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Latest blog posts

The lost ones

Above the city, a falcon faces the landscape below, her ghostly feathers shifting among the clouds. Her eyes – glittering, diamond-like, judge. What is in her mind? What does she see? A thousand souls shadowing the hot pavement, rubber against cement, pacing, smiling, crying, yelling, staring into the clouds, searching for falcons.

The sweat of this land lies in the canals, wiping the dust off the deserted soil, flowing ever eastward into the morass of the white sky. A shouldering heat rises from the caverns below, those haunted dens of black and light, where dreams are born but never pass away. In the steel homes above, children sleep in the mist, fighting battles against foes of ink, transforming into winged heroes just for one night, again and again.

Against all instincts, the cougar prowls the sidewalk for prey. Hearing the whispers of old ladies, the scornful breath of the aged and wise, the cougar slinks in the alleyways and the hidden places between lines, where he discovers to his surprise that he never left.

Published: August 14, 2017 | Comments: 0

Einstein’s Triangle

I spent most of the day reading up on Albert Einstein and his relationship with Mileva Maric and Elsa Lowenthal. Some pretty interesting observations, although by no means do these explain anything.

  1. Albert and his girlfriend Mileva got pregnant shortly after Albert graduated from university, but this baby disappeared when Albert was 23 years old and his girlfriend Mileva was 27. They didn’t get married (in January of 1903) for at least a year after the disappearance of their daughter, who is said to either have been given up for adoption or died in infancy, although neither spoke of the situation. Mileva ended up having the baby by herself at her parent’s house in Novi Sad, Serbia (where she was from).
  2. Mileva failed the graduation exam in 1900 (which Albert passed) – and ended up staying in school and retaking the exam a year later (while three months pregnant). After Albert graduated, he couldn’t find a job for at least two years, and only secured a permanent position (at the patent office) in 1903 (when he was 24 years old).
  3. in 1902 (when he was 23) Albert formed a discussion group called “The Olympia Society” in which a core group of his friends got together to talk about philosophy and physics. His girlfriend and later wife would attend although not participate. The group lasted until 1905 – until the last of his friends had left Switzerland.
  4. During all of this time (from the above observations), from the moment that Albert graduated until 1905, he had been working on his PhD thesis. Not surprisingly, the year he received his thesis he also published a collage of reviews and scientific papers espousing specific theories he had been thinking about during his studies. This is apparent, as from 1900 until 1905 he only published 67 pages worth of papers, but in one year published a staggering 79 pages of papers and reviews. He married Mileva in 1903 (after securing his permanent job). It’s unclear if he started his PhD immediately after graduating or if he waited until he found his job at the patent office (in 1902, after the birth of his child).
  5. However, it wasn’t until he was 29 (in 1908) that he found a position teaching at the University of Bern. I’m unclear what exactly he did between getting his PhD and finding a position as a teacher, although it is clear that he spent a great amount of time writing and publishing articles with the Annalen der Physik. Unlike later publications, these were written papers and not lectures, so it seems he wasn’t teaching during this time.
  6. After he found a position teaching, many of his papers were either co-authored or were transcripts of actual talks and lectures he gave.
  7. Somehow (I’m still tracing together details), between 1914-1919 he and his wife had separated, finally divorcing in 1919. Their second son was born in 1910 (when Albert was 31). In 1910, he was already deeply unhappy with his marriage to Mileva, as he wrote to his “high school sweetheart” Marie and told her that he thought of her “every spare minute”. At this point, his older son was a toddler and his second son was a mewling baby. However, by 1914 he was so unhappy that he actually started a romantic liaison with his cousin Elsa (who was three years older than him).
  8. At this time, Elsa was raising two children on her own in Berlin, and when Albert and Mileva moved to Berlin in 1914 he must have immediately started spending time with her and her family (although he had been reaquainted with Elsa two years earlier). So shortly after moving to Berlin, Mileva took her children back to Zurich.
  9. In 1913, Mileva had her children baptized as Orthodox Christians, while Albert (to his death) remained nonreligious. Albert was raised by secular Jews, attended Catholic schools while growing up, although he did have great affinity for Jewish people. He claims to have been trained in both the Bible and the Talmud, which would have meant he either attended some kind of Jewish school outside of his elementary schools or his family practiced more than he ever admitted – or he self-trained himself (which is highly probable, given his personality).
  10. Strangest of all (for me) is that by the time his second wife had died (in 1936), he doesn’t appear to have reconnected in any significant fashion with his ex-wife, although his son (Hans Albert) moved to the United States 5 years from Switzerland after his father moved to the US in 1933 from Germany. Mileva, however, stayed in Zurich until her death.

