Thursday, March 14, 2013

Google Reader Once Knew Me So Well

I first became acquainted with Google Reader after starting this blog. My motivation was simple: I wanted to be able to check that my posts were properly appearing. And while I was there, I decided to give it a try for broader purposes. Gradually, I used it more and more for some of the websites I follow. Although I felt something was lost in stripping away everything but content, it offered several conveniences.

I'm not surprised by the recent news that Google Reader will soon be no more. There are plenty of people with speculation about the reasons, interviews with its creators, and reviews of possible replacements. For my part, I will share one of the most remarkable online experiences I have ever had.

A feature in Google Reader that I explored early on was "Recommended items". It allows you to scroll through individual posts or articles from a variety of sources as chosen by Google. At first it was full of what I considered "fun" stuff that would appeal to a broad audience. But for a brief period of time, the selected pieces suited a variety of my specific interests. And much of it was material that would likely only appeal to select audiences, including some pieces of humor. I was in awe. So much so that in an email I described the recommendations to a friend as "spooky". How did Google do this? It seemed impossible it could have been done solely based on what I had read in Google Reader--those items represented just a small sliver of my interests. Perhaps an extrapolation to other interests was possible, but it seemed more likely that my search history or email had been accessed to help drive the recommendations (something I was not aware would be done). Even then, I had to be impressed by the algorithm's apparent effectiveness.

Then a curious change occurred. The performance seemed to degrade over time. Never again did the recommended items list provide the almost perfectly tailored selection of material as it once had. In fact, it didn't even come close. New pieces about what most interested me rarely appeared, and soon I found the feed inundated with Lifehacker stories and food recipes. Additionally, it began regularly recommending pieces from a few sources that I already followed in Google Reader--even pieces that I had already read.

I can imagine reasons for the decline in good recommendations. For example, maybe me not indicating which pieces I liked caused the service to assume I wasn't enjoying them. Or maybe there were concerns about the information being used to drive the recommendations. Or maybe the algorithm was changed. I can't be sure. But whatever the reason, the recommended items feature became useless for me.

Now with Google Reader's planned demise, I am tempted to make an analogy about a friend who knows you well, develops dementia, and then dies. But perhaps that's too morbid, so I won't. Instead, I will begin to figure out what I will do without Google Reader around. Some other service will likely have the opportunity to learn more about me. In return, my main hope is it provides me a better opportunity to learn more about the world. And if I am amazed again, that's all the better.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pollution's Extensive Impact in China

As I wrote in an earlier post, China's pollution problems deserves the regular attention they receive. In that spirit, I will share a few pieces which together show there is no single way to measure pollution's full impact in China.

1. Despite it being the focus of many reports, pollution doesn't only have negative health consequences. For example, Xinhua reported that one famous Chinese director believes pollution is affecting his creative process.
"Cornered by the terrible weather, I have nowhere to go," said Chen Kaige, a frontrunner of Chinese cinema's "fifth generation" and a newly elected member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). "I am unable to focus on my artistic creation."

"I was born and bred in Beijing. I know what the weather was like in the old days," said 61-year-old Chen, describing the current air pollution as "weird," "appalling" and "unbelievable."
Read the article here for more about Chen's hope to "raise more awareness on environmental pollution".

2. However real the problem may be, unfocused movie directors would not likely be considered by many to be one of China's bigger concerns. Large numbers of protests are another story though. In Bloomberg, Xin Zhou and Peter Hirschberg reported how some Chinese government officials are paying attention to a shift in what is motivating "mass incidents":
Pollution has replaced land disputes as the main cause of social unrest in China, a retired Communist Party official said, as delegates to the country’s legislature lamented environmental degradation.

China now sees 30,000 to 50,000 so-called mass incidents every year, Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the party’s Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs, said yesterday. Increased use of mobile phones and the Internet has allowed protesters to show their anger more effectively, he said.

“The major reason for mass incidents is the environment, and everyone cares about it now,” Chen told reporters at a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political and Consultative Conference, where he’s a member. “If you want to build a plant, and if the plant may cause cancer, how can people remain calm?”
Read the article here for more about the pollution-related protesting.

3. There's another issue related to pollution that can quickly catch the attention of many people: money. Meena Thiruvengadam in The Financialist looked at the economic impact of China's smog:
Various studies have estimated the economic impact of China’s pollution, and several sources suggest that illness, premature death and lost productivity could be costing the country upwards of $100 billion a year.

