Networking our networks

    People gathered in bar restaurant under some decorative scaffolding

    The HN Tokyo Meetup. As one Kansai person told me: “I can tell it’s a meetup for people who are into frameworks.”

    Last week I went up to Tokyo on my annual pilgrimage to meet with old friends and make new connections. I timed my trip to coincide with the monthly Hacker News Tokyo Meetup. These social events regularly see a hundred or so hackers, entrepreneurs, and tech enthusiasts of all kinds come out to drink and be merry. This month we were on the rooftop of the PARCO building in Shibuya. It was a bit windy but that rooftop is really gorgeous, offering excellent views of the city. Over the five hours I was there (including an after-party at a craft brewery around the corner) I met a ton of interesting people.

    A small sample:

    • an Elixir programmer considering a side gig as a an artisinal cheesemaker
    • a death metal singer that flew from the US to make connections and try to get a job
    • a data analyst who made a “moneyball” database for Columbia Records for discovering hidden talent (I was finally able to learn from him exactly what an “A&R” is!)

    It was a blast.

    People listening to announcements, decorative scaffolding above

    Community members gather to listen to announcements.

    Engaging with a community of your peers is fun and rewarding. You never know who you will meet or what you will learn. And who knows what opportunities it might bring in the future?

    I was a member of the HN Tokyo Slack community for 4 years before I even went to an event. In fact, I was introduced to it by a guy in the Fukuoka startup community. I am still in touch with those Fukuoka comrades… last year I was able to meet up with some at the Maker Faire in Kyoto. Nowadays I have been engaged with the the local Kansai HN and programmer community.

    During the HN Tokyo event I introduced myself as a “diplomat from HN Kansai”. Many people came up to me afterwards, interested in hearing more about Kansai. I invited everyone to stop by our community meetups if they were ever in Osaka or Kyoto. I was even able to recommend places to visit in Fukuoka!

    I enjoy going around to different communities and meeting people. As someone who has been between cultures (and locations!) for a long time, I suppose I also enjoy bridging different communities.

    Back when I lived in the Okanagan every community had their “Geek Beers”-style of tech meetup. Working with friends in the neighbouring towns such as Vernon, Kelowna, Penticton, and Kamloops, we started an event where everyone in the region would congregate in one community. It was an annual summer event with a rotating host. We called it #megageekbeers. One year we even got corporate sponsorship to cover a bus to drive people to the next community over so they could arrive and get home safely!

    I am still connected to the Kelowna and Vernon startup communities. We share job prospects, industry information, and memes 😜 through these networks across communities and now across borders.

    Networking opportunities are super valuable at a personal level, whether for professional or fun reasons. We are all taught this early. But cross-community networking is how we can build movements. “Federation” has become a keyword in online social media the past couple of years. I think there is a huge opportunity to realize this concept IRL: let’s network our networks!

    People giving announcements, decorative scaffolding above

    Community members step up to the mic to deliver announcements.

    Hagia Sophia

    The Hagia Sophia on a sunny day

    As described in my previous post, Istanbul is a city of layers. Nothing demonstrates this more than one of the gems of the city: the Hagia Sophia.

    Built on the site of an earlier Christian church erected in 336 AD by Constantius II (son of the Emperor Constantine) the current building was made in the 532 AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. For a thousand years it was the largest building in the world. Except for a short time as a Catholic church after the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century, the Hagia Sophia stood as a cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox tradition until the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453. Since then the Ayasofya has been a grand mosque until 1935 when Atatürk, in his drive to secularize the newly founded Republic of Turkey, converted it to a museum. Most recently, in a controversial move in 2020, the long-serving conservative president Erdoğan converted it back into a working mosque.

    This is the most barebones of history for structure that has been standing — and used — for more than fifteen centuries. The Ayasofya is an excellent symbol of the historical layers of the city of Istanbul, as throughout the centuries it has gained new additions, but with much of its original structure still shining through. I would like to give you just a few examples. Come with me on a short tour!

    During my stay in Istanbul I went to the Ayasofya twice since it was so amazing. Both times I approached from the “back”… once coming down from the Topkapi Palace (photos) — which holds such treasures as the Topkapi dagger, the staff of Moses, and the arm of John the Baptist — the other time when a frustrated taxi driver angered by traffic dropped us off in a sidestreet saying merely “You walk from here”.

