Tuesday 27 May 2008

Two-way traffic

A few weeks ago we hired a driver and drove for two and a half hours (on the first day of a holiday weekend, no less) to one of the Great Wall sites. We thought we had negotiated a price that included road tolls so I was surprised to find us on small toll-free highways in so much traffic. I spent a good portion of the way there looking at sometimes-solid-sometimes-dotted expressway markings on the map that seemed to be running largely parallel to our route and telling myself that perhaps it just wasn't open yet. But the expressway isn't really the point of this story.

On several occasions, I've observed a certain traffic phenomenon here and this trip provided a good illustration. In China, you see, when someone or something on the road is in your way, you just... go around. Even if it means moving into an empty space in the oncoming lanes. Ignoring the danger of an accident, it seems reasonable enough at first glance: save yourself some time, keep the traffic flowing.

An hour or more into the trip we came along a particularly heavy patch of traffic and, as we inched along, I began to suspect what had happened: you see, this section of road had five lanes of traffic in total but there were four lanes going our way. Not a normal distribution. Sure enough as we moved along we came to a point where there were suddenly four lanes going the other way and ours all merged into one. Can you picture this? There was now one through-flowing lane in each direction and, in the middle, three lanes of traffic coming each way facing head-on into each other.

You can picture how this would happen: one direction slows up for some reason, someone darts around into a gap but doesn't make it back in because the traffic is moving slowly and there are no gaps. This blocks the traffic coming the other way and cars further back in that line, in frustration, dart around the stopped traffic ahead and find they can't get back in because the traffic has stopped. This is similar to the effect known as shockwave traffic, which produces traffic jams from something as simple as one car slowing too quickly in heavy traffic. Scientists in Japan recently managed to recreate this effect in a controlled environment. If you've never heard of this, check out the video mentioned in the above article or check out this computer simulation (click on "1: Ring-road" once it loads). Then you'll understand why that huge traffic jam you're stuck in often has no obvious cause when you get to the end of it. If you want to read more, check out here and here.

So, as the traffic keeps backing up, cars keep trying to go around and end up blocking more and more lanes. If the cars would only cooperate, they'd all get where they're going faster. Because everyone's trying to maximize their own forward progress, however, they end up in near gridlock. This kind of greedy algorithm reminds me of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

On our way home, we came upon the same patch of road and came to a complete stop for 15 minutes. Eventually, somebody opened a side street that had been blocked off and we were able to begin diverting around the stalled traffic into the countryside. As we moved our way forward, guess what I saw laid out in front of us?

Yup, 5 lines of traffic all pointing in the same direction...

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Midnight Turf

It's midnight and I can't sleep. I'm lying listening to the rumble of trucks outside our window (open because it's getting to hot to sleep with it closed and we're still resisting A/C). "Turf?", I wonder?

Sure enough, a quick look out the window confirms the arrival of four large trucks carrying turf to be laid outside our apartment. The landscaping has been an ongoing project since we moved in nearly three months ago. Most of the time, the workers deliver their materials during the day using three-wheeled bicycle carts but some activities including including larger deliveries and a large loader shoveling bricks and other debris into dump trucks seem to occur in the middle of the night. Turf was laid on about half the area several weeks ago but much of was over-watered, died, and was finally pulled up again this week. Hence my hunch about the delivery.

Why the late hour? Apparently large trucks are prohibited within the 3rd or 4th ring road during the day without special permission; I hadn't noticed the nearly complete absence of trucks until someone mentioned it to me. Perhaps I should take a midnight walk one of these days and see what other trucks are driving around...

Monday 19 May 2008

3 Minutes of Silence

At 2:28pm today, one week since the disastrous earthquake in Sichuan, people all over China maintained 3 minutes of silence for tens of thousands of victims who were killed. I stood watching from my apartment window as the office workers emerged from their buildings and the migrant workers planting flowers stood from their work. Everyone appeared to face southwest as car horns across the city began to blare continuously and in unison. What would normally be one of the most irritating noises imaginable, this time proved strangely moving...

Wednesday 14 May 2008

The case for generalists

Seth Godin makes a case against being a generalist.

The problem is, I think the metaphor breaks down. Sure I want the best possible surgeon to fix my heart but I don't want to pay that surgeon to look at my sprained ankle or listen to my chest cough: there's a trade off there between specialization and cost. Also, I don't want a plumber, no matter how good he or she may be, to build my house for me. For that task I want a really good GENERAL contractor. Someone who knows just enough about all the parts of the house to make sure everything is done correctly and in the right order. A contractor who is good enough to know when to bring in other experts when necessary.

