China — a photographic update

In February, work took me to China, my stay there bookended by a weekend each in Beijing and Shanghai — time enough for some long  walks with my new go-anywhere camera, the minuscule Panasonic Lumix GM1 with the legendary 20mm F1.7 lens.

Beijing: This was my first time back since I last lived here three years ago, so I wanted to visit all my old haunts, to update my mental map of the place. The pollution reading stood at 500+, so the hazy beige hue to every view became a photographic subject in its own right. On frozen Qianhai lake, meanwhile, everyone was having huge amounts of fun avoiding collisions on the ice:

Skating on Qianhai lake in Beijing, Feb 2014 from Stefan Geens on Vimeo.

Tiananmen Square:

Shanghai: Having just read some works by Lu Xun, China’s literary giant of the 20th century, I decided to explore Hongkou, the northern section of town where he lived and where today you can visit the Lu Xun Museum and his home.

This time around I kept noticing Shanghai’s architectural heritage from the 1920s and 30s, so had a go capturing some of it. More and more of these buildings are (finally) being renovated, as opposed to just being demolished.

View of Pudong past an earlier generation of highrises:


Here’s a street vendor deep in Hongkou with whom I was having a pleasant chat until being rudely interrupted by the Chengguang, urban thugs in police uniform:

Here’s the set of all 18 edited photos from the trip.

In search of Saidullah, the glassmaker of Herat

If you visit Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm by March 2, you’ll come across 100+1, a wonderful retrospective exhibition by Elliot Erwitt.

When I visited, I was intrigued by a fleeting reference in the exhibition’s introductory text to a documentary attributed to Erwitt — The Glassmakers of Herat.


Anything that mentions Herat tends to catch my interest. Herodotus wrote about the city, Alexander the Great fortified it, the Ghurid Dynasty built it up, Genghis Khan sacked it, Tamerlane rebuilt it… Herat is also featured in some of my favorite modern travelogues: In Freya Stark’s book The Minaret of DJam, she narrates a trek across Afghanistan in 1968 that ends in Herat. In Rory Stewart’s The places in Between, he describes his walk in 2002 from Herat to Kabul.

When I later googled the title of the documentary, I immediately found it on YouTube, where it has recently been added:

The film describes how in 1968 a US pyrotechnical research expedition stumbled upon a glassmaking family in Herat still using methods first described on cuneiform tablets. In 1977, a team headed by Robert Brill, a research scientist at the Corning Museum of Glass, returned to Herat to film this living cultural patrimony, taking Erwitt along as director of photography.

The film shows two cousins, “Saifullah and Saidullah”, collecting and preparing the raw materials — stones from a nearby riverbed, ash from a desert bush, scrap copper — to produce their distinctive blue glassware. Then, in an epilogue filmed in 1979, we hear Brill warn how new strife in Afghanistan threatens the livelihood of these glassmakers. He concludes:

It’s entirely possible that the glassmaking recorded on this film could have been the last time in history that glass was ever to have been made in this way.

I wanted to find out what had happened to Saifullah and Saidullah. Did they and their livelihood survive the traumas of Afghanistan’s most recent decades? Little did I know my search would end a few weeks later with me holding their glass in my hands.

Continue reading In search of Saidullah, the glassmaker of Herat

2013: What just happened?

Here’s my year in review, mainly for the benefit of my future self. Apologies in advance for the selfie-ness of this post.

In February, after a layover in Paris to visit the Louvre, I made it to Rabat, to give a workshop on Internet security to Middle East activists, on behalf of the Swedish Institute. The main message: Be afraid and be vigilant; it is relatively easy for state agents to infiltrate your laptop and your mobile phone. Those warnings now seem quaint in light of Edward Snowden’s later revelations.

I then took the train to Fez, which had been the highlight of my trip the first time I was in Morocco, in 1991, when I backpacked all the way to Marrakesh. In the intervening 22 years, Morocco has metamorphosed into a remarkably modern country. Even Fez has changed, from a dirt-poor medieval city to a tourist destination with trendy Internet cafés and boutique hotels. The main question now: How will Fez’s famous tanneries navigate modernity? The dirty, smelly process is a photogenic tourist magnet, but it’s unhealthy for the guild workers, and uncompetitive with modern industrial processes. I took my first gigapixel photo there, to document an endangered cultural heritage:

I visited London in March, to meet an ailing friend — it turns out, for the last time. I helped bury her late in July.

Late April headed to Chongqing for a week, to see the remarkable metamorphosis of this city for myself, and to recalibrate my intuitions about China after two years of being away. I spent my days walking the streets, riverbanks and mushrooming new housing complexes, and practiced my bad but improving Chinese on the very friendly locals. Chongqing exudes a giddy optimism tempered only by the pollution that now ails all China’s cities. I did not see my shadow once all week, despite the “fair” weather.

I also headed to Chengdu for the day, via high-speed rail, streaking across a fertile basin where the occasional blurred peasants could still be seen toiling in their rice paddies.

My Chongqing photo set on Flickr.

Below is a series of video vignettes from my trip to Chongqing:

In May I attended the Stockholm Internet Forum, when it was still possible to believe that we have little to fear from the state when it comes to safeguarding human rights on the Internet. I wrote about the cause for The Local, here and here.

Early June saw me in New York and Washington DC, for my annual pilgrimage to these cultural capitals and the friends that live there. News of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing broke while I attended Personal Democracy Forum in NYC, and it electrified the audience. Little did we know what lay in store.

Summer is best in Sweden, so I spent most of it there. First, I entertained some Belgian friends visiting Stockholm; then, I helped a friend sail his gleaming new sailboat from southern Sweden to Stockholm.

Early August, I finally managed to properly visit Scotland, driving to Skye from Glasgow with friends and spending the days walking the fells. In a fortunate bit of timing, we got see the Highland Games in Portree.

Here’s the Flickr photo set of that trip.

Later in August I attended Sweden Social Web Camp on an island off the southern Swedish coast. It’s where Sweden’s geek squad goes to hang out with kindred spirits, and a great way to recharge the batteries at summer’s end.

In September, everyone at Söderhavet, where I work, headed for Biarritz, to brainstorm the company’s future.

From there it was just a short hop to San Sebastian, the culinary capital of Europe, where we ate very well indeed.

Back in July I had pre-ordered an Swedish bitcoin mining computer, so that I could get my hands dirty with cryptocurrencies and properly understand their mechanics, rather than just theorize about them from afar. The machine arrived late October, just as bitcoin hype headed for the stratosphere, along with its value. Great timing.

KnCMiner Mercury

Early November I was in Berlin for the marriage of an old friend from my days in New York.

At Söderhavet, after a year in development, we launched Sweden’s new global identity and a revamp of its official information portal, to rave reviews.

Later in November, I once again headed to China for a week — this time, back to Shanghai, and for the first time to Suzhou and Nanjing. The trip was prompted in part by cheap tickets, a desire to catch up with my Chinese teacher in Shanghai (we continue to have Skype lessons twice a week) and other friends, but also by a newfound appreciation for the historical importance of Suzhou and Nanjing after having read a bunch of books about the Taiping civil war this past year. In Nanjing I visited the Taiping war museum, but also the Nanjing Massacre museum, which memorializes the Rape of Nanjing, where in a space of 6 weeks the invading armies of the Japanese killed over 250,000 civilians. I found it to be very moving, and remarkably restrained; yet it’s clear the place also serves as a Masada for Chinese conscripts.

As usual, I headed to Antwerp for Christmas, to spend it with my parents, my sister, and her thriving family. Before flying back out of Schiphol, I managed to visit Amsterdam‘s newly reopened Rijksmuseum after its 10-year renovation. State of the art.

Best book I read in 2013: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen R. Platt. It brought me all the way to Nanjing.

Best iPhone game I played in 2013: Letterpress, at which I am oddly unbeatable. There was also a late surge by Kami, but I finished that too quickly.

Best computer game I played in 2013: BioShock Infinite. Just so beautiful.

Best new tech: Easy — my Oculus Rift. Here’s why.

Best Film: Gravity.

My last ever Facebook post went something like this:

It’s become increasingly clear that Facebook has been breaking my Internet, and so my New Year’s resolution this year is to delete my account.

Sure, Facebook is convenient, but at far too high a systemic cost. Let’s list the ways:

  • Facebook friend bias: I know all about the people who post prolifically. Some of my best friends, however, don’t post often, or ever. Facebook provides a semblance of being in touch with friends, but that’s not actually the case. Instead, in 2014, I’ll be making a real effort to stay up to date with the friends that matter, one on one.
  • Too many Likes: Likes are cheap and easy, and so is the occasional facile one-liner, but that is now a problem — they are an awful proxy for actual conversation, which gets crowded out. I want my communication to get harder again because that is the price of meaningful conversation.
  • Proprietary and closed: Facebook’s business model depends on mediating relationships within a proprietary format. Open data has no place in this vision. Facebook disincentivizes timeline actions where the content and subsequent conversation is held off-platform, because it cannot monetize them there. Sure, Twitter and Linkedin have a similar problem, but these platforms are just now far less ubiquitous than Facebook. It’s Facebook’s size that undermines the sustainability of an open web, so I feel I should help mitigate the problem by withdrawing my vote.
  • Low signal to noise: Twitter is far better at telling me what I should read online. Linkedin is more relevant for work. Flickr has far higher quality photos. Feedly is getting smarter about which articles in my RSS feed collection I should pay attention to. Facebook is best as a tool for procrastination through meme propagation — and that is probably something I need less of.
  • Panopticon: Hey NSA, let me help you make your haystack a little smaller by removing my bit of it.
  • You are not a gadget: To paraphrase Jaron Lanier, I am not my Facebook account. Facebook is an imperfect window into my soul. A far better soul-baring tool would be my blog. Recently, I’ve had a real urge to start writing longer-format stuff again. Facebook becomes a distraction.

I’ve always suspected it could end this way with Facebook, so I’ve made sure since the start to hedge my investment in this platform: I’ve never uploaded media exclusively to Facebook, but linked instead to Flickr and my own sites, even when Facebook started throttling the eyeballs for such posts. I also made sure to never use Facebook as my single sign-on. As a result, the severing should be relatively bloodless.

I’ll leave this post up until the end of January 1 before doing the deed. From now on, do reach me at I also have some great posts planned for See you on the other side. Happy New Year!

Update: I feel I should add a screenshot of the Facebook comments this post generated: Continue reading My last ever Facebook post went something like this: