[ Quote ] This is just getting sad, Larry

People used to always joke that Eric Schmidt was merely the “adult supervision” who wasn’t responsible for much of Google’s success. But now that he’s gone and Page is in charge, it’s becoming apparent how important that adult supervision was.

Sarah Lacy, Pandodaily

[ Announcement ] Website under construction


 I have changed the blog platform again: From WordPress to WordPress. Let me explain.

Before: WordPress.com

Just like Typepad, WordPress offers a hosted service. All you have to do is register a xxx.wordpress.com account and let the rest be taken care of…as long as you are comfortable within their sandboxed environment. I became frustrated.

After: WordPress.org

I have switched to a self-hosting option. What that means is that I control (almost) everything, from how the website looks to where the data is located. But I earn maximum flexibility: the world is in my hands.

I will continue to update new posts as well as renovate this house of mine. Hopefully it will be finished shortly.

Email Subscription Will Be Back Soon

Sorry for the inconvenience. Right after I abandoned Typepad, I introduced WordPress.com subscription, and it is down again. I will ask you to register once again (oh my) but this time, when I finish installing the new subscription, it will stay. I am sorry for the inconvenience.

[ Tech Comm ] How a tiny change potentially makes a huge difference

(Priz by Kreatifkup.com)

I wonder how much thought the original inventor of the power socket put into his design. If he was a little bit—just a little bit—cautious, he could have been flipped the shape of the ground plug (the mouth) upside down, so that this cute family won’t be having surprises: they would be smiling instead.

Imagine each time we plug a power cable into the wall socket, we are greeted by a smily face instead of a sad one. Wouldn’t have that improved our lives tremendously? We would have been greeted by smiles for several times a day.

[ Essay ] Strength = Limitation

A friend of mine asked me this question: “What do you think is the shortfall of Western civilization?”

I replied: The unquestionable assumption that progress is good. You may also call it moving on, going forward, taking a step, etc.

The “forward is good” idea reminds me of the story in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, about the difference between a manager and a leader. A manager is the guy who walks through the bush with machetes in his hands. A leader is the guy on top of the tree, yelling “Wrong jungle!” A similar variation appears in the story of a radio conversation between the US and Canadian officers off the coast.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a Collision.
Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.
Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.
Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

History is full of tragedies caused by the “moving forward” attitude. After Columbus “found” India, Europe conquered much of the rest of the world, bringing famine, slavery, exploitation along. Similar situation happened in North America. Or take capitalism, in which eternal growth of money (and ego) is considered a virtue.

…Yet these examples also highlight the biggest contribution of so-called Western societies to the world: frontier spirit and liberation of mankind. Limitations and strengths come together.

“Let’s fix the shortcomings and we’ll be perfect” doesn’t work. I used to think of shortcomings as cancer: cut it out, and I’ll be fine. But in reality, shortcomings are more like pests: a vital part of my eco-sysem which happened to be harmful to my other (and more valuable, at the moment) aspects. We cut one part out, and we lose our balance.

Probably what’s more important is to realize that one thing can be considered either good or bad, depending on the point of view and overall situation.

[ Essay ] Lessons from Pandodaily and TechCrunch

Following TechCrunch’s debacles, ex-senior editor Sarah Lacy has started a new tech news site, PandoDaily. She assembled other TechCrunch alumnus, which made PandoDaily (almost) TechCrunch 2.0. I stopped reading TechCrunch altogether.

TechCrunch still has larger resources that allow their own events and more staff writers. But they did lose their core essence, the “Fuck You” attitude (observed by Fred Wilson) that is now seem to be inherited to PandoDaily. I don’t want to read another report on the next version of Mac OS or how much market share Yahoo has been losing. I want to read what’s behind—in other word, Why? I don’t care What, Where, When, Who, or How. Give me a good story, told by a real human, with his or her insights. Ultimately, I don’t even care if that story is true.

