Mid-point of the trip

We finished our meetings here in Xi’an, and tomorrow morning some of us are flying down to Shenzhen. (The others will stay here with the Xi’an team.) Our last evening here went out with a bang: a team New Year party in anticipation of the Chinese Spring Festival in a couple of weeks. Much 白酒 (bai jiu) was drunk, food was consumed (including excellent duck and lamb – I like the cuisine here in the north-west), competitions were staged, raffles were drawn, songs were sung, and speeches were made. I won a soybean juice extractor in the raffle, an intriguing but bulky item which I decided to give away rather than trying to get back to Palo Alto.
And now I must shake off the effects of the bai jiu and try to pack. We’ll be checking out of here around 6:45am…..


The Terra-Cotta Warriors of Xi'an

So I have seen the Eighth Wonder of the World. And the title was aptly bestowed – it was magnificent, a wonderful experience. You can check out the photographs I took here.

Terra-cotta Warriors
Terra-cotta Warriors

I’m not going to give a detailed account, but there were a couple of interesting moments:

  • While we were driving out of Xi’an to get to the Museum, there was a M5.0 earthquake not far away. I didn’t notice it, though.
  • Having seen so many pictures of grey figures, I hadn’t realized that when the army was created the soldiers were all painted in bright colours. The museum had some photographs of fragments which had retained their (mineral) pigments, and gave a vivid impression of what the warriors might have looked like. I was, of course, reminded of early Christian church buildings: today we admire the pure beauty of the marble and stone, even though they would have originally been a riot of colour
  • I resisted the temptation to buy a replica of one of the figures, and instead bought a coffee-table book about the warriors. After I had done so, a wizened old man behind an adjoining counter offered to sign it for me. He was one of the farmers who discovered the figures back in 1974; he now lives in an apartment near to the museum.
  • When the army was created in 210 BCE, all of the figures had weapons. Most of them were stolen soon after the death of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (presumably weapons were more valuable than statues), and wooden pieces like spear shafts rotted away long ago, but many weapons have been discovered. I was surprised to see that some the generals’ swords had been “chrome plated”, and that other pieces were stamped with the manufacturer’s name and batch number.
  • I hadn’t realized that every figures was designed individually. These were not stamped out in cookie-cutter style. The detailed work – the patterns on the soles of the shoes, or the way that the fabric of a tunic folded and hung, or the facial expression – was simply amazing.
  • And finally, the museum structures themselves are wonderfully laid out. Yes, the big (“Pit 1”) building was bitterly cold, but the environmental controls seem perfectly suited to the preservation of these extraordinary pieces. Of course we saw it all at the best time: mid-winter, with no crowds. In the summer the place must be a zoo.

Xi'an old city at night

Here are a few pictures from this evening’s expedition to Xi’an’s old (walled) city.

Xi'an city gate
Xi'an city gate

Lanterns in the Xi'an City Gate
Lanterns in the Xi'an City Gate

Xi'an Old City #1
Xi'an Old City #1

Xi'an Old City #2
Xi'an Old City #2

The full set is here in my MobileMe Gallery.
It was bitterly cold, and I used the opportunity to educate overseas colleagues on the old English(?) expression “monkey weather” (as in, “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”). We took two taxis to the highly-decorated South Gate(?), then braved the traffic to cross into the old city, and went looking for a bar. The first one had cute kittens, but no cocktails. The second had decent drinks (the strongest Long Island Iced Tea I’ve ever had) and great music. From the “Bar Street” we headed up to the Muslim Street, which was a crowded riot of colour, smells (food, incense, spices) and music. Resisting the tourist trinkets, we found a restaurant that offered more and varied ways to serve lamb, beef and goat than I had imagined. (And the fish, mushrooms, and dumplings were good too.) It was halal, of course, and when pressed for an alternative to tea they came up with a couple of bottles of warm, sweet Sprite. (Sweet, because of course it was made from sugar rather than corn syrup.) And finally we flagged down a “cargo taxi” who agreed to take us all back to the hotel for 40 yuan, which was a great deal even if it did mean treating Roman as self-loading freight!
Tomorrow, hopefully, we’ll get to see the Terracotta Army. (I say “hopefully” because there’s a non-zero chance that we’ll have to head back in to the office.)


This is democracy?

More from James Fallows:

Counting the new Republican Senator Scott Brown from Massachusetts, the 41 Republicans in the Senate come from states representing just over 36.5 percent of the total US population. The 59 others (Democratic plus 2 Independent) represent just under 63.5 percent. (Taking 2009 state populations from here. If you count up the totals and split a state's population when it has a spit delegation, you end up with about 112.3 million Republican, 194.7 million Democratic + Indep. Before Brown’s election, it was about 198 million Democratic + Ind, 109 million Republican.)

Let’s round the figures to 63/37 and apply them to the health care debate. Senators representing 63 percent of the public vote for the bill; those representing 37 percent vote against it. The bill fails.

Makes me quite nostalgic for the three-line whip. And reinforces my long-held belief that the USA is simply too big to govern as a single country.


Route map for the next trip

As so often before, I’m posting a map of my route, as calculated by Karl L. Swartz’s excellent Great Circle Mapper. 19 days, 14,313 miles:
Xi'an and Shenzhen


Electronics for the trip

I’m heading to China for 19 days, and so the big activity this weekend is packing. I found myself enumerating all of the electronics gear that I’ll be taking:

  1. Apple MacBook Air – my personal laptop
  2. Dell E6400 – my work laptop
  3. Power brick for the MacBook Air
  4. Power brick for the Dell
  5. Mouse – my Microsoft wireless mouse will have to do for both; I’m not bringing my new Apple Mouse
  6. Moshi combined SD card reader and USB hub
  7. Apple iPhone
  8. iPhone USB cable and transformer (the original one, which accepts Apple international plugs, not the cheesy little adaptor which they introduced with the iPhone 3)
  9. Android G1 – my international phone (which I hope to replace with an unlocked T-Mobile Pulse from Huawei)
  10. China Mobile SIM card
  11. G1 USB cable (incompatible with iPhone USB)
  12. Amazon Kindle 2 e-book reader
  13. Kindle USB cable (incompatible with iPhone and G1 – standards are wonderful)
  14. Sennheiser earbud headphones
  15. Panasonic DMC-TZ4 camera
  16. Battery charger and spare battery for DMC-TZ4
  17. Apple Airport Express (so I can create a WiFi access point if the hotel only has wired Internet)

There are definitely too many cables.


That b100dy HP laptop

I just posted this one-star review to

I bought my DV4-2045DX at Best Buy, on a whim. Soon after I got it, I headed to England for a family visit, and I decided to take this laptop along instead of my usual MacBook Air. Bad idea. Soon after we arrived, the machine began to malfunction. The symptoms were fairly consistent: I would close the lid (configured to “sleep”), and soon afterwards the logo would light up and the fan would come on. If the machine was unplugged, this would drain the battery in a few hours. Opening the lid did not wake the machine: the screen was blank, the keyboard unresponsive. More seriously, the power button wouldn’t work: holding it down for 5 or 10 seconds wouldn’t cause the machine to power down. The only way to stop it was to unplug it and remove the battery. After this, restarting was hit or miss. Usually, the machine would blink the CapsLock and NumLock lights in a pattern indicating “CPU failure”.
I struggled through the trip, and when I got home I called HP. They sent me a prepaid FedEx box to return the machine for service. I did so, and monitored the status of the service order on their website. For a couple of weeks it indicated that they were waiting for a part to repair it. Finally it was returned, two days ago. The service slip indicated that the problem had been reproduced during tests, and the CPU had been replaced.
I booted it up, loaded some software, and closed the lid. The problem returned in a few minutes: fan on, catatonic, wouldn’t power down, “CPU failure” after pulling the battery. I called HP, and they gave me a new service number. I’m still waiting for the next step.
Perhaps this is just a lemon, but the “waiting for a part” is suspicious. It suggests that this may be a common problem Hopefully HP will replace it this time. (I wouldn’t mind a refund, but that may be too much to hope for.)


Off I go again

Another month, another business trip. On Monday I’ll be heading back to China for nearly three weeks. First I’m going to Xi’an, flying United to Beijing and Hainan to Xi’an. A week later, I’ll fly down to Shenzhen, before flying home from Hong Kong. It’ll be my first visit to Xi’an, and fortunately I’ll have at least one day to play tourist.
The only annoying thing about preparing for this trip has been my China visa. Last year, I had a twelve month, multiple entry visa, and I got good use out of it. I just ordered the replacement, and what came back was a six month, two entry visa. This is frustrating; it means I’ll need to get another visa as soon as I finish my next trip. (Even sooner, if I need to visit Hong Kong during this trip.) Time to switch visa agents, I guess.

Cloud computing

A collection of thought-provoking posts related to cloud computing

From the last few days….


Post-theist, post-atheist (and post-polytheist too)

Colin McGinn has written a marvelous essay on “Why I am an Atheist”. He begins by pointing out that the atheist cannot rationally limit his stance to a simple assertion of non-belief: he…

… doesn’t just find himself with a belief that there is no God; he comes to that belief by what he takes to be rational means—that is, he takes his belief to be justified. He may not regard his atheistic belief as certain, but he certainly takes it to be reasonable—as reasonable as any belief he holds. Just by holding the belief he regards himself as rationally entitled to it (or else he wouldn’t, as a responsible believer, believe it—that being the nature of belief). Also, given the nature of belief, he takes himself to know that there is no God: for to believe that p is to take oneself to know that p. The atheist, like any believer in a proposition, regards his belief as an instance of knowledge (of course, it may not be, but he necessarily takes it to be so). So an atheist is someone who thinks he knows there is no God. Thus he is prepared responsibly to assert that there is no God. The atheist regards himself as knowing there is no God in just the sense that he regards himself as knowing, say, that the earth is round. He claims to know the objective truth about the universe in respect of a divinity—that the universe contains no such entity.

Many theists (and agnostics) protest loudly that such a position is unwarranted, arrogant, and epistemically unreasonable: a an example of the fundamentalism which many atheists criticize in theists. But McGinn will have none of this: theists have exactly the same confident disbelief in many things – other gods, for example – that atheists do. They have no basis for insisting that the atheist should adopt a selective agnosticism:

My state of belief mirrors theirs, except that I affirm zero gods instead of one. (In fact, the idea of many gods has its advantages over the one-god theory: it comports with the complexity of the world and it promotes tolerance.) Yahweh, Baal, Hadad, and Yam: which of these ancient gods do you believe in and which do you think fictitious? I believe in none of them, nor in any others that might be mentioned; if you believe in one of them and disbelieve in the others, then you are just like me with respect to those others. Atheism is not confined to atheists, and the epistemology is the same no matter which gods you disbelieve in.

Having made his case, McGinn confesses that he finds the label of atheist a rather misleading one:

So my state of belief is not that of one continuously denying the existence of God, with an active belief that there is no such entity (though it is true that I am more often in this state than I would be the issue were not constantly debated around me). I am, dispositionally at any rate, in a state of implicit disbelief with respect to God—as I am in a state of implicit disbelief about ghosts, goblins and Santa. I simply take it for granted that there is no God, instead of constantly asserting it to myself. The state of mind I am in while composing this essay is not then my habitual state of mind, and even to be explicitly denying the existence of God strikes me as taking the issue a little too seriously—as it would be to write an essay making explicit my negative implicit beliefs about Santa Claus. So I am really as much post-atheist as post-theist, when it comes to my natural state of mind—just as I suppose most people are post-a-polytheist as well as post-polytheist. Polytheism, for most people, is simply a dead issue, not a subject of active concern. Theism for me is a dead issue, which is why it is misleading to call me an atheist–though it is of course strictly true that I am. It is misleading in just the way it is misleading to speak of a traditional Christian as an a-polytheist or a normal adult as an a-Santa-ist, since it suggests are far more active engagement with the issue than is the case. Many other difficult issues engage my mind and remain unresolved or at least open to serious question, but not my disbelief in God.

He closes with some thoughts about what it might mean for God-talk to remain with us in a purely fictional mode. I’m not holding my breath. All the same, it’s a wonderful essay. (Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I?) If you want to know what I believe, you could do worse than read it.