Haggle cards

It is clear that I have thoroughly demolished any semblance of circadian normalcy here in China. It’s tough enough that I am +14 hours from my normal biorhythms, but the last two days I was here I actually had no appointments, so could work on whatever schedule I wanted. And so it is that I now sleep twice per 24 hour cycle. There is no day, no night, just a hotel room with the shades drawn and a very perplexed room service staff. I wonder if, in the absence of external cues and busy schedules, two shorter sleep periods is the body’s default. Should be fun resetting at home tomorrow.

OK, I did make it out into the sun once. (It burned, but I made it back to the crypt quickly enough.) I was on a mission to the Ya Show Market, a vast indoor agglutination of wares that is best described as a dozen flea markets shoved into a tenth of the space that human decency and fire codes should permit. It is, in short, several of my own personal hells layered right on top of one another.

I was in search of purses. If it is leather, you can put things in it, and it has a brand logo on it, I was instructed to buy it. Designer knock-offs. (C’mon, it isn’t like I was buying a deep fryer or a LASIK machine. You get what you pay for. These things self-destruct almost on cue about six months post-purchase. It is like there’s a dissolving suture that binds the whole thing together and one day, poof, it all falls to hell like the car at the end of the Blues Brothers.)

I’ve done this before. Many times. I’m no rookie. But I still hate it. And going in there alone (as a male caucausian) is reckless bordering on moronic. But I do love my wife and she do love her girlfriends, so there I was. Here’s what happens. You walk in and you’re immediately assaulted, casino-like, with the sights and sounds of money changing hands. Merchants slink out of stalls and solicit your interest whether you look like you want to buy a crib, parachute, or watch that hasn’t told time since Zhou Enlai was premier or not. More formal than, say, an Egyptian bazaar; less easy to go undetected than, say, suicide watch in a prison. But then again, I had made it through the Night Market without puking so anything was possible.


This time I came prepared. I got all my wife’s and her friend’s purse choices, including what variations of color and shape they would permit. I printed them all out at the hotel and cut them into little playing cards which included the name of the who wanted what. I also created a single sheet with all of the same. Then, I found a merchant and handed him the cards. He quickly parsed through what he had and handed what he didn’t to me, whereon I handed that smaller stack to the next merchant and so on until all my cards were gone. The merchants all scurried off to back rooms where they keep the bulk of the stuff. I waited, consulting my master sheet, pen in hand, as other Westerners gazed on at my obvious mastery of the system.

Well, mastery to a point, the point of purchase. I certainly got what I came for. But my haggling position was somewhat compromised by the obvious fact that all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there and, more so, by the very elaborateness of the system itself. The key to haggling is seeming not to care and who the hell prints playing cards for purses if they don’t care whether they get a few or not?

But I tried. And I got the price down to about $40/per. My boss, for instance, who has left dumbstruck merchants in her wake on at least four continents, could probably have walked away with the purses for $10 each. But see above, getting the hell out. I emerged into the daylight with two trash bags full of purses. I wanted to run, as I felt like a smuggler. Unclean. Haggle-weary.

Now to sell my playing cards on eBay.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead station.”

Back in China. I had been feeling like the frequency of my travel here had diminished some of the (wander)luster of the place. Until last night, that is. We were having dinner with the History Channel team (who are making a documentary which includes my project here), but my pal Victor re-routed my driver to meet him at a Starbucks at a mall somewhere in the megapolis known as Beijing. Ninety minutes of the most infuriating, nauseating traffic later, I was there. I was so jetlagged, tired, irritated, and sick of the car that I only wanted alcohol or a bed.

I was too out of it to notice that I was standing directly underneath a 22,000 square foot television screen.

The thing is simply too massive to believe. You wonder instantly at what resolution it displays and then how in the hell content is created for it. The answers sort of inform each other: ginormous and artificially. That is, it is simply too large (and odd) a format for video, except some sort of composite montage which it never showed. Everything is animated CGI. Victor says the variety of content is amazing, though I all saw was this underwater scene, the best screensaver I’ve ever zoned out to.

It is also a pickpocket’s wet dream. Think of it, a destination that entrances shoppers and keeps them looking straight up. I was there on a cold night, so the crowds were thin. But that didn’t stop Johnny Quickfingers, no. He brushed aside me, muttered apology, then vectored off empty-handed into the wide open space like so much Brownian motion. Our gazes locked and I flashed him a you-fucking-amateur look. If you’re going to burgle my person at least do it with panache … or complete stealth. Jeez.

As a sidenote, a little more than three years ago this blog started on a similar trip with the History Channel to make a documentary of the Eternal Egypt project.

China 10

China has lots of lucky numbers. Eight, for instance. The tallest hotel in Shanghai has 88 floors. Boeing named the new stretch 747 the 787, in China only. And the Olympics begin at 8:08 PM on 8/8/2008.

Ten, however, is a not a lucky number. It is not necessarily unlucky, but it is not what the Chinese would call auspiscious.


I leave today for my tenth trip to China. You’d think I were rebuilding the Forbidden City or something.

