Sunday, August 12, 2012

Mission: The Dark Knight Rises

Well, given how EVERYONE I know back home is raving about The Dark Knight Rises, I wanted to see it.  I loved the first two movies in the trilogy, so I of course had high expectations for the third, even with the sad passing of Heath Ledger.  But China allows only 20 foreign movies to be shown in theatres per year, although there's been talk of it expanding to a higher number (no idea if this has already happened).  As well, due to the movie's content, my Mandarin teacher (a big movie buff) said she thinks The Dark Knight Rises may not even make it into China this year for censorship reasons.  I heard there's this big riot scene, maybe that's why.  Heck, apparently even The Dark Knight (2nd in the trilogy) did not get released in China.  Although my Mandarin teacher said that it was, except they cut out some scenes?  I don't know.  Anyway, seemed my only chance to see it in theatres lay in Hong Kong.

So off to Hong Kong I went.  Weekends are the only option, just because of the amount of time it takes to cross the border.  Except this weekend, I'm busy with church stuff, so I decided to go on Friday night, with a plan to come back either late Friday night or Saturday morning.  Future weekends were out of the question, and by the time my weekends freed up again, I was worried that the movie would already be out of theatres.

The trip could not have started off worse.  Finishing stuff at work is always a logjam, and Friday was no exception.

6:17pm:  Finally leave work.  Run to the subway station where all the electric mopeds are.
6:22pm:  Arrive at the mopeds.  Ask one to take me to Keyuan Station, as it's faster to go there directly by moped, and then by subway to the ferry terminal, where my ferry is scheduled to leave at 7:15pm.  Tight, but I can make it, if the moped shufu (general term for service guys, such as drivers) knows where Keyuan Station is.  And really, why wouldn't he?  I've done this lots of times.
6:30pm:  Finally find a moped willing to take me to Keyuan Station.
Me:  Shufu, why are we going this way?
Shufu:  Don't worry, sir, this way is faster!
Me:  OK....
Me:  Shufu, this is not Keyuan Station.  This is Shenda Station.  Keyuan Station is on the Shekou Line.  We were just at Exit A2 of Shenda Station.  You brought me to another Shenda Station exit.  I need to get to Keyuan Station.
Shufu:  Oh, sorry, I thought you meant this station.
Me:  No, this is Shenda Station still...  We're wasting time, just go, go!
Me:  Shufu, we're totally not going in the right direction.  We're way west now.  Keyuan Station is way east of us.  Forget it, just take me to Shekou.  I need to get to Seaworld, somewhere around there (I can't remember how to say Ferry terminal, so I say Seaworld, since it's close by).
Shufu:  I can't go to Seaworld, it's too far.
Me:  Yes you can, I can tell you how to get there, I'll pay extra too.
Shufu:  Hey, Shufu 2, you know how to get to Seaworld?
Me:  Shufu, I said just go down this road!
Shufu:  He's trying to get to Seaworld
Shufu 2:  Yeah, I know.
Me:  Hey, Shufu, mind if I just switch bikes?  I'm going to be late.
Shufu:  OK.
Me:  OK, how much do I owe you?
Shufu:  10RMB.
Me:  OK, here, thanks (for nothing  @@).
Shufu:  OK, sorry, I really don't know where it is.
Me:  Yeah (obviously!!!), it's OK, thanks.
Shufu 2:  OK, Seaworld, right?
Me:  Gah, not really, honestly, I need to get to Hong Kong.
Shufu 2:  Ah, the Bay Port then?
Me:  Well, I actually wanted to go another way, but given I'm late, that's fine.  (Bay Port is not the Ferry Port.  From the Bay Port, you can take buses and cars across the border to HK, crossing this massive bridge).  How much?
Shufu 2:  15RMB
Me:  (what? so cheap?)  OK, fine.
7:05pm:  Arrive at Bay Port, give the guy 20RMB (he admits he underestimated the distance)
7:10pm:  Buy a bus ticket to Causeway Bay.  Bus leaves at 7:15pm!
7:15pm:  Realize that I forgot I need to get through immigration.  Will need to target the 7:45pm bus.  Lucky, the ticket is transferable to later buses.
8:02pm:  Bus actually leaves Bay Port.
9:00pm:  Bus arrives at Times Square.  OK!  Plenty of time to catch the 9pm movie, assuming trailers, or 9:15, or 9:30, or whatever is there!
9:10pm:  I swore there was a movie theatre at Times Square before!!  What happened to it???  (Oh, I guess that happened.  Crap.)  No biggie, ask around, people say there's a movie theatre at Sogo, only a few minutes away!
9:15pm:  Need... liquid... orange... with sago??  :D
9:20pm:  Arrive at Sogo's movie theatre.  What???  Only one showing of The Dark Knight Rises per day, and it's at 5:15pm???  No, I do not want to watch The Bourne Legacy, I want to watch The Dark Knight Rises!!  Some people tell me there's a movie theatre by Tai Koo Station, Exit D.  Cool, OK, it's only 9:15, I can do this.  I'm sure there's a 9:30pm showing or a 10pm showing.
10:00pm:  Ticket purchased for The Dark Night Rises!!  10:10pm showing!  Bathroom!  Bathroom!
10:11pm:  Finish pouring condiments on my hot dog in time for the trailers!
12:56am:  Movie over.  Spend the rest of the night fighting crime in Hong Kong, stopping bank robberies, terrorist plots, and saving kittens.  Rain comes with the morning.

