Is Google+ Dying?

Posted on February 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

The Wall Street Journal says it’s a ghost town, and produces this damning statistic:

Visitors using personal computers spent an average of about three minutes a month on Google+ between last September and January, versus six to seven hours on Facebook each month over the same period, according to comScore, which didn’t have data on mobile usage.

As someone who wanted Google+ to succeed, I hate to say it but the Journal is probably right. Google has invested far too much into G+ to just let it flounder, but it’s hard to imagine it gaining any real momentum from this point forward. Since it’s inception last summer I’ve shared a large number of articles and all of my own blog posts on Google+, but the almost total lack of social interaction has been discouraging.

There’s still plenty of content on Google+, so I think the “ghost town” description used by the Journal isn’t quite accurate. The problem simply is that so little you see on Google+ is actually original. There are plenty of Facebook users who don’t use Google+, but almost no Google+ users who don’t use Facebook. Ditto Twitter. Virtually the only people who seem to be using Google+ are people who are heavy social media users trying to share to as wide an audience as possible, or Google Reader junkies who nimbly share articles onto G+ with the click of a button.

I realize it’s unfair to compare Google+ to Facebook, but there has to be something there that can’t be found elsewhere. If not, users will simply lose interest- even former boosters like me.

But by far the most telling sign that Google+ is in trouble is this:  the Chinese government just unblocked it.…

GOP Blues

Posted on February 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

I’ve been mulling over a post about why the Republican Party appears to be botching a winnable election against Barack Obama, but instead let me direct you to this engrossing John Heilemann article  in New York magazine.

What’s surprised me about the GOP primaries is this: Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich really shouldn’t be putting up much of a fight. They are, to put it charitably, bench warmers on the Republican squad- has-beens who seem to be running more to restore their own personal reputations than to actually win the election. Mitt Romney shouldn’t have had any trouble with these guys at all- but he can’t put them away.


Why Is The New York Times Travel Section So Bad? Reinventing the Travel Section

Posted on February 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Amid the overall brilliance of the Sunday New York Times, the Travel section stands out for its mediocrity. Each week, the stories are more or less the same: a feature story about a particular place, a short advice section on finding inexpensive flights, tips on things to do and places to see for a short visit to somewhere, and a mildly amusing observational piece about travel in general. Very few of the articles I’ve encountered over the years have been illuminating, and more often than not I simply glance at the headlines before discarding the section into the recycling bin.

Why is it so bad? Supply and demand don’t seem to provide an answer. Being a professional travel writer typically ranks high on the list of desired professions, so you’d think that the Times would have no trouble attracting talent.   In addition, a good travel section would be more attractive to lucrative advertisers and thus a source of revenue. There’s no intrinsic reason why the section shouldn’t be as excellent as all the others in the paper.

The problem, I think, is with its editorial vision. The section basically reads like a collection of clippings thrown together from a box of Lonely Planet guides, trying desperately to find something to appeal to everyone. The articles read much like your Uncle Joe’s description of his ski trip to Austria; while it may have been interesting to him, it wasn’t for anyone else. Few of the articles ever capture anything extraordinary or unusual; they’re all written by ordinary people going on ordinary vacations and doing ordinary things. Everything seems to resolve around travel as vacation rather than vocation; the section exists solely to advise people wondering how to spend their annual two-week vacation.

The travel section could be so much more, and it isn’t hard to think of ways how. For example, earlier this winter I read Paul Theroux’s wonderful new anthology The Tao of Travel, a book that presented excerpts about travel writing organized around a central theme, like “food” or “adventure”. What made the book so enticing wasn’t simply the descriptions of far-flung places and exotic people, but rather the fact that travel served as a proxy for other elements of the human spirit. Traveling is about adventure, of course, but it also provides a platform for courage, fear, bravery, perseverance, stubbornness, and in some accounts, prejudice. The beauty of traveling is that the traveler learns more about both the place he is visiting and the place that he comes from; travel is as much an inward journey as an outward one.

