Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day, Green Hats, and a Weird TIL

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

This morning, I noticed some people walking around with green hats. Which I think is perfectly fine, but the Chinese in me always thinks of our good-natured taboo of wearing green hats.

A lot of green hats. I sure hope that it's got nothing to do with marital strains. Credit
You see, the phrase "wearing a green hat" is a euphemism for "cuckold", or the deceived husband in an extramarital affair. So when we say in Chinese that Mr. Wang is wearing a green hat, what we really mean is that Mrs. Wang's been a bit naughty. As you might imagine, the association has made it increasingly difficult for modern Chinese to literally wear green hats. Hence, the presence of any green hats is made all the more noticeable in daily life.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Is This How LV Cornered the Chinese Market?

I found myself on the homepage of eBay when this item caught my eye.

Yup. That's a Louis Vuitton Thermos. Now, before you wonder, I own absolutely no Vuitton items of any sort. Unless you count a very obviously imitation wallet that I purchased in China many years back. It was a piece of crap and didn't last very long.

If this isn't how the luxury goods giant conquered the hearts (and wallets) of Chinese consumers, then this is surely how they'll do it going forward.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

PSA: Eating these will not make you skinny.

... but NOT EATING these could.

Now at your local Costco and other fine stores: A brand that could only be formulated by the marketing team of the largest multinational food and beverage conglomerate in the world. Mmm. 150 calories that I didn't need in the first place....

And don't you just love that sexy, malnourished cartoon cow?

What's this?! Another product with the word "skinny"? non-GMO Popcorn? AND it's GF! Gee, I'm not even remotely attracted to popcorn, but hey, it's GUILT-FREE, right? Not exactly. But it's only 39 calories per cup of guilt. Never mind that measuring popcorn (i.e. mostly air) by the cup is perhaps a little disingenuous.

A Bit About Me and Japan

You might have noticed quite a bit of stuff on my blog relating to Japan. I wanted to give an explanation of why.
Me in Tokyo for the first time 1997. Yes, I was a fat kid.
For those of you who don't know me personally, I'm Chinese but also speak Japanese. I started taking classes during freshman year of college, and continued to study it for all four years. After spending part of every college summer in Japan, I also lived and worked in Tokyo for my first job out of school (eerily, I worked in one of the buildings you see in the background of the photo above). Thanks to the country's outrageously generous subsidy for foreigners via the national rail pass, I have now have visited more places in Japan than most Japanese people.

This is a short story of how I got started, and what it means to me today.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Badly Translated Engrish Menus

I think most of us have seen bad Engrish, right? This menu was sent over by a dear friend, was probably one of the single worst best examples of a total machine translation FAIL and an absolute Engrish GOLDMINE.

I'll have you know that "F*ck to fry the cow river" happens to be one of my favorite Canto dishes!

So what did the cold cow pick?

I'll have one The row of Spain, please.

Tell me about The carbon burns... is it hot?

The red double is pleased, and so will you.

Did they make you laugh? It's hilarious when you have absolutely no idea what is going on. It's even funnier if you know a bit of Chinese (especially Cantonese, in this case), English, AND have an understanding of how Google Translate works — or in this case, doesn't work.

I hope, however, that it doesn't put anyone off actually eating at this restaurant. If I screen out the translation, this actually looks like a pretty tasty menu. Any questions of what these items actually are meant to be translated as? Let me know and I'm happy to explain.

Special thanks to Ting at A Long Happy Life blog.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Killing Them (Not So) Softly: BART and Your Eardrums

For anyone who has taken the BART in San Francisco, and for anyone who takes it every day, you know that these trains are loud. Like, really loud. In fact, if I didn't have my in-ear headphones, I would have to cover my ears through some sections.
For my own sake, I needed to know whether taking the BART would affect my hearing over the long term.
(Image: Wikicommons)

But just how loud is it?

First Week in Review

This little blog project just made the one week mark, and what a week it has been!

In the first seven days of writing, AJ got 1,400 visits and over 3,000 page views. Sorry there isn't more content (yet), but I've got to start somewhere.

On the Finance channel, I wrote about how I got started with personal finance so long ago, and why you're better off investing in your own financial education instead of line an advisor's pockets.

