Weekly Review #68: Bullshit Jobs, Dating Partners, and the best night $250k can buy

I finished The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron this week, and it’s the best book I’ve read in ages. It made me cry in the first ten pages, and then kept me laughing intermittently throughout the rest. Gripping, poetic, evocative – I can’t recommend it enough.

David Graeber has an thought provoking piece on Bullshit Jobs - he notices that even as technology gets better, the amount of work to be done doesn’t diminish, and it’s all due to a rise in administrative and service workers, jobs that ‘don’t really matter’. This is against the promise of capitalism, which unlike socialism, does not promise everyone employment. But Graeber thinks it’s because the powers that be know that an idle population is dangerous, so they keep us busy.

I’m not so sure of his conclusions, but like his general rule: “the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it… Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.”

Meanwhile Esquire has a hilarious and painfully poignant look at the world’s hottest superclub, Marquee in Las Vegas. Totally worth the 15 minutes reading time, it’s full of choice similes and behind-the-scenes looks at nightlife in general.

And Mic posits that a new label for millennial relationships: ‘dating partners’.  More than a booty call, less than a boyfriend, but they enrich your life nonetheless. The name sounds rather sterile, but these definitely exist.

“Well, it all comes down to soup. If you have a cold, a fuck buddy isn’t going to bring you soup. And a boyfriend is going to make you homemade soup. A dating partner? They’re totally going to drop off a can of soup. But only if they don’t already have any plans.”

 

 

Impressions of Tokyo

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Japan is Respectful

The word that came to my mind most often while visiting Tokyo was respect. Japan and its people respect you, they respect their environment, and they respect everyone around them. You can see this in the clean and thoughtful way their cities are laid out and in the way everyone wordlessly lines up in neat lines before the subway arrives, but most of all in how willing people are to help you. I was consistently surprised by the extent to which total strangers would help me when I asked them for directions or how to buy an item. Even when they didn’t know English, they would go out of their way to help, and more than that, to not make me feel embarrassed. It’s as if everyone feels a duty to help.

From the ‘Irasshaimase’ greeting when you walk into any shop door, to the reassuring chatter while they weigh out change, to the smiles, salutes, and full-on bows you get from workers or policeman, it’s enough to make you think you’re in Mr Rogers’ neighborhood. And the respect goes both ways – I found myself being extra careful about my litter because of how well-organized my surroundings were, as well as offering my own little bows in response to passerby. Amazing how cultural forces can be used for good – the locals I spoke to said politeness is paramount from their youngest days. The politeness can make them seem aloof at times, though – literally everyone is staring at their phones o the subway, and people try to mind their own business.

 Japan Loves Cute Stuff

The other cultural oddity that stuck out was how ingrained anime and manga are in everyday life. In the States such interests are reserved for nerdy teenagers, but in Tokyo, you can’t escape them. Manga characters adorn billboards, offer PSAs, and are even sometimes found in costumes roaming malls and selling pop music. They’re used in advertisements for things ranging from phones to amusement parks. I saw old women reading manga in the train more than once. It’s just a really big part of their culture. Sometimes the young people dress up for a normal weekend day with colorful wigs and contact lenses that alter their eyes to look like anime characters – pretty crazy.

Maybe it’s due to their obsession with cute stuff, or kawaii. Big eyes, small mouths, exaggerated movements, and anything that makes you say ‘aww’ are all super kawaii, which is what Japan strives for. All the pop stars sport looks that accentuate this (which you can get detailed views of, on the giant faces plastered on the truck billboards that drive around Shibuya blasting their latest album). Meanwhile, the WhatsApp of Japan, LINE Messenger, distinguishes itself from competitors mainly through its vast catalogue of stickers, most of which feature kawaii characters that offer cute ways to convey joy, surprise, or worry through the likes of a bear, rabbit, or duck.

