Time travel

Two brief items about time and my recently completed circumnavigation.
For years, my timepiece of choice has been the Citizen Skyhawk. It’s a solar-powered marvel, with only one flaw: its multiple city feature doesn’t accomodate the Indian time zone (IST=UTC+5:30). When I was at Hyderabad Airport last week, I stopped by a watch store and asked if, by any chance, Citizen now had a watch that could handle Indian time. They showed me a Navihawk: an earlier design, no longer sold in the USA ((Or at least not available through the Citizen store at, without solar power, but with full support for IST. ((Curiously, it still doesn’t support other half-hour zones, like Newfoundland, Tehran, or Adelaide.)) I bought one in a heartbeat: highly recommended for those who visit India regularly.
The Navihawk was a success; the iPhone less so. I disabled data roaming on my travels, for all the well-documented reasons; I also found that very few of the roaming carriers would send out the signal needed to automatically set the time. This shouldn’t have mattered: the iPhone allows you to set the date, time, and time zone by hand, so everything should just work. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Despite my best efforts, the “World Clock” and “Alarm” features of the Clock application were totally confused. I had planned to rely on the iPhone’s alarm function, and so I hadn’t bothered to pack a separate alarm clock. Eventually I worked out that the most reliable (but awkward) technique was to use the count-down “Timer”.
I’m really surprised at how buggy this part of the iPhone software is. I can only assume that Steve Jobs has never travelled abroad with his iPhone. Please fix it, Apple.


Photos are up

The photos from the trip (334 of them) are now up here. Among my favourites:
The “broken rainbow” bridge in Beijing.
The sheer scale of the Forbidden City.
A view inside….
Announcing a bake sale in my hotel for the earthquake victims.
Tianenman Square.

Hutong pics: #1, #2, #3.
Beijing subway.
Beijing Airport, Terminal 3.
An A380 at SIN.
Sign on a balcony at the Bangalore office.
Signs at the Java conference: #1, #2.
The A321 that took me from FRA to LHR.
The controversial Heathrow T5 in the rain.
UPDATE: If you’d just like to browse the pictures of the Forbidden City in Beijing, start here.


Heathrow works, Chicago sucks, Edam isn't

I’ve just arrived back in Seattle after my circumnavigation. The day started out uneventfully: I drove from Oxford to Heathrow, dropped off the car, took the shuttle to Terminal 3, checked in, and flew through security. What’s wrong with this picture? I thought Heathrow was the airport we all hated…
The flight to Chicago aboard an aging United 767 was long, a bit tedious, but mostly harmless. I could tell that I was back in the mediocre arms of the US airline industry, because the food was crap and you had to pay $5 or 3 Euros for a miniature alcoholic beverage. This particular 767 configuration did have seat-back video screens in coach, but (a) the screens were incredibly small, (b) the screen was fixed in place, and thus unviewable if the person in front reclined their seat, and (c) the IFE wasn’t working properly in my seat row anyway.
After watching postage-stamp sized snippets of various movies over the shoulders of those in front of me, I sat back and read “Into The Darkness”, Peter Zimonjic’s graphic but confused assemblage of survivors’ stories from the 7/7 bombings in London. (It would be greatly improved by the addition of three diagrams showing the positions of the trains and where each of the characters was.) My other book was Stephen Fry’s elegant tutorial on versification, “The Ode Less Travelled”. Unfortunately I had not brought along a notebook and pencils, and so I was unable to carry out the exercises that he directed his readers to perform before reading any further. Furthermore he also encouraged us to read the examples out loud, repeatedly, in order to appreciate the “stress-timed” nature of spoken English. Richard Feyman may have lived by the precept “What do you care what other people think?”, but I am rather more inhibited.
So I slept. This was a good preparation for the chaos that was Chicago O’Hare. It started well, with a landing in strong, gusty cross-winds that had many passengers squeaking in fear and prompted me to have a delightful chat with the captain about how nicely he’d handled things, which led on to discussions about trends in oceanic flow management (there’s been a widespread slowdown of Mach 0.02-0.03 to save fuel; we were cruising at M0.77 rather than the earlier standard of M0.8). Then immigration, and getting our bags, and clearing customs: all fairly mundane.
And then things started to go downhill. The baggage handling system for rechecking luggage through to domestic connections was broken, so everybody was forced to lug their bags to their domestic departure terminals. International travellers tend to have more baggage than most, and this completely swamped the inter-terminal rail service. I had to wait for three trains before I was able to board one. When we got to United’s Terminal One, none of the staff there were ready for the influx of bags, even though the system had been down for hours.
Next, security… We’re all used to the arrangement where a serpentine queue feeds into separate queues for each x-ray/metal detector. Only in Chicago would they think of having several TSA staff “tapping into” the serpentine queue at different points, so that nobody knew whether to wait for particular official or go further down the queue. The mood of the mob was not improved by the fact that only half of the x-ray units were open, despite the fact that the lines were all overflowing. Most of the TSA staff were as confused as we were, and kept asking each other who was in charge.
During my trip I visited ten airports: Seattle, San Francisco, Beijing, Singapore, Hyderabad, Bangalore (two different ones!), Frankfurt, London, and Chicago. Obviously the worst was the old Bangalore airport, which none of us will miss. That aside, Chicago clearly gets the wooden spoon. And it wasn’t just a problem of volume: Beijing, Singapore, Frankfurt and London all handle plenty of traffic. The sad truth is that US commercial aviation – the airports, the airlines, the planes they fly, the ATC that guides them – is in a pretty shabby state: a suicidal business model leading to underinvestment and decrepitude.
Here’s an interesting nugget. In India, I flew from Hyderabad to Bangalore on Kingfisher, one of the recent arrivals on the Indian scene. Even though the flight was only 90 minutes, on an ATR turboprop, the staff served everyone a three-course meal. How come? (Particularly when United cabin staff can barely manage a beverage service in that length of time.) I think what’s happening is that the Indian airlines haven’t got any elaborate fuel price hedging plans, and so in this era of volatile oil prices, fares are pretty much determined by a “fuel cost plus” calculation. But there are several carriers competing on every route, and since price competition is impractical, they have to compete on service. What a concept!
Anyway, I eventually boarded the 757 to take me from Chicago to Seattle. It was late, it was oversold, the in-flight entertainment system was broken, and one of the toilets needed last-minute repairs. There was no Indian-style three-course meal ((With vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.)) for us; we were given the opportunity to buy $5 boxes containing various ill-assorted snack products. Mine contained, inter alia, a can of tuna, a jar of hummus, various kinds of crackers, a bar of chocolate, some raisins, and a yellowish slab in a plastic wrapper, labelled “Edam style cheese food product“. The ingredients were listed as “Cheddar cheese”, followed by various chemicals intended to create the illusion of Edam. The attempt was a failure. If I were a resident of Edam or Cheddar, I would consider a lawsuit.
Never mind. I’m home.


"Tragic life stories"

I was in the Oxford W.H.Smith’s just now, and among the books upstairs they had two full shelves ((I.e. two bays of five shelves, each about 4 ft. wide.)) devoted to “Tragic life stories”. Accounts of abused childhood, “white slavery”, honour crimes, prostitution, life with medical or psychiatric conditions (including anorexia and self-mutilation), drugs, and kidnapping. And that’s just a sample: I found it too depressing to look any further. There was more space devoted to this subject than religion (good, I guess), science (bad, but not surprising) or football (truly bizarre).


In Oxford

I’m blogging from a Starbucks in Oxford, grimacing at the expense of the T-Mobile WiFi. Never mind. Herewith a random collection of observations about the last couple of days.

  • Bangalore was cool. The staff in the Amazon Bangalore office were very welcoming, and presentations and meetings went very well. I have a bunch of action items!
  • The IT conferences (on Java and Startups) and the ACM meeting I attended were full of energetic, ambitious people.
  • The new airport at Bangalore isn’t as pretty as the one at Hyderabad. It was functional, but barely. Most shops were empty of stock, the WiFi didn’t work, and everything seemed to happen 15-30 minutes behind schedule. The road from the city to the airport was… well, it was a typical Indian highway. Leave plenty of time….
  • I’d forgotten how much I hate Lufthansa’s long-haul service – especially the 747-400 fleet. Uncomfortable economy seats, minimal pitch, no real in-flight entertainment, and indifferent and poorly-timed service. The house magazine claims that they are replacing the economy seats with new ones, with seat-back video. Maybe. I’d settle for the nice leather seats from the A-321 that flew me from Frankfurt to Heathrow.
  • I’m flying back to Seattle on Tuesday, and I’ll be in the office on Wednesday. Phew!

