Category Archives: Science and Technology

QQ vs. 360 vs. the Media vs. Common Sense

The media has been all in a tizzy about the latest example of terrible, terrible PR in China (and for once, it isn’t coming from the government). For those who haven’t been following, here’s the short version: 360, a popular Chinese internet security company, accused Tencent QQ, the world’s most popular instant messaging service, of serious security vulnerabilities including the ability to secretly scan the hard drives of users. What followed has been a great example of how not to conduct PR on both sides of the divide.

But in the scrum to cover the PR and the potential business implications, everyone seems to be ignoring the most obvious question, which is: does QQ really contain such serious security flaws?

No one seems to care! This question is at the crux of this disagreement, and the answer to it has gigantic ramifications given the ridiculously huge nature of QQ’s user base. But no one is reporting on it.

For example: this, this, this, this, this, this etc. There are lots of angles, but none that address whether any of the claims being thrown back and forth are true or not.

In fact, the only thing I could find that addresses the issue is this (via @klukoff), an unofficial test that claims to affirm at least some of 360’s accusations about QQ by using a Microsoft product that monitors what other software is doing. But that was posted nearly a week ago. Why is no one else addressing the veracity of these claims? True, the PR angle is interesting, but what about the is-the-most-popular-IM-software-in-the-world-secretly-spying-on-all-its-users angle?

Admittedly, I don’t know how easy this stuff is to test, but I get the impression no one has called any experts and tried, otherwise we’d at least see sentences like “experts were unable to immediately confirm 360’s allegations” popping up in a couple articles, right? Also admittedly, I haven’t had time to do a very thorough search of Chinese-language reporting on the topic yet, so I’m not sure whether the Chinese media is having a similar problem, although I suspect they are.

Seriously, this is kind of ridiculous. Would it be “unbalanced” to get an independent evaluation that supported one side or the other? Is it to difficult to find capable tech experts willing to talk to the media? Or am I just alone in caring more about whether or not QQ is actually spying than I care about whether or not 360 and QQ are acting in their users’ best interests?

They probably aren’t. I just wonder if the media is really doing any better.

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Beheading Freedom

Poor Chinese gamers. Between the censorship, the prejudices, and the weird boot camps, they’ve never had it easy. The latest blow? A fresh helping of censorship just in time for the (long overdue) release of World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King official release in China (elsewhere, it has been out for a long time).

We first heard from Corndog–the man who made this incredible anti-censorship bit of machinima–that WoW players were logging into WotLK and discovering that certain terms were now “sensitive words” and could no longer be used inside the game. According to this WoW fan site (our translation):

Players overjoyed at the release of the expansion quickly discovered that words like “freedom”, “sexy”, and “passion” were no longer allowed in-game, and players whose account names included these characters were being forced to change their names.

This phenomenon has left many players perplexed, and some are calling for a boycott of the game until the terms are permitted again.

Supposedly, Netease is working to find the “cause” of this, and will promptly fix it when they find it. Whether that’s true or not, the whole thing certainly is perplexing. “Sexy” and “passionate”, perhaps, could be the result of an overzealous censor getting hyped about the “three vulgarities” campaign that’s ramping up. But freedom? Really?

Not to be outdone by censors, Chinese netizens had come up with a solution within hours that is both serviceable and symbolic. They took the word for freedom (自由 zìyóu) and “beheaded” both characters, resulting in a new coinage: 目田 (mùtián).

The brilliance of this is that the characters themselves are a reflection of the ridiculous, neutering censorship policy. They are a visual expression of gamers’ perceptions that censorship has left their experience as something less than whole. At the same time, just like earlier internet slang terms, it allows people to keep using the word “freedom” without actually setting off the automatic filter that blocks the two character term 自由 zìyóu. 目田 Mùtián is not an actual word in Chinese, so there’s not much confusion about what anyone means when they type it. And both characters have existed for millennia, so the new term is as easy to type as any other Chinese word. ((Chinese net users do, on occasion, invent entirely new characters, but they can’t be typed as they aren’t included in the character sets that come with computers.))

It will be interesting to see if Netease ultimately changes anything. It’s hard to believe that a bug could result in such selective censorship; the real question is whether Netease will back down or hide behind their own incompetence by claiming they can’t find the “bug”. A third, infinitely less likely possibility is that they could directly finger the government. Recently, a number of foreign and domestic companies have complained or commented about what censorship policies cost them from a financial perspective. But it’s hard to believe the central government would tell Netease to ban the word freedom.

