Welcome back to the land of science fiction

Location: Shanghai

I really didn’t intend to go to Japan twice this year. It just sort of worked out that way. Certainly after the enjoyable trip in the spring, I felt that I would like to return some day, but with so many places in Asia to see, and only two years left on my China stint, it seemed a poor use of time and resources to revisit any place I’ve already seen.

But then I got to thinking about the World Science Fiction Convention being in Yokohama. A WorldCon is a pretty special event, and one in Asia (the first) was bound to be even better. So – what the heck? – open the door when the Big O knocks.

One of the slogans of this convention is “Welcome to the world of SF!” Which of course has more than one meaning in the situation. Obviously, the WorldCon in itself constitutes a big chunk of the world of science fiction as a phenomenon, but in addition, Japan is in many ways a land of science fiction. All you have to do is look at some of the pictures from Tokyo and you know much of the city is very futuristic.

Given the timing of this trip, I decided to eliminate more fowl and go by way of Shanghai. The airfare was about the same price even considering the extra leg. So let’s travel back in time briefly to fill in the back story.

Since I was leaving on a domestic flight, I got to see a part of the Beijing Capital Airport that I hadn’t seen before. It’s the older terminal.
Probably in part because the growth in China travel has outstripped the construction of the airport improvements, Beijing finds itself with more flights than it has gates for. I got to my gate, and discovered that Gate 25 is not one gate, but seven.
You go across a walkway to a little mini-terminal, where each gate 25A-H has a shuttle bus stop. They scan your boarding pass, and you get onto a bus that treks out across the tarmac – halfway to Tianjin it seemed.
We passed a number of other planes spaced nicely apart, including this one:
I don’t know what American diplomat was in town.

I imagine this kind of departure could be pretty unpleasant at other times of the year.
I arrived at Shanghai Pudong International Airport without incident.
I noticed this sign while waiting for my bag.
At the airport I boarded Shanghai’s maglev train
and was swooshed away at
301 kilometers an hour towards downtown. Too bad it was after dark – I would have loved to get some pictures out the window.

I transferred to the Shanghai Metro to get downtown to my hotel. I was going the budget route this time, and stayed at a hotel that doesn’t cater much to foreigners (though they did have the proper forms on hand and spoke a little English at the desk). I hooked up the laptop to check my email, and ended up doing work remotely until well after midnight.
To be continued, as it’s after midnight again.

No clever pun about Shanghai

Location: Shanghai
Theme music: Egg - "Germ Patrol"

It's been a long and eventful day in Shanghai, but I'm much too tired to write about it, and I have to get up in a few hours to get to the airport for my flight to Japan. Shanghai is very picturesque in a modern way (not much old here). When you can see it through the downpour, that is. But I managed to survive and end up only halfway soaked and without a Rolex. From the number of people trying to sell me watches, I'd swear I must be a freak for not wanting one.

Anyway. I've got dozens of pictures to sort through, and hopefully I'll get to it before I'm back in Beijing.


It’s a good thing you weren’t holding your breath

I can now reveal the source of all the craziness I mentioned a while back. The “lottery” to determine those people who would get Olympic tickets in Phase 1 has been completed. The English version of the official release is here. Odd things started happening a few days ahead of the event, when our administrative staff started moving the tables and computers out of the mostly unused area near my cubicle. Then we had an announcement that the power would be going off for a while to install some equipment. Then some workers came in and started building things.
Including a video wall.
The next day they brought in a podium, a bunch of PA gear, and red carpet.
They put up a wall, painted it red, and started putting logos and letters on it. They brought in a bunch of chairs.
They brought in a spotlight and a rack with colored can lights. We had some fun taking pictures of each other at the podium.
By the end of the day, we were planning on using the video system to play DVDs after the workers left, but by 7:30 or so they were still working, so we gave up on that dream. Here’s a shot where you can see my desk on the right and the video wall over to the left.
Strictly speaking, my presence wasn’t required at the office for the ceremony, but there was no way I was going to miss the spectacle that had turned our work life on its head for several days.

