Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Facebook in China, Part 2: Facebook's Draw

Some additional commentary on the subject:

The way Facebook would spread in China is through "your friends having it." It's exactly the same way it spread in the US: your friends at another university have Facebook. They talk about using it, and you want to stay connected, too. When Facebook opens up at your school, you quickly get an account so you can be in the loop along with them.

In 2007, we saw this effect happening at Peking University and at Tsinghua University (and probably elsewhere) among Chinese students who had made friends with international students -- virtually all of whom were Facebook users. (We definitely saw this happening among FACES delegates. =D)

This highlights one (really important) thing that Facebook has going for it, which Renren et al. don't have: that connection to international users. At the point Facebook re-enters the China market, given how things go in the next few years, that might even be a connection to the rest of the world's users.

Maybe it's only a small subset of the population in China that would be interested in this -- the educated elite at the top universities who have the opportunity to even know international folks. But that's how Facebook started out, too. If the option to use Facebook were available, that elite demographic is going to stay engaged. They eagerly read foreign news and have discussions with their friends abroad. Facebook would be the perfect tool to complement and strengthen those connections; and once they're on board, their more inland-oriented friends may follow suit. (After all, many tides in Chinese history are led by students and intellectuals.)

Now as many folks have pointed out, there are a host of local competitors already filling the "social" niche. Maybe these services will be so deeply integrated into Chinese users' lives that people won't want to leave those other ecosystems. "I've achieved level 499 on Happy Poodle Farm ... I have a prize-winning pack of canines ... I can't leave Fluffy behind, I just can't!!!" Or you might have regional networks that are deeply embedded in a certain social networking site. (I assume geography matters because your "friends" are more likely to be in your town, at least initially, though maybe that correlation will erode a little as mobility increases). Some of this represents only inertia (not to be underestimated) and some of it represents actual integration -- ganglions you'll have to carefully prise apart and free up, or move wholesale as a group.

So perhaps you'll end up with what you have today: because China is a big enough market, with many (and still growing) numbers of Internet users, many different social networks can live and coexist there, serving different demographics, depending on their level of international connection, and customized to the different experiences they want.

Now a caveat: a reverse flow is going on, too. Your Chinese friends use "Xiaonei", so why wouldn't Facebook users migrate to (ahem) indigenous Chinese sites? I did sign up for a Xiaonei account back then, primarily just to "see the other side."

But the only reason that I use it now is to keep in touch with a handful of students in the Tsinghua Symphony. They aren't on Facebook because they claim that it's kind of a hassle to regularly leap over the Great Firewall (繙墻). I kind of grumble about it every time I go on Renren -- using Facebook to connect with my friends in most of the world, and then having to sign on separately to Renren to stay connected to those few Chinese friends. I'll do it, but I'm not happy about it.

[This brings up a related point: overseas Chinese students -- people from the PRC who go abroad to study -- maintain their presence on Renren when they're in the US. They regularly roam the site and post photos to it, and perhaps they may not have the same qualms about using both. (To be honest, I don't know if it's by choice or by necessity for them, but I shall ask around). But again, that's because everyone at home has no option other than a domestic Chinese site, like Renren. If Facebook were available in China, then the dynamic could be different: might other people sign up for Facebook to stay in touch with them?]

I also have to duplicate my posts, first posting in Facebook, then translating into Chinese and posting on Renren. To be sure, half the stuff I post on Facebook I don't even think about posting on Renren -- cultural sensitivities, you know. =P And when I do post things on Renren, half the time it gets summarily deleted anyway, probably because I've used words on the sensitive list. (Nobel Prize/諾貝爾獎, anyone?)

But here's another factor that could work in Facebook's favor: if Chinese users were to have both Renren accounts and Facebook accounts, they could see the censorship happening right in front of them, side-by-side. Facebook comes off looking way better in that comparison. (I admit, this point is moot if Chinese users never even think about posting on political topics because they don't find it interesting, unlike entertainment news and pop star gossip. That might be a somewhat different problem).

Still, if Facebook ever entered China on its own terms (i.e. not censored), some kind of integration would probably happen in the end. We all love having choices, but we also prefer having an integrated service, unless there's a good reason to keep spheres of our lives separate. ("Corporate" vs. "Personal" networks, "Work" vs. "Play" -- though I guess Facebook is trying to work around that, too.) I doubt Renren would willingly allow you to take your data elsewhere, but I'm sure some enterprising app developer could make a "Profile Transitioning App" that would bundle up your data from Renren and help you port it to Facebook. That could substantially lower the barrier for transitioning. And independent app developers would probably be happy to release your data, because they'd want to jump on to as many platforms as possible while retaining users.

Maybe you can save Fluffy after all.

Facebook in China, Part 1: Facebook's Mission

My friend Kai Lukoff notes on Quora:
A Facebook that appeases the Chinese government might be a net positive for Chinese netizens, but I think it'd be a disaster for Facebook. It'd piss off far more than just 'rights groups.'
(Kai is also quoted in a Christian Science Monitor article about Facebook's prospects in China, a topic which is being floated because Mark Zuckerberg is currently on a trip to that country.)

It'd probably also go against one of the fundamental missions of Facebook (as stated by Zuckerberg during our CS106A guest lecture): Facebook lets users share more of our lives, allowing us to better understand each other. That enables us to have a greater sense of sympathy for others.

If you trim away a whole set of topics, i.e. if you censor political, religious, or civil society issues, then you may be shearing away a significant part of a person's identity.

Furthermore, Facebook is also an intentioned platform for activism, not only a passive glimpse into someone's life. We spread news among friends, post commentaries, sometimes even issue explicit invitations to take action. A Facebook persona isn't a whole person, but it's definitely a closer glimpse of some of the things one believes in and chooses to make public. Editorial choices about what to post, and what we write, help us form a greater impression of our friends -- to recognize some of the things they care about that one might not get a chance to chat about on a daily basis.

You do wonder if Facebook will start going through the well-China-is-a-big-market/we'll-do-more-good-than-harm rationalizations that Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google adopted. Or just sidestep concerns and become enablers, like Cisco. (Props to Google for trying to realign its actions with its ideals. Given the ethos of Silicon Valley, it's important to those companies from there that they live up to and propagate their ideals. Corporations aren't formed only to make money, but to build and create, and maybe, if they believe in it strongly enough, to change lives).

Yet Facebook doesn't seem to lack for users ... if the "citizens" of Facebook formed a country, it'd be like #3 in the world in terms of population, right? So perhaps they're not rushing to beat down the door to the "China market." (They were accessible until they were unceremoniously blocked a couple years ago.

So maybe it's better that they create the right experience for most of the planet -- for the communities of users who are willing to engage in that (necessarily collective) enterprise of mutual understanding and the consideration of others' viewpoints. Then, until China is ready to "play nice" and connect with the world, they'll simply have to live with a segregated, sanitized, "harmonized," somewhat crippled intranet.

Crippled in terms of lacking whole worlds of ideas and open discussion, though maybe not crippled in terms of functionality. After all, even if there's no YouTube, there are plenty of video-sharing substitutes like Youku or Tudou, right? On the other hand, some might call the open exchange of ideas one of the Web's most important functions.

In the end, I'd vote for Facebook staying true to its mission. No capitulation: Companies like Facebook and Google can win.

Monday, December 20, 2010

America's Green Fleet

It'd be awesome if the U.S. military became the most mobile military in the world, less dependent on fossil fuels than our competitors, and not tethered to long supply lines. One can imagine our navy steaming away, while [insert enemy nation]'s fleet would be grounded due to oil shortages. We would totally rock that!

Some choice bits from Friedman's column called "U.S.S. Prius":

Spearheaded by Ray Mabus, President Obama’s secretary of the Navy and the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the Navy and Marines are building a strategy for “out-greening” Al Qaeda, “out-greening” the Taliban and “out-greening” the world’s petro-dictators. Their efforts are based in part on a recent study from 2007 data that found that the U.S. military loses one person, killed or wounded, for every 24 fuel convoys it runs in Afghanistan. Today, there are hundreds and hundreds of these convoys needed to truck fuel — to run air-conditioners and power diesel generators — to remote bases all over Afghanistan.

Mabus’s argument is that if the U.S. Navy and Marines could replace those generators with renewable power and more energy efficient buildings, and run its ships on nuclear energy, biofuels and hybrid engines, and fly its jets with bio-fuels, then it could out-green the Taliban — the best way to avoid a roadside bomb is to not have vehicles on the roads — and out-green all the petro-dictators now telling the world what to do.

Unlike the Congress, which can be bought off by Big Oil and Big Coal, it is not so easy to tell the Marines that they can’t buy the solar power that could save lives. I don’t know what the final outcome in Iraq or Afghanistan will be, but if we come out of these two wars with a Pentagon-led green revolution, I know they won’t be a total loss. Wars that were driven partly by our oil addiction end up forcing us to break our oil addiction? Wouldn’t that be interesting?

In fact, that kind of setup is already on the way. If those fuel savings could be widely applied, we would also be taking the resources we spend on our armed forces that much farther.

In October, the Navy launched the U.S.S. Makin Island amphibious assault ship, which is propelled by a hybrid gas turbine/electric motor. On its maiden voyage from Mississippi to San Diego, said Mabus, it saved $2 million in fuel.

In addition, the Navy has tested its RCB-X combat boat on a 50-50 blend of algae and diesel, and it has tested its SH-60 helicopter on a similar biofuel blend. Meanwhile, the Marines now have a “green” forward operating base set up in Helmand Province in Afghanistan that is testing in the field everything from LED lights in tents to solar canopies to power refrigerators and equipment — to see just how efficiently one remote base can get by without fossil fuel.

The Navy plans in 2012 to put out to sea a “Great Green Fleet,” a 13-ship carrier battle group powered either by nuclear energy or 50-50 blends of biofuels and with aircraft flying on 50-50 blends of biofuels.

Mabus has also set a goal for the Navy to use alternative energy sources to provide 50 percent of the energy for all its war-fighting ships, planes, vehicles and shore installations by 2020. If the Navy really uses its buying power when buying power, and setting building efficiency standards, it alone could expand the green energy market in a decisive way.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Passive Houses, Active Brains

Already popular in Europe, the Passive House standard for energy-efficient buildings is "gaining ground with U.S. designers and architects seeking dramatic and measurable efficiency improvements."

"While the U.S. Green Building's Council's LEED certification touches on energy, water, materials, and location, Passive House, which started in Germany as Passivhaus, brings rigorous requirements focused entirely on building energy efficiency. Because of that focus on lowering building energy demand, some say it yields better performance than LEED on efficiency." (CNET)

A Passive House achieves "overall energy savings of 60-70%" and lowers space heating needs by 90% via the design of the building, without having to install "expensive 'active' technologies like photovoltaics or solar thermal hot water systems." (Passive House Institute US)

Intrigued? Take "Energy Efficient Buildings"
winter quarter. (CEE176A)

taught by the irrepressibly brilliant Gil Masters. (Plus a band of intrepid TA's, including Nick, Emily, and yours truly. =P) Be sure to sign up for the 1-unit lab component, too. There'll be some neat, hands-on experiments that will clearly illustrate and bring home concepts taught in the classroom. And you'll get to design your own Passive House, build a scale model of, and analyze its energy performance! It's plenty fun.

(Passipedia via CNET)

Good insulation (including low-e windows and sturdy walls). Appropriate ventilation (with wasteful leaks in your walls eliminated). Plus, if the building is properly oriented, you can get your heating from the sun!

LEED gives points just for having certain features, but "attaining Passive House certification requires meeting certain energy-efficiency performance thresholds -- 15 kilowatt-hours per meter square space of living space per year, or 4,755 BTUs per square foot per year ... it appeals to many designers because it's an actual, quantifiable standard.

In a talk at the Boston symposium, Wolfgang Feist, who heads the Passivhaus Institut in Germany, said that Passive House follows a few principles, rather than require high-tech materials or fancy energy-monitoring systems. To meet the voluntary standard, buildings should have a very air-tight building envelope, high levels of insulation, and a heat recovery ventilator that circulates in outdoor air preheated by outgoing indoor air."

Read the whole article at CNET here. And take the class; you'll learn all about these awesome concepts and how to apply them.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Confucius Peace Prize (?!?!!)

As reported in the New York Times:
"Beijing has pressed for a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, which will recognize the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo... At the same time, China announced that it would create its own prize for peace named for the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius."
Hm ... peacefully remonstrating with the government. Seeking an end to corruption, a greater respect for basic rights, and just outcomes for all citizens. Speaking truth to power. Who's acting in a Confucian manner again?

Sigh, this is why prizes should be awarded by independent institutes and NGOs. They may as well call this the CCP's-Favorite-Foreigner-of-the-Year Award. I wonder who future recipients will be? It's just shameless -- his misappropriation of Confucius's title in an attempt to render harm to others and silence criticism (in other words, to settle a political score).

However, it's very, very interesting that the PRC is using the name of Confucius, if not actually his ethical teachings, as a form of international legitimation. How the fortunes of Confucianism have changed! Naming a national prize after the great teacher and philosopher? This implicitly recognizes the timeless and universal character of his teachings, insofar as they can appeal to the whole world (天下, right?), as well as the kind of hold his school of thought has on the public imagination. (Though in this case, the moniker is being blatantly abused as a political tool).

At the very least, the deliberations should be carried out by scholars, not politicians*, though I doubt Confucians would smile upon such ostentation in the first place. Moreover, it's all well and good to reward people for acting in a benevolent manner -- but perhaps this could be more effectively accomplished by having awards for specific virtues that should be cultivated, rather than lauding public figures "in the name of Confucius"? That way it would be more focused on matters of substance. For instance, you can issue proclamations for acts of great filial piety, or laud people who demonstrate perseverance and chastity. Maybe build a couple of 牌樓 (memorial archways) to commemorate them. =D

P.S. To be more Confucian, the award recipient should use this as a teaching moment -- a lectern from which to exhort the ruler of the state and the common people to live virtuously. He/she ought to write a good speech or publish an essay for the occasion. (Maybe even in the eight-legged style, ha ha? Just kidding).

The theme of the talk could also change from year to year, to be relevant to the nation's spiritual and social needs. It might also be important for the teaching to be made applicable to daily life. After all, we don't need more perfunctory talk about "peaceful relations" year after year, filled with diplomatic platitudes and geopolitical blather. (Unless you're actually going to chat about the ethical basis for foreign policy. Some governments could use that lesson.)

But if we focus back on domestic issues, instead of an annual prize, perhaps this sort of moral discourse could be even more valuable if it came on a daily or weekly basis. Society can always benefit from time spent considering ethical issues; and hopefully an increasing number of teachers, scholars and public intellectuals will arise to fill that need.

Tan Changliu, the leader of the Confucius prize committee "told the Associated Press that his group was not a government organization, though it worked closely with the Ministry of Culture."

According to The Guardian, the people who handed out the award claimed "they had worked closely with the ministry of culture" but then "they later said it was nothing to do with the government." Hm ... doubtful that you could make this big fuss and also hand out an award to a former Taiwanese president without government approval. So the claim is that it's NGO-based ... but somehow it still smacks of political leaders shaping the agenda, especially when the "invitation to the award ceremony was apparently issued by a section of the culture ministry." Ah well.

Monday, December 06, 2010

What irony.

If you haven't, you might want to take a look at this op-ed in the IHT today.

A Color Revolution in China? Keep It Red

My God. It sounds like the defense of a right-wing authoritarian regime. "Only El Caudillo can maintain stability and prevent this country from falling to the radicals."

But in this case, we're worried about China turning toward ... toward what? Chaos? Toward extreme nationalism? (I doubt we are actually worried the country will be falling into the Communist camp again? Or are we actually scared of a society more distributionally equal -- where plutocrats and governments don't get to exploit people with impunity and make unbelievable profits? This is just ... so ... ironic ... )

I intend to post an in-line critique of this paper soon, but I just wanted to put the URL out there now. I read the article with a rising sense of irony and horror and disappointment, because this is what we've come to: the fear that democracy will bring us evil, and dictatorship is the only way to maintain stability and guarantee freedom. CCP hook, line and sinker. (It's almost like the 1970s redux, and how America justified support for right-wing military juntas in South America and the Mediterranean).

We're not arguing for multi-party elections tomorrow; no one is so naive. But elements of a more just system can be put into place, including most fundamentally, protections of basic rights. Liberalism is a bulwark for individuals and communities against abuse and government malfeasance -- and that really does have to start at the local level. (We can talk about national-level representative government later, as that will probably take more of a transition). But the jailings, beatings, confinements, executions, evictions, and political prosecutions need to stop now. Period.

I am highly concerned at the distorted view of history that this fellow has -- that somehow the Chinese Communist Party must be credited with *everything* good in Modern Chinese history. It completely eschews the fact that it also imposed some of the *worst* atrocities in history on the Chinese people. And the fact that the CCP is taking this direction now? It's really a belated resumption of the modernizing path that China was already undertaking in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ah well. We so easily forget? No, we so willfully ignore! That's why it's important to remember the past, to give credit where credit is due, and even more importantly, to assign historical responsibility. We ought to study the conditions, events, and decisions that led to these crimes against humanity, so they are not visited on the world again. Sometimes achieving this requires institutional corrections. Sometimes it requires system-wide reform. And sometimes it requires changing norms. But we've got to have the ability to speak freely, to have an open discussion about these very issues, so we can seek out the root causes and prevent such tragedies from happening in the future.

What's most frustrating about pieces like this is that they completely buy into and perpetuate the CCP line -- a narrative that monopolizes the future and the past, and that patently excludes all other possibilities. The contention that "this way is the only way" is absolutely false. There are many paths forward, and it is deeply inappropriate for one clique, one party, one junta to impose its vision on society without more careful deliberation, without greater public discussion and participation, without securing the consent of the governed.

It is not true that we must accept bloodletting with economic growth, that we must endure the poisoning of our children as the price of development. (Even the Singapore model that some observers use to argue for the rightness of authoritarianism in China has real laws with real teeth to punish corrupt officials. The Singaporean government would never tolerate such depraved and predatory behavior as that happening in places in China today).

The talk of development notwithstanding, no one has a right to deprive any one of us of our human dignity. It is sad that in our haste to compete in the marketplace, we freely give it up ourselves. For isn't that the real battle Chinese intellectuals, reformists and nationalists have been waging for the last century and a half? The search for dignity, be it the standing of a nation, or the right of an individual to live decently? For a society to persist and flourish with its core values and mores intact, yet still find ways to improve upon them? For communities to cherish their culture heritage and live out, on a daily basis, their traditions, while simultaneously enjoying the fruits of modernity?

Dialogue is key to answering these questions. Too bad those voices would be quashed in China today.

Friday, December 03, 2010

All right, Take Two!

I think I ruined someone's interview in the new Science & Engineering Quad this afternoon. I was walking on the grass, thinking about the project report we had just submitted for Infrastructure Development, when I suddenly noticed a camera mounted on a tripod sticking up in front of me. I glanced over in curiosity and realized that there were two people seated on a nearby cement barrier, conducting an interview. Oops ...
LEFT appears grave as he leans forward to explain a concept. RIGHT nods sagely and expresses his agreement. A tousle-haired STUDENT wanders through the scene, too close to be just a bystander.
Wait ... STUDENT? What student? That's not part of the script!

Apparently they were the Huang Engineering Center as a backdrop, and here I was, smack dab in the middle of their shot. If I had seen them earlier, I would have avoided stepping into view of the camera. But now it was too late. I didn't want to make a big scene by stopping unnaturally or flailing my arms and apologizing -- that would probably have been even more distracting. So I drifted toward the right, veering away from the camera, and walked away at a brisk pace.

I hope they didn't have to redo the shot, lol.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Intimations of 0481

Hilarious. But somehow not so funny.

Friedman's column today hypothesized what China's diplomatic cables might say if they were Wikileaked. The Chinese appear mostly gleeful that America is doing itself in, and not waking up to the need for national renewal. A sample:
the Americans are oblivious. They travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind. Which is why we at the embassy find it funny that Americans are now fighting over how “exceptional” they are. Once again, we are not making this up. On the front page of The Washington Post on Monday there was an article noting that Republicans Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are denouncing Obama for denying “American exceptionalism.” The Americans have replaced working to be exceptional with talking about how exceptional they still are. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself “exceptional,” only others can bestow that adjective upon you.
Most of the Republicans just elected to Congress do not believe what their scientists tell them about man-made climate change. America’s politicians are mostly lawyers — not engineers or scientists like ours — so they’ll just say crazy things about science and nobody calls them on it. It’s good. It means they will not support any bill to spur clean energy innovation, which is central to our next five-year plan. And this ensures that our efforts to dominate the wind, solar, nuclear and electric car industries will not be challenged by America.
So actually, in China "nobody calls them on it" either. Because, you know, there are things like censorship and state control of media there. In fact, plenty of bad projects go forward for political and ideological reasons, scientific advice be dammed. Pun intended. "Oh details, details," Friedman seems to think, as he glosses over such issues to fit his "China v. U.S., China-is-winning" narrative.

But overall, the message is still pretty stark. We are falling behind, and the most depressing thing is our refusal to acknowledge it. If you cannot even make note of the problem (and it's unclear to me whether it's actual blindness or just willful ignorance), then how can you possibly fix it? Yet we continue to delude ourselves, and our leaders refuse to call out the problem in clear terms, in order to focus the energy and talent of this nation. And so we will remain in this downward spiral, never rising to meet the challenge.
It means America will do nothing serious to fix its structural problems: a ballooning deficit, declining educational performance, crumbling infrastructure and diminished immigration of new talent.
Sigh... I wonder if the tone of this cable qualifies as 幸災樂禍. I title this post 0481 because that is the year 1840 in reverse -- for instead of the West's ascendancy over the Middle Kingdom (kicking down the doors to sell opium, baby!), now we see China rising as America decays, oblivious to its faltering position. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but some of the parallels are clear. And I'm a little apprehensive that America's refusal to reform, its insistence that it is the best-most-superlative everything, even as the world changes around us, could signal the beginning of a decline. I dearly hope not -- but to avert that outcome, we need to get our act together and start moving again.

