With the death of Kim Jong Il and the (apparent) assumption of power by his son Kim Jong Un, many Americans are being reminded of the incredible isolation of North Korea. Well, I happened across an extraordinary collection of data concerning the hermit kingdom of Pyongyang. Using Google Earth as a platform, "North Korea Uncovered" is a massive undertaking; one finds everything from propaganda efforts to dams and prison camps documented, with more than a few links to additional online sources for more information. In some ways, it's like a travelogue for a country you'll probably never be able to visit. I find this stuff fascinating, and thought you might like to take a look; the KMZ file can be downloaded from the link below.
Friday, December 30, 2011
Polyvinyl Records, based in Champaign, IL, is something of a rare breed among music labels. From the beginning, their business model has been based on a straightforward 50-50 revenue split with every artist. I like that. They're celebrating their 15th anniversary with a free sampler - and I like that even better! Vivian Girls, Of Montreal, Joan of Arc, and 27 other Polyvinyl artists await you on this sampler. Grab and enjoy!
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
This is serious holiday food. Seriously, you want to give this recipe a try. In my family, this stuff disappears in a proverbial eyeblink.
Monday, December 26, 2011
It's time for another eclectic (and free) MP3 selection, and tonight's will not disappoint. Germany's Denovali Records bills itself as an "independent label for experimental, ambient, darkjazz, jazz, drone, electronica, doom, indie etc." Their Nordic Lake Sounds Volume I certainly meets that description. Quite frankly, there's a breadth of sound here that one rarely encounters within the scope of a single label. My FLFs (First-Listen Favorites) would have to be Fromme Lugen by Sankt Otten, Les Fragments de la Nuit's Entre Ciel et Fer, and Nylonfrom Her Name Is Calla. In playing through this sampler nonstop, one hears the influence of everything from classical piano to progressive rock, with a healthy dose of electronica used both as thematic statement and effect. (Yes, there's a good chunk of metal involved, too.) Give this one a listen, and be sure to wander through their site; there are 20 or so other free downloads currently available.
Sunday, December 25, 2011
Sure, they're the reigning Super Bowl champions, but did you know that they're the only non-profit franchise in American professional sports? In one of those meandering, ten-different-sources-thanks-to-Google reading efforts, I've learned quite a bit about the Packers tonight, and it's actually rather impressive. I'll hazard the guess that the Packers are unique in professional sport, at least as far as the US market (and model) are concerned. You should check out the Offering Document for Packers stock, which is available at the first link below; it makes it a point to tell potential "investors" that purchasing stock will NOT result in better seats for home games. The Forbes article is interesting, simply because we know far more about the Packers' operations than we do about any other NFL team. If you're a sports fan, or interested in the business side of American sport, it's a good read.
Saturday, December 24, 2011
As many of you know, I'm a big fan of Linux. As my "work hardware" has aged out over the years, I've taken to installing Linux on whatever "old laptop" I might have at the time. For the last 12 years or so, my laptops have been ThinkPads - first manufactured by IBM, and later by Lenovo - so it's safe to say that I have a great deal of experience when it comes to combining Linux with ThinkPads. (In case you were wondering, Red Hat 5.0 DOES install on ThinkPads 560Z and 600!)
Well, I just received a "laptop upgrade" from my employer, so my ThinkPad T60 was an immediate candidate for Linuxhood. I chose the Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat) distribution, and installation was virtually effortless. I was immediately presented with the choice to upgrade to Natty Narwhal (11.04), which I did. There were a few minor glitches, the most noticeable of which was that the infamous "ThinkPad buttons" for volume up/down/mute and "ThinkVantage" were inoperational, but I fixed that with the install of ThinkPad utilities from the Ubuntu Software Center.
Some time later, I had the chance to upgrade to Oneiric Ocelot, aka Ubuntu 11.10. This one was a little different, because the upgrade immediately informed me that my graphic hardware might have a rough time after the upgrade. This was due to Ubuntu's change from straight GNOME to the new Unity 3D interface. Well, they were right; while everything was operational after upgrading to 11.10, video responsiveness was HIDEOUSLY slow. Now, for folks like me who still run ThinkPad 600s and T41s, it wasn't unusably bad, but it was poor nonetheless. Thankfully, there's another option - Unity2D. Since I'm not much for eye candy in general, I switched to Unity2D; the positive results were immediate. It's visually zippy in all but the most intensive operations (such as Workspace view, where it does a split-screen view of all four workspaces). It does everything I need, and does it "fast enough" for me.
