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Category: Technology

BIKERS AND CENTAURS

Milan, 26 May 2018

A week or so ago, my wife and I were at our place at the seaside near Genova; my next to last post was about one of the walks we did in the hills while we were there. One morning, being sore of leg from our walks and uncertain as to what walk to do next, we decided to go down into the village centre instead to have ourselves our morning cappuccino. Being in no hurry, we dawdled along looking in shop windows and at anything else that caught our attention. One such thing was the door of the local police station, which was festooned with various notices about Important Local Things. As I idly scanned the notices, one caught my attention in particular. It stated, in Italian of course, something to the effect that the part of the main road lying between km X and km Y was particularly risky for centaurs, and that the public authorities were devoting their attention to how to minimize the risks.

Centaurs??

Puzzled, I turned to my wife to ask for elucidations, and she informed me that this was a term used in Italian to describe motorcyclists. What a wonderful idea! What, I wondered, had led an Italian at some point in recent history to make this connection? I mean, early motorcyclists didn’t really much look like centaurs, although with a bit of poetic fancy once could sort of see a human torso on top of a beast on wheels.

For once, the internet was not of great help. One thread suggested that it had to do with the huge amounts of horsepower in the engines, allowing the rider to roar off much as a horseman could gallop off. Another thread claimed it had to do with fanatical motorcyclists hardly ever getting off their bikes and thus being seemingly welded to them much as centaurs were human torsos welded to a horse’s body.

Of course, either or both of these explanations could be correct. I can think of another, which has to do with the Bad Boy reputation of both motorcyclists and centaurs. For most Ancient Greeks, who invented centaurs, these creatures were the epitome of barbarism. They were wild, lusty, overly indulgent drinkers and carousers, violent when intoxicated, and generally uncultured delinquents, living on the edges of the civilized world and needing to be kept under control. Greek myths were replete with stories of heroic warriors taking on centaurs and beating the shit out of them. Greek sculpture and painting naturally followed suit. Here, from a pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, we have a representation of the story of the centaurs fighting with the Lapiths (a popular story in which centaurs are invited to a wedding, get drunk, and one of them tries to rape the bride, with – as may be expected – mayhem ensuing). The calm fellow in the middle is the god Apollo.

Here, we see the right hand part of the pediment showing more clearly the naughty centaur carrying off a woman and a noble Greek warrior about to make him pay for it.

Here, to equal things up a bit, we have the same story from a frieze at the temple of Apollo in Bassae, with the centaur seemingly the one winning.

Here, we have a more humble piece of Ancient Greek art, a painting on a vase, showing the same story.

Here again, to equal things up, is a painting on another vase where the centaur seems to be besting his opponent.

Just in case readers are thinking that the fight between centaurs and the Lapiths is the only Greek story about the centaurs, I throw in here a picture of a vase painting showing Hercules fighting with a centaur (the centaur was a certain Nessus, who carried away Hercules’s wife Deianeira, and Hercules killed him).

In any event, whatever the medium, I think we can all agree that the centaurs are made to look fairly rough types. The centaurs’ bad reputation and the need to beat the shit out of them pursued the poor beasts into the Roman period and on into Europe’s medieval period and beyond. This sculpture from the early 1800s by Antonio Canova greets us every time my wife and I climb up the grand staircase at Vienna’s Kunst Historisches Museum. It shows Theseus about to brain a centaur – for some reason, Theseus was at the Lapith wedding feast.

This sculpture, on the other hand, depicts Hercules about to brain Nessus.

It was sculpted in 1599 by the Flemish Jean Boulogne, known to the world as Giambologna. It graces the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.

Painting also got into the act. Here, we have a painting by Sebastiano Ricci from 1705 showing the brawl at the Lapith wedding.

Perhaps some classics-loving Italian saw similarities between these badly behaved centaurs and the badly behaving modern bikers – at least as they were often represented in popular culture. Think of the 1953 film “The Wild One”, in which Marlon Brando is the leader of a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small town.

Or consider the 1966 film “The Wild Angels”, in which Peter Fonda is the nihilistic leader of a chapter of the Hell’s Angels causing mayhem in some small town.

Or more extremely, we have the 1973 film “Psychomania”, where a gang of bikers kill themselves, only to become alive again as zombies and go around wreaking havoc on the living.

Personally, and without a shred of evidence to back me up, I prefer to think that the Italian who gave bikers the new title of centaurs made quite another connection between the two: the fact that both are gentle, peaceful souls. On the centaur side, there was a view, an admittedly minority view, in Classical times that centaurs – at least some of them – were wise and noble creatures. The centaur Chiron was particularly famous in this regard. It was said that he was so wise that had taught great heroes like Achilles, Ajax, and Jason. This fresco from Hercolaneum, destroyed like Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, shows him teaching Achilles how to play the lyre.

This strand of thinking which saw centaurs as wise and gentle beasts was taken up with enthusiasm by C.S. Lewis in his children’s books about Narnia, and it was in my reading of these books as a child that I first got to know of centaurs. I still remember with fondness the wise and noble centaurs which peppered the Narnia books. Here, for instance, is Roonwit, who graces the pages of “The Last Battle”, talking strategy with Prince Tirian and the unicorn Jewel.

Given my age, I think it no shame to admit that I have never read any of the Harry Potter books (although I did accompany my daughter to a few of the films when she was young). I understand, though, that J.K. Rowling also included wise and gentle centaurs in her books (confirmed through WhatsApp by my daughter). This is the centaur Firenze with Harry in (I think) the Forbidden Forest.


As for bikers, there are those who argue forcefully for a gentle, peaceful, soulful side to motorcycling. Many is the motorcycling writer who has written lyrically about the joy of being out on the open road, with the wind in your hair and your thoughts your only company. My most recent read in this vein was Oliver Sack’s autobiography, “On The Move: A Life”, where he writes about the long motorcycle rides he took in the American West in his early days in California. Appropriately enough, the cover photo is the author on his beloved bike.

There is even a semi-serious book of philosophy, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” which, according to Wikipedia, “is a fictionalized autobiography of a 17-day journey the narrator made on a motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California along with his son. … The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions on topics including epistemology, ethical emotivism and the philosophy of science”.

(I must confess that although I have started the book a couple of times I have never finished it).

Films, too, have played their part in depicting the lyrical side of motorbiking. We have the 1969 film “Easy Rider”, in which Peter Fonda stars once again, but this time accompanied by Dennis Hopper. The two set out from Los Angeles to New Orleans on Harley Davidsons to discover America (and get killed by rednecks in the process).


Or there is the 2004 film “The Motorcycle Diaries”, about the bike journey which Che Guevara and a friend made in the 1950s across Latin America, and which opened his eyes to the poverty, hardship, and political oppression experienced by many on that continent.

As I said, I have not a shred of evidence that gentleness, nobility, peacefulness, wisdom, etc. etc. were the common threads that some Italian of yesteryear saw between bikers and mythical centaurs. But it pleases my contrarian spirit for it to be so, and so it shall be.

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Early biker: https://rocket-garage.blogspot.com/2011/08/pionieri-del-xx-secolo.html
Centaur fighting Lapith – Bassae: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Bassai_sculptures,_marble_block_from_the_frieze_of_the_Temple_of_Apollo_Epikourios_at_Bassae_(Greece),_Lapiths_fight_Centaurs,_about_420-400_BC,_British_Museum_(14073581678).jpg
Centaur fighting Lapith – Olympia: http://dtcox.com/report-on-ancient-corinth-ancient-olympia-ancient-sparta-byzantine-mystra-monemvasia-greece-oct-30-2015/centaur-lapith-woman-west-pediment-temple-of-zeus-battle-be/
Centaur fighting Lapith – Olympia-2: https://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/arth200/politics/images_authority_2_greek.html
Centaur fighting Lapith-vase-1: https://www.myartprints.co.uk/a/red-figurevasedepictingth.html
Centaur fighting Lapith-vase-2: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/O12.10.html
Hercules fighting Centaur: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/423268064950273744/
Canova-Theseus fighting the centaur: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Canova_-_Theseus_defeats_the_centaur_-_close.jpg
Giambologna-Hercules fighting Nessus: https://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com/2015/09/Giambologna-Sculpture.html
Sebastiano Ricci-Lapiths and Centaurs: By The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=158347
“The Wild One”: https://www.jpcycles.com/product/712-685/the-wild-one-fight-poster
“The Wild Angels”: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/112308584430632278/
“Psychomania”: http://theggtmc.blogspot.it/2011/09/psychomania-1972.html
Chiron and Achilles: By upload by muesse – http://www.focus.de, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8328492
Roonwit: http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/File:Tirian,_Jewel_and_Roonwit.jpg
Firenze: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/File:Firenze_harry_ps.jpg
Oliver Sacks, “On the Move; A Life”: https://medium.com/@PunkChameleon/book-review-on-the-move-a-life-by-oliver-sacks-93bb828fb85b
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780061907999/zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance
“Easy Rider”: http://flavorwire.com/472622/boomer-audit-despite-the-self-indulgence-and-the-cliches-easy-rider-retains-its-pulse
“The Motorcycle Diaries”: http://www.moviepostershop.com/the-motorcycle-diaries-movie-poster-2004

SCOOTING

Vienna, 4 June 2017

Many – many – years ago, when I was but a lad of six or seven, I was the proud owner of a scooter, one of those good old-fashioned scooters which you kick along with your foot. It looked very much like this, although my memory tells me it was blue rather than red.

Honesty impels me to clarify that it was not bought for me. Like many things in our large family where I was towards the tail end, it was a hand-me-down from one of my elder siblings. But I cared not! On this machine I was king of the pavements, sailing along at what seemed to be vertiginous speeds after a series of brisk kicks.

In my memory, the scooter’s use is entangled with a “girl next door”, a girl a few years older than me with whom I would whirl around the local pavements. Her name is gone, her face is a blur, but I think it’s true to say that I had a crush on her. I also had a crash with her, on my scooter. The details are now fuzzy, but I think we were playing a game of follow-me, wherein I was following her every twist and turn. All was going swimmingly well until she suddenly put on the brakes. I ran into her, somehow flipped over the handlebars and landed on my nose. Argh, the pain! the blood! The upshot, as I learned a few days later, when my mother finally took me to see a doctor, was that I had broken my nose.

As readers can imagine, this incident left me with somewhat conflicted feelings about scooters. I suppose I must have continued to use mine for a while, although it disappears from my memory at this point, along with the girl-next-door. Bicycles take over.

In fact, over the years that followed it seems to me that scooters generally lost their popularity with children. I don’t remember seeing many around when I was in my teen and early adult years, my children never emitted the desire to have a scooter, and none of their friends had one. And it certainly was never an adult thing.

So it was with some surprise that I registered, when we came back last September from our seven years in the East, an efflorescence of scooters on the pavements of Vienna. And being kicked along not only by children but also by adults: young adults like this one, who one could argue may not yet have completely grown up

but also by older adults like myself, who in an earlier period I would have said should stop making a fool of themselves in this way.

Now that we have come back up to Vienna for the summer and the weather is getting good, I am struck by the same phenomenon: scooters whizzing by carrying adults.

Clearly, something is up! Surfing the web, I get the impression that the trend towards adults getting on scooters has to do with beating traffic jams to get to work and doing some healthy exercise while you’re at it (although the growing use of electric scooters rather undermines this last part).

Before I’m accused of sexism, I quickly throw in a picture of a businesswoman with a scooter, although this picture is obviously posed.

It helps a lot that scooters are easily foldable

so that there are no parking problems and one can walk into one’s office (or cubicle, if that’s the company’s culture) casually carrying the scooter under one’s arm.

As usual, once something catches on the designers move in and start offering cool designs. From this, which seems to be the fairly standard design although in quite cool colours

we have this, an electric version

or this big-wheel design

(which rather reminds me of penny-farthing bicycles of yore).

Big wheels makes me think of fat wheels

while here we have a Y-shaped design, which is moved by a scissor-motion of the legs.

This is an interesting one, a luggage scooter.

In airports, you can drop down the platform and back wheel attached to the suitcase and whizz along to your gate. This last one is unutterably cool although I’m not quite sure how you are meant to ride it.

There are many more designs out there but I’ll leave it at that.

I think my wife and I need to get into this new trend, so that we too can zip by normal pedestrians, our hair fluttering in the wind. I casually asked her a few days ago if she had had a scooter as a child, to which she said no. This is going to make it tricky to persuade her to try since I feel that a residual nostalgia (and acquired expertise) from childhood would make it easier to accept looking a trifle silly on scooters at our venerable age. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.

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Old scooter: http://www.20th.ch/les_jouets_de_notre_enfance.htm
Young man on electric scooter: http://www.funshop.at/produkte/inmotion-3/inmotion-l6/
Older man on electric scooter: http://www.stadt-wien.at/lifestyle/elektro-scooter-test.html
Businessmen on scooters: https://www.linkedin.com/in/keggleton/zh-cn
Businesswoman with scooter: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/439312138625936673/
Folded scooter: https://www.nycewheels.com/micro-scooter-review.html
Normal scooter with cool colours: https://mobile.willhaben.at/object/186524698/
Cool electric scooter: https://www.pinterest.com/baylissw/kick-scooter/
Cool scooter with big wheels: http://www.tretrollershop.at/fs_sport_classic.html
Penny-farthing: http://www.bikemonkey.ca/blog
Cool electric scooter with fat wheels: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/439312138625936673/
Y-shaped scooter: https://www.nycewheels.com/micro-scooter-review.html
Luggage scooter: http://www.toxel.com/tech/2012/02/25/scooter-luggage/
Unutterably cool scooter: http://design720.com/category/g5/page/2

PERAMBULATING PARQUETS

Bangkok, 26 October 2014

My wife has been busy getting to know Bangkok in her usual favorite way, taking the bus (with me joining her on the weekends). When she told the very nice Thai couple whom we have befriended in the building that she takes the bus to get around, they stared at her and finally managed to ask, “the aircon buses?” When she said no, no, the normal buses, they tittered nervously. When pressed, they confessed to have not taken a bus in twenty years. (This reminds me of a scene early in our marriage. It was downtown Baltimore, 1978 or 9. We wanted to get somewhere, I forget where, so we approached a nice young man sitting on a bench eating his lunch and asked him what bus we might take. He confessed that he had no idea, that he had never taken a city bus in his life. We stared at him: how could it be that someone had NEVER taken a bus? The difference between a European and an American, I suppose. But I digress.)

It is true to say that the (non-aircon) buses of Bangkok are not the most handsome of buses. In fact, they obviously have had a hard-scrabble life.
image
And their technology looks – and sounds – very old-fashioned. For instance, whenever the drivers change gears (using a huge gear shift as big as the seated drivers themselves), it sounds distinctly like they are double-declutching (a term which I would imagine is meaningless to anyone below the age of 60). The drivers are always in a tearing hurry, no doubt due to being perennially bottled up in Bangkok’s terrible traffic, so getting on and off buses is an athletic accomplishment. To get on, wave down the bus, rush for the door, swing in as the bus already starts to move off. To get off, ring for the stop, balance yourself on the balls of your feet, hustle down the steps the moment the doors start clattering noisily open, and drop down into the street as the bus already moves off. And while inside, hang on for dear life as the bus barrels its way down the city’s streets, riding roughshod over every pothole and other imperfection in the road’s mantle.

But as I grimly hang on in the bus, bouncing up and down on the (really quite comfortable) seats, I cannot help but wonder at the beautiful parquet floor which the buses have. Look at that! Who has ever seen parquet floors in buses?
image
Well, “parquet” may be pushing it a little, but this is really nice wood they’ve used. No trash soft wood here, being rubbed to pieces by passenger’s dirty shoes. This is close-grained hardwood. I would be proud to have a floor of that in our living room, sanded down and waxed into a rich red-brown color, instead of the fake plasticized “parquet” which our miserly landlord has laid down and which rings hollow every time we walk across it. I wince when I see how this beautiful wood has been mercilessly screwed down onto to the bus chassis, with big, gleaming, screws. Aie-aie-aie!

The only thing that worries me here is the wood’s provenance. This is not plantation wood, nor I’m sure is it certified wood from responsibly managed forests. I fear that this is just brutally logged wood from Myanmar or Laos or perhaps Indonesia (Thailand has already cut down much of its forests).
image
Perhaps it would be better for Bangkok to shift to modern, gleaming, air-conditioned, buses with plasticized floors
imageand leave this beautiful wood standing in its wilderness, soaring up towards the sky.
image

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Bangkok bus: http://www.langeasy.com/images2/bkk/bus2.jpg (in http://www.langeasy.com/cities/bangkok/bangkokpage1.html)
Bangkok bus floor: my photo
Illegal logging: http://www.globalpost.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/gp3_slideshow_large/illegal_logging_in_anlong_veng_ii.jpg ( in http://pixgood.com/illegal-loggers.html)
Modern city bus: http://i01.i.aliimg.com/photo/v2/280618923_1/SLK6111_Aluminum_Body_City_Bus.jpg (in http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1468014)
Mahogany tree soaring: http://treepicturesonline.com/tree-mahogany.jpg (in http://treepicturesonline.com/mahogany_tree_pictures.html)

TUGGING AT MY HEARTSTRINGS

Bangkok, 9 October 2014

Our living room is small, but it has a magic view on the Chao Phraya River. Two of the living room’s walls are all glass and allow us a wonderful view up and down the river.

image

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My wife and I maximize this view every morning by dragging our table out onto the narrow balcony which wraps around our living room and taking our breakfast – tea, cereal, and tropical fruit – all the while watching the parade of boats moving up and down the river.

Let’s be clear, the boats we see are not as handsome as these 1920s yachts.

image

I suppose the most striking boat we see are the long-tailed boats which skim across the river’s surface, their huge roaring motors in the stern peremptorily signaling their presence to one and all.

image

The water buses that ply the river aren’t so showy, but their raked bow gives them a certain allure.

image

My heart, though, goes out to the lowly ugly tugs which rumble slowly up and down the river dragging trains of barges behind them – slowly, so very slowly when the barges are full, slightly more jauntily when they are empty.

image

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I sit there, watching them tug and strain, and will them on: “Go, little tug, go! You can do it! Attaboy!”

They may work hard, but these tugs are no shrinking violets. No drab work clothes for them. No siree, their owners paint them strong, happy colors, to signal how proud they are of their work partners. I mean, look at them!

image

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As these tugboats pass, flaunting their color schemes, I can’t help but think dreamily of the tugboats of my youth, like Theodore the Tugboat

image

or Little Toot the Tugboat

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or even Scuffy the Tugboat

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Toot, toot!! Tug away, fellas! Job well done! I hope you get a rest and a good lube job in the evening. Toot, toot!!

__________________

Views of Chao Phraya river: my photos
1920s yachts: http://abrushwithsail.blogspot.com/2012/06/grand-yachts-of-1920s.html
long-tailed boat: http://swissnomads.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/long-tail-boat.jpg
water bus: my wife’s photo
tub boat and barges: my photo and http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/47654772
colourful tugboats: my wife’s photos
Theodore the Tugboat: http://www.mtcw.ca/theodoretugboat/Tours.php
Little Toot the Tugboat: http://blog.keloland.com/lund/blog/2010/12/20/aunt-leilas-records/
Scuffy the Tugboat: http://www.betterworldbooks.com/scuffy-the-tugboat-sail-away-id-0375826963.aspx

BACK OF BEYOND

Beijing, 15 October 2013

I’m just back from a business trip to Haixi prefecture, which is the remotest prefecture of that remote Chinese province, Qinghai. Squeezed between its better-known neighbours Xinjian, Gansu, Sichuan, and Tibet, Qinghai doesn’t get much press, which is a pity. To my mind, it’s one of China’s most beautiful provinces. Here’s a picture we took out on the grasslands when my wife and I, together with our son, went there a couple of years ago.

IMG00095-20110712-1113

As for Haixi prefecture, it hardly gets a mention at all in the world’s press. This is a great pity, because it’s a seriously beautiful part of the world; on the desertic side, but I like that kind of landscape.

landscapes 002

landscapes 007

My colleague and I were there to study what we could do to help the prefectural authorities build up a local brand in the organic production of wolfberries (we seem to be getting a reputation for agro-processing). I can perfectly understand it if my readers have never heard of wolfberries. Neither had I until I came to China and found them floating in various soups during banquets. But our ignorance is our loss. Wolfberries have had an honourable place in Chinese cuisine – and traditional medicine – for the last 2,000 years.

If one has seen them at all, it’s probably as dry berries

wolfberry-dry

although this is how we saw them during our trip, fresh

Wolfberry-fresh

on bushes in plantations

wolfberry-bush and fresh berry

OK, I probably shouldn’t say this, since one of the things the Haixi authorities would like us to help them with is to get fresh wolfberries into supermarkets, but I can’t say that I’m particularly impressed by the wolfberry. If I were standing in the fruit aisle of my local supermarket and had to choose between wolfberries and, say, blueberries, I would choose the latter every time. But hey, I’m not Chinese; they would probably make the opposite decision.

In any case, I will not dwell on the wolfberry, because my attention was captured by something else altogether. Haixi has a lot of sun – 300 days of sun a year, we were told. So quite sensibly, the government has bet on a solar power future for Qinghai. As we drove from wolfberry plantation to wolfberry plantation, and after passing several large photovoltaic arrays, we drew up here:

CSP 006

This, my friends, is a concentrated solar power plant (or at least one version of such). The hundreds of mirrors on the ground focus the sun’s rays on the luminous white spot at the top of the column. That spot is a boiler where the heat of the sun turns water into steam, which is then used to generate electricity. I tried to capture the beauty of that ethereally, whitely glowing spot of concentrated solar rays, but my iPhone camera simply wasn’t up to it. So I’ve added the  only other photo I’ve found on the web of this plant.

