You bet he’s sorry

Beijing is undeniably a tough place to live. But you’d better think twice before complaining about it:

A Chinese blogger whose essay criticising life in Beijing went viral on social media last week – before it was deleted and slammed by state media – has apologised for his “imprecise writing”.

The essay “Beijing has 20 million people pretending to have a life”, written by a Beijing-based blogger under the pseudonym of Zhang Wumao, sparked heated debate over the quality of life in China’s big cities after he posted it on his WeChat social media account on July 23.

The article grumbled about a series of difficulties living in Beijing, including choking smog, sky-high property prices, the city being “overrun” by outsiders and the lack of human warmth.

“Beijingers have increasingly felt the congestion, smog and high property prices, which mean they cannot move at home and cannot breathe outdoors,” Zhang wrote.

He argued the city was only livable for old residents of Beijing who could lead a leisurely life because they have “five apartments” in the city.

…..And the smackdown:

It drew more than five million views on WeChat, but later attempts to click through to the essay were answered with a message saying the content had violated regulations released by the Cyberspace Administration of China.

Zhang apologised for the essay during an interview with the Economic Observer newspaper on Friday.

Zhang was quoted as saying that he did not think too much when writing the piece and some of his figures such as “20 million Beijingers” and the elderly’s “five apartments” were imprecise.

He said he “has no discontent about Beijing” and appreciated everything the city has given him.

The apology came after various state media outlets published commentaries defending Beijing.

People’s Daily published an commentary, arguing the author was simply stirring up emotion.

Repent, heretic!

Apparently the censors have decided that any type of criticism of the prevailing order – including even things like the quality of life in major cities – in other words, any type of speech that might induce a flicker of negative emotions, and reinforce a narrative of social and economic disgruntlement… has to go.

Of course, the point is not to change people’s minds about the terrible smog and soul-killing traffic in Beijing. These are universally recognized features of the city, and it’s highly unlikely that censoring social media diatribes about these unpleasant facts of life will make people stop thinking about them, or grumbling about them in private.

The real point is to set an example for people who were thinking about aiming their criticism at more, shall we say, sensitive topics. If this is what we do to people who complain about smog…

It’s the broken windows theory of censorship.


Not disturbing at all:

Many companies use electronic ID cards as a security measure to make sure only employees have access to get into the office. Well, soon, employees at one Wisconsin-based company won’t need an ID because they will have microchips.

To many it may sound invasive, but come Aug. 1, Three Square Market (32M) will become the first company in the U.S. to offer implanted microchip (RFID chip) technology to all of its employees.

The company, which develops software used in vending machines, said in a press release that the microchips will allow employees to make purchases in the break room, open doors, log in to computers and use the copy machine. […]

The company said it’s expecting more than 50 staff members to voluntarily have a chip implanted between the thumb and forefinger underneath the skin.

In the meantime:

I recently ran into a European counter-terrorism expert who complained that it was getting very difficult to build a fake profile on Facebook. Every time his team tried to set up a fake profile, it was shut down in less than 24 hours. Here’s why he ran into problems.

  • Facebook has an initiative to prevent the creation fake accounts (something Facebook strangely calls recidivism).
  • This initiative is a small part of a larger overall effort being undertaken by Facebook, Google and others, to become what can best be described as fully functional global censorship and surveillance systems. I know that people have been concerned about this for a while, but it’s not speculation anymore folks. It’s here.

And some implications/extensions of that:

  • Already, the social networks are replacing the media as the gatekeepers and the shapers of national and global public opinion. […]
  • AI’s built using real time and detailed social graph information could become better at detecting violent behavior far sooner and better than human analysts. […]
  • A global ID. Simply, Facebook is getting close to being able to create a global ID for everyone on the planet (sans China/Russia).

The scope, intensity and granularity of surveillance enabled by these systems is, of course, way beyond anything Orwell could (or did) imagine.

But it will all be used for a “good cause,” right?

Brutal architecture

As if brutalist architecture weren’t enough, now we have architecture that’s literally brutal:

The controversial Walkie Talkie tower in the City of London has commanded a record-breaking price for a single building in the UK – £1.3bn in a sale to a Hong Kong manufacturer of oyster sauce. […]

Designed by New York-based Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly, the Walkie Talkie made headlines in 2013 before it had even opened, when its concave glass facade was found to channel the sun into a scorching beam of heat on to the street below. Repeating exactly the same mistake he made with his similarly concave Vdara hotel in Las Vegas, Viñoly’s “death ray” succeeded in melting the bumper of a Jaguar, blistering painted shopfronts and singeing carpets, with temperatures proving hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement. Nor was it much safer when the sun went in: the tower’s glacial cliff-face was accused of channelling winds so strong that pedestrians were in danger of being blown into the road.

And some gentle mockery from another article:

The incidents earned the building new nicknames, including the Walkie Scorchie and Fryscraper, and the builders were forced to apply sun shading to resolve the issue. […]

But its bulbous shape, which looms over nearby buildings, is not universally appreciated. In 2015 it won the Carbuncle Cup, an annual award for the ugliest building of the year presented by architecture magazine Building Design. One judge called it “a gratuitous glass gargoyle graffitied on to the skyline of London”, while another described it as a “Bond villain tower”.



