All posts by stephanusoptimus

Finally a week off!

As you may be aware, China is celebrating its own new year this week, the Year of the Dog. That means a few things: some time off, cleaner air, and… an empty Beijing.

I haven’t been in Beijing for Spring Festival (as the Chinese New Year is called, because it markets the beginning of the spring season) for a few years, since I first came to China, actually. That would’ve been back in 2015. I wrote a few posts about it, my visit to the Ditan Fair and then the Changdan Temple Fair and then, of course, my visit to the Houhai area the night of CNY2015. Overall, it’s kinda neat to be back in China for Spring Festival 2018 because it has been a while, and I get to experience it from a different angle this time since I’m living on the other side of town.

This year will be a little bit different as I’ve only recently completely moved into my apartment. You see, because of the events of last year, my stuff got kinda spread out over a few places which meant I had to make arrangements to store it and then re-gather it. Not only that, but my job has me hopping all over northern China which means lots of subways, train stations and airports and, in general, living out of a rolly suitcase. And so, with Spring Festival 2018, I’m okay with the idea of simply sitting around and doing nothing.

In total, I will have one week off, five days of which Beijing will basically be shut down, kinda like this:

And then another two days of the rest of the people getting back to work but nothing for us just yet (due to the scheduling of our work).

Sadly, one change I have to deal with is the No Fireworks rule within the fifth ring road. For those who are not familiar with how Beijing is laid out, the city has five roads that completely encircle it: first, second, third, fourth, fifth and they’re working on a few more. I live near the third ring road, so that means pretty close to downtown (or CBD as they call it) while the fifth ring road is a bit further out, you might call them suburbs. I suppose it is a safety issue though some will say it’s a pollution-control measure (but fireworks don’t cause nearly as much pollution as a steel factory). Here’s a warning sticker on the pavement, where most people look for their notifications:

After all, how can they see an advert on the wall if they’re always looking down at their cell phones?

On the upshot, since it is a national holiday, that means all of the workers have gone home and the factories have been shut down, which means less pollutants in the air. Furthermore, with the ban on fireworks within the fifth ring road, that means there will be less pollution within the city itself all of which means that the skies should, in theory, be blue for at least a couple of days.

So, what will I do for this Spring Festival?

I guess I’ll have to cook at home because just about everything is closed down and delivery is at an absolute minimum. And by “cook” I mean heat up some stuff. I could go to one of the Western bars in Sanlitun but, meh, do I really need to? No. You’re supposed to eat jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) at midnight but, seeing as though I don’t know how to make them, don’t have anyone to make them, norcan I get them delivered at this time, I will not eat them and instead defer my eating them for a later date. I will, however, enjoy a cigar and a Tsingdao for starters.

I will watch the CCTV special, which seems to be the thing to do on Chinese New Year. Apparently families gather round the TV box and watch this four and a half hour spectacle. It’s similar to the Times Square countdown in New York but has an element of Canada’s Royal Canadian Air Farce’s New Year’s Special in that it showcases a few performances and comedy routines.  But no chicken cannon.

In the coming days I’m thinking I’ll revisit the temple fairs just to see them again. I’ll also try to get a few other things done that I’ve been putting off, notably doing some shopping once the stores open again. No cleaning, however, as that is seen a bad thing to do during the Spring Festival. Gotta let that dust aka luck, accumulate around the house for a bit and then sweep it out next week.

So that’s about it. I’ll enjoy what is basically my first week off in a very long time. The last year and especially the last four months have been very busy and I’m glad to finally have some time to sit, stare out the window, and drool… kinda like a dog haha.

Anyway, I hope you have a great Chinese New Year 2018. It is the Year of the Dog so if you fall into that category, be sure to take advantage of the good times.

恭喜你发财!Wealth and prosperity to you! (Lit. congratulations on your fortune!)

Droning on the Farm

So last year I had the chance to do some work on my Uncle’s farm again (first time in years) and it so happened that he had a new-ish drone in his possession. He actually had two, but he crashed the first one, then his son-in-law crashed another, and so the drone that I actually got a chance to use was his third. And use it I did.

The model my Uncle had was a Yuneec Typhoon Q500+ 4K. The first model was white and the model I used was black. Four propellers, a 4K camera one a gimbal and two landing feet. The battery was probably the heaviest part and was good for about 15 minutes of flight time.

