5 Minute Review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is the first Neal Stephenson book I’ve ever read, but after finishing it I’d like to read more. I think I’ll need to wait at least a month, though, to give me time to digest the ideas presented in Anathem.

Narrated by Erasmus, an Avout* living on the planet Arbre, Anathem is an exploration of consciousness. It explores the idea every possible/plausible organization of particles exists, and that these states of existence are tied together by consciousness into narratives. Or something like that. In addition to getting me interested in Stephenson’s other work, reading Anathem also makes me want to read up on quantum mechanics.

The story is fascinating, but it’s not what I would call a page-turner, and it’s quite long. I read it on the iPhone Kindle app, and often found myself wanting to flip back to earlier in the book to confirm some detail of the story, but the Kindle app isn’t built for that.

If you like to think about consciousness, and enjoy emerging yourself in speculative worlds, Anathem is a great read.

*An an Avout is someone who adheres to the Discipline. You’ll learn what these words mean when you read the book.

Update: The Amazon page for Anathem has two great videos of Stephenson: one of him reading from the book, and another of him giving an introduction to the story.

A Way Out (Win-Win?) for Google and the Government

I shared some thoughts about Google in China a while back, and I still feel the same way. Now that the Chinese government is making itself very clear, and it looks like Google is about to make a move, I’d like to express more succinctly what I think (and hope) Google is going to do:

1. Google.cn and G.cn will “close”. The best result for Google would be that the Google.cn and G.cn domain names will stay around and simple redirect to Google.com.

2. Google will focus government relations on providing faster and more reliable access to Google.com services in China, rather than trying to legally host the services in China (which is what they’ve been trying to do with Google.cn).

This is an acceptable solution for both Google and the Chinese government, as Google gets to follow through on their pledge to no longer censor search results, and the government doesn’t back down on its laws and regulations.

The big question is whether or not Google will be able to be successful with improving access to Google.com services in China. Blocked google services include Spreadsheets, YouTube, and Blogspot. I’m going to go out on a (very long and fragile) limb and say that Google has come to some sort of understanding with the Chinese government to allow improved access to the core Google services in China. YouTube and Blogspot will almost certainly remain blocked, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Spreadsheets starts working by the end of the month, and maybe even other stuff will speed up (Google counts in nanoseconds). The government may choose to censor results from the China side (blocking some searches, etc.), but Google’s hands are “clean”.

If Google is successful in this, then the whole ordeal will have had very little effect on Google’s business in China, and may even end up a net positive. Ads from Chinese companies can still be served on Google.com (and have always been served on Google.com), and Google can continue to do R&D for Chinese language products (and whatever else they do) even without Google.cn. The original purpose of Google.cn was to serve a fast and reliable version of Google in China, and if they can achieve this goal without Google.cn, then Google.cn becomes less important.

We’ll see.

Google Is Not Leaving China

Like a lot of people, I’ve been following the storm that Google set off with this blog post, and I wanted to share three thoughts. Before continuing, make sure you’ve read the “Clearing Up Confusion on Google and China” post on the WSJ’s China Realtime Report. I’ll reference some of the stats but won’t review all of the info in the post.

Here is what Google has said:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

My three thoughts are that 1) I like Google.cn; 2) shutting down Google.cn does not mean the end of Google’s China business; and 3) Google is almost certainly not going to shut down its China office (but it might dramatically scale it down), and even if they do it doesn’t necessarily mean an end to Google’s China business.

I Like Google.cn

Google.cn is a locally-hosted version of Google.com that is fast and reliable.  It also censors results in accordance with Chinese law.  This was a compromise that Google was heavily criticized for, but one they justified by pointing out that Google.com was still available in China. Before Google.cn was established in 2006, Google.com was accessible, but it was periodically blocked and often slow.  In addition, searching for certain terms (for instance, strangely, the English word “freedom”) would return an error and sometimes leave Google inaccessible from your computer for about 15 minutes.