    The Ayasofya stands across the plaza from the famous Blue Mosque, a beautiful built to purpose mosque made in the early 17th century. The Ayasofya in contrast has had so many additions as it changed civilizational hands that it looks more like something from the “lived in” universe of Star Wars.

    the red walls of the church, brick buttresses, and one brick minaret

    From the outside you can see the red walls of the original church. The massive dome (more on that later) is 32 meters across and so heavy that the church walls have been buckling so later architects installed buttressing to keep the walls standing straight. There are four minarets which were added at various times, one made of red brick, adding to the architectural pastiche.

    A series of brick  buttresses supporting the wall

    Circling around to the front you will see a line of people out into the plaza. Since the building is once again an operating mosque, five times a day tourists are shuffled out to make way for people doing their daily prayers. The line out front can get quite long as people wait during prayer times, but if you time it right you can basically walk right in. After passing some metal detectors you get a close view of the buttresses before entering the building from the side. In the outer hall you are treated to domed ceilings with golden tiled mosaics. It feels very Byzantine. Shoe lockers line the walls where you can store your footwear before entering the mosque. The marble thresholds have been worn down by the passing feet of millions of petitioners through the centuries, and look like melted butter.

    Wide angle of the interior of the Hagia Sophia

    The crowd pushes you along to enter the cavernous building. Large circular chandeliers hang from the vaulting ceiling. Looking up — and everybody is looking up — two semi-domes help to prop up the 32 meter wide main dome which at its height it 55.6 meters above the floor. There are no supporting pillars in the middle of the building, so it feels absolutely huge inside.

    Wide angle showing the center dome with two half domes on either side

    This wide angle shot from inside shows the two semi-domes on the left and right which support the main dome. Below are the pillars of the second floor, which you used to be able to go up into, but no longer. Around the center dome you can also spot the four “biblically accurate” angels who also support the dome. In the Ottoman era the faces of the seraphim were covered with stars, but one has been restored with its face.

    Everywhere you go inside people are staring up in awe and taking photos. But there are many other details to look at other than the domed ceiling. The columns were imported from all over the Mediterranean and some have special stories. People sit on the floor and rest their backs against the columns as they gaze upward. But if you look downward, to the lush green carpet you find another asymmetry of time: the lines on the carpet are at an off-angle to the rest of the building. These are the lines that parishioners line up as they pray towards Mecca, which of course the building was not designed to line up with. I mean, it was constructed more than 60 years before the founding of Islam!

    There are many, many more details but I hope this gives you a glimpse at not only of the historical significance of the Hagia Sofia, but also as a symbol of the history of Istanbul.

    To see more photos and videos of the interior and surrounding area, including the call to prayer from the perfectly symmetrical Blue Mosque, see my album on Flickr.

    Istanbul — Look around, feel history

    Shoreline of the Golden Horn at dusk. A few large classical mosques are visible.

    Istanbul, Constantinople, Nova Roma — the city at the crossroads of the world — is a city of layers. First settled 6000 years ago each new community was built on top of the previous. And being located at such a strategic point as the world’s only trans-continental city, there have been a lot of different people groups and empires with designs on the city.

    I was in town for just over ten days, mostly for work, but my old pal Chris Gunson flew up from Dubai and we toured around together for a few days. Twenty years ago Chris and I used to talk and trade book recommendations about transcontinental history, but this was the first time we could walk old streets together (a meeting in Kazakhstan was aborted in 2004 for a bad visa, which redirected me southwards to Kashgar and the Pamir Plateau. A few pics from that trip long ago.)

    This post serves as a bit of a trip report. You may want to read it while browsing the galleries of photos on Flickr, linked at the bottom of this post.

    A neon sign at a hotel bar saying: Look around, feel history

    A sign through the window.

    Istanbul has changed hands between the Greeks and Romans a number of times, before being conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. After so many years of Turkish rule, it is easy to forget that Istanbul was once part of “Magna Grecia”, Greater Greece, and even part of the Delian League. The old names of cities found in Thucydides and other classics are still there under Turkish localized names: Smyrna is now the seaside resort of İzmir; in 325 CE the First Council of Nicaea was held in the modern town of İznik; one afternoon we crossed the Bosporus in a small ferry to visit Kadıköy, an older area of the Asian side of Istanbul that used to be called Chalcedon, where the fourth ecumenical Christian council was held in 451 CE. This is in fact the area where archeological artifacts have been found dating back to 5500 BCE.

