Book Report: The Internet in China (Zixue Tai)

It's going to sound like I'm slamming this book, like it's bad. It's not bad. I just chose the wrong book, is all. The thing is: this is an academic work. [It might also sound like I'm obscurely referring to recent events. But, as usual, I had this book report sitting around in my queue for a while.]

This is an academic work about the effect of the internet upon civil society in China. By "academic work", I mean that... Well, for example this book's first chapter is a careful definition of "civil society". I guess. I mean, the book's intro warned me that's what the first chapter was going to be about, and that it would refer to Hegel. Hegel. Good grief. So I skipped the first chapter, since that was just going to be of interest to a few scholars.

Alas, the rest of the book is academic, too. It was tough to find useful bits amongst the hair-splitting arguments with others' work. Eventually, I stopped reading and started skimming.

There were nevertheless some worthwhile bits. This book taught me some things about China's administration of censorship. I assumed that the national censors had direct control over local news--but apparently, national censors control national news. Local news is under the control of local governments, which have their own censorship rules. So I thought that regional differences in censorship were mostly local corruption, but it turns out that some of those regional differences are legal.

This leads to an interesting pattern--local politicians worry about national news organizations. Just as a sherriff might help prop up a corrupt local government, in China a local news organization helps cover up illegal activities of local government. But just as the USA's feds might trump the sherriff, Chinese national reporters might expose local corruption since the local officials don't have power to stop them.

That was kind of neat. If it's true. I might have misinterpreted. Try wringing meaning out of a sentence like "Notwithstanding the Habermasian normative perspective of public opinion formation and its crtics, there has been a well-established line of research about the impact of public opinion on political governance (e.g., Heith, 2004; Manxa, Cook, and Page, 2002; Sharp 1999) and the theory and practice of accurately gauging public opinion (see Ferguson, 2000 for an overview) as well as the role of mass media in shaping public opinion (e.g., Perse, 2001)." Eventually figure out it's not saying anything about the book's topic, but is just anticipating debate about whether anyone can say anything about the topic... Oy veh.

There are probably a couple of dozen scholars who want to read this book. I eventually realized I wasn't one of them and stopped.

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Book Report: American Shaolin

Yestere'en, I watched the Chinese New Year's parade. I'm not into parades, but I visit a fair number of parades. Why show up an event I'm not into? A non-trivial fraction of my friends are photographers; they like to photograph parades; I like to hang out with my friends; thus my attendance logically follows. I'm not a photographer but I need something to keep me busy at these things. A few years ago, I started waving.

People in parades wave at the crowd. People on floats wave. Politicians riding in open-top convertibles wave. Beauty queens wave demurely. Banner-carriers wave. Small children, stumbling along in procession, wave adorably. Their parents, walking alongside, wave proudly. Sometimes, a few folks in the audience wave back. I always wave back. I smile and wave. Parade traffic is bursty; sometimes the parade stalls. Most folks in the audience who wave back at the parade stop waving when this happens; it's not easy to keep waving that long. Also, it's kind of awkward to keep waving at the same set of folks for a long time. I keep waving. I'm no stranger to awkwardness. A few years back, I wouldn't keep waving--I didn't have the endurance to keep going. But I got better, you know?

I kept practicing, parade after parade, year after year. I learned how to wave so that it's not so tiring. I learned a few different ways to wave; by "mixing it up," I can avoid straining my shoulder. At first my friends were embarrassed to be next to the big goofy waving guy. But there are advantages. Peter Tang, reviewing his photos from last night, pointed out that he got pretty good photos of the beauty queens, getting good shots of their faces. "They kept looking right at us--because you kept waving."

Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco pointed me out last night: "He's got the wave down." Gavin Newsom, has marched in plenty of parades and has no doubt seen plenty of wavers. I don't agree with Newsom on many things, but I trust his judgment in this regard.

Late in the parade, the audience had thinned out. And most of the audience that was still there was tiring out. But I was still going, still waving, unflappable. A girl in the parade yelled at me: "Hey, you! You're the only one waving!" I'm not sure if she meant it as a compliment, but by golly I was pleased that I was still strong enough to maintain unwavering waving.

After the parade, I still had some strength left in my arms. I realized that I could have kept going. I'd only waved back at folks who'd waved. But now I thought: Next year, could I keep waving through the whole parade? This would involve waving at folks who wouldn't wave back, who'd be indifferent, who wouldn't appreciate it: martial artists, marching bands, perhaps even gaps in the parade devoid of people. This would be about four hours of waving.

