Archive for January, 2007

Exploring the glorious harmonious society one stone at a time

Being as usual lazy and as usual not being able to get functional photo resizing software (until recently), here finally are photo galleries from my travels this year in Shanghai, Tianjin, and Beijing. Tomorrow I’m leaving for a month-long journey all over China during the Chinese Spring Festival (which is probably the worst time to travel in China, since Chinese workers don’t get flexible vacation time, just the official holidays, when 1.3 billion people stampede across the country, but let that be for now), so no doubt I’ll soon have lots of new photos, but these will have to suffice for now.

The easy and the impossible

“The Hard Problem [of consciousness] is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one’s head–why there is first-person, subjective experience. Not only does a green thing look different from a red thing, remind us of other green things and inspire us to say, “That’s green” (the Easy Problem), but it also actually looks green: it produces an experience of sheer greenness that isn’t reducible to anything else…Many philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, deny that the Hard Problem exists at all. Speculating about zombies and inverted colors is a waste of time, they say, because nothing could ever settle the issue one way or another. Anything you could do to understand consciousness–like finding out what wavelengths make people see green or how similar they say it is to blue, or what emotions they associate with it–boils down to information processing in the brain and thus gets sucked back into the Easy Problem, leaving nothing else to explain. Most people react to this argument with incredulity because it seems to deny the ultimate undeniable fact: our own experience…And then there is the theory put forward by philosopher Colin McGinn that our vertigo when pondering the Hard Problem is itself a quirk of our brains. The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can’t hold a hundred numbers in memory, can’t visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can’t intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside. This is where I place my bet, though I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius–a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness–comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.”

Thus saith Steven Pinker describing the general outlines of the current scientific debates about consciousness. Personally, I’m not even quite sure what it would mean to understand rationally something like color in a way that really captures the subjective impression of it.  It seems to me that the so-called “Hard Problem” is at root a search for an objective, rational explanation for subjective conscious phenomena. But plenty of “objective correlaries” to subjective conscious experiences have already been found. Color, for instance, has been measured as a certain wavelength of light that penetrates the eye in a certain way and gets processed in the brain a certain way. Of course that doesn’t capture the essential subjective experience of “greenness” or “redness” or whatever, but the whole point of subjective experiences is that they’re subjective and impressionistic. I get the feeling that those who expect an objective description that fully encapsulates the subjective element are looking for a synthesis between two realms that are by definition mutually exclusive. Scientific analysis can only elucidate phenomena insofar as they are objective and shared. It’s not inconceivable that the issue might submit to a higher rationality, but I find it more likely to be doomed not only to failure but to incoherency, because any attempt to explain subjective phenomena scientifically seems to me already lodged within the realm of the objective, and thus to some extent incommunicable with the very different subjective mode of perception. I think this is similar to Dennett’s point of view, though he seems more inclined to dismiss the subjective entirely than to explain the root of the disjunction.

Difference is my hobby, but unity is my philosophy

When I decided to come to China I have to admit that the idea that my romantic prospects might be somewhat less dim than back home was not the most insignficant factor in my decision. But perhaps so as to make it impossible to forget that, as an ad for a Martin Walser exhibit that I saw in Munich once informed me, “Nichts ist ohne sein Gegenteil wahr”, I’ve really had a lot of drama this year, although I suppose it’s more exciting than none at all. I met one Chinese girl with whom I wound up having a messy break-up even though we had never actually gone out. She tended to criticize everyone in sight, but the worst was her ranting about the “dumb shits Americans,” how the southern Chinese are all shifty and untrustworthy and how she wished America and China could be physically joined by squashing Japan in the middle. She also claimed that relationships between Chinese people and Americans couldn’t work because of cultural differences, even though she asked me out when drunk one night. Say what you will about political correctness in America, but anything that makes one reflexively hesitant or cautious about making cultural generalizations left and right can’t be all bad.

