27 September 2006

The Hand of Buddha

The Hand of Buddha

Not about China

For men. Really.


26 September 2006

The Two Chinas (China: 4 of 5)

Wuxi is a "medium-sized" Chinese city, but when you're downtown, you could be pretty much anywhere. Givenchy and Dior, Citibank and Nike surround you, and smartly-dressed, high-income young people swarm around you to get to the shops and stimulate the economy. Moms struggle to keep the youngsters in line and kids demand new toys. Even though Wuxi isn't the cutting edge of international cities in China (for that, go to Beijing), the downtown shows a future direction for China: brand-conscious and consumer-oriented, rapidly increasing in wealth and confidence. Egalitarian for opportunity and especially for gender.

This China is reinforced by the bank-built skyscrapers, the export industries, and the miles and miles of high-tech indsutrial factories that surround Wuxi.

The other China is still lurking around, though. The bureaucrats are omnipresent, playing an even bigger role than in Japan. Scarily, their promotion depends on real estate: the more impressive industrial parks built on the mayor/governor/director's watch, the greater the chance he'll be promoted. While this sytem, when it works, produces rapid development in a way we can't imagine (the line at one presentation was: "everything takes half the time in China"), it has a built-in tendancy to overbuild, an expectation that demand for real estate will come into existence merely because the buildings are built, and a built-in tendancy to collusion with the real estate moguls.

Going with that is the lack of trust in the market. In China, 1/3rd of the GDP is still from state industries, and the government's reach extends far outside of that third. Decisions about which industries are valuable, which shows should be shown on which channels, and a million other items we have long since assigned to the market's invisible hand are still governmental fiat in China. The Chinese I met are *very* educated about the outside world, so they understand this well; they're just not ready to let all these elements of culture loose.

I'm betting on the first one, though: the Chinese I met were all hard-working, enaged in their lives and their country, and looking for help in order to build it. As they move up the socioeconomic scale, they'll create a domestic market for products which will dwarf any other national market -- there are, after all, a billion Chinese people -- and most of the products to fill it will, convienently, already be built in their own factories.

Chinese Traffic (China: 3 of 5)

China drives on the right-hand side of the road (a gift from the brief American occupation at the end of WWII). That put it a big step up from Japan in my willingness-to-drive book because my ingrained instinct of moving to the right works. But even so I'd much rather drive in Japan than China -- Chinese drivers are terrifying!

For starters, you have to imagine a world where all the lane lines separated two lanes of traffic moving in the same direction are just gone. China's roads actually have perfectly fine lane markers, but they aren't relevant to the driving habits of China's drivers. We had a number of taxi and private drivers over the week in China, and every single one of them casually drifted around the road based on conveience, attention, and guesses at upcoming traffic. Breakdown lanes, it turns out, make handy passing lanes. Who knew?

This tendancy to wander on the road might not be so scary if it wasn't for the fact that China has a smaller "personal space" for cars as well as people. Cars on a Chinese road drive *incredibly* close together. It's routine for cars moving at the speed of traffic to be only far enough apart that the rear-view mirror doesn't hit the other car.

When you're in that situation, the role of a car horn is considerably changed. In the US, even on our relatively belligerent east coast, honking the horn means "I think you did something wrong." In China, there's far too little space to wait and honk only when the other person has actually done something -- you honk pre-emptively to make sure the other driver or rider doesn't do anything. So, in China, the meaning of the horn becomes simply "I'm here". We had a particularly noise-making taxi driver on our way to the giant Buddha tourist wier who honked, on average, every ten seconds.

Thankfully, the speed of traffic is usually 40-50mph instead of the 70mph I routinely drive in the US. But the scariness level is more than matched because the 90% of Chinese who don't own a car are also on the road riding a whole variety of scooters and bicycles (and usually without a helmet, to boot). It's one thing to be only six inches from another car with both of you weaving in and out of traffic without concern for lanes -- much more frightening when you add vulnerable humans riding bikes and scooters to the mix. The biggest roads have separated lanes for scooters and bikes, but many of the streets are a complete jumble.

Sadly, this does seem to give rise to a lot of traffic accidents -- we saw several during the week, and everyone had a story of a friend or relative who had been involved in one.

China isn't lawless -- everyone stops for red lights. But once the light at an intersection is green, everyone proceeds directly from where they are to where they're going. Details like left-turn lanes (again, nicely marked on the road) are cheerfully ignored if it can produce a 1-2 car advantage.

So, compared to all that, merely learning to drive on the left seems easy. Japanese car rental, here I come!

China Likes Their Cars (China: 2 of 5)

The biggest scary thing I learned on my trip to China is: China is car-oriented.

