Monthly Archives: December 2009

High Fidelity

High fidelity, or hi-fi, reproduction is a term used by home stereo listeners and home audio enthusiasts to refer to high-quality reproduction of sound or images that are very faithful to the original performance.

Reproduction, or replication, is a definitional characteristic of life.  DNA, cells, organisms, and cultures are constantly replicating themselves into the next generation.  Hi fi and lo fi replication have different advantages and disadvantages depending on the context.  With DNA and cellular reproduction, hi fi is usually preferred.  I’m no cellular biologist, but I think lo fi replication at this level is often called cancer.

At the level of organisms, particularly those with long life span, lo fi begins to assert its advantages.  Compared to asexual reproduction, sexual reproduction is lo fi.  Because sexual reproduction creates organisms that are not exact copies of their parents, it allows for faster evolution.  As the world’s largest ethnic group by a wide margin, the Han Chinese are the best replicators of our species.  In Darwinian terms, the Han are most successful primates on the planet, making up roughly 20% of the global human population.  They are the master replicators, and it’s not just their genes that they excel at reproducing.

Culture is also spread through replication, and the basic unit of cultural replication is the family.  And at this level as well, the Han are the master replicators.  Confucian cultures stress the importance of family, and of loyalty and obedience to one’s parents.  Chinese people often live with their parents until they get married, and there seems to be a good deal of (overt) harmony between parents and children here.

In the US, things are different.  Much of the popular culture encourages children to rebel against their parents, and living with one’s parents beyond the age of 18 is frowned upon.  Because US culture has changed so much from generation to generation, there is often stress between the generations, much more than there is in HK.

But this inter-generational harmony has it’s price.  Compared to American culture, Chinese culture evolves slowly.  When Chinese culture does change, it is usually dictated from above (this is consistent with the Confucian ethic of obedience to authority).  One of the positive legacies of Chairman Mao is the status of women in modern Chinese society.  In China before Mao, women were subservient to men.  But Mao thought women should be equal, and one of the lasting impacts of the Cultural Revolution is a high degree of economic equality between Chinese men and Chinese women, at least compared to most places on Earth.  This contrasts sharply with Japan and Korea, where the old Confucian ideals of female subordination to males still has a big effect on the culture.  In HK, the British also emphasized a good deal of gender equality, so when HK’s rulers switched from London to Beijing, the status of women remained unchanged.

Fidelity also means loyalty.  In Chinese, like in European languages, the term is connected to the loyalty of subjects to authority.  Chinese culture can change, but this tends not to happen unless authorities dictate that change.  American culture, with it’s emphasis on rebellion against authority, individualism, and adaptability to different environments, evolves in a way that’s much more organic, more bottom-up.  Top-down cultural change depends on individual rationality, which is highly fallible.  Bottom-up cultural change responds more to environmental pressures that large numbers of people are feeling, and is more inherently adapted to new environmental conditions.  Many minds converging is more organic.

Most cultures are adapted to very specific environments.  Han culture, like American culture, has features that allow it to exist over a large, geographically diverse area.  In terms of geography, the US and China are remarkably similar.  Yet one culture has adapted to this geography over thousands of years and the other has adapted to it over hundreds of years.  This difference in time span requires different cultural traits.  If I can generalize to an absurd level of abstraction: American culture succeeds through adaptability while Chinese culture succeeds through complexity.

For the sake of comparison, the Americans first: during a span of roughly 400 years, the United States evolved from a few European settlements along the East Coast into a coherent, continental nation state with a fairly homogeneous culture.  At first, this was done by importing European culture into North America, but as settlers moved west, and the environment began to differ sharply from that of Europe, American culture began to diverge just as sharply: it readily adopted traits from non-European cultures, and it invented new cultural traits.  An emphasis on individualism and self-sufficiency began to replace the more communal and static European values.

Chinese culture is even more communal and static than European culture.  Even though Chinese culture changes less quickly than American culture, it has several features that allow it to exist in disparate environments.  For example, Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse.  Chinese people eat basically any plant or animal that can provide sustenance.  And they eat any edible part of those plants and animals.  And “edible” is defined quite broadly, by my standards.  Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse compared to European cuisine.  All European cultures eat some kind of bread, and some kind of cheese.  Chinese cuisine has no such commonalities.  And, no, it’s not true that all Chinese people traditionally eat rice.  Before food became mass produced, it had to come primarily from the local environment.  The land near Beijing is not suitable to rice growing, which is why Beijing has only recently started to eat rice as a staple.

Another example of a Chinese cultural trait that has helped Chinese culture exist over such a wide geographical area is the Chinese system of writing, and that system is incredibly complex compared to phonetic writing systems.  The simplicity of phonetic writing systems made them much easier to learn, but that simplicity had a price, particularly before mass communication technology allowed for the standardization of spoken language.  Before the advent of radio and television, spoken language was very regional.  So regional that different dialects quickly evolved into different languages, making communication difficult from region to region.  The Chinese writing system nicely solves this problem.  Because the characters represent concepts, the same character means the same thing to Cantonese speakers and Mandarin speakers, even though the languages are mutually unintelligible when spoken.   Phonetic writing systems, despite all their advantages, do not solve this problem of mutual unintelligibly.  Perhaps this helps explain why China has been politically unified for a much larger percentage of it’s history than Europe or India, both of which use phonetic writing systems…but I digress.

Both cultural and genetic evolution occur through imperfect replication.  When traditions, language and beliefs are transferred unchanged from one generation to the next, culture evolves slowly.  Throughout most of human history, there hasn’t been much need for culture to change rapidly.  Cultures adapt themselves to specific environments, and when those environments are static, it makes sense for cultural transmission to be high fidelity.

Authoritarian governments are in many ways more adaptable than democratic governments.  When Mao recognized that Chinese culture needed to respect women more, he dictated it from above, and it happened.  This process began earlier in the West, but at this point, China and the West seem to be at about the same stage in this process.  But authoritarian governments adapt only as intelligently as their rulers do, and Mao made many mistakes which put China at a disadvantage.

Art is all about lo fi.  What an artist does is take an existing art form, and create a new work of art that is in many ways similar to other works of art within that genre.  But if it’s a hi fi copy, it’s labeled derivative and uninteresting.  When art is too original, it’s either brilliant, or, more likely, it’s considered garbage because nobody can understand it.

Technological innovation functions similarly.  But here, there’s still an advantage to hi fi, as long as you can do it more efficiently than the next guy.  As I’ve mentioned before, the Chinese have trouble with innovation, and this is because they’re too hi fi.  What has historically been one of their greatest strengths may soon become a weakness, because culture, technology and indeed the planet are changing faster than ever before.

The Chinese excel at hi fi, and that’s why they’re so good at taking technology developed elsewhere and using their advantages in cheap labor and good infrastructure to make that same product cheaper and more efficiently than the inventor.  This has so far been a huge advantage in the modern global economy.  But if the future is about innovation and adaptation then the future is lo-fi, not hi-fi.

USA vs HK #3: The Mental Environment

At first, I had planned to make this competition about “the environment.”  But I’m finding that issue too complex, so I’m breaking it down.  I’ll tackle sustainability in a later post, but this match will be determined strictly by how the environment makes me feel.

If you read my last post, you may think this is going to be an easy win for the USA.  But it’s not that simple.  To make things extra tough on HK, I’m going to compare it to the city I lived in before I left: Boulder, Colorado.  If I were to compare HK to some sprawling suburb, it would be a blowout.  To make this match-up competitive, I’ll exclude the parts of the US that make me want to stick a fork in my eye (and a good bit of the country falls into that category, unfortunately).

Boulder is bright and beautiful, but a bit boring.  I don’t have a whole lot of negative things to say about the place, in terms of the environment.  It has nice bike paths, which I miss using.  It has the Flatirons to the West (not the most dramatic mountain view on the Colorado front range, but picturesque nonetheless).  It has fairly clean air, beautiful little creeks coming down from the mountains into the city, and trees on every street.  Best of all, billboards are banned within the city limits, so you aren’t bombarded by advertising.  The Pearl Street Mall is lovely, particularly in the winter, with the snow and the Christmas lights.  It’s like Switzerland with more sunshine…too much like Switzerland in my opinion.  It’s all just a little too nice for me.  I recognize that reasonable people with disagree with me on this.  Part of this is my personality: I’d rather alternate between elation and misery than just feel ok all the time.  But it’s my blog, so I’m the judge and jury.

