Wednesday 30 October 2019

A Trip Round the World to Tahiti

At one time Air France used to have a fantastic deal on air miles during the summer, when all self-respecting French jetsetters are sitting on a beach somewhere with their families. Any trip you did was just half the normal number of miles. At that time my wife was travelling constantly, mostly with Air France, so she was accumulating miles a lot faster than we could spend them.

So one summer, about 20 years ago, she booked what most people would call the trip of a lifetime, around the world in first class. It was the same scheme that a couple of years later let us take Concorde from Paris to New York for a few days, another unforgettable memory. When she collected the ticket - still real printed tickets in those days - the agent said, "I haven't issued many like this!".

That was just after AF first class became truly lay flat. Only a few years earlier I'd flown from Europe to and from Sydney, BA one way and AF the other, and been upgraded to first in both directions. But it was just a wider seat with a bit more recline, not much better than today's premium economy as far as comfort is concerned. The food was a different story, especially on AF. But by the time of our round the world trip, the seats converted into very comfortable beds. Just as well, because all four of the flights involved were at night.


Our favourite kai-ten
sushi place in Tokyo,
still in business
over 20 years later.
Our first flight was to Tokyo. We'd been there several times before, but a visit to Japan is always a pleasure. At the time I was very interested in building valve (vacuum tube) audio equipment, which has always been popular in Japan. I'd heard of a true shrine to the art, a tiny restaurant run by Susumu Sakuma in the nearby coastal town of Tateyama. I'd managed to communicate with him through his nephew before leaving.

Sakuma-san with a small selection of his amplifiers
We took the train out to Tateyama. It's quite a long way, on a normal train - no Shinkansen in that direction. The town is right out at the tip of the Chiba peninsula, at the southern corner of Tokyo Bay. It's a sleepy place, too far to commute into Tokyo. A five minute walk took us to the restaurant, where we were welcomed by Sakuma-san and his nephew. And what a place! The restaurant was small, just a handful of tables. But every available inch of wall space was covered in magnificent valve amplifiers. His speciality was something called "direct heating", which means using valves dating from the 1930s, magnificent monsters often standing six inches tall or higher, with equally huge transformers and other components. We spent a couple of hours there, admiring the superb sound they produced as well as eating a delicious lunch. He found that each amplifier worked best for a different singer or pianist. He had one that he used only for listening to Edith Piaf! He spent his whole adult life building them, constantly with a new project under way. Sadly, he passed away last year, at the age of 76.

My other memory of that trip is a visit to Tokyu Hands, in Shibuya. I manage to visit there, or one of their other stores, on just about every visit to Japan, starting with my very first in 1982. It's almost impossible to find, hidden away in the maze of back streets west of Shibuya station. The roads are so hilly and steep that entrances on opposite sides of the store are three floors apart vertically. And if you get the directions slightly wrong, you end up in a district made up entirely of love hotels, peculiarly Japanese places where you rent a room - and a bed - for an hour or two. It's not only for affairs and other dubious liaisons - typical Japanese homes are so tiny that it's the only way married couples can get time to themselves too.

Tokyu Hands sells everything you could possibly need or imagine for any kind of handicraft, everything from knitting, sewing and calligraphy to woodwork, metalwork and electronics. It has ten floors, in a curious spiral arrangement meaning you never really know where you are. I really don't need any new tools and gadgets, but every time I go there I come away with something. On this occasion I bought a pair of parallel jaw pliers, an unusual tool which among other things makes it easy to turn bolts and nuts without having the right sized spanner (wrench). I mention this because it was important later.

Bora Bora

The sorry remains of the hotel
we were supposed to stay in
Our next flight took us from Tokyo to Papeete, the main airport in Tahiti. At that time AF had a once-weekly flight, long since abandoned, whose main cargo was Japanese honeymooners.

We'd arranged to be met there, which turned out to be just as well. The young man waiting with a little placard told us that as our flight was late we had missed our connection to our first stop, on the island of Bora Bora. But he had got us into the next flight, so that was fine. Then he paused and said,

"There was something else I meant to tell you. Let me think, what was it... oh, I remember, your hotel was destroyed in a storm last week."

"So you've booked us in somewhere else then?"

"No, not as far as I know. Why? Ask the guy from the other hotel, they may have a room for you."

That remains one of the most memorable moments in all our years and millions of miles of travel. The flight, on one of Air Tahiti's ATRs, was indeed met by a representative from the main surviving hotel on the island. He consulted his clipboard and said,

"No, there's no mention of you anywhere here. But we do have some rooms available, you should be OK."

As indeed we were. They had just one room available, a superb bungalow set on stilts over the crystal clear lagoon. It was idyllic, our only regret was that we were not spending longer there. Months after our return to France, we discovered that in fact they had booked us into another hotel, on a different island. It would have been much less good.

The hotel was run by a very distinguished French guy. He told us all about the storm which had passed through the previous week. It had been terrible and had done a lot of damage. The atolls that make up nearly all of French Polynesia are only a few feet above the sea, and with a high sea and a strong wind they can be washed completely clean. Many people had died.

