Friday, December 21, 2012

Easy homemade yogurt

Among the many important aspects of health that science can’t yet explain is the role of microbes, zillions of them in every part of your body, with far more varieties of DNA than you have in your own cells.

Something so abundant and variable from person to person must have an important function, so for the past few months and thanks to Seth Roberts I’ve become interested in fermented foods.

I considered buying a yogurt maker. At $50 and less, they’re not too expensive. But the last thing I need is more junk around the house, so finally last night I thought why not just make it myself using stuff we already have lying around.

It was unbelievably easy!  In fact, I’m not sure why I didn’t try this years ago.  Here’s what I did:


  • Ordinary 4-cup glass container with a rubber top.
  • Heating pad and towel
  • Saucepan for heating milk
  • Any large bowl big enough to hold the glass container.
  • Two cups of whole milk
  • Half a tablespoon of plain yogurt. It’s important not to use too much. This is the “starter”, with live microbes.


  1. Boil some water and use it to sterilize the glass container. (I bet this step is optional)
  2. Boil two cups of milk. Well, not quite boil, but heat it till it starts to get steamy. 
  3. Pour cold water into the large bowl. Leave it half-full in the sink.
  4. Pour the hot milk into the glass container and set the whole thing into the large bowl of water. (Don’t let water get into the milk)
  5. Stir the milk until the temperature is about 110 degrees. I use my trusty latte thermometer, but you could probably also just do it by feel. Wait till it’s warm – warmer than your body’s 98.6 degrees, but well short of feeling hot.
  6. Stir the yogurt into the milk and mix well.
  7. Cover the container and put it on top of the heating pad.
  8. Place the large bowl upside down on top of the container and heating pad.
  9. Set heating pad to “medium”
  10. Cover everything with a towel and leave it overnight.

Eight or so hours later, open it all up and find this:

Yogurt making

I was surprised how thick it was, but the perfect, tangy smell was the giveaway: the best yogurt ever.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My first Arduino project: a temperature sensor

I've been saying for two years now that hardware is the future of software, and one center of action is the world of Arduino programmable microcontrollers. You can't really learn what's possible in a new technology field without trying it out for yourself, so I took the plunge and tried my own project, a very simple one to measure temperature and humidity in my house. Here's what I did:

I bought the following items (at Amazon)

Breadboard, Jumper wires, Color Led, Resistors, Buzzer, etc., all of this comes in its own handy box for easy transportation and minimal clutter. Parts list: Breadboard X1, Breadboard jumper wire X 70, Red Led X 10, Green Led X 10, RGB led X 1, Ceramic Capacitor (10nF X 10,100nF X 10), Electrolytic Capacitor (100uF X 5), Resistor (330X10,1kX10,10kX10), Tilt switch X 1, Thermistor X 1, Photo resistor X 1, Diode X 1, Buzzer X 1, Push button X 5, switch X 5, Mini Servo X 1, Potentiometer with knob X 1, Resistor Instructor card X 1, Plastic Box X 1

I installed the Arduino development environment on my Win7 PC and then hooked up this simple temperature sensor project: Arduino DHT11 temperature sensor

The temperature sensor is a DHT11 and Virtuabotix has easy-to-understand libraries and other installation instructions.

Here's a screen shot of the sensor and development environment in action:

Arduino DHT11 Temperature sensing software

The entire project took about 90 minutes, including unwrapping the Arduino UNO, installing all software and libraries, and configuring and connecting the sensor.

It's extremely exciting to think about (1) how easy it was, and (2) all the other things I'm able to try now that I have this basic level of knowledge.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Printing in 3D

There is a wonderful online tool, tinkercard, that lets you easily and quickly build simple 3D models entirely in your web browser.  It's a competitor to SketchUp, the very cool CAD software that Google sold earlier this year, except it's browser-based and therefore cross-platform.

It took literally minutes for me to build a simple model in Tinkercard:


and then, with the press of a button I was able to host that same model on a commercial site, Sculpteo, where it is now for sale to anyone who wants it:


My crude, simple model can be printed in 3D for $165. I'm not sure why it's so expensive. You can print the object in different types of plastic, ceramic, or aluminum, some more pricey than others. You can also choose your own size, which I presume affects the price as well. 