"House of Suns" by Alastair Reynolds

My review from

Incredibly ambitious, but it works
Publishing’s a funny old business. Reynolds’ magnum opus, “House of Suns” has only just come out in hardback in both the UK and the US, but I found a paperback copy at Singapore Airport last Saturday. I hesitated for a moment – this is a big book: did I really want to lug it around the world? – but only for a moment.
One of the age old problems in science fiction is that of the speed of light. How can one write a decent space opera, with exotic starships visiting improbable planets, without violating the speed limit? Reynolds decides to stick with relativistic limitations (well, mostly) by playing with the other side of the equation: time. The result is an extraordinary mystery story at galactic scale, in which (for a few travellers) time is measured in thousands, even millions of years.
“House of Suns” is an audacious work. I’ve enjoyed all of Reynolds’ earlier books: even though the stories were more conventional than, say, those of Iain M. Banks, Reynolds confident mastery of his material has been undeniable. In the new book, he takes quite a few risks, and gets away with them. The conclusion… well, my first reaction was confusion, but I found myself realizing how utterly apposite it was.
Comparison between writers is invidious, but inevitable. Right now, two of the best science fiction writers are British: Banks and Reynolds. Before “House of Suns”, I would have said that Banks was clearly the greater talent. Now, I’m not so sure. What fun!



This is an interesting trip for airports. At Beijing, I arrived and departed through the extraordinary new Terminal 3. I only saw Singapore from the inside, but it’s one of the most impressive international shopping centres I’ve ever seen. At Hyderabad, I had my first experience of the new Rajiv Gandhi airport, which is a tremendous improvement over the old one (which was stuck on the side of an air force base).
And now Bangalore. I arrived on Tuesday night at the old airport, which was as chaotic and depressing as ever. (The rain didn’t help.) And on Saturday night (technically Sunday morning) I’ll be flying out of… well, hopefully the new Bangalore Bengluru airport. It was supposed to open for business on Friday, but suddenly the authorities have announced a 24 hour delay, so Saturday will be the first day of operation. I have a nervous feeling about this… I’m hoping that I won’t have a Terminal 5 experience.


Darwin's uncomfortable truths

Derb has a fabulous piece over at Taki’s Magazine about Darwin, evolution, and the uncomfortable consequences of this simple but revolutionary idea.

It cannot be denied, though, that Darwinism’s metaphysical implications are hard to square with any view of human nature not flatly biological; and this applies as much to the “blank slate” egalitarianism of the irreligious Left as to the soul-based universalism of the religious Right. This is inevitable. As an empirical view of living matter, chasing down its truths one by one through thickets of patient observation, Darwinism is bound to offend systems derived from introspection, revelation, or social approval.

(Channeling Pinker, of course.)

Only one view of human nature can be correct. Either we are the ensouled favorites of an omniscient deity; or we are biology and nothing else; or we are biological vehicles for a perfectly plastic uniform essence whose every trait is a consequence of the world immediately around us. The first option, in current American society, is largely the property of the political Right; the third, of the political Left. The middle option has no true political home, any more than Pythagoras’ Theorem has. Like Pythagoras’ Theorem, it is much the most useful of the three, and very likely true. Unlike the theorem, though, it tells us things about ourselves we cannot bear to hear. For that reason, it will probably never have wide acceptance.


At the sign of The Lucky Shamrock

I’m sitting in a restaurant called The Lucky Shamrock, at the far end of the incredible new Terminal 3 building at Beijing Airport. ((Curiosiy: There are lots of stores carrying duty-free, luxury, and Olympic-themed items, but no bookshop or newstand.)) Breakfast is on its way: the choices were “English”, “American” and “French” style. The latter includes shrimps… We shall see. At least they have WiFi, although for some reason (!) I can’t establish a VPN connection to Amazon. Another exmple of the Great Firewall at work, I guess.
The ride from the hotel to the airport was a white-knuckle affair: the taxi driver was determined to break all the records. We did it in 20 minutes, door to door, which wasn’t really necessary.
(OK, “English” consists of scrambled egg, a rasher of bacon, several slices of fried salami, two wedges of water-melon, and four triangles of dry toast. Sadly, I don’t like water-melon. Never mind: the coffee is excellent.)
Speaking of food, last night I decided to try the restaurant across the street from the Ascott Hotel. It’s the Yuxiang Kichen; part of a chain of “authentically Sichuan” restaurants. It was superb – the best meal I’ve had all week. The highlights were a terrine of preserved eggs, and a hot and sweet soup with fresh slices of pear. I’ll be back…
It’s 7:38; I’m boarding at 8:15. Check, please!


The streets of Beijing

When I’m in a new city, my impulse is to walk. Not take tours, or work through the top tourist spots, but simply to walk the streets, wherever they take me. (Remember Prague?) And when I start walking, I have a tendency to keep going, at a fairly brisk pace, until I can’t walk any more. Often I won’t stop to check out an interesting sight, or even to eat.
So it was today. I thought about visiting the Great Wall, but that would be an all-day commitment, and I wanted to get back and get some work done before Seattle woke up and I had to pack for my flight tomorrow. So around 9am I set off. As yesterday, I started west down Jianguomennei Dajie towards the Forbidden City, but when I reached Chaoyangmen Nandajie I turned south, under the railway tracks. I was looking for the Park of the Ming City Wall, which turned out to be delightful. There were elderly women doing their morning exercises, children everywhere, and ancient men who looked at me as though I was an alien. (I guess I was, in my broad-brimmed kangaroo leather hat and my “There’s no place like” t-shirt.) The oddest thing I came across was a perfectly preserved late Victorian style railway signal box!
At the end of the park, I followed Qianmon Dongdajie towards the south end of Tiananmen Square. I plugged in my headphones and cranked the music up, to discourage the many young men who wanted to be my tour guide. (My choice of music: Banco de Gaia’s “Last Train To Lhasa”. Hmmmm.)
After Tiannmen Square, I decided that I’d seen enough big, ornate stuff: I wanted to see “real Beijing”. (OK, that’s a bit pretentious, but you know what I mean. So I explored the hutongs (narrow alley-like streets) southwest of the Arrow Tower, in Dashilan district. I went down Zhubaoshi Jie until I found the turning into Dashilan Dajie, and followed this into a maze of twisty passages, all different. Dashilan Dajie turned into Dashilan Xijie, then Tieshuxie Jie. And then suddenly I was stuck – and so was everyone else. There was a small excavator digging up the street, and the operator decided to take out the one remaining strip of pavement. A few brave souls scrambled over the debris, ducking to avoid the bucket of the excavator, but I decided to backtrack and work around. I turned south down Shanxi Xiang until I hit Zhushikou Xidajie, which I followed west until I reached Nanxinhua Jie. (One confusing thing about Beijing is that the streets tend to change their names every block or so.) I turned north; I had some vague idea of going all the way up to Bei Hai Park, but I soon abandoned that.
Just as I noticed when I was in Seoul, Beijing merchants tend to cluster. Nanxinhua Jie was full of shops selling musical instruments and trophies – awards, cups, plaques, medals, and so forth. (I probably saw more trophy shops than any other kind in Beijing, except for food and clothing.) I kept going north, until I reached Xichang’an Jie, which is the western continuation of the street I’d started out on. At this point I realized that I wasn’t going to go much further: I’d been walking non-stop for four hours, and my feet knew it. So I reluctantly headed west to the nearest subway station, paid my 2 yuan for a ticket (that’s 29 cents US), and rode the gleaming, streamlined (and packed) train back to Guo Mao station. To the Chinese passengers with whom I shared the train, I apologize for my slovenly appearance: the humidity had picked up mid-morning, and my shirt was terribly sweat-stained.
And now I must deal with my blistered feet, and transfer all the photos to my laptop. I’ll go online and upload this piece in a few minutes. (I have to buy internet access one hour at a time in this hotel.) I probably won’t log in tomorrow morning, because I need to be at the airport by 6am. This time tomorrow, I’ll be in Singapore. (Well, at the airport, anyway.) And tomorrow night I’ll be in Hyderabad.