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A GDPR omen in the Guardian today. While this is technically opt-in because users must affirmatively click “Continue” to receive emails, the strong resemblance to EU Cookie notices where everyone hammers “Continue” is surely deliberate.

Brutal: CCP pulled out of VR game development because the reception was “even below our lowest expectations.”

I’m still long-term bullish on VR, but it seems like there are several big problems to solve, one of them being the friction of just starting a game, something echoed in the interview: “The ceremony of putting on a VR headset; I often liken it to putting on scuba gear to go diving. Scuba diving is an amazing experience, but it’s a lot of gear to put on, and when you have it on it’s isolating, disorienting.”

China, a Land of Contrasts

Extended excerpts from four recent pieces on China. It’s impossible to generalise about a country of 1.4 billion people, but there are plenty of interesting nuggets here.

The quiet revolution: China’s millennial backlash (Financial Times, semi-paywalled) by Yuan Yang:

Faye Lu, a Beijing-based businesswoman, chose the Chinese new year after her 30th birthday to come clean to her family. At the biggest social gathering in the Chinese calendar, she prepared a New Year’s Eve feast for her parents and 20 relatives — more than 10 dishes including roast fatty pork, pork ribs and fried pickled cabbage. The feast, she knew, would give her the right to make a speech.

“You have taken care of me for 30 years,” she told her guests seated at the table. “I am very grateful to you all. I have had the opportunity to travel and to get to know many different cultures, who have different attitudes to marriage. And I can see that despite their differences to us, they are still happy . . . ”

Lu was circling around a problem: as an unmarried 30-year-old, she is seen by her parents and their contemporaries as a “leftover woman”. At the end of her speech, she presented a veiled request: “I am so grateful to you for not bothering my parents too much to ask when I am getting married.”

[…] Han Han, the 35-year-old novelist most celebrated by millennials, wrote on his Weibo microblog earlier this month, “Success isn’t about how many millions you earn. From a billionaire to a gardener, art editor or a programmer . . . everyone has their role and their destiny, each has their own kind of happiness.”

Han was reacting to what he called the “anxiety peddling” of an article headlined “Your Contemporaries Are Leaving You Behind”, about another influential millennial, Hu Weiwei, the 36-year-old founder of bike-sharing tech start-up Mobike. The piece contrasts the careers of Hu with what it calls the “mediocre” lives of her peers who fall short of such success. “You said we’d walk the paths of our youth together,” the author writes, imagining a dialogue between two classmates, “but you went and bought a car.”

China’s One-Man Show (Jacobin) by Doug Henwood interviewing Isabel Hilton:

There’s no shortage of corruption. Without pushing this analogy too far, if a member of the mafia is arrested and charged with a crime, you don’t really ask if he’s a criminal. You ask how he lost his protection. And if someone went down during this anti-corruption drive, the question was which power did he represent? Which faction did he represent? Why him and not any number of others?

[…] I think the ultimate vision is a restoration of the sense that China is the center of its world. That was the way China felt about itself for many centuries, partly because it didn’t really go very much farther. There was a brief period in the Ming Dynasty when ships went up and down the coast of Africa, and there was always land-based trade along the Silk Road, but China was content to treat the states and its neighbors in the immediate region as tributaries that paid homage to China as the great regional power. It was 20 percent of the world’s economy, which is pretty much where we’re heading back to.

China wants to restore that position, but it also wants to preserve its own system of government against rival systems of government. In pursuit of that, China is steadily setting up parallel institutions. Its own, as yet small, multilateral investment bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is devising rules that suit China rather than rules that have been part of the postwar order.

I think we’ll see China increasingly building a world that suits China, but trying not to overreach.

Sundays in the Park With Bagoong (Taste) by Max Falkowitz:

At 7 a.m., the first ladies have set up camp, flattening corrugated boxes into floor mats and erecting hip-height walls to mark their camps. By 10, they’re out by the thousands, scattered along sidewalks, encamped in parks, and perched above the street on skyways. In the shadows of the most expensive real estate in the world, these women have constructed a city of cardboard. And as they chat in Tagalog, swap mobile phone pics, and set up board games, they unpack their lunches. Hong Kong’s well-to-do families may be off brunching at dim sum, but here on the streets on a recent Sunday afternoon, it’s all adobo and bagoong.