Mass, customized 3D printing is still in its early days, so the objects you print are usually not as well-made as something built the traditional way, and it's more expensive. But it can be ideal for special situations where customization is ideal. Imagine giving custom objects to attendees at a wedding, or as sales promotional items to valuable potential customers.

I'm still trying to understand where this industry is at, and what its future will be. It brings back memories to me of the very early days of PCs, i.e. around 1980, when the field was populated by just a few hundred thousand hobbyists. Back then, many of the people most knowledgeable about the technology -- the academics and successful computer industry engineers -- didn't bother with PCs because they already had access to much better computers.  But their expertise actually held them back in the end as they were outrun by new entrants to the field. History is repeating itself…

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Decentralization in the ancient world

Terracotta soldiers in Xi'an China.

The Terra Cotta warriors of ancient Xi’an are an impressive legacy of the early centuries BC, and they better be: during that period, something like 10% of the Chinese population was involved in Big Government-sponsored construction projects, including those tombs for the Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and many others are distinguished high points of Chinese civilization, and all of them were built by a powerful central non-elected government.

The Chinese legacy puts to shame the comparatively modest monuments that sprang from the market-based democratic economy of Ancient Greece. From the long viewpoint of history, this seems to show the advantages of powerful centralized governments.  A thousand years from now, nobody will remember the achievements of our greatest corporations, but who will forget the government-sponsored Apollo moon landing (or today’s Mars Curiosity probe)?

Or will they?  That’s why I thought this Econtalk podcast interview with Josiah Ober was interesting, because it shows that in fact Ancient Greece was a thriving, economically successful place that in general was almost certainly far wealthier than anything in China at the time. The legacy they left behind, while not visible like the monuments of the Qin Dynasty, is far more influential today.

From Ober’s Princeton/Stanford Working Paper, Wealthy Hellas.

Here are three reasons to believe that, compared to other ancient societies, Hellas was wealthy:

· Premise 1. The Greek economy grew steeply and steadily from 800-300 BC, both (a) in its aggregate size and (b) in per capita consumption. 

· Premise 2. By the fourth century BC Greece was (a) densely populated and (b) remarkably urbanized, yet (c) living standards remained high. 

· Premise 3. Wealth was distributed relatively equitably across Greek populations; there was a substantial “middling” class of persons who lived well above bare substance, yet below the level of elite consumption.

A few more claims:

  • 30% of Greeks lived in cities with populations greater than 5000 (versus only 10-12% of the later Romans)
  • 25-35% of the population lived on imported grain (evidence they were producing important trade goods)
  • The Gini index of 0.7 corresponds favorably to 1472 Florence (0.788) or 1998 USA (0.79)

Many other fascinating thoughts throughout.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Michael Crichton’s last book: Micro


[I sent this from the iBooks app from my iPad]

From the first chapter, in a discussion about how children now are raised without an appreciation for how little science actually knows about the world:

Perhaps the single most important lesson to be learned by direct experience is that the natural world, with all its elements and interconnections, represents a complex system and therefore we cannot understand it and we cannot predict its behavior. It is delusional to behave as if we can, as it would be delusional to behave as if we could predict the stock market, another complex system. If someone claims to predict what a stock will do in the coming days, we know that person is either a crook or a charlatan. If an environmentalist makes similar claims about the environment, or an ecosystem, we have not yet learned to see him as a false prophet or a fool.


Crichton, Michael. "Micro." HarperCollins, 2011-12-01. iBooks.

