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This is your phone on feminism

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A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk in Austria on smartphones and cybersecurity.

“Put up your hand if you like or maybe even love your smartphone,” I asked the audience of policymakers, industrialists and students.

Nearly every hand in the room shot up.

“Now, please put up your hand if you trust your smartphone.”

One young guy at the back put his hand in the air, then faltered as it became obvious he was alone. I thanked him for his honesty and paused before saying,“We love our phones, but we do not trust them. And love without trust is the definition of an abusive relationship.”

We are right not to trust our phones. They serve several masters, the least of whom is us. They constantly collect data about us that is not strictly necessary to do their job. They send data to the phone company, to the manufacturer, to the operating system owner, to the app platform, and to all the apps we use. And then those companies sell or rent that data to thousands of other companies we will never see. Our phones lie to us about what they are doing, they conceal their true intentions, they monitor and manipulate our emotions, social interaction and even our movements. We tell ourselves ‘it’s okay, I chose this’ when we know it really, really isn’t okay, and we can’t conceive of a way out, or even of a world in which our most intimate device isn’t also a spy.

Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones.

I ‘m really proud of this piece. The rest of it is here.

Comments here at CT v. welcome especially as there’s more I’d like to say about Kate Manne. Anyone here read ‘Down Girl, the Logic of Misogyny? Her thing is that while sexism is the rationalising part, misogyny is the law enforcement branch of patriarchy. (this is a scandalously short and impertinent summary. It’s a fantastic book and I recommend reading it.) I’m thinking that, analogously for surveillance capitalism, exploitation is the rationalisation and predation the policing mechanism. But not sure if that quite works, i.e. if the terms match up, as well as the overall analogy.

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36 days ago
The world tech built.
37 days ago
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37 days ago
Link to full piece at the end.
39 days ago
Do you have an abuser in your pocket, purse, or backpack?
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Family BASIC in 2019

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In preparation for an article I’m writing on hobbyist Japanese Famicom programmers in the 80s, I’ve spent the past few days diving into a quirky bit of software from Nintendo called Family BASIC. If you’ve never heard of it before, FB was a Japan-only release for the Nintendo Family Computer that built an interpreted programming language into a cartridge, allowing users to program rudimentary games, utilities, and music compositions on their console using a custom keyboard peripheral. In partnership with Sharp, Nintendo released a custom modification of a Hudson-developed BASIC they called NS-HUBASIC—i.e., Nintendo Sharp Hudson BASIC).

Family BASIC’s commercial lifespan was relatively short-lived. Technically its first release was for a Sharp-manufactured television called the My Computer TV C1, which had an integrated Famicom and an early version of NS-HuBASIC called Playbox BASIC. Besides some slight UI differences and variations in its “pre-installed” software, Playbox BASIC was nearly identical to Family BASIC. The first FB cartridges shipped in July 1984 with software v.1.0. This was quickly supplanted by v.2.0, which itself received some bug fixes and an update to v.2.1A. In February 1985, Nintendo released a hardware upgrade (with much-needed RAM) along with a new software version—v.3.0—which added many new BASIC keywords and capabilities.

A Japanese ad for Sharp’s My Computer TV C1, which featured an integrated Famicom and the first iteration of what would become Family BASIC.

It’s fascinating to ponder an alternate history where Nintendo pushed the Famicom’s PC-like features and kept improving Family BASIC with more memory, better features, and improved hardware, but that future was not destined to be. Instead, seven months after FB v.3.0, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros., and the Famicom’s future as a console would be set in stone forever. The platform would no longer be programmed, but played.

What’s equally interesting is what FB became despite Nintendo’s lack of official involvement. Much like the U.S. and Europe, Japan had a thriving hobbyist PC culture throughout the 1970s and 80s, though served by different manufacturers and publishing outfits. U.S. mainstays like Apple and Commodore were available in Japan, but they were far surpassed by domestic PC companies like NEC and Sharp. And hobbyist programmers were largely served by the magazine マイコンBASIC (or MyCom BASIC), a monthly publication that included PC computing news, reviews, cartoons, tutorials, and type-in programs.

