On Ski Masks in China

The New York Times details a peculiar phenomenon in China, where beachgoers are shy about getting a tan at the beach, so they resort to specialty ski masks:

For legions of middle-class Chinese women — and for those who aspire to their ranks — solar protection is practically a fetish, complete with its own gear. This booming industry caters to a culture that prizes a pallid complexion as a traditional sign of feminine beauty unscathed by the indignities of manual labor. There is even an idiom, which women young and old know by heart: “Fair skin conceals a thousand flaws.”

With the pursuit of that age-old aesthetic ideal at odds with the fast-growing interest in beachgoing and other outdoor activities, Chinese women have come up with a variety of ways to reconcile the two. Face masks like Ms. Yao’s have taken this popular beach town by storm. In cities, the summertime parasol is a more familiar accouterment, many adorned with rhinestones, lace or sequins (and sometimes all three). Those who need both hands free are fond of the tinted face shield, the perfect accessory for riding a bike — or welding. The fashion-conscious favor a chiffon scarf draped over the face.

Since the masks only protect one area of the body, this is a booming business. Gloves, for example, are making a resurgence for beachgoers.

Ding Zui: Substitute Criminals in China

In China, the rich and powerful can hire body doubles to do their prison time for them. Geoffrey Sant reports for Slate:

The practice of hiring “body doubles” or “stand-ins” is well-documented by official Chinese media. In 2009, a hospital president who caused a deadly traffic accident hired an employee’s father to “confess” and serve as his stand-in. A company chairman is currently charged with allegedly arranging criminal substitutes for the executives of two other companies. In another case, after hitting and killing a motorcyclist, a man driving without a license hired a substitute for roughly $8,000. The owner of a demolition company that illegally demolished a home earlier this year hired a destitute man, who made his living scavenging in the rubble of razed homes, and promised him $31 for each day the “body double” spent in jail. In China, the practice is so common that there is even a term for it: ding zui. Ding means “substitute,” and zui means “crime”; in other words, “substitute criminal.”

What’s more:

Incredibly, substitutes could be hired even for executions. Nineteenth-century traveler Julius Berncastle, the Qing Dynasty author De Fu, and the legal scholar John Bruce Norton each described substitute executions as regular events. This 1883 report from the Board of Punishments demanded an inquiry into how a youth named Wang Wen-shu “was wrongly convicted” and “was on the point of being executed as a substitute for one Hu T’ian, whose alias he was falsely declared to be.” T. T. Meadows, the British diplomat who convinced Western nations to copy China’s system of civil-service exams, argued that the phenomenon of substitute executions was not as surprising as it might seem. If a family is starving, wouldn’t many parents accept execution in exchange for enough money to save their children?

Some imperial Chinese officials who admitted to the use of substitute criminals justified its effectiveness. After all, the real criminal was punished by paying out the market value of his crime, while the stand-in’s punishment intimidated other criminals, keeping the overall crime rate low. In other words, a “cap-and-trade” policy for crime.

Pretty wild.

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(hat tip: @SteveSilberman)

Comparing China and India in the Olympic Games

Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier write a good Olympics piece titled “How to Boost Your Medal Count in Seven Easy Steps.” The predictions at the end of the piece are excellent, but the most interesting part to me was the reasoning of how China and India will perform in the (future) Olympic Games:

Will China and India, the two countries with populations over 1 billion, dominate the Olympics of the future, especially as they become wealthier?

To date, their Olympic performances are almost polar opposites. China has become an Olympic powerhouse while India has underperformed. From 1960 to 2000, China won 80 gold medals, while India won only two. Over those 11 Olympiads, India only won eight total medals while China won over 200. While China has grown faster and is richer than India, the difference in wealth can’t begin to account for the chasm between their Olympic results.

In their book Poor Economics, MIT economists Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo attribute India’s dismal Olympic performance at least partly to very poor child nutrition. They document that rates of severe child malnutrition are much higher in India than in sub-Saharan Africa, even though most of sub-Saharan Africa is significantly poorer than India.

Even the significant segment of the Indian population that grows up healthy is at a disadvantage relative to China. The Chinese economic development model has focused on investment in infrastructure; things like massive airports, high-speed rail, hundreds of dams, and, yes, stadiums, world-class swimming pools, and high-tech athletic equipment. And while India is a boisterous democracy, China continues to be ruled by a Communist party, which still remembers the old Cold War days when athletic performance was a strong symbol of a country’s geopolitical clout.

