Jan 09, 2022

Things That Kept Me Going In 2021

In 2020 I worked on improving my mental health and it yielded a lot of improvement, but I still struggle with moving forwards sometimes. Inspired by Jason Kottke's list, these are some of the things that made me look forward to each day in 2021:

Podcasts: Marketplace Morning Report, The Water Margin Postcast, Topa Talk, 故事.fm, Out of System.

Youtube channels: Elevate Yourself, TronicsFix, Baumgartner Restoration, Dashner Designs and Restorations, Grian's Minecraft series.

Volleyball: Coaching for OVS and USYVL, playing with and watching Charlotte at Nordhoff and Rise, listening to Out of System podcasts, watching NCAA games on Youtube and in person.

Hiking: Been busy this fall with teaching, sports and being involved in four schools, but the prospect of getting outdoors still makes me wake up excited for the day. Highlights were Condor Trail section 1 with Chris, Pine Mtn → Piedra Blanca with OVS, and a short but epic jaunt through Mono Pass off Little Lakes in the Eastern Sierra with a great group of guy friends.

Teaching: I teach two subjects I love to kids who show me a lot of grace and kindness, with colleagues who support and encourage me.

My daughters: Each one unique, full of curiosity and creativity, deserving of my care and sacrifice.

Jodi: Stands by me at my lowest lows, pushes me to my highest highs. Waking up next to her each day is a privilege.

Dec 02, 2021

Games and General Life Update

After many years of silence and spending most of my online time on Youtube, Facebook and Reddit, I'm peeking my head out to say that I've moved back to California, Ojai specifically. I'm married with three daughters, the oldest being in high school now. For work I'm teaching science and math at the Ojai Valley School, where I live with my family in faculty housing.

Also wanted to share that I've been playing a fun little game recently called Wordle. It's an online word puzzle game that you can only play once a day, so it gives me something to look forward to but doesn't take too much of my time. Here is a screenshot of today's (spoiler!) puzzle:

Another game I've been playing quite a bit the last few years is Minecraft. In terms of the user experience it reminds me of playing Lego with my siblings when we were younger; constructive, creative and collaborative. I've been playing less the last couple years because it really is a timesink, but it was fun when I had the time.

Apr 13, 2015

It's a big internet

I don't like to be all nostalgic, but this isn't exactly that. Back when I was in college the internet was full of nerdy people; all sorts of people, but all nerdy enough to spend time tinkering with connections, HTML, and online communities. Nowadays it's a different internet. Playing on Weibo, I'm finding that a more wide cross-section of the teachers at my school are on it in -- it's just a matter of seeing who is commenting on each others' posts, and guessing from their username who they are. Weibo's feature that lets you add nicknames to users comes in handy for remember who is who. And it's not like the walled garden of Facebook, it's like wide-open world of Twitter. I like it.

Bank card retrieval

This past week I've gone through a long and tortuous journey, getting back an ATM card that I left in a grocery store ATM. Read on for the sordid details.

Two weekends ago I was sent by my school to an IB workshop in Singapore. The night before I left, I dropped by the grocery store to shop for a few last-minute purchases and to withdraw some cash from the Bank of Communications ATM in the lobby using my Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) debit card. The plan was to take cash with me to Singapore, and leave the debit card home with Jodi in case she needed more cash.

Later that night as I finished packing my things, I opened my wallet to take out the debit card and found that it wasn't there. I immediately recognized that I had left it in the supermarket ATM after withdrawing the cash. I told Jodi, scrapped together as much cash to leave behind as I could, and made plans for the next morning.

At the airport, I called the ICBC customer service hotline and froze my account. I confirmed that the balance was correct, and was assured by the customer service representative that I could re-activate my card at any ICBC branch, including subway branches, once I had retrieved my card from the ATM. An hour later I was on a flight to Singapore for a four-day stay.

When I got back, I visited the ICBC branch near my school to try and withdraw some cash with my passport. No luck: no cash would be forthcoming without the card. The best they could do was print out a piece of paper with my bank account information that would prove the card belonged to my passport number. I was getting nervous because it was the beginning of the month and various things were coming due: rent, credit card bill, various utility bills, etc.

The next step was to find the card. I called the hotline for Bank of Communications and a helpful woman pointed me to the Xintan Rd branch of BoC as being responsible for this particular ATM. Discouragingly, she told me that cards like mine were usually kept for 4 days at the maximum--my trip had been exactly four days long--but that there was a chance mine was still there. I called the branch the next morning and was able to confirm that my card was probably in their possession, so in the afternoon I left work 30 minutes early and arrived at the bank 10 minutes before closing time. Using the printout from ICBC and my passport, I was able to claim my card. Being ever a scientist, I did not wait to activate the card before trying it at the ATM of the same branch where it was promptly confiscated for being frozen, necessitating another trip to the window for retrieval.

The afternoon of the next day, I took my passport to the ICBC branch in the Xujiahui subway station expecting a quick activation and finally being able to withdraw some cash. But no, the tellers were unable to activate my card because it had no personal information attached to it; this account was opened for me by my second employer in Shanghai back in 2006, and they had not given my phone number or address to the bank. The bank branch's standard procedure for unlocking frozen cards was to confirm phone number and address, and since my card did not have this information teller would require me to go to the bank where my account was opened, the central branch in Pudong, and "confirm my information". To me this was ludicrous: if my account had no personal information attached to it, how would the other branch even be able to confirm my info any better than this branch? Besides, the most important piece of personal information, my passport number, was attached to the account, and would be easily confirmable with my physical passport.

Without leaving the desk, I called the service number for ICBC and talked to a customer service representative. I hoped that the service rep would be able to guide the teller through unlocking my card without requiring a trip to Pudong. But even after handing the phone over to the teller twice and even escalating to a manager, the people behind the service number were not able to wrap theri heads around and solve this problem.

Finally, while I was busy on my phone, one of the tellers at the bank branch got on the desk landline to her boss at ICBC. After consulting with the boss, she received authorization to release my card without confirming my personal data. After a few simple questions about my last transactions, she handed the card off to another teller who worked on the computer for a few minutes and unfroze the account. There was a pause because the bank account is under my complete name, including middle names, and the input field was not long enough so my account name has always been SITTIGMICAHSTEVENSTU with a missing ART at the end, which is obvious if you are looking at my passport. But this was quickly resolved without my assistance and the card came back to me, ready to use. At some point, I still need to make a trip over to Pudong to enter my personal details into the ICBC computer system.

So it took a tense hour or so of negotiation between me, the two tellers, a security guard, the customer service rep, and her manager, but we were finally able to get the job done. Big thanks to Jodi for being a sport and taking care of the girls while I hashed this out. Hopefully this information is interesting or useful to somebody.

On your marks

This is a test of my new Blosxom weblog (the old is new!). I'm getting tired of Blogger being GFWed, and having more reasons to let local users without VPNs or SSH tunnels read my weblog. For the next couple hours I'll be updating templates, customizing RSS feeds, installing plugins, and so on. Happy hacking to me!

Private school kids and face-to-face time

I have a theory about kids who go to private school in the big city. These kids don't go to a school for which they are zoned, so they travel a long way to school. They don't live near their classmates; in fact, they probably live in an apartment building, far removed from the unfriendly streets below. At night they spend hours doing homework and other things alone. This means that school is the only time they interact face-to-face with their peers.

It's not like when I was young, finishing school and heading out to the soccer field, playground or unattended construction site. I think kids need that unstructured social time and hate interrupting it to return to another structured academic task.

That's why I'm a fan of productive student-student interaction in class, even sometimes letting unproductive interaction go on for a few minutes if I feel like it's meaningful.

E-bike shopping troubles

We ran around to a couple places looking at e-bikes today, but came home with only some groceries and a tummy full of Sbarros and Hunanese food. The main problem is that we really want a solid bike with a quality child-seat on the back. The problem is that the seats we scoped out online all seem to fit bicycles and bicycle-style e-bikes only, and larger e-bikes don't have solid structures on the back that could support a toddler in a child-seat. Tomorrow we're going to make one more trip to Carrefour and then decide. If it comes down to it, we may just buy the bike we like and have the local e-/motobike shop jimmy-rig the seat onto the bike using some solid bars and bolts.

