Posts filed under ‘Uncategorized’
Today I’m happy to announce the start of a new blog project: Thought Blog.
So far the blog is only two posts old, but that will soon change. There are 10 contributors involved in the blog, and each will blog according to one simple maxim: crytalise the thought.
My thinking behind the blog is that many worthy thoughts go overlooked. We place a lot of emphasis on work and play, but not enough on thought. Thoughts are often transient when they deserve to be crystalised. We ought to do a better job of celebrating independent thought.
And so, every post on Thought Blog will be headlined by one thought: sometimes original; sometimes from another source. The content that follows will be inspired by that thought, whether that’s expressed in writing, photography, design, music, film, or whatever.
Our contributors, who I’ll name as each adds content to the blog, come from a wide variety of fields, and all (except, of course, me) are exceptionally talented.
We’d be honoured if you decided to read our blog, or even add us to your RSS reader. You can follow us on Twitter at: twitter.com/Thought_Blog.
Thanks, and may the thoughts be with you.
I don’t know if I’m going to continue with this particular blog. Maybe I’ll change the name. Maybe I’ll just keep on going, in a misnomerly fashion.
I left Hong Kong just over a month ago. After four years of heat, pollution, excitement, travel, crowds, fun and dim sum, I decided it was time for a change of scene. So I’m moving to the US with my girlfriend. I don’t know how long I’ll be there, or what the country has in store for me. I’ll be on a journalist visa, which allows me free access in and out of the country for five years.
I’m not looking for a job, but I am looking for work. I am now a freelance writer, which means exciting and uncertain times are ahead. (If you happen to know of anyone who needs words written, then please feel free to let me know.) I can’t wait.
I was happy that, before I left Hong Kong, I got to write one last meaningful feature story for Time Out. It was about expats and immigrants in Hong Kong, and the distinction between the two. For me, it was personal as much as it was academic, and it touched on the importance of cultural contribution as opposed to cultural leeching (a term I resisted using in the piece). I was impressed and pleased by the intellectual depth of the discussion in the comments section at the bottom of that story on the website, too.
Here also, is the last column I wrote for the magazine, a too-brief farewell.
I’m working on a new blog, a group project, that will launch within the next couple of months. Watch this space and I’ll announce it when it’s ready. In the meantime, if you want to say hello, you can contact me on Facebook or email.
After reading this story about digital distractions in the New York Times, I’ve decided to stay off Twitter. I haven’t been using it since I left Hong Kong, and I have to say I’m not missing it. I’ve realised that the subtle self-induced pressure of having to read through the latest tweets was actually introducing another element of stress in my life, not to mention yet another mental distraction. Twitter has been useful to me in the past, but I’ve just decided it’s something I can happily live without.
Hong Kong, in the meantime, I will continue to miss — but so far that sense isn’t outweighing the excitement of a new direction in life.
See you soon.
I’m a great fan of Matt Taibbi‘s work, and I’ve also long been a fan of Mark Ames and his now-defunct Moscow-based rogue magazine, eXile (that link leads to its new home, which basically just hosts the archives).
I found eXile after studying under John Dolan (who I’ve written about before), the paper’s sometime-co-editor and, for a while, a lecturer at Otago University, where he taught the advanced writing and poetry classes that marked my high-point of university study.
Dolan as a teacher was a strange mix of cynicism and optimism, railing against society and all its capitalist masters while at the same time warmly encouraging expression and imagination through writing. He spoke of his relationship with eXile once or twice in class, and from there the curious found out more.
When Dolan left Otago to do his full-time stint at eXile, I chased him by email and wrote a story about him and his experience with the magazine. Turns out I was a good seven years ahead of the zeitgeist!
Vanity Fair has just published a long and fascinating, web-exclusive story about eXile, Ames and Taibbi, detailing the personality politics behind the magazine. Dolan features in the story, and I was interested to find out he taught Ames, too. Awesome.
By the time he got to Russia, Ames relished rejection, he says. At U.C. Berkeley, he’d rebelled against the “bland liberal consensus” by flirting with right-wing politics, getting into arguments with humorless lefties, and falling under the wing of John Dolan, a literature professor and campus cult figure who liked Ames’s personal essays and macabre short stories, loathed though they were by his fellow students. Ames still remembers Dolan’s first somber career advice: “He said, ‘You’re talented, but one thing you’re going to have to get used to is that you’ll never get published in The New Yorker.’” Dolan also introduced him to that urtext for masochistic littérateurs everywhere, Dostoyevsky’s The Devils, the story of a doomed anarchic plot hatched by amateurs.
