Bigger On The Inside http://blog.chewxy.com Straight from my brain, mostly unfiltered. Wed, 30 Jul 2014 00:43:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 The Dinner Party Around the World http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/07/30/the-dinner-party-around-the-world/ http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/07/30/the-dinner-party-around-the-world/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 00:37:37 +0000 http://blog.chewxy.com/?p=2605 Continue reading ]]> TL;DR Last saturday I held a dinner party at my house. This is the recap, with the recipes.

For the last 3-4 months, I had been thinking a lot about holding a dinner party. I had been playing with several ideas in my head. And you know how ideas are like – they are screaming to come out of one’s head and into reality. So last month I decided to send out invites to 6 people, for a dinner party around the world.

For the dinner party I knew there had to be a theme. I originally started with the theme of “Layers”, but as time went on, I convinced myself that the theme would be too subtle. So I changed it to “Travelling Around Planet Earth”. But I still was very enamoured with the idea of layers in my dinner party. So I made a compromise. By the time the invites were sent out, the dinner party was called “A Trip Around Planet Earth”, with the theme of “Layers”

The Initial Plan

The initial plan was to serve different courses of meals that correspond to different continents of Planet Earth. The menu on the invite was this:

The Menu

  • Apéritif and Amuse-bouche*
  • Entrée: A Garden Salad
  • Main Course: Chilli con Carne and Corn Bread
  • Dénouement: A Glass of Milk
  • Dessert: A Secret (for now)
  • Digestif: Coffee

* Tentative, depending on availability on the day itself.

Not very useful information. But of course by the time I had sent out the invite, I had a very solid idea of what I had wanted to do. My invitees on the other hand, didn’t expect much.

There were a few things I had in mind that were vital in this dinner party. Each course (save the amuse-bouche) corresponded to a continent, and the food would correspond to foods found in that continent. I had to make my guests feel as though as they had been transported to those places. The amuse-bouche was to be the launchpad for the imaginative journey that were to begin.

I am a big believer that we eat with ALL our senses. That meant everything needed to be controlled, from the music in the background, to the scent in the air, to the ambient temperatures. Thankfully it was winter, so it was easier to control the latter with heaters.

Amuse-bouche: Lemongrass Prawn with Carrot and Ginger “Caviar”

The amuse-bouche was a last minute idea. My original plan didn’t actually include an amuse-bouche nor an apéritif. However, upon tallying up the the dishes I had, it didn’t feel balanced. So I added the amuse-bouche just before I had sent out the invites. Hence the asterisk – in case I wasn’t able to come up with an idea, I’d not have an amuse-bouche.

Nonetheless, I did come up with an idea for the amuse-bouche. Many years ago, I had lamented anonymously on a gastronomy forum that there weren’t many particularly interesting uses of popping candy in a savoury dish. The problem was that popping candy reacts to water. So the choices of things that work with popping candy was limited.

I was very insistent on using popping candy as an ingredient in the amuse-bouche because as the first dish, it would signal the tone of the dishes that would come. I wanted it to be magical. I wanted my guests to get excited and find that child-like wonder when encountering this dish.

I had always figured that popping candy works well with highly intense flavours because when the candy pops, it sends extra gases into one’s nose retronasally.

Hence the idea was to have a highly fragrant dish that would have its flavours accentuated by the popping candy popping in the mouth. Lemongrass immediately came to mind – it is exteremly fragrant, and it works well with a number of things. I have had successes matching lemongrass with carrots and ginger in the past, so I thought why not do something with carrots and ginger – the flavours go very well together.

But how to present carrots and ginger in a nice single-serve? My thoughts immediately jumped to fancy hors d’oeuvres that I’ve had. A lot of them featured fish roe. So why not make carrots and ginger into a “caviar”[1]? I have a spherification kit, and so I jumped to it.

Lastly the dish needed something to carry it. I jumped into the typical solution of scallops. But on the day itself, we couldn’t find scallops, and had to settle for some dodgy looking prawns.

To figure out the optimum amount of popping candy, my partner and I did a large amounts of tests – and we settled on the solution literally minutes before my guests arrived. The solution was to place 2-3 pieces of popping candy at the top of the spoon so that the candy goes in last, and creates the popping effect with the rest of the dish in the mouth.

Recipe

Playing It Out in Real Life

To start things off, the music in the background was Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter’s OST, which I had always associated with magic and wonderment. I had also considered When You Wish Upon A Star, but I decided that lyrics were too confusing. The main point was to impart a magical moment as if my guests had entered a different world.

And so we started. I had the reaction I was looking for. My guests were doubtful at the dish in the beginning, but when the popping started, everyone visibly got a lot more animated. I’m quite glad to see that popping candy still holds some magical effect over people.

As for the flavours, it worked quite as expected – it was the ginger that was accentuated though, with the lemongrass forming a background hum in the mouth. One of my guests actually thought the piece of fried ginger. There was a obvious textural layering from the flesh of the prawn to the pop of the “caviar” to the crunch of the popping candy. There too were layers of flavour difference – the salty prawn followed by spiciness and sharpness from the “caviar” and finally a burst of sweetness from the popping candy.

After an initial round, I showed my guests how the dish and flavour was built, layer by layer, and then they helped themselves to future buildings of the dish. This interactivity was unplanned, and I liked it, so I decided to follow up with a guide on how to build the dish after each dish was presented.

Entrée: A Garden Salad

For a number of years now I had wanted to re-create Heston Blumenthal’s Garden Salad, but never had the opportunity. I had made the salad before, but never had the opportunity or need to dress it up. This was my chance at it.

With the sauce gribiche, it was the perfect first location – Europe – to land in. To me the dish really did embody everything European – classic French recipe, emboldened by mediterranean flavours. The acidity in the dish would make it a good entrée, preparing the audience’s palate for the upcoming dish, which was bolder.

In my original plan, I had wanted to make olive oil gummy worms to bury in the soil, and edible baby potato rocks. I then considered the psychology of my guests – a couple of them are quite squirmish, and won’t touch anything “weird” – and realized that had I put those in, I’d be teetering a very fine line between an enjoyable night and an awkward night.

Recipe

Playing It Out in Real Life

The music was changed to Mozart’s Concerto No. 21. When I think of Europe as a whole, I have a romantic image of classical musicians ruling the courts of the day, and I wanted to impart that. The intended scent of the meal was geosmin, to impart a ground-like/earthy/mossy smell as the guests dug into the salad. That didn’t turn out because I couldn’t acquire geosmin oil in Australia. I tried soaking cucumber in water and spraying it into the air but that didn’t do much.

I think the surprise was when the dish was brought out. Many comments were about how much of a shame it would be to dig into the dish. I think the acidity of the dish surprised my guests, as they didn’t expect it from a white-looking sauce.

This dish was layers in the sense that it was literally built in layers. The dehydrated olives and roasted pecans worked together to give the dish a meaty taste that cuts away the acidity. The vegetables were blanched and were deep green, but yet still were hard enough to be slightly crunchy. There was a good variety of texture in the dish, and I quote one of my guests, “it’s growing on me”.

Main Course: Chilli con Carne with Corn Bread

I’ve made this chilli con carne many many times. I feel like it’s one of the best dishes I have made. I also didn’t have many opportunities to cook this, since the minimum amount of people this recipe works for is 8, and it’s quite hard to scale the recipe down[2].

Another consideration I had in mind when designing the menu was that almost all the food had to be cooked before hand. I had held a number of dinner parties in the past to know that I don’t want to be in the kitchen when my guests are in the dining room. A food that is cooked for the masses would be great.

Chilli con carne was chosen because it would also form part of the narrative – leaving the Old World (Europe) and entering the Americas. And really, I DO think that there isn’t a better dish to represent BOTH Americas. The dish was invented in the United States, but clearly with influences from down south.

Corn bread was also chosen because it pretty much originated from there. My corn bread was a little different from most. You see, I love mozarella cheese with my chilli con carne. It’s just fantastic. So when making my corn bread, I stuffed a bocconcini ball into the middle just before baking. This led to an eruption of cheese as it bakes.

Recipe

Playing It Out in Real Life

The music I had chosen was Con Mi Guaguanco (from Dexter’s OST). I didn’t have much exposure to South American music, so I hooked on to the closest thing I knew – OST from Dexter, which featured a lot of Cuban-esque music without lyrics. The playlist eventually steered into creepy Dexter music, which led to some hilarious comments about serial killers and Hannibal.

I had originally wanted to heat up the room as we entered this phase of the dinner party. Nature was plotting against me. It turned out if I used multiple heaters, the circuit breaker would trip. So that plan was abandoned. The scent was smoke (from burning some bamboo sticks in the kitchen).

The crowning glory of this dish was when one of my guests leaned in and told me “I know where you’re going with this dish, Chewxy”. I probed a bit further and he told me that the dish, with its smokiness, Jack Daniels sweetness and hot chilli evoked emotions of what America was. In particular, he said, it evoked images of cowboys. Mission accomplished. I was happy.

The dish itself tasted good. The beans, when they finally break open in the mouth, tasted of colas. There were many layers to the flavours of this dish – starting from the immediate hit of chilli, then the acidity of the tomatoes, and followed by the bittersweetness of the JD. It is then completed with a smoky aftertaste. I liked it quite a lot, though my partner found it more bitter than bittersweet. The majority of the comments about the dish was that it was kinda mild. I had actually decided to tone down the heat of the dish because I knew one of my guests didn’t do well with spicy food.

Dénouement: A Glass Of Milk

I had expected the heat to get the better of my guests, so I designed this dish as a conclusion of sorts to the main course. Of course, from the Americas, specifically the United States, the next destination can only be something really cold – outer space.

The theme was travelling around Planet Earth, as well as layers. The dish had to satisfy both themes AND be functional enough to conclude the main course. The answer was to cool the palate, making outer space an obvious choice (the other choice was antarctica, but eh, it’s hard to make penguins). We know that milk cools the mouth really well after spicy food because capsaicin dissolves in fats. Other things that evokes emotion of cooling are cucumbers and melons – cold fruits and vegetables.

So why not a cucumber flavoured milk? But what of the layers? Cucumber flavoured milk is all that, but it’s just a single layer. Then I put two and two together.

Mention milk in outer space, and you’ll almost immediately get “Aunt Beru’s Blue Milk” as a response. Indeed, that’s kinda the line of thought. Aunt Beru’s blue milk is highly associative with outer space adventures (Star Wars for those who didn’t get the reference). And the best part is, nobody knows what Aunt Beru’s blue milk tasted like, and so I was free to imagine how it would taste like.

What if Aunt Beru’s Blue Milk had changing flavours? One minute it was cucumber, and the next minute it would taste like bubblegum, or hamburgers, or something.

Aunt Beru's Blue Milk

Playing It Out in Real Life

For this portion of the meal, the music was changed to the Binary Sunset theme from the Star Wars: Episode IV OST. In my mind, that’s one of the most powerful music I have associated with outer space and adventure and magic [3]. I also opened the windows and doors to air the house to cool everything down, though that didn’t have much of an effect.

I think the best part of the meal for me was when one of my guest expressed surprise when the flavours changed. This dish had been nearly a failure. I had originally wanted to impart the flavours of my favourite sandwich – a cucumber sandwich – the layers would be: cucumber, butter, toast. However, a series of mishaps happened and I had only the cucumber portion set out. A last minute change was instead of fancier (and weirder) flavours like hamburger, or roast pork, I’d go with cucumber, followed by melon. And even that was a bit of a failure. I had accidentally left the rind of the melon into the milk to infuse, and it made the milk a little bitter. The last stuff up was I messed up my ratios, and instead of the cucumber infused milk being the denser milk, it turned out to be the less dense milk.

Which was why I was absolutely delighted when my guests slowly, one by one realized that the blue milk had changed flavours. I loved the magic. It was amazing to watch as their eyes widen and realized it went from one green flavour to another. Of course in retrospect, the more drastic the flavours were, the better the effect would have been.

Dessert: Thai Sticky Rice with Mango (Khao Niao Ma Muang)

The dessert came next. And it had to top the magic from the previous dish. One of the best things to do would be to disguise a dish as another dish. And this dish in fact is also one that I’ve been dying to do – it’s Thai sticky rice with mango, except the plan was to make it look like a fried egg on rice.

Fried egg on white rice is amazing, especially if you pour a small amount of soy sauce on the egg. That was the concept I had in mind – the egg white would be made of coconut milk, the yolk made out of mango, and the soy sauce would actually be a gula Melaka syrup or caramel.

This dish also ties together a locale – Australasia. And also, it fits the layers theme – in more than one way. The perceptive layering was my main objective – I wanted my guests to perceive this dish as one thing, and realize it’s another.

It was the last proper dish, and had to set a memory. Unfortunately it didn’t go so well.

Recipe

Playing It Out in Real Life

If I had to do it again, I’d play Only For Love from The Banquet, a 2006 Chinese movie. There is a haunting beauty and sadness about that piece. But I had too, a rule about music without lyrics. Add to that the hustle of actually having to cook the “egg whites” for each dish individually, I didn’t actually manage to change the music that was playing.

Encouraged by the success of the amuse bouche, I tried to get my guests to make their own “egg yolks”. That didn’t go too well. When the ugly secrets are revealed, the magic is lost. There wasn’t as much magic or amazement when I completed the dish.

The dish itself too had some problems. It was under salted (salting the dish was part of the theatrics originally), and the mango wasn’t very sweet (I had been on a no-sugar diet for months before this, and I had thought it was very sweet).

Nonetheless, I think the reaction to the dish was still one of general (albeit muted) surprise – I think my guests had some difficulties wrapping their heads around the idea of coconut milk that was solid when it was hot, but liquid when cooled.

It was a very muted affair, my dessert. The recipe above has been updated with additional salt and sugar. Indeed, the backup cake was much better than this dish. :(

Digestif: Coffee and Dates

And so we enter the last parts of the dinner party. The plan was to serve them a glass of cold-dripped coffee, and dates. It would be the Africa portion of the night – the last continent we had yet to touch. The original coffee I had planned to serve was an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. But a week before the dinner party, I stumbled onto some Colombian Geisha, which were rare beans with immense amounts of flavour.

Here’s how the cold drip tower I hacked up looked like (this was taken from a practice run I was doing a few days before the dinner party):

coffeedriphack

For me, I really loved the Geisha. It was a complex coffee, and bursting with flavours. And the best part was after eating a date, and taking a sip of the coffee again, the taste completely changes. The dates definitely do complement the coffee.

There wasn’t really any more changes to the environment because this is a wind-down course. We wound down over good tasty coffee and eventually moved on to Baileys on the rocks to wash everything down.

Summary

For the table loving types, here’s a quick summary:

Course Geographical Theme Aural Olfactory Environment
Amuse Bouche: Lemongrass Prawn with Carrot and Ginger Caviar - Hedgwig’s Theme Fireworks/Gunpowder*† Room Temperature
Entrée: A Garden Salad with Sauce Gribiche Europe Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 Geosmin*† Room Temperature
Main Course: Chilli con Carne and Corn Bread The Americas Con Mi Guaguanco Smoke Heated room
Dénouement: A Glass of Milk Outer Space Binary Sunset Green Notes Freezing Cold
Dessert: Fried Egg with Rice (Thai Sticky Rice with Mango) Australasia Only for Love*† Lemon myrtle/Bush spice and red dust/rust*† Warm
Wind-down: Coffee and Dates Africa - - -

Notes: * indicates the ideal choice from my point of view. † indicates that it was poorly executed on during the dinner party (when paired with *, it means it wasn’t done at all).

The Aftermath

As with all dinner parties, it’s the social interaction that was most interesting. I had went into this dinner party expecting an exchange of ideas – afterall, my guests comprise of a digital advertising account manager, an adops expert , a marketing manager, a web developer, and a googler. Almost all of us had attempted a startup at one point or another. There was bound to be some interesting things that go on.

After the dinner party, we sat down and caught up with each others’ latest news. It was interesting. I had expected the night to be rather mind expanding, but it didn’t really turn out that way. It ended up mostly being a catchup of things that happened in our lives. I was okay with the way it turned out though, because it was actually rather fun. There were a lot of things to be shared and I definitely enjoyed myself. I hope my guests did too.

Key Learnings

Things I learned from running this dinner party:

  • Do as little cooking as possible during the duration of the dinner party
  • For complex dishes, starting 2 days ahead of time is NOT ENOUGH
  • Perform more dry runs
  • Don’t prepare food when intoxicated – math skills are impaired and you’d most likely get the ratios wrong.
  • Don’t reveal the secret of the magic too early – if the audience knows the secret, the magic is lost.
  • I’ll never run a restaurant.
  • I’ll definitely host another dinner party (been hosting them fairly often since 2011 anyway)
  • I’ll probably include more alcohol in future dinner parties
  1. [1] At around the same time the idea formed, I found Erin’s blogpost which solidified the idea
  2. [2] Scaling recipes can be quite difficult. I tend to use a weighted percentage-weight scaling for recipes
  3. [3] the others are Also Spracht Zarathustra, the Alien main theme and the Star Trek opening themes, but this one is most obvious
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Alternate Names For TV Shows http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/06/23/alternate-names-for-tv-shows/ http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/06/23/alternate-names-for-tv-shows/#comments Mon, 23 Jun 2014 10:55:46 +0000 http://blog.chewxy.com/?p=2524 Continue reading ]]> Earlier this afternoon I mentioned to my partner that we should watch an episode of The Adventure of WASP Girl in the Land of Systemically Biased Sampled Population. Which was of course, Orange is the New Black. She got what show that was immediately though, but I don’t think most people would get it. I then recalled a time when my housemate couldn’t find House of Cards on my home media server because I had named the folder “Derps of Capitol Hill”.

So here’s a list of funny names for TV shows I had over the years:

Show Name Nickname
Arrow drop :: Int -> [a] -> [a]
Arrow Woe is Laurel
Castle Beckett, Beckett, Beckett
Castle Caskett
Hannibal Best Cooking Show on TV
House of Cards Derps of Capitol Hill
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD Agents of Nothing
Orange is the New Black The Adventures of WASP Girl in the Land of Systemically Biased Sampled Population
Person of Interest Adventures of Batman and Brother Eye in a Post-Snowden World
Young Justice Not The Teen Titans
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The Nanjing Taxi http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/30/the-nanjing-taxi/ http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/30/the-nanjing-taxi/#comments Thu, 29 May 2014 17:02:46 +0000 http://blog.chewxy.com/?p=2396 Continue reading ]]> I recently visited China (my writeup was in three parts: Part I, Part II, Part III). An incident of particular note was in a taxi in Nanjing. Picture this: The driver is on the left side of the vehicle. On left edge of the windshield, a Samsung Galaxy Note sits on windscreen mount, connected to the cigar lighter on his right. The cigarette lighter also powers another smaller feature phone which sits on top of his dashboard. Next to the air conditioner vent of the front panel, a walkie talkie sits on its cradle.

We were on a fairly long journey (about 20km ish), and the driver was talking to us, trying to upsell us his services for the whole day. We talked about the local sights, the museums and what nots. Then CRRSSSHHH, an incoming message from the walkie talkie – it was something traffic related. The driver pressed the transmit button on the walkie-talkie, acknowledging the message. Then came a different TCHSSHH sound. A woman’s voice came into hearing. She asked about lunch. The driver leaned forwards, picked up the feature phone, and pressed a button and talked into it, explaining that he was with passengers and his general direction. Upon finishing that conversation, he continued our conversation, picking up from where he left off.

This continued to happen throughout the journey – the driver would be switching between different modes of verbal communications – real life, push to talk, walkie talkie and even his mobile phone. The driver was dealing with 4 different networks at the same time (walkie talkie – some kind of trunked system, since most of it were traffic related; the push-to-talk feature phone – which I assume to be some kind of PTT powered by cellular tech; mobile phone – full duplex radio; and talking with the passengers of the car). That sparked an idea.

Here’s a bit more background. I had developed an interest in trunked radio networks and half-duplex communications when my way-more-accomplished-than-me partner was working as an E&E engineer for the telecomms industry[1]. So I had some good ideas on how CB and trunk radio networks worked.

At the same time I was having a bit of trouble with the VPN the previous night. The solution was simple – I ended up rolling my own VPN on AWS, swapping elastic IPs for the EC2 instance every few hours and updating encryption key everyday. In short, it was a mess.

So the idea was born: what if you could have an ad-hoc (read: P2P) chat network that was private (read: encrypted), and you could juggle different networks at the same time? After a few rounds of refinement of the idea, I started working on the prototype application that night.

NanjingTaxi_screenshot

How It Got Here

Why P2P

The idea that the program had to be P2P was there since the earliest idea. You see, the way the Internet is structured isn’t quite like the way radio waves work. Radio waves work by broadcasting. A message is sent from the source, and anyone who can receive the radio wave will be able to receive the message. Of course there are stuff like encryption, legally distributed frequencies, and similar things in play to ensure that not everyone gets the message.

The Internet doesn’t work like this. The Internet works by having valid connections between two endpoints. Yes, there are connectionless protocols (IP is one such protocol as is UDP), but they don’t work like radio. A radio transmitter can continuously transmitting even if there were no receivers. Heck, pulsars are nature’s own radio transmitters – they’re essentially transmitting to nobody. UDP comes closest to radio, and is high level enough that I am able to quickly read up and roughly understand it.

I could of course simulate a broadcast system. I had written a number of chat applications before (one of my finest was basically a MUD, but with Second-Life-esque twist to it – this was in the late 90s/early 00s). Most of the chat applications I have ever implemented relied on the fact that there is a need for a server and client. A broadcast system would be easy to simulate with a server and client. I didn’t want that, however. It meant that if I were to productize this idea, it’d be a lot of work for me. I was on holiday and didn’t want to deal with that.

The obvious solution was then a P2P system. Indeed, VOIP systems like Skype use a special form of P2P (with supernodes and all that). I thought I could deal with P2P. In fact, the simplest chat systems are almost always P2P. Of course the simple chat examples that float out there on the Internet almost always only worked with two participants. Add any more than that, and complexity grows (or one of the participant becomes a server).

I clearly didn’t want that either. But I wanted the system to be P2P and distributed – meaning no central server. In the early days of my startup, I wrote a Kademlia based deployment system[2] with Python and 0MQ so that we could deploy it onto AWS or any cloud based system and it would autoconfigure everything by itself. I am sorta familiar with DHTs. So I thought, why not make a DHT-based chat, and to keep the walkie-talkie idea around, turn the idea of client and server on its head?

Why Go

I considered three languages for this project: Python, Go and JavaScript. A day prior to my trip to China, I met with Sylvia and Damon of rtc.io. They are pretty cool people (with technical abilities that far outstrip mine). Normally, writing something like that in JavaScript will not even cross my mind, since you know, I’m pretty vocal about my dislike for JavaScript (and yet, I wrote a book on JavaScript!). But their project was pretty cool, so I thought I’d give it a hack.

Python was considered because it’s the language I like the second most (Go has taken over as my favourite language since a couple of years ago). Also I have been writing Python for close to 10 years already, so I’m exceedingly familiar with Python. Plus I had written a Kademlia-based system twice in Python. That was also a con, since I had implemented it in Python twice, I didn’t want to re-implementing it in Python again.

Ultimately, I chose Go because well, I had all the packages and documentation (thank you godoc). An internet related issue (aka my self-rolled VPN fucked up somewhere along the way) made me unable to access anything from rtc.io, so that was out of the window. I didn’t have some of the required python packages in my laptop (notably 0MQ), so it couldn’t work either.

Why Kademlia?

There were two main reasons for choosing Kademlia: 1. I am familiar with it – and given enough concentration I could write it in a hotel room without Internet access. 2. Broadcast over Kademlia is difficult. When I worked on my Kademlia based deployment system, I tried to make broadcast work. I felt I was close, and I wanted a challenge. After a few years of sitting at the back of my head, I think I figured out how to broadcast over Kademlia.

Broadcast on Kademlia is hard because it’s slow and it’s subject to the classic CAP-theorem-choose-two dilemma. A brute-force approach (also known as flooding) – i.e. going through every single node in the address book and sending a message will also take a long time. Any distributed method of broadcast will almost certainly yield replication. My idea was this: since the address space is partitioned already, instead of sending a message to each remote node individually, send a message to the top two nodes of each bucket (i.e. the closest two nodes to the current node). These two nodes are then individually responsible for sending the message out to their individual buckets. Minimal replication will occur, and is used to signal the end of a process.

Now, that didn’t turn out as expected. Once again, I feel it was close, but other design concerns came forwards and the broadcast-across-Kademlia thing had to take a step back.

There are also other DHT-based systems that could be used. In particular, I considered the use of the Pastry DHT, which would be a good fit for what I have originally had in mind, since broadcasting is a piece of cake[3]. However, I wasn’t too familiar with Pastry. I was far more familiar with Kademlia to be able to implement it without internet access.

On Chatrooms

One feature I knew I wanted was multiple channels[4]. This was indeed inspired by the taxi driver’s crazy ridiculously awesome way of handling multiple conversations at the same time.

The initial design was simple: Connect to a Kademlia network. When broadcasting, broadcast the channel ID along with the message. If the receiver has the channels on the listen list, then accept the message.

This works pretty much like radio. It also has the same flaws radio has: anyone with access to the channel ID will be able to listen in to communications. So the logical answer is encryption, right? Do advanced key-exchange behind the comms channel, and encrypt all messages. Only people with the correct public keys can decrypt the message and read it. Problem solved, right?

Not really. A typical person has about 30 people that are in constant communication. That means for each message, each client will have to attempt to decrypt 30 times. This would be a massive waste of computing power. My back-of-the-envelop calculations also informed me that it would take minutes for the message to propagate to a large-enough network. And this is with taking the best case scenarios of the fallacies of distributed computing in mind. In fact, the whole simulating-radio broadcast idea was terrible. Clearly not good enough.

I also tinkered around with subnets – the idea is that since the Kademlia network automatically rearranges nodes based on their last-contacted recency, channels would be mostly at the top of the buckets. The Kademlia network can hence be partitioned into subnets, and priority would be placed to transmit over the clique. That idea led somewhere but I didn’t have the time to fully implement it. I ended up being too lost in figuring out graph colouring algorithms for another project I had.

Yet another idea I had was multiple DHTs – a client can handle multiple DHTs. This turns out to be a silly idea. If a chatroom contains 5 participants, and only two are online, a third person would have to know either one of their IPs. The solution to this would be to have some sort of authenticating server, which I didn’t want to have. I wanted it entirely P2P.

