Dǎoháng, or how to navigate in China

When you request an Uber in Shanghai, chances are they’ll call or text to find out where you’d like to be picked up. This poses a problem for people who can’t speak Mandarin, like myself. What to do? Reply with a single word: Dǎoháng.

Supposedly, this means “just go where your mobile phone map tells you to“, which sounds like a lot to fit into a couple of syllables, but it worked for me.


There was a brief decade or so, beginning when I was around eight, when I was truly excited by international travel. I’d devise meticulous lists of what I should pack: socks, notebooks, goggles, multiple copies of hotel reservations, digital camera batteries, special ‘pop up maps’ that I could fit in a pocket. I’d count down the days and nights and hours and minutes until I left for the airport.

Today, a combination of work and familiarity has robbed me of the anticipation of travel. At the same time, the contents of my ‘pack list.txt’ file has inexorably shrunk to a scant few lines: a country-specific power charger and whatever clothes I feel like taking. That’s because wherever I travel, I feel confident that I can get by with my iPhone. As long as I have data and power, I stride the world as a god, summoning taxis and divining the whereabouts of moderately good restaurants by communing silently with my black slab. It matters not whether I can speak a single word of the language — with my phone, I can figure it out, one way or another.

This is not the most responsible or respectful way to travel, but neither is it the least responsible way to travel. And I find it refreshing to just hurl myself into a new land and have to figure it out on the fly. It’s like a game.

Until I visited Shanghai.

The whole trip was unusual. Earlier in 2016, I was invited to the opening of The Shanghai Project that September, a new arts festival that would be hosting an exhibition based on my book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects. Then the exhibition was pushed back to ‘Phase 2’ in April 2017, so I was dis-invited to the opening. And then I was re-invited in order to speak at a roundtable, with barely a couple of weeks’ notice. But hey, I won’t turn down a free trip to Shanghai!

So I was even less prepared than usual, and because I’d be in China for under 72 hours, I hadn’t bothered figuring out what I’d do for mobile data.

When I landed, nothing worked on my phone. I couldn’t connect to the airport wifi because it wouldn’t send me an SMS code. No Google, no Dropbox, no Slack, no Foursquare. I was Samson, shorn of my locks.


I’m being melodramatic. I got picked up from the airport by an intern, who kindly let me connect to her phone’s hotspot. And the hotel had free wifi that resided behind the Great Firewall, so I could get to my beloved Google and Slack. But I didn’t want to spend all my time cooped up in the hotel and I didn’t much like the idea of exploring without any mobile data (because, yes, I’m a child).

And then a staffer at the festival helped me get a prepaid China Mobile SIM. She actually persuaded the the China Mobile store to stay open later, just for me. I felt bad, especially since I can’t speak Mandarin and they had the usual baffled look of people who see someone who looks Chinese but inexplicably cannot speak Chinese.

I inserted the SIM card. The eclipse ended; the rays of the sun reached my body; my superpowers returned. I wandered the city, a god once again, in need of nothing and of no-one.

Note: I drafted this in 2016 and for some reason I forgot to post it, so here you go. I believe that Uber doesn’t exist in China any more…

Ancient Egypt: Generation Country

I spent a week in Luxor in February, which qualifies me as an expert on all things Egyptian.

OK, fine — but it does qualify me as an expert on being a tourist in Luxor. I had two thoughts per day, which makes fourteen thoughts in total:

1. The Baksheesh Problem

“No, sorry,” he said, rapidly backing away, “I’m all out of baksheesh.” The man patted his pockets for added effect as the Egyptian tomb guard followed along for a few steps, then gave up. What an asshole, I thought, and then I patted my pockets and realised that perhaps I was an asshole as well.

We’d only visited a couple of tombs in Sheikh Abd el-Qurna — the Valley of the Nobles — when it became clear that we had a serious baksheesh problem. It was a issue of simple mathematics: Sheikh Abd el-Qurna has dozens of tombs dating from the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt, which is to say that the tombs are older than pretty much any structure still standing in Europe or North American, not to mention a good deal prettier. Around a dozen are open to the public, and you can buy tickets for them in groups of two or three tombs each, for around 50 LE. LE means Egyptian Pounds; $1 equals 8 LE, which means a ticket is about $6.

