Blockchain for Social Good

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…

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/blockchain-social-good-areiel-wolanow?trk=pulse_spock-articles

 

 

Link

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:

http://infinitearcadegames.com/

 

Is it safe?

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.

Unlicensed taxi

Intended and actual destination may vary.

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.

Security barrier at my hotel

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.

Not to be trifled with.

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.

A very common sight

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.

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Okay, maybe my metaphor wasn’t completely hypothetical

 

 

Leavetaking

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.

Quartz – a new online news publication

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

About our clients…

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…

Reflections on the life of M. C. Escher

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

The Seven Captures of Meng Huo

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:

  • Meng Huo, a rebellious local leader of the Nanzhong region which includes much of modern-day Yunnan province and part of southern Sichuan as well.
  • Zhuge Liang, the prime minister of Shu Han, sent by the Shu Han king to bring him to heel.

A Qing-era drawing of Zhuge Liang

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”.

A Ming-era drawing of Meng Huo

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.”

 

 

A modern, anime-style rendition of Zhuge Liang

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.

Sources

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.

Food of Yunnan 4: Erkuai

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.

Sources

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.

Historical Kunming Part 5: Zhang Qian and the Opening of the Silk Road

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.

Han Dynasty, just after to the conquest of the Kingdom of Dian

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.

Zhang Qian sets out on his embassy

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.

Zhian Qian

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.

Food of Yunnan 3: 乳饼 – Rubing Cheese

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.

Often is it served mixed with tomatoes and broccoli or other vegetables.

Sometimes it is just deep-fried and served with salty or sweet dipping sauces.

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.

Sources:

The photos and serving information come from gochengdoo.com

Information on the making of rubing comes from wisegeek.com

Historical Kunming Part 4: The Dawn of Kunming

Now that we have a rough framework of dynastic history upon which to hang our tale, we can now tell the story of the dawn of Kunming.

Yuanmou Man

Kunming sits at the northern tip of Lake Dian. Lake Dian has been a home to people as long as there have been people.  The fossil record includes lufang ramapithecus from 8 million years ago and yuanmou man from 1.7 million years ago, and archaeological finds show that modern man has been living there continuously for at least 30,000 years.  But Kunming itself has its origins in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

 

 

One of the main states that gave the Warring States Period its name was the kingdom of Chu.  Chu started as a fief of the Zhou dynasty, and was ruled by a viscount, who ruled from a city in what is now Henan Province.  In 977 the Zhou ruler died; the dynasty started neglecting it southern holdings, and Chu started growing more and more autonomous.  By 703 BC, the ruler of Chu was openly styling himself King, openly asserting an independence that was not contested.  Chu grew in size and power (as well as in corruption and bureaucracy) until, by the time the Zhou dynasty had completely dissolved, Chu was one of the leading states of China, and a contender for imperial aspirations.

Our story starts towards the end of the Warring States Period, about 70 years before the establishment of the Qin dynasty.  Chu was looking to expand, and the logical direction was south.  Qin, though not yet an imperial power, was already the most powerful state in China, lay just to the west.  Wei and Qi to the north less powerful as Chu, but either could weaken Chi enough to make it a target for Qin.  But even more than that, the south offered control of valuable trade routes with Burma and India.  So in 280 BC the king of Chu deployed an army led by a general named Zhuang Qiao with orders to conquer the territory that is now Yunnan province.

Seal from the Kingdom of Dian

Over the next ten years General Zhuang was able to fulfill his orders, and succeeded in placing most of the region under his control. But then something happened that changed the situation entirely: Chu was invaded by Qin.  The Qin armies marched across the south of Chu towards the coast; General Zhuang and his army were cut off from their capital.  But as far as we can tell, the general saw this not as a problem but an opportunity.  Zhuang declared that the territory he had conquered was now the Kingdom of Dian, and named himself as its King.  His army married and assimilated with the local tribes, and settled themselves on the land surrounding the lake.  And General Zhuang established his capital at what is now Kunming.

