Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, April 28, 2008

China: Inside the Dragon

This month's National Geographic Magazine is a special issue on China, entitled China: Inside the Dragon. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the appropriate section of the online version of the magazine.

The pictures are outstanding. A whole issue's worth of them. The print version is worth keeping around for some time to come.

China is a very large country with a long history encompassing many different cultures. This issue tried to impart a sense of that depth and variety.

Please take a look, or better yet, get the print version.


Friday, April 25, 2008

The 36 Strategies: #26 Point at One to Scold Anohter

Next to Sun Tzu's The Art of War, the 36 Strategies is probably the world's best known classic on the art of strategy. Where the Art of War is really a methodic overview of the whole subject of strategic thought, The 36 Strategies attempts to teach by giving 36 specific maxims. Here is #26.

26. Point at one to scold another

You criticize indirecly, getting your point across without confrontation.

This can be applied more widely. If you make an example of A, you can send a message to B. This is a way to confront powerful rivals indirectly, lessening the chance of an accidental outright conflict.

When the Mongols were sweeping through Asia, any city that resisted them would be obliterated. The city would be razed and the all the citizens would be executed. Word of this spread quickly. Fewer and fewer cities put up any resistence. It made more sense to simply join them.

The other side of this is that the intended recipient of the message must be aware enough of what's going on to take the meaning of a message being delivered to someone else. This implies a certain degree of sophistocation and awareness among all the parties involved.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

... All the Tea in China

A friend sent me a newspaper article about a village that grows tea in China. It's an interesting read. I've put an excerpt below. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.

A Tea From the Jungle Enriches a Placid Village

PU’ER, China — The sky is nearly cloudless, the breeze is bracing, and the tea plantation where Yao Kunxue works resembles a giant green amphitheater absorbing the last rays of a setting sun.

The tea itself? No thanks, he says. He grows it — what he calls industrial tea — but he does not drink it.

The rolling hills of China’s southern Yunnan Province are the birthplace of tea, anthropologists say, the first area where humans figured out that eating tea leaves or brewing a cup could be pleasant. Today tea farmers preside over large plantations, but they want their tea the way their forebears consumed it: brewed from wild leaves, and preferably from ancient trees in the jungle.

“It has a fragrant smell,” Mr. Yao said of his favorite, harvested from trees at least a century old. “And when you swallow there’s a sweet aftertaste.”

From relative obscurity a few decades ago, tea from Yunnan, especially Pu’er, has become a fashionable, must-have variety in the tea shops of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Surging demand for Pu’er — often advertised as wild tea even if it is from the plantations — has made farmers here rich and encouraged entrepreneurs to carve out more plantations from jungle-covered hillsides.

Ninety percent of the 23,000 tons of Pu’er tea produced last year was grown on plantations, officials say. Local residents seem more than happy to send it to distant locales. They complain about its hard edges — too bitter — and the chemicals that are regularly sprayed on the plants to repel bugs, viruses and fungus.

“The pesticides come through in the taste,” Mr. Yao said.

Here, tea has never been something bought at the market; it grows in the backyard, like blueberries in the woods of Maine.

Domesticated tea plants are trimmed into hedges to make harvesting easier. In the wild, they grow to resemble the old and gnarled olive trees of the Mediterranean but with bigger and more abundant leaves.

Peng Zhe, deputy secretary general of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, a tea-growing district here, compares the wild tea to fine vintages of Bordeaux or Burgundy.

“To appreciate Pu’er tea is similar to enjoying wine,” said Mr. Peng, who also leads the local tea promotion board. “You need to understand the different areas where tea grows. The fragrance is different from one mountain to the next.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

Random Thoughts

Spring appears to have arrived. I am almost ready to drain the gasoline out of my snow thrower. I remember having snow in May however.

A friend of mine who is a project manger brought up the topic of randomness to me the other day.

I think that our lives are surrounded by randomness. Most things are out of our control and it’s an illusion to think that we can control any significant portion of those things outside of ourselves that can affect us.

You get a new boss, the company gets sold, a crack dealer moves in next door, a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. Can you have contingency plans for every cotton picking thing that happens in your life? No. Even if you attempted it, the effort in planning; in planning to plan, would elbow the time you have for actually living out of the way. What kind of life would that be?

You can develop yourself to be open minded, resourceful, and well grounded. You can educate yourself and be informed. You can be organized so that you are not working at cross purposes to yourself, and to increase your efficiency within a certain scope. You can develop skills and expertise in certain areas which you can then apply in a “strategic” sense to exert some temporary leverage over a specific situation.

You can watch trends and observe rhythms to try and use them to your advantage, or avoid their ill effects. You can’t rely on history though, to predict the future with absolute confidence.

You’re never going to have complete, perfect, unchanging information. You have to do the work, to increase your odds, but you can’t guarantee the outcomes. Sometimes for better or worse, outcomes can be completely unexpected, especially when unintended consequences are brought up.

I can’t stand the initiative that began back in the 80’s and 90’s to drive companies through “processes.” QS, ISO, TS, all of them. Reduce everything in the workplace to make people inconsequential and plug replaceable. It sounds great on paper, but in reality, people develop expertise and a process can never capture all the variables. With thinner and thinner workforces, the idea of people being plug replaceable in reality goes out the window as individuals become recognized to have essential expertise. All the process documentation is good for is when that expert is lost, to provide his replacement with some sort of baseline on which to build his own expertise.

As far as project management goes, even the best laid plans are going to go awry as soon as activity commences. People are involved. No more explanation needs to be offered.

The role of the project manager at the end of the day is to find ways to mitigate and compromise all along the way to achieve the desired, stated goal. Planning from a top down perspective will allow the project manager to identify some (never all, unless he is omniscient) places where the risks of the plans becoming undone are greater than “normal;” in a disciplined, organized way. Within a limited scope, the PM can be assured of the plan’s “correctness” which indeed can be all the difference between success and failure.

A great book on how randomness affects our lives is one that I’ve recommended before, Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s influenced my thinking a lot.

Another great book on unintended consequences is Why Things Bite Back by Edward Tenner.

I haven’t written about my Japanese Language study in a long time. When I first began, still with the former employer, the Japanese assignee with whom I worked was very encouraging. He appreciated the effort I was putting into it. When he went back to Japan, he was replaced by a couple of new assignees who didn’t like the idea of a gaijin learning Japanese at all. They wanted to preserve their ability to speak among themselves in front of us.

With the new company, I am finding my self once again working with Japanese assignees who are delighted to see a gaijin attempting to learn their language. I’m getting back at it pretty steadily and making progress.

My oldest daughter is graduating from college next weekend. It just seems the other day when she first entered high school! Where did the time go? The job market is tough. I hope she is able to find something local, so she can live at home for a while and save some money. I’m sure things will work out.

My youngest daughter is right now a junior in high school. Several smaller schools have expressed interest in her playing volleyball for them when she graduates. She’s got good grades. She is active with a lot of leadership activities at school. I am cautiously optimistic that if she wants to play in college, that she’ll be able to.

The new job is going well. They are keeping me very busy, but I feel like I’m getting somewhere with all of the activity. My only frustration has been getting all of my gadgets working properly together, and getting passwords and activation of all the systems I need to work with. This company is much further along the curve in the understanding the home office in Japan has regarding how business is done in North America than my old company. It’s still a Japanese company however, and it is still a challenge.

My taijiquan practice continues to go well. The ideal thing would be to train with a group for a couple of hours everyday, so you could get significant regular time practicing push hands. Reality is far from the ideal. I find it’s still a struggle to fit in practicing my forms as well as the supplementary exercises and still attend to maintaining an ordinary life. I know that I am not alone with this. It’s a common issue with anyone studying a martial art. 80% of the time we spend practicing will be on our own. It’s our own self practice and what we put into it that is going to have the greatest impact on our progress. On the other hand, push hands practice is a high return investment on building taijiquan related skills and 15, 20, or 30 minutes once a week can only give a taste of what that practice is really like.

I’m managing to practice either the long form or the short form every day. I try to fit the various supplementary exercises in whenever I have a few free odd moments here or there. I like being able to do that because I hate to waste time. If I’m going to do nothing, I want to do nothing on purpose, not because I’m just sitting around and can’t figure out what to do with myself and time just passes. Time is going to pass one way or the other. We can choose what we’ve done with ourselves while that time passes.

I think a key point is making taijiquan practice a part of one’s everyday lifestyle. You can’t do this by force. That would be working at cross purposes to the very concepts upon which taijiquan is based.

Habits are a part of our lives, for good or bad. I’m finding as busy as I have been since starting the new job, plus just doing some other things after work, that I’m not on the internet nearly has much as I had been previously over the past several years. I don’t consider this as necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to uproot your habits from time to time anyway.

Cook Ding’s Kitchen has exceeded 20,000 hits!

A guy at work is getting married in a couple of weeks. It reminds me that my wife and I have been married for 24 ½ years. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re getting along better now than I can ever clearly remember. As our kids get older and start to embark on their own lives, this is nice. Real estate prices being what they are, we may just yet get that lake house I’ve always wanted. Sitting on a deck overlooking the lake, waiting for the kids to drive up. That’s what I want in my future.

In the meantime, the nights are getting warmer. I just picked up some firewood. A nice fire on the patio tonight seems like a good idea.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Myth*ing Links

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed a page that just has an abundance of links to all sorts of interesting things. I've also put a link over on the right.

Please pay a visit. You'll spend hours exploring the links.

The best description is from the top of the page itself:

An Annotated & Illustrated Collection of Worldwide Links to Mythologies,
Fairy Tales & Folklore, Sacred Arts & Sacred Traditions

by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Bloom is Off the Rose

China is having a rough year. The had an extremely rough winter. I think we'll be hearing about floods and food shortages as a result. There are the human rights protests that will probably reach a crescendo at the Olympics. The world wide price for rice is going through the roof. The pollution in China and the environmental damage being done is probably nearly the worst on the planet.

The Chinese economic miracle is also having some issues. There are cheaper labor pools that are taking business away from China. Partially due to the way the Chinese have manipulated the yuan / dollar exchange, they have a big pile of dollars ... that they have to spend in the US to get any value out of them.

And then there is the Shanghai stock market. A friend sent me this story from the New York Times. I have an excerpt below. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full story.

To See a Stock Market Bubble Bursting, Look at Shanghai

SHANGHAI — A year ago, investors like Guan Ling were ebullient. Chinese share prices had climbed over 500 percent in the span of two years, setting off a nationwide stock buying frenzy.

When experts periodically warned about the possibility of a bubble, prices would dip temporarily then soar even higher, breaking records and inciting another mad dash to snap up equities.

“The market was going wild,” says Mr. Guan, 49, who a few years ago closed his real estate company to invest in stocks full time. “Everybody was talking about how much they had earned, how much more they would invest, and which stocks had jumped 20 times, or even 30 times.”

That was last year. The Shanghai composite index has plunged 45 percent from its high, reached last October. The first quarter of this year, which ended Monday with a huge sell-off, was the worst ever for the market.

Suddenly, millions of small investors who were crowding into brokerage houses, spending the entire day there playing cards, trading stocks, eating noodles and cheering on the markets with other day traders and retirees, are feeling depressed and angry.

"These days my family quarrels a lot," says Zhang Liying, 55, a retired hotel waitress who with her husband invested all their savings in the stock market. “My husband asked me to sell; I wanted to hold for a while. Now my husband condemns me as so stupid that we lost our family’s savings.”

Si Dansu, 68, and a retired engineer, is even more distraught, but she blames the government.

“I devoted my whole life to the country. I went to the countryside after graduation, and worked as an engineer in a Shanghai factory until retirement. I invested almost all my savings and retirement fund in the market 10 years ago. But now I’m totally penniless. All my stocks went down.”

Other parts of Asia are as bad, or worse. In India, stock prices have plunged 31 percent in Mumbai; they are off 31 percent in Japan and a whopping 53 percent in Vietnam, another booming economy. Angry investors have burned a securities regulator in effigy in Mumbai, and some are in tears in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

“Some of them have cried,” says Nguyen Quang Tri, 74, a retired cement company manager who was visiting a Ho Chi Minh City brokerage house this week. “I have my own equity, but most of the people here borrowed money from the bank.”

The market mayhem began after concerns grew late last year about inflation at home and an American financial crisis. Now, even though China’s economy is growing at its fastest pace in over a decade, stock prices have fallen back to earth, crushing small investors on the way down.

Few experts say the stock plunge is a major threat to growth in the real economy here. But there are worries that a prolonged downturn could reverberate through China’s financial markets — especially since a large number of corporations had aggressively shifted money, sometimes secretly, to play the market.

