Pandemic in My Neighborhood

Here is a new type of chart I made that demonstrate the severity of Covid-19 pandemic in my backyard. The chart is very information-dense, and I have no name for it.


The data are all from March 18-28, for a total of 11 days.

The 4 data series all started from the origin on the lower-left corner, at the beginning of the pandemic. As the days go by, the lines push to the upper-right direction, because both the case and death numbers are cumulative–the best they can do is to stop moving, at the end of the pandemic. In the exponential growth period, the distance between neighboring points expand as the lines move to the right. The angle of each point from the horizontal axis is the death-to-case ratio.

What can we see from this chart?

  • New York City has about 10 times the cases and deaths, compared to the nation. It is the indisputable epicenter of the US epidemic.
  • Our county, Suffolk, has about the same cases per-capita as the state, but both are much higher than that of the US average.
  • Our county has a bit lower death rate (per case). There could be multiple explanations. Maybe we are testing more thoroughly. Or maybe while the death count is low, statistical variance is high.
  • In contrast, NYC has the worst death rate, but it was better only a few days ago. It may be an indication that the hospitals are overwhelmed, which is very disheartening.
  • The case numbers are doubling roughly every 3.5 days for NYS, NYC and Suffolk county.

One Day in Tokyo Narita

On the afternoon of October 25, my sister Eva and I flew to Tokyo Narita from Sapporo, basically on time. Right about the time when we were supposed to land, the head flight attendant announced that due to weather our landing would delayed. With her English not easy to understand, we thought she said the delay was for five minutes, which did not make sense — a short delay like that would not be announced.

We ended up circling over Tokyo for about an hour, in a gray soup of clouds. I joked that we were flying in miso soup. Eva said it’s whiter than miso, and more like tofu. We were in good spirits, because it wasn’t turbulent, and we were not in a hurry. My connection was in about 4 hours, and hers in 10, although her flight was from Haneda Airport, which is much closer to Tokyo.

Our plane was greeted by a covered stair truck and a bus on the tarmac. It’s raining lightly. The bus took a long time to get us to terminal 1, and my connection was from terminal 2. Eva needed to go to Haneda Airport, but all trains and buses out of Narita were suspended then. We said goodbye at the airport bus connecting to terminal 2. 

With mobile boarding pass in hand, I rushed to the security checkpoint at Terminal 2, and was promptly stopped. They couldn’t let me through, because Japan Airlines had not started checking-in that flight yet — my American Airlines flight was operated by Japan Airlines. I asked when I would be able to go through security, and was told that it’s for Japan Airlines to decide.

I went to talk to people working for Japan Airlines. Eventually I found a sympathetic woman, who thought I should be able to go through security — I had no luggage to check, and I already had my boarding pass. I asked her to talk to the security line person for me, and she did, but it wasn’t successful. It’s just like in the movie “Lost in Translation”, where a negative answer was given in a speech spanning several minutes.

One train out of Narita resumed operations, and Eva asked me, via phone messaging, whether she should take it. I told her “definitely”. Her staying in Narita couldn’t help me. The train was a slow one, she found out eventually, but she had time enough.

Meanwhile, I had no choice but to wait. The airport started to collect more and more people, as more flights were put in a state of limbo — they were neither cancelled nor delayed, only their check-ins were “temporarily closed”. JAL is the flag carrier of Japan, and their flights dominated the terminal 2 display board, by far. Upon close inspection, all of the flights with such a remark were JAL flights. JAL kiosks were all taped over with a piece of paper, indicating that they were closed. The check-in counters were similarly closed and unstaffed.


I got a late lunch at 3:30, not knowing that that would be my last meal in some 16 hours. More wait. I join a crowd sitting on the floor of the check-in hall, looking up at the display board. There were maybe a couple dozen seats in the hall, but hundreds of people were milling around waiting for their flights. As any well designed check-in hall, there were no outlets for people to charge their phones. One had to get through security to find outlets, but they couldn’t do that.

A sliver of hope went through my mind when JAL started to manually check-in some flights, first one to San Diego, then one to Vancouver. The announcement was made through the airport’s PA system, but not shown on the display boards. In addition, several people in JAL uniforms, mostly female, were walking the check-in hall with tablets showing the flight numbers and destinations of the flights being checked in.

At 7:40 pm, more than one hour after the scheduled departure of my flight, the display board came alive. All of the “check-in temporarily closed” status lines got wiped at once. My flight was cancelled. Most others got some other status first, before getting cancelled. 

I called our company’s travel agency. The travel agency’s phone system told me first that I should consider booking online to save the company money, then that it was not yet the travel agency’s regular business hours, both of which were pathetically long speeches that I wanted to short-circuit but couldn’t; and then I had to listen to some more speech in order to make some choices by pressing a few buttons. After some wait, I got connected with a real person! Hooray!

I answered all the questions she posed to me, my name, my company, my birth date (yes, that too! Just in case someone was trying to impersonate me to get out of Japan, I guess), my company email (“no, not that, maybe there is another form of the company email?”), and which flight I was to take. And then, boom! She couldn’t see that my flight was cancelled. I told her it was. By this time my flight disappeared from the display boards, inexplicably. She insisted on me getting some verification.

I line up at the JAL counter. I was the third or fourth in line, but the line was not moving. Eventually I was able to grab the attention of a JAL person outside of the counters, and had her confirm that my flight was cancelled. And the travel agent on the phone went to look for replacement tickets. Meanwhile, I stay in the line at JAL counter. 

While I was on the phone, the physical line I was in was barely moving. The agents at the counters had to call someone and talk a lot, before anything could be done. And, incredibly, the man in the line immediately in front of me was there to get his boarding pass issued, because he did not know how to check in on his phone — he behaved as if he’s never heard of such a thing before. During the more than half an hour in line, he tried unsuccessfully to look into the phone check-in process.

Eventually the findings of our remote travel agent were that many of the seemingly available tickets were not really available, because the underlying carrier of them all was JAL, which wasn’t reporting the correct flight statuses online yet. On other airlines a business class ticket, with a connection, would cost me, or my company, an extra $16,000+, and they wanted me to say it was OK. I wasn’t sure it was OK. An economy class ticket would be some half of that, which was too dear also. I said no.