UPDATE (12/5/2010)
Here's a round-up of a few other folks who take issue with Friedman and his PRC worshipfulness, lol.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Secretary Chu Warns of Sputnik Moment

On Monday, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu warned that in the global clean energy race, "America still has the opportunity to lead" — but "time is running out." While our nation seems to be standing still, countries like China, South Korea and Germany have been speeding ahead to develop and deploy new technologies — and reap the economic benefits.

As reported by CNET, during his speech at the National Press Club, Chu "suggested that the U.S. is reaching a 'Sputnik moment' where political leaders and the general population will realize how the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in science and technology." In response, the U.S. must "fund research in clean-energy technologies in order to stay apace and take advantage of the economic opportunity that cleaner energy technologies represent globally."

Secretary Chu speaks at the National Press Club

Chu called for creating the right environment, not only for corporations, but for research and innovation in general, noting that " federal support for scientific R&D is going to be critical for our economic competitiveness." Excluding the recent ARRA stimulus package, termed a "one-time investment bulge [for] research to invent new technologies, and loan guarantees to scale up existing products," the share of GDP dedicated to energy research and development has "trended down since 1979."

And while the Obama White House's energy agenda may be challenged in the aftermath of the November elections, Chu emphasized that "even politicians who are skeptical of climate change should recognize that investing in green-technology research and development is an economic [economically beneficial] decision."

"It is a way to secure our future prosperity," he declared, echoing Chinese premiere Wen Jiabao.

Though the U.S. is falling behind, all is not lost, according to Chu: "I am hoping that the United States can recognize the economic opportunity that virtually all the western European companies have recognized, that countries in Asia have recognized, and that developing countries have recognized. I am an optimist we will wake up and seize the opportunity." After all, "the U.S. still has the greatest innovation engine in the world."

If the U.S. can get into gear, in the way it won the space race — investing in science and education to train a legion of scientists and engineers, and funding the RD&D needed to accelerate projects — then our country can recapture a leading role in the transition to a clean energy future. And unlike a moon shot, there are far more co-benefits for Planet Earth.

Video of Chu's speech available here.

Slideshow of "Is the Energy Race our new Sputnik moment" available here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Follow the White Rabbit ... to Food Safety

Food safety reform may take a big step forward when the Senate votes on the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization bill this week, write Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser in an NYTimes op-ed. The changes are long overdue, granting wider-ranging powers and responsibilities to an invigorated F.D.A.
"The bill would, for the first time, give the F.D.A., which oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food, the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food. The agency would finally have the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than respond only after people have become ill. The bill would also require more frequent inspections of large-scale, high-risk food-production plants."
Some factions in this country are going to decry the bill as another instance of expanding government, trying to take over our lives. The article notes a few of these critics, including Glenn Beck, some in the Tea Party movement, and Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma).

But when it comes to consumer safety, that's an unfair assessment. Picture the alternative: big corporations running wild, accountable to no one, and given a free pass by vociferous defenders at the highest levels of government. These companies allow poisons and pathogens into our food supply, sometimes through negligence, but other times with intentional disregard for safety -- all in the name of making a quick buck.

Wait ... that's China. Do we really want a Chinese food system? Or do we want a system, where the FDA inspects facilities regularly, stops corporate malfeasance, and protects the American consumer? Not all regulation is harmful, and right now, there is a need to modernize our food safety laws and the agency responsible for implementing them. The large-scale salmonella outbreaks that sickened hundreds of people last year, along with other major food recalls provide ample evidence.

By the way, when fear-mongering ideologues throw around the assertion that the U.S. is "turning into Red China" because we are expanding regulations and consumer protections, they're actually getting it wrong. Today in China, while the government has a heavy hand in managing political life, the story isn't the same in the economic sphere. In many cases, the average consumer lies practically naked, vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous companies who poison the rivers and air, and sell shoddy or dangerous products.

There is little recourse against such abuse, as the regulatory environment is weak, often still in a nascent stage. Many laws are vague; codes, standards, and regulatory procedures are still being developed. Even where laws exist, local courts and governments are often unable or unwilling to enforce them (or in cahoots with the company in the first place!) So you want no-holds-barred capitalism? Well, it's practically the Wild East over there. (Though the situation is improving). So it's somewhat counterintuitive, but if you want to gut government regulatory agencies and give free reign to corporations ... well, you're becoming more like China, not less. Yes, this is called irony.

Melamine with your tea, sir? (UConn)

Teddy Roosevelt battled similar critiques at the beginning of the 21st century, but prevailed to bring about some of the world's earliest food regulations, which helped bring a measure of safety to our food system. We shouldn't let ideologues, or those speaking only with their pocket books, stymie progress on an important bill that will protect public health and maintain the safety of our food supply.

Luckily, 80% of the public supports strengthening the FDA, and the bill passed the House with bipartisan support. So we'll see how the Senate acts in the days ahead.

P.S. One more interesting thing from the article: "The law would also help to protect Americans from unsafe food produced overseas: for the first time, imported foods would be subject to the same standards as those made in the United States." Maybe that means less melamine-laced candy in our stores. (Guess where this was made ... )

Photo credit: The Shanghaiist

UPDATE (11/31/2010): Food Safety Bill passes in the Senate and can be signed into law. Woohoo!

UPDATE (12/1/2010): Uh oh ... a technical problem in the Senate version of the bill might render it unconstitutional (there's a section that details revenue-raising measure ... but that kind of legislation must originate in the House, not the Senate). Details here. Really bad mistake -- Senators are uncertain how it happened and are scrambling to find a fix.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Black Friday

Thanksgiving is not yet 48 hours past, and everything already feels like Christmas.

Yesterday was "Black Friday", a day when hordes of American gather outside storefronts in the darkness of early morning, preparing to sack them shop at them, and get the best deals. Today, a friend shared a video with some rather frightening footage of recent Black Fridays.

This must be a day met with both trepidation and expectation by store owners. Such chaos and destruction is possible; but also so much money to be made! It is the day when dollars and revenue finally start rolling in, when the drought of spending ebbs and the world takes a turn for the better.

It marks the start of the season when the ledger books begin to fill, the columns of digits creeping upward until the dripping red rink foretelling the doom of bankruptcy turns into a shining, glistening black -- the oily, inky black of economic life, thick and dark, as viscous as pitch.

Once more, capitalism is buoyed, pulled back from the brink; no longer morose as it plods to a certain death, but instead seized with a renewed vigor. Thoughts turn from distress and foreclosure toward restored dreams of wealth and grandeur. The bemoaning of financial crisis, the critiques of unfettered greed and irresponsible risk, the condemnation of crass materialism -- these are buried and forgotten.

The watchwords of a new era of responsibility -- of more saving and less spending, of frugality -- are in an instant reduced to mere feathers in the wind. Under the onslaught of magnificent crowds, terrible and beautiful crowds, fighting and spending their way to the Altar of the Good Deal, the pessimism of the planners is triumphantly revealed as the heresy of unbelievers. In a roar, their empty words are washed away by torrents of cash.

Flowing into the registers everywhere in this great land, this currency is manna for consumers and owners alike. Such expressions of devotion! Such cries of ecstasy! It is the breath of life, bearing joy and creating a sense of possibility in what had once been cast off in resignation. It comes accompanied by a sense of rekindled faith, flickering embers of hope blazing into full-blown glory, giving rise to expectations of a better tomorrow. (And outfitted in a new cashmere sweater, size: medium, color: shimmering fuchsia, for $39.99 at Kohl's.)

