Quarantine Foods

The year 2020 started normal. Every weekday, I go to office. Three times a week, I pump those muscles at the gym. Every four days, I visit the grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread, along with other ingredients. Every Friday evening, I have a video chat with my family.

🕒 12 Timezones Away — 3 Timezones Away — Oops, It's Here

The first sign of problem occurred on Chinese New Year's Day. Traditionally, my mother's extended family would have an annual gathering during the holidays. However, my mother informed me that their gathering has been canceled, because there's a Coronavirus outbreak in parts of China. I thought, well, this doesn't affect me, because I live in Maryland USA, 12 timezones away from China.

The next week, China entered a lock down due to the spreading virus. My father found himself relying more on grocery delivery services. A difference from what I observed in 2017 is that, the gated community is not allowing delivery persons to enter the neighborhood, and my father has to collect his deliveries at the neighborhood entrance. At the same time, I heard on Twitter that the Coronavirus has reached the Chinese community in Seattle, 3 timezones from me.

In early March, the Coronavirus reached Maryland. A week later, public schools are being closed. This is when things started to get serious.

Geocaching is All About Expanding My Comfort Zone

I started geocaching as a hobby in 2013. Since then, I have found more than 1000 caches across 18 US states as well as in China. During these years, I stepped out my comfort zone several times, and became a more experienced geocacher.


Geocaches come with different types. Traditional is the most common type: the webpage of a Traditional cache has its coordinates, and I can straightforwardly find the physical container at that location. Another common type is a Multi: I need to visit a location, collect information such as reading text from a plague or counting the number of windows, and then find the physical container at a different location whose waypoint is computed from the answers from the first location. I'm quite familiar with these types.

One geocache type I'm uncomfortable with is Mystery puzzle cache. These caches are published with bogus published coordinates, but the webpage contains clues to find the real coordinates of the physical container. The puzzle could be a piece of cipher text, a crossword puzzle, a strange picture, or something else. Although I know a thing or two about classic ciphers, I could not get a hold of them.

This all changed when Geocaching HQ assigned me a mission to find a puzzle cache in August 2014:

Listen to Podcasts

Apartment life involves a lot of chores: cooking, cleaning, folding laundry, etc. Many American housewives watch TV while doing chores, but I do not have a TV. The next closest thing is the radio, but I find it boring to listen to the same news over and over. In Dec 2016, as I scroll through my iPad Mini (paid link), I discovered the best activity to accompany chores: podcasts!

A podcast is a series of periodically published digital audio files that a user can download and listen to. iPad Mini comes with a Podcasts app that allows me to search for, subscribe to, download, and listen to podcasts.

My initial subscriptions include:

  • Radiolab, in-depth news stories. It's similar to a magazine, but in an audio format.

    My favorite episode is The Ceremony, a report about how Zcash generated their cryptocurrency parameters.

  • Stranglers, true crime stories about the Boston stranglers. They kept my eyes wide open at nights.

Listening to podcasts improves the quality of my housekeeping, because I do not rush through the chore so that I can switch to more "enjoyable" activities sooner. Instead, I can take my time cleaning the bedroom, while enjoying great audio content. I do have to keep it quiet, so that I can hear what's coming out of the small speaker on the iPad Mini.

PO Box 3943

PO Box, or post-office box, is a uniquely addressable lockable box located on the premises of a post office station. There is a wall of PO Boxes in the University of Arizona's Student Union Memorial Center, where it costs $25 to rent one for a semester. I found them interesting, although I didn't use one because I could receive mail in my apartment, and the Tucson heat did a good job to keep the grounds dry so I didn't have to worry about packages.

When I first came to Maryland, I rented a room in Orchard Place neighborhood. It rains often, and the house does not have a porch. Seeing the post office right outside the neighborhood, I thought it would be the perfect chance to try a PO Box.

Opening My PO Box

Rental fee for a small PO Box at Diamond Farms post office is $54 for six months, or $30 for three month. I would live at Orchard Place for two or three months, so the 3-month option seems more reasonable. However, it is cheaper to choose the 6-month option, because the post office offers a ½ refund if I close the PO Box within three months, so the final price is only $27.

PO Boxes at this location include "premium service": every PO Box comes with a street address, and can accept deliveries from non-postal carriers. This is an important factor for me, because most items I buy online are not shipped via USPS, and having a street address allows me to receive them at the PO Box.

Orchard Place

I moved into Mr Argoti's house on the afternoon of Oct 29, 2017, and became a resident of Orchard Place neighborhood.

The Tiny Bedroom

My assigned bedroom is incredibly small. There are five pieces of furniture: a BED that later turns out to be a sofa, a four-drawer DRESSER, a big glass DESK, a nice office CHAIR, and a small wooden end TABLE. My room also includes a small FRIDGE and a MICROWave. The following diagram shows their placement.

| [HEAT]            +-----------------------------------+ |   =====   |             |
| +-------+         |                                   | |  | TOI |  |   SHOWER    |
| |       |         |                                   | |  | LET |  |             |
| |DRESSER|         |                BED                | |   \---/    \____________|
| |       |         |                                   | |                  |      M
| |       |         |                                   | |S                 | SINK I
E +-------+         +-----------------------------------+ | TC               |      R
|                                                         +D            /-+------E--+
W                                                                  /DOOR            |
I                                 |CHAIR|                      DOOR         CLOSET  |
N                                 \-----/                                           |
| +--------+ +-----+    +----------------------+                      DOOR+---------+
| | FRIDGE | |     |    |         DESK         |                          |
| | MICROW | |TABLE|    |                      |             DOOR         E
| +--------+ +-----+    +----------------------+                 \DOOR-\  |
+------------------------------------------------------S--D             \-+

<--- SOUTH            E=electric outlet  S=light switch

The existing furniture took up more than half of the floor space, so that everything I have must fit into the other half. When I moved from Arizona, I had four roller bags, two small bags, and a large box of cookware. Half of my clothes already filled the dresser and the space on top of it, so the other half had to stay in the luggage. The desk obviously belonged to my computers and other gadgets. I managed to squeeze the cookware box and a smaller roller bag into the tiny CLOSET. One of my roller bags could fit under the bed by opening it to two halves. The last two roller bags had to stay in the open in front of the WINdow. After settling all my belongings, I only have an open "hallway" between the desk and the bed, just enough for doing a few push-ups.

Settling in Gaithersburg

I moved to Gaithersburg Maryland to start a research job at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). As I exited Washington Union Station on Oct 26, 2017 after enjoying an epic 4-day Amtrak train journey, I felt lost immediately: this is no longer Tucson, the toasty city that I know and love, but a completely different place. Nevertheless, Cortana's voice guided me along Interstate 270, and my rental car arrived at Extended Stay America Gaithersburg South, where I was greeted by James and received a spacious and comfortable room.

Apartment Search

Before I first came to Tucson, I signed up for a student housing apartment online. Unlike six years ago, I did not select an apartment before traveling to Maryland. Gaithersburg is not a college town, and I am no longer a student, so that I couldn't get a fairly straightforward "student housing" option. Instead, I am facing a much larger and complex apartment rental market. I want to see the apartments myself before committing to sign a lease.

Oct 26 is a Thursday, so there was only one weekday remaining before the weekend when most leasing offices would be closed. I browsed online apartment listings, and selected four apartment complexes to visit on Friday. I still wanted to avoid owning a vehicle, so location was the most important factor in my consideration. I also preferred a furnished apartment, to avoid the hassle of buying and selling furniture.

Spring Ridge apartments model room

My Epic Cross-Country Move on Amtrak

I recently moved across the United States from Tucson, Arizona to Gaithersburg, Maryland, 1940 miles apart. Tucson is in the southwest; Gaithersburg is on the east coast just north of Washington, DC. The move was a long and complicated process, as well as an epic journey.