Why am I mentioning this? Because IBM still sells used/refurbished laptops. While they don't currently have any T60s in stock, they do have T61s at a VERY affordable price. The links below will take you to IBM's used equipment marketplace, ThinkWiki (a great reference for Linux on any model of ThinkPad), and the Ubuntu homepage.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
A recent XKCD strip suggested our notion of "classic Christmas songs" has been cast in stone by the "baby boomer" generation. Well, this led to a nice, long discussion during a recent family trip--we are a very musical family--about what modern/contemporary Christmas songs would be considered "classics" 20 years from now. Since XKCD's data ended with the early 1970s, we defined "modern" as "released in 1970 or later." As we debated various songs, artists, and groups, I suddenly realized that we already had at least one winner.
Bing Crosby and David Bowie joined forces (and isn't THAT a strange sentence to write) to perform "Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth" for Crosby's 1977 TV Christmas special. It's a great duet, but the truly amazing figures in the story were behind the scenes; as it happens, Bowie flatly refused to sing "Little Drummer Boy" as written; he felt that he would completely alienate his fans with such a straightforward, traditional rendition. So, the arrangers/composers, Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman, found a room on the set and--IN 75 MINUTES--wrote a countermelody ("Peace on Earth") and wrote the fusion arrangement on the fly. The result was originally considered somewhat bizarre, but has become a Christmas staple for many music lovers (including me). It's sadly appropriate that the original sheet music was, apparently, left unpreserved, making this a true "one-hit wonder" for the ages. Enjoy.
Washington Post: Bing and Bowie: An Odd Story of Holiday Harmony
I was introduced to Buffer today, and I'm quite pleased. This free service, simply put, buffers your tweets and/or Facebook posts until issuing them according to your predetermined schedule. The default Buffer size is 11 entries, which is more than enough for those "post them whenever" kind of links that curators of online content always seem to accumulate.
The key piece of the Buffer puzzle, for me, is its Firefox plugin. It's fast and clean, and it makes it ridiculously easy to stash a tweet/post in one's Buffer while surfing the Web. When you read as much as I do--and from as many sites--this quick-and-easy approach makes all the difference. Instead of flipping from browser to Twitter client, I simply stock up my tweets as I'm reading; you just can't beat that kind of ease-of-use. The fact that it's provided as a Firefox plugin gives you cross-platform availability out of the box.
Seriously, check it out; this one's a keeper. (Full disclosure: if you sign up from the link below, we'll both get an extra entry added to our Buffer...)
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
There is some seriously dangerous--for the online world--legislation working its way through the US Congress. Known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (Protect-IP) in the Senate, these bills would, if enacted, enable just about anyone to shut down any website with a "good faith" accusation of copyright infringement. Notice that I didn't say "reasonable suspicion" or "proof," but rather "good faith." That's right; all it would take is for someone--anyone--to assert a copyright/trademark claim, and the provisions of these bills would allow for penalties up to, and including, DNS blocking of the site(s) in question. Yes, I said DNS blocking. The same technique used by regimes such as China and Iran to "filter the Internet" would be used here in the US, on nothing more than a "hey, that's my content" accusation. (Recent reports suggest that the DNS blocking provisions have been watered down and/or removed in conference hearings, but I'll believe it when I see it; when last I read the legislation, those provisions were still intact.)
This is wrong. This is seriously, rise-to-the-level-of-un-American wrong. Copyright and trademark owners already enjoy more than sufficient protections and remedies under the law; there is simply no reason to raise the stakes to this degree. Thanks to previous excessive legislation--hello, Digital Millenium Copyright Act--we've already seen more than a few cases in which copyright holders (i'm looking at YOU, RIAA/MPAA) used excessive DMCA actions to have content blocked or removed from third-party websites. Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, mentions one of the most egregious examples in the article linked below; Uri Geller used DMCA threats against a critical website, even though he did not hold the copyright to the materials in question! (Details here and ultimate result here.) The point is simple; those sites who don't have the resources, or assistance from groups like EFF, to fight such bogus claims will find themselves forced to remove the content in question without the benefit of the due process of law. Yep, it's guilty-until-proven-innocent; the RIAA and MPAA don't need that kind of help.
