June 28, 2004

Advertising Slogan

A computer reseller is trying to capitalize on the anti-outsourcing backlash by promoting their non-outsourced operation as "supporting America."

At a time when most companies are choosing to outsource to other countries, we're keeping our staff right here.

Of course, they don't mention that there's probably not a single American-made component in that computer of theirs, aside from the CPU. Hooray to MPC for preserving the jobs of the American salesman.

Posted by mikewang on 10:35 PM

Origins Notes, Part 2

I went to sleep earlier than my compatriots and I never sleep that well in hotels anyway, so I got up relatively early to find Chris sleeping on the floor instead on the half of the king bed that we'd saved for him. He just didn't want to disturb Mike since he didn't come in until 5:30am. The hotel room had free broadband, but there was one Ethernet cable for the three of us (hello Airport Express?), so I just checked a few quick things before hopping in the shower and going down for the free breakfast. Pretty solid perks for $130 a night, not to mention the great location.

Catan Came to Origins with the express goal of checking out the German board games, and I'd played way too much random crap yesterday. Today I was going to play what I wanted to play, instead of what they wanted me to play. Settlers of Catan was the seminal title that launched the German import-games phenomena in the US, but I've never got a chance to play it, since everyone else I meet in a gamer crowd have played it to death already and would rather play newer games. So I went over to the board gaming play area for a designated plain-jane (as opposed to Cities & Knights, Seafarers, Starfarers, or Stone Age Settlers, can you tell it's been a popular franchise?), low-key game of The Settlers of Catan. One of the players was a lady who was nice enough to explain the rules to the newbie, and there really wasn't that much to it (part of the reason for its popularity), but it had the appealing mix of strategy (resource allocation amongst divergent victory conditions) and luck (initial terrain layout, roll of the dice for your resource mix) that is the hallmark of German board games. Liked the group and stuck around to play a second game, which I even managed to win, thanks to some lucky Development Card draws (which I did have to allocate resources to pay for) that jumped me up in Victory Points. It was an interesting contrast between our genial four-player game with a woman and a girl, compared to the loud, cut-throat, backstabbing going on in the other Catan game with four gamer guys. Oh yeah, women like Settlers, too. Amazing how doubling your potential market helps sales.

I think I got good value out of that $1.50 event token. Thought about picking up a copy, but the three-person minimum is a real dealbreaker. Now it was already almost 12:30 and I rushed off over to the Hyatt conference room for the "CCGs And The Artists Who Love Them" seminar. The old-school Magic artists were well represented by folks like Mark Tedin, Liz Danforth, and Ed Beard Jr. There's also a new guy named Raven who's not in Magic, but did work on other WotC products. I was the only audience member not wearing all-black with multiple piercings. Mr. Beard drove the seminar, trying to drum some business sense into the young artists in the audience (i.e. not me). Many stories of dodgy contracts from fly-by-night companies, hardball contracts by the corporate giants, and sometimes just a low-ball offer out of the blue with no contracts at all. Unfortunately the problem seems to be a fundamental supply-and-demand curve, as there's much too many decent, even good, artists out there who are willing to work for peanuts just to see their work in print. Mr. Beard's fervent call for a sort of an illustrator guild sounded like utopia was within reach, but even he sounded a little resigned to the dog-eat-dog-ness of it all. Mr. Beard had just produced a (non-collectible) card game based on the Arthurian legends, and he got some gorgeous art by treating the artists fairly and calling in every favor he could. But in the end no matter how awesome the effort (e.g. Raven, who computer-illustrated megapixel-sized pieces of chainmail armor one link at a time), the art is still reduced to a few square inches on the card, and they absolutely had to get the game printed in China as American printers couldn't even come within order-of-magnitude. A minor rant at the end about outsourcing efforts (complaining about how Japanese artists have cheaper cost-of-living? what the hell?) and the manga/anime influence (hey, that's life as a commercial illustrator, gotta go with the flow). Nevertheless, a very informative and interesting seminar by cool people who love what they do.

It was already mid-afternoon by then, but I headed over to the North Market anyway to see what's left after the lunchtime rush. Wasn't excited by steam-table Chinese food. The deli was out of hot sandwiches, but the meat-loaf sandwich was good, and not something you can get at Subway. Now it was back to the demo room for some hard-core playtesting. Knocked off another Looney game or two at the Lab. I love how they come up with a million ideas using their stackable pyramid pieces, but I find that it would be more fun to program a computer to play some of the abstract games (I'd have to look up some tree-pruning algorithms, of course) than playing them myself. Went to the Rio Grande booth, who tends to carry more hard-core games. Puerto Rico had been their flagship title this past year, winning raves from all the board game geeks, but it was complex and required more than two players, which was not what I was looking for. Rio Grande had Andreas Seyfarth there at the booth, though, and I couldn't resist buying Puerto Rico and San Juan (the less complicated, card-game cousin of PR) so I could get them signed by the designer. Did get a chance to play Attika as a two-player game, which was alright, but it required matching lots of similar-looking tokens with hard-to-read names, plus they didn't have any copies for sale at the con. Oh well.