With the introduction of google.cn, Google also started to invest more in localizing other Google products, and hosted them on the Google.cn domain.  Google maps (ditu.google.cn) is now a valuable resource, and Google Music (free, legal music downloads at google.cn/music) is almost reason enough to move to China.  What Google explicitly did not do was introduce services that held sensitive user data (Gmail, Google Reader, Google Docs, Google Apps, etc.) to the Google.cn domain.  Doing so would have put user data at risk of censorship and even legal seizure by the Chinese government.  These services were still available through Google.com, but they faced the same (and often more severe) reliability and speed issues as search at Google.com.  Google Apps, for instance, remains blocked (I think), and Google Docs is currently extremely confusing to access (for instance, spreadsheets are only viewable using https).

I love how Google.cn gives me a fast and reliable Google in China, but I don’t think anyone believes that China will allow Google to run an uncensored version of Google.cn, and Google didn’t leave themselves much wriggle room in their blog post, so it appears likely that Google.cn will shut down. What does that mean for Google’s business?

Shutting Down Google.cn Does Not Mean the End of Google’s China Business

Google had a 13% market share in 2006, before they introduced Google.cn (see the WSJ post referenced above).  Since the introduction of Google.cn (also accessible from g.cn), they have raised their market share to around 36% (see here).  If they shut down google.cn, or redirected it to google.com, their market share would not immediately disappear.  In fact, it would probably remain at well over the 13% it was back in 2006. It’s not even beyond the realm of possibility that Google would be able to continue to expand their marketshare.  In addition to expanding marketshare over the past several years, Google has also expanded its “mindshare”.  While it used to be conventional wisdom that Baidu had better results in Chinese, Baidu’s reputation was damaged by their practice of mixing paid and “natural” search results, and Google continued to improve its Chinese search results.

It’s worth pointing out that life as a Google search user in the days before Google.cn wasn’t really that bad.  I used Google, as did 13% of all internet searchers in China.  When Google hiccuped, I used Baidu, but I always went back to Google.  

So if Google.cn goes away, Google’s China business doesn’t automatically go away.  Ads for Chinese companies appear on Google.com searches as well, so Google’s China search revenue wouldn’t just disappear, and Google’s other Chinese products could fairly easily be moved over to google.com and served to Chinese users (as far as I know, the only difference between a maps.google.com search and a ditu.google.cn search is that the .cn one is probably slightly faster)

I wonder what Google’s market share today would be if they had not started Google.cn in 2006 and had instead focused their efforts on ensuring better access to Google.com products in China?  A safe guess is somewhere between 13 and 36%.

Google Is Almost Certainly Not Going to Shut Down Its China Office (But It Might Dramatically Scale It Down), And Even If They Do It Doesn’t Necessarily Mean an End to Google’s China Business

Google closing its China office strikes me as a very remote possibility.  The blog post mentions it, but it also states that Google China executives had not yet been involved in the decision-making process.  I’m fairly certain that Google’s China executives will be able to convince headquarters to maintain an office in China.  Suppose, though, that Google did decide to close their offices here. Would that mean an end to Google’s business in China?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Even leaving a shell company in China to collect money would allow Google to continue to do business here.  While Google has depended more on a physical sales force in China than I assume they do in other countries, they could very easily do sales remotely from the US.  

Google appears to be worried that their China staff has been compromised, and may not feel comfortable maintaining development teams in China. One possibility in the short term is that they may outsource all China-related R&D to other countries, and only leave a sales force and PR team in China. Google already has a huge number of high-caliber Chinese employees working for them around the world, and they are working on and could continue to work on localizing and creating excellent Chinese-language products (I have no data to back this sentence up, but I know it’s true).  

Again, I don’t think that Google will close its China office, but want to point out that doing so wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of Google’s business in China, or, more important in the long-term, Google’s presence in China.

Those are my three thoughts. My hope is that Google will focus their energy on improving access to Google.com products in China, but I’m worried that their blog post was a heavy-handed start to the delicate negotiations that will be required.