Belt ornament from the Dian Kingdom

This small independent kingdom survived for well over a century, outlasting the rise and fall of the Qin dynasty.  In 109 BC the great conqueror of the Han dynasty, Emperor Wu of Han (who also appears in the earlier post Historical Kunming 2: Discourses on Salt and Iron), conquered the neighboring states of Laoshan and Mimo, and the king of Dian decided to submit to Han voluntarily rather than be conquered.  This submission was rather more in name than substance though; Dian routinely raided Han trading missions.  And in 109 BC, after Dian massacred a Han trading party passing through with gifts intended for the far away nation of Bactria, Emperor Wu decided he had had enough.  He emptied the jails in his capital city of Chang’an (modern day Xi’an), declared amnesty for any fugitives who would turn themselves in, and formed these into an army that finally brought Dian into submission and joined it to the empire.

So there you have it, the story of how Kunming was founded, and came to be part of China.

Travel booked! #ibmcsc

I got word last night that our friends at Digital Opportunity Trust have confirmed the booking of my travel plans.  I arrive in Kunming on 12 October, fly from Kunming to Beijing on 10 November, and return home to the UK on 17 November.  The intervening months will fly by in the blink of an eye.

Meanwhile on the home front, my wife was just accepted to graduate school, and in September will begin studying for her masters in psychology at the University of Derby.  She will begin her studies in late September, shortly before I head off.

What an amazing summer it has been.

 

 

China at the Olympics

It is 18:00 on Thursday 2 August as I write this. We are one week into the London Olympics.  My family and I have seen one of the three live events we have tickets for (beach volleyball), and watched a number of other ones on TV, all of which we have enjoyed.  So now I find myself looking at the medal tables…

  • My adopted country, the UK, is ranked fifth overall with 14 medals, 5 of which are gold.
  • My home country, the USA, which I proudly (and loudly) root for, is second place overall with 31 medals, 14 of them gold
  • And while they are not as crushingly dominant as they were as Beijing in 2008, China commands an unmistakable first place in the world rankings, with 18 gold medals and 32 medals overall

I look at this result and ask myself how I feel about it.

And you know what?  Despite all the accusations, the recriminations, and the other assorted moaning and wailing, I find that my reactions to all of the above are almost entirely positive.

Let’s talk about China first.  I have read the accusations about Ye Shiwen, and find them baseless and small-minded.  Nobody leveled such accusations about Michael Phelps’ astonishing superiority of mens’ swimming in 2008.  This is nothing more than thinly veiled xenophobia.

The fact is that China deserves its place at the top of the rankings.  Start with the world’s largest population.  Add to this a personal work ethic that no other nation in the world comes close to matching.  And layer on top of this the huge investment that China makes in its athletes, with over 3,000 dedicated athletic training centers around the country.  This investment, this dedication, this passion for excellence has paid off.

Let’s look at the UK next, fifth in the rankings overall.  If you ask most British people how they feel about this result, you will hear a lot about opportunities missed, but the reality is  an admirable result.  Let’s look at the numbers: the UK is 6th in a ranking of countries by GDP, 22nd by population, and 80th by size.  Their performance far outstrips countries that ought to be beating them handily.  I attribute this to their excellent education system (both public and private) and to a strong sporting culture. Recall that the Brits were key drivers in the resurrection of the Olympics in the first place (interestingly, their medal ranking in the first modern Olympics in 1896 was the same as it is today: fifth).  And finally, hats off to the UK for a fabulous opening ceremony.  The Olympic rings, forged and hammered out of molten steel, is an indelible image that will burn in my mind forever.

