ongoing by Tim Bray

ongoing fragmented essay by Tim Bray

FaviconSour Times 17 May 2019, 3:00 pm

Really, they are. Our civic spaces are mis-led and full of anger, some of it even righteous. We have fouled our species’ nest and are ignoring the smoke curling out of its edges, and don’t know what’s awaiting when we fall out of the tree. I’ve been sad a lot.

For days at a time, even. I get up and find myself barking at my children for the smallest sins; just a shitty mood that I can’t shake. Introspecting, I see that I enjoy my job and get along with my family and am loved enough and have enough others to love. I like my car and my bike and my city and my garden. And eventually I had to admit that it was the lousy state of the world dragging me down.

What to do about it? You can’t and anyway shouldn’t face away from the world. We need to keep finding the courage to face the truth and work on mending what’s broken. Because in my heart and my mind I actually really don’t believe this is Ragnarök; we are not (quoting Tolkien’s Galadriel) “fighting the long defeat”. There are paths to better places and whether or not the pain and injustice and filth are our fault, finding those paths is our responsibility.

Gubeikou

Or 古北口 — it’s a town northeast of Beijing on a not-particularly great section of the Great Wall. It has a temple for the Goddess of Mercy.

Temple of the Goddess of Mercy, Gubeikou

The temple is well-maintained and the offerings fresh. That’s a no-brainer — would you prefer a just or a merciful deity?

Why am I sharing this? Just a reminder that the world, uglified though it may be this year, contains wonders; the hope is to lighten a rotten mood if only my own. What we are trying to save is worth saving! See those paintings on the Goddess’ wall? They were said to represent her attendants and are worth a look.

On the wall of the temple of the Goddess of Mercy, Gubeikou

That said…

In another part of the world, the country next to mine, sixty-five million people think Donald Trump is just fine and will probably think so again in 2020. In my own country, a morally-hollowed-out leadership is probably about to punch a bitumen pipeline through the walls of sanity to the Pacific to increase our share of carbon loading even as the carbon numbers attain levels never seen in our civilization. I could enumerate bad crazinesses in lots more timezones, but why? Anyone who troubles to find out knows.

I find it hard to deal with the fact that, and I’m phrasing this as gently as I can manage, a substantial proportion of the population is ignorant, bigoted, and mean. Perhaps the natural proportion of Deplorables has been made larger by dysfunctional media. I’d like to believe that because media are fixable but endemic mean-spiritedness isn’t.

Horrorshow

In Hong Kong, lining up for the Star Ferry across the harbor, among more tourists than locals since they put in the subway tunnel, I came face-to-face with it. In a party of otherwise-unexceptionable Americans, there was the #MAGAhead with That Hat, waddling, empty-eyed, enormously obese; folds of fat hanging out of the bottom of his golf shorts. In the warm wet Chinese air I couldn’t dig up a sane way to react or even a sane thing to say because, frankly, murder was uncoiling at the back of my brain. Fortunately for that dude, I’m a grown-up.

More temple walls

The ones without paintings are a canvas for nature to write on.

Shadows on a Chinese temple wall

Across the Pacific, nature writes in big letters. Here, from left to right, a Douglas Fir, a Western Redcedar, and a Western Hemlock.

Trees on Keats Island in Howe Sound

Get out of their way, leave them the fuck alone, and they’ll do fine. In my heart I believe that if I could learn to listen slowly enough, they’d have things to say that we’d benefit from hearing. We need to do more getting out of the way.

The Second Coming

It’s really the biggest threat. I’m talking about these lines from Yeats’ poem:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It’s so easy to say “Screw it, what can I do?” and change the channel. Let’s not. Let’s drink beers and sing songs and share pictures and sign petitions and get arrested where it might matter; Let’s bathe shameless in our world’s good things but never say “Screw it”, because those good things are worth, at the end of the day, dying for.

Wet poppy flowers

Our times are kind of particularly fucked up just now. I’d like to wear that fact like the poppies wear the raindrops. They’re tough generalists and will probably outlive Homo sapiens for a while, whatever dumb-ass things we do. But let’s try to stick around and keep them company.

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FaviconSungarden 12 May 2019, 3:00 pm

End of April, beginning of May, it’s pretty well peak time for flowers. Back in the last millennium, I used to run lots of flower pictures here, but they started blurring together in my mind in a way that made me not want to. But sometimes when the sun’s in just the right place, the flowers insist.

These trilliums are at our cabin on Keats Island. They’ve usually bloomed and gone by the first time in spring we get over. Almost painfully pure, to my eye.

Trillium blossoms on Keats Island

A few houses down the street from us, this tulip, not content behind the white pickets, strains sunward.

Tulip in spring

Don’t know exactly which tree to which these blossoms pertain.

Pink tree blossoms

The final three are from our own front yard.

Spring flowers, Vancouver

Under the magnolia.

Azalea

Azalea army.

Tulip

If you were tiny enough, you could plunge into that tulip and have a color experience so intense it might be fatal.

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FaviconJag Diary 10: Four Months In 9 May 2019, 3:00 pm

Yesterday I drove the I-Pace to Seattle and back in one day, 459.8km (285.7 miles); the second time I’ve done that. What with that, and coming up for four months ownership, I thought it was time for another, maybe the final, instalment in this diary. Mostly good news — by a wide margin the best car I’ve ever driven let alone owned — but nothing’s perfect.

Range

That’s still the biggest talking point about electric cars. But up here in the Pacific Northwest anyhow, the charging network is pretty well good enough and getting better. If I’m staying overnight in Seattle I use the Level 2 chargers in the Amazon buildings. But on single-day round-trips you need more watts. On both of those trips I used PlugShare to find fast DC chargers, and both were by EVgo. I really have no gripes, their gear seems to Just Work.

Charging the I-Pace Fast DC charger readout

The charger above is in Lynnwood, a suburb just north of Seattle. Amusingly, all the EVgo chargers have names, which actually help you to figure out which is which when they’re in a cluster. That’s “Elijah” in Lynnwood.

The screenshot is from one of the chargers (“Ceres” and “Millie”) at the REI flagship store, which at a block off I-5 is super-handy, and also a beautiful place to hang out and visit. On this particular trip I got there a little early and charged for 28 minutes before my meetings and then another 25 after, picking up a total of 41kWh, and getting home with 30km of battery to spare. EVgo charged me $16.28.

The attentive reader will note that 117A at 415V is 48.55kW. I have yet to encounter one of the rumored-to-exist 100kW chargers, but 53 minutes of charging for nearly six hours of driving at highway speeds across hilly terrain is bearable. At this point a snotty Tesla owner will point out that they have 100kW now and (for many of them) it’s free. Yeah, but your car is boring.

It’s worth noting that those fast chargers are kind of noisy; when they’re pumping 50kW into your vehicle there are heavy-duty mechanical sounds coming out; presumably fans? So you probably wouldn’t want one right next to your patio or bedroom window.

Since we’re talking about charging, obviously almost all of that happens at home. We hardly ever car-commute, with just minor puttering around town and weekend excursions, end up charging once every week or ten days. Looking at my power bill reveals I pay somewhere around $2.50/day when I don’t charge, and six or seven bucks when I do. Yeah, the car pulls twice as much as the rest of the house put together. OK, our stove and water heater are natural gas; but still.

Charging the car at home

Above is the little carport we put in because I didn’t want either the charger or the Jag out in the weather all the time. If you look close you can see the charger just behind the car. This is just after the return from Seattle, so the car’s a little cruddy.

The home “Level 2” charger is entirely silent, but then depending on the temperature the car sometimes turns on its fans to heat or cool the batteries while charging; not for long, though.

We don’t have a garage door to open, but I wired the carport light up with a LiftMaster 823lm light switch and now I can turn it on with the garage-door control on the car’s rearview when I’m coming home after dark. I also had to get a LiftMaster remote control so I could turn it back off from inside the house.

Good stuff

You just can’t drive this puppy around without smiling. It’s smooth, comfy, and amazingly athletic. Merging onto a big highway is pure joy, and taking uphill curves hard will make you laugh out loud. Even going with the flow in heavy traffic is a lot more relaxing than you’re probably used to. When I get in any gas car now, it feels klunky, noisy, and unresponsive.

You get compliments and smiles from border guards, both US and Canadian. Now that is a new experience.

Yesterday was a super-warm Spring day so now I’ve driven it in four seasons, more or less; the climate control and general comfort is uniformly excellent, and I had my first experience of cooled seats, which feel amazingly great when you’ve been driving for a couple of hours in the sun.

When I first got in the car I hated the audio, it sounded tinny and like it was coming out of the windshield. And yeah, the default settings are lousy but they’re easy enough to fiddle; now the sound’s a warm bath of rich silky chocolate.

There are 3405km on the odometer (we’re pretty urban) and I haven’t had anything go wrong. Oh wait, let me amend that. Sometimes (not very often) things will get a little weird — Android Auto won’t connect, or the radio-station list won’t be there, or whatever. So, just like any other mobile computerized device, you pull over and you turn it off and back on again, and generally then you’re OK. One time I had to reboot both the car and my phone.

Bad things

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This car’s a joybringer on any road, urban or rural or freeway, but it is a complete fucking pig to park. It’s wide, and because of the cab-forward design you totally can’t see the teeny front hood of the car at all from behind the wheel, so how in hell are you supposed to know whether you’re properly lined up at the curb or evenly between the lines? All these weeks in, I can now generally do a parallel park and end up about as straight as I’d expect from a 16-year-old trainee driver. But I often have to take two or three passes at ordinary parking-lot slots. And as for our carport, it isn’t any too big, and the alley it’s off of isn’t any too wide. I have on a single-digit number of occasions backed in straight and centered on the first try, but never when any of the neighbors or family are watching. I didn’t order the front camera option; maybe that was a mistake? Anyhow, I’m sure in another year or two I’ll be drifting into the carport.

What else can I complain about? Yeah, the infotainment software is a little slow and klunky. Six months into shipping this thing JLR still doesn’t have the software OTA working. I’m hoping that pretty soon it’ll be like my Fujifilm cameras and periodically get updates that add features and make things better.

Magnolia I-Pace

Just a car

At the end of the day, that’s all it is. It makes me happy to drive, happy to talk about, and I’m loading the atmosphere with a whole lot less carbon than I used to. But a new car isn’t a life-changer. Except for now I get a few more smiles every week.

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Favicon2019 Networking Snapshot 1 May 2019, 3:00 pm

Home networking, I mean, and by phone. Hasn’t been on my mind much, because it’s generally been good enough. But for a variety of reasons I got an Eero WiFi setup and so now I have to think about it.

What happened was, our ISP sent us a note saying “We upped your data from 150Mbps to 300.” Our home infrastructure features Cat5 installed in the last century and an old Apple Time Capsule, none of us remember when we got it. Also, we’d like the new Jaguar to get enough WiFi out in the carport to do downloads.

Wirecutter and a couple of other sites liked the Eero (I was a little surprised that the Google offering isn’t terribly competitive). Because of the car, I bought a three-box configuration although our house could probably get by with two.

On Eero generally

Haven’t had it long enough to say anything about reliability or trouble-shooting, but… what a fabulous onboarding experience. The time it took to get all three boxes live on the air was dominated by the physical unboxing. My employer is acquiring Eero and I think we should immediately double the comp of their UX people then install them in glamorous corner offices. AWS is getting better at UX, but this is next-level stuff.

Here’s the front page of their Android app.

Eero app

The only real flaw is their assumption that my cellphone ISP (the Rogers up at the top) is the same company as our home ISP, which it isn’t. Amusingly, of the three devices listed, “HTC Corporation” is my Pixel 2, “Aristophanes” is the 2014 MacBook Pro I’m writing this on, and “android-…” is my son’s beat-up old Motorola. The network’s name is “Humpback” because the one it’s replacing was “Orca”.

Down at the bottom, the performance numbers are where it gets interesting. Our ISP says we’re getting 300M, but this is peak evening time, someone’s streaming something on the TV and my son’s playing Apex Legends, and I bet similar things are happening at houses all over our local cable loop. It turns out the Eero runs network speed tests regularly, and keeps a log.

Eero network speed tests

You can see that at 5:30PM when everyone’s cooking dinner and commuting, we were actually getting the 300M the ISP claims. [Late update: It’s 11pm now and Eero says we’re getting 330 down.]

How fast?

Now, it’s not as if that 300M reaches the living room. If I go downstairs and stand near the base modem, I’ve seen as high as 280M on Speedtest.net, but I’ve never seen anything over 150 up where we live. I haven’t cared enough yet to experiment with placement. And the old Mac Pro, wired through the old Time Capsule and another switch in the basement to the cable modem, never gets near 100. I suppose I should be unsatisfied with 150 down, 15-or-so up?

And of course these days, when I’m out and about and my phone says “LTE+” up in the status bar, which it does in most civilized places, Speedtest claims to be getting 90+ down and 30 or so up. Which makes me wonder why WiFi is better. Having said that, in Canada we have a rent-seeking telecoms cartel that rakes in among the highest per-gig mobile data prices in the world.

Good news: The car gets solid WiFi out back.

What does this all mean? As an old guy, these bandwidths feel absurdly high. The blockages and slowdowns we occasionally encounter aren’t here, they’re Out There on the Net somewhere.

I do have a question, though: What in freaking hell is 5G going to offer that’ll motivate us all to lash out for new mobiles and services that’ll pay back the titanic investment it’ll take to offer it? Beats the hellouta me.

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FaviconTianjin 27 Apr 2019, 3:00 pm

It’s a chunk of China west and south of Beijing, extending to the sea, with a mere fifteen or so million or so people. It was where our walking-the-Wall sequence ended up, specifically at 黄崖关 (Huangyaguan). The wall there was OK, but there was an attached museum I really liked, and also the Eastern Qing Tombs, which are highly photogenic and full of stories. Here’s a view out over Huangyaguan from up on the Wall.

[This is part of The Surface of China series.]

View from Huangyaguan Great Wall

If you make it to Huangyaguan, don’t spend your whole time up on the wall, leave an hour or two for the Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum, which seems not to have a Web presence. It’s big, mostly open to the sky, and serene. Of the many exhibits, I’ll offer a sample from the “Garden of Longevity”. It features ten thousand character forms which can be read as some variation on “Long Life”, in a nice cloister around a serene courtyard.

The Garden of Longevity at Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum The Garden of Longevity at Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum The Garden of Longevity at Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum

Now, here’s a sidelight. We had a pretty good card-playing session going after dinner, and one of our party slunk off and came back with some liquid refreshments; sharing out a couple of these greatly increased the liquidity and joviality of the card game. I have no idea what it is.

Adult beverage purchased in Huangyaguan

The Tombs

I’m talking about the Eastern Qing Tombs; as Wikipedia says “the largest, most complete, and best preserved extant mausoleum complex in China”. They’re big all right, I suppose you could walk around them in a day but you’d be exhausted. We put in several hours and only saw a few highlights. Here’s the processional way leading in, flanked by lines of stone animals. The animals come in pairs, for each species on is standing and another resting, to show that they guarded the tombs 24/7/365.

Animal guard at the Eastern Qing Tombs Animal guard at the Eastern Qing Tombs

The variety and beauty of carved stonework is remarkable, and it’s not just sitting there, it’s actively maintained.

Maintaining the carvings at the Eastern Qing Tombs

We spent a lot of time at the tomb of the Qinlong Emperor (1711-99), one of the most successful Chinese rulers ever, said also to have been a reasonable human being. You can go underground to the actual burial chambers, whose walls are covered with really remarkable carving.

On the walls of the tomb of the Qinlong Emperor On the walls of the tomb of the Qinlong Emperor

The inscription is in Tibetan. I asked why and our local guide (a required hire, and only adequate) said “Because he was Buddhist and there are Buddhists in Tibet.” Um, OK.

There were a few merchants scattered among the tombs. This guy’s dried fruit looked excellent and I bought some, which he weighed out with charming analog technology.

Dried-fruit vendor at the Eastern Qing tombs

The dried fruit was shockingly good. I bought a lot and we brought some home (a little worried that might have been illegal); its flavor hotly intense in the mouth.

This merchant had a huge golden throne, you could dress up as Emperor and Empress and get your picture taken. This guy was getting ready for his photo and was unhappy at me snapping his picture. If the real emperor got an expression like that on his face, it’d probably be curtains for you.

Dressing up for a photo at the Eastern Qing Tombs

The Dowager Empress

The Qing dynasty was also called Manchu, for Manchurian, and their existence represents a failure of the Great Wall. Eventually the people on the other side of it came south and became China’s rulers. Theirs was the last dynasty, extending into the 20th Century and eventually ended by the Chinese Revolution.

During its fading years, the most important character was the Dowager Empress Cixi; that link is to her Wikipedia entry, which has a pretty good photo portrait. I think she was what today we would call pretty badass, and via a series of regencies was the effective ruler of China from 1861 until her death in 1908. She was from a family of the minor aristocracy , was brought into the ruling family as a concubine, and found her way to the top.

Her tomb is generally great. Here are a couple of pictures of a little shrine that has a wonderful statue of a turtle/dragon carrying a plinth with an inscription in Chinese, Manchurian, and Mongolian.

Statue at the tomb of Cixi Statue at the tomb of Cixi

And here’s her burial site, with some of the wood of her coffin showing. It wasn’t a happy period for China, with the imperial regime declining, partly under pressure from the British and other colonial land-grabbers. I’d heard of the Dowager Empress, but what I hadn’t realized that she was a fabulously accomplished artist; here are painting and calligraphy. I think I liked them better than any Chinese art that I’ve seen. Having said that, I’ve mostly seen such art reproduced in books or on my screen; being face-to-face with these big graphics is really hard-hitting.

The coffin of the Dowager Empress Cixi

It’s a great tourist site and I recommend it. Everywhere you look is a treat for the eyes.

At the Eastern Qing Tombs in Huangyaguan

Then we drove a couple of hours back to the haze and hustle of Beijing.

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FaviconWalking the Great Wall 22 Apr 2019, 3:00 pm

That was the name of the tour and that’s what we did, on each of five successive days. It was exhausting and thrilling and educational and yielded more good pictures than good stories. So herewith an illustrated narrative of what you might expect to do and see if you take this sort of tour.

[This is part of The Surface of China series.]

Tour stuff

Our party comprised 14 and our tour-guide Lijuan, of whom more later. We piled into a little minibus with our backpacks in the first couple of rows and headed north out of Beijing.

Inside the tour bus

The party included four Canadian tech geeks and their two 12-year-old daughters and a wine merchant from Sydney; The rest were from the south of England. They included a contractor/handyman, a rental-real-estate manager, four golfing friends, and young person between jobs. We were lucky; they were all good company.

The first thing you learn about the Wall is that it doesn’t run across the Chinese flatlands, but from mountaintop to mountaintop. So before you can start walking, you have to climb a mountain. Then you proceed up a steep slope to the mountain’s top, then down the other side and up to the top of the next. Which is to say, it’s tough walking.

Uphill on the Great Wall

慕田峪

In our letters, Mutianyu. It’s not the main close-to-Beijing tourist destination that World Leaders visit, but neither too distant nor too difficult. It’s pretty civilized; you can take a lift to the top of the wall and a weird sort of tube-slider down. You can buy a nice cold beer up on top and enjoy the view. We did all those things.

View from the Mutianyu Great Wall

Yeah, those views, they’re definitely the thing you’ll remember if you visit the Wall, which while impressive is basically just a wall. But the mountains and skies are different every minute. On about the twentieth occasion that after climbing up some brutally steep staircase I said “Oh… wow” a tourmate said “The views don’t get tired, do they?

箭扣

In our letters, Jiankou. After we got off the wall we drove there, not that far, to a guesthouse in the village of 西栅子 (Xizhazi), which is too small for a Wikipedia entry. Here’s the lane up to the guesthouse.

In Xizhazi village

It’s really small, and the guesthouse was, uh, rustically sincere. It’s a regular stop for climbing clubs, whose banners festooned the central courtyard.

Guesthouse in Xizhazi

Just down the lane from the guesthouse was this thing, which I had to walk right up to to figure out.

Chicken coop in Xizhazi

Chicken coop in Xizhazi.

That place may have been primitive, but they served us what I remember as the best food we got on the whole vacation, including Hong Kong and Beijing. We had lots of beers and then it turned out Mr Fong, our driver, had a karaoke machine. Festivities broke out. Lauren sang Both Sides Now. A few of the tourist ladies sang Dancing Queen and Valerie. The two twelve-year-olds sang Shut Up and Dance. Mr Fong sang a romantic Chinese song by himself — a real crooner’s voice — and then a duet with Lijuan the guide.

Karoke duet in Xizhazi

I want to stop and pay tribute to her. Lijuan Duan, is a special person, with endless expertise and energy. She also owns the Meking Cafe, a well-reviewed restaurant in Southern China, and is generally an excellent person.

Speaking of excellent people, so is Mr Fong. Among other things, a fantastically deft driver and a fine singer. Well, as far as we could make out, because he doesn’t speak much English.

It was a freezing cold night and the guesthouse was mostly unheated. We were bundled up, enjoying the company, eating and drinking, and the guesthouse owner joined us. Then I saw a lovely tired lined face looking at us from out in the unsheltered courtyard, looking amazed at the blonde people and the singing, not daring to come in. I’m betting she’s the one who made that excellent food. In the villages of China you see the occasional child but no young people.

Anyhow, we got up the next morning to start climbing, and found that it was snowing pretty hard.

Snow in Xizhazi

Fortunately, the guesthouse was not completely without heat.

Stove in Xizhazi

It was an hour’s pretty ambitious hike up to the Wall in the snow.

Climbing up to the Jiankou great wall Climbing up to the Jiankou great wall Climbing up to the Jiankou great wall

See Mr Fong there with his umbrella? What you can’t see is that he’s wearing shiny street shoes. In spite of which he was by a mile our best climber on the scary parts of the climb. And boy, were there ever a lot of them.

The Jiankou Great Wall in snow The Jiankou Great Wall in snow

I think that was our best day on the Wall. I’ll never see anything like that again.

