Finding Nemo

January 13, 2009

I was recently watching this great movie again. I love it every time I see it. Then I just got curious if Google Map would help me find Nemo. So I did a “get direction” search from my city to Sydney Australia. Strangely, no matter which city you start in the US, google always direct you to exit the continent from Seattle. That is the case even if you start from LA, which is also by the ocean and theoretically closer to Sydney than Seattle is.

Second, instead of directing you to the nearest airport, google directs you to Seattle and then tells you to “kayak across the Pacific Ocean”! Then you enter Hawaii, and drive toward west a little bit. And then again, “kayak across the Pacific Ocean” and land on Japan. Then you drive across half of Japan, and then, you guessed it, “kayak across the Pacific Ocean” until you reach Australia. Google estimates that the trip will take you around 50 days; and don’t worry: Google map faithfully tells you every single turn you need to take during the whole trip, except the kayaking part, which is basically a straight line.

This is totally awesome. If I really want to kayak from LA to Hawaii, why would I want to drive to Seattle first and start from there? But apart from this small glitch, I love the rest part. The phrase “kayak across the Pacific Ocean” makes me realize how big yet small the world has become. Bringing Google Map to Columbus’ time would be disastrous: there would be no sense of surprise, or discovery anymore. I sometimes feel unlucky to live in today’s world because there is little new discovery to be made or uncharted seas to be conquered. There is no more need to risk your life and take home a crappily charted map, because everyone has Google map and GPS. Life is not exciting anymore in that narrow sense. Maybe Google did feel that way too, and therefore decided to use “kayak” to try to at least pretend that there is still a light scent of simplicity and innocence in this fast paced, noisy modern world.

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The best story I have ever heard about the US consulate

January 5, 2009

The following true story happened to a person whom I know very well.

Two days ago, he wanted to apply for a visa to visit the US. To obtain the visa, the first step is to set up an interview appointment with the US consulate. To set up an appointment, he would need to buy a special prepaid phone card, which is at least 5 times more expensive than normal calls, and then use that card to call a specific number to connect to the call center of the US consulate. During the phone call, he needs to provide the following information to a call center employee, who is always a native of that country: 1. appointment date; 2. visa type; 3. passport number; and 4. his name. Piece of cake. Except that there is one problem: it is in China; and even though a Chinese passport has English in it, not every one speaks English.

Fear not. The Chinese government created a system called “pin yin,” which guarantees every single Chinese character has its English spelling. This system has 26 letters, which are EXACTLY the same as the 26 English letters. If you understand pin yin, you know how each character is pronounced. The bottom line is, if a Chinese writes something in pin yin, an English speaker can still perfectly “read” everything the Chinese writes except that he might have no idea about the meaning. By using this pin yin system, it is easy to convert Chinese names into readable English characters, which are printed in every Chinese passport. This pin yin system was introduced in the 70s, and has been taught as early as in kindergartens. On the other hand, English is taught as early as first to third grades. So the bottom line is, for those who was born after the 70s, as long as they graduated from elementary schools, they would know that in writing, pin yin and English letters are exactly the same.

So this is how the story goes. The person called the US consulate, set up the appointment, gave the passport number, selected his visa type, and told the young lady, who was answering the phone, his Chinese name.

“I need the pin yin for your name in the passport, please.” said the young lady.
“I don’t know the pin yin, but I will read the English letters for my name to you one by one.” he replied. This person was born in the early 50s; he never learned any pin yin or English. However, he could perfectly read the 26 English letters.
“No, I need pin yin, not English letters!” the young lady from the consulate said.
“But I am reading the letters to you now.” said the man.
“No, it must be pin yin, not English. Do you have anyone around who knows pin yin? No? Then find someone and call again. Bye.”

Let me say this first, to work in the US consulate, you need a bachelor’s degree, which means you did not flunk elementary school! Second, to set up an appointment, what the consulate employee does is writing down the person’s name. Therefore, as long as the person spells his name by speaking the letters one by one, the job is done. It doesn’t matter if the person was saying the letters thinking he was saying pin yin or English, because they are the SAME in writing! Besides, even if the person doesn’t understand a single English character, at least the employee in the consulate does. The employee knows what the pin yin is because she was told the person’s Chinese name. It would take 5 seconds to help the person, but she chose not to.

This is by far the most ridiculous story I have ever heard. I am not sure if words like “incompetent” or “dumb” are enough to address the situation. But guess what, this phone call was the first official contact that person had with…… the United States of America! (Don’t tell me that Chinese employees in the US consulate don’t stand for the US when they are acting in their job duty.) And the first contact is something like he paid Uncle Sam to punch himself in the throat. Is there any, ANY, customer service training? Or is this the first sign that machines are taking over the world? Because it seems awfully like talking to a machine, which refuses to agree that Bill Gates and William Gates can be the same person.

The bottom line is, what a way to make money, America! This person now has to buy another expensive prepaid phone card to try to set up an appointment again. The only difference is this time, instead of saying “I’m spelling the English characters,” he will say “I’m spelling the pin yin characters.”