From January 2008

Retrospective

This time last year I was finding my feet during my first week living in Beijing. I can hardly believe it’s been a year since that fateful adventure and at the same time I’m pining to get back out there. There is something very alluring about the adventure of living somewhere which is so foreign (for want of a better word) and developing at such a fast rate.

China Under Snow
© AP

That said, I don’t particular envy my friends in China right now suffering severe snow blizzards and ice storms. What makes it all the more worse is that the bad weather has come just as the time people are heading off for the annual spring festival. For many migrant workers this the only time of year that they have the chance to head home and see their families which for some is now an impossibility. Many have been stuck at rail stations for days.

China Under Snow
© AP

If you are unlucky enough to have got caught up in the chaos you may want to check out this innovative mashup map service Google has created to show the current weather and transport across the country. [via]

If anyone is looking for a highly-motivated English-speaking business analyst/technologist/project manager in China please get in touch!

Anonymous

If you follow the various social news networks (Digg, Reddit etc.) then you will probably have read about the “war” being waged online against a certain creepy cult (evangelised by an equally creepy actor) by a loosely organised group called Anonymous. What really stood out for me is their rather effective “press releases” on YouTube. Complete with monotone computerized voice, ominous rolling clouds and militaristic soundtrack these guys certainly know how to set the tone:

Awesome. Part 2 here. Good luck with exposing the cult for what it is.

Tufte on iPhone Resolution

Edward Tufte, undisputed master of information visualisation (described by The New York Times as “the Leonardo da Vinci of Data”) and PowerPoint hater extraordinaire, has posted a very interesting article and video about the interface design of the iPhone [via]:

“The iPhone platform elegantly solves the design problem of small screens by greatly intensifying the information resolution of each displayed page. Small screens, as on traditional cell phones, show very little information per screen, which in turn leads to deep hierarchies of stacked-up thin information–too often leaving users with “Where am I?” puzzles. Better to have users looking over material adjacent in space rather than stacked in time.”

He makes some interesting observations about the user interface and offers some advice for areas which could possibly be improved. The main point which resonates for me is that Apple have, arguably for the first time, solved the problem of displaying information on a small screen in a way which is intuitively useful to the user. By removing “computer administrative debris” (e.g. scroll bars) and introducing interaction by touch, pixel-wastage is reduce – “content is the user interface; the information is the interface”.

The fact that mobile internet has been a failure up till now can be directly attributed to poor interface design (and to a lesser extent bandwidth). It looks like that’s all about to change.

Key takeaway:To clarify add detail; clutter and overload are not an attribute of information, they are failures of design“.

Virtual Tourist

There can never be any substitute for going somewhere “in the flesh” but there are times, for obvious reasons, when you can’t go there in person or you want a taste of where you’re going before you depart. With fast connections becoming ubiquitous, richer and more immersive online maps are growing in popularity and diversity. Most people are familiar with the big players in the west (Google, Yahoo, Live etc.) here are a few you may not have heard of but provide a unique virtual experience:

EveryScape
EveryScape, Forbidden City, Beijing

Captures some amazing 3D walkthroughs in North America and Asia using 2D photos stitched together combined with GPS data which you can wander through as your own pace or be “driven” through on autopilot. Transitions between different areas in one location is especially impressive with the environment rushing past you (ala Hyperspace). I particularly liked the Forbidden City and Great Wall captures in China which is all the more surprising considering how tight the Chinese authorities usually are in allowing the capture and use of geodata within its borders. A friend of mine who worked at a large online mapping company in Beijing told me that, whilst they had all the satellite images to be able to provide a service like Google Maps, they were not allowed to use them for reasons of “national security”…

Edushi
Edushi Shanghai Map

Take a virtual tour of Shanghai (and 21 other cities in China) rendered Sim City style – seriously cool! A part of me can’t help feeling sorry for the people at Edushi (short for E-City in Chinese) who must have had to painstakingly draw this but the result is surprisingly compelling. The maps appear to be ad supported and rather depressingly even have dedicated buttons to show your nearest MacDonalds/KFC – don’t you just love globalisation? Even if you can’t read Chinese the maps are well worth a look, even if it’s just to check out the shear audaciousness of it all!

City8.com
City8

More virtual panoramas from China allowing you to step through some high-res 360 degree imagery from a plethora of locations in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Jinan and Wenzhou. Similar to Google Maps Street View you can navigate within the environment in some areas allowing you to take virtual walks, just try to avoid being run down by the crazy drivers! I like the way it presents a traditional map next to the image also highlighting your angle of vision.

Also worth checking out are Panoramas.dk for some amazing Quicktime VR and the Google Sightseeing blog which highlights some of the more quirky discoveries on Google Earth. Do you know of any others worthy of a mention?