SOPA and Protect-IP are bad law, and will endanger the innovation that is the Internet. If you're in the US, I strongly urge you to check out americancensorship.org and lend your voice to the campaign against this truly nefarious legislation.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
It's so easy to get lost during this time of the year. Between sports, shopping, travel and all the attendant craziness, we sometimes forget the things that really matter. As those of us who believe consider the Gift given to mankind on Christmas, I find myself thinking back on the other gifts I have received through the year. 2011 was a rough year for many; while it's undoubtedly true that millions (billions, to be honest) of people had a tougher year than did I, we certainly had our share of rough patches. Therefore, certain gifts must be acknowledged. In no particular order:
- Colleagues who listened to me vent my frustrations, offered good advice or simply 'brought me back down' to earth.
- Online friends who were often a source of good counsel - or much-needed laughter.
- A fantastic wife (pause for wisecracks from those who know just how far "up" I married). 'Nuff said.
- Four great kids who, despite their inability to clean their rooms, knock things out of the park with astounding regularity.
- Folks who challenged my opinions and/or beliefs, forcing me to think more deeply and analytically in defense.
- Customers whose confidence in my ability to "fix things" drove me to better effort.
These gifts cannot be wrapped or shipped, but--and this is no small irony when discussing gifts--my hope is that I have the chance to return them, whether it be to you or someone else, in the year to come.
Some of you know where you fall on that list, but others may not; nonetheless, you have my thanks. Merry Christmas.
Friday, December 16, 2011
Quick and easy - American Car magazine is sponsoring a free 11-track MP3 sampler with Roadrunner Records. It'll cost you an email address, but it's worth it. No need to pick favorites here; the sampler includes tracks from Lynyrd Skynyrd, Slash, Queensryche, Staind, and Steve Miller Band. Go grab it.
Simply put, Hitchens was a writer - of the sort that is so desperately necessary from time to time. Even on those occasions in which I disagreed with his political or social opinions, I could always admire and respect his writing style and his command of language. At his best, Hitchens was an amalgam of the Algonquin Round Table, James Thurber, George Orwell and--just perhaps--a hint of Mark Twain or Will Rogers. Instead of offering further proof of my own meager writing skills, I'll simply suggest that writers are best eulogized by their own works. In recent years, Hitchens wrote for New Statesmen, The Nation, Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and Slate.
Requiscat in pace, Mr. Hitchens.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
I'm a big guy. I'm also a tall guy. I'm talking lumberjack without the flannel, folks. That combination spells P-A-I-N in many areas of human endeavor. For instance, it's a little-known fact that "big and tall" stores are really "big OR tall" stores; if you're both, you're often out of luck. I've been met at the door of such establishments with a pitiable glance and a sotto voce "We won't have much to fit you."
As you might imagine, air travel is a challenge all its own. Over the years, I've learned a few tricks, including asking the attendants to let me know if any pairs of adjacent seats are empty. Even so, putting my 6'5" frame in the typical airplane seat is comical at best, and painful at worst. I once had a fellow traveler who attempted to excoriate me for putting my backpack in the overhead bin, instead of under-the-seat-in-front-of-me; I just shifted in my seat, held up one of my 13EEEE feet, and he walked away grumbling.
Enter SeatGuru. I love this website. No, strike that - let's go big and say that I LOVE THIS WEBSITE! It's ridiculously simple; you toss in your airline and flight number, and it coughs up an annotated seatmap of your plane. Not only does it identify seats with no space to recline or fixed armrests, but it goes into those little details that business travelers love, such as which seats have AC (or USB!) power. (That last point is particularly important on intercontinental flights...)
Between SeatGuru and my frequent-flyer "choose your seat" options, my air travel has been made much more comfortable - or, at least, far more bearable.
