A Lu Xun Archive

In the Hutong
Better read than dead
2039 hrs.

The good cadres over at Marxists.org have put together a decent archive of some of Zhou Shuren’s (Lu Xun) works. It is not, of course, comprehensive: his literary legacy exceeds ten million words (figure 110 book-length works), and this collection tends toward the more radical of his writings, but the stories here are excellent.

If you are new to the man eulogized as “the national soul” at his funeral in 1936, stop by and check out this collection. If you pick out one only, I recommend The True Story of Ah-Q, a short book-length work that is superb.

They have additional sections of interest to non-Marxists interested in China (like me,) including Frank Glass,Li LisanLin BiaoLiu ShaoqiMao Zedong, and others.

eKarma: Have a Little Virus, Pirates

Third Ring Road East
Breathing deep the inversion layer
1022 hrs.

Steven Schwankert of Village Grouch fame wrote an excellent piece for IDG (picked up here in The Washington Post) describing how Chinese fans seeking to download illegal copies of Ang Lee’s excellent film “Lust, Caution” are finding on their hard drives not a copy of the film, but with software that pops a nasty little trojan virus into their systems.

There are several interesting aspects to this story.

Virus? What Virus?

First, it was apparently found and addressed by Kaspersky Lab and Rising Software well before it came up on the collective radar screens of Symantec, McAfee, and TrendMicro. One wonders why this is the case, particularly given that Symantec and McAfee tout the value of their software in part based on their global scanning for viral threats. I am especially concerned about TrendMicro, who have a huge presence in China and who make a great deal about their expertise as an “Asian” security company.

It also suggests that the malware threat in China is growing and diversifying. From dorm rooms filled with budding software engineers, to the challenges facing the country’s law enforcement teams, to the quiet but rapid growth of China’s cyberwar military-industrial complex, the country has become as much a haven and spawning ground for creators and distributors of Malware as the United States or any other country. This would seem to argue for greater investment by the computer security vendors in local labs who can not only find but anticipate new threats.

As an aside, it would also seem that companies like Symantec are destined to become major defense contractors. But we digress.

The Empire Strikes Back

Second, it seems that Hollywood (including the music and TV people as well as the film side of the business) and the software industry may have inadvertently discovered a way to slow online piracy and perhaps even the growth of downloaded content. All the studios – or, better yet, the MPA and the Business Software Alliance – need to do is hire a few good hackers to come up with some particularly nasty viruses and spread them around online disguised as illegitimate digital copies of random applications, movies, and music files.

Sure, the viruses would not deter the most determined or careful downloaders, and the anti-virus companies would inevitably come up with fixes. But imagine, for a moment, the fear, uncertainty, and doubt this would wreak among the less-expert. The mere possibility that these files would include viruses would be enough to drive a lot of marginal downloaders away from illegitimate downloading (and probably a few away from legit downloads as well).

Naturally I would expect clearer heads in the PR and legal departments of these organizations to prevail, ensuring that neither Hollywood nor the software industry would ever actually subsidize – or even publicly condone such practices. But you can easily imagine how such an option must tempt some people in places like Redmond and in the Black Tower.

Indeed, if the matter of digital rights management has proven anything, it has proven that Hollywood and many large software concerns believe that extremism in the defense of intellectual property is no vice, and that goodwill is readily sacrificed in that battle. If anything will keep hackers from high-powered lunches at the Ivy or the Fulton Fish market, it is the fear of court costs.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating, if not a bit disconcerting, to think that there is a commonality of interest between the creators of malware and the creators of movies.

Engineer, Engage the FUD Pump

What I do expect is that the IPR-driven industries will kick into gear a semi-coordinated propaganda effort to ensure that stories like the “Lust, Caution” become as widely known as possible, so that the threat is seen as being far larger and more serious than it really is. This costs them little, supports their goals magnificently, and enables the studios and developers to position themselves as defenders of the public interest.

Which, frankly, is the smarter way to handle it. You steal, you pay. Or, you pay, we protect.

For all the failings implicit in Hollywood’s approaches to the IPR issue and digital entertainment, let’s not lose sight of the most important fact – downloading illegal files is theft, theft is wrong, and anyone who does so willfully probably deserves a hard drive filled with malware.

Without Representation

Pacific Century Place
Hiding from the Nokians
1411 hrs.

As I find myself becoming more politically active as an expatriate than I ever was in the United States (well, since college, anyway), I am pleased to see how much logistically simpler it is becoming for Americans living abroad to cast a vote in the coming elections, and how – at least at the party level – our representation is improving.

The Democratic Party, for example, has set up a separate primary for registered Democrats living abroad, and expatriates will have a separate delegation (22 delegates) voting at the convention.

This is an enlightened response to a globalized reality: Americans living overseas have very different issues – and very different takes on major issues – than other voters in their home states, and simply lumping them in with the folks back home only quashes that viewpoint. It is good to see parties recognizing Americans living overseas not as a special interest lobby, but as an entirely separate and diverse constituency.

Given these changes, there is no excuse for so many of my fellow American expats to opt out of the electoral process.

If you are one of those who hold citizenship, live overseas, and don’t vote, think about this:

Get off your fanny and vote. If nothing else, you owe it to the people around the world – and in your country of residence – who are affected by US policies but who get no say in the process. You are voting for the rest of the world as well as for yourself.

It also gets you thinking – the principles on which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution (and, indeed, the Magna Carta) were founded abhor the idea of a people subject to the rule of a sovereign without representation. That’s a fancy way of saying “it’s not right that a government should make decisions that directly affect my life without me having a say in the process.”

There is a reckoning coming, one that will force us to recognize that the Jeffersonian structures on which modern western liberal democracies have been founded are based on principles that globalization is challenging.

Saying “SNAFU” in Chinese

Heqiao Tower, Guanghua Road, Beijing
Waiting for another meeting to start
1535 hrs.

Melinda Liu over at Newsweek blogs on the run-up to the Olympics in her Countdown to Beijing blog. Covering the Olympic ticket website meltdown, Melinda asks some really good questions.

She also quotes yours truly.

BOCOG Don’t Get Web.

Worth a read. Her point is simple: right now everyone here is wondering what has gone wrong with the systems at BOCOG to allow this to happen. Clearly, the IT problem stems as much from radically incorrect assumptions about website usage, if not a complete breakdown of communications between the people building the web capability and the people giving them orders.

It would be really easy to point the finger at the IT suppliers, system integrators, and the like. Ugly truth time: Lenovo has the institutional memory of all of IBM’s past Olympic IT sponsorships on their side. It strains credulity to believe the problem was the lack of advice from the tech team.

I think the issue is more systemic: none of the old folks running BOCOG – or even the IOC – truly understand how much of an online Olympics this is going to be. If 8 million people hitting the site sounds like a lot, what about 80 million, or 280 million, on the day of the opening ceremonies?

Good Morning, gentlemen. This is your Wake Up Call

The ticketing fiasco is a wake up call. BOCOG should by now realize that the online infrastructure for these games will be just as critical as the new airport, the new venues, the new public transport, and new hotels. Failure to address these issues will leave as much egg on Beijing’s face come next August as any problems in meatspace.

Get Over Single-Browser Optimized Websites – Or Lose Money

Starbucks Fortune Plaza, Beijing
Enjoying the gloomy fall weather
1517 hrs.

I probably receive about four invitations a day to some sort of event – either live or electronic – from some event management company.

One, in particular, is very active here in Asia in mobile communications. They’re running an event in December that I urged them to run when I met with them over a year ago.

So I’m on the mailing list, and I get an email inviting me to download a brochure about the event. It looked interesting. I’d even consider spending $2,000 of my hard-earned to attend, and that’s rare.

So I click on the download button, and it confronts me with a registration page.

Now wait a minute.

I received the email in the first place because I’m registered with them. Now they need my name again?

Strike one.

Then I fill out the form before I see the small print that says “IE-based browsers only.”

Can’t bother to support Firefox, Mozilla, Opera, or Safari, despite their combined 40% market share?

Strike two.

Then I want to send an email to somebody to actually get a copy of the brochure, the only address on the form is for the farking webmaster.

Strike three.

Here’s my first question: if a large event company focused on the technology industries is telling 40% of the people who come to their website that they can’t even have a brochure, how much money are these guys throwing down the toilet in at least higher marketing costs, and at worst lost business?

Here’s my second question: have you checked your website’s browser compatibility lately?

Dell and the Wal-Mart Effect

In the Hutong
Relieved to be out of October
1926 hrs.