My main concern in this investigation is to discover how his relationships with the three women in his life affected his research, as well as how the impact of the children in his life (his three children and Elsa’s two children) impacted him and affected his research. Elsa claims in an interview that he discovered relativity while locking himself in an upstairs room for two weeks, while she had to bring him food. I guess it’s nice to claim things like that, but the fact is he didn’t reconnect with Elsa until 1912, but he started writing about relativity in 1905 and published his first significant paper on general relativity in 1911. How much of Einstein is a myth (or ‘fake news’) is hard to glean immediately.

How he transformed from a very well-appreciated academic to a foofy-haired genius is still something I’m slightly confused about, but I’m guessing it had more to do with politics, the American media, and Albert’s controversial relationship with Robert Millikan (the president of Caltech, a deeply militaristic patriot, a fellow Nobel laureate, a military researcher who developed weapons for the US army during World War I, a eugenicist who believed in the greatness of Nordic civilization, and most famously a research who became famous because he ‘doctored’ the results of the experiment for which he was awarded the Nobel) as well as his relationship with many Hollywood elites (such as Charlie Chaplin) than it had to do with anything he actually wrote.

Published: May 12, 2017 | Comments: 0

Volcanoes and Villages

doing some research on the Paektu Volcano in China/North Korea —  

  1. Known as Changbaishan 长白山, a famous tourist location in Jilin province – very famous in both Chinese and Korean history, literature, and the mythology
  2. 150 kilometers from the volcano to my wife’s hometown (Qidaogou 七道沟)
  3. Known as the birthplace of the dude who founded the Korean Empire, Dangun, as well as the birthplace of the progenitor of the clan which eventually conquered China and created the Qing dynasty, Bukuri Yongson (of the Aisin Gioro people)
  4. In the caldera of the explosion created in 945 A.D. is a lake called “Heaven’s Lake”
  5. Interestingly, the first major Korean kingdom known as the Goguryeo (from where we get the name Korea) ended after the nobles and royalty left their country to take residence in another kingdom someways down south – in the 10th century, about 50-100 years after the volcano erupted and caused ash and ice to cover the entire country within a 120 km radius for almost 3 years, and even caused snow to fall in May once year
  6. Some perspective – the eruption at Pompeii was a 5 on the VEI scale (Volcanic Explosivity Index), while the Paektu eruption was a 7 on the Index, making it one of the most devastating eruptions in history
  7. The Aisin Gioro claim their progenitor Bukuri Yongson was born from a virgin on the mountain; three heavenly maidens were bathing in the lake at the top of the mountain (which formed after the eruption), and a magpie dropped some red fruit near one of the heavenly maidens (Fekulen) who ate the fruit and became pregnant with a son
  8. The fruit itself was a god transformed by the Emperor of Heaven, and the magpie was also a transformed god
  9. Bukuri took a boat down from the mountain, and when he came to a group of men fighting he pacified them, told them his story and his clan, and from there consolidated their power until they finally conquered the Ming dynasty
  10. The Goryeo dynasty (not to be compared with the Gorguryeo, whose nobles fled to Goryeo after the eruption) which basically gained power after the volcano erupted — recorded in their books that the Jurchens (who were what eventually became of the Aisin Gioro, or so they claim) were forced to live on the other side of the Yalu River from the volcano, making me wonder if they were remnants of the Gorguryeo who failed to assimilate into the Goryeo
  11. So what started as a worried research into the impact zone of the volcano (should North Korea conduct a nuclear test too close to the volcano, and hence cause some ash damage near my wife’s hometown) appears to have much more importance than I initially realized–
  12. Final thoughts: it could be argued that if the eruption did not happen, the Manchu people (the Jurchens) would never had had an impetus to invade and conquer China. I mean, if your land was a volcanic wasteland, would you stay? Having traveled to that area several times, I can say the land takes a lot of work, the mountains are precipitously dangerous and confusing, and it’s even rumored that when the founder of the current Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was out on his military march to found his empire, he got lost in the forest not far from Paektu Volcano (around 90 miles away) where he was so hungry because he couldn’t find anything to eat, that his troops killed one of their horses for their dinner

