Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More Clues for "Thanksgiving in China"

In my previous post, I asked if anyone could figure out where I spent my Thanksgiving based on a photo of the city. Nobody has yet responded with the correct answer, but there have been requests for more clues before I reveal the answer.

So, here are two more photos:

Despite the very different scenery from the previous photo, the locations in the three photos are all within walking distance of each other. The above photos should provide some help since they include the city's most famous (and very central) lake and at least one feature that is rather noticeable in a detailed satellite view.

No hints for which province. Though, there is a clue in the above photos that can rule out a number of regions.

I'll wait a couple more days to see if anyone can now figure it out.  Other posts are on the way.

Added note: Answer here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving in China

For those who celebrated it, I hope you had a good Thanksgiving holiday.

Mine proved to be somewhat unique since I spent it here in China:

I'd be curious to know if any readers can identify the city. Email me if you want to give it a try. This could be very difficult even for those familiar with China. Cities of over 4 million people don't stand out as much in China as they may elsewhere.

I'll share the answer in a later post of some scenes from this city. The city is also the setting for an upcoming post that's a story of love, fashion, and Android.

Added notes: More clues here. Answer here.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hong Kong's Lamma Island and Cheung Chau

When Hong Kong is mentioned the pictures that come to mind may be of its intense urban density. However, Hong Kong does have some areas that are less developed and maintain a significant amount of nature. During two recent weekends I visited two of Hong Kong's "outlying" islands -- Lamma Island and Cheung Chau. Both an easy ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, they provided a welcomed change of pace. For me, the most enjoyable part was hiking their nature trails with a friend.

Here are some photos from the very enjoyable days I spent on Lamma Island and Cheung Chau:

The bay at Yung Shue Wan in Lamma Island

Plenty of dried fish for sale

bottle of Dunkertons Black Fox Cider
If dried fish isn't your thing then maybe some organic cider from the UK will do the trick.

A beach with a view of the Lamma Island power plant.

A beach with a more natural view

Sok Kuo Wan in Lamma Island

Boats in Cheung Chau

A variety of yummy seafood balls to fry up

McDonalds in Cheung Chau
A place for some other fried foods on Cheung Chau

Some quiet shade on Cheung Chau

I think a basketball fan lives here.

A view of the sunset from Cheung Chau

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hong Kong's Border: A Barrier for Many Chinese

Yesterday, as I walked on a bridge over a small river I took this photo:

people walking in one direction on an enclosed bridge

The bridge is significant because it connects immigration checkpoints for Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China. When I took the photo I had just passed through immigration in Hong Kong and was on my way to immigration in Shenzhen. In short, I needed my passport to depart Hong Kong, and yet again needed my passport, but with a Chinese visa, to enter mainland China. While Hong Kong is part of China, experiences such as this one can make it feel otherwise.

Perhaps this is no more strongly felt than by some of China's own citizens. While entering Hong Kong is simple for me as a US Citizen, with only a passport I'm granted 90 days visa-free upon arrival, it is very different for many people in mainland China. For example, here is an excerpt of some of the polices for citizens of mainland China as posted on Hong Kong's Immigration Department's web site:
Visit relatives

6. Mainland residents who wish to visit their relatives in Hong Kong are required to obtain an Exit-entry Permit for Travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macao with an "endorsement for visiting relatives (Tanqing)" from the relevant Public Security Bureau Office.

Group tours

7. Mainland residents who wish to come here for sightseeing may join the group tours organized by designated Mainland tour companies. Group tour members need to obtain an Exit-entry Permit for Travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macao and an "endorsement for group visit (Tuandui Luyou)" issued by the Public Security Bureau Office. As group tour visitors, they must arrive and depart together as a group.

Individual visits

8. Mainland residents from Guangdong Province and 28 cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Taizhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Quanzhou, Tianjin, Chongqing, Chengdu, Jinan, Shenyang, Dalian, Nanchang, Changsha, Nanning, Haikou, Guiyang, Kunming, Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou, Changchun, Hefei and Wuhan who wish to come here for sightseeing purpose in individual capacity are required to obtain an Exit-entry Permit for travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macao and an "endorsement for individual visit (Geren Luyou)" from the relevant Public Security Bureau Office.

Business visits

9. Mainland residents who wish to make business trips to Hong Kong in their private capacity are required to obtain an Exit-entry Permit for Travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macao and an "endorsement for business visit (Shangwu)" from the relevant Public Security Bureau Office.
To be clear, even if someone from mainland China has a passport they can be denied entry to Hong Kong if they have not applied in advance for a permit. And just because someone can apply for a permit doesn't mean they'll receive it. Also, people in different parts of mainland China are not treated equally. For example, point 8 only offers residents in select locations the opportunity to visit Hong Kong for sightseeing purposes if they're not a part of a group tour.

