Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Global Mind Or Just Interconnected Ones?

Can a company be intelligent? An organization? A country? One could say that a culture embodies and transfers accumulated wisdom and knowledge, but cultures evolved slowly until transportation and communication technology allowed for faster migration of people and ideas. Today we have cloud computing, instant communication and cultural flux. I don't think we will ever fuse our minds into a "hive mind", but our minds are becoming ever more extended and interconnected, allowing mental winds (trends, memes) to shake up organizational structures built on established social, intellectual and political patterns.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Political Refresher Course Brought To You By Hurricane Sandy

The market system works fine in most cases. It gets the baker to bake our bread and the gadget maker make ever newer and smarter gadgets, but the market is guided by prices and the pricing mechanism doesn't work very well when decisions are interdependent and there is plenty of insecurity. At the core, it is a matter of people and groups of people (companies, organizations) agreeing on a price, which is relatively easy for shoes, and eggs and ipods, but very hard for disaster relief and enviromental protection. The obvious solution is to leave such decisions to non-market systems, usually local or national governments.

Market-fundamentalists like Romney and Ryan have a skewed view of what markets and governments can and should do. New York Times nailed it in today's editorial:

A Big Storm Requires Big Government

Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government,” which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it. At a Republican primary debate last year, Mr. Romney was asked whether emergency management was a function that should be returned to the states. He not only agreed, he went further.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Mr. Romney not only believes that states acting independently can handle the response to a vast East Coast storm better than Washington, but that profit-making companies can do an even better job. He said it was “immoral” for the federal government to do all these things if it means increasing the debt.
It’s an absurd notion, but it’s fully in line with decades of Republican resistance to federal emergency planning."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

It's Not the Deficit, Stupid!

"New data from the European Union, released on Monday and analyzed in The Times by Landon Thomas Jr. and David Jolly, show that countries that have most ruthlessly cut their budgets — Greece, especially — have seen their overall debt loads increase as a share of the economy.

The data provide objective support for what has been clear to just about everyone except pro-austerity German officials and deficit-crazed Republican politicians. Namely, deep government budget cuts at a time of economic weakness are counterproductive, complicating, if not ruining, the chances for economic growth."

New York Times' editorial on October 24, 2012: The Austerity Trap

It concludes:

"Mr. Obama is better positioned than Mr. Romney to deliver that agenda. Mr. Obama could make his jobs plan, introduced last September but blocked by Congressional Republicans, part of the budget package to be negotiated after the election, when politicians must agree on tax increases and spending cuts to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

Mr. Romney’s agenda is missing a direct focus on jobs, foolishly relying instead on high-end tax cuts and deregulation to help the recovery. And he and his party continue to insist on premature deficit reduction that, in a fragile economy, is the real road to Greece."

Monday, October 15, 2012

Is the Growth Story Over for America? (No It Is Not About Obama Vs. Romney)

On his NYT blog, Thomas B. Edsall summarizes a National Bureau of Economic Research paper written by Robert J. Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University. Here is the opening salvo in a very interesting blog essay:

The American economy is running on empty. That’s the hypothesis put forward by Robert J. Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University. Let’s assume for a moment that he’s right. The political consequences would be enormous.

In his widely discussed National Bureau of Economic Research paper, “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?” Gordon predicts a dark future of “epochal decline in growth from the U.S. record of the last 150 years.” The greatest innovations, Gordon argues, are behind us, with little prospect for transformative change along the lines of the three previous industrial revolutions:
IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830; IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from 1870 to 1900; and IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present. 

"Taken in full, Gordon’s controversial N.B.E.R. paper challenges our belief that innovation and invention will continue to drive sustained expansion in the United States."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Comes After Church?

A new Pew study shows that Americans are disconnecting from their churches.

"For the first time since researchers began tracking the religious identity of Americans, fewer than half said they were Protestants, a steep decline from 40 years ago when Protestant churches claimed the loyalty of more than two-thirds of the population."  
(Number of Protestant Americans Is in Steep Decline, Study Finds, NYT)
This is good, but also troubling news, as it is more a reflection of a growing existential homelessness than a rational move towards secularism.
"When they leave, instead of switching churches, they join the growing ranks who do not identify with any religion. Nearly one in five Americans say they are atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular',” the New York Times writes.
Unfortunately, this fits in with the pattern that I have written about before, a pattern that reminds me of the parallels between our time and the one Hannah Arendt analyzed in "The Origins of Totalitarianism."

How Mitt Romney Became the Underdog
In periods of chaos and dislocation, people tend to look backwards, search for a Golden Age or a Savior. That has happened over and over again in human history, often with disastrous consequences (read Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism for a chilling analysis.) Newt Gingrich fits the image of a maniac who could be really dangerous if given enough power, while Mitt Romney at the core is a pragmatic and cold businessman.

After Florida, he is starting to look like a winner. There is even something Reaganesque over him now that the battle has made us see him as an underdog, a dog that can bite.

I hope team Obama pays attention. 

For a discussion about the Tea Party and Hannah Arendt, read this blog of mine:

The Tea Party As a Proto-Fascist Movement

Saturday, October 6, 2012

North Korea Checks Out Sweden

A North Korean delegation is visiting Sweden to learn the basics of doing business in a capitalist economy, according to a news report by Ekot, a Swedish news magazine broadcast by a public radio station. The delegation includes members of North Korean universities, government-owned export companies and the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The delegation was invited by the International Council of Swedish Industry and sponsored by Sweden's international aid agency, SIDA.

You can read more about the visit on the English-language Swedish news site The Local and Washington Post's news blog BlogPost.

Also, read my comment about North Korea's reform moves in Will He Become North Korea's Deng Xiaoping?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Americans think they live in Sweden....

New York Times' Nick Kristof is a wonderful columnist, a great journalist and eminent foreign correspondent.