UPDATE: The old video is no longer on YouTube, but you can check out a new one here. I suspect there will be new videos every year if this clip is in turn deleted.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! (for us at least)

Ouch, American history can bite, LOL. A hilarious reenactment of the first Thanksgiving.

The situation is tragic, but the kids are great.

"Hello, Savages!"                ...sigh...


Monday, November 22, 2010

To be good, be green. Good.

Article in Reuters on the priority of environmental thinking in Taiwan, where it's really recognized as a key advantage in order to compete in the global marketplace. The dynamic is heartening:
Environmental awareness among the public + Social organizing + Enlightened
corporate self-interest -->

 Government responds to the pressure and updates/evolves environmental regulations.
Or as the article summarizes:
* New energy assessments, laws, emission targets proposed
* Top firms expected to save money, raise profiles long term
* Strong environmental rules could draw new investment
Taiwan is setting an good example across the Strait, where these environmentally conscious decisions will pay future dividends: better health, greater social cohesion (or harmony, as it were), enhanced competitiveness, and greater attraction for foreign investment, especially in a carbon-constrained world.

It is by no means perfect, but it's definitely making progress by recognizing the economic basis for making environmentalism a priority (in addition to many other reasons), and pushing the envelope for Asia.


Taiwan speeds up green laws to compete in Asia
Thu Nov 18, 2010 9:08am GMT

* New energy assessments, laws, emission targets proposed
* Top firms expected to save money, raise profiles long term
* Strong environmental rules could draw new investment

By Ralph Jennings

TAIPEI, Nov 18 (Reuters) - A wave of environmental protests in Taiwan, sometimes pitting demonstrators against police, has pushed the government to speed up new green rules to protect the environment without harming economic growth.

Economists say the stricter rules will ultimately raise the competitiveness of the $416-billion economy against greener Asian rivals and boost its corporate image among eco-conscious Western consumers.

"People realise the short-term interests from economic development, but worry long term about environmental protection, so we need to attain a balance," Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration chief Stephen Shen told Reuters.

The island industrialised in the 1980s with little public protest to become one of Asia's four economic dragons. Now, it is working on more transparent environmental reviews for new projects and tougher energy laws, including a tax regime and carbon reduction targets for 2020, 2025 and possibly 2050.

Officials also want to phase out traditional polluting industries and join international carbon trading schemes.

Government action follows a spate of protests, including an 8,000-strong rally over the weekend denouncing a planned 300,000 barrels-per-day oil refinery complex on Taiwan's west coast that could foul the air and hurt local dolphins.

Earlier outcries had already extended an environmental impact review of the $36-billion, CPC Corp-led Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co refinery project [ID:nTOE66D03J].

"The government hasn't told citizens why we absolutely need this plant," said Kan Chen-yi, secretary of a conservation group behind the protest. "It could spread pollution all over Taiwan, hurt dolphins and pollute the water."

Three fires in six months earlier in the year at a giant refinery run by Formosa Petrochemicals [ID:nTOE66P054] led to calls for its closure. Some protests sparked clashes with police.

In another case, farmers and environmentalists filed a lawsuit to block expansion of a science park in central Taiwan. The park was asked to reevaluate the environmental impacts and resubmit plans, the Government Information Office said.

The new measures will oblige the densely populated island's high-tech, petrochemical and textile companies to invest in upgrading factories.


But officials also hope for a latent dividend -- boosted corporate images and reduced energy bills.

"In the short term, in terms of costs, companies may look at the laws unfavourably, but these measures will be looked at very favourably by consumers in the United States," said Liu Li-gang, head of China economic research with ANZ in Hong Kong.

Stronger environmental laws are also expected to induce new investment as local startups or foreign firms want to see specifics on rules before making a commitment. Taiwan has long been criticised for murky or cumbersome business procedures.

The president of the American Chamber of Commerce says the 900-member body has questioned the transparency of Taiwan's environmental impact assessment methods.

"Firms don't want to put money into a plant and then find themselves responding to unclear or inconsistently applied rules," said Mark Williams, senior China economist with Capital Economics in London.

Taiwan is wary of its competition.

South Korea, heavily reliant on exports, has proposed legislation to launch a carbon emissions trading scheme [ID:nTOE6AG05W] this year, while Japan aims to pass a climate bill setting rigorous emissions targets.

Many Taiwan companies are not waiting to be told. They have cut emissions or recycled wastewater on their own, industry associations say, and expect to do more over the next five years.

The world's biggest contract chipmaker TSMC says it voluntarily cut perfluorocarbon emissions, a major greenhouse gas often used in medical applications, in 2001 and slashed its carbon emissions output in 2005.

"We have seen that consumers increasingly want to buy green products," TSMC's top publicist, Michael Kramer, said in a statement. "And naturally, conserving electricity and water as well as recycling materials reduces our costs."

(Additional reporting by Lin Miao-jung; Editing by Sugita Katyal and Ron Popeski)

FACTBOX: Taiwan's new rules to clean its environment
Thu Nov 18, 2010 8:23am GMT

TAIPEI Nov 18 (Reuters) - Taiwan is speeding up its environmental laws after a sudden surge in disputes this year to make the export-led $416-billion economy more competitive against its greener Asian rivals [ID:nTOE67A02M].

Here are details of major laws, goals and procedures Taiwan is are putting in place:

* An environmental impact assessment process that went into force in 2009 will get final touches to beef up transparency, officials say. After project details go online for public review, applicants, environmental groups and officials will form expert review committees to determine likely impacts and how they can be mitigated. The government has final authority over whether a project proceeds.

* Taiwan's legislature is considering rules that would authorise the Environmental Protection Administration to check the greenhouse gas output of major island polluters, about 270 of which have voluntarily offered data. Pressure from industry groups has kept parliament from scrapping the plan, which if approved would allow the government to set up a local carbon offset trading scheme.

* Air and water pollution standards are constantly becoming more strict.

* Taiwan has set goals to cut carbon dioxide emissions island-wide by 2020 to 2005 levels of about 257 million metric tonnes and knock them back to 2000 levels by 2025 [ID:nTOE62F04M].

Separately, President Ma Ying-jeou has said he wants annual emissions to fall to 107 million tonnes by 2050. Officials will create 50 low-carbon villages by next year and six low-carbon cities by 2014 would help reach those emissions goals, island officials have said [ID:nTOE63M05I].

* Taiwan is looking for a back-door route to international carbon trading schemes, possibly via African nations, to get past its political rival China, which would use its diplomatic clout to bar the island from formal entry [ID:nTOE62G05D].

* Officials hope gradually to replace Taiwan's traditional heavy manufacturing, such as textiles and petrochemials with lower-pollution sectors, including green energy, tourism and high-end agriculture [ID:nTOE67A06S].

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stop Bullies.

Guys, don't be douchebags. Girls, don't be b-tches. It's really unbecoming.

How can kids be exposed to literature (including even the simplest stories) or watch popular media and still end up behaving with such cruelty toward others? Don't they know they're acting as the villains?

It no longer seems to be a case of ignorance. (You get over that in say ... kindergarten, when young children maybe don't know how hurtful they are being). But once you're in grade school, it seems to be a kind of malice -- a combination of immaturity and a refusal to see/hear/care about anyone else, which contributes to bullying behavior.

Full comic here.

Also, see this NY Times piece on intervening early -- with great success. (That's the real point of this blog).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Psych: Global Warming & Just World Beliefs

My friend GC just posted a link to a paper by two UC Berkeley scholars, which he says "details how the Just World Fallacy prevent[s] people from believing that their innocent children will bear the consequences of their parents' dirty industries." He further commented: don't those people "of the Just World inclination, who believe in a magical world of order, stability and good-guys-win-bad-guys-lose tend to be ... fundamental religious types?"

