Monday, October 7, 2013

Wendell Berry on His Hopes for Humanity

On Opium and Boxers

Why Edwin Meese the Third is Like William Jardine

As you may know, it is fairly easy to watch or listen to anything you want here--TV shows, documentaries, films, etc. Intellectual property rules are mooshi like pork. Last night, I settled down fairly late, in my den and dressed only in my boxers, to watch Episode 2 (Opium), having not seen Episode 1 (Sugar), of a BBC series called Addicted to Pleasure; it was supposedly view-able only in Scotland. The other two episodes deal with whisky and tobacco--two other scourges of the British Empire in which Scotsmen played a leading role.

In this segment on opium, though, Brian Cox does a brilliant job of jogging our memories about two-hundred years of history...except, as he notes, he is not jogging our memories at all, because, as in America, the Scottish textbooks are markedly devoid of mentioning the two major opium wars (First Opium War from 1839 to 1842 and Second Opium War from 1856 to 1860) or much at all about the trading of opium with China, which began in the 1630s.  On the other hand, as well-dressed, Chinese-born Professor Yangwen Chen from the University of Manchester proclaims into the camera with a righteously accusatory edge in her voice:
[In China] textbooks from elementary school to middle school to high school to university highlights [sic] the wrong-doings of the so-called imperialists. Students would be led to the site where the opium war took place. It has become part of what they call the patriotic education program to educate Chinese youth like me so that we remember what you have done to us.
In fact, the Battle of Peking in 1900 and the invasion of the Eight-power Allied Forces is also a small entry in most history texts, usually under the pseudonym "The Boxer Rebellion." The British & World English Dictionary still defines Boxer as, "a member of a fiercely nationalistic Chinese secret society that flourished in the 19th century. In 1899 the society led a Chinese uprising (the Boxer Rebellion) against Western domination that was eventually crushed by a combined European force, aided by Japan and the US."

Anyway, of the opium-focused episode that I watched, BBC's short review states:
Scotland is plagued with over 50,000 drug addicts and one of the roots of this addiction is the opium poppy. In this second episode, actor Brian Cox travels to China to discover how the seeds of this modern-day addiction were planted during the height of Britain's trading empire. Since then opium has fuelled the world's largest drug-smuggling operation, earned vast fortunes, triggered war with China and inspired medical breakthroughs. Brian Cox reveals how Britain unleashed the most dangerous of addictions on the world, and how the consequences still haunt us today.
This tells you only a little bit, though. The illustrative tales that Mr. Cox brings to life are, as he notes with a nervous laugh, exceedingly cruel and pervasive. In the days of yore, missionaries brought "Jesus pills" of heroin and morphine to cure people of their addiction to opium, which was smoked, drunk, and otherwise imbibed until the invention of the hypodermic needle. More than 13 million Chinese were addicted to opium at one point. The Canton System gave rise to nine factories in Guangzhou (aka Canton) that were raided by an angry Qing emperor. Fighting broke out and the future barons and Members of Parliament William Jardine and James Matheson, two trading partners who controlled a major proportion of the opium trade, won their place in British history. The junior Matheson was sent slinking home by his business partner, Jardine, to convince Parliament to send ships.

William Jardine
Jardine, Matheson Co. (now Jardine Matheson Group) is still a going concern with a towering office complex in Hong Kong that employs more people in its conglomerate than any entity but the government. Its website innocuously states, "Since its foundation Jardines has been one of Asia's most dynamic trading companies, often having to reinvent itself in order to survive and prosper. Reflective of the times in which it traded, the Group has led the way in many businesses and has helped bring prosperity to the region."

They do not mention the word opium once in the three segments of their company's timeline that stretch from 1830 to 1939. Still, there is little debate about what happened. I suppose certain past leaders of Iran could pretend that it never happened, much like The Holocaust, but historians mostly agree: Jardine and Matheson led England to war. Actually, they marshaled the Royal Navy for a wholesale slaughter in Britain's most ignominious war.

This is decidedly on point today, because when historians write the history of our times, they will need to tell the story of how the government shutdown was orchestrated by angry billionaires. Edwin Meese III is one unpatriotic, despotic, sick old man. I remember him from 1986 when I did my very first research paper for Mr. Green on Meese's messy role in the Iran-Contra Affair. Meese resigned in the wake of the Wedtech Scandal just a bit later. He is the William Jardine of today. Out of incredible self-interest, he is prodding our nation's "leadership" to do things that will be judged immoral and outrageous by future generations.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Acupressure Slippers and other Indulgences

Recently, I have been rather self-indulgent.

