May 222011

I am currently re-reading Barry Hughart’s Eight Skilled Gentlemen – a fantasy novel based in Tang Dynasty China – and cannot stop wondering at the imagination and sheer Rabelaisian surrealism of the story. The following passage is a good illustration. Participants: Master Li Kao – a Confucian scholar and detective; Yen Shih – a puppeteer; Number Ten Ox – Master Li’s servant and narrator of the story. Scene: our protagonists are trying to get rid of a corpse belonging to the late servant of their host who is a powerful governor.

A great castle always has a small separate kitchen for the preparation of ceremonial dishes to be offered to ghosts or gods, and it was to be expected that a shaman would wish to offer to the gods who had aided him and invite his esteemed host to share the feast. Master Li had no difficulty commandeering the place, and in a few minutes he and Yen Shih had the corpse stretched out on the kitchen table and were cutting the clothes away. To tell the truth, I still didn’t truly believe this was happening.

‘Ox, would you see if they have any pigs’ feet jelly?’ the puppeteer asked. He turned to Master Li. ‘It seems to me that the thighs might best be marinated in a broth of pigs’ feet mixed with honey and the lees of wine, and then baked inside a crust formed of the marinade thickened with peanut paste.’

‘A connoisseur!’ said Master Li.

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

‘Ox, while you’re at it, see if they have any pickled jellyfish skins!’ Master Li called after me as I lurched into the larder. ‘I’ve discovered they go marvelously with bear’s paws,’ he continued to Yen Shih. ‘Bears paws taste to me like sixty percent glue, so jellyfish skins might be a good accompaniment to glutinous parts, like the soles of this bastard’s feet, and perhaps the spermatic cords.’

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

One of the shelves yielded the pigs’ feet, and in a cabinet I found a jar of jellyfish skins. When I started back towards the table Master Li was preparing to remove the top of the corpse’s head with a saw, and Yen Shih was measuring fibula and tibia for ax strokes.

‘Yen Shih, shall we do the brains in a traditional turnip sauce, or would you prefer oyster broth?’ Master Li shouted over the puppeteer’s ax.

‘You know, I rather favor poaching brains in coconut milk, if Ox can find any,’ Yen Shih said thoughtfully.

‘Brilliant!’ Master Li said admiringly. ‘Ox, see if they have any coconuts, and do you know why our erudite friend made the suggestion? Once upon a time, so the story goes, the great king of Nam Viet was stabbed by assassins, and he realised he was dying, so he pulled off his head and stuck it on a tree as his final gift to the people. The head turned into the coconut, and because the king was drunk at the time the fluid inside it is the most easily fermentable stuff on earth.’

‘I shall again seek your invaluable advice before possible ruining something,’ said Master Li. ‘Shall we keep the tongue whole, possibly baked inside a crust of walnut paste, or should we slice and saute it with butter and garlic?’

‘I am a butter-and-garlic man’ the puppeteer said. ‘Why don’t we save the walnut paste for broiling the bastard’s balls?’

‘Splendid,’ said Master Li.

‘How about a casserole of toes and ears?’

”Maybe with breast meat added,’ Master Li said. ‘Stewed slowly with bean curd, fagara, red peppers, and a lot of mushrooms added at the end.’

‘Sounds marvelous,’ said Yen Shih. ‘We have time to make a few sausages, don’t we?’

‘Oh, certainly. Here, let’s see what his intestines look like.’

‘Ox, look for some of that mustard from the south that goes so well with sausages!’ Yen Shih called out. ‘I once knew a fellow named Meng Kuan who claimed he bought mustard of Tan and took it home and forgot about it,’ he said to Master Li. ‘The stuff began to grow, and it sprouted a torso, a head, a tail, and four legs, and Meng Kuan swears it bit him and galloped out the door and he never saw it again.’

‘What was he drinking?’

‘Paint remover, I assume. Speaking of which, is there some way we can disguise the features, yet leave it intact, and serve the grand warden crisp fried face of boyfriend?’

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

‘Will you look at this fellow’s kidneys and pancreas!’

‘Gorgeous! And the liver!’

‘Eggplant! Ox, we must have eggplant, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and at least two kinds of squash!’


Not a trace of the creature remained, except for the succession of splendid dishes that were carried to the grand warden’s table the following evening at the banquet. I lacked the social status to receive an invitation, of course, and so did Yen Shih, but Master Li was a guest of honor. Master Li could eat anything, including “Twelve-Treasure Five-Taste Herb-Honeyed Unicorn,” which was served to the grand warden as the dish of distinction. (Yen Shih and Master Li had boiled the corpse’s buttocks in an infusion of hibiscus petals, and I had to admit it gave them a lovely shade of bluish pink.) As I said, I didn’t attend, but I did hear satisfied comments from departing guests, including the assessment of two very exalted prelates.

‘A bit rich for my taste, but quite well done,’ said the High Priest of Yen-men, and his Confucian counterpart put the seal on it.

‘Singularly succulent comestibles.’

‘Gllgghhh’ I said.

Jan 292011

An insightful TED talk on the rise of China by Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. He is tailoring the message and examples to the audience of course, but two of the points he makes I have never encountered so well enunciated before. First – that virtually all Western analysis of China is predicated on a very artificial perspective of how the world can possibly develop (in the footsteps of the West); and second – that Western conceptions of China remain at best locked in a rationalized version of this paradigm, and at worst (much more common) in a state of total parochial ignorance of the entirety of Chinese civilization – ignorance which is not reciprocated on the other side. First-hand experience and conversations with ordinary Chinese across different provinces confirm both observations for me.

