Friday, November 30, 2012

A Changsha Bachelor in a Red Bra

Why did I see a young man in tights, red women's underwear, and glowing heart glasses walking down a pedestrian street last night Changsha?

young man wearing red women's underwear and glowing heart glasses in Changsha, China

He was handing out free candy and cigarettes, of course.

For a little more context, he was "celebrating" his upcoming wedding and the end of his bachelorhood. The candies' wrappers pictured a couple being married. Several onlookers said they found this public display to be rather unusual, and a number of passersby captured the moment with their mobile phone cameras. His friends provided enthusiastic encouragement when I asked to take a photo.

Best wishes to him and his future wife. I hope she likes him in red.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Deconstructing Mental Boxes

Several years ago while working on a fascinating research project at Microsoft China, an interaction designer tried to motivate me with a phrase I referenced in my previous post: "You should try to think outside the box!"

Staring at him straight in the eyes, I slowly and emphatically said, "I don't even have a box."

The designer appeared to be rather surprised by my response. After letting it soak in for a moment, I proceeded to animatedly explain that I considered the phrase to be sometimes overused or misused. Fortunately, he was greatly entertained by my commentary. And for better or worse, I never heard him use the phrase again except in a joking fashion.

Shortly after that incident, I came across a video which gave the phrase a well-deserved treatment and captured some of what I had expressed. I recommend watching this great example of, um, thinking outside the box.

outside the box from joseph Pelling on Vimeo.

Thinking Outside the Internet

Much of the research for guiding the design of improved and new technologies focuses on how people use existing technologies. However, knowing what people are doing and thinking when they are not using a technology can also be valuable. To provide a sense of how this is true, I will share two examples of research relevant to online services. The first is about a company familiar to many, and the second is about my own research.

In the MIT Technology Review Tom Simonite discussed his involvement in a recent user research project conducted by Google:
For three days last month, at eight randomly chosen times a day, my phone buzzed and Google asked me: “What did you want to know recently?” The answers I provided were part of an experiment involving me and about 150 other people. It was designed to help the world’s biggest search company understand how it can deliver information to users that they’d never have thought to search for online.

Billions of Google searches are made every day—for all kinds of things—but we still look elsewhere for certain types of information, and the company wants to know what those things are.

“Maybe [these users are] asking a friend, or they have to look up a manual to put together their Ikea furniture,” says Jon Wiley, lead user experience designer for Google search. Wiley helped lead the research exercise, known as the Daily Information Needs Study.

If Google is to achieve its stated mission to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible,” says Wiley, it must find out about those hidden needs and learn how to serve them. And he says experience sampling—bugging people to share what they want to know right now, whether they took action on it or not—is the best way to do it. “Doing that on a mobile device is a relatively new technology, and it’s getting us better information that we really haven’t had in the past,” he says.
In the pursuit of improving its online services, Google is looking beyond its own invaluable data on online behavior and trying to understand its users' needs even when they are not using Google's online services. Read the article here for more thoughts about how this research might impact what Google offers.

Sometimes the "hidden needs" Jon Wiley mentioned can be first suggested in what is openly displayed on a wall. In a post about a dormitory room at Changsha's Central South University of Forestry and Technology, I wrote I would later "provide a small taste of how visiting these rooms can aid in the design of new technologies". One example can seen in the bulletin board I noticed in the back of the room.

bulletin board with notes in a college dormitory room in Changsha, China

The four female students who lived in the room used the board to post notes with their hopes, feelings, questions, and inspirational messages. One note expressed a student's desire to have enough money to treat her roommates to a meal at KFC as she had previously promised. Another expressed a student's sadness due to missing her boyfriend.

So many questions can now be asked, such as:
  • Why are they posting these particular messages on this bulletin board?
  • Did they also share these thoughts online? If not, why not?
  • Do other people post notes in a similar manner?
  • Are there other places where they share their thoughts?

Researching these and other questions has taken me to many more places in China than a single dorm room in Changsha. Although those places don't exist on the Internet, the stories they tell provide clues about what a variety of online services could offer and how they should be designed.

These examples of Google's and my own research provides hints of the value in conducting research that pushes beyond what may seem to be obvious boundaries. A common phrase people use to try to inspire innovation is "think outside the box". In the case of designing online services, it can be better to say "think outside the Internet".

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Relatively Untouched Alley

As I walked down a touristy "old street" in Changsha I paused for a few moments to soak in the scene at a far less touristy alley branching off of it.

alley off of Taiping Jie in Changsha, China

I would not be surprised if within another year or two it is filled with shops and cafes. But for now, it feels a little older than the old street.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Changsha Dinner

In case you were wondering what genuine home-cooked Hunan cuisine* could look like in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, then wonder no more.

various home-cooked Hunan-style dishes for a dinner in Changsha, China

Included in the delicious meal were dishes of lotus root & corn, potato, pork & cauliflower, chicken, fish, and so on... Of course, much of it was appropriately spicy per the glorious Hunan cooking laws**.

This is representative of yet another reason to meet new people wherever you explore. This also partly explains why I will not be posting anything else today. More will appear here tomorrow. For now, I will publish this before the above photo makes me hungry again***.

But first, a big thanks to my new friends. In partial return for their kindness, two of them now share possession of a quacking pig. They seemed to truly appreciate it.

* Known as Xiang cuisine (Xiāngcài -- 湘菜) in China
** It just seems such laws must implicitly exist.
*** Too late...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Seat of Hoses

Despite some nearby small stools to sit on, this kid chose at another option at a shop in Changsha while enjoying a lollypop.

small child sitting on a pile of hoses at a shop in Changsha, China

More on non-stool-related topics later.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Stool-less Break

young female sitting on the ground and holding a plugged-in mobile phone
Taking her break behind the counter at a bakery shop in Changsha, China

I'm not sure I would call it typical, but I have seen scenes similar to the one above many other times in China. And the next time I stopped by this bakery shop, the young woman in the photo was sitting in the same place, but she was eating noodles for her dinner.

Sometimes you don't even have a stool.

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Thanksgiving in Changsha

Last night, I was able to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner meal in Changsha thanks to a Thanksgiving-themed buffet at a hotel. I ate and drank my fill. Actually, I ate more than that. And some more. There were some Texan ranch owners wearing their cowboy hats at the restaurant. Several Italians and of course some Chinese joined in the fun as well.

Afterwards, I stopped by a favorite bar and had a glass of their home-brewed India Pale Ale. I also had some great conversations with the Filipino band during their breaks. They really liked the small pig I had just bought. When squeezed it makes duck-like sounds. No, it's not a real pig. One of the bar staff later tried to take the pig as partial payment for my drink. However, it didn't fit in the cash register.

plastic pig atop an open cash register at a bar in Changsha, China

Afterwards, I saved a rather large rat from what I suspect would have been a most unfortunate fate. Yes, it was a real rat. I will admit I did not expect it to run more than halfway up my leg for safety from the two people who seemed intent on its demise. I believe there was a brief moment while it hung on my pants when the rat and I looked at each other trying to figure out where this newfound connection would lead. After that special moment, I left the rat in safer conditions and walked away while chatting with two friendly (to me, not to rats) guys from Changsha. I assume the rat is now off doing what rats do best when they are not on my leg or being cornered by humans amusing themselves.

And those are the highlights to my Thanksgiving evening in Changsha--plenty for me and a rat to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Christmas Creep in Changsha

Even in Changsha, China, one can find a bit of Christmas creep.

several young men dressed up as Santa Claus for a promotion at a shopping center in Changsha, China
Outside a large shopping center

I am now reminded of my visit to a Starbucks in Shanghai this past July. As I tried to accomplish some work I determined the mood was a bit off. So I asked the staff at the counter why they were playing jazz-style Christmas music.

"This is Christmas music?" one asked.

Since they weren't aware they were creating a Christmas mood, it may not be fair to label it as Christmas creep. I also remember a Hunan restaurant in Shanghai that years ago kept up some Christmas decorations year round. They just liked the look.

After I expressed my confidence about the music's identity to the Starbucks staff, I said nothing more and walked back to my seat.

I was not surprised when about a minute later the music suddenly changed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Stools in China

In an earlier post I shared some details about beds in China to provide relevant context for considering the thin mattresses often found on college dormitory beds in China. Another feature of the dorm rooms I shared here that received comments from readers can be seen in the following photo from the post about a dorm room at Dalian Maritime University.

Most of the comments mentioned that the small stools looked uncomfortable.

Although some have chairs, I've seen similar stools in many of the dormitories I have visited across China. I am not going to get into the issues of why they may be so typical or what students think of them. Instead, like with the thin mattresses, I will provide some context from the non-college world.

