Censorship: No more Google, Facebook, YouTube

If there’s one thing that has literally kept me awake at night before moving to China, it’s the censorship in China.  While I really don’t care about politics at all, the part that has me worried is the censorship of the internet.  We have all heard of the Great Wall of China.  But there’s also the Great Firewall of China.  China has the most restrictive internet in the world, where they block over 8,000 domains.  While most of those websites aren’t of interest to me, they also block essentially every site that I do use!


Here’s just a partial list:

Google related: Gmail, Google+, Google Hangouts, Google Search Engine, Google Play, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Calendar
Video: YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix
Social: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, WordPress.com, Blogspot, Blogger, Flickr, SoundCloud, Whatsapp
News: The New York Times, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Bloomberg, Reuters, many pages of Wikipedia
Other: Dropbox, Skype (not blocked, but so slow it’s useless, and monitored by third parties)
Porn: Every porn site (OMG, what am I going to do?)

While I don’t use everything on that list, much of what I do use is on that list!  I use all of those Google products.  This blog is run on WordPress (along with most blogs in the world, 60% market share, over 239 million websites).  Priya and I both spend a lot of time watching YouTube for entertainment or learning. We use Google Hangouts for free VoIP calling anywhere in the USA…we listen to music on SoundCloud…we use Wikipedia for research.

VPN to the rescue

It’s fairly common knowledge that  Continue Reading →

Another trip to the Chinese Consulate

As I’ve already mentioned, there’s a lot of steps to go to China, especially if you plan on working there.  This next step included another trip to the Chinese Consulate in Chicago.  I don’t really like going to Chicago.  I don’t really like big cities, which is why I live in a mostly rural area.  (So why am I moving to a city in China where the population is double that of Chicago, right?  I guess that’s a topic for a future post.)  I had recently visited the consulate twice previously, in order to apply for, and pick up, my daughter’s tourist visa.  We were very fortunate to be granted a 90-day duration visa for her, as they typically only grant 30 or 60 day stays.  Since she is staying for 80+ days, this will save us a lot of money.  If she wasn’t granted a 90-day stay, we would need to either leave the country within 60 days and re-enter (saving us international flights, hotels, etc. just for a “visa run”), or we could have applied for a dependent visa, which would have cost me $1000 in immigration lawyer fees versus a $140 tourist visa.

Chinese Consulate

Long trip to Chicago

I live up in Wisconsin, so Chicago isn’t exactly close.  Since the Chinese Consulate was heart of downtown Chicago, getting there isn’t Continue Reading →

What? I’m moving to China?

As I mentioned in my last post, there were some big changes, and reason for some blog updates.  And the cat is out of the bag.  I’m moving to China.  Well, not permanently, but for six months.  It has been a very long process to get here.  Let me tell you about it.

My new home

It all started 6 months ago in a conversation with my boss. He asked if I’d be interested in helping our engineering center in China in a similar capacity to my job here in the United States. Due to my love of international travel, I was interested. Over the course of several months, we investigated what it would take to do an expat assignment. Several others have done expat assignments in our company but none of us knew anyone that have recently done so. Because of my 50% child custody placement, I wanted to include my daughter in these travels not only to avoid any financial implications of not fulfilling my 50% duty, but also because it would be and immensely great experience for my daughter. Therefore, I had to work within these constraints of bringing my daughter for 50% of the time that I was there. The best trying to do this would be during summer break from school. While this was six months from when we started to talk about this, it turns out that it really wasn’t enough time due to all of the red tape.

My boss started inquiring what it would take to make this happen. It took four months just to work through the financial estimates to the company. This left only two months to work through the company approvals and the work permit and travel visa process.  The immigration attorney said that it would take up to four months just to process my application.  But we needed to do it in two months.

Your journey begins with MANY steps

The application process was quite long and involved.  First we had to submit an application for a “notification letter for work permit application”.  This wasn’t an application for a work permit, but a sort of pre-approval for applying for a work permit later.  In order to apply for this notification letter, there were a ton of documents to provide to the Chinese government, and an insane amount of data to provide.  Even though I’ve been working in this field for 27 years, they wanted to know my university info, my high school info, and even my elementary school info!  I had to get a thorough medical exam which needed to include chest x-rays, an ECG (electrocardiogram), immunization history dating back to childhood, and about 8 vials of blood for them to check for a myriad of STDs and other diseases.  I’m told that I’ll have to repeat this health examination once I arrive in China.  I guess that’s in case I get any new STDs in the last two months.  Once all of this information was sent to the China government, they informed my immigration attorney that they now wanted an FBI “non criminal record”.  So off to the police station to get four sets of fingerprint cards.  The ink kind…no electronic scanning.


Fingerprinted like a criminal

After the notification letter is received, I can finally apply for my work visa.  The Chinese work visa isn’t a work permit either.  The work visa is only permission to enter the country with intent to work, but not permission to work.  So with only 7 business days remaining until departure, I have to drive to the China Consulate in Chicago and apply for my travel visa, which takes 4 business days to process.  Nothing like cutting it a little close.

