2012 began with a new year’s resolution — to learn how to cook — and throughout the year the results of my efforts were regularly foisted upon friends, none of whom appeared to suffer visible ill effects.
One emergent theme for 2012 was visiting — in many cases revisiting after many years — European cities. In February a skiing holiday in Switzerland with friends was twinned with a visit to Zurich (cue the Kunsthaus) and Bern. A work visit to Malmö led to a jaunt across the Öresund to Copenhagen (cue the Glyptotek and the National Gallery). A birthday party took me to London in April, and June saw my annual pilgrimage to New York (cue Personal Democracy Forum) and Washington DC. Late July saw me spend a weekend in Prague on a whim, and in October I touched base with friends in Berlin:
In November I finally made it to Bilbao (to visit the Guggenheim after trying all these years), while a layover in Frankfurt led to a brisk walk through that city. November also saw me visit old friends in London (cue a great photo exhibit at the Barbican) and December, finally, saw a return to Amsterdam (cue the renovated Stedelijk Museeum).
Family was also in the picture, of course: Easter was spent in Antwerp (with a family excursion to the newly opened MAS), and my parents and sister and her family came to Sweden in July, to spend a week on the island of Utö in the Stockholm archipelago, where we rented a house and some bikes and went exploring daily. I visited with my sister and her family South of London in November, and of course the entire family reunited in Antwerp for Christmas.
As for what I actually did… My Chinese slowly got better, via Skype lessons with my teacher Rose in Shanghai. Together with the digital design agency Söderhavet we pitched to build Sweden’s new digital identity, and in June we won the contract. By October this collaboration had resulted in me working there full-time, including on a number of other big Swedish clients.
In July I was invited by Sweden’s national geospatial agency to discuss location-based services at Almedalen, Sweden’s annual political talking shop in Visby, on Gotland. In September I helped the Swedish Institute with their Young Leaders Visitors’ Program, giving a talk on cybersecurity. I continued blogging about Google Earth, although at a much reduced pace, but also did some research for Google in that space. In December, unexpectedly, one of my 360-degree panoramas was enlarged to room size and used in an exhibit about Japan in Florence:
The weirdest thing that happened me this year is that I was apparently bitten by a tick while on Utö. An initial fever died down long enough for the visit to Prague, only to return with a vengeance. It took several visits to the doctor and then seeing double before a lumbar puncture confirmed tick-borne encephalitis. As a result, most of August was spent overtired and feverish on the sofa, channel-hopping between the Olympics and Animal Planet.
And that, as succinctly as I can put it, was 2012. Meanwhile, 2013 is well underway. My new year’s resolution this year: To never use Swedish cash again. It’s proving far too easy.
360-degree panoramas featuring people are the most engaging, though these are also more complicated to produce: Moving subjects can only be captured within a single image; they do not take kindly to being stitched together across images.
For my panoramas, I’ve settled on shooting and stitching six photos around plus one each for the zenith and nadir. This way, people standing quite close to the camera can still be captured in their entirety, like so:
The 6+2 setup is quite conventional, and a number of different camera-lens pairings cater to it.
I began making panoramas in 2008 with a Nikon D300 and the Nikon 10.5mm DX fisheye lens. I have been happy with the results, though since around 2010 I often felt I was pushing the limits of what the camera could do. In this panorama, for example, I wish the camera had given me more dynamic range to play with; and reducing noise was a battle:
Shooting people requires a certain minimum shutter speed, and with my fish-eye lenses performing optimally at an f-number of around 8 to 11, low-light situations force higher ISOs, where my D300 was being seriously outclassed by the newer Nikon D3s.
Still, I wanted my next camera to muster significantly more than 12 million pixels, because panoramas are made to be zoomed into. And thus I came to own the new 36-megapixel Nikon D800, used in conjunction with the Nikon 16mm full-frame fisheye lens for the same 6+2 panorama setup. I chose the D800 over the 16-megapixel D4 despite the latter’s superlative high-ISO performance, because early reviews pointed to the D800′s flexibility — high resolution by default, with downsampling ably reducing noise in low-light situations.
With the D800 in hand, I’ve been curious to quantify image quality vs other Nikon models when shooting panoramas, so I took my D300 and D800, my friend Paul and his 16-megapixel D7000, and a D4 very kindly lent for the occasion by Rajala Camera in Stockholm, to the Östasiatiska Museum, to shoot a suitably dark, contrasty scene in constant light.
The D7000 and D300, being DX cameras, were kitted with the 10.5mm fisheye. The D800 was tested with both the 10.5mm and 16mm lenses (in DX and FX mode, respectively), while the D4 was only tested with the 16mm lens (since attaching the 10.5mm DX lens would result in too small an image to be usable). With the f-number set to 8 for both lenses, I took a series of identical shots with all cameras: 15 seconds at 100 ISO, 4 seconds at 400 ISO, 2 seconds at 800 ISO, 1 second at 1600 ISO and 1/2 second at 3200 ISO. That’s five different camera-lens pairings at five different ISOs, for a total of 25 comparison shots.
I processed the RAW files with Capture NX2 at constant settings to TIFFs, without noise reduction but removing chromatic aberration. Also, to equalize the luminosity across all images, when processing the RAW files I underdeveloped the D800 and D4 shots by one stop, the D7000 by 1/2 stop and the D300 by 2/3 stop. The resulting comparison image looks something this:
I ended up focusing on three specific areas (highlighted), as they allowed me to reach specific conclusions on sensor noise, image definition and lens quality, respectively. The following composite images are compiled directly from the TIFFs in Photoshop, and saved as 24-bit PNGs.
Looking at actual pixels near the center of the photograph, where the optics for both lenses are at their sharpest, we can conclude that:
Noise levels for the D300 and D7000 are about the same across all ISOs, though the D7000 manages this with 33% more pixels than the D300.
The D4 handily outperforms all other cameras in terms of noise, including the D800, as expected. I give the D4 approximately a 1.5-stop lead over the D800 (in both DX and FX mode). The D800 in turn has a 1-stop lead over the D7000 and D300.
When looking at a section of the image containing information at the very limit of the sensor’s resolution, we can see that:
In terms of raw resolving power, the D800-16mm pairing is in a league of its own. The 16mm fisheye can obviously deliver the necessary sharpness to feed those 36 megapixels, to good effect.
All 5 camera-lens pairings show colored text artefacts, even at 100 ISO, I assume due to the specific nature of the sensors’ color filter array. It left me wondering how it would look on a D800E, which omits the D800′s anti-aliasing filter.
Looking at the camera-lens pairings in the three center columns — all of them delivering around the same resolution — the D4 easily outperforms its immediate neighbors as the ISOs begin to climb. Although the D800-16mm combo in the far-right column also gains noise as the ISOs climb, it continues to return the highest-definition image.
This model boat sits at the very edge of the image, where lens performance typically drops off versus the center. When stitching images into a panorama, these edge areas are for the most part masked out, though there will often be parts that make into the final composite. The ability to preserve sharpness in these edge areas is therefore important to the overal technical quality of a panorama.
What can we conclude here?
The 16mm fisheye clearly outperforms the 10.5mm fisheye. When paired with the D300 at 100 ISO, the 10.5mm does appear almost as sharp as the D4-16mm combo, but that’s because the D300 only resolves 12 million pixels. The 10.5mm’s shortcomings are more obvious when used with the D7000 and D800, on account of these cameras’ higher pixel counts.
The 16mm can ably sustain the D800′s 36 megapixels, even along its edges, though perhaps not with total crispness. While still providing more information than the D4-16mm pairing, I suspect the 16mm reaches the limit of its abilities with the D800. I wonder if a D800E would be able to eke out some extra detail here; my hunch is not.
D4 vs D800:
Having taken all these shots, I was curious how the D4-16mm would stack up against the D800-16mm in terms of noise and definition at 3200 ISO, if we downsample the D800′s 36-megapixel output to the same 16 megapixels as the D4.
In this composite image, The rightmost three columns contain images derived from the same original, but processed differently. Noise reduction in the rightmost two columns was conducted with Nik Software’s Dfine 2 plugin for Photoshop, but only slightly, at around 40% of maximum, to match the D4′s unprocessed output as closely as possible.
The results are mixed:
At 3200 ISO, the D4 still shows slightly lower noise than the downsampled D800 image. Applying some noise reduction to the D800 image (before or after downsampling) brings the noise in line with that of the D4, though with a residual loss of nuance, for example in the shades of gray on the cap at the top. I suspect this is because the D4 manages to preserve more dynamic range at the ISOs begin to climb. (DxOMark tests give the D4 about a 1-stop advantage at 3200 ISO.)
In terms of definition, however, the downsampled D800 has the advantage. The text in the lower part of the composite image is borderline-legible with the D800, but not quite with the D4. Also worth noting is that the colored text artefacts have completely disappeared from the D800′s downsampled output, whereas the D4 will need further post-processing to remove them.
While the D300-10.5mm pairing evenly matches lens quality with the demands of the sensor, the D7000-10.5mm and D800-10.5mm pairings do not, with the 10.5mm lens proving too soft along the edges.
The D800-16mm pairing offers the highest resolving power. Even when downsampled to match the D4′s output, the D800 maintains an edge.
The D4-16mm pairing offers the best low-light versatility, holding on to tonal gradations longer as ISO increases.
In sum, no laws of physics were broken. If you want to check these conclusions yourself, I have the original TIFFs and NEFs available for download via my DropBox. Note, there’s 5.5 GB of files in total, though you can download individual files.
What next? I was surprised by how usable the D800′s output still is at 3200 ISO, given a little noise reduction. Perhaps in subsequent tests between the D4 and D800 it would be interesting to push the ISOs even higher, to see where the D800′s higher noise completely erodes its resolution advantage over the D4.
Then there is room for a sensor that bridges the strengths of these two cameras; the Canon 5D MkIII may be in that spot, and a rumored 24-megapixel Nikon D600 FX camera may join it there. It would be interesting to expand the scope of this comparison to other brands, and to other lens pairings.
And finally, this test doesn’t look at whether the D800 or the D800E is the better camera for panoramas, though I suspect the limitations of the 16mm fisheye may be the defining factor for that question.
Check out the previous post for what I was up to during the first quarter of 2011.In late May I travelled to Ottawa for my friend Sumee’s wedding. Non-wedding highlight was the Canadian Museum of Civilization that in a few hours fed me a volume’s worth of Canadian history, including the fascinating story of Chinese immigration to Canada. In the National Gallery of Canada I was surprised by the paintings of the Group of Seven, and their similarity in style to the Scandinavian painters of the time. There really is something to that northern light.
Ottawa itself was delightfully unpretentious, and the scenery a bit more dramatic than I would have guessed — here are the locks of the Rideau Canal:
Then onwards to DC and NYC for the now-annual catch-up with friends. In NYC I also attended the Personal Democracy Forum, to soak up ideas on how Internet and society are increasingly intertwined, with repercussions for the balance of power between state, citizen and corporation. That interest would later bloom into a new blog, Dliberation.org.
Then for some face time with my godson, and of course his parents, on an island in Greece. The islands seem as timeless as ever, but Athens, where I was able to spend a few days, was reeling from the crisis. In addition to the economic and political meltdown they were experiencing, Athenians were undergoing a collective mental depression: A good number of people in the streets had a barely disguised look of desperation, though they were keeping up appearances. I made a pilgrimage to the brave branch of McDonald’s on Syntagma square that protesters keep on bashing in every time a scapegoat is required. It was a great vantage point for people-watching through brand new windows. I admit I did go to Greece blaming the Greeks collectively for their troubles, but came away feeling sorry for everybody involved in this mess. Democracy is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for good governance.
In the National Archaeological Museum the impressive collection became sublime when I found the display housing the Antikythera mechanism, a Greek astronomical clock 15 centuries before its time that I had read much about but had no inkling was on display.
I also visited the recently inaugurated Acropolis Museum. It was impressive — perhaps a bit too impressive in terms of the architecture, whose monumentalism is a bit superfluous at the foot of the real Acropolis, while the art runs the risk of being dwarfed by it.
See the whole Flickr set from Greece.And then there was the Acropolis itself, once more, this time at sunset and armed with only an iPhone 4. It turned out to be an interesting exercise in letting an artistic constraint guide creativity:
In October I was lured to Rome for a conference with Google Earth’s developers and community managers. Afterwards, I was able to experience some more of Rome’s limitless trove of cultural treasures. This time the focus was on the Baths of Caracalla, the Castle of St. Angelo, the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, and the Capitoline museum, which houses the unique bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. On the Spanish Steps, I was treated to a spectacular sunset:
See all my photos from Rome and Naples as a Flickr set.I then traveled to Naples, a place I had long wanted to visit. The surprise was Naples itself — so full of civic spirit, the people living Neapolitan life unselfconsciously as they bustle from mass to la passeggiata to restaurants in the popular neighborhoods. The exuberant strength of their monocultural tradition reminded me more of Cairo than northern Italy.
In the narrow lanes of the old town I chanced upon a print shop with a 100-year old Linotype machine. The father and son team running the shop, Giuseppe and Carmine Cervone, were happy to have me make a panorama, but in the meantime I realized I needed some new calling cards, so the panorama below is of my card being typeset and printed. Their place is a true national treasure:
At the Naples National Archaeological Museum I discovered the ancient Romans’ genius for interior decorating, with spectacular wall frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum showing a wholly new-to-me esthetic of bright colors and idyllic scenery. The mosaics too were stunning in their sophistication.
Pompeii and Herculaneum were a huge disappointment, however. Not because of anything the ancient Romans failed to do — rather, I was shocked by the disgraceful lack of care being taken to preserve the sites today. In Herculaneum, I saw the runt end of a tour group prying tiles from a mosaic floor. In Pompeii, I ran into a pack of teenaged British school kids left to rampage around the site, their unsupervised grubby hands touching every remaining stucco wall they could find. Any corner not constantly monitored showed scratchy graffiti from this century, while in the Villa of Diomedes I saw a stray dog relieve itself in one of the most beautiful rooms. The best solution would be to bury it all again until we know how to build giant protective domes and humanity matures. Failing that, the sites should be open only to scholars and very expensive, jealously chaperoned visits. To destroy such a unique ancient patrimony in a generation or two for quick financial gain (which, considering Italy’s finances, was surely squandered) is unforgivable. Shame on Italy.
In November, just as things were turning ugly again on Tahrir Square, I headed to Cairo for a weekend to give a presentation at the Swedish embassy about a network analysis of the Young Leaders Visitors Programme, a program by the Swedish government to connect young opinion makers in the Middle East and Sweden. Around this time, another project I had been involved with went live — the official site of Sweden in Arabic.
A sore throat that turned out to be strep cut short my stay, no doubt the first time my parents were happy to have me ill instead of venturing out to Tahrir to check on an unraveling revolution that had begun so promisingly earlier in the year.
Here’s what I’ve been up to these past six months:
Beijing October and November were mostly spent in Beijing studying Chinese — four hours every weekday, commuting from my hutong courtyard house in the center of town to the Beijing Language and Culture University, situated in the Wudaokou university district. My daily routine involved getting up early to beat the traffic, because the ring-roads come to a standstill by 7:15. By then I’d be in one of the university’s cafés having breakfast while doing my homework. Classes were from 8 until 12. About one third of the class consisted of extremely enthusiastic Italians, so breaks involved bonus refresher courses in Italian. The afternoons were spent exploring Beijing, often by bike, often ending up in some out-of-the-way place where I’d find someone to inflict my Chinese upon.
Beijing is a city that continues to transform itself at a rapid clip. In my neighborhood (The Dongcheng district, near Jingshan Park), my six months’ residence saw entire city blocks of hutong residential buildings demolished, and as I biked past them I could observe the daily “progress”. Between Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven, hutong neighborhoods that have been condemned and mostly abandoned still flicker with the occasional act of defiance by an aged holdout; but what is soon coming in their stead is a wholly modern reconstruction, friendly to mass tourism and flagship stores. Judging from the crowds of domestic tourists coming to see the completed parts of this transformation, it’s what the people want.
During the autumn I managed three weekend trips: To Xi’an with my parents (who came visiting); back to Shanghai to attend the closing ceremony of the Swedish Pavilion at Shanghai Expo; and to Hong Kong, meeting up with friends.
Hong Kong In November, it was my first time in Hong Kong, a city whose openness surprised me, and which provides living proof that Chinese culture thrives in a democratic environment. I even saw genuine protestors unharassed by police! (So no more excuses, mainland China.) In the evenings, my friends hosted some splendid dinners — I had my first-ever bowl of snake soup, which was delicious.
Japan Having passed my Chinese exams in early December, it was time for week in pre-quake Japan before heading back to Europe. Tokyo’s effortless individuality affords it a select place in the club of world capitals (together with New York and London). Tokyoites are perfectionists at being their inimitable selves. With a friend from Shanghai as guide, I found ramen noodles boiled to al dente perfection, ate kobe beef that had the texture of butter, and drank milk among the geeks at a manga bar. The newly re-opened Nezu Museum is notable for its garden and tranquil architecture; the Mori Art Museum was showing some impressive works by Odani Motohiko; and the National Art Center had a Van Gogh exhibition that attracted queues fit for rock concerts.
The view from the Mori Art Museum. Zoom in.
Kyoto is even more of an expression of Japan’s meticulous attention to detail, in this instance focused on preserving its heritage. Kyoto has one of the highest concentrations of World Heritage sites anywhere, each temple and rock garden more splendid than the last.
Surprisingly, compared to China, very few Japanese dare to speak English, but overall I came away incredibly impressed with Japan and the wealthy cohesive society it has built in the post-war era. One more observation — they are some of the world’s best queuers:
This society-wide skill at playing positive-sum games will surely speed the rebuilding Japan now faces.