And finally, what about the US?  If you read the editorial page of the newspaper in any major city, you will find a host of discontent that we have fallen behind China in the overall medal results.  But I see a very different message

  • China has four times as many people as the US
  • Despite having a GDP one third the size of the US, China outspends the US on the development of its athletes by at least two to one
  • An aspiring athlete in the US must find a way to pay for their education, coaching, and development; all but the proven top echelons need to stay in full-time employment while training.  An aspiring athlete in China belongs to a program that fully supports and caters to all their needs, removing anything but training from their list of worries.

And yet, despite all of China’s inherent advantages, the US manages to stay in very close competition with China.  This is nothing short of amazing, and makes me very proud to be American.  Why do we continue to do so well?   This is a great question.  I have some ideas, but want to think about it and read some more before I venture an opinion.

Meanwhile, tomorrow will be a big day at the Olympics:

  • Wujdan Shahrkhani, one of the first two women that Saudi Arabia has ever sent to the Olympics, will be competing in women’s judo.  I wish her every success.
  • My favorite beach volleyball team, Kerry Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, whom I have supported since Athens in 2004, enters the elimination rounds. They won all three matches in the preliminary rounds, but in the last match they lost one of their sets — the first time that has ever happened.  Do they have a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in them?  Soon we shall see.
  • And finally, our amazing football team plays against New Zealand in the quarter-finals.  I’ve got tickets for the semi-finals, which means that if the Americans win tomorrow, we get the thrill of going to one of football’s greatest shrines, Old Trafford, to cheer our team to victory!

These then are my thoughts on the Olympics so far.  I salute the Chinese team and congratulate them on their victory so far.  But stay focused, China, and keep striving for excellence.  We are close behind and do not give up easily :-)

Sources and more information

  • As usual, most of my facts and figures come from Wikipedia.  The usual disclaimers from using a publicly editable data source apply.
  • The gold medal image comes from the Guardian; the picture of Ye Shiwen and the US football team comes from the Telegraph. Both are British newspapers
  • Finally, I want to recommend an excellent article, also in the Guardian.  Written by a British swimming coach who was hired by China to come be a coach within their swimming program, it gives a very insightful inside view into China’s investment in athletic excellence.  You can find it here:
    Chinese athletes at these Olympics train harder than anyone in the world

Historical Kunming Part 3: Chinese dynasties

So…  my intent for this week’s post on the history of Kunming was to talk about the dawn of Kunming: the start of its transformation from one of a group of Bronze Age villages on the shores of Lake Dian into a genuine city, the capital of a rebel general cut off from his homeland.

But as I got deeper and deeper into this story, it became more and more clear that I was telling a story with no anchors, cast adrift in a series of names and places, kingdoms and dynasties, that would mean nothing to someone who had not already studied at least some Chinese history.   So before I tell the story of the dawn of Kunming, I would like to give you the basic framework by which the Chinese themselves account their history: the tale of dynasties.

But before simply listing them out, it is worth asking: what exactly makes a dynasty anyway.  Unlike periods of British or Egyptian history (amongst others) that use the same term, a Chinese dynasty does not imply rule by a single family of rulers.  Instead, it is related to a uniquely Chinese concept:  天命  (Tiānmìng), referred to in English as The Mandate of Heaven.  So what exactly is The Mandate of Heaven?  How does it work?

When we are taught western history, we learn that the medieval basis for royal legitimacy was founded on a notion called the Divine Right of Kings.  This asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm.  Over time, and influenced by the downfall of a number of tyrants in bloody civil wars, a new basis for legitimacy emerged in the west: the consent of the governed. (Most notably espoused by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government).

The Mandate of Heaven is far older than either of the western bases for political legitimacy, and incorporates elements of both.  Similar to the Divine Right of Kings, the Mandate of Heaven asserts that heaven (天 – Tiān) blesses the authority of a just ruler, and gives to him the authority to govern.     But in other ways, the Mandate of Heaven more closely resembles Locke: If a ruler becomes despotic or tyrannical, Heaven withdraws its mandate and that ruler is overthrown.  Therefore, the successful overthrow of a ruler is viewed as an indication that the ruler has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and provides a ready (if post-hoc) justification for people to rise up against a ruler who treats his subjects poorly.

