Friday, February 16, 2007

Snow Days

Remember those lovely winter days, huddling around the radio, waiting for the magic words to come: "[Your school] is closed today due to snow." Ah, the baited breath while the radio man announced your school's name, the resolution and elation that came with confirmation of closing, the joys of the unexpected day off, and occasionally, the hatred and bile directed at the paltry two-hour delay.

Well, Washington, DC is kind of like that everytime there's a bit of snow. In other cities, when the weatherman says "blizzard," he means something like 6+ inches. In DC, he means a dusting which may or may not stick. Of course, rampant speculation then ensues about whether the federal government will close down for the day. And when the snow does fall, citizens panic.

Now, I've heard it explained away by the fact that, because DC temperatures fluctuate right around the freezing point, snow melts and freezes constantly, forming large patches of black ice. I've heard explanations that, while DC may not be hit hard, traffic in the suburbs is thwarted by the presumable mountains of sleet, hail, and other "wintry conditions" (i.e. about 2 inches).

I am inclined to stick with my original speculation, which is that:

1. We all fondly reminisce about snow days, and the Office of Personnel Management (government HR department) enjoys allowing us to personally relive those moments.
2. People in DC are horrible drivers, which only spurs on OPM to let everyone go early.
3. Too many Southerners who just don't understand snow.

That said, this year was better than most, as OPM only let us out a little early on Tuesday and had a 2-hour delay on Wednesday. But I definitely give cars and DC drivers a wide berth as I walk around trying not to step into newly-formed frozen lakes of slush.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Be sure you hate them for the right reason

There is a funny side story that accompanies the release of the Chinese movie, Getting Home. In one scene, famous Chinese comedian, Guo Degang, plays a robber who hijacks a bus. Just recently a random Chinese blogger caused an internet storm when he castigated the Guo Degang for playing the bumbling criminal role with a Henanese accent. According to the blogger, linking criminal behavior to Henanese people plays on negative stereotypes and brings shame to the Henan province. Interestingly enough, there is no link to the original post, because the Chinese censors blocked it. However, there has been no shortage of commentary on other sites. Below is a piece by Lifeweek magaine editor and uber Chinese Blogger, Wang Xiaofeng. He helps us out by summing up all of the major regional negative stereotypes in China and lays out a curious theory comparing the status of Henan people in China to the status African Americans in the United States. His opinions about the role of black people in American cinema are clearly misinformed, but it’s interesting to hear a Chinese person make such a comparison. I have heard expats talk about similar things before, but the comparisons do not hold up if you examine them closely.

Nevertheless, I can attest to the fact that many Chinese people have some pretty nasty stuff to say about Henan and its people. It is weird to observe this regional discrimination from outside the loop.

We’re All Bad People

When Getting Home was released, some people had problems with it. A group of Henan folks asked the question: does not Guo Degang’s character, a bandit with a Henan accent, do damage to people’s image the Henanese people? I think it does. So why not switch the Henan accent to a Northeastern one? Because then the Northeasterners will get upset. How about Fujian dialect? Well, I’m sure that 99% of the world’s population would not understand it, but still the Fujianese people would get upset. Sichuanese? They would have none of it either. Try Shanghaiese. But, can you actually envision a soft-tongued Shanghai guy robbing somebody? Who could possibly believe a guy like that could actually rob a bus? Then change it to English. That way all Chinese people would feel comfortable, and there would be social harmony.

China has over 30 provinces and administrative regions. The people of every region have their own characteristics. We Northeasterners for example—I’m from the Northeast so I can talk about this. All you Northeasterners who read my blog do not start bickering with me. I think that only Northeasterners who leave the region can see Northeasterners’ bad traits. You don’t notice them when you still live in the Northeast.

