From September 2009

Understanding Cultural Differences

I’ve given a couple of presentations recently at work about understanding the cultural differences between East (US / Europe) and West (China / East Asia) which I thought I’d share today. The first is aimed at Chinese to understand Western Culture (with lots of nice pics) while the second is aimed at Westerners to understand Chinese Culture (more wordy):

Understanding Western Culture

Yes, that’s a picture of my sister in Africa killing a goat for dinner towards the end – a perfect example of dealing with uncomfortable situations (in this case quite an extreme one)! The presentation itself had lots of talking over the top – if you download the file you can see my notes with more information about the content. It would be great if someone could help me translate this into Chinese.

When Yes Means No (or Yes or Maybe)

Understanding Chinese culture and the implications for doing business there

This presentation was a summary from my earlier series “Chinese Culture 101” (which contains lots more detail). Hopefully this will be published as a revised and expanded paper in the near future.

Summarising the history and culture of two major civilisations was a bit of a challenge but I think I’ve manage the pull it off without any glaring holes. I hope this is useful to people and as ever feedback is welcome.

South Korea Invaded by Kpop Groups

South Korea has been invaded, not by it’s neighbor from the North, but from troops of long-legged girls in the guise of carefully manufactured Kpop groups. The small peninsula of around 50 million people has seen an explosion of Kpop girl groups in the past year who all pretty much look and sound alike (arguably) but somehow manage to maintain popularity among a shared fan base. While it might be easy to dismiss this as eye-candy for teenage boys (of which there is some truth) they appear to have considerable staying power among a diverse demographic of both men and women –

“In the past, one or two similar bands won fans and massive popularity, while the rest disappeared quietly after a month or two. What we are experiencing is a brand new phenomenon in which several girl bands are sharing fans and popularity among themselves” – Kim Hong-in

What differentiates this new generation of starlets is their ability to cross multiple mediums such as TV dramas, movies and talk shows in addition to their musical endeavors, possibly accounting for their increased longevity and ability to dominate online as well as offline. Digital downloads have brought in a new era of affordability for casual and fanatical fans alike.

Of course behind all the glamor are entertainment conglomerates with money to burn and who work tirelessly to tweak and perfect each groups image (including the copious use of cosmetic surgery). Most groups spend as much as 2-4 years preparing for their debut and with such demanding schedules nearly all have suffered casualties from fatigue and ill health. Whilst their compexions may be perfect accusations of plagiarism are rife within the industry with lawsuits regularly being filed and many questioning the originality of locally produced content (mostly bubblegum pop).

Whatever the reasons for this uprising it’ll be interesting to see if such a large number of groups can be sustained in a relatively small market and if this trend spreads elsewhere.

To see what it’s all about for yourself videos are provided after the break in HD (apologies to Chinese readers – YouTube is blocked so you wont be able to see them directly). You can also find more info on allkpop.com.

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Gangnam Ubiquitous Media Poles

Blue Glow

As a testbed for companies like Samsung and LG Seoul is one of the best places to get a glimpse of things which haven’t made their way westward yet. Combined with unparalleled network infrastructure and massive government investment you have a recipe for some pretty cool innovation.

Gangnam Media Pole

During my most recent trip there I paid a visit to Gangnam to check out an interesting project called “U-Street” (ubiquitous street) which consists of a series of 12 meter-tall “Media Poles” (미디어폴) with touch screens allowing people to search maps, read news, check transport information, take photos and play games. They also act as free wi-fi hotspots.

Gangnam Media Poes

Arriving early evening they already looked pretty cool lit up like enormous monoliths with large LCD displays showing various art works and advertisements on the upper sections. At the bottom is a single big touchscreen, not dissimilar to a huge iPhone (but without multi-touch), which you could freely walk up to and interact with. I’ve made a short video to highlight some of the features:

…and this is what the picture looks like when it lands in your inbox (minus my ugly mug of course):

With around 700,000 people using the street each day I was surprised to see that many of the Media Poles weren’t being used. This may have something to do with the proliferation of mobile services in South Korea so you have to wonder if such devices are a bit redundant when you can get the same content on your phone (albeit at a cost).

Another project called “Seoul Digital Media City” (DMC) is also building something similar (but on a larger scale) called the “Digital Media Street” (DMS) which is set to include cutting edge technologies such as artificial intelligence-based street lamps (!) which respond to people moving through the space. Worryingly the information kiosks shown in the promotional video above reminded me of the suicide booths from Futurama!