pages referenced,127.9695787,39168a,35y,72.92t/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x5e34aef69343d173:0x29f9d45614652dce!8m2!3d41.9930214!4d128.0774546?hl=en

Published: May 2, 2017 | Comments: 0

Anna and the King, or when I learned my boss was a king

First, a true story. Before my trip in 2003, I perused the local library for any information on China, and all I could find were pictures of men and women dressed in blue uniforms, riding bikes from a book published in the mid 1980s. China wasn’t in the news, wasn’t a rising power, but most importantly to me was different, a literal Wild West for a native Californian who had grown up in the Silicon Valley during the 80s. In many ways, my experience mirrored Anna Leonowen’s experience in Thailand during the 1860s (she also thought her employment in Siam would be a romantic excursion), and continues to mirror the experiences of expatriates working in China even today. I would like to explore the dichotomies presented in the story of Anna Leonowens (told by Peter Krikes, Steve Meerson, and directed by Andy Tennant in the film, Anna and the King) through three rules (or quotes from the film) as well as the impact of those rules had I known and practiced them during my first year.

Rule #1: “Best not to assume too much.” In the beginning of the film, the prime minister of Siam chastises Anna for jumping to conclusions she may be swaying the king towards changing his policies, when in fact he was just being polite. In her book, Leonowens remarks with stunning audacity (even to the end of her five-year stint in Siam) at the brutality of the culture, the uncivilized manners of the king and his ministers, and the horrifying treatment of the common people with an attitude that would do her contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe proud. Even in the film, Anna (portrayed by Jodie Foster) presents an image of a woman far more interested in securing the rights of women forced to serve as wives for the king than the bloated attitudes she taught her son to convey to appointed princes, illustrated when he shoved the prince of the country because of an insulting remark.

When I first arrived in China, I came saddled with a college education (worth around $100,000), a three-month EFL certificate to teach English, as well as six months teaching experience in a local community center in Chicago. However, when I arrived at the city where I was supposed to teach, my guide told me to stay on the train. Five hours later, I got off the train in a tiny mountain town near the border of Russia, escorted to my “apartment” (the operating room of the school’s former dental clinic, complete with chair and instruments), and a day later I was dumped unceremoniously in front of thirty-five toddlers and told to teach them English. No book. No introduction. No experience.

Little did I know that my boss knew as little as I did. I was selected for my position through a third party. When arriving at the newly-built school, they did not even have enough time to prepare a room or the prescience to issue me a proper visa; they were forced to bribe the police just to keep me in-country. Just as I made wrong assumptions, Anna was far more concerned with the rights of the women under her care, and she seemed to care little that Thailand was suffering from the brutal border violence in Burma, or hardly respected the stress of a man with thirty-two wives and eighty-two children. During Anna’s five years with the king, he also lost his favorite daughter to cholera, saw his beloved younger brother die, and even through his trials managed to turn Siam from a medieval kingdom to a country that embraced free trade and European education.

Rule #2: “Most people see the world as they are, not as it is.” Perhaps Anna should have shone the mirror back on herself, rather than criticizing the people of Siam for their acceptance of slavery. Her conclusion shows promise of transformation: “…or perhaps that is my weakness.” Even King Mongkut, according to Anna’s book, viewed her little more than a servant, having no concept of the suffragette popularized from John Stuart Mill. However, the world must be seen from both perspectives, the observer and the observed, as in the space between observer and observed is reality.

