Author: davidkarlin

China blog 4 – Guilin and the Li River

China blog 4 – Guilin and the Li River

The river Li, in Guangxi province, meanders gently through a bountiful land: a land filled with rice, water chestnuts, kumquats, oranges, long beans, taro and dozens of other crops. When you see a field being hoed before planting, the soil itself seems to invite you to grasp its richness. The backdrop to this fertility is of the most dramatic kind: tens of thousands of sheer limestone peaks, all but the most vertical overhangs covered in lush green forest.

The Li valley isn’t the only karst formation in the world, and it’s by no means the only beautiful river valley in China. But its combination of lush fertility and the extraordinary backdrop is perhaps unique: certainly unique enough to be printed billions of times on the country’s 20 yuan banknote and to attract throngs of tourists – nearly 30 million a year, 90% of them from the rest of China. Maybe it’s something spiritual that attracts them: if you’ve spent time in Asia, you’ll understand that when you see the lush green of a paddy field, the stems groaning with rice waiting to be harvested, there’s a deep, visceral feeling that all’s well with the world.

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Karst peaks and rice and water-chestnut fields near Yangshuo

In point of fact, not everything is well with the world. All that lush produce is coming from smallholdings and the need to keep food prices low for a burgeoning urban population means, as it has often done through history, that farmers barely earn enough to feed themselves: most farming families require other sources of income. There are government subsidies, but in spite of the huffing and puffing from both Donald Trump and Barack Obama before him, they sound painfully low to me: our guide told us that a mu of land near Guilin, Guangxi’s capital, will attract just 100 yuan (in English: the subsidy for an acre is £67), although subsidies in the famous rice terraces of Longqi attract up to 100 times that, since they are expensive to farm and rightly considered a priceless tourist attraction. And while Guilin and Yangshuo (the town at the other end of the most popular Li River cruise route) look bustling and prosperous, you still catch snatches of underdevelopment and poverty: Yangshuo’s main food market was packed with wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables, but hygiene standards were indifferent. In another Yangshuo market, just before opening time, I saw a number of women crouched among the refuse sacks, reclaiming the contents of half-eaten lunch boxes: one hopes it was for animal feed, but I felt alarmingly uncertain.

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Tea shop in Guilin
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Making chili-garlic paste

The truth is, though, that these are isolated instances in what looks like an improving picture. The main food streets are incredibly busy, which attests to tourist money flowing into the local economy: there are lots of specialities made with local produce, amongst which the large scale hand-chopping of chilies, garlic and ginger into the fiery pickled paste beloved by Guangxi foodies is a delightful sight.  Local young people say that their parents and especially grandparents are continually enjoining them to appreciate what they have, compared to the incredible levels of hardship those grandparents had to survive. And it’s become possible to leave government service to be an entrepreneur: we bought tea from a former English teacher who had become fed up with the ten hour working days and low pay and had joined his family in setting up what appeared to be a successful tea business (before he retrained as a tea master, he confessed, none of them had any prior experience). At Guilin’s “Elephant Trunk Hill”, the stall renting traditional dress for children to pose in photos was doing a steady trade. Elephant Trunk Hill, by the way, gets lit up at night in spectacular fashion, with constantly changing colours.

The name Guilin (桂林), by the way, means “Osmanthus forest” – the second kanji character is delightfully pictorial. No, I hadn’t heard of the Osmanthus tree either before I came here, but it’s a dark leaved thing which provides masses of tiny yellow flowers which are incredibly aromatic and make a delicious tea.

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Dressing up at Elephant Trunk Hill

One of the signs of increasing prosperity is a kind of slow motion building boom. Most rural families aspire to a bigger and better home. They have enough land to build one on their plot, but they’re short of ready cash to buy building materials: whenever they get a bit of spare cash, they plough it into the next step of building their new home. As a result, you see large numbers of part-finished houses, anywhere from concrete shells with no walls yet through to places that are obviously being lived in but still need work. Another impressive sight is watching a rice paddy being blitzed by a kind of miniature combine harvester: it’s only a tiny thing, not much over a couple of metres in length, but it powers through a small rice field leaving a pile of stalks behind, arriving at the end of its trip to disgorge its pickings into the awaiting farmers’ rice sacks. It bears no comparison with the giant tractor-driven behemoths that you’d see in an English wheat field (let alone its American equivalent), but it’s small, neat and effective.

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Building boom, Guangxi-style

But setting aside such musings about China’s economy and prospects, the main impression that Guangxi on one is the extraordinary beauty of its scenery. As someone with pretensions to being a serious photographer, I normally spend my life looking around a landscape looking for a good angle. Here in the Li River valley, the lovely slow-flowing river and those amazing karst pinnacles mean that you can stand somewhere and pivot full circle with a good angle for a stunningly framed shot in almost any direction you look. If this place isn’t on your bucket list yet, it should be.

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The “20 yuan note” view of the Li River near Xingping
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Elephant Trunk Hill in Guilin
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“Lion watching the nine horses” on the Li River
China blog 3 – Xian and the Terracotta Army

China blog 3 – Xian and the Terracotta Army

If China’s first bucket list destination is the Great Wall, the second is most surely the Terracotta Army: the 8,000 soldiers of the army of Qin (pronounced “chin”) Shihuang, the first emperor to unite China, each exquisitely sculpted to match the features and accoutrements of an individual soldier, their ranks accompanied by chariots and horses. The site is a much more recent addition to bucket lists than the Great Wall: although the existence of the tomb was written in historical records, the first discovery in modern times was made in 1974 when a farmer came across pottery fragments while digging a well.

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Pit 1 – the largest of the three areas excavated

There are delicate ironies at work here. When Mao undertook the wholesale destruction of ancient Chinese culture, his prototype was none other than Qin Shihuang, whose drive to expunge Confucianism and impose an even more rigid “Legalist” system included the wholesale execution of the intellectuals of his time (Mao boasted that he was repeating Qin’s work but on a massively greater scale). One can only imagine the thoughts of Zhao Kangmin, the official in charge of the local cultural centre, at gradually realising the importance of the find at a time when the Cultural Revolution was still in progress, albeit in its last throes.

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Faces of the infantry

The fate of the whole enterprise is an irony in itself: Qin thought he was creating an immortal monument to the creator of an eternal dynasty, but only a few years after his death, his heir Fusu was dead and the Terracotta Army had been smashed to pieces by peasant rebels. So far, if I heard this right, only one kneeling archer has been recovered unbroken: the remaining figures on show so far have been reassembled from fragments; the zone of partially assembled figures is known locally as “the hospital”, including the “intensive care” unit for the most difficult cases. A high percentage of the army remains asleep underground, awaiting the day when archaeologists get round to awaking them and making them whole once more. It’s like the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle, with added clues provided by proximity but with no certainty that there aren’t pieces missing. These days, computer imaging and matching is used to help the solution, but that hasn’t stopped the pace of restoration from slowing in recent years due to resource constraints (as well as, presumably, a certain amount of fatigue).

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Pit 1: the vanguard seen from the rear

The whole site reinforces the two main themes about China to emerge from our trip so far: scale and craftsmanship. The scale is vast from your very first moment when you enter the aircraft-hangar-like structure that covers “Pit 1”, the largest of the three pits excavated so far, and see the massed ranks of soldiers (and of visitors, anything up to 60,000 a day of them). But that pales into insignificance when you open Wikipedia and read that the whole necropolis has been estimated at 98 square kilometres – a not-much-scaled-down model of the imperial compound. This includes Qin’s tomb itself, which has not yet been excavated, ostensibly because of fears over the difficulty of the task and contamination from the two rivers of mercury which flowed through it, although I wonder whether superstition plays a part here somewhere.

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Kneeling archer

However much you’ve heard in advance, the artistry and craft of the sculptures take your breath away. The facial features are so vividly rendered that at any moment, you expect one of the soldiers to step out and start a conversation with you: apparently, this actually happened a few years back when a young German, suitably clothed and face-painted, stood motionless in the army, unnoticed for several hours until a visitor was spooked out by seeing a pair of eyebrows move (the impostor refused to go quietly and had to be forcibly removed by security guards). Armour, clothing and body shapes show gradations in status: particularly notable are the ribbons, upturned shoes, expensive fish-scale armour and generous pot belly of the senior officer (the Chinese call it “corruption belly”). But perhaps the most telling detail of all is the perfectly reproduced pattern of stones set into the sole of the kneeling archer’s foot to provide grip – “Qin Dynasty Adidas”, as our guide put it. The detail of the archer’s hands is also extraordinary.

 

In the absence of the Terracotta Army, most Western visitors probably wouldn’t bother to visit Xian, although it has some other interesting features. The inner city is one of only a few in China whose ancient city walls survive (like Pingyao, only an order of magnitude bigger), and it has fine examples of the ubiquitous pairing of drum tower and bell tower (the former would be used to tell the time in the morning, the latter in the evening). As the head of the Silk Road, Xian was the jumping off point for many of the travellers who visited India and brought back Buddhism, so there are a couple of significant pagodas: we visited the Small Goose Pagoda, thirteen stories high and unbroken in a millennium and a half of earthquakes.

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Making biang biang noodles
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Jewellery vendors in the Muslim Quarter

There’s also a thriving Muslim quarter, which throngs with food stalls and which provided the first three stops on a food tour provided by some people called “Lost Plate”. This turned out to be brilliant: we were spirited around various food venues in the city by tuk-tuk (an electric motor-cycle with a carriage on the back just about capable of holding four people, and able to navigate the tightest of back streets). They chose exactly the kind of places you would never find on your own: a specialist in “biang biang” noodles, whose name comes from the noise made as the noodle-maker bashes the dough while hand-stretching it, an elderly retired man who produced skewers of sumptuous barbecued meat, an amazing place serving “soup dumplings” (think of a large raviolo whose filling has released liquid so that you bite the parcel open and suck the soup out before eating the rest of the dumpling).

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Chinese Muslim Barbecue

Part of the reason that you wouldn’t find these places on your own, it was explained to us, is that Xian is becoming a victim of its own success: with the large number of visitors and a growing economy, rents on the main food streets are skyrocketing, forcing smaller traders into the side-streets or, as in the case of our noodle makers and the barbecue man, back into their own homes. Certainly, Xian shows more signs of being settled down than Beijing does: there isn’t the same manic pace of construction everywhere, the air pollution felt far less severe (to the surprise of our guide, who expected everything in the capital to be better) and the roads far more in harmony with the number of cars: they’re astonishingly wide, many of them with four lanes in either direction. When I suggested that bits of the city must have been flattened to make way for them, I was roundly disabused: apparently this kind of road width has been a feature since ancient times. And the modern world is definitely visible: the road our hotel was on was cellphone city, lined with dozens of shops.

If Qin Shihuang has made it to his idea of the afterlife, he is undoubtedly filled with dismay at having to do so with an army that is a shattered, minuscule remnant of its original glory. But perhaps he can take heart that he is still considered the founder of a modern, united China. And he would surely be amazed at the 12 million people metropolis that his capital Xian – the city whose name means “Western Peace” – has become.

 

China blog 2 – mining the past in Pingyao and at the Great Wall

China blog 2 – mining the past in Pingyao and at the Great Wall

With a population of 50,000 or so, tiny Pingyao pales into insignificance beside China’s great cities. But that’s not how it always was: a century and half ago, its central location made it a major hub for the “northern tea route” to Russia and the cradle of the country’s banking system. Today, the city has recast itself as a key player in the Chinese project to reconnect people with their past.

Fun outside Pingyao city walls
Fun just inside Pingyao city wall

It’s worth giving a broad sweep of the historical context, which starts around 2,500 years ago with the “warring states” period and the writings of Confucius. The great sage’s prescription of a highly stratified, deferential society in which everyone knows their place may seem horribly restrictive to modern ears, but its appeal becomes more understandable when you consider that it came at a time ravaged by warfare, banditry and generalised mayhem. Even though its emphasis on an enlightened ruler and the duties of rich as well as poor would be as often honoured in the breach as in the making, Confucianism would come to epitomise the Chinese mentality and, with a brief intermission in the rule of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (he of the terracotta army), would last until Mao’s Cultural Revolution nearly – but not quite – succeeded in wiping it out, along with everything of the essence of old China that Mao could lay his hands on.

Confucius Shrine fountain
Throwing coins into the wishing pond at the Confucius shrine

While most of today’s Chinese seem to be thoroughly satisfied with the results of Deng Xiaoping’s great project to open China to modernity and the West, many fear that an unwanted side effect has been an accelerating loss of Chinese identity. Chief amongst these is today’s president, Xi Jinping, the result being a drive to reclaim China’s past. And that’s where Pingyao comes in, with the walls of its old city unbroken since the Ming Dynasty in the thirteenth century, its heritage as the home of merchants celebrated for their integrity and its six-gated, turtleback-shaped pattern of streets untouched by the modern high rise world.

Cider vinegar
Cider vinegar – a Pingyao speciality

Modern Pingyao – the bit outside the ancient city wall – is a coal city (there’s a permanent faint smell of coal in the air) and a farming market town. From the bullet train station, the cornfields stretch as far as the eye can see, interleaved with orchards of dates, persimmom and apples: the condiment of choice on a Pingyao restaurant table is not soya sauce but the local cider vinegar. The city is also celebrated for “Pingyao beef”, instantly recognisable by anyone Jewish as salt beef (corned beef, if you’re in America), which is somewhat less salty than the European version but equally delicious.

