From Rant

Things I probably shouldn’t say but will anyway

Harmony Interrupted in Nikko

Nikkō Tōshō-gū

During the summer I took a short trip outside Tokyo to the historic town of Nikko (日光市), a journey of about 2 hours by train. The area is popular with travellers for its ornate shrines and hot springs (onsen). Read more

Too Many Apps Spoil The Broth

Messaging Smartphone Apps

Look at the picture below of my iPhone home screen and tell me what’s wrong with it:

Messaging Smartphone Apps

Yes, you guessed it: every man, women, child, dog, and online service has their own messaging app these days and it’s driving me crazy. Do I really need 12 apps, which basically do the same thing, to keep in touch with everyone?

It all started a few years ago when WhatsApp initially took off and was then copied dozens of times triggering a spiral into the nightmare of trying to keep a mental note of who’s using which app and then navigate the idiosyncrasies of each.

Not only have messaging apps become segmented by service (Facebook, Twitter, Skype…) but also by region; KakaoTalk in Korea, LINE in Japan (from Naver), and WeChat in China (from Tencent) etc. Interestingly WhatsApp has completely failed to innovate and is looking increasingly dated compared to the others.

While I realise this is a first world problem it would be great to see Apple, Google and the like come together to agree on an open messaging standard which works cross-platform. These are the features I would like to see baked in:

  • Send text, audio, photo, video, location and contacts to individuals or groups
  • Video conference with one or more people simultaneously over any network
  • Location aware channels for conferences and coffee shops etc.
  • Mandatory encryption and privacy controls

Sadly it’s unlikely because they all already have their own competing solutions but if a startup like Cobook can unify half a dozen contact services then surely someone can?

Expat or Immigrant?

World Citizen Flag

When thinking about the identity of those living outside their native countries it soon becomes pretty clear that there’s a big gap between how we perceive ‘immigrants’ and ‘expats’ even though in many ways they are essentially the same. Immigrants are seen as poor and desperate job-stealers, while expatriates are portrayed as curious adventurers and cosmopolites. This smacks of double standards to me and I think it’s time we reevaluate the use of these words. Read more

A Disturbance in The Force at Apple

Having watched Apple closely over the past few years and thoroughly enjoyed using many of their products that enable much of what I do every day, there have been a number of increasingly worrying trends which have emerged and been reported on recently which I think bear looking at as a whole: Read more

Wasteful Watsons Water

Watsons Water Bottle

Bottled water has never been an environmentally friendly way of consuming our most precious necessity but it’s convenience has people buying it in enormous quantities every day, especially in countries where you can’t drink what comes out of the tap you’re often left with little other choice. Read more

The (Not So) Secret Truth About Outsourcing

Photograph by David Doubilet (National Geographic)

Over the past seven years I have worked on a variety of outsourced software projects with people from the US, Europe, India & China which has led me to one rarely spoken but rather obvious truth: even in well-managed environments outsourcing doesn’t work very well and often leads to less-than-satisfactory outcomes. Read more

Bangkok Day 2: Grand Palace & Wat Arun

Lily Pond in Golden Palace

If you’re looking for a quiet, relaxing holiday then Bangkok probably wouldn’t be your first choice. What with year-round heat and frenetic streets which require your full attention just to navigate, the city assaults your every sense each time you step out the door. It barely lets up unless you manage to escape to one of its quieter quarters, of which the historic center of Rattanakosin (รัตนโกสินทร์) is not one. Read more

Expat Subculture (and why I dislike it)

Yeah, this isn't going to end well...

If you’ve lived abroad long enough you’ve undoubtedly encountered other foreigners who are also there either by choice (like myself) or because they’ve been sent there by their employer. In my experience a lot of them tend to fall into 1 of 2 categories – those who go out of their way to integrate with the local culture and those who band together and try to recreate a feeling of “home” while constantly moaning about how much it isn’t. Read more

The Art of Living Comfortably

When I moved to China from London I took a large pay cut and left the majority of my worldly possessions behind me. It was of course my own decision but a year later I’m not missing any of it. Surprise surprise, wealth and material possessions make little or no impact on your happiness. This got me thinking about the way most of us live our lives, and in particular after watching the “Story of Stuff” which tells provides some chilling truths about the underside of our production and consumption patterns.

China Pollution

You might be surprised to learn that 99% of what we produce every day is thrown out within 6 months where it usually ends up in landfill, and in the past three decades, one-third of the planet’s natural resources base have been consumed. With China and India rapidly developing, turning new generations into mass consumers it’s clear that our current way of life is unsustainable.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Shenzhen where people from around China come to get rich and spend their new found wealth on luxury clothes, cars and all manner of vice in sparkling high-end shopping malls bigger than it’s comfortable to imagine. While to get rich may be glorious for those whose parents grew up in very different circumstances it’s also destroying the world at an alarming rate and creating lifestyles which are going to be difficult to change. Most of the blame for this can be placed squarely on the doorstop of the US whose greed is unsurpassed and sadly still the envy of many.

Chinese Protest
"We don't like pollution, we need to survive"

For me I feel that a middle route is needed whereby we make efficient use of the resources we have left while developing new safe/renewable  technologies to drive the future and to clean up the mess previous generations have left. This is going to require more modest lifestyles and a mind-shift in the way we behave and consume which is going to be hard for some to swallow but change doesn’t have to reduce quality of life. In fact I think quite the opposite could be true if we all made some simple choices:

  • Buy less but buy good quality which will last longer and hence reduce the amount of waste produced. Buying cheap only perpetuates the cycle of replacement and poor conditions for factory workers.
  • Recycle as much as you can and remember that your junk is another person’s treasure (i.e. you can sell or give stuff away).
  • If you live in a city walk or take public transport. You’ll be getting fit while saving money and the environment.
  • Wherever possible  buy locally grown food and cook at home. It’s healthier and often cheaper than eating out or buying a ready meal.
  • Work from home where possible. It reduces the pressure on public services, increases productivity and personal happiness.
  • When purchasing electronics consider its energy efficiency, potential to be upgraded (as opposed to replaced) and recyclability.
  • Avoid the temptations of special offers which only encourage more consumption and in reality save you little.

Whilst this thinking isn’t particularly revolutionary I don’t think we’re very good at articulating it so I’m going to coin a new word for this type of lifestyle: Comfotalism; defined as the middle path between consumerism, minimalism and environmentalism. This boils down to basically living a life more in balance with our natural environment without the need for composting toilets or any other hairy eco-warrior behavior! Free of the need to always buy bigger and better I truly believe people would be happier and less stressed – after all, for what other reason are you currently working yourself to death?

How would you fix the environment?

My Love-Hate Relationship With China

I wrote this sitting on the beautiful island of Jeju in South Korea where, with the rare occurrence of time to spare, came time to reflect on my current life in China. It’s been a whirlwind year with work, life, travel and learning all struggling for my attention but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Torn Posters on Door

Whilst my experiences in China have been overwhelmingly positive I’ve found over the past year that I’ve developed somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the country which seems to be the case for many foreigners who’ve spent an extended period here. I’ve summarised some of these feelings below in my top 5 love/hate list:

Love

  1. People – I have almost always found the Chinese people to be kind, helpful and friendly. I’ve made some great friends here and while there may be cultural differences to overcome this makes things more interesting. Being a foreigner in China makes you an object of curiosity so making new friends is never hard and whenever I’ve had any problem people have always been happy to help.
  2. Food – on the whole Chinese food is delicious, nutritious and cheap. Whilst some of it might be a little unusual (dog, brains, snake, camel…) the variety is huge, ensuring that dinner time is never boring. Half the time I have no idea what I’m eating but usually it’s better that way. The Chinese have a saying when it comes to restaurants “the dirtier, the more delicious” and I have to agree in general!
  3. Culture – Chinese history provides the country with a rich culture which is as wide as it is varied owing to the vastness of the country and the many ethnic groups which inhabit it. This aspect continues to fascinate me and the longer I live here the more I have come to understand and realise how much more there is to learn.
  4. Places – I’m fairly sure someone could spend their entire life exploring China owing to its enormity and diversity. All extremes of climate, architecture, dress, flora and fauna can be found under the roof of China with something for everyone’s taste. I’ve seen a lot but the list of places I still want to visit is extensive. Yunnan and Tibet are high on my list for exploring next year.
  5. Chinglish – Whilst some people are aghast at the misuse of the English language abroad I never fail to find it entertaining. It brightens even the dullest of moments and I hope it becomes an official language in its own right one day (like American English is to British English).

Hate

  1. Government – of all the things wrong with China the communist party ranks highest above all others. Whilst there can be no doubt about their accomplishments they are riddled with bureaucratic, corrupt, insidious, ignorant, and generally lazy “officials” who leech off the rest of society for personal gain. Don’t get me started about censorship and the great firewall.
  2. Traffic – China’s roads are constantly clogged with drivers who rarely obey the rules of the road. Traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, lane priority all seem to be ignored with reckless abandonment. Overcrowded buses catch on fire and the number of near misses I’ve witnessed is staggering (luckily the traffic moves so slowly crashes are mostly minor).
  3. Manners – pushing, spitting, shouting, queue jumping and smoking in public spaces seems to be the rule rather than the exception here. Parents frequently let their children use the street as an open latrine. Whilst I can usually tolerate most of it things sometimes get a bit much and my inner voice has to be restrained from screaming out loud.
  4. Environment – pollution is a big problem and for many cities thick layers of smog can often be seen hanging over their towering skyscrapers. In the really bad areas children are more likely to be born with birth defects and many people experience respiratory problems as a consequence. The environmental damage caused by over-development here is staggering.
  5. Stereotypes – the Chinese have a tendency to assume that all foreigners “laowai” are alike which basically boils down confusing being independent with being “too open” / immoral (thanks to countless US TV shows and films). Unfortunately some expats only enforce this behaviour which annoys me even more.

So China it’s all out in the open now. I hope we can work things through and continue to be friends!