A MyCom listing for a game called The Legend of Satan, published in September 1987. It’s a space shooter, natch.

I had purchased a few issues of MyCom from Yahoo! Auctions while searching for board game advertisements, and I was amazed to see listings for Family BASIC programs as late as 1988. When I poked around the Internet, I found a Japanese site that meticulously catalogued all the FB listings that appeared inMyCom during the magazine’s run. I was floored when I found out that one or more FB programs appeared in every monthly issue of MyCom from September 1984 to April 1996 (yes, 19-ninety-6), totaling more than 300 homemade Famicom programs. I was curious about finding out more but quickly realized that spending close to $20 per imported issue would be financially untenable. Serendipitously, in February 2019, a kind soul known as pc-986 uploaded an astounding cache of beautifully-scanned MyCom issues to Archive. And thus an obsession began.

So what can you do with Family BASIC? Long story short, it’s a programming language built atop an already highly-constrained platform. Family BASIC predates the hardware mapper technology that extended the Famicom’s capabilities, so you’re stuck with the limitations of the stock architecture, minus the backend necessary to host and run BASIC. Perhaps most jarring to a modern programmer is the pre-set palette of built-in sprites and background tiles. Since there is no RAM allotted for tiles, you’re stuck with those burnt to ROM. To their credit, Nintendo provided an incredibly flexible set of pre-made tiles. For sprites, you get Mario and Lady from Donkey Kong, several spaceships, enemies from Mario Bros., a race car, a few custom characters, and a few other miscellaneous tiles. For background tiles, there are mountains, Donkey Kong Jr. platforms, ladders, and various other abstract bric-a-brac that hobbyists managed to wrangle into convincing approximations of many different genres, from shooters to RPGs. With some time and creativity, you can concoct myriad creatures and architectures using Family BASIC’s smattering of tiles.

The v.3.0 manual includes a grid of the available background tiles (excluding the English alphabet and Japanese katakana) and some examples of how to use them.

The BASIC implementation is robust and well-designed. Like all BASICs, it runs much slower than a native assembly application, so it takes a lot of work to get responsive controls and smooth animation. But Nintendo built in lots of thoughtful hooks to make game creation simpler. There are custom commands for sprite definitions, palette manipulation, animation, sound, and collision detection. And on the computing side, you get simple conditionals, loops, math operations, arrays, a very useful DATA/READ/RESTORE command trio, jumps and branches, the crowd favorite PEEK and POKE commands for hardware manipulation, and, surprisingly, a CALL statement, which allows you to inject machine language routines in your code. (In fact, MyCom ran a 9-month series in 1987 on how to use these features, culminating in an impressive scrolling tutorial.) And if you don’t read Japanese, you’re not out of luck. English translations of most of the v.2/v.3 manuals are available online, though it takes some time to assemble the various sources and piece them together. For me, it was most useful to skim the official resources, then work through a few MyCom programs to get a handle on the language and its capabilities.

Multiple emulators support Family BASIC, its keyboard, and (tape-based) saving features. I’d highly recommend Nintaco, a fairly new, Java-based emulator that works cross-platform and includes all manner of useful FB utilities. Most impressive of these is the Family BASIC Background Editor, which lets you circumvent FB’s built-in background editor in lieu of a more modern interface. I have no idea why Nintaco’s developer would put so much care into an interface that only a small number of people would use, but I’m exceptionally grateful that they did. It’s an incredible time-saver.

Nintaco’s Family BASIC Background Editor

When I started thinking about my own FB project, I decided to design a Japanese sugoroku, partly because that’s a component of my other research interests, and partly because I wanted to make a game well-suited for the platform. FB action games don’t always feel great, and they can only be so complex, so I thought a turn-based movement/logic system would work well. I also thought I could make a pretty good approximation of sugoroku’s cell-based board layout using tiles and fill each section with tiny vignettes assembled from FB’s preset graphics. I also knew the game logic would be relatively simple to implement. Sugoroku, in a nutshell, is a race-to-the-finish style game that relies solely on the luck of the die roll. In the sugoroku variation I adapted (called “jumping” or “leaping” sugoroku), player progress is non-linear. Each board space has a list of numbers (corresponding to one or more die faces) and their destination spaces. So space 1, for example, might have you leap to space 6 if you roll a 2, leap to space 8, if you roll a 4, and so on. I didn’t have room to include destination numbers on each board space, but I thought that was a reasonable visual concession, since the computer is handling the numbers. Additionally, not all rolls allow you to move, and I made 4 an unlucky roll in all spaces (as a nod to the Japanese superstitions surrounding that number). In sum, there is no strategy or player choice—you roll and move, and that’s it.

Initially I thought the sugoroku’s theme would be Japanese ghosts, so I input ghost names in the custom data structure I created to store each spaces’ coordinates and destinations. After I got the game logic working, I realized I wouldn’t be able to make representative ghost illustrations in the limited tiles I had for each board space, so I spent some time “sketching” in the background editor and settled on a new theme—visiting an art museum. I loved the look of the borders in each board space, and I could fill the remaining interior tiles with tiny abstract assemblages that looked like modern art pieces. Once I’d drawn the entire background, I swapped the ghost names for artwork titles and built a little routine to print them on the right side of the screen, since I had an extra column of graphical space to fill.

An early prototype with the basic layout and logic in place, along with a ghost name written in the right graphical column.

Part of the challenge of working in Family BASIC is the Famicom’s limited resolution for displaying code. You can only view a small number of lines at a time, and with limited error messages, debugging is a tedious process of hitting an error, LISTing the pertinent lines, carefully making edits (it’s easy to overwrite other lines), running the program to check your edits, and on and on. Nintaco allows you to copy/paste code in and out of the emulator, so I started copying my source to Notepad to use as a reference while I was debugging. It’s not ideal, but it does save some editing time.

If you hate your eyes, please enjoy debugging BASIC at Famicom resolution.

One limitation I did enjoy was the need to plan my programming in advance—on paper. BASIC uses line numbers to organize code, so even with the best intentions and ample line allotments, you can run into situations where you’ve exhausted all of your line numbers. FB v.3.0 added a helpful renumbering keyword, but I was working in 2.1A (because I wanted the authentic experience), so I had to renumber a few times by hand. Fortunately, I had planned most of the program in my notebook beforehand, so I knew roughly how much space I would need. Most of my line numbering problems were a result of adding feature I hadn’t originally planned.

Mapping out program flow in my notebook before I started typing.
Plotting the sugoroku board and its data structure.

Despite FB’s limitations, I’m pleased with the results. I think the “Art Walk” theme maps well to sugoroku’s random structure. It’s possible to “leave the museum” in two turns, or you can get stuck wandering for a long time. Instead of losing a turn, you must “contemplate for 1 turn” and spend more time in front of your current painting. And perhaps my favorite small touch is when I discovered that Mario and Lady’s ladder climbing frame resembles patrons standing in front of a painting and pointing at some detail they see.

The finished game, “Art Walk Sugoroku.”

For future projects, I’ll definitely jump to FB v.3. Just as I was finishing the project, I ran into an Out of Memory error, so I was scrambling to delete REM statements (i.e., comments) and concatenate lines to save precious bytes. As a result, I had no room for a few extra features I wanted—walking animations, a bit more music, and randomized “art critiques” that would appear on the screen as the players moved.

So why make a Family BASIC game in 2019? If you’re a newcomer to the Famicom/NES, it’s a user-friendly way to better understand the platform’s architecture. Tricky concepts like attribute tables are more legible when you have to manipulate background tiles around conflicting color borders (e.g., you can see a bit of color clash in my game—note the green numbers on a few board spaces). I also find it creatively rewarding to program under severe constraints. It’s a useful exercise to program before you touch a computer, and you can often think up clever game design tricks that you might never run into if you were working in JavaScript or Unity.