There’s even photo booths in every videogame arcade (which are far more common in the states, although drenched in nicotine and paired with loud Pachinko gambling slots) that make you more kawaii by enlarging your eyes, smoothing your skin, and letting you add things like hearts and squiggles to your picture. It looks a little weird on guys….

kawaiiface

 Convenient Yet Staunchly Different

I asked a few resident expats what their favorite and least favorite parts of living in Japan were, which the consensus answers being the convenience and the xenophobia, respectively. Convenience stores in Tokyo are far more helpful than those elsewhere – you can buy decently filling and healthy food there, charge SIM cards, buy museum tickets, and even pay your government taxes and utilities at the counter! Sinks are integrated into the shower pipe so that they use the same water lead, and many toilets have seat warmers and little bidets built into them. There’s even a button that makes a flushing sound to mask  your bowel movements without wasting water – which is both polite and respectful.

As for the racism, well, I didn’t see it myself, but these Americans who lived there for years and gotten embedded in the culture say that no matter how fluent in Japanese they got, they will always treat you differently. It’s the other side of the honor/polite equation – they won’t admit wrongs, and won’t accept that a foreigner could ever fully understand what it means to be Japanese. He told me stories about a Western CEO of Nikon resigning and hanging himself after the Japanese board refused to speak in English to him. Or take the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where Japan’s war dead are honored, which would be analogous to Angela Merkel regularly visiting a shrine commemorating Nazis. They just don’t apologize – better to commit seppuku than go back on one’s honor.

But of course I didn’t scratch the surface enough to get near any of that, and just saw the nation of polite Mr Rogers, as any short term visitor would. Don’t let this scare you away from delightful Japan.

Attractions

Takeshita Street in Harajuku is an entertaining look at crazy local fashions, while the nearby Meiji Shrine is a worthy example of ancient Zen architecture. Shinjuku is full of neon signs at night, quality nightlife, and the Robot Restaurant, a surreal spectacle featuring scantily clad women, robots, dinosaurs, and all manner of ridiculous music. It’s hard to describe what goes on, but I came away feeling it was more flash than substance. Strip away all the strobe lights and costumes and you basically have a burlesque show with elaborate props and a few dance and fight numbers that pale to anything in Cirque du Soleil. That said, it is the very definition of a spectacle, and is a nice microcosm parody of Japanese culture, what with anime girls and mecha bots.

Shibuya is worth walking around as well, since it has the busiest street crossing in the city and is fun to watch the crowds swarm over the crosswalks, as well as a whole host of shops. Nearby is the FabCafe, which is not on any tourist’s wishlist but a cool local spot where you can fabricate things using their 3D printer, laser cutter, and other assorted machines.

Akihibara is anime central, with blocks on blocks of buildings holding massive amounts of anime and manga material (seriously, how does the market support that many stores selling the same figurines, trading cards, toys, and love pillows? What does one offer that the other does not?).  There’s also a lot of maid cafes here – where women dressed in maid costumes serve you food and act all adoring and docile. I walked by a few of these establishments and couldn’t bring myself to enter – it just seemed too weird.

Azakusa and Ueno offer more traditional touristy neighborhoods filled with markets, shrines, and rose petal trees, while Rapponggi is the touristy drinking hole filled with bars. Ryogoku hosts the Sumo arena, while Odaiba has some futuristic buildings, unorthodox malls, and a giant Gundam statue.

Check out Tim Ferriss’s Tokyo guide for more great tips, as well as the Guardian’s roundup of the best places to play games (and their one for weird bars, like ninja bars and ones where you get locked up). I tried to stay in a Capsule Hotel, which is a bed/television space roughly the size of a coffin used by businessmen when they drunkenly miss the last train at midnight, but I couldn’t find one with space. Kamakura is totally worth the day trip, by the way: the shrines, verdant hills, and the cute main street are fantastic break from Tokyo proper. Be sure to visit an indoor sento or outdoor onsen hot springs facility, too.

People

I couch surfed with Yi-yang, a guy from Taiwan who was working in Tokyo and had learned a surprising amount of Japanese for only being 4 months in. His tiny 40 square feet apartment managed to fit me only because it had a loft space above his bed, although it was probably the worst CS digs I’ve ever had given that it was a hard wooden floor with only a blanket over it. That said, I was impressed with his hospitality – if I only had 40 square feet to work with, I doubt I’d be spending it on strangers.

