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July 11, 2019 -

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I do all of my writing, whether on iPad or the Mac, in Ulysses. It’s a fantastic, simple but powerful Markdown app that looks great and includes a built-in file system. It also has a very diligent development team that updates the app on a regular basis and ensures it embraces all of the new features of each successive release of iOS.

One of those features is called Split View. Up to now, it’s been impossible to open two windows of the same app side-by-side on the iPad. For instance, if you want to keep Safari open to check Gmail on the left while reading news in another window of Safari on the right, you’re out of luck. (Nobody should be doing this anyway, as the Gmail app is a much better experience!) Users can open two different apps on an iPad screen at the same time — and three if you have the larger, 12.9 inch iPad Pro — but two windows of the same app? Nada.

That’s why Ulysses’ announcement in May that it decided to implement the feature itself was a nice touch, and a shining example of app developers listening to their customers. The functionality works great, and I’ve already used it multiple times.

Everything was going along smoothly until Apple unveiled iOS 13 at the Worldwide Developers Conference in June: the iPhone maker baked the feature right into the operating system. Good news for users, maybe not so good for Ulysses which appears to have wasted a lot of resources building its own, custom version.

What would you do in this case? Keep the hard work of your staff or drop it and embrace Apple’s solution? This is from Ulysses’ official blog:

After a bit of debate, weighing our options and evaluating user expectation, we decided to… switch Ulysses to the native Split View. It‘s a tough call because we believe our implementation is a bit more polished. However, the native Split View will soon be available across all apps, and we want to fit right in. So we decided to rather support the system standard (and benefit from future updates) than to maintain our version till it inevitably breaks.

This does mean, however, that we are going to remove our own implementation, as soon as our iPadOS release ships. This also means that Split View in Ulysses will only be supported on iPadOS or newer — in order to implement the system Split View, we need to cut out our own version completely.

It must have been tough making this decision, knowing the team worked hard on something innovative, useful, and in-demand. It was even a differentiator from other similar writing apps, and something worth bragging about! But Ulysses did the right thing. Ultimately it’s about the customers, and as people got used to Apple’s implementation it would’ve seemed strange to manage Split View in a different way just for Ulysses.

Ulysses made a clear decision to put the needs of its customers and greater app ecosystem above its own interests, and for that it should be commended. It doesn’t happen often enough.

July 9, 2019 -

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I worked in China’s state-run media machine way back in the mid 2000s, so I’ve seen how the authoritarian propaganda sausage is made — and it’s not exactly sophisticated (or appetizing, if we extend the metaphor). Chinese leaders have a monopoly on information in China so it’s relatively easy to get messages out to a domestic audience, but winning over people outside China — many of whom have been taught to be skeptical about media messages generally — has consistently proven to be a mountain too high to climb.

I’m no flag-waving fan of the Chinese government, but I’ve argued before that it’s not all bad. There are some legitimately good stories to tell about the country’s development, and on some hot-button issues China’s side rarely gets told. This is an institutional failure: the party controls the media, so the media must work to make the party happy for staff to keep their jobs and continue getting paid. That makes party officials the primary audience, and nothing makes Communist masters swell with pride like schmaltzy nationalism on TV. Rinse, repeat, and here we are today with Chinese propaganda stuck in the Soviet era.

Up until 2016, the US had traditionally been quite mindful and sensitive when dealing with China; both sides recognized the importance of the relationship and understood that conflict – hot or cold – could be catastrophic. The election of Donald J. Trump as US President blew that approach out of the water, and China’s media apparatus has proven to be ineffectual in operating in this new, social media-driven, acerbic international PR environment.

The South China Morning Post has an excellent piece looking at China’s media troubles and asks this question: is China’s propaganda machine losing the public relations battle with the US? The answer, in my view, is yes.

“…while US President Donald Trump has tweeted about China more than 100 times since the start of the trade ar last July, the Chinese government has been far quieter.

Analysts say this communication asymmetry has allowed the US to dominate the trade war narrative, as Beijing relies on its carefully managed state media coverage for its side of the story, which struggles to engage international audiences.

The hurdles for the bureaucratic Chinese propaganda machine centre on its lack of understanding of the Western public, restrictions for coverage to toe the official line, and existing preconceptions about China.”

