Friday, February 29, 2008

Don't forget to check out that sidebar

Last month I added a new feature to the sidebar, both here and on Barstool Blues, Pick of the Month, highlighting a neglected 'golden oldie' from my archives.

I left my first two picks up for a second month, but...... they still don't seem to have attracted any new viewers. Sigh.

Come on, people - this is your last chance to catch up on I-Spy and Zelig. I'll be choosing two replacement recommendations some time next week.

Do scroll down that sidebar once in a while, please; there's a lot of cool stuff on there.

Wasting time in a worthy cause

Quite a few people have recommended the FreeRice website to me over the past couple of months, and I finally got around to giving it a whirl last weekend.

It's a simple vocabulary-building game, a multiple-choice spot-the-definition deal.... but the positive karma gimmick that redeems it from being just another Internet timewaster like Penguin Baseball is that for every question you get right the organisers donate 20 grains of rice to the UN's World Food Program.

I have my gripes about the game itself. It is ridiculously hard in many ways, and I question the legitimacy of much of the vocabulary chosen (a lot of the words are quite simply not English, nor even foreign words that are commonly used in English; they are just foreign words!). The definitions provided are sometimes sneakily confusing; more often they are irritatingly vague or slightly inaccurate; on two or three occasions I think I've stumbled across one that's just flat-out wrong.

However, it's all in a good cause, right? And, actually, much of the 'unfairness' of the game tends to work in my favour. An awful lot of the 'bastard words' designed to break your winning run and determine your 'vocabulary level' score are Latin (not Latin-derived technical vocabulary, although there's an awful lot of that, too; no, just Latin!), so my degree in Classics is finally proving of some use. There's a fair amount of Greek, too. And French (you haven't got me yet, irritating-word-game bastards!). And Shakespearian English (I read the complete works in my teens - funny how it all comes back!). And Australian Aboriginal terms (I can cope with that too: I've read quite a bit about Australia, and brought back a gimmicky micro-dictionary of Aboriginal languages from a visit there in the '90s). In fact, if the word appears to be in an African or Asian language, it usually is; and there's usually only 1 such choice among the 4 offered definitions, so those tend to be a bit of a 'gimme'. And if one of the 4 suggestions is a unit of currency, that's usually the correct one (just a hint for you).

Moreover, the database appears to be fairly limited: if you play for 30 minutes or more, you're quite likely to see several of the words that stumped you first time round come up again. This might diminish the appeal of the game for frequent repeat-playing..... although I suppose some mad obsessives amongst you might be inspired to suppose that you could in time 'learn' the entire vocabulary database it uses and rack up a 'perfect' score (I'm not sure what that would be - 100??). I seem to remember that my reliable commenter The British Cowboy once adopted something like this approach to coin-operated trivia quiz machines when they first appeared in the UK, and was for a while making a tidy sum of pocket money from them.

However, despite all of these advantages, I am finding myself significantly less successful at the game than I would have wished. I've no idea how fine its discrimination is at the lower levels, but at my ceiling it seems to switch very rapidly from 'very difficult' to 'ridiculously random'. (I mean, I can often recognise that I've seen a word occasionally but don't really know its meaning; or I can infer what kind of word it is and roughly what it might mean from its morphology; or, when I discover the correct definition, I can accept that this is a word with a significant amount of usage, albeit within a very narrow field. That kind of thing happens sometimes when I crash out 'deservedly' on scores of around 49 or 50. However, most of the words that defeat me on FreeRice are words that NOBODY would ever use in a million years. That is rather vexing. It might also tend to suggest that perhaps the maximum possible score is only about 60.)

I can get into the high 40s quite easily, but it usually takes a few shrewd or lucky guesses to get above 50. My best to date is 58. I think I'm prepared to retire on that.

Let battle commence, people. I can see some of you becoming hopelessly addicted to this. Please approach the game with caution. And don't feel that you have to try to best me - I got extremely lucky with that 'high score' run.

My old drinking buddy, The Bookseller, will, I fear, play round the clock until he's beaten me. At least it's all in a good cause.....

An I-still-don't-quite-believe-it haiku

Birds twitter brightly,
Early buds start to appear:
Deceiving phantoms?

This is our third straight day of almost-Spring-like weather. There was a bird singing very excitedly outside my bedroom window this morning - that doesn't usually happen for at least another month. Can Spring really have arrived so early this year? I'm still not betting on it.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Doing The Lantern Festival right

I've often heard the complaint - from Chinese friends as well as from expats - that Beijing doesn't really know how to celebrate the Spring Festival (the Lunar New Year - China's major annual holiday, just passed for another year). It's not that Beijingers don't let off a lot of fireworks - THEY DO. But that seems to be all that they do; there's almost no public show of festivity apart from this, no kind of communal celebration.

Perhaps it's the fact that Beijing these days is so much a city of non-Beijingers: I would guess that perhaps as much as half the population leaves to return to their original hometowns over this holiday period, and the capital can often seem like something of a ghost town. Perhaps it's that a nervous government is hesitant to condone mass public gatherings (although you get some pretty enormous crowds down on Tiananmen Square for the dawn flag-raising ceremony on the major holidays). Perhaps there were large gatherings here on the Square or in some of the parks - but I've never heard of or witnessed such a thing. For Beijingers, the holiday seems to be only a private celebration, strictly within the family. Fireworks are let off in courtyards and from rooftops and balconies and out in the street - but are there any major 'public' firework displays? Perhaps some, but I wasn't aware of them. And the lanterns that are traditionally supposed to mark the end of the main phase of the celebrations, at the mid-point of the 1st lunar month - well, for some reason, Beijing doesn't seem to bother with them.

Harbin, on the other hand, was lantern-crazy: dozens and dozens of them bedecking every building, whether restaurants, malls, or government offices. And hundreds upon hundreds of the flying balloon-lanterns (the glowing red cube near the centre of the picture above is one) were being released. [These seem to be a relatively recent innovation; and yes, we have them in Beijing too, but I rather doubt there were anywhere near as many here as I saw in Harbin last Thursday.]

And the fireworks! Wow! Yes, there were the usual individual frenzies of pyromania, with every man, woman, and child blowing a small fortune on firecrackers and rockets - but there were also numerous small but more concerted displays. It seemed as though every major hotel, restaurant, or shopping mall in the downtown area had arranged a little show of its own; in the early evening, almost every sidestreet off the main drag of Zhongyang Dajie was for a while ablaze with batteries of rockets streaking into the sky. It was quite breathtaking. That just doesn't happen in Beijing.

