Monday, November 29

More likely than who?

In Music mirrors tone patterns in our speech, Roxanne Khamsi passes this on: "...native Mandarin speakers are nearly nine times more likely to have perfect pitch."

Linguistic Populism

Old Divisions Resurface in Ukraine: Presidential Electoral Crisis Brings East-West Stereotypes to Fore by Peter Finn:
Differences over identity, language, culture and religion, which are broadly defined by an east-west divide, are bursting to the surface. The stoking of historical fears that divide what many perceive as a Russophile east and a nationalist west could continue long after the dispute over voting is settled, if it does not rupture the country first, analysts say...

Yushchenko has been portrayed as the servant of extreme, Russophobe nationalists from the western part of the country who would suppress the Russian language and assault the Orthodox Church, which is under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate. Leaflets found in Orthodox churches have described Yushchenko as a "partisan of the schismatics and an enemy of Orthodoxy."...

Yushchenko supporters also portray a thug whose sometimes coarse language and poor Ukrainian are emblematic of his unfitness for high office...

Yanukovych...solidified his core constituency by saying he would make Russian an official language and promote an economic union and open borders with Russia.
Shades of Taiwanese and Mandarin in Taiwan. The Myth Of Russophone Unity In Ukraine claimed that there was no such rift over language in the Ukraine:
Data from an Intermedia National Survey in late 1999 conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology asked "In which language is it easier for you to talk?" Of the respondents, 44.2 percent said in Ukrainian and only 38.7 percent said in Russian. In response to the question "which language do you speak at home?" 47.8 percent said Ukrainian, 36.3 percent Russian, and 14.4 percent both.
However, it's awfully easy to whip up linguistic populism. Wikipedia claims
The relationships between Ukrainian and Russian have long been a subject of especially hot controversies. The summary of those controversies is that Ukrainians tend to say that these two languages are quite different, whereas Russians tend to say that they are quite similar...

Since 1991, the independent Ukraine has made Ukrainian the only official state language (under last census the percentage of Ukrainian speaking population rose to 67% and the Russian has decreased to 24%). Minority languages, including Russian, are permitted to be used at the local level, both governmental and commercial. Ethnic Russians have migrated in large numbers to better economic opportunities in Russia, and Russians, mixed families and Russophone Ukrainians have come to self-identify as Ukrainians. The educational system in Ukraine has been transformed over the first decade of independence from a system that is half-Ukrainian to one that is overwhelmingly so. The government has also mandated a progressively increased role for Ukrainian in the media and commerce. Due to lack of a coordinated policy and supportive export tax laws in neighboring Russia, however, the Russian-language predominance in the print media has only increased since independence.

Bad Writing

Via Denis Dutton's aldaily, Mark Bauerlein's Bad Writing's Back
The cheap partisan spirit reinforces the point made by Dutton, David G. Myers, Katha Pollitt, and others that the jargon and bloat of theory prose excludes every readership but other theorists—a damning claim given that the theorists purport to labor for social justice...

Until humanities professors acknowledge just how much the enterprise has dwindled, they won't regain outside respect. The Bad Writing Contest ran its course, but other undignifying stories will arrive in turn. This is the worst consequence of efforts like Just Being Difficult? They defend an endeavor that profits only theorists and that only theorists esteem. In crude terms, if these theorists win, the humanities lose. The more their practices spread among graduate students and junior faculty, the more irreverence creeps in among science faculty, university administrators, the media, and the interested public. Theorists may preserve their own standing among their colleagues, but what about tomorrow's needs? Every spring and fall, practitioners must justify humanities inquiry to people who haven'tbe en acculturated to the theory outlook. When future professors present to deans their hiring plans, recruit undergraduates to the major, answer questions from journalists, and submit research proposals to foundations and government agencies, will today's theorists have supplied an effective, noble agenda?
Bauerlein also mentions an interesting fact:
...a Yale Press editor admitted recently in a public lecture, twelve years ago university presses could count on 1000 guaranteed sales—now it's 200.
But nonetheless the dean of my college apparently wants us to have a book published for promotion to full professor.

Finally, Bauerlein makes a little mistake regarding begging the question.

Sunday, November 28

More disappointments

Blue Velvet (1986) wasn't quite weird enough for me. I guess I expected the kidnapping to turn out to have been much more complicated, like the story in Mulholland Dr. (2001), which I much preferred. Or has my weirdness quotient risen that much in the intervening years? Still, the DVD interviews with the cast were interesting.

Dead Heart (1996) was sort of conventional. I was disappointed because of reading the blurb on the box; I expected some kind of surprising revelation. It had some quasi-religious aboriginal stuff, and it occurred to me afterwards that there is very little Judeo-Christian religion in most American movies, which is odd when you think how religious Americans profess to be. But as an agnostic, I'm thankful for that.

If I hadn't watched the previews on the Nettoyage à sec (Dry Cleaning; 1997) DVD, I might have liked it more, but probably not. They telegraphed the message that this was going to be a gay-themed movie. And once again, even if it's arguably not openly critical of the bourgeoisie, it somehow presumes they're wrong or unhappy and is also aimed at shocking "bourgeois" sensibilities.

I'm at a loss to explain why I liked La Vie rêvée des anges (The Dreamlife of Angels, 1998). There was a certain among of stuff about class differences, even a line dismissing the night club in the movie as a "boîte à bourges" (a club for the bourgeoisie). I can also see why Mr Cranky complains about
writer/director Erick Zonca's misdirected compassion for the tribulations of everyday life of his two main characters.

What the French think is good cinema is the kind of stuff Americans see at shopping malls every day. You know, Pa Jones is yelling at the top of his lungs at Ma Jones because she's purchased the wrong brand of toilet paper. Basically, the reasonable person walks by this fiasco, embarrassed to be part of the same species as these people while the French line up at the theater to see the whole damn thing dramatized in film.
"The prevalence of anguish and misery in French art films often seems as predictable and ridiculous as the feel-good optimism in Hollywood movies. And French director Erick Zonca's debut film, The Dreamlife of Angels, certainly has more than its share of grinding poverty, alienation, betrayal and depression....[But] scenes of daily life in the bars, streets and sweatshops, and especially the performances of the two leads themselves, are all so natural and convincing as to seem like the thing itself.
Sure enough, Erick Zonka "has a passion for young, marginalized characters who face the world alone and struggle, with mixed results, to improvise a means of survival." Another of his films is a "portrait of a working-class kid who, disgusted with his job in a bakery, opts out for a life of crime." And "At the end of Zonca's film, the camera moves along from Isa's bench in her new job to the faces of other young women stitching away like her....Well, society needs goods and these women need jobs; still, we're allowed to suspect that the world and the human race were not created in order to put these young lives at these machines. Also, several critics speak of sweatshops, even if the factories in the movie aren't ones in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions. One French critic complains that at the age depicted in the movie, young people who are instructed to be flexible, but just want to make a life for themselves on their own terms.

I don't get the title, either. A French Communist paper argues that the title fits the film very well, and concludes that the audience can dream along with the two main characters.

In an interview the director Erick Zonca clams that he modelled Isa on Elodie Bouchez, the actress who plays her, as he once saw her at a casting call carrying a backpack and a diary. (Things turned out pretty well for her, didn't they?) On the other hand, she herself found her role in the movie too nice, and said that she was sick of that kind of person. Anyway, all that suggests that she is one angel.

I suspected that the reason the film was so popular at the Cannes Film Festival was because it was about a marginalized sector of the working class beloved of the French intelligensia. Even if the Cannes Film Festival jury was headed by Martin Scorsese and included Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder, who aren't French awarded the two actresses, the film itself won France's Cesar for best film.

And I agree with this critic about Elodie Bouchez:
Frankly, exactly why her performance has captured the European critics on such a grand and unanimous scale is not completely obvious to me on the evidence of this film.

Bouchez does have a melancholy charm, and the movie is reasonably engrossing, with the look and feel of gritty authenticity. But why it has been singled out for such lavish praise is hard to figure.
I guess I found the characters sufficiently sympathetic and the telling of the story sufficiently attractive that I liked it, if not as much as the critics.

Chinese labor unrest

In China, Workers Turn Tough: Spate of Walkouts May Signal New Era by Edward Cody:
Heralded by an unprecedented series of walkouts, the first stirrings of unrest have emerged among the millions of youthful migrant workers who supply seemingly inexhaustible cheap labor for the vast expanse of factories in China's booming Pearl River Delta.

