Quartz

Subscribe to Quartz feed
Quartz is a digitally native news outlet for the new global economy.
Updated: 19 hours 9 min ago

Cliché uprising: The cringeworthy stock phrases taking over Hollywood movies

Tue, 2018-02-20 15:11

I was watching the new IMAX trailer for the colossal monster movie Pacific Rim: Uprising (video) the other day when I was struck by an intense feeling of déjà vu. I had never seen the trailer before, nor had I watched the first Pacific Rim movie. So what felt so familiar? Was it resurfaced memories of the Zords, the similarly gigantic fighting machines from the hit 1990s children’s series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers?

Perhaps. Or perhaps it was the dialogue.

“This is our chance to make a difference,” John Boyega tells his team, his voice rising. “Now let’s get it done!”

“There’s something you need to see,” intones one concerned-looking character.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” yells another, wild-eyed.

Each of these lines has appeared in dozens, if not hundreds of other films. This is a problem that extends far beyond Pacific Rim: Besieged with schlocky cinematic clichés, every mainstream Hollywood movie sounds like a pastiche of the greatest hits in stock phrases. The most recent trailer for Ready Player One provides another sterling example. “This isn’t just a game,” one character growls forebodingly.

Isn’t it, though? Isn’t it just a game? If Hollywood executives want to figure out why most of the industry’s reboots and sequels underperform with audiences, perhaps they should first examine the scripts, and their litany of clichés that make every purported blockbuster sound just like the last.

A clever mashup of one of Hollywood’s worst offenders resurfaced on Reddit today. Allow me to introduce “You just don’t get it, do you?”:

(The mashup was made by video editor Jeff Smith for FilmDrunk in 2011.)

Who actually speaks this way? If you hear someone say this phrase in real life, you may want to consider administering a Voight-Kampff test. And yet a total of 102 films, mostly from the last two decades, appear in Smith’s super-cut of the cringeworthy line. Some otherwise great films, like Platoon and The Prestige, are guilty of this affront to writing.

The video prompted Reddit users to post their favorite Hollywood dialogue clichés, which ranged from “In English, please,” to “We’re not so different, you and I,” to the laziest trope of them all: “We’ve got company.”

To use a bad writing cliché, there’s a whole lot more where that came from. TV Tropes, an online resource that catalogs common tropes in media and entertainment, contains an incredible resource of the most popular stock phrases. My favorite is “This is not what I signed up for,” a line almost always said by a movie character who did indeed sign up for the thing they’re claiming they didn’t sign up for. Another particularly villainous one: “I should have killed you when I had the chance” (and its common variant, “You should have killed me when you had the chance”).

If Hollywood’s recent spate of films is any indication, I have a bad feeling about the future of dialogue. Or maybe I’m just getting too old for this shit. Why are you looking at me like that? What have I become?!

Amazon is wreaking havoc on the grocery industry

Tue, 2018-02-20 15:05

Grocery chain Albertsons, one of America’s largest, plans to acquire Rite Aid in a cash-and-stock deal that will create a company with a combined value of $24 billion. It’s the latest big move by Albertsons, which bought meal-kit startup Plated for an undisclosed sum in September, and partnered with grocery-delivery service Instacart in late November. The deal would give Albertsons a combined 4,900 locations across most of the US, and total revenue of about $83 billion.

Albertsons’ bid for Rite Aid comes as grocers everywhere—not to mention pharmacies—scramble for cover. Technology companies have been trying to “disrupt” the industry since at least the early 2000s, but the spectacular flameout of Webvan, an early contender, made it more funny than scary. In 2017 the threat became very unfunny, and very real. The gauntlet was thrown by Amazon, which in June bought Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion. Jeff Bezos’s team, always several steps ahead, has a clear vision for how Whole Foods fits into Amazon’s grand plan, and how it can be used to give the company as strong a presence in the real, physical world as it commands online.

A bloodbath is imminent. Grocery stores have notoriously slim margins—earning a dollar or two, maybe three on every $100 shoppers spend—and Amazon could bleed even those profits dry. The company is already tapping its extensive logistics experience to offer free two-hour grocery delivery from Whole Foods in four US cities (Austin, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Virginia Beach). It has used store displays in Whole Foods to hawk Amazon Echos and offered exclusive discounts on turkeys to Amazon Prime shoppers at Thanksgiving. Today (Feb. 20) Amazon announced that Prime members using its Amazon Rewards Visa card will get back 5% on Whole Foods purchases, the same as it offers for purchases made on Amazon.com. (Non-Prime members with the card will get back 3%).

A sign promoting Amazon’s two-hour delivery outside a Whole Foods in Cincinnati.

The industry panic is palpable. A few months after Amazon sealed the Whole Foods deal, Target paid $550 million for grocery delivery service Shipt. On Feb. 15, Texas-based supermarket chain H-E-B bought up Texas-based delivery startup Favor for an undisclosed sum. Other groceries—national chains and mom-and-pop shops alike—have flocked to Instacart like Noah’s Ark before the proverbial flood. San Francisco-based Instacart, started by former Amazon employee Apoorva Mehta, raised $200 million in new funding earlier this month. Mehta now refers to the Amazon-Whole Foods deal as “a turning point for Instacart.”

Retailers know they can’t afford to sit idle. They’ve seen what happens to companies like Borders that fail to adapt to the new e-commerce world order. Walmart is testing a service that lets workers deliver straight to customers’ fridges. The company sees online groceries as a key driver of sales—a thing people purchase regularly and develop brand loyalty over. Walmart acquired Jet in 2016 partly on the strength of its grocery operations, and assured investors on its fourth-quarter earnings call today that it plans to “almost double” locations that handle online grocery orders. That didn’t stop its stock from tanking nearly 10% in afternoon trading on an online slowdown analysts are attributing to Amazon.

Grocers are hardly on as solid footing as Walmart. Many are drowning in debt, a situation that seems unlikely to improve as Amazon puts relentless downward pressure on prices, with sales on avocados and turkey. The owners of grocery brands Winn-Dixie and Tops Friendly Market are reportedly on the brink of bankruptcy. Winn-Dixie parent Bi-Lo, saddled with more than $1 billion in debt, may close almost 200 stores before or after its filing.

When Amazon went after book publishers in the mid-2000s, it dubbed the attack, “the Gazelle Project.” The program earned its name after Bezos suggested in a meeting that Amazon should pursue more favorable terms from small publishers the way a cheetah would target a sickly gazelle. Amazon retired the name on concerns from lawyers, but its strategy never changed.

America’s grocers should be scared: They’re the gazelles now.

Read next: What is Amazon, really?

A powerful eruption “completely annihilated” an Indonesian volcano’s peak

Tue, 2018-02-20 14:43

Mount Sinabung, one of Indonesia’ most active volcanoes, erupted on Monday (Feb. 19), unleashing a massive ash cloud over the island of Sumatra.

The images from the immediate aftermath of the eruption show the cloud reaching an apex of 7 kilometers in the air, as well as ash coating the towns that lay beneath.

Mount Sinabung spews volcanic ash as it erupts in Kutarakyat on Feb. 19, 2018.

