Tuesday, April 1, 2014

On knowledge and my username

The advantages which Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia have brought to the curious mind are enormous. The amount of knowledge available to me at any instant is greater by a thousandfold than in the pre-internet era. I use Google and Wikipedia every day, and can't imagine going back to paper encyclopias and libraries.

Yet, as Socrates reminds us in the Meno, not all facts available to us are truely knowledge. Some, Socrates says, should rather be considered merely true opinions, since we believe them to be true without knowing why they are true.

But what the internet brings us is not even true opinions, but merely the capability to acquire such opinions. That is, it hasn't actually made us more knowledgeable, it's just given us the tools to more easily acquire opinions.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A new tactic in spam marketing: honesty

The things spammers resort to nowadays! Their latest trick: being honest in the subject lines of their email.

Putting [SPAM] in the subject somehow still didn't let this one slip through Gmail's spam filter. But, perhaps Ms. Mashabane" thinks that if she's honest about the purpose of her email, I'll be more likely to believe her when she tells me that I am "in standing as a beneficiary to the sum of US$30.5M ( Thirty Million, Five Hundred Thousand United States Dollars Only)" - a sum which I stand to inherit due to the tragic death of her husband David and "an over-invoiced contract which he executed with the Government of South Africa" - but only as long as I send her the wire transfer fee first!

I find emails like this hilarious. Ff I had infinite time, I would love to be one of the people who gets the last laugh on the spammers.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A minor milestone on the path to fluency in Chinese

Last week, I got a question that made me feel good about the time I've invested in learning Chinese. It happened in the subway station on my way to a teaching job. He was asking me about being an English teacher, a topic about which I've talked many times before. After asking me a bunch of rapid-fire questions, he said “我说这么随便你怎么都能听得懂?” - You can understand me when I speak this quickly? When I replied in the affirmative, he asked me, "are you a native Chinese speaker or...?"! Of course I told him I wasn't, though it might have been funny to see (a la Fluent in 3 Months) how long I could pretend I was. (And yes, there is at least one white native speaker of Chinese.)

Today, I got a mail delivery. Unlike in the US, parcel delivery in China isn't always to your door (probably because everybody lives in apartment blocks). It's delivered by motorized tricycles with parcel carriers on the back, whose drivers will often stop at the gate to your complex or (in my case) the plaza of your school and call you to tell you that your mail has arrived and to come pick it up.

Anyway, when I arrived at the plaza and met the guy with the package, he seemed a bit surprised. After handing over my parcel, he told me that I spoke very good Chinese, and that "我没有听得出来" - that he hadn't heard it. I'm pretty sure he was referring to me being a foreigner!

In both cases, I hadn't said much yet. And in the latter case, some of what the delivery man had said, I hadn't understood, but had just ignored it since I knew the routine for getting the mail. So, in actuality I'm still far from having the competence, not to mention the accent, of a native speaker. But it's good to still be reaching new milestones in this incredible and incredibly challenging language.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Kunming incident & thoughts on terrorism

It was pretty scary to hear about this incident from a friend of mine. I've been to Kunming - my Facebook profile picture used to feature the train station where the shootings took place - and I'm sure for him, as someone from Kunming, it was far worse. However, my opinions on the matter may be different from those of my friend, or of most people.

Below is a translation of a short article by China's state-affiliated Xinhua News Network, followed by my thoughts on terrorism.

Xinhua News, Kunming

Our reporter learned from Kunming's government news bureau that evidence from the scene of the "3/1 incident" indicates that this was a grave act of terrorist violence originating from Xinjiang separatists.

The stabbings by masked bandits in the public square outside Kunming's train station occurred at 9PM on 3/1. As of 6AM on 3/2, there have already been 29 deaths and 130 people injured. Police on the scene shot 4 thugs dead and captured 1. The work of investigating is proceeding with all urgency. The masses of injured people have already been separately placed in several hospitals, and specialists from all medical departments have gathered to best assist the wounded. The Kunming train station opened on that same night and all trains departed in uniform order, and Kunming is in a stable state.

The violent 3/1 terrorist incident has caused great damage to the lives, property, and safety of many. According to the relevant departments, we must with resolution and strong measures crack down upon criminal terrorist activities, to defend the lives, property, and safety of the people.

First, as someone who was raised on mostly conservative beliefs, this incident does seem like a confirmation of the idea that banning guns won't stop acts of terror. Like with the abortion debate, the only solution I can see for the gun control issue - other than a never-ending fight about it - is a recognition that neither of the goals of public safety and the right to bear arms is absolute, that they are conflicting at the margins, and that the debate should be about whether marginal trade-offs (e.g. the cost vs. the benefit of banning semi-automatic weapons) are worth it. This incident shows that no amount of gun bans can stop mass killings from occurring; at the same time, the number of casualties is perhaps less than would be expected if 5 organized terrorists were using guns.

I've been using the words "terror" and "terrorist" thus far, because it seems clear that what the attacks were intended to do was provoke terror. But I suspect that my normative evaluation of these words is different from most of my audience's. I think almost all people have pretty good reasons for the things they do. I don't think terrorists are inherently evil or even necessarily wrong. I think terror should be the means of last resort, used only when no other means are left - but in the case of the Uighurs, that may be the case. I assume their goal is to bring the world's attention to their case, and can their be doubt that in this they will succeed? Whether the positive attention will outweigh the negative, and whether whatever attention they get was worth the lives of 28 people, is hard to judge. But terror is a means, and to call terrorism inherently evil seems to me to overlook the seriousness of the motives that people have for their actions. The United States engaged in the largest terrorist acts in history - the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Does anyone doubt that our motivations were good in ending the lives of so many people? 50 years later, our interference in the affairs of other countries caused patriots of those countries - first and foremost Osama bin Laden - to attack us. We can mourn for the lives lost on 9/11 without having to cast down the motives of the people who killed themselves in committing the acts of that day as any less noble than ours were.

In this case, I think the real culprit, if there is one, is the government actions that caused them to resort to such desperate measures. Lest I be a hypocrite, I cannot deny that government too is made up of men, who have their good reasons for the things they do. But I think that governments, in the areas in which they are not restricted by law or public sentiment, have a tendency to twist people's motivations and make them commit evil acts. Perhaps the Communist Party has good reasons for subjugating the Uighurs - national unity, etc. - but in this case the gains cannot be weighed in the same scale as the loss of human rights. So, in the end I think we should feel sorry for both the victims of this incident and the perpetrators, and seek a solution that would make such violence unnecessary.

Update: This piece is worth reading on the roots of the tension and the ambiguity of the situation.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A note from the underground

For the past week, Beijing has been deluged under the worst pollution I've ever seen. Here's a terrifying photo a friend of mine took this morning in Guomao, the trade center of Beijing:

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A beautiful "art hotel" in Beijing

The Jiangtai Art Hotel in Beijing is one of the most amazing places I've stayed in my life. The "art hotel" name is more than symbolic: the entire hotel is covered with art of various sorts. The lobby:

Monday, December 23, 2013

Too many contacts? Contact Remover Plus (review)

Smartphones are great. But one annoyance thereof, concomitant with the ability to centralize your contacts from many different sources (Facebook, Gmail, Skype, telephone contacts, etc.) is that you end up with a lot of duplicate contacts.

A great way to remove them is an app called Contact Remover Plus (only available on Android). Here's how it works:

1. First, the app loads all of your contacts (or those from a particular account if you prefer):

2. You tell it what criteria to use (phone number, email address, name, etc.), and it looks for any duplicates: