Shanghai 上海

I spend 3 weeks a year waiting for websites to load

by Alex Duncan  |  July 23, 2011 – 12:28 pm

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For the past 6 months I have been losing 2-3 hours per week in productivity and this time it’s not due to my hideous, world beating, ability to procrastinate. It’s due to the chronic state of the internet in China.

Coming to Dalian last month I naively hoped that things would be better here up North. I had heard that Shanghai’s internet connectivity was the worst in China. I dreamt about the prospect of web pages that loaded in seconds and emails that send first time you click. My hopes turned out to be entirely mistaken. The internet here in Dalian is at very best on a par with that in Shanghai.

Firstly, this is deliberate, it simply cannot be a bandwidth or hardware issue. That problem is just too easy not to fix, undersea fibres are not prohibitively expensive or difficult to lay down and network hardware is cheaper and faster than ever before. It simply has to be a concerted effort to further disconnect China’s version of the internet from the rest of the world.

Any chinese net censors listening in on skype calls rather than finding out any juicy info must just get so so bored of listening to people saying “hello?!”, “are you there”, “I can hear you, can you hear me” endlessly.

Expats in China talk of a day when there will be two internets, well my friends as far as I’m concerned that day is already here. Everything that exists on the western internet has an equally capable and infinitely more filterable Chinese alternative. Any new ideas get copied in mere weeks if not hours.

I’ve wondered for a while at what point does the slow speed of the internet have a noticeable negative economic effect.

Here is my perspective on the situation. It already is having a huge effect and it shows no sign of getting any better.

I recently did some work for a large multi-national company based in Shanghai. Being an US headquartered company many of the tools and resources we were required to use were US based. On a good day we would lose a minimum of 30 mins due to connectivity issues, on average I would estimate 45mins was lost. If we total 30mins up, that’s 2.5hrs a week, ~10hrs a month, 120hrs a year or the equivalent of 3 full working weeks. Just to re-iterate how crazy that is we are at the very least wasting 3 full working weeks per year due to the chronic state of the internet here in China.

What must the effect be on a macro scale? It must add up to millions of hours and the equivalent of thousands of employees time completely wasted. China is an export economy, trade depends upon their ability to communicate with and sell things to the rest of the world, how is this not having a noticeable impact? Surely there are deals that don’t get done because websites don’t load, emails can’t be sent and skype calls repeatedly fail.

Before people email me with fancy solutions involving VPNs and connections via satellites and god knows what else believe me I’ve tried them all and none of them are sufficiently reliable to overcome this issue.

“When will I leave China?” I hear you asking.

Ever since the internet started to degrade there has been idle chit chat about whether or not it would force them to leave the country.

If you asked me a year ago it would have been almost inconceivable to me that a lack of internet connectivity would cause me to quit, but as I write this I see it as only a matter of time. Whether it is one year or two, there will be some point in the future when I, as someone whose work, nay entire existence, revolves around the internet will simply have to pack my bags and leave for somewhere where my stress levels are lower and I can breathe a little easier.

Update: New research from Harvard shows that the Chinese intranet is already here.

What is McDonald’s Strategy in China?

by Alex Duncan  |  July 3, 2011 – 3:52 pm

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Just what is the big M up to in China. In a reversal of their US fortunes they lag far behind their rival KFC largely due to the fact that Chinese people prefer fried Chicken to Beef Burgers. On one hand they are adapting to Chinese consumers, in 2009 McDonald’s introduced a couple of new chicken options which rapidly became some of their most popular items. On the other hand their stores seem to be undergoing some kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing cum Starbucks knock off transformation and there are clear signs it’s not really working.

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I’m certainly not a regular customer, my intermittent visits are usually a needs must affair. As a casual observer, over the past few months, I have noticed a concerted remodeling of the familiar gaudy stores into much more sleek McCafé joints, complete with faux wood decor and gleaming brushed stainless steel bean to cup coffee machines (and jaunty jazz tunes). What at first seemed an isolated trend seems to be slowly rolling out across all stores. From a personal perspective I’m all in favour the coffee is drinkable and cakes definitely preferable to the usual borderline indeterminate processed fayre.

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What is universally common to these made over stores is the deserted coffee counter. While the fast-food lines bustle with customers the (often more prominently positioned) coffee counter sits idle. Dozens of customers buy the far inferior drip coffee from the main counter, wouldn’t it make sense to integrate the two (I’m sure McDonalds tried this). The times I’ve used it there usually isn’t enough money in the till to offer me change and the staff seem unfamiliar with the equipment as if actually operating it is a rare novelty.

