There are a plethora of sources available to cover the conflict in Ukraine, but I think that two in particular are worth noting. First, the Oryx blog uses open source intelligence to track hardware losses. It’s based in the Netherlands, and is so effective that I have the feeling that even governments rely upon it. The blog also covers issues such as which European nations are donating equipment to Ukraine. If you are interested in objective information about Russian losses, or equipment donations, this is the source for you.
This conflict has also seen an unprecedented information war, one which Ukraine has certainly been winning. In my opinion, the best analysis of open source intelligence is Bellingcat. This blog provides critical thinking and research related to digital issues, but in the case of Ukraine it also provides key data on military events. If you only want to follow a couple of blogs to learn more about the conflict, these are the top two that I would suggest.
With the current fighting in Ukraine, and sanctions on Russia, some nations are facing the real possibility of food shortages next year. Ukraine is an agricultural powerhouse, which produces a high percentage of some global crops, in particular wheat. Of course, there have been global shortages throughout the pandemic. The rising price of gas -before the invasion of Ukraine- had already created series social and economic issues from Brazil to Europe. Still, no commodity may be as fundamental as food.
The Guardian has a wonderful article, “Our Food System isn’t ready for the climate crisis,” which looks at how global societies have become increasingly reliant on a declining number of crops. In turn, there has been a dramatic reduction in the genetic diversity of the crops that we do use. Plant varieties may be selected less for their ability to evade disease than their ability to be shipped large distance without rotting. As a result, our entire food web has become less resilient at the same time that we face the greatest challenge in modern history, the dramatic impact of climate change.
There are some scholars who suggest that one of the factors that led to the Bronze Age collapse around 1172 BC (and the end of an earlier period of globalization) was the loss of tin supply routes from Afghanistan, which made it difficult to produce bronze. As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, if China enters lockdown, car manufacturers in Germany can’t get their chips. As the Financial Times reported in a recent podcast, the world has a critical shortage of some key metals.
One of my favorite books is Joseph Tainter’s, the Collapse of Complex Societies. The work combines both archaeology and a systems perspective to look at how civilizations collapse. Tainter’s argument is that societies tend to become increasingly complex in order to address problems, but that with time this complexity often carries increasing costs while delivering marginal returns. When the costs of complexity begin to exceed its advantages, societies can suddenly become simpler, less hierarchical, more rural and smaller. In other words, they collapse.
I think many people have been aware for a long time how vulnerable aspects of modern society are to all kinds of shocks. But the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a fascination with the supply underpinnings of our global economy. The podcast “Ship happens” has become an unexpected hit, which is unusual for a podcast that focuses on logistical issues and the global supply chain. But I think that if there was just one global area to focus on it should be food, even more than energy. You can work remotely, dress more warmly, or take a bus to reduce your energy consumption. But it’s hard for most urban dwellers to produce much of their own food.
When I moved into my new apartment in Portland this year there was a bottle of wine waiting for me on the counter. It was a 2020 pinot noir from an Oregon winery. While I appreciated the gift, it was almost undrinkable because forest fires in California and Oregon that year had given the grapes a powerfully smoky taste. Whites or a pinot blanc were unaffected, because they lose their skins during the wine making process. But red wines that year tasted like smoke. Besides the impact of fires, the climate in Oregon is changing, which will impact wineries throughout the state. Last fall I spent six weeks in Portugal, which has a long history growing wine in a warmer and dryer climate, using grape varietals that have emerged over the course of more than two millennia. Why don’t wine producers in Oregon adopt these varieties? There are a plethora of options, which would be well-suited to future climate scenarios in the state. But they take time to grow, so that if we are going to experiment with this option, these varieties need to planted now. Ten years ago would have been better, and twenty years ago even better yet.
To the best of my knowledge, only one vintner in Oregon is experimenting with Portuguese, Spanish, Italian or Greek varietals. I think that Abacela may be the leader in the industry (many thanks to Stephen Frenkel for this information). Brazil has made real advances in wine production in the last thirty years, but you would never know it outside the country itself. Wine snobs would probably not even try wine produced in the tropics. Instead, with wine, bananas, avocados and potatoes, we usually still rely on the same old options that we did a generation or two ago. But climate change is coming. If the pandemic and Ukrainian invasion rock our current supply chains, what will happen when global warming seriously impacts food production? We need to rethink which crops we rely on, which varietals we use, and how we supply food on a global level.