Four hours is a lot. But I'd already progressed so far. And my only practice had been at parades. What if I trained? What if I practiced? We can teach our bodies to do great things if we practice.

I forget where I was going with this train of thought. Oh, right, physical training. Totally on topic for the book: American Shaolin.

A young man from Topeka dropped out of university to travel to the hinterlands of China and study martial arts at Shaolin Temple. This is his memoir. There is life in China. There is life in the martial arts community. There is a hint of life in a temple community. There are jokes. It starts with an insightful quote from Snow Crash about how young men think they can train to become the world's toughest ass-kicker. So you know that Matt Polly is well-versed in the classics.

This book is a good read. Apparently, this book was a best-seller last year. Probably you already heard of it. If you were going to read it, you probably read it before I did. But just in case, I'll point out: it was a fun read, it was well-written. Check it out.

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Book Report: The Man Who Loved China

Back in 2002, I went to the British Museum where an old illustration maybe showed a punch-card controlled loom from ancient China--long before such were invented in the West. Bookish fellow that I am, I looked for books on the history of Chinese looms. I hit a few dead ends along the way. One particularly massive dead-end was a huge, sprawling multi-volume work on the history of science and technology in China. "Multi-volume" doesn't do this thing justice. There were a lot of books, each of them heavy. It had a volume about silk cultivation in China, with promises of another volume, about silk weaving, to come in the future. But that future volume hadn't materialized, at least not that I could find. And yet this work had plenty of volumes.

I didn't have that set of books in mind when I picked up The Man Who Loved China, a biography of Joseph Needham. But I should have--Needham was the scholar woh organized and kick-started that massive multi-volume work. (Dieter Kuhn wrote the volume about silk-growing, but doesn't show up in this biography.) Chinese people, it turns out, invented a bunch of stuff. Nowadays, we know this. Back in Needham's day, we didn't know this. And by "we", I don't just mean European honkies. Plenty of people in China didn't know this about these discoveries--the local history of science was in scattered notes. Needham listened to a few Chinese scholars claiming that China had invented this or that--and decided to do some research. And encouraged other folks to gather their research. And put together a rather impressive piece of scholarship. Along the way, he ran into political trouble--China was a tricky political entity back then, and Needham was tricked into siding with China in a faked biowarfare attack--yes, really. There are interesting stories about his travels through China, done during the Japanese invasion. Interesting book, check it out.

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Book Report: My Country Versus Me

A scientist suspected of mailing out Anthrax commits suicide. Which brought up a newslet, a reminder of a recent lawsuit: Hatfill, another scientist sued the FBI after they leaked footage to the media, footage which revealed that they suspected him of mailing anthrax--destroying his reputation. That was sad, since he turned out to be innocent. Does the FBI do that, try suspects in the press before trying them in court? Sure; you can read a similar story in My Country Versus Me.

Wen Ho Lee is a computer programmer, just like me. He made the mistake of being born in Taiwan. Then he came to the USA. He worked at LANL on scary simulator programs. Either the LANL computer programmers' revision control system is crappy or else he didn't understand how to use it well--instead he made his own backups of some source code he'd worked on. This was dumb--but plenty of clever computer programmers have done dumber things when they couldn't figure out how to get their revision control system to do the right thing. Heck, I have done dumber things than that.

I have done things dumber than that, but I never combined them with the mistake of having been born in Taiwan. Being born in Taiwan and then coming to the USA means that occasionally some USA politician, hoping to show how tough they are, will accuse you of being a Chinese spy. To really show how tough they are, they'll leak accusations to the press without waiting to see if those accusations are true. As any Chinese politician will tell you, the USA politicians then risk losing "face" when their accusations turn out to be false. So they repeat the accusations louder, say that investigators aren't trying hard enough to prove the case, and you go to jail.

My Country Versus Me is Wen Ho Lee's autobiography.

Some names worth remembering: Robert Messemer, FBI agent who perservered in investigating Lee, very ready to ignore much evidence of innocence. One wonders why he was so eager.

Notra Trulock, Director of Intelligence at the DOE leaked accusations to the press. When I poke around the web a bit right now, I get the impression Trulock's been a walking disaster area since then, but you should do your own investigation and draw your own conclusions.

