"Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names."

I re-worked this essay for use in a lesson on evaluating information that I contributed to the University of the People a while back. The lesson contents haven't been openly published, but I feel this is one of the most beautiful works to have ever come from Searchlores, and will post it here so a wider audience might be able to appreciate its insights. While I may have never met the site's curator (known to me only by his pseudonym, "fravia+"), his works have contributed greatly to my development not only in the realm of technology, but as a person in general.

It's been almost a year since his passing, but the community of crackers, reversers, and seekers that gravitated around him thrives on. To them, I would apologize if any aspect of this adaptation seems to betray the spirit of the original.

Sielaff's Lessons

adapted from fravia+'s original version at http://searchlores.org/evaluate.htm


We sat there waiting and rather tense. January - quite cold in Berlin, but, after all, that was the reason we were there: Sielaff was still teaching.


And he did come - with his classical quarter-of-an-hour “academic delay.” He came in, leaning to one side, because he carried a dozen books under his left arm, and then he sat down without even looking at us and let all of his books fall onto the teacher's desk.


Mind you, this was the most cherished post-university course for historians of the early middle ages in Europe in those days, so you can imagine how silent and attentive we (students from all over Europe) were...


He still did not look at us. “These books,” he began, “deal all, more or less, with the same subject: the history of Denmark in the middle ages. Now, please try not to focus too much on the subject. Actually, the subject could be completely different - it would not matter in the least. The point is that you should learn how to EVALUATE all kinds of books BEFORE buying or reading them.”


Sielaff looked sharply at his audience. “I imagine,” he said, “you already know that most of the books and data around us are next to useless, don't you?”


I don't know about the others, but this took me by surprise. I had always thought, innocently enough, that anything that was published must have had some sort of “value.”


“This book,” Sielaff began, taking the first book from his pile, “is titled, quite appropriately for today's example: 'History of Denmark in the Middle Ages.'” He paused and looked at us. “Unfortunately, the Author, as stated by himself in the introduction, does not know Danish at all, therefore...” - he suddenly threw the book to a far corner of the teaching desk in disgust.



Obvious, but very often underestimated


“This book, on the other hand,” he continued, picking another book from his pile, “which is titled 'Denmark Between 500 and 1200,' has been written by an Author that actually does know Danish. Unfortunately, the same Author wrote - before this book - a book titled 'Cactuses and Other Desert Plants' and - should that not be enough for you - he wrote, a short time after having published the book I am holding right now in my hand, another book titled 'Aquarium Techniques for Home and Profit.'”


The book flew to the far corner on the desk, where it hit the previous one.



Obvious, but very often underestimated


“I am sure you are beginning to understand now...” he said, “but let's continue, because there is MUCH more to understand and reverse. Here is another book, 'Denmark in the Middle Ages'” - and he lifted a third book from his pile - “that has been written by someone who definitely knows Danish, who only worked on Danish history of the middle ages, and who happens to be a recognized authority in such matters.” He paused, and then threw the book, disgusted, to the “reject” side of his desk. “I know you won't like what I will say, but it is quite important anyhow: the Author wrote this book when he was only THIRTY years old!” In fact, we were all still approaching thirty ourselves. With the students speechless, he continued: “You won't enjoy hearing it right now, but believe me, if you want to be really sure someone knows anything about what he's writing about - especially in complex sciences like early medieval history - you wait until he is AT LEAST fifty years old, and even in that case you should take GREAT care; most of the so-called 'experts' are often enough just releasing hot air. This has nothing to do with Danish history specifically, of course... it happens everywhere.”



Obvious, but very often underestimated


“You see,” continued Sielaff, “the fact that the previous Author worked a lot on a single subject may be relevant for the books he wrote / will have written at the END of his career. But this does not guarantee anything at all about the books he may have written at the beginning. And now we come to this article, 'About Medieval Denmark' which was written by an expert on Danish medieval history when he was fifty. The article appeared in November, 1982, in a university monthly collection...”


Silence followed; we were trying to guess. “Ahem, I repeat: it appeared in November in a monthly...” More silence - we didn't know what to say. “OK, if you don't know it yet, then you better learn it right now. Monthly publications are tricky - especially university ones. They actually HAVE to publish their 12 issues year after year in order to survive and get public money for the following years. Yet, the quality varies considerably, and though it may be relatively easy to find some sound and interesting material for the first, say, five or six months, you'll have to scratch the bottom of the barrel to be able to fill and publish all 12 issues. Therefore, my dear students, everything published 'from September onwards' should be regarded with suspicion. Mind you - it doesn't MEAN that the stuff is useless, it is only LESS PROBABLE that you'll have some outstanding work there.”