Ash rises from Mount Sinabung on Feb. 19.

Ash from Mount Sinabung volcano covers a car and street following an eruption in Karo, North Sumatra, Indonesia on Feb, 19.

Students clean their school yard from ash after Mount Sinabung volcano erupted on Feb. 19 at Payung village in Karo, North Sumatra on Feb. 20.

There have been no fatalities or injuries reported yet, according to Reuters, but the eruption was significant enough to alter the peak of the volcano itself. The Associated Press reported that a large chunk of Sinabung’s peak, also called the “lava dome,” was lost in the eruption.

Side-by-side images released by Indonesia’s Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation show what the top of the volcano, with more than a million cubic meters shaved off—”completely annihilated,” in their words—looks like.

This undated combo photo released by the Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation (PVMBG) of Indonesian Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry shows the peak of Mount Sinabung in Karo, North Sumatra before, top, and after with a graphic line superimposed on the area of the new crater following its eruption on Monday. Text on top of frame reads “Before Feb. 19, 2018” and text on bottom reads “After Feb. 19, 2018.”

Ash from Mount Sinabung on Feb. 19.

Why the rule of law is essential to justice, peace, and economic and social progress

Tue, 2018-02-20 14:40

The principles of impartiality and equality before the law remain a powerful bulwark against tyranny.

Injustice drives conflict; justice on the other hand demands an end to impunity for abusers of rights on the field of battle, in political systems, workplaces and domestic homes.

From the Magna Carta to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, legal texts offer a protection of human rights and freedoms, which is why they are themselves frequently the targets of dictators and tyrants.

But failure to deliver equal access to justice is also a rebuke to democratic leaders, who have not given sufficient attention, priority or investment to the issue.

Securing justice and the freedoms it underpins must be a collective, inclusive endeavor for governments and all sections of society—especially women, minorities and other marginalized groups.

All citizens must have access to its instruments and institutions; allowing access to justice to remain the preserve of a privileged elite will continue to erode rights, debase shared values and weaken freedoms.

Ten years ago, the 2008 report of the Commission for Legal Empowerment of the Poor identified 4 billion people as lacking access to justice. Progress has been disappointingly marginal since then.

If people cannot defend their rights, property or livelihoods against unscrupulous individuals and institutions, they risk losing trust in the whole system of governance and falling prey to the siren songs of populist demagoguery.

We are writing as members of The Elders, the group of independent former leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to work for peace and human rights.

To celebrate our tenth anniversary, we launched last year a campaign called “Walk Together” to support brave activists working for justice, equality, peace and health, who are carrying Mandela’s legacy to future generations.

This is why we are delighted to support the Grassroots Justice Prize organized by Namati and the Global Legal Empowerment Network. Hundreds of activists are gathering this week in Buenos Aires for the award ceremony at which the winners of the Prize will be honored.

People in Latin America know through bitter experience that when democratic rules are ignored, judicial independence is crushed and the rule of law is accessible only to those who can afford it, the people who suffer most are those who can least afford to lose.

According to most recent UN Human Development report from 2013-14, one in every three Latin Americans reported being a victim of violent crime, and five out of ten perceive that security in their country has deteriorated. The inability or unwillingness of authorities to protect citizens against violent crime and uphold the rule of law is a grave injustice in itself.

On the positive side, the World Justice Project’s 2016 Rule of Law Index showed that Argentina has made encouraging progress in regards to constraints on government powers. As chair of the G20 group of leading industrial powers, Argentina now has an opportunity to drive the wider justice agenda in and implement the recommendations of the 2008 Commission.

Under the Sustainable Development Goals, all governments are committed to delivering equal access to justice for all by 2030. Goal 16 offers a blueprint for peaceful, just and inclusive societies but this can only be achieved by visible political will, action and commitment to financing.

In far too many countries, from The Philippines and Cambodia to Russia and Turkey and beyond, civic space is shrinking, justice is one-sided and peace is dangerously fragile.

Two thirds of grassroots justice defenders responding to a 2017 Global Legal Empowerment Network survey said they found it difficult to carry out their work in communities. Over half said the political environment in their country had worsened over the previous year.

Such a situation is unacceptable and unsustainable if the world is serious about meeting the SDGs and securing a peaceful, stable and prosperous planet for future generations.

The establishment of robust, accessible judicial institutions can spell the difference between vulnerability and security, desperation and dignity, oppression and empowerment for hundreds of millions of people.

In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the first Chair of The Elders: Strengthening the rule of law is an essential ingredient to enhance justice, peace, and economic and social progress.”

For this to happen, leaders must show the necessary political will—and ordinary citizens must join together to hold them to account.

We have seen inspirational examples in the past year, from India’s “barefoot lawyers” taking on industrial conglomerates over environmental pollution, to activists and judges in the United States who challenged president Trump’s executive order banning migration from Muslim countries.

This spirit must be maintained in the year ahead at every level of public life. The legacy of great global icons for peace and justice, including Nelson Mandela and other ethical leaders like Mahatma Ghandi, who began life as community lawyers, shows that justice can and must prevail.

As we walk together for justice for all, let us all be inspired by the enduring words of Madiba: “Those who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty.”

Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

African countries won’t need to worry about China’s demand for donkey hides, for now

Tue, 2018-02-20 14:29

China has a plan to address the ban on exports of donkey slaughter imposed by many African countries it was used to trading with: to boost the breeding of donkeys domestically.

Donkey hide has a high demand in China for its use in traditional Chinese medicine—ejiao—and, until recently, African countries with their rising donkey population had an answer to this demand. Ejiao is made using gelatin from donkey hides, and works as an anti-aging drug, an aphrodisiac, and a cure for insomnia—luxuries that a growing middle-class in China are beginning to be able to afford, thus increasing their demand.

Given the recent demand for donkey hides, China’s own donkey population has significantly dropped in recent years—going from 11 million donkeys just two decades ago to six million in 2014. This created an opportunity for markets in Africa to open up to the demand, in turn leading a crisis that was recently termed the “biggest crisis donkeys have ever faced.”

However, the demand from—and subsequent trade with—China soon led to thefts and smuggling of donkeys, leading Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal to place a ban on donkey slaughter.

One exception was Kenya, who on the contrary opened three donkey export slaughterhouses in the last two years to tend to these demands. In light of these developments, donkey prices went up to $130 from $40 in the country, in turn putting a significant dent on rural economies where donkeys play a key role in livelihoods. Given this demand, traders in Kenya have also been smuggling donkeys from neighboring countries, such as Tanzania, thus rendering the slaughter ban in that country ineffective.

But that may be changing soon, according to Dong’e E’jiao, China’s largest manufacturer of donkey hide, that recently said they are working to domestically breed their donkeys. Their aim is to meet the demands by 2020, Dong’e E’jiao’s vice president Liu Guangyuan told Financial Times.

Meanwhile, another official at the company said even though the imports are moving away from Africa, they are beginning to explore options in Latin America, where Mexico and Peru hold potential for these products.

Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.

