Tag: technology


15

Nov 2018

E ink for the Shanghai Bus System

I was surprised to see this new bus schedule display screen using what appears to be e ink for its display:

Shanghai Bus Stop Using E ink

I did a double-take at first, thinking it had to be paper. (Obviously, it’s a screen.)

Pretty cool! I had no idea that this technology was being applied in this way. Curious if this is just a tiny experiment, or if this kind of display is rolling out at a larger scale already. E ink totally makes sense as a way to roll out more dynamic (networked) announcement boards across the city at a lower energy cost.

One of my co-workers remarked that there’s a conspicuous lack of ad space on the display. Other similar bus stop displays have used conventional monitors to show the bus ever-changing schedule alongside video ads. This does seem like a user-friendly lower-cost option, though.


16

Aug 2018

Fukuoka 20 Years Later, post-China

I studied abroad in Japan for the 1997-98 academic year. During spring break, a friend and I hitchhiked from Osaka to Fukuoka. We visited from friends of mine, and explored the northern half of the island of Kyushu. Now, just over 20 years later, I’ve just visited Fukuoka again. This time the differences I noticed felt meaningful, and it’s not because of Japan. It’s because of me, and the 18 years I’ve spent in China in the meantime.

Obviously, this is a personal take. So-called “evidence” I cite is anecdotal. It doesn’t take into account the societies as a whole. I know, Fukuoka is not Tokyo. But if you can handle all that, read on.

The overwhelming sense I got which took hold of me early on in the visit and just wouldn’t let go is that Japan hasn’t changed much in 20 years. Of course it’s changed. But having lived in China, where pace of development permanently stuck in “breakneck speed,” Fukuoka really made me feel like Japan’s development is at a standstill. I’m no economist, but I’m into technology, so that’s one of the areas I was constantly checking up on. Remember when Japan felt super high-tech, back in the 80’s and 90’s? Now it feels kind of like Disney’s Epcot center, the “city of the future” conceived of in the 1970’s.

Just a few things that left an impression:

  1. Vending machines everywhere. This is one of the things that’s so Japan, and I take no issue with the approach, except that these are literally the exact same machines from 20 years ago. They really haven’t changed. Meanwhile, China is outfitting these machines with scanners to support WeChat and AliPay.

    "Gachapon" Capsule Toy Vending Machines with WeChat, AliPay

  2. “Cashless” restaurant ordering also means vending machines. My wife’s mind was blown that so many Japanese restaurants use meal ticket vending machines. This way the staff doesn’t have to handle money at all, and no one has to take orders. Makes sense, right? The modern Chinese solution, though, is to just put QR codes on the restaurant tables. Diners scan, order, and pay right away. The restaurant staff knows which table you ordered from. You barely have to talk to the staff, much less give them a ticket. No cash, no paper, no human interaction necessary. Cold efficiency.

    China

  3. Japan’s rail system is still legendary. Again, exactly the same as 20 years ago. You buy train tickets from vending machines. There’s a very real sense of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and I can understand that. The train system works so well! It’s easy to use, and the trains all run on time. Shanghai’s subway and light rail system is not better than Fukuoka’s. And yet, there’s this feeling that in 10 more years (if that), Shanghai’s will be clearly superior, and Fukuoka’s will be the same.

    IMG_3764

  4. Japan’s still doing great with recycling and environmental protection. I know, Japan still kills whales and does other bad things. But in general Japan is great at recycling, the streets are clean, and a retreat into the mountains (also clean and relatively unsullied) is never far away. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but it would be so great if China could catch up in this respect.

    Lawson Japan

  5. It’s not hard to be alone in Japan. Sure, the cities are super crowded, and apartments are small. But if you need to get away from it all, it feels way easier in Japan. You can hop on a train or bus, and a short ride later be headed into the mountains where you’ll be totally alone. Sure, it’s possible in China, but harder.

