Kai has perfected a passive-aggressive move on the subway: If he sees someone playing with their mobile phones, he stands right next to them, and leans over very close to take a good look at their screens. Often they hand it over to him. Here's a picture of him setting new highscores in Angry Birds on someone's Galaxy-class Samsung. He even dressed up for the occasion.
Sat, 16 Mar 2013
After three and a half years of freelancing (mostly for my former employer and for other people I have met in Japan, with a dash of projects from sites like Elance throws into the mix), I joined a local startup here in Shanghai this month. The plan was to ease into it with half-time work, but this is not how startups work, so I'll be doing this pretty much exclusively from now on.
We provide software-as-a-service for the Chinese transportation market, hoping to move everyone from unconnected proprietary transport management systems, manual order tracking in spreadsheets and information exchange by phone, fax and email to a common platform for the core transport process.
My last involvement with logistics have been lectures and seminars about operations research (route optimisation, warehouse allocation and such) at university. That was more than ten years ago, and also firmly oriented in the mathematical area as opposed to the business end. But the two founders are transportation industry veterans, so they have this covered and I can be mainly concerned with the IT part of this endeavour.
My first big challenge is to get a grip on how to run web services in China. Since all our clients are in China, and we also don't want to live at the mercy of the Great Firewall, we'll be operating from within the country. This means that the world of cloud computing as provided by Amazon and friends is not an option. Unfortunately, what little expertise I have, what I can read about on English-language discussion forums, and what my foreign friends in the field know about, is mostly limited to exactly that. I am sure there is a whole world of services and knowledge about them available locally, but tapping into those without a proper command of the language is difficult. I have started to reach out to some people and will document my findings on yet another wiki I was egged on to start.
If the Song of Ice and Fire was set in communist East Germany, I think Aegon Grenth and Errik Honagaryen would make good character names.
Enjoying the Australian tradition of barbecue, biting down on a hard piece of French bread while distracted by an incoming mosquito. Terrible crunching sound, obviously not just from the bread. No pain, but tooth filling (right upper jaw, second to last in the back) appears dislodged. Dentist takes a look and immediately comes to a different conclusion: Tooth itself fractured. Takes a second look and an x-ray, declares it tricky, probably not salvageable. Calls in his colleague, the extraction specialist, who agrees and schedules a session later the same day. Plans to remove the loose piece and take a look at the remains, extracting those as well unless it turns out to be too tricky for a single session the day before an intercontinental flight. Discovers the cause of the whole incident in the process: External resorption had made the tooth brittle, it would have had to go sooner or later anyway. Good news is that the problem appears to be contained to just the one. Decides that removing the remaining parts (including all three roots) is beyond the powers of a regular dentist and requires a dental surgeon. Patches things up to buy me time to find one in Shanghai within a couple of weeks. Also gives me a brochure about titanium implants as tooth replacements. Contains pictures of happy smiling patients, all with heads of completely white hair. Don't want to be grouped with that demographic just yet.
Aquaponics is a symbiotic combination of aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) with hydroponics (growing plants in water), where the fish's waste products that would otherwise poison their water instead fertilizes the plants. We attended a workshop about it yesterday, and came home with a small system housing two gold fish and four bamboo sprouts. First order of business is to "test the waters", so to speak, and see if everything stays alive (our balcony does not have a good track record). Logical next steps would then be to put in two additional sea critters (shrimp?), add something we might actually want to eat (herbs? small tomatoes?), and upgrade the small electric pump with a solar-powered version to make it completely self-sufficient (except for fish-food).
The condensation problem can be resolved by getting better equipment. But now I look like I should be photoshopped into something.
Here's an interesting concept to improve the democratic process: Do away with elections and use random selection from the whole population to choose representatives. You'd not be getting the best people for the job, but you're not getting them now either. On the plus side, the law of big numbers makes sure that you get a pretty accurate proportional representation for any particular segment of society, and no one's judgements are being compromised by considerations for their own future in politics (simply because there is nothing anyone can do to influence it).
