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


Seeing Red

April 22, 2015

Denmark gets a lot of real estate in the media for the cycling thing, Copenhagen especially. And they always seem to use that same photo that shows row after row of bicycles lined up outside the main station. Actually, there are even more bikes on the opposite site of the station but most visitors aren’t aware of that unless they are looking for a cheap hotel (does this mean that journalists from the rags such as the New York Times and the Guardian only stay at the more upmarket ones?) Alternatively, maybe they didn’t take a snap back there since it smells really bad around the back, because, after sinking a few jars, locals will nip around there in the evening to relieve themselves before jumping on the train. That’s what happens when you charge 5 kroner to gain access to the genuine article.

There is no doubt there is a major cycling presence in Copenhagen, aided by the presence of cycling lanes on all the main roads in the city. These are physically separated from the pedestrians and cars, usually by a few centimetres in the vertical axis. However, what the article doesn’t point out is that a majority of the cycling is over short distances. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, but I came to the country expecting a cycle mad nation that uses their bikes to get everywhere. I think cycling aware would be more accurate. What generally happens is people will ride their bike to the nearest train station or bus stop. If they are taking the train, sometimes they will put the bike on board. Usually they park the bike and use public transportation to get them within walking distance of their destination. Like any other country, there is some kind of inverse relationship between commuting distance and fraction of population willing to ride. It’s just that in Denmark  it’s easier to put take your bike on the train (there are entire carriages dedicated to them) and they have more bike racks per capita than, for example, the UK.

In Copenhagen, cyclists obey the traffic lights. Coming from China, i found that quite strange at first, when I first arrived, no one obeyed traffic lights. It was only the arrival of CCTV that gave the government a way to bring things under control. Aside from fines, they also attempted to rein in miscreant motorists by publishing their CCTV images as they blew through a red light. I lived there long enough to sort of understand the shame thing, but I never really grasped it in relationship to running a red light, it seemed you could always bow a couple of times and claim the sun was in your eyes or you sneezed at an inopportune moment. Of course, sometimes an image of a senior party official would be published with a woman in the front seat who was young enough to be his granddaugther but who was quite something else. I imagine those situations tended to be a little more tricky to weasle out of.

Since bicycles are at the bottom of the pecking order, I continued to adopt a fairly relaxed attitude to traffic lights. Large roads with fast moving traffic commanded respect, but otherwise on a good evening I could roll through a complete sets of 8 lights as I freewheeled downhill on my way home in the evening. My passage through each red light would be announced by a brief light show as an array of flash bulbs were set off to record my crime. They must have captured close to a hundred shots of me every night. But i never made front page news.

But getting back to Denmark, if you read the cycling in Denmark article, you’ve probably also read the one about Denmark being the happiest country on the planet. Copenhageners are apparently brimming over with joy if we are to believe the stats. Perhaps that’s why they exhibit  such restraint when faced with a spot of red. Michael Rassmussen may have doped and lied about his whereabouts during the 2008 tour de France, but i get the impression he would never haved considered jumping a light when he was back home to visit his mum and dad . Bjarne Riis, I’m not so sure about.

Given such happiness and restraint, it makes it all the more striking to witness the aggressive, semi-suicidal riding style of the average rider in Copenhagen. I’ve raced in fast moving peletons in pouring rain that exhibited more restraint that the average Copenhagener riding in similar conditions. In the peloton it was hairy but at least you had some confidence knowing that your fellow riders were aware of the potential dangers. In Copenhagen, there appears to be a blissful ignorance of the possible risks associated with squeezing past another cyclist on a rain slicked path just wide enough for two hybrid bicycles if the handlebars are touching. Add to the mix the sharply edge stone kerbs separating bike and pedestrian on one side, fast moving traffic passing on the other and a high density of riders and it’s only a matter of time before something happens.

Riders are also happy to ride along with several bags shopping dangling from both handlebars. Younger people prefer to take it a step further, and throw in a set of headphones and a cigarette for good measure. Another popular pastime is texting while riding, preferably with both hands to improve words per minute, something that appears to be common to all age groups. I even witnessed one hip gent waiting at a light on a dull weekday afternoon with shopping on the handlebars, texting with one hand and a cigarette in the other. And he was wearing sunglasses and sandles.

