All posts by ttmrichter

About ttmrichter

Michael is a largely auto-didactic polyglot with a confusing family history that branches now across three continents over the past three generations. There was once a point where the bulk of his career was spent twiddling bits in computers to make them dance and sing at his behest, but the utter soul death that programming for a living entailed drove him to instead teach English in China “for a year or two”. (It presumably made some kind of sense at the time.) Fifteen years later Michael finds himself still living in central China and still teaching English. His initial passion for programming (sans “making a living”) remains unabated; he keeps his fingers and brain alive as he learns programming languages or hacks away at embedded systems at his whim. He has also cultivated a good sense of the ridiculous and blended it harshly with a solid sense of outrage that makes him break out into entertaining(-to-some) rants on a variety of topics. One point of interest Michael has is profanity. The topic makes him laugh, and not in the way of his inner twelve-year old sniggering at bad words. (Well, not *ONLY* in that way.) The very nature of the concept of profanity is endlessly amusing to him as it is, to him, the last vestige of “magical thinking” left in a society that prides itself on being rational and pragmatic. What a bunch of utter fucking bollocks!

This is why China’s kicking your ass in business

It is a common conceit that China is winning in business because of (insert one of):

  1. Cheap (subsidized, the claim often goes) labour is making everything else uncompetitive.
  2. The Chinese government is manipulating currency to make everything else uncompetitive.
  3. The Chinese are stealing technology and replicating it cheaply to make everything else uncompetitive.
  4. <…some other conspiracy theory…> to make everything else uncompetitive.

While there is some truth to these theories (and more!), these are not the whole story, nor are they the main story.  #1, for example, is behind the times.  Chinese labour is nowhere near as cheap as it used to be (and indeed this is making Chinese companies and the Chinese government try to set Africa up as China’s China).  #2 is just silly.  First, all countries (even the sainted home of purest greed capitalism: the USA) manipulate currency.  Second, there’d be far better manipulations the Chinese government could make if they were trying to win that way.  #3 is true to a point, but this is changing and, again, it’s hardly unique to China.

my6rxzyThere is a far more important reason why China is kicking your ass in business and you can get a taste of it in the picture to the right.  This picture is a perfect visual summary of the situation; why China went from a mostly-agrarian society to the #2 economy in the world in the time I’ve lived here (15 years).

What you see here is a screenshot from my phone. It shows nine packages in transit. Each package comes from a different seller (9 sources). 7 different logistics services are involved in delivery. (Two sources happened to choose the same courier company.)  It breaks down the deliveries into “not yet picked up” (1 entry), “in transit” (5 entries), and “final delivery” (3 entries). For the latter category it tells me the name and the phone number of the courier (the person, not the company!) delivering the shipment to its final destination.

This app amalgamates purchases, shipments, and deliveries from a wide variety of online shopping places and logistics services. It gives me a lot more information than I’m showing in this map too. If I click on an item, it shows me both the route taken thus far and the projected route of the item to its destination, for example. I can scale right down to street maps to see where the warehouse that last had the shipment is should it come down to needing to trace the delivery.

I’m only barely scratching the surface of this one, single app too.  There’s a lot of other tools, both seller-oriented and buyer-oriented, packed into this app.  As a seller, for example, I can use it to help choose the best logistics company for a given shipment, to track my own outbound shipments, and to do a whole bunch of other stuff I haven’t managed to decode yet.  (My Chinese skills aren’t up to the task, unfortunately.)

Keep this in mind next time you wonder why, say, Apple, an American company, gets all of its products manufactured in China.  Because this is why China is kicking your ass, and not cheap labour or currency manipulation or whatever other conspiracy theory you want to dream up.  What really gives China an edge in business these days is the highly-efficient, tightly-integrated logistics systems that are omnipresent: B2B, B2C, and even C2C. Keep that in mind when you want to know why production is being outsourced.

“Cheap Chinese junk” made by “low-paid, unskilled labourers” is a thing of the past. “High quality goods” (assuming you pay for that quality of course!) with phenomenal customer service is the new China.

Adapt or die.

Would the real police state please stand up?

There’s an increasing trend toward thinking that the USA is a police state. You can tell that the USA totally is, though, because of videos like this and this and even this. There’s a problem with all of this, though. The USA is not even close to being a true police state. It’s far too incompetent at it to be one. It may be on the way toward becoming one, yes, but it isn’t there yet. So how do I know this? What makes me an expert on how police states work? Well, truth be told, I have no expertise on the inner workings of a police state. I do, however, have fifteen years of living in one to draw upon for their visible, outer workings. You see, I live in a bona fide, real world, living, breathing police state: the People’s Republic of China. I live, in short, in the real thing, not in the cartoonish caricature of one that people have in mind when they hear the term. And boy howdy, let me tell you, the reality of police states is vastly different from how they’re depicted in Hollywood productions and on various political commentary pages, especially those primarily inhabited by North Americans.

Police omnipresence

The typical image of the police state has policemen prominently visible wherever you turn. You can’t walk two blocks without stumbling over a police officer in this distorted view, usually one armed with some form of machine gun. And make no mistake, this can be true. It certainly was true when I visited East Berlin back in the ’80s. But, and here’s the thing, this is only true in potentially sensitive areas (or in very insecure states, but more on that below). Like East Berlin where literally hundreds of thousands to millions of western visitors enter per year. It wasn’t true for all of East Germany. And it certainly isn’t true for all of China. (Indeed it’s true for so little of China that it’s a statistical outlier if you happen to find such a spot, again in my experience.) The police, you see, don’t have to be everywhere. They just have to make you paranoid enough to think they might be. And it doesn’t take much to make people paranoid, let me tell you! By way of example, early in my stay in China I had my (English) colleague tell me in hushed tones that microphones were everywhere. She pointed to a discoloration in my wall as a site where a microphone was installed into the wall. To my eye it looked like a site where cheap construction caused a steel bolt to rust and discolour the paint, but to her eye it was definitely a microphone. Anywhere we 老外 went was bugged according to her. She even breathlessly told me about the time she and some friends found a microphone in a Santa Claus candle in a restaurant, revealed when the candle was allowed to burn too low, making its nefarious contents visible to all. Of course, at the time, I had no reason to disbelieve her. Until I heard the story again from two different people who’d never met her. And who’d experienced this in a completely different city from her. And, indeed, over the years, I’ve had seven sets of people, each swearing up down and sideways that they experienced this directly for themselves (!), tell me exactly the same story, with no detail changed but for one: where the story took place. From this I’m left with one of two options:

  1. Believing that the Chinese have a huge network of Santa Claus candles with microphones spread across the country … a network they continually screw up enough to reveal its existence; or,
  2. Believing that this is an urban legend that people have taken to heart to the point they honestly think that it actually happened to them. That these people are, in a very mild sense, delusional.

(I think the tone of this work will tell you which of the two I believe to be true.)

The truth is that, of course, there is some surveillance, but for reasons I’ll explore below it’s nowhere near as prevalent as it is in the imagination. And, indeed, I’ll go a step farther: the most-surveilled city in the world (in terms of cameras and listening devices) is not in China. It’s not in North Korea either, in fact. It’s London, UK. Western cities are far more prone to mass surveillance than is China. And if you go with computer surveillance, the undisputed champions are the good old US of A. As for other forms of police presence, I had a great opportunity this year to compare China to Canada, seeing as I’d spent most of July in Canada this summer. Leaving aside border crossings and other immigration factors (which are their own special brand of Hell no matter what country you’re in!) I saw more police presence in one month in Canada than I’d seen in the entire previous five years of living in China. In Ottawa I could literally not walk more than five blocks without seeing a squad car or an officer on foot. Even out in the boonies like Bell’s Corners I saw squad cars aplenty driving around. If police omnipresence is a sign of being a police state, then every western country I’ve ever been in (Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland, England, the USA, Italy … and more!) is a police state and, critically, has been since I was a child. By this metric, China is practically an anarchy, a rather stupid conclusion to reach thus a reasonably good disproof of the thesis.

Police control of citizen life

Another stereotype of the police state is the total control over every aspect of the citizen’s life. While this is true of some police states (North Korea leaps to mind, as does Cultural Revolution-era China), this is not universally true–nor is it even particularly common. Indeed the total control state, especially if it is paired with intense brutality as in the third video I linked to above, is usually a sign of a state that is insecure in its power. You see, the role of the police in a police state isn’t to control citizens’ lives. That’s a myth that’s almost laughable. Indeed if it weren’t such a commonly held belief I’d laugh every time I heard it. (Actually, I still do laugh. It’s just a more bitter laugh these days.) The role of the police in a police state is to protect the power structure from change. That is it in its entirety. Anything which doesn’t endanger the powers that be is unimportant to the police. Anything which does endanger the powers that be is brutally suppressed.

Going with that third video (the cartoon with the jaywalking), I laughed out loud (literally, not figuratively) when I watched it. It is such a ludicrously naive view of how police states work that it’s impossible for me to take it (and by extension its creator) seriously. Again, I stress, I live in a bona fide police state. A police state that is routinely denounced for its oppression. I also live in a state where jaywalking, despite it actually being against the law, is the norm. Nobody walks to the crossing to cross the road. You cross wherever it’s convenient for you to cross. The city sometimes puts up metal fences down roads where people jaywalk too much. When that happens, within a week the citizens have dismantled sections of that fence so they can conveniently jaywalk again. In fifteen years of living here, fifteen years of living in jaywalking central, I’ve not once seen the police do anything active about it. Occasionally, if you happen to actually have a cop outside of his comfortable, air-conditioned office, and if that cop had a bad day (perhaps a touch of indigestion?), you might find a cop ineffectually haranguing a jaywalker (who will ignore the cop nine times out of ten). I’ve never, however, seen a cop pull out a ticket book and write a ticket for jaywalking. And even on those rare occasions that a cop will get involved, while that cop is harassing one unfortunate, a hundred others will cheerfully jaywalk behind his back. The cop is just another inconvenience to be worked around like the metal fence that was so blatantly disassembled.

Other things that are blatantly illegal are openly done all around me. Prostitution is very illegal. Yet within about 300m of my home (and 500m of my son’s primary school!) are several (dozen!) small brothels who operate openly. As far as I can tell their sole interaction with the police consists of “cops get serviced for free”. Gambling, too, is horribly illegal here. Yet within just my residential compound, a collection of about 10 small apartment blocks, there are six openly-operating Majiang parlours open at all hours of the day or night. (One of them is operating in space they’ve rented from the local government office!) It’s pretty blatantly obvious that the cops don’t really care. Similarly selling food without a license is illegal, yet within a 30 second walk from my front door, when school is on, I can find dozens of different (and very tasty!) kinds of meals made from street carts. There are occasional half-hearted attempts to shut those down, but they’re gone for a week, tops, before they all return and continue flagrantly breaking the law.

On the other hand, stand at a corner and distribute leaflets supporting 法轮大法 or critiquing the Party and the cops will be on you like flies on shit. Or do anything that threatens disorder (because disorder is the wedge a lot of disaffected groups use to split the state in any country) and the same will happen. Get big enough and you may be unfortunate enough to meet the full might of the 中国人民武装警察部队 (a.k.a. the People’s Armed Police or PAP), the true enforcers of Party will in the nation. Go to Wikipedia and read between the “NPOV” lines for the horror that is this group of armed thugs.

I think the best way to summarize this delusion of the stereotypical police state is this: I have more direct, personal freedoms here in China than I ever had in Canada. So do most Chinese people. The only freedom they (we) lack is the freedom to criticize the government in public. (They don’t care what you say at home.) When I think back to the 36 years I lived in Canada or Germany, I really can’t remember any time where I stood in public and ranted about the government. I can remember, though, being fed up with only having sausages available as street food in Ottawa…

Police brutality commonplace

This is the one that is the most common. The police state obviously relies on brutality to control people, right?

Wrong.

A competent, stable, secure police state doesn’t need brutality to keep itself in power. It’s insecure states (of any kind!) that find the need to brutalize their citizens to ensure compliance.

About four years into my life in China I saw something unfold that amazed me entirely. The first amazing thing is that I saw a public brawl: I mean a knock-down, drag-out melee involving men and women—adults of many ages—in a parking lot. This was incredibly amazing to me since I’d not once seen anything like it. (Well, OK, that’s not strictly speaking true. I’d seen a small student riot too, but this had been provoked and understandable. More on this below.)

This is the kind of thing that had it happened in Ottawa, the police would have come in force with paddy wagons and riot gear and just arrested anybody they saw participating in the riot. This is not what I saw happen here. Yes, a van did arrive. A police mini-van. With room for at most five people aside from the pair of cops in the front. The cops came out without armour and without weapons beyond the truncheons in their belt (which were conspicuously present, but not readied). The police waded into the melee, separating combatants, yelling at them to stop, getting them to sit down at the edge of opposite sides of the parking lot. The truncheons did not get used. No guns were used. Just two cops, not particularly impressive examples of the breed physically speaking, and a bunch of authority. The riot calmed down, and then stopped.

God I wish this had happened in the era of smartphones with good cameras! I’d have filmed this for posterity! Because at this point the real amazement started. Canadian cops would have, as I said, arrested everybody they saw swinging and charged them with assault. The two Chinese cops—you know, the brutal agents of a horrific police state—patiently interviewed a bunch of people with questions that, from the little bits and snippets I could overhear and understand, consisted essentially of “who started this and why?”. What came out was that this was two wedding parties in the restaurant who’d come to blows because two guys in one wedding party were making snarky comments about the bride in the other. (Whoa, dudes. So not cool!) Everybody pointed at the two responsible. Everybody. Even those who were in that same party.

The funniest part is that those two hadn’t actually participated in the brawl that I saw. They were standing at the edges and seemingly egging it on. After the cops got all the stories, the two people who hadn’t actually swung a fist—at least that I’d seen—were the two arrested (I assume for “inciting”) and one other person who’d actually injured someone (drew blood) was also arrested. Everybody else was lectured and sent off on their way, chastened, shaken, but not charged.

I can’t even imagine that unfolding that way in any city in Canada. In Canadian law, for all practical purposes (with some exceptions) words aren’t chargeable, only actual battery is. Had this unfolded in Ottawa, everybody would likely be arrested except for the pair that had incited it … because they hadn’t actually participated in the violence.

The student riot I mentioned earlier was similarly amazing. The students were trashing (sorta—very polite trashing) their dorm over the terribly stupid restrictions they were under because of the SARS scare. Garbage and unwanted crap (like broken thermos bottles) were being thrown out the window and a lot of noise and fury were being generated. Even when the university president was driven up, upon exiting the car and walking to the dorm to “talk to the students” he was pelted with disgusting debris (used toilet paper featured prominently) and he had to flee back to his car (which was subsequently also pelted with filth) before the cops came in.

Now the cops came in numbers this time. Six of them. To tackle a dorm with about a thousand angry young men, hormones exploding around them. And they patiently and doggedly went into the building and calmed the students down. In the end five student ringleaders were arrested and never seen in the school again. A further dozen or two students (including two of mine) were later expelled from the school. But, importantly, the worst excesses of the college’s restrictions were also removed.

How does this fit into the narrative of the brutal, violently-suppressed police state? Because make no mistake, just to be absolutely clear, China is very much a vile, brutal police state!

So why am I telling you this?

I’m telling you this because yes, the USA and others are sliding into becoming police states. I’m telling you this because yes, police states are fucking evil. They need to be fought.

The problem, however, is that if you have the wrong image of what a police state is, you cannot fight it. You’re punching at shadows. All that’s going to happen is you’re going to break your fist when it hits the brick wall. To properly fight an enemy—totalitarianism in this case—you have to know what it looks like, how it works, and what motivates it. Delusional caricatures of your enemy don’t help and, in fact, can (and do!) cause immense harm to your cause.

To destroy your enemy, it turns out, you have to know your enemy.

—Michael Richter

I’m Nobody’s “Ally”

All over political movements, particularly on the left, there’s a call for “allies”, which is to say people who are not of the particular movement’s core demographic (blacks, say, or LGBTs, or natives or feminists or whatever) but who are onside with the cause, supportive of the activities of the group.

I am not one of these.

Causes

Yes, it is true that I’m a believer in many causes.  Most of them are “leftist” by American standards (but of course these days Francisco Franco would be “leftist” by American standards…).  I believe in racial equality, for example, and think the current situation with blacks in the USA (or natives in Canada (or Turks in Germany (or …))) is a scandal of epic proportions.  I believe in gender equality.  I believe in spreading the wealth around so that we don’t have 99.9% of the populace owning less than 10% of the wealth.  There are numerous causes that I’m sympathetic to, and again most of them are, I stress, “leftist”.

I am, and never will be, however, an “ally” to any of them.  You will never see me participating in slacktivist “awareness-raising” of any of these things.  You will never see me “signal boosting” anything from these camps.  You will never see me in a virtue-signalling dogpile on Twitter or Facebook.  My politics are, to those who can read, pretty clear if you take a look at my social media presence.  I’m not a member of anything, though.

Activist toxicity

There is, of course, a reason for this: the toxicity of these groups.  Even with the best of intentions, social activist groups will and do, over time, become venomous caricatures of themselves.  Any hope that these will accomplish anything positive then dies.

Before I go into my guess as to the reasons for this, allow me to show some examples.

Consider, for example, a left/right-neutral topic like atheism.  Atheism is a pretty simple concept: “I don’t believe in supernatural entities” (gods).  I have to stress a lot these days, however, that I’m a small-a atheist, not a big-A Atheist because atheism as a notion has been hijacked.  What started off as a pretty simple, basic concept (there are no gods) has become a hugely obnoxious movement of smug assholes who think by virtue of being infidels they are intrinsically more logical and smarter than those who believe.  (The fact that this belief is a perfect example of a non sequitur fallacy is the only redeeming feature of these twits, largely because I enjoy watching unintentional irony in action.)

For another example, look at various feminist groups.  Why “various”?  Because the movement has fragmented so quickly since the relatively simple statement that women and men should be socially equal that there is no longer a single meaningful definition for what a “feminist” is.  Seemingly every year I see another schism developing as feminists turn in on themselves and tear each other to shreds over minor differences instead of focusing on what they have in common in a huge battle they have yet to win.

Let’s talk social justice now.  A perfect example is the “Black Lives Matter” movement who recently, in Canada, disrupted a Gay Pride event because they felt they weren’t being given enough attention.  Twice.  Here are two groups that have a similar shared history of oppression and violence (at least in the USA) and instead of working together one of them grandstands at the expense of the other (and, naturally, calls anybody who thought it was in poor taste “racists”).

Even mostly civilized web sites like The Good Men Project are showing signs of this disease.  A web site that has the tagline “The Conversation No One Else is Having” has a recently-republished article that tells a huge swathe of society to, and I quote, “shut up”.  How, precisely, do they think you have meaningful conversations after you’ve told people to shut up?  Does anybody out there who isn’t a deranged jackass think that this is how conversations actually work?

The entire political activist world, on both the left and the right, is replete with this kind of pointless, poisonous poppycock and, in my opinion, it undermines any cause these people purport to promote.  I used to actually participate in these kinds of groups and movements, but stopped after observing that they always go bad, sometimes in astonishingly short times.

The reasons

There are several reasons for this inevitable trend toward rancor and spite, I think.  These include:

  1. Holier than thou.
  2. Differentiation.
  3. Narcissism.
  4. Unrealistic expectation.

Holier than thou

This is the obvious one.  Human beings, even those who consider themselves “enlightened” like most political activists (again, left or right!) do, are intensely competitive.  If I believe that women should be given a fair shake in society, inevitably someone else will have to prove they’re more pure in their politics than me and say that not only should women be given a fair shake, they should be given a boost because of past mistreatment.  Then another imbecile will up the stakes more and yet another will raise them again until we get to the bizarre fringes of feminism where people seriously postulate that men should be preemptively jailed because they commit 90% of crime.