A Chinese dynasty, then, is a period of time in which the Mandate of Heaven was successfully held by a single group, clan, or in two cases, foreign powers.  I have made below a list of the generally acknowledged ones, with one key disclaimer:  The changeover from one dynasty to another was never a planned, orderly thing, and usually happened over a period of several years or even decades.  Thus, you are guaranteed to find disagreement about almost every one of the dates I give here. I make no claim that the ones I give here are authoritative or even a prevailing view, but they do give a good basic idea of when these things happened.

So with no further ado, here for your reference is a mildly annotated list of the main Chinese dynasties.  As the purpose of this timeline is to give context rather than comprehensive taxonomy, there are other smaller dynasties between these that I have omitted.

Dynasty

Started

Ended

Notes
Xia

2070 BC

1600 BC

Since its beginnings predate the establishment of written history in China, the Xia dynasty’s origins can only be speculated at from archaeological findings, and from Shang dynasty records.
Shang

1600 BC

1029 BC

Began when Cheng Tang overthrew the last Xia ruler, Jie, at the Battle of Mingtao.
Zhou

1029 BC

476 BC

Divided into Eastern and Western dynasties, the traditional form of Chinese writing first appeared during this period.
Warring States Period

475 BC

221 BC

A period of civil war, in which no one group held the Mandate of Heaven.  The famous military treatise by General Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”, was written during this period.
Qin

221 BC

206 BC

Despite being short (only 2 rulers), the Qin dynasty had a profound impact on Chinese history.  The Qin is the first Imperial dynasty; its founder Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of China, and also started the building of the Great Wall.
Han

206 BC

220

Considered to be a golden age of Chinese civilization.  The main ethnic majority in China still call themselves Han, and the Chinese written language is still called Han Characters.
Six Dynasties Period

220

589

Another period of civil war between dynasties. The great Chinese literary classic, The Three Kingdoms, was written about this period.  Due to the pervasive influence of this Ming-era romantic novel, there are many books, movies, poems, and other works of art set during this period.
Sui

581

618

Like the Qin dynasty, Sui rule was ruthless and tyrannical, and in similar fashion it quickly lost the Mandate of Heaven.
Tang

618

907

Another golden age of culture and learning.  The system of imperial examinations for government positions, largely in place to this day, was established at this time.
Song

960

1279

This period was marked by significant advances in both gunpowder and rice cultivation, but not enough so to withstand the invading Mongols.
Yuan (Mongolian)

1279

1368

China was conquered by Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. But despite their military prowess, the Mongolians were largely assimilated by Chinese culture and civilization.  Marco Polo’s sojourn in China happens during this time.
Ming

1368

1644

Chu Yuan-chang removed the Mongols from the throne, undertook great infrastructure projects, and started projecting Chinese power abroad.  The Great Wall reached its current form, and the Treasure Fleet made contact with European colonial powers.
Qing (Manchurian)

1644

1912

Ming generals invite the Manchurians into China to help end a civil war; after doing so, they take China for themselves and rule for almost 300 years.  But as with the Mongols, the Manchurians quickly assimilated Chinese culture, and the basic form of local  government and civil service was as in earlier dynasties.
Republic of China

1912

1949

Though not a monarchy, the Republic is held by many to be a dynasty in that it enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven for longer that either the Qin or Sui dynasties.
People’s Republic of China

1949

Present

As with many dynasties before it, the Republic collapsed through corruption and misrule, and the Mandate of Heaven passed to its current holders, the Chinese Communist Party.

Sources: Most of this comes from memory; the dates are from Wikipedia.