So for every article recommending good steakhouses in Buenos Aires, I’d like to see one profiling a person living an unusual life in some corner of the globe, or of someone risking his life on a journey or pilgrimage of some sort. Travel is about so much more than getting away for a short awhile. Just because a trip might not be immediately accessible to a typical Times reader doesn’t mean that it still isn’t interesting or worth reading.…

China, America, and the Superior Political Model

Posted on February 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 4 comments

Recently, I referred to Eric X. Li’s recent New York Times editorial “Why China’s Political Model is Superior” as the stupidest thing ever written on China, so in the interest in not idly slandering someone, here is an explanation for my opinion.

Before we begin, I want to reiterate that the debate of whether one political system is superior to another is interesting and worth having. I’d be very interested in reading a well-stated, balanced article arguing that China’s system was better than America’s. Unfortunately, Li’s fails to pass that test.

First, Li’s portrayal of the U.S. political system relies far more on straw men and unsupported accusations than on fact. He attempts to tie California’s unique set of political institutions with those of the United States as a whole, even though California’s system is widely viewed as disastrous. If more states were implementing reforms to resemble California’s electoral system, then Li might have a point when he says “California is the future”. But they’re not; instead, many Californian politicians are keen to bring the state more in line with the rest of the country.

Secondly, Li writes that in the United States “elected officials have no minds of their own because they respond only to the whims of the general public.” Perhaps, but one could just as easily argue that in China unelected officials have no minds of their own because they respond only to the whims of their political superiors in the Party.  Similarly, Chinese politics aren’t free from special interests, either, which is one reason why corruption has become such a huge, nation-wide problem.

Third, Li makes two wholly unsubstantiated claims in support of single-party rule. First, he argues that in China “leaders are prepared to allow greater popular participation in political decisions if and when it is conducive to economic development and favorable to the country’s national interests'” but provides no evidence that this might be the case. That such an explanation is highly convenient to the Party itself never seems to cross Li’s mind. If the world’s authoritarian regimes were in the habit of gracefully bowing aside for the sake of their nation’s interests, then Li’s point might have merit. Alas, history has shown that the vast majority of dictatorships have no greater interest than the perpetuation of their power, and that they will only give in when under intense political pressure to do so. (see Mubarak, Hosni).

Li then writes that the massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was justified because the alternatives would have been much worse, and that the “resulting stability” led to a “generation of growth”. I’m not an expert in logic, but I can spot a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc when I see one. Nobody knows what would have happened had China given in to the students’ demands, but it’s worth noting that the protesters simply wanted greater political openness to accompany popular economic reforms. Li’s argument that the massacre itself spurred greater growth doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Li writes that American democracy is “faith-based” and  “God-given”, in apparent contrast to the highly pragmatic nature of China’s system of government. Yet if China’s system were so favorable, why hasn’t the government confirmed it through a national referendum? Why doesn’t China allow its people to speak and write openly about its political system? If China’s system is flexible and pragmatic, wouldn’t it follow that it have popular support, too?

And finally, it’s worth considering that the Communist Party assumed power long before they implemented a series of economic reforms in the late 1970s. If one is to consider the efficacy of the Party as a whole, it would only be fair to include Mao Zedong’s disastrous reign in power, too. One might argue that Mao’s totalitarian rule was an aberration, but that’s precisely the point. China’s political system lacks the legal framework to prevent abuses on the scale of Mao’s. The United States has had its share of poor leaders as well, but I would argue that the inherent flexibility of the US system- and any other democracy, for that matter- has given the country a basic stability that China does not have.

Democracy, too, isn’t an American invention.  Countries on six continents have robust, successful democracies, and the list of the world’s democracies continues to grow, not shrink. When people in democratic countries begin agitating for single-party rule, I’ll begin noticing. But it’s difficult to deny that living in a free, democratic society remains an aspiration held by an enormous number of people throughout the world, including a great many who happen to live in China.







Atheism Is Not a Religion

Posted on February 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 12 comments

As a person who identifies as an atheist (and pointedly not an agnostic), I found this answer to the question of whether “atheism is just another religion” to be highly satisfactory. Here’s the full text, from Quora contributor Chris O’Regan:

There’s an old saying in response to the allegation that atheism is a religion: “Then not collecting stamps must be a hobby, or baldness must be a hair colour”.

