Monday, October 31, 2016

Hello Bavaria! - Push Conference Day 1 (Munich Day 2)

In late October 2016, my company EventMobi graciously sent me to an extremely interesting and inspirational design conference in Munich, Germany called Push Conference. This is the fifth year of the conference, and I was excited to see the city as well as attend the two-day conference packed with influential speakers and topics.

It was also my first time travelling to a different country alone (let alone to another continent!) which was an adventure in itself, which I will document in another post. But for now, let's skip to my second day in the beautiful city of Munich. I had purposefully booked an AirBnB that is walking distance to the Alte Kongresshalle where the conference was taking place. As I left the apartment in the morning, I was excited to find that the walking path would lead me directly through the Oktoberfest grounds (which I had just missed only three weeks before...can't have it all). As I approached the lovely tree-lined oval of land, I realized that while Google Maps had shown a walking path straight across the grounds, I couldn't seem to find an entrance through the fence that also lined the area. So I walked around the bottom of the oval, catching an interesting-enough view of the workers dismantling the beerhalls and statues of beer steins and lions perched on pedestals.

I also noticed that around the outside of the grounds, all of the business parks were extremely beautiful and calm-looking. I couldn't see where there might be any parking, so it looked like a pedestrian maze of architecture and sculpture. It was really interesting. More on this later in the post.

I arrived at the conference hall to get in line for my badge. Volunteers served coffee and pastries to attendees while they waited in line, which was a nice touch.

The badges were very interesting, with little areas for stickers regarding the attendee's interests. I stuck mine on like so:

Once inside I noticed that there was a little tradeshow going on in the two-floored lobby of the conference hall. The lobby was simply filled with tables of interesting projects: some VR, some producing generative art, and so on. There were all sorts of things to see. I tried on a glove that, when paired with VR, would provide vibrating feedback to simulate the sense of touch in a virtual world.

Today's talks were about communication, process, and psychology (the process side of design).

After looking around a little, I grabbed a pretzel (Bavarian specialty) and took my seat for the first two talks. The creators/MCs of the conference introduced the day, and explained that while there was no WiFi in the building (darn you, old European architecture), attendees were encouraged to use the analog network (saying hello to the people around you). And so we did. It was at this point that I noticed a lack of event app, which was surprising and a little disappointing.

I also noticed that not many people were using computers to take notes. There was an array of tablets but by far the most popular was handwritten notes. I supposed at the time that the talks would be put online, but I felt that it would be best to record the points that resonated with me in the moment. And so that's what I did! What you'll read below is a short synopsis and key takeaways from my point of view on each of the speakers.

TALK #1 Scott Savarie
The first talk was by Scott Savarie, currently a product manager at Invision (which my company uses extensively) and a fellow Canadian like me!

Scott talked about how the role of the designer is always changing, and it's best to have at least a working understanding of a bunch of roles to be as versatile as you can be. I definitely agree with this point, though the opposite can also be true (specializing and becoming an expert in a specific skill). I suppose the method chosen depends on the type of person.

Scott discussed his three-step program, which consists of:

  1. Stop reinventing and start standardizing
    It's not a good use of time to reinvent the wheel, and you've probably heard of the saying, "work smarter, not harder". There's no point in doing work that's already been done, so we should instead focus our time on standardizing and agreeing upon a set of standards, like a style guide. The design team at my work focuses on this to the nth degree. In fact, you can read about it in a Medium article my coworker Phil wrote.
  2. Ask more questions before you even start
    I took this to heart. Asking questions (and hopefully getting answers of course) is key. Knowing not only what you are designing but also why you are designing it will help the process along immensely. What are the business goals? Who will use this?
  3. Use data and be reflective about it
    At EventMobi, we try to make data driven decisions as much as possible. We are lucky to have a depth of statistics in our database from users over the past while, which we can use to make design decisions about adding or removing features, improving experiences, and so on.

