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.
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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.
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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.
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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

Meeting Across the River

November 6, 2010

I have to say I never thought I’d see the day when I’d find myself cruising the streets of Beijing while sitting in the back of a military vehicle. It wasn’t so much a humpity bumpity army truck as a leather upholstered one. I also noticed the driver had a book on Jiang Jieshi (or Chiang Kai Shek if you happened to study O level history with the modern China option back in the late 70s). I seem to recall that old Jiang wasn’t exactly the flavour of the month over here, but given we were weaving back and forth between lanes on the fourth circle in a fitted out Buick, I supposed I couldn’t read too much into the apparent contradiction..
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October 7, 2010

At one time I used to take the cross channel ferry quite frequently. I don’t think we ever made the crossing in the summer; it was usually in the middle of winter when the tickets were dirt cheap. So my memories generally consist of ice cold winds that blasted you the moment you went on deck, Read the rest of this entry »

Eight Tyres

September 26, 2010

Buying a bicycle tyre is a fairly straightforward in the US or UK. In the US you go into a bike shop and, after the dudes have sized you up, they will either recognize you as one of them and give you respect, or else they will classify you as a ‘cyclist’ and decide everything needs to be explained or punctuated with condescending questions (“you do know how to pump up the tyre right?”).
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Batteries Not Included

September 23, 2010

Having given up finding an oversized bicycle in a bike shop I went and bought on online. Or, to be more accurate, a friend bought one for me and then I gave him the money. I don’t have a Chinese credit card so buying anything online is difficult. In fact it’s so complicated that even when the same guy helped me it took 90 minutes to download and configure the various security packages, enter 3 different codes, none of which were less than 20 digits and only then could I buy a four dollar USB cable I could have bought up the road for 50 cents more.
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