Rants & Raves

Scorpions on a stick

No need for words on this one.  And yes, he did eat them 🙂


Rants & Raves

When an Xbox isn’t an Xbox!

I’m writing this particular blog entry because i"ve been meaning to for a while as this is a great way to share the particular joys we face daily in china, but also because I’m appealing to a friend back home who sent me a rebuff when I asked him if he would please "mule" my xbox back to me on his Asia visit next week ("mule" as in "to carry like a mule, aka, carry as a pack animal"); hopefully upon reading this he will take pity on me and the kids and bring the replacement box with him!

So our boys have not been allowed to play video games until quite recently, sometime in the last 6 months we fell hard off the wagon and have been permitting a mix of games (for their considerable reading and math instructional value) and more recently, Star Wars Lego on Xbox (for its fun factor, coupled with Carlos’ two favorite things in the world = legos and star wars!).  Before packing to China the kids expressed grave concern that there wouldn’t be Star Wars Lego Xbox in China!! to which I reassured them that certainly there would be, and i would take care of all technical matters to ensure a happy gaming experience on weekends when they listened to their mama and were good  boys.

So, the first month in China we didn’t have our videogames of course as they were on the air shipment, but once they arrived at the house on a wed, i promised Carlos that when I picked him up at school that friday we could come home and play Star Wars Lego into the wee hours of the early evening before his bedtime.  This was the friday before I was to go to Spain for a week, so it was the extra sweetener to set him up for a good week with Papa away on business. 

About 10am that morning I started to plug-in the cables, and was remiss in not checking to see the power supply for the xbox; almost all of the computer and electronic devices i had plugged in up until that moment (and mind you, i have 20+ of these things) had supported 110-240v inputs, so i didn’t think twice before slamming the plug into the wall and promptly frying the power source for the Xbox, which I now know only supports 110v with the factory provided power brick.  There was an immediate electrical fire of sorts, which brought me immediately back in time to our years in Chile, when I as a 6 year old had similar fried numerous devices.  Funny how powerful smells are–i kid you not, it was the closest thing I’ve experienced to time travel in a long time!

So, i figured i’d run out to the store and get a new power source / transformer and all would be well.  I had a business meeting with a customer that AM, so afterwards I had a colleague join me at the Haidian area electronics shopping supercenter–a multi-square-block city mall of nothing but electronics and computer parts–kind of makes Frys look small and quaint by comparison, really marvelous!  A mere four hours later I had (a) a repaired version of my power source, (b) the knowledge that procuring a 240v native converter would be $400rmb, but they didn’t have in stock, and (c) for just a few hundred bucks, they would be happy to provide me with a new Xbox, with the added benefit of being able to play ALL xbox games for free–what is known as a "cracked" box–a really bad idea as far as I’m concerned since however tempting on the one hand, it completely undermines the very idea of software as a business and that is a key perception we are trying to overcome here at work/microsoft within the chinese culture/market.  Interesting nonetheless…

So, back at home with my new power adapter, a mere 6 hours after i first attempted to get everything working, I plug-in and find out that my xbox unit has suffered the "red-lights-of-death" failure–that is, the box is broken completely and needs factory repair, a apparently common hardware glitch that microsoft has acknowledged and has extensively procedures in palce to rapidlly remedy… if you are in a market where xbox is legally sold.  In China, xbox is all grey market, that is, the product is not an authorized and supported product, nor are any video game systems, as the Chinese government is not yet granting licenses for such.  They are readily available, but they all come from legal markets such as Taiwan or Hong Kong… and thus are not supported in country by microsoft.  You can get local shops to fix them, it turns out, quick and cheap–but I didn’t know that at the time… so, i packed up my dead xbox and took it with me the next morning to Spain for my business trip, where I handed it over to my colleague and asked him to take to the US for life-support-service and planned to make arrangements to get it back to me at some future date.  Meanwhile, Carlos was heartbroken after the big build up, and i promised him I would return from Spain triumphant with a working game system, intending on buying a new system in Spain.

While in Spain, however, my research led me to understand that Microsoft has "game regions" that tie the hardware and software together so that you can’t use a US game in a European xbox, or a Asian xbox with a european game… that is, my US copy of Star Wars Lego would not work with the Spanish xbox… i’d have to buy the game again at the hefty $60 Euros price ($90! when in the US it had cost me $19.95!), and none of my other games (10 or so) would work.  Furthermore, any new games I bought would have to be european versions, which of course would be hard to find anywhere but… Europe!  Hard choice ahead: one thought was to buy the frickin thing (a bird in hand…) and then see if the chinese "machine doctors" could "fix" my euro xbox so that it could play my (legal) US games?  Yes, a side benefit would be that it would also play "other games", but my only real gaming interests are Star Wars Lego and Halo 3 which i can get from work… i stared at the box at the Cote Ingles store for a good 20 minutes doing the triage in my head… what to do?  In the end, I took the advise of a chinese friend, who said, "better wait, just buy in china, there they can assure that all works well together"  So I boarded the fateful plane back to Beijing (through holland, where I again was tempted by an Xbox at the airport, with the promise of a credit for the 20% IVA imposed on retail in Euroland).

