Perseverance Valley, Mars, June 2017. Probable fossil water erosion gully right.
The Opportunity rover landed on Mars fourteen Earth calendar years ago today, and it still works fine after driving over 45 km! This is the farthest any off-planet vehicle has gone so far. Oppy’s mate Spirit was mobile on the Red Planet for over five years and then functioned as a stationary science platform for another year before getting killed off by a Martian winter it couldn’t avoid. Amazing engineering that keeps working year after year without a technician so much as touching it.
At the moment Oppy continues to explore the western rim of Endeavour crater, where it’s spent several years. It recently got the dust blown off its solar panels by a Mars winter storm. Check out the project’s web site and the Red Planet Report for news!
We’ve all been talking here on the blog for so many years now, but I don’t know what most of you look like. The other day I emailed the most active commenters of the past two months and asked them for photographs to post in a portrait gallery. So far seven regulars have sent me pics, and Sean has offered to find a pic for me soonish.
Now please keep the pix coming! This gallery will remain a work in progress for some time. I’d be very happy to receive pictures of long-term lurkers as well. You don’t have to have a beard, but if you do, nobody is likely to make fun of you for it.
Artis Aboltins, commenter since 2013
Phillip Helbig, commenter since 2011
Thomas Ivarsson, commenter since 2010
Birger Johansson, commenter since 2007
Jonathan Lubin, commenter since 2007
Janne Morén, commenter since 2007
Jim Sweeney, commenter since 2011
December smog over a Hangzhou canal
Yesterday the Rundkvists came home from ten days in China where we’ve been visiting with relatives. We spent eight days in my wife’s home city Hangzhou (pop. 8.0 million) and one day each in the city Suzhou (160 road km away, pop. 10.7 million) and the well-preserved little canal town Zhouzhuang (150 road km away). I spent most of our stay walking and cycling around on my own or in the company of Cousin E who was also in HZ to see his parents & brother over the holidays. Check out my photo album! Here are some impressions.
- Though I hardly saw any fellow westerners on my wanderings, HZ’s citizens have become used to seeing people like us. Hardly anyone shouted halou at me, evinced surprise at my strange looks and absurd height or wanted their pictures taken with me, compared to ten years ago.
- HZ (but not Suzhou) is swamped with cheaply available public bikes belonging to about ten different firms. In order to use them as intended you need a local smartphone and/or bank account. I had neither, but I soon figured out that there are many serviceable bikes with damaged or incorrectly closed locks that anyone can use. Of course, I had to find the ones that let me adjust the height of the seat.
- Gas-powered mopeds are forbidden in HZ and Suzhou. This extremely wise (draconian, dictatorial) measure has been in place for at least 20 years. Instead people ride electrical mopeds, which keeps the noise level that makes e.g. Hanoi almost intolerable down.
- Chinese urban planners make no allowance for pedestrians who want to move through the city independently of where cars can go. There are extremely few pedestrian railway crossings. HZ’s newer residential blocks tend to be very large, gated and walled. Gatekeepers never stopped me when I entered a block, but then there was no exit through the wall in the direction I wanted to go. I lost lots of time on my walks trying to move in a straight line towards my destinations.
- Open Street Map‘s app was extremely useful. I had my location on a detailed map of HZ at my fingertips for the first time. This app lets you download entire Chinese provinces in one go before you head out.
- Even during these cold and drizzly days in the off-season, the tourist attractions saw healthy numbers of Chinese visitors. I read that during the season, these temple complexes, stately homes, museums, parks and formal gardens are simply packed with people. It’s strange to think that these places were largely created for a small parasitic elite of connoisseurs who made sure that common people had no access. And now that anyone can come and have a look, they show up in such numbers that commoners still can’t enjoy the sites at the time of year when they’re at their best.
- The presentation of Chinese tourist attractions is largely garish, vulgar and commercial. Most of them are old-time Chinese Disneyland. Inside the Hanshan temple precinct in Suzhou, for instance, the oldest Buddha statue I saw is being used as decoration in the religious souvenir shop. Almost all standing buildings in these cities are recent. I don’t think I’ve seen a single structure older than 1800 in Hangzhou, though this is a special case as the town was torched by crazy millennarian Christian-inspired Taiping rebels in about 1850.
- The celebrated vistas across HZ’s West Lake are largely obscured by air pollution.
- Peripherally located tourist sites are far quieter and less commercial, for instance the terraced tea-growing valley of Meijiawu in the hills SW of the West Lake. Here the recently re-developed landscape park and minor religious complex of Yunqi is probably delightful on an early April morning.
- When there is any public signage in a Western language, it is a small subset of the Chinese version, written in Chinglish (or in some cases even Engrish) by someone with a weak grasp of the language. In addition, the proofing errors often give the impression that the person who made the physical sign knows no English at all and has copied it one letter at a time. The Chinese are in fact sovereignly uninterested in whether foreigners understand these signs or perhaps laugh at the erratic and flowery word choices. The best sign I read was one in French at the entrance to the Shizi garden complex in Suzhou. Not only was it good French, it contained more information than the sign in Chinglish next to it.
- In town, I like to avoid the tourist areas completely (which confuses my in-laws) and walk smaller, slightly run-down residential lanes and back streets. Here people hang their laundry to dry on the telephone wires next to large carps and pieces of pork curing in the polluted wind. Retirees haggle for fish and vegetables at the corner shops, and the little eateries’ staff clean dishes at an outdoor sink.
- My greatest linguistic triumph was when I managed to explain to a restaurant owner that a cat was gnawing on the pork she had hung out to cure on a rack behind the building. Wei! Ni hao. Mao chi nimende gan rou. Nimende zhu rou. Though my vigourous pointing out back probably helped a lot. She thanked me and rushed to save her bacon.
- A lot of the recent architecture is straight out of dystopian scifi movies: hyper-futuristic steel-and-glass skyscrapers that are lit up with digital animation after dark. We experienced a full-on colossal-scale 3D digital acid-trip at Life Plaza in SE HZ one evening, with laser-lit choreographed dancing fountains. As we left, reeling, we saw 30-story Disney characters dancing across the facades towards the river.
For more commentary on things Chinese, see Aard’s category tag for China.
Here are my best reads in English during 2017. My total was only 35 books, because I read several very long ones and slogged through a lot of borderline-bad reading matter, prominently among which I must sadly mention the Hugo-nominated fiction. I don’t believe in good taste, but I can tell you that I don’t share the taste of the Hugo-nominating majority. And I won’t be reading another Hugo packet!
Ten of the titles were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?
- The Umbrella Man and Other Stories. Roald Dahl 1982. Neatly constructed 40s & 50s stories of suspense, but with a note of cold misanthropy.
- Behind the Castle Gate: From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Matthew Johnson 2002.
- The Fear Institute (Johannes Cabal #3). Jonathan L. Howard 2011. Cabal the Necromancer goes to Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.
- Creating Freedom: Power, Control and the Fight for Our Future. Raoul Martinez 2016. A lot of interesting Leftie ideas but too long-winded and extremely negative in its view of present affairs.
- The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden. Kate Felus 2016.
- Some Remarks. Neal Stephenson 2012. Essays and talks, many of them from the 90s.
- All These Shiny Worlds: the 2016 ImmerseOrDie Anthology. Ed. Jefferson Smith 2017.
- Lovecraft Country. Matt Ruff 2016. A present from Birger! This enjoyable collection of Lovecraftian novellas and short stories is set in 1954 and revolves around a group of African Americans. But it is under-researched historical fiction. I would have enjoyed it even more if the author had tried to write dialogue that was realistic for that time and ethnic group. Everyone speaks like a white 2017 sci-fi fan. And very few societal concerns of 1950s USA are touched upon beyond the strongly emphasised racial oppression. (I also read Victor LaValle’s Hugo-nominated novella The Ballad of Black Tom which is similar, but didn’t like it as much as Ruff’s book.)
