Wednesday, February 14, 2018

How The Mighty Do Fall

  Two days after returning my brand new Apple HomePod, after dealing with it's terrible software for three days, I just got a call (Wednesday, February 14, 2018) from Apple Tech support. It wasn't a Happy Valentine's Day call either. 
   They don't let the phone ring very long ... I made the mistake of leaving it in another room and after two rings, they hung up. I guess Millennials wear their phones around their necks.
   So, I called back. We chatted and they were ready to help ... two days after it was returned.
   In the process of trying to understand what was happening I came across an article of a speech Apple software chief, Craig Federighi made laying out the "new" 2018 chief strategy for software development. He was simply going to delay new developments until it was right, something Steve Jobs was fanatic about. Obviously this new strategy didn't apply to the iPhoneX or the new HomePod delayed at least three months from the original target date. I pointed out in an earlier column it should have been delayed a few months more ... or even longer.
   Talking to Apple today, I had a kind of epiphany regarding the world's biggest companies and reflected on them just in my lifetime. And we may forget that who is the biggest today is no guarantee of who will be big tomorrow. Let's take a walk down memory lane.
   The very first company I remember that was a monopoly at the age of 5 or 6, for all intents and purposes was AT&T. They dominated competitor GTE and all the regional small companies who depended on the use of their lines. However, when the government took them to court in the 80's breaking it into the seven "baby bells" it didn't take long for the whole mess to get back together again. But in the interim cell phones entered the picture and AT&T never became #1 again. However, Lily Tomlin's character Ernestine at "the telephone company" still gathered laughs at AT&T's hubris in the 70's when she said, "We don't (snort snort) have to, we're the phone company!
   Next was GM's Alfred Sloan who stated in the middle 50's, when GM had 56% of the American car market, "What's good for GM is good for the country." They didn't see nor understand first the VW and then the flood of cheap, small and reliable Japanese manufacturers who followed another American guru, Dr. Edward Deming. He laid out a strategy to create successful, long lasting manufacturing techniques. In 1960 while Ford was building a Lincoln Continental that weighed 7,000 lbs., the biggest sedan in the world, they also had to create a small car, the Falcon. GM had the Corvair a slavish copy of the VW bug as both cars were rear engined, and Chrysler the Valient, all three that were by todays standards the size of most mid-size models, and they were "ugly." In their minds though, these were compact cars! Few agreed.
   Next followed Esso Petroleum company that was the most valuable company in the world. After a merger or three they became Exxon of Exxon Valdez fame and that accident and stumble quickly took them off the top of the heap.

   When I started working for Kmart, itself a recreation of the old Kresge 5 & 10, Sears was the biggest retailer in the world. We studied their catalog in Journalism classes. Our director said that as an advertising man you only needed three books: The Bible, Shakespeare and the Sears catalog. Nearly a 1,000 pages with tens of thousands of articles for sale, it was a marvel in giving you all the information you needed to buy in a sentence or two. Kmart began, just like Sam Walton's Walmart in 1962. That single event began the slow death of Sears.

   The biggest retailer to the end of the 20th Century was Walmart. They employed over 700,000 employees becoming the biggest employer and company in the world. Starting in every underserved small town in America, they didn't show their face in places like Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago until much later. When they did, they had logistics down to a science and books were being written about how they were destroying small town America. When a new one was built in Rosemead, CA people picketed it for months ... before, during and after it was built.     

The computer age pretty much began in the mid to late 1980's. Apple's splashy 1984 ad at the Super Bowl was their gauntlet to IBM and the competition began. Apple wanted complete control of their products, hardware and software, as they tightly control it today but IBM chose Bill Gates Operating System (OS), MS-DOS, something he bought, not created. It was a clunky coding software that was replaced by copying the elegance of Apple's mouse based graphic interface. Apple at one point had a chance. Finally Microsoft created Windows, practically giving it away and it became the standard of the world. Microsoft was king of the world, and in operating systems still is. However, they were late in the game in hardware and their Surface tablets and fancier almost laptop form factors have never caught on. The Windows phone was billions of dollars of loss.

   Jobs, being forced from his own company, was asked by the Apple board to return in the late 90's. Apple was in it's death throes and obituaries were written about it in every financial publication and on the lips of all its fans. When he introduced the jelly colored iMac, where everything just worked, Apple came back. Sure there were stumbles but when the iPod came out it quickly replaced every other sort of music listening device in under 5 years. When the iPhone came out, late to the show but far more capable than anything else on the planet, Apple quickly grew and reached the top. It is at the moment the most valuable company on the planet. 
   Tim Cook is a finance guy. It never will be said he is a visionary. A close reading of Job's life makes it very clear he had a vision and was able, one way or another, to get others to bring that vision to life. Johny Ives may be a design guru but it was Jobs that made him great. That Federighi had to talk to every Apple employee, yes even the Genius at the Apple store Monday knew about it, tells you that something is wrong in the state of Cupertino, you just know there's trouble. I have a 2000 Titanium PowerBook that still works. Few Microsoft products can say as much. When I got rid of my PowerPS 6100 it worked but was so woefully underpowered that nothing new would ever run on it; I had to give it up. Can that be said today? With so many software issues bugging current products are we hearing "The King is dead! Long live the King?"           

Thank you for reading my blog. I invite you to take the time to read earlier blogs where the emphasis is to explore the ways art and design affects our daily lives ... and always has. I share with you what inspires me with the hope that it will inspire you as well. Comments are always welcomed! Be sure to check my re-opened ETSY store ... I will be adding many new and exciting products. Many of the items talked about here will be for sale there!                                                        

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It Started With A Conversation On Etsy

The original Abstract Birdhouse

A week ago today, February 6, 2018, I did the daily check of my Etsy store and noticed that someone had sent a conversation. The person said they had found my store and loved one of the wild, abstract birdhouses I had done. Only, could I make it larger? 
   A few year back I had seen some modern art and was fascinated by the design and wondered, could you do the same thing on a three-dimensional birdhouse. I picked three small ones, no taller than 5" and tried different shapes, feet and coloring and while wild, I like them. I have sold several of them so it was worth a try.
   I was surprised at the request but said sure. I looked at my overwhelming cache and took photos of four birdhouses bigger than the small original she had seen and liked. One had been started and painted red as a base coat, the others were bare wood. Of course, she picked the red one, it had two heart shaped openings, the original only had one, and so I started. She didn't comment much only hoping that there would be less red but the final design could be mine.
   Since she had liked the original I decided that I would create a larger version taking many of the same elements but also adding a few new ones. However, in that process I discovered that it is not easy to recreate something from the past, something I had to do last year that left me perplexed. I did it once, why not again?
    Not, I discovered later, everyone

    loves red!
 The first thing I did was paint the red ... white. Most white acrylic paints are not great at covering colors beneath them but DecoArts Traditions paints are heavily pigmented and just one coat of their white did a fair job of doing just that! I wasn't too worried about a little red showing through because by the time I was done, it would be covered by designs, other colors, aging and the like. Sometimes a darker base covered over hides many flaws and adds a kind of depth you won't get over raw wood or white on bare wood. 
See how well the white covered? 

Here you can see colors being 
   The next step was to pencil in the design over the now dry white body and add design to the roof.
   At first I tried to recreate the original design but I quickly found that it was so much bigger that it would almost be a cartoon of the original so I scaled down elements and added new ones. I felt that as long as I was true to the intent of the original it could only give me room for more complexity without sacrificing the original. It was fun, but as I said, in first recreating the design and then painting it, I often found myself wondering how I did it the first time. The answer, was that there were many layers and even more washes ... water, brushes and lots of finger rubs to get the deep saturated colors of the original.
   The problem I quickly discovered is that in your eagerness to go on, you forget that even here in the desert, paint still has to dry. After my hands looking like a Jackson Pollack painting, I decided that I would create yet another abstract birdhouse on one of the wooden birdhouses that had
  The birdhouse design is taking shape.
  I painted more color and added 
  outlines that would add detail and 
  complex texture.
not been chosen. It is a square, squat thing but it too has a big roof and as I played with the design of that borrowing from the one I was doing and trying out other ideas, it allowed me to almost do two at once. While was was drying, I could paint the other!
   By February 11th I was pretty much done and I sent photos of the front and back of the new birdhouse. Because the wood used in these birdhouses is so soft and easy to get dirty I asked what kind of varnish she wanted ... matte, satin or glossy? 
Done with burgundy base
   After hesitation, she asked if I could change the colors ... lighten them in some way. Maybe take the burgundy of the base and paint it another color, say blue. Then she admitted she didn't really care much for red and I understood exactly what she meant. 
  My uncle hated red because his mother loved it. I can still remember her bright red lipstick and fire engine red fingernails. As a kid she sort of looked like a vampire! When I was married I usually swathed myself in very neutral colors but now on my own have a red dining room, the brightest red SUV you can buy, red accents in the kitchen, even a red entry wall with a beautiful Chinese scroll with red peonies hanging down in front of it. Very dramatic. But, as I discovered, red is not for everyone. My friends here just roll their eyes.
The finished "conversation."
   Loathe to add yet another color, I suggested cobalt blue; she suggested turquoise or maybe a Robin's egg blue. Since I had used that lighter color in small portions as accents, we settled on the light blue.
   Back to the studio with the light blue. Since I was going to "age" it anyway, I allowed a bit of the burgundy beneath to show through. It definitely gave the birdhouse a very different look. So that it didn't look out of place, I went back and added touches of that color on all sides and the roof. Once it was aged, and aging helps tremendously tie a project together, you would never know it had been another color. Actually, the photo doesn't do it justice. When you see it, the blue pops out in small doses that does tie it all back together.
   As an artist, you have a vision. Often it is not the same vision of a viewer or customer. However, as I said many times, just because you don't like something, and we ALL have our opinions and tastes, it doesn't make it invalid. Just like some of the ugliest cars on the road. When you see someone driving one, you pause, oftentimes stare and wonder how on earth they could they buy that. The Pontiac Aztec and even the newest Prius have not been given wonderful design accolades. They were both design stretches and sometimes you win but often you loose. Remember the Edsel?
   Art is something that represents a vision. Here, I took a blah birdhouse and seeing something two-dimensional wondered what it would look like in three dimensions. Some like it, others don't. That is the risk artists all have to take. Change or die.
   I am forever thankful for this commission ... because finally it restarted the passion I had for art. I also feel that we have to listen to what others say. It may not be your vision, but as I have discovered, a heartfelt comment can ignite the artist in us in ways we can't predict.
   Another friend suggested a new twist on a standard birdhouse that I am going to try next. You just never know!
The new version left, the original inspiration, right!

Thank you for reading my blog. I invite you to take the time to read earlier blogs where the emphasis is to explore the ways art and design affects our daily lives ... and always has. I share with you what inspires me with the hope that it will inspire you as well. Comments are always welcomed! Be sure to check my re-opened ETSY store ... I will be adding many new and exciting products. Many of the items talked about here will be for sale there!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Received Apple Home Pod Friday, Returning Monday

Apple's answer to Amazon, the Home Pod
   I have an Apple centric home. I purchased my first Apple Macintosh in 1994 the week their first PowerPC 6100 computer went on sale. It was a collaboration with IBM creating a new chip to rival those made by Intel. It was a workhorse but to today's standards the average iPhone is 100's if not 1,000's of times more powerful than my very first computer.
   I have an iPhone X, a phone that I have yet to make peace with, unlike my beloved and returned iPhone 7+, an iMac, an iPad Pro and a MacBook Pro. So, I somewhat know my way around the Apple universe.
   When I found out that Amazon's Echo Alexa powered machines do not work with Apple products, and unable to afford Sonos speakers, or so I thought, I had to settle for a Bose Mini-speaker and several Ooontz speakers that worked well enough. My Visio sound bar worked well but you had to keep hitting the Input button to get sound again from your TV. I played music from my iPhone on that system once or twice and never tried it again. The sound though, was amazing.
   The Bose speaker is, well crappy. After replacing the first one when the tech had no better luck than me, I find it hard to pair. You REALLY have to want to play it because from the get go it takes up to 5 minutes for the speaker and the phone to see each other. Oddly, a $35 Ooontz speaker pairs almost instantly every time. But, well, I wanted something better.
When you speak to Siri the top glows.
   After watching Tim Cook's presentation of all things Apple in September, I was drawn to the Home Pod. Here was an Apple centric speaker that could play all your music and use Siri for some commands as well. The product was slated to be available in December, then delayed until the early part of February. You could place your order February 2nd and items would be available February 9th. I ordered it to be delivered, and, as promised it arrived about noon Friday, February 9th. They should have waited a few more months to make sure it really, I mean REALLY, does work.
   I struggled with it Friday. The pairing was not easy. It played music but not mine. The sound is amazing, EXCELLENT in fact. However, I bought it to play my music, music I have been collecting on first records, then cassettes and finally CD's. Most of my music was mine and I have kept all my CD's as backups in fact.
This is how you pair your Home Pod to some device ...
here your iPhone. It can't see mine.
   Try as I might, Siri kept telling me that it couldn't find my play lists and seemingly played whatever it wanted. The sound was, for something this small, stunning. I had to hand it to Apple. It really was that good. But, it wouldn't pair completely, something I wrote at length about regarding my iPhone X. I took that back the day I got it because it too wouldn't see what was on my iPhone 7. It took over 90 minutes at the Apple store to get the process to start and three weeks of backing up every few days to get the photos and music backed up on my iMac on this new phone. 
   One of the reasons I always liked Apple products was their elegance and ease of use. That has changed and they might as well go under the moniker of Applesoft ... they seem to have inherited the tendencies of Microsoft ... throw the program out there and let their customers do the product testing for them. There's a reason Dilbert is so popular. We laugh (in recognition) and then we cry.
   I searched the Internet Friday looking for solutions to my problems. Ironically, while you could buy a new Home Pod, there was nothing on the Apple web site about issues. I know, I looked. I did read an article about it and the reviewer, like me, was thrilled with the sound. He found Siri lacking compared to Alexa. I found Siri worked well enough only the software couldn't see any of my Apple products that ALL had the same songs, books, movies, even photos on them.
   Saturday I didn't even try. I listened to an audio book and painted a birdhouse that had been ordered. In the middle of the night I woke thinking maybe I needed to make sure all of my music was in my iCloud account. 
   Sunday, I searched all my programs and iCloud didn't even have a feature to store or back up your music. Going again to the Apple site I found that you could leave a number and they would call you. That's what all the sites say these days and few do. I didn't expect much when suddenly the phone rang and there was an Apple tech.
   The first guy was surprised and didn't know how to help me. He did some searching while I held and then suddenly we were cut off. I had given him my cell number but he never called back. Trying again, waiting again, I had to explain my problem all over again. And try as she might she couldn't help me either. 
Using an ancient Roman gesture,
this is my recommendation
   The third person was as perplexed as the others and finally asked for access to my desktop. She could see my music my lists and using the phone had me ask Siri to play my Classical Music. She heard it say that it couldn't find that listing in my music. She was surprised and then asked me to click some button in iTunes and instantly the room was filled with Vivaldi! The only thing the Home Pod could see was the computer. That was NOT what I wanted. She was putting a tech issue order in. I thanked her for her help, she, quite muted now, said she was sorry she couldn't help me.
   I knew what I was going to do. Tomorrow I will return it. It was an extravagance I really couldn't afford and since it doesn't work as it was touted, I realized I didn't need anymore stress in my life. I kept all the packing so tomorrow bright and early it goes home.
   This is the second product I've purchased from Apple in less than a year that didn't and doesn't work well. From what I am reading I am not the only person who is beginning to find frustration with Apple products not working well or so changed that you need to be a geek to figure out how to use them. I am sure when I walk in with my Home Pod asking for a credit there will be surprise. This time, I'm done. Maybe with the second or third generation I might consider it again. Now, I can hear my music through my iMac, Bose or easier to use Ooontz speakers. Crystal, clear sound will just have to wait awhile longer.

    Thank you for reading my blog. I invite you to take the time to read earlier blogs where the emphasis is to explore the ways art and design affects our daily lives ... and always has. I share with you what inspires me with the hope that it will inspire you as well. Comments are always welcomed! Be sure to check my re-opened ETSY store ... Shortly I will be adding many new and exciting products, many of these items will be talked about here for sale there!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Installing QuarkXpress 2017: Day Two


   This morning, around 7:30 am PST I received a phone call. Surprised at how early this was for a call but thinking it was the air conditioning people calling about their delivery and installation today, it was instead a woman named Pooja calling about the problems I was having with my installation of Quark. It took me a moment to register and finally understand what the call was about.
   She asked a series of questions and I explained that no matter what I did, the installation would not let me activate the program. Instead, after several hours and attempts, I managed only to get a 7-day free trial.
   The first thing she did was ask for permission to take over my desktop which I granted so after downloading a program and installing it, she took over my computer, from India, I learned later. There were a few hiccups but soon we had it installed and she was able to change and update my own information, something else I could not do yesterday.
   Next I asked her to help me install this program on my laptop as the software allows it to be used on two computers only not at the same time. So, we started all over again, after another download to take over my laptop and to download the software. That took a bit longer but soon she had it downloaded and we installed it.
   She was wonderfully patient as I was clearly out of my element. I told her that while it may seem quite simple to her, after all she does this all day, it was more and more difficult for users. The fact that it took a day to reach me meant that others were having the same problem.

    This was the long delayed email that said just about the same thing that I had to work with 
    yesterday. Companies today, especially geekie software companies, spend too much time trying 
    to avoid their customers rather than help them.
    Do I regret the letter I wrote and posted? No. In the workspace from Quark it clearly showed that it had been nearly 21 ½ hours since the work order had gone out. This is unacceptable on just about any level especially since I discovered this morning that an email had been sent timed at 11:05 am yesterday. Though I started 3 ½ hours earlier than that time, I didn't receive it until this morning. I had been promised a call, that I got only 24 hours later after the initial call and order.
   Pooja was wonderful to work with and infinitely patient. I enjoy using this software and am heartened that books about its capabilities are being written again. What is not acceptable and calls into question is their own software installation techniques, the time it takes for a response and the difficulty it is to install. Honestly, I was having second thoughts and wondered if it was this difficult to install, did I want to install it?
   I was Pooja's last customer. When we finished before 9 am here in the morning, it was around 10 pm there.
   After this call and its 90 minute installation process, I am happy again and yet also saddened. Quark was once a great, powerful desktop publishing company. Maybe success breeds contempt and after a stumble or three when Apple went to a more modern operating system, it opened the door to real competition. Adobe was able to upgrade PageMaker, a poor second in this industry, with its refurbished InDesign and take over the industry. I can only hope that Quark will be great and successful again while not forgetting who made it a success in the first place.