I recall one time in particular when a Chinese friend received a permit to visit Hong Kong and she was eagerly awaiting its abundant shopping opportunities (some international goods are cheaper or more available in Hong Kong than in mainland China). Unfortunately, upon getting off the bus in Hong Kong she had to immediately return to mainland China for work-related reasons. Although she wanted to return to Hong Kong the next day, she couldn't because her permit was only valid for a single entry.

A couple of months ago Su Gengsheng wrote a blog post detailing her own eye-opening experience of being denied an entry permit for Hong Kong by local police in Hunan province. A translation can be found in the post "Is Hong Kong really a part of China? Emotionally no." by Annie Lee on ChinaHush. While Su blamed a "chaotic management system" for her problems, Lee mentions another post with a different perspective:
After reading Su’s blog post, Netease certified columnist Nan Qiao commented the subject matter in his post “When will HK return to China”. He went on HK government site to check out the rules set by Hong Kong and concluded that Chinese are being discriminated from the fact that residents from 53 foreign countries such as the US, France, Japan, Britain can enter and stay in HK for up to 90 days visa-free; and residents from 11 other foreign countries get the visa-free stay for 30 days such as Costa Rica, Honduras, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait etc; and some 17 other countries’ passports get 14 days visa-free stay. Of course China is not the only one that is keep out by visa, there are a bunch of other countries too, including Afghanistan, Albania, Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya and so on.

“In HK and our central government’s eyes” wrote Nan Qiao, “are we Chinese family fellows the same as people from Afghanistan, Burundi, Cuba, North Korea, Iraq etc? People may think that these restrictions are reasonable considering mainland’s super large population. Then why Indians get to have 14 days visa-free stay in HK? Does India have a small population?”
Based on the conversations I've had, thoughts on whether and how the policy should change can vary quite a bit, particularly if comparing those of people in mainland China and Hong Kong. Whatever the justification for the policy, Nan's later comments at the end of his post touch on a broader point: what impact does the policy and its application have on how other countries treat or perceive China and its people? The answer to that question may matter more to many in mainland China than whether they can visit Hong Kong without needing to apply for a permit.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Scenes of China: Liuzhou, Guangxi

The hair salon with the computer I highlighted in my previous post was found in Liuzhou, Guangxi (map). To provide additional context, I'll share some photos from that visit to Liuzhou last year.  As with other photo series I've posted, my intent is to provide a glimpse of the people, daily lives, and environments that can be found in specific parts of China.

Some shops not far from the salon mentioned in the previous post

Several groups of people were happy to pose for a photo on top of a mountain in Longtan Park

karst scenery behind a lake
Longtan Park is close to downtown Liuzhou and includes some beautiful karst scenery

A street in downtown Liuzhou

A view of downtown Liuzhou in the midst of smog

Urban development next to karst formations

Nearby demolition and new apartment complexes under construction in the distance

A man takes a break near a distinctive bridge over the Liu River

A popular local restaurant serving the local delicacy luosi fen (螺蛳粉)

Luosi fen is a spicy noodle soup including fresh vegetables, pickled bamboo, fried dried tofu, agaric, peanuts, and the key ingredient, a broth made from river snails.  This local specialty cost significantly less than US $1.

An extensive underground shopping area

A roller blading class of kids showing their skills on a popular pedestrian shopping street

A promotion outside of a Nokia store on the pedestrian shopping street

Young lady busy on her mobile phone

Two men playing the popular Chinese game Xiangqi in Liuhou Park

A young couple at Liuhou Park

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Computer at a Hair Salon in Liuzhou, Guangxi

Not long after visiting the Guangxi University classroom with the "Sansumg" computers and handwritten bilingual notes I traveled to the city of Liuzhou, about 3 hours by train from Nanning and also in Guangxi.

Liuzhou provided a number of research opportunities, including a small hair salon which had a single computer.  How small businesses use computers has been relevant to some of my research in China and the findings are often fascinating.  Some of the many potential issues that can be explored include:
  • What are the intended uses of the computer(s)?
  • How is it (are they) actually used?
  • Who uses the computer(s)?
  • Who purchased the computer(s)?
  • Who chose the computer(s)?
  • and so on...
The answers one finds in China can be particularly intriguing given the scales of revenue involved for many small businesses.  To provide a hint of what they may be for a hair salon, I've paid less than US $1.50 for a haircut in comparable hair salons in Chinese cities similar to Liuzhou -- that's the total price, there's no hidden tax and a tip is not at all expected.  While some salons will charge more, it's still quite a bit less than what you'd pay for a hair cut at a salon in a US city with more than one million people.  However, the costs of computers of equivalent quality would not be so different.

