Google: Scientist

Baruch,

Symbolism is never lost on the Chinese, who are the masters of signaling, and thus there was some great poignancy to Google’s A new approach to China being posted to the blogspot.com domain, which is blocked in its entirety by China’s censorious government. This proved quite a sassy way to illustrate a point, before even starting on the merits of the case. Those outside China didn’t even notice. Everyone inside China, including the officials, had to turn on their VPN to read it.

Now that the deed is done so publicly, I don’t imagine either side will back down, and nobody expects Google.cn’s redacted search service to last much longer, with perhaps a further punitive ban on google.com for the sheer audacity of this insubordination. But already today the blogosphere erupted in competing narratives explaining Google’s autodefenestration from Chinese search, and not all were wholly credulous of Google’s stated motives.

Among the cynics, the arguments ran thus:

– Google is misrepresenting its decision: It was a face-saving, kudos-generating way to exit a failing business (though without explaining why profitably capturing 31% of the search market in China should prompt shutting down).

– Google is making a mistake: No business in their right mind would purposely anger the masters of such a lucrative market, so this has to be a stupid tactical mistake. (The stated presumption here is that Google cannot be ethical, or it would not have entered China in the first place, so this fiasco must be a very bad business decision merely masquerading as a moral decision.)

Among the partisans:

– Google was pressured into it by Hillary Clinton, thinks Rao Jin, the founder of the China’s patriotic Anti-CNN forum. (I suspect a failure of the imagination on the part of Rao — clearly, he is projecting onto the US how things are done in China.)

And tomorrow, expect the official mouthpieces’ take, which I predict will involve far more references to the peddling of pornography than to the free market of ideas.

I, Bento, take Google’s explanation at face value, however. And I intend to restate the narrative in terms that will be familiar to long-time readers of Ultimi Barbarorum: All along, Google’s approach to China has been that of the scientist: There was a testable hypothesis, an experiment, and a conclusion based on that experiment. And today, we saw the publication of the results — the hypothesis proved false.

Specifically, the hypothesis, as formulated by Google during 2005: The internet in China will become freer in the coming years, and Google’s presence in China will help strengthen this process. Many believed and hoped this might be the case — the Olympics were approaching, China was opening up, officials exuded reasonableness.

The experiment, initiated in January 2006: Enter the Chinese search market, try to improve the system from within by collaborating with the regime, and see if China’s internet gains freedoms over time.

The evidence: Over the past few years, a progressively stricter program of shutting down those Chinese sites that do not comply with demands for censorship and surveillance. The progressive blocking of all popular foreign sites that allow uncensored anonymous communication, including several Google properties: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Blogger, WordPress, IMDB, Google Docs, URL-shortening services… And, what Google cites as the final straw, recent industrial-strength malware attacks aimed at Gmail-using Chinese dissidents.

The conclusion: Google’s collaboration was not making things better; things were getting worse. They admit they were wrong! There may have been a financial return on its China investment, but the civic return proved disappointing.

Faced with this realization, Google could have done nothing. But that way lies death by a thousand cuts as web property after web property gets axed. How soon before Gmail gets blocked? Google Maps? Earth? Picasa? Google Reader? Instead, Google cleanly terminated the experiment: There will be no more collaboration with the regime. Now China must throw them out if it wants to save face domestically — albeit at the price of losing face internationally.

As Spinozists, this is a proud day for us. Google has posted that placard declaring China’s government Ultimi Barbarorum in a public place. Gone for them is the queasiness of having to placate a regime that believes calling for free elections deserves 11 years in jail for subverting party state power. I’m betting it’s a relief.

A postscript: I was surprised that several Shanghai-based European VCs and businessmen I follow on Twitter were among the cynics, berating Google for not conforming to Chinese/Asian business practices based on saving face, consensus and relationship-building, instead reverting to an “American” ultimatum. But these views come from individuals who have already made their peace with China’s political system, and whose business models and reputation do not depend on the unfettered flow of information. Perhaps some of them are unwittingly using the occasion to signal their own reliability as partners in China: “Look at us — we’d never consider doing what Google just did.” Google may have burned its financial bridges, but they are burning their moral bridges, making them the Stupid Cartesians of this sorry episode, Baruch.

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An article wherein it is explained why everything written so far about Apple’s iPhone launch in China is beside the point.

Baruch, you know how hard I, Bento, try to refrain from commenting about Apple on this blog, but it appalls me how it’s been several weeks since the iPhone launched in China and still none of you pundits has caught onto Apple’s strategy here, not even accidentally through sheer volume of keyboard combinatorics. I think I shall help along the process a bit.

Apple is not selling iPhones in China because it wants to sell iPhones in China, but because it wants to sell iPhones to the Chinese. That’s a big difference. I’ll explain.

The Chinese have long had access to iPhones. They are for sale at stalls in every cybermall and market in every Chinese city, and come in two varieties: The most expensive ones (at around 6000 RMB in Shanghai for a 16GB 3GS, or 880 USD, depending on your haggling skills) come directly from Hong Kong, where the factory-unlocked model is available from the Apple store for around 4800 RMB. That’s a nice arbitrage play by the stall owner, and everyone is happy. The cheaper model, at around 5000 RMB for a 16GB 3GS, was originally bought locked in the US or Europe, and has been unlocked by the stall owner’s hacker-genius cousin using 3rd-party software. This kind of iPhone is cheaper, because you are on your own when it comes to upgrades and iTunes compatibility.

The distribution model is extensive and robust, and in fact most Chinese buy their mobile phones from stalls like this. There are no iPhone shortages, as prices fluctuate to meet demand. The received wisdom is that around 2 million iPhones are in the Chinese wild; I’ve personally seen a good many of them here in Shanghai, where they are much in evidence among the eliterati. Still, this is a minuscule portion of the 700 million odd phones in use in China, of which a small but growing portion is smartphones.

What can Apple do to grow the number of iPhones on mainland China? Short of lowering prices in Hong Kong (not going to happen) it can do two things: Increase awareness of the iPhone via advertising, and bring the benefits of a Chinese-language App Store to Chinese iPhone owners.

To do either of these, you sort of need to sell the product locally first, though. Apple can’t really go round putting up banners in Chinese tier-3 cities urging consumers to head for the local iPhone aftermarket. Unfortunately, an ill-conceived Chinese law forbids selling mobile phones containing wifi functionality (unless it is the wifi variety developed in China that nobody uses) so if Apple wants to sell iPhones in China, it has to first cripple them.

Why anyone would buy a wifiless iPhone beats me, especially if it is more expensive than the arbitraged unlocked Hong Kong model. Apple seems to think the same thing, because it is not revenue-sharing with China Unicom, the local vendor, but selling the iPhones outright to them. It is up to China Unicom to flog them in China.

And that’s what China Unicom is trying to do. China Unicom stores all have iPhone banners up; I’ve passed several China Unicom road shows stopping by Shanghai extolling the iPhone. The iPhone is being talked about widely. But so is the fact that the China Unicom iPhone is crippled — the Chinese are sophisticated consumers; forget this at your own peril.

The upshot: anecdotal reports tell of aftermarket prices increasing for Hong Kong iPhones these past few weeks, as demand increased. Clearly, the advertising is working, even if China Unicom’s sales of wifiless iPhones are anaemic.

There is a certain poetic justice to the whole spectacle: China Unicom, a state-owned company, forced to sell inferior iPhones in a porous market due to stupid laws promulgated by the Chinese state, spending on advertising that mainly benefits the aftermarket for Hong Kong iPhones.

China Unicom will also be a useful partner for Apple to secure a Chinese iTunes App store. It isn’t there yet, in part because this kind of venture inside China requires the involvement of censors (and you thought Apple was an overbearing app gatekeeper…) but as per China Unicom’s own admission, the process is underway. Once such an app store exists, of course, anyone with a Chinese credit card and an iPhone will be able to partake, whether or not they bought the iPhone from China Unicom.

But I believe Apple is not just doing this to get advertising and an app store into China, important as this is for growing sales to the Chinese. I believe the intention is to pressure for a change to the law, simply by making the the absurdity of the situation so plainly visible. This is speculation on my part, but there is a precedent: Egypt.

In November 2008, the iPhone came to Egypt, but without GPS. That’s because there was a cold-war era Egyptian law on the books that banned civilians from possessing GPS devices. The law was unenforceable, with plenty of foreign-bought GPS-enabled devices in the hands of tourists and archaeologists and wealthy Egyptians. The only people suffering were the local vendors, which couldn’t sell anything with GPS in it. Apple garnered some criticism with this move, for kowtowing to authoritarian rule. But the GPS-less iPhone also put the spotlight on the law, making many people aware for the first time that Egypt was one of only three countries in the world where GPS use by civilians was banned. Egypt’s regime hates that sort of loss of face, and by April 2009, the ban was lifted. Egyptian iPhones these days come with GPS, but the win is for everyone in Egypt.

Is China up next? It’s now in China Unicom’s interests to have the anti-wifi law changed, so that they can sell a larger portion of the iPhones ending up in Chinese hands. That kind of incentive makes me optimistic. Apple has already cracked the Chinese market for wifi-enabled phones — via Hong Kong. Now China Unicom needs to do the same — by getting its owner to change the law.

“Dutch Nobel Prizes” only for the Dutch

Baruch! I almost choked on my oatmeal porridge just now when I discovered that there is such a thing as the Spinoza Prize in the Netherlands — for literature, microbiology, physics and medicine — and that the organizers, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), are keen to call them the “Dutch Nobel Prizes”. Must be a big deal, you’d think?

Not really. First, you can forget about winning the prize if you’re not Dutch. (That’s not very Nobel of them, now is it?) Second, check out what they’re winning it for. The winner for the microbiology prize?

His research has led to the development of lactic acid bacteria that can improve the taste and shelf life of cheese.

Yes indeed, in Holland you get a $1.5 million euro prize for inventing longer-lasting cheese. In our name, Baruch!

Alien resurrection

AP reports: Vatican: It’s OK to believe in aliens

The Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, says that the vastness of the universe means it is possible there could be other forms of life outside Earth, even intelligent ones.

In an interview published Tuesday by Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Funes says that such a notion “doesn’t contradict our faith” because aliens would still be God’s creatures.

Imagine the shock Funes will get when said aliens arrive on Earth and they have no idea what this god thing is he keeps on going on about. Or even worse, perhaps the aliens imagine themselves to be gods, and that we are their creatures. Perhaps it might even be true, and they are just checking up on us. Maybe they’ve got Jesus and Mohammed coming along for the ride. I feel a South Park episode coming on.

Seriously though, I think it much more likely that there are aliens around than that transubstantiation works, the dead can be resurrected and miracles happen — mainly because you don’t need to suspend the laws of physics for aliens to exist.

Update: The BBC carries much more from the interview, including the revelation that aliens may be free from original sin. Try telling that to Ripley.

Albert Einstein, Spinozist

Baruch! Albert Einstein, world-famous physicist but little-known fellow Spinozist, is having a letter sold at auction this week whose contents should finally put to rest that silly notion that Einstein was religious.

We know Spinoza left a strong impact on Einstein. I visited Spinoza’s home in Rijnsburg a few years ago and saw with my own eyes Einstein’s signature in the visitor’s book, dated 1920. In 1929 a Rabbi alarmed by the suggestion that Einstein’s theory of relativity might present a slippery slope to atheism asked Einstein for a clarification of his beliefs:

New York’s Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein asked Einstein by telegram: “Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid 50 words.” In his response, for which Einstein needed but twenty-five (German) words, he stated his beliefs succinctly: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

Spinoza’s God, of course, is exactly analogous to “Nature”. Unlike anyone else before him, Spinoza maintained that “God, or nature” is intrinsic to the universe (as opposed to extrinsic, e.g. a God that can create a universe). Thus, postulating the existence of God is no different than postulating the existence of a universe governed by physical laws. And that is something atheists can live with.

So what does the letter being sold at auction this week reveal about Einstein’s religious views? Einstein was writing in 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, and here is what he wrote, among other things:

The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.

[…] For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.

Those words could have been uttered by Spinoza 300 years earlier, and indeed Spinoza’s writings make those very same arguments. At one point, Spinoza writes that perhaps not everyone has the mental fortitude to abandon conventional religion — that his abstract notion of God = Nature may only really be accessible to a philosophical elite — and that conventional religion would suffice to bring happiness to the rest. In Steven Nadler’s Spinoza: A Life (p.290) we get this response from Spinoza to his landlady when she asked him if she has chosen the right religion:

One day, when Van der Spyck’s wife asked Spinoza whether he thought she could be saved in the religion that she professed, he replied: “Your religion is good, and you need not search for another one in order to be saved, as long as you apply yourself to a peaceful and pious life.”