We’re about a week into the 2012 Olympic Games. What’s your over/under for total medals for China and India?

A Brief History of Toilet Paper

A brief history of toilet paper, from The Frailest Thing blog:

Toilet paper, in case you’re wondering, was in use  in China as early as the fourteenth century and it was made in 2′ x 3′ sheets. Everywhere else, and in China before then, people made use of what their environment offered. Leaves, mussel shells, corncobs were among the more common options. The Romans (what have they ever done for us!) used a sponge attached to the end of a stick and dipped in salt water. And yes, as you may have heard, in certain cultures the left hand was employed in the task of scatological hygiene, and in these cultures the left hand retains a certain stigma to this day.

Until the late-nineteenth century, Americans opted for discarded reading material. It’s not clear if this is why Americans still today often take reading material into the bathroom, or if the practice of reading on the toilet yielded a eureka moment subsequently. In any case, magazines, newspapers, and almanacs were all precursors to the toilet paper as we know it today. It has been claimed that the Sears and Roebuck catalog was also known as the  ”Rears and Sorebutt” catalog. The Farmer’s Almanac even came with a hole punched in it so that it could be hung and the pages torn off with ease.

Toilet paper in its present form first appeared in 1857 thanks to Joseph Gayetty. It was thoughtfully moistened with aloe. In 1879, the Scott Paper Company was founded by brothers Edward and Clarence Scott. They sold toilet paper in an unperforated role. By 1885, perforated roles were being sold by Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company.

In 1935, Northern Tissue advertised its toilet paper to be “splinter-free.” Apparently, early production techniques managed to embed splinters in the paper. Three cheers for innovation! And finally, in 1942, two-ply toilet paper was introduced in St. Andrew’s Paper Mill in the UK. An odd development considering wartime austerity and rationing. Speaking of rationing, the Virtual Toilet Paper Museum (you’re learning all sorts of things in this post) reports that the first toilet paper shortage in the US took place in 1973. Presumably, it was overshadowed by the oil embargo.

Very interesting.

Why the iPhone isn’t Made in America

Why isn’t the iPhone made in the United States? Sure, Apple brands its product as “designed in California,” but the actual production happens in China. In this excellent New York Times piece, where more than thirty individuals were interviewed, we learn why the largest company in America has made the dramatic shift of producing its product in America to China. Apple executives believe there simply aren’t enough American workers with the skills the company needs or factories with sufficient speed and flexibility.

First, mind-boggling statistics about the scale of production at Foxconn, the factory in which iPhones and iPads are made:

The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn’s work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day. When one Apple executive arrived during a shift change, his car was stuck in a river of employees streaming past. “The scale is unimaginable,” he said.

Foxconn employs nearly 300 guards to direct foot traffic so workers are not crushed in doorway bottlenecks. The facility’s central kitchen cooks an average of three tons of pork and 13 tons of rice a day.

This anecdote sounded familiar. I first read it in Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs:

In 2007, a little over a month before the iPhone was scheduled to appear in stores, Mr. Jobs beckoned a handful of lieutenants into an office. For weeks, he had been carrying a prototype of the device in his pocket.

Mr. Jobs angrily held up his iPhone, angling it so everyone could see the dozens of tiny scratches marring its plastic screen, according to someone who attended the meeting. He then pulled his keys from his jeans.

People will carry this phone in their pocket, he said. People also carry their keys in their pocket. “I won’t sell a product that gets scratched,” he said tensely. The only solution was using unscratchable glass instead. “I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks.”

After one executive left that meeting, he booked a flight to Shenzhen, China. If Mr. Jobs wanted perfect, there was nowhere else to go.

On the Chinese preparation for a contract. So methodical:

When an Apple team visited, the Chinese plant’s owners were already constructing a new wing. “This is in case you give us the contract,” the manager said, according to a former Apple executive. The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day.

So why is the iPhone made in China? It’s not just the low wages paid to Chinese workers. The flexibility, scale, and the formidable supply chain of Chinese factories, combined with the ability to raise an army of workers (sometimes literally overnight), cannot be matched in the United States.

And so, as quoted in the article, the consumer electronics business has become an Asian business. On a final note: while other companies have sent call centers abroad, Apple has kept its centers in the United States. It’s only a matter of time when Apple decides to outsource the call centers abroad…

Why Is China’s Soccer Team So Bad?