Two comments on the movie:
1.  Wow!  Amazing movie!  Wish there was a part 4, but if there was, I guess I'd have to make a second trip!
2.  Wow, I can understand now why my Mandarin teacher thinks this movie isn't going to be shown in China.  Heck, I'm 99% sure it'll never make it past the censors.  There's just no way.  You have to understand the political and economic situation in China to know why.  I've written a lot about China stuff, from my amateur limited perspective.  I guess my next post will again be on that type of topic, discussing why The Dark Knight Rises is the type of movie that freaks the government out.

A cool book to read on China

I read a book by Leslie T. Chang, titled Factory Girls - Voices from the Heart of Modern China.  Leslie Chang was a former Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and this is the fruit of a lot of her personal primary research, directly interacting with the young girls who left their villages to become factory workers in Dongguan.  Dongguan is actually very close to Shenzhen, where I live now.

I have to say that this book is probably the most amazing work on China I've read to date.  Many things about people in China suddenly make sense to me now.

As well, the diary entry from one of the subjects in the book makes me understand women a lot better than I ever have.  At least, I think the actions of women make more sense to me now.  I think.  Hey, I'm still clueless.
April 1, 1994
Yes, I am a person so ordinary that I cannot be more ordinary, so plain that I cannot be plainer, a girl like all the other girls.  I like to eat snacks, I like to have fun, and I like to look pretty. 
Don't imagine that I can be superhuman. 
You are just a most ordinary, most plain girl, attracted to anything that is pretty or tasty or fun.
So from being ordinary and plain I will make my start.
From page 55, chapter 3 of Factory Girls, by Leslie T. Chang.
Honestly, I wanted to write a huge article about this book, in the context of the Foxconn controversy.  But I've never had the time.  Look, if you want to understand something about modern China, go read this book.  That's all I'll say for now, and maybe one day I'll finally get around to writing that article about what I got from this book.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On Food in China

Saw this article regarding an operation for manufacturing poisonous disposable chopsticks that got busted.  The comments combed from QQ are hilarious.  Translated from the original Chinese.
腾讯龙岩市网友 djx
What’s left that is without poison, that can be safely used?

Boss, one fast-food meal, no disposable chopsticks…

★★★★★★: (responding to above)
Dishes cooked with drainage oil, haha, just rice, no dishes.

随疯: (responding to above)
Moldy rice polished with paraffin wax, haha, better just bring me a cup of boiled water.

Seven宋磊: (responding to above)
Water with too much mercury levels, you dare drink? Better just drink a northwest wind, who cares about the sandstorms.

谁牵动了我的: (responding to above)
Lots of air polluted by various poisonous gases, you might as well just go die!

–: (responding to above)
With cemeteries/burial plots so expensive, can you afford to die?

肇庆市 tuoni–(1): (responding to above)
Cemeteries/burial plots expensive, can only go jump into the ocean.

独孤求醉: (responding to above)
Jumping into the ocean pollutes the environment, must first pay a fine before jumping, and if help is needed for dredging/fishing up the body afterward, that’s another fee.

じ☆熊熊: (responding to above)
A body fished up will have its organs cut out, are you willing to let them fish you up? Better just use gasoline and burn it up!

〖����〗: (responding to above)
But gasoline is so expensive these days! Can you afford to burn it? Better just buy a shovel and find some mud to bury yourself.

老男孩: (responding to above)
All the land has been sold to property developers to build buildings.

苏州市 欧亚菲软床: (responding to above)
Can’t afford to live, can’t afford to die, my motherland, what are your people supposed to do?!!!

腾讯网友 草民一个:
The previous generation of people worried about whether or not they could get enough to eat. The current generation of people worry about whether or not they’ll die from eating. A sad + wretched place!

腾讯金华市网友 健家营:
This country is dangerous, must be cautious when reincarnating!
Is it bad that I think this is hilarious?  :)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Understanding Chinese culture (or not)

Something a lot of foreigners complain about in China is the crappy customer service.  It's true.  In general, China has crappy customer service.  The reasons are probably myriad, but it is a fact.

The interesting thing is that I don't see a lot of people saying the flip side: in China, I see a lot of customers treat service people like crap.  They easily and quickly lose their patience, scream, threaten, etc.  Usually, I've seen it in restaurants, but I've seen it in other places of business as well.

