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Through a Firewall, Darkly

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I know about the Great Firewall. I know about the Green Dam. I even know about tiny mirrors reflecting signals so that they can be analyzed before being allowed to proceed through data lines – the tiny gatekeepers of the Fiberoptic Road. Still, I’m not an expert on data, or on Internet technology. I am merely an enthusiastic Internet user. I am nearly dependent on the Internet for my communication, financial and entertainment needs, and having been raised in front of various computers, starting with the Osborne II (Two colors: Green, and Not Green), a homebrew 286 DX (yes, DOUBLE SPEED – but you had to press the ‘turbo’ button), a ‘Leading Edge’ 486 that I recall being pretty awesome and finally a succession of Intel-powered workhorses that I put to the crucial task of playing every computer game ever made, I am familiar with the hardware, the front-end of the experience. Not so with the Internet. All I know about the Internet is: It’s too slow. It cannot be fast enough. I sympathize with those traders at Goldman and other banks doing hyperfast trading – if the speed is there, why not use it? Even better, why not use it for completely trivial things, like watching 30 Rock on Hulu or downloading a new game from Steam?

The Internet in China is slow when you want to access something outside its approved network. That is mostly unavoidable. But one can get varying degrees of ‘sucks’ depending on your service provider, subscription plan and, most curiously, location in the city. Having lived in six different places in Beijing, I can say with confidence that Internet performance varies drastically from place to place, but has gradually improved over time. Previously, I lived in a fairly old but still modern building in the city center (inside the Second Ring Road, near Andingmen) and got better Internet performance than I have ever had before. It’s not even close. Latency was down, download was faster – it was super, super, shuang. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, finally, someone has gotten it completely right – a reasonably fast, dependable Internet provider. Thank you, China Unicom.

Now I live in a more modern, hip neighborhood nearer to the central busines district. Surely I’ve at least kept pace with the building inhabited by most older couples in Andingmen, right? Wrong. My Internet is atrocious. This is the first time I’ve been able to get to this page without a VPN (thank you Chinese censors!) in quite awhile, and I confess I’d mostly given up on this blog because I could not even log onto my VPN from home without everything crawling to a halt. At Andingmen, my access was so good I did everything through the VPN. At Shuangjing? Forget it. Write it down: Pingod Apartments (苹果社区) has some of the worst 2MB Internet I’ve ever experienced in developed parts of China. Why? Too many people, not enough Internets! Everyone is drawing from the same well, and the well tends to run dry around 8PM every night. Thanks a lot, China Telecom. I never thought I’d be comparing Liantong (Unicom) to anyone favorably, but even the engineer Dianxin (Telecom) sent out to make sure nothing was physically wrong with my connections admitted that Unicom has better equipment and a newer and faster network overall. But because our apartment lacks the hardware for Unicom’s ADSL…no dice! We’re stuck with Dianxin.

So it goes. I’ll try not to use my terrible Internet as an excuse for not posting more. Anyone out there know a place near Guomao with really awesome Internet?

Written by Michael

March 10, 2010 at 4:37 pm

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Love in the Time of Swine Flu

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By now the widespread detentions of suspected and confirmed cases of H1N1 in China are well-known. Determined not to repeat the mistakes made in handling the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Chinese government has implemented some of the strictest quarantine procedures in the world. Informational posters are everywhere – two in my apartment building alone. Notices inform residents that those returning from abroad must report to the health bureau to check that they do not have a fever. After I returned from the US, I was called every day by a woman with a pleasant voice who asked me if I had a temperature or not. Every day, I dutifully told her that I did not, and that I felt fine. For some time, I’ve been complaining to anyone who will listen that this panic and concern is mostly unwarranted and futile – it is likely that ‘novel’ H1N1 will not simply go away, and it is impracticable to detain everyone in the world who contracts it, nor will it stop its spread. I’ve been dismissive, even cavalier about the prospect of contracting it myself, so I was thinking sour thoughts about karma and comeuppance when I found myself feverish and prostrate in the emergency room of a well-known Beijing hospital.

H1N1 Test

“If we do this test, we aren’t supposed to let you leave the hospital,” said the doctor, waggling the plastic-wrapped syringe holding a long cotton swab. I muttered my assent, having already been told that I was a textbook example of a potential case – recent international travel, high fever, persistent and dangerously elevated heart rate, headache, wet coughing. He continued, explaining that some others had basically decided to check themselves out anyway, and that the hospital simply wrote “Patient refused advice” on their report to the authorities, ostensibly covering their legal bases. I took this to mean that if I wasn’t falling down and vomiting, I could leave after I felt better, and they would call me at home, where I would remain self-quarantined until I was cleared. I had him go ahead with the test, and then laid back and let the IV fluids slowly bring me back to life. For awhile, the treatment didn’t work – fever remained, my heart continued booming away and I began to worry. Just as concern for my life began to overcome my reckless attitude, I did start feeling better – much better. My fever vanished, my headache stopped, and my heart resumed beating at a normal, healthy pace. This took several hours, during which time the ER doc swapped with the new shift. He came in and said, well, glad you’re feeling better, but we have to admit you. Do you have insurance?

I did, or so I thought – but as it turned out, it hadn’t been activated yet. Great. The hospital cashier came and told me what it would cost to be admitted – over two thousand dollars. I refused and informed them I would be leaving in a ‘polite-but-firm’ manner that probably erred too strongly towards the firm. The doctor returned and said, please don’t leave. You need to stay. I wondered at just how far he would push this, but still tired and weak, I didn’t feel like fighting much and let him make his various calls here and there. My girlfriend, who had convinced me that lying at home burning up delirious was not the best way to recover, informed me at some point that she had overheard them calling the special office on H1N1, at which point I realized no matter how many calls he made, well-intentioned or not, the hospital would be counselled to keep the both of us quarantined. Out of fear of liability or official sanction, the doctor would never sign off on me leaving, and poor Chen, who had been drawn only half-willingly into my weekend of plague detainment, would be forced to stay as well.

I briefly pondered exiting out the first-floor bathroom window, which was carelessly left open (what kind of second-rate forced quarantine was this?) before amending my desires to free food and a free doctor visit the next day. They considered this for awhile and agreed, proving that one can bargain away one’s rights in exchange for free healthcare. I suppose I had some other alternatives – calling the embassy and making a fuss (would they be able to do anything, though?), simply walking out the door and daring them to use force to stop me, or throwing a fit, breaking various pieces of medical equipment, referring to the doctor only as ‘Mengele’ while holding the nurses at bay with an IV pole brandished as a spear. Demanding my consular rights seemed silly given that I wasn’t being accused of anything, storming out seemed like it would probably provoke a very stupid confrontation of some sort (the doctor seemed very nervous about the prospect of my leaving, far more than the previous doctor), and while with the amount of drugs in my system I might have been able to overpower the entire ER staff and the underfed security guards, shooting up the place just seemed rude. So, the bargain was struck, and I spent the next 20 hours or so trapped in a relatively luxurious hospital suite, quarantined with my girlfriend on the most interesting date night in history. Given that I potentially had the horrible, evil and deadly swine flu, it wasn’t very gentlemanly of the hospital to force her to stay with me, but it was better than facing certain death and a limited selection of satellite TV channels alone. Of course, I did not have H1N1, although it’s taken me this long to start feeling normal again. And in the end, I am grateful to the hospital – they were professional despite a difficult situation and a less than happy and very woozy patient – and to Chen, who sacrificed her weekend to be trapped with me in a Beijing hospital. And as for my ‘no big deal’ argument, how about settling it with some nice, cold numbers? China – 1,800 confirmed cases, 0 deaths. Compare to: United States – 43,000 confirmed, 336 deaths.

Written by Michael

July 27, 2009 at 10:46 am

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Practice, Practice, Practice

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I like David Brooks. He makes a concerted effort to be more than just a political columnist. In an age where only shrill voices are heard over the airwaves and bold-faced, siren-laden headlines dominate the Internet, Brooks occasionally departs from his role as the New York Times’ token conservative op-ed columnist and writes about something completely unrelated to politics. More people should do this.

In a recent column, he examines what genius is and how it is cultivated, both by circumstance and by conscious effort. The effort part is what interests me most. For a long time, I’ve struggled, not just with Chinese, but with actually improving my overall abilities in writing, communication, time management, and other areas, both mundane (but necessary) and artistic. The tipping point between frustrated abandonment of a difficult task and slow but steady success is always focus, or a lack thereof. Focus is a problem for nearly everyone. Too many things demand our attention, and we are often all too happy, elated even when we are offered a chance for distraction. My brain shoots between topics and activities almost as fast as Firefox can open a new web page. There is so much information available and always something new happening somewhere that it becomes easier and easier to lose oneself in the flood of information and, in doing so, lose out on many opportunities to grow. Without focused effort over a long period of time, no meaningful ability can properly develop. If ability or talent do seem to spontaneously emerge, it is because we have not fully understood how some activity or circumstance in the past contributed to the growth of the ability in question. Why, for instance, was I particularly good at reading as a young child? Clearly because my mother read to me, pointing at each word as she did so, for hours every night. I was tutored rigorously when my brain was most ready to receive – the benefits will last forever.

Brooks writes,

By practicing in this way, performers delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.

The key is rigor and repetition. I have never been good at this as a student because I once thought I didn’t have to put in the same amount of time to get the same, or even superior, results. Often, this was true – thanks to my parents forcing or tricking me into doing things that made me smarter as a kid, I had a head start. This led me to be lazy and carry an almost entitled, superior view of myself into any academic situation. But the idea that someone is inherently ‘gifted’ with knowledge or technique is ridiculous. Talent is not a gift, it is a product, a result. Even LeBron James, whose physical gifts alone would make him at least a journeyman in the NBA, routinely outworks his peers in the weight room, in terms of hours spent practicing, etc. There’s no throne without the thorns, as William Penn said. Without that repeated, brain-numbing effort, there will be no notable results, nothing to write home about. Too often it’s made learning Chinese a real chore, but it IS a chore. One of the most epic, difficult chores in the world. I’ve done passably well so far, but I can’t calculate the amount of time I’ve wasted and the words/sentence patterns I’ve forgotten simply through lack of review and daily usage. The same is true of my English – when I do actually buckle down and spend lots of time on my Chinese, and don’t post to the blog or write emails, I find myself committing vast amounts of typos and wantonly dangling participles hither and tither. Given that I style myself a candidate for law school, I should be more mindful of what would otherwise be trivial errors, and yet they recur again and again. Why? Lack of practice. Even a keyboard will trip up someone who hasn’t spent much time in front of it recently.

Some people do New Year’s resolutions, so how about a (belated) May Day resolution? If I’m going to lead a charmed life as a student and faux-知识分子 , one may as well put in the hours and the time to make that knowledge a reality, an arsenal that can be called upon reflexively and immediately, without lots of hemming and hawing and “I’ll get back to you on that.” Knowledge, language, politics – they all have vocabularies that can be learned and concepts that can be mastered. Without that, talent is just an empty word, and the ‘big picture’ thinking I fancy myself as being good at will be impossible.

Just as an aside, WordPress is wonderful. This is so much better than any other interface I’ve used, and it even lets me publish from my desktop, although I’m still wrangling with XAMPP and trying to coach myself up in various aspects of it. I used to be ‘good’ at computers, now I’m merely another user. Practice, practice…I’m hoping to divide the blog (or just use tags?) to move my Chinese language content/ranting about Cleveland sports over here as well. It’ll be a busy month, but I’ll get it done somehow.

Written by Michael

May 3, 2009 at 11:45 am

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Who is Martin Armstrong?

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The advent of the financial crisis has transformed Wall Street superstars into front page villains, pilloried publicly for their diverse and varied schemes, be they Ponzi or otherwise. Who outside of the world of finance knew Bernard ‘Bernie’ Madoff before he made off with somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 billion? Allen Stanford, who trails him with a paltry $6 billion or so? And nobody has been deaf to the near-hysteria surrounding the gross incompetence of AIG Financial Products, leading to bailout after bailout, while the public seethes at executives still receiving bonuses.

Yet in this emotionally charged and unhappy time, a few such figures have refused to go quietly to the gaol, instead firing back with media fusillades and counteraccusations of corruption and wrongdoing by others, by the government, by the public at large. Mr. Stanford, in an interview with the New York Times, recently denied any wrongdoing, instead blaming his partner and former roommate. He claims that the collapse of his investments and company was based on rumor and hearsay, and made fact by draconian action by the Securities and Exchange Commission. From a different quarter, Jake DeSantis, a former Executive Vice-President of the aforementioned AIGFP, resigned in a public editorial and accused AIG of breaking promises under undue and unjustified public pressure. Sympathy was lacking, but clearly many individuals are not willing to have their names or reputations besmirched by the ongoing crisis. At least not without a fight.

This is hardly the first time the United States has been a large-scale economic crisis, and definitely not the first time the words ‘Ponzi Scheme’ have comingled with pictures of disgraced financiers. I’d like to share some thoughts from another blog, Thomas Neuhaus’s ContraHour. Mr. Neuhaus, who blogs on trends in the stock market and has a number of excellent posts regarding the financial crisis, also occasionally posts essays written by Martin Armstrong, a financier who has been jailed since the late 1990’s, first on a seven-year contempt of court charge (renewed every 180 days), and now on a more substantive charge of defrauding his investors. Mr. Armstrong was a wunderkind who made it big at an early age, and went on to develop complex financial forecasting models with the firm he founded, Princeton Economics International, until he was accused of engaging in a Ponzi scheme and eventually jailed for refusing to produce documents and evidence requested by the court. According to a sentencing memorandum citing his case,

Defendant Martin Armstrong engaged in a seven-year long, $3 billion Ponzi scheme, described
by the government as the “the largest Ponzi scheme in history,” causing losses of $737 million.
(See Sentencing Tr. at 36-37, attached hereto as Exh. 32). Armstrong exhibited no remorse or
concern for his victims. To the contrary, he refused to surrender more than $14.9 million of gold
bars and rare coins he had obtained as part of his scheme. He was jailed for civil contempt, and
spent seven years refusing to acknowledge or turn over his ill-gotten gains. Armstrong never
accepted responsibility for his actions – once again, to the contrary, he spent half an hour at his
sentencing hearing rationalizing his behavior. Nevertheless, the government agreed to permit
Armstrong to plead guilty to a single conspiracy count of conspiracy, effectively capping his
sentence at 60 months, the sentence Judge Keenan imposed (in addition to the 7 years he had
spent in prison for his continuing civil contempt).

Martin Armstrong

Martin Armstrong

Armstrong maintains his innocence to this day and routinely lambasts the government and its lawyers in the essays provided to ContraHour. He cites historical precedent in arguing against the witch-hunt atmosphere which has historically arisen in times of economic crisis:

The Senate investigations in the 1930s turned into a witch hunt. The Senate demanded to know who was short. Many people were destroyed. Mr. Fox, of 20th Century Fox, ended up with so many lawsuits against him because of wild accusations made in the Senate without any evidence, that he went virtually bankrupt. Willy Durant who began General Motors ended up with a job in a bowling alley. The Senate even summoned Rockefeller. No one was beyond their reach. The net result, the grand¬standing destroyed the free markets causing the Dow Industrials to fall by nearly 90% into 1932.

Society reacts blindly and wants retribution for its pain. The Panic of 1869 resulted in dragging the bankers out on Wall Street and hanging them causing the government to send in the troops to suppress the riot. There is always a witch-hunt. Those in power need to blame someone in the public to divert responsibility.

Surely, individuals such as Mr. Stanford would find some common ground with such arguments. Interestingly, Mr. Armstrong also writes of the markets themselves as mimicking a Ponzi Scheme (he does not use that phrase), in that highs are generated by attracting new and previously too-conservative buyers, until eventually, the last holdout is sucked in and there is no new capital to contribute:

When you suck in that last guy who raises the flag and joins the herd, it is over. There is no new source of buyers to keep the cycle going. Just hold your arm straight up in the air. See how long you can keep it there. The weight of your arm will become so heavy and your energy will flee like the wino. Suddenly you will be forced to let it go. The markets function on that same principle. This is why no one can manipulate the business cycle or the world economy.

Armstrong was even questioned in court regarding Darren Aronofsky’s movile Pi, which portrays a tortured genius using mathematics to discover underlying cycles manifesting themselves in the rise and fall of the stock market. Armstrong was questioned in 1999 (Pi was released in 1998) as to whether or not he was inspired by the movie or otherwise drew forecasting knowledge therefrom. He denies this, but one could see how his own life could be cast in terms sharply resembling the experiences of the protagonist of Pi, Max Cohen, who is first worshiped for his forecasting acumen and mathematical genius, and later hunted and persecuted as an outcast because his ability is too dangerous when people discover that it actually works. Armstrong himself believes that an attack on him in prison was a targeted event, writing

It is one thing to have the Government try to claim you are nuts or insane. It is something completely different when they try to portray you as Gold Finger from a James Bond movie capable of controlling the world. The fear the Executive branch has seems to be akin to what Kondratieff experienced with Stalin. If the Executive doesn’t like what the model says, they literally try to kill the messenger. On May 10th, 2007, an inmate was allowed in my cell who attacked me from behind, strangled me from behind, beat me with a typewriter and after I passed out, jumped up and down on my chest trying to cave it in. Others yelled for the guard, but he waited until the inmate was finished and came out proudly announcing he had killed me. To the best of my knowledge, no one was prosecuted and I was taken to Beakman Hospital at NYU. To the Government’s dismay, I survived.

However, for Armstrong, his own predicament takes a backseat to his concerns about the state of the American economy. Armstrong believes that American capitalism is a dodo bird in the crosshairs of an increasingly socialist, know-nothing government that continues to use hare-brained schemes to try and prop up a dying economy. He’s not the only one who believes the current administration is botching the economy, but he’s the only one who claims to have a skeleton key to the mysteries of fluctuations in the stock market. He suggests that the use of technology can save us, control our economy and government, allowing us to suppress and ameliorate the otherwise dangerous fluctuations of the cycle on which he bases his forecasts. His ‘Economic Confidence Model’ suggests a regular cycle of ups and downs based on the world economy as a whole.

While it is difficult to take anyone who claims to have cracked the underlying code of financial markets at their word, it’s not surprising that Armstrong has found a few devotees out there, such as Mr. Neuhaus. Given the state of things, one would be forgiven for resorting to reading tea leaves or reviving the Roman practice of reading the future in entrails, Haruspicy. What makes Mr. Armstrong significant is that unlike Mr. Madoff and Mr. Stanford, who stand at the beginning of a long and dark journey, Mr. Armstrong’s is nearly complete. In a few years, he will be freed and, one supposes, able to practice his art again. It is also possible for us to measure Mr. Armstrong’s accuracy in forecasting. For instance, according to his forecasting model, April 19-20 is the ‘turn date’ for a bear market rally to end, and a continued sinking of the world economy to resume apace. How exactly we are expected to detect the ‘turn date’ is uncertain – Neuhaus suggests that the dollar, treasuries, or the Shanghai index may show signs of topping out, indicating the turn.

Whatever happens, it will be…interesting. Perhaps later I will write a more detailed dissection of Armstrong’s ideas and offer my own opinions, but for now, if you’re sick of reading the mainstream news and want something completely from left field, take a look at Armstrong’s essays.

Note: Armstrong’s charts and essays appear crude and sometimes hand-edited because they are written from a prison cell on a single-spaced typewriter. He is not permitted use of a computer.

Written by Michael

April 21, 2009 at 2:24 pm

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创立新世界 – Establish the new world

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After a brief and torrid affair with Blogger, I have come running back to the welcoming embrace of WordPress. The Blogger blog really turned into one continuous stream of consciousness rant, which while emotionally satisfying was not intellectually productive or interesting. I had entitled it ‘a new context’ as the spiritual successor to both my old blogs, which were ‘out of context’ because I was a foreigner in China (I still am), but there wasn’t anything particularly ‘new’ or worthy about it. So, I will surgically remove the posts I feel are worthwhile and transplant them here as time allows and interest dictates. This will principally remain a personal blog with the occasional lengthy, and hopefully better-supported and referenced essay on China/Chinese, life in Beijing, foreign affairs, and my ever-evolving Theory of Absolutely Everything.

Housekeeping done. Resume blogging.

Written by Michael

April 16, 2009 at 8:24 pm

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