Friday, February 22, 2008

I now have one more reason to support the Shanghai Metro.

Last October when Jodi and I took Charlotte to visit the States, my mom and dad gifted me with a USD 50 gift certificate to Borders for books (Jodi received USD 50 at Target). Naturally, when I was done browsing the shelves I had about USD 150 worth of books in my hands. I resolved to spend only USD 100, and one of books I put back was Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones. When it came out I had ignored it because River Town was fun but I didn't learn much from it, but then Megan raved about Hessler so I figured why not give his new book a spin. In the end it didn't survive my selection process, but my mom thought it would make an interesting read so she bought it and promised to send it to me when she finished reading it.

A few days ago I was exiting of our apartment complex, late to work as usual, when the guard at the gate stopped me. He was holding a package from my parents, strange since the mailman usually either delivers it to our door or leaves a slip instructing us to pick it up at the post office. It was a Valentine's package with some candy, socks, a letter — and a book, Oracle Bones. Starved for reading material as usual1, I dug into it that night. Over the next few days: on the bus, using the toilet, walking home, going to bed... Hessler and his motley crew all kept me company. While confirming my previous appraisal of his writing, I was nevertheless very well entertained and glad to have the book in my hands. (Thanks Mom!)

I guess it's time to break the news: Jodi and I are moving again. We had intended to stay at Century Park for a few years but a disagreement with our landlord drove us to look for a more stable housing solution, and the most obvious is to move into company housing next to the school in Zhangjiang Park for a couple years2. We saw the house on Tuesday, signed the rental agreement on Wednesday, began to make preparations immediately, packing and buying furniture for the unfurnished apartment.

In February, teacher turnover at the school is basically zero and the second-hand furniture market is dry. We've turned to Taobao for the bed, fridge, etc, but decided to look at washing machine and TV prices at the Longyang Rd Suning for a point of comparison. Last night we met at the B&Q to look at couches and beds (poor selection), and then crossed over the bridge for a snack at KFC and the peek at Suning. That done, we put some money on our transportation cards at the Longyang Rd metro station and rode the subway home.

When we got home I realized what I had done: I left Oracle Bones on top of the card recharge machine at the metro station. This was a BIG disappointment. Moody for the rest of the night, I still managed to muster all of my optimism and hope that a trip today would find that somebody had turned it into the service desk.

After work today — I got two newspapers this morning to compensate for the book-less commute — I met Jodi and we hiked to an HD-TV repair workshop in an old country home in southern Zhangjiang Town to look at second-hand TVs. Finding that Jodi had been mislead about the availability of certain models, we left and took the bus and metro back to Longyang Rd top pick up cardboard boxes and check TV prices at Metro (out of boxes; reasonable prices on the TV). We had another reason to go back to Longyang, and that was to look for the book.

"Haven't seen it" from the service desk.

Nothing to be found on top, beside, nor behind the recharge machines.

No book anywhere.

We walked to the exit, buttoning up for the trip to Metro. On a whim I suggested to Jodi that we should walk through the "Employees only" door that leads to the station control room and explain to the staff there. With puffery and false confidence to avoid being stopped, we waltzed into the semi-lit corridor. Past the subway driver break-room filled with laughing guys in black uniforms, past a middle-aged woman walking in the other direction who said nothing, and into the control room we strutted. As we explained the situation to the five curious employees in the room, one of them broke towards the computer consoles below the window overlooking the ticketing hall. I turned my eyes, anticipating his target... lo and behold, my book was next to the computer! As he held it up, big smiles broke out on Jodi's and my faces. We thanked the staff profusely and traced our way back to the exit.

Hooray! The Shanghai Metro saves the day!

[1] Yes, yes, it's on Taobao for less than RMB 100. I didn't notice that until just now. Sometimes Taobao amazes me.
[2] This won't make too much of a difference to our friends in Puxi, we've moved from the boonies of Pudong to... the boonies of Pudong. Don't worry, we still intend to buy in Puxi as soon as we can afford it, with our eye on Hongkou and also the Wuning Xincun area in Putuo. Maybe post-2010?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Playful smile
Charlotte looks really good in hats. Any hat.

My favorite dish
My favorite Hunanese dish: steamed pork fat.

