Signs of Power

June 22, 2011 at 3:02 am (History, Politics)

In history and in international relations, one commonly speaks in terms of the power of a particular country, institution, or group of peopleIt is an intuitive concept that is not meant to be defined clearly, and academics have came up with numerous ways to “measure” power: economic strength, military might, diplomatic relations, and so on. It is very often in dispute which of these criteria are important or relevant; one particular problem is that the process from which we decide these criteria is tainted by power as well.

There are some trivial things like naming and symbolism which, I think, can serve as relatively neutral indicators of the balance of power. Here is an example: There are three common names for the nation that we refer to in English as “Korea”: Chosen/Joseon (朝鮮)[1], Han (韓), and Goguryeo/Goryeo (高句麗/高麗). None of these three are considered standard. This is quite unusual. – for example, while the Chinese ethnicity refer to themselves by various names such as Tang (唐) and Hua (華), the name Han (漢) is generally considered standard. There is no such agreement for the Korean name, however.

This eventually became a problem: For various historical, geographic and political reasons, after the Second World War and the division of Korea, North Korea decided to name itself after Chosen, as 「朝鮮民主主義人民共和國」 (Chosen Democratic People’s Republic, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea); while South Korea decided to name itself after Han, as 「大韓民國」 (Great Han Republic, officially known as the Republic of Korea).[2]
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June 19, 2011 at 3:53 am (Humans, Politics)

I’ve been involved in the Chinese democratic movement in Hong Kong for quite a while. In fact, I’m a registered member of the League of Social Democrats (whose leaders are mostly famous for throwing bananas at government officials and accusing others of being Communists while wearing Che Guevara shirts themselves[1]). I’ve been to speeches, rallies and gatherings and I’ve had the chance to see almost all of the pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong. Then when I tell my friends that I have absolutely nothing against the Communist Party maintaining their rule and I think they are one of the most competent governments since the history of human civilization, I am always met with blank stares.

Why? I’ve never really understood why most people find it unimaginable to support people who they might disagree with, or the other way round. When I think of whether to support the Communist Party, what I am thinking of is what my support could possibly do to the rest of society. In particular, I wonder whether it would increase the chance of having a better government in China if I did not support the Communist Party. My answer right now is an uncertain no. I do not think a regime change or a transfer of power in China in the next twenty years is likely to benefit society as a whole, and hence I support the Communist Party (or rather, do not actively try to challenge it).
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The problem with Humanities

June 17, 2011 at 2:36 am (Arts and languages, Logic and philosophy, Natural sciences, Personal experiences)

I remember when I was in my early teenage years, I was quite fond of thinking about (or attempting to think about) various philosophical questions on my own: the nature of the universe, the development of civilization, the underlying logic of society, and so on. At some point, when I was 14 or so, I started to study philosophy and literature seriously as an academic discipline and devoted a lot of time to it. This was a stupid blunder, and it cost me quite a few years. Today, at the age of 18, I understand essentially very little beyond what I had understood when I was 14. I did learn about a few principles about economics and a few mathematical truths during this time, but all of it I could have gotten without a pursuit of the humanities.

What I got from the humanities was entirely confusion. I learnt a massive array of terminology that contained very little depth. I was almost contaminated by the sense that philosophy is a puzzle to be solved with the aid of old white men, rather than a series of natural and essential questions that all men ought to think about. My thoughts were compartmentalized in meaningless and arbitrary ways by meaningless and arbitrary definitions: ethics, modernism, stoicism, deontology, and so on. All of these definitions are quite useful when you are communicating with people that are equally confused with you; all of these definitions are completely useless when what you are trying to do is to think.
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Lyrical composition in Cantopop

June 16, 2011 at 4:21 pm (Arts and languages)

Cantopop, or Cantonese pop music, generally refers to the songs and music videos created by the Hong Kong music industry.[1] Over the last thirty years, Cantopop has had widespread success in countries from Japan to Malaysia, and is credited with giving birth to the entire Chinese pop (C-pop) music style.

