What to Do in Beijing: My Suggestions

Because Tyler Cowen is going to Beijing, I made a list of suggestions:

1. Don’t go to the Great Wall. It’s a long drive. I preferred to see it on the Today Show. The only interesting bit was a guy who sat in a chair on the path to the wall and charged 30 cents to go further. We paid the 30 cents  but in retrospect I wish we hadn’t.

2. Visit some of the many “markets” that consist of a building full of tiny booths. There are markets devoted to cameras, jewelry, clothes, electronics, furniture, etc. There can be more choice of furniture in one building (say, 100 manufacturers) than exists in the entire Bay Area. Along similar lines there is a whole neighborhood full of tea sellers — if you like tea.

3. Peking duck is a good dish but I cannot tell the difference between the better restaurants serving it. So don’t go out of your way to go to an especially good place. I usually go to Quanjude which has a branch very near my school (Tsinghua).

4. Middle 8 is a very good restaurant (in Haidian and Chao Yang).

5. Din Tai Fung is a  very good dumpling restaurant. It is a big international Taiwanese chain. So it isn’t even mainland Chinese food exactly.

6. There are grilled chicken wing restaurants near the west gates of both Peking University and Tsinghua University. I don’t know their names but they are very good. Popular with students.

7. I have never found a nice place in Beijing to walk. Even in parks there is a lack of shade.

8. In my neighborhood (Wudaokou) there are excellent Korean restaurants.

Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments.

Assorted Links


  • Are the Boston Red Sox malnourished? Paul Jaminet looks at the connection between poor health of the Boston Red Sox and the dietary advice they were given.
  • Cognitive benefits of  chewing gum. “Chewing gum was associated with greater alertness and a more positive mood. Reaction times were quicker in the gum condition, and this effect became bigger as the task became more difficult.”
  • Dave Asprey and Quantified Self. “He claims to have jacked up his IQ by 40 points.”
  • “Why is this country called China in English?” I asked a Tsinghua student. “It was a source of china,” she said. She was more right than she could have known. The world’s oldest pottery has been found in China. (Via Melissa McEwen.) Given this head start, it’s no surprise that for a long time China had a monopoly on really hard pottery, called bone china or porcelain. It was the only source of this china.

How Difficult is Chinese? A Tsinghua Professor Complains

Recently there was a competition for Tsinghua civil engineering majors. Whose structure can support the most weight? And so on. At the end of the competition, a professor handed out prizes to the winners. After the awards ceremony, the professor who had handed out the awards said to a colleague, “I don’t like this job.” His colleague was surprised: What was so bad about handing out awards? The professor explained that the students’ names sometimes included characters so obscure that he didn’t know them. Which was embarrassing.

Assorted Links

  • Anti-cancer effect of ginger in mice experiment.
  • Food safety in China.
  • An egregious error in the New York Times. The correction issued by the Times is funny. It says a certain survey, whose results were used, “was not based on a representative sample”. If that is the standard, then no number in the NY Times should be there. They are never based on representative samples. GNP, heights, distances, etc. Plus journalists select what to report — and not in a representative way. Perhaps the paper should consist entirely of blank pages, ads and what are called “thumbsuckers” (fact-free opinion pieces)? I wrote something for Spy that included a representative description. My editor changed it to be funnier.

Thanks to Song Chen and Edward Epstein.

A Beijing Bystander Inaction Story

Long after the famous Kitty Genovese story — supposedly many people watched her being murdered without doing anything — doubt was cast on its accuracy. In the meantime, John Darley and  Bibb Latane, two professors of psychology, it as the starting point for a series of experiments on what they called the bystander effect — the more bystanders, the less likely that each one will help. They concluded there was “diffusion of responsibility” — the more people that witness something, the less each witness feels responsible for doing something.

In China the problem is much worse. A few years ago a woman was hit by a car. A second car stopped to help her. The woman told the police that the second driver had hit her. The second driver was furious, gave many interviews, and eventually a witness was found who said it was the driver, not the injured woman, who was telling the truth. Someone I spoke to attributed her behavior to the need to pay hospital bills. The driver who hit her would never be caught, she reasoned. Maybe the second driver could be forced to pay.