Finally I was served at the JAL counter. The agent found my reservation, made several calls (most were not connected successfully), and after a long time, came back to tell me that since my tickets were bought with American Airlines (AA) flight number, I had to go to them to resolve it.

After some wandering around the terminal, I found that there were American counters, but they were closed. There were a couple of men there, apparently not on behalf of AA. I talked to one of them, and was reassured that the counters were closed for the day.

I found AA’s phone number online and called them. They were extra busy, the automated system said, due to some weather conditions (probably in the US). I was given the option of either holding the line or having them call me back. I chose the former, and was dropped soon after that. 

My new phone was dropping calls from time to time, for different reasons. Once my call was dropped and I was not allowed to dial again, because my phone was “not registered”, meaning international roaming was not activated. And at other times calls were dropped when I was working with the phone, such as trying to turn on the screen to search for my prior reservation info, or to turn off the screen to save battery. A day later I started to suspect that maybe the power button was programmed to hang up the phone. And some 5 days later I found a way to turn that off. 

In any case, I called back and agreed to have the AA system call me back. The system told me it would be 48 to 57 minutes, or something like that. When AA system did eventually call me back, I was on the phone talking to our travel agency. I tried to switch to the incoming call, but resulted in dropping the travel agent without picking up the AA call. And they never called back.

During all this time a couple of things helped me a lot. One is a power-bank my son gave me. It didn’t have enough power to charge my phone completely, but it did charge it from almost empty to half way, while keeping it running for an hour non-stop. The other is a wired headpiece. In the noisy airport, with people yapping around me and the PA system going on from time to time, it gave me a much clearer and consistent sound, while also made using the phone as a note taker a lot easier.

With one phone call after another, it finally was nearly 10 pm, or 9 am US Eastern time. By this time our normal travel agents were on duty, and the effect was vastly positive. For one thing, they knew our system, and asked for my Core-ID, instead of my birth date etc. For another, they volunteered to call AA for me. And thirdly, they worked as a team. When my call was dropped and I called back, I didn’t have to start from scratch. They would know who I was and what the previous agents had done for me. This was such a time saver.

After a long time, an agent found a ticket for me. Because this was through AA, I didn’t have to pay for a new ticket. I gave them my OK to issue the ticket. After some more long wait, it was done. I’d leave the next day, at 1 pm, to fly home via London, on a British Airways flight. I was elated. By now it was about 10:45 pm. I asked if they could book me a hotel. The agent told me that the nearest she could find was one near Tokyo Disney. I asked her to book it for me. She apologized to me for not having something nearer. I assured her that I was grateful that she could find anything at all, considering the number of people stranded here.

By this time all the shops have closed in the airport already, and the security checkpoint was closing as well. When the “doors” of the security checkpoint came down, they formed a solid looking wall, blending nicely with the walls of the check-in hall, and giving people who had the (mis-)fortune to watch it happen such a hopeless feeling. There was no way out of Japan through Narita anymore for the night.

It was drizzling outside, and not cold. A long line was formed at the taxi stand, more than 100 meters (or yards) long. The line moved forward from time to time, not due to people being picked up by taxis, but due to attrition. I waited for about thirty minutes, during which time only one taxi showed up. There were a few other taxis, but they were in the private cars lane, apparently to pick up particular people they were in contact with. I searched Uber and Lyft. Uber suggested Uber Black, a special service that I had never heard before, that would cost me $800 to $1000 US to get to my hotel 59 km away (less than 40 miles). I could have paid for it out of my own pocket, but I decided against it. This was highway robbery to me!

People sleeping on the floor of Narita Airport, Oct. 25, 2019

I went inside the terminal, and saw that majority of the people there had gotten sleeping bags. I inquired about it, found the place where sleeping bags were distributed — no more sleeping bags were being given out, and nobody was apparently working on it any more.

For a place to crash, I found an unmarked hallway behind the shops, leading to a pair of restrooms. There were other people there too, but there was enough room left for me. Chatter from people gradually died down as the night deepened. The only loud noise was a PA going about every 10 minutes, saying in 3 languages (Japanese, English, Chinese) that all transportation out of Narita had ceased, and ending with a “thank you” for no apparent reason. There being a pair of restrooms, every time someone moved, or maybe the light flickered, a small loudspeaker on the wall would announce, in Japanese and English, “This is the toilet. Follow along the wall to the right for the men’s toilet. Follow along the wall to the left for the women’s toilet.” But fortunately I was able to get some water to drink from the restrooms sink — not easily, as when I withdrew my hands to stick my water bottle under the faucet the water shut off very quickly. 

After about half an hour, the PA content changed. They got more sleeping bags, and they had some crackers and water to give out. I went and got myself a sleeping bag, a packet of “Disaster Preparedness Cracker”, and a bottle of drinking water. The cracker was too sweet for me, but I kept it for memory’s sake.

2019 Emergency Cracker
“Disaster Preparedness Cracker”

I was able to sleep on the floor of Narita airport, for about 3-4 hours.

I believed then, and I still do now, that JAL computer system broke down on the afternoon of October 25. But they blamed it on the heavy rain, which doubtlessly relieved them from a huge financial liability. Here I list the indications to show otherwise.

  1. All of their counters and kiosks were closed. At the same time, other airlines were mostly operating. Was the rain particularly heavy on JAL?
  2. All their flight check-ins were shown to be “temporarily closed” on the airport’s display boards. And no other airlines displayed this message.
  3. No delays or cancellations were shown. Even for those flights whose scheduled time had passed.
  4. Eventually they started processing some flights, but only one by one, such as flights to San Diego and Vancouver. They never displayed these on the display board. Instead, they had people walking around the airport with tablets displaying these flights. And they put the message through the PA system. This clearly showed these procedures were processed by hand.
  5. When the system came back alive, it was a complete revival. All flights with the “check-in temporarily closed” status were changed to something else at the same time.

It’s Complicated

In 2015, Prof. Kishore Mahbubani of the National University of Singapore gave a very provocative speech at the Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.

The view points expressed in this speech are very different from those we hear in the press, from politicians or pundits in the United States. They are different from expressed opinions in the US from the left or the right. They are different from expressed opinions in the US from the intelligentsia or from the general populace. The speech is a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, it did not stir up a thing in the still air that is the political discourse of the United States.