The simplest way to sum it up is that small stools are common in a number of settings in China. To provide a taste, I will share some photos from central areas of Changsha, Hunan province. It was easy to find relevant examples just by looking through my previously taken photos.

To start, here is the inside of a restaurant with a more traditional decor.

log stools at a restaurant in Changsha, China.

In my experience, the log stools are not common, but on the left side of the photo is a glimpse of more standard square traditional-style stools. Round traditional-style stools can also be found in some restaurants and I recall seeing them more often in the city where I was previously--Guangzhou.

But more of the Changsha food-establishments I have seen use the following types of stools.

plastic stools outside at snack shop in Changsha, China
Outside a snack shop

Outside a dessert restaurant

Outside a restaurant serving steamed dishes

Inside a restaurant

Outside a restaurant serving Japanese-style food

Just to be clear, not all restaurants in Changsha use stools. Chairs can be found in many of them. But I'd argue you would miss out on some great food and experiences if you had a strong aversion to stools.

Restaurants are not the only domain of stools in Changsha. The following are just a few examples of where else they can be found.

At a market

At a park

At one of the many marriage photography studios on a pedestrian shopping street
(note: the workers sat on stools as well)

I do not claim that this sample is fully representative for Changsha, but I am confident that these are not extreme or unusual examples. Variation in stool use can be found across China. For example, stools appear to be less common at restaurants in Shanghai than they are somewhere like Changsha. Regardless, stools are a part of regular life for many in China, and this context can impact perceptions of the stools found in college dormitories.

This post has made me realize there is much more to say about stools in China, but I'll have to leave at this. In a later post, I will discuss another set of issues about college dorm life in China relating not to sleeping or sitting but to drinking and washing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Three Wheeled Distractions

I have been distracted lately, but more is on the way. I considered writing about my distractions, but I decided they would be of little interest. I would say more about why they would be of little interest, but that in itself would be boring too. So, here is a photo:

man in front of his motor tricycle cart in Changsha, China

This man in Changsha seemed excited to see me the other day and happily posed for a photo. I was excited he was excited and also impressed by his shiny motor-tricycle-cart.

For a photo of a non-motorized tricycle cart see a post from last year with photos and a video of scenes that may now be forever gone, "Slowly Vanishing: Shanghai's 'Old' Xiaonanmen". On that note, the area where I met the above man is now experiencing its own share of vanishing scenes.

More about that, technology, and college dormitory stools later.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Something Fishy in Changsha

Fish in a variety of sauces for sale at a street market in Changsha, China

Now you can make an educated guess about what I ate for dinner tonight. After picking up some fish, I had another food-related experience. Even if I wanted to hide it, I am not sure I could since it might soon appear on a Chinese television show.

More about that later. In the meantime, if you desire some more fish-related posts, you can check out the soup I had last year in Taipei, a fish dish I enjoyed at a Portuguese restaurant in Macau, a hanging fish at Hong Kong's Lamma Island, or an eye-opening story about a Chinese woman's childhood dreams that someday she would be able to eat more meat.

Changsha Fireworks

fireworks over the Xiang River in Changsha, Hunan province, China

I spent part of my Saturday evening watching fireworks over the Xiang River in Changsha, China. This impressive display in the land of fireworks could probably outdo those of many U.S. cities for holidays such as the Fourth of July and New Year's.

As I enjoyed the show, I wondered what staging the weekly event must cost and whether the money couldn't be put to better use for the city's people. I also had little doubt that one of the last things Changsha needs is more air pollution.

Nevertheless, the fireworks proved to be a worthy distraction and they lifted my spirits. Assuming others felt the same, the show may indeed be money well spent.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hard Beds in China

After what seemed like a successful fix this morning, I am still having challenges connecting through my VPN in China. Nevertheless, I will try to get back into the swing of things with several posts responding to some readers' earlier comments or emails. So on from the Great Firewall to the topic of beds in China.

On a post showing the inside of a dorm room at Zhaotong Teachers College a reader left this comment:
Going through all the dorm room pictures, I noticed one thing in common: The mattresses on the beds are VERY thin. Is that common everywhere you go, or is it just for dorms? And if it is just for dorms, have you found any exceptions to the thin mattresses?
A number of other people also asked about the beds, apparently because they appeared to offer a less-than-soft surface for sleeping.

