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Xiaomi’s vaguely familiar design and a Chinese bitcoin mine

In case you’re not following consultant-turned-VC Benedict Evans‘ newsletter on mobile technology (which is excellent and highly recommended), here are the China-related gems from this week:

Xiaomi unveiled the latest version of its custom flavor of Android. Lot of interesting and innovative features in there. The design language, though, looks… vaguely familiar. Link

Apple is now storing Chinese user data on Chinese soil. Link

Joi Ito: visiting Shenzhen. Link

Inside a Chinese Bitcoin mine. $60k a month in power bills. Link

The Chinese taxi app wars. Link [paywall]

Smartisan – one of the many Chinese companies trying to innovate on top of Android. Link

More information about Benedict Evans, his newsletter and how to subscribe.

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UPDATE: related to the first quoted link:

Anti-shanzhai memes, copycat gamemakers and Korean popstars

Left: Puzzle & Dragons. Right: Tower of Saviors. Image sources: AppAdvice, USGamer.

Left: Puzzle & Dragons, made in Japan in 2012. Right: Tower of Saviors, made in Hong Kong in 2013. (Image sources: AppAdvice, USGamer.)

This month, South Korean boy band sensation Big Bang arrives in Hong Kong as the newly-minted spokesperson for the local smartphone game, Tower of Saviors (pictured above… on the right). The city is abuzz with the news as Big Bang is extremely popular in Hong Kong and as advertisements are being plastered all over our subway system:

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By all accounts, business is good for the makers of Tower of Saviors. Last October, Tech In Asia reported that the smartphone game had passed the 7 million download mark with an average revenue per paying user of US$40. And in March, Pocket Gamer reported that China game publisher Forgame paid over US$ 90 million for a 21% stake in their parent company.

But behind the commercial success is a mob of really, really angry netizens; they believe that Tower of Saviors is a shameless clone of Puzzle & Dragons. In case the image at the top of this article isn’t clear enough, EVCHK has three more examples of the similarities between Japan’s Puzzle & Dragons and Hong Kong’s Tower of Saviors.

 

Let the anti-shanzhai memes begin

If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying memes over the past few years, it’s the more inventive and humorous the meme, the more powerful it is. And the above song is not only funny, but immaculately produced. The first two lines of the song say:

Shanzhai, shanzhai, why are so many people buying
Be loud, copy quickly, then you can sell big

There are also image memes featuring the founder of the parent company:

Uploaded by Neerhtac to EVCHK.

Translation: “Success depends on shanzhai.” (Uploaded by Neerhtac to EVCHK.)

And if that’s not enough, a parody app called Toilet of Plagiarists:

Screenshots of "Toilet of Plagiarists" from the Google Play Store.

Screenshots of “Toilet of Plagiarists” from the Google Play Store.

 

Netizens make a politician take back his words (and quote Bruce Lee)

During the early rise of Tower of Saviors just over a year ago, Hong Kong legislative councilor Charles Mok was caught lauding its creators in Sky Post for their “work hard play hard” attitude and seizing the opportunity of Puzzle & Dragons’ not releasing a non-Japanese version. Two days later, Charles wrote a lengthy retraction in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, citing Facebook commenters who had pointed out the fallacies of his earlier article; including one who even went as far as to “unfriend” him in anger.

But within these two days, Charles had done his homework. First, there are over 20 Puzzle & Dragons clones, which makes the Tower of Saviors unremarkable in its mimicry. (Though it did disturb him that he publicly supported copycats.) Then, he found out that the Tower of Saviors creators were previously involved with Pencake, a Facebook app company that was banned from Facebook for its unscrupulous business practices.

Charles then quips: “如果不是初犯,就是誠信問題了.” (Translation: if it is not the first offense, then it’s a problem of honesty.)

And he audaciously ends the article with a Bruce Lee quote, “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” And adds, “I’ve admitted it, will Madhead [the Tower of Saviors parent company]?”

 

The reality of global apathy and legal challenges

Upright politicians and diehard netizens aside, most people actually don’t care. One of the most common questions asked about the topic is simply: which game is better? And Puzzle & Dragons lost points early by only being released in the US and Japan app stores, which insulted gamers and pushed them into the arms of its clones.

Unfortunately, cloning games is not an uncommon practice; casual gamers are pretty forgiving about it. One recent example was for the breakthrough puzzle game, Threes, which was created in the US; then promptly cloned as 1024 in Beijing; which was in turn cloned and open sourced as 2048 in Italy – much to the dismay of its original creators who had labored on it for over a year.

