The Chinese Governance System: Impressive Strengths and Appalling Flaws

by Pranab Bardhan

This is the 40th anniversary of the onset of economic ‘reform and opening-up’ (gaige kaifang) in China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, which eventually led to a dramatic transformation of its economy and global status. It is, however, remarkable that China’s current supreme leader, Xi Jinping, marked the anniversary in a speech in the Great Hall of People in Beijing mainly emphasizing the Party’s pervasive control. It is also remarkable that in recent years this leadership seems to have forsaken Deng’s earlier advice of tao guang yang hui (“keep a low profile”). In the flush of Chinese nationalist glory, Xi explicitly stated in the 19th Party Congress that China has now entered a “new era”, when its model “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence”. Many people both in rich and poor countries seem to be already awe-struck by this model.

What are the special characteristics of the Chinese development model? Briefly, it’s a model of essentially capitalist development under authoritarian leadership and purposive governance, with a vertical production structure where basic capital goods are produced in monopoly state-owned enterprises and the much-larger rest of the economy is under private ownership, with a state-guided nationalist industrial policy and finance, with subsidized access to land and credit for state-favored business and repression of labor rights, massive investments in infrastructure funded by a very high national savings rate (particularly on account of large undistributed profits of companies), with rural industrialization in a decentralized framework of jurisdictional competition, and openness to foreign trade and acquisition and learning of foreign technology.  It has produced a rapid pace of economic growth over the last three decades and lifted hundreds of millions of people above the poverty line—undoubtedly a spectacular historic feat for any developing country. The recent slowing of the growth rate does not tarnish the long-term shining performance so far.

I have discussed some of these features of Chinese development, particularly in a comparative assessment with Indian development, in my book Awakening Giants, Feet of Clay (Princeton, 2013)—incidentally, I should mention here that when a Chinese translation of this book came out in Beijing, the translator thought it fit or prudential to take out, without my permission, some of the passages in the book that criticized Chinese policy, while those critical of Indian policy remained.

I believe the Chinese governance system is a crucial part of the China development model, and in this article I shall concentrate on its special features, both positive and negative, which tend to be overlooked in the simplistic discussion on authoritarianism vs. democracy that tends to dominate the usual observations on the system. Authoritarianism is neither necessary nor sufficient for some of those special features. In many ways these features undergirding the Chinese polity and economy are quite distinctive, and their roots go long back in history. I shall focus here on the aspects of governance that affect economic development and less on their clearly repressive police-state aspects and gross abuse of basic human rights. Read more »

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The Met Museum’s Scholarly Looter

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Limestone sarcophagus from the Met Cesnola Collection
The Amathus sarcophagus from the Met Cesnola Collection

French President Emmanuel Macron has set a very large cat among the pigeons of global antiquities trading and curating. The cat – catalogue – is a report he commissioned in March 2018 and it’s named The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics. It identifies tens of thousands of cultural artifacts looted from Africa in French colonial days that could be repatriated. France’s national syndicate of antique dealers has already howled in protest at the report. In a letter to the culture minister, the Syndicat National des Antiquaires wrote: “The risks of extensions to other geographical areas and periods of history do not seem to have been anticipated.” In a separate statement, the syndicate expressed concern that the proposed repatriations would cover objects from the Americas, Asia, the Mediterranean and European countries.

A debate on Western theft from foreign cultures has been around since the nineteenth century. Only now is it gathering real momentum. It is a controversy which rumbles on in specialist magazines and art sections of various media. It erupts at times into open public rows over the most notorious cases – the theft of the Greek Parthenon Marbles by Britain’s Lord Eglin, for instance. There have been vocal demands from Greece, Egypt, Italy, Thailand and China for the return of treasures stolen by colonial marauders. Moral arguments abound over the sale of art pieces that Hitler’s Nazis plundered from European Jews. Such treasures now are often restored to surviving Jewish family members and their descendants. The moral case is that when buyers pay for art objects in good faith, it does not erase the original crime that makes such transactions possible. It is now being argued that this could apply to the millions of stolen artifacts laid out in the dusty cabinets of the world’s great museums. Read more »

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Why Teach Math? Two Voices from the 1920s

by Jeroen Bouterse

Tatiana Ehrenfest-Afanassjewa

“Am I ever going to use this later?” As a math teacher, I seem to be getting this question about once a month (which is actually less frequently than I would have predicted). It is asked with varying degrees of openness to the idea that a satisfying reply is even conceivable, but almost invariably by students who are probably justified in believing that their tertiary education or future career is going to involve preciously few linear equations indeed.

