The Mythical Chinese Mother: Parenting or Child Abuse?

I was reading Paul Buchheit’s article”>The Two Paths to Success about the article ”>Are Chinese Mothers Superior? and ended up writing a comment so long it mutated into a blog post.

I think Paul makes a great point and kids that find their own way will be infinitely more happy to be in complete control of their destiny while excelling at their chosen calling. These are the ones that have a chance to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Larry Page, or Sergey Brin.

Mostly throughout history the creation of geniuses has been left to a series of happy accidents. Taking a systematic approach doesn’t necessarily create more geniuses. We all no that there is an unbreachable gulf between true geniuses and merely brilliant people. This is why environment can only go so far as you approach the limits of nature.

For most of written history, East Asia more or less took a rigid, factory approach to higher education. During the dynastic period of China, civil service exams characterized by memorization of ancient philosophical texts and the ability to compose poems in the classic style were what got you a job of power, riches and prestige for life. Reverence of your teacher was absolute. Countries like Korea and Japan more or less imported this style of education.

It’s no surprise that Asia got a rude wake up call when Western countries arrived on boats strapped with big guns, with superiority in every aspect of technology. You can’t advance knowledge without questioning your predecessors and going beyond your teachers. Once Asian countries realized that they were studying the wrong books, they certainly caught up fast but it’s wasn’t until the 20th century that Asia finally hit their stride, this time with Japan providing an educational model characterized by cram schools and rigorous college entrance exams (and also crazier civil service exams).

The greatest problem about this “Chinese parenting” style is that they’re equating parenting with a Spartan regimen of self-improvement forced on children. Naturally there are going to be children who are maxed out in terms of potential but are never going to realize the dreams and expectations of parents being forced on them. There are going to be children burnt out before they even leave high school. Brilliant people who struggle with psychiatric issues because they were brought up intellectually or artistically brilliant but stunted emotionally.

However, taking a systematic approach to training kids will naturally produce a more well-educated society. However, if you look at Japan, this approach is not bullet-proof and only works to a certain extent.

Japan as Number One

Post-war Japan’s rapid economic rise is just as much a triumph of the educational system. Even today, the population is highly literate and you’ll find much more people reading books on the trains (not just sleeping in public). Many children are raised to equate academic success with happiness and academic performance doesn’t make you an outcast or freak like many typical American schools (of course, the superior private schools suffer to a lesser extent). At one point during Japan’s history, mainly at the height of economic growth, academic competitiveness created a social problem of epic proportions as kids were trapped in a vicious cycle where you had to sacrifice all social and extracurricular activities, go to cram school after school, and memorize esoteric historical dates and facts, in addition to solve differential and integrals equations regardless of if you knew what any of it meant. Also, kids were forced to learn broken English from teachers who couldn’t communicate in English if their life depended on it and conjugate verbs and learn the meaning of various words that would appear on college entrance exams.

There was a noticeable backlash and textbooks were dumbed down but everything pretty much the same. Ironically, it also coincided with Japan’s economic decline. Sadly, it never occurred to the Ministry of Education, that as Japan reached economic maturity they needed to raise the quality of education rather than making the learning material easier as fertility rates dropped and politicians continued to mismanage the economy. Japan was long past the point where success could be measured in literate workforce willing to work long hours doing inefficient and repetitive work just like their student days.

Although the typical Japanese person, even with today’s declined standards, is relatively well-educated on average, Japan is currently suffering from “herbivores”, young people who have no direction or ambition. Of course, it comes as no surprise that several generations of absent fathers “willing to sacrifice their family for the sake of a company that’s tanking along with the rest of economy and all I got was this lousy house loan on a rabbit shack apartment” doesn’t exactly inspire children to rise to the task. The problem is that as the population declines and the economy continues to fall apart (even more under the incompetent new government), Japan is left with an over-supply of educational institutions. The country is rapidly approaching the point where anyone can advance to college just by graduating high school. You can be sure that standards will decline as third-rate colleges welcome students that would normally be considered dropouts for their own survival.

Despite decades of economic growth and high education standards (if we speak of averages), the flaws of the Japanese approach to education is none the more apparent in the way it has fallen apart much like the economy (There aren’t that many Japanese Nobel laureates despite the emphasis on math and science in the post war era. Also, a significant number of the laureates did their defining research in the states and continue to do so). It simply doesn’t work to mass produce education as industrialized nations transition to a knowledge, service economy.

