Monday, May 30, 2011

Have some Wikipedia

From the Washington Post: Wikipedia goes to class:

This school year, dozens of professors from across the country gave students an unexpected assignment: Write Wikipedia entries about public policy issues.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which supports the Web site, organized the project in an effort to bulk up the decade-old online encyclopedia’s coverage of topics ranging from the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 to Sudanese refugees in Egypt. Such issues have been treated on the site in much less depth than TV shows, celebrity biographies and other elements of pop culture.

Many students involved in the project have received humbling lessons about open-source writing as their work was revised, attacked or deleted by anonymous critics with unknown credentials.

In the fall, Rochelle A. Davis, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, told undergraduates in her culture and politics course to create a Wikipedia page about a community they belonged to, then use that research to develop a thesis for an academic paper.

Very, very cool. That's the assignment I wish I'd been given when I was an undergrad (in the Late Pre-Wikipedian Age).

If I taught undergrads, I would have a strict rule: No citing Wikipedia in research papers. Violators would be severely mocked and ridiculed.

But - and this is a key distinction, one that sometimes seems lost on people - I wouldn't prohibit students from using Wikipedia as a research tool. No, I would actively encourage it. Obviously they'd be using it anyway even if I did prohibit it, but there really is no reason to forbid it.

I can hear a time traveler from 2006 complaining that anyone can edit Wikipedia, and so you have no way of knowing the veracity of any information you find. I say, we're talking about college undergrads here. If they're not yet savvy enough to (usually) tell the difference between reliable sources of information and Internet-based nonsense, then they don't need to be sheltered, they need to be made able to distinguish the good from the bad. Quickly.

And having to deal with edit wars, nitpickers, editors who have their own personal agendas, and humorless admins? Hey, that's real life. It's useful experience for those undergrads.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Among the Headhunters of Formosa by Janet B. Montgomery McGovern

From 1916 to 1918, Western anthropologist Janet B. Montgomery McGovern lived in Taihoku, capital of the Japanese colony of Formosa. She offficially worked as an English teacher in the employ of the Japanese government, but she had come because of a strong anthropological interest in the native peoples of the island's interior and east coast: the "headhunters". (She does use the modern term "aborigines" as well, along with the more dated word "savages", and the German "Naturvölker". Needless to say, this book contains plenty of terms which are now very far out of fashion.)

Among the Headhunters of Formosa, published in 1922, is written with an early 20th-century anthropologist's eye, and even apart from the insights into Aboriginal culture it is chock-full of fascinating historical tidbits on Taiwan as it was a century ago. The author discusses the name "Taiwan" for the island, a Chinese word she expects few Western readers will be familiar with.

1. Janet B. Montgomery McGovern in Formosa

Having lived in Taipei, er, Taihoku for the past several years, I just ate up the first couple of chapters, in which the author records some of her initial impressions of Formosa.

She alights at Keelung - a dirty port city, as she describes it - and is taken by the natural beauty of the countryside, dotted with little villages and tall bamboo trees. She witnesses this on her journey by train from Keelung into Taihoku. (Compare her description to the scenery you get on the modern train ride through Badu, Xizhi, etc.)

I was mildly surprised (perhaps I shouldn't have been) by her observation that most of the Chinese-Formosan women that she sees have bound feet. It was a practice that she had assumed was limited to the upper classes in China, but it turned out most Chinese-Formosan women (Hakkas notably excluded) in 1916 Formosa tottered along on little feet, as bizarre as it is to imagine a working-class woman engaging in hard physical labor in such a state.

(If footbinding was still ubiquitous here in 1916, that raises the question of whether there are creaky old women still living in Taiwan with bound feet. I don't believe I've ever seen one, but I've seen plenty of extremely ancient women here walking with apparent unsteadiness, and I'm not sure I'd recognize a bound-foot gait.)

About Japanese rule of Formosa, the author has nothing good to say. Completely apart from their cruel treatment of the aborigines, she finds that the Japanese cruelly exploit the local population as they harvest Formosa's substantial natural treasures:

During my residence in Formosa I personally saw instances of the most hideous cruelty on the part of the Japanese toward the Chinese-Formosans, and of barbaric torture, officially inflicted, as punishment for the most trivial offences (as later -- in the spring of 1919 -- I saw the same thing in the other Japanese colony, Korea, on the part of the Japanese toward the gentle Koreans). But this is an aspect of Japanese colonization with which in the book I shall not deal. (p. 89)

Japanese rule of Formosa is depicted as paranoid. The fact that she brought a "photographic apparatus" to the heavily fortified port of Keelung was recorded by the police, and on one occasion she is harassed by a Japanese policeman in Keelung who is afraid she is up to no good; upon realizing she is harmless, he mollifies her by explaining that she could easily have been a German spy (which she finds ridiculous).

