Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Dragon Boat Festival

The Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival will celebrate this event in 2017 in September with races on Lake Merritt. In China, the People's Republic has declared May 30 to be a national holiday in 2017. (It has recognized this old but popular folk celebration only since 2008.)

In the Chinese calendar, the festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month. Hence the festival is sometimes referred to as the "Double Fifth" similar to the celebration of the tenth day of the tenth month as the "Double Tenth" (the day commemorating the end of dynastic rule in China). This is celebrated much more in Taiwan than on the mainland as the ROC has claimed the mantle of Chinese Nationalism despite having lost the civil war. [The painting on the left dates from the eighteenth century and has been downloaded from a Wikipedia article about this festival.]

The dragon boat festival has been associated most frequently with the action of Qu Yuan, a poet and a minister in one of the seven warring states prior to the unification of China by the Qin (late in the third century B.C.). Qu Yuan had opposed a proposed merger of his home state with Qin and when he was dismissed, committed suicide by jumping into the river. It is said that the people of his state tried to save his body for proper burial by roiling the water of the river to distract the fish from feeding on it. Another servant of this state, Wu Zixu, is also said to have died on the same date, thus strengthening tradition regarding the celebration. Indeed, a third death on this date is said to have contributed as well. Cao E, a young woman's whose father had fallen into the river, searched for his body until both were found several days later, an act of filial piety by a daughter. The first two deaths were recorded in Sima Qian's classic history as both exemplified loyalty, a Confucian virtue (though their causes were hopeless).

[More recently, the festival achieved the status of a Google doodle.]

Many other folk beliefs have contributed to this early summer event. These have contributed folklore regarding luck to be earned by balancing an egg on its end and defense against illness by wearing herbs in pouches. Realgar wine was valued for its power to ward off evil as well as disease. It is probably an acquired taste.

Many Chinese folktales include references to this festival including the Legend of the White Snake, said to be one of the "China's Four Great Folk Tales." This folktale has several forms, briefly summarized in a Wikipedia article linked. The story has been brought to American theater most notably by Mary Zimmerman in New York City in 2013, see review in the New York Times, linked.

It would be a shame not to mention that the Dragon Boat Festival is a special occasion - as if one is needed - for special dumplings (glutinous rice with sweet and savory fillings, see image picked at random from very many on the Internet).



Saturday, March 18, 2017

CHAOS MONKEYS

"Real life experience is instructive, but the tuition is high."

So says Antonio Garcia Martinez (AGM) at some point in this fascinating book about an engineering grad student who became a "pricing quant" at Goldman, Sachs. He was then lured to work for Adchemy, a startup able to raise funds but not land any customers. When this realization sank in, AGM and two colleagues cooked up AdGrok through a happy combination of their skills, experience, and the fermentation process detailed in this book as the Y Combinator "startup boot camp" (there is a helpful index).

The author pauses to reflect on what personal qualities it took to embark upon a startup. The ability to persevere with single-minded focus, especially to endure what we might euphemistically call the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. AGM has a saltier vernacular, acquired perhaps from years in a difficult family situation, in the all-boys Catholic school, amidst the penury of grad school in engineering, and on Wall Street's "most competitive trading floor during its biggest market catastrophe."

He heaps scorn therefore on those who have "ideas without implementation," the American immigration visa system, slimy lawyers, his bosses - singling one out for being the only decent person in the company and naming the vicious, the vacuous, and those with "more crossed allegiances and conflicts of interest than ..." The voice is distinctive if corrosive. He does go somewhat easy on his former partners (though the British Trader and the Israeli Psychologist will easily recognize themselves). Perhaps some good comes from "Catholic guilt and Hispanic [Cuban] chivalry."

The story aims to communicate some understanding of credit default swaps, basic marketing, and "how to bolt on a real-time ad exchange onto a social media platform." There is, alas, a lightweight feel to the explanation of financial derivatives, deadly when serious alternatives already exist. For an introduction to marketing, there are many textbookish and more or less entertaining accounts. One would take the pages devoted to the value of an ad exchange more seriously for after all Twitter did and paid AGM to advise on its venture. But it is very likely someone with inside knowledge of Amazon's A9 unit might have a more definite treatment of the process.

Nevertheless, AGM has written a very entertaining story. He has used many of the dark arts of novel writing, engaging hooks, building suspense, investing his characters with emotions - I would quote extracts except that my own sensibilities get in the way of such freedom of speech. Withall, this book is a testimony to the dictum that "truth is stranger than fiction."

Among all real life experiences, there are many that cannot be purchased, as they say, for love or money. Few of us will ever experience the "present at the creation" thrill or life-changing awe of deciphering a hitherto unknown language or the making or unmaking of decisions by star-crossed lovers or war-mongers. That is why we read--to extend the experience of our small lives beyond our time and space. Fiction and nonfiction both serve this purpose. One might prefer Gore Vidal's Burr to Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, or not. Reading either will enrich your life, I assure you. For the same reason, read Chaos Monkeys.

Chaos Monkeys, website