We’re objective meritocratic folks and will violently reject any suggestion that we are not. We totally won’t “ding” you for not doing steps 1-6, we swear. But they help. Totally.
It’s astonishing how many of the people conducting interviews and passing judgement on the careers of candidates have had no training at all on how to do it well. Aside from their own interviews, they may not have ever seen one. I’m all for learning on your own, but at least when you write a program wrong, it breaks. Without a natural feedback loop, interviewing mostly runs on myth and survivor bias. “Empirically,” people who wear suits don’t do well; therefore anyone in a suit is judged before they open their mouths. “On my interview I remember we did thus and so, therefore I will always do thus and so. I’m awesome and I know X; therefore anyone who doesn’t know X is an idiot.” Exceptions, also known as opportunities for learning, are not allowed to occur. This completes the circle.
Ideally you should live in “The City,” which is on a peninsula, and not on “The Peninsula,” which is in a valley.
Lots of connections between this article and the house project. We also don’t know what we’re doing, know only vaguely what we’re looking for, and we certainly don’t know how to interview people. But we’re exploring the search space together and gradually expanding it (hopefully). I’m trying to be careful not to directly import people/culture blindly, akin to this “mirror-tocracy.” Diversity is good. All the analogies to startups are startling realistic.
I thought I was all caught up with writing, but realized last night that I missed writing about Day 13. Oops. Well here it is, and the last 3 days will follow.
Our second day in Beijing was designated as one of our touristy days. With Nancy’s family friend as our guide, we adventured through the Great Wall, the Ming Dynasty Tombs, and the Summer Palace, and everything was super pretty. Beijing is cold at this time of year (colder than Boston), and the Great Wall is a windy place. As soon as we arrived, we found a bunch of kids huddling behind a wall for warmth. Along the way, we were approached by a peddler selling Great Wall magnets, and we stopped to talk prices, not realizing that this kind of thing is prohibited. Part way through our haggling, the peddler grabbed back all the magnets and ran off. We thought he had gotten impatient with us, but then we saw two Great Wall security people running after him. So that was interesting, and we felt bad for getting him into trouble. I guess these peddlers need to make a certain amount of profit before getting kicked out. Anyway, we actually wanted those magnets, and luckily the gift shop at the entrance sells them too and gave us the price we asked for without any argument. The price went down from 1 magnet for 45 RMB to 3 magnets for 30 RMB (4.75USD). As usual, later on, we learned that that price was only OK. I did a bit worse haggling over a panda hat I spotted, but it was about 6 times cheaper than my giraffe hat. ><; We had a great time walking around the Ming Tombs and Summer Palace, but the entire time, I just wished I was more familiar with Chinese history. One day… We also drove around Tianmen Square, the Forbidden Palace, and the Birds Nest (Beijing National Stadium, Beijing Olympics 2008). As it turns out, we didn’t have time to really see anything at all. And if I hadn’t mentioned this before, everything in major Chinese cities (buildings, streets, bridges, signs, etc.) are lined with LEDs. Shiny!
We had our first and only meal at an American fast food chain, but it was good because McDonalds (as well as KFC) is super popular in Asia. For dinner, we had authentic Peking Duck, and it was delicious. We had something like the 1.4 millionth duck that that particular restuaurant had prepared for human consumption, which is a crazy number. They explained that the ducks require 5 years to grow up and 45 minutes to cook. We had duck tongue, which was pretty funny to eat, duck blood soup, duck remains soup, and little duck-shaped desserts. And, of course, there was the actual duck meat, finely prepared.
Our first day in Beijing was a pretty crazy one as well. Our train arrived in Beijing around 8am, at which point we met up with Nancy’s family friend and went for breakfast at this food chain called Yonghe King. That was sort of freaking amazing because my family is actually largely from Yonghe, Taipei, Taiwan. I was already missing Taiwan food at that point, so it was great to have a Taiwan style breakfast. Learning about Yonghe King probably made my day. <3 food.
