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Posts Tagged ‘China

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”*…

An argument for curiosity, openness, and the humility that underlies them both…

Philosophers aren’t the only ones who love wisdom. Everyone, philosopher or not, loves her own wisdom: the wisdom she has or takes herself to have. What distinguishes the philosopher is loving the wisdom she doesn’t have. Philosophy is, therefore, a form of humility: being aware that you lack what is of supreme importance. There may be no human being who exemplified this form of humility more perfectly than Socrates. It is no coincidence that he is considered the first philosopher within the Western canon.

Socrates did not write philosophy; he simply went around talking to people. But these conversations were so transformative that Plato devoted his life to writing dialogues that represent Socrates in conversation. These dialogues are not transcripts of actual conversations, but they are nonetheless clearly intended to reflect not only Socrates’s ideas but his personality. Plato wanted the world to remember Socrates. Generations after Socrates’s death, warring philosophical schools such as the Stoics and the Skeptics each appropriated Socrates as figurehead. Though they disagreed on just about every point of doctrine, they were clear that in order to count themselves as philosophers they had to somehow be working in the tradition of Socrates.

What is it about Socrates that made him into a symbol for the whole institution of philosophy? Consider the fact that, when the Oracle at Delphi proclaims Socrates wisest of men, he tries to prove it wrong. As Plato recounts it in the Apology:

I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.” Then, when I examined this man—there is no need for me to tell you his name, he was one of our public men—my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”

If Socrates’s trademark claim is this protestation of ignorance, his trademark activity is the one also described in this passage: refuting the views of others. These are the conversations we find in Plato’s texts. How are the claim and the activity related? Socrates denies that his motivations are altruistic: he says he is not a teacher, and insists that he is himself the primary beneficiary of the conversations he initiates. This adds to the mystery: What is Socrates getting out of showing people that they don’t know what they take themselves to know? What’s his angle?

Over and over again, Socrates approaches people who are remarkable for their lack of humility—which is to say, for the fact that they feel confident in their own knowledge of what is just, or pious, or brave, or moderate. You might have supposed that Socrates, whose claim to fame is his awareness of his own ignorance, would treat these self-proclaimed “wise men” (Sophists) with contempt, hostility, or indifference. But he doesn’t. The most remarkable feature of Socrates’s approach is his punctilious politeness and sincere enthusiasm. The conversation usually begins with Socrates asking his interlocutor: Since you think you know, can you tell me, what is courage (or wisdom, or piety, or justice . . .)? Over and over again, it turns out that they think they can answer, but they can’t. Socrates’s hope springs eternal: even as he walks toward the courtroom to be tried—and eventually put to death—for his philosophical activity, he is delighted to encounter the self-important priest Euthyphro, who will, surely, be able to say what piety is…

Socrates seemed to think that the people around him could help him acquire the knowledge he so desperately wanted—even though they were handicapped by the illusion that they already knew it. Indeed, I believe that their ill-grounded confidence was precisely what drew Socrates to them. If you think you know something, you will be ready to speak on the topic in question. You will hold forth, spout theories, make claims—and all this, under Socrates’s relentless questioning, is the way to actually acquire the knowledge you had deluded yourself into thinking you already had…

It’s one thing to say, “I don’t know anything.” That thought comes cheap. One can wonder, “Who really and truly knows anything?” in a way that is dismissive, uninquisitive, detached. It can be a way of saying, “Knowledge is unattainable, so why even try?” Socratic humility is more expensive and more committal than that. He sought to map the terrain of his ignorance, to plot its mountains and its rivers, to learn to navigate it. That, I think, is why he speaks of knowledge of his own ignorance. He’s not just someone who acknowledges or admits to his ignorance, but someone who has learned to dwell within it.

Admittedly, this may seem like a paradoxical project. It’s one thing to be missing your wallet—you will know it once you’ve found it. But suppose you’re missing not only your wallet, but also the knowledge that you ever had a wallet, and the understanding of what a wallet is. One of Socrates’s interlocutors, Meno, doubts whether it’s possible to come to know anything if you know so little to begin with. If someone doesn’t know where she’s going, it doesn’t seem as though she can even take a first step in the right direction. Can you map in total darkness?

Socrates’s answer was no. Or at least: you can’t do it alone. The right response to noticing one’s own ignorance is to try to escape it by acquiring someone else’s knowledge. But the only way to do that is to explain to them why you aren’t yet able to accept this or that claim of theirs as knowledge—and that is what mapping one’s ignorance amounts to. Socrates stages an exhibition of this method for Meno by demonstrating how much geometrical progress he can make with a young slave boy by doing nothing but asking questions that expose the boy’s false assumptions. It is when he refutes others’ claims to knowledge that Socrates’s own ignorance takes shape, for him, as something he can know. What appears as a sea of darkness when approached introspectively turns out to be navigable when brought into contact with the knowledge claims of another…

Socrates saw the pursuit of knowledge as a collaborative project involving two very different roles. There’s you or I or some other representative of Most People, who comes forward and makes a bold claim. Then there’s Socrates, or one of his contemporary descendants, who questions and interrogates and distinguishes and calls for clarification. This is something we’re often still doing—as philosophers, as scientists, as interviewers, as friends, on Twitter and Facebook and in many casual personal conversations. We’re constantly probing one another, asking, “How can you say that, given X, Y, Z?” We’re still trying to understand one another by way of objection, clarification, and the simple fact of inability to take what someone has said as knowledge. It comes so naturally to us to organize ourselves into the knower/objector pairing that we don’t even notice we are living in the world that Socrates made. The scope of his influence is remarkable. But equally remarkable is the means by which it was achieved: he did so much by knowing, writing, and accomplishing—nothing at all.

And yet for all this influence, many of our ways are becoming far from Socratic. More and more our politics are marked by unilateral persuasion instead of collaborative inquiry. If, like Socrates, you view knowledge as an essentially collaborative project, you don’t go into a conversation expecting to persuade any more than you expect to be persuaded. By contrast, if you do assume you know, you embrace the role of persuader in advance, and stand ready to argue people into agreement. If argument fails, you might tolerate a state of disagreement—but if the matter is serious enough, you’ll resort to enforcing your view through incentives or punishments. Socrates’s method eschewed the pressure to persuade. At the same time, he did not tolerate tolerance. His politics of humility involved genuinely opening up the question under dispute, in such a way that neither party would be permitted to close it, to settle on an answer, unless the other answered the same. By contrast, our politics—of persuasion, tolerance, incentives, and punishment—is deeply uninquisitive…

Knowing takes radical collaboration: an openness to being persuaded as much as an eagerness to persuade: “Against Persuasion,” from Agnes Callard (@AgnesCallard)

* Socrates

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As we listen and learn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party was hastily convened to advance Mao Zedong’s by then decidedly radical agenda for China– teeing up “Red August,” a series of purges of reactionary or otherwise impure thinkers. According to official statistics published in 1980, from August to September in 1966, a total of 1,772 people—including teachers and principals of many schools—were killed in Beijing by Red Guards; 33,695 homes were ransacked and 85,196 families were forced to leave the city. (1985 statistics, which included the areas immediately around Beijing, put the death toll at around 10,000.)

Red August kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or as we tend to know it, The Cultural Revolution, which lasted until Mao’s death in 1976. Its stated goal was to preserve Chinese communism by purging alternative thought– remnants of capitalist and traditional elements– from Chinese society, and to impose Mao Zedong Thought (known outside China as Maoism) as the dominant ideology in the PRC. A selection of Mao’s sayings, compiled in Little Red Book, became a sacred text in what was, essentially a personality cult.