While I read an article, I hold up my mental antenna and if the article contains something that resonates with it, that story is true enough for me. No “evidence” is required. Anyhow, there is no way I can verify if an incident actually happened, unless I saw it with my own eyes. Much of storytelling depends on the storytellers themselves: Sarah LacyMichael AarringtonMG Siegler. I love seeing things from these people’s point of view. Biased? Extreme? Weird? All yes. Wrong? Maybe. Who cares.

But boring? No.

And I believe there lies the secret for news media to survive. Can we meet a real person with her own voice? Forget neutrality, which never existed. Neutrality is transparency (originally told by Joi Ito, I think). Give us real human beings with their own ideas, and leave it to us listeners to decide if we take their messages or not.

Until TechCrunch’s imposition, I thought I wanted to read (tech news). Now I know better: I wanted to see (writers). In the end, all I need is the campfire storytelling experience, continued from the beginning of the human race. We are just doing it thousands of kilometers apart.

[ Essay ] Housing bubble as a predictor of economic (and population) decline

History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes by flowcomm, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  flowcomm 

The Great Bubble of the 80s marked the death of Japan as the place of the rising son. More than twenty years have passed, and my home country has been back on track with full-speed production…of zombies: dead companies that do not innovate, withdrawals living off their parents’ assets, second-generation politicians who care nothing but increasing their retirement fund.

I have been taught all along by the “experts” that the real estate bubble was the source of all evil. “If only the government were able to control it,” those economists would whine endlessly. I accepted the theory but it never sank in. The reason was simple—nobody I knew of lost their wealth due to the collapse of the housing market. I knew more people, including myself, who benefited from it: lower prices, increased deregulation, liberation of mass media, so on.

But of course the declining economy has been a reality, because job prospects were (and are) disappearing steadily. What did not feel was the reasoning. Then over the years, I found something that finally made sense: population. The renowned economist Paul Krugman touched this subject in his blog post:

The real Japan issue is that a lot of its slow growth has to do with demography. According to OECD numbers, in 1990 there were 86 million Japanese between the ages of 15 and 64; by 2007, that was down to 83 million. Meanwhile, the US working-age population rose from 164 million to 202 million.

I know the shrinking population is real. My father has four siblings. My mother has six. I have two siblings (my younger brother and younger sister). I have no offspring (yet). The trend is clear, as visualized in this graph: From 1992 and onward, Japan’s working population has been declining continuously toward abyss. That somehow matches Japan’s economic status, and I don’t think it is a coincidence.

They say the technological advance—automation, large-scale production facilities, systematization of management—can be the other engine of the “dual core” of economic growth. That’s what ageing countries, namely China, seem to be focusing in order to grow  without counting on unlimited supply of cheap labor. Alas, according to Wikipedia, population growth takes much larger role than we think, even in the most prominent example of technological advance that pulled the mass of poverty: industrial revolution.

Economic growth can also be of interest without reference to per capita changes in standard of living. An example of this is the economic growth in England during the Industrial Revolution. Certainly, per capita increases in productivity occurred due to the replacement of hand labour by machines. However, economic growth during this period was in large part so dramatic because England’s population simultaneously increased very rapidly (1700 A.D. – 1860 A.D.). The two factors together, more production per worker combined with many more workers, resulted in a sixfold increase in production between 1700 and 1860. Population growth alone accounted for most of this increase.

Then recently I came across this analysis about the current and future economic situation of China. Long story short, here is the conclusion: History repeats itself. How so? This graph from the article shows it all. The demography of China closely resembles that of Japan. And of course there is a housing bubble going on. 1 + 1 is always 2.

Taiwan, where I live, is not immune either. Taiwan’s birthrate is already one of the lowest in the world. I recently discussed the local housing market with my colleagues. A second-hand 2LDK apartment costs around US $500,000 at central Taipei. The average monthly salary of a 30-year old Taiwanese worker is US $1,000. If he spend one third of his salary for mortgage payment, he needs to pay more than a hundred years (and that’s not counting the interest). If this isn’t a real estate bubble, what is it?

