At the behest of Russam GMS, a specialist in interim executive appointments, I wrote the following blog post about blockchain in the social enterprise. Have a look…
At the behest of Russam GMS, a specialist in interim executive appointments, I wrote the following blog post about blockchain in the social enterprise. Have a look…
I remember when Wired magazine first came out in 1993. It was the same year I first installed a web browser on my computer. I was a Valley rat in those days, job-hopping every two years or so, quite caught up in the surreal suspended reality of the dot.com boom. And Wired was the perfect oracle for the time.
It was was entirely a hard copy magazine at first, and there was a glorious audacity to it. From the very beginning it published in a perfect-bound form factor, instead of the single signature stapled through the center that is a far more common, and fiscally prudent — with a stapled-signature format each issue could be as few or as many pages as the combination of content and ads for that issue warranted, but perfect-bound publications need a minimum number of pages to be technically feasible. So there was a delicious arrogance in going perfect-bound from their first issue — a proclamation of confidence that even without any initial brand recognition, they had zero worries about selling enough ad space to warrant their investment.
That arrogance was well warranted. Their journalism made for deeply enjoyable reading, and nowhere more so than their feature articles. They were a good 50% longer than conventional wisdom says a feature article has any right being. And more than anything else, the staff at Wired had the knack for turning a string of facts into a truly compelling narrative. Their news items were stories in the true sense of the word; every issue was a new delight.
The dot.com bubble did not last of course, and when it burst, the fortunes of Wired largely paralleled its rise and fall. Wired managed to survive and evolve; I still subscribe, though now this takes the form of having their RSS feed on my iPhone’s news reader. What comes across the feed is quite different from the Wired of the 90’s; they now compete with the likes of Engadget and Gizmodo as purveyors of the new and the cool, dispensing meme-sized factoids on technology, science, and nerd culture. Even in this form they tend to do well; I find their content to be consistently more well curated than that of their competitors. Nevertheless, in terms of enjoyment it can’t compare to the Wired of their hardcopy heyday.
Perhaps this says more about me than it does about Wired. I could just be suffering from the kind of nostalgia that seems to be an inevitable by-product of growing old. Living and working in Silicon Valley in the midst of the dot.com bubble is certainly a suitable target for such nostalgia, though in truth I am far happier now both personally and professionally. Perhaps it was the visceral feel of leafing through the magazine, a sensation that reading things on a screen will never replicate, or perhaps it was that waiting for each month’s issue generated a sense of anticipation that doesn’t track well to the 24/7 stream of content we have come to accept as the norm now.
That being said, the Wired of old has not completely died, and that is the occasion for what is only my second blog post this year. Every now and then, a feature article like the ones that were their standard fare in the 90’s catches my attention. I remember the article on the Long Tail, where the term was first coined, back in 2004. And their article on Stuxnet was another compelling narrative in their inimitable style. In fairness to Wired, they probably still do a lot more of this kind of writing than I am aware of — they still do publish a print issue, and I am sure it creates a different impression than the one I experience on their RSS feed. Nevertheless, this morning around 3:00am, in a fit of insomnia-fueled news reading at my African home-away-from home at the Intercontinental Nairobi, I came across a magnificent example of Wired at its best: a tale of the rise and fall of the Silk Road Marketplace.
Silk Road was a deep-web site available only via the TOR browser, Silk Road operated as an open and unabashed Amazon-like black market, primarily for drugs and guns. I first became aware of them in mid-2011 through an article in Gawker. I even set up my own TOR browser so I could visit the site myself and see if it was as blatantly in-your-face about drug dealing and gun running as Gawker claimed; if anything it was worse. All payments on Silk Road were made via bitcoin, which has been another fascination of mine; from mid 2011 to the site’s inevitable downfall in 2013, the story of of Silk Road was one I followed closely. Yet knowing most of the facts of the story in advance did not detract one iota from my enjoyment of the article; the writing was that good. My hat is off to Joshua Bearman and Tomer Hamuka for crafting a truly compelling story. Reading it was pure delight, and their prose is something I am unabashedly envious of. Anyway, here it is. Enjoy!
There are many gaming blogs out there. Some are interesting, some are informative, a very few are both, and many are neither.
My friend Nadine has started one with an interesting twist. Nadine is a talented writer and recent computer science graduate who has decided to enter the world of game development by building her own Flash and/or iOS games. And she has decided to share with us her journey from neophyte to master of the universe. This blog is not about specific games, neither is it a gaming business blog. Instead, it is a personal narrative about coming to grips with what it means to be a successful part of the gaming industry.
Check it out at:
So, today was an adventure. There were large political protests here in Nairobi, centered in a park across the street from the hotel where I live. Last week and two weeks ago about 80 people in two coastal villages were killed by armed gangs. Most people attribute this to El Shabab, the Islamic terrorist group responsible for the Westgate Mall attack last year, and many atrocities since then. And by most people, I include both the families of the villagers who were killed and El Shabab itself, who has claimed responsibility. But then the government, who has been embarrassed by their inability to do anything to stop these attacks, tried to claim that the Somalia-based El Shabab was not responsible, an instead pinned the blame on local Kenyan opposition parties trying to force the current ruling party from power.
This egregious claim is what triggered the protest. On the whole, President Kenyatta has been reasonably popular, but the patent absurdity of the government’s official interpretation has pissed a lot of people off, and the main aim of the protest was to let the country’s leadership know that people didn’t believe their story.
Both my office and my client are in very secure sites, but I was not comfortable driving past the site of this protest to get to or from there. So, acting on the advice that I just posted in this blog, I decided to be respectful and work from my room today. As result, I had the opportunity to observe this protest for most of the day.
I am not very good at counting large numbers of people, but I would estimate there were about 5,000 people gathered in the park across the street. The protest was noisy — many vuvuzelas were put to good use today — and I had a chance to observe a lot of it from my hotel room. It remained peaceful throughout the day; the police seemed wary but respectful.