In this speech, he discussed three issues:

  1. What are China’s goals and aspirations as it tries to emerge and rise?
  2. How does the relationship between the US and China influence the rise of China?
  3. How China behaves as #1 will be strongly influenced by how America behaves as #1.

I’m afraid I can’t quite take the first question very seriously. After all, how can a country have goals and aspirations? If by that he meant those of its leaders, wouldn’t that suffer changes when its leadership changes? To wit, see how the US positions on everything changed when president Trump came to office, or every once in a while while he is in  office.

So I’d remove that point, and add one from the Q&A section, to make up another three. And let me skip the questions and jump to the conclusions:

  1. The rise of China from number two economy to number one economy is a probable event in the foreseeable future.
  2. It is in the best interests of the United States and rest of the world to maintain and enhance the international institutions.
  3. China has no intention of exporting its own ideology or government system.
If China’s growth didn’t slow down around 2014, it would have become #1 economy by now. On the other hand, India is not catching up any time soon.

OK. This issue #3 is very much in the same vein as the original #1. It talks about intention. Which is illusive. But beyond making up a triple, I also happen to have a couple of points to make. But let me discuss these items in turn.

First, how probable is the rise of China to #1 in the world, and in what time frame? According to Prof. Mahbubani, it should happen just about now (since his talk was given about 5 years ago), or maybe 5 years from now. But taking the World Bank’s numbers, and project forward rather pessimistically, we get that China’s economy should surpass that of the US by 2040, if China’s grows at a compound annual rate of 4%, and that of the US grows at 2%. This projected date changes to 2033 if the two rates are changed to 6% and 3% respectively.

But that’s just numerical projection. Chinese official policy has vacillated between promoting or suppressing private enterprises. What does that matter? To me, a private enterprise, especially one with competition, has to chase profit. Therefore, its investments are in areas it anticipates to have real demand. Unless there is fraud. One former CEO of my company (in its former self) is still being wanted for committing fraud. The fraud he’s accused of is to sell products to nobody, in order to create the illusion of profits, especially predictable profit growth. On the other hand, a government-owned enterprise can exist without a profit motive. And it can fraud at a bigger scale. And can do it with impunity. That’s why the GDP figures from China are somewhat fluffy. And the marginal rate of return for new investments is quite low. I’m not saying that I can give a projection of China’s GDP, or its growth. I can’t.

On the second point (according to my summary), I can readily agree with Prof. Mahbubani. In international affairs the US has been behaving quite irrationally, and sometimes capriciously, and it’s not good for the US or the world at large. I actually think that there is a grave mistake in the way the country’s government is setup. While there is plenty of check-and-balance in the arena of domestic policy, there is none, legally, in international policy.

On the third point, there is actually historical evidence pointing to China actively export its ideology to other countries, particularly southeast Asia and Latin America. This was mostly before the Cultural Revolution. Hopefully it has changed.

But the biggest problem I have with Prof. Mahbubani’s speech is his benevolent assumption that all economical growths and forms are good. History is not as kind. For example, German GDP grew significantly under Hitler. You may point out, and rightfully so, that he was the appointed leader in a democracy, and it I’d agree. But he did dismantle the democratic institutions and became a dictator. Now I’m not saying that the current condition in China is comparable to that of Germany before and during WWII. But someone in China is seemingly afraid of such a comparison. The example I have is that when I wrote a blog entry entitled Auschwitz, it cannot be transmitted via the Chinese social media app WeChat, unless I avoid using that word in the title. The content of the blog entry had nothing to do with current politics, or China. But the word in the title is too sensitive.

So what am I saying about Prof. Mahbubani’s speech? I like it being different from everything one regularly hears in the US media. I agree with some of his observations, especially about the US government’s hypocrisies. But I do not agree with some of his assumptions, or conclusions. It’s complicated.

A Chance Encounter

Yesterday my dissertation adviser came over to visit with me, with his 10 years old grandson in tow. We had lunch at a restaurant across from the Stony Brook Railroad Station. While we were eating, in came a black woman who sat at the next table. She asked whether I could order lunch for her. I told her that the servers could speak English. She said no, she wanted me to buy her lunch. Okay, I said, finally understanding her meaning.

When I first came over to the United States, an American roommate told me that I should not give cash to beggars, but I’d much better give food. For with money, they could potentially buy drugs, and that would not be what I wished for. But food could not be changed for anything illicit. In this case, for me to buy her lunch, I thought, would be quite reasonable. Only that I’ve never seen, nor heard of something like this.

So there we were, the three of us, eating and chatting, while she ate by herself at a nearby table. When she was done, she stood up, gave me a deep bow, said pleasantry loudly to everybody in the restaurant, and proceeded to leave. The server chased after her to hand her the check, and both she and I gestured for the server to hand the check to me. The check was for $13.52. In this restaurant many dishes were more than that, some quite a bit more! In other words, she was very disciplined when ordering food. I was quite touched!

At a park nearby, where we went after lunch 🙂


It was not easy to go to Auschwitz, emotionally. We knew of holocaust, knew of the scale of the killing, and the method, and even of the entrance gate marked with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free). But to brave it all, and to be reminded of the depth of human bestiality where it happened, was an emotional journey of a completely different level.

Coming to pick us up from a hostel near where we lived was Conrad, a friendly young man with a Western History degree, and a superb command of English. He drove a small van that can sit about eight passengers, and we made two more stops in Krakow to pick up others. It turned out that Conrad was going to be our guide for the day as well.

DSCF5542When we arrived at Auschwitz, we met the other people of our guided tour. They came from the UK, probably as a part of a multi-day tour—in contrast, the few of us who came with Conrad only booked this day-trip from Krakow. Now we had a group of about 30 in total. Fortunately for the Auschwitz I part, which is run as a museum, we each got a radio receiver which could be dialed into Conrad’s channel, and as such we could hear him clearly without having to be close to him, or for him to raise his voice in order to be heard. This is a good thing. His voice was subdued, due to the solemn nature of the topic, and the place, even with hundreds of people, was quite silent. This is where tens of thousands of people died.

