Beijing Traffic (more)

Today I went to a special building, only a 10-minute drive from my office, to get a physical exam needed for a special visa. The administrative assistant of the Psychology Department accompanied me. We set off about 8 am. He mentioned a vision exam so I went back to my apartment to get another contact lens. (I wear just one, so that I have good vision both near and far.) Then we tried to get a taxi. We found one but, stuck in traffic, it went nowhere. After 10 minutes or so, we got out. We decided to go in the administrative assistant’s car (he prefered to take a taxi because he didn’t know where the building was.) It’s now 9:10 am. We set off. We reach the building around 9:20. Oops — I forgot my passport. We get a taxi to take us back to campus so I can get it. The driver tries to cheat us by taking a long route. On the way back — on a reasonable route — we get stuck in traffic again. We get out of the taxi. We’d like to go back to the exam building, pick up the administrative assistant’s car, and take a different route back, but that would require crossing six lanes of busy highway to get a taxi going in the right direction. That’s too scary so eventually we get a taxi that goes back to campus via another route. Now it’s too late to do the exam. We’ll try again early tomorrow. For some reason — exhaust fumes? too much sitting in a car? — my head hurts.

More What a difference a day makes. I went back the next morning and there were no problems at all. We found a taxi easily, the trip was fast and smooth, the exam didn’t take long, and the trip back was fast and smooth. We passed a man trying to start his car in the middle of a big street.

Beijing Traffic

This morning (Sunday), two friends and I wanted to go see the leaves change on some maple trees in a famous place. We went to the bus stop. The first three buses were utterly, totally packed — I have never seen buses so packed.

So we decided to take a taxi. The taxi couldn’t go there — congestion was so bad that only buses, using special lanes, could get through.

We went back to the buses. Three or four more buses were utterly totally packed. We decided to go another time.

In the time we spent waiting for the buses we could have almost walked there; it’s only about 5 miles away. Maybe next time we will bike there.

Is Your Milk Safe? A Statistical Fable

This recently happened in a class at the Beijing Language and Culture University:

TEACHER Your milk is safe if you buy it at a supermarket.

STUDENT What do you mean, “supermarket”? Where else could you buy it?

TEACHER That’s a good question, I don’t know the answer. They told us to say that.

When analyzing their data, a vast number of scientists more or less blindly do what a statistics book told them to do, just as this teacher said what she’d been told to say. Even worse, a vast number of statistics textbook writers simply copy other textbooks (not word for word, just the ideas and recommendations). The scientists and the textbook writers take refuge in false certainty. They fail to grasp that although the recommendations are black and white, the world is not — just as it isn’t black and white what milk is safe. Unlike this particular classroom, no one questions this.

Thanks to Sally McGregor.

Learning Chinese in Beijing

Learning Chinese here — at least the first baby steps — has turned out be easier than expected. I’d expected to hire tutors. A Berkeley grad student I know who had lived near where I live now had done that. I found ads offering tutoring on a craigslist-like site. I started with the cheapest ($10/hour — which is a lot in Beijing). After an hour, I cut short the first lesson. It had been excruciating. “X means this. Y means that.” In my tutor’s defense, we didn’t yet have a textbook to work from but paying $10/hour for a textbook reader seemed pricey. By then, two people — a Tsinghua student I’d met in a dining hall and the girl who sold me my cell phone — had offered me free Chinese lessons.

“Why should I pay you if others will teach me for free?” I asked my tutor.

“Why did I spend four years in college learning how to teach Chinese to foreigners?” she replied. (That was her major.)

That wasn’t persuasive, I said.

She said she had a Mandarin accent but others might not.

“To speak with everyone I should learn from everyone,” I said. This is an attractive feature of Beijing: It’s much more a melting pot than other Chinese cities, such as Shanghai.

By now I’ve had several lessons from three different people who offered to teach me for free. It felt like fun, not work. They volunteered to teach me because they would learn English at the same time. Most Tsinghua students want to go graduate school in America, where they can expect to do very well — Dark Matter notwithstanding — so long as their English is adequate. I may be at the exact place on earth — the Tsinghua campus — where English-speaking ability is valued most highly. It might be a special time, too: As the Chinese educational system improves its teaching of English, I expect the value will go down. If I were in Sweden, no one would volunteer to teach me Swedish.