Bora Bora from the air
The hotel manager told us proudly that despite the damage and spending most of the night trying to stop the main hotel roof from blowing away, they were able to serve a full breakfast on white tablecloths the next morning. He also mentioned an American who threatened to sue them. He had slept through the storm - goodness knows how - and was upset they hadn't woken him up so he could witness it.

One day we rented bicycles to ride around the island. They needed adjusting to fit us, but the rental guy didn't have the right spanner. So I went back to our room and retrieved my purchase from Tokyu Hands, the ideal tool for the job and something which should be part of every bicycle toolkit. The guy was amazed, I'm sure he thought we must be mad, to travel with a complete toolkit just in case anything was needed.


The main terminal at Rangiroa airport
Our next stop was at another Polynesian island, Manihi. We had to change planes on the way there. The airport was just an open-sided shelter with a counter in one corner, and a runway. There was a television on the wall, showing the French news. Polynesia is technically part of France, no different from Paris or Nice. If it was possible to fly non-stop from Tahiti to Paris, it would be an internal French flight, with no customs or immigration. So the news was exactly the same that people on the other side of the world were watching. And France was having an exceptionally cold spell, with snow throughout the country. It was surreal to watch images of trucks slipping about in the snow, and people being dug out of snowdrifts, while sitting in shorts and teeshirts in tropical heat.
An idyllic tropical resort on Mahini

The main island of Bora Bora is an extinct volcano, pointy like in children's books with a road and villages around the edge. Manihi is a true atoll, just a thin, more or less circular strip of land just a few hundred feet across. Atolls are interesting things. They start when an island is formed by an underground volcano. Over tens of thousands of years, coral forms a ring a little way off the coast. But the island is so heavy that gradually it sinks under its own weight. As it sinks, the coral keeps on growing, forming an apparently static ring marking the original coastline of the volcano. At Bora Bora the volcano is still there, the atoll a kilometre or so offshore. But at Manihi, and most other atolls, the volcano has disappeared altogether, leaving just the coral ring. Inside the water has silted up as the volcano sinks, and is only a few metres deep, But outside the seabed falls away dramatically, falling to thousands of metres in a very short distance. For scuba divers it is quite dangerous, since if you start to descend you become more dense and sink even faster.

A pearl farm on the Mahini lagoon
Manihi's main claim to fame is its pearl industry. It was the birthplace in Polynesia of the cultured pearl industry, in 1965. We duly visited a pearl farm to see how it is done. It's a very delicate job. The oysters have to be gently prised open and then a speck of dust inserted in the right place for a pearl to form - really a kind of scar tissue to protect the living oyster from the foreign object.

Los Angeles

F-BTVX landing at Papeete, on her
way to collect us

We spent only a couple of nights on Manihi, and then it was time to continue our trip round the world. Another ATR took us back to Papeete, where we spent one night at what must be one of the most scenically sited airport hotels in the world, on the edge of a tropical lagoon. Back then AF had regular flights from Tahiti to Paris, with a stop in LA. For a long time now these flights have been operated by Air Tahiti Nui, Polynesia's very own long haul airline. Even if we had the airmiles, such a trip is no longer possible.

We stayed only one night in LA, dutifully visiting Hollywood and other standard tourist stuff. It was hot, wet, sticky and dirty. My main memory of that part of the trip is of getting a traffic ticket from a particularly unpleasant cop, and having to deal with it from 6000 miles away in France. When I told him we couldn't attend the court because we didn't live there, he threatened to put us in jail - for changing lanes, quite legally. It left an unpleasant taste of American police which I'm afraid has only got worse after nearly 20 years of living in the country. Calling the police in the US is like jumping out of a plane with a parachute. If the alternative is certain death, it's a good idea. Otherwise, the risks are worse than just staying put, or not calling them. There have been plenty of instances where well-meaning people have called them and innocent people - sometimes the caller, sometimes someone else - have been shot and killed.

The next day, traffic ticket in hand, we boarded our final flight and returned to Paris. All our flights were on Boeing 747s, at that time still very much the Queen of the Skies and the mainstay of every long haul fleet in the world. Now there are very few airlines still flying them - primarily BA and Qantas. It is over 10 years since they last flew with Air France. Our trip lasted only about ten days - most people would probably have spent a month, but we simply didn't have the time. But our memories of the trip are just as good as if we had spent much longer.

Thursday 24 October 2019

Unicode, Currency Symbols and Cultural Hegemony

The Unicode character standard defines characters for every written language on the planet, a huge range of emoticons, and many other things besides. And, naturally, symbols for all the currencies in use, and quite a few that aren't.

In the beginning, computers represented characters using various manufacturer-dependent 6-bit codes, allowing for 64 characters. That's enough for a single case of letters, numerals, common punctuation, and a few special characters like space and newline. That's why old computers printed everything in CAPITALS - they had no way to distinguish between upper and lowercase.

In the 1960s, IBM introduced the System 360, and with it the 8-bit byte which is now completely taken for granted. (Before that, computers came with all kinds of strange word lengths - the Elliott 803 from 1962 or so had a 39-bit word). That allowed the use of 8-bit characters. But at first, one bit was reserved for error detection (the "parity bit"), so only 7 bits were used, providing for 128 characters. That allowed lower case letters to be added, and some additional punctuation such as '{' and '}'. There was also a range of 32 mysterious control characters with exotic sounding names like End of Block, most of which were never really used.