I had been to Japan and Hong Kong before I went to China, and so my impressions of Asia was necessarily colored. I figured China would be pretty mass-transit-oriented. It's so not true.

Shanghai and Wuxi, the towns in China were I spent my time, are very much developing along the lines of sprawling factory towns like Chicago. The fertile plain that once surrounded Shanghai is now fertile with the crop of export-oriented factories, each on their own multi-hectare plot of land complete with parking lot and truck dock. There are shiny new multi-lane separated roads running through these industrial parks speeding the always-weaving fleet of taxis, trucks, buses, and private cars on their way.

To be fair, China still uses a lot more alternate forms of transport than the car: a lot of people take company shuttle buses, bicycles, or scooters to work. That's what accounts for the fact that only about 10% of Chinese own a car. But the other 90% of Chinese want a car, and given the rate of development of the economy they're going to get one before too long.

China already has a lot of car-oriented infrastructure: besides all the boulevards, the major cities such as Shanghai are plumbed with freeways, bridges and tunnels. But as China sees the factor-of-five explosion in cars they'll get over the next decade, and as even more of the rural population comes to the cities to work in those shiny new factories, the traffic levels and pollution levels of today will seem like faint memories.

China is Big (China: 1 of 5)

At my last stop on the trip to China, Shanghai University School of Digital Media Arts, one of my hosts asked what I thought of China so far.

After thinking about it for a minute, I said, "It's big." More than anything else, this trip changed the incredible size of China from an abstract to a concrete fact for me.

Most of my trip was in Wuxi, which all the books (and my hosts) described as a "pleasant, medium-sized town on the shore of Lake Taihu" *. I arrived after dark, so didn't have much chance to assess the town. Since I had never heard of Wuxi before this trip, I was asking my translator, Super, about the differences between Wuxi and Shanghai (which is China's biggest city, about two hours' drive from Wuxi). Wuxi doesn't have shopping, Wuxi doesn't have traffic as bad, Wuxi has better food because it's on the shore of the lake, etc., etc. Finally, I asked, "How many people live in Wuxi?" "Oh," he said, "it's medium-sized, about 5 million people."

Hmm, about the size of the entire San Francisco Bay Area (five times the size of San Francisco itself; about the size of Chicago). Later, during the day, we were being bussed around from point to point in the city, and the size of Wuxi was reinforced: this place is *huge*. Mile after mile of new, high-tech factories line Wuxi's recently repaved streets. It combines a parade of familiar brand names (Sony, Panasonic, Goldstar) with Chinese companies whose names we've never heard (Wuxi Electric Coil Company). But either way the factories stretch on and on.

Of course, Wuxi is hardly unique as a industrial growth engine in China: you can choose Suzhou, Hanzhou, Guanzhou, Guangdong, Shanghai itself, Tiantsu, Xingdao, Chengdu... In fact, that's the real point: in China, a five-million-person rapidly-growing wunderkind industrial city isn't anything to remark on.

That's because... China is big.

* One of the wierdnesses of language translation: All English-language guidebooks refer to it as Lake Taihu, but in fact, 'hu' is the Chinese word for Lake, so "Lake Taihu" is really "Lake Tai Lake".

09 September 2006

Push! Struggle! Assist! against confusing UIs!

I've been playing Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! (Push! Fight! Support!) which is a totally awesome rhythm game where you control a three-man male cheerleading squad attempting to cheer on people in the course of their everyday lives in Tokyo (elementary school kid in a dodgeball game; office lady trying to win the eye of the rising young executive; or my favorite, a violinist fighting stomach flu). A bit wacky for American tastes, don't expect to see this in BestBuy anytime soon.

This game has the a flagrant example of bad UI purely through layout (certainly this is exacerbated because I'm playing it in Japanese). After the startup screens, you're presented with the choice at right, with the top choice highlighted.

It turns out this is the game difficulty screen, which you might have guessed. What you probably wouldn't guess is that the difficult choice is on top, and is the default! The top button says "kakan ni ouen" ("to boldly support") and the bottom button says "kigaru ni ouen" ("to cheerfully support"). Several people I've talked to about this game -- and myself, before I looked up the ideographic characters in a Japanese dictionary -- commented on how hard the game was. That's because we were playing it on the "hard" setting, misled by the default and the ordering of the buttons on this screen! Like most games, you're better off learning the rules via the "cheerfully support" setting before tacking the harder "boldly support" option.

UI lesson of the day: always put the "easy" choice at the top, and make it the default!

07 September 2006

Durable *and* Absorbent

My friend MJ just introduced me to Perry Bible Fellowship.

My favorite: http://www.pbfcomics.com/?cid=PBF105AD-Durab_Inc.gif#174

04 September 2006

Sad Story

About a depopulated village in rural Japan. It happens to be near where I went to language school in Kanazawa.


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