Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Snow

January 9, 2016

Been experiencing a spot of intemperate weather here. The sort of weather that would make everything grind to a halt in the UK and send journalists out into blizzards and clambering for shots of cars trapped on motorways and long distance shots of lone walkers walking along deserted and snowy lanes.

Here, it’s a bit different. Snow falls every winter as a matter of course and they have the equipment to take care of it, or at least push it off to the side of the roads so it isn’t in the way. Of course, there are lots of roads so they can’t do them all at once, but they start with the major thoroughfares and work their way down the ploughing order.

You could tell the first big dump of snow was coming because the day after Christmas, there were all sorts of vehicles out and about and scattering debris onto the roads and pavements. Monster tractors with big bouncy tyres for the big roads, and cute little Bob the Builder style munchkin tractors for the pavements and smaller roads. After the first really big dump of snow after Christmas, all the major passes to Bergen were closed and cars were tumbling off into ditches so that was the first priority. But at the same time, municipal workers were back outin the tractors and tractorlettes and ploughing or brushing the streets clean.

When we get a snow fall in the UK, its generally a few days of chaos, followed by thawing and flooding, then everything returns to normal, until the next storm. Here, we had a brief (unseasonal) respite after the first fall, when the temperatures crept up above freezing, it rained a lot and the snow was washed away. But it was a brief reprieve, a quick reboot and we were ready for some more. It snowed on Monday, and then again on Tuesday, the sun came out on Wednesday, and it’s been snowing on and off since.

As I left work yesterday evening on foot, negotiating the mounds of snow that divided pavement and road, it was cold and dark and I realized this was how it was going to be until April. In 2015, in the last week of April, we drove up to Oslo from Denmark in a high sided van packed with our belongings, and missed the last major storm by 24 hours. This was just as well since, coming from Denmark, the rental wasn’t fitted with winter tyres, so snow driving would have been a challenge.

Already, after a week of snow-covered streets, it feels like the norm. Now, even my bike is fitted with snow tyres, which add an extra three or four kilogrammes to an already overweight bicycle. There is none of the mystical magic alluded to in the intro to Raymond Briggs Snowman flick “ ..in the morning I woke in a room filled with light and silence, the whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness..”

For one thing, it gets dark early this far north, and the sun doesn’t come up until I’ve been installed in my office for a couple of hours and on my second cup of coffee. So, unless you happen to working shift hours, the Norwegian version would be more along the lines of “..in the morning I woke in a room that was filled with darkness and silence, the heating was off and whole world was seemed to be held in an extremely cold stillness. I looked out of the window, fuck, it was snowing again

snow_OUS

deserted snowy lane, without solitary walker.

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New Year Oslo

January 2, 2016

So, my first New Year’s Eve in Norway under the belt. Viewed from inside the flat, it initially seemed pretty much like any other New Year celebrations I’ve viewed from within the comfort of my home, although this time there were more boats. The difference in the nautical perspective is primarily due to having previously lived in places that are solidly landlocked. The exception would be Denmark, but if you are living outside Copenhagen, Zealand feels so sparsely populated it seems you’d be hard pushed to get enough people together to muster up a posse, let alone have a whip round for a box of fireworks.

But it turned out that Oslo was quite different. Even a brief excursion out on to the balcony at 11:59 into the subzero temperatures revealed the presence of more than a boxworth of revelers on the streets below, before they were drowned out by the coordinated firework displays. I say coordinated, but it seems there were two independent factions competing for the attentions of the shitfaced revelers gathered in the harbour area in the city. One display seemed to be coming directly from the harbour by the old fort, while the remaining fireworks appeared to be launched a little further away, probably from somewhere close to the opera house. On top of this, all the ferries starting firing off their foghorns, including the 12 deck Oslo-Kiev overnight ferry that is docked just down the road and which has the mother of all “parps”.

These days, New Years Eve firework displays are more of a marketing opportunity, with each city around the globe trying to outdo everyone else, planning complex and coordinated efforts that emphasize a particular international landmark (think Sydney Bloody Opera house or the Eiffel Tower) or geographical feature (synchronized firings along the banks of the Thames) accompanied by gushing commentaries from the media. It’s unlikely the whole affair did do much to attract the international business community, or boost winter tourism in Oslo. The city´s chaotic combination of assaults on the visual and auditory senses reminded more me of the back garden Bonfire Night displays of my youth. A firework pulled out of the box at random, a cursory glance by failing flashlight at the instructions on the side. Placing, lighting and relighting the touchpaper and realizing too late that you have nailed a rocket to the fence.

