(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘culture

“Americans consider the United States an exceptional nation; so do the Chinese people think of their Middle Kingdom”*…

Each of the last five years, Dan Wang, a Canadian-raised, U.S.- (college) educated technology analyst living in Shanghai, has written a year-end letter. This year’s missive recounts a long bicycle trip through China, explains why Cosi Fan Tutte is (he argues) Mozart’s best opera, and shares the best books he read in 2021 (including one of your correspondent’s all-time faves, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep). But mostly, he ruminates on China and on its relationship with the U.S…

Internet platforms aren’t the only industries under suspicion. Beijing is also falling out of love with finance. It looks unwilling to let the vagaries of the financial markets dictate the pace of technological investment, which in the US has favored the internet over chips. Beijing has regularly denounced the “disorderly expansion of capital,” and sometimes its “barbaric growth.” The attitude of business-school types is to arbitrage everything that can be arbitraged no matter whether it serves social goals. That was directly Chen Yun’s fear that opportunists care only about money. High profits therefore are not the right metric to assess online education, because the industry is preying on anxious parents while immiserating their children.

Beijing’s attitude marks a difference with capitalism as it’s practiced in the US. Over the last two decades, the major American growth stories have been Silicon Valley (consumer internet and software) on one coast and Wall Street (financialization) on the other. For good measure, I’ll throw in a rejection of capitalism as it is practiced in the UK as well. My line last year triggered so many Brits that I’ll use it again: “With its emphasis on manufacturing, (China) cannot be like the UK, which is so successful in the sounding-clever industries—television, journalism, finance, and universities—while seeing a falling share of R&D intensity and a global loss of standing among its largest firms.”

The Chinese leadership looks more longingly at Germany, with its high level of manufacturing backed by industry-leading Mittelstand firms. Thus Beijing prefers that the best talent in the country work in manufacturing sectors rather than consumer internet and finance. Personally, I think it has been a tragedy for the US that so many physics PhDs have gone to work in hedge funds and Silicon Valley. The problem is not that these opportunities pay so well, rather it is because manufacturing has offered dismal career prospects. I see the Chinese leadership as being relatively unconcerned with talent flow into consumer internet and finance; instead it is trying to fashion an economy in which the physics PhD can do physics, the marine biology student can do marine biology, and so on.

An important factor in China’s reform program includes not only a willingness to reshape the strategic landscape—like promoting manufacturing over the internet—but also a discernment of which foreign trends to resist. These include excessive globalization and financialization. Beijing diagnosed the problems with financialization earlier than the US, where the problem is now endemic. The leadership is targeting a high level of manufacturing output, rejecting the notion of comparative advantage. That static model constructed by economists with the aim of seducing undergrads has leaked out of the lecture hall and morphed into a political justification for only watching as American communities of engineering practice dissolved. And Beijing today looks prescient for having kept out the US social media companies that continuously infuriate their home government.

A willingness to assess foreign imports as well as a commitment to the physical world combine to make me suspect that Beijing will not be friendly towards the Metaverse. Already state media has expressed suspicion of the concept. If the Metaverse will exist in China, I expect it will be an extremely lame creation heavily policed by the Propaganda Department. Xi’s speech on common prosperity in October noted that: “The rich and the poor in certain countries have become polarized with the collapse of the middle class. That has led to social disintegration, political polarization, and rampant populism.” The Metaverse, which represents yet another escape of American elites from the physical world, can only exacerbate social differences. It is too much of a fun game—like cryptocurrencies—played by a small segment of the population, while the middle class dwells on more material concerns like paying for energy bills. It might make sense for San Franciscans to retreat even further into a digital phantasm, given how grim it is to go outside there. But Xi will want Chinese to live in the physical world to make babies, make steel, and make semiconductors.

The Chinese state has long placed greater value on resilience over efficiency, which has dragged down its performance on metrics that economists care about, like return on equity. In my view, that is as often an indictment of the economic profession. The US focus on efficiency has revealed the brittleness of its economy, which has neither the manufacturing capability to scale up domestic production of goods nor the logistics capacity to handle greater imports. Decades of American deindustrialization as well as an aversion against idle capacity has eroded domestic manufacturing….