    As Constantinople, the capital of eastern Christianity and inheritor of the Roman Empire after Rome fell and the West sunk into the Dark Ages, the city suffered many attempts at conquest by various people groups such as the Goths and Persians. It was impregnable, largely due to the massive triple city wall, first built by Constantine and then added to by King Theodoseus in the 5th Century. They held for a thousand years before finally being breached in 1453, when the Ottoman conquerers used massive cannons of Hungarian design to launch cannon balls weighing 500 kilograms into the walls. This created holes for the invaders to break through, but didn’t actually destroy the walls which still stand today. Just a short walk from the 1453 Museum, which describes the conquering of the city in very cinematic fashion, you can get right up to the walls. I saw tourists crawling up and inside. Today the wall runs alongside a freeway. From working class neighbourhoods inside the walls people drive their cars through old arched gates to access the freeway. Here and there in the green space between the walls and the freeway people have planted vegetable gardens!

    Large ancient walls in the background, disappearing into the distance. In the foreground, in front of the walls, are vegetable gardens

    5th century walls of Theodoseus.

    The Ottoman period lasted until 1923 when the Republic of Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who transformed Turkish society. Driving into the city from Istanbul Airport, the busiest airport in Europe, I immediately noticed all the Turkish flags hanging from apartment windows and strung along and across the streets. This year is the 100th anniversary of the founding. Not only that, but the day after I landed was the anniversary of Atatürk’s death, on November 10th 1938 at 9:04am. Why do I know the time? Well, while we were having breakfast at the rooftop restaurant of my hotel, with an epic view of the sunrise over the Asian side of the city, all of a sudden I could hear the horns of the ships in the harbour blasting simultaneously. I thought it was some sort of earthquake warning or air-raid siren. Looking around I noticed all the hotel restaurant staff line up and stand at attention. Not knowing what was happening I stopped eating and just waited for something to indicate what was going on. After a minute of very loud silence, the staff went back to work and the harbour continued to buzz with activity. This happens every year, and I heard from one Turkish man that back in the day drivers would stop and get out of their cars to stand by open driver doors out of respect.

    A busy shopping street with people walking. Above are strings criss-crossing the street with celebratory Turkish flags hanging down

    Turkish patriotism hangs above everyone’s heads.

    Evidence of the 100 year anniversary are all over. Many shops have 100th Anniversary marketing displays in their windows. At Taksim Square, a large plaza in the heart of the tourist district, is a massive circular display blaring out patriotic messages featuring smiling families, guns, and fighter planes. There is a huge light show at the gigantic new mosque on the square, an initiative by the long-time President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Taksim Square is normally thought of as a symbol of the country’s republicanism and secularism. The new mosque, completed in 2021, is a conspicuous symbol of conservatism on Turkey’s contemporary politics.

    Erdogan’s presence is easily spotted across the city. He used to be mayor of the city, but ever since the AKP got into national power and he became president, the politics of the country have slanted more conservative. Some of Erdogan’s initiatives, what he himself has called his “crazy ideas”, are large scale construction projects such as the controversial Istanbul Airport (for whom allegedly all the building and maintenance contracts went to his relations) and his giant canal proposal. Other initiatives are more on the side of promotion of Islamic culture, like the controversial Taksim Mosque. When looking across the Bosphorus Strait from my hotel, the horizon of the Asian side of Istanbul is dominated by two structures. First is the giant Çamlıca Tower, the tallest structure in Istanbul, a telecom tower with observation deck and restaurants. To the left is the Grand Çamlıca Mosque, the largest mosque in Turkey able to hold 63,000 worshippers for prayer times. This mosque was opened in 2019 and sometimes referred to in the streets as “His Mosque”. You will note that it has 6 minarets.

    Skyline of the Asian side of Istanbul at sunrise, with a few discernible buildings

    Tower to the right, mosque to left.