We saw stats. We saw pictures, of the camp, the people, and the running of the camp. We saw where people were housed (crammed), treated medically (not for cure but for medical experiments), and imprisoned (this even inside a concentration camp!), and killed, either in small groups in front of an execution wall, or en masse in a gas chamber. We saw piles and piles of shoes, glasses, and suitcases left by the killed, but the most heart-wrenching sight was the pile of human hair. When the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, they found seven tons of human hair. Apparently they were shaved from people who had just been gassed to death, for the purpose of making some kind of cloth. It’s such a despicable act, people don’t even kill the sheep in order to harvest their wool! Then I realized that I was totally wrong. Nazis didn’t kill for financial gain; that was only a byproduct. Killing was the goal. It was the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question”.

DSCF5550The museum tour at Auschwitz took about an hour and a half. After a quick break, we rode the vans to Auschwitz II/Birkenau. We could use the time to grab a bite, but Conrad apparently didn’t eat anything, and I decided to abstain as well.

The Auschwitz II/Birkenau concentration camp is massive. And in this part of the tour we didn’t have radio communications any more. Unfortunately the place was huge, and we were often stragglers of the group, due to my wife’s health condition, and struggled much to try to catch up with the group.

A “shooting wall” in Auschwitz I, where many people were executed in small groups. On the right side of this wall is Block 11, the prison inside the camp. There, Franciscan friar Father Maximilian Kolbe volunteered his life in place of another man, and was given a deadly injection after the punishment of hunger and thirst for two weeks. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II.

Auschwitz II/Birkenau is a purposefully designed place to kill people in larger quantities and efficiently. People freshly off the trains were sorted by the SS, where children, women, the old, and the sick, were marched to the gas chambers at the end of the rail line, and gassed in large gas chambers, up to 15,000 a day. It’s truly unfathomable that people can repeatedly commit mass murders, using a cheap and streamlined method, day in and day out. And they did this mostly not for what the victims had done, but for what they were. Jews. Gypsies. Homosexuals. Jehovah’s witnesses.

How can some human beings be so evil? How can we tell that some living among us are not just like them, waiting for the right moment to jump out and do the evil deeds? How can we be sure that enough people have learned this lesson, and will come forward to stop the next Hitler? It’s scary to reflect that we do not have clear answers to any of these questions.

Coming to Auschwitz and reflecting upon these questions made me more humble. Humans can be noble, yet when they are villainous, they can be worse than any other animal!

9-11: One More Thing We Could Learn

Another September 11. Another opportunity to reflect upon that tragic day, and the turbulent time since.

I do not directly know of anyone who died in WTC on that day in 2001. But I did have a former classmate who told me a harrowing tale about evacuating from another WTC building that day and walking miles to safety. And I had a neighbor who was serving on FDNY and missed worked that day due to family reasons, which could very well have saved his life.

But here I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about the safety of the rest of us. This is triggered by the story of Rick Rescorla and Daniel Hill. Somehow the two of them foresaw the terrorist attacks on WTC, both by truck bomb and, later, by airplane. The key is to see things from a terrorist’s eye. Somehow I missed these stories until today. And I only got to hear them through WeChat, a Chinese social media app.

Something I felt deeply years ago came back to me. Something similar to what Rescorla and Hill felt. That sense of knowing that there is something we know the terrorists would do. That sense of knowing that there are things we can use to protect us. And that sense of helplessness when our government is not doing enough to protect us.

It was Independence Day, 2005. We were celebrating on the National Mall, with a gazillion people. Security was tight, this being only a few years after 9-11. We got into the security perimeter in the morning, with bags checked and people scanned. The security perimeter was large, enclosing the entirety of the Mall, including the Smithsonian building, Natural History Museum, etc. The traffic patterns were changed, with no street parking nearby. And the nearby subway stations, such as those at Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, National Archive etc., were all closed. People trickled in all day, through early evening.2005-july-dc-wait-for-fireworks

We had a good time. The music was great. The fireworks started and ended at the precise hours and minutes as scheduled and published in the newspapers. Then the mass exodus from the Mall started. Remember, there was no bus, no cars, and no subway near the Mall.

We walked to the nearest subway station that was open, possibly Waterfront. It was the most crowded place we’ve ever been to in the US. People were packed standing on the platforms.

Right then and there I realized that were I a terrorist, I could simply make some big noise, or smoke, or some other commotion, and a pandemonium would ensue. Especially if I timed it with the coming of a train.

And worse yet, I could have with me a gun, or a bomb. Not only the station itself was outside the security perimeter, the trains were all coming from unsecured stations.

What we observed:

  • People arrive at very different times. But most leave at the same time.
  • It’s hard to mount an attack inside the security perimeter, but it’s very easy to do so outside of it. And the crowded Metro stations were perfect locations for it.
  • And from the terrorist’s point of view, it’s easy to plan. The schedule was public info, and its adherence was perfect.

What we decided to do as a family:

  • Avoid holiday celebrations at important landmarks.
  • Avoid venues known to be packed.

But thinking a little more today, when I was preparing this blog in my head, I realized that there are things our government could do to make us all safer. I don’t know if they are listening, but I sure hope they are (supposedly they are scanning all of the Internet, which is completely legal):

  • Do not close the Metro stations by the Mall completely. Instead, allow people to leave from them, at least and especially around the time when the fireworks end.
  • Allow only completely empty and secured trains to stop at these stations to pick up passengers.

Be safe. Be vigilant.

O Sole Mio, Part 2

Sungevity and Solar Lease

Sungevity is a California company, but does business in NY, kind of. I was attracted to them from their ads on Google search. They boast of being able to design a solar system remotely, without setting their feet on our roof. This is a relief. I cringed a little when the Level Solar rep told us that their people would get on our roof, jump up and down a bit while tethered, to see that the roof can take the extra weight. Well, someone may still have to do that at some point, but at least not before the design is done.

A first hurdle must be overcome. The first person (not the actual sales person/rep yet) from Sungevity I talked with was using Google maps, which did not accurately locate our house, but was pointing to a piece of undeveloped woods. We got better results once I asked him to switch to Bing maps, which also come with very detailed “bird’s eye views”.

I talked with the next person for several hours over two days, and with his manager for more than an hour. At the beginning, while he talked with me, somebody designed the system for us. The talk was not very informative, as I was in no need of convincing on the benefits of Solar. But within half an hour, two designs were presented for me to review. As it turned out, their design team actually was using Bing maps, and the outcome was pictures of solar panels overlaid on the bird’s eye views of Bing maps. Alas, the online maps are not that detailed, and I’m afraid that when they come to install the system the design must be adjusted.

Sungevity PlanA Sungevity PlanBWhen I looked at the two designs, I wasn’t very happy about either one. I asked for an alternative design where the solar panels were all on the back of our house, for better aesthetics. Soon that was accomplished. Because the back of the house faces east, while some of the front panels were placed towards south, this design needed more solar panels to generate the same electricity, and therefore was more expensive, but only by 2.3%.

Sungevity website gave a very nice graphical interface to play with the different financing models. The available choices include the different designs (three in our case), buy or lease, and if lease, how much down payment is desired. Unfortunately, the conditions of each financing option are not spelled out on the page, not even in digest. I was most intrigued by the comparison of the buy option and the prepaid lease option.

The buy option is more expensive, but I get to eventually deduct the federal tax credit, at 30%. In addition, I also get the $0.20 per KW credit from NY-Sun initiative. The prepaid lease option gives me the same system with less up-front out-of-pocket expenses, but I lose the two credits above. I could also choose a low- to no-down payment lease option, but that turned out to be a finance deal with approximately an 8.7% interest rate—which I only found out much later, when I got the contract and did the calculations.

Whether I buy or lease has no bearing on the service I get. In both cases I get 20 years of monitoring and performance guarantee by Sungevity, the same software for myself to monitor the production from the system, and the same 20 year warranty on the equipment.

Over the next two days, I had discussions with the sales person (the rep) and his manager. The questions I had and they answered were mainly these:

Residual value

The reason I chose the prepaid lease plan was that I was convinced that after 20 years I get to keep the system for free, which gives this plan the same outcome after 20 years, but with lower out-of-pocket expense. The representative even helpfully shared with me a page from someone else’s contrast, showing the depreciation table of the equipment, and after 20 years the buy-out price of the system was indeed $0.

But unfortunately, when I got our own contract, this table was nowhere to be found. On the contrary, the contract clearly spells out that at the end of the term “Sunrun will remove the Solar Facility at no cost to you.” The contract mentions Sunrun a lot, and the rep’s explanation is that Sunrun is the financier, while Sungevity is the service provider. I’m not sure I can buy that, given the contract language to the contrary, but I was willing to overlook the difference—as long as someone is there on the other side of the contract, I can forgive the switching of entity. But taking a promised value away is not something I can freely forgive.

With this term change, all of a sudden the prepaid lease option becomes a lot less attractive than the purchase option. At this point I felt very much cheated, because if they only disclosed ahead of time this important detail, I would not have given them the permission to run my credit report—for if I am to buy the system, there really is no need for it, is there?

Performance Guarantee

The contrast says, and the rep happily paraphrased, that, for our “peace of mind”:

  • “Sunrun offers a Performance Guarantee. If your system does not produce the power output guaranteed in this agreement, we’ll refund you for lost power.”
  • “If your system overperforms you keep the excess power free of charge.”

But when I got the contract, the performance guarantee is pretty empty. Firstly, it pays me $0.13 per KWH for under-production. When I asked why it was so low, the rep had the audacity to tell me that I’m so lucky that I had locked in a great low rate! “No, you’ve locked in a great low rate, not me! I still have to buy the electricity from my utility company at $0.20 or so”. Then he took another tack: “Now you’re going down a rabbit hole! You’re behaving as if we couldn’t make the amount of electricity as promised.” To that my answer was: “Well, it’s really you who don’t believe in your numbers! If you do, you could guarantee under-production at any rate!” There were other arguments presented, which were even less persuasive or upright, and I’ll not mention them here.

The other problem with the performance guarantee is that it lists cumulative production rather than per year. When I asked, I was told that over-production from any year is reset at the end of the year, and not rolled over to the next. This would have been nice, and would have agreed with their ad-speak at the top, the part about “you keep the excess power free of charge”. Well, in careful reading one finds the exact wording in the contract as this: “Sunrun may use this overproduction amount (kWhs) to offset future underproduction.” This is the exact opposite of what the rep told me!

As such, there is no such thing as “you keep the excess power free of charge.” To begin with, one can’t keep excess electricity. It goes to the utility, and the utility pays me bulk rate, about $0.04-$0.05 per KWH. Then in the following year, if there was an under-production, I’d buy the electricity from the utility company at their retail rate, currently at about $0.20/KWH.

The rep’s manager offered me $500 off, if I could sign the contract that night. I said that my wife was in bed already. He told me that “you could sign for her”. Since we’re talking about electronic signature, it would not look any different. But that sounds illegal to me.

I have not fully given up on Sungevity, neither have they on me.

“O Sole Mio”, Part 1

So we want to look into going solar, mostly for the environmental benefit. But we also want to avoid a bad financial deal. And it turned out the latter is not easy to do.

First, there is really almost no objective evaluation and comparison on the Internet. When I did searches with various terms, such as “solar panel comparison”, “solar panel installation”, “solar power companies”, etc., combined with “Long Island” or “New York”, the first few pages that Google presented to me are all advertisements on Google, or solar power company websites.

Even more discouraging, Solar City, supposedly the largest solar power company, one of the several companies founded and run by Elon Musk, whose vehicle came over to our next door and installed a system on their roof, decided, through its automated website, that they didn’t serve our area.

Fortunately, there are companies which do. We caught a guy from such a company knocking on doors in the neighborhood, and through him made an appointment with Level Solar. Little did we know the amount of untruths and lies that await us.

Level Solar and Power-Purchase Agreement

Level Solar prides itself as a local company, headquartered in Ronkonkoma, in the middle of Long Island. Its sole business model is power-purchase agreement. Their representative was friendly, and we didn’t have any predisposition for or against any financial arrangement at this point.

The first point of business is to figure out how much electricity we used for the previous year, and for what price. The representative helpfully calculated the answer to the second question from our most recent electricity bill, and came up with $0.22 per KWH.

