Saturday, April 22, 2006

good read.

April 16, 2006

'The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite,' by Ann Finkbeiner

Rent-a-Genius

By JOHN HORGAN

Last summer, I received an e-mail message from a defense contractor that was advising a federal security agency and wanted my ideas on fighting terrorism. I assumed it was a joke. But when I called the contractor's number, a woman named Debbie convinced me that the firm and the offer were real. Her firm's client was seeking advice from non-experts who could "think outside the box."

I loathe militarism, so I worried that accepting the assignment would be hypocritical. But the invitation was flattering and challenging — and the money was tempting. So I agreed. As long as I didn't propose anything that violated my principles, I told myself, what would be the harm?

It seems only fair to reveal my own ethical elasticity before I pass judgment on Jason, the subject of the journalist Ann Finkbeiner's fascinating, disturbing new book. I first heard about this secretive group of independent government science advisers in 1993 from the physicist Freeman Dyson, one of Jason's longest-serving members. Dyson made Jason sound like fun: a bunch of brilliant iconoclasts brainstorming during summer vacations about problems ranging from nuclear missile defense to climate change. But Finkbeiner shows that at times, Jason seethed with ethical conflict.

Of the 100 or so scientists who have served on Jason, Finkbeiner has interviewed 36. A few spoke anonymously, and others refused to talk at all. That reticence is not surprising, given that as much as three-quarters of Jason's work has consisted of classified military projects, some of them morally questionable. Like Errol Morris's film "The Fog of War," in which Robert McNamara painfully revisits Vietnam, Finkbeiner's book shows how even the smartest people with the noblest intentions can end up committing shameful acts.

Jason (the term refers both to the group as a whole and to individual members) was conceived in the late 1950's, when the physicist John Wheeler proposed assembling a few dozen top academic scientists to give the government no-holds-barred advice. In 1960 the group began gathering each June and July in various locations. Physics was still riding the wave of prestige generated by the Manhattan Project, and all the original Jasons were physicists. Mildred Goldberger, the wife of the early member Murph Goldberger (and herself a physicist), proposed naming the group after the mythical Greek hero. Funding came primarily from the Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Pentagon (known today as Darpa).

Those who eventually enlisted included giants like Dyson, Murph Goldberger and the future Nobel laureates Steven Weinberg, Val Fitch, Charles Townes, Murray Gell-Mann and Leon Lederman. Some of their motives, like serving their country and reducing the threat of nuclear war, were altruistic. Others were less so: becoming an insider with access to secret information; finding "sweet" solutions to technical puzzles (to borrow Robert Oppenheimer's description of the Manhattan Project); and getting paid ($850 per diem today).

The Jasons interviewed take pride in some of their accomplishments. They have excelled at "lemon detection," finding the flaws in ideas like "dense pack" nuclear-missile sites, which one Jason, Sid Drell, called "dunce pack." In the 1980's, Jason helped establish a Department of Energy program to improve the accuracy of climate models. In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in part because Jason had concluded that tests were no longer needed to ensure the viability of America's nuclear arsenal.

Jasons also contributed to the invention of adaptive optics, which boosts the power of telescopes by correcting for atmospheric distortion. On the other hand, the Pentagon kept the technology classified for almost a decade to reserve it for a project that many Jasons opposed, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Episodes like these made some Jasons wonder how much good they were really doing. Dyson complained that "the secrecy held up progress in adaptive optics for 10 years."

The Vietnam War was the group's nadir. In 1966, Dyson, Steven Weinberg and two other Jasons compiled a classified report that weighed the pros and cons of using low-yield nuclear weapons to destroy bridges, roads, airfields, missile sites and troops in Vietnam. The report concluded that using nukes made no military sense. Dyson told Finkbeiner that he and his colleagues would "probably" not have issued a report that reached any other conclusion. Yet the disturbing implication is that, under different circumstances, nuclear attacks might make sense. Finkbeiner accuses Dyson and his co-authors of "supping with the devil."

Meanwhile, other Jasons designed an electronic "infiltration barrier" to keep Communist troops out of South Vietnam. The barrier consisted of minuscule land mines and microphones that could be dropped from airplanes. The mines were intended not only to maim but also to make a noise detectable by the microphones. The microphones would radio a computer that analyzed the signals to determine if they came from peasants, animals or enemy troops. If convinced that enemies were in the region, American commanders would order an airstrike of cluster bombs. The Jasons argued that their barrier represented a relatively humane alternative to the wholesale bombing of North Vietnam. But the electronic barrier failed to stop either the bombing or Communist infiltration.

Jason's Vietnam-related research was exposed in 1971 when The New York Times published its articles on the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War commissioned by McNamara. Antiwar activists denounced them as war criminals. A woman sitting on a plane next to the Jason Richard Garwin stood and proclaimed: "This is Dick Garwin. He is a baby killer."

Finkbeiner clearly likes most of her subjects. But she doesn't let them off the hook. She gently yet firmly keeps asking, What were you thinking? Most seem to agree with Murph Goldberger that Jason's involvement with Vietnam, while well intentioned, was "the greatest mistake that any of us ever made."

Steven Weinberg apparently agreed; he resigned from Jason in the early 1970's "because I had no idea whether what I was doing was useful or not." But he rejoined in the 1980's as a senior adviser, and Jason continues to attract new members. Even before 9/11, Finkbeiner notes, Jason had increasingly turned to counterterrorism projects, but she offers few details. Nor does she mention whether Jasons are advising the United States on the war in Iraq.

One current Jason, a chemist called Professor Y, defends her military research as an ethical responsibility. "If I tell the truth, even about frightening weapons systems, that's got to be the right thing to do." But this seems naïve in light of Jason's history. Professor Y, and indeed all scientists advising the military, would do well to question whether they are really making the world a safer, better place.

Finkbeiner's book also carries a message for those who fear we are entering an anti-science age, in which right-wing politicians, religious fundamentalists, Luddites and postmodernists challenge science's authority. Some scientists are circling the wagons, depicting science as the embodiment of enlightenment and all its critics as knaves or buffoons. But science is and always has been as morally fallible as any other human activity. Indeed, because of its immense potential for altering our lives for good or ill, science needs critics like Finkbeiner now more than ever.

John Horgan is director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His latest book is "Rational Mysticism."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Looking for answers. But what are the questions?

April 23, 2006

Google's China Problem (and China's Google Problem)

By CLIVE THOMPSON

For many young people in China, Kai-Fu Lee is a celebrity. Not quite on the level of a movie star like Edison Chen or the singers in the boy band F4, but for a 44-year-old computer scientist who invariably appears in a somber dark suit, he can really draw a crowd. When Lee, the new head of operations for Google in China, gave a lecture at one Chinese university about how young Chinese should compete with the rest of the world, scalpers sold tickets for $60 apiece. At another, an audience of 8,000 showed up; students sprawled out on the ground, fixed on every word.

It is not hard to see why Lee has become a cult figure for China's high-tech youth. He grew up in Taiwan, went to Columbia and Carnegie-Mellon and is fluent in both English and Mandarin. Before joining Google last year, he worked for Apple in California and then for Microsoft in China; he set up Microsoft Research Asia, the company's research-and-development lab in Beijing. In person, Lee exudes the cheery optimism of a life coach; last year, he published "Be Your Personal Best," a fast-selling self-help book that urged Chinese students to adopt the risk-taking spirit of American capitalism. When he started the Microsoft lab seven years ago, he hired dozens of China's top graduates; he will now be doing the same thing for Google. "The students of China are remarkable," he told me when I met him in Beijing in February. "There is a huge desire to learn."

Lee can sound almost evangelical when he talks about the liberating power of technology. The Internet, he says, will level the playing field for China's enormous rural underclass; once the country's small villages are connected, he says, students thousands of miles from Shanghai or Beijing will be able to access online course materials from M.I.T. or Harvard and fully educate themselves. Lee has been with Google since only last summer, but he wears the company's earnest, utopian ethos on his sleeve: when he was hired away from Microsoft, he published a gushingly emotional open letter on his personal Web site, praising Google's mission to bring information to the masses. He concluded with an exuberant equation that translates as "youth + freedom + equality + bottom-up innovation + user focus + don't be evil = The Miracle of Google."

When I visited with Lee, that miracle was being conducted out of a collection of bland offices in downtown Beijing that looked as if they had been hastily rented and occupied. The small rooms were full of eager young Chinese men in hip sweatshirts clustered around enormous flat-panel monitors, debugging code for new Google projects. "The ideals that we uphold here are really just so important and noble," Lee told me. "How to build stuff that users like, and figure out how to make money later. And 'Don't Do Evil' " — he was referring to Google's bold motto, "Don't Be Evil" — "all of those things. I think I've always been an idealist in my heart."

Yet Google's conduct in China has in recent months seemed considerably less than idealistic. In January, a few months after Lee opened the Beijing office, the company announced it would be introducing a new version of its search engine for the Chinese market. To obey China's censorship laws, Google's representatives explained, the company had agreed to purge its search results of any Web sites disapproved of by the Chinese government, including Web sites promoting Falun Gong, a government-banned spiritual movement; sites promoting free speech in China; or any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. If you search for "Tibet" or "Falun Gong" most anywhere in the world on google.com, you'll find thousands of blog entries, news items and chat rooms on Chinese repression. Do the same search inside China on google.cn, and most, if not all, of these links will be gone. Google will have erased them completely.

Google's decision did not go over well in the United States. In February, company executives were called into Congressional hearings and compared to Nazi collaborators. The company's stock fell, and protesters waved placards outside the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Google wasn't the only American high-tech company to run aground in China in recent months, nor was it the worst offender. But Google's executives were supposed to be cut from a different cloth. When the company went public two years ago, its telegenic young founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, wrote in the company's official filing for the Securities and Exchange Commission that Google is "a company that is trustworthy and interested in the public good." How could Google square that with making nice with a repressive Chinese regime and the Communist Party behind it?