Maybe the real estate bubble is not the cause but the preceding indicator of what comes next: long-term economic decline caused by population decline. People say you can’t compare Japan with the rest of Asia (with a tint of political correctness). But since all economic activities follow the rule of capitalism, hoping a different future is equal to repeating the same thing and expecting a different result: a sign of lunacy.

[ Essay ] How can translation survive?

Lost In Translation by tochis, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  tochis 

This blog post (Japanese) tells us that one of Japan’s largest toy companies, Bandai-Namco (they have the cult classic Ghost in the Shell), is retreating from retailing anime products in the U.S. market, due to sluggish sales. Bandai blames their failure on on-demand streaming of pirated videos with cheap, quickie subtitles.

The blog author, a translator himself, warns that the Bandai case is an example of a long-term trend in the translation industry: translation is becoming interpretation. The market is demanding fast, real-time bridging of communication, than time-consuming but accurate reconstruction of the original content.

I have converted into a “streamer” myself. Long gone are the days of devouring shelves in a suburban outlet; YouTube and Pirate Bays are the new HMV and Tower Records. They have the fastest, latest, and most exciting videos (We can’t find gems like the one below in a DVD shop, can we?) with practically zero cost.

Well, as a technical writer and occasional translator myself, this is also MY business: how can translators make living in the 21st century, if no one is paying for translation? The aforementioned blog proposes the inevitable: add value. I agree (or to be precise, I have no choice but to agree). Ask Thomas Friedman, the guru of the flattened world. He has posted a thoughtful column.

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

Well, yes. The question is, what is the extra value? Translation is just…translation, right? The general answer to this type of question is always the same: Outrun your competitors.
  • Faster: Bring the Just-in-Time process into your work system.
  • Wider: You may format, design, or print the document in addition to translating. Hey, why don’t you write the original content too?
That’s it. You will stay ahead of the game, your clients will love you, and money flows in. Just make sure you have protected yourself by adding a clause against death by overwork in your health insurance (Except that it’s too late). And that is our real problem: The above two options are just two sides of the same coin called More. We need to do more. And more.

When the dead-end called “more” is the only solution, we are usually asking the wrong question. The real question is not “How can we translate better?” Take a look around us: Everybody speaks, or at least listens, to English. The English language is becoming that single language used by biblical people to build the Tower of Babel. There will be no need for translation in the long term, period.

We should rather ask “What is translation?” Translation is the bridging of communication by expressing meaning in a different language. What’s disappearing by the ubiquity of the English language is the latter. But the former, communication barrier, will remain—probably forever. And herein lies a way for a translator to make a living: smoothing out communication glitches. As a translator, you have been thinking harder than most people about what exactly a person is trying to express, what truly are behind his messages. What’s obvious to you is not so to other people—that’s where you can add value to your clients.
Translation will survive by broadening the focus, not narrowing it down to the language-to-language element. As countless love stories attest, true understanding between two human beings will always remain the Holy Grail. That also means there will always be demands for communication bridging.

[ Tech Comm ] The Return of the Fingerprinting World

I helped a friend of mine connect her iPad to a wireless router. She needed to enter the DSL password, which was supposed to be jotted down in a note she couldn’t find. After two hours of search, she gave up and called the network provider. She changed the password, and—of course—noted it down in a piece of paper. I saw a karmic connection in action.

I am no different from her. My “notes” are my email messages, which I look up at least once a month. And of course I carry the risk of forgetting the email account password. Maybe I can dumb the “master” password down to my birthday or something, but then someone will take over my email account, thus my entire asset, in an instant.  The most unreliable people in this world are ourselves.