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Sep 132010

As I discussed in my last post on cloud computing, Google’s strategic decision to release Android as an open source platform, therefore granting complete hardware freedom to vendors and complete app freedom to geeks, has resulted in something resembling a blitzkrieg on Apple’s Maginot line around the iPhone. Apple’s iThings are still shiny, and they might still release another household appliance masquerading as a computing/communication device, but it seems the droid army has made them irrelevant. Consider:

Google’s Android leapfrogging over iPhone, BlackBerry, WindowsMercury News on the latest Android sales figures, provided by Gartner market research. Why is this important? In the context of cloud computing the key battle to be waged (correction, the battle is already raging in earnest)  is about the platform from which users will access the cloud. At the most basic spec level this platform will have to be mobile, always-on, and malleable enough to allow a near-unlimited number of services running through it. It is this last bit which makes the Android a key development – the platform is open for a theoretically unlimited number of apps and Google has relinquished control over certification. Crucially, the most important actor-network in the app business – the developers – seem to agree:

“The developers tell us they love Android. It’s easier to learn; it takes less time, and one of the complaints we hear quite a bit about is (Apple’s) app certification process as a real thing that costs them time and money”

The key bit not mentioned in the article is that the iPhone had a two-year head-start on Android, and an army of carefully cultivated cultist followers ready to buy anything the company deigns to release. This makes the following graph all the more amazing:

smartphone numbers

Smartphone market share (courtesy of Mercury News)

India’s $35 Android 7-inch Tablet to Hit in JanuaryTom’s Hardware, Engadget on the upcoming release of a dirt-cheap Android-based cloud-tablet-for-the-masses in India. The price tag suggests this is a a heavily-subsidized device (unless they have achieved some mind-boggling economics of scale), which in turn suggests this may be part of a long-term strategy by the Indian government to leapfrog their infrastructure deficiencies. As I’ve already mentioned, governments have two possible ways to deal with those – either invest heavily in the established technology (for example fiber networks), or forget about the established tech and concentrate on the upcoming one. Australia seems hell-bent on going the former way, while India seems to be going with the latter. From the perspective of cloud platforms, this of course is a major win for the Android. An entire generation will be growing up using open source as their main net platform.

The future of the internet. A virtual counter-revolutionThe Economist on the developing ‘secret garden’ trend online, and the many possible repercussions for the internet as we know it. The article is long, detailed, and covers everything from censorship and the Great Firewall of China to the Apple app store and net neutrality. Why is this important? Crucially, the article suggests that fragmentation is inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing. When most people spend the majority of their time online on Facebook, and are there entirely of their own volition, it is a bit rich to bemoan the evil corporate takeover of the net. In this context the key issue seems to be not net neutrality but platform openness. The cloud is all about always/everywhere-on access, and while different protocols might still be treated differently depending on the carrier, the connectivity will be there. Given the already-happening fragmentation of common content into fiefdoms (Facebook, Apple app store),  the strategic question concerns levels of access and open vs closed platforms in the cloud. In other words, Android vs iPhone.

The web’s new walls. How the threats to the internet’s openness can be averted – An article from The Economist related to the one above but discussing in more detail the issue of net neutrality. Why is this important? Probably one of the key fronts in the battle for cloud dominance will be about access levels and the related price structures. The heated debate around net neutrality is quite superficially based on concerns about content discrimination (access providers censoring content through pricing), while the underlying issue is of course about competing access levels. In other words, about open markets and competition. The article rightly points out that the whole net neutrality debate is actually a distraction based on a misunderstanding of how markets operate (I am sorry to say this is arcane knowledge for most academics). The best example comes from the Apple app store – what good is net neutrality when the user is locked in a walled garden filled only with content blessed by the high priest himself? The last three paragraphs of the article provide a nice summation of the overall argument.

Mining social networks: Untangling the social webThe Economist on the exponentially growing business of network analysis, covering everything from counter-terrorism to social networks and foreign aid. Why is this important? This article illustrates what seems to be the dominant, if not the only, business model on the cloud – filtering data and managing layers of meta-data. As I argued in a  recent lecture on engaging authorless content, when data is free organizing it becomes valuable. Considering that the cloud is comprised only of data, the only relevant measure of value is the layers of meta-data that can be extracted from the primary set. In other words, network analysis is going to be a very big business.
Sep 062010

I’ve been meaning to write a longer piece on my trip to Mount Emei, one of the holiest mountains in China and home among others to the Bao Guo Si. Alas, this will have to wait for a while. However, the following quote expresses well the spirit of the place.

‘The supreme aristocrat is not the feudal lord in his castle but the contemplative monk in his cell.’Nicolas Gomez Davila

Prayer hall, Bao Guo Temple, Emei shan

Prayer hall mats, Bao Guo Temple, Mount Emei

Sep 032010

“On many occasions, under the influence of wine, Liu Ling would be completely free and unrestrained, sometimes even removing his clothes and sitting stark naked in the middle of his room. Some people once saw him in this state and chided him for it. Ling retorted, ‘Heaven and earth are my pillars and roof, the rooms of my house are my jacket and trousers. What are you gentlemen doing in my trousers?”

Liu Ling (221-300) – poet, taoist, flaneur

Forest Sages

Forest Sages, Leshan, Sichuan

Sep 012010

“In antiquity when someone gripped by an obsession for flowers heard tale of a rare blossom, even if it were in a deep valley or in steep mountains, he would not be afraid of stumbling and would go searching for it… When a flower was about to bloom, he would move his pillow and mat and sleep alongside it to observe how the flower would evolve from budding to blooming to fading. Only after it lay withered on the ground would he take his leave… This is what is called genuine love of flowers; this is what is called genuine connoisseurship.”

Yuan Hongdao (1568-1610) – poet, essayist, flaneur

Leshan flowers, Sichuan

Leshan flowers, Sichuan

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