    Gen on the Path

I could say a lot of these same things about China and the US, especially if I cherry-pick my cities. One interesting thing, though, was that when my wife told Japanese friends about how we use mobile payments for everything in Shanghai now, they were surprised and blown away. They had no idea.


12

Jul 2018

Time, Textbooks, and Podcasts

I’ve been in China 18 years now, and started working at ChinesePod over 10 years ago. I remember when we first started, we were creating lessons about simple everyday interactions which simply did not exist in any available textbook. The one that comes to mind is a Newbie lesson from 2006 called Using a Credit Card. The super useful question was:

现金还是刷卡? [Cash or credit?]

This lesson was so useful because credit cards had only fairly recently been introduced to China, or at least only in recent years become common. No textbooks taught 刷卡 (“to swipe a credit card”) because textbooks typically needed something like 10 years to catch up with development of that sort. So they weren’t even close, happy to focus on iterations of the classic “Going to the Post Office” chapter, which was rapidly becoming irrelevant in modern life.

In the years to follow, ChinesePod did lots of lessons involving 手机 (“cell phones”), and later 智能手机 (“smartphones”). I observed over time as textbooks struggled to update to even include the word 手机 at all.

The irony is that in 2018, even the lesson Using a Credit Card is now almost irrelevant itself. It’s so easy to bind your bank’s debit card to your WeChat or AliPay account, and Chinese consumers, for the most part, don’t like living on credit. So now the most important question you always hear when you buy something is:

支付宝还是微信? [AliPay or WeChat?]

WeChat AliPay

It doesn’t appear that ChinesePod has this exact Newbie lesson yet, but it should. This new trend is especially important to point out to China newbies because in this particular regard, China is actually ahead of western countries, a fact which takes a lot of visitors by surprise.

I oversaw lesson production at ChinesePod for almost 8 years, and one thing became clear about the business model: the ChinesePod users wanted new lessons continually added. There were some in the company that considered this a problem, because the archive had already grown large enough to meet almost learner’s needs. Looking back from 2018, it’s easy to see that a lot of those lessons weren’t actually targeting serious communication problems for learners. On the other hand, some regular new content is also necessary in this age of rapid technological growth, where Chinese society develops quickly in new directions that no one can anticipate. Textbooks might find keeping up impossible on a traditional publishing cycle, but even for internet companies, it’s a challenge.


25

Jan 2018

Skipping the Line at Burger King with WeChat

One of the interesting things about living in Shanghai is seeing new technology integrated into daily life across the city fairly quickly. Two significant recent examples include mobile payments (WeChat, AliPay) and bike sharing (Mobike, Ofo). But WeChat is enabling lots of other cool changes as well.

The other day I went to Burger King and there was a fairly long line.

Burger King WeChat Order 2

I noticed this banner telling me to scan the QR code and order on my phone to skip the line:

Burger King WeChat Order 3

扫码
手机自动点餐
不排队

I don’t always go for this kind of thing, as sometimes the “quick and convenient” way ends up being more hassle (the Shanghai Metro’s recent launch of QR codes for subway ticket payments is a great example of that). But this time I decided to give it a shot.

Burger King WeChat Order 1

It was, indeed, easy and fast, and I think I got my order sooner than I would have had I stayed in line.

It was pretty clear to me that Burger King is essentially using the same system used to prepare orders for delivery guys: the user orders on the app, and the delivery guy picks it up in the window. This implementation is simply combining the two for one user. And it utilizes WeChat, so it’s not even a totally separate iOS or Android app. The only flaw I saw was that it didn’t auto-detect which store I was in; I had to choose it. Had I accidentally chosen the wrong location, that would have been quite annoying for both sides.

Still, interesting to see this. McDonalds in Shanghai has had touchscreen order kiosks for a while, but shifting the ordering to WeChat (which virtually every consumer in Shanghai uses) adds a new level of convenience.


10

Oct 2017

QR Code Parking Is Pretty Cool

This parking payment system is in place under Sinan Mansions (思南公馆) in Shanghai:

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Basically, your license plate gets scanned on the way in, and on the way out you just scan the QR code, input your license plate number, and pay with WeChat or AliPay. The gate opens automatically on your way out.

You have to remember to scan the QR code, but these are posted all around the parking garage, and it’s way more convenient then finding a little cashier’s office or paying at a booth at the gate.

This same parking garage has “eCars” for rent.


22

Feb 2017

Ofo Rental Bikes Are Getting OWNED

I’ve recently commented on how the sudden rise of app-driven bike rental services in Shanghai is fairly staggering. From a casual look around the downtown area, it’s clear that Mobike and Ofo are currently the top dogs, and Ofo seems to be doing all right with its “cheaper” business model, despite its late entrance to the market. But I’ve recently learned that Ofo’s service has some pretty glaring flaws when compared to Mobike.

How Mobike and Ofo Differ

Both services use apps, but Mobike’s bicycles are more high-tech, and that makes a big difference. Mobike bikes have tracking devices embedded, and the bike locks are unlocked remotely through the network. Ofo bikes use simple combination locks that you can request the code for through the app.

So the Mobike service works like this:

  1. Use the app to find bikes near you
  2. Unlock a particular bike by scanning its QR code with the app
  3. (The bike’s lock automatically unlocks after a few seconds)
  4. Use the bike
  5. Park the bike and manually lock it
  6. Mobike’s services are informed the ride is over, and the bike’s location is made available to other users through the app

…and the Ofo service works like this:

  1. Find a bike yourself (no tracking devices)
  2. Send the bike’s ID number to Ofo via the app
  3. Receive the combination to the mechanical lock
  4. Unlock the bike with the combination
  5. Use the bike
  6. Park the bike and manually lock it

(Note: I don’t use Ofo myself, but I’ve spoken with people who do. Ofo bikes also have QR codes on their bikes, but they’re for the purpose of advertising the app, not unlocking the bikes. The Mobike QR codes serve both purposes.)

It seems like the Ofo system is fairly straightforward and would save a lot of money, right? Oh, but it has problems…

Ofo’s Locking Problem

Because Ofo uses combination locks, none of the bike locks are truly locked unless the last user changed the combination after closing the lock. And, it turns out, a lot of people don’t. A good number of Ofo bikes on the street are actually unlocked, if you just press the button on the lock.

When I first heard this, I was skeptical, but the very first bike I tried was unlocked. Later, I checked a sample of 20 bikes in the Jing’an area, and 4 were unlocked. So, 1 in 5. That’s a lot!

As it turns out, this isn’t Ofo’s worst problem, though…

People Are Publicly Stealing Ofo’s Bikes

Ofo bikes are locked with combination locks, and those combinations don’t change. So if you save the combination and can find the same bike again, you can use it for free. The only thing keeping you from using the same bike again is the sheer number of bikes out there and the other people using them. And the way that other people use the bikes is to request the combination through the app. But what if they couldn’t get the combination for “your” bike? To get the combination, other users need to read the bike’s ID number. But if this number is missing or unreadable, no one else can get the combination.

Ofo Public Bike Theft

Ofo Public Bike Theft

So this is how people are “owning” Ofo bikes. They’re getting the combination to a particular bike, and then scratching off or otherwise removing the bike’s ID number. I did a bit of hunting for “owned” Ofo bikes parked on the street, and did find a few. Logically, though, the “owned” bikes are probably going to be parked in less public places. I really wonder how many Ofo bikes have disappeared off the street.

Ofo Public Bike Theft

Ofo Public Bike Theft

I also wonder if this aspect of the “cheap bike” strategy has already been taken into account. Ofo has ample funding, after all. How many bikes can Ofo afford to lose and yet still have lower costs than Mobike, with its fancy high-tech bikes? Or, how many Ofo bikes need to be stolen before people realize that it’s easier (and not at all expensive) to just leave the bikes in the system? How long does it take before “owning” a ripped-off Ofo bike is uncool and/or shameful? Hard to say… and there are a lot of people in Shanghai!