Premium

June 3, 2015

I´m 75% of the way through a night flight from Paris to Hong Kong. On this route it´s a no win situation. You can leave late at night, maybe get some sleep en route and arrive refreshed in Hong Kong in time for bed and ready for a full day ahead. Otherwise you can leave around noon, get no sleep, and arrive first thing in the morning, deprived of sleep ready for bed and a full day ahead of you.

This is a trip that is purely for work. There will be no time for gallivanting around on the Star Ferry, getting soused in Jockey Club (even if I could get in) or taking the tram up to the peak. The plan is to pick up the bag from the carousel, jump on a bus to Tsing Yi and spend the night at some oversized hotel on the outskirts of the town – since I´m not doing any sightseeing, there doesn´t seem to be a lot of point paying premium for a nice view. The next morning, I will head into Central, meet a former student who is now working at HKU and then we will head across the border to meet another guy who is planning to come and work for me in Norway. In the evening I will hop on the last high speed train to Wuhan which will get me there around 10.30, so I should be at my hotel before midnight.

To soften the blow, I´m flying Premium Economy. I shopped around the airlines and settled for Air France, primarily because they were the offering a cheapest premium, rather than any desire to negotiate terminal changes at Charles de Gaulle. If I´d looked a little closer on the itinerary, I might have caught the 8 hour stop over, but I still would have had that pleasure if I´d been flying regular economy.

Business class customers are a major source of income for the airlines and each time I fly long haul international it seems the cabin has expanded a little more. Sitting in Premium, I count five rows premium to about 20 for business. We may have less legroom back here, but we are more exclusive

I was sitting in my aisle seat before take off, watching the affluent business customers ahead of me struggling to load their oversize carry-ons into the overhead, quaffing their complimentary glasses of champagne and generally being made a fuss of by the cabin crew (who were walking around with iPads to help them identify the customers and greet them by name). I did have my moment when one of them glanced down at their screen, then looked down the aisle to us Premium boys and girls and crossed over to give me the personal greeting. It was only then I realized that I´ve never travelled back in standard economy on Air France and have generally spent my time between transfers sitting in their lounges and gorging myself on their snacks.

Once the flight attendants got the single ping to alert them to get off their arses and into the aisles, the curtains were closed off front and back to block off the respective riff raff and we were in our own little five row cocoon.

I spent the first few minutes trying to figure out what I was getting in return for splashing out those extra Euros. Premium Economy on Air France offers a little shelf for our complementary bottle of Evian, and a second shelf below which was so small it might have been there for storing a flip phone, not unreasonable since we were flying on an aging 777. We also had a slightly larger screen in the back of the seat and noise cancelling headphones. These were wired into the seat, presumably the fact we haven´t coughed up the extra cash for a proper bed is sufficient indication we are not be trusted completely.

For me, the premium advantage of premium economy is the bigger seats, more legroom and the seat in front doesn´t recline into your face. I even had the benefit of an empty seat on one side and the aisle on the other. Unlike regular economy, you can´t lift the armrest and curl up across both seats, but it is nice to have your bag within easy reach.

After take off they tried to make us feel special by handing out cosmetic bags and menu cards. Later, while everyone in the back of the plane was being served up some heated up slop on a tiny plastic tray, we were served up the same heated up slop on a larger plastic tray and drank wine out of real glasses. We were also offered unlimited bread rolls from a bread basket. I think they manage this by making them sufficiently inedible to ensure no one comes back for seconds. After dinner, we were presented with what looked like grenade size party poppers which, after a bomb squad style cursory inspection, turned out to be a selection of inedible sweets. Presumably this was to help us wash down the undrinkable coffee.

Listen Up

May 22, 2015

Since I was 18, I´ve averaged a move once a year. Some places were short term, but I was usually there long enough to soak up some of the atmosphere, which is not necessarily a plus. Some places were good, some came in at the other end of the scale, but this current abode is definitely up near the top of the list. Some of the features are obvious – you can´t really fault a view of the ocean from a third floor balcony, even if it is partially obscured. Others are more subtle. Living so far north, the sun is going down late and coming up early, which means the birds are currently booting up around 3.30am. This is sufficient to kick off the cats, who announce their intent by, apparently, falling off the sofa and then inspecting every nook and cranny in the flat. This is usually enough to take me through to somewhere around 4.30, when the first tram trundles by.

