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Book Review: China Airborne by James Fallows

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In China Airborne, Fallows skillfully uses the rise and uncertain future of the aviation industry in China as a parable for the development in China. An avid political-economic analyst and storyteller, Fallows’ account is surprisingly easy to read, given the complexity of his argument that China is “contradictory” yet exciting.

Fallows is a charismatic writer with a succinct style. As such, not only do we relive his six years of living in and learning about China, but he never tarries too long before leading us to the next part of his argument (and his next story). Highly recommended.

Get it from Amazon or you local bookstore.

Fact checking the hype around mesh networks and FireChat

Being based in Hong Kong, my tech friends and I still occasionally get asked, “So what’s the deal with FireChat?” In case you missed it, FireChat, a smartphone chat app with basic mesh support, made headlines during the recent Occupy Hong Kong protests. Protesters on the ground here turned to it in late September when rumors began to circulate that the government would shut down the internet. It never did, but plenty of people, myself included, downloaded FireChat anyway. Hearing about this, many publications then used FireChat to tell a techno-utopian story about the future of mesh networking. Yet in the same stories, many publications pointed to faulty evidence of, or simply speculated about, people using its mesh features. (The sole exception being TechPresident’s Rebecca Chao, who actually found real evidence of its use.) As the hype has subsided, we at 88 Bar have decided that it’s a good time to review the facts and figures around FireChat.

 

1. FireChat was built for concerts and Burning Man

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Figure 1: Press images are from its listing in the iTunes store.

 

2. FireChat is “not meant for secure or private communications”

The full quote that FireChat gave Wired last June is: “People need to understand that this is not a tool to communicate anything that would put them in a harmful situation if it were to be discovered by somebody who’s hostile. It was not meant for secure or private communications.” (This is, of course, months before they went on the speaking circuit to market its use during the recent Hong Kong protests.)

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab ran a full, tech analysis and concluded: “Messages sent in any of the application’s three messaging modes are sent in the clear without encryption. All messages sent and received, as well as a list of chat channels the user has joined, are stored unencrypted on the device. It is also possible for anyone (regardless of whether they have installed the app or not) to visit an IP address associated with the service in a web browser to see the most recent messages sent by users of the application.”

 

3. Lots of people in Hong Kong signed up for FireChat

Sign up figures for FireChat in Hong Kong during the protests range from 100,000 to 500,000. Assuming only a small number of “troll” accounts and that not every protestor would have downloaded the app, this would imply that there were at least 100,000 to 500,000 people who downloaded it to support the protest. (Estimates say roughly 200,000 people took part in the Hong Kong protests at its peak.)

And according to FireChat’s twitter account, people are still using it: their stats show 208k chat sessions on December 16, 2014.

 

4. But FireChat put Hong Kong citizens in danger during the protests

Not only are messages unencrypted, but it encourages the use of real names. Again from Global Voices: “Once installed, the app requires the user to sign up with her real name (which will be pre-filled with the name she eventually configures on her iOS or Android phone), a username and an email address.”

This is especially troubling because police have arrested at least two people in Hong Kong who posted protest-related messages online. See Quartz’s “police are using Hong Kong’s computer crime law to crack down on pro-democracy organizers.”

 

5. Protesters did use its mesh networking capability, but there’s only one report of it

Of the dozens of articles published on FireChat during Occupy Hong Kong, I only found one report that found evidence of mesh network usage. From Rebecca Chao on TechPresident:

As a volunteer, Ip was among a group of roughly 60 to 120 that monitored the supply stations. He used FireChat to recruit more volunteers. While verification is an issue in the app’s anonymous chat room settings, Ip says that given the proximity needed for off-grid use, “we could meet up instantly to confirm who I was and what volunteers we wanted and to ensure they got the right information.”

The other reports sadly only pointed to evidence of use of its internet (not mesh) chatrooms:

  • In a Wall Street Journal video cited in The Atlantic, The Verge, and TechCrunch, a Hong Kong student protester who shows off FireChat only uses its internet-enabled chatrooms, not its mesh network chatrooms.
  • When FireChat talks about its explosion 2M chatrooms created last month, they are referring to internet chatrooms. As Forbes’ Parmy Olson says, “Once a FireChat user goes off the grid like this, San Francisco-based Open Garden can’t track them anymore. That’s why they have no idea how many people are actually using its off-the-grid feature.”
  • In another Wall Street Journal video, the reporter and FireChat CEO are testing the mesh network function in the middle of the protests. It’s clear they are the only two chatting on the mesh network channel. My own experiments with my friend in the middle of the protest fared similarly.

 

6. FireChat is an IRC-like chatroom app, not a messaging app

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Figure 2: A 12-second clip of FireChat in action (as of 11am, January 12, 2015). Picture shrunk in order to conceal username + locations.

As Nathan Freitas and Oiwan Lam write in Global Voices: “FireChat is not a messaging app. FireChat is a chatroom, a platform to send insecure and public messages to people over the Internet or within your geographical vicinity.” As such it is not a replacement for Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Line or WeChat.

