Friday, April 8, 2016


I know I'm a special kind of clueless. I know.

So the day after I write up my book-touristing adventure, my friend and colleague Nancy Pine asked me to find a Chinese copy of her book. Nancy wrote a wonderful book summarizing her 20+ year longitudinal study comparing K-12 education in the US and China.

I decided to break out one of my apps to look for nearby bookstores, and there were a few along what could be a leisurely stroll to my night's eatery, or maybe to the next subway stop in case I got more ambitious. The first one, a small XinHua outlet, was closed already and when I walked into the next one I realized I had been there not too many nights before, quite by accident while looking for a toilet inside a smallish shopping mall.

I'd spent a little time in the store then, trying to understand its layout, wanting to find The Three Body Problem in something other than an e-book format - which is how I'm reading it - just to get a sense of its heft. I'd found it later in a larger XinHua outlet that day, and it wasn't quite so heavy as it seems in electronic form. I was a tiny bit deflated.

I wish I could make my memory reliable, or even my sense of direction anymore, but this night I did decide to approach the clerk, who said nope, they didn't have Nancy's book. As I told Nancy:

I decided on my stroll last night to string along a few bookstores to see if I could find your book.  I used an app to find them this time, and one turned out to be the same place I had hazarded into over the weekend, but by now I'd forgotten, this time guided by my app, I didn't quite place the two places in the same mental space.  (There's an old piece of pedagogical wisdom about that regarding mental maps, and how the same place from a different direction isn't catalogued as the same place) 
Anyhow I found a pedagogy section, but couldn't find your book. Truth be told, I really haven't found order to how bookshelves are arranged in China, since it's not by title or author, and I've had trouble before with the placement of foreign authors in their own category which isn't fish or fowl, so I did this thing guys never do which is to ask the clerk, who looked it up and said nope don't have it.  
I had to prod her about how I could find it - "you mean you want to know if you can buy it somewhere right in Shanghai?" Well, actually I wasn't sure what I meant. I thought that maybe she could order it in, but she offered as how there were 5 copies in their mothership store in XuJiaHui. She warned me to call first, since the computer might not be accurate, and I thought to myself oh yeah sure, I'll just call and recite the title and trust that the answer was true and final. Plus I wanted to see what the biggest bookstore in Shanghai might look like. 
So off I go, and it's nowhere near the core of ShuJiaHui, but sort of in the boonies (should have looked more closely at the map, but the place shows up under a different name there.) After a long walk, and still before dinner since I was stalking my quarry with bated breath as it were, I get to this ginormous bookstore, still opened as the other clerk assured me it would be until 9PM, under construction of course, and with a hopelessly huge 4 floors of books. I think it's really more like an open warehouse than a bookstore - not sure. 
I navigated to the right place magically, and the number of shelves of pedagogy was endless. I scanned and couldn't find your book. The clerk called over the resident book nerd who found it in the computer which showed 5 ordered now reduced to zero. He said nope sorry we don't have it.  
I asked where it would be if they did have it, just to get a sense of how they organize things, and sure enough he took me to a place I hadn't found called foreign pedagogy. Nope, don't have it he said again, having diligently searched for it on the shelves.
Well, by now I wasn't quite ready to totally quit, so I stayed behind and kept looking - saw a familiar translated title by Phil Altbach, his seminal work on Comparative Education and by golly there were five copies of your book. 
I had to show the clerk who was all different kinds of apologetic, but didn't really seem all that concerned and didn't exactly jump to fix the computer entry since I think the whole business is ultimately as strange to him as to me. 
Anyhow, my hunger numbed and too tired to stop and sit somewhere slurping noodles I sullied myself by grabbing a bag of McDonald's before hopping the (closer) subway back to my hotel in PuTuo.
Right. So I write much better when it's to some actual person, don't I? No? Maybe since you don't exist, I treat you the way we all treat homeless people who want our attention, with a kind of disdain. But I do find writing very very difficult. Almost as difficult as it's been to hold forth in Chinese to large audiences of high-school and college students these past couple of days in XuZhou.  On the downslide of my life, it isn't getting any easier.

So I have in my hands the little card advertising the Shanghai Boku Book City, the "largest bookstore in Shanghai." No wait, it actually says the largest book firm in China, but I think that's the same style of writing which introduces me to my awaiting audiences. Somehow Yale and professor and doctorate get all mixed up without exactly telling something other than the truth. So biggest in China refers to the branch of XinHua based in ZheJiang, but they do call this the biggest "book city" in Shanghai. They use bookuu as the translation, but it does approximately mean book warehouse.

Nancy remembered to me the big bookstore near the Bund, which I hadn't been aware of and which by means of BaiDu "street view" looks a bit more impressive than the one I visited. Same outfit, more central location, and I'll be curious to see the collection of classics when I get the chance some day. Nancy says it was jammed back in the day. When books were new again in China.

In the store I visited - maybe I was just too beat from walking and by that time of day - after a pretty diligent effort, I didn't find any section of classics at all. Zip, nada, nothing. But, well, this is a sales-driven inventory, right? People don't come here to be enlightened so much as to pass some exam it would seem to me.

So many Chinese with whom I strike up casual conversation bemoan the state of China's contemporary soul; many seeming to think that we in the West still have our faith in God and a spiritual side. That China only cares about money. I try to explain the strangeness of an apparently large population of Americans who also seem to care only about money, even while the earnestly continue to believe that God planted us here on Earth a mere five thousand years ago, and that science is a big hoax. That seems to quiet the Chinese enthusiasm for our spiritual nature a bit. Maybe they even feel encouraged for their country. I hope so.

I've been calling my talks the Three Media [Problem] since the title of this book I'm into in Chinese uses the same term "body" which is used in the term for "media" which combines the word for matchmaker with a generically broad term which can mean "body" "thing" or even "word" (as thing) or sometimes style, which makes an interesting mix of style and substance.

In physics, the three body problem refers to the mathematical impossibility to determine the future course of any three (or more) celestial bodies interacting as a system. It relates to Emergence, which relates the place where I now work, the Emergent Media Center, which gets down-translated in Chinese to "new media" or a newer term for emergent, which is still pretty much "new and exciting" media, without any sense of emergence at all.

Wikipedia shows Snowflake Bentley's photographs as an icon for emergence, so I use those in my talks as well along with the scientific name for emergence as a branch of philosophy really. Wikipedia is actually the only tool I know which will allow me to translate Chinese technical terms well, since you have the option to swap languages. One has to imagine that this can be very handy as a slip beyond certain firewalled topics inside China.

Life is defined as an emergent phenomenon, a conceptual approach which also happens to resolve the mind/body dualism we're still so trapped by. Strong emergence can't be mapped by computer.

But it's quite hard to make the point - the case - that this time of media explosion my indeed be an inflexion point in the timeline of life on the planet as momentous as when written language emerged. There was no predicting that, no evolutionary pressure in that direction for survival of individuals other than by virtue of belonging to a caring group. There is nothing like written language in our natural environment, although the Chinese written language comes closer to natural ties.

It seems a pretty mixed bag, this information technology. On the one hand it accelerates the separation of mind from body which started with the written word, historically coterminous with patriarchy. The written word has surely enabled the dominance of man as a species as well as the survival of many more individuals who partake of the ecology of writing, and especially of the rationalizations rendered by means of the scientific method.

But the death of our Earth, just like the death of Lake Erie which is etched in my own soul, enacts a final separation of mind from body, and most technology seems headed that way with the speed of so many recently launched rockets.

Our challenge will be to maintain some body-mind core, what the Chinese call a heart, to this cacophony of mediated communication which veers toward and away from meaning.

I suppose that to the extent that each of us chooses to amplify our own personal self through a kind of innocent ambition which translates so quickly into greed, the collective result will inevitably be separation from our body, the earth, and annihilation.

I also suppose that it doesn't have to be that way; that these new media could bring us into a state of better empathy with people who are other from us. It could help us to bring down the houses of cards built offshore or by means of opaque rules and pricing structures which privilege the wealthy who seem to know no bounds for what is fair for them and them alone.

This moment in American political history seems way more critical than even ever-brilliant but exceedingly ambitious Hillary Clinton seems to understand. We the people are hungry for something truly transparent and not hiding behind language which is as opaque as my Chinese is. Promises which are seen to be empty before they can even be understood. Trump is an answer only if you believe the media is the truth and the way and the power the way the written word got so perverted. He's not even B-grade the way Reagan was. He's a reality TV phenomenon, and the people who are amused by that have been largely robbed of any education in a system which seals even that American birthright away only for those with the right social capital.

From way over here in China I sure do hope that Hillary and Bernie can shake hands and come to some mutual understanding which isn't just more manipulation of the media. It won't happen magically by this supposed power to the people which the Internet was supposed to unleash. That's a very dangerous fiction. The power of power and wealth to concentrate has been amplified is the only thing that has happened so far. We need new metaphors.

OK, I'm done. Read the Three Body Problem. There's a Chinese author who turns the cyclic Chinese sense of history on its head with the same dexterity that he turns our Western apocalyptic future ambitions on their head. He rehearses all the politics. I truly do think the book is endless and I'll no more find any answers than I'll ever have a good time with a tout on NanJing Lu, but it does seem worth the effort. I might make more sense of China along the way.


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