Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The end of the road

There have been a number of well-publicized cases in recent years of local governments grabbing land from farmers who didn't want to sell, then paying them ridiculously low prices for their land (if they paid at all). The government tried to hush these up at first, but eventually the protests became too big to hide any longer. In response to public outcry, the government (at least in my part of China) has recently been treating reluctant homeowners with kid gloves. Sometimes the results are tragic in their own right.

There is a new road that makes our trip to the farm much more convenient, shaving twenty minutes or more off the drive. However, in two places along the road you can see where holdouts have forced the government to build the road around their houses. Here's what we saw last weekend on our way home from the farm.

Here is the newly-constructed road. It's a big, beautiful boulevard about five kilometers long.

This picture is taken at one end of the new road, standing right where the lane was SUPPOSED to go.

This is the view 180 degrees behind the last picture. There is supposed to be a lane through this farmer's back yard, to connect with the road off in the distance.

Cars barreling down the road at 80 km an hour have to make a pretty sudden swerve around the farm house. You can see there's just one little tiny blue sign to indicate the sudden end of the road. There's no signage to warn you in advance, no red plastic cones or barrels — nothing.

Wait a moment. What's that on the side of the house?
I guess this guy didn't see the little blue sign in time! I'm guess that the black tarp over the truck's cab is not a good sign. It probably indicates that there's stuff inside there that you don't want to see. Given how few Chinese drivers wear seat belts, that's a fair guess.

You can just barely see it in this picture, but the truck smashed into the wall of the house pretty hard. There's a big cracked-up place right between the two windows.

I don't know how he got dug in so deep.

Here's the little cut-out where both directions of traffic share one and a half lanes. It's a little unnerving when those giant lorries come rumbling past in the other direction.

By the way, we went past the same spot again today. The truck has been removed, leaving no trace except a big smack on the side of the house.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A failure of corporate communication

This post is completely off-topic, but I can't resist. I hope you won't mind too much.

In Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, he recounts Jobs' having told him that the one industry he would most like to have worked in, if not computers, was the automotive industry. Today I watched the online video of the unveiling ceremony for Mazda's 25th-Anniversary MX-5 Miata (http://www.mazda.com/stories/craftmanship/mx-5/mx-5_25th/thanksday/ustream/), and I was struck by how very much Mazda needs the ghost of Steve Jobs.

For several years during grad school, I drove a cherry-red 1990 Miata. It was the best car I've ever owned, a sheer joy to drive. I miss that car like an old lover.

It's a common experience. The Miata inspires love in its customers like few products except those made by Apple. Like an iPhone, it's not bare-bones practical — its selling points are style and fun. The Miata makes you want to drive it, and any other car is disappointing. A new edition of the Miata is anticipated by its fan base with the same excitement as a new iPhone.

So it was that Mazda prepared an unveiling ceremony clearly inspired by Jobs' keynote speeches. Except that they did almost everything wrong.

First there was the introduction. The designer who did the presentation seemed almost to be downplaying the greatness of the achievement that was the first Miata. In a risky and daring business move, Mazda revived a category that had been dead for ten years. Roadsters were considered a low-volume, no-profit niche market, yet Mazda sold millions. They were the low-cost tail that wagged such giant dogs and Porsche and BMW. It was an act of scrappy corporate audacity on par with the first iPhone.

Mazda's presentation said some of those things, but in such a jumbled-up, understated way that the message had almost no impact.

There was a nice little video, reasonably well-done, at the end of which the car quickly rolled onstage. Too quickly: there was no build-up, no drama, no music. Just a few puffs of smoke from the sides. In fact, the sound was still on the video, so you couldn't even hear the car!

If you're not a Miata fan, you might not be horrified by this omission, but the sound of the Miata is one of its major selling-points. Mazda spent countless dollars and man-hours into carefully engineering a satisfying exhaust rumble in the first-edition Miata. It's one of those perfect, Steve Jobs-like details that make the Miata such a full-body joy to drive. So it's a dreadful failure of communication to have the new edition of the car roll onstage in silence.

Once the car was there, the designer went on to show off the new look. This is the part I had been looking forward to, because I'd already seen some great-looking photos here: http://www.mazda.com/stories/craftmanship/mx-5/mx-5_25th/movie_photo/

This car was designed to be aggressive, where the first-generation Miata was bubbly. It's been aptly described as looking like a Maserati. The front end is low and wide, like a race car on the track. It looks fast and hot. It makes all the testosterone in your blood sing like a tuning fork. One look, and I felt an irresistible compulsion to be the one behind the wheel.

