Racial Profiling

October 31st, 2007

Affluent shopperssomething to hideTokyo Rosethese must be Ainuinnocents?fraternizationwould you trust him?old warrior

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My efforts at racial profiling began when a Chinese friend, who like many Chinese still harbor a great grudge against the Japanese, not only on account of Japanese brutality during their aggression into China beginning in 1937, but because of the continuing Japanese denial and historical revisionism…. Anyway, this friend said he could spot a Japanese “from across the room”, and I suppose he meant a room otherwise filled with Chinese. So I thought I must be awfully ethnically insensitive, and should work on it.

By now I had a pretty good baseline on the variations in the Chinese countenance, and even some applied practice in Vietnam. But, anticipating our trip to Japan, it was clear that this would be the real McCoy, and the perfect opportunity to train in physiogonometrics. Of course, as I started observing Japanese in trains and restaurants and on park benches, I realized that clothing and iPods and even mannerisms also provided cues. Any social scientist would have warned me of these confounding variables. In an attempt to neutralize them, I tried to “undress” my subjects, so to say, in the interests of scientific rigor, you understand. Even so, this business of racial discrimination is exacting, and it would have been nice to have had a set of calipers, like Himmler’s people had at their disposal.

After ten days, I had the defining characteristics of the Japanese down pat. Though I did have to consider several angles, which would be hard to implement across a room. Still, I felt pride of achievement. The amazing thing is that, after returning to Hangzhou, with my enhanced sensitivities, I began to realize how many Japanese there were living here in China. The few that I have approached, and addressed with my small vocabulary of Japanese greetings, pretended not to understand me. Of course, if I were a Japanese living in China, I too would dissemble, given all the Chinese observing me from across the room. Dissemblance, denial — they’re a devious race these Japs, the whole lot of them. What with their little gadgets and funny-sounding “r’s”, they’ve got a choke-collar on the whole Asian economy far out of proportion to their diminutive size, and that after we whipped their asses in ’45.

Musical Magnetism

October 27th, 2007

Chiba trioYuki and JudyTomoko

Still Minatures

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Tomoko Ando and Yukiko Hayashi live in Chiba City, across the bay from Tokyo, a locale that the Lonely Planet Japan guide dismisses as being of no particular interest. Perhaps not in terms of shines, temples or beautiful volcanic cones. But music has a powerful magnetism that draws across continents. Tomoko is a pianist; Yuki a violinist. Both lived several years in Atlanta, where they had joined forces with Judy to play music regularly at Northside Hospital. English horn, violin and piano is a hard combination to beat.

I dare say that all the temples of Kyoto, all the shops of Ginza and all the museums of Ueno couldn’t match the pleasure of one afternoon’s reunion in Tomoko’s living room — piano is the least portable of the three; oboe and English horn were schlepped through airport security and half-way round the world; Yuki arrived by train with violin slung across back. Two young children provide plenty of distraction for Tomoko; Yuki’s husband, sadly, has been rendered invalid by a stroke, relegating Yuki’s violin to second fiddle. But lack of practice and a two-and-a-half year hiatus in playing together only intensified the energy to get it right.

For me the pleasure was vicarious, but no less real. I participated as best I could: kept the recorder running, so that you (click on “Still Miniature” link above to download the mp3 clip) and they can relive the moment. Here’s to the three of you — bravo!

There seems to be a special bond between musicians, unfathomable to us non-musical mortals, and only to be envied. Condi, we understand, plays terrific piano; perhaps Ahmadinejad plays the oboe (it originated in Persia); was it not Saddam fiddling as Baghdad burned? If the three could only have gotten together on the William Grant Still “Miniatures”!

Sake Socialism

October 27th, 2007

Tokyo Ginzagood foodexcellent sakeprofound conversation

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If you are fortunate, as I am, to have a friend and former scientific colleague willing to show you the sights in Tokyo, I suggest allotting equal time to some quiet, far-from-Ginza sashimi bar as to the glitz itself. Perhaps it was the sake more than the fish that facilitated our joint retrospections into the just-so stories of how we came to the laboratory bench. My tale was routed through Madison, Wisconsin, which provided both a cover in the form of an academic deferment from the draft and a stage for anti-war boisterousness. The University thrived on the former while squelching the latter.