Every movement seemingly undergoes this transition.  What starts off as a relatively moderate (and sane) movement with large membership gets more and more extreme (and insane) over time, shedding the “dead weight” that won’t play the one-upmanship games.  Eventually the movement becomes an echo chamber resistant to any external mitigating influence and then really starts going into the deep end.

Differentiation

Human beings are tribal primates.  We like, as a whole, belonging to things “bigger” than ourselves.  We also like to make it clear that the things we belong to are different from the things someone else belongs to.

Let’s say we have two groups of atheists.  Both groups are very similar in makeup and in beliefs.  They have, naturally, by virtue of being human institutions, minor differences between them.  One, for instance, believes that we should demonstrate the superiority of the atheist lifestyle by being good examples of it.  The other believes that religious people need to be actively guided to atheism.

With these two groups being so similar, and with humans being so tribal and seeking to differentiate, it is inevitable that a schism will arise between these two groups.  The one that believes in the superiority of the atheist lifestyle, for example, may choose to start harping on and on about how superior they are to the religious.  The other group will, in a bid to be seen as different, start employing ambush tactics to abuse the religious in a misguided attempt to get them to “see the light”.  Both get pushed into more extreme directions on the small areas of non-intersecting belief simply because of our need to be different.

Narcissism

This is where that BLM Canada thing against the Gay Pride parade falls into.  Aside from the fact that BLM Canada is an utterly ludicrous movement to begin with, they’re also incredibly narcissistic.  How dare anybody pay attention to any group other than them for a single day?  Of course they had to grandstand and ruin the parade.  That was the only way to make sure that eyes were on them instead of another group.

You can see similar things in groups ranging as far as Greenpeace or, from the other side of the political spectrum, the witless “War on Christmas” types, not to mention the Men’s Rights Weenies complaining that they actually have to treat women with dignity these days.

Unrealistic expectation

This is more a disease of youth than it is of political activism.  It’s just that the stridently political tend to be young so it shows up in the political world most visibly.  Unrealistic expectations of things like “all racial disharmony will vanish tomorrow because we did such a good job of raising awareness” turn into dismay and bitterness when tomorrow comes and not much has changed.

See in the real world cultures change very slowly.  We have this bizarre belief in the west that our culture is changing rapidly because superficial changes tend to dominate our thinking and our reportage.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because our technology is changing like crazy, and with it the way we communicate (or fail to) that our culture must be changing equally as rapidly.

Of course if you have a slightly broader perspective on life, you’ll note that there are elements of, say, Chinese culture which have remained largely unchanged since about 3000B.C.E.  Or if you visit Europe, where historic things that are over a thousand years old litter the landscape around you, you’ll see just how much sheer cultural inertia there is.

Most young people, however, lack this perspective and as a result, when faced with dispiriting lack of visible change in the society around them, turn to ever more extreme ways of expressing their political will.

(This is probably the part where I bring up that old canard about how the perfect is the enemy of the good.)

So what does this have to do with being an ally?

At issue is that most political activist groups don’t want allies.  They want useful idiots.  I see, for example, in Twitter, a lot of groups–LGBT to name one at random–who are constantly calling for non-member “allies” to “signal boost” their tweets.  These “allies” are welcome so long as they do absolutely nothing but pass along whatever message the “real“membership wants to transmit.

If, as an “ally” you dare to engage in conversation that isn’t purest “yes man” stuff, be prepared to be excoriated or even eviscerated for daring to “undermine” the movement.  You will be shouted down.  And if you refuse to be shouted down you will be shunned, demonized, and dogpiled upon.  You will, by refusing to be the useful idiot, be turned into the enemy.  You will be doxxed.  You will be harassed.  You will, eventually, be evicted from a movement you believe in because you dared, as a person who wasn’t a core member, to have an opinion of your own.  (You’ll be DOUBLY damned if you’re actually right!)

What do you do instead?

Me?  I work on individuals.  I find someone potentially receptive to a message like “you know, there’s no reason to think Muslims are Satan Incarnate”.  If it looks like the seeds are falling into fertile soil, I ramp it up a bit.  If it looks like the person is just not going to take up the message I move on.  If I see an activist group operating in the same place, I leave.  I leave because I know where it’s going to go (nowhere good) and I have better things to do with my time than to fight with deaf and/or illiterate zealots.

Yes, my work on these causes isn’t as splashy as the huge grandstanding efforts of the politically strident, but I allow myself the conceit that in the long term it’s more effective.  And I can look at myself in the mirror without wondering what I’ve become.

An ally’s life is simply not for me.

The REAL Game of Thrones

The bad influence

My father always related a story to me about his basic training.  The story went like this: at an inspection of person and quarters his sergeant bristled at him for putative dust on his hat.  The problem was that the sergeant was a short guy and my father tended to tower over anybody else in the room.  There was literally no way this guy could have seen the top of my father’s hat to pronounce it dusty.

Most people at this point would protest and get slapped down by the verbal prowess of the senior shouting officer sergeant.  Others who’d had this happen to them before would grind their teeth quietly and acquiesce, cleaning their hat pointlessly after inspection to parade before the sergeant later for a follow-up inspection.

My father, who was a wiser man than I (albeit less educated) at that age did neither.  As a result he recognized this for what it was and gamed it.  “I’ll show you, you bastard!” was the thought in his head.  And for the entire day he didn’t touch his hat beyond wearing it and removing it at need.  Then, at the appointed time, he showed up for his follow-up inspection.  The sergeant looked at the proffered hat and pronounced himself satisfied with my father’s cleaning skills.  My father got away with not doing pointless busywork and also came away with inward chortling at how he’d proven himself smarter than the sergeant.  (Being that wiser man than I, he didn’t do the chortling in front of the sergeant to rub his nose in it.  He suppressed his urge to show that he was smarter and thus demonstrated the fact conclusively.)

When people outside of the military hear stories like that they smugly pontificate about how wasteful the military is; how much time and energy is wasted in these little power games.  Because, make no mistake, this is purely a power game.  The sergeant was doing the “dusty hat” thing not because he cared about the hat (or even knew if it was dusty or not).  He was doing it because he could and because he wanted to emphasize to the recruit that he could.  It was purest hierarchy-enforcement, and that’s why my father’s response to it was so subversive: he recognized the game and refused to play it.

Interlude about business life

This story was very influential on me (albeit it took me a lot longer to develop the wisdom to not rub my targets’ noses in it; that little requirement was never communicated in the story except indirectly).  When I joined the workforce I saw the same hierarchical power games being played around me.  The funniest was when people who sneered at the “wasteful” behaviour in the military did pretty much exactly the same thing in the white collar office world.  Don’t believe me?  Let me spin a story and tell me if you recognize it:

One day an office worker went to their manager with a report they’d worked on for weeks. It was picture perfect: all spelling checked, all grammar vetted, all facts carefully documented and footnoted, all options explored.  The manager opened the document to a random page, spent less time reading it than s/he’d spent on brushing hair in the morning, before starting to critique stupid little things with vague “this needs rewording”-style criticisms.  The report is tossed back into the worker’s hands and the worker left to “fix up” the report to pass muster.

Sound familiar?  It should.  It happens to almost every office worker, in the small or in the large, several times a year.  This is the manager “justifying salary”.  If you don’t critique, after all—if you just accept your underlings’ work unchanged—you’re not doing your job! You’re supposed to guide your underlings, even if their work doesn’t need it.

Impact the first

I’ve encountered this precise scenario many, many times in many, many jobs.  Almost every time I “fixed up” the document by changing the font size by half a point (to reflow the layout so it doesn’t look identical) and resubmitted an identical (but for the font size) document, only to have it praised.  I cleaned the metaphorical dust from my metaphorical hat by doing nothing, like my father before me.  I never, not even once, got caught in the act (after I learned to keep my mouth shut about it, I mean).  Managers (and teachers!) are so caught up in their little power games they can’t even imagine that someone may just bypass them entirely.

I’ve done worse.

Impact the second

Far worse.  In one company, a scum-sucking, bottom-feeding, body-shopping little consulting firm, I was farmed out to a government project as a subcontractor.  This project (PSCS) was a disaster in slow motion.  It was doomed (for many reasons ranging from contractor malfeasance to sabotage by the PSU) and it was in death march mode.  I was brought in as part of that death march: throwing man-hours at a project in a desperate bid to get it delivered on time.  (Never mind that this was known not to work in the ’70s already…)

One of the more onerous and tedious requirements of the position was the twice-daily status/progress reports.  Yes, you read that correctly: in a project that was at risk of failure (in the same way that the Pacific is wet!) the management had cut even further into worker time to have them write reports twice a day on what they were doing.  And they REALLY hated my first few reports.  Apparently documenting the time spent on reports was verboten.  As was saying “no progress because I’m waiting for actual requirements to be delivered so I can code something”.  Such elements were deemed “unhelpful” and “verging on hostile”.  (Verging?  Really!?  Are you that fucking clueless?!)  So I swung into action to solve this once and for all.

I’d just learned a new (to me) programming language at the time (Rexx) and was looking for something to write in it.  I found it in my automatic report generation facility.  I hit the net and found a collection of stock buzzphrases and used that to build up a madlibs-style random buzzword bingo sentence generator.  I very carefully tuned it so that it ALWAYS generated syntactically correct English, but with zero semantic content.  To anybody who actually knew technology (or management, for that matter) it would be clear that this was content-free reportage.  To the yahoos running this show it was exactly what they wanted. I generated 7 to 10 random sentences in my utility, cut-and-pasted them into a word processor, added the usual memo fields (via template), printed it off, signed it, and submitted it.

My neighbours in the cubicle farm were in awe.  They thought I was about to be fired, but they thought it was an incredibly stylish way to get fired.  Imagine their surprise (and their stifled giggles; oh so many stifled, choking laughs that day!) when in the next all-hands meeting one of my reports was held up as an example of exactly the kind of information management needed to track project progress.  All that afternoon the dozens of people who’d been saying I was about to get fired were lining up at my desk to get my script so they could write good reports as well.

