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Chinese DIY Inventions (theatlantic.com)
233 points by jnazario on May 27, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments

I think there's something of an ulterior motive behind these stories.

They present Chinese ingenuity in a charmingly harmless way - uneducated but plucky tinkerers, building some madcap machine out of scrap. In doing so, they subtly misrepresent Chinese industry by omission. China is rapidly transitioning away from low-skill, low-margin manufacturing to high-skill, high-margin R&D. The old jokes about Chinese R&D being a photocopier are wearing increasingly thin, as firms like Huawei become global players.

The article opens with the line "One visible sign of China's recent economic growth is the rise in prominence of inventors and entrepreneurs.", as if the photos that follow are in any way representative of invention in China. The real story is that Chinese R&D investment now amounts to over $160bn/yr and is set to surpass that of the US within the decade.

I'm reminded of the aphorism "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." It seems we're still laughing at the 700m Chinese citizens who are uneducated peasants, rather than preparing to fight the 700m who are urbanised and increasingly well-educated.

This is Hacker News. And these are some pretty darn impressive hacks.

Why not just appreciate what they've accomplished by their ingenuity, without adding all this geopolitical drama?

This is Hacker News. We're critically thinking individuals. When somebody tries to spin a story for geopolitical goals it is fair to call it out.

What are the geopolitical goals of The Atlantic here?

The same geopolitical goals The Atlantic has every night, mc-lovin. World domination.

Not quite; the US's goal is world domination, which everyone knows. The Atlantic? Haven't looked closely, but its owner self-identifies closely with US government. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_G._Bradley)

The US press tacitly accepts US world domination:

"'Withdraw all foreign forces and withdraw all foreign arms.' That official was Condoleeza Rice and she was not referring to U.S. forces, she was referring to Iranian forces and Iranian arms. And that makes sense, too, on the assumption that we own the world because, since we own the world U.S. forces cannot be foreign forces anywhere. So if we invade Iraq or Canada, say, we are the indigenous forces. It’s the Iranians that are foreign forces."

"I waited for a while to see if anyone, at least in the press or journals, would point out that there was something funny about this. I could not find a word. I think everyone regarded that as a perfectly sensible comment." (http://www.zcommunications.org/we-own-the-world-by-noam-chom...)

'Foreign' is a subjective view, not an objective one.

US forces can never be 'foreign' from an American speaker's point of view, and that makes no claims about whether they are indigenous or not.

That quote is trying to stir up fuss where there isn't any.

Indeed. I'm old enough to remember when everybody in the US laughed at Japanese cars and the idiots who were foolish enough to buy them.

To borrow an analogy from the art world, I'd agree with this if there was some well of 'negative space' in this article which was shaped like Chinese manufacturing. There isn't. The article also didn't discuss Indian ingenuity - is there something going on with that as well?

To me this is article is utterly inspiring. This is about the hope of the individual. It's about a bunch of smart, motivated people taking big risks to better themselves and the people around them. They're thinking big, dreaming big, doing big, and surely ignoring the people around them who are telling them that they can't. Are some of them missing the mark? Absolutely! But if there's a statement being made here, it's an incredibly positive one.

What exactly is the Chinese threat you are alluding to? What is going to happen when China does start working on high skill high margin stuff? And why would The Atlantic want to distract people from this?

I'm just not getting your point here.

>>What is going to happen when China does start working on high skill high margin stuff?

Chinese manufacturing was a threat, Indian outsourcing industry was also a threat. But the nature of threats was different. Chinese manufacturing and Indian software services was a threat ONLY because of their cost factor. And that was hardly any advantage these big nations had over the US, and the US didn't care because the day a cheaper alternative was found- It would mean the end for both China and India.

The scary situation is when you find populations of the scale of China and India. With all their human resources, desperateness, passion and energy attack the big-ticket problems in the world.

That is the kind of scenario which builds next super powers which replace the existing super powers.