It's an interesting paper, so I'm glad that he posted it. However, I don't exactly agree with his assessment. Aside from his irreverence toward "fundamentalists" (so yeah ... he could have been a little bit more respectful, because they have a right to their beliefs, even though many people might not agree with them), I also have a couple of issues with the paper's assertions -- or at least would like to add to GC's interpretation of it.

First of all, there are plenty of religious people who believe in global warming and who are strongly in favor of taking action to mitigate it. Second, I don't know if a Just World theory requires you to put your trust in a deus ex machina swooping in to save the day -- or proclaim that the world could never even be in danger in the first place (as some GOP candidates for chair of the Energy and Commerce have.)

There may be some irony here, but I actually thought the Just World types were the environmentalists -- who believe that humankind will somehow get its act together, despite the odds, and unite to save the planet because it's the right thing to do for our generation and for future generations. The polluting industries that refuse to take responsibility for their harmful impacts, as well as the corrupt politicians who enable them, will get what's coming to them. We'll recognize our connection to the Earth, its ecosystems, and the many living creatures that share the planet with us; and we'll be more thoughtful about development, more sensitive in our actions and how we choose to structure our societies.

I'm not even kidding: at the end of the day, we have to believe in a brighter future like that to keep on doing what we're doing, to persevere in this line of work. But while we remain optimistic that as human beings gain greater understanding, growing wiser and more empathetic, we'll get there one day, neither do we have illusions about the numerous obstacles and difficulties that remain. We see the problems every day -- the ignorance, short-sightedness, or outright greed, that causes people to sacrifice the planet and the future for short-term gain.

My point: even if you recognize the threat of global warming, perhaps you can still believe in a Just World. But you may also believe that you have to work to establish and/or maintain such a world.

So I agree with the paper's authors, in terms of the necessity of reframing some aspects of the issue, and reaching out to the demographic segments who currently shrink from acknowledging the potential severities of climate change. But perhaps in all of this, another world view could be raised: a belief that justice can prevail in the long run, but that you must act to secure it in the present.

Finally, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said:The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. This phrase of Dr. King's was also referenced in a speech by Barack Obama (who remains a champion in the fight against climate change), who notes, "It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice."


"Apocalypse soon? Dire Message Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting 'Just World' Beliefs"
By Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer


Though scientific evidence for the existence of global warming continues to mount, in the U.S. and other countries belief in global warming has stagnated or even decreased in recent years. One possible explanation for this pattern is that information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable. Individuals overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of global warming, ultimately resulting in decreased willingness to counteract climate change. Two experiments provide support for this explanation of the dynamics of belief in global warming, suggesting that less dire messaging could be more effective for promoting public understanding of climate change research.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

When will it be so?

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released today.

After years of imprisonment and house arrest, she has finally been freed by the military junta. (At least for now.) A daunting situation faces her and her countrymen, who are still ruled by a repressive dictatorship that canceled the results of the last truly free election in 1990.

It's moments like this when I wish China would be a force for good in the world and do the right thing.

Support Suu Kyi, the elected leader of Burma, with a popular mandate and immense following. Support Suu Kyi, who is moderate and humble, patient and kind, who is willing to do what is good for the people of her nation. Support Suu Kyi, and not the junta, who continue to enrich themselves, while leaving most of society in abject poverty and at risk of malnutrition; who crush dissent with an iron hand; who throw ordinary people in jail over the slightest opposition.

The article talks about the jubilation of crowds all over Burma at Suu Kyi's release, and the warnings Western nations have issued to the dictatorial leaders that foreign governments are paying attention. But one senses the junta will pay little heed to such statements. What leverage do these countries have? The West has been happily ignored for the past several years -- when the crackdown on monks occurred in 2007, when aid was delayed or outright refused in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

It comes down to this: who cares about the West and its admonitions? Whatever the posture of Western governments or the UN, the regime, flush with money from natural gas, can choose to deal with regional neighbors instead.

China, Thailand and India -- three countries who now have the leverage to make a difference. China has been one of the largest sellers of weapons to Burma/Myanmar, and a major investor in oil and gas pipelines, as well as numerous other infrastructure projects. Beijing provides both financial support to the regime and diplomatic cover in the international arena: "Sovereignty, sovereignty, sovereignty ... Non-interference ... Internal affairs, internal affairs, internal affairs."

That China has been gaining influence in Myanmar is a major reason the other two countries have felt the need to compete for the junta's favor and drop their moral qualms. If China were to choose virtue over indifferent, amoral interest; if it were to care about people and principles; then others would have to follow suit -- no more excuses.*

The world would be a very different place.


*Some might argue that it is up to democratic India and Thailand to take the lead on this issue, and I don't dispute their responsibility. But my point is that structurally, if India and Thailand consign themselves to the role of "concerned outsiders," as they did for a while (and the West continues to do), the situation won't change. China could simply step into that vacuum, while further enabling the military junta.

This is why China makes a difference: it is the primary -- sometimes even exclusive -- counterweight to the West for many of these pariah regimes. If the country took a stand, then given the balance of power in the world today, this could decisively shift outcomes, and change minds for the better.

Influencing governments can still be done in a sensitive way, not in a shrill or combative voice. And surely this sentiment is idealistic -- I know that China is not this way now. But it isn't wrong to dream if it can inform of us of how and why things are in their current state and show ways they could be improved. And so the wish is for China to be, out-and-out, a positive force in the world.

Perhaps it is because I believe too much in China's ethical tradition, and its potential to be relevant in our world. And yes, I am laying on China an additional moral responsibility, asking for a higher standard. (The only other country I have that expectation for is the United States.) But I don't think that's unfair; we can ask of ourselves that which we do not yet expect of others. In fact, we ought to. Leading by moral example is the only way forward.


Thursday, November 04, 2010

I want a holodeck ...

The ability to project holograms is slowly being developed. As reported in the San Jose Mercury today:

Scientists say they have taken a big step toward displaying live video in three dimensions -- a technology far beyond 3-D movies and more like the "Star Wars" scene where a ghostly Princess Leia image pleads, "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi."

"It is actually very, very close to reality. We have demonstrated the concept that it works. It's no longer something that is science fiction," said Nasser Peyghambarian of the University of Arizona.

From Nature:
Projecting holograms would require "a material that can store shifting holographic data moves the fantasy into the realms of reality. The substance could have future applications in medicine and manufacturing, as well as in the entertainment industry.... The challenge was to find a rewritable material that could store data encoding successive holographic images. Now Peyghambarian and his colleagues have developed a material that can record and display 3D images that refresh every two seconds."

Yes, I know "holodeck" is from a different series. =P

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

This is California!

By voting NO! on Prop 23, loud and clear, we have protected our state's pioneering climate change bill, the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32). And now that we've deflected this attack by polluting companies (largely funded by out-of-state oil interests), California will continue to develop its green economy, i.e. the economy of the future.

Tom Steyer, a hedge fund manager and co-chairman of the No on 23 campaign "attributes Prop 23's defeat to the difference in mentality in California, where voters saw the global warming law as paving the way to a new economy based on clean energy. 'Californians look forward and face the future with optimism,' he said. 'That is our M.O. This is a grass-roots movement, and the impetus is coming from the West, not from Washington.'" (Los Angeles Times)

Courtesy of Emily Humphreys, a "No on 23" campaigner and a friend. =D

"It's significant in that it shows that this was not a solid party line vote like it is in Washington, D.C.," said Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for the No campaign. "The new coalition for clean energy is broad and bipartisan." (A different article in the LA Times on the significant support "No on 23" received among moderates and Republicans, illustrating major social consensus in our state on the importance of clean energy and the fight against climate change).