Here Come the Koreans and Chinese

As Japan falls back, other Asian countries, are rising and many of these countries used the Japanese model as a point of departure when Japan was actually successful, including the education system. Now Japan provides an interesting case study as a train wreck that’s even more valuable so that they can avoid making similar mistakes.

It’s hard to deny that countries such as Korea and China are not only surpassing Japan but well on their way to leaving Japan very far behind. China is already the number two economy and will probably pass the United States in the next few years. Korean electronics are cutting edge and much more innovative and cheaper than Japan. Samsung surpassed Sony a long time ago and continues to grow.

Education in Korea and China is highly competitive and if standardized tests are to be believed, Shanghai is the world’s most competitive in terms of education.

There is no doubt that taking a systematic approach to education will produce results at the aggregate level. Despite the fact that Western educators have consistently criticized “rote memory” education as ineffective, they lose sight of the fact that for average students, this approach is be best for maximizing their potential. The problem is with elite education.

I don’t think Shanghai or any other Asian city (including India) will unseat American colleges as the center of learning any time soon (although eventually, America’s post 9/11 policies and declining education system will finish the job). There needs to be more freedom and intellectual initiative to really produce and attract the geniuses.

Smart people tend to flock to where other smart people are. Countries such as Germany and Hungary experience first-hand how delicate the balance is when they lost many of their most promising scientists when they started to pursue racist policies during World War II. Right now America is where you will find the best combination of quality academics, ample funding, and the closest thing to complete intellectual freedom that any smart person will find hard to resist. It remains to be seen if China and Korea can combine the best of “Chinese mothers” and the Western style.

The Social Network

The Social Network is the tale of Facebook and more importantly Mark Zuckerberg’s rise as the founder of Facebook as he becomes America’s youngest billionaire. The main flaw with the movie is the lack of a central character that audiences can identify with or at least hate. Instead we’re presented with a cold, heartless robot that somehow manages to manically code up the hottest social network without any passion or humanity. Instead we have a ruthless schemer that’s bent on screwing everyone he encounters.

Andrew Garfield does a masterful job playing Eduardo Saverin, Mark’s best friend and original partner, with just the right mix of boyish charm, nerdiness and flamboyance as the Brazilian-Jewish co-founder and initial investor of Facebook.

The film is as exciting as you can make the creation of a website thanks to all the betrayal mixed with Sean Parker’s import of drugs and sex. The story starts off with promise as Mark experiences an awkward and fatal conversation with his girlfriend that leads to the break-up that unleashes the rage that inspires him to create a site to rate the physical attractiveness of women.

The story starts to fall apart about the point where the site starts to take off and we see all Mark’s personal relationships disintegrate as he succeeds in turning Facebook into a global phenomenon. While there’s nothing unusual about someone being personally aloof and in many ways socially inept with running a company, it’s hard to see the film version of Mark Zuckerberg, played masterfully by Jesse Eisenberg, capable of running a company or even having a conversation. They could have given him more human characteristics or more things to say that enlighten us as to why he was so driven to turn Facebook into what it was.

Instead, we have a cold, unfeeling nerd that is savvy and ruthless schemer that is easily taken in by a paranoid, drug-taking snake oil salesman (at least as Sean Parker is portrayed in the movie) before screwing him too. So at least for me Eduardo was the emotional focal point of the entire film.

It was definitely a good movie with solid acting and they took as much creative liberty as they could without completely ruining the film while saving the audience from death by boredom. People in the IT industry will no doubt appreciate the little touches to maintain the film’s authenticity at least from a technical point of view.

Open Source Software Tax

Like all great things open source software started off with good intentions. I give, you give, we all give so the world can receive. The amazing thing about open source software is how far it’s come. Open source provides us the foundation for things we take for granted from programming languages, web servers, web frameworks, utilities, operating systems and much more. Lately it seems that open source contributions are dwindling no matter what metric you go by. The population of software engineers is surely increasing, though supply cannot keep up with the ever growing demand as our reliance on technology increases. I think the crisis facing open source contributions is a combination of many forces and not just a lack of commitment or passion (although it surely plays a role).