But, of course, Mrs. Montgomery McGovern is not in Formosa to investigate how the Japanese manage this little corner of their empire, so she looks into venturing inland to meet some Aborigines. The Japanese Director of Schools, quite the blustering buffoon, warns her that unspecified people will "talk" if she travels on her own; when he realizes she is not worried about her reputation as a lady, he suggests she take up tennis if she wants exercise so badly.

Fortunately other Japanese officials were more sympathetic. The author extends particular thanks to two uncommonly helpful examples of Japanese officialdom, explaining further in a disconcertingly worded footnote, "It is due to the efforts of Mr. Hosui and Mr. Marui that the skull of a recently decapitated member of the Taiyal tribe has been presented to the Museum of Oxford University". (p. 70)

2. Janet B. Montgomery McGovern among the Head-hunters

First, let's dispose of one piece of antique rumor. The Aborigines may be head-hunters, but they are not cannibals. In his preface, in fact, Professor R. R. Marett tells us that he heard from a Japanese expert that it is the Chinese of Formosa who will occasionally partake of Aboriginal flesh. I personally choose to take this tidbit of information with some extremely large grains of salt.

While there is some information on the cultures of the Ami, the Paiwan, the Yami, and the Bunun people, it is clearly the Taiyal (nowadays spelled Atayal) people that the author became most familiar with, as they get the most detailed descriptions. Most of this takes the form of anthropological descriptions of their culture, including religious beliefs, festivals, tattooing and body modification, and of course headhunting, the better to tweak the middle-class Western sensibilities of the 1920s.

This is a description of a way of life -- of ways of life, since what went for the Atayal would not necessarily have gone for the Paiwan -- that, while they haven't completely vanished, are certainly not what they once were. Obviously I don't have to say that men don't go on headhunting expeditions in modern Taiwan. The Aboriginal villages the author photographed presumably don't exist anymore (although I have heard of isolated Aboriginal settlements, high in the mountains, that do not welcome outsiders).

In my four years in Taiwan, I have been to some of the excellent museums that showcase Aboriginal life and culture, I have eaten in Aboriginal restaurants, and I have seen the occasional Aborigine in the newspaper showing off their facial tattoos (not that I recall seeing many facially-tattooed individuals in person). That has been about the limits of my own experiences. I feel very unqualified to comment on the author's description of Aboriginal culture, which is frustrating, as it, not railing against the Japanese, is the real heart of the book. I'm equally unqualified to comment on her speculation about the ethnic origins of the Aborigines, or about the possible remnants of extinct pygmy tribes.

An exception to my disengagement from Aboriginal culture is the two consecutive Pasta'ais I attended. The Pasta'ai is a festival held every two years by the Saisiyat tribe, in which they dance, drink copiously, and try to placate the spirits of a tribe of short, dark people (pygmies?) they are said to have massacred centuries ago. The Saisiyat tribe (which she spells "Saisett") gets very little mention from Mrs. Montgomery McGovern, except for when she notes that they are very few in number and not likely to exist for much longer.

You see, Janet B. Montgomery McGovern is very pessimistic about the continued existence of the Formosan Head-hunters. They were despised by the Chinese, she writes, and as for the Japanese:

The Japanese, when questioned about the aborigines, were either curiously uncommunicative, or else launched at once into panegyrics concerning the nobility of the Japanese authorities in Formosa in allowing dirty, head-hunting savages to live, especially as some of the dirty head-hunters had dared to rebel against the Japanese Government of the island. (p. 31)

The only colonial power, the author writes, who showed consistent kindness to the Aborigines were the Dutch, who ruled Formosa for several decades in the 17th century. She found that as a result the Dutch were still fondly remembered in tribal oral histories. They had introduced Romanized writing to the tribes they dealt with, although it had fallen into disuse and she was unable to find any examples, tribal records having been confiscated by the Japanese. (See Wikipedia: Sinckan Manuscripts.)

Overall, writing in 1922, the author feels Aboriginal cultures are probably doomed. No native culture, she writes, could survive the steady marginalization and extermination that the Aborigines have suffered at the hands of the Chinese and then the Japanese.

3. Janet B. Montgomery McGovern as a Person

Now, a word on the author. To my great frustration, even intensive Googling failed to turn up much information on the elusive Janet B. Montgomery McGovern. Among the Headhunters of Formosa appears to be the best-known thing she ever wrote.

I did find, tantalizingly, that a Janet B. Montgomery McGovern was the mother of William Montgomery McGovern. Born in 1897, William Montgomery McGovern was an amazing, Indiana Jones-like university professor. He was said to be the first Westerner to visit Lhasa (disguised as a local coolie), among many other distinctions. He's one of the best-known American experts on East Asia from the first half of the 20th Century.

I can find nothing online that states that the Janet B. Montgomery McGovern who wrote Among the Headhunters of Formosa was indeed William's mother. But although she does not make any mention of family in the body of her book, it opens with the following dedication:

W. M. M.

That's about all I can dig up on this woman, although if this gravesite is her, she was born in 1874 and died in 1938. Those are plausible enough dates -- if she is that person.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley

Thomas Blaine, junior yacht designer, is killed in a car crash in 1958. In 2110 he's brought back to life by the Rex Corporation, who plan to use him in their marketing campaigns. That plan quickly falls through due to legal worries, so Blaine is turned loose to wander New York City.

Rex Corp. employee (and transparently obvious eventual love interest) Marie Thorne takes pity on him and invites him to view the death and reincarnation of the company CEO. (And from the CEO's point of view, Blaine will have an opportunity to see just how painless death really is. He'd save Rex Corp from any number of legal headaches if he'd just quietly commit suicide.) The reincarnation goes awry and the CEO's soul fails to settle in his new host body, which goes zombie and starts shambling after Blaine. The zombie has unfinished business to settle with him, but can't recall exactly what...

Robert Sheckley was a prolific author, although his influence on other, more well-known writers may be his greatest legacy. Immortality, Inc. is a fast comic read, fairly amusing (if you remember not to lose the 1950s mindset) and a reminder that I ought to be reading more classic SF stories. Not that this is a value judgement, but I could probably read eight or ten of these babies in the time it takes me to read one China Mieville.

In this novel Sheckley creates a classic retro future: flying cars, jetpacks, Venusians and Martians (the latter are largely Chinese), and classic old-fashioned relations between the sexes, which more than anything else marks this novel as a product of its decade.

This particular future's chief distinction is that science has proven the existence of an afterlife, at least for a few dedicated souls who have undergone years of rigorous mental training.

Or for rich people. They can buy their way in. Are you really surprised?

Kudos to the story for keeping me guessing as to where it was going until the very last couple of pages. That said, if you're reading it now, my advice is to just ignore that last chapter. It's just a couple of lines of dialogue. Don't read it. The book is much better off without it.

The "20th Century Man Awakens in the Future!" theme has been done many times, but the most interesting comparison to make is to Frederik Pohl's 1969 comic novel The Age of the Pussyfoot. I think so, anyway, since it's the only other novel in the subgenre I've read. You could put together an entire seminar on comparing and contrasting the two, but it would be more entertaining just to discuss which one reminds you more of Futurama. The Pohl novel is more Futurama-like in its tone, but if the suicide booths in the very first Futurama episode aren't a deliberate Sheckley shout-out, then they're a pretty awesome example of creative convergence.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Streamline Your Arguments

Today's Taipei Times contains a letter from Arron Beck, who quite rightly criticizes anti-Aboriginal bigotry in Taiwan.

He then goes on to write (the bolding is mine):

One more note, speaking of racism: I have also noticed that sometimes — not always, but sometimes — when a front page or inside photograph depicting Taiwanese Aborigines appears in your newspaper, it is often given a witty yet mocking title and caption, insulting the spiritual beliefs of Aborigines in some instances or gently mocking their clothes, their facial tattoos or their customs.

You would never permit photo headlines or photo captions that mock African Americans or Christians or Muslims, yet for some reason your copy editors (and their supervising editors) sometimes allow photo headlines and photo captions that treat Aborigines in a jocular, mocking and yes, racist way.

A while ago I saw a photo in the Taipei Times. It showed a devotee in a temple in Iran, using a shovel to spread sand or dirt (I forget the details) on the floor in preparation for a festival day.

The caption was headlined, "SHOVELING SHIITE".

I remember this because it did seem rather snarky. That said, it was the Taipei Times, not the New York Times, and so the snarkiness did not seem completely out of place. The caption was not an outlier.

Now, since I'm actually in full agreement with the main point of Beck's letter, I want to step away from this particular instance and talk about writing at large. I often see people using this style of complaint -- they complain that a satirical website or TV show would never portray Democrats in as bad a light as they make Republicans out to be, or they would never mock Muslims the way they mock Jews, to come up with arbitrary examples. Very often this claim turns out to be entirely spurious and easily disprovable by anyone with a good enough memory or Google skills.

I understand that we all have our cognitive biases. I'm quite attached to my own; I bet I cling to them like a child clings to his teddy bear. Naturally I don't know what they are.