One of the reasons I review books here at Peking Review and not at some more established venue is my conviction that some books – or movies, or plays, or music, or art – cannot be reviewed on deadline. Or, more accurately, should not be reviewed on deadline.

Simple fact: some works need to be fully absorbed – “grokked,” to borrow a phrase from Robert Heinlein’sStranger in a Strange Land – before they can be fully understood and appreciated.

I very rarely get feeling when I read a book about American business. But when I finished The Wal-Mart Effect, Charles Fishman’s highly readable endoscopy of the infamous retail leviathan, I found myself unable to write a single word about it. So I passed it across the bed to the Party Secretary here in the Hutong, and I proceeded to meditate.

That was about six weeks ago. And now it is grokked.

Seeds of Destruction

Not that there is anything particularly complex about The Wal-Mart Effect. It is a deeply researched, highly readable, straightforward journalistic examination of Wal*Mart and the effect it has had on the economy, its customers, its communities, and its vendors.

Yet, despite what I thought was a highly balanced treatment of the subject, I walked away feeling like I had just read a modern tragedy. I haven’t been able to figure out why. Now I think I know.

Fishman ends the book with an imprecation, urging readers to call upon their solons and regulatory bureaucracies to write an entirely new book of laws to shackle this Beast from Arkansas and prevent it from doing a Godzilla on vast swathes of the US economy. Yet by the time he issues this call to arms, you are already left with the conclusion that it won’t be necessary.

What has made Wal-Mart successful, the book teaches us, will eventually kill – or at least cripple – the retailer.

Wal-Mart has grown immense by promising low prices, every day. It has created a business that is structured – financially, operationally, and psychologically – toward the single purpose of driving prices on every item it carries to the absolute lowest level possible, and then going one level lower.

All of which sounds great, until you begin to read about the compromises vendors are having to make to deliver that price. At some point in that spiral, something has to give, and all of the smart design and offshoring to Mexico or China will only get you so far. One is left with the unmistakable impression that if it ever comes down to a question of quality vs. price at Wal-Mart, the system inside the organization dictates that saving the extra nickel will win.

Low Prices…Forever. Bwaahahahahahahahaha!

The only problem with that for Wal-Mart is that it runs the risk of not only becoming the guarantor of low prices, but also gaining a reputation as a purveyor of the cheap. Say what you will about Americans, there are not many people in the world who will be happy trading in their hard-earned for a whole lot of inexpensive junk. Not, at least, when there are alternatives.

That tends to build a pretty high wall that looks set to limit Wal-Mart’s organic growth, and limits the cash hoard it can use to change its strategy or acquire a new growth engine. Wal-Mart is stuck with Always Low Prices.

What will happen when Wal-Mart stops growing? When low prices aren’t enough anymore? When competitors – in unreasonable defiance of economic logic – prove that people are willing to pay a little more for a noticeably better product and a more fulfilling buying experience?

Ask our friends in Round Rock, Texas. Michael Dell pioneered the idea that good computers could be made cheap and sold cheap. He also found out – the hard way – that a lot of people in the world wanted more out of a computer than just a low price. Now he is trying to turn the ship around and take another tack, and he is discovering that simply changing the way you think about your business – much less the way you do it – is really, really hard.

The Sad Ballad of Bentonville…and Bubugao

What happens when any major listed corporation stops growing? The hounds begin braying for blood. The takeover artists and hedge fund types move in. If you want to look into the Wal-Mart’s future – or the future of any major retailer shackled to a stagnant business model – look at what happened to Sears. Store closings. Games with intellectual property. Facelifts. And then the vultures move in.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about Wal*Mart. I get a better experience at other retailers for about the same price, so when I am back in the U.S., I go to Target, Costco, Barnes & Noble, and the Apple Store.

But I feel a bit sad for the company. After all of its promise, after all of the superlatives, the hyperbole, the hope, and the fear, uncertainty, and doubt, the company has peaked, and it’s going to be a long, ugly downhill run.

Living in China, one need only look at the host of companies battling each other to offer lower and lower prices, be they retailers, electronics manufacturers, or even online auctioneers, and see fodder for the financial carrion-birds. It is painfully clear that a lot of wealth is set to be destroyed as China’s business leaders learn that a race for the basement means your company is pointing straight down at the ground.