Bill Richardson, then the director of DOE, was quick to fire Wen Ho Lee, and quick to tell the press he'd done so.

I guess I shouldn't be so quick to accuse these people. I should read a few other sources first.

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Book Report: China: Fragile Superpower

This book is about China.

This book makes me want to hide my eyes and say "I hope you're wrong." It paints a discouraging picture.

The Chinese government fears overthrow by popular uprising. The government quashes dissent. The government's propaganda arm, an especially conservative group, demonizes Japan, America, and Taiwan. That's pretty much all of what the citizens hear about the world outside of China: just about three countries, and they're all awful. Students who want to become political--they know that if they protest their own government, they'll be stopped. So they protest America, Japan, or Taiwan.

The government tends to overreact in crises, painting itself into corners. When the world spotlight is on China, the China government rattles sabers--because it needs to appear strong to the people, too strong to overthrow. Saber-rattling has been pretty harmless so far, because China hasn't had the military strength to plausibly do much. But China's becoming more powerful. Japan is re-arming.

USA senators have an interesting way of encouraging China to be more humane: when China does something inhumane, punish China; when China does something humane, punish China. This makes it hard to nudge China towards being more humane.

We're all doomed. I want a cookie.

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Book Report: The Middle Kingdom

I didn't plan to spend today filling out an alternative minimum tax form for my friends at the IRS, but they insisted. I thought maybe I'd write something. But I didn't write anything. Except numbers. And now I'm grumpy, so I doubt I'll write anything today. Anyhow, here's a book report I wrote back in a happier time, a book report on The Middle Kingdom:

It's another Andrea Barrett novel in which the main characters are scientists; thus, I am a sucker for this book.

How was the Cultural Revolution like a bad marriage? Why do I blame you for my personal problems? (Here, I mean the general "I" (except in this parenthetical phrase, I guess).) What's the difference between a memory palace and a dream palace? This novel touches on these issues, but it's a fun read in spite of that.

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Book Report: Eight Skilled Gentlemen

Must pack. Must pack for Hogwarts playtest. Meanwhile, you can consider this book report for Eight Skilled Gentlement:

It's a novel. It's swashbuckling fun set in a fantasy world based on kinda-historical China. It's fun! It's very silly, full of gruesome horror, sneaking around in secret passages, awesome prophecies disguised as nursery rhymes, and dragon boat races. It's also the third in a series, so you probably want to start with the Bridge of Birds, if you can find it. You can't find it, of course. So you might try for the omnibus Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox.

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Milestone: 6 Million hits

Today, this website enjoyed its six-millionth hit. That hit was all about Amazingly Big things up in the Seattle area. I'm talking about the Pier 86 Grain Terminal and Microsoft. Let's take a look:

64.4.8.135 - - [13/Jul/2006:18:23:59 -0400] "GET /departures/Seattle/10/36views.html HTTP/1.0" 200 16858 "-" "msnbot/1.0 (+http://search.msn.com/msnbot.htm)"

This is the "msnbot" search crawler, scouting the internet for content to display in MSN Search results. It just crawled a page of my not-so-recently-updated travel photos, carefully confirming that they haven't changed.

(My opinions are mine, not my employers'.) Internet search geeks talk a lot about Google Search versus Yahoo search; they don't talk so much about MSN Search. But in one important regard in June 2006, MSN did even more to help internet users than Google did. So three cheers for MSN Search, a pocket of goodness buried in a big company, crawling the web so that they can show people of many nations some photos of huge grain silos.

I don't know how coherent that was. It's past my bedtime. Good night, wonderful internetty people of many nations. I hope you continue to find the Japanese ska reviews useful and/or inciteful.

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Book Report: One Billion Customers

I could mention that I'm over my cold, but that's not as interesting as the book One Billion Customers. Not even close.

It's a book about doing business in China in recent times a la the 90s. James McGregor was the head of... Dow Jones? WSJ? I forget now, and I returned this book to the library so I don't have it in front of me. He was the head of some financial reporting organization in China. He has a bunch of anecdotes which perhaps lend insight into the workings of modern China, and which are certainly entertaining.

