Pulp Fiction for Guys, or My Guilty Pleasure

Back in the Hutong
Dealing with the RSS Nightmare
1945 hrs.

When I was growing up, I always equated pulp fiction with Harlequin romances and other, similar examples of the type of fiction my mom – only somewhat despairingly – called “bodice-rippers.” This was stuff to be avoided, good for little more than some low-brow titillation.

Then, when I went to college, I stumbled upon a book series called “The Brotherhood of War” by an author named W.E.B. Griffin. The book I picked up, The Lieutenants, was the first in the series and had the name of somebody I respected on the cover heartily endorsing it. For the price of a paperback – and being in the need of some cheap amusement – I figured it was worth a try.

A quarter of a century and over two dozen books (in four series) later, I can comfortably say I’m hooked.

The books (W.E.B. Griffin is a pen name, the author is actually William E. Butterworth III) are essentially an easy-to-read form of historical fiction, deftly mixing actual events, historic figures, and a continuing cast of main characters who are usually aggregates of real people, whom Butterworth usually either knew personally or second-hand. Providing a dual-focus on the lives of the characters (the heroes are either career military, police, intelligence, or some combination thereof, and often independently wealthy) and the events both large and small, the narrative rips along, assuring that one of the books can easily be devoured in a single day.

And it’s great stuff, filled with well-researched detail and highly likeable (and, in many cased, thoroughly detestable) characters. I have to say, after reading a couple of dozen of the books I’m starting to see some fairly common threads, but most of Butterworth’s characters are fun to read about, and the opportunity to read about forgotten chunks of 20th Century History from the eyes of the participants is just too good to miss.

“The Brotherhood of War” series, for example, follows the careers of a half-dozen U.S. Army officers from the rout at Kasserine Pass in 1942 through the raid on the Hoa Loa Prison (Hanoi Hilton) nearly four decades later. In the course of the books, we get to look not only World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, but also at the occupation of Germany, Truman’s forgotten (but effective) intervention in Greece in 1946, the Marshall Mission in China, the development of the helicopter, the French rout at Dien Bien Phu, the preparations of an invasion of Cuba, the creation and growth of the U.S. Army Special Forces, the Simba rebellion in the Congo, and a host of other events large and small that are of interest to history buffs and people with somewhat elevated testosterone counts.

“The Corps” series covers a similarly-sized group of career Marine officers who are all connected by their pre-World War II service in Shanghai, then move into the Intelligence and aviation establishment when the war begins. Focused largely on the Pacific, the books were my first introduction to the “China Marines,” the politics around MacArthur’s headquarters that often insulated him from the truth, wartime Washington D.C., Colonel Mike Edson and the Marine Raiders, Marine intelligence, the anti-Japanese insurgency on Mindanao in the Philippines led by an unknown U.S. Army colonel named Wendell Fertig, the Australian and American coastwatchers in the South Pacific, and a host of equally obscure but incredibly fascinating events and personalities.

“Honor Bound” is a somewhat shorter series, but focuses on a single OSS mission in World War II: the effort to try to pull Argentina out of its neutral-and-leaning-toward-Nazi Germany status and into the war as one of the Allies. Apart from a superb introduction to Argentina, the book opens the door on some of the more hare-brained of the OSS’ missions in World War II, and the kind of people – good and bad – it pulled in to execute them. On the balance, it makes the OSS look somewhat less like keystone cops than the successor agency, the CIA, but it gives some clues as to why Harry Truman disbanded the OSS at the end of the war.

“Men at War” is a somewhat more thorough study of the OSS and some of the work it did both in Europe and on the Home Front in World war II.

“Badge of Honor” is a fascinating look at the Philadelphia Police Department in the early 1970s, when former cop Frank Rizzo was in the mayor’s office.

These are Butterworth’s main series. If you are a fan of Tom Clancey, Dale Brown, Herman Wouk, or Leon Uris, pick up the first title in any of these series. I can guarantee you’ll enjoy the airplane read, and chances are you’ll learn something to boot.

The Chinese Government and Innovation

The Carlsburg Lounge
Singapore Changi International Airport
1846 hrs.

Big Ed Flanagan from NBC was in the audience last week when I joined the panel on China’s Internet at AmCham’s Under the Digital Influence event, and he did a nice piece for MSNBC’s “About World” blog on censorship and gaming, where he was kind enough to refer to my framework for understanding how the Chinese government deals with disruptive change, especially at the nexus of technology and media.

