23 June 2017

The Guardian: “Is it too late to save Hong Kong from Beijing’s authoritarian grasp?”

Today, though, in the 20th year after the handover, this Sino-British arrangement is charitably described as limping along on life support. Many believe it is in danger of collapsing altogether, even as a pretence. As China has grown richer and more powerful, it has also become less patient and less willing to sacrifice control. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the idea of “one country, two systems” has been riven by the sudden upsurge of enthusiasm for autonomy. Beijing has found itself confronted by increasingly disaffected and radicalised youths, who are as unwilling to compromise over democracy and civil liberties as China is itself.

For its part, Britain – Hong Kong’s old colonial master – has been reluctant to publicly criticise Beijing, as it eagerly courts Chinese business and investment. Chris Patten, the Conservative peer and last colonial governor of the city, recently said: I feel very strongly that we let down the parents of this generation of democracy activists. I think it would be a tragedy if we let down these kids as well.

There is no single narrative to explain how Hong Kong’s situation has become so troubled. Yet one cannot understand the city’s present state of permanent crisis without reckoning with a simple fact: the mainland is no longer dependent on Hong Kong. In reality, the reverse may be true. The impact of this fact is not solely economic or political; it is also psychological, transforming the way mainlanders and Hong Kongers conceive of themselves.

Howard W French

I haven’t quite kept up-to-date with the politics of Hong Kong, but this seems like a good overview of an increasingly tense situation. I think it also underlines a couple of long-term trends in global politics that few people like to acknowledge: how the power of Great Britain diminished, slowly becoming irrelevant despite their illusions of grandeur. More significantly, the changing power dynamic between authoritarian Beijing and Hong Kong reflects what we should expect in the coming years from a bolder, more assertive China. As the global economy is increasingly reliant on globalization and Chinese manufacturing, it’s not impossible to imagine a future Chinese hegemony, dominating markets by sheer size and imposing their interests on smaller economic partners and satellite states.

20 June 2017

Lefsetz Letter: “Katy Perry’s Failure”

We’re evolving. But Perry decided to live in the past. It won’t be long before there are no albums, just a continuous stream of product, driven by hit singles. And if you do have an album, you release the hit at the same damn time, to get all the additional streams. Think how stupid this is, putting out a teaser and building momentum for a sales event that doesn’t matter. At least, unlike in the last century, you can buy and stream the single, there is remuneration, but today you strike when the iron is hot. The new paradigm is instant release, with the hype coming AFTER the project is available. And that makes sense, you want to reap all that revenue. What does being number one on the “Billboard” chart give you… BRAGGING RIGHTS IN A SCHOOL THE FANS ARE NOT GOING TO!

Bob Lefsetz

Just like TV, music listening habits are changing rapidly towards streaming, and the music business and artists need to quickly adapt to new ways to generate revenue and catch the public’s attention. As if we needed further validation of this trend, earlier this month Taylor Swift re-released her back-catalog on Spotify, after removing it from most streaming services three years ago.

19 June 2017

Vanity Fair: “The Inside Story of the Kushner-Bannon Civil War”

As everyone knows, the president himself is inordinately engaged with cable news, and his roots as an entertainer lie in reality television. And it may be that reality TV has lessons to offer. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a co-creator of the Lifetime series UnReal, told me that she found Trump to be eerily similar to her UnReal antihero, Quinn King, the female producer of a Bachelor-type reality show, Everlasting. Like King, Trump has a knack for expressing shocking sentiments that others may recoil from, Shapiro told me. And, like all great reality-TV personalities, Trump and many of his staff are “sound-bite machines” who share certain qualities: megalomania, a delusion of grandeur, a willingness to say anything, and little regard for what anyone else thinks: “They are this functionally dysfunctional ramshackle group of people who have come together through their own extremes.” Shapiro is currently preparing the third season of her show, and I asked her the secret to maintaining interest season after season. She said, “A rotating cast of characters always helps.”

Hate-watching is a key element of reality television: viewers get a surge of superiority and catharsis when watching characters they do not respect but in some strange way are drawn to. “It’s incredibly satisfying to hate-watch [Trump]”, Shapiro said—and the same goes for watching members of his staff. Senior West Wing aides, like the president himself, exhibit a trait that is essential for a successful reality-TV show: they are largely unself-aware, not fully realizing “how they are perceived, because they will keep stumbling into the same mess over and over again, and they are really easy to place in a cast of characters”, said UnReal’s Shapiro. They are, in part, reliable caricatures of themselves.

Sarah Ellison

While not particularly now, this analogy between the Trump administration and reality TV works remarkably well; it would be fairly entertaining if the fate of the world would not hang in the balance.

Fix slow start for Windows touch keyboard on laptops

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, two years ago I bought a new laptop and upgraded to Windows 10. Ever since, I’ve had a small, but annoying issue with the Windows touch keyboard: every time I wanted to launch it manually, I had to click two-three times on the taskbar button to get it to start. Since the laptop comes with a physical keyboard, it never bothered me except on the rare occasions when I wanted to insert some emoticon in my conversations. Curiously enough, I’ve never had the same problem on my Windows tablet, which is much less powerful in terms of memory and processor speed and where I use the touch keyboard much more often.