You should always take into account the economic factors behind anything


“And now we are approaching the heart of today's session.” Sielaff yawned. “Here you have another book: 'History of Denmark Through the Middle Ages.'” He raised a hand holding a thick book from his pile. “This was written by a recognized expert of Danish history, towards the end of his life, building on many essays he wrote before on the same subject. It was published by the most renowned Danish editor, and was translated into German, English and French.” Sielaff paused. “It has no footnotes, only endnotes.”


Sielaff coughed, smiling sadly. “This basically means that you should 'believe' the historical reconstruction of the Author, instead of having the possibility - and the ease - to verify his writings AT EVERY STEP.”


“So even the 'formatting' of your target resource is important as well, and please note that most of the time this formatting will NOT be casual.”


He threw the book away in disgust.



Some Authors only refer to secondary sources, if ever. Others will bend backwards to avoid giving readers direct access to a primary source that could be interpreted differently.


“Today's introduction is almost finished. I guess you may enjoy this book.”


Sielaff held in his hands the last book of the pile. “Titled 'A Short History of Denmark in the Middle Ages,' this book was written by a recognized expert on the matter, 60 years old at the time of writing, has footnotes, uses the sources correctly... as far as I can judge, everything seems 'in order.' It has all the characteristics of a sound book.” Sielaff opened the book and sniffed among the pages. “It even smells good.”


Sielaff's head jerked back. “Yet, you should NOT trust its assertions - not in the least! Check the sources yourselves, confute the 'truths' and the 'discoveries' of this Author... think about the possible alternative interpretations." Sielaff hands waved in the air. “They're only WORDS! Never forget it: books, knowledge... just a cobweb of words; behind them, often enough, nothing. A cobweb of theories, that's 'science.' It's up to you to dispel it.”


Sielaff's eyes pierced the audience. “A critical mind - that's your only weapon inside the dark forests of bogus knowledge you will have to cross again and again. Your critical mind... never, ever allow it to get dull.”


Sielaff put the book down, closed it gently, and left.



A critical mind - that's your only weapon inside the dark forests of bogus knowledge. Never, ever allow it to get dull.


Ho Ho Ho (3位/400元)

Happy holidays!

No, really. This time should be happy, not stressful. That's why I took a trip to the bathhouse with some friends. After showering, soaking, playing under the waterfalls, getting a scrubdown, showering again, soaking some more, simply sitting and talking, getting a foot massage (passed on the pedicure), then napping in a warm, dark room.... I awoke this morning oh so content.

Easily the least stressful Christmas so far, but that doesn't mean it's the best, of course. I miss my dear friends and family, and am living in a much colder environment than ever before, but it's nice to be immersed in an alternate culture that doesn't drown you with hyper-consumerism. Here, there's still plenty of consumerism tied to cultural events as well as more superstition than I care for, but there has bever been this sense of urgency for gift-giving. Most celebrations simply involve going to a shared hot-pot dinner, perhaps KTV (karaoke) afterward. Christmas - like Thanksgiving and Halloween before it - will pass casually except for whatever the expat crowd organizes for themselves.

This calm is welcome after years of America's Black Friday madness (how many people got trampled to death this year, I wonder...), constant "Christmas classic" songs on the radio or in every public building with a speaker system, and worrying that a well-intentioned donation to charity will end up being used to oppress minorities. I'd rather just sit around the fireplace, look through a photo-album (Remember those? Much more interesting than tuning the TV to A Christmas Story for the 26th year straight..), and knock back a few gin and tonics while chatting with my family. I sure have a few stories to tell now!

Of course, being the godless commie bastards that we are over here in Red China, I'll be working during Christmas break. Egads! But let's look again at my schedule:
Mon - No class
Tue - 1 class, start at 5:30 PM
Wed - 2 classes, 12:30 PM
Thu - 1 class, 5:10 PM
Fri - 1 class, 5:30 PM
Sat - 4 classes, 8:00 AM
Sun - 3 classes, 10:30 AM

That's every week. Plenty of free time and still paid a princely sum!

Enjoy yourselves and take care!

A Fragile Superpower

Ah, I found this link among my bazillion open Firefox tabs when I was researching Sino-Japanese relations. Rather than my "paper tiger" analogy below, it may be better to call China a "fragile superpower." The explanation provided fits exactly with my previous thoughts on China's current issues.

It's a long read, yes, but it pretty much sums up all the recent history one might care to know, complimented by an insider's view.