Lakhani, Nina, Alvin Chang, Rita Liu, and Andrew Witherspoon. “Our Food System Isn’t Ready for the Climate Crisis.” The Guardian. April 14, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/food/ng-interactive/2022/apr/14/climate-crisis-food-systems-not-ready-biodiversity.
Tainter. (1988). The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge University Press.
What is clear is that Russia has neither conquered major urban centers, nor achieved air dominance; it’s planes can no longer fly over Europe; the Russian stock market has plunged, and the rubles’ value is crashing. Ukraine is rallying its population and resources. Europe is providing major military resources to Ukraine, while turning away from Russian energy. What is remarkable is that there now is serious discussion of having Ukraine join the European Union. Even Switzerland is following Europe’s lead on financial sanctions. It is difficult to unite Europe. But with the possible exception of Hungary, Russia seems to have both alienated its major energy customers, while leading Europe -particularly Germany- to pay huge amounts to strengthen their military forces. Whatever happens now in Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Russia could have done more to undermine its national interests so quickly. It’s a strange war.
I’ve blogged many times before about Digital Nomads, which are people who work in nations outside where they have citizenship, typically because they have jobs that can be completed online. I first became aware of digital natives after the 2008 financial crisis. Some of my students realized then that they could do their job -for example, data entry for a hospital- anywhere globally, while living in a country with a far lower standard of living. These students began to turn up in my online classes. Chiang Mai, Thailand was by far the most popular place for these students to live, but I also found students to be living anywhere with cheap costs and good internet.
In the years that have followed, Digital Nomads have become a true social movement for twenty and thirty-somethings. They have their own group on Linked In. Entire nations, such as Portugal, have begun to try and court this group, which is ironic. I was in Lisbon this fall, and found that many coffee shops will have signs on the tables near the windows: “No computers at the table.” The cafe owners don’t seem to want people in the street to look into their cafes to see people working there. At the same time, there’s always a space a little back from the windows in which there are long tables, filled with foreigners busily working on their Macbook.
So how do you become a Digital Nomad, or at least resettle in another country? I’ve been fascinated with this question, because I wondered how many people -often in their twenties- managed to figure out all the complexities that come from working abroad. It turns out that there is a network of resources to support these people. If you look on Reddit, you’ll find find subreddits that are filled with practical advice. I like also particularly Kristin Wilson’s podcast, “Badass Digital Nomads.” You should be aware that Kristin has a company that helps people relocate. Indeed, one of her podcast episodes features an audio recording of one of these classes, in which people describe their motivations and what they are learning from the course. What was interesting to me was that many people who were taking the class were not digital nomads, but rather retirees searching to find an new life abroad, not only because they wished to protect their finances, but also because they were disillusioned with life in the United States. I found myself curious to take the course. Kristin Wilson also has a popular Youtube channel about travel, “Traveling with Kristin.” It’s a good source for inspiration, while also being realistic about the challenges digital nomads and travelers face. One recent episode focused on what she disliked about living abroad, after having lived in sixty different countries.
I have a podcast, Dispatch 7, which has been on hiatus since October as I am on sabbatical. But I’ll return to work soon, and will be featuring some interviews with and about Digital Nomads.