Since the US government is incapable of structural reform, companies now employ algorithm geniuses to help people navigate the healthcare system. This sort of seventh-best solution is typical of a vetocracy. I don’t see that the US government is trying hard to reform institutions; its response is usually to make things more complex (like its healthcare legislation) or throw money at the problem. The proposed bill to increase domestic competitiveness against China, for example, doesn’t substantially fix the science funding agencies that are more concerned with style guides than science; and the infrastructure bill doesn’t seem to address root causes that make American infrastructure the most costly in the world. Congress is sending more money through bad channels. That’s better than nothing, but the government should attempt to make some bureaucratic tune-ups.

The US is ahead of China on the sort of mathematical economics that win Nobel Prizes. But China is ahead of the US on the actual practice of political economy. One study I enjoyed this year noted that the Chinese government sends more jobs through state-owned enterprises to counties with greater labor unrest. I wonder how different the US would look today if the government did more to help workers. The US critique that “China stole the jobs” looks instead like a critique of its own economic system. China’s main activity was to invest in domestic competitiveness, thus becoming attractive to American firms, which relocated operations there. Meanwhile, the federal government did little to help disaffected workers at home. If there was a problem with this arrangement, fault should be on the US government for failing to restrain its firms or retrain its workers…

There’s so much more– including an acute look at (at least some of) the risks that China faces and the weaknesses (many self-inflicted) with which they have to cope: “2021 Letter,” from @danwwang. Eminently worth reading in full.

Patrick Mendis

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As we take stock, we might recall that it was on this date in 1941, in the midst of the China resistance to the Japanese invasion during World War II, that Chiang Kai-shek ordered Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party New Fourth Army disbanded on January 17, and sent it’s commander Ye Ting to a military tribunal. It was the end of any real cooperation between the Nationalists and Communists.

Mao quickly reorganized the force under a new commander and continued to fight the Japanese– though as guerillas, independent of Chiang Kai-shek’s command. When Japanese surrendered and withdrew, the Nationalists and Communists turned on each other.

A Communist soldier waving the Nationalists’ flag of the Republic of China after a victorious battle against the Japanese, just before the the 1941 break

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“Lying is done with words, and also with silence”*…

The redoubtable John Bayley deconstructs deceit in his 1990 review of Philip Kerr‘s The Penguin Book of Lies

Kipling’s unspoken criterion, that if a thing is well done enough it must be the case, has caught on in a big way. It is all made up by the media, and by those faithful camp-followers of art who tell us on radio or TV what they were ‘trying to do’ when they wrote, painted or composed. The fashionably perceptive novel, like Julian Barnes’s memorable Flaubert’s Parrot, cannot find out what it is looking for, or what is going on inside itself. The fashionable thriller does not know the answers, or which side is which. These reactions against realism discard, often to great effect, the idea of truth as solution. So, fortuitously, did Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, and Stendhal’s Fabrice when he could not find the battle of Waterloo, or be sure that he had taken part in it. That truth is a lie shows that life is stupid: once art could fix that, but now this is not so certain, even of the best art.

As Philip Kerr has perceived, and embodied in his choice of extracts, a self-consciousness about truth goes with scepticism about it to produce the modern science of propaganda. Truth is the first casualty in war, whether hot or cold; when Churchill remarked that truth in wartime was ‘so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies’ he was not just being cynical, like Bacon’s jesting Pilate, but assuming that truth, like right, must be on one’s own side: enemy truth, attended by her SS bodyguard, must be a false creature. As Orwell saw, faith in the truth leads to lying. Since the Party is always right, the concoction of deliberate lies is a moral duty. The victims of the show-trials in Moscow and Prague found relief in the lies they were made to utter. In 1940 Orwell supposed – which is interesting in the light of what happened later in the Soviet Union, and indeed in 1984 – that ‘already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying a historical fact.’ Today science can appear just as much ‘the father of lies’ as Herodotus himself: not because of our appetite for wonders, but because the scientist has become much more aware of the possibilities of propaganda, whether personally or ideologically motivated…

More on the forms of fabrication: “Art’ll fix it,” in @LRB

(Image above: source)

* Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying

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As we ponder prevarication, we might rejoice in the naively and nobly inventive: it was on this date in 1605 that El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (or The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha— aka Don Quixote), the masterwork of Miguel de Cervantes (and of the Spanish Golden Age) and a founding work of Western literature was first published. Widely considered the first modern novel (published in the Western world), it is also considered by many (still) to be the best; it is in any case the second most translated work in the world (after the Bible).