I just saw this happen today.  One of my sandals was broken, so I took it to this guy who sits behind a fence and repairs people's shoes.  When I arrived, there were three people already there waiting for their shoes to be repaired.  Expecting to wait, I sat down and took out Ender in Exile (which, by the way, is an excellent book; it almost brought me to tears twice within the first few chapters, which is not something you expect from a science fiction novel).  While I was reading my book, a woman came and asked for her shoes to be done.  No lining up?  No worries, I'm OK with that these days.  Heck, sometimes even I can budge in line now (though not very skillfully yet).  Then another woman.  Then a guy.  Soon, a whole crowd.  No worries, it's why I brought the book.  I can wait all day.  Ender in Exile is keeping me totally captivated.

Finally, this woman shows up with her daughter.  She asks where her shoes are.  The guy says he hasn't done them.  She starts complaining and yelling, asking why not?  She left them there for him earlier a long time ago.  I LOVE this guy.  He went yelling right back at her.  "I'm too busy here!  Too many people want their shoes done!  There's no time to do yours!  You didn't even let me say yes or no, you just dumped your shoes there!  If I didn't even accept the job from you, why should I do it?  I have too many shoes to repair already!"  Bam, bam, bam.  He hit all points.  I didn't like him because he was yelling, I would never advise yelling if you're looking for a solution to a problem (yes, Mom, I'm working on that for myself too).  I liked him because he was willing to stand up for himself and not take the crap that a lot of service people take from customers in China.  Heck, it was already approaching 6pm.

Finally, after a lot of the people got their shoes repaired and there seemed to be very few people left, I asked the guy if he could repair my sandal.  He said yeah, just wait, so I put the sandal in between the bars in the fence and went back to my book.  Later, he tossed my sandal back out to me.  Perfectly mended.  Just like new.  :)  And way cheaper than buying a new pair of sandals, which can be 100 to 300 RMB for a high quality pair.  I asked him how much it cost, and he said 2 RMB.  I gave him 5 RMB, told him to keep the change as a tip.  He refused and told a sitting customer to give me change.  I insisted, so he said thank you.  Seriously.  2 RMB to make my sandals just like new again?  It's amazing.

Back on topic.  Customer service in China.  Well, not customer service in particular.  Chinese culture in general.  It's traditional wisdom that asian cultures tend to be collectivist, while western cultures tend to be individualist.  But that is not what I've been observing in China.  There appears to be a distinct lack of collectivist thinking in China.  When people come together, it's due to a mob mentality to power the human flesh search engine and cry out online against some Chinese matter usually involving corruption.  When I see day-to-day interactions, it's actually very much a free-for-all, it's very individualist; sometimes even within groups where everyone is together, it's still individualist.  I'm not sure why this is.  Perhaps the one-child policy has created an entire generation of people that find it difficult to work together.  Who knows?

Just this week, I was supposed to attend a work event to hang out and get to know others, but the event was cancelled when only 6 people planned to show up out of the original 12 or so committed attendees.  6 wasn't enough to go see Titanic together?  Others couldn't sacrifice whatever they had for the sake of the greater good, especially after they had already committed?  The only time when collectivism seems to have a chance is when the parties have a very good guanxi connection, but you could say that's probably true in the west also.

The whole individualist thing was perhaps taken to the extreme by the example of Yue Yue, the 2-year-old girl who was run over twice last year and subsequently died of her injuries.  It raised a huge furor in China, with one side crying out about the moral decay in Chinese society, and another side saying not to blame people, but to blame a court verdict that would have made helping Yue Yue risky (emphasis mine):
On Nov 20, 2006, an old woman fell to the ground and broke her leg after jostling at a bus stop in Nanjing, an eastern China city. A young man, Peng Yu, helped her up and escorted her to hospital. Later the woman and her family dragged the man to court, which ruled that the young man should pay 40 percent of the medical costs. The court said the decision was reached by reasoning. The verdict said that "according to common sense", it was highly possible that the defendant had bumped into the old woman, given that he was the first person to get off the bus when the old woman was pushed down in front of the bus door and, "according to what one would normally do in this case", Peng would have left soon after sending the woman to the hospital instead of staying there for the surgical check. "His behavior obviously went against common sense."
What the heck??  Wanting to be charitable, helpful, altruistic, and caring obviously went against common sense?  And while it took the death of little Yue Yue to get China to do some serious soul-searching and do a collective nation-wide scream that this type of ruling is not right, the fact is that I see this type of attitude in people every day.  People don't hold doors open for you.  They act like you don't exist if you're waiting your turn and budge in front of you.  They don't listen to the bus driver's request to move to the back of the bus in order to allow new passengers to board.  They think it's their right to treat people like trash if the food is a little bit late.

I honestly have come to believe they don't do any of this maliciously.  I've come to think that it just doesn't enter their minds because they tune other people out and are focused on only themselves.  I see it in some kids from a very young age.  You can go right up to a kid and say hi, and depending on their personality, they might act like you don't exist.  But do something they don't like, and they'll scream bloody murder.  Then throw some money into the equation, and you easily have a segment of self-absorbed rich folks after they grow up, depending on parenting skills; these people don't think of others as human.  Lower life forms are really just rocks.  Rocks don't fight back.  Rocks get bulldozed if they're in the way.  And sometimes, they don't even realize that the rocks are there.