Abstract: This article explains how a data visualization assignment can aid students in developing research skills in an online course created in partnership between a faculty and an academic ux designer. This resource is particularly relevant as faculty move curriculum online to meet demand related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We will describe the process by which the assignment was first designed and revised, and then share our assignment guidelines, video, rubrics, student quotes and examples of this assignment, which other faculty are free to use
I’ve written before about resources for Mandarin study, but I’ve found some new websites and tricks that I wanted to share. Here are some ideas, which will mainly be of use to intermediate (and perhaps some advanced) Chinese learners. As always, I have no financial ties or personal connections to any resources that I suggest:
Tips for using Pleco. If you aren’t using Pleco, as a Chinese language learner you probably should be. There is a plethora of free resources available to learn Mandarin. But Pleco is the one app that almost everyone studying Chinese uses. It’s a Chinese language dictionary. But it also serves to teach you stroke order, much like Skritter (which I also have and love). It also has flash cards, so that it’s also an alternative to Anki app. After I have a Chinese class on iTalki my tutor sends me a copy of the white board. I then enter all the new words into my “useful words” file in Pleco. That way I can study the words that I’ve used in my discussion, which is a more organic way to study vocabulary than relying on the HSK word lists (although we all do that too, right?). One feature that I particularly like in Pleco is that you can set the Chinese dictionary page to brush, and trace out a character that you see, in order to look up its definition. All these tools are pretty well known. But even many advanced learners may not realize that in Pleco’s settings you can change the font color by tone. I have set my colors to the ones that I saw on Zhongwen- red is first tone, orange is second, green is third, and blue is fourth. But you can set the color to anything that’s memorable for you. It’s much easier to quickly note a color, as opposed to reading a diacritic or a number. This step just makes it a little bit easier to recognize and remember tones when using Pleco.
Two great podcasts: I’m not yet at a stage where I can easily listen to Chinese language podcasts. I’m hoping to reach that level in a year or two. But there are two podcasts that I highly recommend, both of which are in English. “One Chinese Word a Day with Teacher Lin” by Everyday Chinese is just what the title promises. Every day Teacher Lin will introduce one word, as well as two or three other words that are built with it. Most episodes are two to four minutes in length. It’s a good way to build vocabulary without a large time commitment. Mandarin Slang Guide with Joshua Ogden-Davis provides more in depth information. One of the challenges that all modern language learners face is the difference between the language that we encounter in our textbooks, and what we hear in person. For me, I especially struggle when Chinese speakers start to use number or internet slang. Ogden-Davis typically brings different guests onto his program, to discuss slang related to everything from sex to the most recent topic in the news. Of course, language learning is sometimes as much about cultural study as grammar and vocabulary. Ogden-Davis and his guests always seem to do a great job contextualizing slang words. Just be warned, with some episodes you may not want to play them in the car if you have young children in the back.
Three books: For an intermediate level Mandarin learner I’d recommend Jianhsin Wu’s book, the Way of Chinese Characters. I have a friend (an advanced Chinese language learner) who swears by the publisher Cheng & Tsui’s works, and this book makes me want to explore their catalog more. The book provides historical information on 670 Chinese characters. It sounds really dull, right? But it’s not. Every character is accompanied by a sketch related to the word, which helps to make it memorable. The character is also provided in earlier scripts, so that you can see how it has evolved through time. And there is a brief discussion of the text and it’s history. Many characters have unexpected or striking origins, which may help you to memorize them. The book also typically lists four words that are built using the original word. So by the end of the book, you’ll have been exposed to around 2,600 words. Of course, you’re unlikely to remember most of them. But some will stick. I like that this book does not use the HSK lists, because it’s also good to explore vocabulary outside this one canon. But if you are a beginner, another work may be a better choice.
I also like ShaoLan Hsueh and Noma Bar’s book Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese, which is a more accessible work for beginners. Bar’s illustrations are simple and spare, but also help you to remember words’ meanings. Much like Wu’s book, the word selection is unrelated to the HSK or standard word frequency lists, which can sometimes be a strength.
Lastly, years ago my Chinese teacher (thanks Qing Qing!) suggested that I order a Chinese picture dictionary as a means to learn vocabulary. There are many to choose from, and they are often quite inexpensive. I’ve found that to be an enjoyable alternative to more standard works on Chinese characters. Most public libraries probably have one Chinese picture dictionary too.
ChinesePop: If you want to find a great resource to study Chinese characters, but don’t want to pay, this is the site for you. Of course, there is a special level for people who choose to provide financial support, but the free level is also outstanding. The website CharacterPop allows you to view characters, which are animated so that you can see them written stroke by stroke. The characters are broken down with their individual meanings, so that you can better understand the word’s connotations. One of my favorite features is that people provide their own sentences to help you to remember the character. It’s always good to have more than one way to study characters, so this may be a good option for you.
Remember, language skills are highly variable day to day, so don’t worry if you have a class or a conversation during which your ability seems to crater. It will come back. There are no shortcuts. It’s all about the time. Whatever you do, just don’t give up.
In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and with the dramatic rise of wind energy, it seemed that the nuclear industry was fated to oblivion. But that hasn’t happened, particularly in Europe. Instead, the wildfires on the US west coast and Australia, as well as heatwaves, have focused the world’s attention on decarbonizing the economy. At the same time, natural gas prices have surged, which has caused popular unrest and anger from Brazil to France. Worse, Europe has been disappointed over the last few months as the wind industry has produced less power than expected. All these factors combined have led to a radical rethink of nuclear energy. If this is truly a global climate emergency, how can nations globally reduce their CO2 emissions quickly enough without including nuclear in the mix? A recent New York Times article has discussed the debate in Europe.
France, which already heavily relies on nuclear power, is planning on expanding its nuclear industry. For the past twenty years there has been substantial interest in smaller, modular nuclear plants, which might be quicker to produce. A number of European nations, such as the UK, are now expressing interest in this option. The argument that nuclear proponents make is that nuclear waste can be rethought of as nuclear fuel for future reactors, as new technologies are developed. And the total amount of space needed to store this waste is modest. Still, as the NYT article above suggests, this argument is not persuading many nuclear energy critics, in places such as Germany. In other countries, however, the nuclear industry seems to be achieving momentum.
The pro-nuclear movement exists in Canada and the US as well, often led by younger people who perceive the global climate crisis as a global challenge. One good place to hear this movement’s arguments is the podcast Decouple, which posts frequently. The podcast has given extensive attention to the decommissioning of the Pickering nuclear power plant in Ontario, Canada, and similar topics. Be forewarned- you won’t get a balanced view of the nuclear debate on this podcast. But if you want to hear why nuclear power plants should be rethought of as “climate cathedrals,” this is the podcast for you. And you’ll also hear an argument as to why misinformation and unrealistic thinking have driven bad energy choices, which will deeply hamper our collective efforts to fight global warming.
What’s most interesting to me is that I am now hearing the same arguments in favor of nuclear power both from older environmentalists -the last group that I would ever expect to adopt a pro-nuclear position- as well as as a younger generation. I think that the wave of recent climate catastrophes has changed the conversation in ways that I never would have guessed in the months after the Fukushima catastrophe.
Early in the pandemic I thought it likely that COVID-19 would have multiple waves, perhaps three like the 1918 influenza pandemic. So I never thought that the pandemic would end quickly. But over the last six or seven months I keep finding myself thinking that this time, finally, it must be ending. In June I had both of my COVID-19 vaccinations, cases in the US were plummeting, and I thought that by this winter it would have finally ended. Then Delta arrived, and filled the emergency rooms of the US south. This fall I was able to travel to Lisbon, where I am carrying out historical research on the 1918 influenza pandemic. When I arrived this October Portugal was the most vaccinated country in Europe, and was the subject of a front page article in the New York Times. And yet since I’ve arrived I’ve seen the case right rise dramatically. Not long ago I was looking at the New York Times country data page, and saw that cases in Portugal had increased 116% in two weeks. The country’s case rate may pass that of the US before long. Keep in mind that not only does Portugal have a high vaccination rate, but also people are very good about wearing masks here. It’s common to even see people wearing them in the street, at least if the street is crowded.
While Portugal is facing serious challenges, the situation is far better here than it is in other places, such as Austria. The COVID-19 incidence there is growing at a stunning rate. The government is implementing firm measures, but is facing mass protests. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, are in the same situation, as we have seen from the protests in Rotterdam. Still, the situation is much worse in Eastern Europe, where in some countries such as Bulgaria only a quarter of adults are vaccinated.
It’s in this context that we are receiving news about a new -as yet unnamed- variant in South Africa. There is a lot that we don’t know about this variant yet. The German news channel recently interviewed one expert who suggested that it might be 500 percent more infectious than Delta, although he stressed that we just don’t know yet. Even such qualified statements are dangerous. We will have more data soon. Still, there is a lot of speculation that this variant might partially evade vaccines, because there are so many mutations, including a number involving the virus’s spike protein.
