Hong Kong vs Vatican City

March 30th, 2014, 7:06 pm PDT by Greg

In CGP Grey‘s excellent video How Many Countries Are There?, he refers to Vatican City as “the least country-like country that’s still a country” and to Hong Kong as “the most country-like country that isn’t.”

I have been rolling this around in my head for a while. He’s right about the basics: nobody would argue that at the moment, the Vatican isn’t a country, or that Hong Kong is. But how country-like are they, really?

Certainly as I remember visiting both, it’s very clear that Hong Kong is a separate country from mainland China, but Vatican City is more of a notable tourist attraction in Rome.

I made a table to highlight the issues. Is Vatican City really a part of Italy? Is Hong Kong really a part of China. Even though the answers are clearly “no” and “yes”, let’s look at the facts…

[I’m using the term “surrounding nation” for brevity below to refer to China and Italy as the nations that physically encasulate Hong Kong and Vatican City, respectively.]

Criteria Hong Kong Vatican City More Country-like
Citizens 7.2M 839 Hong Kong
Land area 1104 km2 0.44 km2 Hong Kong
Controls is own borders? yes no Hong Kong
Issues its own passports? yes yes tie
Has its own currency? yes no Hong Kong
Different government than surrounding nation? yes [1] yes [2] tie
Has an army? no sort of Vatican
Competes in the Olympics yes no Hong Kong
Surrounding nation citizens can visit without a visa? no [3] yes Hong Kong

[1] Elected Legislative Council vs single-party socialist republic.

[2] Absolute non-hereditary monarchy vs unitary parliamentary constitutional republic

[3] Call it an “entry permit” if you want, but if people have to apply for it ahead of time, and then present it with their passport at border control for entry, then that’s a visa in my books.

So there you go. Hong Kong is clearly an independant nation and the situation is much fuzzier for the Vatican.

Except it isn’t. What defines a country is that other countries think it’s a country. Other countries think the Vatican is a county, and agree that Hong Kong isn’t.

Edit 2014-04-09 Apparently this blog post both takes inspiration from and predicts CGP Grey.

The Chinese Life Plan

September 2nd, 2013, 10:21 am PDT by Greg

One of the biggest realizations from my time in China was that there is a shockingly-uniform life plan that is followed by Mainland Chinese kids. (Those who emigrated are generally excluded.) This is what I inferred from many conversations that a kid is supposed to do:

  1. Study hard, get into a good middle school.
  2. Study hard, get into a good high school.
  3. Study hard, do well on the university entrance exam (gaokao/高考).
  4. Go to the highest-ranked university you get in to with your gaokao score.
    • Edit thanks to Corbett: choose your major based on your gaokao score or aptitude test results. Interest in the major is not relevant.
  5. Study hard. Take the cohort-based set curriculum in your program.
  6. At some point, meet a nice Chinese boy/girl to be your boyfriend/girlfriend.
  7. Graduate in exactly four years from that highly-ranked university.
  8. If possible, do a masters or PhD at a maximally-ranked school. A high-status foreign school may be acceptable as long as you come back to China and…
  9. Get a job at a state-owned enterprise, or in the government, or other large stable company.
    • Edit thanks to Chao: Buy a two bedroom condo and car as a prerequisite to …
  10. Within the year, marry the boyfriend/girlfriend. There has been no other boyfriend/girlfriend in the interim.
    • Edit thanks to Elissa: If there was no boy/girl, or the boy/girl was not deemed acceptable by your mother, she will find one who you will marry.
  11. Within another year, have your One Child.
  12. At this point, either your parents or in-laws will move in and help raise the One Child.
  13. Continue to work at the large stable employer, in approximately the same job.
  14. Raise the One Child to start back at step #1 and continue The Plan.
  15. Support your parents in their old age. (The stability of the employer was necessary for this.)
  16. Die.

For a while in China, I would ask students “why did you come to Zhejiang U?” Eventually, I stopped asking because the answer was literally the same every time: “I didn’t get into Beijing or Tsinghua,” which are the two higher-ranked schools.

How relevant what the best-ranked university does is o your goals: irrelevant. Whether or not you wanted to work for a large stable employer: irrelevant. Whether or not you were interesting in having children: irrelevant. Resistance: futile.

I’m not so bothered that there is a “perfect Chinese life plan” as much as I am that in that list, there are basically no options. Chinese kids can literally never make a real life choice, and are not conditioned to make them. (Students who have come to Canada earlier than the plan dictates have confirmed that they really had no idea how to respond to questions like “what courses do you want to take?”)

On Accuracy

At this point, I suspect there are Chinese people reading this and thinking “no, that’s not really true.” (But they’re actually thinking “I didn’t do 9 and only half of 12.”) My experience was that most in-China Chinese kids I talked to diverged from that plan somewhere. The amount of divergence often depended on how “worldly” their parents are (because I can’t think of a better word). To some extent, a particularly willful child could diverge unilaterally.

To be fair, I was getting a biased sample at ZU. In order to get into ZU at all, you had to be on the plan perfectly up to step 4. Maybe at a lower-ranked institution, I would have found a more bohemian population.

