Too Many Mangoes

This is a blog which I kept during the years, 2006-11, when we lived in Taiwan. There are a lot of observations regarding life in China, stories of things that we did, and occasional reminiscences of life in London.
Monday, July 10, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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So, what is Taiwan like? First impressions are good, but mixed. Everything is a lot more confusing than in my long-held dreams of the Orient. Everything is stubbornly Chinese, and why shouldn’t it be? There are cars and motorcycles everywhere; strange characters on street signs, mangy dogs, manky little eateries, swanky shops selling fashion, shopping malls like you wouldn’t believe, nice old ladies taking even older ladies out for walks.

One of the professor has lent us a car and that makes all the difference to our lives — you don’t get around on foot here. We live close to campus in quite an uncharming apartment, but we bought bicycles for the girls and they are very happy riding around. There is a pool as well and big sports fields. Within easy walking distance there is a playground, a rollerskating rink and even a small but adorable zoo! We were wondering what that weird smell was and it turned out to be tiger poo!

The university is looking after me very well. Since I’m on sabbatical from the LSE in the autumn, I only do a few little things, but I’ll start for real in February next year. I have a great, big, office, and everything is high-tech — as one would expect from the “MIT of Asia.” What’s really striking is how they trust professors to do their work without interference. I can teach what I like, in the way I like, and grade students in whatever fashion I please. I can set up courses on my own server space. I can even blog. Taiwan democratized in the 1980s and there are plenty of people around who risked their lives for free speech.

The problem is that we don’t have a life here yet. We left our life behind in Norflondon. We are literally homeless and I for one feel quite existentially exposed. People are friendly but they are all strangers; the kids’ school is lovely but we don’t know anyone there; we have beds but not our favorite pillows. We are on vacation but with no ordinary life to go back to. We’ll adjust for sure, but adjusting is harder than I remember it to be. Perhaps I’m getting conservative in my old age — or perhaps just lazy.

When he was roughly my age, my maternal grandfather, who was a vicar in the Swedish church, decided to go up to Lapland to teach the locals about Jesus Christ. This was a very strange decision considering that most vicars slowly move their way down to Stockholm as their careers progress. You can have different kinds of careers, I guess. We were always romantics, my grandpa and me.

Sunday, August 27, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I just got hold of Dylan’s new record, Modern Times, thanks to … errr … my connections in the record industry. Three days early, the official U.S. release is on Tuesday. I’m listening to it now.

“Thunder on the Mountain” is a pretty standard blues rocker; “Spirit on the Water” is of those jazzy 1930s songs Bob has been doing lately; “Workingman’s Blues” is a super-simple Dylan tune — a bit like “Make You Feel My Love” — which sounds terrible at first but which grows on you very quickly and eventually ends up as the best song you ever heard; “I Ain’t Talkin’” is apocalyptic, haunting — a grand closing number. All in all, it’s a superb album. No duds and with a couple of instant classics.

All my loyal and my much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road

Btw, the lyrics are here. As for reviews, even the grumpiest of Dylanophobes are handing out four stars, Dylan agnostics are reaching for five stars, and the fans are over the moon. In general the blogosphere seems to be exploding with Dylan references.

Compare the excitement over this album with the embarrassment that accompanied the latest Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney releases. Jagger et al belong thoroughly in the 1960s; Dylan is for ever.

Thursday, August 31, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Naked Punch is a journal of criticism, philosophy and art, run by a small group of young, and youngish, intellectuals. Unusually they manage to get people of the stature of Norman Chomsky, Arthur Danto and Tariq Ali to contribute time and effort. They also organize debates, parties and various happenings around London. These are fun and funky people (and two are my former students). Check out their new issue — coincidentally it’s a theme issue on Chinese culture.

I’ve just written a 4000 word essay for them, about imperialism in the 19th century and neo-imperialism today. It will appear in their new on-line edition in the next week or so. Meanwhile you can read it here.

Sunday, September 17, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I always wanted to give a course on “transgression” — a key social science concept too often ignored in the mainstream discourse. Of course I couldn’t have taught this kind of course at the LSE — I already blogged about this — but now I can, and here it is.

Courses are taught quite differently at the NCTU. I have only four students in the class but apparently that’s normal. The seminars, which are more like tutorials, go on for three hours at a time — and sometimes, if Taiwanese politics is discussed, for far longer. It’s a more conversational style but a lot more passionate.

My students are very bright, sociologists and philosophers by training and inclination. Since I never taught either subject I have to spend a lot of time reading up on stuff. Perversely I like giving courses on things I know nothing about. Somehow it’s interesting to hear what I will say (needless to say, students don’t always agree).

This week we are doing Euripides’ Bacchae, so please excuse me while I go off to the woods for a bit of revelry …

Thursday, September 21, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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These are five things I love about my new life:

  • the creative confusion of the streets and the cities — how people relate to each other — everyone talks, even to strangers, in very nice and cheerful ways.
  • the Peking duck the nice man sells on our street. We have it every Friday with a bottle of wine.
  • the Taiwanese mountains — green, rugged, full of hiking trails and tucked-away temples.
  • the passion, seriousness and erudition of my new colleagues.
  • the crazy Chinese language. I get to make the rudest sounds and write the strangest squiggles.
love

These are five things I will never understand:

  • why people block up the windows in their apartments and turn on the brightest and most industrial looking florescent lights.
  • why no students drink beer.
  • why bureaucrats love paperwork so much and why they stamp every paper with hundreds of stamps.
  • why there are no sidewalks to save you from the ferocious motorcycle drivers.
  • why girls who sell betelnuts wear next to no clothes.
betelnut beauty
Monday, September 25, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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OK, now I’m really going to blow my left-wing credentials. Sweden has a new government, it’s a conservative one. Friends around the world send emails commiserating with me for this radical departure from “the Swedish way.” I beg to differ. Yes, it’s a conservative government but I’m all for it.

A first thing you must remember is that Swedish Conservatives in American terms are located somewhere to the left of Howard Dean. They support large government, they support high taxes, they support “socialized medicine” and education too. In fact, this was traditionally always the case. The “Swedish model” was a joint project between the left and the right.

Some twenty years ago the Conservatives decided to break with this tradition and they became libertarian. Obviously Swedes didn’t trust them. In Sweden a party that promises to reduce taxes loses votes. Swedes like paying taxes, they like what the state does for them. Lower taxes means more insecurity. People don’t want that.

When Fredrik Reinfeldt took over as leader in 2003, he returned the Conservative Party to its traditional path. It’s not pure Social Democracy to be sure. The Conservatives want to tweak the welfare system, make it more efficient and better at delivering services. It’s the traditional welfare state but in an updated package.

I think they are right about this. I also think a change of government now and then is necessary for democracy. A majority of voting Swedes agree. Swedes like changes, especially changes that promise that everything will stay the same as it always was.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We’re renting an unfurnished apartment for this year and before we could move in we had to get beds, chairs and tables. We began by going to the ancient wood-carving village of Sanyi in the Taiwanese mountains where they sell gorgeous and very expensive furniture. Then we went to the local Hsinchu mall where they sell very ugly and cheap furniture. Then we went to IKEA. There are three IKEAs in Taiwan and as everywhere else in the world the stores are crammed with people eating meatballs and trying out beds. Forget Americanization, the world is slowly being Swedified.

Swedes have a love/hate relationship to the furniture giant. We were fed up with the stuff years ago. Among my first childhood memories is my father swearing as he failed to put together some flatpack. He was still assembling flatpacks, and still swearing, the day before he died. And yet we keep on coming back. The particular combination of nice design, low price and poor quality exemplified by the IKEA experience no other furniture maker has managed to rival.

Our house now looks like it was inhabited by an anxious Electrolux executive on his first foreign assignment. We sleep on “Gutevik,” sit on “Bredaga” and switch on “Knivsta” when it gets dark in the evening. (Knivsta, in case you wonder, is a pit of a village a little north of Stockholm. Thanks to IKEA it is achieving undeserved world fame).

If we only had thought about it we should have had IKEA help us move. First we should have taken advantage of their admittedly great returns policy and handed back all the stuff we bought at the IKEA store in Edmonton. With the money we should have gone to the IKEA store in Taipei and bought it all back again. That way we could have turned the tables — if that’s the right expression — both on IKEA and on globalization.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Since I got to Taiwan I’ve wondered why my new NCTU colleagues are so much more interesting than almost all academics I knew in London (or in Sweden for that matter). Then it suddenly struck me: they are almost all my own age — between 40 and 50, let’s say … For better or worse, they are just a lot more me.

The reason is surely that European universities expanded their social science departments in the 1960s and 70s whereas Taiwanese universities expanded theirs in the 1990s. In the 60s and 70s it was statistical studies and rational choice that was the big thing. That’s what PhD students studied and that’s what they continued to teach once they got tenured jobs. Since there were lots and lots of these people they soon occupied all positions in academia all over Europe, clogging the arteries of science like a big lump of tosh.

By contrast people of my generation who got their PhDs in the 1990s — at least the cool ones among us — were all doing versions of Foucault and post-modernism. That’s where the action was; that’s what made your name, got you high, got you laid. OK, much of the intellectual excitement may have evaporated since then but in a pair-wise comparison the ex-Foucaultian will always be far more interesting than the still practicing rational choice theorist. Here in Taiwan it is we who clog up the arteries of science.

Jean Bernard L�on Foucault, 1819-1868, French astronomer and completely unrelated to the great Michel who made us feel intellectually insignificant while adding at least 4 years to our PhD experience back in the 1990s.
Monday, October 30, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Here are two articles I just finished. Academic style — with footnotes and everything.

The first one, “Empowerment among Nations,” is going into a volume on the concept of power in world politics edited by Felix Berenskoetter and Mike Williams. Felix and Mike are PhD students at the LSE, former Millennium editors, and — get this — they got Steven Lukes, Joseph Nye, Ned Lebow, John Gaventa and Joe Grieko to contribute pieces!

The other article, “The Power of Metaphor: Consent, Dissent, Revolution,” I wrote for a volume on Discourse, Identity and Politics in Europe edited by Richard Mole at UCL. The contributors here are a more po-mo kind of crowd. I always wanted to write something on the topic of metaphor and the creation of social order. Here it is.

Thursday, November 02, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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“I read about you on a Chinese website,” says my friend Chipen. “They got upset since you said that the students at the LSE are very good but that the teachers aren’t that good.” “Well,” I say, “not exactly but …” “You know,” he says, interrupting me, “I went to one of the best highschools in Taichung and we always used to say that the students there were first-rate, the school facilities second-rate, the teachers third-rate and the principal fourth-rate.”

Later in the evening, reading New York Review of Books, I came across an article by J.M. Coetzee on Friedrich Hölderlin. As a boy Hölderlin went to the top seminary in Wurtenberg. “Intellectual stimulus,” Coetzee explains, “came not from his teachers — whom he looked down on for their obsequiousness in the face of authority — but from fellow students, who in his cohort included G.W.F. Hegel and Friedrich Schelling. He himself stood out: ‘It was as if Apollo himself was striding through the hall,’ a classmate recalled.”

These are obviously conclusions that students have drawn in all elite schools everywhere. You could even say that this is a definition of an elite school. It’s a point of logic: unless the students at the best schools go on to become teachers at those same schools, the teachers will always be intellectually inferior to the students.

Monday, November 06, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The mid-term elections in the US are upon us:

idiots

In honor of this celebration of democracy and self-rule, I have added a new poll (see sidebar).

Btw, isn’t it about time Iraqis were given a right to vote in American elections? After all, they are the ones who really feel the impact of what the US government does.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The results of the American mid-term election are now in. The House is in the hands of the Democrats, the Senate too, Rumsfeld is leaving, Bush is acknowledging that the outcome of the election “has something to do with Iraq.” These results have almost restored my faith in America and its people.

Of course the rest of the world saw the Iraq disaster coming already three years ago. We tried to tell you Americans about it. Three years is a long time in an era of instantaneous communications but the walls that protect Middle America from the rest of the world are also very thick. You Americans don’t know what goes on in the world and as a result you make horrible mistakes. But I’m glad the messages eventually reached you. I’m glad you seem to understand, that you react, try to set things right. You Americans aren’t stupid after all, only about three years too slow.

What must happen now is a thorough investigation of the lies and misrepresentations that led to the invasion. Bush must be impeached. Americans owe it to themselves and to the rest of us. If the crimes of Tony Blair are investigated in the process, democracy in Britain might be restored too.

Friday, November 17, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Of course it’s not actually that Americans suddenly have become left-leaning and European. Americans haven’t really changed. What’s changed is their perception of Bush. What Americans want more than anything is success — economic success for themselves and military success for their country. More than any other people, Americans want to be able to feel good about themselves. This was what Bush couldn’t deliver and that’s why Americans turned on him.

Economic growth and military adventures are also the best ways of concealing growing inequalities in a society. Over the last five years, since ordinary Americans were making a few bucks more per week they didn’t notice that the super rich were stuffing their already overstuffed pockets. Since America was seen to stand up for good things in the world, a few dead soldiers was a price worth paying.

As a country addicted to success, the US will be in very dire straights if there ever is a period of prolonged economic recession or military failure. Say five years of serious difficulties. That day average Americans will suddenly realize what’s been happening to themselves and their country and they will demand retribution. It’s not going to be pretty.

Europeans are better off in this respect. We’ve learned to grit our teeth and bear the humiliation of our countries with a shrug of the shoulders. Since our welfare states are taking care of us we are also less dependent on personal economic success. We do failure with style.

Monday, November 27, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Have you tried to email me recently without getting a reply? The mail servers here in Taiwan are doing strange things. The IP address I use at home is blacklisted by several computer systems because my ISP, Hinet, is a notorious source of spam. Mail I send bounces back or sometimes it just vanishes into thin air. The mail server at NCTU has given an “IP address possibly forged” message for the last couple of days. Sigh.

Yes, I know, it is grad school application time in the US and many old students want letters of recommendation. If it’s very urgent try leaving a message here on the blog.

Monday, November 27, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Thanks to my compatriots at Pirate Bay, the collected cultural heritage of mankind is now about to become available to every person with access to the internet. Music, films, tv programs — the lot! With the help of Bittorrent software, all computers everywhere are borrowing files from each other in what surely must be the greatest cultural exchange program ever devised.

Forget the latest Hollywood blockbusters, they leave me cold. What I want are things like Rasta Hunden, a ska-punk band from my days growing up in Sundsvall, northern Sweden. Rasta Hunden had a great record out in 1980 which, for a while, was a minor hit even outside of our dreary industrial wasteland of a town. Sitting here in Taiwan, I rediscovered it and now I can play it to my children while telling them about my misspent youth.

The same goes for a lot of old music. We bought those albums as LPs, we bought them as cassettes, we bought them as CDs. The original artists and their record companies got our money already three times over. It’s not their music anymore, it’s ours.

Besides, the technological innovations which made it possible to continuously charge us for the same products did not originate with the big record or movie companies. They are just profiteering from technological breakthroughs which others have achieved. Sock it to the greedy bastards!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I went to the annual meeting of the Taiwanese Sociological Association this past weekend. That’s the only professional association of which I’m a member these days. (Adieu science politique – ye cruel mistress). At the conference there were lot’s of papers on subjects ranging from the problems of aging in Shanghai to high-tech industries in India and the future of Chinese-style capitalism.

The last session was on Georg Simmel. A lecture hall packed with students and 5, 6 professors. For some two hours they went through the man, his life and thought, in excrutiating detail. It was very lively; questions, critique and jokes were flying through the air; students were laughing, the professors were strutting their stuff and vigorously disagreeing with each other.

No, Simmel is not dead. He is alive and well and living in Taichung, Taiwan. He has lots of friends here, more friends than he had in his first incarnation. They are young, easily excitable, and they talk about him until their heads start spinning.

It’s weird though. This deification of old Europeans. All intellectual debates in Taiwan seem to concern an old European and what he possibily could contribute to an understanding of topic X or Y. Why is Taiwanese academia so hung up on Europeans? Where for example is the Chinese tradition? It’s just like Taiwanese factories in the end, churching out products invented and designed elsewhere. They are very, very good at it but also pretty unoriginal.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Yes, I too got dooced in the end, kinda. I just heard from the LSE Summer School people and I don’t get to do a course next year. Since we have to go to London next summer to sell our house, and since I’m still on LSE’s books, teaching a course would have been interesting. I’ve emailed the person in charge trying to find out why they don’t want me, but I have a feeling I know the answer …

I’ve been doing this summer school job for some eight years by now. It’s been great fun and the money paid for my children’s daycare and trips to Sweden. This past summer I had a record number of students and the course got its usual good reviews. Of course they won’t mention my blog in the official statement — they’ll surely invent something else. But I have no doubts: I’m being fired for my rebellliousness and for maintaining this blog.

If you care to reread the LSE Code of Practice on Free Speech, you’ll find it here! Don’t believe what they tell you about academic freedom. Don’t believe what they tell you about conjectures and refutations.

Am I surprised? Of course not. And this provides a befitting conclusion to the LSE chapter in my blogging book. You don’t have street cred unless you’ve been dooced at least once.

Monday, December 04, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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It’s a rarely remarked-upon process, and I wouldn’t have noticed it if Diane hadn’t pointed it out, but people in rural areas around the world are turning red-neck. Yes, that’s right, hicks and country bumpkins the world over don cowboy boots and hats and crank up the country music in their pickup trucks as they go off to line-dancing practice. You see men in string-ties in northern Sweden and women in enormous wigs in rural Taiwan– and who’d ever thought people would wear such large belt-buckles in the backwaters of Estonia!

Countrysides were of course always ignored by city-dwellers. Civilization is everywhere a matter of giving hicks the blessings of city-life. The word itself tells the story — “civilization” has its root in civis meaning “city.”

The only exception is the US. It is only in the US that civilization, such as it is, is based on rural values. Americans don’t actually believe in civilization, they believe in rurification. Not surprisingly, countryside types from around the world go for it like a hillbilly farmer goes for his sister. Red-neck culture gives you a way to talk, a way to walk, and a cultural idiom of resistance. So what if you look stupid?

I never cared much for these cultural expressions myself although I suppose my roots in rural Sweden provide me with a license. I chewed tobacco for a while, but I never shot squirrels or demanded that members of the same sex squeal like pigs. Still some of the paraphernalia is pretty cool and here in East Asia it adds an unexpected Occidental twist to the most Orientalist of experiences.

cowgirl

Diane and I spent a memorable evening in Nankai, northeastern Thailand, a few years ago. They had a restaurant on the roof of the hotel where we were staying and a duo was in charge of the entertainment — a Willie Nelson look-alike and Nankai’s own Tammy Wynette with frizzy hair and fuck-me heels. We ate deep-fried rat and red ant egg sallad while the moist midnight air carried the gentle twang of the steel-guitar across the Mekong river. I wonder what the remnants of the Hmong guerrilla over in Laos, on the other side of the Mekong, made of it. Come to think of it, they were probably off line-dancing.

Thursday, December 07, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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“Erik,” it was Diane on the phone, “something terrible has happened! Something TERRIBLE!”

Terrible things are always, well, terrible, but as a father of four the word “terrible” has a particular resonance. “Not ‘terrible,’” someone screams inside your head, “anything but ‘terrible.’” My wife spoke in strange disconnected sentences, absent-mindedly yet somehow frantic.

“We’ve been disconnected. The broadband has been down all afternoon.”

So that was it. The strange bill which we couldn’t decipher and which we didn’t know how to pay had turned out to be a broadband bill. And now we were disconnected from the world. Our individual consciousness had been severed from the collective consciousness which is the internet. We were alone, left to our own devices. Forced to, well, talk to each other, to our children, to read books and things.

“We’ll manage,” I said. But as the words left my mouth I realized there was no conviction in them. I sounded like an alcoholic trying to convince himself that he doesn’t want another drink. “Maybe this will mean a new start for us all.”

The next day we went to the phone company. Paying the bill turned out to be really easy and the broadband was back within minutes. We plugged ourselves back in. We calmed down, exhaling contentedly like two drug addicts who finally get their fixes. We never had to try that other life. What a relief.

Sunday, December 10, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The most recent poll attracted an unprecedented 130 voters. As you recall the question was “The American mid-term elections show that …” and the answers:

  • … Americans don’t know what’s good for them. 4 %
  • … Bush is a lame duck. 4%
  • … Hillary should run for president. 2%
  • … Americans are finally coming to their senses. 91%

There is consequently a clear liberal bias among the readers of this blog. Shock, horror! Sorry Hillary — in 2008, don’t bother, OK?

I’ve added a new poll which fits better with the season. It should be possible to add your own candidates for songs if you don’t like the ones I picked.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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In Taiwan foreign brand-names are selling at a premium rate. A large pizza at Domino’s, for example, is 600 NT, that is $18.48 or 9.40 pounds. Compare this with the 50 NT I pay for a first-class lunch at NCTU. Yes, that’s right, one faked pizza is equivalent to 12 authentic Chinese meals!

Who buys pizzas here? Largely people who want to distinguish themselves from other locals and flaunt their foreign credentials — and who can afford to do so. You are what you eat — eat tacky American food, become a tacky American! A person who eats 600 NT foreign food is 12 times more foreign than a regular Chinese person. And 12 times tackier.

It makes you wonder what it’s like to be in charge of Domino’s Taiwanese franchise. Is this a rewarding thing to do with one’s life, to sell greasy pizza to status conscious locals? Shouldn’t the person in charge apologize and go home to the US of A?

But perhaps I am no better. They want me here because I bring that foreign je ne sais quoi to their university. What that is, however, no one really knows. Allegedly they like the educational brands I’ve been associated with. You are what you study — study rehashed foreign ideas taught by a rumpled foreigner and you’ll be “ready for the 21st century.”

Should I apologize and go home? Well, at least I’m not asking for much money. From February next year I’m here full-time and I’ll be a Domino’s pizza for the prize of a bowl of noodles.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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It’s my birthday today. I just turned 46. Happy birthday to me! But I must confess, this is a thoroughly crappy age to be. This is the age when …

  • … your concentration begins flagging and your thoughts wander. How much further to go? How far will I make it? There is so little achieved, so much still to prove, and time is slipping away. Like a 1500 meter runner beginning the third lap.
  • … you are too old to be young but still young enough to remember recently having been young. You remember that cute chicks noticed you, that fashionable clothes used to fit, that there was more to Saturday nights than an evening in front of the TV.
  • … you are too young to be considered wise and respect-inducing. You can’t really look back on past achievements yet and you aren’t a grizzly old geezer or even a dirty old man (but I’m working on that one).
  • … it no longer is possible to double your age and pretend that you have half of your life ahead of you. You can still do this at 45. 2 times 45= 90 did not sound impossible. But 2 times 46 = 92 is out of range.
  • … even web pages begin to insult you. When registering for a site there are boxes to tick if you are between 18 and 19, 19 and 22, 23 and 28, and even 32- 45. Then there is that residual box covering all the ages between 46 and 105.

But of course, getting older isn’t actually the problem. We all get one year older per year. And under all circumstances that is far better than the alternative … The issue is not whether we get older but what we do with the time we have. The move from London to East Asia was very good in this respect. I would have hated to have looked back on my life and realized I had spent it all in London.

This is a partially consoling thought. But the truth is, 46 sucks.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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This time every year we hear those tedious calls for a “return to the true meaning of Christmas.” What various kill-joys and wet blankets want us to do is to celebrate in a simpler style, with less eating, drinking and groping of colleagues in broom-cupboards at the office Xmas party. Inevitably they then start saying something about Jesus, the “message of Christmas,” and some similar notions, equally woolly and vague.

Now, let me tell you a few things about the true meaning of Christmas. A thusand years ago us Scandinavians celebrated Midvinterblot at this, the darkest, time of the year. The “mid-winter sacrifice” was a ritual to convince the sun to return to the dark north. By all accounts it was a great party. They ate a lot, drank even more, and no doubt some groping of co-tribalists was taking place. The Vikings, by all accounts, didn’t need broom cupboards.

Have you ever considered why Christmas trees have red decorations? Originally they were dead animals the Scandinavians hung up as sacrifices. Queen Victoria’s German husband Albert took the Christmas tree with him to England and the tradition caught on. Few Anglo-Saxons know the gory origins.

When Christians missionaries appeared in northern Europe a thousand years ago they decided to do something about this great pagan party. People were clearly enjoying themselves too much. Gradually they turned it into a Christian holiday. Sacrifices were banned, together with over-eating, over-drinking and over-groping. The ruse should have been easy to expose: their man, Jesus, was actually born in the spring.

Luckily old traditions die hard and Midvinterblot will long outlive Christianity. So next time someone tells you in a superior tone of voice to “return to the true meaning of Christmas,” answer with a drunken cheer and tell them in no uncertain terms to stop messing with your celebration.

Monday, December 25, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Swedes eat rice porridge, risgrynsgröt, for Christmas. In fact we even feed it to our Santa Clauses. A Santa who doesn’t get his gröt is sure to return and make trouble for you during the year ahead. We serve it with cinnamon and there is supposed to be a peeled almond mixed in with the glutinous substance. The person who gets the almond will be married within the year. But there was clearly something wrong with the almond aspect of the tradition. I got many almonds over the years before I got hitched.

This year we did a South-East Asian version of the meal. We boiled sticky rice with coconut milk and added durian. Durian is a tropical fruit famous for its weird prickly exterior and nauseating smell. I’ve relied on it in the past as a talisman, but now we actually ate some. It’s heavenly. Yes, indeed, heavenly. Me and Diane had second and third helpings. As it turns out it goes perfectly with the smallest glass of whiskey. In addition, Santa had brought a Jimmy Hendrix CD which we put on, and I swear the gröt had psychotropic properties.

Durian is reported in Southeast Asia to work as an aphrodisiac. Hence the popular saying “when the durians come down, the sarongs come off.” Durian, I’ve come to realize, is the real reason why many people in this part of the world have such satisfied smiles on their faces. Does it work? Well, let’s put it this way, gröt with durian is more reliable than gröt with almonds.

Monday, December 25, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Merry Christmas from Taiwan. 聖誕快樂 – Shengdan Kuaile! May Santa bring you the presents that you always wished for. Personally, all I want is world peace and for my daughters to stop fighting with each other. The outlook for world peace is more promising.

Actually we thought we could get away with not having Christmas this year. Only some 1 percent of Taiwanese are Christians and our kids don’t even have the 25th off from school. My university courses grind on through the holiday just as before. Nothing much changes until the Chinese New Year in mid-February.

But as it turns out Christmas is heavily celebrated in shopping-malls. There are Christmas trees everywhere and endless encouragements to consume. Ever eager to follow local customs we bought a new car! (The first car I’ve owned in 16 years — in London we always relied on Ken Livingstone to take us places). And yesterday we celebrated by going to IKEA. They have pepparkaksgubbar there — gingerbread men — and Christmas candles.

Today we will mainly be assembling furniture and watching the YouTube Christmas specials. No, Santa’s workshop is not in the North Pole, it’s in Taiwan (although much of the actual work is subcontracted to elfs in the Chinese mainland).

Wednesday, December 27, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We had an earthquake last night. Suddenly about 8.30 the floor started shaking and the lamps swaying. We ran out on the street but no one else seemed too bothered. We are earthquake virgins after all.

Still the quake was powerful enough to be reported on the BBC web page (”Strong Quake Hits off Taiwan“). The Taiwanese seismic office measured it as 6.7 on the Richter scale. The epicenter was in southern Taiwan. No one was hurt although Some six people died in the south and books fell of shelves as far north as in Taipei. Telecommunications throughout Asia were disrupted since a cable on the ocean floor snapped.

Thursday, December 28, 2006 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Diane and I are actually thinking of having another child. We only have 4 after all. That’s nothing! In our grandparents’ generation they had from 6 to 12. We could just about slip one in — so to speak — before the biological clock ticks its last tock.

It was never really clear to me why we ended up having such a lot of children. OK, I know the biology involved, but not quite the psychology. Perhaps we tried to recreate a bustling family-life in a country — England and now Taiwan — where we have no other relatives? Perhaps it was a way to avoid having to go to parties, to the movies, and in general to have a social life? Perhaps there is some deep existential motivation. For a long time it seemed we had another child whenever someone in our family died. Conception was our sweaty and heart-pounding protest against the human condition.

Still, five does seem like a lot. The question is of course how to weight the pros against the cons.

pros:

  • one more child is one more person to love, to care for, hang out with, get to know. Our family matters more to us any anything. The more the merrier.
  • it would be one more friend for the other kids to play with, give piggyback rides to and teach naughty words.
  • the kid would be born in Taiwan and learn to speak properly from day one.

cons:

  • we’ll be too old when the kid turns 20. In fact, we’ll be too old when the kid turns 5.
  • children cost money and we both have academic salaries. We can’t afford it. Then again, we couldn’t afford the first one either.
  • it might turn out to be a boy. Boys have weird habits and tiny weenies between their legs. Disgusting!
  • what if he/she is stupid, ugly and generally unpleasant? How would he/she ever fit in with the other kids?

What do you think? Please help us out by answering the questionnaire in the sidebar to the right.

Saturday, January 06, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Yes, we hear you loud and clear. The results of the latest poll are just in and you obviously don’t think we should have any more kids. You are no doubt right. How sensible of you. We will refrain (or try our best anyway).

As you remember, the question was “should we have another child?” and the results were as follows:

  • 0% — no, four is enough
  • 19% — yes, if you think you can take care of him/her
  • 12% — why not play Scrabble in the evenings?
  • 69% — maybe you should switch to dogs?

We have actually already acted on your suggestion. Instead of getting dogs, however, we have decided to go for goldfish. We went to the aquarium shop and bought a small tank and all the paraphenalia that go with it. We also bought five small goldfishes — of which four still are alive.

The great advantage of goldfish is of course that you can have a lot of them. Especially once we’ve learned how to stop them from dying on us.

Friday, January 12, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I have finally taken some time off to install a new plugin for videos. The Footnotes have gone videoblog! What better way to celebrate than with a Dylan clip? A really cool version of “Highlands” from 2001 or thereabouts.

Hi Bob, welcome to my blog!

It should even be possible to download the clip to your hard-disk. Click on the “get it?” link. Copyright implications? Of course not. I’m only linking. Only linking.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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All our remaining goldfish suddenly died on us. We changed the water, cleaned the tank, but apparently we did something wrong. We are all strangely affected. Eating a fish for dinner is OK but having one die in your hands is heartbreaking. We were responsible for them and we failed.

Should we try again? Maybe fish just isn’t our thing. Couldn’t we go back to children, pretty please?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We’re looking for somewhere new to live. Right now we’re renting an apartment in the middle of town. It’s fun, hectic and overwhelming in a Chinese inner-city kind of way but for the longer run we’ll need more space where the kids can play. We went for a drive around Hsinchu yesterday and there are all kinds of things available. Much of it pretty manky it must be said, and there are lots of developments put up by fly-by-night contractors with a taste for faux Greek columns.

To our horror we really took to a development with large, American-style, houses. Suddenly we understood how our parents felt back in the 1960s when they migrated to the suburbs. We who always hated the suburbs.

Then we took a road leading up into the mountains. After only a few minutes a large vista opened up. Mountain range after mountain range lined up in that unlikely pattern which Chinese ink paintings make famous. We looked around and saw oranges on the trees and tea plantations. Now this is the place to live. Imagine waking up every morning and tasting mountains for breakfast.

Sunday, January 21, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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My kids just did their final exams. They like exams in Taiwan. And if Taiwanese kids do badly they get punished. Saga tells me “nearly everyone” in her class gets spanked if their results are under 95 percent. Anything to get into those Ivy League schools! The teachers used to spank the kids too, but at least in our school that’s no longer practiced.

My TA firmly believes that my students would work harder if I punished them. That’s just a little bit weird, no? I’m really uncomfortable with corporal punishment. I also don’t believe in mixing pedagogy with sexual excitement — even if some students ask for it.

Considering how much they love hurting each other in school, Taiwanese sex life — well, what I’ve noticed of it — seems surprisingly wholesome. Not much prostitution and little by means of “red light” activities of any kind. There are some sex shops to be sure but they mainly seem to sell lingerie. Few signs of any spanking implements.

My social science theory is as follows: spanking is only translated into an adult sexual fetish in strongly hierarchical societies. This surely explains the English fascination with S & M. Judging by the little cards attached to London phoneboxes, the English spend more time on spanking than on traditional penetrative sex. Clearly they find hurting each other’s bottoms more fun. It also fits far better with the general nature of their social relations.

Universities are of course strongly hierarchical too and spanking is the fetish of choice of many professors. The most famous case at the LSE was the great conservative icon, Michael Oakeshott. The man loved horses and apparently he loved the sound of the whip. According to a living LSE legend, stacks of spanking mags were carried away from his office after he retired. You don’t have to be a conservative to be a sadist, but it probably helps.

Sunday, January 28, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We watched the notorious Loose Change video last night. It’s very interesting, if not necessarily for the reasons the film-makers suggest. I love the critical, storm-the-king’s-palace, attitude of these young kids. Question authority! I also love the power that’s been given to 20 somethings with laptops and internet connections. What talk-radio was to the conservatives in the 1980s, blogs and the internet are to the neo-radicals today. Power to the people!

But why should I go on and on about it when I actually can show it to you:

So, did Bush do it? Of course not. Not even Dick Cheney or Rumsfeld. They clearly aren’t well-organized enough. This kind of an operation would have required “military precision,” but we all know what American military precision is worth.

What I do know is that if more people like these kids had been speaking out three years ago, the Iraq war could have been prevented. Most Americans are such flag-waving dupes, but this film reminds you that there is another American tradition of irreverence and critical thought. Great stuff.

Friday, August 10, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Have you played Concentration lately? I played it all the time as a kid, and not to brag or anything but I used to be pretty good. Now I only play it in the summers, when we come back to the massive collection of board games we have in our summer house.

It was a shock playing the game again. I’m so bad! Can’t remember where any of the cards are. Can’t even remember which card the player before me just turned over. Meanwhile, Yrsa, my 6-year old, is turning over one pair after another while singing silly little songs. She gets as many cards as me and Diane together. And she’s not even paying attention for heaven’s sake.

Try a game of Concentration if you want to know what’s been happening to your brain lately!

Monday, August 13, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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More Swedish local customs: my sister has a summer house with a sauna just by a lake. Last night we prepared ourselves by eating crayfish with the appropriate beverages and then we all trotted down to the water. I had completely forgotten what a purifying experience a steaming sauna can be. We all sweltered in the heat until we could take it no more and then ran like naked Vikings, high on toadstool, straight into the water. I had also forgotten how great it is to swim naked. Afterwards we had raspberry cake and fell asleep exhausted and very happy.

The next day I had a first-class idea: wouldn’t it be great to build a floating sauna and take it around Europe? You could anchor the float outside the Houses of Parliament in London, the Tour Eiffel in Paris, etc. and then fire up the stones. It would surely be quite an attraction with all those naked bums. If you call it an “art installation” you’d even be protected against prospecution for indecency.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Today we are starting our trip home to Taiwan. My sister outside of Stockholm first, then a day in Stockholm itself, then 8 hours in London in transit between Heathrow and Gatwick, then a night in Hong Kong, the ferry ride to Macau, the plane to Taoyuan International Airport, and the bullet train home to Hsinchu. “Il mondo e poco,” as Columbus is reputed to have said. The world is a small place.

Friday, August 24, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Yes, we finally made it back home to Taiwan, the land that flows with green tea and papaya milkshake. Again the trip was easy-piecy — all of us slept most of the time. In Taiwan there is no need to fire up the sauna since sauna services are provided free of charge where ever you go. It’s like walking into a musty wall of wet heat as soon as you leave the airplane.

A particular highlight on the way home was a stop-over in Macau. Yes, that’s that little town on an island next to Hong Kong that the Portugese were in charge of for some 500 years. Most people go there for the casinos but we go there for the food and the shopping. They serve the greatest bacalao in sweet-n-sour sauce and in contrast to Hong Kong there are no bland malls selling international brands but instead lots of small boutiques hawking “Asian jam.” They even have shoes that fit my feet.

Macau is a very jolly place, full of gorgeous Portugese buildings, mosaiced town-squares and broad sidewalks with beautiful Chino-Latino women. It’s old Europe and old Asia at the same time — like Tintin’s Shanghai in Le Lotus Bleu. It’s an ideal place for a self-confessed Orientalist like me.

Saturday, August 25, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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As far as file sharing over the internet is concerned, I’m with Bob: as long as the music or the movies aren’t worth anything, why pay for them? Downloading useless media products conceived by consultants rather than artists doesn’t “kill” music or movies but it just might help kill off multinational media conglomerates. Good riddance, I say.

This is also of course why I don’t do much downloading. The stuff is indeed useless — have you watched Disney’s Mulan II recently? — so why bother? The problem presents itself when occasionally something truly great pops up. What to do, for example, with the new Simpson movie? A quick check at Pirate Bay reveals that there are over 4000 people seeding it, meaning that the avi should be with you in a couple of hours. Difficult to resist?

My advise is: don’t do it! The Simpson movie doesn’t pass the Bob-test. It’s not worthless. Give Matt Groenig his due. Go pay for it at the box office. Or if you’ve already downloaded, go to the movies when the film comes to town. At least send Matt the cash you would have spent if you had seen it for real.

Friday, August 31, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I’m supposed to meet a group of Ministry of Finance officials next week and I need to get a hair cut. I have a lot of hair. Like really a lot. While many men my age worry about hair loss and some already are half-way to Britney Speardom, I’m just getting more shaggy. It grows long and it grows wide. Like a thick and well fertilized Wimbledon lawn.

It’s very difficult to cut my hair if you want to do it well and give it a style, but it’s easy if you’re in a hurry — you just mow it off. Yet if you just mow it, why pay someone to do it? Even a six-year old can do that! Consequently, I asked Yrsa, my six year old, if she could have a go. Not one to pass up such an opportunity, she quickly took out her toy scissors and set to work. “Do you have any previous experience?” I asked. “Pappa, don’t you know, I love cutting things.” And of course she does. She cuts things all day long. Anything and everything — paper, doll’s hair, student essays, big sisters’ clothes. She’s a cuttomaniac.

Still I was amazed at her seriousness of purpose. She focused on getting the length even all over my head, stuck it out even through the boring bits in the back, and she even did fancy cuts around the ears like they do in real salons. “Isn’t that a bit short?” I asked occasionally. “Shhh, pappa,” she replied, “I know what I’m doing.” Funny thing is, she did.

My secret plan was to take the razor to the whole thing and undo the damage she had inflicted, but looking at it afterwards I decided there was no need. Apart from a small spot in the back where it really is a bit short, it looks great. I’m already getting compliments from people at work. I’m sure the officials at the Ministry of Finance in Taipei will like it too.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Taiwanese people are extraordinarily health conscious. They eat the weirdest of things just because they are “good for you.” They don’t drink alcohol much at all and few people smoke. In parks I’m regularly overtaken by people in their 80s who are out for a jog. Not surprisingly, they have the longest life-expectancy in the world next to the Japanese.

At the same time Taiwanese people have little concern for issues of safety. Small kids often play in the busiest of roads. Entire families, including dogs, can be seen riding on the same motor bike. The house we just moved into has stairs that will kill you instantaneously if you happen to lose your balance.

Why do Taiwanese care so much about health and so little about safety? What’s the point of a healthy life-style if you die in a horrible accident?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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This is the ghost month and the Taiwanese take it very seriously. You are not supposed to embark on new business ventures, buy new cars or move into new apartments during this month. If you ask people if they really believe in such superstition they naturally say no. Still, it’s striking how many who decide to stay away from the proscribed activities. Cars are, for example, cheaper in the ghost month to reflect lower demand. Whatever their professed beliefs, it seems people prefer to defer car buying until the ghosts have vanished.

There must be quite a bit of money to be made by buying things cheaply during the ghost month and selling them more expensively a month later. I wonder if anyone has thought of this?  Well, here it is — a great business idea for you!  Buy me a bowl of noodles when you’ve made your first million.

As for us, we don’t worry about these things. It’s not really that we aren’t superstitious. Rather, all our ghosts are in Europe and hence too far away to do any damage.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Yesterday a typhoon passed over the northern tip of Taiwan and schools and offices were all closed. You could hear a collective “yes!” throughout the country when they announced it on TV. A day off was just what we all needed.

As foreigners who don’t watch Taiwanese newscasts we didn’t hear about this. We didn’t know what a typhoon break is. Stupidly we went to school as normal in the morning. Yes, something wasn’t quite right — the breakfast place with the dumplings wasn’t open and there was next to no traffic on the roads. Once we reached the kids’ school, however, even we had started to understand:

不上棵, 不上班 — “No school, no work”

There is nothing as relaxing as an unexpected day off. It’s such a wonderous treat. All of us read books in bed all day. The actual typhoon was a bit of a disappointment though. OK, it rained a bit — but it rains a lot here. Nothing special.

Saturday, September 22, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Why are school textbooks so expensive? We just got a bill for 23,400 NT — or $710 US equivalent — for books for the girls. This was the second bill and the first one was for a similar amount.

It isn’t that the books contain anything original or newly discovered or invented. It’s just the same old math equations and chemical tables and grammatical rules that we all studied in school. Why should we have to pay money for this?

Why aren’t school textbooks open source like all the best software? Why aren’t they freely available on the web? And why do schools collude with this rip-off and help enrich the Houghton-Mifflins of this world?

I have half a mind to scan all the textbooks we bought and put them on the web. Sue me you Houghton-Mifflin bastards! Let’s see if you can convince a judge somewhere that you have proprietary rights to the knowledge we want to impart to our children.

Thursday, September 27, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Today is my father’s birthday. Well, it would have been if he still had been alive. He died five years ago. It’s a long time and yet no time at all. I still think about him every day. You don’t “get over” the loss, you learn to live with it, that’s all. Like you learn to live with a missing limb.

At 79, he wasn’t even young and it wasn’t a tragedy in that sense. Still, I refuse to accept it. That this living human being with hopes and fears and smiles and jokes suddenly turns into the content of an urn. I will never understand it and I will never accept it.

I suppose I always identified myself as my father’s son. My father was the person I reported all my adventures to. To a large extent, the very point of going away was to come back home and tell my father what had happened. Without a father there is no home and there is no adventure. My compass is just turning and it no longer stops at north.

I have to be my own father now. But it’s not the same. I’m not as good at it as he was, and I much prefer being a son. My father always stood between myself and all the terribleness of life. Nothing could happen to me that wouldn’t first happen to him.  And then it did. Now I’m next in line, and not nearly as brave as he was.

Saturday, September 29, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Palgrave is indeed offering us a contract for our book on consumerism and identity crises in China. The terms are the usual ones, meaning that the book

* will be hard-cover only.
* will retail at … well … more than 100 dollars no doubt.
* only will be bought by university libraries, not by any ordinary humans.
* Palgrave will make no efforts to actually sell the book.

This is surely what used to be called a slave contract. We the authors will do all the work and Palgrave will take all the profits. We’ll make perhaps 500 dollars US for two years of labor and they’ll make perhaps 20,000 for next to no labor at all.

Saturday, September 29, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The reading lists for the courses I’m teaching this semester are now online. In contrast to previous years I’ve removed the password protection and made the pages accessible to Google. Anyone can browse, click and read the online material. The only thing you can’t do is enrol, for that you need to be an NCTU student.

I can recommend:

* “Freedom of Speech on the Internet“
* “The Politics of Resistance“
* “The Contemporary World: Culture and Identities“
* “Cultures of Entrepreneurship“

Monday, October 01, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We went camping at a place called Fulong beach, on the eastern, Pacific, side of Taiwan. This was the last gasp of the summer vacation before the kids returned to school. The beach is pretty good there, the water is fully tropical and the surfing is first-class. They even have an international standard camp site with a pool.

But in characteristic Taiwanese fashion the coast-line is blighted with unsightly, concrete and steel, skeletons of buildings and the beach road is the main thorough-fare for trucks carrying hazardous materials to the south. For good measure they are building a nuclear power plant right on the beach.

Strangely, there was practically no one in the camp site. The Taiwanese clearly think it’s too hot. Around 30 or so. Besides it’s the ghost month and a full moon to boot. Perhaps camping entails communing too closely with untamed spirits.

Still we had fun, BBQed meat and got burned by the sun. All of us learned how to swim under-water (not all of us voluntarily).

Tuesday, October 02, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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My friend Dave asks about my five top political influences. I’m not quite sure what to answer. I’m generally not very impressed with my own political opinions. I’m a Liberal Democrat in Sweden, a left-wing Democrat in the US and a Brownite in Britain. In Taiwan I don’t really know yet (but I’m all for better relations with the mainland). I guess I’m just your average bleeding heart liberal.

But even bleeding hearts need a justification. What are the grounds for my beliefs? I could probably point to some people who influenced me, but what I can’t explain is why I found these particular people influential. What I can’t explain is what the grounds are for choosing a certain set of grounds. And what are the grounds of those grounds? What’s behind the reason we find certain reasons persuasive? I just don’t know.

Or am I making it too complicated?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Diane claims that women of a certain age — hers, I guess — have to make a brutal choice between preserving the look of their faces or the look of their bodies. If you keep your body slim, your cheeks start to hollow out and your face looks drawn. If you keep your face nice and plump, your body soon gets plumpissimo.

I’m very happy she has decided to go for the latter option. All received opinions on the topic are wrong. It’s the world’s biggest hoax. Women have no idea what men really want. The truth is of course that there is nothing more pleasant than … ahem … a well rounded woman.

Consequently I have lately spent much of my time feeding her things. I’m a stuffer of birds, a purveyor of calories, a giver of bountiful gifts and fattening cakes. It’s become a real obsession, a perversion even. I’ve tried googling for it but with little result. Could it be that I was granted that most unique of opportunities — the chance to identify a previously unidentified sexual deviation? Let’s call it “feeder frenzy.”

Thursday, October 04, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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This is the best time of the day — the moment when you get to throw away the garbage. On my street lots of people are waiting for half an hour or more before the truck eventually arrives. Chatting about the day’s events, the suspense is slowly building. And then you hear that cheerful little tune. Wow! Throwing away rubbish is a fundamental human instinct. We all want to get rid of refuse, cleanse and rejuvenate ourselves. Besides it’s simply great fun to throw the bags into the big truck. You need a good aim.

(No, this is not my clip, just something I got off YouTube. Look at the face of the Western guy at the end — this is how happy and relieved we all are).

Friday, October 05, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Isn’t this one of the best book covers you’ve seen in a while?

 

Contributions by Steven Lukes, Joseph Nye, Stefano Guzzini, John Gaventa and yours truly. The book is available now on Amazon.

Sunday, October 07, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We’re having another typhoon today. It’s a lot more ferocious than the previous one — 600 ml of water in one day and our electricity was cut off for some three hours. But a good time was had by all: Diane found some candles, Saga made up a scary story, and the other girls were dancing to the ring tones of our mobile phones (the only electronic devices still working).

Too bad it had to happen on a weekend. We like typhoon breaks.

update: we even made it into the BBC News headlines: “Powerful Typhoon Pummels Taiwan“

Tuesday, October 09, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The Guardian reports that Hilary Clinton has a decent shot at winning the primaries in the crucial state of Iowa. If she goes on to be elected and remains in power for eight years, the presidency will have been divided between two families — the Clintons and the Bushes — for 28 years. For 28 years!!!

Isn’t this how monarchies get started? Even in Europe monarchies weren’t originally hereditary, but they eventually become so since the people closest to the throne were born with such a vast advantage over the competitors. Or perhaps the US is about to end up like Florence of the 13th century, ruled by the rivalling families of the Guelphs and the Ghibbelines.

Can republics be monarchies?  I don’t think so.  It seems the U.S. is undergoing profound changes.

Thursday, October 11, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I just bought a scanner that can scan old 35mm slides. I have a lot of them. My father always took slide photos and I took a fair amount myself back in the pre-digital age. I’m now in the process of converting them all to Picasa web albums. It’s great fun and very time-consuming.

I posted this photo on my Facebook profile late last night, and I had no fewer than six comments when I woke up this morning! It’s a photo from my sister’s highschool graduation in 1981 (sister to my left, old girl-friend to her left). Yes, people really did look like this back then (but as always perhaps I was overdoing it slightly).

Thursday, October 18, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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This week, in the course I’m teaching on freedom of speech on the internet, I’ve asked the students to write an entry in their blogs where they link to a web site which they think should be banned. Of course I have to say something about this too. When, in my opinion, does a web site go to far?

An obvious candidate is child pornography. I have four children. The safety of children is important to me. And above all: I don’t want my kids to know that there are people out there who do these kinds of things to children. (For a rather tame example of child pornography, see above — yes, that’s me!)

Producing kiddie porn should obviously be illegal. The production necessarily means committing crimes against children, and the people involved should be put away. But I’m less happy about criminalizing the consumption. Can certain kinds of sexual arousal really be said to be against the law? Surely the law works very badly in the secret world of sexual perversions. It’s not traffic congestion we are talking about here or safety-standards for electrical appliances.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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So this is what my friend Bob has been up to lately. Selling cars!? After having written the soundtrack of an era, finding and then losing God, is selling cars really the best he can do?

Well, he is also giving some 100 concerts per years (he played St. Louis, Missouri, last night) and hosting a wildly popular weekly radio show. Not bad for a 66 year old. And yes, he’s as cool as always.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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My friend professor Pan suggested I’d make an appointment with him to have my 氣, my qi, tested. “What is that?,” I asked. Well Wikipedia defines it as

a part of every living thing that exists, as a kind of “life force” or “spiritual energy”. It is frequently translated as “energy flow”, or literally as “air” or “breath”.

“Watch,” said professor Pan, “I’ll show you.” Then he started moving his hands back and forth in front of me, as though he was playing an invisible accordion. “Put your hands in the space between mine.” And much to my surprise my fingers started involuntarily moving apart. “See,” he said, “that’s qi.”

The examination itself consisted of him moving his open hands around, but not touching any part of, my body. He stopped occasionally and muttered something to himself. “OK,” he said after a few minutes, “the examination is over.” “You have problems with your kidneys and you don’t sleep very well. You need to go to bed earlier.”

Pretty amazing, I thought. A recent check-up with a regular doctor just revealed a potential risk of kidney stones, and no I don’t sleep as much as I should. A strange coincidence, no doubt.

Professor Pan says you can recharge your 氣 through meditation. You can pick it up straight from the energy coming down to us from cosmos. OK, it’s hogwash but pretty cool nonetheless.

Saturday, October 27, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I’ve started swimming regularly. In October it’s still perfectly possible to swim outdoors here in Taiwan and there is a pool right on NCTU campus. I go three, four times a week. It’s what I’ve needed for years. Low impact exercise in a liquid environment. Nice!

I was never much of a swimmer. I mean, I always knew how stay afloat, but I never did it with style. (Style is important if you’re wearing nothing but swim trunks). Growing up in northern Sweden it was far between pools and the ocean was about 14 degrees even in the middle of the summer. Now I’m slowly learning — breathing, strokes and kicks. And wearing goggles makes all the difference.

A sociological observation: at the NCTU pool all guys sneak off to their individual shower cabins to change clothes. Why? Aren’t men supposed to show themselves naked to other men? If they all change clothes in secret, why not share locker-room with women?

Compare the pool in Nanjing, on the Chinese mainland, where I went a few years ago. Here everyone walked around in their birthday suits in the locker room, completely oblivious to their own nakedness or that of others. Or compare Sweden — at least Sweden of my youth — where guys flicked towels, splashed water and exposed their genitals at each other in exuberant displays of homoerotic bravado.

Saturday, November 03, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The election posters of Hsinchu politician Lu Hsue-Chang, 呂學樟, are seen all over town at the moment (including on the back of local buses). A smiling, and thumb-upping, Lu is making it clear that he is ready to kick some serious butt in next year’s national elections.

Very prominently on the posters feature the information that Lu has a yingguoshuoshi, an “English Master’s degree.” I’ve never seen politicians anywhere else boast about their academic credentials. Terrified that they be regarded as educated, politicians usually try their best to hide such information. But in Taiwan degrees are flaunted, ideally PhDs, and ideally from the US.

Lu is a bit of a disappointment in this respect. His degree is a mere MSc, and it turns out to be from the University of Glamorgan, a former polytechnic somewhere in Wales. Strictly speaking, the poster is misleading. What he’s got is a weileshishuoshi, a Welsh MSc. But perhaps that doesn’t sound grand enough for Hsinchu voters.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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My friend Dave reports that the LSE in London (my old employer) now uses Moodle for its online courses. Moodle is a free, opensource, software used by thousands of universities around the world. It’s user-friendly, pedagogically innovative, empowering for students and teachers alike and I’ve used it for years.

During my time, the LSE insisted on relying on something called WebCT. It was everything Moodle was not — clunky, restricting, and it forced each teacher to employ an “IT expert” who could update the web pages. And the LSE spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on this monstrosity!

Of course I never used WebCT. Of course my colleagues did. Of course they made fun of me and my Moodle …

No, I’m not gloating. I’m not telling you I told you so. However, take my advice: move to Ubuntu now and you have a reasonable chance of looking like a cool guy in three years’ time (when “Vista” will be nothing but a faintly remembered nightmare).

Thursday, November 08, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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{youtube}yhuMLpdnOjY{/youtube}

Bless YouTube! Who better helps preserve our cultural heritage for future generations? This is Tom Lehrer, the American satirist, encouraging you to join him in a highly pleasurable springtime pursuit (yes, I know, it’s a bit early in the year).

Tom Lehrer is the person who taught me English. I got his That Was the Year That Was LP when I was 12 and I didn’t understand half of it. I looked up the lyrics in a big dictionary and asked my teacher about the words I couldn’t find. What, after all, does “dispose of a pigeon” actually mean? To this day, I’m proud to speak Lehrer’s English rather than the Queen’s.

Lehrer got a BA in mathematics at Harvard when he was 18 and a MA at 19. He taught math and musical comedy at the U of California most of his life. Strangely he didn’t record anything after 1965. He is one of my all-time heroes and thanks to YouTube he’s still with us.

The lyrics are here.

I was just going to say that “there’s no one like Tom Lehrer anymore,” but of course that’s not true. Check out Mitch Benn and his “Crap Your Pants for America.” Not surprisingly, Mitch credits Lehrer as one of his inspirations.

Monday, November 12, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Our research into the classical luxury hotels of Asia continues. We spent last weekend in the 圓山大飯店, the Grand Hotel in Taipei, a place built by Chiang Kai-sheck’s cronies back in the 1950s to impress visiting dignitaries, pop stars and other celebrities. It’s the largest Chinese-style hotel in the world — each of the eight floors is decorated in the manner of an imperial dynasty.

The place has clearly gone downhill since Chiang’s days. The showers need updating and the doors aren’t Tang dynasty at all but rather 1960s plywood. Still, it’s a jolly place. Full of Taiwanese people curious to have a look at a Chinese-style building (there are only too few in this country). And in the Cantonese restaurant on the second floor some serious eating is going on.

A booklet by our bedside warned us “not to be vociferous in hotel” and asked patients with contagious diseases to “let us have your precedent informed.” Helpfully “the condom is available during your stay, please contact our housekeeper at extension 45 when needed.” We never made that call.

In the evening we escaped from our plush surroundings and went to the night market in 士林, Shilin. They have cheap clothes there and endless food stalls. I had the best cooked glutinous rice balls with ground peanuts and brown sugar I have had in my entire life.

Yes, we aren’t really luxury hotel material — but it was fun to make believe for a weekend.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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A lot of my habits have changed since we moved to Taiwan, above all the kinds of things I eat and drink. For example:

  • I’ve cut out the booze — both wine and beer. There is no doubt that I drank too much in London — me and Diane usually shared a bottle of red wine per night (OK, I needed it!).
  • I don’t drink coffee either, only tea — cups and cups of green tea throughout the day. I’ve bought all the tea making paraphenalia and I love the craft that goes into the brewing of a good pot.
  • I eat far less bread, instead mainly rice crackers with seaweed or crumbly sugar.
  • I eat large amounts of dried fruit — mango and guava mainly, but also strange, sweet, plums and very bitter little raisins.
  • no milk, of course not, only soy milk. Bless that bean! Yes, and lots of fruit juices.  Water melon juice sounds like a joke, but it’s heavenly.

It’s not clear why my habits have changed like this. It’s not really “health reasons,” more a process of gradual cultural osmosis. It’s actually a complete mystery why Westerners insist on hitting their systems so hard — really kick themselves — with coffee and alcohol (not to mention cigarettes). Why are we treating ourselves so badly?

They say you are what you eat. What am I in the process of becoming? Oh no, I think I’m turning Taiwanese.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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On BBC’s topical quiz program, “Have I Got News for You,” panelists are occasionally asked to attach captions to pictures of famous people in funny situations. Once they showed a photo of Prince Charles sort of sniffing his index finger. The comedian Paul Merton immediately suggested that the speech bubble should read “Ohhh Camilla!!!”

It was funny and outrageous. And I was really surprised that English people would say such crude things in public about their royal family. The English have a very complex relationship to their superiors. It’s a classically feudal form of submission — they are bowing deeply while silently farting.

In Thailand a very similar photo is one of the most popular public depictions of their monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, king Rama VIII. If you look closely you will see that he actually is wiping off a drop of sweat from his nose. The picture is an icon of the king’s ceaseless work for the benefit of the Thai people.

But of course I never saw it that way. My reverence was destroyed by Paul Merton. Bumping into the photo on public buildings when I lived in Bangkok, I immediately thought of the king’s relationship to the royal consort — “Ohhh, Sirikit!!!”

Friday, December 07, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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There is a poem by the Tang dynasty poet 李白, Li Po or Li Bai, called “Lonely Drinking under the Moon.”

花間一壺酒
獨酌無相親.
舉杯邀明月
對影成三人

From a pot of wine among the flowers
I drank alone.There was no one with me –
Till raising my cup, I ask the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.

I first heard this poem on Swedish radio when I was 14 or so. When my teacher one day asked us to bring a poem to school I read it to my class. I was a strange boy. I sat at home in the evenings. I studied too much and played the cello. I never went out drinking like normal kids my age. But since the poem was about alcohol abuse, I thought I could use it to prove to my classmates that I too was a cool guy. It didn’t work. Poetry doesn’t prove that you’re a cool guy. Poetry proves that you are a faggot.

我歌月徘徊
我舞影零亂.
醒時同交歡
醉後各分散

I sang. The moon encouraged me
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were born companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.

The following summer we went to London on vacation and I walked into Foyle’s bookshop and asked — very nervously since I never had spoken English to an English person before — if they had any books by Li Po. The shop clerk looked at me funny and said “By whom?” I blushed and rushed out of the store.

Li Po never did me any favors. But then again I wasn’t fair to him. It wasn’t right to ask him to provide proof of my cultural sophistication. I had no cultural sophistication. I was just desperate to become someone interesting, to show off.

Reading the poem today — in Chinese this time, as homework for my tutorial — it strikes me that I’ve finally succeeded to become someone interesting. In fact, what strikes me that I’ve probably overdone it.

Sunday, December 09, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Another birthday just came around. They seem to come more often these days. I’m thoroughly middle-aged now. I’m reaching the high noon of life — from whence there is nowhere to go but down. Birthdays aren’t much fun anymore.

No, I don’t like middle age. Life in the middle years is so unscripted. When you’re a kid you know what to do — prepare yourself for the years ahead. When you’re old too you know what to do — wrap things up and summarize. But in the middle years it’s not clear what your task is. The deadline is still too far ahead (you’d like to think). There is just so much consciousness to get through — day after day of random being and random thinking and random fears. I need more guidance.

When I was a kid I always wondered what the secret was that all adults shared. They seemed so self-confident, so authoritative, so worry free. I’ll find out, I thought. But I never did find out. I still don’t know how to be an adult. I can’t speak with authority without saying something that undermines the image; I can’t fold my face into that ponderous demeanor. In fact I’m amazed every time I get a pay check or every time I put the key in the door to my office and it opens.

I’m 47 and the discrepancy is all the time growing between what I am and what I’m supposed to be.

Monday, December 17, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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As a foreigner with a limited grasp of the Chinese language, I live in blissful ignorance of most of what’s going on around me. I only recently found out that:

* the most hotly debated topic in Taiwan right now is whether Chen Suibian, the president, will declare martial law so as to avoid the wrath of the electorate in March next year. Martial law?!
* there will be a referendum next year on whether Taiwan should apply to rejoin the UN as “Taiwan” or as “the Republic of China.” The Taiwan option is almost certain to win and China will of course regard this as a provocation. A provocation is just what we don’t need. And of course they don’t have a chance in hell of actually being invited to New York.
* a girl, a student, threw herself out of the top floor of her NCTU dorm last Friday and was found, very dead, on the pavement. I know it happens at all universities, but as an NCTU teacher I feel directly responsible (although she wasn’t a student of mine).

But it’s not just that I’m missing out on Taiwanese things, I’m not keeping up with Western things either. This year I seem to completely have forgotten about Christmas. I haven’t bought any presents, sent any cards nor thought about how to extend good will to my fellow man. I don’t know where I’ve been lately. Neither in Taiwan nor back in Europe it seems.

Thursday, December 20, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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… an Iliad E-reader. This is the ultimate boy’s toy for academics. And the perfect consolation after years and years of slippers, ties, socks and other soft Christmas presents. You can read pdf files on the Iliad, in A4 format, and unanimous reports insist that the reading experience is just as good as the real thing.

I have a specific project in mind. Thanks to the amazing people at the Internet Archive, I’ve downloaded a couple of hundred book on Western activities in nineteenth-century China. Titles like these:

* Frederic H. Balfour, Waifs and Strays from the Far East; Being a Series of Disconnected Essays on Matters Relating to China (London: Trübner and Co, 1876)
* Cossim, Considerations on the Danger and Impolicy of Laying Open the Trade with India and China; Including an Examination of the Objections Commonly Urged Against the East India Company’s Commercial and Financial Management (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1813)
* E.C. Wines, A Peep at China in Mr. Dunn’s Chinese Collection: With Miscellaneous Notices Relating to the Institutions and Customs of the Chinese, and Our Commercial Intercourse with Them (Philadelphia: Nathan Dunn, 1839)

I have thousands and thousands of amazing pages. All downloaded for free from the Internet Archive, with no particular restrictions on access. Am I going to print it all out in hard-copies? Am I going to read it all on my laptop? Hell no! What I need is an Iliad E-Reader. Pretty, pretty Santa, pretty please!

Sunday, December 23, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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pepparkakshjarta

She said: Once, many years ago, I went to a shabby airport to be given a big bag filled with fragile hand-wrapped candles, tree ornaments, ginger bread, candies and other exotic stuff I had never seen before, and which represented a Swedish Christmas. It made me feel warm and loved. I recall it every Christmas – with gratitude.

He said: … and I remember lighting a bee-wax candle every night, saying a prayer and hoping that maybe, maybe things would work out well in the end. Maybe things will work out well in the end?

She said: …and they have worked out – even if not as we thought they would? Hope you are well.

He said: I suppose so. Life is make-shift, make-do, and make-believe. I’m happy.

Monday, December 24, 2007 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We had our Christmas yesterday already, on the 23rd. Strangely early of course, but I’m working both today (Swedish Christmas) and tomorrow (American Christmas). Ideally we’d like to just forget about the whole business. It’s too much work to prepare for a holiday without a single day off to buy presents, cook food and clean the house. But although the Taiwanese don’t officially celebrate the day, there is no escaping it. Relatives send presents, our kids demand parties, department stores jingle their bells, our friends invite us over. Our arms twisted, we finally gave in to the festive spirit.

Yesterday we went to my friend Zhiben’s new house. Unusually for Taiwan they have an oven in their kitchen, and we inaugurated it with a big turkey. (Turkeys aren’t easy to find either, but we finally tracked one down in Taipei). It was very pleasant. We ate too much, drank Belgian banana beer, played snooker, watched TV, and felt slightly nauseous on the way back home. Despite the Oriental setting, it was a very traditional Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all Mango readers from Hsinchu, Taiwan.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Yes, another year just came around. I know, it’s time to party and all that. Drink champagne, kiss beautiful strangers in public places, make untenable resolutions, freeze your underwear off waiting for the bus back home …

Bah humbug I say! Western New Year is just a fiction of a particular calendar, nothing more. It’s an administrative convention, a convenience required by a state apparatus that tries to keep track of birth years and tax years and assorted other statistics. You might as well celebrate the promulgation of new tariffs for steel imports!

Chinese New Years is a totally different thing. It is not a matter of bureaucratic convenience. The Chinese New Year is not controlled by the state but by the moon. And you get to eat lots of dumplings and play mah jang. This is why I’m saving my cheers for February 6th.

However, my very favorite New Year is not the Chinese but the Thai — known as Songkran. It’s in April, in the hot season, and everyone gets out on the streets and sprays water on each other. Now that’s what I call a party! After all, what is kissing a beautiful stranger compared to completely soaking him/her in water?

Btw, this was apparently the last year they did fancy fireworks on Taipei 101 (see clip above). By next New Year this won’t be the tallest building in the world anymore and Sony — who sponsors the thing — will take its money elsewhere. Good riddance, I say.

Sunday, January 06, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Barrack Obama looks set to pick up the nominations from New Hampshire tonight. And the internet is bubbling over with Obamania. All bloggers are writing about it. I don’t think I will though. I’m not a very close observer of US politics anymore.

OK, I’ll just say one thing: I worry about the urge, far too common in America, to rely on politics as a means of making oneself feel good about oneself. Obama makes Democrats feel great about being American. He allows them to put the acrimony of the Clinton years behind them, to forget the Iraq war, and most obviously perhaps, the legacy of slavery. He is, the slogan has it, “a healer.”

This is all fine. But remember that the American desire to feel good about themselves also brought us president Bush and the war in Iraq. What makes Americans feel good often has disastrous effects on the rest of the world.

Arguably it has disastrous effects on America too. What that country needs are some very serious and far-reaching reforms — health care of course, but also drastic increases in taxes for the rich. Can Obama deliver that? I doubt it. He is surely far too polarizing a person to carry out contentious programs.

Edwards would surely be a lot better. Or why not Clinton? Maybe even McCain? (I always had a thing for left-wing conservatives …)

Thursday, January 10, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We’re in the middle of the eating season. In the countdown to New Year one banquet replaces another. Yesterday was my department’s end of year party and for lunch today I take my M.A. students to a very traditional Chinese restaurant. (I have to go for an extra swimming session in the afternoon to deal with the calorie overload …)

As a Chinese professor you are supposed to treat your students to food. It’s part of a lingering patrimonialism. Patrimonialism doesn’t come naturally to me but I’m doing my best.

Perhaps we could call it gastocracy — to use knives, forks and chopsticks as a means of establishing power over others. Eating together unites you to them and them to you. And obviously the one who pays is in charge. If the food is good enough, it’s not such a bad deal.

Gastocracy exists in European universities too but it is terribly underdeveloped. Only the most patrimonial of professors have mastered the art. Chai Lieven, when he was convenor of the LSE’s Government Department, would always treat colleagues to something edible when they were acting up. “I hear your complaints,” he would say, “lets discuss it over lunch.” Eating in the restaurant, mouthful by mouthful, Lieven would exercise his power. Once the recalcitrant colleague brought up the gripe somewhere between coffee and the dessert, the convenor’s point of view had already prevailed. Very ruthless, very civilized!

Saturday, January 12, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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KMT, the old Guomindang, won 72 % of the seats in today’s parliamentary elections, pushing back president Chen’s party to a mere 24 %. The KMT leader, Ma Yingjiu — above — is obviously well positioned to replace Chen after the presidential election on March 22 (but he’ll need to take off that red suit first).

In related news, Malawi switched its diplomatic allegiance away from Taiwan and to China, PRC, yesterday. Clearly the Malawians could no longer be bought off with Taiwanese money. Besides China is trying very hard to get a foothold in Africa. Taiwan now only has 23 friends in the world.

Lots of foreigners in Taiwan, and many of the ex-pat bloggers, are very pro-Chen. Having invested time and effort getting settled here, they go native by going pro-independence. Of course it makes you feel much better to side with the little guy. And who wants to be a part of a Communist dictatorship, right?

Well, I’m an anti-nationalist by inclination and it’s surely very foolish to stir up tensions with the mainland. Expats can always go home if there is a war. They risk nothing. Besides “independence” is such an outdated, 19th century, notion. There is no independence in today’s world and it’s a stupid thing to die for.  I’d vote for the man in the Santa suit.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I’ve been blogging for two years now. I started Forget the Footnotes in January, 2006. The first year was an exhilarating, exhausting, roller-coaster ride. I got a book out of it though — and experiences that produce books are never in vain.

The Mangoes has been running for a year. I’ve written 113 posts and visitors have left some 225 comments. I’m much obliged. In fact I’ve had 46,345 visitors during this time (including 115 visitors yesterday!). Not bad for a little blog. It’s still great fun to write online.

Btw, these are some of the Google search terms that take readers to the site in the last couple of days:

* chinese ancestor worship
* sexual arousal in sauna
* the emperor’s giraffe
* the best universities
* imperialism in China
* LSE sucks lemons
* “no altars on this long and lonesome road”
* durian
* being and time
* meaning and nothingness
* Hong Kong desserts
* Obamania
* john madeley
* whack my butt and make it runny
* the ubuntu revolution

A pretty eclectic mix, I’d say. I’ll try to keep it that way.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The Times Higher has published a list of what they claim to be “the world’s 400 best universities.” Yes it’s nice to find that I was educated at the world’s third best university. Still, you’ve got to be a fool to believe lists like these. They clearly don’t reflect student experiences, and they don’t reflect the experiences of professors. Instead it’s all about “reputation.” That is, THES went around and asked a bunch of famous profs which universities that were best. Not surprisingly, they listed the usual suspects …

But what good is a “reputation” if all your classes are taught by overworked PhD students? Or if, as a professor, your salary is low and you’re bullied by your superiors? As I keep repeating, there isn’t much difference in student experience at the, let’s say, top one thousand universities in the world. The classes, the lectures, the exams are pretty much the same. The only difference — and it’s very substantial — are the students different schools attract. Put it like this: at Harvard (#1) you’ll be just as likely to be bored stiff by useless lectures as at University of East Anglia (#357), but your classmates will be far smarter and more interesting.

And what is my old employer, the LSE in London, doing at place 59? They shouldn’t be on the list at all! It’s not a university! They have no humanities, no science, no technology, no med school …

What makes us NCTU professors particularly suspicious is that the world’s best university — our own — isn’t on the list at all whereas our neighbor and arch-nemesis, NTHU, clocks in at place 334. Sancta simplicitas!

Here is the complete list (you are not allowed to click if you plan to take it at all seriously)

Monday, January 28, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We just watched I’m Not There, the artsy Dylan biopic. As a hard-core Dylan fan I had to see it at some point. Yes, it’s been getting great reviews on the festival circuit but I have my own version of Dylan and I’m not necessarily prepared to accept someone else’s.

Yes, it’s a good film. The crazy idea of having six actors play the same character actually works. The stories weave in and out of each other in an intuitive rather than a logical way. But it works, it really works. And Cate Blanchett is magnificent. More Dylanesque than ever Dylan himself. Of course Dylan “isn’t there,” none of us ever is.

Yet, I was disappointed overall. There are too many of the same old stories — his rock rebellion at the Newport Folk Festival, the Judas concert in England, the interviews where he runs circles around the horn-rimmed members of the press. It’s all been endlessly recycled many times before. If you’re Dylan, you must consider this lore as a load of superficial pap.

Not unexpectedly the music is the best part of the film. I wanted fewer pictures and more sound.

Btw, I’ve started working pretty seriously on my new book. And I’m listening to Dylan over and over. No one better than him to encourage you to put unexpected words together.

Thursday, January 31, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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This is a bad spiral to be caught up in:

* a professor spends three years writing a book. All the while he is paid by his university. After all, he’s supposed to “do research.”
* a university press eventually publishes the book. It sells exactly 482 copies, all hard-back at $65 each. The copies are bought by the 481 large university libraries that exist in the world. The last copy is bought by the professor’s rich maiden aunt.
* the 481 libraries complain that books are too expensive. The university administrations, worried that their libraries will not be competitive, raise tuition fees to cover the costs. After all, students are the ones who will be reading the darn things.

In this way the universities end up being royally screwed by the publishers. They pay for the book twice — first in the form of the professor’s salary and then in the form of the book’s price. But the universities don’t care since they can claw back the money from students. Students are consequently the ones who end up doubly penetrated. The reason they don’t care is that they think they can pass the cost off to a future employer. Good luck!

This is the logic through which universities are taken over by market forces. It turns education into a product which is restricted to those who can pay. Meanwhile, the professor’s book never reaches a proper book-shop. It’s forgotten on some library shelf where it’s discovered only by those students who can afford to get access.

It is up to the professors to stop this madness. The way to do it is to publish on-line. Let’s give our thoughts away for free! After all, we make only a pittance from the present system and we have already pocketed our monthly salaries. This way too perhaps someone will actually read what we’re writing.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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That’s finally it — all exams have been graded and reports handed in. The fall semester is officially over and we’re all off on New Year’s vacation. We are taking it easy this year — spending the holiday with friends in Taizhung in the middle of Taiwan and in Jaiyi in the south. Red envelopes (with money for children) will be handed out; gift bags with neatly wrapped boxes of tea will be exchanged; majiang will be played, temples will be visited, and a good time will be had by all.

新年快樂
恭喜發財
年年有余

to all readers from Xinzhu, Taiwan!  Btw, next year is the year of the mouse, 鼠年, my year!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The long New Year’s weekend is finally over and I’m back at my desk again. I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about my blogging book. It’s coming tomorrow they said, but naturally you can read it first here.

Just in case you wondered, HuffPo famously doesn’t pay its bloggers.

Feb 15th update: here it is — “Guerrilla Bloggers and the Old Elite“  Btw, who the hell is that guy???

Wednesday, February 13, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Have you checked out the Internet Archive lately? It’s an amazing place. Like an academic version of YouTube, they collect books, videos and old web pages, and make them available online. The Americans have uploaded entire university libraries and I’ve downloaded about 500 books on China without a single visit to a research library! The past is no longer an foreign country. And yes, it’s free and there are no restrictions on access.

The English are, not uncharacteristically, far behind. They still think they can charge for this kind of material. There is, for example, a company called ProQuest which has published all House of Commons reports online and stamped each page with a copyright statement! This is truly upsetting. First since it goes against the right of the citizens of a country to have documents produced by their own parliament freely available online. Secondly, since these ProQuest guys are laying claims to material whose copyright long has expired. And third since it makes academic research far more difficult. Unless you belong to a university that’s prepared to pay for the stuff, you can’t get access.

So, I’ve taken it upon myself to start an organization called M.L.O.P, the “Movement for the Liberation of Old Papers.” What I do is to hack into to the ProQuest web site, download the documents I’m interested in, and then GIMP off the copyright statement from each page. I then upload the file to the Internet Archive where it is universally available and free. It does takes a bit of time but it’s a very worthy cause.

* Check this out: Correspondence concerning Insults in China, 1857.

Yes, I’m prepared to go to prison for this. In fact, I’d proudly brag about having liberated an old House of Commons document from the clutches of market capitalism. Join me in my revolution! Liberate a document today!

Thursday, February 14, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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“Valentine’s Day is just another attempt by businesses to make money,” I insisted. “It’s all about buying chocolate and flowers and stuff.”

“So, I won’t get anything this year either then,” Diane replied. “You’re so cheap.”

On the topic of Valentine’s Day, Ze Frank, as always, said it best:

Thursday, February 14, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I had a strange dream. I dreamed that a female student suddenly stood up in class in the middle of my lecture and asked: “Professor, what happened to that money you borrowed? You said you would repay it.” I was completely lost for words for a while. It was very embarrassing. But finally I said something about how I “had been very busy” but “how I hadn’t forgotten.”

It’s that time of year again. A new term is starting. I always feel that I’ve ignored my students. Like I owe them.

Sunday, February 24, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I found a house for sale in the middle of Hsinchu, an old building from the Japanese period. As I was standing there looking at it a woman came up to me and made the internationally recognizable hand gesture for “having sex.” I was a bit shocked. I’ve not seen anything like that in Taiwan so far. But her “only 500 NT” confirmed that I hadn’t misunderstood. What amazed me was how old she was. She must have been in her late 50s, at least. I looked around on the street and suddenly I discovered lots of women just standing there waiting for something. And they were all just as old. Not like someone’s mother but like someone’s grandmother.

I guess there may be a lot of granny fetishists in Taiwan, but somehow I doubt it. Their main clients are surely men of more or less their own age. This confirms a theory I have. Most married men don’t actually want to be unfaithful to their wives. They just want their sex to be easy. They want sex without connection to all those everyday issues of contention which make up a marriage — who’s doing the dishes, who’s taking out the garbage, who’s paying the bills … Paying for sex with a woman who is just like your wife gets you around these hurdles. It’s sex like you remember it, an old person’s reenactment of the days when you and your wife first met.

Btw, there is a very active “Sex Workers’ Union” in Taiwan. Prostitution is officially illegal and the prostitutes are getting a lot of hassle from the police.

Friday, February 29, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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KIA Carnival is the worst piece of junk imaginable. We paid 32,5000 NT (some 10,000 US) for a six year old model. We did a reasonable amount of googling before making up our minds. Too bad we didn’t put in “KIA total engine failure” or “KIA ruined my life.” If we had, we would have gotten a lot of hits.

There was clearly something wrong with the engine from the very beginning. The car suddenly just lost power and on the highway going to work that could be really scary. The car mechanic fixed it a couple of times but then he said he wouldn’t guarantee any more repairs. We asked him how much he would pay for it and he said he didn’t want to buy it.The car had just died. And now we’ll have to pay again to give it an environmentally friendly burial.

As it turns out, the KIA engines have a well known problem which affects some 40 percent of our model. The honorable thing would have been for KIA to recall them all but instead the owners quickly sell up when the warranty expires after six years. Yes, it was a car like that we happily put our savings into.

We haven’t had a car for some five weeks now and it’s been great. My Chinese has improved a lot from speaking to cab drivers and we’ve made all kinds of interesting sociological observations on the buses we’ve been on. From now on we will not lose an opportunity to say something nasty about KIA (and about the “friend of a friend” who sold it to us). Yes, 10,000 dollars is a lot of money to us. For example, it corresponds very closely to the price of a ticket to Europe to visit friends and family next summer …

Saturday, March 01, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I just had a heart attack. Well, maybe not, but it was really scary. I was sitting by my desk writing, drinking tea, and suddenly I felt like my heart was being squeezed together. Twice. On wobbly legs I went downstairs and laid down on the bed. Diane came up to see what was the matter. “This is how you die,” I thought. With no medication in the house, Diane poured me a glass of sherry. No, I wasn’t dead but still pretty shaken up. I really have to go to the doctor …

Sunday, March 02, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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Do you have a PhD or are you just about to get one? Do you want to hang out with me and my friends in Taiwan for six months, all expenses paid? Eat great food, climb great mountains, learn Chinese and how to avoid getting run over by motorbikes?

Is this offer too good to be true? Well, maybe. But we are just in the process of applying for money to set up an “advanced studies institute” at NCTU (yes, like the one at Princeton). The idea is to accept some 6 foreign scholars per half-year. It could work as a post-doc or as a chance for someone who needs a fall-back position after Harvard denied tenure. If we get the money from the Ministry of Education in Taipei, we’ll start advertising for real. If you mention in your application that you read the news here, you’ll be placed first in line. Readership has its privileges.

Sunday, March 02, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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The Times Higher Education Supplement is writing about me again, in a well-researched and well-wrought piece — “Threads That Twist and Tangle” — by Hannah Fearn. Since THES has an unpleasant habit of taking down their articles and restricting them to pay-only customers, I’m providing a pdf version as well.

Thursday, March 06, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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“Copyright Does Not Exist,” is an amazing book by Linus Walleij, a legendary Swedish hacker and Linux guru, who persuasively argues that copyright is a very, very stupid idea. He kicks ass, and he writes like Hunter S. Thompson. Get the book here:

* Linus Walleij, Copyright Does Not Exist.

If you have read this book on a computer, without printing it out on paper, you’ve consumed something. Or have you? Do I have to charge for this book before it can be called consumption? I’ll leave that as an open question. I’ve certainly not made a dime from you reading this book, but maybe I’ve accomplished something that can’t be measured in terms of money – maybe I’ve taught you to question the mechanisms of power.

Do I agree with such anarcho-syndicalist drivel? You bet! Remember, information wants to be free!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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When I got to work this morning my laoshi — my Chinese teacher — was picking fallen cherry petals off the ground outside of my building. “Look, how beautiful they are,” she said as she collected them on a paper plate. “You should get some for your office.” Unable to confront reality except through the screen of a literary device, I suggested she should write a poem about the fallen flowers. Like they do in Japan.

“I can’t write poetry,” she said. “You write!”

Compared with the delightfulness of spring, poetic forms are empty gestures. I want to be a poetic actor, like my laoshi, not a sophist. Life is indeed too brief.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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It was great fun to take the bus and to talk to cab drivers, but it was too difficult to do shopping and we didn’t see any of Taiwan — we had to get a new car. And here it is! A spanking new Suzuki Swift. It’s everything our old KIA was not — peppy, easy to park and good on gas. And it’s cute like an overgrown toy car.

No, we don’t all fit comfortably into it for longer journeys, but the idea is to get two (once we’ve saved up some more money). The only thing that annoys me is that everyone else seems to be buying the same car right now. (The little car showroom where we bought ours sells one Swift a day). Maybe we should have gotten one in electric pink just to stand out from the crowd.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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I finally went to the doctor. The EKG looks alright, but my blood pressure is far too high (175/100). And blood pressure is not only associated with heart disease but also with a pesky temperament. I don’t want to die from a heart attack and I don’t want to snap at my friends and family. I have to do something about it.

OK, I’m taking blood pressure medication, but I don’t like popping pills. Much better to change what I eat. So, after some thinking and some googling I’ve devised my own diet.

This is the logic behind it: human beings have existed for three million years, but the agricultural revolution — when humans became sedentary farmers and began keeping animals — only took place some 10,000 years ago. As a result humans are actually very badly suited to a diet of milk, wheat and cheese. What we should be eating are nuts, plants and the occasional jungle animal. To feel better — to lower our blood pressure — we must become contra-revolutionaries, we must undo the damage of the agricultural revolution.

Last night I had salmon and papaya salad for dinner. This morning I had cashews and apples for breakfast. Sacrifice, what sacrifice? I’m going back to the doctor on Thursday for some more tests. Maybe the numbers will look better already. Meanwhile I’ll dig up some tasty roots here on NCTU campus.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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paul1paul2paul3

{dropcap}I{/dropcap} just had photos made for my new Alien Registration Card. All foreigners in Taiwan need an ARC and all ARCs must have a photo. I hate having photos taken of myself. It’s not necessarily that I don’t like what I look like, it’s that I can’t recognize myself in the picture. I never could. Not since childhood. That person is not me. I’m much shorter. I have dark hair. A less bulbous nose.

It’s a very strange thing. Everyone else can see you, but you can’t see yourself. Not your face anyway. You can look at yourself in a mirror of course but the mirror always presents a partial, and completely staged, image. As a result, no one really knows what they themselves look like. We are all more or less mistaken about the most salient fact about ourselves — our looks.

I should write more about this in some context. It’s very interesting.

When I lived in London I had passport photos taken in a shop on Oxford Street. It was an obscure establishment with a perilously steep staircase leading up to a studio on the second floor. Yet once upon a time it must have been a famous place. There was a large collection of pictures of previous customers on the wall, including people like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Mick Jagger. Most of them were taken in the Swinging Sixties. Maybe this was one of the few places that did passport photos back then.

I suddenly realized I had found a private key to a line of a Beatles’ lyric. In Penny Lane there is “a barber showing photographs of every head he had the pleasure to know.” And of course some barbers have pictures on the wall showing examples of the kinds of haircuts you can get. Yet it doesn’t seem likely that a barber bothers to take photos of all of his customer. A photographer, however, does. On the wall of that place on Oxford Street the photographer was literally “showing photographs of every head he had the pleasure to know” (the famous ones at least). And Paul McCartney, responsible for Penny Lane, had obviously been one of those customers.

Friday, March 14, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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I’m not going to let Barrack Obama take over my blog, I promise.  Still, I thought this was kinda cute:

Btw, some of the exit polls from yesterday’s primary in West Virginia make for worrying reading.  A lot of the people who voted Clinton mentioned “race” as a significant factor behind their choice.  America is a deeply racist country and the Republicans are bound to exploit that in the fall.  It could turn very ugly indeed.  If Obama can rise to the occasion and overcome that challenge maybe he really will be an extraordinary president.

Friday, March 14, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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I’ve just come back from the Majie Hospital where the nice doctor made me run on a treadmill for 20 minutes while hooked up to all kinds of electronic equipment. There is nothing wrong with my heart. It’s pumping hard and strong. But its beat is uneven — it has like a back beat to it — and this is what sometimes can feel like cramps, especially when I’m stressed out. But there is nothing to worry about. It’s not normal perhaps, but it’s OK. (Or as Saga put it, “why should your heart be normal when everything else about you is so strange?”)

This is what I always knew, my heart’s got a funky rhythm. I have a Jamaican heart!

The doc gave me beta blockers for my stress, but I don’t think I take them. Beta blockers are some kind of happiness pills, aren’t they? I’m afraid to get too mellow. Adrenaline has always been my drug of choice.

Anyway, good news. New lease on life.

Monday, March 17, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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The US economy is doing badly, and worse seems to be around the corner. People with money are moving elsewhere. If interest rates hit 1 % in a year’s time, and the dollar drops against major currencies, investing in the US is stupid.

This is true unless you invest in the kinds of things that people demand during a recession. You could buy a used-car dealership, for example. Or a pop-tart business, or even shares in Wal-Mart (if you can live with yourself — Costco would be much better, they allow trade unions).

The problem with this kind of investing is only that rich people know very little about the kinds of goods poor people require. Rich people think about poverty in the abstract, not in the excruciating detail required to make a profit. To help them out an entrepreneurial poor person should start an investment consultancy firm. Poverty, after all, is something poor people know a lot about. Let’s hear it for Trailer Park Investments, Inc!

I’m telling Diane she should go for it. With years of in-depth knowledge accumulated in mobile homes all across Long Island, she’s ahead of the game. She points out, for example — go for it, it’s easy money! — that you should invest in companies that rent out storage space. That’s always what happens when the bailiff arrives — you’re chucked out on the street and you have to find somewhere to put your belongings. What rich person would have thought of that?

Friday, March 21, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Tomorrow is the big one — the presidential elections here in Taiwan. The people will decide to vote for Frank Xie, the candidate of DPP, the independence party, or for Ma Ying Jiu, the KMT, Guomingdang, candidate. To a large extent people’s choices are determined by questions of who they, and Taiwan, really are. If your family came here with KMT in 1949 and you believe Taiwan is a part of China, you are for Ma. If your family has deeper Taiwanese roots, and you believe Taiwan is an independent country, you are for Xie. As always when questions of people’s identities are involved, sentiments run very high.

I sympathize very strongly with the DPP’s’ point of view (and I have several good friends who are fervent DPP supporters). They feel their country was taken over by outsiders in 1949. Outsiders, moreover, who ran Taiwan like a dictatorship for some 40 years, imprisoning and killing people. Still to this day, DPP supporters tend to be under-dogs. On average they have lower socio-economic position and lower education. They want their dignity and their island back. All of this makes a lot of sense.

However, I really hope Ma and KMT will win. To isolate yourself from China, as the current DPP president Chen Shiu-bian has done, is a very stupid policy which has strongly negative economic effects and which invites all kinds of unpleasant sabre-rattling. It’s outrageous, for example, that Taiwan is the only country in the world which is trying to limit the number of Chinese students and that there are no direct flights to the mainland. Relations to China have to be permanently sorted out and all military threats removed. Yes, it’s good for Taiwan. Only Ma and KMT are in a position to do that.

Saturday, March 22, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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My students all seem to be going back home to their families today for the presidential vote. In some cases the trips are long and time/money consuming. I don’t have the heart to tell them about the most celebrated of all political science theories — about the irrationality of voting.

It goes like this: since there are millions of people voting, the chance that your vote will be decisive is so low that it doesn’t justify the trouble you go through. This is particularly the case if you have to travel far to do it. You are more likely to have a terrible accident on your way back to Pingdong, Gaoshiung or Jaiyi than to actually determine who becomes the next president. (Or find yourself a person here in Xinzhu who votes for the opposite party, make a pact not to vote, and save yourself the trip).

But rationality isn’t what it’s about of course (and political science is, everything considered, a bloody waste of time). My students go back home to participate in an important ritual of citizenship. To vote is to affirm your rights as a Taiwanese and to celebrate the country’s vibrant democracy. Not to vote is to not claim your rights. Go for it! (and cast your votes wisely …)

Sunday, March 23, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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It’s the economy, stupid! To people reading about the Taiwanese presidential election in foreign newspapers, it was all a matter of relations to China and possible parallels with Tibet. But what Taiwanese people really cared about was the sluggish state of the economy and the corruption scandals of the current DPP regime. My man, Ma Ying-jiu, won a very decisive victory in the end (60 % of the vote) and DPP was never even close.

Giving his victory speech behind a screen of bullet proof glass, Ma looked tired and a bit worried. In general he seems like a gentle and pretty soft guy (and is often accused of being indecisive). But perhaps gentle and soft is just what’s needed right now. I’m fed up with tough-talking nationalists.

DPP’s big mistake was to think politically rather than economically. They see the world in terms of zero-sum power-struggles — with KMT, with the Mainland — and forget that many issues actually can be solved to mutual advantage. Specifically, they have no sense of what economic growth and long-term prosperity require. People were rightly worried. In the end millions and millions of ordinary Taiwanese put their faith in Ma. Rightly so I think.

Thursday, March 27, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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I know that Obama is more than a “black candidate” and that Clinton is more than a “woman candidate,” but they are both nevertheless carriers of the narratives of their race and their gender. Their presidential bids draw emotional power from stories of “honor restored,” “slights avenged,” “underdog bites back” and similar cultural stereotypes. Americans love stories like this. Even McCain, as a septuagenarian, has a story to tell about resisting old-age stereotyping.

What’s strange is that these identities all concern gender, race and age and that none of them concerns social class. None of the candidates left on the stage tries to take on the role of “an ordinary American worker.” And the only candidate who tried, John Edwards, was quickly booted out. Americans, clearly, don’t want to identify with a working-class guy. Least of all, it seems, American workers.

Is this a wonderful example of the power of positive thinking — of aspiring to become something more than “just an average Joe” — or is it a form of self-delusion? After all, even the Village People had a member who pretended to be a construction worker!

Saturday, March 29, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes , Uncategorized No comments
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This is a piece written by my oldest daughter, Saga. She came second in a national writing competition here in Taiwan with this article. At 12, she’s already an accomplished author, putting down some 2,000 words a day. It’s the family curse, poor thing. At least she writes fun stuff. Yes, I’m very proud.

Monday, March 31, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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cheese

My friend Dave asks me about my favorite household management tips. I’m not so sure about household management, but I’ll readily talk about my favorite kitchen implement: our cheese-slicer with nine lives. It first got into our possession when Diane in 1995 decided that the kitchen in her dorm at Stockholm University needed it far less than we did. She was right. We had love, hope and cheese, but we had no cheese slicer. Let’s say that it was a crime of passion. The cheese-slicer has been with us ever since (and so have love and hope).

Yes, it has nine lives. We always seem to lose or misplace it, but it always magically comes back to us. Once in London my mother — on a temporary visit and a mission to move us out of student bohemia — threw it away. But the garbage bag broke and we found it on the street and rescued it. Another time we mistakenly chucked it out together with some carrot peels. It was buried in our compost heap until, one spring, a child’s search for worms suddenly unearthed it. We cleaned it thoroughly and return it to its place in the kitchen drawer.

The most remarkable occasion was when we went on a camping trip to Italy. We had just picked up all our bags at the airport in Rome when I cast a quick glance behind my shoulder. A metal object with a wooden handle had fallen out of someone’s bag and was making the rounds on the baggage carousel — it was our cheese-slicer. Ciao! Benvenuto a Roma!

After such on-the-brink rescues we naturally had to bring it with us to Taiwan.

Sometimes I wonder whether the cheese-slicer is trying to tell us something. Why else would it be so insistently loyal? Maybe it’s been sent from another planet with a secret message? Maybe this is the cosmic cheese-slicer which will appear at the end of all time to warn mankind regarding the impending doom? While we are waiting for further clarifications, we simply use it for slicing cheese.

Saturday, April 05, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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This is an op-ed piece I wrote for the Times Higher Education Supplement – “Liberate and Disseminate.” It should be out in their next issue, on April 10.

“Free information freely available is the rallying cry of Erik Ringmar, who wants others to join in putting restricted documents on the web.”

Naturally you can read it first here (that link opens a download from the Internet Archive – seemed appropriate, I thought).

Thursday, April 10, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The nationalist wing of the British Labour Party are at it again. Lord Goldsmith, the warlord who provided Tony Blair with legal arguments for the illegal war in Iraq, is now proposing that all British school leavers should swear allegiance to the Queen. The ridiculousness of this idea should be obvious. Passively accepting the historical fact of monarchy is one thing, but how can a person in a democracy swear allegiance to a hereditary ruler? Brits, are you mice or are you men?

The ever-wonderful Now Show had a great piece on this:

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There is also a Facebook group oppositing it. And moreover, Diane, my wife – who once was a Brit for a day — thinks it’s a totally daft idea.

Friday, April 11, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We all caught pneumonia, first Diane, then Saga, Xiaomeimei and then me. I didn’t know you could catch pneumonia like you catch the flu. Maybe it’s an East Asian thing. They have a pretty impressive microbiological flora in this part of the world.

It’s weird to have very high fever. It’s like an experiment in existentialist philosophy. You see these people, you wonder who they are, and to your great surprise you realize they are your children. How did I end up having children? And who is that woman? Oh, it’s my wife. Am I married? We’re in Taiwan? Why Taiwan?

Luckily Taiwan has a world-leading health system. There is universal insurance coverage just like in Sweden and Britain, but in contrast to these places you can go straight to the hospital yourself and talk to a specialist. Since the top 1% of students go to medical school, the doctors are completely outstanding (and perfectly English speaking which is nice if you feel lousy). Thank god we’re not living in the US.

April 19 update: today Beata fell ill as well.  There is only Yrsa to go.  We’ve collectively been sick for a month by now. It solves the problem of what to do every weekend — we just cough at each other.

Saturday, April 12, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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sakamoto

 

{dropcap}I{/dropcap} watched an interview with George Clooney on The Guardian’s website. The reporter referred to him as twice named “the sexiest man alive.” I didn’t know there was an annual award like that. But then again, I’m not much of a connoisseur of male beauty.

Apparently it’s the rather tacky People Magazine in the US that hands out this rather tacky honor. So far they have named the likes of Brad Pitt, Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, Ben Affleck, bla, bla. What a boring and predictable list! And are there so few sexy men in the world that some have to be nominated twice?

Besides, can it really be that the world’s sexiest men all are English-speaking and predominantly American? Just as a matter of population statistics, an American should appear on the list no more than once in 20 years and a Brit only once in 100 years. Meanwhile a Chinese man should appear every five years. Any candidates?

I remember, in northern Sweden in the 80s, my sister getting speechless and blushing down to her toes, when I unexpectedly showed here a magazine with a photo spread of Sakamoto Ryuichi. But he’s not Chinese either of course — and by now not as handsome as he once was (but then again, who is?)

Saturday, April 12, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I’m recovering from my pneumonia, and pretty quickly too. I should be back in the classroom before long. Meanwhile I’m having fun in bed — checking out the ChinesePod language podcasts. It’s a new way to study languages — based on downloaded mp3s and lots of web-based interaction. Each lesson is bite size, only a few minutes. And best of all, the presenters — John and Jenny — are fun and casual and a bit naughty. It’s nothing like learning a language in school.

Consider this lesson:

Mouths were intended to be used for so much more than speaking Chinese. Sometimes the language of love communicates better than the best vocabulary, so it never hurts to get a little lip service… In this podcast, get smoochy-smoochy with us and learn to ask for a kiss, in Mandarin.

ChinesePod was started by an Irishman, Ken Carroll, back in 2005. They record and upload to the web from Shanghai, PRC. They have a great business model: a lot of free, and very useful, downloads and low costs for premier content. Very web 2.0. and just what I would do if I ran a business like this.

No, I haven’t disposed of my old textbook yet, but for now it’s great to be in bed with John and Jenny (especially, dare I say it, with Jenny).

Monday, April 14, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I helped rescue a Polish ethnologist today. Her name is Maria Antonia Czaplicka and she was born in Warsaw in 1886. In 1910 she won a scholarship to London and the LSE to do a PhD (leaving Poland at the same time as anthropology super-star Bronislaw Malinowski). She did her fieldwork in Siberia and in the winter of 1914 she travelled some 5000 kilometres along the frozen river Yenisey, taking photos and making notes.

She was only the second person in Europe to get a PhD in anthropology; the first woman to join the Royal Geographical Society; and, in 1915, the only woman to teach at Oxford. However, when the professor she replaced returned from the fronts of World War I, she was fired. She worked at the Deparment of Anatomy at the University of Bristol for a while, but her contract was not renewed. She had financial troubles and ended up committing suicide, by poisoning, in 1921, only 35 years old.

Her books on Central Asia and Siberia are obviously erudite, but also delightfully written, and My Siberian Year, 1916, was a great public success. What impresses me is the respect with which she treats the people she meets and analyses. There is no Western triumphalism here and not a trace of condescension. She is far smarter than most other Edwardians.

Czaplicka already had a Wikipedia entry, but links to her works were missing. Today I supplied two. By a simple click, you can now read:

Hers is a sad story. A brave and beautiful woman who found more obstacles at Oxford than in the wilds of Siberia. I hope she will live long and prosper on the web.

Thursday, April 17, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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bbc

A researcher for a new BBC Radio 4 program, iPM, got in touch and asked for an interview about “liberating old papers.” I’ve never done an interview before. I’m not sure I’ll like it, but Eddie Mair is in charge and how could I say no. He’s the Indiana Jones of contemporary affairs presenters.

Friday, 18 April, update: I just got off the phone with Eddie (as I like to call him). We had endless Skype problems to begin with but in the end they were happy enough with the sound quality. I talked about “civil disobedience” and the importance of “committing small crimes in order to prevent greater evils.” Ha, ha. Pretty silly. But pretty serious at the same time.

Saturday, 19th update: the iPM web page now has a write-up — “Order, Order” — and the whole program is here.

Monday, April 21, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Although the Movement for the Liberation of Old Papers is a very elitist group of well-trained paper-liberators, this is not to say that you can’t join. Indeed you can. It’s easy. There are no rules really, and no membership fees.

First, however, we need to know that we can trust you. You need to do a job for us. You need to help liberate an old paper from an archive or a library and to upload it to a public access website such as the Internet Archive or Our Media. Post the URL as a comment here on this page and you are a member! (Maybe I’ll send you a T-shirt or something if I can come up with a good design).

Don’t upload illegal stuff; don’t do anything I wouldn’t do 😉

Btw, there is an interesting discussion here:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The power of love … My two former students, Veronica and Styves, just got married in Canada. Veronica is Korean and Styves is from Gabon, West Africa. They met and fell in love when Styves’ father was working as a diplomat in Seoul. But from then on things weren’t easy.

Their respective families weren’t, well, over-joyed by the prospect of their union. Living together in Korea was out of the question and living in Gabon wasn’t easy either. Instead they figured out that they could go to study in Sweden, and that’s where I first met them back in 2002. They moved on to London and did a Master’s at LSE, but afterwards they were, once again, forced apart. Veronica decided to emigrate to Canada and for the longest time I didn’t hear anything about Styves.

Yesterday, however, I got this photo. Styves decided to do the right thing — he flew from Gabon to the Canadian prairie for a quick but by all accounts very romantic ceremony. Isn’t love great?! Best of luck to the two of them.

Friday, April 25, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Reading about Hilary Clinton’s attempts to play the race card, I suddenly remembered Ricky Ray Rector. Rector shot a man in a nightclub in Arkansas in 1981 and killed a policemen who came to arrest him. He then turned the gun on himself, but the bullet didn’t kill him, it left him permanently lobotomized. Rector was first saved by the doctors but then sentenced to death by the courts.

In 1992, Bill Clinton took time off from the presidential campaign to fly back to Arkansas to confirm the death sentence. Democrats, Clinton insisted, “should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent.” Yes, Rector was indeed mentally retarded. He left the dessert from his last meal, insisting that he would eat it “after the execution.”  In 2002 the American Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally retarded people, labelling it a “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Ricky Ray Rector was black, and Bill Clinton was worried that the Republicans were going to accuse him of letting black killers go free. White voters don’t like that. This, after all, was what undid the Dukakis campaign in 1988.

The Clintons have a history of walking over black corpses in order to get to the White House. I really hope Obama won’t be one of them. I’m with Michael Moore — if you play the race card, you’ve disqualified yourself for the presidency. Go Barrack Hussein!

(No, I can’t vote in the US, but Diane can, and my four daughters will one day).

Thursday, May 08, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I asked my students to write something in their blogs about “the worst boss they ever had.”  A surprising number of them wrote about professors they had worked for.  Thinking that professors, on the whole, are pretty friendly chaps, I was surprised.  “It’s obvious,” said the students with one voice.  “Professors never had a proper job in their lives and they don’t know what it’s like to handle people.  They push us around just to make a point.”

Since I moved to Taiwan I have, for the first time, money to employ research and teaching assistants.  I could have a whole slew of them if I wanted.  But I’m useless as a boss. I feel strange asking someone to do something for me that I easily could do myself.  It takes too long to explain what I have in mind and half of the time I don’t have anything much in mind at all.

Or perhaps it’s rather that I have a problem with authority.  I’m instinctively disrespectful of people who have authority over me, but I find it equally impossible to push others around.  Thank god I’m only a professor and not in charge of something important.

I sometimes run into my research assistants on campus and I don’t know what to tell them.  “Yeah, I’ll get back to you next week … Meanwhile, are you being paid? … Just collect the money for now, OK?”

Thursday, May 08, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We are just coming out of the tonghua season.  The tonghua, or paulownia, is the flower of a tree which grows in the mountains outside of Hsinchu.  The paulownia produces great wood and this was why the Japanese planted the trees during the colonial period.  The tree is actually pretty unassuming except for during a few exceptional weeks in the spring when it comes out in cascades of flowers which turn entire mountain sides white.  When the petals fall to the ground it looks like it’s been snowing.

The tonghua has special importance to the Hakka people.  The Hakka are Han Chinese but they speak their own distinct language and they have a unique history.  Hakka means “guest” and the Hakka are travellers.  They have spread out over large areas in southern China; they live in Hong Kong, in Canada, and all the butchers and tanners in Calcutta, India, are Hakka.  Hsinchu and surrounding areas too are predominantly Hakka.

When the Hakka people first came to Taiwan only the worst pieces of land were available to them.  Many of them ended up in the mountains, working in the Japanese-run forest industry.  Their lives were hard and they were considerably poorer than the regular Taiwanese.  In the spring, however, the tonghua trees took pity on the woodcutters and their families, showering them in flower petals.  The flowers inspired poetry, but also hope and a sense of resistance. The powers of flowers.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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This blog just passed the landmark of 20,00 visitors (since I started counting properly in November last year).  I’m amazed and humbled by your continued custom.  Even on a slow day there are some 75 readers and on busy days there are over 150.  I obviously can’t promise anything regarding the quality of future posts, but I’ll try to keep the quantity flowing.  It’s still great fun to write.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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My friend Caroline complains about her noisy neighbors.  They are having sex in a very expressive manner and it bothers her.  But Caroline, there is no evidence that loud sex necessarily is better.  People with such a need to show off are surely not confident in their sexuality.

Diane claims that this trend in loudness was started by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie during a hot hotel weekend.  Apparently the elderly couple in the room next to them insisted that they never, during 50 years of marriage, had had a reason do yell that loud.  Actors!  They always want to show off!

What interests me are the cultural variables operating here.  For example: Japanese girls are famously very loud in bed.  I always wondered how this cultural difference is maintained.  I mean, where do they learn to yell like that and how is the knowledge transmitted from generation to generation?  Are their mothers teaching them or are they all watching the same porn movies?  There should be more research on this topic.

Thursday, May 15, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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It looks like my friend Tsung-Yi has helped me land a contract for a Chinese edition of my blogging book.  How cool is that?

No, visions of selling 1.5 billion copies in the vast Chinese market have NOT flashed before my eyes.  By the look of the contract, I won’t make any money from this version either.  But freedom of speech is a hot topic in “Greater China” and maybe some people will find my experiences interesting.  I’ve never had a book translated before.

Saturday, May 17, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Apparently the Sichuan earthquake happened 88 days before the Olympic Games are due to start.  Traditionally “88″ is considered a lucky number in China.  It’s associated with prosperity and in SMS messages it’s used as a short-hand for “bye-bye” (8 is “ba” in Chinese and “baba” sounds like “bye-bye”).  It is not a coincidence, after all, that the Olympic games will begin on August 8 — on the eighth day of the eighth month.   But lots of Chinese are now worried that “88″ has changed its meaning.

Monday, May 19, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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My “child pornography” post from about a year ago has been topping the list of “most popular post” recently.  I can imagine what kind of people that’s been googling for it.  Yes, the post does contain a fuzzy photo of a very naked yours truly from about 45 years ago.

I’m fed up being the object of other people’s sexual fantasies.  I’m taking that post down (at least for a while).  Apologies to all pedophiles worldwide, I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for elsewhere on the web.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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There are two kinds of boredom, writes Lars Svendsen in A Philosphy of Boredom.  There is the kind of boredom you feel when sitting through a presentation at work which goes on for ever, without pause and without direction.  But there is also the more fundamental boredom which comes from the fact that few of us know how to live meaningful lives.  This is an existential boredom, unique to modern society.

We are all terrified of being bored.  Running away from boredom, we are always on the look-out for new thrills.  We invent extreme sports and extreme perversions, we do drugs and exotic religions; we think nothing of killing, in computer games or in real life.  If nothing else, we watch a lot of TV and have extra-marital affairs.  But before we know it we are bored again.  The next dose of the drug must be stronger and the kick it gives us must be harder.  Thus the restlessness of modern society; its transgressions; its cult of the new; its obsession with fashion; its superficiality and attention deficit disorder.

Orientalism fits here too.  The Oriental was another straw the Europeans grasped at.  The exotic was going to save us from ourselves, from rationality and ennui.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We have a new president in Taiwan.  At 9 this morning Ma Yingjiu was inaugurated.  Yes, he spoke a lot about improving relations with the mainland, about agreeing to disagree with Beijing, and about demilitarizing the whole cross-straights issue.  And — this is great news — there will be direct flights to the mainland as early as in July!

A thought struck me: I wonder if this man one day will be president of all of China.  Surely, the day when there are competitive elections on the mainland, the KMT will do pretty well.  They have name recognition after all, and mainlanders are reportedly pretty excited about Ma.  Still, the guy is 57.  Real democracy in China might take another 20 years …

Wednesday, May 21, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Hilary Clinton may have a majority of the votes of the over 65’s, but Barrack Obama has a majority of the votes of the under 1’s.  If you search for “Obama baby” on YouTube you get 1,120 hits; a search for “Hilary Clinton baby” only gives 447 hits.  The verdict is clear: American babies prefer Obama.

The reason, of course, has to do with phonetics.  It’s just so much easier to say “Obama” than “Hilary.”  It is not a coincidence after all that “ba” and “ma” almost universally are the names babies give to their parents.  Even the Chinese say baba and mama for heaven’s sake.

Thinking about it this way, maybe “Obama” does resonate with voters on a subliminal, next-to pre-linguistic, level.  Is it reassuring, or scary, to have your ba and ma run the United States?

(I wonder if our new president, Ma, could have benefitted from the same phonetic advantage as Obama in the recent election.  “Ma,” after all, is a much more basic sound than “Xie,” the name of the DPP candidate).

Sunday, May 25, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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With KMT and the new president, Ma Yingjiu, in place, we are all looking forward to more cordial relations between Taiwan and the mainland.  One of the exciting opportunities is for more student exchanges.  We need mainland students very badly.  There are some 350,000 university places in Taiwan but only 200,000 children were born last year.  Where is the short-fall going to come from?  The mainland of course!

I have a super idea for a Master’s degree: let’s set up a program called “Democratization in China.”*  It would teach mainland students everything they need to know about democracy, liberalism, and, of course, China’s history under the Communists.  We would, for example, teach a course about the Cultural Revolution.  Or what about a course on “national self-determination” with Tibet as an interesting case study?  I could even dust off my old course on “The Politics of Resistance” which I taught at the LSE for a number of years.

Democratization in China is a long slog, but this would be my contribution.

* My friend from the mainland suggests that a better title might be “Political Development in a Comparative Perspective.”  He is no doubt right.

June 12 update: Here is a proposal for the program I just put together: MA Program, “Political Development in a Comparative Perspective”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I had a nightmare.  I dreamed I was sitting talking to two Americans in a bar in Shanghai.  I didn’t know them before, but they seemed like typical stupid foreigners in Asia: sent by their companies, big beer bellies, little cute girlfriends, uninterested in the culture, the history and the language …

Then suddenly one of the guy’s mobile phone rang.  He picked it up and answered in very rapid Chinese.  I didn’t understand a word.  What really got me though was that the other guy, listening to the phone conversation, nodded repeatedly and shouted his agreements in what also sounded like perfectly fluent Chinese.

I want to be alone with my adventure.  I don’t want other foreigners to butt in.  I don’t want anyone to speak better Mandarin than me.  This is my Oriental fantasy, OK?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The Eurovision Song Contest just took place in Belgrade.  Some 45 countries are competing — it’s all about hair, heels, muscles, dresses, and yes, songs.  The competition is watched by hundreds of millions of people across Europe, but gay men and pre-teen girls are the only ones who admit to actually loving it.  I have 4 pre-teen girls.  In our house we love the Eurovision Song Contest.

Britain came last again, and Brits are very upset.  Their theory is that various European countries help each other out with points.   The Poles vote for the Russians, the Russians for the Rumanians, the Rumanians for the Poles, etc.  There are two British misconceptions here: 1) that European countries are “friends” and all support each other; 2) that they all try to gang up on the British.  The Brits miss the obvious interpretation: their song was crap.

If you ask most Brits, they invented pop music in the 1960s.  Brit pop is real pop and everyone else’s pop is an inferior version of the real thing.  It’s just like football.  The Brits invented football too and although other countries pretend to kick balls around they can’t quite do it the British way.  According to this mind-set, victories in the Eurovision Song Contest, and victories in the Football World Cup, rightly belong to Britain and if someone else wins it must always be by foul means.

British football glory, like British pop glory, belongs to the 1960s.  It’s starting to be quite a long time ago.

Friday, May 30, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I got this email from the Swedish Trade Mission in Taipei (the people who would be the Swedish Embassy if there were official diplomatic relations between Sweden and Taiwan):

We’d like to invite you to the reception for the Swedish National Day on June 6th. Please send us your reply to taiwan@swedishtrade.se before June 02. Please note that children age under 14 will not be admitted to this formal event. Best regards, Swedish Trade Council in Taipei

Now this is insulting and discriminatory. How can Sweden’s official representatives invite Swedes to the celebration of the Swedish National Day and exclude citizens under 14?  Imagine a similar invitation that excluded people over 65?  How are Swedish traditions to be maintained in the expat community if parents aren’t allowed to bring their children to such events?  Besides, what are these activities in which children under 14 can’t participate?  Group sex probably (see above).

Of course I’d never go to this kind of an event anyway, and I’d never actually bring my kids to it.  Nationalist celebrations make me sick.  I could never understand why we should wave flags, drink toasts and congratulate ourselves for not being born Norwegian, Russian or Japanese.

When I was a kid we didn’t have a National Day on June 6th, only a “Swedish flag day.”  It was nice to belong to a country that didn’t have an official day of chest-beating and self-glorification.  About 15 years ago they instituted this change.  Talk about invented traditions!  This year I’m going to salute the flag of the Republic of China instead and force my childern to eat fried dumplings!

Here, btw, is a clip of a Swedish diplomatic representative in action (yes, they really do speak like this …):

Friday, May 30, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I’m filing my taxes today.  I made 1,162,000 New Taiwan dollars last year.  That’s equivalent to 38,000 dollars US, 19,262 pounds or 229,000 Swedish krona.  That’s about 40% of the salary I made in London.

Still we are far, far better off economically in Taiwan than we were in England.  In part since Diane is working two days a week but above all since price levels are a lot lower here.  (I just had the most delicious lunch for 50 NT — some $1.60).

But it does explain why we can’t afford to go on intercontinental travels much any more.  Our money goes far in East Asia but not very far at all elsewhere.  We’re kinda stuck here — a very nice place to be stuck.

Monday, June 02, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Greetings from Beijing!  I should have written sooner but we’ve kept up a pretty hectic schedule of visits to assorted tourist attractions.  The new bird’s nest Olympic stadium is indeed gorgeous, and Chengde, the Xanadu of Kublai Khan fame, is full of Orientalist wonders, including a 1:2 copy of Dalai Lama’s tempel in Llasa.  At the Great Wall we were accompanied by no fewer than two high-school marching bands from Ohio, U.S.A., complete with cheer-leaders doing splits and waving pompoms. All very bizarre.

Travelling with Taiwanese people — two of whom born on the mainland — gives the trip a distinct flavor.  Every conversation with locals soon turns to topics of cross-straight relations.  Everyone wants to know what salaries people make in Taiwan and what’s happening with the new KMT government.  We met old relatives lost for 60 years — an occasion for mixing tears, laughter, and plenty of the local fiery brew.  The present Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, is OK we all agree, but Mao Zedong was a disaster.

Yes, China is developing and things look very different even from when I last visited four years ago.  Prices are now not that different from Taiwan and there are cars everywhere.  So far we’ve spent just as much time in traffic jams as in tourist spots.  This country better watch it: with only a fraction of the population owning cars there is already a next to total gridlock. Things aren’t helped by the constant police checks — on every highway they are looking for Olympic related bombs.

It seems a certain Olympic fatigue already has set in.  The people I talk to — cab drivers mainly — all agree that the Olympics are over-hyped.  But no doubt that sentiment will change to euphoria once the Chinese volleyball girls start winning their games.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I’m really, really pleased that Barack Obama got the nomination for the Democratic Party.  Do we now dare to start hoping ….???  Imagine, an American president you can respect and look up to.  Someone you listen to when he comes on the TV instead of shouting back at like we’ve done for so many years now.

I think everyone in the world should have a vote in American elections.  After all, it’s a basic principle of democracy that the people who are affected by a political decision should have the right to elect the person who makes that decision.  We are all affected by the decisions American presidents make.  We should all have a vote (except the people in Iraq who should have two).

How do you think the world would vote in a show-down between McCain and Obama?  My guess is that Obama would win by 96% to 4%.  Doesn’t that tell you something important?  Surely that Obama would be far, far better at restoring the position of the US in the world.

June 8 update: Simon Jenkins makes almost identitical points to me in today’s Huffington Post, although he suspects Obama might win 99-1.  He might be right.

Friday, June 06, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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BEIJING, Sunday.  I’ve managed to squeeze in three visits to the Yuanmingyuan while I’ve been in Beijing.  The Yuanmingyuan was the garden complex where the Chinese emperor spent most of his time.  It was a sort of amusement park filled with temples, pagodas, palaces, libraries, lakes, labyrinths, trees, flowers and rockeries.  It was also the place where the emperor stored the precious gifts he received as tributes from visiting foreigners.  The Yuanmingyuan was “the garden of gardens,” it was a vision of paradise, the best of what Chinese culture could produce.  In 1860, French and English troops first looted the place and then burned it all down.  I want to understand why.

There are fairly straight-forward answers to this question but also more subtle ones.  Most generally put, the question becomes why Europeans ended up behaving like barbarians when their stated aim was to “civilize” the Chinese.  There is a close parallel here to the recent Iraq War — and a lot of other wars fought by Europeans and their North American cousins.  The Europeans want to save the poor from themselves.  Too bad they first have to kill them.

The basic outline of the Yuanmingyuan is still there — the lakes, the canals and the paths — but there are next to no traces of the Chinese buildings.  They only ruins are from the Versaille-style palace built for the Emperor by three Jesuit priests in the 18th century.  Befittingly, the remains of the European-style building still reminds all visitors of what happened in this place some 150 years ago.

Despite this sad history, the Yuanmingyuan is a delightful place.  Chinese people come here in droves to sit on blankets, eat lunch boxes and look at the lotuses that bloom in every lake.  It is actually easy to imagine what it must have been like to wander around the garden at the time of its glory.

Anyway, here are some more photos.

Sunday, June 08, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Today is 端午節, duanwujie, or the Dragon Boat Festival, all over China.  We went up to Taipei expecting a major cultural extravaganza.  It was fun, but more like an ordinary sports competition, with lots of very sweaty team members.  (Much to my surprise I found my two older daughters lingering over where the male paddlers showered their naked upper bodies after the competition  …)

There were lots of foreigners present, lured there, no doubt, by their guide books.  But most Taiwanese stayed away, preferring instead to celebrate the holiday in accordance with tradition — shopping at Costco’s.  Eventually we too gave in to tradition and went off to buy muffins (the guys had put their shirts back on by then …).

The traditional food for the Dragon Boat Festival is 粽子, zongzi, or balls of sticky rice stuffed with different fillings and steamed in bamboo leaves.  They are pretty good.  Still, it’s mainly something old grandmothers make and give away to their grand children.  The grand children, who much rather eat pizza, quickly look for a foreigner to give the zongzi too. Of course it’s very impolite to say no.  With all the muffins and the zongzi, we are stuffed.

Monday, June 09, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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NCTU, my university, monitors all downloads via Bittorrent and peer-2-peer networks.  All illicit student activity is saved in a big log file which the administration can go through if they care to.  They also monitor internet searches for what they suspect is illegal material.  The more internet-savvy students don’t use Bittorrent but ftp transfers, but it’s slower and there is less fun material available.  They also search in Chinese, rather than English, since it’s more difficult to trace.

And the punishment?  Well, people who are caught downloading illegal material are called in for a one-day course on “property rights on the internet.”  All of my students seem to have been to the course at least once.  “It’s OK,” they say, “you get to bring a friend with you, and they give you a 便當, a lunchbox.”  In Taiwan even re-education camp comes with a free lunch.

I, as always, make sure to follow the law.  However, that lunchbox sounds tempting.

Saturday, June 14, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Surely the age difference alone will determine the outcome of the American election.  Obama is 46, McCain is 71.  Americans like to think of themselves as young and forward-looking.  How can they ever elect a man who so obviously can’t look forward to anything much?

It is sometimes said that older people, especially women, prefer McCain.  That can’t be true.  They take a look at their own husbands and ask themselves whether they’d like them to be in charge of the fortunes of the world.  Of course not!  Not that drooling dotard!  They’d much rather vote for their sons.

Actually there should be a constitutional provision which says that no one can be president of the US who doesn’t have at least 10 years reasonable life expectancy after their tenure.  Presidents must be around to see the fruits of what they’ve sowed.  McCain will be tempted to engage in too much après moi le déluge policies (like bombing Iran). Scary!

I’m very pleased everyone agrees Obama is so young.  He will be the first American president who is younger than me.  But only by nine months!  Actually, being a president and being a professor is quite similar in this respect.  You are young until you’re 50, middle aged until 70, and only old after that.  Much better than being a fashion model or a figure skater.  (Not that I ever really considered those careers …)

Saturday, June 14, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Who is this “linreigu” dude who writes things on my blog?  Well, it’s me.  It’s my Chinese name.  Every foreigner who settles in China is given a Chinese name.  All Chinese last names consist of one character.  The choices for “Ringmar” were “Lin” or “Ma.”  We picked the former.  “Lin,” or 林, means “small forest” and it’s a picture of two trees.  It’s one of the most common last names in China.  Yes, that’s right, the last name always comes first.

Finding an equivalent of “Erik” took a bit longer.  I was first given “Aiku,” 艾克, which is the standard way in which “Erik” is transliterated.  The problem with this name, my colleague pointed out, is that it sounds too much like the name of a foreigner.  He suggested 瑞谷, reigu, instead. 瑞 means “auspicious” and it features in 瑞典, which is the Chinese name for “Sweden.”  Neat, no? The second character, 谷, or gu, means “valley” and it goes well with 林, my new last name.  Sweden, after all, has a lot of forests and valleys.  Gu also has a philosophical connotation of scholarly withdrawal and contemplation.  Very befitting.

The proper romanization for 瑞谷 is actually “ruigu,” not “reigu.”  Still, I use “reigu” since the spelling is closer to “Erik.”  Romanization is such a mess here in Taiwan anyway.  This explains my email: linreigu@ringmar.net.

I still don’t automatically turn my head when someone calls out for “Professor Lin!” — but I’m working on it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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Yrsa, my 7 year old, and her naughty friends, did a Google picture search for “big, sexy, mama,” and the result, says Yrsa, was “oh my God!“

I’m very upset about this.  Back in my days there was no Google and consequently my initiation into the world of grown-ups took a lot longer.  I looked for information (and excitement) in my father’s 34 volume Swedish Encyclopedia.  It was dry reading.  Very dry reading.  Kids these days have it so much easier.  It’s just not fair!  I could have saved years.

It is surely important how you are introduced to sex.  I mean, if your first real knowledge is provided by a picture like the one above, surely that will for ever color — ruin — your understanding of the topic.  For all the faults of a Google picture search, Yrsa is getting a much better introduction.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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I’m off to Hong Kong and Beijing today for 10 days.  I’m going with my daughter Yrsa and Zhiben, my NCTU colleague, and his daughter and parents.  We all want to see the Olympic buildings and eat roasted duck.  Trips to Tianjin and Chengde have been planned, as well as some (light) research for my Yuanmingyuan book.  I’ll be back with updates (god willing and internet connections permitting).

It turns out we’ll be arriving in HK at the same time as the typhoon which recently killed 800 people in the Phillipines.  I’ve been looking at flight information all night hoping for a cancellation.  I don’t like it when I’m tossed around by the forces of nature.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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The main thing I did in Beijing was to eat.  Friends and friends of friends invited me to a constant stream of banquets.  A Chinese banquet consists of a large round, 10 person, table where assorted dishes are spinning around on a revolving plate.  Ever so often you stop the revolving and pick something up with your chopsticks: a piece of Sichuan chicken, a duck breast from Beijing, a helping of Shanghainese carrot salad or strange, salted, eggs.  Yes, it’s all very good and very overwhelming.

Yet the purpose of a Chinese banquet is not nutritional but social.  Banquets are there to cement friendships.  The way to get invited to one is to make sure that you first invite people to dine at your expense.  If you are mutual dining partners, you are mutual friends.  Your friendship is based on eating together rather than on personal affinity.  As long as you enjoy the food, you don’t even have to enjoy each other’s personal qualities (and often the conversation around the table can be pretty bland).

Compare this with a dinner I had in Beijing with a professor at U of Chicago, James Hevia.  The round, spinning, table looked similar enough but the social logic was totally different.  Eating with a Westerner is all a matter of making yourself enjoyable, of coming across as pleasant and interesting.  The food is just an excuse for self-presentation.  Your friendship, if it takes off, is not based on mutual obligations, but on personal compatability.  Hevia is a very nice person but he has no plans to visit Taiwan and I don’t have any plans to visit Chicago.

Thursday, July 10, 2008 Erik Too Many Mangoes No comments
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We are back in Taiwan again after a great trip.  Despite my affection for this island, I can’t help the feeling that I’m returning to a Chinese backwater.  The mainland is where the real action is; where the creative people are creating, the smart people thinking and