject: After School sitter needed
Frazzled, overworked mom needs some after-school assistance. Will pay for child care and/or spa services!
Place: Los Altos.
Demographic profile: 3 mostly well-behaved, over-scheduled boys (ages 6, 11 and 13), 3 dogs (one 3-legged, 5-lb wonder Chihuahua, one female skittish black lab mix and one too-smart Border Collie bent on herding all the kids into the pool on any given day).
Mission, should you choose to accept it: Ferry said boys from school to home and then to a myriad of typical after-school activities including, but not limited to, music lessons and soccer practice. In between, throw a ball to the dogs and give them tummy rubs. Maybe fold some laundry.
Days/Time: Mon-Fri, 2:30-5:30. Pay: $20/hr.
Tasks include mostly driving so any applicant must have clean driving record and a reasonably safe car. Can provide a vehicle if your personal roadmaster is not exactly child-safe. Role will include occasional errands like picking up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread and very light housework - fold a load of laundry, empty a dishwasher, microwave a snack for the kids, homework assistance which, while technically not housework, is always a good way to get out of said housework. Free snacks, beverages and pantry grazing permitted.
Work to begin immediately. Or last week (bonus can be arranged if you can make that happen). Only hard requirement is that you can deal with 3 boys at once, one of whom thinks he’s a bad-ass teenager. But we live in Los Altos so we are not exactly channeling the thug life here. Can I say that in an email? In any event, I’m an equal opportunity employer. Interested applicants should send an email to

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Sometimes talking to you is like talking to a cloud. You drift all over the horizon, floating in silence, and it’s hard to tell if we’ve gotten anywhere. When I reach out to see if there’s any solid connection between us, my fingers slip through the vapor without making contact. Even if things look meaningfully corporeal, as soon as I extend a hand, they part and disappear. We’re always dancing around each other, except I’m the only one attempting to make this work, while you remain aloof—an unattainable white tower in the sky that I can never touch or reach or even comprehend.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fitzgerald 116

Monday was the 116th birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Born September 24, 1896, he had a helluva life as a keen observer, participant, and sometime trend-setter in flapper society. Aside from his acclaimed novels that chronicled America in the Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald was an expert in crafting short stories. He's one of my favorite writers of that genre.

To celebrate the occasion, here are two of the stories from Fitzgerald that I've enjoyed the most (and which are now in the public domain):

"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" (here)
"The Lees of Happiness" (here)

I also found a neat site that sells fascimile dust jackets replicating the original book covers published by the printers in the early 1900s, and a random, but entertaining post about Fitzgerald's wife Zelda. It's written by some girl calling herself "Jennifer Fabulous," but that certainly seems in the spirit.

Plus a collection of quotes in the CS Monitor and an amusing cocktail named after our man.

Update (9-25-2012) Okay, and some lines from This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald's first novel, that I recently added to FB quotes:

"Overhead the sky was half crystalline, half misty, and the night around was chill and vibrant with rich tension. From the Country Club steps the roads stretched away, dark creases on the white blanket, huge heaps of snow lining the sides like the tracks of giant moles. They lingered for a moment on the steps and watched the white holiday moon."

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Tragedy in the Spanish Republic

I just read a review of a new book that documents atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), when forces under General Francisco Franco rose up in violent insurrection against the Spanish republic. There was widespread violence against civilians and prisoners-of-war, and the event remains a major scar in Spain's history that is only now being examined more fully and honestly.