See, the reports, again, were not actually intended to be useful.  How did I know?  I could do math, see.  I sat down and read a typical report in my speed-reading mode (which is blazingly fast).  I then multiplied that time by the number of people on the job (hundreds), then by two (twice per day), then divided by the number of managers.  It was literally impossible for the managers to read these reports if they spent 24 hours per day doing nothing but reading them.  The reports were a desperate bid to grab control in a project that was spiraling out of it.  It was, basically, a way for managers to prove to themselves that their dicks hadn’t shrivelled down to micropenis territory.  And it was literally inconceivable to them that people would spot this and just ignore them; that people like me simply would not play along.

And I’ve done even worse.

An impactful hat trick

That same bottom-feeding firm had a grand pretension to make a CASE tool.  The concept was doomed from the start: started after CASE tools were falling into disrepute, had too few resources on it, and the boss changed his mind about what it was literally every week. (I am not exaggerating.)  It could not possibly have ever been done.  The time I spent on it was basically time two friends used to hone their programming skills under the pretext of making a product.

Still, the owner of the company wanted strict accounting for time spent on it because he was getting R&D tax credits for our efforts.  And he especially wanted the overtime documented for those credits.  The overtime … he didn’t pay us for.

Well, if he was going to cheat the government out of money and not send any of it out of my way, there’s no way I was going to help him in the process.  So I wrote a VBS script in Excel to stochastically generate my timesheets.  I faithfully recorded in the timesheet the times I arrived and left … whenever my boss happened to see them.  The rest of the times were left open and I used a random number generator to fill in numbers such that I had a very plausible looking timesheet that was corroborated by the observations (if any) of my boss.  And that always, mysteriously, week after week, month after month, for my entire stay at the firm, added up to precisely 37.5 hours per week.  He never caught on because his little power game (“I can make you work longer hours, get money from someone else for it, but never pay you”) was ignored.  Sure he got extra work out of me (or so he thought).  I did do loads of overtime in the office.  He just saw nothing for it: not a product (for reasons already outlined) and not an extra tax credit.  And he lacked the imagination to consider that someone could play timesheet judo with him.

The Real Game of Thrones

This is, in the end, the reality of fantasies like Game of Thrones.  Most power plays are petty things done by insecure people who inflict misery on others to prove (mostly to themselves!) that they can.  The more insecure they are in their power, the more they feel the overpowering urge to make others suffer.  Insecure petty tyrants feel the need to do what is nowadays referred to as “microaggressions” (but is more accurately termed “acting like a petty asshole”): throwing reports back for improvement, forcing status updates, etc.  Insecure grand tyrants instead starve populaces or bomb them.  It’s all the same shit, just one pile is a lot bigger than the other.

山高皇帝远

山高皇帝远

And you don’t have to play along.  At least not on the petty side.  (It’s rather harder to ignore barrel bombs being dropped by helicopter into your marketplaces obviously.)  This refusal works on power mongers of all kinds: bosses, ambitious coworkers, government officials, policemen, and teachers.

You don’t have to play along because the people who play those games can literally not fathom the possibility that you wouldn’t.  You can hand in your “dusty hat” (literal or metaphorical) and you will get away with it.  Just pretend to play along and you’ll be ignored, or even favoured.  You don’t have to sell your soul; you don’t have to become a quisling or toady.  You can retain your dignity (and feel smugly superior to boot; always a bonus!) and you can let the power plays flow around you leaving you alone.  All it takes is recognizing them for what they are and then refusing to play along.  (And keeping your mouth shut about that fact.  This is an important thing that too many people fuck up when trying to do this.)

—Michael Richter

The “Twitter Revolution”: A Revolution for Twits

Apparently the term “Twitter Revolution” is a thing.  If you haven’t heard this term before, consider yourself fortunate.  I hadn’t until someone used it in an attempt to make Twitter seem relevant instead of what it really is: the most obvious sign of vapidity in the most self-obsessed generation in history this side of the Baby Boomers.  (Are the Baby Boomers actually even worse?  That’s a tough call!)

The general thesis of the concept is that Twitter was somehow uniquely suited to communicating and organizing mass protests around the world since 2009.  Its adherents cite Moldova (2009), Toronto (2009), Iran (2009-10), Venezuela (2010), Tunisia (2010-11), Egypt (2011), the so-called Occupy Movement, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.  The reasons given for Twitter being somehow uniquely suited to the role include its ubiquitous nature and its oft-derided 140-character message length being somehow technically suited to the ancient SMS format of GSM systems.

There’s a problem with these claims, however.  They’re utter bullshit.

  • Twitter isn’t ubiquitous.  It isn’t even the most popular social media platform (by far!).
  • There is literally ZERO relationship, aside from a silly social fixation on  it, between the 140 character limitation and SMS.
  • Most of what is cited as Twitter’s influence is fiction spun by the press.

I’ll address these one by one.

Ubiquitous Twits

Let’s deal with the big gorilla in the lounge first.  Twitter is an also-ran of social media.  Consider these numbers:

Facebook has 1.6 billion active users as of 2016.  WhatsApp has about a billion. QQ (which includes QZone), a REGIONAL social media site, has about 900 million.  WeChat, similarly regional (albeit with an eye toward world expansion) has about 700 million.  Tumblr and Instagram claim 550 and 400 million respectively.  Finally we get to mighty, worldwide, influence-shaping Twitter.  At a paltry 320 million users.  WORLDWIDE.  The highly-regional QZone is twice the size.  Just Facebook’s messenger component is almost three times the size.  Another highly regional service, Sina Weibo, largely considered to be a failure here in China, weighs in at a similar 220 million.  Note that: a site considered to be a failure in a single region is within spitting distance of a worldwide site that is bizarrely considered to be such a resounding success that it’s grist for revolutionary mills!  How bizarre is that?

(Note also that I’ve been too polite to bring up the numbers for sites like Reddit or even cesspools like 4chan and 8chan…)

Twitter is, in short far from ubiquitous.  You can smell the panic coming from  Twitter’s HQ these days as they run from one random new feature to another in a  desperate bid to curtail the big stall they’ve encountered in their growth.

Twitter’s ubiquity is total fiction.  There is nothing in Twitters supposed broad availability that makes it uniquely suited to organizing and aiding in revolution.

Technology

“Ah!” the argument continues, however, as fans of the Twitter Revolution try to justify their delusion, “But Twitter’s message length is exactly the same as the message length of SMS messages, so it’s particularly suited to places that don’t have a lot of smartphones that can deal with the other social media sites!”

Again, I’m afraid, this argument is bullshit on several levels.  I’ll deal with two of them here; the two easiest ones to dismantle.  I’ll leave the rest of this as an exercise for the reader.

Old Phones

The wonderfully ditzy view here is that while yes, long before Twitter existed there were phones that had no problem breaking up too-long messages into parts, sending those parts as individual messages, then assembling them at the receiving end back into a single message (you know, like every packet-based protocol in history!), the poor people of Tunisia or Iran or Egypt (or … Toronto?  What?! …) couldn’t actually AFFORD modern phones and thus Twitter’s natural fit to SMS messaging was a godsend.  In this worldview (usually expressed by Americans who have a childishly naive view that the rest of the world subsists primarily off of American cast-offs) sure all mobile phones made since well before 2005 (Twitter started in 2006) could do the reassembly thing, but that’s not the phones people in struggling developing parts of the world use.  They have to deal with older technology, so Twitter is the natural choice; most people in these countries send SMS “tweets” (somehow) and don’t use Twitter directly.

There is a problem with this viewpoint, however.  It is ignorant to the point of stupidity.  Take China as an example.  A huge percentage of the population still exists as, basically, barely-above-subsistence rice farmers, yet these same (shockingly poverty-stricken) farmers all have new phones.  About half of them have new smartphones (obviously not overpriced crud like Apple’s but still actual smartphones).  The rest have brand-new “feature phones” (read: older-style phones with small screens and real keyboards).  NOBODY USES PHONES FROM PRE-2006!  (Hell, almost nobody uses phones pre-2012.)

There’s a good reason for this: new phones aren’t just technologically superior to the old kit, they’re CHEAPER.  Yes, it’s far cheaper, really, to buy a new low-end phone than it is to buy a second-hand pre-2005 phone.  (This doesn’t even get into the costs of ownership, just purchasing.)  This is one of those fascinating things about electronics.  It just gets cheaper and cheaper and cheaper to the point that keeping old kit around is silly.

(So, no, my naive American friends, when you toss out your current iPhone for the model that’s 3mm longer and 0.5mm thinner and that now comes in a slightly different shade of silver and black, the phone is not being handed down to the poorer people of the world.  It’s getting tossed into a huge pile of industrial waste and contributing to one hell of an environmental catastrophe that’s moving in slow motion in southern China among other places.  Thanks, guys.  It’s appreciated.)

Twitter, it seems then, isn’t really a natural fit to poor people using old-style phones that can only deal with SMS messages individually because those people simply don’t exist in any meaningful numbers.

Oh, and talking of Twitter’s natural fit to SMS…

SMS Format

Even if the insulting argument that Twitter is useful because third-world people only have western castoffs wasn’t obviously untrue, there’s still a problem: The SMS message format limit is not 140 characters.  It was 128 bytes originally.  Then with encoding tricks and a few more bits squeezed out here and there that 128-byte limitation (that was there for sound technical reasons I won’t get into) was made so that it could support 160×7-bit ASCII characters, 140×8-bit characters in the various venerable Europe-centric encodings, or 70×16-bit characters in the venerable UCS-2 encoding format.

Note that.  SMS’s limitation is not Twitter’s 140 characters, it’s 160 or 140 or 70 (depending on which encoding you choose) characters of specific language groups and types.  Twitter’s 140 character limit is a twee call out to a misunderstanding of SMS technology.  Twitter is limited to 140 characters of any kind in any language no matter what the actual transmission length.

