Bells and brakes

A good opening sentence should be like a vodka shot:  clear, quick, strong, and with a sharp finish that gets you reved up for what comes next — i.e. it shouldn’t ramble on like this Aabservation does with no intention of stopping, completely unrelated to the main topic:  in this case, the question “bells or brakes?”, a with-us-or-against-us type of question which came up last night, when I was biking to a party and panicked for a moment when I realized my brakes were worn out — but quickly regained confidence (and speed) as I realized that my bicycle bell at least was working, meaning that instead of slowing down, I could just announce my arrival and others would get out of my way, which I did, often, and in so doing realized that I would rather have a fully functional bell than fully functional brakes — perhaps a revelation about a change in my attitude toward risk-taking since moving to China (or perhaps the attitude that brought me here in the first place?) — and beyond just me, I started to wonder whether China itself is a country that values bells or brakes more — a question which, after a considerable period of high-speed contemplation (and pedaling), I came to conclude:  yes, China is indeed a country that would rather be able to slow down safely than charge forward bells a-ringing (think of China’s slow unwind of capital controls, its patient and quiet emergence as an international power, and the truly measured pace of its transition from a centrally planned economy to an open one), while the US is the country with the largest bells in the world, and which loves ringing them (think of the US’s strong attitude to foreign relations and its love of global media attention)… though I’d love to hear back from you whether you agree with this assessment and (perhaps more interestingly) whether you would rather have working bells or working brakes, with only one requirement for your reply:  that you, like me in this Aabservation, try writing using as many punctuation bells & whistles as possible (bonus if you can incorporate Chinese backward commas and <<>> quotes), but that you strictly forbid yourself from using a period to brake your train of thought (a ridiculous challenge — I know — inspired by a hilarious and geeky late night conversation on punctuation in a rooftop bar with a handful of copy-editors, writers, researchers and blumblum friends):  a gimmick which is (outside of Victorian literature and legal documents) only sustainable for so long, and eventually (as you can see) must at some point come to an end.

Cheers, Liz

5 thoughts on “Bells and brakes

  1. From the WSJ daily email, on brakes failing:

    An Occupational Hazard
    Ok, I’ve been guilty of letting the odometer click away for a few too many miles before getting the oil changed. And I’ve even heard of some who opt to crank the stereo, rather than confront the feline screech emanating from under the hood. But one thing you shouldn’t do is let your brakes go. On Monday, a man in Longview, Wash., learned the hard way, the Associated Press reports. He had noticed that the brakes on his Cadillac DeVille were “acting strange.” So he decided to take them to be checked out. Unfortunately, he decided too late and ended up crashing his car through the front window of the tire store as he struggled to bring the massive icon of American luxury to a halt. Luckily, no one in the store was hurt. Nor were they particularly surprised, as Manager Ken Millus said it was probably the third time in 15 years a car crashed through the window. “It’s pretty much the same spot, too. When you hear it, you’re not even surprised anymore,” he said.

  2. And from the exceptionally brilliant Ethan Friedman:

    My dear Liz,

    Brilliance is a rare trait in our society; perhaps it has ever been
    such, and great lights have but rarely shone forth with brilliance from amidst the leaden mass of dull humanity; or perhaps, as indeed I and (I suspect) many other thinkers of note have observed (and I hazard to say that such observations are not, as is sometimes the case, based on naught but the observer’s own personal vanity but on repeated and diligent examination of society in all its many classes from the very highest [discretion must seal my lips further lest I embarrass those in positions of power–I refer, as you might guess, to Mr. T____ and the
    Honorable Mr. B____, among many other names of note to students of the great and mighty] to the very dregs of our teeming cities), it is true that the shining forth of true brilliance in human form is a phenomenon that has waned in tandem with our own decline from the heights of antiquity (where, alas, is the Homer, the Vergil, of our times?) to a base level more in keeping with the cupidinous and short-sighted tenor
    of our times–all this is by of a prologue, a preamble or prolegomenon if you will, to my point that your aperiodic and incisively punctuated email below is that most extraordinary of exceptions to the situation I have outlined already, that most rara of aves, a true work of sheer and shining brilliance that sends forth its shimmering punctuational glory
    even unto to the heavens for the angelic choirs to chorale and hosanna (should, of course, you believe in such; one wonders if angels are rather like the fairies of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan”–their existence being dependent in whole on our own belief, which raises the interesting point of whether the devout could bring legal cause versus atheists for angelicide for their wholesale slaughter of these supernatural beings in
    whom they so flagrantly decline to profess any acknowledgement [a group in which I count myself, thus potentially laying myself open via this email, I realize, to possible prosecution]); but even setting aside such
    dubious supernatural praise and limiting ourselves to a more rational worldview, I am still drawn inexorably back to this key conclusion: that any man, woman, child (or, to give proper identification in the mode of Linnaeus: Homo sapiens); chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), or monarch
    butterfly (Danaus plexippus) who is capable of such an elegant
    deperiodicization of our English tongue is someone worthy of my but rarely-bestowed utmost admiration and affection–and with these words, as I sit here at my office on a beautiful summer Saturday, I think it is time at last to bring this sentence to a fitting close with that most underappreciated and yet essential of marks, without which we would all be lost in the great Word-Sea without an anchor to hold us fast, to wit: our friend the period, and thus.