TALK #2 Nathalie Nahai

Nathalie's background is in psychology, specifically about how people perceive the internet. She spoke about the 7 psychological principles of successful products (I wonder if she's patented the phrase!). Some of the key interesting ones:

  • Endowed progress
    Persuading the user to think they've already begun the task, which motivates them to finish it. An example of this was a coffee card with two stamps already completed out of ten, versus a coffee card with no stamps completed out of eight. I can think of a million ways this could be used in user interface design, such as during onboarding!
  • Appointment dynamic
    Keeping the customer returning, creating a habitual pattern of use. For example, happy hour from 5:00-7:00 every day. People will remember that this pub has cheap drinks after work, and keep returning there because they know the appointment

After Nathalie's talk came lunch. I obtained a sandwich and continued my exploration of the tradeshow floor. There was a prototyping competition coming up in a few minutes, hosted by a German design agency called IXDS, that I wanted to check out. It ended up being a competition to put together a little racing robot with sensors and wires very similar to the ones I had been working with in my Arduino projects. The little robots moved around using a light sensor that would control a vibrator on the robot's body. With toothbrush heads attached to their bottoms, the vibration would move the bristles of the toothbrush to move, and a strong focused light could control the direction of the robot. See the video below:

And if that wasn't enough, there was also this really cool...projector-looking thing. You'd draw a cycle of your day in terms of dreaming, eating, or walking, and then place your card on the 'projector', which would actually project sounds based on your drawing. It worked better when you would layer more than one card, creating the sound of your day. Check it out:

After that excitement, I returned to my seat in the conference hall to start the afternoon's talks. Next up was Ame Elliot speaking about privacy, trust and security in user experience design. I was excited for this talk because we discuss it a lot at my work.

TALK #3 Ame Elliot
When considering security as a designer, as in any other consideration, you have to know your user. For example, Ame suggests as a U.S. native currently living in Berlin, that the attitudes of Americans and Germans are completely opposite. Americans trust social media and not their government, while Germans feel the inverse of that. I found this very interesting, as I thought about what it would be like to have complete trust in one's government (it's a little better in Canada, but I don't know that I'd use the word 'trust').

Ame used an extreme example of Dunkin' Donuts' rewards app (similar to the one every major food corporation seems to have nowadays), called DDPerks. When downloaded, this app gives the customary privacy policy and terms of service that we all skip over. Its terms are extremely aggressive: it has access to delete media from your phone, view your contacts, keep your phone from sleeping, and lots more. All of this for the cost of a coffee. How much do we value our privacy?

Ame also spoke about the responsibility of the designer not to mislead the user. Slapping a lock or a shield icon on something doesn't make it safe, and conversely, designers have the power to turn dry/scary topics of security into something the user can understand and even enjoy.

After Ame came a series of four lightning talks (ten minutes each), which was an excellent change of pace at that time of day. I have seen a number of lightning talks at my work and given one myself, and find that providing a limitation of time on the presenter makes for an essential explanation devoid of excess. Obviously not all topics can be successfully squished into a short span, but in this case it worked well.

Lightning Talks
  1. Anders Toxboe (a speaker from Push 2015) returned to make some amendments to his talk from last year. He had given many insightful tips of UX design, but had realized in the interim that using too may of them at once can confuse and overwhelm the user. As in all matters in life, quality over quantity.
  2. Laura Chiesa spoke about emotional interfaces. This was a good one. As a test, she told Siri that she was feeling sad. This was Siri's response:

    I love the idea of interfaces becoming more human-feeling, probably because it reminds me of my favourite movie Her (which Chiesa also mentioned in her talk!)
  3. Marina Grechko spoke about the importance of UI Maps, which are basically a collection of wireframes of an app that are connected to each other through links, all on one big sheet of paper. This allows all flows of the experience to be seen at once, for ease of review. I have a done a couple of these as part of some of my projects.
  4. Lastly, Olivia Shepherd spoke about the importance of keeping the user in mind when designing. This instilled the importance of user testing in my brain and how I could incorporate more of it into my work process.
TALK #4 Nick Babich
Next up was Nick Babich and his rules for the perfect navigation, in any product. He went through the basics, explaining (to my delight) about the perils of the hamburger menu. As I'm sure you know, the hamburger menu is a plague on the design world, forcing the mobile user to tap twice for any possible action, and usually without knowing what exactly is within the menu to begin with. One of my favourite slides of the entire conference depicted all the 'workarounds' people try, that all amount to the same user experience.