Thank you for reading my blog. I invite you to take the time to read earlier blogs where the emphasis is to explore the ways art and design affects our daily lives ... and always has. I share with you what inspires me with the hope that it will inspire you as well. Comments are always welcomed! Be sure to check my re-opened ETSY store ... Many of the items talked about here are for sale there!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

An Open Letter To The CEO of QuarkXpress

January 31, 2018

Mr. Tom Gores, CEO
Platinum Equity
360 N. Crescent Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Dear Mr. Gores

   Today I logged on to the live contact person on your QuarkXpress web site. This was about 7:30  am, PST. I thought you were still based in Colorado and after not getting the information I needed texting asked to talk to someone. The phone listed didn't work but suddenly my phone rang and Connie, the person I was texting online, was on the phone.
   I explained that I had purchased a new iMac that had QXP 10 and that it didn't seem to work with my new new MacOS and I wanted to know how much it would cost to install the new version on both my iMac and MacBook Pro. I knew a license covered two devices. The cost of $185.00 seemed reasonable but I had had nothing but trouble upgrading since Quark stopped sending out installation discs. When she said that she would send me the validation code I asked her to wait but she said that would take 15 - 30 minutes but that it would be a simple process.
   It isn't. I called her back and literally begged to have her help me install the new software. No matter what I did it wouldn't download, then entering a bunch of code numbers it had information that was wrong and would not let me correct it. I read her what my screen was saying and all she could say was that she would have to put in a work order and someone in the technical staff would help me get the installation done.
   After an hour of waiting I called her again and said I give up. I want my money back. She assured me they would call me soon, that she would put in another work order but they were helping others. I noted that if there were that many problems with the software maybe I didn't want it after all.
   I have used InDesign, taught myself how to use PhotoShop and Illustrator but Adobe in their infinitely greedy wisdom stopped selling their software and force you to pay a yearly fee that amounts to double or triple what we used to have to pay. Then, they had an outage last year where their servers were down and no one could use their software nor were able to work with projects that were started. Having your own software remains one of the strengths of Quark ... that is if you can get it to install.
   As I write this it has now been 5 hours since my initial contact with Quark. Luckily, should I have needed it, I would work in my 2016 version of QXP on my laptop. What is galling is that I have paid for something that I cannot use and there appears to be no one who is going to call and help with with the installation process. I have all the numbers, which are mind boggling but, for whatever reason, Quark refuses to see me and tells me that the codes I received and printed from my email from you are invalid.
   I have a meeting soon and, as I pointed out to Connie, I have a life to lead as well. I have no doubt that once I leave my condo and attend my meeting, someone will call and I will be unable to get what I was told was a simple process, done. At least today.
   As an aside, I should point out that I learned to use Quark 3.1 on a Powerbook 170, a laptop version of Apple's Mac series that featured a ball instead of a trackpad. I went to Otis Parsons twice to learn to use it and it was my primary desktop publishing anchor when I had my own design business. I stuck to them even after several versions of stumbling before they wrote software for Apple's 10X software. Luckily back in the early 2000's all Mac's ran their old 9.01 OS as well as the new 10.0 OS.
   It was that stumble that allowed Adobe to catch up with their new InDesign that soon surpassed Quark as the king of desktop publishing.
   At 72, I am a little long in the tooth to use something new. I understand Quark and have always preferred it, well, until today. My last few upgrades have been Dante's circles of hell and, finally, I have learned my lesson. I doubt I will hear from anyone today. It is a shame that a great software program has been allowed to die. 
   Finally, I found out today after a little research that Quark is now owned by a private equity company, your Platinum Equity that appears to be even less responsive that Quark owned by a family in Colorado.  As the Brits say: "The King is dead, long live the King!


Alan Krug
Palm Springs, CA 92262 or

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Impressions of China: Closing the Old Year, Ringing In the New!

     For me, the end of 2017 and the beginning of the New Year began Christmas Eve with a 5:30 am flight from Palm Springs to San Francisco’s airport – SFO. Watching the weather forecasts on the nightly news I was heartened to see, for once, the west was clear even as a new ice age seemed to engulf the south and east. With San Francisco’s famous fog you never know. The flight left SFO on time to begin my 12-hour flight to Beijing. Oddly I couldn't sleep and read, watched the onboard movies and one on my iPad.
China has one time zone and they are 16 hours ahead of us so it’s a long flight (and a very long day). I arrived on Monday, Christmas Day at 3:30 pm in Beijing, went through Immigration and customs and was done quickly. The hold up was the nearly 90 minute wait to get my luggage. I had about given up hope when suddenly the conveyor started up again and suitcases began to spill out. Part of the problem is that you are miles away from where the plane disembarks and where you get your luggage.
Not only was there this complex, it's sister was across the street. In summer the pond is filled. Now, everything is frozen.
My host and friend was waiting for me in the international lobby and we began looking for a bus to take us to Tianjin, his home, and China’s third largest city. This was about a 3-hour journey and once in Tianjin we had to find a taxi to get to his complex. Let me say right here, in America you build a condo with maybe one or two towers, in China or at least Tianjin, Beijing and I would guess Shanghai, you build 10, 20, maybe even 30. Walking past them they loom up like mountains above the street. In my case his towers were identical on both sides of the street. I know, I got lost on the wrong side and freaked out. I learned to tell what stores were in the front of both sides of the street.
The weather was clear and sunny the first few days but cold. It never got over 42º and nights could drop down into the teens. The worst day, the day we went to the street market, with wind chill it was 5º and we had to bail after an hour or so. And yes, there were smoggy days that resembled LA in the 80’s.
Walls of condos seen from bus
In China our states would be called provinces but their three biggest cities are given province status not unlike Washington, D.C. Tianjin is huge. 13 million people in an area the size of LA’s city limits. Condo towers are everywhere, the main streets are huge, often 8-10 lanes wide. Crossing the street is like playing a 6 dimensional game of chess. People, bikes, mopeds of which there are many hauling any and everything you can imagine, cars, trucks and buses all vie with each other going across an intersection. There are signals of course but NOBODY obeys them. I never saw a wreck or someone hit like I do in Palm Springs, but it’s not for lack of trying. You must look 360º before you cross just about any street. The city needs to bring in a few California traffic cops. With the fines they would get, just on the first day, the city would literally be rolling in money. Somehow it all works but it can be pretty scary.
Tianjin's 1404 Drum (clock) Tower
Our first day sightseeing together we went to the area of a drum tower built in 1404. It was the town clock at its center and every hour someone would bang the bell. Now you can do it anytime its open but it was an impressive structure and the museum inside gives you a view of its place in Tianjin’s history. His condo is inside what would have been the ancient city walls. He is close to the river and several temples and areas that were developed by Europeans. In some dispute with the Emperor a force of 8 European nations tore down the ancient walls in 1908. We found the old Austrian-Hungary Empire consulate built around 1889. From what I could understand the Europeans and Japan made increasing demands on the weakening Emperor and those demands increased with the birth of the Republic. It’s not a kind history and explains much of their distrust of the West.
Our next day, with smog forming, we visited a preserved merchants house built in 1911. The compound had 288 rooms some with the finery they would have had then. I was stunned. The man only had one child and yet he had all this. It wasn’t hard to see why there was a revolution. If you were to see the hutang’s, tiny narrow streets, still visible today, with the one-story homes with no heat, electricity or water, you would understand that this home and lifestyle was very different from how the majority lived.
This home was along the river and all around it a new mall in the classic temple design was being built. It was a shame but then, maybe, like in ancient Rome, this was how the home would have been located. In it’s history so much of China has changed and was changed especially during the Cultural Revolution.
One of the many beautiful malls we saw.
Since I was not staying in a hotel, I had to register with the police within 24 hours of arrival. It took 3 days, really. My friend called when we got to the condo. Wait until tomorrow he was told. We walked in the next day. The person we needed was out sick. Finally on the third try there was someone that could register me. Now, not unlike a Chinese Mandarin only speaking visitor coming here, my going there, and not speaking Mandarin, well you can just imagine. What made it worse, it looked like they had never done this before? After about an hour I was a legal visitor to that neighborhood and we went about our business.
I would walk each day exploring and since few spoke English and I saw few Westerners ever, I had to be careful to watch where I walked. Photos helped but I got lost in the wrong condo complex because I turned right instead of left.
Bikes for rent are everywhere. The mall in the background
is vacant. One of many deserted ones that I saw.
On my walks and discussions, I discovered that Chinese merchants are experiencing the same dilemma as America. I found several huge malls that were abandoned. One of the most popular at one point, huge by any standard, had a high wall around it and had no way in. Beams were rusted out, windows gone; it was literally derelict. Yet there would be a mall across the street bustling. Of the malls I saw and they are everywhere, at least 25-50% of them were closed. We found a similar story with office buildings, a museum that was built but never opened. 