The more vocal analysts and global media tend to see the Chinese government as either “loosening up” or “cracking down” on media. That kind of thinking is useful to an extent, but when you step back to look at change over time, it is difficult to understand the reasons for sudden shifts in policy. After a while, the shifts to one end of the spectrum or the other appear random, confused, or inconsistent.

In reality, they are not. In fact, they are methodical, consistent, and are direct, predictable responses to a small number of identifiable factors.

Sensitive Times

First (and most obviously) there are event in the political system that stand apart fro the industry but affect it in largely predictable ways. The upcoming Communist Party Congress is one example, and sensitive anniversaries of politically historic events are another. When you populate your calendar with events from China’s political cycle and build in 2 months before and at least a month after, you can safely assume things will tighten a bit.

Second, there are international events, both planned and otherwise, that will trigger changes. We can pretty well predict that the visit of major international delegations to China will bring a level of openness, as when representatives of the IOC toured through Beijing recently: suddenly, for a few weeks, we had Wikipedia. Sadly, not long after the last delegates had enplaned for home, we were right back where we started. Other events will bring about a period of greater caution in access.

Disruptions in the Information Environment

But the most serious changes come when there is an innovation in the media or Internet that appear as harbingers of radically open information flows that are beyond the control of the government. The innovation can take many forms, either technological, commercial (such as the sudden wider availability of a new service), or procedural (when a new policy has consequences unintended by the makers of that policy)

The government’s first reaction to these changes is ignorance, either willful or accidental. With willful ignorance, government will usually tacitly acknowledge a major new innovation but will take what we call a moren approach – watch it with one eye, but look away with the other. With accidental ignorance, policy makers will often be unaware of an innovation or its import during its first stages of emergence in the market.

The second reaction, fear, takes place when sufficiently senior party and government leaders become officially aware of a disruption and perceive it to be a threat or perceive it to be beyond the ability of the government to control. What happens here is a complete or near-total crackdown on an industry or sector affected by the innovation. If we cannot control it, the government and party consistently say, we are closing it down.

The third reaction is experimentation. In the wake of a complete crackdown, groups within government begin the process of debating the wisdom of a continued crackdown, usually driven by influential domestic stakeholders who have been hurt in the process. As that process takes place, controlled trials using the innovation under a slowly constructed regulatory regime take place. These trials are usually one-step-forward, two-steps-back affairs that see a gradual loosening as the government creates a system that allows the “best” of an innovation to benefit the country, while keeping the worst out.

Once the regulatory barbed-wire is in place, we enter a semi-permanent state of accommodation. The government is comfortable with the system and regulation tends to occur around the edges, but major changes in the system will not take place without significant political change.

The Rogue’s Gallery

In the past decades, we’ve seen the government work through this process with foreign music on the radio (1982) satellite television (1993), the Internet (1996), foreign ownership of local dot-coms (1999), mobile phones with cameras (2002) user-generated content like blogs (2004), and IP telephony (2004). They are working through similar processes (of varying severity) with mobile value-added services, online games, video-game consoles, IPTV, user-driven reference sites like Wikipedia, and user-generated video.

As we watch more of the innovations and mash-ups emerge from the increasingly user-created Internet and from devices that extend media beyond the living room, we can expect more, not less, of this.

But if we understand the process and the concerns that drive it, we can help the government work through the various phases more quickly and effectively, rather than simply caterwauling every time it happens.

Dell: The Channel is not the Product

The Silicon Hutong Suite
Grand Hyatt Singapore
1041 hrs.

Dell’s agreement to sell computers through Gome is a sign that the folks in Round Rock have come to an important conclusion: they can – and in many places around the world, must – adjust the way they do business in order to sell their product.

That is a conclusion of profound import. It means that the way Dell sees the value it that it offers to customers is changing, that it goes beyond mere price to something else. The company’s leaders apparently realize that even if what made Dell unique in the past was the efficiency of its supply chains and its perfection of the direct-sales channel, all of that is of diminishing (relative) importance to the company’s long-term success.

As it moves into retail, Dell is now going head-to-head with Lenovo and HP, setting the stage for the kind of war for market share, shelf space, and attention that has already ripped through so many other sectors, most notably consumer electronics. There will always be people who could care less about the brand on their PC (especially if it saves them some cash), but this sets up a dynamic that will drive all three players to develop and sell products aimed at the low-end of the market, in competition with the build-to-order no-logo white-box computers sold in China’s computer malls.