Before the guests arrive, the chairs are given name tags.
Here’s the head of Olympic Ticketing giving his opening speech.
There were two Notaries on hand to certify that the results were fair and not tampered with. No comment.
Earlier in the day, they sealed the data center where the servers are located so that no one could… well stare at them ominously. I wasn’t there to see this, so I swiped this picture off the news site. It’s just too important to leave out – see, the TV cameras were there!
Next up, CL gave a speech about how the lottery program would be fair and was built to the specifications that the Olympic Committee gave us. It better be – I wrote the specification! (Full disclosure: I did not write the lottery program, I just came up with the functional design and explained it to the people who managed the actual developers.)
And them the magic moment arrives, the Big Red Button (actually the Enter key) is pushed, and the lottery program begins.
Output started streaming by on the big video wall. As you can see, not many people stuck around to watch it. After all, it took over two hours to run through the more than 600 competition sessions. The program had not originally been designed to have any visible output at all, but then we found out they intended to televise it, and the developers threw together this three-part display.
Here is our Second Banana (after CL) explaining the process to member of the press.

As the program continued about its business, more interviews were conducted, and on the sidelines, media people prepared for their turn.
Some things are universal: where there are cords, there will be tangles.
CL explains the lottery process, and how happy we are to be working on the Olympics. If you poke around on the Olympic site, you can find video of this interview, and a summary here.
And here he gets to do it again for another reporter. One of them was CCTV (China Central Television) and the other was BTV (Beijing Television), I think, but don’t ask me which was which.
And here is another of our people explaining the process to another reporter. I don’t know who she was, but all the men were paying lots of attention to her.
And finally, a little over two hours later, CL announced that the program had been completed successfully and that winners would be notified pending certification of the results.
It must have been fair. These guys certified it.
And this is the bottom line, the final report. Notice that 551,017 people requested tickets to the opening ceremonies and only 26,000 were awarded. The total capacity of the National Stadium is about 91,000. That, in a nutshell, is why we had a lottery. Other popular events included basketball, diving, swimming, table tennis and badminton.
As usual, it takes much less time to take the set down than it did to build it.
I call this the Hidden Box That Secretly Ran Everything. Which is true in a way, since it’s the extra circuit breaker they brought in to power the video equipment, spotlight and so on.

I hope you’ll all agree that this was a pretty amazing amount of hoopla to witness the running of a computer program. We toyed with the idea of bringing in a big plexiglass bin full of ping pong balls with numbers on them, or maybe a big hat with scraps of paper, but decided against.

Wasn’t that fun?


Pingpangqiu, etc.

I suppose it was inevitable once we got the ping pong table at work that there would be a tournament. It took a while to get it organized, but the First Gehua Ticketmaster Table Tennis Tournament got under way last week. The office has been divided into six teams, more or less by departments, and pretty much everyone is slated to participate regardless of skill level or experience.

In the Olympics the sport is called “table tennis” due to the fact that the name Ping Pong is trademarked in a number of countries, but as it turns out the Chinese name for the sport is pingpangqiu (with qiu meaning ball or any object that is used similarly, resulting in yumaoqiu for badminton, literally feather ball).

When I first got a chance to see the tournament, I was surprised to find the former application processing room turned into a little arena, with some folding tables turned on their side to separate the area of play from the audience and keep balls from rolling into the crowd.
The referee sits on a high chair on one side, with an assistant at the other side. A scorekeeper marks the points on a white board using a system a little like the game of Hangman, adding a mark for each point.
I’ll just post some photos without much comment, since most readers won’t know any of the players anyway.
This is a game I have not played in quite a few years, and I’ll admit I’m not even clear on the rules, so when my turn comes up it’s sure to be good for a laugh. Too bad I don’t have a red clown nose to wear.
Incidentally, pingpangqiu is something of a Ticketmaster tradition. I know the offices in both Seattle and Phoenix have tables and have also hosted tournaments.

And here’s a picture from Chinese class.
At this particular point it’s mostly a bunch of random words we’d come across that either needed review or cropped up in someone’s homework. Yezi = coconut. Jidan = chicken egg. Yadan = duck egg. Mimi = secret.


Voldemort is back, I tell you!

I mentioned a while ago that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix would be released in China on August 11. I knew there were a number of Potterites in the office, so I sent out an email a few days in advance to see who was interested in seeing it on opening day. I got four takers, so on Friday I left the office at 5:30 and took the subway to Wangfujing to buy tickets for the next day. As we were walking down the stairs into Yonghegong Station, a voice behind us said, “Do you speak English?”

Behind us was a guy who turned out to be Russian. He was trying to get to the Silk Market. We said we were headed that direction – and in fact I would be getting off at the same station – so he tagged along with us. He was amazed that a city the size of Beijing only has three subway lines. I think he said Moscow has forty. Certainly Tokyo has many more as well. Even when all the planned lines are completed, Beijing will be a rather lacking in mass transit compared to most non-Chinese cities its size.