My Chinese tutor, who is Korean, told me a story that illustrates the depth of Chinese bystander inaction and suggests another reason for it. A friend of hers was visiting from Korea. When this friend was in Wangjing (in the Chaoyang district of Beijing), she saw a person lying on a busy street, bleeding but still alive. Apparently the bleeding person had been hit by a car. Three hours later, the friend returned — and the accident victim was still there! Now dead. So, with difficulty — she doesn’t speak Chinese — she called the police.

The police treated her as a suspect. She was forced to come to the police station five times, for hours each time.

What a deterrent to calling the police! I cannot believe the police were so stupid as to consider a Korean tourist on foot who calls the police a serious suspect in the death of someone lying in the middle of traffic. I believe that by causing her a lot of trouble, they wanted to send a message: Leave us alone. The fewer calls they get, the less work they have to do. No wonder everyone ignored the bleeding victim.

“I am afraid I am scaring you,” said my Chinese teacher. “You are,” I said.


What Koreans Know About China That Many Chinese Don’t Know

Everyone knows that Chinese media is heavily censored. I recently learned from my Chinese tutor, who is from Korea, that the South Korean media delights in spreading China-is-scary-and-weird stories, which tend to be censored in China. Here are examples:

1. A frozen dumpling made in China contained part of a cigarette. Someone took a picture and posted it. Someone from Korea noticed before it was censored. News of this spread all over South Korea.

2. Someone in China took a picture of the Yangtze River in Jiangsu Province full of pill containers (e.g., blue/green capsules) floating on the surface. Censored in China, the picture was publicized widely in South Korea. I saw it on my teacher’s cell phone.

Along similar lines, on May 2, a Korean journalist reported that she secretly entered a factory where medical pills were being made and found that among the ingredients were human baby parts. It sounds impossible, yes, but that is what was reported. (I wrote this several days ago, I should have posted it sooner.)

“I never take Chinese medicines,” said my teacher. I asked her why the Korean media like these stories so much. “They show that something impossible is happening in China,” she said.

Apple Admits It Has a Workplace Problem

From The Independent:

Facing a growing scandal over the working conditions of those making its best-selling gadgets, Apple has called in assessors from the same organization that was set up to stamp out sweatshops in the clothing industry more than a decade ago. The move is an admission that Apple’s own system of monitoring suppliers has failed to stamp out abuses, and that the negative publicity surrounding its Chinese operations threatens to cause a consumer backlash against its products.

I blogged about this a month ago. I think this announcement suggests the power of This American Life (which recently aired a show about working conditions at Apple’s factories) or Steve Jobs (his ability to “see no evil”) or both. It reminds me of the American Civil Rights movement. That movement made considerable progress soon after TV became widespread and Northerners could see Southern brutality on the evening news. Mike Daisey, via This American Life, suddenly made this problem a lot clearer to a lot of people outside Apple, thereby putting pressure on Apple management.

Assorted Links

  • One of my Tsinghua American colleagues writes an op-ed: “China wants you. Job prospects are abundant.”
  • Robert Anton Wilson’s skepticism about skeptics. “Those people claim to be rationalists, but they’re governed by such a heavy body of taboos. They’re so fearful, and so hostile, and so narrow, and frightened, and uptight and dogmatic. . . . None of them ever says anything skeptical about the AMA, or about anything in establishment science or any entrenched dogma.” I agree. They should be called one-way skeptics.
  • Excellent Vanity Fair article about Occupy Wall Street. Better than The New Yorker‘s article covering similar stuff.
  • The many side effects of statins. I am impressed by the new way of learning about drug side effects.

Thanks to Ryan Holiday and Gary Wolf.

Chinese Medicine As Now Practiced

In America, I often hear praise for “Chinese Medicine”. By this they mean Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes acupuncture and techniques that harness hormesis. I tend to agree. Medicine as now practiced in China is a different story.

Last night, I had dinner with some of my students. I asked them what their parents thought of their decision to major in psychology. One of them had a surprising answer. Her mom was happy that she was majoring in psychology because among the required courses was a human anatomy and physiology class. If her daughter took this class, her mom believed, it would be harder for doctors to cheat us.