But doing this just makes your argument appear extremely brittle. After all, there are people out there who know how to nitpick around the edges of an opponent's argument without engaging their main point, and yet make it look like they've bested their adversary through superior knowledge and wit. Look at your own claims with a more critical eye, and you'll leave these people with nothing to work with.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Chance to Win

I keep seeing this ad on U.S.-based websites. I've never clicked on it. I assume it doesn't appear if you're in the U.S.

Am I the only one who finds it absolutely funny?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

This is a titanic story, taking place across seven hundred years of history. We readers find ourselves focusing on a small group of souls who return to the land of the living again and again, with varying names, ethnic backgrounds, and genders. But they are made coherent characters by the fact that their names begin with the name letter across incarnations:

K (Kyu, Katima, Kheim, etc.) is an strong-willed, occasionally violent revolutionary. Actions include burning down the Chinese emperor's palace. Is strongly feminist when female.

B (Bold, Butterfly, Bahram, etc.)is a brave, compassionate individual. Often acts as assistant to brilliant scientists. On at least one occasion effected great social change while a Japanese samurai.

I (Iwang, Iagogeh, Ibrahim, etc.) is the scientist, the explorer. Laid the groundwork for modern physics; centuries later, was a pioneering nuclear scientist before dying of radiation poisoning.

The novel's seven hundred years of history kick off at about the time when European civilization was wiped out by a massive plague. You remember reading about the lost West in your history classes, don't you? The Western nations, despite (or because of) constant warfare both between themselves and with the nearby Islamic cultures, developed commendable artistic traditions and great thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and William of Okham.

Then, in about the year 1348 by their Christian calendar, a great plague struck Europe -- the Black Death. It killed between one quarter and one third of the European populace. A terrible blow, but Western civilization recovered -- or started to.

Then, a few decades later, as the year 1400 approaches, a second, more devastating plague hits Europe. 99% of those afflicted, die. European civilization has been eliminated. The West has been deleted from the world.

K, B, and I, this is where your history starts. Enjoy the next seven centuries. Let's see what the human race does.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an author that I enjoy, but I'll admit he intimidates me. His books are long and take a long time to read. The Years of Rice and Salt sat on my bookshelf for over a year, unread, as I gathered the mental energy I knew I'd need to tackle it. Fortunately, Robinson has made it easier on the reader by dividing his book into ten sections with widely different formats and writing styles. It's still not an easy book. The early sections will steep you in various Eastern philosophies. The late sections include rather a lot of speechifying and digressions on theories of history. This annoyed more than one reviewer. As I read online reviews after finishing the book, I came across opinions that Robinson would have done better to just leave out the final sections entirely, and I have to say I see the point. I will admit that I kind of skimmed the late speechifying about history, but I intend to go back and read it later, removed from the context of the narrative (which had practically ceased to be a narrative by that point).

And yet, I feel like this book has so much stuff that I can't not recommend it. I'd say, read it so you can argue about it. Argue about whether this world without Europe would really have industrialized at roughly the same time as it would have in the parallel universe where the West survived.

Then you can wonder, given the nature of how reincarnation works, if Robinson had meant for B, K, and I to be entirely fictional characters at all. (I = Isaac Newton? Possibly Einstein too? B and K are... who, exactly, in our world? One of K's incarnations, Khalid, is a pretty close analogue to our Galileo.)

Then you can re-read the speculations on the nature of history in the novel's final section, and start arguing about that.

Heck, I haven't read such a fertile book for really intellectual arguments in a very long time.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

Jill Bolte Taylor was a well-respected neuroanatomist affiliated with the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center. In 1996, she suffered a severe stroke. The stroke quickly robbed her of her ability to speak, understand much language, move normally, or perform basic tasks.

She made a full recovery, although it took her eight years. She still is a well-respected neuroanatomist, currently at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Her knowledge and training as a neurologist, not to mention the fact that she remembers every bit of the process, has given her a unique insight. Her book, My Stroke of Insight, is valuable in two ways. First, it contains advice for stroke patients, as well as for caregivers, family, and friends who interact with people who have recently been disabled by strokes.

Second, it contains fascinating insights into how brains tick, and the differences between the left and right hemispheres. Taylor's stroke knocked her left hemisphere largely out of commission. She slowly recovered its functions over the following months and years. So here we have a trained neurologist who can speak articulately about what it feels like to only have the right side of your brain functioning.

Anybody interested in the neurological underpinnings of spirituality will find a lot to think about here. With her left hemisphere out of service, Taylor experienced a feeling of peace, of oneness with all things, of nirvana. Her brain was no longer capable of differentiating between self and not-self. Was this a brain defect? Or was it something we can try to emulate occasionally? Can it be both? Is it possible?