The signs of newly assertive Chinese workers have jolted foreign and Chinese factory owners, who for the last two decades have churned out everything from Nikes to baby dolls with unbeatably low production costs. Some have concluded that the raw era in which rootless Chinese villagers would accept whatever job they could get may be drawing to a close, raising questions about China's long-term future as world headquarters for low-paid outsourcing.

Stella International Ltd., a Taiwanese-owned shoe manufacturer employing 42,000 people in and around Dongguan, faced strikes this spring that turned violent...

Chiang suggested that several factors have contributed to the shift in attitude. On the one hand, he acknowledged, assembly-line wages have not risen in recent years nearly as fast as the cost of living. On the other, image-conscious U.S. retailers who buy Dongguan's shoes have demanded better treatment and human rights counseling for the workers, encouraging them to step up and make demands for change.

Finally, Chiang added, broader general freedoms in the country have reduced the Chinese people's traditional fear of authority, and not just among factory workers. Protests by farmers and others, many of them violent, have broken out with increasing frequency across the country in recent months.

The growing assertiveness of factory workers has posed a particular political problem for the governing Communist Party, which ideologically should champion poor laborers struggling against capitalist managers. But local governments have become shareholders in many of the factories, steering officials toward the management side of labor relations.

"The government is the largest boss in the area," said Liu Kaiming, a labor analyst and director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in nearby Shenzhen.

Apparently eager to show solidarity with restless workers, the government-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only legal union in the country, recently issued a reminder that the law requires foreign as well as Chinese companies to accept federation branches wherever workers demand it. The official federation announced Thursday that Wal-Mart, the American merchandizing giant, had agreed to allow unions in its factories in China.

But factory owners and workers in the Pearl River boom zone said the official union does little to represent labor, even in the rare cases when branches are formed, because it is a spinoff of local governments that own or rely on the businesses. In one factory, Liu recounted, the union head was both a management executive and a senior official in the local government...

The result has been a near-total lack of representation for millions of workers, most of them 18- to 22-year-old women, who toil on assembly lines more than 60 hours a week for wages that amount to about $120 a month. According to standard practice, most live at their factories in company-provided dormitories and eat in company cafeterias -- and then hand back a third of their pay for food and lodging.

Some villagers, unhappy with such meager leftover savings, have gone home, and factory managers have begun to encounter labor shortages for the first time. Although recruits are still abundant for most areas, they said, the most sought-after workers -- young women with high school educations -- have become scarce in recent months, particularly in Dongguan's low-paying shoe industry.

Conversations with workers outside Dongguan plants one recent day revealed a sense of frustration about having no place to turn with complaints about overtime, wage levels or the quality of their food. The conversations -- guarded because of workers' fears of retribution -- also displayed little hope of improvement because, in their view, management enjoys overwhelming power...
I'm not convinced that this is going to change things much in China. There's a lot of surplus labor elsewhere, and so far the government has been pretty adept at defusing the unrest.

Saturday, November 27

Dollar Falls

Foreign Interest Appears to Flag as Dollar Falls:
"There is an emerging consensus that banks around the world are moving to expand their reserves of euros at the expense of dollars," said Laidi Ashraf, chief currency analyst at MG Financial Group in New York.

The Bush administration has essentially condoned the dollar"s decline. At meetings with foreign ministers last week, the Treasury secretary, John W. Snow, repeated the American mantra of support for a "strong dollar" but also for letting "market forces" determine exchange rates.

A continued decline of the dollar would be good for American manufacturers, because it would make exports cheaper in foreign markets and push up the cost of imports.

But a diminished foreign appetite for dollars could push up interest rates. The Federal Reserve has already raised short-term rates four times this year, but the shift in the sentiment of foreign investors may soon seriously affect long-term rates that influence the cost of home mortgages.

"Sell U.S., buy Europe," summed up Richard Berner, chief United States economist at Morgan Stanley, in a report last week. Mr. Berner noted that investors have begun demanding higher yields for 10-year Treasury securities than for comparable European bonds, and he predicted that the spread would widen."
Yeah, well, I've been expecting the dollar to fall for a long time. I put a large proportion of my little nest egg into foreign mutual funds months ago.

Friday, November 26

Chinese Cults

Joseph Kahn's Competing for Souls: Violence Taints Religion's Solace for China's Poor
China's growing material wealth has eluded the countryside, home to two-thirds of its population. But there is a bull market in sects and cults competing for souls. That has alarmed the authorities, who seem uncertain whether the spread of religion or its systematic repression does more to turn peasants against Communist rule.

The demise of Communist ideology has left a void, and it is being filled by religion. The country today has more church-going Protestants than Europe, according to several foreign estimates. Buddhism has become popular among the social elite. Beijing college students wait hours for a pew during Christmas services in the capital's 100 packed churches.

But it is the rural underclass that is most desperate for salvation. The rural economy has grown relatively slowly. Corruption and a collapse in state-sponsored medical care and social services are felt acutely. But government-sanctioned churches operate mainly in cities, where they can be closely monitored, and priests and ministers by law can preach only to those who come to them.

The authorities do not ban religious activity in the countryside. But they have made it so difficult for established churches to operate there that many rural Chinese have turned to underground, often heterodox religious movements.

Charismatic sect leaders denounce state-sanctioned churches. They promise healing in a part of the country where the state has all but abandoned responsibility for public health. They also promise deliverance from the coming apocalypse, and demand money, loyalty and strict secrecy from their members.

Three Grades of Servants, a banned Christian sect that claims several million followers, made inroads in Huaide and other northern towns beginning nearly a decade ago...

But it also attracted competition from Eastern Lightning 东方闪电, its archrival....Both became targets of a police crackdown...

Yet such efforts rarely stop the spread of underground churches and sects, which derive legitimacy from government pressure.

"Beijing cannot tolerate religious groups that are not directly under its control," says Susanna Chen, a researcher in Taiwan who has studied the rural sects. "But for every group they repress, there are two to replace it. And the new ones are often more dangerous than those that came before."

Xu Shuangfu 徐双富, who the authorities say was born Xu Wenkou, is a religious entrepreneur. Now in his 60's, he founded Three Grades of Servants in Henan Province in the late 1980's and oversaw its growth despite serving time in custody.

The sect's hierarchy is based on what Mr. Xu argued is the theme of a trinity that runs through scripture, including three servants of God (Moses, Aaron and Pashur, the ancestor of a priestly family) in the Old Testament, and three friends of Jesus (Martha, Mary and Lazarus) in the New Testament. Mr. Xu occupies the top grade and maintains that he, as Moses did, talks to God.

The group is millenarian. Mr. Xu, followers say, predicted that Jesus would return to earth and eliminate nonbelievers in 1989, then again in 1993. When this did not happen, Mr. Xu explained that even God misjudged how long Abraham's descendants would stay in Egypt. He did not set a third date for the Second Coming.

...Since the early days of economic reforms in the 1980's, China has eased restrictions on religious activity, especially in the cities.

But registration requirements and periodic harassment limit growth, as does a chronic shortage of clerics. The five officially recognized religions - Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism - cannot promote themselves or expand easily. The goal seems to be to prevent any from acquiring clout to rival the Communist Party.

The losers are marginalized people who need spiritual support the most, like laid-off workers and rural migrants in cities and peasants in the countryside. They get little benefit from churches that cannot, by law, reach out to them.

One movement that took advantage of this gap was Falun Gong, which espouses an idiosyncratic mix of traditional Chinese qigong exercises and meditation. Its millions of loyal followers resisted stubbornly, though peacefully, when the government crushed it in 1999.

Christian sects form and mutate in the countryside, vying to attract the same disadvantaged classes.

"Cults are thriving among those the government has abandoned," says Kang Xiaoguang, a political scientist at Qinghua University in Beijing. "They provide social services the government no longer does. They give people a sense of belonging," he said.

There are the Shouters 呼喊派 and the Spirit Church 主神教, the Disciples Association 門徒會 and White Sun, the Holistic Church and the Crying Faction. Many are apocalyptic. A few are strongly anti-Communist. Three Grades of Servants and Eastern Lightning are among the largest, each claiming membership in the millions.

Their identities may be less important than their profusion. They erupt suddenly, shocking authorities with their secrecy, financial wherewithal, tight-knit organization and, occasionally, their willingness to use force.