The weird thing is that today's Chinese culture totally clashes with the Chinese culture I grew up seeing.  Many of my friends were from Hong Kong or Taiwan, not mainland China.  I thought they were all Chinese, but ask many Taiwanese people, and the political argument for independence can often be seen simmering below the surface.  And as much as these people were originally from China, China has changed.  Small anecdotes are all over the place.  When I first said I was moving to Shenzhen, the parents of my friends thought they heard Suzhou.  This is apparently how the conversation went (I wasn't there):
Parents:  Suzhou?  Wow, that's great!  Suzhou is where all the Chinese supermodels come from, very pretty girls there!
Friend:  Actually, I think he said Shenzhen.
Parents:  Shenzhen?  Oh... Oh... that's a really bad place.
Two things here.  Number one, Chinese people don't consider Suzhou girls to be the prettiest girls anymore.  The prettiest girls are all found in Sichuan.  I asked my co-worker about this, and he said, "Ah, Suzhou was a long time ago.  Now all the pretty girls are in Sichuan."  Number two, Shenzhen is not the worst city compared to other cities where I've been.  Other cities have the exact same problems, and some are much worse.  In fact, China's first Good Samaritan law, which would allow for passers-by to assist injured people, was drafted in Shenzhen.  Shenzhen recently hosted the 2011 Universiade Games for the world's university athletes.  A lot of stuff was cracked down in the lead-up to the games, and many things still are.  The knowledge of my friend's parents was based on very outdated knowledge of China.

Leslie T. Chang, author of the amazing book Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China, had similar experiences.  She is an American journalist of Taiwanese descent.  She writes:
My parents' China was fifty years out of date; the Chinese have always respected scholars and disparaged merchants, they had taught me as a child, but the people I was meeting now contradicted all of that.  I didn't try to find relatives who were still living here.  I wanted to learn about this country on my own terms.  And family history seemed like a trap - a ready-made way to see China in tragic terms, a view that had little to do with how things were now.
Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China, chapter 6, page 121
What I now realize is that whether the parents of my Taiwanese and Hong Kong parents realize it or not, Chinese culture has forked.  Forking is a software engineering term referring to the act of taking a software's source code and modifying it to become an independent system.  When you do this, in order to continue development on both systems, you cannot update just one system and expect the updates to appear in the other system.  You must continue to develop the two systems independently, until there comes a time when you try to re-integrate the two for whatever reason (if it ever happens).  For example, the Android smartphone operating system is a fork of Linux, and the two of them are now essentially completely different products.

When the revolution led by Mao happened, Chinese culture forked.  Many of those with means fled to Hong Kong (under British control at the time), Taiwan, southeast Asia, and more.  The ones who stayed behind were peasants (it was a peasant revolution after all), and so many of the scholars and history-makers were lost, making way for a new generation of history-makers.  So even mainland China forked its own culture.  And to ensure that it was permanent, they sent everyone who disagreed to re-education camps.  And then a bunch of crazy stuff happened during the Cultural Revolution to consolidate power and further emphasize what was OK and what was not.  Then you had the one-child policy implemented that turned Chinese family structure inside-out and upside-down, further forking the culture.

Then we had yet more forks when all these Chinese people from all over Asia started going out west for education, work, etc.  The stories of Chinese people flooding North America to build the railways, open up Chinese restaurants everywhere, attend university, etc, are many.  Future generations born in those nations would fork Chinese culture yet again (same for any other Asian ethnicity that went through similar transitions), such that Asian American (or other country) culture failed to reflect mainland Chinese culture at all.

I first realized this on a volunteer trip to rural China in 2005.  Our team leader was Caucasian, but had grown up in Taiwan and only recently moved to the US, so you could say that she knew Taiwanese and Chinese culture better than many.  She said it was really shocking to see our teammates, who were of Chinese descent, but for all intents and purposes, "did not act Asian at all."  It was the first time that she had seen people like this.  She was used to Chinese people who acted like Chinese people.

A big-media example showed itself recently via the Linsanity sensation that was caused by the savvy basketball play of Jeremy Lin in the NBA.  A Ben & Jerry's branch decided to make a Jeremy Lin-inspired flavour using fortune cookies.  The act was immediately decried as racist by many Asian American groups.  I totally didn't realize this at all, but nobody knows what a fortune cookie is in China.  No restaurants hand these things out after meals.  It only hit me after reading the post linked above.  The only people who could get offended were Asian Americans (or Asians in western nations), because fortune cookies are not Chinese; they only exist in specific forks of Chinese culture, primarily the Chinese American fork (although it boggles my mind why they would be considered racist anyway, even in those forks).

I think I'm just trying to say this.  Chinese culture is complicated and has been shaped by a roller coaster 60 years.  It is not what many of my friends think it is, and it is definitely not what many of my friends' parents think it is.  If you haven't been to the real China and actually lived here for a while, you get a very filtered view of what China is.  And me, having lived here for a year and a half now, I'm still trying to figure it out.  While I work on my skills to budge in line, of course.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

NHL Playoffs 2012

It is playoff time!  And the Vancouver Canucks win the Presidents Trophy again!  :D  Of course, this means nothing if we don't win the Stanley Cup.  Only good thing is that the police should be ready for riots this time.  They can't be so stupid to let it happen a third time to the city, right?

Here are my picks for the first round:

Western Conference
Vancouver vs Los Angeles - Vancouver in 7; Quick is possibly the best goalie in the playoffs and will stand on his head the entire series.

St. Louis vs San Jose - St. Louis in 5; This is the coming out party for St. Louis, while San Jose keeps getting weaker each year and will eventually need to rebuild.  And don't you love having the option of BOTH Elliott and Halak in goal?

Phoenix vs Chicago - Toews is the wildcard.  If Toews doesn't come back, Phoenix wins it in 7.  If Toews does come back, Chicago wins it in 6 or earlier.

Nashville vs Detroit - Nashville in 7.  As much as I love Detroit's experience, Nashville is younger and dare I say possibly hungrier.  If they didn't add Radulov, I would say Detroit wins in 7.  Expect Rinne to outplay Howard by the slimmest of margins.  This will be a tight series.

Eastern Conference
New York vs Ottawa - New York in 6.  As much heart as Ottawa might have to give, New York outshines Ottawa in all categories.

Boston vs Washington - Washington in 7.  Ovechkin is tired of being labeled an underachiever.  He wants to get it done this time.

Florida vs New Jersey - New Jersey in 4.  Kovalchuk will show everyone why he's the 100 million dollar man.

Pittsburgh vs Philadelphia - Pittsburgh in 7.  Come on, you guys, seriously.  Crosby is back, Malkin's in MVP form, and Philly is missing Pronger.  What else do you need me to say?  But this will be a brutal series, if the regular season is any indication.

The Cup Finals
Vancouver over Washington in 7.  I can dream, right?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

On Customer Service in China

Sometimes, they do or say the most unexpected things.  :)  A friend went shopping for clothing today.  From the sales rep:

"Even the fatter girl can fit in the dress, why can't you?"


Thursday, March 29, 2012

On Pattern Recognition

Today, I had McDonald's for lunch.  Healthy, I know.  After finishing lunch, I started walking to the bus stop to head to the office for the afternoon; I had spent the morning working at home.  This McDonald's is located in Garden City (a shopping mall), right across from Walmart and a KFC where I also bought an ice cream cone.  By the way, isn't this supposed to be China?  Anyway, the bus stop is located just outside the Walmart.

On the way to the bus stop, I bought my ice cream cone.  I curiously watched a little girl sitting by a pillar under a covered path from the Walmart to Garden City.  She had dirty clothes and dirty skin, looked like she hadn't taken a bath for days.  Looked about eight years old.  It's not unusual to see little kids walking around by themselves in China, sometimes with unfortunate results.  This girl sat alone and calmly.  As I watched her, something looked wrong.

I'm not sure I can say exactly what I felt was wrong.  In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes the research of psychological thinslicing, which enables experts to instantaneously figure out the right answer for a situation just by looking at it.  A tennis coach who can tell right away whether a player will fault on serve.  Secret Service agents who can tell right away which people in a crowd are major risks.  Psychologists who can identify couples with high probability of relationship failure just by examining facial expressions and body language.

I'm not saying I'm such an expert at being able to identify situations correctly.  But I have learned over the years that it's an invaluable skill to be able to look at a situation and zero in on the problem.  Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong, but if you proceed with caution and the right questions, you will be right more often than not, and subsequently be able to resolve the problem efficiently and quickly.  This is true for resolving high-pressure crisis situations in the workplace, relationship conflicts with family and friends, and random confrontations on the street.  It's a skill that requires practice, poise, and a constantly questioning mind that does not make any assumptions.  I find not enough people understand this.  Develop this skill, and your pattern recognition ability shoots through the roof, enabling you to solve difficult problems with ease.  I am always trying to improve it, as my friend always needles me about a Vancouver Skytrain incident where I was jumping to wrong conclusions.

So what was weird about this girl?  Again, she wasn't crying, and you see lots of kids walking about alone all the time.  Well, I think the thing that really made my radar go on red alert was the fact that she was so dirty.  Some girl waiting for her parents in such a crowded cosmopolitan area would not be so dirty.  I think?  But with this thought in mind, I worried and actually came to the wrong conclusion that maybe she was a street kid with no home.  This is when you need to proceed with caution and ask questions.  People often assess a situation and come to the wrong conclusion; they know that something is not right, but they're incorrect about what is not right.  Then they take the wrong actions accordingly because they fail to verify their conclusions.

So I asked the girl, "Hey kiddo, where are your parents?"  The girl said something about her parents not being there and started crying.  At this stage, one might get information that leads them in a certain direction, without waiting for complete information.  Then they create a situation even worse than before.  For me, my mind automatically switched to thinking that the parents had abandoned the kid, probably due to not having enough money to raise the kid (or maybe something even worse happened).  But I wanted to be sure I understood what the kid was saying, and my Mandarin still needs to improve.

