Internet in China: experience from a visitor

In my recent trip in China I used Internet. I knew of the Chinese Firewall but I didn’t investigate much before going there. I just thought… I hope that I’ll have access to my small VPS server or to my home computer using ssh and from there I can just use SOCKS or something else if I need. I didn’t have any VPN at that point.

I couldn’t access google.com (but one can access google.hk, Hong Kong one). And I realized that I do access google.com more often that I thought… and I couldn’t access wikipedia.org (!!). Youtube.com is not accessible, facebook.com, twitter.com either. Or Dropbox: not possible either and I found out of Dropbox after uploading the photos of the trip when I was back in London and I shared the links to the Chinese friends (and sadly, and for first time, I paid one month of Dropbox to have more space… but wasn’t useful).

I could access without pr just quote) oblems my VPS server which was great! (and where I could share the photos after all).

I had my ssh + SOCKS server but from the two hotels where I was Internet connection was so slow! Downloading files from Europe was about 30 KB/s (just downloading, no SOCKS server or anything like this).

Some days I was just using SOCKS to have “normal Internet”. But some other days I was trying to use “Internet as Chinese use!”.

There are many dependencies with Google services: I wanted to download an app for the phone and the app store didn’t work. Or, the day that it surprised me the most: I bought an Easyjet plane ticket without problems, but then I was buying a ticket from Vueling.com. Interestingly during the process of buying the browser stop responding. I was having a look and the problem is that their website use some Javascript from Google: which was not available!

I asked a few people. The ones that they have international friends: they know how to use proxies and VPNs. The other ones, without international friends: they just live in the Chinese Internet.

Reading in a few places, like Wikipedia, it seems and I just mention what was there that they do this for control and also to help Chinese alternatives (and I guess that they can control the Chinese alternatives better than international ones).

A few things that I observed in China

In China I tried to keep my eyes opened as much as I could. I also have my camera handy all the time to try to take pictures of things that I see and that I don’t want to forget.

A few things that I observed and that I haven’t seen much in other places…

Chinese sit to take breaks in a squad position
I saw many people using their phones or just resting on a squat position (almost sitting on the floor). I can’t stay in that position for long time, Chinese seem that they can.

I have the theory that they are used to that position a bit more than Westerns because they have quite a lot of toilets that are only the hole on the ground (without the toilet seat) so they are more trained.

A Chinese said to me that she knew some Westerns that they had to take breaks when using the toilet! Like a few minutes squatting, then standing up, squat again!

On the underground: Chinese use mobiles
I saw many people using their phones on the underground… but I realized when I was back to London that Chinese don’t read newspapers on the underground! They don’t seem to have anything like “Metro” or “Evening Standard” (free newspapers). Also, some people read books but I’d say that fewer than in London.

They walk backwards (for exercise)
Every now and then, specially in parks, I saw people walking backwards. I asked why: they think that it’s good for the health, specially if it’s on a slope.

I tried it and I have to say… I liked it! I could feel that I used different muscles than walking forwards.

Benches app (for iPhone)

Finally the app is live! Available for iPhone users! You can find the benches near you! Get it from the iTunes store.

A friend of mine from eVolutive and I (more him than me) have create an app for iPhone where you can find benches near you. It uses the data from Open Street Map.

Why we did an app to show the benches around us?
I had the idea when I was walking the London LOOP. Quite often I asked myself: should I stop here and eat my lunch or keep walking and find a bench? How long for? Is there a bench nearby that I can’t see?

I looked around and OpenStreetMap has benches (obviously not all, and the quality of the data depends on the zone). Using OsmAnd I could, after fiddling with the user interface, see the benches. But it was complicated and not user friendly.

At the same time my grandfather had mobility problems because of his age. I thought that in years to come I might have the same problems as him, and at that point I better have an app like Benches so I can get out and when I need I can search benches nearby to take a break. He won’t use it because he is not into gadgets and technology, but when I’m old I hope that I’ll still like playing with phones or the technology that we will have at that time. So I thought I should start the app now and keep adding benches as I go because when I’ll be 80 years old I might need the benches there, and not adding them.