While not an entirely new concept the Media Poles provide a useful and novel experience for people passing through the area although I think they risk becoming the phone boxes of yesterday unless they can offer something that your phone doesn’t.

Kring – Creative Culture Space

Bullet Time

After my experience at the W a local friend introduced me to another extraordinary but little-known place in Seoul: Kring – Creative Culture Space, located in Gangnam (Samseong station). While the building is designed as a creative space for holding public performances, events and exhibitions the building itself is as much a work of art as what it contains.

Looking Towards the Future

Designed by Korean firm Unsangdong Architects the front of the building immediately catches your eye with its metallic covering and indented circular widows (which reminded me of the bullet-time effects in the Matrix) with each impact rippling out across its surface. At night lights illuminate the entire area with the windows being transformed into display surfaces.

Kring Space Station

Upon entering through a circular glass door your instantly met with a stunning bright space filled with cleverly juxtaposed multi-layered shapes, contrasting colours, and soft lighting which although appearing random work together with spectacular effect. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey updated for 2009 then your almost there.

Reception Lounge

Immediately behind the entrance reception desk is wooden tiered lounge area which provides touch-screen terminals for Kring information and internet access. I was surprised how quiet it was for a Sunday afternoon, we almost had the place to ourselves.

P1040252

The stairs leading up to the second floor are another marvel with each step being a small screen of its own over which simple light animations are constantly played. A chain-link wall curtain along side the stairs providing a translucent divide between the spaces.

Space Station

The first floor is lit by a number of differently sized circular portals, some of which extended to the floor above, providing yet another perspective on the buildings structure. Various contemporary art works were on display although to be honest the were somewhat outshone by their surroundings. On the second floor is an open area surrounded by exhibitions with a small cafe where instead of fixed prices you decide how much you want to donate (including free wi-fi).

Kring meeting space

The third floor isn’t open to the public but it apparently has meeting spaces and a rooftop garden. I wanted to sneak up but it was being closely watched by a security guard.

Kring Cinema

The center also includes a high-spec cinema which shows international art-house films. We watched a French movie (Dans Paris) which was shown in French with Korean subtitles so I could only pick up a small fraction of it!

blue

Entrance is free so if you’re in Seoul this a place not to be missed, especially given its situation so close to the COEX mall. Some great professional photos of the Kring lit up at night can be found on designboom.

W Seoul WOW

W reflection

For the first weekend I was in South Korea I was lucky enough to be about to stay in the extremely cool “W Seoul” boutique hotel, in Walkerhill, courtesy of a very generous friends enormous accumulation of loyalty points (usual cost from approx. 250,000 KRW per night). Described as the “hippest joint in town” expectations were high…

W Glow Stick Entrance

After a rather tortuous two hour trip from Incheon Airport I finally reached the W and upon entering my first impressions were that I’d set foot on the set of a James Bond film! Instead of a standard hotel entrance the lobby was a combined with a multi-level lounge / bar complete with cool lighting, egg-pod shaped seats, a DJ playing techno music and expensively-dressed people floating around (not to mention all the rather beautiful women). This isn’t your father’s 5 star hotel.

W Lift Interior

Whilst feeling quite out-of-place in the hyper-trendy surroundings I was checked in by extremely attentive staff and then took the lift (darkened with glowing hoops hanging from the ceiling) to my “Wonderful room” on the 6th floor. It turns out they had got the name right since it was unlike anything I’d stayed in before (given my usual choice of budget accommodation that wasnt going to be hard).

Bed to Die For / On

W bathroom

With minimal clean white decoration, red bedding, soothing lighting, floor to ceiling glass windows, and more space-age chairs it felt pretty special. The level of detail was staggering – from coat hangers to paperclips even the bin was given the designer treatment! I spent the first 5 minutes of my stay just taking photos before I touched anything. To add to the ambiance the Bose hi-fi was automatically set to play their own mix CD as you entered (I’ve recreated it as a Spotify playlist).

"Wonderful" Room

After getting directions from the extremely knowledgable concierge we took the free hotel shuttle bus a short distance (passing Gangbyeon and Gwangnaru subway stations) and had dinner in a local restaurant (delicious dak-galbi) then retired for a quick drink in the lounge before hitting the hay. The bed itself must have had some special magic coating since I slept better than I had done in a long while and woke up feeling fresh and ready for a day exploring Seoul.