Even before reading Taylor's book, I knew her story from the talk she gave on in 2008. Here she is, on her stroke:

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Ages of Gaia by James Lovelock

We humans are puny creatures. With our short lifespans we have no innate feel for processes that happen over thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of years.

We think a hundred years is a very long time.


James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis, the idea that the biosphere is a single, huge, self-regulating organism (remember the phrase "self-regulating" - it's going to be on the test), has been around since the late 1970s. By the time he wrote The Ages of Gaia in the late 1980s, it had been subjected to the first barrage of controversy already, and Lovelock had had several years in which to develop the idea through exchanging ideas with his fellow scientists and thinkers. Global warming was just beginning to intrude upon the global consciousness as a threat. The hole in the ozone layer and regulation of CFCs grabbed the headlines. That's the cultural climate Lovelock was writing in.

I read the book in the year 2011. The climate change debate has grown, developed, moved in a great many directions. The distinguished sixty-nine year old scientist who wrote The Ages of Gaia is now ninety-one years old, as sharp as ever, and has found himself a reputation as a prophet of doom.

The weather forecast for this holiday weekend is wildly unsettled. We had better get used to it.

According to the climate change scientist James Lovelock, this is the beginning of the end of a peaceful phase in evolution.

By 2040, the world population of more than six billion will have been culled by floods, drought and famine.

The people of Southern Europe, as well as South-East Asia, will be fighting their way into countries such as Canada, Australia and Britain.

But all that was in the future when Lovelock was writing The Ages of Gaia. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and the Soviet Union still existed. Lovelock's book was full of warnings that the human race ought to respect Mother Nature, but there was little sense that DOOM was just around the corner.

So what was the book about? Well, it included a recap of the Gaia hypothesis, including the Daisyworld thought experiment, that gave me a severe childhood flashback. You see, as a kid I played a Maxis computer game called SimEarth, which included a simulation based on Daisyworld and also taught me the word "albedo". SimEarth lets you take charge of an entire planetary biosphere and lets you play with it. You can rain down meteors or make volcanoes erupt, to see what happens. You can try to nudge your planet's indigenous life forms along towards sentience. (You know mollusks have achieved civilization when you see the little octopus carrying a stick.)

Anyway, Daisyworld is an extremely simplified biosphere where the only life forms are daisies of various colors (no octopi with clubs). Light-colored daisies reflect heat, dark-colored daisies absorb heat, and via computer models you can show how this system regulates itself. No religious dogma required.

Lovelock then takes us through the development of Gaia and the history of our planet, from the Archean Age, to the Proterozoic, to the Phanerozoic (a relatively short Age compared to the other three, but contains the entire history of what we would recognize as animals and plants). I'll admit that I zoned out on occasion, and probably couldn't pass a test on the topic now. The specifics of microorganisms and atmospheric gases did not grab my attention. That said, Lovelock admits that he's filled the middle section of the book mostly with informed speculation, owing to a general lack of hard evidence. But he's not wasting anyone's time: he's showing how Gaia plausibly could have evolved, given what we know of the early history of the Earth.

In the book's final sections, he discusses the possibility of terraforming Mars (essentially starting up a second Gaia), as well as the philosophical and religious implications of Gaia.

So how did Lovelock come to be considered such a doomsayer? Remember that Gaia naturally regulates itself. If we tinker too much with the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we run the risk of triggering a reaction that could be very, very bad for us.

I don't think humanity is really going to destroy all life on Earth. I don't doubt we could, if we set our minds to it, but I don't think it's likely. I do think we have the capability to really muck things up for ourselves, though.

Let's say we trigger slight climate shifts, of the sort that a visiting alien scientist ten million years from now would not even notice in the geological record. Let's say we can sail from Canada to Russia over the pole, and sip our pina coladas at Scottish beach resorts. That doesn't sound bad, does it?

Now think of the large percentage of this planet's poor underclass that lives in parts of the world that are extremely vulnerable to shifts in climate that are pretty minor, by geological standards. (Did someone mention Bangladesh?)

Maybe you don't care about poor people that you can't see. Well, okay then; I'm not trying to spread empathy to empathy-poor parts of the populace.

But I've got two words for you: political unrest. If a land becomes too full to hold its teeming millions, those people are going to spill over into lands that may be only marginally better off. You think eastern India, for instance, is going to be able to easily cope if Bangladesh starts overflowing with refugees?

The Middle Ages are over. There is no place on Earth where you can settle and feel disconnected from political instability elsewhere. You're not going to be able to forget the plight of the displaced masses in the tropics as you're relaxing in your new pleasant summer home in Greenland. Global interconnectedness won't let you.