Food of Yunnan 2: 宜良烤鴨 – Yiliang Roast Duck

Under the old British Colonial system for spelling Chinese words with roman characters, called the Wade-Giles system, the capital of China,  北京  (literally “northern capital”) was called Peking.  In 1958 the Chinese government published their own official romanization scheme, called Pinyin.  In Pinyin,  北京  romanizes to Beijing, and after the US normalized relations with China in 1979, Pinyin became the international standard and English publications around the world started calling the Chinese capital Beijing instead of Peking.

But though the capital is now referred to universally as Beijing, the old usage of Peking still survives in a few places.  One is in the name of China’s top university, which is still referred to as Peking University – don’t ask why; a good friend of the family got her degree there and even she doesn’t know.  Another such linguistic remnant is that culinary marvel: Peking Duck.  Most of you will at some point have eaten or at least heard of it: a whole duck, slow-roasted for over 24 hours in a special oven through a special and involved process (see the Wikipedia article), served with thin pancakes, green onions, and hoisin sauce.

Peking duck has been around a long time – the first known mention of it was in a cookbook published in the year 1330.  And in 1901, during the closing years of the Qing dynasty, a Yunnanese restauranteur named Zhang Wen went to Beijing to study cookery there, most notably the art of preparing Peking Duck.  When he returned to his home town of Yiliang, he opened a restaurant called Zhibin Garden at the local train station.  But restauranteur Zhang was not content to merely reproduce the Beijing Duck of the capital; he wanted to localize it and make it something unique to the region.

Zhang used a mud oven instead of a brick oven, honey instead of malt syrup for the glaze, and most distinctively pine branches and needles instead of the Gaoliang hardwood normally used for Peking duck.  The end result is now called Yiliang Duck and has become a Yunnanese speciality.  One I certainly intend to try when we arrive.

Sources:

History of Yiliang Duck: China Daily and welcomechinese.com
Photos: Yunnan Tourism Administration and the Ming’s Footprints travel blog

 

Meeting the team!

Well, the project has become that much more real.  This week, I got the chance to meet the other members of my China deployment team, otherwise known as Team China 18, for the first time.  It was strange — from everything I heard and read about the IBM Corporate Service Corps, I went into this teleconference already expecting everyone to be articulate, passionate, and as excited about this endeavor as I am.  But knowing it and feeling it first hand, even over the phone, are entirely different, and I have to say I was really impressed by the people I will soon be working with.

As our first group assignment, we had put together slide pack to introduce ourselves, both to our prospective clients and to one another.  To share this slide pack with you, I have created a permanent page on the blog — see About Team China 18 in the menu bar above.  Head on over and meet the team!  You’ll be hearing a lot more about them, and with any luck you may be hearing from them directly, in the weeks and months to come.

Caroline’s questions…

The highly successful blogger Ruth Dela Cruz, herself an IBM Corporate Service Corps alumna, gave me advice early on that to hold people’s interest I needed to season my writing liberally with photos and graphics,  and since following her advice my readership has jumped up substantially. This post, however, will have to be an all-text post, so my apologies to Ruth and the rest of you….

Caroline Ashworth is a good friend of the family who has been following this blog since I started it.  Yesterday on Facebook she sent me the following post:

I don’t understand why your assignment location is so far away and others as well.

Do IBM consider local need or the environment in which those selected to participate in this programme live and work?  The realities of each individual’s daily need?

What about philanthropy?

Is this project an act of philanthropy? Or do the destinations selected pose viable for future IBM revenue?

Sorry but I have been reading your blogs and am not sure I have captured the essence of purpose of all this.

Not to say that I haven’t found you blogs very interesting though.

It feels like they set the criteria for selection so high that as an outsider it looks like and internal award ceremony for the Victoria Cross.

What are the proposed outcomes of it and objectives?

Just trying to understand it better that’s all.

