Snow Boa

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Stockholm, Karlavägen, 20 December 2010.


The Mindless Conventionality of an East Asian Upbringing

East Asian child rearing is notorious for the heavy pressure put on children, but also famous for the great feats of technical brilliance and hard work many people who grow up under these conditions perform. Kids are sent to evening classes, weekend lessons, hardly have any free time. And then many graduate at the top of their years.

Professor Amy Chua of Yale Law School has recently published a book promoting this kind of strict and achievement-orientated parenting. I read an extract on the Wall Street Journal’s web site, and I find Chua’s child-rearing practices counterproductive and draconian. This is largely because I don’t share her highly conservative ideas of what constitutes success in this world.

To begin with, Chua forced her children to play the piano and violin for hours upon end. The value of this is apparently beyond questioning. I’m baffled by this. Few people can name any classical musicians, and extremely few can support themselves playing classical music. Why should I make my kids do that? Both took violin lessons until they tired of the instrument, and then they moved on to sax and piano, which they enjoy playing but don’t work particularly hard at. It’s just for fun. I certainly wouldn’t want either of them to try a professional career in music unless they were really motivated in themselves.

Furthermore, Chua demanded that her kids be No 1 academically in their years, and she forbade them to attend sleepovers, have playdates, watch TV and play computer games. This is just crazy from my point of view. Since childhood, I have always felt that having a lot of unplanned free time to play and laze about with a book or a computer is an important part of basic quality-of-life. Taking free time and play away from kids and teaching them to avoid those things as adults constitutes tragic misuse of a person’s life, from my point of view.

The qualities I try to cultivate in my kids are

  • Independent critical thinking
  • A sense of humour
  • Verbal skills (speaking and writing)
  • Solid general knowledge and insight into how everything connects up in the world
  • Curiosity
  • Social fearlessness
  • Creativity

As those who have met them can confirm, my kids have all of this in rich measure. I don’t think Amy Chua’s methods would have helped much here, on the contrary. And still, academically speaking, my kids are near the top of their years too.

At the root of my disagreement with Amy Chua lies my cynicism about the value of conventional achievement. I would never go to such lengths to get where Chua is in life, or to get my kids to where her daughters are going, because I don’t find that place attractive. I prefer to work 30-35 hours a week for a modest income and spend a lot of my time achieving nothing, just having fun with friends and family. And that’s what I teach my kids to value too. My goal as a parent isn’t to teach them to excel. It’s to teach them to be happy and have fun.

Update 11 January: Thinking about this, I realised that when I force my children to do things, it’s the opposite of what Chua did (apart from household chores). Ever since my kids learned to use a phone, I’ve made them call a playmate at 10 am on Saturdays and Sundays, to keep them from hanging around alone at home and being bored or watching daytime TV. This has ensured that they are experienced phone conversationalists and that they have always been invited to a lot of parties. Amy Chua prohibited play dates.

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Weight vs Density of Snow On Your Roof


Boat Hill, where I live since two years back, is a 70s tract-housing estate where roofs are almost flat. Snow thus tends to build up on them. Of course, pile enough snow onto any structure and it will collapse. But I’ve come across a curious notion here. Several neighbours have told me to beware wet snow “because it’s so heavy”.

They’re not talking about snow that becomes secondarily soaked by rain that adds to its weight. They believe that if I have a tonne of powdery snow at -10 Celsius on my roof, I’m OK, but if that tonne approaches 0 Celsius and compacts down into a thinner, less fluffy layer, it will break my roof.

As far as I understand, they’re confusing weight and density. A shovel of powdery snow is lighter than a shovel of slush. But when you shovel slush, you need to shift fewer shovels of the stuff to get your yard (or roof) free of snow.

Mars Rover(s) Still Working After Seven Years


Dear Reader, remember the remote-controlled Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity? How long is it since the last time you thought of them? Spirit landed on Mars seven Earth calendar years ago today, Opportunity on 25 January — and at least Oppy still works fine! Spirit has sadly been stuck on the edge of a small dust-filled crater since May 2009, one set of wheels inside and one outside the crater. It is currently incommunicado because of the Martian winter, being in a poor position for solar power. But it still probably works. And Oppy trundles on toward Endeavour crater. Currently it’s taking stereo images at the 80-metre diameter Santa Maria crater. Check out the project’s web site for news!

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Post-Modernist Historiography

Historiography is meta-history, that is, the historical study of historical studies in the past. It is useful and valuable to historical research as ongoing quality control and provides a kind of user’s manuals for those who wish to use old literature in new studies of the past. Also, it can often help explain political ideas, movements and propaganda in the past, as that field in society often attempts to use and manipulate history. I am, however, of the firm opinion that if you are interested in, say, the High Middle Ages, you have no reason to delve into Victorian ideas about that period. You need to hit the Medieval sources. Meta-studies should always be an adjunct to the real thing. If a subject is abstruse, then its meta-subject is of even less interest to humanity at large.

Chinese history and historiography are the themes of the current issue of Kinarapport (2010:4), the quarterly of the Swedish-Chinese Association. Reading it left me annoyed, because some of the historiography here is of the post-modernist kind marked by knowledge relativism. A relativist historiographer will not criticise the historians of yesteryear on points of fact and suggest more well-supported interpretations of the sources. Instead he will pick apart the arguments of earlier generations and simply leave them disassembled, saying more or less explicitly that any attempt to establish objectively true knowledge about the past is futile.

There’s a fatal inconsistency built into relativist historiography. A relativist present-day writer will not allow for a Victorian writer to have found out any objective knowledge about the High Middle Ages. But he will himself unproblematically claim objective knowledge about the Victorian writer’s views and surrounding world. And so he must, because if he were a consistent knowledge relativist he would have no basis for imposing his own views on a reader and expect to be taken seriously. He would on first principles be unable to say “Victorian scholar so-and-so believed this-and-that about the High Middle Ages”.

Perry Johansson’s contribution to Kinarapport titled “A war over sources, interpretations and territory” is an example of this inconsistent attitude. Already in the third paragraph we run into a couple of revealing scare quotes (and I translate):

Wars are fought over territory, wealth and legitimacy. A central issue in establishing legitimacy is the control over culture and memory. That is why we find among the casualties of war historical remains, symbols, archives, libraries art and also “the truth”.

And he goes on, having name-dropped Edward Said, in a fine 90s “post-colonial” tradition:

The importance of sources to historians is usually described only in heuristic terms with source criticism as the mainstay of scientific objectivist historical research. But since the modern Western humanities arise at the same time as imperialism, it is difficult not to seek a connection to it. What role did racist imperialism play in the establishment of a modern Chinese historical discipline?

Actually, for someone who is primarily interested in pre-Opium War Chinese history, like me, it is not difficult at all to avoid seeking the academic connections with later Western imperialism that interest Johansson. And looking at those earlier millennia, I’m interested in history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. Let’s find out what actually happened, in China just as everywhere else. That’s the job of an historian. “Scientific objectivist” history is the only kind I recognise as legitimate scholarship. And the funny thing is that Johansson shares this attitude – but only in regard to the birth of modern research into Chinese history. He makes truth claims about events in the early 20th century. The fact that some of the claims are historiographical in content does not place them outside the relativist loop.

Here are a few confident factual statements of Perry Johansson’s from the second page of the article.

“In the inter-war years, Western sinologists and orientalists searched China for source materials and new discoveries.”

“This article presents some concrete facts regarding the development of an historical praxis among a small number of Chinese historians. … [They] fully understood the link between history and the nation, and they saw how Westerners and Japanese began to investigate China’s history and origins, and noted their desire for Chinese antiquities to bring home to their museums.”

“In China, Western archaeology and collecting reached new heights after the fall of the empire and the subsequent three decades of civil and anti-imperialist war.”

Here, Perry Johansson happily tells us about things that happened decades before he was born and at the other end of the continent we inhabit. But he is not willing to grant scholars of that era the same ability to find out objectively about the past. And truth is a word he places in scare quotes.

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Shrinking City


Check out Yves Marchand’s and Romain Meffre’s poignantly beautiful photographs of abandoned buildings in Detroit! Explains Wikipedia,

Detroit has numerous neighborhoods suffering from urban decay, consisting of vacant properties resulting in low inhabited density, stretching city services and infrastructure. These neighborhoods are concentrated in the northeast and on the city’s fringes. The 2009 residential lot vacancy in Detroit was 27.8%, up from 10.3% in 2000, with the population continuing to shrink and foreclosures that exacerbate the problem. An estimated 20 to 30 percent of lots are vacant. A 2009 parcel survey found 33,527 or 10% of the city’s housing to be unoccupied, but recommended that only one percent or 3,480 of the city’s housing units be demolished. In 2010, the city began using federal funds on its quest to demolish 10,000 empty residential structures.</blockquote

Via Cort Sims.

Sanity Claws

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I seem to be on a poetry roll here, kids.

When I was 14, Citadel Miniatures put out a small run of a novelty pewter miniature named Sanity Claws: a tentacled menacing monstrosity for the festive season. And now Norm Sherman of the Drabblecast, whom I do not hesitate to call a genius and an Elder God, has written a Lovecraftian poem on the same theme (in all likelihood quite independently of that 1986 pewter giggle-shudder item). Hear Norm perform the poem on the Drabblecast’s Christmas Special!

‘Twas the Night

By Norm Sherman

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the edifice
Not a creature was stirring, neither mouse nor St. Nicolas
The stockings were hung by the aperture gaping
Where smoke, in its wisdom, had ere been escaping

Downstairs my uncle was strapped down in bed
While visions of ichor danced round in his head
His nightmares of late had been growing much stronger
And sense dared not trespass his mind any longer

Once a learned professor at Brown University
My great-uncle had often, in secret, conversed with me
In his study at night, over manuscripts moldering
With a pipe at his lips, always lambent and smoldering

All that research of his, into cults esoteric
Strange symbols and glyphs and arcane numerics
Of that Dutch survey crew and their frenzied report
Of a vast arctic city filled with sunken-faced dwarves

And that journal recovered from one ‘Ensign Lamar’
Which references “He that rides beasts through the stars”
Gloaming and heaving with corpulent dread
Bloated, batrachian and covered in red

And there’s the relic in my uncle’s display
A four-sided top carved of wood, or some clay
With symbols engraved into each of its sides
That surely must tell of coming end time

I was pondering this manifold doom that would smite us
When out from my window shone a miasmal brightness
How the pale gibbous moon shone down on his back
Which bulged with the throngs of some hideous sack

With some alien ululations in a primordial tongue
He froze me in place, and unable to run
I was forced to be witness to things vile and foul
So unspeakably horrid I can scarce speak them now

He summoned his steeds by their blasphemous names
And with his gangrenous grasp he pulled down on their reins
Then suddenly upwards that noxious horde flew
That red-bellied nightmare rising up from my view

Cacodemoniacal laughter I heard from my roof
And the lumbering clomps of thick octopoid hooves
Then repugnant and hoary, his stench filled the air
While he writhed down my chimney as I watched from the stairs

He spoke not a sound as then off from his back
He heaved up that thick throbbing cyst of a sack
And from it a stench came so charnel and dense
That I nearly passed out when he drew from it thence:

An Amazon Kindle, and a few pairs of nice socks
A sweater, a tie, and Call of Duty: Black Ops
Law and Order Season V on Blueray DVD
And an espresso machine (hope he kept that receipt)

Then all at once swung round this tenebrous being
And with dark ancient eyes of unfathomable seeing
Their biliferous blackness spanning eons extinct
Revealing my own maddening fate, with a wink

Then into that monolith of chimney he lurched
With the gelatinous frenzy of invertebrate birth
Ripping free to the roof he launched into the night
With a vow to return when the stars are just right

Miniature by Bob Naismith, painted and photographed by Steve of the Bleaseworld gaming blog.

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