Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Internet Security

No, I haven't fallen victim to identity theft or some nasty computer virus. On the contrary, I've been the victim of the new, improved "safe" internet. Over the past week, I've run into two situations trying to make purchases on-line that have had me ready to pull my hair out.

There are some places I shop on-line that just work. You select the items you want to buy, click a button or two, and voila, a box arrives on your doorstep with your stuff in it. Awesome. Amazon is one company that jumps to mind. They've even got a "one-click" purchase option you can sign up for.

On the other end of the spectrum are companies like the ones I've been dealing with this week. I understand that the hurdles I have to jump over to make a purchase on-line have been put in place for "my protection," but why is it that some companies can make it easy while other make it so hard.

A big part of my problem is that I'm not making standard purchases. In both cases I was making a purchase on-line that wasn't directly for me. First, I bought myself a few scuba accessories online and had them shipped to my mother in Massachusetts. She is then going to forward them to me in Singapore much cheaper than I can get them sent directly here. The other was buying airline tickes for Melissa and Jack's summer vacation from Singapore Airlines.

After making my purchase online at the scuba company (joediveramerica.com), I got an email from their customer service department the next day. Since my billing address and shipping address didn't match, they needed further verification of my identity before they would ship my package. (Of course, they had already charged my credit card at this point.) They wanted me to fax them a copy of my drivers license and my credit card bill showing the purchase to prove that I owned the card I was using. I debated for a day and a half on whether I would send this to them. Considering that I'd already been billed and I didn't want the hassle of trying to talk them into refunding my money, I gave in and sent them what they asked for. Of course, I made a whiny comment to them that I thought it was a bit ironic that they were asking me for the info an identity thief would want in their effort to protect me. Regardless, even though the gear showed up right when they said it would, no more purchases from these guys.

Singapore Airlines was even more of a pain in the butt. We found tickets for Melissa and Jack's summer trip the the US at a great rate on Singapore Air. After filling out tons of info like passport numbers, email addresses, frequent flier numbers, names and ages for 20 minutes, we finally made it to the payment page. The page first asks you if the person paying for the ticket will be one of the travelers. I had my credit card with me, so I said "no." I then got a message stating that as I was not traveling as part of this purchase, I would have to fill out an affidavit stating I was paying for these tickets and I would be responsible for the cost of the flight. I would then have to bring myself, my credit card and this paper to a Singapore Air office prior to the flight to confirm the purchase.

"Forget this," I said. "Melissa, get me your credit card."

I switch back to "Yes, purchaser will be flying'" and the nasty message goes away. I then enter the data from Melissa's Visa card and hit "purchase". (You don't think this is the end of the story, do you?)

A new window pops up. "This card in enrolled in "Verified by Visa". Please enter your Verified by Visa password."

"What the hell is Verified by Visa? When did you sign up for this?" I ask Melissa.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," she says.


We try plugging in a few of the passwords we commonly use to no avail. A new window pops up on the screen. "Your session has timed out. Thank you for visiting singaporeairlines.com"

Great googily moogily.

What next? We start researching Verified by Visa. Turns out, it is a service provided by Visa in partnership with a number of vendors in an effort to never let you buy anything on-line ever again. After searching for 20 minutes, we find that we need to apply through the bank that issues the credit card. We then go to the Chase website and find their FAQ on Verified by Visa. We click on the link for "forgot your password" and it asks us to enter the card number. The next message is the one that sent me over the edge.

"As you have not previously set up a profile online, we can not access your information. Please contact Chase at 1-800 blah blah."

Alright....I then go back and try to set up a profile. After again entering the card number, I get this one.

"You already have an account. If you have forgotten your password, please click on the 'forgot your password' link to have your password emailed to you."

Both Chase bank and Visa are now invited to bite me.

At this point , my only option was to pull out my trusty American Express card. I don't know what AmEx does differently than everyone else, but I have never had one problem using that card. Of course, now I have to fill out another form, and drag myself to the Singapore Airlines ticket office downtown next Saturday, and submit my DNA and a stool sample to complete my purchase.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Beijing, China

Regardless of where you live in Asia, you come to realize that almost all culture around here can trace itself back to some sort of Chinese influence. Either China took over at one point through war, Chinese immigrants settled there and brought their culture with them, or a shared border is still in existence.

In Singapore, the Chinese influence is very strong, as are the political ties with China. It becomes such a large looming presence that after a while, you want to get some sort of idea what it is all about. So, Melissa, Jack and I took a trip there a few weeks ago to try to experience China for ourselves.

I have to admit, we did the standard "tourist" thing and kept to only one city. We weren't trying to take in the entire Chinese experience, just to get a little taste. Beijing is a nice choice for that because there is over 2000 years of history available in the old temples, castles and of course, The Wall, that still exist for you to see.

We arrived at our hotel in outer Beijing and were very happy with it. We stayed at the new Traders Hotel on the outside edge of the city. While it was a bit far from downtown, it was a nice place and the price was right. On our first night there we just took it easy and went to a nearby restaurant for dinner.

This is the view of downtown Beijing from our hotel room.

This is the strange little park outside of our hotel. Jack liked going down here to play knights.

The next morning, we had breakfast in our hotel and met our tour guide, Helen.

Hi, I'm Helen.

We were very fortunate that some friends of ours recommended a tour guide they had used when they visited Beijing last year. We essentially had our own personal tour guide just for Melissa, Jack and I. Helen was a Chinese history major in college and had been giving tours in Beijing for 10 years. It was great having her with us to tell us all about the places we were seeing.

Our first major stop was the Forbidden City. This was the old palace of the Emperors of China. If you've seen the movie "Empire of the Sun", this is the place.

Outside a fancy building.

Outside another fancy building.

Taking a seat after a lot of walking around fancy buildings.

These large pots were a favorite of Jack's. They were put in place hundreds and hundreds of years ago to hold water. This water wasn't for drinking though. It was for fighting fires. The buildings were made of mostly old dry wood and were huge fire hazards. Jack's favorite aspect of the pots was they they were set up off the ground on some stones. This was so that you could set a small fire under them in the cold winter to keep the fire fighting water from freezing. Jack thought this was brilliant.

Standing in the main central square in the Forbidden city. This is just a very lucky shot with no other people in it. It was very crowded.

Another old palace that we visited was the Summer Palace. This was the Emperor's summer residence. Back in the day, it was a long days journey outside of the city. Today, it's barely out into the suburbs.

(By the way, we'd had a lot of other good pictures to show you, but the memory card on our nice digital SLR camera decided to die after we got home. Over 200 pictures lost in the blink of an eye. These are the only ones we had left from our small second camera.)

Almost all of the ancient building had the animals on the corners of the roofs. Always an odd number of animals and the more important the building, the more animals. The Emperor's house had nine, a house of a mid level diplomat may have three. This was a temple.

The entrance to the Summer Palace.

Almost all of the outdoor walkways had the inlayed patterns in the concrete. I asked our guide how come they weren't worn down after hundreds of years of foot traffic. Apparently, the government replaces and repairs them every 10 years or so.

Nearby was an old neighborhood we were able to tour. In the background is an old "drum tower." It's kind of like a bell tower. We actually climbed it to see the old drums inside.

This is Jack in the courtyard of a local house we were able to visit as part of the tour.

Melissa in a "trishaw" (three wheel rickshaw bike) that took us around the neighborhood.

The other major excursion of the trip was to the famous "Great Wall of China." There are three parts of the wall that can be reached by car from Beijing. The part we went to was about 2 hours away by car and was a bit less touristy than the closest one.

This is the view of the wall from the parking lot. Thankfully you don have to climb the entire hill to get there.

Just like in skiing, the chairlift is the fastest way to the top.

Jack and I on the wall.

Jack playing soldiers pretending to shoot an arrow from the ramparts.

Quite a view from where we were standing. You can see the wall extend off into the distance.

Of course, if there's a fast way up, there's an even faster way down.

Posing for pictures at the bottom of the slide. Yup...that cost me $5.

Overall, I thought the wall was the most memorable part of the trip. While it has been "refurbished" many times, it was impressive to be standing on a structure that was so large and so old. I can't imagine what it was like to build it. Walking the length of the wall, you see the guard towers and a small barracks. Living there 1500 years ago must have been a crazy life. One thing I can tell you is that everyone who lived there must have had legs of iron. You can"t see it too well from the pictures we salvaged, but the wall is not at all flat. It rises and falls with the terrain. In many places the stairs along the top of the wall are so steep, you have to use your hands on the stairs too to make sure you don't fall. Going down in much scarier than going up.

After finishing at the wall, we decided to take a quick drive past the Bird's Nest Stadium and the Watercube Stadium that were used during the Olympics. We talked about going to see the inside, but were told it basically looks like any other stadium on the inside.

The Bird's Nest Stadium

The Water Cube Stadium

After completing our drive-by Compton style, we called it a day and started thinking about what other little things we could do while we were here. Of course, food was on my agenda. We'd been eating pretty well since we'd arrived. For lunch every day, we'd had local Chinese food for lunch. Helen had picked very good places where I could try something a bit more exotic but we could still find something simple for Jack. After a year and a half in Singapore and a visit to China, I think I've come to a conclusion about real Chinese food that I should have expected. Fancy, high class Chinese food is not for me. It's too delicate and pretentious with lots of strange textures. Chinese workingman's food, however, is delicious. Dumplings, braised pork belly, noodles, duck....good stuff.

Diced greenbeans and pork. Everything is better with pork.

Chinese pancake stuffed with....pork.

Stir-fried beef and veggies. Those are amazing pan-fried dumplings in the background.

Even though the can looks different, it tastes the same.

The one dish I wanted to make sure I had while I was in Beijing was Peking Duck. This is essentially the city that perfected the way to cook and eat duck thousands of years ago. Asking around, we got the same answer from everyone. If you want duck, go to "Da Dong." We think it's a chain of fancy duck restaurants in Beijing. We know the duck was good. We went there with a family we know who was also visiting Beijing at the same time. It was a fun meal and one of my favorite parts of the trip.

The duck is brought to your table for a viewing before they take it back into the hallway to carve it for you.

A wonderful scallop dish served in perfect fried onion rings.

It has to be seen to be believed. The menu at this place looked like an atlas. Over 80 pages long and it weighed about 8 pounds. Truly intimidating when it's handed to you.

The other food adventure we took while in Beijing was to the night food market. It's pretty much just a string of stalls lined up on the side of the street in one of the busier areas of town. The reason we wanted to go was we'd heard about all of the crazy things you could get to eat there.

The view of the Market

Yes, those are starfish on a stick. No, I didn't try one.

This is the face you make after you eat a fried scorpion on a stick. Why eat a fried scorpion? Because when I'm 85 years old, I'll be able to look my great-grandkids in the eye and say, "Let me tell you about the time I ate a scorpion in China."

And of course, we have the two obligatory shots every American has to take when overseas.

TGI Fridays. The height of American cuisine.

...and McDonald's, the #1 US export.

And no, we didn't eat there.

There are other things I could write about, like the acrobat show, the pandas at the zoo and the silk factory, but I'm about ready for a break. It takes forever to upload these photos.

part 2 later.