On A Pale Blue Dot

Greetings, reader. It's a hot and lazy Tuesday afternoon - a perfect time to spend an hour writing while sipping on a tall can of STOUTBEER. If only the after-taste was better, I'd drink them more often. Wait- perhaps it's a blessing in disguise...

Teaching has been tolerable for the last month, but my patience is slowly-but-surely waning with regards to my school. After passing an exam of advanced English grammar, some basic Chinese and other organizational topics, I was given the choice of extra monthly income or reduced hours. Since I live like a king already here (with a salary worth 4x the median), I asked for the free time - essentially one less class. I'm now contractually obligated to 20 hours of teaching per week, which doesn't sound like much, but when factoring in all the preparations, drives to-and-fro, and miscellaneous downtime - it adds up to a significant (and unfortunately fragmented) chunk of time. Yet, I've been teaching overtime nearly half the time. I suppose it's cheaper to pay out overtime than to have an extra teacher or two around, but to me it seems quite disingenuous, especially since we have only one guaranteed free day per week.

It's fine, though. I can work and study for 6 months straight, then head out on yet another journey. I've entertained the thought of acquiring a motorcycle with my ample savings and riding to Europe or India, keeping my own "Motorcycle Diaries." I (with a hearty helping of thousands of nutritious opinions every day - thanks, Internet!) have convinced myself that it makes more sense to do all of this traveling while younger instead of older, as I'd be more fit for it and the things I experience will challenge and change my naive self. If I waited until I was older, maybe these opinions would be less malleable and I'd find myself instead always defending my own ways and disregarding the others.

I find it humorous and disappointing that the status quo for most people seems to be the opposite: work hard while young, then retire and enjoy yourself then. What if I get hit by a bus when I'm 40? I'd feel pretty stupid for not having seen the world (let alone the bus) first. I imagine the readers who are already invested into this lifestyle are fishing for arguments to challenege my reasoning - I can understand, don't worry. You've got your life and I've got mine; all that matters is that we can find happiness, right? My path certainly isn't yours, or you'd be sitting half-naked in a chair in a dusty apartment in China, finishing off a black beer of questionable quality.

If you ever want to rediscover a sense of wonderment in yourself on a lonely night, I suggest downloading Google Earth and exploring all the remote islands and desert wastelands you can spot. (Even outside of the realm of adventure, it's an immensely useful tool.) If that isn't enough to humble your mind, you can graduate to this musing.

As always, there's more to say, but now isn't the time.
I wish you luck in life and love.

...well, just as long as you don't know the same girl I do ;)

Episode #13: Eris Strikes!

Fear not dear reader, I haven't abandoned you like some bastard child. Much to the contrary, I've been the one victimized by having the Internet connection to my apartment disconnected and simultaneously catching a cold. The first problem was quickly solved by taking my account number on a scrap of paper to the local post office and paying the shocking negative balance on the account (it probably hadn't been paid for months before I arrived here).

Being sick has made teaching a lot less fun, of course - lack of energy, vocal projection, and (by the end of the day) will to live. I've been coughing all the time and slinging phlegm even more than the Chinese do. In an unprecedented low, earlier today I had to hand off teaching to the TA as I felt the terrorizing battle-cry of a sudden bowel movement. Shit. The one solace I have is that so far all of my precious bodily fluids have been the right color and texture. One co-worker here who is into biking around the city told me that once after a session, he coughed up a mucous as black as the night. If air pollution is this bad here, I can't imagine what it must be like in cities like Beijing.

Lately I've been a bit more reclusive, spending my night hours glued to news pages and forums, trying to follow all of the delicious chaos in Iran (Tehran riots over suspected election fraud) and China (the Xinjiang ethnic violence and the Shisou corruption riots). The two countries have interestingly used nearly identical tactics to quell their respective uprisings. It has provided excellent discussion material for some of my adult classes, where I have a chance to learn something as well. As China prepares to swiftly tidy itself up and celebrate the 60th anniversary of rule under the Communist Party, the current rhetoric of a "harmonious society" is being severly plagued by instances of corruption, unrest, censorship, discrimination, and economic discontent.

Minus the celebrating, it sounds not too unlike the United States. We do have one more major political party, though, so that's a point of pride, right? (And while US Internet Service Providers don't overtly censor the Net in the same way the CCP does, scores of lobbyists, politicians, and "concerned parents" are always hard at work, whittling away at online freedoms.)

Well, it's not all doom and gloom across the pond: at least we don't have mandatory summer drills for students.

Time to get some much needed rest. The sooner I'm back to health, the sooner I can drop some A-bomb tonnage on this bitch... you need to hear the hospital and beer-garden stories.