When we came down, we were exhausted. What with all the snow and having taken a few minor tumbles and general exhaustion, my hands were sufficiently beat-up that for two solid days I couldn’t fingerprint-unlock my phone.

古北口

In our letters, Gubeikou. We drove there after we came down off the snowy Wall, and the guesthouse was a little more modern but not as welcoming nor was the food as good. But it’s got a nice little riverfront park and some excellent temples.

Cooking rice in Gubeikou Drying cabbage in Gubeikou

The Long March

The Gubeikou wall is OK, nothing special, neither the views nor the Wall itself equaled what we’d already seen. But that day was brutal. We walked for six hours cross-country along the wall, or beside it in ruined sectors, to our next stop, and it was really cold and windy nearly every step. It was about 12km, which I’d have no trouble walking horizontally at a decent temperature, neither of which applied here. Here’s our tour-group, and a section of the Wall that we walked every inch of.

Tour group on Gubeikou Great Wall Gubeikou Great Wall

Finally, we limped down the mountain, and I have rarely been as happy to see a human face as Mr Fong’s, waving “come this way!” at the bottom of the path.

金山岭

In our letters, Jinshanling. Probably the nicest and best-maintained part of the Wall. When we stumbled into our guesthouse there, it was under construction outside, but squeaky-clean inside, and in our room the heater had been turned on and set to 30°C, unreasonably warm unless you’ve just spent six hours trudging over Chinese mountaintops in a freezing wind. After 45 minutes or so, I was somewhat thawed.

Here’s the dining room, where we got in a few games of Mah Jongg. You don’t see a ceiling like that every day.

Guesthouse in Jinshanling Guesthouse in Jinshanling

If you wanted to make a one-day Wall visit and maybe didn’t want to take on the near-verticals of Jiankou, I’d say Jinshanling is the place to go.

Jinshanling Great Wall Jinshanling Great Wall Jinshanling Great Wall

There was one more day on the wall, at 黄崖关 (Huangyaguan) in Tianjin province, but meh, nothing to write home about after what we’d already seen.

Take-aways

It’s fantastic. Belongs on most bucket lists. Take a guide.

Lijuan says the best time to go is in Autumn, and I think that’s probably right. I’ll never forget those views.

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FaviconOn Liking Beijing 15 Apr 2019, 3:00 pm

It’s complicated. No big city offers just one flavor. Beijing (only China’s third biggest) has plenty. I feel no need to go back (see Disliking Beijing) but I liked some.

[This is part of The Surface of China series.]

Dancing!

Our headquarters was the Laurel Hotel; the district seemed to be called Jiaomen, and it was… nothing special. But it had street life, notably including dancing. There were three separate dance scenes within a couple of blocks. We’re talking about a ghetto-blaster on a stand on the plaza in front of a mall or apartment building, maybe a dance leader, and then a gaggle of couples with wildly varying skill, dancing apparently for pure pleasure.

Dance out-take

An out-take from seventeen seconds of video on YouTube.

Another scene elsewhere on the same plaza was a little more downtempo, and then another on a darker plaza very old-school — strictly waltzes — and more romantic.

Dogs

Beijing’s pups are excellent. They’re mostly medium-sized, neither hulking nor tiny, a lot of them somehow look sort of Chinese, and by and large are cheery, quiet, and well-behaved. A lot of them are off-leash, trotting along keeping pace with their people, staying out of trouble. Mostly they look neither overstressed nor underfed, including the ones trotting here and there sans human, looking like they know where they’re going. I gather they are at some risk of being eaten; but a tip of the hat to the non-dog-eating people who seem to be taking good care of theirs.

Silent driving!

In the accompanying Dislike piece I bitched about Beijing’s overly-wide over-occupied streets. It turns out that the big ones come with little mini-streets on each side for use by anything that’s not a car, which includes bikes, motorcycles, and a whole lot of power-trikes, where the space behind the driver can be a seat for a couple of passengers, or a rack for power tools, or really anything in between. What you can’t help noticing is that (in my Beijing hood, anyhow) more than half of these non-cars are now electric. Doesn’t mean that you won’t get creamed and rushed to emergency if you don’t focus (unless of course you powerfully radiate no-fucks-to-give-here), but these auxiliary streets are kind of peaceful, I wish Vancouver had more like this.

Here are a couple of snaps, illustrating the minor-street-off-major-street thing.

Streetside Beijing traffic Streetside Beijing traffic

Check out the brown polka-dotted thing on the front of the red-coated dude’s bike. I’d never seen one before but they’re everywhere in Beijing. It gets cold there in winter and I guess one of these will keep you warm without having to suit up in a dorky cycling outfit.

Speaking of electric vehicles, China knows it’s got a pollution problem and is working on it. We were driving along a nice modern highway and stopped in at a service center, totally like the kind we have here at home along the highway, and it had a brand-new electric-vehicle charging station.

EV charging station in China

That car is a BYD, a domestic Chinese automaker that pumps out lots of electrics. If the picture looks a little weird that’s because I fat-fingered the Pixel into “portrait” mode. The driver got a little tense and nervous when the large foreigner strolled over and started taking his picture. Sorry about that, dude; if I spoke a word of Chinese I’d have chatted you up, as a fellow EV owner, wanting to know about the finer points of charging China.

The Temple of Heaven

Our last day in Beijing was the best, someone recommended the Temple of Heaven, and is it ever great. Not the temples, the place and the people. It’s green and away from traffic and has plenty of room for everyone — none of which is otherwise in plentiful in Beijing. Not that it was empty, it was buzzing, mostly with old people, most of them wholesomely active.

Here are a bunch of dudes playing 毽子 (Jianzi), hackey-sack with a big shuttlecock, which dates back 2400 years or so in China. These guys were not young but damn, they were deft, deploying lots of slick behind-the back and knee-to-foot and heel-kick moves, and that shuttlecock wasn’t hitting the ground very often at all.

Jianzi players in the Temple of Heaven

Then there was this big area full of exercise equipment, mostly occupied, mostly by older folk, here and there a child in evidence. I tried a thing I can only describe as a knee-swinging striding machine, and it made my legs feel great! Wish there was one in our neighborhood park.

Exercising in the Temple of Heaven park, Beijing

Another thing that happens in the park is music; people go out and practice. Here’s one area that attracts saxophonists; this picture only catches a couple, but there were more. They’re within earshot of each other but that doesn’t seem to bother them. I strolled down the middle and among all the practice phrasing it was like a performance of abstract modern music; not unpleasant at all.

Saxophonists practice in the Temple of Heaven park, Beijing

Then there was this guy with a lap guitar and beatbox, he had loads of soul. Seriously, check the video.

Swinging guitar in the Temple of Heaven park, Beijing

At another point there was a dude singing opera with accordion accompaniment, and while he neither looked nor sounded exceptional, he was competent and it was a fine thing to be sitting in the green listening to the arias. Did I mention it was green and spacious?

Green space in the Temple of Heaven park, Beijing

Occasionally there would be a person alone among the trees practicing Tai Chi.

And oh, right, temples too. These are from the Temple of Fasting (also “of Abstention”).

Temple of Fasting, Beijing Temple of Fasting, Beijing Temple of Fasting, Beijing

At this point I should say that, while in the “Disliking” piece I kind of dissed the Forbidden City, it had, if you went off to the side, some purely exquisite spaces. Here are two.

In the Forbidden City, Beijing In the Forbidden City, Beijing

Back to the people; here’s a random nice outfit.

Lady in pink shiny top

After the temple, we went to 京A Brewing and after two weeks of Chinese food I heartily enjoyed a cheeseburger and a very decent IPA.

Jing-A Brewing, Beijing

Then we strolled through Wangfujing, a high-toned expensive shopping district, with a side-bazaar in which you can buy any imaginable food that can be presented on a stick as well as some that never should be such as scorpions, still wiggling. Wangfujing is fun if a little ostentatious, I recommend it.

Ice cream in Wangfujing, Beijing

On our last morning, before heading to the airport we walked randomly around the residential parts of Jiaomen; it was a quiet sunny morning, the pollution not too bad. There were oldsters on exercise machines in parks and playing/kibitzing chess games and just hanging out. A guy working on an electrical box beamed when we gave him a Nihao. The buildings are low-rises, older. I think if you had to live in Beijing, this might not be the worst place.

Building in Jiaomen, Beijing

The best thing about Beijing is the people there. I hope they get a better government before too long.

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FaviconOn Disliking Beijing 14 Apr 2019, 3:00 pm

Walking the Great Wall was fun, but Beijing is more intense, leaving me with strong and mixed feelings. There’s a lot to dislike, and on balance I can’t imagine wanting to live there. (But see also On Liking Beijing.)

To start with, it’s flat and sprawling, built for cars not people, and the pollution is bad. We arrived on a nice sunny Monday and the air was pretty clear. But by week’s end it was gruesome.

[This is part of The Surface of China series.]

Bad air in Beijing

Bad air day.

As they say in Green and Urbanist communities, if you build a city for cars, you’ll get cars.

Built for cars Built for cars

Built for cars.

Not only do Beijing’s ring roads (seven of them!) have a collective Wikipedia entry, each of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th has its own. The streets are big and wide and full of aggression; traffic is a competitive sport which you win by convincing others that you have fewer fucks to give. Lane invasion is basic, and a key technique is that neither a lane’s invader nor its defender must ever look at nor otherwise acknowledge each other until someone inevitably brakes and gives way.

All the roads are full, all the time. “The airport’s half an hour away, better allow ninety minutes to be sure” they said, and it took us sixty; things got faster after we got past these guys.

Beijing highway problem

The roads are full and the sidewalks and subways are too, full of people. One place they’re especially full is around Tienanmen square. You arrive at the subway and have to parade through endless packed passages and staircases, emerge across the street, then through another tunnel to come up into its vastness.

Heading for Tienanmen

Heading for Tienanmen.

And I just can’t talk about that place without getting into politics. Let’s be clear: In 2019, the Communist Party of China is the world’s leading oppressor of human beings. I’m not going to enumerate all the sins here, but it’s worth mentioning the pervasive censorship, the savage oppression of ethnic minorities, and the corruption that flows Lamborghinis steadily onto the streets of Vancouver. It’s not just the air that stinks.

The Great Wall was built at extreme cost in blood and treasure to protect the Chinese people from the barbarians outside. To me it looks like the barbarians won, and are now headquartered in the Great Hall of the People.

Great Hall of the People

Great Hall of the People.

Which is of course overlooks Tienanmen. To be honest the whole place made me shudder. The security apparatus is ubiquitous, in-yo-face every moment. Quite likely, one of these years the people of China will run out of patience and terminate the barbarian claque. But you can be damn sure that the trouble isn’t gonna start in Tienanmen, that puppy is locked down so tight it squeaks.

Tienanmen Square security apparatus

Some of the security apparatus.

Guards in Tienanmen Square Guards in Tienanmen Square

Dress-up with a message.

Everywhere in Tienanmen there is shouting — the tour-group wranglers I mean, chivvying their parties, usually dressed in matching T-shirts or caps, this way or that. Look around; the square may be at the city’s center, but you can’t really get onto it from any of the surrounding roads. Nor out, either; the barbarians learned an important tactical lesson.