I live in Hong Kong and get a steady, daily diet of China news, and yet I’m not sure I could explain China’s argument against US accusations of intellectual property theft, for instance. The US media – and the President himself on Twitter – has done an admirable job of hammering away on China, repeating US complaints incessantly and winning broad support, while Chinese media have been slow to respond. It can take days to work out an official response, which frequently comes across as clumsy and ineffective. (Frequent attempts to come up with catchy phrases or insults is truly cringe-worthy.)

China’s amateur, unsophisticated messaging and dithering over the “correct” way to report the news is quite literally harmful to the country’s national interests.

China’s achievements over the past 30 years – the rapid growth of the economy, establishment of a huge middle class, re-invigorated military, national prestige – shouldn’t be discounted. But in a way, that was the easy part: China was mired in poverty and traumatized by the Cultural Revolution when Deng Xiaoping decided it was time to let the cats catch mice. Unleashing capitalistic instincts and leveraging a massive population to build a globally-competitive manufacturing sector was a logical next step and made a lot of sense — but now what?

China has long resisted western forms of communication, culture, and governance, but the reality is state media must learn how to communicate effectively and win support from stakeholders outside of China. If it doesn’t, it risks threatening the very culture and form of government it aims to protect.

The country is no longer an underdog; it’s operating in countries around the world, strengthening its military and becoming more assertive in protecting what it considers national interests. It has made clear its ambition: not only be a power alongside the United States, but to exceed it. It can’t pull that off without a slick, nimble, sophisticated media machine capable of making a case, winning arguments, and persuading people around the world. China’s amateur, unsophisticated messaging and dithering over the “correct” way to report the news is quite literally harmful to the country’s national interests.

Donald Trump is despised among huge swathes of the world, even picking fights with long-time allies. There is potential for China to capitalize on the mistrust of the US president, make a compelling case for itself, and ramp up cooperation with countries feeling insecure with the messages coming out of Washington. China’s failure to make any headway is a sign of how far it still has to go.

July 7, 2019 -

Reading Time: < 1 minute

AdWeek has a great little story out about a Canadian ad agency, Target Marketing, which was once a Gold Lion winner at Cannes alongside global superstars Saatchi & Saatchi, TBWA, and Lowe Hunt in 2006.

The agency has published another video poking fun at the small-town life in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland (pop: 25,000). From AdWeek:

The fact is, the town isn’t known for much of anything … which is actually spun as a plus in the playful, self-aware tune. “Welcome to Mount Pearl” showcases bars, parks, hikes, Pete’s Pizza and even a pony.

Various influential members of the community make cameos. Current mayor Dave Aker who fist bumps a baby, former mayor Steve Kent tosses his trash at the city’s automated garbage truck and Tony the Zamboni driver, slides by on the ice with a thumbs up.

To anyone familiar with small-town life in Canada (like me!) this video will bring back plenty of memories. Kudos to the town itself, which would have had to sign off on the idea.

Let me know what you think.

June 29, 2019 -

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I actually lived in China at a time when a person could search Google (gasp!) and find pictures of Tank Man (double gasp!). Yeah, it’s gotten a lot worse since 2004…

When I travel in the Mainland these days I use Google’s spectacular Google Fi service (née Project Fi), which provides unfettered internet access as if I was in Chicago. Prior to that, I was able to roam in the Mainland using data plans from China Mobile Hong Kong, Three, or Smartone without much trouble. Authorities do allow the uncensored web if your phone plan is registered elsewhere.

That’s great if you have a generous data plan, of course, but not everybody does. I’m going to be holed up at the Dalian International Convention Centre for part of the week, with my MacBook Pro likely fully dependent on the facility’s Wifi network. It will likely be the same when I’m back at the hotel, which means a VPN is no longer optional – it’s mandatory. China blocks access to VPN websites, making it imperative that VPNs are installed in advance while still outside of the Mainland. Which is what I did last night.

I usually try and arm myself with one VPN when I head up to the motherland, but I now have three. I get ProtonVPN through my subscription with the uber secure ProtonMail service, but service is intermittent when I’ve tried to connect from behind the Great Firewall. So to play safe, I’ve signed up and paid for a month of VPN service from two of the more highly rated companies online.

