Thursday, July 29, 2010

Overloaded tricycles

I often see hugely overloaded bikes and tricycles around Beijing. Often they seem to be piled high with enormous mounds of cardboard or plastic or some other, literally, garbage. However, sometimes you see a delivery like this double-bed:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

VPN in Ubuntu

So, some people in China have a VPN and this can be tricky to set up. It took a while to work out all the tweaks to get Ubuntu VPNing. I recently had to re-do this because I accidentally messed it up. Here's the tips (NB this was an SSL VPN, not PPTP as PPTP can have trouble running over routers and/or PPPoE, I believe... in any case it doesn't work for me!:Go to the networking icon in top-right and click edit connections and use VPN tab of Network Manager.
  • Don't select "make available to all users" even if you want it to be available to all users
  • Don't enter a password in Network Manager, you will be prompted for one when trying to connect the first time and can save it in the gnome keyring which works better, but managing the gnome keyring can be a nightmare and its sometime better just to create a new VPN with the same settings!#
  • May need to change the default port for SSL connection to 80 (I did: perhaps the GFW is blocking the default port?)
  • sudo /etc/init.d/network-manager restart can sometimes fix things
  • A hard reboot can sometimes fix things! Yes, I know you "shouldn't" need to.
Ubuntu really should work on making network manager easier to do VPN and force a restart of it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Beijing air quality

Just in case you don't know, there's a twitter feed from the US Embassy's pollution monitoring station that lets you know particulate and Ozone levels. Or you can just look out the window and see how far you can see!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Latest youtube favourites for my girls

Thanks to a Firefox plugin that lets us "cache" the videos, the girls like quite often to look at pre-approved videos on our computer. No Lady Gaga for them even if they like the music!

Anyway, they're current favourites are some of the eurovision numbers form this year and previous ones and also some awesome Billy Joel stuff: Uptown Girl and Tell Her About It.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Be You world

So, my daughters love a kind-of theme park that we went to a couple of weeks ago and my wife is planning to take them again. It's called BeYou world and basically kids can go and be supervised by helpers (while parents read a book and drink coffee) for 20-45 minutes at a time in various "jobs" like Firefighter, Nurse, Surgeon, Police, Photographer, Model, Airline steward, Pilot, Baker, Juice-maker, Soldier, etc.

Each session runs for 4 and a half hours (sessions start at 10am and 3.30pm). Each job gives them "money" that they can use to buy small gifts at the end fo the day. Its cheaper during the week but a session is quite expensive (160 per child, 20 per adult off-peak, 200/80 peak). They have a website and during the week the morning session is for pre-bookings only. Website and the park is Chinese language only, though!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Enabling ADSL in China

Well, this is something that took some trial and error to discover, so I hope that this article can save some pain for others, but my google searches that helped me to an answer also seemed to indicate that the settings can vary.

So, it looks like the China broadband (Beijing Telecom?) people give you an ADSL modem (China Unicom GWH-11 ZXV10 H108B in my case). However, this doesn't do the PPPoE that you need and so they tried to set this up on my computer, but were bamboozled by the exotic choice of Ubuntu or Windows Vista. It's XP or nothing when it comes to support (and they mainly use IE6!)

So, eventually I worked out how to get it set up on Ubuntu, which wasn't too hard but I wanted to have a zero-config , especially if I was to use the wifi connection for other devices such as ipod touch and my T-Mobile Pulse which probably wouldnt allow pppoe to be set up without some serious hacking.

So it turns out the keys are that is PPPoE and not PPPoA as it would be in the UK, and the VCI/VPI settings, so here's the magic from my saved off config of my Belkin router:

vpi="0" vci="35" tdId="1" aalType="AAL5" adminStatus="up" encap="llc" qos="disable"

Router model is F5D7633-4.

Monday, March 22, 2010

China and Google

There's a overload of opinion on this on the web, from both perspectives. I'm not sure how much I can add to this, even as the war of words threatens to escalate into a pull-out. But here's my opinion:

  1. I'll be annoyed with google if they pull out of China as it will make it harder for me to access my email, etc. Youtube and blogger are already blocked but there's and VPNs to work around that, but its a pain to have to jump through those hoops sometimes.
  2. Google lose access to a market of 1 billion people. Doesn't seem wise.
  3. UK has ridiculous libel laws, Germany censors Nazi stuff (understandably), US has restrictive anti-copy legislation that brings down websites... China has issues, but the internet restriction is hardly the biggest.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Using Beijing public transport

Friday is that joyous day of the week when my car is not allowed to drive and so I take the subway to work, as well as back (I come back on the subway every day because its quicker, one of many advantages to having a driver is that I can choose to do that).

Usually I walk to the subway when I come in to work, because crossing Chaoyang Gongyuan Nanlu is quite a task and there's no underpass nearby. However, leaving the subway I come up on the correct side of the road and so usually take the 3 stops on a bus back to beside my apartment complex. However, using the busses are worse than the subway. Trying to get off a Beijing bus is the problem (although sometimes its hard to get on them too): its like being born. By that I mean, you're pushing through a very tight narrow passageway lined with human flesh and there can be much grunting and pain before you can safely emerge!

