Category Archives: industry

From Books-internet to Television-internet

I’ve belatedly discovered that Persian-blogging pioneer Hossein Derakhshan (hoder.com) was released from prison in Tehran just over a year ago and has returned to book blogging in Persian. Last year he published a long essay on the Medium publishing platform titled “The Web We Have to Save: The rich, diverse, free web that I loved — and spent years in an Iranian jail for — is dying. Why is nobody stopping it?”

Here are excerpts from his essay about how the web has evolved:

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of the hypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web — a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.

Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. They were Tehran’s taxicabs writ large.

Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.

Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object — the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing it as a way to make that text richer. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting: Adding several links to a piece of text is usually not allowed. Hyperlinks are objectivized, isolated, stripped of their powers.

Some networks, like Twitter, treat hyperlinks a little better. Others, insecure social services, are far more paranoid. Instagram — owned by Facebook — doesn’t allow its audiences to leave whatsoever. You can put up a web address alongside your photos, but it won’t go anywhere. Lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul de sacs of social media, and their journeys end there. Many don’t even realize that they’re using the Internet’s infrastructure when they like an Instagram photograph or leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook video. It’s just an app.

But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: They are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage — and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.

Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Its biggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: novelty and popularity, reflected by the real world dominance of young celebrities. That philosophy is the Stream.

The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex –and secretive — algorithms.

The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites.

But the scariest outcome of the centralization of information in the age of social networks is something else: It is making us all much less powerful in relation to governments and corporations.

Surveillance is increasingly imposed on civilized lives, and it just gets worse as time goes by.

In early 2000s writing blogs made you cool and trendy, then around 2008 Facebook came in and then Twitter. Since 2014 the hype is all about Instagram, and no one knows what is next. But the more I think about these changes, the more I realize that even all my concerns might have been misdirected. Perhaps I am worried about the wrong thing. Maybe it’s not the death of the hyperlink, or the centralization, exactly.

Maybe it’s that text itself is disappearing. After all, the first visitors to the web spent their time online reading web magazines. Then came blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter. Now it’s Facebook videos and Instagram and SnapChat that most people spend their time on. There’s less and less text to read on social networks, and more and more video to watch, more and more images to look at. Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favor of watching and listening?

[T]he Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies.

The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.

2 Comments

Filed under blogging, democracy, economics, industry, Iran, philosophy, publishing

Rise and Fall of Baku as Oil Capital

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2945-2989:

Oil was first exploited commercially in the mid-nineteenth century. The industry took off in 1871 when the Russian government allowed in private enterprise and the first wells were drilled. Two of the Swedish Nobel brothers, Robert and Ludwig, invested in the new industry and by the end of the decade had the biggest refinery in Baku and were shipping barrels of oil across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan in the world’s first oil tanker, the Zoroaster. By the 1880s, oil fields such as Balakhany had sprouted hundreds of brick wells extracting the oil from the ground, and Baku’s new northern industrial suburb was nicknamed the Black Town because of the clouds of dark oil smoke hanging over it from two hundred refineries. In one generation, Baku turned from a forgotten desert citadel into a modern metropolis. The population skyrocketed from 14,000 in 1863 to 206,000 forty years later. “Baku is greater than any other oil city in the world. If oil is king, Baku is its throne,” wrote the British author J. D. Henry in 1905. You could become a millionaire literally overnight if an “oil gusher” appeared on your land. One man who got lucky was Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiev, the illiterate son of a shoemaker, who turned into one of Baku’s most famous businessmen and benefactors after a gusher appeared on his land. Tagiev was unusual in being a native Azeri. Most of the businessmen were European, Russian, or Armenian. Tensions between Armenian bourgeoisie and Azeri workers were an underlying cause of the brutal “Tatar-Armenian” war in Baku in 1905 in which hundreds were killed and thousands of oil wells destroyed.

Henry asked rhetorically, “Why is Baku rich? The answer is simple—because it produces a commodity which has a market wider than the civilised world, for it is carried on camels into the innermost parts of the Asian Continent, and on yaks into the wild regions of the Himalayas.” But camels and yaks were insufficient to export a major new world community to the wider world. Baku faced the same problem as it would a century later—how to export the oil from the land-locked Caspian basin to consumers. In the 1870s, the geography of the Caucasus was such a barrier that Tiflis imported more American kerosene by ship than it did Baku oil. The Caspian Sea was stormy and dangerous for several months of the year, limiting how much could be sent to Russia. So in 1883 the new oilmen, with financing from the Rothschild family, built the first cross-Caucasian railway from Baku to Batum on the Black Sea. In 1906, Baku oil made another leap forward when the world’s longest “kerosene pipeline” was completed, running for 519 miles along the same route to Batum.