One of the features of Cantopop that are not too often appreciated in public is the sheer difficulty of composing lyrics in Cantonese. The main problem lies in the tonal system. A tone is the unique (relative) pitch associated to a word; a tonal language uses pitch to distinguish between different meanings. English, for example, is not a tonal language, for pitch cannot on its own be used to differentiate between words or between meanings of a word. There is a distinction between stress and unstressed syllables in English, which involves pitch, but this difference is mainly observed in the vowels – think of “RE-cord” (n.) versus “re-CORD” (v.).
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Don’t be a Kant

June 8, 2011 at 11:50 am (Humans, Logic and philosophy)

Should Sick People Be Paid to Risk Their Lives?

The fact that such questions need to be asked – such questions as whether it is acceptable to receive payment for testing drugs, or for donating blood and organs, or for any other kind of voluntary behavior – is, I think, a fundamental indictment of the intellectual decay of our society.

Peers and friends have always been surprised by my virulent hatred of this subject. I am convinced that if they understood the nature of the discipline – those self-gratifying, masturbatory arguments known collectively as deontological ethics that are almost without exception ridiculous, juvenile and unworthy of discussion – they would feel very much the same way. Only the most wretched and utterly idiotic of men could think that, for instance, it is worthy of debate whether it is ethical to kill an innocent person to save five equally innocent lives. Of course it is, and the illusion that this question is somehow worth pondering is a tragic failure of human rationality.

I have no doubt that all deontologists would be utilitarianists if some unfortunate event was to strike them instead; say, if they were the ones who have to decide between selling an organ and watching their parents suffer; or if they were the five people on the tracks, soon to be run down by a trolley. That is because deontology is designed fundamentally to preach, to tell other people how to act. Deontological ethics had always been, and will always be, a luxury of the rich, the bourgeois of developed nations. “Dignity”, “humanism”, “moral righteousness” are their catchphrases because they cannot hide their moral insecurity in anything but abstract terms. For them, of course it is perfectly unacceptable to work for sweatshops, or to prostitute, or to do such various unimaginably vile things that only the poor and downtrodden would ever dream of doing!

Meanwhile, millions and millions of the poor and unfortunate – those that the first-world bourgeois claim to protect – suffer and perish for the lack of access to a good job, to genetically-modified crops, to free trade and free market. For them, ethics has never crossed their minds. Or rather, it is a meaningless term for them. For them, to be ethical is quite simply to do what is best for one and his family, to survive and hopefully to enjoy surviving. And, quite appropriately, they find any other definition of ethics utterly incomprehensible.

Even amongst the lower middle-classes of Hong Kong (a quite prosperous city) with whom I grew up with, I find no sign of any comprehension of deontological ethics. Among the many to whom I have asked the “trolley problem”, all found the answer immediately obvious, and similarly all found the existence of any contrary answer to be unimaginable. It is only in the upper classes of the Western world that we find this peculiar formation of ethics: that it is somehow ethical to impose your judgment on an unknown stranger eight thousand miles away and forbid him from doing something, all in the name of protecting him.

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Wikipedia wars

June 7, 2011 at 4:50 pm (Information, Politics)

“Palin’s supporters abuse Wikipedia to justify Paul Revere gaffe” (this is heavy!).  Check out the edit history.

The unfortunate fact is that “edit wars” like this go on every day in thousands of articles about recent events and contentious political issues. Very few people seem to realize how utterly incapable Wikipedia is at dealing with these agenda-based edits. The editing process (any user – even without an account – can edit almost any page at any time) might have been great for the first four years or so of Wikipedia’s history, when there was a lack of quantity, not quality. Today it is a main obstacle to achieving the high standard of quality that traditional encyclopedias had. Every hick in the streets seems to think that he knows everything about Global warming, Taiwan independence, Deontology, real analysis, and the fact that human relationships exist in communist countries.

To be fair, Wikipedia does have its share of well-written articles, and in particular the ones on mathematics are often fabulous. But even in these highly technical subjects, long-term editors have been leaving for projects with more sensible rules such as PlanetMath. The dispute-resolution process is hopelessly cumbersome, and the lack of respect for academic writings is prevalent even among many of the administrators.

(The funny thing is that the whole Wikipedia thing got started because an Ayn Rand fan misread “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.)

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USSR and China, post-1989

June 7, 2011 at 12:25 am (Development)

I’ve been wanting to write about the prospects and possible consequences of democracy in China for a while, but every time I find myself hopelessly ignorant of too many things and end up retreating to the books. I think it is very difficult in general for any reasonable and honest writer to make any particular claim about politics which he would be willing to defend strongly. The more you know, the more uncertainly there seems to be. Hence why I refuse to profess any particular political belief (though I hold many) beyond a few general guiding principles: religion is undesirable, war is almost always bad, and nationalism is a disease.

I think I will concede, then, that I don’t have any particular opinion on Chinese politics that I am willing to defend and debate about. I will, however, offer some specific but illuminating (I hope) bits of statistics in this post that often seem overlooked in contemporary debates. For the period 1945-1991 the PRC is often lumped together with the Soviet Union as the “Second World” by Western observers, and while I think they are a lot less similar than most people realize, it is nonetheless very useful to compare the economic growth of the Soviet states and China from 1989 to today. Here is a link to a graph of GDP per capita (PPP/inflation-adjusted) over time for several post-Soviet states and the People’s Republic of China. Here is another link showing instead GDP per capita growth. Both graphs are from around 1982 to present. The data is from the World Bank. The graphs are reproduced below for convenience (but try out Gapminder nonetheless, if you haven’t):

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June 4th in Hong Kong

June 5, 2011 at 1:40 am (Personal experiences, Politics)

Over 150,000 people came out today in Hong Kong to mourn the victims of the incident on June 4thMay 35th, 1989 at Tian’anmen Square where absolutely nothing happened.

More on this later.

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A few comments on Grade inflation

June 1, 2011 at 1:57 pm (Personal experiences, Price theory, Rochester)

One of the most unpleasant things I had to deal with while studying under the American system is grade inflation. I grew up studying for one of the most harshly curved exams in the world, in which usually less than 2% of students receive an A in each subject, and less than 7% receive a B (there is no +/-). The American system was obviously a drastic change for me. The first day I entered my American high school (for the senior year), I realized that I could receive an A with work that formerly only deserved an E. I was quite delighted for about twenty minutes before it dawned on me that the system is absolutely terrible, especially for students like me who only knew how to distinguish ourselves by our grades.

Steven Landsburg has an excellent article that says pretty much everything which needs to be said about grade inflation – why it exists and why it is horrible. Grades, he argues, are fundamentally a source of information to employers. With less distinction on the higher end of the curve, employers are not able to distinguish between the best and the slightly less great applicants. This makes it difficult to allocate work effectively in society and hence reduces productivity. He raises the example of a worker worth $40,000 and another worker worth $30,000 with a similar profile (let’s say they both get a 4.0 – the matter is more complicated but essentially the same once we introduce lower GPAs). Because the employer cannot distinguish between them, their average value drops from $35,000 to something like $32,000. While the lesser worker is quite content, the better worker ends up a lot worse.

As a student and as someone who has studied in an alternative system, there are two points I would like to add:

First, the focus is somewhat narrow. The biggest problem, I would argue, is probably not with the “demand” but with the “supply”. To be succinct, this is because students influence their own value as workers.  If employers cannot distinguish between the best and second-best students, the best students may choose to slack off (until they can barely, but still, get an A) and hence reduce their future productivity. Or, more optimistically, they may find other methods to set themselves apart besides studying for classes. These methods should also increase their future productivity (with the possible exception of socializing with professors), but are certainly not effectively as taking classes, or such methods of selection would have been adopted without grade inflation.*
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