17 December 2014

Mujingfang remade

It's never a good sign when a new tool is painful to use. This was the case with my new Mujingfang beading plane. This is a bare bones tool manufacturer the only apparent upside of which is that their products are extremely cheap. I've bought their wares before so I know about their limitations. But as around $10 US a plane, it was hard to not try this one just once more.
One very valid criticism of Chinese manufacturing is that very often from the upper management down to the assemblyline worker, nobody in the operation has any idea about what it is they are making. That's the only way that I can explain how this beading plane ever came to be made as it is.
The cruel molding plane
The first point to notice is that the fence is on the opposite side as other molding planes for right-handed users. This might be a plus if they came in pairs for difficult to plane woods, but as far as I can ascertain, this is the only model. The other failing is that the plane is extremely small which makes it hard to push without the upper edge of the blade poking into the palm of the unlucky hand. Or was it meant to be pulled? There is a long, shallow depression on the fence side but it appears more decorative than functional.  If one tries to pull the plane, squeezing with the right hand thumb somewhere in the depression, it is not possible to maintain enough downward pressure without having the blade chatter across the surface. It is simply impossible to believe that any woodworker did a test run on this plane before it was approved for delivery.

Initially I thought about just chalking up this purchase to as yet another lesson about how expensive it is to buy cheaply made Chinese tools. But then I pondered how to salvage it. I could have cut off some length from the blade and filed it smooth, but that would still have made the tool only slightly easier to wrap my fingers around the back while navigating with a pullstroke. It occurred to me that I could build a holder into which I might be able to use this plane with. My first idea was to create a square hollow in a suitably large piece of wood. Fast, but it would have created a problem as to how to keep the plane held inside the holder. I then realized that I would have to build up a holder in layers and then cut it down to size.

I started by planing down a piece of scrap pine slightly thicker than the plan body. I then roughly sketched the outline of plane and cut the waste out with a bandsaw. The result of my transfer and cutting was that the back section was slightly lower than the front in the glueup. I knew that I would be able to quickly bring the bottom down to flat with a jointer. The finished depth was less important that the interior fit.
test fitting

I didn't want any slippage during the glue assembly so taking a cue from my experience with Krenov style planemaking, I drilled 4 10mm holes and used dowels to keep the three pieces aligned. I moistened the wood surfaces to be glued, spread some watered down glue over the wet surfaces, and pounded them together down the dowel shafts. And, as Murphy is my witness, both inside pieces split along the holes for the dowels. I quickly spread glue over these unintended joints, clamped them together, and continued. Those joints would be cut off and the holes still functioned to keep all three pieces aligned.

alignment holes
I removed the block from the clamps the next day and started to shape the piece. I cut off the waste just below the doweled holes and ripped the excess from the sides while I was still at the bandsaw.  Over at the jointer, I flattened and squared up the bottom to the sides.
The beading plane is just proud of the pine holder. If it had been too low, it would have been a simple matter of running the bottom over the jointer enough times. I had to chop some allowance for the upper edge of the blade with a mortising chisel.
view from above
There is nothing to secure the plane inside the holder. I keep my fingers on the fence as I pull it along the stock. If I decide at a much later date to do any final shaping, there is a possibility of drilling and tapping for a wooden screw that can press against the finger recess.
profile from molding plane
I did a test run on a short piece of scrap. It is still necessary to use this plane on the pull stroke, but it is also much less painful now with pine holder to help guide it.

12 December 2014

Christmas presentable 2014

It might be a sign of bourgeois comfort that I am able to craft Christmas presents again. I made these lanyards for my father who is probably living in a cabin in the mountains of western Colorado, living out his last years in retirement.
toggle and carabiner
 He told me once that he needed to escape from the big city of Craig. It's hard to relate to such a sentiment since there are more residents in my apartment complex than in the whole of Moffat County.
These lanyards ought to come in handy whenever he decides to do some camping because even cabin living can become confining. The last time I saw him, though, his camping involved a 5th wheel travel trailer and his campsite was somewhere in sunny Arizona.

 There is also the possibility that he might be called up as a paratrooper as these were once employed. I prefer that they might inspire of the grandchildren to be reminded of a very distant uncle of theirs. I don't need to worry that I might undo the surprise of this gift. My father has never turned on a computer. And as little as he writes, he doesn't read any more. Merry Christmas, dad.
same wood, different reaction to linseed oil

20 November 2014

Hacking Stolmen in Jiangsu

Ikea Hack: Stolmen

Ikea makes some good products. Sometimes it's just parts of their products that are good. I seldom assemble Ikea products without modifying them in some manner to suit my tastes and higher construction standards. What I like about the Stolmen system is the adaptability and expandability on account of the brackets. Ikeas also manufactures open shelves and drawer components as part of the Stolmen line.
I wanted to make use of the brackets but I was unimpressed with the upright posts that made up the basis for the whole assembly. They feel flimsy and they are only affixed to the floor by a single adjustable bolt in a manner that is convenient only for homeowners with few construction skills. This flimsiness is only partially overcome by additional struts that can be attached to the posts with bands and also require more holes in a wall, all of which detract from the look and the mechanical design.
The posts are adaptable to various ceiling heights but are still limited to a range between 210-330 cm. Both the posts and their necessary mounting fixtures were clear weak points in this system.

