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If I’m So Smart Part Seven

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Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6

I’d always wanted to live in San Francisco even though I hadn’t spent much time there previously. It just seemed to be the kind of place I would like. I got a service apartment and started looking for a job. It didn’t take long. Coming from a VP spot at Merrill, it took me no time at all to get a job at Schwab.

They put me in charge of the decimalization project, when the U.S. stock exchanges were converting from fractional to decimal pricing. Their theory was that this was almost the same kind of task as a Y2K project, so I’d be well-suited for it. I put together teams to work on management and methodology. I got onto some Securities Industry Association sub-committees. I was kept pretty busy.

On the other hand, I found myself in the midst of a political tug of war. My boss was a genuinely nice guy. Meanwhile the head of trading fancied himself to be another Wolf of Wall Street, larger than life kind of guy. I was caught in the middle and just wanted to get my work done.

Meanwhile I rented a house in Twin Peaks, with the hope that my wife would decide to join me in SF. With the economy booming, it was hard to find a nice place to rent. I went to this house and there must have been at least 10 other people looking at it at the same time. The owner of the house was Chinese, so I showed her my HK ID card and said she should rent to me. She asked me a question in Cantonese, I responded in Cantonese, and she said “the house is yours.”

So I had a job and a place to live but on a personal basis I didn’t know if I was coming or going. I was lonely but I didn’t want to start dating anyone because I was hoping that my wife and I would reconcile. My spare time was spent going to strip clubs, massage parlors and Taiwan night clubs (a friend introduced me to this somewhat hidden scene), all of which probably only served to make me feel lonelier. At a Korean massage parlor, the girl looked at me for a long time and said, “I’ll bet you were handsome when you were younger.” It was the first time someone had ever said that to me, but not the last.

The political mess at Schwab was getting worse but the job market was booming and pretty soon I had an offer from a start-up that was too good to turn down. This company had just closed their third round of funding and had raised a total of $300 million from top Sand Hill Road VCs. They had a veteran management team and a product that they planned to sell at a profitable price. They were offering even more money than Schwab was paying me plus 40,000 options. I accepted.

Before I started the new job I took a quick vacation. I flew out to Hong Kong, met up with my wife, and we went to Cebu together. A more permanent reunion seemed possible.

The new company was called Yipes and they were doing metro area and wide area gigabit networks. They leased dark fiber in all of the NFL cities and were building out the last mile from the fiber rings to major office buildings. I was in charge of getting all of the internal apps up and running as well as all of the external and internal web sites. It was a pretty good gig for awhile.

They kept shuffling the management team around. My first boss was one of the founders and we remain friends to this day. He got pushed aside after a few months and they brought in someone from one of the big telcos. We all wanted to hate her. The problem was she was beautiful, funny and smart. We all fell in love with her. And then she got pushed aside and this time we got stuck with the guy who was the head of the network stuff, and he was someone who was brilliant with that network stuff (he had several patents and he’s now a big cheese at Google) but had absolutely horrendous people management skills.

A little more than a year after I left Hong Kong, my wife quit her job in Hong Kong and moved to San Francisco to be with me. I was thrilled. I got her a dog and a car and things seemed to be going well for us.

She didn’t work at first. She wanted some time to get used to the U.S., which seemed fair. Her days were mostly spent taking the dog to dog parks or to the beach. Eventually she felt settled and got a job. But overall she didn’t like San Francisco and, to tell you the truth, neither did I. I was feeling as if leaving Hong Kong had been a mistake. I couldn’t really acclimate to life in the U.S. again. Getting around in SF sucked. The public transportation system couldn’t hold a candle to Hong Kong’s, it was impossible to find a taxi and impossible to park. If we wanted to try some hot new restaurant in the Mission, we would have to include an hour for looking for a parking spot. The only things I liked about SF were that you could get decent Asian food there and it was close to both Napa/Sonoma and Monterey/Carmel/Big Sur. One day my wife told me that she wanted to go back to Hong Kong and it would be with or without me. I was fine with going back but I had no idea of how to accomplish that.

My hot little start-up was not doing well. Earlier they’d turned down a $600 million acquisition offer, saying they thought the value was more like $2 billion. But they were burning through their VC money. Every building they “lit” cost them $100,000.  They built a world class and very expensive Network Operating Center in Denver that I had to visit once a month. I joked that I used to have a job that took me to Bangkok and Tokyo and now I had a job that took me to Denver. They were trying to close a fourth round of funding but it wasn’t looking good.

My wife and I drove down to Los Angeles for a week of sight seeing. I had a friend from high school, Don, living there. I knew he was at Warner Bros. but I didn’t know what he was doing there. We met him and his wife for dinner. My wife bitched about the U.S. and I bitched about my job. Don said, “Send me your resume.” “Why, what can you do?” “You don’t know, so send me your resume.” It turned out he was a senior vice president there with more than a little bit of power.

Around a month later I got a call. “Hi, this is Warner Bros. We have a new position in Hong Kong and Don says you’re the only man for the job. Are you interested in returning to Hong Kong?” Yes please.

I went down to L.A. for a series of interviews that culminated with the CFO of the home video division. I sat in front of him in his humongous office while he took phone call after phone call. He barely knew I was there. I figured I had to do something to catch this guy’s attention. I looked around the room and saw these huge framed portraits of Hollywood stars from the 30s and 40s – and one of Nastassja Kinski. So I asked about that. He stopped, looked around, and told me he’d never even realized it.

Outside of his office he had these racks that had every WB DVD. He told me that DVDs were starting to do really well for them and asked if I had a DVD player. I told him that I had three, not just one, and I had a rack of DVDs at home that resembled the rack outside of his office. He realized that I was a true movie lover – and actually there weren’t that many of those in Warner any more but he was definitely one. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, it was the start of a beautiful friendship. He became my mentor and we’re still close to this day.

I went back to San Francisco. My company was doing yet another round of layoffs. I went to talk to my boss and asked him if I was next. “I don’t know,” he said. “Never mind, I’m resigning, I’m going back to Hong Kong.” He was pretty surprised.

Before I left, and before the bottom dropped out of the telecom industry, I did a very dumb thing. I exercised all 40,000 of my options. Remember that $600 million offer that the company turned down? A year later the company would be sold for $2 million plus $18 million in assumed debt. My 40,000 shares were toilet paper.

I did a quick trip out to Hong Kong to meet the people I’d be working with and stopped off in Bangkok for a few days before coming back home to pack. At which point my wife had a surprise for me. She wanted to stay in San Francisco a little while longer, so I could go out to Hong Kong and get everything set up and she’d join me a few months later. (It turned out one reason for this was because she was having an affair with a co-worker.)

I returned to Hong Kong in August, 2001, 2 years and 4 months after I’d left. It felt like victory. Plus the fact that I was managing technology for a movie company (okay, it was the home video division but it was still a major Hollywood studio) made it feel as if everything had come full circle from my days as a film student.

 

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If I’m So Smart Part Five

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aka The Never Ending Story?

Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four

This entry covers just one year. I tell people I was reborn when I moved to Hong Kong and I mean it. My first year in Hong Kong, despite some notable lows, was one of the best years of my life.

April, 1995, I arrive at Kai Tak with two suitcases and a backpack. I’m ready to start my life in Hong Kong. But when I arrived, my boss had an unpleasant surprise for me. In order to get the New York office to agree to transfer me, he had to agree to loan me back to them. So within days of arriving in Hong Kong, I was on a plane back to New Jersey. I spent several weeks in a miserable roadside motel in Jersey, right in the middle of the state, too long a drive to go to either NYC or Philly, night after night alone in that motel watching TV. I was feeling pretty miserable.

I got back to Hong Kong from that and within days they put me on a plane again, this time to Kuala Lumpur. I had never heard of Kuala Lumpur. I had no idea where it was or even how long it took to get there. I had to look it up on the Internet.

I went down there for some meetings with a Malaysian bank. We had one person stationed down there on the project, a nice Jewish Canadian guy and his wife, and they took me around a little bit, showing me the sites. The KL branch of the Hard Rock Cafe was in the lobby of the hotel I was staying in, so that gave me a place to hang out – and my first experience with an Asian hooker. I’m not going to go into any details here. I’ll just say that I was lonely, it was my birthday and I thought it would be okay to buy myself a present.

Finally in June I got back to Hong Kong and could start putting together a life there. I found a small apartment in Happy Valley. It had a view of the race track (everything except the finish line) and since my office was in Times Square, I could walk to work. It was a furnished 2 bedroom flat – they told me it was 700 square feet but I think it was closer to 500. The living room was furnished with all this junky stuff with plastic horses heads. The mattress was so bad that I had to sleep on the floor; finally I bought my own mattress but the landlord would neither collect the old one nor let me toss it, so it filled up the 2nd bedroom almost completely.

I started making friends in the office. I told the local guys, “When you go for lunch, please bring me along. You don’t have to go to any special place, you don’t have to order any special food, you don’t need to talk in English.” “Really?” “Really. I want to learn by going where you go and seeing what you do.”

There was also a Canadian guy in the office who’d arrived just a few months before me. He taught me his “restaurant game.” Pick a side of the street, pick a number – for example “left 5.” And then go to the 5th restaurant on the left no matter what it was. It worked out quite well for us.

There was, naturally, an incredibly beautiful local woman in the office. It was all I could do to keep my tongue from hanging out of my mouth whenever I saw her. I found out that her father owned the franchise for a major automobile brand in Hong Kong. I asked her if she ever dated white guys and she said no. I asked her why not. “If I dated a white guy and my father found out, he’d take my car away, and I could never let that happen.”

A few months went by and I was sent back to Kuala Lumpur again, this time with 3 other guys from the Hong Kong office and this time for a month. The first great thing about this trip was that the hotel was a block away from Jalan Alor, a famous night time food street. We went there every night and ate like kings for very little money.

One restaurant on the street was called Fatt Tuck Choy. We sat outside and I noted that our waitress was extremely cute. We came back two nights later and before we sat down, I walked up to her and asked, “Did ya miss me?” and without missing a beat she nodded her head and said “yes.” The next time we came back she came right up to me and asked, “Did ya miss me?” and I said, “Of course, that’s why I’m back!” I thought this might get interesting.

Our first weekend there was a three day weekend. We woke up the morning of the holiday and decided to rent a car and go up to Cameron Highlands. We went to various car rental agencies, none of which had cars available, which left the four of us standing around just cracking insane jokes. Then I said, “Hey, our hotel has a travel desk. We’re staying there for a month. They have to figure something out for us.” The woman at the travel desk was wearing the shortest possible skirt and the tightest possible blouse. Every joke we made, she threw right back in our faces and topped. And after telling us we were all insane, she somehow managed to find a rental car for us. This woman, S, would become my second wife.