Monday, September 03, 2012

(Almost) leaving China

Bubbles are fun! I lived in Tokyo for most of the late-80s and early-90s, Silicon Valley during the dot-com days, Seattle during the real estate peak of the 2000s, and for the past three years, my family and I have been living here in Beijing. For somebody whose first eighteen years were spent in Wisconsin farm country, I feel lucky to have had a front row seat watching the froth around me expand and expand and expand, until, well, until…

It’s recently been fashionable for departing expats to write about why, finally, they are giving up on China. Environmental issues (bad air, unsafe food), education, uneasiness about the political situation: there are many reasons for concern, all of them perfectly justifiable and in varying degrees applicable to anyone who lives here, including me. My situation is different because, although I first moved to Asia thirty years ago, I’ve only lived in China since 2009 – I am no “China expert” – and perhaps as a result of my shorter tenure, I’m still far too ignorant to “give up” on the place. When you’ve been through several bubbles, you see problems as just the inevitable growing pains that go along with life on the front lines of the future. China, I’m sure, will be fine.

Truth is, I enjoy China a lot, and intend to stay focused here, even after this month when I move back to our home on Mercer Island. There are still too many opportunities, and too many things I like:

People: I find the Chinese generally to be incredibly and refreshingly hard-working, long-suffering, and pragmatic about work and life in a way that I don’t always see in America anymore. My work colleagues are among the best I’ve ever known.

Vastness: An overwhelming population, of course, but also a huge land area, hundreds of major urban areas whose names you don’t even know, at least eight different cuisines, countless dialects and minority subgroups – China is impossible to describe without superlatives.

Inevitability: you can’t study China (and world) history and culture without recognizing how central the Chinese are to the entire human race, and will be even more important no matter what happens next.

Most of my friends and colleagues already know that this was the right time for me and my family to return to the US for a few years, but as you’ll see if you continue to follow me on Twitter and elsewhere, I’m not really leaving. Bubble or not, China will be a big part of the future for all of us.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The inevitability of human enhancement

I watched a TED talk by Juan Enriquez (Will our kids be a different species?) that wasn’t particularly informative if you’re up to date on biology, but it got me thinking about how quickly some of these technologies are going to affect us.

Human enhancement technologies range all the way from tattoos to adding a new chromosome, and many of these are straightforward to implement to anybody with some basic knowledge of the field.

A generation ago, computer programming was a specialist skill that was mostly practiced by well-educated people employed by large institutions. Although it’s still true that most of the mainstream computer programming happens that way, there are millions of “amateurs” with no particular specialized education or access to expensive capital equipment, and those amateurs are doing as much heavy computing as the top experts thirty years ago.  You don’t see these people much because the mainstream experts are doing so much more, and the world has simply moved on to a stage where the bar for money and more is so much higher.

The same thing is becoming true for biology. An entry-level college biology lab now exposes students to the basics of recombinant DNA, and once learned, a fairly intelligent and curious person can do it on his own, without particular access to specialized equipment. There is already a large movement of DIYBIO people who find refurbished or underutilized biological instruments that they repurpose for amateur uses, with costs a fraction of what the mainstream people pay. And as much of biology moves into computers, the costs go even lower: you can design what you want and have a third party “print” manufacture it for truly citizen prices.

The amateur in America may have some interesting access, but this pales in comparison to professionals from other countries who using the state-of-the-art knowledge available to everyone on the internet, can make seriously interesting biological products with the help of a national-scale lab.

The implication is that even if the United States or Western countries try to ban or regulate something, it will be possible for motivated people in other countries to do it anyway – and the competitive pressures will be enormous. Imagine a gene modification that makes for slightly better math performance. What responsible parent would ignore a technology like that, especially if they feel other parents are doing it?

Even if the United States tries to make that illegal, the motivation is too strong to stop it internationally. Once a Chinese lab, or company, starts offering the service, people from everywhere will travel there to get the procedure done for themselves. This will be very hard to stop.
frankenstein's monster
(FlickR photo by jacob earl )

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Medicine and Anti-Fragility

Black Swan author Nassim Taleb in his highly-anticipated upcoming book uses the term anti-fragility to describe systems that are the opposite of fragile. He coins the term after a lengthy search of the world’s languages convinced him that there is no other word to describe something that is the opposite of fragility. The obvious “robustness” doesn’t capture the sense of how some systems not only survive, but thrive when exposed to attempts to break them.

He’s been leaking chapters regularly on his web site, and a few days ago he released Chapter 21, about medicine. He looks at iatrogenics, the study of medical mistakes, as evidence that a large amount (perhaps the major part) of what today’s doctors take for granted is as unproven as bloodletting:
  • Put ice packs on a fresh sprain.
  • Eat breakfast 
  • Lower the temperature of someone with fever

To him, statin drugs are a dangerous example of intervention “to get a grade to pass a school-like test”. Yes, it effectively lowers cholesterol, but so what? It’s like muzzling a baby to stop the crying: sure, it works but you haven’t addressed the root cause. 

He has similar concerns about antibiotics and disinfectants, insulin injections, and even toothpaste: each effectively treats a “problem” but do we really understand the implications?

I’m sympathetic to the whole perspective, especially how “experts” are often (usually) wrong, etc., but I think Taleb is in danger of being too correct. Like the old joke about the two economists who ignore a $20 bill laying on the ground (“it can’t be real, or somebody would have picked it up already”), finding ways to “improve” things is pretty much what humans are for. 

In the wrong hands, Taleb’s concerns might sound like a defense of the precautionary principle, the easy-to-refute idea popular among environmentalists, that a theoretical, even unproven potential harm is enough to justify restrictions on new technology or development.

You could apply Taleb’s reasoning to say that we shouldn’t make gardens because by artificially hedging trees or cutting grass, we are interfering with natural processes we don’t understand. Well, yeah. But if we don’t interfere with nature we don’t get a garden – and maybe I want the garden. Sure, maybe there will many unintended consequences (my fruit trees will attract annoying birds, my vegetables will attract deer, etc.) but I’ll deal with those problems as they come up.

I apply a compress to a fresh wound and take aspirin for a fever because maybe I want to treat the symptoms. Forget the long-run issues of the consequences of “unnatural” treatments: in the long run, we’ll all be dead.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Asymco's Dediu in China

Horace Dediu's (Twitter: @asymco) is one of the best mobility analysis sites out there, so I was excited about his recent trip to China, hoping that he'd have some special insights in his Critical Path podcast with Dan Benjamin.

Alas, apparently he was only here for five days, and it was a vacation with friends, so his observations were purely as a tourist, though of course a smart guy like him can't help but notice interesting things.

He visited a PC Mall and bought some cheap cables. He was frustrated to find that Twitter/FB don't work here.  To him, China is the familiar case of a developing country that follows the Japan/Korea model of Asian development, converting "peasants into factory workers" for a straightforward boost to GDP that will bring them a long way but won't necessarily translate into an innovation powerhouse.

Most of all, he saw lots of smog, as you can see in this photo he took in Shanghai:IMG_1589

He points out that soon China will be Apple's biggest market, but he didn't dwell on the possible consequences and instead devoted most of the podcast to his take on how this year's WWDC shows Apple is becoming more friendly to an ecosystem of partners.  

Bottom line: worthwhile podcast if you want to hear more about Apple and the mobile industry, but not much insight about China.

By the way, I was intrigued to hear that, like me, he gave up regularly reading the Economist some time ago. Though filled with great writing, their perspective puts too much faith in macroeconomics which I think perceptive readers after a while lose confidence in its explanatory power. I mean, they provide an interesting well-written narrative to explain what happened, but I just haven't seen many cases where that macroeconomic viewpoint helps you see the future. 

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Calibre for books

Calibre  About
Amazon Kindle has become my main way to buy books, which of course is incredibly liberating because nowwith the Kindle app I can put every book on every device, including my iPhone. Imagine: I carry with me, on my phone, a copy of nearly every book I’ve purchased for the past three years.
Unfortunately, Amazon’s not the perfect solution. For one thing, I’d prefer not to be so dependent on a single company for so much of my reading. I trust Amazon today, but how do I know that these e-books will still be readable in 20 years?
I’m also limited by the Kindle software and whatever features Amazon gives me for searching/annotating and otherwise enjoying my books. For example, sharing a section of a book: Amazon limits me to short snippets, and those must point back to an Amazon-operated site.
Happily, there is a wonderful way around these limitations. The wonderful people of Calibre have created a wonderful free and open-source ebook management system that lets me do whatever I like with ebooks.
To answer an obvious question, yes there are plug-ins for Calibre that break the Kindle rights management system, and yes that means that you can probably steal tons of books just as easily as you can steal music or movies. But before you ask any further, let me state up front that I don’t feel right about it, and I won’t “share” any books (either giving or receiving) from you, so don’t ask.
But the “fair use” terms of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act means I’m allowed to use these books on other devices and in other formats, such as if I want to use the much prettier book reader on Apple’s iBook.
Today I also discovered another advantage of Calibre. By putting all my Kindle books in a fair use format, my books don’t need to be re-downloaded from Amazon servers when I load a new device. If I want one of my already-purchased books to show up on a new iPad, I just synch with the local copies on my computer. No internet required.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mike Daisey and the fight to keep people in crummy jobs