Rather than trying to conjure up some practical situation in which one might need to solve a fractional equation, I usually suggest that math may be worthwhile even if it turns out you can safely forget the techniques you learned in school. Isn’t cracking this puzzle fun, doesn’t it make for good mental exercise, don’t you feel yourself getting a little bit smarter? Implicitly, I am banking on the idea that math improves your thinking. But what does that mean?

Recently, I stumbled upon a pamphlet from the 1920s that turned out to be both a feast of recognition and a source of further questions. Its author was Tatiana Ehrenfest-Afanassjewa. A Russian mathematician and physicist, Ehrenfest-Afanassjewa spent much of her time teaching mathematics and developing a program of mathematical pedagogy. Having worked in St Petersburg, she moved to the Netherlands in the 1910s when her husband, Paul Ehrenfest, became a professor of physics at Leiden University. Read more »

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The Typewriter Lives

by Mary Hrovat

Photograph of typewriter with paper rolled up ready to typeI wrote the first draft of this post on my typewriter. Like much of my other writing, this piece began as handwritten notes and drafts typed on a nice little portable typewriter, which is a little younger than I am and which I expect to use for the rest of my life.

I first thought about using a typewriter because I wanted fewer distractions when I write. One of the beauties of the typewriter is that it does just one thing. You can’t check your email or anything else; you can’t multitask. You can’t follow any of the myriad paths that the Internet opens up. You can write whatever you want to, but all you can do is write.

Another reason I chose to do some of my work on a typewriter is that the computer has become associated in my mind with various types of paid online work—office jobs that were ultimately tedious, and more recently, my current editing work. These days when I face a piece of text on the computer and have to interact with it (rather than read it), my default attitude is finicky, and I always have an eye to the ways that others will evaluate my work. This makes it harder to move out of editor mode and into writing mode when I’m working on the computer. I thought a typewriter might provide a more friendly environment for writing, especially in the early stages, when ideas are often at their most nebulous and easily scattered, and when I’m most easily discouraged or overwhelmed. Read more »

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Open Borders

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

The traveler comes to a divide. In front of him lies a forest. Behind him lies a deep ravine. He is sure about what he has seen but he isn’t sure what lies ahead. The mostly barren shreds of expectations or the glorious trappings of lands unknown, both are up for grabs in the great casino of life.

First came the numbers, then the symbols encoding the symbols, then symbols encoding the symbols. A festive smattering of metamaniacal creations from the thicket of conjectures populating the hive mind of creative consciousness. Even Kurt Gödel could not grasp the final import of the generations of ideas his self-consuming monster creation would spawn in the future. It would plough a deep, indestructible furrow through biology and computation. Before and after that it would lay men’s ambitions of conquering knowledge to final rest, like a giant thorn that splits open dreams along their wide central artery.

Code. Growing mountains of self-replicating code. Scattered like gems in the weird and wonderful passage of spacetime, stupefying itself with its endless bifurcations. Engrossed in their celebratory outbursts of draconian superiority, humans hardly noticed it. Bits and bytes wending and winding their way through increasingly Byzantine corridors of power, promise and pleasure. Riding on the backs of great expectations, bellowing their heart out without pondering the implications. What do they expect when they are confronted, finally, with the picture-perfect contours of their creations, when the stagehands have finally taken care of the props and the game is finally on? Shantih, shantih, shantih, I say. Read more »