You’d think that China, with a population of over a billion people, would be able to field a half-decent soccer team. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. The only time China qualified for the World Cup finals, in 2002, its side failed to score in any of its three matches. The Chinese soccer team has never won a game at the Olympics. And as this piece in The Economist attests, Chinese players are sometimes too incompetent not only to win matches, but also to rig them:

In a country so proud of its global stature, football is a painful national joke. Perhaps because Chinese fans love the sport madly and want desperately for their nation to succeed at it, football is the common reference point by which people understand and measure failure. When, in 2008, milk powder from the Chinese company Sanlu was found to have been tainted with melamine, causing a national scandal, the joke was: “Sanlu milk, the exclusive milk of the Chinese national football team!

And some interesting trivia from the piece:

With the blessing of the international football body FIFA, China also claims the world’s earliest recorded mention of a sport similar to football, during the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC. A version of the game cuju, or “kick ball”, involved a single, elevated net and two sides of 12 men.

The declining teenage population playing soccer in China, despite the growing population, is a surprise:

From 1990 to 2000 there were more than 600,000 teenagers in China playing organised football, according to official counts of registered players; from 2000 to 2005 that number dropped to an average of 180,000; today (with statistics kept differently) Chinese football officials estimate the number of teenagers playing some form of organised football to be little more than 100,000.

And some theories on why the Chinese soccer team is so bad:

So whatever ails Chinese football, it is not a lack of passion from the country’s leaders. If anything, the opposite may be the problem. China’s Party-controlled, top-down approach to sport has yielded some magnificent results in individual sports, helping China win more Olympic gold medals in Beijing in 2008 than any other country. But this “Soviet model” has proven catastrophically unsuitable for assembling a team of 11 football players, much less a nation of them.

The first problem is the method of identifying young talent. The sport system selects children with particular attributes, such as long limbs, which could pay off in athletics, rowing, swimming, diving or gymnastics. These youngsters are the genetic wheat. But football’s legends can emerge from the seeming chaff of human physiques: think of stocky Diego Maradona, perhaps the greatest ever player, or his Argentine successor, the tiny genius Lionel Messi.

 

China to Cancel College Majors That Don’t Pay

It appears China, like the United States, is struggling with an increasing population of students who graduate but cannot find jobs. But China’s solution? Slash those majors. Reports the WSJ:

China’s Ministry of Education announced this week plans to phase out majors producing unemployable graduates, according to state-run media Xinhua. The government will soon start evaluating college majors by their employment rates, downsizing or cutting those studies in which less than 60% of graduates fail for two consecutive years to find work.

The move is meant to solve a problem that has surfaced as the number of China’s university educated have jumped to 8,930 people per every 100,000 in 2010, up nearly 150% from 2000, according to China’s 2010 Census. The surge of collge grads, while an accomplishment for the country, has contributed to an overflow of workers whose skillsets don’t match with the needs of the export-led, manufacturing-based economy.

Yet the government’s decision to curb majors is facing resistance. Many university professors in China are unhappy with the Ministry of Education’s move, as it will likely shrink the talent pool needed for various subjects, such as biology, that are critical to the country’s aim of becoming a leader in science and technology but do not currently have a strong market demand, a report in the state-run China Daily report said.

I doubt the move will actually bring about the desired changes. In fact, the opposite effect may emerge: those majors that are currently at the threshold of demand will become the new undesired majors. Of course, one can imagine how institutions will try to pad their numbers with regard to graduation rates, salary levels, etc. It’s all ripe for corruption.

Readings: Natalie Portman, China’s Museum, Madoff Tapes

A few reads from the last couple of days:

1) “From Lab to Red Carpet” [New York Times] – Natalie Portman won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role (for her performance as Nina, a ballerina in Black Swan) last night. But did you know that in her younger days, she was a brilliant student?

Among the lesser-known but nonetheless depressingly impressive details in Ms. Portman’s altogether too precociously storied career is that as a student at Syosset High School on Long Island back in the late 1990s, Ms. Portman made it all the way to the semifinal rounds of the Intel competition.

The piece also discusses the academic endeavors of other actors as well.

2) “China Debuts World’s Largest Museum” [Art Info] — the largest museum in the world is now in China. Located on the east side of Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China measures 2.07 million square feet and thus surpassing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which previously reigned as the largest museum at 2.05 million square feet. The third largest museum in the world is now The Hermitage in St. Petersburg (which I visited in 2007). (via)

3) “The Madoff Tapes” [New York Magazine] – an incredible piece by Steve Fishman. A different profile of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, in which we hear from Madoff himself. Absolutely astounding that he called the people who trusted and invested with him as greedy.

