As a would-be computer scientist, certain themes constantly swirl around in my little processor, and one of those is the automation of repetitive tasks. After reading about [Continuous Integration] just now, which smoothes the integration of work each programmer does into a team project, I'm ready to share my observations of automation here, in post-industrial, Tibetan China.
Knowing virtually nothing of Tibetan Buddhism, its religious precepts, or its rituals, and knowing nothing about Tibetan script save it is alphabet-based and reads left to right just like English, I conjecture that prayer wheels along with the relics that Tibetan women (usually older) are incessantly twirling are manifestations of the concept of automation. Prayer wheels, inscribed with prayers, are spun clockwise such that a bystander would view a string of script proceeding from left to right. Without having uttered a word, a prayer can be expressed, thanks to the mechanical wheel. Some prayer wheels are even equipped with bells, which are struck by a protruding arm ever time one rotation is completed. By listening to the bell, you can count how many times a prayer has been issued. I'd wager that similar prayers are printed on those ball-and-chain devices the women spin clockwise. Just a pinch of dexterity will allow one to pray twice or even three times as efficiently as through speech.
I noticed today that some of the motorcycles here in Ganzi have spoke covers which I haven't seen in Kangding, Litang, or elsewhere. I joked to Haw-Wen that maybe prayers were inscribed on the covers, and that the number of prayers amassed could be huge, one for each revolution of the tire! We concluded that a huge market exists for such novel implementations of the automation concept in the domain of prayer offering. Look in stores not only for motorcycle tires with prayer treads (they not only offer prayer, but leave prayers behind whenever it rains), but also prayer pinwheels, which utilize clean, green, wind energy to enrich your spirit. Now, where's the patent office?
Lots of interesting stuff has happened since I last felt like writing a reflection. Perhaps most important was the convergence of Haw-Wen, Luk, Viv, Hannah, Cameron, and me at Litang and subsequent minivan adventure and Kangding retreat. Games learned: Word Association, Mexican, Spades (more than 4 people), Chinese Chess (well, I had the rules refreshed), Bridge, "The Name Game", Mafia (with the doctor rule), Shithead, and maybe others I'm forgetting now. And I nearly learned Backgammon using Luk's nifty travel set, if it hadn't been for the seduction of Chinese Chess, which is an addictive game, lemme tell ya. I don't think I will ever waltz past a roadside game again without taking a gander. Speaking of which, "If it's sauce for the goose, it's sauce for the gander." Ah, gotta love those idioms, obscure to me, so typical for others.
I've had my world somewhat thrown into a tizzy by that eccentric, super-charged bloke in Litang, the owner of the Tian Tian restaurant (天天饮食), Zheng Xueyou (郑学有). The consummate entrepreneur, afraid of no failure, able to spin his culinary art wherever he goes, he made the comment that my competitiveness or however you translate 奋斗精神 is severly lacking. Let the translation remain as "FDJS" for now. Actually, now that I think about it, "Fighting Juice" might very well be appropriate. I like it.
To continue the story: In the 1980's at the tender age of 14, Xueyou's father gave him 20 yuan to start his own business. Let it be known that in those days, 20 yuan was no laughing matter, and that a salaried worker could at best be expected to take home around 1.5 yuan a day. He decided to try his luck with selling fruit, and chose to give peaches a shot. The first day, to his unfettered excitement, he earned 2 yuan! This opened his eyes to the possibilities that existed in business. In his lowly trade of fruit, he was able to rake in more money than a salaried worker, as a teenager! He went out to sell more fruit the next day in high spirits. To his shock and disbelief, he made a loss of 4 yuan when the day was out, leaving him with a paltry 18 yuan, compared with the 20 he had started out with. He went home tired and upset. That was his first experience with the bitter taste of failure. For some reason, I think the Chinese expression 受了打击 is infinitely more appropriate than any similar English expression, because it succinctly conveys the feeling of being physically struck by defeat. That taught him that in business, one must ride the current of success as well as of failure; that with hope and Fighting Juice one can persevere, move beyond one's losses and reach for the next dream. Having learned such an important lesson at such a young age, Xueyou, who constantly refers to himself as "uncultured" (没有文化), grasped some essence of the human spirit that most Chinese college students, and apparently even I, have yet to attain.
A trip up to Mugecuo (木格措) lake today. Reading a smattering of news, an interview with John Gilmore on groklaw, increasing engagement between North Korea and many countries in spite of hard line isolation from the US, thinking about online security and the possible compromises existing in message digest algorithms, one time pads (OTP), IBM leveraging its copyrights in kernel code against SCO, hypothesizing fusion projects creating micro-singularities, and other geeky news. No desire to write emails right now ... only to absorb, absorb, absorb, and feel in touch with the outside world. A result of today's journey to the wide open spaces?