As always in computing, the solution can be found in caching (leading to cache invalidation as one of two hard things in computer science. The other is naming things, and off-by-one errors). Instead of broadcasting the message across the entire network, the idea evolved into a chatroom like idea instead of a channel-like idea.

The idea for chatrooms is this: Everyone who’s allowed onto a chatroom is given a public key. Using the FIND_VALUE command of the network, the new node searches for machines within the network that has access to the chatroom. Upon success, the new node will contact the node with the same public key, and some sort of challenge question involving crypto is issued. If the new node passes the challenge, then the node with the public key shares information about the room’s participants to the new node.

This solves the problem of having to broadcast and propagate a message throughout an entire Kademlia network, and probably save a few computing cycles of different machines.

Audio??

I started off with this project with great deal of hope of actually simulating a trunked radio network on the Internet using P2P methods. I also like push-to-talk type of thing (half duplex systems in general) – in one of my Python 0MQ talks (this one is the closest to the one I actually gave), I demonstrated live how to build a push-to-talk system with 0MQ.

Unfortunately I spent more time than expected wrangling with PortAudio on OS X. I’ve never been good at writing multimedia software[5]. But I couldn’t quite figure out how to serialize the PortAudio chunks into []byte and get it to be playable at the receiving end. Also, I didn’t have enough resources to delve into the murky world of mp3 and AIFF binary formats. That, and UDP based communications were a hassle. In the end I settled with a text based system.

Maybe one day I’ll actually add the voice thing in.

Overview

So, how does the system work?

  1. Start client
  2. Start UDP listener for incoming chat messages
  3. Bootstrap or connect to a Kademlia network
  4. Start New Chatroom
    1. Register on kademlia that the node is on the chatroom (so that other people can find the chatroom)
  5. Request A Chatroom
    1. Issue FIND_VALUE to Kademlia
    2. Kademlia replies with a remote node that has the chatroom
    3. Request permission to remote node for chatroom
    4. Remote node issues a challenge
    5. Reply challenge with encrypted digest
    6. Remote node verifies encrypted message == challenge message
    7. If verified, remote node sends chatroom information to requester
    8. Accept chatroom information, send hello message to everyone
  6. Once access is given to a chatroom, messages are sent and received freely

If I can summarize in a picture, this is how it’d look like:

Chat Network

The three blue nodes belong to a chatroom. The grey nodes are just part of the network which enables the finding of peers easier. The blue nodes can find one another via the network. Once they have found each other and performed the correct authentication, the picture now looks something like this:

Chat Network - Chatroom

The blue lines are communications outside the Kademlia network. They’re direct P2P connections with one another. Messages are sent directly to each other, bypassing the Kademlia network altogether. Note that the blue lines now form a complete subgraph. That’s what chatrooms essentially are: complete subgraphs. The Kademlia network exists merely to assist in building this complete subgraph.

The Project

The project can be found on Github: NanjingTaxi

Caveats

There are a few caveats. Since I’m not that great a programmer, please do not assume that because RSA is used, and key exchanges are done, it’s secure. In fact, you should treat it as far from secure. My knowledge in distributed systems and network programming and P2P stuff isn’t as great as say Henry Robinson, Peter Maymounkov or Beej. I probably made a lot of errors in my reasoning for a lot of things, and even more in my implementations.

I’ve only ever tested this in a local area network. In fact I would even go so far to say that it’d only work if there are no port forwarding or NAT type of thing happening. I have a multi-router set up at home. When my laptop is connected to the NAT’d router, nothing gets through. I’m quite sure there is something that can be done with regards to the greater internet (UDP hole punching, NAT handling and shit like that), but I haven’t yet implemented them. Perhaps one day.

My code isn’t the most beautiful either. Please forgive the ugliness of my code. I left in a lot of hacky stuff, like panic() everywhere, instead of properly handling the error. I’ll fix that one day. I often imagine myself going through my own code as a third person, and making remarks to my own code. If I were my own code reviewer, I’d have thrown this code back to myself to rewrite.

Using this application is cumbersome. I should probably find some way to make it easier. Currently it’s not even a proper CLI. It’s a super hacked up version of a CLI, with preset commands to connect, and introspect.

Afterthoughts and Lessons Learned

I decided to open source this because I couldn’t figure out a way to productize Nanjing Taxi. I mean, builidng a proper UI and feedback loop is probably quite easy. But to properly bring this to market requires a lot more work. I have to juggle quite a lot more things which requires a lot of my time – applying for jobs[6], working on eyemap.io, or even actually updating my books to the latest version.

It took me quite a while to get this onto a new github repo since I pretty much spent the last week and most of this week trying to salvage yet another drive failure (for the 2nd time in a 12 month span). I also had to fix some of the problems I had found.

I should also have probably used the net/rpc package instead of trying to recreate everything on a low level. Although, it was indeed quite fun to figure these things out on a lower level of abstraction than what I am used to.

I relearned a lot of things with regards to basic network programming – things that I had forgotten. I also learned a lot of new stuff. For example, one of the examples I tinkered with was with UDP multicasting. That didn’t work but I learned quite a bit about multicasting. I also finally got around to playing with PortAudio, but alas no result came of it.

Lastly I discovered that it wasn’t until Go 1.2 that newlines in OS X’s terminals were fixed when fmt.Scanf (or anything that dealt with os.Stdin) was used.

Conclusion

This was a little fun project I threw up in a couple of bored nights in Shanghai and Nanjing. I can see a lot of advantages to having a P2P chat system that is somewhat secure. Alas, I have no resources to properly productize this idea, so I’m releasing it to the open source world. It’s not the best code, nor is it the best system, but it’s a good learning point for me.

I hope you have fun with the project too.

  1. [1] I think she’s more accomplished than I am, given that she’s now working for a certain search engine company while I have tried and failed at least 5 times with that same company, twice within the last 7 months
  2. [2] It was my second time writing a Kademlia based system. The first time I had help from none other than the late aaronsw himself.
  3. [3] Geddit? Pastry, piece of cake? If I have to explain the joke, it’s no longer funny
  4. [4] Also, am I mad or did Go once have something like channels over networking topology? I somewhat recall this because I was doing a lot of 0MQ stuff then
  5. [5] heh, I am not that good a programmer either
  6. [6] Since I apparently suck so hard at trying to raise funds for Pressyo
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Meta For The Last Two Posts http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/21/meta-for-the-last-two-posts/ http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/21/meta-for-the-last-two-posts/#comments Tue, 20 May 2014 23:25:38 +0000 http://blog.chewxy.com/?p=2460 Continue reading ]]> The last two posts have been short stories (A Fantastic Account of Wanting To Change The World Through Literary Devices and The Long Term Plan).

They’re not the best written stories out there. But I still wanted to share some of the thought processes that went into writing the stories. Here are some trivia and notes about both:

A Fantastic Account of Wanting To Change The World Through Literary Devices

  • The original story I had in mind repeated many more times. By the time I was writing the third repeat, it felt too repetitive, so I stuck with two repeats, and engineered a minor change to allow for the info dump to happen
  • The idea for the story originally came to me as I was developing an idea into a product. The idea needed years of compliance testing, and the only way to spring into market is to do 20 odd years of compliance testing in secret. Hence the fantasy of going back in time and starting earlier.
  • Also, who in the startup world haven’t dreamed of cramming 3 or 4 years worth of R&D into one year? I certainly have
  • The character’s name was Ellen, because in the original story, she faced gender discrimination when going back in time, which led her to go through a sex change, and changing her name to Alan.
  • Chekhov’s (particle) Gun and Deusex Ventures originally played a much larger part to the resolution of the story. Originally Deusex Ventures was going to be founded by a much older sex-changed Ellen, who will repeatedly save Ellen’s startup in the last minutes. Chekhov’s Gun would be used to get Ellen out of the Plott Device. These were the two plot devices which I was unable to properly use because it adds too much to the complexity of the story.
  • Jim Plott’s exposition of the possible future is actually the original story I had in mind
  • Simone’s entire purpose is to indicate that she is working on lampshading. Also, Simone became Simon in an early version of the story after Ross became Rose.
  • The original ending I wrote didn’t feature Ellen finding the Plott Device in her bag when she was leaving Rose’s house. It was left rather vague if she was actually hallucinating or not. Part of the original theme was the fallibility of human memory. That was too bleak for me, so I changed it
  • Why is “Dolphin” a safeword? That’s for me to know and for you to never find out
  • The Novikov self consistency principle was originally invoked for the story as well.
  • The original title was 2407 (hence the post slug). There were 24070 iterations of Ellen/Alan that created the McGuffin over the span of 60 years but only 2407 would remember their experiences in the Plott Device.
  • I also envisioned a number of scenes where red fish would be seen swimming behind the agents who were giving the info-dump to Ellen (geddit? Red herring)
  • Thought the time travel device sounded familiar? Here’s why.
  • Ents might find the description of the vaporizing device sounding extremely familiar. Here’s what it was based off (didn’t want to name brands, so the functions are described a bit differently.

The Long Term Plan

  • The story originally came to me as I was cleaning the bathroom. I wondered if humans could have been an experiment gone wrong for a consciousness that arose from a network of bacteria. I mean, we know that amoebae are social creatures despite being single-celled organisms, farm for food. What if multicelullar life were a result of farming by other single cellular life?
  • In fact, I did reference Dictyostelium discoideum, the amoeba that were found to engage in “farming” activities – probably an anachronistic reference by Escher, but whatever pushes the story, I guess
  • The reason for the Network existing is because, well, individual bacterium do not have thought processes. I needed to give the bacteria a voice. Hence a vague description of a colony-wide Network. It’s to make it sound as if the species as a whole is one consciousness.
  • The way the Network communicated is the best approximation I could do with the way neurones communicate – by sending out pulses of electricity and neurotransmitters and retransmitting messages. I didn’t want to let on too much about chemical release, so I stuck with the vague word “energy”.
  • The original species of bacteria were Bacillus. That would have made sense, because the Bacillus genus is one of the oldest, stretching back to before multicellular organisms were there. But at the same time I wanted readers to be able to figure out on their own I was talking about bacteria. So Escherichia coli was chosen instead.
  • The cloning of Escher the Third was originally added to give a small The-Doctor’s-Daughter-esque twist about the time spent fighting the war. Originally the idea was to show that due to the clones having the same memories of events (but as you know, binary fission carries mutation as well), warping their perception that only a few years had past since, when in reality millions of years had past. That didn’t translate too well.
  • The “torus shaped” reference was originally there because I wanted to depict the bacteria as having a perception that has a built in understanding of homotopic equivalence – afterall, if you think about it, human beings are pretty much a donut: the two entrances are the mouth and the anus, and they’re connected. Two entrances with a connection between them makes a donut. The back story was the colony had originally cultivated a new kind of multicelular organism that was donut-shaped that eventually evolved into human beings.
  • I suck at describing binary fission
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The Long Term Plan http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/20/the-long-term-plan/ http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/20/the-long-term-plan/#comments Tue, 20 May 2014 01:31:37 +0000 http://blog.chewxy.com/?p=2453 Continue reading ]]> “Bugger that plan,” Escher spat into the ground. He looked at his troops, positioned around him in a circle.

“Have heart, grandfather. The long term plan, remember?” Escher the third looked up at his grandfather.

Overhead, clear liquid from the chemical weapons used by the enemy rained down in large droplets, threatening to dissolve any organic matter that it came into contact with. Already, a pool of the corrosive liquid is gathering and slowly but surely making its way to the group sitting under the boulder.

“How! How did it come to this! We lost millions of troops just today alone!” Feeling very distraught, Escher sank to the ground. His son and grandson went up to him.

“We knew this would happen. We prepared for this. Get up – father – you gotta lead us” Escher Junior pleaded.

“You know I’m not your father. You’re clones. We’re all clones. We’re nothing but clones. You may have came from me, but we’re all still clones!” Escher’s voice cracked. He was close to giving up the battle.

“Get up! This was planned! We expected this!”. The troops separately called for their leader to regain some confidence.

“No, we never planned for our food source to retaliate! We aped what the Dictyos did, and we went too far! This war has been going on for far too long!”

“Notify the Network, son. I don’t think father is a good leader anymore. We need to take action” Escher Junior gave his son an instruction.

Escher the third separated a small distance away from the group and calmed himself down. Concentrating, Escher sensed a pulse of energy surge from within him and dissipated outwards. Almost immediately, the rest of the group felt the surge of energy. In return, each member of the group surged some amount of energy from within themselves, forming a feedback loop of energies emitted outwards. Reluctantly, even Escher re-transmitted the energy. It would be difficult to overcome aeons of evolution and bioengineering.

This wave of energy would pulsate outwards, and every living creature would feel and react to it. But it’s only the Co-Ly who can interpret this wave as a message. It reads:

Squad leader lost motivation. Under heavy fire. Request instruction.

A few seconds later, Escher the third received his reply from the Network. Every member of the Co-Ly had received the message and have voted accordingly. Despite the increased chatter on the Network of late, the results were clear and the instructions directed to him. The Network had voted. He was the Chosen.

Upon receiving the message from the Network, Trey braced himself. The pain would come. He knew. He had experienced it before. But the sacrifice was necessary, for the survival of the Colony.

Just as the thought emanated from within him, so too did vibrations from the machines deep within Trey. He could feel the wire-like device within him unravel as his midsection bloated outwards. He could feel his body generating and consuming more energy as more skin cells were rapidly forming around the distended midsection.

