Tuesday, September 30, 2008


They hung out the red lanterns and the fairy lights along the far end of my compound this weekend. It is rather sweet. It resurrects deep-buried memories of childhood Christmases....

Monday, September 29, 2008

Thunderbirds are GO!

I really enjoyed watching the pictures of last week's Shenzhou 7 space mission. It brought a lot of childhood memories flooding back. I was obsessed with "the space programme" as a kid (my much older brother had some great books from the early days, all the Mercury and Gemini and early Apollo missions of the '60s, which I read and re-read umpteen times); I was an avid viewer of the last Moon missions, Skylab, and the development of the Space Shuttle; I committed to memory practically all the facts and figures in The Observer's Book of Space Flight; and, of course, I read a huge amount of science fiction.

This was China's third manned spaceflight - and the first on which they actually felt confident enough to show the launch live on television (at 9.10pm Beijing Time last Thursday).

Ahem. There was something not completely convincing about these pictures. The shots of the rocket in flight all looked like generic library footage from previous launches. And the shots of it on the launchpad (especially that brief shot of the base of the rocket, in the last few seconds before they fired up the engines) look suspiciously like a model.

Oh, I know, it's probably just a trick of perspective, an unfortunate combination of the harsh, flat lighting and the sheer monumentality of the structures that makes them look lacking in fine detail and gleamingly plasticky. But it seems to me that those Saturn V blast-offs back in the '60s and '70s always looked much more impressive, much more real. Maybe they just knew how to light the launch tower better for good TV pictures. Maybe they were savvy enough to intercut with a lot of close-up footage, where the violence and enormity of the rocket engines could not be in doubt. Or maybe it's just my memory playing tricks on me.

I don't for a moment suggest that there was any problem with Thursday's launch (much less that the whole mission was a fake!). But it does seem rather too plausible in a country like this that they wouldn't actually take the risk of showing a live launch on nationwide (and worldwide) TV, and would prepare suitable footage in advance.

This is what happens when you fake your fireworks display for the Olympic Opening Ceremony - nobody completely trusts anything your TV stations broadcast ever again.

An early sign?

I have been reflecting on when I had my first intimations that this year's Olympics were going to be a huge damp squib, a 'security'-heavy non-event, a foreigner-free zone.

A lot of laowai of my acquaintance seem enamoured of the theory that it was essentially a response to overseas criticism of the Tibet crackdown and the subsequent protests during the Olympic Torch Relay. I daresay that hardened government attitudes even further, but most of the 'security' measures and related visa regulations had been formulated and put into place before this April. Many of them had been at least hinted at more than a year ago.

I might have had my own private suspicions that this was how the government here was going to play it for the last 18 months or more; but these misgivings were dramatically confirmed for me early last summer. The lease on my apartment was up at the end of July. Beijing was rife with rumours of avaricious landlords already starting to bump up rents (and/or trying to get rid of their troublesome laowai tenants altogether), in anticipation of a possible Olympic bonanza the following summer. I feared I would be in an impossibly vulnerable position if I only renewed my lease for a single year, and had it expiring right on the eve of the Games. I therefore called my landlord up last June, and proposed a two-year extension of my lease - at the same rent.

Now, I would never let my landlord know this (and I hope it doesn't get back to him!), but - despite its crummy amenities - my apartment is an absolute bargain, given its huge size and enviable location (I'd probably pay at least three times as much for something similar in a laowai-targeted development). I had therefore expected something of a battle. Not a bit of it. The landlord was almost indecently eager to sign the proposed new lease.

"Hmm," I thought. "This is a pretty savvy guy. And he clearly doesn't think there is going to be any market at all for private letting to Olympic tourists next year. And possibly he's fearful of a huge crash in the rental market immediately after the Olympics."

I was rather discomfited by the discovery that my landlord could be so Cheshire-Cat pleased with the arrangement, and began to suspect that it was perhaps a poor deal for me. However, we haven't seen any significant dip in rental prices yet (rather the reverse, in fact - they are still on the up..... in complete defiance of the laws of supply & demand); and I'm quite happy that this is still a very low rent for the amount of space I've got. And it was worth burning a bit of money for the sake of some peace of mind, a reduction of sudden-eviction anxiety this summer (though not quite the elimination of it; if Chinese landlords want you out, there are all sorts of ways that they can achieve this!).

But that, I think, was when I first really knew how sluggish Olympic tourism was going to be this year. More than a year before the Games, the city's sharper landlords had all given up on there being any hope of lucrative holiday lets this August.

Bon mot for the week

"I don't mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy."

Samuel Butler (1835-1902)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Unffhh!" Jesus takes a hit!

"Go, Timmy, go! Take that sandal-wearing hippie out of the game!!"

Yep, it looks to me as if JC is receiving the ball here rather than handing it off..... and that means he's in a whole lot of trouble. Well, in American Football, he's probably in a whole lot of trouble either way. That kid's going to pick him up and slam him into the ground. Yay!

This, I think, is my very favourite piece from the unbelievable kitschfest that is www.catholicshopper.com. I mentioned this over on the Barstool the other day. Also worth checking out is this piece by Libby Purves in The Times about a 'Top 20' of tasteless religious souvenirs. The Saint Sebastian pin-cushion has to be my favourite. Although the "thongs of praise" (ladies' briefs with pictures of saints on the front of them) are a close second.

The wild Wall

The "country cottage" I stayed in last weekend (my friend DD favours the term "hovel", which is not entirely fair: it's a pretty big place, and the structure is sound enough, but.... the amenities are, well, basic) is but a short walk from this magnificent stretch of The Great Wall, rugged and unreconstructed.

Lots of great hiking in the hills round there. I hope to go back there often.

Another Sunday poem

It's been a while since we had any Graves on here. Well, at least a couple of months!

Counting the beats

You, love, and I
(He whispers) you and I,
And if no more than you and I,
What care you or I?
Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie,
Cloudless day,
Night and a cloudless day;
Yet the huge storm will break on their heads one day
From a bitter sky.
Where shall we be
(She whispers) where shall we be,
When death strikes home,
O where then shall we be
Who were you and I?
Not there but here,
(He whispers) only here,
As we are, here, together, now and here,
Always you and I.
Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.

Robert Graves (1895-1985)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The charm of the countryside

A picture from my very welcome getaway in the mountains out in Huairou County last weekend.


A confession: I don't actually like the two centrepiece arenas of Beijing's Olympics very much.

I like the concept of the Bird's Nest more than its execution. That intricate lattice design is pretty striking at a distance, but when you get up close, it starts looking kind of crappy.

Are those really solid steel girders? Perhaps my problem stems partly from an inability to comprehend or accept the massiveness of the construction: it doesn't seem plausible that that lattice can be made of solid steel, or that it can be in any significant way load-bearing rather than simply decorative. Perhaps it is - but it doesn't look like it! Couldn't they have chosen a finish that looked more robust, more metallic? These girders are a drab, pale grey colour, with a matt texture that looks oddly plasticky - just not impressive at all. It almost looks as if it is made out of Lego.

Well, except that it appears to be rusting already. I noticed quite a number of worrying reddish-brown streaks on the grey paint. Well, we did have a lot of rain over the past few months......

And as for the Water Cube..... well, it looks pretty at night when they have all those different coloured lights playing across it. But by day..... well, it's a very, very dull shape, not to say ugly. And, er, it looks as if it's made of plastic bags. Which it is. An ingenious construction technique, perhaps, but hardly beautiful. Up close you can enjoy some interesting details of the varied shapes and contours of the bubble-surface (as in this shot below; though, unfortunately, the light wasn't very good when I was there taking photographs); but from a distance, it looks like nothing very special at all. (And my arch-curmudgeon friend Big Frank objects noisily that it isn't even a cube. He made this point so often last week while he was staying with me that I began to wish the structure might suddenly rise hundreds of feet out of the ground on hydraulic jacks and reveal itself to be truly cubic after all, but..... alas, this never came to pass. Actually, I'm not even sure that the horizontal cross-section is a perfect square; isn't it a bit longer than it is wide??)

Not that I'm competitive or anything....

But..... my lovely friend and recording partner DD has decided to enter the 10km race in the upcoming Beijing marathon.

I gather she used to do a bit of running in her younger days (and she's still rather younger than me, darn it!). And she's in very good shape: she's a working mum, she cycles prodigious distances all over town, she does some kind of extreme yoga thing.

And now she tells me that, on only her 3rd or 4th effort around the circuit of Houhai and Qianhai lakes that I usually run, she managed a time of 28 minutes.

28 minutes??!! Damn, that's fast. At least, it is for me, these days.

Yesterday, of course, I felt compelled to try to better that time. And I didn't quite manage it - even though it felt like I was running myself into the ground!!

Well, I had had rather too big a lunch. And I am still plagued with this dratted throat infection. And I haven't been able to keep up much of a running habit all year. But even so, damn, that's frustrating.

If the dear girl tells me next week she's run it in 27'30", I'm going to be killing myself in the search for more speed! Oh dear.

And another thing.....

..... that bugs me about Chinese behaviour on the roads:

Cyclists will always cut corners.