This means that if I’m typing just plain English text I’m losing 20 characters off of the real SMS standard.  If I’m typing any kind of extended characters from the 8-bit encoding sets (like LATIN-1, say) then I can type exactly the same amount that I can throw into an SMS.  If I’m typing Arabic, however, at 140 characters that’s two SMS messages.  If I’m typing Chinese that can be … well it can be a real problem since not all Chinese characters can be encoded in UCS-2.

(Note, also, this other problem with Twitter’s approach.  140 characters in Chinese is a good chunk of an essay.  140 characters in English is barely a coherent thought.  This shows in the results.)

No, there is no technological relationship whatsoever that ties Twitter to SMS messaging at any meaningful level.  The number 140 was pulled out of Twitter’s founders’ ass based on a misunderstanding of what SMS’ real standards were (or, perhaps, as a cynical attempt to tie the two together given how SMS-crazy people were c.2005 instead).  Given this, any pretext that it is somehow easier to bridge SMS to Twitter falls apart at even a nominal level of inspection.  If social media really was being used to export and organize revolution around the world, there would be no particular reason for selecting Twitter over any other format.  All the supposed technical problems that you’d have to deal with using, say, Facebook would apply to Twitter as well.

Real-world Impact

I have a friend in Iran.  Tehran, to be specific.  Ground zero for the various bits of unwanted excitement surrounding the Iranian elections in 2009-2010.  He has a word for the people who think that Twitter was somehow instrumental in organizing the opposition and protests: “idiots”.

It seems, strangely, that Twitter was simply unavailable to most participants of that mass debacle/horror.  Almost nobody had access to it (seeing as how it was heavily blocked) and almost nobody used it as a result.  The claim that Twitter was used by people with secret bridges to the outside world who would then spread Twitter messages via SMS was also risible on the face of it.  The state controlled the  supplier of SMS services, see, and would have been trivially able to follow along on the SMS messages to find out who was going to be where when had Twitter/SMS (a specious pairing anyway, c.f. above) been used.

No, for him and his friends organization was the old-fashioned way: word of mouth, telephone trees, etc.  Twitter had literally zero impact on anything he got involved in.  Lest you try to object that perhaps it was the more  technically-minded revolutionary-wannabes that did the Twitting, keep in mind that the friend in question is a communications engineer who even now, with blocks in place that are FAR stronger than those used in 2009, routinely  penetrates to the outside world (like I do from within China) to converse with people using various blocked communications media: Facebook, IRC, Skype, etc.  Had Twitter been in active use during those troubles he would have known and, indeed, participated (likely even facilitating; among the many services he does provide you can number a business that provides people with ways to penetrate Iran’s blocks from the outside).

You will find similar stories in pretty much every other “Twitter-influenced revolution” out there.  Was Twitter used?  Yes.  By a small number of people. Mostly to tell their side of events to the outside world.  Or to demonize the other side.  Or to be the other side pretending to be the first side demonizing the other side in a bout of tomfoolery that rivals Spy vs. Spy.  But these people also used Facebook, Google+, Orkut, and several social media sites you’ve never heard of.  Twitter was by no means unique in this regard.

So Why?  Why “Twitter Revolution”?

In brief: lazy journalists.  It’s no secret that journalists are incredibly lazy these days when it comes to fact checking.  The dominant approach to journalism these days seems to be “let’s just report whatever we think our audience or our owners want to hear, and we’ll retract and apologize on page 1700 if we get caught spreading lies again.”

Now to be fair Twitter was actually used quite a lot in the time frames mentioned.  It did have a lot of press coverage as a result.  But that’s the whole point: Twitter was reported on because it was the hip, new, attention-gathering thing.  It was a “different twist” on Yet Another Story of horrible governments getting their comeuppance (for a few weeks) from the downtrodden masses.  Twitter got free press and publicity as a result and got paired with revolutions.

Had the first of these chains of revolutions started a couple of years earlier we’d be here talking about the Orkut Revolution or something.  Or had it happened a bit later maybe the Pinterest Revolution or the WhatsApp Revolution or some other Flavour-Of-The-Day Manufactured “Revolution”.  We just happened to be unlucky and got the most asinine of social media sites being praised for its purported impact on revolutions worldwide.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Twitter is constructed almost specifically to support slacktivism.  Hashtag activists, social justice dogpiles, and a whole host of other no-work trivialities have replaced previous do-nothing “activism” like ribbon-based “awareness” campaigns.  People want Twitter to be great for revolution because it takes literally no actual effort to do “activism” on it.  In this regard journalists, in their abiding laziness, are merely channelling the zeitgeist.  People want something simple and trivial to become the root cause of revolution; people want to #notalltwits their way into change.  Media, of course, to keep the interest of their waning consumer base, report that yes, indeed, Twitter’s lazy-assed hashtivism is making Real Change™ Worldwide!

And this is why assholes are still in charge in Egypt, in Iran, in Tunisia, in all the places that the “Twitter Revolution” took place.

Thanks guys.  Your hard work is appreciated.

—Michael Richter

The Police Have it Right

Too much information running through my brain
Too much information driving me insane

Gordon Sumner

I’ve increasingly seen a bizarre trend over the past two decades: information access gets easier and easier; the populace’s ignorance grows greater and greater.  Allow me to give you some examples.

English Students

When I started in China there was, for all practical purposes, no Internet for most people.  Smartphones existed (barely) but were far too expensive for most people and, in the part of China I was in, rarer than hen’s teeth.  Even where they existed they didn’t do much good; wireless Internet was too expensive and too slow to be useful, even in the rare cases it was available at all.

My students almost all came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds anyway.  They had barely enough money to live; they certainly didn’t have enough money to buy frivolities.  Some of them could afford fifth-generation copies of audio tapes of badly-received BBC World Service or Voice of America broadcasts for practice.  Maybe.

On top of all this, class sizes were huge.  My smallest class in that school was 43 students.  (My largest was over 150.  That’s 150 students being taught oral English skills…)  There was, in effect, virtually no time available with the one person who could really help them through their difficulties.

Those students had a very narrow data pipe from which to extract information.  Most of them learned to speak English well enough, by the end of their two or three year program, to get a job involving it.  Sure many of them had comical accents or awkward holes in their vocabulary and grammar, but they were functional enough that they could stand on their own feet and continue learning.  I’m still in touch with several students from those days here fifteen years later.  They have mostly flourished quite admirably.  Some of them have, indeed, impressed me with their drive and their success.

My students today have it really well by comparison.  Even the poorest of my students has a smartphone with a data plan.  Literally at their fingertips, only a pocket away, is an entire world of information: online dictionaries, encyclopedias, search engines, Q&A forums, and a further wealth of options I can’t even picture (out of touch as I am).  Further, class sizes have shrunk dramatically in the past fifteen years.  My largest classes now are smaller than my smallest class was back then.  I routinely have “advanced” classes with student counts in single digits!

And yet, they’re dullards.

In the past two years I can literally count on one hand (and have change left over for a bizarre gardening accident to shear off a couple of fingers!) the students who legitimately passed their program able to speak English.

THESE ARE ENGLISH MAJORS!  These are English majors who have more opportunities and more resources for learning English than anybody in history before them in China.  (The last Emperor of China with his private tutor had fewer opportunities and resources to learn English than the poorest of my students today!)  Yet these very same English majors are not learning.  They’re incapable of it.  Their ability to learn has been somehow crippled.

Lest you think this is just me, incidentally, I should point out that China is facing somewhat of a crisis in education: teachers are just quitting mid-career.  Giving up.  All over the country, in all universities, colleges, middle schools, etc. teachers are just walking away from their jobs.  The most common reason given?  They don’t enjoy teaching any longer.  The students are awful.  I hear this from Chinese teachers and from fellow foreign teachers, even those fortunate enough to teach at top-tier universities like Beijing University or that calibre.

Social Media

Seemingly every day now I get a parade of utter bullshit crossing my screen on Facebook or Twitter or other such cesspools of human “interaction”.  For example in the past month alone I’ve had to correct the same bullshit story about how ancient peoples couldn’t perceive the colour blue a few times.  An article of dubious scholarship is the source of this.  It spread from there to the mass media (an institution that has lost what little focus it ever had on “checking facts” and “verifying stories” long ago).  From the mass media it spread, like a wave of untreated mental sewage, across the pipelines of the Internet to splash across my Facebook feed.

When I first encountered this story, it seemed *very* distantly plausible.  Too, I saw it thrown around so often that I was wondering if maybe I’d missed something key.  It was interesting.  So I fired up Duckduckgo and went to town on it.  It took me less than five minutes to pretty much definitively prove that the story was pure, unadulterated, bullshit.  Here are a few little countering facts:

  • It’s claimed that the ancient Greeks couldn’t see blue which is why the sea is described as “wine dark” in Homer’s works.  Unfortunately for this theory those “white” statues that are stereotypically “ancient Greek”?  They were nothing of the sort.  They were garishly painted.  One of the pigments used to paint them was azurite.  Would you care to guess what colour azurite is?  (Hint: the sky might contain a clue…)
  • It’s claimed the ancient Chinese couldn’t see blue.  As evidence there is the (actually correct) fact that classical Chinese didn’t have a word for “blue”.  Instead they had 青 (qīng), which covered green and blue.  To understand just how fatuous this is, consider how different sky blue is from azure is from royal blue is from … you get the idea.  Does this mean we can’t tell the difference between the sky and a navy blue suit?  Same thing applies.  青 is a category of colour with many shades.  The fact that in English there are two categories for this is no more “proof” that the Chinese couldn’t tell the difference than is the fact that Chinese has two words for sister (姐姐 and 妹妹) where English has only one.  (Does that imply that English speakers can’t tell their older sisters from their younger?)
    If that’s not sufficient evidence of stupidity, looking at some ancient temples with their painted beams should be another clue.  The beams were painted garishly like the Greek statues.  Including intertwined scrollwork of both blue and green; intertwined, but very distinct.  It’s hard to keep things you can’t tell apart separate, especially when intertwined in complex patterns…
  • Similar claims are advanced for Egyptians despite the fact that the Egyptians practically worshipped lapis lazuli and are documented as having a word for “blue” by 3000BCE at the latest.