Fighting for the bottom is not somewhere The Old Dell was comfortable going – the company already bailed out of the Battle for the Bottom once. The question is: does it want to go through that again, or is there something cooking that will see Dell deliver products that are unquestionably better than what HP and Lenovo offer?

The Gome deal, as important as it may be, is only a variation on the idea of differentiating Dell based on how and where it is sold. But the channel is not the product.

Dell’s next move must be to figure out how it can leap ahead of Lenovo, HP, and the white box guys in China without using the words “channel” and “price.” The only way it can win in China is if it starts making some qualitative improvements in the product and the experience it offers – in ways the Chinese consumer cares about.

The Future of the Internet in China

The Grand Ballroom
Renaissance Beijing Hotel
1642 hrs.

During the panel at Under the Digital Influence, one of Matt Roberts’ questions to my panel was what we saw as the biggest factor that will change the Internet in China over the next five years.

My response was that while there are a lot of trends that are affecting China’s Internet, the biggest one I can see is mobility and wireless.

Unwiring China

The last part first.

China is in the final stages of upgrading its Internet access from dial-up to broadband, but over the next five years we’re going to see wireless access start to displace wireline access for a growing portion of the individual’s online day. By “wireless,” I mean a combination of access via cellular networks, access via the growing number of publicly accessible Wi-Fi (free or paid), and via the quietly emerging WiMax wide-area wireless broadband.

That shift is already beginning, but I see it accelerating over the next half-decade.

Handsets Across the Divide

I’m prepping a longer post about this, but my firm belief is that while talking about the digital divide is no longer a fashionable topic among the digirati, the problem is growing in China. While a decade ago all of China was on the unplugged side of the gap, today about 12% of China has managed to leap across, on the back of a massive expansion in China’s broadband networks.

But as the networks grow, the problem of access has devolved to the problem of the terminal. The 160 million people we see online in China today is an impressive number, but the number of people with access to computers is not growing fast enough to ensure that the unplugged 88% of China will have a hope of getting online in the near future.

Crossing the digital divide – and avoiding the long-term social and political implications of excluding 8 out of 9 Chinese just because they can’t afford to shell out a year’s salary on the price of a computer – is not going to be a matter of super cheap computers like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, or about creating stripped down computers with stripped-down operating system. It’s going to be all of that, but more is needed. Given the success of the mobile phone industry in driving the costs of handsets down into a few tens of dollars, the easiest footbridge across the divide is clearly going to be the mobile handset.

More on this later.

HutongLive: Under the Digital Influence

The Grand Ballroom
Renaissance Beijing Hotel
1602 hrs.

Under the Digital Influence

Just got of the dais from my panel at the AmCham-China “Under the Digital Influence 2007.” The discussions so far have been superb.

What do I mean by that? I mean that this is one of those rare occasions where I have – without exception – learned something useful and valuable from every one of my fellow panelists.

Matt Roberts – Matt moderated, but his preparation, his selection of questions, and the fact that he sneaked his questions to us beforehand made our discussion livelier and better.

Micah Truman – eCommerce is coming back, and it’s coming back HUGE.

Andrew Lih – The tools the Chinese government uses to block certain websites are getting stronger, more robust, and more precise. In one sense, that’s disturbing, but in another sense – the precision sense – it is actually a good thing.

Jeremy Goldkorn – Moderated. Ask risky questions, even weird ones. You’ll be happier with the answers. Jeremy likes asking the tough questions – of all people, including his friends, and it brings out the best in a group of smart people.

Dan Harris – Comments that add value are fine, but your dedication to free speech cannot overwhelm the value of editing stupid, ad homenim, or irrelevant attacks from your site.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis – If you’re going to blog for your business, seek aggressively to measure the effect, so you at least know what the ROI is – or is not – from your blogging. It may not make any difference to whether you do it or not, but you SHOULD know, and it should be a part of an integrated marketing plan.

Will Moss – Will finds what I do: the opportunity to build chemistry with potential clients outweighs the danger of chasing potential business away. Also – companies don’t blog, people do.

An American Library

Fourth Ring Road, 3.5 klicks from the Siyuan Bridge, Beijing
Marvelling at the truly legendary traffic
1937 hrs.

Not too long ago I realized that my appreciation of books went somewhat beyond what is considered normal. I guess the light went on when I designed my home office to hold 2,000 volumes, then filled it up three-quarters full as soon as it was complete.