“Religion” is a difficult thing to define, but most useful definitions of the term will include a belief in the supernatural or supernatural elements. An atheist, by contrast, is simply someone who does not hold a belief in god (an “agnostic” is someone who takes the position that it is not possible to “know” whether or not god exists – many believers in gods and many atheists therefore qualify as agnostics).  Someone might be an atheist and still have a belief in some supernatural claims, like reincarnation – they may even be a follower of what is normally termed a religion.  Some types of Buddhism and Hinduism deny the existence of gods – they are effectively atheist religions.

The definition of “atheist” does not encompass anything more than a non-belief in god.  There are no atheist rituals, holidays, worship ceremonies, mantras, prayers, holy books, priests, or anything else that is normally associated with religion (even though not all religions have all these things, atheism as an idea incorporates none of these things).

Atheism is a philosophical position, but on its own does not encompass an entire belief system.  Many atheists, but by no means all, are secular humanists.  Secular humanism is a belief system, not a religion, because it likewise does not incorporate rituals, ceremonies, priests, a common calendar, or a belief in the supernatural.  It’s simply a philosophy on the best way to live your life.

Many religious people claim that atheism “is just another religion” to avoid confronting the fact that their own religious beliefs have no empirical grounding in evidence.  One does not have to be called an atheist to express scepticism to a given supernatural claim, and whenever somebody offers solid logical counterarguments to the existence of god, whatever name you give them is irrelevant.  What’s important is answering the argument convincingly


Kevin Rudd and The Trouble with Chinese

Posted on February 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

The Chinese take a certain amount of pride in the difficulty of their language, for very good reason. Learning Chinese is an exercise only the most Masochistic among us enjoy, leaving the rest to slog through in a state of continuous frustration. With its unfamiliar vocabulary, slippery tones, inscrutable characters, and myriad dialects and accents, Chinese takes confident linguists and leaves them tongue tied and flabbergasted, unable to convey the simplest words and phrases after weeks of study.

So it is with eminent sympathy that I share this video of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a politician who (like the American Jon Huntsman) is noted for his fluency in Chinese. But apparently for Rudd, not all moments with Mandarin  go smoothly.

Apparently, there’s a political angle to all this: Rudd is thought to be a potential competitor to current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, so the leak of an unflattering video seems more than a little suspicious. Then again, how unflattering could it be? Salty language often humanizes a politician, and who couldn’t relate to a man coming to his wits’ end in trying to speak Chinese? I certainly can.…


Posted on February 17th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

I was terribly sad to learn that Anthony Shadid, one of the finest foreign correspondents writing about the Arab world, died today from an asthma attack while on assignment with the New York Times in Syria. Fluent in Arabic, Shadid imbued his dispatches from the Middle East with an extraordinary common touch, owing to his intimacy with the region and its people. His Night Draws Near, published in 2006, was one of the best books ever written about the Iraq War, and one of the very few whose primary focus was on the country’s people rather than its political leaders.

Journalists like Shadid, who gave his life to enlightening his readers about the world’s most volatile region, are invaluable in fostering our understanding of world events as they play out. He will be missed.


Nixon Goes to China: The Wog Perspective

Posted on February 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

Jeremiah Jenne has a great post about a new documentary, which I’ve also seen, detailing the American press coverage of President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China.

What struck me about the film was how little the journalists knew about the country. China in the early ’70s was every bit a terra incognita as present-day North Korea due to years of political and economic isolation, populated by Mao-suited men and women engaged in constant political struggle. Now, of course, no single country in the world–apart from the United States–receives as much scrutiny as China. And other countries, such as Iran, have slunk out of sight.

Speaking of Iran, Foreign Policy has a great slideshow of Tehran in the ’60s and ’70s, when the country was governed by the tyrannical but U.S-friendly dictator Reza Shah Pahlavi. For those of us who have grown up with an image of Iranians as chador-wearing radicals, this more cosmopolitan portrayal is striking.