City Hall - Wheel of fortune
Wheel of fortune at City Hall

The inner city, however is about heritage. You can visit a significant shrine to Confucius or the large Taoist temple; you can see the old government buildings where they re-enact criminal trials in the style of bygone days (the process, with an investigating judge, is closer to the French one than to the UK or US adversarial system). You can visit an agency which provided the armed muscle to protect travelling merchants: I’m afraid I couldn’t resist a giggle at the English translation as the “Armed escort agency” – accurate, but raising other connotations.

 

Ri Shangcheng Bank
Courtyard of Ri Shengchang Exchange House

Ri Shangcheng Bank - Kitchen
Canteen kitchen at Ri Shengchang Exchange House

Particularly popular is Ri Shengchang Exchange House, which was set up in 1823 in a former dyer’s shop and became one of China’s first nationwide banks, with branches stretching across the country and in key foreign markets. The traditional way of transporting payment for goods had been in silver ingots, which were heavy and susceptible to accidents and banditry: Ri’s innovation was to replace this by letters of credit and cheques, which included anti-forgery measures in the shape of water-marks, the use of a small number of calligraphers whose handwriting was well known to bank employees in all branches, and the use of encryption with keys that changed regularly. The encryption was a simple substitution cypher and the keys weren’t changed very often (every year or two), but it worked well enough to make the house prosper until the central government started printing banknotes in the 20th century.

 

The legendary probity of Ri and his various counterparts forms the basis of the “Impression Pingyao” immersive theatre show. Created on the usual Chinese massive scale, a cast of over 200 actors and dancers accompany you and your thousand or so fellow visitors as you walk through the streets of old Pingyao (modelled on a scale that isn’t nearly as much reduced from the real thing as you feel it should be) to relate a tale of the fidelity of the merchant who travels to Russia to reclaim the only son of an employee who has died at his dangerous posting, only to be killed on his return voyage, together with his bodyguards (the body count gets pretty high in these stories).

Impressions of Pingyao
Impression Pingyao: brides waiting to be chosen

Confession time: this is the kind of stultifying morality tale which makes me clutch my stomach and run for the hills, much in the manner of the opening show at the London Olympics. The effect was mitigated by the fact that (a) it was in Mandarin, so I didn’t have to listen to the undoubtedly saccharine dialogue and (b) the theatricals were suitably impressive: the Chinese really are good at theatre lighting and at getting large numbers of dancers/gymnasts to perform coordinated acrobatics on stage. But I can’t deny the fact that the locals were lapping this stuff up. As part of a focused campaign of indoctrination of a people into its supposed past virtues, I’m impressed by the method, even if the all-too-easy moral prescription makes my toes curl.

 

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Impression Pingyao

The vast majority (over 90%) of Pingyao’s tourists are from inside China. There are complaints, similar to those we’ve heard in Prague, that too many of them are bused in, spend a couple of hours seeing the major sights and then disappear again, not doing much for the local economy, but that still leaves plenty to throng the streets of the old city. The main arterial streets are lined end to end with small shops and stallholders. These give a great opportunity to assess what’s popular with the Chinese on holiday: a stroll along South Street passes enameled goods, elaborate designs made of cut paper, silver jewellery, plastic toys, brass and ceramic knick-knacks, perfume, soap, tea, hair combs, musical instruments, clothing of various sorts, shooting arcades, theme park ticket sellers, foot massage parlours as well as a place where you can get a pedicure where fish nibble at the dry skin, fungus and parasites on your feet (scuba divers will recognise the idea as a “cleaning station”). Local produce includes walnuts (not just for eating, but with pairs of the best ones to be used for hand massage), beef preserved in jars, dates and giant jars of the local cider vinegar, generally sold by the litre. Roadside bakery stalls turn out batches of various sorts of griddle cakes and biscuits: particularly popular at this time of year are the “moon cakes”, a hollow biscuit-like shell with a sesame-flavoured filling (the generosity of the filling is sadly variable between vendors).

 

South Street at night
South Street at night
Stallholder with preserved beef
Vendor proudly showing off jars of preserved beef

There are few bars, many restaurants and zillions of roadside stalls selling the kinds of street food you might find anywhere in China: dumplings, steamed buns, octopus or meat grilled on skewers, glutinous rice dyed with bright food colouring and cut out of large cakes. I particularly enjoyed watching the man hand-slicing noodles into a huge vat of soup, using something like a pizza wheel to slice off each noodle at a time from his large rectangle of dough.

 

Pingyao roofs
Pingyao rooftops

But the truth is that the real attraction of Pingyao is in its buildings, and not just the major ones: the uniform colour of the grey brick and tiles combined with the variety of the shapes and patterns makes for a true feeling of being transported into the past. Of course, this is Asia, where the tradition is that buildings are continually renewed and rebuilt, so there’s not really such a thing as an “authentic building” which has stood untouched for hundreds of years, but there are plenty of buildings whose appearance has not fundamentally changed in a millennium (philosophers will recognise the “ship of Theseus” question). The work of restoration is constant.

Reclaiming and restoring the past is also what you see when you visit the Great Wall, which is being steadily rebuilt in convenient, tourist party-sized chunks. There’s not much to say about the Great Wall’s history and scale that isn’t already well aired: suffice to say that it’s every bit as awesome in the flesh as you are prepared for by reading the stories, and the biggest surprise was the richness of the wildlife, with much birdsong and a thousand butterflies. But once again, the Chinese way of organising things is remarkable.

The Great Wall
The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling

We visited the wall at a newly restored section at Jinshanling, some two hours Northwest of Beijing, having been told that it would be relatively quiet compared to the heaving crowds at the sections nearer the city. This turned out to be good advice: there were no more than a couple of dozen people on our section of the wall. But that’s not what they’re planning for: the visitor centre and its accompanying car park and facilities are built to many hundreds at a time, perhaps thousands. Even in the United States, I’ve never seen a scenic monument with this kind of infrastructure. The facility isn’t finished, but given the impressive amount of carpentry being deployed (the hundreds of metres of decking and walkway were all being made on-site), I don’t suppose it’s going to take them long. Looking out from the car on our ride back to Beijing, we could see the massive engineering taking place for a new bullet train line to link Beijing with Jinshanling. Clearly, the Chinese authorities believe in the phrase “build it and they will come”.

Lantern shop
South Street lantern shop
China blog 1 – Beijing

China blog 1 – Beijing

There’s a lot you know about Beijing that doesn’t really hit you until you get here for the first time. So I knew how big and populous the city is, but I was still struck by the kilometres you can drive with high rise buildings stretching either side of you as far as the eye can see. I knew that traffic was supposed to be a problem, but I didn’t really clock the extent until we sat in a jam for fifteen minutes to cover a couple of hundred metres. I’ve read a decent amount about Chinese history, certainly enough to know that this was an ancient and magnificent civilisation, but that didn’t really prepare me for the sheer scale of places like the Temple of Heaven or the Forbidden City.