Hard to say if it would really work, since it has not been tried in earnest since Classical Athens, but maybe someone should give it a shot. Many countries have jury duty to involve the general public in legal proceedings, and many countries have compulsory military service where you have to quit doing whatever it is you are doing for a couple of months or even years to serve the state. This seems to be a mix of both.
I also like the French word for it: Stochocratie.
One of the more interesting outcomes of Barcamp two weeks ago is that I was introduced to BennuSolar, or more precisely to Yotam Ariel, the guy who single-handedly runs this Hong Kong registered company out of his Shanghai home office, trying to bring prices down and quality up for solar panel deployment in poor rural areas, mostly in Africa. Yotam has also launched a product authenticity sticker system to allow villagers to directly validate product numbers using SMS, without having to rely on and trust a rather long chain of middlemen. I helped out a bit with coding for the server that responds to these messages (dusting off my Perl skills in the process) and that got me an invitation to join a visit to a solar panel factory near Suzhou.
CanadianSolar is a (surprise!) Canadian company, but most of its production takes place in China, including at a couple of facilities in the Suzhou area. According to Wikipedia CanadianSolar is the fifth largest producer of photovoltaic equipment, and according to their showroom they supplied the cells to "the world's largest solar power plant", located in Germany, probably this one.
We went there to check on a delivery of solar panels for a school in Tanzania. The ability to show up at the manufacturer and demonstrate a presence is one of the main advantages that Bennu Solar provides to small African buyers that would otherwise not get the same level of treatment and respect that big Western customers command. The quality assurance team performed a couple of so-called flash tests for us, where the panel is exposed to short bursts of light during which its electrical output is measured and compared to the specifications. In addition to that we also performed a visual inspection of the components and the shipping crates. The only detail found wanting was the shipping label, which missed a few words in the product description. That would not have been a problem on the face of it, but a customs inspector in a Tanzanian port might feel otherwise and delay clearance for a month pending more paperwork, so better safe than sorry.
Two years ago I learned about MYC4.com, the Danish company that provides a marketplace for microcredit loans to small businesses in African countries. I uploaded some money back then, and participated in seventeen loans in four countries during my first year, and, while having lost a seventh of my investment in one defaulted loan and being conflicted about the real social value of the whole system, doubled down for the second year.
In the second year, I engaged in twenty-two new loans to stationary stores, glass retailers, bakeries, beauty parlors, mobile traders, mens' clothing shops, farmers, grocers, paint shops, truck drivers, real estate developers, mobile phone stores, import businesses, traditional financial intermediaries, and health centres in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and for the first time Ghana. There have been no more defaults, all of the remaining loans from the first year have now been repaid in full, except for a single two-year loan, and that is on track, too, as are most of the new loans (four of them are lagging a bit).
Financially, there has been a 10% return on investment. Interestingly, while currency exchanges losses put me into the red last year, this year I have actually gained money this way, because the Euro has lost value against the Ugandan shilling and the Rwandan franc.
I am going to double my investment for next year again (probably for the last time, because you cannot keep up a geometric progression forever without reaching rather serious amounts).
Today is the day that everything breaks down.
- Laundry machine leaks lots of water. Reason and exact location unclear. All tubes seem attached properly.
- Spokenword feed scanner appears broken, is not updating my podcasts, so I cannot put the excellent latest episodes of TWiT and This American Life into thilo+ or Thilo's Tech Radio.
- Significant loss of hearing due to accumulation of gunk in ear canal. Go to the hospital for a cleaning session, have to do that every few months now. Dusty Shanghai? Too many podcasts? Getting old?
- Back home, find my Time Machine disk having been disconnected somehow in the middle of a backup. After turning it on and off again, it decides that it now needs 182 GB for the next backup, and starts deleting old backups. Takes a lot of time, and turns out to be unnecessary as the following backup only actually took up the usual 4 GB. Rest of the morning having fun with Disk Utility repairing the hundreds of errors that it found on the volume, completely destroying my faith in the validity of the backup.
- Mac mini also broken. Freezes up randomly about once a day now. No crash reports, no kernel panics, no automatic reboots. No problems reported in Disk Utility or Hardware Tool (even after extra-long memory check). Suspect mother board or GPU failure. Erase and reformat drive, plan to reinstall Lion for the benefit of the Genius at the bar. Lion download projected to take 63 hours. Skipping that.