I thought it would be easy enough to find some steel pipes to substitute for the Stolmen uprights but the fact that nobody else had done this before me should have been a clue as to the inherent difficulty. Doing this hack in China only made it take a lot longer, 3 years longer than I had anticipated. I began by measuring the diameters of the Stolmen uprights. Officially Ikea lists the diameter as 2” or 5 cm. In fact, the posts have two outside dimensions. The lower, wider section is 46.5 mm OD; the upper, 39.8 mm OD. Ikea includes two sets of plastic sleeves and metal bands for the wall struts with each bracket to accommodate these different sizes. The plastic sleeves act as a kind of cushion to protect the surfaces from being marred and the increase the grip.  These outside dimensions are not commercial standards, which is Ikea’s corporate way of compelling consumers to buy the uprights if they want to take advantage of the whole system.   
The breakthrough that I discovered came about by trial and error.  Using either set of the plastic gaskets, I found that no commercially available pipe allowed for a secure fit. But when I used two halves from the different gaskets, I found that the brackets did hold securely around 1 ¼” pipe, which has an OD of 42.0 mm. This not surprisingly falls within the dimensions of the upper and lower sections of the Stolmen posts.

1 1/4" metal pipe with metric equivalent in milimeters

The pipe vendor whom I found to cut and thread the pipes only carried galvanized and bare metal piping. Black pipe seems to be unknown in the mainland. I wanted black pipe, but I settled for the galvanized.  And as another indication that the mainland is not DIY friendly, the pipe fitter didn’t sell floor flanges nor did he understand how such an attachment functioned. I had to order the floor flanges through Taobao. The pipe fitter, in spite of being helpful enough to fabricate everything to my specifications while I waited, likely still doesn’t understand what he constructed. The Chinese word for flange is: fa3lan2, which is clearly a borrowing. According to the Taobao merchant, such fittings are only sold abroad because Chinese don’t know about them. Another great example of circular marketing analysis.
Manufactured yet still a mystery in the PRC
Here are some images that are a result of this long, involved hack:
The two halves of the different bracket gaskets at work

Floor flange solidly mounted on a wall

The possibilities are quite boundless
I found that attaching the clothes rod helped to steady the assembly as I first lowered it onto the concrete anchors in the floor and then eased it to engage with the anchors in the wall.

As a bonus, I can suggest one more hack for the Stolmen system. I find that the clothes rail brackets tend to get loose so I add a rubber washer on the screw that attaches it to the threaded hole of the horizontal pipe. This gives something for the screw to push against instead of bottoming out with metal on metal contact. It’s similar to the way in which the plastic gaskets insure a tight fit for the brackets on the posts. The rubber washers also help to protect the surface finish. There is some variation so that two washers might be called for to get the desired result.

I discovered this hack earlier when I first installed a Grundtal shelving system and was unhappy with the fit of the posts.

Please let me know whether this is helpful. I’ve included the links in case any mainland readers want to tackle this project on their own.

30 January 2014

Iron forgery

The scraping bench

In an attempt to find a source for handwrought nails, I was taken in tow to a place east of Nanjing. My driver, Lao Gao, asked a local woman on the shoulder of the road where the tiejiangpu was. She replied: "There are many blacksmith shops in this village." I felt that we might have struck gold fastenerwise. This initial elation would prove to be unfounded.
The first workshop was squeezed between the road and a cesspool. As we entered, the smith was working on a cleaver, pushing a two-handled scraper downwards to refine the knife edge. There was a stack of smitten knives on the floor awaiting this treatment.

A typical Chinese anvil?

It was the anvil that caught my eye because although very identifiable by its function and position next to the forge, its shape was so different from what I had ever seen. It is symmetrical with two flat topped horns and a round lump in the middle.  There were the usual selection of tongs but only one hammer with two flat sides. Rather than using a ball or cross peen hammer to draw the iron ingot to form metal, this workman, the one example whom I've come across, uses the hump and a flat faced hammer.
Working triphammer

There is no need to romanticize this man's work. He burns coal directly on his forge, uncoked. The sulfurous, acrid smoke as a result of this hung in the air. His products and services amounted to very crudely fashioned cutlery and farming implements, one that was present in number was a kind of straight spade/hoe that lacked a footing edge. The lighting was so poor; otherwise, I would have taken a photo. This closest representation that I can find online is here. These are definitely not used as advertised. I can assert that the online seller is merely renaming the tool in order to attract international customers.

