Aug 242010

1. This is one of the most famous portraits by Frans Hals – that great Dutch baroque master of portraiture. Nothing is known of the young man, apart from his age indicated in the upper right corner of the painting as 26. (image from wikimedia)

The Laughing Cavalier

The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals (1624) (Source - Wikimedia)

2. This is a picture taken by Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) in 1910, in Bukhara. Sergei Mikhailovich was compiling a photographic survey of the lands and peoples of the Russian empire on assignment by Tsar Nicholas II. Currently the entire collection resides in the Library of Congress.

Th Emir of Bukhara

Emir Seyyid Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara, seated holding a sword in Bukhara, (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/ Library of Congress)

Aug 232010

In the story Stealing a Peach Pu Songling tells of witnessing an incredible conjurer trick which, were it known from only this account, would surely be discounted as fruit of his rich imagination. The trick, as told by the old master, consists of a conjurer throwing a cord into the sky, which immediately snaps tout and extends as far up as the eyes can see. The conjurer’s assistant then climbs the cord on some pretext (in the story it is to steal a peach from the heavenly garden), and disappears from view. First, a peach falls from the sky to be followed by severed limbs falling one by one, followed by the severed head and torso of the assistant. The conjurer then gathers the scattered body parts, puts them in a bag, and then suddenly the assistant jumps out alive and well out of the bag. All of this happens in front of the eyes of thousands of onlookers. Unbelievable. However, virtually the same trick is narrated in the chronicles of that greatest traveler of all – Ibn Battuta – who saw it during his visit to the imperial court in Beijing around the year 1348, more than 300 years earlier than Pu Songling. Thankfully, wikisource saves me from typing the entire story as narrated by Pu Songling and Ibn Battuta by providing the relevant section in a footnote to the Travels of Marco Polo here:

“That same night a juggler, who was one of the Kan’s slaves, made his appearance, and the Amir said to him, ‘Come and show us some of your marvels.’ Upon this he took a wooden ball, with several holes in it, through which long thongs were passed, and, laying hold of one of these, slung it into the air. It went so high that we lost sight of it altogether. (It was the hottest season of the year, and we were outside in the middle of the palace court.) There now remained only a little of the end of a thong in the conjuror’s hand, and he desired one of the boys who assisted him to lay hold of it and mount. He did so, climbing by the thong, and we lost sight of him also! The conjuror then called to him three times, but getting no answer, he snatched up a knife as if in a great rage, laid hold of the thong, and disappeared also! By and bye he threw down one of the boy’s hands, then a foot, then the other hand, and then the other foot, then the trunk, and last of all the head! Then he came down himself, all puffing and panting, and with his clothes all bloody, kissed the ground before the Amir, and said something to him in Chinese. The Amir gave some order in reply, and our friend then took the lad’s limbs, laid them together in their places, and gave a kick, when, presto! there was the boy, who got up and stood before us! All this astonished me beyond measure, and I had an attack of palpitation like that which overcame me once before in the presence of the Sultan of India, when he showed me something of the same kind. They gave me a cordial, however, which cured the attack. The Kazi Afkharuddin was next to me, and quoth he, ‘Wallah! ’tis my opinion there has been neither going up nor coming down, neither marring nor mending; ’tis all hocus pocus!'”

If that story is not enough, there is the eyewitness account of a Western traveler – one Edward Melton – who witnessed the trick in a performance by a Chinese troupe of conjurers while visiting Batavia (Jakarta) in 1670 – more or less the same time Pu Songling saw it in his native Shandong.  Melton’s story goes as follows:

“But now I am going to relate a thing which surpasses all belief, and which I should scarcely venture to insert here had it not been witnessed by thousands before my own eyes. One of the same gang took a ball of cord, and grasping one end of the cord in his hand slung the other up into the air with such force that its extremity was beyond reach of our sight. He then immediately climbed up the cord with indescribable swiftness, and got so high that we could no longer see him. I stood full of astonishment, not conceiving what was to come of this; when lo! a leg came tumbling down out of the air. One of the conjuring company instantly snatched it up and threw it into the basket whereof I have formerly spoken. A moment later a hand came down, and immediately on that another leg. And in short all the members of the body came thus successively tumbling from the air and were cast together into the basket. The last fragment of all that we saw tumble down was the head, and no sooner had that touched the ground than he who had snatched up all the limbs and put them in the basket turned them all out again topsy-turvy. Then straightway we saw with these eyes all those limbs creep together again, and in short, form a whole man, who at once could stand and go just as before, without showing the least damage! Never in my life was I so astonished as when I beheld this wonderful performance, and I doubted now no longer that these misguided men did it by the help of the Devil. For it seems to me totally impossible that such things should be accomplished by natural means.”