Dolan is also quoted in the piece and described as a “first-rate” literary columnist:
By most accounts, Ames slept with as many women as any Moscow expatriate of the period. “Russian women liked the kind of sternness and scariness he had that didn’t work in California,” Dolan says.
One of Ames’s first regular columns was “Death Porn,” which rehashed stories of grisly murders and suicides from police reports and Russian media, printing them alongside crime-scene and autopsy photographs. He was most renowned and reviled for his regular “Whore-R Stories,” for which he hired prostitutes and then wrote about them. Like corruption and casual death, prostitution was a reality of Russian life that every reporter saw, often more than saw, but refused to discuss in straight terms.
“Everyone in Moscow at the time—and I mean everyone—used prostitutes. That’s what Moscow was in the 1990s. But no one would talk about it,” Dolan says. Ames seems to have had no need to pay women, and the column appears self-serving only until you read it. Some of the pieces’ poignancy and attention to detail call to mind Studs Terkel’s Working. But Terkel only listened; Ames partook.
John Dolan moved to Moscow and started a first-rate literary column in which he was an early outer of faux memoirist James Frey. But The Exile was never much of a business, and Moscow was changing. It had become expensive and clean and was taking on an ominous neo-Soviet flush. The expats had gone home, and journalists, including Americans, were being killed. Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov, whom Ames knew, was gunned down in 2004. “Even the snow seemed archaic and doomed,” says Dolan, who left in 2006. The Exile nearly collapsed in 2007, before a group of private investors bailed it out.
I wrote about Dolan’s Frey expose back in ’06. Because that was how I rolled.
These services via GPS, maps, or location check-ins on mobile devices or computers allow people to instantly let others know where they are. And, now the gloss has rubbed off from Facebook and Twitter, they are being touted as the next big thing.
But I can’t for the life of me figure out why they’re so great.
Of course, advertisers will love it. By knowing where exactly people are, they can deliver tailored marketing messages direct to their targets. That’s why Foursquare is hooking up partnerships galore with big-name corporations.
Consumers, on the other hand? Well, plenty of people will like the free pizzas and coffee discounts they’ll occasionally get as a result of obsessively checking in to particular places, and some may actually appreciate the targeted advertising (are there really people like this, or is this purely a marketer’s fantasy?), but is it really worth letting the world at large (or even just your followers) know where you are, even part of the time?
Not so long ago, I had a guy trying to track me down. He was suing me because he didn’t like a story I wrote about him a while back, and he had threatened violence on me. He knew I was in Hong Kong, and I was pretty okay about that, but I was uncomfortable with the fact he had done a few Google searches and found my parents’ old address. Even while I was confident his threats would come to nothing, I didn’t like that he was trying hard to locate me. At one point, laughably, he sent me an email with the subject line ‘I’m Tracking you down’ and attached a screencap of a map that located my ISP in Sha Tin (nowhere near where I lived at the time).
He wouldn’t have needed to go to such lengths if he had been following me on Foursquare back then. Of course, I could have blocked him from following me, but it wouldn’t have been at all difficult for him to create a fake account and sneak under my radar. For all I know, he may one day again want to find me — which means I’ll probably never use a service like Foursquare.
But that’s not the only scenario in which it would be inconvenient for people to know where you are. What if one of your followers is a stalker who suddenly turns up at a bar you’ve just checked into? What if the same happens with a ‘friend’ who’s actually someone you’ve been trying to avoid for a while? What if it’s your editor chasing you down for that piece you were supposed to file last week? What if it’s your landlord who has just realised that instead of paying the rent you’re blowing your money on booze?
The obvious response to a lot of these questions will be, “Well, you can choose to be discreet with your personal check-in policy. You could check-in at a place only when you’re comfortable with everyone knowing where you are.” But is there ever such a time? Because, when you check-in, you’re basically saying, “I’m comfortable with running into anyone who can see my location right now”. That’s a big call, considering how different moods, settings, atmospheres, environments, and social groups can influence social interaction, to say nothing of the fickle nature of social dynamics within groups of friends.
Another response might be: “You can limit your followers to only your ‘true’ friends”. But what if one of your enemies is a friend of one of your ‘true’ friends and sees your location status pop up in his Twitter feed, or email, or on Facebook or whatever? What if your stalker happens to be an ace hacker and hacks into one of your ‘true’ friend’s accounts?
Last week, a new site called Please Rob Me arrived. The site used Foursquare users’ Twitter streams to show when exactly they had checked in to places that weren’t their homes — a perfect burglarising (one of my favourite words) opportunity. Brilliantly, that site has stopped publishing that feed and the founders hope to gift it to an organisation that raises awareness about online privacy issues.
I’m not a social media skeptic. I find Facebook useful as a way to connect with friends and kind-of friends, and to find out about events and get in touch with people for work. In fact, it’s a really, really useful journalistic tool. Twitter is too. It provides me with links to lots of great reading I wouldn’t otherwise stumble across. I like Buzz and Google Reader for similar reasons, and I like using all of the above to discuss shared interests with friends and contacts.
But Foursquare? I can’t see the use in that. Except for advertisers and stalkers.
Update: Another problem I see with Foursquare: If one of my friends is a user and we’re hanging out together, what’s to stop him checking in to Foursquare and letting his friends know where he is? Most of the time, that wouldn’t be a problem. But if this friend had friends who I didn’t want to see — for whatever reason — I would likely end up resenting him if his check-in resulted in the uninvited appearance of one of those people I didn’t want to see.
The only way I can see to stop this is to start asking people in advance not to check in to Foursquare when we’re meeting in a social situation, which, of course, could get ridiculous.
That situation, too, is similar to a problem I have with Facebook: that anyone who has a photo of me can post it on Facebook for their friends to see. Even though my privacy settings don’t allow anyone to see which photos I’m tagged in, people who know my face will be able to identify me in these photos, and I have no control over where, when and who they’re posted by. Pretty soon we’re all going to have to behave like celebrities who are hounded by paparazzi — we won’t be able to do anything stupid in public for fear of photographic evidence making it on to Facebook and in front of the eyes of friends, friends of friends, family, enemies, employers, prospective employers, media, and whoever else. I pity you if you plan to one day run for office.
I’d be interested in hearing a counter argument from avid users of such services. Spike, for instance: I read your blog and follow you on Twitter and I see you frequently check-in to various places around Hong Kong. Why do you use it, and how useful do you think it is?
I don’t really like writing about food. I struggle to find more than one way of saying, ‘It’s delicious!’, and I prefer to enjoy my meals without having to dissect them.
But when Asia Sentinel asked for a piece, I couldn’t resist writing about the excellent Tim Ho Wan, the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, a dim sum joint 20 minutes’ walk from my flat.
It seems an incongruous place to find a rating most chefs would strangle their sous-chefs for. But the gamy Hong Kong district of Mongkok hosts the cheapest starred restaurant in the famed culinary kingdom of theMichelin Guide. It is Tim Ho Wan, a Cantonese eatery that for instance features for just HK$12 (US$1.53) three light, crispy barbeque pork buns filled with a gentle stew of meat chunks swaddled in slightly sweet sauce. These baked buns are largely responsible for not only keeping this restaurant forever busy, but earned it a star that would be the envy of the tens of thousands of chefs in France.
I’ve been arguing with anyone who comes close to me that Avatar is not a five-star movie, or even a four-star movie. It is, as Time Out New York (but not the rest of the critical world, apparently) asserts, a three-star movie.
For sure, the visuals are fantastic. Cameron has re-invented a part of filmmaking. It is one of the defining movies of the decade.
But that doesn’t cover for the fact that it has a trite and cliche-ridden story with stodgy schoolyard analogies, brazen caricatures, wooden actors and a disappointing ending.
But, no, some people won’t listen. “It’s the best film ever ever,” they practically say.
My question to the Avatar-is-five-star crew is: what if someone next does a film that captures the same visual (almost visceral) experience that Avatar has, but couples it with a story that is even slightly more complex than a tiddly wink? If Avatar gets five stars, it’s impossible to improve on, right?