So, back in the US friday AM when the kids are already at school, Cristina and I go to microsoft office to pick up an xbox loaner system, which my colleague said I could use for the weekend to ensure a high CPE for my family (customer satisfaction index we use at work = CPE); i bring a test game with me from home, not Star Wars Lego itself (that would have been *way* too smart of me), rather a different game that the kids don’t play called Gears of War.  At the office, we set up the xbox (an Asian box from japan) and test the game, which works great. We do some grocery shopping at Carefour, then head home.  I plug the box in, not chemical fire, all seems well, and then jet off to pick up the kids at school.  They are very excited to see me, and really excited when I confirm their worst fear was for not, and "YES, the xbox is working and YES we can play star wars lego".  We walk home, have a snack, and I go to fire up the box when I learn to my dismay that the asian xbox doesn’t play the US game in question, it just happened to play Gears of War because that game is a "regionless" game, where as Star Wars Lego is a North America specific title, and the game+box combo is dead on arrival!  Oh-my-god, i couldn’t believe I had gotten this wrong and built up the kids’ expectations.  What a let down.  I reassured them that I would run out and be "right back", and that I would just solve by buying one of the local xbox’s, cracked
r not, and return in time to play the game this evening.  This at about 3:30pm.

So, 8pm that night I’m finally home, empty handed, with yet more understanding of the situation.  Turns out, while the xbox’s sold locally are indeed cracked and can play any game, when they say "any" they mean "any Asia region game".  As sophisticated as the hackers are, they haven’t bothered to find ways around my particular problem, playing a legal game on a legal xbox that isn’t from the same region.  I’m sure microsoft has reasons for this type of region-specific-security, i guess to prevent 6 year old boys from playing games when they move to new countries and their xbox’s break?  So while I could buy a cracked xbox, it would only be an asian cracked xbox, since nobody in china wants a North America cracked hardware since those don’t play the cracked videogames.  Oh, and funny thing, there is no cracked version of Star Wars Lego because the game is NOT AVAILABLE IN ASIA (Can you believe it) in any form… for some reason it was not published for Asia region at all?)  Basically i had walked into a perfect market that could serve everyone’s illegal whims in china, but not my legal aspirations to pay for the intellectual property!  This is a recurring theme with movies, software, and xbox & psp games–when you want to buy something here you find it is much easier to just buy cracked/hacked/illegal versions–the real versions are not supported by the economic model and the legal market.  It is very daunting for me personally with my star wars lego travails, and looms as a large issue for companies like Microsoft and the US Film Industry/etc.

So, the happy ending to this story, if any, is that Carlos called me in tears at about 7pm when I was still in the throws of my research at a illegal xbox store which was littered with literally 3-dozen xboxes in various stages of repair/disrepair all over the floor… and says to me "i don’t care about the stupid xbox, just come home and play with me".  Since then he hasn’t asked for the thing, and i’ve made no promises of when and how it will be available again… maybe its a good riddance… but maybe my friend in seattle will read this and feel a ounce of pity for us Beijingers and thus act as a happy mule and bring our now repaired US xbox back to us!  I did purchase a new power source, so barring other acts of god, we should be in business for Star Wars Lego!

Rants & Raves

City Living

City living with kids has been great: San Francisco and Seattle offered ample stimulation, cultural activity, access to organic food and local products. But we realized that mostly everything worthwhile is made in China. To really shop locally meant that we needed to move to a Beijing suburb.

Kidding, of course, but that is how it has turned out. This month, we moved into our "permanent" digs in a gated "villa" compound. Here in China, villa living means American-style tract housing. When we signed up to live in Beijing, we weren’t really sure what to expect.

I picked an international school located fairly close to Microsoft, and we determined that our house should be within easy access to both. This was accomplished using terribly incomplete maps and unreliable websites. Luckily, it has worked out really well! We walk along tree lined paths and cross the street to get to the kids school. Forest has room for a home office and a reasonable driving distance to get to MS.

I have resisted suburbs for a long time, fearing mental freeze and cultural death, boredom, or Stepford-type hardwiring under my floppy summer hat. Especially in China, we thought we might be robbing ourselves of some of the "real life" experiences we were enjoying living downtown: walking to fun places, buying homegrown eggs from the lady in the alley, watching tens of thousands of Beijingers start their day on bikes.

