Friday, July 15, 2011

Bullet wanes

Amidst my positive impressions about China, I am less than overjoyed about the Great Firewall. A few days ago, I could at least post to my blog. That feature now seems to be disabled, along with all blog-related functions. Brilliant. They delayed and disrupted my efforts to post material, to a blog that 3 people read, fawning over this otherwise glorious rising star. The fact that you’re reading this proves they didn’t actually succeed, only wasted my time trying to figure out how to set up a tunnel proxy until I thought of a much lower-tech solution. Ha ha.
Back to what I can recall of an immensely dense trip. After Suzhou, we hired a driver to take us to Shanghai for 30 euros, figuring it would be faster and easier than the train. We also figured they would send a driver who knew Shanghai. None of these assumptions were correct, but since we had already paid the driver, we ended up with a free tour of Shanghai in an air-conditioned car, marred only by periodic stops by our driver to puzzle over a map. My hotel turned out to be a 5 star, which was more than enough to keep me happy. The room cost about 70 euros per night, and food, taxi, etc are also generally really, really cheap. Unfortunately, the same applies to academic salaries, which is too bad. I could work out here. They certainly have some great BCI research, and a much more promising future than Europe or America.
There were many hints in this direction, and I knew before coming to China that it is rapidly overshadowing the west. Still, it’s emotional seeing it splayed over countless thriving metropolises. Shanghai, a city of almost 20 million, had the same spirit of megalopolitan modernism and futuristic optimism that I vaguely remember from American cities in my youth. The skyline is new, architecturally magnificent, and boldly opulent. In one example, the Shanghai Expo looks like an innovative design, and the locals think it is, but it is in fact a blatant ripoff of UCSD’s Geisel Library. Just bigger and redder. Were it not for the Great Mirewall, I’d post pictures.
I got a high-impact tour of Shanghai in a delightfully novel way, in the sidecar of a motorbike designed by the Germans around 70 years ago. The driver was a professional tour guide with a special motorcycle license, my brother was on the back, and I just sat there and absorbed all I could. Before our trip to the Bund and the skyline reflecting off the river, we cruised through the old city, seeing things I never would have seen without a guide. Street after street of shanties and street food, and countless friendly people saying hello at us. Many of the buildings had a red symbol indicating they would soon be demolished, which made me sad, but c’est la progress. I doubt there’s such urban renewal in, say, Atlanta.
Two other things remind me of Atlanta. It is miserably hot and humid, and all the locals insist the weather is far better than usual. I told them that people from Atlanta (not Atlantis) would often joke they have to swim to work; when one of us left the lab, our labmates would say: “brace yourself!” Natives would often joke that, if you don’t like the weather, just wait – it changes!! This is just stupid for so many reasons. Aside from being untrue, what if you do like the weather? The Chinese weather changing approach is superior. They aggressively air-condition everywhere, which helps, but I do miss naturally good weather. The second Hotlanta flashback is the odd experience of being the only white person around. This hit me in Atlanta many, many times (and there were no Chinese people either). Many times, I looked around a big restaurant or public square, and saw only the Chinese.
Changing the subject, the Chinese word for “that” is spelled “nega”, but the e sounds more like an i. People point all the time and say something innocent that sounds quite different to a Western ear. I explained this to my friend Jing. “You should be careful with that word,” I said. “In some places, you will have trouble if they think you are saying ‘nigga.’” (I did not mention that someone would replace the word with “slave”, as per one of my best blog posts.) I said to Jing that it is OK here, but if you go to Atlanta, never say nigga, please. He asked what it means. I said that it was like the word “nigger.” He asked what that word means. How do you explain all that this word means?
Yesterday, I took the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing, only a week after it opened. I remember seeing science shows when I was a kid, touting the imminent construction of bullet trains. The show presented maglevs that would crisscross America by 1990 and could go from New York to LA in a New York minute. In 2011, America still has no bullet trains. In the last few months, I’ve been on bullet trains in Austria, Spain, France, Belgium, and China. They all peak around 300 kph, and I hear the Japanese one is 400 kph. Not quite faster than a speeding bullet, although it does beat the muzzle velocity of the BB gun I had as a kid. Definitely faster than Amtrak.
I just got back from a great evening with Jing and his local friend, following my rule of following locals as much as possible. He and his wife took us to dinner, where we got my third Beijing duck since arriving. I didn’t ask for it, but did not mind, cuz it is really good. They asked if I wanted more, but I told them that I had eaten all the ducks in Beijing, and we would have to be content with beer. They were cool with that.
They then drove me around Beijing, not in a sidecar, but a nice Lexus, whose excellent sound system was somewhat offset by my host (and then me) singing along with his CD, a mix of Righteous Brothers, Berlin, Richard Marx, and other sappy singers. Yes, just like in Europe, American music is everywhere. We saw Tian An Men Square, which (to the Chinese) is most famous as the place where Mao launched the Communist Party in 1949. Censorship works disturbingly well. We also saw three famous sights - the bird’s egg, leg, and nest. The last of these is the Olympic Stadium, a gorgeous building that looked especially cool at night, with indirect red lighting shining well-earned Chinese pride. Across from that, they had a series of hotels.
“They are seven star hotels,” Jing said.
“I thought they only went up to five.”
“No. This is seven star. Also one in Middle East.”
“Do they have a six star?”
“How is it better than a 5 star?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, this ruins the whole star system. Why not have an 8 star, or 34 star? Let’s invent the kilostar and megastar.”
“It is very good hotel. Beer gets there.”
“So? You can get beer in most hotels. I got a beer at a zero star hostel once.”
“No. Beer gets stayed there. He was guest.”
“Who is beer gets”?
“Reader of Microsoft.”

I had a great meeting with the Gao lab in Beijing. My talk went well and we discussed many ideas. Amidst it all, I did have a certain detachment. For so many years, I wanted to see all the top BCI labs, break open hybrid BCI research, and publish papers with all the top people. I accomplished the first two, and am writing a paper with Professor Gao that will consummate the last one. Perhaps my work in the BCI community is done. As always, we had a slew of good ideas, some brilliant, but there’s quite a chasm from idea to published study, and it’s filled with a lot of bullshit and not enough money or appreciation. “Crossing the chasm” is a well-known catchphrase among people who make way more money than any academic. Inspiringly, the Chinese do have appreciation, but it ain’t enough to get me to work for less than 1000 euros per month. And, it would be lonely being the only guy of my race. I am indeed “that” out here, even more than Austria.

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