CHINA-QINGHAI-SOLAR THERMAL POWER PLANT (CN)

And I add photos of similar plants in other parts of the world. This one is near Seville in Spain

CSP spain

While this is one was in California’s Mojave desert (it was demolished a few years ago).

CSP US

Not clear if this approach will ever generate electricity cheaply enough. But who cares, like Concord, another technological has-been

concorde

it’s beautiful.

Soon after this brush with the ultra-modern, we came across a picture as ancient as China itself, a line of camels padding slowly into the setting sun. I didn’t get a photo, not with my iPhone, but I show a picture of camels taken elsewhere in Qinghai.

camels

I could have been in Tang China. I am moved to throw in a photo I took back in May in the Museum of the University of Philadelphia of Tang era sculptures of camels.

philly museum 004

Minutes after this close encounter with the age-old, we drew up at a freshwater lake for a dinner of locally caught crabs. To whet our appetite, we were taken on a short cruise across a magically still mirror of water

lake-fresh 002

as the sun dipped below the hills behind us.

lake-fresh 010

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Qinghai grasslands: my son’s picture
Wolfberry-dry: http://soni.monovee.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/wolfberry.jpg
Wolfberry-fresh: http://mingmingtea.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Wolfberry_extract.jpg
Wolfberry-bush and fresh berry: http://images04.olx.com/ui/2/98/54/13309454_2.jpg
CSP-1: my photo
CSP-2 : http://res.heraldm.com/content/image/2013/08/01/20130801000653_0.jpg
CSP Spain: http://www.finetubes.co.uk/uploads/images/gemasolar-2011-2_low_res.jpg
CSP California: http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/images/solar_two_barstow.jpg
Concord: http://s1.cdn.autoevolution.com/images/news/concorde-will-take-to-the-skies-again-21839_1.jpg
Camels: http://m1.i.pbase.com/g1/62/942562/2/146679881.nWrkycH7.jpg
Tang camels: my photo
Lake views: my photo

THE TRACTOR

Beijing, 14 September 2013

In the trip to Xinjiang which I mentioned in my previous post, we were also taken to see a tractor manufacturer. Row upon row of bright new tractors greeted us as we walked into the factory’s yard
tractors outside
but we ignored these, headed as we were for the shed where they assembled the tractors.

It was with some relief that we exchanged the heat and light of the yard for the cool darkness of the shed interior. There, we were introduced to the plant manager, and after a hearty shaking of hands all round he launched into his exposé of all the wonderful things his factory was doing. I let his voice wash over me as I took in a yellow tractor, newly assembled, standing proud and tall before me.

tractors inside

And suddenly I was 14 or 15 again, standing, on a beautiful summer’s day, by the side of a tractor. I was out on the plains of Manitoba, an hour or so’s drive from Winnipeg, on a farm owned by the parents of a friend of my sister’s.  The farmer was asking me if I wanted to try ploughing a field and I was saying yes. Why not? Everything is possible when you are 14 or 15.

So he gave me a quick lesson in tractor driving and ploughing, and sent me off to a distant field. And off I went, my hat cocked at a jaunty angle as I surveyed the surroundings, Lord of everything I beheld.  After 10 minutes, I arrived at the field – the North American plains are very big and tractors are very slow – and there I found myself faced with an unexpected choice: there were actually two fields, one to the left and one to the right, and no fences. Which one? I hesitated, trying to remember my instructions – no mobile phones in those days, no way to check back – and eventually plumped for the field to the right.

So I started ploughing, starting as instructed at the field’s edge and going round in ever-decreasing circles until the middle was reached. By the end of the first circle, I noticed a man standing on the edge of the field. By the end of the second circle, he had walked over and signaled me to stop. He asked me politely what I was doing. Well, I was ploughing the field, I replied lamely. Yes, he responded patiently, but on whose instructions. Well, I said, and here I named my farmer host. Ah, he said, but the fact was that I was ploughing HIS field. Not that he minded, he added quickly, the field was fallow (thank God! I screamed inside of me) and no doubt it would benefit from an extra plough, but still … He pleasantly instructed me to stay still while he phoned his neighbour.

I sat there, on the tractor, with my hat at not quite such a cocky angle now, with a sense of impending doom. And indeed my farmer host came scorching over like a bat out of hell. He covered in 10 seconds in his battered old car what had taken me 10 minutes with the tractor. He bounced out, glared at me, and excused himself profusely with his neighbour, but the offended party was very gracious about it all and the situation resolved itself pleasantly.

My farmer host next turned to me and in that very deliberate and slow tone one reserves for the village idiot told me that I was meant to be ploughing the LEFT field. And to make sure that the village idiot had understood he pointed very insistently at the field in question. Suitably chastened, with my hat drooping about my ears, I headed for said field, and started again.

So there I was, circling the field, spiraling slowly – EVER so slowly; the field was very big – towards its middle.  I have to tell you,  ploughing is pretty boring. After about the fourth circle the novelty of it all had worn off and I was wondering how to pass the time. I tried singing, but the noise of the engine drowned out even the lustiest of my songs. I tried driving with one hand, but that palled after 2 minutes. I tried driving with one leg up on the dashboard, but that was uncomfortable. In a moment of desperation, I even thought of trying to drive sitting backwards but luckily good sense prevailed. So I was reduced to just driving, driving, driving in ever decreasing circles as the sun slowly dropped to the horizon of the endless Manitoban plains.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Ploughing the plains may be boring but the plains themselves have a strange beauty. As a boy brought up in undulating landscapes, used to cresting land-waves and finding hills rising up before me, I initially found the plains disorienting. Whenever my parents took us out for drives I never knew which way to look. But after a while I began to appreciate the way the sky was so close to the land, seeming to press down on it and you, and how you could really enjoy cloud formations in the vast, uncluttered sky of the plains. I could never get over those fields of wheat stretching off as far as the eye could see, registering on their waving surface every meander of the passing breeze …
the plains-7
I was nudged, the plant manager had finished his peroration. I came out of my reverie with a smile playing on my lips, which no doubt delighted the man, reinforcing his conviction that what he did was incredibly interesting. With another round of hearty handshakes, we emerged blinking into the strong sunlight and headed for the car and the next factory.

______________________________

tractors inside and outside: GUO Li
tractor and the sunset: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4045/4482416778_f1fc6db355_z.jpg
wheat fields: https://farm5[dot]staticflickr.com/4127/4975335245_a2e33916c3_z.jpg

SILENT AND DEADLY

Beijing, 30 August 2013

I’ve mourned in a past posting the passing of the bicycle culture which so dominated China until a few decades ago. In that same posting I wrote about a sub-family of bicycles which seems to be surviving the onslaught of the automobile. In this posting, I want to write about another sub-family of bicycles which is surviving; indeed, seems to be thriving: the electric bicycle.

When we first arrived in Beijing, my wife and I were intrigued to see these machines cruising up and down the roads in large numbers. Here are a couple of examples of what greeted us:

electric bicycle-1

(this one being ridden by a lady avoiding the sun, about which I’ve also written in another posting)

electric bicycle-2

I have to say, they immediately reminded me of another motorized bicycle which had played an important role in my teens: the French VéloSolex. For those of my readers who are less than 40, I probably have to quickly explain what this is. Originally (i.e., just after World War II), it was a bike (vélo in French) on whose front wheel had been placed a motor (made by the company Solex).

solex-old-1

This motor powered a small ceramic roller which in turn turned the front wheel through simple friction. And when you wanted to use it as a bike, there was a lever which allowed you to pull the motor and roller off the front wheel. Very simple. Pretty cool. And cheap.

By the time I came along, the VéloSolex had become a bulky bicycle. Or maybe a thin motorbike.

solex-new-1

My parents had bought two of them, for my elder brother and sister. They stayed at my grandmother’s house, ready for use during the summer holidays. As my siblings grew up and moved on, the VéloSolexes passed on to the next sibling. I reckon that by the time I inherited my VéloSolex it was third-or fourth-hand, as it were. No matter, I loved that bike. It was my set of wheels which gave me my freedom, which allowed me to escape from the house when things were really too boring, which they often were in my teenage years.

For me, the VéloSolex was France,

Velosolex_postcard

along with De Gaulle

De Gaullle

the Deux Chevaux

deux chevaux

The baguette

baguette

And Gauloises unfiltered cigarettes, which – I will confess – I smoked for a certain period of my life.

Gauloises Caporal

Who knows where my VéloSolex is now? In some knacker’s yard no doubt.

To come back to our electric bicycles in Beijing, they have one big difference with the VéloSolex: they are silent. Silent and deadly. One of the things which newcomers to Beijing learn quickly – or die – is to look VERY carefully, in ALL directions, when they are crossing a road, even if the little man is green. Right-turn at red lights is allowed, so cars turning right do so, regardless of whether you, the pedestrian, are crossing. Cars which have the green light and are turning left are anxious to do so before the cars coming in the other direction reach the middle of the intersection, so they whizz across it scattering to the winds any pedestrians that might be in the way. All two-wheelers, motorized or not, ignore lights and keep going, weaving around any pedestrians who may be in the way; to make their case worse, they drive on both sides of the road. In this last category of menace, electric bikes are the worst. They move fast, and they are completely silent. At night, they are even deadlier. None of their riders ever bother to put on their lights – so as not to run down the battery, no doubt – and the street lights are not particularly bright. So fast, silent, and invisible. They make me think of torpedoes.

But electric is the future! Even the VeloSolex, whose production ceased in 1988, has now been resurrected in an electric form

Velosolex-electric

And product designers have got into the act, designing excessively cool electric bicycles. And once they are there, you know the product is IN!

cool electric bicycle-5

cool electric bicycle-4

cool electric bicycle-1

So I guess my wife and I had better buy electric bicycles. Not only will we be riding the wave of coolness, but we’ll be running people down rather than being run down. When you can’t beat them, join them.