When I was a kid, I read. A lot. Every day. A big part of that reading came from the Federal Government; not only would I request books from my Congresscritters (remember the Yearbook of Agriculture? I still have a few of those somewhere...), but I'd check out the Consumer Information Catalog for new pamphlets and fact sheets. Well, as one might expect, that's all online now, and there's a wealth of information for the asking. Just looking at the front page of the site shows a fact sheet on stroke, "12 Days of Holiday Tips", a guide to food safety when cooking for groups, and individual/personal financial organization. You can browse through the site and download many of the publications in PDF format ("Securing Your Wireless Network"? Hmmm...) and order both free and at-cost publications for delivery. I've found several of these publications to be good introductory info for my kids (or, in some cases, my octogenarian mother). Check it out; it's a government service that actually works well.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Yes,it's that time of year again - Lotusphere is in the works! I'm honored to have been chosen for two presentations to be delivered at Lotusphere 2012:
- Sametime 8.5.2 Deployment Workshop - We'll review the breadth and depth of Sametime 8.5.2, giving you the information and understanding you need to design and deploy Sametime's collaboration tools in your environment. This will not be a "how-to-install" session, but rather a "how to THINK about your deployment" session. It's a 2-hour JumpStart, which will be delivered on Sunday.
- Wrestling the Snake: An Introduction to Performance Tuning - There's always a lot of talk about "optimizing performance" and "tweaking your config," but one can't always find a good method by which to approach this (somewhat) black art of the system administrator. We'll talk about how to determine the key performance points in your software architecture, common "red flags" that warn you of system stress points, and assorted other goodies that application-layer folks don't often get to consider. It's a 1-hour breakout session, whose place in the schedule has yet to be determined.
In addition, I've submitted a few "Birds of a Feather" sessions (BOFs), which are more relaxed (no slides!) 1-hour discussions. If selected for inclusion by Lotusphere registrants, I'll be hosting "Ask the Network Geek" and "Building a Network Toolkit." The latter BOF is a new submission; if accepted, I'll be demonstrating various free and/or open-source networking tools I use in my everyday work. If you're registered for Lotusphere, please consider voting for my BOFs...*grin*
If you're interested in learning more about this fantastic conference, check out the link below...
Saturday, December 10, 2011
I've noticed that, while most of us seem to read webcomics, we rarely discuss them in our social media. Sure, XKCD gets the occasional mention in one's Twitter stream, but that's about it. For lack of anything better to do, I thought I'd toss out my daily "first cup of coffee" webcomics and invite you to do the same. Without further ado, the list:
Questionable Content - Centers around a group of young people, their coffee house, and various romantic entanglings. Geek credit for the notion of AnthroPC AIs, one now in human form. A bit much on the sexual content and language on occasion, but still a good read.
General Protection Fault - The (mis)adventures of the cast/crew of a software development firm. Heavy sci-fi and James Bond influences. Requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. Fairly long plotlines. If you like the look of GPF, you DEFINITELY need to go back and read the full archives.
XKCD - The site's tagline says it all - "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language." Seriously, XKCD provides daily shots that are groaners at worst and deeply thought-provoking at best. with a massive dose of tech/science content. A definite winner.
Starslip (formerly Starslip Crisis) - Sci-fi set in the far future. Storylines cover everything from time-traveling criminals to reformed (or unrepentant) pirates to the lost love of a princess.
PVP (Player vs. Player) - Life with the editor and staff of a gaming magazine in the Pacific Northwest. Storylines include a cat who wants to rule the world, Christmastime battles (good stuff - check the archives), Apple fandom and Magic: The Gathering.
Ctrl-Alt-Del -Primarly one-shot gags revolving around video games, but also runs storylines involving a trio of gamers...and their sentient, bipedal-augmented XBox, Zeke.
Something Positive -SP is chock full of dry, sarcastic humor with an occasional dose of heavy irony. Storylines of varying length.
Sluggy Freelance - Heavy tech/sci-fi/magic influence, but I read Sluggy for Bun-Bun, the lop rabbit who takes no prisoners.
There's also one I'm in the process of "deciding upon" - Girls With Slingshots. In recent weeks, the content has been heavily sexual (though not explicit); the strip keeps going back and forth over my personal "too much" boundary, but I'm going to let the current storyline finish before I decide whether to keep this one bookmarked. Your mileage may vary, so check it out if you like.