Panjiayuan Market - calligraphy materials
Panjiayuan Market – Calligraphy materials

They do things at scale here. Panjiayuan Market is simply enormous, with hundreds and hundreds of small stallholders plying their wares. The variety matches the size: you can find anything from a Ming vase to an old camera to an abacus or a mahjong set, as well as any knick-knacks you’ve ever dreamed of. The vast majority of it, we were told with some relish, is utterly fake. What is not fake, however, is the Chinese love for arts and crafts. The dozens of rows of stalls selling oddments to decorate your mantlepiece were matched by the numbers devoted to such things as paper, paint and brushes for calligraphy, soapstone for carving seals, driftwood to be made into sculpture, donkey hide to make shadow puppets as well as artists practising all those media and many more.

Panjiayuan Market - painting
Panjiayuan Market – painting

The romantic English view of Beijing is of the city of the million bicycles. That’s not how it works any more: everyone’s aspiration is to own a car, and nearly six million do. The resulting rush hour traffic is the stuff of nightmares, and the city hasn’t really grown a parking infrastructure to match vehicle ownership, so it’s broadly impossible to make a quick stop somewhere on your way from a to b. The other effect is that the air pollution can be pretty bad – the city is shrouded in a semi-permanent eye-stinging, throat-rasping haze that reminds me a great deal of Los Angeles on a bad day. The authorities, we were told, have now limited car registration permits in the city to 1,000 a year – a tiny fraction of the demand – and there’s been a huge growth in the subway system, but the average commute still runs at well over an hour. I suspect that the feel is something like 1960s London: there’s new wealth, there’s optimism and there’s steeply increasing car ownership in a city that isn’t quite sure how to deal with it.

Houhai lake - training for rowing race
Houhai Lake – training for rowing race

An early evening stroll round Houhai Lake (pronounced Ho Hay, the name means “Back Sea”, the lake having supposedly been formed by an upstream flood from the ocean) gives a good viewing of the Chinese at leisure. The area around the lake is packed with bars and restaurants, and the surrounding lakeshore is filled with people of all ages: courting couples, the elderly, young groups of friends, parents taking their baby for a stroll, you name it. Several points around the lake count as Beijing beauty spots, and I saw several instances of girls being photographed by a friend in poses that looked destined for whatever is the Chinese equivalent of Tinder. The sheer optimism of the place is inescapable: it was a bigger concentration of people looking generally cheerful (aided only marginally, if at all, by alcohol) than I’ve seen in many a year.

Houhai lake - family with bike
Houhai lakeshore

The concrete overload of Beijing’s forest of high rise buildings is moderated – for the tourist, at least – by the loveliness of its open spaces. The Temple of Heaven is striking as a monument, but is perhaps even more notable for the green space around it, while the Summer Palace is set in a stunning park and lake. Like anything the Chinese do that’s an important public space, both are vast.

Temple Heaven - Hall of Prayer for Harvest
Temple of Heaven
Temple of Heaven - interior
Temple of Heaven inside

The Temple of Heaven is the Ming emperors’ place of ceremonial sacrifices to the dragon, who is a godlike spirit with two crucial properties: (1) he controls the weather (i.e. life and death in a mediaeval farming community) and (2) he isn’t tied to any specific religion – especially useful in an empire covering vast territories where Taoism, Buddhism and all sorts of older faiths abounded, but *everyone* knew who the dragon was. For a non-specialist, the architecture isn’t fundamentally different in style from what you’d see in Japan or Korea, the distinguishing feature being the size: substantial palace living quarters, massive kitchens where sacrifices were prepared, an immense plaza for the emperor to be carried up to the imposing “Hall of prayer for good harvest” where the ceremonies took place and which Beijingers consider the true icon of the city – even Mao, that scourge of ancient culture, embraced it as his own rather razing it to the ground. You can see how central the whole ceremony was to the royal family’s legitimacy: if you can intercede with the heavenly powers who control the harvest of every faith in the land, you are a divine ruler indeed.

Summer Palace- Lotus Garden
Summer Palace – Lotus garden
Summer Palace - kites
Kites at the Summer Palace. Try to spot all three kites in the picture: the black shark is very high!

The Summer Palace has a far more earthly provenance: it was rebuilt in 1895 for the benefit of the dowager empress Cixi (pronounced tsee-she), using money embezzled from naval supply funds. Cixi appears to have been quite a character: starting life as a serving girl, she became a concubine of the emperor, and then empress dowager in 1861, when the emperor died and her son, only a child, inherited the throne (he didn’t live long, either). She duly ousted the various regents and proceeded to control the whole of China until her death, almost half a century later. The Summer Palace is set in a park surrounding a great boating lake, which includes a stunning lotus garden; it was originally one of a complex of many palaces around the lake until the British and French burnt them down in the Second Opium War. The park boasts several architectural jewels, from the 17 span bridge (a favoured spot for kite-fliers – seeing the kites soaring hundreds of metres high is a sight worth the trip in itself) to the Long Corridor (long means 700 metres) to the stunning views from a splendid Buddhist temple set high above the park, to the oddity of a marble river steamboat (no-one in China had the technology to build a real one). The Opium Wars, by the way, may be a footnote of history to most British, but they’re recent and very real to the Chinese. If you imagine, for a moment, that a foreign power is pushing hard drugs to a majority of your population and then, when you attempt to outlaw the drugs, comes in and burns down your capital, only agreeing to go home when your government permits the trade to be restored, it’s not hard to see why the memory remains vivid a century or so later.

Summer Palace - marble river boat
Summer Palace – marble river boat

You can’t go to Beijing without visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but I have to admit to being disappointed. Once again, what impresses is the scale: the queue waiting to enter Mao’s mausoleum, stretching for over a kilometre around the building, the expanse that is the square (largely empty, barred to entry by rather niftily designed interlocking barriers). The Forbidden City feels as if size was the only measure of awesomeness that mattered to the Ming emperors – each gigantic courtyard leads to an impressive palatial building with an open front to display the goings on inside to the assembled courtiers or visitors, which in turn leads to the next super-sized courtyard. (To be fair, although our itinerary lasted the whole morning, there was only time to stop at one of the many museums along the way, a selection of outrageously ornate clocks, much loved by the 18th and 19th century nobility.) It also feels like an unremitting onslaught of buildings and paving stones: the Ming emperors were terrified of assassins hiding behind trees, so you don’t see any green until the very last, innermost courtyard (when you get there, it’s quite impressive, including the massive trunk of a five hundred year old cypress). It takes  a trip to the top of Jingshan Park, the hill behind the Forbidden City, to get to the shelter of enough greenery to mitigate the smog and to enable you to fully appreciate the size of what you’ve just been through. Mao, by the way, never entered the Forbidden City, due to some bizarre superstition about both him and the Ming emperors being dragons.