China Menu iPhone App

My friend Wiley just released his first iPhone/iPod Touch application, and it’s very cool.
IMG_0565 IMG_0560
China Menu is at its heart an ordering tool to use at Chinese restaurants in China. It has hundreds of popular dishes ordered by cuisine and type, and large Chinese characters to show waiters and waitresses.
IMG_0561IMG_0564
In addition to the dish browser, it also includes a simple interface to access simple phrases in Chinese related to all steps of the eating process (from “How do I get to…?” to “Check please!”).
IMG_0563IMG_0562
You can also set your own “Meal Prefs”–from how much spiciness you can take to whether or not you eat dairy–and then show the waiter/waitress a simple screen to communicate them.

My favorite part of the app is in the details. The more time you spend with the app the more you come to realize that it was created by someone who loves Chinese food and loves sharing knowledge about eating in China. See for instance, the note attached to “Chicken Feet”:

A genuinely popular Chinese appetizer. Those possessed of western culinary sensibilities might ask questions like: “What is there to eat on a chicken’s foot?” It’s a reasonable question that highlights a key difference between Western and chinese food culture. Generally speaking, in china, the process of eating is itself something to be particularly enjoyed. Examples of this include commonly serving meat on the bone, as opposed to in fillets or boneless chunks. The result is that the process of eating is slowed and the diner is forced to nibble and gnaw to get the pieces of meat off of the bone, enjoying the subtleties of flavor in the process.

Chicken feet follow in this tradition. There is no “meat” to speak of, just bone and cartilage. But they have often been marinated or otherwise prepared in seasoning that is savored as you nibble. As you explore Chinese food you will find other examples of how the process of cooking and eating is savored in a way that to the Western palette can often seem irritating, such as cooking the meal in a dry wok or hot pot right at the table as you eat it. Overcoming initial irritations or apprehension about eating something new and strange is all part of the fun of discovering food in China, and we recommend that you try it, if for no other reason than to say that you did!

Wow. Eating with China Menu is like eating with an experienced China (restaurant) hand! It’s also a great app to show people to demonstrate what an iPhone/iPod touch can do.

I would say more, but Wiley says it better on the China Menu site.

China Menu is $2.99 for the first week. I think the price rises after that, but I’m not sure to how much.

Update: Here’s an interview with Wiley about the app.

Health Care

Here’s what I think might be happening with the health care debate in the United States.

  1. The Obama administration figured out early on that a “public option” and “co-ops” could be, in some ways, quite similar. One way of looking at it is that a good co-op system would be better than a bad public plan, and bring about many of the benefits that a better public plan would.
  2. They decided to push the public option hard, knowing that it was something they could compromise on.
  3. The opposition pushed back really hard on the public option.
  4. But the methods they used and/or tacitly supported alienated a lot of people.
  5. 50% (these percentages are made up) of people thought the government should be more involved in health care before, and 55% think so now.
  6. The administration pulled back on the public option, making the opposition feel like they won a huge victory.
  7. But the administration still has the co-ops, people opposed to more government involvement seem a little crazy to more and more people (even though being opposed to government involvement is not necessarily crazy), and health care reform is still moving in the desired direction, which was probably the best they could hope for in the first place.

(Full disclosure: I should admit that I approach this issue with a strong bias to believe that Obama is a pragmatic genius.)

What he said

Bob Herbert has the definite analysis and commentary on the Gates-Crowley incident in “Anger Has Its Place“:

The very first lesson that should be drawn from the encounter between Mr. Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, is that Professor Gates did absolutely nothing wrong. He did not swear at the officer or threaten him. He was never a danger to anyone. At worst, if you believe the police report, he yelled at Sergeant Crowley. He demanded to know if he was being treated the way he was being treated because he was black.

You can yell at a cop in America. This is not Iran. And if some people don’t like what you’re saying, too bad. You can even be wrong in what you are saying. There is no law against that. It is not an offense for which you are supposed to be arrested.

I would probably replace “nothing wrong” with “nothing remotely warranting arrest”, but the point still stands. Even if Gates overreacted, he was most certainly the person who was “wronged” in this situation.

And this quote (although I’d like to see a citation) really makes me angry:

As of mid-2008, there were 4,777 black men imprisoned in America for every 100,000 black men in the population. By comparison, there were only 727 white male inmates per 100,000 white men.

While whites use illegal drugs at substantially higher percentages than blacks, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.

