Crazy for Pandas

We went to Chengdu to see pandas, and we were not disappointed.  We went crazy taking panda pictures.  The pandas were one of the highlights of our China trip.

The Chengdu Panda Base has excellent outdoor displays of pandas grouped by age.  Each age group has its own behaviors.

The first group was adult pandas.  Pandas eat only one kind of bamboo that provides little nutrition, so the adults eat and sleep alot.

panda eating bamboo
Panda Eating Bamboo

A panda walking from one spot to the next.

panda walking
Panda Walking

Next were the babies, born in the spring.  They can barely nudge themselves along.  But some babies eventually move off the platform and are returned to the pile. You can see the size of a baby panda compared to a person.

pile of pandas
A Pile of Pandas
Returning a wandering panda
Returning a Wandering Panda

Here’s a panda mother and child.  The mother stays on the platform.  The child climbs the platform and gets on the mother.  The mother gently nudges the child off the platform, and the child climbs up again. We watched this cycle at least a half dozen times.

panda mother and child
Panda Mother and Child

The teenagers are the most active group.  Volunteers feed the pandas apples on a stick.

reaching for the apple
Panda Teenager Reaching for an Apple
pandas want the apple
Pandas Want the Apple

The pandas are adorable and extremely popular.  Our guide has an repeat customer who returns from America every year to see the pandas with our guide.  Visitors who pay $150 can hold a baby panda; another tour group had a member who did that.  China leases pandas to foreign zoos for $1M a year. The zoos probably make money by advertising the pandas and drawing more visitors.  The leased pandas and any offspring are returned to China when the lease expires, maintaining the Chinese monopoly and brand.

The Chengdu Panda Base is an excellent, large facility.  Visitors are spread across several displays of pandas grouped by age, with lots of railings for people to watch.  We visited in the morning, when the pandas are eating. The crowds were manageable — we were always able to get a spot on the railing without waiting too long.

We’ve been asked whether a tourist who wants to see pandas should go to Chengdu or see pandas in a zoo in another city.  Ask about the pandas in the zoos.  If zoos have only adult pandas, you’d miss out on the other age groups and their behaviors.   Chengdu and Lhasa were our two favorite places on our China trip, so we’re happy we went to Chengdu.

You’ll take lots of pictures so be sure to have disk space and battery power for your camera. Bring a telephoto lens if you have one.

Learning the Value of a UV Filter

I learned the value of an ultraviolet (UV) filter the hard way. In photography, a UV filter is a flat piece of coated glass mounted in a ring that screws to the front of a single lens reflex (SLR) camera lens.  The UV filter screens UV light and provides some physical protection to the camera lens. The general recommendation is to use a UV filter, and we do this.

Last week we rode the Red Line subway into Chicago, to see the Art Institute.  Leaving the subway car, I put my backpack on my shoulder.  The backpack strap came apart, and the backpack fell to the concrete floor.  My camera, a Canon SLR, was inside the backpack, in a Lowepro toploader bag.  While waiting for the train, I had loosened the shoulder straps. When I put on the backpack, the strap wasn’t tight enough to hold, and the strap came undone.

At the Art Institute, we opened the camera bag and found that the glass of the UV filter was cracked into dozens of pieces.  I couldn’t unscrew the filter from the lens, so I only poured out the few glass shards that were loose.  The test shot below, taken through the cracked filter, showed that the camera still takes pictures. The focus looks soft, but the image looks better than I expected.

That night, I gripped the filter with pliers but was still unable to unscrew the filter.

When we returned to California, I took the camera to the repair desk of a local camera shop.  The technician pried out the broken glass and but couldn’t unscrew the filter from the lens. The filter was a B+W filter, which has a brass ring.  I think the camera fell lens-first, jamming the threads.  The technician snipped the metal ring and jammed a metal instrument between the filter ring and the lens, creating a gap between them.  Then he was able to unscrew the filter.  He removed the remaining glass shards and handed me the camera.  I thanked him and asked how much I owed.  The repair is free — just buy a new filter in the camera shop.  🙂  In case anyone needs a camera repair, the shop is Keeble and Shuchat in Palo Alto, CA.  I asked for another B+W filter, but they didn’t have it. They sold me a Rodenstock filter, which also has a brass ring.

Here’s a test shot.  The camera seems to be fine. Our California redbud (cercis occidentalis) has two red buds in December!  The redbud has glorious blooms in the spring, but we’ve had a mild autumn, so it’s a little confused.  No killing frosts yet.  Our tomato plants are hanging in there and still have tomatoes.

I learned that a UV filter can protect your lens and camera.  The filter did exactly what it’s supposed to do — protect the camera and lens, even with a 4-foot drop onto concrete. The filter is cheap insurance.  The filter costs much less than the camera or the lens, and camera repairs are inconvenient, taking weeks.  I like Canon cameras and lenses, B+W filters, and Keeble and Shuchat more than ever.

btw, the Art Institute of Chicago was wonderful.  We spent the entire afternoon there.  They have a very large Impressionist collection with a dozen Renoirs, more than 30 Monets, and a Degas Little Dancer bronze on loan.  We also enjoyed the Chagall windows and the American paintings.

So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

As Simon and Garfunkel told us, “I can’t believe your song is gone so soon. I barely learned the tune so soon so soon.”

We visited Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, to tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio and see homes he designed.  A century ago Wright started developing his Prairie homes, with external features such as a low-slung building profile and overhanging roofs.  During the tour of his home and studio, we learned that he developed and used important design patterns for building interiors.

His home and studio are shown below.  The house is the 2-story structure on the right, and the studio is on the left.  The house front is dominated by a triangle.  Wright used geometric shapes in his buildings, in contrast to the curves of art nouveau, a style of the era.

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio

Wright tried design ideas in his home.  The tour guide said that Wright pioneered the open floor plan.  In his home, the entry, living room, and study are connected by wide 6′-8′ openings, instead of the usual doors that are smaller and opaque.  Wide openings between rooms, especially when you can see rooms across a diagonal, makes the space feel larger.  Today’s great room, combining the kitchen, eating area, and family room, is an example of an open floor plan.  Wide openings are examples of Half-Open Wall, a design pattern (number 193) in Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language.  This excellent book identifies and provides examples of design patterns for communities and buildings.

Wright also employed varying ceiling heights — the hall to the children’s play room has a low ceiling, while the play room has a high, barrel-vaulted ceiling.  Moving from the low hall ceiling to the high ceiling of the play room makes the play room feel more spacious. Ceiling Height Variety is pattern 190 in Alexander’s book.

A Pattern Language, written in 1977, doesn’t cite sources for the patterns, but Wright’s home clearly predates Christopher’s work.  When designing our home, we used design several patterns from A Pattern Language, including Half-Open Wall and Ceiling Height Variety.

In the first picture Wright’s studio is to the left of the home.  The entrance to the studio is shown below.  To enter the studio, you walk up the stairs to this landing, then walk between the columns to discover the door to the studio.  The guide said that Wright liked people to discover the door, so the location of the door isn’t obvious from the street.

Entrance to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Studio

Wright designed more than a dozen homes in Oak Park and another nearby town.  Wright designed the Arthur Heurtley House, located on the same block as the home and studio. The Arthur Huertley House illustrates features of Prairie homes: the wide roof over a band of windows, stained glass windows, and horizontally textured brick walls.  The front door is under the arch.

Arthur Heurtley House

We saw the Wright homes and studio because of Wright’s fame as an American architect.  We learned that his ideas and influence extend beyond the Prairie style to design patterns employed in many homes today, so his work lives on, even beyond the prairie.

Steve Jobs

Much has been written about Steve Jobs since his death last month.  Three things stand out: his sister’s eulogy, his Stanford commencement speech, and the Steve Jobs biography.

His sister’s eulogy was printed in the New York Times.  Intimate, full of love, and very moving.  Easy to see why she’s a college English professor.

This Youtube clip of Job’s 2005 Stanford Commencement speech has been viewed more than 6 million times.  It’s a great commencement speech — very inspiring, as it should be.  It’s so inspiring that I wondered how much help he got.  According to Jobs’ biographer (see below), Jobs initially asked a noted speechwriter to help with the speech, but then wrote the speech himself.  Jobs talks about death as a good thing, clearing out the old for the young.   When I first heard the speech, I didn’t know the severity of the cancer that eventually killed him, so I viewed his discussion of death as an abstract concept, and not the cancer he lived with every day.

There’s the authorized Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson.  Jobs asked Isaacson to write his biography and placed no limits on who Isaacson could talk to or what he would write.  Jobs only asked to redesign the cover. The book is well-written and balanced, showing Jobs both as a product genius and a jerk.  Isaacson asked why Jobs wanted a biography; Jobs said he wanted his children to get to know him better through the biography.  The products Jobs helped develop is amazing, spanning Apple, NeXT, Pixar, and Apple.

I especially enjoyed the comparison of Jobs and Bill Gates.  They both were born in the same year (1955), dropped out of college, and founded notable technology companies.  Jobs tightly controlled products, hardware, and software; Gates fostered PC clones.  Jobs said that Microsoft copied the Apple user interface, while Gates said that Apple and Microsoft copied the Xerox user interface.  Jobs is intuitive; Gates is analytic.  Gates established a foundation to give away his money; Jobs kept his money invested in Apple and Disney.

Potala Palace as a Passive Solar Building

Potala Palace, the winter residence of the Dalai Lama, is located in Lhasa, at an altitude of 3,700 m (12,100 feet).  Lhasa is cold in the winter — the average high in January is 45 F, and the low is 16 F.

Potala Palace from the south

Perhaps Potala Palace is more than a breathtakingly beautiful building that was the residence of many Dalai Lamas.  Staying warm during the Tibetan winter is important. Let’s explore passive solar design in Potala Palace, a building completed more than 400 years ago, based on design elements from the Wikipedia article.

  • Placement of room-types, internal doors & walls, & equipment in the house.  Multiple levels are connected by staircases.  The Dalai Lama lived in an upper level, so that warm air would rise to the Dalai Lama’s residence.
  • Orienting the building to face the equator (or a few degrees to the East to capture the morning sun).  Potala Palace faces the equator, angled 5 to 10 degrees east, per google map in satellite mode.
  • Extending the building dimension along the east/west axis.  The building is several times longer than it is wide. The above photo shows the south exposure of Potala Palace.  Note how the Palace is long on the east/west axis.  In the White Palace photo, we see the east side of the upper part of the Palace.  It’s much narrower than the south side. Note that many more windows face south than east.
  • Adequately sizing windows to face the midday sun in the winter, and be shaded in the summer.  In the White Palace photo, note the ledges and curtains above the windows.
White Palace
  • Minimising windows on other sides, especially western windows.  Didn’t see the western side.  The north side of the Palace has relatively few windows, based on google map in the earth view.
  • Erecting correctly sized, latitude-specific roof overhangs.  See the shades and curtains for the windows.
  • Using the appropriate amount and type of insulation including radiant barriers and bulk insulation to minimise seasonal excessive heat gain or loss.  The Red Palace is red because the walls have a thick layer of red rush over stone walls.  The red rush is dark and absorbs solar energy as heat.  Potala Palace has thick stone walls.
  • Using thermal mass to store excess solar energy during the winter day.  Potala Palace is constructed of stone, providing lots of thermal mass.

I doubt that the Tibetans consulted a list of passive solar design elements when they built Potala Palace 400 years ago.  Nonetheless, it seems they got passive solar heating right.

Disclaimer: We aren’t solar energy professionals, so this post is more speculation than science.  We did read about passive solar energy design and and incorporate some elements into our home.  Potala Palace as a passive solar building seemed to fit. In any event, this post lists passive solar design elements and applies them to a specific building, illustrating how to apply design elements.

No doggie bags in China

We were finishing a meal in Chengdu with our guide and driver. Selected by our guide, the food was delicious, and there was so much food that we couldn’t finish it.  We asked the guide if he wanted to take the leftovers home, but he declined.  People in China don’t take leftovers home, he said, since people who do this would look poor.  Instead, leftovers are fed to the pigs.  Oh-h-h.

In contrast, part of the ritual of a Chinese meal in the States is to box up the leftovers/plannedovers and decide who takes home which dishes. It’s an informal, cooperative process that always works out.  There’s no stigma attached with taking leftovers home.

For some reason, pork in China is more tasty than the pork in the States.

We shared a meal with our guide in Yangshuo.  The meal was also delicious and plentiful, and several pieces of meat were left at the end of the meal.  We served the meat to the guide. She ate it, saying quietly that at home she holds back until her children have finished eating.

Retirement at Two Months

Before you retire, you wonder if retirement will work out for you.  Today marks two months of retirement.  Retirement has been good so far, with no surprises.  The long list of chores that you don’t have time for during a weekend is much shorter now.

Retiring just before Labor Day, retirement seemed like a long vacation at first.  Then there was a Monday when it sunk in that I didn’t have to go to work. I don’t miss work and the pressure, and no one misses the commute.  I miss talking with some people at work. I’m doing things important to me: traveling, doing this blog, going to more yoga classes, taking pictures, and improving my photography and gardening skills.

Last week American Airlines had a sale, and we purchased tickets to visit Chicago after Thanksgiving.   The really cheap seats disappeared in a day so in Hong Kong we bought the tickets we reserved the morning before in Yangshuo.  First time we bought airline tickets without our managers’ approval.  With retirement, you have more time than money, so being able to jump on travel sales is much appreciated.

A surprise about my 401k.  We read recommendations to invest in low-expense mutual funds and ETFs.  I’ve been asking for the actual expenses for the mutual funds in my 401k for several weeks.  We are provided estimated expenses, but  I learned the hard way that actuals may vary from estimates.  A supervisor at ING, the custodian for my 401k, told me today that ING doesn’t know the actual expenses for the mutual funds offered in our 401k and I can contact the management company for each mutual fund to get this information.  I told the supervisor that with over 100,000 people in the savings plan, ING should collect and provide this information as a service to the investors.  But the ING supervisor promised no action and could not provide the contact at my former employer who oversees ING.  As a retiree, I can rollover my 401k funds to a company that knows, manages, and discloses expenses to the investors.  And I will do this.