Scotland

It is October, and we drive the M90 north through the tiny Kingdom of Fife. Though it’s home to the home of golf we have miles to go and do not linger. Having rented a car with incredible acceleration we pass rather rapidly, overtaking slower vehicles in mild terror on their left. Right.

In fact Scotland is to the north of our lives. After our first weekend in Edinburgh every step we take in Scotland is further north than either of us have ever been.  We realize this on a beach facing the North Sea in Banff. It’s a tiny town not terribly far south, latitude wise, of Juneau Alaska. October is past half done and the sunshine and warmth are a gift to our travels. The roads are dry and skies clear, and we visit castles leaving our jackets in the car.

We are on an adventure again, to the last new place we have plans to learn in twenty twelve. It is an entire country in a week, another island nation and a few more old fiends. We adventure by car and train and foot. We see castles in the mornings and oceans at sunset. We see snow in the first light of dawn and lochs by the last. We wander with little in the way of plan from east coast to west, from Edinburgh to Inverness, Aberdeen to Portree and Mallaig.

Scotland is a country of rolling hills and steep cliffs, of lakes that stretch long through valleys, and fields of furry cows tucked into the gaps. It is a country of trains and lorries, beer, cider, and whisky. More than anything it is a country of kind people, from the strangers who help us with our flat to the two NFL fans who sit opposite us on the train south, excited by the opportunity to see the St. Louis Rams play the New England Patriots in London. They drink Budweiser, like Nickelback, and work in the oil industry in Aberdeen. Like everyone we meet they are the kind of direct polite that surprises sarcastic Americans, mocking each other yet kind to passers by.

Much of the week we reside in a cottage on the grounds of a castle in the hills south west of Inverness. It is the kind of accommodation hard to imagine prior to arrival, half fantasy and half luxury, found by a friend. For, like our trip to Japan, Scotland is an adventure with old friends, and the four of us spend each evening building a fire, cooking together, discussing the future, and telling stories of the past. Here at last is someone who was there when I fell off the bridge in Saitama, who walked me home scraped and in shock. Here’s someone who remembers standing on the stairwell in Kawaguchi between English classes, looking out at the city with the exhausted and uncurious eyes of a resident. It’s been years since our last meeting, in Amsterdam after Italy won the World Cup, and we are old enough now to cherish each evening together.

Scotland, like Japan, like any nation, is far too much to encapsulate in a week of travel, though we try. Mostly it is a chance to adventure, to challenge ourselves by learning new things together. It is a way to remember how we met, if not where, and why we are always on the move. Walking on the dam that holds back Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin we think of James Bond, of the beauty of nature, and of the perseverance of humans in exploring, mapping, and building on so much of this globe.

The first morning in Edinburgh we look at each other, wide-eyed with jet lag and the joy of discovery, and remember. Five years ago in Shanghai, riding an electric scooter together and discovering new districts, new routes home late at night. In Scotland five years later the scooter is an Audi, rented for the week. The look in our eyes though is familiar, as we stand on top of Arthur’s Seat, a little winded from the climb. Five years seems both impossibly long and never enough. Twenty twelve may have brought Japan, Scotland, and old friends, but the world is wide and there are always more of you to see.

Apple Maps and Shanghai

Apple’s new Maps are bad. That seems like a statement of fact. Unfortunately, in the United States they are most frequently described as “passable”, which is altogether too generous. Most people do not live in the United States.

Rather than a long diatribe about how international users are important, I thought I’d present some examples, from a city I know well. Per Wikipedia, Shanghai is a city of 23 million people as of 2010. Sorting by actual municipalities, that makes it the largest single city in the world. On that list New York is 19th.

So how does Shanghai look on Apple Maps in iOS 6? And how did it look on Google Maps on iOS 5?

Well, from the default zoom level in Apple Maps:

Default zoom, Apple

And Google:

Default zoom, Google

Zoom in 1 step on Apple:

Zoom in 1 step, Apple

And Google:

Zoom in 1 step, Google

Zoom in 2 steps, Apple:

Zoom in 2 steps, Apple

And Google:

Zoom in 2 steps, Google

Not only does Apple lack roads, parks, train lines, major buildings, districts, and any semblance of a “sense of the city” normally apparent from a map, it lacks the river.

To reiterate: it does not show the Yellow River, the Huang Pu, a major geographical feature of the entire coast, not just Shanghai proper.

The new maps fail in the kind of way that should be impossible to fail: they lack publicly available data. City maps of Shanghai are much more accurate and correctly detailed. Geographic features are visible from satellite.

For the US-only user, these new maps may be passable. For the international traveler or those residing in non-US countries, these maps are disaster, and a true regression in device utility. Quite simply, they represent a reason to buy an Android device over a new iPhone.

Which is quite a software update.

The morning rush hour

Each morning on Clement the street wakes in a certain rhythm. The coffee shops open, first to walking traffic and then cars. The busses begin to run more frequently, passengers accumulating at each stop in waves to match their arrivals. Food trucks begin deliveries, first to super markets and corner stores, and then, a few hours later, to restaurants and cafes. At nine the meters turn on, and commerce commences, quarters deposited and spots filled in neat rows rather than parked across by trucks. The garbage has come and gone and now staff haul the empty bins back in to restaurants and start their prep work.

It is these early hours that fascinate with repetition, each day played out much the same, each morning an echo of those past. To return, after a year or two, would be to see the same folk, the same shops opened by the same staff. The man who delivers pigs, cut in half, to the Chinese grocery still hops from the tall truck with a hog on each shoulder, still swings them onto the tables with the same gusto. Before his arrival an old man sits on the bench in front of the restaurant next door, waiting and watching. Though a smoker he does not yet, as though still waking up. Instead he crosses his legs and uncrosses them, watching busses and cyclists pass between the steady stream of commuter cars. He lives on this street, in a house somewhere behind it, and spends each morning watching the progression of service vehicles to joggers, school children to shoppers. He watches my arrival, coffee purchase and departure. Clement street is part of his life, and he part of it, his patient eyes proof that not everyone need hurry.

On a brisk morning in late October another city hustles. Seven thirty on a Wednesday and Dunkin’ Donuts is packed. The man holding sway in the center is wearing a witch’s hat and a long wig. This is Chicago, on Halloween, and the wind is sharp but not blustery. The remnants of Hurricane Sandy stormed through the day before, chopping Lake Michigan into muddy froth near the shore. In the Loop, at the heart of down town, the sense of motion is energizing. In great coats and business attire each person on the street outside the hotel has purpose and the sense of urgency that comes with big city routine. These blocks are filled with overhead trains and the honking of taxis, and coffee shops on each corner do the brisk business of rush hour. This is their peak, unmatched by the ten am break or noon lunch. From seven to eight forty five there are lines to the door at the Starbucks, the Caribou, the Dunkin’ and the McDonald’s, all within one full block. This is urban America, and it shows, the chains dominating by prioritizing efficiency and recognition.

As an east coast native the pace is thrilling, and some part of me is excited by Dunkin’ Donuts, a chain that dominates New York but has no presence in California. The experience at seven thirty, all interactions precisely packaged and refined through endless repetition, bears just enough similarity to my normal routine on Clement to be understood: the act of buying coffee. Outside of the Blue Danube the Chinese man sits on the bench of Burma Superstar, waiting for his friend to arrive and offer him a cigarette. After that ritual they will chat and watch the grocery store’s opening, where the pigs are delivered, and then wander off down the block, disappearing from the street. In Chicago a city employee sweeps trash from the gutter, and workers in suits file in to tall office towers.

Mornings, in cities, on week days, are studies in practice, in shared space and short time frames. Comfort comes in the form of a well-executed routine, a perfectly timed bus, a well-made coffee acquired with speed. The differences between places are not so vast, and yet, underneath, in the pace and dress is the place.

Clement’s feel, easy and welcoming, with random pedestrians and old residents, is that of home, of comfort and connection. Downtown Chicago’s rushed pace and commuter nature gives it the rare sense of the truly metropolitan, with no homes, few locals and small, pre-outlined exchanges done in incredible volume. More than anything it feels like New York, a rare thing in America. For a few days I’m glad to swap one routine for another, and even more to know both.