31 August 2009


Xi'an was the third city on the tour of China. We arrived early on the Monday morning by train from Beijing and stayed there for three days and two nights.

The purpose for including Xi'an on the tour was the history in the area and we saw quite a lot of that, and we managed to see some of the local culture too.

For an ancient city, Xi'an has not that much of its history to show but the bits that are still there are well worth seeing.

First stop was the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, chosen in preference to the Large Wild Goose Pagoda because it attracts fewer tourists.

The pagoda looks old and frail but it is solid enough to climb up, which I did. The final stage on to the roof is probably illegal under European Health and Safety legislation but offers grand views over Xi'an.

Xi'an is a walled city and that wall is stupendous.

It is rectangular, not that far off square, and is around 13km in circumference. The four sides are long and unrelentingly straight. There are a few towers along the way but they are a long way apart and are momentary distractions as you walk past them.

We were give a measly 40 minutes to explore one section of the wall but as this was to be followed by a couple of hours rest back in the hotel I decided to walk along the wall instead.

It was another hot day, over 30c with no cloud, and the walk was a rewarding mix of freedom and endurance.

After the wall came the walk back to the hotel which I was delighted to accomplish without the aid of the map which I had left in the hotel!

The reason that Xi'an is on the tour is because of the Terracotta Army that was discovered in 1974 buried just outside of the city.

The scale of the site is just amazing. The dots you can see on the far side are people.

This is the largest of the three pits which contain something like 8,000 terracotta warriors together with their horses and chariots.

The soldiers are life-sized and while very similar they do vary in their uniform and facial details. It is said that no two are the same.

The individual soldiers have a certain strength and nobility but collected together as an army they are majestic.

The biggest surprise in Xi'an was to learn that one of the few old buildings within the city walls is a mosque originally dating from the seventh century.

There is little at the site to show that it is a mosque, it is certainly nothing like the mosques that I have visited in Europe and Africa. There are no minarets, for example, and the architecture is pure Chinese.

What was more familiar were the courtyards, the water and the pervading sense of peace and tranquillity.

Most of Xi'an was disappointingly modern and just like the rest of China but there are some historical gems there that make it worth spending a couple of days there.

28 August 2009

Forbidden City, Beijing

The Forbidden City is in the heart of Beijing and is a central part of any tour to the city. It is such a special place that it warrants its own write up here.

The approach to the City is via Tianenmen Square, which is well worth a visit itself. Unfortunately part of the reason for this is the events that happened there twenty years ago.

The Forbidden City, like much of the landmarks in China, dates from the Ming Dynasty and was constructed in the early fifteenth century. It's old.

It was a home to the Chinese emperors for about five hundred years until the end of the empire in the early twentieth century. It's old and has a long history.

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of it all. The first buildings that you see from the entrance are around 100 yards away and this is just the first set of buildings. The site is rectangular and measures some 750m by 950m.

The City is built on several levels with wide open spaces between the various buildings. The way up to, and down from, these levels is via wide stone staircases.

These staircases are in levels and at each level there is a wide walkway that leads off to each side. This adds some complexity to the site and provides interesting vantage points from which to enjoy the buildings and spaces.

The stairs and walkways are decorated uniformly and successfully in that they look grand but are not oppressive and do not detract from the buildings that they surround.

Which brings me on to the buildings, of which there are a lot. I've seen several different estimates for the number of rooms in the City so it is hard to be precise but there are around 9,000!

Though the buildings vary in size they all have the same familiar design common to most historical buildings in China. They are made of wood with highly decorated roof timbers. They have a sense of space while the decoration prevents the repetition from being boring.

The roofs are exquisite.

Again the style is familiar but this is the Forbidden City so it is grander and more impressive. They are coloured gold and have wonderful carvings.

I could have selected any number of photos but this one edged it because the close-up shows how the roof is put together and how each part is decorated.

As with the Summer Palace, the long corridors provided a welcome relief from the Summer sun. The design of the site seems simple but it is very effective for the climate and the needs of an emperor.

Again, this is a place that I could have spent a lot more time than we were allowed and would be on my must visit again list if I ever get back to Beijing.

And with more to see at the Summer Palace, Great Wall and Forbidden City there is a real case for going back before too long.

27 August 2009

Unnecessary security?!

To access my bank account on-line I have to go through three separate screens where I 1) enter my bank account details, 2) enter the specified digits from my PIN number and 3) enter some memorable data such as a date.

That has worked well for some years but now my bank requires that I go through some additional steps if I want to actually do something once I am logged-in, such as make a payment.

Now I also need a card reader and my debit card and to take these additional steps 4) enter the PIN number for my card on the reader, 5) enter the number displayed on the web page in to the reader and 6) enter the number returned by the card reader on to the web page.