One factor is the lack of open problems or deficits. If you look at a lot of the innovations in open source coming out of Silicone Valley a lot of the problem domains involve cloud computing, big data, distributed memory, etc. These are problems that probably existed before but not on the scale we see now with the emergence of giants like Google and Facebook. Their requirements are coming hard up against the physical laws governing computers such as disk I/O. However, for the most part, the typical start-up can be bootstrapped by cobbling together open source offerings on a commodity server or better yet starting with a low budget shared hosting plan that gives you all the freedom of your own actual server with a fraction of the headaches.

A lot of the most pressing problems are solved for the majority of developers and even abstracted out into simple to use tools, libraries, or frameworks that most will not venture to peek under the hood because they can readily solve most issues by searching for the answer on-line. The wealth of information available and the collective experience gives little motivation for developers to look at the source code and figure things out for themselves or even try to make their own solution before resorting to the cheat sheet. This isn’t to say that the quality of developers is declining as a whole but like everything else in life I think we’re seeing a growing gulf between able hackers and your average corporate coder who will happily continue cranking out derivative works for the rest of their career (maybe not even learning more than one or two frameworks or languages).

Also, the state of many large, established open source projects make contributing hard (at least for new or non-hacker developers) with a large code-base and history. Getting familiar with such a project takes a serious commitment and might be beyond the scope of an enthusiast without some kind of guidance.

The more pressing issue of free software is that the law of economics is at work. The collective tip jar of open source will never meet the lofty ideals that open source promoters hope to live by. Open source software probably constitutes the purest form of public goods that even economists did not foresee when they came up with the concept. Open source software is nearly infinitely replicable and can be distributed at near zero costs. For all the contributions to open source there are much more free riders. So far, the only proposed solutions to come out of the community are trickier licences. Frankly, I think complex licencing only serves to steer companies away from using certain projects since it introduces legal liabilities or risks that management neither has the time or in some cases ability to properly evaluate.

The only long-term way to really keep contributions to open source vibrant is tax. Although the collection and distribution of such a tax would be hard to design and implement, it could be made simple with one clause: taxes can be paid in kind with open source contributions to recognized projects at a substantial bonus (similar to how donations to legitimate non-profit organizations can be deducted). Personally, I think it would be cool to have a quasi-public research lab completely dedicated to open source software development and supported entirely by such tax revenue and staff seconded from the best tech companies in lieu of monetary payment. It would be something like Google’s Summer of Code only 24/7 with experienced, full-time hackers.

If only politicians and bureaucrats would spend a fraction of the time and money spent thinking about how to protect corporate interests manifest in intellectual property and other copyright issues on the equally important task of fostering open intellectual contributions for the betterment of society, we wouldn’t have to worry about the state of open source software.

PS I realise that I’m using the concept of free software/open source interchangeably and it will rub some people the wrong way.

Empire of the Summer Moon

Empire of the Summer Moon is a somewhat sad but gritty account of the last Native Americans to roam the plains. It’s set against the American frontier’s brutal expansion to finally fulfill its “Manifest Destiny”, the bitter and violent fight with the Native Americans, an abducted white girl who became a full Comanche and the mother to one of the greatest warriors and leaders of the tribe in its waning days and his transition into reservation life.

The book is remarkable for its brutal yet balanced account of the frontier skirmishes. He doesn’t romanticise Native Americans who frequently gang-rape women, scalp their enemies and execute their victims in the most brutal ways imaginable. At the same time he doesn’t gloss over the two-tongued promises of a corrupt American government that could care less about the welfare of Native Americans once they are successfully subdued.

It’s a fascinating book that looks at how European-American settlers, Texas Rangers, Army Generals, Mexicans, and Native Americans formed a fluid society on the frontier. It’s the familiar story of how technology and savage ambition to conquer ultimately wins out over any previous territorial claims against the backdrop of a family, the Parker clan, torn apart by destiny and crossing paths on opposite sides. Many men are made but more are broken in the fight against Native Americans. Aside from Quanah Parker there are many colorful characters that form a rich quilt of successes and tragedies on the frontier.

The account of Quanah Parker’s life, though a minor part of the books’ volume but one the most significant parts, alone is priceless. The tales of bravery on the field and the amazing horsemanship of Comanches are stirring. It’s the non-fiction version of a dime Western with just as much excitement but thick on substance.