That's pretty much it for pure, online-only webcomics. I do read a few traditional comic strips online, notably Doonesbury, Dilbert, and one that may surprise you - Gil Thorp. Yeah, it's somewhat disturbing that EVERY problem seems to be resolved in Milford, but here's the thing; as the parent of 3 high school athletes, I see MANY of my kids' teammates reflected in the strip, as well as quite a few of their parents to boot. In that sense, there's a pretty healthy dose of Schadenfreude in seeing such people get their comeuppance from "the Gilfather."
Well, enough about my preferences - what webcomics do YOU read?
I consider myself a person of faith, not a "religious person." To me, the difference has always been that faith is goal, reward and gift alike in the relationship between man and God, while religion is--in most cases--various stuff that men have introduced into the equation in attempts to (somehow) codify or regulate that divine gift of faith. I don't always get it right--who does?--and I've made some spectacular mistakes, but I do keep trying...
As you might expect, then, I'm interested in anything that feeds my introspection into faith, religion and the differences between the two. In that respect, I have come to greatly enjoy the Christian Reflection series, published by Baylor University's Center for Christian Ethics. Each issue is dedicated to a single topic; while I don't necessarily need the hymn selection or responsive readings in each issue, there are always several thought-provoking articles. They aren't afraid to tackle controversial issues, either; recent editions of Christian Reflections have covered "Christianity and Islam," "Consumerism" and "Immigration." I won't even pretend that I agree with the writers in every instance--I'd worry if I did, I think--but, as I said, their articles always make me think.
All back issues are available in PDF format, and one can also subscribe to the print edition at no charge. (If you do request a print subscription, please join me in a small donation to keep the journal going...) Happy browsing.
Friday, December 09, 2011
Just as I used to love ordering gags from Johnson Smith Co., I always spent days with the Edmund Scientific catalog. Oh, the fun I had with magnet sets, magnesium strips and dissection kits. (Hey, things were SLOW in the country sometimes...) I recently stumbled across Edmund's website, and I see that they're still going strong. The link below leads to their Clearance section, just in case you're still looking for stocking stuffers with a scientific bent. Let me put it this way - any game that includes laser beams can't be all bad!
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Short and sweet - there's a healthy chunk of indie Christmas music, as well as Christmas MIDI files, e-cards, recipes and more at feelslikechristmas.com. Knock yourself out.
Since my 3 high-school children now have iPads (thanks to a school initiative - ours is the first public school in Kentucky to go 1-to-1 with tablets), I've been on the lookout for cool apps with which to feed/supplement their curiosity and interests. I stumbled across one NASA app in the App Store, then found this list of available NASA apps. They're all pretty cool, but I REALLY like Visualization Explorer and NASA App HD. The photography is often stunning and always interesting. Seriously - if you (or your kids) have the slightest interest in earth science or space exploration, get these apps NOW.
Tuesday, December 06, 2011
In the never-ending debate around education in the US, standardized testing has become something of a flashpoint in recent years. Some folks suggest that only testing can adequately measure the effectiveness of teachers and/or curriculum choices, while others argue that such testing fails (and terminally so) to account for individual learning styles. Teachers often complain that the resulting regimen leads to a "teaching to the test" approach that forces them to forgo a broad range of teaching techniques. Most recently, a school board memer in a large school district took the 10th grade standardized tests and did rather poorly. That school board member contrasted his poor performance on the standardized tests with his success in business, suggesting that he would never have attended college if he had scored as poorly in his high school years as he did 20-30 years later. The clear implication is that standardized testing covers "unnecessary" topics.
In all the hue and cry, it seems to me that a significant point of argument has been left unspoken by most folks in the debate. It isn't a question of whether the specific skills tested are "necessary" in the real world; I'll readily admit that, in my 20+ years in IT, I haven't once been called upon to factor a polynomial, diagram a sentence, or determine the effects of various catalysts on a given chemical reaction. The key point is that all of these "testable points" are indicative of the student's mental discipline; having completed coursework in these subjects, can they apply their knowledge properly? Consider the "reading portion" of these standardized tests, in which students are given a passage to read and are questioned on the the content of said passage. There's a skill which requires little rote memorization; rather, it's simply a question of understanding the rules of one's language. The school board member was stunned to score a 62% on the reading section of the standardized test; however, one has to wonder how often a businessman does "reading for detail" in today's business climate. When we're constantly expected to "dumb it down", "just hit the high points", and "put it all on a few slides", is it any wonder that one's skills in reading and analysis would atrophy?