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain
By Paul Preston (W.W. Norton, 700 pp., $35) 

The reviewer, Yale historian Timothy Snyder, cogently describes the book and summarizes its major implications. One that I thought most interesting was the idea that the conflict heralded the "arrival of neocolonial practices to Europe itself." Here are some key passages from the review:
"PRESTON BEGINS by showing us just what class war, that bogey of American political rhetoric, actually looks like. The lesson of interwar Europe is that there is no political magic in the untamed marketplace. From Poland’s Galicia in the east to Spain’s Galicia in the west, conditions of radical inequality conspired with weak state institutions to turn the energy of capitalism against democracy by generating support for the far Left and the far Right, especially during the Great Depression. In what were still predominantly agrarian societies, only land reform might have taught peasant majorities that they had something to gain from voting and paying taxes. Without it, peasants would support anarchists or communists who promised them relief from the state’s apparently senseless demands, while landholders consolidated their economic power in an antidemocratic reaction. In Spain, the rich sought and found ideologies to mask their interests and champions to protect them. In the 1920s, the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera reassured the owners of estates by condemning reformers as alien to the nation. In his view, anyone who supported any sort of change in the countryside was a communist, and communists were not proper Spaniards....

IT IS HARD TO overstate Preston’s close familiarity with the individual atrocities he documents, one after the other. Early-morning executions in Pamplona attracted large crowds, and with them sellers of hot chocolate. Expectant mothers in the maternity ward in Toledo were taken away and shot. The progressive mayor of Uncastillo was humiliated, tortured, and executed; his corpse was dismembered by an ax. A Republican pilot who crash-landed was murdered, his body cut into pieces, the pieces placed in a box, and the box dropped by parachute over Madrid with a threatening note. Landowners who joined the rebellion also joined in its violence. Their sons would force peasants to dig their own graves before shooting them, laughingly referring to this as “land reform.” Some young señoritos hunted for peasants on their polo ponies. One landowner killed ten peasants for every fighting bull of his that the local population had taken and eaten.

The historical challenge that this book presents for the Roman Catholic Church is considerable. Although some priests sought to prevent violence or shelter those who were under threat, more seemed to have supported the rebellion, and even joined its fighting columns. Some adopted fascist salutes and took direct part in the killing. One priest shot a man who was seeking shelter in a confessional.

Preston is concerned to show that violence from the Right was on a greater scale than violence from the Left during the Spanish Civil War. Contemporary accounts of atrocities came from Madrid, the Republican capital, where reporters and ambassadors could observe and criticize the actions of the Republic but not those of the rebels—with certain exceptions, such as that airdropped corpse. Preston reminds us that prevailing opinion in the British establishment (Churchill was a good example) held at the time that right-wing killings were relatively insignificant. But with the help of massive documentation recently published by Spanish historians, Preston shows that roughly 150,000 Spaniards were murdered on territories controlled by the rebel nationalists, compared with about 50,000 in the Republican zones.

He is also concerned to demonstrate a few differences in the intentions and motivations. The Republic was a state, concerned with the rule of law. After the disruption of law caused by the coup, all of the left-wing parties—socialists, communists, Trotskyites, anarchists—created their own checas (a Soviet term), hit squads to eliminate internal enemies. But the government itself supported the people’s tribunals that replaced the murder units. As the war proceeded, ever fewer people were murdered by the Republican side. The greatest single massacre by the Republican side was of some two thousand prisoners in Madrid as Franco’s forces were approaching the city. This was a terrible atrocity, but it points up a basic difference: Franco’s forces did not usually even take prisoners. The socialist politician Indalecio Prieto gave an eloquent speech in August 1936 urging defenders of the Republic not to murder their enemies, despite the practices of the nationalist rebels: “Do not imitate them! Do not imitate them! Be better than them in your moral conduct!” Though he was not always heeded, he was right to ask in exile if anyone on the other side had issued a similar call for mercy....

Franco’s African Army itself brought the practices of colonialism to Spanish shores. Officers and men boasted that they treated conquered Spanish towns like they treated Moroccan ones. They killed the wounded and the prisoners and the local elites for the same reasons they had in Africa, so as not to leave any possibility for resistance in the rear, and to intimidate the surrounding countryside....

