Thursday, October 26, 2006

1st Quarter Watson report

I submitted this report to the Watson Foundation in late October, 2006.

Last night I was sitting in on an “environmental English” class held at the office of the Global Village of Beijing—founded in 1996, it is one of China’s oldest environmental NGOs. Towards the end of class, the teacher asked me to give an impromptu “speech” about my background and research interests. When I had finished, an environmental journalist named Ling Hua asked, “When you say ‘sustainability,’ do you think that means something different in your country than in China?” I responded that, indeed, her perceptive question is a pivotal facet of what I am trying to figure out myself, then gave the class an overview of an insightful book I have been reading by Indian environmental historian Ramachandra Guha (How Much Should a Person Consume?). And so it has gone these past three months, though I can hardly believe that I am already a quarter of the way through my Watson year.

From the moment I stepped off the plane in New Delhi, my jaw has remained in dropped-open position, and I have had to watch each step ever-so-carefully to keep from falling off this marvelously steep learning curve I am on. I began this trip feeling knowledgeable and self-confident almost to a fault, but along the way have had so many pre-conceptions about myself and the world challenged that I already feel, in some ways, like a very different person than the one who left behind the comforts of home only a few weeks ago. I have been both terrified and bold, homesick and liberated, brilliant and ridiculous, and every shade in between; probably the only sensations I have not experienced thus far are boredom or a lack of enthusiasm. On the Watson website, you say that “When they wake up in the morning most Watson Fellows ask themselves, What am I going to do today?” and that Fellows should be comfortable with that degree of freedom. Though I have not previously been offered such incredible latitude in life, I must admit that I have adjusted quite well. Thus far, the experience has been a wonderful mix of stimulating interaction and engagement, self-reflection, and communicating my lessons and joys with my wider community. I still do not possess too much of a sense as to where this whole experience is leading me, but I do know that whatever opportunities present themselves at the other end, I will be better prepared to take full advantage.

The learning began before I ever reached India, when I took advantage of a lay-over in London to meet and interview staff at the E.F. Schumacher-inspired NGO Practical Action, formerly known as the Intermediate Technology Development Group. There I spent two days digging through their extensive library, and interviewing their Policy and Programs Director and Development Education Manager, among others. Upon arriving in Delhi, I made contact with two of my primary Indian research partners—the government-sponsored think tank National Institute of Science, Technology, and Development Studies and the NGO Centre for Science and the Environment, the latter embroiled in a very interesting recent public debate with government and business leaders about perceived levels of pesticides in soda products. I also took care of some logistical issues such as securing a place to live when I return for a longer stay next March.

Almost immediately upon arriving, however, an old college roommate and fellow expat who has become something of a Tibetan studies scholar informed me that the Dalai Lama would be giving a several-day teaching at his residence-in-exile in McLeod Ganj (north India). So a significant chunk of my initial stay in India was devoted to somewhat of a crash course in Tibetan Buddhism. As I mentioned in my research proposal, understanding the philosophical traditions of a people is key to understanding their contemporary views on important issues such as science and sustainability. Tibetan Buddhism offers a particularly pertinent example of this intersection, as the current Dalai Lama has devoted significant time and resources to interacting with the Western scientific community, even issuing a number of statements on the relationship between spirituality and science and co-founding the think tank Mind and Life Institute.

From India I headed to Beijing, where I am becoming completely enamored with China’s culture and history and frequently wish I could break off a piece of myself to leave behind. As anyone who has been keeping up with world events must know, it is an incredibly exciting and fascinating time to be in China. The country is in the midst of significant upheaval on nearly all fronts, and you can literally observe tremendously important historical events taking shape right before your eyes. Were I a social scientist with an interest in taking up Mandarin, I would likely relocate here, as so many Chinese-Americans appear to be doing. I am sure that the near-perfect climate of autumn in Beijing must be playing a role in this newly-sparked love affair, and like a true feckless lover, I am readying myself to head south as the leaves change and the air turns crisp.