Chinese doctors “cheating” patients is a big problem, in other words. They prescribe drugs that don’t work, said my student, and perform useless surgeries. Little different than Western medicine, except perhaps the drugs are less dangerous. Just as in Western medicine, drug reps try to bribe doctors to request their drugs. Unlike Western medicine, doctors steal the drugs of hospitalized patients, my student said, which they then sell. After a friend of mine was badly burned, she had (wisely) turned down the recommendation of a skin transplant. This angered her doctor, who would have made money from the operation. Later, when he changed her bandages, he did so roughly, which was very painful. Revenge.

“Don’t see the doctors at Tsinghua hospital [the campus hospital],” said my student. She had had a bad experience. She had gotten injured and gone to the hospital. She had had to wait half an hour to see a doctor; who had taken a mere 30 seconds to prescribe a cream that did almost nothing. That evening I watched The Poseidon Adventure. A doctor visits a sick woman in bed in her cabin. After a long wait, he gives her cursory treatment.

HUSBAND (to doctor) Hold it, hold it. You mean to tell me we had to wait all this time just for you to come in here and kiss her off with a couple of pills and some crap about staying in bed? How do you know she’s just seasick? Look at her! It could be something else! You didn’t even examine her.

Same complaint.

A Great Idea From Nassim Taleb: End Banker Bonuses

This is the best response to the 2008 financial crisis I have seen: An op-ed by Nassim Taleb that says end banker bonuses. They encourage risk-taking with other people’s money.

Separation of risk-taking from consequences (you gamble, if you lose, other people pay) is an ancient problem. The Chinese government would be wise to take a page from Hammurabi’s code, which Taleb quotes:

If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.

During the Szechuan earthquake, hundreds of schoolchildren died when their schools collapsed. Surrounding buildings did not collapse. It turned out the schools were badly built. No builder was  punished, much less put to death.

At the end of his op-ed, Taleb puts it very clearly and simply: “bonuses and bailouts should never mix“.

Thanks to Dave Lull.

More Large areas of medicine consist of the doctor or someone else gambling with your health.

An especially clear example is surgery. Surgeon are paid per operation. The more operations they do, the more money they make. If an operation kills you, the surgeon is still paid. No penalty for a bad outcome. Wonderful for the surgeon, terrible for the rest of us. The more corrupt the surgeon, the more surgery they will recommend. Taleb’s idea suggests that surgeons pay a fine if a patient dies. The size of fines a surgeon would be willing to pay for bad outcomes would be helpful information for patients, who must decide what to do.

Drugs and medical devices are more subtle examples. You pay upfront for the drug or device, which are always expensive. They often have bad side effects, for which, of course, you pay. The drug company or device maker loses nothing. Wonderful for them, bad for the rest of us.

Willat Effect Experiments With Tea

The Willat Effect is the hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things. Your hedonic response to the things compared (e.g., two or more dark chocolates) expands in both directions. The “better” things become more pleasant and the “worse” things become less pleasant. In my experience, it’s a big change, easy to notice.

I discovered the Willat Effect when my friend Carl Willat offered me five different limoncellos side by side. Knowing that he likes it, his friends had given them to him. Perhaps three were homemade, two store-bought. I’d had plenty of limoncello before that, but always one version at a time. Within seconds of tasting the five versions side by side, I came to like two of them (with more complex flavors) more than the rest. One or two of them I started to dislike. When you put two similar things next to each other, of course you see their differences more clearly. What’s impressive is the hedonic change.

The Willat Effect supports my ideas about human evolution because it pushes people toward connoisseurship. (I predict it won’t occur with animals.) The fact that repeating elements are found in so many decorating schemes and patterns meant to be pretty (e.g., wallpapers, textile patterns, rugs, choreography) suggests that we get pleasure from putting similar things side by side — the very state that produces the Willat Effect. According to my theory of human evolution, connoisseurship evolved because it created demand for hard-to-make goods, which helped the most skilled artisans make a living. Carl’s limoncello tasting made me a mini-connoisseur of limoncello. I started buying it much more often and  bought more expensive brands, thus helping the best limoncello makers make a living. Connoisseurs turn surplus into innovation by giving the most skilled artisans more time and freedom to innovate.