I listened to the riveting This American Life podcast retracting its January episode "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs", featuring the dramatist Mike Daisey, who misrepresented himself lied about the conditions under which your iPhone and iPad are produced.

For the record, I was always skeptical of media claims about worker exploitation in Apple factories. But that’s no great insight; I'm skeptical generally of the media, especially when I know a little something about the subject. Still, the discussion about journalism versus theatre shouldn’t distract us from the final question that producer Ira Glass asks in the episode:  as somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad?

From the transcript, here's the reply from a reporter whose own article has fueled the flames that Daisey started:

Charles Duhigg: So it's not my job to tell you whether you should feel bad or not, right? I'm a reporter for the New York Times, my job is to find facts and essentially let you make a decision on your own. Let me, let me pose the argument that people have posed to me about why you should feel bad, and you can make of it what you will. And that argument is there were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again. And what has happened today is that rather than exporting that standard of life, which is within our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to another nation.

It’s easy for me, sitting here with my latte in my comfortable urban apartment, to pontificate about “the rights of workers” as I head off to my cushy high-tech management job. But I don't like one part of Duhigg’s argument: who’s the  "we" that decided certain working conditions are "harsh" and others are acceptable?

Laws didn’t end harsh working conditions; people did. Like many in high tech (or for that matter, Duhigg or Daisey), I often work 60+ hours per week. My company “forces” me to endure weeks of painful travel, separated from my family. Do you feel bad for me? No: because I know the risks, I know the alternatives, and all-up, I enjoy what I’m doing. I see it as a step toward something better for me and my children.

America’s employment laws did nothing to protect me (or you) from the harsh working conditions of the past. My life today is better precisely because of that awful labor of my ancestors, who saw it as one step in an opportunity to build a better life for their family.  Rather than fight for laws to ensure their children could have a crummy (but safe!) job in a factory, they fought to ensure their kids never ended up in a factory at all.

Why assume that we latte-drinkers are more capable of deciding tradeoffs than the thousands of unskilled laborers who line up every day begging for a job at Foxconn?  When "we as a nation" made unskilled jobs  impossible to justify in America, we didn't count the votes of those whose alternative to a factory job was much worse.

Of course, the twists of fate can be cruel and there are Bad People who will exploit the powerless.  Labor laws are one tool that can bring immediate relief.  But it’s too easy to focus only on those who directly benefit -- the existing workers, who of course are grateful -- and lose sight of those who now have no opportunity at all. By forbidding, for all time, Americans to work at jobs that are no more worse than what my grandparents endured, many of today’s unskilled workers have been shut out of the labor market, their opportunities “exported” to places where there are fewer restrictions on how unskilled people can earn money.

Higher wages won't solve the problem. Many kind-hearted people will notice that labor is a small fraction of the cost of an iPad and suggest that Apple “do the right thing” and pay the workers more. That sounds like an easy solution, but it carries its own tradeoffs.

An above-market wage makes it harder for workers to bounce through the industry. Workers who thought of this job as a stepping stone to something better may find now that it already is better. If this unskilled job pays like a skilled job, why bother with further education? For that matter, why encourage your younger cousins to make an investment in school if they can do just as well (maybe better) at the factory.