I find the scary situation that the educated, passion filled people might not be able to sustain the uneducated, solely desperate people when all these 100s of millions of factory workers are no longer needed (for whatever reasons, but robots seems likely). In India, the people I knew from 10-15 years ago who started booming software companies are firing / closing their doors because the prices are the same (or higher) as in parts of europe and the US while the quality definitely is not. The latter is communication barriers, culture etc, whatever, it happens a lot though. My friends are really desperate from work, unable to provide the higher quality requested by companies in the west while, on the other hand, also unable to provide the prices which makes lower quality attractive (to some).

I'm more into software development than manufacturing, but I would assume similar (and other) cracks are appearing in China as well. Especially with cheap(er) robots (also used in the west) and optimized factory processes.

Do you know examples, besides these inventors which are (probably) exceptions, of Chinese passion/energy attacks? The problems we hear about usually are huge projects which either are abandoned after building (unsafe, unusable) or destroy massive parts of nature and get people thrown out of their houses by the state. Both I wouldn't consider attacking big-ticket problems; former does nothing, the latter replaces one problem with a few others. But that might just be propaganda which is peddled in the west to 'educate us'. I'm eager to see good examples.

>In India, the people I knew from 10-15 years ago who started booming software companies are firing / closing their doors because the prices are the same (or higher) as in parts of europe and the US while the quality definitely is not.

I don't know from where you got this data. Because I'm an Indian, staying in Bangalore. If anything the demand for programmers is only increasing by the day. There is lot of demand of work inside India. These days you don't have to get the project from the west.

For every failed case of an outsourced project I can list tens of successful project executed at shoe string budgets. And beyond all this, you think outsourcing was scary? According to me outsourcing was only a way to get an entry into these things.

I've been meeting and talking to a lot of entrepreneurs here around in Bangalore circles. And I can tell you the product and start up scenario is set to go places in the time to come. Its no longer your 'college -> outsourcing company' situation anymore. There are plenty of awesome folks doing start ups. There will be failures initially, but progress is the only forward. Besides the India as a nation is itself rapidly transforming itself. Its a big nation and has its own problems, but with every year things are only getting better and will continue to.

I don't much about China, but I see things might be pretty much the same there.

>>Both I wouldn't consider attacking big-ticket problems

There are plenty of big-ticket problems we doing here in India. We had our first mission to moon, another planned to launch soon. There is also a mars mission. Some years back this would be unimaginable without the help of a country like US.

But again we are only getting self sufficient by the day.

Well, the 'data' I have comes from friends from Bangalore, Jaipur and other cities who have(or had) their own outsourcing company. I know there is plenty of work and that it's growing (in both India and China btw). And I don't think outsourcing is or was scary. I made some nice companies based on it and made very good friends.

I'm happy to hear people are transforming themselves. What i'm referring to is the difference between 15 years ago and now ; the 'West' expects general higher quality from the outsourcing companies and that seems painful. Sure projects can 'succeed' as you say, but that says not much about quality. If something 'works' it can succeed short term and then fail later.

I have a lot of examples (even from the embedded world where it does get scary), but HP outsourced an internal product (in Java) to India. My colleagues at the time were asked to check the code coming back from India (and HP didn't outsource to small companies and didn't pay little either); not only did (and does) it not work, the code was almost completely unreadable. One of my Pet Peeves being that a lot of Bachelor and Master of CS guys and girls in India have no idea what recursion is and so you see incredibly complex, huge methods in the code which try to solve a problem (directory traversal for instance) which can be solved in a few lines using recursion. An often used attack is to start with some while(true) and then stack up if statements and a number of variables to try to keep up where you are until you have 'enough depth'. And this not only once; the codebase is littered with it. Without sensible comments or method naming, it's very hard to figure out what the intent was.

Maybe this is rare instead of normal (I don't think so); i'm just saying that this is what other companies send us to 'make it work'. And this is what I have seen from my Indian friend's companies as well. Next to that my friends who are Indian and live there fulltime say this as well. They don't really see it as a problem generally because, like you say, projects succeed despite of it. Until they go out of business (and go work for a company big enough to not care (yet?) about this).

Are there any good sites showing off Indian software startups? Would be great to see that.

This is a nice place to start : http://jobs.hasgeek.com/

Though a job board, its a good indication who is hiring and what they are hiring for.

I don't deny that there are bad programmers out here in India. But that hardly says anything about the situation here. If you look it, then you will see the problem of bad programmers is there almost in every country.

There are bad programmers in the US. But that is irrelevant to the fact that companies like Google have started there.

Thanks for the link!

You have bad programmers everywhere of course. The thing is that when the prices per hour go up you expect the quality to go up. I know that when I pay $50/hour in parts of Europe, Russia, Ukraine I'm getting high quality professionals (depends on the region; it goes anywhere from E40-E300/hr). When I pay $50/hr in India, this has not been my experience at all; price seems to be quite unrelated to quality. The prices rose from $5 to $50 in some cases, but the quality remains quite bad. But don't get me wrong; i'm not trying to say that all coders in India are bad (I know this would be a very stupid remark indeed); i'm only talking about the mass outsourcing factories I worked with in India (for clients, paid by clients) compared to the EU/East EU ones. I was trying to make the mass out sourcing link argument which i'm seeing; price/quality are (starting to) be off compared to the EU so people looking to hire are more prone to hire locally.

China replacing US as a superpower power would only be the world returning to its normal balance: from the dawn of time till two centuries ago, China represented half of the world's GDP...

This contradict partially what I read somewhere else, I'll check. But if you will, we can say the normal balance of the world is three third, China, India and Europe.

Why exactly do you want to fight them?

Why fight when you can co-opt them?

Rather than thinking the chinese as just competition, we should also think of them as a world asset.

Rather than thinking the chinese as just competition, we should also think of them as a world asset.

I'm sure it'll be great for the world and all, but what happens when they aren't quite as thankful for you as you are for them?

The opposite is also a possibility. And that's even more concerning.

There used to be a saying, "only in America". Its starting to feel like maybe we replaced that with "if you see something, say something." How many of these things could you realistically build in your back yard without a come-to-Jesus meeting with homeland security resulting?

There's a little sign up the the tax assessor's office here that says something to the effect of if you're about to do something around your house and you're not sure if you need a permit, you probably do.

So, "only in China" then?

The vast majority of them could be built in the US with no involvement from the government (excluding busy-body local government called by your neighbors). Actually, I'm not sure any of them couldn't be built in the US. China doesn't have a monopoly on questionably safe experimental craft. Now selling them, that's another matter.

I know a couple people who have built and flown questionably safe ultralights without a knock from homeland security and many, many people who have built gigantic contraptions/vehicles for Burning Man that are just as crazy as anything presented here.

In Chicago, I've seen hipsters zipping around in contraptions more dangerous than that Uighur's bike. The requirements for a road-legal vehicle (Assuming you're not mass producing and selling them) in Illinois are pretty spartan.

DIYers have a ton of freedom. As soon as you start commercializing and selling them- that's when you run into red tape.

When you start selling them is exactly when "only in America" mattered earlier - it makes the difference between a hobby and a business innovation, free market and all.

I would entirely agree. So many regulations in the US! So many of these things would not be legal. What are we stifling in the US by prioritizing safety and security over freedom?

Parent's comment is a little overblown, there are plenty of people in the US who build all sorts of things just like this and have no trouble(helps to be away from populated areas). Regulations aren't necessarily a bad thing. For example, I'd hate to be in the crowd of onlooker when something explodes/comes flying off, or to have my property crashed into by a DIY helicopter or some-such. Note the kids just feet away from the rotor assembly in picture #37.

"The local government halted Wu's plan to fly the helicopter out of safety concerns." (#37)

Defusing OP's point. There are plenty of other examples of deathtraps in the photos, anyways...

Not to mention the wood rotor blades. I would run away if I were in that crowd.

