Silicon Valley Could Use Some Guanxi

The Chinese can't innovate, right? All that rote learning drummed into their cerebellums from birth. Cloning, now that's a Chinese forte. It makes a comforting chestnut for Americans looking just over the horizon at what the world might look like in five or ten years from now. We still have our creativity right? No place like Silicon Valley! The trouble is that this conventional wisdom is changing.  

The hard charging, highly productive, not terribly innovative Chinese entrepreneur is still there of course. So are the failures and the digital clones. Walk into the offices of Groupon's Chinese joint venture, Gaopeng, and you get an odd purposeless feeling. A lot of chatter and social gaming going on. Too late to the party. Too much competition. A business model that may not really prove itself out before the red ocean devours it. Pretty soon Gaopeng will likely merge or die. Most of the kids working there will be fine. The attrition rate atChinese digital companies is north of 30%. For the educated and computer literate, it will be remarkably easy to find a job regardless of whether the official GDP numbers go up or down.  

In contrast, the offices of Avos Beijing look a lot like the computer science lab at MIT. Incredibly young people working away with extreme focus. Too busy to look up. Their General Manager is Hong Jiang, an extremely thoughtful guy with a PHD in computer science from Yale who would absolutely still get carded in any American college town. Avos Biejing is being incubated by the Youtube founders, Steve Chen and Chad Hurley. They set priorities once a week via conference call. Their team here is building a next generation publishing platform so anyone can put out a digital magazine that's gorgeous and accessible. Self expression tools for the Chinese digerati. Pinterest meets Flipboard? Issu combined with Wordpress? The label works if you need it. The product is less important than the thinking and the process. This is a team building and iterating. Using the magic of quick sprints and agile product development to create something new. 

Like a number of other startups I visited in China, this was not an outsourced factory with worker bees connecting the dots, trimming patterns, and smoking cigarettes while squatting on their haunches. These guys have a white board and they were using it. A lot of the developers are working six days a week. The right compensation structure is in place. A couple members of the team used to work at Microsoft and Google but "didn't like the big company experience, working for the man." 

The writer James Fallows, who knows a lot about China, recently said there are a few big indicators we should watch for to see if China is really poised for innovation. Faster internet speeds and influx of top-tier academics from abroad are on his list. That makes sense. But respectfully, it's absurd to keep judging China with sweeping generalizations. And yet people do it all the time. Okay, maybe "you will have a extremely challenging experience with your Chinese JV partner" might make the list for cynics, but aside from that the  Chinese economy and society is simply too large and interesting for those old constructs. Sorry. It felt a lot more reassuring the other way. 

The question now is not whether the Chinese are innovating, but what Americans are going to do about it? One big answer is Guanghxi (roughly translated as the crucial relationships that get stuff done). The last 25 years of Chinese economic development was made possible by opening up to the world. Now it's our turn. Instead of fearing the exchange of talent, technology, and expertise we should embrace it. On our terms and theirs. 

Steve Alperin has been Managing Editor at "The Daily," Newscorp's iPad newspaper and at He also served as Head Writer for ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. He is currently a principal of the management consultancy DSA Digital.

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The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?

While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.

In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?

Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."

The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.

What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.

Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.

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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

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It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.