jeudi 23 août 2012

Chinese doctor's

Nine months after Ma Chunhua’s baby was born, bruises began appearing all over the daughter’s tiny frame. When doctors this spring diagnosed it as leukemia, Ma — a low-wage worker in Hubei province — said she grew desperate, knowing her family couldn’t afford the chemotherapy and bone-marrow transplant needed to save her baby.

So she turned to China’s online masses, tweeting pictures from the hospital and posting their plight.
These days, when tragedy strikes — children orphaned, adults beaten close to death, students starving in schools — Chinese citizens increasingly depend not on government or officially sanctioned nonprofit organizations, but on Twitter-likemicro­blogs called Weibo, for donations.
The emergence of Weibo philanthropy has been spurred on by widespread suspicion and exasperation among Chinese with their government’s decades-long stranglehold over the social assistance and charity sector.
And for the ruling Communist Party — in the midst of a once-in-a-decade transition of leaders — the trend suggests a troubling disconnect. The fact that increasing numbers of citizens would rather donate to random strangers online than to state-managed charities points to a growing distrust in government institutions.
“Weibo is putting great pressure on the government because it shows that if they don’t solve basic problems they are responsible for like food and health, the people will solve it without them,” said Deng Fei, a former investigative journalist who launched a campaign last year to provide lunches for impoverished students in rural schools.
Deng’s movement, the most successful Weibo campaign thus far, raised more than $6 million and prompted a promise from the central government to devote an additional $2.5 billion to student lunches.
“Weibo,” he said, “is the best gift God has given to the people of China.”
‘An issue of control’
Just four years ago, things couldn’t have looked better for China’s philanthropy sector. The massive Sichuan earthquake in 2008 thrust charity into the national conversation, banding the country together with pledge drives and record-breaking levels of donations.
But last year, the sector imploded with scandal.
It all began with the vain Weibo postings of a young woman who said she worked for a charity affiliated with the Red Cross Society of China. The woman, named Guo Meimei, tweeted Paris Hilton-style photos of her lavish lifestyle: posing on the hood of her Maserati, toting expensive Hermes handbags.
Her photos enraged Chinese netizens, who accused her of embezzling funds. Other scandals followed.
At the heart of the anger was suspicion over how charities are run in China — entirely at the mercy of the government.
Current laws prevent the existence of any nonprofit group unless it is partnered with a government-related entity. Even then, such groups cannot raise money — a right reserved for a small number of government-controlled charities.
Those are the very charities now under suspicion in the wake of scandals. And overall giving to official charities has declined for the past two years.
Transparency also remains a problem. Even now, a year after the Guo Meimei scandal, no laws exist requiring nonprofit groups to publicly disclose finances. And the government’s monopoly on fundraising is not likely to change anytime soon.
“It is an issue of control,” said Jia Xijin, an expert at Tsinghua University’s NGO Research Center. “In the eyes of the government, there is a limited social resource for donations. The government has already defined the right causes and the right groups for those donations, so their thinking is: Why should the money go anywhere else?”
‘It is not sustainable’
With Weibo charity so new and because its donations are often made from one private citizen to another, experts don’t have a way to track it. Even if they could, the total is still thought to be a tiny fraction of what government-sanctioned charities collect. But with China’s charities still recovering, Weibo has been one of the sector’s hottest and only growth areas.
New ideas for regulation have also increased its legitimacy. Soliciting donations person-to-person is technically illegal under China’s charity laws. But some grass-roots nonprofit groups have begun combining the Weibo model with traditional legal channels. Those groups find individuals seeking help on Weibo and partner with government-related charities to use their sanctioned bank accounts to receive donations on the individuals’ behalf.
A push for transparency has begun percolating among donors, resulting in some Weibo solicitors posting medical charts, doctors’ notes and hospital receipts to update supporters on progress.
But there’s been online soul-searching as well. After a particularly attractive woman with leukemia nicknamed Lu Ruoqing captured nationwide donations this spring, some Web users questioned whether a less-attractive girl would have gotten as much support.
“This is the major problem with Weibo charity compared with NGOs,” researcher Jia said. “It is not sustainable, is not regulated. There is a high chance of scamming. And it depends entirely on the heart.”
Many of society’s toughest problems, she pointed out, can’t be solved case-by-case by often fickle and disorganized netizens.
The counterargument comes from those like Ma and her leukemia-stricken baby, Yiyi, for whom Weibo has meant the difference between life and death.
Since Ma first posted about her daughter in the spring, their family has received nearly $16,000 from strangers — more than twice its annual income. Some Web users who matched her baby’s rare blood type traveled from other provinces to give blood.
Speaking by phone from her 13-month-old baby’s bedside at a Shanghai hospital, Ma described the outpouring she has received.
“They tell me, ‘No matter what happens, we are here for you,’ ” she said. “Some have already donated several times, and sometimes I want to tell them to stop because they’re not rich and have their own families to support. . . . All I can say is Yiyi has been saved by them, not by a big charity group or big media story. It’s just individuals finding each other online.”

mercredi 22 août 2012

Facebook stock decline shows Wall Street is wary of give-it-away-free approach

The dizzying stock decline of Facebook, a wealthy company with nearly a seventh of the world’s population as users, has revived a key debate of the Internet age: Can anyone get rich while giving their product away?