In international relations we spend a lot of time thinking about why countries go to war with one another, and whether there will ever be a world in which war does not exist. On a certain level so long as there is scarcity, interests, territory, and national identity, war will always lurk beneath the surface.

The optimist in me though sees the amount of progress Americans have made in understanding China–and vice versa–as a positive force. Each country has news bureaus based in the other’s capital and major cities. Each country sends thousands upon thousands of students to the other for educational purposes. The number of Americans who speak Chinese and possess good knowledge about China has grown, as have the number of people in China who speak English and understand the United States.

Of course, one could have said the same thing about Germany and Britain on the eve of World War One, or even between Japan and the United States in the days before World War Two. As an academic prescription for peace, closeness and knowledge doesn’t fly. But I can’t help thinking, deep down, that it’s a good thing.

So perhaps in another forty years we’ll marvel at how little Americans understood about 2012-era Iran. I certainly hope so.


Introverts Can Be Lame, Right?

Posted on February 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

In a review of Susan Cain’s Quiet, a study of introverts, this passage stuck out:

For one thing, her definition of introversion — a temperamental inner-­directedness first identified as a core personality trait by Carl Jung in 1921 — widens constantly; by the end of the book, it has expanded to include all who are “reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned.” This widening of the definition makes introversion so broad a category, including, basically, all that is wise and good, that it’s largely meaningless, except as yet another vehicle for promoting self-esteem: “a very empowering lens through which to view your personality,” as Cain puts it.

Back in 2003, Jonathan Rauch published an article in The Atlantic on introversion that was so popular that for the next few months, just about all of my friends who had read it outed themselves as one. And why not? Reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, gentle, calm, modest, and risk-averse are all considered positive personal attributes, ones that just about any normal adult human has felt at one point or another in his life. Package these fine qualities with “misunderstood” and “under-represented” you’ve got the perfect set-up: superior and disadvantaged! No wonder so many people think they’re introverted!

I’m happy to accept Carl Jung’s premise that every human, by and large, can be classified as either extroverted or introverted. But for once I’d like to see an assessment of introversion that considered pejorative characteristics, too.



Time and American Stupidity

Posted on February 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

Due to the inexpensive price of its iPad edition, I bought a month subscription to Time magazine for the first time in my life. I imagined that the magazine would present a nice, balanced mixture of news and cultural commentary. Instead, here was the cover of the most recent edition I received in the mail:


Yikes. But as Slate points out, this was only the cover for the magazine’s U.S. edition. For its Europe, Asia, and South Pacific editions, Time used a serious photograph of Italian prime minister Mario Monti in place of the two dogs. And indeed, this wasn’t the first time Time  dumbed down its cover to suit American audiences. Back in December, European, Asian, and South Pacific readers were treated to a cover featuring an Arab protester. We Americans, on the other hand, were asked to consider the vitally important matter of whether anxiety was good for us.

Does Time hold the intellect of the American public in such low esteem that they have to publish popular science-type articles just so we buy the magazine? I mean, I’m sure the question of whether animals can form friendships appeals greatly to a certain segment of the population. But it doesn’t exactly rank with the discovery of the double helix in terms of societal importance. I would guess that most of the population would have carried on just fine without knowing whether Fido and Buttons were actually great pals.

The tragedy about all this is that there are so many stories that would be perfectly suitable for Time’s cover. Off the top of my head, I can think of the Greek economic crisis, the ongoing civil conflict in Syria, the possibility of a spring-time Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the re-surgence of Rick Santorum in the Republican primary, and even a story of whether recent unemployment figures augur an economic recovery. But, evidently these are of only minor importance to the American magazine-reading public.

I don’t mind Time orienting its content to a broader swathe of the American population than, say, The Economist does. But what would happen if Time were to dispense with these silly manufactured stories and started featuring actual news items on its cover? Would its readers switch to reading Newsweek in disgust? Or People? It’d be nice if Time‘s editor thought beyond the bottom line of its marketing department and started treating us more like adults.…