Estimates of the death toll from the Cultural Revolution, including civilians and Red Guards, vary greatly, ranging from hundreds of thousands to to 20 million. The exact figure of those who were persecuted or died during the Cultural Revolution, however, may never be known, as many deaths went unreported or were actively covered up by the police or local authorities. Tens of millions of people were persecuted (especially members of ethnic minorities): senior officials were purged or exiled; millions were accused of being members of the Five Black Categories, suffering public humiliation, imprisonment, torture, hard labor, seizure of property, and sometimes execution or harassment into suicide; intellectuals were considered the “Stinking Old Ninth” and were widely persecuted—notable scholars and scientists were killed or committed suicide. Schools and universities were closed. And over 10 million urban “intellectual youths were sent to rural areas in the Down to the Countryside Movement.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 1, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice?”*…

Wild rice

Rice is the most valuable agricultural commodity on the planet. Hundreds of millions of metric tons of it are produced every year, an amount valued at more than $300 billion every year. Billions of people around the world rely on it as a staple of their diets, and have done so for millennia all over East, Southeast, and South Asia, and beyond.

But the rice that’s so popular today has a distinct beginning as a cultivated crop, a beginning that arrived somewhere along the Yangzi River more than 10,000 years ago. (The rice traditionally grown in West Africa, and which was brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people and merchants in the early modern period, stems from a separate domestication event. It’s not as productive as its Asian cousin, and so is less widely cultivated now.)

Ten millennia in the past, rice grew a bit beyond its current range thanks to slightly warmer and wetter climatic conditions at the dawn of the Holocene. The people living around the Yangzi River, and slightly to the north of there, were quite happy to use the stands of wild rice growing in their homeland. Grasses might not seem like the most natural food source for people to exploit, because it requires a great deal of processing (grinding, cooking, etc.) to make it edible. As part of a forager’s diet, however, it offered advantages: It was plentiful, it was reliable when other food sources like wild game came up short, and if properly stored, it could last for years.

Around the Yellow River, northern China’s key waterway, rice didn’t grow. Millet, however, grew in abundant quantities. As their counterparts had done further to the south with rice, the inhabitants of northern China learned to process it. A couple of thousand years of experimentation led from simply collecting wild grasses wherever they were found to planting wild varieties in gardens and fields, then intentionally and unintentionally selecting for traits to make those grasses more productive and less likely to fall off the stalk. Farmers created their crops, the ancestors of the foods we eat today, and the increasing viability of the crops created farming as a way of life.

For a variety of reasons, successful farmers tend to have large numbers of children, who expand outward from their core areas, taking their way of life with them. This process of demic diffusion defines most centers of early agricultural innovation around the world. Farming begets more farmers, who tend to spread out. For this reason, Neolithic China – an environment home to not one but two distinct agricultural traditions – produced a stunning diversity of early farming cultures. Starting around 7000 years ago, after 5000 BC, these farming cultures exploded in numbers, scale, and complexity. They filled up new territories and built more and larger villages. Towns followed, and leaders in the form of chieftains and kings. Social hierarchies and inequality defined these new Neolithic societies, distinctions of rank that could be inherited across generations.

These were the foundations on which organized states, writing, and what we might eventually call “Chinese civilization” built, many thousands of years down the road…

Jared Diamond has argued that the advent of agriculture was “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“; in any event, it was a watershed moment. Patrick Wyman explores the dawn of agriculture and of the social complexity it spawned: “Neolithic China.”

* “Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice? One takes away a million lives, the other saves a hundred times as many.” – N.K. Jemisin, How Long ’til Black Future Month?