And it was very much a public, a communal celebration. The frozen Songhua river was thronged with people. The riverbank for a mile or more either side of the central focus of the Flood Control Monument (above) was thronged with people. All the streets leading to this area were thronged with people. It was mighty hard for my travelling companions and I to fight against this human tide surging riverwards, and to find a cab to take us to the station to catch our train back to stuffy old Beijing
.... something we did with considerable regret.

It was a tremendous atmosphere that night last week in Harbin. I think I might go back there for Spring Festival next year.

Chinese people LOVE me! (16)

"Chinese people love me because...... I always pick up on the important news promptly."

Yao Ming is out of action for the rest of this NBA season after being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot a couple of days ago. Of rather more concern to the Chinese is the fact that (if his surgery is botched, or he has a slow recovery) he might not be able to play in the Olympics. Even at the best, he's likely to be out of training for at least 3-4 months, and the Olympics are now barely 5-and-a-half months away. It's not looking too good.

Now, I have absolutely no interest in basketball whatsoever - I find it one of the most tedious games on earth. But I have developed a sneaking affection for Yao, who does - to all appearances - seem to be a genuinely modest and amiable chap, one of the few really worthy role models among the ranks of today's superstar athletes.

And I feel your pain, China. As an England football fan, I have been through this sort of torture all too often - with Lineker, Gascoigne, Owen, Beckham..... and now Rooney.

[A rueful aside: It says much about the current state of the English national team that there isn't really anyone other than Rooney whose indiposition would cause us much consternation. It's hard to view the loss of Crouch or Lampard as crippling blows. And we have, of late, become rather too used to having none of our top three or four picks at centreback available. And we have no clear first-choice fullbacks or goalkeeper...... Oh, woe, woe, woe.]

I wish Yao a speedy recovery - not only because he's a decent lad, and deserves his moment in the Olympic spotlight on home turf; but also because China's millions of basketball fans will be insufferably grumpy about it for years if he doesn't make it to the Games. Come on, Yao; jia you!!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

If Winter goes.....

Can Spring be far behind?

The answer in Beijing, unfortunately, is YES.

For the past few days the temperature has been nudging above freezing by 9 in the morning. Since early December (with just a few freakish exceptions - Christmas Day was spookily mild, for example), things haven't "warmed up" that much until late morning or early afternoon, if at all. For a week or more now, the nighttime temperatures have barely been getting below freezing. And today was just gorgeous: this afternoon it got above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Tonight, it is predicted that the temperature will stay well above freezing all night.

This really felt like 'the first day of Spring'. Certainly, if the temperatures continue this balmy for a few more days, some of the trees may be fooled into readying themselves to push out buds. But, as I reported last year, this is a fairly typical - and frustrating - pattern for the Beijing weather. Things start cheering up around the middle of February; by late February or early March, it may even appear that Spring is indeed upon us. Sometimes we even get some premature buds and blossoms appearing. But always, always, always (at least in the 5 years I've been here) Spring doesn't show up for real until the last weekend in March. Until then we can expect a few days or a week of unseasonal warmth here and there, alternating with sudden savage relapses of cold weather (we've even had the odd late fall of snow in March and April).

It is one of the best times of year in Beijing: the skies can be quite stunning. But it is a problem to know how to dress.

Today in the recording booth...

"Do you think collecting pencils is an interesting hobby for a boy to have?"

The script we were taping today was really a lot better than usual - relatively free of mangled English or tortured logic. But this doozy was practically the first sentence I had to read in the session, and I was teetering on the brink of major corpsing for the rest of the afternoon.

This job is harder than you realise.

More Chinglish delights

Rats! I didn't have a camera with me today. You'll never believe this one.....

I had a couple of meetings up in Wudaokou (the University district) this morning, and happened to notice a Sex Shop called....... Vertex Me. Now that is really quite inspired.

Back from the depths

My blog-buddy Jeremiah has dropped off the radar - both in the cyberworld and on the real-life social circuit - for the last week-and-a-half. He blamed 'a major project' - which was either too secret or too tedious to discuss the details of; he would only say that it was a piece of soul-squelching drudgery.

But this morning he made a triumphant return, with two long posts on The Granite Studio (and his new collaborative blog, The China Beat). I particularly enjoyed this rather-too-funny account of Mao's appalling "100 Flowers" Campaign - do go and check it out.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chinese firework safety - I was not kidding

Strolling through Harbin's riverside Stalin Park just before dusk last Thursday, I noticed this young refuse collector (I'm not sure if he was an employee of the city authorities or just a freelance ragpicker) pawing through a heap of spent firecracker wrappings; he soon located 6 or 8 unexploded ones (I don't know what the percentages are, but it does seem that the strings come apart so violently that quite a few individual segments do escape ignition), set them down in a line, and held his cigarette lighter to the first of them - I don't think there was any kind of fuse still attached to them: he was just directly applying fire to the casing of one, and hoping that they would then set each other off in a chain reaction.

When, a couple of weeks back, I catalogued the reckless and self-destructive behaviours I have observed here in relation to the enormous annual firework splurge over the Spring Festival holiday, many of my overseas readers suspected me of exaggeration. Oh, no! Here is some photographic proof. This guy was actually very lucky that the whole row of crackers didn't go off simultaneously in his face as he was trying to light them. He managed to get the casing smouldering without causing an immediate explosion....... and then retired a distance of about 2 ft away.

Later that night, I took a long sequence of photographs of a firecracker string exploding on the sidewalk. In the lower light, the flame is clearly defined, and this proved to me that, with some of the bigger ones at least, the flash alone can have a radius of several inches - and burning debris (or unexploded or half-exploded crackers) can sometimes be ejected a distance of several feet. You really do not want to be stood within less than about 2 or 3 yards of one of these babies when they're going off.

I labelled this photo 'Flinch'. You may not be able to make it out very clearly at this size, but there is airborne debris at the limits of the frame (and beyond), some feet beyond our cringing protagonist. And these, I stress, were small firecrackers; and only a handful of them, not a full string. And honestly - some people hold on to these things while they're going off. It is a crazy country, to be sure.

Footnote: Is Harbin perhaps the only city in the world still to have a Stalin Park? Havana, maybe?? [The answer would appear to be: YES, Harbin is the only place that has a Stalin Park. Bizarrely enough, Colchester and Chatham in the UK are two of the only places in the world to still have streets named after Stalin {there are a couple in his native Georgia, one in Russia, and one in Trinidad & Tobago!! Even the one in Pyongyang was renamed 'Victory Street'.}. Thank heavens for Wikipedia!]

Late presents! A cruel and unusual blessing!

I have some lovely friends, I really do.

