Review of “God is Red” by Liao Yiwu

The “mythic past” of China in the 20th century probably looks something like this:

  • Weakness & Chaos (fall of the Qing, Revolution and Civil Wars, Whampoa, Yenan, Song Dynasty, Invasion by Japan)
  • The New China of 1949
  • Peaceful and Orderly mid-1950s
  • Disaster of Great Leap Forward
  • Peaceful and Orderly early and mid 1960s
  • Disaster of Cultural Revolution
  • Economic reform & prosperity

References to foreigners in this mythic past are pretty scarce. Unlike the anti-Western years of the Cultural Revolution, it’s probably fair to say that foreigners play as much a part of the Mythic Past of 20th Century China as they do in the Mythic Past of 20th Century America: Russians are sometimes friends and sometimes enemies, Europe’s weak, troublesome, and far away, sporadoc wars with Pacific neighbors. Foreigners are not an essential part of the mythic story of China, and more than they are an essential part of the mythic story of 20th century America.

Liao Yiwu decided to change that.

God is Red is a history of Christianity in 20th century China, told through interviews. The book proceeds chronologically, so while the first interviews are about old people who are persecuted by the Communists in 1949, the latest are about youngsters in our own day. The book appears to be written with the intended audience of young, literate, middle-class Chinese, and from a Chinese perspective is as much an introduction to the horrors of Communist oppression as to Christianity in China.

Liao is not himself a Christian, though he is clearly sympathetic to Christians and hostile to the Communist Party. The most moving part of the book for me was the interview of a blind musician, who lost his site as a small child, had it recovered through eye-drops given to him by a Missionary doctor, and then lost it again when the Communists expelled the Missionaries. (The man’s parents, poor farmers, never thought to ask what was in the eye-drops until it was too late.) The epilogue of the chapter reveals the sight-giving eye-drops, which the man lost access to because of the Communists, almost certainly contained fish oil. Multiple this loss by expulsion of all foreign charities and western investment in China in the years following 1949, and the backwardness that Communist rule doomed China to is staggering.

Because the book is told in the words of Chinese Christians, young and old, God is Red is an excellent example of martyrology. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party is one reason why more Christians have been martyred in the last century than in the first three centuries combined. Yet, God is Red also blows up the “mythic” history of China, emphasizing the amazing contact with the west that was rapidly liberalizing and modernizing China, until aborted by Mao Zedong and others. The Mythic Past of China doesn’t have to be just an amalgamation of KMT and Communist party history. The works of Christians, including foreigners, can be a part of it, too.

Liao Yiwu was already a well-known Chinese liberal before writing God is Red. In the book, Liao talks about his friend Nobel-Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo and the banned Charter ’08. This past September, Liao walked out of China, as Liu serves an 11-year prison sentence. An article based on the book appears in the Huffington Post.

I received God is Red as a gift from Catholicgauze. I read it on my Kindle.

The Cloud and Student Achievement

Bruno Behrend of The Heartland Institute recently had an article titled, “Parents, Technology Can Trigger Education Transformation.” In the article, Mr. Behrend discusses his work with Republican Governor Jeb Bush and Democratic Governor Bob Wise to help students become successful through “the cloud” of information technology.

“The Cloud” is originally an information technology term that relates to a view of information technology as a troublesome cost center that is outside the core competencies of individuals, small businesses, and most large organizations. In this view, endorsed by Lou Gerstner and others, companies should give up on being better than their customers in information technology, and accept ‘industry-standard’ levels of performance.

While Bruno uses the term ‘the Cloud’ exclusively in its technological sense, this view of looking to industry-standards probably is the only way that the “Ten Elements of High Quality Digital Learning” he outlines can be met. Those ten elements are (emphasis mine):

• Student Eligibility: All students are digital learners
• Student Access: All students have access to high quality digital content and online courses
• Personalized Learning: All students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider
• Providers: All students have access to multiple high quality providers.
• Content: Digital Content, instructional materials, and online and blended courses are high quality.
• Instruction: Digital Instruction and teachers are high quality.
• Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the content as instruction.
• Advancement: Students progress based on demonstrated competency.
• Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options, and innovation.
• Delivery: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

High quality providers, courses, and teachers are possible if we recognize that teachers unions have failed our country, and that scientific management of education is possible.

Teacher unions and the front organizations they ran — school districts, Parent Teachers Associations, and the like — may belong to the past, especially for the most able learners. For students with behavioral disabilities and maturity deficits, however, some form of daycare will be necessary while more and more of the actual instruction shifts to “the Cloud.”

Review of “The Difference Engine,” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine is a hard book to review. On one hand it is technothriller that asks, “What if Charles Babbage had succeeded in building his programmable computer in the 19th century?” On another it is literary science fiction, with a depth comparable to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. On the third it’s a rumination on word processing.

Charles Babbage and Charles Darwin were contemporaries in early 19th century Britain. Both men made great discoveries, and both were perfectionists. Famously, Darwin only published his theories when he heard that Wallace had independently discovered natural selection and was going to release his own version of the theory. Less famously, Babbage designed the Difference Engine (which has successfully been constructed from his plans in our down day), a mechanical computer, but abandoned work finishing it to attempt the Analytical Engine, a computer that was as advanced as the electronic ENIAC that was finally built more than a century later.

No men, if their careers could have been more successful, might have changed our world more than Archimedes and Charles Babbage.

But what would such a world have looked like? Could an information revolution occur at the same time as an industrial revolution? Who would benefit from such a world? Who would oppose it?

The Difference Engine is composed of several “Iterations” and a final “Modus.” Many characters appear again and again, though often the reader’s view of them differ – a character might simply be standing near an event in one iteration, an antagonist in a second, a helper in a third, and the protagonist in the fourth.

The meaning of the ending of The Difference Engine is disputed, and (in the finest literary tradition) there is no need to take the authors’ remarks as the last word. I’m still unsure what finally happens.

I read The Difference Engine on my Kindle.

Review of “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance,” by Louis Gerstner

Louis Gerstner was the recent Chief Executive Officer of International Business Machines at the time he wrote this story of his ten years at the company.

Technology platforms tend toward monopoly, and the monopoly that build IBM was the System/360. IBM sold a high-margin, integrated computing solution for companies that limited the uncertainty large computer buys experienced, at the cost of a higher price tag. Because IT is cost center for most companies, overpaying for computer equipment (relative to market rates) but with the need for a less skilled IT workforce (relative to companies that bought less expensive equipment) made IBM an attractive force.

Like all monopolies, IBM faced challenges relating to understanding the market and empathy for other stakeholders. Unlike Microsoft, IBM was able to avoid a consent decree, but the defensive market practices that IBM engaged in during the lawsuit (1969-1982) may have harmed IBM’s long-range competitiveness. The trust threat to IBM’s System/360 monopoly came not from the Department of Justice, but from Unix, a family of operating systems that was born in 1969 at the AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories. (The 1969 date is probably not a coincidence. If IBM had been able to protect its business Unix would have been irrelevant. )

Unix, an operating system family for ‘computer computers’ (which is now featured on many smartphones), was soon joined by the down-market competitor of PCs running Microsoft operating systems and Intel computer chips. The cost advantages of Unix and Microsoft against IBM soon became substantial enough for corporations to save money buy building their own IT departments to handle Unix and PC systems, and IBM’s System/360 fell behind..

Many in IBM supported breaking up the company into smaller, nimbler, competitors. The madness of that period can summed up in this chart, part of an article insisting that IBM be broken up:

Gerstner understood the market IBM was in was technology services. In the 1960s, as today, most companies do not want to be in the Information Technology business. Wheter you talk about “software as a service,” or “cloud computer,” or whatever, the basic concept is the same: moderately-priced reliable service is better than internally-sourced attention-demanding IT. Sadly, by the early 1990s, the System/360 family not was just one of many computer architectures, along with Unix and Windows, and so IBM was no longer a one-stop shop.

This is the situation that Gerstner inherited.

There were two naturally roads for IBM in the 1990s to return to being a sole-provider. One was to double-down on the System/360 family, and fight off Unix and Microsoft. Another was to abandon any hope of reestablishing a monopoly in computer equipment, and flee up the value chain by being a consulting & integration computer. Gerstner, who several times in the book decries the focus on technology platforms as irrational, chose the second.

I’ve been thinking about monopolies a lot recently (which has inspired excellent posts on other blogs, as well), and have written about IBM in the past, as well. Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance is the fascinating story of a former monopoly reborn as a competitive market player.  While like other books (including On China by Henry Kissinger, and Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra Vogel) you need to read between the lines on occasion, the book was well worth it.

I listened to Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, unabridged, on my Kindle.

The Life Cycle of a Monopoly Enterprise

Every monopoly is born, lives, and dies.

First, a monopoly enterprise is born thru:

  • organic growth of one competitor
  • a trust between several competitors
  • an outside firm using cash to buy a monopoly position
    government fiat
  • a privatization of a governmental function

Standard Oil was created as a trust. China Mobile had originally been a branch of the government in China.

Second the monopoly enterprise acts like a monopoly by:

  • Enjoying economies of scale
  • Extracts economic profit
  • Experiences regulation by the political economic system, which itself requires the monopoly to:
    • flatter existing power-holdings
    • Assist other stakeholders in achieving their objectives
    • Avoid enraging any stakeholder that can kill the monopoly

I’ve previously discussed dangers that monopolies face.

Third, the monopoly enterprise loses monopoly status and capitulates. This can be because of:

  • Not understanding the market
  • Not being empathetic to other stakeholders

The unpopularity of the term “monopoly” comes from this process of capitulation from a consumer’s perspective.

Following capitulation, the monopoly might be

  • Broken up into multiple successor firms
  • Reduced to single competitor firm in a market
  • Incorporated into the government

At some point in their history, Hudson’s Bay Company and General Motors both operated as monopolies, and all have now been reduced to being single competitors in their respective markets. AT&T used to be a monopoly and was broken up into several successor firms.

The Pillars of the Central Actors in the Education Reform Debate

A recent interaction with Michael Josefowicz on twitter made me think of how old some of the components of the two platforms on which American education rested and rests — the Teachers Front Organizations and the Federal-Academic Complex — are. Wikipedia gives some dates:

Federal-Academic Complex

Teachers Front Organizations

It is interesting that the oldest pillar of the Federal-Academic Complex is (the NIH, established in 1930) is younger than the youngest pillar of the Teachers Front Organizations (the AFT, established in 1916). Doubtless the many years of monopoly control over education enjoyed by Teachers Front Organizations have contributed to their lack of empathy.