This seems wholly unnecessary to me and adds a lot of hassle to regular activities, like paying my Council Tax, for little or no gain. The bank may think that these extra security measures are worth-while but I don't.

26 August 2009

Trying to make sense of web2.0

As you either know or could have guessed, I am an active user of lots of software that comes under the broad labels of web2.0 or social computing. Apart from this blog, there is twitter, facebook, youtube, linkedin, slideshare, myspace, scribd, technorati, mybloglog, wikipedia, bloglines, last.fm, yahoo groups, etc. etc.

I use each of these for a purpose but when friends ask me what this is or to explain why I use one tool for one thing rather than an other then I sometimes find it hard to articulate what this purpose is.

And if I cannot articulate the purpose for each tool then how can I know that I am not duplicating a service (e.g. photo sharing) or that I am using the full range of tools that I need?

The following diagram, which is work in progress, is an attempt to do this.

They key concept, or hypothesis, is that the two factors are the content that is being shared (both it's richness and its volume) and the degree of collaboration there is in producing that content.

For example, this blog has text and images so the content is reasonably rich but the only collaboration is the opportunity to post comments. In contrast, Twitter supports a high degree of interaction (through replies, retweets, etc.) but the content is limited to 140 characters.

I am hoping that once completed this map will help me to understand which tools I need and why and so enable me to make better use of web2.0 myself and to provide better advise to others. Wish me luck!

24 August 2009

Bits of Beijing

The Great Wall and the Forbidden City were the main reasons for visiting Beijing but in the three days we spent there we also managed to catch quite a few other significant sights.

The walk around the Olympic centre almost seemed unplanned but was most welcome. We had been taken to lunch nearby (we spent all three weeks be ferried to different but almost identical restaurants twice a day) and were allowed off the leash for a while to explore the Olympic legacy.

The Birds Nest is simply stunning, both from a distance as seen here and also close up where the structure can be seen clearly.

The stadium is now open to tourists but by the time we had worked out how to get tickets we did not have enough time to go inside.

Also on the site is the Water Cube, another interesting but less impressive building.

What was impressive was the plaza around the sites, some of which can be seen in the foreground. This forms part of a wide corridor that cuts North-South through Beijing all the way to the Forbidden City and beyond. It was one of the most dramatic public spaces that I have been in, much more so than Tiananmen Square, for example.

The Summer Palace is very big and very pretty, even in the torrential rain!

In concept it is similar to an English country mansion but the scale and grandeur is something else. We had less time than I would have liked to explore the palace and gardens; it could easily have taken a whole day and still have left most of it unexplored.

We did get to walk along the 1 km corridor that is, apparently the longest in the world. We soon got used to being told that what we were seeing was the biggest / longest / deepest / oldest in the world, and often it was true.

Part of the corridor can be seen behind the lion. It is open on both sides but is covered for the full 1 km and has thousands of pictures painted on the timbers. This type of corridor, or walkway if you prefer, proved to be very useful at times during the tour as they provided a welcome shelter from the piercing sun and, just once, the driving rain.

The corridor went part of the way along one side of the artificial lake, which gives you some idea of just how big the Summer Palace is. Wikipedia says that the lake alone is 2.2 square kilometers.

We did not have that many opportunities for shopping in China but we were let loose in the Silk Street market so that we could experience the counterfeit products and the sales technique employed.

The market consists of some 1,700 booths spread over seven floors and zoned by product. Shopping is not my idea of fun, though markets are, so I had a look around without seriously expecting to buy anything and was amazed by the size of the market and the range of goods available.

The sales technique was bit of a shock at first and took a little getting used to. Instead of "sales technique", perhaps "attempted kidnap" is a more accurate description. The sales staff, almost all of them young women, literally grab you by the arm as you try to walk past and attempt to convince you that they had the best price for the Gucci boxers that you undoubtedly need.

Once the shock wore off it almost became fun though I was never tempted to actually go into one of the booths, fearing for my wallet and sanity.

The limited lure of shopping faded fast and I spent the second half of the allotted shopping time having a beer outside. A wise choice.

23 August 2009

The Great Wall of China

Seeing The Great Wall of China is clearly a highlight of any tour of China and I approached it with much anticipation but little knowledge. I knew that it was old and long but that was about it.

What I was not expecting was steep!

The part of the wall that we were taken to is about an hour's coach journey North of Beijing. Here the Wall falls down from one peak down to the river in the middle of the valley and then climbs up the other side.

The first view of the wall is this almost sheer climb up to the first tower. We were advised that it would take about 45 minutes to get to the top and so we knew we had a long slog in front of us.

The good news was that we had deliberately got there fairly early in the morning, i.e. before the hordes arrived to swamp the narrow steps. As with most places we visited, The Great Wall is a popular destination for Chinese tourists and so it got very very busy.

The early start also meant that we started the climb before the hottest part of the day but it was hot enough and so sun hats and water were necessary.

The Wall is in fairly short sections with small towers at regular intervals. Some of the sections were almost flat but most of the ones that we walked along varied between steep and very steep.

This picture looking down at the people climbing up below us gives you some idea of just how steep some parts are.

You can also see the river in the background and one of the dramatic things about the Wall is how quickly you gain height.

This means that you have good views all along the Wall and pausing to photograph them is a good excuse to take a brief rest from the relentless climbing.

This picture also gives you a good idea of how narrow the wall is with just about enough space for three abreast for most of the way. This makes it difficult to pass slow climbers, and there are a lot of these as the Wall attracts visitors of all ages all of whom seem determined to make it to the top however long it takes.

The view from the top of this section of the Wall shows how it is built along the ridge of the range of hills.

You can also see how high you get in 45 minutes of hard climbing as the river, where the climb started, looks a long way away in the distance.

The towers along the way provide interesting look-out posts though they were not designed for tourists and you usually have to queue for some time to get access to the one ladder-like stair that takes you up to and down from the top level.

Walking down also proved to be unexpectedly difficult as we met the bulk of the tourists on their way up. By then the wall was packed worse than Oxford Street on a Saturday with the added disadvantage that some of the people were resting on the steps.

Men in uniform arrived to try and organise the crowd but the Chinese seem to pay little attention to instructions from authority and so this had limited success. Luckily we were in no rush to get back to the coach so we happy to go with the (limited) flow as we made our way back down.

After the relative disappointment of Shanghai, The Great Wall was a fantastic experience and was one of the undoubted high points of the three weeks in China.

22 August 2009

The Italian Job (2003) is fun

It is bit of a cheek to call the 2003 film The Italian Job as it really has little to do with the 1969 original, but if we put that aside and judge the film solely on its merits then it stands up on its own right as a high-action heist story.

The minis are there from the original film but they play a lesser role this time and, instead, we get a well thought out and enacted plot to rob a security van and so recover gold bars that .... who cares about the plot, focus on the action!

The best bit is at the end, as it should be in an action film, when the robbery takes place and the current owner of the bullion tries to get it back.

The Pink Floyd music at the end, the predictable, appropriate and masterful "Money", adds a nice touch too.

I think that the best way to judge a film is by its rewatchability (good word that) and I'm writing this as I watch The Italian Job for the third or fourth time so far this year. Great stuff!

18 August 2009


The three weeks holiday in China started with Shanghai which was billed by the travel company as a look at the new China and lots of Shanghai are clearly very new.

The most obvious constructions were the roads of which there seemed to be lots hovering at ridiculous heights above the ground.

But all the new roads were largely insufficient to cope with the greedy traffic which fought voraciously for space. The journey from the airport to the hotel was meant to take an hour but took more than two.

This picture, taken on that extended coach journey, shows several lanes of traffic at different height from the distant ground all travelling slowly.

What is not so clear is that traffic rules simply do not apply in China. Very quickly I got used to seeing cars going the wrong way down roads and being overtaken while they do so.

We escaped from the city for a morning to watch the eclipse and having got to the observation place (a field) well before the action started I went for a walk to explore the local village.

The contrast to down-town Shanghai was remarkable. Little cottages sat half-submerged in the many waterways which were home to domesticated fowl.

The village was obviously unused to foreigners like us and on my little walk I was stared at by everybody, and I mean everybody. Perhaps it was the t-shirt that I was wearing.

The eclipse was the reason we spent a morning in a field and it proved to be bit of a disappointment.

The good news is that the weather was actually better than forecast in that it did not rain (very much) but the cloud cover was pretty persistent so most of the eclipse passed unnoticed.

There were a few brief moments when the clouds parted to allow a glimpse of history, such as here a few minutes before the eclipse became total.

The total eclipse proved to be remarkably impressive, despite the cloud cover. It suddenly got very dark, stayed dark for a few minutes then got light again as quickly as it had got dark.

I observed the last partial eclipse in London ten years ago and then it had only got slightly dark and so I was not prepared for how dark it got this time or for how quickly it did so.

We were whisked off a part of Shanghai that had been rebuilt in the traditional style which gave us the first look of the China that we expected to see.

Here we saw the pointed roof corners, timber buildings and walk-ways, red lanterns, lots of water.

Over the three weeks we heard lots about Feng Shui, which literally means wind water, and it soon became obvious how important water is to the Chinese culture.

And fish too. Most of the water features had koi carp in them in numbers that almost beggared belief. There must be something in the water that they like.

Most of the time we were herded from attraction to attraction but a brief rest period gave me the opportunity to explore the area next to the hotel where I found this lovely market full of unrecognisable fruit and vegetables.

Equally interesting were the goods for sale from the people crowding the entrances to the market. On display here were a bag of live frogs and a box of live cicada. Lovely!

There is something rather special about markets and I vividly remember visiting them in places like Kiev, Sofia, Riga (possibly the best market in the world), Bratislava and, er, Sheffield. The colour and the activity make markets vibrant and stimulating places and I never tire of them.

The last stop in Shanghai was the museum, which appeared to be called unimaginatively the museum of history.

This is rather like the V&A in London in that it covers the history of culture and arts rather than people and politics. The collections are laid out over four floors each covering a different subject, such as jade or coins.

The porcelain floor was my favourite as it had lots of interesting figurines, vases and plates. The were a few plates that had patterns similar to the famous Willow Pattern which helped to explain where Minton got his inspiration from.

My favourite figurine was this one because anybody standing on a baby has to be some seriously bad guy.

So that was Shanghai. A bit of a mixed bag and, to be honest, an uncertain start to the holiday. The little exploring I was able to do was the most enjoyable part of the three days but we seemed to spend most of our time in the coach looking at Shanghai rather than experiencing it at first hand.

Next stop Beijing.

16 August 2009

L’elisir d’amore at Glyndebourne

My third, of four, visits to Glyndebourne this year was to see L’elisir d’amore by Gaetano Donizetti.

L’elisir d’amore (love potion) is essentially a RomCom and, as the picture shows, the two protagonists do get together and we have a happy ending.

Donizetti wrote home operas than just about any one else so while this is good enough it is a little slight. But Glyndebourne recognise this and know what to do.

First you make sure that the playing and the singing are spot-on so that the most is made of the (relatively) limited music. Secondly, you have a rich production that adds drama to the music.

For example, one scene that got a lot of positive response from the audience (I loved it too) was when the young women of the village come stumbling on to the stage looking as though they have had a ladettes' night out with clothes askew and dresses inappropriately tucked into knickers (that will get the spambots going!).

Key to this richness is the doctor's assistant, here pulling the cart. This is a non-singing role that is played wonderfully with exaggerated expressions like a mime artist.

The vibrant on-stage action is in marked, and welcome, contrast to the set which is a simple village square and is used throughout with no moving parts and little movement of props. This is classic Glyndebourne for me and I love the way that the set sits quietly in the background allowing the singing and acting to carry the drama.

There are times when the music does burst through and some of the arias in act 2, when the hero starts to give up on his love just as she starts to weaken for him, are very beautiful and brought unsolicited applause from the rapt audience. Note: I am still very much old-school in this respect and refuse to clap before the end.

Add the traditional picnic and a walk through the gardens to the mix and you have the recipe for a very enjoyable afternoon and evening out which even the presence of Michael Portillo could not upset.

14 August 2009

The Now Show, 13 August 2009

My initial thought was not to bother to try and get tickets for the latest series of The Now Show but I weakened and applied for, and got, tickets to the last show of the current series of eight shows.

The logistics were a little easier than usual as the rest of the family were all on holiday so there was no waiting for the last boy to get home from school followed by the rush to get to Broadcasting House.

If you've read the previous postings on The Now Show then you know that the plot is Pizza Express, get in the queue early enough to get into the first waiting room then jockey for position to ensure a front row seat. It all worked again.

Hugh Dennis was even more up for it than usual and we had an extended set of warm-up renditions including the crap gymnastic dismount, old man running, rings, ski jump and (pictured) the legendary raptor, which is also on YouTube.

Andy Zaltzman was the guest comedian and as a semi-regular guest he fitted into the programme well.

That apart it was The Now Show doing what The Now Show does, that is being funny about topical subjects in a very middle-class way with plenty of references to not-so-recent films and TV shows. This is exactly what you expect from, and hope for, in a Radio 4 comedy.

I would like to claim that one of my jokes made the broadcast version but as most of the audience submitted "I do" as the thing they regretted saying it is hard to be certain that it was my copy that got read out, but I think that it was. In the theatre they read another one of mine out too but in the editing they seemed to think that the cast's jokes were better than mine. Odd that.

12 August 2009

Challenging a KM convention

One of the approaches used in Knowledge Management (but not by me) is to position Knowledge in a hierarchy that goes:

  • Data => Information => Knowledge => Wisdom

Proponents of this model use a simple story to try and explain the difference between Knowledge and Wisdom. This goes, "Knowledge is knowing that tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad".

This perceived wisdom is challenged in China where I found tomatoes in almost every fruit salad that I had!