(I think it was sarcasm)

Nah, it's not that bad. Here's Homebuilts at AirVenture 2009 gallery for your enjoyment: http://www.eaa.org/apps/galleries/gallery.aspx?ID=258

I'd prefer that there is no invention by this guy, than I (or anyone) get hit by some of these inventions and become handicapped for life.

If everyone was thinking like you, science would be handicapped. Explore Newton, for a prime example.

Particularly interesting is #32, Sun Jifa. He couldn't afford prosthesis arms so he built his own. They were apparently so good that others who'd lost their arms requested him to make them prosthesis arms as well, so he made a business out of it, and now sells them at very reasonable prices.

See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22660393

The caption says that he lost his arms in a dynamite fishing accident! Losing a limb is a terrible thing, but if you have to be handicapped, that is one hell of a back story.

Mr. Jifa is obviously very inventive and resourceful, but dynamite fishing is actually quite detrimental to underwater ecosystems, kills more fish than are harvested, and because of this, is illegal in most of the developed world.

"Underwater shock waves produced by the explosion stun the fish and cause their swim bladders to rupture. This rupturing causes an abrupt loss of buoyancy; a small number of fish float to the surface, but most sink to the sea floor. The explosions indiscriminately kill large numbers of fish and other marine organisms in the vicinity and can damage or destroy the physical environment, including extensive damage to coral reefs" [1]

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blast_fishing

Yes, that photo of Mr. Jifa should appear in the dictionary under "Karma." Fishing with dynamite is a pretty lame-ass thing to do.

I'll tell you what a lame-ass thing to do is: Criticizing the ostensible environmental insensitivity of a guy who, amidst grinding poverty the likes of which you and I cannot properly imagine, lost his arms trying to feed himself and his dependents.

ROFL. With dynamite?

Things are tough all over. Now that I apparently have your permission, maybe I'll go camp out in Bill Gates's back yard tonight and spotlight some deer.

Yeah, freakin' poor people. If they were decent human beings they'd be living green, sustainable, carbon-neutral lives respectful of Mother Gaia. It'd be nice if they weren't poor, but since they're such greedy anti-environmental jerks, they probably deserve it.

If the fish aren't biting and your children are starving, you're going to do what you have to do.

Though blast fishing is inconsiderate to the fish, I'm not sure that I would personally justify a man losing his arms because he was acting in a detrimental way to the local wildlife.

Karma is mostly understood to mean "cause and effect". Not "do bad things and you will be punished by the universe". A famous buddhist teacher once was asked why a man had been hit by a car. He answered "He wasn't looking where he was going".

Yes, maybe it was karma. But the man has been without his hands for 32 years. I think he's paid the price for his actions.

I would say that being able to be concerned about the (very real) negative side of dynamite fishing is something of a luxury. I can't say if he could afford that luxury or not, but if he had to build his own prosthetic limbs then I am inclined to think that he could not.

Minor correction, he would be Mr. Sun, with given name being Jifa.

Prosthetics for developing world is an interesting problem.

Here is a story about a UK teen who asked a Formula One team to help him with a fake arm. They didn't give him any money, but they helped with fundraising and engineering and he has an amazing arm now.


Compare that to this YouTube video of people making false arms out of old soda bottles.



wait...he built himself a pair of replacement arms...without any arms? Geez...

The caption for #32 includes "He spent two years guiding his two nephews to build him prostheses from scrap metal, plastic and rubber."

That noted, there are some pretty incredible achievements by people missing both hands/arms. One that springs to mind is Jessica Cox[1] (via reddit iama[2]), who is both a black-belt in Taekwondo, and has a pilots licence.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Cox

[2] http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1ad6n0/im_the_worlds_o...

I don't like the look of that helicopter with flimsily attached wooden rotor blades. Even on the ground it would be ridiculously dangerous to run. And everyone on these photos near this contraption are truly Darwin Award candidates.

edit: I actually have some rights to have an opinion, as I'm a licensed pilot and an experimental aircraft owner.

