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Posts Tagged ‘China

“To achieve style, begin by affecting none”*…

The first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

From Roger’s Bacon, in New Science, a brief history of scientific writing…

Since the founding of the first scientific journal in 1665, there have been calls to do away with stylistic elements in favor of clarity, concision, and precision.

In 1667, Thomas Sprat urged members of the Royal Society to “reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered so many things, almost in an equal number of words.” Some 200 years later, Charles Darwin said much the same: “I think too much pains cannot be taken in making the style transparently clear and throwing eloquence to the dogs” (Aaronson, 1977).

Darwin and Sprat eventually got their way. Modern scientific writing is homogenous, cookie-cutter, devoid of style. But scientific papers weren’t always like this.

Writing in The Last Word On Nothing blog, science journalist Roberta Kwok explains how old articles differ from their modern counterparts:

Scientists used to admit when they don’t know what the hell is going on.

When philosopher Pierre Gassendi tried to capture observations of Mercury passing in front of the Sun in 1631, he was beset by doubts:

“[T]hrown into confusion, I began to think that an ordinary spot would hardly pass over that full distance in an entire day. And I was undecided indeed… I wondered if perhaps I could not have been wrong in some way about the distance measured earlier.”

They get excited and use italics.

In 1892, a gentleman named William Brewster observed a bird called a northern shrike attacking a meadow mouse in Massachusetts. After tussling with its prey, he wrote, “[t]he Shrike now looked up and seeing me jumped on the mouse with both feet and flew off bearing it in its claws.”

They write charming descriptions.

Here’s French scientist Jean-Henri Fabre rhapsodizing about the emperor moth in his book, The Life of the Caterpillar (1916):

Who does not know the magnificent Moth, the largest in Europe, clad in maroon velvet with a necktie of white fur? The wings, with their sprinkling of grey and brown, crossed by a faint zig-zag and edged with smoky white, have in the centre a round patch, a great eye with a black pupil and a variegated iris containing successive black, white, chestnut and purple arcs.

All this to say: Scientists in the pre-modern era wrote freely, despite calls to do away with that freedom. At some point, narrative and literary styles vanished and were replaced with rigid formats and impoverished prose.  The question now is: Have we gone too far in removing artistry from scientific writing?

For a well-argued case that we have– “the way that we write is inseparable from the way that we think, and restrictions in one necessarily lead to restrictions in the other”– read on: “Research Papers Used to Have Style. What Happened?,” from @RogersBacon1 and @newscienceorg.

* E. B. White, The Elements of Style

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As we ponder purposive prose, we might spare a thought for Johann Adam Schall von Bell; he died on this date in 1666. An expressive writer in both German and Chinese, he was an astronomer and Jesuit missionary to China who revised the Chinese calendar, translated Western astronomical books, and was head of Imperial Board of Astronomy (1644-64). Given the Chinese name “Tang Ruowang,” he became a trusted adviser (1644-61) to Emperor Shun-chih, first emperor of the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911/12), who made him a mandarin.

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“A great sound is given forth from the empty vessel”*…

Pakistan’s economy appears to be in pretty bad shape. Riffing on a provocative thread from Atif Mian, the redoubtable Noah Smith compares the economic condition of Indian’s nuclear-armed antagonist with its island neighbor (and current basket case) Sri Lanka…

Many of the particular root causes of Pakistan’s situation are different than in Sri Lanka — they didn’t ban synthetic fertilizer or engage in sweeping tax cuts. The political situations of the two countries, though both dysfunctional, are also different (here is a primer on Pakistan’s troubles). But there are enough similarities at the macroeconomic level that I think it’s worth comparing and contrasting the two.

In my post about Sri Lanka, I made a checklist of eight features that made that country’s crisis so “textbook”:

• An import-dependent country

• A persistent trade deficit

• A pegged exchange rate

• Lots of foreign-currency borrowing

• Capital flight

• An exchange rate crash (balance-of-payments crisis)

• A sovereign default

• Accelerating inflation

[He then examines each as it pertains to Pakistan]

… Pakistan shares a lot in common with Sri Lanka. It doesn’t have a pegged exchange rate, it’s not as dependent on imported food, and it doesn’t have quite as much foreign-currency debt. But the basic ingredients for a slightly more drawn-out version of the classic emerging-markets crisis are there, and there are some indications that the crisis has already begun.

Because Pakistan didn’t peg its exchange rate and didn’t borrow quite as much in foreign currencies as Sri Lanka, it made fewer macroeconomic mistakes than its island counterpart. But in terms of long-term economic mismanagement, it has done much worse than Sri Lanka. No, it didn’t ban synthetic fertilizers — that was an especially bizarre and boneheaded move. But one glance at the income levels of Sri Lanka and Pakistan clearly shows how much the development of the latter has lagged:

Pakistan went from 3/4 as rich as Sri Lanka in 1990 to only about 1/3 as rich today. That’s an incredibly bad performance on Pakistan’s part…

Another emerging-market crisis looms: “Pakistan is in big trouble,” from @Noahpinion.

Oh, and the weather’s not helping either.