Millennium Trilogy

Around a week and a half a go I took up the first book of the Millennium Trilogy and went on a wild ride through the entire series that ended just now. The series takes us into the lives of a suave disgraced middle-aged journalist Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander, a young, anti-social hacker who scrapes by with odd jobs from a private investigation and security firm. They begin their journey with Mikael working on an old and retired industrial magnate’s personal pet project to find out what happened to his troubled niece. As things heat up a chance reference puts Lisbeth at Mikael’s disposal to wrap up a strange tale that takes on a crazy life of its own, leading to a life and death crisis for our heroes. The trilogy takes a roller coaster ride through international espionage and the dark underbelly of Swedish government.

I don’t recall ever being on the edge of my seat for three volumes of non-stop adrenaline. The heroine Lisbeth Salander is a petite, tattoo-ed, cyber punk with much more than meets the eye. Stieg Larsson breathes life into her like a master where the reader is presented with a morally ambiguous anti-hero that they can’t help but love for her fiestiness and resourcefulness. Throughout the books we get taken on a tour of her dark past that explores what makes her tick. We are shown her personal journey as she matures in hew own way. While she is morally ambiguous to any outside observer if not an outright crook, we see that she never compromises her principles and lives by her own code of vendetta justice that commands its own brand of respect. Larsson pulls off an amazing feat by creating a character so unique and fantastic yet so vibrantly real.

Mikael Blomqvist is a middle-aged journalist that still embodies the high ideals of youth and boyish charm he entered the profession with. He is at once a shrewd journalist careful to play his cards right yet so stupidly naive and unflinching in his beliefs. Outside of his untiring dedication to uncovering the truth and willingness to put everything on the line, he is almost like a baby that needs strong and smart women to keep him on course.

These two characters and the ensemble cast form such a potent mixture that readers are easily lost in a potent mix of journalism, cyber crime, and law. Stieg Larsson may have died before his legacy saw the light of day but the trilogy couldn’t have been more complete. As I embarked on the last volume I was touched by a pang of sadness that the journey would be over and over for good. Larsson died before his first book reached the press and became an international sensation. A largely complete but not quite finished manuscript in the series lies on the hard-drive of a computer in his common-law wife’s possession as she is locked in an acrimonious battle with Larsson’s family that would not be out of place in his own novels. Although I wish Larsson could have lived to see this and would gladly read another installment in this fabulous series, I can only say that the trilogy as it stands is a beautifully complete work that deserves to stay in its perpetual state of perfection. It’s the stuff legends are made of. An astounding work of art, an artist dead before his time without seeing its success, just like the story of Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium Trilogy.

On the contrary, I’m satisfied and feel richer for the experience of reading a work so entertaining and complete. Although I’m curious about what other adventures Larsson had cooked up for Salander, I’m happy to let the Millennium Trilogy stand as it is and can only hope that another modern master steps up to fill his shoes.


Shopgirl takes you on a journey of bittersweet love by Mirabelle, a Vermont girl who finds herself catering to the rich behind the counter of Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. She’s a starving artist of sorts, lost in LA. She meets two men. Jeremy, an awkward dreamer with a heart of gold. He’s quirky to say the least. He’s into stencils, typography, rock music, and works as a designer for an amp company. Ray is a much older multi-millionaire that flys around LA, Seattle, and New York. Mirabelle doesn’t think much of Jeremy but seeks him out from loneliness to satisfy her physically. Even that was terribly underwhelming. To Ray she pretty much gives him her everything, laying it out on the table for his taking.

Ray sees her as an object but treats her like a queen, showering her with gifts. Jeremy treats her like an object but really cares for her deeply. While Mirabelle goes on a painful journey of unrequited love, Jeremy is travelling on the road with a band that takes him under their wing and opens his eyes to personal betterment.

The movie is exquisitely shot. You can feel Mirabelle’s pain as the lives of the three characters intertwine. Ray’s character is a bastard but Steve Martin gives him a lonely and fragile shadow that keeps you from hating him out right. Jason Schwartzman gives Jeremy a lovable quality while infusing the character with a quirkiness in his own league. He does a masterful job of transforming his character through self-improvement while keeping enough quirkiness to make it real.

