Saturday, December 24, 2011

Eels

It is an Italian tradition to eat eel for Christmas eve dinner. Since Christmas eve is still part of Advent, when Catholics were supposed to give up meat, eel was the most oily and rich fish one could eat. It is sort of the meat of the sea. Salmon is perhaps similarly "beefy".  Our family always had fish for Christmas eve dinner. NPR recently had a story that said southern Italian families had seven types of seafood, and that the types did not matter but eel was central. Our family was similar, but I'd never heard of seven being important.  But we were always aware that Americans did not eat eel. We had to get it from Chicago, two hours away, and it was the only time in the year when we ate eel. It was often bought live, and we had to find some way to skin it, which is not easy, as the eel continues to wriggle. A sliced eel will even continue to move in the oven.  Enough to make anyone a vegetarian.  I've been wondering why Americans don't eat eel, and so picked up a short book entitled Consider the Eel from the library. The book has a lot of information, but I find it a bit irritating that when it talks about changes in the business on the east coast of the US, the author reports that his sources, the "eelers", are not willing to tell him the details of mergers in the business because they don't want it to appear in the book. Well, why write the book then?! One dealer, who sells 9" eels as bait for sport fishermen, explains his reluctance to talk by saying that his neighbors do not know he is in the eel business. There seems to be something distasteful about eels, but the book never explains why eel is so reviled.

It does, however, make the mystery even more surprising because it notes that eel was plentiful in the New World, and was a critically important food for the early colonists. They were taught to catch eel by the native American Tisquantum (AKA Squanto), the Patuxet man who had been kidnapped by an Englishman and taken to Europe. After nearly being sold into servitude and suffering humiliations in England, he finally managed to get back to his country only to find that his people had been wiped out by disease. He was living with the neighboring Wampoanog when he met the Pilgrims, and taught them to catch eel, plant corn, etc. He was very generous, and is considered essential to the Plymouth colony's survival (even with his help, half the colony died within the first six months).

The book makes it clear that eel were plentiful and popular as food. Even in 1880, 400,000 lbs of eel were captured commercially in Massachusetts, but about a hundred years later, in 1988, it was down to only 29,900 lbs, and in 1997, only 304 lbs were caught (p. 120). A big drop-off in consumption occurred after WWII, with only ethnics (Italians, Poles, and Irish) eating eel. The book suggests that this is due to eels being bottom feeders, so that they concentrate heavy metals and pollution. Indeed, eating fish from the Hudson River of New York was banned in 1976, especially eel, when it was discovered that the PCBs released by a GE plant had poisoned about half the eel in the river.  This still does not explain why so many Americans are grossed out by eel, though. There are many things we don't eat that don't generate the disgusted comments on websites that explain how to cook eel.

While looking up recipes for eel, I discovered this entry at the start of HowStuffWork's entry on "Why are eels slippery?":
­One of the creepie­st animals you can encounter in the water is the eel. It's a slippery, slimy creature, and it doesn't fit neatly into the water creature categories we've set ­up in our brains, which only amplifies our fear of it. Is it a snake? A fish? An unholy hybrid of both?

To anyone who has read Mary Douglas, this explains everything. Americans do not consider eel to be "clean" and edible not because it is a bottom feeder (so are crabs and lobsters, after all), but because it does not fit into a proper category. It is actually a fish, but it looks like a snake. It can even live a long time out of the water. Plus, it does not die right away and continues wriggling, adding to our fear of it, especially for those of us who are not used to killing our own food (we Americans expect that to be done by immigrants in slaughter houses, so they can remove the heads and tails of fish so we are not reminded that they are real animals!).

This still leaves the question of why there has been this shift since WWII. Surely American categories have not changed during the 20th century.  Why has this become more salient?  Why did a favorite dish of the early 19th century disappear from cookbooks of the 20th century?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lonely Hearts @ Shangai Ikea

NPR has an interesting story on how older "lonely  hearts" take over the Ikea caffeteria in Shanghai two times a week to meet and make friends. Among the interesting aspects is that many of the senior citizens seem not to understand that this is not really what Ikea want. It is almost as they they are saying, "Well, you have a nice place for shopping, you offer free coffee, so why are you surprised that we like to hang out here?"  Among the more amusing observations:
In fact, some Chinese have always treated IKEA like an extension of their own homes. When the first store opened in Beijing in 1998, people napped on the beds. Families camped out on sofa sets, reading newspapers, drinking tea from glass jars and eating biscuits.
One aspect of the story that was not mentioned is the role that all the moving, the urban renewal, and dislocation has played in causing older people to seek friends in a common space like this.  I wonder if older, established neighborhoods would not have been more able to satisfy the elderly's needs for sociability in the past. But if you've been moved to a remote neighborhood, in a tower where you know few people, you need new ways to make friends. And yet, this is still unusual, because Chinese rarely make friends with strangers. It would be interesting to know how this "custom" developed.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Hong Kong in stop-motion video

Here is a short video that captures a lot of iconic images of Hong Kong, and makes residents feel proud of their city. Note the end, focusing on the July 1st protests which are so much a part of the SAR's identity, at least for some.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Evils of Advertizing

My alma mater has only last week started blaring rock music in between plays at football games. Football at Notre Dame is sacred, and it is strange that they are playing with this ritual (adding music and a jumbo-tron, which is under consideration, is the football equivalent of Vatican II reforms). There are mixed reactions to it. From what I hear, the music on the loudspeakers is competing with the marching bands' music (USC also had their band there last week), and it makes the announcements impossible to hear. At the very least they need to coordinate the sound system better. But the bigger issue is that if (when) they get the jumbo-tron, it will be paid for by a corporate sponsor, who will expect to have commercials played on the screen.  ND people were actually saying that the ND stadium was said to be one of the quietest in the country, so something had to be done. Apparently, ND is slow to add music and a giant screen; I guess tradition was important.  Some say the stadium was quiet because students only make up a small portion of the stadium (capacity 80,795; it was expanded from just over 59,000 when I was a student there; there are just under 12,000 students, of which only 8371 are undergrads. Students used to make up almost 20% of the stadium, but now they are less than 15% of the audience).  Professional sports events are now dominated by giant TVs and sound systems.  I guess the game itself is not exciting enough, and we need to be stimulated by music and ads. Of course, it is the ads that pay for this, and can bring in more money. From the commercial point of view, if you don't do this, you are leaving money on the table.

The issue of advertising's effect on society is addressed by a very interesting column by George Monbiot entitled Sucking Out Our Brains Through Our Eyes.  He notes that advertizing pays for his salary, especially as the sales of physical copies of newspapers decline, and newspapers rely more and more on ad revenue from online websites. Bloggers rely on ads too. But it is having a pernicious effect on our culture, making us more and more extrinsic in our value orientation, rather than intrinsic.
People with a strong set of intrinsic values place most weight on their relationships with family, friends and community. They have a sense of self-acceptance and a concern for other people and the environment. People with largely extrinsic values are driven by a desire for status, wealth and power over others. They tend to be image-conscious, to have a strong desire to conform to social norms and to possess less concern for other people or the planet. They are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and to report low levels of satisfaction with their lives.

Monbiot ruminates on how dependent he is on advertizing for his income. I'm guilty too, in that I enjoy the free content on websites ("free" websites are made possible by ads, of course).  If people were more aware of how ads distort their thinking, they might be more careful. But research has found that everyone overestimates their ability to discount advertising.  It really is insidious.  And it is about to enter the Notre Dame stadium, which is practically sacred ground.  There really is no place safe from advertizing. How many years before there are corporate logos (aside from the jersey manufacturers) on players' uniforms?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

China banning US scholars

The cases of US China scholars who are banned from traveling to China should receive more attention than it does receive.  Here is a Bloomberg story from August that discusses the best-known cases.  It is very depressing and disturbing.  I view this as a case of two steps forward and one step back; China is in general much more open than in the past, but this banning of professors is, well, outrageous. And depressing.  These are not people who are activists or law breakers, certainly not in China, and not even in the US. Their difficulties are especially disturbing because they are not officially banned--they just have their visa requests denied. This then leads others to suggest that there must be more to it, or that it is better to wait and see. But what has clearly happened is that they get on some security blacklist, and then no one in China wants to take responsibility for taking them off the list.

Another interesting aspect of the story is that the Xinjiang scholars' problems started because the editor of the book sent a copy of the book to the security people who had shown interest in their book, and that led them to translate it. Instead of this being a sign of good faith and open scholarly exchange (and that they had nothing to hide), it got them into trouble. You are better off avoiding security in China, the exact opposite of the approach in the West, where keeping your activities open is a sign of good faith. Most Chinese I know avoid dealing with "gongan" as much as possible, and treat them like the plague.

More pressure needs to be put on China to stop barring scholars from visiting China. Or, if they continue to do so, there has to be a cost. It is actually an embarrassment to many Chinese that this is happening, so it is important to seek allies to continue opening up China and letting security authorities understand that this is not acceptable internationally. And if other China scholars do not speak out, they are complicit, and give credence to claims that I hear every now and then that scholars self-censor. And universities need to speak out too, collectively.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Puzzle of Students Talking in Class

I have finally solved a puzzle that has been bothering me for years, and something that visiting professors have asked me about but I could not answer. Our HK students are overwhelmingly polite and well-mannered. There are a few things about which they have different manners, like answering a cell phone in class. I tell students that they should turn off their phones or set them to silent mode when they are in class, and if they forget, that is OK, but they should kill it and not answer the phone. I joke that leaning down and speaking softly does not fool anyone. Today, a student rushed out class with his phone in his hand and said "Wei?" as he was walking out the door, to the amusement of many students in the class. This, I accept, is a difference in standards of politeness, and I just think students need to be taught that in the business and professional world, you do not answer the phone in a meeting (though it is shocking how many academic meetings I have attended where someone thinks they are so important they can answer their phone at the seminar table).

The need to teach phone manners, I understand. What I have been perplexed about is how common it is for students to talk to each other in class. They not only do not whisper but talk, but it goes on for a long time, often for the entire class unless I say something ("Excuse me, do you have a question?").  I have even taking to joking that because Cantonese is a tonal language, students cannot whisper; it is as though a whisper would not carry tones, and so cannot be used. They actually voice their murmurings, which is quite distracting to the lecturer.

Yesterday I took a couple of students out to lunch as part of a "teacher-advisee" program that our department has. It is a great chance to get to know a few students better (I think students dread these lunches, but seem to warm to them after we don't eat them alive in the first 10 minutes).  My very simpatico students told me that they had expected university to be a time of freedom, but they are shocked that they have to work even harder than in secondary school!  One commented that it was OK to talk during class in secondary school, but noted with surprise that some university teachers don't allow that. She said it is a far cry from what she had been told, i.e. that at university you don't even have to go to class! She said they are so busy, and have no time for socializing, so they enjoy talking with their new classmates in class.  Who would have known?  So I now understand why students engage in behavior that, on the face of it, seems so rude: they see it as an expression of the "freedom" of university.  Still, the talking, when it happens, makes my  poor little brain have trouble concentrating on what I'm trying to say, so I assume it must distract others in the audience as well.  I guess the socializing has to take place after my class, not during it. It's a little embarrassing how long it has taken me to figure this out. I should probably take students to lunch more often. Students talk more over lunch than in tutorials!  But then I remember my pathetic Mandarin language teacher at Columbia, who would take her favorite students out to lunch to then hold court at Moon Palace and spread rumors about other teachers.  Maybe deep down, everyone who comes out of Columbia fears becoming like her. I wonder if Michael Oksenberg ever took students out to lunch; he was her favorite student (and her best, she always reminded us).

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Cheese Superstition?

The New York Times has an interesting article about affinage, the art, or voodoo, of aging cheese, depending on your point of view. In the skeptic’s corner:

“This affinage thing is a total crock,” said Mr. Jenkins, the cheese monger at Fairway and the author of the pivotal 1996 book “Cheese Primer.” “All it does is drastically inflate the cost of cheeses that have benefited zero from this faux-alchemical nonsense.”

Mr. Jenkins, a New York retail pioneer, argues that affinage is ultimately about marketplace savvy. Long ago in places like France and Belgium, the affineur first stepped in to extract profits by acting as the middleman.

“It has nothing to do with making cheese taste really good,” he said. “It has to do with getting paid. And it’s morphed into a typical ‘French things are cool’ thing that Americans have bought hook, line and sinker. They all think, ‘I can even turn this into a marketing tool, so people will see how devoted I am to my craft.’ ”

He argues that the cheese will be fine, and that it basically makes itself.

 “And if my humidity is 35 percent different from yours, my cheese is going to taste just as good as yours. It may have a different color of mold on it, but it’ll taste just as good. And yours is going to be twice as expensive, and you’re a highway robber. And you’re contributing to the preciousness and folly of Americans trying to emulate something in France that has nothing to do with quality. It has to do with expedience. Are you getting me here?”