I suppose if he was to actually start it up, he would ask people to stay away. He is just sitting in it for the photo shoot.

And wooden blades might not be so crazy. Apparently, the Bell 47 heli uses wooden blades, and the Kaman K-MAX use a wood/fiberglass construction for the rotor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaman_K-MAX

Smaller props for airboats and such are sometimes made of wood, but the stresses involved might be different.

I know model RC helis often use wooden blades too, but the difference in scale and safety requirements would make that a moot point, I guess.

It's always good to see people building stuff - anything! - but many of these are less original, viable inventions and more just plain models. Number 34, for example, is quite obviously not a serious attempt to build a working aircraft. In fact I wonder how he managed to spend so much ($6,400) on such a piece of crap.

Some of the other pictures, like the artificial arms, are far more worthy of merit.

It's funny they don't mention the reason why the people in picture #11 wear these weird masks. In China, tanned skin is the distinctive sign of low-status people (farmers who work outside). Paleness is seen on the other hand as a sign of beauty and wealth. The health benefits of protection against UVs are only a side effect.

The three primary needs in China appear to be aircrafts, submarines, and... floating spherical homes.

Or what the article wants to present by selecting them.

Video of Wu Yulu's walking robot and other his invention. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49MoNLYFk_k

It's striking how many of these mention the creator did not complete <some level of education>.

In some cases their schooling might have been derailed by the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese seem to have an obsession with submarines. I wonder why

Because the water is too polluted to explore via swimming.

Article's selection bias?

The designs seem to show an interesting facet of DIY design. It's better to focus on what something should do rather than what it should look like. The most hopeless of the designs are those that try to mimic the appearance of a successful design.

I suspect the hopeless cases are vastly over-represented because they make for an easy news story fluff piece. Actual innovation is frequently subtle and boring unless you look at the detail.

I think jdietrich has a point about the implication that this is a Chinese specific phenomenon. Every country has people working on projects like this. I'm in New Zealand and we got jetpacks and cruise missiles made by guys working in sheds. Neither the crazy people nor the brilliant geniuses are representative of the population as a whole.

Maybe they can offer their services to the Spanish Navy: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/24/spain-submarine-s-8...

There are a lot of super cool things in there!

However, two remarks:

1) That first plane really does not look like it can fly (and it also says the test flight failed). Thin carboard wings!

2) The riksha pulling robot: What is that between its legs? :)

Why are there so many submarines?

Why not?

Don't you want your own submarine? I do.

Check out this homemade Russian sub. Great pics.


They're used to harvest sea cucumbers, which I'm guessing is a culinary delicacy.

Sea cucumbers are very expensive, and the taste is so-so. As the story goes, an emperor did not have offsprings, and his physicians said he should eat those sea cumcumbers in large amounts, and his chefs managed to make some eatable recipes out of this thing, which became a part of the Chinese Imperial Cuisine.

The DIY welding mask is pretty brilliant. However that walking robot looks highly suspicious because there is plenty of research that this is hard problem. It's even harder problem if robot is pulling a taxi while walking. It makes me think if this is some kind of propaganda spread by Chinese govt. This kind of information and photos would not be possible to compile without govt support/contribution in China, right?

3! I think is the best one! I'd be on an elevator all day just to "take the stairs," down :)

Politics aside. DIY still implies the same thing as it would in Popular Mechanics here in the US (something simple that all of us can do, under a budget).

5 reminds me of the Red Bull Flugtag

This is state sponsored entrepreneurial propaganda IMO, reflecting the Chinese regime's push towards a more entrepreneurial focused free market. And I love it, I'm hoping Chinese individuals continue inventing products to help all of humanity.

#14 would be the least "politically correct" of these as the working robot seems to be modeled with the appearence of a black guy.

It's interesting that they have a strong preference for spheres as the basic shape of many larger builds, apparently.

Number 17. It's just so funny. Everyone's faces, apart from the rock luncher guy.

Some of those gadgets would be right at home at Maker Fair.

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