Soon enough Trey had all but doubled in size lengthwise. It was as if there were two of him stuck together. Then came the split. With a sudden crack and a flash of pain, Trey was back to normal, save for an unsightly scar down his entire body. The new entity flopped around the ground for a bit and then stood up.

“Father”

“Welcome to the world, Escher the Fourth. We’ve got business to do”, Trey said.

“It’s no use! You’ll all end up like me” sneered Escher.

“Let’s face it. Our torus-shaped food source plan was a bust. It may have been a good idea a few years ago to breed something larger and more complex than ourselves as a food source and live on top of them. You all remember that don’t you? We agreed to this – the Network agreed to this plan.”

One by one, the group stirred. They had all received new instructions from the Network. Only Escher is ignoring the message.

“Now they are superior. All we have is our sheer numbers and cloning ability. But their genetic variety turns out to have provided them an advantage. We thought wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen. They weren’t supposed to develop weapons. Let’s face it, men, we have lost this war.”

Almost no one heard his ramblings. The rest of the troops were preparing to follow their new leader, his son, as voted by the Network.

“OK men. Let’s prepare to move out from underneath this cowardly boulder. We’ll leave this old rambly here.” Escher Junior turned to his father. “Whether you survive is up to you, but we’re moving out,” he spat.

“You have my memories – ” Escher interjected, then looked at the rest of the troops. “You ALL have my memories. So you know this war cannot be won this way. We need a new way”

“Move out!” came the order from Escher Junior. In an orderly fashion, the troops moved out from under the shelter of the boulder.

Presently, a large droplet of clear liquid containing the chemical weapon fell onto the troop, Trey included. He immediately felt the pain – his skin was torn apart by the chemical weapon, its ionizing capabilities led to multiple perforations on Trey’s skin. The perforations caused an imbalance of pressure, and his innards exploded outwards, right into his father’s horrified face.

Very soon too, Escher Junior succumbed to the same fate. So did Escher the Fourth, and the rest of the troops who stood exposed. All this happened within view of Escher. The troops he once led, wiped out by one single use of a chemical weapon. And here he was, sheltered by a natural formation of the landscape.

“Oh well, I guess it’s time to go,” Escher muttered to himself, all alone, as he watched the pool of liquid roll towards him. He resigned to his fate.

***

The woman had just sprayed Lysol on her countertop. She looked at the bottle. “99% bacteria eliminated,” she thought. “I wonder if it does wipe out E.Coli,” she mused as she gave the countertop a wipe down. The thought left her mind as instantaneously as it had entered her mind as she went on with her day.

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A Fantastic Account of Wanting To Change The World Through Literary Devices http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/15/2407/ http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/15/2407/#comments Thu, 15 May 2014 13:39:49 +0000 http://blog.chewxy.com/?p=2407 Continue reading ]]> Ellen McGuffin heaved a heavy sigh as she uncoupled the device from the battery and pocketed it in her lab coat. Wear a lab coat, it’ll make you look more professional and more people will buy into your story, she was told.

Fat lot of help that did, she thought to herself as she walked towards the exit of the garage. She turned her head to give the car one last look, switched off the lights and left the garage for the last time. It was a lovely evening – one worthy of stopping and taking in the sight. Ellen didn’t do that. Her mind was far too clouded by the incidents today. This was her sixteenth time in her attempt to raise funds for her invention, nay her sixteenth failure. She had succeded in closing a seed round a year ago, but tomorrow the burn chart comes to an end. There would be no more future for the device.

She retired to her bedroom – she had shared the house with the rest of her team. They had differing standards of tidiness, and she couldn’t stand the mess the boys had made in the living room, so she found herself more often than not cooped up in her bedroom. Ellen had been bracing this moment for some time now. For a couple months now she had been putting her resume out there, and attending interviews. She had always gotten the “we’ve decided to go with someone who is better suited than you” reply.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t fake her enthusiasm in her interviews. Oh she could do that, but underneath that veneer of confidence and enthusiasm, her interviewers always ferretted out that her interests laid elsewhere – her device. It had always confused her – she didn’t know what exactly the device would turn out to be, but always had this gut feeling that the McGuffin Device, as she had come to lovingly call it, was her true calling. She had many times in her life, gave up on the idea of inventing the device, and yet it always came back to haunt her, lingering at the back of her mind, taunting her for not inventing it.

Ellen played back the day’s event in her mind. She had welcomed the investors, explained how the device worked, and then showed them the working prototype. The response in her memory – one that she understands that is flawed at remembering things – were lukewarm at best. She racked her brain to see what she did wrong and couldn’t find any. Plus, even if she had did wrong, the device that she had invented should be impressive enough. It’d instantly reduce the carbon footprint of the world – given good enough marketing of course. She had even pitched the big picture ideas to the investors. Why couldn’t they see it?

She slouched back, her dead eyes starring at the poster above her desk. It said “A YEAR FROM NOW YOU MAY WISH YOU HAD STARTED TODAY” in an elegant typeface, – probably Gotham or Futura, her mind added. At this point, she really wished she had started earlier – technical and life management skills ranging from the algorithms that would be used in the control systems, to planning skills. Objectively however, she did learn those skills at a very young age. Her upper-middle class background ensured she had all the opportunities. Just as regret was setting in, her eyelids shut with the weight of her perceived failure, and she fell into deep somnolence.

“Ellen! Wake up!” She found herself shaken awake by her team mate. Groggily she sat up from her chair and looked around. Darren Checkhov came to view, looking concerned.

“You’ve got a guest. Wake up now”, Darren repeated.

“You ok? We were supposed to debrief after Deusex left. You just kinda stumbled into your room and fell asleep.”

“Yeah, I’m good. Who’s the guest?”, Ellen asked, rubbing her eyes.

“Dunno. Says he’s got an proposition for you.”

“Ugh, not tonight. Totally not in the mood for it.” Ellen stretched and exited the room and walked towards the living room. Her guest was seated on the sofa, talking – no, attempting to make small talk with the third member of the team, Simone. Simone wasn’t a good socializer, even though Ellen had pushed her to make some changes quite a few times. She noted that Simone was typing away on the keyboard while her guest, dressed in all black, was attempting a conversation, and made a mental note to address that to Simone later. Noticing Ellen approach, her guest rapidly stood up and extended a hand.

“Hi, Jim Plott” said her guest. Ellen took the hand and gave it a good firm handshake, a habit she had forced herself into a few years ago.

“Good to meet you Jim, what can I do for you?”

“Is there somewhere we can talk in private? I have got an interesting proposition for you, and – “, Jim paused and looked around. “the McGuffin Device” he continued after a visual scan found nothing.

“Oh, this?” Ellen removed the device from her lab coat pocket and held it up.

“Yeah. So, can we have a quick chat outside?”

“Sure, lemme check with the team to see if there are any outstanding work first. Simone’s working on the control and shading system for the LAMP stack, right? Darren?” She looked at Darren. He nodded at a oddly shaped plastic piece connected to some wires on the coffee table.

“Still working on the triggering mechanism” he said.

“OK. Let’s step outside for a bit then Jim,” Ellen motioned towards the door. Jim Plott followed.

Once outside, Jim reached deep into his jacket pocket and removed a spherical object. It appears to be made of a number of segments and at what Ellen assumed to be the pole of the sphere was a button glowing white. It reminded her of a pumpkin bomb that the Green Goblin of the Spiderman series used as a weapon. That sparked a sense of dread and fear.

“Wait – ”

Jim pushed the button before Ellen could even finish uttering her protestations. A white light emanated from the spherical device and engulfed both Jim and Ellen. She opened her mouth to scream –

And woke up sitting on her bed. It was dark. She reached for her laptop on her bedside table and turned it on. Then she realized something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t a Macbook Pro. Instead it was the no-brand netbook she had used prior to acquiring the Macbook Pro almost a year ago. She remembered acquiring a second hand Macbook Pro after she had secured her seed round of funding and her netbook died. Very soon however, her experiences had normalized into reality and she dismissed her prior experience as merely a dream.

The next morning, Ellen walked out to her daily team meeting. She was struck with an idea on how to make improvements to the current iteration of the McGuffin device. After some lengthy discussion, they agreed with the new ideas on how the device could be improved, though Ellen couldn’t shake the feeling that she had worked on this improvement before.

*** One Year Later ***

Ellen McGuffin heaved a heavy sigh as she uncoupled the device from the battery and pocketed it in her satchel. Don’t dress up. It’ll make you come across as genuine, and that you know your stuff, she was adviced.

Fat lot of help that did, she thought to herself as she walked towards the exit of the garage. She turned her head to give the car one last look, switched off the lights and left the garage for the last time. It was a lovely evening – one worthy of stopping and taking in the sight. Ellen didn’t do that. Her mind was far too clouded by the incidents today. This was her sixteenth time in her attempt to raise funds for her invention, nay her sixteenth failure. She had succeded in closing a seed round a year ago, but tomorrow the burn chart comes to an end. There would be no more future for the device.

She retired to her bedroom and played back the events of the day. She had welcomed the investors, explained how the device worked, and then showed them the working prototype. The response from her memory, were lukewarm at best. She racked her brain to see what she did wrong and couldn’t find any. Plus, even if she had did wrong, the device that she had invented should be impressive enough. Through several stroke-of-genius ideas, she had pretty much managed to squeeze at least three years worth of R&D into the device within the last year alone. Her effort, she knew, was impressive. Her invention was at least three years ahead of the cutting edge. But the investors were blind to it. Why couldn’t they see it?

She slouched back, her dead eyes starring at the poster above her desk. It said “A YEAR FROM NOW YOU MAY WISH YOU HAD STARTED TODAY” in an elegant typeface, – probably Gotham or Futura, her mind added. At this point, she really wished she had started earlier, but now was not the time for regrets. She needed to relax a little. She reached out into a hidden drawer in her desk and pulled out a small black pen-like device and shook it.

Good, she thought. It was still loaded. She pressed on the tapered top of the device and the plus-sign logo on the device lit up a blue-purple that reminded her of the special blue flowers that her ex-boyfriend Ross used to give her – they had broken up a few months ago because Ellen was quote too busy with her invention unquote. Fiddling with it, the logo turned green and she raised the device to her mouth and took a deep breath from it. She repeated this a few times, and soon enough, her eyelids were heavy, and her thoughts drifted. She fell asleep.

“Ellen! Wake up!” She found herself shaken awake by her team mate. Groggily she sat up from her chair and looked around. Darren Checkhov came to view, looking concerned. He was holding a cylinder of some sort – she recognized it as the firing pin that Checkhov was working on.

“You’ve got a guest. Wake up now”, Darren repeated.

“You ok? We were supposed to debrief after Deusex left. You just kinda stumbled into your room and fell asleep.”

“Yeah, I’m good. Who’s the guest?”, Ellen asked, rubbing her eyes.

“Dunno. Says she’s got an proposition for you.”

“Ugh, not tonight. Totally not in the mood for it.” Ellen stretched, pocketed the vaporizer and quickly exited the room and walked towards the living room. Her guest was seated on the sofa, talking – no, attempting to make small talk with the third member of the team, Simone. Simone was awkward with her conversation, and Ellen could see that she was racking her brains for common topics. Noticing Ellen approach, her guest rapidly stood up and extended a hand.

“Jess Plott, pleased to meet you”

“Good to meet you Jess too, what brings you here?”

“Is there somewhere we can talk in private? I have got an interesting proposition for you, and – “, Jess paused and looked around. “the McGuffin Device” she continued after a visual scan found nothing.

“What about it?” Ellen secretly hoped someone would make an offer and take the terrible invention that had caused her sleepless nights away.

“I represent a group that is interested in you and your device. Can we chat somewhere more private?”

Ellen looked at her team. They responded with quizzical looks.

“Look, we work as a team. What does your group want with the device?”

“Well, it concerns you privately”

“Ellen, we’re good here. I’ve got work to do on the barrell and Simone’s working on the magazine article” Darren piped in.

“OK. Let’s step outside for a bit then Jess,” Ellen motioned towards the door. Jess Plott followed.

Once outside, Jess reached deep into her jacket pocket and removed a spherical object. It appears to be made of a number of segments and at what Ellen assumed to be the pole of the sphere was a button glowing white. It reminded her of a pumpkin bomb that the Green Goblin of the Spiderman series used as a weapon. That sparked a sense of dread and fear.

“Wait – ”

Jess pushed the button before Ellen could even finish uttering her protestations. A white light emanated from the spherical device and engulfed both Jess and Ellen. She opened her mouth and screamed.

The white light blurred Ellen’s vision. But soon it became clear that the white light was merely her eyes adjusting to the extremely bright location she was in. She couldn’t really tell where she was. It was as if the room – if it was a room – went on forever. The walls, floor and ceiling – if they were indeed those things – were all bright white. In front of her was a figure. It was however flckering. Amongst the flickers she caught sight of a familiar face – that of Jess Plott.

“Wh-where am I?” Ellen asked.

“Am I dead? Is this a consciousness continuum?” she asked again. The flickering figure in front of her was silent.

It was then she noticed that her body did not move according to the reflexive movements she had expected from her usual experience. She tried moving her arm, but despite her willing, she couldn’t even move her neck to look at her arm, and her arm definitely wasn’t raising to her face level as she had willed it to.

Stuck, a panic began to set in.

“What have you done to me!” Ellen screamed. It was a weird sensation, as her mouth hadn’t moved. But she could hear herself scream.