It was impossible not to make comparisons between Japan and China, and how their paths have diverged in the post-WWII era. If China’s leaders make no further mistakes in the next half century, then that country too will finally reach Japan’s standard of living, but not without first having to multiply productivity tenfold. Every Japanese worker is still 10 times as productive as their Chinese counterpart.
Belgium, Sweden In late December it was time for a family Christmas reunion in Belgium, followed by a move to Sweden in early January, where I am still officially a resident. After four years of living in three of the world’s most polluted megapolises (Cairo, Shanghai, Beijing) it was time to reacquaint myself with the fresh air, pure snow and clean tap water of the sub-Arctic… and to reconnect with good friends over a coffee in Stockholm cafés — something which no amount of Facebooking can replace.
Egypt Luckily I found a place to rent that had cable TV, because I would soon find myself glued to Al Jazeera, following the Arab revolutions. Having lived in Cairo, I had great sympathy for the Egyptians’ cause, and very much wished I could be there to see history in the making. The uprising was unexpected — during my time there in 2007-2009, every demonstration no matter how small would be roughly suppressed, and the Egyptians I knew were resigned to their fate. But the events in Tunisia were a psychological blow to the self-censorship of their courage, and that set in motion a process which led to victory over the Mubarak regime and the system that underpinned it.
By Friday February 11, Mubarak was gone. A few days later, there was news of a massive celebratory street party to be held the next Friday on Midan Tahrir. I and a friend booked my tickets immediately for a 48-hour trip to Cairo. In part, my motivation had to do with 1989, and my failed attempt then to head to Berlin as the Berlin Wall fell. This time, I would be there.
The joy and hope and pride on the faces of Egyptians as they celebrated on February 18 is unforgettable. Over a million people descended on the square, and in the course of a day I saw perhaps just 10 other foreigners. Everyone was exceedingly friendly; we were frequently thanked for being there.
Here’s a video I made of the impressions of that day:
I last wrote on this blog a few weeks before the opening of Shanghai Expo. Since then a lot has happened (once again) so here’s another installment, recounting the past half year.
My job in Shanghai was to manage the development and implementation of a web strategy for Sweden in China, and the result of that work launched in April and May 2010. Swedenexpo.cn, the official website of the Swedish Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010, was live by the time expo opened on May 1st, and Sweden.cn was launched in Beijing a few weeks later. I also spent May at the Swedish pavilion training an excellent team of writers, photographers and videographers to keep Swedenexpo.cn pumped full of content for the duration of Expo.
My work for Sweden was done at the end of May. What next? I decided on two new pursuits: To learn Chinese, and to see China. I took a six-month sabbatical, moved to Beijing, enrolled in intensive Chinese classes, and traveled.
But first, I needed to recharge my cultural batteries in New York and DC. Off I went for the first two weeks in June, to stay with Felix and Michelle in NYC, then Matthew and Kim and Charles and Pamela in DC. I spent entire days walking through NYC — highlights there were finally visiting The High Line, Michelle at the MoMAdoing MoMA with Michelle, and looking at the Metropolitan Museum’s Egyptian wing with new eyes, now that I know a thing or two about Egyptology. (What an impressive collection!) We also headed upstate to sample the delectable food at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, with the added bonus that I rediscovered Pocantico Hills, a place where my parents used to take us on long weekend walks when I lived in NYC as a kid. Both in NYC and DC I managed to reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen in years.
Locavore food, Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Once back in China, I moved to Beijing. I found a little hutong courtyard apartment a stone’s throw from the Forbidden Palace, and enrolled in the Beijing Language and Culture University for a month of summer courses — 4 hours per day, 5 days a week. It certainly helped. I wasn’t the oldest student, but it was close: Most were half my age. (Why are so few 40-year olds learning Chinese? There’s at least another 40 years left in us to use it — that’s a pretty good ROI.)
Class graduation dinner
Upon graduation at the end of July, it was time to travel. Kashgar had long been an intended destination, but now that the authorities were demolishing the old town, I really needed to go now. I headed off to Xinjiang, first to Ürümqi for a day, then Kashgar for a week. See all my Kashgar images on Flickr.I wrote about what I saw in Kashgar on Ogle Earth. I also intended to trek up to Shipton’s Arch, the world’s tallest, but the monsoon rains that caused havoc in Pakistan also flooded the access route to the arch. Ditto for an attempt to drive up the Karakoram Highway — instead, I diverted to an little-known but spectacular glacier park containing the Oytagh Glacier, lying beneath a 7,000m peak and rare pine forests. A hike up to 3,500m brought spectacular views, and close encounters with marmot colonies.
After Kashgar, it was time to reconnect with family, which had set up their summer HQ at the Belgian coast. I spent the second week of August playing with my niece Amélie and nephew Felix, introducing the former to small legos and the latter to the joys of destroying block towers. There was also a day trip with my parents to the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, which had a special exhibit on the 140,000 Chinese laborers who came to Europe to support the allied forces. In terms of emotional effect, this museum is one of the best anywhere.
Then off to Sweden for a week of work meetings at the Swedish Institute — brainstorming sessions, mainly. I visited Stockholm’s newest museum, Fotografiska, and found it to be an amazing place in an amazing location, with top-notch curation that gives photography its proper dues as an artform. I also did a presentation at IDEA about how new media technologies are affecting democracy promotion around the world.
Then back in China for a week, before heading off for a week in Indonesia in early September. A flight delay in Guangzhou meant a 24-hour layover that compelled me to explore old Canton’s colonial concessions (albeit in sweltering heat). It’s remarkable how distinctive China’s third-largest city is from Beijing and Shanghai, especially the food markets. (Too hot for photos, though.) Jakarta, too, proved enchanting — but Bali, not so much. It felt, above all, like a jungle version of Ibiza, with Australians standing in for the Brits. The whole island has reoriented itself to tourism, and that’s not what I am after when I travel. Statue of Obama at his old school, which he attended from 1969-1971.Jakarta, on the other hand, was fascinating: Old Batavia, where the Dutch built their capital, still has many old colonial buildings and canals. Most of it is in a sorry state, but all of it is salvageable. Here’s the view from the watch tower the Dutch built at the entrance of the harbor:
Click to enlarge
I’m back in Beijing now, starting a new round of intensive Chinese courses, this time for three months, until December. Christmas will likely be spent in Europe, and after that, we’ll see where I end up. In the meantime, I really need to revamp stefangeens.com, ogleearth.com, in addition to starting work on a few more personal projects, should I find the time. 在见！
Monday, April 5 was Tomb Sweeping Day across China, and it happened to be a beautiful spring day in Shanghai. With only 2 weeks left before the public dress rehearsals for Expo, most of the Expo grounds were undergoing a final push towards readiness.
These images are from a walk I took around the western half of the Expo grounds during the afternoon. Already, there were quite a few civilians on the grounds; they must have procured a temporary pass somehow or other. The wonders of guanxi!
I’ve geotagged the images, and put them on Google Maps. The current satellite image in Google Maps for the area is from October 4, 2009, showing the state of construction almost exactly 6 months ago.
Beijing Around the middle of October, I visited Beijing for the first time, for work meetings and then for leisure, walking and cycling across the entire breadth of this amazing city. Beijing and Shanghai are very different — at the risk of over-sharpening the distinction, Beijing still has all the history and culture and political edge that Shanghai has traded in for commerce and wealth.
Most surprising is the sheer amount of life to be found in Beijing’s public parks, with the burghers of Beijing displaying not a whit of self-consciousness as they pursue self-organized group activities. In one spot, an ad hoc orchestra accompanies older people practicing traditional dance, with a large crowd spectating. Elsewhere, under a gazebo, It sounds like this (mp3 file)enthusiasts for traditional music gather for a jam session with their traditional instruments. Others seem to revert to more childish pleasures, jumping around to music as they wave about a stick with a long colored piece of fabric attached. The open-air tap-dancing class, meanwhile, is a popular aerobics workout for middle-aged women. My favorite distraction is the old man writing Chinese characters with water on pavement stones. Freshly enamored with these characters myself, I strike up a conversation with him, and he hands me his brush. As I write my clumsy characters he tries to guess them before I finish, or else corrects me. A crowd starts gathering around us.
Beijing’s more conventional tourist destinations are truly majestic in scale. The Forbidden City and the axis of temples and towers to the north of it can justly claim priority on any globetrotter’s to-do list. More surprising was the sense I got, from visiting the 798 Art Zone and some of the more popular artsy student hangouts, that pushing against political boundaries, even if it never amounts more than a heavy lean, is alive and well in Beijing in ways that I have not seen in Shanghai. After the disappointment of spending June 4, 2009, in a city that ardently shopped its way through the 20th anniversary of the violent end to the Tiananmen Square protests, I see more independence of spirit in Beijing’s youth, and that is entirely a good thing. I can’t wait for them to grow up and start taking over their world.
Shanghai October proved to be a photogenic month for Shanghai, with crisp weather facilitating some iconic shots.
Most interesting right now is documenting that ever-shifting boundary between old and new Shanghai, which can be quite stark at times. Waking up at an ungodly hour and heading for the neighborhood of Hongkou turned in this panorama at sunrise:
Most of the people in this photo had been setting up shop since first light.
Vietnam The main event this month was a long weekend in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, to meet up with my old friend Joakim. This town’s vibe is one of incredible dynamism and industriousness, made audible by the around 5 million motorcycles in this city of 9 million. Everybody is on the move.
Saigon was the backdrop to a lot of the modern history Joakim and I studied in grad school, so the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace were obvious destinations, and we also spent the day visiting the famed tunnels of Củ Chi, from where the Vietcong planned the Tết Offensive. The Vietnamese clearly value and take pride in their hard-fought independence from colonial rule. One surprise to me was learning that the Vietnamese consider their war with the US to have been one of independence, not ideology, just as had been the case with the insurrections against the French and the Chinese. If only Lyndon B Johnson had known this early on; the 20th century might have looked very different.
We made sure to stay at the Hotel Continental, a fading jewel from colonial times where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American. I finished that book in one of the cafés it mentions.
On the day I spent on my own, I engaged in a whole day’s worth of urban trekking, staking out markets that tourists do not usually end up in:
Belgium The highlight of December, as with every year, was the visit home for Christmas. This year there was a brand-new nephew to welcome — Felix. And he really is contented.
I also decided to quit alcohol and coffee (and cola) for a year, until next Christmas eve, in part to remind my body who’s boss. So far, this has resulted in consuming a lot more tea and chocolate — it is far harder to give up caffeine than alcohol, I’ve learned. One definite perk: Even the most expensive restaurants are surprisingly affordable, once there is no alcohol involved.
Switzerland My resolve was immediately tested but not broken when I spent New Year’s skiing with Joakim and Eurof and their families in Switzerland. Their kids are real smart: On the first day I taught one how to write Chinese numbers; the next day, she taught all the others. My new mission: Convincing all my friends’ offspring at an early age that learning Chinese is fun. They’ll thank me in 20 years. (My four-year old niece Amélie was similarly smitten by Chinese characters.)
Because Switzerland had recently taken a turn towards intolerance by banning the building of new minarets, I was compelled to perform a small act of defiance — the building of an illegal snow minaret, inspired by the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo. For all I know it is still there.
This month saw the work tempo quicken as Shanghai Expo 2010 approached. I went to Beijing again to meet with the embassy and colleagues from the Swedish Institute to plan our events in May. Back in Shanghai, more meetings.
Cairo and Beirut During the Chinese New Year when nothing much happens in China for a week or two, I headed back to Cairo and Beirut, this time for a work-related study trip. Now that we’re almost done implementing a Chinese-language online nation-branding strategy for Sweden, it’s time to start looking at the Arabic-language web.
Cairo involved several hectic days of back-to-back meetings with very interesting people, punctured by forays into epochal Cairo traffic.
In Beirut, too, we were given some great insights, albeit in lighter traffic. And there was time to meet old friends Tom and Makram.
I then spent a few more days in Cairo on vacation, to catch up with friends there at a more leisurely pace. It is remarkable how easily the old routines return. As I walked around my old neighborhood, the man who used to iron my shirts at his street-side stall greeted me as if I had just returned from a long holiday, and offered me tea. Fortunately, I had spent my flight from Shanghai refreshing my basic Arabic, so our talk wasn’t all sign language.
Matjaž, a photographer friend, had just gotten his panoramic photography gear, so we decided to go on a mini-expedition to test it. Our destination was the monasteries of St. Paul and St. Anthony, in the desert near the Red Sea a few hours driving southeast of Cairo. These are among the first Christian monasteries to be founded. Here’s the panorama we ended up taking, in the cave church of Saint Paul.
This month and the next are all about getting Sweden’s two China-facing websites shipshape, launching and then marketing them to Chinese audiences, including visitors to the Swedish pavilion at Shanghai Expo. I’ll be around for the start of Expo, but soon after will leave the reins to others, as the development work is done then.
What will I do this summer? I plan to learn intensive Chinese in Beijing for a few months, so that I can push beyond the language’s steep learning curve. Then, I want to travel, perhaps to Tibet or Xinjiang. And there are all these small web projects I’ve wanted to work on this past year, but not had the time for. I also wouldn’t mind teaching myself how to program for the iPhone and iPad… If any of these plans work out, I’ll be most content.
I’ve been learning Chinese since June, and it is certainly Harder than Arabic, in any case.the most difficult language I’ve tried. I have private lessons three times a week with Rose, who insists on explaining everything in Chinese first and English as a last resort.
As a result, everything I know about Rose I have learned in Chinese — that she is from Ningbo: A city twice the size of Brussels that nobody outside China has heard of.Ningbo, that she is learning French, and that she is marrying Frank, a C# programmer.
They’ve been legally married for a few months already, but the wedding parties were saved for the 60th anniversary Chinese national day weekend — one in Ningbo, for her family, and one in a farming village that is quickly going urban about an hour South of Shanghai, for his family. I and some other students were invited to the Shanghai party.
It was to be my first Chinese wedding, and I had no idea what to expect. I ended up capturing a series of vignettes on my iPhone, which I collated into a 10-minute mini documentary. Here it is:
Note: A lot of tasty animals were harmed in the making of this film, so if you are a vegetarian, watch through your fingers. Also note: I did not eat any turtle; and no shark-fin soup was served.
Just quickly an addendum to 2008: I’ve finally processed and uploaded the “digital breadcrumb trail” of my trip to Aswan, Kom Ombo and Edfu in December: Open this file in Google Earth to see the georeferenced photos and the tracks of my GPS device, which I had with me for most of my travel.At the conclusion of my last all-too-infrequent post here on my blog, I asked “What excitement will 2009 bring?” It’s only the end of July 2009, and I certainly can’t complain — in fact, I need to put this down on blog before the details blur in this whirlwind. The executive summary: I moved from Cairo to Shanghai, but not before long anticipated travels in Yemen and Lebanon.
After a fact-finding work trip to Shanghai in October 2008, the idea was broached that I should perhaps move to Shanghai to manage Sweden’s web strategy in China. The case for moving to Shanghai soon became compelling. A chance to live in China does not come by too often, and it is also something I’ve wanted to do. I had only been in Egypt two years, which is not sufficient time to check off everything on my to-do list for that region, but living in Egypt is an easily arranged project — visas at the airport, renewable ad infinitum. Moving to China takes a bit more planning.
January ended with the customary monthly trip to Stockholm to touch base. This time around, however, the China project was very much on the table, though without any decisions being made as to whether I’d go, or stay in Egypt.
February 4-15: Sana’a and Socotra With the question left pending, I decided to cash in vacation time during February and do some travel in a region that I might soon leave. I thus bought a last minute ticket to Socotra, Yemen’s natural wonder in the Indian Ocean, off the Horn of Africa. This wasn’t an impulse buy; Socotra has long been an obsession of mine. I had known about its unique flora for a long time, but then Google Earth made the place tangible, tantalizing, and yet not quite real. I needed to go there and document it myself.
From Cairo, Yemen’s capital Sana’a is just a few hours’ flying. Yemen’s had bad press of late, with kidnappings of westerners going badly, but Sana’a itself is safe enough, while Socotra is far removed from the tribal strife that afflicts the mainland.
Sana’a is quite a stopover. The old town, with its towering houses, minarets, alleys, hidden gardens and a sprawling souk, is like a medieval Manhattan. I spent a few days exploring this maze-like warren, finding the best spots to take 360-degree panoramas. The souk proved to be a very fertile place for taking the best kind of panorama — those which include portraits of people:
Then on to Socotra, on Yemenia, via a brief stop in Mukalla.
As I suspected, and despite trying, it is impossible to imagine what Socotra is like. The whole place has an otherworldly feel to it, a living tribute to the endless adaptation of flora and fauna through the wonder of evolution. I spent a week exploring the island with Ahmed, my guide, and his 4WD. See all my photos, paths and even a GPS trace of paved roads on Google Earth, via this file.Destinations included the high Diksum plateau at the center of the island, where the primeval-looking Dragon’s Blood trees reside; Hoq cave, into which you can walk for 2 kilometers all by yourself, Qansaliya beach, with its plentiful but shy yellow crabs, the high high dunes of the northeast coast, the corals and fish of Di Hamri point, and the Homhil nature area and its spectacular rock pool:
Socotra is riddled with caves, most of them unexplored. One cave structure, in Wadi Geneb, Here is their website, which has this video of their expedition. was explored recently by a Belgian speleological expedition — they made it 20km into the cave, diving frequently, confirming this as Arabia’s longest cave. I ventured a little into the cave myself:
The whole island is karstic Swiss cheese, carved out by monsoon rainwater seeping into limestone.
