≡  Read the New York Times review here.
≡  Read the Los Angeles Times review here.  

The Information Glaze

Information is not enough

A brief Twitter exchange with David Roberts of Grist Magazine.

Storified by Alan Mairson · Wed, Jun 20 2012 23:46:49

On Monday, the New York Times published this editorial:
Earth AgonistesOn Wednesday, world leaders will gather in Rio de Janeiro to review progress made in the 20 years since the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit and ho…
” … and hopefully to chart a new path toward a more sustainable future. Protecting the planet and its people must be their first priority.”
And so on. 
Which prompted this exchange with David Roberts (@drgrist) of Grist Magazine:  
I agree with editorials like this – http://is.gd/Vf69nM – but honestly, they’re so familiar now, so rote, that I glaze over.David Roberts
@drgrist As does everyone else. But what’s Plan B?Alan Mairson
@AlanMairson A renewed focus on the dirty, amoral mechanisms of political power?David Roberts
@drgrist If the challenge for Greens is a political one, then what do you make of 1st video here: http://bit.ly/Lyn5oS >> 1/2Alan Mairson
Bringing value and making a difference: CEO of National Geographicibmibv
@drgrist 2/2 Head of major Green org who says the challenge really is information & understanding. Any reaction?Alan Mairson
@AlanMairson He is wrong.David Roberts
David’s response reminds me of this observation by Neil Postman: 
Neil Postman on Informationsocietymatters
Which is to say: Another NGM story about melting glaciers might provide some exciting photo ops and more information, but it will do nothing to help us solve the serious environmental challenges that confront us.  

Losing our way in China

At a party last weekend, I had a fascinating conversation with a senior National Geographic executive about the relationship between our Society’s support for science — and our Society’s apparent lack of interest in democracy, especially in China.

His view (paraphrased): Science is central to National Geographic’s mission; democracy is not.

I disagreed, citing National Geographic’s (forgotten) history. A few days later, I sent him this 2006 story from The New York Times about Chinese physicist Xu Liangying. Dr. Xu has long embraced Albert Einstein’s dictum that freedom, especially freedom of speech, is a prerequisite for scientific progress.

By championing the cause of freedom in China, Dr. Xu has paid a very high price; by ignoring the cause of freedom in China, National Geographic gets access to a huge new market for cheetah pictures, but fundamentally undermines the future of our society — and our Society.

The story of Xu Liangying is well worth reading, especially on the June 4th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

… If he is not the oldest living Chinese dissident, he is easily one of the most intellectually distinguished, the author of some 200 papers and editor of a half-dozen books. The historian H. Lyman Miller called him an “archetypal figure” in his book “Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China.” The adjective “venerable” seems to attach itself to him the way snow is attracted to the mountains, but he does not seem to have lost an ounce of rebelliousness. …

The love affair between Dr. Xu, who was born in Linhai, Zhejiang, in 1920, and Einstein began when Dr. Xu was in secondary school and read a collection of Einstein’s essays called “The World as I See It.” The book had as much politics as science.

In one passage that the young Xu underlined, Einstein wrote: “The state is made for man, not man for the state. I regard the chief duty of the state to protect the individual and give him the opportunity to develop into a creative personality.”

Dr. Xu said, “I wanted to be such a person.” …

In January 1989, Dr. Xu’s friend Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist, wrote an open letter calling for the release of political prisoners. That was too limited, Dr. Xu concluded. He and an old friend, Shi Yafeng, a geographer at the academy, then in February drafted their own letter calling for democracy. “We agreed that actually China needs political reform,” Dr. Xu said.

“They need political democracy and need to protect the rights of citizens, and there should be freedom of thinking, speaking and publishing,” he said, “and they need to end the long history of punishing people because of their words. China has such a history, which has lasted for thousands of years.” …

His letter was signed by 42 people, including many scientists.

It and Dr. Fang’s letter helped provide inspiration for students and others who swarmed Tiananmen Square in April 1989 to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a purged political activist, and then stayed to protest corruption and the lack of human rights. Many of them were wearing T-shirts that said 

“Science and Democracy,” watchwords of Chinese politics and aspirations since the early 20th century.

On June 4, Chinese troops invaded the square with tanks and killed hundreds of people. …

Dr. Xu is now retired. In 2001 his book “My Views: Xu Liangying’s Collection of Essays on Science, Democracy and Reason” was published by Mirror Books in Hong Kong. He and his wife, who works at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, are working together on a book about the history and theory of democracy.

“Science and democracy are separate concepts,” he said. “They are mutually supportive, but democracy is more fundamental.”

Despite their showy embrace of science, China’s present leaders have not won over Dr. Xu.

Jiang Zemin, who inherited power from Mr. Deng, earned Dr. Xu’s scorn in 1997 when he invoked Einsteinian relativity to justify China’s human rights record, saying democracy was a relative concept. “It’s just nonsense because, first, Einstein’s relativity principle is actually essentially emphasizing the absolute,” Dr. Xu said, referring to the notion that the laws of physics and speed of light are the same for all observers.

“And the other part is democracy and freedom are also absolute because human nature is universal and needs to pursue freedom and equality.”

Dr. Xu said he was optimistic that China’s future would embrace those qualities. He pointed out that when the student leader Wang Dan first tried to start a democracy salon in 1989, only 20 people showed up. But only half a year later, more than 3,000 people joined a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square.

“So I never doubt the power of the youth,” Dr. Xu said.