The malls had interesting names … Lucky City Mall, Joy Fashion Mall and such. Those that were open were magnificent rising 5, 6, even 7 stories high. Floors also were concentrated in offerings. Most had a kid’s floor with shops aimed especially for children, food courts were actually restaurants offering not only Chinese but Korean BBQ and hot pot, a variety of Japanese cuisines, Muslim Chinese, American McDonalds and KFC (if you saw a McDonald’s there would be a KFC in line of sight) even a western style pub. Because Tianjin is a port city their specialty is seafood and the food was delicious. However, I also ate things I never thought I would but survived without a single day of the touristas. My friend and I have similar tolerances and if he wouldn’t eat it, neither would I! We drew the line at grilled scorpions on a stick we saw in a food court.
We passed up scorpions
and crickets on a stick.
The highlight of the trip, for me was Beijing. I had wanted to see the 798 Art District, obviously the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. It was cold and because of that and the distance away we decided to hold a visit to the Great Wall until there was warmer weather. He sent me a photo of the walls covered in snow with nary a person in sight saying, “We should have gone. No one was there.” And I could see why!
We spent our Beijing arrival day traipsing around the 798 Art District, something he had not seen. While there were many galleries and such, it was a gentrified vision of art, very different from the grittier Dafen Village in Shenzhen. Prices here were expensive and you rarely saw the artists. It was fun but given a choice I would head back to Dafen Village.
That night we had Peking Duck in a famous restaurant. It was my first time and it was heavenly. Since our hotel was nearby we walked over to Tiananmen Square to see it at night. Much of the area has barricades, we had to pass through metal detectors and I had to show my passport to enter the area. There, smiling down at us was an illuminated Mao. It looked big but the next day in daylight I was stunned at the size of the Forbidden City.
After a feast of Peking Duck, we walked over to Tiananmen Square.
We got up early and walked over to get tickets. You can buy them online but because I was a foreigner we had to show up in person, passport in hand. They limit the number of tickets sold each day so we were there when it opened. I should mention here that I have never shown my passport as much as I did in China. In fact, I showed it more times in 21 days than the rest of my life … say 50 years of traveling. The crowds were light that day and we spent the entire day exploring. I had just seen a NOVA special about the building of the Forbidden City and scientists were amazed that it’s over 900 buildings had never failed despite horrific earthquakes. In fact in 1976 a nearby city was destroyed and 250,000 lost their lives in an earthquake. It appears that the earth’s crust is shallow there and subject to periodic shakers. Tests of perfect miniatures on an earthquake table showed the structures could withstand a 10.5 earthquake and maybe more. Scientists are studying the reasons why they survive.
Nothing prepares you for the vastness of the Forbidden City. I mean nothing!
I had seen a PBS Nova special on its construction before coming and that alone  was amazing.
Once through that first wall you are stunned to see an open space that must measure at least 5 football fields in size. A vast, stone expanse opens up to the outside walls and the interior structure and its wall. It goes on and on. In magnificence it rivals Karnack in Egypt. Every balustrade, many of the stairs and spaces between are carved with intricate images. The buildings are wood and one has burned several times, the Emperor’s changing building, but not one has been lost to an earthquake.
The travelers!
It was cold and several times we ducked into a trinket shop to get coffee or just warm up. Starbucks opened a coffee shop inside and the outrage was so great they took it out. I was approached once and then many times by locals who wanted a photo with me. I had on a red knit hat and so I guess with my white beard they thought (and told my friend) I was Santa. It happened other times as well; the last time was in the seafood restaurant the night before I left. The manager begged me and so I had him also take a photo with me!
By about 5 pm we were cold and hungry so took a cab to a famous Korean Hot Pot restaurant. If you have never eaten this, seek it out! You start with a bubbling broth usually filled with mushrooms. You pick your meat served fresh and slivered to be dropped in the broth. Also veggies, of any variety, are cooked and eaten. You can make your own dipping sauce. It was fun and absolutely delicious. We thawed out and then headed back to our room.
Breakfast came with our room and it was an interesting experience too. There doesn’t seem to be as clear a demarcation of what they eat compared to westerners. The food was good and I tried out a variety of items I would have normally equated with lunch or dinner. We packed it in as we usually missed lunch.
Lama Tibetan Buddhist Temple
The next day we didn’t have to check out until the afternoon so we headed over to the Lama Tibetan Buddhist Temple. Again, it was painted with intricate paintings and scenes. Next came the Temple of Heaven, the famous round temple so many photos show when showing Beijing. It was late morning and while clear the wind came up and we hurried around before we froze. After here we got our stuff and headed to the train station to go back to Beijing. One thing I noticed was that there were stewardess’s … uniforms and all. Also train security was no different than what you would find at the airport.
The Temple of Heaven
It’s hard to tell where Beijing ends and Tianjin begins. There were open spaces and we saw the ruins of old village homes razed and huge complexes rising next door. In the distances you saw huge cranes rising from empty fields. I was told that when that happens, the people displaced get first dibs on a new home for free. They only pay a bit more if they want a larger size. Since I never got into one I don’t know but I imagine they were grateful for inside bathrooms, an inside kitchen, heating, electricity, running water. What I thought were public toilets were the toilets for residents on these small hutang’s who had to go outside and down the lane for basic needs. This was how my friend grew up.