“Everyone was greedy,” he [Madoff] continues. “I just went along. It’s not an excuse.” In his mind, the hedge funds and the banks were little more than marketers, skimming their 1 to 2 percent off the top, a fee for their supposed “due diligence,” though they exercised little oversight. “Look, there was complicity, in my view…”

Readings: Isolated Man, Straddling Bus, Truthful Airline Magazine

Here are the three most interesting articles I’ve read over the weekend:

1) “The Most Isolated Man on the Planet” [Slate] – we don’t know his name, or whether he even has one. He is the most isolated man in the world and happens to live in the Amazonian jungle. Slate has an excellent piece profiling his existence:

He eats mostly wild game, which he either hunts with his bow-and-arrow or traps in spiked-bottom pitfalls. He grows a few crops around his huts, including corn and manioc, and often collects honey from hives that stingless bees construct in the hollows of tree trunks. Some of the markings he makes on trees have suggested to indigenous experts that he maintains a spiritual life, which they’ve speculated might help him survive the psychological toil of being, to a certain extent, the last man standing in a world of one.

2) “A ‘Straddling Bus’ Traffic Solution in China” [New York Times] – a novel idea about a bus which takes up no road space. It’s a fascinating look at what one company in the southern Chinese town of Shenzhen has proposed:

Though it is called the “straddling bus,” Huashi’s invention resembles a train in many respects — but it requires neither elevated tracks nor extensive tunneling. Its passenger compartment spans the width of two traffic lanes and sits high above the road surface, on a pair of fencelike stilts that leave the road clear for ordinary cars to pass underneath. It runs along a fixed route.

Read the article for more or watch the video below:

3) “An Airline Magazine That Makes Travelers Want to Pull the Rip Cord” [Wall Street Journal] – this isn’t your ordinary in-flight magazine. The in-flight magazine for Safi Airways tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth:

One recent edition featured a long, approving piece headlined, “Live Entertainment in Kabul: Dog Fighting.” The writer says dogs in Afghanistan don’t fight to the death, just until one proves dominant. “They are usually pulled apart before they can inflict serious damage on each other,” the article assures passengers, despite the photo of two worried Afghans carrying away a limp black-and-white behemoth from the fight.

And who would be interested in advertising in such a magazine?

The magazine’s audience attracts advertisers as specialized as its content. There are an Australian firm that offers medical services in scary places; a Middle Eastern satellite-communications company whose gear works in the phoneless hinterlands; and a war-zone car-repair service with outlets in Kabul, Baghdad and Monrovia. The ad for Alpha Armouring Panzerung, a Munich company, shows an armored Mercedes SUV cruising through the flames of a roadside bomb.

In a world where in-flight magazines only taut the beautiful and the flashy, this magazine certainly sets itself apart from the competition. No word on whether the magazine is planning a SkyMall expansion.

Editor’s note: more posts are coming this week. In the meantime, feel free to subscribe by email using the box on the right.

Readings: Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Dung and Coffee, Killer Quakes

Here’s the most interesting stuff I read over the weekend:

(1) “How an Icelandic Volcano Shut Down Europe’s Airspace” [Der Spiegel] – The furious Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland has erupted, and the result is the grounding of thousands of flights across Europe. Since flights are grounded, some people were forced to take more creative ways of getting to their destination:

British comedian John Cleese of Monty Python fame found himself stuck in Oslo. He hired a taxi and was able to reach Brussels for a fee of €3,800 ($5,100).

Der Spiegel does an excellent job of breaking down the story. On a related note, there were a lot of photographs being shared on the web related to the event, but I wanted to create a most representative and compelling set of photos of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. I posted a gallery on Flickr: Eyjafjallajökull Volcano (worth a look for some incredible images).

(2) “From Dung to Coffee Brew With No Aftertaste” [New York Times] – the most expensive coffee in the world comes from a wild source. A wonderful read!

(3) “Killer Quakes on Rise With Cities on Fault Lines” [Bloomberg] – we’ve had major earthquakes in Haiti, Baja, and most recently, China so far this year. Are we experiencing more earthquakes as of late than usual? A good point by the author:

The difference between a major earthquake and a significant one is whether it occurs near a population center. Seismic events that people feel are newsworthy, those that shake fish or cows are not. Those that collapse cities are especially destructive in lives and rebuilding costs.

But perhaps the most telling line of the piece:

Never before has it been possible to kill 1 million people in a single earthquake, but cities are now big enough to make this possible.