This morning he brought the whole debate about where America is going down to the basics by asking us to "imagine a kindergarten with 100 students, lavishly supplied with books, crayons and toys."

But there is trouble in this corner of Paradise, because "one avaricious little boy is jealously guarding a mountain of toys for himself. A handful of other children are quietly playing with a few toys each, while 90 of the children are looking on forlornly — empty-handed."

If this sounds unfair, it is because it is. And not even in America is this seen as right.     

"On this issue, Americans seem by intuition to be flaming lefties. A study published last year by scholars from Harvard Business School and Duke University asked Americans which country they would rather live in — one with America’s wealth distribution or one with Sweden’s. But they weren’t labeled Sweden and America. It turned out that more than 90 percent of Americans preferred to live in a country with the Swedish distribution.
Perhaps nothing gets done because, in polls, Americans hugely underestimate the level of inequality here. Not only do we aspire to live in Sweden, but we think we already do."
(Nicholas Kristof: Why Let the Rich Hoard All the Toys? New York Times Oct 4, 2012) 
The question now is whether Americans are ready to open their eyes and face reality or not.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Republican's Real Problem With Obamacare: President Obama Stole Our Idea!

J.D. Kleinke, an author, a former health care executive and a resident fellow at the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a straightforward column in New York Times's Sunday Edition.

The Conservative Case for Obamacare

"Clear away all the demagogy and scare tactics, and Obamacare is, at its core, Romneycare across state lines. But today’s Republicans dare not own anything built on principles of economic conservatism, if it also protects one of the four horsemen of the social conservatives’ apocalypse: coverage for the full spectrum of women’s reproductive health, from birth control to abortion.

Social conservatives’ hostility to the health care act is a natural corollary to their broader agenda of controlling women’s bodies. These are not the objections of traditional “conservatives,” but of agitators for prying, invasive government — the very things they project, erroneously, onto the workings of the president’s plan. Decrying the legislation for interfering in the doctor-patient relationship, while seeking to pass grossly intrusive laws involving the OB-GYN-patient relationship, is one of the more bizarre disconnects in American politics."

Sounds so simple and true. Could it be?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Clint Eastwood Delivered the Most Important Speech Given at the Republican Convention

The 82-year old actor did what nobody else did at the tightly controlled Republican Orwellian Convention. He spoke from his heart, and said what he had on his mind. For sure it was confused, very confused, but at least it did ring true. And it was memorable and low on bullshit!

The not so subtle hyperliminal subtext was the giant gunslinger photo behind Mr. Clintwood. It said what the Republicans wanted to hear, what they love to think, i.e. that all we need is a strong man holding his six-shooters in steady hands. It was the night when Hollywood met its ultimate audience.


For an interesting comment on Clint Eastwood's use of the prop, read this article by Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

What the Chair Could Have Told Clint

"The truth, rarely heard this week in Tampa, Fla.,..."

New York Times editorial: "Mr. Romney Reinvents History"

"The truth, rarely heard this week in Tampa, Fla., is that the Republicans charted a course of denial and obstruction from the day Mr. Obama was inaugurated, determined to deny him a second term by denying him any achievement, no matter the cost to the economy or American security — even if it meant holding the nation’s credit rating hostage to a narrow partisan agenda."

For A Moment, He Started to Look Like A Real Man

"Pinocchio wants to be a real person, and on Thursday night he’s going to attempt to make the transformation on national television."

(Charles Blow in New York Times, August 30, 2012) 

Mitt Romney has a statuesque build topped off with a permanently perfect quiff hairdo, and he speaks fairly well. But human? 

There were moments when you thought a tear would come, but here he showed that he was neither an actor nor an ordinary man, but a steely business executive. The only time he showed what could have been taken for human emotions was when he told his story of Bain Capital, and had it not been for his growing nose, we might have believed that he was a real person after all.

In the age of artificial everything, artificial man is claiming his right to rule.

Thats a fact, an artificial fact.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Orwellian Republican Convention

The Republican convention in Tampa 2012 could very well be a lost chapter in George Orwell's "1984". Slavery is freedom, war is peace and the truth is nowhere to be seen. It's bizarre, it's sickening and it is very dangerous to the world. A Romney-Ryan victory will drive the American economy over the cliff straight into a depression, which the clueless duo will respond to by launching new wars abroad and repression at home. It's easy to laugh at the Republican team, but it's no laughing matter. Remember George W. Bush, which people wrote off as a lightweight doofus. We know how that worked out.

Hope feels like a very far away place.
The forces of darkness are encircling the forces of humanity.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

No, Mr. Friedman, Average is Not Over

Thomas Friedman has written two columns on the theme "Average is over." He wrote in his first article back in January that:
"In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over." (Average Is Over)
As an example of the kind of competition American workers have to deal with, he enthusiastically relate technological advances and alternative markets where global producers can get much more for much less:
“Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly-line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the [Chinese] plant near midnight. A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day. ‘The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,’ the executive said. ‘There’s no American plant that can match that.’ ”
If only American workers were as dedicated and desperate as those mostly young Chinese workers in their dorms. The answer to this challenge is of course education, which is the subject Friedman tackles in part two. He has been talking to Andreas Schleicher whose team at the OECD coordinates the international PISA test.

The results are dire, while the parents obviously think they live in Lake Wobegon:
"The U.S. does not stand out. It’s just average, but many parents are sure their kid is above average."
The solution that Friedman falls for is of course more technology. He quotes Schleicher:
“Imagine, in a few years, you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world,” says Schleicher. “And then you take this information to your local superintendent and ask: ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?’ ” (Average Is Over, Part II)
But is this really the solution? Is it even the path towards one?

I'm not saying that America's educational system is in a good shape. Not at all, but I question the fundamental reasoning behind Freidman's techno-optimism. And I doubt very much that the socially, ethnically complex and diverse American nation could replicate the schools in Finland and Shanghai even if the parents could compare fMRI scans between school districts across the world.

Education is not an olympic sport where all that counts is a gold medal, or maybe a silver or a bronze. The big question is why we can't find a way to share the amazing wealth we have created. If we could address that question, there would be much less need to fight for a seat at the table.

Average is not over. It just needs to be better.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Brave New World, "1984", The Minority Report... Get Ready For the Age of Big Data

Big Data is the big buzz, and the opportunities are endless.... but do we know what we are getting into? Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and co-author of the book Infinite Reality, wrote a fascinating and scary piece for Slate - Your Kinect Is Watching You.

"Just imagine if teachers, based on a small sample of their students’ nonverbal behavior, could instantly detect which students needed extra attention or specialized assignments.....  Other scientists have developed applications for detecting behavior in the home. Jaeyong Sung and his colleagues at Cornell University are looking at whether a Kinect could assist people by recognizing their activities—automatically detecting, for example, if someone is brushing her teeth, cooking, or opening a pill container. The models were highly accurate (84 percent) at categorizing behavior for people who the system had seen previously. But even more impressive was how it categorized new people. If someone new visits your home and walks past the video-game console, it still recognized that person’s behavior 64 percent of the time."
"Also consider a project we worked on at the behest of Kyoto-based factory automation company OMRON. With a single camera, we demonstrated that some workplace mistakes can be detected before they occur simply by examining the workers’ facial movements. Again, while tracking nonverbal behavior may help prevent accidents, it could also clue in employers about personal habits that workers might not want to share."
If that makes you think about where we are heading, go on and read Stephen Shankland's article for CNET News - How Google is becoming an extension of your mind:
"Think of Google diagnosing your daughter's illness early based on where she's been, how alert she is, and her skin's temperature, then driving yourcar to school to bring her home while you're at work. Or Google translating an incomprehensible emergency announcement while you're riding a train in foreign country. Or Google steering your investment portfolio away from a Ponzi scheme.
Google, in essence, becomes a part of you. Imagine Google playing a customized audio commentary based on what you look at while on a tourist trip and then sharing photo highlights with your friends as you go. Or Google taking over your car when it concludes based on your steering response time and blink rate that you're no longer fit to drive. Or your Google glasses automatically beaming audio and video to the police when you say a phrase that indicates you're being mugged."
If you think Google or Facebook is tracking your every move, listen to what these two researchers at the online educational start-up Knewton has to say:
"Mr. Ferreira: Knewton's capturing in the hundreds of thousands of data per user per day. We're capturing what you're getting right, what you're getting wrong, what answers you're falling for if you get something wrong, what concepts are in that answer choice that you're falling for. We're also capturing when you log into the system; how much you do; what tasks you do; what you don't do; what was recommended that you do that you didn't do, and vice versa. Your time on task for every little task, whether it's reading something or doing a practice question or watching something. Your click rate—how fast you're clicking on stuff. You can imagine one student accessing different material. If her click rate increases between math and verbal—maybe she's going through the verbal a little faster—maybe it's a little easier for her." (A Conversation With 2 Developers of Personalized-Learning Software, Chronicle of Higher Education)
Remember John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness (TIA) program? Congress pulled the plug on the project in 2003 after a heated debate where conservative and progressive commentators slammed the Orwellian implications of the gigantic surveillance project. TIA was killed, but parts of the project were picked up by other agencies under the pretext of fighting terrorism. The big difference between this early Big Data project and today's Big Data is that TIA was based on monitoring transactions of unknowing individuals, while today's Big Data is volunteered by the online public everytime you add something to you Facebook timeline or add something to Google+. We sign away our privacy as easily and untroubled as we sign EULA's whenever we install a new program or application.

Where will this lead? Nobody knows. That may be the scariest part!  

Monday, June 25, 2012

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste

In Getting Away with It, Paul Krugman and Robin Wells discuss three books about President Barack Obama, the Democrats, the Republicans and the global economic crisis.

It's not an uplifting story, but it is a necessary one.

"But while the economy now may bear a strong resemblance to that of the 1930s, the political scene does not, because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are what once they were. Coming into the Obama presidency, much of the Democratic Party was close to, one might almost say captured by, the very financial interests that brought on the crisis; and as the Booker and Clinton incidents showed, some of the party still is. Meanwhile, Republicans have become extremists in a way they weren’t three generations ago; contrast the total opposition Obama has faced on economic issues with the fact that most Republicans in Congress voted for, not against, FDR’s crowning achievement, the Social Security Act of 1935.

These changes in America’s political parties explain both why there has been no second New Deal and why the policy response to the prolonged economic slump has been so inadequate."
"Obama’s innate centrism led him to adopt the preoccupation with the budget deficit of Geithner and Peter Orszag (his head of the Office of Management and Budget and another Rubin protégé) in opposition to vocal protests from both Summers and Romer that now was not the time to worry about deficits. As a result, Obama would never acknowledge that the original stimulus was not big enough, a position that left him boxed in when it became clear—as it already had by summer of 2010, if not earlier—that it had indeed been far too small."

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Richard Ford disses James Joyce's Ulysses

The author Richard Ford is interviewed in the New York Times Book Review and gets this question:

"What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?"

His answer begins this way:
"Overrated . . . Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Hands down. A professor’s book. Though I guess if you’re Irish it all makes sense."

I tend to agree.

I am reading - actually listening - to Ulysses in English after having read it in Swedish many years ago, and after having listened to 24 spirited lectures by professor James Heffernan, who recently retired from  of Dartmouth, and I must say that James Joyce's cathedral of words feels essentially empty. He is just showing off words and language, like an acrobat is showing off his marvelous skills. I enjoy listening to it, but then I find myself wondering what I am listening to, and why I am doing it. What is it all about? The Odysseys is at least exciting!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Educational Divide Perpetuates Downward Drift

On this past Wednesday, the New York Times had an interesting story about educational challenges facing cities like Dayton, OH.
Dayton sits on one side of a growing divide among American cities, in which a small number of metro areas vacuum up a large number of college graduates, and the rest struggle to keep those they have.
The winners are metro areas like Raleigh, N.C., San Francisco, and Stamford, Conn., where more than 40 percent of the population has a college degree. Metro areas like Bakersfield, Calif., Lakeland, Fla., and Youngstown, Ohio, where less than a fifth of the population has a college degree, are being left behind. The divide shows signs of widening as college graduates gravitate to places with a lot of other college graduates and the atmosphere that creates.
“This is one of the most important developments in recent economic history of this country,” said Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who recently published a book on the topic, “The New Geography of Jobs.”
(Well-Educated Flock to Some Cities, Leaving Others Behind)
The article made me think of Joel Garreau's book about edge cities and Robert Reich's discussion of the geographic concentration to areas like Princeton, NJ, of what he then called "the symbolic-analysts".

Monday, May 28, 2012

Alone in our own bubble (Loreen)

Congrats to Loreen to the Eurovision schlager win. She sings and dances well, and she is surely sexier than Russia's dancing babushkas.

But the lyrics?

We are here, we’re all alone in our own Universe,
We are free, where everything’s allowed and love comes first,
Forever and ever together, we sail into infinity,
We’re higher and higher and higher, we’re reaching for divinity.
A close reading would make you think that it is a comment on the current European crisis, but that's not fair. It's all about the title, and "Euphoria" will echo up there in Schlager heaven together with "Waterloo" (1974), "Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley" (1984), "Fångad av en stormvind" (1991), and "Take Me to Your Heaven"(1999).

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Ex-Dissients Addresses Chen Guangcheng

Wei Jingsheng: Don’t Believe China’s Promises
Wang Dan: Mr. Chen, Welcome to America

A Chinese professor and friend told me during my first trip to China back in 1985 that China's leaders don't believe in any "higher being," so they have no one to answer to. I'm not religious, and I don't think my friend was either, but I think he was right about the potential of a religious belief to restrain power. It doesn't have to be that way - much evil has been done in the name of one god or another - but it often is. My friend was thinking of Mao Zedong, but his successors were as committed to their cause - economic modernization and national power - as Mao was his revolutionary zeal.

Wei Jingsheng raised the question of political freedom to Deng Xiaoping, and that was enough for him to be locked up for 15 years. China has changed a lot since I met the professor on that rooftop bar in Chengdu (I am not mentioning his name even though he has passed away, since family members can be targeted too), but no fundamental political has happened since then. Wei and was right in 1979, and he is right now.

Nicholas D. Kristof on Chen Guangcheng

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Rich Are Different... They Have More Palaces

New York Times' Real Estate section calls it the Big Deal

The $100 Million Question

I call it an outrage, and I call for taxing the rich to the max. I know that they are to few for it to solve the big problems the country and the world is facing, but it would surely be a moral boost and make other changes possible that taken together could get us out of the rut. You can't ask people for shared sacrifices when the Marie Antoinette of today toys with her Hollywood Versailles.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Trying To Capture A Tree In the Fog, Finding A Lion's Tooth

I took a walk in the morning fog last Thursday, thinking that I would capture the giant tree growing in the field by the pond. Then I spotted a lonely seeding dandelion that the mower must have missed. An idea was born, and the result was a picture of a contrast, between large and small, darkness and light.

When I started to write this, I asked my self about that strange name - dandelion - strange because in my native Sweden we simply call it maskros (worm-rose). Wiktionary says that the English name comes from the French "dent-de-lion," which means the Lion's tooth. Another source tells me that it had the same name in Sweden back in the 1600s - Lejontand. I wonder what made it go from the King of the Savannah to the Worm-Rose?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Rich are Cooling on Obama - How About Reaching Out to the Rest of Us?

Obama Sees Steep Dropoff in Cash From Major Donors

"President Obama’s re-election campaign is straining to raise the huge sums it is counting on to run against Mitt Romney, with sharp dropoffs in donations from nearly every major industry forcing it to rely more than ever on small contributions and a relative handful of major donors."     
This could be the best thing that has happened to Barack Obama. It's time for him to reach back to the people who brought him to power, and that was not Wall Street and Hollywood.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Obama better win, or else.

Barack Obama has done a lot to mitigate the effects of Bush-Cheney recession, but not enough. His timid stimulus package was way too small, and he wasted too much time making nice with the Republicans. No he is trapped, and even a political moron such as Mitt Romney attracts a crowd. The explanation is the so many Americans still feel severe pain.

"Nearly two-thirds of people are concerned about paying for their housing, the poll found, and one in five people with mortgages say they are underwater. Four in 10 parents say they have had to alter expectations for the type of college they can afford to send their children. More than one-third of respondents said high gas prices had created serious financial hardships."
New York Times: Doubts on Economy May Give Romney Opening, Poll Finds
If Romney wins, America is bust. What more is, the American democracy would be going down the drain.
Obama better win, or else.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Wei Jingsheng on Fang Lizhi

Wei Jingsheng on Fang Lizhi: China's Human Rights Hero 

"For those of us whose memories have not been erased by the censorship of getting rich gloriously, Fang was a hero. In the years and months leading up to the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, he dared to tell the historical facts -- about Mao, the Party, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution -- to a new generation.
Although I didn't meet him till later in life, our fates were intertwined through the democracy movement. It was Professor Fang's open letter to Deng Xiaoping on January 6, 1989, that sparked the mass movement that Deng would crush in June. In that letter he called for my release from prison, where I had already served 10 of the 15 years I would ultimately serve for my big character poster calling for "the Fifth Modernization" -- democracy.
My gratitude to Fang remains immense. For foreign dignitaries to ask the Chinese government to release me was one thing, and I am of course grateful. But for the person whom Deng Xiaoping hated most to openly offend the dictator required enormous courage."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why China’s Rulers Hates Fang Lizhi (1991)

Fang Lizhi during his time at
Princeton's Institute of Advanced Studies.
Photo: Hans Sandberg
Fang Lizhi died suddenly on April 6, 2012 at the age of 76. He was one of China's most famous scientist, and equally famous for his bold and unflinching defense of democracy and human rights in China, something that after the bloody supression of the democratic revolt of 1989 forced him to leave for the United States. What follows is an English translation of an article I wrote about Fang based on my interview with him at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey.