Hello to Tomorrow

Eurostar, the high speed train which runs under the English Channel (through the Channel Tunnel) between London and Paris, has recently relocated to St. Pancras International station in London (from Waterloo). It’s grand new home, celebrated for its Victorian architecture and often termed the ‘cathedral of the railways’, features heavily in a recent TV advert for the service which clearly draws heavy inspiration from another classic (in style, if not in substance at least):

The Eurostar AD (2007):

Koyaanisqatsi (1982):

For an iconic film which so few people know of, but had such a deep impact on the way we viewed the world, it’s nice to see this little homage (complete with Philip Glass soundtrack). Even though purists may see this as denigrating the originals’ artistic integrity isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

From a purely marketing perspective it definitely gets the right message across.

Polyrhythm

Perfume Jpop Group

Whilst wandering through the crazy land of wonderful things that is the Internet I came across Perfume (パフューム< ), an up-and-coming techno/electro-pop group from Hiroshima, who have recently released a rather catchy new track "Polyrhythm" (ポリリズム). The heavily synthesized style shares a striking resemblance to two of my other favourites - Polysics and Capsule. [via]

To promote the single they also did a recycling awareness video, an interesting synergy to say the least!

I always find it interested to see how technology (past, present or futuristic) permeates into popular culture and in particular Japan, where it seems to be embraced unlike anywhere else. Art mirroring life, life mirroring art or commercialism wrapped up in a placebonic package?

More videos after the break…

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Help Yourself

I’m not one from playing games usually but I found myself surprisingly addicted to this ingenious little flash puzzle:

Japanese Flash Game

It works on the principle that you have to work with yourself to be able to reach the top level (floor) by replaying your cursor path each time the clock runs out and hence you help yourself along the way (have a go to see what I mean). How long does it take you to reach the 16th floor?! [via]

I’ve also always liked the look of Portal, a rather sophisticated teleportation game, based on the Half-Life engine praised for its unique gameplay and dark, deadpan humor. Somehow these sort of games appeal to me more than the usual killing fields in first-person shooters but then again there is something rather cathartic about them 😉

Web Trends Map 2008

Web Trends Map 2008

Last year Information Architects Japan released the very cool 2007 web trends map. They’ve just posted a “sneak peak” of the new version for 2008 and, whilst it retains the previous general look and feel, it’s even better than before! Now presented using an isometric layout based on the Kantō region as its geographic metaphor the map shows some interesting ideas with Dataportability.org already making an appearance and Google’s Android getting pride of place in Akihabara, the otaku mecca.

I’ll be looking forward to seeing the final full-sized version.

Update (25/01): Beta version of the final map now available!

Data Portability

Data Portability logo

Philosophy As users, our identity, photos, videos and other forms of personal data should be discoverable by, and shared between our chosen tools or vendors. We need a DHCP for Identity. A distributed File System for data. The technologies already exist, we simply need a complete reference design to put the pieces together.

Mission To put all existing technologies and initiatives in context to create a reference design for end-to-end Data Portability. To promote that design to the developer, vendor and end-user community.”

Finally a credible move towards being able to move personal data between services. Whilst the reality of this is still a way off it’s good to see the likes of Google, Facebook & Flickr on board. Small steps towards a more joined-up future… (whilst giving privacy nuts a new challenge!).

Update (15/01): Nice video to explain things:

Food vs Fashion

Cosmetic surgery clinics are pervasive in Korea with advertisements cheerfully proclaiming the many benefits you will reap if you have this or that done to your body, mainly targeted towards young women. Whilst I personally put this firmly in the category of self-mutilation there is no doubt that the prevalence of such services can only be a reflection on Korean society and its seeming obsession with self image and appearance. Walking around the streets of Myeong-dong and Dongdaemun in central Seoul you see many trendy young people spending copious amounts of (their parents?) money in expensive looking boutiques; it seems fairly clear that fashion is in the lifeblood of this county’s youth (see FeetManSeoul for an idea of what I mean).

Ha Ji-won 하지원

An article in the Financial Times this week about the rise of Korean fashion students & designers reminded me of all this and it makes some interesting observations between China and Korea:

“I was born in Korea but I conduct business in China a lot and I’ve realised that Chinese culture is very much focused on food and culinary experiences. Koreans focus more on appearances and therefore fashion is a bigger part of the culture.”

…which is an interesting comparison but still doesn’t quite provide an explanation for why Koreans are so concerned about image. I guess I would need to study ethnography to answer this one but I’m guessing the idolisation of western celebrities is partly to blame somewhere. Globalisation and the increasing intermixing of cultures (both through popular culture and mixed marriages)  may also provide a clue manifesting itself in the way we see each other and a subconscious need to further bridge the gap between races. Is this rather warped sense of beauty resulting in a leveling effect taking place?

According to the BBC conservative estimates suggest that over 50% of Korean women in their 20s have undergone, often very expensive, plastic surgery and many spend upwards of 30% of their income on “looking good”. To my mind there is something very wrong here, especially considering that just a few miles north of the border thousands are starving and living in abstract poverty.

At the end of the day isn’t beauty is only skin deep? I think I’ll stick with the culinary experiences!