Knowing the kids would be on a bus for an hour or more each day tipped the scales, and we definitely made the right choice. I go to the city for my Mandarin classes, and we pop over to the big parks, hyper-markets and yummy restaurants on the weekend or whenever we feel like it. The kids have an easy lifestyle. The environment in this compound is very peaceful. There is a blend of Chinese and European families. Kids are in the street, riding their bikes or scooters. I can walk to a little expat-friendly store that sells organic produce and some imported food that we must have from time to time, like smoked salmon or a $10 box of Crispix cereal. I’m still pretending that cheese doesn’t exist in this country because it is working for my diet, but it’s there. In fact, just about anything you could want is available in this city if you are willing to search and/or pay a premium for it…EXCEPT for a copy of the XBOX Star Wars Lego video game that is compatible with a European or Chinese version of the XBOX console. Long story. Don’t ask Forest about that.

We have a full-time housekeeper who speaks great English so she has helped me tremendously with getting settled here. Every day for the last two weeks has featured a different delivery man, maintenance person, repair worker, landlord or building management person, sometimes on the same day. In addition to translating, our young "ayi" (auntie) does all of our cleaning and laundry. But our house is still a Key Family Mess. She’s not a magician after all.

Besides, every night after dinner the boys recreate epic battles of Ultra Man and get the sofa cushions all over, so there’s that.

Well, there’s a rambling account of what is going down here on the homefront.

Rants & Raves

Madrid Experience

So I’m in madrid for a few days for a work meeting/summit with colleagues from all around the world.  It is interesting being here and comparing/contrasting to our experience so far in China–as you know, we were planning on moving here and opted for china kind of out of the blue, so in some ways madrid is where we were supposed to be right now… and being here is thus all the more strange!

The food is so bland here compared to china–yes it is delicious, but it is really really really bland!  Also, the place just feels old and crusty and so 15th century… whereas Beijing feels like a 21st century city in the making, with the vestiges of a 2000 year old history/tradition (forbidden city, imperial gardens, and great wall…)  The city feels generally like a small town, compared to the size and scale of Beijing.

As I look around I can’t help but think "this place is dead"… it has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, folks are really into their great quality of life and clean air and pretty buildings, but there just isn’t any vibrancy, any sense of urgency, of what’s coming next… it seems more about holding on to what it was and what it likes to be, but aimless.

This sounds like a huge indictment of spain, i don’t mean it that way–went for a walk in the Retiro park today and it was absolutely lovely, with "maxfield parish clouds" gleaming orange/blue and pretty manicured gardens, then a visit to the Prado for some amazing Goya and Velazquez (and my favorite el Bosco painting)… really marvelous!

But Beijing is SOOO much more… alive?

Rants & Raves

Taipei and National Museum

Had a great day in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.  Arrived to a lovely lunch looking out from the restaurant in a famous landmark hotel that was built and managed by Mrs. Chang Kai Shek herself (the founder of the modern republic’s wife, who led the Nationalist party in China that fled to Formosa to form Taiwan when they lost the civil war to the communists/Mao in China).  The hotel itself was a trip, had an awesome bright red exterior and interior, with traditional chinese looking architecture and decorations.  Very picturesque.  From the restaurant we could see the entire city, which is marked by the Taipei 101 skyscrapper, the tallest building in the world–the weird thing is that it is like 7 times taller than the next tallest building anywhere near it, so you look out over this vast city and see relatively level buildings, and then there is this *m*a*s*s*i*v*e* tower that looks like a big shoot of bamboo shooting up into the stratosphere.  Not what I expected.  Pretty cool, didn’t have time to scale it yet, but next visit will be sure to do. 

We then went over to the National Museum, which is where the national treasures of China are located, since the Nationalists took them with them as they fled Beijing with the communists on their heels.  The treasures were amazing, and we got to see all manner of porcelain (china), jewels, jade, paintings, scrolls, etc.  We got a tour by one of the directors of the museum, with whom we met to discuss some business.  Really neat little excursion, left me wanting for more time here to get to know my colleagues and the city better.  Didn’t have my camera on me so got neigh a shot!