Tamie’s tale was more interesting. It was routed through Moscow, where, uniquely for students outside of the Eastern Bloc, Japanese students were courted in a Soviet effort to win hearts and minds. Reaction to MacArthur-styled occupation and the persistence of Japanese denial of guilt had spawned a post-war generation of Japanese youth that viewed socialism as the path out of that morass. So the young chemistry student dropped out of Tokyo U in favor of Moscow State. During the next five years he learned Russian and earned a degree in physical chemistry. The contingent of Japanese students — I believe is was only forty some — had brought their political commitment with them. As the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong grew ever more brutal, they did what red-blooded idealists were doing in all parts of the world: they organized a protest demonstration at the American Embassy.

In Madison, the University’s tactic was to summon city police, bloody a few heads as examples, and drag the rest off the streets to city jail, only to drop charges when the demonstration was thus defused — you can’t have a demonstration without people. In Moscow, the University’s tactic was to threaten expulsion and deportation — you can’t have a demonstration without people. The very idea of people-power was just as threatening in the one capital as in the other.

But the Japanese students were at least as savvy at politics as at chemistry. The Russian students, they realized, had long since been drained of their spunk, but not so the other foreign student contingents, especially the Cubans. Three times the Japanese students organized demonstrations along side the Cubans and Africans. Three times they were threatened with expulsion and deportation. But thanks to student solidarity, the little bastards had the Dean by the short hairs — Japanese were expendable, but no way could he get away with ejecting the Cubans and Africans.

With another glass of sake the irony turned from amusing to bitter. That was not socialism, but feudalism – or something to that effect is the summary I remember. Tamie returned to Tokyo, Russian degree in hand, pursued a doctoral degree in molecular biology, and eventually emigrated to the U.S. Still a keen and able scientist, even in retirement, I glimpsed a former keeness in that very Japanese bar, far from Ginza, far from present realities.

Of Mice and Matriarchs

September 13th, 2007

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On my hotel room wall in Hanoi hung a print of mediocre artistic quality, but provocative content. Stretched out on the long horizontal axis was a bridal procession — I suppose in the Vietnamese tradition, but familiar to me as Chinese tradition. Ranks of musicians and well-wishers and sedan-chair porters, bearing the bride. The figures were all bipedal mice, in human attire. On the far right of the painting sits the expectant groom, with an appropriate gleam in his eye. Unmistakably a cat. Such an apt caricature of the dynamics of traditional Chinese marriage: the bride is virtually delivered up to into servitude, sexual and otherwise, to the groom and his family. What good are girls? You feed them until about the time they might begin to prove useful, and then they get married off. A boy or two, of course, balances things out, and puts you on the receiving end. With a little luck in the horse trading, you’ll end up with a filly of even stronger back and broader beam than you were able to spawn. But this one-child nonsense upsets the equilibrium.

The picture associates in my mind with a unit in my Chinese Reader on the strong Chinese sense of family, the prime example of which was the seriousness given to the matter of a girl’s latching onto a socially acceptable (= financially promising) guy, and, please, by all means (several specified), before 30.

Now think back to LIjiang, in Yunnan, the heart of the former realm of the Naxi people. In the good old days before Han-Chinese domination, the Naxi, so all the guides and guidebooks make a point of instructing us, was a matriarchal society. The girls, confident heiresses that they were, and freed from having to focus their major effort on glomming onto a financially stable guy, spend their spring evenings gamboling on Yak Meadow, granting and terminating audiences with would-be suitors like the Queen of Hearts flicking off heads.

Just imagine a latter day Naxi orphanage filled with cute, but useless, little boy babies awaiting adoption by an enlightened Occidental couple.

Where have all the flowers gone?

August 27th, 2007

Jade Dragon MountainLijiang Old TownTired festival folkFirst Bend of the JinshaNaxi musicianOne of those loose Naxi womenBaisha villageRapids in Tiger Leaping Gorge

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The tale goes like this. During the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals were sent to the countryside for a little re-education, Yunnan Province was regarded as the ultimate boondock, the place for the most incorrigible of intellectuals. Then the old guy died, and things began to relax, and the exiles drifted back into the universities and clinics of mainstream Chinese cities and societies. But not those sent to Yunnan. Being intellectuals, some were smart enough to know a good thing when they saw it. The climate was great (I left Hangzhou at 32 ºC and arrived in Kunming at 20 ºC), the air breathable, the landscape beautifully alpine, the people not really Chinese, and it was a long, long way from Beijing.