Little sleeper
Good night, little one.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I found a great and also ironic quote that illustrates the reason I'm slowly switching to Yupoo, browsing more Chinese BBSs, etc. It's from James Fallows' excellent piece in the Atlantic Monthly on the Chinese national firewall

But according to Rebecca Mac­Kinnon, a former Beijing correspondent for CNN now at the Journalism and Media Studies Center of the University of Hong Kong, their readers won’t make the effort to cross the GFW and find them. “If you want to have traction in China, you have to be in China,” she told me.

If you want traction you need to get your hands dirty, you have to accept the risks. It's not easy to play the balance between outside and inside. I know only a few people who do it very well.

(I'm looking forward to seeing Mr Fallows at the Shanghai International Literary Festival next month.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

One of the small joys of going to visit Jodi's parents is getting to watch Phoenix TV, out of Hong Kong. They used to get it through their cable TV, and it was still there when they switched to digital. Since they live in what you might call a third-tier Chinese city, I was curious why we don't get it in Shanghai. I did a couple searches on Baidu Zhidao, the equivalent of Yahoo Answers, for 凤凰卫视 (Phoenix TV) and 凤凰卫视 上海 (Phoenix TV Shanghai). Most of the questions were similar to mine. These were marked as the "Best Answer"s to the first three links I clicked:


It's mainly political reasons, since after all HK and the mainland are two different systems of government. I'm sure Phoenix TV has some shows that don't fit the Beijing central government's needs. So Phoenix TV has been forbidden from being broadcast in a lot of provinces. In the short term it's not going to be possible to watch it on digital TV.

凤凰卫视言论自由,所以政府有点怕怕,怕纸包不住火啊 就像非典那次

Phoenix TV enjoys freedom of speech, so the government is afraid of it, afraid "you can't hold fire in a paper bag". Like SARS.


Foreign TV doesn't touch down on the mainland, you gotta install a satellite dish. Don't forget, you also need to apply for a permit from the PSB (police). But from what I know a lot of people have installed one without the permit and have never gotten in trouble, and the reception quality is pretty good.

Of course, my experience is that the first answer was wrong in saying that it's not available on digital TV. Some of the other answers mention that you can download online TV programs and stream Phoenix TV to your computer. My theory is that Jodi's parents have special access since they live on the grounds of a big state-owned entity (no, not Zhongnanhai ).

Sunday, February 17, 2008

One of my long-term goals is to use more Chinese websites to carry out daily business: share pictures with family, schedule events, manage information, connect with friends. It's not easy to do this when the US is at the forefront of internet because original and innovative sites tend to come in from the States. At last year's barCamp Shanghai, an attendee asked Luyi Chen to give an example of a Chinese Web 2.0 site that isn't a copy of an American site, and he was hard-pressed to think of one. I offered Douban as an example but that's really the only one that I can think of.

Still, Chinese sites have known all along that you can't just copy American design because Chinese internetizens use the internet in different ways and have different expectations of the sites they use. These sites adapt and evolve in ways that suit the Chinese internet, limiting but also expanding themselves in ways that diverge from their American counterparts.

Take Yupoo. Ever since Yupoo came out it has caught and kept my eye. When it was conceived, it was a pretty close copy of Flickr. In many ways, it has not been able to keep up. Flickr has evolved to offer paid accounts, editing and printing services, geotagging, censorship of adult content... all features that Yupoo has not implemented. But Yupoo has also evolved: the site's BBS is much more advanced and "Chinese-style" than the Flickr Help forum; and official events and photography contests award extra bandwidth to the winners (paid accounts are due sometime this year, I speculate).

One of Yupoo's recent "evolutions" has to do with bandwidth and has caused some discussion. Earlier today when I wondered on Twitter whether it was worth switching from Flickr to Yupoo — a couple of Flickr's image servers remain blocked in ChinaIsaac Mao noted that Yupoo has begun to limit pictures that it hosts from being linked from external sites. I had already noticed this on Jodi's and Mojo's weblogs (Mojo, for the third time: fix your picture links ). Citing an explosion in bandwidth usage, Yupoo has changed the URLs of its photos so that hotlinkers who don't use Yupoo's official links, which include a link back to Yupoo's site, will get an error message instead of the photo they intended to hotlink:

("Friendly reminder: Photos uploaded after Jan 10, 2008 can only be linked in this manner on the Yupoo site itself. If you would like to use this photo on your site please go to the photo's individual page and obtain the appropriate external link.")