Day 12 was a real whirlwind of activities. We got a quick tour of Tsinghua University (China’s top tech school) with Nancy’s family friend, followed by meeting Professor Koo’s students at his Toyhouse, followed by meeting 6 Tsinghua CS students, followed by visiting SkyWorks (one of the hackerspaces at Tsinghua). I enjoyed SkyWorks a lot; they even had resources for software projects in the form of mobile phones and server hosting. The hackerspaces we’ve seen in China didn’t have as much in terms of machine tools as MITERS, but all of the hackerspaces that I have seen (except for SkyWorks and Noisebridge) seemed to lack software resources. Anyway, all of this was arranged fairly last minute, so I was surprised that we were able to meet people and have great conversation… on New Years Day, and also the week before their final exams. But, Tsinghua does have 30K students with an emphasis on engineering, so maybe that made it reasonable to find students. The Toyhouse students gave us their insights on Professor Koo’s “radical” teaching methods–essentially student-taught project-based classes instead of professor-blabber-based classes. A lot of work and suitable for only some areas of study, but they teach you how to learn on your own, they said. From the CS students, we learned that the college GPA of Chinese students pretty much determines exactly the next step (grad school, industry, studying abroad, going home), or at least that is the mindset of a lot of students. SkyWorks showed us that not all students focus 100% of their efforts on their GPA; some do work on projects of their own, for commercial purposes, etc.
OK, so that was just the morning until early afternoon. Then, we visited Beijing Maxpace, the Beijing hackerspace (北京创客空间), a new media art exhibition, and attended a maker/hacker new years party. The Beijing hackerspace was tiny. It’s a room only slightly larger than my dorm room, and there were about 20 people there awaiting our arrival — space is hard to find in Beijing?We took a look around, chatted for a few minutes, and exchanged stickers. This trip has taught me that hackerspaces are crazy about stickers. And stamps. Here, I got a second stamp on my hackerspace passport (the first was at Chaihuo, the third in Tokyo). MITERS has neither stamps nor stickers yet, oops. The new media exhibit was neat; it was like the media lab, but orders of magnitude less cluttered. The new years party consisted of people from a whole bunch of different makerspaces and places. We did introductions, watched maker-y videos, and had good food and pleasant conversation. We pulled up yet another documentary of MITERS (produced by NYU students) and also the MASLAB 2011 highlights video, and I talked about MASLAB for a bit. Yay robots and presenting in broken Chinese! I need to find a way to learn/use technical vocabulary in Chinese.
At this point, Julian was seriously food poisoned (probably got infected on Day 10), and so we scrambled to find a suitable place to stay for the night. Originally, Josh and Nancy wanted to crash on the concrete floor of the place of the party, which I wasn’t too crazy about but was willing to entertain. Amazingly, with a lot of help from the Beijing hackers, especially Wang ZhenFei (王振飞), we made our way to our home for the next two nights.
At the end of the day, I was just confused at how we managed to do so much and meet so many people in a single day.
Surprisingly, our trip has been pretty full of Taiwanese people. This is undoubtedly biased because I am on this trip and most of our factory tour relations were tied to Taiwan, but I have been told that a lot of the hackerspace people in China are Taiwanese too. The night of Day 10 consisted of a dinner at a Taiwanese place with my family friend. Yay Taiwan food. We were in some area of Shanghai where there is a large concentration of people from Taiwan… imagine Chinatown, except with Taiwanese people… and in China.
The family friend we stayed with ordered in breakfast for us, which was super nice and tasty. After a lot of hours of figuring out the rest of the day, we parted and went off to Chenghuang Temple (城隍庙) for some culture, touristy shopping, and good eats. At this point in our trip, we started thinking about purchasing souvenirs, so we obtained quite a few stuffed dragons. I just realized that we forgot to haggle, but we did walk around asking 4-5 different vendors for their prices before settling on one. It’s pretty neat to see what different vendors will quote depending on how foreign / touristy we look. I had the best luck when I asked without the others around. This particular vendor actually had 2 clerics who gave me 2 different prices — yes, I asked them both and then took the lower one. We also had soup buns, which are like bread bowls, but replace the bread with a bun.
