Latest Posts
Book Reviews
Petit guide de survie en belgique fédérale
The Metamorphosis
La démocratie des crédules
La crise: des subprimes au séisme financier planétaire
L'implosion: la finance contre l'économie, ce que révèle et annonce la
Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future
You Have to Fucking Eat
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice
The Playground
Une nation nommée narcisse
Krishnamurti et l'individualisme
Croyances et imaginaires contemporains
Feet of Clay
Contribution à la critique de la philosophie du droit de Hegel
Les Fatwas de Charb, tome II: Petit traité d'intolérance
Vers une laïcité dynamique
Follow me on…

How Everything is Going to Shit

Two eternal principles of human societies are, first, things tend to get better over time, and second, at any given moment, everyone believes they're getting much, much worse. I'm aware of the contradiction, and try to keep a realistic and optimistic worldview. Sometimes, though, it's really hard.

This morning, for example. I can't sleep, so around 5AM I get dressed, plonk myself on the couch and start watching the last republican debate. (Yeah, I know, big mistake.) A vicious back-and-forth erupts while discussing foreign policy. Asked to clarify how eager she is to start a war against a country of 70 million which has not attacked anyone in the last two centuries, one of the candidates answers, Otherwise, an unspecified number of American lives might be at risk. Oh, we have no choice then. Let's do it. It's nice that waging war is apparently risk-free.

Her opponent counters that there is no evidence, no evidence at all, that Iran is even trying to build a nuclear weapon. And he says it with a straight face, on national television. (I'm assuming. I saw it on YouTube.)

Imagine a world where such clowns are competing for the most important job on Earth. Where both are supported by millions of people, can raise fortunes to help their campaign, are taken seriously by the media and the entire nation. Where both of them already hold political positions of considerable power.

Yup, that's the world we're living in.

I switch to the presumably less retarded realm of economic news, where the debate du jour is about the proper protocol for one senior economist to call bullshit on another senior economist. Sure, that's important.

My father enters the room and hands me today's paper. There's a group photo of what looks like haredi jews wearing the striped-shirts-cum-yellow-star garbs often seen in Europe during the 1940's. A young girl is throwing a timid but well-intentioned Nazi salute while watching the camera. Please, oh please, let this story be about a Guinness World Record for Most Insensitive School Play Ever. Or Dieudonné's latest musical.

It's not. It's a protest by an actual group of Haredi comparing the secular Israeli state's hostility to their ultra-orthodox ways with Naziism's hostility to the existence of Jews. You see, a Jew walking the streets in Nazi Germany might be sent away to die in a labour camp. A Haredi walking the streets in Jerusalem might see a woman. Yeah, I can understand how that's totally the same thing. In a related story, grown men have been publicly rebuked for picketing a girl school, spitting on the pupils and calling them "nazi whores". Those girls are 6 to 8 years-old.

Let me make this absolutely clear: those concentration-camp-reenacters are not protesting the spitting-on-8-year-old-girls guys. They are the spitting-on-8-year-old-girls guys. They're protesting the rebuke that followed their spitballs, because they feel it's a totally inappropriate reaction to their completely reasonable spiritual lifestyle, which happens to involve standing outside schools shouting insults at 8 year-olds. I disagree. I think a rebuke is an entirely appropriate response. So is a baseball bat, thumbscrews or any combination of slick Krav Maga moves like they apparently do down there. You know what would be inappropriate ? Forcing them into one of those medieval sarcophagi, you know, the kind with all the nails on the inside, whaddya-call-'em?… Yeah, iron maidens, that's the name. Yes, that would be inappropriate. Definitely an overeaction. Somewhat.


Below this abomination, two Israeli academics debate the relation between faith and secular law in their country. The phrase "a small but vocal minority of religious fascist nutjobs" is conspicuously — and depressingly — absent.

I turn the page, thinking things can hardly get any worse. There's a photo of what can only be a female version of a Jesus-on-the-cross statue. I mean, that can't possibly be an actual, living, breathing human being. No way anyone does such a thing.

Uh, yes way: "Found in the cave where she'd been imprisoned, starved and tortured for her five-month long marriage, 15-year old Sahar Gul…"

OK, I give up. I just don't care anymore. I throw the paper towards a dark corner, very far away, switch to Youtube and search for "cat".

I know these are times of good resolutions, and many of you are probably pledging to exercise more, drink less, be more punctual, whatever… For my part, I mostly wish I could read less news.

Addendum: I wrote this while the first votes in the process that will eventually determine the next leader of the free world were being counted. The result: a shameless mannequin tied with a man who believes that mutually consenting adults do not have a right to privacy. "Land of the Free" indeed. The only sane and principled candidate scored 0.6%.

Escaping the Walled Garden

A few weeks ago, as my iPhone was doing its best to wake me up, it suddenly started vibrating constantly. After a few seconds the screen went black, but the vibration continued uninterrupted for nearly a minute before the phone seemingly shut down. It was six in the morning and I was in a hurry, so after trying and failing to turn it back on, I popped the SIM out, grabbed a Galaxy SII that was conveniently lying on my desk, got dressed and left for the train station.

I had recently read a few articles about how Apple kept its customers in "shackles", prisoners in a "jail made cool", so I figured this was a nice occasion to do a little experiment. I have used an iPhone as my primary smartphone since the day the 3G came out in Belgium. (I bought the Galaxy a few months ago for testing purposes but never really used it for anything personal.) Although I regularly use Windows and Linux, all my important info lives in Mac OS X. My contacts and calendars are in MobileMe/iCloud. My music is in iTunes. I am, in short, pretty much as reliant on the Apple ecosystem as it is possible to be.

Nursing my morning coffee in the train station, I wondered, How locked-in am I? If my iPhone really is dead, is my only realistic option to visit an Apple store and buy a new one? How painful would it be to move to Android right now, cold-turkey so to speak… Is that even possible without leaving much of my data on the other side of the fence?

I mentally went through the iOS apps I rely upon and started looking for equivalents on the Android Market. As my train was about to leave, the most pressing need was an audiobook. I found the Audible app, installed it, logged in, and before the train had fully pulled out of the station I was listening to Sex at Dawn, from right where I'd left it on my iPhone the day before. So far, so good, and it's nice that the Android Audible app lets you download full books on 3G — iOS will only do that over WiFi for some reason.

When I stepped out of the train 40 minutes later, I had access to all my emails as well as my accounts on foursquare, facebook, twitter, whatsapp, path, skype, squarespace, and doodle. I could get to all my files on dropbox, all my kindle books and the latest issue of the Economist. I'd found out that even SNCB and STIB (public transport operators for Belgium and Brussels respectively) had Android apps functionally equivalent to their iOS counterparts. All in all, I found only two sore points: OmniFocus and my bank's app were apparently iOS-only. Fine, I can live without these two.

I can't, however, live without my contacts and calendars. First I tried to find some kind of iCloud client for Android. Apple doesn't publish one, shame on them, but a few third-party apps claimed to do the trick. None of them really worked though: getting existing contacts and appointments to show up on the phone was easy, but adding data to iCloud from Android was not.

Eventually I figured out that if I was to escape Apple's clutches, I had to escape entirely, so I changed tack. I exported all my iCloud contacts and appointments in standard vCard/iCal format, then imported them all in a Google account that syncs to my phone. This took four minutes and works perfectly to this day.

The only thing missing from my new favorite smartphone was my music, and that had to wait until I got back home. Once there, I plugged the phone to my main computer where my iTunes library lives. I have thousands of songs, most of them ripped from my CDs plus quite a few bought from the iTunes Store. None of them are DRMed. I clic-and-dragged my "On the Go" playlist to a folder on the Samsung, went to fix dinner while the copy was going on, and when I got back I finally had a perfectly set up smartphone with everything I needed on it. The entire thing had taken perhaps two hours of my time, most of it on the train. I wonder if Eric S. Raymond seriously believes that Foxconn employees can find another job quicker than that.

