I'm Ben, and you are a person who has just reached my dumping ground for various hobbies. Those include the climate crisis, open source software, photography, interior design, and video games.

Find me at Mastodon, LinkedIn, or [email protected].

My most recent posts are below.

Surprises in North China

published 2023 November

Summer and I recently stayed a few weeks with her parents in Harbin, China.

A satellite map zoomed out to see most of china. Harbin is circled in the far northeast.

Harbin is near the northern border, far from the popular coastal cities.

A few things caught me off guard about the culture. Things nobody really talks about, things even Summer remarked that she'd never thought about, but that affected my stay in subtle ways.

Natural Refrigeration

Kitchens this far north use their pantries as natural refrigerators, with the framing of the building set to expose 23 pantry walls to the exterior.

A photo of the outside of an apartment building, having a vertical slice jutting out with three walls of windows on it. Another photo of the same, but a different building. Another photo of the same, but a different building. Another photo of the same, but a different building.

More exposed surface area means more and faster cooling.

A photo of a wire rack with vegetables laying on it, like cabbage and green onions.

The pantry can be used to both cool and dry food.

Summer shared a half-joke that if you want a cold beer in the winter, you get it from the pantry. If you want a warm one, you get it from the refrigerator.

Hot Water

People in China drink their water hot, not cold, especially older generations. The tap water is not potable, so you have to sterilize it by boiling it. After generations of this, people prefer their water hoteven as filtering has become mainstream.

It's even embedded in traditional Chinese medicine that drinking hot water is necessary to restore your body's yang, and drinking cold water should be avoided.

And for what it's worth, for years after coming to the US Summer would get stomachaches after drinking cold water, especially on an empty stomach.

Whether physiological or psychosomatic it was clear the routine has an effect on a person, so I don't exactly blame anyone for the preference or belief.

It was a constant effort to convince her family I wasn't harming myself by drinking cold water.


Smoking is huge in China. China consumes about half of all cigarattes globally.

Smoking in restaurants is technically banned, but everyone does it because there's no enforcement. There's also no incentive to enforce it because tobacco is nationalized, bringing in ~7% of all government revenue.1

Like hot water, the tradition is stronger in older generations.


The food was by far the best part of China, though I've had a few years to acclimate my taste to authentic Chinese food in Seattle and Vancouver.

Some notable items I tried:

A photo of a clear bottle of gold-colored fizzy liquid, with a label depicting a loaf of bread.

Bread soda, with real yeast. My stomach doesn't recommend more than one at a time.

A photo of a small disposable bowl of wide noodles with veggies mixed in. In the background is a night market.

烤冷面 kǎolěngmiàn ("grilled cold noodles"), my years-long favorite Chinese food.

A photo of me, a white man, dipping a long donut-looking item in a cup of soy milk. We are sitting at a table on the street and the sun is rising.

Plain donuts (油条 yóutiáo) dipped in soy milk (豆浆 dòujiāng), a common if unhealthy breakfast.

A photo of seemingly normal cheese pizza.

Pizza Hut is a pseudodelicacy in China, similar to sushi in the US. It looks the same, but this pizza uses cream cheese and has a sweet, oily crust.

A photo of an egg tart in KFC packaging.

KFC sells egg tarts and a few other Chinese items. Neither of us enjoyed them, but it was interesting exploring international chains' local menus.

A photo of yumi lao, which looks like like (and is) a sugary mass of fried corn.

Fried corn fritters (玉米烙 yùmǐlào) are a sweet cross between popcorn, kettle corn, and corn. If you like those flavors, you'll love these.


No one carries cash in China; businesses universally accept and expect pay-by-phone. But there’s no tap-to-pay.

Instead, businesses have QR codes posted on their walls that point to WeChat accounts. The cashier tells you how much to pay and you send it over the internet, like a Venmo payment.

A nearby speaker announces incoming payment amounts automatically, signaling to the shopkeeper that payment was received.

City Limits

Before we left Seattle, Summer kept repeating to me that Harbin is a small town.

What she neglected to mention was that the population of this "small town" was 10 million. At first I attributed the number to China simply having 1.4 billion people, which is 1.1 billion more than I'm used to conceptualizing.

There's a different explanation though, and it is caused by a series of imperfect translations: China has no suburbs. Everything is city.

