Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions
A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

The Chinese Gadfly, Part 2

By posting the entirety our email exchange in a comment on my blog, The Chinese Gadfly has implicitly granted permission for open publication of our email exchanges; accordingly, I will indulge him, although I will remove the email addresses and names of my supplier and those of my attorney’s office.

Since he published his email address on my blog, you’re welcome to email The Chinese Gadfly.

The Chinese Gadfly uses multiple identities. The first email came from a domain which is cloaked to a pseudo-trade directory. Most of the company’s online presence seems to be search engine spamming. Their message came by way of the online contact form on my YuzuMura.com site.

From: [YuzuMura.com Online Contact Form]
Sent: Friday, September 02, 2005 3:11 PM
To: [Jason Truesdell]
Subject: Contact Inquiry From Website

Name=Pelo Napili
Phone=+8618301727207
EMail=pay@payac.com
Subject=Dragon Beard Candy
S1=Dear Sirs, I wish to inform you that "Dragon Beard" word has been registered with ipos "Trade Mark" under the nutra swiss plc. To avoid any legal action gainst your company, Please remove all the above marks from your website immidialy. I has been sent the report to China Industry Commerce for future actions if you not proceed our request. Thank you Shanghai Wan Pan International Nutra Swiss Representative in China
B1=Submit

Note that The Chinese Gadfly has not yet explained the class of trademark, the nature of the claimed infringement, or the relevance to the U.S. market. The claim that “’dragon beard’ word” is a trademark is ambiguous, since it’s not possible to trademark without a context. For example, Dragon Beard is an established shoe and sportwear brand in Japan. But no reference of “dragon beard candy” would likely be confused with shoes. More importantly, it’s a novel use of the phrase, and not naturally associated with shoes, so in such a case, it would be a fairly strong mark in that context.

About a year ago, I noticed a strange web site popping up in searches for “dragon beard candy”; it was basically a packaged version of American cotton candy, with the typical artificial coloring, sold in plastic translucent tubs. I didn’t think much of it at the time, because it was so obviously unrelated to what I import. But it rode on the coattails of the name for this traditional confection. I remembered the domain names associated with this, and one of them referenced a company name “Nutra Swiss.” So I chose to infer that they were referring to this product, in spite of the fact that they didn’t provide that information.

Dragon beard candy has existed in Asia for ages… the legend says it’s been nearly 2000 years, although some sources say it originates later in the Ming Dynasty. Certainly it has evolved over time; peanuts weren’t readily accessible until relatively recently in China, and so the typical filling must certainly have evolved over time. Immigrants in Montreal, New York, Vancouver, BC, and occasionally in San Francisco and Los Angeles have used the English phrase “dragon beard candy” to describe the type of candy for at least 20 years. Trademark law doesn’t generally allow for phrases that have a history of non-branded usage to gain protection as a trademark. I did a quick search in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s web site and saw only the apparel-maker’s registration.

My supplier told me I should direct The Chinese Gadfly to their legal office, so I wrote Mr. Chinese Gadfly back:

From: Jason Truesdell
Sent: Saturday, September 03, 2005 1:55 PM
To: pay@payac.com
Cc: [Bamboo Garden’s Hong Kong Office]; [Bamboo Garden’s Singapore Office]; [Attorneys with whose firm I have placed a retainer]
Subject: RE: Contact Inquiry From Website

You’ll have to take that up with the Hong Kong based maker of the candy. I am merely a distributor within the United States, and the term whose use you are disputing is merely a translation of a 2000-year old common name for the candy; it is not a brand name. I conduct no trade under the name “Bamboo Garden Icy-Crispy Dragon Beard Candy” in China, and I do not use “dragon beard” as a brand name. We use the phrase [dragon beard candy] as a common name for a class of candy, and common names may not be used as a trademark in the United States.

You may direct your concerns to the legal office of Bamboo Garden in Hong Kong. Please direct any such inquiries to [Bamboo Garden Hong Kong Office Email Address].

To the best of my knowledge, within the United States, in order for trademark protection to apply.

1)       The protected trademark or service mark must function as adjective, not as a noun.

2)       The phrase must be applied to a specific product category or categories.

3)       You must have actually conducted substantial trade in the United States market under the brand name. You cannot simply protect a phrase that you intend to use. We have seen no evidence of actual trade in the United States under the trade name you refer to, and you have not demonstrated any.

The only evidence of your claimed brand identity I have seen is in online export directory listings and in a no longer extant web page.

Were the name not already in common use, “Dragon Beard brand Cotton Candy” could possibly have been trademarked. The applicable trademark in this case, however, is “Bamboo Garden Icy-Crispy Dragon Beard Candy.”  Bamboo Garden is the brand, and the mark applies to the common class of candy Dragon Beard Candy. I also understand Icy-Crispy is also a trademark of Bamboo Garden when applied to the common name dragon beard candy.

Other criteria for enforceability include whether the usage of a mark is “well known.”  Because I have seen no substantial evidence of a market presence in the United States, I doubt that you would have a claim on that end. Your usage is not inherently distinctive, it is not arbitrary (due to prior usage as a common phrase), and due to the common usage is not suggestive. Our perspective is that “dragon beard candy” is merely a translation of a common term.

To the best of our knowledge, “Dragon Beard Candy” has been used as a common name for a type of handmade candy originally served some 2000 years ago in China. We believe that the common name for this type of candy has at least 20 years of prior usage in the United States and Canada among immigrant candymakers.

If you can demonstrate an international registration which is relevant to the U.S. market (China has no jurisdiction on U.S. trademark protection), and if you can demonstrate conclusively that your use of “dragon beard candy” is novel and exists prior to the common usage of the generic term “dragon beard candy” within the North American market and Hong Kong, I’d be happy to re-evaluate our decision to use the generic term “dragon beard candy.” Until such time, we see no justification for altering our usage of the term. 

Jason Truesdell, Principal
Yuzu Trading Co. LLC
Phone: 206-274-4575
Fax: 206-260-7401
Wholesale: http://www.yuzutrade.com/
Buy online at http://www.yuzumura.com/

Cc: [Names of my attorneys]. Please file only, no action on your part or on the part of Davis Wright Tremaine is required at this time.
Cc: [Names of my contacts at Bamboo Garden]

The Chinese Gadfly did not respond to the issues I raised. Instead, he sent a “Finanl notice” (sic), under a different identity, and chose to invent a new name for me:

From: Wan Pan International [mailto:1@1swiss.com]
Sent: Saturday, September 03, 2005 1:41 AM
To: 'Jason Truesdell'
Cc: [Bamboo Garden Hong Kong Office]
Subject: RE: Contact Inquiry From Website (Final Notice)

Finanl Notice

 

Dear James

 

With reference to our email on regards to Trade Mark and action on behalf of company in order to fulfill the requirements to make the legal action and Madrid Protocol permit for above product’s brand to China mainland and Islands & all IPOS International members. We have therefore sending you the following information;

Words in Mark : dragon beard cotton candy
Trade Mark Number: T0104527D                              
National

Application Type : Trade Mark
Class : 30
Part :

Priority Date
Converted Application : N
Application Date : 04 Apr 2001
Mark Lodged in Colour : N
Mark Status : Registered
Mark Status Date : 04 Apr 2001
Status Update Date :

More Details on Mark Status:-
 
 Cert Issuance Date : 19 Jun 2003
 Expiry Date : 04 Apr 2011
 Publication of Acceptance Date : 18 Dec 2002

The Chinese Gadfly did not provide any explanation of the authority of this document, so we don’t have any registry that we can search to verify this claim, even if it were relevant. His registration doesn’t exist in WIPO’s Madrid Protocol database, the international trademark registry. I checked both the number and the name.

I’m surprised that he is putting his trademark registration at risk within China by going head-to-head with a mark that predated his registration. It would surely invalidate his claim. The company that owns the trademark “Bamboo Garden Icy-Crispy Dragon Beard Candy” was established over 10 years ago and has been using the trade name since 1999 or 2000.

I apologise if today’s entry is becoming tedious, but in response to his ambigous “Trade Mark Number” email, I sent him another lengthy reply.

From: Jason Truesdell
Sent: 04 September 2005 13:45
To: 1@1swiss.com

CC: [Bamboo Garden Hong Kong Office], [Bamboo Garden Singapore Office], [Attorney’s Office]
Subject: RE: Contact Inquiry From Website (Final Notice)

1)       My name is not James. I am also not the relevant party, since my company is merely referencing an existing, established trade name from a Hong Kong based company in the capacity of a distributor and in the capacity of an online retailer. I directed you to the Hong Kong vendor’s legal department so that you may explain to them your claim to the name.

2)       The mark “Bamboo Garden Icy-Crispy Dragon Beard Candy” has a continuous trade presence in Hong Kong at least since 2000 under that mark. I’m sure Lavina will fill you in on the details.

3)       You have not demonstrated that your mark has any history predating the use of the common name “dragon beard candy.” You have not demonstrated uniqueness of the mark.

4)       You indicate that your trademark was registered as “Dragon Beard cotton candy.” This is a different claim than “dragon beard candy.”

5)       With regard to my company, we are not referencing the mark “Dragon Beard cotton candy” in any way on our web site. We are not selling any cotton candy products. We do not wish to, because to use the term “cotton candy” to refer to this traditional candy would diminish the value of this traditional, handmade sweet. Cotton candy is recognized as a low-value, generally machine-made class of candy within the United States, and is characterized by artificial flavorings and colorings. The product in question has no such traits.

6)       With regard to my company’s commercial web presence, we do not compare our product to your company’s product. We do not imply any relationship to your mark or brand. We only use the common name “dragon beard candy” in reference to a traditional sweet originating in China, predating your company’s mark, as literally translated from the Chinese name for this type of candy.

7)       You have yet to demonstrate an infringing use of the name to which you claim to have a trademark. You claim that the phrase “dragon beard candy” is protected, but you have not demonstrated that in any way. Nor have you demonstrated the claim’s relevance to the United States or North American market.

8)       You have yet to demonstrate any substantial trade presence within the United States. As I explained before, my company does not sell this product in the P.R.C. and any concerns regarding the name within Asia should be addressed to the manufacturer, to whose legal department I have previously directed you. My company only promotes this product within the United States, and to a lesser extent, Canada. Your trademark claim has no value without a trade presence within the market for which you are making a claim.

9)       I suggest using a more unique brand name in future projects. You will find it difficult to protect trademarks built upon common names for a product. U.S. law grants only very limited protection for trademarks using common names.

 As I explained previously, for my company to consider taking any action, you must demonstrate to me that your trade name predates usage of the common term “dragon beard candy”. I shall have no problem demonstrating prior usage of the common phrase “dragon beard candy” within North America prior to your year 2001 trademark registration. Additionally, you must demonstrate trade presence within the United States. Finally, you must demonstrate that the supplier of the product I distribute has an infringing use of your mark.

We see no cause to remove references to the common phrase “dragon beard candy” on our web site or elsewhere. Unless you have specific responses to the points I have made above, my company will see no cause to reconsider our usage of the common phrase, nor cause to alter our references to the Hong Kong trade name “Bamboo Garden Icy-Crispy Dragon Beard Candy.” If you have issues with their trade name, please take it up with Bamboo Garden’s legal department. 

Jason Truesdell
Phone: 206-274-4575
Fax: 206-260-7401
Wholesale: http://www.yuzutrade.com/
Internet Retail: http://www.yuzumura.com/
Blog: http://blog.jagaimo.com/

For our next installment in the adventures of Mr. Chinese Gadfly, we’ll feature his continued ambiguous threats and simultaneous non-responsiveness to the substance of our replies. I expect Mr. Chinese Gadfly’s rhetoric to increase in histrionics and decrease in substance. Stay tuned. 

Technorati tags: China, trademarks, law

Avant garde jazz at Al Capone's hangout and Ethiopian food

Sunday I had hunted around Chicago's Chinatown looking for shops that might be the right kind of venue to carry my specialty sweets from Hong Kong and went away not very thrilled at the prospects. There aren't many shops there that do a very good job of displaying merchandise in a way that suggests quality. The two exceptions I found didn't really carry any food type gifts; I think they might be potential customers but I got the impression I'd be better off at mainstream tea shops in other parts of town, and maybe a few upscale gift shops that aren't necessarily focused on Asian products.

On Monday I visited the area around the red line stops Argyle and Berwyn to see if things were any different up there, but that area was overall more depressing. A few of the supermarket type places had better merchandising of sweets and snack items so next time I'm in town I will probably approach some of them. These shops tend to be owned more by Thai and Vietnamese immigrants than the ones in Chinatown but the selection tended to be more or less international. I overheard one Thai shopkeeper requesting green tea mousse Pocky, a Japanese product, from a salesperson for one of the big distributors of Asian imported stuff.

Around dinnertime, I met a friend of mine from college, Grace, for dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant with another friend of mine, Lucia. I've been to Ras Dashen, which is located a little south of the red line Thorndale stop along Broadway, before, so there weren't many surprises with the food, but it was good, humble food. We had an okra and lentil dish, some dish made with small chickpea dumplings, some fresh cheese curds called "ib" which are sort of ricotta-like in texture and cream-cheese like in acidity, a cabbage dish, a spinach dish, some kale and bitter greens, and some split lentils. We plowed through as much as we could but were bested...

Lucia wanted to get some cake afterward, so the three of us tried to ignore the drug addict ogling Lucia and Grace on the train who was blabbering incomprehensibly, and made our way to Julius Meinl near the Southport stop on the brown line. Julius Meinl is apparently the only US location of an Austrian coffee shop, and they have impressive-looking cakes that Lucia can vouch for. Grace and I stuck with coffee. I had an espresso with a little bit of cream. Were I not completely stuffed at the time, I probably would have grabbed a Topfenstrudel made with sweetened quark, or a cute little tulip-shaped chocolate filled with white chocolate mousse. Lucia had some sort of banana cake with what appeared to be a caramel topping.

We finished the evening by going to the regular Monday night performance of the Patricia Barber quartet at the Green Mill. Open since prohibition, the Green Mill is reputed to have been a hangout of Al Capone and his crew. Patricia Barber is a clever pianist and vocalist, and has assembled a band which does great reinterpretations of standards, some nifty originals, and genre-bending improvisations. I'm not that well educated when it comes to jazz... Almost everything I know I learned from listening to KPLU and some small shows in Seattle mostly by local performers. But it's really cool to listen to someone as ingenious as Patricia Barber for a mere $7.

Side trips to Doe Bay, Baker hot springs, and last Sunday's dinner

Hiromi and I made a rather sluggishly paced trip out of town Monday morning, owing to some morning errands. We had vaguely planned to head toward the Olympics, but a last minute decision sent us toward Orcas Island instead, which we reached rather late due to a full afternoon ferry.

We ended up in rustic accommodations at Doe Bay Resort, which has a couple of heavily chlorinated tubs filled with water from a hot spring, facing a nice bay view. Originally we thought this would be a short stopover on the way to some forest spring, but I had forgotten about the pace of island life… it’s defined by long, occasionally severely delayed ferry commutes, and particularly in the San Juans, long stretches of windy road. The weather improved as we approached Shaw Island, but the day started out rather gloomy. Once we arrived, we made our way to the resort, took a quick dip in the hot spring tubs, and then set out in search of a late dinner, even after a day full of small snacks…

We ended up at a forgettable but serviceable Caribbean-themed restaurant full of locals, which apparently switches to a no-service fast-food-style order at the counter and pray they find you when your order is ready model after peak dinner hours. The host looked at us smugly and said there was no waiting list or probability of indoor seating but we were welcome to order and pre-pay. We had some overly browned but still edible corn fritters and some pasta, and a curried avocado dish. It was kind of hippie food with Seattle mid-range restaurant prices. The drink, whatever it was, helped. 

Just beyond AnacortesHiromi surveys the view from on board the ferryShaw Island guardian seagull

We managed to get a healthy amount of sleep, and made another trip to the hot springs and took a nice little walk before checking out. We had a very nice, simple brunch with baked eggs and baguette, a provolone sandwich, and some very nice apricot pie at Rose’s Bakery.

Once off the island, we made our way toward Mount Baker, by way of Concrete. The Baker Lake area has an easily hikeable sulfurous hot spring, which is actually fairly lukewarm. The main challenge was passing through a heavily rutted logging road. The volcanic ash in the spring seems easily disturbed, so you can end up with a small accumulation of coarse ash particles when getting out, but it didn’t bother us.

On our way out, we noticed these nifty not-quite-ripe salmonberries, which I haven’t seen much of since I was younger. Blackberries were everywhere, though nowhere near ready. We also passed a few wild blueberry plants and Northwest red huckleberries, already growing berries, but not yet at the peak of ripeness.

Salmonberries

I think I was too sleepy to post dinner from the day before we departed, but Hiromi and I cooperated on dinner. I usually do most of the cooking, but she did the majority of the work today. She prepared the avocado and shiitake gratin, an eggplant raita (which is noticeably lacking in fresh cilantro on these photos… we were distracted). I made a mushroom and cashew curry, and after dinner, a matcha martini.

Sunday's spreadAvocado gratin
Nasu (eggplant) raitaMushroom cashew curry

Coincidental charcoal and old friends

The last time I saw my friend Sakurako, who was an exchange student while I attended my first year of school at DePauw University, was just before Christmas in 1998 when I visited Japan for the first time. I have been in touch with her occasionally by email, but she had been hard to reach recently. She actually lives in Hyogo prefecture near Osaka, and I had the good fortune to get an email message from her on Monday. She said it would be a little hard to meet in Osaka on Tuesday because she was preparing for a business trip to Tokyo, but since I happened to be going back to Tokyo anyway, we made arrangements for lunch today.

My friend Michiko and I already had a plan to go to some wholesale markets today, so actually I just adjusted the plan so that the three of us would meet for lunch. Anyway, I was happy to see Sakurako after so many years.

The wholesale area Michiko and I went to afterward seemed to be focused on apparel, and it was too late to get much out of going to the area in Tokyo famous for restaurant supply shops, so we abandoned the effort and went to Ginza.

And then, the most unexpected chain of events happened. After looking around at some ceramics and house wares at Mitsukoshi department store, we ran into someone with a display area on the same floor selling all sorts of Japanese charcoal (sumi or bincho) products. Michiko started asking him some questions and told him about my trading company. He’s actually the owner of the small company that has various charcoal products on display at the department store, and he sort of tours different Mitsukoshi locations to show off his products. (I’ll call him Takeshi-san for convenience here, but it’s not his real name). Takeshi-san invited us to join him for a coffee break, and we actually got some wholesale prices after I showed him my cost structures and estimated retail customer requirements.

We did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and then he said that we should meet for dinner to talk about things a little more. I have very little time before I leave Japan and I had plans for tomorrow, so he cleared his calendar for tonight and I made a last-minute cancellation with Hiromi. (Hiromi wasn’t very happy, but she told me I should have the meeting). We arranged to meet about an hour and a half later.

He took us to a sushi place nearby where he has apparently enough of a regular that he has a reserved bottle of imo-shochu (sweet potato vodka) on hand. He arranged for some vegetarian options for sushi, which were all very sappari and very different from vegetarian attempts at sushi I’ve seen at US Japanese restaurants… the rice was seasoned substantially more subtly and even with simple pickle maki zushi the flavor was very carefully considered.

We talked a lot about prices, product details, and so on, after a reasonable amount of small talk. Michiko actually did most of the talking, as I had a difficult time following Takeshi’s Japanese. I’m sure it was very standard, but somehow I couldn’t keep up… maybe the presence of another Japanese who seemed to have sufficient translation skills made him avoid dumbing-down what he wanted to say, and made me a little more brain-dead. Anyway, he said he would work with me as long as Michiko gets some percentage; he said that he felt she was very trustworthy.

Actually after dinner he extended the discussion to a little more drinking at a somewhat exclusive-looking jazz bar (Michiko and I had simple iced oolong tea and he continued drinking); most of the clients are salary men and are entertained by a single waitress sitting between them. I think we’re the only table without such entertainment (not appropriate in mixed company) and also the one table where the bar’s owner came and spent a substantial amount of time talking to Takeshi and occasionally to us. He spoke in a very familiar way to the staff of both places we visited.

He was generous to what for me are unusual extremes… he even paid for our train tickets home and he accompanied me as far as we were continuing in the same direction. Anyway, tomorrow we’re expected to go and meet him at the department store again to arrange for delivery of some product samples.

Some indulgences, part 2, Tokyo, March 2006

Hassaku Orange

Hassaku orange

A somewhat dry-fleshed, thick-skinned orange, possibly from Ehime prefecture, popular for its sappari or refreshing taste. It’s a bit bitter and perhaps a bit similar to a Seville orange.

Matcha madeleine

Matcha-madeleine

Not quite shaped like a traditional madeleine, this was a conceptual sample from one of my green tea suppliers made with a madeleine-style batter.

Matcha cake

Matcha poundcake

This matcha dessert was more of a pound cake style.

Zundamochi and Ayamemochi

Zunda-mochi

Zundamochi are daifuku made with edamame paste. They’d probably be more impressive in cross-section, but we were hungry already. We found them at Mura-kara-machi-kara-kan.

Smoked egg

Smokedegg

One of our smoked eggs, before peeling. We ate the smoked eggs for breakfast in the hotel.

Okayu

Okayu

A few years ago a chain of okayu restaurants sprouted up around Tokyo, even offering brown rice and multigrain versions. With modest 200–300 calorie portions and optional add-ins, the restaurants are popular with women in their 20s and 30s. There are no unaccompanied men in most of these, and I was one of perhaps two in the restaurant. Hiromi had the yuba and greens okayu in the foreground, which had 5 grains; mine was a brown rice okayu with fried onions and greens, with an add-on onsen tamago (soft-boiled egg).

Kabocha mushi cake

Kabochamushi

I’ve forgotten what they called it, but this is essentially a steamed cake with chunks of kabocha, and ever so slightly sweet. It’s actually in the “yum-cha” or dim-sum part of the okayu shop’s menu, rather than their dessert section.

Annin-doufu

Annindoufu

Almond “tofu”, a flavored gelled dessert.

Sakura ice cream

Sakura ice

Cherry-blossom ice cream, from an old-school kissaten near Meguro-station that serves average quality vacuum-pot coffee and various sandwich-like nibbles. The ice cream appears to be a lightly-flavored cherry ice cream served on a cherry leaf and topped with shiozuke, or salt-pickled cherry blossom. This one wasn’t terribly salty, so they may have rinsed it first.

Fresh Flours cookies, Les Cadeaux Gourmets

I went to deliver something to one of my customers, Fresh Flours, which is just awaiting final inspections before they open. They were having some computer trouble, and remembered that I used to work for Microsoft, so I was recruited to investigate the problem. Somehow I managed to solve it… it was deceptively simple. Anyway, I was given a preview of coming things to take home… some black sesame cookies and some chocolate cookies with nutty slivers (maybe almond).

Fresh flours cookies (preview)

They are quite nice… only mildly sweet, full of nutty flavor, and with a nice sugar crunch on the outside…

I also made a brief stop at Les Cadeaux Gourmets, originally just to look for something yummy to substitute for my standard Dragon Beard Candy gift for folks who have had enough already. Anyway, I got to talking with the owners, and suddenly found myself with a new customer… I’ll reveal more later…

Flying away from my old life

Under something close to the least favorable economic conditions of my short life, facing the prospect of casting aside a mostly respectable seven-year career at the largest software company on the planet should be terrifying.

Instead, I am strangely calm. During the past two weeks, I have probably felt more relaxed than I ever did while shackled by the constraints of stability; fear of my uncertain future has, so far, been fleeting, if present at all.

Today, I am crossing the Pacific Ocean aboard United Flight 875 to Tokyo-Narita International Airport, carrying freshly minted business cards that bear no reference to my prior professional identity. Although I’ve often heard other Microsoft employees express the feeling that they make up their role in the company as they go along (and I've probably even said that myself) the constraints and freedoms inherent in subsuming your persona to a corporate entity are nothing like starting from nowhere, as I am doing now. Corporate tradition, colliding egos, and layers of mutable but established hierarchy trump all but the most skilled balancing act of ambition and creativity.

Ten years ago, I had no aspiration to become part of a massive corporate machine; in fact, my politics rapidly assumed the opposite direction, inspired by revolutionary ideologies and assisted by frustration with the careerist impulses of students who chose what to study based not on what they were curious or passionate about, but by what they thought would be most financially rewarding. Ironically for all of us, it was my own idiosyncratic curiosity that led directly to the job I found shortly after university.

I fell into majoring in East Asian studies via a gateway course, “Modern Japanese Novels,” chosen purely out of curiosity. Soon I found myself in Japanese classes, Buddhist studies, and so on. At the same time, I was continuing to learn German, and I headed off to Germany as an exchange student, oddly situated as probably the only late addition to the East Asian Studies program ever to have planned a European exchange program. Evenings and sometimes whole days I spent hacking around Bitnet and later the Internet, and by the time I graduated from university I was a well-rounded humanities major with geek tendencies. If it weren’t for all of that, I wouldn’t have found a nice cushy job at the big cozy corporation that that all of the economics majors around me fantasized about. Who could know that, 4.5 years after beginning university, Microsoft would be interested in hiring computer-savvy folks with Japanese or German language skills who had an ability to write at least some haphazard web code and could think about problems analytically?

When I first arrived at Microsoft, like most recent college graduates of that era, I felt it was my duty to say yes to nearly everything asked of me and, perhaps more importantly, to fit in to the company culture and even to believe in as much of the company dogma as I could cognitively reconcile. I eventually developed a little more personality and actually became more productive when a legendary manager took me under his wing and taught me how to say “no.” Of course, my experience working for a manager of his caliber was limited to about 7% of my time at the company due to a combination of corporate and management reshufflings, my own decisions about how to react to various job frustrations, and the relatively low percentage of people who actually have that kind of skill in a company dominated in management by geeks who got rewarded for their technical skills with team leadership responsibilities on the one hand, and those skilled at political manipulation on the other. It’s rare to find managers who are smart, ambitious, involved, and fiercely loyal to their staff; in my time at Microsoft, only that one manager would stake his career in defense of his team.

I spent the last year and a half or so actively disliking my job, and disenchanted enough not to want to seek out other opportunities within the company. I was coming to work every day driven only by momentum, not by intent. I spent that time thinking about my exit strategy—how I would move on after leaving the company, what kind of timeline, and so on—and I set conscious boundaries between the sufferable and the intolerable. When circumstances moved beyond the merely unfortunate, I had already decided how to handle the situation long in advance. I decided I would be going on “vacation.”

So here I am, technically on vacation, but with no plans to return. I’ve spent the last two weeks doing most of the essentials associated with starting my own small business, including registering a LLC with the state government, hurriedly establishing phone and fax services, buying a new laptop to replace the one previously supplied by my employer, and getting an annual medical checkup I’ve only delayed by about five or six years. I’ve been jogging daily, and just making the psychological transformation that is required when one decides to separate from something that has been such a tremendous portion of one’s life.

This relaxed feeling is some sort of delusion, but it just means is that I’m at peace with myself. I have almost never been at peace with myself while at Microsoft. I have occasionally liked my job, and I was even passionate about some aspects of my work, but I have almost always had trouble sleeping at night and almost always dreaded waking up in the morning. I rest easily now, and wake up earlier than I usually did when I was expected to be at the office.

Over the next few weeks, I must reinvent myself. I am scouting suppliers of things that I consider interesting—things that have stories, things that I can talk about to complete strangers and infect them with some of the same enthusiasm I feel. In the Tokyo area, after a brief weekend of R&R, I’m attending a trade show related to food products; after that, I’ll spend a little more time researching logistical requirements, and I intend to go to some rural villages where I can find potters and craft technicians. When I come back, the hard work of finding buyers will begin, and the brutal realities of generating income based on work that I just happen to like doing may start to hit home. In the meantime, I’m just getting started. Every step I take now is full of intent.

Sweets in a suit and a wedding

Since Friday I have been busy presenting the dragon beard candy at Uwajimaya Bellevue and Seattle... I've been offering samples and showing a video of Mr. Wong, the founder of the company, making the candy. It's actually been a pretty pleasant experience overall, although I wish sales had been a little better. The conversion ratio, sampling to buying, was much more favorable at the Chinatown festival... I am not sure if it was the complete novelty, the festival atmosphere or the apparent uncertainty of future availability, but it was much easier to turn people into buyers when I was doing the festival event. Of course, most people aren't really going to the supermarket to buy gift items, so it might also require finding additional more appropriate venues.

Saturday was probably the most successful overall, although it came at the cost of a lot of free samples. Maggie handled the Bellevue store, and I was at the Seattle store. I was at the busiest entrance, so nearly everyone who enters the store comes somewhere near there. That meant that I had good visibility, but enough people coming past me rapid-fire that it was sometimes hard to tell everyone the product story. On Friday and Saturday we were also at the main entrance of the Bellevue store. Maggie apparently did a pretty good job at the Bellevue store and had a better conversion ratio than I did.

My friend Alexandra, who has been rarely seen in public since she met Alan about a year ago, was married at Lake Union Cafe on Sunday. Since I was doing some sampling on Sunday at Uwajimaya Seattle as well, I dressed in my dark blue suit to avoid running around madly just before the wedding. It meant, however, that I ended up having lots of dragon's beard candy bits clinging to my suitjacket, and it also surprised some of the Uwajimaya staff, who always dress in their standard store attire when doing product demos.

The wedding ceremony was pleasant, and was full of all sorts of touches that wouldn't have been possible in anyone else's wedding... Everything from the meal to the wedding cake to table adornments reflected their first encounter when Alexandra was planting purple potatoes at a south Seattle P-Patch garden. Handmade soaps and pots of herbs made and grown by Alan and Alexandra were placed on every table as take-home wedding favors, the wedding buffet featured roasted purple and white potatoes, and even the wedding cake was decorated with two small potatoes adorned with bridal and groom accoutrements. The atmosphere was casual and comfortable, with just the usual requisite toasting speeches and no unnecessary drama or kitsch. It was also great weather, and the backdrop facing Lake Union cast a nice glow throughout the room.

I've managed to squander a lot of my Monday, so I'm going to spend some time consuming coffee and coding and I'll try to be a salesperson again tomorrow.

Big and little changes

So I've been buried in things and mostly devoid of energy for a few months... sorry about that.