For those interested, you can download the save state for “Art Walk Sugoroku” to run it in Nintaco (don’t forget you’ll need a Family BASIC 2.1 ROM) and/or check out the source code on GitHub. And if you end up making your own Family BASIC project, be sure to send it my way on Twitter.

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50 days ago
Retrocomputing at its best.
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Hu Shih and Chinese language reform

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Hu Shih 胡適 (Pinyin Hú Shì [1891-1962]) is widely regarded as one of the most important Chinese intellectuals of the 20th century.  As such, he is known as the "Father of the Chinese Renaissance".  In my estimation, Hu Shih was the single most influential post-imperial thinker and writer in China.  His accomplishments were so numerous and multifarious that it is hard to imagine how one man could have been responsible for all of them.

Before proceeding, I would like to call attention to "Hu Shih:  An Appreciation" by Jerome B. Grieder, which gives a sensitive assessment of the man and his enormous impact on Chinese thought and culture.  Another poignant recollection is Mark Swofford's "Remembering Hu Shih:  1891-1962", which focuses on aspects of Hu's monumental advancement of literary and linguistic transformation in China.  For those who want to learn more about this giant of a thinker and writer, I recommend Grieder's biography, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937 (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1970) and A Pragmatist and His Free Spirit:  the half-century romance of Hu Shi & Edith Clifford Williams (Hong Kong:  Chinese University Press, 2009) by Susan Chan Egan and Chih-p'ing Chou.

To name just a few of Hu Shih's countless achievements, he made fundamental contributions to the study of the history of Chan / Zen in China, he was responsible for pathbreaking clarifications resulting from textual research on The Dream of the Red Chamber (China's most famous novel), and he was the first scholar to comprehensively examine the evolution of Chinese philosophy from a nontraditional standpoint.  As someone whose interests straddle India and China, I was particularly struck by Hu's radically insightful chapter on "The Indianization of China:  A Case Study in Cultural Borrowing", which may be found in the volume of Harvard Tercentenary Publications titled Independence, Convergence, and Borrowing in Institutions, Thought, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard College, 1937), pp. 219–247.  As a Chinese scholar of the modern era, Hu Shih was unmatched for his breadth of knowledge and boldness in formulating new approaches to old problems.

Hu Shih was also a diplomat, having served as China's ambassador to the United States from 1938-1942 and to the United Nations (1957).  Speaking flawless English, Hu was an excellent representative of the Republic of China.  He was chancellor of Peking University (1946-1948) and president of Academia Sinica from 1958 until his death in 1962.

In the test of time, however, I predict that Hu Shih's most lasting and transformative gift to China will be his elaboration of a theoretical and practical basis for the establishment of the vernacular as the national language for all the people, in contrast to Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, which belonged to the tiny percentage of literati who had mastered it during the previous two millennia and more before his time.  Naturally, there were other reformers (such as Chen Duxiu [1879-1942]; like Hu Shih, he was also from Anhui Province) who were promoting language reform around the same time as Hu Shih, but his statements concerning the essential problems that had to be faced and the requisite solutions for overcoming them were the clearest and most systematic program for creating China's new national language.

From the time I began studying Chinese language and literature, I was keenly aware of Hu Shih's awesome essays on how to remake written Chinese.  The first that I became familiar with was his "A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform", which was published in New Youth in January, 1917.  In it Hu laid out eight guidelines for effective writing:

  1. Write with substance. By this, Hu meant that literature should contain real feeling and human thought. This was intended to be a contrast to the recent poetry with rhymes and phrases that Hu saw as being empty.
  2. Do not imitate the ancients. Literature should not be written in the styles of long ago, but rather in the modern style of the present era.
  3. Respect grammar. Hu did not elaborate at length on this point, merely stating that some recent forms of poetry had neglected proper grammar.
  4. Reject melancholy. Recent young authors often chose grave pen names, and wrote on such topics as death. Hu rejected this way of thinking as being unproductive in solving modern problems.
  5. Eliminate old clichés. The Chinese language has always had numerous four-character sayings and phrases* used to describe events. Hu implored writers to use their own words in descriptions, and deplored those who did not.  *(VHM:  chéngyǔ 成语 ["set phrase"])
  6. Do not use allusions. By this, Hu was referring to the practice of comparing present events with historical events even when there is no meaningful analogy.
  7. Do not use couplets or parallelism. Though these forms had been pursued by earlier writers, Hu believed that modern writers first needed to learn the basics of substance and quality, before returning to these matters of subtlety and delicacy.
  8. Do not avoid popular expressions or popular forms of characters. This rule, perhaps the most well-known, ties in directly with Hu's belief that modern literature should be written in the vernacular, rather than in Classical Chinese. He believed that this practice had historical precedents, and led to greater understanding of important texts.

1. xū yán zhī yǒu wù 須言之有物
2. bù mófǎng gǔrén 不摹仿古人
3. xū jiǎngqiú wénfǎ 須講求文法
4. bùzuò wú bìng zhī shēnyín 不作無病之呻吟
5. wu qù làndiào tàoyǔ 務去濫調套語
6. bùyòng diǎn 不用典
7. bù jiǎng duìzhàng 不講對仗
8. bù bì súzì súyǔ 不避俗字俗語

In April of 1918, Hu published a second article in New Youth, this one titled "Constructive Literary Revolution – A Literature of National Speech". In it, he simplified the original eight points into just four:

  1. Speak only when you have something to say. This is analogous to the first point above.
  2. Speak what you want to say and say it in the way you want to say it. This combines points two through six above.
  3. Speak what is your own and not that of someone else. This is a rewording of point seven.
  4. Speak in the language of the time in which you live. This refers again to the replacement of Classical Chinese with the vernacular language.

1. yào yǒu huà shuō, fāngcái shuōhuà 要有话说, 方才说话
2. yǒu shéme huà, shuō shénme huà; huà zěnme shuō, jiù zěnme shuō 有什么话, 说什么话; 话怎么说, 就怎么说
3. yào shuō wǒ zìjǐ de huà, bié shuō biérén de huà 要说我自己的话, 别说别人的话
4. shì shénme shídài de rén, shuō shénme shídài de huà 是什么时代的人, 说什么时代的话

Sources:  here, here, and here.

Shortly after I began the study of Chinese in 1967, I became thoroughly familiar with these succinct, programmatic statements by Hu Shih on how to go about the important task of vernacularizing written Chinese.  I studied these two essays of his intently, and they constituted an integral part of my own approach to Chinese.  But it was only five days ago when listening to a talk by Carlos Lin that I was made aware of an even earlier essay by Hu Shih on the matter of how to reshape Chinese language in the modern age.  This was his "The Teaching of Chinese as It Is", which is part III (the conclusion) of "The Problem of the Chinese Language".  It appeared in The Chinese Students' Monthly, 11.8 (June, 1916), 567-572.  The journal was published by The Chinese Students' Alliance in the United States of America and was distributed from Ithaca, New York.

In 1910, at the age of 19, Hu Shih had been selected as a "national scholar" and sent to Cornell University to study agriculture with funds from the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program.  In 1912 he switched majors to philosophy and literature.  After graduating from Cornell, he went to Columbia to study philosophy under John Dewey, which accounts for his lifelong attachment to the concept of pragmatic evolutionary change.