When I say it took me five minutes to definitively disprove this ridiculous theory, I meant it.  I found out about the Greek statues in about three minutes, and I already knew about the Chinese temples so I just had to find some accounts of newly-uncovered temples to show that they hadn’t been painted over in modern times.  That was about two minutes’ work.

The problem is that it’s five minutes per thing that crosses my screen, and my screen is a veritable fountain of bullshit these days, a fountain that daily seems intent on spewing its stupidity to new heights.  I fully expect to see misinformation hit escape velocity and go zooming past the ISS someday soon.  I can’t keep up with it any longer.

So why are people who were brought up awash in a sea of available information so prone to not using it?

A Crackpot Theory

Remember when I said that I couldn’t keep up with the effluent spewing across my screen on a daily basis any longer?  That was the clue for me as to what could be behind the ignorance effect.  The very omnipresence of the data, combined with the sheer volume of it, blends into something very toxic.  This is for two reasons:

The laziness factor

When I was growing up without all these tools to find information I was driven (by parents, by teachers, ultimately by myself) to learn how to find information.  Because finding information was hard I had to develop the skills to keep track of sources of it.  I developed good habits in researching and remembering at the very least where to find things I’d encountered.  Good study and research habits are like strong muscles: they require constant exercise  to grow and to be maintained.  If you never use them at all, they atrophy and, ultimately, practically vanish.  People brought up in the “Age of Information” have, ironically, never developed the skills necessary to cope with the information at their fingertips.  They’ve never been taught how to find it or check up on it because they’ve never had to.  They trust that the information will always be there, so they never actually bother to look for it.  Further they trust that someone else has already vetted the information for truthfulness (since so many people have access to it) so there’s no need for them to bother.

I think this is what has happened to my students, for example.  They don’t bother studying, practising, or even looking things up because they “know” that their phone can do it for them.  I’ve had students hand in mechanically-translated (quite comically from plagiarized Chinese sources!) gibberish as their work.  They were utterly gobsmacked when I looked at it for less than five seconds and threw it back at them: “I said write in your own words, not in Baidu Translate’s words.”  They honestly didn’t understand how I could tell that it was machine translated!  They had such faith in their resources they didn’t even bother to check if what was coming from them was coherent, not to mention correct.

This combines in very bad ways with…

The flood factor

The amount of data an average person has pouring into their brain on an average day is actually quite incredible to consider.  If you’re not careful to filter it out it’s easy to become completely overwhelmed by it.  If you’ve never been taught the discipline of acquiring and sifting through information sources you will drown in it.

I think this explains the ever-spreading piles of bullshit on the Internet.  There’s simply too much stuff crossing our screens every waking moment of the day for us to check it all.  This is particularly true for people whose “research muscles” are atrophied from disuse and whose information base is the unsteady, almost wobbly, pile of untruths and half-truths that is the foundation of the Internet.  Most people lack both the tools and the will to sniff out bullshit and would rather spend their time spreading around something that seems entertaining (and, totally by coincidence, that shows how we’re so much better than those guys over there/back then/whatever!).  There’s no malice in the people spreading it (no matter how aggravating that spread may get).  There’s just ignorance.

Where do we go from here?

Fish

Sorry, Fish, but I have no fucking idea.  For all I know I may be contributing to the situation with this very screed.  This problem is bigger than I can even fully conceive, I suspect, not to mention take a crack at solving (the flood factor).  I’ll leave this for smarter people than I to fix (the laziness factor).

The more I see, the more I hear
The more I find fewer answers
I close my mind, I shout it out
But you know it’s getting harder

(Bi)Lateral Thinking

de Bono in actionIn 1967 Edward de Bono introduced the notion of “lateral thinking”.  Classrooms in certain fields (like English literature and psychology, to name two at random) have sucked ever since.

The problem isn’t that lateral thinking is a bad idea.  De Bono was a smart man and lateral thinking is one of his many great ideas in thought.  The problem is that as with almost any great, even brilliant, idea, the founder of the idea is brilliant, his followers may be brilliant too, but usually not as creative and/or flexible, and the following generations of followers are sacks of hammers by comparison, taking subtle, ornate concepts and turning them into bricks-and-mortar dogma.

The result, in this case, is the abomination known as a “lateral thinking puzzle”.

True lateral thinking involves randomness, challenge/provocation, movement, and even disproof as a suite of tools used to break out of simplistic “analytical vs. creative” stereotyping.  It is a toolkit of techniques and ideologies used to break out of cultural and self-inflicted bondage.  “Lateral thinking puzzles” are about someone presenting a situation and demanding you find the one solution that the book they’re reading it from says is The Answer™.  Here’s a typical example (taken from http://g-rico.net/lateralpuzzles/html/puzzle180.html):

A man drove into town and parked at the end of the main street. He got out of his car and went up to the bookstore at the opposite end of the street. He then came back down the street to his car and drove off. There are three banks on the main street, but the man did not walk past any of them. Why not?

The solution, obviously, is “The man was disabled. He got out of his car and onto his wheelchair. He used the wheelchair to go up and down the main street.”  No, that’s it.  That’s the solution.  Anything else is wrong.  No matter what you come up with—he’s on horseback, he’s an eccentric who crawls everywhere, he unhitched a bike and pedalled, he was carried by a passer-by—no matter how plausible it may be is simply wrong.  There’s one correct answer to lateral thinking puzzles.

These puzzles may or may not be an entertaining pastime.  I have no way of evaluating them in this regard.  I’m not a puzzles kind of guy (except for the occasional “logic puzzle” that is my not-well-hidden vice).  I like solving practical “puzzles” like “why the flying fuck is this I2C display not displaying the letter I’m telling it to display!?” when working on embedded software.  Or “how do I go about repairing these damned cheap chairs so people can sit in them again?”  I’m just not a fan of abstraction for the sake of abstraction; of puzzles for the sake of puzzlement.  I understand, however, that my tastes do not rule here; that there are very probably people who find these “lateral puzzles” interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, and any number of other positive things.  Vive La Différence! and all that jazz.

What I can say, however, is that they have nothing to do with lateral thinking.  Especially not the way I’ve seen them used in classrooms.  The typical classroom script goes something like this:

Teacher: OK, today we’re going to do a special kind of problem to help you learn about lateral thinking.  Lateral thinking means thinking outside the box.  [Note that the teacher already has this wrong. —ed]  So I’m going to present to you a situation that doesn’t make any sense at first, but that you can figure out the answer to.  <insert random Sloane puzzle here>

Students (gestalt):  Hmmm…  What about this?  <insert plausible solution here>  No?  Maybe <insert another plausible solution here>  Oh, this is tough!  What about this?  <insert a myriad of possible, plausible scenarios that explain all the provided facts in the original puzzle>.

Teacher (smugness levels at Prius driver level):  No!  You’re all wrong!  The correct answer is <insert whatever brain fart Sloane decided was the correct solution here>

This exercise is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the lateral thinking that de Bono was advocating.  If you’ve only got one solution this is not a lateral thinking situation.  Making a puzzle like that may use lateral thinking to come up with the twisted set of circumstances behind some of the weirder variants of the puzzles, but solving it is not a lateral thinking exercise.  It’s an exercise in guessing the “teacher password” only.

Were the teacher in the above scenario even slightly interested in lateral thinking, she would solicit solutions from the class, discuss their strengths, their weaknesses.  She would acknowledge that there could be an infinite number of plausible solutions; that which one is “right” depends, ultimately, on a lot of factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with whatever brain fart came out of the person who wrote the puzzle.  Communication would be bilateral along with the thinking.  The teacher would come out of the exercise learning as much as the students (and perhaps even more).

Sadly, however, that’s not what happens in any of the cases I’ve had the misfortune to be a part of where these damnable idiotic puzzles are broken out.  So here’s my lateral thinking solution to the problem.  Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Find out what book the teacher who’s inflicting this pointless waste of time on you is using.  (There will be a book.  Trust me on this.)
  2. Acquire, by hook or crook, a copy of that book.
  3. Write a few crib notes about likely puzzles to be inflicted upon you.
  4. In class start with solutions that are close to (but not identical with!) the “correct” one and based on the teacher’s Prius-smug feedback alter it step by step to be closer to the “right” answer.

Your teacher will think you’re some kind of creative genius (because your teacher, being an idiot, thinks lateral thinking is the same as creative thinking) and you will curtail the annoyance of these stupid puzzles in your life.

Disclaimer: Of course I’ve never done anything like this in a real classroom because I was always a model student who jumped through whatever pointless hoops the teacher held up for me without cheating or circumventing or otherwise making a mockery of the process ever so you get that thought right out of your head!

Dexter’s Midnight Juniper Service

This is the story of Dexter and his Midnight Juniper Service.  Dexter is not, of course, the real name of the person in the story.  His real name is Ryan.  I’m just using Dexter to help prevent any embarrassment.

10reokI went through a very rough patch in my life in the ’80s.  I’d just faced two consecutive major failures.  (Unintentional ones, I mean.  I was quite used to failure when I’d decided I just didn’t give a shit and didn’t bother working.)  This was a really new experience for me and left me psychically scarred.  Compounding this was some (largely self-inflicted) alienation from my family.  I fell deep into what I later figured was probably depression and correspondingly deep into welfare dependency.

After a year and a half of this I’d decided that enough was enough.  It was time to climb out of the pit of despair I’d dug for myself.  Of course, along the way, there were a few times when the walls of the pit collapsed in on me.  This story is about one of the earlier collapses.