Investors have cut Facebook’s value nearly in half since the May public offering. One of its first outside investors, Peter Thiel, sold 20 million shares last week, deepening questions about how such a highflying technology icon could falter so quickly.
Part of the answer, say analysts and academics, lies in Wall Street’s skepticism of a founding principle of Silicon Valley’s business culture — that the best way to build a company is to ignore profits in favor of building a huge audience.
Few companies have a larger or more loyal audience than Facebook, with more than 900 million users and reams of the personal information that marketers covet. Many analysts expect that Facebook will continue to find ways to make money from that vast global reach; it already brings in $3.7 billion a year.
Yet Wall Street’s evident frustration with the stock price reflects growing concerns about the long-term prospects for companies that are popular but do not charge users for services.
Another social-media company, meanwhile, the business-
oriented LinkedIn, has seen its stock climb 65 percent this year as it relies on a mix of advertising dollars and fees for premium services.
“Free serves purposes, but you have to go beyond free to make some money,” said professor Rita McGrath, who teaches corporate strategy at Columbia Business School.
Facebook’s troubles bear some resemblance to those experienced by traditional media companies that depend mainly on advertising for profits. They once built empires by helping department stores, automakers and beer companies reach customers but have struggled to make similar profits while moving their businesses online, where ad rates are lower and content is often free.
The most striking success story for free content is Google, which brought in $38 billion in revenue last year, mostly from advertising. Because consumers use search engines when they are looking to buy products, Google provides an ideal opportunity for advertisers, much as the Yellow Pages have for generations.
Yet for most other online businesses, display ads are an intrusion on the user experience. People wanting to connect with old friends, or get the latest news on the presidential race, may tolerate commercial messages, but they are not seeking them.
Such a disconnect did not keep radio and television companies from making billions of dollars serving commercials to captive audiences over many decades. But analysts say the online world is different — users are in charge. Off-point messages get tuned out. Alternatives are just a click away.
“Facebook is in a pickle,” said Donna Hoffman, co-director of the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing at the University of California at Riverside. “The advertising broadcast model is dead wrong for this medium. . . . It can never work.”
Facebook declined to comment for this article. (Washington Post Co. chief executive Donald E. Graham is on the board of Facebook.)
A key to the profitability of traditional media companies was scarcity, as most markets had only a handful of broadcast stations and newspapers. The glut of new outlets in the digital era has stoked competition, driving down online ad rates. Retailers also seek customers directly through their own Web sites or through Internet retailers such as
“Whoever coined the phrase ‘information wants to be free’ was blowing smoke,” said John Morton, who has analyzed the newspaper business for more than 40 years. “Information is valuable, and it has to be paid for.”
Such arguments have prompted newspapers increasingly to charge those who regularly read their stories online. The New York Times, for example, reports more than 500,000 digital subscribers since it started charging readers last year for heavy use of its Web site or its apps on mobile devices.
Facebook, whose stock closed at $19.16 on Tuesday for a total market value of $46 billion, is far from a bad business, analysts say. Many say the decline of its stock price is the result of a sloppy initial public offering and excessive expectations from investors.
The company is trading at more than 40 times its reported earnings — an extraordinary ratio that signals that buyers are investing more in potential growth than current profits. Apple, which this week became the most highly valued company in U.S. history, trades at 15 times its earnings.General Motors trades at seven times its earnings.
“Facebook is probably a successful business, perhaps a hugely successful business, but may not be worth 40 times profits,” said Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of Marketing Land, which covers Internet marketing.
Investors are pushing the company to find new ways to draw profit from Facebook’s massive traffic, though this is complicated by privacy concerns from users and rising scrutiny from government regulators, who have set limits on how Facebook collects personal information. Consumers’ increasing use of mobile devices, which have less screen space than desktop computers, also makes it more difficult to make money by selling ads.
Even so, ­Facebook as a social-media company has opportunities that producers of other kinds of online content do not. Users frequently express their preferences for products by hitting a “like” button, improving opportunities for targeting ads. They also discuss products with each other — as they search for a dentist or a new car — which could be the trigger of a well-timed ad to a ready consumer.
Whit Andrews, a technology company analyst for Gartner, said some social-media company probably will succeed at getting its members to express their consumer desires in a way that entices advertisers to spend massive dollars — perhaps enough so that it can stay free for users while satisfying Wall Street’s demands for more profit.
“The key question is,” Andrews said, “how will Facebook react to this?”