Here are the opening three paragraphs of his 1916 article:

I am of the opinion that most of the faults which have been attributed to our language are due to the fact that it has never been properly and scientifically taught. Its critics have been too hasty in their condemnations, and have failed to realize that languages are more conservative than religions and cannot be made and remade by sensational agitations and destructive criticisms. I readily admit that an alphabetical language may have greater advantages than our own language and that the alphabetization of Chinese is a problem worthy of scientific study. But it is highly improbable that we and even our second and third generations will live to see the adoption of an alphabetized Chinese, although we may work for it. In the meanwhile, the teaching of Chinese as it is constitutes a far more urgent problem, because it is the language which records our past and present civilization, which is the only means of inter-provincial communication, and which is the only available instrument of national education.

There are a few generalizations which I consider to be of great importance in discussing the problem of teaching Chinese as it is. The first of these is that what we call our literary language is an almost entirely dead language. Dead it is, because it is no longer spoken by the people. It is like Latin in Mediaeval Europe; in fact, it is more dead (if mortality admits of a comparative degree), than Latin, because Latin is still capable of being spoken and understood, while literary Chinese is no longer auditorily intelligible even among the scholarly class except when the phrases are familiar, or when the listener has already some idea as to what the speaker is going to say.

The second generalization is that we must free ourselves from the traditional view that the spoken words and the spoken syntax are “vulgar.” The Chinese word vulgar (see chart 2 (44) [VHM:  there he prints sú 俗]) means simply “customary” and implies no intrinsic vulgarity. As a matter of fact, many of the words and phrases of our daily use are extremely expressive and therefore beautiful. The criterion for judging words and expressions should be their vitality and adequacy of expression, not their conformity to orthodox standards. The spoken language of our people is a living language: it represents the daily needs of the people, is intrinsically beautiful, and possesses every possibility of producing a great and living literature as is shown in our great novels written in the vulgate.

[VHM:  emphasis added]

Hu Shih not only composed these succinct platforms for revitalizing written Chinese, he wrote a pathbreaking history of vernacular literature which demonstrated that China all along had the potential makings for written vernacular, but that it was continuously repressed by the towering prestige of the literary language.

Hu Shih also exemplified the principles he laid out for readily comprehensible writing in Chinese by penning his own pellucid prose.  I still remember vividly how it was always a breath of fresh air to read something by Hu Shih that was written in pure báihuà 白话 (lit., "plain speech") after slogging through the tortured, turgid bànwénbànbái 半文半白 ("semiliterary-semivernacular") of typical pedants.

Above all, I had the greatest admiration for Hu Shih for having written poetry in báihuà, and I memorized one of them that was titled "Lóng niǎo 籠鳥" ("Caged bird") that had this line, "Wǒ yào chūlái 我要出來" ("I want to get out!"), and I always felt that this was a metaphor for the constrainment of the Chinese people for the past two millennia and more.  (Unfortunately, I can't find this poem online now, but I did memorize it and I always thought it was by Hu Shih.)

I also recall a passage from one of Hu Shih's essays on how to live a meaningful "new life" in which he described a white bear (báixióng 白熊) in a zoo pacing back and forth (bǎiláibǎiqù 摆来摆去) all day long.  It was so easy to understand essays and poems written in báihuà (the vernacular) because they sounded like what one heard around one all the time.  That is why literacy is so much more readily achieved in báihuà than in Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, because everything you hear about you reinforces what you read, unlike LS / CC where you have to learn a separate, dead language that you never hear in daily speech.

Thus we see that, from the very beginning of his efforts to infuse new life into Chinese civilization, Hu Shih astutely recognized the centrality of living vernacular language.  An apt summation of how he viewed the key role of language in the rebirth of Chinese civilization may be found in his The Chinese Renaissance: The Haskell Lectures, 1933, published by The University of Chicago Press and Cambridge University Press in 1934.

Many of the most celebrated Chinese scholars of the 20th century expressed thoughtful and informed opposition to the written language they had inherited.  In its place, they advocated alphabetization and the vernacular.  Hu Shih and his colleagues were doing this long before any Chinese government had adopted an official romanization and even before the adoption of vernacular as the official written medium.  This advocacy transcended political inclinations, with distinguished scholars like Hu Shih in the Republic of China and outstanding authors such as Lu Xun in the People's Republic of China all pushing for fundamental language reform, and doing so on the basis of profound knowledge of history, literature, and linguistics, such as Hu Shih's Báihuà wénxué shǐ 白話文學史 (A History of Vernacular Literature) and Lu Xun's (1881-1936) Ménwài wén tán 門外文談 (An Outsider's Chats about Written Language).

It has been a full century since Hu Shih uttered these words:

I readily admit that an alphabetical language may have greater advantages than our own language and that the alphabetization of Chinese is a problem worthy of scientific study. But it is highly improbable that we and even our second and third generations will live to see the adoption of an alphabetized Chinese, although we may work for it.

We are now into the third generation since Hu Shih penned those remarks, but it has only been half a century since the PRC promulgated Hanyu Pinyin, devised by Zhou Youguang (1906-2017) and his colleagues, as the official romanization of China.  Where do we stand now with regard to Hu Shih's prediction concerning alphabetization?  Does emerging digraphia count as partial alphabetization?

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54 days ago
Good rules, even for English writing. I find people casual written Chinese follows these rules; the more literary, the more callback to the classics. What is that but culture?
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MRT Poetry: ‘Planting Rice Seedlings’ by Chan Ping 捷運詩句:詹冰的〈插秧〉

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Planting Rice Seedlings The paddy field is a mirror Reflecting the blue sky Reflecting the white clouds Reflecting the black mountains Reflecting the green trees The farmer plants seedlings Plants them on the green trees Plants them on the black … Continue reading

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60 days ago
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👹杀人魔鼠尾草 & 龙崎👹 : 砍死法老💀 [LYRIC VIDEO]

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From: zhongtv
Duration: 05:36


Song Title: 砍死法老
Song Artist: 杀人魔鼠尾草 & 龍崎

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60 days ago
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Cryptic, allusive messages from Hong Kong's wealthiest tycoon

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People have been wondering when Hong Kong's magnates would speak out on the prolonged protests in their city.  Finally one has.  That's Li Ka-shing, the richest of them all:  "HK Billionaire Li Ka-Shing Breaks Silence Over Protests" (8/15/19 newscast on YouTube).  He took out full page advertisements (both seem to be on the front page) in two of Hong Kong's most influential financial newspapers:  Hong Kong Economic Times and Hong Kong Economic Journal.  Here's the first:

It looks straightforward, simple, and heartfelt, with that big crossed-out "bàolì 暴力" ("[NO] violence") in the center of a big, red circle.  Here's the rest of the entire text, which looks innocent and innocuous enough, especially with the striking repetition of "ài 愛" ("love"):

zuì hǎo de yīn
kě chéng zuì huài de guǒ
"The best cause
can become the worst result"

ài Zhōngguó
ài Xiānggǎng
ài zìjǐ
"Love China
Love Hong Kong
Love yourself"

ài zìyóu
ài bāoróng
ài fǎzhì
"Love freedom
Love tolerance / inclusivity
Love rule of law"

yǐ ài zhī yì
zhǐxī nùfèn
"With loving justice
Stop anger"

yīgè Xiānggǎng shìmín Lǐ Jiāchéng
"A citizen of Hong Kong, Li Ka-shing"

But that's not the end of it.  No sooner had Li Ka-shing's ad been published than sharp netizens began to see that it contained an artfully constructed hidden message:

If we extract the final characters of the eight lines of the text, we obtain this powerful advice from Li Ka-shing:

yīnguǒ yóu guó
róng gǎng zhìjǐ


"The cause and the result depend upon China ([Zhōng]guó [中]國)
let Hong Kong rule itself"

The last two characters of the two phrases of the bottom horizontal line above Li's signature are being widely interpreted as "yìfèn 義憤" ("righteous indignation").  Some decoders are reading the last two characters of the two parts of the signature line as mín chéng 民誠 ("sincerity of the people").

