Forums

The internet used to be amazing. I remember back in the day, we had these things called weblogs, also known as “blogs.” Blogs were great. Even better, in some ways, were the forums. For you youngsters who don’t remember, forums were basically the digital version of a rowdy expat bar, but without the beer. However, on the best forums the quality of conversation was often somewhat higher than you could get at the average watering hole in a second-tier Asian city. There would be rules, the strictness of which depended on the whims of the proprietor, and the various forms of unpleasantness that one encounters on the internet were usually kept at bay by the dutiful moderators.

Everyone could join the conversation, and often did. People of all backgrounds, all stations in life, and all degrees of social dysfunction. A number of people whom, if you saw them in real life, you’d cross the street to avoid. All united by a common interest in the subject at hand, and a desire to bicker with strangers under a pretentious pseudonym like Karl Fred of Brunswick. It was awesome. Seriously, it was. Whether as a lurker or an active participant, you’d always learn something, because the best forums would attract smart people who had something interesting to say.

Forums in this category also tended to generate a sense of community and trust, because there would be regulars that stuck around for long periods of time. Some of them were just lunatics who would keep coming back to rehash their pet obsessions as a dog returneth to his vomit, but most were decent people who enjoyed the banter and intellectual exchange. Subject matter experts who were willing to share their thoughts and defend their positions for free would be respected like village elders.

With all that in mind, I’m not surprised by the findings of this recent survey:

Four out of five Americans distrust mainstream social media sites like Facebook

[…]

When engaging with other users, over half (53 percent) of respondents said they prefer to interact on independent forums rather than centralized sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Decentralized, independent, and (ideally) small forums and blogs… the internet’s past is likely to be the internet’s future, as users continue to lose faith in the big social media platforms.

Preview of a blueprint of a vision

Guangzhou central business district

Guangzhou (Source)

…so to speak. I am referring to the news that the Chinese government will “unveil” a “blueprint” for the 11-city “Greater Bay Area” initiative in southern China, which is believed to contain the planet’s largest concentration of humans in a single urban area. The blogger Big Lychee weighs in:

The basic proposition is that you have a bunch of coastal cities clustered around a river delta/estuary, and if you do something (to be revealed on Feb 21, fingers crossed) it will start to perform a similar ‘powerhouse’ economic function as the Silicon Valley area around San Francisco Bay, or maybe the vast industrial region around Tokyo Bay, because an estuary is sort of like a bay. Voila – the world’s top bay area.

Regional geography types might point out that the Pearl River Delta is already performing such a function, with its vast swathes of factories, banks, sea ports, airports, power stations, residential areas, road and rail links, malls, schools, 7-Elevens, pet-grooming salons and everything else an economic dynamo needs.

Promoters of the concept excitedly insist that the extra yet-to-be-announced something can unlock the area’s great additional potential. They note that it is currently divided among a dozen or so municipal jurisdictions, whose mayors and other leaders compete with one another, and two of which are de-facto city states with their own currencies and laws, separated by international-style borders.

Linking a bunch of cities together into a seamless megalopolis is certainly a compelling idea, but the enormous amount of propaganda surrounding the extremely nebulous and inchoate Greater Bay Area concept suggests an ulterior motive. What that motive might be is astutely suggested by the blog:

Skeptics point out that while merging Guangzhou, Zhuhai, Shenzhen and other mainland cities’ planning and other functions might produce economies of scale and efficiencies, it is difficult, if not unconstitutional, to absorb Hong Kong and Macau into the Mainland this way.

Some fear the whole thing is a plot to subsume Hong Kong politically and economically within a bigger cross-border entity. Others suspect the idea is more psychological or symbolic – aimed at encouraging the idea or feeling that Hong Kong is just a part of something bigger. In other words, to dilute Hong Kong’s separate identity. As in ‘We will no longer be Hong Kong people, but Greater Bay Area people’.

That sounds about right. I guess we’ll find out. By the way, I love how Guangzhou is assigned the role of “a national central city” while flashy Shenzhen gets to be “a special economic region and an innovative city.” Poor Guangzhou. At least it’s visually interesting, and the Cantonese culture is great, if you’re into that sort of thing. (It’s also the Guangdong provincial capital.)

Short words are better than long words

 

George Orwell typing typewriter

Every writer (of any kind) really needs to read George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Therein you will find at least 40% of what you ever need to know about the principles of good writing, especially nonfiction writing.

Orwell’s rules of thumb are timeless and they include:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Winston Churchill, who also knew a thing or two about good writing, is quoted as saying:

Broadly speaking, short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.

In a similar vein, Orwell advised:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Fortunately for him, Orwell lived before the time of hideous corporate jargon and marketing buzzwords, such as “client-centric,” “leverage,” “touchpoint,” and “redundancy offer,” but none of those linguistic outrages would survive the Orwellian pruning shears.

There is also the annoying phenomenon of hijacking perfectly good words and phrases for other purposes. For example, I heard the term “fire drill” a lot when working in corporate America. Apparently, it refers to a situation where you need to drop everything and work overtime to prevent a colossal f*ck-up from escalating into a DEFCON 1 emergency. I didn’t know this at first, so I thought people were talking about literal fire drills, which as you can imagine was confusing.

Americans also have a bad habit of misusing nouns as verbs, like “impact,” and misusing verbs as nouns, like “build.” Perhaps the most awful example of this is the use of the verb “ask” as a noun, as in: “That’s a big ask.” No, that’s a big request. There is no such thing as “an ask.” The English language is fluid but that doesn’t entitle you to communicate like you were raised by wolves.

“Ask,” by the way, is an exception to Orwell’s rule about using short words instead of long ones. In this case, the better and more correct word is longer. So the rules should be seen as general guidelines rather than ironclad dogma.

Likewise, there are many cases where it is justified to sprinkle longer or “fancier” synonyms throughout the text in order to create variety and avoid monotony. For example, rather than use the verb “fired” seven times in an article – as in the company fired him – I might substitute the words “dismissed” or “sacked” or “gave him the pink slip” for some of those usages. Remember, though, that readability is the key. I would tend to use the shorter word first, and move on to longer or more elaborate synonyms only later and only if I felt that repeating the original word would be too boring.

The above exceptions to the rule would be my only quibble with this article in Lifehacker, which is otherwise quite correct, IMHO:

So sometimes we write stuff that we’d never say aloud. We use a complicated or “smart-sounding” word when a simpler word would work better. New York Times editor Dan Saltzstein listed some great examples on Twitter. They pop up in news media, but also in “business speak.” If you’re trying to write effectively, watch out for these:

Dear editors:
Closed > shuttered
Restaurant > eatery
Begin > commence
Open > launch
Use > utilize
(What am I missing?)
— Dan Saltzstein (@dansaltzstein) December 23, 2018

There are many more useful examples in the article, so it’s worth checking out.

Let them eat debate

Somehow I don’t think this initiative by the French government will succeed in mollifying the angry wearers of high-visibility garments:

In 1789, Louis XVI summoned France’s aristocracy, clergy and citizens to discuss ways to plug the crown’s dismal finances and quell popular discontent over a sclerotic feudal society.

It marked the start of the French Revolution. Within months he was powerless and four years later beheaded by guillotine.

Two centuries on, President Emmanuel Macron, often criticized for a monarchical manner, is also calling a national debate to mollify “yellow vest” protesters whose nine week uprising has set Paris ablaze and shaken his administration.

He will launch the three-month “grand debat” initiative on Jan. 15. As during the rule of the ill-fated king, the French are already writing complaints in “grievance books” opened up by mayors of 5,000 communes.

The debate will focus on four themes — taxes, green energy, institutional reform and citizenship. Discussions will be held on the internet and in town halls.

There’s a catch, though, that seems to defeat the purpose:

But officials have already said changing the course of Macron’s reforms aimed at liberalizing the economy will be off limits.

“The debates are not an opportunity for people to offload all their frustrations, nor are we questioning what we’ve done in the past 18 months,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told BFM TV. “We’re not replaying the election.”

Meanwhile, the protesters have come up with another disruptive tactic:

Members of the “yellow vests” protest movement have vandalised almost 60% of France’s entire speed camera network, the interior minister has said.

Christophe Castaner said the wilful damage was a threat to road safety and put lives in danger.

The protest movement began over fuel tax increases, and saw motorists block roads and motorway toll booths.

Some protesters feel speed cameras are solely a revenue-generating measure which takes money from the poor.

The gangs have spoken

Not everyone is happy with a proposal by Brazil’s new president:

Authorities in the state of Ceará have been overwhelmed by more than a week of violence, which has been most intense in the capital, Fortaleza, a metropolitan region home to 4 million people.

Security forces say three rival drug gangs have come together to carry out more than 160 attacks in retaliation for a proposal to end the practice of separating gang factions inside Brazil’s prisons.

Buses, mail trucks and cars have been torched. Police stations, city government buildings and banks have been attacked with petrol bombs and explosives. On Sunday, criminals blew up a telephone exchange, leaving 12 cities without mobile service. Other explosions have damaged a freeway overpass and a bridge.