For the Communist Party, this is uncomfortably reminiscent of China's past. Millenarian sects have been harbingers of dynastic change since the Yellow Turbans contributed to the fall of the Han Dynasty at the end of the second century. As recently as the 19th century, the Taiping and Boxer rebellions weakened the Qing Dynasty and fostered the social turmoil that eventually helped the Communists themselves to take power.

Earlier this year, the government ordered the agency established to combat Falun Gong, called the 610 Office, to pursue a crackdown against rural cults.

"The threat posed by Falun Gong has been superseded by organizations in the countryside that are vying with the party for people's hearts," a document posted by the 610 Office says. "Some are even the spearhead of a movement to seize power from the Communist Party."

The 610 Office lists Eastern Lightning as a top target. The group was founded in 1990 by a woman, surnamed Deng, who claims that she is the returned Jesus Christ. It recruits mainly from other religious groups and often uses tactics that include spying, kidnapping and brainwashing, according to two people who say they were forcibly held by the group.

Authorities banned Eastern Lightning several years ago. But it has expanded to become by some foreign estimates the largest underground religious group in China.

In Huaide, as in other northeastern hotspots, Eastern Lightning set its sights on the main local religious force: Three Grades of Servants. In early 2003, Eastern Lightning recruited a few members in Huaide. They in turn were given conversion quotas and an urgent timetable: to save as many souls as possible before the female Jesus wiped out nonbelievers.

...The founder of the [Three Grades of Servants] sect, Xu Shuangfu, was apprehended this summer after a long manhunt. Christian activist groups abroad led a campaign to protest the arrest, citing it as evidence of harsh reprisals against house churches. China's Public Security Bureau said in a written statement that Mr. Xu was charged with ordering murders and leading an "illegal cult."
I found some of the characters here. And I thought Lightning from the East wasn't still going strong. Anyway, the assumption is that there is a spiritual void. How is it that the Americans are so religious while the Europeans are not? And will Bush come out in support of these crazies?

Update I

Xu Shuangfu earlier received a mention at Radio Free China, but I can't find anything about this.
Update II
Three Grades of Servants was called 三班仆人. Xu was executed after being tortured into confessing.

Do not believe ....

Many of those people would be better off if they didn't believe in a lot of that stuff.

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Buddha (Kalama Sutra; From Joe Cherry's quotes page)

But compare this version:
Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.'...[W]hen you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.
It's also identified as being from the Kesamutti Sutta, the fifth sutta (sutra) in the Book of Threes (Mahavagga) in the Gradual Sayings (Tika Nipata). There apparently is no standard Chinese version, although I found references to 伽蓝经.

Anyway, shades of Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit.

Just one damn thing after another

From Joe Cherry:

Life is just one damn thing after another.
Elbert Hubbard, Thousand and One Epigrams

It is not true that life is one damned thing after another-it is one damn thing over and over.
Edna St. Vincent Malay

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life. It goes on.
Robert Frost

My own addition:
"You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

The Richest Man

From Joe Cherry:
That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.
Henry David Thoreau, Journal, March 3, 1856

God works in mysterious ways

From Joe Cherry:"And don't tell me God works in mysterious ways", Yossarian continued "There's nothing mysterious about it, He's not working at all. He's playing. Or else He's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about, a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of Creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil scatalogical mind of His when he robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?"
Joseph Heller, Catch 22

The first step

The distance is nothing. It's only the first step that's important. (Il n'y a que le premier pas qui coûte.)
--Marquise du Deffand, [commenting on the legend that St. Denis walked six miles with his head in his hand], letter to d'Alembert, July 7, 1763.

The quote sounds like A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. But what's this "six miles" business? Is it Lytton Strachey's (Hey, his name is familiar) interpretation? The eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica says it was a miraculous walk of two miles. And why was his head in his hands?

All You Ever Wanted To Know About Saint Denis by Jacqueline Donnelly:
Denis and his companions, through their energy and sincerity, managed to convert a significant number of inhabitants of Lutece, a.k.a. Paris, a phenomenon which was not well received by the local authorities.

Governor Sisinnius Fesceninus ordered the trio to appear before him to recant and submit to Roman authority.

Like all heroes of old, the three refused and were imprisoned and tortured not far from the present flower market n the Ile de la Cite. Frustrated that these Christians were steadfast in their religious commitment, the governor ordered their execution at the temple of Mercury at the summit of the highest hill in Paris.

The legionnaires set out with the condemned, and in their zeal, if not perhaps fatigue, decided to dispatch Denis halfway up the mountain. "Who's to know?" was undoubtedly their reasoning.

Unfortunately, Denis had no intention of cutting the trip short. Once decapitated, he picked up his head and continued up the hill for a distance of 6 kilometers! At 9 Rue Yvonne-le-Tac, he washed his bloody head in a spring and finished his trek.
She also recommends a visit to the basilica Saint-Denis.


Six Degrees of Separation (1993) was a disappointment. Partly I didn't like what was excessive talkiness--that's part of the problem of a stage play. But I couldn't relate very well to the characters. And as far as I was concerned, the supposedly hilariously fatuous daydreams of Upper East Side types weren't that hilarious, and no more fatuous than other peoples' daydreams. As Rita Kempley wrote:
It's too clever by half, an inside joke aimed at the New York gentry. The title is meant to suggest that everyone on the planet is linked to everyone else by a chain of acquaintances no more than six people long -- a notion plausible only to a socialite living on the Upper East Side.
A couple of things annoyed me:
  • Even after having made 10 million dollars, without having invested any of their own money, because they didn't have enough, they still didn't feel rich. (They had to do several other deals before they were.)
  • When Channing's character asked her husband, "Can you account for your life?" Of course she means having done something meaningful, but his material success looked impressive to me.
Another problem with authorial voice, I guess. I was better able to relate to Stockard Channing's character in The Business of Strangers, which was in many ways similar, with its play-acting. Or The Anniversary Party, with far more sympathetic characters.

Symbolic alienation?

Turkey Is Basic, but Immigrants Add Their Homeland Touches:
"Turkey has become so iconic to our mythic heritage that by cooking that turkey, even if you don't like it, you are part of something bigger," said Lucy Long, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University and the author of "Culinary Tourism" (University Press of Kentucky, 2003). "You are symbolically showing unity."
My wife doesn't like turkey (she maintains that most other Chinese don't, either), and I'm indifferent to it. It's been many years since I've had it. So that means I'm rejecting the American way of life?


Frank Rich in The Great Indecency Hoax:
"Desperate Housewives" is hardly a blue-state phenomenon. A hit everywhere, it is even a bigger hit in Oklahoma City than it is in Los Angeles, bigger in Kansas City than it is in New York. All those public moralists who wail about all the kids watching Ms. Sheridan on "Monday Night Football" would probably have apoplexy if they actually watched what Ms. Sheridan was up to in her own series - and then looked closely at its Nielsen numbers. Though children ages 2 to 11 make up a small percentage of the audience of either show, there are actually more in that age group tuning into Mr. Cherry"s marital brawls (870,000) than into the N.F.L."s fisticuffs (540,000). "Desperate Housewives" also ranks No. 5 among all prime-time shows for ages 12-17. ("Monday Night Football" is No. 18.) This may explain in part why its current advertisers include products like Fisher-Price toys, the DVD of "Elf" and the forthcoming Tim Allen holiday vehicle, "Christmas With the Kranks."
In When a TV Talking Head Becomes a Talking Body David Carr wrote:
Last week, a Cleveland news anchor, Sharon Reed, was caught on camera stripping nude and joining a gaggle of other people in the altogether. A year ago, an anchor at another Ohio station, Catherine Bosley of WKBN in Youngstown, resigned after participating partly nude in a wet T-shirt contest that ended up on the Web.

But Ms. Reed need not fear for her job. The cameras that caught her shimmying out of her bra for a nude photography installation belonged to her employer - WOIO-TV, a CBS affiliate - which rode her first-person account of a photo shoot of public nudity to a ratings triumph...

Ms. Reed, who has a master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, lauded her own bravery as she removed her bra in front of the cameras, suggesting that there was significance in her willingness to strip naked for the sake of art: she was taking part in an installation by Spencer Tunick, an artist who photographs choreographed scenes of public nudity. She then took off the rest of her clothes, and the camera filmed her as she walked away from it and joined a group of participants in the photo shoot, also naked.