Iberian ham is the tastiest indicator of Spain’s improving economy

Tue, 2018-02-20 13:50

Since hitting a low point in 2013, Spain’s economy has fully reversed its fortunes, sending Iberian pork prices soaring.

“Black Panther” pulled in $192 million in North America this weekend

Tue, 2018-02-20 13:39

Black Panther had the fifth-highest opening ever for a US film, with black audiences in particular leading the charge for Marvel’s Afrofuturist superhero spectacular.

Melinda and Bill Gates reveal the common-sense secret to successful relationships

Tue, 2018-02-20 12:42

Every year, Bill and Melinda Gates publish a letter about their philanthropic work and life lessons. This year, they began by identifying as resolute optimists, even in the face of endless headlines about political divisions, violence, natural disasters, and sexual harassment. “[B]eing an optimist isn’t about knowing that life used to be worse. It’s about knowing how life can get better,” they wrote. “And that’s what really fuels our optimism.”

Having a collective net worth of over $90 billion surely helps fuel their confidence. From investing $15.3 billion in vaccines to saving millions of lives in developing countries and taking steps to reshape higher education in the US, the Gates have a lot to be optimistic about.

However, none of their work (nor the Gates Foundation itself) would exist without their successful partnership.

While many view Bill as the face of the Gates’ philanthropy, this year’s annual Gates letter emphasizes Melinda’s role as a leader of equal stature in their relationship and their work. The body of the letter is devoted to answering “the 10 toughest questions” the couple gets, from why they don’t give more in the United States to whether they feel they’re imposing their own values on other cultures. But for anyone involved in a partnership at work or at home, the most relatable of the set is question nine, which asks: “What happens when the two of you disagree?”

Melinda answers first, identifying the gender and power dynamics inherent within this inquiry. “Bill almost never gets this question,” she says. “I get it all the time. Sometimes, it’s from journalists hinting that Bill must be the one making the decisions. Other times, it’s from women philanthropists asking advice about how to work more effectively with their husbands.”

It’s a form of conditioning that has us believe that women are the caregivers—responsible for conflict resolution and peace-maintenance—while men handle important decisions and vision-setting. This bias, probably familiar to any female leader, exerts a particularly fraught influence in the nonprofit sector, where women comprise two-thirds of the workforce but hold less than half of the executive positions.

To overcome such imbalances, which are only amplified by Bill’s global fame as founder of Microsoft, he and Melinda ground their personal and professional relationship in two unsexy, yet deeply practical tenants. Melinda writes:

“First, we agree on basic values. For our wedding, Bill’s parents gave us a sculpture of two birds side by side, staring at the horizon, and it’s still in front of our house. I think of it all the time, because fundamentally we’re looking in the same direction.

Second, Bill is very open-minded, which isn’t necessarily how people perceive him. I love Bill because he has a kind heart, listens to other people, and lets himself be moved by what they say. When I tell a story about what I’ve seen, he feels it. He might ask me to gather some data for good measure, but he doesn’t doubt the reality of my experiences or the soundness of my judgment.”

Exalted by countless management experts in different language—be it the importance of “strong opinions, weakly held,” advanced in the 1980s by Stanford technology forecaster Paul Saffo, now beloved by entrepreneurs like Marc Andreessen, or the importance of being simultaneously “assertive and open-minded,” promoted by hedge fund guru Ray Dalio—Bill Gates’ ability to listen to Melinda’s ideas, question his own assumptions, and act on rather than doubt her judgment cannot be overstated.

As Saffo has noted, excessive malleability will handicap any leader, but so will excessive rigidity. “Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect—this is the ‘strong opinion’ part,” he wrote. “Then—and this is the ‘weakly held’ part—prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.”

Melinda says that when Bill first came to the Gates Foundation from Microsoft, he was used to being in charge. “I’d stayed home with our kids, so I was restarting my career,” she wrote. “There were times I felt that disparity—in meetings when I was reticent and he was voluble, or when the person we were meeting with looked toward Bill and not me. It’s always been important to us that we are equal partners in our foundation’s work. We’ve learned over time to give each other feedback at home about times in the office when we didn’t meet that goal. And we’re better for it.”

Responding to his business partner and wife, Bill agrees that honest feedback is at the heart of their shared success:

“As she says, our common values serve us well. We agree on the big issues. Our occasional disagreements these days are over tactics. Because I’ve been a public figure longer, and because I’m a man, some people assume I am making the big decisions. That’s never been the case.

“Some people see Melinda as the heart of our foundation, the emotional core. But just as she knows I’m more emotional than people realize, I know she’s more analytical than people realize. When I get really enthusiastic about something, I count on her to make sure I’m being realistic. I also love watching her bring together just the right mix of people to solve a problem. She helps me understand when I can push our teams harder (as I pretty much always did at Microsoft) and when I need to ease off.

“We are partners in both senses that people use the word these days: at home and at work.”

You can read the full Gates annual letter here.

Now that most artifacts are digital, software experts need to play archeologist

Tue, 2018-02-20 12:26

We remember our history through objects.

We see the Gutenberg Bible and recall the revolution of the printing press, we see the hand-scrawled lyrics of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and appreciate the Beatles sensation. But more and more our cultural artifacts are now digital, and they are built on top of obsolete software, websites, and operating systems. A notable author’s drafts may be written in an early word-processing program, an iconic building design is created in an architectural software program. Thus researchers are seeking new ways to preserve history by preserving old digital objects.

Yale University Library announced a $1 million project Feb. 13 to resurrect over 3,000 obsolete software applications used in the sciences, design, engineering, and music composition, among other fields. Funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon and the Alfred P. Sloan foundations, Yale seeks to make opening an old word-processing file as easy as opening a book.

“Software powers business, it powers government, it powers culture. It powers pretty much anything that you can think of, and it’s been doing that for a long time,” Seth Anderson, the project manager, told Quartz. Prior to this project, “we haven’t had effective strategies for making [obsolete] software accessible.”

To open an obsolete software file, you need to open the software program in its compatible operating system. Just as you can’t run Microsoft Office for Windows on a Mac, neither can you run Word for Windows 98 on a Windows 10 machine. You would need emulation software to mimic the Windows 98 operating system on Windows 10—think Parallels for Mac, which lets you run Windows on a Mac.

Based on this idea, Yale’s digital preservationists are building a shareable “emulation as a service” infrastructure that will make it easy for anyone to remotely access the resources in the library’s digital archive. Instead of needing to set up an emulator on a specific computer, “a few clicks in your web browser will allow users to open files containing data that would otherwise be lost or corrupted,” said Euan Cochrane, the library’s digital preservation manager and the project’s principle investigator.

The project is scheduled for completion in June of 2020. For its initial phase, the service will be restricted to university members seeking resources for their coursework and research projects. As the project matures, the researchers hope that their preservation techniques will be replicated by other institutions to make digital information more accessible to the public.

“Black Panther” is proof Marvel is much more than the Avengers

Tue, 2018-02-20 11:47

The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have a new leader. His name is King T’Challa.