I have a lot of complaints about HK.  It’s smoggy and loud.  I can’t escape the constant advertisements.  And I’m a big fan of adbusters, if that gives you any idea how much I hate marketing.  But I’m not going to get into why I think advertising sucks so much.  That’s not the point of this post.  Just know that I can’t get away from it here, and it bothers me quite a bit.

So how could this be a close competition?  In a word, complexity.  I’ve always loved New York and Chicago.  The energy, the richness, the density and the vitality of those cities is unparalleled in the US.  HK has all the gritty urban beauty of NY but virtually none of the crime.  I can walk down dark alleys with my headphones on at 2am in HK, something that would be super stupid in Chicago.  The energy in HK is infectious.  Much of the energy Boulder has is drunken frat boy energy, otherwise it’s just a little too nice and laid back for me.  I left because I was bored.  I’m not having that problem anymore.

Many of the things that used to give me gas bladder isssues are the things I’m most in love with today.  Now that my brain has adapted to the initial shock of the visual bombardment that is HK, I’m really appreciating the urban beauty.  It took me a while to really “get it” here; I recognized it in NY and Chicago immediately.  But now that I can see it, it’s so much more beautiful, so much more dense and complex than what NY or Chicago have to offer.   I can’t really explain it, so I’m hoping my pictures can augment my words here.  Problem is, I’m visually challenged (maybe that’s why I had so much trouble adjusting) and I have no talent for taking photos.  And all these pictures were taken with a 5 MP camera-phone.  I’m hoping they can do some justice to what I love about the look and feel of HK.  But I know they can’t, and neither can my words.  Hopefully the combination can convey my feelings to some extent, but you really have to experience it yourself, for a couple months at least, to really understand what I’m talking about.

Now I realize that most people don’t prefer urban grime to mountain majesty .  But here’s the kicker: HK has both.  80% of HK is actually green space.  It has mountains, forests and ocean views.  And that’s what really seals the deal.  HK can actually compete with Boulder on Boulder’s home turf.  On HK’s home turf, Boulder has nothing to offer.  Discovery Bay is a town on Lantau Island, HK’s largest island.  Lantau is sparsely populated and heavily forested.  It’s quiet, except for the birdsong.  Discovery Bay actually reminds me of Boulder, which is probably why it’s so popular with the gweilo.  By American standards, Boulder has great transportation.  Public transportation is efficient, and the bike lanes make getting around without a car pleasant and easy.  But Discovery Bay beats Boulder here; there are no cars allowed in the town (just golf carts and bikes).  The lack of cars makes it a great place for kids to run around with dogs, and creates a vibe more laid back than a vegan co-op in North Boulder.

The winner, in a colossal upset, is HK.  The score so far, USA 1, HK 2.  This was a competition between two winners, but somebody had to come out on top.  Sustainability is next, and there the USA and HK are both losers, but somebody has to win that one too.

The Wall

As I sit in my little apartment listening to the HK cabbies wail away on their horns, I’m realizing I’ve hit a wall.  I was warned about this.  It’s part of the adjustment process.  Most expats go through this, I’m told.  At first, the new place is so different, so exotic, so unending interesting that you don’t have time to get bogged down by the annoyances come with any culture and place.  But they’re really starting to build up in me.  I’m not a tourist anymore.  I live here.  Now that I’m a little more invested in the place, it bothers me more when people disrespect it.

The cabbies outside are frustrated.  There’s a delivery truck in the road, and it’s way too big to get around the corner.  So they’re just holding down their horns until it moves.  It’s like they are literally trying to blast it out of the road with sound.  Needless to say, it doesn’t work.   In order to get around this corner, the truck is gonna lurch back and forth, blocking the intersection for twenty minutes or so, and all the honking in the world isn’t gonna make the driver change his mind, nor will it speed him up.  But the cabbies won’t go around, and they won’t stop pounding on their horns.  Through their horns, they’re transmitting their anger into my brain.  And thousands of other brains in the immediate vicinity.

The cabbies are symbolic of my two biggest frustrations in HK.  The first is noise pollution.  The second is the complete disregard for the feelings of strangers.  They’re related.

The auditory environment here is really difficult to deal with.  Besides the constant blare of car horns, there’s construction everywhere.  All the time.  I love music, but I’d rather not wear headphones all of the time that I’m outside.  But that’s what I find myself doing.  At night, I play white noise in my bedroom to drown out the car horns.  During the day, my desk is right next to the window, and they’re doing construction on my building.  They’re doing construction on all the buildings.  All the time.   It feels like they’re drilling directly into my skull.

It’s like every aspect of the environment has been designed to maximize short-term profit, and all other concerns are irrelevant.  When I first moved into my apartment, it had just been remodeled. Whatever products they used were really toxic, and the air in the common areas made me feel sick.  I bet those products were cheap though.  The only time people here seem to think about the impact of the physical environment on human happiness is when it directly relates to profit.  Like, if we make the environment in this bar nicer, it will attract more wealthy customers.  But that’s it.  If you’re not someone who might give me money, then I don’t give a shit about you.  That’s free-market fundamentalism.  If I left the US to get away from that mentality, I moved to the wrong place.

Despite my appreciation for the potential benefits of the Chinese way of walking, it still annoys the hell out of me sometimes.  I have yet to master the the Tao of walking.  Sometimes, in the big crowds, I get in the groove, and it’s fun.  In the morning, when I’m  trying to get somewhere, it’s not fun.  When I’m walking down a narrow sidewalk, and some guy wanders out in front of me, looking up at nothing and milling about as if he’s the only human in the city, it’s annoying.  When he still can’t see me, even though my face is 5 inches from his, it’s aggravating.  When I say “excuse me” right in his ear, and looks around bewildered, and slowly gets out of my way, completely shocked that someone might be trying to use this busy sidewalk for transportation….let’s just say it remains a good thing that I don’t have access to firearms.

This inability to recognize the existence of other people has caused some Europeans I’ve met here to speculate that Asian people have some physical problem with their peripheral vision.  I don’t buy it.  I’ve met too many Asian-Americans who have normal peripheral vision.  This is a cultural difference.  When I was in a toy store last week, I got to watch this cultural difference develop.  In the US or Europe, when a child is standing in the middle of an aisle or hallway, and he’s in someone’s way, his parents will bend over and physically focus his attention on the passing stranger.  They will put their arms on his shoulders, turn him in the direction of the human he’s ignoring, and move him out of the way.  In this way, he learns to be conscious of the existence of others in his immediate environment.  Even when there’s no possibility that they will give him something, he’s still expected to be considerate of their need to get past.  In HK, and in China, children are not corrected in this way.  I made the mistake of walking to the back of this toy store, just cause I was curious what kind of toys they have here.  Once in the back, I had a ridiculously hard time getting out.  Kids just wouldn’t get out of my way, and when I looked to their mother for help, she were just as oblivious to my presence.  When the mom did notice me, she didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with the fact that her children were wandering back and forth, waving their arms, and just generally taking up so much physical space that it was impossible for me to past.  In the US, a mother would put her hands on her child’s arms, and gently force the kid to take up less space.  But here, because I have only the right to the physical space my body is currently physically occupying, this isn’t seen as a problem that a parent should correct.

To avoid the otherwise inevitable #2 segment to this post, let me clarify from the beginning this time.  I remember where I came from, and the grass ain’t greener.  I have no desire to go back to sitting in traffic jams.  When I lived in the US, there were lots of things that annoyed me about the culture of my own culture.  Lots.  But right now, I’m not experiencing American culture, so I’m not venting about it.  I’ll do more of that in my ongoing USA vs. HK segment.  Right now, I need to get over this wall.  I’ve been a level 2 gweilo for too long at this point.  Level 3 is on the other side, I can see it, but this wall is in my way.  Like the cabbies, I’m naively hoping that venting my frustration with the obstruction will eventually force it out of my way.