And as sad as it sounds, Gaia really doesn't care about us as individuals.

Friday, May 13, 2011

What Is the What by Dave Eggers

The story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Dinka tribesman born in the town of Marial Bai in Southern Sudan. He's healthy and bright. By local standards, his family isn't poor.

Unfortunately, history with its grinding teeth has its sights set on Valentino and his people.

I chose a historically appropriate time to read Dave Eggers' What Is the What. July 9th of this year is set to be Independence Day for Southern Sudan. Like most Americans, I knew practically nothing of Southern Sudan, except for a vague sense of the terrible cultural devastation in Darfur.

As it turns out, Darfur is not even in Southern Sudan, and the genocide in Darfur is largely unrelated to the unrest and the killing in Southern Sudan, except that both regions are victims of exactly the same tyrannical regime in Khartoum. Incidentally, President Omar al-Bashir is still in power, and shortly before he formally loses the southern third of his country, he will pass the 22 year mark as dictator. Just thought you all might like to be reminded.

This is my third Eggers novel -- and Deng himself argues convincingly in the preface that it is indeed a novel, with large portions fictionalized by himself and Eggers, although the major events depicted are, unfortunately, true to what actually happened. Eggers' own writing style shines through especially in the scenes from Deng's childhood. Eggers has a true talent for writing rambunctious young boys realistically.

Eggers has gotten some heat from people who wonder why he would presume to insert his white American self between Deng and his readership. Personally, I have no problem with Eggers channeling Deng's story for a mass audience. Let's think of the vast number of readers - including, let's be honest, myself - who would never have heard of Deng if he hadn't been allied with Eggers' literary celebrity.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone by Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor's The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone is not a coherent single work; it's a collection of short articles and newspaper columns from the last decade (the book was published in 2007). The unifying theme running through the book is the development of India in recent years, as well as the development of the West's perceptions of India.

Tharoor's a writer with a couple of novels under his belt, but I think of him as a politician first and foremost. He retired from a successful career at the U.N. a few years ago, and started a career in Indian politics as an MP. Judging from his Wikipedia bio, he's been enmeshed in a variety of controversies and scandal since. (Probably impossible for a high-profile MP to do otherwise.)

I'd already read his previous nonfiction book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, which laid out his vision of a liberalized, multicultural, cosmopolitan future India (in which his own Congress Party is the least bad political option). The theme is continued in his more recent book.

A believing Hindu himself, Tharoor strongly rejects the notion that India, 83% Hindu by population, ought to be a "Hindu country" (for pretty much the same reasons why the USA is not and should not be a "Christian country"). He makes his outrage at the fundamentalist Hindus who occupy positions of great influence in Indian society very clear.

For Tharoor, Hinduism is an innately tolerant and pluralistic religion: a religion that has no central dogma and does not claim to be the universe's only route to salvation.

If the future of his country is determined by fundamentalists, who elevate Hinduism above all other religions, Tharoor says, the Indian society that he loves will be in great danger.

Many of the chapters read like they started out as the text of speeches. Tharoor's got a love of the anecdote, the hook, the fascinating statistic. He spoke at TED about India's international influence through soft power, a theme he often touches on in his writing. I'll admit that reading Tharoor's books and articles, he sometimes strikes me as the smiling, liberal, optimistic, pro-globalization, pro-free market, pro-inclusiveness figure that every Western investor wishes to believe is the face of India.

I hope his vision of India percolates throughout his country. What very little I saw during the short time I was in India made me hopeful. While we were in Karnataka, a scandal erupted in the city of Mangalore: a gang of Hindu fundamentalist thugs commandeered a pub one night and roughed up the patrons because they'd heard women were drinking and acting shamelessly inside. Afterwards, outrage erupted on English-language TV and in newspapers that such a thing could happen in urban Karnataka. An English-language TV news station shared messages that locals had texted in with their cell phones, every one expressing shock at the thugs' actions.

I admit it's possible my impression is being skewed by my inability to understand any Indian language apart from English. The English-language media might cater to a more broad-minded segment of the population. But still, I was heartened by what I heard and read.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Conspiracy Theories

I'm not drawn to conspiracy theories.

I'm no naive starry-eyed optimist. I do believe that human beings have an almost unlimited capacity for evil and lying. But really, really huge conspiracies, like the idea that the Apollo Program was faked or that 9/11 was an inside job, aren't plausible to me.