So, if you like, search for “Benches” on the iTunes store and test it. If benches are missing in the app you can add them in OpenStreetMap (using the usual OpenStreetMap tools) and in about one week they will be imported into the Benches app.

Ah, and last but not least: Benches app also shows drinking fountains and toilets. We might add more things or show other things in the future but we want to keep it simple and not reimplement OsmAnd or a mapping app.

Two surprises from China

My recent trip to China was all very good… and I had two good surprises due to some misconceptions.

I liked the food
I was in China for 2 full weeks and… I liked the food! Actually, I didn’t get bored with the food. One reason is that I was very well guided to the very big variety of food that they have there.

I had two misconceptions:
a) I thought that almost all the food was based on rice and noodles. I thought that during 2 weeks I would have to eat rice or noodles every day… and it’s not the case. They have lot of food without rice and noodles are common but there are options
b) I thought that lot of Chinese food would be spicy. I don’t particularly enjoy spicy food and I didn’t fancy eating spicy food for the whole two weeks. I ate some spicy food but it was easy to avoid, and actually it wasn’t too spicy, even by my standards.

After discovering the very good Chinese food in China food I learnt that London China town has lot of Cantonese food because the first immigrants were from Hong Kong, since it was easier for them to come to London than mainland Chinese.

In that 2 weeks I almost didn’t repeat any dish! This is quite amazing!

They are much cleaner than I thought
I knew that Chinese people spat. I knew that some Chinese restaurants in Barcelona got closed because they were not clean enough. I knew that Chinese restaurants are usually cheap (why so cheap? Bad food? Bad process?). And that Chinese restaurants cut the meat in very small pieces (suspicious, is it because the meat has low quality and they cut it small to hide the bad quality meat, compared with a cut of steak?). Because of all this inputs I expected the hotels to be dirty, and the restaurants to be filthy. I was very wrong.

Staff in restaurants used gloves, fast food chains used masks to avoid contaminating the food while talking across the food. In some places the glasses and bowls were wrapped in plastic to avoid getting dirty while on the table. The hotels were very clean. I have no complain at all!

It’s true that, in some very cheap places where I could see how they prepared the meat, I saw things falling on a dirty floor and being put back again to cook. But that was in very cheap restaurants, almost street food.

Regarding the meat being cut in small pieces: besides creating some more work places, it’s more energy efficient to cook meat cut in small pieces than in big pieces (like a steak). Now even this makes sense! And, of course, it’s chopstick friendly!

Table tennis in China

When I came back from China a few friends asked me: did you play table tennis? How it was?

Well, I think that this was the biggest failure of my trip. I didn’t play! I didn’t see them playing! And I tried, quite hard!

As mentioned, I have a friend in Dalian (north-East China) and she doesn’t play table tennis. This is not a big problem: she has a colleague who plays (I suspect that only socially, not as a sport or at a competitive level). I thought that joining the friend’s colleague I would go to some recreation centre, sport club, etc. in Dalian where I could play with the friend’s colleague and then maybe with some other people as well, since I thought that the Chinese would be excited to show how to play a foreigner. Sadly she had a last minute health problem and couldn’t make it… and she had a backup plan but the backup person couldn’t make it either.

Two weeks before I went to China I posted a message to the CouchSurfing Beijing group. Three people answered:
a) A Canadian guy who plays but we couldn’t meet
b) A German girl who also likes playing (and we couldn’t meet either) (at that time I was thinking… why only non-Chinese!?)
c) A Chinese girl who… DOESN’T PLAY!

I expected more Chinese to answer the message. Maybe CouchSurfing is not that popular in China but it was a bit of a disappointment.

In Beijing I had some more free time and I thought that I would search on my own. I had a few options:
a) Sports street. I found on the Internet that there is a street full of table tennis shops near Heaven’s temple. I went there, saw the shops but didn’t see where to play.
b) “Some vague references” from the Internet. Apparently there is a shopping mall in Wangfujing Dajie and very nearby a table tennis club. I walked the street twice but I didn’t find the mentioned shopping mall (for which I even had the name) and then I ran out of time. I wanted to see the shopping mall and ask where to play.
c) Parks. Internet suggests that many parks (and one in particular) have table tennis tables and Chinese people plays there. Actually the weather was good enough for this. I did walk in many parks, tourist and non-tourist parks. I swear that I didn’t find any table tennis table! I did find people playing cards, Chinese chess, dancing, Tai-Chi, singing opera, etc. but not table tennis.