I have bought a Kindle paperwhite, which is already transforming me into an avid commuter-reader stumbling along the underpasses between subway stops buried in Faust and The Odyssey. I have subscribed again to The Atlantic. I have already read a book on Basho by the poetess Jane Hirshfield--more of an essay than a book, I suppose, and am several chapters into Marco Polo's Travels.

I have also bought a bicycle and will momentarily bike across the city, despite the fact that the air has deteriorated again. After a few horrible days, we had some positively wonderful days and now it is back in the "unhealthy" range again. I will go from Dongzhimen to Weigongcun, should any of you wish to Google Map the route.

Finally, I got myself a new pair of slippers. According to one source, these are the key features of my new slippers:

  • Rich LeKang natural pebbles massage with tai chi magnet
  • Artificial selection of grinding natural pebbles and agate stones, according to plantar acupoint scientific arrangement through pebbles natural arc to massage foot reflection zone, stimulate foot points there by relaxing tendons, relieve fatigue, promote blood circulation to reconcile reins and the function of balancing Yin and Yang

Functions and role:

  • Smooth, promote blood circulation and reduce fatigue
  • Expel toxin accumulation and keep healthy
  • Improve endocrine balance, nice shaping
  • Strengthen metabolism and keeps youth
  • Restoring degraded organ function and prevent illness
  • Stimulate cells to produce energy and prevent aging
This picture came on the box!

Monday, September 30, 2013

"Go ahead, call me a Communist"

The Freshness and Fragrance of the Political Discourse Has Fallen Like a House of Cards

We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.                                                                                                            -Pope Francis
I have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, for the ensuing year...Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, that in digesting our common food, there is created or produced in the bowels of human creatures, a great quantity of wind. That the permitting this air to escape and mix with the atmosphere, is usually offensive to the company, from the fetid smell that accompanies it. That all well-bred people therefore, to avoid giving such offence, forcibly restrain the efforts of nature to discharge that wind.                             -Benjamin Franklin

All National Parks in MA closed. Patch File Photos
Well, it seems that the "freshness and fragrance" of this story is ripe for the telling: On a recent trip to Massachusetts, I shocked a firearms expert and period-costumed National Park Service employee at Minute Man National Park by recounting how Benj. Franklin had written a little-known treatise on farting (see epigraph, above). My mother would have been mortified that I related such a tale, but it is a masterful lesson on hot air of the kind that has enveloped our body politic. [Some of you may remember a colorful, if disjointed speech I gave at the NH Democratic Convention a few years ago citing this same article of flatulence. I was adorned in a T-shirt, just after Biden gaffe #986, that said, "Methane is a big fucking deal."]

This week, Deborah and I have started to watch "House of Cards." I am transfixed when Kevin Spacey deftly turns his head, like Magnum PI, and talks directly to me in the dulcet tones one imagines would belong to Machiavelli, had he been from the American South. Spacey's use of apostrophe is delicious; his hard-nosed, single-handed walking of Russo (no Jean-Jacques Rousseau or even Lloyd Bentsen) down the path to redemption makes me shudder. Can't you imagine Billary smoking cigarettes in the upstairs window? And don't you wake up wondering if Zoe Barnes is your greatest nightmare or wettest dream? House of cards, indeed! His bold, if predictably salacious, made-for-Netflix mini-series is probably the most interesting thing happening in politics right now, but, sadly, not the most important. Life imitates art, but still no binge TV show will ever be more important than the utterances of the real Congressmen as they unravel our national trust.

The absurdity of the public discourse has crescendo-ed to a new and tedious plateau.

In an increasingly shrill barrage of emails issuing from Democracy for America (Howard Dean's group), I have been asked to be furious that Bill O'Reilly would call Robert Reich, the old Clinton-era Secretary of the Labor Movement, a "Communist," but then be unwilling to debate him on a widely-watched national TV program called...yup, The O'Reilly Factor. These pleas for support for Mr. Reich are mostly manufactured by Reich himself, which makes me care even less for his plight. I am, unapologetically, not angry about this. I cannot marshal any indignation at these indignities. The epithet itself is empty to me since I live in the mind-boggling epicenter of capitalism (Beijing) touted as "communism with Chinese characteristics" and I really don't remember the Vietnam War. (Some of the miscreants who dictate our national conversation would probably label me a Pinko just for deigning to live in China for a few years or for criticizing my country from abroad. I say, let them eat smelly tofu.)