Giant Bomb compares 1024 with 2048 with Threes.

Giant Bomb compares 1024 with 2048 with Threes.

One of the major underlying problems is that there’s no clear or easy way to “copyright” a game (though it is possible to throw money at the problem in the form of flimsy software patents). As such, it’s usually technically not illegal to clone and sell a game.

 

The future: cloning games is big business

Only time will tell whether Puzzle & Dragons and Towers of Saviors will succeed over the other, flop entirely as a fad or co-exist in the marketplace. It’s possible that the original’s design will remain superior and “crush” its clones. But it’s also possible that the clone’s significant marketing budget (Korean pop stars, etc.) will allow them to buy out entire markets.

What is already happening is that another Hong Kong-based game publisher, 6waves, is under fire for cloning smartphone games. It’s already lost its case once, and it’s slated to appear in court in San Francisco for another batch of products. Will Tower of Saviors follow a similar fate in the courts one day?

IBM teams up with the Beijing government to tackle its pollution problem

ibm-evolving-temperature-and-wind-directions

From a Quartz article by Gwynn Guilford:

IBM plans to improve the quality of data by installing its latest generation of optical sensors, incorporating meteorological satellite data and running that through its artificial-intelligence computing system (a.k.a. Watson, that computer that trounced humans on Jeopardy). The visual maps it generates will identify the source and dispersal pattern of pollutants across Beijing with a street-level degree of detail 72 hours in advance.

The Green Horizon initiative will also see IBM use big data analytics and weather modeling to forecast availability of renewable energies like wind and solar, power sources that are notoriously intermittent. That should limit the amount of that energy being wasted. The third layer of the plan involves a system that IBM is developing to help industrial companies manage their energy consumption.

Read the full article.

The future of Chinese language learning

Victor Mair has some compelling thoughts on the Language Log on the future of Chinese language learning, and how we might soon be rid of brute force “rote memorization (sǐbèi/jì 死背/記 [lit., "deadly memorization"]).”

When I began learning Mandarin nearly half a century ago, I knew exactly how I wanted to acquire proficiency in the language.  Nobody had to tell me how to do this; I knew it instinctively.  The main features of my desired regimen would be to:

1. pay little or no attention to memorizing characters (I would have been content with actively mastering 25 or so very high frequency characters and passively recognizing at most a hundred or so high frequency characters during the first year)

2. focus on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, particles, morphology, syntax, idioms, patterns, constructions, sentence structure, rhythm, prosody, and so forth — real language, not the script

3. read massive amounts of texts in Romanization and, if possible later on (after about half a year when I had the basics of the language nailed down), in character texts that would be phonetically annotated

The problem was that all of my language teachers insisted that I memorize hundreds of characters right from the very start.

How shall we use these marvelous tools, and what are their implications for Chinese language teaching / learning?  I could expatiate on the virtues of these new applications for days, but here I shall merely outline them under several points:

1. they will eliminate the need for the dreaded, boring, antiquated, stifling tīngxiě 听 写 / 聽寫 (“dictation”) exercises

2. they will banish the fear of character amnesia (electronic devices are already writing our characters for us)

3. they will enable students to read massive amounts of quality texts on the widest possible variety of subjects without having to endure the agony and drudgery of looking up characters by radicals, stroke order, shape, etc. — I wasted years of my life on exactly those tasks — and it is precisely the reading of large quantities of real Chinese that facilitates the acquisition of a confident Sprachgefühl for the language in diverse contexts

Read the full article.

Shanzhai Meets Open Source

From Hacked Matter’s feature in the Atlantic:

Take, World Peace Industrial (WPI), a Taiwanese electronic sourcing company located in Shenzhen, as an example. The company’s application technology unit (ATU) spends millions annually to develop reference circuit boards, called gongban 公板 (“public board”). A gongban can be used by a variety of different companies, who either incorporate it in their products directly or build atop it as they please via modifications. ATU develops 130 gongbans annually in areas ranging from smart phones, tablets, smart watches, smart homes, and industrial controls—and distributes the designs for free. WPI then makes money by trading in the boards’ components.

“We call this shanzhai in Shenzhen. It’s a mass production artwork,” explains Lawrence Lin head of the Application Technology Unit at WPI.

Read the full article.