The part I was most interested in was when Xinhua, the Chinese ministry of censorship, wanted to move in on their business. In China, Communism means state-run businesses. In the case of Xinhua, that meant that one organization was going into the news business and regulating the #$!) out of their competition. McGregor headed part of the competition. But the foreign financial news companies fought back, making their case to higher-ups in the government, saying that China's investors needed uncensored financial news. And the government reined in Xinhua, told them to stop shaking down the foreigners.

Stories about how to do business in China without compromising your ethics and without getting shaken down by corrupt departments of the government sure are interesting. This book has a few more interesting stories. I recommend it. The author came to give a talk at my place of employment. Afterwards, I talked with my coworker M.A. about the talk. He said that he didn't like McGregor. So maybe McGregor's not so likeable. Still, McGregor had some interesting experiences. So check this book out of the library: you can learn something and help to put McGregor into the poorhouse.

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Book Report: 400 Million Customers

(Yes, I received some puzzle-hunt-related clothing tips in my snail mail. But aren't you getting a little tired of reading about puzzle hunts? It's been so long since we had a book report. Let us now have a book report:)

It's a book about advertising and business in China, written back in 1937. To an American audience in 1937, this book was probably a revelation of the Chinese psyche, teaching them about "face" and feng shui. To someone who grew up in San Francisco's Richmond district in the 1970s, this book was not such a revelation. But it's pretty funny, so you might want to read it anyhow. Carl Crow writes well enough such that you can almost forgive him for writing ad copy that would eventually hook the Chinese people on life-destroying tobacco.

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Book Report: Zachary's Chicago Pizza Newsletter vol. 5 Winter/Spring 2005

I have nothing original to say about the unfolding disaster in New Orleans. All I know how to do is point out interesting reading material.

One more reason to free Tibet: We can make it easier for her citizens to go elsewhere and make great pizza.

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Book Report: Cyber China (part five (last (whew!)))

Two last essays in Cyber China...

Ngai-Ling Sum: Informational Capitalism and the Remaking of "Greater China": Strategies of Siliconization

This interesting paper talked about how various governments try to attract high-tech industry. I got a lot out of it; it discussed many bits of news that I hadn't seen before. (Must remember to keep an eye on Ngai-Ling Sum.) What did I learn? Lots of young Taiwanese folks are moving to Shanghai where there are more work opportunities. Of course, the Taiwanese government is not pleased with this flow. Various governments try to foster high-tech industry by building business parks. This ties in to corrupt real estate developers, sweet deals, and favoritism. Taiwan has done this, Hong Kong has done this. There was a fair amount about software/content piracy--there are a fair amount of pirates in China who aren't in it for the money. But many of the sellers are kn it for the money.

Aihwa Ong: Urban Assemblages: An Ecological Snese of the Knowledge Economy

This paper seems to say that various organizations are setting up liaisons, and this helps infomration to flow. Actually, I never figured out what this paper is trying to say. Here's a sentence from the conclusion: "In ambitious Asian cities, assemblages of multiple social logics, including neoliberal rationality, depend upon space-making mechanisms that extend the technological space beyond the metropolis." I am willing to believe that there is a statement of fact buried in that sentence somewhere, but I am too lazy to dig it out. In the end, I was too lazy to make sense of this paper.

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Book Report: Cyber China (part four)

Two more essays from the book Cyber China

Barry Naughton The Information Technology Industry and Economic Interactions Between China and Taiwan

This article had an interesting factoid. A large part of investment in China high-tech comes from Taiwan. But this is illegal. So, in fact, a large part of investment in China high-tech comes from unmarked accounts in the Cayman Islands, Virgin Islands, Samoa, Bermuda, and Panama. So Taiwan doesn't want to get engulfed in China. Yet Taiwanese manufacturers elbow each other out of the way to do deals to get cheap Chinese engineers and assemblers.

Tse-Kang Leng Global Networking and the New Division of Labor Across the Taiwan Straits

"Made in China, by Taiwan". This paper looks at some of the strange relations that come up when Taiwan and China do business. There are a lot of little Chinese startups. They often rely on Taiwanese VC firms. But Taiwan still has heavy restrictions on doing business with mainland China. You don't want to be too open with a country that wants to engulf you. Dell wants to do business with mainland China, so Dell moved a business center from Taiwan to Hong Kong--because the Taiwanese restrictions were too tight. Taiwan is stuck with a difficult balancing act.

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Book Report: Cyber China (part 3)

Yet more essays in Cyber China...

