Finally Some Good Weather

When I used to live in California (even more so in Southern CA), the weather was never something that crossed my mind. I always was able to assume “good”. Even in Northern CA, “good enough” was all that I ever thought about. Here in Shanghai, I’ve grown in a new appreciation for the fine art of meteorology and being constantly aware of how it feels outside the windows from this 16F office. My companion in this adventure is the Yahoo Weather Gadget which constantly reminds me of how awful the next three days are going to be. However, starting yesterday things have started to look up!

The next three days are in the 9s and 10s (that’s the high 40s and low 50s for you Fahrenheit fans) and sunny! Of course, in the evenings, it’s still going to be freezing (literally). The days still feel bitter cold, but at least the humid cold seems to have passed and perhaps the days are starting to warm. One of my key requirements for my next apartment is going to be how close to the subway tunnels it is so I can avoid exposure to the elements on the way to and from work.

We Are All The Same

Forgot to post that I read We Are All The Same by Jim Wooten about a month back. It’s a touching tale of a young Zulu boy growing up with AIDs and his adoptive mother. The book (more like novella) covers the 12 years of Noski’s life, from his birth in a shanty town to his adoption by a white family to his speech giving at international AIDS conferences, to his untimely death. It’s not written in the most accessible of styles (it feels like it’s written for a TV script) but the story is touching and moving yet depressing (all signs of a good book).

Back From a Great Weekend in Macau

I’m back in Shanghai after an uneventful flight on Air Macau from MFM to PVG. The airline, Air Macau, was quite impressive. While they only fly a few routes, all via MFM airport, their planes are clean and new-ish, they were on time both flights and served dinner (gasp!) in both directions. As I mentioned before at the checkin desk for Air Macau there seemed to be quite a bit of confusion regarding my passport. I handed it over to check in and it took two people and some bit of explanation as to how I’d be allowed back in China. With most flights that connect to the mainland the airline will check to see if you have the appropriate visa to enter. They do it in Tokyo as well. I should mention a bit about the airport as well. It’s built on a man-made island off of one of the Macau islands and the runway is a water-on-three-sides jetty that comes off from the island. On both take off and landing it felt that I was moving on water. Not unlike San Francisco airport, but way more intense.

Saturday was spent walking around Macau, the morning and afternoon in the ‘Penha’ area, which is the southern part of the island. I made way to the Penha Church at the top of the temple which has great views of Macau Tower and is cute on in its own right. The walk up the hill that it’s on is quite intense and you pass by a lot of beautiful looking Portuguese homes all painted in primary colors.

Back down the hill, the A-Ma Temple is a beautiful Buddhist temple built in to the hill with steps that criss-cross the hillside to allow you to talk to various places of worship. As most Buddhist temples I’ve seen in China, the devout outnumber the tourists by an order of magnitude. While incense is a welcome part of any temple, one peculiar thing about the temples I saw here were the cylindrical incense columns that are hung from the ceiling. They have a pyramidal shape and burn from the bottom of the spiral up and they’re hung all over the place. 

Later in the afternoon on Saturday, I visited the iconic landmark of Macau, the ruins of Saint Paulo. They do indeed make for a beautiful sight, on top of the hill that they claim. The walk from the Largo do Senado to the ruins is also quite nice, it’s all pedestrian and full of shops selling different types of meat jerkeys and almond cookies (I bought a ton of the latter). Off to the side of the ruins is Fort Monte, which is now host to the Macau Museum. Since it had started raining, I didn’t get much time around the Fort so I planned a return trip for the next day.

After dinner in the evening, I went to the Sands Casino, operated by the Galaxy Casino Company (or something like that) from Las Vegas. It’s much newer and more comfortable from the perspective of someone who learned to gable in Las Vegas. It’s more spacious and the layout is much easier to comprehend. It lacks the old-time charm of the Lisboa, but I still managed to lose about four hours in its bowels. I spent most of the time in the “Pearl Room”, which is on the first floor and offers smoke free (gasp!) gamling. Oh, right. The gambling. The tables only play HKD, no MOP, so I went in on a roulette table with 1000 HKD and played for a while. At my best I was up to 4000-ish HKD but left the casino with a whole 150 HKD in my pocket. For more on the gambling growth read on.

Sunday got off to a lazy and slow start. I checked out the Guia Lighthouse and the Guia Public Park. The park itself is well manicured and well laid out. The lighthouse, like most sights here, was on top of a hill and nice walk up. And also like most sights here, it’s beautifully washed in pastel colors. In fact, while walking around the lighthouse it doesn’t look unlike pictures I’ve of seen of Santorini. The church that’s adjacent to the light house houses a wonderful set of frescos from who-knows-when.

The Kun An Temple came next, which was a brief 25 minute walk from the lighthouse (all downhill). It’s much like the A-Ma Temple that I wrote about earlier but laid out much differently, in to three columns with three ‘rooms’ in each. The center column contains a different style Buddha in each, with a laughing Buddha in the middle (I can’t recall the other two). After the Temple, it was off to the Macau Museum which is also quite well done and new. It hosts an interesting set of comparative cultural information from the European and Chinese heritage of the SAR. After that, it was off to the airport and now I’m back in Shanghai.

Overall, I really enjoyed Macau. I’m glad I made it to the SAR before it’s become (more) overrun by tourists and gamblers. The amount of hyper-development that’s in progress will transform this place in the next ten years. The island and peninsula of Macau are growing, physically, to meet the demands that will be placed by the developing tourist economy. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend a visit, even for the non- or passive gambler.

Quick Post from Macau Airport

I’m in the airport on the way out. The connection here is free on CTC WiFi but extremly flaky (even thought the signal strength reads ‘excellent’). Spent the last two days touring around the city/island and seeing most of the major sites (A-Ma Temple, Ruins of St. Paulo, Largo do Senado, Guia Lighthouse, Sands Casino, Lisboa Casino, etc). I didn’t manage to make it to the islands so that will have to be left to another trip. Didn’t win (or lose much) at the casinos but had a great time gaming. I’m now at the airport after much confusion at the imigration desk on how I’d be allowed to enter back to China (they seemed unfamilar with my work visa). My two hour flight on Air Macau (which has turned out to be quite excellent) will put me back in Shanghai around 9pm, right at the tail end of all the trans-Pacific flights, hopefully so I should get home to Xujiahui around 10pm. I’ll put another, more detailed, post online once I’m back in Shanghai.

Made it to Macau and Some First Impressions

I’ve found an open WAP by putting my laptop at the window sill here. Hopefully it’ll last through the weekend.

I made it to Macau without much hassle. From Xujiahui, I took the metro and the maglev to the airport, all told it took an hour or so for only 45 RMB which is faster (1.5h) and cheaper (130 RMB) than taking a taxi. Landing in Macau airport was a bit hard to mentally comprehend. First of all, everything is in Chinese (traditional), Portuguese and English. Everybody in the airport speaks English perfectly and the ATM machine took my Bank of China ATM card and gave me an option to withdraw either HKD or MOP (I chose the latter).

The taxi ride from the airport to the Hotel Royal Macau took 20 minutes or so and cost 50 pactas (at about 8 pactas/MOP to a USD). Originally, I’d tried to book a hostel for the trip since it was just me and I looked on a bunch of hosteling web sites and didn’t find any in Macau at all, but they did ofer a ‘budget hotel’ that I booked, the Hotel Royal Macau. Turns out it’s a 5 star hotel. Not a bad mistake to make.

After dropping my stuff off, I set off with a map on foot through the city. Macau is not that unlike some of the very quaint and small picturesque cities in Europe I’ve visited before. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Tallinn. The roads are mostly small, almost all two lanes wide that are often one way and riddled with switchbacks as the climb the hills. They’re beautifully quaint and quiet, devoid of the honking that’s so common in Shanghai. Since they climb so many hills they often have beautiful views that look down through the city. As I walked around this evening, I often and easily forgot I was in a Chinese country.

Quite accidently I made it to Largo do Senado, part of the UNESCO Heritage Site, which is beautiful. Old Portuguese buildings and fountains, all well lit and maintained make up for a wonderful walking and shopping and picture taking destination. I spent a few hours walking around the area. After getting a bit tired of walking around, I made my way to the casino part of town, near the water.

The first stop, of course, was the famous Lisboa. To get in to the gaming floors, it’s necessary to go through metal detectors and once inside it’s quite a bit unlike Vegas. First of all, it’s packed and second of all, it’s a labyrinth. The place is obviously designed to keep you inside for as long as possible. There were plenty of games being played that I’ve never seen before and I couldn’t find any roulette tables in the Lisboa, although they did have a routlette style game with dice and a lighted table that I managed to quickly lose 100 MOP on (betting on “small” when the dice rolled “big”). It feels fabled inside but it does also feel old and stuffy in the Lisboa.

I left that casino and walked around the corner to the Grand Emperor which was gaudy-beautiful. The floor of the lobby (that is shared with the hotel) has 99 gold bricks lining the floor along with a plaque for HSBC Zurich for their delivery. The second floor (which is where the casino starts) was dedicated to slots gaming and the third is all table games. I did find a roulette table in the Grand Emperor and as expectedit was a bit different than the American version. It doesn’t have 00, plus it also has extra table space for combination play.