Sounds about right

From the weirdly-named BLARB (aka Blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books):

Class anxiety is rife [in China], since class mobility is surprisingly limited with many of the traditional routes to advancement, such as education, now shut down. Research by the University of Sydney’s David Goodman has found that around 84% of today’s elite are direct descendants of the elite from pre-1949. This suggests that six decades of Communism may not have a dramatic impact upon the elites, who have the advantage of decades of capital accumulation — including economic, cultural and social capital — which have apparently continued to benefit them under the party-state system.

A rather shocking statistic.

Or maybe not.

In the linked interview, Goodman refers to a separate study that estimates the rate of intergenerational transfer of wealth and status in most of the world is about 73%.

If the “myth of the middle class” – i.e. social mobility – is indeed a myth (and not only in China), what happens when people stop believing in it?

Where are the internet startups?

Is the age of the internet startup over?

We haven’t had a major new technology company in more than 10 years.

Silicon Valley is supposed to be a place where a couple of guys in a garage or a dorm room can start companies that change the world. It happened with Apple and Microsoft in the 1970s, AOL in the 1980s, Amazon, Yahoo, and Google in the 1990s, and Facebook in the 2000s.

But the 2010s seem to be suffering from a startup drought. People are still starting startups, of course. But the last really big tech startup success, Facebook, is 13 years old.

Until last year, Uber seemed destined to be Silicon Valley’s newest technology giant. But now Uber’s CEO has resigned in disgrace and the company’s future is in doubt. Other technology companies launched in the past 10 years don’t seem to be in the same league. Airbnb, the most valuable American tech startup after Uber, is worth $31 billion, about 7 percent of Facebook’s value. Others — like Snap, Square, and Slack — are worth much less.

So what’s going on? On a recent trip to Silicon Valley, I posed that question to several technology executives and startup investors.

“When I look at like Google and Amazon in the 1990s, I kind of feel like it’s Columbus and Vasco da Gama sailing out of Portugal the first time,” said Jay Zaveri, an investor at the Silicon Valley firm Social Capital.

The early internet pioneers grabbed the “low-hanging fruit,” Zaveri suggested, occupying lucrative niches like search, social networks, and e-commerce. By the time latecomers like Pinterest and Blue Apron came along, the pickings had gotten slimmer.

But others told me there was more to the story than that. Today’s technology giants have become a lot more savvy about anticipating and preempting threats to their dominance. They’ve done this by aggressively expanding into new markets and by acquiring potential rivals when they’re still relatively small. And, some critics say, they’ve gotten better at controlling and locking down key parts of the internet’s infrastructure, closing off paths that early internet companies used to reach a mass market.

As a result, an industry that used to be famous for its churn is starting to look like a conventional oligopoly — dominated by a handful of big companies whose perch atop the industry looks increasingly secure.

Not so much

Also worth pondering (article from last October):

At the grass roots of the economy, venture capital investment has sought social media, apps and other “soft” investments with low capital and labor requirements and avoided “hard” investments in manufacturing, telecommunications and other fields with large capital and labor requirements.

During the 1980s and 1990s, America dominated technological progress through a group of disruptive new companies—Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Intel, Oracle and others. The former technological vanguard, though, has turned into a group of stable consumer monopolies. This is clear from the trading pattern of their stocks. We see that the technology subsector of the S&P 500 equity index traded with a volatility (standard deviation of returns calculated over a rolling six-month period) roughly double that of the overall index during the late 1990s and early 2000’s. That reflects the greater risk and reward attached to innovators as opposed to established companies. By the late 2000’s, the volatility of the tech sector was the same as that of the overall index. The risk (and also the prospective reward) had shrunk to the overall level of the economy as the great wave of innovation dissipated.

Self-inflicted decline

It’s generally a bad idea for major world powers to nurse 178-year-long grudges against foreigners, but it’s especially dumb to do so when your historical problems are largely self-inflicted:

There is little argument that 1,000 years ago, during the Northern Song dynasty, China was the most prosperous country in the world, richer than all the countries of Europe.

But, by the 19th century when the Opium War occurred, China was the sick man of Asia. How did it happen? Many believed it was the industrial revolution that propelled the West ahead of China.

But a recent paper casts a new light on this topic. The paper was written by three scholars, Stephen Broadberry of Oxford University, Hanhui Guan of Peking University and David Daokui Li of Tsinghua University.

They focused on GDP per capita, a new approach, and found that Chinese GDP per capita fluctuated at a high level during the Northern Song and Ming dynasties before trending downwards during the Qing dynasty. China’s slide downhill lasted for centuries.

In the abstract of their paper, the scholars state that “China led the world in living standards during the Northern Song dynasty, but had fallen behind Italy by 1300.” That is to say, the zenith of China’s glory was short-lived.

What this study shows is that China had begun a long process of decline since before the Ming dynasty, a process that continued for 600 to 700 years before the West appeared on the scene. That is to say, China’s decline was due to internal factors and began very early, in the 13th century.