Conjurer troupe in an old teahouse in Chengdu, Sichuan

Aug 222010

I am reading Pu Songling‘s Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio with 19th century Chinese lithograph illustrations for each story, and they are simply exquisite pieces of wonder. A master storyteller narrating a world of ghosts, fox-spirits, Taoist wizards, Buddhist holy men, macabre murders, surreal love, wall paintings serving as gateways to alternate realities, and an everyday life thoroughly blended with magic. As Pu Songling introduces the stories:

Here in the civilized world,
Stranger events by far occur
Than in the Country of Cropped Hair;
Before our eyes
Weirder tales unfold
Than in the Nation of Flying Heads.

With every story I read I keep returning more and more to my recent trek through China. Here is an excerpt from The Taoist Priest of Mount Lao:

…hearing that there were a large number of Taoist adepts living up on Mount Lao, one day he shouldered his knapsack and set out on a trip in that direction. He climbed one of the peaks, and found himself before a monastery, tucked away in the middle of nowhere.

Emeishan Monastery
Aug 202010

The following news stories, coupled with the recent unveiling of a gold ATM in Abu Dhabi seem like the first steps on the road to a trend:

1. Apparently the Malaysian state of Kelantan introduced some time ago the gold Dinar and the silver Dirham as legal tender, and the coins are in circulation with at least 3 different banks responsible for coinage and distribution. Interestingly, one of the reasons given by the chief minister of the state of Kelantan for introducing the coins, is that:

“the poor would be protected against inflation by the intrinsic value of the precious metals”

Who would have expected an Islamist party member from provincial Malaysia to speak words straight from an Austrian Economic Theory textbook?

2. An amazing video from Indonesia, where a private Islamic organization is coining – you guessed it – gold Dinars and silver Dirhams. Their explanation for doing it, and the interviews with ordinary people using the coins for their savings, are eye-opening.  One of the interviewees frames it as follows:

“The Dinar and Dirham represent a moral movement of maximum individual freedom”

It seems that this coinage movement sees itself as both enabling individual freedom from banking manipulation and the resulting inflation (obliteration of savings), and as a protest against state corruption and central bank control over individual lives (centrally controlled interest rates).

Aug 162010

In part 1 I mentioned Google’s focus on low latency sensors and massively redundant cloud data centers. Google is not the only company in the race though, and probably not the most advanced down that road. Ericsson – the world’s largest mobile equipment vendor – is seriously planning to operate 50 billion net-connected devices by 2020.  Only a small fraction of these will be what we consider as ‘devices’ – mobile phones, laptops, Kindles. The enormous majority will be everyday objects such as fridges (strategic object due to its central role in food consumption), cars (see the new Audi), clothes, basically everything potentially worth connecting. This implies an explosion in data traffic.

As Stacey Higginbotham writes over at Gigaom:

So even as data revenue and traffic rises, carriers face two key challenges: One, the handset market is saturated; and two, users on smartphones are boosting their consumption of data at a far faster rate than carriers are boosting their data revenue. The answer to these challenges is selling data plans for your car. Your kitchen. And even your electric meter.

In other words, it is in the interest of mobile providers to extend the network to as many devices as possible so that they can start profiting from the long tail. As the competition in mobile connectivity is fierce and at cut-throat margins, the first company to start mass-connecting (and charging) daily objects is going to make a killing. Hence Google’s focus on sensors and data centers.

This presentation by wireless analyst Chetan Sharma outlines the motivation for mobile providers to bring the internet of things as quickly as possible.