But then, around 18:00 local time a large number of people started walking towards the Supreme Court building, and gunshots rang out. I counted a total of eight shots; they sounded like they came from a pistol rather than an automatic weapon. These shots were not followed by any screaming, panic, or other excitement. Just the contrary, everyone seemed to calm down and disperse, the police as well as the protesters. My surmise was that the police had fired shots into the air as a way of telling the crowd to disperse.
My hotel went immediately into lockdown; I continue to be impressed by the efficiency and professionalism of their security team. The hotel’s security manager phoned me and confirmed my interpretation that the gunshots were fired into the air to disperse the crowd, but said they did not want to take any chances. About an hour later, the crowd had fully dispersed, the police were gone, and the lockdown was lifted.
What was interesting to me about today was how smoothly it all came off. Everyone I observed or spoke with throughout the day: protesters, police, hotel staff, IBM colleagues, and clients, handled what could have been a very difficult day with grace and professionalism. All it would have taken is a single stupid act from just one person on any side of the confrontation, and things could have gotten very ugly very quickly. But nobody did anything stupid. Everyone behaved, and nobody got hurt. Score one for humanity today. I wish I could say that more often.
My good friend Cate Meehan, who serves as the faculty director for early childhood at Canterbury Christ Church University is in Ireland this week, attending the annual conference of the World Organization for Early Childhood Education, or OMEP as it is known by its French acronym. I always look forward to it when Cate attends a conference. She is very good at picking which conferences and which sessions to attend. Invariably, she garners exposure to a treasure trove of ideas both new and old, and she excels at evaluating these ideas critically and integrating the ones that pass muster into her ongoing work.
Today though, she forwarded to me a link to a very specific idea, or more accurately, to an organization that is dedicated to the pursuit of this idea. Cate knows me very well, and I’m assuming she sent me this link because she knew how I would react. The idea is unequivocally noble, and I have no doubt that the people who founded the organization did so with the best and purest of intentions. But it is precisely those good intentions that make the idea so terrifying, and I’d like to share it with you.
The mission of the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity is to accelerate, strengthen and catalyze efforts around endangered language documentation, to support communities engaged in protecting and revitalizing their languages, and to raise awareness about ways to address threats to endangered languages.
So why do I find this mission so terrifying? Isn’t diversity a good thing?
Diversity is undoubtedly a good thing. And while I don’t have a stack of peer-reviewed evidence at hand, my sense is that most competent scientists and business people have rich first-hand experience on the immense value diversity brings to any team-delivered endeavor. Amongst many other benefits, diversity is one of the single most effective mitigants to the risk of groupthink. And since language is surely one of the richest repositories of cultural intelligence that we humans possess, it would stand to reason that letting a language die carries an immense societal cost that we all have to pay. So what’s the problem?
The problem, in a word, is poverty. Have a look at the map that the Endangered Languages Project maintains. It is very well executed, and clearly communicates on one well-designed page the plight of many of these threatened tongues. But look closely at how these threatened languages are distributed. Without exception, the densest clusters of endangered languages are found amongst the poorest areas of the globe. People in these regions live in such dire poverty that even those of us who work in the developing world could not begin to comprehend what it means to live under such oppressive misery. This correlation between a high concentration of endangered languages and abject poverty is far from coincidental.
What does it take to get out of poverty? Myriad opinions exist on this of course, but surely some of the critical success factors would include education, financial inclusion, and the opportunity to engage in some kind of commerce or income-earning activity. In our lifetimes, we have seen innovations in all three of these areas that have changed the face of the world forever. According to the World Bank, the percentage of people in the developing world living in extreme poverty has fallen from 43% in 1990 to about 21% now (see source here). In other words, since the dawn of the internet, the number of people in extreme poverty has been cut in half. Fantastic news. But here’s the catch: access to these poverty-killing innovations is almost completely restricted to those who are able to speak one of the world’s major trade languages. Consider some specific examples:
So you see, knowing a major trade language, like English, Mandarin, Spanish, or French is an absolute requirement to be able to access these poverty-killing innovations. Those who cannot speak or read one of these trade tongues are utterly condemned to a life of every increasing misery and despair.
But surely it is not an either-or proposition? In many countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, the ability to speak three or more languages is actually the norm. The issue, though, is that education is a zero sum game. Not in terms of money — education still offers the best return of any investment you can make in a human life — but in terms of time. In 2012 I had the opportunity to visit Runan Wan, a rural, impoverished school in Yunnan province in southern China. Many of the children who attended this school had to walk over two hours each way for the privilege of attending. The meal they received at the school was often the only full meal they were likely to receive that day.
Most of the students and teachers at this school were from the Naxi ethnic group, as was the principal. I had a conversation with this principal, and asked him what percentage of the time they spent learning the Naxi language. He replied “None. Most of these students will stop school at year six. Every hour of education they receive is precious to them, and every hour spent on something that won’t help them improve their lives is a lost opportunity they will never get the chance to regain.”
So yes, I understand that letting these languages die has a huge cultural cost. And I am all for spending time, money, and effort to document and archive these languages, so that we can preserve as much as we can of the rich cultural heritage they contain. And anyone in a wealthy country who wants to learn Cornish or Basque as a hobby will undoubtedly discover huge cultural riches by doing so. But spending a poor student’s precious allotment of time in school on a language that bars them access to the amazing panoply of poverty-killing innovations today’s world has on offer is putting them in chains far stronger than iron.
This is probably the most frequent question I get when I tell people I am working in Kenya. The string of terrible bombings and shootings in Kenya makes news all around the world. I also travel to Nigeria on a regular basis, and the horrific abductions of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram are even worse. So it is entirely reasonable to wonder what it’s like to actually work here, and whether it is as horrific as the media reports make it out to be.
To start with, I can honestly say that at no point since I arrived here have I felt in physical danger. I have been offered dubious taxi rides, shaken down for bribes by police, and received all manner of offers from attractive, unattached women to go places that would not be likely to benefit my long-term health. But aside from being given the opportunity to decline some monumentally stupid ideas, I have at never actually had my safety threatened.