The Soviets would never have achieved the influence they did in Spain without Franco’s coup, which left the Republic desperate for help. After Franco’s victory in early 1939, and for the next three decades of his dictatorship, Franco would systematically exaggerate the extent of Soviet influence, and ignore the obvious fact that his own actions had made Spain the plaything of foreign interests. It is to Preston’s great credit that he resists the polarizing logic of the politics of the era of fascism and anti-fascism. He is not a partisan of anything, except a clear record of mass murder, regardless of the perpetrators and their goals. He certainly does not seek to minimize Soviet violence, or violence perpetrated by the Left in general. He attends to it with the same level of painstaking detail as he does to the atrocities of the Right. When he concludes that the one was substantially worse than the other, this is a careful judgment by a careful historian.

THE HISTORY invites reconsiderations of the European twentieth century. It is hard to overlook the resemblance between the German terror bombing of Guernica in 1937 and the German terror-bombing of Polish cities, beginning with Weilun in 1939. The three basic purposes of Franco’s political terrorism are identical to those of the Germans during the invasion of Poland, which followed the end of the Spanish Civil War by less than six months: the murder of elites who might resist, the intimidation of a population expected to be hostile, and the preparation for a dictatorship to come. For that matter, Franco’s pacification was also similar to the methods the Soviets used when they invaded Poland in 1939. By this time Stalin had reversed course again, accepting an invitation from Hitler to destroy Poland together. That Franco, Hitler, and Stalin all undertook quite similar policies designed to destroy physically an entire political elite in 1939 suggests not only the cruelty of the late 1930s, but also a broader trend in twentieth-century European history.

All three regimes, for all their significant ideological differences, were examples of the arrival of neocolonial practices to Europe itself. The Soviets self-colonized (Stalin’s expression) by collectivizing agriculture in order to build industry; the Germans wanted to colonize eastern Europe to build an agrarian paradise for the Aryan masters; Franco brought colonial troops from Africa in order to restore a traditional agrarian order and oppress an orientalized peasantry. All three of these approaches were ideological alternatives to land reform under democratic conditions, which by and large had failed; all three were economic responses to the Great Depression, which seemed to signal the end of capitalism as such; and all three were political schemes of agrarian domination in a Europe where maritime expansion and thus traditional colonialism no longer seemed possible. In other words, if one brings the history of self-colonizing violence in western Europe (Spain) together with that of central Europe (Germany) and eastern Europe (the USSR), a new model for the twentieth century presents itself. The major theme of European history shifts from colonization to self-colonization by the 1930s. Then, after the disaster of World War II (western Europe) or the demise of communism (eastern Europe), it shifts again from self-colonization to integration—where integration means, precisely, the abandonment of colonial practices both within and without Europe."

I jotted some lines in response to this piece:

To notarize is to bear witness

The end of the Second Republic --
awash in a sea of blood, collapsing into itself, engulfed in flames
the nationalists set fire to what was Spain

In the violence, killing, burning that ensue,
they place the yoke over the countryside again,
restoring the natural order of domination: the landed and the gentry, ruling the agrarian peasant flock,
stewarded by the sanctity of the priest

They mount an attack on the urban center, of novel culture and open ideas,
once teeming and vibrant with life, now thronged with loyalist resistance,
stubborn and hardened -- ¡No pasarán! -- as shells and munitions rain down overhead

the entombment, the entrapment:
re-ossifying the nation into the rigid order of tradition, both pastoral and paleolithic in its Old World mentality,
but murderously corporate -- organized, mechanized, realized
with modern modes of slaughter and inquisition

all while painting a picture of medieval glory,
the celebration of another restoration:
¡Viva el Imperio español!

Woe that the colonizers of the Americas (oh the Fall! such Disaster!)
-- now vested only in Moorish Africa by the arms of the Foreign Legions,
their generals overcoming giants, themselves overcome with honor -- weeping,
bring the civilizing power of the Spanish conquistador to the shores of home.

Under a hail of bullets,
the fires in the hearth and
the clear, shining lights of cities become
pinpoints in a conflagration of civil proportions,
tragic and unyielding beacons, as the hills echo with the sound of furious combat
and the careful treatment of the wounded and the captured, so that none are left.

Firing squads ring in time to the tolling of church bells,
furrows in the earth are stained red.
Muddy rivulets flow through fields not yet planted
as humanity lies scattered on the ground,
for to restore the Kingdom That Was, we must first inter the new.


Monday, August 27, 2012

Starting Point for Change

Though modernization is always a challenge, I'm going to wager that it's easier to update culture and fix social problems in a traditional society, than to repair the damage and the twisted social incentives that arise from a botched radical revolution that resulted in a series of human atrocities, sometimes verging on (cultural or actual) genocide. Just saying.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Words and Feelings

Came across this list of words from bigthink, which highlighted vocabulary that exists in other languages that do not have an equivalent in English. Such exquisite emotions; painful and sad, but imbued with meaning. Some of the most resonant words were:

"La Douleur Exquise (French): The heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can’t have. When I came across this word I thought of “unrequited” love. It’s not quite the same, though. “Unrequited love” describes a relationship state, but not a state of mind. Unrequited love encompasses the lover who isn’t reciprocating, as well as the lover who desires. La douleur exquise gets at the emotional heartache, specifically, of being the one whose love is unreciprocated.

Koi No Yokan (Japanese): The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall into love. This is different than “love at first sight,” since it implies that you might have a sense of imminent love, somewhere down the road, without yet feeling it. The term captures the intimation of inevitable love in the future, rather than the instant attraction implied by love at first sight.

Forelsket (Norwegian): The euphoria you experience when you’re first falling in love. This is a wonderful term for that blissful state, when all your senses are acute for the beloved, the pins and needles thrill of the novelty...

Saudade (Portuguese): The feeling of longing for someone that you love and is lost. Another linguist describes it as a "vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist." It’s interesting that saudade accommodates in one word the haunting desire for a lost love, or for an imaginary, impossible, never-to-be-experienced love. Whether the object has been lost or will never exist, it feels the same to the seeker, and leaves her in the same place: she has a desire with no future. Saudade doesn’t distinguish between a ghost, and a fantasy. Nor do our broken hearts, much of the time."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Culture and Character

A note I sent to Seanan on January 14, 2011

Hi Seanan,
It was nice to see you again yesterday evening, and to have the whole gang back together. Reading and discussing Confucian texts is actually pretty engaging, and it does feel like we gain something when we explore the meaning of a passage and consider its relevance to our lives today.

Hm ... but after the meeting, I guess the conversation did get a little intense when we talked about Traditional Chinese characters and Simplified Chinese characters. The reason I had such a strong reaction is that I really care about culture and cultural preservation, and this is one of the issues that seems to personify how we treat the past. It poses the question: should we discard things from the past because it currently seems useful or ideologically popular to do so? Or is there value in holding onto our history and applying it in a contemporary context?
I'm confident that we are all fine with intellectual debate, so I hope no one felt uncomfortable, though I do feel bad that the discussion started to move into emotional territory. I feel bad when other tribes or nations lose aspects of their identity (whether it's to Western expansionism or globalization); but it feels especially sensitive when it is our own culture that's on the line. In light of what happened in the 20th century in China, I have an acute reaction to these kinds of issues. It is our heritage in question, and I don't believe that we should give it up so easily.
To help illustrate: I think the way that I relate to the issue of Traditional Characters, is how you relate to Cantonese. How would you feel if the Communists told people, "Oh, there's no need to speak Cantonese. It's too complicated! All those tones. We're going to force everyone to use Mandarin all the time now. It's better for 'unity' and 'harmony' if everyone would just stop speaking Cantonese." Well, as you noted, they have begun trying to do this, and people in Guangdong are getting pretty riled up about it.
Cantonese has survived as a viable and accessible language for all this time, and it has produced wonderful cultural treasures that could only exist in Cantonese. The analogy isn't perfect, because dialect is focused on spoken languge and is regionally based, and a script focuses on visual and aesthetic components and was at one point universal, but I think it captures the idea that just because a policy seems useful at the moment doesn't mean it's the only or even the right thing to do.
And here's the rub: it really shouldn't be an either/or situation. If we are sensitive and careful and thoughtful and creative enough, we can find solutions that pay proper respect to the past, and that take into account future generations, while still dealing with the exigencies of the present. For instance, a national language (國語) i.e. Mandarin, can be taught in conjunction with local dialect, so that one can be used on a national scale for official functions and communications, whereas dialects would continue to serve as the local vernacular. In this scenario, the streets of Guangzhou and Guandong would still ring with the sounds of 廣東話, and this would be seen as something to be celebrated, not a failure of a centralizing policy.
Similarly, if we recognize the beauty of Chinese characters, and the meanings imparted by their composition; if we cherish the fact that they provide a direct link to our heritage and ancestry, and marvel at their coherence -- following their formation, eventual codification, and continual transmission, generation after generation; then we ought to care about what happens to our civilization's writing. I'm not sure if you know this, but Traditional Chinese characters are often called 世界上最美,歷史最悠久的文字. It's a very moving phrase.
Once again, either/or thinking can be limiting, forcing people to give up Tradition simply because it has been so ordered. A more appropriate approach would be to continue teaching Traditional Chinese characters as has been done for millenia, so that people everywhere may recognze them, but allow for people to write in whatever script they wanted to -- so you could, for instance, use shorthand to take notes or jot letters to friends. After all, that was what "simplified" characters originally were: abbreviated ways of representing a fully-formed character, a reference to the actual character which you knew in your mind. And indeed, in this day and age, it is less relevant what script you handwrite things in, because we end up typing many of our words, so the argument of "convenience" disappears.
I hope you can understand why I, and why so many other people, care about these various elements of our culture. If you recall that phrase "世界上最美,歷史最悠久的文字" -- President Ma Ying-jeou is one of the people who utters it in the most earnest and serious way. He is a major proponent of Traditional Characters, and of Traditional Chinese Culture in general -- a tireless advocate for preserving and expanding its place in this world. He believes in our culture's strength and value -- that it has much to offer the world -- and asks us all to work for its revival, so that one day, Chinese culture will flourish not only in the places where it has survived and persisted in the last half century, but also in all the places where it historically had influence. And one day perhaps, even beyond.
Culture comes in many formats: it encompasses ideas, but does not consist only of ideas. It also includes form (such as art and architecture), language (spoken, written, recorded, live), performance (song, dance, ritual), custom (practices and habits). One cannot deny the fact that not all change is beneficial to a culture -- that there can be destructive or harmful forces that denigrate and deny the legitimacy of tradition. It is one thing for culture to gradually evolve, as new trends gain traction among the people. Things do change, whether it is in the Tang Dynasty or the Qing. But that is different than embarking on a campaign to destroy and eliminate culture wholesale. One should be properly suspicious when the campaign is spearheaded by a group that has no fundamental commitment to that culture, as was the case in Mainland China -- and in fact, condemned this group condemned culture as "feudalistic" and worthy of destruction. One should also beware when it is carried out at the point of a gun. That is why I feel things like the Cultural Revolution were antithetical to Chinese identity, which took as a core value a reverence for the past. The CCP and Mao sought to create a China devoid of Chineseness, so it could instead be shaped as a Marxist, Communist state. I find this incredibly offensive and deeply tragic.