We only had about an hour there before we rushed off for our (but really Nancy’s) presentation at Xinchejian (新车间), the Shanghai makerspace. Attendance was around 50, which was pretty freaking incredible. We showed my (actually Ben’s) MITERS documentary from my anthropology class, and I’m very glad that finally came in useful. There I met Professor Ben Koo at Tsinghua University in Beijing (as mentioned before, also Taiwanese), who gave us a lot of helpful information and even helped us with our plans the next day in Beijing! After the presentation, we had about 45 minutes of mingling before we rushed off to the train station to catch our train to Beijing. Everyone was very awesome, and everything was way way too rushed. As usual, we almost missed the train (this really needs to stop happening), but the traffic cleared up about halfway there and our 100USD tickets were saved. We got a soft sleeper compartment, which consists of 4 soft bunks for sleeping and a communal table that we used to pile all of our food. On the train, I realized that, for sanitary reasons, I actually prefer squat toilets to sitting toilets in Asia (this does not apply in Japan). Then the new year came (at least on this side of the planet), and though everyone else was already asleep, I found the train ride to be a very nice way to welcome the new year.
I should probably get some rest after this blog post; we’ve got a full day ahead for our first day in Beijing. So, real quick…
Our last plant tour was at a subsidiary of Asia Optical, where we toured molding and stamping facilities, primarily for consumer camera parts. We then spent a few hours at the Ninghe electronics market nearby. It wasn’t nearly as big as SEG, but it was sufficient for my needs. I got about 50x matching photodiode / LED pairs for ~5USD (also for the swarmbot project) and 9 USB webcams for ~33USD, roughly 4USD a piece (for a vigilance project perhaps). These might be foreigner rates, so it’s possible that I have been ripped off here, but I can’t really tell. Haggling and going around asking different vendors their prices for the same item were interesting experiences.
Then, our stay in Shenzhen came to a close and we flew to Hangzhou without a hitch. I was surprised to see that even short 1-2 hour flights serve food (as US airlines used to when I was a kid). I was also surprised to see a note left by my seat by the attendants to remind me to ask them for food because I was vaguely sleeping when they came by. Super nice! In Hangzhou, we had some traveling hitches on the way to the hotel, but eventually got there and met with OnionCapsule founder Vuvuzela + friends for a snack and a relaxing tour around.
Guanxi in Asia, which is the idea that everything is relationships, is quite something. Our tours for the day were made possible by the following relation: my friend’s father’s elementary school friend and his wife. One of our visits from Day 6 was made possible by the relation: my father’s brother’s wife’s college classmate.
We visited Colibri, an automation machinery design company and a small quantity high precision machine shop, and Great Wall, a consumer electronics assembly company. Great Wall was our only company visit conducted primarily in Chinese. It seems like a bunch of the places we have seen are fairly empty because of a combination of a bad economy (needing to pay more for operators) and because of the seasonal migration home for many plant workers. It would be cool to see some of these places again at their full capacity. As we saw it this time around, there was plenty of space to operate and move around, but we’ve been told that the plant floor can also be a sea of people during the peak season.
Also, en route to Colibri, as we exited the subway station, we were greated by a long line of illegal motocycle taxis. The transportation / taxi situation is really interesting in Shenzhen; it was the greatest “culture shock” I felt during our short stay in China. It’s a huge mess of taxi meters that don’t mean anything, drivers colluding, black taxis, illegal motorcycle taxis, and official taxis with unethical practices.
Later that day, we were tipped off that the taxi ride back to the hotel should not cost more than a few tens of RMB, but we had happily paid 110RMB in the morning for the same distance, so Nancy and I resolved to fix this on the way back. We started our price at 40RMB, but were unsuccessful with the first taxi driver, and the price was bumped up to 80RMB almost immediately. The driver wasn’t willing to drive us for 80RMB, so we decided to move on, but by that point, there were about 6 other drivers hovering around us, taunting either us or the first driver — I couldn’t really tell. Probably nothing bad would have happened, but it was 6 of them and only 4 of us, so I felt some chills, stood up straight, and walked calmly out of the ring of drivers. Feeling uncomfortable, we proceeded to walk down the line of cabs and resolved to take the first cab that would drive us for 80RMB. Immediately, one of the drivers from the ring ran up to us and agreed to drive us for that rate, so we patted ourselves on the back, and headed over… but realized he was not an official taxi driver, so we started our task over. The taxi drivers seemed to be colluding! There was this ~100RMB barrier for foreigners that the taxi drivers seemed extremely opposed to breaking. I believe we ended up paying a driver 90RMB to take us home and away from all that mess.
Our lunch was at a traditional Canton place with managers from both plants (+ friends), where there was basically a miniature market indoors with living sea creatures, tubs of vegetables, and counters stretching down a long corridor full of plates of potential dishes and you walk down ordering what you want. And then the sea creatures are slaughtered and the dishes are cooked, fresh. Our dinner, by contrast, was on our own, so being the college students that we are, we wandered into a giant supermarket and bought random pastries and things. We were later berated by real people for not eating a real meal.
We spent our evening at Chaihuo (柴火创客空间), the Shenzhen makerspace (our first makerspace visit in Asia!), where they had a show-and-tell organized, and they even advertised our attendance [src]. The space is very neat; it is divided in half, one part for working, the other for chilling and eating — ingenious. Their space is also super clean and organized, something I would not in a million years have expected. Attendance was in the 20s, and people talked about Seeed Studio, an upcoming Makerfaire in Shenzhen, a robot kit project, programmer board design, light sensors, etc. We talked about our projects and fielded questions about MITERS and MIT. Josh and Julian presented in English, and then Nancy and I presented in Chinese. Nancy was extremely well received, which was really nice to see. I mostly talked about my computer vision projects (Everything in the Kitchen Sink, Kinect Symphony Conductor, Maslab). Afterwards, we broke off into free form talking, and I was pleasantly surprised to see interest in my work. I feel like I don’t have a great sense of the place that software holds and its role in China. I know the strength of China in manufacturing, hardware, and electronics, so at first glance, software seems to be something on the backburner, something to get around to, something not quite valued. I very much hope to learn more about role of computer science in China. Anyway, I enjoyed our short time at Chaihuo very much.
I think at this point in the trip, I also started feeling super self-conscious about how Asian I looked — or rather, how Asian I don’t look. Multiple people were surprised that I spoke Chinese… and I’m in freaking Asia! Some combination of my height, my pale skin, my brightly colored clothing (why is everyone wearing dark clothing here?), my accent and lack of Chinese vocabulary, and my mannerisms probably gives it away, but I wish I knew the key factors that gave it away. I later felt redeemed (basically as soon as we left Shenzhen) because people started being surprised that I was from America. 🙂
Happy new year! We’re on our way from Shanghai to Beijing. Everyone is sleeping, and for whatever reason, I’m opting to write blog posts.
Protip: if you find yourself in a huge unfamiliar city with a population of 20 million and multiple city centers and have an engagement in an unfamiliar place about 40 minutes away, allot 3 hours to navigate there. That’s how long it took us to get to Seeed Studio to tour their space and have lunch with their CEO Eric Pan. Seeed Studio is basically the Chinese version of Sparkfun, and they supply small quantities of electronic parts as well as kits. I had never been to a space like that before, so that was neat. Eric and Steve (Engineering lead) took us out to eat amazing Hunan food, where the restaurant was decorated super patriotic because Mao Zedong (毛泽东) was from Hunan Province. I learned the term Manong (码农), which is essentially like “code monkey” and carries negative connotations. It is also interesting that Eric suggested we meet Ben Koo, described to us as a Taiwanese guy who is advocating the maker movement in China, because I got to meet him just a few days later in Shanghai (in fact, earlier today 12/31). It seems that the maker community in China is quite well connected.
We later went to the SEG electronics market, which was several buildings full of mouth-watering electronics of all kinds. Julian proposed staying there for the entire rest of our stay in Shenzhen. Nancy walked around contemplating whether or not to buy things. I got 50x vibrating mini-motors for my swarmbot project for about 12USD (and are 4.70USD apiece on digikey), w00t. Then we rushed back to Changan for a dinner with officials from Asia Optical and my dad, welcoming us to Shenzhen. I have to say, despite the fact that Shenzhen is a place of crude manners, everyone has been super welcoming of us. Anyway, at this dinner, we saw their customs of intense social drinking — continuous shots 37 proof alcohol for several hours. And the night ended with a couple hours of chilling with my dad. I’m really lucky to have seen my entire family on this trip. 😀
Now we’re on the Shenzhen subway system, on our way to our 2 plant tours for the day, giving me a few minutes to write. In case you haven’t noticed, I am backdating these posts to when I start writing even though it may take a while for me to actually finish writing AND have internet reliable enough to publish it.
Monday started at 7:30am sharp, when Josh and Julian knocked on our door. Oops, my alarm didn’t go off. Anyway, we rushed downstairs just in time to run down the street to catch the Asia Optical company shuttle to Dongguang, where they are based. From there our day was super exciting, we saw 4 product lines + 2 window tours at Asia Optical (lens polishing and optical prisms, high precision injection molding, light engine modules for pico projectors, scanner modules, laser range finders, lens modules for consumer cameras), a tour of the IC production process at GTBF, and a tour of the crystal oscillator facility at Failong. It was incredible.
We saw so many things at Asia Optical, including my dad’s line (pico projectors for Microvision), and even got to eat in the cafeteria along with everyone else. The food was pretty good, but there are different lines in the cafeteria for office workers (management, engineers, etc.) vs. the operators, so I can’t really say much about their food. At GTBG, I saw my new favorite machine ever, a piezofeeder, which uses various vibrations along a circular frame to orient tiny components (chips) such that they feed into the next system properly. Also, because of the nature of the manufacturing process, we wore bunny suits for a good portion of the tour, and we learned that they actually color the bunny suits to distinguish process engineers from maintenance engineers from customers from shift leaders from operators. Failong actually has a brand new campus. Apparently in China, it takes about 7 months to build a new campus of ~10 buildings, and it’s not even the fastest. The technology in Shenzhen today allows for a skyscraper in 21 days or 10 floors per day. Just based on how long it takes things to get built or fixed up on MIT’s campus, I have a feeling it takes much longer in the US. We later had dinner with my aunt (COO of GTBG) and Mike (General Manager of Failong), where we learned about the ritual for washing all the dishes and utensils with hot tea before use, and it was all very pleasant. Because of this meal, I believe that lotus root has been added to my list of favorite foods.
I feel like every day, we are ramping up for what is to come next. We’re getting more accustomed to Asia with each experience and having our hands held less and less every step of the way.
I have also noticed a tactic that my relatives often use to get me to accept gifts. They tell me that a particular gift is for my dad, friend, etc., and then I don’t even think to refuse it! This has happened 4 times on this trip now, and I can’t think of any way to counter it. Sigh.
Christmas Day, our last day in Taiwan, I started off the day by taking a leisurely stroll down the small mountain from the International House of Taipei. It was beautiful and low-traffic, with the occasional funny-looking bus.
I went and visited my relatives on my mom’s side, and of course they were wonderful. We went for hot pot, and it was a style of hot pot where each individual has their own little pot for cooking whatever. Everything was so delicious and I definitely forgot to take pictures. Apparently, at the moment, the cabbage was the most expensive thing there, even more expensive than all of the various meats. Afterward, I visited Jenny, my favorite dog in the entire world, and I think she might still remember me, even after 7.5 years!
Then it was off to the airport for our flight out to Shenzhen. By the way, everything is so cute in Taipei, including at the airport.