My guess is it’s another example of Blizzard’s domestic partner’s getting overexcited and censoring more than they are told to.

We’ll update if/when anything actually changes. Until then, long live 目田 Mùtián!

Who Decides How Hot it is?

This summer seems to have been a hot one all over. Certainly, in China, the heat has been a popular topic of conversation the past few months. How hot is it really? Well, interestingly, it very much depends who you ask.

In Beijing, at least, there’s plenty of skepticism about the official temperatures that are reported. It’s a commonly-held belief that because the government and other employers are required to give some types of workers the day off or pay them extra if the temperature breaches 40 degrees Celsius (i.e., 104 degrees Fahrenheit), the officially reported temperature will never break 40℃, regardless of how hot it actually is.

This week’s issue of Southern Weekend has a cover story about the heat and how it’s reported:

On July 5th, a Beijing TV placed an uncooked egg on top of a manhole in the street. Three minutes later, it was fully cooked. On August 13th in Hangzhou, an alcohol thermometer was only on the street for a moment before it shot up beyond its highest marked temperature: 50℃.

The weather reports for those places from the day before suggested that the highest possible temperatures would be 32℃ and 37℃. The actual temperatures on that day were measured at 39.5℃ and 40.6℃ (respectively).

There have already been 23 heat-related sudden deaths in Beijing, Jinan, Wuxi, Hefei, etc.; half of these deaths were people working in outdoor trades [who can’t legally be made to work if the temperature is above 40℃] like construction or cleaning the outsides of buildings.

However, at the times these deaths occurred, none of the “highs” in these cities weather reports were as high as 40℃.

Needless to say, this has been a contentious issue online for some time. The Southern Weekend report quotes one netizen as asking, “So is whether or not it’s over 40℃ a science question or a political question?”

According to the report, China’s official temperature readings come from a thermometer suspended 1.5m off the ground in a wooden, ventilated box. Each city has one. Most countries use a similar system, which allows Chinese meteorologists to easy compare their numbers to others around the globe. However, the temperature on the ground can be much hotter than what these official thermometers register. For example, on August 5th in Guangzhou, the official thermometer never got above 37.1℃, but the ground temperature on the same day got as high as 51.8℃.

Another reason for the disparity is that these temperature measurements aren’t actually being taken in the city. While each city has one, according to the report many of them are not recording temperatures in the city proper, where a variety of factors from the prevalence of buildings to the increased amount of pollution combine to make the temperature rise. So when the Beijing weather report says 37℃, that means it’s 37℃ inside a ventilated wooden box 1.5 meters off the ground, somewhere outside (but near, presumably) the city itself.

Moreover, these temperature readings are just one factor that goes into producing the numbers you seen in weather forecasts, which are apparently hotly debated by teams of meteorologists. “The ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of the daily weather forecasts are not the result of direct mathematical equation,” said expert Li Kaile, “they’re the result of a discussion between the meteorologists on duty at the time.”

Also, the numbers are not calculated to factor in the influence of humidity, wind speed, or relative solar radiation. To get a real idea of what the temperature the next day will be like, Southern Weekend says, you’d need to collect all of this information, and you’d also need a bit of meteorological expertise.

The article’s authors wondered: “Isn’t that a little bit difficult for common folks?”

All the experts Southern Weekend spoke to denied that there was any kind of threshold they weren’t allowed to pass at 40℃.

Whether the 40℃ rule is real or not, it seems clear that the weather forecasts here are totally useless for city dwellers. After all, very few of us spend our days in ventilated wooden boxes outside the city. But at least now we know if we ever want to, it will be easy to find out what the weather there is like…

The Jilin Floods and Web 2.0 Video as Journalism

If you, like I, have been reading about the flooding that’s been happening this summer, but have been fortunate enough not to have to witness it firsthand, you may not be aware of just how devastating it’s been. Have a look for yourself at this video of the flooding in Jilin:

http://player.youku.com/player.php/Type/Folder/Fid/4856669/Ob/1/Pt/5/sid/XMTkzNTc5NTI4/v.swf
Link to video

If you can’t understand the Chinese, that’s OK, its pretty much what you’d expect. As the first person in the river grabs onto the pole, the camera operator shouts “Grab it, grab it Beautifully done, come on! Come on, come on!” etc. And then, as the first man makes it into the window and the second person approaches, “There’s another one! Grab it, grab it! Good! Uh oh, he didn’t grab it. Fuck. He didn’t grab it. He’s done.”