Original title page

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“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six”*…

Domino’s in Taiwan has been innovating, and now there’s a new sheriff in town…

The new pizza is dubbed “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall” pizza. It includes abalone, scallops, sea cucumbers, garlic short-ribs, fish skin, quail eggs, taro, dried bamboo shoots, and cabbage.

It’s a step beyond last year’s version which had pig’s blood and preserved eggs while there was another that had a bubble tea (tapioca) topping, which many people found surprisingly tasty.

Another used durian as a topping which has a smell no one could forget.

There has been a growing demand for Western takeaway in Taiwan since the pandemic began and stiff competition has meant some bizarre attempts to get attention…

If you question how anyone could put pineapple on a pizza you won’t want to see what Domino’s has done: “Domino’s lays down the challenge in Taiwan with bizarre pizzas.” [Via the always-illuminating @TodayinTabs.]

* Yogi Berra

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As we reach for the red pepper flakes, we might note that today is the penultimate day of National Pizza Week (which, as a practical matter, your correspondent celebrates every week).

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 14, 2022 at 1:00 am

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child”*…

There’s history… and then there’s deep history. C. Patrick Doncaster, a professor of ecology at Southampton University has created “Timeline of the human Condition- Milestones in Evolution and History.” Starting with the Big Bang (13.8 billion years ago) it marks significant events in Earth’s development, the evolution of life, and the development of human culture (science/technology, economics, politics, and art) all the way up to 2021.

It concludes with a trio of handy analogies…

Following the big bang 13.8 billion years ago, time passed two-thirds of the way to the present before the formation of the Sun 4.57 billion years ago. Rescaled to a calendar year, starting with the big bang at 00:00:00 on 1 January, the Sun forms on 1 September, the Earth on 2 September, earliest signs of life appear on 13 September, earliest true mammals on 26 December, and humans just 2 hours before year’s end. For a year that starts with the earliest true mammals, the dinosaurs go extinct on 17 August, earliest primates appear on 9 September, and humans at dawn of 25 December. For a year that starts with the earliest humans, our own species appears on 19 November, the first built constructions on 8 December, and agricultural farming begins at midday on 29 December.

Timeline of the Human Condition- Milestones in Evolution and History.” (via @Recomendo6)

See also: “How We Make Sense of Time.”

* Marcus Tullius Cicero

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As we prize perspective, we might spare a thought for James Hiram Bedford; he died on this date in 1967. A psychologist who wrote several books on occupational counseling, he is best remembered as the first person whose body was cryopreserved after legal death. He remains preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.

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“Create more value than you capture”*…

A thoughtful consideration of Web 3.0 from the always-insightful Tim O’Reilly

There’s been a lot of talk about Web3 lately, and as the person who defined “Web 2.0” 17 years ago, I’m often asked to comment. I’ve generally avoided doing so because most prognostications about the future turn out to be wrong. What we can do, though, is to ask ourselves questions that help us see more deeply into the present, the soil in which the future is rooted. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” We can also look at economic and social patterns and cycles, using as a lens the observation ascribed to Mark Twain that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Using those filters, what can we say about Web3?…

There follows a fascinating– and educational– analysis of the state of play and the issues that we face.

Tim concludes…

Let’s focus on the parts of the Web3 vision that aren’t about easy riches, on solving hard problems in trust, identity, and decentralized finance. And above all, let’s focus on the interface between crypto and the real world that people live in, where, as  Matthew Yglesias put it when talking about housing inequality, “a society becomes wealthy over time by accumulating a stock of long-lasting capital goods.” If, as Sal Delle Palme argues, Web3 heralds the birth of a new economic system, let’s make it one that increases true wealth—not just paper wealth for those lucky enough to get in early but actual life-changing goods and services that make life better for everyone.

Why it’s too early to get excited about Web3,” from @timoreilly.

See also: “My first impressions of web3” from Matthew Rosenfeld (AKA Moxie Marlinspike, @moxie, founder of @signalapp).

* Tim O’Reilly

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As we focus on first principles, we might recall that it was on this date in 2007 that Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at MacWorld. The phone wasn’t available for sale until June 29th, occasioning one of the most heavily anticipated sales launches in the history of technology. Apple sold 1.4 million iPhones in 2007, steadily increasing each year; estimated sales in 2021 are 240-250 million.

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