Trip to China 2019-2020. Suzhou 15th.

I have a ticket from Shanghai Hongqiao railway station to Suzhou. I could have departed from Shanghai station as it is closer to the hotel. But, tomorrow I will leave at 8:15 from Hongqiao station, and I prefer to know how it looks in advance.

After getting out of the metro, I find the ticket office in a couple of minutes. There, I choose what seems the exchange window as the purchase windows have a long queue. I show the code that I got on-line and my passport to get my ticket. I have not yet decided at which time I will come back. So, I will purchase my return ticket at Suzhou. I run to the gate, as I am short of time, and get into the high-speed train.

At Suzhou, I take the subway to the city centre. I have a few places marked on the map to start the visit. I am open to change the itinerary. I like to have a place to start.

I see a high pagoda from far away. When I am close by, I decide to visit it even that is not on my list. The pagoda is part of the Bao’en temple. A sign indicates that visitors should circle the pagoda three times clockwise. I oblige. Afterwards, I continue enjoying the rest of the temple. There is a small garden with trees and some traditional buildings.

People should circle the pagoda from the right side. As it goes in “Huayanjing” three circles from the right side. Moreover circle the clockwise for three turns. If people go in the anti-clockwise direction, it will be a great fault instead of merits.

Merits and virtues of circling around the pagoda

I start to walk towards the closest marker on my map. After a few minutes, I decide against it. I will spend more than twenty minutes to get there and a similar amount to get back. So, I will not be ready in an hour. With less than an hour left, I decide to follow the people flow with excellent results. I pass by what seems a historical neighbourhood with traditional houses. The place looks a little neglected, but that is part of its charm.

I enjoy wandering thru this part of the city. It feels like a small town if you forget about the six million souls living close by.

After a short walk, the street opens to a beautiful water canal. Here is where all the stream of people was going. I merge with the flow of families, couples and people shopping and taking pictures. I notice that just a couple of them are western tourists.

When it is time, I enter the Museum. It is of medium size and shows ancient items group by epoch and material. The place has a unique architecture and is well maintained. In the centre of the building, there is a beautiful Koi fish pool with a modern design. I am happy that there were tickets available.

My final stop is the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园). The garden has as many unique traditional buildings as beautiful views. Water is at the heard of the place with many bridges crossing it in different directions. I spend a long time walking all the corners of the garden. I enjoy the garden as the last place I will see today. It is getting late, and I exit towards the railroad station.

As I enter the Suzhou Station ticket office, I see several long queues. I patiently wait for my turn. After 10 minutes, the clerk says something in Chinese and a second queue appears for my window. I do not get what is going on. But, the rest of the people in my line seems to accept the new situation as normal. Both queues advance slowly.

When I am close enough to the window to see what is happening, I see that travellers are not getting tickets for the trains that they ask for. Many seats are sold out. Sold-out tickets are something I didn’t account for. I hope to get a ticket for 15:34. When I get to the clerk, after jumping in front of a guy from the second queue, I ask for a G train to Shanghai. The earlier one is at 15:55. Not bad. Travelling off-season makes my life more comfortable again. I am happy to have booked all the rest of the high-speed trains of the trip in advance.

I am very tired when I arrive in Shanghai. The trip to Suzhou has been a great idea. I got it suggested by a colleague at work and it has paid off.

Trip to China 2019-2020. Shanghai 14th.

As I arrive at Shanghai Pudong airport, I am very tired. I have not been able to sleep more than two hours during the nine hours flight.

My first goal is to get to the hotel and leave the backpack. I booked the same hotel than the last time I was in Shanghai. I quickly recognise the street and find my way into the lobby. Seventh Heaven Hotel lobby is on the seventh floor, very appropriate. 

The receptionist says out loud, without looking at me, that the check-in is at 14:00. That works for me. I want to leave the backpack and go to see the city. The receptionist decides to ask for my passport as an afterthought and checks for the reservation. I like that; I always like to solve any problem with the booking as soon as possible. Now, with increased energy, the receptionist offers to check me in right now in a two beds room as there is one already available. I happily accept as it is even better to be set up than to have to check-in after a day of visiting the city. I spend 10 minutes in the room, and I am ready to go outside.

I wander the city without any clear direction. I take one of the long roads and walk forward. Sooner or later, I will find interesting places. And I do. I notice a park, some shops, and directions to a temple.

I follow the signs and find the Jing’an Temple. The interior is noisy and full of people. Visitors are a mix of devotees and tourists. Some visitors are both. A several-meters-high brazier in the centre of the courtyard gets everybody attention. People are throwing coins and trying to get them inside the metal receptacle. It proves to be more difficult that it seems. One guy gives up after a couple of throwings and losing the coin. The temple has impressive halls that form intricate alleys. It is a fantastic place surrounded by high glass buildings.

As I still have some time remaining before sunset, I go to the park I saw earlier. Jingan Park, now I know its name. It is nothing out of the extraordinary, but it is a welcome stop in the busy city. There are trees with yellow, brown and red leaves. Last year I was too late to see the fall in Japan, this year I was too early in Osaka. It is nice to see the colours here. What it is just a short stop for me seems a delightful place for the neighbourhood residents. People are exercising, others are dancing, and there is a group playing a game where they keep kicking a small ball without letting it touch the ground. Jianzi (Chinese: 毽子) seems to be very popular in China. To play, you only need a weighted shuttlecock, one or more companions and good reflexes.

Going back to the hotel, I see a Christmas market. It has many well-done handicrafts and cheap, mass-produced items. So many things tempt me to buy something. But, anything that I buy now, I am going to carry it for the rest of the trip. I will be back to Shanghai, anyway.

I stop by a Food Hall in the pedestrian’s street close to the hotel. I buy some Japanese and French food. I am too tired to look for something else, and I have not found yet what I do like to eat in China. It has been a long day and only the first one of my trip.

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

I read “Cien años de soledad” in Spanish. Even if it took me some extra work to get a Spanish copy it would have been a missed opportunity to not read the original work.

The book is written from the perspective of the Buendía family. And this is where the strength of the book resides. Everything is described as seen by not only the eyes of the characters but also their minds.

When José Arcadio Buendía thinks that a magic carpet can fly, then it really flyes. García Márquez does not write an external interpretation of the characters thoughts, but a literal translation of those thoughts into the paper with their superstitions and personal perceptions.

Thru a rich and colourful language, the thoughts in the minds of the characters become real. The protagonists are selfish, pitiful, misguided but also compassionate. Their mindset is laid in front of the reader to examine and learn. From the vulnerability of children to the senility of old age all feelings are described truthfully for the reader to see.

Not only the main characters are shown as they see themselves. All society is described in the same terms. All the nonsense of war, the social changes that technology causes, the fight of workers for their rights, everything is written down in hyperbolic detail except that in its excess the writing shows the real feelings of the population.

Having grown up in Spain, I have seen the destructive power of the Buendía mindset that intensifies in little towns like the fictional Macondo. I can also sympathize with the historical views on Colombia’s society, many of them not so far away from the ones in Spain.

This is an indispensable book for anyone interested in the old mindset of Spanish speaking countries or just anyone that wants a deeper understanding of human nature.

Book cover. Cien años de soledad.

5/5 ★★★★ ★

Cien años de soledad
by Gabriel García Márquez
Publisher: Literatura Random House
Release Date: first published 1967

Faster Than Thought. A Symposium on digital computing machines by Bertram Vivian Bowden

To add some perspective, I can start by one of the book’s assessments: the longest prime number has 2,281 binary digits. As of July 2019, the longest prime number has 82 million binary digits. All thanks to computers.

The book starts with a brief history of computation. Bowden recognizes, at a time that it was not widely acknowledged, the contributions of Charles Babbage and Ada, Lady Lovelace, to computer science. The chapter is a charming recollection of the collaborations of the two scientists. Bowden got this information from Lady Wentworth, granddaughter of Ada. Beyond the recognition of Babbage and Lady Lovelace and the establishment of a historical base for the rest of the book, the chapter is incredibly insightful.

In the second chapter on circuit components of digital computers, amazes me to read “A digital computer may contain several thousand valves…”. The modern language and concepts make easy to forget when Bowden wrote the book. At the time of publishing the book, International Business Machines (IBM) was producing the IBM 701. The first IBM large-scale electronic computer manufactured in quantity. IBM created nineteen of these machines. Any software engineer should be familiar with this introduction. The examples are simple and straightforward. But, the chapter is very technical. The author explicitly states that you can skip this chapter if it’s too technical and enjoy the rest of the book. The format of the chapter is easy to recognize for any modern student. The author introduces Boolean logic, and the construction of AND/OR gates from valves – transistors in modern books – to later build more complex circuits like adders.

Part one concludes with a chapter dedicated to programming. The author writes about code optimization and even about an interpreter – that he calls automatic coding – that converts algebraic notation into machine code. Even at this early stage, loss in efficiency made economic sense in favour of making easier to write code.

