19 June 2010

Barrayar + life lessons from baseball + 中国人民币汇率的情况

Just finished Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Barrayar - probably my favourite book in the series so far, followed closely by A civil campaign. It follows the travails of Cordelia Vorkosigan née Naismith as she attempts to adapt to the culture of Barrayar while retaining her sanity, through her pregnancy, through various attempts on her and her husband’s life, and through civil war. The planet Barrayar in Ms Bujold’s saga was based on several 19th-century military aristocracies, primarily post-Napoleonic Prussia and post-Petrine Russia. Though Ms Bujold is very much an American who lends very American sensibilities to her main heroine, to me it seemed as though Russian literary devices were being worked into the story. The planet Barrayar itself is as much a character in the book as Cordelia, Aral Vorkosigan, Illyan, Koudelka or Droushnakovi. It is in many ways Cordelia’s primary antagonist, in much the same way the Russian novels and movies taking place in St Petersburg make St Petersburg itself the antagonist (the un-Russian city of stone and crime and urban decay which grates on the protagonist’s soul and ultimately causes the protagonist’s downfall).

SPOILER ALERT: Without trying to give away too much of the plot, much of the book is devoted to Lady Cordelia’s struggles both to protect her marriage and her unborn child from the intrigues of Barrayar’s noble caste, and to retain her Betan sensibilities in the face of a culture based on what she considers systemic insanity. Her defeat at Barrayar’s hands is an existential one – she rages at the planet, at her father-in-law, at the rest of the nobility, at the Imperium itself (even going so far as to burn down part of the Imperial Residence), but by the end her struggles are futile: she has become as much a Barrayaran as her husband is, and is a respected member of the Vor caste.


I suppose it is a self-inflicted curse that I come late to amazing cultural artefacts to which my friends and family try desperately to introduce me and I place them on a back burner. It was that way with Nightwish, and it is this way with Bujold. She is an amazingly talented and creative writer, who even though she sketches out these vast space operas and political dramas never fails to make them human and relatable through her characters. I’ve read four of them so far and I’m well into my fifth – if all are even half as enjoyable as these first few have been, I know I won’t regret the time spent.


Just got back from the PawSox / Clippers game – and it turned out amazingly. One thing I hope I will never do from now on is walk out before a game is over; I’m glad my family stayed this one out. The first part of the game was brutal for the Sox; they had only one run, and the fielders for the Clippers just kept catching out the fly balls and nailing their slow base runners, while the Clippers racked up four runs in the bottom of the sixth. By the top of the 8th the score was 6-1 Clippers. And then the Clippers pulled Laffey out and the Sox went in hard, with Bubba Bell hitting an amazing double that finally tipped the balance, followed by a couple of single base hits that left the score at 7-6 Sox. The top of the ninth was incredibly tense – the Sox pitcher (I forget his name now) struck out two of the Clippers batters rather easily, but it took him a couple of tries with two strikes to each batter (with the entire stadium cheering him on at the tops of their lungs) to get the third out the Sox needed to win the game.

The last inning of this game was pure drama, and I’m glad we got to watch it. Half the stadium had walked out by the 8th inning, to their loss.


The recent back-and-forth wiffling over Beijing’s currency valuation seems to me to make a good deal of sense, actually. The general attitude of Beijing – an attitude that is fairly well-received at home, it seems – is to take a hard line on anything that smells like foreign meddling. Even though Mr Cui Tiankai’s press-conference comment that the renminbi exchange rate was not a valid topic for international discussion seemed groundless to American ears, it was actually a very clever move politically. A day later, the People’s Bank seemed to volte-face on this hard stance and issued a statement that it would be loosening the RMB’s peg on the dollar.

Surprising? I’m not convinced. I think that, pragmatically, Beijing may have come to the realisation that China cannot viably sustain its huge trade surpluses and essentially position itself as an entropy sink for the developed world’s labour market without hitting the kink in its aggregate demand which would cause massive systemic inflation. At the same time, I think it was quite prudent of China’s government to take a tough stance against criticism of its low currency exchange rate and not visibly keel to foreign pressure to float it.

So what we’re seeing, it seems, is that China wanted to advertise its tough line against foreign powers seeking control over its own currency while quietly allowing the value of the renminbi to rise – neither of which should come as much of a surprise. (Note that the English version of People’s Daily Online as of 19 June has placed the currency debate headlines at the top of the page; while the Chinese version places the story rather further down the page, in small print.) We’ll see how the situation develops.

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