“You are in the Plott Device” said a voice that sounded like Jess Plott’s. Somewhere in the deepest parts of her memories, something began to stir. She began to remember the voices of Jim Plott. Then she remembered that the voice sounded like Jace Plott’s. And Jade Plott’s. And Jen Plott’s. And Jake Plott’s. And…

As the tidal waves of memory began crashing upon the shores of her mind, she began to be aware that she had be in fact in this situation before.

“Elevated levels of tetrahydrocannabinol detected in subject’s brain,” a disembodied voice boomed overhead. Instinctively Ellen tried to look up, but again her head wouldn’t move.

“She will remember now,” said the figure in front of her, with the combined voices of her memory.

“This does not bode well,” argued the figure in front of her.

“She has to know now”, retorted the figure.

“Begin InfoDump Protocol E-X-P-O, ” boomed the rather mechanical voice overhead.

“Ellen, you are in the Plott Device. It functions to move your life forward towards a goal”, said the figure.

“Forward? What goal? My life is in complete shambles. There is no returning from that!” Ellen yelled. Her frustration had been pent up over the number of years she had been working on her invention.

“You have a goal in life. The McGuffin Device.”

“Is this… a time machine?” Ellen asked.

“I’ve experienced this before, haven’t I?” she asked again.

“Yes. And you will experience it an infinite number of times. Until the day that your invention, the McGuffin, is widely accepted by the general population, you will experience this an infinite times more. The Plott Device ensures that you develop the McGuffin”

“Why me?”

“The McGuffin will be your legacy upon the world. It is through the McGuffin that the Plott Device can be built. Can be powered. You have changed the world. That you here indicates that you will achieve your goal. The Plott Device simply keeps you on track. In your less enlightened times, you call it your destiny”

“I can’t do this any more. It’s tearing me apart from inside. I feel my brain burning up.”

“Which is why memory of the Plott Device is suppressed every time it happens. This time it is different. The cannabinoid levels in your brain is interfering with the memory capabilities of the Plott Device. You will remember, Ellen.”

“What is stopping me from stopping work on the McGuffin device? I really cannot handle this!”

“Nothing. Time can be rewritten. We shall simply disappear. The planet you know and love will simply burn.” the figure said in a rather matter-of-fact way.

“If you subscribe to the multi-universe theory, indeed, in some variations, you do stop working on the McGuffin. And in those scenarios, the world ends with you.”

The gravity of the words hit Ellen like a sack of bricks.

“You’re from the future, right? Why don’t you just give me the McGuffin?”

“Have you heard of the Bootstrap Paradox? The temporal continuum doesn’t allow it to happen. It does allow for leakages of ideas to happen, which is why you were able to perform several years’ worth of R&D into the last year”

“Search your memories. You will also recall ideas being placed throughout your entire life. Every living night of your life, you seem to have no dreams. You now know why.”

“Give me a hint then! If this is Groundhog Year for me, then tell me what will need to change in order to get the device invented”

“The McGuffin will not be invented for a long time more. Where you are in life when you were picked up, you will have a long time to go. You have a lot of personal flaws to clean up too. Your ego, your various complexes. Your insistence on being right. All these need to change.”

“However, Checkhov’s particle gun will play a very important role in the device in the future. As will the machinations of Deusex Ventures.”

“So we’ll get funding from Deusex?”

“No. Time is in flux and can be rewritten. Nothing is set in stone. It is your effort that matters”

“So is this a weed induced hallucination? You are telling me contradictory things”

“Cannabis does not work like this. You are in the Plott Device. Every time you enter the Plott Devices, the times and circumstances change. Which is why you’ve already met an infinite numbers of agents of Plott Device, who are all different versions of the same agent.”

The figure in front of Ellen suddenly stopped flickering and took the form of Jim Plott.

“One version of events happens like this. In ten years you completed development of the McGuffin through the repeat use of the Plott Device. You used the Plott Device to gain rapid market share by retroactively introducing features that your competitors are unable to add, keeping you ahead of the game. You also used the Plott Device to perform secret acceptance tests, so in ten years time you would have had over 60 years worth of trials and test to prove that it is not hazardous.”

“Oh cool”

“That version will likely not come to pass”, said the voice of Jess Plott. The figure now took her form.

“One version of events happens like this. You are removed from the Plott Device, and are later committed to the hospital for various mental health related issues, such as depression and schizophrenia. The McGuffin was never created by you, and the development is stalled for over fifty years.”

“That version will likely not come to pass”, said another voice, which Ellen recognized as Jeff Plott’s.

“One version of evens happens like this -”

“STOP! I WANT OUT! NOW! DOLPHIN! DOLPHIN!” Ellen shouted. All the information was getting to her head and she could feel her brain heat up.

The scenery changed. The white room immediately faded away. Ellen’s eyes quickly adjusted to the dim lights. She could hear music playing in the background, and the soft warm lighting of the room. Despite her vision still being blurry, she recognized it immediately.

She heard a click. And a weight was lifted off from her neck and wrists. Rose, her girlfriend helped her out of the wooden pillory and stocks which held her legs hands and neck in place.

“Are you okay? You safeworded out of a sudden. We’ve barely started.” Ross had a very worried look on her face.

“Sorry. Had a panic attack of sorts – ” Ellen’s memory was fuzzy. Didn’t she have a boyfriend? She knew that this had happened in her past, sorta – but the context of what is past and present no longer made sense to her – which eventually led to the argument and then to them breaking up a few days later. Then the wave hit. She remembered everything from every participation in the Plott Device ever. Things had changed. Ross as an agent in Ellen’s life had been replaced with Rose. Dizzy, she stood up, and put some clothings on.

“Wait, Ellen, where are you going?” Rose asked, tailing Ellen.

Ellen’s head began to clear up as she walked towards the exit of Rose (or was it Ross?)’s house. Along the way she picked up her satchel, and felt a spherical device in it. Peeking inside, she saw the Plott Device. She closed the satchel and opened the door.

Sunlight hit her face as a gentle breeze blew inwards. It gave her a sudden boost of confidence. Ellen reached for Rose’s hand and pulled Rose towards her.

“I’m going to the future, Rose. And you’re coming with me this time”.

END//

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China Retrospective 2014 http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/06/china-retrospective-2014/ http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/06/china-retrospective-2014/#comments Tue, 06 May 2014 03:26:22 +0000 http://blog.chewxy.com/?p=2358 Continue reading ]]> TL;DR and Meta – I visited China for the first time. I enjoyed it very much. These are elaborated from notes I took while in China. This is part 3 of a 3 part series on China, concerning impressions about China as a whole. Part 1 concerns my week in Beijing. Part 2 concerns smaller visits to various parts of China.

So, I visited China for the very first time – in essence, looking at my cultural roots. Along the way I have gained some impressions about China, as well as new views on old topics. This blog post summarizes my impressions of my first trip to China.

People. People Everywhere

That was pretty much my first impression of China. And never did it leave my thoughts once. China is really filled with people. It’s people people people everywhere. In the past I had wondered about China’s lack of expansionism. China’s history has always seen China nucleate instead of expand outwards. It was the in the atmosphere of having people everywhere I began to realize one of the reasons for the lack of expansionism. If we take wealth to be the primary reason for expansionism, then capturing the internal market of China alone would be a monumental task. Any expansion outwards would probably not gain the government as much utility as nucleating.

Having a lot of people within an area leads to some implications. Infrastructure in China is huge. Kinda like American-sized everything. You can see and infer that most of the designs were meant for transporting a huge amount of people from point A to point B in the most efficient manner. Everything, from the bank of 8 escalators going up in Nanjing Station to the wide walkways in shopping malls, the design informs the reason for it: keep things moving.

Having a large population also means that keeping public toilets clean is also somewhat of a nightmare – I’ve never actually managed to poop in a Chinese public toilet – it kinda was a bit too disgusting for me. Despite this, the public locations are generally very clean. I took the high speed train a few times in China, and I counted 4 rounds of sweeping and rubbish collection per hour in the train itself. Also, I observed that the public toilets around the West Lake was cleaned about once every hour. The routine makes sense – sweeping and rubbish collection can be concurrently done while the area is being used. Washing toilets is linear process – the toilet has to be shut down for a bit while it’s being cleaned. This causes relatively clean streets and ammenities, but unclean toilets.


Powel, Sheenan and Thomas (2009)
, Becker, Baudry et al, as well as the likes of Jared Diamond and Matt Ridley have long argued that population density is a major factor in the occurances of innovation. And yet, the Industrial Revolution started in England, not China, despite the fact that the Chinese had been inventing stuff since the earliest of times.

In 1972, economist Mark Elvin came up with a plausible answer. He called it the high level equilibrium trap. In essence, China has so many people, that it was easier to throw people at the problem (you know the old phrase, to throw money at a problem). This caused industries to be efficient enough so that there would be no profit incentives to innovate. I didn’t really buy the premise. After visiting China however, Elvin’s words keep coming back to haunt me. It’s not difficult to see that it’s far cheaper to throw people at the problem than to innovate solutions in China.

Technology

Computers and advanced machinery, however, have made humans quite replaceable. Programmer hours do not scale linearly with the quantity of work produced, nor does it scale linearly with the efficiencies gained. In the age of the knowledge worker, the old way of putting more people on the job to solve a problem is slowly evaporating away, and the Chinese seem to know that.

Here’s a funny annecdote. I was on the subway in Nanjing. At around a station called ruanjian dadao (lit: Software Avenue), a couple of Chinese geeks walked in. You could tell they were probably computer programmers as they fit the stereotype very well. One of them was holding a can of energy drink (of sorts, it’s a Chinese energy drink). Both were bespectacled and for a lack of better words, clumsily dressed. I was standing just in front of the door, and it just happened during that day I was wearing a black Golang t-shirt, complete with the Golang gopher. They saw my shirt, our eyes met, and we nodded at each other silently, acknowledging each other’s presence. This incident stuck in my mind because of the sheer amounts of coincidences (also, why does Nanjing have a station called Software Avenue??)

It wasn’t until I came back to Sydney that I realized that Go is big in China (as is… Erlang). In fact, tech itself is big in China. Everyone everywhere in China uses a smartphone. When I called to make a cancellation, I was instructed to use the website instead, because they no longer used the phone to handle reservations. Heck, even relatively western geeky stuff made its way to the general populace in China. In Shanghai, the lady who sat next to me spent the entire subway journey playing the original 2048 (i.e. the .github.io website) on her phone.

In the west, we see the Chinese as copycats. The truth might be a bit stranger than that. Here’s what I think: the Chinese copy, and mutate a product to fit its population. The mutation to the product is not small mutations (ala Rocket Internet), but big mutations which make the products unrecognizable.

Take WeChat (or Weixin) for example. It’s essentially a WhatsApp clone. Except it does a lot more. It has a follow function to follow friends (remember FriendFeed?), and I have used WeChat to find food (the suggestions were unfortunately all overpriced and really not that great). You could use WeChat to pay for a taxi. I had wanted to try but doing that would require all sorts of verification and government ID and all that, so no thanks.

I cannot see how a product like WeChat can work in Australia or US. We’re used to having different apps do different things. WeChat is kinda like a Frankenstein monster of apps – from what I could recall, it even has a QR code scanner (what for I have no clue). Does this imply that app designers in China are kinda shite? Not really. It just means that the people of China have different preferences than us.

The People

Speaking of the people of China, during my trip to China, I was continually impressed by the people there. Yes, it’s true that the older generation still spits everywhere, but it was the younger generation that impressed me quite a bit. Specifically, the amount of knowledge the people have. A hotel receptionist impressed me when she mentioned the story of the marriage a Chinese princess called Hang Lipo to the Malaccan Sultan. While in Malay myths the marriage of Hang Lipo to the sultan is a Big Deal (because in part it confers legitimacy to the Malay “empire”), there was no actual historical record of said “princess”. And the Chinese did keep very meticulous records in extreme detail (for example, what colour the Emperor’s poop was).

What was interesting however, was that the Malaccan myth was a very small part of all the myths of the world, and yet she knew the story (we were both derisive over that story). Later over tea, we compared notes on various other myths. It was a bit interesting that her knowledge spanned from the smallest Albanian myths to the stories of the Dreamtime of local aborginal people. She even accurately mentioned that the indegenous people in Australia are not one tribe, but thousands of tribes.

Lest you think it was an isolated incident, I have been repeatedly impressed by the locals and their knowledge of the greater world. For example, I had a taxi driver discuss the design of nuclear power plants in broad strokes. In my notes I had written “[taxi driver] talking about why heavy water is used”. Of course it later transpired that he had actually graduated with a degree in Physics, but chose taxi driving as a career because he will, in his own words, “make more money to survive the city”. I too recall the waitress who spent her time explaining the chemical reactions that causes food to go brown.

Or the couple in Luoyang selling me “fried yoghurt” who took the time to explain how they built their own anti-griddle. They even tried to explain bits of it in English (although I am quite sure they mixed up the words for Oxygen and Nitrogen, unless liquid oxygen was really used, which uh, I don’t think is plausible). Which leads to another thing I noted – at least in Beijing and Shanghai, the younger generation understood English quite well, but don’t speak it well. Kinda like me with Mandarin.

Virtually every younger person I talked to (I didn’t get much of an opportunity to talk to the older people) had a lot of knowledge, and some in widely diverging fields ranging from history to probability to world politics. The words “worldly guy” and “worldly girl” repeatedly appears in my notes – my only regret was that I didn’t bother with their names or a real rapport.