After a day of thinking and searching on Taobao, we decided to just buy a bike that works for us and then use a "safety belt" for Maryann. We chose a 都市风-brand bike from the Zhangjiang Carrefour, and have ordered a double-lock seat belt from Taobao. Jodi will be riding the bike solo to-and-from work this week and then will take Maryann once she starts school on September 1. She already rode the bike home from Carrefour this evening.


The reasons we chose this particular bike are:

  1. It is large enough to feel safe, but small enough to be maneuverable.
  2. It has a long seat so it can easily fit two adults.
  3. The frame on the back is solidly connected to the bike, so we have the option of switching to a child-seat if we decide it's safer than the seatbelt.
  4. It has two half-size batteries instead of one large battery. This makes them more of a pain to get out and requires two chargers, but it makes them easier to carry upstairs at night.
  5. The batteries are 48V 20HA, which give it an average range for an ebike.
  6. And that's about it. I will keep this blog updated with news about the bike.

Idea: Visa Wait Times Eliminated!

One way the US government could drop visa wait times to *zero* is to employ the Chinese consulate's method: no appointments, first-come-first-served every day.

That just ocurred to me as I was sitting down to figure out what the girls will need for their visas to go to China this New Year (I will be staying in the US for work). But seriously, can you imagine what would happen if the Shanghai consulate switched to that system? 24-hour around the block lines, place buying and selling... It'd be insane. Luckily here in LA as long as you get to the consulate, say, an hour and a half before opening you can be near the front of the line and wait just a few minutes to complete your application.

I haven't written on this blog in a long time, but I'm glad it's still around for free-form writing whenever I need it. I post more on Facebook and Twitter, but this kind of long writing will always be saved for blogs.

Train Tix Redux, 2014 Version

So, once again it's time to return home to the in-law's house for Chinese New Year. And time once again for the drama that surrounds this crazy migration.

In years past we've done different things to get the family to "home" in Hunan: take the overnight train, ride an overnight bus, send Jodi and the girls back early, fly to Changsha and complete the trip on land, drive our own car... Anything that worked to get all two, then three, then... five of us to our destination. Last year we drove, which was OK but meant spending a night on the road each way and about ten hours of driving each way. This was acceptable, but given that the total money cost was about the same as flying, and the time cost was far greater, we decided to look at other options this year.

One new option that presented itself this year was the high speed rail connection that has opened between Shanghai and Jodi's hometown, which is a station near the final stop in Changsha. The trip would start in the morning, arrive in the afternoon, take us directly to our final destination, and the cost could be as little as a half to a third of the cost of flying.

I say could be because we still ran the risks associated with taking the train during the Chinese New Year season, which is: trying to get tickets. Again, I say trying because this is never a certainty; a major factor in our having taken so many different form sof transportation is that it's often been difficult or impossible to get train tickets due to the high demand, scalpers, or other unknowable reasons.

And this year was no different. On the morning when train tickets would be available through the Railway Authority's website, Jodi fired up the browser (I taught class at that hour). The first disappointment came when she saw that second class tickets were sold out, probably to students who can buy pre-sale tickets and people who logged on just before. The second disappointment was that in filling in our passenger information, enough time passed that the first class tickets sold out as well. The last disappointment was that we were able to get two adult and two children tickets in business class, which cost twice as much as first class (still affordable to us, but almost USD 200 for the adults). So this year we will be taking the train, it will be fast, but once again the process leaves a bitter taste in our mouth.

As I write this, another colleague is holed away in a classroom with her iPad and cellphone vying for tickets. She holds little hope: word is that even with the new real-name registration system, scalpers use software to start the buying process and find buyers in real-time who can pay within the payment window time for the scalpers to finish the purchase.

VPN in my mailbox

Today I found a couple of these in my mailbox downstairs:

Business card scan: "UNblock mynet: Best VPN experience in China! Fast, secure and cheap! Unlimited bandwith" (in Comic Sans)

It's an ad for a VPN to get around the Chinese government's "Great Firewall" (GFW) that blocks many foreign websites used by dissidents, like Youtube, Face and Twitter. This is the first time I've seen offline advertising for a service like this, and I'm guessing that our building was targeted because our neighborhood has a high concentration of foreign nationals. This type of ad goes right along with the majority of ads my mailbox sees, which is illegal satellite dish ads, illegal moving companies, and legal(!) housecleaning referral services.