ongoing by Tim Bray

ongoing fragmented essay by Tim Bray

FaviconEventBridge 11 Jul 2019, 3:00 pm

The launch of Amazon EventBridge, a somewhat but not entirely new thing, has been well-covered by Jeff Barr; if you want to know what it is, go read Jeff. This piece is to provide a bit of background and context on EventBridge. I didn’t actually make any direct contributions, but was upstream from this work at the definition and early-planning stage.

CloudWatch what?

My first work at AWS was on the project that launched in January 2016 as CloudWatch Events. To us it felt like a small, simple, service — write rules to route notifications of things happening out there in AWS to Lambdas or other useful destinations. It wasn’t a big team or a big task and, when it came time to name it and find it a home, it was hard to believe it deserved top-level service billing.

EventBridge stickers

Coming soon to a laptop near you. Warning: Prepared by engineers without involvement by marketing professionals or lawyers; let’s hope they’re OK.

Since CloudWatch already offered alarming and logging, eventing seemed like a nice third leg of the tripod, so our work launched as a tab on the CloudWatch page, and we thought that was OK.

Customers apparently liked it, and over the years, CloudWatch Events accumulated a mind-boggling number of users and a lot of the things they were doing weren’t really CloudWatch-y at all. Also, the whole Event-Driven Architectures drumbeat kept growing louder and louder out there in the community.

Last year, we got the idea of helping third parties (mostly SaaS vendors) integrate with their customers on AWS, and quickly became convinced that eventing was the right way to do this — while I’m a fan of the Webhook concept, the reality has not been a smooth ride. Once we’d made that call, enhancing the CloudWatch Events APIs to meet partner needs was pretty straightforward once we’d thought through the security dimensions. Except for, this was getting waaaay outside CloudWatch territory.

Which Bridge?

So, we decided that this service deserved top-level billing and went looking for a new name. The best possible answer would be “AWS Events”, right? Wrong. Go look at and hey, re:Invent, re:Inforce, AWS Summits… you get the picture. Thus EventBridge, which isn’t terrible.

(By the way, all your CloudWatch Events stuff still works and none of the existing API names or semantics have changed.)

The Event Ecosystem

It’s getting pretty big. Inside AWS, Lambda and SNS are event-centric. If you check out our competitors, you’ll notice more services with “Event” in their names every year. The numbers of events flowing through our various accumulated event streams has a lot of digits.

I’m personally pretty convinced that, while you can hook everything together with APIs, there are a whole lot of scenarios where choosing events buys you so much robustness and flexibility that it’s really hard not to. Is it perfect? Of course not: There are lots of places where the API ecosystem is slicker.

If you want to a really good explanation of why event-driven stuff might be in your future, the AWS NYC Summit talk by Mike Deck has what you need. As I write this the day of the summit, it doesn’t seem to be online but I’ll refresh once it gets there; and I bet Mike will reprise at future AWS, uh, events.

There’ll be lots more chapters in this story.

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FaviconWealth Tax Stupidity 9 Jul 2019, 3:00 pm

Canada’s mainstream conservative biz paper The Financial Post recently published The NDP’s new tax-the-rich plan is terrible, even by their standards and it is stuffed with white-hot stupidity and bad arithmetic. Arguing against any given tax is sane — that’s what conservatives are for, innit? — but if they’re going to use math that would get you an “F” in Grade 8, they deserve a whack with the cluestick.

Here’s a Post out-take:

The proposal is for an annual one per cent tax on wealth over $20 million. This means that if an Ontario resident to whom this tax applies invests $100,000 in a 1.5 per cent GIC for one year (about the rate currently offered by big banks), he or she will earn a $1,500 nominal return on which will be owed $1,833 in tax — $833 in income tax, including the higher top marginal income tax rate, plus another $1,000 for the wealth tax.

The effective tax rate on the GIC return is 122 per cent, which is what the NDP now calls “tax fairness.”

Let’s enumerate some facts:

  1. Canada has a reasonably-typical developed-world tax regime; in the top income bracket, you pay a little over 50% in tax.

  2. Wealthy people do not put their money in 1.5% GICs, they pay investment professionals to manage it. Typically, the wealthier they are, the better returns they can get because they can hire better money managers. (There’s interesting data on this in Piketty.) Let’s say they’re going to realize 4% or so, because in fact most wealthy people do better than that. I’m a one-percenter but nowhere near the hypothetical twenty-millioner in the narrative, and I do better.

  3. A little arithmetic reveals that Mr $20M will pull in about $800K in investment income, $400K net after tax. Actually, he’ll do better because some investment income will be capital gains, taxed at half the rate, and he’ll probably do better than 4% too. But then there’s the 1% wealth tax, so subtract that for a worst-case net income of $200K if he refuses to spend any of his capital.

    Now, people with that kind of money usually have other wealth-generating activities (how else did they get there?), which is on top of the $200K. Until they retire. The conventional wisdom says that a retiree can extract 4-5% of their capital per annum, which for this person would be pushing a million, except for there are lots of tax dodges open to retirees, so while they’d still be stuck with the $200K wealth tax, they could keep more of that million.

So, the things that were wrong about that $100K-deposit story:

  1. It’s completely bogus to combine the wealth tax and the income tax and say it’s “on the GIC return”. I’d say “Data fail” but that’s too kind; the 122% figure is a filthy, stinking lie.

  2. And anyhow, the whole scenario is science fiction, the “$20 million” part just doesn’t go with the “$100K GIC” part. If a conservative advocating lower taxes has to resort to this kind of specious bullshit, you have to wonder if it’s because they can’t find better arguments.


I think a small wealth tax, maybe starting in the low-double-digit millions, is a fine idea. I think that people subject to it will in practice remain extremely affluent. Their fortune would erode slowly over the years — having trouble seeing what’s wrong with that — but there’ll be plenty left to give their kids’ careers a rocket boost.

It’s perfectly reasonable to disagree with me. But if you’re going to resort to numerical flummery I’m going to think just you’re a greedy asshole with no intellectual legs to stand on.

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FaviconReasons to Cycle 6 Jul 2019, 3:00 pm

Recently I enthused on the life impact of getting an e-bike. The enthusiasm remains and I two-wheel to work almost every day. Often my thoughts are of the form “What makes this so great is…” Here are some of those, but there’s a very specific assumption: that your home city has decent bikelane infrastructure. Vancouver’s is not world-class but also not terrible, and I’ll toss in a few pix from my commute for non-bike-commuters who might not have seen what that means.

On 18th Ave in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver

I have 2½ blocks of regular street between home
and the nearest bike route. But it’s pretty nice.

It’s free

No charge to use the public roads or bikepaths. No charge to park, anywhere (the mind reels). The bike’s not free and I bought panniers and a lock, but compared to basically any car it’s peanuts, maintenance too (especially maintenance, actually). I have an e-bike so there are a few pennies’ worth of charging power every other week.

Public transit here is $24/week for my route, car parking is $10/day and way up, plus gas if you’re still misguidedly driving a fossil car.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

One technique for making a street bike-friendly is frequent interruptions so that for cars so it’s not a direct route to anywhere. Another is a roundabout at every other corner that makes them wake up and steer. Another is to have lots of bikes on it.

It’s fast

This thing ticks along at 25km/h on the level, 20 uphill, 35-40 downhill. If I take my car and the traffic’s not bad I can get there way faster, but the traffic’s never not bad if you want to work reasonably conventional hours. You could argue that the car offers comfy seats, weather protection, and music. But…

No waiting!

Humans are born to travel; being on the road’s one of our natural conditions. (If you’ve ever doubted this, go read Chatwin’s The Songlines.) But I have never in my whole life encountered anyone who wasn’t irritated during those times when they’re trying to get somewhere and have to wait. Urban driving is all about waiting: For the light, for the other cars trying to get on the bridge or make that turn, for the slowpoke who isn’t sure where they’re going, for the pedestrians drifting across the road looking at their phones.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

It’s not perfect. This is a combo crosswalk for pedestrians, who have a right-of-way over cars, and bikes, who don’t. But if you meet their eyes they usually stop and then you should give them a friendly wave so they feel virtuous.

