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Tag: china

The past and the future

Nothing helps us to better understand any given historical moment than skipping  30+ years into the past and exploring the imaginaries of the future people had back then. Our medieval ancestors inhabited a world where the future existed as part of a sacralized cyclical time, on which the three Abrahamic religions superimposed the myth of the final revelation. The result was a synthetic vision of time, at once cyclical as personified in the festive rituals of the pre-Abrahamic solar calendar of equinox precessions, and millenarian as personified by the concept of a linear and foreordained end to the cycle. The future contained a repetition of rituals leading to an apocalypse.

The protestant revolution in Europe, and the displacement of the theist principle with that of Reason, shattered both of these futures. Now the future became infinite progress. The French revolution and the Napoleonic wars stabilized this future as the dominant paradigm of the West. The only question now became that of determining where infinite progress leads us to. This is the context in which Nietzsche declared that God is dead, a statement still vastly misunderstood, arguing that the void in the future of progress has to be filled by the Ubermensch.

Of course, the entire edifice of progress and reason was smashed to pieces in the Great War, with entire generations of Western men, reared on the myth of progress and triumph of reason, fertilizing with their blood the fields of Europe. Blood and soil was all that was left of the future now. Not surprisingly, that was the future picked up by the National-Socialists and Fascists, leading into the Second Great War, which accomplished the seemingly impossible by burning the future entirely into the hellish fire of the Bomb. After that, no future was left in the West, only an infinite one-dimensional now of endless consumption. The future was supplanted by two terms – more and now – which encapsulate everything the West has stood for ever since.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Soviet Union decided in a brief moment of collective hallucination to imagine a different future, in the stars. The Soviets even sent a multitude of emissaries into that future, first animals, then Gagarin and Tereshkova. However, the euphoria subsided, a generation woke up from the hallucination, and the future came crashing down, symbolized by the falling of the Mir space station and the collapse of the union. More and now triumphed here too.

In the 1960s and 70s China was undergoing its own collective hallucination moment, but unlike the Soviets, the hun wei bin were not imagining a future in the stars, but in progress purified from all past. Like all hallucinations, that one ended with a hangover, and an entire generation discovered that when the past is gone there is no meaningful future either. It is in that context that Deng Xiao Ping introduced a brand new future for China – that of progress towards more and now. It is at that precise moment, in 1981, when Jean Michel Jarre arrived in China to perform the first concert ever by a Western musician in that country. The choice of Jarre was not accidental. Here was a futurist par excellance, representing the country to first embrace progress as its default myth. Jarre’s music was hyper-futuristic, a glorious embrace of synth-induced progress, with no visible baggage of the past. Just what China needed at that moment. The documentary-like album released by Jarre in the aftermath is an amazing illustration of the arrival and implantation of a new myth of the future into the minds of an eager audience.


Robots sorting through 200,000 packages a day in a Chinese delivery firm’s warehouse. The robots are self-charging and operate 24/7, apparently saving more than 70% of the costs associated with human workers performing similar tasks.

Singularly succulent comestibles

I am currently re-reading Barry Hughart’s Eight Skilled Gentlemen – a fantasy novel based in Tang Dynasty China – and cannot stop wondering at the imagination and sheer Rabelaisian surrealism of the story. The following passage is a good illustration. Participants: Master Li Kao – a Confucian scholar and detective; Yen Shih – a puppeteer; Number Ten Ox – Master Li’s servant and narrator of the story. Scene: our protagonists are trying to get rid of a corpse belonging to the late servant of their host who is a powerful governor.

A great castle always has a small separate kitchen for the preparation of ceremonial dishes to be offered to ghosts or gods, and it was to be expected that a shaman would wish to offer to the gods who had aided him and invite his esteemed host to share the feast. Master Li had no difficulty commandeering the place, and in a few minutes he and Yen Shih had the corpse stretched out on the kitchen table and were cutting the clothes away. To tell the truth, I still didn’t truly believe this was happening.

‘Ox, would you see if they have any pigs’ feet jelly?’ the puppeteer asked. He turned to Master Li. ‘It seems to me that the thighs might best be marinated in a broth of pigs’ feet mixed with honey and the lees of wine, and then baked inside a crust formed of the marinade thickened with peanut paste.’

‘A connoisseur!’ said Master Li.

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

‘Ox, while you’re at it, see if they have any pickled jellyfish skins!’ Master Li called after me as I lurched into the larder. ‘I’ve discovered they go marvelously with bear’s paws,’ he continued to Yen Shih. ‘Bears paws taste to me like sixty percent glue, so jellyfish skins might be a good accompaniment to glutinous parts, like the soles of this bastard’s feet, and perhaps the spermatic cords.’

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

One of the shelves yielded the pigs’ feet, and in a cabinet I found a jar of jellyfish skins. When I started back towards the table Master Li was preparing to remove the top of the corpse’s head with a saw, and Yen Shih was measuring fibula and tibia for ax strokes.