{ Read the whole thing here. }

Meanwhile, at our Society:
Money for Chinese scientists …

… but not a word about democracy:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)


“There should be freedom of thinking, speaking and publishing,” said Xu Liangying, “and they [China’s rulers] need to end the long history of punishing people because of their words.”

John Fahey National Geographic

History matters

{ Read the whole thing here. }

Our Society once bore witness:

From "China's Youth Wait for Tomorrow," National Geographic magazine, July 1991

But not anymore:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)

Listen to John Fahey, National Geographic’s Chairman & CEO:

John Fahey National Geographic

Dear John:
Why do you assume that the men who run the People’s Republic of China,
who clearly “know the world,”
will “change it for the better”? 
How does your notion of “better” differ from theirs?  

Advertising: a business model (still) under siege

By Brian Stelter
Published: May 16, 2012

… The disruptive technology at hand is an ad eraser, embedded in new digital video recorders sold by Charles W. Ergen’s Dish Network, one of the nation’s top distributors of TV programming. Turn it on, and all the ads recorded on most prime-time network shows are automatically skipped, no channel-flipping or fast-forwarding necessary.

Some reviewers have already called the feature, named Auto Hop, a dream come true for consumers. But for broadcasters and advertisers, it is an attack on an entrenched television business model, and it must be strangled, lest it spread. …

At least one of the network owners, News Corporation [which is the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel], is no longer accepting Dish’s new DVR ads on any of its television properties. It and several other owners are examining whether they can sue Dish, the same way they sued a maker of DVRs a decade ago, according to several people with knowledge of the deliberations, who insisted on anonymity to speak freely about the internal discussions. …

Read the whole thing here.

What a beautiful use of the Yellow Rectangle

Could the people of China be telling us something?

Screen grab from today’s TimesCast

Turning our back on people we once embraced

Stories like this….

…once mattered to our Society:

Sadly, National Geographic has moved on:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)

But even John Fahey knows
there’s something wrong with the Green picture
he’s been trying to render at NGS —
the picture that helped us get into China in the first place.

From a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal:

Exactly right.
National Geographic, at its best,
is not about air or water or cheetahs.
It’s about people.


Dear John:
Didn’t you used to be a U2 fan?

Sure, Tibetans are burning themselves alive to protest China’s brutal occupation, but… have you seen our latest rhino pics?

An excerpt from In Self-Immolations by Tibetans, Signs of New Turmoil, by Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times (22 March 2012):

Tsering Kyi, a 19 year-old student, self-immolated in the middle of a busy vegetable market in Tibet's Gansu province on March 3, 2012.

Tibetan scholars and exiles say the current resistance campaign is unlike anything seen before. The tactic — public, fiery suicides that do not harm bystanders or property — has profoundly moved ordinary Tibetans and bedeviled Chinese officials. Just as significant, they note, is that the protesters are mostly young — all but nine of them under 30.

Tsering Kyi was one of them. According to family members, she was a thoughtful student whose hard work earned her a place on the school’s honor roll. But in 2010, she joined classmates who took to the streets of this dusty county seat to protest the new Chinese-language textbooks and the decision to limit Tibetan to a single class. In the clampdown that followed, several teachers suspected of encouraging the protest were fired and the headmaster, a popular Tibetan writer, was sent to work on a dam project, according to local residents.Tsering Kyi’s death has been widely publicized by Tibetan activist groups eager to draw attention to the self-immolations. The Chinese state news media, which has ignored most of the cases, reported that she was mentally unstable after hitting her head on a radiator. Her grades started to sag, the official Xinhua news agency said, “which put a lot of pressure on her and made her lose courage for life and study.”

In interviews, several Tibetan residents and relatives of Tsering Kyi’s contemptuously waved away such assertions. Instead, they were eager to discuss her devotion to her Tibetan heritage and the final moments of her life. When she emerged from the public toilets in flames, they said, the market’s Han Chinese vegetable sellers locked the front gate to prevent her from taking her protest to the street. No one, they claim, tried to douse the fire.

When the police arrived, they forced witnesses to remain inside the market and returned Tsering Kyi’s body to the bathroom. Then, after collecting everyone’s cellphones, they methodically went through the devices and deleted any photographs of the incident.

That’s not to say the Chinese authorities are against all kinds of pictures. For example, Chinese authorities have a passion for surveillance photography:

A security camera hangs from the roof of a monastery in Qinghai Province.

Chinese authorities also give their official stamp of approval to cheetah pictures and the people who snap them:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)

Please remember that our Society has not always been so editorially hamstrung and so institutionally silent. Twenty years ago, before NGM launched its local language editions, our Society had the freedom and editorial courage to publish stories like this one:   

Problem is, you can’t publish those types of stories if you aspire to be a global media company that (a) wants to do business in China, and (b) is joined at the hip with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which owns the National Geographic Channel:

Rupert Murdoch

Worth repeating:

Rupert Murdoch


John Fahey National Geographic

Dear John:
Any thoughts?


≡  Tsering Kyi via Candle4Tibet
≡  Surveillance camera by Shiho Fukada for the New York Times

Brands don’t die suddenly; they die slowly from a thousand tiny cuts

Read the whole thing here


Rupert Murdoch

China’s President is a very wise man…

… for he understands what’s truly at stake:

If only everyone did.

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate with our Society’s new publishing partners in the People’s Republic of China (2007).

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.