Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Assorted Links: Tech in Southeast Asia, Car Pollution, Borders, and a Homemade Dialysis Machine

There is an ever growing list of pieces that I want to comment on here. So that they all don't get stuck in a bottomless pit due to waiting for time to write the more extensive posts they deserve, I will share a few of them together along with some brief comments.

1. As recent posts here make clear, I have spent the past several weeks in Malaysia. I won't deny that its weather, food, and scenery were a draw. But I was also curious to take a closer look at a key country in a diverse region becoming increasingly relevant for tech companies--somewhat symbolized by an airport in Thailand being the most photographed location on Instagram.

Jon Russell shared his optimism for Southeast Asia in his article "Why Southeast Asia is the world’s most exciting region for startups and tech in 2013" on The Next Web. One of the challenges he mentioned for local startups particularly caught my eye:
Society in many Southeast Asian countries values working for big companies (‘getting the lanyard’), not to mention that few startups can compete against the salary and compensation packages that multinationals and other large businesses can offer.
This reminded me of some of the advantages multinational tech companies with foreign headquarters once enjoyed over local companies in China. It is remarkable how much the landscape has changed in recent years. To keep things brief, for now I will just say that what companies offer and what people seek will continue to evolve. In both respects, a growing variety can be found in China.

2. Michael Dunne, president of Dunne & Company, a Hong Kong-based consultancy specializing in Asian car markets, wrote a post for the China Real Time Report about the growing contribution of cars to China's pollution and the challenges faced in reducing their impact. It raises several key issues, such as why electrical vehicles in China may be best considered as "coal-burning cars". He also addresses why a seemingly simple tactic--reducing pollution by improving the quality of fuel used by vehicles--is not so simple:
Fuel prices are set by the state ostensibly to protect the economy – and especially the rural areas – from affordability shocks.

State-owned oil companies China National Petroleum Corp and Sinopec have been reluctant to invest in world-class refineries that produce high quality fuel because doing so would increase costs that they cannot pass on to the consumer
As I've written before, although the pollution related to China's rapid growth is shared by many, the growth of wealth it represents has not been as equally distributed. "The wealthy" subsidizing (in one way or another) the costs of producing high quality fuel could be one way to acknowledge and partially address this problem. Not only would it help people who truly could not afford an increase in fuel prices, but it would help everyone breathe a little bit better. But like other potential solutions, despite some outside impressions of how China operates it is not a change that could be made with the flip of a switch.

3. In FT Magazine Simon Kuper shares and comments on Valerio Vincenzo's photo essays about borders. Much of the article is about the lack of barriers today at the borders between many European countries. Kuper contrasts these open borders with the past and with today's more restrictive borders elsewhere in the world.

As I read Kuper's article and paged through Vincenzo's thought-provoking photos, I considered some borders not mentioned in the article that I have mentioned before: the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen and the border between Macau and Zhuhai. Both of these borders are remarkable because they restrict the travel of mainland Chinese within their own country. Anyone in Switzerland or Germany can dine at a table straddling the countries' border without needing to show a passport, but mainland Chinese cannot even enter Hong Kong or Macau with only their passport and typically need a special permit (or proof of an onward flight and entry visa to another country). And I can only wish you good luck if you wish to try having a meal which spreads across the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

4. In the category of "Chinese resourcefulness" is a story first reported by Chai Huiqun in China's newspaper Southern Weekly. You can read it in Chinese here. Or you can read Xinhua's English article by Hou Qiang "Homemade dialysis machine sustains uremia sufferer for 13 years":
A sufferer of uremia for 20 years, Hu [Songwen] built his own hemodialysis machine with medical equipment, such as a blood pump and plastic tubing, that he purchased from a local market. The crude device has sustained his life since he stopped going to the hospital 13 years ago. Hu was a junior in college when he was diagnosed with uremia in 1993. After six years of medical treatment, hefty hospital bills completely depleted his family's savings.
See Caixing Online here (H/T Malcolm Moore) for photos of Hu and his machine.

The story reminds me of research conducted by former colleagues. I'll just say designers of medical technology can learn much from cases such as Hu, both in terms of the challenges some people face in China and how people sometimes overcome those challenges.

And that's all for this edition of assorted links.

A Chinese View on America's Hoary President

The beginning of Barack Obama's second term is newsworthy in many regions around the world. But I wonder if anyone captured it quite like Chen Zhi did for Xinhua (H/T Aaron Black). The title for the article almost says it all: "Barack Obama -- from handsome young to hoary old". And the article's beginning holds true to the title's theme:
Barack Obama, a personable middle-aged man, inaugurated as the first African-American president of the United States four years ago with an ambitious oath -- "Yes, we can."

However, when Obama swore in for a second term as the country's top leader on Monday, a man with eyebags, black spots and white hair stepped on the stage.
Chen's focus on (and description of) Obama's appearance raises two issues (among many others):
  • It isn't clear whether or not the change in a US president's visual appearance over the period of time during their term would have been any different if had they not been president.
  • One study found that being president had no impact on life expectancy: something one wouldn't expect to find if there was such a thing as "presidential aging".

For more on these two points, see a post on the Harvard Health Blog.