The 7-bit character set was rapidly standardised by the US in 1963, as ASCII (American Standard Character set for Information Interchange), and adopted internationally by the International Standards Organisation as ISO 646. Because it was a US standard, it did not allow for the needs of other countries. For example, it included no accented characters - it couldn't, because there wasn't room. Many countries therefore had their own national variant of ISO 646. In the UK, the rarely used character '#' was replaced by the pound symbol, '£'. Several countries replaces lesser-used punctuation by the accented letters they needed. For example in France, 'é' replaced '{'. (There is a legacy of this in the C programming language, which allows odd-looking trigraphs such as '??<' as an alternative to '{', for people who don't have '{' on their keyboard because it has been replaced by an accented letter.)

This was all a bit unsatisfactory if files need to be moved between countries, which would result in characters changing at random. There was a move to abandon the parity bit and use it to create an additional 128 code points for characters. This resulted in the Latin-1 character set, or ISO 8859, which first appeared in 1987. With this, all the major Latin-alphabet languages could be written and, more importantly, moved between countries without turning to gibberish.

None of this was any use for languages which do not use the Latin alphabet. Similar standards were defined for Cyrillic and for Greek. For Chinese and other Asian languages, 8 bits is nowhere near enough to represent all the characters - modern Chinese needs around 6,000 characters, and a great many more if historical documents are to be encoded. So each country - China, Japan and Korea - developed its own encoding for the Chinese-based characters.

Starting in the 1980s, there was a move to come up with a single character set that could represent all languages and other uses. Initially it was thought that a 16-bit character set, allowing 65,536 combinations, would cover this, but in the end to represent all languages requires more than that.

Unicode, or ISO 10646 (the similarity in the number is not a coincidence), is the result of all this. It can represent almost every language with a written representation, and a great many other characters as well. Maybe surprisingly, there is a lot of controversy around it. As one example, each user of Chinese characters has taken its own steps through history to simplify writing. The same ideogram (i.e. a character with a meaning rather than a sound) is often written differently in Taiwan, China and Japan. For example, means 'to speak' in Japanese, but the same ideogram is written in China, with the left radical greatly simplified. Should these be considered as different glyphs representing the same character, determined solely by the font in use, just like Comic Sans and Times Roman Italic, or are they different characters? This is called the Han Unification Controversy.

Anyway, back to currency symbols. ASCII defines just one of them, '$'. Other countries used various code points for their own currency symbol. Latin-1 added a few more: £, ¥, ¢. You may notice a theme here: nearly all currency symbols consist of a (maybe) mnemonic letter, with a line through it. (S for 'scudero', the original currency in the Americas, and L for 'libra', Latin for pound). For example the symbol for the Thai Baht is ฿.

I ran into this on my first visit to India recently. The character for the Indian Rupee is . This is the Hindi character , pronounced 'ra', with a line through it. The character is actually very recent, introduced just in 2009 following a national competition to replace the traditional representation Rs.

When I saw this I was naturally interested to see if there was a Unicode representation. Obviously there is, or I wouldn't have been able to write the previous paragraph. Where currency symbols show up seems to be somewhat random. The character for Thai Baht is indeed mixed in with the characters for Thai script. But the Rupee symbol, which you might reasonably expect to find with the Devanagari (Hindi) character set, is in a page dedicated to currency symbols.

The page contains some truly amazing symbols. There are symbols you've probably never seen for currencies you've probably never heard of, like the Ukrainian Hrvynia which looks like a dollar sign adapted for one of those "fill in the missing square" intelligence tests, or the Kazakhstan Tenga which is identical to the Japanese symbol for a public phone. Others have surely never been used, like the Livre Tournois , a currency used in France from the 13th to the 16th century, or the German Penny . One gets the feeling that once they had a whole 256-character code page they were determined to fill it.

My favourites among them, just because they are so visually complex, are these two. They're shown as images because very few fonts have them - inserting the Unicode characters usually results in a blank space or an empty box. The one on the left is the Spesmilo. It's an artificial currency invented alongside Esperanto in the early 20th century, with similar idealist objectives. It has never been implemented as an actual currency of any kind. But they certainly got creative with the symbol.

The second character is the Nordic Mark. This was once a real currency, used in Denmark (which at the time included Norway) in the 17th and 18th centuries. It seems unlikely that the character is much used today, especially since most systems can't display it.

There's a certain amount of cultural hegemony in all this. In theory all Unicode code points are equal. But in practice there is still an important practical advantage to being in the original ASCII 7-bit character set. The Python language copes very badly with Unicode, throwing errors all over the place when you try to use anything outside ASCII. (The excuse for Python 3 was to fix these problems, but actually it is even worse). So there is a distinct advantage to having your currency symbol be there, which is the case only for $. I'm not aware of any practical advantage of being in ISO 8859 (Latin-1), but it's still "less Unicode" than being in some remote code page along with the Spesmilo and the Nordic Mark.