17 June 2017

Nautilus: “The Not-So-Fine Tuning of the Universe”

Astrophysicists have discussed fine-tuning so much that many people take it as a given that our universe is preternaturally fit for complex structures. Even skeptics of the multiverse accept fine-tuning; they simply think it must have some other explanation. But in fact the fine-tuning has never been rigorously demonstrated. We do not really know what laws of physics are necessary for the development of astrophysical structures, which are in turn necessary for the development of life. Recent work on stellar evolution, nuclear astrophysics, and structure formation suggest that the case for fine-tuning is less compelling than previously thought. A wide variety of possible universes could support life. Our universe is not as special as it might seem.

As it turns out, stars are remarkably stable entities. Their structure adjusts automatically to burn nuclear fuel at exactly the right rate required to support themselves against the crush of their own gravity. If the nuclear reaction rates are higher, stars will burn their nuclear fuel at a lower central temperature, but otherwise they will not be so different. In fact, our universe has an example of this type of behavior. Deuterium nuclei can combine with protons to form helium nuclei through the action of the strong force. The cross section for this reaction, which quantifies the probability of its occurrence, is quadrillions of times larger than for ordinary hydrogen fusion. Nonetheless, stars in our universe burn their deuterium in a relatively uneventful manner. The stellar core has an operating temperature of 1 million kelvins, compared to the 15 million kelvins required to burn hydrogen under ordinary conditions. These deuterium-burning stars have cooler centers and are somewhat larger than the sun, but are otherwise unremarkable.

Fred Adams

From the beginning of civilization, there’s been a long trend in scientific thought moving from the assumption that we humans find ourselves in special place in the world to proofs to the contrary (and to the fact that the world is much larger than we previously imagined). At first the Earth was believed to be the center of the solar system; then it was discovered that the Sun was just one of billions of stars in a relatively unremarkable corner of the Milky Way; and that our galaxy itself is small and insignificant compared to the vastness of the Universe. With this study, it looks like the final bastion of anthropocentrism, that out universe is somehow specially tuned for the emergence of life, is eroding, and there are multiple configurations which permit similar universes to evolve, even if the life there would be barely recognizable to us.

The Los Angeles Review of Books: “America, America”

One of the most alarming aspects of the rise of Trump is (or should have been) his embrace of the Orwellian lie. This also cannot be normalized with a comforting “all politicians lie.” Of course they do. Lying is not telling the truth, or shaping a version of events with the intent to deceive. These things happen. Jimmy Carter promised he would “never lie to us.” Great. Nixon told so many lies it’s amazing he could keep track of them. But we are not talking about garden variety lying here — we are talking about the totalitarian lie: lies told, repeatedly, loudly and insistently, in direct confrontation with the indisputable truth. Lies purposefully designed to undermine the very capacity to make truth claims. Orwell was right to warn of this. But here we are.

Having spent three-quarters of a century fretting about enemies abroad, we have never fully processed a lesson of history: that great civilizations almost invariably collapse from within. We are Athens, we are Rome — we are, more than anything, Paris in the 1930s, another society divided against itself, living in what one historian described as “the age of unreason”. France then boasted the mightiest army on the continent, but the country was so hollowed out it simply collapsed when placed under stress, leading to defeat, occupation, humiliation. “Better Hitler than Blum”, many on the French right muttered, faced with the prospect of a Jewish Prime Minister — is “better Putin than Hillary” the 21st century equivalent?

Jonathan Kirshner

Great essay about the state of the United States after the election of Donald Trump and the likely consequences for the international order. It’s hard to share all the memorable quotes (I gathered 10 of them), so I encourage you to read the full article.

13 June 2017

The Verge: “iPad Pro 10.5 review: overkill”

Now that we know that the 10.5-inch iPad Pro is an impressive device and that we further know that iOS 11 is going to radically change how you use it, let’s get back to that value equation I mentioned earlier. Basically, should you buy it? The iPad Pro 10.5 presents a conundrum: it is a stupendous device that I firmly believe most people shouldn’t buy just yet.

To me, if you’re going to spend $650 on a computer, it should almost surely be your main computer. And if you’re going to make the iPad Pro your main computer, you should probably get more than 64GB of storage and you should also probably get a keyboard to go with it (to say nothing of the Apple Pencil). It hits the $1,000 mark very quickly.

Dieter Bohn

I must admit I am tempted by the new 10.5 inch iPad, but there are two major things keeping me away. First on the list is software: as a photographer I need solid editing and workflow software. On the desktop I have Lightroom for that, but on the ‘mobile’ iPad Lightroom doesn’t offer the same set of features yet and I don’t trust Creative Cloud to keep my library in sync. Not to mention that I would need to buy a dedicated card reader to import the RAW files from the camera.