Rants & Raves

Hong Kong

On plane just taken off from Hong Kong.  What a truly fabulous city.  The contrast of the ocean, the forested hills, and the dense but efficient vertical buildings, it really is one of the wonderous cities of the world, as it has always been billed to me by friends who have visited.  Driving around the city in taxis i kept looking out the window and marveling at what a strong imprint the city has a unique entity, it felt as though you could have dropped me out of a teleporter and asked me "what city do you think you are in: and within just a few moments of looking around it would be clear to me, even without ever being there before, "this is hong kong".  Something about its representation in films perhaps, or maybe some images from long ago memories that are now intermixed with noise in my brain, but it definitely has a unique signature that is palpable on just a glimpse of the streets.  I can’t wait to explore more, was only here 1 day, now off to Taipei for the day (Taiwan, will get to see the National Museum where many chinese imperial artifacts are stored, as they were swept away to Taiwan when Chang Kai Shek and his buddies the Nationalists were fleeing mainland), then back to Hong Kong this evening, but then tomorrow off to Beijing.  We’ll be coming here for New Years this year for 6 days, together with Jane and the kids/etc., so we’ll have ample time to explore and see disneyland with the boys, etc.  should be blast, can’t wait to walk the streets at night and just get lost!

Managed to score an iPod touch in the airport, been looking for one for a month now in asia, was pleasantly surprised to find one staring back at me at the counter right by our boarding gate.  Been watching videos on my flights around asia using the smaller ipod, will be nice to have the bigger screen.

Rants & Raves

Moved into House

We moved into our house!  Hooray.  It’s going to be so great, the space and layout is fab, it is SOOOO close to the school we could literally throw a frisbe and hit the entrance.  We just need more furniture, i’m regretting that we didn’t send more stuff over from the US. The landlord provided us with a budget to buy core furniture as part of our lease, but it is taking a lot of time to find stuff and we have to get her approval before we buy as she has good taste and doesn’t want us just buying anything, thus we have to shop, take pictures, send to her for approval, then go back, haggle/negotiate, fill out paperwork for delivery, then await.  They are quick, however, so new couches only take 10-15 days as opposed to months in the US.  Cheap too, some really nice stuff for 1/2 to 1/3rd of US price.  We’ll be looking for some antique/wood style stuff to bring home with us someday… we get our Air shipment from the US wed this week, so we’ll have more clothes and some of our electronics stuff, the kids are psyched for xbox, they are video game fiends these days which is cute, but only allowed on weekends so as to not overdue it.  I think I blew the packing and didn’t put any of our winter clothes into the air shipment, so we are going to have some cold days soon and will need to get some emergency supplies–jackets, etc.  The winters here are cold and dry, you can already feel the swift change from fall into early winter, nighttime much cooler than just a few weeks ago when we arrived which still felt decidedly like summer.  They say that "fall is shorter now with global warming", funny have everything gets blamed on global warming, who knows.

Said goodbye to little bro (didi in mandarin) Roberto, who goes off to thailand Tuesday.  It’s been amazing having him here to help out and share the experience, i think he had a good time and will remember fondly, at the very least he has a huge appreciation for our experience, as both parents with the kids, and as expats in asia!  Will be interesting to hear how he draws on that in his future… thailand will certainly be a blast for him, the beaches/warm sand will be waiting for him.

Rants & Raves

Strangers in a strange land

2007 21 National Day Tianamen 013

We just got our first taste of being strangers in Beijing, as we went to Tianamen Square on "National Day", which is the beginning of "Golden Week" holiday (all week off for most).  Beijing is flooded with out of towners, many of whom who have apparently not seen much of foreigners before.  The boys were very popular, as we had a dozen or so requests for taking their pictures with the locals.  Here in this picture you can see a very happy chinese guy holding carlos up for his friends to take a picture of them together.  The boys got a little sick of it after a while, but cristina and I thought it was really cute.  There was massive number of people out, probably close several hundred thousand in the square if i had to guess.  Click here for full pictures.

Rants & Raves

Roberto got his haircut!

Roberto got his hair cut this week, it looks very good!

2007 21 Meals on town 001 2007 21 Meals on town 002

Rants & Raves

Meals meals meals!

We had a series of delightful meals, starting with the LAN Club with just the adults on friday night, where we feasted on exotic/elegantly prepared food amidst the bizarre decorations of this huge, and largely empty restaurant designed by famed french hipster Phillip Starck.  We ordered a australian lobster that was brought to our table live for inspection before preparation… i misread the menu so what I thought was a $!00 lobster turned out to be a $100 per 500g, or $300 when all said and done.  Fortunately it was indeed delicious, along with the other excellent food.  On Saturday we hit the korean bbq in the Lido neighborhood that cristina and I had visited back in June on our first visit to Beijing.  The kids (caetano in particular) were in no mood for a 90 minute sit down, even with the awesome decor and incredible visuals of over 50 different plates of yummy food placed in front of us.  The korean bbq is done on hot wooden coals, brought to your table, and various pork and beef cuts were prepared for us along with delicious pickled side dishes and salads.  Both restaurants must visits for any friends/family that come to visit… we are sure that Tio Joaco in particular will love both and we look forward to taking him.  Click here for full pictures.

Beijing couple Korean BBQ lunch

(click on the images to see them bigger!)