Photo by Steve Jurvetson
What does make me angry is that semi-respectable demi-men, like Reich, want to appear on that show to talk about serious issues facing our country. For thirty years, the Democrats have talked yearningly about the inimitable infrastructure of the Republicans with their vast network of academic institutes of crooked thinking and their popular, diabolical radio shows. Well, maybe, these gentleman should just walk away from the nonsense and have their own conversation. Have they enough sense and humility not to name their revolution the Fourth Reich?

People who like healthcare, National Parks, and other nice things that our government provides for us will join the new party and desert the prattling pranksters of The Wrong. I am for a new elitism that encourages Dean and his band of merry men to ignore the ignorant. Are these champions of the 99%--mostly from the ivory tower or collared in white--afraid that nobody will listen to them if they do not pander to the loony listeners of Limbaugh and odious oodles of O'Reilly oglers?  The nation would be better off if we sent the climate deniers and the panels of Darwin Award nominees (who are dictating Texas textbook tenets!) to continue their masturbatory exercises in an undisclosed location.

Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin (January 29, 1761 –
August 12, 1849) was a Swiss-American ethnologist,
linguist, politician, diplomat, congressman, and the
longest-serving United States Secretary of the Treasury.
Can you imagine Alexander Hamilton or Henry Knox squealing that William Duane, Albert Gallatin, John J. Beckley, Thomas Cooper, and Thomas Jefferson himself would not allow them to say their piece in the Democratic-Republican Party rags and pamphlets of that earlier time? It seems to me that there was a time when--pardon the implicit sexism and ageism in my phraseology--"men were men and boys were boys." There appears, now, to be a moldering sense of manhood in the political class. Mine eyes have seen it firsthand, which is probably why I like Spacey's project as much as I do.

Gone are the days of Benjamin Franklin, who used his withering tongue to great effect, but also schemed ways to bury the hatchet and make a great peace. "He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged," counselled the Sage of Philly. Is Reich hoping O'Reilly will lend him a book? What is the end-game even if Reich can make O'Reilly eat his own lunch? Furthermore, we should wonder: does O'Reilly even read rare books?

Set is the sun on a day when Winston Churchill could, with a Cheshire Cat's grin and a puff on his Karshian cigar, rip his opponent to ribbons, yet dawning is an age of endless, unhappy, purposeless drivel out from which nothing comes. The acerbic tongue is not a newcomer to the political mire. For me, one of the most enjoyable books of recent years was "Infamous Scribblers" which indulged readers with all sorts of bombast traded between our nation's founding fathers and the burgeoning Fourth Estate of the nascent nation. Jonathan Swift was not even the first to delightfully skewer with satire while roasting the prigs of his era. Still, most of these people seemed to have had a purpose to their cutting remarks. Now, we are just left with Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert (my second favorite Catholic), and less central Bill Maher, for whom the fodder is an endless menu of Weiners and Spitzers and Edwardsian tails [sic]. While I laugh grimly with the rest of you, where is it getting us?

I left New Hampshire, partly in boredom and partly in frustration with the sort of meaningless nonsense that the Party Chairman there pedals to papers in the Granite State. He has trained a whole generation in his vapid tactics. Mountains are made of molehills. Men with unseemly weddings get national attention as the nipple-dragging charlatan generates his newest flash in the pan. It is masterful and empty. When the conversation should be about taxes, it is about sex. In fact, the only institutions more obsessed with sex than the Catholic Church seem to be the two dominant parties with their incessant focus on the hookers of Bookers, as well as overly broad pronouncements about the complicated and deeply personal issues of abortion and gay marriage.

I was too amused the other day when a friend, who will have to pardon me for recounting this, sent out a backhanded email for her At-Large City Council campaign. It said, and I quote, "Some of my opponents don’t share the same civic-minded principals that C--- resident’s value. If elected, my opponents will seek to radically change C-----, injecting ideology and politics into every corner of municipal government." (I will not focus on the genitive apostrophe appended to a single resident, nor the misspelling of principles, as I did in my glib, pithy back-and-forth with her.) No, look at the message itself! Caesar himself was no more adept at the use of rhetoric. She claims the non-ideological, unpolitical high ground for herself with a message that overtly transforms the municipal race into one charged with the sort of nastiness from which she seeks to distance herself.

I am praying for a change. I just hope nobody calls me the Anti-Christ. That is something up with which I should not put.