Hilarious. If you don't understand what John Travolta is doing in the middle of the slide, it's a meme taken from Pulp Fiction. Basically it means, "where the f**k am I?"

Nick also made some interesting points about navigation in new technology like smartwatches (use as little as possible) and virtual reality (where we are not limited by the 2D nature of design up until now). Someone in the audience made a good point by asking about the future of navigation patterns in voice recognition products. I suppose we will have to wait and see, or try some stuff out!

TALK #5 Tom Greever
I was very excited for Tom's talk, all about articulating design decisions to the stakeholders of our work. I find that my proficiency in this subject is a little lacking, so I welcomed some advice on how to convince my boss to agree with my design choices. After all, who doesn't want to be told they're right?

Tom started off with a newsflash (totally true).

He posed a question to the audience: what makes a good design? There are naturally lots of answers, such as the textbook ones: simplicity, good use of space, when you can’t remove anything else. But really, there are three components:
  • When it solves a problem
  • Easy for users to use
  • And one more thing...

The most overlooked and arguably most important answer is: it should be supported by everyone. If the designer doesn't support it, it won't get designed. If the stakeholder doesn't support it, it won't get made. Everyone has to be on the same page, at least to some degree.

One has to be a good communicator to be a good designer. Tom explained that there are four steps to winning support with everyone in the room:
  1. Approaching
    This one should be a given, you must understand the problem inside and out. What problem does this solve? How does this affect the user? Why is this better than the alternative?
  2. Understanding
    This one is a little harder. See the situation from the stakeholder's perspective. Remove distractions from the process, like shifting focus away from the typeface if that's not what you want feedback on. And, as much as you can, anticipate reactions and and how you would respond.
  3. Listen
    Most important. Give them time to talk as much as they want. Even when there is a silence, let it go for a good length of time. Let them know they're being heard. At this point the trick can be to hear what they're not saying. Read between the lines. You also want to steer away from the word 'like', which is subjective. Instead, ask if the design 'works'. It's like a magic word.
  4. Respond
    Now, it's your chance to respond. While you may disagree with what has been said, it's good to treat the situation like improv and start with a 'yes'. "Yes, and..." can be your best friend. It fosters an atmosphere of collaboration, and allows you to focus on the parts you agree on, which will earn you more trust and cooperation.
Tom gave lots of brilliant points and tactics to use, but he also provided a nuclear option; in case there is nothing else to be done, paint a duck. This means adding something purposefully for the stakeholder to pick at so they have some critique to give. Of course, you run the risk of the stakeholder actually liking the duck, so be mindful of that.

And that was it! Day one finished. Well, the talks, anyway. The speakers were thanked and given goodie bags (how nice), and the one-and-only attendee to have attended the conference for all five years was awarded a bottle of some kind of German spirit. And with that, the beer began to flow!

After the talks, I stuck around to do some speed-networking with 20-or-so others attending the conference. It was basically like speed-dating but with business cards and industry lingo. Not a single one of them was from Canada, or had even come from as far as me to get to the conference. How special. One interesting thing was that I met a guy from Bern, a town very close to Lauterbrunnen (where I had visited in Switzerland eight years ago). He even knew the small mountain I had climbed! Lovely.

I'm the networker on the farthest-right.

I also found myself having a nice conversation that evening with Luke Thompson, a designer at Kin, who I didn't realize at the time would be speaking the next day. You'll hear more about him in the post on the second day of the conference.