Does the Willat Effect have practical value? Could it improve my life? Recently I decided to see if it could make me a green tea connoisseur. Ever since I discovered the Shangri-La Diet (calories without smell), I’d been drinking tea (smell without calories) almost daily but I was no connoisseur. Nor had I done many side-by-side comparisons. At home, I had always made one cup at a time.

In Beijing, where I am now, I can easily buy many green teas. I got three identical tea pots (SAMA SAG-08) and three cheap green teas. I drink tea every morning. Instead of brewing one pot, I started making two or three pots at the same time and comparing the results. I compared different teas and the same tea brewed different lengths of time (Carl’s idea).

I’ve been doing this about two weeks. The results so far:

1. The cheapest tea became undrinkable. I decided to never buy it again and not to drink the  rest of my purchase. I will use it for kombucha. Two of the three teas cost about twice the cheapest one. After a few side by side comparisons I liked the more expensive ones considerably more than the cheaper one. The two more expensive ones cost about the same but, weirdly, I liked the one that cost (slightly) more a little better than the one that cost less. (Tea is sold in bulk with no packaging or branding so the price I pay is closely related to what the grower was paid. The buyers taste it and decide what it’s worth.)

2. I decided to infuse the tea leaves only once. (Usual practice is to infuse green tea two or more times.)  The quality of later infusions was too low, I decided. Before this, I had found second and later infusions had been acceptable.

The Willat Effect is working, in other words. After a decade of drinking tea, my practices suddenly changed.  I will buy different teas and brew them differently. I will spend a lot more per cup since (a) each cup will require fresh tea, (b) I won’t buy the cheapest tea, and (c) I have become far more interested in green tea, partly because each cup tastes better, partly because I am curious if more expensive varieties taste better. When I bought the three varieties I have now I didn’t bother to learn their names; I identified them by price. In the future I will learn the names.

To get the Willat Effect, the things being compared must be quite similar. For example, comparing green tea with black tea does nothing. I have learned a methodological lesson: That tea is a great medium for studying this not only because it’s cheap but also because you can easily get similar tasting teas by brewing the same tea different lengths of time. I haven’t yet tried different water temperatures but that too might work.

I have done similar things before. I bought several versions of orange marmalade, did side-by-side tastings, and indeed became an orange marmalade connoisseur. After that I bought only expensive versions. After a few side-by-side comparisons of cheese that included expensive cheeses, I stopped buying cheap cheese. You could say I am still an orange marmalade and cheese connoisseur but this has no effect on my current life. Because I avoid sugar, I don’t eat orange marmalade. Because of all the butter I eat, I rarely eat cheese. My budding green tea connoisseurship, however, is making a  difference because I drink tea every day.

My posts about human evolution.

Inside Chinese Higher Education: A Hidden Strength

China has hundreds of colleges. Tsinghua and Beijing University are at the top (top tier), followed by perhaps 20 colleges considered second-tier. A friend of mine attends a third-tier school. In all of her classes, class consists of the professor reading the textbook. Word for word. (Which, by the way, doesn’t happen at Tsinghua, I checked.)

Perhaps you grimace. I think this is a great thing. It means students can easily skip class — any sensible person would. Being able to skip class frees them to do internships, visit the National Museum, explore the off-campus world however they want. My friend took advantage of this to do three internships. At Berkeley I told students to take as few classes as possible and take as many internships as possible. I taught a class called Psychology and the Real World whose sole purpose was to help students learn off campus. When I was a freshman at Caltech, the school had an unintentionally similar feature: all freshman grades were pass/fail. This made it much easier to skip class, which I did most of the time. Even better than the Chinese system, I no longer had to study much. I used my abundant free time to explore my own interests, which included reading Veblen and Freud. I taught psychology to under-privileged eighth-graders. The freedom provided by pass/fail grading allowed me to explore my own interests and started me on the path to becoming an experimental psychologist. I am not kidding: this is a great hidden strength of Chinese higher education.

By the same twisted logic am I glad that American colleges are becoming insufferably expensive — because then fewer people will attend them? Not yet. I think most American high school students think not attending college is dangerous. Reading the textbook at home and doing an internship isn’t dangerous.



Top and Bottom Versus Middle: China, Schools, Health?