[Bill Applegate, her station's general manager] defended Ms. Reed's first-person account as a legitimate approach to a report about Mr. Tunick and the installation he did in Cleveland.

Except that the event took place last June, and the station held the report until the November sweeps month...

Mr. Tunick, who cooperated with Ms. Reed on the report, was unhappy with it, saying that his nonsexual approach to photographing hundreds of nude people in public places - in this case, an installation sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland - had been hijacked to achieve big numbers for a local news broadcast... a business where almost anything that produces big ratings seems to merit attention - how many reports do viewers really need to see about restaurant kitchens where rats frolic and cockroaches dine? - it is possible that however tasteless, the naked anchor represents one more skirmish in the battle to grab a dwindling number of news viewers.
So what's the big deal?

I should have said, let the people watch what they want to. More here.

Thursday, November 25

What fiction is for

In The Pleasures of Fiction, Denis Dutton writes,
Fictional narrative supplies us with pleasure, but what does it do for us adaptively?

[Steven] Pinker himself uses a games analogy in How the Mind Works (1997): "Life is like chess, and plots [in fiction] are like those books of famous chess games that serious players study so they will be prepared if they ever find themselves in similar straits." In life as in chess, "there are too many possible sequences of moves and countermoves for all of them to be played out in one's mind." Familiarity with fictional plots obviates the need always in to learn things in first-hand life experience; it can aid in the development of mental flexibility and adaptability to new social problems and expanded physical environments...

Pinker treats the intense pleasures of art, including fiction, essentially as by-products. The arts are a means by which we identify "pleasure-giving patterns" in the brain...

[In Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, Joseph Carroll] argues that literature is a means by which people learn to understand their own emotions and the feelings of others. Fiction provides us with templates for a normal emotional life. "For these mental maps or models to be effective in providing behavioral directives," he says, they must be "emotionally saturated, imaginatively vivid. Art and cultural artifacts like religion and ideology meet this demand." They help us "make sense of human needs and motives," simulating life experience, allowing us to grasp "social relations, evoke sexual and social interactions, depict the intimate relations of kin, and locate the whole complex and interactive array of human behavioral systems within models of the total world order. Humans have a universal and irrepressible need to fabricate this sort of order, and satisfying that need provides a distinct form of pleasure and fulfillment."...

The meaning of a literary work, Carroll says, is not in the events it recounts. It is how events are interpreted that makes meaning. Interpretation, in turn, involves necessary reference to a point of view. This is defined as "the locus of consciousness or experience within which any meaning takes place." Following M.H. Abrams, Carroll argues that an interpretive point of view is constituted by three elements: the author, the represented character, and the audience. These elements come together, in the experience of the reader, as situated in the mind of the author...

The importance of fiction depends on a sense of a communicative transaction between reader and author — understood as a real, not an implied or postulated author. Authors are actual persons who negotiate between the various points of view of fictional persons (the characters), the author's own point of view, and the point of view of the audience. Carroll insists that these three elements are present in every literary experience and that they exhaust the list of operative elements: "There are always three components. There are only three components."...

Literary forms are analyzed and understood in terms the complex relations between authors, characters, and audiences. As I understand Carroll's view, this makes the experience of a work of literature inescapably social, and not just about an imaginary social life. The author is always a palpable presence, which would explain why intentionalism has never died in criticism or literary theory. seems to me that Carroll's approach is most congenial to classic fictions of the sort we read from Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, George Eliot, or Jane Austen. If we set Carroll against Pinker, we find, as so often in the history of aesthetics, that the two theoretical outlooks look better or worse depending on the choice of examples adduced to back them up. Does everything Carroll says in applying his evolutionary theory of fiction work as well with a Harlequin Romance as it does with Daniel Defoe? I think not. Carroll dislikes Pinker's characterization of literature in terms of fantasy, escapism, and ephemeral entertainment values, and provides powerful arguments for seeing fiction in a different, more cultivated and informed way...

It strikes me that Carroll and Pinker are both correct to some extent about all fiction, with each more correct than the other about different subclasses. Pinker is most right about popular, effects-driven blockbuster movies, TV, and cheap thrillers. Carroll is most right about high art, the classics whose values endure across generations, the "best that is known and thought in the world."
Yeah, but sometimes I get impatient with it. Is is because it seems so fake, or because I dislike the voice of so many authors?

Wednesday, November 24

Now they tell us

Data on Deaths From Obesity Is Inflated, U.S. Agency Says by Gina Kolata:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that its widely publicized estimate that 400,000 Americans die each year from being too fat is wrong and that it will submit a new, lower figure to the medical journal that published its original estimate last March...

[Dr. Stanton A. Glantz, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco] estimates that the number of deaths from obesity to be more like 100,000 than 400,000. And the inflated numbers of obesity deaths, he added, represent "a very, very fundamental mistake that was made in the paper, which they have done nothing to address."

"This is not some esoteric little detail over which there is huge uncertainty," he said.

Others, who are not part of the antitobacco movement, agreed with Dr. Glantz that the 400,000 figure made little sense.

[Dr. Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago], for example, said obesity, like tobacco, had little effect on mortality in people over 65. So with two million deaths a year in the United States, 70 percent of which are among people over 65, virtually every younger person who dies would have to die from obesity. "The numbers simply don't add up," he said.

Slim majority

Americans Show Clear Concerns on Bush Agenda by Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder
On Social Security, 45 percent said a proposal to permit people to invest their Social Security withholding money in private accounts was a bad idea; 49 percent said it was a good idea.
The article links to the questionnaire which also asks this:
If people who chose to invest their Social Security taxes in the stock market lost their money, should it be the government's responsibility to make up the losses, or should this not be the government's responsibility?
80% have consistently stated that they don't believe it's the government's responsibility.

Give me credit for this

Last night I caught part of the Frontline broadcast on credit cards. While some companies clearly step over the line, the whole thrust of the program was that the government should regulate the industry more tightly. I found Lowell Bergman particularly irritating, having himself filmed while frowning and cocking his head portentously to underline his message.

I may have missed it, but nowhere did I see the program advise people to pay off their balances each month whenever possible (until the companies charge for it--then switch to a debit card). Obviously there are emergencies where there is no other option, but why should so many consumers be so foolish as to insist on buying something immediately, even when they don't need it? Then they end up paying the banks all the interest.


Many Women Say Airport Pat-Downs Are a Humiliation. Last night ABC news broadcast a similar story, then suggested the women were over-reacting. I agree that they were.

Not so simple

In Keep it simple, the Economist says:
"LIFE is really simple," said Confucius, "but we insist on making it complicated." The Economist agrees. Unfortunately, Confucius could not have guessed what lay ahead. The rate at which mankind makes life complicated seems ever to accelerate. This is a bad thing.
I've found that quote all over the internet, but it doesn't seem very Confucian to me, and I can't find it online in The Sayings of Confucius, nor in The Analects nor in The Analects of Confucius, nor in Charles Muller's version. Maybe it's supposed to be 剛 、 毅 、 木 、 訥 、 近 仁 ’ ("The firm, the enduring, the simple, and the modest are near to virtue.")

Tuesday, November 23

Political Correctness

Mao Zedong is cited as having said:


Not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul. (On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.)

共产党历来提倡坚定正确的政治方向,这种坚定正确的政治方向,是与艰苦奋斗的工作作风不能脱离的,没有坚定正确的政治方向,就不能激发艰苦奋斗的工作作风;没有艰苦奋斗的工作作风,也就不能坚持坚定正确的政治方向。(From 国民精神总动员的政治方向, quoted here; I can't find it in his collected works.

The Communist Party has always advocated a firm and correct political orientation.... This orientation is inseparable from a style of hard struggle. Without a firm and correct political orientation, it is impossible to promote a style of hard struggle. Without the style of hard struggle, it is impossible to maintain a firm and correct political orientation. (Attributed to "Speech at the Yenan Rally in Celebration of International Labour Day"; May 1, 1939. That's not in the his collected works, either.)

It's no wonder he is sometimes cited as the origin of the phrase "political correctness", but "politically correct" has a long American heritage. Ironically, a couple of Chinese sources look on 政治正确 as a Western problem.