The World Bank estimated that illnesses and premature deaths linked to China’s pollution cost it about $100 billion – the equivalent of 3 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product – in 2009 alone. A separate study by Greenpeace and Peking University estimates particulate pollution cost four major cities more than $1 billion and caused more than 8,000 premature deaths last year.
Read the article here for more about projected long-term financial costs of pollution in China.

4. Thiruvengadam also pointed out that China's pollution is making it more challenging for companies to convince workers to move there. On a related note, one recent example highlights how the environment is causing some people already living in China to consider whether they should stay there. After 13 years in China, Dutch entrepreneur Marc van der Chijs recently left for greener pasteurs, or at least bluer skies:
Our main criteria for a new home were based on a different lifestyle for the family: a place with more nature around us, with a better air quality and where I would not have to work 24/7 anymore...

I will miss China. I will miss the fast-paced business life, the amazing clubs and restaurants in Shanghai, and the luxury of having staff at home to help you with everything. What I won’t miss is the air pollution (which was the #1 reason for us to leave), the traffic jams and the slow, restricted Internet. Every country has its advantages and disadvantages, and although the balance has shifted a bit recently the advantages of living in China have always outweighed the downsides for me. If it was purely for business reasons I would likely stay, but I have a family with 2 young kids now and I also need to think of them.
Read the full post here for more about a family's move from China to Canada.

5. And bringing the topic back to public health, some possibly relevant context for why Marc van der Chijs mentioned his kids can be found in a policy paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics: "Ambient Air Pollution: Health Hazards to Children":
Children and infants are among the most susceptible to many of the air pollutants. In addition to associations between air pollution and respiratory symptoms, asthma exacerbations, and asthma hospitalizations, recent studies have found links between air pollution and preterm birth, infant mortality, deficits in lung growth, and possibly, development of asthma.
Read the paper here for much, much more.

The Chinese government is most unlikely to be swayed by a single foreigner's departure or Chinese director's complaints. But stifled creative output, citizens protesting, economic losses, foreigners avoiding or leaving China, and health problems for the young are all parts of an immense challenge facing China. Its response, or lack of response, will have numerous consequences. Already, the consequences of pollution are being felt in many ways.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Slicing Up People: A Coffin on a Motorbike in Phnom Penh

In part to provide another taste of life in Cambodia's capital, I recently shared some scenes of various items being carried on small motorized vehicles. However, a bit of "life" is not all that can be found in such scenes. One day as I walked Phnom Penh's streets, something passed by that I had never seen before.

motorbike carrying a coffin on the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Not intended for flight

I'm not familiar with coffin delivery services in Phnom Penh, but I find it easy to believe what I saw was not the first instance of a person transporting a coffin on a motorbike there. This method of coffin delivery is not unique to Phnom Penh. Similar examples from elsewhere were easy to find online, including a pedal-powered vehicle in Vietnam (this image) and motorbikes in Uganda and the Philippines. And I would not be shocked to see something like this in China. However, I suspect that a coffin being delivered in the manner seen above would be much less likely to occur in some other countries such as the U.S.

Even though I know of no formal research to back up my beliefs about coffin delivery services, they are at least symbolic of how some behaviors or practices can be found in many, but not all, regions across the world. This in turn suggests how categorizing people, whether for academic or business purposes, is sometimes not as simple as cutting up regions on the globe based on their proximity. For example, some of what can be found in Cambodia might be found in Uganda but not in far closer Japan and Singapore.

It's often not easy to define the appropriate groupings for the task at hand, but doing so can be crucial in the pursuit of not only better understanding people, but also better discovering, designing, and, yes, delivering solutions which address people's wants and needs.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Friday, March 8, 2013

If You Believe in Jesus You Will Be Rich in Qinghai, China

Last year I shared scenes of nature around Qinghai Lake, scenes of urban growth in Xining, scenes of daily life in Xining, and scenes of religion at the Tibetan Kumbum Monastery -- all from Qinghai province in northwestern China. It's a region of rich ethnic diversity including Tibetan, Muslim Hui, and Han people.

During my time in Qinghai, I had several conversations with young Tibetans. Sometimes they shared their views about the Chinese government. They were never positive, and in a later post I will say more about what they said and what they wrote. But now I want to recommend the article "Good Lord: In China, Christian Fundamentalists Target Tibetans" in Time by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore. She reports on Christian Fundamentalists attempts to convert Tibetans in Qinghai:
Much of the informal English instruction in Xining is run by missionaries as are the majority of the foreign cafés. They translate the Bible into Tibetan, distribute flash drives containing their beliefs and rework Tibetan folk songs with Christian lyrics. Some help run orphanages. Targeting the young is key. When a South Korean missionary asked Tenzin which Tibetans needed help, he suggested the elderly. According to Tenzin, the Korean replied: “Not old people — [we want] children.”

Aggressive tactics persist, however. In a quiet Tibetan town three hours drive from Xining, one local describes seeing a missionary throw coins into the air. “This comes from Jesus,” he declared to the astonished crowd. The same Tibetan remembers with an incredulous laugh being told that Christianity brings cash. “All Buddhist countries are poor,” the missionary said. “If you believe in Jesus, you will be rich.”
Based on my own social networking feeds, it appears the article can stir up a variety of people outside of China, including both those who consider themselves religious and those who do not. In some cases, people seem pulled between between being happy to see more signs of religious freedom in China and being disturbed by the tactics used by the missionaries. For example:
As much as I respect freedom of religion, I can't help but draw parallels between the fundamentalists' conversion tactics and corporations' marketing strategies. "Targeting the young is key" <<--- the last time I saw that sentence was in a description of McDonald's strategy to get kids hooked on Big Macs. Just saying.

and " “All Buddhist countries are poor,” the missionary said. “If you believe in Jesus, you will be rich.” " Are they SERIOUS?! Offensiveness aside, have they forgotten their own teachings, like: "Hebrews 13:5 Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have" ? It sounds to me like they've completely lost sight of Jesus' original intent, and are deploying whatever appalling tactics they can to get people to convert.
Whatever you think about the tactics, it may seem odd that the Chinese government, which officially considers missionary work to be illegal, has not interfered with the efforts. Sebag-Montefiore shares the thoughts of Robert Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University, as to why this may be the case:
Barnett believes the reason for the government’s tolerant attitude is twofold. First, American missionaries, often funded by their churches, provide a valuable service teaching English for scant pay. Second, by targeting Tibetan Buddhism, missionaries might just help the government erode this integral part of Tibetan identity. Keeping a lid on restive Tibet, which China invaded in 1949–50, is paramount. Under Chinese rule, self-immolations by Tibetans protesting religious and political subjugation have become common in recent years. Tibetan-language schools have been closed down, nomads resettled in towns and cities, and monasteries subject to close police surveillance. Images of the exiled Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, are banned.

“There is a certain underlying commonality of purpose between the evangelizers and the new modernizing Chinese state. It’s just convenient for them to use each other,” explains Barnett. “[Today missionaries] have greater opportunities coming in on the coattails of the Communist Party.”
It is yet another example of the sometimes pragmatic approach taken by the Chinese government to achieve its goals.

Again, I recommend reading the full article. It presents a side of China that doesn't receive as much attention as others, but it touches on a variety of important issues, including how some Tibetans feel their identity is being threatened by multiple groups.

Views from the Bitexco Financial Tower

I realize people who follow me on Twitter may have noticed me recently commenting about being in a city definitely not in Cambodia, the subject of numerous recent posts here. To avoid any confusion, I'll provide an update on my location.

Although I was having an incredible experience in Cambodia, it was time to move on. So after about 7 hours on a bus and marveling at the immigration processes at an international border, I found myself here:

view of Bitexco Financial Tower

Later I went to the top of the tall building on the left side--the Bitexco Financial Tower. Looking back at the traffic circle where I was earlier standing, I saw this:

view from Bitexco financial tower

And since I went all the way up there, here is some of what I saw walking around the inside of the building in a clockwise direction:

view from Bitexco financial tower

view from Bitexco financial tower

view from Bitexco financial tower

view from Bitexco financial tower

For those who can't identify the location, I will spare you the suspense. I am now in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In smany ways, it is quite a contrast from Phnom Penh. And the above views might contrast with what many foreigners first picture when they think about Vietnam.

And now a brief word about my plans for future posts. I have a backlog of things I want to share about Malaysia and Cambodia. And posts about Vietnam are planned too. But as some recent posts may suggest, I have been pining to return to some China-related topics. In short, upcoming posts may jump around a bit.

No more views from tall buildings for a while though.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Jailbreaking Your iPhone in Cambodia

Have you arrived in Cambodia from the U.S.? Are you interested in unlocking your iPhone so you can use other mobile service providers? If so, near the Russian Market, a popular tourist destination in Phnom Penh, there are people ready help.

outdoor desk with signs in English offering jailbreaking services for iPhone iOS 6 and iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 with AT&T

The all-English signs and mention of AT&T, a major provider of mobile phone services for people based in the U.S., especially caught my attention. The small operation serves as an intriguing example of how some in Cambodia are seeking to profit by providing services that may be desired by foreigners.

And I'll leave it at that.


Actually, I won't leave it at that. Not long after I finished this post, I saw some related news on Wired:
The President Barack Obama administration said Monday that it made “common sense” for Americans to legally have the power to unlock their mobile phones, so they could use them on a compatible carrier of choice without fear of being sued or facing criminal penalties.
This raises some questions about the above business's future. It could be an interesting issue to explore. And I'll leave it at that.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Chinese Ministry Worried About Android's Dominance

Two years ago in the post "Google's Problems in China: Perceptions of a Chinese Internet User in Guiyang", I shared the thoughts of a young Chinese woman to provide another perspective on Google's claim that difficulties in using Gmail in China were due to a government blockage. She didn't believe Google's apparent problems with the Chinese government could be solely attributed to its stance on censorship, as many thought at the time, but that instead they were primarily the result of Google "taking the profits" of domestic companies.

Since then, one bright spot for Google in China has been the immense popularity of the Android mobile operating system. As reported by Reuters, the Chinese government has taken notice:
Google Inc has too much control over China's smartphone industry via its Android mobile operating system and has discriminated against some local firms, the technology ministry said in a white paper...

Analysts said the white paper, which lauded Chinese companies such as Baidu Inc, Alibaba Group and Huawei Technologies for creating their own systems, could be a signal to the industry that regulations against Android are on the horizon.
The article notes that Android has played a valuable role in the growth of China smartphone vendors. Due to this and Google's earlier challenges, it's easy to see irony in Google now being charged with discrimination in China.

But is the white paper a surprise? In a tweet about the article, Beijing-based investor/advisor/writer Bill Bishop wrote "Haha you knew this was coming."

I suspect the young woman in Guizhou would agree.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Small Motorized Vehicles Carrying and Pulling in Phnom Penh

Once more, to provide a small taste of life in urban Cambodia and a contrast to the scenes from Cambodia's countryside south and north of Kampot town, I will share some scenes of people riding vehicles in central Phnom Penh. Earlier posts included motorbikes and pedal-powered vehicles. This post will return to the motorized vehicle theme but with an added twist: something is being pulled--such as the cabin of a tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) or a mobile food stall--or something is being carried in addition to any riders. Background sights include the Supreme Court building in the first photo and a construction site for a new complex with a shopping area, condominiums, office space, and a hotel.

This will be last post with a large number of photos in this series. However, I have some related photos to single out later.

ma driving a tuk-tuk past the Cambodian Supreme Court building in Phnom Penh

tuk-tuks in Phnom Penh

motorbikes at a crowded interestion in Phnom Penh

man with child driving a motorbike with a mobile drink cart in Phnom Penh

people carrying boxes while riding motorbikes in Phnom Penh

motorbike with cart trailer

man carrying a large bag on a motorbike

two men carrying large containers on a motorized tricycle cart

tuk-tuk driving by a construction site in Phnom Penh

man riding motorbike with mobile drink cart

man driving tuk-tuk filled with goods

two motorbike pulling filled carts in Phnom Penh

The Good and Bad of the Extended High-Speed Guanzhou-Zhuhai Intercity Railway

Last year in a post describing and showing how I traveled in China from Guangzhou to Macau (including photos of the immense Guangzhou South Station), I pointed out that the high-speed train from Guangzhou only traveled as far to a train station in northern Zhuhai. From there, a long ride in a taxi or a couple of buses were needed to reach the Gongbei Port at the Macau-Zhuhai border. During a later trip to Zhuhai, I posted photos of the under-construction Zhuhai Train Station at Gongbei Port which would provide a more convenient train station for Macau and central Zhuhai.

Those posts receive a regular amount of traffic, presumably in large part due to people seeking how to best travel between Guangzhou and Macau / Zhuhai. A reader's recent query motivated me to see if there were any updates. And indeed I discovered that the Zhuhai Train Station is now open and is a stop on the recently extended Guangzhou-Zhuhai Intercity Railway. January was the first full month of operation for the new extension and as reported in the Macau News:
The total length of the new line is 177 kilometres, of which 116 is between Guangzhou South station and Zhuhai.

There are in addition branch lines from Xiaolan station to Xinhui, 26 km, and from Zhuhai to Zhuhai airport. It will have a maximum speed of 200 km per hour.

