Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Case for Not Reading

Tennis player Andy Murray responded to a number of questions posed by readers of The New York Times. One answer in particular:
Q. Last book you read? (Nimmi Matthew from Calgary)

A. I never read. The paper or anything. I watch a lot of movies, and TV series and stuff. But I never, never read.
caught the attention of James Fallows:
Andy! Say it isn't so! I speak for all your fellow Scots* in saying, Well done at the Olympics, but this is not a plus for ethnic pride. Scots are supposed to be thrifty, freckled, somewhat ornery, and literary. Or at least literate.
Fallows also urged Andy Murray "to hit the books".

Although I am not aware of any Scottish blood in my family, I share the sentiment in encouraging Murray to change his habits. However, my feelings are tempered by wondering why Murray never reads.

During my days of cognitive science research, my main quest was to better understand the functioning of the typical human brain. In this pursuit, I tested a number of people with cognitive deficits -- in short, seeing how something can break can provide clues about how it operates when not broken. Some of the deficits I studied made reading, which requires a complex set of processes, difficult or impossible for a person regardless of any training or level of interest. So it is almost a reflex for me to question whether Murray does not read because he has a cognitive deficit. It is even possible that a deficit exists which has not been identified and Murray is not consciously aware anything is amiss except for lacking a desire to read.

Some may now be asking: "How could someone as talented as Murray have a reading deficit? And if he did have a reading deficit how could it have gone unnoticed, presumably by him, teachers, parents, and others?"

Instead of fully answering these questions, I will share a relevant example that can begin to address them. Michael McCloskey, a professor of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University*, in a most unexpected manner discovered a person with a fascinating deficit:
To the casual observer, the student seemed absolutely normal. Though she often made mistakes in spelling and math, those were usually ascribed to carelessness. After all, the girl — known here as "AH" to protect her anonymity — was a top student in history at The Johns Hopkins University...

"She approached me one day after a lecture during which I was talking about a patient who had difficulty spelling after a brain-damaging stroke, and she mentioned that she wasn't a very good speller," McCloskey remembered. "I offered to give her the same spelling test I routinely use in research, and was surprised to find that this obviously bright student misspelled nearly half of the words. That was a clue that something was going on here."

McCloskey discovered exactly what was going on through further tests. He said that the student was "startled" to learn about her deficit, but that in the end, it probably helped explain certain challenges she had faced in her life.

According to McCloskey, it was AH's ability to compensate for this deficit that allowed her to be such a successful, high achiever.
More about AH's deficit can be found by visiting the link above. And a much fuller account can be found in McCloskey's book "Visual Reflections: A Perceptual Deficit and Its Implications". What McCloskey discovered about AH's deficit and how she perceived the world is simply incredible.

If Murray has a deficit there is little reason at the moment to think it would be anything nearly as dramatic as AH's. But what I want to emphasize about AH's story is that someone with a profound, yet long unidentified, cognitive deficit could function at a high level, even in some of the areas affected by the impairment. Just as amazing as how cognitive processes can go awry is how the brain can sometimes adapt to them.

Of course, Murray may not have any reading deficits at all, and I am not saying that anyone who does not read has a cognitive deficit. But although I do not advocate the press hounding Murray on this issue, if I had the opportunity I would at least ask Murray a few questions in private. After all, there might be a discovery to be made that may not only surprise me, but Murray as well.

*Disclosure: Michael McCloskey also has another important identifying characteristic: he was my graduate school advisor.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Metal Cutting in Shenzhen

What can you do with one arm behind your back?

man cutting metal without any safety equipment in Shenzhen, China
At Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

I have seen many similar scenes of metal cutting or welding in China where safety precautions common elsewhere are not always practiced (though I have seen some hints of change in cities such as Shanghai). I am not a metal cutting expert, but I doubt it is wrong to say "don't try this at home". Or really anywhere.

For those who are concerned about my own safety, the above is a cropped version of the photo. I did not get as close as it may suggest. Regardless, such is sometimes the fun of walking the sidewalks of China.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Fashion for Sale at Dongmen in Shenzhen

Earlier I shared some photos of outdoor scenes at Shenzhen's Dongmen shopping area. In this post I will share some scenes from several clothing or fashion accessory stores at Dongmen. Other than one shop, they are all targeting female shoppers.

Like my experience with "Lady Gage style" shopping in Liuzhou and another experience with shopping in Handan, Hebei province, I learned a bit more about China. There is more I could say about the sometimes maze-like paths through the thousands of shops at Dongmen, the organization of items beings sold, and the immense variety of options -- in terms of style, quality, and cost. For now I will simply suggest that understanding shopping environments & culture in the "real world" has the potential to inspire and guide design for online experiences. I will save other thoughts for a later post which will highlight similar shopping environments in other regions across China.

And now, more snapshots of Dongmen:

selling clothes at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

clothing shops at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

watches, bags, and other items being sold at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

clothing stores at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

clothing store at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

two young women hold a sale sign in front of a store at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

clothing and shoes stores at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

shoe store seen from above at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

clothing stores at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

two young women working in a bag store at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

In the Mood for Lunch

The other day in Hong Kong I ate lunch here:

table at the Goldfinch Cafe in Hong Kong

If the scene does not look familiar, maybe this view inside the restaurant (with a clue on the wall) will help:

inside the Goldfinch Cafe in Hong Kong

Or maybe this movie excerpt will stir some memories:

Still not finding the restaurant scene remarkable in any way? Then I highly recommend you watch all of Wong Kar Wai's mesmerizing movie In The Mood for Love. It takes place in 1962 Hong Kong and includes a scene from where I had lunch -- the Cafe de Goldfinch (also known as the Goldfinch Restaurant).

The movie is part of a loose trilogy -- the first movie is Days of Being Wild and the third is 2046 (which also includes Cafe de Goldfinch). Some recommend watching In The Mood for Love first, which is what I did, so feel free to jump right into it. The movies have a pace all their own, and I found repeated watchings are worthwhile for more fully enjoying them. And for those who may not feel compelled to watch a romantic art film, it may be worth pointing out that 2046 also has an element of science fiction.

A meal at Cafe de Goldfinch can be rather enjoyable, even if you have no strong feelings about Wong Kar Wai's movies. Walking inside takes you back to another world in another time that now stands in stark contrast to the surrounding area in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay. The restaurant also offers an opportunity to try Hong Kong's "traditional" Canto-Western style food.

And in case you are wondering, sadly I cannot say I found much romance at Cafe de Goldfinch. But it did provide something else I was in the mood for -- grilled ostrich with a black pepper sauce.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Selling Sliced Fruit on Styrofoam Boxes in Shenzhen

Inexpensive and easily portable cardboard or styrofoam boxes are not only useful for selling cucumber slicers at the Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen. For example, they are useful for selling sliced fruit as well:

selling sliced fruit on a styrofoam box at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

It would not seem to be a particularly sanitary way to serve fruit, but it helps keeps overhead costs low.

For about 15 or 30 cents US would you buy a slice?

Added note: The "sanitary" comment was inspired by the visible dirt on the styrofoam box lid. The lid appeared to have been previously used for non-food-serving purposes and/or stored in less-than-clean conditions. Of course, styrofoam has the potential to be sanitary for food-serving purposes.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Pragmatic Cucumber Slicer Displays at Dongmen in Shenzhen

I am exhausted after a cross border/estuary trip became a bit more adventurous than I had expected. So I will keep today's post simple and share something that earlier caught my eye at Shenzhen's Dongmen shopping area.

On several occasions when I recently visited there, people selling cucumber slicers were a common sight. I am not sure if the slicers are also effective for other vegetables, but at the very least cucumbers were the preferred vegetable for demonstrations. Here is one of the cucumber slicer sellers hard at work:

man selling cucumber slicers at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

You may have noticed that he has some cucumber slices stuck on his face -- possibly a great way to catch people's attention and show the slicer's capabilities. I suppose it is also possible that they are targeting people who would like cucumber facials.

You may have also noticed his choice of materials for his display. Most cucumber-slicer sellers use styrofoam or cardboard boxes. Their portability is important when you regularly need to change your location. After all, these sellers are not licensed to be operating on the sidewalk in Dongmen and will shift locations to avoid any concerned authorities.

But sometimes a seller is caught or needs to abandon their display to avoid such a fate. Here is the result of one such case:

security carrying away a cucumber slicer display at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

Fortunately for any cucumber-slicer sellers, not only are their displays portable but they are also easily replaced -- a very important feature if you are hoping to quickly get back to work and take advantage of the demand for cucumber slicers. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Boy in Shenzhen Wearing a Popcorn Bucket Hat

I am not sure I will have time to do a fuller post today, so here is a photo that does not require significant commentary:

boy wearing a paper popcorn bucket as a hat in Shenzhen, China

I met the boy in Shenzhen at one of my favorite restaurants. Apparently he had become bored at his family's table and decided to explore while wearing his unusual hat. I do not discriminate against popcorn bucket hat wearers, so we hit it off.

As far as I know, wearing popcorn buckets as hats is not a fad for kids in Shenzhen or elsewhere in China. And when he later took off his hat it appeared not to have previously contained buttery popcorn.

I can only imagine what his next inspiration will be...

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Outside at Shenzhen's Dongmen Shopping Area

In Shenzhen's Dongmen area, department stores and thousands of tiny stores crammed into warehouse-sized buildings attract large numbers of shoppers interested in a variety of inexpensive goods. Although Dongmen may only receive a passing mention in some guidebooks, it is a place I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Shenzhen. Even if like me you are not a shopaholic, it offers a glimpse into important sides of China's diverse and evolving shopping culture and contrasts in many ways with Shenzhen's upscale modern malls or what can be found just two metro stops away at Shenzhen's border with Hong Kong (topics for another day).

In this post I will share a number of outdoor scenes from Dongmen. They provide a sense of the crowds that can often be found there. On the side, I just discovered that the McDonald's in the 5th photo was the first to open in mainland China. Had I known that when I was there, maybe I would have stopped by for a breakfast hotdog.

In later posts, I will share some other scenes from a place that offers much to discover. For now, soak in these scenes:

One end of Dongmen Pedestrian Street in Shenzhen, China

crowds at the Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen, China

crowds at Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen, China

Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen, China

KFC and China's first McDonald's at the Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen

crowds at Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen, China

covered shopping area at Dongmen, Shenzhen, China

crowds at Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen, China

man standing next to a tree at Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen, China

physically disabled man sitting on the ground and writing calligraphy at Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen, China

crowds at Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen, China

people shopping at Dongmen in Shenzhen, China

people sitting down at Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen, China

crowds at Dongmen shopping area in Shenzhen, China

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Youthful Directions

What matters more...

little girl on tiled ground covered with numerous arrows
 Doing what a kid does best -- Shenzhen, China

where you are or where you plan to go?

And when do we begin to ask such questions?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Video-ade: The Employment, Death By China, and A Flight Through the Universe

They say when life gives you lemons make lemonade. I like lemons, but none have recently come my way. However, life has given me several videos I would like to share. So today I will make some video-ade (sugar free).

1. As with many examples of artistic expression, I believe this first video is open to multiple interpretations, even if the director, Santiago Grasso, had a specific message in mind. In fact, the message I took from "The Employment" changed after I watched it a second time. It will get you thinking... maybe about technology, maybe about "serving others", maybe about cheap labor, or maybe something else.

[If the video does not work you can also try viewing it here.]

I believe the video can serve as sort of a Rorschach test, though like that test the interpretation of the results may not be straightforward. Whatever the case, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section or email me. If there is enough interest, I will share them together along with my own. One perpective can be found in Andrew S. Allen's piece on the site The Short of the Week. And watch the credits section in the video for a glimpse of what might be Grasso's opinion of it all.

2. Speaking of Rorschach tests, I would be curious to see the results of one taken by Peter Navarro -- the director of the next video which is a trailer for the documentary Death by China. Like the previous video it touches on the issue of employment. But what might be most memorable is author Gordon Chang stating, "China is the only major nation in the world that is preparing to kill Americans". Really, see the video for yourself:

Did that catch your attention? Well, it certainly caught Charlie Custer's attention, and he shared his thoughts on China Geeks. I would agree with him that the trailer is an example of "scaremongering". Instead of me waxing poetic about the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecies, I invite you to consider Custer's thoughts. All I will say for now is that I fear Navarro took a post of mine a bit too seriously.

3. Finally, for a sense of where employment and China's supposed thirst for American blood fits into the grander scheme of things, watch the video "A Flight Through the Universe":

This video:
was made by Miguel Aragon of Johns Hopkins University [!] with Mark Subbarao of the Adler Planetarium and Alex Szalay of Johns Hopkins. There are close to 400,000 galaxies in the animation, with images of the actual galaxies in these positions (or in some cases their near cousins in type) derived from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) Data Release 7.
To be even more boggled consider that galaxies (the smallest objects in the video) can range in size from 10 million stars to a 100 trillion stars and that the video only includes a fraction of the known universe.

It might be best to consider the title of the video to be "A Flight Through a Model of the Universe". As far as we know, the above experience would not be possible in the real universe for a variety of reasons such as a) it would require traveling faster than the speed of light, b) the images we have of these galaxies are from different ages of the universe, and c) even at theoretically possible near-light speeds visual experiences become rather funky. Regardless, this most excellent video provides a taste of what we know about the incredibly vast cosmos.