It seems to me there's a huge need for people who know enough about enough different things to communicate with and coordinate the specialists. Contractors, project managers, integrated health practitioners, and so on...

I've been thinking recently about companies hiring consultants. They bring in "specialized" consultants who throw buzzwords around and tell them what they Need To Do. The problem is that often nobody at the company knows enough to know what the consultants are talking about. What you almost need to do is hire another consultant (a generalist) for just long enough to talk to your other consultants and find out if what they're suggesting makes sense. I met a computer programmer type who did an internship (not specifically computer-related I think) with the airport authority in Beijing. In meetings, he was the only one with enough knowledge to really evaluate much of what the contractors were saying so they hired him on after his internship for quite a large sum of money to continue filling that role of "translator".

Now Seth also seems to suggest that the general contractor might even be considered a specialist role itself but then... what role isn't?

Monday 12 May 2008

How did I not feel that?

News agencies across the world are reporting that a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit central China this afternoon. It seems I was running on the elliptical machine at the gym at the time and didn't feel a thing.

I did notice construction workers streaming out of a tall building across the street and it seemed like people in the street (and even some of the gym staff) were looking up at something on the building. I even stopped running for a moment and turned off the mp3 player to see if there was a siren but couldn't for the life of me figure out what was so interesting.

Upon getting home I found two text messages on my phone asking if I had felt the earthquake and, having smelled a slight gas smell in the lobby on my way in, decided to grab our documents and head over to a coffee shop for a few hours just to be safe. The coffee shops at the business park near our house all seem busier than usual and I've overheard a few snippets from people who felt some significant shaking. I think people must have left their office buildings after the quake and many decided just to stay in the coffee shops.

Early reports suggest damage in Chengdu, the closest major city to the epicentre, is minimal though there seem to be some deaths and injuries in the smaller towns; I'm pretty sure there won't have been any damage in Beijing where it was apparently felt as a 3.9 magnitude tremor.

Saturday 10 May 2008


Awoke this morning to the sound of "Edelweiss" (from The Sound of Music). What's particularly strange is that this is the second time I've heard this song here this week (we came across about 20 couples waltzing to it outside the Workers' Stadium last weekend). At first I thought it was our new neighbour upstairs who seems to practice the piano, the violin, the saxophone, and what someone more generous than I might call "singing" (even calling it karaoke would be gracious) throughout the day. Turns out it was a brass band playing for what looks to be a shop opening... how did this song get so popular over here?

Now I've got it stuck in my head again... gah!

Thursday 8 May 2008

Olympic flame summits Mt. Qomolangma

I turned on the TV this morning just as the Olympic flame was being carried up the last 100m of Mt. Qomolangma (the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest), the world's highest peak. The media here has been anticipating this for weeks, probably since the torch relay began. While it seemed like a good gimmick I have to admit to a little bit of apprehension: it was hard to imagine the climbers calling of the summiting attempt, no matter how bad the weather was. How could you fail after building it up so much?

Luckily the weather looked good and they made great time to the top. And watching the footage I had to admit it was a fairly powerful image and pretty memorable achievement.

In looking into the torch relay, I discovered I had missed this leg of the Sydney torch relay: another unique gimmick.

Olympic Tickets

Looks like we've successfully obtained two tickets to see Beach Volleyball at the Olympics. I've been cursing myself for not getting on top of this earlier and picking through the scraggly tickets left at the various official national tickets sellers for which we could possibly qualify (Canada, Ireland, Germany). Not much left, let me assure you...

Then we caught wind on the news on Sunday that the 3rd round of Chinese sales would begin Monday morning, and as luck would have it Julia qualified on account of her visa type. The selection was still somewhat limited and I spent 5 hours or so Monday repeatedly clicking and waiting for the inevitable "Sorry, we are unable to process your request at this time" which was the result of the huge load hitting the servers. I finally got an offer of two beach volleyball tickets shortly after lunch. Because of a rather complex, bureaucratic payment process, I was unable to acquire any more but at least I'll get to see something (and the tickets were only $7.50 or so each!). Some people, having failed to get tickets in the first two rounds, apparently trekked across the country to line up for tickets at Bank of China branches in Beijing the night before. Olympic fever is building...

Wednesday 7 May 2008

A Beijing Expat Wife

People here often ask what I'm doing here. I used to say I was looking for work or that I was doing contract work or thinking of taking some classes. Or I'd give the long spiel about how my girlfriend was doing an internship, blah, blah, blah. Now I just say "I'm an expat wife" and pause for the double take. Hence the new title for the blog: "A Beijing Expat Wife: Excuse the facial hair..."