Over 300,000 domestic workers live in Hong Kong—4 percent of the 1,000-square-mile city’s 7.3 million population—mainly women from the Philippines and Indonesia. “Helpers,” as they’re called locally, typically clean house, run errands, buy groceries and cook meals, and keep an eye on children. They get one day off a week, and most spend their day of rest attending church and participating in a citywide outdoor feast.

Imperial history and classical aesthetics by Dan Wang:

China did not trigger its own industrial revolution. The first imperial dynasty was established 2,000 years ago, and the civilization has something like 5,000 years of recorded history. Did life change much for the average person throughout most of that time?

Not really. Dynasties came and went, but the lives of most people changed little throughout millennia. The overwhelming majority of people earned a meager living by farming their small plot of land throughout the entirety of their short lives, just as their ancestors have done and as their descendants would continue to do. Some people would move to settle new lands; some people would be conscripted to fight enemies; some people would die in bouts of famine, disaster, or warfare. These are typical misfortunes that have afflicted people everywhere in the world.

The richer parts of China developed an impressive commercial culture and a sophisticated economy in arts and crafts. But given their lack of industrialization, these offered only marginal improvements in overall living standards. I read somewhere that the populations of Nanjing, Suzhou, Beijing, and a few other cities had not grown from the Song to the Qing, a 1,000 year interval. Isn’t it astonishing that such a thing is even plausible?

[…] It’s difficult to find evidence of historical monuments in Chinese cities today. Most large Chinese cities look similar in the same ugly way, with big apartment blocks, wide avenues, concrete everywhere. How is it that the splendid cities of the past have all been reduced to such dreadful streets and buildings? Contrast that mess with the well-preserved cities of Europe, which have kept the churches, monuments, and sometimes even whole streets in as marvelous conditions as when they were first built.

Disregard of the material past is a tragedy for the modern traveler. What did the Tang capitals of Chang’an and Luoyang look like? We have to use our imaginations and be guided by the texts, for these cities offer very little guidance when we examine them today. But Leys argues that this failure to maintain historical monuments is in fact a sign of vitality: “The past which continues to animate Chinese life in so many striking, unexpected, or subtle ways, seems to inhabit the people rather than the bricks and stones. The Chinese past is both spiritually active and physically invisible.”

My heart trembles with nervousness whenever an essayist invokes geist. But perhaps Leys is on to something here, and instead of trying to grasp Chinese history by seeing, we ought instead do so through listening.

How good are monuments as guides to the past, really? Perhaps very little at all, and the continuation of intangible traditions is more valuable instead. Most Chinese know the same sets of stories and parables everyone is told growing up; the actions we see in paintings and read in books follow a logic that still makes sense; I’m personally struck that I’m familiar with the characters in centuries-old scrolls, unchanged as they’ve been throughout millennia.

Instead of building magnificent pyramids and churches out of stone, Chinese have accepted the time wears down all structures. Eternity can inhabit not the building but the spirit. Thus, in addition to mostly neglecting to maintain structures, Chinese have been extraordinarily active in burning, vandalizing, and utterly destroying the material heritage of their past.

My Problem With Reddit

I keep most of my savings in index funds, as recommended by Warren Buffet and pretty much every financial advisor in the world. Given that interest rates on savings accounts have been practically zero for the past few years, this has worked out quite well for me, and I expect that to continue. And yet I can’t help but feel uneasy that my index funds – and therefore, me – partly owns and benefits from Royal Dutch Shell, British American Tobacco, and BP.

Living in a fully globalised economy means we make these trade-offs every day. You can’t send a single tweet about working conditions in China without someone accusing you of hypocrisy for using an iPhone. Much of the criticism of Twitter happens on Twitter itself; the same goes for Facebook. Technology has burdened us with a whole new category of original sins, neatly packaged in a pocket-size form.

Reddit is one of those sins. People have been complaining about its racist and sexist and hateful communities right from the beginning, and I can’t recall a time when Reddit wasn’t embroiled in some dreadful scandal. That didn’t stop me from registering in 2011, and it hasn’t stopped me from visiting it more and more over the years. It’s just too useful.

The strength of Reddit is the same as that of every other hegemonic tech platform: it’s free (VC-funded), convenient (VC money pays for great engineers and designers), and network effects mean that it becomes more useful the more people who join. Before long, everyone is there, so why bother joining another website?

On Reddit, anyone can create a new ‘subreddit’ community that any member can discover, subscribe to, and post to, with a single click. And since every subreddit has the same features and interface, it’s much faster and easier to use and navigate than the archipelago of web forums of our past, each needing its own login, each with its own quirks.

If I want to find out what people thought of the latest episode of Atlanta, I go to /r/AtlantaTV. If I want to know why a fighter plane just flew over my house in Edinburgh, I go to /r/Edinburgh. And if I want an in-depth analysis about how the Falcon Heavy measures up to NASA’s Space Launch System, I’ll check out /r/SpaceX. I know there are other forums and and Facebook groups out there for each of those topics, but they’re less convenient to find and follow.

So what’s my problem with Reddit – other than the racist, sexist, and hateful communities, which most Redditors will dismiss as being unfortunate exceptions, that is? I have three:

No moderation by default

Many subreddits are well-moderated by dedicated volunteers. They work hard to delete duplicate posts, keep discussions on track, ban abusive posters and repeated trolls, and generally try to make the community a pleasant, entertaining, and instructive place to be.

There is no requirement to have moderation on a subreddit, however. You can start one and then effectively abandon it, such that it becomes incredibly popular and yet completely unmanaged – or more likely, it can moderated haphazardly, with no consistency and rules. Is there any harm to this, though?

Yes. Poorly moderated subreddits are like the background radiation that lingers after a disaster. They damage people and communities imperceptibly as people test and then break boundaries. A stray hateful post or comment stays up for just a little longer than it should, showing that this behaviour is acceptable. It happens more often, and people are driven off, or they stay and are changed.

Reddit does have rules, even if they’re barely enforced. Not many, though: racism is permitted.

You’re subsidising hate

Reddit is an advertising-funded website, and by visiting the nice, well-moderated subreddits, you are helping fund their operations. It’s safe to say that hateful subreddits are not generally popular with online advertising, whereas the well-heeled visitors to /r/teslamotors and /r/apple are more in demand. In other words, even if you avoid visiting bad subreddits, in a small way, you’re still funding their continued existence.

Like my tobacco and oil-owning index funds, this might just be the cost of doing business on the internet today. But at the very least, you should be aware that there is a real cost.

You don’t own anything

It’s easy to set up a subreddit, and it’s just as easy for Reddit to take it away from you. You haven’t paid Reddit anything to host your community, and if they change their minds, it’s entirely within their rights to replace you as a moderator, or delete the subreddit entirely, or more likely, to make it really annoying to access the archives and contact the subscribers. Sure, people will protest, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

This is the deal you make with all platforms: faster growth in return for giving up control. Again, it might be a deal you’re willing to make, but you should understand the terms before you go in. Nothing lasts forever.

That’s why, as much as I use Reddit every day, I can’t celebrate its popularity and I can’t wait until we have something different.

Lovely to see the London cast strut their stuff.

This House & Rhinoceros

Saw a couple of plays in Edinburgh recently:

This House is about the efforts of whips to maintain the shaky Labour government from 1974-79. When it premiered in 2012, a time when the most exciting thing in British politics was the coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it doubtless felt like an exciting, topical play about the idealism and reality of politics – hence the rave reviews.

Between Brexit and Trump, shit has gotten very real, so the play has lost some of its power in its 2018 incarnation. But that’s not the only reason why it left me cold. Fundamentally, it’s a story about Parliament, not politics. You never hear from a single person who isn’t a politician; you never spend a second outside of Westminster. It feels clammy and paternalistic. And I’m not sure that I care for that kind of story any more, not given the state of our politics lately.

(I also didn’t like the play’s fast and loose treatment of the arithmetic of the 1974 elections and just how governments are formed, but whatever.)

Rhinoceros was written in 1959 and is essentially about fascism and Nazism – note-perfect for our times, sadly. I enjoyed it very much and if there’s a production near you, I recommend you see it.

Here’s what I tweeted at the time:

Act 1: hey I thought this was meant to be about fascism, wtf?

Act 2: whoa whoa too much, pull it back!

Act 3: ok this is perfect