This raises a serious question: when one can leave iOS behind in a couple hours taking all his important data with him, what is it that these people are talking about when they say Apple has its users "locked-in"? Granted, staying on Android would mean forgoing OmniFocus mobile, but it is hardly Apple's fault if Omni insists on developing exclusively for Apple platforms. All the money I spent on iOS apps would be forfeit, but that is always the case when one leaves a platform: your DS games don't magically become PSP games when you trade your Nintendo console for a Sony, and switching from Mac to Windows on the Desktop means buying all your apps again, even though both platforms are open. It is also impossible to play TV shows or Movies bought on iTunes on Android devices, but this is a case against DRM in general, not Apple. Anyway, I am unaware of any legal way to get hollywood movies without DRMs, so that particular wall doesn't seem to be of Apple's making.

In the meantime, while my iPhone turned out perfectly fine, I decided to stay with Android for a little while anyway. It has become quite a nice mobile OS, and it's time I get to know it better on a day-to-day basis. When and if I get tired of it, I can always move back.

How is it again that iPhone users surrender their freedom to Apple? Beats me.


Me, Cooking

There are few things more satisfying in life than sharing a home-cooked meal with close friends. I took to cooking rather late, but I now love it, and whenever I invite people over at my place, I tend to aim for ridiculously sophisticated dishes way beyond my skill level. The evening quickly reaches a point (usually about twenty minutes before the first guest arrives) where I completely lose control of the situation, make plans as I go along, ask guests to help with all and everything, and pray that things somehow turn out alright.

We never eat exactly what I had planned, and we don't usually get to the entree before midnight, but we have loads of fun, and most guests want to come back, so even though I'm obviously doing everything wrong, I'll stick with the fun out-of-control way in favor of the reasonable and proper one.

This week I got to do it twice, and as a small tribute to my friend's great blog Cooking: Fuck Yeah!, I'd like to share that experience with you.


I'm back from grocery shopping, and inexplicably it's two hours later than 4PM. It's obvious most of the prep I had planned will have to get done after the guests arrive. Oh well.

Grate chocolate

Combine grated chocolate with "fresh espresso"

Pour in the chocolate/coffee mix in an ice cube tray and put it in the freezer

Butter a cake mold and put it in the fridge

Guests should be there fifteen minutes from now. I'm completely screwed. Luckily Fabien calls to say he'll be a bit late. I tell him to be thirty minutes late, forward the message to the others, and start slicing garlic.

Fry to turn them into chips

They're supposedly needed for course number two so at this moment this seems like the best use of my time, although about five minutes from now I'll completely forget about the chips and won't remember them until the next day when I find them under a dirty plate.

Seed a pomegranate

Thinly slice a piece of ginger

Pick two bunches of mint leaves

Get coriander, thai chillies, spring onions

Combine all these in a liquidizer, but don't turn it on yet

Guests will be there 8 minutes from now, so I take a six-minute shower, change, and with 20 seconds left to setup the table I go for minimalist chic and a subtle reference to Mondrian

Pick basil leaves

Fabien arrives. He's a great cook and I'm obviously completely overwhelmed, so he offers his help. I throw 12 radishes two carrots two bags of lettuce and a bowl in his direction and say "chop".

In the meantime I use a speed-peeler to make ribbons out of courgettes and asparagus.

Julie and Phil arrive bringing champagne, so we're just forced to take a break and make a toast.

A few minutes later I ask whether anyone is hungry. Of course they are. So I ditch whatever is left of my plan and sprint for the first course.

Slice, combine, add basil, olive oil, salt and pepper, and here's your first course.

Eat. Discuss. Enjoy the evening. Be happy that your second course has been ready for twenty-four hours, and you only have to pour it in glasses, add tortilla chips and serve it.