My explanation of the Ten Commandments is that someone at the top (Moses) was trying to convince people at the bottom to join him. People at the bottom were being preyed upon. “Thou shalt not steal” meant, to Moses’s audience, “no one will steal from you — or at least we, your leaders, will discourage it.” At the very beginning of the Code of Hammarabi, another ancient set of rules, it says one purpose of the rules is “so that the strong will not harm the weak”.

I keep seeing this pattern — people at or near the top of the hierarchy making common cause with people on the bottom against people in the middle. I was reminded of it by this story:

One anecdote described a Hu Yaobang [top Chinese leader] visit that Mr. Wen arranged with Guizhou Province villagers — secretly, he wrote, because Hu Yaobang did not trust local leaders to let them speak freely.

In the 1960s, the U.S. civil rights movement gained considerable force and accomplishment when the very top of the government (first, President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, later President Johnson) weighed in on the side of the protesters (bottom) against the various state governments (middle).

The practical value of this alignment of forces is illustrated by How to Walk to School, a book about school reform (which I reviewed here). Two mothers of young children, Jacqueline Edelberg and another woman, wanted to improve their neighborhood schools before it was too late for their own children to benefit. On the face of it, this was impossible. But they found common cause with the principal of a local school (Susan Kurland). It goes unmentioned in the book but my impression, reading between the lines, is that the main thing that happened is that the worst teachers were shamed into leaving, above all by parents sitting in their classrooms. The principal alone could do nothing about terrible teachers; the parents alone could do nothing; together they did a lot. I spoke to Edelberg about this and she agreed with me.

I point out this pattern because it works. Judaism (Moses) still exists; people still read the Old Testament. Even more powerfully, all governments have lists of laws (Hammurabi). Jacqueline Edelberg’s neighborhood school is much better. The next big revolution in human affairs, I believe, will be health care. The current system, in which people pay vast amounts for drugs that barely work, have awful side effects, and leave intact the root cause (e.g., too little dietary omega-3), will be replaced by a much better system. The much better system will be some version of paleo. As Woody Allen predicted, people will come to believe that butter is health food.

How will it happen? I suspect this pattern will be the driving force. People at the top and people at the bottom will put pressure on people in the middle. Self-experimentation, self-quantification, and personal science (which overlap greatly) are tools of people at the bottom. They cost nothing, they are available to all. When you track (quantify and record) your health problem, and show your doctor, via numbers and graphs, that the drug he prescribed didn’t work, that puts pressure on him. When you bring your doctor numbers and graphs that show a paleo solution did work, that puts even more pressure on him. The point, if it isn’t obvious, is that numbers and graphs, based on carefully collected day-after-day data, amplify what one person can do. Not just what they can learn, not just how healthy they can be, but how much they can influence others. And this amplification of influence, which I never discuss, may ultimately be the most important.

Assorted Links

The Future of China

Recently I had dinner with two Tsinghua students I advise.

ME Do you know what “science fiction” is?


ME I have an idea for a science-fiction story. Five years from now, Tsinghua and Beida [Beijing University] students get together and decide to change the government. What do you think?

They were amused by this idea. However, here’s what they said:

BOTH OF THEM Where’s the science?

I explained that science fiction often takes place in the future.


Chinese News

The media in China are government-controlled. There is a 30-minute newscast every day at 7:00 pm. A friend described it to me like this:

First 10 minutes: Government officials doing their jobs.

Middle 10 minutes: Chinese people being happy. Sports, food, achievements.

Final 10 minutes: People in other countries suffering.

Effect of Oscar on Marriage

This study found that women who win a Best Actress Oscar have a much higher rate of divorce in the following years than the losing Best Actress nominees and the Best Actor nominees, both winning and losing. A Chinese joke I heard recently says essentially the same thing:

There are four kinds of people: 1. Man. 2. Woman. 3. Woman with a Ph.D. 4. Someone who will marry a woman with a Ph.D.

Via Marginal Revolution.

Economic Police

There exists in China a branch of law enforcement called economic police (I don’t know the Chinese name) whose job is to make sure government officials aren’t getting rich — that is, corrupt. Only government officials, no one else. The brother of a friend of mine is one of them. He has been doing it for six years. In college he double-majored in police work and economics. He carries a gun but has only used it once — to stop a government official trying to flee from Shenzhen to Hong Kong.