Now, this does NOT mean that standardized testing should assume center stage as the be-all and end-all of measuring student/teacher performance, but until we find a reasonable method of measure the mental discipline to which I referred earlier, standardized tests may well be the best available tool. My four kids consistently test in the 90th-99th percentiles on various tests, and that performance certainly isn't the result of cram sessions or preparatory courses (no Kaplan in this house); rather, I believe their strongest abilities to be critical thinking and mental discipline - both of which CAN be taught, but also transcend any individual subject and can be applied to ANY career path the student might choose. (Consider, if you will, the parallels between diagramming a sentence, prototyping code, and troubleshooting a problem - all 3 are mental exercises in understanding structure...)
If we really want to improve the US educational system AND its results, we need to take a step back from the "OH MY GOSH THE STATE TESTS ARE COMING" emphasis and go back to developing the ability for critical thinking among our students. Yes, we have to test student performance, but no single set of tests is going to provide the comprehensive measurement our students need - and deserve.
Monday, December 05, 2011
Yes, it's that time of year again - when seventy (yes, that's seventy!) Division I football teams get an "attaboy" for breaking .500 in their football performance. The BCS folks have made their selections--and, boy, is that another discussion--so all the other bowls have finalized their selections as well.
Now, I do enjoy watching football, so the link below is a near-constant reference point for me during the months of December and (early) January. From the Gildan New Mexico Bowl to the Beef O'Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl to the GoDaddy.com Bowl (Arkansas State?) to, finally, the BCS National Championship Game on January 9th, they're all here; you'll note that, with only four exceptions, they will all be broadcast on some flavor of ESPN.
I note, with a smug sense of conference superiority, that 9 of the 12 SEC schools are playing bowl games; for good measure, both of the SEC members-to-be (Missouri and Texas A&M) are bowling as well. They might as well call it the SEC Invitiational 2011...
Sunday, December 04, 2011
This is the kind of project I love to publicize...in their support of the various Occupy movements around the nation, these folks have developed a free mobile app to locate nearby fee-free and local-bank ATMs. (As you may know, most credit unions offer fee-free ATMs and, as non-profits, also charge MUCH more reasonable fees and offer much better interest rates than do the big national banks.)
This app is open-source AND open-data; in its initial phase, it only supports the Bay Area of California and Portland, Oregon. However, there's nothing stopping interested parties from adding their own local information to the database. If you're looking for a great way to support your fee-free local bank or credit union, take a look at this project and consider contributing your time to add data for your area. I know I will be doing just that...
Saturday, December 03, 2011
First, for those who like random photos (I didn't take a camera - most of these were done with my Blackberry or a colleague's camera, and one or two are ripoffs (noted as such) from other sources; you can see those at the link below.
I recently spent two weeks in Beijing on business, and I must say that it's a fascinating city in many ways. I'm not much of a diarist, so what follows is basically a random set of comments...
First impressions: I landed at midnight, Beijing time, so the airport was not crowded at all. One thing I noticed was that I could taste the Beijing air as we approached the city from Capital International Airport. I'd head about Beijing's air pollution, of course, but it was odd to get that metallic taste in my mouth...
Hotel: Doubletree by Hilton Beijing, on Guang'anmen Outer Street (Google Maps - note that the markers are off by one block...the Doubletree is the large green building, catercornered from the high school & football pitch one block to the west). Decent room, but the AC was woefully inadequate; I kept the window open 24x7 during my visit, as it was cooler outside. One peculiarity - my room had an ice bucket, but there were no ice dispensers in the hotel; I had to call the front desk and ask for a bucket of ice each night...