There is a lot out there, folks. Don't forget your towel. And I doubt anything out there cares if it was made in China.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Brief Stop in Zhuhai on the Way from Macau to Shenzhen

I plan to move on from posting semi-regularly about Macau. Some earlier posts about Macau included:
More recent Macau-related posts can be found here.

Instead of Macau, several upcoming posts will focus on Shenzhen -- a large and rapidly growing city an hour away by ferry across the Pearl River Delta. To serve as a bridge of sorts between Macau and Shenzhen, I will now share a few photos from Zhuhai -- the mainland Chinese city which borders Macau. The first link above discusses the special permission mainland Chinese need to cross the Macau-Zhuhai border. But in this post I will continue a theme from a lighter post about the various types of cycles I saw in Zhuhai.

Like before, there were people who rented tandem bicycles at the "boardwalk" next to the Pearl River Delta:

two young women riding a tandem bicycle in Zhuhai, Guangdong province

Likely due to the change of seasons since my earlier visit to Zhuhai, I saw that some of the motorbike-taxis in the town of Nanping now sported a specially-designed sun/rain umbrella:

motorbike-taxi with bike-umbrella in Zhuhai, China

motorbike-taxi with bike-umbrella in Zhuhai, China

But what most caught my eye during my recent visit was what I believe to be a new bike rental option. Although I had seen a quadracycle before, this four-wheeled vehicle seems deserving of a different name:

a double-bicycle in Zhuhai, China

Two regular bicycles had been connected together to created this vehicle. Maybe it should be called a double-bicycle. Any other ideas?

More soon from Shenzhen, a city that differs from Macau and Zhuhai in many ways.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Outer Space, International Internet Regulations, and Invading North Koreans

Since I may never get around to writing the full commentary several pieces I recently read deserve, I want to at least make sure I share some of them here before they gather too much dust:

1. There have been a steady stream of stories about China's various disputed claims to islands near or not so near its undisputed borders. This combined with America's recent success of landing a large rover on Mars had me pondering a related question: Does China have plans to make any territorial claims if it places people or a piece of equipment on the Moon or Mars even though no other countries have made any such claims (at least not yet)?

I am happy to see that someone has given this question deeper analysis. Based on what he wrote in Foreign Policy, it appears that John Hickman woud agree that I am not crazy for pondering such an issue:
You might be asking: Why on God's green Earth would Beijing want to colonize the moon? The crazy thing is that, if one analyzes China's interests and the relevant international law, the Chinese moon scenario seems not only plausible but smart.
And even though there is an international treaty protecting objects such as the Moon and Mars from territorial claims, it has a rather large loophole:
Would a Chinese moon claim even be legal? At the moment, no, but international law would provide only the flimsiest of barriers. Although the 1967 space treaty asserts common ownership of the entire universe beyond Earth's atmosphere, it also permits signatory states to withdraw from its terms with only a year's notice. And there's no law governing whether you can fly a rocket to the moon and land a ship there.
Read the article for more about why China may have some hopes for expansion much farther away than any currently disputed islands.

2. Outer space is not the only place where there may be changes in international agreements. The same holds true for the Internet. Rebecca MacKinnon in Foreign Policy points out that a variety of interests are at stake in making changes to the institutions which play important international roles in regulating the Internet:
China, Russia, and many developing countries have complained for nearly two decades that the new, nongovernmental multistakeholder institutions are dominated by Americans and Western Europeans who manipulate outcomes to serve their own commercial and geopolitical advantage. These critiques converge with the interests of former and current state-owned phone companies wanting to restore revenues of yore before email and Skype wiped out the need for most international phone calls.
Read MacKinnon's article for an overview of how some countries may have reasonable gripes and how nothing less than the Internet's current openness is at stake.

3. A soon-to-be-released remake of the movie Red Dawn will include a major plot change -- North Korea, not Russia, will be invading the U.S. Max Fisher in The Atlantic details several factual mistakes in the movie. Needless to say (I hope), the idea of North Korea invading the U.S. requires a great deal of imagination. In fact, so much is required that Fisher suspects some viewers will replace North Korea with China in their minds. But even though China is far more powerful than North Korea, Fisher explains why the U.S. still has little to fear:
China has no incentive to attack America, its most important trade partner and thus the central pillar in the economic growth strategy around which its entire polity is organized, and every incentive not to. Even if China did want to attack, its military isn't nearly strong enough. And even if it were strong enough, some analysts say it is too riddled with internal problems.
Read Fisher's article in full for more details about why the U.S. is unlikely to be seeing thousands of red parachutes any time soon -- whether they may be made in mainland China or on Mars.