Here’s a pic of our little drone:

New toy, or new skill? #drone #video #aerialphotography #photo #Travel #dontcrash

A post shared by Steven (@stevensirski) on

As exciting as it was to have this thing under my control I can’t say it was very calming to fly. As a matter of fact, the experience was more tense and nerve-wracking then the promotional materials had me believe. You’ll note that all of the propellers are black in the photo above but that would change as I, too, would, ermmm, crash the thing a couple of times.

But here are my impressions of using the thing:

The first thing you notice is the propellers. Our model had four propellers, made of plastic (as was most of the body) so the thing could be relatively light-weight. The placement of the propellers and the fact that they were “open” to the air (and to your fingers) meant that it was both kinda unwieldy and, in my opinion, kinda dangerous. The idea of cutting one of my fingers off became even more real the first time my Uncle fired the thing up. These things don’t sound like a gentle breeze through the grass but instead sound like a swarm of bees. And that’s just in pre-flight mode. Once you engage the actual flight mechanism the propellers sound like an angry swarm of bees. Not too welcoming, to say the least.

Even before you get to flying the thing, however, you need to calibrate and set it up. This sounds like a no brainer but when you turn the machine on, it starts to blink a bunch of different colours and, even more confusingly, blinks in certain patterns. You can “read” these colours and patterns but first you need to watch and then consult the included instruction card. In total there are about 16 different patterns. Yeha… I can guess your reaction was like mine. WTF do all these blinking lights mean? Was that calibration? Error? Feed me? Kinda confusing to say the least.

But, all that being done, once the machine has been started, calibrated, GPS satellites connected and the angry swarm of propeller-bees gets up in the air, you now have to control the thing. There are four settings to control the drone but don’t ask me for specifics because I really just thought they would be labelled “up/down” and “side to side”. Those labels, if you think about it, don’t really apply to flying because flying takes place in three ways, not two (like cars and tractors). Instead, they have labels like “Elevator/Pitch Control” (for moving up and down) and “Aileron/Roll Control” (for moving side to side). I just wanted to know up, down, side to side and to be able to move the camera. I can say that once you get the hang of the controls, it’s pretty fun to be able to move things around, especially with the camera recording.

Second, they are easy to crash. As my Uncle demonstrated with his initial training session for me, not knowing how the controls work can cause the thing to move in a way you don’t want and, well, whoopsies. So the drone went down. Luckily we only lost a few propellers that time ($11 each) and no one got hurt. It’s not like the thing didn’t come with warnings. They do. The user manual itself shows and states not to fly near buildings, trees or other tall objects, don’t fly over crowds, nor should you fly in winds exceeding 13-19 kms/h. And don’t put your fingers or hands anywhere near the moving propellers. So you can’t say you aren’t warned.

But the warnings are just words and pictures on a page so until you actually fly the thing you can’t really grasp why these warnings matter. Again, back to the angry swarm of bee-propellers, they sound nasty and dangerous. Seriously, don’t put your finger anywhere near those things! Second, since the propellers are made of plastic they are extraordinarily delicate which means even if you think you’re far enough from a tree itself, if a gust of wind catches it and the drone clips a twig or a leafdown goes your drone. Hopefully you’re not too far off of the ground because when these things crash land they really do more of the crashing than the landing. If you’re lucky (like we were the first time) you might lose a few propellers. But if you’re unlucky like the first two drones, then you lose the camera ($300) or more (the whole thing… $1200), except maybe the battery ($100).

So you do need to be careful.

But I did manage to get the thing up in the air and not crash and so could capture a few shots of the farm. I used the “Follow Me” mode at first just to get a hang of it and then moved on to manual control after a few test flights.

Manual isn’t difficult to use provided that you don’t try to fly between trees or buildings (or near combines) on a windy day (or on a low battery). If you do, you’ll most likely regret it. What I do recommend you do (especially if you’re new to flying a drone) is to get the drone up into the air and then practice moving the camera and propellers from side to side. Once you get familiar with how you can move the drone and the camera at the same time, you’ll be able to bring the drone down a bit closer to earth for some fly-bys or close ups. There is no zoom on the camera we used so you’re locked into a wide shot. It’s great for landscapes but if you want to get some detail into your shots that will mean getting closer to your object and watching not only the camera (if you want to pan at all) but the object and anything around it because of the aforementioned wind warnings. Or power lines. Don’t hit those either.