I was expecting more table tennis tables, perhaps not everywhere but in many places. I understand that I didn’t search for the clubs and recreation places properly, but I didn’t because I thought that it would be easier to play in the parks.

I plan to go to China again – next time I’ll go better prepared, at least with GPS coordinates with tables where to play!

Top 10 things to avoid in Beijing… or not?

Recently I came back from China. I stayed there 2 weeks, about one week in Dalian (because of a friend) and another in Beijing. It has been an eye-opening experience: I had many misconceptions of China for different reasons -I’ll explain in another blog post.

I bought a Beijing’s guide and I really recommend it. It’s “Top 10 Beijing” from “Eyewitness Travel”. It has Top 10 lists: Top 10 to see, Top 10 per zones, Top 10 restaurants, Top 10 museums, etc. and the guide is easy to navigate (it has some mistakes but nothing big).

The guide has “Top 10 things to avoid”. I liked it and I thought that it was quite clever and funny, but after being there I would take it with a pinch of salt. Let’s review what the book says and what my experience was.

1.- Students of English
The guide says that so-called “language students” on the street are con-artists (“scammers”) and they try to invite you to have tea… and they have a deal with the tea-shop owner so they over-charge you (to hundreds of £ or €).

No English student approached me, but talking with some Chinese friends they know some foreigners that had this problem. So it seems good advice!

2.- Queuing
The book says that Chinese don’t do queues well.

My experience: they are not perfect queues… but in all the time I was there only once (to enter Tiananmen square) I had to really push back while queuing. The queues are much more compact than English queues (no “personal space”). But, if you come to my zone in London and observe the “queue” to board the bus: it’s a disorganized group of people blocking the whole pavement. They don’t usually move when other pedestrians want to just walk through. As a fun note: the queue is perfect on the same bus route but at the other end, near Waterloo station.

3.- Taking Offence at Spitting
The guide book seems to indicate that everyone spits all the time. Yes, they do spit, but not as much as I thought. I didn’t need to jump to avoid any spits. And, again, I’ve seen people in London spitting or even peeing on the streets.

4.- Rush Hour
The book says that Beijing’s traffic is bad and rush hour should be avoided. It’s bad, but it didn’t affect me much: I could still get on the underground trains easily. In the morning I used the underground a bit after the rush hour. But yes, the traffic looked very bad.

5.- Art Students
The book says that art students might try to sell over-priced “art objects”. It didn’t happen to me: no art student approached me. Probably they approach people better-dressed than me. If I were an art student con-artist I wouldn’t approach myself!

6.- Guides
The book says that some tourist guides are very bad (that they don’t give much information, etc.). I have no experience here… someone approached me but I said my polite “No, thank you” and they didn’t insist much.

7.- Visiting Sights on National Holidays
I avoided Chinese New Year to avoid the problems mentioned in the book. I was told that the Great Wall and other places are overcrowded.

8.- Sweet and Sour Chicken
I didn’t see any “Sweet and Sour Chicken”, but probably it’s in some tourist restaurants that I didn’t go. It’s common in Chinese restaurants in my hometown near Barcelona and I think that also in Camden Town in London.

9.- Public toilets
The book says that they smell bad. They smell like… public toilets! (would you expect them to smell like flowers? No, right? no surprise then). And they are free. And almost everywhere! (even in underground stations). In London one needs to pay and quite often they still smell bad and they are hard to find.

10.- Taking a taxi without the Right Change
The book says that “Beijing taxi drivers hardly ever seem to carry any change”. I asked some Chinese friends and they said that they do have change. The book is written by a foreigner so my guess is that maybe some taxi drivers tried to not give change back to him.