The superhero, better known as the Black Panther, made the largest solo debut in Marvel Studios history this weekend, when his self-titled film was released in the US and Canada. The film brought in about $202 million at the domestic box office during the three days ended Feb. 18. It was Marvel’s second biggest opening weekend, behind its flagship crossover franchise Marvel’s The Avengers, and the fifth largest domestic debut ever behind Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It also topped Iron Man’s 2008 debut, unadjusted for inflation, which kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Black Panther has been widely praised for its representation of black characters and talent on and off-camera, complex heroes and villains, and the elevation of the Marvel mythos. Black Panther was more than a cinematic milestone for the studio. It showed Marvel could survive, and even thrive, without its Avengers.

The superhero team helmed by Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and the Hulk has led much of the Marvel movie-verse, but that will change next year when the Avengers saga concludes. Studio boss Kevin Feige has said that the untitled fourth Avengers film will spell the end of the current Marvel Universe. Contracts of actors Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Scarlett Johansson are set to expire after the film, and are not expected to renew.

A newer crop of heroes, including Black Panther and Ms. Marvel, will sit at the forefront of Disney’s billion-dollar-a-year movie world when it enters what it calls its fourth phase. (The Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange, are also expected to hang around.) The enthusiasm for those characters has been palpable, but it was unclear whether they could match the commercial success of The Avengers and its related franchises.

Marvel used Black Panther, and its post-credit scenes [MINOR SPOILERS], to set up where the Marvel Universe may be headed. A diplomatic T’Challa presented his vision to the United Nations for the country of Wakanda’s relationship with the broader world, in a mid-credits scene that positioned him as a leader every bit as capable as Iron Man Tony Stark.

Another scene after the credits suggested that Bucky Barnes, also known as the Winter Soldier, is poised to play a bigger role in the future of the Marvel Universe. He’s been hanging out in Wakanda with Shuri, the tech guru and sister of T’Challa, the scene revealed, and picked up the alter ego the White Wolf.

Read next: Marvel may soon lose its Avengers

Read next: Marvel’s movie footprint is comically massive

Chinese prisoners allegedly made products for H&M and C&A

Tue, 2018-02-20 11:43

Peter Humphrey, the British private investigator whose arrest and nearly two-year-long detention by Chinese authorities made international news, has written an account of his ordeal in the Financial Times (paywall). His revelations about life in Qingpu Prison, on the outskirts of Shanghai, over several months in 2014 and 2015 focus mostly on the grim, dehumanizing conditions he endured. But he also shares a detail that should alarm some international companies manufacturing in China.

The prison, he says, “was a business, doing manufacturing jobs for companies.” Among the brands whose names he recognized on products were the European clothing giants H&M and C&A, and the US consumer-products maker 3M. Humphrey writes in FT:

Mornings, afternoons and often during the after-lunch nap, prisoners “laboured” in the common room. Our men made packaging parts. I recognised well-known brands — 3M, C&A, H&M. So much for corporate social responsibility, though the companies may well have been unaware that prison labour was part of their supply chain. Prisoners from Chinese cell blocks worked in our factory making textiles and components. They marched there like soldiers before our breakfast and returned late in the evening. The foreigners who laboured in my cell block were Africans and Asians with no money from family, and no other way to buy toiletries and snacks. It was piece work; a hundred of this, a thousand of that. Full-time, they earned about Yn120 (£13.50) a month.

Prison labor in itself doesn’t violate the conventions of the International Labour Organization. As Humphrey indicates, the foreign prisoners were paid and didn’t appear to be forced to work. Whether the Chinese prisoners were paid for their labor is unclear, as is which products for each brand the prisoners were producing. We have reached out to Humphrey for more information through his investigative firm, ChinaWhys, and will update this post with any reply.

Even so, many international brands do not allow prison labor in their supply chains. It can veer dangerously close to forced labor—which is why the ILO keeps clear guidelines on when the practice is acceptable. But it can be near impossible to make sure these rules are followed, which is why the Ethical Trading Initiative says companies would be “foolish” to believe that prison labor complies with ILO standards.

Many companies don’t allow it in their supply chains at all. H&M requires its supplier factories to sign a commitment that explicitly says “forced labour, bonded, prison or illegal labour is not accepted.” Asked about Humphrey’s allegations, a spokesperson for H&M said, “To our knowledge, there have been no violations. But needless to say, we take the information published by the Financial Times very seriously.” The spokesperson acknowledged that there have been rumors of prison labor in China in the past, and the company has reminded its Chinese suppliers that its stipulations on prison labor are non-negotiable. Failure to comply “would lead to a permanent termination of our business contract,” the spokesperson said.

C&A’s supplier code of conduct (pdf) prohibits prison labor in the section on forced labor, and elsewhere says plainly, “C&A does not permit the use of prison and/or detained labour in any form.” A spokesperson for C&A responded to questions about Humprey’s account, saying, “We audit all 273 of our suppliers’ factories in China on at least annually basis, and have not observed or been made aware of the use of prison labor in our Chinese supply chain.” C&A has auditors and quality-assurance teams with measures in place to catch any unauthorized subcontracting, the spokesperson added. Suppliers that violate their agreement with C&A are “terminated with a long term remediation plan.”

The supplier responsibility code for 3M (pdf) only prohibits “involuntary prison labor.” It is not clear whether 3M would approve of the conditions Humphrey describes at Qingpu. Update: In a statement emailed to Quartz, a spokesperson for 3M said the company “does not engage or participate in exploitative working conditions, and we are not aware of any 3M suppliers in China using prison labor. We take our commitment seriously and are investigating Mr. Humphrey’s report.”

Even if prisoners were laboring to make or package products for these companies, the companies themselves may not have been aware, as Humphrey points out. Often brands will contract work to one factory, and that factory will subcontract the work to another factory. Bangladesh’s garment industry is notorious for the practice, but it has been known to happen in various countries, including China. Some Chinese textile firms have been reported to subcontract work across the border to North Korea, then apply “Made in China” tags to the items. In other cases, factories will subcontract work to prisons for their cheap labor.

Humphrey wound up in Qingpu Prison after he and his wife Yu Yingzeng, a Chinese-born American, were arrested in 2013, while working for pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. Glaxo hired them to look into allegations that its China operation was bribing doctors. The Chinese government started its own investigation into Glaxo’s China division, and detained Humphrey and Yingzeng, holding them without trial for 13 months. Both were ultimately convicted in Chinese court of “illegally acquiring citizens’ information”—accusations Humphrey vehemently denies—and sent to prison. Humphrey’s term was 30 months, and Yingzeng’s was 24 months.

They were released in June 2015 (paywall), with seven months left in Humphrey’s sentence, after his health deteriorated enough that he had to go to a hospital.

This story has been updated with comment from 3M.

“No words will do justice to the children killed”: The United Nations is officially speechless over hospital bombings in Syria

Tue, 2018-02-20 11:29

A deadly attack on the Syrian population began last night. Government-allied forces bombing a rebel-held suburb of Damascus killed at least 100 people, including civilians and children. Hospitals appeared to be the main target of the airstrikes, with five hospitals reportedly hit today, Feb. 20.

The United Nations has run out of words to describe the tragedy—officially.

This morning, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) addressed the attack in Ghouta. Its regional office issued a powerful blank statement—a desperate attempt to draw attention to the casualties of a war that the world appears to have given up on solving.

#RunningOutOfWords

Statement from @gcappelaere on the war on children in #Syria

Reports of mass casualties among children in Eastern #Ghouta and Damascus#ChildrenUnderAttack pic.twitter.com/X2FYJ4OPnf

— UNICEF MENA (@UNICEFmena) February 20, 2018

"ليس هنالك كلمات بإمكانها أن تنصف الأطفال القتلى وأمهاتَهم وآباءَهم وأحباءَهم”
"
"
"
"
"
"
"
"
"
"
."

تصدر اليونيسف هذا التصريح لأننا لم نعد نملك الكلمات لوصف معاناة الأطفال وحدة غضبنا.#اطفال_تحت_القصف#سوريا#خلص_الحكي

— UNICEF MENA (@UNICEFmena) February 20, 2018

The statement, released by director Geert Cappelaere, was followed by an explanatory note:

“UNICEF is issuing this blank statement. We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage. Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?”

Syria once had a population of 18 million. Since the beginning of the war, nearly half a million people have died in Syria, and 11 million have been displaced. Over six million of them are seeking asylum outside their country.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least one million Syrians are currently living under siege from their own government or government-allied forces, and are in need of humanitarian help.

The blank statement condemns the international community’s failure to protect Syrian civilians. But it also stands as powerful evidence of the United Nations’ own impotence in the face of just the kind of humanitarian disaster it was created to solve.

Will anyone buy Venezuela’s petro cryptocurrency?

Tue, 2018-02-20 11:26

There’s a lot of debate about whether governments will eventually adopt the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. Venezuela—reeling from US and European sanctions, collapsing oil exports, and hyperinflation that could climb to 13,000%—may be the first to actually try it.

The South American country is due to launch a first phase of its state-created cryptocurrency today (Feb. 20), and President Nicolas Maduro’s government has said the “petro” will help Venezuela raise cash despite sanctions. Venzuelan officials say they expect support from investors in the likes of Qatar and even the US. Yet there’s plenty of reason for skepticism about its prospects.

The petro will backed by the country’s oil reserves—the world’s largest—and will be accepted as payment for things like national taxes and public services. All people need to do, according to the government website, is download their digital wallet. The so-called pre-sale that begins today will consist of tokens on the ethereum blockchain that can be redeemed for petros, according to a white paper (pdf) about the offering.

How Venezuela can profit

If successful, the transaction could hypothetically raise $2 billion or more, according to some estimates. About 38% of the transaction will be sold in the discounted pre-sale, while 44% goes to the public offering, with the rest (18%) distributed to the government’s Superintendency of Currency and Related Activities. The government will issue a total of 82.4 million petros (each of which is divisible by 100 million units, known as a mene). According to reports, petros won’t actually be redeemable for a barrel of crude (there’s no mention of a mechanism to do so in the financial documents provided).

The petro will reportedly be sold in hard currency and other cryptos, not domestic bolivars, and Venezuela says it will enable so-called atomic swaps with other cryptos, which doesn’t require a third-party exchange. Most of the money from the initial offering funds will go to a sovereign wealth fund, while 30% is earmarked for “ecosystem development” and “technological development.”

Use of proceeds.

 

Other governments are also investigating the cryptographically secured architecture behind digital coins like bitcoin. The Bank of England is researching such a possibility, as is Sweden’s central bank. That could be useful as more and more people conduct transactions digitally. Right now when you pay with a card or through your phone, the money generally has to pass from one bank or financial services firm to another. A sovereign currency issued on a blockchain-style ledger could be a digital form of cash—potentially transferred directly between users.

A way around the US dollar

Venezuela and Russia—which is considering a crypto form of the ruble, according to the Financial Times—want to use the technology for their own ends. These countries have been battered by US-led sanctions which can cut them off from the American banking system, making it hard to obtain the dollars necessary for many types of commerce. The dollar enables American governments to exert enormous force and influence without having to fire a missile or write a line of malicious computer code, and getting out from under the dollar has long been a dream for these countries.

If Venezuela and Russia could establish a new payments system using crypto, the US would have less control over them and their economies, Hans Humes, CEO of Greylock Capital Management, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. Even though Venezuela is economically feeble, these ambitions are something Washington must pay attention to, he said.

Venezuela, after all, is behind on payments on billions of dollars worth of bonds that it can’t refinance because of US sanctions. However, it’s not clear that a blockchain would make Venezuela’s government more reputable. While the petro is “backed” by oil, substantial stakes in the nation’s prized oil projects are already owned by the likes of Russia. And it doesn’t help that Venezuela’s congress has said the petro tokens are illegal because the legislature didn’t approve the transaction, according to the Guardian.

Hyperinflation, a sign of the government’s lack of ability to manage its own economy, has made its existing currency just about worthless. Granted, people are pouring money into cryptocurrencies that were explicitly designed as a joke, suggesting that Venezuela could somehow benefit from the mania. But given its history and the risk of running afoul of US watchdogs, the new currency still seems a lot like the old one—even if it’s been sprinkled with cryptocurrency dust.

American school shootings are so common teens are inventing tools to stay safe

Tue, 2018-02-20 11:21

With their elected officials locked in a stalemate over enacting stricter gun control, American students are turning to their own handmade tools to try and protect themselves in the event of a school shooting.

Justin Rivard is a senior at Somerset High School in Wisconsin. He has used his shop-class skills to create a long, metal contraption—called “The JustinKase“—that can be adjusted at the base of a doorway to create a stronger mechanism than a simple bolted lock. The device is so effective that his school principal purchased 50 of them for every classroom in the high school at $95 each. The school district went on to purchase many more for its middle and elementary schools. A neighboring district has placed an order for 94, according to media reports.

It’s an act of ingenuity set against a backdrop of gruesome US school shootings. A conservative calculation by The Washington Post (paywall) found that more than 150,000 students in at least 170 schools in America have experienced a campus shooting since the Columbine High School attack in 1999. While politicians squabble—seemingly endlessly—over stricter gun control measures, some students are focusing on finding quick and easy ways to secure and strengthen locked school doors.

It can mean the difference between life and death. Experts say shooters may not force their way past locked doors, seeking easier targets.

At Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, DC, students created a similar device. Sold for $15, the metal DeadStop can be clasped around the hydraulic arms at the tops of many classroom doors. The students were awarded a $10,000 grant by the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize program to develop the invention further. They also got pro-bono representation from a law firm to file for a patent.

A similar invention was created by a handful of middle-school teachers in Muscatine, Iowa. Following the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the teachers designed and created a 12-gauge carbon-steel case called “The Sleeve” that is also attached to a door’s hydraulic arm.

Each of those devices are designed to be heavy-duty door locks—but students are also being armed with rudimentary tools. Shocked by the most recent massacre, at Parkland’s Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School in South Florida, a Connecticut woman posted on Facebook about giving her nieces rubber door stoppers to keep in their backpacks in case of a shooting.

“If a gunman shoots out the door lock it will still keep the door from opening and may just buy you some time,” she wrote in her Facebook post, which has gotten more than 1.3 million shares.

Read next: Stoneman Douglas survivors are emerging as the sanest voices on gun control

South African censors have classified a poignant gay love story as harshly as hardcore pornography

Tue, 2018-02-20 11:05

South African regulators have classified a touching gay love story as R-rated, “effectively labeling the film as pornography and pulling it out of cinemas,” the film’s producers said.

Released Feb. 2 in South Africa, Inxeba attracted so much protest in some areas that cinemas pulled the film, fearing for the safety of their staff. Yet the film garnered praise on social media and received positive reviews, with some critics urging audiences to see it because of the public outcry.

Protestors contend the film mocks the isiXhosa custom of ulwaluko, the initiation that boys must undergo before becoming men. The secretive practice sees hundreds of young men sent “to the mountain” or “to the bush,” a term meant to describe the isolation of the process during which they also are circumcised.

Shot in isiXhosa on location in the rural Eastern Cape, the film follows Kwanda, an openly gay young man who is sent to from the city to rural South Africa to attend traditional initiation school for Xhosa boys. In his ritual isolation from society, he is cared for by Xolani, a lonely factory worker who has not yet come out as gay. Kwanda’s questioning of traditional ideals of manhood upend the tradition he is participating in and threaten to expose Xolani’s secret.

The film’s scenes of the secretive initiation and its conversations around masculinity seem to have irked the more conservative sectors of South African society. Those opposed to the film object to what they say is cultural appropriation, while those supporting the film extol its expression of gay rights. The tenor of the debate illustrates the divide between South Africa’s liberal constitution and its sometimes conservative society.

The Film and Publications Board reclassified the film from 16LS to X18. Its decision for the stricter classification came after complaints from a branch of the Congress of Traditional Leaders and the Men and Boy Foundation (which seems to have no online presence or contact information).

URGENT ANNOUNCEMENT:
The Film and Publication Board (FPB) Appeal Tribunal has overturned the classification rating of 16 LS given to the film Inxeba – The Wound and gave it a rating of X18 with the classifiable elements of Sex, Language, Nudity, Violence and Prejudice.

— FPB (@FPB_ZA) February 14, 2018

The classification means the film cannot be shown in commercial cinemas and “can only be distributed at designated adult premises”—the kind of conditions that hardcore pornography is distributed under in South Africa. The exact reasons for the reclassification are not clear, but the board is legally mandated to clarify its deicision, the producers said in a statement sent to Quartz on Feb. 20. They plan to challenge the board’s decision.

“We are taking the matter very seriously and will not let it rest,” said Helen Kuun, head of Indigenous Film Distribution.

The film’s star, Nakhane Touré, received death threats long before the film’s release and has avoided interviews. A musician, novelist and actor who also happens to be a Xhosa man, Touré broke his silence on social media over the banning.

I said I’d sit until tomorrow to share my feelings about the Inxeba X18 rating, but Fuck that. I’m raw now

A post shared by NAKHANE. (@nakhaneofficial) on Feb 14, 2018 at 10:22am PST

Several human rights and free speech organizations lent their voices to the outcry over the classification, while some South Africans began online petitions to challenge the classification.

The film’s co-writer, Thando Mgqolozana has called the ruling “anti-creation and draconian.” Mgqolozana’s debut novel, A Man Who is Not A Man, also delved into the contradictions of this secretive cultural practice. The danger of maiming and death of initiates during circumcision or while they are exposed to the elements in isolation is a constant news item in South Africa. Mgqolozana worked with director John Trengrove to create a short film based on his semi-autobiographical novel, before they worked together on Inxeba.

Those who oppose the film argue that it disrespects cultural norms by exposing some elements of the secretive ritual. Others argue that a white director and white producers had no right to tell this story, despite starring Xhosa men and being co-written by a Xhosa author.

“This movie Inxeba is an appropriation and complete distortion of black people’s cultural tradition of ulwaluko,” wrote the founders of the Facebook page ‘Inxeba The Wound Must Fall.’

“Some people who are not Xhosa men might say there is nothing wrong with the movie but as we Xhosa men we can see that they are mocking our tradition which was supposed to be kept as a secret,” said Shaun Mgecwa, who started the Facebook campaign to ban the film. Mgecwa told Quartz that the violence and strong language in the film casts a negative shadow on a process that is mean to teach men how to be the head of a household and how to behave respectfully in society.

Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.

Angela Merkel’s fourth term hangs in the balance as the Social Democrats vote

Tue, 2018-02-20 10:50

It’s been five long months since Germany’s 2017 general election flung the country into a state of political limbo and forced chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU) into trying to form the first ever “Jamaica” coalition between the CDU, the Free Democrats, and the Left party.

That attempt failed and left Merkel trying to cut a coalition deal with her former junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), for another “grand coalition,” or “GroKo” as it’s called in Germany.

But the Feb. 7 coalition agreement wasn’t the final hurdle for Merkel. That started today, when some 460,000 SPD members were asked to vote “yes” or “no” to entering into another loveless marriage with their old partners.

The SPD vote could be make-or-break for Merkel. A “no” would likely lead to a snap election, and the chancellor’s 12-year reign could come to an end. Merkel has said she doesn’t want to head a minority government (the only other option she has), and there’s no guarantee that the CDU would beat its September result in a fresh ballot.

While the SPD negotiated some big wins in the coalition agreement, including grabbing the powerful finance ministry, the party is in total turmoil. Its leader Martin Schulz, who vied with Merkel in the election, stepped down after less than a year, and a recent INSA poll showed support for the SPD had dipped to around 15%. That makes the right-wing Alternative for Germany the second most-popular party in Germany. The threat of an even worse showing than the 20% it got in September may convince members that governing again with the CDU is the best option.

But the outcome of the postal ballot is by no means a given. The SPD’s youth wing has been energetically campaigning against the coalition, arguing that another power-sharing deal with the Christian Democrats will be a death knell for the party. The results are due on March 4.

Humans seem relatively chill with the potential of an alien visit, according to new research

Tue, 2018-02-20 10:35

Alien life has been depicted in films and television shows in all manner of ways. In some cases, fictional humans reacted with violence: There was all-out chaos in Independence Day; there were baseball-bat attacks in Signs; and Sigourney Weaver barely survived in Alien. In others, on-screen people felt ok with visitors from deep space: ET was cute; Alf was odd; and Fox Mulder and Dana Scully kept an open mind.

If humans actually did come into contact with alien life, would we take it well?

That’s what Arizona State University psychologist Michael Varnum set out to determine in an empirical research project presented Feb. 16 at a American Association for the Advancement of Science
annual meeting. Varnum found that we’d meet visitors from the cosmos with relative optimism. “If we came face to face with life outside of Earth, we would actually be pretty upbeat about it,” Varnum said in a statement. In other words, we wouldn’t panic.