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Revisiting Racism

by Adele A Wilby

Although we know bias and racism exists in most societies, when put into coherent terms in the form of research the impact is stark and exposes just how much a part of life racism is for so many people. Booth and Mohdin’s (The Guardian 2018) article ‘Revealed: the stark evidence of everyday bias in Britain’ setting out the findings of a poll on the levels of negative experience, more often associated with racism, by Black, Asian and minority and ethnic groups in the United Kingdom(UK) does just that. Thus, for example, from amongst its many findings the survey revealed that 43% of those from a minority background had been overlooked for work promotion in the last five years in comparison with only 18% of white people who reported the same experience. Likewise, 38% of people from ethnic minorities said they had been wrongly suspected of shop lifting in the last five years, in comparison with 14% of white people. Significantly, 53% of people from a minority background believed they had been treated differently because of their hair, clothes and appearance, in comparison with 29% of white people. In the work-place also 57% of minorities said they felt they had to work harder to succeed in Britain because of their ethnicity, and 40% said they earned less.

That racism, and indeed anti-Semitism, should be relegated to the dustbin of history is an aspiration shared by many. Of course, it is doubtful that there has ever been a society where racism has not been present. Nevertheless, that is not an excuse for it to become an acceptable phenomenon; it is a scourge on humanity, and has been the source of barbarity and brutality, cruelty and humiliation amongst fellow human beings. Its perpetual presence also serves to remind us of just how little we have learned from its devastating and harmful impact on peoples and societies throughout history. Thus, the recent research and reports of racism in the UK evoked reflection, and reminded me of my personal experience of racism in the United Kingdom, and how I realised the full weight of the phenomenon after the death of my husband. Read more »

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Poem by Rafiq Kathwari

THE VALE OF SAINTS

I drove up the Himalayan foothills
to Baba’s shrine
with my friend Masood

in a tired white Gypsy
with dodgy brakes,
urged on by my 94-year-old

mother at Hebrew Home
The Bronx
who said her father,

a wealthy ring-shawl merchant
patronized by the Maharajah,
had married three times

hoping to produce an heir,
but his wives proved barren.
Perhaps it was him,

Mother said.
Yet, he rode his Tonga
to the foothills, then trekked

to the thatched-roof shrine
where he tied a thread
to carved wooden roses,

prayed for a son.
Faith in Sufi mysticism
defined Islam in Kashmir,

commanding awe & respect
never shock & suspicion. Read more »

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Way Back When: 1999

by Gabrielle C. Durham

In the immortal words of Prince Rogers Nelson’s party gem from 1982:

“But life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last . . .

“So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999.”

So much fun stuff happened in 1999: rampant concern about Y2K; the movie “The Matrix” came out; Bill Clinton’s ongoing inability to keep his dick in his pants and subsequent impeachment and acquittal; former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota; U.S. military college The Citadel graduated its first female cadet; the Elian Gonzalez controversy raged in the States; and Cher’s single “Believe” was released.

But do you remember what you said? Do you remember when something made you laugh, not LOL? It was not actually all that long ago, TBH. Back in 1999, reading a text typically meant applying a highlighter, most likely in neon yellow, to the testable information in a book or handout that the teacher assigned. It has a very different meaning from today’s pithier text message. In a score of years, English has changed. Duh, language is always changing; that’s how it stays alive. But if we think about it at all, we think of language change as being in evolutionary terms – something that takes generations, but it actually happens much more quickly. Read more »

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Endless Hours of Entertainment

by Joshua Wilbur

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard

According to a July 2018 report from Nielsen, American adults now spend more than 11 hours a day on average consuming some form of media. The study considered time spent on television, radio, apps on smartphones, apps on tablets, internet on a computer, game consoles, and other devices.  The study excluded print formats, such as books, magazines, and newspapers.

Eleven hours per day is a lot of time. Even if we add print formats to the mix—with the  implicit judgement that “book hours” are superior to those dedicated to Netflix or Instagram—the fact remains that the majority of our waking lives is spent in engagement with the creations of other people. More than ever before, we are socially-hungry, story-obsessed, entertainment-seeking creatures.  