W Bar

DJ Pod

Breakfast was an equally luxurious affair with a fabulous array of fresh food from around the world to suit anyones taste. I went back for seconds and thirds but still didn’t quite manage to try everything! Unfortunately I was too busy eating to take any photos but take it from me this something not to miss (at 38,000 KRW per head you wouldn’t expect anything different).

W Hall Light Ball

All good things have to come to an end and after a great weekend it was time to come back down to earth. The next hotel I moved to was a complete disaster but I’ll save that story for another time. After staying at the W anywhere else was going to be a disappointment and whilst  I doubt I’ll be returning anytime soon if you have deep pockets I highly recommend giving the W experience a try – they have uniquely designed places worldwide.

Lift Asia 09 Decompression

The Lift Asia 09 conference wrapped up last Friday afternoon on Jeju Island, South Korea and I’m glad to report that it was great. If you ever wanted two days of intense inspiration then this was the place to go. There was a plethora of fascinating talks from people spanning a wide range of disciplines in an ideal location overlooking the sea.


Photo by Jinho Jung

I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on the talks and experiences that stood out for me:

Best Talks

Hojun Song (Open Source Satellite Initiative)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/phploveme/3927296459/
Photo by Jinho Jung

This guy is on a serious mission to build and launch his own open-source satellite for no other reason than to make a personal fantasy come true. He aims to launch the first version by September 2010 and is raising funds by selling t-shirts. As some materials (which could be used to make weapons) are restricted under export bans he is having to be somewhat creative in sourcing parts from alternate yet still legal sources. It doesn’t get much cooler than this.

Benjamin Joffe (Social Media & Evolution)


Photo by Jinho Jung

Anyone who has lived in China, Korea & Japan and knows about the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (originator of the Noosphere concept) is pretty smart in my book. He spoke about how social media is evolving, how it compares to traditional social environments and how we can learn from emerging behaviors. He compares our current situation to living in a kind of “digital panopticon“, an invisible prison where we are forced to participate to remain relevant. In “the dark age of transparency” the definition of privacy is being redefined and by observing advanced Asian countries we can gain some insight into new services and behaviors. I’ve embedded his presentation below – it’s well worth a look.

Also noteworthy: Minsuk Chuo – An architect who showed some fascinating projects both real and imagined and how exploration and interaction can be incorporated into the most basic structures.

Best Experiences

Yangachi (Surveillance Drama)

What if you were to film short scenes using only CCTV cameras to capture the action? This is exactly what played out in the Jeju ICC when Yagachi used the networked cameras from the center to capture a 007-esq shoot-out live (much to bemusement of bystanders) which was then beamed into the conference hall. Good fun and an interesting piece of art in its own right.

Songdo (AntiVJ)

Here we saw a video from a group of European artists who used high powered projectors to project 3D animations set to music onto the side of a building bringing it to life. The artists use light to explore its influence on our perception of space. Below is an example of their work:

Also noteworthy: Taeyoon Choi – “End users’ guide” video presentation demonstrating how networked environments are potentially a tool for control, deception, and profit. Video below (Korean language but with English on the slides) –

Amazingly the wi-fi worked well throughout the two days, despite the large number of people using it, and overall it was a very well organised conference with a relaxed atmosphere and a mix of people from all over the world. If I’m in the same region next year this will definitely be on my calendar again.

Going to Lift Asia 09

Lift Asia 09 Poster

I’m very excited to be returning to South Korea tomorrow for the fourth time in three years. As well as catching up with friends in Seoul I’ll be attending the Lift Asia 09 conference next week which focuses on new opportunities and challenges that are arising from areas such as social networks, online games, robots, and communicating objects on the theme of “Serious Fun!“. It can be loosely compared as a European version of TED.


Photo by Don Lee

Even better is that it’s being held on the beautiful Jeju island which is a short way off the south coast (not far from Busan) and only a 1 hour flight from Seoul. The conference lasts for two days but I’ll be there for 4 which should be plenty of time to enjoy some of the natural scenery and the fast unfiltered internet (no GFW here).

I’ll try to post sporadically while I’m away (on Twitter at the very least) and will hopefully come back with a good photo and story or two! Feel free to drop me a line if you’re in the same vicinity.

