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.