But in my first two months in China, I have been quite successful in accomplishing my research goals. Thus far, I have had volunteerships and interviews with important Chinese NGOs like Friends of Nature (China’s oldest environmental NGO), the Global Environmental Institute, and the Global Village of Beijing. I have helped spread the word about and organize FON’s “Beijing for Bikes” photo exhibit, helped with proofreading these organizations’ English-language publications, and been a teaching assistant at environmental English classes. As a result, I have been fortunate enough to get to know some of the pioneers of China’s environmental movement, as well as the scholars who are documenting it, and to learn firsthand about some of the pressing environmental challenges the country faces.

I also participated in a week-long “U.S.-China Science and Technology Policy Forum,” jointly organized by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and the George Mason University China Program. At this Forum, I was able to interact with and learn from a host of high-level policy-makers and academics, and took part in tours of several premier Chinese research universities and think tanks. Through these interactions, I learned much about how China’s scientific community interacts with the State, the government’s efforts (and shortcomings!) with regards to sustainability, and the evolving role that China’s growing civil society is playing in these affairs. Throughout it all, I managed to begin some basic Mandarin lessons (“Ni hao ma?” “Ma ma huhu, xiexie.” “Ni shi naliren?” “Wo shi mei guo ren.” “Fuwuyuan, qing zai lai yi ge.” “Wei sheng jian zai na lee?”), which I hope to complement with some more extensive Hindi lessons when I return to India. In a few more weeks, I will begin the second leg of my China stay, and will interact with some Hong Kong-based NGOs, as well as the Center for Applied Ethics.

Not to imply that I haven’t snuck in some fantastic sightseeing along the way, or that my fellowship has been without any sort of challenges or difficulties. One thing I realized fairly early on is just how broad my research topic is. I sort of knew that going into it, but this awareness has been reinforced by meeting plenty of scholars along the way who devoted years and significant intellectual effort towards understanding just one small piece of the overall big picture that I am interested in. So, while on the one hand it has been wonderful to be able to wake up and say “Today I am going to read about nanotechnology, or about Hindu bioethics, or about China’s scientific elite, or compare consumption patterns between the U.S. and various Asian nations…” my regular interaction with other scholars has reminded me of just how little I really know about any of these topics. I am optimistic that as I gain a clearer idea as to exactly where life is headed post-Watson, a sense of focus will also naturally begin to develop; but I am truly appreciating the opportunity to try and ascertain the lay of the forest before I really get to know any particular tree.

The language barrier has also been more significant than I had anticipated, and hence basic logistics take up more of my time than I would have guessed. While in India one can count on the educated elite being pretty fluent in English, that sure does not help when you are trying to catch a cab or pick something up from the store. The Chinese, on the other hand, seem every bit as obstinate about learning foreign languages as we Americans. I knew that ignorance of Mandarin would make life a bit more difficult here, but honestly, in many parts of the city it seems like a fella could starve to death for not knowing the language. Fortunately, I found a few helpful individuals, such as my Mandarin tutor, who is more than willing to move our classroom outdoors into the markets or restaurants, and who has some other English-speaking friends that are able to act as translators. A huge lesson though, and one I probably would not have found quite so surprising had I of spent significant time in a developing country prior to this trip, is just how much we Americans take for granted in terms of health, safety, and just basic conveniences. Like nearly every Westerner I have spoken with, I fell ill, most likely due to a mild case of food poisoning, in India. I am also becoming a gold medal finalist in what will surely be the hottest new competition in Beijing 2008: “Street-crossing in Hostile Urban Environments.”

But perhaps the most heart-wrenching challenge I have faced is simply coming to grips with the astonishing poverty I witnessed these past few months. Given who I am and where I come from, it has frequently been a real struggle for me to justify my existence out here in this world of such great need. So many people with so little, and me with relatively so much. Why do we each deserve our collective lots in life? As with so many of the other questions I set out with, I have not answered this one yet either, but I will certainly be interested to hear the other Fellows’ reflections. Perhaps the best response I can come up with thus far is that the lessons I am learning out here in the world will undoubtedly remain with me for the rest of my life, and will certainly shape my future course. And as I ask these sorts of questions aloud to my family, friends, and people I meet along my journey, hopefully, in some small way, I am already contributing to bringing into existence the sort of world I hope to see. Given all that I witnessed these past few months, it would be easy to become disillusioned or pessimistic about humanity’s future prospects. But perhaps, in the words of French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “As for the future, your task is not to foresee, but to enable it.”

