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

Woxin and QR codes solve problems

Even though we've moved back to California, we still have a foot or two planted in China, and always will. One thing I regret not doing when we left was turning on international roaming for one or both of our China Mobile cellphones, as I'm unable to receive texts or calls to my old number. One way this has been annoying is that some websites, like those for online banking, will send confirmation SMS messages for performing certain services or allowing you to log in with your cellphone. Since I won't be able to go back to China to turn on international roaming anytime soon, I started looking around for solutions to this problem.

One solution that has worked out well so far is Wo-call. Wo-call is a service offered by the Hebei branch of China Unicom, which offers you a Chinese (Hebei) cellphone number that can receive calls and text messages through its app. By going through the registration process on their website, charging RMB 50 after being redirected to the China Unicom website, and downloading the Wo-call app from Google Play, I now have a working Chinese cellphone number. I changed my registered phone number in various accounts to the new number, and I've now successfully received texts from Alipay, ICBC and CTrip. This will be my stopgap measure until I return to China and visit a China Mobile office to get my old number back.

Another minor problem has presented itself after I switched to using a Mac and somehow messed up the security preferences in Firefox so that I can't use plugins on the Alipay homepage to login securely. Also, the other day Jodi was buying train tickets on her own computer and needed to use online payment from ICBC, but she doesn't have the software installed to use my ICBC secure USB dongle.

The solution in both cases was to log in using QR codes! I just opened up the relevant app (Alipay, ICBC), switched to QR scanning mode, scanned and confirmed that it was me by pressing a button on my phone, and the browser logged me in. Pretty convenient, and a feature I wish more websites had.

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.

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...

Sommers on Shanghai housing rights

This afternoon I went to Anne Sommer's excellent talk on the history of housing rights in post-liberation Shanghai, and took some brief notes. Sommers is a lawyer whose frustration at the difficulties of buying an old home in Shanghai lead her to research the history of housing rights in the city and how they stand in the way of preserving its cultural heritage. I'd like to point out the "Two Ironies and One Tragedy" (you know you've been in China too long when…) of the event:

  • Sommers envisioned, and the audience bemoaned with her, a future when living in a restored Concession-era house would only be fate of the "mega-rich". Ironically, the audience at the talk wasn't exactly the bottom of Shanghai's barrel.

  • The talk was held in the Puli Hotel, a "new Urban Resort Concept that blends the immediacy and convenience of being in Shanghai’s most central location with the quiet, emotional indulgences of a peaceful, luxurious resort". Ironically, according to Google Earth, as late as the year 2000 the site of this hotel was occupied by what appears to be traditional Shanghai lane houses. See Google's satellite imagery below.
  • The tragedy, which Sommers alluded to at the conclusion of the Q&A session but didn't fully capture, is not that the material evidence of the concession era is being hoarded in the hands of the elite and crushed under the bulldozers of the big developers, but that the unique Shanghainese urban culture that thrived in the lanes and art-deco apartments is disappearing as its environs are being destroyed. In my estimation, the best hope for the preservation of this culture is not the foreign professional class that attended the talk, but low-income young people who are willing to mold their lifestyles to the challenges posed by lane life, rather than those who would mold the neighborhoods to fit their lifestyle.

That said, I learned quite a bit from the talk and I hope that it does spur some grass-roots efforts at stopping the demolition of Shanghai popular heritage.

In 2000, Jing'an Park was bordered to the east by an empty lot on Najing W Rd, and five rows of red-tile-roofed lane houses on the corner of Changde and Yan'an Roads.

(Note to self. People I recognized at the talk: Sue Anne Tay, Peter Hibbard, Tess Johnston, Neale McGoldrick, Lisa Movius.)

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.

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.

Stamps of Disapproval

These make me cringe, but are worth a chuckle:

Stamps of phrases like "HUH.", "Has Potential", "Good Start", and "Are YOU happy with this?".

By graphic designer Heather K Phillips.

Random bits of reflection

At work today I came back to find a new scarf on my desk. Turns out to be a gift from the union that was organized at my work a week or two before the Chinese New Year break, which I joined. Glancing through my e-mail I saw that, of the 9 teachers in my department, only three of us joined: myself, and the other two local teachers. I wonder if the social science department had a higher subscription rate.

This morning Jodi went to the 1st Maternity Hospital near the former Expo site and got her first ultrasound. It was 3-D: two dimensions plus time, so basically a movie. I think she put a still up on her 微博, like a Chinese Twitter but with pictures, video and censorship. The point of this piece of news being that, yes, we're having a third (and, uh, last), and that it cost RMB 300 to get the the ultrasound movie burned to a CD, which is RMB 100 more than last time, proving that inflation is everywhere.

Also, I'm coaching soccer this season. I volunteered to help coach the the boys team but so many guys tried out that they formed a JV team as well and let me take it alone. The guys are super respectful and proactive so coaching them is great fun. I joined in a drill today and my old cleats breathed their last; the plastic must have dried out over the past few years that I haven't played so the sole cracked and a couple cleats broke off. I'm not sure our budget can cover anything nice right now. I'll probably get something basic to replace them.