Learning the Wallflip

This past year I’ve been hanging out with the Penn Gymnastics Club, which is open to anyone with a PennCard. I decided to join since I realized that practicing basic parkour moves and elementary acrobatics in a safe environment full of experienced people and soft mats was probably a better idea than jumping around on concrete and grass while hungover (cough cough like the Collarbone Incident in 2005).

So I have been learning a lot and having a blast on the mats with my fellow club members.

It’s interesting—all of the women in the club have at least some experience in gymnastics (some are even part of Penn’s actual gymnastics team), but the majority of the guys in the club are, like me, amateurs looking to learn acrobatics for parkourish purposes.

But in any case, the following video was recorded a month or so ago (April 2008) and reveals my process as I finally learned how to wallflip. It’s quick, and it’s not pretty. But hopefully it is amusing.

I suppose the takeaway, though, is that it’s never too late to learn this stuff, since here I am at the ripe old age of 26 doing acrobatics for the first time.

China’s Influence in Africa

I took advantage of a fascinating talk today by a visiting scholar, Dr. David Shinn, who was formerly our Ambassador to Ethiopia (among other positions), and who is now a professor at GWU. I went at the last minute based on an email from my Japanese History professor, and I’m quite glad I did. Thanks to my China knowledge (mostly gleaned from majoring in it…Check that out mom & dad—I actually learned something at college!) and my greater-than-average Africa knowledge due to the scenarios we worked with at NYLF/National Security, I learned a even more from the talk.

Since I’m pressed for time, I’m just going to bullet point some of the more interesting tidbits I collected from the talk, for you, my loyal reader (yes, you, sitting over there by yourself) to peruse at your leisure:

  1. Of the 53 African nations currently, only 4 still recognize Taiwan over the PRC, and they’re frankly the insignificant ones (Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Sao Tome & Principe, and Swaziland). Even those will likely change soon. This means that China’s efforts in Africa can potentially garner a large chunk of support votes in the UN—almost a quarter right there.
  2. The US has a significant trade deficit with Africa (although this is of course overshadowed by that with other nations). China is much closer to being neutrally balanced in terms of trade with Africa, which puts it in a stronger position.
  3. By 2010, China will have surpassed the US in trade with Africa. Of that, 85% of China’s trade is with only 5 of the largest African nations. Also, despite all of that, only 3% of China’s trade is with Africa.
  4. Through 2007, China had over $20 billion in investment (mainly in oil and extractive industries) in Africa; $6 billion in Sudan alone. This is a tremendous amount compared to virtually all other nations.
  5. Since 2000, China has been pushing their “Angola Model” in Africa. Basically, Beijing gives large “loans” at very low interest rates (~1.5% only!), payable over long periods. Sounds great, right? Well, in reality these are more like barter agreements, where the recipient nation then pays back the loan in resources (oil from Angola, minerals from DRC, tobacco from Zimbabwe, etc), and on top of that, China agrees to develop the necessary infrastructure to access those resources—but it’s usually stipulated to be done by mostly Chinese companies and labor! Nevertheless, both sides seem pretty happy with this (e.g. Angola is really enjoying the deal since they won the “oil lottery” and are able to pay back their loan quite quickly due to the high prices commanded by oil).
  6. China is not completely profit driven in Africa, as they have cancelled over $1 billion in debts throughout Africa. Not as much as Western nations, but still a significant amount, and mostly for the poorer nations that needed it most.
  7. China does a fantastic job of government-to-government relations: Beijing has staffed embassies in 48 of the 49 African nations that recognize her (Somalia is the only one left out due to security and safety issues). No other nation has that many embassies in Africa. Africa is also always the first place outside of China that the new Chinese foreign minister goes to when taking office.
  8. However, despite that, China is still pretty bad at dealing with non-governmental players, from NGOs to opposition parties, etc. This occasionally leads to great difficulties, since when a government in Africa does change, Beijing has already alienated them by not having had relations previously.
  9. Between 2002 and 2004, high-level Chinese officials made 64 trips to Africa, and African officials and leaders made 69 trips to China in the same period. Can you imagine someone like Condi going to Africa even twice in two years, let alone dozens of times?
  10. Beijing regularly provides training for African diplomats.
  11. Some problems with China in Africa:
    • Beijing undercuts the IMF and World Bank’s reform efforts, which involve loans and grants with stipulations for reform, by giving assistance and funds with no political stipulations at all. China in this sense is like a pressure relief valve for Africa, negating any pressure put on questionable governments by the West.
    • China doesn’t pay much attention to where their arms shipments end up in Africa.
    • China participates and funds egregious environmental practices, from protected timber clearcutting, to blatant ivory trade.
    • Chinese trade is continually driving local African textile and other goods manufacturers out of business.
  12. Some interesting effects of Chinese influence:
    • China’s use of barter with many African nations actually serves to lessen corruption; corrupt leaders are much less likely to “misplace” a thousand computers shipped in from China than they are to lose track of a million dollars sent in by the IMF.
    • Whether good or bad, it is interesting that China will deal equitably with Islamist Khartoum, Autocratic Equatorial Guinea, and Democratic South Africa…all that matters to Beijing is who’s in power.
  13. There are roughly three classes of Chinese in Africa:
    • The Professional Class, who are the ambassadorial, administrative, managerial, and banking etc personnel. These people behave like their Western equivalents, living in communities, speaking the local languages, taking their families, and usually getting along with the locals.
    • The Laborers, who are mostly uneducated, stick to themselves, don’t have their families with them, eat Chinese food, drink, and don’t like the locals. They are simply there to make a higher wage than they would in China, and most end up returning to China after a few years.
    • The Traders and Entrepreneurs, who are the largest group, and mostly urban. They run businesses, usually integrated with extended families back in China (networking much like Jewish traders did a few centuries ago). They are there unofficially, but Beijing doesn’t discourage them. They are the most likely to live in Africa their entire lives, even though they speak of returning home.

