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Mar. 23rd, 2008

Skiing, Steven's Pass

Best Weekend Ever

It's been a week since March 14 to March 16, but I still think it was my favorite weekend I've ever had. Even though I was in the U.S. for only three days, it felt like weeks.

Friday was the second annual ditch day. Again, Brad, Tammy, and I went to Stevens Pass joined by Mallory. The day was relaxing and completely enjoyable. While it started snowing too much in the afternoon, we skied the whole mountain a few times stopping here and there to discuss pie crusts, dig holes in the snow, and have snowball fights. Given Mallory had rentals, this was the only time I'll ever be able to catch up with her. I'd repeat that trip anytime.

We had discussed getting pie to celebrate Pi day. On the drive home, Mallory spotted homemade pie at a cafe to which I made a sudden backtrack going the wrong way down a one way street. We had to get pie! The cafe patrons in Sultan did not understand our enthusiasm.

And then progressed to the events for the big day... Congratulations Justin and Maggie!

I am so happy for them, and it was a terrific wedding. The location was unique--I'll remember looking across a busy street to patrons at Red Robin during the ceremony. The reception had class (of course, it deserves the "Justin Class" appointment). During the Hora, I had one responsibility: to make sure Maggie did not fall off the chair. I succeeded. After the reception, we went to Lucky Strike where Maggie went bowling in her wedding dress. She's so cool.

My pictures from the wedding are shared here.

On Sunday, I got to visit with nearly all of my friends. After church, I made apple crostata and friends spent time at my house hanging out. I really miss that. Afterwards, I saw Jeff and Sarah with Sadye, who was awake and ever so much cuter.

It was a terrific weekend. Not only are congratulations in order, but thanks to Justin and Maggie for bringing everyone together and making the weekend possible. Being away has let me be in my head for a while, and this weekend really helped me figure some things out.

Picture courtesy of Mallory: Brandon, Brad, and Tammy at the top of the Tye Mill run.
Picture courtesy of Mallory: Brandon and Mallory on the ski lift. 
Justin and Maggie preparing to take group photos.
Justin and Maggie enjoy their first dance at the wedding reception.

Mar. 6th, 2008

Skiing, Steven's Pass

01 Days Since Hit by Bus

A quick round of stories...

During my trip back to the U.S., my Jeep reached the 100,000 mile mark. Las week while I was in Redmond, my car reached the 100,000 mile mark. The car is fourteen years old, and I've driven 60,000 miles over the last 8 years.

Driving again was great, though I had to remember a number of differences between America and China:
  • Seatbelts are functional in America and must be worn.
  • The other side of a double-yellow lane is not a passing zone in America.
  • In America, it is not customary to honk at the car in front of you for not tailgating.
  • When pedestrians are in a sidewalk, it is not okay to aim directly for them and gun it.
Basically, driving in the U.S.A. is far less stressful than being a passenger or pedestrian in China. Yesterday, was too "exciting" for my taste. In the morning, as I was getting of the shuttle to work and crossing the street another bus turned the corner. I was halfway through the street and no obstacles when another bus turned the corner and started hurdling towards me. There was no break... it was all gas, and I was in the way. A surge of adrenaline hit, and I fortunately dodged the bus... only to be clipped by another bus later in the day. Here's a new goal for the year: "Do not get hit by another bus."
South Dakota State Seal Earlier this week, my mom was appointed as Deputy Secretary of State of South Dakota. What's cool about this is now everyone in her side of the family has held an elected or appointed office (Sheriff, County Treasurer, Director of Economic Development and International Trade, and now Deputy Secretary of State).

The news does mean she'll have to give up her nifty title, "Receptionist/Pistol Permit Administrator." That has amused me to no end.

Congratulations mom!
Thousands of renminbi (Chinese currency) I am donating to disaster relief in China. There's something disconcerting about carrying around thousands of dollars in cash, especially in a backpack. I needed to brings many thousands back with me so I could exchange it from renminbi and follow through with my commitment to match all of the donations from employees in my division towards disaster relief of the snow storms last month.

At the bank, I felt awkward taking so much cash out of a backpack until a man nearby upstaged me. He took what appeared to be almost $50,000 of U.S. cash out of a plastic grocery bag!!! He didn't strike me as the kind of person that easily comes across so much foreign cash. I remain perplexed.

The bank atmosphere reminded me of old banks from twenty years ago. I did not feel very comfortable there, and was happy to leave. I wonder how often bank robberies occur in China.