When I returned to the United States in 2004, I remarked to my family and friends that during my employment as a kindergarten teacher, I was little more than an indentured servant. I was locked behind the gates of the school (much as Anna was in the palace compound). Services were forced outside of my contract (similar to Anna’s translation and editing services, in addition to her tutoring of the prince and her teaching of the king’s 82 children and wives). I was also used as a marketing ploy for the school because of my white face, blond hair, and blue eyes (just as Anna was used when asked to serve as a third party to the governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring).

After ten years of living in China, perhaps I should not be surprised that the way I was treated was much the same as any other employee. At the time I saw corruption and nepotism; I now understand the realities of an ancient culture suddenly forced to adopt suits and ties. Just as there is beauty in the culture of coffee shop meetings and neighborhood potlucks, there is also beauty in morning employee exercises and the midnight blaring of disco boomboxes in the community square.

Rule #3: “They are the ways of one world.” By the end of the film, Anna has grown, throw aside her colonial attitude and adopted Thai life. While Anna’s real life was starkly different (she left Thailand a sick, tired woman, and a royal court that breathed relief at her departure), the film presents a vision all foreign workers should embrace. One culture is no better than another; difference must be judged according to the fruits, and fruits must be sampled carefully with an open mind.

When I left China in 2004, I had been through a gauntlet: moved to three different schools over one year, never teaching the same students for more than four weeks at a time, one fired colleague, one colleague that fled the school during the middle of the night, police raids on the school campus, and learning how to jump the school fence during the night so I could write e-mails to my parents. Seven of my colleagues angry, bitter, disillusioned or fired by the Chinese leaders who simply reflected Chinese values, and me? I had no desire to return to that country again.

Years later I realized that had I kept a more open mind during my time, I might have had a stronger impact on those I touched. King Mongkut’s final words about Anna were that she was a “difficult woman,” and while his son Chulalongkorn appreciated Anna’s diligence, he agreed with his father her impact was minimal, given her frequent desire to accost and challenge the king on matters of court legality. During the last month of my employment, I was also called “difficult” through my attempt to speak for those I felt were being unfairly charged by my boss.

Or when I learned my boss was a king. Midway through her service to the king as governess in 1864, Anna plead from the king to have an increase in salary, to which he bluntly refused and then followed up shortly after with a request for her resignation (feeling he would lose face if he fired her, as he did hire her). She denied him and over the years the king grew to bear her, culminating her time in Siam with a refusal to act as an intermediary in the writing of a letter to Sir John Bowring, a source of sensitivity for the king given his close relationship with the governor and desire to not hurt Bowring’s feelings (Bowring, 2011). After being forced from the palace by armed guard, Anna finally deigned to write a letter to Bowring, but only of sentiment (not of any substance). She returned to England; a year later, the king died, giving the throne to his son Chulalongkorn (Anna’s pupil).

Real life clashes harshly with the romantic image of Anna in the film, which ends in a slow waltz under a moonlit gazebo, the king and Anna embraced, tears rolling down their faces, the forbidden love of a god and mortal woman hand-in-hand hidden behind their eyes. King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) sadly recounts in the last line of the film of the love his father held for Anna, and the good she did for Thailand, giving power and authority to Anna’s transformation.

Near the end of my first year in China, I remember walking into my boss’ office to say hello. He was sitting behind his desk wearing his favorite turtle-skin glasses, playing Counter-Strike (a popular computer game among Chinese youth). I asked him how he was doing, and he gruffly looked up at me, smiled, nodded, and then went back to his game. Leaving the office almost as quickly as I entered, I could hear the bullets clatter from his gun to the ground, and the sound of his rifle reloading. I had caught my boss in a rather unrefined moment, yet was also reminded of the enormous authority he wielded. He knew he had power. I judged, to my shame.

The assumptions foreign workers make discredit them; their insistence on viewing the world through their particular cultural lens becomes a burden; but their transformation into holistic learners to respect and even admire culture, is the defining characteristic that sets them apart from others. Kings may be kings, servants servants, but beauty is always found when one is neither, but a learner.


Bowring, P. (2011). Sir John Bowring: The imperial role of a lifelong radical. Asian Affairs, 42(3):419- 429.

Leonowens, A.H. (1870). The English governess at the Siamese court: Being recollections of the six years in the royal palace at Bangkok. Retrieved from

Published: January 29, 2015 | Comments: 0