And, of course, without any attempt to slow down, or to watch out for people or vehicles emerging from the side roads they are about to enter.

Even though this means nearly hitting the wall or the kerb on the inside of the corner (quite often, actually hitting the wall or kerb!).

Even though this means running over irregular road surface, potholes, recently refilled trenches, blocked drain puddles, etc. at the near side of the corner.

Even though this means cutting dangerously in front of people who are trying to cross the junction and have almost reached the sidewalk they are skirting so close to. (Actually, this is kind of a separate - but equally irritating - phenomenon: Chinese cyclists always try to pass in front of pedestrians crossing the road. Always. Never behind. No matter what the road conditions. No matter how much space there is to pass safely behind you. No matter how close you are to the far kerb. They always try to whizz in front of you, to force you to stop in your tracks, to run over your toes.)

Even though this means maximising their chances of colliding head-on with a person or a vehicle coming out of the blind-spot just around the corner.

This happened to me while I was out jogging yesterday. A woman approaching me on a bicycle suddenly veered into the side entrance that I was just finishing crossing. I was keeping right to the edge of the road, so as to try to keep out of her way. I had actually just passed the entrance she was heading for. I was running on a bumpy patch of earth where a small roadworking ditch had just been filled in. And the bloody woman decided to cut the corner so sharply that she ran into me anyway. Even though this meant that she was wobbling around over the bumps of the filled-in ditch. Even though this meant she would probably have clipped the near edge of the wall (if she hadn't had me to use as a cushion). Even though this meant that she couldn't possibly see anyone or anything that might be about to come out of this entrance. Just utterly, completely bloody CRAZY.

And I'm pretty sure she saw me - but didn't respond at all. A lot of Chinese road-users, and bicyclists in particular, seem to completely ignore everyone else on the roads and just assume that it is other people's duty to somehow avoid them (a duty that they are mysteriously trusted to perform, even though they are all behaving in exactly the same way).

I'm sorry to say that, for once, I completely lost it: I just screamed blue murder at the stupid woman for 20 or 30 seconds. She could have broken my bloody leg, for chrissakes. She could have got herself killed. She probably will do if she carries on riding like that.

Half an hour later, I almost got hit by someone else, in very similar circumstances.

It is one of the great disincentives to jogging outdoors in this country, and especially in this city. Oiveh.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Red sky at night

This was the view out of my kitchen window at about 6.30pm yesterday.

We don't get many great sunsets in Beijing - but that makes the ones we do get all the more cherishable. And we have had some really fantastic clear skies here the last few days. It's almost enough to cheer me up........

The weekly haiku

Always the damn cough;
Day and night, for weeks on end;
Always the damn cough.

Nope, my state of health is not good. I'm actually starting to get rather worried about it. And, in general, I pay no attention to health problems unless they seem potentially life-threatening. I've had a persistent cough, wretched sore throat, intermittent fever, and hugely swollen neck glands for, oh, getting on for two months now. I took a course of antiobiotics last week, which seemed to ameliorate the problem slightly, but hasn't put an end to it. Bottom line: I don't trust Chinese hospitals to be medically competent; I don't trust foreign hospitals not to be commercially ruthless. In fact, I think I probably have a pretty fair chance in either kind of hospital of being both misdiagnosed and egregiously ripped off. And I just don't have the spare cash to run that gauntlet. (Health insurance?? Hollow laughter, breaking down into sobs.) I think my only recourse may be to head back to the UK and try to get a free examination on the NHS. I'd been planning to visit home in December anyway..... so, I guess I'll try to hang on until then..... and hope for a spontaneous resolution in the meantime.

Hawk. Spit. Death-rattle.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fingerlickin' good!

Here's an engaging little oddity (something that I rather suspect my buddy Tolstoy, that indefatigable beachcomber of Internet eccentrica, will lift from me for his delightful Webside Gleanings blog):
'Redneck Art' - a rather good finger-painting of a deer made on the table of a diner.....entirely with, er.... barbecue sauce.

I stumbled upon this, by the way, thanks to a link about the oddball Texas delicacy of "chicken-fried bacon" that was left for me here by my pal Brendan the Translator.

Keeping my seethe to myself

Yet another reason why I don't learn Chinese.....

The other day I had to pay a visit to my local branch of the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China to pay my monthly phone bill.

Trying to accomplish anything in a Chinese bank can be an exhausting gumption test, particularly in a small neighbourhood branch where no-one speaks any English. But my little branch has been getting a lot better over the past year or so. They've taken on quite a few new staff - mostly girls - who do seem friendly and helpful, and even fairly brisk and efficient. And just lately, they have appointed a middle-aged lady as a supervisor (and she does speak a little bit of English), and she seems to have got all the service points working much more efficiently.