Finally, and this may be going too far, but numerologists are seeing that the first horizontal line has 4 characters, the second has 6, the third horizontal line has 8 characters, and the last horizontal line has 9 characters, and everyone knows what 4 / 6 / 89 signifies.  Moreover, the symbolism of 4 / 6 / 89 is reinforced by the 6 ài 愛 ("love") characters separated by 4 dots.  Last, there is a wish for prohibition of red at the very center.

Here's the second of Li Ka-shing's two ads:

This is quite a different genre, but equally subtle and suggestive.  It reads:

Huángtái zhī guā,
hé kān zài zhāi


"The melon of Huangtai
cannot endure further picking"

The poem is by the dauphin (crown prince), Li Xian (655-684) under Wu Zetian (624-705), the only female emperor in Chinese history.  In the fierce factional and internecine politics at her court, she repeatedly picked at the crown prince, to the point that she hounded him to commit suicide.  Her murderous maneuvering was all for the purpose of consolidating her supreme power.  "The melon of Huangtai" is a reference to the crown prince himself.  Not long after the crown prince's demise, her usurpatory rule came to an ignominious end.

The above two lines of the poem are preceded by this remark of Li Ka-shing:

zhèngrú wǒ zhīqián jiǎngguò / Cant. zing3 jyu4 ngo5 zi1 cin4 gong2 gwo3 (although there are no overt lexical items that would mark this as Cantonese)
("Just as I have said before")

Indeed, Li Ka-shing has quoted this poem at strategic moments in the past, such as in 2016, when he was asked whether Leung Chun-ying, who was Hong Kong chief executive at the time, but who had been discredited by his handling of the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 and large scale civil unrest in Mong Kok in 2016, whether "CY" would run for a second term.  Since the lines quoted can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending upon the circumstances, but usually imply that someone should not persist in a course of action that has shown itself to be unsuccessful.  In the present case, it could be interpreted to mean that current HK chief executive Carrie Lam and PRC president Xi JInping should withdraw the extradition bill completely and take steps to satisfy other requests the protesters have made.  Otherwise, if they keep picking at the Hong Kong melon, the vine is likely to wither and die.  I don't believe anyone in his / her right mind wants that to happen.

You may think that China's netizens are overthinking what Li Ka-shing intended by his two full-page newspaper advertisements, but I don't think so.  The PRC government has completely blocked all references to his pleas for peace:

"Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing's poetic call for peace blocked on Chinese social media", by Chow Chung-yan, SCMP (8/16/19)

The hashtag #LiKa-shingSpeakingOut recently was one of the most searched-for phrases on Weibo (huge microblogging site), until it was taken down, no doubt at the demand of the Chinese government.

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer, John Lagerwey, and Abraham Chan]



[Fuller account of the context for the original composition of the "Melon of Huangtai" (Huángtái guā cí 黃台瓜辭) from the SCMP article cited just above.]

The poem was written by Li Xian, the crown prince of the Tang dynasty who lived between 654 and 684AD.

The sixth son of emperor Gaozong and the second son of the legendary empress Wu Zetian, Li Xian was known as an intelligent and capable prince. As his brothers fell one by one in a Byzantine court intrigue, he was installed as the crown prince and the heir apparent.

But his ambitious mother concentrated all of the power in her hands as her ailing husband succumbed to illness. She became suspicious of Li Xian and put him under house arrest.

In desperation, Li wrote the poem as a subtle protest to his mother.
>Here is a rough translation:

Growing melons beneath Huangtai,

Hanging heavily, many grow ripe,

Pick one, the others will be fine,

Pick two, fewer are left on the vine,

If you want to get yet another one,

That's where we must draw the line,

For if there is any more reaping,

You will end up with an empty vine.

The prince's lament did not move his mother. The empress accused Li Xian of treason and he was sent into exile. In 684, shortly after his father's death, empress Wu forced her son to commit suicide.

The melon of Huangtai, however, became a popular expression in Chinese culture, symbolising suffering in the face of persecution.

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66 days ago
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