Something that usually happens to me: when I read some lists like the “Top 10 things to avoid” or similar: I tend to imagine that the situation is worse than it is. If it says “they spit” I think that everyone spits on my feet all the time. And yes, they do spit but not that much!

Ubuntu shampoo

Ubuntu is a well known GNU/Linux distribution. As I mentioned here it’s also a softdrink: Ubuntu cola.

Just recently I was told that there is Ubuntu shampoo! I bought it and here it is:
ubuntu-shampoo

Chronojump, here I go!

Here there is the first commit that I’ve done into the chronojump repository. Not a big commit… but the first one. It includes a mistake in the commit message as well.

Also, there is also a tiny (at the moment, but we have plans!) chronojump-server git repository. The API is not doing much yet (no API does much in the beginning, we needed to experiment a bit with the technologies) but I just need time to type what I have in my brain.

At the beginning of 2015 I mentioned here that a few of the things that I had had “pending to do” for a while had started moving, and one of them is collaborating with the Chronojump project. It’s not the first time that I’ve done something with Xavi (an author here in Pintant). From 2009 to 2013 I hosted the chronojump server (specially for the forums and the homepage). Since then I helped to move it to another well connected server of a friend of mine and then lastly to Chronojump’s own server (a VPS machine in Gandi).

Now there are a few plans and ideas for the new API. If you want to know more probably the best idea is to keep looking at new code in chronojump’s Git!

Mendeley CSL Locales

I don’t talk often of my day job at Mendeley here… but this time I can’t stop myself.

Finally, Mendeley Desktop supports CSL Locales! In Mendeley we use the Citation Style Language and citeproc-js to render the citations and the bibliographies. A year ago I talked here about the CSL project (what is the CSL project? and how Mendeley helps the CSL project).

Now, in Mendeley Desktop version 1.13.4, the user can choose easily (View -> Citation Styles -> More Styles… bottom of that dialog) which language should be used to render the citations and the bibliography. I opened the internal Mendeley Desktop ticket in 2010 but we always had something more urgent to implement. We even decided to implement journal abbreviations before CSL Locales.

But I added gettext support to Pydance (in 2008 or 2009) and I implemented gettext support in Grub (back in 2009 and 2010). I talk about Mendeley with non-English users (especially when I travel back to Barcelona…) and I really wanted to implement the CSL Locales properly (we had a work around, not user friendly at all, for people who contacted support).

Anyway, I’m very happy that I got the time to implement it and finally release it! Even though this is just a step towards a better multilingual support: we’ve found a few problems with the Chinese locale and some styles might need a bit of improvement for some languages, etc. We need to collect feedback for a while. But here I am, happier than without CSL Locales.

My tenth Fosdem: 2015

A few weekends ago I went to Fosdem… again! It was my tenth Fosdem, I’ve been every year since 2006! I’ve mentioned it here on the blog almost every year.

And, like always: full of interesting talks, some devrooms were full which affected me for the automation and testing room and almost for the Mozilla room. But with about 25 talks at the same time it’s easy to find something else interesting and not full.

Also, I could meet or greet many friends from Catalonia and also other friends from the UK (Mendeley ex-colleagues, London Python Code Dojo guys… not to mention a few work colleagues).

One interesting moment of Fosdem 2015 was to see Larry Wall, the creator of Perl. I used Perl for a few years, more than 10 years ago. Nowadays I prefer Python but even though nowadays I prefer Python my first scripting language was Perl. And finally there will be Perl 6 before Christmas 2015! (Larry Wall said).

A very entertaining talk was the closing keynote about Mars One – a project where they want to send 4 people, in 2015, to live on Mars. It’s one-way ticket and they plan to keep sending 4 people every year to have a stable population on Mars. I find it unbelievable!

Then I also attended many talks in the LibreOffice room, Mozilla room, desktop, etc.

And because I’ve been to Fosdem before I usually know which speakers I like the most, and which ones I don’t like much (some of then repeat). One of them that I try to go regardless of the topic is Michal Meeks: his talks about LibreOffice (usually opimization, technical debt, etc.) are always interesting.

And now is the countdown for the next Fosdem!