Anyway, I’ve said bad things about Northeasterners on this blog before. Immediately after, I find comments like this: “You think you’re cool shit. Come find me and we’ll see how cool you really are.” This is a typical northeastern chorus line. It’s implication is really: "if you come to the Northeast looking for me, I’ll send you home in a casket.” The wolf of a Northeasterner is always found on his tongue, not in his actions. If you really went looking for one of them, they would be the first to kneel down and beg for mercy. There was once a criminal detective at the public safety bureau who said, “during suspect interrogations, Northeasterners are the easiest to handle. Scare them a little and they confess right away. People from Fujian, Guangdong, and Zhejiang are a lot harder to deal with. With them it becomes a real battle of IQs. They will only confess when there is no conceivable avenue left. So I like interrogating Northeasterners. There is a high rate of success in cases involving them.” This perfectly illustrates the Northeasterner's falsebravado. Of course, Northeasterners have many other faults; for example, fake loyalty, false hospitality, a preoccupation with face, a love of bragging, all talk and no work, laziness, and male chauvinism. All of these characteristics can be applied to Beijing folks as well, though one difference between Northeasterners and Beijing people is that Beijing people would never say something idiotic like, “Come find me and we’ll see how cool you really are.” But Beijing folks also like to bluster. If you take the Yellow River as a border, you would find that all northern peoples have the same types of shortcomings. Maybe this is taking it a little too far, but northerners are brainless. Why doesn’t the economy develop in the north? A lot of that has to do with the northern person’s personality.

Henan people have given the Chinese people a bad impression of themselves, and it has become a sensitive issue, especially in regard to this movie. If you speak a few words of Henan dialect it doesn’t mean anything. If you didn’t speak in Henan dialect, would it mean anything? But people do think that speaking in Henanese means something. It seems that Henan people in play the role of the black American in Chinese society. For example, in Hollywood movies blacks hardly ever play evil characters, and are only rarely given leading roles. If the image of black people is disparaged in movies or television programs, they will protest. So, the screenwriters and directors avoid causing trouble to protect their reputations and ticket sales. This shows that blacks in America are a disadvantaged population. There are problems with their popular image, and “political correctness” has emerged to balance out the public psychology. But I think that Henan people’s problems have not gotten so severe that we need political correctness to fix them. Think about it. If Guo Degang played this role as one of our country’s minorities, it would probably not have passed censorship. [Protection of ethnic minorities] is real Chinese political correctness.

Actually, the people of many regions are stereotyped or cartooned in our popular consciousness . If you mention Xinjiang people, the first thing that comes to mind is a street full of pick pockets. When you think of Cantonese people, you imagine a people obsessed with doing business. People know that stingy Shanghai folks would quibble over half a ticket of rice (referring to collectivist-era meal tickets). Northeasterners talk too much. Beijing folks are full of shit. Folks from Mongolia (not just ethnic Mongolians) are big drunks. Fujianese people are high-tech criminals. Hunan people are evil officials, and Hubei folks are wily and crafty. The Sichuanese are violent and aggressive. Considering all of these stereotypes together, you will discover that no one of us is better than the other. Sometimes we just like to pick on others’ weaknesses and ignore our own. If I had not left the Northeast, maybe I would view the Northeasterner’s shortcomings as virtues. If I had never left, I would still imagine that Beijing people were great.

The northeast has a lot of local sayings. Why has the word huyou or “talk nonsense” become popularized around the country? This is because it is part of the northeastern personality. But we northerners did not complain about Zhao Benshan [and his portrayal of Northeasterners]. That is because we consider huyou to be a virtue. You think that the low IQ skits that Zhao Benshan acted out during the Chinese New Year TV programs were planned? They contained the essence of the Northeastern personality.

So when you Northeasterners finish reading this, don’t pretend to be threaten to me. Hunan folks, you don’t need to feel put out. We’re all bad.

Thursday, February 8, 2007


Stumbled across two articles today on the impact of genes on behavior, the first on passing bad behavior to kids, the second on beauty. I have never liked these studies, in part because they rest - usually - on flawed premises and leaps of logic. After all, the mere idea of a gene is largely undefined or vague. How does it differ from, say, triplet codons or DNA? How does the genome differ from all of an individual's chromosomes? What does it add to our knowledge. Not much, except in so far as it is a holdover from Mendelian studies on heredity. It is, in a sense, a mask for old science working under the guise of the new.

And this has consequences for the studies that people conduct now. In those two pieces, sweeping claims are made about the inherited nature of certain characteristics. The first one on bad behavior, for instance, compares identical and fraternal twins and the kids they have. An interesting experiment, no doubt. But it's fundamentally flawed. It assumes that variations in behavior are largely the result of "genetic" influence, even though the experiment cannot say what actual pieces of DNA lead to what specific behaviors. There is no line of causality. And this comes out in a critical section buried at the bottom of the piece:

"According to Harden, it's possible that genes involved in risk-taking, sensation-seeking and other aspects of antisocial behavior may make parents more likely to clash, and, when passed on to their kids, make conduct problems more likely."