It’s easy enough to decry this state of affairs. Postmodernists on the Left have long cast a critical glance at consumer culture, commodity fetishism, and the struggle between greedy hoarders of capital and passive wage-earners, who, like the singing Prole woman in Orwell’s 1984, are free to amuse themselves to death. In the 1960s, Guy Debord characterized the modern West as a “Society of the Spectacle” in a book of the same name. According to Debord, “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” We prefer action shows to real adventure, rom-coms to actual romance, hi-def images to genuine experiences.  Will Self, who just months ago wrote an essay called “The Printed Word in Peril” for Harper’s Magazine, described his impressions of Debord’s treatise in a 2013 article for the Guardian: “Rereading The Society of the Spectacle, I was struck yet again […] by Debord’s astonishing prescience – for what other text from the late 1960s so accurately describes the shit we’re still in?”

And yet, for all the well-placed critique, I can’t help but feel that Debord’s picture of people as ideology-drugged spectators reflects our reality in the worst possible light and, in any case, bemoaning it doesn’t get one very far. Read more »

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Let There Be Light

by Carol A Westbrook

On the first day of creation, God said. “Let there be light,” according to the Bible. In most major religions, God creates day and night, the sun, or light itself on the first day. To the ancients, the sun was God Himself–the Egyptians had Ra, and the Aztecs, Huītzilōpōchtli.There is something divine about light. Even a non-religious person feels a sense of something special when in bright sunlight.

Sunlight! We crave it. We open the drapes, we spend time in the sun, we gaze at the sunset, we build stone monuments to track it. In the dark days of winter we brighten our homes with candles and holiday lights. Winter religious holidays like Christmas and Chanukah emphasize lights and candles to brighten the darkness, while other holidays come during spring, when the days get longer. Many of us feel the need to travel south in the dead of winter, to get a few days of bright light and longer days.

We don’t need to invoke religion to explain our craving for light, we can look to biology. Light–specifically daylight–is a human need, almost as critical as food, air and water. We need the periodicity of daylight to control our bodily processes, in particular those which occur in a diurnal cycle, such as sleeping, waking, meals, drowsy times, body temperature variations, and fertility.

Hormones control this periodicity. These include cortisol, which controls blood sugar and metabolism, and melatonin, a sleep regulator. Read more »

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Brighton Blues

by Christopher Bacas

“Eets beeg place. Millennium Theater. Brighton Beach. You see it. We start seven. Very good band. Leader has gigs coming up. I tell him you coming.”

Ivan gave me specs and I agreed to make it. Lack of guaranteed money, opportunity, entertainment, enlightenment or even a ride home won’t stop a true band kid.

Brighton Beach Station follows Sheepshead Bay. Turning west toward Coney Island, the train grinds into a corner, wheels shrieking. In front: an ocean bends light behind towering beachfront buildings. Beneath the tracks: awnings, Cyrillic signage, overflowing produce bins, foot traffic crisscrossing a wide street.

I arrived early, on a rush hour train. Across the platform, stylish, perfectly coiffed women, teenage to babushka, waited to go to Manhattan. Heading down, many feet vibrated the iron steps, filigreed bars on a 3D xylophone. Soulful Russian ballads and techno crackled from outdoor speakers mounted above cell phone shops and grocers. The Millennium’s unlit marquee appeared high on the left. Below it, a café spread onto the sidewalk. Read more »

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It’s The Future

by Max Sirak

“Once in while you get shown the light / In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

The Grateful Dead sing that. It’s a line from Scarlet Begonias that goes through my mind in moments of pleasant surprise. And, as this essay is all about an instance of encountering wonder in an unlikely place, it seems a fitting place to start.

Forgetting how incredible it is to be alive and how good we have it is easy. We swim surrounded in a sea of marvels that previous generations couldn’t have imagined and might’ve called magic. Yet, because this is our everyday and we’re used to living this way, we hardly afford this truth a second thought.

Our near constant confrontation with news to the contrary also works to warp the wonder from our world view. Authoritarian regimes with Populist flares proffer. Climate change and our dependency on toxic energy destroys our planet. Humanitarian crises span our globe. And these are just the first three counterpoints that came to my mind.