Note that above-market wages don’t just trap you in a dead-end industry; they give more power to your current employer. Sure, a tough employee or industry union would shift the power temporarily, but eventually Foxconn will notice that it can do the same work elsewhere for less money. Or worse, your higher-than-market wage might be in a company that, through no fault of yours, is not keeping up with the industry and has to lay you off.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't be paid well, especially if the work is hard. But it's impossible to know the "ethical" price for labor when you take into account all the hidden costs, including the missed opportunities for people who are trapped in jobs paying more than they're worth. Isn't it better to let people decide for themselves?

You can’t exploit robots. Ultimately, those of us who want to end harsh factory labor are on the right side of history because whether Foxconn’s labor standards meet your personal definition of “humane” or not, those jobs will eventually disappear. In fact, people like Mike Daisey are accelerating the pace at which it becomes cost effective to replace unskilled people with machines because the tiny amount of labor remaining in the assembly line isn’t worth the bad publicity.

Let’s hope the workers today can rack up enough 60-hr-week overtime put away enough savings before that happens.

Back to Ira's question: should we feel bad about how the iPad is produced?

This is where my experience in the industry leaves me bristling at the moral arrogance of those who imply Mike Daisey is “the voice of our conscience”, or conversely, that there are some evil Apple managers out there who “look the other way” at despicable behavior. If you've been to a factory, or worked with a high tech manager who does, you know: we all care. Fear not, armchair urban TV watchers: your sense of justice is no higher than those who are actually working and managing the business. If somebody like Daisey makes them seem evil to you, listen with healthy skepticism.  We high-tech managers are humans too; we don't exploit people for fun or profit -- and it's presumptuous of you to think so unless you meet us.

If you truly want to help the people who make your iPad, don't forget the ultimate goal is not menial factory jobs, however well-paid or protected. Our ultimate goal, like those of these Foxconn factory workers, or my grandparents -- should be to find something better for themselves and their families.  Anything that takes away from that goal is not a fair trade.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Fat Years [Book]


China deserves to be number one. That's an unstated premise of this book, which is all the rage among intellectuals and others interested in what the world of the near future would be like if China were back in the top spot it enjoyed for thousands of years. But revealingly, it gets there by cheating--exploiting a failure of the West, and using the powers of a dictatorship to fill a world power vacuum.

It's a wonderful read, with interesting characters from a cross-section of modern China. The book is banned in the mainland, making it all the more fun, especially to Chinese readers.  But I think it misinterprets the reasons for the rise of the West, or more precisely it relies on an incorrect reading of the reasons China fell behind.

The Chinese political leader in the book who at the end gives an explanation for China's success describes a series of well-executed moves that are possible only in a dictatorship. The novel asks if it was worth it: would you rather live in a good hell (poverty and submissive status but full knowledge of your situation) or a fake paradise (prosperity based on ignorance )

Most discussions of the book focus on how China as Number One has lost its soul, and how economic prosperity has come at the terrible price of amnesia about how it arrived. That's part of it, and clearly that's what interests the author. But that stream of thought reveals, I think, a blind spot in the way Chinese intellectuals see themselves in the world.

The West rose -- broke away from the status quo that made Chinese rulers comfortable --  from a lack of leadership, not thanks to any wisdom on the part of benevolent dictators. Prosperity requires creative destruction, including the sorts of regular takedowns of status quo that the West knows all too well, from the European wars of religion, to the American Revolution, to the regular rise and fall of Silicon Valley high tech giants:  the West is constantly throwing out the incumbents, passing power from one center to another, never giving enough power to allow any single person or group to dominate for long. The Checks and Balances of the American Constitution -- the awful brakes on power that sometimes seem so frustrating to people who want "progress" --  are the Enlightenment wisdom that forces today's leaders to show a humility that's never been necessary in China.

The chaos that Chinese people seem to fear isn't the "hell" -- good or bad -- that is the unspoken anxiety in this novel. In fact it's a necessary precondition for the paradise that many of them are seeking.

p.s. I went to a talk by the author, Chan Koonchung ((陈冠中)  last Fall.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What little we know about China

An observer from Outer Space might raise eyebrows at the apparently irrational way that Americans pick their Presidents, but at least the process itself is transparent.