Sheikh Abd el-Qurna

Usually each tomb has its own guard — a man (and it’s always a man) who checks tickets, ensures tourists don’t wreck it up, and provides running commentary on the various ancient gods and kings and queens on display inside. Sometimes the commentary is accurate and welcome, often it’s unwanted. In any case, the tomb guards really expect a tip from tourists, because:

  1. The Valley of the Nobles is not especially well-visited, being overshadowed by the far more famous Valley of the Kings next door, home of bigger tombs for more important people. These tombs aren’t necessarily ‘better’ than those in the Valley of the Nobles — and that goes doubly so for Tutankhamun’s tomb (also in the Valley of the Kings), who by all regards was not a very important person by ancient Egyptian standards, nor does he have a very spacious or impressive tomb. But hey, you’ve heard of The Valley of the Kings, you haven’t heard of the Valley of the Nobles, and you’ve only got a day or two in Luxor, so what are you going to do? The point is, there’s not much traffic and a guard’s gotta make money somehow, because:
  2. They’re paid very little. I have no idea exactly how much, I’m guessing a few dollars a day. This guess is based on the fact that taxi drivers in Luxor are willing to work for an entire day for under $25, and they’re much further up in the social and financial hierarchy than tomb guards. A tip of just 1 LE, or a bit over a dime, is therefore a pretty big deal, especially when:
  3. Thanks to the Egyptian revolution, which everyone just called 2011, plus various well-publicised terrorist attacks, tourism has just about dried up. Of the 350 Nile River cruise boats that used to visit Luxor, only a hundred are still running. Hotel occupancy in Luxor is under 25%. It’s not fun times.

Now, no-one likes being hassled for a tip. You’d prefer to hand over a buck or two in a benificent manner for a job well done, delivered via a subtle handshake just like how Monica’s old boyfriend Richard taught Joey and Chandler how to do. But as established, the going rate of 1 LE is practically zero money to a western tourist, plus the tomb guards get really bummed out when you stiff them, so you’d be advised to get over your initial irritation.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that no-one has any change in Luxor! ATMs usually dispense 200 LE notes, with the odd 100, 50, and 20 thrown in, and most things that tourists buy are denominated in 5 or 10 LE increments. This means that you barely ever have any 1 LE coins in your possession. Sure, you could give out 5 LE or 10 LE notes as tips, but you’ll run out of them rapidly as well. The end result is the Baksheesh Problem.

As we trekked between tombs in the Valley of the Nobles, I had to perform triage arithmatic to see how far we could stretch our meagre stock of coins and 5 LE notes. I wondered why the authorities couldn’t just add a few LE on to the cost of each ticket and give it to the tomb guards, or just install a change machine in the car park.

Later in our trip, we asked the hotel receptionist for change from a 10 LE note. She shook her head sadly, and then gave up two 5 LE notes from her purse. This made me feel appropriately bad. Going to the bank wasn’t possible because they were closed for the weekend.

And then we found out that small water bottles cost 2 LE, and our pockets overflowed with coins, and our hotel minibar overflowed with bottles, and the Kingdom was once again at peace, with order and Maat restored.

*There was little logic in our tipping behaviour. We gave guards anything from 1 LE to 10 LE, and hotel staff even more. I suppose this isn’t any different from tipping culture in the US or UK though. Continue reading “Ancient Egypt: Generation Country”

The Driving Penalty Points Problem

It’s safe to assume that in the next 10-20 years, a decent percentage of people – maybe 5-10% – will wear cameras that constantly record their surroundings. Such cameras already exist, of course, but they’re clunky and low-resolution; the ones we’ll see in the future will have a much better resolution and field of view, and be indistinguishable from normal glasses.

These cameras are going to wreak havoc on drivers.

I estimate I see around 2-4 endorsement code incidents every day on my walk to work. It’s usually a mix of TS10s ‘Failing to comply with traffic light signals’ (i.e. running a red light) and CD10s ‘Driving without due care and attention’. Sometimes there are more exciting/dangerous incidents, like cars driving the wrong way down a one-way street, or stopping in the middle of a zebra crossing, or a truck doing a three-point turn in the middle of a busy B road.

I’d be astonished if even 1% of these incidents resulted in points being added to a driver’s licence; it’s not like we have authorities scrutinising traffic cameras all day. As a result, even poor drivers don’t have to worry too much about racking up the 12 points that will disqualify them from driving (the incidents above are worth around 3 points each).

But if, thanks to wearable cameras, the reporting rate of incidents is double or tripled or more, then presumably we’ll see a huge increase in disqualified drivers; even more than the simple arithmetic would suggest, since most points stay on your record for four years. I can imagine a few scenarios:

  1. Under pressure from drivers groups, authorities refuse to examine videos submitted by the public (doubtful; we already use this as evidence in courts)
  2. Drivers can rack up more than 12 points – say, 24 or 36 (totally unfair and a tacit admission that there are a lot of unsafe drivers out there)
  3. Massive numbers of drivers are disqualified, leading to increased uptake of alternatives such as cycling, public transport, taxis, and driverless cars

It’s going to be a fascinating few decades for moral luck. And I wonder what other laws and codes of conduct will shatter under the force of intensified reporting. What other stuff is out there that is technically against the law, but most people get away with because no-one’s looking?