I also ran into Sho, a friendly guy who struck up conversation with me in an anime shop (only because he used to live in LA, since that’s a very un-Japanese thing to do otherwise). He was endlessly interested to hear what I thought about the cultural differences, and shared a few with me: in Japan inviting someone to dinner does not mean you can bring along your spouse. Indeed, if you bring along your spouse too often without asking they will stop inviting you, since it’s about you, not the wife or husband. That saves many spouses from having to attend some work party they don’t want to, but comes with its own negatives as well.

Overall Tokyo was my favorite stop in Asia by far and you should totally visit. I’ll have to get back to see more of Japan in the future.

Weekly Review #67: Getting Scammed, Thinking Vs Remembering, and Apple’s Design Genius

I forgot to mention I got scammed in Beijing. A woman came up to me near Tiananmen Square and asked me where I was from. At first I dismissed her, because of course anyone who comes up to you unbidden is trying to scam you, but she was actually very friendly and helpful, telling me that she was visiting Beijing with her friend from Chengdu and that the hotel I was trying to visit was closed, which turned out to be true. We fell into an easy conversation about cultural differences and met up with her other friend to go have a drink – all of which was logical for a fellow visitor with a few hours to burn. We ended up at a karaoke bar (that they worked for, no doubt) and sang a few songs, along with a few cups of wine, which I foolishly allowed them to choose. Turns out they chose the most expensive wine in the place, and then insisted I pay, because they didn’t have enough money.

I should have realized what was happening right then and refused, but the confusing exchange rate coupled with the wine made me offer up my Visa card without a fight. Stupid. Luckily it got denied, and I fell back to paying only a third of the exorbitant sum, because we were ‘among friends’ and it made sense to split it to each person. So in the end I got an hour of karaoke and good wine for $150 – not the end of the world. But watch out – apparently any locals near tourist attractions are scammer, no matter what they appear to be.

I finished East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I was not impressed by. Apart from a few insightful existential paragraphs, the rest of the novel is an exercise in banal Americana, with half the characters not mattering in the end, and many of the others meetings disappointing ends. Not my type.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman was a better read, where he outlines the differences between your System 1 of thinking, which is fast and emotional, while System 2 is slow and logical.  There a lot of interesting research he covers there, but what is talked about less is his theory of two selves – the experiencing self which does the living moment to moment, and the remembering self which looks back on everything you’ve done. He finds that the remembering self dominates your personal decisions, and does not remember the experience as a whole, just the peak or valley of happiness. Reminds me of my piece on travel memories not mattering.

There’s also a great long read at The New Yorker about Jony Ive, the man behind Apple’s design. The man is obsessive in the best of ways, and it’s fun to see how he decides to spend his billions to keep everything in his life well-designed, but little more.

Speaking of the New Yorker, there’s also this hilarious piece expounding on the classic ‘Guy Walks Into a Bar’ joke.

Impressions from Beijing

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Beijing looked like the setting for an 80s dystopian film when I arrived one cold and foggy February night. Soviet style skyscrapers hulk indistinctly along the horizon, and the air is a bit hard to breathe, due to the combination of the shocking pollution levels and the unrestricted indoor smoking that makes everything smells like nicotine. The streets themselves remind me of Mexico, with crumbling concrete, dirtied planters, and the occasional whiff of feces. Yet there are far too many metro lines, skyscrapers, and expensive cars for this to be a Third World country. Here’s what else stuck out to me from the trip, along with my attraction recommendations:

China is Struggling With Development

That’s the general impression I got from my short time in China – that of an almost feudal country experiencing the acute growing pains of the Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution, and a population boom all at once. I saw signs everywhere – the gleaming suburban skyscrapers with bare concrete floors, the freeway overpasses with poorly cut rough edges, and the fancy cars all fighting their way through intersections and pedestrians in a dance only slightly more dignified than the chaos I see in web videos of India

Take the public toilets, for example. They’re both everywhere and free (a combination that neither the United States nor any of supposedly developed Europe can figure out), but you’ll never know if you’ll encounter modern sitting toilets or the infamous old squat ones, which I still can’t manage without a hand on the wall. And there’s never toilet paper available – for a hilarious reason I only learned later on. The public toilets were all fully stocked to begin with, but the older Chinese will take any resource that isn’t nailed down as a matter of habit. To the generation who remembers the times under Mao, even toilet paper is a precious resource to be hoarded, so they stock up whenever they can. Apparently the authorities stocked the whole city with enough TP to last for weeks before the Olympics, but it was all gone within days, so they don’t bother anymore. This absurd reality just turns me into a thief as well – I took to stealing a few extra squares at nice restaurants so that I’d have enough for the rest of the day.