The Souvenir

Yesterday was an eventful one. It was a nasty, rainy day from the start, and the weather kept me feeling like I should continue to awkwardly smash at the snooze button for a few hours beyond normal. I think I was expecting to somehow awaken magically refreshed, but it turned out to be a fruitless - if not masochistic - endeavor.

Gah, it shits me to second-guess my spelling these days. The majority of books we work from use British English, which I'm beginning to hate at a level more irrational than most people. It's not out of some form of cultural superiority or bitterness for having formerly been a colony of theirs (I mean, hey, who hasn't?). I'm more annoyed at how the words are needlessly longer (eg. "color" vs. "colour") and more complex (eg. "They have a ball." vs. "They have got a ball."). It's childish, of course, but what do you expect? I work around children all day.

And not just any kids, but some genuinely spoiled little bastards - the youngest (~5 years old) having had no prior experience in a classroom environment. Even with my worst class, it's arguably easy to maintain classroom control by stuffing the misbehaving kids in chairs and corners, but doing so is effectively removing them from the learning environment. The worst I've had to do is pick up, carry sideways, and deposit outside a kid who, in-between bouts of running around, wanted nothing more than to do a handstand with his feet on the wall. The TA at the time felt this was too harsh, but I'll be damned if she's going to be tied up dealing exclusively with that one kid (with loud and distracting Chinese threats, no less) while I need her help in managing the other 13 in the class. Likewise, official policy be damned: if I had to "warn" them about what I was going to do each time, it means they would just get one more chance to misbehave before the problem could be solved, and at the expense of the other students' learning and my personal sanity.

Those who know me may vouch for how little of that I had to start with.

As for the kid I kicked out, I told the TA to "make sure he knows why he's out there." What she reported to me after class was enlightening. The boy's mother had come out from the lobby to see what the deal was. Not only is she paying the school for her kid to be sidelined, but there's the issue of her losing face among the other parents with students in the room. So the mom asked the boy what was going on, and he apparently kicked into puppy-dog-eye mode, complete with comments such as, "Well, Mom, I'm trying really hard..." to which she replied something like, "That's fine, go and do your best." Give me a break.

It's not that he's some master charlatan, but the parents are just blinded by how vehemently they want to believe that their child is Heaven's gift to the Earth. For many reasons, especially economic conditions and the One Child Policy, parents that have a child can count on it being their last. Yet due to the strong cultural emphasis on family, it's a child that they're going to invest as much as they can into (including English lessons at a private school) and fight tooth and nail for. Not only for the sake of the child's personal success, but because once the parents grow older, they will have to count on the child to take care of them as well. Thus, no matter how much of a jackass the kid is, many parents are in this cloud of denial about their little angel. One of the other problem kids in that class was saying to his mother things like, "Shut up, I hate you."

Of course, she just chuckled and gave him some snacks.

It's hard enough attempting to just teach younger kids with the attention span of a fly. I certainly don't want to have to rear them as well, but I'm not going to shy away from the task; someone has to. If anything, that little incident has convinced me to be more of a hard-ass. You can still have fun and retain authority. I don't think children - even that young - will respect you if you just try to be everyone's friend and never call them on their shit. As an aside, while child abuse is still legal here, I certainly wouldn't endorse it. That said, I do grin at the idea of adding a new entry for "recommended number of beatings" on the progress reports. One of the other teachers actually keeps a "blacklist." Ha! I can't imagine the things our teachers must have thought or said about us...

So I think I was originally describing a rainy day. Sorry, it's just how my brain works... if indeed that is the verb to use.

While it got off to a dreary start, I did happen upon something quite fortuitous while fording the rivers that temporarily appear around my neighborhood whenever it rains hard. The pavement isn't level and certainly not designed with drainage in mind, so my morning journey involves a healthy dose of island-hopping.

With my eyes scanning the ground for the usual puddles and pit-traps, I caught sight of a soggy 20 RMB banknote sitting on the sidewalk. "O Fortuna," I wept aloud to the clouds through my gift-bin umbrella of minimal body coverage! It was as though in one divine act, my months of near-constant toil and intoxication were finally acknowledged. I skipped like a little girl all the way to work (well, more than normal).

After all, 20 RMB can buy, like, 10 beers.

I hung my little Mao out to dry and pampered him with all the fixings of an under-budgeted office environment. A paper clip, or even one of those black alligator-clip thingies that is fun to play with but hurts like a bitch if you try attaching it to a chunk of flesh too small to adequately distribute the immense pressure you didn't think it was capable of due to its misleadingly small size, may have been involved. I'm not sure - it all happened so fast and I was high on life at the time. When it was time to head out from the home base for an off-site gig, I grabbed the bill so it could cover my return trip by cab, as all I had was an 100 ...Mao.