Saturday, October 14, 2006

2006 Endorsement of John Russell for Florida's Fifth Congressional District

I am writing to urge your editorial endorsement of Congressional candidate John Russell. As a fourth-generation resident of Florida’s fifth Congressional district, I have observed a lot of changes in our region; and as someone who only came into legal voting age a few political cycles ago, I have witnessed some dramatic changes in our political landscape as well. I was not a big fan of Bill Clinton, but one thing I appreciated about the Clinton years was that there was at least a significant array of opposition (from a wide ideological spectrum) that held his feet to the fire and challenged many aspects of his agenda. Throughout most of Clinton’s presidency, for instance, we had a Republican-controlled Congress that was anything but concessional.

A primary rationale for having different branches of government is so that we can maintain a system of checks and balances and no one branch becomes too powerful. This arrangement is one of the most crucial aspects of our democracy. Yet with a Congress controlled by Republicans like Ginny Brown-Waite, who have spent the past several years basically rubber-stamping President Bush’s agenda, our system of checks and balances has essentially been chucked. As such, many of the bad decisions President Bush has made have not been adequately scrutinized.

When we examine a wide range of issues that are important to the citizens of the fifth District—such as national security and foreign policy, health care, the economy, veterans’ issues, social security, and the environment—it becomes clear that our nation is in need of some new direction. While Brown-Waite’s opponent, John Russell, might not have a voting record that we can look to for comparison, he certainly seems to have put serious thought into the challenges facing our country and has many vibrant new ideas. Besides, any serious scrutiny of Brown-Waite’s record tells us it would be hard to do worse.

A thoughtful, informed candidate, John Russell is unfortunately currently the underdog in this race. Not only is he taking on an incumbent in what is considered by some political analysts a “safe” district for Republicans, he is also seriously outspent by Brown-Waite by a margin of nearly 10-1. In today’s political environment, too often the issues take a backseat to “the money race.” But such a vast margin begs the question: where is Brown-Waite’s funding coming from and who is she really going to be representing if we send her back to Washington? A quick look at the Federal Election Commission data displayed on the website of the Center for Responsive Politics reveals that 57% of Brown-Waite’s campaign funding derives from “Political Action Committees,” or “PACs,” versus only 2% for John Russell. Especially in light of the ever-widening Abramoff scandal, I would much rather send an idea-rich and money-poor candidate to D.C., secure in the knowledge that he would be representing the concerns of folks back home and not the big-money interests that bankrolled his campaign.

I have already written to the Russell campaign to discuss a number of issues, and each time I have gotten a personal and thoughtful response. I believe that if elected, John Russell will be a conscientious and vigilant representative of our district, not someone who is more concerned with repaying his campaign sponsors, toeing the party line, and rubber-stamping George Bush’s flawed agenda.


Jason Fults

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Postcard to Google from Tibet

In recent weeks, my travels have led me to an unexpectedly heavy dose of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, mostly thanks to my pal and fellow expat Hotfoot, who's spent a significant amount of time volunteering in the Tibetan settlement community in McLeod Ganj, India and studying the Tibetan language. Along the way, I've learned about torture and imprisonment of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese government, seen artwork created by young Tibetan children filled with violent imagery that should never exist in a child's mind, and was fortunate enough to be in the presence of the Dalai Lama, who, along with other leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, has been forced to flee his homeland.

Shortly after leaving McLeod, I traveled through Tibet--part of a larger trip from Delhi to Beijing. I chronicled my experiences somewhat, also online, and would be happy to share those with anyone who's interested. In Tibet, I visited numerous holy sites, and also experienced firsthand the police-state atmosphere that exists there.
One conspicuous absence is the lack of photos of the Dalai Lama anywhere--apparently they've been banned. In McLeod, every shop I went into had his photo on the wall; but when I bought some books and scrolls there with the DL's picture and quotes on them, I was warned not to bring them into China.