Here’s a another insightful gem – one month before world leaders converged in Beijing recently for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, China shut down every factory in Northern China in order to keep the city clean of pollution during the event. For an entire month! Not without reason, however – compare China’s ‘so out of touch with reality it’s funny’ air pollution meter with that of the US’s, and you’ll see why they want to clean up for Obama.

I got all these facts from an Iranian-American expat named Ali who has been living in Beijing working for Audi for four years. He says that any foreign company who wants to do business in China has to enter a partnership with a local company and split everything 50/50 or even 60/40 in favor of the locals. This worked out fine for years because the factories faithfully follow the foreigner’s design and quality specifications, but recently the balance of power has begun to shift. After Audi invested millions in a huge factory in the North, China copied the entire thing using knowledge gained from the partnership and started pumping out their own cheaper cars. That’s the gamble international brands take when they enter the country: they get access to the massive Chinese market at the price of sharing their business secretes with wily Chinese bureaucrats. They recognize that we need China more than China needs us.

Chinese People are Friendly and Lawless

That all sounds rather fatalistic, so let me contrast that with the striking friendliness of the Chinese people, especially when compared to their global image. I came here expecting rigid Communist rules, an unsmiling, hard-working populace, and a generally unpleasant place to be. And at first it was so, since Mandarin sounds angry by default and everyone is remarkably pushy in lines.  But every Chinese person I met in person was incredibly friendly and willing to help, almost to a fault. I could see why the Western expats I met had decided to stay. The cost of living is cheap, and rules are few, outside of a few non-negotiables like drugs. Just look at the rampant jaywalking, red-light running, clockwork street fireworks, and mothers helping their infants pee in shrubbery for evidence of that.

A few more mind-boggling China facts while we’re at it:

  • China poured more concrete in the past 3 years than the United States did in the entire 20th century (link).
  • Beijing International Airport has 3 terminals: 1 and 2 are mostly domestic, and 3 is international. Terminal 3 alone is bigger than all four of London Heathrow’s concourses combined.
  • During Chinese New Year, over 600 million Chinese move from the cities back to their hometowns and back again. This is the largest regular human migration in history and makes train travel impossible during such dates.

Internet is Restricted, But Not Really

China has heavily restricted Internet, which means any sites outside of some invisible arbitrary list of the governments’ show up as server errors – if you didn’t know what was going on you might be forgiven for thinking that your connection is just really bad. Most American services are blocked and replaced with Chinese equivalents – from social media like Facebook to nigh-utilities like Google, which makes things tough for us foreigners. Since my default browser is Chrome, I couldn’t even search using the network bar, and had to navigate to the Chinese Google Baidu, and then puzzle out which hieroglyphic meant ‘Maps’ or ‘Images’. Luckily I had a ready supply of Chinese Couchhosts and friends to help translate. They don’t care since everyone uses VPNs to get around the ‘Great Firewall’ – even the big companies have their own private VPNs in order to access important services like Gmail, so I don’t see what the government is achieving beyond annoyance.

Attractions

Attractions wise, the Forbidden City at the center of Beijing is one of the must-dos, but it’s only interesting when you first enter underneath a giant poster of Mao flanked by stone lions and view the ornate roofs. After that it’s a stream of the same empty medieval rooms over and over. Adjacent Tiananmen Square has more to look at: amidst the smartly uniformed security guards goose stepping in rank throughout the place, the surrounding gargantuan Soviet style buildings, and the little trash scooters that zip around picking up waste, there’s plenty to look at.

Other famous sights offer a similarly pedestrian experience: from the austere leftovers of the Olympic Stadium to the narrow hutong streets, and even the Great Wall itself (I recommend Mutianyu section over Badaling) – they’re things you look at, take a few pictures, and that’s that. Although my Couchhost said there’s unrestored sections of the Great Wall where you can hike for days on top of remnants, clambering over the ruined parts and sleeping in the abandoned watchtowers. That sounds way more interesting than the Instagram shoot my Great Wall experience was – the length is what’s impressive, not the height or width, and you can’t see that in a few hours.

I had more fun doing less obvious things, like walking around the Chinese Silicon Valley at Zhongguancun (a ten by ten block of modest skyscrapers filled with a mix of incubators and big companies), the narrow alley market near Wangfujian (filled with still-wriggling scorpions on sticks, knockoff goods, and all manner of exotic smells), sampling Shanghai dumplings at Din Tai Feng, cooking meat strips at the table at a hot pot restaurant, and wandering the 798 Gallery (a collection of art galleries in a reclaimed industrial area, possibly the highlight of the trip).

If you’re looking for a private chauffeur to get you around the city, I jumped onto HereIsBeijing’s car on the way back from Mutianyu, where he had just dropped off some people for the Jiankou Section (which is wild and unrestored). He’s a professional guy who speaks good English and knows what to see, so if you need to get around outside the subway, I’d recommend him wholeheartedly.

People

My couch host this time around was Yiwei, an easygoing guy who lived with his girlfriend Circle (I know, she even said her last name translated to Square) along with two mangy, hissy cats and one big friendly dog. Circle ran an ecommerce cosmetics business through TaoBao (a division of Alibaba), although it sounded like she just acted as the middleman between suppliers and distributors. They were incredibly friendly, helpful, and generous with their time, even lending me winter coats when I discovered my scant two layers wasn’t going to cut it in the North China winter. Thanks guys!

I also met up with Joanne, a friend of my coworkers’ who runs a local hardware incubator and treated me to a long and fruitful conversation about Sino-American tech. She notes that Americans are good at going from 0 to 1, while Chinese are good at going from 1 to infinity, which makes for good business partnerships. Apparently there are dozens of other Chinese startups like my own Mailtime who move to San Francisco flush with Chinese VC cash and have trouble finding Americans to work for them.

The experienced tech workers would rather take risks on American startups than foreign ones, the entrepreneurs are already set on their own businesses, and nobody wants to hire somebody inexperienced. (Good thing I moonlit at several startups in college or I’d still be squarely in that camp). She told me of several Americans who have carved out comfortable niches for themselves acting as the middleman between such Chinese startups and the Silicon Valley labor market. Could be a good career move for me, haha.

Overall Beijing is a worthy stop on any Oriental trip, even if Shanghai or Hong Kong are more modern cities, and certainly a lot cleaner. Maybe avoid it in the winter, though.

Weekly Review #66: Android Differences and LINE domination

I have very little to share this week, since I’ve been doing my exploring on foot in Hong Kong rather than hunched over a computer. That said, I’ve been using a Nexus 5 Android phone this week since it’s the only one that fits my Asian SIM card, which leads to plenty of insights from the iPhone-bred me. Here’s some things I’ve noticed:

Pros:

  • Screen has some give to it, which makes swipes feel smoother
  • Back button is always accessible no matter what app you are in, allowing easy backtracking
  • Battery Settings page forecasts the time your battery will run out, allows you to turn on Battery Saver mode as this approaches
  • Everything is tied into your Gmail account, so it will tell you the ETA to previous map searches automatically

Cons:

  • The only analog button is on the side, rather than the iPhone’s center home button, which makes it hard to whip it out of your pocket and turn it on in one motion
  • Notifications can only be dismissed one on one, rather than all at once through unlock
  • Photo grid view is not accessible from within the camera – must go to separate photo app
  • Everything tied to Google can be restricting at times

In other news, Japanese messenger app LINE (competitor to Wechat and Whatsapp) made over $30 million dollars from selling emoticons alone last year(!) Thats just from selling little animated gizmos on their free platform. Insane! Plus Taylor Swift has fewer followers on her LINE profile than on Twitter, yet with an order of magnitude more Likes on the same content. The future is on mobile, and whoever controls how they communicate has all the power…