Mar. 4th, 2008

Skiing, Steven's Pass

Whistler Report: Best Trip Yet

Happy National Grammar Day!

I've been visiting the North American continent for the last week. It started with my favorite Whistler trip yet. Let me count the ways in which it was awesome:

  1. The weather was great--a little snow at the start and sunny through the end. The snow conditions kept up.
  2. No one injured themselves during this trip.
  3. A majority of us mixed things up by trying snowboarding. It was better than I imagined, yet I appreciated skiing the next day.
  4. We saw the World Cup races from the side of the course. Part of the race course was open for general skiing too.
  5. I was accompanied by terrific friends and reminded just how much I miss seeing them.

The worst part of the trip was leaving. Happily, the sixth annual Whistler trip is just a year away. Pictures from the Whistler trip are here.

The middle of the week was filled with meeting people all over Microsoft. I hadn't planned to look for a job, but it turned into a series of seed meetings to get teams to recruit me. Come to think of it, I was networking... I didn't know I could do that.

Of course the real plan was hide from Justin. Through much subterfuge he was convinced that I had returned to China. I was supposed to surprise him at Las Vegas for his bachelor party. There was a moment where I thought it unraveled as Justin left a phone at my house when I was supposed to be away. In the entry way was my unpacked suitcase, my passport, receipt for a Las Vegas show, and a printed out boarding pass. Fortunately, Justin was not observant (not destined to be a crime scene investigator). The surprise was pulled off perfectly.

And as Marc pointed out, Adam won a ridiculous amount of money off of Keno numbers I chose. He actually won several games with them. I choose the same numbers every time even though I don't play them. They are: 2, 4, 8, 16, 20, 23, 32, 40, 42, 64. Each number is meaningful, do you know why?

Check out the pictures from Justin's bachelor party.

The snowboarding group with our instructor on Whistler Mountain.
The group photo in front of La Rua, completing the annual tradition.
Jason, Brandon, Brad, and Tammy at the peak of Whistler Mountain.
Brandon, Brad, and Tammy taking the must have picture of the Big Red Express lift. Go Big Red!
Brandon, Brad, and Ben at the Women's Grand Slalom races of the World Cup with a racer passing by in the background.


Justin was picked up in a Limo, and then was surprised again when Brandon appeared in the Limo.The group that woke up by 10am for breakfast, at The Coffee House in Treasure Island. Here's where Adam won a lot from Brandon's Keno numbers.Justin, Brandon, Marc, and Josh hanging out with the borg at the Star Trek Experience.

Feb. 13th, 2008

Skiing, Steven's Pass

Two Months in China

So, I've now passed the day where I've spent two months in China. I've realized that I'm getting accustomed to being here. Some of the things that bothered me a lot at the beginning have started to fade. I am happy about what I'm getting out of moving here--namely, learning about an emerging market.

February 10th was the two month mark of my move to Shanghai, China. I've always been a world news fan. In high school, I won a scholarship from the National Honors Society for being knowledgeable of current events in the world. Given the viewpoint I have now, I was really insulated then. Then again, I can only imagine what people in China feel like with their only TV news source: CCTV. Interestingly, just to keep current on local happenings and things going on in America, I've had to rely on more news sources including Al Jazeera, CNN, Reuters, CCTV, New York Times, Shanghai Daily, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Xinhua.

So, if you're interested... here are some of my thoughts on world news from the perspective of China:

  • Inflation. Remember ECON 101 and how price fixing leads to supply shortages? Well, China is proving that experiment. Over the last year, inflation in China has spiked and has been as high as 7%. It hasn't reached hyper-inflation levels, but only because of price fixing. To raise prices on food requires permission from the government. One person was imprisoned for raising the price by of vegetables by 1 Yuan (about 13 cents).
      Price fixing on coal has helped steady electricity prices. Yet with the snow storm, coal is facing a shortage. Power plants are choosing shut down rather than lose money. This is exaggerating the snow storm effect. The inflation is being caused by booming economy and significant trade surplus. It's interesting that in U.S. the rhetoric is about negative impact of the trade deficit to the American worker, and here the trade surplus is having a significant economic impact to Chinese people. Interest rates are rising in China.
      And yes, I've seen the prices of food rising even during my short stay here. Welfare for Chinese citizens guarantees RMB 250 (around $35) a month. It's amazing that's enough to live on.
  • World Exchange Rates. U.S. news really only focuses on monetary policy from the U.S. Federal Reserve. Given the economic theory practiced in the U.S., it does a very good job at controlling inflation. I'd expect that to continue. The EU's central bank uses the same principles, but has stated it would be more aggressive than the U.S. Actions are showing the U.S. Fed is actually keeping pace on the 'who's more aggressive' contest. Both have the same principle that given a choice between low growth and low inflation, they would prefer low inflation. Governments in the EU would rather see high inflation, high growth... which doesn't make sense since they're already complaining about exchange rates with the U.S. Dollar.
       Meanwhile, interest rates in Asia are generally going up. Australia has had to keep pushing interest rates up. In New Zealand, they're approaching a crisis of not having enough workers--wages have been increasing for the last few quarters beyond a healthy pace.
       The impact of the mortgage crisis in the U.S. is pretty apparent. The weakening dollar is causing more and more countries to disengage (at least a little) from the U.S. economy. What that spells for U.S. dominance in the world economy reminds me a lot of Japan during the 90s. At that time, news reports were commonly discussing when Japan would overtake the U.S. in world economic dominance. Then the Asian financial crisis happened, and Japan stuttered. It really hasn't recovered that momentum, but then again Japan is still the world's second largest economy. I expect the U.S. to lose a lot of momentum, but given what I see China isn't really picking up any steam as a result. Eliminating deficit spending is really the only way the U.S. Dollar is going to regain its strength.
  • Environmentalism. In early January, China announced that it would eliminate plastic bags by June. Wow! That's a government action I support. I can't imagine the U.S. government or any state to make a change so bold and so swift. That's in the +1 category for China. I'm interested to see what other green changes they undertake. I hope they find ways to reduce coal and oil consumption.
  • Propaganda. When I first started watching CCTV, I thought this is great--the government gets things done and there isn't a crippling amount of political infighting. It didn't take too long to realize, this is just too positive. They're very good at presenting a controversial topic and presenting a dissenting view that ends up supporting the government. If I didn't have other news sources (a benefit I have because I can get past the Great Firewall of China on the Internet), I'd mostly be convinced.
      There are still moments when CCTV goes over the top. About the recent snow storm tragedy, it said "the one good thing to come of it was that it brought the people and the government closer together." I'm sorry, but that's bullshit. The government was terribly under-prepared (analogies with FEMA during Hurricane Katrina are apt). If ever there is a "Brave New World" kind of mantra, it's messages from the government to farmers to start preparing to plant crops. That message comes up many times in every newscast.
      So, even with the censorship, I'd still say the quality of news is better than the United States. When it comes to world news, there's a lot more of it. I feel like I know a lot more about Pakistan's woes now than if I had learned everything from U.S. news sources.
  • Social Services. I was surprised when I first came to hear debate in China about how to help retirees in the future. It was essentially the same debate that the U.S. is having about Social Security reform. They were talking about offering government reverse mortgages, which has the interesting drawback of only helping elderly in urban area. Rural citizens would not benefit... and there are a lot of rural citizens. It's probably the best sign that China is still not a first-world economy because the majority of the population is still working in first-sector labor (that's agriculture).
  • Worker's Rights. Perhaps the biggest news story that everyone discussed when I got here was a new labor law. It had the benefit of providing more holidays, but it also is a start for guaranteeing every worker certain rights. First, it requires that all workers are required to have employment contracts. Every worker is guaranteed vacation based on tenure at a company. What's surprising to me is how quickly the law came into place. As soon as it was announced, it started to take effect. This seems to be how many laws are enacted--they are announced, and then it takes time for the government to figure out how to enforce it. The enforcement isn't always done very well.
  • Protests. These definitely are not reported in the Chinese news. One actually took place in Xujiahui where I live. It was about the extension of the MagLev train to connect the existing one to Hongqiao Airport (it already connects to Pudong Airport). People are protesting because it would ruin their property values. They're also adding in concerns about "radiation" and health safety which is really bogus if you know anything about science, which I'll grant that many of these protesters probably aren't educated enough to realize that. If the MagLev train were under consideration in the U.S., progress would be quashed. How this continues will be interesting. The extension certainly couldn't happen in a democratic society.

Well, I think I've probably bored you enough with current events. This is the perspective I really wanted to get from being in China. I'm looking forward to learning more.

Feb. 12th, 2008

Skiing, Steven's Pass

Enough with the Boom, Boom

Karen and Brandon in the center of the ice skating rink. So after six days of a new year, I've had my fill of fireworks, firecrackers, and generally any exploding noise. It's not that I don't like them, but enough is enough already! On the fifth day fireworks are set off to welcome the "money god" and whoever makes a lot of noise will have good fortunes... okay, that was yesterday. It doesn't explain why the fireworks are still exploding.

Other than that, I've found time during Spring Festival to catch up on writing captions for photographs. Here are photos from January and some photos from February. I'll add more to February when they come.

Aside from the trip to Xi'an, I spent some this holiday going to an ice skating rink with Antoine, Ramesh, Karen, and Elaine. This was the first time I saw a gathering of little people in Shanghai--I've really only seen adults and teenagers in the last two months. The zamboni left the ice shavings in a pile in the rink with which the little people created snowballs to throw at fellow ice skaters.

After ice skating, we wandered from restaurant to restaurant and finally found a Uighur restaurant. The dinner comes with occasional belly dancing shows... I was pulled up to join during one of the dances--yet more proof that I'll probably do anything if asked. Unfortunately, the photographic record of this event is less than perfect.

Skiing, Steven's Pass

Greetings from Xi'an

Me standing in front of the Shanxi History Museum.
Me on the stairs before the temple in front of the Wild Goose Pagoda.
The beginning of 'Buddhist Goddess of Mercy' at the Tang Dynasty Show.
Brandon standing in front of reconstructed warriors taken from pit 1.
Brandon and David Guo, the tour guide, on the Ancient City Wall of Xian.

Since I had seven days off for Spring Festival, I took the opportunity to visit Xi'an. For all the Chinese history buffs, this was the capital of six dynasties in Chinese history. At the moment, pretty much everything I know about Chinese history is a result of this trip.

It was a busy one. I visited:

  • The Shanxi History Museum
  • The Big Wild Goose Pagoda
  • Watched recreations of dances from the Tang Dynasty
  • A workshop for creating Terra-cotta Warrior replicas
  • The Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses
  • A silk shop
  • The Ancient City Wall of Xi'an
  • The Bell Tower of Xi'an
  • A family tea house

All of this was arranged as a private tour. Never have I felt so wealthy... I had a private driver, a town car, and a private tour guide. The tour guide was a recent university graduate from Xi'an and majored in Chinese History. Everywhere we went, restaurants and shops, had people expecting me to be there. It was definitely fun... and would have been really awesome to do with someone else.

Xi'an is a beautiful city. It's also big with about 7 million people and over 100 very large universities. The streets were lined with phoenix trees. I can just imagine what it would look like during spring. Compared to Shanghai, it felt far less crowded and much more like a city that I'd enjoy. The surrounding area reminded me a lot of Columbus, Ohio.

On the trip, I also learned a lot about good luck:

  • It is good luck to eat dumplings for Chinese New Year. Hence, I attended a dumpling banquet and ate far too many dumplings. I still think Shanghai's xiao long bao dumplings have everything beat.
  • It is good luck to wear red... that's great for me since I was known as Big Red Brandon in college.
  • It is good luck to get the signature from the farmer that found the Terra-cotta Warriors, especially at Chinese New Year and for a price.

Really, what I've learned about luck is that any transaction in which someone else receives money is really good luck (probably for both people).

For those that like pictures, I uploaded all of the pictures from my trip to Xi'an. Enjoy!

Feb. 11th, 2008

Skiing, Steven's Pass

So Long Red Camera

The red Casio Exilim camera that has made many wonderful pictures throughout 2007 and the beginning of 2008. It will be missed. The following obituary is being posted in the local newspapers.

After one year of a good life, Brandon's red camera has reached it's end. Reports say that after a confrontation with gravity, the camera no longer took pictures but worked in every other regard. When asked about it, Brandon says, "taking pictures is really what I want a camera to do." The red camera is survived by a newer model of the same camera, but it is clearly not red. Services will be held for the red camera this weekend. The family asks for pictures of happy camera moments to be shared with others instead of sending flowers.

Yes, it does seem like I am terribly unfortunate when it comes to electronics in China. Just this last week, I managed another electrical fire which resulted in half the outlets in my apartment to stop working. I'll put that on my list of things that I appreciate about America--good building codes.