On Food, I started the channel off with an introduction to what Chinese eat to celebrate the first full moon of the year. I then did a two-part investigative series on fake Japanese food — and I don't mean those plastic models you find behind the glass in front of Japanese restaurants.

On Tech, I explained my reasons for starting a tech channel, and how I hope to dig deep into the tech topics and the startup world. I then did the complete opposite and go into full-on Apple Watch mania, trying to put the wtf-ness of the gold watch pricing model into perspective.

Finally, on Travel, I started putting up a photo a day. Each photo carries an endearing memory of the place that I visited, and I just love being able to share that. Here's the first, from Miyazaki, Japan:
Happy Feet.

Thanks again for reading, and follow this blog on Facebook me on Google+ (for the latter, that'll be a grand total of none of you).

Monday, March 9, 2015

Apple Watch: This Just Got a Little Ridiculous, But I Still Can't Help Myself

Did you watch Apple's announcement of all the juicy details surrounding the Apple Watch today? For the first time, I noticed that they actually provided their own real-time blog of the event. As my boss put it, every single one of these announcements is like a master class in PR.

Let's get one thing straight. If you can afford $17 grand for ^this watch here and are still using an iPhone 5, you need to re-examine your life priorities in so many different ways.
Having watched the presentation, I can safely say that my mind is blown. No, not because of the amazing amount of time dedicated to explaining the new "butterfly" mechanism on the next-gen Macbook keyboards. I meant mind blown in terms of what those fancy gold Apple Watch Editions cost. What. The. What.

$10,000.00 (<-- this is the way that Apple lists it, by the way. Ten thousand dollars, and no cents. Clearly, they're not here to nickel and dime you to death.)

And that's only a starting price. 10 grand will get you the smaller of the two watches, in gold, but with a rubber bracelet band. Yeah okay, that's going straight into your overpriced SimpleHuman trash can. Sure, you can always front the $450 for that stainless steel link bracelet, but no, you need some thing more exclusive. Something EDITION.

So you get an upgrade to match your rose gold together with a rose-colored leather band. And a couple grams more gold for that clasp. The damage? $17,000. (and 00 cents). That's a seven thousand dollar difference. We've gone from innovative product to class warfare during the course of today's presentation.

Giving Apple the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this is Apple's way of "taxing" the super rich. After all, materials aside, this is essentially the same product. The innards work in the exact same way, but the relative cost — $350 for the cheapest vs. $17,000 for the most expensive — is a multiple of nearly 50x! Believe it or not, that's actually a lot more flat than the average CEO-to-worker pay disparity among the S&P 500, at over 200x. But I'll save that for another chat on my Finance channel.

Media everywhere are now calling Apple Watch the most expensive product, ever. Nominally, yes. But once upon a time, Apple made computers. And extends back to when computers were rather expensive:

The Apple Lisa, 1984. (Image: Wikicommons)
The Apple Lisa computer, named after Steve Jobs' daughter, was initially sold for $9,995, which would peg it at $22,482 today according to the government's nifty CPI calculator. But here's a runner-up, and one that's actually from my lifetime:

The Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh
This masterpiece with trackpad, vertical-loading disc drive, BOSE sound system, and LCD panel (during the era of CRTs) was first sold in 1997 for a whopping $7,499. Adjusted for inflation, it's a tad under $11 grand today.

Alright. Clearly, none of this matters. You can be as cynical all you want, but ask yourself: do you really have any doubt that Apple will sell these things like hotcakes? Can you watch any of the three materials videos for aluminum, steel, and gold, and not come out thinking, "Hmm that's pretty neat". At that point, you remember that the entry-level Apple Watch is only $350.

Hmm indeed. Never say never.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Adventures in the Asian Supermarket: Faux Japanese Foods (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1, where I talked about the misleading advertising tactics that all shoppers at Asian grocers should know about.
Mochi made by hand, from Wikicommons.

In Part 2, I want to share something that makes me more uncomfortable from a food quality and safety standpoint. It involves Mochi.

Let's go back to the Asian supermarket. By sheer numbers, you are much more likely to see and buy Japanese-style food items from Chinese supermarkets or pan-Asian grocery stores than dedicated Japanese supermarkets like Mitsuwa or Nijiya Market (there just aren't many of them around). But be prepared to witness lots of faux Japanese items from less-than-authentic sources.

Not long ago, a family member bought a couple packages of this:

For Chinese or Japanese readers, it's very obvious what this is... (supposed to be)
Most obviously, the kana, or characters, for mochi, もち are in Japanese. The kanji (Chinese characters) are in a Japanese "font" (I look forward to talking about ethnic/race fonts later on a different channel). The wordings used — 和風 and 日式大福 — translate to "Japanese style (mochi rounds)" in Japanese. But taking a look at the back, there's no more Japanese script:

Both readers of English and Chinese can easily tell that this product is actually made in Taiwan. I'm pretty sure no Japanese would mistake this for a Japanese-made product unless they were blindly tossing stuff into their grocery cart.
So unlike the Imuraya Castella cake that I looked at in Part 1, it's pretty obvious here that this is only Japanese-style, not Japanese made. But that's no problem. So long as it's not misleading, I can't criticize solely on the basis of where an item is produced.

Blow up the picture and take a closer look at the ingredients list. What the hell is all that crap doing in there!? Look at the number one ingredient (the law requires that the ingredients be listed in descending order of amount used): Maltose. Uh, excuse me, but isn't mochi supposed to be made out of rice? In fact, there's less rice being used than maltose or green tea "paste". Look further on in the ingredients for a happy blend of food additives, coloring, sugar substitutes, and preservatives. This is not the first time that cheap-to-manufacture maltose has drawn the ire of consumers.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, my family actually bought the product, so I was curious to see what it tasted like. Bad idea. It wasn't so much the taste, but the texture. Real mochi is supposed to be soft and chewy. One of the onomatopoeias in Japanese for "chewy" is "mochi-mochi", if that gives you any idea. This item was NOT chewy at all. If you bit into it, you can see your teeth make grooves on the skin of this product. Those grooves just sat there, instead of "healing" into a blob, as you'd expect from the real thing. It was more like hardened gelatin or agar. Yuck.

But you can ignore that altogether if you observe one huge rule: don't buy mochi outside of the perishables/refrigerated aisle!

Here's what real mochi looks like:

It's not Japanese-made, either (made in the US), but that's perfectly fine and not the point here. First, it's found in a refrigerated aisle. Next, it's got a painfully simple ingredients list in comparison, with "glutinous rice powder" —milled rice — as the first ingredient. No additives, no preservatives. And for the weight, it's a heck of a lot more in terms of price.

Protip: if you buy one of these, make sure you take it to room temperature right before you eat it, or it will be hard for some pretty obvious reasons.

Mochi is something that many Asians share in common. The process involves pounding glutinous, sticky rice and has many iterations depending on locale. It bears a special cultural significance to commemorate the new year (see here for my short report on Chinese Yuanxiao, for example). In the US, we are most familiar with the Japanese iteration, where mochi takes its name from. Because mochi is a food that kids and adults alike eat, I think that we should be especially careful when shopping around for such products.

P.S. The use of all the ingredients listed in the first "faux" mochi is perfectly legal. They're all approved for human consumption. But whether you think that's appropriate for your family or not is your own call.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Adventures in the Asian Supermarket: Faux Japanese Foods (Part 1)

In the last few years, I've noticed a big trend emerge at my Asian grocers. There are increasing numbers of foodstuffs (fresh foods, snacks, you name it) that are carrying Japanese language branding and badging. Like this product:
At first glance, a rather innocuous-looking product from Japan, complete with Engrish typo.
Here's why.

People associate Japan with many things, and one of those in this day and age is quality. When it comes to issues of food safety, matters that may seem quite trivial or commonplace to you and me could easily result in a scandal in Japan. (In 2014, McDonald's Japan was the latest high-profile company to get hit after it was discovered that a Shanghai-based chicken supplier got into the Japanese supply chain. Profits were decimated for the year.)

So what about about this cheese-flavored "Castilla" is weird? (Having spent time in Asia, you develop a a healthy immunity to bad translations and misspellings.) It's a Japanese import, so having writing in Japanese is totally expected, right? Let's take a look at the back:

More Japanese writing. It's an explanation of what a Castella (<-- the proper spelling) is, and if you're wondering, it's pretty much in-line with the English portion. And in typical Japanese fashion, they completely neglect to say that this "traditional Japanese" dessert (日本の伝統デザート) is actually by way of Portuguese traders half a millennium ago. But I digress. Let's take one last look:

Whoa! What the what?! Imuraya, a real Japanese company if you were concerned, actually made this deceptively Japanese item at their Chinese subsidiary, Imuraya (Beijing) Foods Co., Ltd. So this 500-year-old tale of globalization has now seen this Portuguese export going to Japan, then to China, and end up here in a Asian supermarket in California. Not bad!

There's only one problem and it really bothers me. All that Japanese writing... who is that for, exactly? I can tell you point blank that this packaging is not eligible for sale in Japan. The nutrition info, English, and UPC code more than give it away. This was a product that was always meant to be exported to the US. And despite what you might think, I can tell you that Japanese speakers in the US are a very rare group. So the only thing that I can think of is that all that Japanese writing that virtually nobody is going to bother reading is actually meant to lead (and I dare say mislead) unsuspecting consumers into thinking that this is actually a Japanese import. The ones most at risk? East Asian immigrants who can easily tell that the written script is Japanese, but can't read that much English. Even this perfectly legal and properly-labeled package won't help them out here. And for those of you who are reading this and whose English is fine, ask yourselves: would you have noticed this whopper of a marketing gimmick? Take a CLOSE look the next time you visit your Asian grocer. Make sure you know what you're buying.

See Part 2 for my investigation into fake mochi...

P.S. Just to be clear, I did not purchase the Castella cake, but as far as I can tell there is nothing wrong with the quality or safety of this product.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Eve of the Apple Watch Announcement

Ok, so I feel like a total hypocrite - after the last post, when I was going all gaga about how I'd look at the "other side of tech" instead of what's shown to me...

I saw this while walking back from work. It's the setup for the "Spring Forward" event at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center, where Apple is expected to finally announce the availability of Apple Watch. Now, I've never owned an iPhone, and I have next to no intention of buying one now, but there's something about these events that Apple just does better than anyone else. They just revel in all the media attention.

A couple more shots...

A person grabbing a big roll of something - a long poster, perhaps? Heck, who cares.

The "annex" where an additional showcase for the Watch is allegedly taking place. There were so many random security personnel walking around the YB Gardens, I got super self-conscious even taking these photos. 

Hello and welcome: Why I'm starting a tech channel

There are a million tech blogs out there. Why bother with one of my own? As someone who obsessively read every article on Engadget, without fail, from 2006 - 2011 — trust me, I know.

Earlier, I said that I wanted to write about stuff. For this channel, I obviously want to write about things related to technology. But what about it?

I'm actually more of a dog person.
Nowadays, “technology” is pretty much a part of everyone’s life: smartphones have saturated the market, Granny's got a social media profile, and apparently Apple is going start producing cars. That said, it's not so much that this is the part of technology that we see; it's the part that we're shown. And believe it or not, there's quite a big difference.

I want to write about technology from both the outside and the inside. "Good, Bad, and Ugly" style.

When I returned to California two years ago to join the startup scene, I only had a vague idea of what I was jumping into. What are startups actually like? How do they work? In what ways are startups and plain-ol' small businesses different? These were the questions that swirled in my head, as if I were launching a probe into an alien planet.

For all that has been made of how "tech startups" are revolutionizing every part of our lives in every way imaginable, the key to cracking the code is surprisingly low-tech and old-school: It's who you know. Luckily, I had a great network of contacts, attended a ton of events, and met some great folks up and down Silicon Valley.

The biggest surprise for me was that they are, for the most part, pretty normal people. Some can be very smart, immensely talented, but those are not prerequisites to have a dream or wish to change some part of our world. Things are not always peachy, and there are real problems that stand in the way of success. Of course, some of you may already know that startups failure rates are notoriously high. But the effect that such survivor bias has on our external point of view is less obvious.

There is, at the very least, a startup state of mind. The path from idea to reality has been so dramatically shortened, such that you could be forgiven for believing willpower alone could make up the entire gap between a washout and a billion-dollar idea.

Wouldn't it be fun to look beyond what we're shown, but see the other side of the picture, too? In all the big ways, when a cool new product comes out? Or all the little ways, when something that is life-changing is not more than a founder's idea? To me, the failures are at least as interesting as the successes. I want to write about them all.

Let's get started.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Second Try at a First Post

Please excuse my abrupt outburst of joy in my very first post a couple days ago.

It all started back in 2012, when I finally bit the bullet and bought my first domain, which also happened to be my own name. It was something I had dreamed about since I was a kid, during the dawn of the internet, and I don't really know why I put it off until then. The damage? Total bill cost $1.17 through GoDaddy for a one-year registration (thank you CouponCabin), but ended up costing far more in terms of time and frustration. I suspect many of you who've engaged with GoDaddy before can relate to that.

Once I had ownership of AndrewJing.com, the biggest question was "What I should do with it?" Do I turn it into an online profile and resume? Or write a blog? Or open a storefront? To be honest, I had no idea. I ended up doing substantially nothing with my domain for the last 30 months, except park this ugly mug for any poor soul who found themselves on my site:

Chicago during that one week of the year when it's warm enough to go outdoors.

A few days ago, I decided to switch my domain over from the clutches of GoDaddy to the newly available Google Domains service. The process was surprisingly simple and took less than 30 minutes from start to finish. (The only thing I'm still raw about is that apparently you can't delete your GoDaddy account. Like, ever.)

This leads me to what I want to do with AndrewJing.com going forward.

I want to write about stuff. All kinds of stuff:
  • From my years of managing money (both professionally and personally), I want to write about Finance.
  • Growing up in a restaurant, and coming from a family where everyone cooks, I want to share my thoughts on Food.
  • After visiting over two dozen countries (and counting), I want to share my adventures in Travel.
  • Finally, after diving headfirst into the crazy world of startups, I want to write about Tech.
So I thank you in advance for allowing me to indulge in this work-in-progress and for reading all this brainspill. Feel free to get in touch with me here or email andrew@ with your comments, questions, and criticisms.

Lantern Festival = Yuanxiao = Gigantic Moon

For us "Practicing Chinese" (in the cultural sense), today is the 15th day of the new year. This also marks the end of major festivities associated with Lunar New Year/Chinese New Year/Spring Festival. To mark the occasion, I had some Yuanxiao this morning:
My last Yuanxiao. It had black sesame filling.

As our calendar is largely based on the lunar cycle, the 15th of every month is a full moon. The first full moon of the year is especially auspicious, and celebrated as the Yuanxiao Festival or Lantern Festival. There are many origin theories as to how this festival first came about, but to most modern Chinese the festival is synonymous with boiled sticky rice balls. Yuan (元) can be interpreted as the "beginning", but it is also a homonym for another Yuan (圓), which means "round". That leads to a term that means "get together", TuanYuan (團圓).

In Southern China, they eat something very similar to Yuanxiao, called Tangyuan (湯圓) "soup rounds". There's also a big culture around hanging lanterns there, so it's sometimes called the Lantern Festival, as well.

For Chinese, food is highly symbolic. So with the above in mind, these little rice balls are doubly representative of the first full moon and getting together with your family.

Speaking of which, did you see the moon on this particular night? If you had a clear sky, as was the case from SF tonight, we had a big, beautiful moon:
I don't expect I'll ever get a truly beautiful shot of the moon. Some things you just have to bear witness with your eyes and keep in your memories.
I hope you were able to enjoy and appreciate tonight's big, beautiful moon and spend the day with your loved ones.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Shocker! IRA Advisors Suck (and why you're better off investing in your own financial education)

I came across this NYT article today, and I was pretty disappointed (but not in the least surprised) at this factoid:
"On average, a typical working family in the anteroom of retirement — headed by somebody 55 to 64 years old — has only about $104,000 in retirement savings, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances."
Now that's a stone cold bummer.

What a waste. But you might be wasting even more by blindly following the advice of someone whose interests are anything but aligned with you. (Image Credit)
The rest of the article is not about how little Americans have saved up for retirement, but rather the policies that help or inhibit their efforts to save better. One of the big pieces of that puzzle was about how personal investment "advisors" (or advisers; I don't discriminate) don't always act in their clients' best interests. In particular, this reminded me of my earliest memories dealing with finance and investing. So what better way to kick off my inaugural blog post than share my story about how I got started with finance?

When I was around ten years old, my mother began giving more thought to her retirement savings. We had only arrived in the States a few years before, so my parents didn't really have much to put away before then. Our credit union had a built-in financial advisor office, in the same way as you'd find independent optometrists at Sears or Costco. It was easily accessible, and my mother was in dire need of retirement planning advice, so she began having consultations with the advisor. The best move she made (and one for which I'm eternally grateful) was taking me along for almost every office visit.

I still remember sitting in our advisor's office for the very first time. Through my young eyes, she (let's call her Mrs. G) had a professionally-managed hairdo, wore power suits, and possessed the biggest diamond ring I had borne witness to up until that point in time. Mrs. G was horribly nice to me, and just I loved how she said the word "fiduciary" in a flawless California standard (not that I had a clue what the word meant). She got along very well with my mother, and answered all of my mother's questions about what an IRA was, differences between Traditional and Roth, and how she should invest her savings.

Naturally, it wasn't long before my mother got started with a retirement account. Mrs. G had set up investment accounts for both my parents, with herself as the designated advisor, and plotted out a number of different investment strategies in the form of mutual funds. We dropped by a couple times every year to talk to Mrs. G about how the accounts were progressing (or not) and to cut a new check for additional contributions.

It took a couple of years for me to fully digest what was going on with my parents' IRAs. First, performance was quite mediocre. In fact, it sucked. Second, I realized that every time we dropped off a contribution check, Mrs. G was pocketing 5% of it! This wasn't illegal, but to a 12-year old's sense of moral justice, it might as well have been. While I have no doubt Mrs. G disclosed the fact that all of the funds she recommended for our investment plan were "front-load" funds, it was certainly not something she drew extra attention to. Also unclear to us at the time was that we had a choice to say no, or ask for reduced load funds, or even to invest directly with a mutual fund manager. But hey, what did we know back then?

Looking back, my folks' IRA investments didn't really do very poorly. They didn't lose money on those funds, but you can be sure that a big chunk of the subpar performance was the fact that 5% got chewed off before a single dollar had been invested. To put that into perspective, ask yourself how much your savings interest rate is? Even at that time, it would have been over two years' worth of savings interest! I carried from that experience a sense of betrayal. Mrs. G was so very nice; but all this time, she was putting her own interests ahead of ours. Why?

IRA Advisors should always act in the best interests of their clients. But they don't have to

It all came down to my favorite word, "fiduciary". You see, one of the biggest debates (and the reason for that NYT article) was around how IRA advisors ought to act? It seems dead simple that if IRA advisors have clients, and if they are in the business of advising people on money matters, that they should always act in the best interests of their clients. But they don't have to. And even if they were, how well could you tell (or prove) if they were not acting in your best interest? Mrs. G never had to act as our fiduciary. She was never legally compelled to act in our interest.

We kept the accounts as they were for many years thereafter, but the consultations eventually came to a stop, and so did a few years' worth of IRA contributions. That's how scarred we were by that experience. It turned my entire family off to the possibility that we could entrust our financial security to another professional whose interests were seemingly so misaligned with our own. Lacking adequate finance and investing skills, my parents almost lost faith in investing for retirement.


My parents invested in me instead

And my new hobby starting from the sixth grade, stockpicking (I'll save that story for another day). Born from the frustration with seeking help from others, I decided that the best only way going forward was to help myself.

Today, I was reminded by the current push for policy changes surrounding financial advisors that we were far from alone. While not exactly fraud, these people have been nickel and diming unsuspecting savers for so, so long. The only way to solve this from a saver's point of view is to level up your knowledge of investing. If you have a great and trustworthy IRA advisor, then I'm truly happy for you and hope that it continues to work out. But if you have any doubt, then you are better off investing instead in your own financial future.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Hello World!

I just quit GoDaddy today. This is one of the best days of my life.