I’m reluctant to name them, even though they aren’t secrets and China’s eagle-eyed internet censors probably have a book on them already. Still, no need to draw any additional attention.

I’ll let you know how it works. (Or I won’t… if there’s no update to this post, you’ll know how it went!)

June 27, 2019 -

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I remember the day Julian Castro decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president. The anchor on CBS threw to a reporter at Castro’s announcement in Florida and peppered him with a number of questions. I don’t remember them all exactly, but some included whether Castro’s heritage would help win the Latino vote, whether he would be able to win Florida in a general election, his choice of music at the announcement event, and whether he’s been too close to President Obama to win more left-leaning Democrats.

The interview was a long one by TV standards — upwards of five minutes. And at no point did the anchor or reporter provide a single policy position held by Castro. I heard all about his electability odds with smaller and smaller splinters of voters, yet I couldn’t tell you one thing he’d like to do as President.

I am no fan of Donald Trump, but the current state of the US media isn’t exactly healthy either. Trump’s antagonism of the press has pushed them into a de facto opposition role, one that it generally seems to have embraced. In doing so, I would submit it’s alienated a lot of Americans that just want the facts.

Which is why I was pleased to see Apple launch a new section of its growing Apple News app focused on the Democratic candidates and their positions. From 9to5Mac:

“The 2020 Democratic field is complex, and we want to offer Apple News readers a trusted place to learn more about candidates they’re familiar with and those they may be hearing about for the first time,” said Lauren Kern, editor-in-chief of Apple News. “The candidate guide in Apple News is a robust and reliable resource, connecting readers to valuable at-a-glance information and to great journalism from our partners.”

The section is very thoughtfully put together as a “Candidate’s Guide” that includes their priority issues, source of campaign funding, key endorsements, recent news, and much more.

There is so much negativity out there about journalism as a profession and news media as an industry, so it’s important to share good news and give praise when it’s deserved. Hopefully other media outlets follow Apple’s lead, but I won’t be placing any bets.

June 23, 2019 -

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I had the privilege of talking to communications students this morning at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. People who know me will be aware that I don’t have a university degree, but rather a diploma from the British Columbia Institute of Technology. The story of how that happened can be saved for another day — but suffice to say, I managed to skip the university lecture ritual in my early 20s, making it quite ironic that I found myself speaking to students who were in their master’s degree program.

I’ve given many, many presentations over the years but this was the first time I had to stand and speak for three whole hours. There’s a coffee break in there too, but it’s negligible. I worked on the presentation last night until quite late, finally wrapping up with 85 slides plus some live poll questions.

The lecture itself was called Digital @ Work & Play, and introduced the students to digital communications within a corporate setting, as well as how to build a personal brand and some key, “secret” tools to help make that happen.

I received a number of questions afterward, focused almost entirely on the software tools used to help create content, grow audiences, and measure the success or impact of any given campaign. I’ve realized over the past few years that while everyone knows all about Facebook, WeChat, and Twitter, few are aware of some of the cutting-edge tools that make content creation easier than ever before. The gap isn’t so much in capability but in the knowledge of what’s out there. I’m reluctant to share too many details because it would blow my cover!

I enjoyed the session even more than I thought I would, but the reaction to one slide surprised me. It’s a slide that clearly struck a nerve because a few people mentioned it to me afterward. It was this:

I’m not even really sure why I included this slide, but in retrospect I’m really glad I did. I have been thinking this way for a long time, as people who know me personally would attest.

I do think of myself as the CEO of my own life, and like I told the students, you should look back at the work of the CEO at year’s end and decide if the CEO deserves a contract extension or needs to be replaced. Based on the goals set at the start of the year, one’s age, and one’s personal circumstance is the CEO doing a good job? Is the CEO managing risk properly? Putting in contingency plans? Growing the business? Getting results? Or has the CEO missed some opportunities? Made some bad decisions that hurt the business?

It can be an eye-opening and often uncomfortable experience asking these questions of oneself if they’re considered honestly. In a way, this one slide could be more important than the other 84 combined, because it applies to everyone.

