Brief Blogger’s Holiday

I’m in the midst of deadlines and they”ll require my undivided attention through the weekend. So, more likely than not, there will be no updates here until Monday. That is, if I know what’s good for me.

Before signing off, though: a hearty recommendation for the second half of the interview that Andrew Sullivan did with the Atlantic on the occasion of his current cover story. I say the second half, because that’s the part covering his career as a blogger (mind you, the first half is plenty interesting, too). Believe it or not, Sullivan was one of the original bloggers (yes, he really was), and his thoughts on the medium are grand:

There’s an enormous intimacy that blogging fosters between a blogger and his readers. My particular blog, which has been around for eight years, has always had that feeling … [d]oing it in real time creates an astonishing relationship between reader and writer—I think unique in the history of writing—which is why I’m fascinated by this medium and why I’ve stayed with it even though it’s grueling.

I mean, how many writers in their lifetimes stumble across a new medium like this? This is about writing in a whole new way. It’s never been done like this before. So here you are, present at the creation. We only have one life to live. If you’re a writer with an opportunity to be part of this, why would you pass it up?

And on that note — see you after the weekend.

[P.S. While away, I'll be listening to Raising Sand, the wonderful new collaboration between Robert Plant and Allison Krauss.]

This Seems Like a Bad Idea.

I have an uneasy feeling that I may be the last person in Shanghai to notice that there is a pharmaceutical dispensing machine on the edge of the city’s best (if not largest) fake market. And even more uneasy to think that such machines are common throughout China – if not the world – and thus I am setting myself up for some “where have you been, pal” comments to this blog. So be it. Here’s the machine:

dsc04163.JPG

Close-up of the sign:

dsc04164.JPG

All concerns about buying medicine from vending machines aside – I harbor serious doubts about anyone who considers purchasing ‘medicine’ from a vending machine stationed outside of a mall stocked with fake LV purses, fake ipods, fake sports jerseys (Johan Santana replica jerseys available for RMB 100!), fake whatever. But what do I know (after all, I’m the guy who thought Starbucks would fail in China)? After the jump, photos of how to purchase drugs from a vending machine: Continue reading

The Price of Mowing the Lawn

Over the last month I’ve spoken to several Chinese factory owners who claim that their biggest challenge is the rising price of skilled and semi-skilled labor. In Tianjin, for example, two separate owners told me that the price of skilled machinists had risen 30% over the last year to roughly RMB 3000 (US$378) per month. New trainees can expect to be paid roughly RMB 1000 (US$126) – and factory owners can expect to lose them to higher paying employers within weeks. One owner complained that rival machine shops post recruiters outside of his factory gates, offering higher salaries. (to which I say: good for the machinists).

dsc04154.JPG

Above, a photo of a very modern Tianjin machine shop outfitted with Chinese copies of American and European CNC machines. According to an American machine shop owner from the Midwest with whom I am friendly, the cost of running such a machine in the US is roughly US$2000 – US$2500 per employee, per month (including overtime). In China, unlike the US, machines shops generally assign two machinists to a CNC, and thus – as of late – skilled manufacturing costs in Tianjin are approach one-third of those in the United States. That may not seem like much, but – when shipping and all of the trouble of supervising Chinese quality is figured in – it’s high enough to make US-based manufacturers think about going elsewhere – or home. Which is what was on the mind of the owner of this factory when we discussed the price of Tianjin’s labor. “I don’t know what we’ll do if the price goes up much more,” he told me. “We’ve lost the margins that brought people here.” In the midst of this conversation, I paused beside a window facing the machine shop’s backyard, and saw this scene:

dsc04157.JPG

In case the photo isn’t clear: eighteen employees were spending the day (or two) cutting the dry grasses behind the machine shop by hand, using scythes and pocket knives. When I pointed out to the machine shop owner that a power mower could have finished the job in an hour, he replied that it was cheaper to send his company’s army of low [no]-skill employees after the problem. Unfortunately, he was unwilling to reveal the cost of the human lawn mowers – or the cost of renting/buying a power mower. Continue reading

Marathon Air Quality

Over at WorldChanging, Mara Hvistendahl asks: “As an amateur runner in Shanghai’s half-marathon on Sunday, I wasn’t overly concerned with my time. But what was I doing to my lungs?” Her answer is an interesting essay that touches on Beijing’s efforts to improve its air quality in advance of the Olympics, what it feels like to run a quarter mile behind a diesel-spewing bus, and Shanghai’s dubious marathon route. Recommended.

dsc04174.JPG

China National Petroleum to Dead Workers: Blame Yourselves.

As noted by Shanghaiist, a recent fatal explosion at a gas station in Pudong is garnering international attention. No surprise, the international coverage doesn’t mention a cause because – let’s face it – no Shanghai bureaucrat wants to be the one pinning responsibility on China National Petroleum Corporation, the state-owned oil monopoly that happens to own the destroyed station. So the blame game is left to the folks at Xinhua who, predictably, take the path of least resistance and blame those who can’t retaliate:

Improper work practices caused Saturday’s blast at a Shanghai gas station that claimed four lives …

And who did the work? A thirty-year-old from Anhui, and a forty-six-year-old from Jiangsu. As it happens, the only local entity involved in this blast is the company hired to do the maintenance:

The two workers were employees of the Shanghai Pacific Gas Co.,Ltd. and the municipal administration of work safety is trying to determine if they received proper training for maintenance work.

In other words, the “municipal administration of work” is looking to blame this accident on somebody other than China National Petroleum Corporation, which owns the exploded tank. Which is ridiculous, because responsibility for this accident belongs – squarely – to China National Petroleum Corporation – a conclusion easily drawn from Xinhua’s hand-waving: Continue reading

Sierra Club Combats Lead Toys with … Bitter Surrealist Cartoons.

I suppose it’s too much to ask a major environmental group to say something funny about lead-contaminated toy exports from China. Which is why I didn’t ask. But the Sierra Club, the US’s leading environmental advocacy organization, decided to try their hand at lead-related humor, anyway, and the results – in cartoon form – are now available for everybody to see. Entitled “Happy HoLeadays” [note to Sierra Club: not clever], the Sierra Club’s perky flash animation turns out to be a minor (and surprising) surrealist masterpiece starring a creepy little character named “Spacey the Lead Elf.”

spacey.jpg

[that's a Chinese toy factory in the background; more screen captures after the jump.] Continue reading