Now there's a tough call: there's a bit of work to get the third course ready, but the champagne is nearly gone. So, start chopping fresh tuna and coriander leaves…

Midway through chopping, take a break, drop a hibiscus flower and creme de violette in four flutes and fill with californian sparkling white.

(The hibiscus flowers are great by the way. They taste really good, but more importantly they get your guests to ask why there's a dead mollusk in their glass.)

Remember that liquidizer with spring onions and whatnot in it ? Turn it on. Pour what comes out on serving plates, top with your chopped tuna and coriander, a dollop of sour cream and a few quartered cherry tomatoes — voila, third course.

Now that I got some food into my guests, all I need to do is buy enough time to catch up with all the prep I should have done about five hours ago but didn't. A good cocktail is great for that.

Press half a lime in each glass

Add pomegranate seed, ginger slices (remember?) and muddle

You can add a splash of grenadine if you want. Then a bunch of mint leaves (remember?) and muddle very gently (Best way to ruin any kind of mojito is to bash the leaves too hard.)

Add ice cubes and stir

Add white rum, stir again, then top with seltzer, stir one last time and serve. Check out there for a photo of the final drink.

Tear open a pack of flour tortillas and pop them in the oven on low heat.

At this point Fa asks again if there's anything he can do. I tell him I need guacamole. I tell him he's authorized to take any action he deems necessary to bring about the existence of guacamole in this apartment. I tell him there's a couple avocados in the fridge. Probably.

Chop a few radishes and add them to the courgette strips from earlier on. Throw a couple fish filets on a griddle pan.

Get the warm tortillas on individual plates and divide the courgette-salad between them. Top with the grilled fish fillets.

Add dollops of sour cream and guacamole, a couple of coriander leaves, and there's your fourth course.

She seems happy about it.

We're now on the home stretch, but I suddenly remember that the desert dough is nowhere near ready. So everyone gathers in the kitchen, taking turns whipping up egg whites and incorporating almond powder in the chocolate. I work on some approximation of a grilled peanut sauce. Fa makes salsa verde.

Phil and I grill the steaks.

(Let's pretend I was always aiming for medium-well and didn't overcook anything.)

The chopped salad from four hours ago makes a comeback, and I realize I'm only about halfway through the recipe. The steaks are ready though, so we scrap the rest of the recipe, throw lime juice and olive oil and salt and pepper on the salad, toss it. Surely it can't be too bad. It isn't.

Magically everything sort of comes together, and we serve the salad and steaks and stuff. Everyone's too full to eat, but we all agree the combination of sauces works quite well. I get congratulated for the wine, even though in all honesty I can't say it's my achievement.

While we're eating the steaks, the desert cooks in the oven

Note to self: clean the oven.

Since fruit enhances all chocolate dishes, I make a couple orange slices

And there's the desert

That photo was taken at five to one. It'll be an hour before anyone realizes how late it is or that they're working the next morning. My planning failed miserably and we had way too much to eat, but apart from that, great night !



  • Hemispheric Caprese
  • Mexican Gazpacho with Tortilla Chips
  • Fresh Tuna Tartare on Orange Slice
  • Avocado-Mackerel Wrap
  • Sirloin Steak in Peanut/Salsa Sandwich with Mexican Street Salad
  • Coffee/Chocolate Fondant


  • Piper-Heidseck Rosé Brut
  • Violet-Hibiscus Kir Royal
  • Ginger-Pomegranate Mojito
  • Etchart Privado Torrontes (Argentinian White)
  • Apaltagua Envero Gran Reserva (Chilean Red)


Do the dishes

(More precisely, clean the few dirty dishes that remained after Jubib, Phil and Fa went through most of them. I can't thank them enough for that.)


Cleverly choose to go grocery shopping 7 minutes before the start of the storm of the century.

The cooking starts same as tuesday. Grate chocolate, mix with coffee, pour into ice cube trays. Leave for a walk and notice autumn is already here.