By now you’re probably wondering what the shots looked like.

The camera took alright pictures while the video was apparently shot at 4K. Here are a few of the stills:

I put the drone in “Follow Me” mode so I could get the hang of how the thing moved. Later, as I got a few more flights under control, I switched to manual.
Uncalibrated cameras usually start like this.
A shot of the seeder in action.
A view of the Sirski homestead as of Spring 2017.
Overhead shot of the combine. These shots can be tricky especially because the camera can’t take photos while video recording.
Harvest in action.

For those who are interested in the raw footage, I’ve posted some of the videos on YouTube and provided the links below. For those of you who want a simpler, more interesting, best of montage… you’ll have to wait just a wee bit longer as I get the final video assembled. Anyway, for those of you who are interested, here are some of the shots:

**Note: there is NO SOUND for these videos!

This is what happens when your drone isn’t calibrated properly:

Here’s a shot of a truck being filled by a grain cart as two combines harvest the crop:

The one bad thing about the camera is that I couldn’t take photos while the video camera was engaged, a feature that has become so common in many other digital cameras. Here’s a continuation of that same shot but with a bit of a combine fly-over:

And then here is another attempt at a fly-over with okay results:

And this one I’m pretty proud of because I do get the drone pretty close to the ground. As you watch, the moving video really does pull you into it and makes you kinda tense as if you’re about to crash. But I don’t! 😉

So, Steve, did you ever crash the thing?

Hahahahaaaaaaa….. yea, I did. On my LAST DAY of the job I was making the above videos when the battery started flashing. If gave me the first warning to land, I kinda ignored it (You should land right now). Then it gave me the second warning (LAND! Like really quickly!) and I got thinking I’d just fly the thing to the edge of the field so I could capture a shot of the combine coming near it. Then the third, and final, warning appeared (I’m landing, you dummy, I’m outta juice!) and then, as the combine approached, the drone descended aaaaand… BONK! off of the header the drone went. The combine stopped (so the guy could figure out what he hit since he was driving into the sun) and then there went the drone. Oops. Here is the last shot I got before the drone went down:

Combining soybeans in Manitoba during the 2017 harvest.

So let that be one last piece of advice: when the drone tells you to land, you should land!

My family in the Ukrainian news

So you might recall that last year I spent some time on my Uncle’s farm again helping out around there. I neglected to write about it because my life was kinda flying by in an uncontrollable spiral at the time and didn’t really want to bother thinking about it too much, nor make it “happy friendly” which is required of many of the working abroad or travelling stories and blog posts out there.

But it wasn’t bad least of all because I actually did two stints on my Uncle’s farm: one for the seeding program and another for harvest. Well, harvest proved to be interested because all of a sudden, a Ukrainian film crew showed up with a couple of cameras asking questions about the life of a first generation Ukrainian-Canadian farmer (that would be my Uncle). You can see my Uncle towards the end of the first part and then the whole second video basically covers my family both in Canada and in Ukraine. You even get to see and hear me in the second part.

If you’re looking to read more about my stay in Ukraine (during which I left out the part of meeting my extended family for the first time), you can check out my posts here.

The YouTube links are below:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Quite busy, thinking what to write

So my new job has kept me quite busy and despite my best efforts to mentally sit myself down to write, it simply isn’t happening. I mentioned a while back that I was thinking of taking this blog in a new direction to reflect my more sedentary / settled lifestyle instead of all of the galavanting I have done over the years. I’m not sure it’ll be a big change but I think it needs to change in some way. Maybe it’s time to stop already? Then again, maybe not. I’m a Millennial and my voice deserves to be heard, right? Haha

Anyway, the weather is a bit colder here. Some folks were wondering if the pollution is bad this year in China and I can say that in Beijing itself the pollution hasn’t been so bad. Maybe only one day has had an AQI of over 250. It went by so fast that I even forgot to take a screenshot of the AQI reading. In other areas, however, such as Zhengzhou and Xi’an (where the Terracotta Warriors are located), the smog has stayed the same or gotten worse. Why the difference? Because much of north-east China, in what seems to be a caving in to the demands of “the people” (or at least a skeptical eye towards the upcoming health care bill for treating lung disease) has made China move toward natural gas instead of coal. It may also be because the price of coal has gone from $3 per tonne (I think) in 2016 to just over $17 per tonne right now. In any event, the skies are bluer than before.