I have seen a rather broad variety of beds in homes and hotels in China. There is a relevant trait many share to varying degrees. According to Western standards they would be considered hard no matter how thick a mattress they may have, if any. For travelers to China who desire softer beds, foreign hotel chains in particular can be a haven. There are also some mid-range Chinese hotel chains that offer softer-then-normal beds which makes me wonder if they are becoming more common or preferred. Regardless, in many cities even the priciest Chinese hotels can have beds that don't feel much softer than the floor.

I will avoid delving into the topics of why hard beds are so typical in China, why many Chinese people may prefer them, and what the future may hold for beds in China. My main point at the moment is simply that hard sleeping surfaces are common in China--a point that may change perceptions of the dorm beds seen in the photos I shared. In an upcoming post, I will share a similar example where broader knowledge about life in China can make a difference in evaluating its dormitories.

Finally, there is one exception I have seen to the style of dormitory beds seen in the earlier posts. A couple of the college dorms I visited appeared to have beds with much thicker and softer mattresses. In all the cases I saw, they were dorms specifically for foreign students. But those dorms are another story.

Friday, November 16, 2012

More Great Firewall Fun

In my previous post sharing some of the recent challenges in using a VPN to get through China's Great Firewall, I mentioned that I expected to find my own situation to be much better or much worse the next morning.

At first, all seemed fine and I was able to use my VPN without much problem. However, later in the day it was almost entirely unusable. And now it seems to be OK again*. My hope is that with the ending of China's 18th National Congress on Wednesday and the unveiling of the new leadership on Thursday that VPN access will not continue to be such a challenge.

So while I have a working VPN connection, here's a photo:

Bridge crossing the Xiang River in Changsha, China

Perhaps you can find some symbolism in it. Perhaps I am just in the mood to share a photo of a bridge.

Whatever the case, I hope to return to more typical posts tomorrow assuming my Internet connection in China is back to "normal".

*Update: Of course just after publishing this, some problems with the VPN connection returned. Ah... time to sleep.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

China's Great Firewall Raised Higher for a Party

As Paul Mozur noted last week: recent weeks concern about the Internet has taken primacy as access to websites – especially foreign websites and virtual private networks, or VPNs, which allow users to circumvent Chinese Internet filters – has deteriorated.

The likely reason is the weeklong 18th Party Congress, a highly scripted but nevertheless critical political event scheduled to culminate with the unveiling of Communist Party’s next generation of leaders.

Chinese authorities routinely move to exert more control over the Internet around big meetings and politically sensitive dates, including by disrupting traffic to foreign websites outside the country’s censorship system, commonly referred to as the Great Firewall. But a number of users have complained of unusually frequent disruptions in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress...
See the article here for more details.

I too have had growing problems using my VPN during the past several weeks and have needed customer support from the U.S. on several occasions to resolve them. My impression is that some of the methods being used by the Great Firewall are more sophisticated than what I have experienced before.

At this moment, I can only maintain brief connections to my VPN before being disconnected. However, unlike previous times I can't rule out that there isn't a more general problem with my Internet connection. So I will apply a method that seems apt for this hour: I will go to sleep. My recent experience is that things will be either be much better or much worse when I wake up.

FYI -- without a functional VPN I am not able to post here since Blogger remains blocked in China. This and the fact that I have spent much time trying to better understand the blocking are some of the reasons I have not gotten around to several posts I had planned for this week. They're still in the pipeline though.

I will only be able to publish this post by waiting for a brief window during which I am connected to the VPN--assuming one opens again.

So far this is not working. Hopefully this can slip through on one of the tries...

More later.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Photographic Interlude

Street scene in Changsha, China

More is on the way.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A New Google Phone in China

Google fans, are you seeking a way to better show your passion for Google? If so, then I may have seen the phone for you at a shop in Changsha, Hunan province.

Mobile phone with the Google logo on its back in Changsha, China

Of course, the Google phone seen above runs Android--in this case OS version 2.3.7.

Android-style homescreen on the Google phone

If you are not sold on the Android experience, though, when turning on the phone you can chose to have it simulate an iPhone-like interface instead (warning: some may now question whether you are a true Google fan).

iPhone style homescreen on the Google phone

The back of the phone's box provides more details about it, including the wide range of colors available (it also lists a slightly different OS version than what the phone itself reported).

back of Google phone box showing phone specs

The woman who showed me the phone was quick to say it was not made by Google. Curiously, the box did not indicate the real brand but did include the Google name in the upper-right corner.

front of Google phone box

However, booting up the phone identified the brand as Awang (A王).

