Monday, November 10, 2008

Election Cartogram

You know what this is? No, it's not an acid fever dream, nor is it the album cover of Pink Floyd's new release. It's also not Cobra Commander after being hit by a steam roller. What is though is a cartogram of the USA organized by voting districts. What we saw on November fourth looked something like this:

With the cartogram, made by a guy named Mark Newman, this same data is reorganized so that the states are resized by population, and then are colored red and blue, not just by the color of the state that voted, but by the voting districts within each state. To make it an even more accurate demonstration of how America voted, the voting districts are colored not just red or blue, but shades of purple depending on how many votes the red republicans or blue democrats got.

If you look closely you'll notice that the map has these large splotches of blue outlined by swaths of red. This is because cities that are geographically small but densely populated tended towards democrat while the geographically large but sparsely populated rural areas voted more republican.

The cartograms were made by Mark Newman under a Creative Commons license. Please check out his website for a more comprehensive explanation.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Voting in China

Yesterday the American Chamber of Commerce in Guangzhou had an event in the China Hotel to commemorate election day. I got up early and went, expecting to see 30-40 Americans huddled around a TV drinking coffee and waiting for Obama to win. The even turned out to be slightly bigger than that with a ballroom, two big screen projection systems, brochures on Amcham and a full breakfast buffet. There were also hundreds of Chinese people curious about what this whole democracy thing was about.

One projection system was feeding live coverage of CNN while the other one had a map of America showing which states had fallen to which party. There was also a map of the electoral college with Amcham staff explaining the electoral college system to curious Chinese onlookers. Probably the biggest demographic attending were college students, but businessmen, teachers and curious onlookers who happened to be at the hotel that morning were there as well.

In a nice touch, there was even a drawing for a round-trip ticket to the US in the form of election participation. Entering the drawing took the form of a polling station, where contestants got to chance to 'vote' for who they felt would win the election and then drop their entry into a ballot box. There were even pins for the candidates and "I Voted" stickers.

I went in front of the polling station with a friend of mine and, in an attempt to simulate a real election day experience, tried to disenfranchise a Chinese voter by asking for her passport, explaining she had to fill out a sheet in another room and come back, and told here that the contest was called off and she'll have to wait till tomorrow to enter. When she started to become frustrated, confused and then angry I tried to explain that was joking and trying to "disenfranchise" her and that there were people really doing this at polling stations in America. This made here more confused. I didn't know how to say disenfranchise in Chinese, but I have a feeling that even if I did, it wouldn't of helped. She wasn't very impressed with my experiment and pushed me aside to vote for her plane ticket.

As one of the few real Americans there, I was confronted by many curious Chinese about who I voted for, what I thought about the two candidates, how did I feel about a black man becoming president and whether or not there would be any contention, recounting, or even civil war if the race became too close. Most people were also a bit confused by the big screen on which was projected a map of the US with red, blue and brown states each populated with a number and then a score in the corner. What does Obama 195 and McCain 69 mean? Where's the popular vote? I helped explain the confusing electoral college system to about a dozen different parties over the course of the morning and how it relates to the popular vote, poll station closings, the population of states and different time zones in the US (there's just one time zone in China). Some were disappointed that the election wasn't just determined by the popular vote.

Most of the Chinese I talked to were Obama supporters, but there was a McCain fan here and there. When Obama was announced the victor the group of by then 500 onlookers erupted in applause, apparently they were pretty pleased with the decision.

My Chinese colleagues and friends all had eyes on the elction, but not all Chinese cared about it. On the way home from dinner the next day I mentioned to the cab driver that America has a new president and asked how he felt about. "American's president doesn't have anything to do with me, I'm just a Chinese cab driver," he said "It's not like I can drive this taxi to America! Maybe if I could then I'd care about the president, but I can't."

Vocab: Disenfranchise - 剥夺...公民权

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Trip to Sichuan Day 1

October 1 was Chinese National day so that meant a week off of work and trip with some friends. We set off for southern Sichuan, and thanks to some research on some Chinese travel blogs we found a place that wasn't severely affected by the May 12 earthquake and wasn't a tourist hotspot.
Kangding 康定

We wanted avoid one of the tourism hotspots because when a country of 1.3 billion takes their fall break simultaneously, with year on year double digit increases in tourism and economic growth that gives more people some cash to travel, you quickly run out of places that haven't been overun by tour groups. A lot of my friends go to southeast asia to travel, and some don't go on vacation at all just to avoid the hastle, which is unfortunate, since there are plenty of great places to visit in this country.

The first stop was Kangding, a small city in southwest Sichuan about seven hours from Chengdu. The place is almost entirely ethnic Tibetan and the people are devoutly religious. Unlike many parts of China you don't have to buy a ticket to enter temples and the temples and monestaries are occupied by actual monks and buddhist practitioners. It's sad, but many buddhist and taoist templest in east and south China have become tourist destinations only, and have lost their religious meaning. Places like this were effected by communism and the Cultural Revolution just like the rest of China, but there beliefs and practices are still going strong.
Wild mushrooms for sale
In a temple courtyard

We started off in Kangding, but then went on for a three day hike around Yala Mt, and then hung out in a really cool little place called Danba for a day. I'm going to try to update my blog with the rest of the trip, but if you like the pics, check out my flickr stream.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Surf the Web Like Your in China!

At last, now all of my friends can have the same, filtered experience we all do in China! There's already a nice plug-in called the gladder (Great Ladder) that allows all of us within the great firewall of Chinese censorship to view our favorite censored websites, but what about all of those people outside the firewall? What about all of those people, some of them Chinese even, that aren't protected by their government's censorship devices? How can they learn to determine what's right and what's wrong? Who's to tell them what the difference between Province of Taiwan and the Republic of China is? How will they know that "Dalai Lama's fight for cultural atonomy" is actually a euphemism for "Dalamai clique separatist terrorists"? And in the worst case, they may even stumble upon some unfiltered blogger that's expressing dissatisfaction for the way the glorious Party has been guiding the country.

Well now all of those outside of China no need to live in fear, or knowledge for that matter. Thanks to a new firefox plugin called China Channel those outside of country can now experience websurfing under the protection and watchful eye of big red brother with all 'inappropriate content' automatically censored out. Welcome to slow, censored web browsing.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Want to Smuggle Fake Goods? Don't Mess with the Chan.

I was just getting back in to Guangzhou in mid August. The security was crazy tight. I showed my passport to at least four guys before getting on the plane in Phnom Pen, and then another half dozen security personnel on my way through customs once in Guangzhou. Apparently there was some sort of "event" going on in Beijing, so after arriving in Guangzhou the security was even tighter, with more checks, questions and an especially long customs line.

While I waited in line at China customs, I watched a TV in the customs area broadcasting a public service announcement. It went a little like this:

A North American guy and girl in their mid 20s are walking through the airport talking about their trip, ecstatic at what an awesome time they had.

Boy: "Wow what I great trip it's been, did you have a good time?"
Girl: "Yea this place was so great. Did you check out all those monuments?"
Boy: "Yea they were really something weren't they? So neat to see, I’ll definitely have to come back. Oh and remember that market where we bought those designer sunglasses?"

Girl: "Yea I know, and they were so cheap!"

Boy: "I bought pairs for all of my friends back home, they're going to be thrilled."

Girl: "How many did you buy?"

Boy: "Oh I don't know, they're here in my bag. All I know is that my friends are going to be happy when I show up with all these sunglasses."

They continue in line at customs, but then as they look and *gasp*- there’s a big sign that says “fake goods are prohibited” and customs agents are confiscating fake goods! All of the sudden the girl and boy look really distressed. They start taking off their sunglasses and watches and putting them in their bags.

Then all of the sudden a voice off screen yells "Hey, are those fake good you're carrying?" It's a customs officer ...Jacky Chan!

The guy and girl are stopped and Jacky goes on to lecture them. “Smuggling fake goods is illegal! You need to respect international laws and regulations.” The Chan continues to go on about the reasons buying fake goods are prohibited, reasons for respecting intellectual property rights and why these laws are “strictly enforced.”

“And that is why you cannot by any fake goods in China anymore” is what I’ll tell my kids many years from now after repeating this story.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

How Not to Answer the Chinese

In preparation for my compadres that will be attending the Beijing Olympics, I'm attaching the following useful instructions for getting around Chinese conversation. A friend of mine forwarded me the following list of questions from some cynical blogger back in 2005. The Chinese are a polite bunch, but some defend their motherland viciously. B aware.


As any veteran foreigner in China knows, one of the latent talents possessed by many Chinese people, is to ask irritating questions that every previous Chinese person that said foreigner has encountered for the past 6 month, has already asked before, however, it often takes a true veteran to answer these questions correctly without:

A) Making yourself sound interested enough to get dragged into an endless conversation on how everything worthwhile in the world originated from China.
B) Offending 1.3 billion people who might decide to throw rocks at you.
C) Getting yourself locked up by the PSB.

For your reading pleasure (and personal safety) here are a couple of common questions and a couple of the answers that you should try to avoid giving, along with a sample answer that will neither encourage the questioner to elaborate further, or to stone you to death in the belief that you are a Japanese tourist.

Can you use chopsticks?

A. I can use them to scratch my ASS

B. I only ever eat in McDonalds and KFC

C. Civilized people use forks

D. Yes, can you use a knife and fork?

E. Yes, the hookers in Chinatown taught me when I was a kid

Correct Answer: Yes, two elderly Buddhist nuns taught me to use them while I was helping Chinese migrant workers in foreign countries to return to the motherland

Can you speak Chinese?

A. 我可以说普通话,可是我不要说。

B. Yes, they taught me in the spy school that I attended in Taiwan

C. All BBC/NHK/CNN China correspondents are taught to speak Chinese

D. Of course, Chinese is so simple only an idiot couldn’t speak it after a few weeks

E. なに?

Correct Answers: Yes, a little/说一点点, No

Do you know about Chinese history?

A. No, but it shouldn’t take me long to pick it up

B. No, but I would like you to tell me EVERYTHING.

C. No, can you summarize it for me?

D. No, but it doesn’t sound very important.

E. I know the bits that your government didn’t tell you

F. I know what happened in 1949 and 1989

G. I know what Fusosha Publishing says happened, and that’s good enough for me

H. I saw Walt Disney’s Mulan, once, while DRUNK

I. I saw that film at Cannes last year

Correct Answer: Yes, now about that ‘other’ fascinating thing you were going to tell me …

Do you know what is happening in Beijing in 2008?

No, but I know what happened there in 1989

Correct answer: Yes, now about that ‘other’ fascinating thing you were going to tell me …

Have you seen the Great Wall?

A. We have one too, but it’s bigger

B. Yes, I liked it so much that I hacked a chunk off to take home as a souvenir

C. No, does it have lasers on it?

D. Didn’t the Mongols build it to keep the Chinese in?

E. Berlin used to have one just like it, but the Americans made them take it down

F. I saw some of it on a building site in Zhongwei

G. Didn’t Luke Skywalker blow it up in Episode IV?

Correct Answer: Yes, it was big

Have you tried Peking Duck?

A. Peeking Duck, that’s animal porn, right?

B. I had a Peking duck wrap in KFC once, does that count?

C. No, I don’t hold with eating filthy foreign food

D. Any answer involving the words 'food' and 'poisoning'

Correct Answer: Yes, it was good, but not as good as your local food

Have you been to (insert name of local tourist attraction)?

A. No, can you tell me about it?

B. Is it any different from the one that they have in (insert rival village name here)?

C. When you’ve seen one seen one 5000 year old Pagoda, you’ve seen em all.

D. We have one in my country, but it's better

E. I saw one like it in Fujian, but it didn’t have so many beggars outside

Correct Answer: I don’t remember.

What is your telephone number?

ANY answer that involves the word ‘yes’ or your actual telephone number

Correct Answer: any number belonging to anybody who can’t give the caller your real telephone number

Do you like China?

A. Yes, but I preferred Taiwan

B. I like ‘Chinatown’

C. Yes, but I preferred it when the Brits/Japanese/Nationalists were running the joint

D. Do you mean the ROC or the PRC?

E. No, the communists ruined it

F. I like the bits that aren’t aiming missiles at my sisters house in Taipei

G. You would have liked the answer better if you had asked me in February

H. ANY honest answer that starts with ‘No’ or include the words ‘but .... '

Correct Answer: Yes, it’s very big and has a wall/Yes, me very like like China.

I believe this forward was edited from a post on an appropriately titled website: Angry Chinese Blogger.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Bag Ban

Earlier this year, the China State Council banned free plastic bags from retailers. Now, in China there's no choice of paper or plastic, it's just plastic, and most of the time those plastic bags are of the ultra-thin, ultra-flimsy variety. We're talking so flimsy that anything over the weight of a single beer requires double-bagging and a fast trip home before the bags break. Once used for transporting your groceries and beer (or just beer), these cheap little bags are delegated to lining your home trashcans (if the bags haven't broken yet) assuming that they're big enough. Most of the time the bags are so inconveniently small and flimsy that any shopping trip would require a dozen of the little things to hoist all your food and are too small to fit in any normal sized waste bin, which is extremely annoying.

The majority of these bags would just end up being thrown away, usually into other, larger plastic bags, but often they would just be left on the street, blocking sewers, interfering with water treatment, polluting the environment or just blowing across the streets in clumps of bags. Like tumble weed, but with bags.

That all changed last month. One of the advantages of a one party government is that you can, without having to fuss through congress, arbitrary opposition from other parties or protests from bag lobbyists. So as of June 1, free bags are banned and all stores carry plastic bags for purchase. You can buy small bags for 0.1 yuan, medium bags for 0.2 yuan and larger bags for 0.3 yuan (6.8 yuan = 1 USD). Then for the real green shopper, cloth biodegradable bags are offered for a few yuan. In addition to potentially saving 37 million barrels of oil if shoppers use reusable bags, the new bags are much, much heftier than the old ones, and they're actually of a normal size that can be useful around the house.

When I first heard about this measure I just assumed that everyone would end up buying these new bags, with a minority of frugal shoppers bringing along their own bags, but that's not the case, at least in Guangzhou. I'd forgotten that China has a savings rate that's 50% of GDP, these guys like to economize. Seemingly overnight, people have started bringing reusable plastic and cloth bags to the grocery stores, with shoppers who purchase bags at the grocery store in the minority.

It was less than two months ago that I felt like I was one of the few responsible shoppers at my local grocer when I'd bring my old bags. Now whenever I forget to bring my old bags to use when shopping, I feel like I'm the irresponsible person in the register line, most people bring their bags. Now if only I can find a good bag storage device.