During the Hong Kong protests, everyone I spoke to said that Facebook and WhatsApp were by far the most commonly used communication tools. This isn’t to say FireChat wasn’t used, but it’s good to put its popularity into perspective.

 

P.S. The Hong Kong mobile network did not “collapse”

Nellie Bowles writes in Recode that “during the recent enormous pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the city’s cellular networks got so jammed they collapsed.” I have seen no reports to that effect (congestion yes, collapse no). As one protester stated in TechPresident, “I found that my LTE [4G] connection was pretty solid in most cases, even with tens of thousands of protesters around me.”

Localized WeChat ad sells its animated stickers, nails it

Created by Hong Kong-based artist-designer Ping Wong for the Hong Kong market.

Book Review: Understanding China through Comics, Volume 4: The Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1912)

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The fourth volume of “Understanding China Through Comics” takes us through the final six centuries of imperial rule in China. In it, we find the final emperors of China attempting various reforms in the face of foreign invasion, occupation and, ultimately, humiliation.

Liu continues his formidable task of tackling the entirety of Chinese history, with an increasing focus on policy and governance (in this case, its failures). As with other volumes in this series, emperors rise and fall within the span of some short pages, which makes for a great, if somewhat curt, summary of events.

You can find the book on Amazon or on iTunes.

霓虹的製作 The Making of Neon Signs

Who knew that neon lights (powered by neon gas, not LEDs) were such an artisan’s craft?

More details about this preservation and exhibition project here.

A Figurine Maker’s Journey Through China

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Boing Boing recently published a great feature from Jared Zichek, an avid entrepreneur who manufactures and sells classic-comics action figures. In the feature, Jared talks about his prototyping, manufacturing and sales process – part of it happen in the US, part of it in Hong Kong and part of it in China.

Here’s a juicy excerpt:

Finding a factory. The safest route is going through a trading company; reputable ones I’m aware of are Lucky Group International Ltd. and Point East Ltd., which act as middlemen between you and the factories. You will not be scammed, though they will pressure you to order a minimum of 500 pieces; you will also pay more than dealing directly with a factory. To cut out the middleman, go to Alibaba.com and search for “resin character statue” or the like and start contacting companies which look promising; I don’t deal with anyone that hasn’t been a Gold Member for at least three years due to the many incidents of fraud that have occurred on the site. I email them my production guide and wait for a few days to receive all the quotes; several will not respond if you are not ordering at least 500 pieces. The quotes you receive will be all over the map, though you shouldn’t necessarily pick the cheapest one without first doing a lot of online research. Be advised that the quotes never include shipping, which is a substantial additional expense to consider.

Read the full article on Boing Boing, or buy Jared’s action figures from GoldenAgeFigurines.com.

Drawing inspiration from China’s subtitling and dating communities

Editor’s note: Our very own Jin Ge recently spoke at The Conference by Media Evolution 2014 on how designers can draw inspiration from China’s subtitling and dating communities. You can watch the entire talk above.

Some of the highlights include:

  • How his team at IDEO learned that subtitling groups, who volunteer to do the grueling work of English-to-China video subs, are driven by a combined sense of a higher calling (making global content available to China), community (help each other out with hard word), competition (whoever gets the subs out first wins), accomplishment and expression (creative translations or subtle commentary).
  • For another project, they studied the weekend dating fair that happens in public parks: parents physically post and check out profiles of eligible single men/women, and will talk shop with each other about whether, for example, the income stated is pre or post-tax.

Watch the talk above, or if the embed doesn’t work go here.

 

 

Kendra Schaefer’s Field Guide to Implementing Chinese Fonts in CSS

Beijing-based designer Kendra Schaefer has created an incredibly valuable resource in writing up: Chinese Standard Web Fonts: A Guide to CSS Font Family Declarations for Web Design in Simplified Chinese. While you’d best head to Kendra’s site for the full details, we’ve included some highlights below:

Good Rules for Using Chinese fonts in CSS

Use the Chinese characters, and also spell out the font name

Example:

font-family: Tahoma, Helvetica, Arial, "Microsoft Yahei","微软雅黑", STXihei, "华文细黑", sans-serif;

Declare English target fonts before Chinese target fonts

Code example:

font-family: Georgia, "Times New Roman", "Microsoft YaHei", "微软雅黑", STXihei, "华文细黑", serif;

微软雅黑 – Microsoft YaHei

Microsoft YaHei is in my opinion, the Helvetica of the Chinese font world – it looks nice in most sizes (the Mac font equivalent is probably STXihei, the “light” version of STHeiTi). I find it’s modern, fresh and clean, and like a Rubenesque lady, is thick in all the right bits.

Declare that shit (updated to add Simsun fallback):

font-family: Tahoma, Arial, Helvetica, "Microsoft YaHei New", "Microsoft Yahei", "微软雅黑", 宋体, SimSun, STXihei, "华文细黑", sans-serif;

Read the full details on Kendra’s blog.

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?