Choosing the Train

Most Americans would drive across the country. When my uncle graduated from University of Maryland, he spent two weeks driving from Maryland to California, and visited Yellowstone National Park and many other places during his trip. Driving across the country would allow me to have a good look at the country, and seek geocaches in many states. All my clothes, computers, and other toys can be packed in the car.

While this option was attractive, I decided against it because of its high cost. Unlike my uncle, I did not purchase a vehicle during college, but relied on rental cars. Renting a car is inexpensive, but only if you return the vehicle to the same place. If I rent a car in Arizona and return it in Maryland, they are going to charge a "one way fee" that is approximately $1000, on top of the normal rental and insurance charges. Additionally, I have to spend on motels and meals. In total, the driving option would cost me between $2000 and $3000.

Google Maps estimated a driving distance of 2290 miles, or 33 hours non-stop. I am not accustomed to long drives. I felt exhausting on the 3-hour drive from Tucson to Yuma, and I couldn't imagine a 11x longer drive. This is another important factor for me to decide not to drive.

My Last Month in Tucson

I began my life as a Tucsonan on Aug 04, 2011, spent six years as a PhD student at The University of Arizona. However, everything has an end, and my life in Tucson ended on Aug 31, 2017, after I accepted a research job in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Move to Sahara Apartments

My apartment lease at University Arms Apartments ended on Aug 01, 2017. I needed one more month in order to finish editing my dissertation. I chose Sahara Apartments for my short-term accommodation.

On Jul 15, I went to Sahara Apartments to "apply for a room". I received a tour promptly, but I was told to apply online, because they do everything online. Despite being a small community, Sahara had a complicated website for all the business procedures, including new resident application, rent payment, maintenance requests, shuttle reservation, and policy violation reporting.

I put in my online application a day later, and received an invoice within a few hours. The invoice indicates that paying by credit card would incur a 4% convenience fee, and paying by personal check would incur a five-day delay to make sure the check clears. WTF?

Chinese Gym vs American Gym

After graduating from University of Arizona, I went back to China for six weeks to apply for a new U.S. visa. Since weightlifting has become a part of me, I continued my workouts in a Chinese gym. The experience there is significantly different from American gyms.

Annual Membership, Please

Most gyms in China only sell annual memberships. Gym managers are secretly wishing that you would give up your ambitious exercise plan after several weeks, so that they could profit off you without devoting resources. My stay in China was six weeks, so an annual membership would be overkill and prohibitively expensive. I had to find a gym that offers single tickets. My gym of choice was "Fitness Club" (菲特妮斯健身会所) located in the basement of a grocery store. They agreed to offer me single tickets at ¥50 per visit.

In United States, most gyms are happy to sell you a day pass. Some gyms even offers a few free tickets so that a potential customer can experience the facility; this is also perfect for short-term visitors.

In terms of price, ¥50 per visit is about as much as $8 charged by University of Arizona Campus Recreation Center. However, personal income in China is much lower than the United States, which means a Chinese gym costs more than an American gym for local people.

Shocking Changes in China

After six years in Arizona, I graduated from The University of Arizona, and returned to China on Sep 01, 2017. My previous returning to China was in 2014, and China has changed greatly during my three years of absence.

Swipe Your Face

Fraud is a serious problem in China. The "standard" countermeasure is two-factor authentication, i.e. a random code sent to your phone. However, fraudsters have been able to convince the victim to reveal the random code on their phone. A stronger countermeasure is doing all transaction in person: you have to show up at the bank or phone company, and present your ID card. However, there are usually long lines in those places and thus it's not a pleasant experience.

The regulators invented a new way: "swipe your face". I bought a SIM card for my smartphone online. To activate my account, I must upload a picture of my ID card, and record a video of me acting according to a series of random instructions. The instructions could be: "blink your eyes, open your mouth, rotate your head to the left". The system would then analyze the video to confirm that I am alive and am the same person as shown on the ID card.

I believe video authentication provides much stronger authentication than asking for "mother's maiden name" and "last four digits of social security number" as most companies do in the United States. It is surely less convenient than answering a few questions, but this is a trade-off for China where fraud is more common.