The most effective way to counter people who insist the moon landings were faked is not to answer every niggling little question they raise. It's to step back and point out the great big unlikelihood at the center of their conspiracy theory. Namely: if the moon landings were a hoax, think of all the people who were in on it. Think of all those guys in Mission Control, most of them engineers, most of whom cared passionately about their work and had no obsessive political agenda. Think of the 42 years that have passed since Apollo 11. That's a lot of time for deathbed confessions. That's a lot of time for anonymous whistleblowers.

No doubt that there are a lot of secrets in the world that we will never know about. I bet there are prominent people in history that we only think died of natural causes or accidents, but were actually murdered. But in general, I'm not one for the conspiracy theorist way of thinking.

Anyway. Osama bin Laden.

Until one week ago I thought there was a pretty good chance he was already dead and had been for some time. Not in a "OMG The US Government is LYING to you sheeple" sort of way, but more like a couple of al-Qaeda goons living in mountain caves had seen him die, but figured The Cause would be better off if the world thought he was still alive. Or his severed head was wrapped in a plastic bag shoved way in the back of Pervez Musharraf's freezer. Or something.

Seems I was wrong.

Now, it's pretty obvious that for the next couple of decades we're going to be treated to theories that this is all a ploy to boost American prestige, or get Obama re-elected, or something.

Here's what I say to those theories.

Let's imagine the consequences if bin Laden's death were faked, and knowledge of the deception were to become public. It wouldn't just be the end of Obama's political career. You know that now-famous photo of the White House Situation Room during the raid on bin Laden's compound? If bin Laden's death were faked and we found out, it would mean a career-ending scandal for each and every person in that room.

More than that, it would severely damage the Democratic Party, far more than Watergate damaged the Republicans. It would destroy the credibility of the U.S. military. It would immeasurably hurt the U.S.'s standing abroad, more than anything George W. Bush ever did.

You might think that the U.S. government and military-industrial complex has the capability to pretend to kill bin Laden and then keep the knowledge that it was a hoax secret forever. And maybe they do. There are probably astonishing secret plots from centuries ago that historians will never, ever learn about, although they probably involved fewer people than the raid to kill bin Laden.

But what if they're not able to keep the hoax under wraps? History is also full of secret plots that got exposed, with disastrous consequences for the plotters. How could Obama & Co. know that they would get lucky and their hoax would stay intact forever, or at least for for the remainder of the lives of everyone involved?

To put it another way, if the White House faked Osama bin Laden's death, then much of the Executive Branch and a huge chunk of the upper echelons of the U.S. military are guilty of recklessness so vast it borders on collective madness.

I don't necessarily believe that what comes out of Barack Obama's mouth is always the unvarnished truth. Doesn't matter that I voted for him once and will probably do so again. (It's better not to feel you can trust politicians whom you vote for; that way, you don't have to deal with either the disappointment or the cognitive dissonance that would inevitably follow.)

But what is easier to believe?

That Osama bin Laden was killed by American troops in the early hours of May 2?

Or that a fairly large group of both Democrats and Republicans, not to mention a couple of career soldiers, decided to stake their own credibility and that of the United States on a gamble that they could keep a secret forever and ever, without even a single person screwing it up?

Friday, May 6, 2011

It's a Compliment

From Page 1 of today's Taipei Times: CNN report about 'gluttonous' Taipei raises some hackles:

An article on the CNN Web site that labels Taipei as a city of “gluttony” has angered some legislators and prompted Government Information Office Minister Philip Yang (楊永明) to say that the government would have to fill CNN in on the nation’s cuisine and culture.

Answering questions yesterday from Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmakers at the legislature’s Education and Culture Committee on concerns over the CNN report, Yang said it had “damaged” the nation’s image.

CNNGo, CNN’s culture and travel Web site, on April 20 used Catholicism’s seven deadly sins to describe the seven best Asian cities for indulgence, with Taipei named as the best city for gluttony.

“We understand the media’s need for interesting and provocative articles, but gluttony, the word … is indecent and it has a negative connotation,” Yang told KMT Legislator Chen Shu-huey (陳淑慧).

Here's the travel story. To summarize:

Gluttony: Taipei. (All that Taiwanese food.) Sloth: Seoul. (PC gaming addiction.) Pride: Manila. (Narcissistic men.) Greed: Shenzhen. (The Chinese economy.) Lust: Tokyo. (Japanese perverts.) Envy: New Delhi. (Because of all the Indians who want to leave the country.) Wrath: Pyongyang. (Kim Jong Il.)

Okay, I choose to believe that Philip Yang and his crew have their reasons, since I'm used to politicians obeying a calculus beyond my understanding. But for the Taipei Times to put that article on the front page, in the upper right corner above the fold, suggests that the paper is hopelessly thin-skinned when it comes to perceived attacks or slights against Taiwan.

