Archive for the 'preliminaries' Category

Settling in Shanghai

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

In less than 24 hours after I started looking, I signed a contract on an apartment in Shanghai. The rent is expensive by local standards, but almost a third of what I paid for my Tokyo and London apartments. 6000 RMB/month gets a one-bedroom apartment of around 55 square meters in a “serviced” building. Serviced means they have guards downstairs, maids if you need one, and a bilingual concierge who can send faxes and registered mail, and help with other things that require Chinese language ability.


It’s fully furnished, in the same building as Andrew’s place, directly across the street from the university, on the tenth floor, south-facing, very clean and quiet, but poorly insulated like all Shanghai buildings, so I wear a ski hat and fleece vest in the house. I am looking forward to spring!

I also got a mobile phone (I have to break myself of the habit of calling it a “keitai”) for 1000 RMB, an eight-month gym membership for 500 RMB (less than $100!), and some personal name cards with the Chinese name Yi Mao (no relation to the Chairman) gave me:

罗博特 = luóbótè = Robert

Admitted to Jiao Tong University

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

I got the letter today: I’ve been admitted to Jiao Tong University’s Chinese language program beginning next semester. Since I applied (Prometheus-fashion) for a dual-entry visa, I now have everything I need to start studying in February. I still need to find a place to live, but if a serviced apartment doesn’t open up before I return, I can just stay at the hotel for an extra $100 above the monthly cost of my own place.

I got my visa for Shanghai

Friday, August 29th, 2008

I got a two-entry visa good for six months. It cost £85.00. They don’t tell you they only take cash until you are already in line, I was lucky I had just gone to the cash machine. They also asked for my old passport since my current one is brand new — more luck that I brought it with me just in case. I got around the invitation problem by booking a hotel room that I can now cancel. A lot of bureaucracy and three trips to the consulate, but now I can go to Shanghai!

Meeting the mandarins

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

If you are going to China to visit a friend, you need a letter of invitation and copies of your friend’s passport and Chinese visa. I waited three weeks for an appointment at the Chinese consulate and that’s what they told me when I went there today. I have been invited back tomorrow since my flight to Germany is Monday.

I’m lucky I get a chance to practice dealing with Chinese bureaucracy even before I arrive!

Why I quit

Friday, August 15th, 2008

I’ve been off work for the past two weeks, but today is officially my last day. Not going into the office was surprisingly easy to get used to, but not getting paid is probably going to take more adjustment.

I decided to take a sabbatical to do some traveling before moving to Shanghai to study Mandarin. Since I announced my decision, I’ve received a lot of kind notes and encouragement from friends and even relative strangers. Many of them say that it is a brave thing to do. Is that code for “foolhardy”?


However much I love this company, the signals all point in the same direction:

  • I have been here for over seven years (in three different offices, sure, but that’s a long time relative both to my working life and to my age).
  • I have just wrapped up the current project I moved from Tokyo to accomplish.
  • The person I hired and trained as my successor is more than ready for the role.
  • I had a number in mind when I started this job, and I hit it last November.
  • I want to take a year off to travel at some point in my life.
  • The opportunity cost is relatively low: my salary is only going to get higher (making a year off in the future more expensive), and the credit crunch is likely to affect our bonuses (making this year the best one to miss a bonus, if I have to pick one).
  • The business team I work with is essentially the same as when I started — a change will be refreshing.
  • Moving to a new internal role would mean a 2-3 year commitment in order to make a real difference, which is a long time to wait if I do want to take a sabbatical.
  • I’m more likely to get my next big increase in responsibility by moving externally than by moving internally.
  • I’ve got a big birthday in November, and would rather mark this year than subsequent ones.
  • I am ready for a new adventure.


There is yet another good reason to move. I don’t think folks in technology give this much thought, but their trajectory is different from that of the business team (this applies mainly to the “partnerships” we develop in finance — if I were working for a technology firm, the following wouldn’t be as relevant). The IT “earning curve” starts off much higher than that of the typical business team member, but is flatter, which means that at some point, after more or less time being more valuable (as measured by compensation), technology is left in the dust. Here’s the chart:

This graph is based on real data, but I obscured the actual numbers. The first jump in the business line is moving from graduate to FTE. The jump in both lines between -3 and -2 is promotion to principal/vice president. The last data point for both series is just a continuation of the previous year’s progression to make the trend more visible. The red dot marks now, where the difference in values is currently just 2.3%.

What this chart shows is that I have exactly this year captured the last of the alpha to be gained from opting for a career in technology. In the next year or so my business counterparts will outpace me significantly and continue to accelerate. There are two possible responses if I want to avoid this:

  • Stay on the same curve but increase my y-coordinate (e.g. by changing firms, which usually entails an increase in responsibility and compensation).
  • Look for a new curve (e.g., by moving to a business team or joining a technology company where I can contribute directly to the bottom line).

What is consistent in both alternatives is the need for a move.


Finally, there’s the omen. The day after I handed in my resignation, I talked to a friend of mine on the trading desk in Tokyo. He said, “You’ll never guess what I did. I resigned! And you’ll NEVER guess what I’m GOING to do. I’m moving to Shanghai to study Chinese!”

My signals, my charts, and my friends all indicated it was time to take a risk!

An auspicious deight: 08/08/08

Friday, August 8th, 2008

When I was trying to set my last day at work, I angled for July 4th as an auspicious day — America’s Independence Day seemed like a good day to be free of a job. A month’s notice was too little for the team, it transpired, so we set August 1 as the day, a Friday. The following Friday might have been an even better date: 08/08/08 would be hard to forget.

At least a year ago, I predicted a spike in weddings and Caesarian sections on today’s date as people try to arrange a favorable beginning for these events. I read recently that entrepreneurs in Beijing were capitalizing on the first circumstance by booking wedding halls for August 8, then hiring them out at higher rates to less foresightful couples. For the second part, I don’t know for sure that the number of births will increase, or that anyone has figured out a way to make money from it, but I think it’s likely that anyone who was already planning a C-section around this time will go for the 8th, and that some people who weren’t planning one for medical reasons will do so anyway. I base this on the decision of a university friend to arrange 03/03/03 as his daughter’s birthday via C-section, motivated only by the desire for symmetry. [Update: I was right!]

Of course the other big event starting out today is the Beijing Olympics. Put births and the games together and you get this recent headline: “Over 3500 children named ‘Olympics’ in China”. If “Porsche” and “Mercedes” are legitimate aspirational names, maybe “Gold Medal” should be too.

What you sign up for when you resign

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Endless lectures! I mentioned before that I had talked to several long-term travelers to learn what their trips cost, what they learned while traveling, what advice they had to offer, etc. In addition to those mentioned earlier, I got histories from the following people:

  • Someone who left the company with a big enough package not to have to work again.
  • Someone who took four months off while transitioning from his job in Japan to a new company in the US.
  • An IT contractor in the UK who regularly takes a month or more off between assignments.
As with anything else, people have all sorts of opinions on how to spend your time when you’re not working. But whatever else people said, pretty much everyone said some version of the following:
  1. Make a plan — it’s very easy to let the time drift by and find your break is over before you know it.
  2. Budget about four months to recover/decompress/get back to your old self/repair your spirit (none of these phrases is my own…) after you quit working.
  3. Don’t buy a round-the-world ticket — you’ll almost certainly find a reason to stay in one place longer than your plan (see 1) called for.
I have a plan (of sorts), but I did buy a round-the-world ticket in spite of the advice. I will be sure to record my verdict on such tickets when (if) I make it to my destination.

Productive packing

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

In the last few days I have spent tedious hours on hold with British Telecom trying to cancel my service, and more hours wrapping various possessions first in tissue paper, subsequently in t-shirts, and finally in rubber bands with index card labels (very eco-friendly, I thought — I haven’t used any bubble wrap at all, and I have to ship the t-shirts anyway).

Of course one benefit of all this tedium is heightened anticipation of my coming freedom, but there was practical and artistic benefit as well: Practically, I learned that you can dial 170 70 in the UK and an automated service will tell you what number you are calling from. This is useful if you only got a phone line because British Telecom requires one to get broadband service (and so can’t remember your own phone number); according to the BT operator, it’s also useful if you are over at someone’s house and want to know your host’s phone number (I thought this was shady advice from BT). On the artistic side, while improvising a carrier for my formal cufflinks, I unintentionally created a Domo-kun-like monster.

When I was in San Francisco on short notice, I had to buy some new cufflinks, so I went to the Pink store and bought three versions of the same cufflinks in red, yellow, and blue. When I was back home in Tokyo, a friend of mine saw them sitting together on their little tray and said, Oh, it looks like a stoplight. I didn’t think it was funny at the time, because I know that Japanese people call the bottom light of a stoplight “blue” (and the stoplight itself will tell you in its mechanical voice when it’s safe to walk: “Ao ni narimashita,” which means, “It turned blue.”)

But when I was packing them today, I realized that what is strange is not that the Japanese word “ao” refers to stoplights — in fact, it’s easy to imagine an English color word like “sea-colored” that could refer to a range of things that are blue or green. It is strange, however, that someone looking at bright blue cufflinks would think that they looked like the green light of a stoplight. Does using the color-word blue for green things influence perception, or is Japanese perception different from mine? (They call the sun “red”, too, and little kids in Japan drawing a sun will choose the red crayon.)

Data normalization for your shipping container

Monday, August 4th, 2008

It to me a while to calculate this, but I figured out that this is my ninth international move and my 42nd move overall. I’m sure that’s higher than average, even in this footloose age. Luckily, I didn’t have to start the reckoning from scratch. I calculated several years ago that my family had moved 21 times before I turned 17, so I just added the moves from when I left for college (exactly double).

When you move internationally, you fill out reams of forms: volume estimates, insurance forms, customs forms, powers-of-attorney, and shipping inventories. All of these forms ask for basically the same information (what you are shipping, what it’s worth, where it’s going), and each time you move, you start from scratch, even if you are moving basically the same stuff (i.e., you haven’t acquired or discarded much). This sounds like an opportunity for automation!

When I was in Tokyo (two moves before the current one), I bought 28 clear plastic boxes with locking lids and printed out 28 A4 pages with the following information:

Property of Shanghai Bob (
Full contents online at


Box 1 of 28

Then I put the pages into plastic slip-covers (more plastic!) underneath the box lids. The main numbers are one-third the height of the page, easy to see without opening the box.

I use the numbers as IDs (primary keys) for an online inventory. Some of the boxes I don’t even open from move to move (old photos, archived files, etc.), so I don’t have to re-do any of that work. And if I move the contents of a smaller box to a larger one or vice versa, I just swap the ID pages and repoint the online content listing. When the movers come, I print out a copy for them and myself, and we use the same file for insurance.

When I store my stuff, I just store the boxes in numerical order. If I need something, I look the location up on my website. When I was in the US and my stuff was in storage in the UK, I needed my tux (dinner jacket) for the Christmas party. I looked online and saw that it was in box 13 — if only it had been as easy for my UK-based friend to ship it through customs as it was to identify the correct box.

Normally primary/surrogate keys don’t convey any information, but I took advantage of a few mnemonics: I put Christmas ornaments in box 25, my old (paper-based!) journals in 17 (my birthday), and my go set (a Japanese board game) in box five (the Japanese word for five is pronounced “go”).

My get-poor-quick scheme

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

As part of the wealth reduction plan I began by quitting my job, I spent the day giving things away: A futon from Isetan Tokyo; a magnetic whiteboard I had custom-made according to the golden ratio; a new leather Tumi computer briefcase; five large bookcases; cookbooks, a double boiler, an ice cream scoop, and other kitchen equipment; several “50 best” editions of Time Out I had collected (best websites, best breakfasts, best pubs and clubs, etc.). I decided to get rid of anything I could easily replace.

Homo economicus would reason that it’s cheaper to replace commodity items than to ship and store them. But the main motivation was irrational: I’ve had some of this stuff since university, and much of it since I moved to Tokyo over eight years ago. I believe (am hoping) that after this time off I’ll have a different perspective on the world, and perhaps even different ideals and goals. Do I want to come back to the same furniture?

I may have less cruft than some people since I’ve moved long distances often and have had correspondingly many opportunities to purge my possessions. But most of those moves were made quickly, and I never considered giving away items that still had substantial utility. Now that I have a few weeks to go through everything carefully, I’m testing things not according to their usefulness, but their replaceability.

Why give things away? I was not really tempted to sell my stuff on eBay largely because I don’t want to spend the last two weeks here taking and uploading photos and arranging to meet sometimes flaky potential buyers. But I am tempted to haul everything down to Brick Lane or Old Bethnal Green Road where my neighbors sell each other stolen bikes, used combs, half-complete Hogwarts Express train sets, and other inconsequential things from blankets on the sidewalk. The pre-internet eBay. I probably don’t really want to spend a day doing that either, though, so giving things away is a good option. My friends (or the local charity shops) benefit, and it turns out that I benefit too: Manny traded me a new backpack just the right size (and color!) for my trip.