The Emperor of China once let his ministers know that there was a deer in a hall where there actually was a horse. They all had to go into the hall and was then asked one by one about what they had seen. Those who gave the "wrong" answer were decapitated. The truth always carried a high price in China; a country that by the way has still not signed the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. You could therefore say that Fang was lucky, because although he was forced to seek refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and later go into exile a year later -- he did escape with his life intact.

Today we find him at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies – a peaceful oasis for brilliant minds. This is where his idol Albert Einstein once worked, and this is where Professor Fang now ponders the structure of the universe, as well as China's future.

Many of his former students and colleagues are also in the U.S., and he participates in their discussions around the path to a democratic and enlightened China. (There are about 20.000 Chinese guest students and visiting scientists in the U.S.).

However, the debate back home is closed to him, at least for now.

-I do not have much contact with China today. Sometimes I manage to send a letter with someone who travels to China.

The normal channels of communications are too risky. Letters are opened, phone calls intercepted, faxes monitored and electronic mail systems are still rare in China.

In the eyes of the Chinese government, he is still a criminal on the run. He has personally had to bear much of the blame for the 1989 mass protests, even though he never directly took part in the movement. But in all fairness, you have to give them credit, at least in part.

-Ha, ha, ha! I believe that I had a strong influence on the students. They respected me, sometimes! Ha, ha, ha, .... but the authorities were not happy. In China you are supposed to play follow the leader. They don’t like independent minded people!

Fang played a role in China fully comparable with that of Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. There are even those who sees him as a future president, something he himself rejects as a sign of Chinese authoritarianism. If there is anything he has preached over the years, it is that the Chinese must stop looking for relief from above:

-Democracy is not a gift bestowed upon us from the higher ups. It is up to us to fight for it, he said on December 4, 1986 in a speech to the students of one of China's top engineering universities – the University of Science and Technology of China (also called Keda using an abbreviation if its Chinese name), located in the city of Hefei in Anhui Province.

At the time the political climate in China was more free than ever before or after (except for a few weeks in May 1989).

-People talked about the "open policy" even though there were still many limitations. We took advantage of this, but we exceeded the limits! In my first speech, I criticized Marxism solely from a scientific perspective. Later on, I broadened my criticism, he says.

During 1985-86 he travelled around the country and gave speeches peppered with democratic ideas. In addition, he gave candid interviews to Chinese and foreign press.

-It was risky, because the authorities' could come down hard. I believed that you had to take small steps, push the limits a little at a time, he says.

It may have been small steps to Fang, but for the Chinese gerontocracy it was a seven-league stride.

-The most important thing if you want reforms is that you have a democratic mindset, he told Shanghai's students in November and went on:

-Nobody says so, at least not straight out, but if you look at the actual results, orthodox socialism, from Marx and Lenin to Stalin and Mao Zedong, was a failure.

This was blasphemy in Deng Xiaoping's China, where the government requires citizens to "maintain" the "four cardinal principles."
  1. The socialist road
  2. The dictatorship of the proletariat
  3. The party's leadership
  4. The leading role of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought
Fang said publicly that this was an expression of superstition, dictatorship, conservatism and a lack of independence. And he did not hesitate to criticize Deng Xiaoping, and other leaders by name, which in China is a double sin.

Despite his razor-sharp criticism, he did not deny that China has advanced since Mao's time.

-They would have made mincemeat out of me If I had said what I now say under "the seventeen years" (1949-1966), he told the Shanghai students in November 1986.

Unlike many of his intellectual colleagues, he was not content because things had improved, but attacked the key weakness in Deng's reforms -- China's fundamental lack of democracy and human rights.

-Democracy is not the same as easing up on the oppression a bit, he said in Shanghai.

How could he say this in a country that, when it came down to it, was a one-party state where thousands of dissidents were rotting away in penal labor camps? The answer lies in that he was first and foremost, an physicist. Scientists and engineers play a key role in Deng's modernization program why the regime has had more patience with them. Otherwise, he would have shared the fate of the young worker Wei Jingsheng, who in 1979 was sentenced to 15 years in China's Gulag for having called for a "Fifth Modernization", i.e. political freedom. Besides, there are those who suspect that he had a patron in the Communist Party Politburo member Hu Qili. But Fang denies this.

-We had met in the 1950s, but we didn’t have any contact until the 1985. By then he was a Politburo member, and the reason that we met was that he wanted to advise me not to say too much.

Hu Qili sent for Fang and they met on the way out from the former's office. There Fang was warned in a straightforward manner to not stir up trouble. But he refused to bend.

-It was a very short meeting, he says.
Did you feel at a disadvantage during this meeting with a high level policymaker?

-It annoyed me that we were on an equal level psychologically, because I was above him in terms of knowledge, ha, ha, ha ... He, on the other hand stuck to his position of power and felt he was above me, he answers.

They had first met in February 1955 when Fang was a talented 19 year old student and a party member. It was during a training conference where he rushed up to the podium and grabbed the microphone, crying out with a loud voice that he felt that it was a boring meeting and that it was time for the students to think more independently.