mardi 21 août 2012

India blocks more than 250 Web sites for inciting hate, panic

NEW DELHI — India blocked about 250 Web sites and social networking sites Monday, accusing them of spreading inflammatory content that triggered panic among thousands of workers and students from the country’s eight northeastern states last week.

The government’s blame list ranged from Facebook to fundamentalist Pakistani sites, Twitter to text messages, and Google to YouTube videos. Authorities also barred the sending of text messages to more than five people at a time for two weeks.
Thousands of people from northeastern India fled several cities in the south and west of the country last week after text messages circulated warning that they faced reprisal attacks from Muslims over recent ethnic clashes in the northeastern state of Assam.
The government said a number of Web sites had deliberately tried to inflame passions, hosting morphed videos of violence against Muslims in Burma and asserting that they were filmed in Assam. The images went viral and provoked riots by Muslim residents of Mumbai just over a week ago.
“We have blocked a number of sites. We have also identified a number of sites which were uploaded from Pakistan,” Home Secretary R. K. Singh told reporters in New Delhi on Monday.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik has asked India for evidence about the alleged Pakistani Web sites, which Singh said he would share.
Although some analysts said the curbs were justified because the sites posed a threat to public order, others said the actions were a knee-jerk response from a weak government unable to effectively assuage the concerns of its frightened citizens.
“This is a government that is trying to hide its incompetence by blaming everybody but unwilling to look at itself for failure to protect its citizens,” said a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
Others said that by cracking down on Web sites and social media, the government was dodging the deeper issue of the racism and alienation felt by many people from the northeastern states, who are routinely denigrated by their fellow Indians for supposedly being more Chinese or Southeast Asian in appearance.
But India’s relationship with Internet freedom has become increasingly troubled.
In the past year, the government has locked horns with Google, Yahoo and Facebook, as well as with local activists and bloggers, over censorship and content screening. Analysts then accused the government of trying to silence middle-class critics at the height of a national anti-corruption movement.
The government has been holding public meetings on proposed rules to prohibit Web sites and service providers from hosting information that could be regarded as “harmful,” “blasphemous” or “insulting.”
Last year, India topped the list of countries that routinely ask Internet companies to remove content, according to the Google Transparency Report.
Although Internet penetration is still low in India, the country has the third-largest number of Web users in the world, with more than 100 million people accessing the Internet. A new report says that Indians spend one in every four minutes online visiting social networking sites.
Some free-speech activists fear the events of last week may have provided the government the justification it was seeking to increase Web censorship.
“I have fears that the present situation should not cause a disproportionate response which affects freedom of speech online,” said Apar Gupta, a lawyer and advocate for free speech online. “Historically, a national security argument is very tough to dislodge the competing interests of freedom of speech.”
Other advocates of Internet freedom say the government is justified in the crackdown but could have opted for a more nuanced approach.
“A blanket ban does not necessarily lead to a reduction in the circulation of rumors because people become more vulnerable in a communication vacuum,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society, an advocacy group based in the southern city of Bangalore, which experienced a mass exodus of frightened northeasterners last week.
Abraham said the government sent out broad instructions to Web sites to block all hate speech, without giving specific definitions or examples. “The government could have done this in a more sophisticated manner, like putting up banner notices on Facebook and Twitter; blocking text messages that had certain key words; or warning the sites to proactively dismantle some content.”
The Indian Department of Electronics and Information Technology said in a statementMonday that it had been working with international social networking sites on the issue but that “a lot more and quicker action is expected from them to address such a sensitive issue.”
A Google India official said that “content intended to incite violence is prohibited on YouTube, and we act quickly to remove such material flagged by our users.”

lundi 20 août 2012

‘CUL DE SAC’: Amid Parkinson’s battle, Richard Thompson ends beloved comic [Updated]

Richard Thompson, widely acclaimed among his peers as the best all-around comic-strip creator working today, won’t still be wearing that crown in six weeks. That’s because Thompson has decided to stop working as a comic-strip creator: He will end his beloved strip “Cul de Sac” on Sept. 23.
Thompson and his syndicate, Universal Uclick, are making the announcement Friday at 10 a.m. ET.
The Kansas City-based syndicate is informing newspaper editors in a letter that reads: “The last year has been a struggle for Richard. Parkinson's disease, first diagnosed in 2009, has so weakened him that he is unable to meet the demands of a comic strip. For a time, he worked with another artist, but the deadlines became too much of a task.”
Of the Parkinson’s, Thompson, 54, says in a comment released by his syndicate: ”At first it didn’t affect my drawing, but that’s gradually changed. Last winter, I got an excellent cartoonist, Stacy Curtis, to ink my roughs, which was a great help. But now I’ve gotten too unreliable to produce a daily strip.”
“Cul de Sac” debuted as a weekly feature in 2004, in the Valentine’s Day issue of The Washington Post Magazine. Thompson had previously launched his weekly comic “Richard’s Poor Almanac” in 1997 in The Post’s Style section.
Universal rolled out “Cul de Sac” as a daily strip in 2007. “Cul de Sac” is syndicated to more than 250 newspaper clients. Thompson said through his syndicate: “I’m thankful for all the newspapers who took a chance on ‘Cul De Sac.’ “

(CUL DE SAC / Richard Thompson - Universal Uclick)
In May, Universal’s parent, Andrews McMeel, published “Team Cul de Sac: Cartoonists Draw the Line at Parkinson’s,” an art book for which more than 150 of Thompson’s peers donated illustrations for charity. A companion auction of the art raised money for Parkinson’s research.
Comic Riffs caught up with Thompson late Thursday to talk about his decision, his health and where his brilliant brain might seek creative outlet next:

. (RichardTthompson - Universal Uclick)
MICHAEL CAVNA: How did you come to this decision now, Richard? Was there a moment that this choice became clear, or has this been a long and gradual decision -- perhaps one that had a tipping point?
RICHARD THOMPSON: I’ve known for a year or more that I was working on borrowed time. My lettering had begun to wander off in 2009, but that could be fixed easily enough. But when Alice’s and Dill’s heads began to look under-inflated last winter, I figured I was losing control of the drawing, too. When I needed help with the inking (the hardest but most satisfying part of drawing the strip),well that was probably a tipping point. Parkinson’s disease is horribly selfish and demanding. A daily comic strip is too and I can only deal with one at a time. So it was a long, gradual, sudden decision.
MC: Was there one aspect of creating a daily comic strip that made you decide this was too much? Perhaps it was more the drawing, or the writing, and/or the deadlines? And did you consider letting an assistant -- perhaps Stacy [Curtis] -- carry the load for an extended period of time, or not so much?
RT: The deadlines would be the obvious answer, as I’ve hated and feared them all my life — true of most cartoonists, I’ve found. Yeah, I thought about passing along more of the drawing to Stacy. I thought he did a wonderful job inking my roughs. But I was having trouble separating the writing and the drawing. I found that one fed off the other more than I’d realized, that it was an organic process, to use pretentious art talk. Most of the time I’d start a strip with no clear idea where it was going, or There’d be an end without a beginning. And I’d figure it all out as I was inking it, which isn’t the best way to work and would’ve driven a conscientious editor crazy. One reason I hate and fear a deadline is that I can’t finish a damn thing without one, and everything is mutable right up till the last minute. And often beyond.
MC: How are you feeling these days? And what’s next for you -- short- and medium-range -- in terms of treatment?
RT: Well, I need some work. Last winter I took time off for a month of BIG therapy at Body Kinetics Rehab and it was tremendously helpful. Basically it recalibrates your body using big, exaggerated movements and yelling and silly walks. But then I went back to work and slacked off and began to decline physically. This was when it became clear Parkinson’s didn’t mesh too well with a daily deadline. I got wobblier and had a few falls, and I’ve pushed the meds as far as they’ll go. So the next step is something called Deep Brain Stimulation, where they implant wires in your brain, adjust the current and Boom, you’re good to go. It’s a process that takes four to six months and I’m just starting out.
MC: Is there an overriding emotion you feel now that you’ve made this decision? Relief? Sadness? Resigned joy? Deep gratitude?
RT: All of those. Relief because I’ve not lived without a deadline of some kind hanging overhead for almost 30 years. Sadness because there was more I wanted to do with the strip that would only be possible with a daily format. Resigned joy because I don’t know, because it sounds good. And deep gratitude because I fell into this dream job at the last possible moment and got to produce work I’ll always be proud of and made friends I’ll always respect.
MC: Will you continue to draw, perhaps with less demanding deadlines -- maybe freelance, magazine covers, back to drawing cows for the FDA or Milk Advisory Board? Or are you hanging up your Hunt #101 Imperial for good?
RT: I’m not ready to quit, but I’m sure my work will change. It may look like it was done by Cy Twombly using his sleeve.
MC: How do you feel about having had the space and stage and opportunity to draw “Cul de Sac” for as long as you did -- as well as all the acclaim, respect, fandom, from book sales to the Reuben Award?
RT: Like I said above, I fell into drawing a daily comic strip more by luck than design. And that kind of luck is unimaginable, at least to me. I feel like I’ve squeezed a lifetime career into way too short a time (though I started working on Cul de Sac almost 10 years ago). It took me forever to figure out the Reuben, because it’s one of those “not in my wildest dreams” things. But I finally got it: it’s like finding this fabulous object, an artifact of an ancient civilization that’s far in advance of our own, and it’s crashed in my backyard so I get to keep it.
Mostly, I’m grateful to all who pushed me into this. Starting with [former Post editors] Tom Shroder and Gene Weingarten, on through Lee Salem, Rich West, Bill Watterson, Greg Melvin, John Glynn, John McMeel, Pat Oliphant, [wife and daughters] Amy, Emma and Charlotte Thompson, Shena Wolf, Mike Rhode, [Post column cartoonist] Nick Galifianakis, Chris Sparks, and ending maybe with Anna Glynn or Emily Sparks. Without them I’d still be doing covers for the Milk Advisory Board. And also my Mom, who told me years ago if I ever did a comic strip it’d be pretty wonderful, but I’d probably drive myself crazy.
MC: Any “Cul de Sac” thoughts or sentiments you’d like to say to your many fans?
RT: Don’t wander off yet! There’ll be a joke after the credits.