The Party of hope again

In Un-Credibles Andrew Sullivan writes
A large part of the pro-Bush vote - especially among blue state residents - was a vote against the left elite and the cultural attitudes it represents in the public imagination. It was a vote not so much for Bush or his often religious policies (or even the war on terror), but against the post 9/11 left, against Michael Moore and political correctness and Susan Sontag and CBS News, among a host of others.

[The moral of "The Incredibles" is letting] the talented earn the proud rewards of their labor, and the fruits of their destiny, harms no one and actually helps those in the greatest need. is pro-talent and pro-opportunity. It is in favor of the urge to get out there and achieve things without apology. Within the right-left rubric of American cultural discourse, the movie is therefore rightward-tilting.

[In "Team America: World Police"] Stone and Parker never lose sight of the fact that...real enemies are out there; or that America is better than many other whiny world powers, paralyzed by fear and inertia and hypocrisy.

...This is what the left has lost sight of. Americans tend to believe that talent needs no apology; that action is often better than complaint; that their own country, despite its many faults, is still a force for great good in the world. The left tends to view things a little differently. The most shocking manifestation was the way in which the far left saw 9/11 as an indictment of America, rather than of Jihadist nihilism...The legitimate criticisms of the Iraq war seemed at times to emanate from a welter of whining, rather than from a determined attempt to win in Iraq, and from righteous, well-deserved anger that Bush had botched it. Facing a world of unprecedented danger, the Democrats still offered little in the way of a constructive message about what they would do proactively to defeat the enemy. For all his faults, Bush did.

At home, the Democrats spoke too easily of people injured by fate or economic transition or social injustice, while scanting the positive things that people can and will do to change their own circumstances, to beat the odds, to rise above their own limitations. They had a trial lawyer as vice-presidential nomninee [sic] and a candidate who had spent a lifetime in politics achieving very little, even by the standards of the U.S. Senate...

The truth is: there is a conservative majority in this country not because the religious right is a majority but because the Republicans have also been able to corner the market on the themes of achievement, individualism, energy, action. And they have also won over those who disdain the politics of resentment, whining and permanent criticism....Democrats...can win over the blueish voters who voted red last time because the pious, do-good, elite whining of Gore and Teresa and Hillary seemd so alien to many Americans' entrepreneurial, anti-p.c. and irreverent popular culture.
(via Will Wilkinson) Since this seems to be turning into the new conventional wisdom, I guess one should take it with a grain of salt (but I've got high blood pressure!)

Monday, November 22


...ween. This is from Google Zeitgeist. I can't believe the Chinese were that interested in Halloween. I'm dismayed that American pop culture is so attractive to so many other countries. Halloween was also in the top ten for the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Spain, France, Finland, Sweden, and Brazil.

Frontline bias

An audio version of Is Wal-Mart good for America?. Bruce Bartlett (via Common Sense and Wonder) says he pointed out to the program's producer
that the main beneficiaries of Wal-Mart's low-price policy are the poor, who could now afford products that would be out of their reach but not for Wal-Mart, improving their lives and raising their standard of living...

...that Wal-Mart, all by itself, was responsible for a significant amount of the productivity miracle we have seen in this country over the last decade.
but the program mentioned none of that. Perhaps it's the producer is one of those public-sector workers uninterested in growth.

The Party of hope and growth

Lexington argues
...the American right is better at talking about the future than the left. It is better at exuding optimism. And it is better at addressing the aspirations of an aspirational people...

Mr Bush's optimistic message gave him a commanding advantage in pro-growth America. Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles-based writer who knows as much about the grassroots economy as anyone, points to the close relationship between growth, both demographic and economic, and a propensity to vote Republican. Most of Mr Kerry's base was in stagnant America. Democratic strongholds such as Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco and Mr Kerry's Boston have been losing people and jobs...

[The Democratic] party is increasingly dominated by people who have no yearning for growth: public-sector workers; academics and trustafarians who both live off inherited endowments; environmentalists who want to regulate SUVs and urban sprawl; and billionaires who are too rich to aspire to anything. (One of the best statistics of the campaign is that people worth $1m-10m supported Mr Bush by a 63-37% margin, whereas those worth more than $10m favoured Mr Kerry 59-41%.)

The Nation of Growth

From Growth spreads inland (subscriber-only)
China is indeed getting more unequal as it develops, and public order is a genuine problem. But these ought to be seen as growing pains—transitional and, with luck, surmountable. Two aspects of that are a product of the extraordinary level of mobility that the Chinese workforce has exhibited over the past two decades—the more remarkable since government policy has often attempted to restrict people's freedom to move. One kind has been from interior to coast, so that the privileged growth seen there is spreading its benefits more widely than might at first appear. A second kind, visible across the whole country, has been what may rank as the most rapid rate of urbanisation ever recorded. In the past 25 years, according to admittedly highly uncertain UN figures, the percentage of Chinese living in cities has roughly doubled, to more than 40%. In 19th-century America, to cite another continent-sized country then in the throes of its own radical transformation, it took twice as long, 50 years, to accomplish the same result...

If the standard of living of the have-nots is improving in absolute terms—as is broadly the case in China—rising inequality may be easier to stomach than in a society where the poor are getting poorer. Figures show that incomes are still rising in rural China, even if they are rising much faster in the cities. More important, perhaps, is that in a China of greatly increasing social and geographical mobility people can have real hope for their children's prospects. And China still does not look that bad in international terms. Its Gini coefficient, a measure of how unequally income is distributed, shows it to be about as "equal" as America (and more so than Hong Kong)—though again the figures are questionable and may, some say, understate a worsening problem...

China is for the foreseeable future going to be the world's lowest-cost manufacturer of most household items, despite growing competition from Vietnam and India. So the process of allowing its hundreds of millions—deprived of material comforts by the insanities of Maoism—to catch up must in the end guarantee a healthy home market.
Of course even if China's stats for the Gini coefficient are comparable to the US's, there are plenty of people who are going to say that's a problem, because they believe in equality more than economic competition. Anyway, this suggests that (apart from religion, obviously) the Chinese Communist Party and the US Republican Party have something in common.

More disappointments

If you can get by Stockard Channing's weird-looking face, The Business of Strangers (2001) is passable, although her character is right in her dismissal of Julia Stiles as a spoiled pain in the neck, and all that entertaining despite the performances, and a telegraphed ending.

We must have watched about the first half hour of Code Unknown (2001) before we gave up. I was fast-forwarding through part of the rest, when I stopped to make sure there were several minutes of Binoche ironing. Yep. Too deep for me.

But at least I know why it was in the library. Crush (2002) was pretty awful (we did finish it, though). The lesson the movie teaches is that there is nothing wrong with a desparate middle-aged woman's being in love with someone totally unsuitable. The movie reminds me of those pathetic Hallmark commercials where the woman imagines a delighted reaction to some over-priced crap she buys from their store. Too bad the movie centered on Andie MacDowell's character (and what was an American doing as a British school principal? I guess to get the Americans to watch). Anna Chancellor's character ought to have been the focus of the movie.

Finally, Pacte des loups (The Brotherhood of the Wolf; 2002) was silly but worth watching. Some influence from the slo-mo chop-sockies (no wonder Tak-ngai Yeung was one of the Stunt Coordinators).

Saturday, November 20

Yelling at people in Kazakhstan...

...has different social meaning than in America. When I went some other PCVs to buy our train tickets home, I was put in charge of making sure with the ticket window attendant that we had understood the schedule correctly before we bought it. So after waiting our ten minutes in line, I got up to the window and asked in Russian whether the train to Ural left on Wednesday. The lady told me that this was the ticket buying window, and I had to go to the question window to ask that. I told her that we would buy the ticket if it left that day, could she please tell me whether it left then or not. She yelled at me to go to the question window. So I yelled at her to tell me when the train left and we would buy the ticket. And with that, she did what I asked.

My friends don't speak Russian and didn't know what the fuss was about. When I looked back at them they looked a little surprised at my behavior, and I realized how naturally and without actually getting viscerally angry myself I had raised my voice at a woman to get what I wanted. My tone would have been very rude in America, but here it's just the way you talk sometimes. And it doesn't mean anything personally. The rest of our lengthy ticket-buying transaction with the woman was no less unfriendly-sounding. We all had the impression that she really didn't like us. We asked if three of us could be put together on a train towards Kokshetau, but were told we couldn't because we had different destinations. "There's no way?" "Absolutely impossible," she snarled back at us. So we backed down and bought our tickets, and after some more shouting with the woman about passports and who was going where and whose money, we got our tickets and left. Only when we got outside did we check our seats and discover that she had put us together after all, possibly against the rules. Despite the ugly tone of voice and our being certain that the woman hated us, she had secretly done us a big favor.

The realization, which has been dawning on me slowly since the beginning, but which this example beautifully confirms, that the confrontational grouchiness and anger that you see all the time here doesn't belie actual animosity takes so much stress out of day-to-day life. I would go so far as to say that this realization is the number one survival skill for working in Kazakhstan.
Ryan Giordano (via Amanda Butler; also check out Waddling Thunder and Will Baude on the ortolan.)


Yes, Virginia (I mean Manohla), Santa's sack is scrotal.

Speaking of Manohla, she recently celebrated The 21st-Century Cinephile:
Today, movie love means buying DVD's online, joining virtual communities on the Web and filling seats at regional film festivals. At once global and local, the new cinephilia simultaneously embraces old and new, avant-garde and mainstream, live action and animation, drama and documentary, celluloid and video. It supports modernist snobberies and promotes postmodern egalitarianism, worships dead masters alongside the living and takes film's aspirations to art as a matter of course. Its adherents use the Internet to track down cult directors and post reviews of films famous and obscure. For these new movie lovers, old divides like trash versus art, Hollywood versus the world have given way to an expansive inclusion of cinemas from around the globe.
Absolutely. (And that's not even counting the scrota.)

Friday, November 19


In Under the Cover of Islam, Irshad Manji
To a lot of Europeans, still steeped in memories of the Catholic Church's intellectual repression, religion is an irrational force. So women who cover themselves are foolish at best and dangerous otherwise.

Not so in North America. Because it has long been a society of immigrants seeking religious tolerance, religion itself is not seen as irrational - even if what some people do with it might be, as in the case of terrorism. Which means Muslims in North America tend to be judged less by what we wear than by what we do - or don't do, like speaking out against Islamist violence.

But there's something else going on. The mass immigration of Muslims is bringing faith back into the public realm and creating a post-Enlightenment modernity for Western Europe. This return of religion threatens secular humanism, the orthodoxy that has prevailed since the French Revolution. Paradoxically, because many Western Europeans feel that they're losing Enlightenment values amid the flood of "people of faith," they wind up sympathizing with those in the Muslim world who resent imported values that challenge their own. Both groups are identity protectionists.
As an agnostic, I prefer the United States. And I don't feel particularly threatened by American fundamentalists. On the other hand, I can't say I'm particularly impressed by her reasons for religious belief.
Religion supplies a set of values, including discipline, that serve as a counterweight to the materialism of life in the West. I could have become a runaway materialist, a robotic mall rat who resorts to retail therapy in pursuit of fulfillment. I didn't. That's because religion introduces competing claims. It injects a tension that compels me to think and allows me to avoid fundamentalisms of my own.
As an agnostic, I don't need some silly preaching to tell me that there's more to life than accumulating things.

Rules of engagement

Quintin Wright on the news footage from Falluja which appears to show an American marine shooting a prone Iraqi, and which has caused outrage here and in the US. He says that this is just what soldiers are trained to do:
A soldier sees things in very black-and-white, clear-cut terms. If his orders are to clear an area, he has to use his initiative, but he is also trained in certain drills which help do the job quickly and without loss to friendly forces. According to reports, the marines in Falluja had been told that an area including a mosque they had previously fought through, with a number of insurgents killed, may have been reoccupied. In my experience as a soldier, if you were tasked to go back and check that area, which was still subject to hostilities, you would approach it in a purely pragmatic, soldier-like way. There is a standard operating procedure for doing that, as there is for everything else in the army...

Urban warfare is particularly gritty. I mentioned "clearing ground" but house clearing, which is what these marines are doing in Falluja, is really nasty. You have to realise that this is a fighting technique, evolved through painful experience and designed to reduce your own casualties.

War is a cold-blooded business, and I think people need to wrap their heads around that concept. If you are there, you simply have to grasp the nettle and do an effective job. You have to deal with the situation, and then get out.


In American blues: Our liberal cousins are in despair. Defenders of the Enlightenment unite! Timothy Garton Ash writes of the American divide,
Red and blue are also more mixed up together than the famous map suggests. Another version produced by the University of Michigan, and reproduced in the Guardian on Tuesday, shows shadings of maroon for the split of the popular vote in different states.
I guess he means this one or this one. But in either case, it's not "maroon", it's purple. What a maroon!

China & Iran

Iran's New Alliance With China Could Cost U.S. Leverage by Robin Wright:
A major new alliance is emerging between Iran and China that threatens to undermine U.S. ability to pressure Tehran on its nuclear program, support for extremist groups and refusal to back Arab-Israeli peace efforts.

The relationship has grown out of China's soaring energy needs -- crude oil imports surged nearly 40 percent in the first eight months of this year, according to state media -- and Iran's growing appetite for consumer goods for a population that has doubled since the 1979 revolution, Iranian officials and analysts say.

An oil exporter until 1993, China now produces only for domestic use. Its proven oil reserves could be depleted in 14 years, oil analysts say, so the country is aggressively trying to secure future suppliers. Iran is now China's second-largest source of imported oil.

The economic ties between two of Asia's oldest civilizations, which were both stops on the ancient Silk Road trade route, have broad political implications.

Holding a veto at the U.N. Security Council, China has become the key obstacle to putting international pressure on Iran. During a visit to Tehran this month, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing signaled that China did not want the Bush administration to press the council to debate Iran's nuclear program. U.S. officials have expressed fear that China's veto power could make Iran more stubborn in the face of U.S. pressure...

The countries also share concerns over radical Sunni Muslims. Most Iranians follow the rival Shiite strain of Islam; China has more than 20 million Muslims, and the government has been facing Muslim unrest in some of its western cities...
Radical Sunni Muslims? Remember when it was radical Shiite Muslims? And what does the Silk Road have to do with anything? But then I'm interested in this nugget:
Islam has historically been a link between the two civilizations. It made its way to China via Persia, the ancient state that was based in present-day Iran, Iranians note. Many Chinese Muslims pray in Persian, not Arabic. Their everyday language is Turkic, but their alphabet is Persian.

Thursday, November 18

The Chinese Hegemon

Chinese Move to Eclipse U.S. Appeal in South Asia Jane Perlez
...across Southeast Asia and the Pacific...Beijing is making a big push to market itself and its language, similar to the way the United States promoted its culture and values during the cold war. It is not a hard sell, particularly to young Asians eager to cement cultural bonds as China deepens its economic and political interests in the region.
An administrator at a Thai university says,
People here are talking of China and economics. People don't care about democracy now.
While China's becoming more important, I don't think the US has that much to worry about, as John Pomfret tells us via The Peking Duck. However, Taiwan probably does.

Tuesday, November 16

The Joke's on Us

"Dieu est un comédien jouant devant un public trop effrayé pour rire." (God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh.)--Voltaire (not Rousseau)

More disappointments

I'm stunned by the positive criticial reception of Chunhyang. Traditional it may be, but not charmingly so. Easily accessible? I think not. Audacious filmmaking? Nope. Let's face it: as James Berardinelli says, the traditional singing heard as a frequent voice-over is grating:
his tones are anything but mellifluous, and hearing him "sing" (it's actually more a combination of barking, yowling, and shouting) is about as pleasant as listening to a cat fight.
I truly suspect the critics of wanting to prove how able they are to appreciate other cultures. If another movie using the same technique comes along, will they be so admiring? On the other hand, although Michael Atkinson is a little hard on Butterfly (1999), I've got to agree it was a little limp.

And I'm sorry to say, Sylvia Chang's 張艾嘉 20:30:40 (2004) was watchable. A fairly predictable chick flick. It was a pleasure to watch Rene Liu 劉若英 and Sylvia Chang, but there just wasn't an awful lot going on there. (What's going on with Google? A fanti search for the two of them yields 6,650 results, while a jianti search yields 32,100.)

Chinese sexual attitudes

'If I like a guy enough, I'll sleep with him' by Esther Addley:
Catherine Liu is 28 and a little nervous, she says, because two weeks ago she split up with her boyfriend and it is making her twitchy about her prospects. "In England, it is OK until 35 not to be married?" she asks, slightly awed. "In China, it is only until 30." Then, a little forlornly, "My mother is worried about me."

