Hundreds of millions of bullet train trips expected during Chinese New Year

China high-speed rail update:

China already has the globe’s longest bullet-train network, but it’s plowing 3.5 trillion yuan ($556 billion) into expanding its railway system by 18 percent over the next two years, to 150,000 kilometers, or more than 93,000 miles.

Ponder this as the US considers a budget plan that includes $200 billion in federal spending on infrastructure over 10 years. (State and local government and private firms are expected to step in, bringing the total to $1.5 trillion.)

Almost 400 million people — that’s more than the U.S. population — will travel by train over the Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival. China’s factories and offices shut down for the week-long holiday, which unleashes the largest migration of humans on the planet. Many of the country’s 1.4 billion citizens return to their hometowns for family gatherings, or, increasingly, are taking the chance to be tourists both at home and abroad.

While the advent of cut-price flights has dimmed the appeal of rail travel in other parts of the world, in China it’s on the rise. Last Spring Festival saw a record 10.96 million trips on one day, and for the first time more people took bullet trains than conventional ones, according to official data.

From state media:

About 390 million trips will be made by train, China Railway said in a news release sent to the Global Times.

China Railway said 57.5 percent of rail travelers will take high-speed trains, up 4.8 percent from previous year.

I’ve been caught up in the Spring Festival travel rush on more than one occasion. It’s not pleasant.

If you can’t get your hands on a high-speed train ticket (starting at $42 for the 409-mile journey between Chengdu and Xi’an), may I suggest some alternative methods of travel?

By car:

China Spring Festival travelOn foot:

China Spring Festival travelBy ferry:

China Spring Festival travelIn uniform:

China Spring Festival travelI wrote about my bullet train ride from Guangzhou to Beijing in 2013 here. In that post, I noted:

Infrastructure in China tends to be unsettlingly vast, so I had a familiar feeling when walking around Guangzhou South Station. Designed by a London architecture firm, the mammoth structure sprawls over some 5.2 million sq ft, with multiple floors for arrivals, departures, and metro lines. A beautiful 1,142-ft-long skylight soars over the departures concourse. The enormous size of the station seemed to be justified by the crowds, which even on a Monday afternoon were substantial. During Chinese New Year the place is probably packed, and usage will surely increase over time as the region continues to boom.

At the time, it wasn’t necessarily clear that there was enough demand to justify this vast high-speed rail buildup. I think that question has been settled in the affirmative by now.

Nowhere to hide

1984 China facial recognition

1984: What you thought you were getting vs what you’re actually getting

Must-have gear for the modern “bobby on the beat”:

As China’s annual Spring Festival migration is now under way, Zhengzhou railway police are among the first in the country to wear glasses with a facial recognition system at four entrance gates at the city’s east train station to help them capture fugitives and those traveling using other people’s identities, online official media outlet the Paper reported yesterday.

A pair of such glasses capable of recognizing faces in milliseconds can help reduce stress on railway police as hundreds of millions of people will travel during the holiday period. Zhengzhou police have already caught seven fugitives allegedly involved in major criminal cases such as human trafficking and hit-and-runs and 26 individuals traveling on other people’s identities.

Beijing LLVision Technology Co. developed the glasses. In testing, the spectacles were able to identify a target from among a database of 10,000 people in 100 milliseconds, though this may take a little longer in practice because of environmental interference, said LLVision founder Wu Fei.

What would be really awesome, is if they integrated these glasses with your “social credit score,” so that the wearer would instantly know if you were debt-ridden, irresponsible, unpatriotic, or socially toxic, merely by looking at you. Imagine what would happen if they sold these to the public? All hell would break loose in the West, but in China, I reckon it might actually lead to a weird sort of techno-Confucianism.

China’s adoption of intelligent technologies in the security field in recent years has attracted worldwide attention. Under its Sky Net initiative, China has deployed 170 million surveillance cameras, the majority of which are equipped with facial recognition and real person-identity document matching systems. Late last year, a BBC reporter tested the efficiency of the Sky Net system with the help of Guiyang police. It took just seven minutes from uploading his selfie to the cloud platform to his being ‘arrested’ at a train station.