    The only other mosque in Istanbul to have such a thing is the beautiful Blue Mosque, across the river to the south on the Golden Horn in the old city. This mosque was built in the early 17th Century by the master architect Sinan (who was obsessed with the Hagia Sophia, topic of a future post) at the direction of Sultan Ahmed I. At the time, the only other mosque with six minarets was the mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca. When the Blue Mosque was completed people were shocked at the audacity, thinking the Sultan too proud. To resolve the situation he sponsored a seventh minaret at Mecca.

    The area around the Blue Mosque is spectacular to walk around. But beware of the terrible Istanbul traffic in getting there! One time we had a taxi driver frustrated and yelling at everyone around us stop the car and get out, go five cars up to yell and someone, then came back to tell us “You walk from here.” In front of the Blue Mosque is a plaza that is built upon the old Hippodrome which is a few layers down. As the capital of Eastern Rome they people needed their bread and circuses! In ancient times the spina of the hippodrome, the long section down the middle which charioteers would race around, used to have many treasures brought from across the empire. Now only three remain: an obelisk brought from Egypt In 390 CE which dates to 1490 BCE; another obelisk of more murky past; and the remains of the Serpent Column which Constantine brought from Delphi in 324. I was very excited to see the Serpent Column, a bronze pillar cast by the Greeks in celebration of their victory against the invading Persians in the 5th century BCE. This thing is 2500 years old and just sitting outside! You can go and see it any time. Amazing!

    Chad taking a selfie of him pointing at the Serpent Column. In the background is an Egyptian obelisk

    Very excited to be so close to a 2500 year old artifact!

    My most favourite thing of this area is the Hagia Sophia, the cathedral originally built in the 4th C and converted to a mosque in 1453. That deserves its own post.

    In cold winds and rain I wandered from the Blue Mosque and the Ayyasofia up to the Grand Bazaar, a mostly covered shopping area with over 4000 stores. Here I badly negotiated for a box of delicious Turkish Delight and a nazar pendant. I am terrible at negotiating in these situations. Though all in all I think I did pretty well and was never taken for a real ride. Once we fell for the old shoeshiner- dropped-brush-scam, but other than that, our wallets were safe.

    The weather was bad for some of the days. The wind rocked our ferry crossing back from the Asian side, and one freezing morning when I went to the local Kathie Dunyasi (a kind of Turkish Starbucks) all the seats were taken by cats who came in from the cold!

    Other days the sky was a gorgeous blue and we could walk the steep, narrow streets around the Galata Tower, the historic district of Genoese traders. The cobblestones and European buildings reminded me of Lisbon. I have now been to the Westernmost and Easternmost edges of Europe, but never in between. Also, both Lisbon and Istanbul are Cities with Seven Hills! I am cursed! (However, I found out later that many more cities claim this honour).

    On another sunny day I was able to walk up to the Topkapi Palace, built by the Sultan and home to many treasures. The Palace is located at the tiP of the Golden Horn and affords clear views of the north part of Istanbul and the main bridge that crosses the Bosphorus to the Asian side of the city. Inside the complex we wended our way through the harem, visited the sultan’s chamber room and bath, and took in all sorts of treasures like the Topkapi Dagger, which features massive emeralds on its hilt. I first saw the Topkapi dagger in Osaka many years ago when it was on tour around the world. I was very glad to see it in its home.

    The gold filagreed curved Topkapi dagger with its three enormous emeralds on the hilt, sitting on a red cushion

    The Topkapi Dagger, in all its shiny glory.

    In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the city was ransacked by Europeans at the behest of Rome. They destroyed much, but also stole important Christian relics like the robe of Mary and probably the Shroud of Turin. There still remain some artifacts, held in Topkapi Palace. There you can see the relics like the arm of John the Baptist, the staff of Moses, David’s sword, and a whole bunch of personal belongings of the Prophet Muhammad.

    It was short, but I enjoyed walking the hills of this old city, visiting just a couple of its 3500 mosques and two of its many football stadiums. I ate well, but did not get the opportunity to enjoy a Turkish bath. Also, there are a lot of smokers, both inside and outside of restaurants, so beware! (In fact even the taxi drivers smoked like chimneys while they raced through the streets, or sat perfectly still in traffic banging on their car horns.)

    In preparation for the trip I read Thomas F. Madden‘s Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World which gave me just enough detail to appreciate the layers of history of the city. Also, check out the episode of Geography Now on Turkey which is lots of fun.

    Photo Galleries on Flickr