We seriously need a system that allows us to protect valuable information without relying on our memory. Biometrics is the easiest solution, therefore some computer makers embedded fingerprint readers into their laptops. And they failed. You can see the evidence by not seeing it: none of Apple’s laptops has a built-in reader. If Apple hasn’t employed a technology, it’s either not cool or doesn’t work or both.

Maybe the technology isn’t mature yet (yes, another way to say it doesn’t work). But the other—and bigger—reason, I believe, is that fingerprint scanners protect only the outermost layer of the security ecosystem: logging into the laptop. Our real activities occur after we enter into our computer. In this cloud computing era, fewer people store valuable information locally. What really matters appears only after we enter into the network, and the only reliable user interface to do so anytime, anywhere, is typing. That’s why we cannot rid of the password nightmare.

Until now.
The 21st century has brought a game-changing trend in user-interface: touch screen. Since the introduction of iPhone, the Big Bang, Apple has been shoving touch screens into our lives relentlessly, and it is working. I have been showing around my new Kindle to my friends, and 10 out of 10, they try to operate it by touching the screen first. Touching, not typing, is becoming our default input action now. We are getting used to press our finger tip on the surface of a screen, which could have raised quite a few eyebrows a decade ago (pre-9/11, maybe).

We are ready to embrace fingerprinting as our default input and authentication method. It should be a win-win solution for everybody. Consumers no longer worry about identity theft. Vendors no longer worry about lost revenues due to claim management. And the authorities will certainly be happy that they can force people into fingerprinting without forcing. The only thing we are missing is a startup with the fingerprint authentication app that magically translates our thumb into a password generator in a mobile device. Hello, is there someone willing to take this challenge?

[ Essay ] Books never die, publishers will

looming (365.2.182) by splityarn, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  splityarn 

Here is a collection of whinings from book publishers feeling threatened by Amazon. Low prices, disappearing retailers, brain-drain…in a word, they are facing death. What happened to the music industry has been occurring in the publishing industry, with an alarmingly fast rate. Just recently, Encyclopedia Britannica ceased to be that glorious brick in your living room.

I should be moaning too: I have always been an avid reader. My childhood home was filled with books—picture books, novels, comics—and during summer vacations I routinely read up an entire row of a bookshelf in the school library. Even today, I carry a book with me wherever I go, even when I am visiting a nearby 7-11.

But unlike publishers, I am having the best days of my life as a reader. And it will only get better. Instead of (paper) books, I carry Kindle with me, which contains my entire ebook library in a paperback format. I have 5 to 10 books in progress, and I change the book in an instant, as if flipping through TV channels (old habits die hard). What if I forgot to carry my Kindle? I just read on my mobile phone, using the Kindle app. It automatically syncs with my hardware Kindle, so I can pick up right where I left off. What about that “paper” feeling? My fingers tell me that pressing a button is equally satisfying as flipping a page (old habits die easy, maybe).

Buying books has become easier too. Amazon’s 1-Click buying option is the Godsend for us (though I don’t support Amazon’s patenting such a simple and useful idea). And that’s not the only shortcut:  I found that a new edition of Microsoft’s Manual of Style had come out. Amazon did not have it in their stock, but then I saw O’Reilly was selling the ebook version. I bought it, downloaded the package, which had a PDF file for my desktop and an ebook file for my Kindle. It took 30 minutes from hearing the news and start reading it. I realized my days of going to a bookstore, at least for a technical reference, was over.

In short, I don’t need a bookstore or a publisher. All I need are an author and a channel between him or her. Bookstores might survive as a hybrid model of gallery and retailer. But publishers? Maybe they are required as a group of editors. As E. B. White says, writing is rewriting, and even the best authors need someone to look over their shoulders. But an editor doesn’t need to work in a publishing house, right? I don’t see any Raison d’être for publishers. If history repeats itself, publishers will turn into a group of lawyers who will do anything to stop democratizing reading experience and keep sucking blood from both writers and readers. Let’s hope this time it will be different.