“Sky Net”… they didn’t, did they?……

Amtrak fail

What is going on with this?

The troubling string of Amtrak crashes

An Amtrak train en route to Miami from New York collided with a freight train early Sunday morning in South Carolina, killing two individuals and adding another tragic entry to the list of recent Amtrak derailments and crashes, per the AP.

The list, per the AP: […]

Summary: 12 accidents since 2011 (including last weekend’s), killing 23 and injuring hundreds.

There was much criticism of China’s lax safety standards and official opacity after a high-speed train collision in the city of Wenzhou killed 40 people in 2011. The fact that the US has suffered more than half that number of casualties in low-speed train accidents since 2011 should occasion a certain amount of concern.

Distinctive national architecture vs the Borg

Before:

After:

What happened?

“100 years ago it was reasonable to talk about national architecture. Today it almost doesn’t make sense, how is it possible that everybody build the same things?” Suggest [Rem] Koolhas. Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014 is this year main challenge offered to all 65 national pavilions taking part at the Biennale. Each of them has been called to investigate and show how countries have been welcoming (or refusing) contemporary challenges.

Talk amongst yourselves. But I just wanted to point out that I happen to have worked in the China office building pictured above. It was alright, but the elevators needed a serious upgrade.

Top 10 rules for writing

I recently remembered a great piece of writing advice from Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English dictionarist. This gave me the idea of putting together a list of the most important writing advice I’ve picked up over the years. Unfortunately, I could hardly think of any other examples off the top of my head. I’d like to think this means I’ve thoroughly absorbed the techniques and principles of effective writing to the point that I’ve completely forgotten what they are, but it could also indicate that advice is worth about what it costs, namely zilch. In any case, I racked my brains and did a little surreptitious Googling to come up with some more pointers that have proven useful to me. (The Amis and Mamet quotes are thrown in more for fun.)

NOTE: No guarantees of any kind are made for the performance or effectiveness of this advice. Results may vary. Use as directed by a qualified literary professional.

  • “Don’t dumb down: always write for your top five per cent of readers.” – Martin Amis
  • “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” – Winston Churchill
  • “If you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said.” – Paul Graham (The rest of the linked essay is quite good.)
  • “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” – Samuel Johnson
  • “Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. Perhaps you can write only one page a day, but if you do it every day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages of script.” – Akira Kurosawa
  • “DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR AND HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.” – David Mamet
  • “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” – George Orwell (Read the whole essay for 90% of the nonfiction writing advice you’ll ever need.)
  • “You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet… The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.” – Jerry Pournelle
  • “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.” – Mark Twain
  • “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” – Mary Heaton Vorse (Also formulated as “Ass in chair.”)

Faceborg’s war on human nature

Two items on the metastasizing, Borg-like entity known as Facebook recently caught my eye.

First:

Facebook just announced sweeping changes to fix significant problems with its newsfeed, the main conduit for news and information for over 2 billion people. However, the problems with Facebook’s newsfeed won’t be fixed with these tweaks. In fact, they are likely to get much worse as Facebook attempts to fix them. […]

To see why failure was (and will continue to be) inevitable, let me recast the situation:

  • Facebook is actively micromanaging the information flow and social interactions of over 2 billion people, and insanely complex and highly uncertain task.
  • Facebook is making the sweeping decisions on how to micromanage the newsfeed centrally (with a small team of young executives empowered to relentless tweak the system by the dictatorial fiat of the company’s CEO).
  • Facebook’s goals are a selfish utopianism (in its version utopia, the world revolves around Facebook).

The Current Year is very weird, when you think about it. The idea of a “small team of engineers in Menlo Park,” led by this guy –

– controlling the main spigot of news and information for over one-quarter of the human race is like something out of a cheesy sci-fi movie. Yet, it is not far from the reality.

The right thing for Facebook to do here would be to drop all the micromanagement and simply let each user control his/her own News Feed experience by default, with a full set of tools and filters. No shady algorithm controlling what you see. No censorship except of spam and illegal content.

This would probably require some adjustments to Facebook’s business model, as the News Feed accounts for 85% of the company’s revenue. I suspect, though, that the core reason Facebook insists on controlling that spigot has nothing to do with money.