He deduced as much by looking at both past media coverage of the possibility of alien life, and contemporary responses to the hypothetical of extraterrestrials landing on Earth. Varnum started off by using a computer program to analyze language that appeared in newspaper articles about five different scientific discovery events, dating back to the 1960s, each in some way connected to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The program categorized and calculated the percentages of words in the text of articles that reflect emotions, feelings, drives, and other psychological factors. The source material included, among others, the 1996 discovery of possibly fossilized Martian microbes, the 2015 discovery of periodic dimming around a faraway star—some fantasized it to be an alien megastructure, though it’s just dust—and the 2017 discovery of exoplanets that closely resemble Earth and, therefore, could host life as we know it.

In all cases, the reactions captured in the articles were overwhelmingly positive, the study shows.

Next, Varnum asked about 500 people to write about their own reactions—and their perceptions of what society’s reaction might be at large—to the prospect of microbial life being discovered elsewhere. The responses were mostly positive, the study shows. Varnum also asked a different set of people to read two New York Times articles: one about extraterrestrial microbial life being discovered and another about a synthetic human life being created in a laboratory. Again, the responses were overwhelmingly positive.

Perhaps surprisingly, the people seemed to have a more positive feeling about the possibility of alien life than about synthetic human life. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that we’re far closer to building machines with brains than we are to finding intelligent life that doesn’t live on the surface of the Earth.

Read next: AIs have replaced aliens as our greatest world-destroying fear

Eight of the ten worst places for newborn deaths are in Africa

Tue, 2018-02-20 10:31

The healthcare problems in many African countries are well-known but one group that seems to be particularly at risk of those failings are newborns.

A new UNICEF report on newborn mortality shows that global deaths of newborns remains “alarmingly high.” The report categorizes newborns are children aged less than one month. The “vast majority” of the deaths are preventable, UNICEF says, with more than 80% of the deaths being due to premature birth, labour and delivery complications as well as infections.

While there has been progress with reducing deaths among children aged between one month and five years, when it comes to newborns, progress has been slower. Around 2.6 million newborns die globally every day, the report states.

For newborns, the risk of death depends strongly on where they are born. In the world’s safest countries for newborns, the average death per thousand births in the first 28 days is one but in the riskiest countries, the mortality rate is much higher. Pakistan, the worst ranked nation, records around 46 newborn deaths per 1,000 births—almost one in 20. Of the ten worst ranked countries, however, eight are in Africa. For instance, in Somalia, home to one of the world’s highest newborn mortality rates, there is only one doctor, nurse or midwife for every 10,000 people, according to 2014 data.

There’s also a strong correlation between a newborn survivals and the national income levels as high income nations have an average death per thousand live births rate of 3.3 while, for low income nations, that number is 27. Bridging that gap promises great reward as UNICEF says if every country works to cut its newborn mortality rate to below or around the average recorded in high-income countries by 2030, 16 million newborn lives could be saved.

But while high levels of income typically mean more people can afford better healthcare, it is not a magic pill solution. UNICEF notes that even when financial and health resources are limited, strong political will can ensure that limited resources are maximized. One such example where that is evident is Rwanda where the newborn mortality care has been reduced by more than half between 1990 and 2016 despite being a low-income nation. Broadly, the report recommends increasing access to and quality of healthcare as solutions to stop newborn deaths.

UNICEF also notes countries with large populations and higher number of births might record more deaths while having a lower mortality rate than the worst ranked countries. Nigeria, DR Congo and Ethiopia, with a joint population of over 350 million people, are among the five countries with the highest number of newborn deaths in 2016.

Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.

The humble office-supply item that can explain humanity’s imminent doom

Tue, 2018-02-20 10:18

In 2018, the word “algorithm” has become an evil agent.

Facebook’s algorithm sells our fear and outrage for profit. YouTube’s algorithm favors conspiratorial and divisive content. We’ve anthropomorphized the word so much that Gen Z children might start checking for algorithms under their beds.

But when you strip away all the boogeyman connotations, an algorithm is simply a set of rules. The technology alone isn’t to blame for its misdoings, but that doesn’t mean an algorithm won’t be to blame for the destruction of humankind—especially if left unchecked.

To explain this, there’s a common thought experiment in the world of artificial intelligence called the Paper Clip Maximizer. It goes like this. Imagine a group of programmers build an algorithm with the seemingly innocuous goal of gathering as many paper clips as possible. This machine-learning algorithm is intelligent, meaning it learns from the past and continually gets better at its task—which, in this case, is accumulating paper clips.

At first, the algorithm gathers all the boxes of paper clips from office-supply stores. Then it might look for all the lost paper clips in the bottom of desk drawers and between sofa cushions. Running out of easy targets, over time it will learn to build paper clips from fork prongs and electrical wires—and eventually start ripping apart every piece of metal in the world to fashion into inch-long document fasteners.

 As technology progresses at an exponential rate, we must take a step back to ask what we’re optimizing for. The thought experiment is meant to show how an optimization algorithm, even if designed with no malicious intent, could ultimately destroy the world. The technology’s original goal was never to bring about the end of civilization—it was just looking to achieve the objective set by its human parent. However, without proper regulation, the results can be dire. As technology progresses at an exponential rate, we must take a step back to ask what we’re optimizing for.

The analogies to today’s global economy are clear. Environmentalists argue that coal-burning plants have optimization machines aimed at maximizing energy output without taking responsibility for the pollution. Social media critics argue that companies like Facebook have optimization machines aimed at capturing human attention without accountability to the costs. Media pundits argue that certain ad-supported publications have optimization machines aimed at maximizing clicks without regard to journalistic standards.

Algorithmic accountability matters now more than ever because technological progress is increasing at an exponential rate. Google’s supercomputer AlphaGo beat the world’s best Go player a decade before most experts expected. Translation algorithms are approaching human-level accuracy. Self-driving cars are already cruising around our streets. Course correction will become more difficult as algorithms become more ubiquitous.

When it comes to algorithmic accountability, it’s important to set up the necessary checks and balances before it’s too late. As technologies scale, a lack of initial oversight could have disastrous long-term consequences.

“If we don’t get women and people of color at the table—real technologists doing the real work—we will bias systems,” said Melinda Gates at the launch of her nonprofit AI4All last year. “Trying to reverse that a decade or two from now will be so much more difficult, if not close to impossible.”

Though amorphous algorithms often become the scapegoat for technological mishaps, it’s important to remember that algorithms are written by humans. A diversity of input—from both data and personnel—is necessary to illuminate potential blind spots. If we leave ourselves in the dark, algorithmic bias—whether it’s facial recognition software that more easily identifies white men than black women, or an SAT-prep company’s pricing algorithm that charges predominantly Asian zip codes twice as much as non-Asian zip codes—can be pervasive.

Google Photos, y'all fucked up. My friend's not a gorilla. pic.twitter.com/SMkMCsNVX4

— jackyalciné is M'Baku's little brother. (@jackyalcine) June 29, 2015

But the fear of misuse should not trump the potential improvements these technologies can bring. Recent studies proved that algorithmic approaches to criminal sentencing can reduce the incarceration rate without adversely affecting public safety. Though sentencing decisions have traditionally relied on a judge’s intuition or subjective preferences, computers can help make our systems more fair.