150 yuan hired us a jolly taxi driver who took us down the road to the elevated lake, which petered-out into dirt tracks, bumpy hodge-podges that remotely resemble cobblestone, only to return to paved paths, sooner or later. Found it a little difficult to breathe at the final elevation, which the LP reports at 3700 meters. The horse trek was disappointing, due to the simple avarice of our guides, who successfully wrestled money from us for ostensibly performing a silly prayer ritual around a makeshift stupa on a grassy clearing called Honghai Caoping (红海草坪). I'm sorry, there is nothing sacred or spiritual or even interesting about pay-to-perform religious acts. Speaking cynically, those saps have sold their souls to Mammon.
Yesterday I visited the lamasery here in Kangding (康定). I entered the prayer hall and found three rows of crimson-robed, youngish looking monks chanting scriptures, a wonderous polyphony that took me through realms of fantasy when I closed my eyes, reflecting on the agelessness of such confluences of speech and song. Other smiling monks shuffled barefoot from chanting monk to chanting monk, offering to refill their bowls with some mysterious liquid substance (water?). Joking and distraction were not uncommon; eyes flicked to me, to the doorway, all around. How many of them will see their bonds of worship to the end? What will those who leave to brave the uncertain edges of the outside world go on to accomplish? I could not settle for a life of such restriction; perhaps simplicity is something I have been engineered to avoid. When the car careens off the cliff, I will not pray; I will be completely occupied with how to secure or brace my head and neck so as to maximize my chance for survival.
I was thinking about the old Ford Tempo a few days ago. It was a rather hefty car endowed with an engine I found non-too-powerful, especially when climbing hills. But the moment of ecstasy came after the pinnacle, when the iron weight of the vehicle would nearly make it lurch forward, eager to conquer the downhill like a predator on the hunt for fresh game. The axles never felt as well-oiled, gliding greased lightning, like one of those matchbox cars set loose down the death-defying slope of a bathtub. I finally realized what the draw of those steel replicas was in a lucid instant, playing with a fire red Skyline at Hofan's place. The magic starts under the belly of the car, where the axles, engine, muffler, brakes, and other guts are faithfully reproduced. Then there's the paint job, detailed yet vivid. The driver's accoutrements are all visible inside the cockpit too - stick shift, seat design, seatbelt, instrument panel on the dash. The cars feel substantial in one's hand, not cheap and plasticky and eminently breakable like all of the economical toys being mass-produced today, but tough and commanding finesse, just like their life-sized counterparts. I'm sure the Ford Tempo never made it as a Hotwheels matchbox car - not even close. But despite its lack of power and homely exterior, its penchant for zoom down down down, conquering the hill after Exit 22, leading up to Exit 23 and always driving the speedometer dangerously close to the maximum recordable 85 mph, has left a glowing impression and memory on me. As I continue to experience the amazing feats performed by meek little vehicles, mere husks of chattering steel bones, in China.
In Chengdu. Chinese people have a big problem, and that is that they don't listen; they've got preconceptions about so much and are convinced that they are well-educated simply because they've read lots of books, and some kind of denial mechanism kicks in when their firmly-held beliefs are controverted. Victor said that the Nepalese and the Laotians listen, but the Chinese don't. They don't try to understand what you say; they'd rather write you off instead of putting in just a little effort, which might be generously rewarded, who knows? This is a terrible quality to have in any population, and in China it means that tolerance is low and supposed outsiders must bend over backwards to assimilate to the dominant Han cultural mores. It is increasingly bland; I cringe to think that the rich minority cultures have their children running off into the myriad faceless cities undergoing rampant development at the cost of their identities, to make a buck, to improve their ways of life.
Started combining classes this week. It seemed to work pretty well; friends were united, energy as a whole seemed higher, but I felt like I had less control. Chinese audience syndrome came into play. We moved class B from the library into 101 today, and it felt just like old times. I like that classroom; I think it is a combination of the space in front of the desks which I have free reign of, and also the elevated position of the students, which make them feel more like equal participants than submissive benchwarmers. The style of speech outline seemed quite a shock to some class A students, who persisted in trying to write out the speech, then create the outline from the speech. They couldn't believe that something as rudimentary as a brainstorm could be considered as the basis for a speech, and indeed be the outline used for it.
Teaching is problem solving in the vast domain of personalities and the space of their interactions. A good teacher will spare no effort or method in trying to solve the teaching problem for each and every student, finding the holy grail each time, seeing what makes them tick tick tick. Let's not marginalize; let's be more sensitive than ever, awake, and aware of the dynamics that so easily shift into the background when we are teaching. I have been lecturing more recently, and I see it in their eyes; they are dying to talk, to break out and play and act. I must give them more chances.
Javen today blossomed before my eyes after I poked fun at him for eating in class. His participation and interest today alone surpassed that for the last month, probably; I was shocked and pleased. I need to try to give students even more personal attention, and become aware when students are feeling left in the dust. Also, encourage the students to think more as a team, to be less selfish, to help each other in a genuine learning effort, not just to cheat or copy or scam or otherwise play the system which so ruthlessly plays them.