Back home, realize the chocolate dough is frozen solid so put it on a pan of boiling water to melt.

Thinly slice 8 shallots.

Put half of them in a bowl and cover with white vinegar

Chop ginger

Guests arrive and are hungry, so, as before, make your first course a caprese

Remove pit from five plums, chop them and fry them with ginger and star anise

Lower fire and let simmer for 10 minutes, then store the sauce in the fridge

Meanwhile, pick leaves from two bunches dragon

Mix with your vinegarred shallots, olive oil, and a dozen halved grapes

Divide between serving plates

Shave a few pieces of dry goat cheese on top of each

Voila, second course

Fry remaining shallots and ginger slices in sunflower oil until they're crispy

Combine lime juice, lime zest, soy sauce and coriander leaves in a bowl, then slice raw halibut in small chunks.

Drop a bunch of watercress on each of your serving plates. Lay raw fish chunks on top of them.

Top fish with grilled onion and ginger

Garnish with coriander vinaigrette

Course three, ready to serve

Eat it !

Time for the final course. Get out a piece of good pork filet

Cut it in 5 mm slices. This is the reason you bought a really good knife

Cover with cling film and bash with your heaviest pan until you get the thickness down to 3mm. (This is by far my favorite part of the recipe.)

Coat with your plum sauce

Roll them up

Tie the rolls with string

Put them all in a bamboo basket and cook for 18 minutes

In the meantime put your coffee/chocolate ice cubes in your baking mold

Fill with chocolate dough and put in the oven

Get your cooked pork off the heat

Lay each roll on top of a bed of spring onions

Top with soy sauce

Voilà, main course ready

Cut it open and see how gorgeous it looks

Just like the last time, the final step is making orange slices

Get your fondants out of the oven and put them each on a separate plate

…and the last course is ready



  • Hemispheric Caprese
  • Grape/Dragon/Goat Cheese Salad
  • Halibut Carpaccio with Fried Ginger Slices
  • Pork Filet Roulades with Japanese Plum Sauce
  • Coffee/Chocolate Fondant


  • Dry Cider
  • Etchart Privado Torrontes (Argentinian White)

That's it! Hope you enjoyed the story. And even if you didn't, may I suggest you head over to Cooking: Fuck Yeah!, who does this cooking photo-blog thing way better than I.

PS: most dishes are heavily inspired by various Jamie Oliver recipes.


How Much Tax is Too Much?

On this season's last Real Time with Bill Maher, Stephen Bannon, whose only claim to fame seems to be he directed an up and coming documentary about Sarah Palin (counterfactually named "The Undefeated"), voiced a frequently heard right-wing "fact" on the US Economy:

"It's a line in the sand. We don't want, under any circumstance, any increase in revenue.[…] The federal government takes too much tax revenue today."

So as always in these cases I expected someone on the panel, or maybe the moderator, to ask "What do you mean by 'too much' ?", and as always I was disappointed. Neil DeGrasse Tyson came close, but his vague question was never answered.

Really, how does one make the case that the US government takes too much revenue ? I'm guessing they think the US would be a better country if its government took less revenue. That's a hard proposition to test. What we can do is compare the US with all the countries which take less in tax revenue (as percentage of GDP):