Spring Festival 2018 is coming up. It will be the Year of the Dog. My year. Many folks will be off to their hometowns to visit family as the country gets about a week straight of holidays. One of the things they do here in China is shuffle the working days so that there is an uninterrupted week of holidays that allows for many of the people to get home for the holidays. And it is the Chinese holidays. Christmas and Western New Year’s were just acquiescence to Western influences, Spring Festival is embraced by Chinese people as a time to actually take time off. As a result, much of Beijing (and the country) will be shut down in the middle of the month. I will not be going anywhere but will have about a week off to get some things done that I’ve been meaning to do. I haven’t been in Beijing for Spring Festival since 2015 which was also my first year here.

One thing I will be looking for is a gym as it seems that my mid-section has become a little bit bigger with the big change up of last year. I do get to use some nice gyms at some of the hotels we stay at but there are some long days that don’t allow me to get to the gym on time.

Other that than, hope all is well!

Approaching 2018

Well here we are folks, another year has elapsed and the time to flip the calendar to another January and to another year. 2017 will go down in my own life as a very trying year: losing my father, losing my job, and losing my passport (actually, all those kinda went together). But, given all that, life is as life does and dare I say that things could be worse.

I can’t say I really look at these years as any more than a change in number and a change in seasons. It’s not like “2018 will be the year that I do X”, but it is a time of season that has given me a much-needed break to get myself set up for the next couple of months, all of which are looking to be especially busy.

In any event, 2017 did see me travel from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It was along this journey that I would hear of my father’s passing and then make my way back to Canada.

A few weeks later, as scheduled, my younger brother got married to his long time girlfriend/fiancee.

And, as a result of being back in Canada (and the aforementioned passport and job issues), I stayed for both seeding and harvest on my uncle’s farm, a first for me. I would also learn how to fly a drone camera, another first and a not altogether relaxing experience but a skill I can see of being some use later on.

After all that, I managed to sit down and write the rough drafts for three different books (but don’t hold me to any deadlines).

I interviewed and received a job offer from another company in China. It would take about six months to process the appropriate visa work.

I upgraded a bunch of my technology, including my computer and hard drives. Despite this, I neglected to backup one of my websites and down it went. Oops.

I also managed to transfer a bunch of old miniDV tapes (about 120 or so) and that brought waves of emotion and memories back to mind.

And now I’m back in Beijing doing a different job and I can say that it is good to be back and that I will do my best not to have the events of 2017 repeat themselves.

Oh, and I think back to one year ago when I wrote a post about how I was trying to get money out of China and one of the options was to buy #Bitcoin … and never did. Well oops on that one.

In any event, looking forward to 2018, I plan to finally pick up those Russian books I bought in Novosibirsk and read them. I plan to read and study Chinese a little bit more as I get settled into a routine. I do need to hit the gym again as I’ve let that lapse, y’know, given all my movings and travellings. My family is planning a reunion in August but, as I’m told about my new job, August is one of those “no one takes a holiday” months, which means I’m pretty much committed to staying in China for a while. And, finally, in an effort to diversify and make some sort of a backup plan, I’m starting up a few other websites that target other interests of mine and that I hope to grow over time.

If there’s one quote that keeps going through my mind it’s that whatever you want to be doing ten years from now, start doing it today. Actually, I’m not sure it’s so much a quote so much as it’s something I’ve noticed about my own activities, but it sounds good anyway. The quote can be boiled down to “start simply, simply start” which is a pretty common saying as well.

Anyway, that’s just a brief up-to-dater on the things going on here. Beijing is windy cold, not like -30C snow cold like in Canada, and the pollution hasn’t been too bad this year (because northeastern China has moved into using more natural gas for its heating needs rather than relying fully on coal). Life is as life does. Just keep moving along!

Have a Happy New Year and a great 2018!