Sunday, December 06, 2015

The view when suspended 10,000 feet up

It might not be 100% intentional, but why does service on trans-Atlantic flights—from airport check-in, to boarding, to meal service—seem smoother, higher in quality, more designed to satisfy, compared to flights across the Pacific? I've grown so used to the circus of getting from SFO to Shanghai or Beijing that this flight to Paris is shockingly ... calm.

What lies at the root of this contrast? Do different classes of the flying public exhibit different characteristics? Do we assume customers from some demographics will put up with more strain, will have fewer expectations, or are generally less experienced with international travel?

Do service employees adopt a more implicitly hostile attitude—harsher voice, more impatience, a guarded wariness—toward "foreign" or "alien" peoples, compared with those they assume are "civilized"?

Is it all simply business savvy? Is it fair?

There seem to be some deep racial dynamics here that I don't totally understand. What I can say is that in our increasingly globalized world, the frictions and conflicts, the micro-aggressions and outright discrimination—whether ill-intentioned or simply mis-informed—are all going to come to the fore. Yet in parallel, many more moments of mutual understanding, successful non-verbal communication, and a growing sense of human solidarity will also mark our collective experience.

Probing and unpacking these stories requires introspection on the part of many different actors—the airlines, the service employees, the passengers; the advocates, the by-standers, the ruler-makers; even the observers and commentators on these affairs. This exercise requires a non-judgmental attitude. In racially-tense situations, resolution can only be found when deft handling and cultural competency are coupled with a willingness to not shy away from the truth of sensitive questions. It will most of all require empathy.

Luckily, empathy, and all the attendant processes, can be learned, practiced, improved, and eventually habituated. It will be a lifelong project for this generation, and the next, to figure out how to live, coexist, and thrive in this shifting planetary landscape. There will be increasing moments of alienation and strangeness, but also greater recognition and familiarity. These processes will be shaped by technological leaps, environmental disruption, and most of all, human awakening.

Sometimes, it takes a moment of contrast to shake a person awake to the interesting character of our times. What a brave new world we truly live in! Despite the years I've spent on this planet so far, I guess I just hadn't quite realized it yet.

Monday, August 24, 2015

通用奶茶 We all scream for ice cream!

I wonder if calling it 通用話 or 通用語言 might capture the spirit of the enterprise a little more, and sidestep some of the political friction from nationalist 國語 or classist 普通話 choices. (Great for constructing societies, maybe not so hot in the modern era where we lack consensus on "the nation" or disagree on promoting class conflict as a mode of revolutionary change. ‪#‎politics‬)

Of course, people who use the words 國語 or 普通話 might not see these particular connotations, because the usage of the phrases is so common/widespread 普遍 in their own societies. But upon closer inspection, the current choice of what we call our language does raise an eyebrow.

If we care about 正名 (or the "rectification of names"), then in terms of defining a mission of language and urging its acceptance among populations who do not currently speak it, we should focus on its applicability, utility, and ability to serve as a means of communication—not on its nation-building 建國 character.

We may also prefer using the name of our language to elevate discourse, not as a tool for fighting class battles. "Common," as in "common tongue" in English, has a uniting character, i.e. what we have "in common" with each other. It contrasts with 普通 "common; ordinary; plain; average" which could be interpreted as emphasizing an elite-commoner divide, and in regular usage feels "pedestrian."

華語 is okay too, but it gets into the whole ethnic question of "Who is 華?" Although maybe that's a good thing, because then only 華 people should have to use Mandarin, and you don't get to impose it on other non-華 groups.

So in terms of identifying the purpose of language, while keeping it politically neutral and viable, 通用 seems to deliver the message in a way that more Sinophone communities could swallow. It also doesn't preclude foreigners and/or minorities from learning the language, because it doesn't force any particular appellation or uncomfortable surrender of identity on them if they choose to pick up this dialect.

There doesn't appear to be any ongoing debate about these monikers, but this particular line of thought was sparked while reading about the history of the "construction" of the national language—a language that, at this juncture, is not only for the nation.

Tiger Troll

Amy Chua is bringing her type of programming to Singapore. She's well-spoken and articulate in this interview, but I can't tell if she's massively trolling when she says these things

AFP | Getty Images via CNBC

I disagree with Amy Chua and with Tiger Parenting in general—supremely grateful that my parents weren't like that—but I have to compliment her on her writing style and wry tone. The behavior she describes in her book is pretty appalling, but it also made me chuckle. 

At the end of the day, the behavior and incentives it frames are antithetical to what I believe in, in terms of the kind of lives we live. For example, from my perspective, you should do something because you care about it, not because your parents make you do it. Otherwise it seems to demonstrate a lack of autonomy and self-direction.

On the other side of the coin, I'm not moved by the coddle-your-kids self-esteem-boosting approach practiced by a number of Americans, which verges on caricature. There's something to be said for a decisive, no-nonsense attitude, because kids *are* resilient and can handle it. That doesn't mean it should descend into paternalist, authoritarian, militant abuse. (Tiger Mom-ing is really a converse to helicopter parenting, which seems very New Age ... one leaves children unable to cope because too much is done for them, whereas the other leaves children unable to think because too much is constrained for them.) She seems too smart to fall for this parenting trap, which is why I think it's got to be, on some level, trolling. (Or to put it in a more high-brow way, a rhetorical exercise. Is this for profit? For making a reputation? For provoking American society so it shakes off its stupor and gets moving?)

It does speak to the anxiety of immigrants, and also the sense of cultural disconnect, which is where a good deal of the humor comes from too. Something like this:


which in my mind is still the classic video on Asian parenting.

In both "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" and in this YouTube video, there is recognition, as well as an almost perverse sense of pride regarding the differences in cultural values. Perhaps it is only in retrospect, as survivors viewing the situation through the lens of parodic humor that we can gain the distance to laugh.

Then again, the job of children is to accommodate, resist, and negotiate cultural norms of both Old World and New. Thus, the conversation raised is an important one. It is a little odd that she feels the need to bring this mentality to Singapore, because they're already doing a great job at paternalism, but I suppose they're also in the midst of their Anglicizing-Modernizing moment when parents educated in Chinese schools are raising kids raised with English as their native language. It's a nation of immigrants and children of immigrants without the immigrating!

Monday, July 13, 2015

It's alway redux

From the NY Times:

"China Fences In Its Nomads, and an Ancient Life Withers" (article)

These programs are reminiscent of the criminal acts where the United States government forced Native Americans off their ancestral lands onto reservations, often with false promises and broken treaties, most likely at the point of a gun.

I will be explicit, because certain readers from certain countries don't get it and assume that past crimes commited by my country somehow exonerates careless people who commit similar crimes a century and a half later. So I apologize if this cultural reference is glaringly obvious to students of American history, or basically any student of how we have treated indigenous communities, but hey, some societies haven't had to face up to this issue yet, so let's be clear: just because the Americans did this in the 1800s does not make it right. It was wrong then, and what the Chinese government is doing to rural nomads now is likewise extremely problematic.

Resettlement through force, coercion, or deception is wrong. Fully-informed consent is key. "Fully-informed" means that people understand the long-term impacts on their lives, livelihoods and communities, and "consent" means they have the choice to say yes or no, free from the threat of violence or other state-enforced repercussions.

In addition to pirating "ecological science" to back up what is in actuality a program of social control with the false veneer of "development", there are other substantial problems.

The Chinese government doesn't have a good record on resettlement, whether it's urban or rural. At this time, every program in this mould should be treated with the skepticism it deserves.

The speed of resettlement is not a virtue. Take it slow so people can adjust and so you can fix the f-ck ups that inevitably happen with large-scale transformation of human societies. What you're trying to do in a single-generation is uproot an entire way of living that has developed over centuries. On balance, which mode do you think has the weight of evidence on its side?

The fact that sub-standard housing and evaporating benefits await these people speaks to the lack of commitment to actual social outcomes. Resettling people is not a short-term task to be completed, and the people forgotten. If you care about "development" you must recognize that it is a long-term process and you should actually monitor communities to ensure their success.

Meanwhile, save the "development" rhetoric. You do not get to decide on behalf of others what "development" looks like. It is extremely paternalistic, and the fact that participation is virtually nil means that priorities are decided without the communities who are most impacted and have the most stake in the outcome. This is development that happens "to" people. It is not engendered from within the community, quisling collaborators notwithstanding. It is a shockingly imperial mindset.

Overall, this type of program smacks of judgement about "lesser" races and dismissiveness about others' lifestyle choices. Who are you to judge if they are fundamentally "developed" or not? Whether the needs of communities and individuals has been met? Talk to them if you care about them; otherwise admit that their human welfare is not the primary purpose of this venture.

It also shows a profound lack of creativity -- "let's shove them into buildings" -- instead of deploying the range of possible technologies that can keep people who wish to be there on their lands, living different lifestyles, with access to modern medicine and education, while giving them the agency and wherewithal to keep unique traditions and practices still alive.