You might ask, “Isn’t it scary knowing that kind of danger could always be just around the corner?” The best way I know to answer that is with a metaphor: I once had a conversation with a guy who trains lions, tigers, and other big cats for a living. I asked him if it was scary working every day with animals who could eviscerate him in the blink of an eye, simply because they happened to be in a bad mood that day. He told me that the key to not living in fear was developing a strong sense of respect. “Never forget what the cats are capable of, have that respect guide your interactions always, and just enjoy their amazing presence.”
So how does that respect manifest on a day-to-day basis? It starts with learning some basic ground rules. Don’t walk outside after dark. Only book a taxi from your hotel or some other trusted source. Never use an ATM that isn’t inside a secure building. The first time you go someplace new, go with someone trustworthy who is familiar with the area. It doesn’t take long for these kind of considerations to become second nature. In many respects it is like being an American, going to the UK, and driving a car on the wrong side of the road for the first time. Initially quite daunting, but over a surprisingly short period of time, you adapt and get on with your life. We humans are astonishingly good at that.
There is an important caveat to the perspective I just shared, which is that my professional life in Nairobi unfolds in a series of very secure locations. My hotel, my office, and my client sites are protected by both hefty physical measures and professional, decently trained security teams.
Many people, both foreigners and locals live in communities that do not share the same level of security, and burglars in Kenya are no joke: they usually operate in heavily armed gangs of 8-12 people and violence is their first resort in the event of meeting any resistance. For anyone thinking of living in Africa, I can’t stress enough that choosing a secure place to live is the single most important choice you will make in your time here.
On the other hand, dire warnings like that only throw in sharp relief how delightful Kenyan people are. Kenya is far more unsafe for locals than it is for foreigners, yet despite all the troubles they endure, most Kenyans are resolutely happy, friendly, and delighted to engage. Mind you, I’ve lived in the UK for the past decade, so saying that people are socially outgoing compared to Brits is damning with faint praise, but even compared to my native California, people here tend to be cheerful, social, and welcoming.
So to answer the original question, is it safe? By any objective standard, the answer would have to be no, but that is no reason to shy away from the experience. The metaphor of training big cats is once again a very apt one. Imagine having the opportunity to interact with a fully grown tiger. Most of us would not turn down the chance, but we would also treat the situation with the caution and respect it deserved. Thus it is with living and working in Kenya. Maintain a healthy respect, and savour what a delightful experience you are having.
One of the first things I like to do when entering any new country is pay a visit to a nearby supermarket; a stroll down the aisles provides a unique and informative view of the country and the people who call it home.
So it was that when I first arrived in Nairobi, I stopped in at the Nakumatt on Koinage Street in the city center, not far from my home at the Intercontinental Hotel. And in a back corner on the upper storey of this two-floor supermarket, something quite curious caught my eye. Not far from the cleaning rags and power strips, there was a loose clutter of machetes on sale. And next to the machetes were offered a collection of solar panels of various sizes and power configurations.
This tickled my sense of irony. I took a blurry snapshot of the pairing and made a humorous post on my Facebook page. But as I came to spend more time in Nairobi, and began to get a better appreciation of its people and culture, I came to realize that this strange juxtaposition was an astoundingly apt metaphor for life in this part of the world.
If you stroll into a Safeway in the US or a Tesco in the UK, I can guarantee that you will find neither machetes nor solar panels for sale. One is too primitive; it would be viewed as a weapon rather than a tool. The other is too advanced; western consumers have yet to insist on the kind of empowerment they would need to wean themselves of dependence on utility companies, that empowerment is a necessity of survival here. Judging by empirical evidence, it would appear that US and UK supermarkets deploy their limited shelf space more profitably by offering us a greater choice of potato chip and breakfast cereal flavors than you could find here.
That theme of shudderingly primitive and astonishingly advanced permeates Kenyan life. For instance, Kenya is the world leader in mobile payment systems, both in terms of technology and penetration. Not the leader in Africa. Not the leader amongst developing countries. The world leader. No other country comes close, not even advanced countries with otherwise high technology penetration rates like Singapore, Korea, or the countries of Scandinavia (I’ll do a full post on MPesa and the unique market conditions that caused it to grow and flourish soon). But this breathtaking level of innovation is often limited to areas of narrow focus, and conditions beyond those margins are truly barbaric; the other day, for example, I learned from my bosses Katharyn and Sreeram that the number of mobile phone users here exceeds the number of toilet paper users.
So there you have it. A microcosm of life in Kenya. Machetes and solar panels. On sale at a Nakumatt near you.
In Yesterday’s Financial times, there was an article about China’s announcement to double the funding for it’s new Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB), from the $50B announced last month to over $100B.
This is notable in its own right; most of Asia and Africa are in desperate need of infrastructure investment. But what was just as interesting to me is how the AIIB is being written about — it is a brilliant example of the filters our perspective imposes on how we view the world. Digging deeper, I found three different articles about the establishment of the AIIB, one written by Bloomburg, one by the East Asia Forum, and one by Devex. Each article was a good piece of news analysis, and each raised valid points worth considering. But most notably to me, there was almost zero overlap between the three in the conclusions they drew. In other words, forming a well-rounded view would be impossible by reading any of them alone.
The article in Bloomburg unsurprisingly takes an American slant: it paints the move as a geopolitical threat, which it undoubtedly is. The somewhat sensationalist headline reads “China’s $50 Billion Asia Bank Snubs Japan, India”. The AIIB will be a direct competitor to both the World Bank, which by unwritten charter always has an American president, and to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is funded by the US and Japan and is traditionally helmed by Japanese bankers. During the recent recession, the US and western Europe have been scaling back their global infrastructure investments, while China has been rapidly expanding theirs, not just in Asia but in Africa and Latin America as well. It is hardly surprising that China would be frustrated by their lack of ability to influence policy and priorities commensurate with their growing share of the world’s infrastructure investment portfolio.
The East Asia Forum article paints a rather different view. It reads rather like a Chinese government press release: jingoism concealed within dry, technocratic, and tendentiously cautious prose. An example, “If the new bank is managed professionally to finance commercially viable investments in economic infrastructure, it can begin to correct a very significant failure of global financial markets.” But setting the bias aside, the analysis is a sound, cogent discussion of the business case for creating the AIIB and the challenges it can expect to face in fulfilling its mission.