February 19 – March 21: Travel rapids The last week of February I was in 19-26 FebGeneva, attending the I ended up taking photos as well.closing meetings of International Polar Year held at the World Meteorological Organisation. Having helped Rhian and Dave with IPY’s web strategy these past three years, it was great to be there as the project reached this landmark. I also managed to go skiing for a day, and of course made a pilgrimage to the World Trade Organisation, guided by old school friend Markus. I also had an opportunity to spoil my godson Leonidas, who lives in Geneva with John and Yianna, his parents.
Then, onwards to February 27 – March 1London by high-speed train, to check in with my niece one last time before my (by now confirmed) move to Shanghai, and then on to March 2-7Belgium, to check in with the parents. Then a week in March 8-13Stockholm for work, then on to March 14-19Shanghai for a workshop with our developers, then back to Cairo via March 20-21Dubai, where I spent 24 hours with old school friends Tom and Uta.
March 26-29: Lebanon The last weekend in March I headed for Lebanon. First to Beirut, where I looked up old school friends Tom, now working there with the IFC, and Makram, now a professor at the Lebanese American University. A first night out in Beirut showcased the resurgent nightlife, and the next day I walked all over town, thought the reconstructed city center, the remaining ruins, and popular neighborhoods home to the different factions. One thing this security-conscious city’s guardians don’t like: Photographers, so I didn’t try capturing the city on camera.
You can see my route and all my Lebanon photos in Google Earth via this file.I did however take photos when the next day I rented a car and visited Byblos, a remarkable archaeological site about an hour North of Beirut that is frequently cited as being the oldest continuously inhabited site on the planet.
The day after that, Makram and I went hunting for cedars, and found them high up in the mountains, covered in snow.
My April 3-5final weekend in Cairo was spent in the company of old schoolfriend Joachim, flying in from Sweden on a visit long in the making. It was an opportunity for me to do all the tourist sites one last time: With Matjaz’s help, we got to see some recently restored mosques not yet open to the public, while with Ilona’s help, we got to visit a “live” excavation at Dashur. Of course, there was the requisite pyramid visiting, with picture proof:
Shanghai On April 6 I landed in Shanghai. First priority was finding a place to rent for a year. Meanwhile, I stayed in some serviced flats. I soon bought a bike, with which I would come to explore much of the city center, searching for wifi-enabled cafés where you can spend a few hours at a time working. This is a habit first picked up in Stockholm and perfected in Cairo: I am much more efficient and can focus for much longer when sitting in a café environment, as opposed to in an an office, I suspect because in an office one is obligated to gossip and otherwise interact with your co-workers. In a café, you are alone in your thoughts but together with others. Perfect:-)
By the end of April, I had found my apartment, but first another April 29 – May 6trip to Stockholm — to renew my visa, but also to attend my blogger friend Jenny’s wedding. My contribution? This panorama.
The view from my apartment: After returning to Shanghai amid a full-fledged H1N1 flu scare, I moved into my apartment on May 7, and immediately set about making it home: Getting internet, finding the local supermarket, buying a coffee maker, an iron, a computer screen, a microwave… I found out where the best places are in Shanghai is to buy computers, cameras, books and maps, and at the recommendation of a friend got an ayi, an older lady who comes in twice a week to clean and cook delicious Chinese food.
Meanwhile, work’s been busy, with various conferences and workshops in Shanghai during June and July. That hasn’t stopped me from starting private Chinese lessons with Rose, my teacher, 3 times a week for 2 hours at a time. Chinese is difficult, much more so than Arabic, but just as fun to write.
July 22: Eclipse My first visitor to Shanghai turned out to be Felix, who flew in for a week July 19-25, in part to catch the much-anticipated All four photos here.total solar eclipse on July 22. To maximize our chances of seeing it, we headed to Moganshan, a mountain retreat west of Shanghai, near Hangzhou. That turned out to be a lucky move, as almost the entire landfall of the eclipse was covered in a swathe of clouds, and yet our specific spot in a field of tea bushes on a saddleback ridge saw the clouds part just as the eclipse reached totality.
What does the second half of 2009 portend? Work, but also some opportunities to travel around China. I had already put my sights on Kashgar’s historic old town that is now being demolished in order to “save” it from earthquakes, as well as the nearby Shipton’s Arch, the world’s tallest natural arch. But alas, with the recent unrest, it is not clear how long it will be before the extreme west of China is accessible again. Stay tuned.
AprilI visited Paris twice in April, both times for work: Once to attend a preparatory conference on the “virtual” Shanghai Expo 2010, and once on an institutional retreat that involved a generous dollop of cultural activities. Here are some photos from the Musée D’Orsay taken on one such excursion.
Musée D’Orsay from above, Paris.
Paris was simply charming — much less dirty and much more cosmopolitan than I remember it even a few years ago — and not just because it was spring. Rome, on the other hand, was creaking under a mass of tourists; I spent 4 hours there on a photo expedition during a layover on my way back to Cairo. You can see the result in this photo essay.
The Spanish Steps, Rome, looking down.
MayOops. A bout a pneumonia had me laid low in the Anglo-American Hospital in Zamalek for a few days, where I got myself an intravenous drip with some industrial-strength antibiotics. The nurses were lovely, veiled and only knew Arabic, so I was very eager to translate the English-language drug-administering instructions into universal sign language for them. As I had my laptop with 3G internet dongle at hand, I also made sure to Google every drug brand name within arm’s length. Just to be sure.
I also managed to use technology in novel ways to get a second opinion from James, my surgeon-friend in NYC. When I got the X-ray transparency of my lungs back I turned the desktop background of my MacBook Pro to bright white, put the transparency in front of it and took a 5MB photo with my Nokia N95.
Bottom right, in case you’re wondering where the problem was.
I emailed that to James, who agreed it was a garden-variety lung infection and not some career-ending thing.