So I called up my friend and told the kid to tell my friend her problem, then my friend would explain it to me.  For what seemed like forever, the kid explained what had happened, crying the whole time.  She gave my friend her mom's phone number, and I told my friend where the two of us were waiting.  My friend called her mom, who then called her brother; these kids were darker-skinned, definitely not Han Chinese people, so they don't have the one-child restriction.  Or maybe he was only a cousin, but kids still say brother and sister instead of cousin.  Anyway, the brother came on his bike to pick her up; he looked only eleven.  I asked if this was her brother, she nodded, got on the back of the bike, smiled at me, and waved while they rode away.

While we were waiting for her brother, she explained to me how she had gotten lost.  She had been playing on the second floor of the Walmart and lost sight of her brother.  We played a game while waiting called 3-6-9 (a game I learned as a kid from other Korean kids).  She even started smiling a bit, which was good.  What's most interesting is that she said she had been waiting there for about two hours.  Two hours, and nobody thought to ask her what's going on?  Well, this kid had probably been calm and well-behaved the entire time.  She didn't start crying until she tried to explain to me her problem.  Since kids are often seen alone, why should have anyone thought something was wrong here?

Pattern recognition for being able to recognize when something feels strange is a good thing.  With this skill, you can resolve problems before they happen, or before they grow too big, whether those problems be in personal relationships, work, or anything else.  It's a really important skill to have.  Some autistic people have the unfortunate condition of not being able to read body language or facial expressions very well, but for anyone who can develop this skill, they should.  Besides, not all problems are identified through body language anyway.  Again, while I'm not sure what compelled me to talk with her (well, thanks, God!), I think the key clue was that the kid's dirty clothes and face didn't fit her surrounding environment with so many well-dressed people bustling around.  But good pattern recognition needs to be balanced with a cautious approach so that we don't jump to wrong conclusions.  That goes double for poor pattern recognition.  Again, my original conclusion was that she was a street kid.

Well, the story had a happy ending.  Coming just out of a McDonald's, maybe it could have been a McDonald's commercial.  Except I was holding a KFC ice cream cone the whole time.  I offered to buy her lunch too, but she said she wasn't hungry.  Maybe she was just being wise because her parents told her not to accept candy from strangers.  The smile on her face as she rode away on the bike was great.  I'm going to wear a superhero costume next time.  With a cape.

Yes, I know, I still haven't written about that kid that was run over.  It's a sad but complicated issue.  Most difficult things are.  I have seven different blog posts in draft mode right now.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

We're not in Shenzhen anymore, Toto

Five signals that demonstrate you're not in a major Chinese city anymore.

5.  The taxis are a lot cheaper.
4.  The taxi drivers are a lot crazier.
3.  There are direct competitors to McDonald's and KFC that you prefer over McDonald's and KFC.
2.  You can find pasta noodles in only specialty foreign food shops, rather than the supermarkets.
1.  A lot of people don't understand your Mandarin and you don't understand their local dialect.

Welcome to Chengdu.  The land of Sichuanhua and Dico's.  :)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Reality of Pareto

I was in a training session at work for a new quality program that was being implemented.  They flew this guy over from the states who was the global training lead for this new program.  He asked the class if anyone knew who Pareto was.  I said he was an economist.  He asked me to provide details.  I provided a quick summary of Pareto's work (after all, we did spend an entire class one school day in Economic Analysis of the Law discussing Pareto efficiency).

Trainer:  Um... well, that's not the same guy as who I'm thinking.  Basically, Pareto was this guy who had discovered a very important statistical trend that is today known as the Pareto Principle.  Blah, blah, blah...
Me:  Ugh...  /wanted to desperately explain to the guy how they're exactly the same person.

OK, quick note on teaching.  When you are teaching or training people, there will always be someone who plays "stump the prof".  I do this now and then.  I see lots of people do it.  When we do this, we're not trying to make the "prof" look bad.  We're genuinely curious about something and want it figured out through dialogue.  Or we're bored with the discussion and want to turn it into something more enlightening.  Or we're annoyed that something incorrect is being taught.  Or maybe sometimes we're just mean, but I don't think there are many who really care to do that.  They have other motives, being students.  If you're teaching and you encounter a "stump the prof" situation, don't feel embarrassed.  Don't back off.  Don't get combative.  Engage with your students.

OK, back on topic.  The Pareto principle basically describes how the majority of stuff is associated with the minority of people, causes, etc.  Normally, the numbers are 80-20: 80% of the wealth in a nation can be owned by 20% of the population; 80% of the problems are caused by 20% of the causes.  Etcetera.  We were being trained on how to identify the 20%.  Basic stuff that you learn in any business school.

When you look at movements like Occupy Wall Street, they've altered the framework a bit.  Now it's the 99% vs the 1%.  It's not like the 1% hold 99% of the wealth, but they hold a significant amount (about 40%).  Unfortunately, due to various factors, the 1% is probably a systemic, natural result.  Even if the 1% are broken down through revolution, a new 1% will just arise.  This seems to be a natural power law.