Alexander Lee teaches critical thinking, history, spelling, and punctuation in China.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

On hegemony

One of my new tasks at the new job is to write original mock-TOEFL academic reading scripts. Earlier today, I used the word hegemony in writing about the British empire in 1865 so I found it kind of creepy when the main headline in the collected news stories displayed on QQ International, a Chinese chat program that is ubiquitous here, used the same word:

China won't seek hegemony, FM tells UN

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized China's development strategies and foreign policies on pressing international issues on Friday. UN's Syria resolution on point

Why creepy? Because when I visited, it blared an advert at me for the Kindle Paperwhite because it already knew for what I would be searching. Is China Daily reading my New Oriental TOEFL scripts before anybody else in my office...or was it just a coincidence? OK, I am kidding, but read the rest of the headlines and I am not that far off from the brave new world we have created.

The rest of the headlines impressed on me just how broken the current day hegemonic empire has become--you know, the land of the free and the home of the brave(s). The healthcare debacle, spying on our own people, Detroit's bailout and bankruptcy. Yikes!  

US House votes to delay ObamacareUS spy agency mapped people's behavior -NYT
Shanghai Free Trade Zone begins operationMiss Philippines crowned Miss World 2013Home schooling popular with Chinese parentsXi to attend APEC summit in IndonesiaBankrupt Detroit gets $300 million in aidChinese student killed in USFM urges early resumption of six-party talks

We certainly need to get our act together before we are enslaved by the Tea Party. "No taxation even with representation" is not a way to run the country. Diminishing the Constitution has becoming a national pastime or, as Daniel Ellsberg put it in The Guardian a few months back:
Since 9/11, there has been, at first secretly but increasingly openly, a revocation of the bill of rights for which this country fought over 200 years ago. In particular, the fourth and fifth amendments of the US constitution, which safeguard citizens from unwarranted intrusion by the government into their private lives, have been virtually suspended.
Finally, let me say, I had the task of looking over some old SSAT prep materials last week. One of the articles, on gentrification's pluses and minuses, cited Detroit as a success and SoHo as a failure. I coached my colleagues that presenting students with such a reading is, at best, anachronistic, and more likely tasteless. It would be like having students read an article from 2007 about how great the building boom in Chengdu and the rest of Sichuan was or having students read an article about the wonderful policies of Bo Xilai as mayor of, first, Dalian and, then, Chongqing. Not wrong, just kind of eerie given the Sichuan earthquake and China's "trial of the decade."

As I watch Michael Bloomberg sing the praises of the rich and what they have done for New York's schools and safety, I am a bit apoplectic about his elitism; however, SoHo is the success story, despite the fact that the best minds of our generation are no longer dragging themselves through these negro streets looking for an angry fix (yes, I know Ginsberg was from San Francisco, which just lost out to Seattle as the most LGBT-friendly city in the nation, but you get my point). Detroit is the failure. Suburbs and nearby urbs are the new ghettoes in Detroit, but less so in metro-NYC.

I am genuinely worried that if people don't start paying attention to Howard Dean, who has unwisely tied his reputation to Robert Reich's over the last few weeks, we are going to be in for a whole lot more hurt. China may not seek hegemony, but its rising star may eclipse our own.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Grains of Wisdom about The Millet 3

Coming soon to the proletariat near you...

Coming soon to the proletariat near you...
The Gleaners, (1865) by John Vincent Millet
Generally, for reasons that we needn't explore in this post, I avoid wheat, barley, and rye--the trinity of grains said to have gluten. Alternatives exist. A Chinese novel turned me on to sorghum a few months ago, and now a technology product is reminding me of millet. The latter was something I first tasted while adventuring as a teenager in the Alaskan or Canadian bush. It is no wonder that a Chinese technology company found this name attractive, though its tastiness really has little to do with why the founders of XiaoMi (pinyin for millet) settled on that name for their smartphone startup company. Neither was it because millet is "particularly high in the minerals iron, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium" like, I would imagine, most of their product line is, as well.  In fact, according to its CEO, it was named for a "Chinese idiom that calls on fighters to have millet and a rifle on hand to be ready to fight." 

Well, I am ready to pick up my rifle and harvest my grain! That is to say, I want to put my hard-earned dollars in this revolutionary company. I anticipate getting the Mi3 next month when it debuts for the proletariat.

I had a chuckle the other day, because my father got late retribution for the only other time that I have sought to invest in a company. As Google prepared to issue its IPO in 2004, I said, "Invest!" In what is surely the most regrettable lapse in his post-professional career as an investment adviser, he counseled, "Twill be a flash in the pan, son." Could he ever have been more wrong!? We have laughed ourselves to the proverbial poorhouse in the intervening years.