Oops #2 was the death of my MacBook Pro on May 20. I had everything backed up, but this certainly crimped my style. News to me was that there are no warranty repairs available for Macs in the Middle East — I’d have to wait until my return to Europe. I did find a temporary replacement MacBook while in Cairo, but my MacBook Pro would end up needing a new motherboard (twice!) and I wouldn’t see it work again properly until July. This led to a concerted effort to use web-based applications exclusively for a while, but I quickly found that the cloud can’t replace the desktop yet.
June-JulyLike last year, June means it is time to head for cooler climates than Cairo. This year, I summered in Berlin, as did Felix and Michelle from NYC, in addition to long-term Berliners Marc and Franzi. A critical mass of friends drew me there, in other words.
The city is the uncontested cultural capital of Europe, and green, and bike friendly, bohemian yet not (too) averse to business, cheap, tolerant, with wide sidewalks and outdoor cafés, buzzing with creativity… In short, large parts of it reminded me of NYC’s East Village circa 1997. For example, here is what you’ll find while walking down the street on midsummer day:
Another aspect of Berlin that reminded me of NYC is its sizable population of immigrants. The Euro 2008 Cup was on during my stay, and it led to several unlikely victories for Turkey. The joy by Turkish immigrants at Turkey’s last-minute victory over Croatia was overwhelming, and spilled out onto the streets.
In the next game, they lost to Germany, however.
I would have liked to stay longer in Berlin than the 4-week total I managed in the end, but was pleasantly distracted by…
Pretending to pay attention to the priest. Also, it was about 40 degrees in the shade.
I got to Greece via Berlin’s beautiful Tempelhof Airport, flying out exactly 60 years to the day after the start of the Berlin Airlift. A few months later, the airport would close forever, so I got there early and took some photos.
The classic shot of Tempelhof Airport, with its open hangar.
From Greece, I travelled to Cambridge to attend the wedding of Rhian and Andy, where I played official wedding photographer. The ceremony and party were held in a field beside the Cam river, where we all set up tents and partied long into the night.
Rhian and Andy atop Nooksak, their houseboat, during a fierce orange sunset.
The second half of July was again spent productively in Berlin. The undisputed highlight was the visit of presidential candidate Barack Obama. I was there! Here’s proof:
AugustThe first week of August was spent in London visiting family and also visiting Google’s London HQ for a pow-wow with the Google geo-team and friends.
Then it was time for my big summer project: Panoramic Sweden — wherein I rented a car and drove right around Sweden in 17 days and 5,300 kms, making panoramas, processing them and posting one daily to the Panoramic Sweden blog, for the Swedish Institute. In the five years I had lived in Stockholm, I had never ventured much outside the city. Sweden, it turns out, is a revelation:
The blog got great feedback, and the daily routine proved to be quite the photographic learning experience. I drove through every part of the country, all the way up to Kiruna and down to Ystad and to both Öland and Gotland. It was exhausting but oh so worth it.
SeptemberSeptember began with a trip back to Washington DC, where I had been invited by the US Library of Congress to speak to federal librarians about “Public Diplomacy and the 3D Web — The view from Sweden”. Here are my slides on Google Docs:
It was also a chance to catch up with good friends whom I hadn’t seen since… way back in January!
By the time I got back to Cairo around mid September, the recent frenetic pace caught up with me and I got a relapse of the ol’ pneumonia. I decided to get treatment in Sweden this time — fortunately a regular course of antibiotics sufficed.
October-NovemberMy beloved grandmother Mabi died in Early October, so I went to the funeral on the way to Shanghai for a week, where I was part of a fact-finding mission for the Swedish Institute to find out what it takes to set up a localized website in China. With more Chinese online in 2008 than any other nationality, Sweden has decided to prioritize the Chinese web as a medium for its public diplomacy; now we just need to figure out how to do that.
Shanghai impressed with its drive and energy and — comparing now to Cairo — cleanliness and wealth. There is no doubting that Shanghai is placing itself in the running to be the “new” New York. I took some photos during the trip.
Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai
The rest of October and much of November were spent in Egypt — finally. Flatmate Ilona had organized a scholarly conference on “Intercultural contacts in the Ancient Mediterranean” and a related exhibition at the Egyptian Museum on “Ancient Egypt in the Mediterranean”, so I helped out by taking photos — of the conference and of the exhibition opening. In return I got to sit in on some very interesting presentations by famous Egyptologists:-)
Egypt’s antiquities Supremo Zahi Hawass (r)
One weekend early in November I headed to Alexandria for the first time, and spent 48 hours exploring the city and taking photos. Alexandria is a lovely town, open to the Mediterranean and all the clean breezes that brings, laid back and untainted by large influxes of tourists. The new Alexandrian library impressed, but the highlight was very much wandering through the souk, engaging the merchants with my bad Arabic in the hope of getting their picture. Here is the resulting photo essay.
Night scene in Alexandria.
DecemberDecember kicked off with a truly amazing and unique trip through Middle Egypt. I spent a week tagging along with Ilona and her master’s students in Egyptology from the universities of Leiden and Leuven on a study trip of archaeological sites in the region. This is an area not often visited by tourists, and many of the sites are off-limits to non-archaeologists.
We had a bus and driver at our disposition, so each day we headed out — with police escort — to places that were once the jewels in the crown of the oldest and longest-lasting great civilization in the history of mankind — Hermopolis, Beni Hassan, Akoris, Abydos, Tuna el Gebel, Asyut, el Hawawish, Akhetaten… The confidence and artistic genius evident in the ancient Egyptians’ tomb murals and temple inscriptions are a wonderful thing to behold.
Since I had some vacation days left, I flew to Aswan for a long weekend of sightseeing. As of November, individual travellers no longer need to be part of a convoy or organized tour group between Luxor and Aswan, so I rented a car and driver and threw the temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu into the bargain. Photos.
Aswan from the dunes.
Christmas was spent with family in Belgium, catching up on the gossip and getting my three-year old niece Amélie up to date on the latest technological advances:
I also managed to break a rib in the final weeks of 2008, in a scenario that involved socks, a slippery surface and a non-compliant sofa, but it is healing nicely, thanks. Finally, New Year’s was spent back in Cairo with friends.