Hit up some artists to get Magic cards signed, including my beta Ancestral Recall. Sure, some might consider it marring a near-mint card, but I don't care that much about resale, anyway. Headed over to Mayfair, the other giant in the import-boardgame biz, anchored by the Catan franchise. In fact their booth folk wore cool University of Catan t-shirts. Played Dos Rios, which had a good mix of strategy, luck, and mutual backstabbing, as you moved campesinos around the game board to harvest fields that produce money when one of the two rivers flows through. The trick is that each player has dams that can alter the course of the river each turn to redirect the water to their own fields. Unfortunately, the game took a long time and there was a significant amount of downtime between turns. It was getting close to closing time in the exhibit hall by then, but we still had time for a quick game of Theophrastus (faster to play than to spell?). Apparently Theo (short for Theophrastus von Bombast der Hohenheim) was a real alchemist way back when. Anyway, the card-matching game played well enough, as a secret formula is built up in the middle and the players attempt to play matching alchemical elements in a limited number of actions. There are numerous strategic tradeoffs, such as playing a card face-up for less action points but informing your opponents, or play face-down in secret but then you may not have enough action points to complete the formula. You can also peek at face-down cards to find out pieces of the secret, or play cards to screw other players, at various expense to your action points. It's good enough, but I wasn't feelin' enough love to reach for the wallet. The demo guy also explained Alibi just before closing time. It's like Clue except you have cards in hand instead of a board, and there are about a hundred times more possible conditions than Clue. I guess I'd be more excited about it if I'd played Clue more than twice in my life. Hey, it was good for another Mayfair Demo Buck (a dollar off for each demo, up to 10% of your purchase).

LotR Minis You know somebody loves his job when he works voluntary overtime. After the Exhibit Hall closed, the Rio Grande people took their demo games over to the Open Play area for more play time. I wandered over after I took some pictures of the crazy-detailed Lord of the Rings miniature battles. Would've loved to participate, but one battle would've taken a whole day by itself. Been hearing good things about St. Petersburg, but Rio Grande only had one demo copy and people are lining up to play. We got a game of Marco Polo started in the meantime. It's a relatively simple racing game where you advance by melding cards, either matching colors or types, and each space requires a different melding criteria. You can also advance multiple spaces by jumping over people in front of you, so there's a lot of back-and-forth. We all wanted to get to St. Pete, though, and it was worth the wait. Each round, cards representing Workers, Buildings, or Aristocrats are turned over, and each player can pay money to buy cards. Workers tend to provide more money, buildings tend to provide victory points, and aristocrats can provide both. It's important to build up a base of workers early so you'll have money later on to buy VP-scoring cards. There's also a balance between buying cheap cards early, or saving up for an expensive but more point-per-buck card later. There are also discounting mechanisms if you're willing to wait for cards to come around the table again. I was able to win my game by buying multiples of the same Worker type (taking advantage of a discount for multiples), and then buying into slightly more expensive buildings that provided money along with VPs so I could roll into the Aristocrat phase with more money to spend than my opponents.

By the time we were finished it was well past 10pm. The meat-loaf sandwich was filling, but not that filling, and the other games looked like they were multi-hour affairs. So I headed across the street to Barley's Brew Pub, which was packed with convention-goers. My timing was good, and I scored a table without waiting. Mike had recommended the Scotch Ale, and it was tasty, with a light caramel color and a hint of the caramel flavor from the toasted malt. It was a good way to wash down the average burger-and-fries, anyway. Wanted to go back for more gaming, but the lack of sleep and lack of alcohol tolerance caught up with me and I staggered down the block back to the hotel to crash instead. I'm such a wimp.

Posted by mikewang on 01:33 PM

June 27, 2004

Origins Notes, Part 1

Met up with Mike at the airport, but couldn't check into the hotel until 3pm, so we stowed the luggage at the hotel and crossed the street to the convention center to stake out the scene. Sure there were plenty of people, but they had plenty of space, and time in Taiwan had inured me to crowds, even crowds of gamers. Mike went off in search of press credentials, and I went to get registered. The line moved surprisingly quickly, and before I knew it I was officially a part of Origins, originating from the lovely town of "El Lerrito, CA." Oh well.

Origins Registration Bought some event tokens, even though I wasn't thrilled with being nickel-and-dimed to death by event fees on top of the registration. Mike liked spending time with the Looney Labs folks in their Lab Room, so I followed along and put the tokens to use by paying for their demo series. You get a Fluxx promo card for demoing all their games, and I'm a sucker for giveaways. Of course, other companies are happy to demo their games for free in the Exhibition Room, but Looney does need to recover the cost of renting their own room, and it's always nice to have a mellow place to hang out at a hectic con.

I'd promised myself that I wouldn't play Magic at this con, but couldn't help but perk up and notice "Win Peter Adkinson's Magic Cards!" listed in the program. Went to check it out with visions of Beta and Legends packs dancing in my brain. In reality, the former CEO of WotC simply had a big stack (100, to be exact) of the Magic pre-constructed starter decks. Each person rolled D100 for a random pre-con deck, and if you beat Mr. Adkinson, you get a pack from the set corresponding to the pre-con. Frankly, Peter wasn't much of a Magic player, and with all the different sets involved the games went slowly as both players often paused to read the cards. Luckily the event was just around the corner from Looney Labs and I could get started on filling out my demo badge while Peter worked his way down the signup list. Even got a chance to scope out the Exhibition Room, which had just opened. Finally got my chance to play, and I got an Odyssey deck vs. his Urza's Destiny deck. The problem with playing decks from different blocks is that the blocks varied in power level. Odyssey was fine, but Urza's block was as strong as modern Magic gets, and my discard/direct damage deck had no way to stop his horde of beef. That's okay, I got my fix, and got to meet a minor gaming non-celebrity (and his dad, who's a cool guy, too). Yay.

Went back to the Exhibit Room for a more thorough walk-about. The usual suspects like WotC and WizKids had their massive booths up and running like the well-oiled corporate machines that they were. The board game companies had plenty of demo space set up to show off their latest European imports. The graybeard wargamers had their corner, as did the miniature folks. Did I mention I'm a sucker for giveaways? WotC had a program where you could roll a D20 for prizes ranging from a starter pack of Magic to a copy of D&D rulebook. Of course, the higher you rolled, the better your prize. The trick was that for each game you demoed (and get stamped on a record sheet), you got +2 to your roll. Now, D&D isn't really my thing anymore, but they had a stack of the new-and-improved Axis&Allies there to give away if you rolled 18 or better, and I really, really wanted that. So I spent the rest of the afternoon playing inane demos (NeoPets, anyone?) just for the stamps.

You play Magic?


Right, who doesn't? Let's just play this stupid demo game and get our stamps.

DuelMasters was the latest thing they were pushing, combining Pokemon-style anime/manga/multimedia mass-marketing with more Magic-like game mechanics with an eye toward upselling kids to the more complex game later. The game wasn't actually that bad (of course it probably seemed that way to me because I'm a Magic junkie), but I couldn't get over the whole exercise in cynical and derivative marketing. At least the Pokemon were kinda cute. Anyway, by the time I got enough stamps, the copies of A&A were long gone. Hopefully they'll have more the next day.

Now that the Exhibit Room is closing I went back to the Looney Lab for another random game or two. Should've gone to get food instead, because before I knew it it was 8 PM and I wanted to go check out the Origins War College Seminar, "Taiwan, the People's Republic of China, War, and International Law." Always interesting to see an unbiased outsider's view of the Taiwan vs. China thing. The lecturer was a law prof. at UVa, and the thrust of the seminar was to demonstrate the real-world importance of the subtleties in International Law, as demonstrated by the nuanced treatment of Taiwan's status in the international community despite its de facto independence, due to the fact that China cares so much about the word "independence" itself. No real earth-shaking revelations, really, but I did learn all about the parameters of internatiional waters.

It was well past 9:30 by the time I finished chatting with the guy. Good thing that there were still plenty of bars open nearby the convention center and hotel. Walked around until I found one that seemed relatively nice. The mushroom-beef sandwich was way too salty for me, but the onion rings weren't bad (it's been ages since I've had rings), and everything goes down easy with a fresh pint of Guiness. I just wished I cared about the NBA Draft more so the TV were more entertaining. It's been a long day at that point, and the beer convinced me to turn in early. The room was one king bed and a couch, so I kinda got the couch be default. It wasn't quite enough to stretch out, but I don't sleep stretched out anyway. Although I never got a chance to meet Chris C. our mysterious third roommate. Well, nothing wrong with sleeping with strange men occasionally.

Posted by mikewang on 03:29 AM

June 24, 2004

Origins Pre-Show Notes

Was bored at work in Taiwan one day and found out that Mike was still looking for a roommate at Origins. I was going to be in the States for the show, and I just got paid, so I said what-the-hell and booked myself a flight to Columbus, Ohio. Last-minute ticket price was a bit painful, but not totally out of line and I could swing it. Mike saved a hundred bucks on American, but he had to get to Columbus through Dallas. I paid extra and went UAL through Chicago.

Paying full fare has its good points, as I got an Economy Plus seat on the redeye to Chicago with no one in the next seat. Still couldn't really sleep, though, since I couldn't turn my head to the side without pushing on the Etymotic headphones, and I can't bear to fly without them in. For the first time I saw someone else wearing Etys on a plane, he had the ER-4P, with the green pod. Didn't try to greet my headphone brother-in-arms, as the Way of the Ety is all about blocking out external stimuli. Got into Chicago at about 6am local time, had 1.5 hrs before my connecting flight, so I could wander the massive concourse foraging for breakfast. Man, putting out fresh Cinnabons just as the redeyes come in is like a license to print money. Decided to skip the hyper-sweet treat, though, and kept going in search of coffee. So there was this one place with a long line, with a big sign proclaiming "Award Winning Coffee!" So I get my cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin. The muffin was the usual sweet, cakey stuff, about what I expected out of cheapie airport food. The coffee was pure swill, though. Even the Oakland Airport's brew is better. Sure, they don't really do justice to the Peets they purpose to use, but at least they make it strong enough to taste. Woulda loved to have a blueberry-millet muffin from The Cheeseboard with a latte from the real Peets Store #1.

Spent most of Wednesday looking through Magic cards. My goal for the convention was to not play Magic at all, but there were enough artists present at the show to make it worthwhile to sort through my entire collection picking out signable cards. Holy crap has Mark Poole done a ton of Magic cards, including some big-money ones. Debated with Sam whether to get my Alpha/Beta/Unlimited set of Ancestral Recalls signed. We'll see. In the end it's all about collectability rather than resale value for me anyway.

Got into Columbus and I'm killing an hour by writing this up while waiting for Mike to get in. Decided to bring the iBook along instead of the Powerbook. It's lighter and more durable, plus it's old enough so that it won't be a hideous loss if something happened to it, but it's still good enough to run MacOS X and the basics. Plus now that I have my array of USB-charging cables it's not that big a weight trade-off between the iBook and the two or three bricks that I would've had to bring without the computer. Hopefully there will be some sort of access at the Con so I can upload this.

Posted by mikewang on 03:17 PM

June 23, 2004

Altitude 35,000ft, airspeed 605mph heading east along the TPE-SFO great circle, north of Hawaii

Heading back to the States after a month in Taiwan. Felt like the time went by awfully fast, but it also feels as if it was much more than just one month. Got a job, got a girlfriend, both kind of by default, although it did require that I'm relocating halfway around the world, so it wasn't totally trivial. Although when it came to the fork in the road, I do feel as if I'm taking the road more travelled by.

Yes, nepotism is good, as I kept alive my lifelong streak of not ever honestly looking for a job. Uncle initially suggested that I not be on the payroll, so I wouldn't have to punch the clock and come and go as I like. Perhaps he was skeptical as to whether I could keep up witht he 8am to 5:30pm workday, especially with the one-hour one-way commute from home. Anyway, mom told uncle that it's a dumb idea, and I stuck to the schedule, so after a week, the personnel lady came by with my employee ID and I was officially on the clock. I even got my company jacket, which was nice to have because they jack up the AC pretty good at the office. Of course, it wasn't really my work ethic or anything, but because I had to be officially employed to get a National Health Insurance card, not to mention the bank account, credit card, and cell phone. Thankfully the company people helped me set up all these trivial but vital living details that I hate dealing with, especially now that I'm functionally illiterate. The managers are all old hands so they know mom and know my relations. The regular peons don't know that I'm related to the boss. I've just told them that I came back from the US to take a job. Some might've noticed the special treatment, though, like how I'm not doing all that much work, and how the accounting lady handed me $20K in travelers checks to take home to mom (I held on to my bag with a death-grip on the way home that day).

So what am I doing to earn my keep? Darned if I know. Uncle was forcefully vague in what he wanted me to do, so the manager couldn't really order me around. So all I got was an endless stream of email to wade through as uncle made the Foreign Sales team CC me on all their communications. This made things awkward on the US end for uncle WS as his salespeople are suddenly CC'ing all their sensitive intra-company talk to this random spud in Taiwan who doesn't say anything. He wasn't inclined to tell them about the family relations, either, so he made up some excuse or another. Most of the emails are mundane inquiries for pricing, customer contacts, or product specs. More serious are the backorders. Seemed quite serious to me (more than 400?), but apparently it's actually gotten better, as strong demand coupled with a bungling Oracle ERP rollout really screwed the pooch for a few months. Thankfully uncle had ordered new machinery last winter in expectation for next year's workload, but now each machine is being pressed into service as soon as it arrives at the factory.

The Rube Goldberg-esque dance between US sales, Taiwan HQ, and China factory works most of the time, but the communication breaks down when there's a product failure. The customer demands a Failure Analysis Report, US forwards the failed samples and customer description to the factory, who does the labwork and sends HQ a report in Chinese. Taiwan checks the report and translates it to English before sending it to US who then passes it on to the customer. It's not surprising that details are lost in this big game of Telephone, so customer gets annoyed when we don't address their conern (that was never passed to the factory), or asks for info that they already provided. Sometimes the factory just gives plain weak answers (reminiscent of my days in Physics Lab), and HQ personnel don't have the technical expertise to recognize the BS and crack the whip (plus they're being hassled by US to hurry the hell up). It's especially bad when the customer hands us a technical analysis of their own. The US and Taiwan people don't want to translate a long technical document, so they dump it all on teh factory, who promptly ignores it and write their usual boilerplate report. Then the customer chews out the US salespeople when our answers are useless. One case was on the second go-round of reports, and we were in danger of losing a $500K account because we couldn't be bothered to respond to their points outlined in a 20-page document (complete with a dozen graphs, Monte Carlo simulations of failure rates, and even their own suggested solutions). The case was being escalated to the uncles, so I wrote up a memo emphasizing the issues in the customer's report and some suggested responses. Took me way to long to pinyin it out in Chinese, but I sent it out before the factory came back with another useless report. Hopefully it'll do some good, but I'm not expecting much. Still, I need to make myself get off my ass and be proactive, more like The Apprentice than Dilbert. Oh, I also corrected some typos in another document going out to a customer. It'd be fucking embarrassing if a semiconductor-related company didn't know the difference between silicon and silicone.

I sit upstairs with the IT guys, so I overhear the joys of running the ERP. Talk about a boondoggle. Uncle doesn't worry about the tech stuff, so the IT manager has free rein, and he might just have enough rope to hang himself with it. He's promising lots of cool business intelligence reports, etc., but right now it's just a big, sucking hole. Right now everyone has to use the painfully convoluted Oracle interface (all in Java!) to enter the data, but there's no useful results coming out yet. So everyone is doing twice as much work for no apparent benefit. Meanwhile, IT is flying by the seat of their pants, as they have to keep the production environment running even as they try to cut down and customize the endless (and mostly useless) features of the do-everything package so it actually fits our business. Oh, they have to translate the interface to Chinese, too. They're so busy ticking off implemented features that usability has totally gone to hell. To import a simple text file of purchase orders requires two FTP sessions, two imports, five parsing attempts, three printouts of raw Oracle error logs (after each parse attempt fails), and even then all the items might not import correctly because some new widgets might not have product numbers (i.e. primary key in the database) yet. Can't entirely blame IT, though. Took a peek at the manuals, and holy crap is PL/SQL the worst language ever. It's some unholy marriage of Pascal and SQL. No wonder they can't get shit done. And IT does have things set up so my PowerBook interoperates pretty well with the corp network, so they're not all bad. Humping the 15" PB to and from work every day is starting to get tiresome (literally!), though. I do have to log into the Linux server and use X11 and console programs to get my IM on, which is inconvenient but necessary. As Sam said, "That's some hardcore slacking."

And what of the girlfriend? Well, she's smart enough, she's pretty enough, and damn it I like her, even though I hate to let mom and Aunt Dai have their way so easily. She's nice without being overly sweet, practical without being dull, likes kids, and gets along with her (extended family. Even she admitted that she wouldn't stand out in a crowd, and I wouldn't be chasing after her if we passed by on the street. On the other hand, once one gets to know her ( and the moms made sure we had plenty of chances), she's perfectly likable. In fact, you'd have to be a real big meanie to dislike her, unless bust size is a dealbreaker for you. And if that were the case you probably fall into the Big Meanie category anyway. The reql question, I suppose, is why she'd bother with me, considering that in Taiwan, I have the vocabulary of an articulate 3rd grader, with even less of a life than I do in the States. Oh, and just as I was about to ask her true feelings I broke out with a bunch of hideously huge zits, including one right on the tip of my nose. Nevertheless we both managed to stammer out that we both kinda liked each other and let's give this thing a shot. Maybe it's just that we're both at the stage where we're both ready to settle, and it's so much easier not to have to worry about family approval, etc. Heck, she wouldn't even have to change her name if we get married, can't get easier than that. We're both a little skeptical that the other is going along just because of family pressure, and we're probably both right. Still, surely it's a good sign that I can be with her and feel the euphoria of new love without the insidious fears that turn me into the usual (and very unattractive) nervous wreck.

Went to a performance of the Bach violin concertos as our first official date. Sure's a lot easier to stay awake through the adagios when someone's there to hold your hand. Unlike the poor kid next to us who couldn't sit still when I told him that Game 3 of the NBA Finals was on TV at the same as the concert. Even after I told him it's a rerun and the Lakers already lost the game by 20 points. Love Bach, and I know the violin concertos about as well as I know any piece of classical music. Nevertheless, the best part of the night was just going to a coffee shop afterwards to just sit together and chat until closing time.

Well, that's as far as I got at landing time. Got home, opened up the computer and was on the Net, turn on the TV just in time to catch the last inning of the Giants game on TV (we won). The dog took a sniff, recognized the familiar scent, and it was as if I never left. Boy was Laika glad to have us home. More people to play with, more people to feed him treats. I'm still having a bitch of a time getting over jet lag, though. I get too lazy at home and crash for a nap in the afternoon instead of struggling through like I should, so I never quite get back on phase. Maybe I should look into serotonin.

Posted by mikewang on 08:07 PM

June 12, 2004

Blast From The Past (Software Division)

Thanks to the Apple Knowledge Base Changes RSS Feed I can keep up with all the latest-and-greatest additions to the official source of Apple technical wisdom. Then this article pops up amongst the latest changes:

Mac OS 8.6: What's New - LaserWriter 8.6.5

This article outlines the features of LaserWriter 8.6.5.

Date Modified: June 11, 2004

Yikes, I didn't realize that there was still demand for support for Mac OS 8.6. Although 8.6 would be perfect for that PowerBook 1400 that's now gathering dust at home. I think I still have that install CD around somewhere...

Posted by mikewang on 02:53 PM

June 10, 2004


The rumor sites' speculations hit a feverish pitch in anticipation of Apple's release of upgraded G5 PowerMacs. The old fruit company threw everyone a curveball, though, with the introduction of the Airport Express. It was a brilliant idea, to have Steve Jobs do what he does best, namely flashy product intros, at the WSJ D: All Things Digital Conference in front of tech-luminaries and financial bigshots. The money guys must've had their BlackBerries handy, as AAPL jumped to a 52-week high after the demo.

So what the hell does it do? It doesn't julienne fries, but that's about the only function it's missing:

  • It's an 802.11g base station that happens to be the size of my PowerBook power brick.
  • It also has bridging capabilities, to attach a wire-only device wirelessly to an existing base station.
  • It supports WDS, which makes it a wireless repeater that extends the reach of the wireless network without requiring a wired connection between the antennas. Apple specs limit the feature to only interoperate amongst Apple stations (Extreme or Express). However, other manufacturers using the same chipset may also work.
  • It's a wireless USB print-server. So all the wired and wireless computers on the network can transparently share the same printer.
  • Last but not least, it takes iTunes (on PC or Mac) streams and outputs the music through an analog or digital line out. With the Apple Lossless Encoder, one can have bit-perfect, digital, wireless music streaming from the computer all the way to the receiver. It's one of those things I figured I'd be able to do when I eventually build an HTPC, but to hell with Frankenstein hardware and kludgy software, when we have this one box that does it all for $129.

I spend a lot of the time sitting in the living room in front of the big stereo while surfing with the laptop, but I still swap CDs when I listen to music because mom wouldn't stand for a patch cord running across the floor. Now I can beam iTunes directly over to the Airport Express and run a TOSLINK cable to the receiver with no loss in quality, and I can plug the Tivo into the Ethernet port to wirelessly bridge it to the main router. Throw in Bluetooth remote control using my phone with Salling Clicker, and the whole combo is hotter than sex-on-a-stick. Too bad it won't be out until mid-July. Hopefully I'll be able to grab one before I go back to Taiwan.

Posted by mikewang on 07:08 AM

June 09, 2004

Outsourcing Extreme

Taiwanese companies have been making a living as Original Equipment Manufacturers ever since Taiwan was a third-world speck of an island gluing together shoes and plastic toys. They've climbed up the value chain ever since, until they've become high-tech powerhouses in their own right. Nevertheless, an OEM still only takes orders from their overseas masters, churning out whatever widget that's demanded of them. However, as they gain technical expertise (and becomes threatened by mainland Chinese manufacturers), Taiwan business have moved into the Original Design Manufacturing space, taking another step up the supply chain.

For example, Gateway is buying LCD TVs from Quanta Computer on an ODM basis, with Quanta responsible for product design, manufacturing, testing and logistics services, said the sources. Quanta also produces Siemens ST55 handsets and Panasonic X300 handsets on the same conditions, the sources added.

It's one thing to ship a few code-monkey jobs offshore, but if you're letting someone else do the design, manufacturing, testing, and logistics, then is it really your product at all? Now that Gateway's closed all their retail stores, they don't even have a physical presence as an advantage. All that's left is a hollow brand and some cow-themed cardboard boxes (do they still have those?). Companies in Taiwan are starting to establish their own brand presence here in Asia. How much longer before they start selling the products that they designed under their own label? If only they could hire some copywriters that spoke decent English.

Posted by mikewang on 03:46 PM

June 07, 2004

Computex Notes

Wanted to check out Computex, since it featured all those computer and electronics companies that buy our blinkenlights. Unfortunately, the show was going on during working hours, plus the first four days of the show were for industry only. The show opened to the public on Saturday, though, for a 200 NTD ticket. Didn't want to go initially, as I was expecting the entirety of the Taiwanese geekdom to descend upon the Taipei World Trade Center. But the show was literally down the street, and it wasn't as if I had anything better to do in the afternoon. So I walked over after lunch hoping that the worst of the crowds have dissipated. The show filled up all three halls of the TWTC, plus there was an overflow hall elsewhere. Took me a while to find the ticket window at the main hall. I couldn't follow the crowd in because the crowd was everywhere moving in all directions between the halls. Yeah, it was crowded, but not any more so than your usual weekend crowd at the nearby Mitsukoshi department stores or the Warner Village theater/mall complex next door. Circled the aisles of the main hall, which was filled with peripheral and component makers. IMG_0109Does the world really need 53,276 brands of wireless modems. I guess so, in order for there to be one named Assmann. Not to mention there were at least twice as many brands of flash MP3 players and USB thumb drives. Hard-disk-based portable video players were starting to show, too, although all of them were hideously clunky compared to the iPod. I'm glad I got the bluetooth option for my computer and cell phone, as BT peripherals are starting to plunge into the pricing pit of Chinese commoditization. The chipsets are out there, and everyone is slapping them into headsets or mice or whatever. Screw the Logitech MX-900. Really wanted a Bluetooth mouse, but not for a hundred friggin' bucks.

IMG_0116 BenQ had a big booth featuring everything but the kitchen sink. That'll be next year, once they wirelessly Net-enable it or something. Lots of flat panel displays, notebook computers, and people crowded around the digital cameras and cell phones. That whole area was extra-crowded, as BenQ had lots of consumer-friendly stuff on display, while nearby booths were doing give-aways, which is guaranteed to draw a crowd that's not afraid to get down and dirty for that free t-shirt. Decided that I was too damn soft to fight with the natives, and went over to Hall 3 instead after picking up some measly pens and a magnet. IMG_0110 That hall had themed pavilions like Security, IP Telephony, Networking, and Microsoft. The Japanese pavilion featured a heat-pipe heatsink company that showed off totally fanless Athlon 64 and Intel Prescott systems, which was pretty damn impressive, although the CPU heat sink was almost as tall as the Taipei 101. Also found a little booth on the side selling random USB-powered gadgets. Bought a retractable cord to recharge my new cell phone off the computer's USB port, which means one less brick I need to bring with me. Oh yeah, that made my day, even more so than the chicks in vinyl.

Finally made my way over to Hall 2, which was where the motherboard manufacturers were showing off. They are the heart of Taiwan's computer industry, and they brought the bling-bling to the big show. Unfortunately the show was down to its last hour, and I couldn't get around to all the booths to check out the booth babes. I also didn't quite have the chutzpah to just go up to the girls and snap away with my little Elph, unlike the leering dudes with their bulging camera bags and full-size Nikon SLRs. Asus Ruby Although I did my share of leering at the Asus girl dressed up as Ruby, the (computer-generated) model in the ads for the ATI X800 graphics card. Velour is way nicer than vinyl, and she was the only booth girl that wasn't thin as a stick. Oh well, it's stupid to try to compared tech specs at a noisy show, when it's so much easier to just check them out online. And if those girls weren't pimping computer hardware, they'd probably be on a roadside shack selling betel nuts anyway. Talk about a hostile work environment for the normal female booth staff, though.

Posted by mikewang on 09:45 PM

June 04, 2004

Significant Alerts

SigAlerts have become part of the vernacular, especially on drive-time radio. It's never good news to hear that there's a traffic jam up ahead, but it's better than not knowing, even if sometimes you have to resign yourself to a stop-and-go fate. Anyway, I've always wondered what the "Sig" in "SigAlert" stood for. "Signal" always seem liked the most likely guess, but the LA Times Obituary set the world straight. The SigAlert was actually named after a person, Bill Sigmon.

In Los Angeles, he set up a system [in 1955, at radio station KPMC] that enabled police dispatchers to transmit an inaudible radio tone that could be picked up by special SigAlert receivers in local radio stations. The receivers would then tape-record the dispatcher's emergency bulletin and flash a red light and sound a buzzer to alert the radio-station engineer.

By pressing a button, the engineer could broadcast the message to listeners in a matter of seconds.

I didn't know there was an actual system to it. That's so cool.

Five decades later, the SigAlert tops everybody's list as one of the most distinctive aspects of L.A.'s car culture, said Matthew Roth, founding curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum and historian for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

"It's uniquely Angeleno that this guy came up with this, broadcast it daily and it became a mark of local experience," Roth said. "It's the perfect summary of a large swath of daily life here."

Well, I'm not sure if I'd go that far. When you consider that a SigAlert is now issued only when one more more lanes will be blocked for more than half an hour. Hmm, I guess that does make it a major part life in Los Angeles after all.

Posted by mikewang on 08:47 PM

June 02, 2004

Arriving Las Vegas

Despite all its faults, I still consider the New York Times a fine newspaper. From the way they still refer to everyone as "Mr." or "Mrs.", to the fact that they still actually gather their own news, they provide a factual base for the national debate, no matter what biases you think they have. Beyond news, the feature articles allows the journalists to actually show off their writing, while adding some richness to the mix of dry reporting.

"The portable," its ceiling tiles decorated with bright butterflies with coffee-filter wings, is an apt metaphor for Jennifer Noble's unsettled year. Like so many Las Vegas pilgrims, Mrs. Noble, a veteran teacher of radiant calm whose features evoke Vermeer, moved here after giving up on California. She had lived there as a child and moved back with her husband, Chris, but after their twins arrived, the couple realized that the salaries of even an experienced teacher and a talented young chef did not jibe with California's vaunted promise.

I like how they slipped in a Vermeer reference, especially in the context of an article about Las Vegas. I guess if you're being pushed out to San Bernardino and Riverside for affordable housing, then you might as well as keep going on I-15 and go on to Vegas, since by then you're getting all the worst parts of the sprawling desert while missing out on the good things about California.

Posted by mikewang on 08:02 PM

Can't Go Home Again

With the troop rotation under way, many soldiers are finally returning home after a year (or more) of serving in Iraq. But after a number of returning soldiers killed their wives at Fort Bragg, the army is now enforcing a psychological debriefing session to reintegrate them into home life.

Still, when he drives, he says, he finds himself scanning the roads, imagining bombs in bags of trash and potholes. Sometimes he studies Junction City rooftops for snipers. And he often wakes from dreams with the rattling boom of an explosion right beside him.

I guess it's not so easy, even with a supportive family. For those without an external support system, the VA might not be enough help. I still remember all the homeless vets holding signs on street corners near the UCSD VA Hospital. Most of them were Vietnam-era guys, but how many of the soon-to-be veterans from Iraq will meet the same fate?

This is the often-unacknowledged postscript to military service. According to the federal government, veterans make up 9% of the U.S. population but 23% of the homeless population. Among homeless men, veterans make up 33%.

Their ranks included veterans like Peter Starks and Calvin Bennett, who spent nearly 30 years on the streets of Los Angeles, homeless and addicted.

Or Vannessa Turner of Boston, who returned injured from Iraq last summer, unable to find healthcare or a place to live.

Compared to war veterans, mid-20's slackers boomeranging home to their Boomer parents seems like a chicken-shit cop-out of a phenomenon. Of course, I personally identify more with the latter than the former scenario.

Marooned in sun-fried Coalinga, his white Bronco piled with everything he owned and breathing its last from a blown transmission, Christopher Jones took stock of his 25-year-old life: No job, no girlfriend and, in the cruelest stroke of all, he was moving back to Burlingame to live with his parents, two younger siblings and Spunky, the cat.

I've done my share of driving through Coalinga on I-5, and believe me, it's not a place where you want to get stranded. Thankfully I do have my parent-paid-for AAA membership so I could at least get a tow out of the hellhole should it be necessary. On the other hand, if you try to zip through Coalinga too fast, there's the CHP station right there to nail you to the wall.

Christopher's presence has necessitated other adjustments. The food bills have soared. Bob Jones has learned he can't leave beer in the fridge if he wants to be sure he's the one who gets to drink it.

Dude, not paying rent is alright, but you can't take another man's beer when you're living in his house. That's just not cool. Now, if Christopher is moving back to the Bay Area in search of a job, he can freakin' forget about it. Companies are shoving their IT guys out the door as fast as possible, as part of their "Workforce Management Program," and the few survivors are asked to dig their own graves by training their outsourced counterparts.

For months, Cotterill had watched as foreign IT personnel began occupying cubicles in his work area. They were employees of Satyam Computer Services Ltd., the Indian firm hired to take over most of Agilent's IT operations. Some stayed in Santa Clara, and some went back to India to oversee the work of other programmers. A Satyam executive declined to discuss the firm's work at Agilent.

Last month, Cotterill received a memo informing him he would be taking part in the Knowledge Transfer process. "Hello All," it began. "Attached is the first draft of the training calendar for the KT. If you are being sent this message, you are one of the trainers."

Once the knowledge transferring is done, it's out the door for Mr. Cotterill, three months short of qualifying for early retirement. Gee, what a coincidence.

Friday afternoon, Cotterill cleared his desk and turned in his computer gear. His manager approached him and apologized for not arranging a department luncheon. They talked for a few minutes, then the manager began preparing a Functional Exit Interview Memo he wanted Cotterill to sign.

"When he started filling it out, he asked me how to spell my name," Cotterill said. "I've been working for him three years, and he still didn't know how to spell my name."

I am the absolute worst at remembering people's names. But then I don't have anybody working for me, either. So the hard-working 54-year old is now in the same shape as the slacking 25-year old. No girl, no job, wondering what to do with their lives. Except 54-year olds don't have understanding parents with paid-off houses to go back to.

Posted by mikewang on 08:33 AM