By some estimates, 15 to 20 percent of the profits reported last year by publicly listed companies in Shanghai that are not involved in banking or finance (which usually invest in stocks) came from stock trading gains.

Companies with primary businesses like selling electricity, or even sports jackets, were moonlighting by trading stocks, hoping to bolster their earnings.

“Companies had a lot of excess cash,” said Jing Ulrich, a market analyst at JPMorgan in Hong Kong. “And a lot of that cash did leak into the stock market.”

But the big companies were following the small investor. JPMorgan estimates that 150 million people in China were invested in the Chinese stock market as of the end of last year. That may still be a small slice of China’s 1.3 billion people, but it is a huge new constituency, and it has led to the birth of both a new source of potential popular discontent and a new lifestyle: the diehard investor.

Chen Donghao is one convert. A 22-year-old recent college graduate, he is now a fixture at a Shanghai brokerage house.

In April 2006, when he was still a student majoring in art design, his family gave him about $70,000 to invest in the stock market.

It was an ideal time to get in.

“When I started the stock market was around 1,700,” he says, noting that today, despite the drop, the Shanghai composite index is still up at about 3,400. “I made a lot of money. So since the beginning of this year I decided to open a restaurant. I’d like to open a chain of famous restaurants in Shanghai.”

Shopkeepers, real estate brokers, even maids and watermelon hawkers are said to have become day traders.

A new version of the national anthem made its way around the country last year, beginning, “Arise! Ye who haven’t opened an account! Pour your gold and silver into the hot market!”

The anthem went on: “The Chinese nation faces its craziest time. The passionate roar of our peoples will be heard!”

People responded. Here in Shanghai, brokerage houses with giant electronic screens started to draw huge crowds, including many retirees who were content to spend the entire day transfixed by the sight of rising prices.

In some brokerage houses, entire floors are divided into small and midsize rooms that investors camp out in, from opening to closing bell, with their lunch bags, knitting gear, playing cards and newspapers to help them feel at home.

Only now, many investors cannot bear to look at their screens.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Dao De Jing: Chapter #26, Calm

One of the world’s classics of literature is the Dao De Jing. It is also one of the foundations of Daoism. If you click on the title of this post, you’ll be directed to a free online version of the Dao De Jing in both English and Chinese.

#26: Calm

Gravity is the source of lightness,
Calm, the master of haste.

A lone traveller will journey all day, watching over his belongings;
Yet once safe in his bed he will lose them in sleep.
The captain of a great vessel will not act lightly or hastily.
Acting lightly, he loses sight of the world,
Acting hastily, he loses control of himself.

A captain can not treat his great ship as a small boat;
Rather than glitter like jade.

He must stand like stone.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Chinese Strategy in Business

As more and more western firms find themselves out maneuvered by their Asian counterparts, executives are hoping to turn of the the Chinese characteristics, a long historical in depth study of strategy to their own advantage.

I've been publishing the famous 36 Strategies in installments for a couple of years now. This is barely scratching the surface. Simply reading the Art of War, then setting the book aside isn't studying the subject.

To pull this task off, often a seasoned consultant is needed. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to one. The proprietor has a long history in the study and application of Chinese strategy.

Friday, April 04, 2008

A Clear Mind

A friend sent me these articles. I usually just post an excerpt, but this is short and very very good. Note that the links to the original articles at the New York Times will be found at the end of each one.

These two articles both describe interesting aspects of the mind, which applies equally to martial arts, zen, daoism, ... you name it. Enjoy.

Pitching With Purpose

A few years ago, a former professional baseball player mentioned a book that had made a great impression on him. It was called “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching,” by a sports psychologist named H.A. Dorfman. I read the book one spare evening, though, as you may have noticed, I’m not a pitcher — and no major league organization has expressed interest in making me one.

The book left an impression on me too, mostly for its moral tone. Dorfman offers to liberate people from what you might call the tyranny of the scattered mind. He offers to take pitchers, who may be thinking about a thousand and one things up on the mound, and give them mental discipline.

Others are eloquent about courage and creativity, but Dorfman is fervent about discipline. In the book’s only lyrical passage, he writes: “Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt.”

His assumption seems to be that you can’t just urge someone to be disciplined; you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind.