Patricia Batto; Government Online and Cross-Straits Relations

This paper gives an overview of some China- and Taiwan-related web sites.Something interesting perhaps fell out of that. I didn't catch it, though.

Chin-Fu Hung: The Internet and the Changing Beijing-Taipei Relations: Toward Unification or Fragmentation

Here's a new phrase for your enjoyment. I just coined it: "regurgitated snake oil." When reading about the internet, you need to be on the look-out for snake oil. Some con artist needs to justify his bogus business plan. So he waves his arms and talks about a "new economy." That's snake oil. When other people fall for it and start spreading the meme of a "new economy," that's regurgitated snake oil.

This paper is regurgitated snake oil. And it's wordy. Check this out:

My main research questions pose: (a) how and to what extent this new Information Technology (IT) of the Internet might reshape cross-straits relations; and (b) to which trafectory would it lead: to unification or fragmentation? These are two primary research questions that this chapter endeavors to answer. It takes as a premise in this research chapter that, in order to elucidate contemporary global political and economic phenomena with particular reference to cross-straits relations, a deeper understanding of the new media--Internet as well as exploration of Internet's impacts are critical, if not necessary.

What does this mean? I think it means, "This chapter addresses two questions: (a) how much does the Internet affect cross-straits relations; and (b) which way? Actually, this chapter addresses only one of those questions. I assume the answer to (a) is 'plenty.' I assume this because I've chosen it as my research focus, so if that's wrong, I might as well go home."

Did you notice that my wording took only 2/3 the space and yet conveyed the same information? That's because I'm not trying to lull you into a sense of complacency before I reveal that I've been drinking snake oil.

This paper's waves of verbiage had almost rocked me into alpha state when I suddenly realized that it was quoting Nicholas Negroponte. It did not quote him ironically, not as an example of a cobbled-together ball of buzzwords meant to fool credulous millionaires into throwing money at the MIT Media Lab. This quoting happens more than once. It was all I could do not to throw the book on the ground and attack it with a hatchet. Only two things stopped me: (1) it was a library book, and (2) I had no hatchet.

This paper was not very good.

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Book Report: Cyber China (part two)

Notes on a couple more chapters from Cyber China:

Fran├žoise Mengin: The Role of the State in the Age of Information

This paper mentioned a few topics: hackers, Taiwan, Democracy. It implied that these topics had some importance to the idea of government in China. I never figured out what the point was, though.

Christopher R. Hughes; Controlling the Internet Architecture within Greater China

For me, this was the most helpful paper in the book. I didn't learn many new facts, but this paper provided good analysis. If you've read Slashdot for the last few years and paid attention when people wrote about the Great Firewall of China, if you know what ICANN is and wonder how it deals with paranoid governments, if... Uhm, anyhow, this paper neatly weaves together several things I'd read about. It helped me to see some trends that I hadn't seen. +5 Insightful. Must keep an eye on Christopher R. Hughes.

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Book Report: Cyber China (part one)

This book is a collection of papers about the intersection of society and computers in present-day China.

Karsten Giese; Speaker's Corner or Virtual Panopticon: Discursive Construction of Chinese Identities Online

Between the rough translation and the academic mumbo-jumbo, I did not understand much of this paper. As near as I can tell it says that in China, as in other places, computer users created personae for their internet interactions. Maybe he says that this contributed to a rise of individualism opposed to Chinese Communist Party collectivism? He says some vague things about how the government monitors the network. To evade government censorship, people on BBSs and forums will split a single message up amongst several posting. I guess the idea is that no one posting will contain too many dangerous keywords.

David A. Palmer; Cyberspace and the Emerging Chinese Religious Landscape--Preliminary Observations

This paper presents two interesting cases.

The first of these is about Daoism online. A Daoist temple in Hong Kong, the Feng Ying Seen Koon, produced a web site about Daoism. Other Daoist temples did not produce web sites. Now the Feng Ying Seen Koon temple is rising in authority--because people looking for information on Daoism online find their information first. Now other temples want to create web sites.

The other case is that of the Falun Gong. This was interesting to me because I knew almost nothing of the Falun Gong. The few times I got literature from them, it was always pretty vague, which I took as a bad sign of cultishness. Learning more about them from this paper did nothing to change this impression. Their leader disseminates exercise regimes and orders to his followers over the internet. The CCP doesn't like them.

(This is getting pretty long for a blog post. I'll write about other papers in this book later.)

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