It was difficult for me to know exactly how Lee felt about the company's arrangement with China's authoritarian leadership. As a condition of our meeting, Google had demanded that I not raise the issue of government relations; only the executives in Google's California head office were allowed to discuss those matters. But as Lee and I talked about how the Internet was transforming China, he offered one opinion that seemed telling: the Chinese students he meets and employs, Lee said, do not hunger for democracy. "People are actually quite free to talk about the subject," he added, meaning democracy and human rights in China. "I don't think they care that much. I think people would say: 'Hey, U.S. democracy, that's a good form of government. Chinese government, good and stable, that's a good form of government. Whatever, as long as I get to go to my favorite Web site, see my friends, live happily.' " Certainly, he said, the idea of personal expression, of speaking out publicly, had become vastly more popular among young Chinese as the Internet had grown and as blogging and online chat had become widespread. "But I don't think of this as a political statement at all," Lee said. "I think it's more people finding that they can express themselves and be heard, and they love to keep doing that."

It sounded to me like company spin — a curiously deflated notion of free speech. But spend some time among China's nascent class of Internet users, as I have these past months, and you begin to hear such talk somewhat differently. Youth + freedom + equality + don't be evil is an equation with few constants and many possible solutions. What is freedom, just now, to the Chinese? Are there gradations of censorship, better and worse ways to limit information? In America, that seems like an intolerable question — the end of the conversation. But in China, as Google has discovered, it is just the beginning.

Cultural Differences

Google was not, in fact, a pioneer in China. Yahoo was the first major American Internet company to enter the market, introducing a Chinese-language version of its site and opening up an office in Beijing in 1999. Yahoo executives quickly learned how difficult China was to penetrate — and how baffling the country's cultural barriers can be for Americans. Chinese businesspeople, for example, rarely rely on e-mail, because they find the idea of leaving messages to be socially awkward. They prefer live exchanges, which means they gravitate to mobile phones and short text messages instead. (They avoid voicemail for the same reason; during the weeks I traveled in China, whenever I called a Chinese executive whose phone was turned off, I would get a recording saying that the person was simply "unavailable," and the phone would not accept messages.) The most popular feature of the Internet for Chinese users — much more so than in the United States — is the online discussion board, where long, rollicking arguments and flame wars spill on for thousands of comments. Baidu, a Chinese search engine that was introduced in 2001 as an early competitor to Yahoo, capitalized on the national fervor for chat and invented a tool that allows people to create instant discussion groups based on popular search queries. When users now search on baidu.com for the name of the Chinese N.B.A. star Yao Ming, for example, they are shown not only links to news reports on his games; they are also able to join a chat room with thousands of others and argue about him. Baidu's chat rooms receive as many as five million posts a day.

As Yahoo found, these cultural nuances made the sites run by American companies feel simply foreign to Chinese users — and drove them instead to local portals designed by Chinese entrepreneurs. These sites, including Sina.com and Sohu.com, had less useful search engines, but they were full of links to chat rooms and government-approved Chinese-language news sites. Nationalist feelings might have played a role, too, in the success Chinese-run sites enjoyed at Yahoo's expense. "There's now a very strong sense of pride in supporting the local guy," I was told by Andrew Lih, a Chinese-American professor of media studies at the University of Hong Kong.

Yahoo also was slow to tap into another powerful force in Chinese life: rampant piracy. In most parts of the West, after the Napster wars, movie and music piracy is increasingly understood as an illicit activity; it thrives, certainly, but there is now a stigma against taking too much intellectual content without paying for it. (Hence the success of iTunes.) In China, downloading illegal copies of music, movies and software is as normal and accepted as checking the weather online. Baidu's executives discovered early on that many young users were using the Internet to hunt for pirated MP3's, so the company developed an easy-to-use interface specifically for this purpose. When I sat in an Internet cafe in Beijing one afternoon, a teenager with mutton-chop sideburns a few chairs over from me sipped a Coke and watched a samurai movie he'd downloaded free, while his friends used Baidu to find and pull down pirated tracks from the 50 Cent album "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." Almost one-fifth of Baidu's traffic comes from searching for unlicensed MP3's that would be illegal in the United States. Robin Li, Baidu's 37-year-old founder and C.E.O., is unrepentant. "Right now I think that the record companies may not be happy about the service we are offering," he told me recently, "but I think digital music as a trend is unstoppable."

At first, Google took a different approach to the Chinese market than Yahoo did. In early 2000, Google's engineers quietly set about creating a version of their search engine that could understand character-based Asian languages like Chinese, Japanese and Korean. By the end of the year, they had put up a clunky but serviceable Chinese-language version of Google's home page. If you were in China and surfed over to google.com in 2001, Google's servers would automatically detect that you were inside the country and send you to the Chinese-language search interface, much in the same way google.com serves up a French-language interface to users in France.

While Baidu appealed to young MP3 hunters, Google became popular with a different set: white-collar urban professionals in the major Chinese cities, aspirational types who follow Western styles and sprinkle English words into conversation, a class that prides itself on being cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic. By pulling in that audience, Google by the end of 2002 achieved a level of success that had eluded Yahoo: it amassed an estimated 25 percent of all search traffic in China — and it did so working entirely from California, far outside the Chinese government's sphere of influence.

The Great Firewall

Then on Sept. 3, 2002, Google vanished. Chinese workers arrived at their desks to find that Google's site was down, with just an error page in its place. The Chinese government had begun blocking it. China has two main methods for censoring the Web. For companies inside its borders, the government uses a broad array of penalties and threats to keep content clean. For Web sites that originate anywhere else in the world, the government has another impressively effective mechanism of control: what techies call the Great Firewall of China.

When you use the Internet, it often feels placeless and virtual, but it's not. It runs on real wires that cut through real geographical boundaries. There are three main fiber-optic pipelines in China, giant underground cables that provide Internet access for the public and connect China to the rest of the Internet outside its borders. The Chinese government requires the private-sector companies that run these fiber-optic networks to specially configure "router" switches at the edge of the network, where signals cross into foreign countries. These routers — some of which are made by Cisco Systems, an American firm — serve as China's new censors.

If you log onto a computer in downtown Beijing and try to access a Web site hosted on a server in Chicago, your Internet browser sends out a request for that specific Web page. The request travels over one of the Chinese pipelines until it hits the routers at the border, where it is then examined. If the request is for a site that is on the government's blacklist — and there are lots of them — it won't get through. If the site isn't blocked wholesale, the routers then examine the words in the requested page's Internet address for blacklisted terms. If the address contains a word like "falun" or even a coded term like "198964" (which Chinese dissidents use to signify June 4, 1989, the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre), the router will block the signal. Back in the Internet cafe, your browser will display an error message. The filters can be surprisingly sophisticated, allowing certain pages from a site to slip through while blocking others. While I sat at one Internet cafe in Beijing, the government's filters allowed me to surf the entertainment and sports pages of the BBC but not its news section.

Google posed a unique problem for the censors: Because the company had no office at the time inside the country, the Chinese government had no legal authority over it — no ability to demand that Google voluntarily withhold its search results from Chinese users. And the firewall only half-worked in Google's case: it could block sites that Google pointed to, but in some cases it would let slip through a list of search results that included banned sites. So if you were in Shanghai and you searched for "human rights in China" on google.com, you would get a list of search results that included Human Rights in China (hrichina.org), a New York-based organization whose Web site is banned by the Chinese government. But if you tried to follow the link to hrichina.org, you would get nothing but an error message; the firewall would block the page. You could see that the banned sites existed, in other words, but you couldn't reach them. Government officials didn't like this situation — Chinese citizens were receiving constant reminders that their leaders felt threatened by certain subjects — but Google was popular enough that they were reluctant to block it entirely.

In 2002, though, something changed, and the Chinese government decided to shut down all access to Google. Why? Theories abound. Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, whose responsibilities include government relations, told me that he suspects the block might have been at the instigation of a competitor — one of its Chinese rivals. Brin is too diplomatic to accuse anyone by name, but various American Internet executives told me they believe that Baidu has at times benefited from covert government intervention. A young Chinese-American entrepreneur in Beijing told me that she had heard that the instigator of the Google blockade was Baidu, which in 2002 had less than 3 percent of the search market compared with Google's 24 percent. "Basically, some Baidu people sat down and did hundreds of searches for banned materials on Google," she said. (Like many Internet businesspeople I spoke with in China, she asked to remain anonymous, fearing retribution from the authorities.) "Then they took all the results, printed them up and went to the government and said, 'Look at all this bad stuff you can find on Google!' That's why the government took Google offline." Baidu strongly denies the charge, and when I spoke to Guo Liang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, he dismissed the idea and argued that Baidu is simply a stronger competitor than Google, with a better grasp of Chinese desires. Still, many Beijing high-tech insiders told me that it is common for domestic Internet firms to complain to the government about the illicit content of competitors, in the hope that their rivals will suffer the consequences. In China, the censorship regime is not only a political tool; it is also a competitive one — a cudgel that private firms use to beat one another with.

Self-Discipline Awards

When I visited a dingy Internet cafe one November evening in Beijing, its 120 or so cubicles were crammed with teenagers. (Because computers and home Internet connections are so expensive, many of China's mostly young Internet users go online in these cafes, which charge mere pennies per hour and provide fast broadband — and cold soft drinks.) Everyone in the cafe looked to be settled in for a long evening of lightweight entertainment: young girls in pink and yellow Hello Kitty sweaters juggled multiple chat sessions, while upstairs a gang of young Chinese soldiers in olive-drab coats laughed as they crossed swords in the medieval fantasy game World of Warcraft. On one wall, next to a faded kung-fu movie poster, was a yellow sign that said, in Chinese characters, "Do not go to pornographic or illegal Web sites." The warning seemed almost beside the point; nobody here looked even remotely likely to be hunting for banned Tiananmen Square retrospectives. I asked the cafe manager, a man with huge aviator glasses and graying hair, how often his clients try to view illegal content. Not often, he said with a chuckle, and when they do, it's usually pornography. He said he figured it was the government's job to keep banned materials inaccessible. "If it's not supposed to be seen," he said, "it's not supposed to be seen."

One mistake Westerners frequently make about China is to assume that the government is furtive about its censorship. On the contrary, the party is quite matter of fact about it — proud, even. One American businessman who would speak only anonymously told me the story of attending an award ceremony last year held by the Internet Society of China for Internet firms, including the major Internet service providers. "I'm sitting there in the audience for this thing," he recounted, "and they say, 'And now it's time to award our annual Self-Discipline Awards!' And they gave 10 companies an award. They gave them a plaque. They shook hands. The minister was there; he took his picture with each guy. It was basically like Excellence in Self-Censorship — and everybody in the audience is, like, clapping." Internet censorship in China, this businessman explained, is presented as a benevolent police function. In January, the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau created two cuddly little anime-style cartoon "Internet Police" mascots named "Jingjing" and "Chacha"; each cybercop has a blog and a chat window where Chinese citizens can talk to them. As a Shenzhen official candidly told The Beijing Youth Daily, "The main function of Jingjing and Chacha is to intimidate." The article went on to explain that the characters are there "to publicly remind all Netizens to be conscious of safe and healthy use of the Internet, self-regulate their online behavior and maintain harmonious Internet order together."

Intimidation and "self-regulation" are, in fact, critical to how the party communicates its censorship rules to private-sector Internet companies. To be permitted to offer Internet services, a private company must sign a license agreeing not to circulate content on certain subjects, including material that "damages the honor or interests of the state" or "disturbs the public order or destroys public stability" or even "infringes upon national customs and habits." One prohibition specifically targets "evil cults or superstition," a clear reference to Falun Gong. But the language is, for the most part, intentionally vague. It leaves wide discretion for any minor official in China's dozens of regulatory agencies to demand that something he finds offensive be taken offline.

Government officials from the State Council Information Office convene weekly meetings with executives from the largest Internet service companies — particularly major portals that run news stories and host blogs and discussion boards — to discuss what new topics are likely to emerge that week that the party would prefer be censored. "It's known informally as the 'wind-blowing meeting' — in other words, which way is the wind blowing," the American businessman told me. The government officials provide warnings for the days ahead, he explained. "They say: 'There's this party conference going on this week. There are some foreign dignitaries here on this trip.' "

American Internet firms typically arrive in China expecting the government to hand them an official blacklist of sites and words they must censor. They quickly discover that no master list exists. Instead, the government simply insists the firms interpret the vague regulations themselves. The companies must do a sort of political mind reading and intuit in advance what the government won't like. Last year, a list circulated online purporting to be a blacklist of words the government gives to Chinese blogging firms, including "democracy" and "human rights." In reality, the list had been cobbled together by a young executive at a Chinese blog company. Every time he received a request to take down a posting, he noted which phrase the government had objected to, and after a while he developed his own list simply to help his company avoid future hassles.

The penalty for noncompliance with censorship regulations can be serious. An American public-relations consultant who recently worked for a major domestic Chinese portal recalled an afternoon when Chinese police officers burst into the company's offices, dragged the C.E.O. into a conference room and berated him for failing to block illicit content. "He was pale with fear afterward," she said. "You have to understand, these people are terrified, just terrified. They're seriously worried about slipping up and going to jail. They think about it every day they go into the office."

As a result, Internet executives in China most likely censor far more material than they need to. The Chinese system relies on a classic psychological truth: self-censorship is always far more comprehensive than formal censorship. By having each private company assume responsibility for its corner of the Internet, the government effectively outsources the otherwise unmanageable task of monitoring the billions of e-mail messages, news stories and chat postings that circulate every day in China. The government's preferred method seems to be to leave the companies guessing, then to call up occasionally with angry demands that a Web page be taken down in 24 hours. "It's the panopticon," says James Mulvenon, a China specialist who is the head of a Washington policy group called the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis. "There's a randomness to their enforcement, and that creates a sense that they're looking at everything."

The government's filtering, while comprehensive, is not total. One day a banned site might temporarily be visible, if the routers are overloaded — or if the government suddenly decides to tolerate it. The next day the site might disappear again. Generally, everyday Internet users react with caution. They rarely push the government's limits. There are lines that cannot be crossed, and without actually talking about it much, everyone who lives and breathes Chinese culture understands more or less where those lines are. This is precisely what makes the environment so bewildering to American Internet companies. What's allowed? What's not allowed?

In contrast to the confusion most Americans experience, Chinese businessmen would often just laugh when I asked whether the government's censorship regime was hard to navigate. "I'll tell you this, it's not more hard than dealing with Sarbanes and Oxley," said Xin Ye, a founding executive of Sohu.com, one of China's biggest Yahoo-like portals. (He was referring to the American law that requires publicly held companies to report in depth on their finances.) Another evening I had drinks in a Shanghai jazz bar with Charles Chao, the president of Sina, the country's biggest news site. When I asked him how often he needs to remove postings from the discussion boards on Sina.com, he said, "It's not often." I asked if that meant once a week, once a month or less often; he demurred. "I don't think I can talk about it," he said. Yet he seemed less annoyed than amused by my line of questioning. "I don't want to call it censorship," he said. "It's like in every country: they have a bias. There are taboos you can't talk about in the U.S., and everyone knows it."

Jack Ma put it more bluntly: "We don't want to annoy the government." Ma is the hyperkinetic C.E.O. of Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce firm. I met him in November in the lobby of the China World Hotel in Beijing, just after Ma's company had closed one of the biggest deals in Chinese Internet history. Yahoo, whose share of the Chinese search-engine market had fallen (according to one academic survey) to just 2.3 percent, had paid $1 billion to buy 40 percent of Alibaba and had given Ma complete control over all of Yahoo's services in China, hoping he could do a better job with it. From his seat on a plush sofa, Ma explained Alibaba's position on online speech. "Anything that is illegal in China — it's not going to be on our search engine. Something that is really no good, like Falun Gong?" He shook his head in disgust. "No! We are a business! Shareholders want to make money. Shareholders want us to make the customer happy. Meanwhile, we do not have any responsibilities saying we should do this or that political thing. Forget about it!"

A Bit of a Revolution

Last fall, at a Starbucks in Beijing, I met with China's most famous political blogger. Zhao Jing, a dapper, handsome 31-year-old in a gray sweater, seemed positively exuberant as he explained how radically China had changed since the Web arrived in the late 1990's. Before, he said, the party controlled every single piece of media, but then Chinese began logging onto discussion boards and setting up blogs, and it was as if a bell jar had lifted. Even if you were still too cautious to talk about politics, the mere idea that you could publicly state your opinion about anything — the weather, the local sports scene — felt like a bit of a revolution.

Zhao (who now works in the Beijing bureau of The New York Times) pushed the limits further than most. After college, he took a job as a hotel receptionist in a small city. He figured that if he was lucky, he might one day own his own business. When he went online in 1998, though, he realized that what he really wanted to do was to speak out on political questions. He began writing essays and posting them on discussion boards. Soon after he started his online writing, a newspaper editor offered him a job as a reporter.

"This is what the Internet does," Zhao said, flashing a smile. "One week after I went on the Internet, I had a reputation all over the province. I never thought I could be a writer. But I realized the problem wasn't me — it was my small town." Zhao lost his reporting job in March 2003 after his paper published an essay by a retired official advocating political reform; the government retaliated by shutting the paper down. Still eager to write, in December 2004 Zhao started his blog, hosted on a blogging service with servers in the U.K. His witty pro-free-speech essays, written under the name Michael Anti, were soon drawing thousands of readers a day. Last August, the government used the Great Firewall to block his site so that no one in China could read it; defiant, he switched over to Microsoft's blogging tool, called MSN Spaces. The government was almost certainly still monitoring his work, but remarkably, he continued writing. Zhao knew he was safe, he told me, because he knew where to draw the line.

"If you talk every day online and criticize the government, they don't care," he said. "Because it's just talk. But if you organize — even if it's just three or four people — that's what they crack down on. It's not speech; it's organizing. People say I'm brave, but I'm not." The Internet brought Zhao a certain amount of political influence, yet he seemed less excited about the way his blog might transform the government and more excited about the way it had transformed his sense of himself. Several young Chinese told me the same thing. If the Internet is bringing a revolution to China, it is experienced mostly as one of self-actualization: empowerment in a thousand tiny, everyday ways.

One afternoon I visited with Jiang Jingyi, a 29-year-old Chinese woman who makes her living selling clothes on eBay. When she opened the door to her apartment in a trendy area of Shanghai, I felt as if I'd accidentally stumbled into a chic SoHo boutique. Three long racks full of puffy winter jackets and sweaters dominated the center of the living room, and neat rows of designer running shoes and boots ringed the walls. As she served me tea in a bedroom with four computers stacked on a desk, Jiang told me, through an interpreter, that she used to work as a full-time graphic designer. But she was a shopaholic, she said, and one day decided to take some of the cheap clothes she'd found at a local factory and put them up for auction online. They sold quickly, and she made a 30 percent profit. Over the next three months, she sold more and more clothes, until one one day she realized that her eBay profits were outstripping her weekly paycheck. She quit her job and began auctioning full time, and now her monthly sales are in excess of 100,000 yuan, or about $12,000.