But wait, there’s more!

Upon entry in China, there’s several more hoops to jump through.  As mentioned, I need to get another medical exam.  Within a few days of arrival, I need to surrender my passport to apply for the work permit.  This will take up to 3 weeks to process.  Technically, I’m not supposed to work while this is being processed.  So, I guess I can go into the office and “socialize” with the team.  Once my work permit is received, then I can apply for my temporary residence permit.  This will take another week, and they need my passport for that as well.  I’m forbidden to leave the country during my first month.  They’ll give me some other form of identification to carry around, and travel within China.  China also requires that if I move (move from temporary hotel housing to an apartment), I need to inform the “public security bureau” (police station) of my new address within 24 hours.  Also, if I stay at a friend’s house overnight, technically I’m supposed to register this at the public security bureau.  I guess they need to keep very close watch on their foreign guests.

Lots of changes

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything.  The main reason for that is that I didn’t feel there was much to write about.  At least not on a regular basis.  But there’s been a recent development that will hopefully bring more regular posts.  In the meanwhile, let’s catch you up.

Changing Plans, slightly

As previously mentioned, I have a goal to travel the world in retirement, with the current plan involving a sailboat as my method of travel and home.  I had planned to not buy a sailboat until much closer to retirement, maybe about 1-2 years before retiring.  I simply didn’t want the expense.  Purchasing a sailboat earlier meant taking a bunch of money out of my investments, a growth medium, into something that depreciates in value.  I’d rather have that money grow for a few more years, as long as possible.   In addition, there are variable costs that you incur every year.  And with a sailboat, those costs are relatively high.

One day, I overheard a co-worker talking about buying a sailboat with another partner. That got me thinking. If they would allow a third person in on their partnership, I could get all the experiences of sailboat ownership and a lot of sailing experience with only one-third of the cost. One-third of the purchase cost, one-third of the ongoing annual costs. But I could still get 100% of the experience. This would leave most of my investments intact. I thought this was an interesting trade-off in order to get this experience before I went all-in on a boat of my own. I could learn much more about sailing, sailboat maintenance as well as understand if I could really live on a sailboat long term.

I bought a sailboat

Continue Reading →

Annual Cable TV price increase

cable tv price increase

The Cable TV bill showed up today with the annual price increase.  (Actually, I don’t have Cable TV.  I only purchase internet service, and the CATV provider is also the internet provider.)  I’m sure many of you know, but in case you didn’t, these companies typically offer a 12-month introductory price for new customers.  Then, after 12 months, they automatically increase the price.  In my case, it’s a fairly significant 33% increase!

The Dance

With several of these companies, you can call them up and ask for a price reduction.  Years ago, all you had to do was to take 2 minutes out of your life to call them, nicely ask for the reduction, and they happily gave it to you instantly.  Over the years, it has become more and more difficult to do so.  It has become a dance, sort of a tango, to go back and forth with them, trying to convince them to retain you as a customer.  These companies know that it’s easier (and cheaper) to retain a customer than it is to lose them and try to win them back later.

Thinking it’s easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar, I put a big smile on my face and called up my CATV (internet) company.  Figuring that these people are only doing their job, there’s no point in being mean or demanding of them.  When the agent answered and asked me what she can do to help, I replied, “I’m calling to help you retain me as your customer.”  I explained that I liked their service, that I don’t need any more or any less features, and that I just wanted to pay the price that I used to.  She replied with the standard, “Let me see what I can do for you.”  She put me on hold (more of the game), came back and said, “I’m sorry, but the only thing I can do for you is actually more expensive than your new price.”  I said that wasn’t what I was hoping to hear, and asked to talk to the “customer retention department”.

Stepping up the Game

What I didn’t expect with this call was what came next.  She explained that things aren’t like they used to be.  They used to be able to renew those introductory low prices, but they can’t anymore.  Speaking with her manager wouldn’t do any good.  I explained that I was leaving the country on travel for 2.5 weeks, and that I’d even quit being a customer.  I’d do that, because after 1 month, I could re-join as a new customer at the new customer introductory prices.  Here I was, saying I was going to quit their service, and she wasn’t willing to budge on price.

She continued to say that times are tough, and she and all of the agents are getting judged on customer satisfaction surveys, and it’s in her best interest to keep me happy.  She even went on to say that she could lose her job if people like me aren’t satisfied.  With a smile on my face (so she could hear me being nice and polite), I again asked to speak to the retention department.  She was actually getting a little livid at this point, saying that they can’t do anything for me, and that I shouldn’t be so upset with her.  I explained that I understand that this was just a little dance that we have to do and I didn’t blame her.  She again insisted that this wasn’t the case, and this is all the company can do for me, but if I really wanted to talk to her manager, she would connect me.  I said, “Yes, please.”

After I was connected to her manager, I again explained that I just wanted to give them an opportunity to retain me as a customer by keeping my price the same as it was before.  He said he would check, and put me on hold.  A few seconds later and he said that they could do it (contrary to what the first person said they absolutely couldn’t do anymore).  It’s all a big scam.  A big sob story to get the weak-willed people to give up and just keep paying 33% more.

I’m glad to be back at the original new customer “introductory” price for another 12 months.  Don’t be afraid to call and (nicely) ask to have your rates reduced, and don’t let them fool you that they can’t do that for you.

Time for Annual Election of Healthcare


It’s that time of year when employers tell us about how medical coverage has changed (been reduced) for next year, what the premiums are (been increased), and ask you which one you want to be stuck with for the year.  I don’t know about you, but it’s a tough decision for me.  You can’t change your mind mid-year, should some new sickness ail you, or heaven forbid, you get into an accident.  My daughter and I are pretty healthy, but I’m getting to the point where I should probably see a doctor more often.  I don’t even always go get my 100% covered (free) annual physical.

It seems like, at the companies that I’ve worked for, that the 3 healthcare choices you get are fairly similar coverage (80% covered, after meeting the deductible), but with different deductibles and therefore different monthly premiums.  So if coverage is nearly the same, how does one determine which plan to go with?  Of course, it depends upon the relative health of you and your family members, how often you normally see a doctor, and if you expect that to change within the next year.  Something to also consider is what your maximum out of pocket expense might be if something catastrophic was to happen, such as an automobile accident, heart attack, or serious injury from skydiving, rock climbing or your favorite adrenaline activity.  While you can’t plan for that to occur or not occur, you don’t want to be left with an outrageous medical bill if that was to happen.

Graphing your options

For years, I’ve created my own spreadsheet from scratch to compare the plans and graph the results.  I plot how much it will cost me from my pocket for various medical expenses incurred through the year.  The costs includes the per-paycheck premium, the 100% cost up to the deductible, the 20% co-pay up to the out of pocket maximum, and the out of pocket maximum itself.  The graph illustrates how much it costs me if I’m perfectly healthy, visit a doctor for some minor things, regularly see a doctor, or have a major medical issue such as a lengthy hospital stay.  Because there are usually different deductibles for an individual versus the entire family, there are graphs for each case.

An example is below.  By looking at this graph, it’s easy to see that Plan C is the lowest cost, regardless of how many times you see the doctor.  This is true if the coverage is the same, meaning you can see the same doctors, the hospital bills would be identical, and only the premiums, deductibles and max out of pocket amounts are different.  Whether you never saw a doctor for the year, had $5000 of medical services, or had $35,000 of medical services, Plan C’s total cost (Premiums, Deductibles, and Co-Pays) are lower in all cases.

medical-bills-1This is an easy decision for Plan C

It isn’t always that easy.  Here’s my actual situation, and if only one family member receives medical care through the year.  In many medical plans, the individual deductible is half of the family deductible, but in this case, Plan C has a large deductible that’s the same for a single family member or the entire family.  The large deductible must be met before the plan starts paying out anything.  In this case, Plan C deductible is $4000.  If I incur somewhere between $2500 and $19000 of medical bills, Plan C is no longer the least expensive choice.  In fact, it’s about $1000 more expensive than Plan B.  Unless the bill is over $20,000, then Plan C is the cheapest, in this case due to the lower max out of pocket limit.

medical-bills-2No clear low-cost winner here

Enter the HSA Savings

But…what’s not included above is the fact that Plan C is actually a High-Deductible Health Plan (HDHP).  From Wikipedia:  “A high-deductible health plan (HDHP) is a health insurance plan with lower premiums and higher deductibles than a traditional health plan. Being covered by an HDHP is also a requirement for having a health savings account.”  That health savings account (HSA) is a beautiful thing where you can save PRE-TAX dollars, and later use that money to pay for qualified medical expenses, including your deductible and co-pays, as well as other things like dental, vision and prescriptions.  For many people, this means 15, 25% or 28% savings on Federal taxes, as well as State taxes, which is 6% here where I live.  That’s a 31% savings in my case.  Now, factoring the HSA savings into the equation, the graph looks like this:


Now once again, the choice is easy.  No matter what my medical expenses are, the Plan C (HDHP) with HSA tax advantage is the lowest cost choice.

After I went through this exercise, a friend found this website that does all the graphing for you.  Just add in the pertinent information for your plans.  If you don’t plan on going out of network, you don’t need to fill in those figures.  It doesn’t figure out your tax advantage for an HSA, but the rest it does very well.

medical-bills-4From health-plan-compare.com, they look the same!

Hopefully you can use this information to help you with your next healthcare plan election, minimizing your cash outflow regardless of how much medical services you expect, or don’t expect, to be billed next year.