In the years 1914–21, oil wealth was a major factor in the international scramble for the Caucasus. In 1918, German commander Erich von Ludendorff saw Azerbaijani oil and its route via Georgia as a key reason to move into the South Caucasus. In the end, the British took control of Baku, and in 1919 British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour identified its oil as Britain’s major priority in the region. He said, “I should say we are not going to spend all our money and men in civilizing a few people who do not want to be civilized. We will protect Batum, Baku, the railway between them and the pipe-line.” When the British had gone, the oil-starved Bolsheviks made Baku their first target in the Transcaucasus. Having captured the city in April 1920, Trotsky declared that the new oil resources would win the Reds the Civil War and would be “our hope for restoring the economy, for ensuring that old men and women and children do not die of cold in Moscow.”

Only in the late 1920s did Baku oil production climb back to its prewar levels, but in 1941 Baku was vital to Stalin’s war effort against Germany and produced around three-quarters of the Soviet Union’s oil. When Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Germans again identified Baku oil as a vital asset. In August 1942, the Germans occupied the western side of the North Caucasus and planned a push south to Azerbaijan. Saying “Unless we get the Baku oil, the war is lost,” Hitler diverted divisions away from the battle for Stalingrad toward the Caucasus. That summer, Hitler’s staff famously had a cake made for him that had the shape of the Caspian Sea in the middle. Film footage shows a delighted Hitler taking a slice of the cake, which had the letters B-A-K-U written on it in white icing and chocolate made to look like oil spooned over it.

The debacle at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–43 meant that Germany never invaded the South Caucasus, but even the threat of attack was a death-sentence for the Baku oil industry. Stalin, who knew the Baku oil fields from his revolutionary days of 1905, had the oil wells shut down so they would not fall into German hands. Almost the entire Azerbaijani oil industry and its experts were transferred to the oil wells of the Volga and the Urals. After the war, Russia’s oil fields received the major investment, and Azerbaijan suffered. The on-land fields had dried up, and in order to reach the trickier offshore fields, a small town named Oily Rocks was built thirty miles out in the sea—reached across a causeway built on sunken ships. Cramped and polluted, Oily Rocks eked out what could still be drilled of Azerbaijan’s oil within the capacity of Soviet technology. But increasingly, the existing expertise was not up to the challenge. By the time the Soviet Union ended, Azerbaijan was producing only 3 percent of the Soviet oil output.

Leave a comment

Filed under Caucasus, economics, energy, Germany, industry, Russia, USSR, war

Central Asia’s Land of Cotton

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4701-4717:

Uzbekistan’s cotton troubles have a long history. In the nineteenth century, Russian imperial planners insisted the Uzbeks ramp up their cotton production to feed the commercial demands of the realm. At the time, Russia was importing a lot of cotton from the United States at a high cost. The newly conquered Central Asian plains, with their arid climate, provided an ideal setting for building a domestic cotton industry. Hundreds of cotton gins sprung up throughout the region. Deeming the local strain of cotton too crude, the Russians introduced an American strain whose longer fibers were better suited to producing fine clothes.

Aided by Russian financial incentives, cotton began to displace traditional food crops grown by local farmers and became the primary cash crop. A senior Russian colonial official “acknowledged bluntly that cotton was ‘the central nerve and main point of interest and concern of the local population. At the same time it is also the link connecting Turkestan with Moscow and the rest of Russia.’” Russian engineers built a railway line, in part to facilitate the cotton trade. The Russian push succeeded: in 1860, Central Asia supplied no more than 7 percent of cotton to Russian mills. By 1915, that figure had grown to 70 percent.

The Soviets continued the practice, and the obsession with cotton began to take its toll on the land. “Moscow turned Central Asia into a mega-farm designed to produce ever greater quantities of cotton. To this end irrigation kept being expanded beyond the capacity of Central Asian rivers, the soil exhausted by monoculture kept getting saturated with chemical fertilizers, the crops sprayed by clouds of pesticides and herbicides, and instead of fully mechanizing the production, cheap native labor was routinely used for harvesting the [cotton],” writes Svat Soucek, an eloquent chronicler of Central Asian history. In the waning years of the Soviet Union, fudging cotton-output figures gave rise to a wide-ranging corruption investigation that ensnared high-ranking officials both in Tashkent and in Moscow. The leaders of independent Uzbekistan continued the cursed agricultural model.

Leave a comment

Filed under Central Asia, economics, industry, Russia, USSR

D-Day Surprise: No Horses!

From D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1399-1420:

In the afternoon, the English, I recall, insisted for some reason on sending a German-speaking English army priest in among us [German prisoners] to listen to any spiritual concerns we had; this was met with derision. I still recall the face of the army priest, who was very angry at his reception. We heard explosions and detonations from inland and from the beach throughout the day, and naval bombardments from offshore, the shells of which travelled over us with a sound like an express train going past, and always the sound of engines: planes, tanks and trucks, never stopping for a moment.

In the evening, we were taken out of the square and led to the beach. The guards made no attempt to blindfold us or to prevent us seeing the situation. The scale of the operation then became clear to us all, and most of us fell completely silent at what we witnessed.

The sea wall area was being worked on with armoured bulldozers, creating a huge ramp for vehicles to drive up. There were many destroyed vehicles and tanks, some still burning. I saw my bunker, which was collapsed in the frontal part, over the 88mm embrasures; there was smoke drifting from the rubble.

The beach was completely full of transports, including many vehicles we had not seen and we did not even know how to describe: amphibious trucks, tanks with flotation screens, enormous landing craft that were unloading whole columns of jeeps and tanks, directly onto the sand. The English had already cleared a wide lane through the beach obstacles – how they did that so quickly, I have never understood, perhaps with linked explosive charges – and this lane was an absolute highway on the wet sand and out into the sea itself. There were still many bodies, which were lined in large groups on the sand and partly covered with tarpaulins; despite our lack of religion, many of our men crossed themselves as we passed these.

One thing in particular struck many of us as amazing: all along the beach, there were no horses!

This was a surprise for you?

Yes, we found it astonishing. This huge army had brought with it not one single horse or pack-mule! All their transport was mechanised. It may sound bizarre today, but this impressed us greatly, showing that the Allies had no need of horses anymore, as they had such huge oil resources and production capacity. Because, of course, the German armies used horses for transport on quite a large scale right up until the end of the war, due to limited fuel and constraints on mechanised vehicle production. Every German unit had its stables and veterinarian officer, and here were these English without that need at all. For us, this symbolised the Allied capabilities.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Canada, energy, Germany, industry, military, U.S., war

Wordcatcher Tales: Shoyu-making Terms

On our latest visit to Japan, we explored the Shirakabe (white-wall) historic district of Yanai City in Yamaguchi Prefecture. One of the most interesting Edo Period buildings was the old Sagawa Shoyu brewery now turned into a museum and shop. The most linguistically interesting exhibit was the following chart of the shoyu-making process (醤油の作り方工程 shouyu no tsukurikata koutei).

Shoyu-making process

Shoyu-making process

It starts on the left with the three main ingredients:

  • mugi ‘wheat or barley’, which you roast (煎る iru [also written 炒る]) and crack (ひきわる hikiwaru [or 砕く kudaku ‘crush’]}
  • mame ‘[soy]bean’ (大豆 daizu lit. ‘big-bean’), which you steam (蒸す musu)
  • 種麴 tanekouji (lit. ‘seed-malt’) ‘malt starter (Aspergillus bacilli)’

Mix (まぜる mazeru [also written 混ぜる]) them to form the malt (麴 kouji) and let it ferment (仕込 shikomu).

Add malt to brine (塩水 shiomizu/ensui ‘salt-water’) while stirring with a paddle (櫂 kai) to make a mash (もろみ moromi).

After it reaches maturity (熟成 jukusei), press it (しぼる shiboru) to separate the liquid raw shoyu (生醤油 kijouyu, namashouyu) from the raw dregs (生揚 kiage, namaage).

The raw shoyu is heated (火入 hiire ‘fire-insert’) (pasteurized) to make regular refined shoyu (醤油).

The solid dregs have many other uses. In 1781, a brewer in Yanai combined the dregs (instead of brine) with a new batch of malt to make Yanai’s trademark 甘露醤油 Kanro Shouyu lit. ‘sweet-dew shoyu’, more prosaically known as 再仕込み醤油 sai-shikomi shouyu ‘refermented shoyu’, which has a lighter taste (淡口 usukuchi) especially suitable for delicate sashimi. This process is outlined in the bottom line of the chart above. (The Sagawa shop offers small spray bottles of Sweet Dew soy sauce.)

The Kikkoman Institute for International Food Culture publishes an English-language bulletin called Food Culture that contains an interesting series of articles by food historian Ryoichi Iino on the History of Shoyu.
1. Origins of fermented sho (Ch. jiang) in China and use in Heian Japan
2. Use of sho in Heian and Kamakura periods, decline of liquid sho in favor of miso
3. Uses of miso and rise of shoyu and tamari in pre-Edo Period
4. Production and diffusion of shoyu in the Edo Period

Leave a comment

Filed under food, industry, Japan, language

Wordcatcher Tales: Kampouyaku

From The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, by Alan Booth (Weatherhill, 1985), pp. 141-142:

The city of Toyama is nationally famous for the manufacture of patent medicines, usually sold door to door by elderly enthusiasts in small wooden chests (the medicines, not the enthusiasts), and these chests become part of the household furniture. The preparation of and sale of the medicines, called kampoyaku [漢方薬 kan-pou-yaku ‘China-method-medicine’] (Chinese concoctions), bear all the signs of a small-scale cottage industry, but the entrepreneurial genius of the people of Toyama has parlayed this unlikely source of fortune into a business with an annual wholesale value of more than 190 billion yen. The city’s oldest and best-known kampoyaku manufacturer is Kokando, and I arranged to pay them a visit.