In this video, also from Jilin, a man attempts to pull himself out of the swift current and only a pile of debris that is growing in size rather rapidly. If you’re wondering why it takes him so long, you probably haven’t been swimming in a powerful one-way current like this one. The force of the water, esppecially below the surface, is extremely strong, and it’s simultaneously pushing his body against the trash pile and also sucking it downwards with tremendous force ((In river sports, this kind of hazard is referred to as a “strainer”, and there is not much that’s more dangerous. Having coached a whitewater kayaking team for a season, I have limited experience, but enough to be quite sure that being in this guy’s position is not at all fun.)).

http://player.youku.com/player.php/Type/Folder/Fid/4856669/Ob/1/Pt/2/sid/XMTk1MTg2MjQ4/v.swf
Link to video

This video, which features what appears to be children being swept away in the same flood, has also appeared:
http://player.youku.com/player.php/Type/Folder/Fid/4354554/Ob/1/Pt/7/sid/XMTkzNTYxNjQ4/v.swf

In fact, Youku is full of videos from the front lines. There’s the rescue of a pig from the bloated Songhua River to reports on the color of drinking water in Jilin (brown!). It’s compelling, if terrifying, viewing that really brings home what flooding really means to those of us who’ve never lived through one.

Additionally, though, these videos might also be symbolic of something larger. As the Global Times pointed out yesterday, Chinese video sites have been cracking down on IP theft, and many video sites are going to be left with the question of what new content they can bring in to replace pirated stuff. One wonders if homemade video isn’t the answer in China, just as it was for Youtube.

Of course, there’s more at stake in a country where the official media doesn’t always report the truth. In a nation full of people with cell phones — which, increasingly, have photo and video capabilities — the number of Chinese people capable of recording footage like this is going up by the day. Imagine how much more we would know about what really happened on June 4th, for example, if just every 10th person in Beijing had had a cell phone that could shoot video.

These are not new revelations, of course, but what has changed is the sheer number and speed with which videos like these appear online. Of course, these videos, too, are subject to censorship (apparently searching for chengguan, for example, isn’t allowed). But if Chinese censors are already getting headaches trying to censor tweets, one can only imagine the kind of headache they’re going to develop as the influx of homemade videos increases. Tweets, after all, can be scanned by computers for sensitive terms. But videos? To censor them properly, every single second of every video uploaded would need to be watched. At the moment, I suspect that would be extremely difficult. If it isn’t already, I’m certain that within a few years it will be utterly impossible.

What are the implications for that for freedom of information and accurate journalism within the infrastructure of an authoritarian state? It’s hard to say, as it’s difficult to predict how the government will react. But if nothing else, China’s censors are in for a gigantic challenge.

As a sidenote, I’d like to apologize for the recent lack of updates. Unfortunately for you, dear readers, I am a geek in many way, and occasionally I discover something else that demands an unfair portion of my leisure time.

The More Things Change on the Chinese Internet…

…the more they stay the same. This has been an interesting week for the internet in China. First came the news — not surprising to anyone, probably — that China’s internet user base continues to grow, and reached 420 million in June. Then came the Beijing Daily report sounding the death-knell for Green Dam censorship and monitoring software that was going to be required on all computers sold in China before netizen complaints forced Beijing to back down. The news that the company behind Green Dam is belly-up (and that the government is no longer supporting it) might seem like cause for a little celebratory grave-dancing, if some less terrible things hadn’t also happened this week.

Microblogs nationwide went down, and when they came back up, they had all slapped “Beta” on to their logos. Slowly, netizens are discovering what that means. We reported yesterday that Sina’s weibo service no longer allows links to any foreign websites (blocked or not). Danwei reported ((Can’t load Danwei because of the effin’ GFW? Try Freedur.)) today that at least one person has discovered his name is now a “sensitive word” on Sina. What’s worse, the stepped-up censorship doesn’t seem limited to blogs.

Renowned lawyer and blogger Liu Xiaoyuan posted his own story of Sohu’s censorship to his Sohu and Sina blogs today:

In March of 2007, Sohu started to block and hide some of my blog posts. I got fed up with it and on August 16, 2007, filed a lawsuit with the Haidian district People’s Court. After nearly a year and two trials, both of my suits ((The second, presumably, was an appeal of the decision on the first suit; Liu does not go into any detail about this though.)) were rejected. If even the People’s Court sees but does not care about the violation of a citizen’s right to free speech, what could I do?