Honestly, while Steve Martin doesn’t ruin the movie, I would have liked to see someone else play his role. Someone less known that could infuse it with depth and more believability. Claire Danes’ performance as Mirabelle is Academy Award winning for all the subtle touches and heart-rending pain she conveys. The movie packs a considerable punch near the end and does a wonderful job exploring the meaning of love across the gaps of age, wealth, and personality.

The Anatomy of an American Teen Comedy

I’ve been watching a lot of comedies lately, meaning to review every single one of them. The problem is, even though I enjoy them immensely, every time I sit down to write a review my mind draws a blank. I’d be lucky to get three sentences that pretty much sum up the movie. These summaries are nothing like the “treatments” given by Hollywood types with slicked-back hair and aviator sunglasses, with a smug grin trying so hard not to laugh at their own jokes, “now get this…” These summaries would reduce the greatest summer blockbuster hit to less excitement than the blurb on a can of dog food. I get the sense that there must be a template, maybe even a Microsoft Word template, for Hollywood teen comedies.

The Cast

Main Guy
The main character is either a nerd or stud but most likely a nerd (preferably a virgin that doesn’t know his true potential yet). He is usually a good-natured guy that is struggling to be accepted or trying to stay true to his love or crush and this usually leads him into an assortment of trouble.

Best Friend
The best friend’s type usually depends on the main character (if the main guy’s a nerd, he’s a nerd). The best friend is the devil on the shoulder providing worldly advice while leading the character astray though never on purpose. The friend is a loyal accomplice and fellow traveller, serving to round out the main character’s persona.

Other Nerd
The other nerd serves a variety of purposes depending on the movie’s requirements. The other nerd is either other-worldly brilliant or borderline disadvantaged, serving as the but of jokes and physical humor. If the main guy’s also a nerd, the other nerd helps him look cooler than he actually is.

The Crew
If the cast is mainly supposed to be college-aged, there will most likely be a crew of friends. They may be fraternity brothers, room mates or simply friends.

The Girl
This is the object of desire. She is either an impossibly hot, popular girl or the main character’s best friend from prehistoric days that he’s been hiding feelings for her the whole time.

The Plot

The plot of a comedy usually revolves around an impossible challenge, usually involving travel by car. The protagonist has to go somewhere by a certain time or is on a quest, usually to lose their virginity or meet some girl. The “road trip” is a marvelous device because it allows an ensemble cast, a buddy pair or a crew, to get involved in a plethora of comedic situations and make an exit before it gets old. Usually, the vehicle of choice is either stolen (such as a taxi or school buss) or borrowed (big brother’s prized sports car, dad’s Cadillac, etc.) and takes an unusual beating. In many cases, if the car is important to the main character’s well-being, it gets restored to mint condition.

Although the journey usually involves a round trip, despite the crazy mishaps and impossible situations on the way there, the return journey is always uneventful and wraps up in the last 15 minutes of the movie as the main character summarizes all the wonderful developments since the fateful trip.

Situations along the way involve an assortment of sexual humor. On a road journey, they usually stop somewhere along the way for a rest or diversion and usually leads to a sexual encounter or being chased around by a villain of some sort.

Despite the impossible odds of completing the quest, the hero of our tale emerges victorious and the laundry list of crimes committed along the way are brushed aside.

The Format of Babel or In Text We Trust

Over the past several days I’ve been wrangling with text of various forms and formats. More specifically I’ve been trying to get various references and documentation into Emacs (more on that some other day). As I was going through all the various sizes and shapes that text came in, I could only marvel at the number of seemingly interchangeable yet arbitrarily unique ways text is molded into one form or another.

Take this “eBook” revolution on our hands. The Epub format used by iPads and Kindles are essentially XHtml wrapped up in a zip file conveniently named “epub”. I’m sure that if this was the 1990s or Adobe had its way, it would be in some kind of a proprietary binary format (like a compiled program) that sends corporate headquarters your device ID and GPS location, ready to transmit your name to the authorities or disable your device on the slightest infringement. I think it’s mostly thanks to the disaster that is PDF and the lucky circumstance that no one company still has the lock down on digital publishing that we were able to adopt a relatively decent format like epub (compared to say PDF).