I might not have mentioned before, but The Chairman's calm and reassuring visage - the same exact picture - graces all of the bills: 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100. The colors of each are different, but this continues to mess with my head because I'm much better at picking out differences of pattern rather than color. Yes, there's other imagery on the bills, but if Mao's looking at you, you'd best be looking back. That's all I'm saying... it's distracting as hell. The currency isn't actually called "Mao," (it's usually called "RMB," "renminbi," "yuan," or "quai") but it might as well be. Is China's government trying to say "Mao was so mind-blowingly awesome, he should be on everything" or were the flattering portraits of the other famed people in China's long history too few and far between?

Armed with my new twenty, I did my class, hopped in a taxi, got back to the office, shed a tear of joy and paid the man. After he handed me the change, he started up in a heated voice using non-taxi protocol language. It took a minute for me to figure out he was saying that he wouldn't take the 20, and he held it over another that he had and sure enough, mine was a counterfeit. My world came crashing down around me, but due to its sturdy frame, the taxi cab shrugged off the blows and I was able to successfully change my 100 and pay the driver.

I knew it was too good to be true! I'm convinced that in China, even if there was an enormous turd of unrivaled, fibrous strength, someone would bear the stench and pry the last bits of corn from it before it had a chance to cool. Things are scavenged or outright stolen at lightning speed, and people are never in short supply, so what are the chances that I'd find an unmolested item of pure value in a public place? Zero, historically speaking.

Oh China, you are too much fun.

(returned to sender)

Dear Reader,

How are you doing? I hope the weather has been fair and not too dusty.

Much has happened this past week. I have been studying English grammar and how to teach it to students of varying age and ability. The pace of my Mandarin study has picked up as well, and while I'm not yet convinced the complete immersion approach is always best, it is appropriate for understanding how Chinese students understand their English-only teachers.

Harbin's restaurant offerings have kept me happy and sated. Some of the exotic dishes that have recently run their course through my digestive system include pig lungs and ...hm, I guess I don't really know what they were called, but they were protein-packed insects. Tasty ones at that. The beer selection in this city as also pleasantly varied, and at my favorite hole-in-the-wall, a mere 2 RMB ($0.30) will get you a tall bottle. Three tall bottles is more than enough, I've discovered.

There was also a visit to the local hospital for a physical. Oh my, what a story that will be when I have the time.

Speaking of which, Sunday class beckons. Stay safe, sane, and consentual, dear Reader.
I'll just work on getting over this cold.

Not Your Father's Weblog

Rather than agonize over which US-based blogging service may or may not become blocked in China during my stay there, and not wanting to host the content in China, I arrived here: the humble and easy-to-remember neutralground.blogg.se. Yes, it is hosted in Sweden; this is because it is both a Neutral Country and one where I can put content without having to worry about it - or myself - disappearing. This is good because I'm not one to self-censor when writing. Also, this Swedish interface is entertaining in itself, and I'm all smiles as I write this surrounded by words such as "Hjälp" and "Logga ut."

Things to consider:
  • This blogg should be considered Not Safe For Work in the sense that it may address controversial subjects (religion, politics, sexuality, etc.) in a brazen and colorful manner. NSFW doens't mean this place will automatically become a hive of scum and villainy, either, so relax. For the same reason I have come to love living in foreign countries, by writing here, I'm most interested in challenging preconceived notions - both yours and mine. If you find that you have wandered out beyond your comfort zone, good, I have achieved my objective.
  • Feel free to disagree with the ideas written here, but please don't take personal offense. For those easily offended and angered, realize that you are the only person with the power to choose to react that way. Some people read a comic and choose to laugh, some choose to frown, and some choose to issue a Jihad on the author. Most countries (China claims to be one of them) recognize the value of Freedom of Speech, but as the world continues to open up and we are increasingly exposed to a wider variety of ideas, we must remember that for Freedom of Speech to mean anything, it means protecting the ideas we disagree with, as well.
  • If you know me personally, please respekt my wish to remain anonymous by not linking to this blogg from yours or otherwise associating it with either you or me. Understand that I am not doing this for money or fame, but to conveniently communicate my adventures with anyone who is interested - strangers included. Those strangers don't have to know my name for my thoughts to be meaningful.
  • I will respekt your privacy in full as well.
  • I may not respekt proper English since Swedish is really quite amusing.
  • Comments are disabled to insulate various groups of readers from one another and further preserve privacy; please email me your feedback instead - I will certainly read it.
There you have it! It should be fun for all.

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