Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, October 8, 2008

[![][2]][2]**** I’ve just started writing and posting again after a long hiatus during the summer as I moved out of Europe, traveled about the US Southwest, Four Corners Region, and, finally, re-planted my feet and my bags here in China. With photos, postcards and thousands of miles of stocked away thoughts, memories and conversations across these place, it’s time to “come back to the world” and to try to grapple with the constantly changing horizons.

Admittedly, thousands of articles and happenings (in particular the situation in Central Asia in Georgia) have passed, and, even though I can never really track back all that’s been lost in other passings, here are some more or less recent articles that have made me ponder the changes about me and some of my worlds.

For the current “edition,” I’ve divided the articles on a thematic line, which reflect my current and past obsessions:

1.) * China***

2.) Political and Sociological Reflections with a particular emphasis on untangling current events.

3.) Scientific Research relating a.) to brain research in evolutionary and neurobiology and b.) to social behavior of “complex,” social beings (specifically monkeys, birds, etc.)

ON CHINA:

1.) One Olympics, Two Systems: American and Chinese. In Melting Pot Meets Great Wall, Thomas Friedman reflects on how the Olympics has brought two different systems into competition and comparison. While the Chinese team (like the Russian and African teams) looks Chinese, the US team represents diversity, especially through its international composition with members from across the globe. Friedman goes on to describe America and “the power that comes from a strong society, woven together of many strands from the bottom up,” which he links with the concept of a “green” economy that could only function through grassroots initiative and surveillance. On the other hand, he says that “there are some things we could learn from China, namely the ability to focus on big, long-term, nation-building goals and see them through.” As such, Friedman observes that the American political and democratic systems are lacking in the ability exemplified by China to work together as a whole or team and calls from us to “ to make our democracy work better” as a team.

2.) Bringing Progress to Western China through the Power of the Internet. James Fallows (one of my favorite writers on China) has a great article in the Atlantic** entitled How the West was Wired

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200810/rural-china

, which describes how two Taiwanese businessmen decided to try to modernize the most rural part of Western China. While most of the rapid development that we hear about in China is isolated to a few eastern, coastal cities and a few other inner China cities, the western provinces and “autonomous regions” including Tibet with its population of around 300 million remains “trapped in a kind of subsistence economy.” While cities like Shanghai, Chongqing or Hangzhou are clear testaments to urban and architectural development and to the wealth that goes with these projects, these western provinces, “people live in a different century” where “families may exist on the cash equivalent of $10 or $15 per month. Their entire life experience may be encompassed within a radius of 10 or 20 miles.” Fallows goes on to describe in detail the pet project of Kenny Lin and Sayling Wen to help these regions improve economically and, in turn, socially through bringing computers and the internet to isolated villages. While Chinese officials were looking at plans to bring development to its western frontier “over many generations,” Wen found this unacceptable from a moral perspective and claimed that this development needed to take place in much less time. Subsequently, much time and money has gone into a project () aimed at getting children competent in technology-oriented work and education through specific funding that requires the children to blog about happenings in their rural lives.

POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS

3.) The Stacks of the Latest Geopolitical Crisis. Since my “de-connection” from the political and informative world during the summer, the biggest change in geopolitical affairs is that of Georgia and Russia’s military intervention. Ellen Barry at the New York Times has a great article dissecting the affair through the extreme linguistic barriers, which divide the area. She writes:

*Some 40 indigenous tongues are spoken in the region — more than any other spot in the world aside from Papua New Guinea and parts of the Amazon, where the jungles are so thick that small tribes rarely encounter one another. **In the Caucasus, mountains serve the same purpose, offering small ethnicities a natural refuge against more powerful or aggressive ones. *

*As a result, there is a dense collection of ethnic groups, the kind of arrangement that was common before the Greek and Roman empires swept through the plains of Europe and Asia, shaping ethnic patchworks into states and nations, said Johanna Nichols, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley. *

4.) My friend at LeFrancisenSuede has posted an interesting article (in French!) entitled Oublier son identité culturelle est une ouverture au monde, par Henri-Pierre Jeudy


**

**

LATEST IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

5.) Intelligent Birds. The New York Times has a good piece on how crows can recognize individual faces and, in turn, remember them for an incredible amount of time. Accordingly:
Dr. McGowan and Dr. Marzluff believe that this ability gives crows and their brethren an evolutionary edge. “If you can learn who to avoid and who to seek out, that’s a lot easier than continually getting hurt,” Dr. Marzluff said. “I think it allows these animals to survive with us — and take advantage of us — in a much safer, more effective way.”

6.) Cerebral Replay. In For the Brain, Remembering Is Like Reliving, Benedict Carey reports on recent research in neurobiology, which points toward new information on how exactly the brain is able to recreate remembered experiences, specifically “summoning a spontaneous memory.” Recordings taken from brains of epilepsy patients “demonstrate that these spontaneous memories reside in some of the same neurons that fired most furiously when the recalled event had been experienced.” Shockingly, the “researchers were even able to identify specific memories in subjects a second or two before the people themselves reported having them.”

*The experiment: *

In the study, a team of American and Israeli researchers threaded tiny electrodes into the brains of 13 people with severe epilepsy. The electrode implants are standard procedure in such cases, allowing doctors to pinpoint the location of the mini-storms of brain activity that cause epileptic seizures.

The patients watched a series of 5- to 10-second film clips, some from popular television shows like “Seinfeld” and others depicting animals or landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. The researchers recorded the firing activity of about 100 neurons per person; the recorded neurons were concentrated in and around the hippocampus, a sliver of tissue deep in the brain known to be critical to forming memories.

In each person, the researchers identified single cells that became highly active during some videos and quiet during others. More than half the recorded cells hummed with activity in response to at least one film clip; many of them also responded weakly to others.

After briefly distracting the patients, the researchers then asked them to think about the clips for a minute and to report “what comes to mind.” The patients remembered almost all of the clips. And when they recalled a specific one — say, a clip of Homer Simpson — the same cells that had been active during the Homer clip reignited. In fact, the cells became active a second or two before people were conscious of the memory, which signaled to researchers the memory to come.

**

**

**

**

Video of the Week:

Synthetic Happiness (from TED)

This piece explores how we don’t really know what makes us happy. There is a basic distinction, which we often forget and incorrectly apply to our lives, between natural happiness (i.e. getting what you aimed for) and synthetic happiness (i.e. making whatever you get acceptable and pleasant). Equally important is realizing that having the ability to choose and change what we want or wanted doesn’t necessarily make life happier and often does the opposite. Namely, when you have more time to decide you have a harder time accepting your choices and the acceptance that goes with it.

**

**

Poem of the Week:

Hard is the Journey

Gold vessels of fine wines,

thousands a gallon,

Jade dishes of rare meats,

costing more thousands,

I lay my chopsticks down,

no more can banquet,

I draw my sword and stare

wildly about me:

Ice bars my way to cross

the Yellow River,

Snows from dark skies to climb

the T’ai-hang mountains!

At peace I drop a hook

into a brooklet,

At once I’m in a boat

but sailing sunward…

(Hard is the journey,

Hard is the journey,

So many turnings,

And now where am I?)

So when a breeze breaks waves,

bringing fair weather,

I set a cloud for sails,

cross the blue oceans!

Li Po

Comments