In California, we see an opportunity to innovate and lead, and we're not going to stop.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Halloween Pumpkin Carving with AAGSA

Come celebrate the season of ghosts, goblins, costumes and candy! AAGSA hosts an afternoon of pumpkin carving on Saturday, October 30.

Grab a friend and create a   spooky  /  humorous  /  artistic  /  geeky  /  cinematic  ] display for Halloween. Or simply hang out and enjoy pumpkin pie, candy, and other treats!

Pumpkins will be provided FREE,  
but please bring knives and/or power tools.

Time: Saturday, October 30, 3pm
Location: Willis Lounge, Rains
Reserve your pumpkin here:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Another side of Singapore

Not much encounter with the law and order folks in Singapore, so I really don't know what the criminal justice system is like there. But I read this article today, and one line really caught my eye -- such a Singaporean reaction.
The Southeast Asian country boasts one of the lowest violent crime rates and highest standards of living in the world, but human rights groups often criticize the government for severe punishments, such as a mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers. Singapore also reiterated a ban on the sale of chewing gum and announced a crackdown on littering this year.

Earlier this year, Oliver Fricker of Switzerland was sentenced to five months in jail and three cane strokes for breaking into a train depot with an accomplice and spray painting subway cars. Fricker later appealed his sentence and a judge added two months to his jail term.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Let the debate begin!

Perhaps at times, it isn't sensible to dredge up old wounds, and a person should just let things go. But one also gets that impulse to make the other party understand what he/she did was inappropriate and wrong, and ask him/her not to do it again. And so the internal debate begins...

Of course, the person who writes the polite letter expressing concern or dissatisfaction doesn't get the final say. The recipient of the letter may take it in a good way and respond with an equally thoughtful reply, allowing for mutual understanding, enhanced respect, and a positive outcome. But more likely, the recipient refuses to acknowledge wrongdoing and lashes out in a defensive manner, creating more ill-will and pain.

The question is this: if there is currently no conflict, is it better to just leave well-enough alone? Should we let old unresolved issues rest undisturbed, or is it important to address them before an acquaintance/friendship/professional relationship can proceed?

Are we taking the high road by letting go of past provocations? Or should we worry about coming across as weak-kneed because we haven't (yet) actively responded to unfair and abusive actions? (By the way, letting go probably means actually letting go, not just ignoring it and holding an incident in reserve for future use. Then again, maybe one step toward letting go is to first express it).

Perhaps weakness is dispelled and control regained when you can frame an issue in your own terms -- expressing your thoughts and concerns. What of honesty? To oneself? To others?

Can a personal or professional relationship be healthy if there are issues from the past that remain unaddressed? What if one party has transcended the issue, but the other party merely forgets that it happened? Is it the responsibility of either party to make sure the other knows of his/her transgression and the impact it has had on others? What happens if Person X doesn't know what he did was wrong -- is it our job to inform him?

We can also frame the issue yet another way: When we let Person X know that his actions were detrimental or harmful to others, we are simultaneously protecting ourselves.

Do we hope for the best, but take no action and simply prepare for the worst (interpersonal outcome)? Can explicitly raising the issue be useful for signaling to the other person that a problem exists -- that contrary to his/her beliefs, all is not well?

Dispatching a message can be done in a civil manner. And though there may be further tussling, perhaps at the end of the day, it is something one simply has to bear, and from which one rises again.

But one wonders: are there other diplomatic strategies for approaching these matters? Is it a matter of the heart or the head?

Cinnamon, Sugar and Whole Grains

I went to the supermarket with my room mate yesterday evening. As we pushed the cart past a cereal display, I picked up a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I haven't had this brand of cereal in a long time -- such delicious childhood memories!

My room mate commented on how quickly I was adopting the "programmer lifestyle" this quarter, now that I'm taking CS. Then he made me put it back. =(

Darn healthy eating pact...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When RenRen does it ...

My friend's RenRen account was shut down for some unknown offense.

She then posted her reaction on Facebook. One of her comments:
At times, I get the feeling that "也有海外背景" 的人更怕政府,because they don't want to get kicked out of the country or hindered from doing business. They love their profits too much, so they bend over backwards to please the government.

Sometimes these people exhibit scruples; sometimes they just don't. But unlike local firms, the outside firms really *should* have them because their leaders were born in an outside context.

For Chinese entrepreneurs, at least they have the excuse that they grew up in (Mainland) Chinese society, which for the last few decades has had a much more fluid idea of ethical behavior, in no small part because of political campaigns to "smash" tradition. They are more used to compromising their values, because the ethical foundation of society is arguably not so solid, and moral education doesn't play much of a role in people's lives any more. (Compared to, say, a century ago, or to other contemporary Sinic societies in the world, where values and morality are still a very important part of people's lives.)

Moreover, this compromise happens on a daily basis. For example, see this piece in The New York Times: "Rampant Fraud Threat to China’s Brisk Ascent".

(However, just because this is the case doesn't mean we shouldn't work for change in this regard. In fact, many people hope for ethics to take root more deeply in China.)

But as for outsiders ... how ironic. Those who enjoy freedom at home, once faced with an uncertain business landscape, often comply more zealously than the government would want. Because they are not a domestic firm, they overcompensate and please the government.

Only once in a while do you have a Google take a stand, but perhaps that's because the founders are unusually principled, in addition to having business savvy. It's a little sad. Just because you're leading a corporation doesn't mean you get to divorce all ethical considerations from decision-making. I know you're driven by profits, but you and your employees are also still human beings. 至少应该有最底线 ... ... the problem is when such a limit doesn't exist, or if it keeps shifting in response to real -- or anticipated! -- government requests.

In America, we believe corporations are engines for bettering society and human life, too -- not just tools for making money, as important as that function is. Whatever your fiduciary responsibilities, you also have an ethical responsibility to your employees, your shareholders, your company's founders and to your clients.

Corporations are business *organizations* -- another way human beings have found to organize, "get together" and serve a social function. As heavy-handed as corporate America is, people don't stop being human beings when they join a company. I suppose it's the best companies that help their employees and their customers fulfill their human potential, as opposed to just make money. Those who can only do the latter are simply machines. (And sure, there may be incentives to act in such a cut-throat way ... which is why we have things like laws, government regulations, and voluntary policies set by industry groups, etc.) Those who can do both are truly laudable, and become the best companies to work for.

Foreign corporations are good on some counts -- they seem less apt to compromise quality and safety than domestic firms, especially if their goods are bound for export markets. But on issues like this one? They can sometimes be just as bad or worse.

Starting to see why "triple bottom line" isn't just a concept, but something to be implemented on a daily basis.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Reminders of Singapore 新加坡的回憶

A few things that have made me think of Singapore this past weekend:

1. S'porean folks at the AAGSA barbecue.

2. Durian at the supermarket, large and spiky.

3. Bought kaya at the supermarket. I shall have kaya toast this week! =D

4. Had Singapore-style 炒河粉 for dinner on Saturday, after the Stanford vs. USC game. (Stanford kicked a**, by the way -- driving up the field in literally the last minute of the game, and winning with a field goal.) We ate at this restaurant in Mountain View. (See, I even used Yelp for that link.)