OK, weird analogy over with, this is what you need to know if you want to do this yourself. Firstly, if its going to be regularly get a Yikatong (One Card Pass, also called IC card or some long name like Bejing Municipal Transportation card) which is equivalent to the London Oyster card: a contactless card system that is a bus and subway pass (with 60% off on busses!) and can also be used in some taxis, some parks, resterants and other places around Beijing.

Once you have one of these (you can supposedly buy at booths for 20RMB deposit in subway stations but I was given mine by a colleague), you put your back through the scanner on entry to the station and you swipe the Yikatong on the turnstiles as you enter and descend to the platform. I use lines 10 and 13 on my commute. Line 10 is like a sardine tin and 13 has usually got seat space free, but I only take 1 stop so I rarely bother sitting. When you get to your destination make sure you move close to the doors ahead of time as it can be hard to push through in the few seconds the doors are open. Swipe again your card to exit (or insert into machine if you have a single ticket) 2RMB (20p) charged for all single journeys unless going to the airport which is more.

Busses vary: some have separate entry and exits, some don't, some are double-deck, some bendy and numbers <500 you have to only swipe on getting on, >500 then swipe getting off, too. Apparently. Google Maps has the bus network in it and can be handy, but its hard knowing where the stops are. You can also use the bjbus website.

Configuring China Mobile GPRS

So, I got my phone unlocked and got myself a local Sim Ka (there's one word easy to remember in Chinese: card = ka!) and now want to use the internet...

Well, I personally signed up for DongGanDiDai (called M-Zone for foreigners) which is a pay-as-you-go with full GPRS availablity. Sim cards cost about 50RMB (more for numbers with less 4s and more 8s) and come with no credit preloaded. You also need to buy a Chong zhi (Chong jurr) card to add credit to the account. I think M-Zone is quite good, there is also easy-own but calls are more expensive and it only has WAP not GPRS. If you want 3G that works with a foreign phone you need to sign with CHina Unicom instead of China Mobile and I don't have experience there.

When you have the SimKa, call 13800138000 and press 2 in the menu for English prompts to active the account. You then also need to call 10086 and again choose English from the menu and select the options to talk to an operator and get them to activate GPRS.

If possible, download the Opera Mini web browser, making sure you get the China version as the foreign version is blocked. This makes browsing much faster as it compresses the data before sending to your phone (very important on GPRS!). Supports most phone OSes.

The APN you need to set up in your phone config is: APN cmnet, Username cmnet, Password blank, MCC 460, MNC 02, APN type default. That's what worked for me. More details on that kind of thing and can be found at this site.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

They're possibly people of above-average stature

We've now got a VPN working, to establish easy access to things as if we were in the UK. One thing the girls like is watching what they call "funny videos" on Youtube. This means things like "Agadoo" with Black Lace dancing with a lady dressed in a pineapple costume. Or "Baggy Trousers" where Madness's flying saxophonist always gets them laughing. The also like more recent stuff like Katy Perry's Hot and Cold and Lady Gaga's Bad Romance... and anything by Alvin and the Chipmunks. The latest "discovery" is They Might Be Giants, although I gather that anyone who watches Conan will have seen them a lot. The girls particularly like Never go to Work and One dozen Monkeys.

Another Snow day

Snow in March is unusual enough in many places, but Beijing hardly has any precipitation. Was it another govermental cloud-seeding exercise? Usually the snow here is very very fine powder but the snowflakes looked a bit more substantial this morning. And made me later in for work.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Blogger is great but...

I wish if you already have a Feedburner account and already have Google Analytics on other blogger blogs that you could just press one button to set them up on a new one. Oh well.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

eBook pricing

One problem with buying eBooks, rather than printed copies (or pBooks as I've seen them called!) is the pricing. OK, for most books, the actual cost of printing is pretty low compared to the royalties, marketing, margin, etc. However, this completely fails to take into account the second hand market for pBooks. In some countries there may not be mush of one, but in the UK it is thriving. Chairty shops and dedicated second hand bookshops, not to mention alibris, abebooks, ebay and amazon marketplace are full of cheap books to read. In South Queensferry, my hometown, there is during the summer a second hand bookshop that lets people buy books for an entirely voluntary donation so if you're feeling really cheap you could get 20 books for 1p.

And unlike digital music, this source of cheaper old novels is entirely legal. How can full-price ebooks compete? Well, they have some advantages: immediate delivery and compactness. However, I can't but help but feel ripped off paying £15 for such a tiny file if I buy a new eBook.

Well, of course, like all digital media there is the illegal copying possibility, but perhaps the pricing will get more sane if someone produces a cheap automatic book scanner that can take a 50p second-hand paperback from the local charity shop and OCR it all in in under an hour. That takes away nearly all the advantages of an eBook AND leaves me a hard copy too if I want it.

Meanwhile, I'll stick with Tolstoy, Twain, Dumas, Chesterton, Dickens, Shakespeare, Doctorow and the other free stuff.