10 apps the BBC should make

Over the years, the BBC — which started as a radio service — has chosen to move into new, risky platforms including television, home computing, and the internet. It’s safe to say that we’re all quite happy with how those ventures turned out, so my question is, why stop there? The BBC should raise its digital ambitions to create original interactive experiences for computers, smartphones, and tablets; experiences that inform, educate, and entertain.

I am specifically not talking about apps that distribute or repurpose existing content. While the iPlayer apps for TV and radio are very successful, they don’t involve the creation of new interactive content.

iPlayer

Nor am I talking about websites such as the new educational iWonder brand. iWonder is a very well-written and very nicely designed website and it has some excellent articles, but it is not fundamentally interactive.

iWonder

So what am I talking about? I can best explain with ten examples of genuinely interactive apps that would complement existing BBC TV shows and properties (because, you know, it’s all about brand synergy), and are provably feasible and popular.

1. BBC News = BBC News

BBC News app

Credit where credit is due: the BBC News app is a simple yet decent extension of the BBC News Online website, itself an exceptional BBC property due to its world-leading, online-only nature. It’s arguable that it’s not a particularly interactive app, but then again, I don’t think that making it more interactive would add much.

2. The Sky at Night/Stargazing Live = Star Walk

starwalk

Thanks to presenters like Brian Cox and shows like Stargazing Live, there are plenty of people interested in stargazing and astronomy, but do we really expect them to go outside and fumble around with a compass when they could use something much better – like Star Walk? Want to find Jupiter or identify a constellation? Just point your smartphone in the right direction. It’s augmented reality of the finest kind, providing a supremely accessible and highly educational experience. If you combined Star Walk with audio or video commentary, you could provide viewers with a new stargazing tour every week. Perhaps you could even crowdsource counts of Leonids and Perseids meteor showers. Continue reading “10 apps the BBC should make”

Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 2

Read Part 1 here…

Day 3: Valletta (Malta)

Malta isn’t a place that I would go out of my way to visit. Its capital, Valletta, has plenty of charm and interesting architecture – a legacy from the incessant invasions and occupations by Greeks, Romans, Sicilians, French, British, and a bunch of other people you haven’t heard of before – but when you’re on a cruise that’s also going to Carthage, Naples, Rome, and to the Cinqueterre, you can’t help but think Malta is a bit of a filler.

Malta cruise terminal

A slightly odd thing about the otherwise lovely cruise terminal in Valletta is that it has two original buildings joined by a new facade, designed to blend in. Behind the facade is a car park – you can see it through the doors and windows. Maybe they ran out of money.

After walking around the alleyways, gardens, and cathedral, and having our first gelato of the trip, we headed back. On our way, we passed by a small park containing lots of lazy, contented cats enjoying the sun; their presence was explained by ‘Cat Cafe’ that gives away food and drink. Very nice.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=71649

Tonight, we were in Animator’s Palate for dinner. This is an interesting and gimmicky restaurant whose conceit is that, as the evening goes on, the white walls and empty painting frames gradually become filled with colour and pictures and videos. It sounds neat, and it probably was, about fifteen years ago, but today it comes across as rather low-tech for something that supposedly cost millions to build; it didn’t help that the video screen next to us wasn’t working. Of course, Disney’s new ship, the Dream, has an upgraded version with all sorts of new screens and display technologies that will look equally old in, oh, five years time.

The Animator’s Palate is unique on the Magic for another reason – it’s not trying to look like something else. Practically every restaurant and bar on the ship is modelled on some popular ideal; Parrot Cay is a fun Caribbean restaurant, Rockin’ Bar D’s (yes, that’s its real name) is a bar/club kitted out with retro yet cool posters and props, Cove is basically Starbucks but nicer.

You wonder what the point of this is, since in most cities, you’d be able to find places with more genuine atmosphere and history and quality than any of these ersatz venues; you could go to a great Caribbean restaurant, followed up by a bar with real character, and then (if you’re not in the UK), a good independent cafe. The two things you’d be missing are:

a) The fact that on the Magic, these venues are all a maximum of 5 minutes apart and completely safe
b) While they may lack genuine character, they are probably closer to the Platonic ideal of such venues held in the average American’s mind

Take Palo, for example. Palo appears to have been drawn directly out of the minds of millions of North Americans, just like Dumbledore using his wand to draw memories out of people in Harry Potter (I couldn’t think of a suitable Disney analogy). A silver-tongued maitre’d guides you inside with humorous tales of his travels, past all sorts of expensive looking wines and knick-knacks in cabinets, past an open kitchen (so you can see that you aren’t sharing the same food as everyone else on the cruise), to a table served by incredibly attentive waiters with perfect knowledge of the menu, always giving you appetisers and jokes, etc, etc. Continue reading “Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 2”

Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 1

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be posting about my 11 night Mediterranean cruise on the Disney Magic, and other Disney-related thoughts. I’m also (slowly) uploading photos to my Flickr.