    With much love,
    I have the utmost honor
    To remain your devoted servant,
    Yours truly,
    Ethan Friedman

    PS. 490 words babe!

  3. from a college friend:

    a Chinese intern in the office, no this isn\’t the start of a joke, was giving his end-of-internship presentation when he made an interesting remark. he had just been knocked out of the ping pong tournament that he had organized; in the first round, no less.

    he said there was a Chinese aphorism that said if you invite your friends over to play Mahjong, you will lose. and that the moral of the story is if you wait for others to start a game you will have a better chance to succeed.

    putting this together with your thoughts and the variety of thoughts i\’ve had about human culture from reading books like \”the omnivore\’s dilemma\”, \”collapse\” and \”the world without us\” and it seems that \”the turtle and the hare\” plays out again and again. the longer the race, the better for the turtle. it seems to me that the older cultures in the world are all more conservative than that newer ones. the older ones have seen quite a few come and go, but survivors are those who have been able to manage their own resources and culture. which of course means, slow changes, low consumption, etc.

  4. from Richard P.:


    I counter:

    Japan: land of breaks. Permission to pedal? Shall we pedal? Are we
    agreed? We move: Warning! Ring!

    China: instruction manual? Breaks; we have breaks? Who’s pedaling?
    All on board? Bell? Fun! Pedal Great Aspiration Olympic Triumph

    America: old new world. Pedals? No gas tank? Bell? Convoy! We
    break for no-one.



    [Short sentences rock.]

    {Em-dashes be damned.}

  5. From a lawyer in Texas who spent time in China:

    I enjoyed reading your post, however, I must disagree with you. China is not a country that would rather be cautious, like a mutt mix rescued from the human society after some lonely guy gave up on trying to find love from a dog, but would brazenly hurl forward without brakes (or with brakes but ones that broke the first mile in whose manufacturer who gave you a one-year warranty is now refusing to acknowledge the warranty or even admit that it sold you the brakes in the first place) and with many little tin bells ringing and dinging away. And it isn’t so much that China is ringing its bells knowing that people will get out if its way, it is more that China is ringing its bells so that it has an excuse if it ran your ass over and the baby you were holding because hey, didn’t you hear the bell? And I guess, through manifest destiny, people (and babies) are now getting out of the way when they hear bells because China ain’t stopping. Chicken or the egg.

    China is nothing but quiet while it surges into the world spotlight. It’s rampant and law reform craze of overhauling many of their legal regimes and transplanting foreign systems in areas where China has no law is just one proof that China is trying to surge ahead. The legal system is in complete disarray and the rule of law is being crucified but business is surging forward, investors are plunging in, and China is laughing all the way to the bank. I doubt that its pace is measured as it opens up–Texas-style negotiations during the WTO accession, the hostile take overs threatening the remaining State owned enterprises, the cut-throat pricing and colluding of pricing that is now in the spotlight of the legal community in China, the purposeful undervaluation of the RMB against the USD to place US exporters at a disadvantage (Wall Street Journal was all in a tizzy about that), etc. It is trying to export faster and cheaper than anyone else. China Bank is trying to squash rumors that it will be selling off its USD and diversify its investments to increase return, and it’s anything but quiet about what kind of impact that would have the global markets. China is a historical country that has been transplanted into the modern world. People are still whirling from 2005 when it opened and China is anything but patient.

    I know that you love China and it makes you frown when I xiaobian on it, but this really is the global state of the Middle Country. It is making waves and it is anything but the hot topic of the day because of the aggressive steps of both the Chinese private companies and of the Party. This wasn’t quietly planned–this, my friend, is a coup. It isn’t the laid back China with pandas and bamboo groves. This is an industrial monster that is roaring and growling as it is wheeling and dealing.

    On a side note, I’ve often thought about this issue because the bell on my bike broke and then at the end of the semester my brakes gave out. I couldn’t decide between fixing the brakes or getting a bell. I decided that getting a bell is better. Or just yelling incoherently in English and Chinese (or Chinglish).

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