The difference between my paid and unpaid teachers reminds me of a famous psychology experiment on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation done by Mark Lepper and colleagues at Stanford and published in 1973. They took two groups of kids and put them in a room full of toys. One group was told they would be rewarded if they played with the toys. The other group wasn’t told this. Two weeks later, the kids were put back with the toys. Kids rewarded for playing with the toys played less with them than the other kids did. It’s such a profound effect it’s like there are two different motivational systems.

A Few Things America Can Learn From China

From this discussion. The speaker is Noriel Roubini, the NYU economics professor:

In U.S. the total consumption’s about $9.5 trillion. Take the entire consumption of 1 billion Chinese, it’s about $1 trillion.

The average American thinks: We’re rich, they’re poor. It’s more complicated than that. The Chinese, in hundreds of ways, do more with less. They pay less for the same quality of life. Here are some examples:

1. The lights on the stairs to my Beijing apartment are sound-activated. Works well, saves electricity. In Berkeley I pay $4/month to light the stairs to my apartment and why should my landlady install sound- or motion-activated lighting?

2. The water-heating system in my apartment is flash heating, that is, just-in-time heating. It works just as well as an American-style water heaters and there’s no heat loss when you aren’t using it.

3. My washing machine doesn’t use heated water. Incoming water is heated to room temperature by a set of baffles.

4. The doors to campus cafeterias are a set of hanging plastic strips. It gets cold in Beijing in the winter. When someone enters there is much less heat loss than when a door is opened.

5. Bicycles are everywhere (in my part of town, the university district, at least) and are easy and safe. They are also very cheap. I could have bought a used one for $15 but instead a friend gave me hers — she takes the bus to work. While bicycles are basically transportation for people who live close to work, as students do, electric bicycles — in which China leads the world — are far more powerful and could probably replace a lot of cars if downtowns were safer for them.

6. The better you cook, the cheaper ingredients you can use and achieve the same result. The Chinese, who are great cooks, use lots of vegetables, which are cheaper than meat and of course easier on the environment.

Chinese Transportation Economics (continued)

In China, when a journalist comes to cover your event, you are expected to give them 200 yuan ($30) in an envelope to cover the transportation cost. To put this in context, the 30-minute cab ride from the airport to my apartment cost 85 yuan.

In Beijing, a subway ride from anywhere to anywhere costs 2 yuan. The minimum price for a cab ride is 10 yuan ($1.50), which will get you about a mile.

My New Job

I am starting a new job as a professor of psychology at Tsinghua University, Beijing. My particular task is to help everyone in the Psychology Department — newly reestablished this year — write their papers in English. At a department meeting today, introducing myself, I said, “To help you with your English will be easy, learning Chinese will be hard” — but I didn’t get to the second part (“learning Chinese…”) because everyone laughed after the first part.

My Pleasantly-Strange Trip to Beijing

I am now in Beijing. On the way (12 hours nonstop from San Francisco):

  1. Without asking, my seat was switched to one of the best seats in economy: aisle of the bulkhead row.
  2. Boarding was last rows first. So rational, so easy, no special equipment or software required. I have never before encountered this. Good work, Air China.
  3. A riveting movie, which I’d never heard of, was shown: The Children of Huang Shi, which is a Chinese Schindler’s List. In both Chinese and English, with Chinese subtitles when the characters were speaking Chinese. The best movie I’ve seen on a plane.
  4. The plane was old. Well-maintained, yes, but the film was VHS, the headphone jacks were double-pronged, and my supplied headset was broken. Maybe this is why the price was surprisingly low (about 40% less than the competition).
  5. Midflight, a fly alighted on my book (Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt).
  6. Three times I did my one-legged standing. Seeing me, two others started stretching. For the first time on one of these long flights, I had no trouble sleeping in my seat. (In the past, I’ve been able to sleep well only on the floor.)
  7. The flight was 78 minutes early. I didn’t know such a thing was possible — like the fly.
  8. The Beijing terminal (Terminal 3 at the airport), which opened six months ago, must be the biggest in the world. Nicely decorated with bamboo plants. At debarkation, a sign said we were  10 minutes from Customs. No line at Customs. After Customs, we took a shuttle train to luggage pickup. The ride — within one terminal — seemed about a mile long. I look forward to spending more time there, to study the 72 restaurants, for example.
  9. The trunk of my taxi was perfectly clean.
  10. During the taxi ride, I saw a bike rider. He was about to go from the on-ramp onto the freeway, apparently to ride on the line between lanes. It was a normal unclogged highway, with cars going 60 or 70 mph. I didn’t know such a thing was possible.