Second:

In everyday life, we tend to have different sides of ourselves that come out in different contexts. For example, the way you are at work is probably different from the way you might be at a bar or at a church or temple. […] But on Facebook, all these stages or contexts were mashed together. The result was what internet researchers called context collapse. […]

In 2008, I found myself speaking with the big boss himself, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. I was in the second year of my PhD research on Facebook at Curtin University. And I had questions.

Why did Facebook make everyone be the same for all of their contacts? Was Facebook going to add features that would make managing this easier?

To my surprise, Zuckerberg told me that he had designed the site to be that way on purpose. And, he added, it was “lying” to behave differently in different social situations.

Up until this point, I had assumed Facebook’s socially awkward design was unintentional. It was simply the result of computer nerds designing for the rest of humanity, without realising it was not how people actually want to interact.

The realisation that Facebook’s context collapse was intentional not only changed the whole direction of my research but provides the key to understanding why Facebook may not be so great for your mental health.

To me, the experience of using Facebook is akin to being in a room filled with everyone I know, yammering away at high volume. It’s unpleasant, and I avoid it as much as possible.

I remember when Zuckerberg infamously said that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” I recall being very creeped out by that sentiment. It’s deeply totalitarian, similar to the argument that “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”; i.e. that only criminals or bad people desire privacy. It also flies in the face of some basic observations about human behavior.

The question is, will users put up with forced “context collapse” and micromanagement of the News Feed over the long run, or will they revolt against this form of paternalistic social engineering? I’m betting on the latter.

Word War III

Entertaining, is it not?

Credit where credit is due – this is a pretty decent verbal hand grenade lobbed by the Supreme Leader, although it lacks the potency of the linguistic MOAB that is “mentally deranged dotard,” not to mention the city-flattening power of the semantic ICBM that is “Little Rocket Man”:

North Korea’s state-run media has described US President Donald Trump’s tweet about having a bigger nuclear button than leader Kim Jong-un’s is the “spasm of a lunatic”.

Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party newspaper, lashed out at Trump in a commentary on Tuesday that took issue with the US commander in chief’s January 3 tweet that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

A summary of the commentary by North Korea’s official news agency described the tweet as “the spasm of a lunatic.”

“The spasm of Trump in the new year reflects the desperate mental state of a loser who failed to check the vigorous advance of the army and people of the DPRK,” the Rodong Sinmun commentary said, using the acronym for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “He is making (a) bluff only to be diagnosed as a psychopath.”

I must say, I find this verbal p*ssing contest… strangely entertaining. And it’s hard not to imagine the Great Successor and the Sun of the 21st Century suppressing a smirk as he launches his latest verbal fusillade. Hopefully his next insult doesn’t involve an actual nuclear-tipped ICBM.

This is not a drill

Not Hawaii (yet)

Nothing to see here, just someone “clicking the wrong thing” and thereby causing the kind of confusion that leads to a nuclear apocalypse:

An early-morning emergency alert mistakenly warning of an incoming ballistic missile attack was dispatched to cellphones across Hawaii on Saturday, setting off widespread panic in a state that was already on edge because of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea.

The alert, sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, was revoked 38 minutes after it was issued, prompting confusion over why it was released — and why it took so long to rescind. State officials and residents of a normally tranquil part of the Pacific, as well as tourists swept up in the panic, immediately expressed outrage.

The official explanation?

The mistake occurred during a shift-change drill that takes place three times a day at the emergency command post… “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.”

LOL. So what is it? A case of this? Or is there some other explanation?

It’s good that the FCC is investigating. Will the person who did this be identified and held accountable? I’m not holding my breath.

Mr. Rapoza said he did not know if anyone would be disciplined for the mistake. “At this point, our major concern is to make sure we do what we need to do to reassure the public,” he said. “This is not a time for pointing fingers.”

I’m sure the public agrees with that sentiment, and will find it greatly reassuring that no heads will roll, because we all know that putting a better “process” in place is more effective than holding people personally accountable for their colossal screw-ups.

But wait! No need to worry, because it was totally an accident and the employee in question feels really, really bad about what happened. And he will be… counseled. Counseled, I tell you!