Catherine is a Shanghai success story - well educated, sophisticated, with a high-profile job for a British company that has given her opportunities to travel the world. She is also unsettlingly fluent in the language that every woman of a certain age who wants to be married prefers not to utter aloud: how she is getting older every year, how she saves a sum each month towards an imagined future with an imagined husband, how she is looking for a guy who understands her, but who also has a solid career and promising earning potential.
Emphasis mine. Unsettlingly fluent? The reporter just isn't used to Chinese frankness on marriage.

She liked her boyfriend, she says, but he wasn't quite up to the mark. And so she is glad that during their four-year relationship, although they travelled together and frequently shared a hotel room, they never slept with each other. Dating, she says, means "kissing and hugging", nothing more. "My parents always told me not to have sex before marrying," she explains, "but I am sure some women do." And she tells me the story of a woman she knows who did indeed sleep with her boyfriend. Their families didn't even mind.

There is also her cousin, who is 22 and has just graduated. "She is dating a married man from her company. She says, 'I know he is 40 and will never marry me, but for the moment, it is so good.' I feel like I am standing on the edge of something. China is not like it was before. People have their own thinking. Sometimes even I am confused about the way the younger generations are thinking."

Chan Li, at 23, is only five years younger than Catherine but a social chasm separates them. She is dating an American guy who was her French teacher. Li, who likes to use the Japanese name Miki, works in marketing for Disney Asia, is conspicuously financially independent and is absolutely the master of her dating transactions. She chose a foreign man, she says, "because he thinks like me, and doesn't try to control me".

I tentatively ask Miki about the nature of her relationship with her boyfriend; she juts out her chin as if insulted that it should be questioned. "Of course if I like a guy enough I'll sleep with him!" Her four girlfriends, all aged between 22 and 25, noisily agree. Solvent, attractive and intimidatingly confident, none of these women admits to any enormous desire to get married or, if they did, to have their allotted child. "I will get married if I find a guy I really love," says Miki. "Or if I don't - why get married?" She'll think about having a child, "if I have enough money". For a moment it is hard to imagine a young woman anywhere in the world more assured of her own sexual power.

Last month, in a poll of 200 students from Fujian province in the south-east, 92% of the respondents said they thought that premarital sex was acceptable. Virginity was not listed among the top 20 factors - including personality, appearance and income potential - that the students said they looked for in a partner. That is remarkable if you consider this: in 1990, just 14 years ago, a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that 80% of Shanghai residents believed that a woman's chastity was more important than her life.

If China's economic and social development in the past decade has been remarkable, the revolution in sexual mores that is taking place among sections of its society is simply dazzling. A 2003 survey found that nearly 70% of young Chinese were not virgins when they married; only 15 years earlier, that figure was 16%. (Even homosexuality - removed in April 2001 from the register of psychiatric disorders - has become almost acceptable; Shanghai now has a flourishing, if discreet, gay scene. "They don't even close the bars down the way they used to," notes one gay man wryly.)

A society that, perhaps more than any other in history, has been obsessed with regulating sex and its reproductive consequences now finds itself having created the conditions in which for many, actually doing it, whenever and with whomever, has become acceptable. But if sexual liberation has hit Shanghai with something of a bump, its impact is restricted to a tightly limited demographic, leaving those on the outside not a little bewildered.

...Concern about Aids is finally activating China's public-health authorities - the UN has predicted that the country could have 10m Aids cases by 2010 - resulting in a belated push on education about safe sex, and the beginnings of a programme to distribute condoms.

But the unintended consequence of such huge-scale social engineering will be to give sexually active young people even greater sexual independence. The great irony of China's strictly controlled social programmes is that in Shanghai at least, they have created a subculture that has found the space to be remarkably socially liberated. A generation of girls, for instance, has grown up remarkably relaxed about abortion due to its widespread use in population control.
I wonder about the reliability of those stats. Then again, it's interesting that the author of the Guardian article sides with many socially conservative Americans who assume that more sex education leads to more sexual activity, when the reverse seems to be true.

No justice

Cabbies Can't Find China's Road to Justice by Philip P. Pan
The Dazhou cabbies were trying to overturn a city decision they considered unjust, using channels the party itself had endorsed. Their long, futile struggle illustrates the difficulties ordinary Chinese face when they attempt to influence even minor public policy decisions in the world's largest authoritarian system. It also shows how the myriad demands of a society enjoying growing economic and personal freedoms are testing the Communist Party's rigid political structure.

Under the leadership of President Hu Jintao, the party has said it needs to be more responsive to the public if it is to preserve its monopoly on power. At the same time, it has ruled out democratic reform and instead sought to improve governance by encouraging citizens to assert their rights via party-run courts, media and, most recently, public hearings.

But these institutions remain weak -- the cab drivers tried and failed with all three. As a result, Chinese who have grievances against local officials often take a course that is an age-old tradition in China: They shangfang, or travel to the capital for an audience with higher authorities. In ancient China, they petitioned the emperor. Today, they petition the Communist leadership.

The party uses a bureaucracy of what it calls "Letters and Visits" offices to handle these appeals, but these offices do little more than transfer complaints to local governments, collect statistics and pressure petitioners to go home. A recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that only 0.2 percent of all petitioners actually succeed in getting their complaints addressed.
No surprise. China Digital News reports that
WSJ article (November 10, 2004) reports that, in an attempt to deal with the increasing numbers of Chinese who are swarming government offices to demand their rights, Chinese legislators are considering banning public gatherings outside state buildings. This short-sighted response fails to address the root cause of the protests, which have been increasing in both scale and violence.

Beijing's plan to solve this problem through law is ironic, given that the increase in the number of petitioners is directly linked to the malfunctions of China's legal system. After failing to get justice on a local level, petitioners flock to Beijing hoping to receive higher-level attention to their grievances. The new law, which was reported by Kyodo, would not address the larger problem of a judicial system in which courts are subject to the authority of the Communist Party. The rights guaranteed in the Chinese constitution are subject to Party "interpretation," and local judges can be influenced by the local governments who pay their wages.
The link leads to Safety Valve for Absorbing Discontent in Danger of Exploding by Antoaneta Bezlova:
As China considers doing away with one of its unique communist vestiges, the 'shangfang' - or the system of petitioning the government - there are fears that scrapping the only channel available to people to air their grievances might lead to a serious escalation of social unrest in the country.

For more than fifty years of communist rule, 'shangfang' has provided the disgruntled with an opportunity to gain redress from the highest levels of government.

Communist China's founding fathers from the late chairman Mao Zedong to paramount leader Deng Xiaoping have used the petitioning system to present a benevolent face to people who had been wronged by local officials and deprived of the chance to a fair trial.

Now, however, social researchers and legal experts argue this rather imperial way of meting out justice is undermining China's efforts to establish a modern society based on the rule of law....

Beijing fears that if the entrenched system of petitioning is revoked, pent-up social anger could find more dangerous outlets.

Yet top leaders have no choice but to reform the obsolete mechanism of 'shangfang', according to Yu Jianrong, the rural researcher. "What we ultimately want is a rule by the law and not the cult of honest officials and resolutions scribbled on our petitions by superiors."
More here, which leads to ESWN. Shouldn't Philip P. Pan be reading that?

Saturday, November 13

Too Well Educated?

I've never seen "The Polar Express" and probably never will, but I was struck by Manohla Dargis' review of the movie, which includes this now-famous quote:
...most moviegoers will be more concerned by the eerie listlessness of those characters' faces and the grim vision of Santa Claus's North Pole compound, with interiors that look like a munitions factory and facades that seem conceived along the same oppressive lines as Coketown, the red-brick town of "machinery and tall chimneys" in Dickens's "Hard Times." Tots surely won't recognize that Santa's big entrance in front of the throngs of frenzied elves and awe-struck children directly evokes, however unconsciously, one of Hitler's Nuremberg rally entrances in Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will." But their parents may marvel that when Santa's big red sack of toys is hoisted from factory floor to sleigh it resembles nothing so much as an airborne scrotum.
The reactions to this that I've seen seem to find this more than a little over the top. For my part, I can't help but feel that she's a little over-qualified for her job. She speaks as if consumers of pop culture are generaly familiar with "Triumph of the Will". I doubt it. And as for Hard Times' Coketown, I'm willing to bet that even the few who actually read the book remember Coketown. Here's Dickens' description:
It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.
I'm quite fond of Dickens, but I don't see this description as a touchstone of modern American culture that a lot of people read. Maybe people read it in college literature courses where the professors who know little of economics attack capitalism? Then there's Santa's sack. I suppose it displays that characteristic wrinkly look.