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As we contemplate cultivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 2017 that the U.N. General Assembly adopted 2019-2028 as the Decade of Family Farming. This program aims to serve as a framework for developing and promoting better public policies on family farming– an opportunity to contribute to an end to hunger and poverty as well as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Here’s something that each of us can do to help the neediest.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Bright moons cunningly carved and dyed with spring water”*…

 

Tang Porcelain

 

‘I am not yet so infected with the contagion of China-fancy’, wrote Samuel Johnson in a letter in September 1777, ‘as to like any thing at that rate which can so easily be broken’. At the time, the craze for Chinese export porcelain – ceramics mass-produced in China for foreign markets – had reached epidemic proportions in the Western world: a ‘contagion of China-fancy’. Over 70 million pieces entered Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and customers from London to Lisbon were desperate for more. The most afflicted were the ‘porcelain sick’ royals and aristocrats, who coated their palace walls, floors and ceilings in ‘white gold’. Patient zero was August the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. His Porzellankrankheit was so acute that he amassed a collection of nearly 30,000 pieces and imprisoned the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger until he figured out porcelain’s secret recipe, which had been closely guarded by the Chinese for centuries.

Export porcelain fused two worlds – producer and consumer, East and West – establishing a relationship that continues to shape the way the world works today…

How Chinese porcelain became a worldwide sensation, changing tastes and the global economy: “White Gold.”

See also: “The European Obsession with Porcelain.”

[Image above: source]

* from a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poem describing the Emperor’s porcelain tea cups

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As we handle with care, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972, after President Richard Nixon’s successful visit to China, that Beijing gave the National Zoo a pair of giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing.  (The U.S. sent China a pair of musk oxen.)

On that first day, nearly 20,000 people stood in long lines to catch a glimpse of North America’s first pandas; in their initial year at the zoo, the pair attracted more than 1 million visitors.

Ling-Ling_and_Hsing-Hsing_1985 source

 

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 16, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action”*…

 

Facial recognition

China’s facial recognition technology identifies visitors in a display at the Digital China Exhibition in Fuzhou, Fujian province, earlier this year

 

Collective wisdom is that China is becoming a kind of all-efficient Technocratic Leviathan thanks to the combination of machine learning and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism has always been plagued with problems of gathering and collating information and of being sufficiently responsive to its citizens’ needs to remain stable. Now, the story goes, a combination of massive data gathering and machine learning will solve the basic authoritarian dilemma. When every transaction that a citizen engages in is recorded by tiny automatons riding on the devices they carry in their hip pockets, when cameras on every corner collect data on who is going where, who is talking to whom, and uses facial recognition technology to distinguish ethnicity and identify enemies of the state, a new and far more powerful form of authoritarianism will emerge. Authoritarianism then, can emerge as a more efficient competitor that can beat democracy at its home game (some fear this; some welcome it).

The theory behind this is one of strength reinforcing strength – the strengths of ubiquitous data gathering and analysis reinforcing the strengths of authoritarian repression to create an unstoppable juggernaut of nearly perfectly efficient oppression. Yet there is another story to be told – of weakness reinforcing weakness. Authoritarian states were always particularly prone to the deficiencies identified in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State – the desire to make citizens and their doings legible to the state, by standardizing and categorizing them, and reorganizing collective life in simplified ways, for example by remaking cities so that they were not organic structures that emerged from the doings of their citizens, but instead grand chessboards with ordered squares and boulevards, reducing all complexities to a square of planed wood. The grand state bureaucracies that were built to carry out these operations were responsible for multitudes of horrors, but also for the crumbling of the Stalinist state into a Brezhnevian desuetude, where everyone pretended to be carrying on as normal because everyone else was carrying on too. The deficiencies of state action, and its need to reduce the world into something simpler that it could comprehend and act upon created a kind of feedback loop, in which imperfections of vision and action repeatedly reinforced each other.

So what might a similar analysis say about the marriage of authoritarianism and machine learning? Something like the following, I think. There are two notable problems with machine learning. One – that while it can do many extraordinary things, it is not nearly as universally effective as the mythology suggests. The other is that it can serve as a magnifier for already existing biases in the data. The patterns that it identifies may be the product of the problematic data that goes in, which is (to the extent that it is accurate) often the product of biased social processes. When this data is then used to make decisions that may plausibly reinforce those processes (by singling e.g. particular groups that are regarded as problematic out for particular police attention, leading them to be more liable to be arrested and so on), the bias may feed upon itself.