Forbidden City-8
Forbidden City: Hall of Supreme Harmony

Getting around is a mixed experience. As well as traffic being terrible, finding a taxi in Beijing is less than straightforward: after a few attempts, the guy on our hotel front desk eventually gave up and booked us their equivalent of an Uber, asking to be repaid when we returned after dinner – which worked fine. What’s impressive is the Beijing subway: modern, clean and with enough English that you can find your way around straightforwardly enough. The fifteen-year-old main line Beijing-Xi (Beijing West) station is spotlessly clean but shorter on English than the subway, until you get to the final waiting room – so if you don’t have the benefit of a guide, you’ll need to know your train number. The 300 km/h bullet trains are enviable, whisking you smoothly out of town.

Forbidden City, from Jongshin Park
Forbidden City – from Jingshan Park

You can eat well at any price in Beijing, and we sampled everything from steamed buns at a street food stall to high end gastronomic fare at the Peninsula Hotel. Unexpectedly, our best meal was our last: dinner at the mid-priced (300 yuan for two) restaurant near our hotel, whose traditional Beijing food was a riot of flavours and aromas. Even less expected was the delight of a trip to see shadow puppetry. We’d seen some of the puppets at Panjiayuan Market on our very first day and thought they were a bit basic. Seeing them in action showed that they can be anything but: in the hands of a master, these apparently simple shapes turned are capable of all sorts of dance moves and imitations of the movement of animals, which were used to tell stories with wit and charm. The creation of a demon gradually turning itself from a skeleton into a beautiful woman, complete with the dolling up process at its make-up table and mirror, was quite virtuosic: a happy reminder that there remains plenty of culture which escaped Mao.

Shachahai Shadow Puppet Hotel
Shachahai Shadow Puppet Hotel: story of the frog, the crane and the turtle (not in shot)

Direct debit danger

Imagine that you are opening a bank account online, and you are presented with the following tick box:

  • Allow large businesses to debit arbitrary sums of money from your account without your authorisation.  

Call me old-fashioned, but I doubt that anyone would tick that box. But for UK accounts, the equivalent of that box exists, and it is ticked by default. It’s known as the “AUDDIS” system and the chances are that it got used when you gave the phone company your sort code and account number to set up a direct debit for your broadband or mobile contract. The phone company transferred the information to your bank via AUDDIS and was then enabled to take direct debit payments from you.

Or not. Last week, Hearst Newspapers set up a direct debit for our company account. The trouble is, I had no prior contact with Hearst Newspapers. Either someone miskeyed our account number or it was a fraud attempt – I have no way of knowing which, and neither does my bank, HSBC, whose employee told me that that they had no knowledge of how the direct debit was set up, because they just receive the AUDDIS data from Hearst.

Here’s what Bacs, the providers of AUDDIS, have to say about it:

AUDDIS automates the transfer of Direct Debit Instructions from collecting organisations to the paying banks and building societies via the Bacs service. The organisation keeps the original signed Instruction and electronically sends the details to the customers’ bank to validate and, if accepted, set up the Instruction on its database.

By automating the exchange of Instruction details between organisations and banks, manual handling is reduced leading to fewer errors. Instruction details are processed faster and more efficiently, eliminating the need for the customer’s bank to re-key the details.

The problem is that the system also eliminates the customer’s bank from the process of performing basic security checks, such as, for example, checking that the name given when the direct debit was set up actually matches the name on the account. Assuming that my case was one of error rather than fraud, I think it’s highly unlikely that someone else took out a magazine subscription in the name of “Bachtrack Ltd”, and I feel strongly that HSBC should have been able to check this.

If you ask your bank about this, they are likely to tell you that you shouldn’t worry because “direct debits are covered by the Direct Debit Guarantee.” Beware, however: the Direct Debit Guarantee will not necessarily behave in the way you hope it does.

For a start, the Guarantee only applies to direct debit mandates that you have set up: it does not apply to mandates fraudulently set up by someone else. Of course, the vendor has a legal obligation to refund your money, but it could easily take you many hours of negotiating a large company’s opaque telephone systems in order to persuade them to do so. In our case, had the direct debit gone through, HSBC would have been perfectly at liberty to refer the problem to their fraud department and keep us waiting more or less indefinitely while their investigation was in progress.

Even for legitimate direct debits where the Guarantee applies, the terms are very much weighted towards the vendor and away from the consumer. The wording states that “If an error is made in the payment of your direct debit … you are entitled to a full and immediate refund of the amount paid from your bank or building society”. That sounds fine until you realise that it’s conditional on the bank agreeing that an error has been made: it’s not enough simply for you to tell them. And even if the bank agree that there has been an error and process your refund, there’s nothing to stop your vendor simply taking the payment again – until you actually cancel the entire mandate. And even that may not save you: in one case that came before the Financial Ombudsman, the bank processed a large payment the day after the mandate had been cancelled, but the ombudsman found in the bank’s favour because the consumer had signed terms and conditions permitting the payee to take money from his account. If, like most of us, you don’t read the small print before ticking the “I agree to the licence terms” box, you’re vulnerable.

So what should you do about this? I’ve done my best by instructing HSBC to refuse all direct debits not explicitly authorised by me. They haven’t obeyed this to the letter – in the case of Hearst Magazines, they notified me but said that if the payment was OK, I didn’t need to take any action – but at least it’s a step in the direction of self-protection. I suggest you ask your bank to accept the same instruction, and see what they say. At least, you’ll know what you’re up against.

Ekaterinburg (or Yekaterinburg)

Last month, I made my first visit to Russia, and on a first look, Ekaterinburg could be any European city. There are shops, cafés, banks, office blocks, advertising hoardings, people going about their business, dressed in sensible warm clothing against the chilly autumn weather. The most immediately obvious difference from what I’m used to is the prosaic fact that everything is in cyrillic script.

Sevastyanov's House
Sevastyanov House

There are differences in culture and architecture, of course: the glitter of golden onion domes from many of the churches, the Wedgwood-china plasterwork of the Sevastyanov House. And there is a lot of land: Sverdlovsk province has a population of 4.3m the size of (half the population of London) in a land mass of 194,800 km² (nearly as large as the whole of Great Britain). The result is a preponderance of wide boulevards and  generous green spaces – albeit not at their best in grey-skied drizzle of early autumn, before the trees have turned properly to gold. Ekaterinburg is a steel town, and those wide boulevards are well used by a lot of cars, with seemingly less congestion than that number would cause in an older, narrow-streeted European city.

There are, however, visible signs that all is not well with the economy. I saw two building sites, one of them huge, where work simply seemed to have stopped altogether, presumably from lack of funds, their giant cranes simply sitting there. The city’s trams look like they haven’t been replaced in many decades, and the cars are notably older than I’m used to. There’s virtually no sign of Russian-made vehicles. There are some fine looking shops, but nothing approaching the retail density that I’d expect in the centre of a Western European city (to be fair, this might be because the retail has all migrated to shopping malls that I didn’t see).