- Arrive at the Apple Store, find the Genius Bar on a one-hour break Does not serve drinks, either, despite the name. Killing time with new iPad not an option, not yet available in China, even though made here. Spend an hour with friendly Genius, who runs some diagnostic tools only he has and reinstalls Lion (does not take him 63 hours). Of course cannot demonstrate freezes. Leave the Mini with them for more tests.
- Bus breaks down on the way back home.
I am going to spend the next two nights in a hospital. No, this is not because of something Windows 8 did to me, I am not sick (at least not yet; spending a lot of time in a hospital seems to be a good way to catch something). I will be keeping company with my son.
Kai has had a stuffy nose forever now, and also snores like a champion. Different types of medicine did not clear things up, and at a recent nose endoscopy (a procedure he very much did not enjoy) the doctors discovered adenoid hypertrophy blocking 80% of nasal airflow, and decided the severely enlarged and allegedly vestigial organ be removed.
This is a very simple (takes just fifteen minutes) and standard (apparently in the 1930s everyone was doing it, and I think I remember I also had it done and that there was ice cream) surgery, but while Wikipedia claims that it is mostly performed on outpatients, the hospital insists that he also stay the night before (so that they can make sure he eats properly six hours before surgery, and nothing after that), and the night after (in case there are complications). There is also a whole array of diagnostics that they routinely run on the day before.
While Kai has to stay in the hospital for these three days, I am not. I will just join him at night, and a couple of hours every day, taking shifts with Cissy and her mother. The hospital is literally just across the street from our compound, so we can be quite flexible here.
What is going on with the Euro? Most of my income still comes from Japan, and I get a paycheck for the same amount every month. The same amount in Yen, that is, but when it arrives in my German bank account the Euro amount has been consistently increasing (significantly) for quite a while now. That is all good and well, but over the last couple of weeks, my African investments are also coming back with currency exchange gains. In guess that means that Europe is now under worse management than a random selection of African countries.
I am not much of a music listener, and my iPod is mostly used for podcasts, but when I do listen to songs I obsess about play counts.
Probably because I am not much of a music listener I rely on iTunes to tell me what I like and the two smart playlists with recently played and most played songs are essential here. I consider it productive work to set the iPod to shuffle and skip or don't skip through what it throws at me, building up useful statistics in the process. I pause playback when leaving the room in order not to get inaccurate numbers. When I am only listening with half an ear while doing other things and catch myself having sat through a song I didn't like instead of skipping it, I panic. I am concerned if play counts should be recorded at all when I am only listening with half an ear while doing other things. I worry about the loss of information when I listen to Cissy's iPod, and about the implications of her listening to mine. The thing I hate most about the dying battery in our beat-up fifth generation iPod with the broken screen (five years old, but still my main player since I cannot get myself to buy a replacement iPod Touch since that model has gone so long without an update) is that when it suddenly shuts down, it tends to lose play counts. Never mind that I have to continue walking in silence for half an hour and later figure out where to resume playing in the middle of the two-hour podcast episode, I'll never be able to find the three great songs again, that I had just discovered in shuffle mode.
This should help me decide if I dislike the Shanghai weather less in winter (too cold) or in summer (too hot). At the moment it shows an indoors temperature of eleven degrees (very consistent over the last few days). Good that I have an extensive collections of sweaters (that can also be combined into multiple layers), not to mention my Bingjie Keeping Warm Trousers.
The hygrometer apparently does not indicate the likelihood of rain fall.
Everything Thilo feels he needs to overshare ...
I have for a long time already been giving star ratings for every movie I am watching (not too many these days) and every podcast episode I am listening to, and also writing short reports about almost every book I am reading. I am now trying to extend this and let the world know about everything else as well.
I am calling it thilo+, for the moment it is just a twitter stream, but I have some more ideas for it. There will even be limited social features (to the extent that you will be allowed to voice agreement), the project will help sustain my continued absence from Facebook or Google+ (both of which I find quite scary but long the convenience of), and to promote a positive atmosphere it will only include recommendations (i.e. three or more stars out of five).