May your soul be at peace among the Stars

I felt the need to make some manner of post as a tribute in memory of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, one of the greatest scientific visionaries (e.g. geosynchronous orbit) and authors (over 100 works) of the 20th Century, given the sad news that he died today.

I feel the best way to give such a tribute is to simply post the transcript of his 90th birthday video message to the world, since I think he says it all best himself. But before we get to that, I did want to mention a few of his works that are my favorites, both just among his writings, and of all time.

Of course everyone knows of his and Kubrick’s 2001 (though I’m not a fan of the movie), but it’s actually one of his lesser known and more recent books that’s a favorite of mine: Light of Other Days (written with Stephen Baxter). This work in particular really speaks to me not only because of his forward-thinking examination of speculative science, but mostly because of his excellent exploration of how technology can affect us, as individuals and as a society. He also plays around with some fascinating historical ideas towards the end. Aside from Light of Other Days, I highly recommend that you immediately read the following two very famous short stories of his, especially if you’ve never heard of them before: The Nine Billion Names of God and The Star both pair Clarke’s hard science background with his creative and expansive interpretation of religion and of Meaning.

With no further ado, here is Sir Clarke’s final public speech:

Arthur C Clarke

“Hello! This is Arthur Clarke, speaking to you from my home in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

As I approach my 90th birthday, my friends are asking how it feels like, to have completed 90 orbits around the Sun.

Well, I actually don’t feel a day older than 89!

Of course, some things remind me that I have indeed qualified as a senior citizen. As Bob Hope once said: “You know you’re getting old, when the candles cost more than the cake!”

I’m now perfectly happy to step aside and watch how things evolve. But there’s also a sad side to living so long: most of my contemporaries and old friends have already departed. However, they have left behind many fond memories, for me to recall.

I now spend a good part of my day dreaming of times past, present and future. As I try to survive on 15 hours’ sleep a day, I have plenty of time to enjoy vivid dreams. Being completely wheel-chaired doesn’t stop my mind from roaming the universe – on the contrary!

In my time I’ve been very fortunate to see many of my dreams come true! Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, I never expected to see so much happen in the span of a few decades. We ‘space cadets’ of the British Interplanetary Society spent all our spare time discussing space travel – but we didn’t imagine that it lay in our own near future…

I still can’t quite believe that we’ve just marked the 50th anniversary of the Space Age! We’ve accomplished a great deal in that time, but the ‘Golden Age of Space’ is only just beginning. After half a century of government-sponsored efforts, we are now witnessing the emergence of commercial space flight.
Over the next 50 years, thousands of people will travel to Earth orbit – and then, to the Moon and beyond. Space travel – and space tourism – will one day become almost as commonplace as flying to exotic destinations on our own planet.

Things are also changing rapidly in many other areas of science and technology. To give just one example, the world’s mobile phone coverage recently passed 50 per cent — or 3.3 billion subscriptions. This was achieved in just a little over a quarter century since the first cellular network was set up. The mobile phone has revolutionized human communications, and is turning humanity into an endlessly chattering global family!

What does this mean for us as a species?

Communication technologies are necessary, but not sufficient, for us humans to get along with each other. This is why we still have many disputes and conflicts in the world. Technology tools help us to gather and disseminate information, but we also need qualities like tolerance and compassion to achieve greater understanding between peoples and nations.

I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I hope we’ve learnt something from the most barbaric century in history – the 20th. I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions and begin to think and act as if we were one family. That would be real globalisation…

As I complete 90 orbits, I have no regrets and no more personal ambitions. But if I may be allowed just three wishes, they would be these.

Firstly, I would like to see some evidence of extra-terrestrial life. I have always believed that we are not alone in the universe. But we are still waiting for ETs to call us – or give us some kind of a sign. We have no way of guessing when this might happen – I hope sooner rather than later!

Secondly, I would like to see us kick our current addiction to oil, and adopt clean energy sources. For over a decade, I’ve been monitoring various new energy experiments, but they have yet to produce commercial scale results. Climate change has now added a new sense of urgency. Our civilisation depends on energy, but we can’t allow oil and coal to slowly bake our planet…

The third wish is one closer to home. I’ve been living in Sri Lanka for 50 years – and half that time, I’ve been a sad witness to the bitter conflict that divides my adopted country.
I dearly wish to see lasting peace established in Sri Lanka as soon as possible. But I’m aware that peace cannot just be wished — it requires a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence.

I’m sometimes asked how I would like to be remembered. I’ve had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer, space promoter and science populariser. Of all these, I want to be remembered most as a writer – one who entertained readers, and, hopefully, stretched their imagination as well.

I find that another English writer — who, coincidentally, also spent most of his life in the East — has expressed it very well. So let me end with these words of Rudyard Kipling:

If I have given you delight
by aught that I have done.
Let me lie quiet in that night
which shall be yours anon;
And for the little, little span
the dead are borne in mind,
seek not to question other than,
the books I leave behind.

This is Arthur Clarke, saying Thank You and Goodbye from Colombo!”

~December 5, 2007