Let me contrast with a life place for western kids that I think is followed with about the same precision:

  1. Finish high school, doing as well as possible under the circumstances.
  2. Do some post-secondary education. University is preferred (but the trades are an excellent option as well).
  3. Get a job of some kind (or start a company: that might be good). If possible, it should be a job you enjoy.
  4. Get married and have kids (or don’t).

The biggest difference: we have to make choices.

I’m back!

July 12th, 2013, 11:12 am PDT by Greg

It is with great pleasure I announce my permanent return to Vancouver. I haven’t seen many of you for some time, and I wish to remedy the situation.

This is a general distribution invitation: if you would like to spend some time hearing about China and telling me what I missed while there, I am interested in that.

Acceptable venues include any local bar, pub, tavern, alehouse, watering hole, or saloon. (Sitting on a patio and having a drink is not a Chinese thing, and has been sorely missed.) Restaurants, coffee shops, my place, or your place would also be acceptable. I won’t be teaching until September, so am fairly free for the next little while.

Phone, email, or message in any other fashion if you’re interested.

ZJU Technology

June 12th, 2013, 10:59 pm PDT by Greg

I have been taking my own laptop to lecture. There are computers in every room, but I haven’t had any use for them. I decided to have a look at one the other day. I took this screenshot (click through for the full-size version):


What you see there is:

  • Windows XP SP2, as released in 2004.
  • Internet Explorer 6, the most hated browser in the world, which even Microsoft thinks should be long dead.
  • Old school Active Desktop, long-since retired.
  • Acrobat Reader 8, from 2006 and three versions out of date.
  • MS Office 2003, three versions out of ate.
  • Adobe CS3 from 2007, three versions out of date.
  • R 2.15 from 2012.

To get the screenshot off, I inserted a clean USB key. When I got the key back to my computer, a clamav virus scan had this to say:

----------- SCAN SUMMARY -----------
Known viruses: 2381770
Engine version: 0.97.8
Scanned directories: 1
Scanned files: 14
Infected files: 11
Data scanned: 0.95 MB
Data read: 6.05 MB (ratio 0.16:1)
Time: 5.086 sec (0 m 5 s)

It looks like there are four distinct viral infections on the key.

My best guess is that they imaged the machines when they installed them, possibly when the building was built. Since then, everyone has logged in as an administrator (one installing his own version of R, which explains the one piece of new software), and whatever has happened has happened. Even though there is a learning technology office 20 metres from the classroom, they can’t seem to be bothered with the computers.

So why does IE6 have such a huge market share in China? There is a Chinese expression “随遇而安” which Google translates as “go with the flow”. I blame too much 随遇而安.

T-Shirts in China

May 31st, 2013, 4:22 am PDT by Greg

Poor English translations are nothing new to me, even as a Vancouverite. They kind of just roll off me without notice by now. “Fish is to eating”… I think “I guess they serve fish,” but nothing else.

But as a service my friends Kym and Mark at Herrohachi, I decided to watch for T-shirts with odd English. When I saw one, I jotted it down in my phone.

What follows is a two-week supply. Spelling and punctuation is as close as I could get it. I have made no real attempt to preserve design, formatting, or even line breaks. The slash indicates a line break where I recorded it.


These just don’t make sense…


These are perfectly reasonable English, but not-quite-right on a T-shirt

  • I only sleep with the best
  • Bed and breakfast
  • I’m a real sketch fan! [below line-art sketches of random plants]
  • Nice tag line
  • FART (in 6 inch glittery letters)
  • Hurry up
  • It’s your turn / I like rugby it’s so fun [on a girl that I could have picked up and thrown with one hand]

Things that happen in China

May 13th, 2013, 7:53 am PDT by Greg

On Mondays, I teach from 8:00–9:30 and 18:30–20:00. That makes for a weird day. After lecture, I decided to go to the western restaurant around the corner. I had calories left for a light dinner and a gin and tonic. The following was written as I was sitting there…

Things I can see from here: two groups of young hip Chinese having foreign food, and a group of mixed western guys.

I think that group is two French, one American, and one other (who isn’t talking so I can’t tell). They’re speaking mostly English. One of them just said “it’s like licking your own balls, man.” Sadly, I didn’t hear the setup: it was one of those moment where the brain takes so long to process what just happened, that it’s no longer possible to react appropriately.

They’re watching videos of guys falling off skateboards.

One of the tiny Chinese girls has a comically large mug of beer. It’s actually a regular pint, but it looks comical when she holds it. She has been nursing it for an hour, but I appreciate the effort.

Somehow, all of this makes me very happy. That might be the gin.

The Chinese Web Market

April 30th, 2013, 9:19 am PDT by Greg

Since I have been in China, I have been thinking a lot about the web in China (and of course, living with a Chinese Internet connection). I know my share of web entrepreneurs, so one of the things that has been sitting in the back of my head is the question “how can foreign web companies expand into the Chinese market?” I know some excellent people thinking about doing just that.