I was feeling very blue on Monday - run down from massive shortage of sleep over the weekend, sickening with a cold, vexed at the ongoing uncertainty of my various job 'prospects'. But when I got back from an afternoon shopping expedition, I found not one but two batches of very late 'Christmas' presents (redesignated as Chinese New Year presents, but late even for that - though never mind) waiting for me.

Books featured prominently in the offerings. The Harvster sent me Vanity Fair and Tom Jones. Excellent books, no doubt - but I realise now why I never got around to reading them when I was younger: 800 page doorstops, each of them! A daunting prospect. At the rate I read, they would probably keep me occupied for the whole year. And if I am going to take on something of that magnitude...... I think I might just have to get the long-deferred War And Peace out of the way first. And then, for a little needed light relief, I might re-read Tristram Shandy.

Mr (& Mrs) The Nags have sent me the similarly monolithic Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon (is this a conspiracy to stop me blogging?!).

However, they did take pity on me by also including in their care package a few much shorter volumes, including a witty treatise by French academic Pierre Bayard called How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read. I think I may start with that.

Monday, February 25, 2008

In search of El Dorado

I have spoken before about the seductive profusion of pirated DVDs available here in Beijing. For a diehard film nut such as myself it is just too much of a temptation to turn down.

But life is not easy. In my early days here, there was a multiplicity of DVD shops in my neighbourbood, and I would spend half an hour or so every weekend - or any other time I happened to be free - flipping through their bins, seeking out the more esoteric stuff.... trying to limit my spending..... but usually failing to come away with fewer than 20 or 30 purchases at a time.

But........ most of the time these shops would have a pretty limited selection; a high unreliability factor (I got into the time-consuming, but money-saving, habit of reviewing new purchases on the skip-to-next-chapter facility [not a 100% reliable method, but good enough] and marching back to the store the next day to replace duff ones; and I formed a policy of ditching vendors with a more than 25% failure rate...... which was the majority back then); arsey or changeable management (most guys were pretty good about exchanging defective disks, no questions asked; but sometimes there'd be a sudden change of ownership or staff and problems would arise; or sometimes a guy would suddenly start getting awkward with you about exchanges, even though you'd been his best customer for the last month; sometimes they'd just give you that whole "You didn't buy it here" shtick, or insist on playing it in the shop to verify if your complaint is justified [I once took back a copy of Titanic that was perfect in every way {leaving aside the historical inaccuracies and general script crappiness that you have to endure in a real copy, that is}..... except that they hadn't managed to download the original voicetrack and so had got foreign language students to dub for Kate and Leo etc. - this was not a 'fault' the staff in the shop were ever going to spot or have sympathy with], or...... well, just a lot of hassle.....);  you'd often have to suffer aggressive touting of porn or manga or boxed sets of mind-numbing Chinese TV dramas; and the best shops would almost invariably disappear after a few months, with no notice at all.

These bog-standard, easy-come-easy-go shops, that we'd only bother with because they were LOCAL, were a source of occasional ecstasy but more frequent vexation. However, we film-lovers have always been tormented by the thought that there would somewhere OUT THERE be a really reliable DVD shop: one that wouldn't disappear without a trace after only a few months, one that wouldn't aggressively promote the latest Hollywood blockbuster shit, one that wouldn't pretend never to have seen us before if we came back with non-functioning disks...... one that would carry some of the decent old stuff as well. It is a Grail Quest. We hear rumours all the time. 4 or 5 years ago everyone had a story about this "great DVD shop down that hutong, you know, behind that, oh what's it called....". I suspect that most of them were only ever bar talk. The ones that weren't were impossible to find, not as good as they were cracked up to be, or soon closed down.

Occasionally, just occasionally, I have found a DVD shop that seems to meet the standards; but then..... before long it falls into one of the common vices.

There was one just around the corner from me a few years ago. I fondly recall going in there for the first time, with my (not terribly cinemaphile) girlfriend, promising that I would only be a few minutes, lingering half an hour, sighing, gasping (orgasmically, I fear) as I slowly worked through the scores of bins, turning up one after another the likes of such previously unheard-of treasures as THX 1138, BladeRunner, Paths Of Glory, and Harold and Maude. Two or three visits later, the elderly laoban, having noticed my non-mainstream tastes, summoned me over to his counter with a wizened finger and produced from somewhere down below a stash of 'special customer only' titles in a large brown paper bag; the pale finger beckoned me even closer and then he croaked confidentially, in faltering English,
"You like Bergman? You like Fellini? I got a lot of good old stuff." "Well, I don't know," I replied hesitantly. "I don't usually like to do black-and-white with my girlfriend. It's kind of embarrassing, you know. You don't have La Strada, do you?"

I loved that man (although he didn't have La Strada - I'm still looking for that one). Two months later his nephew took the place over, and he was a complete arsehole. So it goes.

I probably have quite a few more posts in me on this topic. It is a passion of mine. The reason I bring it up now is that on our recent trip to Harbin my buddy The Chairman stumbled upon The Best DVD Shop In The World. No, really. We're out of town for 3 or 4 days and we spend 6 hours in this shop. Amazing selection. Great prices. Amazing selection. Friendly, knowledgeable, helpful, English-speaking owner. Amazing selection. I was seriously strapped for cash - but I couldn't resist The Red Shoes, The Hustler, The Naked Prey, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, Hell In The Pacific..... and a few others.

I think from now on I might just e-mail my film-watching requirements to this charming lady and pay the postage.

Another classical bon mot

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited."

Plutarch (46-120)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cold in your bones

After my latest excursion to Harbin (not nearly as cold as the first one 3 years ago, but plenty cold enough when exposed to the penetrating wind), I have been brooding on the effects of prolonged extreme cold, both on the physiology and the emotions. I confess, I do get rather spooked by it (there were several times in the last few days when, after incautiously snapping away with my camera for too long in the biting wind, gloveless or with inadequate gloves, my hands were in so much pain I really thought I might have given myself early-stage frostbite).

Strangely enough, there don't seem to be too many poems about frostbite - apart from the Yukon ballads of Robert Service, perhaps. This, however, is a great poem on the experience of hypothermia: one of Wilfred Owen's somewhat lesser-known First War poems, one of my favourites. There are so many wonderful lines in this: I particularly like "Dawn, massing in the east her melancholy army..."



Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us....
Wearied, we keep awake because the night is silent....
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient....
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow....
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn, massing in the east her melancholy army,
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence,
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew.
We watch them wandering up and down the wind's nonchalance,
But nothing happens.


Pale flakes with lingering stealth come feeling for our faces.
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors all closed: on us the doors are closed -
We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn,
Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit,
For God's invincible Spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born;
For love of God seems dying.

Tonight, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

More Chinglish highlights (illustrated!)

I just got back from a short holiday break in Harbin, a city in the far north of China.

In the words of Pulp Fiction's Vincent Vega, "They've got all the same shit there that we do here; it's just that it's a little different."

There are many things I love about Harbin, but its particularly inspired use of Chinglish in naming its malls and boutiques is one of the things that charms me most. This one, for example - what kind of mess has poor Russ got himself into?
Well, OK, I'm cheating a little bit on that one: the two tiles to the right of the frame say 'DS S' and 'HOP'. But you'd think - given the huge and long-standing Russian presence in the city - that they would at least be able to spell 'Russian'. Chinglish is typically characterised by mangled grammar or the inventive misuse of vocabulary rather than by faulty spelling.

You probably can't read the plaque above at this resolution, but it says Hate Deer Products Monopoly Shop. Is it the deer that they hate, do you suppose, or the monopoly on deer products? Since this shop is full of stuffed and mounted deer (and deer antlers for 'medicine'), I'm guessing it's the former. They hate them so much, they kill them all!
I briefly got quite excited about Café Jazz Wine, since we had been struggling rather to find any decent bars in central Harbin. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a men's clothing shop.

Elephants are obviously big in Harbin. Café Jazz Wine was pushing a clothing brand apparently called 'Elephas'. This mall, directly over the road from our hotel, has the charmingly oddball name of Myriad Elephant City. A myriad?? That might be just a few too many for me.

And Oudenoplover?? I have no idea where that one can have come from.

CARD DAM O (Cardomom???) THE UTILITY ROOM OF THE CREATIVITY PHOTOGRATHS. Another misspelling, no word breaks, two abstract nouns at war with each other, and an utterly unintelligible opening. Great job! At least it is a photography shop.

The great winner from these past few days of Chinglish delights, however, must surely be this signpost from Taiyangdao Leisure Park, opposite the city on the north side of the frozen Songhua River. Naive Bear Paradise. 'Native', I assume - although I am not aware that there are in fact any bears in this park. Oooh, I think I feel a possible band name coming on......

The baffling slogan 'Easy life is Infectiousness' is a very close second.

I couldn't help thinking that this advertising hoarding for a local English school had probably meant to say Hybrid English - wouldn't that have been more appropriate?

This girl seemed to haunt me throughout my time in the city. Perhaps it was just that she was 20ft tall, and in a very prominent location beside Zhaolin Park (home to the famous International Ice Sculpture Competition), just a block or so from our hotel. Perhaps it was that she was arrestingly cute. Or perhaps it was that she was uncomfortably reminiscent of the girlfriend I took on holiday there three years ago..... Yes, getting just a little nostalgic and maudlin again, I fear. Probably just the cold weather and the shortage of sleep; I'll get over it.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Train-lag haiku

Rumble and rattle,
Constant clatter denies sleep:
Overnight train journey.

And yes, I know the syllable count is off in the last line. I could blame the fact that I am so goddamned tired right now. Or I could just say that it sounds right to me.

Of course, it would be easy to fix it by changing the line to something like 'Long night's journey' - but I am obstinately attached to my first thoughts, even if they do lead me into a rare flouting of the rules.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The TV Listings (1)

My friend The Bookseller observed to me recently that, in addition to all the other guff I post, my blogs of late have become something of " a virtual TV station". Yes, indeed. Well, I'm off on a road trip for a few days (maybe longer: in China you never know for sure when or if you're going to be able to get a train ticket for the return leg of your journey), so - to keep you all amused while I'm away - I thought I'd compile this rundown of all the YouTube clips I've posted here and on the Barstool over the last 6 or 8 months. Lots of good stuff here. Enjoy.

The Comedy/Movie Channel

'Evil' speaks - David Warner as Satan in Time Bandits

Rowley Birkin, QC - a typically slurry anecdote from the celebrated Fast Show character

Drink to perform - a Powerpoint lecture on the ideal amount to drink before going on stage

Dave Allen tells a ghost story - a classic anecdote from the great Irish comedian

My name is Inigo Montoya... - the climactic sword fight from The Princess Bride

The Philosopher's Song - classic Monty Python: the slightly extended version from 'Live at the Hollywood Bowl' and the original TV rendition accompanied by a slideshow of the philosophers mentioned.

I'll show YOU the life of the mind! - John Goodman's shotgun rampage in the nightmarish climax of Barton Fink

Malkovich? Malkovich! - the scene from Being John Malkovich where Malkovich goes inside his own head

Danny Boy - a remarkably agile Albert Finney sees off would-be assassins in Miller's Crossing

Let me finish, Dmitri - Peter Sellers makes a 'difficult' phone call in Dr Strangelove

Putting on the Ritz - the Monster makes his first public appearance in Young Frankenstein

The Japanese Tradition: sushi shops
The Japanese Tradition: origami
The Japanese Tradition: how to apologise

The Music Channel

10,000 Maniacs - Natalie Merchant and David Byrne sing Let The Mystery Be, Jolene, and Dallas
Insomniac mime - sleepless YouTuber 'Spazz' does a brilliant lip-synch to the 4 Non-Blondes hit What's Up?

Common People - the superb Pulp song given an idiosyncratic rendition by William Shatner and Joe Jackson

Portishead - the lovely Beth Gibbons sings Roads (from the 1997 concert at the Roseland Ballroom, NYC)

Toyota robot - the suspiciously good trumpet-playing robot does a Disney medley (includes links to other examples of its playing too)

Thriller - 1,000 Filipino convicts re-enact Michael Jackson's famous dance video

Diana Darvey - the outrageously sexy cabaret singer (a regular co-star on The Benny Hill Show in the mid-70s) does a multilingual medley

Belly - Tanya Donnelly's great band perform Angel and Gepetto in an early '90s concert on Santa Monica Pier

Liz Phair - the original video for her outrageously catchy, very naughty hit Why Can't I?

Tom Waits - live performance of A Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis

Blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite and his daughter Layla perform his song In Your Darkest Hour

Suzanne Vega - a live performance of Gypsy

Chet Baker - a montage of photographs of the great jazz trumpeter, accompanied by him playing and singing the classic track Let's Get Lost

The Pogues - the original video for Streams Of Whiskey

Big Cheese & The Jive Rats - performing the Louis Jourdan hit What's The Use Of Getting Sober (When You're Gonna Get Drunk Again)?