Chandelier at opera HDR
State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

One institution was definitely thriving, which was the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, my hosts (who paid for my trip). They seemed to be at the centre of things in a way that’s unthinkable for an opera company back home: Thaddeus Strassberger, the American director of the opera I saw, was bowled over by the fact that the lead up to the production received significant news coverage and that random strangers in the shops knew who he was. Wages are low for singers – a third, I was told, of their equivalents in  Moscow, I was told – so the theatre has a large roster of singers under contract. The evidence of my ears says that the quality is consistently very high; the equivalent singers in Western Europe would undoubtedly be travelling from their homes to get the best work; job mobility is presumably lower here.

Russia isn’t really making a big effort to welcome international tourists. The visa process works well enough, but is demanding and inflexible – for example, as a company director, I was required to submit three months worth of personal bank statements and a list of all countries travelled to in the last ten years, and to specify precise travel dates and address in Russia. Immigration officials don’t speak anything other than Russian (or don’t admit to it, anyway) and airport signage is erratic. Ekaterinburg doesn’t feel as if many foreigners go there. Even figuring out its latinised name is confusing: the cyrillic Е is pronounced “ye”, so it’s fairly random as to whether it gets spelt “Ekaterinburg” or “Yekaterinburg” (the cyrillic letter for an “e” sound as in “Edward” is “Э”). There are, however, plenty of visitors from elsewhere in Russia, with two notable historical sites.

yeltsin-presidential-center
Yeltsin Presidential Center

Sverdlovsk province is the birthplace of  Boris Yeltsin, and Ekaterinburg contains the Yeltsin Presidential Center, modelled on the concept of Presidential Centers in the US. Behind the massive statue of Yeltsin and the very up-to-the-minute (and somewhat overpowering) multimedia displays lurk some fascinating artefacts: for any child of the cold war who lived a teenage-hood in fear of a nuclear holocaust, it’s quite a jolt to see the suitcase with the nuclear trigger that was handed from Yeltsin to Putin on 31st December 1999. Yeltsin’s handwritten letter of resignation to Gorbachev is also on display – or, at least, Yeltsin’s personal copy.

The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg was the site of the murder of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. The house was destroyed in 1977 (on Yeltsin’s orders), but after the Romanovs’ controversial canonisation in 2000, it was decided to build a church on the site: this is now the “Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land” (or, more commonly, the “Church on the Blood”). It’s a bizarre place to Western eyes: we are well used to seeing the Romanovs in standard fin-de-siècle garb, so seeing them transplanted into ancient Orthodox iconography, with its robes and massive gold backgrounds, strikes a strange note.

church-of-the-blood-towerBoth the Yeltsin Center and the Church on the Blood are more notable for the things they don’t say than for the things they do. The Yeltsin Center is conspicuously free of vodka bottles or references to his handling of privatisation and the subsequent rise of the oligarchs: the hagiography of the man as the proud standard bearer of the long march to freedom must not be disturbed. The Church on the Blood is equally free of references to the fact that Nicholas was a weak tsar who repeatedly failed to take action that could have reformed his country and avoided the revolution and the subsequent Soviet rule. Neither site shows any intention to give a nuanced view of complex events, and talking to Russians confirms that such a view is not what they are taught in school (not, I hasten to add, that we in Britain can hold ourselves up as models of this).

But while it may not be an obvious place to visit, the city looks very liveable. The picture of a lone kayaker on the river Iset will stay with me as an image of a calm in a bustling, industrial city.

Kayaking on the Iset river

And here are just a few more pictures:

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First impressions of Malta

In Malta, there is a unique sense of continuity over a very long time. Look at the Ġgantija and Tarxien megalithic temple complexes, over 5,000 years old, then go into downtown Valletta and see the newest construction or restorations, and you’re looking at the same creamy sandstone, fashioned into imposing structures. In the countless changes over the millennia of who’s been in charge, you can’t suppress the feeling of a resilient people that sticks to its traditions.

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Malta is strategically placed to command the key shipping route between Eastern and Western Mediterranean, so much so that it has been a fortress island for much of its history. The mediaeval battlements were made obsolete by the arrival of heavy artillery, so what you see today is largely a product of the 17th century, the apogee of the rule of the Knights of the Hospital of St John, tasked by the Vatican with defending the West against the Turks. Malta’s unique topography – fingers of land jutting into the ocean enclosing deep water harbours – combines with the impressive military engineering and the continuity of architectural style to produce spectacular views from a plethora of viewpoints and angles in the city. Angled walls, staircases, bridges interweave to provide patterns that would do Escher proud, outlined in sharp contrast against the hard light of the Mediterranean sun.

To describe the Order of St John, three words spring to mind: Catholic, rapacious and rich. And the baroque era being what it was, that means gold in the decorations, in prodigious amounts. St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is a riot of ornate gilt. Whether you consider it magnificent glory or gaudy frippery, there’s no denying the outstanding workmanship or the sheer scale of the effort that went into its creation. St. John’s is by no means the only example: if you try to navigate by seeing a giant dome and assuming that it’s St John’s, you’re doomed, because there are several of similar size.

Take the half hour ferry to Gozo and head for the Citadel, a typically Maltese mix of religion, military and scenic setting: the cathedral in the middle of the stronghold is another ecstasy of gold, together with glorious painting. You walk on an imposing array of tombstones, each inlaid with its particular marble version of a memento mori – a scythe, a skull, even a full skeleton. Back on the main island, stop off at the fine botanical gardens that adjoin the St Anton Presidential Palace, step into the (curiously unguarded) courtyard of the palace itself and take a moment to look inside the Chapel of Our Lady of Pilar to admire the frescoes. It’s a tiny baroque gem.

Each of the congregations of these churches seems to have its own identity, which it delights to celebrate with its own feast day. If you ask the question “when is the feast?”, the answer is either “which one?” or “every day”, the correct question being “which village has a feast today?”. Feasts seem to be characterised by (a) multi-coloured fairy lights on the front of the church/cathedral and (b) fireworks, both night time and in daylight – we were somewhat spooked on our first arrival in Valletta by what sounded for all the world like a re-run of a World War II raid but was in fact the one-week-ahead pre-feast feast in honour of St Joseph, at the cathedral in the suburb of Msida.

A word for the unwary. Malta is without question the most difficult place I have ever tried to navigate around by car. It’s partly because of the language: Maltese is what linguists call a “contact language”, an unfathomable mixture of Arabic and Italian, with bits of Spanish, French and English thrown into the pot for good measure. The result is that road signs tend to have two or three different names for the same place. The difference between Mdina, Medina and L’Imdina is just about navigable at speed; the difference between Victoria and Rabat (in the middle of Gozo) is not, especially given that there’s another Rabat on the main island. But also, the Maltese share the Italian penchant for lulling you into a false sense of security by providing a series of road signs to your intended destination, only to abandon you at some critical junction where a mistake can take you ten minutes out of your way. For a laugh, by the way, switch on a Tom Tom sat nav system and enjoy its attempts at pronouncing Maltese names.