The homemade triphammer seemed to be in working order and also appeared to do much of the drawing and shaping. It displayed a combination of repurposing and blacksmithing know-how.
The tallyboard explains in detail the products being made here. From left to right along the top, he lists 110 in stock material, then big white knife and small white knife (I cannot find any clear meanings for this), and lastly hoes. On the second rank are listed sickle, (unclear), cleaver, repair hoe. On the bottom rank are handle, big scissor, small scissor, and repair plow.

As we slowly learned, He didn't regularly make any nails but instead directed us to another smith who did, maybe. At that smithy, we learned that the smith who did make nails was in poor health. Lao Gao took down the man's telephone number that was painted on the exterior wall and we headed back emptyhanded without even seeing an example of handforged nails. 

30 November 2013

Old People Seen but not Heard in Nanjing

Many Chinese cities now allow riders of mass transit to use various rechargeable methods for paying bus, taxi, and subway fares. Riders boarding don't need to fish for small change from the  bottoms of their pockets. They can simply swipe a card across an electronic sensor, which causes the system to emit a loud beep. Students receiving subsidized fares when swiping their cards generate a different response: "xue sheng piao", which is the equivalent of student ticket or student fare. And up until recently riders of a certain age and above generated the response: "lao ren ka" elderly card, or perhaps, senior citizen card.
These were the three responses. Well, there is a response that means, more or less, "please try again" but I don't remember how it sounds. No more than two weeks ago, I started hearing a new response: "nin hao", which is the formal expression for hello used, if at all, by young people to address somebody senior or of higher rank. It sounds like "ning hao" to me, but that's another matter. It took me a few bumpy bus rides with my mind routinely wandering to realize that this new expression had replaced the previously standard "lao ren ka".
I don't know what to make of this development and I've heard nobody comment on it. My first impulse is to suspect that a cohort of the more mature members of society did not enjoy being regularly reminded of their dates of birth relative to the other riders. I know none of them ever complain about the free fares. Is it possible that ageism has become a sensitive topic in the PRC? Is being 'lao' no longer the same as being revered? I don't know what to make of this, but I wish they would stop calling me lao wai and pointing whenever I get on the same bus. A simple ni hao would be readily appreciated.

11 September 2013

If a podcast falls in the woods,

Occasionally I just stumble across websites that provide me insight into what happens across China. I came across these particular podcasts by such a fortuitous happenstance. I could say that I hadn't heard of The Economic Observer English edition because it's based in Beijing but I think it's more likely the case that its leadership doesn't necessarily know how to reach or identify potential readers outside their main focus, mainland Chinese. Putting aside the state controlled media and their agenda, are independent Chinese media able to identify demographics that are interested in English language podcasts about topics from the mainland or are they indifferent to such markets? To fill out the void, there are expats who generate media content for those in China and for foreign consumption. The contrast with the degree of infiltration of these different media can be both a mystery and explained in part. The Economic Observer presents contrasting aspects: the format, the tone, and the standards of journalism that are exemplified in these podcasts to indicate that often the English language outreach little more than a kind of vanity project for a Chinese media outlet.

One way of dividing podcasts up is between those that supply transcripts and those that don't. One cannot fault websites maintained by amateurs or those with small budgets, who are unable to support the cost and bandwidth required to host transcripts. Larger news organizations, those with sufficient budgets and especially those that want to influence debates, typically provide transcripts in a timely manner, sometimes for a nominal fee, as an aid for helping to understand what has been spoken, officially. Transcripts accrue two benefits principally. For one, they make writing 'blogposts much faster since it is easier to source quotes in a text than from an audio recording. The news outlet thereby becomes a source of citations for subsequent news stories, tweeters, or bloggers. A less understood benefit of transcripts is that it enables secondary speakers of English to more readily follow the dialogue. Yes, it's an example of softpower but it's also good marketing and a means of finding more diverse audiences.
It's not then very simple to understand the situation at The Economic Observer. The decision by the editors to host podcasts in English hints at their interest in expanding to a market beyond mainland Chinese readers. At the same time, they are missing out on reaching those Chinese whose command of English might be too weak to follow the interviews yet interested in the content.  The potential audience for an online publication is by definition narrow; for a publication that focusses on economics, narrower. Not including transcripts keeps the audience smaller than necessary, which can be seen as intentional for as yet unclear reasons, or unintentional indicating a degree of immaturity in the Chinese media industry.

The podcast topics seem to all be chosen according to questions posed by visitors to the website, all of whom sound to be expats. The guests whom he invites are all able to speak at length on their specialty. I've known about the podcast host, Eric Fish, for some time now through his weblog, Sinostand.  His taking a position at The Economic Observer helps to explain the lower frequency of postings at Sinostand.  His writing in that forum parallels the high standards he sets for himself on these podcasts. His questions are well prepared and pointed. And yet, he doesn't much offer followups to challenge the nonsense that some of his guests express, certainly not to the same degree as he was accustomed to do on his own weblog. Two episodes highlight this.