People and society are gradually evolving, but organic transformation, and even conscious transformation, is rather different than having an abrupt and destructive caesura imposed on society by the force of arms. One would wager that a reasoned discussion within society would not have yielded the outcomes sought and enforced by violence. It's especially sad to countenance this kind of crime perpetrated on something that had endured for so long, and would have continued to endure had it not been for such an unfortunate historical moment.
Here is another historical example that may shed some light on the situation: In Spain during Franco's dictatorship (1939-1975), the Basque language and culture were brutally suppressed. So was that of the Catalan nation -- spoken tongue, customary practices, literature -- all of it was banned. Only Castillian Spanish, as dictated by the Royal Academy was allowed. Students were harshly punished for whispering any other language. Parks had signs that read, "No barking. Speak Spanish." Basque and Catalan writings were outlawed; their festivals ceased; their songs silenced. It was a long, dark period of cultural suppression, pervaded by fear and violence, committed by the state's roaming squads of enforcers, and deep, systematic discrimination.
After the end of Franco's rule and democracy returned, everyone could have just said, "Well, we all speak Castillian Spanish now. We write only in Spanish words. Our vocabulary is that of Castile & Leon. This was mandated by El Caudillo and enforced by la guardia civil. What is done is done" -- and simply accepted the subjugation and its results. However, the Basque people and the Catalan people refused to capitulate. They resolved to recover what once was lost -- for a generation of children who had grown up speaking only the state-approved language, who had never read a Catalan text or sung a Basque tune. Grandparents taught their grandchildren, parents dug deep into their childhood memories to recall what they knew, and today, Euskadi has seen a renaissance in Basque culture. Barcelona in Catalunya is a hub for Catalan publishing, where the language is used in both affairs of the state, as well as in everyday life. Obviously these regions are still connected to Spain as a physical territory and a constitutional entity, but in their cultural identity they seek to become, once more, the homeland of their peoples.
It was not easy, it was not convenient, it was a monumental task -- but they were committed to this mission of cultural reconstruction because it was the right thing to do. The fundamental right to exist as a Basque person in a Basque society, the legitimacy of being a Catalonian in a free Catalonia -- these were crushed by Franco's iron glove. In the face of such illegal suppression, illegal erasure, illegal denial of a community's right to exist -- the people of each region banded together, and once freedom was achieved, they resolved to undo the harm visited upon them. They fought to save their culture, as fully and wholly as possible, in all its forms -- written, oral, linguistic, literary, musical, customary, philosophical, religious, in temperament and attitude and values and beliefs. They sought to be Basque again in Basque Country, to be Catalonian in Catalonia, so that their children and their children's children could live with the stories and wisdom of their forebears, and could celebrate the merits and virtues of their people. So it was committed, and so it has been done. It is an ongoing mission, an enterprise that engages all of society -- a challenge of great proportions that will require the mettle and the talents and the will of as many dedicated people as can be found. But it can be done. And thus Euskadi and Catalunya will persist and live, not only in popular imagination, but also in the world of human beings, a living, thriving community in touch with its roots -- one which continues to deepen those roots and revive what once had been feared to be lost. It is an ongoing act of courage, and utter determination; a fierce act of hope, and of unrelenting commitment, and above all, unrelenting love.
It is irony that it sometimes takes a tragedy of epic proportions, a national disaster, for citizens to rise up and defend their culture, and to pledge to work for its continuation. It is in those moments that we see what a people are made of. (And interestingly, it is the smallest nations that work the hardest to preserve their identity in the face of outside pressures, be they foreign governments or development projects).

You and I and the others here -- I am glad we can discuss things like culture and tradition and identity. And though we may have a range of opinions, it's important that we engage with these issues. We are deeply fortunate to have this opportunity today, because so many other people were deprived of it. Faced with war and conflict, recent generations of Chinese people were forced to deal with matters of pure survival. Later on in Mainland China, they were denied permission to even think about tradition, under the threat of being declared a political enemy and condemned to social marginalization (not to mention violence, torture and sometimes death, not only for oneself, but for one's family). In that era of constant political campaigns and persecution for categorical crimes, the idea of engaging in a society-wide discussion was simply unthinkable. To be Chinese was a crime. To defend Chinese culture was a ticket to hell.
So I say it again: we are deeply fortunate to live in the context that we do now. We are recipients of a precious inheritance passed down by generations that ought to be treasured. Let us live up to the responsibility of our circumstances, and give what has been bequeathed to us its due consideration. That is why I care, and that is why we cannot give up. We owe it to our ancestors and to future generations.

I look forward to the journey, and hope all is well.