Political Attitude

Given that people in China whom I have met are quite worldly, you’d think they would take some interest in their local politics. I couldn’t be more wrong. By and large, the Chinese people whom I have interacted with are generally politically aware – I’d say much more than the average American[1]. They know that their web is censored. They know that their government isn’t “open” (by western definition and standards). The thing is, they don’t really care.

There is an old, rather racist phrase that reads like a variation this: “Chinese people are Jews of the Orient”, in the sense that Chinese people are motivated mainly by profits and money. Which is sadly kinda true about the political attitude amongst the people whom I had conversations with. The people I talked with generally have that attitude. They don’t really care who’s running the country, they care that their rice bowls are filled.

Combining that attitude with the Chinese culture and you get a weird mix of things. For example, there is a high amount of political slactivism in China. I use the words “slacktivism” because it’s really just that. The Internet culture of the Chinese has led to messageboards filled with political rants and commentary, even on topics the West assumes that is being censored in China (for example, I randomly found a thread dissing Mao Zedong with over a thousand comments). But that’s really the extent of it.

Not that it isn’t causing effects. In fact corruption is heavily tackled by commoners (i.e. non party affiliated people) on the Internet, and it’s known to have brought down many a corrupt official. Heck, in China they even know about their Internet access being censored and monitored. There is even a derogatory term online for anyone perceived to be astroturfing on behalf of the Chinese government – they’re called the “Five Cent Party” (五毛党).

But as mentioned, it’s slacktivism. At dinner I asked a lady and her boyfriend what if people were more interested in being politically active. The answer was not so surprising – they join the Party. This allows them to vote, giving them a political voice.

By way of studying game theory and voting systems, I had sorta already knew this was the case – that democracy actually kinda does exist in modern day China, just not for the masses, but it’s available to those who express an interest in making informed votes. It is in fact the complete opposite of Australia’s electoral system, where voting is compulsory for the population. The way I think of it in China is as such: voting is compulsory for those interested in having a political say. There is a barrier to entry (i.e. joining the Party), so only people who is really truly interested in having a political say can vote.

I don’t think of one system as better than the other – all systems have their flaws and their advantages. I can see why the system works for China – the population is huge, for one. Bringing on full American-style democracy would not be a good idea, in my opinion. But hey, what do I know right?

I should probably stop writing about the political situation in China. I really look forward to visiting China again, and I don’t want my water tables checked, nor do I want to be invited to drink tea[2].

Surveillance and Security

In Nanjing, I witnessed an event of public disorderliness (probably alcohol induced). I was in the middle of a tall escalator on the way up and out of Nanjing station. I heard a commotion at the bottom of the escalator, so I turned my head to have a look at what’s going on. It was a man who was making a scene, loudly scolding everyone. Then I exited the escalator. I went about doing my thing, and when the (presumably) drunkard reached the top of the escalator, he made another scene – this time with police officers. There were four policemen, who after they had enough of the drunkard’s verbal abuse, simply lifted the man – each officer carrying a limb, and put the drunk guy in a police golfcart, and sat on him to shut him up.

What’s the amazing thing? When I exited the escalator, there were no police officers at the exit. Not five minutes later, the (presumably) drunk man was in a golf cart, carted by the local police. The police had responded within an escalator’s ride (it was a fairly long escalator to be fair). It was either a very fast response time, or constant surveillance was in place.

The answer is the latter. Now, I must mention that the police officers I have encountered in China are extremely friendly, even if they have rather weird habits (like smoking while on duty – that one kinda blew my mind a bit) and are kinda gruff and offputting (spitting everywhere). I had a police officer in Luoyang who explained to me when was the best time to capture a picture of the Longmen Grottoes, and how he had come in the wee hours of the morning to enjoy the first light over the river.

Another point of interest in my trip to China is security. If you think the TSA in America is nuts, try having to have your backpack scanned at every subway station. I wear a Pebble watch, which I had set to Sydney time instead of Beijing time. At almost every checkpoint, I’d be pat down, and a security personnel will ask if the thing I have on the wrist is a watch, and why is it not in Beijing time. Towards the end of the trip, I had wisened up, and didn’t carry a backpack nor did I wear my watch.

I asked a friend the reason for the ridiculous amounts of checkpoints, and the answer, rather unsurprisingly was… TERRORISM. A few years back, there were not many security check points. A few well-publicized events of Xinjiang terrorists attacking later, security checkpoints were deployed everywhere – at every subway station, and every place of notable interest.

Stereotype

It would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I had some difficulties with some cognitive biases. Especially with stereotyping a particular ethnicity – the Xinjiang/Hui people in particular. I am not a fan of their religion (or any religion for that matter). And they appear to have caused a lot of hassle in subway stations and places of historical interest that inconvenienced me quite a bit.

In Shanghai, just outside Yuyuan Garden, I caught a Xinjiang man (the hat is a giveaway) with his hand in my pocket. I grabbed his hand and loudly tutted at him and walked away quickly. The ironic thing was the night before, I was advised to stay away from groups on Xinjiang people because it would be more than likely I’d get pickpocketed. Confirmation bias about Xinjiang people as a group of troublemakers set in.

Events like this inform my stereotype of a particular group of people, and I try to actively account for that. In fact, my entire trip to China has been one big wrestle with some cognitive biases I have.

For example, I used to think that China was a relatively backward country. They’re not, but the Gini coefficient is quite high though, which would account for the perception that China is backwards. I am also aware because my perception is thus framed, the expectations were low, and hence many things exceed expectations.

But perhaps the biggest mental hurdle for me was the fact that I constantly had to judge by double standards. I learned pretty quick that in China, if I were to judge the actions of people based on the standards I am used to (standards of not spitting on the ground for example), I was going to have a miserable time. The solution was simple – judge the actions based on their standards instead. Which is easier said than done, to be honest. A lot of mental gymnastics needed to be done to achieve that.

Being conscious about cognitive biases did lead to some interesting and albeit dangerous thoughts though. For example, what if there is a statistical justification for stereotyping? I did some back of the envelop calculations for statistical justification, taking into account fictionalized base rates (because data is hard to come by). It does lead to some serious thinking about ethics and the like.

Culture

I think having a concept of a shared historical past culture with the Chinese people as a whole did help a lot. It’s often said that East-Asiatic cultures are more collectivistic than individualistic. And I think this is the first time I’ve experienced it in a long time (the other time I experienced it was my first time in Japan).

When I visited the Forbidden City, there were security guards outside the gates, standing in a line. Some were uniformed, and some weren’t. Out of curiosity, I asked one of the young men standing guard about the uniforms. It transpired that those uniformed guards are on duty, while those ununiformed guards were youth volunteers.

In Luoyang I witnessed another more interesting form of volunteering. Driving past an intersection, I saw a lady wearing a vest that says “volunteer traffic controller” waving a flag and directing traffic. I asked the taxi driver if this was a common thing, and it turns out yes, it was.

A more cynical version of me would say this was the result of Communist thinking/propaganda. However, thinking about it, this community spirit is really more Confucian in nature than it is Communist in nature. I mean, the South Koreans volunteered their own personal treasury of gold to bail out the government in 1998. Even the “propaganda” posters[3] in China by the government appeals to traditional Chinese values, which are mostly centered around the family unit and society instead of country or religion (which is far more common in the West).

In fact, I would say the movie Hero accurately describes how I feel about Chinese culture. Caution: A generalization is being made. In general, Chinese culture is all about the Long View. It’s a culture which sees itself existing 10000 years from now. After I came back from China, I had a rewatch of Hero. I disagree quite vehemently with the translation of 天下 to “Our Land”. Visiting China, you get the idea that 天下 is all encompassing, not just a country. If you have a long view of things, even countries become meaningless things. The long term goal makes all short term losses acceptable. It can be pretty unnerving to be exposed to such a culture.

Things I Wasn’t Prepared For In This Trip

I did a lot of homework prior to this trip – even more so than what I usually do. I had an interest in Chinese history (why shouldn’t I, I’m ethnically Chinese, and also, Chinese history is one of the few civilizations if not the only to have a continuous recorded history that goes back more than 5000 years[4]). In fact, I did so much homework on Chinese history, that I forgot to do homework on travel. I was thoroughly misinformed, that you can survive on 500 RMB in Beijing for a week. I was wrong and led to some quite awkward moments with my travel companions regarding money.

Another thing I didn’t do my homework on was the amount of walking required. I am used to walking around the CBD of various cities in the world. China just takes that walking and scales it out. There was so much walking I feel that I should have prepared more – exercised a bit more and stretched my muscles a lot more. Walking from one end of the train station to the other can be rather tiring when you’re carrying a backpack with a laptop in it, especially when the train station is airport sized. Thankfully I brought a pair of great running shoes, but even then I still ended up with blisters on my feet. Bicycles didn’t help much either because it’s still leg work.

Preparation For The Trip

Before I left to China, I did quite a bit of research into the areas I was interested in – mainly the Tang and Song dynasties, and maybe a bit of the Qing dynasty. I was aware of the lore and wanted to supplement my knowledge of the local lores and legends with something more substantial. Here’s a list of things I recommend reading/watching before going to China. Some of these books or media are big and hard to chew through, so take your time with it:

  • China History Podcast – one of the best podcasts out there for Chinese history. And it’s in English. It is simply phenomenal. Despite me hating podcasts, I’ve been hooked on this. I just wish there were text transcriptions instead of godawfully clunky audio podcasts.
  • The Pattern of the Chinese Past – Perhaps one of the most important books I’ve read on the topic of the historical macroeconomics of China. Reading this gave me an anthropological understanding of the myths and lore I already knew.
  • On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900 – This is my first read I have on the topic. It is well researched if a bit dry. Most importantly it explains that China actually DID have a scientific tradition of sorts.
  • Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China – I bought this book by error. I thought it pertained to the Tang dynasty, which was the most open period of all times in China’s history – which was the bits of Chinese history I was interested in. This book is about the latter three dynasties: Yuan, Ming and Qing. Nonetheless, I did find this book interesting as well. It’s very very well researched, but the way it’s written doesn’t rub me the right way. It made me feel a bit uneasy at times. I’m curious about the author’s book on prostitution markets in ancient Japan, but my brain feels like it needs a cleansing first.
  • China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty – I treated this book as light reading, but it isn’t. It has a good overview of the Tang dynasty, and it’s written in a simple-to-grasp way.
  • Hero – Yes, that movie starring Jet Li. I think it’s an important movie because it gives insight to what Chinese culture is really in regards to.
  • 上下五千年 – My dad has this book (or books?). I think I am ready to read it now. It’s in Chinese, so it’s kinda hard to read. I might get the comic version instead.

  1. [1] I know it’s non-sequitor but hey every political op-ed I’ve read is full of non-sequitors
  2. [2] If this confused you, it confused me too, until a friend explained that to get one’s “water tables checked” (查水表) or to be “invited to drink tea” is China’s Internet slang for being arrested/investigated for posting “unharmonious” content on the Internet
  3. [3] I am not sure what to call this, it’s not really propaganda in the sense that it doesn’t promote the Communist Party, but rather promotes 文明, or a sense of cultured habits
  4. [4] Well, 5000 years of record keeping is a subject of academic debate, but let’s leave it at that
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The Ancient Great Capitals of China + Hangzhou Retrospective 2014 http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/06/the-ancient-great-capitals-of-china-hangzhou-retrospective-2014/ http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/06/the-ancient-great-capitals-of-china-hangzhou-retrospective-2014/#comments Tue, 06 May 2014 03:24:12 +0000 http://blog.chewxy.com/?p=2313 Continue reading ]]> TL;DR and Meta – I visited China for the first time. I enjoyed it very much. These are elaborated from notes I took while in China. This is part 2 of a 3 part series on China, concerning my explorations to other parts of China. Part 1 concerns my week in Beijing. Part 3 concerns my impressions of China as a whole

My travels to China also accidentally brought me to all of the four ancient great capitals of China – Beijing, Luoyang, Xi’an, and Nanjing. I had spent a lot more time in Beijing, hence the separate post. I didn’t spend as much time as I would have wanted to in the other ancient great capitals of China, but I had still taken some photos and notes.

Luoyang

One of the first things I immediately noticed after stepping out from the train station at Luoyang is that there are a greater number of female taxi drivers than other cities in China so far. Upon stepping into a taxi, I ran straight into a language barrier. I speak mandarin conversationally. The taxi in Luoyang however, was the first time I’ve felt so useless even when speaking mandarin. I couldn’t understand the driver in the least bit because he had a very strong accent. And yes, I also learned that accents exist in the Chinese language.

In Luoyang, we also learned that there exists hotels that are not licenced to serve foreigners. We had booked our hotels using eLong, and when we arrived at Luoyang, we were told that the hotel booked wasn’t licenced to serve foreigners. We ended up spending a whole day walking around the city dragging our luggages, looking for hotels.

The highlight of Luoyang was of course the Longmen Grottoes (龙门石窟). My companions thought I was mad for hunching over a spot for over 1 hour just to take this one photo:

Longmen Grotto.

The rest of my trip in Luoyang wasn’t very interesting or noteworthy. It’s a shame though, because Luoyang was the capital city for many a great dynasties in China and I didn’t get to explore them all due to conflicting plans. However, a particularly interesting thing of note was that in a night market in Luoyang, there were many stores selling “fried yoghurt”, in the same way Burch and Purchase makes their “fried egg” with an anti-griddle. What’s interesting is that they use pretty ghetto versions of the anti-griddle. Interesting how the similar devices are used in the super avant-garde high end restaurants, and the relatively low end street food stall.