Anyway, the Russian and I left the train at Jiangguomen Station. I pointed him in the right direction and went down the stairs to transfer to Line 1 towards Wangfujing. The station there lets you off right in the lower level of a huge shopping center. I went upstairs and started wandering around looking for the movie theater. Twice I was approached by young women who said they wanted to practice their English, but since neither one of them knew where the cinema was and obviously had ulterior motives for talking with me, I shrugged them off and kept wandering. Eventually I found a map of the complex, but it was all in Chinese, and there were no graphics that looked like they might mean “Movies Here!” Then a male voice asked if I spoke English. It was a tall young man and a shorter woman. He said he was a college student from Xi’an in Beijing to study computer technology, and the girl was a classmate. I asked if he knew where the theater was, and he said he did, so we walked together. It was a long distance, the equivalent of maybe three city blocks, and on the lower level, same as the subway entrance. Like I said, it’s a big shopping complex. When we got there, they seemed a little surprised that I managed to buy the tickets without needing any translation help. After I’d picked out the seats (reserved seating at movies, remember?), they really wanted to go out for a drink or coffee with me, and were so insistent that I made up a story about having to meet coworkers for dinner.
Actually I went next door to the big Wangfujing Bookstore and picked up a couple of Faye Wong CDs before heading back the to office to pick up my bag and head home.

I’ve spoken to other American expats here, and they don’t experience nearly the number of “English practice” approaches that I do. Maybe I just look like I’ll be gullible or might have money. They don’t seem to be thieves – most likely some less threatening scam or possibly prostitutes.

On Saturday, BG and I walked up to meet RR at a Sanlitun place called The Rickshaw which serves imported beers and a selection of typical American-style pub fare. I had a Stella Artois and a chicken burrito. RR says the place gets really crowded and rowdy later in the evening, but we rushed off to catch Harry just as business was starting to pick up. After a slow ride in traffic in a taxi driven by a man who burped pretty much continuously for the whole time, we made it to the theater just in time. The two Chinese coworkers who had expressed interest were already there waiting for us. We made brief detours to the restrooms and snack bar, and went downstairs to auditorium 2.

I don’t need to say much about the movie other than to note that all of us enjoyed it, and most of us felt is was actually too short. Dolores Umbridge was every bit as annoying as she was supposed to be, and it was great to see what happened to her. I missed seeing much of Hagrid and Snape, and one of my favorite minor characters, Tonks, hardly showed up at all. But all in all, quite good.

And now on to other topics, and a sigh of relief from readers who don’t care about teenage wizards.

In eating lots of Chinese food over the last ten months, there have been a few surprises, all of them pleasant. One is that potatoes and tomatoes are both common in northern Chinese cuisine. I just didn’t expect that, since neither ever shows up in a dish I’ve had in an American Chinese restaurant. There are also a lot of vegetables that are different than what you find in North America, including different varieties of melon and squash, and different leafy greens. There are also a lot of kinds of mushrooms used. One I really like is called mu’er in Mandarin (pronounced kind of like “moo-arr” – think of pirates on the second syllable), which translates as wood-ear. It shows up in lots of dishes, both hot and cold, spicy and otherwise.
I finally got around to buying some for use at home. They’re sold dried, just add water and in a half hour or so you have edible mu’er. I threw them in the wok with some yellow squash, leek, button mushrooms, green pepper, and shrimp for a pretty good dinner. I've also been using them in omelets with success. I think they'll also be good just tossed with some vinegar and chopped garlic as a salad.

And now for a few assorted photos.
Yesterday I went with CL and JW to a meeting at BOCOG that was held on the 17th floor. None of us had ever been up that high in the building. After the meeting was done, I snapped a quick shot out the window. The air had been pretty clear for several days, and it was only moderately hot. That's the Fourth Ring Road. The Olympic Tower is in the relatively distant northwest part of town called Haidian.

A couple weeks ago, on my walk home from work, I used a pedestrian underpass to get across Dongzhimenwai, and the tunnel was so crowded with vendors with goods spread out on blankets that I felt compelled to get out my camera and get a picture. By the time I had the camera out, they were all hurrying to pack up. Maybe in the back of the crowd you can see why: a couple guys in uniforms.
Here’s the scramble looking in the other direction.
And I’ll leave you with a leftover picture from Beihai Park.
In the middle of summer, pots of lotus plants started showing up all over town. With flowers like this, it’s no mystery why they’re so popular. Made me feel like sitting down and meditating right on the sidewalk.