A Civil Defense employee is set to be retrained after a shocking blunder on Saturday morning, when a mistaken alert warning of an inbound ballistic missile sent thousands fleeing for shelter.

The false alarm was caused by a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee who ‘pushed the wrong buttons’ during an internal drill timed to coincide with a shift handover at 8.07am. The all-clear phone alert was not sent until 38 minutes later.

Incredibly, officials said the employee who made the mistake wasn’t aware of it until mobile phones in the command center began displaying the alert.

‘This guy feels bad, right. He’s not doing this on purpose – it was a mistake on his part and he feels terrible about it,’ said EMA Administrator Vern Miyagi in a press conference Saturday afternoon.

Miyagi, a retired Army major general, said the employee had been with the agency for ‘a while’ and that he would be ‘counseled and drilled so this never happens again’ – but stopped short of saying whether there would be disciplinary measures.

Honestly, it’s getting harder to distinguish between fact and fevered imagination these days. Eerie times.

What was this incident so dangerous? In short, first-strike instability:

Had the turmoil unfolded during a major crisis or period of heightened threats, North Korean leaders could have misread the Hawaiian warning as cover for an attack, much as the Soviets had done in 1983. American officials have been warning for weeks that they might attack North Korea. Though some analysts consider this a likely bluff, officials in Pyongyang have little room for error.

Social credit system

I used to think that between the two great dystopian novelists, Huxley was more prophetic than Orwell. Not so sure anymore:

First envisioned in the mid-1990s, China’s social-credit system would assign a ranking to each of the country’s almost 1.4 billion people. Unlike a Western rating based on financial creditworthiness, China’s social-credit backers want their system to be all-encompassing, to evaluate not just financial matters but anything that might speak to a person’s trustworthiness. In modern China, “trust-keeping is insufficiently rewarded, the costs of breaking trust tend to be low,” a 2014 Chinese government document describing the government’s plans notes.

The social-credit system aims to change that – raising the penalties for poor conduct and the rewards for deferential behaviour.

It is the most ambitious attempt by any government in modern history to fuse technology with behavioural control, placing China at the forefront of a new kind of authoritarianism, one that can mine a person’s digital existence – shopping habits, friends, criminal records, political views – and judge them according to the state’s standard of reliability.

One early encounter with the system is described by a Chinese journalist who found himself on a government blacklist after he (inadvertently) defaulted on a court fine:

What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

More details on that here.

Another example of the nascent system at work:

It is hard to imagine a more perfect system of social control. This is not so much ruling with an iron fist as ruling with a joystick. The largest society in the world is being turned into a video-game simulation.

The social credit system seems perfectly adapted for a Confucian, group-oriented society, which also happens to lead the world in mobile payments and video surveillance. Of course, China is not the only country on the road to socially networked repression.

One possibility that occurs to me is that the government could use this apparatus to tackle China’s demographic crisis by pressuring people to have more babies. This piece in Wired talks about how Alibaba’s Sesame Credit (a potential precursor to the nationwide system) factors people’s shopping habits into an assessment of their character, an example being that “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”

What if “a sense of responsibility” was defined to include having two or more children, and the nationwide social credit system linked your “score” to how many children you have and the age at which you have them? I could easily see this being rolled out if more traditional pro-natalist policies fail to boost China’s birthrate to an acceptable level. (Note that China ended its one-child policy in early 2016, allowing all married couples to have two children.) In fact, I would be surprised if it hasn’t already been considered.

This all reminds me of the “credit poles” from Gary Shteyngart’s 2011 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story. As he explains:

A credit pole is a way for the government to know what your creditworthiness is, because the big problem in the society is that nobody has enough credit. Credit poles are found on sidewalks in major metropolitan areas, and as you walk by they tell you what your credit rating is.

And:

The apparat is worn around the neck as a pendant, and it has what’s called RateMe Plus technology. Let’s say you walk into a bar; it says, “OK, you’re the third-ugliest man in here, but you have the fifth-best credit rating,” things like that. Everyone is constantly ranked and constantly assessing everyone else’s ranking, which is similar to the society we already live in.

Life imitating Shteyngart…