The Kokando factory—opened in 1876 and rebuilt shortly after the war—stands in the southern sector of Toyama near the old tram stop named after it. The who showed me round spoke slowly and precisely and with the solemnity of a preacher who has the undivided attention of a disarmed infidel.

“Before the war our ninety-nine medicines—the widest range of kampoyaku in Japan—were manufactured and packed entirely by hand. Nowadays, of course, we use machines, but the traditions and process remain the same, and the recipes continue to derive from thjose which were imparted to Lord Maeda in the seventeenth century.

“The botanical ingredients include Korean ginseng (a very expensive kind of carrot) and the roots of the Indian ginkgo tree. But more highly prized are the items we obtain from the internal organs of animals. There is, for example, the dried glandular fluid of the male musk deer, drawn off during the rutting season and employed in the manufacture of a powerful stimulant. Originally, in order to obtain this fluid, it was unfortunately necessary to slaughter the deer, but nowadays, thanks to the development of new methods, it can be obtained humanely through plastic tubes. Then there is the bile of the Japanese bear, a pain killer and an agent in the reduction of fevers. The secretion from the poison gland of the Chinese toad is mainly used in the treatment of heart diseases, though it, too, kills pain with remarkable efficacy. And gallstones produced in the bladders of cows are a restorative and an antidote to several toxic substances.”

Leave a comment

Filed under China, disease, drugs, food, industry, Japan, language, travel

Geostrategic South China Sea

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 222-253:

The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans—the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce. Here is the heart of Eurasia’s navigable rimland, punctuated by the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar straits. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. Roughly two thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea. Whereas in the Persian Gulf only energy is transported, in the South China Sea you have energy, finished goods, and unfinished goods.

In addition to centrality of location, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels, and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If Chinese calculations are correct that the South China Sea will ultimately yield 130 billion barrels of oil (and there is some serious doubt about these estimates), then the South China Sea contains more oil than any area of the globe except Saudi Arabia. Some Chinese observers have called the South China Sea “the second Persian Gulf.” If there really is so much oil in the South China Sea, then China will have partially alleviated its “Malacca dilemma”—its reliance on the narrow and vulnerable Strait of Malacca for so much of its energy needs coming from the Middle East. And the China National Offshore Oil Corporation has invested $20 billion in the belief that such amounts of oil really do exist in the South China Sea. China is desperate for new energy. Chinese oil reserves account for only 1.1 percent of the world total, while it consumes over 10 percent of world oil production and over 20 percent of all the energy consumed on the planet.

It is not only location and energy reserves that promise to give the South China Sea critical geostrategic importance, it is the territorial disputes surrounding these waters, home to more than two hundred small islands, rocks, and coral reefs, only about three dozen of which are permanently above water. Yet these specks of land, buffeted by typhoons, are valuable mainly because of the oil and natural gas that might lie nearby in the intricate, folded layers of rock beneath the sea. Brunei claims a southern reef of the Spratly Islands. Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys. The Philippines claims eight islands in the Spratlys and significant portions of the South China Sea. Vietnam, Taiwan, and China each claims much of the South China Sea, as well as all of the Spratly and Paracel island groups. In the middle of 2010 there was quite a stir when China was said to have called the South China Sea a “core interest.” It turns out that Chinese officials never quite said that: no matter. Chinese maps have been consistent. Beijing claims to own what it calls its “historic line”: that is, the heart of the entire South China Sea in a grand loop—the “cow’s tongue” as the loop is called—surrounding these island groups from China’s Hainan Island south 1,200 miles to near Singapore and Malaysia. The result is that all of these littoral states are more or less arrayed against China, and dependent upon the United States for diplomatic and military backing. For example, Vietnam and Malaysia are seeking to divide all of the seabed and subsoil resources of the southern part of the South China Sea between mainland Southeast Asia and the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo: this has elicited a furious diplomatic response from China. These conflicting claims are likely to become more acute as energy consumption in developing Asian countries is expected to double by 2030, with China accounting for half of that growth.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, energy, industry, Japan, Korea, nationalism, Southeast Asia, Taiwan