Web Excursions 2021-11-21

How Video Games Fueled the Rise of Chinese Fantasy

  • Although the two sequels [, PAL II and III,] were released in a span of months, they bore little resemblance to each other.

    • The two-dimensional Legend of Sword and Fairy II, produced by Softstar’s Taiwan office, stayed true to the first installment’s wuxia martial arts theme and aesthetic,

    • while the three-dimensional Legend of Sword and Fairy III, produced by Softstar’s Shanghai subsidiary, had a dramatically different look based on xianxia, or “chivalric fantasy.”

  • market’s verdict was clear:

    • Whereas the wuxia-themed second installment was met with a tepid popular and critical response,

    • the high fantasy-inspired third installment proved wildly popular

  • The contrasting market performance of these two games proved to be a watershed moment in the development of the Chinese video game industry.

    • In the two decades since, the center of the industry has migrated from Taiwan to the mainland,

    • while xianxia fantasy themes have overtaken wuxia martial arts stories as the industry’s bread and butter.

  • Wuxia literature emerged in its modern form during the Republican era (1912-1949), but it’s in the 1950s that it became a cultural phenomenon.

  • Xianxia is a cousin of sorts to wuxia, with both genres tracing their modern roots back to Xiang Kairan’s 1923 novel “The Peculiar Knights-Errant of the Jianghu.”

    • But while wuxia authors preferred the down-to-earth and unpretentious styles of classic novels like “Water Margin,”

    • xianxia was more indebted to a different, even older part of the Chinese canon: zhiguai.

  • By the late 1990s, Chinese artists and storytellers were mixing elements of xianxia with the typical “swords and magic” of Western fantasy novels like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

    • Drawing on Taoist notions like “self-cultivation” — through which sages sought immortality and transcendence —

    • they created an alternate, parallel universe, complete with its own language and logic.

    • The resulting genre, known as xuanhuan, or “mystical fantasy,” represents a continuation of the xianxia genre, and by extension zhiguai.

  • If wuxia novels were typically published in newspapers and magazines,

    • xianxia and xuanhuan literature was mostly shared anonymously online.

  • Over time, game developers created a visual language for xianxia distinct from that of earlier wuxia-centric titles.

    • In particular, although xianxia was very much a Chinese genre, its mixed origins meant its fans were more likely to be familiar with Western fantasy and storytelling conventions than wuxia, which remained relatively esoteric.

  • developers drew on Western fantasy and RPG conventions to establish hierarchies of Chinese mythological creatures and their powers,

    • allowing them to organize various spirits and beasts drawn from a disjointed corpus of myths and zhiguai stories into a coherent, universally applicable system.

  • Because the xianxia genre is not bound to any specific historical era, designers were also freer to experiment with different styles and looks.

    • Whereas in wuxia, female characters are often capable fighters who dress androgynously,

      • xianxia game developers took cues from Japanese anime, comics, and games culture,

      • pandering to the male gaze by dressing female characters in as little as possible.

    • This hybrid style is not limited to character design;

      • xianxia creators liberally borrow elements from Eastern and Western cultures in their worldbuilding.

      • Often, it’s only in the mortal realm that buildings abide by Chinese architectural conventions;

      • buildings belonging to practitioners of Taoist “self-cultivation” often resemble Baroque cathedrals and gardens.

  • Although it draws on local cultural elements with deep roots,

    • its liberal appropriation of international cultural markers and storytelling conventions has spared it to an extent from associations with Chinese nationalism.

    • Indeed, when developers can’t find appropriate visual reference material for elements of the xianxia canon, they often default to “Westernizing” it.

  • Xianxia game developers may have never consciously set out to change China’s cultural landscape,

    • but their hybrid approach to storytelling has revolutionized Chinese pop culture far beyond the gaming industry.

    • The genre’s rise mirrors the ways in which contemporary China is simultaneously rediscovering its national identity and embracing globalization.


Why Netflix Never Goes Down - The Verge

  • Open Connect is Netflix’s in-house content distribution network specifically built to deliver its TV shows and movies.

    • Started in 2012, the program involves Netflix giving internet service providers physical appliances that allow them to localize traffic.

    • These appliances store copies of Netflix content to create less strain on networks

      • by eliminating the number of channels that content has to pass through to reach the user trying to play it.

  • To avoid the traffic and fees, Netflix ships copies of its content to its own servers ahead of time.

    • That also helps to prevent Netflix traffic from choking network demand during peak hours of streaming.

  • At present, Netflix says it has 17,000 servers spread across 158 countries,

    • and the company tells me it plans to continue expanding its content delivery network.

    • Netflix prioritizes where it places these servers based on where it has the most members and relationships with ISPs

  • Netflix provides ISPs with the servers for free, and Netflix has an internal reliability team that works with ISP resources to maintain the servers.

    • The benefit to ISPs, according to both Netflix and Akamai, is fewer costs to ISPs

    • by alleviating the need for them to have to fetch copies of content themselves.

  • While Netflix doesn’t disclose how much it costs the company to build and maintain these servers,

    • Netflix says it’s invested roughly $1 billion in Open Connect since its creation a decade ago.

    • It’s dumping mountains of money into the CDN because a premium and user-engaged streaming experience is core to Netflix’s entire business strategy.

  • The Verge spoke with an AT&T executive who confirmed that

    • it still sells Netflix optimal network connections to the streamer

    • rather than having Netflix install physical devices in its data centers.

  • Netflix effectively ships three copies of each of its titles to its servers, each with a different level of quality.

  • Netflix pre-places this content during off-peak hours so it’s not competing with other internet traffic that would occur during high-use streaming times.

  • Open Connect has two types of servers:

    • flash, which handles faster delivery, and

    • storage, which holds up to 350 TB of data.

  • If something sitting in storage becomes popular, Netflix will move that title onto the flash server.


The Amazon Lobbyists Who Kill U.S. Consumer Privacy Protections

  • In recent years, Amazon.com Inc has killed or undermined privacy protections in more than three dozen bills across 25 states, as the e-commerce giant amassed a lucrative trove of personal data on millions of American consumers.

    • In Virginia, the company boosted political donations tenfold over four years before persuading lawmakers this year to pass an industry-friendly privacy bill that Amazon itself drafted. 

    • In California, the company stifled proposed restrictions on the industry’s collection and sharing of consumer voice recordings gathered by tech devices.

    • And in its home state of Washington, Amazon won so many exemptions and amendments to a bill regulating biometric data, such as voice recordings or facial scans, that the resulting 2017 law had “little, if any” impact on its practices, according to an internal Amazon document.

  • Amazon had more than 90,000 recordings Alexa devices made of the reporter’s family members since 2017.

  • As executives edited the draft [of an internal memo], Herdener summed up a central goal in a margin note: “We want policymakers and press to fear us,” he wrote.

  • He described this desire as a “mantra” that had united department leaders in a Washington strategy session.

  • Carney and Huseman adopted a core tenet of Amazon’s corporate culture – data-driven management –

    • as they expanded a program called “watering the flowers,” an effort to cultivate politicians.

    • Its goal was to create a “well-tended garden” of influencers who could help with “policy challenges or crises,”

    • according to a 2014 public-policy six-pager that outlined the effort.

  • Amazon tried but failed to derail the 2018 California law

    • The 2018 Amazon document reviewing executive goals discussed plans to oppose the measure, noting concern about its “right to know” provisions for consumers.

    • The 2018 public-policy update said of the proposal: “We strongly prefer no regulation, but if regulation becomes inevitable, we will seek amendment language to narrow any new requirements to the greatest extent possible.”

    • The law’s passage was considered a major failure internally.

    • An Amazon legal-strategy document written after the bill became law called the measure emblematic of “troubling regulatory and legislative trends” that “caught us by surprise.”

  • Amazon’s latest effort to stop regulation of voice recordings focused on a bill from Republican Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham.

    • The lawmaker worried that Amazon staffers were listening to some Alexa recordings made in people’s homes.

    • Cunningham has tried unsuccessfully since 2019 to require companies to get consumer consent before storing or sharing smart-speaker recordings.

    • When Cunningham re-introduced the measure this year, Amazon took a novel lobbying approach: It argued the privacy protections would hurt disabled people.

  • Some recordings involved conversations between family members using Alexa devices to communicate across different parts of the house.

    • Several recordings captured children apologizing to their parents after being disciplined. Others picked up the children, ages 7, 9 and 12, asking Alexa questions about terms like “pansexual.”

    • In one recording, a child asks: “Alexa, what is a vagina?”

    • In another: “Alexa, what does bondage mean?”

  • Amazon’s Kindle e-readers, for instance, precisely track a user’s reading habits, another reporter’s Amazon data file showed.

    • The disclosure included records of more than 3,700 reading sessions since 2017, including timestamped logs – to the millisecond – of books read.

    • Amazon also tracks words highlighted or looked up, pages turned and promotions seen.


How Scribbling in the Margins Transformed My Reading

  • punctum: the (often marginal) detail that leaps out of an image and “pricks” the viewer with a strange and often inexplicable emotion.

  • My marginalia became a series of handholds on the placid smoothness of the page. I took hold of my daily experience one silly little mark at a time.

  • My notes are like the rings of a tree, trapping the atmosphere of a given moment. Like Barthes’s necklace, their presence lends far more resonance than their actual content, because they remind me of myself.