Impression thus far? Beautiful city. Can’t wait to go out and explore in the day light tomorrow and see if my night vision holds true in the day.

Heading to Macau

On pretty much the equlivant of a whim, I’m heading to Macau tomorrow afternoon for the weekend. I’d originally planned to head over on a domestic flight to Zhuhai and take a bus or taxi in to Macau from there but the flight that would get me to Macau was pretty late and I didn’t particuarly care to risk having the border crossing be closed and risk being stuck in Zhuhai. So, I booked the flight direct to Macau (MFM) that lands in the evening (acutally, the flight I was originally booked on was cancelled, so I was bumped earlier).

In 2005, the city core of Macau was made a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I’m definintly going to check that out. Of course, there’s gambling. When looking at Macau info, I came across the name of the Casino Lisboa, which I can recall from about ten different Cold War spy novels that I’ve read over the years, all with scenes that go something like: “At 3am, go to the third blackjack table at the Lisboa, bet exactly 100 dollars and stay on whatever hand you have. The dealer will then then pass you a note where to pick of the package.”

Hopefully I’ll have some internet capability there so I’ll be blogging while I’m in the SAR and posting pictures as well.

Din Tai Fung in Xintiandi

On Monday night, on the recommendation/early scouting by Evan and Brian, we had dinner at the Din Tai Fung outpost in Xintiandi. For a restaurant that has had the honor of being called New York Times’ 10 Best in the World (or something like that), it had a lot to live up to. Being a vegetarian, I couldn’t partake in the xiaolongbao (小笼包), but did have both the steamed vegetable dumplings and the steamed vegetable buns (along with some various noodles and steamed deserts).

The dumplings were extraordinary, their wrappers being the most impressive part (translucent and supple) while the filling was fantastic. However, the tour de force for the vegetarian eater was definitely the steamed buns. The shell was both large and doughy but possible to be picked up with a set of chopsticks. The shell when combined with the vegetable and tofu filling made for a fantastic entrée quite unlike any I’ve ever had before.

So does Din Tai Fung live up to the reputation? Since I wasn’t able to have the signature dish, I can’t say but from what I ate the dumplings rivaled any I’ve had before while the buns were by far and away the best I’ve ever had.

Natural Language Doesn’t Have to Be Natural

Using simple sentences to search for structure data on the web doesn’t have to be complicated. As Spongecell and Mobissimo show, natural language parsing doesn’t have to be perfect or natural, it just has to be good enough to understand semi-structured data. For example, try on Mobissimo (you have to click on “try one box search”): “sfo to sgn april 6 – 15” which works. It’s a lot easier than clicking on six fields on the site, using a calendar widget and various drop downs. Spongecell does a good job of this too with its calendaring application. You can ‘sponge’ an event like “dinner with buddies friday at seven” instead of navigating complicated menus. Both of these sites are good enough that they’re useful. I’m sure there are tons of corner cases they miss but it doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful.

Watching the Olympics in China

The Olympics are broadcast in China on CCTV5, one of the national broadcast stations that carries mostly sports (including NBA basketball). The voice track, of course, is all in Chinese but the titles on the picture (e.g. the signage) are in English. Thus, there will be somebody commenting on the race that just happened in Chinese but the results when displayed will be in English (such as “Womens Downhill”). I think what happens is some company (probably NBC since it looks a lot like the visuals in the states) has the global contract on the visuals of the Olympics while the individual nations do their own voice overs. It works out really well for me since I can still enjoy the Olympics while I’m here.

Valentine’s Day Chaos

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day in China and much like the states, it came with all the requisite flowers, restaurants and dates you’d find in the west. People were walking the streets with bouquets and street vendors everywhere were selling flowers.

A couple of us from the office tried to go to dinner at Grand Gateway, across the street from the office and were quickly rejected by a teaming mass of humanity unlike any I’ve ever encountered. Typically to get to Grand Gateway from the office, it’s easiest to take the subway tunnels under the street from Metro City and to the exit Xujiahui station gate 14. There are a set of escalators that lead from the station in to the mall. Normally it’s crowded as things are in Shanghai with people everywhere, but last night was a whole other ball game.

This time, there was a mass of people about eight bodies wide and maybe 20 deep all pushing their way for the escalator. After suffering through that we made it up only to have half our party stranded at the bottom as the security guards reversed the direction of the escalators to stop the flow of people and disperse the crowd. For the half of us that were upstairs, it was complete chaos where all the balconies of the building in the middle foyer were full of people, eight stories high looking down at the performance on the ground floor. It was just pure unadulterated Valentine’s day chaos.