Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Things we don't have in Europe, part II.

With over 3 years spent in Hong Kong, I can share some more minor differences compared to Europe or Czech Republic that I've noticed. I've also noticed that while some things are different, other things are utterly same the everywhere: the abundance of lazy or stupid people.

Note: people seemed to like the Part I as well.

Anti-pandemic measures and crowd control

How do you know you're in Asia? Well just look around you and if there are more than 10 people in your 1m x 1m personal space then you're probably in an Asian city. A high population density increases the damage from any infectious disease and Hong Kong has learned as much when SARS hit. So now they're trying to curb the spreading of diseases by disinfecting lift buttons, escalator handles and door handles multiple times a day. Or that's what they claim, anyway. Furthermore, posters in public places are asking people to wash hands properly and refrain from spitting.

They also have a lot of experience in crowd control. On Halloween and other important party days, the entire bar street is closed and only a limited stream of people can get in. And even then the place is absolutely packed.

Unusual names

Children in HK are asked to choose an English name for themselves in school. That name is then used more often than the original Chinese name and it really is much easier for foreigners to remember because learning the correct pronunciation of a Chinese name can take a week (in my case). People from the mainland often don't choose an English name so I'm having a harder time with their name.

Anyway, I've found that HKers are much less conservative in choosing names than we are in the West. It is taboo in EU or US to pick a name outside of a pre-defined set of names. Not here. Using the name of a city or a proper noun is possible. I've even heard stories that some guy picked the name "Chocolate Milk". I'm not sure if these people realize it'll disadvantage them in dealing with Westerners because for us, such names sound silly and it ruins the first impression. But it makes one also realize how many arbitrary rules does our own culture impose.

I admit that choosing Never Wong as your name is just pure genius.

Octopus card

I love the Octopus card. Similar [1] to the UK Oyster card, it stores value and while primarily used for public transport, you can use it in many other places such as restaurant, convenience stores, vending machines, ferries and even as ID for building entrance. Payment is instant and refilling stored value is possible almost everywhere. If you're coming to HK for more than 3 days, don't even think about using one-off subway tickets, just get the Octopus card. Thanks to this, you can almost get rid of those annoyingly heavy coins.

Dining culture

The #1 pastime in HK must be ... eating. Hong Kong may not have as muny arty shows and culture compared to Paris or New York but what you can do every evening is trying a new restaurant. With all of the world's cousine available in thousands of restaurants around the city, there's always something new to explore with your tastebuds. The way to socialize with your buddies is not getting a beer but rather going out for a dinner. And after the dinner you may continue to a dessert shop where you'll get some Chinese style, fruit, tofu and jelly based desserts. Who cares that eating sweets when you're already pretty full at 10pm may not be the healthiest thing. The naturally slim Asians are not worried.

When not eating in a fancy restaurant or when you're at home, you may find that the table has a big sheet of plastic bag instead of the table cloth. It looks extremely ugly but it saves the work of cleaning the mess that is inevitably going to hit the table. And after all, the company of your friends matters more than some fancy table cloths. Your Chinese friends will probably offer you a paper tissue when they reach to get one for themselves. Tip: bring 2 packages if you're going to a spicy restaurant.

Chinese tea is an interesting topic. Don't think that everybody around here is an expert on tea and can explain the difference between various Oolong teas at length. I seem to be actually more knowledgeable in this topic than a typical local person. On the other hand, 7-11 convenience stores all have plastic bottles of cold tea, with or without sugar. Not Nestea but rather actual tea. And Chinese style restaurants serve tea as a basic free service. But even then, HK style milk tea and HK style lemon tea are still the most common drinks to consume with your meal.

Some local restaurants offer "Western food". That almost always means one kind of tomato-based soup, offered without fail in the same form by all of them. Apparently we Westerners only know one type of soup. Furthermore, if you order potatoes as the side dish, it's almost always going to be 1 small potato which is clearly not enough carbs to get me through the day. I don't understand it, the rice portions are usually pretty big and potatoes are not even expensive.



The native language of Hong Kong is Cantonese. This is actually the language of the entire southern Chinese region but immediately after you cross the border of Hong Kong to Shenzhen, everything switches to Mandarin. If you keep going North, you'll get back to Cantonese. This anomaly is caused by the numerous immigrants to the industrial megacity of Shenzhen. And this is probably not going to last forever because the Chinese government is actively trying to eradicate Cantonese so that they have a more homogeneous population that is easier to control.

As for English, it is important to HKers to learn English but many still struggle and well written English is hard to come by. On the other hand, if you compare with some European countries where people don't even bother, you have to give HKers some credit for trying.

Often you can spot an English sentence written by a Chinese person not only from the errors but also from the style. Overuse of strong adjectives is very common so typically you can "win fabulous prizes" which are actually just a branded pen and chocolate or download "breathtaking games" such as Pacman or Pong. If you buy a cheap electronic product, you can be already pretty sure it was made in China but for the sake of argument let's say you'd use the language on the box to guess the product's origin. Phrases about "enjoying your life", "enjoying every tap on the device" or "experiencing fabulous digital life" will give you a hint.