Strange Competitive Practices

The other day near Jing’an Temple I snapped this shot of a few guys slowly escorting a “cargo tricycle” full of Mobike bicycles. The strange thing was the two of them were riding Ofo bikes!

Ofo vs. Mobike?

Ofo vs. Mobike?

I was in a hurry, so I didn’t even try to ask them any questions, but the guys were wearing clothes which read 特勤, which is probably short for 特殊勤务, something like “special forces” (a division of the police).

At least one Chinese person I showed these pictures to thought the uniforms looked fake, but who knows?

Ofo in Chinese Is “O-F-O”

Just a final note on the Chinese names of these two companies:

  • Mobike: 摩拜单车
  • Ofo: O-F-O

Yes, Ofo in Chinese is spelled out, just like the word “app” is spelled out in Chinese as “A-P-P.”


08

Nov 2016

Voting from Abroad and Faxing Difficulties

It’s 2016, and I thought my days of using a fax machine were well behind me. It turns out, however, that Hillsborough County in Florida allows mailed-in ballots and faxed-in ballots, but not emailed-in ballots. And due to the unreliability of regular post (I find that a lot of letters and packages simply never arrive these days), my options are down to fax or using an international delivery service like UPS or FedEx. But since those two each cost over $50 to send in my ballot, I opted to go the more archaic route: fax.

Day Sixty Four - Fax Machine

Since any major hotel in Shanghai has a “Business Center” (商务中心), I figured going to a nice hotel would be a good place to fax a document. Sure, it wouldn’t be the cheapest faxing option, but it would certainly be much less than $50, and I could get the help of the professional staff of a five-star hotel.

After calling ahead to the Jing’an Hilton and the Jing’an Shangri-La Hotel (both within walking distance of my office) to make sure both offer international fax services, I set out Friday afternoon to fax in my ballot.

Reality was a bit more complicated. The staff of both places (as well as a third, Yan’an Hotel, which I tried out since I was walking past it anyway) were actually not very familiar with using a fax machine, much less sending an international fax. Every trip resulted in a polite affirmative from staff that they could fax the document, followed by lots of calls on how to send an international fax, multiple attempts, and ultimate failure. The worst part was the way the fax machine’s “failure to send” message result was worded: “no answer or the line was busy.” “Or”?? Seems like in this case, the result could be clearer.

I began to suspect that the fax machine was only on during business hours, and also decided to take a friend’s suggestion and use an app. So I scanned my document, got it on my phone, and used an app called Genius Fax to send it in Friday night at around 8:30pm. Success!

I honestly thought that going the more human route would be easier and more certain, but when it comes to using an increasingly outdated technology, which relies on another increasingly outdated technology (international telephone calls), it just didn’t work out. I still don’t even know for sure if the main issue really was simply one of business hours and time difference, but at least the fax went through in the end.

So if you’re voting abroad, a few pieces of advice:

  1. If you can’t vote by email, vote by fax. You have to waive your right to secret ballot to do this, but at least you can be fairly sure your vote has been received.
  2. If you use the fax option, use an internet-based service. I used Genius Fax, but friends on Facebook also recommend FaxZero and HelloFax.
  3. If you’re voting from abroad and you’ve received your ballot, it’s not too late to vote. So even though today is the official voting day, you still have time, especially if you choose the fax option. Votes from abroad can decide a close election!

Hopefully this helps somebody. Get your vote in! Coming from the state of Florida, I felt additional pressure to be sure to vote in this presidential election, and getting that “successfully received” message from the app was quite a relief.


03

Dec 2015

China: Mobile Payment Paradise

It’s hard to believe how far mobile payments have come in China in such a short time. This picture (via Ryan King) illustrates it well:

China mobile payments

Family Mart is a Japanese convenience store chain doing extremely well in Shanghai. The four mobile payment options offered in the photo are:

– AliPay (支付宝)
– WeChat Pay (微信支付)
– BestPay (翼支付)
– QQ Wallet (QQ钱包)

(And yes, those are condoms on sale, right under the register. Seems to be a Family Mart thing.)


03

Mar 2015

Sad Newspaper Recycling Man

Way back in 2008 or so I used to ride the subway regularly to get to “the factory,” the original ChinesePod office. Every day as I got off the subway and exited the station, I’d see these “newspaper recycling people.” They were typically elderly, and they stood by the subway turnstiles, near the garbage cans, busily collecting the used newspapers of all the passengers that were already finished consuming their daily paper-based commute reading. The “newspaper recycling people” accumulated quite a stack of papers every morning.

I don’t ride the subway as much these days, but I noticed recently that these “newspaper recycling people” are still there, but they’re a lot less busy than before. They collect far fewer newspapers these days. I snapped a photo of one, tucking his meager bounty into his bag:

Sad Newspaper Recycling Man

Who needs a newspaper when you have the (censored) sum of the world’s knowledge and entertainment in the palm of your hand? Hopefully these enterprising older people can find a new way to make a few extra kuai.


20

Nov 2012

CIEE Conference: Tech and Chinese

Over the weekend I joined the CIEE Conference in Shanghai. It struck me as a mini-ACTFL (but in town!), focused on study abroad. I was part of a panel discussion on “Effective Use of the New Digital Chinese Language Technology,” chaired by David Moser and also joined by Brendan O’Kane.

To sum up our initial points (and apologies if I get any of these wrong), what we said was:

David Moser: Chinese used to be a huge pain because looking up words was so difficult, but now, thanks to technology a lot of the pain is gone
Me: Technology is not inherently useful, but there is now great potential for a new, student-led way of learning enabled by technology
Brendan O’Kane: both the level of students entering Chinese translation classes and the quality of Chinese reference materials are going up, but there are still some fundamental reading/parsing issues that need special attention

After we made our points, the discussion turned to a bunch of learning resource name-dropping, including FluentU, Shooter, and the Chinese Grammar Wiki.

Fielding questions from teachers and program directors, some of the issues that struck me were:

1. It’s not at all clear what resources are most useful to teachers (even ones like Pleco that have been around for quite a while and have a good name in the space) and which ones they can use
2. Even if teachers are willing to use new tools to find interesting, up-to-date material for their students, they don’t feel well-equipped to do so in anything resembling a systematic manner
3. What technology is here to stay, and what is just a passing fad? It’s hard to say. I don’t blame some of the teachers for wanting to just wait until the dust settles.

There are so many opportunities for innovation in this space right now…


03

Nov 2011

How SRS Works (video)

Just saw this great video on SRS (spaced repetition system/software), which provides an illuminating visual explanation:

> The video shows a grid of factoids, where new factoids are being presented at a constant rate. Over time, the factoids begin to fade to black… the closer they get to black, the closer they are to being forgotten. However, if they’re “recharged” by being relearned, they advance up a tier (represented by the color and number of the cell). The higher the tier, the longer it takes for the factoid to be forgotten. If at any point, a factoid gets completely forgotten, it is sent back down to the lowest level.

Be sure to click on “Show more” under the video to see the full explanation.

Via @ajatt.


Fetion Integrates SMS Text Messaging with the PC

10

May 2010

Fetion Integrates SMS Text Messaging with the PC

The idea of being able to send or receive cell phone text messages on a computer is not a new one, but this Chinese software called “Fetion” (飞信 in Chinese, literally, “flying letter”) is new to me. In a recent AllSet Learning teacher training session, we were discussing various types of technology for learning, including ChinesePod, Anki, and Skritter, when 飞信 came up (weird English name: “Fetion”).

For now, Fetion is PC only, although it also has mobile versions. Its “smartphone” version is aimed at Windows Mobile users, not Android or iPhone users. This all makes a lot of sense if Fetion is targeting a younger Chinese demographic rather than professionals.

Fetion mixes social networking properties with communications management properties. One of the benefits it boasts is the ability to store all of your text messages offline on your computer (which Google Voice is currently doing in the US, but in the cloud). Here are the features listed on the Fetion website’s 特性 page:

– A multi-platform system means you’re always reachable
– Free text messaging
– Super-cheap rates for group voice chat
– File-sharing
– Anti-harassment security functionality
– 24/7 customer service

I’ve got to say, this doesn’t seem especially impressive; this technology has been around for a while. It seems that Fetion has caught on with a sizable userbase, however. I’m curious how far it will go.

Have you used Fetion? What are your experiences with it? Is it useful? Do any of your Chinese friends use 飞信?


07

Mar 2010

The Singularity and the Chinese History of Chess

While reading up on one of my favorite topics, the technological singularity, I recently came across this interesting passage in an article by renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil entitled The Law of Accelerating Returns:

> To appreciate the nature and significance of the coming “singularity,” it is important to ponder the nature of exponential growth. Toward this end, I am fond of telling the tale of the inventor of chess and his patron, the emperor of China. In response to the emperor’s offer of a reward for his new beloved game, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice on the first square, two on the second square, four on the third, and so on. The Emperor quickly granted this seemingly benign and humble request. One version of the story has the emperor going bankrupt as the 63 doublings ultimately totaled 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this requires rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included. Another version of the story has the inventor losing his head.

exponential growth

> It should be pointed out that as the emperor and the inventor went through the first half of the chess board, things were fairly uneventful. The inventor was given spoonfuls of rice, then bowls of rice, then barrels. By the end of the first half of the chess board, the inventor had accumulated one large field’s worth (4 billion grains), and the emperor did start to take notice. It was as they progressed through the second half of the chessboard that the situation quickly deteriorated. Incidentally, with regard to the doublings of computation, that’s about where we stand now–there have been slightly more than 32 doublings of performance since the first programmable computers were invented during World War II.

> This is the nature of exponential growth. Although technology grows in the exponential domain, we humans live in a linear world. So technological trends are not noticed as small levels of technological power are doubled. Then seemingly out of nowhere, a technology explodes into view. For example, when the Internet went from 20,000 to 80,000 nodes over a two year period during the 1980s, this progress remained hidden from the general public. A decade later, when it went from 20 million to 80 million nodes in the same amount of time, the impact was rather conspicuous.

the singularity

I’d never heard the claim that the Chinese invented chess; I’ve always heard that the game was invented by the Indians or Persians and then later iterated by the Chinese. Kurzweil’s story also seems a bit suspect to me because of its reference to “squares,” which does not match the forms of Chinese chess I’m familiar with, but then again I’m no expert on any kind of chess. Wikipedia has this information on the history of chess in China:

chess

> Joseph Needham posits that “image-chess,” a recreational game associated with divination, was developed in China and transmitted to India, where it evolved into the form of modern military chess. Needham notes that dice were transmitted to China from India, and were used in the game of “image-chess.”

> Another alternative theory contends that chess arose from Xiangqi or a predecessor thereof, existing in China since the 2nd century BC. David H. Li, a retired accountant, professor of accounting and translator of ancient Chinese texts, hypothesizes that general Han Xin drew on the earlier game of Liubo to develop an early form of Chinese chess in the winter of 204–203 BC. The German chess historian Peter Banaschak, however, points out that Li’s main hypothesis “is based on virtually nothing”. He notes that the “Xuanguai lu,” authored by the Tang Dynasty minister Niu Sengru (779–847), remains the first real source on the Chinese chess variant xiangqi.

In my half-assed 5-minute Wikipedia/Baidu Zhidao research, I don’t see reference to the emperor of China sponsoring the invention of any form of chess. Could this be an inaccurate reference to Han Xin (韩信), who is connected to the history of Chinese chess (象棋)? If anyone has more info, I’d love to hear it. Is Kurzweil’s story about Chinese chess, rice grains, and exponential growth just another fake Chinese anecdote, or is there anything to back it up?

Chinese Chess, 中国象棋