Caroline runs a local organization called Bringing Communities Together,  which develops and delivers short tailor made learning programs, activities and events that benefit families and the wider community. So she is no stranger to community support work , and she raises some good questions and some fair challenges. I’d like to respond to them here.  Many of these questions are connected, and I see three main themes here:

  • What is the goal? Is the IBM Corporate Service Corps philanthropy or strategic investment?
  • How does IBM decide which communities to invest in?  I also think there is an implied challenge here: why isn’t IBM investing locally instead of to the far-flung corners of the world?
  • Within each community, how does it decide which businesses/schools/organizations to work with?
  • Why does IBM set the barriers of participation so high?

What is the goal? Is the IBM Corporate Service Corps philanthropy or strategic investment?

IBM is a public corporation, owned by its individual shareholders.  These are people like you and me.  In fact they are you and me.  I own IBM stock, and any of you around the world whose retirement savings are invested in any major mutual fund are also likely to be part owners of IBM.  We invest money in IBM, and IBM agrees to do their best to give us a return on our investment, either through dividends or appreciation in the stock price.  If an IBM officer or employee takes our money and uses it for another purpose (e.g. sending the kids to university, taking a holiday in Tahiti, or remodeling a backyard tennis court), there is a word for that: embezzlement.  Which is just a fancy word for theft.  Even if this embezzler is a higher-minded individual and uses the money to start a center for the homeless instead of lining their duck pond, the principle is still the same (see my post Corporate Philanthropy: A Walk on the Dark Side for more on this topic)

The only defensible way that a publicly held corporation can engage in any kind of philanthropy is by clearly demonstrating that doing so will have a direct impact on the return to its shareholders.  This return does not have to be monetary: the highly successful initiative to get institutional investors to divest stock of any company doing business with the apartheid regime of South Africa is a great example of this.  But nevertheless, a company’s philanthropic investments have to be clearly tied to either principles or objectives that shareholders approve of.

So the answer to this first question is that the IBM Corporate Service Corps is philanthropic in that it gives away free services that IBM can and does otherwise charge for, to communities and organizations that could otherwise perform them.  But the CSC is by no means a random act of kindness; it is a strategic investment that IBM hopes to benefit directly from in several ways:

  • By targeting communities and organizations that have the potential to grow into paying IBM clients, and directly helping them succeed in that growth
  • To contribute directly to IBM’s good reputation and brand awareness, both of which are clear differentiators from its main competitors
  • To enhance the global effectiveness of its employees by giving them hands-on experience in radically different cultures and operating models

How does IBM decide which communities to invest in?  I also think there is an implied challenge here: why isn’t IBM investing locally instead of to the far-flung corners of the world?

Let me answer the challenge first, because it is an important one.  IBM does act locally.  Corporate responsibility is a good example of the non-monetary returns that many of today’s shareholders demand on their investments.  IBM invests heavily in local concerns, particularly in the areas of education and the environment.  In fact, with specific regard to you and your organization Caroline, there is a program called On-Demand Community that lets me directly nominate individual community organizations for small grants in exchange for a commitment of volunteer service; let’s talk about how I might be able to do something for Bringing Communities Together next year.

The other thing to remember is that IBM is a global company with a direct presence in 170 countries.  So in a very real sense, every CSC deployment is local.  My deployment in China, the teams currently deployed in Ghana and Kazakhstan, previous CSC deployments to dozens of other countries, all of these are backed by local IBM offices in those places.  Those local offices are led by local community members, and get the credit for bringing in teams of international

So why don’t the local offices mobilize local IBM employees to work directly in their own communities?  Surely that would be far cheaper, and it would allow those precious relationships to be built by the IBM’ers most directly placed to capitalize on them.  Well, I do not run the CSC, nor am I the one deciding its investment strategy, but I would speculate that this decision was taken for two reasons:

  • Distribution of skills.  IBM has many different product offerings: hardware, software, consulting, research, even advertising (I believe IBM Interactive is the fifth largest online advertising agency).  These capabilities are not evenly distributed across IBM offices around the world.  In my own specialty, CRM, such skills are decidedly localized.  The Corporate Service Corps provides an infrastructure for getting individual skill sets where they are needed the most.
  • Investment in cultural awareness and global capability.  IBM needs leaders who can design, deliver, and operate large, geographically distributed solutions.  By sending prospective leaders to areas far outside their normal operating environment, IBM is building this capability as directly as possible.

