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

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.

Dancing Charity

Tonight I went to a dance charity event put together by WFLMS students with performances by dance clubs from seven other schools in Shanghai, all for sending students/funds to the Inner Mongolia tree-planting trip this year. After a slow start (sexy dancing? er), Nanmo Middle/High School really turned it up a notch and the rest of the show was awesome. There was even locking, and one dubstep number. Very nice evening, totally worth the price of admission and for a good cause.

The students even prepared an impressive promotional video, filmed in the WFLMS dance room, and put it on Youku:

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.

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.

"The greatest teacher of them all"

Jiang Xueqin in The Diplomat:

Now that I’m in Beijing I often wonder if it’s possible to build a strong educational programme in the imperial capital of guanxi. To counter guanxi, which is essentially about leveraging one’s personal network, I thought it best at Peking University High School to emphasize process over people. So we instituted a policy that to enter the International Division, students must enroll in a week-long admissions camp.

This is a really over-the-top (in a great way) method for dealing with high school admissions. Somebody on Google Reader tried to defend guanxi in contexts other than this article, but the way I see it guanxi is a transaction that benefits some parties and has negative externatlities for many more others. For me, then, it's a no go.

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.

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!

Getting CNY Train Tickets in 2012

I wanted to document the process of getting (or not getting?) train tickets for travelling back to Hunan for the Chinese New Year in 2012. It's something that thousands of people do in Shanghai every year but not something I've heard talked or written about in English. Here's the steps so far, and I'll update as the process moves along:

  • A few weeks before tickets actually go on sale, I mention to my coteacher Wendy that we'll both be buying tickets to go "back home" for the holiday. In our office, I am the only overseas teacher married to a Chinese and Wendy is the only local teacher who is not actually a local, but moved to Shanghai for her studies and stayed to work. Wendy and I chat over the details, which have been published in the paper (I get most of my Chinese news through the i时代报 and, now increasingly, through Weibo), of how tickets will be sold this year: for the first time, tickets will be sold online and by phone 12 days in advance. As in previous years, they will also be available fron train station windows and ticketing offices all over the city 10 days in advance. We promise to remind each other when the date comes.
  • On Jan 3, two days before the tickets I want go on sale, I access the official ticketing website 12306.cn and create an account for myself with my passport information, which will be needed to buy the ticket. I practice searching for tickets to get familiar with the process because I know that it will be a race to secure tickets once they go on sale Jan 5 at 3pm.
  • On Jan 5, I teach class until 3:25. By 3:30 I am sitting in front of my computer using two web browsers to access the website and my phone to call 95105105, desparately trying to book the tickets. It takes many attempts to get a connection with either method. I give up on the website, which is showing that there are no tickets left for the train I want, K137 to Changsha, and work the phone system to confirm that all tickets have been sold for Jan 16 and previous days. Wendy's husband is able to book their tickets through the phone system, probably because there are several trains that pass through her hometown. I call Jodi and we talk about possible alternatives, taking trains to neighboring cities and completing the trip by bus, or going to a "yellow bull", a ticket scalper she knows through a family friend.
  • That evening, I stop by the South Railway Station for dinner and to check out the options as far as buying tickets from the station. I find that there are several optional lines going to Changsha, but they have not been called into service. I confirm that the station is only selling tickets for 10 days in advance, meaning that tickets for Jan 16 will be available on Jan 7, this coming Saturday.
  • The next day at 3pm I'm simultaneously helping a student with homework and logging on to 12306.cn. I read in the newspaper that reserved but unpaid tickets would go back into the system 24 hours later, so I'm testing my luck for Jan 16 and also considering Jan 17. I have even less luck than the previous day, with the system being overloaded and not allowing me to log in. Eventually I get in, but the tickets are all sold. I notice that there are still lots of trains/tickets to Wuhan, which is about a couple of hours from Jodi's hometown by bus. Frustrated, I leave for an all-you-can-eat-Japanese department dinner at 5pm and Wendy asks me about the tickets. No luck.
  • Saturday morning I wake up early (for a Saturday!) and head to the train station. I seem to have read that a large portion of tickets were reserved for sale at physical ticketing offices, as opposed to online/phone sales. I say "I seem" because my Chinese is not fluent, so my recall is not great and sometimes I miss subtle differences in the meaning of words. Anyways, I'm crossing my fingers as I arrive at the train station. The main ticketing hall posts a sign outside informing me that the hall is only selling tickets for 9 days in advance, and that the line for 10-day-in-advance tickets is forming on the North side of the square. I had seen this line when I arrived at the station, so I trace my steps back and take my place at the end of a relatively short line with probably 100 people in front of me. The guards that are monitoring the line do a good job of chasing off cutters, spend a lot of time answering questions about where to buy which tickets, but also seem to be carrying a thinly veiled sneer in their hearts for the non-Shanghainese 外地人 that make up the majority of people in line; in fact, I hear many different accents and dialects from the people around me. When I ask the guards where to line up they try to persuade me to go home and buy online, but to spare myself the trouble of having to explain my situation I just smile and thank them and walk to the back of the line. The guard at the end of the line is telling people that tickets will go on sale at 3pm; I glance at my watch: 7:30am. In horror I realize that ⑴ I skipped breakfast and will have to skip lunch, and have only half a book left for entertainment, and ⑵ I've forgotten my passport. I can deal with hunger and boredom, and I decide to try and bluff my way through the process with my California driver's license. Then, I realize why the line is so short: we move forward and are handed a green piece of paper, stamped with a railway stamp and carrying two handwritten numbers: one a window number and one an order number. "Come back at 12:30 and go to the ticketing office," we are told. I run home to get my passport and eat some breakfast.