But for me, the defining term for the Maltese is “resilient”, and the place to see it is the National Military Museum in Fort St Elmo, at the tip of Valletta. State of the art A/V tells the story of survival through a series of sieges of ever-increasing ferocity. Like much of Malta, the buildings around you are a strange juxtaposition of immaculately modern and somewhat ramshackle, with outbreaks of  just plain derelict. But remember that this is an island that was collectively awarded the George Cross for its fortitude in surviving month after month of intense German air bombardment. Malta may be most often seen as a sun-and-sea destination, but it’s a place full of history, a place to make you think.

What the EU referendum says about our democracy

I campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU, and I’m extremely upset that we voted to leave. But the fact of leaving isn’t the thing that’s most depressing: far worse is what it has told me about our democracy. Successful Leave campaigners should be every bit as worried as I am about some of the things I’m about to discuss.

The first thing that alarms me is the way the referendum was allowed to operate. Anyone on either side of the argument was able to make any statement, however outlandish, however false, with total impunity. After a parliamentary or local government election, voters can punish a false campaign promise by voting against the person who makes it (or at least against their party) at future elections. In the referendum, campaigners could tell whatever lies they wanted to in the knowledge that all they had to do was to get 50.00001% of the votes on the day, and that once that was over, nothing else mattered.

Both sides indulged in outrageously indefensible rhetoric. I happen to think that the Leave side’s was particularly egregious, but that’s not the point: the problem is that a major decision that will affect our country for decades and maybe more was made after a campaign characterised by a tissue of lies.

I’m also disturbed by the referendum’s reduction of the highly complex matter of our relationship with Europe to a single In/Out question, without in any way defining what “Out” meant. Are we talking about “the Norwegian Solution” of remaining in the free trade agreement while continuing to comply with EU regulations? The “Swiss solution” of continuing to contribute to the EU budget? Or a total withdrawal from the free trade zone? Whichever of these options is chosen, the Prime Minister who implements Brexit risks a huge backlash from whichever part of the leave constituency had assumed either (a) we’re going to have fewer rules from Brussels, (b) we can stop contributing to the EU budget or (c) we can continue to be in the free trade block. Because truly, if anyone thinks we’re so important to the EU that they will continue to grant all of our former privileges while releasing us from all of the rules an obligations, they are living in a delusive state. All this means that far from resolving the EU debate, this referendum has merely fired its starting gun.

Why was it constitutionally OK for a political party in government to propose such a simplistic referendum? Of the reasons for doing so, it is now reasonably clear that (a) Cameron had no intention of putting out EU membership at risk and thought he was taking a safe bet; (b) the principal intent was to resolve tensions within the Conservative party and (c) Cameron and his aides didn’t think the electorate were intelligent enough to understand a more nuanced set of questions (I’m guessing on this last one, admittedly, but I think it’s a fairly safe guess). I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that Cameron called the referendum because he genuinely believed that “the people deserved their say”: I’ve never yet seen a referendum called for that reason and I don’t expect to.

Having spoken to a lot of people in the days leading up to June 23rd, I don’t think the majority of voters made a serious attempt to research and understand the facts. The most intelligent conversation I had with a probable Leave voter was with a doctor of African extraction who is deeply unhappy with EU policy in Africa, which she had checked out in a great deal of detail. Every other conversation showed rampant confirmation bias: people were simply not interested even in discussing their reasons for voting in detail and certainly didn’t want to understand the views of anyone on the opposing side.

One of the important arguments on the Leave side is the idea that outside the EU, we can regain total control of our democratic process. But that’s small comfort when you see the immediate effect of the referendum on that process. The first thing that is going to happen is that from around October, the country will be run for close to four years by an unelected Prime Minister – and probably, in the circumstances, by a Prime Minister of a very different complexion from the one who we voted for a year ago. How was it OK for Cameron to omit to mention that he would be resigning if he lost the referendum?

Early on Friday, I was pretty much in the #AshamedToBeBritish camp, living in the wonderful, open city that London is, but surrounded by a country full of racists. I’ve calmed down from that view, but I still fear greatly that most people who voted leave (not all, of course) did so because they were looking for someone to blame for twenty years of stagnant disposable incomes and ever reducing job opportunities. And the easiest people to blame were “everyone except us” – the immigrants and the foreigners. How much easier to blame a Brussels bureaucrat than to accept that we’ve lagged the world in productivity improvements, that a rash of people got into debt they couldn’t afford, or that the Blairite expansion of university places wasn’t fundable without either increasing taxes or making the students pay for it.

Indulging in arbitrary blame without being prepared to debate the facts isn’t a good way to make important decisions. Allowing a party’s internal issues to have such a huge and immediate impact on our future is worrying. So is having an unelected Prime Minister at what will now be a critical moment in history. And our permitting of demagogues – racist or otherwise – to tell a pack of lies with impunity is the scariest of all.

 

 

 

 

Software makes mistakes. So do users. So let’s deal with it.

I have a fantasy. OK, so I live a lot of my life in software-development and software-use land, so it’s a kind of prosaic fantasy. But bear with me: here goes anyway.

One day, my fantasy goes, an email will arrive in my Inbox from the vendor of some piece of software I’m using (Intuit, for the sake of example) which will go something like this:

Dear davidkarlin,

Our monitoring systems have detected that on 20th January 2015, you received an error message “Error 407: Unable to update bank transactions. Please try later or contact support.” We have now analysed the cause of this error and are glad to tell you that a fix was deployed in last night’s release.

We trust that this fix has been effective, but if the error should recur, please contact our developers at development@intuit.com quoting incident no. 123456789.

Regards

The Intuit Development team

Sadly, when I’ve woken up, reality is very different. What actually happens is this:

  1. Intuit certainly don’t proactively look at error messages they generate for me and deal with them on my behalf. What actually happens is that I phone the support line; when I’ve negotiated their IVR system, I get put through to an agent whose first reaction to all problems is to ask me to clear cookies and try again.
  2. Once it’s been verified that my error is unaffected by cookies (no surprises there), I get asked to uninstall and re-install as much of the system as possible.
  3. Once that’s failed, we’re into “it’s all terribly difficult, isn’t it: maybe you can try again tomorrow” territory.
  4. I then receive a survey asking me the now-ubiquitous “Net Promoter” question (the one that begins “on a scale of 0 to 10, would you recommend…”), followed by an email about the latest upgrade, which contains some delightful new feature set I didn’t ask for.

By the way, I’m not singling out Intuit here: their support line is actually one of the better ones I deal with. But the general tenor of the experience is common to most technology vendors that I’ve either worked in or whose products I’ve used: software houses prioritise cool new features over the simple business of eliminating errors.

What’s particularly striking is how bad software developers are at dealing with intermittent faults: if you can’t replicate the problem to order, that’s pretty much end of story in terms of getting anyone to take it seriously.