In an episode on the increase of and the controversies surrounding undergraduate Chinese students using for-profit agencies to gain admission into foreign schools, he interviewed two entrepreneurs who work at Vericant. Many of Fish's questions focussed on issues having to due with higher education. During the interview, however, the two guests gradually made it clear that they were more interested in speaking about the evolution of their company to one that assists Chinese students get into private highs schools in the USA. Theirs is still a young enterprise and the earlier ambitions have been downgraded due to the impossibility of providing actual verification services in the PRC. Fish continued the interview and brought up many of the unethical methods employed in this new educational industry. I was interested in this episode, in particular, since I find myself in this line of work recently. Yet while the two consultants spoke in generalities about how they distinguished themselves from other consultants and placement agencies that engage in questionable, or outright fraudulent, practices, they mostly offered apologies and bizarre analogies to justify such actions committed by Chinese citizens.
Fish first asked about the need for independent verification of documents in China, essentially cutting to the chase as to why Chinese applicants need to pay for an additional services that students in other countries generally don't. Their answers ducked his accusation and instead they mentioned that it's only natural that verification services are necessary because China has so many students who want to study abroad. The fact that reliability and volume are two unrelated factors did not affect their responses in any way. It was still unclear whether his guests were intentionally obfuscating or innocently betraying their own ethnic sensibilities, which, for Han Chinese, is a tendency to downplay all their own shortcomings and to find fault in externalities. I don't mean to imply that this is exclusively a fault among the Han Chinese but it is a very strongly identifiable trait.
Fish then asked:

I’ve heard that this is an issue at schools… even they change the student’s transcript for whatever reason. Uh, …the school itself falsifies it. Have you heard of this?

His guests, Nicki and Kelly, responded collectively:

Uh, I have friends who are going to, uh, on the college level, who are going to study, …applying, to uhm, to US schools and other countries… and uhm, the school doesn’t… from , from …them have, the school doesn’t really change the score… they decide not show the lower scores so to make the whole GPA or the average score higher… so make the, make the, make the…the students look better on the transcript, transcription.

I have no idea why it was relevant to bring up the guest's friends and their personal plans to study abroad. It might have been an attempt at distancing or to bury the answer in a rambling response. But her answer when it is transcribed and her many pauses and missteps can be analyzed concisely: Chinese schools don't change academic transcripts, but they make the average score look better by eliminating the lower scores. Changing, but not changing because it's only done to make the students look better on their transcripts. Mutatis mutandis!
And to follow up on this sophistry, the Nicki and Kelly team justifed this behavior because it's not what is important to Chinese education.

Fish: So what do they have to gain by doing this? Do they just want to see their students go… [abroad].

Nicki &Kelly: Well, it’s a reputation thing. They can tell people that their students went and got into really popular, very famous universities in the US. But also I think it comes back a little bit to the gaokao, which we were talking about earlier, which is…because they don’t… because they put all their value in the gaokao and they don’t value those transcripts. To them making changes or showing the data in a slightly different way isn’t really a bad thing because they don’t weight it as heavily.

Reputation for altering educational documents is done to enhance the prestige of the Chinese schools. If it reduces the reputation of Chinese education internationally, then it can be seen as  a difference of values. And she pointed out that the schools just 'show[ing] the data in a slightly different way' because, well, because they are Chinese. Fish didn't push back on these blatant logical fallacies, but he instead moved forward with his questioning. Was he remaining an independent moderator or just giving them more rope to hang themselves?

Fish: hmmm. So let’s talk about that, about Chinese students going through the application process to foreign schools. What do they struggle with in this process?

For a moment I want to give the most instructive answer to this topic. The main problem is that just about all Chinese students think they are destined to attend the top schools of the world. Whenever I ask a Chinese student who intends to study abroad which school he wants to go, the answers are inevitably the same: MIT, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or even the California Institute of Technology, better know to NonChinese as Caltech. The Han Chinese apply the same criteria to international schools as they do to Chinese universities, for which prestige and name recognition are the only factors under consideration. Academic achievements, research facilities, all the qualities that western institutions strive for are the ones that Chinese 'don't weight so heavily'.
The two guests answered, blandly and without any insight:
I think the first thing is definitely the differences between the two education systems. 