In the future we will all levitate to work

I had a chance to ride the world’s only operational magnetic levitation train this week in Shanghai. It was the highlight of an otherwise awful layover. The train itself runs from Pudong airport to the terminus of one of the city subway lines (not exactly downtown Shanghai). There’s some debate about how useful this is to actual travelers, but as a way of killing time it was perfect for me. I purchased a roundtrip ticket.


Actually I purchased a VIP ticket. (They love the designation VIP here. You see it everywhere on special doors, stairways, and parking spaces.) I thought, if I’m going to ride a space-age train I am certainly going to do it in first class. In a future of jet packs, flying cars, and supertrains we’ll all be VIP’s anyway so I better get practicing. The cost difference was $2. The actual difference? Slightly nicer seats and a completely empty car cabin.


There’s a brief shudder as the train shimmies up the half-inch that the magnets levitate it above the track. Then off you go, mostly silently. Since the means of propulsion and power are embedded in the track (the magnets pull you along as well as prop you up) there’s no loud onboard engine. You accelerate quickly. Not unlike an airplane takeoff without the din. Just a few minutes in you’re moving at 430 km/h (270 mph) and you can feel it. The slightest jostle (and it has to be slighter than the half-inch tolerance of the magnetic “cushion”) and the train responds. You could not, for instance, play Jenga successfully on board. Still it is damn smooth for going 270 mph.


But you do wonder what would happen in the event of catastrophe. On an airplane there’s room for error, approximately 30,000 feet of room for error; you can recover. On a train moving at this speed if you depart the track you’re basically done. What happens if someone dumps a large chunk of metal on the track? Or a mini-cyclone blows the train over? Or a power spike into the track torus? (There actually was a fire onboard recently.) All thoughts that have nicely counteracted my recent preoccupation with air disasters.

On the return leg I was in the front car (again alone, the sole VIP of a future society). I staggered to the conductor’s cabin as we hit max speed. Peering in I saw exactly what I expected — computer screens and a panel of buttons — and something I did not — the conductor lounging at the desk reading the newspaper. She’s likely there for show only. Or a robot. In the future, trains are conducted by robots, as you probably know.

As you pass a maglev going the other direction there’s a super-brief concussive moment where too much air is being displaced from too little space. It makes you jump. Unfortunately the eight minute journey is almost half acceleration/deceleration. When you arrive at the destination station and disembark you’re greeted by a strong burning smell. I can only guess it is a byproduct of the magnetism since nothing should be ablated during the journey. Nothing touches anything. This is the future, damnit.


The maglev, officially known as the Shanghai Transrapid, is usually called a demonstration line. It doesn’t go anywhere very useful right now, though there are many ideas for expansion, especially in advance of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. The whole experience, while fascinating and exciting, was a bit depressing. With the small ridership (all in non-VIP class) it all felt like a bit of a show. Sort of like the futuristic people mover underneath the Huangpu River. Fun to take, but how practical? A Disney monorail without the Disney crowds (or high ticket price to offset the cost of running such a novelty).

The future’s always a novelty to the present though, isn’t it?

The full image set is available.

Today’s forecast in Beijing


Not smog, not haze. Smoke.

Last night on the flight in from Shanghai the flight attendant announced that it was pleasant and sunny in Beijing. It was 10:30 PM.

Spot the wall

While the debate rages about whether The Great Wall of China can or cannot be seen from orbit, I can confirm that it can at least be seen from an airplane on a clear day. What a treat on my approach to Beijing.


Moving images

A co-worker lent me his slick hard-disk camcorder for the most recent visit to China. I’ve posted a few scenes from the B-grade horror movie known as the Night Market.

See also Night Market Parts Two and Three, a funky physics-defying aquarium/fishbowl hybrid, and this nifty digital book interaction.

A stroll through the Night Market in Beijing

America’s Chinatowns have plenty of crittermeat, but they just don’t offer the diversity of skewered (and fried!) insects that you can find in China proper, you know?


I’d advise you to put down that snack you’re munching at your desk and view the full set of yummies!

Flashmobbing in the virtual Far East

If all the feel-good talk of virtual community and social networking has you wanting to gag, you’ll be pleased to know that mob justice is alive and well in the metaverse too.

The supremely popular Chinese online role-playing game called “The Fantasy of the Journey West” was recently the scene of a massive virtual protest over the depiction of what looked like a Japanese imperial flag inside a traditional Chinese government office. But that makes it sound halfway rational. You have to see the screen grabs of thousands of huddled avatars spewing nationalist rage to fully appreciate the lunacy.

EastSouthWestNorth has the blow-by-blow, while Salon attempts to sort out the mess.

Sheesh, some people sure get upset about flags, you know? Must be an election year in China. No, wait …

Isn’t that spatial?


Nothing left to accomplish now that I’m the subject of a podcast, I guess.

VerySpatial – Episode 51 [16.2 MB, MP3 format]

VerySpatial is the work of three really interesting folks at West Virginia University who focus on geospatial technologies. Sue (pictured right), Jesse, and Frank interviewed me last week after they came across the press hoopla for The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time project.

Beware: none of my prolixity or verbal stutters have been edited out. Massive rambling dead ahead!