How to Activate China Mobile Tethering on an iPhone 3G

After activating MMS, the only iPhone 3.0 feature I was missing was tethering. A couple of days ago I was finally able to get it working.(1)

Google had sent me to this site a while back, but it didn’t have any profiles for mainland China.

After dead ends elswhere, though, I decided to try using the above site to create a profile.

I clicked(2) on “Mobileconfigs… create” and entered the following settings (I left the rest of the settings blank):


Mobile Internet
APN: cmnet

Tethering: On

Then I clicked on “GENERATE!”. It asked me to accept, I did, and then the tethering option was available in Settings–>General–>Network–>Internet Tethering.

So tethering now works, but I haven’t yet had the need to use either it or MMS. At least they work…

(1) Try this at your own risk. It worked for me, but your phone might explode. Also, I assume it only works with an iPhone 3G or 3GS (although it doesn’t need a 3G network, because I’m using China Mobile’s Edge(?) network).
(2) I guess “clicked” is the wrong metaphor, but “touched” doesn’t seem right either.

How to Activate MMS on iPhone OS 3.0 in China

After upgrading my iPhone 3G to iPhone OS 3.0, I wanted to try out MMS, but it’s not activated by default on the China Mobile network.

Google sent me to these two sites, which provide the answer in Chinese.

In case other people are looking for the same info, I thought I’d reproduce the info here in English:

China Mobile GSM Users

1. Go to Settings –> Phone –> My Number
and enter your number.

2. Go to Settings –> General –> Network –> Cellular Data Network
and enter the following settings under “MMS”:

APM: cmwap
MMSC: mmsc.monternet.com
MMS Proxy: 10.0.0.172

3. Restart your phone

China Unicom GSM Users

1. Go to Settings –> Phone –> My Number
and enter your number.

2. Restart your phone

3. There is no step 3.

China Unicom 3G Users

1. Go to Settings –> Phone –> My Number
and enter your number.

2. Go to Settings –> General –> Network –> Cellular Data Network
and enter the following settings under “Cellular Data”:
APM: 3gnet
and the following under “MMS”:
APM: uniwap
MMSC: http://mmsc.myuni.com.cn
MMS Proxy: 10.0.0.172

3. Restart your phone.

Good luck!

Notes:
1. I’ve heard that China Mobile limits the size of MMSs, and that pictures taken with the iPhone camera sometimes exceed that limit. My experience is that some go through and some don’t.

2. I suspect that jailbroken phones have had MMS for a while, but I’m not sure. I haven’t yet found a compelling reason to jailbreak. Is there a killer app out there that I can’t get in the app store?

3. I haven’t been able to find a similar method for activating tethering, another much-hyped iPhone OS 3.0 feature. This could be because I don’t know how to say “tethering” in Chinese, which limits my Googling abilities. Does tethering only work on a 3G network? Maybe tethering is the killer app that will convince me to jailbreak…

iPhone in China

I started drooling when the iPhone was announced in 2007, and finally bought one in September of 2008. In this post I want to share some reflections on the iPhone itself, procuring and using an iPhone in China, and what i’d like to see in the new iPhone that will hopefully be announced (released?) on Monday.

iPhone in China

Part of the reason I delayed getting an iPhone for so long was that it wasn’t available in mainland China. There were hacks (jailbreaking the phone or messing with the SIM card), but they seemed like a hassle, and I worried about the phone being ‘bricked’ by a software update from Apple. Another factor was that I was using a CDMA number with China Unicom and would have had to switch numbers to use the GSM iPhone.

What finally convinced me to get one was the existence of ‘naturally unlocked’ iPhones sold in certain countries (or, um, territories/regions like Hong Kong). These phones were not tied to any carrier, and didn’t require any hijinks to use on the mainland.

The problem was that they cost a lot, and a new HK iPhone would have set me back more than 7000 RMB (more than a thousand USD). Fortunately, I was able to find a barely used HK phone for just over 4000 RMB, which is about how much a new, locked US phone would have cost.

I’ve been more than happy (what exactly is ‘more than happy’?) with how well the iPhone has worked in China.

-I switched to a China Mobile GSM number, and haven’t missed the spotty CDMA reception.