Part two lists and describes electronic computing machines that existed at the time. The chapters are technical and illustrate different machine architectures. Many machines used Cathode ray tubes (CRT), but not as a display but as a device to store data. And failing valves rates was a major consideration on building these machines.
There are individual chapters for computers from the University of Manchester, Cambridge, National Physical Laboratory, Harwell, the Telecommunications Research Establishment, Imperial College, the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and Birkbeck College. Chapter 14 describes, with much less detail, some American computers like Mark I, ENIAC, UNIVAC, Whirlwind and others.

Part three contains predictions on what uses these new machines will have in the future.
The book predicts the use of computers for weather forecasting and acknowledges the limitations on the accuracy of the atmospheric data that can be gathered. But, there is no mention of Lorenz or chaos. As the chaos theory will not be born until eight years later when Edward Lorenz was using a computer to model atmospheric circulation.
Other topics covered are astronomy, physics, architecture, microeconomics and macroeconomics. All the chapters are practical, well informed, and look into a foreseeable future. All of them will become a reality in a few decades afterwards.
The exception to this practical approach is chapter 25. This chapter talks about digital computers applied to games, and Dr Turing wrote it in collaboration with the author. Most of the chapter follows the same practical style than the rest. But, the question “Could one make a machine which would answer questions put to it, in such a way that it would not be possible to distinguish its answer from those of a man?” is introduced here and will be part of the closing chapter of the book. For a few lines, the book dares to predict intelligence in machines. This is the only prediction that still has not become a reality.

The book is a product of its day. Its age makes it charming. The author and his many collaborators avoid daydreaming and instead introduce the realities of the computers of their time and forecast how computers will be used in the future. Their predictions will become a reality in the following decades. It is a book that is worth reading for its historical perspective and as a good example of good engineering thinking.

5/5 ★★★★ ★

“Faster Than Thought. A Symposium on digital computing machines ”
by Bertram Vivian Bowden
Publisher: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd.
Release Date: first published 1953
“Faster Than Thought” at Archive.org

June 2019 trip back to Barcelona, Spain

A trip back to Barcelona it is different than others. To start with, I use “back to” to express that Barcelona is still my second home. Most people know the city for its warm weather, for the architect Antoni Gaudí, and the many good places to eat. For me, it is my birthplace.

This is an opportunity to see family and friends. But, I will stay just three days and I will not be able to see everybody I would like.

Barcelona is a great city to walk around. And, it is probably the reason why walking is my prefered way of experiencing cities all around the world.

I go to Plaza Urquinaona to have breakfast with a friend. We drink coffee and exchange our stories since the last time we saw each other. That is six months ago. After a long talk, he leaves to work.

I have nothing else planned until lunch. I am on vacations, but not so my friends. So, I visit Gigamesh.

Gigamesh is my favourite science fiction book store in the world. A second close is Forbidden Planet in London. I leave without purchasing anything. But, with a mental wish list. I will come back later for a couple of books.

I continue my visit to the city. As I leave the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia, I find l’Hospital de Sant Pau. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The modernist architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner is not as well known as Gaudí, but many tourists that come to Barcelona will admire his buildings.

I go for lunch with my friends at one of the many franchise restaurants in Heron City. Actually, Heron City does not exist anymore as the owners have sold the shopping centre and now has a new name. There are always changes in such a big city.

It is a long lunch that extends into the evening. We had a lot to catch up.

Next day, I will meet more people. I have a tight schedule.

I eat breakfast at my parents’ apartment and afterwards leave to meet more people.

We have lunch in one of the many restaurants in the city. We stop to eat a refreshing gazpacho and drink sangria. Gazpacho is a dish original from Andaluzia but very popular everywhere else in summer. And it is a warm day.

In the evening, I go to my next meetup. We talk while walking in Montjuïc. It is a welcome change. Most of the talk happens around a table with food; this time I will burn some calories.

We pass by one of the waterfalls that feed the Font del Gat. Montjuïc has many unique places. But this one has its own song.

Baixant de la Font del Gat una noia, una noia,
baixant de la Font del Gat una noia i un soldat.

Pregunteu-li com se diu, Marieta, Marieta,
Pregunteu-li com se diu, Marieta de l’Ull Viu.

The three days pass fast. I have met a lot of people and seen some places in the city. Next time I will make sure to reach more people. It feels terrible to go back home and have missed friends.

Barcelona, you are my happiness.