vendredi 17 août 2012

The battle of power lines and the urban forest

Washington area residents tend to think about the metropolis’s imperfect system of electricity delivery when it fails, as it did spectacularly on the night of June 29 with the arrival of a broad, fast-moving storm we now know as a derecho.
Todd Bolton, as the arborist for Takoma Park, is mindful every day of the precarious coexistence of the urban forest and the power lines strung up on poles 25 to 35 feet in the air. On some corners in this historic little city, so many wires seem to be held aloft that you might think you are looking up to some mystical dreamcatcher, though one that seems to prefer collective nightmares at times of hurricanes, tornadoes, derechos, wind shears, ice storms and the occasional Snowmageddon.

We don’t perch domestic gas lines or water mains up in the elements — they’re snugly buried beneath the road — so why power cables? The short answer is that it’s expensive to bury them, but it has to do with history, too. Bolton eyed a map of Takoma Park on his desk computer that shows how the suburban community on the northern tip of the District grew from its incorporation in 1890.
Many of the city’s oldest neighborhoods received basic electricity supply in the first decades of the last century at a time when trees that grew from the mid-19th century were already of great height and girth. A single, innocuous power line brought power well below where these lofty giants began to branch. But during the course of the 20th century, homes became loaded with air conditioners, refrigerators, washer-dryers and other appliances, requiring an increasingly powerful network of electricity transmission and distribution. At the same time, new development led to wholesale removal of old trees and the planting of new ones that were destined to grow amid the utility wires.
Takoma Park, with its leafy neighborhoods of old houses, is like so many other communities of suburban Maryland, the District and Northern Virginia — cozy and settled but with an uneasy alliance of deciduous shade trees amid the aerial power grid. (Telephone and cable lines piggyback on the poles, themselves the carcasses of old pine trees.)
If you live in one of these neighborhoods, you don’t have to go far to see that in the struggle between shade trees and power lines, the trees might win the storm-by-storm battle, but they’re losing the war with the utility companies’ tree trimmers. In my neighborhood in Alexandria, which lost power for six days after the derecho, I can look out to an old oak tree whose central leader has been removed to leave lower branches that have turned skyward to the light to form a 60-foot “U.”
A few blocks away, there is a Chinese elm that has been rendered as a Texas longhorn. Nearby, two silver maples in someone’s front yard have lost their natural canopy, replaced by a towering, crescent-shaped hedge that curves around the power line ofDominion Virginia Power.
Check out Pepco’s Web site and you will find a guide to line clearance that sugarcoats the necessary butchery by conflating universally correct pruning techniques with dismemberment, namely the sawing off of a tree’s central leader or the removal of a whole side of a crown. This might be necessary to keep tree limbs away from lines, but it leaves the oak or maple or sweetgum — name the species — in a state of mutilation. The guide has wonderfully upbeat and persuasive language and compares the radical pruning regime with an older approach of topping trees — reducing a canopy to an arbitrary size. This worked for one season, until the tree responded with a mass of weak wooded shoots from the area of the cut — suckers or, more accurately, watersprouts.