Has Awang received approval from Google to use its name on the phone? I have not asked Google, but I see signs Awang has not followed some of Google's published trademark guidelines. So Google fans, maybe you might want to buy a Google wooden cricket set instead.

I don't plan to conduct an in-depth review of the phone, so just two more quick points:
  • Even if Google did not grant permission for their name to be used on this phone, they can find some solace in the fact a Chinese company presumably believed that using the Google name could benefit their sales in China.
  • I doubt the Google phone will be making an appearance at the "Android Store" I saw in Zhuhai, especially since all the phones being sold there were made by well-known brands. I'd say Awang has a long ways to go before reaching that stage.
More later about the other mobile phones I have seen for sale in Changsha and how they compare to what I have seen elsewhere in China (see here and here for earlier examples of mobile phones "borrowing" Apple's trademarks). And I will also soon share some thoughts about recent news relating to a more pressing concern for Google. Although Google might approve of the Chinese government blocking sales of this Awang phone, overall Google would be thrilled to see less, not more, blocking in China.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dog Day

This sums up some of my day this Saturday:

Dog chilling out in Changsha, China

More tomorrow.

Nature Needs Civilization in China

A couple of days ago I shared a photo of a Changsha park sign which suggested:
Civilization is the most beautiful scene.
As I was looking through some photos I took in Changsha over three years ago, I was surprised to come across a related message on a sign I saw near Chuan Shipo Lake at Yuelu Mountain.

sign reading Human needs green, and green needs civilization.

The translation seems relatively OK (compared to many other signs I have seen in China) on a word-by-word basis, although "human" could possibly be replaced with "humanity" and "needs" with "yearns for". Regardless, a sign with the word "civilization" has again left me pondering its meaning.

I fear that I could write a tome about my thoughts. So I will simply say that I would be curious to know the writer's interpretation of the message.

This Chinese phrase can be found in a least a few other places. For example, it is used as a title for an article on an Anhui province high school's website. The article describes the desire to make the school more "green". It is worth checking out just for the photos of classrooms at the high school.

And on that school note, more on college dormitories in China is on the way. In the meantime, I will leave the sign above for further pondering.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Time of Change at Beizheng Street in Changsha

In a post about how China's nationwide stimulus for the economy may have led to an increase in forced evictions of people from their homes I wrote:
A few weeks ago in Changsha, Hunan province, I was walking through a neighborhood marked for demolition. While there I encountered a man who seemed curious about my presence. After he expressed his happiness in meeting an American, he had one parting message for me: the people who lived there received far too little compensation for their homes.
The neighborhood I mentioned can be found around Beizheng Street (北正街) which is close to a popular and rapidly developing shopping district in central Changsha. When I first visited Changsha over 3 years ago I noticed a number of similar buildings in other areas marked for demolition with a red 拆 (chāi) inside a circle. Now, it appears the preferred symbol is a red "征" (zhēng) inside a circle. 拆 roughly means "demolished" and 征 roughly means "acquisition".

Below are photos taken several weeks ago when I visited Beizheng Street and some nearby alleys. People still went about their daily lives and most buildings remained standing. But even if the red symbols seen everywhere were not direct in their meaning, signs of the change to come were obvious.

I recommend also taking a look at at the photos taken over four years ago shared in a blog post by Sheng Yong (盛勇) here. Not only by coincidence do at least two of the photos capture scenes found below, but they show the fuller life that could once be found at Beizheng Street, the street where Sheng grew up.

Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

deteriorating home at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

book shop at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

man with tricycle cart next to a partially demolished building at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

entrance to alley at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

man riding a bike next to a building marked for demolition at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

larger buildings at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

meat for sale at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

girl reading at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

clothes for sale on Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

meat and vegetables for sale near Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

arched entryway to an alley near Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

several people watching boy in an electric toy car near Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

torn up Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

woman carrying bags next to a demolished building at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

boy at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

Padaria New Mario bakery chain store at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

playing mahjong at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

man riding a motorbike at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

man walking with a cane next to vegetables for sale at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China

man walking next to a building marked for demolition at Beizheng Street in Changsha, China