Hello. My name is David, and I’m a biblioholic.

American Penguin

Despite having what I would consider a pretty decent education, I realized that I’ve missed more of the classics than I care to admit. I considered the idea of going to a foreign languages bookstore here in Beijing and scooping up handfuls of Penguin Classics, but then realized that Beijing’s harsh climate would ensure that by the time my five-year-old was ready to enjoy them, they’d be falling apart.

My mom went to town on her collection of classics, and the walls of her study in Los Angeles are covered with the elegant volumes of Easton Press. Easton does a great job – the leather covers and binding, gold-edged acid-free paper, and carefully varied sizes and cover textures to give the feel of a library filled with heirlooms.

Easton Affection

I hovered for years on the verge of buying Easton Press volumes, but I kept holding back. The prices are high, to be certain, and that was part of it. On my last trip to visit my mom in July, thumbing through Easton’s Jules Verne, I realized what was bothering me: the books are almost self-conscously beautiful, as if their primary purpose is decorative, or indeed designed to impress the visitor with the culture and literacy of the owner. They look, in short, ostentatious, the literary equivalent of the kind of Louis XIV-Whorehouse-Modern gilt-edged overwrought style that passes for decor in many of the restaurants and residences here in Beijing.

So I was stuck between the biodegradable Penguin paperbacks on one end and the effete and expensive Easton volumes on the other.

Just Right

Then, about a week before my return, I was cruising the bargain racks at the front of the new Barnes & Noble at the Westside Pavilion and I came across a competitively priced volume of Philip K. Dick books. It was shrink-wrapped and had a black paper dustcover with Dick’s photo and a list of the four novels included therein. I bought it, along with a handful of other necessities, took it back to my hotel room, and set it alongside the three dozen other books I’d purchased on the trip. (See? I told you I’m a biblioholic.)

And promptly forgot it.

When I got back to Beijing, I catalogued and shelved my new books (yes, I know), and finally came to the P.K. Dick volume. I removed the cellophane and was awestruck. The binding was cloth-covered hardcover, but the cover was flexible enough (and the volume small enough) to be held comfortably in the hand. The paper was acid-free, and there was one of those little ribbons for marking your place (no dog-ears, please.) The spline was tastefully and elegantly embossed with the author’s name.

All for the retail price of around $13.

There’s more.

Inside the dust jacket there is a long list of volumes of American authors offered by the publisher, TheLIbrary of America (LoA), stretching from the earliest days of the colonies to more modern fare, all delivered in LoA’s trademark elegant but affordable packaging. This was it. An American library for someone of modest budget that would outlive me and possibly even make it to my grandkids. What is better, LoA is a non-profit, doing their bit to keep classics in heritage formats and charging just enough to support the effort.

If you are building or fortifying your library of American authors, there can be no better source. As for me, the P.K. Dick volume is no longer alone: I just ordered an LoA volume of Jack London and four volumes of John Steinbeck from Amazon.

Before you buy, though, check out the LoA website for subscriptions. After ordering the entire Steinbeck library from Amazon, I found that LoA was offering it for about 85% of what I paid for them through Amazon. I harbor no resentment – the money is going to a good cause – but I’ll check the website first next time.

ATRE Redux

Starbucks Pacific Century Place, Beijing
Perfecting the Double Espresso Belch
1410 Hours.

I haven’t been to an ATRE conference since I stopped working for a global mega-branding conglomerate that was happy to foot the bill to let me spend two days listening to talking heads speak to each other with no hope of interacting with the panelists. I haven’t felt the worse for it: I don’t see a lot of value in gabathons that base their format on allowing panelists and speakers to preen themselves, and since I’m not a compulsive networker, I get no value from ATRE’s extended-break and cocktail-party schmooze-ins.

Their aggressive telemarketing is also a nice put-off, as is a conference-only admission price that could buy me a new MacBookPro and an HP Color LaserJet.

So when the spam – er, direct-marketing email-blast – for ARTE 07 in Mumbai landed in my email box, I was surprised to catch myself kind of pleased for Alex Vieux, ATRE’s owner and the publisher of the resuscitated-but-still-on-life-support Red Herring magazine. Alex has bagged himself a whale, landing Steve Ballmer as the keynote for the show. Alex has worked hard to build ATRE and its European sister ETRE into a kind of Geek Davos, and landing Steve Ballmer as a keynote is an indication that he is having some success.

Either that, or Ballmer is running out of non-Microsoft conferences where he is feted onstage.