"Fried Yoghurt"

Things I Thought About

If Beijing were not chosen as the capital city by the modern Chinese government, would it have suffered the same fate as Luoyang? I imagined an alternate universe where say, Ningbo was chosen as the capital city by Mao Zedong instead of Beijing. How different would Beijing be? Would it still have 10 million people living in it? Are the strategic advantages of cities inherent? Consider Bruges and Antwerp, when the river Zwin silted up, Antwerp became the main city of trade instead of Bruges.

Xi’an

Xi’an too was a blur due to conflicting schedules. There are many things to do and see in Xi’an, but those plans were cut short by poor planning and understanding of the town. Nonetheless I was able to glean some interesting things of note in Xi’an.

Xi'an Bell Tower At Night

The lighting of old buildings in Xi’an is far subtler than lighting of old buildings in Luoyang, Beijing or Nanjing (the most garish of all IMO). This led to a number of really nice pictures of older buildings in the city. The subway system too is more developed than in Luoyang (which had only one line – Xi’an has two).

The average salary in Xi’an is about RMB 2000 per calendar month. The rent is high, relatively to the mean salary – about RMB 400 a month. Surprisingly, despite being viewed as less advanced than Beijing (and a far smaller population), I discovered that the living costs in Xi’an is actually quite comparable to the living costs in Beijing. This obviously leads to a wealth disparity across China.

Coming from advertising, I tend to pay attention to advertising quite a bit. The outdoor advertising found in Xi’an and Luoyang are of made of material which are inferior to outdoor advertising in Beijing, Nanjing or Shanghai. They are also aren’t as well maintained as can be found in the bigger cities. An ad of particular interest to me was an ad for local county tax collection. The message was something along the lines of “please pay your taxes, as taxes are the blood vessels of this county”. I thought it was interesting, given that China is traditionally seen as a country whose government knows-it-all.

That said, the locals are accutely aware that they’re living in an ancient city. They all seem to be very well versed with the lore (or at least the common version of the lores). Just bring up a topic about Qin Shi Huang(秦始皇) or the Han dynasty and the locals will talk your ear off with all the history the place has to offer. Based off my limited experience, this happened with almost all of the locals I encountered (about 20 or so). They’re very in touch with the history of the place.

My plans to go see the Terracotta warriors, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb and ride a bike on the city walls were unfortunately dashed as business calls and we needed to go to Nanjing. I had been very very excited to visit Xi’an also because it was the cradle of openness during the Tang dynasty (when the city was called Chang’an). Naturally, there was some diappointment there.

Things I Thought About

A continuation of what I thought about in Luoyang – the inherent strategic advantages of a city. During World War 2, the Japanese launched only a few assaults on Xi’an because it was far inland. It is one of the most used capital cities in ancient China – for this reason, I suspect. Does a capital city need to rely on trade? Xi’an was the eastern endpoint of the Silk Road, so that’s a trade route there.

Nanjing

I explored a very very tiny (touristy) section of Nanjing – the area around the Confucian Temple and the area around the Qinhuai river. There wasn’t much there to see – most of the things about Confucius I had already been aware of. There were a lot of scammers doing palmistry and fate reading and nonsense like that, which I had no interest in.

When night fell, I did manage to go to the edge of the lake and snapped this photo:

Nanjing by the lake

It was a peaceful night. I got to observe the people of Nanjing doing what they do best. The area is outside the Nanjing Railway Station (incidentally, it’s a gigantic railway station). Outside the railway station, there are people camping out there. Upon inquiry, I discovered that they were mostly immigrants from other counties in China – they left their towns and villages for a chance at better lives in the big city, many who were willing to (and sadly only qualified to) work the most menial of jobs.

It was a pretty sobering thing to think about. My peace and quiet of introspection and thinking was eventually broken up by some proselytizing Christians by the lake. They had set up a song-and-dance thing which attracted many locals. After a few numbers, the sermons came – all in Mandarin about the fate of one’s soul after death. I was frankly quite disgusted by the proselytization and the bait-and-switch, so I left.

In Nanjing, I too had a meal with a local doctor and he intimated to me some interesting details about the mid-sized hospital he works in. On average, the hospital sees 15000 patients a day, and hires about 1000 doctors and nurses combined. Let that sink in for a bit. An average morning for him means about seeing about 80 patients before lunch time. That is an insane workload. We also talked about the increasingly litigative nature of the average Chinese citizen, and how it was adversely affecting the supply of doctors. In fact, a lot of the conversation centered around the attitude of Chinese patients in hospitals. It was a rather enlightening day.

Things I Thought About

The taxi driver is really quite noisy and nosy. Also, damn good of an upseller. He should probably stop trying to upsell. Not buying his full day tour package.

Hangzhou

After nearly a week of messed up schedules, I did manage to spend a far longer time in Hangzhou. There is really only one word to describe Hangzhou: beautiful. The place is beautiful, and the people are very beautiful too – it’s not difficult to find even complexion and smooth skin in Hangzhou.

West Lake

Central to Hangzhou’s beauty is the West Lake – a place where many stories that I had known since I was a mere child was set, from the Legend of the White Snake to the legend of Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon (tl;dr – man creates a giant urn to pray to the gods, but the giant urn overturn and fell into the legs, leaving only its legs above water. When lit from inside it looks like a moon reflected off the water). Being there at the West Lake, it is quite understandable why the bohemians of ancient Chinese dynasties flock to this place.

Rightly so, there is a performance art piece on the West Lake itself – Impression West Lake, directed by none other than Zhang Yimou. It’s a dazzling display of light and water. It was frankly quite fantastic, if falling a bit more on the artsy side of things (Zhang Yimou loves his colours). Nonetheless, it did a very good job of conveying the impression of the West Lake – that it is a place of romance, and a place where beauty and creativity is celebrated.

Beside the West Lake lies Yue Fei‘s (岳飞) grave. The story of Yue Fei in itself is quite badass (there was a battle where he led 200 men in a last ditch battle against the Jurchens, and they all returned alive. Beat that, Leonidas). But most importantly was that Yue Fei is deified in Chinese culture as the ideal of loyalty. Where Guan Yu represents honour, Yue Fei represents loyalty. As such, myths grow around the character and it was quite hard to get an objective view of the man. The museum around his tomb brought a much needed dose of reality to the myth. I appreciate that.

Hangzhou was also the city where Hu Xueyan called home. Before going to Hangzhou, I had only knew Hu Xueyan as the hongding shangren (红顶商人) – the merchant with the red-topped hat. Naturally, I didn’t know the significance, but I did know that his character did influence the way Chinese businessmen did business. So we visited Hu Xueyan’s former residence.

Hu Xue Yan's former residence

There, I learned quite a bit about Hu Xueyan (I was quite surprised that there was no Wikipedia article on him, so I wrote one). He was at one point the richest man in China. How rich was he? He has a friggin man-made cave in his house! If you think about it, all the truly rich people have caves in their house: Hu Xueyan, Bruce Wayne and Bill Gates. I wouldn’t put it past Elon Musk to have a cave in his house either. Of course, him being a rich guy, had pretty amazing womanizing habits too. The house was built mainly to house his 11 wives (who according to historical records, got along very well with each other). His story however, was a sad one. In a failed attempt to corner the silk trade, he died a penniless and depressed man.

Hangzhou, being the capital city of the Southern Song dynasty, was also a place of curious interest to me. It was in the Southern Song dynasty that the Chinese footbinding practices began. It was also in the Southern Song dynasty did women start losing their place in Chinese society (in fact, scholars place Qin Huai’s betrayal of Yue Fei to be the starting point). Prior to this dynasty, men and women were pretty much equal. Society during the Tang dynasty was very liberal and open, as such things like women’s rights were the norm. However, things were still pretty liberal during the early days of the Southern Song dynasty. Hangzhou afforded an opportunity to sorta experience it.

宋城千古情 (Thousand Year Romance of the Song City)

There exists a theme park of sorts (it has museums in it too) in Hangzhou, where the staff dress up in Song dynasty costumes – it’s called the Song Dynasty City, and I visited for a dose of Song Dynasty history (also, mainly for a show – 宋城千古情 (Thousand Year Romance of the Song City), which was excellent too. I recommend paying for the best seats in the house for that show). It was quite an interesting experience – to have read and knew something, and see it being re-enacted by live actors. The theme park is filled with all sorts of minutiae of the Song dynasty. Though I wish the level of detail could be deeper, I was happy about that. I got to learn a lot more about the Song dynasty (which is my second favourite ancient Chinese dynasty after the Tang, simply because it was the second most liberal dynasty).

Things I Thought About

I thought about a lot of things in Hangzhou, but I lost myself quite well in Hangzhou, soaking up the atmosphere and the beauty, and had neglected to jot down notes (okay, I admit, I forgot to bring my notebook out). Really, it’s such a beautiful place, it does seem like poor form to be writing notes for everything I do. I did however note that their bus stop displays run on Fedora Core, so do a number of wide screen ATMs around the West Lake (yes, really big screen ATMs that act as tour guides as well). Also, the public toilet near the Yue Fei temple had a knockoff Dyson hand dryer – it was branded Aike, if my memory serves.

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Beijing Retrospective 2014 http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/06/beijing-retrospective-2014-2/ http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/05/06/beijing-retrospective-2014-2/#comments Tue, 06 May 2014 03:23:34 +0000 http://blog.chewxy.com/?p=2275 Continue reading ]]> TL;DR and Meta – I visited China for the first time. I enjoyed it very much. These are elaborated from notes I took while in China. This is part 1 of a 3 part series on China, concerning my week in Beijing. Part 2 concerns smaller visits to various parts of China. Part 3 concerns my impressions of China as a whole

It was a hot and sweaty night in the Nanjing airport. Cigarette smoke wafted across the waiting area in slow curls. Overhead, announcements were made that due to weather conditions, some flights were being cancelled. I waited, sweating, fervently hoping that my connecting flight to Beijing wouldn’t be cancelled. To much of my relief, it wasn’t cancelled, only delayed. I soon boarded my flight and arrived in Beijing, feeling very tired and worn out.

Exiting the airport, my travelling companions and I took a taxi to the hutong (胡同) where our boutique hotel was situated. To our dismay, the taxi driver simply dropped us off at the junction between the road and the hutong. His taxi couldn’t enter the small alley that is the hutong. At 1.30 a.m, we trudged into a dark alley, not even knowing where the hotel is – it was about 600m into the hutong. I was getting quite cranky at that point and my impression of China wasn’t very good at that point.

The next morning however, marked the beginning of a change of impression, of both Beijing and China on a whole. The booking of the boutique hotel was a good choice. In the light of day, I got to know the location, and it was impressive. The hotel is a siheyuan (四合院). The receptionist later intimated to me that it was built in the late Qing dynasty, making it about 140-170 years old. It was small (I would visit much larger siheyuans later), but surely impressive. It was quite interesting to think about how a family would live in a building with such architecture and how the architecture of such buildings dictate social convention and dynamics in a family.

The Forbidden City

In Beijing, I visited the Forbidden City (紫禁城), more commonly called gugong (故宫), or former palace nowadays. It is by no means a small palace. In fact, it is the world’s largest palace complex – occupying some 720000 squared metres of area. It was used during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, and is in itself, a very large museum today, mostly regarding the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty. The subjects of the Qing dynasty was most prominent among the exhibits of the museum, owing partly to its recency (1644 – 1911).

yong he men

We spent an entire day in the Forbidden City, starting at 8.30 a.m and ending at 4.30 p.m and still hadn’t completed an entire tour of it. This should give you a sense of how terrifyingly huge the palace is. Of course, it was also partly my fault for dawdling around the exhibits, poring over every minute detail. If I had any regrets about that place, it would be not training my leg muscles hard enough, as by the end of the day, the mind is willing to explore, but the body says no. I would have loved to spend a few more hours in there.

Moat around gugong

For what it’s worth, the automated audio guide was actually very good. I did find the Mandarin version a bit more overdramatic in voice reading (the narrator for example, gets audibly excited over the kind of wood being used and he kept raising his voice), while the English one was a lot more neutral. The English guide however, lacked quite a bit of trivia found in the Mandarin version – I do appreciate the reason for this though, since a lot of the trivia are connected to Chinese culture and can pretty much only be expressed in Chinese. The Mandarin audio guide was also presented more in a question and answer kind of way – I caught myself asking some questions, only to be answered by the audio guide, while the English version seem to be more a factual statement of things, and less of a Q&A kind of guide.

Double Wall - Back Entrance

A pretty interesting fact that nobody seem to mentioned about the Forbidden City was the lack of trees in the main courtyards (there was an imperial garden in the Forbidden City of course). A historian later explained to me that this was intentional. Trees meant that would-be assassins would have hiding spots, making it a lot more difficult to protect the Emperor. Also of note were the large empty porcelain pots outside buildings – those pots used to hold large quantities of water, and acted a fire hydrants of the day.