I also managed to step right in the middle of another messy break-up between a Chinese girl who’s a friend of mine and an American teacher by breaking down and telling her about his continued dealings with a previous girlfriend. I had to choose in favor of honesty and the person that I respected more, but the bearer of bad news in those situations is never popular. Not to mention that they got back together a week later, so the net result of my intervention for them was practically nothing. And finally, another American teacher asked me out after New Year’s despite knowing that I already had a girlfriend. She also apparently regards relationships between Westerners and Chinese people, specifically between Western men and Chinese women, as bad news, claiming they’re inherently unequal and borderline-predation on the part of Western men, since apparently no Chinese women could possibly turn them down. I pointed out this was fairly condescending to Chinese women (which admittedly doesn’t by itself make it untrue), and furthermore that at least one Chinese girl has told me flat-out that she will only marry a Chinese man and that most of the others I’ve met are deeply suspicious of the prospect of a relationship with Western men. I’m in fact dating one of the few that isn’t, or at least hasn’t expressed any such feelings, and in a perhaps not unrelated story is probably the one least prone to cultural generalizations. Nevertheless, I know cultural differences deeply divide those they affect, and I’ve noticed a couple myself, although it might seem hypocritical now to point them out after criticizing the generalizing of others. In any case, couples, particularly girls, in China seem to find it much more socially acceptable than in the West to dramatically pantomime the state of their relationships in public for all passers-by to see. I’ve seen girls sitting on park benches with their boyfriends but fully turned away from the guys, who try to grasp their hands and plead. One time I saw a girl biking along and sobbing, which looked very sad and touching until you noticed that she had a full cup of something in one hand and was steering with the other, quite a feat of balance for someone so carried away by emotion. It’s apparently customary for boyfriends even in college to pay for most of their girlfriends’ clothes and expenses, to the point where a survey on the spending habits of college-aged men found that the number one expense, taking up more than 50% of the total, was girlfriends. To me this seems likely to lead to an inherent imbalance, setting up men in a quasi-indulgent-parent role, with women as their spoiled children, which might explain some of the self-dramatization. It’s hard to say (for what it’s worth, my own girlfriend is against this practice).

So I certainly don’t deny that cultural differences exist, although I think one must be careful to remember that social customs vary but personality traits and types, as well moral quality, seems to recur and distribute themselves pretty evenly everywhere. Cultural differences are not, however, insurmountable, nor are they the only important difference between people. Because they are but one of the vast array of differences in personality, background and comprehension that we surmount every day in reaching beyond ourselves to make connections with others, or fail to and founder in isolation.

The year the communists stole Christmas

Camping out at the dark dawn of the new millenium in the heart of the forgotten gray wake of communism during the holiday season has its advantages. For one thing, while Christmas remains no more than an abstract idea and all the loved ones in honor of whom the good secular family theoretically celebrates it are eleven time zones away, the emphasis here lies on the non-religious holidays and New Year’s partying consequently benefits. Actually, here in China the Chinese New Year is much more important, although it’s more of a family holiday, like Christmas, and it’s two months away in any case, not enough to distract attention now. But in Russia New Year’s is the major event of the season (although technically they have their own separate traditional New Year’s as well), and I had the chance to experience it two years ago. I went to Beijing last weekend to celebrate the new year, and something about traveling through the bleak wasteland of gray communist apartment blocks in a headache-induced throb of self-loathing on Sunday afternoon reminded me of it.

When you’re a cheapwad student you don’t necessarily make a direct approach to the country you’re traveling to. Which is why I set off to Russia from Paris two years on December 19 in the direction of Glasgow. I don’t think I much resemble a terrorist making twelve stopovers in Africa on his way from London to Palestine (I was frisked in a supermarket once though), but since my final destination, St. Petersburg, was neither the the city I was currently standing in nor the next stop on my itinerary, the inevitable obese, snaggle-toothed customs agent (actually I don’t think he was obese or snaggle-toothed, but that’s the enduring image that remains to me from British airports and attaches itself like mildew to any specific recollections) naturally asked me if this was really the quickest way to get there, to which I replied: “It’s the cheapest.”

Since Ryanair, the discount airline par excellence in Europe, as a regrettable but probably necessary symptom of its laudable effort to offer airline tickets for less than $20, doesn’t seem to offer any flights between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., I spent the next seven hours after my early-morning flight sitting under a neon tribute to Robert Burns and trying to write the first three pages of an explication de texte for my French literature class that somehow had to be done by the end of the holiday break. That and be outraged by the “Scottish breakfast” which actually cost more than my plane ticket and represented the only available form of food in the airport. Followed by the evening flight to Stockholm, where I temporarily lost my backpack and became cautiously optimistic regarding my apprehensions as to how damn cold it was going to be for the duration of my stay in the sub-Arctic (answer: not as cold as Chicago in January).