"My parents can't understand it," she said with a giggle, as she clicked at the computer to show me one of her latest auctions, a winter jacket selling for 300 yuan. (Her description of the jacket translated as "Very trendy! You will look cool!") At the moment, Jiang sells mostly to Chinese in other major cities, since China's rudimentary banking system and the lack of a reliable credit-card network mean there is no easy way to receive payments from outside the country. But when Paypal — eBay's online payment system — finally links the global market with the Chinese market, she says she will become a small international business, marketing cut-rate clothes directly to hipsters in London or Los Angeles.

Compromises and Disclaimers

Google never did figure out exactly why it was knocked offline in 2002 by the Chinese government. The blocking ended abruptly after two weeks, as mysteriously as it had begun. But even after being unblocked, Google still had troubles. The Great Firewall tends to slow down all traffic coming into the country from the world outside. About 15 percent of the time, Google was simply unavailable in China because of data jams. The firewall also began punishing curious minds: whenever someone inside China searched for a banned term, the firewall would often retaliate by sending back a command that tricked the user's computer into believing Google itself had gone dead. For several minutes, the user would be unable to load Google's search page — a digital slap on the wrist, as it were. For Google, these delays and shutdowns were a real problem, because search engines like to boast about delivering results in milliseconds. Baidu, Google's chief Chinese-language rival, had no such problem, because its servers were located on Chinese soil and thus inside the Great Firewall. Worse, Chinese universities had virtually no access to foreign Web sites, which meant that impressionable college students — in other countries, Google's most ardent fans — were flocking instead to Baidu.

Brin and other Google executives realized that the firewall allowed them only two choices, neither of which they relished. If Google remained aloof and continued to run its Chinese site from foreign soil, it would face slowdowns from the firewall and the threat of more arbitrary blockades — and eventually, the loss of market share to Baidu and other Chinese search engines. If it opened up a Chinese office and moved its servers onto Chinese territory, it would no longer have to fight to get past the firewall, and its service would speed up. But then Google would be subject to China's self-censorship laws.

What eventually drove Google into China was a carrot and a stick. Baidu was the stick: by 2005, it had thoroughly whomped its competition, amassing nearly half of the Chinese search market, while Google's market share remained stuck at 27 percent. The carrot was Google's halcyon concept of itself, the belief that merely by improving access to information in an authoritarian country, it would be doing good. Certainly, the company's officials figured, it could do better than the local Chinese firms, which acquiesce to the censorship regime with a shrug. Sure, Google would have to censor the most politically sensitive Web sites — religious groups, democracy groups, memorials of the Tiananmen Square massacre — along with pornography. But that was only a tiny percentage of what Chinese users search for on Google. Google could still improve Chinese citizens' ability to learn about AIDS, environmental problems, avian flu, world markets. Revenue, Brin told me, wasn't a big part of the equation. He said he thought it would be years before Google would make much if any profit in China. In fact, he argued, going into China "wasn't as much a business decision as a decision about getting people information. And we decided in the end that we should make this compromise."

He and his executives began discussing exactly which compromises they could tolerate. They decided that — unlike Yahoo and Microsoft — they would not offer e-mail or blogging services inside China, since that could put them in a position of being forced to censor blog postings or hand over dissidents' personal information to the secret police. They also decided they would not take down the existing, unfiltered Chinese-language version of the google.com engine. In essence, they would offer two search engines in Chinese. Chinese surfers could still access the old google.com; it would produce uncensored search results, though controversial links would still lead to dead ends, and the site would be slowed down and occasionally blocked entirely by the firewall. The new option would be google.cn, where the results would be censored by Google — but would arrive quickly, reliably and unhindered by the firewall.

Brin and his team decided that if they were going to be forced to censor the results for a search for "Tiananmen Square," then they would put a disclaimer at the top of the search results on google.cn explaining that information had been removed in accordance with Chinese law. When Chinese users search for forbidden terms, Brin said, "they can notice what's missing, or at least notice the local control." It is precisely the solution you'd expect from a computer scientist: the absence of information is a type of information. (Google displays similar disclaimers in France and Germany, where they strip out links to pro-Nazi Web sites.)

Brin's team had one more challenge to confront: how to determine which sites to block? The Chinese government wouldn't give them a list. So Google's engineers hit on a high-tech solution. They set up a computer inside China and programmed it to try to access Web sites outside the country, one after another. If a site was blocked by the firewall, it meant the government regarded it as illicit — so it became part of Google's blacklist.

The Google executives signed their license to become a Chinese Internet service in December 2005. They never formally sat down with government officials and received permission to put the disclaimer on censored search results. They simply decided to do it — and waited to see how the government would react.

The China Storm

Google.cn formally opened on Jan. 27 this year, and human-rights activists immediately logged onto the new engine to see how it worked. The censorship was indeed comprehensive: the first page of results for "Falun Gong," they discovered, consisted solely of anti-Falun Gong sites. Google's image-searching engine — which hunts for pictures — produced equally skewed results. A query for "Tiananmen Square" omitted many iconic photos of the protest and the crackdown. Instead, it produced tourism pictures of the square lighted up at night and happy Chinese couples posing before it.

Google's timing could not have been worse. Google.cn was introduced into a political environment that was rapidly souring for American high-tech firms in China. Last September, Reporters Without Borders revealed that in 2004, Yahoo handed over an e-mail user's personal information to the Chinese government. The user, a business journalist named Shi Tao, had used his Chinese Yahoo account to leak details of a government document on press restrictions to a pro-democracy Web site run by Chinese exiles in New York. The government sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Then in December, Microsoft obeyed a government request to delete the writings of Zhao Jing — the free-speech blogger I'd met with in the fall. What was most remarkable about this was that Microsoft's blogging service has no servers located in China; the company effectively allowed China's censors to reach across the ocean and erase data stored on American territory.

Against this backdrop, the Google executives probably expected to appear comparatively responsible and ethical. But instead, as the China storm swirled around Silicon Valley in February, Google bore the brunt of it. At the Congressional hearings where the three companies testified — along with Cisco, makers of hardware used in the Great Firewall — legislators assailed all the firms, but ripped into Google with particular fire. They asked how a company with the slogan "Don't Be Evil" could conspire with China's censors. "That makes you a functionary of the Chinese government," said Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican. "So if this Congress wanted to learn how to censor, we'd go to you."

Zhao Jing's Rankings

In February, I met with Zhao Jing again, two months after his pro-democracy blog was erased by Microsoft. We ordered drinks at a faux-Irish pub in downtown Beijing. Zhao was still as energetic as ever, though he also seemed a bit rueful over his exuberant comments in our last conversation. "I'm more cynical now," he said. His blog had been killed because of a single post. In December, a Chinese newspaper editor was fired, and Zhao called for a boycott of the paper. That apparently crossed the line. It was more than just talk; Zhao had now called for a political action. The government contacted Microsoft to demand the blog be shuttered, and the company complied — earning it a chorus of outrage from free-speech advocates in the United States, who accused Microsoft of having acted without even receiving a formal legal request from the Chinese government.

Microsoft seemed chastened by the public uproar; at the Congressional hearings, the company's director of government relations expressed regret. To try to save face, Microsoft executives pointed out that they had saved a copy of the deleted blog postings and sent them to Zhao. What they did not mention, Zhao told me, is that they refused to e-mail Zhao the postings; they offered merely to burn them onto a CD and mail them to any address in the United States Zhao requested. Microsoft appeared to be so afraid of the Chinese government, Zhao noted with a bitter laugh, that the company would not even send the banned material into China by mail. (Microsoft declined to comment for this article.)

I expected Zhao to be much angrier with the American Internet companies than he was. He was surprisingly philosophical. He ranked the companies in order of ethics, ticking them off with his fingers. Google, he said, was at the top of the pile. It was genuinely improving the quality of Chinese information and trying to do its best within a bad system. Microsoft came next; Zhao was obviously unhappy with its decision, but he said that it had produced such an easy-to-use blogging tool that, on balance, Microsoft was helping Chinese people to speak publicly. Yahoo came last, and Zhao had nothing but venom for the company.

"Google has struck a compromise," he said, and compromises are sometimes necessary. Yahoo's behavior, he added, put it in a different category: "Yahoo is a sellout. Chinese people hate Yahoo." The difference, Zhao said, was that Yahoo had put individual dissidents in serious danger and done so apparently without thinking much about the human damage. (Yahoo did not respond to requests for comment.) Google, by contrast, had avoided introducing any service that could get someone jailed. It was censoring information, but Zhao considered that a sin of omission, rather than of commission.

The Distorted Universe

Zhao's moral calculus was striking, not least because it is so foreign to American ways of thinking. For most Americans, or certainly for most of those who think and write about China, there are no half-measures in democracy or free speech. A country either fully embraces these principles, or it disappears down the slippery slope of totalitarianism. But China's bloggers and Internet users have already lived at the bottom of the slippery slope. From their perspective, the Internet — as filtered as it is — has already changed Chinese society profoundly. For the younger generation, especially, it has turned public speech into a daily act. This, ultimately, is the perspective that Google has adopted, too. And it raises an interesting question: Can an imperfect Internet help change a society for the better?

One Internet executive I spoke to summed up the conundrum of China's Internet as the "distorted universe" problem. What happens to people's worldviews when they do a Google search for Falun Gong and almost exclusively find sites opposed to it, as would happen today on google.cn? Perhaps they would trust Google's authority and assume there is nothing to be found. This is the fear of Christopher Smith, the Republican representative who convened the recent Congressional hearings. "When Google sends you to a Chinese propaganda source on a sensitive subject, it's got the imprimatur of Google," he told me recently. "And that influences the next generation — they think, Maybe we can live with this dictatorship. Without your Lech Walesas, you never get democracy." For Smith, Google's logic is the logic of appeasement. Like the companies that sought to "engage" with apartheid South Africa, Google's executives are too dedicated to profits ever to push for serious political change. (Earlier this month, Google's C.E.O., Eric Schmidt, visited Kai-Fu Lee in Beijing and told journalists that it would be "arrogant" of Google to try to change China's censorship laws.)

But perhaps the distorted universe is less of a problem in China, because — as many Chinese citizens told me — the Chinese people long ago learned to read past the distortions of Communist propaganda and media control. Guo Liang, the professor at the Chinese social sciences academy, told me about one revealing encounter. "These guys at Harvard did a study of the Chinese Internet," Guo said. "I talked to them and asked, 'What were your results?' They said, 'We think the Chinese government tries to control the Internet.' I just laughed. I said, 'We know that!' " Google's filtering of its results was not controversial for Guo because it was nothing new.

Andrew Lih, the Chinese-American professor at the University of Hong Kong, said that many in China take a long-term perspective. "Chinese people have a 5,000-year view of history," he said. "You ban a Web site, and they're like: 'Oh, give it time. It'll come back.' " Or consider the position of a group of Chinese Internet geeks trying to get access to Wikipedia, the massive free online encyclopedia where anyone can write an entry. Currently, all of wikipedia.com is blocked; the group is trying to convince Wikipedia's overseers to agree to the creation of a sanitized Chinese version with the potentially illegal entries removed. They argue that this would leave 99.9 percent of Wikipedia intact, and if that material were freely available in China, they say, it would be a great boon for China, particularly for underfinanced and isolated schools. (So far, Wikipedia has said it will not allow the creation of a censored version of the encyclopedia.)

Given how flexible computer code is, there are plenty of ways to distort the universe — to make its omissions more or less visible. At one point while developing google.cn, Google considered blocking all sites that refer to controversial topics. A search for Falun Gong in China would produce no sites in favor of it, but no sites opposing it either. What sort of effect would that have had? Remember too that when Google introduced its censored google.cn engine, it also left its original google.com Chinese-language engine online. Which means that any Chinese citizen can sit in a Net cafe, plug "Tiananmen Square" into each version of the search engine and then compare the different results — a trick that makes the blacklist somewhat visible. Critics have suggested that Google should go even further and actually publish its blacklist online in the United States, making its act of censorship entirely transparent.

The Super Girl Theory

When I spoke to Kai-Fu Lee in Google's Beijing offices, there were moments that to me felt jarring. One minute he sounded like a freedom-loving Googler, arguing that the Internet inherently empowers its users. But the next minute he sounded more like Jack Ma of Alibaba — insisting that the Chinese have no interest in rocking the boat. It is a circular logic I encountered again and again while talking to China's Internet executives: we don't feel bad about filtering political results because our users aren't looking for that stuff anyway.

They may be right about their users' behavior. But you could just as easily argue that their users are incurious because they're cowed. Who would openly search for illegal content in a public Internet cafe — or even at home, since the government requires that every person with personal Internet access register his name and phone number with the government for tracking purposes? It is also possible that the government's crackdown on the Internet could become more intense if the country's huge population of poor farmers begins agitating online. The government is reasonably tolerant of well-educated professionals online. But the farmers, upset about corrupt local officials, are serious activists, and they pose a real threat to Beijing; they staged 70,000 demonstrations in 2004, many of which the government violently suppressed.

In the eyes of critics, Google is lying to itself about the desires of Chinese Internet users and collaborating with the Communist Party merely to secure a profitable market. To take Lee at his word is to take a leap of faith: that the Internet, simply through its own inherent properties, will slowly chip away at the government's ability to control speech, seeding a cultural change that strongly favors democracy. In this view, there will be no "great man" revolution in China, no Lech Walesa rallying his oppressed countrymen. Instead, the freedom fighters will be a half-billion mostly apolitical young Chinese, blogging and chatting about their dates, their favorite bands, video games — an entire generation that is growing up with public speech as a regular habit.

At one point in our conversation, Lee talked about the "Super Girl" competition televised in China last year, the country's analogue to "American Idol." Much like the American version of the show, it featured young women belting out covers of mainstream Western pop songs amid a blizzard of corporate branding. (The full title of the show was "Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest," in honor of its sponsor.) In each round, viewers could vote for their favorite competitor via text message from their mobile phones. As the season ran its course, it began to resemble a presidential election campaign, with delirious fans setting up Web sites urging voters to pick their favorite singer. In the final episode, eight million young Chinese used their mobile phones to vote; the winner was Li Yuchun, a 21-year-old who dressed like a schoolgirl and sang "Zombie," by the Irish band the Cranberries.

"If you think about a practice for democracy, this is it," Lee said. "People voted for Super Girls. They loved it — they went out and campaigned." It may not be a revolution, in other words, but it might be a start.

Clive Thompson is a contributing writer. He frequently reports about technology for the magazine.

MyInflectionPoint.

April 23, 2006

For MySpace, Making Friends Was Easy. Big Profit Is Tougher.

By SAUL HANSELL
SANTA MONICA, Calif.

ALMOST on a lark, Chris DeWolfe bought the Internet address MySpace.com in 2002, figuring that it might be useful someday. At first, he used the site to peddle a motorized contraption, made in China and called an E-scooter, for $99.

Selling products online comes naturally to him. Having jumped into the Internet business in the early days, Mr. DeWolfe had become a master of the aggressive forms of online marketing, including e-mail messages and pop-up advertising. After the Internet bubble burst, he even built a site that let people download computer cursors in the form of waving flags; the trick was that they also downloaded software that would monitor their Internet movements and show them pop-up ads.

Very quickly, however, Mr. DeWolfe's tactics for MySpace changed. He had noticed the popularity of Friendster, a rapidly growing Web site that let people communicate with their friends and meet the friends of their friends. What would happen, he wondered, if he combined this type of social networking with the sort of personal expression enabled by other sites for creating Web pages or online journals?

He convinced the executives of eUniverse, the company that had bought his own marketing firm, ResponseBase, to back his plan. As soon as the site was reintroduced, in the summer of 2003, Mr. DeWolfe saw it grow quickly with little marketing. And although his scrappy backer was hungry for cash, he resisted pressure to flood MySpace with advertising and to turn all of its members into money.

"Chris came from ResponseBase, and they knew all the direct marketing tactics to get money out of almost anything," said Brett C. Brewer, the former president of eUniverse, which was later renamed Intermix Media. "But I give him credit: from literally the first or second month, he realized MySpace could be something we really need to protect because user confidence in the site was paramount."

Now MySpace has a new owner — Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which bought MySpace and Intermix last year for $649 million — and the pressure on Mr. DeWolfe to find a way to make much more money from MySpace is far greater.

But the opportunity is greater, too. More than 70 million members have signed up — more than twice as many as MySpace had when Mr. Murdoch agreed to buy it — drawn by a simple format that lets users build their own profile pages and link to the pages of their friends. It has tapped into three passions of young people: expressing themselves, interacting with friends and consuming popular culture.

MySpace now displays more pages each month than any other Web site except Yahoo. More pages, of course, means more room for ads. And, in theory, those ads can be narrowly focused on each member's personal passions, which they conveniently display on their profiles. As an added bonus for advertisers, the music, photos and video clips that members place on their profiles constitutes a real-time barometer of what is hot.

FOR now, MySpace is charging bargain-basement rates to attract enough advertisers for the nearly one billion pages it displays each day. The company will have revenue of about $200 million this year, estimated Richard Greenfield of Pali Capital, a brokerage firm in New York. That is less than one-twentieth of Yahoo's revenue.

In buying MySpace, Mr. Murdoch also bought a tantalizing problem: how to tame a vast sea of fickle and unruly teenagers and college students just enough to notice advertising or to buy things, yet not make the site so commercial that he scares off his audience. At the same time, he must address the real and growing concerns of parents and teachers who see MySpace as a den of youthful excess and, potentially, as a lure for sexual predators.

Mr. Murdoch's initial strategy seems to be to do nothing to interfere with whatever alchemy attracted so many young people to MySpace in the first place. So he has embraced Mr. DeWolfe, 40, and Tom Anderson, 30, the company's president and co-founder, and their close-knit management team. And he is providing them with the cash to reinforce MySpace's shaky computer system and to hire armies of sales representatives to bring in more money from the banner ads and sponsored pages that MySpace sells.

He also gave them multimillion-dollar bonus payments to smooth the feelings that were ruffled when Intermix was sold, dragging MySpace along with it against the will of its founders, who received only a small portion of the sale price.

Still, change is coming. In Beverly Hills, nine miles and worlds away from MySpace's beachside office, the News Corporation is assembling its overarching online unit, Fox Interactive Media. Run by Ross Levinsohn, the longtime manager of FoxSports.com, Fox Interactive Media is stitching together several Web properties into a big Internet company focused on youth. The top priority is MySpace.

"We have some very aggressive goals on how to build this thing into a real contributor to News Corp. financially," Mr. Levinsohn said last month. Mr. Murdoch, he added, "is focused on that, and he rightfully holds my feet to the fire."

To expand ad sales, especially to big brands, Mr. Levinsohn plans to supplement the MySpace staff with a second sales force linked to the Fox TV sales department. He wants to expand one of Mr. DeWolfe's advertising ideas — turning advertisers into members of the MySpace community, with their own profiles, like the teenagers' — so that the young people who often spend hours each day on MySpace can become "friends" with movies, cellphone companies and even deodorants. Young people can link to the profiles set up for these goods and services, as they would to real friends, and these commercial "friends" can even send them messages — ads, really, but of a whole new kind.

Mr. Levinsohn is also developing plans for MySpace to be paid by some of the bands and video producers whose songs and short films are woven into its gaudy profiles like so many electronic stickers on a high-school locker. And he sees a chance for MySpace to rival eBay and Craigslist as a place where nearly anything is bought and sold.

Mr. Greenfield, the Pali Capital analyst, says that these moves have potential — especially if MySpace can convince members to put clips from Fox movies, television programs and other youth-oriented "content" on their profile pages. "I don't know how big a business this can be, but it can clearly be a lot bigger than it is today," he said. "The question is: Can you take it to the next level by making a business that leverages all the consumers who are telling you what they want to do?"

Another question is this: Can the News Corporation achieve these goals if the executives in charge don't agree on how to do so, or even on whether they want to? Mr. Levinsohn, for example, said he saw opportunity in the one million bands that have established profiles on MySpace; he said MySpace could charge bands to promote concerts or to sell their songs directly through the site.

In an interview the next day, however, Mr. DeWolfe dismissed the idea. "Music brings a lot of traffic into MySpace," he said, "and it lets us sell very large sponsorships to those brands that want to reach consumers who are interested in music. We never thought charging bands was a viable business model."

Mr. Levinsohn brushed aside the discord, saying it was appropriate for the people running MySpace to be more concerned at this point about serving users than making money. And, for now, Mr. DeWolfe and Mr. Anderson say they are happy working for the News Corporation and Mr. Murdoch, its 75-year-old chairman and chief executive. "Rupert Murdoch blew me away," Mr. DeWolfe said. "He really understands what youth is doing today."

BY many accounts, the MySpace culture reflects the style of Mr. DeWolfe, who has a hard-nosed business approach under a laid-back exterior. "Chris is a very strong personality," said Geoff Yang, a partner in Redpoint Ventures, which invested in MySpace last year as part of an effort to separate it from Intermix; the News Corporation's acquisition of Intermix thwarted that effort. "He will listen to a lot of ideas, make up his mind and be laser-focused to get a few of them done."

Mr. DeWolfe, who focuses on business affairs, and Mr. Anderson, who designs features for the site, have deliberately kept MySpace rudimentary, with an almost homemade feeling, to give the most flexibility to users. In spirit, the site reflects its Southern Californian home with all of its idiosyncratic performers, designers, demicelebrities and other cultural hustlers, many of whom the founders recruited to be early members. Mr. DeWolfe, in particular, is a fan of Los Angeles nightlife and has become something of a public figure himself.

"Chris has become this living persona of MySpace," said Mr. Brewer, who recalled a trip to Aspen, Colo., with Mr. Anderson and Mr. DeWolfe last December. "Chris is wearing an awesome leather jacket, some sort of designer shirt, with his hair all over the place. He has this whole rock-star persona. And you hear people going: 'Psst, psst. That's the MySpace guy.' "

When he is not basking in the MySpace spotlight himself, Mr. DeWolfe has begun using it to promote music events around the country. MySpace members can become "friends" with a profile for "MySpace Secret Shows," for instance, and they will receive tips about free concerts — sponsored by companies like Tower Records — in their hometowns.

On a recent Friday in Manhattan, several hundred people trekked through drizzling rain to the Tower Records store in the East Village for free tickets to a concert by Franz Ferdinand, the Scottish postpunk band, at the Hammerstein Ballroom.

Heather Candella, a college student from Sloatsburg, N.Y., was among those at the show. She said the shows were "a really good idea because it's kind of a secret kind of thing — it's not so commercial."

She added that MySpace had become a main way to stay in touch with her friends. While she does not use the site to meet people, it has become part of the dating ritual. "When you meet someone, the question is not 'What's your number?' " she said. "It's 'What's your MySpace?' "

By checking out a guy's profile, she said, "you can actually get a feeling for who they are."

MySpace users pepper their profiles with their own photographs, musings and poetry, and with their favorite music and video clips. That maximizes the individuality of each profile but turns the typical media-company business model upside down, which is one reason that it is so hard for the News Corporation to use the audience to sell ads or to promote its own programming. The best way to get, say, a television show in front of the MySpace audience is not to cut a deal with a programming czar at a Hollywood restaurant, but to win the hearts, one by one, of thousands of members who will display the show to all of their friends.

"We can't look at this as a media property," said Peter Chernin, the News Corporation's president. "This is a site programmed by its users."

For that reason, MySpace is only gingerly pushing users into other Fox properties. Right now, Fox's relationship to MySpace is not explicit, although Fox movies and television shows are frequent advertisers. Ultimately, the News Corporation will make it easy for MySpace members to put clips from its television programs and trailers for its movies on their profile pages. But there will be nothing to stop them from using material from other companies.

Mr. Levinsohn calls MySpace the antiportal. "It's not about a central hub, because that's not where things are going," he said. "The under-30 set wants choice. It's not about one destination; it's about 65 million."

Indeed, rather than squeeze all its Internet ambitions into MySpace, Fox Interactive is assembling a network of Web sites, including IGN, a collection of sites focused on video games, and Scout, which runs Web sites for about 200 local sports teams. The News Corporation is also developing a portal devoted to entertainment, drawing from its Fox network programs, the Page Six gossip column of The New York Post and show-business reporters at the 35 local television stations it owns, Mr. Levinsohn said.

AT MySpace, the first challenge is to raise advertising rates. Because its supply of pages so greatly outstrips demand from advertisers, it has offered deep discounts. Indeed, the average rate paid for advertising is a bit over a dime for 1,000 impressions, Mr. Levinsohn said, far lower than rates at major competitors. "If we can raise that by 10 cents, think of the upside," he said.

One way to coax more money from advertisers is to build special sections — areas devoted to music and independent filmmakers — that provide a neutral home to advertisers that want MySpace's youthful audience but don't want their ads associated with the risqué content of some members' profiles.

A sign of that challenge is seen in Mr. Levinsohn's effort to expand the use of text ads — the rapidly growing format pioneered by search engines. He has been running tests with Yahoo, Google and several smaller ad providers and has sought proposals from them for longer-term deals.

The answer he received was a shock. Not one of them, not even the mighty Google, was sure that it could provide enough advertisements to fill all the pages that MySpace displays each day, Mr. Levinsohn said. The search companies did not want to dilute their networks with so many ads for MySpace users, whom they said were not the best prospects for most marketing because they use MySpace for socializing, not buying.

Mr. Levinsohn says he also hopes to raise ad rates by collecting more user data so advertisers can find the most promising prospects. To use the site, people need to provide their age, location and sex, and often volunteer their sexual orientation and personal interests. Some of that information is already being used to select ads to display. Soon, the site will track when users visit profile pages and other sections devoted to topics of interest to advertisers. People who put information about sports cars in their profiles or who frequent MySpace message boards about hot-rodding, for example, would be shown ads for car parts, even while reading messages from friends.

The bigger opportunity, however, is not so much selling banner ads, but finding ways to integrate advertisers into the site's web of relationships. Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers, for example, created a profile for the animated square hamburger character from its television campaign. About 100,000 people signed up to be "friends" with the square.

Fox officials wonder whether this sort of commerce, built on relationships, can be extended to small businesses. A Ford dealership in, say, Indiana could create a profile, said Mark A. Jung, the chief operating officer of Fox Interactive. The profiles themselves, he said, would probably be free, but MySpace would sell enhancements to help businesses attract customers and complete transactions, Mr. Jung said.

Yet here is another place that executives at Fox and MySpace don't see eye to eye. Mr. DeWolfe discounted the idea of people creating profile pages for small businesses. "If it was a really commercial profile — the gas station down the street — no one is going to sign up to be one of their friends," he said. "There is nothing interesting about it."

For now, Mr. DeWolfe said, he has more down-to-earth plans. With the News Corporation's help, he is opening an office in London to coordinate MySpace's expansion in Europe. He is cutting deals to let members connect to MySpace over cellphones.

The News Corporation, he said, is helping MySpace achieve his goals sooner than it could on its own. So far this year, MySpace has spent $20 million of the News Corporation's money, in part to nearly double its staff of 250. About one-third of its employees focus on customer service and, increasingly, on responding to parents' concerns about what teenagers do on the site and what else they can see there. In the last six months, there has been a torrent of letters from schools to parents — as well as newspaper articles — about the glorification of drinking, drug use and sex on many MySpace profiles.

MySpace has long had rules that forbid anyone under 14 to join and that ban pornographic images and hate speech. Beyond those, however, the site is very open to frank discussion, provocative images and links to all sorts of activities. It didn't stop Playboy magazine, for example, from creating a profile page on its site to recruit members to pose in the magazine. Nor does it object to Jenna Jameson, the pornographic film star, maintaining a profile with links to her hard-core Web site.

Ms. Jameson "is more than a porn star," Mr. Anderson said. "She is an author and a celebrity and has been on Oprah." He added that "if we had a site that was 'My name is so-and-so and this is my porn site,' we would delete that."

Mr. Levinsohn, Mr. DeWolfe and others at the News Corporation say the site has no more or fewer problems than any other community on the Internet, and their primary response to parents' concern is a campaign to educate users about safe surfing techniques. "There are a couple of basic safety tips that can make MySpace safe for anyone over 14," Mr. DeWolfe said. "Just like you tell kids not to get in the car with strangers and to look both ways before you cross the street."

A sign that MySpace can play a role in some of the most distressing experiences of growing up came last week, when five teenage boys were arrested in Riverton, Kan. Law enforcement and school officials there said that the group planned to go on a shooting spree at their high school but were stopped after one of them discussed the plot on MySpace.

IN some ways, MySpace has assumed the role America Online held a decade ago when it introduced e-mail services and Internet chat to the masses. But AOL's example is a cautionary one. For many reasons, largely its failure to keep up with trends, AOL lost its place in the social lives of young people.

Mr. DeWolfe argues that MySpace won't suffer that fate because, in just two years, it has already become so entrenched in so many lives. "People are truly invested in the site," he said. "All their friends are on it. They spent months building their profiles. And so the cost of switching is too high. If we keep building the features they want, they will stay on the site."

If he is right, MySpace will be more than just a trendy toy to be discarded like last year's E-scooter.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Friday, April 21, 2006

Architecture (and more) in Helsinki.

Could Scandinavia ever organize their core competencies into one powerhouse unit?

---

Europe's New Design Capital

Helsinki is making news with brash designs that eschew blond-wood clichés. After all, why shouldn't a dresser drawer double as a suitcase?

By Aric Chen

There's a saying in Finland that if Scandinavia stuck to its strengths, the Finns would design, the Swedes would manufacture, the Danes would sell and the Norwegians (flush with oil money) would buy. Although Finnish design had its last heyday in the mid-20th century—when Marimekko introduced its graphic floral fabrics, Iittala became famous for its now-iconic glassware, and the legendary architect Alvar Aalto created his blond-bentwood furniture—the country is now rediscovering its edge. Last summer, an area of stores, galleries and restaurants in Helsinki was officially christened the design district, and it encompasses nearly the entire city center.

So when I recently visited the Finnish capital to check out some of its most interesting new designs, I naturally headed straight for the design district—specifically, to Klaus K, the city's first boutique hotel. I have to admit that somewhere between seeing my gazillionth groovy lobby and spending my umpteenth hour waiting for room service, "boutique hotel" had started to lose its allure. Since Klaus K was only a few days old when I checked in, my expectations were especially low. But the paint was dry, the service was prompt and the lobby—well, it was pretty groovy, with loungey white chairs, mottled-brown glass-mosaic columns and a large halo of tangled white metal floating above the reception desk like a cloud of snowflakes.

After dropping off my luggage, I made my way to Design Forum Finland, an exhibition space and store that showcases both new Finnish talent and classic pieces. There, I discovered a beautiful tea set—creamy ceramic cylinders wrapped in laminated oak and capped by cork—created by a company called Tonfisk. I also noticed the sensuously contoured wooden mortar and pestles from Tuulipuu, a small workshop in the forests of southwestern Finland, and Saara Renvall's Kukka brooch, a graphic flower with petals made of a reflective material "so people can see you at night," Renvall later told me.

Renvall knows Helsinki's emerging design scene well. A leader of Imu, Finland's self-appointed National Design Team, she promotes experimental Finnish design around the world. The Finns pride themselves on their sisu, or "guts," and it's clear that Renvall has it. She is determined to push some of Imu's pieces into production, if only the designers would cooperate: Getting them to manufacture for the market, she said, is "like pulling a bag of bricks."

If Imu is any indication, Finland's design vanguard is losing patience with Scandinavian clichés like blond woods and organic lines, not to mention Ikea. Instead, Imu champions young designers like Klaus Aalto (no relation to Alvar), who created a dresser with white plastic drawers that double as suitcases. Another rising star is Johanna Hyrkäs of Anteeksi, a collective of irreverent designers whose name means "excuse me"; one of her signature pieces is a crocheted rug embedded with lights.

Anteeksi couldn't care less about the bottom line, Hyrkäs told me at Kuurna, a new restaurant she helped design that reinterprets classic Nordic cuisine with dishes like a warm pike terrine. (By painting the walls olive green and stripping the vaulted ceilings so that they flaked, Hyrkäs purposely created a space that doesn't look designed at all.) She went on to describe the group's mock furniture fairs set in street kiosks and amateur fashion shows, like one displaying a coat festooned with stuffed animals. "Everything we do is just for fun," she said.

Anteeksi's designers do sell a few products. Their T-shirts—Hyrkäs's is silk-screened with an image of her dog and station wagon—are available at Myymälä2, a three-year-old subterranean art gallery and shop that's become a haven for Helsinki's youth culture. After two failed attempts, I finally got inside (the store's posted hours should not be taken literally) and discovered novelties like vintage-style wallpaper printed with graphic green elephants, but nothing like the raw-meat sculptures that made the gallery notorious for a while.

Across the street, the designers of the clothing line Pusipusi recently co-founded the store Lux, which sells repurposed pieces like jewelry made from flea-market finds (including a brooch with bits of costume jewelry, military ribbons and a James Dean cameo) and freakishly cute, bunny-shaped pillows stitched together from secondhand clothes. Secco, another new shop nearby, carries things like glass votives created from melted-down computer screens. Was that a Louise Nevelson sculpture on the wall? Nope, try circuit boards that had been painted gold.

Eventually, I emerged from the side streets and made the obligatory trip to the Esplanade, home to Finnish design's big three: Marimekko, Iittala and Artek. All the punchy, Pop-hued poppies one could ask for—on bags, trays, linens and mugs—can be had at Marimekko's three Esplanade locations. Alongside such well-known classics as the undulating Aalto vase, said to be inspired by the shape of Finland's lakes, Iittala's flagship showed off new glassware like the colorful triangular Tris candleholders by the Swiss designer Alfredo Häberli. And at Artek, which was founded by a group that included Alvar Aalto in 1935 and still produces his bentwood furniture, I admired a new collection of rugs with organic lines and abstract shapes—part of the company's recent push to update its look under the direction of the British design star Tom Dixon and Finnish veterans Eero Aarnio and Harri Koskinen.

On my last day in Helsinki I met up with Ilkka Suppanen, an innovative Finnish designer who has worked for Saab and the Italian furniture maker Cappellini. Quiet and reserved, but with a shock of shaggy blond hair, Suppanen gave me a preview of his Colors chair for the Italian manufacturer Zanotta. Resting on thin wire-frame legs, it consists of three oblong cushions in mix-and-match fabrics. It's an elegant and simple design that has just hit stores in the United States. For nearly everything else, however—well, that just might require a trip to Helsinki.

Aric Chen writes frequently about design, art and travel for the New York Times, I.D. and Art + Auction.

This article originally appeared in May, 2006.

The fire in the belly.

How Successful People Remain Successful


When James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras wrote their hugely popular 1994 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, they began by stating clearly that they did not mean to write about visionary leaders, product concepts or market insights. Their goal was to find visionary companies -- the crown jewels of their industries -- and discover what made them extraordinary. The 18 visionary companies, the authors found, had a core ideology that helped sustain them in good times and bad. Then questions arose about the extent to which the principles of Built to Last might apply to individuals in addition to companies. That sparked another investigation that has now led to a follow-up book, Success Built to Last, which will be published by Wharton School Publishing later this year.


Mark Thompson and Stewart Emery, co-authors with Porras of Success Built to Last, spoke recently with Knowledge@Wharton about their new book. In addition, the authors are conducting a global survey on how people think about success; a link to the survey can also be found at the end of this interview.


Knowledge@Wharton: What prompted you to write this book?


Emery: It started with a conversation that Mark and I had with Jerry Porras about whether the ideas in the original Built to Last might apply to individuals. That idea was further fueled in the intervening years between the publication of the hard copy edition and the paperback edition. Jerry and Jim (Collins) received letters from people who had reported successfully using some of the principles of Built to Last in their personal lives. This prompted a whole lot of inquiry which gave birth to Success Built to Last.


Thompson: The original premise of Built to Last was visionary companies. The idea was that a visionary organization would have more enduring success -- but what about individuals in terms of their work and lives? What about careers built to last? What about a life built to last? What could we learn from people from a wide variety of professions who had had enduring impact in their work for decades? These were not one-hit wonders or superficial successes; these were people who were able to make a contribution and have enduring impact. That is what we wanted the new book to explore.


Knowledge@Wharton: Is that the main difference between Built to Last and Success Built to Last -- the first book focused on companies while the new one is about individuals? Are there other differences as well?


Thompson: That was the fundamental driving principle that created the project. As Stewart was saying, the fact is that people were reaching out and looking at their careers and their lives to see if they could find a way to use the metaphor and the power of [the book].


Emery: Historically there are a couple of other things that have transpired in the 11 or 12 years between when this book will come out and the original Built to Last hit the bookstores. Life expectancies have gone up, and it turns out that people are likely on average to far outlive the average life of corporations. So how do you create a life built to last, particularly from the point of view of Success Built to Last? And then, if you consider the fact that people might have multiple careers, what are the attributes that are essential to the individual to allow that kind of reinvention? While careers may come and go, the success of the individual is sustained across multiple careers. That became a driving force as we got into our research.


Knowledge@Wharton: You interviewed a number of remarkable people -- or 'builders,' as you call them -- for your book. What were your initial findings and how did these individuals think about success?


Thompson: We found that three fundamental principles drive lasting success; these need to interact with one another and also to be integrated and aligned. We describe them in our first chapter in a diagram with three intersecting circles -- meaning, thought and action -- and the bull's eye is where they all come together. We found that individuals across the spectrum of professions were striving to find something that mattered to them in a very fundamental way. This prompted them to drive their thoughts to frame a way of producing those results -- and then acting on those results.


If you take any one of those principles away -- for example, if you take meaning away from thought and action -- you might be successful in the short term. This is because you have a plan in your head and execute against it. But if your plan is disassociated from meaning, it might not matter. And it wouldn't have the meaning which sustains you through the inevitable challenges and difficulties of trying to create a career. That fundamental step of finding meaning, finding the passion that matters to you and that drives your behavior, is often skipped.


When we interviewed people for our book, we learned that whether you are Jack Welch or the Dalai Lama, it is dangerous not to do what you love. If you don't have a level of passion that drives your thinking about what you're doing day in and day out, there will be others out there who are passionate who will overtake and outrun you. People who care will take the initiative away from those who are half-hearted. So loving what you do is a competitive imperative, not simply a nice thing to have.


Knowledge@Wharton: Loving what you do and being passionate about it is certainly a necessary condition for success. But don't you think that timing and chance also play a part? For example, what about people whose ideas are too far ahead of their times?


Thompson: You earn your luck in those circumstances. In other words, if you are willing to invest in going deep into developing your skill set and knowledge, and you are passionate about what you do, then when circumstances work in your favor or against you, you're better prepared for opportunities that present themselves.


There is one thing that we discovered consistently about people who were enduringly successful. If you ask them about their careers, they will say, "Well, it was a bit of a serendipitous journey. I started out with a focus area that I cared about and became an expert at, and then the opportunities started to present themselves." And yes, many of them stayed with their chosen area when the timing wasn't right and when the circumstances did not work in their favor. If you ask them about it, they will describe the pain that they went through, and how difficult that was, and how they stuck with it and eventually prevailed.


We have a chapter in the book that's called "Wounded Wisdom." It deals with people who found that they were better off taking advantage of a later opportunity than an earlier one. Now, it's hard to say whether they are re-framing that question after the fact in an optimistic fashion. But people describe their journey as one where they had many setbacks and difficulties, but because they had the courage of their convictions, they were able to prevail and have lasting impact.


Emery: The question you asked earlier was about how these people think about success. The answer is that they don't. People don't start out to be successful -- they start out to be very good at what matters to them. And when timing and circumstances come together, then they end up with success.


One of the issues we are very clear about is that success needs to be redefined. This is because if you read the definition of success in the dictionary, it sounds like it was written for sociopaths. If you go to Oxford or Webster -- whether you take a dictionary from either side of the Atlantic -- they define success in the same way, as the accumulation of influence, power, wealth and accolades. We see a lot of people chasing that kind of success. What's remarkable is that a few people whom we talked to have achieved that kind of success, but it was never their goal.


A lot of people are experiencing incredible success. Although they don't think about it per se, they have rich lives and they are having an impact that will probably benefit the world way beyond their lifetime. The traditional definition of success doesn't fit their lives at all. What we have here is an historic opportunity to start a global dialogue about success. That's our intention -- to challenge Webster to alter its dictionary definition. That is why we decided to do a global success survey.


Knowledge@Wharton: Do people think about success in the same way over time or does that definition change? For example, do people think about success in the same way in the beginning of their careers as they do at the end?


Thompson: That's very interesting, because the definition might shift over time. We've spoken to CEOs who, for example, learned from earlier experiences that perhaps they were too focused on getting into the corner office, and they might feel about it differently later in terms of what their priorities should be. But in terms of the overarching focus in their lives, it wasn't the traditional definition of success.


Emery: I'd say what appears to be constant is that the principles don't change over time. What defines these people's lives is their commitment to doing something that is meaningful to them. If they're pursuing a cause of public service, certainly they are living a life of service, but they are also clear that this life serves them. So it's not an either/or situation. They never talk about it as a sacrifice, and so that principle of having an anchor to what is meaningful to them never changes.


And another thing we noticed in our research is that when you talk to these people, after a while you feel something is missing from the conversation. Mark and I have explored this, and we realized that what is missing is that they never blame anybody for their circumstances or their mishaps.


They also never hold themselves to be victims of anything. It was astonishing to be with Senator John McCain in his office in Washington. Regardless of your politics, it's astonishing to listen to a man who is a true hero, who went through extraordinary physical pain and deprivation, and who talks about being grateful for the transformational experience he had in Vietnam.


Knowledge@Wharton: One of the most interesting ideas in your book is that successful people harvest their failures. How do successful people stay successful?


Thompson: The chapter we spoke about earlier focuses on people who take their wounds and turn them into wisdom. For example, Charles Schwab, the founder of the successful investment bank, is a lifelong dyslexic. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems, and Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, also had learning disabilities. Even though some of these difficulties were intractable, they chose to see them as an opportunity.


Some people have enormous setbacks in their lives, or they make mistakes, but you have to learn from your mistakes. As Quincy Jones, the musician, asked us, when was the last time you actually did that? When did you take the lessons from a setback and put them to use? These people were very consistent about looking to success and failure as feedback. In other words, it's all input. Sometimes, success can make you sloppy, just as a setback can make you [understand] more clearly what works and what doesn't. They're disciplined about looking at how things had good or bad results and seeing them as opportunities for improvement.

The character of characters.

Alphabets are as simple as...
(Filed: 18/04/2006)

Writing systems may look very different, but they all use the same basic building blocks of familiar natural shapes, reports Roger Highfield

If there is one quality that marks out the scientific mind, it is an unquenchable curiosity. Even when it comes to things that are everyday and so familiar they seem beyond question, scientists see puzzles and mysteries.

Look at the letters in the words of this sentence, for example. Why are they shaped the way that they are? Why did we come up with As, Ms and Zs and the other characters of the alphabet? And is there any underlying similarity between the many kinds of alphabet used on the planet?

To find out, scientists have pooled the common features of 100 different writing systems, including true alphabets such as Cyrillic, Korean Hangul and our own; so-called abjads that include Arabic and others that only use characters for consonants; Sanskrit, Tamil and other "abugidas", which use characters for consonants and accents for vowels; and Japanese and other syllabaries, which use symbols that approximate syllables, which make up words.

Remarkably, the study has concluded that the letters we use can be viewed as a mirror of the features of the natural world, from trees and mountains to meandering streams and urban cityscapes.

The shapes of letters are not dictated by the ease of writing them, economy of pen strokes and so on, but their underlying familiarity and the ease of recognising them. We use certain letters because our brains are particularly good at seeing them, even if our hands find it hard to write them down. In turn, we are good at seeing certain shapes because they reflect common facets of the natural world.

This, the underlying logic of letters, will be explored next month in The American Naturalist, by Mark Changizi, Qiang Zhang, Hao Ye, and Shinsuke Shimojo from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The analysis is simplistic but, none the less, offers an intriguing glimpse into why we tend to prefer some shapes over others when we communicate by writing.

The team set out to explore the idea that the visual signs we use have been selected, whatever the culture, to reflect common contours, landscapes and shapes in natural scenes that human brains have evolved to be good at seeing.

"Writing should look like nature, in a way," said Dr Changizi, explaining how similar reasoning has been used to explain the sounds, signs and colours that animals, insects and so on use to tell each other they are, for example, receptive to sex.

To be able to compare Cyrillic, Arabic or whatever, they turned to the mathematics of topology, which focuses on the way elements are connected together in a letter rather than overall shape, so that fonts do not matter and nor does handwriting, whether neat calligraphy or crudely written with a crayon grasped in a clenched fist.

For example, each time you see a T, geometrical features and frills such as serifs may differ according to the font or handwriting but the topology remains the same. By the same token, L, T, and X represent the three topologically distinct configurations that can be built with exactly two segments. And, to a topological mind, an L is the same as a V. In this way, the team could classify different configurations of strokes, or segments, to boil an alphabet of alphabets down to their essentials.

Across 115 writing systems to emerge over human history, varying in number of characters from about 10 to 200, the average number of strokes per character is approximately three and does not appear to vary as a function of writing system size. Sticking to letters that can be drawn with three strokes or fewer, the team found that about 36 distinct characters is the universe of letters in a theoretical alphabet.

Remarkably, the study revealed regularities in the distribution of (topological) shapes across approximately 100 phonemic (non-logographic) writing systems, where characters stand for sounds, and across symbols. "Whether you use Chinese or physics symbols, the shapes that are common in one are common in the others," said Dr Changizi.

For comparison, the team studied the shapes found in the real world, such as the Y shapes seen at the corner of a cube, or the simpler L and T shapes found in the branches of trees, yurts, huts, tepees and simple dwellings and so on.

They analysed the frequency of the shapes in 27 photographs of savannas and tribal life, 40 miscellaneous photographs of rural and small-town life and 40 computer-generated images of buildings. Much to their surprise, whether analysing the shapes in an urban landscape, or those in a leafy wilderness, they had very similar distributions of configurations and shapes.

Most striking of all, the team found a high correlation between the most common contour combinations found in nature and the most common contours found in letters and symbols across cultures. For example, contours resembling an "L" or "X" are more common in both human visual signs and natural scenes than anything resembling an asterisk (*).

When the popularity of each shape was plotted, a wiggly curve emerged that closely matched that of the popularity of the forms and architectures found in nature: the most common letter shapes mirrored common real-world shapes.

As a check that they had found something truly significant, they looked at the distribution of shapes found in trademark symbols. Once again, they follow the same plot, again suggesting that it is looks that matter, as one would expect for a logo, not ease of writing. The idealised flower used by BP may be hard to write but is easy to recognise because it mirrors a natural shape.

For comparison, they applied the same analysis to the shapes found in the scribbles of children and six kinds of shorthand, where it is ease of writing that is paramount. Now the distribution of shapes is not the same as found in nature. The easiest shapes to scribble are not the most common. Thus, the reason the letters of the alphabet are shaped as they are is to be in harmony with the mental machinery we have evolved to analyse the patterns of the natural world, not for ease of writing, said Dr Changizi.

"Vertebrates have evolved for tens of millions of years with their visual systems having to be good at recognising the configurations that are common out there in nature," he said. "We don't have really good mechanisms for recognising shapes that don't often occur in nature." As a result, letters and symbols based on rare natural shapes are themselves rarities.

Given how the distribution of features in our world is so similar, whether from an urban or a rural environment, the team would not expect writing systems that evolved among peoples who lived in desert regions to differ much from those of tribes in tropical rainforests. Nor does he expect keyboards to have much impact: "Despite the growth in the number of fonts, almost none of which is written by hand any more, they appear to possess the same shapes as they always did."

There is a cosmic dimension to this study. Dr Changizi speculates that if there is intelligent alien life in the universe, then so long as these creatures live, like us, among "macroscopic opaque objects strewn about", they will evolve writing symbols like our own. Alphabets on a planet orbiting another sun will, if materials, light and shade are similar to our own world, have features in common with those used on Earth: if ET writes home, we may think there is something familiar about his handwriting.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2006