Yeah, the struggle between Chinese education and nonChinese education is caused because of the differences. That the differences are also the reasons why Chinese students might seek education outside of China are simply regarded as different, not better. The most common reason given as to why Chinese students, their parents, are willing to spend so much money for a diploma is due to competition, which is merely code for the corruption in Chinese society generally and Chinese education specifically.  They continued:
Like, for Chinese students they, uhm, … it’s hard for us to know what requirements the schools have, um, um, to international applicants. Like, we think if we are… we get good scores. We, if we have a lot of, you know, activity, uh, activities written on the resume, the personal statements, it will make us good, the school will definitely accept us, but that’s not the case actually. ‘Cause a lot of schools are looking at your personality, your, um, soft skills, like creativity, communication skills, English definitely is the most important thing.  You know, also like the information the parents can get from China about the schools is quite limited. And, uh, I think that’s why a lot of families are, you know, uhm, turning to agents or consultants for help because they’re familiar with the whole application process ‘cause they’ve done that for many times. And they know the schools real well that they work with, and it’s easier for them to get the information about the schools, ‘cause not many schools have their website in Chinese, right?
The Han Chinese often switch to the pronoun, we, without being aware that its usage in English can so markedly change their message. So even as this guest was being asked a question on the basis of her being an authority, she casually assumed the perspective of all the helpless Han Chinese who would hire her company to get their children into schools abroad. It is disconcerting because she created an us vs. them dynamic, unwittingly reducing her own agency, which is not really the best way to promote her business expertise, but it's such a deeply engrained habit among the Han Chinese that she cannot even escape it even when speaking a second language.
Furthermore, why would an education consultant have proclaimed: "it's hard for us to know what requirements the schools have to international applicants." She, of course, meant: 'for Chinese parents to know', but she cannot disassociate herself from her Han Chinese identity. I am certain that Fish has encountered this before on many occasions, which might explain why he didn't point out this contradictory affectation to her and let her nonsense about how hard it is to know what foreign schools want from students slide by. Today university websites all have webpages that are very explicit as to what they want from applicants of every kind. It has never been easier to know what schools want on student applications. It's not a mystery, but it is vastly different from how Chinese institutions function where guanxi is more important than any other qualifications. But again, it's not polite to be so honest amongst Han Chinese so instead she talked about the barriers like communication skills, creativity, and English language skills.

As if to make the situation clearer for foreigners who cannot understand the challenges for the average Han Chinese who is trying to get his child into a western school, the other guest offered an analogy:

Eric, imagine you are just living in middle of suburbia in the US and you want to send your child to China to study for middle school, or for university and there are 400 schools that you’ve never heard.  All their websites are in Chinese. The application process is very Chinese. How are you going to help your student, your child, navigate this system? It’s actually quite daunting.
It's actually hard to respond to such an imaginary situation, but even if it were an option, the answer would be to ask advice from those parents who have gone through the same process, as if any existed, or to hire a consultant, again, if any existed to manage the nonexistent numbers of parents from abroad who want to get their children into Chinese high schools. But this aspect of the application process isn't even relevant to the controversies that Fish is trying to address in this interview: the pervasive use of fraud committed by Chinese on school applications to foreign schools. The analogy not only evades this topic, it shows just how clueless the guest speaker is with regards to how nonHan Chinese regard these matters. In trying to elicit sympathy, she instead revealed herself to be disconnected with even acknowledging the issues at hand.
Fish didn't push back at this stage of the interview either so he tried another tact. Acknowledging the valid need for consultants to help students in the application process, he tried to raise the issue of reliability of applications from Chinese students.