Level Solar’s current deal is like this: they’d put a Photovoltaic (PV) system on our roof to produce electricity, and we’d be buying the electricity at a “locked in low price”: $0.15 per KWH initially, increasing at 2.4% per year, for 20 years. What if we sell our house, and a prospective buyer doesn’t like the deal? Well, “find other buyers” is the answer. So we’d better make sure that the price we signed up for is going to be below the electricity rate in 20 years!

We were told that while we are currently paying $0.22 per KWH, the electricity rate has been going up at 6% per year. So if we pay Level Solar $0.15 per KWH to begin with, going up at 2.4% per year, we’d get a better and better deal as the years go by. With such happy calculations, we were given a bunch of papers to sign, mostly relating to governments of different levels, but the last of which is the contract. (This is a tried and true sales tactic, I eventually reflected, as once you’re in the habit of signing your signature, one more of those does not make any difference. But I was not in the right mind then.) When we asked about the effective date of the contract, we were told that we needn’t worry. The contract wouldn’t be effective until both parties signed it, and they wouldn’t do that until later, when they come to present their design to us.

After the rep left, my calculations and modeling got underway. Seriously.

The first problem is that we don’t actually pay $0.22 per KWH. While the representative used our bill to get the number, he did it by dividing the total monthly payment by the total KWHs used, even though he helpfully pointed out that there was a “Basic Service” amount that couldn’t be offset by solar installation—this is the per day amount we pay to be connected to the grid! Once we deducted that amount, the same bill yielded slightly less than $0.19 per KWH. The average over the whole year is a little more, but still less than $0.20 per KWH.

I happen to have back electricity bills for the last 17 years. Although they are not for every month, they gave me a long enough time frame, comparable to the 20 years for the power-purchase agreement. Using these, I found that our local utility has been increasing the electricity rate at a compound rate of 2.25% per year, far below the 6% that Level Solar suggested. Furthermore, if we use the last 8 years, the rate is actually pretty stagnant, going up at 0.84% per year. Going forward, the local utility has filed a plan to increase their delivery charge by 4% per year for 3 years, and delivery charge is approximately half the per KWH we pay (the other half being the cost of electricity). This plan is now being debated, and its passing is not certain. So in the next three years, the maximum increase we are facing is about 2% per year, and considering the uncertainty, and that the cost of electricity is actually dropping slightly due to the new technology of fracking, the expected rate increase is less.


Still, using our historical numbers to predict the future, we get that if electricity rate goes up at 2.25% per year (as from our last 17 years’ data), we’ll have less and less savings per year; and if it goes up at the 0.84% per year as from the last 8 years’ data, we’d be paying more for solar in the last two years of the contract than the utility rate!

And then there is one more problem. If their system produces more than the amount we use, either due to their being conservative in their calculations, or due to our using less energy, such as what could happen as our kids leave the house, and we switch to more energy-saving appliances (such as fluorescent and LED lights), we’d still be on the hook to pay the solar company the set rate ($0.15-0.23 per KWH), while the utility would either pay us the bulk purchase rate (currently at about $0.04-0.05 per KWH), or nothing at all (which happens in some parts of the US).

As it turned out, paying a commercial entity to use my roof to generate electricity for others to use is not something I planned on doing.

Now there is only one thing to do: cancel the contract, which supposedly has not come into effect. Our friendly representative told us that we could simply call and tell him that. So we did. But the contract says that to cancel we must fill out a form and mail it to a NY city address, presumably that of Level Solar’s lawyers. So we did that too. Certified.

Deserters in June

It was June of a different year. I was working in Beijing for one of the big three U.S. media companies. That was an eventful spring. In the beginning of the year, President Bush visited China. Then came the death of a former Chinese Communist leader[1]… One night in June, the eventful spring was given a large exclamation mark, and an even larger question mark.

I was then still a Chinese citizen. The next morning, I hastened to my boss. Now a dangerous place, I couldn’t stay there anymore. I wanted to resign, and leave.

Unexpectedly, my boss was also looking for me. In Beijing Hotel, one of our Australian cameraman and his British sound assistant had just recorded something very important. My boss asked me to personally go and get the material, rather than send one of the some 20 college interns working under me. This gave me a dilemma. I came to resign, but now I was given a mission, apparently a very important mission—to that day, I had never had to personally go somewhere to send or retrieve something.

I was young then, and was easily excited. Besides, the company had treated me well. In China, in 1980s, they paid me $200 (US) a day, in cash. I thought it over a few times, and felt that I couldn’t drop the ball at this moment of need. So I agreed. Right after giving my words, however, I began to regret it, when my boss said, “They say it’s fairly safe outside.” From his tone, I could hear that his words might as well not have been said. Apparently it was not so safe outside.

From our office in the Palace Hotel, I walked to the Beijing Hotel. It was after 10:00 AM, but there were few pedestrians. Occasionally, you could hear crispy sounds like firecrackers coming from all directions. In the corner of Long Street[2], I saw some Beijing residents beating their chests, stamping their feet, and whispering curses. A few young people helped an old man hobble forward, towards Union Hospital. I was told that a bullet entered his mouth from side and exited the other. The old man’s head bowed down, body leaning forward, he was apparently in excruciating pain.

At Beijing Hotel’s entrance, I saw that the row of glass doors were all shut, except for one in the middle, which was half open, barely enough to allow a person to pass by sideways. By the door, both outside and inside, stood at least a dozen people dressed in civilian clothes, on some assignment.

I bit my tongue, and went towards them.

In my backpack was a newly unsealed videotape. I meant to swap it with the tape that had been recorded. Facing these fellow countrymen on assignment, I tried to calm myself by telling myself that I had nothing on me, even less on this tape.

While thus thinking, I had passed them by, and was in the lobby. I felt the multitude of eyes on my back. But I walked into the elevator, watched the elevator doors close, and still nobody called me to stop. On the 14th floor, I found our camera crew’s room, and knocked on the door. There was some rustling noise inside, and the door was opened after a long time. It turned out these two foreigners thought someone came to arrest them, so they removed the camera from the balcony, hid it under the bed, and put on pajamas. They looked laughably like a pair of homosexual men[3]. Seeing it was me, someone they knew, they were relieved, and immediately set up the camera on the balcony again. The cameraman put the tape I brought into the camera, while the sound engineer put the tape I came for in my hands.

I took the elevator down and walked towards the front. This time the tape in my bag had content. When I walked to the front door I was walking towards light, and could only see that inside and outside the door, there were silhouettes of people, motionless, obviously watching my move towards them. Those dozens of steps were the weightiest, longest steps I made in my life.

When I reached the door, I could finally see the faces of those people. I felt that a silent pressure, a… wrath. But, they still did not stop me, and let me walk out.

From Beijing Hotel I walked briskly back to Palace Hotel. Immediately upon arrival, our editor made a copy of the videotape I brought back. When they were making the copy, I intentionally stayed away; I did not want to know what was in it. Thus, if there were problems, I could plead ignorance. Of course, this was just my own wishful thinking, or self-deception.

I was on the verge of mentioning the resignation business to my boss, when he asked me to take a copy the videotape to the airport, and to “fly the pigeon.” Resignedly I went to the airport. I comforted myself again with my ignorance of the content on the tape.

“Fly the pigeon” is a jargon of American television industry, meaning that one brings material to an airport or some like place, looks for a reliable passenger, gives him/her some compensation, and asks him/her to bring the material to where the flight goes. This is an ancient practice, before satellite transmission became popular. However, at this time the satellite transmissions in Beijing had long been cut off, so we had to return to this method.

Capital Airport was packed with people, all foreigners trying to leave Beijing in haste. Although crowded, it was a little creepy: in the huge terminal, with masses of people in queues, squeezing by and looking for places to go, most of them were silent, anxious, and grave. Compared with the usual noisy bustle of life here, this time the air actually felt a kind of creepy—silence. Occasionally someone whispered, but with such caution, as if afraid to be heard by the interlocutor.

In the line for a flight to Hong Kong, I found a businessman-looking American, about 40 years old. I took the videotape from my bag, and handed it to him, along with a $100 bill. I explained that I was with this American television company, and requested him to be our messenger pigeon. I asked for his name, so that I could go back to the office and fax it to Hong Kong, so that when he got off the plane he could immediately hand the tape over to our people waiting for him there… It was several years before 1997[4], Hong Kong’s satellite transmission system naturally had not been cut off.

That American looked at me and the tape in turn. Then he nodded his head expressionlessly. I jotted down his name. Robert. Robert said a few words to me, which I would never forget. But let me retell them later.

When I left the airport, perhaps it was all in my head, I constantly felt someone was following me. My sole consolation was, of the content on the tape, I knew nothing.

Back in the city, in our office, I no longer dared any further delay. I found my boss, told him I completed the final mission; but at the same time, regrettably I was a deserter, and had to resign at this time. It dawned on my boss that I was different from him, in that I held a Chinese passport. He thought for a moment, said that he understood, gave me my salary, and let me take flight.

How many years have passed. This matter slowly faded in my mind. Until one day, I saw a picture, one called by some as a best illustration of the dauntless human spirit in the 20th century. My memory is activated.

In the year of I9B9[5], at 10:00 AM on June 5, an unarmed Chinese young man in a white shirt stood in front of a roaring row of tanks, staring down death. Several foreign news agencies, including ours, from upper floors of Beijing Hotel near the Long Street where he blocked the tanks, took in those images.

A few minutes later, before I was able to tell my boss I wanted to resign, he told me to go personally to Beijing Hotel to retrieve a videotape. After taking it back, and he urgently sent me to the airport to “fly the pigeon”…

From the time, place, and the importance my boss gave it, I the deserter, with no knowledge of the case, repeating “I do not know the contents of the tape” to comfort myself, inadvertently passed to the world the images of the last person in China to desert.

I would like to say here that I was not without help and support. Thinking back, I would like to especially thank those at the entrance of Beijing Hotel, in plainclothes, on their assignment. From where they were, and the intelligence they had, and the technology in their disposal, it was impossible that they did not know that our camera crew was on the 14th floor, that I was going to the 14th floor, and that I took back the tape. As I said, they looked at me with eyes filled with anger. When all I was thinking was to desert, I thought their anger was directed at me. However, I missed one point. These people, after work, were but ordinary people of Beijing. Bullets would not shy away from their relatives, friends, or neighbors, just because of what they do during the day. Today, I have only one explanation why let me get into the door that admitted one person at a time, and then let me out again. That is, they made an individual or collective decision, not without danger to themselves, to let the world see the image of that morally upright countryman of theirs, and the halo over his head.

Finally, let me tell you what Robert told me at Capital Airport: “I am very, very sorry that when China needs help the most, but I cannot do anything for her. I can only choose to escape, and I have the privilege to escape. This money I cannot take. Although I do not know what is on this videotape, please be assured that I will do my best to protect it, and deliver it to where it should go. This little bit I do for the Chinese people.”

When I write down this remembrance, my only regret is that between Robert and me, the two deserters, one will probably never know what we did for the world, intentionally or unintentionally, on our way to desert.


[Original was published on the Internet, in Chinese, anonymously. It was dated June 2, 2011.]

[1] Published online in China, the original Chinese text used a lot of vague references. Here the person meant is Hu Yaobang, ex-Chairman of the CCP.

[2] The main thoroughfare in front of Tiananmen is the Street of Eternal Peace. Dropping one character, it became the Long Street. See the previous footnote.

[3] Homosexuality was then illegal in China.

[4] 1997 is the year when Hong Kong was transferred to Chinese sovereignty.

[5] An intentional “misspelling” of the year 1989.


“You are going to be the pilot today.” Mike deadpanned.

This is no simulator.

“OK… I’ve taken the ground school, you know.” I said matter-of-factedly, pretending to not notice his attempt at humor.

After ascertaining when and where I took the ground school (where one learns all the theoretical knowledge of flying without taking to the sky), Mike was apparently not reassured. It had been so many years that the answer caused me more pain and consternation because it dated me as that much older than him than because the course material must have been outdated by now, or that I might have forgotten most of it already. I volunteered that my then girlfriend, now wife, forbade me from going any further than that. And I regretted it immediately. By this time he must have formed a pretty determinedly negative opinion of me, having no balls in addition to no sense of humor. Fortunately I was not on a charm mission to please him.

