Thursday, January 06, 2011

FaceBook Friends

When a (tad mentally fragile is the impression I get) sensible shoe wearing 42-year old (from Brighton, natch), miffed at her significant other's infidelity, announced on Facebook that she'd taken an overdose, none of her 1,000-plus 'friends' called an ambulance.

Tangentially, I see that Facebook has 550 million users and is valued at 50 billion dollars.

We seem to be reliving the dot-com boom. Anyone remember Freeserve, Dixon's free (well, local-call-cost) ISP from pre-broadband days ?

Freeserve floated on the stock market in July 1999 (as plc), at which point they had approximately 1.5 million subscribers and were valued at between £1.31bn and £1.51bn ($2.02bn and $2.34bn). By September 2000, Freeserve had more than 2 million active subscribers. This was vastly more than the incumbent telephone provider BT, something that was unique for a European ISP. Freeserve was bought by the France Télécom-owned company Wanadoo in 2000 for £1.65bn ($2.37bn).
I remember around float time thinking - "£1,000 per subscriber - and no subscription fee! How in heaven's name can they be worth even a tenth of that ?". I was an early adopter, getting Web access in the early 90s (when there was no local number to dial!), but even I was only spending a few hundred pounds a year online, and I just couldn't see how Freeserve were ever going to make hundreds, let alone thousands, out of each customer. They never did.

Facebook are valued at getting on for $100 per subscriber - which subscribers include my wife and four children. No way are they currently anywhere near making that sort of money out of them. The valuation is an order of magnitude lower than 12 years back, but it's still much too high.

Does anyone know what the theory behind this valuation is ? OK, there's advertising - but IMHO that's not going to be anything like $10 p.a. per user in post-cost profit - $5 billion a year. And if that were possible, what's the likelihood that it will stay the course and not go the way of MySpace? Up to now - admittedly a short history - Internet social network sites have been popular for a few years then the buzz wears off as something new arrives. Unless Facebook can somehow capture the 'something new' - i.e. make it more likely that new entrants to social networking will choose to implement inside rather than outside Facebook (e.g. Farmville, which my daughter and her friends all played last year but have now stopped), there's a risk that it'll in its turn suffer the fate of Bebo, worth $850 million only a couple of years ago and now worth $10 million as users moved to Facebook.

Let's assume it survives, and Mark Zuckerberg becomes the Bill Gates of social networking. I still can't see it as worth $50 billion - unless they can find a way of sucking in shopping sites, like some black hole of the Web. In which case Google vs Facebook will be a battle to behold.

BTW, is it just me, or has Google become a worse search engine lately ? It doesn't seem to pick up those obscure pages that perfectly match the search criterion any more. Instead you wade through pages of link-farming guff and big commercial sites before finding what you want on page 7.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Stealing The Bin-Bags ....

That the lazy Brits just don't want to steal :

Clothes donated by members of the public to charity are being stolen by organised criminals and sold abroad, depriving leading charities of millions of pounds for good causes. Gangs from Eastern Europe are believed to be responsible for a growing number of raids on doorstep collection bags and clothing banks, attracted by a trebling in the price for old clothing in the past three years.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Tuesday Night Music - Days Like This Keep Me Warm

Simple, but strangely uplifting. I've said before that the Polyphonic Spree were a Principal Edwards Magic Theatre for the Noughties.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Word Of The Day

"Insinuendo" - Edwin Greenwood's description of the media coverage of the unfortunate (presuming his innocence) Christopher Jefferies.

UPDATE - the Mirror says his favourite poem is this - the story of a man who was hanged for cutting his wife’s throat !

But the Mail reports that he loved Christina Rossetti - and Rossetti often wrote about death !

All I can say is, he's lucky he's not teaching now. My son's GCSE syllabus includes Robert Browning - and one of the poems is Porphyria's Lover - an everyday tale of a psychopath strangler.

The Things They Say

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, farmer, high-class sausage purveyor and Conservative candidate, on being black in Britain. Maybe he doesn't mean it the way it sounds :

"Our parents established beachheads in the cities; it is now up to our generation to move out of those beachheads and claim the rest of Britain as our own."

And via commenter Fellist, former Labour MP for Sparkbrook Roy Hattersley (see also this post) :

For more than 30 years, I took the votes of Birmingham Muslims for granted. The Muslims themselves I treated with more respect. But if, at any time between 1964 and 1997 I heard of a Khan, Saleem or Iqbal who did not support Labour I was both outraged and astonished.

My presumption was justified. It was the Muslim vote - increased by an influx of families from Kashmir, the Punjab and other parts of Birmingham - which expanded my majority from barely 1,200 to more than 12,000...