Nations are rushing to block flights from South Africa. Britain was very slow to respond to the Delta variant, and allowed travel to continue for weeks after it was clear that Delta might lead to a new wave. But after the news of this new variant emerged Britain blocked air travel from Southern Africa. Many other nations are also imposing travel restrictions. Of course, this variant has already been found in Israel. And in Hong Kong -where it was brought by a traveler from South Africa- it managed to spread to one other person in a quarantine hotel. Blocking travel from South Africa will help to buy some time, which might be put to use gathering data on the virus. It might also give people the time to be fully vaccinated and get their boosters, if they are in countries in which vaccines are readily available. But in the end, it won’t be enough. Without a complete border and air travel shut down, a highly infectious virus will certainly spread globally.
Given that Delta is already so severe in Europe, the timing for the emergence of this variant could not be worse for this region as it heads into winter. People are exhausted from the pandemic. But it’s not over. Please, if you are not vaccinated, hurry to be vaccinated now, so that your body has time to build immunity. While all medical treatments have risks, the risks of COVID-19 are much greater, billions of people have had the vaccines, and a new variant is coming. And if you are eligible for a booster, now would also be a good moment for that too. Two months ago there was a significant debate around whether boosters were necessary. Given what’s happening now in places like Portugal, there’s no doubt that only focusing on the severity of cases, and not on transmission, is a poor public health approach.
Let’s hope that this proves to be a false alarm, and that the new variant doesn’t greatly increase severity, transmission, or vaccine evasion. We all deserve some luck.
Roberts, Margaret E., Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.
In my online “CyberWar and Espionage” class I show a famous clip of President Bill Clinton talking about China’s efforts to censor information online (p. 76). He wished them well with that, and said that it was similar to trying to nail jello to the wall. Over the years I have noticed that this footage often infuriates students -especially international students- who view it as an example of American hubris. Of course, in the years that followed not only did China successfully create an entire digital ecosystem, it also managed to successfully control critical information. And China’s example has since been followed by a plethora of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning states (p. 7). But what strategy did China use to achieve this seemingly impossible goal? This question is at the heart of Robert’s insightful and carefully researched book, Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall.
In essence, what Roberts argues is that the standard approach to censorship -which relies on fear- would no longer work in a digital era: “The costs to governments of fear-based methods of censorship are more severe in the information age, as there has been an increase in the number of producers of information in the public domain” (p. 54). Instead, she argues, China adopted “porous censorship.” This does not mean that China can delete all negative information. Instead, China’s approach has been to raise the costs of information (which she terms “friction”), by imposing what equates to a tax on time or effort (p. 2, 42). What this means is that elites are often able to invest in technology (such as Virtual Private Networks) that allow them to escape the limits of censorship, while the masses cannot (although there are risks even with VPN usage. See p. 163) Still, this approach achieves two goals. First, it creates a division between the elites and the masses (p. 6, 8). Second of all, it avoids popular anger or backlash, when people realize that information is being censored. If people don’t understand that a particular web page takes four times as long to load as a deliberate policy, they are less likely to become irritated (p. 121-122). At the same time the government can promote other information (flooding), which can distract from the negative content that they want to obscure (p. 5-6): “Friction and flooding are more porous but less observable to the public than censorship using fear, and therefore are more effective with an impatient or uninterested public” (p. 18).
What Roberts is trying to do is to explain how a government can simultaneously have a digital environment which is ubiquitous, while also limiting information that might undermine the regime. Her work achieves this goal, and explains why a regime such as China does not target absolute censorship (p. 4). Censorship doesn’t have to be perfect to achieve its goals (p. 4). By concealing censorship the government minimizes its costs, which include drawing the attention of its citizens to certain topics (p. 8).
Roberts prose is at times prolix. There are moments where she repeats ideas or elaborates on examples, when a more concise treatment would have worked as well. But the book also rewards attention. At the core of her work is a detailed look at censorship in China, which is based on pain-staking research on such topics as how the Chinese states censors information about the immolation of Tibetan monks (p. 19, 155-162). Her ability to digitally scrape information from the Chinese online environment is impressive, and her analysis of this data is rigorous (see for example pp. 122-145). While this allows us to have a deeper understanding of China’s digital world, what’s even more significant is how she develops a theoretical understanding of censorship. This allows not only to better understand the choices made by the Chinese state, but also other forms of censorship in democratic countries (p. 16-17).
Most of all, the book creates a new perspective of censorship, which breaks down simple binaries of free and unfree. Yes, there is censorship in China. But the notion of “porous censorship” allows us to understand how the Chinese state achieved the seemingly impossible, and created an effective censorship apparatus for a fully digital citizenry. Of course, this system has an authoritarian underpinning. Google was eliminated, and a uniquely Chinese digital environment created (p. 55-58). The Great Firewall blocks key websites (p. 109). But most Chinese don’t necessarily perceive that they are living in a heavily censored world (p. 25, 110, 150, 165). They can find information online. The Chinese equivalents to YouTube and Twitter work for them. And sometimes they unleash scathing criticism of government officials or policies (p. 113). But censorship is also pervasive: “For typical Internet users, the government uses the strategy of porous censorship to walk the fine line of controlling information while preventing censorship from backfiring” (p. 115). The laws regarding what citizens can post to the internet prohibit a wide array of information (p. 117). All social media in China requires that citizens sign up using their real names (119): “Previous studies have estimated that anywhere between 1 percent and 10 percent of social media posts are removed by censors on Chinese media social sites” (p. 151). There are clear limits on expression, but the government tries to conceal these restrictions as much as possible.
The velvet glove has worked effectively, even though during a crisis -such as in Wuhan during the early COVID-19 outbreak- fear still remains an important tool, particularly for “journalists, activists and key opinion leaders” (p. 116; see also 119). Roberts argues that although it is an effective strategy, porous censorship can be a destructive approach for a regime when faced with a crisis (p. 10, 14). But it’s also true that China’s regime has to date effectively overcome multiple major crises, including the February 2020 Wuhan debacle.
Two decades ago it was widely believed that the rise of the internet would undermine authoritarianism globally (p. 12). That didn’t happen. As Roberts describes, “political entities have a wide range of effective tools available to them to interfere with the Internet without citizens being aware of it or motivated enough to circumvent it” (p. 13). But she also describes the “dictator’s dilemma,” namely that censorship comes with costs, one if which is that increases the likelihood that the regime will become too distanced or out of touch with its populace (p. 22-23, 52, 111). This rich work of political science scholarship describes how China has sought to resolve this dilemma, so far with remarkable success. Of course, there are economic and political costs to this approach (p. 76). But in the end, China has created a nuanced and layered strategy to control digital information, as Roberts thoughtfully details. I think that this book would be an excellent choice in undergraduate senior seminars and graduate classes that address censorship or authoritarianism.
In 2014 I published a book called Dangerous Spirits about the history of an evil spirit (the windigo/wendigo) in Indigenous religion and belief. Yes, my research agenda is all over the place, but I like it that way. It turns out that there was a movie called Antlers being made about this being, and it was set in Oregon. The movie maker -Scott Cooper, who was working with Guillermo del Toro- reached out to me for my advice in 2018. But it was when I was moving across the country, so I suggested that they contact Dr. Grace Dillon in Indigenous Studies instead. I later heard -almost by chance- that my publisher and the film-makers had agreed that they could use my book in the movie. But then COVID came, and the movie didn’t come out. I didn’t hear any other news.
Last night I got a text from my daughter, who had gone to see the movie in a theater in Vancouver. And it turns out that they used my book about a third of the way into the movie. It’s a silly thing, but it makes me happy because this will be the only time my work will ever show up in pop culture.
I’m currently on sabbatical, and doing historical research regarding the 1918 influenza pandemic in southeast China, using records from Macau that are now stored in Lisbon, Portugal. I don’t think that Antlers is playing here, so it may be a while before I see it. But I want to thank the film-makers for including the book in the movie.