United States 26.9
South Africa 26.9
South Korea 26.8
Kazakhstan 26.8
Croatia 26.6
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 26.5
Samoa 25.5
Venezuela 25.0
Solomon Islands 24.7
Papua New Guinea 24.5
Belarus 24.2
Saint Lucia 23.1
Uruguay 23.1
Cape Verde 23.0
Colombia 23.0
Albania 22.9
Argentina 22.9
Morocco 22.3
Suriname 22.1
Fiji 21.8
Georgia 21.7
Belize 21.6
Kyrgyzstan 21.4
Jordan 21.1
Uzbekistan 21.0
Lithuania 20.9
Ghana 20.8
Malawi 20.7
Maldives 20.5
Turkmenistan 20.2
Macau 20.1
Djibouti 20.0
Senegal 19.2
Mauritius 19.0
Gambia 18.9
The Bahamas 18.7
Chile 18.6
Kenya 18.4
Cameroon 18.2
Azerbaijan 17.8
Nicaragua 17.8
Vanuatu 17.8
India 17.7
Burundi 17.4
São Tomé and Príncipe 17.4
People's Republic of China 17.0
Thailand 17.0
Tajikistan 16.5
Zambia 16.1
Egypt 15.8
Honduras 15.6
Malaysia 15.5
Togo 15.5
Benin 15.4
Mauritania 15.4
Côte d'Ivoire 15.3
Mali 15.3
Sri Lanka 15.3
Peru 15.1
Dominican Republic 15.0
Tunisia 14.9
Lebanon 14.4
Philippines 14.4
Singapore 14.2
Armenia 14.1
Rwanda 14.1
Costa Rica 14.0
Vietnam 13.8
Mozambique 13.4
El Salvador 13.3
Democratic Republic of Congo 13.2
Ecuador 13.2
Liberia 13.2
Hong Kong 13.0
Uganda 12.6
Taiwan 12.4
Federated States of Micronesia 12.3
Comoros 12.0
Paraguay 12.0
Tanzania 12.0
Guatemala 11.9
Ethiopia 11.6
Burkina Faso 11.5
Guinea-Bissau 11.5
Indonesia 11.0
Niger 11.0
Nepal 10.9
Laos 10.8
Bhutan 10.7
Madagascar 10.7
Syria 10.7
Panama 10.6
Sierra Leone 10.5
Gabon 10.3
Pakistan 10.2
Mexico 9.7
Haiti 9.4
Bangladesh 8.5
Guinea 8.2
Cambodia 8.0
Algeria 7.7
Central African Republic 7.7
Iran 7.3
Yemen 7.1
Afghanistan 6.4
Sudan 6.3
Nigeria 6.1
Republic of Congo 5.9
Angola 5.7
Saudi Arabia 5.3
Burma 4.9
Bahrain 4.8
Chad 4.2
Libya 2.7
Qatar 2.2
Oman 2.0
Equatorial Guinea 1.7
Kuwait 1.5
United Arab Emirates 1.4

So which one of these countries does the Tea Party want the United States to turn into ? Except for a few resource-rich countries (which the US isn't anymore) and the fast growing export-oriented economies of South Korea and Singapore (ditto), there's not a single country in there that I'm especially eager to move to.

Now let's examine the ten countries which take the most tax revenue :

Kiribati 69.7
Zimbabwe 49.3
Denmark 49.0
Sweden 47.9
Belgium 46.8
France 46.1
Cuba 44.8
Finland 43.6
Norway 43.6
Austria 43.4

I'll admit I'm not a big fan of Zimbabwe, Kiribati, or Cuba. However, I do live in Belgium, and I've been to nearly all the other countries on this list. Trust me, they're doing great.

So what evidence exactly does the Tea Party have for saying US tax revenue is too high ? And, more importantly, why aren't any of the journalists who interview those people making this self-evident point ?!?


Closing the Book on China

I just now published the last part of my China travelogue, the story of a one-month trip I took with 5 friends almost two years ago. While this might not be the most ambitious writing project I ever started, it certainly is, by far, the most ambitious I ever completed. If you don't mind the self-indulgence, I'd like to write a few words about what's involved in such an undertaking. If, like most people, you've entertained the idea of writing about your travels, hopefully some of this will prove helpful.

A few numbers

Here's the raw data:

  • About 30 pages of notes (on laptop)
  • 7393 pictures
  • 182GB of storage, 364GB counting field backup

(If you've never done serious travel photography you're probably recoiling in fear at this point, but these are actually fairly typical numbers.)

And here's the output:

  • 32 blog posts totaling nearly 25,000 words — enough to fill more than 50 single-spaced A4 pages or about the size of the typical novella
  • 328 published photos (4.5% of the total, also a fairly typical proportion of "keepers")


Along with the obvious clothing and toiletries, this is what I carried:

  • Canon 5DMk2
  • Canon EF 16-35/2.8L
  • Canon EF 50/1.4
  • Canon EF 70-300 DO
  • Gitzo 1530 tripod with Acratech GV2 ballhead and leveling base
  • MacBook Air (1st gen non-ssd)
  • Two external hard drives, lots of memory cards, UV and polarizing filters, RRS plates, spare batteries, etc.

Travel Budget

Every time we hit the ATM — which we tended to do with alarming frequency — we withdrew about 300€, or slightly more than the average Chinese makes in a month. How far such a sum would take us varied wildly: it barely pays for one night in the Park Hyatt Shanghai (and that's before you even take a look at the minibar), but it would have lasted us three months in the piss-infested wreck of a hostel we made our home in Lijiang.

Traveling as a group saves quite a lot of money. Hiring a minivan and driver to get to out-of-town sights is very cheap when you're splitting the bill five-ways. It also increases your bargaining power and thus makes haggling slightly easier, which is always welcome.

Hong Kong is markedly more expensive than the rest of China. There are basically no hotels below four stars in the interesting parts of the city, and they're priced accordingly. Food and transportation is slightly cheaper than in Europe, and thus way more expensive than in the PRC proper.

While bare subsistence costs are relatively low, obviously as soon as you get the idea of doing some shopping or enjoying a really nice meal, the sky's the limit – even on a clear day. In our case, for spending three weeks in China proper and one week in Macau and Hong Kong, with four internal flights and a couple of sleeper trains, staying mostly in cheap hostels but with the occasional splurge, we ended up spending close to 2500€ each.


Taking the trip took one month. Documenting it took eighteen, although obviously I stopped and started a number of times and never worked on it full time for longer than a day or two. (I do have a job.) Still, it's obviously quite an undertaking. I started out thinking I'd just bang out a few words each day and it would hardly take any time at all. It did, partly because what I ended up writing is significantly more involved than a straightforward travel blog (some posts required quite a bit of research), and partly because "banging out a few words" is a lot harder than most people think. Not planning to invoice anyone about this, I didn't keep accurate time sheets, but I can give you a vague work plan with fairly reasonable time estimates.

Publishing the photos is time-consuming but reasonably straight-forward:

  • Edit 7393 pictures down to about 300, making sure those selects are all of good-enough quality and that you've covered everything important. For each of those photos:
    • Straighten and crop
    • Adjust exposure, contrast, saturation, etc.
    • Retouch if needed, which was relatively rare here

From past project that I have religiously timed, I know this takes at least 60 hours.

For the text the process is more involved:

  • Take notes every day. (Even though you'll be among friends in a foreign land, and will thus have zero difficulty finding more exciting things to do than whip out a laptop and jot down whatever's happening, you absolutely need to do this regularly if you want your writing to be at all reflective of the trip.)
  • Research if needed
  • Write post (Outline, Draft, Rewrite until you're happy.)
  • Choose illustrative photos
  • Layout post
  • Repeat the above 30(ish) times

Note-taking is fairly quick if you do it right, maybe 10 minutes per day. The rest is much harder to estimate, not least because different posts require vastly different amounts of time. The very first one was probably conceived, written and published in less than an hour, because it's quite short and purely narrative. The posts on our forcible stay in Xi'An airport are also narrative, but they're much longer and were rewritten several times to improve their comedic appeal. Writing about Shanghai's economic development is straightforward, after you've done enough research to actually understand what it is you're writing about. The epilogue, like a few of the latter posts, is long, required a lot of research and proved hard to write. Some of these posts might have taken upwards of 30 hours of effort, and that's without taking and choosing photos, layout and proof-reading.

