In Beijing

Today I got to be a tourist in Beijing. I walked the two or three miles from the hotel to Tiananmen Square, toured the Forbidden City, and explored the backstreets and alleyways. I took a couple of hundred photos, but I don’t have the bandwidth to upload them all yet. This teaser will have to do.

Around 2 pm, I wound up at a Starbucks near Ritan Park, and found that they had free WiFi. I turned on my iPhone, and was amused to discover that although Google Maps refused to show me a street-level map of Beijing, the satellite image view worked perfectly, and pinpointed my location within 10 metres!
When I told friends about this, they teased me about going to Starbucks. This is unfair: I have been sampling plenty of local cuisine. Starbucks was a move of desperation: the first place I’d seen to sit down and have a cold drink in about 30 minutes of pounding the pavement.
Yesterday I went out to dinner with two Amazon colleagues, and we had Shark’s Fin Soup. Yes, I know it’s environmentally irresponsible – but on the other hand it was one of the few items on the English version of the menu (hand-written in a school exercise book!) that we could identify. That and the eel stir-fried with mushrooms. And various dishes including the word “testicles”… (It was a strange evening all around: we wound up as the only customers in a quaint bar called “The Buffalo”, drinking weak cocktails and listening to an atrocious singer mangling Carpenters’ songs.)
On Tuesday I went to a fast food place near the office for lunch; it was decorated with pictures of Jackie Chan,and looked innocuous. I picked what I thought looked safe, and emerged 20 minutes later certain only of the identity of two elements of the meal: rice, and mushrooms. All of the other 5 or 6 ingredients were completely unknown to me, by appearance or taste. The next day I went with a colleague to a huge underground food court, and I just said “I’ll have what you’re having.” There was fried rice, and a hard boiled egg, but after that I’m hazy…..
Hotel breakfast is either dim sum (individual items unidentified) or stuff that looks like ham and eggs but doesn’t taste like either.
I’m having a great time!
OK, here are a couple of buses, just for Susan:
A couple of buses on Jianguonmennei Street, near Tiananmen Square

A slow-motion thunderstorm, with buses

We’re in the middle of a strange, slow-motion thunderstorm here in Beijing. After a beautiful sunny morning, a bank of low, grey-yellow cloud has descended on the city. There are barely-discernible signs of motion in the cloud, as nearby skyscrapers seem to drift in and out of focus, and occasionally an aimless pattern of lightning will put in an appearance, followed by a muffled apology for thunder.
Meanwhile, it’s rush-hour. From my vantage point on the 11th floor, I’m looking down on an elaborate intersection: ChaoYang Road crossing the 4th Ring Road. It’s a bus enthusiast’s paradise: double-deckers, single-deckers, short bendy-buses, long bendy-buses, long-distance coaches, even a few trolley-buses, all in a dazzling variety of colour schemes. The only common factor is that they all look much more modern and stylish than any buses that I’ve seen in the USA.

The incredible expanding hotel room….

Yesterday evening I returned to my hotel from the Amazon office, and came up to my room on the 9th floor. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s a suite: living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and laundry. Or so I thought… When I entered, I noticed that a door at the end of a corridor was ajar. I had previously assumed that this connected to the next suite, so that adjacent units could be combined – but why was the door open? My first reaction was to wonder if someone had entered my room, but when I explored I realized my mistake. The door led into a master suite: a huge bedroom, walk-in closets, a sumptuous hi-and-hers bathrooms with side-by-side walk-in showers, a whirlpool tub, and so forth. This “hotel suite” is twice as big as my apartment in Seattle!
When I’d finished exploring, I took a few photos and closed the door again. I’m not sure why: I guess it’s because I’d already settled into the “room” as I’d originally found it, unpacking my clothes in the smaller bedroom and arranging my things in the bathroom. I didn’t really feel the need to “move”.
But it’s an awesome bathroom!

In Beijing

I arrived in Beijing yesterday afternoon. We landed shortly before the earthquake struck Sichuan province; I didn’t notice anything at the airport, but of coure it was felt in various parts of Beijing.
The flight was good – long, long, long, but improved by (a) a gratis upgrade to Business Class ((Both first Class and Economy were oversold.)) and (b) a thoroughly congenial neighbour: CFO of a pharma business, an old China hand, and a delightful conversationalist. And Channel 9 was on the whole way; it was fascinating listening to the Russian and Chinese controllers. For a long way (from Anchorage to Khabarovsk) we were part of a small Star Alliance convoy: one Air Canada, followed by three United, all heading towards Beijing. We had an uneventful ride, but the United flight just behind us kept getting all sort of grief from the controllers, who seemed to think that he was too close behind us (4 minutes). “This is Magadan control: United 853, can you cross Dukat one minute later?” “United 853, negative.” “Are you sure?”
(The oddest aspect of the flight was that, after I’d just flown from Seattle to San Francisco, the San Francisco-Beijing flight took us right back to Seattle and up the coast of British Columbia and Alaska. I could have stayed in bed a few hours longer!)
Once at the airport, I took a cab to the hotel. It felt like a strange mixture of Japan and India: the freeways and major roads were reminiscent of Tokyo, but the taxi driver’s “creativity” would have been right at home in Hyderabad! The hotel (the Ascott) is fantastic: it’s designed for medium-stay guests, so I have suite with a kitchen and even a small laundry. I arrived late afternoon, succeeded in staying awake until 9pm, and then slept until 6am.
More anon.

Just-in-time travel planning

Assuming no last-minute hitches, 31 hours from now I’ll be heading off around the world. It’s not quite the longest trip I’ve ever taken, but who’s counting? Seattle to Beijing (via San Francisco) on Sunday; then Beijing to Hyderabad (via Singapore) the following Friday; then a mere hop down to Bangalore on Tuesday 17th; then the really weird bit: Bangalore to London, via Frankfurt, leaving at 1:55am on Sunday 25th and arriving at 10:40am the same day; and finally London to Seattle via Chicago on May 27th.
The planning for this trip has been more than a little crazy. First, I was supposed to be going with a colleague; then he cancelled out. Next I had to obtain a replacement passport, and (obviously) I couldn’t get my visas for India and China until it arrived. Then there were some minor changes in visa processing. (Why do changes never reduce the processing time?) Then a Seattle meeting appeared on my calendar for May 28th, and I decided that I really, really needed to be there, so I shifted my return flight from Thursday to Tuesday. The final curve-ball was that yesterday I found that I needed to upgrade to Office 2008 to cope with a particular document I’m working on, and I finally got that taken care of later this afternoon.
Anyway, the upshot is that my passport (with visas) is supposed to arrive tomorrow, Saturday morning, less than 24 hours before I depart. I was chewing my fingernails (metaphorically, OK?); now I’m just checking the FedEx tracking page every few minutes.
Tomorrow I pack ((Actually, I’ll get my hair cut, pick up my dry cleaning, then pack, and if time permits I’ll go to the Sounders game. Maybe.)), and Sunday I fly. After the mad scramble to get ready, I’m actually quite confident that the trip will go smoothly. I’ve replaced the 1GB SD card in my camera with a 2GB, because I’m planning to take plenty of pictures, but I probably won’t upload them until get back. This might seem to be the perfect trip to exploit the weightlessness of my MacBook Air, but in fact I’m bringing “Black Beauty”, my Amazon-supplied MacBook (freshly upgraded with Leopard and Office 2008). I’ve had my shots, and I’m packing the necessary meds to cope with the unexpected.
Let’s see… my passport is currently in Oakland. Time to fly.
UPDATE: One bonus, one glitch (resolved). The bonus is that I was able to purchase an upgrade to Economy Plus for SFO-PEK, so rather than being stuck in a middle seat at the back of a 100% full Economy section, I’ll now have a decent window seat and some legroom. The glitch was that FedEx tried to deliver my passport too early this morning, and didn’t bother to call the number on the waybill. I checked in with customer service, twice; when I realized that they weren’t going to deliver the package until Monday, I went down to the FedEx office to collect it. Not what I wanted to be doing, but never mind.

Epistemological skepticism

Over at Debunking Christianity, John Loftus has published a list of books from Ed Babinski which illustrate the importance of skepticism about what we believe to be true. Here’s the short list which John hyperlinked; Ed’s list includes many others.

I think that the last of these is the only one on my bookshelf ((Of course, I could be wrong about that!)), although I’ve dipped into others (including Dan Ariely’s excellent “Predictably Irrational”). I wonder how many of them are available in Kindle editions? This could get expensive….

Schoolyard Ghosts

I just received my pre-release copy of the new No-Man album, Schoolyard Ghosts. It’s abso-fucking-lutely brilliant – their best work ever. I ripped it onto my iPhone, and I’ve been wandering around all day with the album stuck on “Repeat”. (Actually, that’s not quite true: some of the time I was watching the videos on the DVDA that’s part of the pre-release package. You can get a taste of it here – click on video.) The album is being released in Europe in just over a week, and in the USA next month. The pre-release special package is still being advertised at Burningshed, although the bonus CD of alternates and edits has sold out.
I really love No-Man’s music. These days Steven Wilson’s band Porcupine Tree is so popular that it’s easy to forget that PT started out as a side-project from his main work with Tim Bowness in No-Man. I first started listening to PT back in 1999, when they released Stupid Dream, but it took me another three years to discover No-Man, when I bought their fourth album, Returning Jesus.
I’m not going to try and categorize their work: you can do that for yourself. It’s the kind of music that I usually listen to with my eyes closed – a private, personal experience. Of course YMMV. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch the video for “Truenorth” again…

Dawkins@TED: Queerer than we can suppose

Here’s one of my very favourite TED presentations: Richard Dawkins on how we understand the world. How we evolved in “the Middle World”, why the intentional stance works, and what it may be like to be a bat. ((So much for Thomas Nagel.)) It’s so obviously true that it’s quite beautiful.

(Tip o’ the hat to In Search of High Places.)


I’m busy planning a business trip later this month that will take me around the world… Beijing, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and London. Here’s the route:
Round the world
Apparently the best route from Beijing to Hyderabad is via Singapore. If only I could spare a day…