Within those communities, how does it decide which businesses/schools/organizations to work with? 

This sort of assessment is not within IBM’s core competency.  And while IBM has offices in most of the regions the CSC deploys into, these offices do not usually have the sort of logistics expertise to successfully manage the sort of large multinational deployments that the CSC requires.  So to help with this aspect of the operation, IBM partners with major NGO’s who do have their core competency in these areas.  The NGO that I will be working with in my deployment is called the Digital Opportunity Trust (see my previous blog post Meet the Digital Opportunity Trust for more about them).

Why does IBM set the barriers of participation so high?

Well, with regards to Caroline’s initial query, I think that obtaining a Victoria Cross is still quite a bit more difficult :-)  Let’s put some numbers to things here.  To be eligible for the CSC you have to have been within the top 25% of performers worldwide for at least two of the past three years.  IBM employs about 420,000 people, so if you assume most people’s performance ratings are relatively stable then there will be about 100,000 people each year that are potentially eligible to participate.  IBM has budgeted around $50M for the CSC as a whole, which allows for several hundred people to be deployed each year.  So the bar is not set impossibly high, but selection is still highly competitive.

How does IBM decide who to select? As I referred to above, IBM considers the Corporate Service Corps to be first and foremost a leadership program.  In this regard it has two aims:

  • To makes its leaders better prepared for true global operations
  • To retain those top performers and keep them from moving to IBM’s competitors

The first goal is hard to measure, since there is no effective way of comparing the results to a control group.  The second goal is much simpler to measure and the results speak for themselves…

Of the roughly 2,000 people who have successfully completed a CSC deployment since the program began in 2008, not a single one has left IBM.

A hint of what lies ahead… #teamchina18

Yesterday we received the first indication of what challenges lie ahead.  Digital Opportunity Trust, our NGO facilitator, sent us the following little tidbit of information

The following table presents several options for continued high impact CSC program opportunities in China building on the past successful CSC Program implementations of DOT with IBM in China during 2009 – 2011. The final scope of work will be decided upon discussion with local partners and stakeholders.

Supporting Local Industrial Cluster Development Helping local Hi-Tech industry cluster in guiding local private economy, especially SMEs engaged in ICT, service outsourcing, bio-tech and modern processing/manufacturing to move toward a good and healthy development Local Hi-Tech Industrial Parks
SMEs Transformation and Innovation Helping local government in building a smarter strategy in upgrading competitiveness and international business cooperation. Using IT technology in creating a worldwide network Local commercial bureau
Supporting Local NGO/Industrial Ass. Development Supporting Youth/Women  entrepreneurs development Youth League/Woman entrepreneurs association, etc.
Community Service Interacting with rural schools by involving IBM China’s ODC programs Education Organization, selecting 1-2 rural high schools

Many of you reading this are not familiar with what I do on a day-to-day basis, and might well read this and and think to yourself, “That doesn’t actually tell me anything about what he will actually be doing!”.

Some of you, however, have a deep working knowledge of my profession, in many cases greater than my own, while others of you will be colleagues who actually work with me on a day-to-day basis.  You will greet the above table with a knowing smile, and say to yourself, “That doesn’t actually tell me anything about what he will actually be doing!”.

Rest assured, this lack of specificity is not lost on me.  I’m certain this is because the DOT are still working with the targeted organizations to finalize the scope of our engagement, and are probably just now figuring out the team assignments.  In truth it makes sense for them to wait until these tasks are complete to share such details with us.

But that doesn’t make the waiting any easier :-)

First conference call with our team members is Thursday; am really looking forward to meeting them.