The Devex article looks at the same news from the viewpoint of the international NGO and aid community. Its headline “AIIB is coming… fast” draws the readers interest towards the potentially disruptive effect the AIIB will have on how NGO’s and aid organizations receive their funding. Their analysis highlights that unlike the World Bank and ADB, the AIIB’s focus is on infrastructure rather than elimination of poverty. They also call out that while the World Bank and ADB due diligence process includes social and environmental protections, the Chinese track record on environmental issues makes it unlikely that the AIIB will do likewise.
And what of my own filters? My own views are just as informed by my experiences and biases as the ones above. As a believer in classical economics and as someone who has invested a significant portion of his career in working in the developing world, I view this as an almost unreservedly positive development. Here is how I see it…
Would love your thoughts
After a hiatus of about a year and a half, I have started feeling the urge to blog again. As some of you know, I have been working in three African countries — Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana, since the start of 2014. I started learning and absorbing all manner of interesting ideas, concepts, and folklore from the very beginning, and I suppose I could have started blogging from the outset, but for some reason I held back. Lots of people write about Africa and what goes on here, and I didn’t feel qualified or informed enough to do anything but add to the noise. But after half a year of being here, I am starting to feel like I do have something to say. The reality on the ground here is a lot more nuanced that reading international news sources would have you believe, and I’d like to give you all a view of
As before, I’m not interested in creating another business/politics/history blog. There lots of excellent examples of these out there already. I just want to give a personal narrative of my adventures here and what I have discovered as a result.
Talk to you all soon.
Tomorrow I set out on the grand adventure. Today I will spend with my family for the last time in five weeks. I am missing them already.
I have for the past week or two been following the rollout of a brand new news publication called Quartz. It is backed by the same company that publishes The Atlantic, and the small staff has an impressive journalistic pedigree.
The publication is targeted at and optimized for mobile phones, tablets, and readers first and foremost, rather than as an afterthought. The business model is radical, and by no means secure, as Jean-Louis Gassee points out in his delightful Monday Note blog. All of this is interesting to me intellectually as an observer of evolving media delivery models, but what has me excited is not the delivery method but the quality of the content.
This is some of the most consistently excellent writing I’ve seen in a long time. The quality of analysis is on par with that of The Economist, but Quartz is not an attempt to imitate The Economist (if it were, I’d probably agree with their editorial position a bit more :-). Their editorial positions are decidedly less guarded, but written from a position of confidence that feels like it emanates more from experience than ideological certitude.
Given the upcoming deployment, I have particularly been enjoying their series of articles on the impact of the world economic slowdown on China, as well as a recent piece on Bo Xilai, which I did not agree with but thoroughly enjoyed reading.
Have a look for yourselves, and let me know what you think
With our deployment only two weeks away, our team is starting to kick into high gear on research and preparation. I thought this would be an opportune time to tell you a bit about our clients and the work we will be doing.
As I have written, there are a total of twelve of us on Team China 18, coming from nine different countries. We will be working with a total of six clients during our four-week engagement. The twelve of us have been divided into three sub-teams of four people each, each of which will be looking after two clients.
I am on Subteam 3, along with my colleagues Brett, Martin, and Renata. Brett is a technical architect from the US; he works in IBM’s consulting business like I do. Martin is a security specialist from Slovakia, and Renata is an attorney from Brazil.
The first of our two clients will be the Fanya Metals Exchange. They are a brand new, started only a year ago with the intent of becoming a commodities exchange like those in Chicago or London. As some of you know, most commodities futures and option contracts traded on an exchange are purely financial instruments. But many of the buyers and sellers trading metals on Fanya’s exchange are miners or manufacturers, so a much higher percentage of their contracts are settled in specie — in other words, they are paid in the actual, physical metals that the contracts represent.
Fanya has done very well in its first year, and would like to continue expanding and become a regional player, trading not only across China but throughout southeast Asia, and they have asked for our advice on how best to go about that. To provide this kind of insight, we will be putting together a case study on the business and marketing models of some of the world’s major commodities exchanges, and advising them on how best to emulate the success and growth patterns that some of these have enjoyed.
The other client is a financial clearing house for small and medium business called KMfex. China does not have a well-established market for commercial credit, so most small businesses looking for a loan need to look for individual investors. The goal of KMfex is to create a clearing house where businesses and investors can find one another. Like Fanya, KMfex wants us to put together a case study of companies in other regions who have enjoyed success with a similar business model.
In a lot of ways KMfex reminds me of Lloyds of London in the 1600’s and 1700’s. At that time, the only “corporations” in existence were shipping companies, and if you wanted to invest in their voyages, you had to make contact directly. There was a coffee shop not far from the docks called Lloyds where a lot of the ship owners and captains would hang out, and wealthy individuals looking for ships to invest in would often go to Lloyd’s in order to find a suitable ship and voyage. Over a period of several decades, what began as a coffee shop transformed into something entirely new: the world’s first true financial market. KMfex is in a different country and services general businesses instead of shipping companies, and its distribution channels are online rather than at a coffee shop. But in most of the important ways, they are very much like Lloyd’s was when it started: a clearing house that made it easier for companies and investors to find one another. I expect that many of the successes and failures Lloyds has experienced over time, including the massive “Names” scandal of the 1980’s could end up being quite relevant in terms of advising them.
So there you have it: a brief synopsis of what I will be up to very soon. In addition to working with these two clients, I expect to also be helping to advise and support the other subteams, just as I am sure we will be able to rely upon their expertise and support for our two clients. There are also a couple of one-day events that the entire team will be participating in; I’ll tell you more about these as the time gets nearer.
It’s less than two weeks now until we take to the skies…
Hello everyone. It’s been several weeks now since I’ve last blogged. As some of you know, I’ve spent the past several weeks in The Hague helping out with a troubled project here, and the needs of this project have required my entire focus. I’ve had to temporarily set aside my day job to focus on this project full time, and while I have still been able to meet the basic needs of CSC preparation and take a little bit of time to work with our team on some preliminary research, there has been very little mindshare for some of the more extended research that I had been blogging about earlier.
