An American talisman

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A talisman has appeared in twenty-first century America, one with astounding magical powers. Fitting in the palm like a mini crystal ball, it can bring people to life on its screen. To young kids submerged in the dreamy developmental phase of childhood, this glass amulet must seem utterly bewitching and miraculous, a veritable Wonderland of miniature toy stores and colorful games. With parent’s permission, it even sends real toys and snacks to one’s home.

When they reach their early teens, kids begin adapting to the adult world of reality. The talisman soon becomes jaded and the magic fades. Still, it remains an engaging, multifaceted toy, capable of shooting videos and photos with incredible ease and realism, playing movies and music from an infinite list and packing more information at the fingertips than the city library.

If someone from the future had attempted to describe this mysterious thing to me back when I was a teenager in the 1970s, I would have found it pure science fiction and more or less incomprehensible, as we all would have. I refer of course to the smartphone, now the most mundane of objects. In the US, however, this talisman has a very peculiar status and function. For American teenagers, and only American teenagers, the smartphone retains its magical and untamable powers—of the black magic variety. It is a very scary, indeed terrifying object.

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My problem with the atheists (it’s not what you think)

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Courtesy of Maddy (MadE14 on DeviantArt)

Group marriage does not look quite so terrible as the philistines, whose minds cannot get beyond brothels, imagine it to be.
— Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

Nothing need be said

Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, aka. the Marquis de Sade, has his first taste of prison at the age of twenty-three when he’s arrested for blasphemy, after forcing a prostitute to hurl abuse at Christ. At twenty-eight, he lures a homeless woman to his chateau, where he binds and whips her and pours hot wax in the gashes in her flesh he made with a knife; she escapes, and he does as well—from the police. He is never idle. While on the run he haunts the brothels of France. Five years later he organizes a sadomasochistic orgy with a bevy of prostitutes in Marseilles, one of whom almost dies after overdosing on the Spanish fly he’s forced down her throat. By this point the thirty-two-year old aristocrat has become fodder of Continental proportions for the tabloid press (by then already a well-established industry). His wife’s family, also of nobility, secure a letter de cachet from the King to have Sade put away and save the family reputation. He manages to return to his chateau and seduce his wife’s younger sister, who flees with him to Italy. She returns early; he’s arrested in Sardinia but escapes from his prison and wends his way back to his chateau in France. Two years later he conspires with his wife to hire a series of unsuspecting female servants on whom to act out yet more sadomasochistic fantasies. The orgies and the cat-and-mouse game with the authorities drag on for several more years, until he is finally incarcerated for a lengthy prison stay with a freshly issued letter de cachet, at the age of thirty-seven.

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 8: Xinluoma

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Zhang slapped him hard across the face. “How you lose your clothes?”

“Somebody stole it when I took a shower.”

“Nobody steal things here.”

“I’m telling you that’s what happened.”

She marched him naked back to the gift shop. He was able to find a tunic with the same Italian as the last one, “La festa della streghe in mutande.” She paid for it and he slipped it back on. It now read:

WITCHES UNDERWEAR PARTY

“Okay, good. In working order.”

“I take you to my house now. I hope you better at massage, after first day training. You show me your progress tonight.”

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 7: New Gary, IN

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“Mr. Malmquist, I’m Inspector Melynchuk. And this is Sergeant Fink. I believe you’re already familiar with Officers Carrot and Stick.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Nice to see you again,” said Carrot.

Stick gave the table a gentle bang with his fist and grinned at Malmquist.

“I can see you’ve been battered up a bit,” Melynchuk continued. “Sorry about all this. Apparently there have been misunderstandings.”

“You seem different, not like everyone else.”

“I’m everyone else?” said Fink.

“Don’t tell me you two are androids as well.”

“No. We’re here to put a more human face on things. Can you try to recall again where you were just before your first time in New Gary?”