On a Disney cruise, you never stop hearing about the fantastic time you’re having. Wasn’t last night’s Captain’s dinner just delicious? Didn’t you love Naples? The movie tonight is going to be simply stunning! Let’s give another round of applause to our cast for such an amazing show!

Most passengers on my cruise did, in fact, think that the dinner was delicious; they did love Naples; and they were more than happy to give a standing ovation to the cast for every show. It’s not as if they needed to be reminded of this, so why were the Disney cast members so insistent that everyone know they’re having a great time?

Here’s why. Try this experiment – find a pen or pencil, put it in your mouth and bite it for a minute.

How do you feel? A bit foolish or embarrassed, probably – but maybe a little happier, as well. The simple act of making yourself smile can actually improve your mood. It won’t take away a bad mood, but it can tip the balance from feeling indifferent to feeling happier. It can turn an indifferent or sulky teenager into a mildly impressed one, and of course, it can turn the average Disney fan into a devoted follower.

Docked in Malta

Disney understands the secret of great advertising. They don’t just want people to buy Disney products – they want them to be happy about what they’ve already bought, so they’ll buy more in the future. And a Disney cruise isn’t just a way to make money, it’s a brilliant opportunity to sell more Disney products – including movies, DVDs, games, toys, theme park tickets, clothes, and of course, more cruises – to a captive audience.

This may sound awful, but here’s the thing: the food on a Disney cruise isn’t bad. The ports – and the shows – range from average to amazing, the cast members are pretty good, the service and facilities are excellent, and the ship is by far the finest-looking cruise ship I’ve seen. Disney has plenty to be proud of. And so, just as Steve Jobs is fond of describing the iPad – a very good device, though not without its flaws – as ‘magical’, ‘revolutionary’, and ‘unbelieveable’, Disney wants you to believe that its cruises – very good, though far from perfect – are just as magical.

(While plenty of other brands regularly exaggerate the quality of their beers, cars, soap, underwear, etc, in their life-changing abilities, people seem to be less bothered by them than by offenders like Apple and Disney. I think there are two factors behind this: firstly, unlike most other companies, it really does seem like they mean it when they say their products are magical. Secondly, there are an awful lot of people out there how really do believe these claims. These two factors combined are enough to enrage millions of anti-fanboys around the world).

The Beginning

The cruise I went on with my girlfriend was an 11 night tour of the Mediterranean on the DCL Disney Magic, departing from Barcelona and visiting Malta, Tunisia, Naples, Civitavecchia, La Spezia, Ajaccio (in Corsica), and Villefranche.

Screen shot 2010-06-01 at 00.37.20

A basic cabin costs around $2000 per person, but thanks to a tip from HotUKDeals, we found tickets for half the price – a great bargain (probably due to the recession). We’d only been on one cruise before, with my parents to Cork (yes, in Ireland) last year. I found it to be a pretty interesting experience – after all, any ship with 4000 passengers and its own rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, and countless restaurants and pools, is bound to be interesting from at least a logistical, engineering, and cultural perspective. Plus it was pretty relaxing. So I wasn’t turned off from the idea of cruising. Continue reading “Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 1”

San Francisco

I’m going to be in San Francisco from Thursday 10th until Wednesday 16th July, mainly for FooCamp but also for general meetings and so on. If you’re around and would like to meet up, just send me an email (you can get it from the ‘About’ page).

The trip is not the reason why I haven’t been updating here; I’ve been busy working on a new project that will take a fair while to complete, and so things will be quiet around here for a while. The good news is that if you like reading this blog, you should also like the new project!

Mr. Otis and Mr. Schindler…

For the benefit of those who don’t subscribe to my Twitter feed, or don’t know what Twitter is (almost everyone), I heard a funny and mysterious message while on the plane from Toronto to London. We’d landed only minutes earlier and were taxiing to the terminal when a flight attendant said:

We have a message for Mr. Otis and Mr. Schindler – your lifts are waiting at the gate.

A couple of people chuckled, because it’s quite funny – Otis and Schindler are the two largest lift manufacturers in the world, founded by Elisha Otis and Robert Schindler over a century ago. I find it hard to believe, however, that their descendants, or even representatives, were actually on the plane – certainly no-one actually called Mr. Otis or Mr.

Perhaps the message was just a joke, but I doubt it. Most people have no idea what Otis and Schindler mean, and even if they did, I find that flight attendants aren’t usually given to making jokes over the PA. It’s not as if this message was appended to another announcement, either.

So, what was it all about? I suppose it was for the benefit of some passenger on the plane who didn’t want to be named. Or maybe it’s a codeword for an emergency, like the ‘Mr. Sands’ message on the London Underground that’s actually a fire alert.

If you have any ideas on what this message might mean, or if you’ve heard it elsewhere, please let me know in the comments. And no, this is not an ARG or anything like that, I really did hear it on the plane.