Things I Thought About

  • The layout of the entire compound – there was somewhat of a logic to the layout (later I discovered that it was because it was built in accordance to the Book of Rites (liji (礼记))).
  • The lives of the elites in the Qing dynasty.
  • The architectural finesse in the buildings.
  • The lineage of the Chinese language.
  • The social dynamics of the different classes of people in the Qing dynasty

The Great Wall

There is a Chinese saying that goes, 不到长城非好汉‎ – If you’ve never been to the Great Wall, you’re not a real man. I made it to the Great Wall (well, a section of it called badaling (八达岭)), and it was, for a lack of better words, breathtaking.

Great Wall

The Great Wall isn’t quite what I expected. I knew before hand that the Great Wall is more like several-long-walls-along-China,-and-not-really-consistent-in-build. But I had expected the steps to be small. And the slopes gradual. They were neither. The steps at the Great Wall are themselves inconsistent in height. Some steps are knee high, some are ankle high. The steps show signs of wear and tear. I took this photo for a statpics-esque view:

Steps and Use

Another thing to be warned is that the pictures you see of the Great Wall are often deceiving. The slope of the wall is NOT gradual. Prepare instead for a climb more than a hike. Some parts of the Great Wall is indeed very steep. That was a bit of a daunting shocker when I was walking up the Great Wall. All that went through my mind was: holy shit this thing is steep.

It was raining when I went to the Great Wall, so that made things a little more challenging. Add to that, the hustle and bustle of so many people around, pushing about to get up and down. However, the sights were amazing. Sure, there were plenty of people in multicoloured ponchos dotting the scenery, but still it was a pretty sight. The camera really doesn’t do much in capturing the enormity of it (okay, sure, I could have used a 10mm lens, but it was raining and I only brought one lens to China).

The Great Wall was a pretty great beautiful place to visit. Our trip was cut short because we engaged on a day tour, whose tour guide only gave us 45 minutes to the Great Wall. The next time (yes, there will most definitely be a next time), I’d just not use a tour guide. And I would probably also avoid badaling. I would probably hike on the mutianyu (慕田峪) section instead.

Things I Thought About

  • If computing were to be invented in China, we probably wouldn’t get as far as we would have today, due to its language complexities
  • Fuck, this is a tough climb.
  • Oh wow, the mountains look like Chinese paintings.
  • I can’t imagine people doing this daily in the past. In full armour. Fuck this shit.
  • How the hell did they get horses to get up here?
  • Those barracks/grain store areas look pretty uncomfortable at night.
  • Henry Kissinger’s Great Wall/snow shovelling story (this version is a little different from what I had in my memory, but the gist is similar).
  • Mulan’s opening music when the Huns attacked.[1]

Peking Duck

In Beijing, I had peking duck twice. Once at the original peking duck shop, quanjude (全聚德), and once at pretty much the best peking duck restaurant in the world, dadong (大董). The atmospheres are quite different, with dadong taking the fine dining and modernist cuisine route; while quanjude taking the traditional route.

I very much prefer the duck from dadong, however much of the quanjude experience derives from the history of the roast duck (and also, really, the world, considering a lot was done at quanjude when Nixon went to China. The dish was good, and the whole duck was used – the carcass of the duck was made into a soup as our last course. I also had the brain of the duck which tasted like a chalky paste.

quanjude duck

Things I Thought About at quanjude

  • What is the oven temperature
  • Peach tree wood is used – does it affect the flavour? Todo: Investigate
  • Duck tongue is cold, and has a bite to it
  • Efficient breaking up of queues into classes – big tables, small tables, etc. Automated pick up system(?)

On the other hand, dadong had a fantastic (not to mention very attractive) friendly waitress who took her time to explain every dish, how it was cooked and how to properly wrap the peking duck pancakes. I really enjoy these kinds of things, and dadong‘s duck is really very very very good. The duck skin was crisp, and yet melts in the mouth. The meat was not overcooked (a cardinal sin to me, when cooking poultry). It was pretty much perfection in a dish. There were also other dishes we ordered, like beef cooked in duck liver (again, another fantastic dish). It is clearly visible the effort that goes into each dish, and I appreciate it.

dadong duck

I ended up not taking notes at dadong because the dishes were just so good that I didn’t feel like writing them down. I would rather have my faulty memory conjure up the feelings of good food at dadong than empirically removing the magic of it. It’s THAT good.

There was a wait time at both places, however the wait time at dadong was considerably longer – 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Public Transport/Getting Around

I judge the “niceness” of a city based on the availability and ease of use of its public transport. By that count, Beijing scores really really well, at least around the city. We sampled buses, subways and taxis of Beijing, and they were all actually quite good.

Unlike buses in Brisbane or Sydney, where you’d have to buzz the driver to get off, buses in Beijing were kinda like trains – it has a set route, and stops at every designated stop, which is clearly labelled. At each bus stop, there was a route map and stop names. These stop names would also be announced on the bus. Also, if I am not mistaken, all buses are 2 yuan (I could be mistaken) per trip.

Like buses, subways in Beijing are also 2 yuan per trip (no matter the stop), which is great. I really really liked the subway system in Beijing, compared to those in other cities we visited due to that feature. The subway trains were also clean and on time, and throughout the week in Beijing it was consistently clean and on time for us.

Of course there were downsides to the public transport in China. After the first few days using buses, we switched almost entirely to subways. The reason? The people. The buses were almost always jam packed with people (in fact, we never had a bus trip where we were not squashed like sardines in a tin). At least there was breathing space in the subway stations.

I also had our hand in bicycling around the Tsinghua University area. Bicycles are cheap to rent, though a few things made me quite wary. Coming from a country with a sane direction of driving (i.e. left hand traffic, which is the sane one. Right hand traffic is plain insane), the right hand traffic nature of China was very taxing, even when crossing roads. Doing it on bicycles on the roads was a crazy experience. Thankfully once we were inside Tsinghua University, it became more relaxing to bike in there, without the hustle and bustle of traffic. The basic rule of traffic in Beijing when riding a bike is: people will generally let you go if you are brazen enough to push your way through. For the cowards like me, you wait till the traffic is clear, then quickly cross the road.

Asking directions had become an inside joke for us after a few times. When I visited Venice a number of years back, the most common directions we were given were “turn left, or right”. In Beijing, it’s very common for people to tell you that the place you want to go is “just 100 metres ahead”. The directions are usually correct. The distances however, is far from. There was once we walked about 5km in a straight line before reaching our destination. 100 metres, my foot. Soon, it became an inside joke to see how many “100m” responses we could get.

Speaking of directions, people in China, but especially Beijing, seem to be very tuned to the cardinal directions. It’s a very common thing to have directions that sound like “after you get out of the station, head north west for 100m, and you will arrive at your destination”. It was bewildering at first, how these people even knew what direction one would be facing. But the layout of the entire city having a North-South axis eventually made it easier to figure out the cardinal directions.

Complaints

My trip to Beijing was very very pleasant. If I have a complaint about Beijing, it would be the air quality. For most of my days in Beijing, I would return to my hotel room at the end of the day and blow my nose and find that I have black boogers. The first few nights I thought I had a nose bleed, but later inspection indicated that it was actually dust and dirt particles. Ew.

I’m also not really a fan of crowds. That seems to be entirely unavoidable in China though.

Along with the crowd thing, I’m also not really a fan of waiting to do things in Beijing. Almost everything has a queue and a wait time. Also, it’s not really a queue. People don’t really queue for stuff in Beijing, it’s more like let’s-mob-this-entrance-and-eventually-form-a-stream-like-structure. That of course led me to thinking about using computational fluid dynamics to model crowds, but that’s another story altogether.

Conclusion


I enjoyed my trip to Beijing a lot. I thought about a lot of things, and learned a lot more than I expected. It is a mix of the good parts of modern life (clean and on-time public transports), with a lot of old time charms (hutong, the old palaces, etc). I highly recommend Beijing as a city to visit.

I thought my crappy Mandarin (I speak Mandarin with an atrocious accent) would be a big hindering factor. It turns out it wasn’t. In fact, I could understand them, and they could understand me. Until I got to Luoyang…

  1. [1] Then I got down to business
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Two Ways of Thinking http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/04/13/two-ways-of-thinking/ http://blog.chewxy.com/2014/04/13/two-ways-of-thinking/#comments Sun, 13 Apr 2014 06:39:00 +0000 http://blog.chewxy.com/?p=2225 Continue reading ]]> I went to a shopping mall today and I noticed they had installed a new feature in the parking lot[1] – it’s one of those things that told you whether a lot was taken. If a lot was taken, a red light will shine, and a green light will shine if a lot isn’t occupied. I’ve seen a lot of those in parking lots, but this one actually interested me. Here’s how it looks like:

parkassistm3

It’s a potato quality photo, but I think it shows how it works quite well. The system used is the ParkAssist M3. A camera is trained onto a parking lot. If there is a car with a licence plate in the lot, the system will know that the lot is taken, and display a red light. There are two cameras, so one light represents two spots.

As I walked past it, I had a hunch on how it worked – it uses computer vision, and one thought led to another, and I soon began to think about the two major ways of thinking about products. Well, technically there are three. If you were to give an assignment to any random guy off the street to design a parking lot monitoring system, there would be one of three broad response types: give up, innovation or invention. I’m not going to even deign discussing giving up.

This line of thought was quite influenced by a talk by Alan Kay I watched earlier this week:

After our shopping, I pointed out the cameras to my partner, who immediately asked “are those cameras?”, followed by “but that’s so wasteful!”. That was her inner electronics engineer speaking. Both she and I knew that there were cheaper, and probably more efficient methods of designing parking lot indicator solutions. She also highlighted her way of thinking: The innovator.

The Innovator and The Inventor

The Innovator way of thinking that leverages existing knowledge and products into new products or solutions. The solution the innovator provides fulfils the problem brief, often with little or no side effects.

The Inventor way of thinking on the other hand, also leverages existing knowledge into new products or solutions, but the solution the inventor provides not only fulfils the problem brief, but often has side effects.

By now, the phrase “side effects” has been repeated twice. So what are these side effects? More often than not, these side effects are new knowledge that can be leveraged on. Saying this is quite vague, so let’s go into some examples – how would a person with predominantly innovative thinking think about designing a solution for a parking lot indicator? How would a person with predominantly inventive thinking think about the same problem?

A very simple solution would be to use some sort of detector in each parking lot. A light sensor would be useful. If a car is parked over the light sensor, it would stop detecting light, and therefore the assumption is that the parking lot is filled. Problems like temporary occlusion can be overcome by timers and thresholds. Light sensors, timers and microchips are widely available, and building one would be fulfilling the brief of developing a solution to inform someone if the parking lot is taken. It is a clean and simple solution. However, the solution doesn’t really add to the knowledge of the world. Neither does it have a lot of side effects: it does what it does and that’s it.

A more complex solution would be to use a camera and computer vision. It is extremely complex. It requires a computer and algorithms to detect whether a vehicle exists in the spot. To do that, the system would need to know what an empty spot looks like, what a vehicle looks like, and a lot of other considerations. It also most probably adds to the sum knowledge of the world, that if shared, can be leveraged upon in the future. This system has a side effect – because it uses computer vision, it can detect what the licence plates are, and can even be used to help people find their cars.

In the video above, Alan Kay calls the result of the innovator’s way of thinking incremental technology, while the inventor’s way of thinking non-incremental tech. I’m more interested in the way of thinking, so I pursued further.

Boxes and Rhetorical Questions

I asked the question of the parking lot indicator to a number of people. Given my circle of friends, there were many people who displayed innovative thinking. Not many displayed inventive thinking. I wondered why. And so with a number of people, I pushed the questions further.

I believe there are two basic drivers of inventive thinking. When I started adding constraints (mostly artificial) to the questions to my friends, much more interesting solutions began to emerge. There is also another driver of inventive thinking: daring to ask rhetorical questions – specifically, “why not?”.

When I saw the cameras being used, internally I immediately inquired the reason as to using a camera. My internal engineer noted that there are definitely more cost-effective way of doing the same thing. I caught myself doing that, and asked – “why not?”

Asking “Why Not”

Asking “why not” can lead to really cool stuff. For the longest of time, I’ve admired the stuff they do at Xerox PARC and Bell Labs in the 60s and 70s (Locally, we have NICTA, which does really cool stuff[2]). I’ve read books like The Idea Factory, and indeed, the general mood of being anti-establishment. They were sticking it up to the man by asking “why not?”

Questioning “why not” is generally a healthy thing. However, there too can be flip side of it. For example, people who support the anti-vaccine movements are asking “why not?”, but they do not accept the answers in the face of evidence that comes with the question. That’s just a stupid thing to do.

So yeah, questioning “why not” has to be somewhat balanced. Fortunately we DO have a system in place that allows for such questions to be asked: it’s called science. I will be first to admit that it’s not the most bias-free system, but it is an open system. If you have a really controversial finding, and it passes peer-review, it would change the world.

The Personal Connection

The thoughts about the innovator’s way of thinking and the inventor’s way of thinking filled my mind as I zombied behind my partner in Westfield. It quite affects me, because I do like to think I do think in both ways. But one way of thinking fits being an entrepreneur and running a startup well, and the other does not.

I created eyemap.io on a whim. On the one hand, I think “this is enough, I should go to the market with the product”. On the other hand, I want to drill down deeper into the problem and create better tracking, because, “why not?”.

I’m not really sure what to think. Hence this blog post. I think I’ll need to meditate more on it.

  1. [1] They had actually installed it at the end of last year, but I never bothered to notice how exactly it worked till now
  2. [2] Although I am quite upset that they have recently had their funding cut
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