National decline status: well underway

The value of advice

They say that advice is worth what it costs – nothing.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. Advice can be quite useful… if you make sure to consistently do the exact opposite of what people advise:

I am just describing my life. I hesitate to give advice because every major single piece of advice I was given turned out to be wrong and I am glad I didn’t follow them.

I was told to focus and I never did. I was told to never procrastinate and I waited 20 years for The Black Swan and it sold 3 million copies. I was told to avoid putting fictional characters in my books and I did put in Nero Tulip and Fat Tony because I got bored otherwise. I was told to not insult the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; the more I insulted them the nicer they were to me and the more they solicited Op-Eds. I was told to avoid lifting weights for a back pain and became a weightlifter: never had a back problem since.

If I had to relive my life I would be even more stubborn and uncompromising than I have been.

(From Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s commencement address to the American University in Beirut.)

20 years later

Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China 20 years ago (July 1, 1997). This has occasioned much commentary among China-watchers. The NY Times ran a good piece by Keith Bradsher marking the anniversary:

When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule two decades ago, the city was seen as a model of what China might one day become: prosperous, modern, international, with the broad protections of the rule of law.

There was anxiety about how such a place could survive in authoritarian China. But even after Beijing began encroaching on this former British colony’s freedoms, its reputation as one of the best-managed cities in Asia endured.

The trains ran on time. Crime and taxes were low. The skyline dazzled with ever taller buildings.

Those are still true. Yet as the 20th anniversary of the handover approaches on Saturday, the perception of Hong Kong as something special — a vibrant crossroads of East and West that China may want to emulate — is fading fast.

Never-ending disputes between the city’s Beijing-backed leadership and the pro-democracy opposition have crippled the government’s ability to make difficult decisions and complete important construction projects.

Caught between rival modes of rule — Beijing’s dictates and the demands of local residents — the authorities have allowed problems to fester, including an affordable-housing crisis, a troubled education system and a delayed high-speed rail line.

Many say the fight over Hong Kong’s political future has paralyzed it, and perhaps doomed it to decline. As a result, the city is increasingly held up not as a model of China’s future but as a cautionary tale — for Beijing and its allies, of the perils of democracy, and for the opposition, of the perils of authoritarianism.

Hong Kong is still an incredible place, but my own sense is that the city is locked in terminal decline, for the reasons Bradsher talks about. This chart is relevant:

Of course, it was both inevitable and desirable that Hong Kong would lose some of its relative economic clout as mainland China built itself up into the world’s second-largest economy. But the mainland’s newfound wealth also allows China to assert control over Hong Kong by buying everything in it. And the city’s liberties are gradually being stripped away as its new overlords wield an increasingly heavy hand.

It’s not really surprising, and there’s nothing the rest of the world can do about it. But there it is. Anyway, here are some photos I’ve taken in Hong Kong over the years:

Is the US losing the tech race?

There is a lot of unfounded hype about the Chinese tech industry, as I talked about here.

But none of that matters. Consumer gizmos don’t matter. Mobile apps don’t matter. What matters is this:

For the first time, China has demonstrated that it is far ahead of the United States in a critical new technology, namely quantum communications. A Chinese satellite succeeded in transmitting so-called entangled photons to earth stations. That’s the high-tech equivalent of sending a message in undeveloped photographic film: If you try to read it, the light will destroy it. The Chinese breakthrough has huge implications for cryptography, and for a host of other applications. […]

China has the world’s fast supercomputers built entirely out of Chinese components. It has the world’s largest radio telescope. It has thousands of surface-to-ship missiles that can hail down on American aircraft carriers from the stratosphere, and it has ultra-quiet diesel electric submarines that can lurk on battery power for weeks. It has satellite killer missiles. China might spend barely over $1,000 to equip foot soldiers, about 1/100th of what America spends, but it has invested massively in high-tech defense.

Between 1999 and 2013, China’s share of world high-tech exports rose from 3% to 26%, while America’s fell from 18% to only 8%.

A couple of years ago I sat across from the founder of a high-tech start-up in Shenzhen. He showed me an app on his phone with a map of the South China Sea and thousands of dots. “Each one of these is a ship. We know its location, course, speed and the condition of its motor.” How? The data is obtained by sensors mounted on cheap high-altitude balloons attached to the ground by fiber-optic cable. China can field thousands of such balloons, on the coast and on ships. If all the satellites in the sky were knocked out in a war, the U.S. would be blind–but China would still have complete coverage of its own territory and coast.

We need a Kennedy-style Moonshot or a Reagan-style Strategic Defensive Initiative to revive our high-tech industries. We don’t have high-tech companies anymore: We have a set of monopolies like Microsoft and Google that collect rents, and trade with the volatility of a Procter and Gamble. All the technologies that gave us the present economy depended on fundamental breakthroughs in physics. We no longer aim for breakthroughs. We write apps for ever-more-sophisticated toys.

Goldman is absolutely correct. The obsession with social media, the “sharing economy” and similar nonsense misses the point that the US is rapidly losing its edge in advanced technology and R&D.

If this trend is not reversed soon, it’s obvious that the US is completely finished.