A colleague at work showed up one morning looking like he been for a night out in Norwich. Apparently he had nipped round the corner on the bike to get some milk, his attention had lapsed, he clipped the kerb and down he went. He wasn’t wearing a helmet but it probably wouldn’t have helped since he hit the kerb with his cheekbone. By the time he got stitches and arrived home several hours later he realised the milk was laying somewhere on the bike path and the shops were all closed.


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.


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.

Bicycle Theft

May 26, 2012

I had another bike nicked last week.  That’s the third bike I’ve lost in China (assuming you include the first bike I bought when I arrived that l left unlocked in the hope someone would take it) Options were limited when I purchased it and it was so small my knees came up past the handlebars on the upstroke.  I also gave away two more because the quality was so bad – the first I picked up second hand and, like Windows XP required weekly updates.  The second I bought new and it lasted less time than the former and if I was to continue with the Windows analogy, it would be my Windows ME, every fix seemed to make things slightly worse.  It turned into a heap of rust in over the course of three months and I ended up handing it to a migrant worker on the street who approached me for money.  I suspect he would have preferred the cash. 


If I ignore the three bikes I abandoned (one in a bike shed in Beijing and two more second hand jobs that cost 6 quid each) I’m ahead compared to when I was a student in Manchester and lost 6 bikes in three years, two of which were very expensive and one of which was stolen from inside the house by a local boy climbing in through an upstairs lavatory window.  But, unlike Manchester they go beyond the token slap on the wrist in China and kick the shit out of bicycle thieves at the local nick before requiring them to pay a fine.  I’m not sure where the money (or the collection of recovered bikes) goes. I suspect they sell them back to the thieves for a cut of the proceeds.


But a year ago, I decided I had enough of substandard subsized rides and went upmarket.  Not too much upmarket, just enough to get me something that better fitted my height, offered a selection of gears and weighed in under 50lbs.  It set me back just over 50 quid and I kept it inside the apartment building behind a locked front door and attached to an abandoned electric bicycle.  Not my abandoned bike for once, my wife’s.  Once someone lifted the saddle she kind of lost interest.


It was fine until some guys came by to remodel the downstairs flat.  I was heading out to the airport in the afternoon to fly to Beijing so arrived back at the house at noon, ate some lunch.  At two pm I came back downstairs to get a taxi and the bike was gone.


I always seem to go through the same ridiculous set of motions.  First of all I make sure it’s not inside the cardboard box in the corner or behind the other bikes.  Then I check outside just incase it somehow got detached from the other bike or for some reason this was the one day I forgot to lock it up indoors.  To be honest, the amount of effort I spend looking for it is proportional to my estimate of its worth.  When I lost the first bike in Wuhan, I figured it was worth about 6 quid and didn’t even break stride as I walked up the road to buy another secondhand bicycle to get me home (equivalent to the cost of taking a taxi).


I got back from Beijing on the Monday, took the bus to work, and in the afternoon walked back over to the upmarket bike shop. 


They still had the identical model but as I was walking over there I realized that simply by riding into work every day (rather than taking the bus) I had recuperated the cost of the bike over the course of the year I had owned it.  There was a shiny red one next to it with quick release hubs and bigger gears.  It was slightly more and still weighed in just under 50lbs.  Now I carry it up to the second floor (I live on the fifth), remove the front tyre and saddle, lock the remainder to the railing on the stairwell and carry what’s left up to the flat.  Hopefully an axle grinder would be too conspicuous even for a Chinese bicycle thief, but I’m not holding my breath.


February 5, 2011

Chinese New Year finds me celebrating on my own, enjoying the solitude and the opportunity to get some work done without distractions.