- Pandora’s Star. Peter S. Hamilton 2004.
- Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016 with a Journal of a Writer’s Week. Ursula LeGuin 2016.
- Collected Short Stories vol. 1. William Somerset Maugham 1951.
- Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Mary Roach 2016.
- The Investigations of Avram Davidson: Collected Mysteries. 1956-86.
- The Boy On The Bridge. Mike Carey 2017. More fungal zombies!
- Brothers in Arms (Vorkosigan Saga, #5). Lois McMaster Bujold 1989.
- Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Stephen Jay Gould 1989.
- Artemis. Andy Weir 2017.
- We Are Legion (We Are Bob). Dennis Taylor 2016.
- Midnight’s Children. Salman Rushdie 1981.
- Wish Lanterns. Young lives in new China. Alec Ash 2016. Interleaved mini-biographies of six Chinese people born 1985-90.
Here’s my list for 2016.
Here are the ten boardgames that I played more than four times during 2017. The year’s total was 78 different games.
- Magic: The Gathering (1993)
- No Thanks! (2004)
- Patchwork (2014, a new arrival on the list: a textile-themed two-player, perfect for couples who sew!)
- Plato 3000 (2012)
- Heimlich & Co. (1984)
- Keltis (2008, travel version)
- For Sale (1997)
- Lost Cities (1999)
- Innovation (2010)
- Sechs nimmt / Category 5 (1994)
Cousin E’s presence in the Rundkvist household with its convenient geek uncle lies behind this year’s emphasis on two-player games (MTG, Patchwork, Lost Cities). The games on the list are mostly short ones that you can play repeatedly in one evening. Innovation is a bit longer. A longer game that I played four times this year was Castles of Mad King Ludwig, though this one was too much collective solitaire for me. All the others are highly recommended!
Dear Reader, what was your biggest boardgaming hit of 2017?
Stats courtesy of Boardgame Geek. And here’s my list for 2016.
It’s time we had a de-lurk around this here blog! The last one was nearly four years ago. If you keep returning to this blog but rarely or never comment, you are a lurker, Dear Reader, and a most welcome one too.
Please comment on this entry and tell us something about yourself – like where you are, what your biggest passion is, what you’d like to see more of on the blog. And if you are a long-time lurker who has de-lurked before, re-de-lurks are much encouraged!
Dear Reader, if you’ve followed Aard for a long time you will know that occasionally I make shameless requests for free skilled labour. I’ve asked you to pimp quite a number of things:
- 2008, March. My Bronze Age deposition grant proposal
- 2010, June. My 1st millennium AD mead-halls book manuscript
- 2013, July. The notes for my first set of lectures as head teacher on Archaeology 101 in Umeå
- 2014, April. My Bronze Age deposition book manuscript
Through this habit of mine and their generosity with their time, a number of Aard readers have ended up getting thanked in the prefaces to my books. And now the time has come again. I’ve finished another book, my seventh, and it’s about the High and Late Middle Ages. I’ve looked at (and excavated some of) the evidence for lifestyles at strongholds of the period in Östergötland province, Sweden, returning to the area of my mead-halls study. It’s my first big piece of historical-period archaeology. The work has been great fun and a great learning experience. So here it is (817 kB PDF file)! The title is:
At home at the castle. Lifestyles at the Medieval strongholds of Östergötland, AD 1200–1530.
I would be very grateful for comments, corrections and questions from Aard’s readers. Don’t be afraid to ask layman’s questions: I believe that all archaeology can and should be written in a manner accessible to a bright high schooler. But I’m sure I slip up occasionally. There are no illustrations in the file because inserting them is a hassle and some haven’t been made yet, but there will be many.