Ignorance is not an excuse. To ignore history, ignore domestic academics, ignore outside voices, and to pointedly ignore the very people who you claim to be "helping" requires immense mental acrobatics to maintain such a solipsistic silo. Couldn't some of that energy put into deflecting criticism, skimming off funds, and suppressing dissent be put into listening?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Hope Less

A Vox piece lays bare the growing futility, bordering on human impossibility, of restraining warming to 2°C. Physically it still might be doable, but would require a greater-than-Herculean effort to shift the political-economic-and-technological dimensions of society at massive scale. It's a pretty horrifying read, but deep in our hearts, we knew this was probably the case.

"If only we would take concerted action!" "If we would act with a greater sense of urgency!" These are the lines mouthed by climate activists, environmental leaders, and millennial climate hopefuls, repeatedly deployed on an apathetic public and a static government.

As the article posits, the essential goal of containing warming to 2°C hasn't really changed for quite a while. For example, since the IntroSem on "Climate Change: Drivers, Impacts, Solutions" with Chris Field back in 2004. Was the goal of 2°C too shrill of a cry back then? I don't think so. The threat of climate change wasn't overstated. Indeed, every passing year has revealed more and more research that ought to jolt us into action. However, more than a decade later, we may be in rather worse shape, in terms of the "business as usual" curve.

Perhaps the future holds more promise with better technologies. Alternatively, it's possible we are simply hosed if 2°C is still the line we're trying to hold.

That's why the international conversation has moved on to adaptation (and maybe even reparations), instead of purely focusing on mitigation any longer. Sorry, folks! That's actually where the article doesn't quite get it right: there's been a quiet admission of realism, as adaptation takes a larger and larger role in the climate change negotiations.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Fight for Utopia

Even in imagining the future, there are retrograde forces attempting to limit the participation of diverse communities. They aim to narrow our vision and suppress our collective dreams.

This should not stand. Exclusionary individuals have become the forces of tyranny that science fiction would have us question and rebel against. They might cloak themselves in the language of freedom ("Stop the PC police" "Take back the genre from the left!") but in reality use fear, intimidation, and hatred to achieve their intolerant aims. It is essentially a human story old and new.

As Kameron Hurley notes in a piece in The Atlantic, science fiction and fantasy have "grown dramatically, and last year, work by women and people of color from a diverse range of publishers swept the Nebula Awards in addition to the Hugos." As a response to this evolving cultural phenomenon, "why are so many fringe groups escalating their protests in gaming, in comics, and in the science-fiction community? ... it’s no coincidence that many of the people block voting these awards are the same ones sending death threats to women and people of color, sending SWAT teams to the addresses of critics, and hijacking accounts and identities to try and silence those creating more inclusive stories."

"It's only science-fiction," some members of the public might cry. "What's the big deal?" Hurley challenges the reader to ask: "Why should it matter that there was a block vote led in large part by a group whose most vociferous leader wants to disenfranchise entire groups of people?"

"The truth is that our wars of words and narrative matter, especially those that tell us what sorts of possible futures we can build—and groups like Gamergate,  Sad Puppies, and Rabid Puppies understand this. The author Ursula K. Le Guin said it best in her National Book Award acceptance speech:
'We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.'
In culture today, "much of the stuff you see in film, television, comics, and and children’s cartoons got its start inside the inspired, disruptive halls of science-fiction and fantasy literature." Thus, the literary (and extra-literary) clashes in science fiction are actually a fight for reality, a fight for our society's future.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

信仰 What Binds Us

There is something about belief.
There is something about piety.
There is something about reverence.
There is something about faith.

I recently began reading "The Book of Chinese Beliefs," a tome that focuses not on classical philosophy, but on everyday beliefs—and the resultant customs and rituals—of Sinic communities in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and China itself. To describe these phenomena requires more than simply demarcating norms and detailing cultural quirks, as any commercial guide to "Get along in China!" might do. Such a task involves more deeply exploring the world view that lies underneath these features.

As I walked outside the apartment and glanced at the backdrop of buildings, I realized I might really like Hong Kong. The air there is thicker with belief: 神仙—spirits, fairies, and deities—swirl through the sky, making their presence known in daily life. The atmosphere of the city is suffused with the round clouds of Chinese folktales.

There is a greater sense of a common cultural identity, manifesting itself in millions of small interactions on the street each day. Despite Hong Kong's built modernity, people are also religiously observant, geomantically oriented, pious in a way. They believe.

Perhaps this is why I feel distant in Mainland China. If all we care about are material goods and commerce, then life would feel somewhat empty and hollow. I would feel that these are not my people, but simply a group of human beings with whom I am currently in contact. Hong Kong, in contrast, feels more authentically Chinese. Despite the Western trappings, there are still bolts and bloodlines of Chinese piety.