Fang Lizhi at the Institute of Advanced Studies. Photo: Hans Sandberg

Hu Qili was presiding at the meeting. His first comment was: "Fang, that was well said!"
However, on the next day, Hu Qili received signals from the Party that what had happened was not good at all. The Party secretary of the university spent the second day reading a long speech that criticized Fang's outburst.

-I was very confused, because I was still a Marxist at the time. I thought that it must have been I that was wrong.

Two years later, Fang would be expelled from the Communist Party for his youthful digression. That was under Deng Xiaoping's mass persecution of "bourgeois rightist."

It was only after Mao's "great leap forward" (1958-60), which cost tens of millions of lives, that Fang stopped blaming himself for his political problems.

-People were starving and I realized that something must be wrong. I lost confidence in Mao and became more independent, he says.

Unlike many other Chinese communists who disliked Mao's extremism, Fang was never attracted by Mao's rival Liu Shaoqi, or the Soviet Communist Party, which experimented with limited economic and political reforms under Nikita Khrushchev.

-I already had acquired a taste for freedom, which was the tradition among physicists like for example Einstein. He was very open-minded in his thinking, and I liked his ideas. I was already influenced by ideas from the West. The Soviets had incidentally also criticized Einstein and quantum mechanics, something I did not like.

Science provided Fang with the fixed point he needed to move the political universe of China’s Communists. He often thought of how Galileo had to fight for truth against the Medieval church's ideological oppression. During the Cultural Revolution, Fang and most intellectuals were sent to the countryside to be "re-educated by the masses" – as Mao's anti-intellectual campaign was called euphemistically.

At that time, it wasn’t possible to take even the smallest step towards freedom.

-We were finished. We were completely isolated! You couldn’t do anything, he says.

Eventually he was allowed to return to Beijing, but in 1969 he was transferred to Hefei, where China’s National Academy of Sciences had set up a new technical college. It would take until 1978 before Fang regained his "political rights," and the 21-year old expulsion from the Party was lifted.

He began a very active scientific life and he became China's youngest professor in 1981 at the age of 45. The reforms and his new status allowed him to take a series of trips abroad as a visiting professor and to participate in scientific seminars. This opened up new worlds and new perspectives, which only strengthened his conviction that China must open up completely to the outside world.

Beijing's Ancient Astronomical Observatory.
Photo: Hans Sandberg, 2001.
However, the Party saw this as a capitulation for Western influence, but Fang saw a free cultural exchange as a prerequisite for a real modernization of China. It didn't take long before he became a household name in scientific circles, both in China and internationally. In 1984, he was elected vice-president of Keda in a democratic election, despite opposition from the Party. He initiated a series of educational reforms, which in the fall of 1986 was hailed in the Party's main newspaper, the People's Daily. His reforms replaced the Communist Party's dominance of the education with academic freedom, creativity, and a wide-ranging international exchange.

On December 5, the day after Fang told Keda’s students that democracy is something you have to fight for, 3,000 of them took to the streets in Hefei carrying banners saying "No Democratization, No Modernization!" and "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" Later in December, 5,000 students marched in Wuhan, and 30,000 in Shanghai. The protest soon spread to Kunming, Chongqing, Shenzhen and by January, students marched to the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This was the development that the party's reform friendly wing had feared, or rather, they feared the counter reaction that it could trigger.

That was probably why Fang was followed by a member of the government during his "tour" of 1985-1986. In the city of Ningpo, he learned that Wan Li, the deputy prime minister, and member of the Politburo, had requested to have his speeches recorded.

Wan Li followed him back to his university and soon called a meeting for about one hundred provincial education directors, party secretaries and governors. It was formally a meeting about education policy, but the real purpose was to make Fang shut up and to quell the growing student protest movement.

-He criticized my belief that education should be independent of the party, says Fang, who at first did not answer the attack, something that irritated Wan Li.

-Fang Lizhi! Come up here and report to me, he shouted.

-Then I stood up and gave him a straightforward answer, says Fang. I am the vice-president of a university, and I know how to organize teaching and research. I know how to do this better than you, and I need no interference from the party!

Such recklessness both enticed and frightened Fang’s colleagues, who came up , after the meeting and said "you did well," and that they liked his views, but also told him to keep quiet about them! This was, as Orville Schell points out in his brilliant book about this time "Discos and Democracy," one of the few occasions in Communist China's history that anybody had publicly challenged a top leader on the issue of democracy.

The demonstrations in the winter of 1986-87 led to a reaction and it was strong. The conservative forces in the party pressed on, and Deng Xiaoping responded by sacrificing his proposed successor, the Party Chairman Hu Yaobang. He also sharpened the rhetoric against "bourgeois liberalism", while cleverly appointing the liberal reformer Zhao Ziyang to take over after Hu. The idea was to silence the opposition both to the right and the left, and let the economic reforms continue. Fang and two other free-thinkers, Liu Binyan and Wang Ruoshi, were expelled from the party. Fang and his boss at Keda, Guan Weiyan, were both fired from their jobs. What was strange for Chinese conditions was that Hu Yaobang retained his position in the Politburo, and Fang was given a new job as a researcher at the Beijing Astronomical Observatory. It was a signal to the intellectuals that the government would not go back to Mao's policies after all.

If it hadn't been for a major gaffe by the party, Fang’s star would by then have passed its zenith.

-The Communist Party distributed my speeches all over the country in order for people to criticize them, but people identified with me and my speeches instead. Before that I was only well known among physicists and students, he says.

Either it was a blunder from the conservatives, or a clever trick from the radical reformists. For Fang, it was an unexpected help in breaking through the main obstacle to freedom of opinion in China – the Party's monopoly of information.

It can be difficult for an outsider to understand exactly how difficult it is to maintain what we take as normal contacts in China. The country is huge, poor, and has an extremely underdeveloped infrastructure. Simple things, like making a phone call or visiting a friend in another city, are difficult in China -- both for practical and political reasons.