Thus was Yunnan discovered as the cool place to be. And there were other pheromones at play. There was the mystique of once matriarchal society, where finding an economically secure husband was not the only thing on a girls’s mind. The province is at the narrow end of the funnel for southeast Asian dope into China, and we all know that intellectuals are hippies at heart. You can get a decent cup of coffee there, presumably thanks to a Muslim heritage, instead of wimpy green tea. Or for the really hairy-chested, there’s yak butter tea.

So what if you can see the Great Wall from space? Yunnan’s the place for my holiday.

When I say I was not disappointed, don’t take me wrong. Okay, so Kunming, the provincial capital, beyond cool air and good coffee, is so-so, and its trademark Dian Chi lake so polluted it doesn’t make the charts. Okay, so the matriarchies have been replaced solid, Han patriarchy. But there are many charms. Its “Stone Forest”, though, a bizarre karst landscape a couple of hours drive from the city, impressed this traveler (who had not previously visited such geological formations.) And it gets better.

Lijiang is/was the heartland of the Naxi people. Separated from the new town by a low ridge is the old town, a warren of narrow streets and alleys, all off limits to motor vehicles, and lined with sturdy, wooden, two-storey structures, and flushed — I choose the word with deliberation — by mountain-fed streams, fanned out through all parts of the old city. There’s the Naxi music hall, which resurrects traditional music, with it roots in the 14th century or so, and which, if I counted correctly, boasts six octogenarians in a troupe of thirty.

One suspects a element of fakery from the Naxi-costumed sales girls in the over-abundant tourist shops (it would really have been nicer had they left a few structures in original shape as museum pieces, or, god forbid, as actual residences), but when, at the culmination of their mid-summer festival, thousands of traditionally bedecked natives descended on the town to parade and sing and dance, I was convinced the not even Cecile B. de Mille or Zhang Yimou could stage that.

The broader environs of Lijiang are spectacular. The “Jade Dragon Snow Mountain” dominates as the valley floor narrows to the north. The Jinsha River, the main tributary to what becomes the great Yangtze, rushes down from the Tibetan plateau, alternately in lush valleys and narrow gorges, in what “should” be a southerly course, taking it, in parallel to the Red and Mekong Rivers through Indochina to the South China Sea. But then does a one-eighty at the “First Bend”, and winds up traversing China’s midriff to empty into the Pacific at Shanghai. Just downstream, long before it enters the famous Three Gorges (infamously dammed), it negotiates the “Tiger Leaping Gorge” , enraged between ranges rising 3000 meters above its rapids, themselves at 2500 meters above the sea.

Granted, in August it’s all fog-bound and drizzly. But we modern intellectuals only get to the countryside during semester breaks, not like in the good old days.

When you really need to get away from the tourists, the druggies, the loose Naxi women, and the natural spectacles, you can always rent a bicycle, and zigzag your way up the valley floor. You’ll see things you’ll never see in Kansas.

Sea Dragons

August 26th, 2007

Halong BayEvening anchor in HalongFruit vendorHalong viewBoat dining

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You probably associate the Gulf of Tonkin with the first phoney pretext for a president’s taking America into undeclared war on a foreign country. (Perhaps I’m too young to know of earlier ones. Mexico? For those even younger than I, know that honest-faced Colin Powell’s glossy Power-Point presentation to the UN assuring us of Iraq’s possession of wmd’s was not the first such pretext.) Less ephemeral than the phantom Vietnamese attack on American warships are the hundreds of limestone mountain tops jutting out of the Gulf of Tonkin in Halong Bay — where the dragon descended to the sea. It’s an errily beautiful area which really has to be explored by boat to be appreciated. (If you’re not ready to hop a plane to Hanoi, at least check it out on Google-Earth, or rent “A Beautiful Country”, a Vietnamese film from 2004, for a vicarious look.)

The wimpy way to get there is to sign up for a package tour in Hanoi; do the three-day / two-night version or better. Though an Australian friend opines that maritime hitch-hiking works well.