I always assumed that their mothers and aunts (often on instruction) voted the same way as their husbands.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

China - Genius Genes, Gentlemen and State Power

As I said a while back, if China can set up a eugenic policy for a few Olympic basketball medals, what might they not do for a few more Nobel-winning scientists ?

Some of the world's fastest supercomputers are being set up in Hong Kong to address the age-old mystery of human intelligence.

The study of intelligence quotient (IQ) is being conducted by BGI Hong Kong, [formerly] known as the Beijing Genomics Institute. It will survey DNA samples from 1,000 child prodigies from China's best high schools, comparing them with samples from 1,000 children of average intelligence, searching for genetic variations.

The study will examine protein coding genes of the extremely smart children, many of whom are expected to enroll at Harvard, Yale or Cambridge. The results will be correlated with each youngster's school test scores, in hopes of learning how specific genetic variations affect intelligence.

The study, which started in 2009 in Shenzhen, is moving to a new facility in Tai Po. By the end of this month, 115 of the world's fastest sequencers - the HiSeq 2000 - will have relocated to the city. They will be able to sequence the equivalent of 1,000 human genomes a day, and soon surpass the entire sequencing output of the United States to become the world's largest sequencing centre.

The study by BGI, which receives strong financial backing from the Shenzhen and mainland governments, will be the largest-scale examination of its kind. Ethical and privacy concerns have hindered such work in America and Europe.
You can say that again. When a decent and humane sort like Charles Murray gets called a Nazi and a racist for writing about IQ, the likelihood of a Western government sponsoring a massive IQ/genetics research program ain't terribly high.

BTW, I'm no expert, but mightn't it be more productive to compare exceptional children with their less brilliant siblings ? I'm sure Professor Hsu knows what he's doing.

Ever since Nazi Germany misused science to support its murderous racist and anti-Semitic theories, Western societies have been extremely sensitive about linking genetics to IQ.
Yup. Even though we ain't German and we ain't Nazis, no one wants to be branded by association - which is what UK lefties will do the moment the subject's raised. But China doesn't seem to have a great deal of liberal guilt about such things - they're more into 'what works'.

Be interesting (as in the apocryphal Chinese curse) to see what comes out of this. East Asians are already among the cleverest people in the world as measured by IQ. If they could find some way of turbocharging that ... on the other hand the simplest thing would be to drop the one-child policy for clever girls.

(In the UK the cleverest girls have the fewest children - dysgenics rather than eugenics).

UPDATE - a vision of the future ? via Professor Hsu, Mark Lilla at New Republic on the two Westerners influencing bright young Chinese - Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt.

I had heard that Strauss was popular there, as was, to my surprise, Carl Schmitt, the Weimar anti-liberal (and Nazi - LT) legal theorist... Strauss and Schmitt are at the center of intellectual debate, but they are being read by everyone, whatever their partisan leanings; as a liberal journalist in Shanghai told me as we took a stroll one day, “no one will take you seriously if you have nothing to say about these two men and their ideas.” And the interest has little to do with nationalism in the nineteenth-century sense of the term. It is a response to crisis—a widely shared belief that the millennia-long continuity of Chinese history has been broken and that everything, politically and intellectually, is now up for grabs.

... Liberal thought, the young ones now feel, just doesn’t help them understand the dynamics of Chinese life today or offer a model for the future. For example, everyone I spoke with, across the political spectrum, agrees that China needs a stronger state, not a weaker one—a state that follows the rule of law, is less capricious, can control local corruption, and can perform and carry out long-term planning. Their disagreements all seem to be about how a strong state should exercise its power over the economy and how its newfound power should be exercised in international affairs. Similarly, there was complete consensus about China’s right to defend its national interests, just differences over what those interests are. When my turn to talk about American politics came, and I tried to explain the Tea Party movement’s goal of “getting government off our backs,” I was met with blank stares and ironic smiles.
That makes sense to me. Chinese national interest demands better governance, not less government. The national interest is expressed by Schmitt :

Classical liberalism sees society as having multiple, semi-autonomous spheres; Schmitt asserted the priority of the social whole (his ideal was the medieval Catholic Church) and considered the autonomy of the economy, say, or culture or religion, as a dangerous fiction. Classical liberalism treats sovereignty as a kind of coin that individuals are given by nature and which they cash in as they build legitimate political institutions for themselves; Schmitt saw sovereignty as the result of an arbitrary self-founding act by a leader, a party, a class, or a nation that simply declares “thus it shall be.”