And for what? Granted, the CNN article could have been done far more tactfully, although probably not while keeping the "7 deadly sins" motif. (And why did they focus on individual cities when the descriptions were about the countries as a whole?)

But not only was the article's treatment of Taiwan easily the least insulting of its seven victims, Taiwan arguably wasn't even insulted at all. India: We Want to Live Somewhere Else! South Korea: We Sit Indoors Playing Online Games All Day! Japan: Pervoland! North Korea: We Want to Nuke the World!

Taiwan: We've Got Awesome Food!

And think of it: A bunch of travel writers decided that, out of all the countries of Asia, Taiwan's food was the most worthy of turning to gluttony over.

For this, a fine example of praising with very faint damnation, the Taipei Times runs a prominent story about how the KMT is all aghast and shocked.

Hmm. Maybe I was wrong about the Taipei Times' intent, and the whole point was to portray the KMT as prickly and thin-skinned?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Literature in Translation

I've read a lot of modern Indian literature over the last few years. It's come in many genres, including magic realism, satire, realistic fiction, and every blend you can think of. Some was written by Indian writers abroad. Some was written by Indian writers in India.

Without exception, every South Asian novel I've ever read - not only Indian, but also Pakistani, Sri Lankan, or Bangladeshi - was originally published in English. I've never read any modern South Asian literature in translation.

That might not seem very significant. After all, South Asia got English bequeathed to it by colonialism. And India is a country where one recent prime minister gave Hindi-language speeches that were written out for him fo-neh-ti-ka-lee because he couldn't read or understand Hindi. More often than not, when Indians from different parts of the country meet, they speak English. Why shouldn't most Indian literature be written in English?

Because, in most areas of the country at least, English isn't the language of the masses. It's true that there are more Indians than Americans who can speak English well enough to have an intelligent conversation, but it's also true that if you subtract the population of the USA from the population of India, you get over seven hundred million.

And even Indians who can speak enough English to easily communicate with someone with no other language in common, may not have enough of a native speaker's sense of the language to write fluently in it.

In other words, every work of fiction I've ever read that originated in India came from the country's English-speaking elite, who have the linguistic talent to write beautifully in English. Of course, there is nothing unusual about a country's well-known authors being gleaned from the most well-educated strata of society.

But what are we English readers missing out on?

Books are everywhere in India. While traveling in Karnataka and Kerala (and Kerala, by the way, with a population more than half that of the UK, has a literacy rate of nearly 100% -- lots of readers there), I saw books all the time. I saw books being sold in roadside stalls. I saw bookshops in the cities. I can't make heads or tails of Kannada or Malayalam, the local languages. What were most of those books about? Fiction or nonfiction? I don't know.

Are books written in Indian languages translated into English? Are their authors known abroad? I don't know.

I can't help feeling that we foreigners are missing out on something.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ladies Coupe by Anita Nair

Akhila is a middle-aged government bureaucrat in Bangalore. She's never married, as she's worked to support her family ever since her father's untimely death. Akhila is not only resigned to spinsterhood, she can't even claim the independence of unmarried life because she lives with her sister Padma and her family. Padma simply cannot bear to see her living alone, even as she tells all her friends and neighbors how irritating she is. Fed up with the situation, Akhila goes on a long train ride to think her life over. In the all-ladies railway compartment (the "ladies coupe"), she and five other women share their stories and sort out whether independent life as a woman is possible in modern Indian society.

The final installment in my springtime trilogy of Indian novels. (Although I'm midway through an Indian nonfiction book, and I may well pick up more Indian fiction later this year.) All three of the novels in my self-chosen "trilogy" have been by women, but Ladies Coupe by Anita Nair is the first one that can be called actively feminist. Its six female protagonists provide six varied viewpoints from which to view the Indian experience:

Chief protagonist Akhila, trying to work out how to be her own person after a lifetime being defined by others;

Older woman Janaki, still happily married after decades, but wondering if she's become too dependent on her husband;

Teenager Sheela, affected in complicated ways by the recent death of her grandmother;

Chemistry teacher Margaret, gradually coming to realize she despises her husband, and subsequently molding him into a man she can control;

Wealthy wife Prabha Devi, who re-invents herself in marriage not once but twice;

And finally, fed up with hearing the stories of the previous five women, who despite a sexist society still enjoyed the advantages of middle-class living, domestic helper Marikolanthu tells of her own life devoid of privilege. Mari's treatment at the hands of her own family after being raped is an unmitigated horror for any reader with Western sensibilities, and is worth reading for anyone who genuinely thinks we'd be better off returning to traditional values and family structures. You might say that her family chose to treat her that way, but they did so within cultural expectations that justified and required it in their eyes.