Neighborhood: Once I walked a block or two west from the Doubletree that first Sunday morning, I found myself in a residential area. Street cooks/vendors abounded, selling everything from roasted chestnuts to unidentifiable (but delicious) meat/pastry concoctions and fresh produce. I also noted several people doing small repairs, a la the original meaning of "tinker", on the street; they'd repair anything from bicycles to household appliances to cutlery (sharpening) and the odd children's toy, all from the back of their bicycle-drawn cart or sidewalk table. I stumbled upon a recreational area, tucked inside a cluster of apartment buildings, which included a fenced-in set of ping-pong tables. As I watched folks play, one of them gestured for me to join them; when I demurred with a gesture and a smile, he and his friend came out and invited me again. I wound up playing about 45 minutes' worth of table tennis, and the language barrier was irrelevant. After losing three matches, each by a narrow margin, they pounded me on the back and smiled broadly as I left. I saw my first pieces of propaganda art (there's a picture in the Flickr sets) as I walked down a street with a series of posters praising the PLA/PLAN/PLAAF. (Later, as I explored Beijing, I noticed that many (if not most) of the nicer facilities belonged to the PLA.) As you'll see in the Flickr set, the "Massage by Blind Masseurs" chain was a surprise. I found a local grocery with a bulk candy section, and put together the traditional "local candies" bags for the kids.
Great Wall: One of my colleagues took me to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Amazing - simply amazing. I won't even try to find superlatives for the grandeur of the Wall. One surprise - there's a chairlift to the Wall from Mutianyu, but there's a toboggan ride back down the mountain if one is feeling adventurous. I did not feel adventurous in the least, but did snap a few shots of the toboggan run. This was also my first experience with Chinese wanting to take my picture...when I posed at the entrance to a guardhouse, several Chinese rushed to snap a picture as my colleague took the shot. Of course, there's a horde of merchants as one gets off the chairlift; I purchased a Little Red Book, a souvenir book, snowglobes for my daughters, and a few other odds and ends.
Hong Qiao Pearl Market: Unbelievable. Mutliple floors of what can best be described as stalls, with aggressive merchants in every single one. There was no such thing as browsing; as soon as one approached, it was "I have your size", "You want hat?", "Look at my pearls, your wife will love them"...a constant cacophony of come-ons. Picked up two 3-foot strands of pearls for my wife and 8-inch bracelets for my daughters, for which I paid approximately US$75 after ensuring their authenticity. For Jonathan, who doesn't like jewelry of any sort, I found a Mongolian hat (the kind with the tassels on the sides)...
Food: Oh. My. Gosh. Even the Beijing version of fast food (e.g. Yonghe Dawang, aka Yonghe King) was better than I've eaten at many "Chinese restaurants" in the US. (For that matter, the stuff from the street cooks was better, too!) We didn't make it a point to go to any highbrow restaurants--in fact, I never saw another Western face at any of the restaurants I patronized--but I ate at many different local restaurants and noodle houses. The two highlights would have to be a "neighborhood Hunanese" restaurant near the Olympic Stadium and the "hotpot" restaurant in the Yousi Shopping Mall. The Hunanese place was just plain awsome, even if my mouth was still a little warm the next morning; I liked "hotpot" style for the way it stimulates conversation over dinner as one waits for the food to cook. (Pictures of both, and Yonghe King as well, in the Flickr sets.) I also ate at one slightly upscale "traditional Beijing style" restaurant; the duck was fantastic. Despite the cheap prices and massive portions, I actually lost weight while in Beijing, thanks to the heavy emphasis on meat and vegetables over complex carbohydrates.
