Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hard to know for sure

I keep running into this problem of the limitations of knowledge. Today, a professor friend of mine reminded me how the one thing you take away from earning a PhD is how little you know of your field of study. We were discussing the old saying that after your first week in China you’ll feel like you could write a book about the place; after a year you’ll think you could write a magazine article; after a few years you give up writing anything.

The Useless Tree Blog discusses (via China Law Blog) a recent interview with Chinese official Wang Qishan claiming that China is only understandable to insiders like himself, but my first thought is “what does it mean to understand in the first place.” Does anybody really know?

Then there’s Peter Norvig’s excellent review of a recent remark by Noam Chomsky dismissing the use of statistical techniques in linguistics. Chomsky apparently thinks real scientific understanding requires more than a statistical analysis of a bunch of data—you have to synthesize that knowledge, presumably into simpler, fundamental rules that describe the Universe. That’s super-hard, and except in Physics almost always turns out to be an approximation anyway.

This is just restating the problem identified by Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society and by countless others who reflect on the limitations of what we know.

Society gives too much credit to people who appear to know, but I think self-confidence is no substitute for understanding.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

You’ll never understand China

This week’s Sinica podcast notes how a foreigner will never be accepted as a China expert, that Chinese people will always claim that true understanding of China is the exclusive domain of native Chinese.

You hear the same excuse in Japan, though possibly less so as the Japanese become more comfortable being thought of as a Western, not Eastern power.

Americans just don’t think that way. Anyone can offer a perspective about the United States and be regarded as an “expert” if they put in the time or show some quality in their observations.  We’ll even accept a foreign publication, like The Economist or the BBC, as a better arbiter of the truth than many homegrown equivalents. Somebody like Alexis de Toqueville is respected as one of the best American observers of all time.

You can tell the self-confidence of a culture to the degree that respects external experts.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Weibo: The Chinese Twitter++

I bet at least 50% of my work friends check Facebook every single day. For those under age 30 it's probably closer to 100%.

Twitter isn't nearly as popular, as far as I can tell; maybe 5% of my colleagues actively post messages under their real names. It's hard to say how many people check their Twitter streams regularly. I'm sure it's higher, but not that much higher.

Contrast that with China, where Weibo is absolutely dominating. Here among my work colleagues I'd guess maybe 25% are active users -- a couple times a day -- under their own names, and probably 2/3rds are active under pseudonyms (though for obvious reasons it's hard to tell for sure).

Why is Weibo better than Twitter? Because it's the first social networking system I've seen that adds a competitive element to status updates. On Twitter, some people obsess about their number of followers; on Foursquare people obsess about mayorships.  But on Weibo, there's an entire scoring system based on how often you post -- and critically -- how well your posts are received. The result is that people are incented to produce better and better content, which results in more readership, which drives more reasons to make content.

Like Twitter (or Facebook), Weibo has the concept of posting links to news items. But thanks to the incentive system, 60% of Chinese microbloggers say Weibo is their main source of news (versus only 9% for Facebook or Twitter-using Americans).

If I can find a good way to post automatically from Weibo to Twitter to Facebook, I'm switching, and I bet you'll want to switch too.