My blog posts continued to be blocked and hidden. Especially during the period of Yang Jia‘s case, a large number of posts were “purged”, but I had already become numb to it.

On July 28, 2009, I had been writing on my Sohu blog for more than three years. That day was the first time my blog was forcibly closed. They didn’t tell me anything [about why the blog was suddenly closed]. So fine, if you won’t tell me anything, then I will tell you something! I immediately registered another Sohu blog and gave Sohu a piece of my mind.

I never thought that this blog would be killed on July 12, 2010, before it had even reached one year of age. On the 13th, I opened another Sohu blog, but it only lived for a single day and was “assassinated” on the 14th.

I’ve said before, the best wat to protest when they close your blog is to open another. [I’ve opened another blog,] I really don’t know how long this one will survive.

Open your own blogs, let other people worry about closing them!

Within a few minutes, that post had been deleted from his Sohu blog, although it remains on his Sina blog, at least for the time being ((Although Sina also deletes specific posts of Liu’s on a fairly regular basis, as Liu often posts lists of the titles of recent posts of his that have been deleted.)). His Sohu blog now consists of a single brief post, entitled “Sohu moves so fast”:

Today, I opened a new Sohu blog and my first post [the post translated above] was deleted within five minutes. Sohu, Sohu, when did you become such cowards?

Green Dam may be dead, but censorship is clearly alive and well on the Chinese internet. Stepped up censorship from domestic portals (both microblogging and real blogging portals) is definitely a grave sign. On the other hand, there’s a chance the push could trigger a push back from netizens, just as the Green Dam software initiative did. Only time will tell, but feel free to speculate with me in the comments in the meantime.

You can also follow Liu Xiaoyuan via his Twitter.

Domestic Microblogs Cut Off from the Outside World

First there was what seemed to be a surprising amount of freedom on the Chinese microblogging sites that leapt up in the absence of Twitter and Fanfou. Then, this week ((Can’t see this story? Break through the GFW with a VPN from Freedur)), the four biggest microblogging services suddenly added “beta” tags to their logos, prompting Chinese users to collectively groan and brace for impact.

That impact has come, at least on Sina’s Weibo service. Links to any website outside China are now blocked. Reports of this new policy spread this afternoon via Twitter, and having tested it ourselves, we can confirm that it is true. As you can see from our Sina Weibo, we attempted to post five links. The first four were to innocuous and unblocked websites outside China, including a New York Times article and the Geico Insurance Company website. All four were converted into shortened links automatically, and when clicked, they returned only an error message. However, when we tested a fifth time using a domestic link (youku.com), the shortened URL worked fine and we were directed to the Youku.

So anything — anything — that isn’t on a Chinese website can no longer be linked via Sina Weibo. I’m not even going to comment on this one. Will it push more Chinese internet users outside the GFW in search of a microblogging experience that doesn’t pretend half of the internet doesn’t exist? Who knows.

Of course, as it means we can no longer post links to our blog (which is hosted outside China), we will no longer be using the service.

The Trouble with Predicting Earthquakes

A week or so ago, a reader sent us a suggested article for translation. It was an interview with Wang Chengmin, the government scientist who predicted the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. He reported his findings to more than sixty people, but was mostly ignored. One of the officials who did listen was Wang Chunqing, and the preparedness in his county resulted in a much higher survival rate than other counties, according to analyses.

Needless to say, after the Wenchuan earthquake, Wang Chengmin surfaced again, and in 2009, he gave an extensive interview, parts of which we’ve translated below:

Wang Chengmin on Predicting Earthquakes

On officials’ responses to warnings about earthquakes:

“After the Tangshan earthquake, the Director of the State Seismological Bureau Liu Yingyong said, “I should be getting ready to go to prison; I owe a blood debt to the people for this [i.e., failing to properly warn the people].” When he thought on it after the earthquake, he hadn’t supported the good things that could have been done before the quake hit, and that made him act like a responsible Party member and say that sentence. Now it’s worse than [the time of the] Tangshan [earthquake]. All this lot of new officials think about is how to deal with those above and below them [in the government]. So I say something true [about the probability of an earthquake], and eighty thousand people die, but even those lives can’t bring us a word of truth [from the government]. It’s very, very serious. Everywhere [the truth about quake warnings] is being suppressed. We tried to speak a bit, publish some essays, or communicate face to face, but everywhere […] we were refused. You can’t communicate, there’s no way to, they completely dodge everything.”