Although following the Paris-Glasgow-Stockholm-Helsinki-St. Petersburg route is mainly a concession to tight-fistedness, the Stockholm-Helsinki ferry is almost a worthwhile trip for its own sake. It’s apparently known as the “vodka boat” and is full of drunken Finns and Swedes loading up on liquor in international waters where it’s cheaper than buying it from the governmental liquor store monopolies in their home countries (apparently Scandinavian teenagers actually like to take the ferry one way on Friday night and back on Saturday night). And singing weird folk songs in the karaoke bar. And if that becomes boring, you can, at least in the summer, always go out on the deck on the top of this 150 ft. tall tankard that you can’t even feel moving (my friend actually plowed right through a hurricane or tempest of some sort on the way back from this trip on the ferry and barely noticed the deck shaking) and watch the sun sort of almost set before coming back up again. Anyway, we bought a bottle of Grand Marnier for my friend’s grandparents with whom we would be staying and contented ourselves with a bottle of cheap wine, a six-pack of Carlsberg and a Toblerone bar.

After arriving in Helsinki and meeting up briefly with a Finnish guy we knew from high school, our adventures on the wonders of Russian public transport began. On a previous trip to Russia, a Finnish conductor had threatened to confiscate my rail pass for not having gotten it validated on the day I started using it. We joked about getting the same conductor again. Then we did. And naturally he wound up threatening to confiscate my friend’s pass for some minute date-entering error. However drinking 40 oz. bottles of Baltika in the dining car eased the pain.

Not a great deal happened our first few days, although at our arrival dinner my friend’s grandfather started drinking the Grand Marnier by the shot, which we calculated worked out to about 1 euro per shot. But my friend spent most of his time at the airport picking up other friends and family who were arriving separately, and I tried rather unsuccessfully to write my paper. It was entertaining watching he and other members of his family setting off to the garage/shed two miles away from the apartment, where they kept their car, with graphite pencils and a blow torch to thaw out the locks, in order to drive to the airport and pick up his mother, and returning six hours later (the airport was no more than 20 miles away). And we did experience some of the usual traveler’s rituals in Russia: standing on the frozen river, being chased across the bridge over the river by a band of mustachioed gypsy women, watching a bear tied to a stake outside while its owner huddled in his car nearby, and so forth. Somehow even the men selling Christmas trees near the Metro station looked vaguely underworld-ish (“businessman” is basically a euphemism in Russia). I came to see the bright side of lack of commerce regulation, though. When I lost my contacts, an optometrist’s office opened its doors for us after its closing-hour and sold me a fresh pair of lenses without a prescription. And we didn’t even have to bribe them. On the other hand, one of the saddest things I’ve even seen was the sight of old women and children barely tall enough to pull the levers pouring change into a bank of outdoors slot machines. I’m not sure which was worse: that they were playing in the freezing cold and falling snow, or that the money was probably that night’s dinner money for some of them.

Anyway, Christmas passed with barely any notice. I remember going to a bar where a very angry-looking Indian kicked on the door when I was in the bathroom, yelling at me to get out in bad Russian. Later, since he was wearing a Yankees hat, my friend asked him what part of New York he was from. The Indian then spent the rest of the night making throat-slashing gestures at us. On New Year’s eve we enjoyed a thoroughly soused dinner with the family (you can see our preparations here) in which I drank at least 10 shots of vodka and distinctly remember someone toasting Soviet housing. Next we headed to Dvortsovaya ploshad (Palace Square), the main square in the city, where we somehow managed to get to the front row of spectators by midnight even though we left the apartment, on the other side of the city, no earlier than 11:15. Then we spent the next hour weaving hazily down Nevsky Prospekt, the main boulevard, and shouting “S novim godom” (“Happy New Year”) at everyone we saw. I also clearly remember peeing on the side of a building, then looking up and noticing by the gilded window frames that it was actually a palace. And apparently I fell asleep doing it, or at least slumped prone against the building for several minutes. I would feel like more of a barbarian regarding the whole episode if I weren’t mainly amazed by not having been accosted by the bribe-taking, drunkard-beating Russian police. Since I was leaving on January 2 early in the morning I assumed this would be my last night on the town, and up to that point I had been very disappointed about, unlike previous trips, not having gotten any girls’ phone numbers (actually I gave mine to one instead for some reason that I no longer recall, but she never called me). So that night, after we had decided not to go into any clubs, since they were generally demanding about $20 cover charge, I remember feeling very sad and inexplicably crying myself to sleep. And then waking up eight hours later fully dressed. At least I was in better shape than another friend from New York who had fallen asleep upright in his chair with his cell phone in his hand while text-messaging his girlfriend.