Art Basel Hong Kong: What I Saw

Art Basel Hong Kong ran from May 15-18. Here’s an absolutely subjective take on what I saw when I visited. Apologies for those works I’m unable to credit; it was a hectic Sunday and I didn’t have the time to note down the artist and gallery for every piece that I photographed.

First, the fun stuff.

ArtBaselHK2014KidsOnLeashes

I spotted a kids tour group where the adults had leashed the kids together in case they got lost.

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There were several open areas for large works, often ones that had an element of public engagement. This circular table tennis setup was one of them.

Then, of course, there was a selection of world famous, blue chip art.

ArtBaselHK2014TakashiMurakami

Above: Takashi Murakami.

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Above: Keith Haring.

Hong Kong artists also made quite a showing, though I have to admit they’re more familiar to me because I’ve seen their works around town.

ArtBaselHK2014AdrianWong

Above: Adrian Wong. (Wandering baby not part of installation.)

ArtBaselHK2014WilsonShieh

Above: Wilson Shieh.

Even more abundant was art from China.

ArtBaselHK2014LiuWei

Above: Liu Wei. It’s hard to see it from the photo but this painting is wall-sized and seems to be hand (not machine) made.

ArtBaselHK2014HanartTZ

Above: Some sort of calligraphic revival piece from the Hanart TZ booth.

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Above: Featuring Shenzhen’s Window of the World theme park. Artist unknown.

Last but not least, a couple of works that caught my eye but I don’t know who or where it’s from.

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Coming of age in a culture of information paternalism in China

Editor’s note: this is a summary of some of the ideas that are presented in Tricia’s recent talk the Berkman Center, Talking to Strangers: Chinese Youth and Social Media. The video of the full talk is now online, and we highly recommend watching it in its entirety.

Tricia’s research discusses how Chinese youth are experiencing their coming of age in a culture of information paternalism. That she does not call it censorship is an important distinction, because in China today, the dominant narrative around control is “father knows what’s best for you.” Here, “father” can refer to an actual teen’s parents, relatives, teachers or the Chinese government.

This dense sphere of paternalistic control (on top of the historical-cultural forces at work) drives Chinese teens to seek alternate channels of expression and socialization online:

ElasticSelf1

To effectively escape, Chinese teens experiment with their identity and grow up online by cloaking themselves under pseudonyms and login handles. This type of experimentation, the polar opposite of on and offline real-name social networks, allows youth to develop what Tricia calls an “elastic self.”

One great finding was that Chinese youth had developed an entire chain of rituals to convert an anonymous social interaction into a real life close connection. Interactions begin by finding people on social networks with similar interests or horoscopes. This then turns into casual conversation and e-cards for birthdays. That in turn leads to people sending little physical gifts to each other to verify a physical address. And then people will share their phone number, followed by a photo and then, lastly, a 30-second video conference to ensure the veracity of the photo.

In the same way Chinese youth are finding each other online, they are also discovering more parts of themselves. Tricia structures the phases of the elastic self as 1) exploratory, 2) trusting, and 3) participatory. Only in the last phase do teens become politically active, and not everyone makes it to third phase.

But Tricia is careful to highlight that most people in China are not going online to vent about the government. They are, for the most part, there to hang out and enjoy themselves [which is, frankly, what we all do on the internet around the world].

ElasticSelf2

The talk ends on a high note: the elastic self allows this new, online generation of Chinese youth to become more socially complex, coordinated and independent. And that can only be a good thing for this world.

A sneak peek from China’s new animation-house upstart

From its Youtube page:

“Little Yeyos” is the first short film from Light Chaser Animation, a startup animation studio based in Beijing. Light Chaser was founded in 2013 by Gary Wang, the founder and ex-CEO of Tudou.com, China’s leading video sharing website. Its goal is to produce top quality animated films.

Via @c10n.

Maker City: Hong Kong

Reposted from my personal blog.

JasonLiAtMakerCitiesShenzhenMeetup

Last Sunday, I was invited by the Institute for the Future as part of its Maker Cities program to speak about how makers are working to improve the future of Hong Kong. I was joined by other representatives from all over (New York, Kathmandu, Tel Aviv, Shanghai…)

I’ve included the slides to my presentation below.

Back the new edition of the Kowloon Walled City book!

We posted some of photographer Greg Girard’s photos a while ago, and it looks like they’re ready to jet set a new edition of their book along with previously-unseen photographs and research.

Back out their Kickstarter now.