On talking about “the truth” in China:

“If you dare to persist in talking about the truth, you have to do it exactly right. If you go one step over the line from this “truth”, it becomes unbelievable. If you exaggerate the usefulness of forecasting [earthquakes] at all, it makes things difficult, it creates the opposite reaction [from what you want]. So you have to do it just right.”

Wang Chengmin goes on to stress that predicting earthquakes itself is a tricky business, and says that many of the people gloating about their successful prediction of the Wenchuan earthquake are not mentioning the many times before they have predicted earthquakes and nothing happened. And, he concedes, people don’t tend to be interested in the deeper scientific issues, so when someone correctly predicts an earthquake, they become a hero.

He also talks about the rift between the State Seismological Bureau and earthquake forecasters generally, and suggests there needs to be less hotheadedness about who got what right, and more sharing of experience that could help lower the proportion of false predictions. But he says that there were accurate reports that predicted the Wenchuan earthquake before it happened.

On why some earthquakes are accurately predicted and others aren’t, and why even when they are people sometimes don’t listen:

“Every person has different methods in earthquake prediction, so [if you’re an official looking at all of it], at the end of the day there’s a big pile of data on your table. It’s chaotic and contradictory, but a person or a group of people need to make policy decisions [based on it] […] what’s complex is that using the same methods, means, and instruments, two different people can get different results.”

Wang goes into some depth about the debates that occurred within the scientific community before the Wenchuan earthquake, as well as the Tangshan earthquake, and it’s an interesting read for anyone interested in seismology or earthquake prevention.

Zhao Shilong on the S.S.B. and the Qinghai Earthquake

Meanwhile, the Qinghai earthquake has once again brought attention upon the State Seismological Bureau, and journalist Zhao Shilong noted that their spending record had recently been announced publicly:

  • Earthquake forecasting: 2,700,000 RMB
  • Tracking the earthquake situation ((I’m not sure exactly what this refers to…)): 17,000,000 RMB
  • Supervising transmission of quake information: 50,120,000 RMB
  • Rental subsidies: 5,180,000 RMB
  • Housing fund: 71,660,000 RMB
  • House-purchasing subsidies: 86,780,000 RMB
  • Administration: 180,000,000 RMB
  • Internal functions ((Not 100% sure of this translation, 机构运行)): 2,100,000,000 RMB

Zhao writes,

“Just from this data we can analyize and see that all their expenses come from administration; earthquake prediction only accounts for 2,700,000 RMB out of the total 2,400,000,000 RMB budget [i.e., about 0.1% of their budget – ed.].

One could say that predicting earthquakes is the State Seismological Bureau’s most important job, [so their strategy should be] “using the best steel to make the knife’s blade”. But from their financial report, we can see that earthquake prediction has been marginalized and given an unimportant status, so in the end, the best steel wasn’t used on the blade. This is a corrupt and infringing administrative practice. [China’s] not being able to predict earthquakes doesn’t just come from a lack of technical skills, it comes from corrupt administrative practices that actively hinder the work of earthquake forecasting.

[…]

For example, a worker named Tu in the Shanxi Seismological Bureau predicted the earthquake in Yushu tens of hours before it occurred. But according to the internal operating procedures of the Seismological Bureau, you cannot use the phone or email to report, you must file it on an internal department card, then take a number and wait to mail it to a specialized department. At its fastest, this procedure can be completed in three days, so obviously if you make a report hours before a quake, bringing it into this kind of inefficient system is useless.

This is called “bureaucracy killing people”. If the conditions are right, the bureaucracy can kill people off like flies.

Not being an expert in science or funding scientific departments, I’ll keep my opinion to myself on this one. How likely is it that China can get to a point where earthquakes are consistently and accurately predicted far enough ahead of time that it has an effect on the death toll?

New on ChinaGeeks

  • There is a new post on ChinaGeeks Chinese, a translation of this post of ours. 在Twitter上疯传的白痴老外视频:种族主义和性别歧视? Check it out!
  • I also have an op-ed running in the Global Times today. The version that appears in print is, well, different from the one I submitted (ah, censorship!), and I’m not sure why each sentence is its own paragraph (readers in China, please tell me that’s just a website thing?) but check it out anyway because it’s my first publication in mainstream media thing like this, suckas!