Hotlinking is a problem that Flickr has been able to ignore by financing bandwidth with revenue from Pro accounts, venture capital money, and with support from Yahoo. The farthest that Flickr goes is to request in the Flickr Community Guidelines a link back to Flickr for photos linked off-site. While it does appear that Yupoo is preparing to launch paid accounts sometime this year, it doesn't have the depth of Flickr's resources. It is interesting to look at the way in which Yupoo is setting up its framework for dealing with hotlinking. Here are the new rules (gradually being phased in):


Users posting original images (原创用户) are defined as users who post pictures for the purpose of communication and interaction on-site and off-site. Users posting non-original images (非原创用户) are ones who just use the site for collecting and storing images. [Flickr asks that users only use Flickr for works of their own creation.]

Type Users posting non-original images Users posting original images
External linking Supported Supported
Bandwidth resources Ordinary Priority
Watermarking Added Customizable
800/1024 px thumbnails Unsupported Supported
External link protection Unsupported Supported; watermarking or disallowing.
Trusted sites Unsupported Supported; up to 3 sites
Size of linked images 100 kb 300 kb (only on trusted sites)
Dormant sites 10 days 45 days
Yupoo public areas Can't link to own images Can link to own images
Linking back to Yupoo Required Recommended
  1. Users posting original images (OU) will be have special hardware and bandwidth resources.
  2. Images by users posting non-original material (NOU) will be watermarked.
  3. OU will have access to 800×800 and 1024×1024 px thumbnails.
  4. OU can set three trusted websites; other sites will see watermarked images or be forbidden from linking to Yupoo images.
  5. Image size linking rules: ① NOU will be limited to 100 kb images; larger images will be served thumbnails. ② OU will be limited to system capabilities when linking from trusted sites, other sites will be subject to the same rules as NOU.
  6. OU will enjoy special links: ways to link entire image albums, multiple images, etc.
  7. Dormant users: NOU who do not log in for 10 days and OU for 45 days are dormant, and their external links will not work. Links will return after the users log in.
  8. System-wide rules (these rules take precedence over all others, and serve as a base for rules 4-6): ① porn sites or harmful sites linking to Yupoo images will be blocked or served watermarked images, ② externally-linked images must link back to the Yupoo site and Yupoo reserves the right to place restrictions on offending users, ③ externally linked images may not exceed 300 kb in size, and links to images that exceed this limit will be served over-sized thumbnails.

For Isaac Mao, this is enough to motivate a move to Zooomr. Myself, I'm willing to work within the new rules because I've managed a server before and I've had to deal with hotlinkers in my own way (wait for it...). There's support for paid accounts among the Yupoo user base; when I met a Yupoo marketing guy at barCamp I pressed him on that point but he was evasive. So I'm hoping that Yupoo sticks long enough to get on its feet and grow even more in its own, special way.

Recently I've been feeling guilty about not giving Poopy enough out-of-cage time, so I let him run around in the balcony while I was hanging clothes and paying some bills online. Yesterday I found this:

Chewed-through cable.  Great.

The impressive part of the story is how easy this printer USB cable was to replace. I quickly found several matching cables on Taobao, all in the RMB 5-10 range. I contacted one seller who happened to be online at the time on 旺旺, Taobao's IM service, to confirm the cable's length and availability. He chased down the courier who had just finished picking up some items, and sent off my cable that very hour. Since we're both in Shanghai the delivery fee was only RMB 5 for 快递 courier service. I paid for the item instantaneously with Alipay using ICBC's online banking service; I have — and often use — the USB security dongle that lets you complete transactions online. The total cost: RMB 12, about a dollar and a half.

This morning I got a wake-up call from the courier at 10 AM. My cable is here, and I can finish the bill-paying process by printing out the receipts that I saved in image format on the computer.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

It's getting warmer in Shanghai. Like Marc says, spring is not here yet but it's peeking around the corner.

This is Charlotte practicing her new moves with Grandpa Zhou last week:

You can see that the crawling instinct is there, all except for that last step where she rolls instead of lifting up off her belly and onto her knees. Go Charlotte!

Friday, February 15, 2008

(Via Mojo. 同感.)

Jodi's still in Hunan, so I'm going out for Shanghainese food tonight. A long time ago I bookmarked 茂隆餐厅 on Dianping because I had seen it recommended in a couple of places. It's a hole-in-the-wall Shanghainese joint just north of Changle Rd (why does Mapbar use Beijing Metro's symbol to mark Shanghai metro stations???). I've never been there before, so I can't vouch for it. In case it's really bad or we're just still hungry afterwards, we can hunt down the Lisboa Macanese restaurant on Huaihai Rd and gorge on pork-chop sandwiches. If interested in joining up, contact me by IM or cellphone or e-mail.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Yesterday I was able to log into Google from this computer at a net cafe near Jodi's parents' house, but today it is being soft-blocked and my proxy can't handle secure URLs. I suspect it's an IP block because even connections to the secure Gmail URL are timing out. Yahoo is also affected by the block.

This means that I'm stuck posting to Blogger from lynx over an SSH connection and can't check my Gmail.

(Quick survey: in my row of net cafe computers, four kids are playing WoW-type RPG games, one is playing CS, one is listening to MP3s and reading lyrics through Baidu, and the last is browsing through Baidu's version of Yahoo Answers (or AskMefi, my choice in that category)).

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Because Jodi and I always like to be in the middle of the action...

...we're taking a few days to visit her parents. Be back next Thursday evening!


Year of the Rat


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Charlotte's in this weird stage now. Every time we leave the room and come back, she is in a new position. Maybe she scooted forward a couple feet, or turned around by 180 degrees. But we never see her move. Very mysterious.

Star Wars character

The only new skill we can see that might explain it is that she can sit with her legs almost crossed, feet together, and then fall forwards onto her stomach. If she does it on the floor it ends with her crying and sucking her thumb. If it's on the bed, it allows her to extend her reach by another foot or so. But this is not the entire explanation of her movement, because we haven't seen her be able to get back upright after she falls down.

She's getting to the age where she wants things that are beyond her reach. This is good for her because now she has a motivation to move beyond what is in her immediate area, having to crawl — or some day walk — to get it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

This morning we got Charlotte dressed up and had a little Chinese New Year photography session. Jodi re-arranged the photos (including some that I didn't put on Flickr) and made up a little story on her weblog. It's in Chinese only, but you can make up the story as you go along too. Beware the music.

In a couple minutes Jodi is going to brave the cold and make a big shopping trip to the market to buy supplies for tomorrow's New Year dinner. Yum.

I suppose this counts as an endorsement:

One vote for Barack Obama at the Democrats Abroad Primary website.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Two moments had Jodi and I in stitches today. One was reading the Shanghai Media Group BBS forum thread where 人气美食 (which we watch often) fans shared their opinion of then-host 王阿姨, which was overwhelmingly negative. Poor lady, if she ever reads that thread. The second was during the ball-videos montage of today's Funniest Home Videos on ICS. Seriously, one of the best shows on that channel. Even if the host is Canadian.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

A snowman story

When we came back from running errands today at about 4pm, we entered our apartment complex and noticed a very neglected snowman near the back buildings. Basically, it was a small ball of snow on top of a big ball of snow. Nothing else.

I suggested to Jodi that a carrot and a couple of eyes would suit it, so she stayed downstairs while I dropped off some bags at home and grabbed a carrot, a couple of 龙眼 (lóngyǎn fruit; it's name literally means dragon eye), and a couple of wooden spoons. Back downstairs we dressed up the snowman, chatting with a couple of boys who were working on another smaller snowman nearby. It turned out pretty spiffy:


We plucked off the gloves and kitchen utensils, replacing them with branches for arms, and staked the hat onto the head with a small stick to protect it against the wind. As we left, Jodi and I wondered how long the snowman would last. Overnight was my guess.

Who knew that when we came back with dinner supplies 40 minutes later, every single bit of decoration on the snowman was torn off. The hat, nose and eyes were missing.