If you think Obama could make a rebound in his second term, Chen tempers such hope by closing the article with:
Whether the next four years could be easier for him remains a mystery, but it is for sure that Obama, buried in unstopping affairs at home and abroad, could never be any younger.
I suppose it is hard to argue with that point. Though, I am surprised Chen didn't conclude with a pitch for Just For Men.

On that note, for more insights about why Chen might be so concerned about Obama's hoary hair, it might not hurt to read Jason Leow's article on The Wall Street Journal: "Chinese Bigwigs Are Quick to Reach For the Hair Color".

UPDATE: Michele Obama may not have liked it, but how would have Chen's story differed if Obama had gone with this look?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tech Shirts For Sale at the Kek Lok Temple in Malaysia

One can't-miss feature of the Kek Lok Temple in Penang, Malaysia, is the new numerous shops, whether those enclosing the steps to the temple's entrance...

shops in a covered pathway leading to Kek Lok Temple

... or those inside the temple complex.

shop in Kek Lok Si

Temple-related items were sold, but a variety of other goods could be found as well.

Penang magnets, bracelets, and other items for sale at a shop in Kek Lok Temple

cat statues for sale at a shop in Kek Lok Temple

T-shirts appeared to be one of the more popular items to sell. Some included messages that left me curious about the design process used to create them.

shirts saying "Fun Me!! If You Can" and "Boobies Make Me Smile!"

In that respect, they were similar to many I have seen in China, although they had a different flavor. However, a specific set of shirts stood out to me.

a variety of shirts including those with logos for Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Yahoo

a variety of shirts including some with logos for Google and Apple

I saw shirts with the Apple, Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Yahoo brands. Penang is an area with a great deal of Chinese influence, both historically and in its current culture. But in and around its most famous temple I didn't see a single shirt for a China-based technology brand such as Baidu, Sina Weibo, WeChat (Weixin), Xiaomi, Youku, or QQ. Especially since these shirts were sold in markets that target tourists, before commenting on what this might mean I would want to take a closer look at who purchases such shirts and whether these and similar shirts are sold elsewhere in Penang.

But at the very least these shirts are symbolic of the relative influence of American and Chinese technology brands in many regions outside of China--even where there are many Chinese people.

More on this topic later.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Fusion of Architectural Styles: The Kek Lok Temple in Penang, Malaysia

Yesterday, I visited Kek Lok Si (極樂寺) in Penang, Malaysia. According to Penang Travel Tips it: the largest and arguably the best known temple in Penang. It straddles a hillside overlooking the town of Ayer Itam and George Town beyond that. It is a temple that harmoniously blend Mahayana Buddhism with Taoist beliefs and other Chinese rituals, creating an amalgam that is uniquely its own...

The 10-acre site was purchased in 1893, and the temple was completed in 1904. An official opening ceremony was conducted on 13 January, 1905.

For the first thirty-five years of its existence, the temple was without its iconic pagoda. Nevertheless it was already assuming a position as one of the most prestigious and renowned Mahayana Buddhist religious institution in Southeast Asia. It was only in 1927 that the iconic pagoda, today one of the most recognizable landmarks of Penang, came into being.
I have seen a large number of temples, yet Kek Lok stood out in several respects such as its combination of Thai, Burmese, and Chinese architectural styles, the large number of shops inside, and the inclined lift. I will say more about the shops in a later post, but first I will share some photos of scenes from the temple that capture a bit of its spirit and its mix of architecture. And there is also one photo of the inclined lift--about U.S. 66 cents per ride.

Approaching Kek Lok Temple from the bus stop

Miniature pagoda

Full-size pagoda
Closeup of the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas

A view from the pagoda


More lanterns

several people posing for a photo
Photo opportunity

An "inclined lift" to the Kuan Yin statue

The 30 meter tall bronze Kuan Yin statue, completed in 2002


Blessings and commemorations

[For more temple scenes, see here for some I saw in Macau, China.]

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Woman and Baby in Changsha

A couple of months ago while taking a closer look at a street market in Changsha, Hunan province, I briefly met a woman and a baby.

a woman holding a baby in Changsha, China

Other than it being a pleasant experience, I don't have much more to say. But I do have plenty more to say about what I learned in Changsha that I have not yet covered here. Someday I will "return" to Changsha and many other places I have visited in China. But first I plan to finish some half-written posts on other topics--including a fascinating discussion I had today with Malaysian woman. She said she doesn't plan to revisit her son in the US because of her bad knee. But it sounded like she had other concerns.

More soon...

Friday, January 18, 2013

An Indian Sign in Penang, Malaysia

In George Town's Little India:

I've been more occupied than I had expected. I plan to soon get back up to my typical blogging speed, including a post about optimism and research.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Riddle in Penang

The other day while walking around in Batu Ferringhi, Penang, Malaysia, I witnessed an event related to an age-old question.

chicken crossing the road in Penang, Malaysia

Although I can't dispute the typical answer for why the chicken crossed the road, I suspect there were other issues at play too. However, the chicken wasn't interested in talking and had protection.

chicken and rooster in Penang, Malaysia

Non-chicken-related posts on the way. But if you crave another chicken & rooster photo, see the earlier post "China Scenes: Villages Around Kaili, Guizhou".

Monday, January 14, 2013

Masks for Beijing

My Twitter feed has been ablaze with comments about Beijing's recent air quality. Lets just say the folks at Mordor would be proud. The air is horrendous even to many who are accustomed to Beijing. It's a serious issue with implications for daily life. In the words of Didi Kirsten Tatlow on the International Herald Tribune:
With Beijing’s air pollution soaring to seemingly new, awful records this weekend, the classic parenting dilemma of “What shall we do with the kids?” had a grimly obvious answer: Slap on the antipollution face masks and go shopping for another air purifier...

Of course, the problem wasn’t limited to Beijing. As this photograph from NASA appeared to show, pollution was severe across much of eastern China (Beijing is within the blue circle).

And on state media’s lists of the most polluted cities in China on Saturday, Beijing wasn’t even in the top 10. That honor went to Shijiazhuang and other places.
Tatlow isn't the only person in China with an interest in face masks. For example, see these tweets by writer Adam Minter:

Other reporters in Beijing are finding it necessary to accessorize as well:

Darth Vader/Hannibal lector anti-pollution mask @NPRinskeep @... on Twitpic

Leading to comments such as this:

Tatlow's comment about Shijiazhuang also caught my eye. In all my travels in China, Shijiazhuang's air "impressed" me the most. It wasn't just the haze preventing a crisp view of buildings just across the street. It was the toxic taste of the air. Yes, the taste. When the broth in a bowl of soup I ordered had the same taste I wasn't sure if the air was overwhelming my taste buds or the soup and the air shared a common compound. Whatever the case, I didn't finish the soup.

With an Air Quality Index (AQI) over 800 having been recently reported in Beijing, comments such as those by Anthony Tao in a recent post may not seem ironic:
Highways closed, flights delayed, social unrest stirred… however, there is some good news. The AQI has remained below 400 for each of the last five hours...
For context on what now could count as "good news", consider this recent "good" tweet from an account which provides regular updates of Beijing's air quality as measured by the US Embassy in Beijing:

Even an AQI of 332 is listed as hazardous. And that's just for a 24-hour exposure. Most people in Beijing are not breathing its air for only 24 hours... See here for more information about the AQI.

There are many great pieces to read on Beijing's recent pollution and the evolving reaction of the Chinese people and new services. A post by James Fallows here mentions and comments on several of them. More on this topic later.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Vegetarian Thali in Penang

A photo of a most glorious vegetarian Indian thali I enjoyed in Penang, Malaysia:

vegetarian Indian thali in Penang

Can you identify which bowl contains the sweet dessert?

And that's all for today. More tomorrow...

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Penangite's Thoughts About Frozen Food and Crime

While walking around George Town in Penang, Malaysia, I paused for a moment to consider where I should head after discovering the hawker stall where I had planned to pick up lunch would not be open until later. As I looked around, a man working at a nearby hotel came out offering his assistance. I appreciated his helpfulness, and I now see that some guests of the Red Rock Hotel have singled him out online for his excellent service.

After I asked to take his photo,
he deliberately positioned himself in front of the hotel sign.

During the resulting conversation, he asked where I was from. I told him I'm from the U.S. and asked him the same question. He proudly said, "Malaysia!"

When I later praised Penang's food, he commented it was a shame so much of it is now frozen at some point. In that way he said, "We're becoming more like America." He then added that the similarities between Malaysia and the U.S. did not end with frozen food or the design of their national flags.

For example, "America has too many weapons, and more and more people in Malaysia now have weapons too." When I asked if many people walking nearby were likely carrying weapons, he looked off into the distance and replied, "No, but more people who commit crimes like robbery have weapons."

He then had to return to assisting the hotel's guests. As we bid farewell he asked me to give his blessings to Barack Obama. He's definitely a fan.

I'm familiar with neither crime nor frozen food in Malaysia, so I will refrain from commenting on the man's statements. But I can say that after I walked away I soon discovered he had pointed me in the right direction.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Always Riding

I've shared photos of a variety of bicycles and other wheeled vehicles I've seen in Chinese cities such as Zhuhai. Not far from an outdoor market in Penang, Malaysia, I saw a bicycle that did not seem unusual in any away except for its riders.

real bicycle against a wall with painted bicycle riders in George Town, Penang, Malaysia

And they're probably still there.

More later...

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Disappearing Outdoor Market in Penang

Yesterday, I saw an example of Malaysia's ethnic diversity at an outdoor market in Penang. I happened to be nearby today, and I decided to take a quick look.

The scene was rather different.

empty dirt area with a few trees in Penang, Malaysia

A couple vendors were set up on the side. And I recognized the faces of a couple other vendors who appeared to be relaxing. But as the photo shows, there were few signs of yesterday's lively market.

Today, I visited the location around 3 p.m. Had I stopped by at a similar time yesterday, and not at 5 p.m., I may have never "discovered" the market and had the opportunity to photograph some of its scenes.

I will later share some other examples to highlight how time and luck can matter in research, whether you're trying to understand a culture or the human brain.