-I had no telephone until 1987, but I still never communicated with my friends using a telephone, says Fang.

Only two Chinese in a thousand have a telephone. Employment, housing and travel are still things that require approval from the authorities, i.e. approval by the Communist Party. Snitching and spying on citizens are part of everyday life in a way that brings to mind George Orwell's book "1984". It was long forbidden, and sometimes even dangerous, to read foreign newspapers and listen to the Voice of America or the BBC.

Chinese society is thoroughly organized, and that in a way that gives the Party the greatest possible power. All official information channels run vertically -- Reports from the bottom up, and decisions from the top down.

-The Communist Party banned horizontal contacts between people in different fields after taking power in 1949, Fang says. Physicists can talk to physicists, but physicists cannot talk to artists, and certainly not to business managers!

- For example, I know Liu Binyan, but we've only met a few times and I have never met Wang Ruowang (a well-known dissident from Shanghai), he says.

This corporatist system keeps the opposition fragmented into many small isolated islands, whom the party can crush, tolerate or manipulate if it so pleases. In a way, the party swallowed the society, but by doing so downed the political views it wanted to get rid of, even if they were in disguised form. Instead of being ideologically united, the party became a platform for factional strife and conflicts between interest groups.

Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic philosophy – "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice” – was not much of an ideology, whether to defend the old system or build a new one. The already started reforms followed their own logic, and the very real divisions in the party made it increasingly inefficient as thought police.

-We had many meetings for professionals, and there we could get together and talk, says Fang. It took a lot of travel, because the telephone system is so inadequate.

It would not take long after the expulsion before new political winds blew. It seemed that nothing would be able to stop the gradual liberalization of China. In February 1986 Fang participated in a scientific conference led by Guan Weiyan. Fang was then authorized by Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang to attend a Physics symposium in May 1987 in Trieste, Italy. Once abroad, he took the opportunity to give an interview for the German magazine Der Spiegel, where he said that his goal for China was democratization, and that his next target was Marxism. In the autumn of 1988 he attended a scientific conference in Australia and gave an interview for the Hong Kong magazine "Nineties" on the way home. In it he delivered a scathing indictment of corruption and the "fin de siècle - the mentality" of the Communist Party. Deng Xiaoping was said to have become so enraged that he considered suing Fang for libel.

The struggle within the party leadership between radical reformers, cautious reformers and conservative opponents of reforms grew more intense during 1988, and by the second half of the year, it looked like the radicals had lost control of the Party, while the Party at the same time was losing its grip completely over the society, something that would become apparent in Spring of 1989.

It was in this situation that Fang wrote an open letter to Deng Xiaoping where he spoke about something that China's intellectuals had kept quiet about for ten years: Wei Jingsheng.

The short letter suggested that Deng should declare a national amnesty for political prisoners, including Wei. Fang thought it was fitting, given the 40th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, the 70th anniversary of the "May Fourth Movement of 1919", and the 200thanniversary of the French Revolution.

The letter became the starting signal for the massive pro-democracy movement that would dominate the first half of 1989. And it was followed on February 16 by an open letter to the National People's Congress (China's "parliament") signed by 33 famous Chinese writers and artists and supporting Fang’s letter of January 6. And so did 42 famous Chinese scientists in yet another open letter to the NPC. Then came the events in quick succession.

Why did you write the letter in 1989?

-That was ten years since Wei Jingsheng had been sentenced, and even in Mao's time Communist Party's enemies were sometimes released after ten years. Freedom of expression was also quite large, but a difficulty was that Wei Jingsheng’s case was directly linked to Deng Xiaoping personally. It was a symbolic case. My aim was not to provoke. I thought that he should have been able to accept the letter. It would have been in Deng's interest to do it, says Fang with a frankness that has won him so many friends and such powerful enemies.

But Deng and the old guard behind China's shadow government are perhaps simply too old to listen to such talk. Hence, there is not much Fang and the 20.000 Chinese students in the U.S. can do, but to wait. Deng is after all 87 years old, and the next chapter in China's modernization could begin anytime now.

Hans Sandberg
(An abbreviated version of this article was published 
in March 1992 in Z Magazine in Stockholm, Sweden.)

More about Fang Lizhi

Hans Sandberg: Därför hatar Kinas makthavare Fang Lizhi

Wikipedia on Fang Lizhi

Perry Link: On Fang Lizhi (1936 - 2012)

James Fallows: Fang Lizhi

Orville Schell: China's Andrei Sakharov

The Economist: Fang Lizhi

James H. Williams: Fang's Expanding Universe

By Fang Lizhi:

The Real Deng (New York Review of Books, November 10, 2011)

My 'Confession' (New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011)

An Appeal to the ‘Fortune’ Conference in Shanghai (w. Robert L. Bernstein in New York Review of Books, September 23, 1999)

The Hope for China (w. Perry Link in New York Review of Books, October 17, 1996)

The Chinese Amnesia (New York Review of Books, September 27, 1990)

Keeping the Faith (New York Review of Books, December 21, 1989)

Letters from the Other China (w. Orville Schell in New York Review of Books, July 20, 1989)

China’s Despair and China’s Hope (New York Review of Books, February 2, 1989)

Scientific publications since 1989


Bringing Down the Great Wall: Writings on Science, Culture, and Democracy in China (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1992)

Creation of the Universe (w. T. Kiang and Li Shu Xian, World Scientific Publishing Company, 1993)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Republican Frontrunners Pulls Out of Race

A political trifecta hit the Republican primary race over the weekend.
Mitt Romney canceled his campaign to become the Republican candidate for President.
"I am sick of wasting my time and money on people who don't appreciate me," Romney told Fox News on Saturday night.
Meanwhile a teary-eyed Newt Gingrich announced his intention to leave Callista and become a Trappist monk.
"It's time for me to hold my tongue," Newt told "This Week in Politics" on Sunday morning.
As if this wasn't enough, Rick Santorum, declared that he was one of the three winners of the $640 million Megamillions loto.
"I'm through with Washington, and I have decided to launch a new Crusade to liberate Istanbul and then move on to defeat the infidels in Iran," a somber Santorum told Pittsburgh Gazette on Saturday.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Faith, Philosophy, and Quantum Physics

David Albert, a Columbia University philosophy professor, wrote a devastating review of the cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss' new book "A Universe From Nothing - Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing" in the latest issue of the NYT Book Review. I have heard Krauss speaking at Princeton University and sympathize with his science politics and atheism, but Albert's critique is hard to ignore.