5. Listened to the Fried Rice Paradise sound track on my iPod.

Anyway, hope you guys enjoy! Nothing like picking up a durian, to bring back memories of gagging on odorously-flavorful ice cream, while strolling along Orchard Road with friends.

It's hilarious how Yuan Xiang despises this fruit. This one's especially for you!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Happy Double Ten Day! 雙十節快樂!

October 10 is the National Day of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

On this day, we commemorate the 1911 Revolution, which began with the Wuchang Uprising, and ultimately led to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China. It was a momentous occasion in Chinese history -- and the dream is still alive!

Let us celebrate the valor and determination of the revolutionaries, and join hands to continue putting into practice the principles the ROC stands for: Liberty (自由)、Equality (平等)、Democracy (民主)、and the Rule of Law (法治).

Today, despite the travails of the twentieth century, the ROC survives on the democratic island of Taiwan. For people of Chinese heritage all over the world, this is our legacy and the gift of our forebears. We willl never forget it!

Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Republican Revolution and Father of the Nation.


這一天,我們紀念1911年的辛亥革命。那一年的十月十日,發動了具有劃時代意義的武昌起義。 起義的勝利導致清政府的推翻和皇帝專政統治的滅亡,以及中華民國的建立。 這是中華歷史的璀璨事跡,夢想依然延續至今。讓我們繼續攜手實踐中華民國所代表的信念:自由、平等、民主、法治。


Scouts and the ROC Flag: Blue sky, white sun, red earth. (Image source)

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Great Prius Game

My roommate was recently bequeathed the family Prius, as his father had purchased a new Toyota Camry hybrid. This afternoon, as we traveled to Mountain View, we discussed the merits of different hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and all-electric vehicles, such as the new Nissan Leaf that will be coming out at the end of this year.

As we passed another blue Toyota Prius on the road, I asked if we should wave in a friendly manner. He replied that he used to do so, but now that Priuses were becoming so common, it wasn't really that special to acknowledge each other. I remembered from previous research on a paper that the San Francisco Bay Area apparently has the highest number of Prius/capita in the world.

We started counting the number of other Priuses on the street ... and boy, there were a lot of them. In fact, Toyota recognized that this place would be the most receptive market, and has sold more hybrids here than any other place in the country.

The results of our informal survey?

Distance traveled: 6.3 miles (10.1 km) from apartment to destination. Round-trip 12.6 miles (20.2 km)
Number of Priuses spotted: 59 white, silver, blue, dark blue, red and green vehicles
Total time spent on trip (including time spent at destinations): 65 minutes.
Estimated time driving: 45 minutes.

That's an average of 4.68 Priuses per mile (2.9 vehicles/km) traveled -- you'll spot one every 340 or so meters along the road. Or a Prius every 45 seconds.

Plus, we only started counting after we had driven for about 10 minutes, so we can safely say that we had a conservative estimate. We probably would have seen more than 60 of our Prius friends had we been counting for the first part of our journey. And that doesn't even include the Camry and Honda Insight hybrids also along the way.

Only in California ... Hooray!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Down the tubes. Honestly disturbing.

There was an article about fraud in China and how plagiarism and cheating are commonplace. There was one very shocking paragraph:

Ask any Chinese student about academic skullduggery and the response is startlingly nonchalant. Lu Xiaoda, an engineering student who last spring graduated from Tsinghua University, considered a plum of the country’s college system, said it was common for students to swap test answers or plagiarize essays from one another. “Perhaps it’s a cultural difference but there is nothing bad or embarrassing about it,” said Mr. Lu, who last month started on a masters’ degree at Stanford University. “It’s not that students can’t do the work. They just see it as a way of saving time.”
This guy is at Stanford??!? At first I was horrified, but then, at least he has the guts to admit it.
This is just so deeply disappointing. I started wonder if my friends from Tsinghua engaged in this kind of dishonest behavior as well.  (I think Mr. Lu needs to take a hard look in the mirror and consider his past actions. Does he even think this is shameful or inappropriate in any way? That somehow the ends justify the means? He opened up about this, which at least gets a discussion going. But he should also recognize that that sort of behavior won't be tolerated at Stanford).

Even if you tell me that "everyone in China does it," that's still not an excuse for cheating. Some kind of ethical jujistu is going on here for people to be able to live this way, and it's very problematic if the system is built in a way to force, compel, or encourage students to resort to academic dishonesty. But I don't know if that absolves the individual of personal responsibility.

[Update from summer 2010: My friend Phil Hannam, who attended Tongji University for his Master's degree, confirmed that among his classmates, virtually everyone cheated on the assignments. He was disturbed and frustrated by this phenomenon, because he was actually doing the work in full.]

The other side of the cultural coin:

At Stanford, we have an Honor Code (link here), which applies to all our work as students. The University and the faculty treat us like adults, and it is up to us to hold up our end of the bargain. For examinations, no professors or TA's are in the room monitoring the test: they sit in another room only to answer questions. They respect us and take us at our word.

Honor Code  
A. The Honor Code is an undertaking of the students, individually and collectively:
1. that they will not give or receive aid in examinations; that they will not give or receive unpermitted aid in class work, in the preparation of reports, or in any other work that is to be used by the instructor as the basis of grading;

2. that they will do their share and take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code.

B. The faculty on its part manifests its confidence in the honor of its students by refraining from proctoring examinations and from taking unusual and unreasonable precautions to prevent the forms of dishonesty mentioned above. The faculty will also avoid, as far as practicable, academic procedures that create temptations to violate the Honor Code.

C. While the faculty alone has the right and obligation to set academic requirements, the students and faculty will work together to establish optimal conditions for honorable academic work.

That is why Honor Code violations are a serious matter: a community built upon mutual respect has been created here. If a person chooses to ignore these basic tenets and betrays that trust, then the fabric of this enterprise begins unraveling.

This article highlights a serious problem: if there is such a contempt for rules in China, no wonder people grow up to be fraudulent. It's that mentality: everyone is competing, everyone is getting advantages, I can't be left behind, so I will cheat and make sure that I grab my share of the pie!

This kind of mentality is disastrous for a society. Without basic trust in society, how can anything productive get done? This kind of competition seems poisonous.

Now it's all about making the quick buck: everyone else is running along headlong, so you do what you can to turn a profit in the short run. Moreover, it leaves a very nasty relationship between businesses and clients:

For businesses, it's how many corners can I cut, and how much profit can I wring out of the client, without getting caught.
For consumers, their mentality is, how cheaply can I buy things, without getting poisoned. It's deeply problematic.

In some ways, that seems like a race to the bottom. It is hard to build true and lasting value if everything is undergirded by short-term thinking, trickery or fraud, and the consideration of only the present -- which seems like what much "development" of the Chinese economy is based on today.
I want quality, and I am willing to pay for it -- but how can I even trust what the quality is?


A last thought on these issues:

Moral rot starts from the basics. If you don't even follow elementary rules of conduct and disregard ethics on the small things, then how can we expect you to make the right decision when something more important comes up? If you train yourself to ignore "right behavior" on a daily basis, then it eventually becomes habit. You will easily ignore justice, overlook fairness, discount the rights of others. You only think about yourself and getting what you want. It's not even the grand statement of "The rules be damned!" It's more like a silent, insidious understanding that rules are empty and made to be ignored, instead of realizing that they reflect common principles of decency that we need for society to function in a just manner. Cheating and fraud are rendered 小事, "no big deal", and the mental calculus of dishonesty becomes casual and commonplace.

I don't know if that's the kind of society that I would like to live in.