I´ve ridden plenty of trams around Europe, but this is the first time I´ve lived next to a tramline. Fortunately, the window faces out to the rear of the building, I suspect it may not sound so quaint when a metallic construction the size of a local passenger train rolls past 5m from your living room window.

Living by the ocean, we also get a rumbling farewell toot or two from the passenger ferries departing for Denmark and various destinations along the Norwegian coastline. The other morning, as I lay there, listening to the dawn chorus of bawling birds, trundling trams and cats crashing around it got me thinking about other sounds that I associated with places where I have lived.

My earliest years were in a small village and every morning and night a farmer would send his herd up and down the road for milking. Although, upon reflection, I´m not really sure where the farm was, so he might have just been taking them out for a larf, cause congestion in the village, or litter the lane with cowpats. In any event, I think it´s smell that primarily lingers.

In the US, I rented a place that was close to the railway line that ran between Dallas and Fort Worth. At the time, this was a poorly maintained line that was only used by freight. (Even now, when they have a public service that runs once an hour, there is still no stop in Arlington because it was voted down based on concerns it would bring crime to the city).  This meant that trains would run sporadically, presumably one would set out only when they had enough freight to build a 106 car chain (yes, I sometimes sat by the line on a summers evening and counted them). Track conditions meant trains never exceeded 40mph (unless, of course, the brakeman was passed out and the train was running out of control) and the limited safety concerns meant you could sit by the side of the track in a lawn chair as it trundled past.

But mostly, I was aware of it by the sound of the horn when I was tucked up in bed and could hear the train horn a tooting as it rolled through city centre where there wasn´t a platform.

In China, we had several short term leases, primarily because they either started construction work (1. namely one 30 story building in front, a flyover on the right hand side for the new ring road, and replacing the drains behind) or finished construction work (2. opening a major new road outside one flat, and 3. opening a new road across a lake and then filling it in). There was also another flat which backed on to one of the major railway lines in China which meant trains passed through every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day.

But the best audio backdrop was at the last place we lived in China in an old building on the campus of an art school. In the summer, we would leave the windows open because of the heat and sleep under mosquito nets. Often there would be storms. These were announced by the gentle rustling of leaves the trees, which became progressively more violent as the wind began to pick up and the temperature started to drop. Suddenly there would be lighting and torrential rain. Often the lightning would take out the power in the area so we would end up sitting in the bedroom in candlelight listening to the sound of the rain dripping off the leaves and floodwater cascading off the roofs and on to the metal window ledges below.

Magic

Visas and Visa Cards

May 17, 2015

Getting a visa to travel abroad used to be an adventure in itself, at least in the 1980s when I went to the US for study. There was none of this visa waiver nonsense, if you wanted to go to the US, you went to your nearest US embassy.

In my case that was London or Paris. Back then, they were both housed in rather elegant quarters and had limited opening hours for visa applications which gave the whole experience an air of exclusiveness. In those pre 9-11 days, security was limited to a couple of Marines with sidearms stationed at the door, and there was no bulletproof glass between you and the official. You dropped off your paperwork, and then had to sit around in a large hall while someone in a back office determined whether you were the sort of person they wanted in the US. It didn´t matter that there were no smartphones or flatscreen TVs mounted on every wall to provide distraction, because the entertainment came from catching snippets of conversation between applicant and official. The best ones were when they began to pick holes in a story. These typically went along the lines of something like

“you are applying to visit the US in order to see your wife sir?”

“yes, that is correct”

“so why are you in the UK?”

“I have been working here for my business these last few months”

“in the UK”

“yes”

“the whole time”

“yes”

“so why does your passport have an Exit Stamp from Uganda from two days ago?”

I had my own special moment when I came back to the UK get my visa renewed. They took my completed forms, I sat around for about half an hour, and then they called my name to go to Desk 4.

“So, you are applying for a renewal of your work visa?”

“that is correct”

“which visa have you been using to work in the US?”

“er, this one”

“do you realize you´ve been working illegally in the US for the last 3 months?”

“oh”

Surprisingly, they let me off, either because I was too valuable an asset, or more likely they decided I really was that incompetent.