Does China have a similarly-irrational way to pick its leaders? Who knows? That inscrutability is at the heart of why an otherwise esteemed publication like The Economist can, over its 170-year history, make so many mistakes in its reporting.

Given the size and importance of China, it’s surprising that even long-time watchers from the West have such a poor track record guessing what will happen.  On the surface, power transitions appear to be methodical, even boring affairs (in stark contrast to the Wild West of American national elections). But the recent case of the runaway police chief Wang Lijun and its affect on the political career of the emerging national figure Bo Xilai is a hint that China may do things more randomly than we think.

This was my takeaway from the panel discussion held this weekend at the Bookworm Literary Festival, held at Beijing’s premier foreign bookstore.  Three writers from the newly-created Economist dedicated section on China, Gady Epstein, James Miles, and Ted Plafker.

Who are the media censors of China? There must be literally thousands of well-trained professionals, skilled enough at English and savvy enough politically to pour through every magazine article to search for information that must be thrown into the memory hole.

But maybe the U.S. equivalent is the army of lobbyists who have no apparent function other than to steer lawmaking in the direction of somebody who is paying for it. There are thousands of people in Washington working full-time on behalf of various industry or other groups in order to change the way that laws are written and enforced. From the point of view of that space alien, is there much difference? In both cases, you have a bunch of people dedicated to influencing politics.

Another takeaway was the realization that nationalism in China isn't homogeneous. Chinese history is rich with stories of one village betrayed by leaders of another, with descendants now forced to learn a version of the past that denies their own memories. These losers of history see themselves as fiercely loyal Chinese -- perhaps the true Chinese-- with a nationalist pride that is especially poignant because they still feel exploited by outsiders. There are Christian communities, for example, hundreds of years old who see the current PRC era as a continuation of "the century of humiliation" that mainstream Chinese think has ended.

Lots to think about, and a reminder that although I've been in this country for three years, I really know so little. EconomistPanel

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Coming apart from my children

Americans during my lifetime are becoming unequal and divided, not by class or income, but by something much more serious: a difference in values and interests. This has been my own experience, and now Charles Murray details the problems in his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, (well-summarized in a Wall Street Journal essay).
To see just how different Americans can be from one another, the book includes this quiz, which will take you about 10 minutes to answer:
Coming Apart by Charles Murray - Quiz

Here are my results:



My Score





Family job



Town population



Family income






Painful job









Dumb friend
























High school letter




























According to the book, my score classifies me as a “first generation upper-middle-class person with middle-class parents”, which anyone who knows me well could confirm.  My wife, on the other hand, would score pretty close to zero if she weren’t married to me.  Our kids are already well-removed from “the other America”, and would know almost nothing about it if not for their grandparents.

I still treasure the friends and values I learned from my small town, Midwestern upbringing. Although I’m happy with the wonderful experiences in my life now, I think it’s a tragedy that my own children don’t understand that world anymore.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Impressions of Burma

Burma (aka Myanmar) is changing quickly. Political prisoners are being released, draconian rules are being relaxed, and if this continues I expect tourism will explode from tens of thousands to tens of millions in a few years. Here are a few random observations over my week and a half visit over New Years 2012 :

Like many underdeveloped countries, the place is a garbage heap. Plastic bags and used bottles are everywhere, except in the trash can.

Mess at a Pagoda

The domestic airlines – Air Bagan, KBZ, Mandalay, Asian Wings—are almost always late for both departure and arrival.

Here are a few books about Burma that you may want to read: George Orwell (who spent a lot of time here), and The White Umbrella.

Economic sanctions means you see relatively few foreign brands. Sure, you can find Coke here but it’s imported from Singapore. Try Star Cola or the various local coffee mixes instead of the real thing.


Ubiquitous sunscreen. The local women cover their faces in a yellow protective paint ground from the bark of a tree, apparently to prevent sunburn.

Women of Burma

I didn’t find the food especially appealing: the mohinga noodles are great for breakfast, but the curries (and most everything else) are too oily, without anything special in taste.


You spend a lot of time barefoot if you visit temples or pagodas, where the rule is “no footwear”.