Regardless, if what most concerns you is driving innovative hardware design then it may be this scene from the hair salon in Liuzhou that generates the largest number of questions and ideas: 

lady playing a game on a computer that is sitting on top of its monitor
Desktop computer on top of a monitor in a hair salon

Perhaps what is most striking is that the computer tower is stacked horizontally on top of the monitor.  Understanding the reason for this arrangement could inspire solutions that either better accommodate such stacking or eliminate the need for it.  Those involved in hardware design are likely already identifying some other aspects of the scene that could also lead to relevant insights.

The scene is also potentially relevant to those with interests in other aspects of technology.  For example, a quick look at the computer screen provides some insights into how the computer is used by at least one salon employee while "working".  There's really quite a lot in just this one photo.  The key at this point is not to assume you know why anything is the way it is.  Even if you can find aspects of this scene elsewhere in the world, it doesn't necessarily mean they have the same underlying causes.

Scenes such as the one above are invaluable in large part because they are "real".  I mean this in two different senses.  One, they show what users of technology actually do and the environment in which they actually do it.  Two,  I am reasonably confident that someone at the salon didn't prepare or alter this scene for my visit -- the scene is the same as it would have been even if I had not visited the salon that day.  I know this because my visit was a complete surprise to everyone there.  That in itself can cause some atypical behavior, but I can be reasonably sure this photo is representative.

In a later post, I'll share some the ways people being researched may prepare for a research study, how it could interfere with research goals, and how I've managed it.  It's an important issue when conducting research anywhere, but it's especially critical in China.  It's one of the reasons I sometimes try to mix in some opportunistic research even when formally recruiting people for a research study is necessary.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Discoveries Leading to Questions: "Sansumg" Computers and Bilingual Notes in Nanning

In previous posts, I've sometimes discussed or hinted at my interests in conducting research that is exploratory and opportunistic.  It certainly isn't not the only form of research I conduct or enjoy, but in the quest for new ideas and innovation I wouldn't want to work without it.  It's not just about learning more about the world, but discovering the right questions to ask about it.

The questions raised by such research can be invaluable for guiding further research not only for user-centered design and identifying opportunities where technology could play an improved or new role in people's lives, but also for impacting a variety of other pertinent issues related to the success of a technology such as marketing and sales.  Finding the right questions to ask can be just as challenging as answering them.  And finding the right questions to ask can be the difference between driving research that is meaningful and leads to an innovative success or misses the point and leads to a disastrous failure.  This leads to a key point: these questions may never be asked (or asked too late) if exploratory research is not conducted.

As an tiny example of this type of research, I'll share some of what I found when I had the opportunity to observe this graduate course on second language acquisition at Guangxi University in Nanning (photos of Nanning):

classroom in Nanning with computers in front of all the students
Class at Guangxi University

The classroom was of particular interest to me because of the computers that could be found in front of every student.  If you're wondering how I knew that I should go to Guangxi University and observe that particular class, I have a simple answer: I didn't.  The classroom was a discovery in itself.  In this case I didn't rely on kids or a dog to guide me, but instead I "followed my nose" after taking a taxi to Guangxi University.  After coming upon the classroom and discussing my research interests with the professor, I was invited to observe a class in session.

One of the "discoveries" I made regarded the computers that sat underneath the students' desks.  I noticed they had a name similar to a famous brand:

computer with the name Sansumg
A "Sansumg" desktop computer

Is this a Samsung computer?  Well, I doubt Samsung would ship computers with its name misprinted as "Sansumg" and the peculiar wording of the smaller text not far below it: "THE BRAND OF NEW TREND FOR HIGH PREFERENCE 2030 GD".  Is this computer an example of a Chinese company attempting to take advantage of the Samsung brand?  I suspect so.

Some of the questions that could now come to mind are:
  • Why was this brand of computers purchased?
  • Was the purchaser aware or concerned that the computers weren't Samsung computers?
  • Does the brand of computer suggest that any software programs on it are more likely to be unlicensed copies?
  • What is the quality/reliability of the computers?
Another "discovery" occurred while watching the students take notes:

students taking notes

Not only is it worth considering why they are taking notes with pen and paper while numerous computers remain idle, but an examination of the notes themselves reveal a key behavior:

open notebook with notes in both Chinese and English

As seen in the above photo, it was not uncommon for students' notes to be written in both English and Chinese.

In this case some of the questions that could come to mind are:
  • Why would students take notes in both Chinese and English?
  • How might the need or desire to write in multiple languages impact the design of technology to better aid students?
  • Does taking notes in two languages add a cognitive burden?  Are there ways to reduce it?
Am I able to provide answers to the sampling of questions about the computers and the note taking?  Based on what I learned in that classroom and what I know through other research there is certainly more I could say, but fully answering all of the questions would require a variety of additional research efforts that I may approach in very different manners -- whether it means focused field research, studies in a controlled laboratory setting, surveys, etc.  Most importantly, though, I gained some important insights which led to a number of key questions from just a single visit to a single classroom.  And I started that day without even knowing I'd be observing a class that afternoon.

I'll be sharing more of what I've seen, learned, or experienced in China that I think could matter for a variety of technologies.  I may not always provide my thoughts on exactly how what I've discovered could have an impact (there are things I can't or am not ready to share), but the examples will provide some more windows into life in China while also providing at the very least some more hints of the value of exploratory and opportunistic research in a broad range of environments.

Additional notes:

1.  Again, the above was just a single visit to a single classroom.  It would obviously be difficult to  make a claim based on this visit alone regarding the degree to which the findings are representative of other students or classrooms.  If determining that was important, it would be yet another research question to address.

2.  The research methods used for exploratory research can have a lot of overlap with some of the research methods for answering specific questions and for more directly driving/inspiring design.

3.  What counts as "exploratory research" is not black and white.  What most concerns me is conducting the right type of research, whatever you want to call it, for the task as hand.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fish Heads and Upcoming Posts

Been away from the blog the past week.  I'll prove that I am still alive and full of my usual spirit by sharing a photo of a restaurant where I recently had some delicious ginger soup:

ginger soup with fish head at Huaxi Street Night Market
Restaurant employee happily posing for a photo with the ginger (and I think something else) soup

Oh yes, the soup also had a big fish head in it.

The restaurant can be found on Guangzhou Street at the Huaxi Street Night Market in Taipei.  Huaxi Street is also known as "Snake Alley" and is famous for, well, I'm sure you can guess.  If you're now wondering "What's a night market?" then fear not.  I plan to soon do a light post on night markets in Taiwan.

I also have a variety of other topics I'd like to write about.  For example, I'll comment on some signs I saw in Hong Kong which took a different approach to communicating the same message as some signs I saw in Chengdu, Sichuan province.  I think the Hong Kong signs shed more light on the challenges of creating effective symbols.  If you haven't read the Chengdu post you can find it here to see if you can guess the intended meaning of those signs.  After that, you can compare your guess to other readers and also find the answer here.

OK.  More soon of the usual -- technology, design, China, food, drinks, music, and more... 

And really, I thought the fish head complemented the ginger soup quite well.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween in Taipei

Earlier this year, I shared some of what I saw and heard on Mother's Day in Zigong, Sichuan province.  In a similar spirit, I'll share some of what I saw in Taipei, Taiwan during the weekend just before Halloween day.

While going trick-or-treating is definitely not the norm in Taipei as it is in the US, a large number of people in Taipei showed their Halloween spirit while enjoying a Saturday night out.  Near Taipei's tallest building, Taipei 101, are a number of clubs and similar venues, and this past Saturday night they all appeared to be packed with a large number of people in costumes.

So, here are some photos from the areas between the clubs, which were a party of their own, to provide just a taste of the variety of costumes that could be seen: 

barbie and ken doll in boxes Halloween costumes

variety of Halloween costumes

variety of Halloween costumes

McDonald's and KFC Halloween costumes

variety of Halloween costumes

variety of Halloween costumes

variety of Halloween costumes

variety of Halloween costumes

Finally, you may have noticed the Budweiser beer can in the first photo.  It's not mine (I'd rather have a bia hoi).  Unlike most places in the US and like many other places I've visited elsewhere in the world it is legal to drink alcohol "on the street" in Taipei.  In fact, to avoid the high prices of clubs or bars it isn't uncommon for people to buy drinks at nearby convenience stores, such as 7-11, and drink them outside.

However, the beer in the photo may have come from a source that was even more conveniently located outside:

So, in this sense, Taiwanese not only were celebrating Halloween, but doing so in a manner more freely than possible in most places in the US.  Just some Halloween trivia to ponder...