Well, what goes around, comes around. This week with the hiring of a top Google hand by XiaoMi, I sent him an email saying, "Invest!" He wrote back, "They are not a public company!" I must be such an embarrassment to him...still in my pre-professional financial illiteracy years. (Prior to writing him, I had actually sought to find the listing or three-letter code, but had come up empty, ignorant of how to check.)

Part of my enthusiasm for XiaoMi now is the lovers' quarrel (or long-time employment discussion) that has landed Hugo Barra as the new head of global for the Chinese company. A bold hiring move, one hopes that he can execute a global roll-out that will not make my intended purchase of a phone that is now sold, marketed, and presumably serviced only in China, as infuriating for a repatriated American as attempting to fix an iPhone was for an expatriated one

It is not just the phone, but their customizable Android system on steroids that has caught my attention. I needn't detail its features. The companies own website does a good job in the King's English, which is to say they seem to have invested in avoiding a Chinglish website or marketing materials.

My greatest concerns stem from nasty, largely unsubstantiated rumors that it is like nearly every other large Chinese, North American, and Korean technology giant. In other words, some feel they have built their mystique and their company on the pilfered intellectual property of others. Somewhat enamored and starry-eyed, perhaps, and guilty of cognitive dissonance, I cry out in their defense, "Who cares!?" It is a dog-eat-dog, brave new world out there and if they can take a chunk out of the rotten apple, I will be sitting in the skybox watching as the Chinese company that pretends to be American gets shredded by an upstart from the real China.

The intellectual property wars will not resolve any time soon, but what must happen in this sector is an end to the disgusting planned proliferation strategy of King Apple and its competitors. That scourge of a company has marketed-to-death and bludgeoned a willing public into getting an iThis and an iThat of every shape and description when most of us regular folks--the proletariat, the opiated masses who stare blindly into their screens on the subway--would be best served owning just one product. The price point and professed business model of XiaoMi makes me think that planned proliferation is not their ultimate goal. The landfills (and I) will be grateful if that is true.

A wide range of glowing articles and reviews are encouraging me to go down this road. I just hope I get a chance to invest. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Beijing Bike Program

Much ink has been spilled over the new New York City Bike Share program, but Beijing has had a program since June of 2012. This weekend--ever the earnest environmentalist--I decided to "register."

First, we called the phone number and were told that for foreign nationals to participate, we needed to bring my Temporary Residency Permit and Passport along with a Beijing Municipal Administration & Communication card (subway card) to one of the five registration offices to activate said card.

I proceeded to the window at Dongzhimen Station and talked to the smiley attendant behind the prison-barred window, whose slats were so close together only the most petite hand could properly execute a signature through them. She told us that the program requires a down payment of 200 RMB usually, but foreigners without the proper paperwork must pay 400 RMB (or the cost of a pretty decent "cheap" bicycle). We asked what the paperwork was and she said that she did not know. "No foreigner has ever had the right paperwork." I could have had a prolonged, Kafkaesque exchange about how she could know this if she did not know what paperwork was required, but I was feeling flush so I laid out the additional $32.69 (200RMB) and filled out a lengthy form that required my Passport Number and an address for the passport even though passports don't have addresses, they only have an issuing state or province. There was a separate slot for my Beijing address.

I emerged some while later with a bit of a queue formed behind me and crossed the street to one of the 120 drop-off points. It took me a while with the Chinese-language only machine, but I managed to free a bicycle whose kickstand was, to the bemusement of a helpful-ish older gentleman watching my struggle, beyond my ken. After he helped me "get it up," I mounted the bike and was ready to pedal off to Church, but this, the first of only two bicycles in the dispensary, was broken.

In my frustration, I returned to the window and asked for a refund, which they could not give even though the bicycle had been properly re-inserted and was locked back into the dispensary, because my subway card showed that it was still checked out. I re-crossed the street and some new people were removing the bike and discovering that it did not work. I put my card on the kiosk and magically, it appeared to be checked-in. I returned to the window and got my refund. This was a whole lot of wasted effort.

At dinner, my girlfriend, who was very helpful though not very patient throughout this whole episode, said to me, "It is like educating a f&#king son." My jaw dropped, but I suppose that I was a bit foolish.

Allergic to exercise, she had told me that she would not bother with the program and expected that I would intuit that such a program was likely to be fraught with problems. Wide-eyed and naive since my Middlebury College days when we tried to get a bike share program started there, I was bent on participating. Maybe I will yet, but for now I am taking my $65 and buying a cheap, new bike.