Bah humbug. At least we had fun making it.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

(Via Shanghai Eye.)

I wandered through the milk aisle as I was shopping at Carrefour today, and stopped to browse for a bit. I'm not a big milk drinker myself; I've never liked the taste, except when masked by the sugary goodness of breakfast cereal. Judging by the variety of milks available at the store, however, milk seems to be doing very well in China, probably riding piggy-back on the win-at-the-starting-line ambitions of single-child parents. Mengniu (Mongolian Cow) Dairy was a sponsor of the Super Voice Girl phenomena when it hit its peak in popularity. At least in Shanghai, the milkman will still deliver milk to your home or apartment, albeit pasteurized not fresh. And the big dairies are learning to price-discriminate, targeting the new moneyed classes with premium milks that sell for twice the price of their cheaper ones.

Take Guangming, for example. 光明, or Bright Dairy, is a local Shanghai-based dairy that claims to have its origins with Jiang Zemin during his time as factory captain at the Shanghai Yimin №1 Foods Factory. For a over a decade they had been partially invested by Danone, which pulled out after a protectionist move by the Shanghai city government left them in a straight-jacket. But enough with the history, and onto the milk. Until a few years ago they pretty much stuck to marketing... milk. Regular ol' un-confusing milk in a light-blue box, like the one on the left. Actually, milk came in two methods of sterilization: pasteurized (better nutrition, 10 day shelf life) and UHT (ultra-high temperature; less nutritious, shelf life of several months). And that's it.

In early 2006, Mengniu developed a new milk based on "OMP research" that claimed to contain certain proteins that are helpful towards calcium retention and bone formation. This milk was sterilized through the UHT process and priced at about RMB 16 per liter. In response, in September of 2006 Guangming released a new product called Youbei, or Ubest, basing the product's claim to superiority on three factors: a slight price advantage over Mengniu, that the milk cows are high-quality imported Holsteins raised on special eco-ranches, and that the milk is sterilized through pasteurization, a process that preserves more of the milk's nutrients.

This was just the beginning. Guangming soon realized that demand for Youbei was strong even though it cost around twice as much as normal UHT milk, and also faced new pressure from Mengniu. When the Mongolian competitor developed a new, pasteurized version of its premium milk solely targeted at discriminating consumers in the Shanghai market, Guangming had to react. Quoting an article from the Shanghai Business Daily:


Just as Mengniu was confident in its ranches, Guangming was even more willing to bank on the relation between a product's freshness and quality. Faced with competing pasteurized milk from Mengniu's Modern Ranch in nearby Anhui, Guangming gave the Shanghai market what is possibly China's most expensive low-temperature (non-UHT) milk -- "Zhiyou". Guangming Dairy spokesperson GONG Yanqi told reporters that both Zhiyou and Guangming's other low-temperature milk Youbei come from Guangming's largest ranch -- located in Shanghai's southern suburb of Jinshan. Because of the ranch's location relative to the city, Guangming is able to guarantee the milk's freshness and deliver high-quality milk to Shanghai's consumers. Guangming also invested over RMB 2 million and 3-4 years in developing all new ceramic membrane sterilization process which removes microorganisms from the milk at very low temperatures, further ensuring the freshness of Youzhi milk.

Which means that since September 2007 there are now a three grades of milk on the refrigerated shelves: regular pasteurized milk, premium eco-range pasteurized milk, and premium eco-range ceramic-membrane sterilized super-duper milk! And after the recent rash of inflation this stuff is even more expensive than in the past: regular milk goes for about RMB 8 per liter, Youbei is going for around RMB 13, and Zhiyou costs a hefty RMB 20 or more! It's all very confusing because there are no laws mandating what the dairy companies have to put on their labels, only "notices"; next time look and see if you can find any mentions of pasteurization on the cartons of milk: I couldn't find any! And that's why I'm writing this post. Oh, and don't forget:

Milk with 90% less fat, milk with 50% less fat, whole milk, high calcium milk, high calcium skim milk, active culture milk, diabetic milk...

Don't get me started on yogurts, either, which are mostly sugar anyways; Bebamamie is probably the best option there. And a good substitute for milk.