Leader for life

“CPC proposes change on Chinese president’s term in Constitution”:

The Communist Party of China Central Committee proposed to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” from the country’s Constitution.

Bill Bishop comments:

Xinhua has published some of the State Constitution changes that should be ratified at the National People’s Congress (NPC) that opens March 5. There are several interesting changes, including the standing up of the new National Supervisory Commission system and the addition of the adjectives of “great”, “modern” and “beautiful” to describe “a socialist country”, but the biggest change looks to be the scrapping of the two-term limit for President and Vice President.

This revision is another move in the growing list of norm-busting changes Xi has pushed to allow him to stay in power for life. The most important substantive move towards this end was the inclusion of Xi Thought in the Party Constitution last Fall. […]

Now the NPC will provide the institutional framework of the State to allow Xi, so long as he is alive and the Communist Party is running China, to be the most important and powerful person in China for life.

The New York Times calls this “a dramatic move that would mark the country’s biggest political change in decades.”

All hail the Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years.

Khaosan Road: a mile-long mosh pit

Khaosan Road in Bangkok, aka the “center of the backpacking universe” — actually a quarter of a mile long, though it feels longer — is a fun place to visit, if you enjoy being surrounded by approximately 2 trillion people in a loud, confined space.

A similarly pleasant experience can be had at a Chinese train station during the holiday travel rush, though unfortunately without the tattoo parlors and street hawkers offering you delicious fried scorpions.

Personally, I’d prefer to spend my time reclining:

Reclining Buddha Ayutthaya

Reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam (Phra Noon), Ayutthaya

Contemplating the Temporality of things:

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon Ayutthaya

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon (the Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory), Ayutthaya

Or riding a clickety-clackety old train between Bangkok and the ancient capital of Ayutthaya:

“Enron on steroids”

The collapse of Alibaba, when it happens, is going to be spectacular. From the accounting blog “Deep Throat”:

So here are the metrics we’ve been discussing since the IPO, as described in the 12/31/17 materials/filings.

1.) Fake Revenue: Incredible 56% revenue growth last quarter. Most of this growth is likely just “fake” consolidation revenue masquerading as “organic” growth. (i.e. If Ebay bought Macy’s and consolidated same, Ebay’s revenue would jump 400% YOY in the consolidation quarter.) That’s probably what’s going on here (Intime, Cainiao, SunArt, Hema, Lazada, etc.). The “New Retail” model that management has been referring to (buying up brick and mortar) would have a much lower gross margin, and consequently, a much lower Price/Revenue ratio. Management has also, yet again, increased their “guidance”. It’s presumably much easier to forecast growth when you can go out and “buy” it. Unfortunately, since Revenue is, and has always been, reported as one big “Blob” we have no idea what it’s comprised of. (i.e. “Organic” e-Commerce vs. “Purchased” Brick & Mortar Revenue)

2.) “Questionable Assets”: (Investment Securities, Goodwill, Intangibles, Land Use Rights and Investments in “Investees”) are now a whopping US$56 Billion (51% of the balance sheet), up $9 Billion from $47 Billion in the prior quarter…..compared to roughly US$0.00 (0.00%) prior to the IPO just four short years ago. Alibaba Management continues to create financial vapor at an unprecedented pace.

3.) “Questionable Assets” – Valuation: I’ve long opined that IFRS accounting rules had required Alibaba Management to write down their interest in Alibaba Pictures and Alibaba Health by roughly $3.5 Billion because the publicly traded value simply didn’t support their carrying value. (See: Finding Inner Peace in Dharamsala …..and thoughts on the Alibaba 20-F…. ) Good news! ….this quarter they’ve finally written off $2.8 Billion on Alibaba Pictures!. We’re making progress!……Oh….but wait….when they consolidated the money-losing-dog-turd Cainaio “junk delivery by tuk-tuks & scooters ecosystem” business, they somehow reported a $3.45 Billion gain on the consolidation….more than fully offsetting the Alibaba Pictures write-down!

Etc, etc, etc. From a comment cited in the blog post:

I read your analysis on BABA and on so many different levels this screams “Enron 2.0”. The similarities are uncanny. But it’s actually worse than that. It’s Enron on steroids due to the fact that the Chinese government and regulatory bodies are likely aware of, and support the companies shenanigans, both implicitly and explicitly. If BABA is able to fleece American investors for billions of dollars in exchange for what will ultimately be worthless (or near worthless) equity, all the better. The average analyst/fund manager on Wall St. is likely too young to remember Enron as it happened in real time; even fewer of the older professionals who do remember could explain in depth how the company manufactured their financials and the machinations involved. Once again, history seems doomed to rhyme, if not repeat.

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



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
  • “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.


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.


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.