This Number Rings in China

I have a SkypeIn number in San Francisco that forwards my calls to my mobile in China. I’ve had it for over a year to help my friends and family call me in China at no cost to them. Since the number is an American number, it’s not uncommon to get calls in the middle of the night or random wrong numbers. However, two times in as many weeks I’ve had this following conversation:

  • me: hello? [thinking: what time is it?]
  • them: Hi, is Rob there?
  • me: no, wrong number [oh god, it’s 6am]
  • them: is this 415-555-1234?
  • me: yes, yes it is
  • them: is Rob your roommate or are you the current home owner?
  • me: no, this number calls to China
  • them: China, huh? well, hum [obvious confusion at this point] does Rob live there?
  • me: what? this is a number in China, you’ve called Shanghai
  • them: oh, okay. Are you the current home owner?
  • me: you’re kidding, right? you’ve called a number IN CHINA
  • them: we’re calling around homes in your neighborhood to see if anybody is interested in selling. the market is…
  • me: did you miss the fact that I live IN CHINA!?
  • them: well sir, there are some great opportunities available right now [the preprogrammed robo-script has obviously kicked in at this point]
  • me: are you honestly trying to pitch me right now? what in god’s name do you think you can possibly sell to me IN CHINA?
  • them: there are many people interested in buying property at the moment in your neighborhood
  • me: [cutting him off] you’re kidding right? this conversation is over. i’m hanging up.

Yep. A day in the life in China. Full of idiot telemarketers from the states.

Macau versus Las Vegas

NYT is reporting that gambling revenues at Macau have surpassed those of Las Vegas. This comes as no surprise if you’ve ever been to Macau. As the article states, the per table revenue is seven times higher than that of a table in Vegas and it’s not hard to see why.

First of all, there is almost no entertainment in the Macau casinos. They’re almost all gambling. In the Sands on the second floor there is a cover band, but that’s about it. No Cirque du Soleil shows, no Penn and Teller, none of that nonsense, just tables.

Second, seeing just how much people gamble is intense. On regular tables (e.g. not high-roller rooms), people are playing per hand like 500 HKD or a 1000 HKD, which is much much higher than I’ve seen in Vegas. Even further, when you look at the guy who’s playing next to you, you’re pretty sure he just arrived from mainland China is probably not a particularly wealthy person. There are plenty of folks in there who I could venture to guess are just farmers.

New Money

In recent days my wallet has been increasingly filled with new crisp bills rather than the usual set of old tattered ones. Yesterday at the ATM, I pulled out a few hundred RMB and the bills came out looking unused and sequentially numbered. I had a few 20 RMB bills given to me as change today that were equally crisp.

What’s going on? The bank is printing new money. During Chinese New Year, 红包 (hong bao / red bag) presents are given and it’s customary to give crisp new bills instead of old ratty ones; thus, I’m guessing the Peoples Bank of China (中国人民银行 / the central bank) is printing a lot more new bills and introducing them to the various banks in China to be ready for mass withdrawals and requests for new cash.

In fact, last year during Chinese New Year, it wasn’t uncommon for ATMs and bank branches to be out of cash. As it got closer to the festival day as people would queue up for hours either taking money out as gifts or as money to take home with them over the holiday.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

I finally finished today the 1400 page World War II tome, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The book took me nearly three months to read, but it was absolutely worth it. The book documents the rise of National Socialism (Nazism) from Hiter’s birth to his death and the fall of Nazi Germany. The writing of William Shirer is fantastic and really evokes a sense of well thought out and well edited writing that I haven’t read in a while. He make the 50-odd-year span of history incredibly interesting and at no point while reading it was I bored or disinterested in the least. Further, the copious amount of footnotes full of anecdotal details and the references to primary material add even more color and context to the read. Very highly recommended.

The Fragile Internet

Living in Asia reminds us sometimes of how fragile the Internet actually is. Even though it’s capable of withstanding outages across segments of connectivity, it’s really all a game of money, politics, and physical cables that enable our packets to get across.

The recent earthquake in Taiwan has rendered large segments of the Internet inaccessible from across Asia. If I have my details straight, there are seven-ish undersea cables that link Hong Kong to Europe and North America. Due to the earthquake, six-ish of those seven-ish cables were severed, thus knocking out large amounts of trans-Pacific internet access.

Sites still work, sometimes too slowly to be functional and various services that require persistent connections (e.g. VoIP or IM software) fail to connect since the latency is so high. Apparently one of the broken undersea cables has been restored which has enabled some connectivity to be restored but as you can imagine large parts of Asia are still vastly under connected. This includes not only internet access but also basic telco since a lot of this data is carried on the same pipes.

To fix these cables, they literally have to sail ships to the location of the breakage, dredge up the cable from the seafloor (miles below sea, mind you), repair the break, then resink the cable. In response, some of the telcos have found alternate routes via Singapore and Europe and via satellites as well. Of course, given the situation there’s no way they’ll be able to carry the full trans-Pacific load.

These kinds of problems bode poorly for a lot of websites, let alone services that require connections. Pages heavy in JavaScript/CSS or just garbage HTML (e.g. heavy headers, toolbars, navigation elements) load incredibly poorly when packet loss is in the 30% range. Often times, sites load so slowly that the IE hangs and never comes back. While carrier level optimizations are necessary to prevent problems like this from occurring in the future, higher level optimizations must be made as well.

Parts of HTML/HTTP should be modernized to account for dealing with these problems. For example, when visiting ESPN, the top 40% of the page is redundant content and is sent from the server to the client every time I read a new page. While this may read as an argument for an AJAX style application, it isn’t. The pure page-weight of an AJAX site (or even a site that relies heavily on CSS files) creates a hindrances from those sites from even ever loading. I’ve often in the last week seen my browser fully download the HTML for a page, only be never get the content to render because one of ten (or whatever) linked CSS or JS files failed to load.

The presentation layers must become more redundant to these sorts of issues. Not because major carrier level outages will happen more often in the future (needless to say, they will be part of the global internet landscape forever) but because of two things.

First, the cost to waste bandwidth will grow unbounded. Major services companies (the Yahoos, Microsofts, Googles of the world) are well aware of this problem and are throwing money at it, examples would be Google’s massive facility building operations in Oregon. The need for bandwidth drives up costs in data centers, servers, operations personnel, etc.

Second, not all users have huge pipes, even in America, but the problem is compounded many-fold globally. There is a limited amount of bandwidth available to carry ever more bandwidth hungry applications and services, many hosted in the US and deliver them globally. Without a maniacal focus on page weights and delivery size, it’s increasingly difficult to deliver applications that will be deliverable globally and even to domestic users on non-optimal connections. These problems can be solved with money, but not every organization can afford to spend like a Google/Yahoo/Microsoft can.