See, I’d hooked up with College Pro Painters for some income.  I wasn’t a college student, but I was of the right age and I hung out with college students.  This particular franchise was working over the winter (long after most franchises had closed due to lack of employee prospects) and was doing indoor painting work.  I was hired because there was nobody else to hire; everybody else in the target demographic was hard at work at their studies and prepping for exams.

When summer came, the usual outdoor work started to get assigned.  One job stood out over that summer: the German Ogre’s house.  The German Ogre, one of the purest examples of nouveau riche I’ve ever encountered in my life, was both German and a complete (skinflint) ogre.  (How do I know so certainly he was German?  I spoke to him in German.  He was more comfortable with it.)  He would only pay for the cheapest possible outing: no scraping, no sanding, no prep, no cleaning—only slapping paint on his house, his garages, his garden wall, etc.  Of course once work started he would insist we scrape, sand, prep, clean, etc. in direct contravention of the contract he signed.  We took to having the contract out on top of our equipment so every time he came over to shout at us for doing things wrong we’d pull out the paper and point to his initials next to each line saying which services he’d explicitly said he didn’t want.

(The German Ogre’s wife was even worse.)

This alone is not really a reason to be afraid of him and to call him an ogre, of course.  Asshole, yes.  Ogre, no.  Except for the fact that he was a really scary guy.  I say this as a guy that others consider to be really scary, mind you!  We had a pretty abiding suspicion that he was criminally connected and perhaps outright criminal himself.  (His business cards read “contractor”.  Nothing more.)

His house was huge.  So huge, in fact, that we had two teams on the site: one working the main house exterior and the other working the garages (yes, multiple) and fencing.  I was in the latter.  Most of the time the two teams worked separately, but every so often we’d find ourselves working within conversational distance and we’d start shooting the shit and generally turning our increasingly dreadful working days into something that didn’t quite approximate a Dantean vision of Hell.

Needless to say it was in one of these sessions that The Disaster™ happened.

Dexter (whose real name is Ryan, recall, although I’m not using his real name to spare his feelings) was up on the roof of the house slapping paint on the gutters.  And of course Marieke and I, the team working the periphery, were razzing him about how he was going to fall off and loudly taking bets on how many bones he’d smash when he hit the ground.  (Ryan Dexter had a bit of a fear of heights, see.)  Dexter thought this was getting out of hand and swung around to hang his legs over the edge of the roof so he could shout at us without looking completely idiotic.

And that’s when it happened. The Disaster™.  Dexter knocked the can of white paint off of the roof and launched a stream of paint unerringly aimed at the German Ogre’s prized juniper bushes.  We knew they were prized, you understand, because the German Ogre had taken pains several times (daily!) to tell us how much he loved those juniper bushes.

I’m pretty sure he would not have liked them in white.  Which they now were.

Panic set in and both teams zoomed over to the site of The Disaster to see what could be done.  (Hint: nothing.)  In desperation we tried to remove the paint with turpentine which proved to be as idiotic a thing to do as it sounds.  The scale-like leaves were turning brown before our very eyes.  This was as bad as it could get.

Visions of the German Ogre’s “business associates” disappearing us in our heads, we came up with a scheme to hide the damage: we put all our equipment next to the bushes and then covered it (and the bushes) with a tarp, explaining to the German Ogre’s wife when she asked that we heard it might rain overnight and we didn’t want our equipment to get wet.  We still didn’t know what we’d do, but we’d at least put off the shit storm for a night.

I didn’t sleep well that night.  I was strongly demotivated from going to work as well.  Marieke and I could legitimately claim that we weren’t working on that bit, but I wasn’t especially eager to see Dexter die; nor was I looking forward to the wild gesticulation and the incoherent ranting.  I eventually picked Marieke up and we headed in for work.

Imagine, if you will, my utter shock when we arrived and found … juniper bushes.  Healthy ones.  Looking, if anything, better than they had before.  Dexter was standing there looking really fatigued, but with an enormous shit-eating grin spread over his face.  We couldn’t pester him for details on the job site, of course, not when the German Ogre (or his even worse wife) might overhear it.  At lunch time, however, we drove off site with Dexter (it verged on a kidnapping) and got him to spill.

Dexter had been a busy little boy that night.  Upon leaving for the day he’d scoped out the neighbourhood and found a house with juniper bushes that were dead ringers for the killed ones a few streets away.  (Truth be told, to me they all look about the same.)  He then snuck back into the neighbourhood at midnight and “liberated” two juniper bushes, carting them over to the job site.  He dug up the dead junipers and transplanted the live ones.  The dead junipers were subsequently taken safely away and disposed of (burnt).  Neither the German Ogre nor his wife ever realized a thing.  We’d gotten away with it!

Hysterical laughter poured out of all of us as relief flooded in to replace the sick feeling of dread.  I think it was Marieke who dreamed up the “business”: Ryan’s Dexter’s Midnight Juniper Service.  We all riffed over the advertising.

“Juniper not living up to your expectations?  Something gone wrong?  Don’t worry or frown, just call Dexter’s Midnight Juniper Service!  We’ll take a look at your troublesome shrubbery and fix it overnight like magic!  It’ll look like new once we’re through!  You won’t even recognize it!

(We also provide security services to protect you from the recent bizarre rash of juniper thefts!)”

How to Ride a Bus

z6mt7I’ve ranted about how to drive a bus before.  Today is different.  I’m going to teach you how to ride a bus.  Specifically I will teach you why you need to erase the preconceptions that you have—and that insidiously poison every thought you have if you’re not careful—if you wish to truly learn (or teach—another fine example of foreshadowing!).

Back-story

A friend of mine has lived in Japan for many years.  We’ve spoken (online) at length of the differences in living in “the East” vs. life in “the West”.  This is always a fruitful area for exploration because things are often done differently in “the East” and those differences can often be surprising to those brought up in “the West”.  In conversations with him I found the perfect illustration of these differences and, at the same time, an important lesson to all who think themselves smart.  I’ll let him take over here.

Benjamin’s story

Outside of Tokyo, the buses are not yet westernized.  They have the entrance at the back[pic], the exit at the front.  There is a ticket you pick up when you enter (at the back).  Just like when you visit a doctor, a number is on the ticket.  The number increases each stop so the ticket shows which station you entered at.  Next to the bus driver at the top there is a large display that shows all the tariffs for each number[PIC] and they go up as the bus continues on its journey from stop to stop.  So if you leave, you can see exactly what your fare is at the time, as can the driver when you get off.

(As a sad note, this conversation was one that’s almost a decade old now.  Given what Benjamin was saying about the development of Japan, it is almost certain that none of these buses exist any longer.)

The arrogance of western visitors

The first time most westerners encounter a system like the above the reaction is “how odd”.  Then the mind closes and it’s viewed as “silly” or “stupid” or whatever.  The assumption is that the western system is superior in some way that is “obvious” yet … well … indefinable.  And the reason that it’s indefinable is because it’s not superior in any way, shape or form.

Consider the advantages:

  • it’s very simple;
  • it’s cheating-resistant;
  • you always know what you’re going to pay;
  • you pay only for what you use, no more and no less;
  • the driver’s handling of payments is easier;
  • if you change your mind mid-journey, you pay only for what you’ve used of the system up to that point.

Ottawa’s alternative

The system I had access to in Ottawa was inferior on all counts:

  • you had to pay the same fare whether you were going one stop away or one hundred;
  • if you had to change buses a complicated (yet easily-gamed) system of transfers was used;
  • the driver had to know every possible transfer code—and these changed daily because of the gaming possibilities—that could work on his bus.

Wuhan’s alternative

The system here in Wuhan, apparently based on some French city’s system, is bad on other grounds:

  • you pay per bus, period;
  • the fare is fixed, like in Ottawa;
  • there is no transfer system, however, so if you have to travel ten stops but change buses twice, you’re paying three times the fare of someone who’ll be travelling a hundred stops on one bus.

(At least you can pay by waving a card at a plate, though.  That’s way ahead of Ottawa.)

Both systems, in short, are obviously inferior to this “pre-modern” Japanese system, yet the reaction of people encountering it is to deride it reflexively as wrong and somehow “silly”.  This has extended to the point that the Japanese, to be “modern”, are actually switching to an inferior system just to be more “western”!

This applies to more than buses—or to Japan

There are some lessons to be taken away from this bus system.  We carry an awful lot of baggage into any situation.  In most cases (like bus systems) this isn’t a problem, but when it comes to some very important circumstances (social activism and engineering both spring to mind here) it is very important to be wary of that baggage.

The lesson is to follow three simple steps:

  1. Acknowledge that yes, indeed, it’s different.  Believe it or not, things can be done differently from how you think they should be.
  2. Don’t dismiss things out of hand because they’re different.  Stop.  Think.  Analyze.
  3. After your analysis, be honest: consider the very real possibility that what you’re used to—what feels “natural” to you—might, in fact, be inferior.

The lesson for software

Yes, this is another one of my software rants, albeit in muted form.  This kind of baggage is especially prevalent in software, of all “engineering” disciplines (remind me to explain at some point in the future why I laugh at the notion of “software engineering”), where there’s more cargo cult nonsense than actual thought than in any other industry I’ve worked in or alongside.  (Evidence: the whole curly brace blight.)

When you hit a new programming language, for example, don’t suddenly decide that begin ... end means that a language is useless because it involves typing six more characters (or four more keystrokes) than { ... }.  Even more importantly, when you hit a language that’s confusing at first glance, say one in a paradigm you’re unfamiliar with (which, if you’re like the Chamber’s Constant of developers means any paradigm other than imperative/OOP), don’t discard it because it doesn’t use loops and explicit branching.  See if maybe the approach used isn’t perhaps superior in some way in at least some problem domains.

The lesson for social activism

Social activists in particular are arrogant in their assumption that what they “know” is superior to what others may know.  I see them coming to China all the time to “teach the locals”—they “teach” Christianity, they “teach” democracy, they “teach” Objectivism even (!)—and they find out that their messages fall on deaf ears because what they think of as “obviously superior” is thought of as obviously inferior to the locals.  These people come to China to “teach the locals how to do it right” and leave frustrated and angry at the Chinese because the imagined mass flocking to their ideology they were expecting didn’t happen; because the “intransigent” locals just won’t do things the way the visitors think they should be done.

