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Tech in North Korea: Getting online in the world’s most isolated country

Right now in North Korea, someone is tapping away on an iPhone. He or she can share photos, video chat, and – if they were so inclined – read Tech in Asia. In the same country, at the same time, there is someone whose interaction with electronics begins and ends with a radio.

Writing about North Korea from outside of the country can feel like describing a room just by peering at it through a keyhole – even if you see something, it’s impossible to get enough context for it to make any sense. When it comes to tech, the nominally Communist society is wildly unequal. Who you are – your job, your education, your location – means the difference between a 3G-connected iPhone in your pocket and having never even heard of the internet.

[Read on Tech in Asia]

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Gogoro is a geeky electric scooter with the soul of a motorbike

After getting a tour of Gogoro’s flagship store in downtown Taipei, I reached a conclusion about the company’s electronic scooters: they’re geekcycles. What else would you call a bike that lets you use your phone to upload custom chime sounds for the turn signals? A bike whose app allots “merit badges” for triumphs like using a charging station at night or riding a certain distance between charges? When I saddled into the bike for a test drive, I thought I was atop a charming – if slightly nerdy – ride.

I thought wrong. My mistake dawned on me about two turns into our test drive, as the kindly shop assistant, Amy, opened the freaking throttle and fired us from a full stop to 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph) in a matter of seconds. And she was just getting started.

[Read on Tech in Asia]

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The men who brought bicycles to China

The first recorded instance of a Chinese person seeing a bicycle is in the spring of 1866. Bin Chun, a diplomat on a political trip to Europe following the end of the Second Opium War, spotted one on the streets of Paris and it made quite an impression.

“On avenues, people ride on a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe,” Bin Chun wrote in his travel diary. “They sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet. They dash along like galloping horses.”

The modern bicycle had been invented only a few years prior. Out were the gigantic front wheels of the impractical penny farthing, and in were the low-profile, gear-and-chain powered bikes of today.

[Read in That’s Shanghai, August 2015]

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How a German board game became known as ‘Chinese Checkers’

‘Chinese Checkers’ sure is a funny name for a board game that comes from Germany and has nothing to do with checkers.

There is a bit of historical uncertainty about the origins of the modern game. Most sources can agree that it first appeared as a game called “Hoppity,” which was popular in Great Britain in the latter part of the 19th century. Like Chinese Checkers, the game allowed for more than two players (in this case, four) each playing from the corner of the board.

Hoppity (which, by the way, is the most 1890’s British name for a board game imaginable) eventually made its way to Germany, where it abandoned its British squareness and adopted a six-pointed star for a board. Dubbed “Stern-Halma” (“Halma” being the German name for Hoppity, and “Stern” being “star”) modern Chinese Checkers was born.

But it wasn’t Chinese yet. It would be until the American toy company Pressman Co., obsessed with the “Oriental mystique” and more than a bit racist, released their version of Stern-Helma under the name “Hop Ching Checkers.”

[Read on That’s Online]

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How China got its flag (and which designs didn’t make the cut)

At first glance, it doesn’t look like much work went into the Chinese flag. Simple red backgrounds with a few yellow stars were all the rage among mid-20th century communist nations, and China was just following suit – right?

In fact, today’s Chinese flag was just one of many – of thousands – in competition to become the nation’s banner. When the flag was being decided upon, it actually would have been a good move to be against the “big yellow star surrounded by four smaller ones” design, as it wasn’t the one preferred by Mao Zedong himself.

[Read on That’s Online]

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Sightless in Shanghai – Being blind in a 21st century Chinese megacity

There are 17 pianos in Zhang Zhenyu’s office, with no extra room for an 18th. They are lined up back to back and side to side, each in various states of assembly – some look ready to be rolled out on stage, while others have their strings, hammers and metallic guts cracked open on display. Zhang moves from piano to piano, hitting a key, hearing a note and pulling out a wood-handled wrench that he deftly locks into one of 200 small metal pins to adjust the tone.

For the inexperienced, the process is daunting – each piano is a rat’s nest of small, easily confused bits, let alone the training required to spot a good note from one that is ever-so-slightly flat.

“A piano has more than a thousand parts, and each one can cause unwanted noise if it’s loose,” Zhang says. But the 37-year-old knows exactly which pin to turn, and how to turn it. That’s because he has been carefully trained for his job as a piano tuner, one of the few professions traditionally open to China’s blind.

[Read in That’s Shanghai, August 2015]

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The History of Chinese split-crotch pants (NSFW: baby butts)

It’s summertime in China, and that means a few important things – large men with t-shirts rolled up to their chests, copious amounts of Snow beer and butts. Baby butts. Everywhere. All of the time.

That’s because many Chinese parents choose to deck out their infants and toddlers in “split pants” – trousers that have an al fresco attitude towards bums and genitals.

[Read on That’s Online]

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Why does China only have one timezone? (It didn’t used to)

For those living on China’s super-populated east coast, it’s pretty easy to be at peace with the time. You can wake up to a sunrise around 5am in the summer, and about 7am in the depths of winter. It gets dark towards the end of the day, which makes sense, because that’s what days do – right?

In the country’s more rural, western provinces, however, it’s a different story. If you live in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, don’t count on seeing the sun before 10am in late December. In Kashgar, China’s Western-most city, you can enjoy sunsets in July that don’t finish until 11pm or even midnight.

That’s because China only has one timezone: Beijing time

[Read on That’s Online]

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How China invented goldfish

Goldfish are to carp what chihuahuas are to wolves – a weird, malformed but slightly more people-friendly version of an animal, and one that only exists thanks to human-led breeding. And today’s modern goldfish are the direct result of more than a thousand years worth of domestication and breeding by Chinese fish masters.

Before we even get started: this is about goldfish the fish, not goldfish the fish-shaped crackers (the latter, by the way, are a 1958 Swiss creation). We promise this story is at least as interesting, if not quite as delicious.

The story of the goldfish begins in the Jin Dynasty, between the years 265 and 420. “China” consisted of much of today’s eastern regions, but petered out towards the west and north, where barbarians (and, presumably, dragons) ruled.

[Read on That’s Online]