There is, in fact, a lot to write about, and I hope to be able spend some time this weekend telling you all about the clients we have been assigned, our initial discussions with them, and the work we’ve been asked to perform in our very short four week engagement. But today, I am in The Hague, and I am going to write about one of its most famous artists: M. C. Escher.
Like many children who went on to become technologists or academics, Escher’s prints and drawings have captivated and delighted me from a very young age. I can easily remember sitting for hours just staring at such masterpieces as Relativity, Belvedere, and Drawing Hands. The Hague is the capital of the Netherlands, home to many monuments both modern and historic, and a delightful city in its own right, yet the one thing I knew I wanted to do during my time here was visit the Escher Museum. But the museum is only open between 11:00 and 17:00 each day, and with as busy as the project has been, it was looking unlikely that I would get the chance. Today, however, a critical planning meeting had to be postponed until 23:00, leaving me at leisure for the late afternoon and early evening – my chance had arrived and I was certainly not going to let such an opportunity go to waste. So I packed up my gear, walked a mile or so into the center of town and went in to pay my respects.
Quite a lot has been written about Escher’s art, and about the mathematical and architectural principles embodied in his work (for those of you with any interest I would recommend the excellent Godel, Escher, Bach as one fine exemplar). I have read a fair bit of such writings, and did not go in expecting to learn a great deal more along these lines. What I knew far less about was Escher the man, or anything about his life. And as I sit enjoying a cool autumn evening in a nearby outdoor café, this is what I want to share with you.
In many ways, the story of Escher’s childhood reads like an archetype of the sort of crucible in which great artists are formed. He grew up the fifth and youngest of five brothers, born to a patriarchal, domineering, and pragmatic father who has selected a career for each of his older siblings based on his own observation of their talents as children. Escher’s talent for drawing is visible to everyone from a very early age, but his father certainly does not see artist as a stable, respectable, or reliable career choice, so he decides that his youngest son will become an architect. But this is where the story breaks the mold. Escher is not the archetypical angry young rebel; he is a charmer, a negotiator, and the many photographs of Escher and his family at the museum testify to a deep and abiding love between him and his entire family.
Yet, while young Maurits has no desire to go against the wishes of his father or be a disappointment to his family, this in no way lessens his determination to pursue his life’s desire of being an artist. So what he does instead is select a university known for architectural excellence, but also possessed of an outstanding graphic arts program. He enters the university as an architecture student, but in his first week there he arranges to meet with the head of the graphics art department, a man named Samuel Jesserum de Mesquita who was very well known and respected, and shows Mesquita his art portfolio.
The professor is as delighted with Escher’s work as we all have become, and tells Escher that he really ought to consider switching his course of study to art. A series of discussions ensue, the end result of which is that Escher talks the professor into paying his father a visit. And it is during this visit that he finally wins his father’s agreement that the youngest Escher will become a graphic artist.
Other stories of Escher’s life, most notably how he went about courting his wife, paint a very similar picture: a portrait of a man who is respectful, impeccably polite, and yet quietly subversive and utterly determined to have his way. And I found, while looking for the first time at the originals of some of my favorite pieces, that understanding a little bit about Escher’s life brought an entirely new dimension of understanding, joy, and delight to my appreciation of his work.
That inscrutably shy-yet-knowing smile that adorns so many of Escher’s figures is the smile of a man who understands what you have told him, would not dream of arguing with you, much less going against your will, but who knows that regardless of what you may think at the time, his own vision will prevail. This way of approaching the world, respecting it yet at the same time subverting it to his will, shows through not only in Escher’s art and his relationships with people, but in his approach to the universe as a whole, as explained a delightful quote from the artist himself…
In my art I try to show that we live in a beautiful and orderly world, not in formless chaos [yet] I cannot resist fooling around with our established certainties. It gives me great pleasure, for example, to deliberately mix up the second and third dimensions, flat and spatial, and to make fun of gravity.
In measuring myself against Escher as a man, I find that all too often I end up enamoured of the emotional satisfaction that comes from a successful confrontation. I quite admire Escher’s way of approaching the world. I wish I were more like him.
Sources: The images all came from the official Escher website: www.mcescher.com
Today’s history post is a blend of fact and legend. When we last left our narrative, much of the northern and western portions of what is now Yunnan province, including what would become modern-day Kunming, had come under the control of the Han Dynasty shortly before 100 AD. But some 300 years later, the Han Dynasty was in disarray, and three separate states: Cao Wei, Shu Han, and East Wu, all claimed their leaders to be the legitimate Han emperor. And one of the local leaders in Yunnan saw this as an opportunity to assert independence.
This period of time, referred to as the Three Kingdoms Period, gets its name from these three states. It was one of the bloodiest times in Chinese history, but it has been glorified and romanticized in Chinese art and literature, most notably by a famous romance of the same name, written in the 14th century by the revered Ming Dynasty author Luo Guanzhong. Luo’s work is still the most widely read historical novel in China; it occupies a similar place in Chinese culture as the Thousand and One Nights does in Arabian, Don Quixote in Spanish, or Shakespeare in English.
Today’s story comes directly from this literary masterpiece, and concerns two main characters:
Zhuge Liang was an orphan who rose to prominence through academic brilliance; there is an account of how the Shu Han king shows his humility by visiting Zhuge Liang in his hut three times to beg that he take leadership in the Shu Han government. So between Zhuge Liang’s natural ability and the superiority of the forces he was able to bring to the conflict, the eventual outcome is never in doubt. What makes it an interesting story is not what he accomplishes, but how…
In the very first meeting of their forces, Zhuge Liang is able to capture Meng Huo and five hundred of his retainers through an artful bit of subterfuge that played upon the enthusiasm of his own subordinates. Meng is brought before prime minister Zhuge, who asks if he will submit. Men replies “No, I fell afoul of your tricks on a narrow mountain trail. Why should I submit?”. But instead of killing him as was within his rights, Zhuge asks Meng what he would do if set free. Meng replies “I shall reorder my forces for another trial at arms, but if you capture me again, I shall submit”.