It never seems to dawn on them that the locals don’t want the new way because the old one is, at least in their eyes, superior.

To be a successful social activist you’re going to have to remove your ideological blinders at times and try to see things from the others’ perspective.  And you’ll have to, on occasion, and likely far more frequently than you’re comfortable with, confess that perhaps the other side’s approach is superior.

The take-away lesson

We all have blinders.  Every last one of us.  These blinders lead our thoughts in well-travelled ruts that are often so deep we can’t even see over them.  In many cases—like bus systems—this doesn’t matter much.  A stupid bus system isn’t the end of the world.  In some important cases, however, like engineering or social activism, these blinders can be a problem that leads to failures both minor and major.  We can’t avoid the existence of these blinders, but we can at least try to mitigate their impact.  When you encounter something different:

  • Recognize that it’s different and move on.
  • Analyze the differences instead of reacting with knee-jerk negativity.
  • If the different way is better, admit it, even if it’s only to yourself.

    —Michael Richter

The Deadliest Cult

There is currently a lot of noise surrounding a death cult in the Middle-East: the Islam-based Daesh/ISIL/ISIS/IS/what have you. A lot of press column inches have been devoted to analyzing it, analyzing its destructive potential, and analyzing various ways to combat it.  What is agreed is that Daesh is a “threat to civilization”.

And, to be fair, it is.

But there is a far larger cultish threat to “civilization” (“scare quotes” for reasons left to another rant) that is everywhere, not just a small part of the world in the middle east. You can see evidence of this cult everywhere around you. Open a magazine or newspaper (if you can find these any longer—we call this “foreshadowing” in the trade). Turn on your television. Hit the Internet. Everywhere you look or turn you will find this dangerous cult gazing back at you, judging your worth, and, likely as not, finding you lacking.

You find it in some places far more than others. For example in my former career in software this cult is near peak concentration levels. (Only the maths as a discipline are more imbued with this cult’s essence.) You’ll find it in the fashion and entertainment industries at nearly toxic levels as well. For the cult in question is the cult of youth and its attendant cultural altar: newness.

It's Just a Temp  VFILES Shop - YouTube - Google Chrome 2016-02-014Wherever you look and turn you will see youth and the new held up as the ideal of the world. Young models gaze at you from the thighs of magazines … or they would were it not for the fact that magazines are old (and thus worthless). Instead they gaze at you from the cold, baleful glare of your computer monitor. No, wait. Sorry. That’s old now too. Your phone. The cold, baleful glare of your phone. These young models, nine times out of ten, are using their alluring youth to sell you on the latest new thing: the new phone you need to replace the one you’re using to look a them, for example, because the phone you’re using is a year old. Implied in the sales pitch is that the young person is representative of all that is good and is thus the right person to pitch the new thing that makes your old one (and old life, or even you the old person) a piece of worthless shit.

In the software world the cult of youth is so ingrained that if you’re primarily a coder at age 25 you’re hip and smart. If you’re primarily a coder at age 35 you’re a bit weird. If you’re primarily a coder at age 45 you’re a loser. If you’re primarily a coder at age 55 … well you won’t be. Because nobody will hire you. If you want to work with software past the age of about 40 you’d better get yourself into a management track and become a “manager who codes” because only losers want to remain programmers. And besides, old people who program are worthless. Their skills are “out of date”. They’re “dinosaurs”.

Yet, here I am at nearly 50. I’m half a century old now, and I’m a programmer. (Not by trade any longer, but still by habit and by hobby.) And I know more about modern software and how to make software that works than 99.44% of the hip, “smart” 25 year old code monkeys that look down on me for my “outdated” skills. Not only that, because I’ve lived through the mistakes of the past 35 years of software, I know something far more important than the latest hip language or framework: I know what doesn’t work and, above all, why it doesn’t work.

This is why I know that so-called “NoSQL databases” are a dead end. I used NoSQL databases—professionally—long before a lot of NoSQL advocates were even born. What these young people don’t realize is that we moved away from K/V stores and document stores and whatnot because they don’t work for anything more than trivial cases. We invented SQL databases because the older tech wasn’t working. Going back to K/V stores, document stores, hierarchical databases, etc. is a regression caused by a bunch of people with no sense of history (and an utter contempt for those who have it) unknowingly embracing a past that we rightly rejected as unworkable. Add to this the latest hotness in web programming: Node.js—a “reactor” technology that we “invented” in the ’50s … and the ’70s and the ’90s, only to drop it again and again because it’s terrible, only to have it pick up again in the ’10s because, well, cult of youth. And a million other mistakes that have been repeated again and again and again. Mistakes that just one seasoned veteran with a voice that is listened to could have prevented in a heartbeat.

I’m serious when I call this a threat to civilization. Civilization (or, more properly, culture) is founded upon a basis of learning from the past. In real civilization we look at what was done in the past. We keep the parts that work. We replace the parts that don’t work with things that are better. The ever-increasing cult of youth, however, undermines this because it scorns, ignores, and eventually obliterates the past. This dooms us to repeating each and every one of the past’s errors again and again as some bright spark has an idea that is uninformed by experience.

Some of you are already nodding your heads in agreement. You don’t need to read the rest of this rant unless you want to be depressed. Those of you, however, who arrogantly assume the past has nothing to teach us—that people of the past were ignorant and incapable—you need to read on. Because I’m going to tell you a little story about the past; one that will shame you if you have any sense in your head whatsoever.

I’m going to tell you the story of the Dujiangyan irrigation system, you see.

Almost 2300 years ago (!) the State of Qin had a problem. The Min River (then believed to be the source of the Yangtze; I’m not saying that the ancients had everything right!) was a real handful. It frequently (almost annually) flooded, spilling over its banks, causing hardship and misery. More importantly (to the egomaniacal leadership) this hurt the State of Qin’s ability to wage war, seeing as it was destroying agricultural land and wasting resources rebuilding. Legend has it that one governor Li Bing was tasked with solving this problem. He investigated and found the problem was spring meltwater interacted badly with the slow-moving silted water downstream. Sadly the obvious fix (a dam) was unavailable to him because one constraint on his solution was he couldn’t block the river. The river was needed to transport troops and military supplies (and, of course, trade in general) after all.

His solution was breathtaking in its scope and audacity.

It came in three pieces:

  1. A levee to redirect excess water away from the irrigated fields during times of high river flow.
  2. A weir that mixed up and desilted the water as it flowed into the discharge.
  3. A 20m wide channel that was cut through Yuleishan—through solid rock—to redirect the flood discharge into the Chengdu plains.

Any one of these three constructions would be a tour de force of modern engineering effort. Given the primitive tools available at the time they are miraculous! The levee was built of bamboo, rocks, and wood. The weir was built of bamboo baskets. And the 20m wide channel was carved through solid rock without gunpowder! (This predated the invention of gunpowder by quite a large margin.)

Today we would find carving a channel like that through solid rock “economically unfeasible” even with modern techniques and equipment. Back then they carved that channel by heating a section of rock with massive bonfires, then pouring lots of cooling water on it to crack the rock, then using manual labor to clear out a layer. Lather, rinse, repeat.  For eight years.

The result of the ancient technological wonder was almost immediate. The irrigated fields along the Min River were protected from flood, thus giving the State of Qin, for the first time in its history, a surplus of foodstuffs and supplies it could store. Even more importantly (although likely unforeseen at the time), the silted discharges of the excess flows into the Chengdu plains turned said plains into some of the most verdant farmland in China (something that remains true to this day). More surplus for trade (and, naturally, war)! The State of Qin had a population boom and an attendant wealth boom that made it the dominant power of its time and led, inexorably, to the nation of China as we know it today.

And now for the real shocker: remember how I said that doing this would be “economically unfeasible” today?  If you amortize the (enormous!) cost of this project over 2300 years, it’s actually one of the cheapest engineering projects in history. Because we can amortize that cost, you see. The system is still in use to this very day.

(Another shocker: as much of a tour de force as this irrigation system was, it’s only one of three stunning accomplishments of the State of Qin in roughly the same time frame. Man those ancients were stupid and ignorant!  Just like old people today!)

2300 years ago the Chinese made an engineering project we could not duplicate today that is still in active use. Sure pieces of it have been rebuilt and replaced with better and more modern techniques since then. (For example the weir is now concrete.) But the major piece of it that ties it all together, the channel through Yuleishan, is basically the same now as it was when it was first made 2300 years ago and 100% of the original design is still in use without alteration. Only components have been modernized.

Can you name any piece of “modern” engineering that will be around in 2300 years and still in active use?  (Hint: no.)

This is an (admittedly extreme) example of what those “old folk” can teach us still even today. For many centuries we looked to these “old folk” for ideas and inspiration. We then even often replicated or improved upon these ideas. But then something happened along the way. Being old-fashioned fell out of fashion. Anything old became suspect. Only the new mattered. This accelerated over time to the point that as a culture we are beginning to lose any sense of history. I don’t even mean history 2300 years old like my illustrative example. I mean history like “we knew 20 years ago that databases were badly made and invented SQL because of this”. (Note, incidentally, that I’m not saying SQL is perfect and can’t be improved upon. I’m saying that K/V stores, document stores, hierarchical databases, and their ilk are not the improvement we need.)

This cult of youth infects almost every aspect of society today. Old people are openly disrespected (or at least condescended to) with the definition of “old” reducing every decade. The opinions of old people are disregarded. When we say a technology is bad, for example, we’re not given credit for, perhaps, having grounds for this. No, we’re “afraid of change” and “behind the times”. (This is quite ironic coming from software developers, for example, who largely worship technology that was invented in the ’70s and run away screaming from actual modern technology that I use daily…) History is carelessly discarded (and even erased) as being “irrelevant” and “outdated”.

And we’re only now beginning to pay the tab for this.

—Michael Richter