If this sounds ridiculously long, you failed to follow the earlier link to "Fuck the Karate Kid". Please go there now, I'll wait. Thank you. So, as everyone who's tried knows, stringing together words in a way that sounds pleasantly effortless is surprisingly time-consuming. I don't claim to be an especially good writer, but some of my work has gotten the occasional bit of praise from friends or family. If indeed I can sometimes produce good copy, the only reason I can think of is that I try a whole lot harder than most people. A lot harder. Most seem to think that "first draft" is the same as "nearly done". That may be true for a progress report, but if you want people to enjoy your writing, you can't stop at your very first attempt, find it lacking and then complain you can't write. That doesn't even count as trying. Good, effortless writing never happens for me before the fifth rewrite.

Enough of this rant and back to the effort estimation. In addition to all the time above I spent being productive, I also expended quite a lot of hours on needlessly doing things twice. Namely, I had to re-layout every post when, 80% through, I decided that the whole thing would look better on Squarespace than as just another iWeb blog. Also, maintaining a terabytes-sized photo library is not exactly effortless, and I spend way too much time backing up and checking backups and moving hard drives around. Anyone who does this kind of project regularly eventually needs to stop and seriously think about how they're going to keep their photos (and their adjustments) safe and backed up. This, however, probably deserves a whole post in and of itself.


That's easy: there never was any process. I flew to China and travelled 8000 kilometers there while carrying loads of photographic gear. A few days in, I felt I should write a few things to my friends at home, and decided to do it on a public blog. One thing lead to another, and 500-odd hours of work later I have something not entirely unlike a travel book.

Despite my starting this post listing the camera and lenses and computer I used, it eventually became obvious to me that gear matters very little. Funny thing is, had I had just a P&S and access to cyber-cafes on the way, I could have produced something very similar. It would have taken longer, a few of the photos would have been different, but in essence I could have done something looking quite close to this with almost no (financial) investment. And you could have too. None of this is actually hard: it's just taking the pictures you'd show your family, and the stories you'd mail your friends, massaging them just a little bit and putting the result online. There is nothing in here that anyone can't do. Only one step is a real challenge: writing the very first post. You need to be foolish enough to pick a few photos, write a few words, throw them online, before you realize that you're committing to doing that same thing thirty times more. Which is remarkably short-sighted, certainly. But if you're stupid enough to finish that first post, all the rest happens, eventually, all by itself.

Of course one needs a website to publish that kind of stuff, preferably one with tools for hosting a blog and photos. But just as anyone can take photos these days, anyone can go to blogger or wordpress and create a free account. I was surprised how ridiculously easy the whole technology part of all this turned out to be.

Writing was a lot of fun, but like many of the things I do, it's heavily geared to an audience of one. Looking back at the blog, it's more than a personal memoir about the trip, but it's not really travel writing or an essay on China either. It's just a bunch of things that caught my eye, be they personal anecdotes, historical facts or social commentary. I doubt it's of much interest to anyone who doesn't know me or wasn't on the trip, and even most of those will be bored by a lot of the trivia I've weaved into the story. Travel writing is a very idiosyncratic genre, and great writers like Bill Bryson or J. Maarten Troost can spend pages and pages on personal stories only tangentially related to their trip without ever getting anywhere near boring, seemingly effortlessly, but for people like me that's hard, really hard, actually hard enough that it seems like I cannot do it. I realized this long before I'd finished telling the tale, but it didn't stop me. I've been writing about my trips since I was 14, but somehow I always gave up around the second week, when it became obvious that the "What's the point?" question had no satisfactory answer. I have now accepted that there is no point, except in enjoying the process of putting sights and smells and frustration and amazement into words and trying to make them look good on a page. For the first time I can honestly say that I've tried my best to do that, and the result will certainly not win any prize nor even be read by… well, anyone… but it is my story, and I must say I had nearly as much fun telling it as I had living it. Perhaps for the first time, I truly understand what Terry Pratchett means when he says: "Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself."

Page 1 ... 3 4 5 6 7 ... 18 Next 5 Entries »