Our boat accommodated 14 guests with dining deck, cabins below, and sun deck above. A daily swim was simply a matter of dropping anchor and jumping in. We managed a couple of terrestrial hikes, to a panoramic view from a mountain top on the largest island, Cat Ba, and to a huge cave discovered first in 1919. Another day we stopped at one of the floating villages that dot the bay — for the most part the mountains rise so steeply from the sea as to preclude land-based fishing villages — to avail ourselves of kayaks, and thus to gain access to a sandy swimming cove and a completely secluded bay entered through a small, natural tunnel in the limestone rock. Enchanting is the only word that comes to mind.

I can’t give you figures for the impact of Vietnam’s developing tourist industry on the country’s economy, but believe it to be substantial. The logistics of transportation and finding “safe” (hygienically, not physically) restaurants and lodging, for the non-Vietnamese speaker, are probably best left to the tour operators — of which there is an abundance of these in Hanoi; you’ll have more trouble avoiding them than finding them.

But why so few Americans among the throngs? Brits, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italians, even a few prissy Germans, have taken the plunge. And among the residual benefits of sloughed colonialism are excellent coffee and baguettes. I didn’t perceive so much as a whiff of anti-Americanism. To appropriate an Atlanta slogan, the Vietnamese are too busy to hate. And if, in a few moments of reflection, your conscience might pick you a bit, that’s a not so bad.

War Reparations

August 26th, 2007

Hanoi’s Lake Hoan KiemStreet vendorMotosBalcony viewTemple of Learning

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Back at the keyboard after a three-week vacation in China’s Yunnan Province and Vietnam.

Which border to step across was open to taste: Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar all abut. But, naturally, I chose Vietnam. I have a long relationship to Vietnam. I had earlier taken pains — all the pain of an academic deferment — to avoid going there, while my country was bombing it back to the stone age (as the freshman war-planners Cheney and Rumsfeld were wont to say way back then, at least before we lost the war). So my relationship is a Dagwood-sandwich of guilt, resentment, self-righteousness and moral debt. All drenched in irony: guilt for the consequences of a war I actively opposed; resentment of those who closed the gates of their consciences and flew away scott-free on that last helicopter in 1975; righteousness in thinking that choosing to spend my tourist dollar in Vietnam would cancel the debt. Guilt is as sticky as napalm.

And so, with all that baggage, I strode down the “nothing to declare” line in Hanoi airport out into to streets of the now sovereign capital.

That is poetic license. One who strides carelessly into Hanoi’s streets will most certainly be struck down by a “moto”, an apparently kamikaze swarm of greater- and lesser-powered motorcycles that ceaselessly ply the streets, dozens abreast, each serving and jockeying for advantage, tooting, and disregarding pedestrians, when they are not parked on the sidewalk blocking your path and offering their services as conveyance to you for hire. So move individuals, hugging couples, families of four, and all manner of cargo, often one-handed (one needs the other for that important mobile call) and not a helmet in sight. I couldn’t get out my camera quickly enough to snap the one carrying a coffin cross-wise the back carrier. I wonder if it was full or empty. These are the indelible terms of endearment of the streets of Hanoi.

Even someone so sensitive and sympathetic as I soon becomes calloused to the stream of micro-capitalist vendors on the streets. Fruit, water, bread, basket-ware, postcards, souvenirs, ride-offers, restaurant hawkers. shoe shiners. “No, thank you” soon gets contracted to “No”, which finally gives way to a curt, dismissive hand gesture.

Those with a command of English (not a few, though French is passe’€€€€) demand more engagement. “Do you mind if I practice my English a little with you?” (How can you dismiss that?) Lake Hoan Kiem forms a central park in old-town Hanoi, close to my hotel, and I relaxed there every evening among the natives, young and old, who also enjoyed the relative quiet. A favorite spot also for the let-me-practice-my-English gambit, which, after a few minutes’ practice culminated in “would you be interested in ….?”