Case in point?  Look at China.  There was a lot of strife because of, among other things, the big divide between the rich and poor.  So Mao rose up and started the revolution, with the peasants landing on top.  Well, over time, we have arrived at the exact same situation again.  The wealth gap between the 1% and 99% is way bigger than what exists in the USA and is much more visible.  This is probably a simple side effect of the fact that China's population is much bigger, so percentage calculations result in amplified gross numbers.  It is very odd to hear people in the west constantly talking about how rich China is now, how China is the benefactor of the US due to being owed so much US debt, etc.  The fact is that these statements may be true at a macro level, but at a micro level inside the country, it's not such a simple picture.

There is a HUGE wealth gap between the rich and poor in China.  You have millionaires who have no problem buying tons of fancy cars, expensive brand name bags, bubble-level real estate, etc.  Then you have the girl in the bakery who's making only $150 per month, while the most basic apartment also costs $150 per month.  Lucky for most employees, the employer is usually willing to provide living quarters at a cheap price.  Of course, it usually comes out of the $150 per month, unless it's in the factory where it might be free.  Well, in the factory, you make more money, but it's a dog fight to get in, and the conditions are horrible by western standards.  Even further, there are still many who live in villages without basic plumbing.  Since the wealth gap is many times blamed on corruption, the general populace is very upset to the point where any rich girl flaunting pictures of her wealth on the web causes a national media circus (and tough questions for parents that might work for the government).  The complaints are very similar to the ones that Occupy Wall Street make about Wall Streeters and the bailouts in the US.

So we have this strange dichotomy where the west views China as very rich, with growing power, while inside China, the poor are plentiful.  This dichotomy is not made any easier from the fact that it was the peasants who took over and then sent any remaining rich/powerful/freethinking people to re-education camps.  Basically, the whole country became poor, and all the rich/powerful/freethinking people who had the means left for locales like Taiwan, HK, etc, before things got really bad.  And if you're a believer of what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers, it's hard for a people group to shake attitudes and lifestyles that have been in place for hundreds of years, meaning that it's difficult for many of these people to stop thinking like peasants.  And yet, a new 1% still arose.

Think about it.  We have a real-world experiment that turned an entire large country upside down in the quest to eliminate wealth gaps, but failed in that quest.  The corresponding interesting question is whether any other ideas would really solve the issue.  It's easy to say that China failed to solve wealth gaps because Communism doesn't work as an economic system (which is an entirely different subject altogether and will not be discussed here).  The thing is, capitalism hasn't really solved the problem yet either, if it will ever.  Very few countries in the world actually have solved it.  The exceptions are a small number of European nations, but the difficulty scale of their problems is much smaller due to the smaller population sizes.  Never mind that they have their own economic issues right now.

If anything, I think the symptoms of the Pareto principle will be more entrenched over time.  There are a number of factors that I believe will feed into this, but I think the primary ones to consider are globalization and technology.  I think these two factors do more to destroy jobs than anything else.  But don't label me as a left-wing free market hater.  I also think they do more to create jobs than anything else.  The problem lies in how to cross the chaotic chasm in between point A (jobs destroyed) and point B (jobs created).

Globalization is the easy one to analyze.  If you open up international trade so that anything can be manufactured and sold anywhere, simple product manufacturing (eg. clothing, accessories, trinkets, etc) will always be manufactured wherever the labour is the cheapest because not a lot of capital investment is required (relatively speaking).  So the jobs for manufacturing simple things will disappear in the wealthier nations and become abundant in the poorer nations.  We saw this happen with simple manufacturing moving from western nations to Asian nations like Korea and China.  Now it is happening again, moving from China to Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.  Imagine that.  China is losing jobs because of globalization.

Once again, the important question?  In the wealthier nations, who are losing those jobs?  Well, those jobs are usually filled with unskilled labour, so therefore cheap labour.  It's the uneducated, unskilled, and poorly paid people who are losing the jobs.  And because they're uneducated, unskilled, and poorly paid, it's obviously difficult for them to find new jobs, once the jobs they were capable of doing get moved overseas.  The effect is exacerbated when even office jobs like tech support, legal support work, etc, get shipped overseas due to outsourcing.  So the rich will stay rich, and the poor will stay poor.

It is interesting to note that for high-tech manufacturing, many people in the industry agree that cost of labour does not factor primarily into the decision.  Read interesting articles on that here.  And here.  And here.  And finally here.  I remember hearing a talk from the CEO of a new solar panel company based in Vancouver, BC.  He was asked by an audience member why the company chose to build a manufacturing plant in the BC interior instead of in China.  He said it was because he was proud to be making a Canadian company and the cost really isn't that different.  The main cost is in the capital investment, plant equipment, etc.  That cost is similar whether in Canada or in China.  The labour as a percentage of cost is tiny and therefore doesn't factor into the decision.

Technology is a bit more out of left field.  Technology is supposed to free our minds and give us new abilities, or at least that's what the advocates say.  And to a certain extent, that's true.  It is the case that people in the middle east were actually naming their newborn babies Facebook to celebrate how social media and the web had played a part in coordinating the Arab Spring Uprisings.  It is the case that there was no way you could make money as an SEO expert 20 years ago (the concept didn't even exist because the web didn't really exist).  But it is also the case that the primary purpose of technology in a company is to increase productivity.  And the most natural way for it to increase productivity (perhaps the only way) is to automate tasks.