These days, globalization has obviated the need for visas for many locations. But China remains one significant exception. When I first moved there they had a entry visa that was only valid for one month so, upon your arrival you had to start preparing all the paperwork for extending your stay. I finally moved from Beijing and over to a resident permit which was more straightforward because, back then, outside the major cities, no one really cared seemed to care too much about the details.

Once I moved on to Denmark, it only occurred to me three days before my flight that I would need to apply for short term visa to get back into China. Fortunately, the visa section in Copenhagen was, sizable, well staffed, open all morning to drop off paperwork, and had an express service to expedite last minute applications.

I was expecting something similar when I was planning a trip over there after I moved to Oslo. The city has a fairly impressive embassy district. Aside from the US, who decided to move to a concrete monstrosity that looks like a fortified car park constructed at the arse end of the 1960s, many other embassies still occupy victorian era mansions. The Chinese Embassy is no exception, except they are located in a different part of the city.

After my previous slipups, I did have the foresight to check details before I showed up on their doorstep. Which was just as well, since the visa section is housed in a different location. I was expecting office building, carrying some kind of status. I wasn´t expecting a tiny little office located on the second floor of a strip mall above a bookshop and a bathroom appliance store.

There were only two windows and the queue stretched out the door and down the stairs, which at least gave me time to window shop for the next book on my reading list. It turned out that things were held up by a Chinese couple applying for a Chinese passport for their Norwegian born sprog. Once they were sorted, things moved along a little faster. But not as fast as if they had been using both windows for submitting paperwork. As it was, the right window was for drop off, the left was for pickup. If there were no pickups, which was common since it was a much faster process, the woman at the window would stare off into space.

I finally got to the front of the queue, there was no expedite service, but it was cheaper for non-Norwegian citizens, unless you were a US citizen, in which case it was twice the price. They didn´t do rush applications and they only accepted payment by cash and some obscure card that was only available in Norway. The official scanned my paperwork. The official looking letter of invitation from reputable institution was fine, photos were good, form was filled out correctly, but the letter of employment from the hospital (required because I was working in Norway but not holding a Norwegian passport) was invalid because it was in Norwegian.

I rode back to the hospital, got a letter on hospital letterhead that contained a single sentence in English to state I was employed at the hospital (no one could have forged something like that) and returned the next day.

All was good, I dropped off the paperwork, confirmed the price and was told come back the following Thursday.

Except of course, it was a holiday and everything was closed.

They were open Friday. I showed up with my receipt. They handed me the passport and told me to check the visa. It was good. I handed over a 500kr note to pay.

“we don´t take cash”

“last week your colleague told me you did”

“we don´t”

“you can pay by card”

I handed them my card from Nordea (one of the largest banks in Scandinavia)

“we don´t take that card”

“which ones do you take?”

“this one” (She pointed to the obscure Norwegian logo – I tried looking it up on Google but I can´t find it) “or visa”

I handed her my Visa card

“no, we can´t take that card”

“but it´s a Visa card”

“we can´t take it”

“so how do I pay?”

“you have to use this type of Norwegian card”

I was starting to understand why she had been banished to an office located above a bathroom appliance shop on the outskirts of the city

Fortunately, a Norwegian gent who was holding up the applications line by dropping off 20 passports with 20 incorrectly completed forms offered to pay for me if I gave him the cash.  I didn´t have change, but I did know a conveniently located bookshop where I could buy something and break a 500kr note.

Hills and Thrills

May 9, 2015

Where I grew up there was plenty of hills and water, so it was a shock when I moved to Texas. It may boast a coastline on the gulf, but it’s not exactly convenient when you are living 250 miles away in Dallas, nor is it particularly pleasant to linger in mid August. A few years later I moved to Beijing. At the time, I was living on what was then the northwest edge of the city, close to the Fragrant Hills, where you weren’t allowed to ride your bike. I didn’t have a lot of time to explore what lay beyond before I moved south to Wuhan. When I first arrived, the city hadn´t been westernized, and boasted a generous selection of stagnant lakes, often with a topping of dead fish, and was punctuated with a few hills. These were located in parks and were out of bounds except for the early morning, but with the midday heat and traffic you wouldn’t really want to tackle them any other time, so that was alright. The view from the temple at the top on a summer morning, with the pollution trapped in the pockets of vegetation that hadn’t been sold to developers will remain one of my most vivid memories of the country.

And then there was Denmark. Lots of water but, in my opinion, rather too flat. The highest point is Møllehøj which, at 561ft, is some way shorter than the country´s tallest man-made structure. If you look up the place on Wikipedia, it points out that two other locations, Yding Skovhøj and Ejer Bavnehøj, were previously thought to be higher, but Møllehøj edged them by out 9cm and 51cm respectively. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good things about Denmark, but it says a lot about the topology of a country when you are bickering about the length of a pencil to determine the highest point.

So, one of the many things that attracted me to Norway was the sheer bumpiness of the place, someone was kind enough to compile a list of Norwegian mountains that are taller than 2000m, 300 of them in all, although the heights are only given to the nearest metre. Even in Oslo, which is flat in the centre, is surrounded by mountains. My ride to work is only 5km as the crow flies, but it´s uphill almost the whole way, which is a bit rough at 6.45 in the morning. When I come out the house, I drop down the 20% gradient on the driveway, turn left, coast down 50m, and then I turn right on to a cobblestone lane that disappears into the clouds. It´s going to be fun in the winter after it´s been snowing.

One of first things I did when I moved to Oslo and had assembled the mountain bikes was to head out the door, and down the drive to go out for a spin. The first attempt was aborted when I realized I’d forgotten to attach any pedals. The second attempt saw me halfway down the drive and into the hedge since I´d also forgotten to attach the brake cables. You might get away with that in Denmark, but not around here. The third effort however was an absolute ripsnorter.

Airs and Graces

May 7, 2015

So with the new job came a new Macbook, or rather a Macbook Air. I have to be honest that I´m a bit unclear about the difference. I did go into an Apple store and ask a member of staff but found his enthusiasm a bit too much and blocked him out after a while. He didn´t seem to notice, so I didn´t feel too bad about it.

I last used a Mac in the 1990s. They were rather shit back then. My most vivid memory was trying to program on one of them using a development package called CodeWarrior. At the time it was a rather fancy package that allowed you to do all kinds of thing with your code. They even had a debugger to step through a program line by line to help you narrow down an error. The only problem was the debugger itself contained an error so that you would sometimes get a situation where stepping into the problematic line would cause the computer to crash and reboot. To make things worse, a cutsy little cartoon of a sad looking Mac would come up and admonish me for failing to shutdown the computer properly.

The turning point came when I squeezed the mouse so hard during an unplanned reboot I cracked the casing. I decided I would rather have the Wanky Wizard that came with Windows ME, rather than endure one more incident with the Sad Bastard Mac Icon. At least Windows gave you a blue screen and some unintelligible information before locking up. And this meant it was up to you to choose when to kill the power. It was a bit like having one of those friends who drinks too much and keeps passing out drunk in your living room floor. And when they regain consciousness they have no memory of what happened. In the same way, Windows ME would have no idea about what happened before the power came on, and so would never complain if it had been shutdown incorrectly.

Obviously things have moved on in the Mac world. My Macbook was delivered by the IT dept after they had fucked around with it a little bit, since I´m not familiar with the OS, it´s hard to tell what they got up to. My first impression is that, while everything seems to have been stuffed into as small a space as possible, the box in which the Macbook Air arrived appears to be 70%, well, air. I can´t imagine its to protect the computer since air is not noted for its protective properties. You´d think they´d pack the space with snacks or something, but I suppose that wouldn´t be in keeping with the minimalist feel of the Apple Store, which is equally short of refreshment stands.

So, I shall keep an open mind with this new toy. When they order the network dongle so I can connect to the cable network (no wireless allowed in the office) they forgot to order, as well as a cable to connect me to the monitor, along with the external mouse and keyboard, I might be able to try it out in a more conventional environment, but for now it works just fine for Netflix

Recycling

April 18, 2015

Denmark is big on recycling, they are also big on buying stuff. it makes for a symbiotic relationship. If you can recycle your belongings it frees up space so you can buy more stuff. For many people, buying stuff makes them feel good about themselves, and recycling the crap you got bored means you are a better human being. It’s a win win situation.

Our housing complex is a typical modern Danish building, white walls, lots of wood, lots of glass. It can be quite dazzling in there around noon in the summer. And rather than a recycling bin, we have a recycling shed. That doesn’t really do it justice since it looks more like a clubhouse from the outside, The sort of place you amble back to on a summer evening with the applause of a slightly soused crowd ringing in your ears after a turning in a respectable show at the wicket. I sidled over there myself the evening before we left, the sound of cardboard and metal ringing in my ears as I dragged a large cardboard box of rubbish across the car park together with two retainer brackets leftover from when they delivered the new washing machine. It was raining.

My experience of living in Denmark is that order is high up in the, er, order of things. In the supermarket, items on the shelves are lined up with precision, the buses (usually) arrive on time, and when they don’t, many bus stops have a display that tells you when the next one is due. Therefore, I was somewhat taken aback by the disarray that greeted me when I opened the door to the clubhouse. It looked like a massacre had just taken place. Many people had taken the time to put items in boxes but, judging by the scatter pattern of a matching bed set and a Thomas the Tank engine pair of jammies, had then apparently hurled them against the back wall with such fury that the contents had been scattered across the room. Or maybe they had been fired from a trebuchet.

But it wasn’t just the way things were scattered, it was what people were choosing to dump in such a dramatic manner. Old VCRs made sense, although I was left wondering why they held on to them for so long. Even the charity shops in the uk stopped trying to flog video tapes sometime in the last millenium and it’s not as if i live in some far flung coastal extremity in the Kingdom of Denmark, Copenhagen is only 30 minutes away on the fast train. Cardboard boxes also seemed reasonable, as did old TVs from the pre flat screen era. But I would question the recycling value of a soiled pair of child’s jeans, although that could have happened when Daddy hurled the first box against the back wall. There were broken speakers from surround sound systems, desk lamps, table lamps & free standing lamps, as well as the desks and tables that were presumably where the lamps used to be located. It was just as well the floorboards were nailed down. There was even an exercise bike that seemed to be in good working order (I got on for a trial spin in the midst of the carnage). Judging from its pristine condition, I suspect they expended more effort getting it from the flat to the recycling shed than they ever managed while sitting on it.

I’m not sure if this was fly tipping at the communal level, or just a general uncertainty about what you are supposed to do with these sort of things when you are finished with them. In the UK, with the exception of unwanted offspring and asbestos panelling, you can drop off pretty much anything at a site owned by the local council, there is one bin for electronics, another for metal and so on and a tough looking gent making sure you aren’t smuggling in a box of depleted uranium or anything else naughty. And the council will take care of everything, such as shipping the uncool electronics to hellholes such as GuiYu, leading the way in lead poison. But at least we can get that slightly smug and self righteous feeling when we unwrap our new iPhone.

Sail On

April 12, 2015

It seems that when you read people’s accounts of emigrating, it is commonly a consequence of fortuitous decision by their company or government, or someone headhunted them with a generous relocation package. The most common gig I’ve seen is families swanning off to Hong Kong, Beijing or Shanghai. Visas are taken care of, belongings are shipped, a driver with sign aloft waits at the airport, and plush, furnished and spacious living accommodation waiting at the end of the ride in an equally plush and spacious company car.

Me? Jealous? Not really, except when it comes to moving. I’ve lived in five different countries so far, and am in the process of relocating to a fifth. In each case, aside from visas, we’ve had to handle the logistics ourselves. And even with the visa, the people who were supposed to be helping out generally got it wrong. I even managed to work illegally in the US for about three months, but that was many years ago when immigration officials were generally more laid back and even more confused and they still asked whether you intended to overthrow the government of the United States of America. Later, when I applied for a Green Card, my immigration lawyer tried to pay (on my behalf) a $1500 fine during my final interview,. The official brushed away their generous attempt to hand over a significant portion of my monthly salary on the grounds I hadn’t done it deliberately – I had answered the questions posed by an equally relaxed and confused immigration official at JFK in New York honestly and accurately and he had still waved me through.

When you are paying relocation costs yourself, it makes you sit back and evaluate which belongings are really important. When I moved from the UK to the US I filled a backpack and shipped a bike. When I moved on to China 17 years later, I took two suitcases and two bikes. The move to Denmark another 10 years on necessitated shifting 8 boxes and two bikes, and I picked up a third bike on a return trip. But this time we are moving just up the road to Norway, which means are driving and suddenly, rather than abandoning everything, we have the option of moving furniture (plus an obligatory number of bikes, I’m now up to 4 and a half – one doesn’t have any wheels – and a workstand)

Now, rather than figuring out what we can sell or more conveniently dump on friends, we found ourselves considering what size van we needed. Common sense did kick in when we realized how expensive petrol is in Scandinavia, and the significantly better fuel efficiency of a Citroen Jumper somewhat curbed our excesses. And moving to a third floor flat accessed via a decorative winding staircase also encouraged restraint, but we still appear to have significantly more supplies to move internationally locations compared to previous relocations.