Well, all but one. Dumb-as-a-Post is still there. He's a surly young man of about thirty, and, I think, the only member of staff who's been there ever since I moved here about 4 years ago. He is just unbelievably sour, slow-moving, obtuse, and obstructive - a real old school China service professional!

I hadn't seen him in there for a while, and was hoping he might have left. But yesterday, he was back - and his was the only window that was free. I was so dreading the encounter that I considered joining one of the other lines (none of them had more than one or two people in them, but some transactions in Chinese banks can take a very long time indeed). Instead, I decided to face up to my nemesis.

I think he must have smelled my fear. I passed him a scrap of paper with my number on it and told him I wanted to pay my telephone fee. This is what I always do. For the past 18 months or so, nobody has given me any shit about this. One of the nice young girls has keyed the number into the computer, printed off my bill, taken my money and given me my change with a minimum of fuss - and even, of late, with a breezy smile. Dumb-as-a-Post is looking at me with a mixture of contempt and incomprehension. He decides - as he usually does - that I really ought to fill out a 'request slip' detailing the nature of my transaction, in full, in Chinese. Lately, the other staff seem to have been quite happy to dispense with this otiose piece of paper entirely. If they do feel that it is somehow a 'necessary procedure', they will be quite happy to fill out the chit for me, using the information from the bill printout - it only takes 15 seconds. It should be pretty obvious to anyone, I would have thought, that, since I can hardly speak two words of Chinese, it is highly unlikely that I can read or write even one word. But Dumb-as-a-Post doesn't get this concept; he keeps waving the shitty little form in my face. And, unfortunately, the angelic supervisor lady is not around just at the moment.

I don't think it's just me. I think there's a reason why there's never much of a line at Dumb-as-a-Post's window. The other clerks were all looking at him as if he were a complete dickhead. So were some of the other customers. Soon, one of them came to my aid and filled out the form for me.

I mentioned this incident to a laowai friend that evening, and he said, "Don't you think you'd be able to deal better with situations like this if you spoke a bit more Chinese?"

"No," I replied quite emphatically. "First of all, if I'd shown any sign of being able to cope with things myself, that nice chap in the next line wouldn't have come over to help me. And second, I probably would have just called the clerk a dickhead in a language he could understand, and that probably wouldn't have helped."

We all suffer these vexing incidents from time to time. We all go through spells when we are particularly vulnerable to them, particularly low on patience and forebearance. We all - no matter how saintly and pacific our temperaments (and mine's not very) - experience the occasional bout of 'China rage'. And when this happens, and you get tempted to vent a bit, it's really much better to do it in an incomprehensible foreign language (although best to avoid the F-word, since almost everyone understands that these days!). Succumbing to the urge to swear at people in Chinese would be a very, very bad thing. And some of my foreign friends who speak good Chinese get themselves into bother because of this occasionally. I'd rather not expose myself to that risk, thank you. Ignorance of Chinese can be a kind of protective insulation. (Also, of course, you don't really know when they're insulting you..... except that you can usually deduce it from body language and so on; and I do in fact know most of the choicer swear words. Nevertheless, on balance, I maintain that not being able to swear at people in their own language does help to avoid unpleasantness sometimes.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Back to 'normal'

Barely a week on from the end of the Paralympics, and that whole 'One world, one dream' thing is but a distant memory.

There are log-jams on all the main roads again. In fact, things were getting pretty bad even while the Paralympics were still on. As I suspected from the outset, the lessening of traffic congestion in the city probably had a lot more to do with a lot of government cars being taken off the roads, and with the fact that a lot of people quit town during August (or were prepared to be public-spirited and keep their cars off the road for a while, just while the main Olympic events were on), rather than the odd/even license plate system that tried to limit car owners to using their vehicles on alternate days (a scheme that was discontinued last weekend).

The air quality has taken a nosedive. (Despite a 5-day course of antiobiotics, my stubborn cough/sore throat/bronchitis thing is entering its third month with a worryingly renewed vigour.)

People are once more aggressively piling into buses, subway trains and lifts the second the doors open, without letting people off first.

Ah yes, the Beijing we know and...... love?

At least there's one good thing to report - we're starting to see the reappearance of a few of the sidewalk snack stalls that were banned during the Olympics. Hoorah!