So Zhuge sents Meng free. This makes his subordinates very unhappy, enough so that they questioned their leader’s decision (understand that this is no small thing in traditional Chinese culture). Prime minister Zhuge replies “I can capture him again at ease whenever I choose to. But pacification of his kingdom requires that we win the hearts of the people.” As by now you have deduced, Zhuge succeeds in capturing Meng again and again, usually through some cleverly thought out subterfuge.
After the second capture, Zhuge gives Meng a tour of inspection, letting him see not only the size of his army but the extent of his provisions.
After the third capture, Zhuge gives Meng tactical advice so that he can do a better job leading his army against the prime minister.
And so the story goes, until the seventh and final capture. Having so thoroughly embarrassed Meng Huo by beating him time and again, Zhuge Liang does not have him brought forth again, but allows Meng to save face by sending a messenger instead to set him free and order his troops for yet another battle. Thus defeated not only by arms but by courtesy, Meng Huo finally submits and swears fealty. And in response, Zhuge Liang not only allows him to keep his role in vassal to Shu Han, but actually seeks his advice on further adventures.
This is as thoroughly a Chinese tale as any I have ever come across, and speaks worlds about how the Chinese see themselves, and the ideal of behavior that they aspire to. It continues to serve as a model of behavior into this day and age. During WWII, when Chairman Mao was leading armies against the Japanese, he explicitly evoked the seven captures of Meng Huo as the reasoning behind his order that Chinese troops captured fighting for the Japanese be set free instead of killed. In explaining his reasoning to Communist leaders, Mao says:
In principal, whether they are officers or soldiers and no matter what social background they come from, no puppet troop captives are to be killed. Even those elements who have a deep hatred for us and come back to fight us again after being released may be spared execution. That is, the method of repeated capturing and releasing is better than killing, and its impact is greater. In releasing captives, there should be absolutely no posting of bail, and they should not be made to vow that they will never be puppet soldiers in the future. But they can be required to swear that they will not really help the Japanese oppose the New Fourth Army in the future. And if they do actually violate their oath and help Japan fight us, then we should still patiently carry out the policy of “seven times capturing Meng Huo.”
I have found this kind of long-term thinking an essential part of the Chinese mindset; it puts the Chinese focus on relationships on full display, and contrasts sharply with the more western focus on direct, short-term, and measurable results. Personally, I discern no clear superiority in either way of thinking. But whether it is working day-to-day with your Chinese colleagues or trying to understand the seemingly inexplicable actions of the Chinese government, the impact of this mindset needs to be understood.
As usual, I used Wikipedia for times, dates, and other background, as well as for the drawing of Meng Huo. An excerpt from a dissertation by Konrad Lawson provided the links to Mao’s policies. The Qing era drawing of Zhuge Liang comes from history.cultural-china.com, while the modern one comes from sanguoguide.com, which is a fabulous guide to the classic novel and its subsequent adaptations.
The story itself comes directly from the English-language version of The Three Kingdoms that I picked up the last time I was in China.
The article by Rachel Botsman that I cited in my recent post: The Reputation Economy and the Value of Human Life, which before was only available in the UK print edition of Wired, is now available online. You can find it here.
Go check it out: very highly recommended.
Tonight’s post is from an article written in the China Daily by Yang Wanli, and discusses a traditional and very special way of making rice, unique to Yunnan, called 饵块– Erkuai, or soft pounded rice.
Yunnan province is famous for the wide variety of dishes and delicacies it offers. Perhaps the fact that it is home to more than two dozen ethnic groups has something to do with it. The variety and taste of and the ingredients used in dishes can differ from town to town and even village to village, except erkuai, a culinary specialty made of rice, which is omnipresent in the entire province. And while traditional methods of preparing food may be vanishing, a workshop in Kunming has kept alive the old art of making erkuai. As a type of rice cake particular to Yunnan, erkuai literally translates into “ear piece”, a reference to one of its common shapes.
Erkuai has a history of 400 years. Although common in the entire province, it is said that the best erkuai is available in Guandu district of Yunnan’s capital of Kunming, where it is said to have originated. As the ancient center of Yunnan’s capital, Guandu is famous for its traditional way of making erkuai. “Making erkuai was like a ceremony before Spring Festival when I was a kid,” says Pan Yunquan, a 67-year-old resident of Luofeng village in Guandu. “It used to be made only once a year.” Since Luofeng has the credit of making the most delicious erkuai in Guandu, the delicacy available there is the best of the best.
In days past, people would not make erkuai at home but at a public mill shared by residents from two or more villages, and hence the annual “ceremony”. The mill in Luofeng village had a great reputation in Kunming and even other border cities. “The mill used to be open from late December to the eve of Spring Festival. Workers were divided into two groups and had to work constantly because a lot of people waited for their turn to make erkuai,” Pan says. At times, the queue used to be hundreds of meters long. Eating erkuai during Spring Festival is a tradition in Yunnan, and in the old days even the poorest families followed it. People carried newly harvested rice in cloth bags and waited outside the mill sometimes for two days. Generally, a family made erkuai from 20 to 50 kg of rice every year.
Rice is the only ingredient used in erkuai. Rice of the best quality is washed twice and then soaked in cold spring water for about an hour. After that, it is steamed twice. “Washing and steaming the rice twice makes erkuai whiter and softer,” Pan says. There are no strict rules for making erkuai, he says. It depends on experience. “Take steaming for example. Once water starts dripping from the hay-made pot cover, it is time to take the steamed rice out.” Steamed rice is quickly put into a stone mortar and later pounded with a wooden pestle. But this is a special mortar and pestle, called mudui in Chinese in which the mortar is fixed into a hole dug in the ground so that its mouth is even with the floor level. The pestle is fixed to a huge horizontal wooden lever and needs four to six people to operate.