So it’s nice to find some affirmation of my views on one my new favourite internet web sites on the World Wide Web: The Awl. I quote their contributor:
the really worst thing is the ham-fistedness of Avatar’s alternate history. Okay, so this time the Native Americans are able to throw off the European oppressor. Note well, however, that l’homme sauvage, for all the purity of his Native Wisdom, is still quite helpless without a white man to show him what the hell to do. So what if this “hero” “goes native,” just like in Dances With Wolves? (Even as he goes about gathering “the horse people of the plains” to assist him.) It still takes a white man to tame the really BIG dragon, and to outfox the enemy.
He will also take the “best” woman, the noblest, the highest born, the smartest, whose token resistance will dwindle its sorry way from faux-contempt to near-drooling adoration in a matter of days. Her former man will die, and her father will, too; her whole civilization will lie in ruins. She will pretty much get down on her knees to thank this white man, anyway
I heard James Cameron tell MTV that he’s bringing to the cinema films he wished he had when he was a 14-year-old. That figures.
Imagine someone says to you: “I’ll pay you $1,000 a month to do this one thing. As a result of doing this one thing, your social life might be affected a little, but as well as getting the money, you’ll also feel better about yourself, you’ll stay in shape, and you’ll be more productive.”
Framed in such positive terms, it seems like a no-brainer. But then consider what that one thing is: not drinking.
Well, that’s what I’ve been doing for all of December, much to the disgust of many friends, and — to be fair — with the support of many other friends.
I mean, seriously, 30 days of not touching alcohol should not be lauded as a special feat. But my life in Hong Kong too frequently features alcohol as a strong player, and it’s surprisingly difficult to wean myself off it. But I’m glad I have.
I’ve so far lasted a meagre three weeks. In that time, I reckon I’ve saved at least $1,000, and I’m a lot trimmer. I haven’t had a hangover, and I’ve been sleeping more and better, which means I’ve been more frequently in a good mood, and a good deal more productive. These are very significant factors in contributing to my overall happiness.
I’m determined to use this month as a bridge to a life in which I’m less reliant on alcohol to have a good time. I’ve found that I can still have a lot of fun going out with friends without having to involve booze. And while I miss the sociality of drinking, I don’t really miss the taste or the actual act of it, and I certainly don’t miss the negative effects that follow.
I figure that if I can switch to a more moderate regime, then I can better enjoy my life, extend my life (or at least improve the chances of extending it), get more things done, and save money.
Of course, on the flip side, you could argue that social drinking is an investment: that the $1,000 a month, the weight gain, the more volatile moods, the hangovers, the lethargy, the negative health effects are all worth it in the name of strengthening friendships, making new friends, getting the confidence to talk to people you wouldn’t otherwise approach, and say things you’d otherwise be scared to say, and to generally just have a rollicking good time.
That’s a strong argument, too, but for now I’m going to give the other one a chance. And I’m happy with the way it’s paying off.
Time off from drinking has freed up more time to re-commit to projects I’ve been putting on the back-burner in recent months. That means you’ll start seeing more of me over at Asia Sentinel in the months ahead (though it might not be under my real name).
Last week, I got the ball rolling again with a story about Hong Kong’s jazz community (not to be confused with a scene). Here’s a snip:
Hong Kong’s jazz community suffers from the same plight as the city’s fledgling indie rock music. There is only a scant support structure for the community, meaning the positive contributions from the likes of Peel Fresco are built on only a shaky foundation.
Few radio programs — let alone stations — play jazz music. There’s little in the way of jazz education, save for a few private schools, and the only top-class international acts coming into city in recent years have been playing on big stages for government-funded concerts at City Hall or the Cultural Centre as part of the Arts Festival or the Leisure and Cultural Services Department’s annual Jazz Up series. Gone are the days when local musicians could get up close to their role models in a dingy club
I can never understand people who call themselves environmentalists but reject the idea of wind farms on account of aesthetics. To me, wind farms are things of beauty, because they are a sign of environmental progress, and of humans learning to harness — rather than exploit — their natural environment.
My dad, an atmospheric physicist, effectively expresses a similar point in a blog post that decries New Zealand’s Environment Court’s decision to reject a proposed wind farm in a stark and empty part of Central Otago (where my parents live).
since the Lammermoors [in Central Otago] are virtually uninhabited and untouched by the trappings of tourism, and abundantly windy, I would have thought it a prime candidate for harnessing wind-energy. Sure it will look different from its present state – for the few who ever go there – but will it necessarily be worse? It may well become a tourist attraction in its own right. And if you want to see what it used to be like, just look in another direction.
NB: The photo of the Lammermoors above is taken from the website of photographer David Wall, who likely in no way endorses this post. Sorry Mr Wall, if you want me to remove this photo, I’ll happily do so.
I love the stoush between Google and news publishers (ie, Rupert Murdoch and few others). I strongly favour Google’s position — that they’re sending valuable traffic to newspapers that otherwise would struggle to get it — but I can see why Murdoch is being curmudgeonly about it (to improve his negotiating position), and I’m enjoying the battle.
I’m especially interested in this at the moment because I’ve been reading Ken Auletta’s excellent contemporary history of Google, Googled: The End of the World As We Know It.
This morning I read a piece from that book that aptly quoted a study about Huxley’s Brave New World. I underlined the quote as a keeper, in part because I think the rate of change that the digital era brings necessitates a refresher course in how we view our personal lives, choices and privacy, but also because it partly exemplifies that state of insidious thought control seen under the Bush Administration and today’s China (in which the populace tend to be content, as long as they don’t know how much they don’t know):
“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. [In 1984] Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think… Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism”
Passivity and egoism. I can’t think of a more apt characterisation of the mainstream media during the Bush Administration circa 2001-2006. Not that it can be said that was tied to too much information — more a cynical manipulation and distortion of information that was sometimes manufactured to meet the Administration’s ends. But the control attained was one of self-censorship and self-monitoring: it was un-American to not support the war in Iraq; if you didn’t wear a lapel pin bearing the American flag, you were of questionable patriotism. The way to happiness was to enjoy the benefits of American aggression (cheap gas; always-on electricity; abundant food) without questioning the machine that delivered them. Brave New World.
That way of life contributed to an intellectual laziness to which much of America still seems to be slave (hello Glenn Beck and disciples). And now we have digital technologies that make everything easy — so easy, in fact, that you sometimes might as well just switch off your brain (hello in-car GPS units). After quoting that passage about Huxley, Auletta goes on to list some of the functions of today’s mobile devices: they can play music, movies, games; unlock cars; function as ID; act as universal remotes. He could have listed a lot more.
These are all grand things, and I intend to fully take advantage of them once I finally get a smartphone. But much of the content delivered through these functions will have to be monetised, and probably the most effective way of doing that is to sell advertising that relies on behaviourial targetting; advertising that digs out info from our searching history, our location, our digital habits, and what we’ve used the mobile device for in the past. A lot of people will be comfortable with this — I admit, I am to a large extent — but it does take us closer to that world in which, as long as everything is made easy for us, we don’t question the machine. How many steps away is that from reducing us to individuals of “passivity and egoism”?
And now, back to the start. As much as I love Google and admire and support their efforts to make all the world’s information easily available, it’s a little disconcerting to see them now leading the charge to deliver minutely targeted advertising to individuals, as CEO Eric Schmidt does in an editorial published, ironically, in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal (which is behind a paywall) a couple of days ago.
Schmidt envisions a world where advertisements are delivered to a mobile device according to very specific and current personal criteria:
“these ads are not static pitches for products I’d never use. Like the news I am reading, the ads are tailored just for me. Advertisers are willing to shell out a lot of money for this targeting.”
He shows his hand there. While he’s trumpeting how useful this new technology will be for publishers, it’s also very clear that Google will be a major beneficiary from — and provider of — such technology. And Google, with all its access to personal data, is already one of the world’s most powerful companies, with plenty of room for growth.
Later in his editorial, Schmidt says:
“The acceleration in mobile phone sophistication and ownership offers tremendous potential. As more of these phones become connected to the Internet, they are becoming reading devices, delivering stories, business reviews and ads. These phones know where you are and can provide geographically relevant information. There will be more news, more comment, more opportunities for debate in the future, not less.”
Fair enough. I trust him for now. Google haven’t yet done anything evil. And I know we’re a few steps away from the Brave New World — but I also can’t help but think we’re also taking a few steps towards it.