But once you start allowing for what is possible, once your experimentation is shoddy enough that cannot determine cause and effect, you open the door to all kinds of methodological questions. For example, from the experiment, how is it possible to tease out the effect of learning, teaching, and development as opposed to DNA, genes, and chromosomes? You simply don't know, and it's therefore the researcher taking his or her best guess as to the cause. That's not science. That's belief.

The same can be said for the second article. Our standards of beauty as evolutionarily derived. Again, a key passage:

"Our brains did not evolve with media, and many people see more media images of women than actual women."

The problem here is that humans never stop evolving, and it's odd to think that scientists with a background in evolution would consider that suddenly most or even all change mechanisms stopped once people left the African savanna. And there is the fact that the standards of beauty have altered dramatically and differ widely. Light skin versus dark, proportions of hips to chest, the list could go on and on, but sociobiologists often take samples from particular cultures or societies, which misses the variation that's out there.

We have ample examples from the past where people have assumed the "innate" nature of certain individuals. Women are biologically unsuited for certain public positions, blacks are perenially a subclass of humans who couldn't perform higher orders of thinking, etc. In modern times, all of these ideas were based on pseudo-science that did not maintain the necessary level of methodological rigor that would have culled out the influence of popular perception on verifiable theories. The new wave of biology in human behavior doesn't do much better. The methods are more compelling, but the crippling, flawed assumptions are still there.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Democracy and China

I was trolling around for interesting articles today and stumbled upon this piece about China and the prospects for democracy (or lack thereof). The author's a bit strident, and underplays the importance of economic factors in the relationship between China and the U.S., but she provides an interesting argument nevertheless. And it's additional fodder for an article I hope to write on the relationship between democracy and economic prosperity.

I think one of the major tragedies of the post-Soviet, or post-9/11, world is that authoritarian regimes are increasingly able to argue that democratic practice is fundamentally destablizing and jeopardizes economic development. Russia during the 90s, the color revolutions throughout Eurasia, the backsliding of democratic institutions in Latin America, and the halting steps in Thailand, Singapore, and Taiwan allow authoritarian governments in Russia, China, and Venezuela to maintain tight political controls by terrifying their citizens with the idea of "chaos." It's stability and security over democracy, and that's a hard argument to crack.

But, I think the reasons why it must crack are the ones the author misses. She argues that,

"...the availability of coordination goods [free speech and the right to organize and protest; general human rights, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest; press freedom, etc.] affects democratization because they drastically influence the ability of political opponents to coordinate and mobilize but have little impact on the continued economic growth that is crucial for sustaining an authoritarian regime’s legitimacy."

I don't think that's correct. Press freedom is a principal channel for business intelligence (which is notably lacking in China - an important factor in the lack of large, genuinely international firms). The right to organize and protest is critical in providing the government with the necessary "input" and awareness of social concerns. At the moment, the CCP is very good at recognizing the problems out there and trying to respond to them. But that is because the government is unified behind a single vision and strategy of where it wants to go. If its intelligence channels breakdown, however, you will increasingly see a mismatch in terms of the priorities that the CCP assigns and those that the public wants. There is also the problem of externalities. Labor and the environment are in many ways sacrificed for the sake of productivity, and the problems that emerge because of that are put on either Chinese citizens or other countries. And in the end, the CCP system is simply inefficient. Why have the proactive monitoring, preventive measures, and bureaucracy if people can simply tell you what they want?

The answer, of course, is power. But to me, there is a deeper question here. Is it possible that capitalism and economic growth benefit from authoritarian regimes? Is there a positive correlation between the two? I think, academically, the jury is still out over this question. For every China, you have an India. For every Burma, you have a Bangladesh.

I think the issue fundamentally comes down to innovation. While China has avoided the post-Soviet Russia economic collapse, it's because its economy never had the cripplingly inefficient state industries that the latter had (although its banks are close), or they took measures to dismantle them. But to be a genuine world leader in the marketplace requires innovation, not just education. It requires the ability to risk capital on a grand scale and have the open space economically (and to a certain extent, therefore politically) to promote or shoot down interesting ideas. But the CCP has been very good about splitting off the economic lines of open dialogue from the political ones. They could do so with a wider space for innovation, but I am not certain.


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I extend this offer to my one non-fellow blogger reader. If you send me an address, I'll send a postcard.

I'll figure how to upload pics and all that...maybe...later.