The rash of violence is an early challenge for new president Jair Bolsonaro, who swept to power with his tough-on-crime proposals, which include military takeovers of Brazilian cities and shoot-to-kill security tactics.

The government isn’t cowed, however:

Despite the chaos, the government said it would not pull back on its plan to combat gang activities in prisons.

I like to follow events in Brazil, as it’s the fifth most populous country in the world, and happens to be located in the same hemisphere as the US.

A novel tactic

Remember the yellow vest protests in France? They haven’t stopped. Indeed, as one journalist reports, “Saturday insurrections are now institutionalised in Paris, and also across the country, as far as Marseille and Toulon.”

Some 80,000 law and order agents, including 5,000 in the capital, will be mobilised this weekend, along with armoured cars, water cannons and apparently unlimited supplies of chemical weapons. Luc Ferry, a former conservative education minister, has already suggested that live ammunition should be used to quell growing attacks on police.

And now it looks like some of the protesters are preparing to level up the disruption:

Activists from a French protest movement encouraged supporters Wednesday to set off a bank run by emptying their accounts, while the government urged citizens to express their discontent in a national debate instead of weekly demonstrations disrupting the streets of Paris.

Activists from the yellow vest movement, which started with protests over fuel tax increases, recommended the massive cash withdrawals on social media. One protester, Maxime Nicolle called it the “tax collector’s referendum.”

“We are going to get our bread back … You’re making money with our dough, and we’re fed up,” Nicolle said in a video message.

The movement’s adherents said they hoped the banking action will force the French government to heed their demands, especially giving citizens the right to propose and vote on new laws.

In the meantime, copycat yellow vest protests have been spotted in Belgium and the NetherlandsBritainCanada, and even Bulgaria, Israel, Iraq and Taiwan. The Egyptian government banned the sale of yellow vests in December.

Contact?

I don’t know whether this is a message from aliens, but the universe is most definitely alive:

Astronomers have revealed details of mysterious signals emanating from a distant galaxy, picked up by a telescope in Canada.

The precise nature and origin of the blasts of radio waves is unknown.

Among the 13 fast radio bursts, known as FRBs, was a very unusual repeating signal, coming from the same source about 1.5 billion light years away.

Such an event has only been reported once before, by a different telescope. […]

FRBs are short, bright flashes of radio waves, which appear to be coming from almost halfway across the Universe.

Here’s a related item about the vast number of FRBs being detected by Australian scientists.

The greatness of film

David Hmmings in Blow-Up

I mean film photography, not movies. (Although don’t get me wrong, movies are also great.) Photographer Graham Carruthers has a blog post concerning the merits of film photography versus its more-efficient digital replacement. That post is a response to this article in PetaPixal about the sudden trendiness of film cameras among the “nostalgic hipster” set.

While I’m hardly a photographer, my limited experience with film has given me an appreciation for the joys of analog shooting. Here’s my comment on the blog:

Speaking as a hobbyist, I always enjoyed using my Nikon film SLR. Film has a tangible existence, which makes it seem more “real” than a digital file, and there is something cool about handling film – loading it into the camera, snapping the back shut and hearing the whir of the take-up spool, dropping off the roll at the local pharmacy and getting back an envelope full of prints and negatives that can be displayed, passed around, stored in an album… It’s definitely less convenient than digital but there is something special about the process that can’t be replicated on a computer screen. By the way, a professional photographer once told me that the best way to learn photography skills is to start with a film camera, because digital cameras make everything too easy.

And, of course, you can make art even with a chintzy disposable camera.

Some good news for US manufacturing

US manufacturing

Advanced manufacturing is the key to lasting prosperity. The destruction of the US manufacturing base in recent decades – the US lost 55,000 factories and 5 to 6 million manufacturing jobs in the first decade of the 21st century – has dealt a severe blow to America’s economic competitiveness and its ability to generate wealth and provide decent, well-paying jobs to its population.

Reversing this dangerous state of affairs should be one of America’s top strategic priorities. In this regard, the latest US jobs report has some encouraging numbers:

Partly as a result of the last few months’ numbers, 2018 stands preliminarily as the best year for U.S. manufacturing job creation (284,000) since 1997 (304,000). The previous December-to-December manufacturing employment gain was 209,000.

Also, manufacturing jobs as a share of total non-farm jobs (the Labor Department’s definition of the total U.S. employment universe) rose to just under 8.55 percent – their highest level since July, 2016 (8.56 percent).

That’s the good news. The bad news:

Even so, manufacturing’s prior relative employment creation has been so weak that the sector still remains a laggard on this front for the recovery era as a whole.