One evening a woman beckoned from a park bench; she would like to speak English with me. As I approached, it was impossible to overlook a missing leg. We chatted for a bit: American?, how long had I been in Vietnam?, first time?, what had I visited? “Flower” she gave her name as. With the polite introductions over, I got right to what was on my mind, half knowing what the answer would be: could I ask how she lost her leg? 1972, she was fifteen, stepped on a land-mine. Even with the benefit of premonition, the best I could muster was “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Then followed that up with a few murmurings on the tragedy of the war. But Flower wasn’t interested in buying into my guilt trip; she had her own commodities for sale. “Would I like to buy a magazine?” she asked as she pulled a magazine out of her shopping bag. It looked to be the only one she had; something like “Healthy Living”, English, not a pristine printing. It was not a time for haggling over price. Here’s fifty thousand Dong for the magazine and the interesting conversation; but you keep the magazine, I really won’t have the time to read it. After a few rounds of please-you-must-take-it-no-I-really-don’t-need-it she relented, and stuffed the magazine and fifty-grand into her bag. Her beautiful face and deep eyes showed a hint of consternation. At losing the argument or the leg? The former, I think; her dignity proscribed her taking something for nothing.

Three dollars in war reparations. Not a record to be proud of. But, then, back home in Hangzhou, I caught NPR’s Saturday Edition to hear may-be-presidential candidate Thompson declaring that he doesn’t apologize to anyone for America’s foreign behavior.

A Monday Matinee

July 9th, 2007

As the temperature and humidity climb in Hangzhou interest in my brilliant expositions of the eroterica of biotechnology fades. So I concede to the relaxations of summer by offering to show instead a new American film, a documentary on health care. With apologies to Moore and the Weinstein brothers, the only available copy was a purloined one, but I clenched my jaw in Jesuit resolve that the ends justify the means. And so a select group of English-comprehending (not to say always Moore-comprehending) Chinese graduate students put aside their books, replenished their tea, and opened their eyes. More gratifying still, they opened their mouths, not an easy response, in my experience, from the usually reticent Chinese student.

First off: what does “sicko” mean? Anyone care to offer a dictionary definition? I gave up on definitions, in favor of examples. God, how many, how easily the examples roll off one’s tongue: “now, that’s sicko.” Hillary was a hit. There is an informal Hillary fan club here. Even allowing for a predominance of women graduate students in the department, I figure this is a good impulse, and bite my cynical tongue as need be. Though I did take pains to explain that the little bubble-caption $$ were not the Senator’s salary, but her share of the take from the Medical Insurance Lobby. Oops, another hit on the pause-button: how to gloss the difference between “lobby”, as in hotel, and “lobby”, as in a pernicious undermining of American democracy in the name of freedom of speech? Nixon evoked cognitive dissonance: we Chinese revere him, don’t you? “Uh, we can talk about that later.”

Tony Benn’s homily on the essence of democratic socialism should resonate in Chinese and American ears equally. Both societies are so widely off the mark.

“Amusement” I think aptly describes the students’ reaction to scenes of Soviet wheat fields and military reviews at Tian’anmen Square. “Cold War” has clear connotations here, if often dismissed with nervous laughter. While “Capitalists” were certainly vilified, and their running dogs — more easily gotten hand on — brutally pilloried, “capitalism”, an und für Sich (as Marx would have had it), has not been wielded as a spectre intended to evoke irrational fear, as Moore shows us is still very much the stage feint of American statesmen at the end of the 20th century. Certainly not since the 3rd resurrection of Deng Xiaoping and his many-colored cats — that is, not during the entire lives of my young audience.

The irony of sound medical treatment at last in Cuba, I’m afraid, was lost: “Of course Cuba is known for its excellent medical science and care, what’s the big deal?” was the gist of their commentary. It’s so disarming to talk to people not raised to hate Cuba.

But it was at the end of an afternoon of glib repartee, while picking up after ourselves, that there came the two questions that seized my throat. While taking my disc out of her computer and returning it to me, this student asked, almost casually, “Is this film legal in America?” “Yes, it’s getting wide circulation.” “Then why don’t people do something about it?”

Circumstance and Pomp

June 27th, 2007

zju1_2365.jpgnew campus is constructed on wetlandsmain medical school buildingspring lab outingI

t’s commencement week at ZheDa = ZJU = Zhejiang University. (Since the Chinese language doesn’t have letters, it can’t form “initials”, but it does have syllables, each corresponding to a character, so it can leave out all but a few key ones, leaving a shortened, but euphonious expression.) A little late by American standards. The start of the Spring semester is governed by the Lunar New Year, and consequently shifts back and forth, when reckoned a la Pope Gregory. Fitting, given the number of people in places of power who think of universities as quaint, at best, or tending toward lunatic.

