Random thoughts

An uncommitted blog on just about anything

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What does Yahoo messenger think of the word “communist”

January 10th, 2009 · Comments Off on What does Yahoo messenger think of the word “communist”

I was using Yahoo messenger to chat with a person in Beijing. The subject was John DeFrancis’ death, and since the occasion had led me to read his biography, I was mentioning to my chat partner that “in the 50s he could not find a position in a university because he was thought to be a communist”. My friend’s reply surprised me… “a what?”.

Turns out that if I type the word “communist”, my chinese chat partner sees a whitespace instead. She can happily type “communist” back to me, and I will receive it.

I don’t exactly know why I’m surprised. I’m expecting some level of censorship in China, even though I don’t necessarily find the word “communist” to be elegible for censorship. Maybe I’m just surprised that a Google search on the subject of Yahoo messenger’s censorship skills doesn’t seem to generate any interesting results, but I have to admit my search was very cursory.

I’m probably just overreacting after the TOM/Skype partnership hit the news last october. That case was very different, since it was proven that the censored words, and the people who typed them, were being logged on a server. Hopefully my innocent eulogy of a sinologist I admire did not get logged anywhere else but in this blog.

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John DeFrancis, 1911 – 2009

January 10th, 2009 · 1 Comment

John DeFrancis, sinologist and professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, passed away on january 2nd, 2009. A memorial website has a short inspiring biography of his life. His only book I’ve read is “Chinese language: fact and fantasy“, but I am about to get the ABC dictionary in the Pleco electronic dictionary version. Well, I’ve been about to get it for years, but first I need a new PDA that can hold this monster with 169,502 dictionary entries.

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Is it a surprise if people look at their short-term interests first?

January 4th, 2009 · Comments Off on Is it a surprise if people look at their short-term interests first?


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Francesca Bray

January 2nd, 2009 · Comments Off on Francesca Bray

What do Simon Winchester’s “The man who loved China” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” have in common? Francesca Bray. She wrote the one volume of Joseph Needham’s “Science and civilisation in China” about agriculture (apparently alone) and as such she received mention in “The man who loved China”. So it makes sense that Malcolm Gladwell refers to her work when citing rice agriculture in China. I wonder if the reference is from the same volume of “Science and civilisation in China”, but I’m not given to know, since oddly enough, “Outliers” does not have a bibliography (at least not my edition).

Anyway, I was amused at finding this little connection between two unrelated books that I just happened to read in sequence. Finding (unlikely) patterns in chaos is fun.

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Singing the end

January 2nd, 2009 · Comments Off on Singing the end


Hmmm… maybe there’s still too much money looking for a home, to say it’s the end of Wall Street.

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The man who loved China

December 30th, 2008 · Comments Off on The man who loved China

"The man who loved China", front cover

After these few years since China has entered my atlas, I’m surprised I could still be so clueless about something as big as Joseph Needham. Li Yuese (李约瑟), as (some) people in China know him, spent much of his academic career making sense of chinese scientific history. His biography is an inspiring tale… so inspiring, in fact, it makes me feel depressed. His success at chasing his dreams against my inability to even barely shape my future around them. Well, it’s that time of the year people make new resolutions, and the book has great leads for new wonderful and unachievable long term resolutions, I’ll work on that.

Trivia: connecting the dots in that little universe of “foreigners” in China around World War II, Joseph Needham met with George Hogg, the man whose story is recounted in the movie “The children of Huangshi“. I should watch that movie again.

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A quest for accountability

December 30th, 2008 · Comments Off on A quest for accountability


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States have balance sheets, too

December 29th, 2008 · Comments Off on States have balance sheets, too


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What happened to the “Book from the sky”?

December 28th, 2008 · Comments Off on What happened to the “Book from the sky”?

I don’ t know how and why, a few days ago Xu Bing’s “Book from the ski” (徐冰-天书) emerged again in my consciousness. I had forgotten its name (I thought it was called “Book from heaven”), but what’s not forgotten is the powerful impression it left on me. A slowly built impression, started when I first saw it at a calligraphy exhibition in Hong Kong, and cemented later on as I showed pictures of the artwork to some chinese friends of mine in Beijing.

The “Book from the sky” uses thousands of non-existing chinese characters to create an undecipherable mysterious text. Regular chinese characters can be pretty undecipherable to me without resorting to 4,000 non-existing ones, but the effect of showing pictures of what looks like chinese text to an educated native speaker are hilarious. The person at first  recognizes the familar patterns of character radicals and says with confidence, “Ok, Marco, let me translate it for you”; he then takes a closer look, starts emitting animalesque monosyllabic groans, and terminates the attempted analysis with a bewildered question  like “What is THAT?”.

I can’t imagine the amazement in the mind of a trained reader of chinese characters as he sifts through the familiar square-shaped blocks of strokes and radicals, and no message emerges. It must feel as mystical and magic as any written text would have appeared to human groups without a writing system.

I didn’t pay much attention to its origin and author when I saw it in Hong Kong, nor I realized that the work is contemporary (less than 20 years old). What’s surprising me today though is, a majority of google search results point to pages that are not reachable. At least not from Italy, or not today. What sounds like the author’s website, www.xubing.com, seems to be a dead link as well. Why? I can’t even find a decent picture to reference on this post…

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Discovering the stirrups

December 28th, 2008 · Comments Off on Discovering the stirrups

Learning a language is a life-long experience. For as much as one uses it, some words escape his vocabulary, hidden in never-explored topics and conversations. As a person who’s never had any interest in horseback riding, or spaghetti western movies, or horses in general, I had never met the word “stirrup”.

What’s most interesting about stirrups though is their history.


I can’t believe it took us humans almost 5,000 years from the time the horse was domesticated to the day someone realized the chances to fall off a horse were very high without the possibility to use our feet to rebalance. Wow…

P.S.: I’m assuming there’s no english equivalent of the italian expression “perdere le staffe” (“losing the stirrups”).

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