... The Chinese tradition of political thought that begins with Confucius, though in a way statist, is altogether different: Its aim is to build a just social hierarchy where every person has a station and is bound to others by clear obligations, including the ruler, who is there to serve. Central to the functioning of such a state are the “gentlemen” (or “gentry” in some Confucius translations), men of character and conscience trained to serve the ruler by making him a better one—more rational and concerned with the people’s good. Though the Chinese students I met clearly wanted to épater their teachers and me by constantly referring to Schmitt, the truth is that they want a good society, not just a strong one.
And the better governance comes from Strauss's gentlemen :

Taking a cue from Aristotle, Strauss distinguished between philosophers, on the one hand, and practical men who embody civic virtue and are devoted to the public good, on the other: While knowing what constitutes the good society requires philosophy, he taught, bringing it about and maintaining it requires gentlemen. Aristocracies recognize this need, democracies don’t ... But for the young Chinese I met, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense because they are already rooted in the Chinese political tradition. What makes Strauss additionally appealing to them, apart from the grand tapestry of Western political theory he lays before them, is that he makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history. He provides a bridge between their ancient tradition and our own. No one I met talked about a post-Communist China, for obvious reasons. But students did speak openly about the need for a new gentry class to direct China’s affairs, to strengthen the state by making it wiser and more just.

Now this is all fascinating stuff, implying a future China a little like Victorian Britain, with an elite class of gentlemen born (or bred) to rule in the national interest. But the British were always sceptical of ideology, let alone an ideology like Schmitt's, with its theory of 'the enemy' or 'the other', not to mention a love of dictatorship and 'decisive action'. Schmitt considered the Night of the Long Knives to be "the highest form of administrative law" - not a guy you'd want to be up in front of in court.

When I see people like Andy Newman worshipping at the People's Shrine, I do wonder - is he just making his obeisances to whatever rising power isn't British (hedging his bets by also backing Islam), or is he genuinely confusing some idealised Socialist Republic in his skull with the reality of the PRC ? What I see in these young Chinese patriots is a desire for something more like the "ancient virtues of courage, patriotism and devotion to duty" which Glubb Pasha describes in a rising empire.

“Chinese tradition has many good things, but we’ve ditched them,” Wan told me. “I feel there have to be people to carry them on.” She came from a middle-class home, and Tang’s humble roots and old-fashioned values impressed her. “Most of my generation has a smooth, happy life, including me,” she said. “I feel like our character lacks something. For example, love for the country or the perseverance you get from conquering hardships. Those virtues, I don’t see them in myself and many people my age.”

Those who came into conflict with Victorian Britannia usually came off worse - she was pretty robust about defending her interests. How robust will a 'Schmitt-powered' Chinese elite be?

How Greenbaum Was My Valley

A fascinating history of the Jews in Wales, from a 1975 edition of the Jewish Chronicle. Interesting for the light it shines not only on Jewish but on Welsh culture as was :

"The brooding hills and green valleys of South Wales are evocative of so many things. To the Jewish traveller they speak of a life's story exceedingly strange and affecting. He sees an alien figure bent low under his outsize pack, walking up hill and down dale for mile after lonely mile. At the mining village tucked away beneath a dark hill, children greet him with: "The packman has come!" He knocks on doors, his only English words, "anything wanting?" (Welsh is a double-sealed book.)

Come Friday, he makes for home and family, Sabbath in synagogue and the Chevra Shass, the talmudic study circle. He is a learned Jew, among the few precious possessions he has brought from in der heim is his shass, his well-fingered volumes of the Talmud, and a desire to 'learn' more. He has brought his determination to keep 'the Law' whatever the difficulties. And so if he was caught on his way by the advent of the Sabbath, he would leave his pack and the small pile of money he had earned on the table of a friendly miner's cottage, and come back for his treasure on Sunday knowing it would all be there untouched."

A little like the story of the Mohammeds of Stornoway, that - their patriarch walked the hills of 50s Lewis with a suitcase. But the story in Wales is of communities growing with the boom years, then decline and in many places disappearance as economic opportunity shrank and (as with the Mohammeds) the younger generation moved away.

Among the other gems are the shortage of marriageable youth in Swansea, Jewish miners, the first Welsh-born Jew (Levi Michael, 1754, in Haverfordwest of all places), the sad decline of the Port Talbot synagogue (derelict in 1975, now built over) the Welsh-speaker who tells the author, only half in jest: "To be a real Welshman, you must be chapel", and the fact (new to me) that Churchill sent troops to Tredegar in 1911 after anti-Jewish riots.

Being a 1975 piece, there is no mention of the most famous Welsh Jew of all, a man who saved hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, from burglary, assault and crime of all sorts by his decision, as 1995 Home Secretary, to start locking up criminals- the Blessed Michael Howard.