-One issue that some people might have is not being able access the App Store in the mainland, but my US iTunes account has worked fine here.

-China Mobile’s 3G network is TD-CDMA, which the iPhone doesn’t support, so my non-wi-fi Internet access has been limited to GPRS (or is it EDGE?) speeds. China Mobile’s data plans are 100RMB/month for 800 MB or 200RMB/month for 2GB, with total fees capped at 500RMB/month if you go over. I’m using the 800MB plan and despite fairly heavy usage I don’t think I’ve gone over. I’d love to have 3G speeds, but I’ve still found the slower network very usable.

China Unicom’s WCDMA network started it’s initial rollout in May in 50-some cities, and it should support the iPhone. It’s tempting to switch, but I’m going to wait until the network proves itself with a broader rollout before I consider switching numbers… again. I’m also tempted to wait until an official version of the iPhone comes out for the mainland market.

iPhone Impressions

Things I like/love

1. Online everywhere
It’s amazing how different it is to be connected to the Internet at all times. No more searching for am internet bar or an Ethernet plug while on the road just to check email.

2. SMS Conversations
So much of my personal and business communication happens via SMS, and I’ve always wanted to be able to keep a record of these conversations. Unfortunately, every other phone I’ve had has had a very small amount of memory for SMS messages, and deleting messages every few days was very irritating. The iPhone stores all of my SMS messages with each contact in a handy IM-style conversation view, so I have a complete archive off all my conversations and can look up what I’ve said in the past. This might sound very minor, but it’s probably my favorite feature.

3. The Interface in General
I love Mobile Safari, I love Photos, and I love the interface on general. I won’t go into detail because so many people already have. Downloaded applications I use daily include OmniFocus, iExpensIt, Twitterific, and Kindle if the book I’m reading is a Kindle book. I also use the Gmail and Google Reader daily in Mobile Safari.

Things I Don’t Like

1. Battery Life
My battery is almost always dead by the end of the day, so I usually find some time to have it charging during the day. A couple of days ago I had an early morning train ride and was using the phone pretty heavily on the train–it was giving me battery warnings before lunch.

2. Speed
The phone is too slow, and waiting for programs to load is annoying. This is especially true for quick-entry programs like Notes, OmniFocus and SMS. It also makes using the camera to capture moments very frustrating.

3. 128 MB of RAM
Particularly with just GPRS download speeds, it’s annoying when switching to another web page makes the page that I was just looking at disappear. When I switch back to it I have to wait for the whole thing to download again.

Things I’d Like to See in the Next iPhone

The first three are tied directly to the things I don’t like:

1. Faster Processor
2. Substantially Longer Battery Life
3. More RAM

John Gruber seems convinced that these three are probably going to happen (except for maybe the batter life).

4. An option to send an email with links to all of Safari’s open pages.
This may sound silly, but I often find myself wanting to send four or five articles that I have open on the iPhone to my computer to read, and sending them one by one is tedious.

We’ll see what happens on Monday. The thing I’m most curious about is whether or not a mainland China version of the iPhone will be announced. This guy (who seems to know everything about the iPhone in China), seems to think that it’s coming soon, perhaps with some of the preloaded standard apps being replaced by their Chinese counterparts (e.g., Youku for YouTube).

2009

I can’t believe it’s 2009.

Catherine and I spent this afternoon reviewing 2008 and talking about what we want to do in 2009.

For some reason, I often think of things in terms of threes. For 2008, I set the following three goals for work at New Channel.

1. Set and carry out a realistic budget.

2. Create a 3-5 year plan.

3. Improve management systems.

While we could have done better in all three areas, we did a fairly good job at accomplishing these three goals.

This afternoon I came up with the following three goals (or areas of focus) for next year in my work life:

1. Deal with the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that come with more branch schools.

2. Effectively measure our marketing and sales activities.

3. Bring more standardization to our curriculum.

And in my personal life:

1. Keep in regular touch with friends and family.

2. Write more.

3. Exercise regularly.

Of course, there are many, many other things I want to do in 2009, but these are some areas I plan to focus on. Should be a fun year.