China’s Inconvenient Truth

Photo: Residential buildings in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Darley Shen/Reuters.

In late February, Under the Dome, a documentary by former television news anchor and investigative journalist Chai Jing, was released criticizing China’s environmental record. Her quiet, understated approach is charismatic. Armed with statistics, footage and interviews from a number of impressive sources, she flexed her investigative journalist muscles. The film went viral in China.

Within a week, the Party shut it down. The film was “spirited away by gremlins.”

Of course, it still exists online outside of China, and I recommend you watch it. The entire film is on YouTube, the translation of which was apparently coordinated by a grade 12 student from Mainland China via GitHub.

(I watched via this playlist by a different translator, which I had discovered before finding the project above.)

Even if you are not a China watcher, the presentation is very engaging — a master class in presentation skills. Many have compared it to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Chai examines the impact of China’s energy mix, criticizing coal, diesel, oil, as well as the lax enforcement of the various ministries responsible and the corporations that control them. She closes with a number of suggestions including market competition and people power. I don’t know if opening up the market is the right answer, but surely the stricter enforcement that she calls for is necessary whether or not China reforms its energy sector. She promotes apps made with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs that allow the public to see and report businesses with excessive emissions to environmental watchdogs and publicly on Weibo.

Harnessing China’s powerful netizens to work with environmental NPOs might seem like a risky move. But just this year the government introduced new new environmental protection provisions that encourages “naming and shaming” of illegal polluters. Last year, President Xi himself declared war on pollution. This is an interesting use of open data, and can only be executed by having the right legal infrastructure in place (ie. buy-in by the government) and an engaged citizenry (ie. buy-in by the people).

Chai points out that this is a chance for Chinese citizens to test the fortitude of these laws and their government. The government is asking for transparency and public involvement in solving to pollution crisis in China. But as the pulling of this documentary demonstrates, they don’t want transparency and public involvement in pointing out how the government has failed thus far.

That criticism aside, awareness of how bad things are in China (and soon to be in India) is an important step, especially since they offer tools for the public to get involved. In Canada, emergency environmental reporting is devolved to the provincial and sometimes city level. This isn’t as convenient as China’s hotline number “12369” (which I can already recall by memory, just from watching the film), but just knowing that such infrastructure for reporting exists in the first place should be made common knowledge.

Documentaries like Under the Dome promote conversation around these issues (even though sometimes the politics involved can be … ahem … toxic). China is attempting to shut down the conversation in its own country, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the problem here. And if Canada wants to grow that $20B in trade we do with China, we can make sure that our government does so in a responsible way, leveraging the laws that the Chinese government has already put in place.

Quarterly review: FY15Q1

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

I am keeping 4 books ahead of my 2015 Goodreads challenge so far, so that is good. I spend a lot of time reading The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Literary Review of Canada while I am at home so I am glad audiobooks help me keep pace. I would have finished 1 or 2 more, but I abandoned a couple of books this year. That is something I normally wouldn’t do… but life is short right? And there is too much worthy out there to read.

Here are the longer reviews from this quarter:

Probably the number one book of this quarter – and potentially of this year – is Piketty’s Capital. A very challenging book. I am aware of the criticism, but it has certainly affected the way I think about economic policy.

★★★★☆ The Once and Future King

★★★☆☆ The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics

★★★☆☆ The Republic of Thieves

★★★★½ Station Eleven

★★★☆☆ Ha’penny

★★★★★ Capital in the Twenty-First Century

★★★★☆ Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War

★★★★☆ Half a Crown

Film

Out of the 10 films I saw this quarter (the highlight being The Grand Budapest Hotel) I only deigned to write a little something for the following:

★★★½☆ Like Father, Like Son

★★★☆☆ Attack the Block

★★☆☆☆ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Not a lot of insight there…

The best of 2014

I logged 40 films and read 57 books in the year 2014. That is really 50 books when you remove the graphic novels, essays and lecture series. Considering my GoodReads Challenge this year was 45 books, I did well. Next year I am setting it to 50. Why not?

I did two reviews for the Literary Review of Canada this year (one to be published early 2015), which meant a lot of background reading and research. Plus, for a few months I attended a book club, which meant an extra book each month, but it wasn’t that difficult. Probably because of how I consume books: 72% of my read books were in audio format. Considering how many podcasts I listen to, that is a lot of media consumption through the ears.

The fiction to non-fic split was 28 to 22. Seems like a pretty good balance. Almost half and half.

8 books got 5 stars from me. Here is the quick list:

The first two, Origins and To Save Everything probably influenced me the most this year. I would also like to give special mention to The Circle (4 stars), which was problematic in execution, but sparked a lot of excellent conversation.