For a consideration of the interesting (that’s to say, challenging) questions that Pakistan’s predicament (and the travails of other debtor nations) pose for China, which is an increasingly large lender across the developing world, see the first set of items here.

* Pakistani proverb

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As we batten the hatches, we might spare a thought for Fazlur Rahman Malik; he died on this date in 1988. A scholar and philosopher, he was a prominent reformer in Pakistan, who devoted himself to educational reform and the revival of independent reasoning (ijtihad). While his work was widely-respected by other reformers, it drew strong criticism from conservative forces– who eventually forced him into exile. He left Pakistan in 1968 for the United States where he taught at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Chicago.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 26, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The effect of tea is cooling and as a beverage it is most suitable”*…

A gold statue of Lu Yu at Longjing tea plantation Hangzhou China

We think of tea as a drink– some of us, as the drink. But as Miranda Brown explains, for centuries tea was food; caffeinated soups and chewing the leaves were the norm…

Sometime in his adolescence, in the 700s, Lu Yu, an aspiring writer and professional clown, had his first taste of tea soup. This probably occurred not far from Lu’s childhood home: a Buddhist monastery that overlooked a scenic lake in Central China. But Lu was unimpressed; he called the soup “ditch water.”

What bothered Lu was not the tea, but all the other ingredients. The offending brew contained scallions, ginger, jujube dates, citrus peels, Dogwood berries, and mint, all of which cooks “threshed” together to make a smooth paste. The result was a chunky soup, or even a sauce.

Lu Yu, in fact, adored tea—he’d go on to become the “tea god” and the world’s greatest tea influencer. But the tea he loved—brewed only from powdered tea leaves, without any other flavoring—was, in the grand sweep of human history, a recent invention. People in Asia, where tea trees are native, ate tea leaves for centuries, perhaps even millennia, before ever thinking to drink it. And it is Lu Yu who is chiefly responsible for making tea drinking the norm for most people around the world…

The remarkable story of Lu Yu: “The Medieval Influencer Who Convinced the World to Drink Tea—Not Eat It,” from @Dong_Muda.

* Lu Yu

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As we steep, we might send bubbly birthday greetings to the founding master of another class of potable: Johann Jacob Schweppe; he was born on this date in 1740.  A watchmaker and amateur scientist, he developed the first practical process for the manufacture of bottled carbonated mineral water, based on a process discovered by Joseph Priestley in 1767.  His company, Schweppes (later Cadbury Schweppes, now Keurig Dr Pepper) graciously acknowledges Priestley as “the father of our industry.”

1783_Johann_Jacob_Schweppe
Jacob Schweppe

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March 16, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club”*…

As Viola Zhou explains, someone tried very hard to please Chinese movie censors…

Fight Club is getting an entirely different ending in a new online release in China, where imported films are often altered to show that the law enforcement, on the side of justice, always trumps the villain. 

The 1999 film by David Fincher originally ends with the Narrator (Edward Norton) killing his split personality Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). With the female lead Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), he then watches all the buildings explode outside the window and collapse, suggesting Tyler’s anarchist plan to destroy consumerism is in the works.

The exact opposite happens in the edit of the same film released in China. In the version on the Chinese streaming site Tencent Video, the explosion scene has been removed. Instead, viewers are told that the state successfully busted Tyler’s plan to destroy the world…

Cult Classic ‘Fight Club’ Gets a Very Different Ending in China,” from @violazhouyi in @VICE.

* “Tyler Durden”

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As we contemplate censorship, we might note that this was a bad day for revolutionaries of another stripe:  it was on this date in 1606 that the trial of Guy Fawkes and other conspirators began, ending with their execution on January 31 for their roles in the Catholic Restorationist “Gunpowder Plot.”

George Cruikshank‘s illustration of Guy Fawkes, published in William Harrison Ainsworth‘s 1840 novel Guy Fawkes

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 27, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Americans consider the United States an exceptional nation; so do the Chinese people think of their Middle Kingdom”*…

Each of the last five years, Dan Wang, a Canadian-raised, U.S.- (college) educated technology analyst living in Shanghai, has written a year-end letter. This year’s missive recounts a long bicycle trip through China, explains why Cosi Fan Tutte is (he argues) Mozart’s best opera, and shares the best books he read in 2021 (including one of your correspondent’s all-time faves, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep). But mostly, he ruminates on China and on its relationship with the U.S…

Internet platforms aren’t the only industries under suspicion. Beijing is also falling out of love with finance. It looks unwilling to let the vagaries of the financial markets dictate the pace of technological investment, which in the US has favored the internet over chips. Beijing has regularly denounced the “disorderly expansion of capital,” and sometimes its “barbaric growth.” The attitude of business-school types is to arbitrage everything that can be arbitraged no matter whether it serves social goals. That was directly Chen Yun’s fear that opportunists care only about money. High profits therefore are not the right metric to assess online education, because the industry is preying on anxious parents while immiserating their children.