Alas, I’ll be giving ATRE a pass again this year, choosing instead to hang at MOTODEV Asia and see what the future holds for mobile apps. Call me a dweeb if you must, but the idea of spending a day hanging out with entrepreneurs, designers, and coders sounds like a lot more fun than the more rarified company of CEOs and investment bankers.

A Perspective on Hollywood and Kabalah

In the Hutong
Amidst the Days of Awe
2151 hrs.

At the risk of wearing my faith even more prominently upon my sleeve, a little perspective on the likes of Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and others of the Greater Hollywood Kabballah trend-surfers.

I’m what I like to call a “big tent” Jew, referring neither to the prodigious size of my Hawai’ian shirts nor to the length of my tallis, but to my conviction that all present-day Hebrews – be they Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox, Chassid or Misnagid, Karaite or Haredi, Observant or Assimilated, B’nei Noach, Converts, Baal Teshuvah or Frum-from-Birth – all of us are members of the same tribe and need to stop sparring with each other.

As far as I stretch that tent, however, I cannot come to include the Hollywood Kabbalists even part way under the tent flap.

It would be another story altogether if they were to say “okay, I want to study Kabbalah and genuinely appreciate it, so I will undertake to do the groundwork necessary to reach a level where I can begin to truly understand it.”

But they don’t say that.

You see, to someone who is Jewish – or even to someone trying really, really hard to be – and is moderately knowledgeable about Judaism, learning Kabballah without years of study of Torah, then Talmud, Midrash, the Rabbinic commentaries, and Shulchan Aruch, is like practicing brain surgery without first studying biology, organic chemistry, physiology, medicine, getting a couple of degrees, serving as an intern, then a resident, and passing your boards. The reasons you don’t jump directly to Kabbalah are at least as strong as not jumping directly to brain surgery.

The problem for the Hollywood Kabbalists is that such a process – which would involve decades of study and a radical change in lifestyle – is too hard. They want all of the rewards right now without putting in the required effort.

So when Madonna tells Israeli President Shimon Peres that she considers herself an Ambassador for Judaism, my response is “sounds good, Mrs. Ritchie. How about actually converting first, and then we talk?”

I mean, at least you could learn what the brain actually looks like before declaring yourself a brain surgeon?

The Big Easy and Government Farkage

Starbucks China World 1
Just anotha Maniq Mundeh
1115 hrs.

Doing research for my book on innovation in China has really underscored what I call The Government Farkage Factor, or the extent to which government funding, direction, or primary role in any sizable development project is almost an a priori guarantee of graft, wastage, and failure. While I am no longer convinced that the private sector has an answer for every major problem, it is pretty clear that most serious development challenges demand an intelligent response from a balance of government, commercial, and non-governmental entities.

The New Orleans Example

The city of New Orleans continues in its role as the worlds preeminent development petri-dish because it is one of those places where all of the other factors have been eliminated and we can watch the various forces contend with each other in an effort to revive an entire political/economic entity. While most coverage has concentrated on the failures of various levels of government (municipal, parish, state, and national) first prepare for disaster, then to clean, repair, revitalize and fortify New Orleans in its wake, several reports have surfaced in the last month that point to the much-ignored but all critical role of other players in what is, basically, a problem of development.

The first I heard was a report on PBS’s excellent NewsHour with Jim Lehrer about people who have moved to New Orleans on their own for whatever reason to start a new life. They’re called “pioneers.”

Second, while catching up on my NPR podcasts, this excellent report by Eve Abrams covers the beginnings of an effort of New Orleans residents to take on recovery tasks on their own.

The third was a speech at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business by Jack McGuire, CEO of the American Red Cross, who talked with the frankness of a former corporate CEO of the ability of NGOs to respond to challenges more effectively than government. McGuire basically had to rapidly expand the Red Cross to help catch the ball fumbled so badly by the government. It wasn’t pretty, but they did it.

Finally, there is an excellent article in BusinessWeek by John Tozzi who talks about the role entrepreneurs are playing to get the city back up on its feet again.

Takeaways

There are entire syllabi of lessons to be learned from New Orleans, but my take away vis-a-vis China is that it is not only more evidence of the very real limits of government in development, it is also (and more importantly) a lesson in the very wide range of forces that have to come into a situation – often of their own volition – in order to make it better.

Hutong Events: Under the Digital Influence

In the Hutong
Listening to Radio Pyongyang
1628 hrs.