Dorfman builds that structure on the repetitiousness of baseball. It’s commonly said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any craft — three hours of practice every day for 10 years. Dorfman assumes that players would have already put in those hours doing drills and repetitions. He urges them to adopt their own pregame rituals. He notes that Trevor Hoffman, the San Diego Padres closer, walks from the clubhouse to the dugout every game in the fourth inning and moves to the bullpen in the seventh.

As a pitcher enters a game, Dorfman continues, he should bring a relentlessly assertive mind-set. He should plan on attacking the strike zone early in the count, and never letting up. He will not nibble at the strike zone or try to throw the ball around hitters. He will invite contact. Even when the count is zero balls and two strikes, he will not alter his emotional tone by wasting a pitch out of the strike zone.

Just as a bike is better balanced when it is going forward, a pitcher’s mind is better balanced when it is unceasingly aggressive. If a pitcher doesn’t actually feel this way when he enters a game, Dorfman asks him to pretend. If your body impersonates an attitude long enough, then the mind begins to adopt it.

Dorfman then structures the geography of the workplace. There are two locales in a pitcher’s universe — on the mound and off the mound. Off the mound is for thinking about the past and future, on the mound is for thinking about the present. When a pitcher is on the pitching rubber, Dorfman writes, he should only think about three things: pitch selection, pitch location and the catcher’s glove, his target. If he finds himself thinking about something else, he should step off the rubber.

Dorfman has various breathing rituals he endorses, but his main focus during competition is to get his pitchers thinking simple and small. A pitcher is defined, he writes, “by the way the ball leaves his hand.” Everything else is extraneous.

In Dorfman’s description of pitching, batters barely exist. They are vague, generic abstractions that hover out there in the land beyond the pitcher’s control. A pitcher shouldn’t judge himself by how the batters hit his pitches, but instead by whether he threw the pitch he wanted to throw.

Dorfman once approached Greg Maddux after a game and asked him how it went. Maddux said simply: “Fifty out of 73.” He’d thrown 73 pitches and executed 50. Nothing else was relevant.

A baseball game is a spectacle, with a thousand points of interest. But Dorfman reduces it all to a series of simple tasks. The pitcher’s personality isn’t at the center. His talent isn’t at the center. The task is at the center.

By putting the task at the center, Dorfman illuminates the way the body and the mind communicate with each other. Once there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above the body, but that’s been blown away by evidence. In fact, it’s easiest to change the mind by changing behavior, and that’s probably as true in the office as on the mound.

And by putting the task at the center, Dorfman helps the pitcher quiet the self. He pushes the pitcher’s thoughts away from his own qualities — his expectations, his nerve, his ego — and helps the pitcher lose himself in the job.

Not long ago, Americans saw the rise of a therapeutic culture that placed great emphasis on self-discovery, self-awareness and self-expression. But somehow the tide seems to have turned from the worship of self, and today’s message is: transcend yourself in your job — or get shelled.

A fitting reminder from opening day.

Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind

DECLINING house prices, rising job layoffs, skyrocketing oil costs and a major credit crunch have brought consumer confidence to its lowest point in five years. With a relatively long recession looking increasingly likely, many American families may be planning to tighten their belts.

Interestingly, restraining our consumer spending, in the short term, may cause us to actually loosen the belts around our waists. What’s the connection? The brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so exerting willpower in one area often leads to backsliding in others. The good news, however, is that practice increases willpower capacity, so that in the long run, buying less now may improve our ability to achieve future goals — like losing those 10 pounds we gained when we weren’t out shopping.

The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task.

In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.

Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.

What limits willpower? Some have suggested that it is blood sugar, which brain cells use as their main energy source and cannot do without for even a few minutes. Most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, but planning and self-control are sensitive to such small changes. Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control. People who drink a glass of lemonade between completing one task requiring self-control and beginning a second one perform equally well on both tasks, while people who drink sugarless diet lemonade make more errors on the second task than on the first. Foods that persistently elevate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, might enhance willpower for longer periods.

In the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely. For example, if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford. Taking an alternative route to avoid passing the store would be a better strategy.

On the other hand, if you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let the housecleaning slide to conserve your willpower for the more important job. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.

Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.

No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.

Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower — and the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life.

Sandra Aamodt, the editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton, are the authors of “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.”