Since bottoming out in February and March of 2010, manufacturing has regained 1.389 million (60.58 percent) of the 2.293 million jobs it had lost during the Great Recession and its aftermath. Overall private sector employment sank by 8.785 million during the downturn, but since then has regained 20.608 million jobs.

Manufacturing keeps trailing the overall private sector on the pay front, too. In December, pre-inflation manufacturing wages rose by 0.26 percent – considerably slower than the overall private sector’s 0.40 percent.

In summary, manufacturing employment is booming, but wage growth is still terrible. Part of the reason for this could be that some of the best and most lucrative manufacturing jobs are going unfilled. Given the general disdain for factory jobs in current-year America and the lack of emphasis on training people for highly skilled manufacturing roles, it’s unsurprising that the industry faces a sharp shortage of qualified workers:

This week’s new Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) revealed that job openings in the manufacturing sector jumped in October [2018] to a record-high 522,000, and it’s only going to get worse.

[…]

There are several causes behind this workforce crisis, notably that many workers lack critical training in the necessary skills to fill these jobs. The manufacturing industry also suffers from inaccurate perceptions among talented students who may avoid career opportunities in modern manufacturing.

In crisis there is opportunity, and the dearth of skilled manufacturing workers implies that a greater focus on closing the skills gap could lead to a boost in wages as the open jobs get filled. Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, appears to think so. At the very least, this could be one piece of the puzzle to addressing the disaster of real wage stagnation in America. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it will take many years to undo a generational catastrophe.

Also, the tariffs are working.

===

More on the strong manufacturing employment numbers: another way to put it is that “the U.S. had as many people working in the manufacturing sector in December as it did 69 years ago.” And, although the percentage of the population working in manufacturing is far lower than it was in 1949, it is growing: “As a percent of the total workforce, manufacturing rose for the first time since 1984.”

And here’s a comment from Timmons:

This year was one for the record books, with manufacturers’ average optimism for 2018 hitting an all-time high. Empowered by tax reform and regulatory certainty, manufacturers are keeping our promise to expand our operations, hire new workers and raise wages and benefits. But as this survey also shows, we face challenges, most seriously the workforce crisis. We have more than half a million jobs to fill right now—and by 2028, as many as 2.4 million could go unfilled if we don’t equip more Americans to take on these high-tech, high-paying careers.

China’s population begins to shrink

Beijing traffic jam

Welcome news for some

China’s population is believed to have shrunk last year for the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Despite the loosening of the one-child policy in 2016 to allow for two children per couple, new findings from a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicate that China’s population dropped by 1.27 million in 2018. The number of live births nationwide dipped by 2.5 million last year, after being projected to grow by 790,000. Thus, China is on track to get old before it gets rich.

This is most alarming:

The number of women of childbearing age is expected to fall by more than 39 percent over the next decade and China’s two-child policy isn’t enough to shore up dwindling birth rates, [Yi Fuxian] added.

That is an absolutely colossal decline in 10 short years. For reference, a Chinese newspaper gives the total number of women of childbearing age (15 to 49 years old) as 346 million. If we apply Yi’s 39% reduction to this figure, that would mean a net removal of almost 135 million women from the childbearing population. That’s more than the whole population of Japan. In a decade!

He is now urging the government to get out of people’s bedrooms by scrapping the two-child limit and offering more incentives including generous maternity leave and tax breaks for parents.

If the government doesn’t intervene now, “China’s aging crisis will be more severe than Japan, and the economic outlook will be bleaker than Japan,” Yi said.

China’s labor force is becoming smaller as the population grays, putting intense strain on the country’s fragile pension and health care systems.

[…]

“The U.S. economy will not be overtaken by China, but by India, which has a younger population,” he said.

“China’s economic vitality will continue to decline, which will bring about a disastrous impact on the global economy.”

Ditching the two-child limit would be most welcome. It’s questionable, however, whether pro-natalist incentives like maternity leave can make a significant dent in the problem. Chinese women have to really want children.

Here’s an insight from the financial blogger Luo Zhen (罗臻) way back in August 2013:

Consider the bigger picture. China is urbanizing and one plan for keeping growth from collapsing to near 0-3% is to push more people into cities. The fertility rates in the cities is already low by choice. China increasingly looks like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, where the fertility rates are 1.1, 1.1 and 0.8 children born/woman, respectively. China’s fertility rate is currently about 1.6 children born/woman.

If they want to raise fertility, they should deurbanize. China’s fertility rate is headed lower, one child policy or not.

There’s an idea: deurbanization. Perhaps it’s time to ease back on the crazy city-building drive and start ushering people back to the countryside. It’s been done before, sort of: China sent roughly 17 million youths to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.