For those of you who will be in Beijing in the next couple of weeks – especially those of you with membership in the American Chamber of Commerce in China – you might want to set aside the afternoon of September 19th.

At the Renaissance Hotel Ballroom, AmCham China will be hosting two panels of people talking about digital marketing, the online scene, and the business of blogging.

With the sole exception of yours truly, the panelists on both panels are superb.

The first panel, on China’s Internet scene, includes:

• Sam Flemming, CEO of CIC, the company that brilliantly decodes and mobilizes online word-of-mouth for companies in China. In short, he’s the guy that did what the guys at Technorati couldn’t with Chinese blogs and the insanely popular bulletin-board systems.

• Andrew Lih, who is probably the leading expert on online collaboration in China specifically and globally. Don’t let his pedigree in the ivory tower (Columbia and Hong Kong University) fool you – this is a guy a real feel for the subject at the ground level.

• Matt Roberts, who will be moderating, and who comes to his current employer (About.com) from venture capital firm BlackInc and a stint as the chief rep of Dow Jones China. Matt has been exploring the underside of Internet in China for years, and my recent conversations with him have only underscored that he is one of the truly knowledgeable thought leaders on the subject.

• Me.

The second panel will cover off on the business of blogging, with four professionals who blog talking about the affect it has had in their business and careers, and how to blog wisely both generally and when covering the issues surrounding China. That team consists of:

• Dan Harris, better known to most of us as ChinaLawBlog.com and founding member of law firm Harris & Moure pllc. People who read Silicon Hutong will tell you I am not a fan of the legal profession generally, but Dan is in that pantheon of attorneys who exemplify the genuine value of legal counsel.

• Chris Devonshire-Ellis, from tax, accountancy, and business consultants Dezan Shira & Associates, who runs china-briefing.comBu and 2point6billion.com and exemplifies in his profession what I am trying to do in my own – raise the practice to a level that transcends simple operational excellence and turns that functional area into a competitive advantage.

• Will Moss, Director at Burson-Marsteller in Shanghai and celebrated author of Imagethief.com, where his funny, insightful, and highly readable posts put the rest of us to shame.

• Jeremy Goldkorn, (moderator) founder and archduke of media site danwei.org and founder of The Standards Group. Haymarket and other industry publications notwithstanding, danwei.org is without question the best window onto China’s new and traditional media industries. Even if you don’t care about the media business in China in particular, danwei is a cultural thermometer for China in a form we foreigners can understand and appreciate.

All of this will be followed by a party (naturally.)

For details, check out the event site here.

A Blade Runner Shows His Age

In the Hutong
Digesting Subway
1830 hrs.

Director Ridley Scott has in his career delivered a body of work that includes some of my all-time favorite movies (Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down) and some movies that I enjoy as occasional guilty pleasures (Black Rain, Gladiator, Matchstick Men). He is the unapologetic master of the high-end Guy Flick. (And let’s be honest – even his Thelma & Louise was just a gender-bent buddy movie.) And, of course, he directed the commercial that introduced the Apple Macintosh to the world.

So it is particularly disturbing to hear the aging auteur getting all medieval on people who watch movies on their mobile devices. In an article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Scott is quoted from the Venice Film Festival as saying that the shift to the small screen would kill cinema.

“I’m sure we’re on a losing wicket, but we’re fighting technology,” Scott, the force behind Alien, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator, said.
“While it has been wonderful in many aspects, it also has some big negative downsides.”

I’m Not In the Business. I Am The Business.

Now, filmmakers have been pulling their hair out over technology destroying cinema since the introduction of talkies, but here we are, eight decades after he introduction of sound, sixty years since the introduction of television, and thirty years since the first VCRs began landing in homes, and each one of these “horrible” developments with their big negative downsides has only brought more opportunities to filmmakers and more revenues to Hollywood.

The ugly fact is that the movie business is in grave danger, but to blame mobile phones is the reddest of herrings.

Because, you see, the problem is not technology. It is Scott and people like him, people who really like Things the Way They Are, because Things the Way They Are have made them rich and famous and lets them make expensive movies and take home little trophies. These folks do not particularly like technology (watch Scott’s movies – he hates tech), do not understand people who do, and are deep down in places they do not talk about at Malibu parties they are just plain scared of anything with a microchip.

They see all of this change happening and are smart enough to understand that it means The End of the World As They Know It. And they are terrified. Hence Ridley’s mobile device fixation.

The fact is, technology will save the motion picture industry.