She also says,
the story is set in the 1950's, the decade when Mr. Van Allsburg [the author of the original book] and Mr. Zemeckis were both young Midwestern children.
Can she mean that eight-year-old Chicago children in the 1950's had a far different vision of the world than, say children from New York or Arizona?

But I digress. I could believe that Dargis' head is teeming with Dickens and Riefenstahl and scrota, but most viewers are not. Of course, maybe that's the point. She's trying to get us to appreciate good art. I listened to part of the director's commentary for The Anniversary Party, and I was struck by how a lot of stuff they did for the movie went right over my head. So I suppose these overly arty types do have some contribution to make.

No wonder, Jimmy

In Casting a Vote for Peace, Jimmy Carter says,
In effect, peace efforts of a long line of previous administrations have been abandoned by President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. For the last three years of his life, Mr. Arafat was incapacitated and held as a prisoner, humiliated by his physical incarceration and excluded by the other two leaders from any recognition as the legitimate head of the Palestinian community. Recognizing Mr. Arafat's failure to control violence among his people or to initiate helpful peace proposals, I use the word "legitimate" based on his victory in January 1996 by a strong majority of votes in an election monitored by the Carter Center and approved by the occupying Israelis.
In Elections: Who Needs 'Em? James Taranto ripostes:
Now that George W. Bush has won an undisputed election, what if he were to cancel the elections in 2008 and thereafter and simply declare himself president for life? It sounds like a left-wing paranoid fantasy, but Jimmy Carter endorses the idea....

It's true that Arafat in 1996, like Bush this year, won a strong majority of the votes in an election that featured no serious opposition. But as we noted in May 2002, new elections were due in 1999, and Arafat never held them. We hope and expect that Bush will leave office on schedule, on Jan. 20, 2009--but if he doesn't, it would be "legitimate" by Carter's lights.

Come to think of it, we'll bet Carter is kicking himself for not thinking of this 25 years earlier.
Haw. True, Bush might've tried more to help (although he might not have succeeded). I used to think that Carter was just ineffective and naive. But it's not just his inviting Micheal Moore as his guest at a Democratic Party event. Writing in the New Republic of 7/11/94, Joshua Muravchik noted that Carter's
journey to North Korea enabled him to "observe [the North Koreans'] psyche and their societal structure and the reverence with which they look upon their leader." The reverence for Kim Il Sung seems understandable on the basis of Carter's impressions: "I found him to be vigorous, intelligent, surprisingly well-informed about the technical issues and in charge of the decisions about this country." As for the country Carter reported that in North Korea, "people were very friendly and open." The capital, Pyongyang, is a "bustling city," where shoppers "pack the department stores," which look like "Wal-Mart in Americus, Georgia." "They are really heavily into bright neon lights," reported the former president...

He said of the Romanian dictator [Nicolae Ceausescu]: "Our goals are the same, to have a just system of economics and politics, to let the people of the world share in growth, in peace, in personal freedom and in the benefits to be derived from the proper utilization of natural resources. We believe in enhancing human rights. We believe that we should enhance, as independent nations, the freedom of our own people."
No wonder he cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The government wasn't repressive and dictatorial enough!

All hail VideoLAN

So I put a DVD from Taiwan in my computer, and I get this message:
Your system is set to DVD region 1. To play this DVD, set your system to region 3.

So I prepare to reset the system, and get this message:
After Changes remaining reaches zero, you cannot change the region even if you reinstall Windows or move your DVD drive to a different compter.

Not so. There are some complicated workarounds, but then there is VideoLAN's free software:
All regions are supported without any constraint. It doesn't work 100% of the time and can take a long while before it starts the DVD.
Works for me.


On another computer with Dell's PowerDVD, I put the Taiwan (region 3) DVD in the computer, and clicked on the only available option (region 3) and now I can only watch region 3 DVD's on this computer, unless I use VideoLAN.

Friday, November 12

What? Let People Control Their Own Money?

Edward C. Prescott, co-winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Economics, asks, Why Does the Government Patronize Us?
...let's begin by dismissing the notion that individual savings plans are somehow dangerous to U.S. citizens. Some politicians have vilified the idea of giving investment freedom to citizens, arguing that those citizens will be exposed to risks inherent in the market. But this is political scaremongering. U.S. citizens already utilize IRAs, 401Ks, PCOs, Keoghs, SEPs and other investment options just fine, thank you. If some people are conservative investors or managing for the short term, they direct their funds accordingly; if others are more inclined to take risks or looking at the long run, they make appropriate decisions. Consumers already know how to invest their money -- why does the government feel the need to patronize them when it comes to Social Security?

...The beauty of individual savings accounts is that each person decides how his money will be invested and, with the advent of the Internet, he can then monitor those investments at any time and easily make changes to react to changing investment news. Individual savings accounts are transparency in practice.

The benefits of such reform extend beyond the individual retirement accounts of U.S. citizens (although that would be reason enough for reform) -- they also accrue to the economy. As noted above, national savings will increase, as will participation in the labor force, both to the benefit of society. On the first point, more private assets means there will be more capital, which will have a positive impact on wages, which benefits the working people, especially the young. More capital also means that the economy will have more productive assets, which also contributes to more production.

Regarding labor supply, any system that taxes people when they are young and gives it back when they are old will have a negative impact on labor supply. People will simply work less. Put another way: If people are in control of their own savings, and if their retirement is funded by savings rather than transfers, they will work more. And everyone is better off. These are the type of win-win situations that politicians and policy makers should be falling over themselves to accomplish.
Emphasis mine. I find this far more convincing than Daniel Altman's fears.

More disappointments

Although the first hour of After Life (Wandafuru raifu; 1998)is OK, it started to bog down after that, and is far from a brilliant, humorous, transcendently compassionate film. Best in Show (2000) was another disappointment. Wickedly funny? No, kind of dumb. I did, however, like The Anniversary Party (2001), although I can't say why, exactly; I guess I was better able to sympathize with the characters. I thought it was a little patronizing to call the maid "America", but then Leigh said her family had had a maid when she was young (I suppose having had a maid makes her hoity-toity). And then I ran across America Ferrera, from Real Women Have Curves (2002; I haven't seen the movie, and can't help imagine that the heroine is grotesquely obese).

Atheists for Bush

Brett A. Thomas writes,
Only 14% of Bush's voters considered his most important quality to be his "Religious Faith" - 55% of them said it was because he was a "Strong Leader" or because of his "Clear Stand on Issues." There are a large number of Americans who aren't evangelical Christians, support gay marriages or unions (46% of Bush's voters), think abortion should be legal (35% of Bush's voters), and yet voted for Bush anyway. If the official Democrat response to these voters is "well, you're stupid," then they're going to do nothing to win us over.
Yep, there are such people as atheists for Bush.

Are foreigners more beautiful?

'I think foreigners are more beautiful' Catherine Bennett on China's burgeoning beauty industry
Only in the west, it appears, do we admire single-eyelidded, flat-faced models like Lu Yan, whose popularity in Europe is considered bewildering and a bit annoying by Chinese women....

"You can see the difference between westerners and Chinese people - our faces are much flatter," explains Lillian Chung, the exquisitely made-up editor of Orange, a beauty magazine which came to China from Taiwan three years ago. "They want to improve this." She adds that big eyes have been popular in China "for centuries". The most popular adjustments are now the creation of double eyelids (which cost between 1,200 and 3,000 yuan, or £78-£195), and augmentation to create a higher, more western-style nose (up to 10,000 yuan, £650, depending on the implant quality). Rosebud-like Chinese mouths are still being left alone...

The cheery perversity of these patients, as they grope in and out of surgeries for their operations, wads of dressing pressed to their faces, either indifferent or oblivious to the stories of botched noses and infected eyelids, cannot but invite comparisons to earlier generations of Chinese women, who squashed their feet to get husbands. Now they inflate their noses to get jobs. At least, I suppose, the nose jobs are reversible.
Yeah, it's silly, but what about boob jobs here in the West? Anyway, here's a couple of pictures of Lu Yan 吕燕. She cleans up OK:

But for once I've got to agree with the Chinese;she's really not very good-looking: