Tuesday, November 15, 2011 Erik No comments
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Saga and Beata have made another installment in the avant-gard series of seasonal poetry. Now it’s time for winter. Or rather, “Winter’s last butterfly.”

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Thursday, August 09, 2012 Erik No comments
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Matthew, working at Pierson’s, a big publisher’s, got in touch and wanted to clear the copyright for a quote from A Blogger’s Manifesto that they want to include in forthcoming examination paper at GCE/GCSE level for students in Britain.  This is the quote:

“There was never such a thing as freedom of speech. In order to speak freely you had to have access to a printing press, a newspaper, a radio or a TV station. Ordinary people themselves never had a chance to speak publicly. Not until now. Today the internet revolution, led by a disorganised army of bloggers, has given us all a chance to be irreverent, blasphemous and ungrammatical in public. We can reveal secrets, blow whistles, spill beans, or just make stuff up.”

Funny and weird to end up on the exam. What kind of question could they possibly make out of that?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012 Erik No comments
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I’m in the US! Giving talks on my new book — in Ann Arbor today, at NYU on Thursday and at Yale on Friday. Today and at NYU there will probably mainly be historians in the audience. It’s always a challenge talking to them. Not that I don’t feel confident about the facts. It’s just that facts aren’t enough. I want to add interpretation too and that usually makes historians pretty nervous. They don’t like my “thought pieces.”. Oh well, we’ll see how it goes.The Yale crowd will be sociologists. They should be easier to convince — not necessarily less critical though of course. Reports will follow.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012 Erik No comments
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In addition to everything else, Saga is a very good poet. No, not poet in a teenage girl sense, but a real poet. Someone who can really see the world in a way that others don’t. And this is not just a proud father saying this — Saga just got news that she was shortlisted for the Foyle’s Young Poets Prize. They have real poets as judges and, get this, more than 7,000 submissions from all over the world. The letter congratulating her called it a “great achievement.” Yes, I’m proud, but I’m also not very surprised. She really is that good. Read this:

 

Thrones of Mortality

For there comes a time

When one must realize, that the Chinese emperor 

Was just a man who sat on a chair. 

A chair that – yes, 

Could conjure up the vicious howls

Of ancient phantoms, 

And exercise incantations from years of yore –

But was, in all simplicity,

Just a chair. 

And there comes a time

When one must realize that 

Confucius was merely the sweet aftertaste

From a night of

Wine-drinking, 

Love-making,

Sticky-rice-mauling. 

And that the lump on his bald head

Was nothing but a mother’s swollen womb 

Where a baby girl once slept

Before she was swallowed by her quiet mistake. 

And there comes a time 

When one must venture to the 

Realms of death and admit that –

Yes, there is a silence separating us and

Mortality, that spreads across the mind of

man like a black mud – 

But we must focus on the important things, 

The grass beneath my feet, for example.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, November 10, 2012 Erik No comments
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It was weird to be back at Yale after two decades. I lived in New Haven for five years but coming back it was like I visited for the first time. The entire campus has been gentrified, spruced up, country-club-ified. OK, it needed it badly, but now the entire feel is different. More than anything the campus transformation tells the story of the last 20 years — how the American upper-class is looking after itself and its progeny. But I realize of course that these are first-impressions. If I actually stayed here longer, I’d learn to go beneath the surface and discover the real and abiding merits of the place. It was always thus.  Yale is mainly hot air, but not exclusively so. After all, I had Jim Scott and Charles Lindblom as my teachers.

And the greatest shock of all: Ashley’s Ice cream Parlor, on York Street, is a mere shadow of its former self. Now their products are way too icy and cheap tasting and they have even started selling frozen yoghurt. That place was such a perennial of my evenings, especially when I lived in the Hall of Graduate Studies next door. An increasingly ironic sign on the pavement outside still says “voted the best ice cream in Connecticut.”

Saturday, November 10, 2012 Erik No comments
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daoist scholarUniversities all ultimately rely on the activities taking place among the invisible republic of scholars. The people who do the actual intellectual work — the hard-working researchers, the mad-cap thinkers, the people who approach all problems from a different angle. The actual institutional structure of the university is often in acute tension with the invisible republic. Its members are difficult to control, to confine, and often they don’t behave with the required decorum. Proper members of the invisible republic of scholars never take themselves very seriously. University administrators always do.

The problem with Chinese universities is that the form all too often is mistaken for the content. There is no acknowledgment of the invisible republic. What at first looks like intellectual pursuits turn out to be ridiculous attempts to maintain face. It looks like a conference, a seminar or a lecture but it is nothing of the sort. I wonder what the old-time scholars would make of it all, people like the Daoists? They drank more rice wine but they also did more actual intellectual work.

Monday, November 19, 2012 Erik No comments
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That’s right! The right not to be poised by horrible air has made a gain in the last week. The Chinese authorities have started publishing detailed information regarding the air pollution in Shanghai. The Americans have done this for a long time already, via a Twitter-feed at the US Consulate, and for a while they were threatened by the foreign ministry in Beijing who argued that “accurate pollution data are unnecessary in a developing country.” Now, however, they seem to have changed their mind, and the data is indeed very detailed and seems accurate (meaning that it’s close enough to the American data) Good for them! Now I know when to stay in-doors. All that remains is to actually do something about the pollution problem itself. Today, btw, is “unhealthy,” (as show by the sad-faced girl above).

Sunday, December 30, 2012 Erik No comments
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Surely I cannot just leave China. Surely I have to get myself thrown out. It’s a matter of self-respect really. After all, if I could get into trouble at the London School of Economics for advocating freedom of speech, how difficult could it be to get into trouble for the same thing here in China? And I know exactly how to do it!

I stage a demonstration, today on May 1st, in favor of Communism, workers’ rights and the right to vote. Preferably right there on Nanjing Road. Wave a few red flags, shout a few radical slogans, perhaps even a few quotes from Chairman Mao. Surely I’d be rounded up by the police in a matter of seconds. You can do many things in this country, but don’t advocate Communism, especially not on May 1st.

Or perhaps I would get a guitar and start playing a song down by the Bund. I’d make up some silly lyrics like “Chairman Mao, a good guy/ Chairman Mao, not a cow” (but in Chinese, obviously). Here too an arrest would be immediate. The authorities would surely suspect that I was making fun of them. Making fun of the authorities is the supreme crime in a one-party state. As Roger Caillois once pointed out in reference to the Nazis, the biggest problem with dictatorships is that they take themselves far too seriously. All their crimes follow from this fact.

“No,” says Diane, “lets just leave the country like normal people. Getting into trouble at LSE wasn’t fun, no matter how just the cause, and can you imagine what getting into trouble in China would be like?” “OK,” I say, “I won’t actually do anything, but let me at least think about it.”

Monday, January 07, 2013 Erik No comments
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When I picked up Rima, my youngest, after school today she asked me why my nose was all bloody. I felt with my hand and there was indeed blood dripping from my nose. Blowing my nose made the napkin all red. This is what air pollution in Shanghai is doing do me. This is why I can’t go out doors and why my life is very difficult and depressing. I have to get out of here!!! 

Monday, January 07, 2013 Erik No comments
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The stupid Chinese censors have limited my access to the internet. Much of it I can’t access at all, including many Chinese websites, and email is very erratic. I can’t read articles and books online, no Wikipedia, and I can’t do my research. For some reason I can occasionally get access to this web site and I can write posts like this.  Very foolishly the Chinese authorities have made an enemy out of me. I don’t care about living in a super-small apartment where everything is falling apart; I can survive the corruption and incompetence of Chinese university officials; but don’t mess with my internet access! This, as far as I’m concerned, are my blue suede shoes!

Monday, January 07, 2013 Erik No comments
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The semester started yesterday, and Diane came back with a story about the new cameras that have been installed in her classroom. There is a little monitor by the teacher’s desk where she can see herself as she lectures. Why is this done and who is watching? Is this some way to help students revise or is it the authoritarian state which extends its control into the classroom? If the latter, pity the poor censors who have to listen through all those lectures! But perhaps it is rather a matter of self-censorship. A lecturer who knows that he/she is being watched is less likely to insist on the unpatriotic right to academic freedom.

In the afternoon I got an email from my office at the university. Apparently there is a company that wants to film all my lectures. I was promised several thousands of RMB in return. What is this “company” and what are they trying to do? Is this some scheme to make money selling university lectures to prospective students or is this too a way to exercise thought-control? Perhaps the government censors are the people in charge? Perhaps they realize that most professors never will accept a camera in their classroom unless they believe it gives them a shot at money or fame? Yes, I declined the offer.

One of the problems of life in China is that no one seems to be able to answer such questions and that no one trusts the answers even if they are given. It’s makes for a cynical and paranoid way of life.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013 Erik No comments
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I got the bastards in the end! Yes indeed, my international internet is up and running again.  Long live freedom of information on the internet!  Down with dictatorship and oppression!

This was the problem: I use a so called ssh tunnel to dig through the Great FIrewall to get to my server in the US. From there I can surf freely, including Youtube or whatever. However, I need access to the default port on the server (port 22) and that’s what the Chinese authorities now have started blocking. I never thought this would happen. After all, this is how big businesses keep their data secure. And yet, as of the past week the tunnel has been blocked and even the Chinese internet has been very erratic.

The Chinese authorities think that internet access only is about them. They think that if the Chinese people find out about their corruption and their crimes, the people will turn on them. In suspecting as much, they may no doubt be correct but access to the internet is about so much else. Everything I do these days requires internet access. For example: since I was cut off about a week ago I have not been able to …

  1. write letters of reference for a student at Beijing University who is applying to go to Columbia, Yale and NYU.
  2. continue writing a paper I’m collaborating on with my colleague in Belgium (the paper is on Google docs).
  3. finish downloading photos and movies at Picasa.
  4. get hold of a book I need by John Dewey which is available for free download at Internet Archive.

These are just a few of the things that happened to me in the last couple of days. Add years of non-access for me and then multiply that by millions and millions of people and the effects will be enormous. Mark my words: China will never be successful, never be developed, never be acceptable, as long as there is no internet access. Internet access is not all it takes to be sure — the country also need to get rid of its cleptomanical power elite — but without it, everything else will be in vain.

So this is the solution (for linux servers, nerdy):

Go back to your own computer

  • download a program called sshuttle. Get it via “sudo apt-get install sshuttle” or from the website.
  • configure it with the logon information for your website and add the new port for ssh connections. More here.
  • when sshuttle returns with a request for your login details, login as normal. 

I celebrated all afternoon by reposting old article from New York Times on the crimes of Wen Jiabao and by listening to BB King and friends on YouTube:

 

 

Wednesday, January 09, 2013 Erik No comments
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I submitted Surviving Capitalism to the university press at Fudan University with the idea that the should bring out a Chinese translation. That is now 6 months ago and I haven’t heard a word back. I don’t think it’s going to happen. China is not surviving capitalism very well and the book explains why. Of course it’s critical of a regime that polices its downtrodden on behalf of global capitalism. Clearly statements like that can’t be translated and into print. Too bad really. I had a bunch of great students lined up to do the translation too.

Saturday, January 12, 2013 Erik No comments
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The stupid Chinese censors closed us down again. No international internet access as of late yesterday afternoon, and no access to my own web site. And this time it wasn’t enough to simply change the ssh port. After help from my server provider in the US, I changed IP address and that did it. I’m back online again — Google docs, Twitter, and everything.

What’s slightly worrying about this is that it seems that I’m being personally targeted. That is, my web site is on the blacklist together with New York Times and all those others. I have no illusion that I can actually win this battle. I can’t compete with Chinese math geeks. If they targeted my IP once, they can do it again.

Why they want to make it impossible to access the web sites I need for my work is beyond me. Why invite foreigners to come to China and not allow them to do their work?

Monday, January 14, 2013 Erik No comments
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I’m reading about Aaron Swartz and how he was hounded to death for advocating that information be free. Aaron’s fortune/misfortune was to live in two separate worlds — the world of copyright and the world freedom from copyright. One day when information truly is free, no one will remember why Aaron’s actions were considered as crimes. No one will remember since Aaron’s actions — together with the “illegal actions” of millions of others — will be responsible for having created that new world. Aaron will be a hero of that new world, and still remembered when the likes of JStor and the prosecutor of Massachusetts are long forgotten.

This is why copyright on academic work is a crime: I spend my entire days writing things. Unbelievably there are people out there who want to read what I write. It’s a perfect case for a free exchange. In this process various “publishing companies” intervene, restricting access, making it more difficult for me to be read and for people to find my stuff. They are profiting from restricting access to knowledge.!! That governments and universities put up with this system is particularly surprising — they are the ones who pay my salary after all. Needless to say, I get nothing from the “publishers”  themselves.

The system must and it will change. Aaron’s contribution will have helped make that possible. See further my “Liberate and Disseminate,” from Times Higher Education Supplement, from back in 2008.

Monday, January 14, 2013 Erik No comments
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BEIJING (China Daily Show) — Leaded water, an absence of wildlife and thick, syrupy air are all healthy signs of a flourishing economy, China’s Minister of Environmental Protection told an open-air audience at the Renmin University Center for Conservation and Sustainability on Monday.

“Heavy fog is a sign of strength,” Wang announced from inside a Bosch hermetic eco-chamber, considered standard issue for top-level urban cadres. “To paraphrase our late Supreme Leader: to pollute is indeed glorious.

“It doesn’t matter if the air if black or white – as long as you can breathe it,” he added to laughter.

The World Bank has estimated that, annually, some three-quarters of a million Chinese die prematurely due to pollution, while birth defects and surging cancer rates are common.

OK, to be fair, this isn’t journalistic reporting, it is political satire — see “To Pollute Is Glorious” —  yet it’s darn difficult to keep reporting and satire apart in this country.

April 2 update: according to today’s New York Times, 1.2 million people die every year in China because of pollution. We better get out of here before we become a statistic!

Monday, January 21, 2013 Erik No comments
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China, it turns out, is pretty democratic after all. This, at least, is the conclusion reached by researchers at SJTU, the university where I work. OK, I haven’t seen the final results, but I know how the methodology works.  Foreign students on campus are given a questionaire on which they are asked to rank various countries in terms of their degree of democracy, with “1” as the lowest and “10” as the highest. China is included and so is the US and various European countries.

How would you rank these countries in terms of level of democracy? Clearly China is not “10,” but neither is it “1.” After all, Chinese people have quite a lot of freedom of speech in their daily lives, and pretty straightforward criticism can be leveled against the government even in public — at least on topics like corruption or the environment. If some measure of the outcome of the political process is included, China is doing even better. If, for example, we take economic development as part of a definition of what democracy means, China might deserve a “4” or even a “5.”

The United States, on the other hand, is quite clearly not a “10.” This is acknowledged by many Americans themselves, and certainly by the kinds of left-leaning young Europeans who ends up as students in our university. Perhaps the United States is a “7” or even a “6.”

These are of course sensational research results. Ripping the print-outs off their printers, the Chinese researchers triumphantly report that “China is quite democratic after all, a bit behind the United States, but not by that much. We are 5 and the Americans are 6, and we are only a developing country.”

What’s wrong with this research? Pretty much everything is. In fact, you could use it as a perfect example of how not to do social science research. First of all, who got the idea that democracy can be measured through opinion surveys? And why should assorted Italian, French and German exchange students be asked? Clearly nothing is measured here except a foreigner’s reluctance to insult his/her host (and the readiness to be skeptical regarding the United States). If foreign exchange students in Germany in the 1930s had been asked the same question, they would have said the same thing.

The greatest flaw, however, is the notion that democracy is a variable. That you simply can scale up from 1 to 10 as a matter of degrees. Clearly this is not the case. Democracy/non-democracy is a dichotomy, and which side you end up on depends on whether there are regular and fair and publically contested elections. China does not have elections and for that reason it is not a democracy.

Friday, March 08, 2013 Erik No comments
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Diane just finished the index of her book — and this is the cover. Congratulations to her! It only took 18 years — incidentally the same length of time that Gabriel Garcia-Marguez used to write A Hundred Years of Solitude.

Saturday, March 09, 2013 Erik No comments
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Big decision in the Ringmar family: we are leaving China! When we came here two years ago, we really thought we would stay for the long haul. That I would work here, if not until the end of my career at least for some good 10 years. But this is not going to happen, and this is why:

  1. the air quality in China is hazardous to anyone and terrible for me. I had cancer five years ago and my mouth has never recovered. Breathing the Shanghai air makes me hurt. Most of the time I sit inside like a prisoner. Shanghai is wonderful but I can’t enjoy it. China is poisoning me. 
  2. the schools are no good for my kids.  Rima, my youngest, is being bullied by the “popular girls” in her class: “we don’t like foreigners,” they tell her and hits her during the breaks. I can’t stand it.
  3. In general, Chinese schools destroy any love of learning. There is constant math homework intended not to teach math, but to humiliate the students and to separate out the top 10 percent that will be able to go on to university. The teachers instil discipline by telling the students they are stupid.  My kids are not stupid, but they are not good at math.
  4. my university has tremendous problems. Lets simply say that teaching and research feature very low down on the agenda of big professors and deans.
  5. Diane isn’t happy with her job. She’s basically an English teacher and it’s not a job she enjoys. There are no proper jobs teaching sociology.
  6. Shanghai is too expensive! We have double income, the smallest of apartments, engage in next to no nightlife and rarely buy clothes, and we can still not scrape together enough money to go visit our families in the summer. My mother is 83 years old and she has Parkinson’s disease. She cannot wait to see her grandchildren and they cannot wait to see her.
  7. There is no future in China. This is not a place where you can make a life for yourself. When Saga turns 18 she will no longer be allowed to live here and the other kids will have to leave one after the other. I’m an “honored foreign expert,” but to be a foreign expert, even an honored one, is not to have a life. We need somewhere to call home.

So we are leaving. It’s scary returning to Sweden after close to 30 years abroad, but at least in Sweden we will be able to breathe. I like breathing. 

Wednesday, April 03, 2013 Erik No comments
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Twenty-four years ago, during the “June 4th Incident” at Tiananmen Square, the Beijing leaders, led by Deng Xiaoping, ordered the killing of students who demonstrated on behalf of democracy and human rights. The number of people killed during those days is disputed but it was at least 200 people, possibly well over a thousand. Ever since Deng Xiaoping has continued to kill Chinese people, even after his own death.

It is, for example, common in China that smokers refer to Deng Xiaoping saying: “Look at Deng. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and yet he lived to be over 90. Surely smoking can’t be that bad.”

Or consider the reintroduction of capitalism into China that Deng initiated. According to yesterday’s New York Times 1.2 million people die prematurely in China every year as a result of air pollution.

These deaths are the result of leaders whose decisions can’t be crticized. This includes Deng’s tobacco habit. No one dared to ridicule the supreme leader for his vice and that’s why smokers can go on referring to him as a model.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013 Erik No comments
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A student on SJTU campus is wearing a Yale sweatshirt, and I’m surprised to see a reference to my alma mater. Then I look again and I realize it doesn’t say “Yale” at all but rather “Yali,” although the font is the famous Yale one. “Another pathetic Chinese attempt to rip off a Western brand,” I think to myself but then I remember that “yali” in Chinese means “pressure.” The shirt is surely a comment on the exam hell all Chinese students go through in order to make it into the Ivy League. How brilliant!

It reminds me of the time in the 1990s when Spike Lee’s film about Malcolm X was drawing big crowds. Black people, and some liberal whites, were wearing baseball caps with an “X” on the front as a way to associate themselves with the legacy. Except the black students at Yale who wore a cap with a “Y.”  The reference to black culture was obvious, yet so was their claim to exclusivity.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013 Erik No comments
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In one of my classes we’re reading an op-ed piece by Joseph Nye on “China’s soft power.” Or rather, on Nye’s account, China’s lack thereof. Nye is arguing that no one will look up to and respect China as long as the country has no democracy and is doing poorly on human rights. A state sponsored charm offensive which includes Olympic Games, World Expos and Confucius Institutes makes little difference here. Respect and admiration have to be earned and cannot be fabricated.

Nye is surely right (although “soft power” may still not be the best label). What Nye doesn’t mention, however, are the many examples that exist of a different China. A smart, creative, self-confident China. A China that doesn’t have a chip on its shoulder and is not afraid of the rest of the world. Giving an example to my students, I play this Youtube video:

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Nǎ li yǒu yāpò nǎlǐ jiù yǒu fǎnkàng, 哪里有压迫哪里就有反抗, “Where there is repression, there will be resistance,” was one of Chairman Mao’s most famous sayings. I think the Chairman was right. It makes me very proud and hopeful that there still are Chinese people who agree with him. Especially in this fashion.

This is a further disssion: http://www.chinafile.com/why-chinese-soft-power-such-hard-sell

Monday, April 22, 2013 Erik No comments
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My undergrads were supposed to have their mid-term today, online, like I usually do it. The page with the exam opened up at 10 AM but five minutes later it all crashed. My first thought was that the database on the server had been overloaded by too many users — RAM on the server is a bit low — but there was no way for me to restart it. There was in fact no way to reach my web pages at all. Checking with friends outside of the country I realized that the pages worked perfectly in the rest of the world. Oh oh, the Chinese censors had struck again!

It must have been all those questions I had about Taiwan, democracy, nationalism, legitimacy and revolution. I bet the censorship filter picked up these keywords when 25 students in the same place at the same time started asking for the same pages. Access to my site was down for the rest of the day. Poor kids, sitting by their computers not knowing what had happened.

I had to change IP address in the end. It went smoothly and now everything should be OK. Until the next time I ask my students to provide an answer to the question: “What is it that makes a government legitimate?”

Sunday, April 28, 2013 Erik No comments
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This graph shows just how mad the Chinese educational system is. Beata, my second oldest daughter, is collecting data regarding how often the teachers in her classes mention the word “zhongkao,” meaning “high-school entrance exam” in one day. The zhongkao is the big test, coming up in two months from now, which determines which high-school students will go to and thus — such is the theory — the rest of their lives. Consequently all activities, all teaching, all learning, all everything is geared towards this all-important test of math, chemistry, physics and ancient Chinese. Since September zhongkao has been mentioned over 880 times!

Notice that the number of mentions has increased steadily over the last couple of months and now amounts to around 10 a day. Note also that this only includes explicit mentions of the word “zhongkao,” not general references to “tests” or to “highschool preparation,” etc. Like a good social scientist, Beata points out that the peaks in references in October and January coincided with their regular mid-term and finals — times when the exam frenzy was cranked up a notch.

Is there a relationship between studying for exams and actually learning something? Do students have to be threatened with exams in order to learn? What kinds of human beings are produced by this system? Are these the kinds of people that China (or any country) actually needs? What could they be learning if they didn’t spend all their time studying for these exams?

Btw, Beata just did her entrance exam for the school she is going to in Lund, Sweden. The only subjects tested were English and math and it was super easy. These tests are not intended to single out the best students but only to make sure that all students are above a certain minimum level. That makes sense. Yeah, and the high-school she got into was founded in 1085 [sic!] — back in the Viking age over 900 years ago; William the Conqueror could have been an alumnus! — and it’s one of the most famous high-schools in Sweden. Good for Beata!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 Erik No comments
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I never knew I had a “sciatic nerve,” but now I do. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body and it runs from the back of your spine all down the length of your legs. I now know since my right leg suddenly started hurting as if it was on fire and since I couldn’t stand on my feet. At first I thought it was my heart and Saga was on the phone to emergency services to get me an ambulance, but then, after about a minute, the pain eased and I came back to myself. It f-ing hurt!

Today I went to the doctor for an appoinment. It’s my spine that pushes onto the nerve and this causes the pain. The problem with the spine comes from sitting too much on a chair and not doing enough exercise. Clearly I’ve taken “chaired professor” too literally. I should have been out there in the park with the old ladies at 5 AM doing taiji!

The doctor gave me German anti-inflamatory pills, some Chinese herbal stuff, and a great belt that helps take pressure off the back.All that’s required is that I stay horizontal and rest. I should be better in a few days.

The doctor, ar Ruijin Hospital here in Shanghai, was a man in his 60s, obviously very experienced. He sees 10 cases like this aday. Btw, I got the appointment in less than 24 hours. I shudder to think how long it would have taken in Sweden. Some things about China are very great. The hospitals are one of them.

There’s going to have to be some changes around here — no more chaired professor. I’m going to do yoga, stretching, longs walks, and meditation.