After that, I went to enjoy some of the fine Bavarian beer that the conference had provided, thanks to MailChimp (they never let me down). I met some interesting people who had been sent by their companies like me, one of whom was from IXDS, and their offices happened to be a ten minute walk away! As we were finishing the last of the beers, someone offered to walk over to the IXDS office to keep drinking. Well, of course I want to visit a design office in Munich, and if the party was going to stretch a little longer, who was I to say no?

Their office was extremely nice. They have a maker space with a 3D printer (which I would love to have in my own office) and a sort of lounge area across the ceilings of all of their meeting rooms (complete with wooden ladders to climb up top). I can't show you any of the pictures I took, though, because I don't think I was supposed to be taking any...but one thing that did surprise me was the infographic on water consumption I saw in the ladies bathroom. It looks just like my beef consumption project!

After some more chatting with the lovely people who work there, I decided it was time to go home. One of the other attendees who had walked to the office with me, was going in the same direction so we left together. On the way back, my strolling partner graciously waited for me as I took pictures of all the amazing public art in the business park.

As we made our way back past the Oktoberfest grounds, he showed me videos of Oktoberfest when it had been happening. It was kind of cool to see the video in the same place it had originally happened, but goodness knows I need to go back when it's actually happening!

When we parted ways, he wished me a safe trip back to Spaghettistrasse (a nickname for the street where I was staying - Pestalozistrasse sounds like Pasta) and we parted ways for the night. But my fun was far from over...I wasn't tired and still a bit tipsy from the delicious Munich beer, so I took a shortcut back to my AirBnB through a cemetery that turned out to be the Südlicher Friedhof (Old South Cemetery) which was established in 1563. It was too dark to read any tombstones and a little creepy, but there are some creatives of note buried there like painters, actors, architects, and sculptors. I took a time lapse as I walked through. Check it out:

After all that excitement, it was definitely time for sleep. More on the conference in my next post about day 2 (and day 3 in Munich).

Hoops, Funeral Homes & Math Videos

Weekly Update 2016-44: Summery music in an autumn world, the marketing of funeral home locations, and the YouTube rabbit hole that is math videos. Spoiler: I've found the only place on YouTube where the comments section is helpful and respectful.

Music: Hoops
Chillwave/dreampop is still alive, even as the gloom of winter settles in. This is the kind of music I prefer to listen to in bad weather, because it contrasts so well with the temperature and makes me feel warm. Hoops is just this kind of music, hailing from Indiana. And they've only just exploded onto the scene in late 2015. It's doubly great to see new youthful bands using historical music as the roots of their new sounds. Listen below:

I have tried my best to contact all of the people I met at Push Conference last week, but I have come up a little short. This is only giving me motivation to push an event app to the organizers of the conference for next year.

I have also written out the conference posts, except for the notes of the talks themselves (the hard part) which I will do tonight.

Obviously, I'll be writing out my Push Conference notes on the speakers tonight. The slides of (some of) the speakers have also been shared, so it'll be easer to discuss topics with those than with my blurry angled iPhone photos.

I'd also like to get back on track with the blog redesign (some sketches) and look into using the Jenkins language to get my portfolio site working on Github's hosting service. I've only got two months!

Random Thought: Storefront Syndrome
I had a very strange chain of thoughts the other day that I'd like to share. Unfortunately, a friend's mother had passed away, and I happened to click a link on Facebook to the website for the funeral home who was handling the details. The funeral home's name was "Butcher Family Funeral Home". This alone was quite unfortunate, as I feel the brand of a company we only have to deal with during times of loss should be carefully constructed.

As I was perusing the website, I wondered what might be a good example of design for a service such as this. That thought took me to the two Jewish funeral homes in Toronto, (both of which have slightly less terrible but still bad designs), and the fact that they operate on the same street, but a stone's throw from each other. These two funeral homes service much of the Jewish population of the GTA, and are probably located centrally to be accessible to a maximum number of people. But I still find it interesting that they happen to be SO close to each other (less than 5 kilometres straight down the street).

My friend offered an explanation for this phenomenon. He explained that he used to live near the most efficient street for that business. In a row down the street: the hospital, a tombstone store, a cremation place, a flower shop and finally a funeral home. We discussed that this also exists in the world of furniture stores. As an area begins to develop, furniture stores tend to gather around each other. I always tend to see a bunch of them in a cluster. Could it be something to do with delivery routes for trucks? Or perhaps as an ease-of-use for consumers, so they can compare easily.

Inspiration: Math Videos on Youtube
As you may have seen on my blog in previous posts, I am becoming obsessed with a monthly lecture series in Toronto called Trampoline Hall. One of the talks this month described a certain type of fascination with Youtube videos such as the preparation of tiny food in tiny kitchens, playing with toy slime, and even pimple popping. These genres of video have an extremely large following, which may be surprising to you (and definitely was to me).

All of this seemed like a good primer for my unexpected foray into the world of math videos on Youtube. Basically, mathematicians do their best to explain and solve difficult problems to their admiring Youtube audience. I noticed a couple of things as I fell down the black hole of this particular brand.

1) Mathematicians love to work with sharpies on craft paper
And why not! The interaction between a sharpie and heavy textured craft paper is so distinct to me that I can feel it in my fingertips as I watch the videos. There is a tactile nature to watching someone write with these materials, along with having something explained slowly and simply, that is so hypnotic.

2) This is the one bright corner of Youtube where the comments are kind and insightful
Perhaps because of the calming effects listed above, the comments on these videos are rarely of a dark nature akin to the usual Youtube suspects. In fact, the comments feature thoughtful mathematicians or would-bes (like me), trying to work through problems on their own, or providing solutions to problems that do not have solutions (as some of them do).

It's truly a wonderful place to be. It's calming, it teaches you something, and you don't feel the sense of self-pity that may normally be felt on Youtube as you find the urge to comment. As long as you're polite! Please don't ruin this new bright spot that I've found :)

Check out one of the videos below:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Melt Yourself Down, The UX of Living & Push Conference

Weekly Update 2016-43: The indescribable yet lovely music of Melt Yourself Down, the user experience we apply to our lives and the places we inhabit, and the wonders of my experience at Push Conference in Munich last week.

Music: Melt Yourself Down
I am having a hard time describing this music. It sounds like world music, but has some really strange synth effects and repetition. I'd call it a mix of jazz, punk, and some sort of African tribal rhythms, with a DJ added in for good measure. Truly a case of multiple personality disorder if I've ever heard one through music. But it's great! It's got a good beat and kind of keeps me on my toes. Check this song out:

I have successfully taken my first trip all by myself! My trip to Munich went extremely smoothly, and I'd like to give a shoutout to the subway system, which was really easy to use and well designed. While I seemed to be one of the only attendees to bring a laptop, I took laborious notes for my colleagues to benefit from.

I also managed to buy, write, and mail eight postcards (you'll know soon enough if you were one of the lucky recipients of such postcards) all without the help of any actual people. The issue was that my last day was Sunday, when the post offices are closed. I had to google search how much postage I would need, and then obtain it from a stamp vending machine that only accepted coins. It was quite a feat. Now I can only hope they make it to Canada!

Of course, the main reason I went to Munich was to go to the amazing Push Conference. It was truly eye-opening, with every speaker an obvious expert in their chosen field. How inspirational. So to commemorate the awesomeness, I'll be writing a blog post for each day of the conference. I'd like to get that done this week. I also have to make a presentation for my colleagues at work (to pass along the information), so it'll be good prep for that.

I'd also like to do my best to connect with all the people I met at the conference. I have a list of everyone, but I have forgotten some of the names so I don't know how well I'll be able to find them. I was surprised that the conference didn't have an event app, which would have made networking much easier...but there is a Facebook event that may help some.

Random Thought: The User Experience of Living
Moving into a new home, the thought of the process of moving, always gives me a little anxiety. Not because of the time and effort it takes to pack things up, hire movers, take time off work, none of that bothers me. Nope, it's really in the little edits we make to our homes as they relate to our daily lives. For example, where should I put the oven mitts so I'll be able to reach them when the cookies are ready to come out of the oven? Where do my clean linens go before I'm ready to use them? Where do the dirty linens go before I am ready to wash them? I have answered all of these questions as they relate to my current dwelling, but it has taken time and I still make little changes as I think of them, even almost a year later.

This idea of having to start the user experience of my home over is what I hate the most about the idea of moving. Though, on the flip side, I know that some people don't think about this nearly as much as I do. For example, a friend was expressing his distaste to me that his parents use utilitarian things like ladders and stools as storage for other objects. When he needs the ladder or wants to sit on the stool, he has to move the items somewhere else (and presumably back to their original home if he doesn't want to cause a fuss). Why wouldn't his parents view the visual of stuff piled on a stool as a reminder to find a better spot for the items? Perhaps I would be happier if I learned to care less about this sort of thing...but I think it's part of my day job.

Inspiration: Push Conference (of course!)
I seriously couldn't believe how magnetic all of the speakers were. I also really enjoyed all of the booths set up in the lobby with interesting things to check out and interact with. But what I really appreciated was that Munich (and Europe as a whole) really seems to place a high value on design. That, mixed with the fact that I had no trouble getting around made me feel like I could live there someday. Just as I felt in Shanghai, the world is becoming much more connected and even travelling 13 hours on a plane doesn't seem like such a big deal anymore. Now if they could only find a cure for jet lag.

More on my trip to Munich and the conference coming soon!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Simian Mobile Disco, Biking Around & Daniel Everett

Weekly Update 2016-42: One of my favourite electronic duos of all time, lamenting the upcoming loss of my bike in winter months, and the thoughtful urban photography of Daniel Everett.

Music: Simian Mobile Disco
I've been following this English duo since my first foray into electronic music - they're a classic to me. Simian Mobile Disco was formed in 2003 by James Ford and Jas Shaw of the band Simian, which is exactly how I found out about them. While Simian does have some electronic sounds, they're more of a rock band whereas Simian Mobile Disco plays with repetition, synth, and other aspects you'd find in a London nightclub. They're the kind of band I keep going back to every once in a while, and their 2013 album Unpatterns was a slow burner for me until my most recent listen. I can't get enough. Listen below:

This was another big week in the world of getting shit done. I moved all my photos to my external hard drive, and planned and packed for my Munich trip. Don't tell anyone but I'm writing this post from the airport! Check out my itinerary here.

I also moved my old backup to my external hard drive (500GB = 6 hours!) and wrote a blog post about China. Only one more to go! Writing this second-to-last post made me reflect on the trip (even six months later) and think about how lovely and jam-packed it was. We saw so much stuff! It'll be interesting to compare that to the trip I am about to take.

I also requested quotes and some paper samples from several business card printers. I was originally debating some custom embossing, but I think it'll be too expensive as a special custom die would have to be made for the project. Might be a bit too fancy, especially if it triples the price of the project.

I started thinking about my blog redesign and explored some pretty interesting blogs. You can read my working document (which may become something that resembles a project brief?) here. I have really been inspired by my friend Sara's travel blog Backpack & Bike.

Not only does she showcase her (and her boyfriend's) beautiful adventuring spirit, but the content is really practical and targeted toward an audience of people who want to travel in the same way. But what I like best about it is the overall user experience of the blog, which is miles ahead of mine. Honestly, I've been throwing posts out into the ether without caring about an audience (which is forgivable, since I write these posts for myself), but I should at least use the project as an exercise in attaining a better user case anyone should happen here. I mean, it is googleable after all.

I'm taking a light week, so I can take in all the sights of Munich! My trip is going to cover most of the week, so I'm not worried about getting too much done. Time for a break. The only thing left to do is print out my various tickets for things, and download some offline maps to my phone. Especially Tegernsee, lord knows there probably won't be a Starbucks with free WiFi there! Although, maybe the town will surprise me.

Random Thought:
The end of good weather is approaching all too quickly, which means it'll be time to put my bike away for the season and buy a metropass. This is a disheartening thought on many levels. Obviously, the cost of the pass is a bit upsetting, and my ability to get around quickly will be cut quite short, but it's really my lack of trust in the TTC altogether. Every time I've been forced to use the subway, service has been delayed or the subway cars have been packed to the gills, or something like that. Not to mention that without the exercise biking has given me, I'll probably grow some extra winter layers...but I suppose that's not a bad thing.

One year, I'd like to try biking around in the winter. But not this winter, as my father has expressed that he could not live with the worry of imagining me trying to bike over patches of black ice (or being hit by cars who have done the same). He has a point.

Inspiration: Daniel Everett
I came across Everett's work during one of my occasional peruses through I realized during my most recent visit that I usually absent-mindedly scroll through the pages of content, never digging further into where the imagery comes from. And why not? It's such a waste to simply gaze at a piece and not try to understand it in a more meaningful way. So let's do an exercise together.

What do you think of when you look at the picture above? Does it remind you of something you've seen before? Does it make you feel a feeling you've felt before? Maybe one you haven't? How do you think the image was made? Was it fabricated in a studio or found out in the wide world?

I'd never really asked myself these kinds of questions about the content on the website until I saw this image. It made me so curious that I realized I should be changing the way I consume the content on Ffffound.

And so I clicked. Arcademi, the website where the image is from, contains a quote from Everett:
"My work originates from a preoccupation with order. I am interested in the divide between an idealized vision of progress and the physical reality of the structures and objects left in its wake. In my work I tend to embrace blandness and uniformity as both a subject matter and an aesthetic value. I use art as a way of sorting through my ambivalence towards the ideals of structure and perfection."
Lovely to discover. Now, let's check out some other images from the series.

I simply love the way the lines interact and vibrate. Check out more of Everett's work here.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Other Side - Day 6

As I mentioned in the previous posts of this series, I am writing a mini-series on my trip to China. Each day was so jam-packed with activities that I decided it would be best for readers as well as myself to split the days up into posts for better digestion of information.

On our last episode, we travelled to Hangzhou, the chosen location for the 2016 G20. There we saw the beautiful Tai Lake, a buddhist temple, and the most excellent highway rest stop ever.

The sixth (and penultimate) day of our trip began with a beautiful boat ride around the West Lake. We saw all sorts of things like these interesting rowers along the water. The morning was gloomy and cloudy, but we were able to enjoy the boat ride without much rain.

A failed attempt at getting a wide depth of field. The images one the 1RMB bill are of these statues in the water! See below:

Eric told us that the West Lake is very famous for a theatrical show performed right on the water, for guests at the lakeside restaurant. We were not able to see the show at that time though, because it was being updated and revised for the G20. But here's a photo of what it looks like:

As we finished our ride, we saw so many small boats leaving the shore toward the center of the lake, all at the same time. It was really cool to see. Check out a video I took:

After the boat ride, we were off and away from Hangzhou, riding the bus toward Shanghai. But before we were to hit the hustle and bustle of the Shanghai city life, we made a pit stop at an extremely starkly contrasting place. We were going to a tea plantation. As the bus loomed around corners on a valley road, we could see the patterns of lines of tea plants on both sides of the bus. The hills seemed to vibrate around us, dotted with the odd tea leaf harvester wearing a thatched cone hat to keep the rain off their heads.

The tea plantation we visited was a beautiful structure (like all the other places we had seen so far on the trip) and we received a lesson in how to prepare and drink tea from the leaves that were harvested there.

On our way to Shanghai, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant with lots of interesting aquariums. My favourite by far was the tank filled with turtles...but I had to wonder if these were pets that remained in the tanks or if they were a pick-and-eat delicacy of some kind. I didn't bother to ask.

I also enjoyed that (as Eric warned us) the bathroom signs were delightfully ambiguous. Men were denoted by the picture of a pipe, and women by a shoe. Luckily, there were no embarrassing mixups.

We arrived in Shanghai around 4:00pm, with a sliver of sunlight peeking behind the clouds. Overcast days make for good photos anyway. We walked along the Bund, which is a sort of boardwalk along the river that cuts through the city like a knife. From our side of the river, we could see all of the iconic buildings of the Shanghai skyline. Lots of nice landscape pictures here.

Just as we were walking back toward the bus, a torrential downpour began. The clouds had certainly been hinting at this all day, and it was finally coming down. We hoped that it would subside as we ate a nondescript dinner, but it only got worse. Eric made a difficult decision to cancel the boat ride along the river because the winds were just too strong. We were pretty disappointed by this, as it was meant to be the highlight of the trip. The view on the Bund during the day is nothing like seeing it lit up at night. But there was nothing we could do except go to our hotel.

This was the entrance to the boat ride - where Eric checked to see that it was cancelled.

Some weird blurry pictures I took from inside the bus.

Things picked up a little at this point because the hotel in Shanghai was extremely opulent. I don't think I had ever stayed in a hotel this nice, perhaps apart from the hotel in Suzhou. As we waited for Eric to assign everyone their rooms, I scrawled down a few copies of instructions to make the tea we had purchased at the tea plantation. What would be better than gifts of tea imported right from the source in China?
The staircase was particularly beautiful.

Once we settled into our hotel room, my mother suggested we walk around the area a bit and see what there is to see. It wasn't too late at night since the boat ride had been cancelled, and (of course) the rain had stopped by this point. The area around our hotel was a bit curious. It's obviously a financial district, as many of the hotel's patrons are wealthy businessmen, so we probably looked a bit dumb walking around with our necks craned to see the tops of the skyscrapers from the ground.

Okay I don't know what was going on behind this door, but you can see I took the picture hurriedly because I think it was some kind of illegal gambling!

We tried to walk all the way to the Pearl Tower, but it was just too far. Here you can see it was mocking us from behind a building!

This last one that looks like a bottle opener was probably my favourite building. It's the Shanghai World Financial Center, the 8th tallest building in the world and the fourth tallest structure in Mainland China. The original design featured a circular hole at the top, supposedly to reduce the stresses of wind pressure and to reference the Chinese mythological depiction of the sky as a circle. It also resembled a Chinese moon gate due to its circular form in Chinese architecture. However, this initial design began facing protests from some Chinese, including the mayor of Shanghai, Chen Liangyu, who considered it too similar to the rising sun design of the Japanese flag.

After we were done with that, we got a snack from the hotel convenience store (weird potato chips for all!) and walked around the hotel to see more of its opulence. I shined my shoes on one of the complimentary shoe shine machines that sit on every floor of the hotel (Converse have never looked so shiny) and we wandered over to the bar. Some of the people on our trip had obviously beaten us there, and were well into what looked like the third round of drinks. Why didn't we think of that! (Just kidding).

We hung out there for a little while, but soon decided to go to bed because we had been warned that the next day would be quite full. After all, it would be our last day in China!

On our next and final episode of The Other Side, we'll get a lovely view of Shanghai from the top of the Jin Mao tower (sister tower to the Shanghai World Financial Tower), eat lunch in a floating restaurant, visit the extremely interesting and eccentric Xintiandi area, take a ride on the Mag Lev (the fastest ground-transportation in the world), and visit the fake market (where you buy all your lovely fake goods - made in China). We definitely went out with a bang. Until then!