When you’re commuting by bike, you only ever stop for traffic lights and on a well-designed bikepath there aren’t many. It’s all flow and motion, the wind in your face and the scenery hurtling backward. For my money, this is the biggest win. I’ve never claimed the virtue of patience but I don’t think I’m that unusual.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

Above, probably the most dangerous part of my ride. Not because it’s shared with cars — the lanes are well-marked and there’s a stop sign at every corner. It’s because it’s a steep downhill and you can have way too much fun going fast, which in itself would be OK except that bikes have really terrible braking power, especially on wet streets, which we have a lot of in Vancouver. I skidded right through a stop sign the other day, terrifying myself, and now I take it slower than I used to.

It’s good for you

This is a little more complicated than you might think, because cyclists are several times more likely than motorists to be killed per kilometer traversed. I can testify to this; in 2000 I was hit by a car that lurched into forward motion as I was coasting through a crosswalk 18 inches in front of its bumper, severely broke my shoulder, had surgery and spent a week in hospital. But — did I mention it was complicated? — cyclists cover a lot fewer kilometers than motorists, and the death rates vary strongly with age and fitness, and the data doesn’t necessarily apply to cyclists on a modern well-designed bikepath network.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

The only part of the route which is an ordinary road. It also goes right by a big cop shop, so you have to think the drivers will be a little more careful than average.

Another danger is pollution and yeah, urban cycling, during the current fossil-car interregnum, does involve inhaling exhaust.

But then there are the health benefits of getting a half-hour or more of low-impact aerobic exercise every weekday, and they are not subtle, not in the slightest.

Researchers at regular intervals over the years have tried to balance out the pros and cons. Spoiler: The upside wins, big-time. Probably the best survey I ran across researching this was Bicycling: Health Risk or Benefit? by Teschke, Reynolds, Riese, Gouge, and Winters (of UBC and SFU, here in Vancouver!) published back in 2012 but more recent papers I ran across came out about the same, and this one is nicely condensed and presented. Four of the studies they survey, from 2009 through 2012, offer numerical estimates of the ratio of benefit to risk, and those estimates are: 15:1, 9:1, 19:1, and 96:1.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

I get to bicycle over the ocean twice a day, every day. The view never gets old.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway

This is what the bikepaths downtown look like. There’s more stopping for red lights, but they have no-nonsense concrete barriers between you and the cars.

Mentally too

Some of those studies actually call out mental-health benefits such as decreased risk of depression, and that’s interesting. But at another level, I feel intuitively that a half-hour in which I’m living in the moment, not gathering wool, not ingesting media, watching like a hawk for dorky drivers and pokey pedestrians, banking around corners and dodging potholes, pedaling hard to beat a yellow light… well, the benefit doesn’t feel subtle.

When I walk into the lobby at work I feel more alive than the mole people emerging from the car-park elevator.

On Vancouver’s Yukon bikeway" />

The last lap, up Vancouver downtown’s Robson street. Which is comically vacant all the time except for a few minutes around 9AM and 5PM. Lots of times you could spread out your yoga mat for a few stretches in either lane with no worries. They really ought to make it a pedestrian/bike street.

It’s good for the planet

Well, yeah. Come on and give it a try. If you’re a little old and/or creaky, splash out for an e-bike. Call it an investment because it is, and in things that are important.

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FaviconCL XXXVIII: Refactorings 30 Jun 2019, 3:00 pm

What with our jobs and our kids, Cottage Life time has been tough in recent years. But we still believe in the place and the project enough to put money into repairing our dock and replacing our boat. Which raises issues of work-life balance and money laundering. And as always, these pieces are vehicles for pretty pictures of Keats Island and Howe Sound.

Looking north from Keats Island

This is actually from an earlier visit in April. Behind the elegant hydrangea-blossom corpses, Howe Sound and Gambier Island.


What happened was, last winter’s windstorms got nasty, and one of them cost us the aluminum ramp connecting our dock and our float. We need a dock because Keats Island doesn’t have much by way of roads. We need to tie the boat to a float because there are more than five meters of tide in Howe Sound. We need a ramp (with hinges at the top and wheels on the bottom) connecting the two. The old ramp, a flimsy piece of indoor construction scaffolding with rails welded on, was no great loss; and we hadn’t put a penny into the system in years.

Separately, our old boat (see here and here), now 31 years in age, had reached the end of its useful life, with ballooning maintenance costs and failing subsystems. So, as of late May, we’re the owners of a Jeanneau 795, called a Merry Fisher in Europe and an NC 795 in the New World. Boats have been built under the Jeanneau name (that link’s to French Wikipedia) since 1957 and are now manufactured in Poland. Here’s ours:

Jeanneau NC 795 under Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge

That’s Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge and part of the city center behind it. We’re at the Burrard Civic Marina, which despite the great location, is Vancouver’s cheapest boat parking. It’s a city operation and definitely not a Yacht Club, as in no lounges nor daiquiris nor gala socials, nor really much in the way of amenities. But it’s competently run and location makes up for a lot.

It turns out that boat design has made advances in the last thirty years, and apparently the French are good at it. Which is to say, the new one has a lot going for it. It’s just slightly larger than the old boat end-to-end and immensely more spacious inside. It’s comfy, quiet (the old one was loud), has a lot of light inside, and given that the 795’s a popular choice in the North Sea and the famously-blustery Western Mediterranean, probably safe for our inshore-boating needs.

Funny money?

So, my boat broker called up and said “The Jeanneau dealer in Richmond has a boat you ought to look at. A 2017 and the price is good.” I liked the look and haggled a bit, the survey came up good and the test-drive (we say “sea trial”) was fine and eventually we did the deal.

Then I noticed: The boat had only 42 hours on the motor. All the cushions were encased in the original plastic. It had been kept in a boathouse, which usually signals serious money. The buyer (whom I never met) had a Chinese name.

At this point, local news connoisseurs are rolling their eyes and going “Oh yeah?” Over the last few years, it’s been revealed that Vancouver, my beloved hometown, has been one of the world headquarters for the laundering of, uh, “funds of questionable origin”. In quite a few cases, those questionable origins have been located in China, and by elaborate mechanics that I don’t fully understand, processing them through Vancouver real-estate transactions and casino gambling and luxury car sales have made them clean. You want details, go follow Sam Cooper.

I bet no regulations whatsoever get in the way of buying a nice brand-new yacht with a duffel bag full of $100 bills and, well, there’s a significant chance that I personally helped launder some money. Live and learn.

But hey, possibly the guy snapped up the boat and then got busy at work or his wife hated it or his kids were seasick or business took a bad turn and he needed the cash, could all be perfectly legit. These are times that cultivate suspicion.


That stands for “Working From Boat” and involves a lifestyle problem. Which is, I’ve been getting tired of going to work every day, and toying with thoughts of retirement. I really enjoy my job and like the people there, but there are days when the office palls. Working from home, in moderation, is perfectly OK at Amazon but isn’t really an option for me, because our house only has one office, occupied by the world headquarters of Textuality and its CEO Lauren Wood.

I’ve only had the new boat a few weeks and, well let me tell ya, the prospect of an afternoon or two a week WFB pushes the retirement option somewhat off the front burner. In fact, a majority of my job is talking with people. But there’s still time during which I’m reviewing docs or code, writing docs, or even (*gasp*) writing code. I think the boat is going to be just the ticket. The marina WiFi is only OK so I’m looking at alternatives.

On top of which, basic civic-marina moorage is cheaper than office rent.

What about “Cottage Life”?

Oh, right, the point of having a boat was access to our island retreat. A few days back, we got word that Hanson Land & Sea had our dock and ramp and float all reconnected and, since they’d probably like to be paid, it was pretty urgent that we take a look. Potential problem: My 89-year-old Mom was visiting. But the new boat (which had never been to the island at this point) is quiet and comfy, right? So we loaded up all three generations and took off.

Lunch with Mom overlooking the Pacific, and a slow walk in the forest. Ahhhh…

Forest on Keats Island Forest on Keats Island

Listen to the trees.

(By the way, the new ramp, and the work hooking everything up, seem hunky-dory, so I can recommend Hanson if you need work done in Howe Sound.)

And then, look what Lauren found on our deck. Sad, of course, but what a wondrous piece of work. [Update: Someone on social media argues that by this time of year, the nest’s work is done and since the birds will shed no tears at its fall, neither should we.]

Fallen birds-nest

If you’re in Vancouver, ping me and drop by sometime for a cup of tea at my (occasional) waterfront office.

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FaviconAuntie Beth’s Present 29 Jun 2019, 3:00 pm

My Aunt Beth died a few weeks ago. Her real name was Bertha Marian White (née Scott), here’s her obituary. I was close to her when I was a kid; she was an awfully nice person, and I’m sad. But she’d been fading for years, and in the way of death these days, Beth the person we knew pre-departed the spark of life in her body. One reason we loved her is she always gave the best birthday presents, and she did that again one last time this month.

Here’s a 1986 picture of Beth’s and my branches of the family.

Beth White and Jean Bray and their children in 1986

I’m not going to Net-publish the names of living people unless I’m pretty sure they’re OK with that. Beth is in the blue dress; beside her in glasses my Mom Jean Bray. Beth’s living sons are behind her, either side; the elder is Bill White, who we’ll be hearing more from. The woman in the front married Beth’s youngest and is holding Beth’s first grandson, who is now online at Henry White Music. At the right side of the picture, with glasses, is Beth’s now-deceased husband Ralph White, one of twelve siblings of whom ten are still living.

I’m in the red sweater and my brothers are beside me in white and with a beard in the back row. The woman in black was married to my bearded brother.

That birthday present

Beth’s memorial was on my birthday. It was so great to get together with family that, although I’m only one province over, I seldom see. What a great birthday present; thanks Beth! (And Myra, who organized it.)

Beth was a big talker and a fabulous cook, eccentric in her beliefs and habits. But I was just a kid; it never dawned on me that her regularly staying up till two in the morning on one project or another was because she was running the place, probably — this was the Sixties — with only moderate support from her all-male family.

At the memorial, I learned there were a couple of seriously tough periods when the ends really had to be stretched to meet. I’d never noticed, I was just a kid. And she lost her son Dan, who was a year older than me and I was pretty close to. He was shot by a drunk with a hunting rifle in a parking lot outside a bar. He’d been a party animal and a star athlete and I’m pretty sure he would have gone far in this world.

Beth was never ever without a smile. Now I wonder what they cost her.

The memorial event

It was in Beth’s youngest’s big house in Balzac, Alberta. That branch of the family has had five kids, of whom several are now reproducing. In the first picture Henry White, whom we saw as a baby above, sings Abide With Me, his sister accompanying. Good voice! Henry, an active Christian, also gave us a reading from Scripture (1 Corinthians 4:7-15, James 4:13-15, and Romans 5:18) and a few observations on it. Also there were personal memories and biographical notes from several of Beth’s grandkids,

Aunt Beth’s grandchildren perform at her funeral

Then Bill White, Beth’s oldest son, got up and gave us an extended tour through Beth’s life, throwing color on the facts, finding humor and sorrow. It was a masterful piece of work.

Aunt Beth’s eldest son speaks at her funeral

Then we said the Lord’s Prayer (my kids wouldn’t even know the words) and sat down with tea and good things to eat.

I’ve grown into another space — multicultural, coastal, technical — but this is my birth tribe, comfortable in their skins on the Prairies. We didn’t talk much about pipeline politics or theology, but I enjoyed every minute with every one of them. Thanks everyone.

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FaviconGo Creeping In 12 Jun 2019, 3:00 pm

I’ve seen the inside of the Google and Amazon tech stacks. There are common threads that run through them and also, I bet, through most BigTechCos. Here and there down the stack is a lot of C++ and vestigial remnants from earlier days, Perl or PHP or whatever. Out in front of humans, of course, JS. But in between, there are oceans and oceans of Java; to a remarkable degree, it runs the Internet. Except for, here and there, you find a small but steadily increasing proportion of Go.

Golang gopher

If you want to know what’s going on at Google, go follow Brad Fitzpatrick. If you want to know what’s going on at Amazon, I shouldn’t spill those beans without asking for permission, which I’ve never been good at. But I can write about what I’m hearing and seeing when I look around, both inside here and out there on the Internet.

I don’t know of any co-ordinated campaigns, here or anywhere else, aimed at walking away from Java or encouraging Go (or any other replacement) in a top-down way. I do notice good engineers just going ahead and standing up Go-based microservices.

There are a bunch of reasons for this, and lots of smart people have written wise words on the subject. But here are my perceptions.


I initially fell in love with Ruby because other people’s code was just easier to read than anything else I’d previously encountered. You needed to learn what how blocks work and what |foo| means, then it all just fell into place. Then when, based on that, you figured out Enumerable, you might have had heart palpitations.

Go takes it a step further. You need to get used to type declarations being backward and how interfaces work. Then when you learn about channels and goroutines, you might experience shortness of breath.

It’s amazing —amazing I say — how little generics are missed. To date, Go remains the small, simple language that fogies like me can remember Java being. I suppose that can’t last, but for now, I can pop open almost any .go file and if I can’t understand it pretty quick, the chances are very high that the problem is in the code not me.


The Go runtime is garbage-collected, but the GC design is consciously optimized to be predictable and not induce latency; here’s a nice deep-dive. There’s no free lunch, so that excellent latency probably carries a price in throughput. Which for a whole lot of online services is a good bargain.

Performance isn’t a simple subject. But there’s a perception among insiders that Go’s performance is good enough and its latency is low enough. Furthermore, that you can expect pretty similar numbers for P50 and P99.9 latencies. And a Go program starts up fast, which we in the Serverless tribe really like.


They make it easy and idiomatic to arrange that some parts of your computation be done in parallel with other parts. And unlike other concurrency frameworks I’ve fought with, you can pretty well just fling a (potentially huge) number of tasks at goroutines, and empirically, the runtime does a good job of keeping the cores busy and the work flowing through.

And (assuming a little care with buffer sizes) it’s very unlikely that you’ll get a deadlock or an annoying race-condition bug. I’ve never had one and I’ve seen plenty in certain other languages beginning with “J”.


The fact that Go generates statically linked binaries warms greybeards’ hearts, but I’ve noticed the young pups seem to like that too. And the first time I realized I could type GOOS=linux go build on my Mac and run the output as a Lambda function I grinned from ear to ear.

Speaking of Lambda, the Go runtime has pleased me every time I’ve tried it. Also I built a custom Lambda runtime in Go and that worked great on almost the first attempt, which impressed the hell out of me.

The future?

Nope, no language is, the future is obviously polyglot. But it’s a tool I’m turning to a whole lot, and I’m not the only one.

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FaviconMicromobility 9 Jun 2019, 3:00 pm

This buzzword has been echoing round the corners of Net conversation, not loud yet but the voices are those that have seemed smart in the past. I joined in a few months back by acquiring a Super Commuter+ 7 e-bike from Trek Bikes. Count me among the converted. I concluded what will probably be the last episode of my Jaguar Diary with “It makes me happy… but a new car isn’t a life-changer”. Well, I’m here to tell you that an e-bike is. And I suspect this whole Micromobility thing has legs.

Trek Commuter+ 7 e-bike and Jaguar I-Pace electric car

Two electric vehicles.

I’ve biked to work intermittently since I started at AWS in late 2014. But I’m fickle and wimpy. My route home has a continuous sixteen-block uphill segment, and it really hurts if you’re not pretty fit. At my age, you lose fitness faster and regain it slower. So if I went on a road-trip or got a bad cold or we had heavy snow and I didn’t cycle for a few weeks, I was back in sixteen-blocks-of-pain territory.

My doctor and my wife both said they thought the e-bike would be a good idea, and then I kept reading things on the Net about dubious velo-heads being won over. Some of those discussions included the experience of inhabiting an older body that struggles for fitness. Everyone seems to think that the exercise benefits, while not up to those you get from real do-it-all-yourself-biking, are still significant.

What it’s like

It’s important to understand that you don’t sit there motionless and cruise along like on a scooter or motorbike. If you don’t pedal, you don’t go. If you pedal harder, you go faster. The power design is smoothly intuitive; you hardly ever actually feel the electric assist directly. But for any given amount of pedaling pressure, you go a lot faster than you would on an unassisted bike. Yeah, the uphills still hurt, but less; also the pain ends faster.

It’s got ten gears and four boost levels: Eco, Tour, Sport, and Turbo. I find myself leaving it on Eco, sometimes switching to Tour for those sixteen blocks, but using the gears a lot, maybe more than on a regular bike. There’s a nice little Bosch Purion computer, where by “computer” I mean a speedometer and boost control. The boost stops working at 35km/h, which is dead easy to hit on level ground or going downhill.

It comes with a 110V AC charger which I need to use every week or two. I have no idea how long it takes to charge, but the battery’s full in the morning. You can detach the battery and take it inside if that makes charging easier.

The write-ups talk about how you can cruise into work and arrive fresh as a daisy, no shower needed. I dunno, I get a little sweaty but then it’s geek-informal where I work, if a suit were involved a shower would be in order. On the long uphill road home, I get plenty overheated.

The Commuter+ 7 is a heavy thing with a bulging battery, a fat frame, and fatter tires, which make for a comfy ride and cushion pothole punishment. When you turn off the boost, it’s a klunker. Also, I have panniers on the back, I drop my computer into a sleeve and the sleeve into the pannier, and arrive at work sans backpack; an oddity in geekville.

Because of the panniers, I’ve given up taking the car on almost all local shopping trips. The bike gets there about as fast, I can park it right in front of any store, and with the panniers I can carry along quite a few groceries and still have room for some beers.

But how does it feel?

It feels wonderful! My commute, which is almost exactly 4km, takes me under twenty minutes from my front door to my desk at work, a bit more or less depending on whether I make or miss traffic lights. It helps a lot that Vancouver has pretty good (and getting better) bike-route infrastructure.

Vancouver bike map legend Central Vancouver biking map

Extracted from the official City of Vancouver cycling map.

My commute is between near the bottom center and near the top center on that map. There are only a few blocks where cars and bikes are sharing street space as “equals”: the two between my home and where I get on the bikeway, and one block that happens to be right outside the main central-city police station. The result is I feel safe. Having said that, the one time I got hit by a car — badly, with ensuing hospital time and surgery, in 2000 — was when a stopped car suddenly lurched forward into a crosswalk; so you’re never 100% safe.

The big safety problem is the cool downhill parts of the route, where I (and my cycling-commuter peers) go like hell. That route also includes leafy residential hoods and a bridge over the ocean. It’s really pretty awesome and, as in many other ways, I’m a lucky guy.

(I do experience a certain amount of guilt while blowing by people who are obviously fitter than me just because I’m e-assisted and they’re self-powered.) (But I can learn to live with it.)

The economics

An electric bike isn’t cheap - this thing lists at $3,800 US. There are cheaper e-bike choices, but also way more expensive ones. Public transit would cost about a thousand a year and takes nearly twice as long to get there. My car is electric and thus (ignoring capital cost) close to free at these ranges, but then parking is $150/month or so if you sign up for the whole month, and $15/day and up a-la-carte. Bike parking is so far one of life’s few free offerings.

Then there are the health benefits from 40 minutes of moderate cardio workout per day, and the emotional win of spending no time either squashed into a packed train or sitting alone in a traffic-jammed auto. When you’re biking you’re moving, except for those damn red lights; we hatessss them, my precioussss.


This is the broader category of which e-bikes are a member, but also includes scooter variations and then the variegated two- and three-wheelers, mostly electric, I saw in Beijing.

One of the voices arguing that all this is A Big Deal is that of Horace Dediu, a long-time commentator on mobile tech and Apple, who invented the term Micromobility and organizes conferences on the subject.

Is it really a big deal? It seems to scratch humans’ built-in get-there-faster itch while paving a whole lot less of paradise. And, also as Horace says:

Horace Dediu on Micromobility

My mind is open. I have a hunch that e-bikes will loom large among micromobility choices; compared to stand-up options like scooters and Segways, they’re a little safer and a little faster. Also, they embody technologies that’ve been refined since the dawn of the bicycle in the early 1800s, and continue to evolve.

Anyhow, if you’re an urban traveler I strongly recommend trying one out.

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FaviconOn SQS 26 May 2019, 3:00 pm

In my position I probably shouldn’t have a favorite AWS product, just like you shouldn’t have a favorite child. I do have a fave service but fortunately I’m not an (even partial) parent; so let’s hope that’s OK. I’m talking about Amazon Simple Queue Service, which nobody ever calls by its full name.

I’d been thinking I should write on the subject, then saw a Twitter thread from Rick Branson (trust me, don’t follow that link) which begins Queues are bad, but software developers love them. You’d think they would magically fix any overload or failure problem. But they don’t, and bring with them a bunch of their own problems. After that I couldn’t not write about queueing in general and SQS specifically.

SQS banner

SQS is nearly perfect

The perfect Web Service I mean: There are no capacity reservations! You can make as many queues as you want to, you can send as many messages as you want to, you can pull them off fast or slow depending how many readers you have. You can even just ignore them; there are people who’ll dump a few million messages onto a queue and almost never retrieve them, except when something goes terribly wrong and they need to recover their state. Those messages will age out and vanish after a little while (14 days is currently the max); but before they go, they’re stored carefully and are very unlikely to go missing.

Also, you can’t see hosts so you don’t have to worry about picking, configuring, or patching them. Win!

There are a bunch of technologies we couldn’t run at all without SQS, ranging from to modern Serverless stuff.

The API is the simplest thing imaginable: Send Messages, Receive Messages, Delete Messages. I love things that do one thing simply, quickly, and well. I can’t give away details, but there are lots of digits in the number of messages/second SQS handles on busy days. I can’t give away architectures, but the way the front-end and back-end work together to store messages quickly and reliably is drop-dead cool.

Why not entirely perfect? Well, SQS launched in 2006. Most parts of the service have been re-implemented at least once, but some moss has grown over the years. I sit next to the SQS team and know the big picture reasonably well, and I think we can make SQS cheaper and simpler to operate.

When it launched it cost 10¢ per thousand messages; now it’s 40¢ per million API calls. “Per-message” can be a bit tricky to work out because sending, receiving, and deleting makes three calls per, but then SQS helps you batch and most high-volume apps do. Anyhow, it’s absurdly cheaper than back then, and I wonder whether, in a few years, that 40¢/million number will look as high as 10¢/thousand does today.

The opposition

So let’s go back to Mr Branson’s tweet-rant. He raises a bunch of objections to queues which I’ll try to summarize:

  1. They can mask downstream failures

  2. They don’t necessarily preserve ordering (SQS doesn’t).

  3. When they are ordered, you probably need to shard to lots of different streams and keep track of the shard readers.

  4. They’re hard to capacity plan; it’s easy to fill up RAM and disks.

  5. They don’t exert back-pressure against clients that are overrunning your system.

Here’s his conclusion.

Anti-queue closer from Rick Branson

While there are good queues, I agree with his sentiment. If you can build a straightforward monolithic app and never think about all this asynchronous crap, go for it! If your system is big enough that you need to refactor into microservices for sanity’s sake, but you can get away with synchronous call chains, you definitely should.

But if you have software components that need to be hooked together, and sometimes the upstream runs faster than the downstream can handle, or you need to scale components independently to manage load, or you need to make temporary outages survivable by stashing traffic-in-transit, well… a queue becomes “absolutely necessary”.

The proportion of services I work on where queues are absolutely necessary rounds to 100%. And if you look at our customers, lots of them manage to get away without queues (good for them!) but a really huge number totally depend on them. And I don’t think that’s because the customers are stupid.

Mr Branson’s charges are accurate descriptions of queuing semantics; but what he sees as shortcomings, people who use queues see as features. Yeah, they mask errors and don’t exert back-pressure. So, suppose you have a retail website named after a river in Brazil, and you have fulfillment centers that deliver the stuff the website sells. You really want to protect the website from fulfillment-center errors and throttling. You want to know about those errors and throttling, and a well-designed messaging system should make that easy. Yeah, it can be a pain in the butt to capacity-plan a queue — ask anyone who runs their own. That’s why your local public-cloud provider offers them as a managed service. Yeah, some applications need ordering, so there are queuing services that offer it. Yeah, ordering often implies sharding, and so your ordered-queue service should provide a library to help with that.

But wait, there’s more!

More kinds of queues, I mean. AWS has six different ones. Actually, that page hasn’t been updated since we launched Managed Streaming for Kafka, so I guess we have seven now.

We actually did a Twitch video lecture series to help people sort out which of these might hit their sweet spot.

With a whole bunch of heroic work, we might be able to cram together all these services into a smaller number of packages, but I’d be astonished if that were a cost-effective piece of engineering.

So with respect, I have to disagree with Mr Branson. I’d go so far as to say that if you’re building a moderately complex piece of software that needs to integrate heterogeneous microservices and deal with variable sometimes-high request loads, then if your design doesn’t have a queuing component, quite possibly you’re Doing It Wrong.

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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.


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 (or any) 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 seem 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.


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 army.


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.


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, 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


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.]


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.


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.


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.


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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