The Pogues - original video for A Rainy Night In Soho

Tom Waits/Norah Jones - a fan video accompanying the original Waits version of A Long Way Home, followed by Norah doing her cover of the song live on a French TV show

Xiao He - the oddball genius, luminary of the Beijing music scene doing his inimitable thing at 13 Club

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - great video for their song Cheated Hearts

The Sport Channel

Ronnie's Rocket - the most famous goal in FA Cup history (and I was there)
His Left Foot - a corker of a goal from the 'sweet left peg' of Kevin Sheedy, a sublime midfielder who, as a teenager, played for my local side, Hereford Utd

How Chinglish is created

This is the cover of an exercise book. Decorations of this nature - both the weird pictures and the bizarrely combative slogans (if your eyes aren't quite up to it, the speech bubble emanating from the 'angry' glass of water says: "Soil bean, you want to fuck what?") - are almost obligatory on such items. It is very difficult to buy any stationery in this country that doesn't make you look like a complete twat. I generally stock up on A4 pads (completely unknown here) and Moleskin notebooks when I'm back in the UK.

I picked this example up from Brendan O'Kane's blog. Brendan is an occasional drinking companion who stopped by here last week with some contributions for the 'possible band names' game (thanks). He is a formidably bright young man and one of the best translators in the business; his Chinese language ability is quite daunting, outstripping that of most native Chinese. This work, alas, keeps him so busy that he doesn't have all that much time for a social life or for blogging. However, it is worth checking out his blog every once in a while; he may not post very often, but it's usually diverting stuff when he does. This post, explaining how hilarious mistranslations such as the one above come about, is particularly worth reading.

Another double bon mot

"I love inhibitions, because they're so nice to get rid of."

Bree Daniels (character played by Jane Fonda in the film 'Klute')

"I feel much the same way about jobs."


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Further evidence of the non-existence of god

I am starting to grow hair on the back of my feet. How unnecessary is that? I do not find this in any way a compensation or a consolation for the fact that it is no longer growing out of my scalp (not in the lustrous profusion of old, anyway).

I am starting to look like a godamned hobbit. And I really hate hobbits!

I think perhaps The Evil One (David Warner, one of the best ever screen 'devils') in Time Bandits said it best:
"Look how He spends his time. 43 species of parrot! Nipples for men! The Universe is in the hands of a lunatic."

"Do I still work here?" - more blood from a stone

I complained last year (in my now discontinued 'Where in the world am I?' series) that I was constantly irritated by the common local failing of breaking off contact without explanation rather than facing up to delivering 'bad news'.

I concede that this is not uniquely a Chinese or Asian problem, but I think it is much worse here than in the West because of the power of the 'losing face' concept. And I do worry that some of these less worthwhile aspects of the local 'culture' tend to rub off on foreigners who spend too long out here. One of the technical editing companies I had been working for (set up by a Kiwi, run out of Japan) broke off contact with me about 9 or 10 months ago. I have only just found out why. After months and months of intermittent badgering and wheedling (and probably only ultimately successful because the guys who run the Beijing office are kind of friends of mine, and I kept pestering them about it).

I vented my irritation in a comment over on OMG's blog a little while ago - but I'm going to recycle it now, because I'm lazy.

I apparently lost one of my technical editing jobs because the growl of frustration came through a little too strongly sometimes in my comments to the authors (well, one in particular).

I was very tolerant of the fact that they were non-native English speakers and thus mostly wrote gibberish, but..... when they were historians and got dates wrong, or when they were scientists and got chemical formulae wrong, or when they were economists and failed to identify timescales for GDP growth figures.... well, I guess I just got a little bit aggravated sometimes. I got particularly annoyed by people who couldn't even be consistent about whether they used initial capitals or inverted commas or even, dammit, the same spelling for a key concept in their papers - thereby doubling or trebling the amount of the editor's work and multiplying by a factor of 10 or 20 the amount of his tedium and frustration. That kind of thing is just lazy and slapdash and selfish and inconsiderate.

You should not send copy to a language polisher with a plethora of such avoidable errors. You should not send copy to a language polisher with egregious errors of detail. And if the language polisher points out your egregious errors of detail (ever so politely - because, you know, it is part of his job), you shouldn't complain and lobby to get him sacked.

Except in Asia. Where criticism is frowned upon. And mediocrity is a way of life.

I'm sorry. Do I sound bitter?

Actually, I'm not sure that I really believe that explanation. I took a look back over the paper that allegedly caused the problem, and my criticisms were really very mildly worded (although the wretched author may just have been overwhelmed by the volume of them - but if he's writing nonsense or contradicting himself or getting his dates muddled every few sentences, you have to point it out). There was nothing at which the guy could legitimately have taken offence. And it's hard to believe that a junior member of the history faculty (and a patently lousy academic) could - as is being claimed - persuade the entire University to take its business elsewhere.

I gather from other sources that there was big disruption in this editing company around then, with some sort of 'palace coup' where most of the Japanese staff abruptly left to join another company and took many of the clients with them. My problem with the whingeing historian was, I suspect, just a small part of this wider turmoil.

I mean to say, my tetchiness didn't bring the entire company to its knees, did it? Did it?? Oh, how I wish.....

Saturday, February 16, 2008

'Anonymous' commenting - a rant

Well, more of a 'policy statement', I hope.

I am repeating a comment I made the other day on my Valentine's day post, because there has been quite a bit of commenting under the tag 'anonymous' just lately - AND IT'S GOT TO STOP.

Commenters labelling themselves 'anonymous' bugs the crap out of me; I would disable the facility to do so, if I could.

Now, there are three people who have quite commonly commented on one or other of my blogs as 'anonymous' - and they are all very dear lady friends of mine, and I try to be as tolerant of their foible in this regard as I can be. But please - it's not that goddamned difficult to give yourself a distinctive tag.

You don't have to sacrifice your anonymity, you don't have to use your real name, you don't even have to use a nickname that would identify yourself to me alone (although if you're one of my friends, I can't see why you wouldn't!); but it is useful - essential - to have some label by which we can differentiate your comments from other people's. If, as has recently happened, we have more than one person commenting on the same thread as 'anonymous', it becomes impossible to work out who's saying what.

Also, of course, there is the problem that if you are going to make needling remarks or 'jokes' about me, they appear far more hostile coming from an 'anonymous' source. A certain intimacy is necessary for you to take the piss out of someone without causing offence, and you lose that intimacy if don't identify yourself in any way at all. In fact, as one of these unfortunate 'anonymous' commenters has recently experienced, you will appear to be just a random stranger having a go, and may thus risk attracting counter-invective from my other blog-buddies (the pugnacious 'Mothman' wades in to defend me, with his bloodcurdling battlecry of "I flame, so you don't have to!")...... and possibly even from me, if you get me riled enough.