After my, rather rambling, setting of the scene I can’t help but wonder what McDonalds is playing at. Huge investment is going into these stores, staff and equipment that is currently almost completely unused. Did they do some kind of blue sky research that told them this is what consumers wanted? Are they playing a long game, will western coffee culture eventually become ubiquitous in China? Or is this some kind of window dressing/loss leader which distances McDonald’s from it’s cheap and cheerful rivals. Making it seem more up market and allowing it to add 1元 to all prices? I’m genuinely fascinated as to how this strategy was derived and why store after store is being converted with no obvious sign that this approach is successful. I’m usually inclined to believe these huge corporations have some greater insight I’m unaware of, but this time I think they might just have got it wrong. It definitely isn’t a sure fire strategy for taking on the likes of KFC.

In the entire hour I’ve sat here in McDonald’s on 西安路 here in 大连 a grand total of 2 people have bought coffee from the McCafé counter. If the girl spends any more time wiping the counter she’ll doubtless erode it away.

I’ll just keep wondering and Ronald if you’re reading this feel free to chime in with a comment.

Addicted to My Tracks

by Alex Duncan  |  June 20, 2011 – 10:57 am

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Just last week I downloaded Google’s My Tracks app for android and I’ve been addicted ever since. Every time I get on my bike to go anywhere in Shanghai I open the app, click record and it tracks my every move giving me great data on my speed, elevation and ride time. My average commute to “work” is 11mins, just yesterday I managed to shave about 30 seconds off that due to some luck traffic lights.

I’ve always been an enthusiastic Shanghai cyclist, many friends introduce me as being “Alex who cycles every where in any weather” or something to that effect. I frequently take quite circuitous routes around the city trying to find ever more efficient routes from A to B, avoid traffic lights and snarl ups. My Tracks lets me evaluate exactly which routes are quickest and just how circuitous they are!

Being a Google 20% project it’s not quite perfect, often the elevation is completely off showing me climbing/falling hundreds of feet in a city that’s almost entirely flat. None the less it’s a very useful and fun app. I recommend anyone who rides, walks or runs to give it a go.

If you’re interested in trying My Tracks you can download it from the Android Market.

WuFanTuan.com – Lunch Deals in Shanghai

by Alex Duncan  |  September 13, 2010 – 12:02 am

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Anyone looking for a cheap lunch deal in Shanghai should look no further than WuFanTuan.com. Their first deal is a massive 50% off lunch for two at Osteria Read More »

Access to Google in China – Not a Pretty Picture

by Alex Duncan  |  July 30, 2010 – 12:52 pm

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After Google Reader was unreliable again today I thought I’d give Google’s PRC status report a quick look. What a sad picture indeed. Only Gmail remains freely accessible. This blocking seems to have gone beyond the joke what on earth can they be that afraid of?

Maybe China is getting kickbacks from all these VPN companies which are now doing roaring trade thanks to this unprecedented level of blocking.

Doing What it Takes – #1 Modelling

by Alex Duncan  |  July 27, 2010 – 3:16 pm

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So it turns out starting your own company is hard. Really hard.

j0014It takes a long time, a lot of hard work and even then you have to do all sorts of other things to pay the rent. This is the first in a series of blog posts where I’ll talk about these “extra” activities.

So today’s money earner is modelling. It’s pretty self explanatory. In terms of an income stream, it’s unreliable, the work is sporadic, it’s quite fun and it pays pretty well. You don’t necessarily get to keep your dignity, but as long as you can laugh at yourself you should survive. It’s all about staying focussed on the reason you’re doing it.

Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!

by Alex Duncan  |  July 25, 2010 – 12:49 pm

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Well, so blog readers (if there are any of you) I have got to the point where I am simply too busy to sleep. It’s been a difficult decision to make, but I’ve decided that I need to give up sleep all together in order to get everything done.

I’ll try to keep you updated on progress.

New Blog…Boom Boom!

by Alex Duncan  |  February 9, 2010 – 10:35 am

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This blog refresh has been quite literally months in the making, but eventually after hours and hours of agonising over pixels and code I finally got it live! Read More »

Shanghai Taxi vCards 上海出租车号码

by Alex Duncan  |  December 2, 2009 – 9:02 am

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In a city of cheap taxis and many rainy days these can be some of the most valuable numbers in your phone. I recently cleaned up my address book and put together this handy vCard with the phone numbers for the 5 biggest Shanghai taxi companies. Read More »

Wagas…give me a break!

by Alex Duncan  |  November 20, 2009 – 1:53 pm

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For those not in Shanghai Wagas is a trendy cafe cum sandwich bar and a good one at that…or at least it tries to be. This morning I was just sat in Wagas on Wujiang lu (my fave) waiting for a friend, sadly this was not to be a happy experience! Sadly there doesn’t seem to be the profit margin on a 45元 sandwich to actually come to the table to take my order so I have to traipse up to the counter. Annoying and from my reckoning detracts far more from the brand & quality than it saves them in operational costs. What particularly ruined today was the bacon & scrambled eggs on toast which arrived first without the bacon and when it finally came was cold. Come on Wagas sort it out! Read More »