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Electric bicycle-1: http://thecityfix.com/files/2009/06/cycling.jpg
Electric bicycle-2: http://www.chinasignpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/electricbike_China-Digital-Times.jpg
VeloSolex-old: http://homepage.hispeed.ch/Spridget/solex/prototyp1.gif
VeloSolex-new: http://img175.imageshack.us/img175/8817/solex1.jpg
VeloSolex poster: http://cybermotorcycle.com/gallery/velosolex/images/Velosolex_postcard.jpg
De Gaulle: http://05.wir.skyrock.net/wir/v1/profilcrop/?c=isi&im=%2F5508%2F87355508%2Fpics%2F3147952278_1_2_Nvepv9eQ.jpg&w=758&h=1024
Deux chevaux: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6f/Deux_chevaux_mg_1748.jpg/640px-Deux_chevaux_mg_1748.jpg
Citroen DS: http://www.blogcdn.com/www.autoblog.com/media/2009/02/citroen-ds.jpg
Baguettes: http://www.tranquilla.it/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/baguette-640×442.jpg
Gauloises : http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_siskXeTIdkY/S-6ACEDO1MI/AAAAAAAAADs/-Ny-fMbye2A/s1600/Gauloises+Caporal+-+ann%C3%A9es+40.jpg
Velosolex-electric: http://www.veloecologique.com/produits/128.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-1: http://evworld.com/press/smart_e-bike_profilecityscape.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-2: http://www.evrdr.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/leopard-electric-bike.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-3: http://www.designbuzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/vw-folding-electric-bike_xfBve_58.jpg

HOLLYHOCKS BY THE WASTEWATER TREATMENT PLANT

30 May 2013

I’m in Zhenjiang at the moment. Readers will be forgiven if they have no idea where that is. Neither did I till I had to come here and decided to look it up on a map. It’s on the Yangtze River, between Nanjing and Shanghai. As far as I can make out, its main claim to historical fame is that it lies at the point of juncture of the Yangtze and the Grand Canal as the latter wends its way northwards to Beijing from Hangzhou.

But I am not here to visit the city’s historic sites, of which – as in most places in China – there are very few left and what there is left is being turned into a made-over tourist spot. I am here to discuss with the management of the largest industrial zones how we could assist them to make their factories greener. As part of the discussions, we were taken to visit a couple of factories which had already taken some steps to reduce their environmental impacts. One of them was a huge – ginormous – paper factory. We were first taken to see the paper-making line, which was absolutely gigantic – the biggest in the world, we were proudly informed. Just to give the reader an idea, the rolls of paper which come off the end of the line for further processing each weigh 130 tonnes.

After trying to take in this mind-boggling piece of equipment, we were whisked off to the wastewater treatment plant, part of which has a reverse osmosis line – as part of their greening efforts, the factory recycles much of its wastewater after thoroughly cleaning it and then polishing it with reverse osmosis. We were invited to taste the water coming out of the line, which I did, gingerly, half expecting to keel over. But I survived, and no doubt exhilarated by this close brush with death, I found these hollyhocks, which greeted us at the exit of the building, quite magnificent (you will notice part of the wastewater treatment plant behind them).

Zhjenjiang

As I exclaimed over them and took photos, a French consultant who was with us asked me what they were called in English. I told him and then asked for their name in French. Rose trémière, he replied. Rose trémière … We stood there admiring the flowers and wondering idly where the name came from. Later that evening, I looked it up. It’s a corruption of the name Rose d’Outremer, the rose from overseas. It seems that it was imported into Europe from the Middle East some time in the 1500s, perhaps after the last Crusades. But at least part of its DNA comes from China, where there are paintings of the flower from the 9th Century. As for the English name, it’s from Middle English holihoc:  holi holy + hoc mallow.

You learn something new every day.

PS:

The day after I posted this, and back in Beijing, I came across this lone hollyhock on my way to work. It was sheltering under a tree next to my piece of canal. Fate.

hollyhocks-beijing

CAR COLOURS

Beijing, 2 March 2013

When we arrived back in Italy from the US in 1990, I was … underemployed, shall we say. So when I was offered a job to do quality control on a small landfill I agreed with alacrity. It was the first time I had ever worked on a landfill, and I hope it will be the last. Apart from the nauseous smells drifting up from all the rotting garbage, I was perpetually afraid I would leave my wife a widow and my children orphans. Methane was pouring out of that landfill and it would have taken only a small spark to send us all hurtling into the afterlife.

As you can imagine, this place attracted a strange bunch of people, from the drivers of the shovel scoops who worked all day on the open landfill cells to the guys the quality of whose work I was there to control; they were closing the filled cells, capping them, and inserting a methane collection system. We would all go down to the local restaurant at lunch – great food, by the way – and the shovel scoop drivers in particular always accompanied their lunch with copious quantities of the local wine. I made sure to give those people a wide berth when they working in the afternoon.

I got to be quite friendly with the leader of the team closing cells. He had worked on many different landfills and would regale me with tales of these jobs as we stood around waiting to check the work the others were doing. One day, he told me about this completely illiterate, uncouth man who owned and ran a modest landfill, and who made pots of money with it. The man lived in a house next to the landfill. One day, he invited my friend into the house and with a mysterious air took him to a room in the back of the house. The room had a curtain running across it, which, after turning on some strategically located spotlights, he dramatically drew. “That guy,” said my friend, leaning in “had a brand new, unused Ferrari Testarossa behind that curtain.” “Wow!”, I said. “And it was yellow!” he continued

Yellow-Ferrari-3

I was dumbstruck, and my friend nodded meaningfully. Yellow! Good Lord Almighty! Everyone knows that Testarossas must be red! Any other colour is … such bad taste.

red ferrari-1

Anyone who has watched Formula 1 races knows that red, and only red, is the Ferrari colour

ferrari formula 1 cars

(well, nearly only red). And it is red because before the war, when nations rather than car companies competed in Grand Prix races red was Italy’s colour (and green was Britain’s, while France was blue).