Yet the road to get here is littered with many forgotten and esoteric standards among some well known. Some of the formats I encountered these past several days range from Latex, HTML, xhtml, txt, rtf, SGML, texi, LyX, rhtml, markdown, and textile, and chm. All of them are formats used to document source code, generated from commenting templates for some of the more well-known open-source projects. All of the formats are used in some capacity by prominent branches of software. For example texi files are used by GNU open source projects after they are compiled into “info” files that can easily be ready by Emacs. All the formats are based on either plain text with modest formatting or HTML. Some of the newer projects use their own templating engine with HTML output for easy publishing to websites (to provide search engine fodder for api documentation). The good thing is that most of the markup is lightweight and it’s essentially text. They are usually designed to make navigation easy by stipulating headers or other standards for cross-linking within the document so you could jump from an index to the relevant documentation quickly.

The problem is each of these formats scratch someones itch and none of them are completely interchangeable. Usually there’s some kind of intermediary format that converts into the final form. PDF is a prominent option but once you transform it into PDF, heaven help you if you misplace the original.

Looking around at some of the more recent HTML based varieties had me thinking. While these documents are decent as HTML documents with minimal, clean design and just enough javascript to make navigation easy, it doesn’t beat having the text in a malleable form at your fingertips. It just can’t compete.

We live in a world where we are surrounded by text, trade in text, yet for the most important pieces we are still too scared to completely let go and resign ourselves to the free flow of ideas and words. We are still coming to terms with the way we are willing to trade text.

One thing I’m glad to see with epub is the resurgence of formats like latex. The problem with pdf, postscript, and any of the Microsoft Office formats (that have opened up quite a bit) is that they try to mix up presentation and content. A lot of us are probably old enough to remember how buggy Microsoft Word used to be. It was like the Wild West where you always had to keep one hand on your gun (the save button) before that pesky Microsoft bandit pissed away your days work with “Word has crashed what would you like to do? [Exit] [Cancel]”. Of course, we all know that pressing [Cancel] takes you right back to the dialog. If you’re lucky you might find a garbled up file with fragments of what you thought you typed amidst what could only look like communication from alien life forms. All you did was type a few words.

Before Microsoft, standards like Latex kept the raw content separate from the presentation. You could add content to your heart’s content and then adjust the format when you’re done. You never have to deal with mind-boggling situations like you get with Microsoft Word where shifting a diagram one pixel to the right suddenly turns the preceding paragraph into a 15pt bold headline in bright blue.

Somewhere deep down inside, people are trying to come back to simplicity as seen with the resurgence of “writing programs” that essentially strip away all the bells and whistles to give us a full screen of nothing but our own text so that we can focus on writing.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a delightful comedy starring Michael Caine as a con artist with aristocratic leanings preying on wealthy women. Steve Martin is a petty con scouring Europe for easy marks. When the two cross paths, Caine makes life harder for Martin with an assortment of obstacles when Martin finally snaps and proposes a bet to see who can out con the other.

Michael Caine does a brilliant job as a gentleman and a con who is bound by misplaced notions of honor. Martin is a rather boorish con artist with low standards but plays for much lower stakes. The war of the cons heightens the comedy as they get caught up playing cons within a con to outwit the other and secure their turf. Although the plot is simple there are enough twists and turns to carry it and the performances are masterful to say the least.

Grown Ups

Grown Ups is a feel-good Adam Sandler movie about best friends from junior high coming together for their coach’s funeral. The boyhood friends were part of the only championship winning team from their school and the ones their coach was the proudest of. Despite the coach admonishing them to “live every moment like the final buzzer is about to go off”, only Sandler’s character is a resounding success (as a multi-millionaire Hollywood agent). All the kids are caught up in modern life, playing video games and texting their nannies. Adults are caught up in their own lives not really enjoying or appreciating what they have.

Sandler rents out a lakeside house, the same place they celebrated the championship as a kid, where they show their own kids how to enjoy life old-school style. In the course of their adventures, each of the characters rediscover an appreciation for each other and their loved ones. Kids become kids again. Adam Sandler and his high-powered fashion designer wife unwind.

The movie was family-friendly and good-natured though Sandler likes to haze his cast of regulars with some physical gags. There weren’t any terribly hysterical moments or heavy preaching. It had a good balance of comedic and heart-warming moments.