But you would recognize the scene. In the field house of the Yuquan campus (the old, but still much used campus nicely situated just west of West Lake) some 10,000 graduates marched across the stage. All color-coded by school and degree level. The man at the podium changed with the colors. Only the guy center stage stayed and stayed, for all ten thousand, I presume — clearly some sort of custodian in academic robes. Like most other spectators and students I drifted in and out of the field house as “my group” came and went. Only later did I confirm that the focal point of the on-stage photo opportunity was the university president, a custodian in academic robes.

I think I am not guilty of chauvinism to suggest that everything, including the mortarboard, was patterned on western, indeed, American academic custom. Names and faces notwithstanding, there were few hints that this was taking place in China. Missing, I register only in retrospect, were any grand academic musical ouvertures. But why not some of the clang-and-bang of a Chinese Opera ensemble? Now that would be just the right local seasoning for this mock turtle soup.

Of course, the real observances occurred before and after the official. Several parties — read, convocations at a local restaurant — with increasingly bleary eyed “gan bei’s” led up to the day itself. Nonetheless everyone was sober enough to tromp in larger or smaller groups to sentimental spots (on whichever campus they regard as mater) for photos in black robes under a by now sweltering Hangzhou sun.

Not incidental to the occasion was a program aired on CCTV a few days ago, marking the thirtieth anniversary of the reinstatement of the university entrance exam system. Reinstatement after an interruption of several years during which the Cultural Revolution declared that the only appropriate credentials for university entrance were proletarian ones. The results of that excess exuberance were, by all accounts, not so good.

Yet is there not a grain of sense to be found there? Performance on a one-swat, homogenized exam, as currently in force, is not so hunky-dory. For those urban elite with excellent secondary training, it’s a hell of a lot of pressure. For those children so carelessly left behind in the educational slums of China’s backwaters, it’s a non-starter.

But the day belonged to those celebrating their successful entrance and exit from a system not of their devising. I didn’t begrudge them a heartfelt “congratulations.”


June 27th, 2007

browsing for pornkindergarten behind my apartmenton the way to worknew housing near campus

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Some of my readership (i.e. one of the four) have asked about internet access in China. Let’s consider Wikipedia, about whose inaccessibility I have groused previously. The public facts go something like this: in the fall of 2005, when Microsoft and Yahoo and Cisco Systems, were falling over themselves trying to please the Beijing censors, the Wiki folks said “nothing doing, we’re all or none” — and were summarily nullified. Supposedly the ban was lifted a year later, when the Chinese satisfied themselves that they could filter out the bits they didn’t like without Wiki’s collaboration. But in fact, from March until now I have garnered nothing but “url unreachable” messages when I have clicked of Wikipedia links.

One would think that with all that negative reinforcement I would have given up on clicking wikilinks. But I did click – in my jubilation I forget the context – and was finally rewarded with the Wiki homepage! But hold on. Let’s click the Chinese version: sorry…; How about “Tiananmen”? “Tiananmen Square” yields all impressive discriptions and photos of the vast area. “Tiananmen massacre”: sorry…; “Tiananmen movement”: sorry…; sorry…; sorry… So I can happily conclude that indeed the Chinese university system is turning out crop after crop of very talented network engineers, who, quite without the collusion of amoral Western computer scientists, are quite able to put in place very nuanced “filters” on web content.

The good news — tongue now removed from cheek — is that I can talk to some of the students here in the Medical School about such things, and find them well informed. Remembering the PBS Frontline documentary last year on the “Tiananmen Tank Man”, the technological gauntlet is flung down; how can I resist? www.pbs.org: okay; Frontline: okay; there spread before my eyes are all the excellent documentaries. Almost there, let’s click “The Tank Man”: “An error condition occurred while reading data from the network…”! Damn it! So I reluctantly descend into the netherworld of “the pirate’s bay”. Searching for “tank man” …. there it is! Click “download” and …, got it! With sincere apologies to the intellectual rights of Frontline, but invoking the Jesuit doctrine of ends justifying means, I succeed in enlightening two-billioneths of the Chinese masses.

Maybe. Let’s hope neither are snitches.