If you ever saw the movie “Lost In Translation,” a movie about two Americans in Tokyo and how alienated they felt (I had been there just before the movie came out and could identify) I found that China was very similar. Tianjin is not a western tourist destination though many visit the city from Beijing. You could tell by their accents. There was only one English TV station and it was basically a PR mouthpiece for the government. I was cut off from the outside world. No Google, no Gmail, no Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, normal news feeds, any of the things you look at every day! I went to the Apple store and had them help me attempt to get my mail through a VPN, as I needed to pay bills as the newly elected treasurer for my HOA. It never worked well and I had to use his laptop, tap into Yahoo and could see some of it. However, his screen was in Chinese and I could only click icons I recognized that hopefully would get me where I wanted or needed to go. In some ways it was rather liberating and in others you felt like you were living “1984.”
No one reads a book or newspaper anymore!
One of the great ironies is that cell phones are like appendages to the Chinese. I can see the first smartphone implants being done here! You would get on a bus or train and everyone, and I mean EVERYONE is holding a smart phone. Other than rushing through tunnel noise, trains were silent for the most part with everyone holding and reading a cell phone earplugs in place. I would also see them looking online to buy things. My friend admitted he bought most of his things online … from vendors he trusted, trusted more than what he could buy in a store.
One of the mysteries of the first arrival of Chinese immigrants in the mid 70’s was their attempt at bargaining over prices. Americans look at a price and buy or not, you hope maybe there’s a sale but to bargain at the register? Never. I was told that prices, even tagged prices were routinely high and you bargained at the register to get a better price. Ah! Mystery solved. Also, I learned from an Asian friend here to always check your register receipt. When he found a mistake at COSTCO, of all places, I started paying closer attention. One purchase at another store was over $20 off and while he grumbled the manager gave me credit and had to re-ring my purchases. The other lesson is to always ask if there is an additional discount. I laughed when he told me this in Palm Springs. I stopped laughing when he would ask and get an additional discount!!! When I did it and was given one I asked, “Why didn’t you just give it to me? I was told, “You have to ask for it.”
After a 40-hour day coming home and greeting my rapturously happy dog, it felt strange not wearing a scarf, a big puffy coat, a knit hat and gloves while walking her. Balmy 70’s at night replaced a nippy 18º.
New China, as the natives refer to it, is amazing. You see old and new literally rubbing against each other. They, like us are suffering economically (though they don’t want to admit it), and young people are having trouble finding jobs. Children and parents go abroad to get jobs because there aren’t any, with their training, available at home.
One of the greatest pleasures ... shopping here on shopping street
I realized sitting at the mall one day eating ice cream that everyone I saw 40 and younger was born under the one child policy. So in essence you had a country filled with single, and as many sociologists would note, selfish, indulged children. Being an only child, they had never really learned to share. They also had never gone through the privations of their parents; the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, just like the Boomer generation never experienced the Great Depression and World War II.
I loved China and realize that even at my age I need to learn at least some Mandarin and some of the characters. While I can hear their sounds I just can’t seem to get my mouth to repeat them. Looking at the characters that are ubiquitous everywhere, it wouldn’t hurt me to learn ones I need to know. But even there, I learned characters are contextual and meanings depend on characters that surround them.
Sellers were already getting ready for Chinese New Year
next month. Out with the old, Year of the Rooster, and in
with the new, Year of the Dog.
Until you are the only Westerner you don’t realize how alienated you can become. One night we decided to go to the Blue Frog Bar & Grill. We discovered that Monday night was a 2 for 1 menu. They had a huge luscious looking hamburger and both of us were ready for something different. We also discovered that covered everything on the menu so I had a Hoegaarden beer and hamburgers.
In many ways, the Chinese are much like Americans. They all hustle in one way or another. You would see craftsman outside in the cold creating things, everyone seemed to want to deal. I had first experienced this in Hong Kong where street vendors worked until late every night to be ready to sell in the morning. You wonder how all the restaurants can survive when you see only a few or no patrons inside. We think of them as copyists but we tend to forget that many of their inventions preceded Europe’s and historians are beginning to understand they invented things long before the Europeans. In 1434 a treasure fleet visited Venice and the Pope was given a printed book with all the knowledge of China at the time. Printed materials with movable type were invented in the 1300’s in China. Gutenberg’s printing press created a printed Bible in 1452.

The leaders of New China are everywhere. This poster
was inside my friends condo complex. We could never
imagine posters like this here.
China is an evolving, enduring and dynamic place. Politics aside, it has a healthy distrust of the west. Since the first contact in the late 1400’s on their homeland, others have tried to shove their influence on them without realizing the vast, proud and very wealthy country they have always been. There is so much yet to see and I can’t wait for my next visit.

Thank you for reading my blog. I invite you to take the time to read earlier blogs where the emphasis is to explore the ways art and design affects our daily lives ... and always has. I share with you what inspires me with the hope that it will inspire you as well. Comments are always welcomed! Be sure to check my re-opened ETSY store ... Many of the items talked about here are for sale there!