I was at Island Aviation because of a gift certificate for my birthday from my sisters, and because after this many years my wife had decided she could stomach the idea of my taking a small-airplane flight now. And she was there to see me do it. Among her questions was “how high are you going to fly?” “A couple of thousand feet.” Mike, my instructor of the day, answered her directly. But I knew her better. “Actually height is our friend. It’s the ground that’s dangerous.” She seemed to understand, so I gave no explanation.

Approx. flight path
Approximate flight path

Mike had gone through the preflight check already, he told me. But he went around the airplane with me and asked me about the different control surfaces. I did all right with ailerons and flaps, and even elevators, but not so well with the rudder. Those damned years! Or maybe I should blame the failing memory due to my age.

Inside the cockpit I was given a brief overview of the instruments. No tests this time. Some instruments look more familiar than others, but the most important ones are all directly recognizable. After all, other than the flight school, I had much experience on the Microsoft Flight Simulator, which I didn’t mention to Mike. It might count negatively. It’s interesting to notice that the instruments were easy to calibrate, but also easy to get out of whack. During his short demonstration, Mike had to repeatedly calibrate the attitude and altitude gauges, as they seemed to be jiggled by mischievous cherubs behind the instrument panel. That I didn’t mind. The less fancifulness, the less likely things could go inexplicably wrong.
Mike pointed out the throttle to me; and I correctly identified the trim wheel. But when I asked him about the radios, he was alarmed. “I’ll take care of the radios,” he said. That was totally cool with me. I didn’t have a clue how to communicate with Air Traffic Control (ATC) any way; nor ground control, for that matter. But I did have my own headset, which brought me an incessant stream of chatter, much more than I imagined possible for a small airport like the Islip/McArthur.

Don’t try to clean your screen–that dirty stuff was on the airplane’s windshield.

One other thing I didn’t get to learn in the flight school or practice on the MS Simulator is the pedals. They control the wheels and brakes while on the ground, and the rudder in the air. Mike let me try to taxi the airplane, which turned out to be very difficult to do—I just couldn’t get it to go along a straight line as I wished, or turn around at will. Fortunately we weren’t on the ground that long.

Taking off was surprisingly easy. Mike pushed the throttle to full, and I waited for the plane to hit 110 knots before pulling up its nose, all the while letting Mike work the pedals to align our Cessna with the runway. Within a couple of seconds, and before I could get used to this new attitude (of the plane), we were lifted off the ground, seemingly swept up by a puff by the big bad wolf. The sensation was definitely not the same as a passenger jet plane, but probably more like a raptor taking flight. With wind pockets hitting our wings at random, we soared upwards along a jittery slope, with my innards going up or down, left or right for no apparent reason. Now I assure you that I can drive a car very straight on the ground; and unlike the pedals, the control yoke didn’t feel hard to handle, so this did not reflect my abilities. I looked to my right. Mike was a model of nonchalant and unconcern; which could only mean one thing—I just had to get used to this sensation. In a few minutes we reached our cruising altitude, 2000 feet, for this part of the flight. Mike helped me to set the trim, and the plane could practically fly itself—only I was more comfortable clutching the yoke tightly in my hands.

Once we got over the coast, right about Heckscher State Park, we were out of ATC zone. Mike told me to turn to the east. I execute a mild bank, and he asked me to put a little “back pressure” on the yoke, to maintain altitude—strictly speaking, it’s probably more like we executed the turn, as I was working the yoke only, and didn’t even think about the pedals. (Having no pedals for the MS Simulator, I always left it in its “auto-rudder” mode. And coordinating the rudder with the yoke to make a turn is akin to driving a manual shift car.) Coming out of the turn, I tried to reach my camera on the back seat, and found it nearly impossible. The cabin being that much smaller than the inside of a Geo Metro, (and the plane probably lighter than the Metro too) I had to lean my upper body way forward so that my right arm can swing around without hitting Mike’s face with my elbow.

Along the coast we went, looking over Long Island and Fire Island below us. Some of the signature places I was able to recognize, but far fewer than what Mike could. Most importantly, he pointed out the various airports. In an emergency, we’d have to pick the nearest airport to land, I secretly tell myself. We went as far as Riverhead before turning up north and then back west along the north coast of Long Island, carefully flying around the airspace of Calverton airport, where sky divers might be dropping down from above our altitude. I executed smooth and wide turns, a smooth ascend to 3000 feet, and a smooth descend to 1000. I’m just not a dare devil. Not only I didn’t have the desire for steep banks or dives, my guts wouldn’t have taken it nicely either.P1070126

Before heading back to the Islip airport, Mike wanted me to fly over our house. But when I got to within about 5 miles, he realized that we were about to enter the ATC zone. He took over the controls, wheeled us around in tight loops, while talking with Islip control tower on the radio. I felt uncomfortable, and Mike saw it. I told him I was a little air sick. The air traffic controller sent us in via a flight path that was to the east of our house, but eventually passed over my work place.

When we were coming down to land, I again wasn’t aggressive enough on pushing the yoke forward, and had to be reminded where we’d like to hit the runway. Mike took over the controls when we got closer to the ground, as the wind tugged more strongly on our airplane. Flaps down, nose up, we let the plane kiss the runway where it wanted. It felt so good to be on the ground at last.

In the end, although I didn’t enjoy the experience completely, I was glad that I had the opportunity. Maybe flying was never in me, but I wouldn’t have known it beforehand. It’s very different from driving. Also prone to car-sickness, I almost never felt sick driving a car. When I am in the driver’s seat, I try to be gentle on the gas and brake pedals, and road is predictable, exactly in the way the air is not. I don’t know whether I could have overcome air-sickness if I persisted. But at this stage of my life, there are many other things that call for my time and energy. There is no regret giving up flying.

I am grateful to my sisters and my wife for giving me this opportunity. And I am grateful for this country—not only there was no concept of general aviation at the time when I left China, I don’t think it is an option even today. You learn to fly if and only if that is your job. But here, I fly because I want to. And that is priceless.