Overall I really enjoyed the session — the students were curious and it was great engaging them in discussions and helping answer their questions.  I was a bit nervous preparing for such a long talk, but it went better than I thought it could. I’ve already been asked back to do it again for new students next semester, and I’m looking forward to it — particularly because I can recycle my deck! ????

June 20, 2019 -

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ever since I connected to the “World Wide Web” for the first time in the 1990s, I’ve wanted a proper website. Back then I had aspirations of becoming a radio or television journalist, and figured my own site would give me a leg up on the competition when applying for internships or part-time jobs.  Then, after broadcasting school, I thought I could use a website as a repository for my work so far, but tools like Squarespace weren’t around then and building a website meant serious time and money.

Life carried on until I arrived in China in 2004, right around when the China English-language blogosphere was really taking off. The years leading up to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008 were a true golden period — and it’s not just nostalgia, either. China’s economy was really kicking it into high gear, more and more people were arriving in Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere in the country looking for opportunity, and the government seemed to be taking steps towards greater liberalization. It was an exciting time to be in China and the online community reflected that.

There were only very rudimentary social networks back then, so blogs and the famous “blog roll” were ways to connect people who shared interests. The highlight of my “blogging career” was during that brief window, when so much was happening and every day seemed like an adventure. The China blogosphere was filled with entertaining, witty writers, historians, human rights activists, and other “China Hands” faithfully documenting China’s rise – just like me – from a front row seat in Beijing. Ah, the glory days. (Okay, maybe this is coloured a little bit by nostalgia.)

The blogosphere wasn’t just thriving in China, either. Blogging tools like WordPress and Movable Type opened up publishing to anybody who wanted to do it, and lots of people did. It felt like the wild west. Some of the best writers in the United States from that time have built super successful careers and huge audiences that sustain to this day — people like Ezra Klein at Vox or Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine. (For the record, Ezra Klein’s podcast, The Ezra Klein Show, is podcast gold and a must listen if you follow the news.)

Blogging would probably have declined naturally, as things do, but the rise of Twitter and Facebook nearly decimated it overnight. Once people could share their thoughts and opinions in 180 words on Twitter, the inspiration to sit down and write long-form pieces seemed to evaporate.

I built my first blog the day after I was laid off from Jongo.com, an internet startup in Shanghai which paid me a lot of money to relocate from Guangzhou only to shutter the business a few weeks later. I remember waking up and thinking, for the first time in years, I have nothing to do today. So I took my trusty Windows XP laptop and headed to Malone’s (RIP) on Tongren Lu. I still remember sitting there mid-afternoon with quite the buzz (and while responsible people were in offices, doing work, I guess) and throwing my first blog posts together. I’ve never quite been able to shake the desire since.

The blog, called Zhongnanhai, had a decent run with strong traffic for a few years. Other writers even joined, and we began publishing some great content from people who were very familiar with China. But once the Olympics wrapped up and I decided to move down to Hong Kong, life changed. I just turned 30 and, I quickly learned, working at a financial company in Hong Kong doesn’t exactly leave a lot of free time for pursuits such as blogging.

I tried, though. A friend and I ran The Nanfang from 2011 to 2016, a news site with multiple writers and a strong following online, but we rarely wrote for the platform ourselves; instead, we were tasked with running the business, hiring staff, editing, and all of the other unglamorous tasks that come with administering a business. Nobody ever talks much about that part.

After that, I took a break. I needed a break. I wrote the odd piece here or there, some of which struck a nerve (in a good way, of course). But I was never happy with a blog that seemed dull and a site that was perpetually under construction.

Until today.

I’ve been involved in so many different projects in the past couple of years — mostly hobbies but some more serious — and I’ve been dying to write about them. From iPad productivity to investing in foreign real estate, from PR crises to Hong Kong politics, and from airline reviews to podcasts, there’s just so much interesting stuff out there. It’s a never-ending sea of content and interesting things, so rather than bombard my friends and family with long iMessages and meandering emails about topics they aren’t interested in, I figured I’d do that here, instead. For you. So, thanks!