Politics was a big theme for me this year. I spent a lot of time thinking about how so much of our tech is about facilitating social interaction, and how social interaction is governed by politics. It has shifted my focus to thinking more about the underlying political infrastructure of our technology, instead of the technological infrastructure of our politics. The result so far has been a sidelining of technology per se, at least from my perspective. I am getting re-acquainted with political theory again. More on this in the future I’m sure.

Another highlight of the year was being introduced to the excellent Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin. I don’t know why I had never read them before, but I plan on reading more.

On film

12 of the 40 films I logged were watched with my kids. I only watched Frozen once, even though my kids could have logged it 40 times. Anyways, my top films of 2014 were:

I guess my theme in film this year was “captains”…? Or maybe, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, which is funny because a lot of the books I read this year were much the opposite!


See previous entries:

Quarterly review: FY14Q4

[Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and off-the-cuff to be included with the more indepth reviews I do on this site.]

Books

The first book I completed this quarter was Douglas Coupland’s new Kitten Clone: The History of the Future at Bell Labs for which I have a review forthcoming in the Literary Review of Canada. Stay tuned for that. In the meantime, here are some off-the-cuff reviews from other books this quarter.

★★★★☆ Midnight Riot

★★★★☆ Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

★★★☆☆ Leviathan Wakes

★★★★★ Superman: Red Son

★★★★☆ You Have to F–king Eat

★★★★☆ The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida

★★★★★ The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

★★★☆☆ Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous

Film

Wow. I only watched 7 films this quarter, 2 of them rewatches. Not a lot of activity. The best film I saw was made in 1976. The only review I had was this line for my 3-star review of Rise of the Guardians:

I love the fact that my kids now imagine Santa Claus as a heavily tattooed Russian wielding dual broadswords!

Quarterly review: FY14Q3

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and off-the-cuff to be included with the more indepth reviews I do on this site.

Books

Well, I completed my my 2014 Goodreads reading challenge a bit earlier than usual. I suppose I should bump it to 50 books next year. That is almost a book a week!

Just a note that the Literary Review of Canada put my review of The People’s Platform outside of it’s paywall. It is a worthwile read, even if I had problems with it. See Occupy the Internet! at the LRC.

This quarter’s mini-reviews include:

★★★★★ The Handmaid’s Tale

★★★☆☆ The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

★★★★☆ The Magician’s Land

★★★☆☆ No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State

★★★☆☆ The Ocean at the End of the Lane

★★★★☆ Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield

★★★★☆ The Tombs of Atuan Tombs of Atuan

★★★☆☆ Ready Player One

Film

I finally watched the entire Luther series, something that was recommended to me long ago. It was great fun. I have also been turned onto Homeland, and am on the third season now. I still have a bunch of series queued up, not to mention the latest Doctor Who, Agents of SHIELD and Arrow seasons that are back this fall. I have been engrossed in television and my film-watching this quarter lagged. I only watched 13 films, and offer only 3 mini-reviews:

★★½☆☆ The Amazing Spiderman 2

★★★½☆ Dirty Wars (see my review of the book as well. Spoiler: the book is better.)

★★★★☆ The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz 2014

Make sure you see that last one.

Quarterly review: FY14Q2

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more indepth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

Although I am still a few books ahead of schedule on my 2014 Goodreads reading challenge I have slowed down my pace a bit. I haven’t been listening to audiobooks as much this month since I have had a lot of World Cup related podcasts to keep up with, specifically The Ramble and The Guardian’s World Cup Football Daily. In fact, the only short reviews I have written are the following:

★★★★☆ Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age

★★★☆☆ Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture

★★★☆☆ Extraordinary Canadians: Marshall McLuhan

I have a forthcoming review of Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age coming out in print this summer [UPDATE: Here is my contributor link at the Literary Review of Canada. They haven’t made the article publicly available on the net, yet]. Also, I intend to write a post about the changing view of startup/tech culture in novel form soon as a threeway review of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs (1995), JPod (2006) and Dave Eggers’s The Circle. So, more to come from me in the next quarter.

Film

This quarter I watched a lot of crappy action films (which is a guilty pleasure of mine). It was an amazing quarter in the sense that I saw and enjoyed both Captain America: Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past. They were great but by far the best film I saw was Captain Phillips. However, I only felt the need to comment on the following films:

★★★½☆ The Raid

★★★½☆ The Fault in Our Stars

★½☆☆☆ G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Quarterly review: FY14Q1

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more indepth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

As for books, so far I have had an amazing first quarter and am 6 books ahead on my 2014 Goodreads reading challenge with the pleasure of reading FOUR 5-star books!