The key to these experiments is supervision. The Paper Clip Maximizer shows us that intentions won’t matter unless we’ve set up systems to hold ourselves accountable. But when the proper checks are in place, algorithms are nothing to fear—and neither are office supplies.

Follow Simone on Twitter. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

As young Chinese get hooked on hip-hop, streetwear sees a boom

Tue, 2018-02-20 10:17

Chinese label CLOT’s runway show at New York Fashion Week was neatly embodied in a single soccer jersey. On one side sprawled a dragon, on the other a Nike swoosh.

The show was meant to bridge East and West, and to show off Chinese fashion talent to an American audience. In a collaboration with Nike, Air Force 1 sneakers were redone with ornate silk uppers that took inspiration from traditional Chinese textiles. At the core of the show, meanwhile, were the baggy pants, bomber jackets, and flannels that are staples of streetwear, an amalgam of skate and hip-hop cultures exerting a growing influence around the world.

East meets West.

The Feb. 7 presentation was part of Tmall China Day, a new partnership between China’s biggest e-commerce platform, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and Suntchi, a prominent management firm in China’s fashion and entertainment business. Sports brand Li-Ning showed in the morning, followed by Peacebird, a large Chinese contemporary label, and Chen Peng, a young designer brand.

CLOT was arguably the main event. A number of prominent influencers came out for the show, or walked in it. Had the event happened just a few years ago, though, it’s questionable whether CLOT would have been asked to show at all. Streetwear has been around in China for some time: CLOT’s show—its New York Fashion Week debut—doubled as a celebration of its 15th anniversary. But it hasn’t been a major force in Chinese fashion until much more recently. Young Chinese are quickly discovering it, in large part because of the sudden rise of hip-hop in China—another meeting of East and West.

“I think streetwear is the next thing in China right now,” Edison Chen, the Canada-born Hong Kong entertainment star who cofounded CLOT with his friend Kevin Poon, said backstage after the show. “I think a lot of big companies are attaching themselves to it, whereas before they’d be kind of shunning us. It’s growing exponentially right now.”

Hip-hop in China

Jessica Liu, president of fashion and luxury at Tmall, which is the largest business-to-consumer platform in Asia and is owned by Alibaba, said the platform introduced streetwear brands three years ago, but the real explosion came last year. “In particular because there’s a new popular TV show that’s about hip-hop,” she said. “It’s gaining a lot of traction with young Chinese.”

The show, The Rap of China, is a reality series where four celebrity producers coach fledgling rappers through rounds of competition. It has been a phenomenal success since its June 2017 debut on IQiyi, the video-streaming platform from the Chinese search giant Baidu. In just its first month, the show racked up more than 600 million views, and each episode is widely talked about on social platforms such as Weibo.

For hip-hop in the world’s most populous country, it marks a turning point. The genre has been accumulating fans since the 1990s, but even so it has remained basically an underground art form. The government kept a wary eye on it, concerned it might promote the wrong values for good Communist youth, and has gone so far as to ban songs in the past for “promoting obscenity, violence, crime or threatening public morality.” An assault on hip-hop by Chinese state media started recently after one of The Rap of China‘s winners, PG One, drew official ire over unsubstantiated allegations that he slept with a married celebrity.

The Rap of China has put hip-hop squarely in the spotlight, and brought streetwear along with it. The music has deep ties to streetwear, and had a formational influence on core streetwear brands such as Stussy, A Bathing Ape, and Supreme. On the first episode of the show, Kris Wu, the actor, singer, and Chinese megastar who is one of the show’s celebrity producers, wore a box-logo t-shirt by Supreme.

Plenty of other international brands have featured prominently as well, getting exposure to its massive viewership. One of these is Off-White, the fashion label by American designer Virgil Abloh with pronounced streetwear influences. “Many high-profile contestants chose to wear Off-White’s hoodies, pants and hats while performing,” Jing Daily reported. “Its signature black-and-white striped pattern and textual adornments immediately left an impression on Chinese audiences.”

The streetwear boom

Chen, of CLOT, got caught up in his own controversy in China some years ago, after he dropped off his computer for service and the technician leaked more than a thousand intimate photos of Chen with female celebrities. The scandal was major news across the country. Chen laid low for some time, but has lately been working to push CLOT onto a bigger stage. He and Poon have been doing pop-ups in cities such as Paris and New York, where CLOT will promote its collaboration with Nike.

The CLOT runway at New York fashion week.

CLOT is one of the top streetwear labels on Tmall, Liu says, and the category overall is flourishing. “Their growth rate is like 60% higher than your average category growth,” she says of streetwear on the site. Most are men’s brands, and they include foreign as well as Chinese labels. Some of the top sellers, Liu says, are Aape, the more affordable offshoot of Japan’s A Bathing Ape focused on younger customers; Superdry, a British brand that blends Americana and Japanese elements, often a bit haphazardly; and Trendiano, a homegrown Chinese label. Sneakers and hoodies are popular.

Streetwear didn’t just materialize out of nowhere in China. Yoho!, the Chinese youth culture empire, has been a major force pushing streetwear (paywall) for some time. Its signature trade show, YO’HOOD, has quickly grown into a massive event since its launch a few years ago. Brands such as Sankuanz, a Xiamen-based label that has recently started getting international attention, have been at work for years.

The rise of hip-hop has helped push them into the foreground finally. But there are other factors giving streetwear a boost.

China’s young shoppers

The big force driving streetwear is youth culture. There are more than 400 million millennials in the country, and their tastes aren’t like those of previous generations. They want unique, niche brands that offer them a way to show off their identities, and they are influenced by (paywall) celebrities and what are known as key opinion leaders, or KOLs (basically what the US calls “influencers”).

These young people also have a lot of disposable income. One effect of China’s one-child policy, which lasted from the late 1970s until 2015 (paywall), was to create a lot of households with two parental incomes, and just one child to spend it on. Add in up to four grandparents, and the fact that many young Chinese don’t move out of the house until they’re earning enough and in a serious relationship, and the result is a generation with a lot of access to money.

China’s luxury shoppers tend to be much younger than their Western counterparts as a result. Bain & Company estimates that the average age of Chinese luxury shoppers is about 35, a decade younger than the average in Europe. Others say the gap is even wider and still growing, which fits with what Liu says she sees on Tmall. “In China, especially on our platform, the age range is 25,” she explains.

Streetwear’s ties to youth culture make it an obvious draw for these shoppers, and that holds true beyond Tmall, too. Bain & Company has also found that China’s millennial luxury shoppers—like those in the West—are less interested in traditional status symbols such as Prada handbags, and more in sneakers, t-shirts, and other streetwear staples. In fact, one of the reasons floated to explain why the famously insular label Supreme accepted outside investment is to allow it to expand into China (paywall), where an eager audience awaits.

All the ingredients are there for streetwear to continue growing in China. At CLOT’s show, Chen expressed his gratitude for the support he’s gotten from brands such as Nike and Converse. “With these collaborations, more and more people know our brand. Now with this show, hopefully it pushes it to a higher level,” he said. “We’re really humbled by this experience. We’ve been doing this for 15 years. Never did we think we’d come to New York Fashion Week.”

Pages