In the believer’s corner is Rob Kaufelt, who has owned Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village since 1991. He argues that affinage needs to take place close to the point of sale, so he has “caves” in Manhatten. He says that exceptional care is needed throughout the process of cheese making:

This included: buying the cheese straight from the farms, using special temperature-and-humidity-controlled trucks to make sure the cheese travels without spoiling and taking care of “the affinage closer to the point of sale.”

“Most people don’t bother with this at all,” Mr. Kaufelt went on. “Most people are lazy. Most people are not obsessed with quality. The others would rather obfuscate the issue rather than spend a nickel doing what they need to do.” The proof, he wrote, “is in the eating, which I leave to you.”

The New York Times did conduct a double-blind taste test of three cheeses bought at three different stores, at Murray’s, Artisanal and Fairway. The cheese experts strongly rejected the Fairway cheeses. So TLC works on cheese, too, and connoisseurship and affinage are not just fancy French words, or superstition, but do make cheese better after all.  Who knew?!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Constitutional Law and Assassination

I wanted to write something to indicate my indignation at the assassination of Al-Awlaki without any due process. Not that I support him, or think he's "innocent." But I find the process troubling (at one time, the CIA said it would not engage in assassinations, but now they are even assassinating US citizens abroad). And it is clearly illegal. But now I've found someone who makes the same argument, so I don't need to write my commentary: see Peter Van Buren's column in the Huffington Post.  He is right that it is especially shocking that a former professor of constitutional law would allow this to happen.

I found this column because I heard him on Fresh Air talking about his new book, We Meant Well:
How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
. Depressing (yet funny) stories of institutional irrationality.  He has many amazing stories to tell about his time as a development officer in Iraq; you can a good sense from the Fresh Air web page, and from a piece on a chicken factory and war tourism in The Huffington Post (among other places it was published). It is a testament to American freedom that he was allowed to publish the book, but then again, it seems that because he linked his blog to a leaked Wikileak memo, he is going to fired for that (apparently that counts as leaking secrets). It sounds like China, where almost anything can be considered a state secret.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The student athlete exposed

This excellent article in The Atlantic reveals aspects of NCAA athletics that most Americans have refused to face. I've heard Frank DeFore rant about the absurdity of the NCAA and not paying college athletes but never fully understood his point.  This article shows that the idea of "student athlete" is designed to clear universities of any liability of athletes get hurt. The article tears back the veil that makes us nostalgically cling to the amateur ideal, even when the Olympics has abandoned amateurism without collapsing. Rugby has also abandoned amateurism, in 1995, and is arguably better off for removing the hypocrisy that existed before that. The article is excellent in showing how many "ideals" are actually manipulated by those in power for their own material interests. In this case, all these 18-22 year olds working for universities but not costing anything, while the universities, coaches (even assistant coaches!), television stations, and advertizes all benefit. This article is sure to change a lot of people's opinions. And it shows that there are lawsuits making their way through the courts that may cause the NCAA to collapse even before it loses in court.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hong Kong students

More good news for CUHK in the new entering class. CUHK continues to attract a disproportionate number of HK's best students. This year's freshmen include 43% of the students who entered university on the "early admission scheme" (based on outstanding results in their "O Levels", the HKCEE), and "nearly 40 percent of those who obtained three As or above" on their A Levels. Since there are 7 public universities, of which 3 are the elite research universities (along with HKUST and HKU), CUHK continues to attract more than it's share of the best students, even though some on HK island view the campus as being out in the middle of nowhere.

But there is still one disturbing trend, and that is the "vocational training" mentality of students.  Here are the majors with the "best" entering students, as reported by the university newsletter.

Top programmes/disciplines as ranked by the highest scores of the admitted JUPAS applicants:
  • Global Business Studies

  • Pharmacy

  • Integrated BBA

  • Quantitative Finance

  • Medicine

  • Psychology
Top five programmes/disciplines in terms of the median scores of the admitted JUPAS applicants:
  • Global Business Studies

  • International Business and Chinese Enterprise

  • Quantitative Finance

  • Pharmacy

  • Medicine
Medicine is not a surprise; it is high everywhere, as it should be. But business? Not economics, but "applied economics" (BBA stands for Bachelor's in Business Administration). Pharmacy?! Nothing against pharmacy or pharmacists, but pharmacy and not biology or chemistry is attracting our top minds?  Psychology is an odd one too; it is a notoriously "easy" major in the US--which is too bad, because it is an important field. But it is popular in HK because it is a social science that is viewed as leading to jobs. Journalism is also high on the list. Sigh.  The reason this is a problem becomes clear when you meet journalism students who may know how to write, but don't know any social science theories. They of course then find it hard to write a story analyzing why people do X, or how to interpret a cultural phenomenon.  They may get their first job, but will they succeed in the long run?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Economics and Reality

I often say that economists study models and don't really care about reality. I often complain about "market fundamentalism," the belief that the market works perfectly and can solve all our problems. I rarely, however, have as good examples of these "tendencies" of economists as what came up in the NY Times today:

 In an article on SR5 of the Sunday Review, entitled "Fairies, Witches and Supply and Demand" that discusses the economic principles being taught in children's books. It quotes an "avowedly liberal" economist as angry because so many children's books have virtuous poor and evil rich characters. Not mentioned is that this is the value of most major religions. And then we get a classic:
Sometimes, economists think that children’s books get things wrong. Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” about the destruction of a forest by a greedy industrialist, “assumes that there is no economic system in place,” Mr. Conant said. In a modern capitalist economy, he said, the trees “would get very valuable as they got scarce, and the person with the property rights would harvest them at an economically reasonable rate.”
What planet do these economists study? Or rather, do they ever look at real markets. In most cases that I know of, higher values leads to higher prices which leads to greater pressure on the resource (because owners can make more money on it, or because poachers can make more on it).  Even in the US, it has been found necessary to impose regulations to assure the protection of scarce forest resources.  Economists say the same thing about scarcity in girls; they claim that as girls become scarce in Asia because of sexual selection for boys, girls will become more valuable. Instead, we have found throughout history that girls become commodities, and bought and sold, and are not treated as "more valuable."

The author concludes the article saying:
By and large, the economic lessons in children’s books lean left of center. “I think the writers are not particularly sympathetic to or don’t understand how a market works,” said Gary S. Becker, the Nobel laureate who teaches economics at the University of Chicago. “It’s not easy to convey that to a child. It’s not always easy to convey it to grown-ups.”
For the most part, the economic concepts conveyed in the books reflect values like generosity and equity rather than competition. Raymond Fisman, an economist at Columbia University, said his 3-year-old daughter’s favorite books teach the importance of sharing and gift-giving, values that might not lead to the greatest wealth in the real world. But, he added, “I doubt that 3 is the age where you start teaching people the brutal economic truths of grown-up commerce.” 
It is just astonishing how narrow minded economists are. In the real world, economic principles are only one of many principles we humans use in everyday life, but economists treat them as the only true underlying principle of social life. Anyone who values friendship, loyalty, the environment, stewardship of the planet, gift giving, etc., is either not too bright or a bleeding heart liberal or old fashioned. We should get with the program and value competition, and be a follower religion of economics.

Who in their right mind would criticize Dr. Seuss!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cheating and Honesty in Hong Kong


Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world. Though some super-rich have bodyguards, most people can go about their lives without having to worry about crime. One of the reasons the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens has been so successful is that people can go out partying and not worry about getting mugged. A policeman friend commented that tourists can get drunk in Wanchai and wake up the next morning in their hotel room and still have their wallet.

At the same time, many Hong Kong people live their daily life assuming others are out to cheat them. Hong Kong shoppers do not ask clerks for advice on what appliance to buy because they assume the clerk would steer them to the appliance that they make the most profit on, or the old model that is hard to sell. They are sometimes right, but overall, I’ve found clerks in large stores to be fairly helpful, if they speak Mandarin or English and I can communicate with them!

So it came as a bit of a shock to be completely taken for a ride yesterday on Tung Choi Street, AKA “Goldfish Street”. I needed to get one (or preferably two) fluorescent tubes for my aquarium light. The tubes I need are 6000K, which means they are designed to provide the light that is most suitable for growing plants. I went into one store where I have been before and the clerk (I realized it was a chain, or a large store divided into several nearby small shops, because the employees were wearing similar blue polo shirts with a company logo on the breast) told me that they did not have my brand, but they had a similar tube from another brand. Since I did not even know the Dazs brand of the old tube I brought with me, I said it would be fine. He checked in the back section of the store, but could not find it. But he told me that the 6000K tube I wanted would cost HK$130, while the regular light tube would only cost HK$25. In my experience, the stores charge pretty much the same price for most things, so while the difference did seem high, these were actually different products, so I reluctantly said OK. He said he had to go to another shop to pick it up.

We waited near the front of the store watching customers.  One group came in with two boys. One boy in a green t-shirt had surprisingly long eye lashes. His parents spoke to him in Mandarin. The other couple they were with spoke to their son in Cantonese. The boys first looked at the iguanas hanging from plastic leaves in a terrarium, commenting on their changing colors. I then was looking the other way when I suddenly heard a man who was not wearing the uniform come in and yell at the boy in the green t-shirt, “Siu pang-yau, lei you mo gao co!”  Apparently the boy had put his hand in one of the salt-water aquaria, or something similar. The whole group fairly quickly left the shop; his father was smiling broadly and giggling, in the way that some Asians do when they are embarrassed (which looks totally inappropriate to Westerners). A few minutes later, the boss yelled something out and an employee next to us told us “mo fo”, there is no stock. So we also left.

$55 for a tube... really!

I checked at a couple other places that did not have it, so then I went to a shop across the street that often has what I need but I have found fairly unpleasant. If nothing else, the small of their cat makes the store unpleasant. But I’ve always found the queen laobanniang (lady boss) at the till to be unsmiling and unpleasant. As soon as I walk in holding my old tube, she and an employee tell me to go to the back where they have the bulbs. The employee says he has one, but it is not for plants, but he says it is white and 6700K, and about the same. I don’t remember my physics, so can’t remember if that is really about the same or not, but decide to get one tube, so I can at least replace the one that does not turn on. He tests it to prove it works (they always do that in Hong Kong; once you buy it and leave the story, you cannot bring it back saying it does not work), I ask how much it is. He goes the 10 meters forward towards the counter. The store is very crowded (always is on weekends), but it is still quite clear that everyone is looking at me and does not know the price, but are embarrassed. The queen of the till then says, “Fifty-five dollars.” Now, I had been told that the regular light was only $25 at the first store, so I’m pretty sure I’m being ripped off, but I pay anyway. This is why I don’t like this store; I often get the feeling I’m being charged the special guai-lo price.

As we make our way home, I remember that there is a new store that sells imported Danish plants (this is real globalization: why should tropical aquarium plants come from Denmark! They must grow inside there, because of the winters, but could grow outdoors in Malaysia.). I think this store might have my “flora light”. But when we walk there, they say they don’t sell lights. But as we walk out, one of the employees kindly tells me that I should go across the street to another store, where they would have it. So I go there, and to my amazement, they have the same Dazs brand tubes. She tells me the price in Cantonese, and I think I’ve misunderstood her, but no: $28 each. So I buy two. But now I’m sure the first shop was trying to not just cheat me but rob me, and the second certainly did cheat me.
$28 per tube...

This blog entry is my revenge. There are also layers of hell for people who cheat (I know, because I saw them in the Disneyesque park of Fengdu, China). 

Notice that both pictures have a "Top Sun" 升輝 shop in it. Tung Choi Street appears to be one small shop after another, and I have long tried to get a student to do research on why Hong Kong still has such a bazaar economy. But now, I see multiple shops with the same name. What is going on? The shops are not obviously specialized, but staff now, as mentioned, also wear uniforms. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Corporate Doublespeak

Mobile phone carriers in Hong Kong and the US claim that a small minority of users abuse the network by downloading a huge amount of data. CSL in Hong Kong says that 5% do 50% of downloading; that seems a bit more than a "small minority", and it makes me wonder about their claims of "abuse".  In principle, what they says makes sense, but I'm suspicious because they seem to be using this idea to move away from unlimited data plans. The whole effort seems to be a way for them to increase their revenues (or to find a "new revenue stream").  I'm especially suspicious because of the way they justify the new charges.  The statement from CSL in Hong Kong is laughable; don't they have their PR people read these things?!

     Nothing has changed and that’s why we have heard what our customers have said
     about our policy and that’s why we are moving to adjust it;

Huh? No change, but an adjustment? Are we quibbling here?

     Only abusers who may impact the experience of all our customers by using a
     very high amount of bandwidth will be affected by our policy. At the moment
     approximately 5% percent of customers are very high bandwidth users;

In order to gain the approval of the majority of customers, attack a minority (your best customers, from a certain point of view), and label them "abusers." Slick.


And they move towards giving priority to some users over others, which has been very controversial in the US and Europe:

     Our broadband network is like a high speed motorway. When traffic is light all users can
     move as fast as their cars (or devices) will allow them. When traffic is heavy at peak
     times we guide the heavy vehicles (unless they pay for special access to the fast lanes)
     to the slower lanes so that they do not hold up users who want to have access to the
     fast lanes.

This is a very clever use of the highway metaphor, except that congestion charges and special prices for fast lanes have not been accepted for the Internet.  So I think the doublespeak and PR fluff is, after all, designed to misdirect us from the fact that they are moving to controlling who gets Internet access at what speed, all in the guise of "fighting abuse."

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Haka goes to America

I learned from my Anthro 1010 textbook that there is a high school in Texas (Euless Trinity High) that has a high number of Pacific Islanders so they perform the Haka (not clear if it is supposed to be entirely like the Maori Haka, or just based on it, but it looks a lot like it.)  You can watch a video of it here. The comments are interesting, if often intemperate. Some say they should not be doing the Maori Haka but should get their own war dance. Others say they are doing it wrong or poorly.  They comment on the lack of passion and poor movements, and a number of writer mock the athletes for doing it with helmets on, and for facing their fans rather than the opposition.  But someone wrote in explaining the shift in practice:

There are very strict rules for football in Texas schools. Players on the field once pre-game procedures begin must be wearing their helmets. Players are not allowed to deliberately attempt to intimidate the other team. This is why they have on helmets. This is why they are facing the crowd. It is the way they are able to perform this Haka. Euless Trinity has a very high number of pacific islander students. And yes, some are even Maori.
The haka does violate a spirit of sportsmanship, in a sense, especially with the explanation that it is a "war dance" (some note that it was originally a celebration of life, composed by a Maori leader who had fooled his enemies by hiding underground, but it still is used as a war dance). It will be interesting to see if its use expands, and if new, similar war dances, are created. After all, it is a small step from small rituals like "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" or Notre Dame's prayer on the field before kickoff to the haka.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Customer (dis)service

Geox makes very good shoes--it is an Italian company, and has managed to prosper through innovation. Last year, my daughter convinced me to buy a pair (even though they are expensive) and they are so comfortable that I wanted to buy another pair for everyday use. I went to a Geox story in Festival Walk today and the store staff said that Geox does not make half sizes. I told them I thought that was impossible: how can a high end shoe company expect half the people to wear poorly fitting shoes? He assured me that was the case. This is astonishing: it means that brand and image are so important that many Hong Kong shoppers are willing to buy poorly fitting shoes! (Hm, I wonder if their customers are largely Mainland tourists on shopping sprees--they do seem to have shops concentrated in TST--4 of them!--and other tourist areas).  Of course, I went to the website to check, and sure enough, they DO have half sizes from US 8 to 11; here is an online chart of their sizes.

I tried to send a complaint email, asking why they do not sell half sizes in Hong Kong; click on "Customer Service" on the global Geox website and you get a screen that says "Coming soon."  Oh well. I guess here is another damaged brand. I need to find another brand of shoe.

PS/Update (10 August 2011): 

A friend has told me that GEOX in HK is sold by an agent, Belle International. They also are the agent for Caterpillar, Merrell,  Royal Elastics Sebago and Gola.  My friend knows the agent, and he says they don’t have half size shoes due to logistics considerations, i.e to reduce each item’s stock.  Less inventory and simpler management reduces costs. The agent argues that they do this to cater to the majority, but I don't think it is a matter of majority or minority.  If one assumes that the "half" sizes (which are whole numbers in the European way of counting, so not just a minor aspect of sizing) are necessary for proper fitting, then they expect that half the people (those who would fit better in the half sizes) will just buy slightly larger or smaller shoes, ie they will buy ill-fitting shoes.  It shows that many people are so brand conscious that they are willing to buy ill-fitting shoes.  I do not think it is a matter of not being interested in a minority, because the range of foot sizes is a continuous curve. They are only interested in fitting half the feet, because they know that many shoppers in the other half will buy the shoes anyway!  I find this amazing, and a sign of very unsophisticated shoppers.  The most demanding shoppers, of course, are having shoes hand made, so that they fit the foot perfectly.  I would expect only full sizes of a cheap brand, but it is surprising that you see this in a middle-high end brand like Geox.