After the pounding, the rice becomes soft and gummy like plasticine, and is shaped on a wooden board. Erkuai is generally shaped like a mini pillow after the soft rice is kneaded to push the air bubbles out, and gives off a fragrant, appetizing aroma. Erkuai is loved by people in Yunnan not only for its simplicity, but also because it can be cooked in several ways. It can be cut into slices and served stir-fried with vegetables and málà (麻辣), a fiery mixture of dried red chilies, Sichuan pepper and salt.
It is popular as street food, too, grilled, barbecued and rolled around fried breadsticks with sweet or savory condiments added, resembling a Mexican burrito. The sweet types contain a sweet brown sauce and peanuts, while the savory types are mixed with preserved bean curd, bean sprouts and various other toppings. This method is particularly popular among Yunnan people and savored as a quick and delicious snack. Besides, erkuai can be also made into dessert with sweet fermented-rice and eggs. Many families use finely shredded erkuai and cook it like noodles.
The traditional method of making erkuai in Guandu was listed as an intangible cultural relic of Kunming in June 2005. In March 2010, authorities built a workshop in Guandu to demonstrate the tradition way of making erkuai, which disappeared about 30 years ago. An erkuai cake weighing 1 kg made in the workshop sells for double the average price of machine-made variety. A worker, surnamed Ding, says theirs is the only shop selling handmade erkuai in Kunming, and attracts many customers from across China and even aboard, especially during holidays. On May Day this year, the shop sold 480 cakes made out of 300 kg of rice. Pan says the workshop brings back memories for most senior residents. “Listening to the pounding of the pestle is like listening to music. The smell of rice is so sweet that it brings back memories of our childhood.”
Erkuai keeps fresh soaked in clean water for up two months, and it is said that fishermen used it to repair small cracks in their boats.
The description and background come from an article in the China Daily, as do all but one of the photos – the other comes from about.com.
My friend Meg wrote a piece in her blog in which she undertakes the arduous task of looking beyond the cycle of hype in the social media market place to try and glean what has changed and what has stayed the same.
One notable quote sticks out in my brain
Businesses, which are made of humans, need to speak and to be heard, unless and until sated – they will speak
Just as contraception was a catalyst and enabling technology for women’s long-held dreams of true independence and empowerment, so social media serves as the catalyst and enabling technology for people’s long-held desire to speak and be heard.
Check out her post in detail here: Social media – substance or froth? And tell her I say hello :-)
iece in her blog
We left our narrative of the history of Kunming and Yunnan province in 109 BC, when the Dian Kingdom was conquered by the armies of the Han Dynasty, and brought within the fold of Imperial China. As one of the first orders of business after this conquest, the Han emperor ordered one of his most important generals, Tang Meng, to Yunnan. His instructions were to extend the “Five Foot Way” – a famous trade road of the time, from Sichuan into Yunnan.
There were many reasons for this instruction. Roads in China were first and foremost a means of efficient troop movement, even the Great Wall was far more useful as a way of transporting troops quickly over very rough terrain than it ever was as an actual physical barrier. The Kingdom of Dian was newly conquered and could rebel at any time, so the ability to get troops there quickly was of paramount importance. But another key reason was trade. Not with the Dian Kingdom itself; the Han people considered the local residents to be crude barbarians. Hang Teng even named the Yunnan extension of the Five Foot Way the “Southwest Barbarian Way”. The real value of Yunnan to the Han empire lay in its location; it was seen as a potential gateway to what was called at the time the “Sendhuk” valley. Now it is called the Indus valley; the Han dynasty wanted to open a trade route with India. But how did the Han rulers know about India, and why did they think it was important to establish trade routes there?
The answer lies not in the south of China but in the north. The Han dynasty was plagued by a loose confederation of nomadic tribesmen whom they knew as the Xiongnu; several centuries later, Europe would encounter them and call them the Huns. About 20 years earlier than the conquest of the Dian Kingdom, spies of the Han emperor Wudi (the same emperor whose death precipitated the Discourses on Salt and Iron referred to in history post 2) reported to Emperor Wu that King Chanyu of the Huns had recently killed the king of a tribe known as the Da Yuezhi, and had his skull made into a drinking goblet. The Da Yuezhi tribe was previously unknown to the Han dynasty, but sensing an opportunity, the sent a detachment of about 100 troops to find this tribe and seek an alliance with them. The officer appointed to lead this detachment was a mid-level noble named Zhang Qian.
The expedition did not meet with great success. Zhang, his guide Ganfu (a captured Xiongnu prisoner of war), and their detachment of troops were captured by the Xiongnu and held as hostages against further Han incursions. Zhang and his guide were held captive by the Zhiongnu for almost over ten years, during which he took a Xiongnu wife, who in turn bore him a son. But eventually, having gained the trust of the Xiongnu leader, Zhang was able to escape, and fled west across the Gobi desert with his guide wife, and son. And ten years after his departure from China, he finally managed to make contact with the Da Yuezhi. But though the Yuezhi welcomed Zhang and treated him with honor, they had no desire to enter into an alliance against the Xiongnu. The Yuezhi felt that the distance between their home (which lies in what is now Tajikistan) and the Chinese Empire (whose military might was centered in their capital of Chang’an, which is now modern-day Xi’an) was too great for an alliance to be effective. And the murder of their king notwithstanding, the Yuezhi were content to raise their flocks and make due against the occasional Xiongnu raid.
His mission unsuccessful, Zhang spent a further year in central Asia, documenting and establishing relations with different tribes and kingdoms in the area, and then set off for the return journey to China. Anxious to avoid recapture, Zhang and his party took a different route on their return, skirting the southern edge of the Tarim basin, where they had gone around the northern edge on their way out. But this caution was to no avail, for Zhang and his party were once again captured by the Xiongnu. This time however, Zhang was lucky in that he became a pawn in a civil war within the Xiongnu tribe, and was able to secure his freedom in less than a year, in exchange for bearing messages from one of the rival factions to the Han emperor.