To be continued.

Continued:

  • I arrive at the extra ticketing area set up specifically for CNY train tickets. I get in line at my assigned window. It turns out that the "12:30" time was meaningless, tickets go on sale at 3pm the same as online/by phone. Also, standing in line is meaningless because at around 2:30 the military police arrive to keep order and people start sorting themselves out by number. I learn that some people lined up the night before and got tickets at midnight, and that my #23 is near the back of line 74. As people finish their transactions and walk away, others in line anxiously peer at their hands to see if they got tickets. Friends in different lines pass each other money to buy tickets for each other, or pull each other away when one finds out earlier that there are none left for their destination. LCDs above the ticketing windows taunt us with 100s of tickets left for tomorrow on countless trains to Beijing, Tianjin, Suzhou, Nanjing... but 0 left for still-huge inland cities like Chengdu or Changsha. That seems really unfair. I make a few last-ditch calls to the phone hotline, but nothing gets through. I finally get to the booth, and the young man behind the window apologizes after I thank him for confirming that there are 0 tickets to Changsha, 0 tickets to Zhuzhou, 0 tickets to Huaihua, the major railway stations in Hunan.
  • I call Jodi, who says that the scalper can't get tickets either. This year the newly implemented "real name registration" system means that it's basically impossible to resell tickets. I ran into a single scalper at the train station and didn't bother to inquire, and the Hunanese-in-Shanghai BBS has no tickets for sale this year either. At least for previous CNYs if we couldn't get tickets from the train station, we could at least find them at a small premium through other channels. Now we're looking at other possibilities -- I may go to the train station tonight for one more grab at tickets tomorrow afternoon; we're thinking about getting a ticket to Wuhan and taking the bus from there; on sites like Hunanese-in-Shanghai and Baixing.cn there are carpools organized by fellow travelers; and of course there's always the airplane, which is about four times the price of a hard sleeper, ten times the price of a standing-only ticket.

And there's always the option of spending CNY in Shanghai :(

Or not! Here's the exciting conclusion of this post:

  • After a long talk with Jodi and seeing train tickets disappear from another website before we can buy one, I make the decision to give up on the train, not risk carpooling with a poor driver, and instead to pursue taking a bus. I try to stay away from sleeper buses so I was happy to see the website of Shanghai's main bus station showing that the daily sleeper bus to Yueyang was sold out, but the bus with seats (still an overnight trip, but on a nicer bus) still had spaces available.
  • On Sunday afternoon I take Metro Line 1 to Shanghai Railway Station north square. I love the walk from the Line 1 platform to the north square exit because there are so many accents, skin shades and body/face structures. It's a snapshot of the rest of China here in Shanghai. At the main bus station, a 5 minute walk away, I find many scalpers (no real-name system for bus tickets) who direct me to the line to enter the ticket-selling area, which is fenced off for CNY ticket sales. Even though (or because?) tickets are being sold 15 days in advance, the line is short and I'm let in after about 20 minutes. I spend another 15 minutes in the ticketing line, scanning the LED sign for tickets to Yueyang: the sign lists availability from Jan 8 to Jan 17, and what I see is 无 (none) 无 无 无... As the listing scrolls away I start to make plans to book a bus to Changsha, the capital of Hunan, about two hours away from Yueyang. At the window just to be complete I ask about Yueyang and the women tells me that there are tickets! Not for the sleeper, but for the bus with seats only! I pay RMB 336 (a 30% mark-up for the holiday, about RMB 100 more than a train hard sleeper) for a ticket on the 16th, my target departure date. How could I be so lucky, I think. So I pause on my way out and look at the LED sign, noticing this:
891011121314151617
岳阳
  • Aha! After the first few 无s I had given up, not noticing the one 有 on the very date that I wanted. To my credit, the sign was scrolling quickly and I was trying to text Jodi as I watched. So while I was unlucky at train tickets, but the stars aligned perfectly for me this time.

And that concludes my 春运 ticket-buying adventure.

Now, as to how I get back to Shanghai...