Life hasn't been all work... Hiromi and I made a little trip to DC a couple months ago to see a friend of hers, who cheers for the Washington Redskins. I came back just a few days later so that I could avoid taking extended vacation from work, and Hiromi stayed with her friend a few days longer. Unfortunately, at roughly the same time Hiromi was boarding the plane back to Seattle, I learned that my job at Zillow faced foreclosure, along with the jobs of about 35% of my colleagues. (The press release noted a 25% reduction, but that excluded a number of agency temporaries).

The economy is ugly, but apparently people with my background are still in strong demand. Phone calls started coming in the day the layoffs were announced, and I had my first offer about a week and a half later. My ambition was actually to switch to a more web development focused role, instead of remaining a Software Design Engineer in Test. But the manager for most promising lead for that went on vacation just as I started making progress on interviews, and I didn't quite feel comfortable waiting on that.

I ended up choosing between a Microsoft contract at a convenient location, and a contract-to-hire role at a luxury travel company. I chose the travel company because it seemed like a more interesting opportunity, though some of the details made me nervous... On the bright side, one of my ex-Zillow peers made the same decision, after struggling with some of the same things as me, so I was pleased to see a familiar face again.

The financial pain of the transition was pretty substantial, but I should be ok in a few months. Fortunately, Hiromi also found work as of today, so things should be smoother by March or so.

We've had the lofty ambition of moving to a nicer place since, well, before Hiromi even arrived. We've been torn between buying something minimalist with a tiny down payment from my now completely brutalized stock portfolio, and renting something a bit better than what we're in now.

After some disappointing tours of places all over the city, we were about ready to shelve our plans until sometime next year. Last week, Hiromi spotted a rental that looked like a potential fit on Hotpads.com, and we booked a showing Saturday morning. It turned out to be pretty close to what we were looking for, so, after five years in a cramped apartment meant to be a one-year experiment in extreme frugality during the early stages of my business, we're finally getting a little more space...

Our new home is a pretty, well-appointed side-by-side duplex in one of my favorite parts of Seattle, just a few blocks south of a cluster of nifty Madison Park restaurants. The kitchen has a really nice open layout, a nifty gas range, and somewhat luxurious fixtures, and will no longer isolate me from my guests when we're hosting dinner parties... There's also enough space to keep my YuzuMura.com stuff out of the way of the rest of my life.

Of course, the timing of our move isn't exactly the most convenient possible time... we'll be juggling an attempt to visit family in Idaho Falls for the holidays with packing too much stuff, loading and unloading a truck, and, well, work...

Thanksgiving and new geek toys

I had some dinner guests yesterday, not quite something I had planned. I was planning on making squash gnocchi for myself anyway so I added a few other dishes and had a little party... a little salad with pomegranate seeds, a frittata, a little mushroom dish with some garlic and rosemary, and of course the squash gnocchi, made using potatoes, kabocha, and flour, roughly estimated. I then served some sweet potato ice cream and pear sorbet. The pear sorbet turned out really nicely... nothing more than pureed, slightly cooked fragrant pears, sugar, and lemon juice.

Today I woke up after sleeping a rough 5 hours, and then I was up for a couple of hours before I crashed again. It was a little late to properly prepare my planned contribution to a Jennifer-hosted Thanksgiving. I made a hurried bread dough and then I prepared a butternut squash gratin, which was a good way of using up the extra pureed kabocha and heavy cream from yesterday. Today's stuff was a little rushed, so it didn't turn out as well as yesterday's food.

I got a replacement for my damaged Sony Ericsson T616 cell phone. I settled on a Motorola Mpx220, which I hunted down at a Best Buy location after abortive attempts to order it online. It seems like a decent choice so far, though I'm having some little frustrations with it.

The voice recognition works better than my last phone's "voice tag" system, though it doesn't seem to work in handsfree mode. The camera was behaving erratically yesterday but seems not so completely insane today. I had some issues setting up features like email and so on because the menu system was not initially very intuitive for setting up new accounts.

Voice quality is decent, and I can hear better than I did with my T616. The internet features are substantially better, and syncronizing my address book with Outlook is absolutely painless; it was something I dreaded when I was trying to do that with my Sony phone, because I was always wondering which contacts would suddenly be duplicated and also whether the phone would even be detected by the Sony-bundled package. ActiveSync is actually a pleasant experience, which is surprising to me, considering all the horrible things that people said about ActiveSync a few years ago.

The next few days I'll be doing in-store demos for my candy at the Uwajimaya stores, and then I have to furiously get my publicity stuff together.

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