Despite having failed to secure an alliance, Zhang was wildly popular in court upon his return, and prepared detailed reports on over 36 different tribes and nations he had intercourse with over the years of his journey. And through all the places he had traveled there was a common thread: rich and exotic goods from a great civilization rumored to lie to the southeast, a kingdom known as the Sendhuk. And having proven his capability, Zhang was sent out two more times to try and find this fabled kingdom, and the first of these original journeys went through Sichuan and the Dian Kingdom that is now Yunnan Province.
Zhang never did find India, but he studiously wrote about every place he did make it to, and though not all of the political alliances he was dispatched to establish came to fruition, he is regarded in China in much the same light we in the west regard Marco Polo, as one of the first great travelers and travel writers. And over the century following his death, China did succeed in establishing relations with these tribes and kingdoms of central Asia. These trade agreements started the caravans flowing, and the routes they established formed the very Silk Road that Marco Polo would follow, all the way to Kunming, some 1300 years later.
This is an off topic post. It has nothing to do with the ancient or modern history of China, or with the food of Yunnan province, and is only loosely connected to the topics of philanthropy and globalization that I usually discuss in this blog. But it is what I’ve been thinking about for the past day, so I’ve decided to share my thoughts with you. If you want to skip it and wait for my next post, which will tell the story of how Yunnan started to become more integrated into Imperial China after the conquest of the Kingdom of Dian, I promise not to be offended :-)
I read an article yesterday in the September edition of Wired magazine’s UK edition, entitled “Welcome to the New Reputation Economy”. In the article, author Rachel Botsman highlights the immense yet currently unmonetized value of reputation and trustworthiness data — the sort being collected by large e-commerce firms. Not only the juggernauts like eBay and Amazon, but also the successful niche players like Airbnb and Etsy.
Botsman then goes on to speculate on what would be possible if reputation and trustworthiness data were offered up and subscribed to in some manner of clearing house or information market — not dissimilar to FICO scores for credit ratings — and even gives a brief survey of some companies who are trying to do just that.
Finally, Botsman paints a picture of what it might be like when financial credibility and reputational credibility are mashed and used together to drive all kinds of decision making, from e-commerce to loan origination to employment. And let it be said that Botsman does not engage in idle speculation here; she supports her views with credible examples from outfits like Stack Overflow and Movenbank.
I have been reflecting on that article for a full day now, and find myself having all kinds of reactions to it…
The professional in me is energized. Social networking data, e-commerce data, and traditional credit scores are all available and actively used for statistical inference now. But the inferences that can be drawn by sophisticated analysis of that correlated data will go well beyond what is currently possible, and that analysis will be worth billions of dollars. I have always been strongly drawn by the challenge of figuring out the pragmatic details of how to take a grand vision and make it a practical reality, and it would be hard to think of a bigger vision or more challenging implementation than this.
On the other hand, the libertarian in me is horrified. The rules governing the usage of credit reporting data are more or less fully mature, and those governing e-commerce and social network data are starting to become more clearly defined. But by combining these data stores, everyone from marketers to intelligence agencies will be able to obtain a far more insightful look into my life, even by staying well within the well-established or currently-establishing rules for working with those data sets.
But looking beyond the immediate effects I see coming in the commercial or political spheres of the world, the philosopher in me is deeply intrigued. Money was invented four or five millenia ago to provide a common medium of exchange in order to make trade more practical and efficient. And since that invention, people have used money to try and put a value on human life: from the medieval Saxon weregild, to 19th century actuarial tables, to the predictive customer value analytics that shape the deal you get offered when you try to change your mobile phone to a different provider. But though we may realize the necessity, valuing lives in dollars is something we have never been comfortable with.
In 2007 and again in 2009, I spent a good deal of my spare time interacting with people in a virtual world called SecondLife. One of the things I learned from that experience was how desperately people are literally crying out to be more than the material confines of their lives allowed them to be. People were — and continue to be — willing to spend frighteningly large proportions of their disposable income for the opportunity to create and interact beyond those confines, even if those creations or relationships would never be more than virtual. This confounds rationalists, but the empirical evidence is overwhelming: people want to be measured by more than their wealth, and they are willing to sacrifice a good portion of their wealth to gain that recognition.
So let’s bring this back to Botsman’s vision of how the reputation economy will grow and evolve. What if, within a generation or two, there is an established medium of exchange for measuring people’s contributions and/or trustworthiness across e-commerce markets, global communities, educational fora, or worthy causes? A medium not measured in money, but in the coalesced opinion of people with similar interests?
Will it liberate people, allowing them to grow and flourish far beyond what their educational and socioeconomic realities might otherwise allow? If so, how do we ensure that participation in this global market for reputation is as widely accessible as possible? Or will it instead enslave people, binding them to the soul-crushing vagaries of a brand new rat race, as if the economic one weren’t bad enough?
And last of all, what other effects will it have on society? Consider how the availability of contraception has completely altered the role of women in societies where it is accessible. How will the commoditization of reputation and trustworthiness change our friendships, our business interactions, and our courtship rituals?
I would love to hear your thoughts…
You don’t find a lot of dairy food in China. This is usually ascribed to the fact that many Chinese people are lactose intolerant, though there is some debate over whether this causes the lack of dairy in the diet or is caused by it. There are also remarks upon the fact that dairy farming is a far less efficient use of land than growing rice or raising pork for meat. But regardless of the cause, one thing you will almost never find anywhere in China is cheese. The featured food in tonight’s post is the exception to that rule.
Rubing (乳饼 – rǔbǐng) is a cheese made by the local Bai and Sani minorities of Yunnan province, and is quite popular there. It is a farmer cheese, which means that it is served fresh rather than aged, and is made from goats milk that has been soured with the extract of a local vine called 奶藤 (năiténg), or literally “milk cane”.
Rubing is similar to the Cypriot cheese called Halloumi in that it does not melt when heated. And like Halloumi, Rubing is most commonly served fried.
These are the most traditional ways of serving Rubing, but modern restaurants in the region have been experimenting with departures from the tradition. Some serve it with a local cured ham called Xuanhua, while others are experimenting with chocolate or rose flavorings.
It is yet another local delight I will be keeping my eyes out in our coming visit.
The photos and serving information come from gochengdoo.com
Information on the making of rubing comes from wisegeek.com