This hit home for me only recently, as I reflected upon my career.  I started out as a software developer for a telecom company in Canada.  We were a special swat team that went throughout the organization to automate solutions for difficult or stupid business problems.  All of us were recent grads from university.  So you had a bunch of bright-eyed kids automating systems and processes being handled by people who had worked at a job for 20 years.  All of a sudden, no job.  Said people were either given a package for early retirement or reassigned to new work.  Except within a few years, maybe that new work would get automated too.

Technology has a huge ability to create new opportunities.  But in the process, it destroys the old ways.  It is a natural economic phenomenon labeled by Joseph Schumpeter as creative destruction (well, according to Wikipedia, maybe he adapted the idea from the Marxists).  The problem exists when the people who were depending on the old ways for work cannot easily retrain themselves for the new economic paradigm.  And when you have a ton of people who are unable to easily reinvent themselves, you have a lot of unemployment.  I remember discussing things in a PMP prep class with some fellow classmates.  One lady had commented on how her company implemented SAP and then was able to lay off the entire accounting department.  This technology stuff is scarily powerful.  P&G is laying off thousands from its marketing departments after discovering how much cheaper it is to just market stuff on the web with some web marketing specialists (greater economies of scale for one thing).

The important question this time: why can't these people reinvent themselves easily?  First off, reinventing oneself is not an overnight thing.  People go to school for years to attain the skills they have for a job.  Or they're an apprentice for some time for some trade.  Either way, you're looking at a significant time investment and income drop just to get your foot in the door.  And employers don't want rookies in various fields where they have need.  No, employers want qualified people that can hit the ground running.  It costs too much to take inexperienced people and train them up.  Especially when those inexperienced people are demanding high wages because they still have a mortgage and kids to feed.  It's only after reading about the stories of the long-term unemployed that I realize there's a huge disconnect here between what technology hopes to do and how newly unnecessary employees are supposed to become employable again.  There are jobs out there right now.  High-quality software engineers simply cannot be found in a very big tech boom.  Again, SEO experts didn't even exist 20 years ago.

What's the answer?  I don't know.  There are much smarter people than I working on these issues.  That being said, I think we can conclude that the most important skills people need these days and well into the future are not in specific technical skills or domain knowledge.  That comes and goes and may get totally automated tomorrow.  Traders?  Probably.  Doctors?  Possibly.  Software developers?  Heck, I saw prototypes of stuff that automated simple application development back in 2005.  The list goes on.  Yeah, some small niche of jobs in whatever category has always remained after getting totally automated.  But that doesn't comfort the vast majority of people in those job categories who had to reinvent themselves.

Rather, the most important skills are probably the ability to learn and adapt to new environments quickly, think on one's feet, be creative and innovative, and take calculated risks to do new things.  These are skills that people already need to learn today.  But they'll probably be even more important in the future for that time when your job is suddenly outsourced to another country or automated out from under your feet.  Technology's capability to change the world seems to be only accelerating, so it'll be harder and harder to adapt in a timely manner.  Good luck, huh?

The last thing I'll say is that I think it's unfortunate when people think they can solve the negative effects of globalization and technology through policy.  If the two things are unstoppable forces, no policy is going to prevent them from doing their damage.  The policies that need to be created need to focus on containing the damage and prepping for the new reality so that the pain endured during the transition is minimal and everyone is ready to party rock when the transition is complete.  That would probably involve a lot of education and training programs, but hopefully not for skills that will become obsolete quickly.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Notes on The Karate Kid Remake

1.  This movie was a lot better than I thought it would be.  It almost makes me forgive them for not calling it The Kung Fu Kid.  Almost.

2.  The athleticism shown in this movie is way better than the original.  But are children's kung fu tournaments in Beijing really that violent?  Seriously, some of them look like preteens.  Not one looks a day over 13.

3.  I understand why Daniel looks so small in the original Karate Kid compared to the bullies.  But this remake seems to overdo it a tad.  Dude, she looks WAY older than him.

4.  This movie did not provide a good representation of DDR.  But girl can move.

5.  I remember watching the Mighty Ducks movies and thinking that I've never seen midget hockey get so much media in real life.  I wonder if these children's kung fu tournaments actually get that kind of rock star treatment in real life.

6.  I think any normal kid would have gotten tired of the jacket thing after two days, max.

7.  Pretty faithful to the original story, but nice twist at the end on switching masters.  You can tell there won't be a Karate Kid 3 remake anyway.  :)

8.  Do people really do that with their chopsticks in China and continue eating?  I know some people think they're uncivilized and all, but I've never seen it happen. For that matter, I haven't see anyone drink water straight out of the tap without boiling it either....  betcha Jackie Chan's water was filtered and boiled for that scene.

9.  Was the mom hitting on Jackie Chan?

10.  When did he have time to practice the cobra hypnosis?