The city limits of New York, NY, USA overlaid on the city limits of Harbin, Heilongjiang, China. New York City's city limits are tiny in comparison, only about 2% of the size.

New York City (solid red, superimposed) is ~2% the area of Harbin (dotted red).

There is plenty of rural land. It's just that every square centimeter of it is technically in a city. Chinese cities have boundaries more akin to US counties or metropolitan areas.2

For example, take Beijing:

City Population Area Density
Beijing 21,893,095 people 16,411 km² 1,334 people / km²
New York, NY 8,336,817 people 1,213 km² 6,872 people / km²
Greater New York 19,617,869 people 8,936 km² 2,195 people / km²
  • Population
  • Area
  • Density

Beijing more resembles Greater New Yorka conglomeration of over 70 citiesthan it does New York City. A similar pattern holds for most Chinese cities.

Westerners in Social Media

I'm very white.

A photo of me and Summer dressed up at a nice dinner. I am white. Summer is Chinese. We are both laughing and I am showing the 'sign of the horns'.

Me and Summer.

Most people in China this far north don't really see white people. After two weeks walking the busy streets of Harbin, which has an (albeit small) international airport, I identified only one other non-Chinese person.

In Daqing, two hours away by car, children in the street stopped playing to stare at me. At the only Daqing restaurant we went to, several tables stared and one struck up a conversation with me.

Summer’s family had never met an American, but they had been exposed to the worst of the tropes and stereotypes on social media, mostly about the extreme political right. They were surprised by my kindness, politeness, and sunny disposition.


It's not omnipresent, but every few dozen breaths carry a sewage smell. Chinese plumbing tends not to use traps, which are plumbing tricks that prevent smells from traveling backwards up sewer lines.

A sketch of two types of traps, which look like capital 'N' shapes where the water comes in the top-right of the 'N' and leaves the bottom-left of it, leaving the middle section always full with a buffer of water, preventing air from traveling from the bottom-left to the top-right.

Traps make pipes airtight but not watertight. (Image: Nordisk Familjebok, 1921)

Traps are all over the place in western plumbing but virtually nowhere in Chinese plumbing, and you can tell within a couple of hours of landing. Trapless systems can be retrofitted with aftermarket trap-ish attachments, but the one we tried drained prohibitively slowly so was effectively a manual plug.

I hate to say it, but you get used to the smell.


Cameras are everywhere, literally multiple on every street corner. People like them because they make them feel safe, and indeed walking around the city at night does feel surprisingly safe.

As someone raised in the US, married to someone raised in China, this is the summary on this subject we've reached over the years:

  1. People raised in the US value freedom.
  2. People raised in China value safety.
  3. People raised in the US are apalled that anyone would live in a surveillance state.
  4. People raised in China are apalled that anyone would live in a gun state.
  5. When people raised in the US go to China, their friends and family worry for them.
  6. When people raised in China go to the US, their friends and family worry for them.

Pointing this out doesn't forgive either side for its issues, or even claim the issues are equal in importance. But it's interesting to see the same emotions come from concerned Chinese people towards the US, as come from concerned Americans towards China.

Maybe both are valid, or maybe not.

Personally, I'd opt for the one without a reputation for carefully crafting its own truths. But even that reasoning is influenced by where I happened to be raised.

Would I have the same preference if I were raised elsewhere? I'd like to think so, and people who know my neutral good side would agree. But we can't possibly be sure. Identifying bias doesn't disarm it.

In Sum

The few weeks we stayed with Summer's parents in Harbin were educational for me. A few things caught me off guard, things I'd not heard talked about or even things Summer hadn't consciously realized were different after emigrating.

I hope documenting them has helped you out. If so, I'd love to hear about it on Mastodon.

Thanks to Summer for feedback on drafts of this.

  1. https://www.theexamination.org/articles/how-china-became-addicted-to-its-tobacco-monopoly
  2. Officially it is far more complexfor example, 市(shì) is traditionally the word that translates to "city" but it actually has a lot more nuancebut I'm going by the conventional knowledge as I understand it.

90 > 100

published 2023 March / last updated 2023 August

Do more things at 90% effort. If you believe you can only choose 0% or 100%, you’ll often choose 0% because you cannot afford 100%.