The 1.3 billion-strong temper tantrum: Review of Arthur Meursault’s Party Members

You’re nine years old and showing off your new iPad on the school playground, and the class bully snatches it out of your hands. Now, there are two things you can do. 1) Deal with it. Snatch it back. This is what normal kids do. 2) Scream and cry. This is what the 1.3 billion-strong country of China does everytime it’s poked in the eye, like the recent Hague Tribunal ruling against its claims in the South China Sea. Snatched it right out of its hands and we hear the whole nation stamping its feet and squealing: “Waaaahh! Go away, Opium War bullies! Waaaahh!” Hurting China’s feelings has become established as a pastime, a sport. When China lost its bid to host the 2000 Olympics to Sydney it went, “Waaaahh!” The Olympic torch is snatched out of the hands of disabled bearer Jin Jing in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics. “Waaaahh!” The swimmer Sun Yang is poked fun at in the Rio 2016 Olympics for his doping history, and the whole country goes “Waaaahh!” The Rio organizers get the stars misaligned on the Chinese flag. “Waaaahh!”

Now the sport has taken the form of a novel. Lots of people aren’t going to like Arthur Meursault’s Party Members: Chinese customs officials who find reasons on every page to blacklist the book; patriots who don’t tolerate anything that puts their country in a bad light; cynics who freely disparage their own country but can’t stomach a single criticism by a foreigner; the humorless; sinophiles grateful for the privilege of being allowed into China; the Pollyannas who run the expat magazines assuming the burden of preventing China at all costs from losing face.

Living the Taiping: Interview with James Lande

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Last century China experienced one of its periodic mid-century blowouts, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong and tens of millions die in senseless slaughter. The Chinese Civil War of 1927-50: 2-8 million dead. The Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45: up to 26 million dead. The manmade Great Chinese Famine of 1958-62: 15-45 million dead. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76: 1.5 million dead by the time the worst was over in 1969. The total from the conflicts over these 40 years ranges from a conservative 35 million to an upper estimate of 80 million. The true figures will never be known.

The mid-century blowout of the century before that, otherwise known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), was not quite as bad or was even worse, depending on which sources you consult. The estimates range from 20 million to up to 100 million dead. If the latter figure is valid, it means one quarter of China’s population (at the time) was killed in the conflict. Once you realize the casualties took place over a narrower time frame, the destruction clearly looks proportionately more catastrophic than China’s 20th century (the only previous mid-century blowout of comparable scale was during the Qing conquest of the Ming 200 years earlier, with 25 million dead). Not to mention that it would count as the most destructive manmade event in recorded history; and it happened a mere century and a half ago.

The Taiping holocaust is so astounding in its magnitude that the psyche can’t deal with it. Its sheer incomprehensibility puts it beyond the pale of discourse, to be ignored or trivialized. Mainland Chinese high-school history textbooks devote no more than a page to it, much less than to the loose bookends to that event, the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), which the Communists found the perfect surrogate for shouldering the national burden of shame, China’s so-called “century of humiliation.” With casualty figures amounting to around 50,000, however, the violence at the hands of the Western powers does not even begin to merit the term negligible — in comparison to the nuclear war in slow-motion going on in the Chinese interior.

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 6: Gwongzau

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Sender, message, signal, receiver: the standard model of communication. Or simply: sender, signal, receiver. There is usually a message, but it’s often hard to distinguish from the signal. Some messages are obvious — the time of day, the price of something. Or the words “I like you”: the message, fondness for someone, seems to be contained in the signal, the words. Or consider the glance of a person who likes you. The message is contained in the signal: the gaze, the eyes. The signal is so instantaneous it’s practically invisible, and what remains is the message. The message is the only thing we notice. Since the signal is so insignificant, we might be tempted to revise the model to: sender, message, receiver.

The problem is, without a signal, there is no communication; while on the other hand, a great deal of signaling — communicating — goes on without a message. The message is not necessarily crucial, or even important. Indeed, you can’t understand the nature of communication until you realize the message is not important. If the “message” could be defined as a specific packet of information, what we discover is that people withhold information more often than they give it. And they may wish to communicate this very fact. There may be signals to this effect: the empty message, the anti-message. There may be signals with no message. There may be contradictory messages. The message is redundant. It is just a distraction, an interpretation, something you think you understand. What stands in its place is more basic: mutual acknowledgment and reassurance.