I don’t mean to diminish the threats we face. Our current plights are real and important. But, so too is staying afloat. Read more »

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January 20, 2019

Why languages and dialects really are different animals

Søren Wichmann in Aeon:

Simple questions often yield complex answers. For instance: what is the difference between a language and a dialect? If you ask this of a linguist, get comfortable. Despite the simplicity of the query, there are a lot of possible answers.

The distinction might depend on one’s point of view. From a political perspective, a language is simply that which is standardly spoken by a nation. From about 1850 to 1992, for instance, there was a language known as Serbo-Croatian, which had several dialects including Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. But since Yugoslavia dissolved into several independent countries in the mid-1990s, those dialects have come to be recognised as distinct languages. This political definition works to some extent, though it poses more problems than solutions: there are languages that extend across different countries, notably Spanish in Latin America. Nobody would claim that Mexican Spanish and Colombian Spanish are different languages. Perhaps Spanish as spoken in some parts of Spain is different enough from the Latin American varieties that it deserves to be called a separate language, but that isn’t clear.

Perhaps the distinction between language and dialect can be made in terms of mutual intelligibility? Unfortunately, there are immediate problems with this approach. A Dane will understand Swedish somewhat better than a Swede will understand Danish. Similarly, someone speaking a peculiar, rural dialect of British English will understand an American from Los Angeles far better than the other way around. Mutual intelligibility often depends on exposure, a fairly uncontrollable variable, rather than anything intrinsic to language.

More here.

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What’s needed is magic: Writing advice from Haruki Murakami

Emily Temple in Literary Hub:

If you can believe it, Japanese novelist, talking cat enthusiast, and weird ear chronicler Haruki Murakami turned 70 years old this weekend. 70! But I suppose we should believe it, despite the youthful gaiety and creative magic of his prose: the internationally bestselling writer has 14 novels and a handful of short stories under his belt, and it’s safe to say he’s one of the most famous contemporary writers in the world. To celebrate his birthday, and as a gift to those of you who hope to be the kind of writer Murakami is when you turn 70, I’ve collected some of his best writing advice below.

Read.

I think the first task for the aspiring novelist is to read tons of novels. Sorry to start with such a commonplace observation, but no training is more crucial. To write a novel, you must first understand at a physical level how one is put together . . . It is especially important to plow through as many novels as you can while you are still young. Everything you can get your hands on—great novels, not-so-great novels, crappy novels, it doesn’t matter (at all!) as long as you keep reading. Absorb as many stories as you physically can. Introduce yourself to lots of great writing. To lots of mediocre writing too. This is your most important task.

More here.

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How one German city developed – and then lost – generations of math geniuses

David Gunderman in The Conversation:

Emmy Noether

There are two things that connect the names Gauss, Riemann, Hilbert and Noether. One is their outstanding breadth of contributions to the field of mathematics. The other is that each was a professor at the same university in Göttingen, Germany.

Although relatively unknown today, Göttingen, a small German university town, was for a time one of the most productive centers of mathematics in history.

Göttingen’s rise to mathematical primacy occurred over generations, but its fall took less than a decade when its stars were pushed abroad by the advent of National Socialism, the ideology of the Nazi Party. The university’s best minds left Germany in the early 1930s, transferring its substantial mathematical legacy to Princeton, New York University, and other British and American universities. By 1943, 16 former Göttingen faculty members were in the U.S.

More here.

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The Exaggerated Promise of So-called Unbiased Data Mining

Gary Smith in Wired:

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once asked his Caltech students to calculate the probability that, if he walked outside the classroom, the first car in the parking lot would have a specific license plate, say 6ZNA74. Assuming every number and letter are equally likely and determined independently, the students estimated the probability to be less than 1 in 17 million. When the students finished their calculations, Feynman revealed that the correct probability was 1: He had seen this license plate on his way into class. Something extremely unlikely is not unlikely at all if it has already happened.

The Feynman trap—ransacking data for patterns without any preconceived idea of what one is looking for—is the Achilles heel of studies based on data mining. Finding something unusual or surprising after it has already occurred is neither unusual nor surprising. Patterns are sure to be found, and are likely to be misleading, absurd, or worse.

More here.

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