I became very engaged in helping with the climate emergency in the last couple of years. One big line item on the list of emitters is meat. A 100g serving of beef emits the equivalent of 15kg of CO₂ into the atmosphere, the same as driving 78km (48mi). A 100g serving of tofu emits 0.08 kg of CO₂ equivalent.1 In other words, a week of eating beef emits more CO₂e than three years of eating tofu.2

For someone wanting to reduce emissions, vegetarianism is a clear candidate. But there are some things about being vegetarian I can't do:

  1. Summer is deeply carnivorous and I don't want to put her through the effects of my choice (we did try).
  2. I don't want to be that person in the friend group people have to plan around, the person whose presence at a barbecue makes an unprepared host feel guilty.
  3. There are formats of meat I get occasional cravings for, like a burger or a ball park hot dog.

I can't be 100% vegetarian. But that's no reason to stay at 0%. I can cut meat from the ~90% of meals that don't cause any of these issues.

So I became flexitarian which for me means "vegetarian except when it would inconvenience people". If 90% of the world could become 90% vegetarian the benefit would be nearly that of 100%/100% but orders of magnitude easier to achieve.

We need to adopt this strategy more. It's similar to the 80/20 rule, but 80/20 optimizes bang-for-buck when building things. 90 > 100 is about recognizing that impact per success is a worse thing to optimize for than success rate * impact per success.

  1. CO₂ equivalent ("CO₂e") is how we describe climate change impact in a way agnostic to the method. For example cows emit methane, which impacts the climate in a far greater way than CO₂.
  2. 3x meals daily of 100g protein each

Form is Function

published 2023 March

We are not rational creatures. We have irrational fears, hates, beliefs, biases. There are entire fields of study on these irrationalities. Those fields are still discovering new ways our brains fail us.

When we pit form against function, we ignore this. We put function in the light of getting things done, and form in the light of looking pretty for... reasons?

Formdesigndoes a lot. For the sake of argument, let's boil it down to its essence: it makes products enjoyable.

Enjoyability has utility.


When I'm in a messy space, it gets in my head. I become anxious and distracted, but not enough to realize it. I don't know there's a problem to be fixed.

When I happen to fix it by tidying my space, I sit down in my chair and feel peace and productivity wash over me. In this space and headspace the creative possibilities lay themselves in front of me. The doodads are in their places, the surfaces are ready to be used. I am calm. I am concentrated, ready to take on a challenge.

This makes no sense I can gather. Maybe at some evolutionary stage it paid to have a clean space, or maybe it's a byproduct of some other evolutionary development. Today it really shouldn't matter if I have a couple of things scattered about.

But it does. We must learn "it shouldn't matter" does not mean "it doesn't matter". You don't go to the users who fell out of your funnel and explain why they're being irrational. You fix the funnel.

We need to build our own funnels around our own brains' irrationalities.

Interior Design

I took it one step further than clutter started learning to make a space itself invoke this feeling, rather than just the objects that exist inside it. This is how I started my interior design kick.

If you thought sitting down in a newly tidied space was irrationally motivating, wait until you sit down in a well designed space. Even learning the basics of color theory throws an alleged rational mind for a twist. Learn about the silly irrational rules for good vs. bad color pairings and then notice that actually, the supposed good pairings do look better.


It has never been form vs. function. Form is a category of function. It is the category focused on the subtleties we don't realize we enjoy. And enjoyment has utility.

I am more productive in a space with good form than in a space with bad form. This applies to more than just physical spaces. After twelve years on Android, switching to iPhone had that unnamed UX feeling of peace and motivation. The design handbook permeates the OS and nearly all popular apps. It's enjoyable to just use the OS.

The biggest prank here is you can't quite express why. I'm not even sure that I have on this page. People criticize Apple users for spending $MONEY on $SPEC_SHEET when they could have spent less on more, and for choosing a locked-down experience over a customizable one. Apple users suck at arguing against this because all the reasons they like Apple products are inherently nonsensical. They're inbuilt traits of us as a species, but not something allowed in rational conversation.

Let us acknowledge that our species has irrationalities and not be ashamed of them. Eating sweet desserts, seeking out sweeping landscapes, engaging in nonproductive sexthese are all irrational nonsensical behaviors fueled by evolutionary leftovers, and acknowledging they can be irrational and also real is our only way to continue the conversation around them.

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