Feb. 10th, 2008

Skiing, Steven's Pass

Happy Year of Mouse

It's the Year of Mouse

Chinese New Year was last Thursday. The night before was crazy. I expect this will be the closest I get to experiencing a war zone. As soon as dusk set, the fireworks and firecrackers started going off.

Now, I'm told setting off fireworks in Shanghai is prohibited. That did not stop nearly everyone in the city from doing this. Even in front of police officers. Antoine and I walked around the city for a while amused by what we saw. Nearly all of the fireworks would have been illegal to sell in the United States, exceeding the 500g maximum for black powder.

One of the fireworks I saw while walking the streets with Antoine

Antoine and I went searching for a party to join and visited several clubs. It didn't take long to realize the party was just going on outside.

I caught a picture with an assortment of cartoon characters celebrating Chinese New Year at a club.

I got home around midnight when the party was just getting started. Fireworks were going off all night... it didn't stop until around 1:00pm the next day. For those interested in video, I posted a short clip of what I could see from my balcony.

And thus began my Spring Festival... I had to work on Saturday and Sunday with everyone else in China (nine working days in a row). And now I have seven days off.

Skiing, Steven's Pass

The War on Snow

With all the snow coming to Seattle, I've been quite envious here in Shanghai. Of all times to miss snow days, I had to be here. Of course, that changed only two weeks ago. Snow started coming to my area of China... and less than an inch of snow is enough to bring a city like Shanghai to a halt.

First... the amusing part. Shanghai has a lot of tall buildings, which means there is an ample supply of squeegees. So, what is the best way to clean up snow depends on the surface:

  • Tile, metal, or smooth surfaces: Squeegees were used to push snow around.
  • Concrete, bricks, or rough surfaces: Handmade brooms!
  • Roadways: Water!!!

My team throwing snowballs at me, while I use them for target practice.When I saw workers at the Microsoft building trying to clear ice on the sidewalk with a shovel and later hot water, I wondered if they knew about salt. I asked my coworkers if they taught chemistry in school here--they do. I guess it's easier to hire a bunch of people to do work than to apply simple science.

Nevertheless, the snow here is perfect for snowball fights. In fact, I've never seen better snow for such an activity. I took my team outside for fun and started throwing snow at them. It didn't matter that everyone on my team is girls... they were targets. In return, they were ever so happy to throw snow back at me.

And now for the not so amusing part...
While it wasn't very bad in Shanghai, other parts of China were affected much more. This was the worstThe crowd at the Gaungzho train station before Spring Festival. It was estimated that 1 million people were stranded at the station waiting to travel. weather disaster China has experienced in decades. Millions of people have started the new year without power, and many people have died. The Chinese army (PLC) was called upon to help clear routes and make it possible for people to travel home for Spring Festival. It has been called the War on Snow.

At Gaungzho train station, a million people were stranded. A stampede happened when someone heard a train was leaving, which ended up killing at least one person. There are videos on the web showing the stampede. Others show the aftermath of several disasters with dead bodies. It's really a tragedy.

This is certainly the closest equivalent to a "Hurricane Katrina" disaster in China. For me, it's been an interesting viewpoint on how the media affects people here. If ever I knew propaganda, it's right now.

Fortunately, I'm in a position to do something. I promised everyone in the Server and Tools division in China that I'd match their contributions to help with the relief. I even was accompanied by three other co-workers who also matched contributions. The result, this year I've blown my budget for charity... I'm giving *fifteen times* what I normally do. But I feel good about it. Even without the tax benefits, or the Microsoft matching, I've helped my coworkers realize what an awesome thing it is to help people in need.

Jan. 27th, 2008

Skiing, Steven's Pass

That Was Some Party

While away, I have a number of people looking out for my house. Most of my neighbors say they never see me, yet they know I have a lot of parties because there are cars around. Some knew something had changed in the neighborhood lately; there have been fewer cars.

Anyhow, I received the following picture from my neighbor. From what I can surmise, the party held at my house recently involved fireworks from the Acme company, some kind of canon that shoots people up in the air, and spilled wine. Oh, and Daffy Duck was there. My neighbor told me not to worry... somebody will take care of it. I'm sure if anyone stopped by now, you wouldn't even know the party happened.

Please invite me to the next party--I want to meet Daffy Duck!

My neighbor, Bill Farnsworth, sent me this picture right before Christmas 2007 to let me know that he was keeping a watch over my house. He told me "Don't worry... somebody will take care of it."

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