As it turned out, my Russian friend had met a girl, who subsequently dumped him for the drummer in one of the most popular rock bands in Russia, and he wanted to go out the next night to meet her. Of course, since I had a 7:30 train the next morning, after that night I had just enough time to walk back to the apartment, collect my backpack and go to the train station. But I did meet some girls and get their phone numbers, which I subsequently lost, so it was all worthwhile in the end (at least psychologically). Then I slept for the next four hours straight on the train, simply holding out my passport without even opening my eyes the first time I heard a voice speaking Russian, and then holding out my empty hand to receive it back the second time. And then I wrote half of my explication de texte in the Helsinki airport (I flew back to Paris from there). I even got an 18 out of 20 on it (14 is roughly an “A”). All in all, a trip well-spent.

Digital Weimarism?

Not to join in on the Wikipedia-hating fest, but here’s a not-exactly new article from last May about what the author, Jaron Lanier, calls the “digital Maoism” latent in the collectivist nature of Wikipedia and online enterprises of a similar nature. The inaccuracies of Wikipedia, like the mediocrities of American Idol and the inanities of electoral politics, are well-known, but these often do not subvert the ideological commitment to the wisdom of the liberated masses even on the part of libertarians who may not trust mass political movements at all but are willing to indulge a similar impulse under the guise of imposing the “free-market” model anywhere and everywhere.

But the goal of Wikipedia and the free market are not the same. I had some experience with this on a personal level last year, when the president of of an organization of which I was a member was attempting to make some of the more technical positions, like archivist, treasurer, etc. non-elective and filled by his appointment (I think there was to be some group veto power built in). He didn’t succeed, but I agreed with his position. And I even came to feel that really the only area where collective will or the wishes of the majority represents a superior criterion of determination is where, somewhat tautalogically, the wishes of the most people is itself the issue and the goal. The market is one such area: since the goal is to give the most people possible what they want, letting them decide seems to be the best way of doing so. Where another standard determines value, there are probably few areas where a single intelligent and well-informed individual could probably not choose better than a popular vote. An encyclopedia is such a case, since its goal is offer accurate, relevant and objective knowledge. Popularity doesn’t have anything intrinsically to do with this ideal.

On the other hand, the idea of a meritocracy is often confused with that of collectivity. The process of breaking down discriminatory barriers to the flow of information, so that everyone’s ideas have access to a general public and can shine on their merits, may superficially resemble a collectivity in that a lot of the currently existing distinctions and boundaries between people would cease to exist, but it’s not at all actuated on the same principles. A collective is predicated on the idea that no individual ideas or people are better than any others, and a meritocracy is predicated on the contrary view. And while I’m not as wedded to the importance of individual “personality” in web content for its own sake as the author seems to be, the anonymity of something like Wikipedia certainly seems prone to lowering the sense of responsibility for one’s words on the part of the content generators and uncritical acceptance of the source on the part of the readers.

In defense of Wikipedia, I have to admit that I often use it (though not here in China, where it’s blocked), because it has the same innate appeal that encyclopedias have always had, namely convenience. An entry will usually have at least one or two pertinent bits of information, even though often as not it’s just the spelling of a name in Russian or Chinese that I’m after, and it’s still quicker than sifting through even an average Google search. And it should also be said that the likening of “digital Maoism” to real Maoism is rather hyperbolic to say the least. Even at the structural level mass political movements are significantly different than the anonymous “hive activity” of sites like Wikipedia. As much as I disagree with much of the analysis in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, she does suggest convincingly, whether intentionally or not, that 20th century totalitarian movements came as close as perhaps is possible to true one-man rule. Through constant terrorization and destabilization of the population and government the totalitarian dictators managed essentially to destroy all other previously-existing centers of authority or power and to prevent any new ones from forming, thus rendering every other member of society relatively powerless. This is why totalitarianism can never be enshrined into the abstract form of the government, since any law decreeing the form of government would itself limit the personal prerogative of the dictator. This is what makes it so baffling that Arendt believes the dictator in a totalitarian system to be eminently replaceable, when history suggests just the opposite.

In any case, Wikipedia ostensibly has no dictatorial figure setting it in motion and directing it, largely because, probably, it has no real power. In any organization where real power is at stake, the hive will inevitably fall under the control of those who want that power most. So if anything it is not the model of but the model of the precursor of tyrannical collectivism.