★★★★☆ Homeland

★★☆☆☆ Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World

★★★☆☆ Journey to the Center of the Earth

★★★★★ Among Others

★★★☆☆ A Wizard of Earthsea

★★★★★ The Hard Thing About Hard Things

★★☆☆☆ Doomsday Book

I would like to give a special mention to The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama. I rated this book 5-stars but have held off on a review, since it is the first of a two-volume set. I would like to say that it has been a very influential book on me, and I mentioned it in my review of Morozov’s To Save Everything.

Film

Although I saw 7 films this quarter, not even one garnered a review. You can see all of them on my Letterboxd film diary.

The best of 2013

See last year’s roundup.

Besides work and family, I get enjoyment out of books and film. In terms of books, this year was a pretty serious one for me.

Goodreads Challenge 2013

I was able to acheive my Goodreads goal (again). It says 50, but if you minus off the graphic novels, coursework and essays it is more like 44. Considering my family was in Japan for a total of 13 weeks, I probably should have read more. I did spend quite a bit of time reading D&D and Shadowrun rulebooks… so… there’s that.

Looking back, my overall reading theme was “internet theory” — including cypherpunks, hackers, anonymous and the like. This trend started before the Snowden revelations, but picked up halfway through the year. Since reading Future Perfect last year, and thinking about information politics I have been diving deep into the internet and politics. I suspect that trend to continue in 2014.

The best book of 2013 I read was This Machine Kills Secrets. I highly recommend it. Furthermore I would recommend Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking if you want to learn more about the ethics of computing. From those two books you can go many directions. I listen to the Suprisingly Free podcast to get ideas.

Audio vs Text

Last year I set the goal of reading more books rather than listening to them. I wanted to push down the ratio of audiobooks from 75% to half. I almost achieved that:

  • Audio 25 = 56%
  • Text 12 = 27%
  • Both audio and text 7 = 16%

With Amazon’s new Whispersync technology and strategy of bundling of Audible and Kindle books, I have been getting both versions for books that I want to get through quickly but still need to take lots of annotations. I still would like to read more, but audio fits into my daily life better.

Next year’s goal

I set the goal of getting into “deeper” books last year. Althought I was able read some classics. like Crime and Punishment, I strayed quite a bit. I feel that grasping the “classics” properly requires me to read them, yet I read fiction mainly for relaxationa and entertainment, and thus tend to use the audio medium. In order to read more classics, I need to change my reading habits, and I am not sure if I am ready to do that. Interesting to think that the medium determines the “quality” of books I am reading.

Next year I will probably continue reading non-fic about internet politics. I would like to try to go back and re-read some books from the past, both non-fic and fic. That and I have a few series that I started this year that I can continue reading (Vorkosigan Saga, Oxford Time Travelers, Small Change, etc.) Plus I am looking forward to more Hawkeye and Saga! In all, I do not plan to be buying a ton of books in 2014.

A note about film

Last year I dedicated a whole post to film. This time I just thought I would note the highlights of the 47 films I saw. The following garnered 5 and 4.5 stars:

As you can see, I was catching up on some films from the past. As for new films, although I enjoyed the spectacle of The Desolation of Smaug, Gravity was probably the best film of the year from a critical perspective.

Quarterly review: FY13Q4

Below are links to all the off-the-cuff reviews of books and film from this quarter. I didn’t add to my list of more in depth reviews.

Reviews from Goodreads (2013)

★★★★☆ Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

★★★☆☆ Writing on the Wall

★★★★★ To Say Nothing of the Dog: Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last

★★★★☆ Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

★★☆☆☆ I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did

From my Letterboxd film diary:

★★★★½ Gravity

Quarterly review: FY14Q3

Below are links to all the off-the-cuff reviews of books and film from this quarter. I didn’t add to my list of more in depth reviews. During 2013Q3 I did not read as many books, but read a few comics and got addicted to Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga (vol 1, vol 2) and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye (vol 1, vol 2). I have since picked up more of Fraction’s work to read for the future.

Furthermore, I only read a couple of books on internet politics as I finally released my thinking on an information-centric political philosophy. At the recommendation of a couple of academics I have been reading some journal articles on the subject, but this quarter I plan to finish Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom and Ron Diebert’s Black Code.

Reviews from Goodreads (2013)

★★★☆☆ Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power

★★★☆☆ The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It

★★★★☆ Mars Direct: Space Exploration, the Red Planet, and the Human Future

★★★★☆ Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey–and Even Iraq–Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport

★★★★☆ The Engineer: Follow Elon Musk on a journey from South Africa to Mars

★★★☆☆ You Are Not a Gadget: Being Human in an Age of Technology

From my Letterboxd film diary:

★★★½☆ Elysium

★★★☆☆ The Little Mermaid

★★★★☆ The Matrix