What makes a people? What connects us is a common cosmology. If we do not have the same beliefs—whether it is Confucian thought or Chinese mythology—then what binds us together? We have nothing tying us except a fleeting similarity in language (recall that Mandarin is a constructed language from the 1900s) and perhaps a measure of ancestral DNA. However, shared ancestry matters not only because of blood and bone, but because we jointly worship and revere the ancestral dead—and we jointly celebrate our lineage, and all the responsibilities this entails. Material conditions are not enough to make a people. At the end of the day, it is belief.

While the Norse gods have disappeared and Egyptian deities evaporated from the world, the Chinese pantheon today is still alive and well. One finds meaning, solace, and community there. It does not mean we all get along, or that we are all friends; but it does mean we operate from the same code. (Some call this belief system Chinese folk religion. Perhaps it is not quite the same as the transcendent "world religions" that have the power to cut across societal lines—across nation and race—but that is a discussion for another time. Still, in order to find religion, we must first have religiosity: a belief in higher powers, a belief in the unknown.)

As described in The Book of Chinese Beliefs, one expert geomancer (feng shui practitioner) decried that he did not have any disciples because no young people wished to learn this art, which had been taught by master-to-disciple for generations. His own father had studied in a famous 風水 school in China from a highly-regarded woman philosopher. The arrest of culture is tragic, and this passage conjured in my mind an even greater tragedy: when wholesale culture destruction and discontinuity was visited upon the country by the Cultural Revolution. One kills Chinese culture and Chinese identity by stopping the transmission of belief.

One sees value in old ways, then, if authenticity and belief are important parts of identity. For those who believe, if the Imperial household is indeed a bridge to Heaven (and/or the Spirit World), it is not only worthy of allegiance, but of our devotion. It is not simply an act of loyalty and patriotism to defend and follow the Emperor; it is an act of reverence.

Today, there may not be an Emperor in China, but encounters with deities and the principles of feng shui still hold currency among Sinic populations in many places: Hong Kong, Taiwan, San Francisco, Canada. It is this cosmology that undergirds these places and that holds generations together. It is the everyday practices of family; the social logic, habits and principles; and also the sense, the act, the affirmation of believing.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Is neo-analog the new neo-classical?

My friend posted the following article, which notes that 30% of photographers using actual film are younger than 35. He included the interesting proposition that our generation, and those that come after, might be able to revive newspaper and book sales with our nostalgia-trending dollars.

I whole-heartedly support this concept, and can even see a glimmer of a future where this comes to pass, not just because of 懷舊, but because these media offer a distinct and valuable experience that grounds what we encounter every day.

The goal of young people is not to stop progress and revert back to older, inefficient ways of doing things. We are, after all, not Luddites. At the same time, we are not so enamored with digital, nor as impressed by it as our elders might be. Folks our age rarely go "Wow!" when looking at a web offering. More often, the response is, "That's a great use of this tool. I knew someone would be capable of pulling it together—how awesome!"

Growing up digital, having things available online is run-of-the-mill. (Yawn!) We have expectations for computing services, and at the end of the day, they are simply the basic implements we believe ought be there. Air, check. Water, check. Wi-fi, check. In contrast, print is nostalgic, charming, and most significantly, tangible.

Cameras, wood instruments, printed books; we are reconstituting interactivity by re-acquiring the tools of creation, or by finding new means of consumption, paired with imagination. It offers an interactive experience (as digital does), but also serves a method of reconnecting with the physical world.

It is not simply the novelty of surrounding oneself with old objects—though there is pleasure in that too—but we are not hoarders of antiques. Objects do not qualify simply due to their age, if they are inutile. They must be tools of creation, or agents and products actively linked to a process that is ongoing today—something living, generative, still alive.

Why could this movement succeed? It's about pleasure, not work. We don't expect of the analog the same things we ask for in our workaday computer tools. Instead, books and newspapers recall another kind of culture, representing different times, ethos, and experiences. They are a welcome and enjoyable respite, as we otherwise stream through lives defined by 0101010.

What makes analog work?

  • interactive, not passive, experience
  • physical element
  • taps into imagination/creativity: tools of creation (or at least the product of such)

Two other questions I'm pondering

It's not a wholesale return to older forms. We do want old things, but we want old things that work better than old things. Moreover, I'll wager that we want old things that seem old, but that still fit into a digital ecosystem. Real Instagram cameras. Better fixie bikes. Instantly updating print newspapers. Cue steampunk.

My only question is if we odd hybrid children—of the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s—are filling a unique gap. Will children born completely in the digital age have the same desire to navigate back to the past? Or is it only because our generation is a bridge, having had analog toys in childhood and only acquiring tablets and smartphones in our adolescence. Perhaps new 21st century children still will seek out the analog, if the experience is at all like being released into nature after being cooped up in a city all one's life: it's deeply resonant because it serves a human need.