I googled David Albert and found a very good interview with him, where he lays out the philosophical issues around quantum physics in a wide-ranging and beautiful way. You find it at Columbia's fabulous blog "big think blog".
It just happens that Stanley Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, wrote a blog for the New York Times on the web on Monday, where he adresses similar philisophical questions. The blog post is called Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture Is the Right One? and is a sharp and in my mind basically fair critique of statements that Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker did on Chris Hayes new MSNBC show “Up w/ Chris Hayes”  on Sunday.
People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.

Vary the assumptions (and it is impossible to not have any), begin by assuming a creating and sustaining God, and the force of quite other reasons will seem obvious and inescapable. As John Locke said in his Letter on Toleration, “Every church is orthodox to itself,” and every orthodoxy brings with it reasons, honored authorities, sacred texts and unassailable methods of verification.

It is at bottom a question of original authority: with what conviction — basic orthodoxy — about where truth and illumination are to be found do you begin? Once that question is answered satisfactorily for you (by revelation, education or conversion), you cannot test the answer by bringing it before the bar of some independent arbiter, for your answer now is the arbiter (and measure) of everything that comes before you. Your answer delivers the world to you and delivers with it mechanisms for distinguishing good evidence from bad or beside-the-point evidence and good reasons from reasons that just don’t cut it. 
I don't believe in God. I stopped believing when I was eight years old and began reading about astronomy. I can't see any reason to believe in supernatural phenomena, but I do accept and respect that other people find reasons to believe. There is nothing evil in believing, or not believing. There are good Atheists, Baptists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons and Wiccas. We may all disagree, and we may fight and challenge each other. There are areas where we have to compromise even our strongest believes if we are to live together. This is hard and this is something that nobody likes to do. If you believe that you are 100 percent right and the other guy is 100 percent wrong, then you might as well ignore him or her. It takes a certain degree of humility to accept your fellow man and woman as they are.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I'm Not So Sure About Heisenberg Anymore...

Debating Heisenberg with my soon-to-be 18 year old son Alex. He claimed that Heisenberg was wrong and that you can measure location and momentum simultaneously. I protested and we debated. After dinner I sent him a Wikipedia link without actually reading it as I couldn't imagine that anybody had messed with the famous theory. Alex did read it and found a link to this article in Scientific American. When I read it and felt like Rick Perry, you know... the Republican presidential candidate who said Oops!

But can this really be true?

Why hasn't this sensational news been on the front page of the New York Times?

I'm not so sure about Heisenberg anymore...

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Queen of Social Media Fights Fetishization

Arianna Huffington has written a very interesting and timely column for Huffington Post where she warns against "fetishization" of social media, where nothing matters besides catching up with the latest tweet, whatever it happens to be.

The title is a bit pompous - "Virality Uber Alles: Whatthe Fetishization of Social Media Is Costing Us All" - but it is a good read that makes you think for a minute of Marshall McLuhan. She is of course not against social media per se, but she cautions against falling in love with the tool, instead of using it to do good:

The media world's fetishization of social media has reached idol-worshipping proportions. Media conference agendas are filled with panels devoted to social media and how to use social tools to amplify coverage, but you rarely see one discussing what that coverage should actually be about. As Wadah Khanfar, former Director General of Al Jazeera, told our editors when he visited our newsroom last week, "The lack of contextualization and prioritization in the U.S. media makes it harder to know what the most important story is at any given time."
Our media culture is locked in the Perpetual Now, constantly chasing ephemeral scoops that last only seconds and that most often don't matter in the first place, even for the brief moment that they're "exclusive." 

These days every company is hungry to embrace social media and virality, even if they're not exactly sure what that means, and even if they're not prepared to really deal with it once they've achieved it.

Or as Sheryl Sandberg put it, "What it means to be social is if you want to talk to me, you have to listen to me as well." A lot of brands want to be social, but they don't want to listen, because much of what they're hearing is quite simply not to their liking, and, just as in relationships in the offline world, engaging with your customers or your readers in a transparent and authentic way is not all sweetness and light. So simply issuing a statement saying you're committed to listening isn't the same thing as listening. And as in any human relationship, there is a dark side to intimacy.

So, the road to social media hell is paved with well-intended hashtags -- as well as disingenuous or inauthentic ones.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

WSJ: Violent computer games is good for your career...

My son Erik, who is a leader of the top-ranked Rutgers' Starcraft team, sent me an article - "When Gaming Is Good for You" - from the Wall Street Journal. My first thought was that he is trying to mollify my concern about those long nights battling Korean and Swedish Starcraft II rstars, but then I read on, and yes, I was somewhat mollified. 
"Videogames can change a person's brain and, as researchers are finding, often that change is for the better. 
A growing body of university research suggests that gaming improves creativity, decision-making and perception. The specific benefits are wide ranging, from improved hand-eye coordination in surgeons to vision changes that boost night driving ability." 
My only remaining concern - as long as my son keeps getting As - is that he might develop carpal-tunnel syndrome. There goes the "improved hand-eye corrdination"....