VPN

June 19, 2012

So, i finally got myself a VPN.  I’d been pondering the idea for a while, i’d even got around to shelling out for a licence a couple of years back, but then Beijing changed the rules about foreign companies offering services in China and suddenly i was back on me Jack Jones.  But the delay in signing on again wasn’t associated with any concerns about receiving a knock on the door from a sinister state official and being escorted to the nearest station for further questioning, it was more a problem of remembering to buy the package when i was out of the country.  This is a necessity as the websites of the companies offering these services are blocked as a matter of course.  However, i wasn’t going to pass credit card details over an insecure wireless connection while staying at a hostel in Hong Kong.  And even though i appeared to be the only one in the terminal on one of my overnighters at Incheon International Airport, i still didn’t fancy the odds.  I had plenty of opportunity to purchase on trips to Europe and USA but there always seemed something more pressing on the agenda, a spot of tennis, a live broadcast of a mountain stage of the tour de france or a plain old trip to the bookshop to embrace the jetlag with a lengthy snooze in one of their plush sofas. My basic rule of thumb on this latter course of action is that, if you come away with a purchase, a two hour nap is acceptable as long as you don’t snore too loudly and don’t drool on a book you aren’t planning to purchase.  Many years ago I broke this rule when I arrived back in the UK and headed straight to the University of Surrey to meet up with big Sis.  I got there just as she was going to a laboratory class and i foolishly went to the library with the honorable but unrealistic plan of reading the latest edition of Physical Review B.  The last thing i remember was looking at a rather boring diagram describing energy states in a superconductor, the next i woke up with my face down on the magazine and the drool dripping off the desk onto the carpet.  I left the magazine hanging off the back of the chair next to a radiator to help it on its way and fled the building, trying to rub some feeling back into my nose.

But, getting back to the VPN story, I finally made my pledge the night before flying back to China from a jaunt to the USA.  We were leaving for the airport at 4.30am so no one in the house was really sleeping – there were four of us heading out to three different flights and with only two bathrooms in the house i suddenly had an hour on my hands and not much happening at that hour.  I read the product reviews, i balanced the pros and cons, i bought a one year licence, i downloaded the package to my laptop, i headed to the airport.

No further action was taken until about a week later when i received an email from a friend that ran something along the lines of “Bradley Wiggins was awesome, you need to watch stage 3b of the Tour de Salford”.  So I double clicked, installed the package according to the step by step instructions, and it all went fine until the final “you are now ready to connect!” step.  It said to right-click on the red monitor icon and select connect on the popup menu.  When i right clicked i got a popup menu with a server list that read like an itinerary from Around the World in Eighty Days.  I went back through the install process, i’m not exactly computer illiterate, but i couldn’t work out where i had gone wrong.  

I managed to connect to a customer support service hosted in Russia and a gent rather predictably named Vladimir.  I explained that when i tried to connect i was getting the full city list of servers rather than a simple connect option, assuming he would be able to pinpoint the problem immediately.

“a full city list of servers?” he typed
“yup, which one am i supposed to select? there are about 100 to choose from”
“where did you get a list of servers from?”

I finally assented to granting him remote access to my laptop (with Mandarin operating system) and sat back to watch him attempt to navigate around the system settings.  His mouse movements were both confident and elegant, or they were until he brought up the server list.  The mouse was motionless for about 30s, then he right clicked on the connect icon again, then he stopped.  After a few moments he started typing again

“how did you get this server list?  what is it?  where did it come from?” he demanded
“I dunno” i replied in an equally professional, if somewhat less panicky style
“i installed your package, and there it was”

he resumed his somewhat halting traversal of my Chinese OS until he finally managed to stumble upon the system services settings.  At which point a little light bulb began to glow dimly somewhere in the back of my head.  I couldn’t interfere because he was controlling the mouse, so i just waited until he began typing again

“did you previously install another VPN on this computer?”
“yeah. sorry, i completely forgot”

he was very sporting about the whole thing, expressing surprise at how two completely independent VPNs were able to integrate so well to produce something that ran but didn’t work.  A few more clicks to remove unwanted system services and i was online

all i have to do is figure out some “illegal” content to peruse.