This site isn’t just a blog though, it’s a place for me to centralize everything. I’ve done plenty of radio reporting in the past, been a frequent guest on international radio and television to discuss Mainland China and Hong Kong, and even done some rudimentary television in China (once you see those videos, you’ll understand why I never made a career of it.) I shudder watching or listening to some of it now, and I wondered whether it was worth putting online, but why not? It’s me — or at least who I was, at the time.

I have also done newsletters periodically over the years, but now a proper service has been set up and is ready to rock. If you would like to get posts delivered to you by email the second they’re published, please do! You can sign up here. I’m also beta testing a Weekend Reads newsletter that is sent out every Thursday, full of links to really interesting or noteworthy content found online. It will start out random, with zero restrictions on the kinds of content or topics involved, and I’ll monitor it from there. If you sign up for Weekend Reads, please let me know what works and what doesn’t.

I’m really happy to have a proper home online, and I can’t wait to begin. While I love and appreciate the fact you’re still reading this, I’ve never sought out huge audiences. Writing is therapeutic for me, like it is for so many others. It helps put things in focus and, over time, hopefully get a better understanding of the world around us — and of oneself.

It may have taken 25 years, but I finally have that website. Now it’s time to do something with it.

 

 

Thanks to Adam Carolla for the title.

May 18, 2019 -

Reading Time: < 1 minute

The best RSS reader for iPad and iPhone has received a major update, with a number of new features. Among them:

Since you might be using more than one device, you can also create iCloud based accounts, instead of just local accounts. Both feed and read later accounts are also available in an iCloud syncing variant, which synchronise your content between all of your iOS devices.

In addition to synching your content, version 2.2 also adds the option to synchronise all app settings, as well as account and feed settings (like the selected view mode for each feed). When you launch Fiery Feeds the first time on a new device you can also import your existing accounts from other devices with a single tap.

RSS apps serve a very specific niche these days, but there has been some serious innovation quietly in the background in recent years as people focus on social media for news instead. If you are a news junkie or enjoy checking out certain blogs (or both!), I implore you to check out Fiery Feeds. The developer has put out a power user product.

Source: Fiery Feeds

May 1, 2019 -

Reading Time: < 1 minute

I just wanted to pass along a quick update, because the performance of the site might be spotty over the next week or so.

I see the traffic figures and newsletter subscriber numbers growing quickly, and I thank you so much for that. It’s extremely hard to grow an audience on the web these days, and even more difficult when most of my writing is just aimed at getting thoughts out of my head! So I’m extremely appreciative to anyone who finds reading this worthwhile.

Anyway, I’m undertaking some significant changes to this site, so please be patient while I wrap that up. Once done, you’ll see a lot more posts going up much more frequently.

Thanks again, and don’t hesitate to drop me a note at [email protected]

Cheers.

April 20, 2019 -

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I was up in Beijing last weekend and came across these machines when I asked for WiFi access at Beijing Capital Airport’s Terminal 3:

I had never seen these before, and I travel to Beijing quite frequently. In fact, I didn’t pay much attention to them at all until an airline staff member told me to use the machine to get a username and password for Wifi access.

To be clear, I saw these machines in the Air China First Class Lounge and Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge, though there were signs in the main passenger areas of the airport, too.

The process is easy enough: have the machine scan the barcode on my boarding pass, then let it scan my passport. Next came a small slip of white paper, like a receipt from an ATM. It contained my custom username and password.

The experience is otherwise unremarkable, except that it’s yet another intrusion by Chinese authorities into the lives of people inside the country. I don’t think checking NHL playoff highlights will interest them, but somebody else’s activities might.

It’s a reminder that China’s surveillance state is alive and thriving. This Wifi machine, on its own, wouldn’t be too concerning, but when it’s combined with biometric scanning, a social credit score, real-time surveillance of social networks, and bonafide concentration camps, it paints a dystopian picture.

My first visit to Beijing was in 1999, and I lived there from 2004 to 2008 (with a brief stint in Guangzhou and Shanghai during that time). Surveillance has been a reality throughout, but only in recent years has China really seen some serious breakthroughs in data collection, often with the assistance of foreign companies.

The government can already reach deep into people’s lives in China, and it’s anyone’s guess how far this could go.

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