So, PLEASE, pretty-please-with-fucking-sugar-on-top, all you 'anonymouses' out there, give yourself a 'name' when you comment on here.

I think from now on I am just going to automatically delete any comment labelled 'anonymous'. It's not about the content: you can say anything you damn well like to me - but you do need to give me a handle I can 'recognise' you by.

If you find yourself inadvertently posting a comment labelled 'anonymous', just cut & paste it into a new comment with a 'name' on it. This is not hard. TRY.......

List of the Month - ill-advised names for characters in a novel

This month's list is a little late (I know, I had a 'list' about suicidally stupid things Chinese people do with fireworks last week, but that wasn't The List Of The Month), but here it is at last.

Inspired by my discovery a little while back that the (otherwise really rather good) novelist David L. Robbins had written a book with a central character called Dag Nabbit, I offer you.....

10 Possible Characters for David L. Robbins' Next Novel (or yours, or mine)

1) Al Dente - mafia 'soldier', tough on the outside, soft on the inside (or should it be vice versa?)

2) Vida Loca - tempestuous Hispanic femme fatale

3) Sam Spayed - canine detective

4) Maggie O'Bey - Arab/Irish dominatrix

5) Justin Case - obsessively cautious corporate lawyer

6) Arty Wank - [short for Wankelstein, I suppose] pretentious New York Jewish writer (thanks to The British Cowboy for that one, of course)

7) Rosemary Ann Thyme - herbalist by day, folk singer by night

8) Helen Highwater - intrepid travel writer

9) Ali Bye - gangster's moll

10) Barry Cade - left-wing activist

And of course you could add any name used by Bart in his prank calls to Moe's Tavern: Amanda Huggenkiss, Mike Rotch, I.P. Freeley.

Another game you all can play......

Friday, February 15, 2008

Mao The Mischievous

My blog-buddy Jeremiah had a great post a few days ago on a story (picked up from the AFP via GoogleNews) about one of Mao's exchanges with Henry Kissinger back in 1973.

Amazing stuff! I laughed until I cried.

Kissinger is, I think, a pretty vile human being; but there's no disputing the man's mastery of tact, in even the most trying of circumstances.

The story scarcely seems credible - but it is apparently based on minutes of the meeting recently released by the US State Department.

I hope J won't mind me repeating the key excerpt here. Go over to his post to check the ongoing discussion as to whether The Great Helmsman was just having a laugh..... or had gone completely gaga. I'd like to think the former, but rather fear the latter.

Mao first suggested sending "thousands" of women but as an afterthought proposed "10 million", drawing laughter at the meeting, also attended by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.

Kissinger, who was President Richard Nixon's national security advisor at that time, told Mao that the United States had no "quotas" or "tariffs" for Chinese women, drawing more laughter.

Kissinger then tried to highlight to Mao the threat posed by the Soviet Union and other global concerns as he moved to lay the groundwork for restoring diplomatic ties a year after Nixon's historic visit to China.

But Mao dragged the talks back to the topic of Chinese women. "Let them go to your place. They will create disasters. That way you can lessen our burdens," Mao said. "Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you ten million," he said.

Kissinger noted that Mao was "improving his offer".

Mao continued, "By doing so we can let them flood your country with disaster and therefore impair your interests. In our country we have too many women, and they have a way of doing things.

"They give birth to children and our children are too many."

A romantic(?) haiku

Dazzling amber glow,
Hair backlit by winter sun:
Woman by the lake.

Honestly, moments like this quite put you off your stride when you're running.....

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Competition reminders

I am still soliciting your contributions to my 2 (or, perhaps 3) ongoing competitions. Take a little look at the sidebar there once in a while.

1) For those of you based in Beijing, I invite you to share with me the lowest taxi driver registration number you come across each month (and any amusing story you may have about that taxi ride). I am encouraging the substitution of '**' for the last two digits, to spare the drivers concerned from any unwanted 'fame' (or 'notoriety'). It only really gets interesting, I think, down below 1500**; and you're not likely to win the monthly prize except with something substantially older than 1000**. Good luck. And for those of you outside of Beijing..... you could just make stuff up. I don't like to be exclusionary.

2) Make up an amusing band name. The first month went really, really well, but now we seem to have run out of steam rather. Come on, people. This is endlessly fun. And you can find inspiration anywhere - book titles, road signs, snippets of Chinglish, even real band names (I'm unlikely to recognise them and bust you!). The main prize here is for the band name suggestion that is most amusing but also most plausible/workable for an actual band. However, there are subsidiary prizes also for a 'Best French Band Name' and 'Best Cover Band Name'. Lots for you to think on.

3) There is also a spin-off of the 'band names' competition in which I have challenged you to identify the cinematic references behind a list of 28 possible band names I posted on January 23rd. It's really not that difficult.... but I do expect you to provide a complete set of answers on this one.

For any of these competitions, you may send me an e-mail or a text message if you know who I am..... but, really, whoever you are, wouldn't it just be easier to leave a comment on the relevant post? Yes, I think you all can manage that. I look forward to hearing from you.

What are the prizes? Well, I'll decide that when I see how good the entries are.....

J'aime pas...... la Saint-Valentin!

As is well-known (at least, to people who were reading me this time last year - and here and here and here as well), I loathe and detest Valentine's Day and refuse to have any truck with it whatsoever. It is thus actually quite fortunate that I have no girlfriend at this time. It is even more fortunate that a good number of my friends are also currently single (quite a few of them attractive single women, at that) - so there is every prospect of a rather good "Don't even mention the V-word party" evolving tomorrow.

You certainly won't catch me doing anything Valentiney tomorrow. However, I might send out one or two expressions of affection a day early because, you know, if it arrives on the 12th or the 13th it's not a Valentine's Card, is it?

And, having got my obligatory annual curmudging out of the way in the opening paragraph, even I have to admit that this is a very cute picture. So, if any of you are in a happy relationship at present and are looking forward to tomorrow as an excuse to be extra lovey-dovey for 24 hours - good luck to you! These amorous elephants are my gift to you.

10,000 Maniacs

Well, actually, 10,295 maniacs...... and counting.

I suppose there must have been a slight growth in traffic of late, since - despite the inevitable lull in blog-browsing around the major holidays - we have reached this heady total barely 2 months after passing the 8,000 visitor threshold. This would seem to indicate that I am now attracting around 1,000 hits a month; hardly a stellar figure, but an advance on the 600 or 700 we were getting for most of last year.

Well, I had promised a post to commemorate this milestone.... but I can't now think of anything to say. Except - Thanks for stopping by. And, you stay classy, Froog fans.

And here's a video of 10,000 Maniacs for you. God, this makes me feel old. Is it really nearly 15 years since Natalie Merchant left them? This is Because The Night, from their swan-song appearance on 'MTV Unplugged'.

Well, what do you know - that original video selection got deleted from YouTube the very next day. Let's see if this fares any better (I think it's from the same TV concert, so if there were copyright issues with MTV, I fear it will also be at risk - enjoy it while you can). This is the band getting countrified (just for you, British Cowboy!), with David Byrne joining them for Let The Mystery Be, Jolene, and Dallas - great stuff.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More 'meme' madness

I'm not really a fan of this use of the word 'meme' (as I complained when Jeremiah tagged me for one last year), nor of the practice of tagging in general (a non-code virus is still a virus, and our Internet service in China is rickety enough as it is without being inundated with these chain-letter shenanigans), but......

Well, I was just checking out the reliably diverting 'Dave's gone China' (one of the few Sinocentric blogs I have any time for), and he's just been hit with a literary one (he sounds even less enthused about the whole process than I am, heading his post 'More Meme Drudgery') that I thought I might try out. Well, 'literary', but in a bizarrely random kind of way - perhaps really more of a cryptographer's 'meme'?? But, you see, I've just got back from a 2-hour jog, and have nothing better to do with my time while I warm down and soak my feet in hot brine for the next hour. It's either this or watch the lunchtime news on CCTV9 - what's a boy to do?

Anyway, the formula is: You're supposed to pick up the nearest book to hand, turn to page 123, and transcribe sentences 6, 7, and 8 from that page. Oh yes, and then you're supposed to tag 5 other people to do likewise - but the hell with that!

I have piles of books all around me, which gives me a perfect excuse to 'cheat' and compare the results from several different volumes.

Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone (the last book I finished - mental note: must return it to Tulsa, must return it to Tulsa):

He fell on to the ground and blood slowly leaked out of his head. We cheered in admiration of the corporal's fierceness and saluted him as he walked by. Suddenly Lansana, one of the boys, was shot in the chest and head by a rebel hiding in the bushes.

Mo Yan's The Garlic Ballads (the book I read before that):

"Stop that crying," said the guard. "And stop calling me 'miss'. Call me 'Guard' or 'Officer', like the others do."

Neil Belton's A Game With Sharpened Knives (which I tried to read a few months ago: one of the very few books I have ever abandoned unfinished):

She had closed herself off again by the time he had joined her in bed. [The next day] She told Anny that she and Ruth were going to the National Gallery, and half an hour later he heard the front door close. He went into the living room and, parting the net curtains slightly, watched the two figures in their black woollen coats, perfectly matched, turn left along the tree-shaded street and walk into the light that waited in the open space before the castle gates.

That's a pretty good example of why I gave up on it. It's certainly well-written, but with no sense of proportion or restraint: everything is described in inordinate detail, but nothing ever actually happens. Here, for example: your mistress is pissed off at you, and takes your child out for a walk without inviting you to join them. OK, we get it. Why does that take over 80 words to describe? Why do we need to know what colour coats they are wearing? And it carries on in this vein for page after page after page - really, quite excruciatingly tedious.

James Shapiro's 1599: A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare (the last non-fiction book I read):

The master carpenter Peter Street had carefully measured the exact dimensions of the Theatre's foundations after the timber structure had been dismantled. Once the location and centre-point of the Globe had been decided upon, Street took his surveyor's-line and, probably sprinking lime to indicate where the exterior wall would stand, marked off a ring with a diameter of seventy-two feet. The 'charmed circle' stopped there.

Alain de Botton's Essays In Love (the best book I have read recently):

In the typical scenario of betrayal, one partner asks the other, 'How could you have betrayed me with x when you said you loved me?' But there is no inconsistency between a betrayal and a declaration of love if time is taken into the equation. 'I love you' can only ever be taken to mean 'for now'.

Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (probably my favourite funny book, and one of my favourite books - period):

As they wrangled on about sweets and passed to chocolate bars and sticks of rock, the floor was pressing strongly from underneath. Then there was a change in the pressing, two clicks were heard, and the Sergeant started to undo the doors while explaining to MacCruiskeen his outlook on Ju-jubes and jelly-sweets and Turkish Delights.

With sloped shoulders and a face that was stiff from my dried tears, I stepped wearily out of the lift into the little stone room and waited till they had checked the clocks.

Well, that will give you some flavour of the weirdness of it, I suppose.

Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled (a witty poetry-writing primer I am currently working my way through):

For others rhyme is formulaic, commonplace and conventional: a feeble badge of predictability, symmetry and bourgeois obedience.

There are very few poets I can call to mind who only used rhyme in their work, but I cannot think of a single one, no matter how free-form and experimental, who never rhymed. Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, e e cummings, Crane, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Hughes - not an exception do I know.

And finally.... Kate Teltscher's The High Road To China (a history I just bought and intend to read next):

It would be his home throughout the winter months, until the road down to Bengal was passable once again. Like much of the palace interior, the hall glowed with colour: the walls were plastered green with bands of yellow and blue, the wooden pillars streaked red to appear fluted, and the capitals and ceiling beams 'curiously carved, gilt and ornamented with Festoons of Dragons and Flowers'. The clay floor shone like marble, polished by a young monk who 'every morning gets his Feet upon two woollen Cloths, and exercises himself for three or four hours in Skating about the room'.

An interesting selection of extracts - well representative of the overall tone and content of the books, and mostly quite a good hook for the browsing reader considering a purchase. I wonder if there's some magic about Page 123? I suppose in most cases this is going to be well over a quarter and possibly more like half-way in, so the writer should be hitting his or her stride; and, in a novel or narrative non-fiction, you can expect to be plunged into the middle of a key part of the action at this point.

Of course, it doesn't always work. Dialogue tends to make for dull quotations, and can be almost incomprehensible, certainly uninvolving, when stripped of context. I tried this game with David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (a book I read some time ago, but was thinking of using for my next review on the Book Book), but hit a piece of dialogue I didn't think was worth repeating (although, in this book, any page taken at random is not going to be representative of the whole because it's such an odd concept - not a single novel but a portmanteau of interlocked but essentially unrelated novellas, in many different genres and narrative styles). And the book I'm currently trying to finish, José Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda (a book I got bogged down in half-way through, and then managed to mislay for 18 months!), is completely resistant to this rule of excerpting: Saramago has a trademark stylistic quirk of severely rationing his use of full stops, so you rarely get more than 4 or 5 'sentences' to a page.

And yes, I have reviewed - or will review - all of these titles over on the Book Book, so please go and check that out if you are curious to learn more about any of them.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Medieval bon mot

"The first key to wisdom is, of course, assiduous and frequent questioning."

Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

I've tried to find the Latin original, but without success. It's from one of the Letters to Heloise. I took a Medieval Latin option in my last year at University, and it turned out to be much the most interesting part of my studies.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The wonder of YouTube

This is my favourite recent find, something I turned up a week or so ago when searching for rock videos. I had heard a band here in Beijing do a cover of 'What's Up?' by the 4 Non-Blondes (terrible lyrics - perhaps deliberately so? - but awesome vocals from Linda Perry: one of those horribly catchy, classic singalongs), a song I hadn't heard in years; so, I decided to go YouTubing for it.... and found this.

The band was sadly short-lived - though Linda is still rocking - so there aren't too many clips of them: there's a performance on Letterman, and the original video (which is a bit drab). This is much the best video accompaniment to the song on there - but, for some reason, it's damned hard to find (I hadn't bookmarked it, and when I returned to the site to look for it today, it took me half an hour to unearth it). This is a young American guy with the username Xspazzx. His story is that he suffers from insomnia a lot, and sometimes whiles away the sleepless pre-dawn hours by making videos of himself lip-synching to his favourite songs; I suspect he's an actor or a musician, because he's phenomenally good at it. It takes a brave man to mime to Linda Perry, but he carries it off superbly.

I am particularly pleased to have happened upon this guy because I really think he could be 'the next big thing' on the Internet. So far, he doesn't seem to have got much attention. So, please, my readers, if you enjoy this performance as much as I did (and I think you will) - TELL ALL YOUR FRIENDS. Let's try to make this guy a star!

A new torture

I am being plagued by a mysterious electronic BEEP in my apartment. Actually, it is a sequence of three beeps, repeated twice (sometimes three or four times) in quick succession. There seems to be no pattern as to how frequently it happens (typically once an hour or so, but sometimes as often as every 10 or 15 minutes) or at what time of day. It is quite baffling.

And the most infuriating thing about it is that I can't tell where it is coming from. It seems to be disembodied. It seems to be everywhere in the apartment. Everywhere and nowhere.

And - well, this may just be my vexation expanding into paranoia - but it seems to be getting gradually LOUDER.

I am not aware of having been woken up by it at night as yet, although it has on a number of occasions prevented me from getting back to sleep as I would have wished when I woke very early. And I am now feeling extremely rundown and overtired, which is, I suspect, evidence that it has been interfering with my sleep cycles over the past few days (perhaps without quite waking me up, or, at any rate, without my remembering it).

It is driving me up the wall.

I am loath to summon my landlord to investigate and rectify the problem in the middle of the holiday period..... so, I may have no choice but to switch off my electricity overnight in order to try to ensure an uninterrupted night's sleep. Gggrrrrrrr.......

A rat by any other name....

An American friend of mine (one of the handful of foreigners I know who can speak really good Chinese - plenty have a respectable functional level, but high-level competence is extremely rare) is insisting on wishing people a "Happy Year of the Mouse" during this Chinese New Year holiday - because, as he fairly points out, there are just so many negative connotations attaching to the poor old rat that, to the Western way of thinking, talking about the 'Year of the Rat' just doesn't sound like a cause for celebration. I fear he's fighting a losing battle on that one.

He informs me that the Chinese word shu is used for both 'mouse' and 'rat'. I hadn't previously known that, but it doesn't come as any surprise. My Chinese dictionary doesn't have a word for 'gerbil' at all; and while it does suggest a variation of shu for 'hamster' (cang shu) in the English-Chinese section, the word does not appear in the Chinese-English section. Shu can apparently mean any kind of rodent; but it most commonly represents the rat. I recall joking a few years ago, on a visit to the Beijing Zoo, that the Chinese for 'giraffe' would "probably be something like 'long neck mule'" - then discovering that this was correct (chang jing lu). And I have already mentioned, in a comment a while back, that I found it depressing to learn that in the Chinese translation of the 'Winnie The Pooh' books Tigger becomes simply lao hu, 'Tiger'.

The extreme lexical poverty of Chinese is one of the things that limits the attraction of the language for me and diminishes my desire to try to learn it. The nature of the writing system makes new word formation extremely difficult and borrowings from other languages nearly impossible. In English - in most other languages - it's possible to simply invent novel words and have them readily understood through their context, their sound, their spelling, or their structural similarity to existing words. This happens to some extent in colloquial Chinese, but very, very rarely are these innovations formalised into the written language by the creation of new characters. For the most part, the Chinese are pretty much limited to using existing words in new ways, or forging new two- and three-character combinations to make distinctive words.

My main language is Latin, which also has a fairly tiny vocabulary (though it could borrow freely from other languages, mainly Greek; and it did make a lot of use of prefixes to create compound variations on its core vocabulary). However, this comparative lexical poverty seemed to impose a discipline that actually stimulated the literary potential of the language. I would like to think that Chinese could be similarly compact and allusive, but I rarely get much sense that contemporary Chinese achieves that (either in literature or everyday speech). Latin's intricate grammar was probably an advantage in this: the fact that it's an inflected language (i.e., the grammatical function of a noun or adjective - and the number, person, and tense of a verb - is indicated by changes in the word-ending) gives you tremendous freedom to play with the word order for variety and shades of emphasis, while ensuring that the sentence structure and meaning are almost always crystal clear and unambiguous. Chinese grammar is so rudimentary (no articles, no tenses, no gender pronouns [at least in the spoken language], few modals, many words serving interchangeably as noun, adjective, or verb) that it has to rely very heavily on set patterns and stock expressions to establish meaning and context: it is, to the Western sensibility, stiff, clunky, and laboriously clichéd - and still, much of the time, horribly ambiguous (or, at any rate, unspecific).

I do sometimes worry about how these limitations of the language may limit the thought processes and the imagination of Chinese speakers. The Chinese seem to be very poor at thinking in categories, drawing distinctions between things; and their philosophical tradition is notoriously weak on formal logic. One of the most glaring - though often hilarious - consequences of this paucity of vocabulary is that there is frequently no distinction between technical and vernacular terms. The most egregious example of the (for a Westerner, highly 'inappropriate') use of a colloquial, crude word in an incongruously formal context is featured in this picture below (I am assured this is not a one-off aberration, but quite a common bilingual sign in China's hospitals).