Would you…like to be upgraded?

The movie business is beset with problems that could fill a library. Films have become too expensive to make. The industry is structured – from finance to production to distribution – to quash all but a small number of entrepreneurs carefully screened (pardon the pun) and selected at film festivals. The business is overwhelmingly American in an increasingly global/local culture. The cinema experience is outdated, overpriced, and of little or declining relevance in much of the world.

None of this is to suggest that movies are going away. Something is, however, very wrong when people (especially young people) are spending far more money and time on other forms of entertainment, and those alternatives are growing – and fast. Cinema is losing its share of our wallet, but equally important it is losing our attention. (Hell, I’m an old guy, but I’ve spent more on games for my Sony PSP this year than I have on movie tickets for my entire family.)

Technology, in its different forms, is getting set to bring about a cinematic renaissance. More people can make films, make them cheaper, and get them in front of audiences faster and easier today than anytime since Mayer, Zukor, Laemmle, Cohn, Fox, Warner, and Disney showed up in L.A. and started buying orange groves. Green screens, cheap gear, and powerful software means that you don’t have to spend $200 million to make an epic – you just need a script, a camera, and a Macintosh.

Starting to see what’s bugging Ridley?

I have the choice of watching movies in a theater, on my big-screen TV, on my desktop, my laptop, my PSP, my iPod, or my ROKR E6. I can buy a film from a store, order from Amazon, or download from iTunes, not to mention the illegal channels. In short, I’m in control of how I decide to experience a motion picture, not the National Association of Theater Owners.

The future of Hollywood is lean, streamlined, personal, and technology based, and there are dozens if not hundreds or thousands of filmmakers who are following this road. Today they may be uploading 5 minute clips to YouTube. Tomorrow?

Do you like our owl?

Nowhere does technology offer a greater opportunity to build the film industry than right here in China, if for no other reason than there is less legacy infrastructure to stand in the way. There are other reasons, of course.

Technology substitutes for mass in China the same way it does elsewhere. Despite being the most populated country on the planet, there is a dearth of talented people both in front of the camera and, more critically, behind it. Stars may get all of the attention, but a pool of talented craftspeople – from the director down to the make up girl – is essential to sustain a traditional movie industry, and China’s pool is frustratingly shallow. The good people are expensive, and their lack forms an artificial bottleneck. The technologies that substitute for talented and experienced crew are the only way forward in the near term.

Production finance is another constraint to the growth of China’s film business, and the value of technology as a substitute for cash cannot be overstated. As with Hollywood, big budget flicks might get the attention, but the future will come from people who make films with a small handful of people.

If technology is important for production, it is essential for distribution, because without those small screens, the movie will probably be seen by a tiny number of people – if at all.

China has one cinema screen for every 466,000 people. (By contrast, the U.S. has one screen for every 8,000 people.) There are around 300 movies released each year in China, meaning that these films are all fighting for screen time, not just audiences. Even at the current rate of production, the only way many of these movies is going to be seen is on the small screen.

Real estate prices and personal habits in China further inveigh against the movie theater experience becoming as common as it is in the US. In short, mobile phones aren’t going to kill movies in China: they – in combination with other “small screens” – are going to give them their only possible market.

A tortise lays on its back, belly baking in the sun….

Ridley Scott will celebrate his 70th birthday on November 30 of this year and look back on a 42 year career of achievement that is the envy of many others who have sat – or dreamed of sitting – in the director’s chair. As he celebrates his septuagenarian status with friends and loved ones, perhaps he will pause to consider that Louis B. Mayer, the founder and longtime steward of MGM studios, found himself sidelined by Hollywood days short of his own 69th birthday. Louis B, once the most powerful studio head in a day where the studios ran the show, couldn’t change fast enough when the change started happening.

Ridley won’t be going away soon. He’s got a film in the can and at least four projects in development. But the Hollywood that created him is going away, and if he is not prepared to accept the changes that are driving Hollywood and the world’s film industry, he’d better start planning a career change.

China Leads the World in e-Tickets. M-Tickets, Anyone?

In the Hutong
Back from the Hutong Summer Holidays
1950 hrs.

After a month’s physical holiday and a month’s writing holiday – in succession, not in parallel – the issues surrounding air travel remain fresh in the mind. So it was with great interest that I read cNet’s report noting that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) was confirming that it would meet its June 1, 2008 deadline to eliminate paper tickets everywhere in the world, completing a switch to e-tickets.

Here’s the kicker: China will be the first country to completely switch over.

This makes a lot of sense. Chinese airlines need all of the help they can get: constant price wars have driven profits in Chinese air travel into the sewer. $9 per ticket may not sound like much, but I’m sure the airlines of the PRC will take it. China Eastern Airlines, for example, lost US$365 million last year on 35.04 million passenger journeys. In other words, it could eliminate $315 million of that loss. It would have nearly doubled Air China’s profit for the year.

Needless to say, that’s significant. The question is, how else can this technology be applied in the industry to either improve efficiency or make flying more convenient?

Today, E. Tomorrow M

The systems that were the toughest to put into place for e-ticketing in China were reimbursement policies and ways of handling travel agents and ticketing offices that were, er, technology-deficient. Stunning as it is to believe, there is actually still an embarrassingly large number of places to buy air tickets in China that don’t have computers or printers. No single solution appears ready to bridge this technology gap.

What would go a long way, however, would be a system that would send the e-ticket information directly to a mobile handset from a central office. I have no hard data, but apocrypha and experience suggests that the vast number of airline passengers in China are shlepping cell phones. All that would need to happen to make this system work right now would be to whittle down the information so it would fit into 1 or 2 SMS messages.

This way, a travel agent without a computer could call a central office with the necessary information, and that office could generate the m-ticket and send it to the customer’s mobile. There would be all kinds of other benefits as well, including the ability to buy a ticket without having to set foot in a ticket agency (or, indeed, buy it as you drove up to the airport.) In other words, it would go a long way toward making air travel more convenient.

eBoardingPass

The mobile handset is going to be the key to the airlines’ next step as well: the eBoardingPass. IATA is helping to work out the kinks in a uniform system to allow passengers to print their boarding passes at home, using a unique barcode, with which some airlines are experimenting already. At the same time, IATA is pushing self check-in systems that have been installed in some two dozen airports around the world.

Combine the two, and self check-in with the mobile handset, with the airline sending an MMS with the bar code and some basic information would be a logical next development step for China’s busy airlines and overcrowded airports.

At least it would eliminate the problem of a dozen people cutting into the check-in queue at the airport.

I’ll Drink to That

Surfing: The Grape Wall of China

If you like fine wine, and more important if you want to track the evolution of China’s wine industry, check out this excellent blog covering wine culture in the PRC.

The blog’s coverage of the emergence of Shanxi’s Grace Vinyard as China’s first world-class wine label is by itself worth putting this site on your RSS reader.

We picked up a bottle of the Grace Chardonnay and are chilling it now.

Nations of Outlaws

A Nation of Outlaws: A century ago, that wasn’t China — it was us” by Stephen Mihm, The Boston Globe, August 26, 2007

I have been occasionally branded a “sinopoligist” for my attempts to put some of China’s more niggling problems into historical context.

When people preach self-righteously about corruption in China, for example, I like to note that Teddy Roosevelt spent much of the late 19th century trying to clean up the New York City Police Department and was largely successful at the time. Not that long ago, indeed, especially when you remember that three-quarters of a century later the NYPD was still grappling with persistent corruption throughout its ranks.

But I have never seen or heard a more eloquent or better documented delivery of this argument than the one Professor Stephen Mihm delivers in his Boston Globe article earlier this week. In the moderate tones and evenhanded prose of a professional historian, Dr. Mihm sets aside the passionate polemics of the debate on China and simply tries to put the country’s “bad actor” image into an historical context.

A century ago, he documents, the United States was the world’s “bad actor,” and he recounts America’s transgressions in detail: literary piracy that denied Charles Dickens with royalties on US sales of his books; a food industry that laced milk with plaster powder, flavored beer with a strychnine compound, and cured pickles in copper sulphate; and counterfeiting of luxury apparel, fine liquors, medicines, and even currency.

Mihm’s point is simple: such behavior, manifest in England in the 18th Century, America in the 19th, and now China in the 21st, is a natural outgrowth of capitalism in its adolescence rather than the result of some sort of fundamental flaw in the national character.

Mihm refuses to allow this parallel to morph into an excuse for China’s bad behavior. On the contrary, Mihm suggests, it is a clear indicator that China can and should, and must – become an honest actor on the world stage. It will not do so on its own, he reminds us. China will need to be continuously and appropriately pressed, and business – not politics – is the best lever.

A good read, and I’m ordering Mihm’s new book, A Nation of Counterfeiters.