Tienanmen starting point

At the bottom of Tienanmen Square. The big lineup to the left is people queuing for a really long time to walk past Mao’s preserved remains in the mausoleum.

Below, a close-up of one of the stones. Quite likely it was soaked with blood on June fourth, 1989. I watched that on live TV —here’s BBC footage and I’ll never forget and the world shouldn’t either.

A stone of Tienanmen square

Below is another Tienanmen tour group, with flags the color of blood.

Tour group in Tienanmen square

Yeah, China may have lifted a billion people out of poverty, but they didn’t have to do this to do that.

No Truth here

In China, your phone can’t get to the BBC or CNN or Google or Twitter or Facebook. Unless you’re running with a foreign SIM. But if you have one then you can’t connect to the hotel or any other public WiFi.

I look at China’s generations and they look more different from each other than ours do. The oldest ones saw endless war, the middle-aged ones went through the Cultural Revolution, and there are all these sharp-dressed young folk who’ve only ever known a modern-ish fast-growing China where all your daily needs are probably pretty well satisfied, as long they don’t include knowing what’s happening outside China, or the truth about what’s happening inside. Old people aren’t just short, they’re beat-down; but many young Chinese men are taller than me.

Behind Tienanmen is The Forbidden City. They had some lovely things and quiet courtyards in the Treasure House, but frankly, it mostly wasn’t that beautiful and there was nothing to warm your heart. It is huge beyond hugeness, and entirely designed to assert the power of the State over its cowed citizens. The State in those days was personalized, with a living breathing Emperor. Some of those were barbarians too, by birth or by habit.

Inside the Forbidden City

Some of the eighty thousand or so a day tourists
who stream through the Forbidden City.

Also breakfast

Along with the car-centrism and the barbaric dictatorship, there are the breakfasts. I loathe, loathe, loathe Chinese city breakfast and it cast a pall over every day I had to start with one. But this prejudice is a failing in me, not in the city.

I was awfully happy to get in the bus and head out to the Great Wall.

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FaviconFujifilm X-T30 11 Apr 2019, 3:00 pm

I bought the latest Fuji in Hong Kong. Herewith the how and why, and twenty-four Chinese-flavored photos as supporting evidence. Um, if you’re visiting on a less-than-fast Internet link, you might have to wait a bit for ’em. Sorry ’bout that.

[This is part of The Surface of China series.]

Hong Kong apartment towers

Hong Kong cliche #1. 35mm, 1/680, f/4, ISO 320.

The Star Ferry heads for Central

Hong Kong cliche #2. 18-55mm@18, 1/340, f/7.1, ISO 320.

Hong Kong bamboo scaffolding construction

Hong Kong Cliche #3. 18-55mm@30.2, 1/220, f/3.6, ISO 1250.
These guys yelled at me to stop shooting, but with a camera small and fast enough you can get a couple before they notice.

I’ve been shooting with the Fujifilm X-T1 for five years and it’s made me very happy. Not too long ago, I bought an X-T2, and then a few days later dropped it four feet onto pavement. Sob. Then Fuji shipped the X-T3 and I’d decided to pick one up for the Chinese excursion, but before I did they followed up with this thing.

Lunch break in the Forbidden City

Lunch break in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
35mm, 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 160.

Let’s see… same sensor and processor, smaller and lighter (383g as opposed to 539), not waterproof (but most of my lenses aren’t either). Slightly less video mojo (I use my phone for that). $600 cheaper. Of these criteria, the size and weight were the biggies for me; it was compactness that moved me from SLR to the mirrorless space six years ago, and remember, I was just heading out on a walking-oriented trip that was listed as “challenging”. This was not a difficult choice.

A treasure from the Forbidden City

Forbidden City treasure #1. 35mm, 1/340, f/1.4, ISO 160.

A treasure from the Forbidden City

Forbidden City treasure #2. 35mm, 1/50, f/1.4, ISO 400.
Bit of a Miyazaki flavor here.

Problem was, the camera hit the shelves on March 20th, the same day I was getting on a trans-Pacific flight at noon. No problemo! Because 萬成/永成攝影器材 (Wing Shing photo) was right around the corner from my Hong Kong hotel, so when I arrived (on the 21st) I went there for a walk after supper.

The exterior wall of the Forbidden City

By the Forbidden City’s exit. 35mm, 1/500, f/4.5, ISO 160.

The X-T30 was in stock, in all the color trims. I asked “how much?” and they told me, I said “let me check the price back home” and used my phone to pull up the Canadian price. The store was a little quiet and the other Wing Shing dudes gathered around, amused. Turns out Fuji has steely price discipline; the prices were within $10. The dudes were impressed. They threw in a 64G card and HK doesn’t have sales tax. And when I got back home the Canadian customs lady decided not to charge me the sales tax, which she could have.

Canal outside the forbidden city

Forbidden city canal corner. 35mm, 1/140, f/16, ISO 160.
Maybe my favorite China picture.

Findings

None of these should surprise anybody who keeps an eye on Fuji.

Item: Oh, it’s so light! And as will become apparent when I tell climbing-the-Great-Wall stories, that really matters.

Great wall with flowering tree

On the Great Wall! 18-55mm@55, 1/80, f/20, ISO 160.

Looking north from the Great Wall

Great Wall view north. 18-55mm@27.7, 1/1250, f/6.4, ISO 160.

Part of the great wall

Jiankou Great Wall at dusk. 55-200mm@74.1, 1/120, f/3.7, ISO 160.

Item: It’s noticeably faster than my X-T1, both turn-on lag and shooting time.

Item: Moving from 16 to 26 million pixels slows down Lightroom import, but lets me crop more aggressively to fix composition mistakes.

Jiankou Great Wall section, snowy

Snowy section, Jiankou Great Wall.
55-200mm@55, 1/680, f/5.6, ISO 160.
Hmm, a little research is called for. The original is razor-sharp but there’s loss of detail in this Lightroom export.

Snowy trees from Jiankou Great Wall

Snowy flowery trees, Jiankou Great Wall.
55-200mm@60.7. f/5.6, ISO 160.
I wish you could see this on the big retina screen.

Item: The dumb “Q” button, which I don’t use anyhow, is idiotically placed so it really takes practice to avoid hitting it all the time.

Tree near Gubeikou

Tree near Gubeikou. Samyang 135mm, 1/800, f/?, ISO 160.
I haven’t really mastered the Samyang/X-T30 combo yet; that’s OK.

Item: Some combination of the touch-screen and overly thorough state retention meant that a high proportion of the times I picked up the camera, the focus area was off uselessly in some corner or another. I changed multiple settings: Disabled the touch screen, required punch-to-activate on the joystick, maybe more; and eventually this stopped happening. Now I can go back and judiciously relax the settings.

ProTip: When this does happen, press the joystick down (twice maybe) and that recenters the focus. This is terribly important to me because I’m a reaction shooter and when I bring the camera up to my eye and aim at what I’m reacting to, I don’t want to waste time moving the focus around.

View near Gubeikou Great Wall

Gubeikou Great Wall view. 55-200mm@57.8, 1/600, f/5.6, ISO 160.
This picks up quite a bit of drama if you expand it.

People on Gubeikou Great Wall Tower

Tourists on Gubeikou Great Wall Tower.
55-200mm@200, 1/300, f/8, ISO 200.
Damn that Fuji glass is great.

Item: I haven’t figured out how to get much benefit from the touch-screen. When I turn it back on I’ll have to put some study into that.

View approaching Jinshanling Great Wall

Approaching Jinshanling Great Wall.
55-200mm@90.4, 1/320, f/8, ISO 160
Needs to be blown up room-size.

Item: The controls take the usual Fuji loads-of-dials approach, but the ISO dial has been subtracted, replaced by a mode selector (single-shot, video, panorama, bracketing, motor drive, yadda yadda) that used to be squashed underneath it. For me this is a win/win, since I hand-selected an ISO exactly once in the six years I’ve been in Fuji-land, but I regularly want to switch modes. Way back in 2013, I pronounced the Fuji controls “perfect” and I pretty well stand by that finding. Everything I ever want to change is available on a handy physical dial, and nothing else is there getting in the way.

Tree blossoms near Gubeikou Great Wall

Blossoms near Jinshanling. 35mm, 1/680, f/4.5, ISO 160.

Item: The EVF is not as big as I’m used to and I miss that, but I can’t honestly claim that it’s cost me pictures.

In the Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum

In the Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum.
35mm, 1/1250, f/6.4, ISO 160.

Item: The new joystick on the back is really well-executed; just the right size, just the right sensitivity, does just the right thing.

At the tomb of the Dowager Empress Cixi

At the tomb of the Dowager Empress Cixi.
55-200mm@115.9, 1/850, f/5.6, ISO 160.
Enlarge and see what’s looking out that door.

Who’s it for?

It’s like this: Some people plan their photos, others find them. I’m a finder, 100%. Which means I need the camera to be always with me, and shoot fast, and have really good ergonomics. If you’re like me, the X-T30 might just be the best camera in the world.

Lauren at 京A Brewing

Lauren at 京A Brewing, Beijing. 18-55mm@18, 1/25, f/2.8, ISO 320.
Mother by daughter.

One is not enough

I carry two cameras, of course: this and the Pixel-2. Of the China-trip photos I decided to keep, 167 were Pixel and 283 were Fujifilm. That’s a little misleading because there are a few X-T30 motor-drive action sequences of kids cartwheeling and swinging on ropes and so on.

Ducklings on a Stick near Wangfujing

Ducklings on a stick near Wangfujing. 35mm, 1/120, f/1.8, ISO 160.
Wish I’d gone for a bit more depth-of-field.

Phones aren’t going to replace “real” cameras until someone figures out how to install long lenses on them. Also, a phone is a general-purpose device while every atom of the X-T30 is optimized for making shooting easy and productive. But the Pixel is so fabulously effective at wide-angles and close-up shots and people, I don’t think of it as being a “better” or “worse” camera than the Fuji, just different.

Beijing small vehicles

Beijing micromobility. 35mm, 1/50, f/8, ISO 160.
There’s a big cool photo-project in this.

Lensing

I took four: 18-55mm F2.8-4 (135 photos), 35mm F1.4 (86), 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 (49), Samyang 135mm F2 (12). The 18-55mm has lightning autofocus and on the X-T30 is just insanely fast and flexible, ideal when you have no idea what kind of thing you’re going to shoot but you’re going to need to shoot quick. The 35mm is my all-time favorite lens, its autofocus is klunky but it makes everything you point it at look better. The 55-200mm doesn’t have much personality but if you’re going to be climbing mountains and so on, you sometimes really need all those millimeters. The Samyang is maddeningly difficult and super-opinionated, not to mention cruelly bulky and heavy, but when you find the right subject, it’s a miracle-worker.

Blossom in Jiaomen, Beijing

Blossom in Jiaomen, Beijing. Seven hundred twenty-third.
35mm, 1/1600, f/4, ISO 160.

I consciously adopted a discipline of going out with one flexible zoom and one difficult/opinionated prime: Usually the 35mm and 18/55 in town, then in the country, either 18-55 and Samyang, or the 35 and 55-200. I refuse to carry a big camera bag so two lenses is about all I can manage out on the trail. I liked this formula and think I’ll stick with it for a while.

Wrapping up

Assuming I avoid dropping this thing, it should last me a long time. I still have the X-T1; I give it to my twelve-year-old daughter with the 18-55mm screwed on and everything set to auto, and she goes nuts, taking hundreds of photos of which a few turn out great.

I don’t think you can get more camera for the money. I don’t think I can get a better camera for my style for any money.

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Favicon2000km 9 Apr 2019, 3:00 pm

That’s the distance from Hong Kong to Beijing, and if you’re on a train that cruises at 306km/h, you can leave at 8:05AM and arrive one minute past five in the afternoon. The train has a number and a Wikipedia entry: G80 (check it out for some cool pix of the train). I suspect that not that many readers have taken this, so herewith words and pictures.

Hong Kong West Kowloon station is bright and new and huge.

[This is part of The Surface of China series.]

Hong Kong West Kowloon station

It’s faster than an airport but there are really a lot of stages to get through: HK exit, HK customs, security, PRC health, PRC customs, PRC immigration. They were all reasonably efficient and pleasant but damn it’s a lot of walking. Obvious foreigners are waved over to the “special services” PRC immigration where they speak English. As in most dictatorships, there’s plenty of assiduous filling-in of forms and triple-checking numbers and photos and signatures.

The train interior is, well, meh. Nothing terribly wrong with it but not as slick as either the Japanese shinkansen or a Euro-TGV/ICE. There are classes: Business, First, Second. We took the mid-range First; the price was reasonable and the seats were OK, with a bit of lean-back and plenty of electricity.

The interior of train G80 from Hong Kong to Beijing

The food was awful, but it’s been a long time since I got good food on a train anywhere. I had to respect the staff, who pushed the tea-carts and refreshments back and forth for nine consecutive hours without exhibiting fatigue. None seemed to have a word of English.

If you want to travel, direct online ticket sales are difficult-at-best for foreigners. We followed leads around the Internet and eventually bought the tickets via China Highlights, who got them from the station and delivered them to our Hong Kong hotel before we got there.

Traveling at 300km is sort of dreamy. I don’t have a good way to host video myself, so here are 27 seconds on YouTube.

During the first couple of hours, the sky was that South Chinese dappled-grey while the terrain was green, folded, and wet.

South China from the train

Two thousand kilometers, but rarely out of sight of human habitation, and never away from infrastructure: Power lines, dikes, culverts, you name it.

As we worked our way north the land became flatter and dirtier and more industrial and more intensely under construction. This picture is unusual in that there are no visible cranes.

Industrial scene in central China

Any extended exposure to China — this theme will recur — leaves most Westerners overwhelmed by its most significant fact: its huge population. On this trip the train stopped at Shenzhen (pop 12.9M), Guanghzhou (14.9M), Changsha (a mere 7.4M), Wuhan (10.6M), Zhengzhou (10.1M), and Shijiazhuang (10.8M). Total: 66.7M human souls. You can claim you already knew about those places but I probably wouldn’t believe you.

It’s not subtle: as you coast from city to city, often the horizon hides behind a forest of high-rises.

Somewhere in central China

In the picture above, it all looks kind of prosperous: The pretty-modern buildings in the background, the gas stations and boulevards in front. It’s not all like that; in the hilly green southern section you see really poor-ass rural scenes, but the surface prosperity monotonically increases as you move further north and toward Beijing.

Wherever you go in the world, you can usually tell a lot about a person by their address, and even more by visiting that address and looking at their residence. I’m sure you can in China too, only I can’t because I don’t know anything, and it was frustrating. There were low primitive places among the fields, little better than shacks, then two-story countryside clusters that offered a little room but no apparent luxury, then the ubiquitous apartment towers, low and high, shiny and faded. What does it all mean? Ask elsewhere.

I noticed that out away from the cities there was a lot of empty space on the roads; thought how much fun it might be to do a road trip in a fast car.

Obviously, China’s decades-long avalanche of investment and development hasn’t had flawless execution. There are many towers built but not finished, their windows unoccupied concrete rectangles, some finished partway up but no apparent work in progress. Bridges and causeways and berms and embankments too: infrastructural work paused and left to stand like huge pieces of brutalist sculpture.

But of course lots of construction is in active progress; this near Beijing.

Residential construction near Beijing

Beijing West station, when you get there, is insanely crowded but reasonably efficient; the only thing you have to be careful of is the taxi touts who I’m told will rip you off. They’re somewhat handicapped in that a native Chinese speaker who hasn’t studied English really has trouble with our letter “x”, but they have hustle. Follow the signs to the nice modern taxi-stand and you won’t have to wait long. It’s a good idea to visit your hotel’s website before you go and find the place where they provide a map-with-directions you can print out and show the driver.

Then you’re into Beijing traffic, and may God have mercy on your soul.

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FaviconVisiting Buddha 7 Apr 2019, 3:00 pm

Its official name is Tian Tan Buddha but everyone in Hong Kong just says “Big Buddha” and indeed it’s maybe the biggest tourist attraction. That’s OK, it’s worth visiting and you probably should if you’re there. I offer no insights about Asian religions but some possibly-useful tourist advice and a couple of pictures that make me smile.

[This is part of The Surface of China series.]

You can get a ferry from Pier 6 on Central over to Mui Wo on Lantau Island, where the Buddha is, along with both Buddhist and Christian monasteries, the new airport, Disneyland, and some damn nice hiking trails; I spent a pleasurable few hours on those a couple of decades ago. Anyhow, when we were there in March the marine weather was awful, so no pix from the boat. But Mui Wo is… different. Green, uncrowded (by HK standards) and weirdly full of foreigners. I can see wanting to live here if I were working there.

Small boats at Mui Wo

Then you take a taxi or a bus across the island to Ngong Ping where the Buddha is. If there are three or four of you the cost is probably a wash, but the taxis can be hard to get. It’s a charming ride, a half-hour or so; try to get a window seat on the left. The village isn’t worth your time really, but the religious enclosure, including Buddha and the Po Lin monastery, is. It was a foggy day.

The Tian Tan Buddha in the fog The stairs up to the Tian Tan Buddha

There are a lot of steps up to the Buddha;
this was on a weekend day, but out of season.

There’s a nice little art exhibit and gift shop inside the base of the Buddha. It’s not free, but your ticket also counts at the souvenir stands and the monastery’s vegetarian restaurant.

From up on top, the view is nice out to sea and down to the monastery.

The view out to see from the Tian Tan Buddha The Po Lin Monastery

The Buddha is surrounded by really rather nice statues.

Statues around the Tian Tan Buddha

Religion is actively practiced; this one particular shrine received a regular flow of people who knelt and prayed.

Worshipper at the Po Li monastery

The most impressive part of the trip was guarded by “No photography” signs. In a big room up at the back of the temple, a religious service was in progress. The audience was in three groups, each with priests at the front. There was rough but beautiful priest-led crowd-supported chanting, with the sections alternately standing and kneeling. I stood and watched for several minutes and the chanting never stopped.

It bothers me that, while I’ve studied some Buddhist basics, I really haven’t the faintest idea what these people learned as kids from the parents or as young people from the clergy; nor what the ceremony meant; nor what a modern Hong Kong Buddhist is likely to actually believe.

Burning incense at Po Li monastery

Major incense!

In normal times there’s a cable car that’ll take you straight to Ngong Ping from the big MTR (public transit) station by the airport, but it wasn’t working that day so we hopped a taxi and got into some real adventure because Lantau traffic was light and the driver ninja’d each and every of the many turns on the way to the train, wheels screeching. Halfway, he turned to us, eyes crinkling: “Roller coaster!” he said, beaming.

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FaviconThe Surface of China 6 Apr 2019, 3:00 pm

What happened was, the girls are finishing Grade Seven so we walked the Great Wall of China. This actually makes perfect sense. By “the girls” I mean my daughter and a schoolfriend; they’ve been in Mandarin Bilingual elementary and have learned quite a bit of Chinese. They may be at their maximum proficiency for a while, since their high schools’ Mandarin offerings aren’t that great. So we (I mean the girls’ parents) thought we should expose them to some Real Chinese. Except for none of the adults speak any, so we went shopping for tours and picked Walk the Great Wall of China.

The Surface of China series includes this fragment and also:

  • Visiting Buddha, which happens in Hong Kong.

  • 2000km, about the train ride from Hong Kong to Beijing.

  • Fujifilm X-T30, about the camera I bought on the first day of this vacation.

  • On Disliking Beijing; what the title says, with strong language about China’s current rulers.

  • On Liking Beijing, because it wasn’t all bad. With pretty pictures and dance videos.

  • Walking the Great Wall, being what we went to China to do. Justly on many bucket lists.

  • Tianjin, about a lovely museum, impressive tombs, and the Dowager Empress.

It was a three-legged trip; we flew to Hong Kong and hung out for a couple of days, then took the bullet train to Beijing — 300 or so km/h for nine hours. Then a day in Beijing, six days out of town, five them at various Great Wall locations, and a final stretch back in Beijing, then a direct flight home.

Somewhere in Mong Kok

Street scene somewhere in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

Just the surface?

I’ve mostly recovered from the jetlag hangover and see that I have 500-ish photos worth keeping and several screens-full of raw notes. So, as photog and blogger, I ought to be eager to share. There’s a problem: It’s all surface stuff. Did I get lots of interesting visuals? Did I eat lots of interesting food? Did I get off the beaten track? Yes to all of those.

But, how many Chinese people did I get into serious conversations with? Three. Did those conversations go near any of the difficult subjects of history or government or truth? Nope. Do I understand what life feels like for any of the people I saw and occasionally photographed? No.

So I’ll share pictures because they’re pretty and stories that I think interesting or entertaining or maybe useful to other Westerners planning a visit. But, don’t kid yourself that you’re going to learn anything deep or important about China beyond what it looks like. This wasn’t research, it was tourism.

View in Gubeikou

Looking over the roofs of the temples in Gubeikou.

Notes on getting around

  • Vancouver to HK is 12½ hours; that’s rough.

  • Hong Kong is easy to get around in; get an Octopus card at the first opportunity and public transit will take you more or less anywhere at a reasonable price. Taxis are OK but (like everywhere in the world) traffic is terrible.

  • The long fast train from HK to Beijing was a treat. The train food is trash but the seats are comfy and you’ll see a whole lot of China really fast. The train stations at either end are reasonably efficient and manageable.

  • The G Adventures tour was excellent. I’m not normally a guided-tour kind of person, and have enough travel experience and language smatterings to get by most places, not including mainland China. Our guide and driver were excellent, the route well-chosen, and the price very reasonable.

  • Beijing is tough to get around in. The subway system is easy to figure out but the ticket-selling machines are klunky and failure-prone, and the place is so freaking huge that you’re often a long walk from the nearest station. Taxi fares are reasonable, but near any major tourist attraction the drivers will refuse to go on-meter and demand exorbitant prices.

  • The traffic in Beijing is terrible too. Imagine that.

Sharing plans

I have way too many pictures to blog or Tweet or whatever; come over for dinner if you’re in town and I’ll do a slide show. I’ll write a few blog fragments and share some of the prettier pix, and after all a close look at the surface of China is better than no look at all.

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FaviconFun With Semiotics 17 Mar 2019, 3:00 pm

I just finished reading The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet; it’s impossibly erudite and also hilarious. If you remember the Eighties and if you have some idea why Foucault, Giscard, Nastase, and Eco were interesting, you might really enjoy it, especially if you’re also entertained by sex, violence, and conspiracy theory.

The Seventh Function of Language

I was in the library looking at travel guides for an upcoming vacation, and as I was coming down the escalator the book’s garish cover grabbed my attention sufficiently that I had to go look at it, and then took it home. There’s a story in here about signs and signals and that sort of stuff.

It’s a whodunnit basically, although the author chats away in his own voice, the protagonist keeps wondering if he’s in a novel, the story shamelessly mixes real things that happened to real people with things that definitely didn’t happen and others might be true but nobody will ever know.

Things that did happen in 1980-81.

  1. Roland Barthes was hit by a laundry van after having lunch with Mitterrand; the papers he was carrying were stolen, and he died a month later of his injuries.

  2. Louis Althusser strangled his wife in what the courts consider an episode of insanity.

  3. Right-wing terrorists bombed Bologna’s central train station, killing 85 people.

  4. Mitterrand won the first of several elections as President of France.

Things that didn’t:

  1. Jacques Derrida was not killed by attack dogs unleashed on Cornell University campus by John Searle.

  2. Philippe Sollers was not castrated as a consequence of losing a semioticians’ fight-club debate with Umberto Eco.

Things we’ll never know:

  1. How did Mitterrand hang on to office for so long?

  2. What happened to Barthes’ papers?

Fun as in fun

Seriously, I kept laughing out loud. While there’s deep thinking here about language and meaning, there are fabulous chase scenes, appalling violence, sexual fireworks on a dissecting table, mysterious Japanese ninjas, and a whole lot of sex & drugs & rock-n-roll. And tennis.

And name-dropping; the whole book is one big name-drop, and a lot of the names are portrayed having inappropriate sex and taking inappropriate drugs. But he does it so well that you can’t help but be amused. Well, except for some of those portrayed are still very alive and might not be; can you sue someone for the way they portray you in a work of fiction? For example, I wonder if a certain prominent female American gender theorist will object to having been portrayed as sodomizing a burly French policeman in a threesome including a prominent female French poststructuralist?

Anyhow, by now you probably know whether you’re a candidate to enjoy this one.

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FaviconPink Floyd Dad Jokes 13 Mar 2019, 3:00 pm

I took my 12-year-old and 19-year-old to see Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets tour (Lauren had choir practice). The band was grizzled, grey, and genial; when Nick closed by saying “We hope you had as much fun as we did” we felt he meant it. Their stage banter was that of well-bred Englishmen, dry and mild.

Nick’s opening remarks: Hi there. This isn’t The Australian Roger Waters or The Danish Dave Gilmours.

For context: Nick Mason is the only drummer Pink Floyd ever had. The concept is that, since the various Floyd incarnations mostly perform numbers starting with Dark Side of the Moon but there was a lot of good pre-Dark Side Floyd, that’s what Nick and the boys are playing. A Saucerful of Secrets, from 1968, was Floyd’s second album, but its songs don’t dominate.

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets Stage at Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets

Here are the songs they played (setlist.fm is remarkable). I knew maybe half, where by “knew” means they’re buried in my hindbrain from unimaginably long ago.

Nick: Hi Vancouver, nice to be back. Last time I was here was… 1970. Anyone here remember 1970? Neither do I.

Wikipedia says: “The band includes long-time Pink Floyd and David Gilmour bass player Guy Pratt; Blockheads guitarist Lee Harris; Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp on guitar and vocals; and producer/composer Dom Beken on keyboards.”

Nick: Let me introduce the Saucers.

We were down near the stage, so got too much guitar and not enough drums/voice - on Set the Controls, Nick's epic tom-tom rhythm was sadly dim. The sound would have been guitar-heavy wherever you sat, but (once the sound guys had a chance to settle things down in the early minutes) pretty clean. Well, except for where the band wanted a chaotic noise crescendo.

Nick, introducing Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun: Looking forward to this one. I spent years touring with a fellow - nice guy, wonderful writer — but he was greedy about hitting the gong. Tonight I get my chance!

The highlights were just what you’d expect: Astronomy Domine, Fearless, If, Set the Controls, One of These Days. Then there was this other tune, not that loud, no vocals, and a lovely familiar bass line, but I couldn’t place it. The setlist gave it away: Atom Heart Mother! Of course, when you take away the string section, the horn section, the choir chanting in Basque (or maybe Swahili or Ojibway?), and the lyric soprano, it can't be quite the same.

Guy Pratt, before Nile Song: Let’s play some dumbass rock&roll! After: We were setting up for a David Gilmour tour, and he asked us for song suggestions. I suggested Nile Song, and he suggested I find another band. So I have!

There was a nice tribute to Syd Barrett by way of a performance of Vegetable Man, never performed live by anyone before this tour.

Nick: That sounds unfinished, maybe Sid came to an end before the song did. But none of this would’ve happened if it hadn’t been for him, you know.

Both my kids were rockin’ and rollin’ in their seats, particularly on the closing charge through One of these Days, which works really well live with a lot of heavy guitar. That made me smile.

Gary Kemp: I went and saw Pink Floyd at Wembley Stadium when I was (sorry, Nick) only fourteen, they were playing Dark Side, and I found that I couldn’t stop looking at Nick drumming. Well, to be fair, he was the only person in the room who was moving.

I’ve always loved Set the Controls and I loved hearing it live; the performance wasn’t like any of the recordings I’ve heard, and no, I wouldn’t say it was better than either the UmmaGumma or Live at Pompeii takes, but it was different and fresh and that tune, it’ll be going through my head for weeks.

But what hit me the hardest was If (“If I were a swan, I’d be gone”) which they dressed up with a big high-drama middle-section instrumental. And its closing line speaks directly to me. As I edge into old age, speech becomes more effortful. The inside of my head is a comfy albeit cluttered place to be, and a lot of the things I might want to say would require too much explanation to be easy. But silence is; too easy.

If I were a good man
I’d talk with you
more often than I do.

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FaviconGraying Out 11 Mar 2019, 3:00 pm

For many years I’ve interacted with my fellow humans, I think perhaps more than any other way, via the medium of Internet chat. But in my chat window, they’re fading, one by one. This problem is technical and personal and I felt it ought not to go unrecognized.

Adiumy

Since forever I’ve used a chat client called Adium; it’s open-source, has a good, polished, flexible UX, and is self-updating. The people I talked to, some of them were on AIM, ICQ, on various flavors of Jabber and XMPP and then, in latter years, Google+. What’s happening is, they’re going away. The chat connections I mean, although many of those underlying services are winking out too, one by one.

(That’s the Adium mascot, “Adiumy”, on the right.)

For those to whom those terms “Jabber” and “XMPP” are new, they represented the idea that any chat service should be able to talk to any other chat service, so you could use whichever you liked best, and hang with your friends wherever on the Net they hung their chatty hats.

There was a time when commercial chat services supported XMPP because it was felt to be the right thing to do. But that was old-school hippie thinking, because if chatterers can just go ahead and talk to anyone anywhere, then your service probably won’t go viral and how are you going to monetize? You can simultaneously think markets are a useful civic tool and recognize obvious, egregious failures. So the links were severed and a whole lot of services just died.

At one point, my Adium typically listed literally hundreds of people I might choose to talk with, with a red or green “available” glyph; they were grayed-out of they weren’t signed in.

These days, more and more are always grayed out, because they were on some other service that’s no longer connected. It makes me sad, because I can no longer say “Hey, qq?” when I want to. So I thought I’d cut and paste some of those people. The world being what it is, chances are there are lots that I’ll never chat with again.

So I’m going to tour through maybe 1% of the names in my chat window, for its own sake and to say I haven’t forgotten.

The top of the Adium window just now, only two people currently showing logged-in and available.

Phipps and Sharpe

Simon, long time open-source maven, is an important figure in my life. In 2004, when I ejected from a failing startup and was wondering what to do, Simon reached out and said “How about coming to work for Sun? You’re interesting because you’re a blogger.” I haven’t the vaguest how my life would have turned out if he hadn’t. Bruce’s life and mine have run roughly parallel since 1973 or so; we were students at the University of Guelph; I was a little ahead and marked his papers. Then he got mixed up in technology and markup and eventually XML and hired my wife, and now we hang out together a bit in the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association. Life is weird.

Let’s move into the territory of people who are still signed on, but not in chat mode. On current trends, they’ll be graying out soon.

Nottingham, O’Grady, Yugui

Mark is a pillar of the net, has done as much as any other human to keep HTTP’s design and specification coherent over the last couple of decades. Steve is an analyst with a baseball cap, and knows really a lot about the Internet biz. Yugui I hardly know —  for a long time she was the Ruby release manager, and has her fingerprints all over the language’s ecosystem.

Gregorio, Hardt, Rohit, Markes, Meier, Mueller

Now there’s a list. Joe is a technologist and evangelist. Dick was a long-time pillar of the Vancouver tech scene, I worked for him as a consultant once and dueled with him over hiring talent on others, now he’s a fellow Amazonian. Rohit is one of the most social humans on the planet and at one point the FoRK (Friends of) list was a force to be reckoned with in the Valley. I went to his wedding. Kevin has fought many standards crusades, most notably microformats; a person who cares deeply about keeping the Net working. Reto preceded me on the Android DevRel team at Google, and taught me a whole lot about advocacy, how to do it with integrity and sanity. Diane, whom I’ve known along multiple axes, lives in a nice part of the world and wears a red hat these days.

Cooper, Enebo

Ahh, Danese, she was doing Internet advocacy almost before there was an Internet. As a Microsoftie, she had to file a special ticket to get a specialized team to get her set up so she could get real Internet Mail, and nobody else there could understand why anybody would want such a thing.

Tom is a Rubyist, we hired him and Charles Nutter at Sun in the mid-two-thousands. He takes good pictures too.

Now we’re moving into the grayed-out territory, and I’ll take a quick tour through the alphabet; I manage to hit almost every letter. You might recognize some of the names.

Aitken

She was close to my ex-wife decades ago, then a development manager at the University of Waterloo; I liked her a lot but we’ve kind of lost touch.

Berners-Lee

You might have heard of this guy. Back in my W3C days, we drank like Churchill; not heavily but steadily. Tim’s always been on the right side of the important issues. He and I (and Jobs and Gates) were all born in the same year.

Cantrill

Taught me a whole lot about how the people who build kernels and filesystems think about them. He’s exhibited a regrettable tendency to JavaScript at certain times, but builds wonderful things. I think we’re competitors now.

DiBona

Chris sat for many years at the heart of Google’s culture and was a voice for sanity in a place that needed a whole lot more of it. Maybe he still is.

Enns-Bray

My nephew! Got his Ph.D. at ETH in Zürich in some scary combination of medicine and technology and is now making a living with it, still in Switzerland.

Faulkner, Ferraioli

Sally’s a dear friend, does hospitality in Melbourne, we see her every other year, more or less. Julia’s been in Google DevRel, exhibiting courage and grace while she’s fought an endless struggle with the kind of health issue that renders the medical profession alternately helpless and counterproductive; I admire her immensely.

Gilbane

There was a time when Frank was maybe the single most influential person in the world of publishing technology. I think he’s still working on it. I was briefly editor of The Gilbane Report; I still remember a huge lifesaving lunch he bought me when a series of travel/schedule breakages meant that I’d not managed a square meal in two successive days.

Hackborn, Hanley

Dianne is maybe the most accomplished software engineer the world has never heard of, buried in the bowels of Google. She was super helpful when I was trying to figure out how to be a voice for Android at Google. Dervala is a lovely person whose writing I worship, even though she only blogs annually these days. Stop what you’re doing and go read The Wishing Chair, 2018; you’ll thank me.

Hoffman

This one frosts my socks; I’ve worked with Paul quite a bit and like him a lot and our chat linkage is irremediably broken behind some fucking XMPP SNAFU that I’m not smart enough to figure out and fix. He helps build the Internet.

Janssen

Stephen invented the various Devoxx-related conferences and has done a fine job, contributing to the structure of the software commmunity.

Kilmer, Kimber

Rich is yet another Rubyist, lots of them in this episode; I miss being part of the Ruby family, it’s a fine place. Eliot was one of the original XML posse; we disagreed about almost every issue in the design of XML, but I never doubted his integrity or intelligence.

Leung

We hired Ted at Sun as another smart tech blogger; we also have photography in common. I got to know him and his family pretty well in the first blog-centric social-media surge, and thought a lot of them; I hope that family is still intact and hanging in.

Mansfield

Here’s another long parallel path. Phil was one of the inventors of SVG so I first met him in a standards context. Then our sons were on the same soccer teams (they still hang out sometimes) and our families became friends. But geography has intervened and we hardly see them any more.

Nicol

Gavin was doing magic with XML before there was XML. An eclectic and determined guy, I miss him. LinkedIn suggests he’s still in tech.

O’Reilly

Another name you might recognize; deserves credit for some of the nicer flavors you find in geek culture. The second O in “FOO” stands for O’Reilly.

Pilgrim

There was a time when Mark was maybe the most interesting person on the Internet. He disconnected with a bang, which decreased the value of the Net but may have saved his life.

Qhin

“The Barefoot Programmer” and that’s not just figurative, I’ve seen him shoeless in situations that most reasonable people would consider unreasonable. Always on the right side of the issues.

Ridley

I hardly know Michael but we hung out a bit when he was head librarian at the University of Guelph and I was re-acquainting myself with the place; he never failed to charm me.

Schonbrun, Schwartz, Scoble

Bill and I gave it our best shot at a startup but didn’t quite make it. I went to his wedding and miss him, although last time we spoke, he had the misfortune of being an Oracle employee. Randal Schwartz is a geek’s geek, just type his name into any search engine and prepare to be entertained. We’ve been on a cruise ship together, twice! And then there’s the Scobleizer, perhaps the canonical example of a life lived online. You can’t imagine what it was like in 2004-2005 when he was Microsoft’s Blogger and I was Sun’s and every word we wrote mattered. And did we ever write a lot.

Thomas

This is of course PragDave; I don’t know anybody in the world more accomplished at writing about software.

Udell

Jon, another master of the life online, has spotted a whole lot of technology trends before anyone; it’s never wrong to read what he writes.

Waite, Wardley, Weinberger

Mandy is special to me because she represents the first time, as a member of a Google hiring committee, that I got to be part of hiring a Googler. Great fun online, and you just can’t get any more eclectic. Simon’s presence online is massive and he seems to be right about everything even if I never quite grasped his mapping method. David and I go back to 1990 or so, and he taught me how best to use stories in a business context; this blog certainly wouldn’t exist without his influence.

Yamazaki

Fumi is a delightful person, the very model of a modern advocate, bridging the Pacific between Tokyo and Mountain View without apparent effort. Never boring.

Zawodny, Zeldman

Another couple of pioneers of the medium which you are now consuming; Jeremy was blogging way before blogging was cool. Jeffrey was designing websites before almost anyone knew what they were; he and I had way too much fun back in the days of the Web Standards Project, saying unspeakable things in public, but they were necessary things too.

Not blaming the Net

The fact that I’ve lost touch with so many of these people isn’t a technology problem, it’s me, me and the times we live in. Among the clear and present dangers to our way of life, once you get past Global Warming and deranged chiefs of state, the atomization of the social fabric is high, high on the list. I haven’t fought hard enough to stay connected (not alone in that). And time grows short.

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Favicon2019’s Crocuses 3 Mar 2019, 3:00 pm

They come early, purple and gold harbingers of spring. Traditionally I have celebrated them in this blog space. But that nearly didn’t happen this year, for reasons that are obvious in the picture.

2019 Crocuses

They’d just come up when we got snow, which then in mid-February kicked off an extended cold snap, many nights hitting -5°C or below, and the daytime highs rarely topping +5°. So those little guys are survivors. They’ve lived under snow, with more shoveled on top (they grow by the sidewalk), and they’re still here. I had to pick and choose my photos because lots are kinda beat-up looking.

The traditional season for Thanksgiving is fall; of having harvested and being ready for winter. I’ll be honest, my gratitude peaks right about now with the first flowers’ arrival. The meteorologists say the Arctic air mass is breaking up and pretty soon the garden’s color palette will expand.

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FaviconLP Log 23 Feb 2019, 3:00 pm

What happened was, Lauren said “My friend Leonard from choir has a friend whose husband died, and she’s wondering what to do with his record collection.” I said “If she doesn’t want to try to sell them, I’ll have a look at them.” Then I took off on a business trip. When I got back, Lauren said “You need to bring the records in from the van.” There turned out to be 900. This is the start of a story of musical discovery.

They turn out to be almost all classical, where the exceptions are cheesy-looking pre-Rock pop music. I think this piece will anchor an “LP Log” blog series in which I touch on the LPs’ payloads as I (slowly) work through the vinyl backlog. Also, as the picture below makes clear, I may have to do a bit of furniture shopping because it’s not as though I have enough shelf space for more than a small fraction of these.

Cat walking around on 900 used LPs

Cat for scale.

Just a couple of weeks before, I’d noticed that the old Linn cartridge on my lovely Simon Yorke “Series 9” had crapped out. I can’t complain, it had served me well and it was at least fifteen years old. So I needed a new one and, since I was staring at 900 probably-not-that-pristine records in the face, something to restore & rejuvenate them.

Record cleaner

A survey of the audiophile press suggests that the cleaners from VPI offer a good price/quality combination. The VPI HW 16.5 looked good but hard to buy in Canada, until I visited eBay, where they seem to appear regularly. It’s at least a decade since I bought anything at eBay; they seem to be getting along without me. I missed out on a couple of auctions but eventually scored, probably paying a little too much, jumping the bid by $50 in the closing seconds.

VPI HW 16.5

Cleaning LPs with the machine is just massively cool. First you screw the record down, spin up the turntable, and slather it with cleaning solution (20% isopropyl). Then you hit the vacuum switch and a hollow cylindrical arm with velvety brushes comes down on the disc and sucks the fluid right back in. Two revolutions of the turntable are plenty. It’s pretty remarkable to see an LP go on looking grungy and dim, and come off gleaming.

There are lots of videos on YouTube, but in most of them the actual action shot is embedded in a lengthy “review”. This one is blurry and shaky but gets right to the point.

The guy in the video uses a specialized record-cleaning brush. I didn’t have one in that style, so used a standard super-soft-bristle paintbrush and that works fine.

The cartridge

High-end audio is bloody expensive, and I have never previously purchased a component without listening to it, playing music of my own that I know and love. With the exception of cartridges; dealers are understandably reluctant to keep lots of tiny fragile objects in stock and let customers drop them on their own crappy vinyl. So it was a matter of reading reviews. Boy, are there ever a lot of cartridges out there. One decent survey is the long-running Recommended Components published twice yearly by Stereophile magazine. Check out the Fall-2018 Turntables, Tonearms, and Cartridges section.

Ordering high-end online doesn’t seem to be much of a thing so I got a local retailer, Vancouver’s Hi-Fi Centre, to order it in. The store is really a super pleasant place to visit.

The Hi-Fi Centre in Vancouver

My conversation with the guy there was a little sad. It’s a nice place, they seem to be doing well, but their customers are mostly over 50. I may be among the last generations to care enough about audio quality to do this sort of this stuff. For most people these days, a Sonos or an Amazon Echo or whatever that brings tunes to where they are will do the job. Me, I hope to spend a few more years of evenings sitting up late in a comfy chair with a small adult beverage, spinning the discs and listening, really listening, to them.

After a lot of grinding back and forth and looking for second opinions on the net, I settled on the Dynavector DV-20X2 (low-output option), made (by hand, they say) in Japan. My reasons: The price was within the bounds of sanity. It’s been described as easy to set up. Relative to many other good cartridges, it has relatively high “compliance”, which means it should be easier on the records, most of which are totally irreplaceable. Finally, a couple of reviewers said it did a great job on rock & roll. Yes, I know I have 900 classical records to consider, but I also know where my heart lives. Here it is, in action.

Dynavector DV-20X2 Low on a Simon Yorke Series Nine Dynavector DV-20X2 Low on a Simon Yorke Series Nine

Getting it set up was a major pain in the ass. I couldn’t turn up the original turntable documentation, but fortunately, it’s a major enough issue that there were two different places out on the net that talked through the process. It doesn’t help that I have shaky hands and am at best modestly dextrous. If Simon Yorke comes to read this (he’s retired but I think still living): It’s a great turntable, Simon, but getting the vertical tracking angle right is awful! If Lauren hadn’t helped I never would have managed.

Dusty in Memphis

Dusty!

Finally, it was all tightened down and the wires plugged in. For the turntable’s first outing, I put on a pristine copy of Dusty in Memphis that I’d bought but never played after discovering that my cartridge was busted.

Oh. My. God. Should have upgraded the cartridge years ago. If you haven’t heard good vinyl on good hardware I really don’t have any words that I think will convey the experience. I mean, it helps that at that moment in 1969 Dusty had cosmic mojo, fabulous producers, and took on a list of classics. I guess the most famous would be Windmills of Your Mind, but there are plenty more jewels.

Also, it’s a production triumph. The arrangements are cool, the musicians are razor-sharp, and the recording is just slightly on the dirty side of pristine, which is exactly what you want; it really does that thing that vinyl is (in my mind) a little better at than digital — creating the illusion of a bunch of musicians down at that end of the room.

     When you knew that it was over, you were suddenly aware
     that the autumn leaves were turning to the color of his hair.

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FaviconTech Office Sketches 15 Feb 2019, 3:00 pm

Herewith notes from the white-hot center of the Internet software profession. Maybe the reality these reflect prevails across other technology territories, but I wouldn’t know. In no particular order:

Videoconferencing

Generally it sucks. There’s Skype ’n’ TeamViewer ’n’ Zoom ’n’ Webex ’n’ our own Chime ’n’ GoToMeeting ’n’ join.me and they all suck in their own unlovable idiosyncratic ways. The visual glitches I can tolerate, but the audio problems make me want to scream; dropouts, static, echoes, the noise of hands softly leafing through a document drowning out any non-booming voice.

In my decades-long career, I’ve used one videoconferencing system that was reliable and almost always Just Worked. It was by Polycom, but then the infrastructure people said “super old school” and replaced it with something modern that often doesn’t. I suspect darkly that the technology is passable but a bean-counter somewhere has refused to buy enough bandwidth to make it sing? Blecch.

Screens

The amount of screen real-estate per geek grows monotonically. Dual-27" screens plus your laptop’s own screen are table stakes, and I’m seeing the occasional massive 50"-plus 4K screen. I asked one guy “How can you use all that space?” He said “I can’t of course, all the stuff I’m actively working on is in the middle third, bottom half. But having everything else within visible reach is such a win.” OK then.

I have to admit that I’m becoming increasingly conscious that the pixels on my curved 34" Dell U3415W are in fact visible, and the contrast between that and my Retina laptop screens is a perceptible irritant. #FirstWorldProblem.

Desks

The proportion that are motorized is higher every quarter. I’d find it hard to live without mine. The mix of people standing and sitting makes the otherwise-dreary rows of software-engineer desks a little easier on the eye, which welcomes disorderly human distributions.

Office space

Since I mentioned it: All the high-tech companies I’ve worked for have resolutely ignored the research I hear about that seems to say putting expensive engineers out on the floor with no separating walls leads to grievous productivity losses. Isn’t this biz supposed to be data-driven?

Diversity

We do work on the problem, but the gender ratios are still not good.

If you can get past that (I can’t) there are grounds for good cheer. Here in Vancouver we draw from the very considerable Canadian talent pool, but our immigration law lets us hire major distributed-systems talent from almost anywhere in the world. The resulting mix actually makes me feel optimistic about humanity; the AWS Service groups that surround me offer visible in-the-flesh proof that there’s plenty of software talent in any ethnic, linguistic, or geographic slice across the membership of Homo sapiens.

I’m amused that when chance lands two engineers on a problem who happen to share a native tongue, they immediately drop out of English and into Polish or some south-central Han dialect or whatever it is Nigerian geeks speak to each other. There’s this one group near me that has three guys named Muhammad; one them is called by his actual name, then there’s “Mo” and “Momo”. It seems to work, and by the way Momo seems to be the leading expert on AWS Region Build Automation, which is a big freaking hairy deal around here. Protip to the industry: If you’re not recruiting out of West Africa, you’re missing out on major engineering talent.

Darkness

I’m talking about screens. What with the advent of Mojave, light text on a dark background has officially re-entered the GUI mainstream. But more or less all the younger engineers had already switched their IDEs over to light-on-dark. My white-background IntelliJ and Goland screens mark me as a dinosaur.

I’ve cared deeply about typography and presentation for a long time and the issues here are interesting. I freely acknowledge that my preference for dark-on-light is probably an artifact of my having tuned my brain, in my youth, to ink-on-paper. Since screens are, at the end of the day, light-displaying devices, there’s an argument that the natural on-screen design language for typography and information display is light-on-dark. I wonder if there’s quantitative research in the space?

Speaking of IDEs

I guess the big story is the decline of Eclipse from “more or less everybody’s default” to “there are still people using it”. VS Code has momentum but IntelliJ has a plenty of loyalists, and then the front-end tribe are often in Atom and Sublime. I’m happy to report that neither Vim nor Emacs have gone away. But recently our license server was having problems and I couldn’t use Goland and found the Emacs go-mode story pretty weak.

Speaking of languages

It’s no secret that the Internet still runs, more than anything else, on Java. Could be worse, I remember when it all ran on PHP and Perl. And I don’t want to diss Java too much. The tooling story is exceptional, and once your JVM gets properly warmed up, there’s nothing that runs usefully faster. And these days, for new stuff you should spell Java “Kotlin”. Especially since if you let those young pups who won’t get off my lawn use Java, they’ll emit all this Java 8+ stream/lambda stuff that is easy to make indecipherable.

What’s happening out on the front-end frontier, the Cambrian explosion of JS-based technologies, makes me happy that I mostly don’t go there.

On the back end where I live, we’ve got Go and Rust creeping in big-time. I’m no longer surprised when I pull up some package buried deep in our serverless infrastructure and it turns out to be in Go. Well, and for serverless code too, if only because of the fast startup.

If you live in the world of ML or data science, you’re using Python; you don’t have a choice and it’s not terrible.

Then Rust, for when you get close to the metal. There was an internal new-languages thread where someone said “If you can’t tolerate GC, use Rust. Otherwise use Go.” Sounds reasonable. A few zealots are saying everything new should be in Rust because otherwise you’re being wilfullly unsafe. But I like having the runtime manage memory for me, whenever I can get away with it.

Inside the software

REST is still a really good way to piece pieces of the software world together. Of course, what with the rise of HTTP/2 and QUIC, what the programmer thinks of as RESTful requests are something quite other, out on the wire. This feels about like us thinking we’re using x86 instructions on our silicon even though what the circuits are doing is really totally different.

To the extent that interfaces aren’t REST, they’re mostly event streams of one kind or another. Where by “Event” I mean “JSON blob”; by and large good enough. This is the area I’m working on this year, lots of opportunities for improvement.

The good news: Each generation of devs that comes along is a little more test-infected than its predecessors. I still run across islands of ignorance where they think it’s OK to ship code now and do the unit tests later (as if that ever happens), but less and less each year.

Which computers?

Still more Macs than anything else, although there’s an undeniable Windows renaissance. Having said that, even the smart people with the coolest Surface devices are often bitching about problems with things called “drivers” — what are those for, anyhow? — and lockups, and saying “Sorry, just a moment while I get my computer going”.

If I were a little less aged and cynical, I’d be boiling over with anger at Apple’s inexcusable stewardship of the Mac franchise; Gruber’s “D” grade is maybe even generous. This is a product that used to feature instant wake-up (gone), MagSafe (gone), lots of useful I/O ports including SD card readers (gone), a good built-in photo editor (gone), and the world’s best keyboards (gone). It absolutely shocks me that a company can get away with making its product successively worse and then worse again, year after year. Among other things it speaks to how good the core design of MacOS is.

But maybe 2020 is the year of Linux on the desktop?

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FaviconD&I Soundbites 9 Feb 2019, 3:00 pm

I went to a two-day “D&I workshop for leaders”. Many in biz will know what that stands for: Diversity and Inclusion. The people facilitating were WMFDP, which stands for “White Men as Full Diversity Partners”. Having said that, only one of the two was a white man, and the audience was more gender-diverse than the high-tech norm. Everyone was senior, there were lots of VPs in the room. It had a strong effect on me.

Truths

In the technology space, we suck at diversity. We’re broadly better than average at LGBTQ, probably not far off the mainstream at Under-Represented Minorities, and terrible at gender. Tech leadership is by and large aware of the problem, takes it seriously, and would be very happy if there were a lever they could pull to fix it. They are investing considerable energy, including a nontrivial amount of leadership time, a very scarce resource.

Reportage

I’ve been trying for weeks to figure out my take on the workshop, turn it into a nice narrative with a story arc and Big Lessons. That hasn’t worked. But when I went back to review my notes I found a few really resonated. So what the hell, here are the ones I think worth reading. Draw your own conclusions.

Some of these are what the facilitators were saying. Some of them are quotes from other people. Some are me talking to myself. They start out pretty business-y but get personal.

  1. We were trying to close a $100M deal, and the customer wanted to see our D&I numbers, including diversity among our suppliers.

  2. In hiring, look for “Returnees”, people who’ve taken a break and want to come back to work. In practical terms, these are almost all women who’ve been doing family caregiving.

  3. Shortening the list of qualifications in job postings can be useful, because of men’s propensity to be aspirational in describing their qualifications.

  4. When we get women into the interview process, we hire them at the same rate as men. So we need to interview more.

  5. I am the tech business. I’ve had all the jobs, done all the things. If a diverse population doesn’t want to join it, I’m what they don’t want to join.

  6. If you look at the Fortune 500’s diversity programs, they’re basically all led by women. So we’re asking the outsider group to do all the work of fixing the discrimination against them. A few white guys running some of these things might not be a terrible thing. There’s a parallel with husbands who say they’re happy to help at home but ask their wives to do all the hard emotional/logistical work.

  7. The evidence of bias and anti-diversity prejudice is statistically overwhelming, no matter how many individual leaders deny having it.

  8. Men will remain indifferent unless they perceive they will benefit from D&I.

  9. In tech, the bias is present and measurable, but is rarely explicit or intentional, and the people who empirically must be responsible will hotly deny being part of the problem. (But maybe less so based on attendance at this exercise?)

  10. People don’t know how to talk about it. Talking about it is difficult, and that’s OK.

  11. Short meetings are a form of discrimination — shy people don’t get words in.

  12. This black guy in the sales organization, super senior and successful, says “I haven’t told anybody, but I’ve been keeping count, in meetings, of black people among the customers at my level. Still haven’t got to ten.”

  13. “Insider culture” — individualism — low tolerance for uncertainty — action vs reflection — rationality over emotion — time is linear and future-focused — status and rank win over correctness.

  14. The ultimate privilege is being listened to.

  15. When I mentor people, should I encourage them to be more like me?

  16. Who should be teaching about male privilege? Ideally not always women.

  17. Women say they have to do a lot more thinking before they get their clothes on and walk out the door.

  18. So disappointed at the times I’ve heard “I’m used to it.”

  19. Insiders are identified as individuals, not as members of a group.

  20. It’s totally reasonable for outsiders to see me as “just another white guy”.

  21. It’s not my fault but I’m responsible.

A conversation

In one of the exercises, we were in smallish groups and were asked: “Everyone look inside themselves and find a dimension along which you’re an outsider. Say a few words on what that is and how you feel about it.” Well… I came up empty, and said so. I’m white, male, live in the nation where I was born, straight, able-bodied, well-paid, lucky, and have mainstream tastes.

There was a short uneasy silence. Then this smart, polished, accomplished, person who unlike me is not an insider-on-every-axis looked me in the eye and said “So, why are you here?” The honest truth is I’m really freaking sick of spending all my time in rooms full of men, so I said that but it felt unsatisfactory. I looked for something deeper to say but came up empty.

My crazy idea

I think we in big tech companies should publicly face down our problems, starting with the worst ones. To start with, I’d like us to disclose the actual gender-diversity numbers in our engineering organizations and take a public goal of changing them, say by 5% over a couple of years, and then disclose the results.

Because here’s the thing: The people in the management ranks in big tech are, by and large, pretty smart and resourceful. Tell them they’re going to be judged on any given number, and they’ll figure out a way to move that number in the right direction.

“It’s not my fault but I’m responsible.”

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