Chinese New Year wouldn’t be right without fireworks. It would be like celebrating Christmas without a Christmas pud or Brussel sprouts. The celebrations you might see in a Chinatown in the west doesn’t really do it justice. I’ve seen them, a few firecrackers and bit of prancing around with a dragon. Over here, you could forego the dragon, but never the fireworks. Come 4pm New Year’s Eve the city degenerates into an orgy of blinding flashes and deafening explosions that doesn’t let up for about 36 hours.
Read the rest of this entry »


February 1, 2011

I have an allergy to seafood, I’m not sure which ones are the main troublemakers, I’ve never had the desire to carry out the experiment. Aside from the, er, rapid expulsion of any offending particles, I also get flu like symptoms – aching joints, headache and slight dizziness.
Read the rest of this entry »


January 16, 2011

We physicists get such a bad rap in the movies. I’m not talking about the endless renditions of us as nerds, incapable of holding a conversation with anyone unless it’s on topic, tongue tied in the presence of the opposite sex, no dress sense whatsoever. Well, perhaps they might have a point with number three, if my opposite number wasn’t looking out for me, I probably wouldn’t be giving it due attention.
Read the rest of this entry »

Bicycles Lanes

November 19, 2010

“Bikes Lanes to be constructed in Wuhan” ran the headline in the English language news website a few months back. Given the fact that China has had bike lanes for quite a while, I’m not really sure why this warranted a story,. You might as well write “London to construct roads”. Wuhan had bike lanes before they really had any cars (and consequently were of little use since you could ride the bike wherever you felt like it without running the risk of being hit by an inattentive motorist). Nowadays that’s all changed, bikes are for losers such as myself; anyone with status drives a car, or rather sits in a stationary queue of traffic.

Journalists love to write sloppy articles about China, slotting in clichéd phrases about economic miracles and the sleeping dragon awakening and slapping in a photo of a traffic jam on the second circle in Beijing for good measure. Truth is, traffic jams in Beijing are nothing compared to Wuhan. Stand on any major thoroughfare in Wuhan at 5pm on a weekday and I’ll show you a traffic jam son. Things have got so bad I don’t even try riding my moped at that time of day; at least I can pick up and carry a bicycle over my head between the cars.

But as I mentioned above, as the economy has taken off, bicycle usage has plummeted so, aside from an all expenses paid trip to Europe to see how it was done (and one more stop off in London to see the wrong way to do it), it was a mystery to me what exactly they were hoping to gain.

I’d all but forgotten about the scheme until the bicycle lane chain gang arrived outside the hospital last week. Efficient and Mechanized were two words that didn’t immediately spring to mind, Three guys in a beaten up microvan pulled up, talked on the phone for a while and after an hour or so, slowly got out, stretched, stood around, scratched and spat and then sauntered around to the back of the van to stare at the contents in back. Around 10.30 they finally swung into action and began piling up a large number of unmarked yellow cans next to the van and hurling several sacks that might have contained rice on to the ground, until one of them split open from the force of impact, spraying red sand across the pavement.

I went downstairs to investigate. They prised off the lid just as I showed up, sending a strong odour wafting through the air that brought back memories of making 1/72nd scale Airfix models of spitfires, hurricanes and (my personal favourite) the Messerschmitt me109. A major difference was that whereas we had little tubes of cement to glue the bombs to the underside of the fuselage of the Lancaster, these guys were working in units of 10L and one of them was leaning over an opened canister with a fag in his mouth. I retreated to the relatively safety of my office, knowing that any mishap on their part would be announced with a fireball that would probably blow past my window on the top floor.

When I set out for lunch thirty minutes later, they had managed to get some kind of system going and work their way a couple of hundred yards down the road. One guy was painting the glue onto the roadway, while the second guy scattered the red sugar over the top. The smell of the cement was overpowering. The third guy stood on the pavement working his thumb up his nose and then using the same hand to send text messages on his phone.

When I returned after a couple of hours (we get decent lunch breaks in China) the third guy had got his finger out his, er, nose and was carefully laying down a white line over the top of the white line that was already there when they first marked out the bicycle lanes in the city several years ago. The headline should have read “Wuhan to paint bicycle lanes red”.

By the evening, their attention to detail had visibly waned. I wasn’t sure whether it was the toxic fumes or the consequence of liquid bender over a late lunch, but the line demarcating the bicycle lane from the rest of the traffic deviated significantly from a straight line and looked like something that would be better fitted by a high order polynomial function.

It didn’t really matter. The next morning after the glue had dried and the traffic cones removed, drivers seemed to think the bright new surface marked out a new parking area. Within minutes the bicycle lane outside the hospital was choked with empty cars, forcing cyclists out into the road and increasing the likelihood of them coming through our doors as new customers.

Me? now I just ride on the pavement.

an earlier effort before the fumes had their full effect