Freezing air-con 24/7

This one simply can't go unmentioned. The mystery of air-cons everywhere set to kill freeze remains unsolved. Locals, when interrogated, dodge the topic or remain silent. After 3 years here, though, it seems that the culture here dictates that you need to have fresh air flow at all times, otherwise you die. Considering the high humidity in this region I admit this is certainly true to an extent. But locals take it to the extreme and consider even 10 minutes without air-con a threat. Using the fan-only mode is not acceptable either, even in winter: if air is not cooled, it simply cannot be fresh. I wonder when a HKer and a Korean have to sleep in the same room: HKer will die if the fan or air-con is off, the Korean will die when the fan is left on!

What they don't have here

Going to lunch with colleagues and want to split the bill? Bad luck, waiters will usually not do that for you. Have fun giving back change that you don't have. I foresee cryptocurrency payments to be the only way out of this situation ;) wink wink

Their supermarkets are not air-tight like in Czech. That must mean that people usually wouldn't steal from a supermarket here. I cannot imagine such degree of trust in Czech and it makes me sad.

Honestly, recycling and environment conservation both appear to be rather alien ideas around here. Restaurants overflow with piles of take-away boxes, you get a plastic bag for everything, vegetables and fruit in supermarkets is already pre-wrapped in plastic, sometimes in 2 layers! Also, it's really funny to never, ever, see squished plastic bottles in recycling collection points. It could save a lot of space and almost everyone in Czech does it. Here, the idea never appeared. Makes me wonder what other useful ideas are completely missing in some parts of the world.

Everybody in cold countries knows how to walk on snow or ice. You just need to move your weight exactly over your feet before relying on that foot. Children also know how to slide on ice and can go all the way to school just sliding on the icy pavement. In HK on the other hand, even a little wet tiled floor is a serious threat. Warning triangles are deployed, floor driers are set in operation. I know it's to protect building management from being sued but it's just ridiculous. There is ice in HK only once per 35 years and when it comes, it's a little embarrassing:

[1] Fixed incorrect claim, thx Alessio

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The fall of Couchsurfing and the need for DApps

Abstract: How Ethereum DApps can be applied even outside finances and how communities can benefit from technologies of the future.

Couchsurfing (or at least the idea of it) used to be a community of people who would welcome each other in various places around the world, show them the local culture, recommend best local places and since many people have a spare couch at home, why not let the traveller crash there for a night or two.

Of course, not everybody knows everyone so people would leave references for each other after having spent some time together. The reference would include information such as how long you've known the person, whether your experience of them was positive or negative and of course a paragraph or two. The site emphasized that references are the fundamental tool to keep people secure.

People have accumulated lots of positive references over the years by letting backpacking travelers crash on their couch and showing them around. People knew they could trust a bunch of good references. This good track record would make it easier to find a couch when they go traveling (which for a typical CSer is often). So we could say that having lots of good references on CS has some value and is not that easy to build.

Of course, nothing lasts forever and CS, no longer a non-profit, is moving away from the original idea. The home page https://www.couchsurfing.com is saying something about staying somewhere for free. No mention of cultural exchange, making new friends. The last step they've taken is removing metadata from references, leaving only the verbal description. So you can no longer see at a glance if it's positive or negative. Want to know if that stranger is trustworthy enough to let them stay? Sure, just read through all of their references!

The reason CS is doing this is because they are now owned by the same group which owns AirBnB and other paid accommodation services. "Free accommodation" using couchsurfing is not a good alternative to their paid services so they need to get rid of it. And delete years worth of good references.

We could say the problem is in the amorality of new owners of CS destroying the community and something that the people have been building. Maybe. The CS website owns all the data that users have entered there and it has control over what shows on the website. They are able to do any move that's bad for the community and the users are powerless even though they create the site's content and actually the entire value of the website.

It doesn't have to be like that. Scientists are working Computer nerds are working on a new Web, one where users are in control because they own the site and its data collectively. No longer having to trust one person or company that could become evil or simply sell out to some greedy profit-seeker. In this way, changes that wouldn't benefit the community could not be made, data could not be deleted.

Those websites are called DApps (from distributed apps, because they are owned by multiple people) and they are slowly becoming possible thanks to technologies such as Ethereum, Bitcoin, IPFS and others. They can be used to build financial services, true democratic communities or what I've described above. Sounds interesting? Get involved! Even if you're not technical at all, an ordinary user can help a lot in this early stage. Install the apps. Start playing around, get involved in discussion, many ideas still need figuring out. Tell other people about the idea.

And what is the fate of Couchsurfing? Multiple people are thinking about starting a new site. Starting from scratch, without the data that has been built in CS because there's no way to transfer the data to a new place (another problem of the old website system). Building a new CS as an DApp would not be easy at this moment because there's very little support available for DApp developers, it is a very unexplored area and needs original work to build anything, unlike traditional websites. But that will change over time.