In the entire 23-minute video, there was not one single shot of the car from the front.

The interior of the car looks to be yet another design masterpiece. It's a gorgeous steampunk union of pre-computer-era knobs and dials with slick high-tech chrome-on-black style. The short-throw shifter in the middle speaks of control, responsiveness, and twisty, wind-whipped mountain roads. The palm of my right hand longed to rock-solid snicker-snack Miata shifting. The calves of both legs felt chills anticipating lightning-fast clutching.

There was not one single shot of the interior. The designer hosting the unveiling ceremony spoke in adjective-rich prose about the beauty and attention to detail Mazda had invested in the interior of the car, but he did not show it. Not once.

The car got driven onto the stage, presumably to show that it did in fact have an engine, but otherwise it sat static throughout the demo. There wasn't a turnstile to show it from different angles, nor did it move around at all. There was no video of the new Miata, only the intro video showing older generations. Even the driver seemed awkwardly immobile. This aggressive-looking, nimble little car looked stuck in mud.

Half the unveiling was spent on a concert by Duran Duran. I suppose this is appropriate to the Miata's sales demographic, but if I were planning the event I'd have skewed a little younger. The whole point of a car like this is to make people feel just a little younger than we are. Perhaps Duran Duran was supposed to remind us of our youth, but to me it was just a reminder of aging. The band has lost a lot of the spring from their step. They had an almost perplexed look about them, as if they, too, we wondering why they were there.

None of their songs had any obvious connection to the car, which sat forgotten on the opposite side of the stage. Rather than take the opportunity to cut away to exciting footage of the new Miata zooming down the road, the producers stayed glued to the aging rockers for a dozen long minutes.

I haven't been so disappointed in the work of a highly-paid, supposedly professional communicator since — well, now that I think about it, the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. If you wanted to un-sell a car, Mazda just provided a great example of how to do it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A hitchhiker in my class

Another first:

Last week was the first week of classes. In European Civilization class, I gave a general introduction to European Civilization (overall outline, breakdown into Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, and Contemporary periods, with a few very rough dates). Then I gave an introduction to some key themes of the course, by way of a lecture I call "Three Ideas That Made the West Great." The three ideas are Logic, Individualism, and Freedom. It's a very generalized introduction, the purpose of which is to get them thinking about some of the terms and themes that are going to come up throughout the semester.

At the end of class, I asked the students to write a simple self-introduction with their contact information, something about their background, reasons for taking the course, and a little bit about what they're interested in. Here is one of the responses I got. I'm quoting here in its entirety, with the very slightly rough Chinese grammar (not bad at all, by Chinese standards), so you get the flavor of the student's thinking.

So glad to participate in your class, sir. Actually I'm not your "true" student. I am a post-graduate majored in Labor Economics. I was looking for place to read books when you are preparing your class. [The class meets at 6:30PM, and it's common for students to use classrooms as study space in the evenings.] 
Anyway I feel happy, which you said is the most important thing for human being. Western civilization is great and Chinese culture is also special. I want to learn more from you, a foreigner, to see a world in your eyes, if it is allowed. [Allowed?! I'm THRILLED!] 
About the three ideas you talked about tonight, I can't agree more. Logic makes the world scientific and put the way to knowledge, so that we human can know better about everything around us. Individualism makes people live for themselves so that we can realize a harmony society, in which everybody is equal. Freedom is the vital factor to push a country moving on. We Chinese is waking up from the less free past. Though we have a long way to go, we still have lots of problems, we will not stop changing...
 In other words, this grad student was sitting in the classroom studying on his own, when our phalanx of 50 students piled into the room. He must have asked one of the students what class it was, and had enough interest in the topic to stick around for the first class. I guess our first night of class caught his interest enough that he wants to keep coming back.

This sort of thing almost never happens in the US, unless you're lucky enough to be at a superstar university like Chicago, where students are motivated by pure love of knowledge. Nor is it the norm here in China, where the vast majority of students are motivated by pure love of grades and credits. But I have had more auditors in my classes here in China than I ever did in the States.

Paradoxically, the Chinese focus on "hard sciences" gives my philosophy and culture classes a certain niche popularity. Students who are relentlessly hammered with business management classes sometimes long for something different, and there aren't very many offerings that can satisfy them.

I've had auditors before, but this is the first time my class has picked up a hitchhiker!