‘Yen Shih, shall we do the brains in a traditional turnip sauce, or would you prefer oyster broth?’ Master Li shouted over the puppeteer’s ax.

‘You know, I rather favor poaching brains in coconut milk, if Ox can find any,’ Yen Shih said thoughtfully.

‘Brilliant!’ Master Li said admiringly. ‘Ox, see if they have any coconuts, and do you know why our erudite friend made the suggestion? Once upon a time, so the story goes, the great king of Nam Viet was stabbed by assassins, and he realised he was dying, so he pulled off his head and stuck it on a tree as his final gift to the people. The head turned into the coconut, and because the king was drunk at the time the fluid inside it is the most easily fermentable stuff on earth.’

‘I shall again seek your invaluable advice before possible ruining something,’ said Master Li. ‘Shall we keep the tongue whole, possibly baked inside a crust of walnut paste, or should we slice and saute it with butter and garlic?’

‘I am a butter-and-garlic man’ the puppeteer said. ‘Why don’t we save the walnut paste for broiling the bastard’s balls?’

‘Splendid,’ said Master Li.

‘How about a casserole of toes and ears?’

”Maybe with breast meat added,’ Master Li said. ‘Stewed slowly with bean curd, fagara, red peppers, and a lot of mushrooms added at the end.’

‘Sounds marvelous,’ said Yen Shih. ‘We have time to make a few sausages, don’t we?’

‘Oh, certainly. Here, let’s see what his intestines look like.’

‘Ox, look for some of that mustard from the south that goes so well with sausages!’ Yen Shih called out. ‘I once knew a fellow named Meng Kuan who claimed he bought mustard of Tan and took it home and forgot about it,’ he said to Master Li. ‘The stuff began to grow, and it sprouted a torso, a head, a tail, and four legs, and Meng Kuan swears it bit him and galloped out the door and he never saw it again.’

‘What was he drinking?’

‘Paint remover, I assume. Speaking of which, is there some way we can disguise the features, yet leave it intact, and serve the grand warden crisp fried face of boyfriend?’

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

‘Will you look at this fellow’s kidneys and pancreas!’

‘Gorgeous! And the liver!’

‘Eggplant! Ox, we must have eggplant, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and at least two kinds of squash!’


Not a trace of the creature remained, except for the succession of splendid dishes that were carried to the grand warden’s table the following evening at the banquet. I lacked the social status to receive an invitation, of course, and so did Yen Shih, but Master Li was a guest of honor. Master Li could eat anything, including “Twelve-Treasure Five-Taste Herb-Honeyed Unicorn,” which was served to the grand warden as the dish of distinction. (Yen Shih and Master Li had boiled the corpse’s buttocks in an infusion of hibiscus petals, and I had to admit it gave them a lovely shade of bluish pink.) As I said, I didn’t attend, but I did hear satisfied comments from departing guests, including the assessment of two very exalted prelates.

‘A bit rich for my taste, but quite well done,’ said the High Priest of Yen-men, and his Confucian counterpart put the seal on it.

‘Singularly succulent comestibles.’

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

Martin Jacques: Understanding the rise of China

An insightful TED talk on the rise of China by Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. He is tailoring the message and examples to the audience of course, but two of the points he makes I have never encountered so well enunciated before. First – that virtually all Western analysis of China is predicated on a very artificial perspective of how the world can possibly develop (in the footsteps of the West); and second – that Western conceptions of China remain at best locked in a rationalized version of this paradigm, and at worst (much more common) in a state of total parochial ignorance of the entirety of Chinese civilization – ignorance which is not reciprocated on the other side. First-hand experience and conversations with ordinary Chinese across different provinces confirm both observations for me.

The droid army and the battle for the cloud [links]

As I discussed in my last post on cloud computing, Google’s strategic decision to release Android as an open source platform, therefore granting complete hardware freedom to vendors and complete app freedom to geeks, has resulted in something resembling a blitzkrieg on Apple’s Maginot line around the iPhone. Apple’s iThings are still shiny, and they might still release another household appliance masquerading as a computing/communication device, but it seems the droid army has made them irrelevant. Consider:

Google’s Android leapfrogging over iPhone, BlackBerry, WindowsMercury News on the latest Android sales figures, provided by Gartner market research. Why is this important? In the context of cloud computing the key battle to be waged (correction, the battle is already raging in earnest)  is about the platform from which users will access the cloud. At the most basic spec level this platform will have to be mobile, always-on, and malleable enough to allow a near-unlimited number of services running through it. It is this last bit which makes the Android a key development – the platform is open for a theoretically unlimited number of apps and Google has relinquished control over certification. Crucially, the most important actor-network in the app business – the developers – seem to agree:

“The developers tell us they love Android. It’s easier to learn; it takes less time, and one of the complaints we hear quite a bit about is (Apple’s) app certification process as a real thing that costs them time and money”

The key bit not mentioned in the article is that the iPhone had a two-year head-start on Android, and an army of carefully cultivated cultist followers ready to buy anything the company deigns to release. This makes the following graph all the more amazing:

smartphone numbers
Smartphone market share (courtesy of Mercury News)

India’s $35 Android 7-inch Tablet to Hit in JanuaryTom’s Hardware, Engadget on the upcoming release of a dirt-cheap Android-based cloud-tablet-for-the-masses in India. The price tag suggests this is a a heavily-subsidized device (unless they have achieved some mind-boggling economics of scale), which in turn suggests this may be part of a long-term strategy by the Indian government to leapfrog their infrastructure deficiencies. As I’ve already mentioned, governments have two possible ways to deal with those – either invest heavily in the established technology (for example fiber networks), or forget about the established tech and concentrate on the upcoming one. Australia seems hell-bent on going the former way, while India seems to be going with the latter. From the perspective of cloud platforms, this of course is a major win for the Android. An entire generation will be growing up using open source as their main net platform.

The future of the internet. A virtual counter-revolutionThe Economist on the developing ‘secret garden’ trend online, and the many possible repercussions for the internet as we know it. The article is long, detailed, and covers everything from censorship and the Great Firewall of China to the Apple app store and net neutrality. Why is this important? Crucially, the article suggests that fragmentation is inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing. When most people spend the majority of their time online on Facebook, and are there entirely of their own volition, it is a bit rich to bemoan the evil corporate takeover of the net. In this context the key issue seems to be not net neutrality but platform openness. The cloud is all about always/everywhere-on access, and while different protocols might still be treated differently depending on the carrier, the connectivity will be there. Given the already-happening fragmentation of common content into fiefdoms (Facebook, Apple app store),  the strategic question concerns levels of access and open vs closed platforms in the cloud. In other words, Android vs iPhone.

The web’s new walls. How the threats to the internet’s openness can be averted – An article from The Economist related to the one above but discussing in more detail the issue of net neutrality. Why is this important? Probably one of the key fronts in the battle for cloud dominance will be about access levels and the related price structures. The heated debate around net neutrality is quite superficially based on concerns about content discrimination (access providers censoring content through pricing), while the underlying issue is of course about competing access levels. In other words, about open markets and competition. The article rightly points out that the whole net neutrality debate is actually a distraction based on a misunderstanding of how markets operate (I am sorry to say this is arcane knowledge for most academics). The best example comes from the Apple app store – what good is net neutrality when the user is locked in a walled garden filled only with content blessed by the high priest himself? The last three paragraphs of the article provide a nice summation of the overall argument.

Mining social networks: Untangling the social webThe Economist on the exponentially growing business of network analysis, covering everything from counter-terrorism to social networks and foreign aid. Why is this important? This article illustrates what seems to be the dominant, if not the only, business model on the cloud – filtering data and managing layers of meta-data. As I argued in a  recent lecture on engaging authorless content, when data is free organizing it becomes valuable. Considering that the cloud is comprised only of data, the only relevant measure of value is the layers of meta-data that can be extracted from the primary set. In other words, network analysis is going to be a very big business.

Mount Emei

I’ve been meaning to write a longer piece on my trip to Mount Emei, one of the holiest mountains in China and home among others to the Bao Guo Si. Alas, this will have to wait for a while. However, the following quote expresses well the spirit of the place.

‘The supreme aristocrat is not the feudal lord in his castle but the contemplative monk in his cell.’Nicolas Gomez Davila

Prayer hall, Bao Guo Temple, Emei shan
Prayer hall mats, Bao Guo Temple, Mount Emei

Liu Ling

“On many occasions, under the influence of wine, Liu Ling would be completely free and unrestrained, sometimes even removing his clothes and sitting stark naked in the middle of his room. Some people once saw him in this state and chided him for it. Ling retorted, ‘Heaven and earth are my pillars and roof, the rooms of my house are my jacket and trousers. What are you gentlemen doing in my trousers?”

Liu Ling (221-300) – poet, taoist, flaneur

Forest Sages
Forest Sages, Leshan, Sichuan

To refuse to wonder…

“In antiquity when someone gripped by an obsession for flowers heard tale of a rare blossom, even if it were in a deep valley or in steep mountains, he would not be afraid of stumbling and would go searching for it… When a flower was about to bloom, he would move his pillow and mat and sleep alongside it to observe how the flower would evolve from budding to blooming to fading. Only after it lay withered on the ground would he take his leave… This is what is called genuine love of flowers; this is what is called genuine connoisseurship.”

Yuan Hongdao (1568-1610) – poet, essayist, flaneur

Leshan flowers, Sichuan
Leshan flowers, Sichuan