 

Historical Kunming Part 2: Discourses on Salt and Iron

Historical Kunming Part 2: Discourses on Salt and Iron

Salt making in the time of Marco Polo

They also have brine wells, from which they make salt that is used for food by all the inhabitants of the country.  And I assure you that the king derives great profit from this salt.

So wrote Marco Polo when he visited Kunming in or near the year 1282 AD.  The king was a son of the emperor Kublai Kahn, grandson of Genghis Kahn and the founder of what the Chinese referred to as the Yuan Dynasty.  This Mongolian emperor, like the Chinese emperors both before and after him, enforced a complete monopoly on the manufacture and sale of salt throughout all of China.  And it was in Kunming that one of these salt production centers was established.

In reading about this monopoly,I came across an amazing connection between modern and ancient Chinese history, one that I will enjoy sharing with you…

Emperor Wu of Han

Our story begins around 110 BC, during the reign of Emperor Wu, seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty.  Emperor Wu was known for lavishing money on territorial expansion (which he was very good at), extravagant displays, and “advisors” aligned with his many superstitions. And in the time honored tradition of other despots, from Pharaoh Khufu to Louis XIV, Emperor Wu’s grandiose visions nearly bankrupted his empire.

But just as Louis XIV came to rely upon the genius of Colbert to save France from economic ruin, so too was Emperor Wu served by one of the period’s great economic thinkers: his agriculture minister Sang Hongyang.  It was minister Sang’s idea nationalize the production of salt and iron, selling back to the public at regulated prices. Though wildly unpopular, this monopolization was a huge financial success for the government, and bankrolled many further conquests, extravagances, and superstitions for the rest of Emperor Wu’s reign.

Regent Huo Guang

But when emperor Wu died, many people, particularly scholars in the provinces, argued for a return to the lasseiz-faire policies of previous Han emperors.  These people became something vaguely akin to a political party, and styled themselves the reformists.  Officials of the central government quite naturally argued that the central government should retain the monopoly; these officials styled themselves modernists.

The newly crowned Emperor Zhao was only 8 years old when Emperor Wu died, and China was ruled by a regent named Huo Guang.  Regent Huo had no desire to see this disagreement break out into civil war. So six years after the death of Emperor Wu, he ordered the reformists and the modernists to gather at court to hold a great debate that would resolve the issue.  That debate was known as the Discourse on Salt and Iron; its proceedings have survived to this day.

Agriculture Minister Sang Hongyang

A compromise was agreed.  Some monopolies, most notably that on liquor, were abolished.  But for the most part, the modernists (who were led in the debate by Sang Hongyang himself) were judged to have won the day, and the government got to keep its salt monopoly, though Sang himself would be executed a year later for involvement in a plot to have the regent killed.  And the salt monopoly has survived from that day until now.

Taken on its own, this story would be just a mildly interesting historical footnote, an insight into what official life was like two thousand years ago in the world’s oldest surviving civilization.

But let us fast forward now to 2009 and take a look at the actions of a certain government official Chen Guowei, Supervisor on the Enterprise Supervision Board of the State Asset Supervision and Administration Commission.  Supervisor Chen had proposed that the salt industry be liberalized and eventually privatized.  These reforms were supported by many Chinese businesses, but opposed by consumer groups, who feared instability, speculation-fueled price bubbles, and fears over quality control of iodization (for many Chinese, salt is their only nutritional source of iodine, a key nutrient).  And so in the spirit of long-deceased precursor in Chinese government, Supervisor Chen held a meeting on Salt Reform.

The arguments raised in that meeting have echoes over two thousand years long.

Sources:

  • Most of the story of Emperor Wu, Regent Huo Guang, and Minister Sang Hongyang come from Wikipedia and linked Chinese history sites
  • The report on the 2009 salt reform meeting comes from East Asia Forum
  • And the Discourses on Salt and Iron themselves?  The ones written two thousand years ago?  Still available on Amazon :-)