This is a substantial problem in democratic societies, but it is a problem where there are at least some counteracting tendencies. The great advantage of democracy is its openness to contrary opinions and divergent perspectives. This opens up democracy to a specific set of destabilizing attacks but it also means that there are countervailing tendencies to self-reinforcing biases. When there are groups that are victimized by such biases, they may mobilize against it (although they will find it harder to mobilize against algorithms than overt discrimination). When there are obvious inefficiencies or social, political or economic problems that result from biases, then there will be ways for people to point out these inefficiencies or problems.

These correction tendencies will be weaker in authoritarian societies; in extreme versions of authoritarianism, they may barely even exist…

In short, there is a very plausible set of mechanisms under which machine learning and related techniques may turn out to be a disaster for authoritarianism, reinforcing its weaknesses rather than its strengths, by increasing its tendency to bad decision making, and reducing further the possibility of negative feedback that could help correct against errors. This disaster would unfold in two ways. The first will involve enormous human costs: self-reinforcing bias will likely increase discrimination against out-groups, of the sort that we are seeing against the Uighur today. The second will involve more ordinary self-ramifying errors, that may lead to widespread planning disasters, which will differ from those described in Scott’s account of High Modernism in that they are not as immediately visible, but that may also be more pernicious, and more damaging to the political health and viability of the regime for just that reason.

So in short, this conjecture would suggest that  the conjunction of AI and authoritarianism (has someone coined the term ‘aithoritarianism’ yet? I’d really prefer not to take the blame), will have more or less the opposite effects of what people expect. It will not be Singapore writ large, and perhaps more brutal. Instead, it will be both more radically monstrous and more radically unstable…

Henry Farrell (@henryfarrell) makes that case that the “automation of authoritarianism” may backfire on China (and on the regimes to which it is exporting it’s surveillance technology): “Seeing Like a Finite State Machine.”

See also: “China Government Spreads Uyghur Analytics Across China.”

* Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

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As we ponder privacy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1769 that the first patent was issued (in London, to John Bevan) for Venetian blinds.  Invented centuries before in Persia, then brought back to Venice through trade, they became popular in Europe, then the U.S. as both a manager of outside light and as an early privacy technology.

venetian blinds source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“He who controls the money supply of a nation controls the nation”*…

 

yuan1

 

In all economies, neither the amount of deposits nor the money supply hinge on national or household savings. When households and companies save, they do not alter the money supply. Banks also create deposits/money out of thin air when they buy securities from non-banks. As banks in China buy more than 80 per cent of government bonds, fiscal stimulus also leads to substantial money creation. In short, when banks engage in too much credit origination — as they have done in China — they generate a money bubble.

Over the past 10 years, Chinese banks have been on a credit and money creation binge. They have created Rmb144tn ($21tn) of new money since 2009, more than twice the amount of money supply created in the US, the eurozone and Japan combined over the same period. In total, China’s money supply stands at Rmb192tn, equivalent to $28tn. It equals the size of broad money supply in the US and the eurozone put together, yet China’s nominal GDP is only two-thirds that of the US. In a market-based economy constraints are in place, such as the scrutiny of bank shareholders and regulators, which prevent this sort of excess. In a socialist system, such constraints do not exist. Apparently, the Chinese banking system still operates in the latter.

[Emphasis added]

[image above: source]

* James A, Garfield

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As we practice parsimony, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that the longest running game show on American television, The Price is Right, hosted by Bob Barker, premiered on CBS.  Originally called The New Price Is Right to distinguish it from the earlier/original version (1956–65) hosted by Bill Cullen, it proved so popular in its own right that, in June 1973, the producers decided to drop the word “New” from its title.  In 2007, Drew Carey took over from barker as host.  Now in its 47th season, The Price Is Right has aired over 8,000 episodes since its debut and is one of the longest-running network series of any sort in United States television history.

BARKER source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

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