It’s uh… It is natural that an agent market would come from this, but there has been controversy, especially in the US, uh,  “Should we use them? Should we work with them? … To what extent should we rely on them?” What do you think the role of an agent should be in this process?
Their response started off well:
I think there are education consultants in the US and they are highly respected and I think similarly in China we would think that the role of an education consultant is to act a little but like a high school counselor would be, to give you information about the schools to help you really think through what it is that you want to do, to help you find a place that is really going to fit, your personality, where you think that this child is really going to blossom and grow.  I think where we would probably say what we don’t think the role of an educational consultant is to repackage the student into something they’re not, to fake any sort of documentation in order just to get the student into a school so that they receive a commission in return for that.
Yet this rational approach to thinking of educational consultants was short. Immediately thereafter the apologies continued on.
From my personal , uhm, opinion, I think they do this because, it’s not all the students’ fault,  it’s not all, …all the agents’, the consultants’ fault because the schools are asking for something that we don’t have in China like teachers’ recommendations. None of my teachers would write a recommendation for me and the scripts we… we the transcripts, we don’t think… you know, except the gaokao score, other scores there, you know, are not important. I don’t care about those. And also a lot of the essays, you know, writing of the written language, we don’t need to write anything to apply to a high school or to apply to a college so this is something that we don’t have in our education system and we don’t know what to do about this if the school is asking for those… Right, so personally our process as we’re working with these partner schools and the aim, we do what we do, which is video interviews, but the second thing we’d like to do is really start a dialogue of us and those cultural differences so that we create a better understanding. So when the admissions officers are visiting here, they are sensitive to those differences and the way people react and the reason why people do things is not that the Chinese want to fake teacher recommendations ‘cause they are inherently bad and they believe that faking things is the right thing to do. It’s more that they’ve been set up between some pebble and a hard place. There’s nothing they can do about it if the Chinese teachers aren’t going to give them a recommendation, but they need the recommendation to apply so they have to come up with one…. Also competition is another factor. You know, if everybody else is packaging themselves to be a perfect student, almost if you don’t do it, you’re worried you’re going to be left behind. 
It's quite possible that Fish couldn't follow what the young woman was saying with all her uhms and false starts. But the overall message is clear: It is the fault of foreign institutions that they ask for documents that Chinese have little compunction about falsifying and because of competition. To her credit she is clear about decoding what she means by competition. The Chinese must cheat on the applications because they know that other Chinese cheat on their applications. And it's the responsibility of the the admissions standards of foreign schools to be sensitive to these cultural differences because the Chinese are practically forced to cheat, not because they are bad, but because they are in competition with so many other Chinese!
It is, equally, possible that Fish was so flabbergasted by what he was hearing that he could not retort in both a thoughtful and a timely manner. These podcasts fall within a predetermined length of time and so Fish might also have been compelled to work within his schedule and follow his scripted questions. He did in the end get both guests to admit that Chinese parents do not, generally, want their children to study in a school that accepts too many Chinese students, which one guest refers to as 'too many international students' as though, it seems, only Chinese try to get into US schools. Doing too much to recruit Chinese makes the schools "too excitable or eager" which is bad, but this can be redeemed if the schools provide an environment with the necessary ESL programs, tutors on staff, and programs to compel interaction between the Chinese and US citizens, just the kind of controlling scholastic environment that the Han Chinese are familiar with and, in some cases, trying to escape. Finally Fish in one last attempt to get his guests to speak directly to the controversies asked:
Has anybody tried to bribe you, or send in a standin, or anything like that?
And in the end, he finally got one of his guests to confess to one instance in which a mother attempted to pay an additional 500 yuan in order that her son receive a few more minutes of time to express himself during a recorded interview. The graft was returned and the episode ends with giggling about the incident.