My New Travel Companion

The main computer I use day-to-day is my trusty MacBook Pro 15″ but the problem I have with it is its weight which makes it impracticable for travelling with. I also have an iPhone which is great for quickly checking email or surfing a few sites but not very practical for writing anything of considerable length or downloading photos on the go. Because of this I’ve just purchased a Dell Mini 10 netbook which I’ll primarily take with me while I’m travelling to stay in touch – at only 1.2kg it’s as light as a feather and perfect to slip in a backpack.

Dell Mini 10 with Windows 7

Aside from having a very sleek design one of the biggest selling points for me was the 10.1″ HD screen (1366 x 768) which is a lot higher resolution than most on other models giving a lot more screen real-estate for viewing web pages and the like. For such a small form factor it also has a comfortable keyboard (92% full size) and somehow manages to squeeze in 3 USB ports, HDMI output, and a 3-in-1 card reader (very handy for photographers).

Nearly all netbooks come pre-installed with Windows XP, which anyone call tell you is long past its best-before date. While I would have loved to install Max OS X (which can be hacked to run on some specific models) the Mini 10’s graphics chip doesn’t support it so I decided to install Windows 7 instead. This turned out to be quite a good choice and seems significantly snappier than its predecessor with an overall big improvement in the user experience.

Dell Mini 10 Black & White Back

As the Mini 10 doesn’t have a DVD drive I installed Windows 7 from a USB hard disk (see guide here for instructions). To keep things lean and mean I’ve tried to install as little as possible (and disable some unneeded services which could slow it down):

Core Applications: Google ChromeSkypeTweetDeckSpotifyEvernote

Utilities: VLCAcrobatDropboxWinSCPOpenVPNTrueCryptPaint.NET

Once Google Chrome OS comes out (next year) I’ll most likely move over to that but until then this setup should do quite nicely as a general purpose machine for on the road. I’ll be putting it through it’s paces on my trip to South Korea next week (more on this later) and will report back on any significant positives/negatives.

Building The Perfect Company

If you were to start your own company how would it look? Would you create it along the traditional lines of a corporate enterprise or try something a little different? Anyone who has worked in an office can tell you how depressing an environment some can be but in an age of digital connectivity does it really have to be this way?


Photo by net_efekt

I was considering these questions the other day while imagining how my own company might look if I was to start one. Google is often used as a popular example of the perfect work environment but it’s not really something which can be copied unless you have buckets of cash to throw around (unlikely these days). So how to you create a sustainable work environment where people can be both productive and happy?

Here are a few quick ideas which came to mind:

  • No offices – people work from home or in share work spaces / cafes / wherever you feel productive.
  • No meetings / email – avoided through the use of collaborative tools like IM/Skype and Google Docs (Wave will be great for this).
  • No titles / hierarchy – although people might have specific responsibilities all have an equal voice.
  • Democratic decision making – anyone could submit a proposal which everyone could vote on transparently.
  • No formalities or buzzwords – suits, acronyms and MBA’s can be left at the (virtual) door. No room for egos or empty words.
  • No fixed salary / bonuses – compensation would be split equally between everyone after overheads and other investments deducted.
  • Minimal process – these things always start off well but then turn into unmanageable monsters. CMMI no thank you.

While it’s unlikely that these rules could be implemented in their purest form (the odd email may still be required) I think the principles could be applied quite well to a small startup. A key part of this would be hiring people who weren’t wedded to the old school system and prepared to approach things differently. This wouldn’t work with existing organisations or with people who were only interested in following orders (which are often harder to find than you might imagine).

The end goal of this is to produce the right conditions for people to produce their best work while having the flexibility to live their life outside of an old set of rules and constraints. Traditional business has long been fat and bloated with process for process sake and rewards having very little connection with any tangible results. I say it’s time to change all that.

Anyone with me? How would you build the perfect work place?

What Would You Change?

Dog Watching TV

By the looks of this picture sent to me today randomwire.com continues to increase in popularity and gain new audiences 🙂

Over the past 6 years the site has transitioned from my daily musings about university and foreign films (circa 2004) to life in London and technology (2005 – 2007) to coverage of my adventures in China and East Asia. With more focus has come a larger audience which has motivated me to continue at a frequency of about 2 posts per week (time permitting). It’s something I enjoy a lot and although I have never attempted to make any money out of it (nor do I have any plans to) I have been thinking about what people enjoy the most and whether I should focus further on a particular area or keep things as they are now?

Whether you’re a long term reader or a new visitor I’d appreciate your feedback in the poll / comments section below (if you’re viewing in an RSS reader please click through to see):

Thanks for your feedback!