Beijing’s attitude marks a difference with capitalism as it’s practiced in the US. Over the last two decades, the major American growth stories have been Silicon Valley (consumer internet and software) on one coast and Wall Street (financialization) on the other. For good measure, I’ll throw in a rejection of capitalism as it is practiced in the UK as well. My line last year triggered so many Brits that I’ll use it again: “With its emphasis on manufacturing, (China) cannot be like the UK, which is so successful in the sounding-clever industries—television, journalism, finance, and universities—while seeing a falling share of R&D intensity and a global loss of standing among its largest firms.”

The Chinese leadership looks more longingly at Germany, with its high level of manufacturing backed by industry-leading Mittelstand firms. Thus Beijing prefers that the best talent in the country work in manufacturing sectors rather than consumer internet and finance. Personally, I think it has been a tragedy for the US that so many physics PhDs have gone to work in hedge funds and Silicon Valley. The problem is not that these opportunities pay so well, rather it is because manufacturing has offered dismal career prospects. I see the Chinese leadership as being relatively unconcerned with talent flow into consumer internet and finance; instead it is trying to fashion an economy in which the physics PhD can do physics, the marine biology student can do marine biology, and so on.

An important factor in China’s reform program includes not only a willingness to reshape the strategic landscape—like promoting manufacturing over the internet—but also a discernment of which foreign trends to resist. These include excessive globalization and financialization. Beijing diagnosed the problems with financialization earlier than the US, where the problem is now endemic. The leadership is targeting a high level of manufacturing output, rejecting the notion of comparative advantage. That static model constructed by economists with the aim of seducing undergrads has leaked out of the lecture hall and morphed into a political justification for only watching as American communities of engineering practice dissolved. And Beijing today looks prescient for having kept out the US social media companies that continuously infuriate their home government.

A willingness to assess foreign imports as well as a commitment to the physical world combine to make me suspect that Beijing will not be friendly towards the Metaverse. Already state media has expressed suspicion of the concept. If the Metaverse will exist in China, I expect it will be an extremely lame creation heavily policed by the Propaganda Department. Xi’s speech on common prosperity in October noted that: “The rich and the poor in certain countries have become polarized with the collapse of the middle class. That has led to social disintegration, political polarization, and rampant populism.” The Metaverse, which represents yet another escape of American elites from the physical world, can only exacerbate social differences. It is too much of a fun game—like cryptocurrencies—played by a small segment of the population, while the middle class dwells on more material concerns like paying for energy bills. It might make sense for San Franciscans to retreat even further into a digital phantasm, given how grim it is to go outside there. But Xi will want Chinese to live in the physical world to make babies, make steel, and make semiconductors.

The Chinese state has long placed greater value on resilience over efficiency, which has dragged down its performance on metrics that economists care about, like return on equity. In my view, that is as often an indictment of the economic profession. The US focus on efficiency has revealed the brittleness of its economy, which has neither the manufacturing capability to scale up domestic production of goods nor the logistics capacity to handle greater imports. Decades of American deindustrialization as well as an aversion against idle capacity has eroded domestic manufacturing….

Since the US government is incapable of structural reform, companies now employ algorithm geniuses to help people navigate the healthcare system. This sort of seventh-best solution is typical of a vetocracy. I don’t see that the US government is trying hard to reform institutions; its response is usually to make things more complex (like its healthcare legislation) or throw money at the problem. The proposed bill to increase domestic competitiveness against China, for example, doesn’t substantially fix the science funding agencies that are more concerned with style guides than science; and the infrastructure bill doesn’t seem to address root causes that make American infrastructure the most costly in the world. Congress is sending more money through bad channels. That’s better than nothing, but the government should attempt to make some bureaucratic tune-ups.

The US is ahead of China on the sort of mathematical economics that win Nobel Prizes. But China is ahead of the US on the actual practice of political economy. One study I enjoyed this year noted that the Chinese government sends more jobs through state-owned enterprises to counties with greater labor unrest. I wonder how different the US would look today if the government did more to help workers. The US critique that “China stole the jobs” looks instead like a critique of its own economic system. China’s main activity was to invest in domestic competitiveness, thus becoming attractive to American firms, which relocated operations there. Meanwhile, the federal government did little to help disaffected workers at home. If there was a problem with this arrangement, fault should be on the US government for failing to restrain its firms or retrain its workers…

There’s so much more– including an acute look at (at least some of) the risks that China faces and the weaknesses (many self-inflicted) with which they have to cope: “2021 Letter,” from @danwwang. Eminently worth reading in full.

Patrick Mendis

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As we take stock, we might recall that it was on this date in 1941, in the midst of the China resistance to the Japanese invasion during World War II, that Chiang Kai-shek ordered Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party New Fourth Army disbanded on January 17, and sent it’s commander Ye Ting to a military tribunal. It was the end of any real cooperation between the Nationalists and Communists.

Mao quickly reorganized the force under a new commander and continued to fight the Japanese– though as guerillas, independent of Chiang Kai-shek’s command. When Japanese surrendered and withdrew, the Nationalists and Communists turned on each other.

A Communist soldier waving the Nationalists’ flag of the Republic of China after a victorious battle against the Japanese, just before the the 1941 break

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