Another interview allowed Fish to reveal more of his hardheaded style with regards to the nonsense that is so often collectively agreed upon by the mainland Han Chinese. He only pushed back hard with one question, but his skepticism towards his guest was clear if muted.
Professor Daniel Bell must have, at some time in his career, felt that he was destined for greatness. His biography showed a steady, promising rise in academia so it must be quite discomforting for him to end up as token barbarian faculty member at Tsinghua University (Qinghua daxue). In spite of the dream of nearly every mainland Chinese parent that his child study hard and be admitted into Qinghua, it is still a steep downward slide from Oxford where Bell earned his graduate degrees.  Professor Bell's notoriety has a track record that predates his interview by Fish. I don't have an inclination to go into details about his theory of meritocracy, but it is concisely reviewed and heaped with scorn in this article from November, 2012. In it Bell uses the standard victimization tact that plays better to the members of China's ruling class like, for instance, Song Bing, presently employed as a senior executive at Goldman Sachs, who just happens to be his wife, than to his academic colleagues outside the middle kingdom.
“Any time you say something mildly positive about the Chinese government, there tends to be extreme hostility among some people...
When one chooses to be a lapdog, it's important to develop thick skin. Prof. Bell seemed to struggle with this necessity even as he struggled to explain political theories and rationalizations that he has signed onto as coauthor. Professor Bell also spent much of the interview, acting as apologist, distancing himself from writings that he has signed his name to. To his credit Professor Bell did concede that hereditary succession does have some drawbacks if one's goal is to create a functioning political system. The fact that it has been overthrown consistently throughout the last century doesn't mean, however, that if given enough time to play out in the future, it might somehow become beneficial again. And even as he stated so clearly that the present day state of affairs is rife with corruption and dysfunction, the PRC is not an authoritarian regime because he sees it as a meritocracy, but according to his magical thinking, a true meritocracy takes a long time to establish so it will only become evidently successful in the future. I think that's what he was saying. I didn't have enough patience or stamina to listen repeatedly to such meandering and selfserving banter. I had a flashback of listening to a cocksure fraternity pledge explain during a discussion in section how happy Italian peasants must have been when they could look at a castle being built on a distant hilltop and be proud that they helped to make it all possible.
It was really almost by accident that Fish pushed Prof. Bell into exposing just how much of the CCP koolaid he regularly imbibes.
Eric Fish: The idea of establishing a monarch, though, like with Thailand and England. There’s been a monarch there for so long that, just kinda seem like a remnant of the past. It’s hard to shake off now; whereas, you’re suggesting now that they establish a monarch. Would the Chinese people really go for that? Would they accept all the descendants of Confucius. I think, to be honest, Chinese people are smarter than that. Why would they accept this?
 Daniel Bell: Look, I mean. [inaudible] …It’s not a question of being smart or not smart enough. Uh, it’s true that there is a 100 year break, you know, which might not be that long in the span of Chinese history, uhm, but it’s also true that, you know, even in imperial China there were long breaks between, uh, between dynasties, sometimes when there wasn’t a clear, uh, transition so it won’t be the first time that some sort of  imperial regime, which, in this case,  would be a symbolic one or one that doesn’t exercise real power. Uh. It would be reestablished. I mean, to be frank, you know, I think it’s a good idea, in theory, to have a symbolic monarch, like those people in the politburo. Why would they have to waste so much time, meeting heads of foreign states and shaking hands? They should be exercising real political power. It would be good to have a symbolic monarch. And maybe it seems improbable in the near future that there, that it could be a serious possibility, uhm, but I think, you know, let’s have it out there an option for the future. I don’t think…I think if people are smart, they would realize it’s a good idea, not a bad idea.
So according to Professor Bell, it's not an example of exercising real political power when foreign heads of state meet with Chinese heads of state. I'm no post-doc with tenure, yet I don't think Xi Jinping wants to have to accept meeting with any other nations' symbolic leaders regardless of their mythical pedigree. He like all other leaders since the beginning of history prefers to meet with the real leaders. So Prof. Bell is an idiot on this point. I do, nonetheless, wonder what real political power, Prof. Bell thinks, is more important in 'some sort of imperial regime." Was that phrasing a lapsus linguae or Professor Bell's true definition of the CCP as a continuation of previous Chinese imperial dynasties. He did mention in the book he has coauthored, that Jiang Qing claims that historical precedent is a basis for legitimate rule in a theoretical Confucian style constitution. (Yes, this actually is considered thoughtful, academic debate within the halls or at the banquet tables of Chinese intelligentsia.)
As can be more easily seen in the transcript, for which I assume all faults to be mine, and not the fault of the Economic Observer for compelling me to transcribe it, Professor Bell has become fully sinicized in his scholastic manners in how he, just as above conerning the matter of changing academic transcripts, can twist words around to mean something different at the end of a thought from what they meant at the beginning. It, therefore, doesn't matter whether people are smart or not, but they are smart if they agree with Professor Bell.
Criticisms of specific podcasts aside, what The Economic Observer does with them is the main thrust of this essay. From what I have gathered, there is no link on the Chinese language webpage, directing readers to the English language podcasts. The webpage for the Chinese podcasts is segregated from the English language counterparts. It's necessary to stumble across them as I have done alternatively for both Chinese and English media consumers. The reasons for this remain only speculative.
The number of posted multimedia items i English is much smaller so the implementation might not be finalized. Very few of the items, nevertheless, might be considered exclusively directed at an expat readership; nearly all have crossover appeal. I cannot evaluate the Economic Observer's relative status within the mainland's media landscape. Does its prestige rise to the level of The Economist or parallel closer to the irrelevance of US News & World Reports? Certainly the writing samples by Chinese writers and translated into English don't indicate the former.
Is it possible that the Chinese editors don't yet recognize what attention grabbing scoops Fish is generating for them? Do they not imagine that a headline like: "Tsinghua Professor Supports Restoration of Chinese Monarchy" or "Chinese Plagiarism: All Fault of Foreigners" might earn them an increase in web traffic?
Or rather is it possible that the senior editors don't even bother to know what is being done on the English language side of their own publication? This is what I mean that the English language section is just a vanity project, meant to lend cachet in the perception of the Chinese readership. This partially explains why they don't bother with transcripts on the English side. They want their Chinese readers to be aware that there is an English language version of their publication, but they don't at all want to direct traffic there. I cannot verify how good the transcripts are on the Chinese side but the accompanying writeups with the podcasts are quite long so it's clear that the editors recognize the value of transcripts for their Chinese listeners.
Then again, better coiffed heads have rolled for bringing smaller controversies in China to the public's attention. The editors might be biding their time by establishing precedents on the sly. The strategy employed here is to develop a history of challenges to authority which get ignored until it finally comes out. In such a situation, the ruling elites find that they can save face by retroactively unmaking something a punishable offense only after it has become clear that punishment can cause more public disorder by attempting to reign back the established behavior.  It is still the case, from what can be best understood, that simply having an increase in traffic is enough to alert the managers of the Great Firewall to block a website originating from outside China. A website with foreign language content inside China might trigger the same alerts.

It's not clear to me that this situation bothers Fish, which, a bit oddly, is a good sign. In my own career, I have been very happy when my bosses paid little attention to me and simply allowed me to do my work as I saw fit. The topics that Fish covers are relevant and he doesn't tiptoe around controversies even when his guests try to. The best indication of this comes from postings on his Twitter account. Nowadays it might be that savvy journalists only express their strongest feelings on a more personal forum of social media. And so whatever the editors at The Economic Observer have in mind, it's manifest that Fish is making the most of the circumstances for the moment.