After a few months, my honest advice to any web company thinking about China is: Don’t. It’s not worth the risk.

The unavoidable danger is being blocked by the firewall and completely losing any investment in China. The other is being cloned by a Chinese developer: shanzhai or copy-to-China. I propose to convince you here that these aren’t two independent risks, but are highly correlated.

Let’s look at the history of some prominent shanzhai sites and their foreign inspiration:

The pattern is clear here: a foreign company does something innovative, a Chinese company clones them and grows to be a viable competitor in the Chinese market. The foreign site becomes immoral and is blocked.

In each of these cases, the Chinese market moved quickly to the shanzhai site. I hear a little grumbling about the degraded Google service, and see the occasional Chinese kid on Facebook, but mostly the users moved smoothly to the Chinese-owned clone.

The reasons given for Internet censorship in China are generally prohibition of illegal material and promotion of national unity. There seems to be a clear side benefit: to neutralize foreign competitors when they become inconvenient to a local company.

I don’t think there is any quid pro quo there. I don’t think the Baidu founders went to the government and asked if they wouldn’t mind eliminating his competition, but the outcome seems identical to if they did.

So my advice on China is that there is too much danger of your entire investment being lost to the throw of an administrative switch on the firewall. Too much danger of a local clone. Too much danger of them both happening simultaneously.

Edit 03-2014: There has been some quid pro quo, at least on the scale of posts.

Network Sanitization

April 23rd, 2013, 11:48 pm PDT by Greg

I have been spending a fair amount of time working in coffee shops in Hangzhou. The culture seems to be that buying a coffee also buys me several hours sitting in a table doing whatever I damned well please. It’s a nice change of scenery from my apartment. They usually have wi-fi, but it would be pragmatic to assume that whatever traffic goes over that connection is beamed directly to a billboard outside. I generally feel the same way about hotel internet, free airport wi-fi, and other dodgy connections: I just don’t trust that they have any interest in protecting my privacy.

I really want to encrypt all of my traffic over those links. I always encrypted my mail client connections anyway, and SSH is inherently encrypted. That really leaves my browser as the weak link in my average-day networking.

After considering some options, I ended up with just about the simplest solution, although it does take touch of technical know-how to get going. The basic idea is that SSH can provide an encrypted SOCKS server. Using it basically involves setting my browser to use the SOCKS tunnel for everything, and starting up the SOCKS tunnel with a command like this:

ssh -C -D 1080 userid@someserver.example.com

It’s also possible to do this on Windows with PuTTY and on a Mac from the Terminal.

In theory, this can speed up a slow connection a little. It removes the TCP handshake from their network, and the compression (-C) might help for the right kind of traffic.

Of course, you need a server to SSH to. If I’m working, I use a computer in the department at SFU. I figure that’s kosher. Another option is Amazon: a Amazon Web Services free tier should stay free if you use a micro instance and keep the bandwidth under control. As I recall, I just used their most generic looking Ubuntu image and changed just about nothing.

You privacy is, of course, only as good as your endpoint. Sooner or later, your unencrypted web traffic has to get out there into the big-bad internet. It’s not that I particularly trust Amazon, but I don’t trust any other provider much more.

I have also experimented with sshuttle. It pushes your entire network interface over the SSH connection. That’s technically better, but the SOCKS tunnel usually passes the “good enough” bar for me.

Edit: …and Proxy Selector to flip the SOCKS proxy on when I need it.

The coffee shop

April 18th, 2013, 12:24 am PDT by Greg

Just came to a nearby coffee shop to do some work. I hadn’t noticed this one until recently: it actually has a food menu, which should be explored.

I ordered a hot chocolate. A few minutes later, I got a probably-Carnation hot chocolate. A little weak, but whatever.

When I was half done, the guy comes over with a new drink, says “too sweet” and took my old one away.

I am now drinking brown hot water. Because China.

People ask what I miss from home. I miss having some idea of what is happening around me… ever.

Cultural Sharing

April 15th, 2013, 7:45 am PDT by Greg

Something astonishing just happened.

I was shopping at my usual grocery store and was grabbing some apples. Another guy around the apple stand clearly needed a plastic bag: he was trying to move in the direction of the roll of bags, but was blocked by a cart and general Chinese grocery store detritus.

Without thinking, I grabbed a bag and handed it to him. That was not a very Chinese thing to do. Even noticing that there was someone else in the store with me seems to be unusual. He thanked me and we went on our way.

A minute later, I went to the produce-weighing station. Another guy who I believe saw the plastic bag interaction motioned for me to go ahead of him.

If you haven’t been to China, that might not seem weird. Let me explain. The expected thing to happen in that situation would be for him to step in front of me, go first, and never acknowledge my existence. Another socially acceptable thing would be to wedge his shoulder in front of me if I wasn’t standing close enough to the counter, and put his stuff on the scale a millisecond before mine.

I literally don’t think I have had a “you go first” wave in all the time I have been here. I can only assume that it was a result of my bag-getting courtesy.

I may have started something here, like in Warm Bodies.

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