It passes through the main cities of the southern Pearl River Delta, including Foshan, Shunde, Jiangmen and Zhongshan. It has a total of 27 stations. Passengers will have the choice of 46 minutes non-stop from the two termini or 76 minutes with stops at each station. The current journey time by bus is about 90 minutes from Gongbei to Panyu.

The line between Guangzhou South and Zhuhai North opened on January 7, 2011, with a journey time of 41 minutes. Guangzhou South is in Panyu, a suburb of the city. Passengers there can catch high-speed trains to Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Wuhan and Guizhou. To reach other parts of Guangzhou, they must take a subway.
For what it's worth, convenient and more direct ferries travel between Macau / Zhuhai and Hong Kong / Shenzhen. Also, the Macau News was a bit "optimistic" in its claim you could travel from Guangzhou to Guizhou by high-speed train. That line won't be in service until at least next year. And the high-speed line to Hong Kong won't be completed until 2015 (there is currently a slower high-speed line in operation from Guangzhou East Station).

It's also worth noting that the Guangzhou South Station is far from Guangzhou's central districts. For example, it took about 40 minutes on the metro for me to reach the station from where I last stayed in Guangzhou. From the airport it would take about 70 minutes (handy site for estimating Guangzhou metro travel times here). In either case, there are far closer places to catch a bus to Zhuhai. The travel time by bus between the two cities is about 1.5 - 2.5 hours. Where you're departing and arriving can make a big difference in times.

And there's another potential pain point for people who want to take the train. As noted in the Macau Daily Times, some are critical of the ticket prices:
...according to local media reports, many city residents complained that the tickets are set at unreasonably high prices [RMB90/70 (first/second class) for a single journey], which are over 50 percent higher than the prices before the Intercity was extended to the current stop at Gongbei. It was pointed out that at an average of RMB0.598 per kilometer, tickets of Guangzhou-Zhuhai Intercity Railway is even dearer than that of Guangzhou-Shenzhen Intercity Railway (RMB0.58/ km), and is the “most expensive Intercity Railway in the whole country”.

Coaches between Guangzhou and Zhuhai are operating at around RMB60-80 for a one-way ticket and some of the companies are cutting passenger fares to compete with the new Intercity link.
So it depends on your personal situation as to whether the rail line is a major plus and worth the cost. Despite all the potential drawbacks though, the extension certainly makes it more convenient to travel by train between Macau / Zhuhai and Guangzhou or cities further north such as Changsha and Wuhan.

My next wish would be for another extension connecting Guangzhou South Station, central Guangzhou, and the airport. I'm not aware of any plans for one though. I suppose even China has its limits for high-speed rail growth.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Scenes of People Pedaling in Phnom Penh

In the same spirit of yesterday's post of people riding motorbikes, here are some photos of people riding bicycles or cyclos (cycle rickshaws). Like before, the scenes can serve as a glimpse of the life and environment in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

young women carrying baskets while riding bicycles

women riding as passengers in a cyclo

woman wearing a hat riding a bicycle

man carrying boxes on a cyclo (pedal rickshaw)

kids riding bicycles at a traffic circle

two girls riding a bicycle by a sign which reads "ARTillery Cafe. Organic. Fresh. Homemade."

two young women wearing face masks while riding bicycles

man pedaling a cycle rickshaw with a woman riding

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Street Scenes of People Riding Motorbikes in Phnom Penh

The busy streets of central Phnom Penh present an excellent opportunity to see people going about their daily lives in Cambodia's largest city. In that spirit, I will share several posts with photos of people riding some of the vehicles common there such as motorbikes, bicycles, and rickshaws.

In this post, I will share the photos of people riding motorbikes. The photos not only capture people on the go, but the life and scenery around them. You may want to focus on the motorbikes, the styles of clothing worn by people, the number of people riding a vehicle, who is and who is not wearing helmets, the architectural styles of the surrounding buildings, the activities of people on the street side, and so on. There's much to discover in these scenes, and they provide a striking contrast to those I've recently shared from Cambodia's countryside here and here.

two men and a boy riding a motorbike by a market

young woman with an angry birds bag on a motorbike

men sitting on motorbikes at the roadside

man and four children on a motorbike

young woman with dyed hair on a motorbike

man, woman, and three children on a motorbike

young fashionable couple on a motorbike

man on a motorbike

young man and young woman on a motorbike

man with four children on a motorbike

monk as a passenger on a motorbike

several motorbikes driving next to a car

two men on a motorbike

woman stopped on her motorbike

small girl sitting on a motorback and holding the waist of the driver