In other words, belief is merely a means to an end; what is more important is good deeds. Still, you might think Spinoza is being a bit patronizing here to a good but not particularly clever soul.

Myself, I am a little less sanguine about belief — happiness at the expense of a realistic world view seems like too high a price to pay. Perhaps, however, I’ve been lucky, and I can’t fathom the kinds of misery that make the crutch of religion a necessity for many.

Spinozism now an officially recognized religion in Egypt

Baruch! I struck a minor coup for our cause this morning. Let me explain.

It was high time that I renewed my visa for Egypt. Until now I’ve always done so at an Egyptian embassy abroad. This time, through circumstances beyond my control, I found myself in Cairo with a visa that was about to expire and with no immediate plans to travel.

The only solution: A visit to the dreaded Mugamma. The Mugamma is a unique Egyptian institution, a massive squat gray building in the center of Cairo that acts like a sort of super-ministry of paperwork, licenses and permits. The insides are a warren of curving hallways, desks, numbered booths, waiting rooms, security checks and placards with instruction. Every imaginable activity in Egypt requires a permission slip from somebody in this building. The trick is finding that person. The task has driven people insane.

Among the Cairo expat community, Mugamma horror stories are great social currency. We all have friends of friends who spent days, dazed, trying to complete the intricate steps for whatever permit they needed; and there are rumors of people actually living in some of the further reaches of the place.

Forewarned, I came forearmed with the required passport photocopies and passport photo. After some aimless walking around, I found a window that sounded appealing — Temporary Tourist Residence Permits. I thought I might get me one of those, say for six months — much more interesting than a visa extension, no?

Remarkably, there was no wait. I was given a form, told to fill it in, buy some stamps (worth all of 2 USD) and come back.

So I filled in the form. All was well, until I hit a roadblock:

RELIGION: _____________

Well. How dare they ask. I should not have been surprised, however. Egypt’s religious composition is a matter of great importance to the powers that be, because the percentage of (Coptic) Christians in Egypt determines all manner of job quotas and budget matters. (Copts say they make up to 15% of Egypt’s population. The official figure is much lower.)

Religious identification has also been a rallying cry for Egyptian Islamists. As in the rest of the Muslim world, the concept of religious freedom is a decidedly one-way affair. Are you Christian and want to marry a Muslim girl? Easy. Just convert to Islam and the girl is yours. The state will gladly give you a new ID card with your new religious persuasion. But try to convert from Islam, and you face public disgrace, threats of vigilante killing and jail. After all that Mohammed’s done for you, you certainly don’t deserve a new ID card, you ungrateful bastard.

There has long been an additional problem for people who are not one of the three officially recognized religions — Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Egyptian Baha’is have had to wage a protracted campaign — only just recently successful — to allow them to leave blank their religious persuasion on their ID card, instead of being forced to lie by choosing one of the three obligatory options.

I knew all this as I pondered what to put down on the form as my religion. I certainly could not put down the truth — atheist — as me and my ilk tend to get deported or thrown in jail for such a public display of disaffection, just like that other great threat to Egypt’s public morality, the homosexuals.

But I didn’t want to put down what al the other expats put — Christian — because if anything I am anti-Christian. Christianity’s mythology is just as ludicrous as that of the Mormons or Scientologists, only older. I probably couldn’t get away by putting down “Muslim”, though that would be an acceptable ironic answer in my book, while putting down “Jewish” would only invite trouble. Leave it blank? I didn’t feel that was an option on this form, where the absence of an answer would leave a gaping hole, inviting scrutiny or a delay.

Then I had my stroke of genius. Before I could regret my impulsiveness, I put down “Spinozist” as my religion and handed in my bundle.

I was told to come back in two hours. That in itself was a shock — I have never heard of same-day service in the Mugamma for visas. And yet, 90 minutes later, there was my new temporary tourist residence permit, without a hint of trouble for my idiosyncratic “religion”. As far as I know, I am now the only certified Spinozist in Egypt.