So we get in the car and for some reason everyone decides I should drive. I had only driven right-side drive once before in my life and that was ten years ago. Within 15 minutes, I managed to hit a bus – a bus that was standing still. The entire left side of the car was smashed in, but not bad enough that we couldn’t still use it for the weekend. We had our weekend in Cameron Highlands, driving through rainforests and touring tea plantations and staying in little shacks. It was great. When we returned the car, S just looked at us in disbelief. I paid for all the repairs and it was all cool.

Every time I’d go through the hotel lobby, if S was at the travel desk, I’d stop and talk with her. At the same time, I was also trying to pursue the waitress from Fatt Tuck Choy. It turned out her family owned that restaurant. She was going to university during the day and waitressing at night, and would only agree to meet me in the afternoons for coffee.

For the following weekend, one of my companions and I booked a package for Langkawi. But before the trip, one night, my 3 co-workers went out without me to a nearby bar. When they got there, they saw S, who was ruling the pool tables. They each took turns playing pool with her, buying her drinks and hitting on her. They all struck out. But they told me she asked them, “Where’s the other guy, the crazy one?” That was enough for me. I had to ask her out.

When I went to the desk to pick up the Langkawi tickets I asked her out on a date. She said she was working half a day on Sunday, she knew what time my flight landed, and if I could get back to the hotel before her shift was over, she would consider having dinner with me.

Langkawi was a pretty strange place. The Malaysian government was trying to pitch it as a tourist destination but there wasn’t too much there at the time. The first bad news was that the hotel had screwed up the reservation. The only room they had for me and my friend had just a single queen sized bed, which we had no choice except to share. It was especially pleasant the second night, when he started having stomach problems.

Anyway, the first night, I’d noticed a sign for some sort of disco. I walked half a mile down the road back to that sign, which pointed to a trail that led through the woods. After walking through the forest, I came to a barn. There was a guy sitting in front of the barn wearing a sport jacket and tie. I paid the cover charge and went inside. There was a stage, a lot of tables and sofas, a few waitresses and me. After awhile a band came out on stage and played a song by Fleetwood Mac and a song by Santana and then everything after that was Malaysian pop songs. After an hour, not many people had shown up and I left. I got back to the main road and got chased back to the hotel by a pack of wild dogs. I stopped in at the hotel bar where there was a Filipino band playing American country and western songs.

The next night, my friend was sick and there didn’t seem to be anything to do or anywhere to go. I walked across the street from the hotel to this small roadside restaurant. Everyone was sitting outside watching a really bad VHS bootleg of a really bad movie. I stood there for a few minutes. No one saw me. Finally I cleared my throat. Everyone jumped up and stared. “Um, er, can I get a coke?” They got me a coke and got me a chair and put me in the front row and I sat there and watched the rest of the movie and played with the kids.

Finally, Sunday, fly back to KL, taxi back to the hotel, me staring at my watch hoping I’d make it back in time. S was still there and we went out for dinner and talked non-stop through the evening. The next day, I called her to ask her out on another date. “There’s something I didn’t tell you last night,” she said. “What? You’re really a man?” “No. I’m married.” Oh. She went on to explain that she liked having western friends because she liked the western sense of humor and if I wanted to go out with her as a friend, that would be great. Oh.

And then, back to Hong Kong. I was ready to take my first Asian vacation and decided to go to Phuket. I also signed up in advance for a scuba diving course. And then I thought to myself, “Hmmm, I know there are girls in Bangkok but maybe there are no girls in the rest of Thailand. Maybe I should invite someone to join me.” So I called the Filipino girl I’d met in February. I told her that I would pay for everything. I also warned her that I would be taking scuba lessons every day but she would be free to sit by the pool and order poolside service to her heart’s content. She agreed to join me.

I got there a few days before she did. I was staying in Patong Beach. Yeah, I figured out what’s up there pretty quickly. Two days later, my friend came to join me and I also figured out pretty quickly that inviting her was a mistake. She did nothing but complain and we couldn’t wait for the trip to be over and to get away from each other.

Back to Hong Kong and back to Kuala Lumpur. S saw me at the hotel and kept after me to go out for dinner or a drink. I kept trying to get out of it but she kept after me and finally we started going out as friends. I kept thinking that I liked her too damned much and thought that maybe her marriage was on rocky ground, or perhaps I was just hoping it was.

About a month later, we went out for dinner and got pretty blasted. Then she took me to a nightclub where her best friend worked as a hostess. I was surrounded by gorgeous women and had to work overtime not to stare at anyone other than S, and these girls were trying their hardest to distract me too. And then, around 2 in the morning, S ended up back at my hotel room.

So now I’m back in Hong Kong. S and I are talking on the phone for hours every night. There was no Skype, no nothing, I was spending thousands per month on phone bills. Every weekend I’d fly back to KL. The problem was that since she was a travel agent and her husband was a tour guide, they were both known in every 5 star hotel in town. So we stayed in love hotels and snuck around hoping that we wouldn’t be spotted by anyone she knew.

But one night she said she wanted to take me to her favorite restaurant. She said they were like family there, that she had known the family that runs the place since she was a little kid and played mah jong with them on a regular basis. Can you guess which restaurant it was? Yeah, it was Fatt Tuck Choy. We get there and the whole family comes running out but they all ignore S and coming running up to me and hugging me. All except for that waitress, who refused to come out of the kitchen the whole time, just sticking her head out now and then to stare at us.

A few more months passed and S decided she was going to get a divorce and move to Hong Kong to be with me. I told her that I figured that even though she had no college, since she spoke ten languages she could probably find a job easily enough. This did not turn out to be the case and so every month we were doing visa runs to Macau.

Meanwhile my work was now keeping me in Hong Kong. I did little bits and pieces of things for the Hospital Authority, the Police Force, Octopus Card and the Jockey Club. I wasn’t working on anything substantial and I was getting bored and it probably showed.

I tried switching over to pre-sales but it wasn’t a great fit either. Then things went seriously south. We had a client in Hong Kong who was having a huge performance problem. It was something that I could have solved in a one minute phone call. But the sales guy on the account wanted to sell them a consulting engagement and I was forbidden to just give them the solution on the phone.  All I could say was, “Yes, I know how to solve it, you have to pay US$2,000 a day and I’ll come in and fix it for you.” And they couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t do it for free. So they called up the general manager and complained.

He brought me into his office along with the sales rep. He started yelling at me, saying that I can’t talk to a big customer like that and that maybe it was time that I should return to New York. You’d think the sales rep might have spoken up at that point and said, “he was just following my instructions.” No, that dickless wonder sat there and stared at his shoes.

So the GM finished his explosion, the sales guy was quiet and I said, “It’s okay, I’ve got another job. I’m giving you my notice right now. And by the way, ask idiot over there why he’s not telling you that all I did was follow the instructions

I hit my one year anniversary there and my boss said it was probably time for me to go back to New York. I told him, “That’s okay because actually I was going to resign today. I’ve got another job.” And I did.

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If I’m So Smart, Part Four (!)

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Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

And the story continues ….

So it’s 1994 and I get the call that my dream is coming true and I will be going to Tokyo. Ten days, all expenses paid, teaching two classes at a western bank. I’m giddy with excitement.

And then a moment of panic. I’ve never had sushi in my life. It didn’t exist in the U.S. when I was a kid and it wasn’t something I sought out as an adult. It was something I made bad jokes about. (“If I’m going to eat at a restaurant, I expect them to cook the food.” Rim shot.) But I figured I didn’t want to embarrass myself in Tokyo and I’d better do something about it before I got there.

I got in my rental car and drove down to Atlanta from Norcross and stopped at the first sushi place I could find. I sat down and told the waitress, “I’ve never eaten this in my life. Give me an assortment and don’t tell me what anything is.” I was afraid that lifelong built-in prejudices would kick in if she told me that something was octopus brains or guppy gonads. She brought me a plate with 8 different things, I ate them all – and liked them all. “Okay, tell me now, what was the pink one, what was the white one ….”

When I arrived in Tokyo, I was the epitome of the dumb American tourist. “Oh look, they have trees!” My hotel was on the dividing line between Shinbashi and Ginza, if I recall correctly. I dumped my bags in the room and hit the streets. It was night time. I walked around with no idea of where I was going. I met some Japanese businessmen. They were already drunk and it was a scene from every guidebook you’ve ever read. “Can we practice speaking English with you?” “Okay.” Laughter. “Where are you from?” “America.” Laughter. “What do you think of Japan?” “It’s beautiful.” Laughter. Apparently I was the funniest person they’d ever met. But not funny enough for them to invite me to join them for a drink. Oh well.

I got to the office the next day just in time for lunch. “We’re going out for lunch. Do you eat sushi?” “Of course!”

It turns out I wasn’t supposed to go to the local office. They were quite unhappy to find out that the Hong Kong office had booked a Tokyo job. Well, no one warned me.

There was one American working in that office and he took me around Roppongi that night. Mogambo, Geronimo, Motown House, Baccarat, all the popular gaijin spots.  It was really easy to meet people and make connections. There weren’t as many westerners there as there are today. So if you were in a bar and saw another white guy, you instantly had something in common and would start talking. And one other thing I found out – white guys were in season. We were the latest fashion accessory for Japanese girls. Having a foreign boyfriend was seen as a desirable thing, and they went out in packs in Roppongi hunting for us. At least, that’s what I was told.

The next day I started work. Midway through that morning, an earthquake hit. It was the first earthquake I’d ever been in. It was a small tremor, nothing to worry about, but my heart leapt into my mouth as my students all ran to the window to watch the other buildings sway back and forth. I got over it quickly enough. The next time there was an earthquake and everyone jumped up, I looked at them and said, “What’s the matter? It’s just an earthquake. You have them every day. Sit down. Back to work.”

Nights were a drunken haze. For most of my first week, I was the ugliest Ugly American ever to go to Tokyo. Every night I got drunk and every night I acted like a total asshole. It took about a week for me to settle down. I scolded myself. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you acting like this? What gives you the right? Just because you’re in a foreign country? Because these women are Asian?” I calmed down and went back to being myself and almost immediately after that I found myself a Japanese girlfriend.

Actually, she found me. The temperatures in Tokyo were running above 40 degrees, even at night. One night I barely made it up the stairs to Geronimo. I walked in, closed the door, and collapsed against the wall in a puddle of sweat. This woman at the table right next to where I was schvitzing invited me to sit with them. She was cute but her friend was even cuter. The only problem was that she was passed out. She woke up eventually and the three of us went to Gas Panic to dance. And at some point the cute one, the one who was passed out earlier, asked me if I wanted to meet her the following night.

My friends told me, “She’s Japanese, she’s not going to show up to meet a gaijin alone. She’ll bring a friend.” She showed up alone. And we were together a lot after that. She was a nihilist. She always dressed all in black and wondered pessimistically what was the point in almost everything. But she was also as sweet and as nice as anyone you could hope to meet. One thing I remember – one day we went walking through a Japanese garden and an elderly Japanese man came up to us. She translated for me. “He’s wondering if you, as a foreign barbarian, can appreciate the beauty of a Japanese garden.” I smiled and told him I thought it was really beautiful. That made him happy.

I finished my work after ten days. I didn’t want to leave. I had some vacation time coming so I just stayed on. I moved to a cheaper hotel with a tiny little room that didn’t even give me enough space to open my suitcase; I had to drag it out into the hallway. Every morning I’d check my bank balance and my vacation balance and push back my return flight by another two days. I met a much-younger Jewish Canadian woman and started spending a lot of time with her. I was surviving on McDonald’s every day, the cheapest thing I could find, until I finally discovered ramen shops. I think I had ramen 3 meals a day for the rest of my stay there.

I don’t remember exactly now, but I was there for somewhere between 3 and 4 weeks. I finally ran out of money and ran out of vacation time and had to go back to my empty life in New York. I said goodbye to my new friends and told them I’d be back.

As it turns out, it was four years until I got back to Tokyo. I stayed in touch with both of those women via letters for years. I never saw the Canadian woman l again. It was 4 or 5 years until I saw the Japanese woman again, and at this point I was married to my second wife. We still traded emails from time to time until she got engaged. Her fiance found out about me and somehow felt threatened by our platonic friendship and wrote to me, asking me to stop emailing her. I figured if she found someone and she was happy, I was happy for her.

I was determined to find a job in Tokyo and move there. I called headhunters like crazy. I sent my resume everywhere. Nothing. Not even a nibble.

And then 5 months later, someone pointed out to me that the company I was working for had an opening in their Hong Kong office. The job requirements fit me to a “t” – they wanted a Principal Consultant who was also an architect. As near as I could tell, I was the only person to apply for the job. I think I was the only Principal Consultant in the company who was single and free to make that kind of move. Plus the Hong Kong office remembered how well my Tokyo gig had gone for them.

I thought to myself, “Well, it’s not Tokyo, but it’s closer to Tokyo than New York.” I told my company that I’d never been to Hong Kong, I wasn’t sure if I would like it, and would they fly me out there for a week so I could check it out and see if I really wanted to move there. They agreed.

So in February 1995 I made my first trip to Hong Kong. I felt comfortable from the minute I landed at Kai Tak. I knew no one in Hong Kong, but someone in my office in New York had a friend there. He gave me his number and wrote to the guy to tell him I’d be coming. My first night in Hong Kong, that guy brought me to Wanchai. At Rick’s Cafe, he ran into a girl he knew, and she was there with a friend. That friend and I hit it off pretty well. My friend dragged me to more bars until finally I told him, “I’m still thinking about that girl at Rick’s. I’m gonna go back and see if she’s still there.”

She was still there. We drank and talked some more. She was a television producer from Manila, visiting Hong Kong on a business trip. We went to the MTR to head back to our respective hotels. On the train she turned to me and said, “I’d invite you back to my hotel but I’m sharing my room with someone.” To be honest, I’m not sure that the meaning of that sentence really registered with me. Without stopping to think, I replied, “I’ve got my own hotel room.” And she said, “Okay.” And came back to my hotel with me.

So now my first day in Hong Kong is over. I’m thinking that I’ve lived in New York for decades and can’t meet a woman to save my life; I’m in Hong Kong one day, I know no one, and I’m getting laid. Yes, I can live here.

Of course I wasn’t going to tell them that in the office. I wanted to let the entire week go by before announcing my decision. My future boss decided to play tour guide and show me some of the other benefits of Hong Kong. One day we were walking around Aberdeen. He suggested we should go to Lamma for seafood. We just missed the ferry so he suggested that we get a sampan. We found one, got in, and the woman took us out of the harbor. Then she put on her coat, rubbed cream on her hands, handed me the tiller, pointed out into the fog and lay down and went to sleep.  So now I’m driving a sampan through one of the most congested shipping lanes in the world and it’s so foggy I can’t see where I’m going let alone what’s around me. Somehow we made it to Lamma. We had to wake the woman up because we couldn’t figure out how to cut the engine. She asked if she should wait to give us a ride back. “What, you’re gonna want another nap?” I asked.

I’d made a little list of ten things to do to see if I could survive in Hong Kong on my own. One thing on the list was to have a dim sum lunch by myself. I walked around Causeway Bay and Wanchai and couldn’t figure out which restaurants served dim sum or would even speak English. Finally I passed a restaurant that had a “Welcome” carpet in front. “English! I’ll try here!” I went upstairs and waited. I saw other people coming in and getting seated by the hostess. I thought to myself, “Jeez, is this like Tokyo, they don’t want to deal with foreigners?” I went up to the hostess and said, “What about me?” “I thought you were waiting for other people,” she replied in perfect English. Of course. Because who goes for a dim sum lunch alone? She seated me at a big round table already occupied by a couple in their 70s. They saw how clueless I was and helped me order and showed me how to eat, even sharing some of their food with me. Yes indeed, I could live in Hong Kong.

So that was it. Back to New York and two months to get ready for the move. I got rid of a lot of stuff and put almost everything else into long term storage. I arrived in Hong Kong in April 1995 with just two suitcases, ready to start my new life.

 

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If I’m So Smart part three

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Part 1 here, part 2 here.

So now it’s the beginning of 1990. I’ve graduated Columbia but I have very little confidence in my new computer skills. My professor, the one I’d met a year ago at that dog and pony show, kept telling me that I knew a lot more than most people. I didn’t believe him until I went for a job interview at Barclays. I’d used my final project from Columbia as “proof” of past work and the guy who interviewed me stood me up at a white board and grilled me about it for two hours. “I wanted to hire someone with more experience but you know this stuff better than anyone else I’ve interviewed.” The job was mine.

So there I am, on the eve of my 36th birthday, with my first suit and tie corporate job. It took some getting used to. At the time my hair was down past my shoulders, I had a beard and an earring. I wore 3 piece suits but wore sneakers for my commute and often would forget to change into the dress shoes that I kept in a drawer in my desk. “How’s it going Spike?” a VP asked me one day in the hallway. I knew how he meant it so I turned around, looked him in the eye and said, “Thanks, I’m keeping that.” And I became Spike.

At first, the work there really sucked. The new projects I was hired to do weren’t approved and I was doing maintenance on crappy little applications that no one used or cared about. My boss’s boss took pity on me and gave me some marginally less boring tasks to work on.

Fortunately, I smoke. Back then every floor had a smoking room. I’d go for a smoke every hour and I met every other smoker in the bank. The guys who worked in the cubicles next to me knew no one and were known by no one. I was popular. I was told by more than one person that I was the first IT guy they’d met who had a personality.

The first thing I learned in the smoking room? Business trips. This VP told me he was going to London. “For vacation?” “No, it’s a business trip.” “Who pays for the plane ticket?” “The bank.” “Really? The hotel too?” “Of course. All my meals, too.” “I want that!” I realized I could see the world and get someone else to pay for it.

Soon, they were putting together a team for a major new project. Everyone knew me, so I got to be on this project as the development DBA. I’d been with the bank for a year and suddenly I was designing the database for the entire commercial loan system, which they were going to migrate from mainframes to client/server. They took my design and put it in front of a committee for a week to poke holes in it. There were no holes to be poked.

So now I’m going back and forth to London on a somewhat regular basis. I’m staying in a service flat in The City. The guest register indicated that the prior occupant of my room was J.G. Ballard. It was actually a horrible place. Everything closed at 7. When I needed to do laundry, I grabbed my stuff, got on the first bus that came by, sat on the top deck and got out when I finally spotted a laundry place. Everyone else in there was a Cockney. They were quite amused to have a Yank in the shop and kept trying to stump me with their accents and rhyming slang but I already knew most of it.

One night I went to a party. Everyone else at the party was couples. I felt like sticking needles through my eyes. I sat on the sofa, alone, beer in hand, wondering how I could get out of there and where else I might go. Then this beautiful woman walked in through the door. “Please don’t let her be here with a guy.” Right behind her – another woman. How was I going to talk to her? What could I say? Within minutes M came and sat down on the sofa next to me. “I heard you’re American. I just came back from a trip to New York City. I miss it so much and I love your accent. Can we chat?” We sat on that couch talking for five hours and I took her home.

For whatever it may or may not be worth, up until that time – for 14 years, in fact – I had never cheated on my wife. But I was an ocean away, this girl was easily one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met, she was an artist, and she had that accent. When I had the opportunity, it never even occurred to me to say no.

I flew back to New York and tried to write it off as a one-weekend stand. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I asked my friends what they thought I should do. All of them, even my female friends, told me the same thing. “As long as I’ve known you, you haven’t been happy. You’re still young. Do something that makes you happy.” When I suggested a separation to my wife, she told me we should just get it over with and get divorced. It was completely amicable. We divided up our stuff and got our downstairs neighbor, a lawyer, to handle all of the legal bits and pieces for us.

I wrote a 20 page letter to M explaining the situation. Her friends were all telling me, “You know she’s not well, right? That she can’t work, that she sees a shrink 5 days a week, she’s on all sorts of medication?” Well, she was a poet and I just thought that’s how poets are. I told them, “Yes, I know, but I seem to be good for her. She’s normal and happy with me.”

And after she read that letter, she pronounced it the most beautiful letter she’d ever read and said that I should get back to London as quickly as possible. And so I did. One image I will never forget is her waiting for me at Heathrow. She was wearing a torn green sweater; the holes in the sweater revealed a bright pink bra underneath. Her skirt couldn’t have been any shorter. Her stockings were ripped and she had these great boots. A real gorgeous British punk artist.

I stayed at her place (a council flat I think it was called, government subsidized housing). She had books stacked floor to ceiling along every wall in every room.  We talked about art, we talked about literature, we talked about politics, we talked about having all her friends over for dinner to meet me and renting a car to go to Wales to meet her family. And then on the 4th day we woke up and she didn’t know who I was. She completely freaked out and started screaming at me to get out of there. I didn’t know what to do.  This was totally beyond the realm of my experience and completely unexpected.  I panicked.  I got out of there. I checked into a hotel and then kept calling and calling until a day later her sister answered the phone. “Why did you leave? You never should have done that. Now she never wants to see you again.” And I never did see her, or even hear from her, again.

I sat in the hotel for three days, not eating, not sleeping, just drinking and playing R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” over and over and over again. I finally recovered, went back to work and a couple of weeks later I flew off to Amsterdam and a haze of beer, grass and hookers helped me put all of this behind me.

Back at work, I was supposed to get promoted to AVP for my work on that big project. My boss loved me. She looked like a very proper British lady but she’d regale me with tales of going to see the Sex Pistols wearing nothing but garbage bags. She told me that she and her husband decided that I must have some British blood in me. I knew she meant it as a compliment. The Americans working for the bank all thought, “Oh, I work for a British bank. I have to be very reserved and proper!” But the Brits didn’t have that baggage. They were wild and crazy and fun and I fit right in with them.

The VP who was assigned to give me that promotion was the same guy who’d first called me Spike. He called me into his office in New York one day and here’s what he told me. “They tell me you should get a promotion. Looking at your work, there’s no doubt you should. But you’re weird. If I promote you, everyone will ask who promoted that weirdo? And then they’ll look at me. I’ve been here ten years and no one looks at me and I want to keep it that way. So no promotion.”

So I asked my boss to move me to London. She looked around and said there was nothing in London but there was an architecture position in Manchester. I hadn’t been there but I thought, why the hell not? So they started pulling all the paperwork together. And then the bank laid off 5,000 people in the UK. “We can’t very well bring you over here after just doing that, can we?” My boss told me she’d be leaving soon and that I should probably consider looking for another job as well.

Back in New York, I had this contractor working for me. He was an ex-NYC cop on a disability pension, with movie star looks. He spent his summers in nudist colonies. The winters were spent having weekend orgies at the nudists’ homes. He invited me to join in and even fixed me up with a secretary from another department – he said he’d been telling her about these parties and she was interested to check it out and needed a ride. J was blonde, pretty and had an amazing body. It seemed like a good deal to me.

I picked her up and we drove two hours to the party house. Maybe you won’t be surprised when I tell you that there was almost no one there even slightly good looking or remotely fit (aside from the guy who worked for me, his wife and my date). There were 50 people fucking in every nook and cranny in the house and I felt absolutely no urge to join in. J was also just watching from the sidelines and I thought, “She’s my date, this might go somewhere, I should just stay with her.” So I sat out the festivities.

The next day, driving back home, I asked J what she thought of all that. “I’m glad I saw it because now I can pray for all those people.” Maybe that should have set off some warning bells. But within a short span of time we were a couple.

(Six months later J and I went to another orgy, this time a private party in a lower Manhattan bar. We’re dancing and I tried to grab her and she said, “Stop, everyone’s looking,” and I said, “No one’s looking at us, they’re all too busy fucking.” And when I looked at a naked woman dancing next to me, she said, “You’re looking!” and I said, “Of course I’m looking, she’s right next to me and completely naked, what do you expect?”)

Since she lived in Jersey and I lived in Queens, I moved to Jersey to be closer to her. We were always together. Everyone assumed we would get married. But she drank. Every night. She drank cheap wine; $5 for a gallon in a cardboard carton lined with plastic. And once she got drunk, she was a mean drunk. She was an abusive drunk. I told her that I couldn’t put up with it, that one day she was going to have to choose between wine and me. Finally one night she passed out at the dining room table in the middle of sentence. When she woke up I told her, “It’s clear that you’ve made your choice. We’re finished.”

At this point, I’ve left the bank and I’m working for Sybase, a database software company. I got hired as a Senior Consultant. You’re supposed to get at least a week of training when you start, but on my first day they sent me out to a project at Pepsi. This was the biggest project I’ve ever been involved in – before or since. It was the redesign of their entire North American soft drink ordering and delivery applications. There were more than 600 consultants and contractors working on this. Fortunately for me, 5 of them were also from Sybase, and they covered for me until I got up to speed. I didn’t get that first week’s training until I rolled off the Pepsi project after 9 months.

I became a performance and tuning expert. Every day I’d have to read through 500 to 1,000 pages of printouts of application code, looking for ways to optimize it. Yawn. But I had a direct line to the guys who wrote the SQL Server code and they gave me all the inside tips. The work itself was boring but Pepsi was a fun place to work. Right in the middle of a huge park. All the free soda you could drink or carry home. Free Lays potato chips and Doritos. The employee cafeteria was all KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, since Pepsi owned those at the time. The only thing we couldn’t get was the thing we needed most – Stolichnaya Vodka, which Pepsi was distributing in the US until someone decided it was bad for their image.

I did really well at Sybase. I won two “consultant of the quarter” awards. I was the regional lead for their Replication Server product and helped write the training course. I co-wrote the Sybase project methodology. I did six projects at AT&T. I did one project at Lehman. The guy at Lehman offered me a job and when I turned them down I got the “you’ll never work in this town again” line. Instead I got promoted to Principal Consultant and led what I was told was the most profitable project the consulting division had ever had.

All well and good, except that my social life had dwindled down to zero. There was an Olympic swimmer but that didn’t go very far. I was spending all of my time working and commuting. I was living in Jersey, doing projects in Jersey or a plane ride away, and a big night out for me was browsing in a local book store and having dinner alone in a diner (one that later appeared in many episodes of The Sopranos).

I was, in short, absolutely fucking miserable. I was in beautiful, exciting Norcross, Georgia working on another AT&T project in the factory where they were manufactuing fiber optic cable. I got a call and was told that Sybase Hong Kong needed someone to come out there for a couple of weeks and was I interested?  Um, Norcross Georgia or Hong Kong, which would I pick?

Then it turned out that I wouldn’t be going to Hong Kong after all. I’d be going to Tokyo. Why was the Hong Kong office booking a Tokyo assignment? I didn’t ask. Tokyo was #1 on the list of places I wanted to go to. I thought it was so far away and so expensive that I’d never get there in my entire life. And now I was going to go there for 10 days, all expenses paid.

I was ready.

 

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If I’m So Smart part two …

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Continuing on from part one …

So it’s 1982. I’ve walked away from managing the band and I’ve walked away from working in my cousin’s TV store. I really have no clue as to what to do next. I did a few projects out of Mark Moogy Klingman‘s studio, nothing that really amounted to anything, public access cable TV stuff. I got hired by some company to do income tax preparation but one day of that was all I could take.

I’d always told myself that if I couldn’t get any other job, I could still drive a taxi. So I went out and got a taxi license. It was easier in those days because you would just pay the taxi company a percentage of what you booked on the meter rather than having to lease it out by the week or the month. As a new driver, I had to work Saturdays and Sundays, my shift was 5 AM to 3 PM. My first day was super embarrassing – I picked up some guy who wanted to go to JFK airport and I got lost going there. Yeah, I lived in New York my whole life but how often had I gone to the airport? At that point, maybe once. I ended up driving the taxi for a year (I believe I’ve posted tales about this before). Four celebrities, a lot of hookers and drunks, and NYC traffic day after day after goddamned day. I had an uncle who had done this his whole life and now I understood him a whole lot better.

On my days off, I went to electronics school, figuring I could study for a year and get a job as a radio or TV engineer. The first month of that was easy but once the math started getting more intense, my brain switched off and I dropped out from the class.

My wife was working full time, but it was a relatively low paying office job. She was lost as well. She’d graduated with a teaching degree, but a month before graduation she decided she didn’t want to teach. We were living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Rent was a hell of a lot lower then than it is now, plus we were living in a 300 square foot studio with a loft bed. We stayed in that apartment for 10 years.

I was a crappy taxi driver and I was earning next to nothing. I had all those credit card debts from the band and I couldn’t make the payments. The bill collectors were calling every day and I was sinking deeper into depression.

March 2, 1982 is the day that Philip K. Dick died. I read mostly science fiction in those days and following his death I probably read everything he wrote. It’s arguable that Dick was schizophrenic – well from 1974 onwards there’s really little doubt. And he wrote a lot of himself into the characters in his books. So here I am, sinking into depression, reading books written by a schizophrenic, and I decided I must be schizophrenic as well. I think I self-diagnosed to somehow justify to myself why there were an increasing number of days when I couldn’t even make it out the front door of our apartment except to buy cigarettes. My wife never mentioned a word about any of this. I’m honestly not sure if she didn’t notice it or if she did but didn’t know how to deal with it – or perhaps 30-odd years later it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember it as being. At any rate, the debts got to the point where the banks were going to take my wife’s salary, which would have really left us with nothing. I tried to negotiate better payment terms but they all basically said they’d prefer it if I just declared bankruptcy. And so I did.

As a life-long record collector, all the record shop owners in the village knew me. One day I parked my taxi in front of my favorite shop, to take a break and see what was knew, and the owner told me he was going to open a video store with a partner and asked if I wanted to stop driving the taxi and work there instead. Yes please.

While I’d like to report that by working in a video store I became Quentin Tarantino, or at least had a life and career similar to his, you all know that’s not how things worked out. What I can say is that I really enjoyed working there and it snapped me out of my depression. With its prime Greenwich Village location, we had a lot of celebrity customers, everyone from Daryl Hall to Rod Steiger. One night Sigourney Weaver came in with Wallace Shawn – she was looking at all the titles while Shawn seemed to be smiling and laughing and going, “I’m with Sigourney Weaver!”  Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren were frequent customers and every time I’d deliver to them, I’d end up hanging out at their place playing with Grace’s kid. Grace was the total opposite of her image – warm and smiling and sexy. We asked how she and Dolph met and she told us that one night she saw him at a party and walked up to him and said, “I’m going to have you.”

The store was just off Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. At least 2/3rds of the customers were gay and of the staff, only the owner and myself were straight. The store did a huge business because it stocked and rented the latest in gay porn, right alongside all the newest releases and deep, deep catalogue of classic and foreign films. If I wanted to go out with my co-workers after work, it meant going to gay bars, and this led to my doing the video systems for almost every gay bar in the Village.

I was also at Ground Zero when AIDS started to really hit New York. Every time a friend got sick, the fear was that it could be AIDS. I’d go visit friends in the hospital, holding their hands or hugging them, so the nurses all assumed that I was gay and that I also probably had AIDS and they treated me like shit. Relatively little was known about the disease back then but I wasn’t about to desert my friends. It was a time of incredible emotions and irrationality. Some friends went monogamous, some went completely celibate. All were living in fear.

At some point in 1985, I went back to my friend the record store owner and suggested that he and I open a store together selling only CDs. And so we did. It was the second CD-only store in New York City and the first one to sell used CDs. There were lots of problems. Tower Records was just blocks away and I was trying to compete with them on price but I didn’t know enough about business to be able to do a budget or base my prices on anything other than pure guesses and my partner, who had demanded 51% ownership in return for letting me use his name and logo, offered little or no help. Perhaps he assumed I knew what I was doing but actually I was pretty clueless. For six months we barely made enough to pay the rent.

Problems kept mounting up, not the least of which was this ring of crooked United Parcel drivers. They basically stole everything they wanted from their trucks every day. They figured it was covered by insurance and therefore a “victimless” crime. One day they stole a bunch of CD players so now they wanted CDs. They told me I should make a freaking huge order from my distributor, that they’d steal it off the truck, take out what they wanted and then sell me the rest for half price. I said, “Don’t you think it will stand out to them that I’m placing an order 5 times the size of my regular order? And don’t you think I’m the first one the police will come to when it goes missing?” I refused to go along with their little scheme. To try to get revenge, and since I paid my bills mostly in cash, they then tried reporting me to their managers and the police as having received orders without paying for them and accusing me of theft. But it was such a stupid story that the spotlight very quickly was on them instead of me. I was in the clear. I believe they were all fired and at least one went to jail.

Then, as luck would have it, I made a connection in the UK. He would call me every Monday and read me the list of the latest releases. I’d get a box from him every Thursday. Back then, some major stuff was coming out in the UK weeks or even months before the US, stuff like Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode. I’d get this stuff a week or two before any other import store in the village and I was selling the imports at a reasonable price. Word got out and soon I had people driving a hundred miles or more to come to the shop to get their hands on this. I even started “wholesaling” to other shops. The money was rolling in.

The problem with this was that it was all illegal at the time. Parallel imports. Some nearby record store, jealous of the business I was doing with this stuff, reported me to the RIAA. They sent me a cease and desist letter. My partner panicked. His vinyl stores were doing a huge business – and what he was doing in the stores (and in the back of the stores) wasn’t entirely legal either. All the big DJ’s of the era shopped at his stores, all of them. And when Madonna did an in-store in New York, it wasn’t at Tower Records, it was at his store. So when I got the cease and desist, he was afraid that if I tried to fight it, the inspectors wouldn’t just stop with the little CD store, they’d go across the street to the vinyl stores and start looking around. So he ordered me to stop selling the imports. I had no choice but to comply and within a couple of weeks, my business dropped off by 75%.

Technically speaking, what he did to me was also illegal. He couldn’t purposely hurt one business to try to save another. But that didn’t stop him. He “fired” me and offered me no money at all for my 49% of the store, saying it was essentially worthless. So I sued him. And he counter-sued me.

For awhile we were deadlocked and it seemed as if it was going to go nowhere. Until one day when we sat down across the table from each other with our lawyers. His lawyer opened the proceedings by telling me I had no case and I would never see a dime and I should just walk away. Before my lawyer could open his mouth, I pushed him away and started talking. Here is what I remember telling them that day:

“I happen to know that you’re paying your lawyer $150 an hour. See my lawyer? That’s not just my lawyer, that’s my buddy Joe. I love Joe. We’ve been best friends since college. He’s charging me $50 an hour. Joe and his wife wanna have a baby and I don’t mind giving Joe money so he and his wife can have money for their kid. And if I have to pay Joe for the next three years, I don’t mind. And I know whatever I pay Joe, you’re paying your lawyer three times as much, so even if I never get a penny, it’s worth it to me knowing how much it will cost you. So go fuck yourself and the horse you rode in on.”

The lawyers quickly pulled us into separate rooms. Joe said to me, “I’m not charging you $50 an hour, it’s $53. And don’t ever again tell anyone what you’re paying me.”  Meanwhile I think my partner’s lawyer must have said to him, “This guy’s fucking nuts. Let’s just settle and get it over with.” So minutes later they came back with an offer to repay me every cent I’d originally invested in the business, and I accepted.

(Joe and I are still friends to this day. He has two lovely daughters whom he has wisely kept away from me.)

So fine. I got my money back. And fortunately my next job was already waiting for me. One of my steady customers in the store was this guy who produced a syndicated radio series of hour-long rock concerts. He would come in the store every week and ask me a hundred questions about CDs – when is something coming out; which sounds better – the US, the UK or the Japanese release, and so on – and I could always answer his questions. So a lightbulb went off in his head. “What if the entire country could ask Spike questions and get answers the way I do?”

So he hit me with this proposal to start up The CD Hotline. And I got somewhat fucked in the process. See, there were to be two owners. The radio guy and his partner, the grandson of an extraordinarily famous writer. The radio guy knew how radio worked and had all the connections. The writer’s grandson had connections and real estate. When I asked, “So do I get some shares in the business?” I was told only if I put up some cash. My lawsuit wasn’t settled yet and I had no money and so I got nothing. If I’d been smarter back then, I might have countered that they wouldn’t have any business without the knowledge in my head and that should have been worth something. But I was stupid and desperate for a job and so I went along with it.

The majority of the seed money ended up coming from the Grateful Dead Pension Fund. Who had any idea back in the 80s that the Dead were so well organized financially? Well, they were.

We sat there and divided up who was responsible for what between the three of us. They pointed at me and said I was in charge of computers. Why me? Because I had an Atari, which was more than either of them had.

So I sat in the basement of radio guy’s brownstone for six months, typing everything I knew about CDs into a database. The database software had been written by this genius quadriplegic guy who lived way upstate. He basically taught me everything about computers over the phone since he couldn’t come down to NYC.

Meanwhile radio guy set about trying to sell the concept. The initial idea was a one hour syndicated program in which we’d review CDs, take questions and play music. But the feedback from program directors was unanimous – they had a million guys trying to sell them one hour shows but the idea of the database was unique. (Keep in mind this was the 80s and there was no www back then.)

So the idea morphed into a 2 minute thing. Radio stations could brand it as their own (“The WXYZ CD Hotline!”) and do an announcement for it every hour, giving out an 800 number to call, and giving us a minute or two of commercial time to sell every hour.  The program director from WBCN Boston came down to the basement and quizzed me hard. Every question he asked, the answer – the correct answer – was already in the database. Sold. And soon after more than 100 radio stations across the country signed up.

At that point we moved into a warehouse in Williamsburg. We had 20 people answering phones and a computer network that was probably pretty advanced for 1987 running. I got my phone lessons from the distant programmer in DOS, dBase III and C and I taught myself Novell Netware. It all came really easily to me. I was supervising the database entry by half a dozen staff, training new staff and keeping the computer network running.

The problem for me was that the money was rolling in and I was just a (low) salaried employee. I was earning more than I ever had before. But I was watching the two partners go off to their summer rentals in the Hamptons and they’d ask if they could leave their dogs with me for the weekend.

(One time, the writer’s grandson invited my wife and I up to his compound in Vermont for a weekend. We had our own little bungalow there. The grandson had a lot of celebrity friends. He was known to spend weekends in Aspen skiing with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis and fucking Playboy Playmates. But the closest person to a celebrity I met that weekend was Mrs. John Oates (of Hall & Oates). She’d been a super model before getting married and for some reason my wife became convinced that she was coming on to me. I said, “What are you, nuts? She’s a super model married to a racing car driver rock star, she doesn’t even know I’m here.” But we left after just one day there. So much for the High Life.)

I guess at this point the only good thing about the job was that it got me on the mailing lists for some record companies. I was getting dozens of CDs a week for free.

Also, since the 70s, I’d been writing professionally on the side. I started out writing for college newspapers and magazines. After that I wrote for a large variety of smaller magazines – record reviews, videocassette reviews, things like that. I started publishing my reviews to various forums on CompuServe, where I served as “co-sysop” on RockNet and the Consumer Electronics Forum. I also picked up some part time work consulting to RCA Records on their back catalogue, but I was never able to turn that into anything permanent. One person I met was Bill Levenson, head of back catalogue at Polygram. Bill first came to fame when he produced the Eric Clapton Crossroads box. Bill told me he’d started out as a computer programmer, was working for IBM, got assigned to a project at Polygram, got hired by Polygram, and moved from programmer to producer. This was a life I wanted.

My mom, meanwhile, knew this guy who owned a toy company that had been bought out by Universal. So my mother suggested that I should write to Universal (MCA) Records and say that I know this guy and ask if there might be a job for me. A week later I got a call from Irving Azoff’s secretary. He was coming to New York and wanted to meet me. It seemed that he was looking for a new head of back catalogue. He was impressed by my knowledge of and my love of music. I thought the job was mine. The problem was, I don’t think my mother every called that toy company guy to let him know what was up. So when Azoff’s people called that guy to check on my references, that guy probably said he had never heard of me. And I never heard from Azoff or MCA again.

The money kept coming in at CD Hotline but I wasn’t seeing what I thought should have been my share. These guys had the idea to license the database to places like Tower Records, which had kiosks with computers where people could use our database to look up stuff. Long after I’d left the company, my database became the first database Amazon used when they started selling CDs. Eventually the two of them sold off the company and I’m sure they cleared a very comfortable amount of money in the process. I never saw a penny of it.

I had no idea what I was going to do next. I thought at best I was qualified to be a $5 an hour stock boy at Tower Records. Then one night my dad called me up. “Kid,” he said, “you ain’t getting anywhere with this art shit, are you?” “Um, no dad, I guess I’m not.” “You seem to like fooling around with computers. You ever think about going back to school and studying that and then doing that for a living?” Well, my father almost never gave me any advice, so on those rare occasions when he did, I paid attention. “No dad, I never thought about it, but that’s a damned good idea!” And I meant it.

See, I had no idea that there was any value in what I’d already learned about computers. I didn’t know that I could take what I already knew and was doing and get some corporate IT job somewhere. It came so easily to me, so naturally, that I figured it had to be the same for everyone, wasn’t it? I later found out no, it wasn’t.

So I started looking around for classes I might take. I thought I’d take a month-long course in something like dBase or FoxPro and then try to sell myself as an independent programmer, much like my phone buddy in upstate New York.

But one afternoon I wandered into a presentation from Columbia University. The guy was talking about all of this stuff I had never heard of. At the end, I raised my hand and asked, “But what about dBase?” The answer I got was so informative and so patient that I said to myself, “That’s the guy I want to have as my teacher.”

My father wasn’t thrilled that I was going to go to a year’s worth of classes rather than a month’s, but he gave me the money for the tuition. For the next year I still worked day time at CD Hotline while going to school at Columbia 3 hours per night twice a week, and most of every weekend spent in their computer labs.

So I took six courses in a year, mostly having to do with relational databases but also structured design and the system life cycle and some general programming courses as well. We went from Assembler all the way up to C, which was about as modern as it got back then. Databases came easily to me, perhaps because I’d already been working with them for a few years at the CD Hotline. Third form normalization? I could do that in my sleep. My final project was a 200+ page document representing a redesign of the CD Hotline database and application. I was never much of a student in my youth so I was probably more surprised than anyone else when I graduated with 5 A’s and a B.

Okay, that’s the end of part two.

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If I’m So Smart, How Come I’m Not Rich?

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I’m coming up on my 17th anniversary in Hong Kong. A little further down the line is the 10th anniversary of this blog. I’m in a bad mood this morning. Consider this post therapy. Or a list of bad decisions.

Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12, I decided I wanted to be a movie director. Looking back at it now, I think I reached this decision because I loved watching movies and it gave me an excuse for that.

When I was in high school I joined an independent filmmakers cooperative on Rivington Street, when Rivington Street was the exact opposite of the upscale hipster location it is today. A few times a week after school I’d take the subway down to this area where I had to step over and around broken glass, used hypodermic needles, junkies and drunks to get to this storefront “school” where they taught me how to use a 16mm camera and a Moviola. I don’t recall ever actually making any films there. Actually I don’t recall much from those days at all.

At the same time, I was playing piano and bass. My parents started me in on piano lessons around the age of 7 or 8. In junior high school, where my choice was between school orchestra or shop, I took up the double bass. I chose this because everyone wanted violin or clarinet (go figure), no one wanted bass, and I thought I could stand out this way. I did. The shortage of double bass players meant that somehow I got into a high school orchestra while I was still in junior high. It was the Bronx Borough Wide Symphony Orchestra and it was a year in which they (we) would play our annual concert at Carnegie Hall. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice!” I didn’t practice much. There just weren’t many bass players to choose from. So I played Carnegie Hall when I was 14. I also got a cheap electric bass guitar and despite having zero understanding of it at all, I tried to join or form a band. I even had an ad in Rolling Stone (which at the time did free classifieds for musicians) about wanting to form a band modeled after the Bonzo Dog Band, a huge favorite of mine at the time. That never got off the ground, no big surprise.

For college (or university, depending on where you’re from) I had my heart set on going to UCLA or USC but my parents said California was too far away. So I got into NYU’s film school, I was accepted for early admission, which was sort of a big thing.

My first semester, there was a course on still photography that went for 8 hours a day, twice a week. Second semester, there was a course “intro to filmmaking” that also went 8 hours a day. The teacher decided that this would be perfect for the entire class to do mescaline together, as he saw psychedelic drugs as essential to understanding the film experience. The dean kept rejecting his request for some reason.

I got a summer job working at the restaurant at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. The guys running it had a kosher deli nearby and hired me because they owed my parents a favor. They hated me and I hated them. Eventually they tossed me out of the restaurant and had me pushing a hot dog cart through the park. By early August I quit and took off for London for 3 weeks with a friend.

Second year at NYU, I had the legendary Haig Manoogian as a teacher. He’s one of those people not easily forgotten. (Raging Bull was dedicated to him.) I remember doing a documentary on my then-piano teacher Barry Goldberg and a moody thing shot in a hundred year old synagogue using Tim Buckley’s Star Sailor as a soundtrack. I don’t think Haig was impressed by my stuff. I started spending most of my time at WNYU, the school’s radio station, dj’ing a couple of times a week. I’d also shot some photos of David Peel and he liked them so I occasionally hung out with his odd assortment of friends.

I was also working part time as a grillman at this bar and restaurant called Hungry Charlie’s. It was right down the street from NYU’s “main building.” Since I was commuting to school rather than living in the dorm, I thought this would be a good chance to meet other students. It turned out that this was more of a lowlife sort of spot, lots of dealers, junkies, hookers, scammers and the occasional odd celebrity. One day I was driving through the east village and spotted a junkie hooker in a doorway and thought to myself, “Oh yeah, I made her a cheeseburger last night.” And then I thought to myself, “Time to get out of New York.”

But first, a summer job. I got this list of every film production house in New York, divided it up geographically, put on a suit and tie, and knocked on every door and left a resume at the front desk. I got hired by Larry Lindberg Productions. They were doing a weekly 30 minute sports magazine show for CBS called CBS Sports Illustrated. I was hired as a gopher and assistant editor and ended up cutting one piece that got on the air. Larry was an interesting guy and the two “real” editors there taught me a lot, including how to use one of the newer flatbed editing machines. One of the things there was that they needed music as soundtracks to their 5 minute segments but they didn’t know anything about current music. I brought in a lot of my records; they liked Deep Purple and Yes. They told me I could have a job there again the following summer but for some reason I never went back. I should have.

I had friends going to school in Boston so I looked for a Boston school where I could major in film and found Emerson College. The film school was pretty shitty there and I think in two years there I made one 5-minute vampire movie. Back in those days Boston had a lot of repertory movie theaters, double bills of classic movies for $1, and I went to the movies almost every day. I almost never went to classes. I also started working for Boston promoter Don Law; I was head usher for awhile at the 3,000 seat Orpheum Theater and did security at another theater, name I can’t remember, and also the occasional show at the much larger Boston Garden. Basically I got to see just about every band that came through Boston in those two years – and got paid for it.

Somehow, I graduated on the Dean’s List. I say “somehow” because I don’t think I went to too many classes in those two years.

Back to New York, reading the trades, and I got a job as a production assistant on a kung fu/monster/blacksploitation film called The Devil’s Express, which was mostly shot in the subway tunnels in Brooklyn.

When that finished, I took an office job at a place called Physicians Radio Network. Doctors would fill out these postcards in medical magazines, this company would send them these free crappy radios that only played their network, filled with ads from drug companies. I sat and did something with filing these cards all day long.

Another ad, another film job, somehow I ended up as assistant cameraman on a 35mm feature film – an XXX-rated hard core porn called Rollerbabies. The director was this guy who had a PhD in chemistry but decided he wanted to make movies. The only people who would hire him were Mafia types who’d give him 25k and he’d give them a movie. So the budget was low as his “salary” was basically whatever was left over from that 25k after the film was made. The script was written by a guy who was moonlighting from Mad Magazine. No one in it could act so most of the jokes were jettisoned. The director’s “trademark” was a pull-out-slow-motion-cum-shot. He got busted on his next film for using under-age talent.

Meanwhile I couldn’t get busted and I couldn’t get a job. So I took a summer job as a camp counselor, a camp in the Poconos, and that’s where I met my first wife.

Back after the summer, I put on the suit and tie and started banging on doors again. This time a lot of places told me I needed to be in a union. None of the film unions would accept me, even as an apprentice, because I either didn’t already have a job or I didn’t already have relatives in the union.

Eventually I got hired part time by Bob Gaffney Productions. Bob was a director/cameraman doing TV commercials – Clio-award winning commercials for global brands. First they brought me in to edit the house reel – splicing together commercials so they could send reels of film to ad agencies to get jobs. Yeah, it was like that once.  I got to PA on a few location shoots too. Then they started calling me to fill in as the receptionist whenever their full time one got sick. When she quit her job, I asked them to give me the job permanently. “But it’s not a film job, you won’t be happy, you won’t get to go on shoots.” “But I’ll be happy getting a regular paycheck!” So they agreed and I had my first full time job at the age of 24, as a receptionist. I’m sure my parents were thrilled.

One day the phone rang. “Bob Gaffney please.” “May I ask who is calling?” “Stanley Kubrick.” WTF?

And so I learned a bit more about Bob’s history. Bob started out shooting March of Time documentaries. He’d done work for the CIA – which he told us about and which I will not write about here. He directed Orson Welles’ first TV commercial. He directed cult favorite Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.

For Kubrick, he’d shot second unit stuff for Lolita, Strangelove and 2001. He was the producer for the never-finished Napoleon. He’d designed the super low light lenses for Barry Lyndon. Working on Napoleon soured him on feature films and he decided doing commercials was easier. Every time Stanley would start a new film, he’d call Bob and try to get him to come to work for him again. This time the film was to be The Shining. Barry Lyndon had tanked at the box office and Stanley thought he needed a sure-fire hit otherwise he’d lose creative control and final cut. He hated the book and thought if he filmed the ending as written the audience would run out of the theater laughing. So our first task was to read the book and suggest alternate endings.

Stanley thought he might move back to the U.S. to shoot the picture. Since he wouldn’t fly – and since there was no Internet – I had to collect every train schedule and every Mobil Travel Guide and mail them to him in the UK. He stayed in London. We tested the Steadicam for him and our office served as the office for the second unit crew whenever they were in transit between Oregon and London. Whatever work I did on this film was not enough to rate a screen credit. I did get to meet a lot of people who’d worked with him for a decade or more. Few had any good things to say about him yet they kept working for him film after film.

The other thing with Stanley that he was convinced that as a famous American living in London, he was a potential target for the IRA. He thought they would try to kidnap his children. So every two days he had his phone number changed. I have no idea why he thought that would be effective. So every time he called it was always, “Hi Stanley, what’s your phone number today?”

Gaffney decided to promote me away from the receptionist desk. I was told that I would either be trained to become an associate producer or business manager. I had no say in the matter. His current business manager was his father-in-law, approaching 65 years old. So guess which job they gave me? I became business manager of one of the top ten commercial director/cameramen in the U.S., with absolutely no background for it. Why? Because I worked cheap. However, it seemed to seriously piss him off that I would show up for work every day in jeans, t-shirts and cowboy boots but that I could get short-term bank loans at lower interest rates than his father-in-law had done.

I didn’t much like the job and I didn’t like other things going on in the office that I don’t feel comfortable writing about. I left there after four years. And I was screwed. No production house in New York wanted to hire me as a business manager because they didn’t believe that someone so young and unqualified had done that job. No production house in New York wanted to hire me for film work because I hadn’t been on a shoot in more than two years. And the unions still weren’t willing to take me.

My assistant at Gaffney had introduced me to a young British songwriter. He had a publishing contract with Capitol and wanted to put a band together. I agreed to manage him and funded the entire thing with credit cards. We found three more musicians, I bought them equipment and a rehearsal space, I got them gigs at places like CBGB’s and used a connection to get them into NYC’s famed Record Plant to record demos.

At the same time, I was working at my cousin’s store that was right on the borderline between Columbia University and Harlem. I was selling TVs and stereos, delivering stuff into the projects, repairing TVs and covering for him while he ran off doing various things that I probably shouldn’t be writing about.

The whole thing sucked. The record companies came down to see the band and they all said the same thing. “They’re good but they’re at least a year away.” The band didn’t want to rehearse, they didn’t want to try and get gigs on their own, my cut from their gigs was usually around $25 a night. I walked away from them, deeply in debt. Eventually they got picked up by King Crimson’s management company and released one EP on A&M Records and, as far as I can tell, none of them were ever heard from again.

This is getting rather long so I’ll take a break here.

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Review – Think Tank Photo My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13

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Photographers suffer from what we jokingly refer to as GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. We get GAS not only for cameras and lenses, we also get GAS for bags. I don’t know any photographer who only has one camera bag. We buy them in all different sizes for all different purposes.

There are plenty of companies making photo bags and I’ve tried lots of them and after several years, the one company that I “follow” is an American company called Think Tank Photo. Their bags are intelligently designed and durable and have stood the test of time for me.

Here’s my “family” of Think Tank Photo bags:

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As you can see, I’ve got six of them, ranging from a small shoulder bag that will hold just my Nikon D800 with a zoom lens all the way up to the rolling Airport Security bag – which I use not just for travel but also for local shoots when I’m taking everything with me.

Think Tank decided to branch out into a new line that they called My 2nd Brain. This is a line of bags that they say are specifically sized for Apple products – MacBooks, iPads, iPhones – though of course they should work for just about any notebook, tablet and phone.

The first series of bags that they introduced left me cold. These were ultra-slim shoulder bags that could fit a laptop or a tablet computer and maybe a few sheets of paper but very little else. They couldn’t begin to accommodate what I carry on a normal work day. I looked at them and wondered if their designers all had 20/20 vision or wore contacts. There wasn’t even space for a couple of regular-sized eyeglass cases, let alone all the stuff I’m liable to carry on an average work day.

So, you ask, what do I carry on a normal day?

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  • 13 inch MacBook Pro
  • iPad Air
  • two pairs of glasses – reading and sun glasses
  • Fiio headphone amplifier
  • Over the ears headphones – most often B&W P5s, sometimes I go for the Bluetooth Parrot Zik headphones, which are also fabulous.
  • a “regular” pen and an Adonit Jot Script pen for writing on my iPad
  • The power adapter for my MacBook
  • a battery-powered electric fan, for all the times I’m waiting for the damned 307 bus in 35 degree heat
  • some sugar-free mints
  • 3 different business cards (day job, photo studio, photo/writing)
  • Keys
  • Battery charger and cables
  • Umbrella
  • Water bottle

And that’s not everything. Not shown in the photo above are:

  • Two mobile phones (one for business, one for “life”)
  • Cigarettes and a lighter
  • Sony RX100 III camera
  • And, occasionally, a paperback book for when I feel like reading on paper vs. on my iPad

Now, take all of that stuff and add on that I’m somewhat obsessive compulsive (as if that wasn’t already evident) and that I don’t want to spend time digging through my bag looking for things. I want each thing to have its own pocket or compartment; first so that it won’t be banging into anything else, and second so that I can put my hands on anything in an instant without digging around.

I have a slim vertical shoulder bag from Skooba that can’t really handle too much stuff. An iPad and two pairs of glasses and the Sony camera leave it bursting at the seams. I have a messenger bag from Crumpler that holds all of the above and more, but it’s just too big – when I’m sitting on the bus it’s really difficult to keep the bag from spilling over onto the laps of the people sitting next to me.

I decided that I wanted some kind of briefcase, to look more professional (okay, granted, I go to work wearing jeans and t-shirts and sneakers, but once in a rare while I have to do “business casual” or even a suit and a messenger bag just doesn’t go with that).

There’s probably a zillion briefcases one can find in Hong Kong, everything from cheap knock-offs to fancy leather cases costing thousands of dollars. I figured I could spend years looking at all of them, trying to find one that would fit my particular mania. But when TTP expanded their My 2nd Brain line to include briefcases, I knew that was the answer I was looking for. The price was right, the size was right and I also knew that this would have all of the pockets and compartments I wanted. So I got the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 in black (it also comes in “Harbor Blue” and “Mist Green”).

(Full disclosure – after not being able to locate the bag in Hong Kong through the local TTP distributors, I approached the company directly asking for a bag in exchange for a review and I was quite surprised when they agreed.)

Let’s start by examining the outside of the bag, starting with the front:

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It’s a very clean, classic design, made from 420D high density nylon with a water-repellant coating. The bag measures 14.2″ wide by 11.8″ high by 4.5″ deep. As you can see, the handle at the top of the bag is well padded. The detachable strap is also sufficiently padded, with those little shiny maybe-silicone bits that keep it from slipping off one’s shoulder.

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There’s even a small buckle on the strap to let you hang a pair of headphones or some other small item with a strap.

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(The above photo is the only one taken from the company web site. Wish I had a nice set-up at home for doing this kind of shooting!)

All of the hardware is durable nickel-coated metal.

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The front flap has two zippers that open to reveal the type of sectioned divider that’s found in almost every TTP bag.

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Note that there’s a deep pocket there good for papers, a small notebook, or perhaps a passport and tickets. (That’s where I put my electric fan.) There’s also a small blue strap with a hook at the end meant for attaching a key ring.

Viewing this same compartment from the other side, there’s another flap that’s the right size for a full-size iPad – in my case an iPad Air in a slim case from Odoyo.

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Just behind that compartment is a zipper that opens to reveal a small compartment meant for a mobile phone.

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There’s also a small webbed pocket in there that will fit business cards nicely. Me, I prefer to keep my phone in my jeans.  I tried putting my Sony camera here but the weight of the camera made this section get all bulgy.  So I’m using this pocket for my smokes. They fit perfectly there and they’re instantly accessible.

Looking inside the main compartment, theres one divider that features 5 expandable pockets:

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And there’s plenty of room to fit some papers or a magazine back there. Still in the main compartment but facing the other direction, there’s another divider that features two clear zippered pockets.

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And again, room behind that for more papers.

What you might also note in the above photos is that there are pieces of fabric along both sides attaching the front of the case to the rear. This is great because it means when the bag is on your shoulder and you open it up on the street, there’s no possibility of the front flipping over and all of the contents spilling out. You also have probably noticed the light grey interior, meaning it’s easy to see every item that you’ve got in there.

TTP include rain covers will almost all of their bags, and the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 is no exception.

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The blue bag contains a black plastic cover. The strap ends with a bit of velcro that wraps around a red elastic hook inside, meaning that you can take the bag out.

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As you can see, the rain cover bag actually takes up quite a bit of space.

Looking at the back of the bag, there’s the zippered compartment for your laptop.

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I don’t know that I needed that bit of cutesy text there. Both sides of the compartment are lightly padded.

Then there’s a slim space that you can drop a newspaper or magazine into.

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There’s also a tight flap that will allow you to put this securely onto the handle of a larger piece of luggage, as shown below with my TTP Airport Security rolling bag.

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Finally, both sides of the bag have zippered, expandable pockets that can hold a water bottle, a folding umbrella, a large eyeglass case or perhaps a kebab from Ebeneezer’s.

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So, yes, this bag holds everything I might possibly want to take with me on a day out, each item in its own place and easily accessible. It’s small enough to fit on my lap and it’s flat which makes it a great “desktop” for holding my iPad while I’m watching my TV shows during my commute.

I’ve been using this bag now every day for about 3 weeks and on the whole, I’m really loving it. It’s the same Think Tank Photo quality that I love in the other 6 TTP bags that I own. It seems strong and durable. It feels as if it will last a lifetime, or at least for several years.

What this bag positively screams is that Think Tank Photo have put the same amount of thought into the organization, construction and details that they put into their camera bags. That’s what I was hoping for in a briefcase from this company and they didn’t let me down.

The size is both a positive and a negative for me. Everything feels as if it has been engineered to military-like precision. The bag is small enough and light enough for me to take it with me every day without feeling as if the bag alone has added 5 or 10 extra pounds to the stuff I carry with me. (The actual weight of the bag is 2.1 pounds.)

It’s also small enough that I can pack it in my luggage when I travel. I know that sounds odd, but generally when flying I want a larger carry on bag (for reasons that I won’t go into here). But once I arrive, I want the smaller bag for my every day walking around stuff. I’ll be able to do that with this bag.

On the other hand, this compactness means that once I fill up the bag, and all of the little inside pockets, there’s not a lot of room left over. This becomes an issue with the power adapter for my MacBook. I’m not sure that the Think Tank designers ever saw this power pack with the huge British plug as opposed to the slim American one – it’s a tight fit and I can’t really use the compartment for this as shown on their web site. I suspect that the bag is strong enough that I could really stuff it beyond the point of sanity and manage to get it closed, but it might get really bulky and uncomfortable to carry at that point. I actually find myself wondering if I shouldn’t go for the 15 inch laptop size – not because I want a larger laptop but because of the couple of extra inches of interior storage space I’d get as a result.

Honestly, that’s about as much of a complaint as I can come up with for the bag. It is 100% the bag I was looking to get. It holds pretty much everything I want to take with me during the week – it holds everything safely and securely and everything is instantly accessible whether I’m standing at a bus stop or sitting at my desk. And, bonus, my wife says that the style really suits me.

The Think Tank Photo My 2nd Brain briefcase series comes in 3 sizes – for 11 inch, 13 inch and 15 inch laptops. Each size is available in three colors – black, “Harbor” blue or “Mist” green.

The My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 that I have retails for US$129.75. You can purchase the bag from Amazon or  B&H Photo.  You can also try contacting Howen International, a great local company that distributes Think Tank products (and other photography accessories) in Hong Kong although at the moment they’re not bringing in the briefcases.

Thanks again to Think Tank Photo for supplying me with this bag in exchange for a review.

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Find My iPhone – Please!

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I’m just back from 6 days in Manila. On the 4th day, I did something that I haven’t done in at least 5 years, maybe 10 – I left my iPhone in a taxi.

Over the years I’ve trained myself to always look back at the taxi seat before closing the door. This time, for whatever reason, I didn’t do that. We got out of the cab, went to a coffee shop, I reached into my pocket to pull out my 2 phones, and only 1 was there. I checked all of my pockets and then called the hotel and asked them to search my room – but I already knew I’d taken it with me when I left the hotel in the morning.

We tried calling the phone at least 27 times but no answer.  We sent an SMS message to the phone in Tagalog offering a reward if returned.

As soon as we could, back to the hotel. After searching the room myself, I called 3 to cancel the SIM card. I went to the “find my iphone” and hit all the settings – play sound, “lost mode,” erase phone. I set the message with my Hong Kong number and an offer of a “big reward” if returned. And then, just to be safe, I proceeded to change the passwords to most of my major accounts – email, iTunes, Facebook, Twitter and so on.

So bye bye iPhone 5S, 64 gig, gold color.

I didn’t lose any data worth mentioning. The phone was backed up to my computer right before I left for the trip. Photos were stored on iCloud. So pretty much just the most recent call logs and SMS messages. And since the phone was password/fingerprint locked – and remotely erased – I believe/hope that my data has not been compromised. So the only real damage – I believe – is the loss of something that cost US$900.

And now my wife finally has an answer to the question she has asked me 100 times – “why do you have a password on your iPhone?”

I don’t want to go out and buy a new iPhone 5S (or try to find a used one in Mong Kok, if that’s possible) because the iPhone 6 is rumored to be announced next month.  So we reversed the “hand me down” order. Every time I’d get a new phone, my old one would go to my wife and her old one would go to her daughter. So for now, the daughter’s iPhone 4S back to my wife, my wife’s iPhone 5 back to me and bought some sort of phone for the daughter.

I got back to Hong Kong on Wednesday. Finally tonight (Thursday night) on my way home from work, Find My iPhone beeped. My phone had been turned on. It is sitting at the Ever Commonwealth Mall, just off Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City.

Supposedly once an iPhone has been put into lost mode, the phone is essentially bricked and cannot be used or erased until you enter your iTunes account and password. But I am relatively certain that hackers have found ways to get around this – especially in the Philippines.

Going back to the iPhone 5 from the 5S, I find I am really missing that fingerprint sensor. Instead of just touching a finger to the button, now I have to hit the button, swipe and enter a passcode every time. (Well, you all know this already.)

Such is life. We become so attached to our gadgets that the loss of one can seem almost catastrophic, even though it’s really just a few steps above trivial. Fortunately Apple (and Google) build in some safeguards for when this happens, and hopefully those work. Life goes on.

 

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London and Me

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July 1st, along with its massive protest march in Hong Kong, has come and feels long gone. I’d meant to write something on it, but I kept stumbling and life got in the way, as it has a habit of doing. Ultimately I ended up on a very hastily arranged business trip to London – a trip with very mixed results from a business perspective but also a trip that further enhanced my love affair with London.

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(Forgive me if any of this repeats old stuff.)

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In the summer of 1972, I’d just completed my first year at college (university to you Brits) and was working an awful summer job – pushing a hot dog cart at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. A school buddy asked if I wanted to join him on a trip to London and my parents gave the okay for me to spend my Bar Mitzvah money on the trip.

We stayed in England for about 3 weeks, starting off in bed and breakfast places that cost only a pound and a half per night – though the beds were so uncomfortable that we ended up sleeping on the floor. Our days were divided between doing all of the standard sight seeing stuff and hitting every record store we possibly could. (I remember buying Roxy Music’s first album and spending weeks staring at the cover wondering what it could possibly sound like.)

Nights were for music - at one point I figured out that we saw more than 70 bands in those three weeks. David Bowie doing Ziggy Stardust at the Rainbow. Yes’s world premiere of Close to the Edge with opening acts that included Mahavishnu Orchestra. Renaissance playing for free in a pub before their first album came out. The Chelmsford Folk Festival, which included The Strawbs, Al Stewart, and Sandy Denny. (Sandy offered us a ride back to London but my idiot friend was too scared to get in her car with her two large dogs.)

We also went to Torquay for a weekend for reasons I can no longer recall – long before Fawlty Towers – where the only thing to do at night was go to a Mungo Jerry concert.

We just about ran out of money long before the end of the trip. We stayed in some park where they’d set up tents with double decker beds, 50 pence per night, one concrete building with lockers and showers, and basically existed on a diet of lentils.

My second trip didn’t happen until 12 years later. My first wife and I were tipped off about the hotel where all the bands stayed. So we’d go see Echo & the Bunnymen in concert and then the next morning we’d be having breakfast with them. This trip was also – believe it or not – the first time I ate Indian food.

In 1990 I started working for Barclays Bank in New York. This is when I first learned about the concept of business travel. I managed to get myself into a position where I spent large chunks of 1992 and early 1993 in London in a service flat in the central City (according to the guest register, the previous occupant of that room was J.G. Ballard). I got to see a lot of great live music (Julian Cope was a standout) and fell in love with a bi-polar poet whom I met at a party one night – my American accent came in handy in a variety of situations.

I knew I wanted to live in London and my boss at Barclays tried to make it happen for me. There were no suitable openings and then she found something in Manchester. I’d never been there but figured with Manchester’s fame as a music center, I’d be okay. The deal fell through at the last minute and I ended up leaving Barclays for the job that would eventually bring me to Hong Kong.

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For the past 20 years and across several jobs, I’ve traveled to London often enough to know my way around and feel extremely comfortable there. Of course these are business trips and I’m staying in nice hotels in central locations (this trip I was staying just off Trafalgar Square) and my expenses are all covered so it’s not quite the same experience as actually living there. This last trip I had lunch with my friend Kevin Westenberg, an American who has lived in London for 30 years, and I got to hear about how crazy expensive London can be when you live there.

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At any rate, I found myself with a decent amount of free time during this trip to London. I walked at least 5 miles each day, usually on a circuit that included Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown and Soho.  I got up to Camden Market, got to the music stores on Denmark Street, spent time in Forbidden Planet and Foyles and browsed in some of the few remaining record shops.

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And as I walked around, I found myself constantly comparing London to Hong Kong.

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Of course there’s the big stuff. The beautiful architecture, monuments and parks everywhere. On the one hand, one might say it’s merely reminders of Britain’s history of empire and imperialism, the spoils of war and conquest. I think it’s more than that. There was an aspiration to greatness, individually and collectively. And to let everyone share in that aspiration, at least by surrounding people with beauty, even if their own lives were drab.

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Hong Kong has none of that. There are no world class museums here. There are very few buildings left to reflect the 150 year history. Skyline? Yeah, it’s a bunch of drab office buildings gussied up with neon and lasers that is only impressive because of the water in the foreground and the mountains in the rear.

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(Tacky, right? But a step up from the fake Buddhist monks scamming for change all over Hong Kong.)

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The cultural diversity of London is staggering when compared to Hong Kong. You see this walking down the streets, you see it in shops, you see it in the selection of restaurants everywhere you go.

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And then there’s the commercial aspects of daily life. Everything from banks advertising their credit cards based on competitive interest rates and telephone companies advertising no additional charges for data when roaming globally (HK’s Three is one of those companies; meanwhile for HK Three customers, one could buy a special “deal” for roaming data for HK$198 per day). This is what happens when you have true competition and a level playing field – something Hong Kong does not offer on almost any level.

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(Outdoor seating at a pub in central London. This is actually illegal in most of Hong Kong.)

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The buses are hybrid buses – the seats are set a decent distance apart (seats in Hong Kong buses mostly offer less leg room than economy class flights) and the windows are not covered with ads. The trains may be old but at least they do not have video screens blasting advertisements at a captive audience.

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(Here’s a minor pet peeve – as a photographer who follows dozens of photography blogs, I always see the companies whose equipment I use offering rebates and cash-back offers. These offers are never valid in Hong Kong.)

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I think the things that get to me most are the lack of choice and diversity combined with the second rate status of ordinary citizens.

Yes, mass transportation is pretty darned good here – it’s cheap and runs on a predictable schedule and the consumers of the transportation system are for the most part treated as captive targets of loud advertising that isn’t even clever.

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Taxes are low. That’s thanks to the revenue the government collects from real estate transactions and also, perhaps more importantly, because Hong Kong doesn’t have to support an army, navy or air force. We get that from China – it’s an army that has already proven once that they will fire upon their own citizens when so ordered to, and the odds are increasing that one day it will be used against Hong Kong citizens for daring to request that they might have a say in how their home is managed and getting fed up with receiving nothing but meaningless sound bites in return.

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Oh, new flats measuring all of 200 square feet are going on sale in Tai Po this weekend and expected to sell out. And Monday I’ll go back to the office and have to make my way down the streets in between hordes of mainland shoppers dragging suitcases behind them. And that’s after waiting 20 minutes for the bus standing in the blazing sun or the pouring rain because a simple thing like a decent bus shelter is a joke here.

I live in a town of 250,000 and there is only one supermarket out of dozens here that sells simple things like dijon mustard or Italian salami or bacon not made in China or a crusty baguette. (Said supermarket is a mile from any bus stop and offers all of 8 parking spots.) The only place in this town that has a half-way decent hamburger charges US$20 for it and the pizza is mostly embarrassing. Thai, Japanese and Korean food around here has been localized to an extent that renders it almost unrecognizable. I’m exasperated not by the fact that the only interesting new restaurants open in Sheung Wan or Kennedy Town but by the fact that there seems to be practically no demand for them almost anywhere else.

Look, I get it. If there was a utopia, everyone would move there and then it might not be so utopian after that. I always say that every place has its issues and compromises and if you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where you live, then you choose the compromises you’re more able to deal with. And for many years, Hong Kong was the place for me.

But right now I feel that today is the best that Hong Kong is ever going to be. And by that I mean that I feel that the quality of life in Hong Kong is devolving to the point where each day is going to be worse than the day before. Each day will bring its share of corruption, greed, humiliation and assaults upon the daily existence of every day people.

There are days that I give serious thought to living almost anywhere else except here. Well, I never consider a return to the U.S.  But the list of places that I think I would enjoy living in more than Hong Kong seems to grow almost daily.

It’s a funny thing. The grass is always greener. I’ve got this friend, he’s American, he used to live in Tokyo and travel throughout Asia. Now he lives and travels all over Europe. And half the time he blogs about wanting to get back to Asia and posts Facebook comments about being jealous whenever I mention anything on bars (and women) in Wanchai or Lan Kwai Fong. I’d trade places with him in a heartbeat.

Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood today? I won’t say it’s impossible. I am a moody bastard, you all know that.

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Weight

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graham

Graham Elliot, chef and one of the stars of the US version of Masterchef, has lost 155 pounds. I may have found some of them. My trip to the U.S. tomorrow won’t help matters. Diet starts once I return from the U.S. – and after I finish off all of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups I’ll probably be bringing back to Hong Kong.

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