Unfortunately, I was onto something here: "Announcement: Economic Observer's English Site to Halt Operations"

02 July 2013

Simple Proposal for Reenhancing Biodiversity

Antlered Heritage
The Pere David's Deer, or mi2lu4, 鹿, owes its existence to imperial vanity and foreign usurpation.  While it is hard to verify biological diversity from centuries ago, by the time it was identified and described by Father David, the only herd was maintained for the Qing emperor's pleasure in the Nanyuang Royal Hunting Garden near Beijing. By 1900 perhaps symbolic of the Qing dynasty own loss of control of the country, the Milu was extinct in China due to the chaos from the Boxer rebellion and a very hungry peasant population. Depending one's political leanings, the last specimens were saved or stolen by European forces while they occupied the Qing capital, Beijing.  The remaining 18 specimens eventually found themselves at Woburn Abbey where they were tended to and bred under private stewardship. The species was reintroduced first in China in 1985 at the sight of the former hunting park. Today the milu are found in four separate locations in China, the largest being the Dafeng Milu National Nature Reserve where these photos were taken.
The survival of the milu can be explained through a combination of luck, altruism, and status seeking. The interest in animals with large horns that makes them desirable as hunting trophies and living lawn ornaments also generates a similar interest in protecting it for the sake of biodiversity, which is itself a very recent phenomenon in human civilization and in many ways represents a more advanced way of considering the responsibilities that we as the dominant have with regards to other species. At the same time, sadly, that the Chinese government was expending resources to reintroduce the milu, other less photogenic species and those that did not fit into a clear agenda were allowed to become extinct.
A bridled doe on display at Dafeng National Nature Reserve
The successful reintroduction of the milu to its native habitat is a credit to human endeavor even as it also speaks to the fickleness as to what we choose to focus our energies on. The milu can be regarded by some as an example of biodiversity even if the motives of the Chinese government are primarily nationalistic. (Beijing with its water scarcity is no longer, if it ever was, a suitable milu habitat.) For the sake of the milu, they all conveniently overlapped. Animal species need more than nationalist agendas to insure their survival and while historically China's poor environmental record has led to loss of biodiversity and habitat, its recent economic development has further placed pressures on other habitats and species outside its borders.
One can, on the other hand, argue that it is wealthy countries with an urban middle class that places increasing emphasis on abstractions like wildlife and ecology. It requires surplus wealth to set aside otherwise profitable agricultural and resource rich lands to maintain species habitat, and certainly more to recover and reintroduce lost or endangered species. Various estimates place the cost of releasing a North American Whooping Crane into the wild at about $12,000 per bird per year. 
I've not been able to find much about the Rhinoceroi that lived over regions of what is today's China. The Chinese obsession with Rhino horn and hides started with native species and only turned to Africa as a substitute source when the local population dwindled and eventually became extinct, holding out in Sichuan until the 17th century by one account. There are also indications that they were also featured in royal menageries. Scholars believe that the Rhinoceroi of China were similar to both the Sumatran and Javan species although I have not come across any DNA evidence to verify this. 
As cute as a baby panda?
It therefore is possible to suggest that China might once again be a host country for other species that are teetering on the edge of extinction. I was partially influenced in imaging this plan because of the recent efforts between China and Russian to cooperate in expanding the contiguous range of the Amur Tiger. Both nations hold the tiger in high esteem and the interest in protecting the tiger in nature coincides with another campaign in China to avoid serving shark's fin at formal banquets. It is primarily an enlightened middle class that are bringing these issues to the fore. (Well, after first eating a lot of shark's fin soup when they first started earning enough money to splurge on the tasteless delicacy after the 1980s.) The success of the Milu breeding program, I hope, can be a springboard from which to protect species that exist with China's borders and those that can also be better protected from abroad but with China's large expanse of territory, its new wealth, and new need to express its political maturity. This might be a soft power coup if the CCP chooses to make it one.  It is as simple as offering to sponsor another nation's Rhinoceros conservation efforts and then setting aside land as a reserve for it inside China, perhaps even coexisting with the milu areas. There are some wildlife activists in China who struggle with the bureaucratic challenges to counter habitat losses. They might consider the reintroduction of Rhinoceros as a means of waking up the Chinese population to what it has lost and how species diversity can enhance the national character and international prestige.  
It slipped my mind while writing that there has been an ongoing attempt coordinated between Vietnam and the mainland to save a nearly extinct soft shell turtle, Rafetus swinhoei. Several years have passed since the initial efforts were initiated and yet still no viable eggs have been produced. Successful or not, this example might also serve as a model for the rhinoceroi.