In my view, *any* error message is a bad thing. If it’s as a result of a software bug, there should be zero tolerance. If it’s as a result of user error, I should be thinking “how could I have designed the interface better so that the user would have been less likely to make that mistake”. Eventually, of course, there’s a law of diminishing returns here. But the vast majority of software, I would argue, is a country mile from reaching the point where a significant improvement in user experience would no longer be generated by a straightforward analysis of the rate at which error messages are generated and their most frequent causes.

And here’s an important thing: technically, it’s not all that difficult to keep logs of enough diagnostic information to enable a developer to find out what went wrong, even for the intermittent stuff. It comes down to a matter of choice: do you or do you not make the effort to log the data and then make it someone’s job to look through the logs and find the root causes. The software companies who make engine management or process control  systems keep this kind of log data as a matter of course: it’s completely understood that some particular vibration pattern might only happen once in a long test run, that testers can’t predict when it will happen and that analysis needs to be done after the event.

As well as the technology being there to keep and analyse logs, storage is now becoming so cheap that it’s possible to take logs in a lot more detail. The toughest issue, these days, is ensuring the privacy of all this log data – which is tricky, but not insurmountable.

So here’s my plea to all you providers of software and software-based systems:

  1. Analyse your incidence of error messages, and gather a metric along the lines of “number of errors per user per hour of usage”. Allocate more resources to reducing this metric than you do to providing the latest cool features.
  2. Adopt a zero-tolerance approach to bugs, including intermittent ones. Get rid of the “if you can’t replicate a bug, it doesn’t really exist” mentality, and replace it by “if a bug happens even once, we want to find out why and kill it”.
  3. Invest in instrumentation so that your developers can review logs of one-off events in enough detail to fix them.
  4. And if you really want to delight me, make my own crash data personally identifiable (with my permission, of course) so that you can proactively tell me about the good things you’ve done for me.

After writing this, I made a resolution to put my money (well, time) where my mouth is, so on Friday, I looked through the error logs on Bachtrack’s web server. Surely enough, there was a consistent “page not found” log that occurred over a hundred times in March. That’s not a lot, in the grand scale of things (we get 200,000 page views a month), but it only took an hour or so to find and fix it. If I can keep doing that for a few hours each week, that adds up to a lot of people whose user experience is going to be improved. None of them, by the way, called in to complain.

As software suppliers, let’s all take this stuff a lot more seriously. It really will help the world out there.

Can someone now start the real EU debate, please?

We arrived home from holiday last week to find campaign literature from both sides of the EU referendum campaign in the letterbox. I was dismayed by both: the arguments presented were dubious, to say the least, and it seemed to me that neither side dares to say what it really believes.

Humans are tribal creatures and the EU debate is ultimately about the size of the tribe. Do we want a tribe which is large and strong (if possibly fragmented and slightly fractious), or do we want our tribe to be small and cohesive (if possibly short of resources and clout)?

The Eurosceptic viewpoint seems to me to be driven by two fundamentals. The first is the image of Gulliver strapped down by the Lilliputians: Eurosceptics hark back to the days when the United Kingdom was a great power in its own right and feel that it could be so again if it were not enmeshed in a web of European bureaucracy and compromise. The second is a deep discomfort with immigrants, the idea that we are losing our country to invaders and not even putting up a fight over it.

European history My own beliefs are the opposite. I was born in 1958, which makes me pretty much the first generation for as long as anyone can remember to live sixty years without a major European war, and I attribute this not merely to nuclear weapons but largely to the EU – not to its specific institutions, but to the change in mindset that makes European governments start with an assumption of co-operation.

I don’t buy the “UK can be great again” argument. The UK is great: I love my country for the creativity, humour and fundamental sense of decency of its people, not its empire – which was lost not because of the EU but because the UK bankrupted itself over two world wars and because the prevailing ethical climate made it impossible to continue with the colonialist principles on which that empire was built. I’m only too pleased that historical episodes such as slavery, the opium wars and the salt tax  are well behind us, and if a Brit ever feels the need to preach to the world about genocide, they would do well first to consider the question “why are there no aborigines in Tasmania.” (Answer: because we killed them all). And I fundamentally believe in government by compromise – at the European or the UK level. To get technical for a moment, I actually believe in stuff like pooled sovereignty and subsidiarity.

Turning from those who hark to the olden days to those who merely say that Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy and can stand perfectly well on its own, I would reply “yes, but for how long?” As education globalises, can a heavily populated small country with depleted natural resources really maintain the productivity lead that we have had in the past?

These are huge issues, and I’m more than happy to debate them with an open mind – and I believe we should be debating them. In my view, it is neither evil nor racist to feel uncomfortable at living in a city where you often can’t understand the language of the majority of the people in your street, or to be concerned at democratic deficit. But that’s not the debate we’re having.

Rather, on both sides, the debate so far has been about nickels and dimes, with statements being made that are deeply misleading. Consider this one, from the “Leave EU” side:

“We can remove our politicians who are answerable to us. Unlike unelected European commissioners”.

European commissioners are the equivalent of our senior civil servants, who are every bit as unelected. The laws in the UK are written by civil servants and voted on by politicians, just as EU laws are written by commissioners (and their staff) and voted on by the Council of Ministers and/or the European Parliament, who are people we elect. At heart, it’s not the existence of appointed officials that Eurosceptics dislike – otherwise, they should be trying to get rid of the whole of Whitehall – it’s the idea of appointments being made by what they consider to be the wrong people.

The Stay camp hardly fares better. “AA warns of pain at the pump with possible 19p rise if Britain leaves EU,” trumpets the leaflet, quoting the authoritative source of The Sun. Really? Even if it’s true, which sounds highly dubious, is the future of our country’s international relations really to be decided on the basis of motorists’ worries about their next petrol bill?

Or “Good for women, with the EU protecting women’s rights in the workplace, including vital anti-discrimination and equal pay laws”. I’m sorry, I may be an ardent supporter of the staying in campaign, but I can’t accept the idea that the UK Parliament is in some way incapable of enacting wise gender equality laws without having to rely on the EU to police it.

So please, let’s debate the real issues. Will a Brexit do irreparable damage to our relationship with European countries? Can an independent UK continue indefinitely to punch above its weight economically? Is it real or illusory that ordinary people will gain more control over the decisions that affect them? Should we wean ourselves off immigration, which we have relied on to cope with the economics of an ageing population? And if the answer is yes, is it feasible for an independent UK go about doing so?

For me, the answer is simple and emotional. It lies in a clip from the unashamedly anti-Brexit Great European Disaster Movie, in which a German lady lays out on her table a series of Iron Crosses, each representing a parent / grandparent / great-grandparent who died in a European war. She is of the first generation not to add to that list, and is unspeakably proud of it. Long may that trend continue. Being part of a whole, peaceful Europe enhances my life.