Another strange phenomenon, especially for anyone who might be interested in reading more about the relationship between Tibet and the People's Republic, involves the internet. As I was considering taking the new Lhasa-->Beijing train, I wanted to do a bit more reading on the human rights organization
Free Tibet's objections to it. Interestingly, I wasn't able to access their website from within China. Nor was I able to access a number of other sites that might be considered objectionable from the standpoint of Chinese authoritarian orthodoxy. It turns out that while China may very well be modernizing with respect to communications technology (there are internet cafes in any decent-sized city, and these are mostly swamped with Chinese youth playing online video games), they are most certainly not "Westernizing," at least with respect to values such as free speech. See this brief article, "The Great Firewall of China," for more details (though again, good luck accessing it from within China). As author Richard Taylor states in the article, "China is proof that the net can be developed and strangled all at once." [Another great article to take a look at appeared in the NYT a few months back (thanks, Molly!). And here's an interesting report by the OpenNet Initiative.]

Aiding in this simultaneous development and strangulation are companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google, all Western-based but with a huge financial stake in accessing Chinese markets. The first two--Microsoft and Yahoo--were frankly no surprise, as they're big-money corporates from way back. But Google, a hip modern company which markets itself with slogans such as "You can make money without doing evil," "Democracy on the web works," and "The need for information crosses all borders," has apparently been neglecting a few border-crossings as of late.

According to Free Tibet, who is calling for a boycott of Google products, "
In January 2006 Google announced that it is to capitulate to political pressure from China and provide a web-based search engine for the Chinese market that will prohibit access to information about Tibet and other sensitive political issues, such as Taiwan and the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989." I've been trying real hard to imagine the initial interactions between representatives from Google and the People's Republic. It must have felt a bit awkward, perhaps even embarrassing, for Google to be systematically figuring out how they would build customer loyalty amongst the Chinese while simultaneously preventing their access to such important information. A more recent article from the Sydney Morning Herald indicates that they may be having second thoughts about their capitulation, and I hope they'll act on those twinges of guilt.

As an avid user of Google products, such as Gmail and, obviously, Blogger, I'm having a few twinges myself. As such, I sent Google a postcard from Lhasa, pictured above, and am awaiting an appropriate response. Until I get one, or until they take it down, the postcard will remain here for other potential Google customers to see.

For further information regarding internet censorship and what we can do to fight back, check out this new campaign from Amnesty International

This morning, just before posting this essay, I received an email from Google in response to my postcard. Strange coincidence. Here is their response, in its entirety:

Hi Jason,

Thank you for contacting us about We launched for our users in the People's Republic of China who want to search and browse in Simplified Chinese. Making our site available to millions of users in
their preferred language is a critical part of our mission to organize the world's information and to make it universally accessible and useful.

At first, will serve Google Web Search, Google Image Search, Google Maps, and Google News. Over time, we'll provide more Google services tailored for the China market. In launching, we aim to
balance three important values: users' interests, expanding access to information, and responding to local conditions in the markets we serve. Prior to this launch, many users in China were unable to access our site,
and those who were able to access it often experienced persistent latency, delay, and time-out issues. With, users can now access much more information, much more quickly.

As you may know, to operate a web service in China, we must remove a small percentage of content from the search results available on The decision to do that was not an easy one for Google, in light of our
mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." After a long process of study, analysis, and debate about the many technical, business, and ethical considerations, we concluded that the best available option was to provide our Chinese users with a search service that, while filtered, will be faster, more reliable, and, overall, more comprehensive than what's available today. Given the current filtering that's performed on the entire internet in China, will provide no less information than would otherwise be
available. In fact, we believe that our advanced, innovative search technologies will make a noticeable net increase in the amount of information accessible to our Chinese users.

So, while removing this content may seem inconsistent with our mission, we believe that will significantly improve the user experience and increase the overall accessibility of information in China. Our view is that providing as much information as possible is better than providing no information at all -- or providing such a heavily degraded user experience that it basically amounts to no information. Moreover, we think it's important to give users some meaningful disclosure whenever some results have been removed; in those cases, clearly presents a message that says, "In response to local laws, regulations, or policies, one or more search results do not appear." It's also worth noting that will continue to be available, unfiltered, for all internet users worldwide, including those in China.

China is developing rapidly, thanks in no small measure to the internet. We firmly believe that with Google's culture of innovation, we can make meaningful and positive contributions to the already impressive pace of
development in China.

We appreciate your interest in Google and your taking the time to share your concerns with us.

The Google Team"