Advice on what Chinese are like

Don't believe any of it.

In the same way that you shouldn't believe anything about what British people are like, except 20 times as much since thats how many more people are in China.

OK, so maybe more people in China hawk and spit, and some people here may never trust a foreigner and so on, but so far the Chinese people I have met have defied many of the bits of advice I have had about what Chinese people are like. And they have also met other pieces of advice about what Chinese people are like.

Maybe its worth knowing the advice so that when it happens you understand what is going on. But don't expect it to all be true, even half the time!

Monday, March 1, 2010


One of the things I have been doing in enjoying reading eBooks on my Pulse using Android App Aldiko. This is a pretty good eBook reader than can read any ebook on your phone microSD card or download new ones from the network via Wifi or GPRS/3G. One problem with Aldiko is that it keeps the phone awake so you need to quit it before you leave the phone is in standby or its byebye battery.

Using the phone is great becuase its small enough to fit in my jacket pocket, I'm carrying it anyway so can read at any spare moment and I can easily hold it in one hand, like a paperback. Take note, iPad designers. In fact, my wife, Marian, has an iPod touch and it does a similar job with the Stanza app. Also, there was a limit on the number of books we could import to China in our personal goods shipment, and of course a weight limit imposed by what my company would pay for, so eBooks bypass both of these restrictions.

Anyway, I've been reading some of the classic (i.e. free!) literature from Project Gutenberg because its high quality I'm cheap. Actually, there's also some modern stuff on there too, although this seems to consist mainly of scifi and romance novels. But maybe they know their market....

Here's a brief rundown of what I've read so far:


The Master of Ballantrae
Perhaps its shameful that as a Scot I've not actually read any RLS in book form before (although I did watch Muppet Treasure Island!). This is quite an interesting book and enjoyable in form although its more about mental anguish than pirates, despite the setting and plot.

This Kurt Vonnegut short story is an interesting speculation on a future where someone has to die to allow a baby to be born and voluntary euthansia has its own advertised hotline.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Not seen the movie of this, and this short story is another intriguing "thought experiment". Actually, you can see where Audrey Niffinger got her inspiration from in F. Scott Fitzgerald's work for "The Time Traveller's Wife". By the way, what is it with Rachel McAdams and ultra-weepies?

The $30000 bequest
This Mark Twain short story is again a thought experiment on what averice can do to people even when the money involved is entirely fictional and also in some ways could become a satire on the modern "virtual life" of social networking

The Napoleon of Notting Hill
GK Chesterton's story begins with an entertaining comment on predicitions of the future then proceeds to suppose one itself where democracy has been replaced by a depot-by-lottery. The new king then plays a joke on Britain by dividing London into fiefdoms and in doing so re-establishes nationalism which had supposedly been eliminated. There's an interesting exploration of the virtues and terrors of nationalism which the absurdity of the story highlights.

Life on the Mississippi
Not finished this yet, but its a fascinating autobiographical insight into Mark Twain's life. Perhaps American kids would have devoured's Twain's entire ouvre at school, but its mainly unknown to me apart from breif snippets of the Huck Finn stories on TV and the movie of the Yankee in King Arthur's court.


Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
OK, so off the classics into modern stuff. Cory Doctorow presents a story of self-destructiveness and what is effectively mad code-writing that will be familiar to any one who ever programmed. But its set in the future where money has been replaced by respect or "whuffie" and the whole future-tech-predicition thign just has a bit too much prominenence for my liking. And the plt end up pretty depressing, really. Perhaps it ends up as a tale of subtle high-school-like bullying more than anything else.

Eastern Standard Tribe

Cory Doctorow presents a story of someone's own self-destructiveness getting them into an insane asylum this time. However a somewhat happier ending brought about by the cleverness of the protagonist means that I enjoyed it more than Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Also, the technological futrue thing is far less prominent and more time is spent on characters, which is good. In short, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest meets Ocean's Eleven. Or something like that.

I, Robot
Cory Doctorow again with a short story on how Asimov's 3 rules would never hold up in a market-driven economy filled with crime. Interesting, but one of those short stories where you wish there was a bit more time to cover the story.

How to Disappear completely
Another story of self-destructiveness, but not by Cory this time. I got a bit down after reading this one, perhaps too many stories of self-destruction in a row. But not too bad, really.

Stories for Parents, Children and Grandchildren
A "toilet book" collection of very short stories, old wives' tales, ancient wisdom and bon mots. Not too bad if you like that kind of thing.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Scotland is famous for its poor diet and high incidence of heart disease. Personally, I just enjoy the coincidental irony of the Chinese name for Scotland. And it acts as a mnemonic, too. But then I love puns, so what can you say?

Welcome to China

Wo shi su ge lan ren, pronounced "Woah Shur Sugarland Ren" means.. I am Scottish Person in Chinese. And so I am. Our family moved to Beijing for 1 year in January 2010 while I train up a team on engineers in Solution Testing. And maybe I'll actually blog a bit more personal stuff here than I did in my UK blog. Woo.