Mass Transit: After the first 2-3 days, for which I used a driver, I realized that Beijing traffic is insane. The lane markings on the streets are only suggestions, and any taxi ride was an exercise in aggressive driving. It is, by far, the worst traffic I've expeirenced; NYC, LA, and DC can't hold a candle to Beijing at rush hour, and not even Seoul is quite as bad. To the amazement of my Chinese colleagues, I rode the bus/subway for the remainder of my stay. Both systems are amazingly efficient--I don't think I ever waited more than 5 minutes for a bus or train--and unbelievably crowded. The Beijing subway system has its own counterparts to the Tokyo subway's oshiya; those yellow-jacketed 'transit guides' would simply push and shove as many people onto the train as humanly possible. The buses were standing-room-only as well, even into the late hours of the evening. I never got a seat on a bus, and only landed a seat on the subway a few times. For those who have visited Beijing, my daily route was the 477 bus from Daguanying (across the street from the Doubletree) to the Changchunjie subway station, from which I took Line #2 to Xizhimen; from there, I changed to Line #13 for the ride to the Xi'erqi station, from which I could catch a shuttle bus to the Zhongguancun Software Park. I traveled most of the subway lines in Beijing during my stay; the most crowded, by far, was Line #1, which cuts across the center of Beijing. That line provided a sardine-can moment each time I used it, but at 2 yuan subway fare and 1 yuan bus fare, you can't beat mass transit.
Tian'anmen/Forbidden City: This was an unusual day for me. After coming up out of the subway (Changchunjie->Fuxingmen->change to Line #1->Tian'anmen East), I browsed a gift shop ("Come and get your Mao! We got your big Mao, your little Mao, your Mao pins, your Mao busts...") and then simply stood outside while waiting for my colleague/guide to arrive. Someone stopped and, via pantomime, indicated that they'd like to take my picture. I smiled and nodded, and the man's wife posed with me. After that, another group wanted a picture...and they just kept coming. One woman handed me her infant son in order to take his picture with me. By this time, I was a little unnerved, but Ping (my colleague) explained when he arrived. Beijingers are used to seeing Westerners, but Tian'anmen draws tour groups from all parts of China; many of them may have never seen a Westerner. He also explained about the baby picture; there's a Chinese tradition of taking pictures of one's son with the biggest, strongest man in one's village, in the hopes that your son will grow to that size and strength. By the time we finished our visit to the Forbidden City, the "picture with the big foreigner" count had reached 29; I was giving serious consideration to charging a fee. Anyway...the gates at the Forbidden City are beautiful, and the treasures in the museums are fascinating; my colleagues told me of being required to memorize several of the poems on display in the Calligraphy Museum, and the gold eating utensils of the Qing emporers were gorgeous, if somewhat ostentatious. Even the Hall of Clocks was interesting...one interesting thing about Tian'anmen Gate is that, while one can stand where the Politburo stands for National Day each year, the spot where the Chairman stands (i.e. where Mao stood) is fenced off and unavailable. Of course, that center spot is also where the emporers stood to begin their reigns; it isn't surprising that Mao would usurp that symbolism in 1949, and it's equally unsurprising that random tourists aren't allowed to stand in that particular location. Picked up a classic-style Mao pin, a souvenir book (of course), and a souvenir sheet of stamps celebrating one of Tian'anmen's anniversaries.
Final Comments: I loved it - loved every bit of it, even with the language barrier. As I told my management team, I'd go back in a heartbeat.
Friday, December 02, 2011
This is short, sweet and to the point - Amazon is reprising its "25 Days of Free" promotion. If they stay true to their selections of years past, this will be a good chance to pick up a rather eclectic Christmas playlist; the first two selections are Celtic Woman's "Ave Maria" and "Peace On Earth" by Brian Wilson. Have at it.
Thursday, December 01, 2011
Today's Random MPFreebie - XO for the Holidays Volume 4
XO Publicity is a music PR firm in Portland, Oregon. They work with a broad, eclectic range of artists, and it shows in the latest edition of their holiday sampler.
My taste in music knows few bounds, so I found quite a few pieces to like. My FLFs (First-Listen Favorites) would have to be:
- "I Believe in Father Christmas" from Pictures of Then,
- "The Gift" by Beneath Wind and Waves, and
- "Christmas Time" from Piney Gir.
There are also two covers of well-known Christmas songs--a new take on "Greensleeves" from Rags & Ribbons, and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" by Kulewa--but I'm torn on those two selections. Both of those songs are firmly ensconced on my mental "Should Never Be Covered" list; while both bands do credible interpretations, they just didn't excite me...but I think that's more my fault than it is theirs. You'll just have to decide for yourself.
While you're there, you can pick up the three previous releases of "XO for the Holidays." They're well worth your time and bandwidth...you'll find something to like on each of them.
Stay tuned for more Christmas freebies...