The travels to Shenzhen was pretty uneventful, and we were all a bit intimidated by the amount of smog we saw upon landing. A short car ride later, we met my dad at our hotel, which had been operating without power for the entire day. But about 15 minutes after our arrival, the power came back and everything was well. Also, the rooms are extremely nice (Western style, clean, etc.), and I feel like we’re getting spoiled. We are staying in Changan (…), about 40 minutes from Shenzhen. Changan is sort of like Vegas in that the government there has a lot of money, and the people who reside and work here don’t necessarily have much money, but the native peoples of the area get a lot of benefits for existing. We walked around Changan a bit, and it’s pretty amazing. There are 800K residents, and roughly 700K of them are young people (roughly college age).
One day behind. We’re on our way to China now, the land of the Great Firewall. The plane should be landing in Shenzhen (深圳) soon. To be honest, I’m nervous… and cautiously super excited, if that makes sense. I’ve been told for the last several weeks how much of a mess China is around this time of year (migrant workers, pollution, food and water safety), especially Shenzhen.
Julian didn’t join us for our adventuring on Saturday due to his architecture paper (from this past semester), but it sounds like he’s almost done so that hopefully won’t ruin any more fun for his trip.
We started the day off by making our way through the Taipei Metro subway system. The subway system is actually amazing, the best I’ve seen yet; everything is super clean and orderly. No food is allowed, and indeed, I never saw any food in the stations. The escalator has a sign that tells people to hold the handrail, and indeed all the way up, everyone was holding the handrail. The other amazing thing is that there are marked queues on the platform for entering the train, and people line up along them waiting for the train. Sometimes, the lines are so long that they extend down the platform to the next line / train door, but even when it is boarding time and there is another opening nearer to someone, the people still follow the queue they are in! No one seems to be particularly in a hurry, and everyone is amazingly friendly. Once, we got off a train and only looked around for about 3 seconds before an employee came over to ask us where we wanted to go.
The trains are beautiful too, and some lines have trains that don’t have doors between cars. I can’t comment much on the train engineering, but the stations and station maps are extremely well designed. Everything is intuitive and labeled well. After taking the subway just 1 stop the day before with Peter and Jessica, I felt like there was absolutely no problem navigating the subway system, even with only a vague grasp of the language. On the contrary, Boston’s MBTA took a bit of getting use to (inbound, outbound), and NYC’s MTA is still too much for me. Some of the bathrooms even have panels that indicate occupancy.
Later, we even visited the (or just one of?) Taipei Metro gift shop! They have a gift shop for their subway system! I appreciate their value of public transportation.
Anyway, we met up with Peter and Jessica again and had wonderful Shaobing (烧饼) and rice milk (米浆) for breakfast, followed by a visit to Long San Temple (龙山寺), a beautiful Daoist temple for Guanyin (观音), goddess of mercy. It’s about half tourists, half locals, and it houses shrines for all kinds of gods/dieties (I’m not sure the proper term). Sometimes, parents will come to pray that their kids do well on their college entrance exams, and so they will place a copy of their kid’s exam paper with their offerings. There are posters that inform you of whether you will experience bad luck in the coming year and it instructs you on how to best pray. Praying has been a bit commercialized as well. Essentially, people can pay for more luck and consolation, in the form of a small light that holds a person’s name is placed and lit around the temple for the new year.
We took a gondola (cable car) ride up a few hundred meters to Maokong (貓空) into the mountains of Taiwan and saw pretty trees and things. I saw (probably) the tallest giraffe in the world, which was painted onto a smoke stack sticking out of a garbage processing facility that we could see from a distance on the gondola. Unfortunately, I can’t find the picture now, but it definitely made my day. By the way, the gondola is just a part of the metro system in Taipei. The awesome view doesn’t cost much more than a normal subway ride (about 1.3USD instead of 0.60USD).
I rode a scooter for the first time on the way to visit my paternal grandparents, my aunt, and my uncle’s dog Happy, and that was really really great.
Another thing. Taiwan is crazy about recycling. They hit about 45% recycling rate in 2009, higher than the rate in the US (but I couldn’t find by how much). Almost 100% of people sort and discard their trash properly. Beautiful.
Somewhere along the way, we snuck off and got Jessica a cake because it happened to be her birthday! Happy 21st, Jessica!!