I was reminded of this terrible faux pas in taste a few days ago when, walking to work, I saw a baby-pink BMW parked on the side of the road.

pink-bmw

Baby pink! Everyone knows that BMWs should come in some shade of grey – because it’s just the right colour for this kind of highly tecchy car but also because grey became Germany’s racing colour in the 1930s.

grey bmw

I have to tell you that bad taste in car colour has touched even my family. When I was really little and we were living in Africa, my father had a typically English car, the Austin Hereford Saloon.

austin-3

So far, so good. But our car was … egg blue. I distinctly remember the colour. I liked it, but I was young. Now that I am a few years older and far wiser, I always ask myself: how on earth could my father, a sober, upright member of the community – just like the man sitting behind the wheel in the picture above – how could he have possibly chosen such a terrible colour? I never asked him and it is now too late, alas.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not absolutely rigid about staying with the “normal” colours of a car. Take the Citroën Traction Avant, the French car that popularized the use of front-wheel drive. This car was manufactured from the mid thirties to the late fifties, so there were still lots of them around in France when I was growing up, and they were all, without exception, black.

citroen traction avant-2

I’m rather reminded of Henry Ford’s memorable quote: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

But now look at this example, which I came across – rather bizarrely – parked on the side of the road in Luang Prabang in Laos.

laos 225

That rich burgundy colour is really gorgeous. Every time we walked by it, I would stop to admire it. And one time, as we were walking towards it, the owner got in and drove off! I watched it lovingly as it moved sleekly down the road … although I really began to appreciate modern novelties like catalytic converters when the fumes from its exhaust nearly knocked us out.

_________________________

Yellow Ferrari: http://wallpaper.goodfon.com/image/287512-1680×1050.jpg
Red Ferrari: http://www.looksfeelsworks.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/ferrari-testarossa-1.jpg
Ferrari Formula 1 cars: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f0/Ferrari_Formula_1_lineup_at_the_N%C3%BCrburgring.jpg/1024px-Ferrari_Formula_1_lineup_at_the_N%C3%BCrburgring.jpg
Pink BMW: my photo
Grey BMW: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-rCuWvf1YiRs/Tx0vyO1Wy9I/AAAAAAAAAhg/wMJcA4t4zEU/s1600/bmw-car-front-view.jpg
Austin: http://nevsepic.com.ua/uploads/posts/2011-03/1299860301_4008697193_2eb0005cce_b_nevsepic.com.ua.jpg
Black Citroen traction avant: http://talk.newagtalk.com
Burgundy Citroen traction avant: my photo

I, TOO, WAS AT DAVOS

Beijing, 31 January 2013

OK, my meeting in Davos was a little more humble than the one that just finished. We didn’t talk of global trends or the next big crisis, nor were television newscasters knocking at our doors begging for an interview. No, we were talking about e-waste and what to do with the growing mountains of broken computers and discarded mobile phones that we generate.

It was still summer, or so I thought. After all, the meeting was taking place in the first week of September. But the morning after I arrived it snowed. I could NOT believe it! My wife and I had made plans that after the meeting she would join me and we would visit the area. But we weren’t about to go visiting in the snow. That was the end of that little holiday.

Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because I realized that the meeting was actually a waste of time, whatever it was, I was not in a receptive mood.  I found Davos to be a pretty nothing place. There was no part of the town that I found worth looking at, no building worth admiring, no vista to stop in front of … nothing. Just a series of anonymous-looking modern buildings along anonymous-looking streets.

Well, to be fair, there was one thing that has stayed with me and that was the train ride up to Davos. At Zurich airport, I took a train to the small town of Landquart, which stands astride the point where river Landquart meets river Rhine, still a modest river at this point on its journey to the sea. There, I changed to a narrow gauge train, which took me up to Davos. This line is part of the Rhaetian railway network (lovely name, that; it comes from the original inhabitants of the high mountain valleys of these parts, the Rhaetians). The train runs up the valley of the river Landquart to Klosters, where it turns off and begins to climb up to Davos, 10 km away and 400 metres higher. It is a truly lovely ride, reminiscent to me of the ride in the Micheline about which I wrote a post recently. Maybe it’s because the train doesn’t go too fast, or maybe it’s the narrower gauge or the single line, or maybe it’s because the trees are allowed to grow up close to the train, or maybe it’s the way the train twists and turns through the very peaceful fields and woods … but somehow in this train you feel so close to nature.

Camera : NIKON D700 . . . Focal Len : 70.0 mm . . . Shutter : 1/640sec . . . Aperture : f/9.0 . . . ISO : 200 . . . Original : Digital 12MP NEF

davos train-2-Küblis-Saas

Camera : NIKON D700 . . . Focal Len : 42.0 mm . . . Shutter : 1/640sec . . . Aperture : f/9.0 . . . ISO : 200 . . . Original : Digital 12MP NEF

Camera : NIKON D700 . . . Focal Len : 40.0 mm . . . Shutter : 1/500sec . . . Aperture : f/8.0 . . . ISO : 200 . . . Original : Digital 12MP NEF

When I took it, I was alone in my compartment, so I pulled down the window (in itself a small miracle in modern trains), stuck my head out of the window, and just let the hayfields and pine trees whoosh past me, all the way to Davos.

davos train-9

Pity Davos and the meeting were such a let-down.

_____________________________

Davos train-1: http://www.railography.co.uk/photos/schweiz/910/files/10-D-1857.jpg
Davos train-2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/aa/RhB_K%C3%BCblis-Saas.jpg/640px-RhB_K%C3%BCblis-Saas.jpg
Davos train-3: http://www.railography.co.uk/photos/schweiz/910/files/10-D-1840.htm
Davos train-4: http://www.railography.co.uk/photos/schweiz/910/files/10-D-1833.jpg
Davos train-5: http://www.streetviewfun.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/googletrainview-550×309.jpg