Monday, September 22, 2008

No Country For Old Men

I watched No Country For Old Men when I got back from my country weekend yesterday evening, being too exhausted to consider going out and doing anything else, particularly in the middle of a torrential rainstorm that was making it next-to-impossible to get cabs (and also, perhaps, because the title seemed to be another pointedly appropriate reminder to self: maybe it's time to get out of China?). I am afraid I now rank amongst the sceptics about this film (the IMDB reviewers do seem to be particularly sharply divided on it!).

I was probably predisposed towards scepticism even before I saw it. There had been too much hype. Everybody had been telling me how good it was. A couple of people had even told me that it was an improvement on Cormac McCarthy's source novel (I haven't read it, but am curious enough to seek it out now; I think he's a very fine writer) - something I was particularly suspicious of, since few films, even extremely good ones, come anywhere near to improving on their sources. I don't feel that the Coens are at their best with adapted material; they excel in creating completely original stories, particularly in blackly comic modes (I am less a fan of their pure comedies like Raising Arizona or The Hudsucker Proxy or The Big Lebowski, and prefer their darker, semi-serious works like The Man Who Wasn't There and Miller's Crossing). And, of course, 9 times out of 10, the Oscar winners are ridiculously overrated (one of my earliest film review posts last year was devoted to slagging off The Departed, which I found to be a very pedestrian - and wildly implausible! - retread of a much more entertaining Hong Kong original). So, I was sitting down to watch with some trepidation, a suspicion of likely disappointment.

It's going to be difficult to explain what I don't like about this film without throwing in a few SPOILERS, so be warned.

Although there are a few shafts of humour in the dialogue, this film is essentially a straight thriller - lacking the quirky black comedy of Fargo or The Man Who Wasn't There, or even of the Coens' brilliant debut Blood Simple (probably the most completely 'serious' of their previous films). It's the tale of a poor Texan trailer park dweller, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who, while out hunting in the West Texas desert near the Mexican border one day, stumbles upon a crime scene - a drug deal gone wrong: two rival gangs of Mexicans have annihilated each other in a shootout, leaving behind a huge stash of drugs and a briefcase full of money. Not unnaturally, Moss takes the money, some $2 million, home with him. However, he later unwisely returns to the scene, when the leaders of one of the gangs have also shown up to check out the situation: he only narrowly escapes with his life, and the criminals now have a lead on who he is. They dispatch the mysterious hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to track him down and recover the money. Later - perhaps becoming uncomfortable with Chigurh's methods or his loyalty; it's not clearly explained - they dispatch another bounty hunter, a Colonel Wells (Woody Harrelson), to find and eliminate Chigurh. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a shrewd third-generation West Texas lawman, finds himself investigating a succession of crimes which puts him on the trail of all three of them.

It's all very well done: beautifully photographed and edited, and superbly acted all round. There are a number of genuinely tense scenes, and some great dialogue. But there are also a number of troubling implausibilities and lacunae in the plotting. Professional criminals just wouldn't ever hire such a loose cannon as Chigurh - who is a psychopathic serial killer, and thus attracts far too much attention to himself - no matter how formidable his resourcefulness and implacability are. Sheriff Bell gives the impression of being an extremely astute lawman, and yet he fails to come close to locating any of the people he's hunting; he does meet with Moss's wife (the Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald, best known from Trainspotting, doing an amazingly convincing Texas accent), but inexplicably fails to offer her protection. Wells the bounty hunter appears to be confident that he can outsmart Chigurh, but is in fact easily ambushed and eliminated by him almost immediately (rendering his inclusion in the story in the first place fairly pointless). Chigurh, on the other hand, although he seems to be a very savvy manhunter, has apparently failed to find Moss on the run in Mexico, although it had taken Wells only "about three hours" to do so (presumably by ringing around the hospitals and asking about an American who'd been admitted with gunshot wounds). Chigurh also chooses to kill Wells, although he is perhaps now the only person who can lead him to the money. None of this makes any sense.

More disappointing than these unlikelihoods in the plot, though, is the eccentric narrative structure: the story is told in three almost entirely separate strands. Although the character of Wells is quickly rendered irrelevant, his confrontation with Chigurh is actually one of the most interesting scenes in the film, because it is the only time when two of the main characters meet. Chigurh and Moss have a shootout, and later speak briefly on the phone; but the Chigurh/Wells scene is the only occasion when two of the principals speak face to face. It is bizarre. And very unsatisfying.

Furthermore, the story isn't really told at all: significant chunks of back-story are omitted, and all sorts of loose ends are left hanging. Chigurh tracks down Moss's wife, but we're not shown if he kills her or not. We don't know if he's already killed Moss in Mexico. We don't know why, if Moss is still alive, he didn't do anything to protect his wife. We don't know if he may yet make good on his threat to track down and kill Chigurh for threatening his wife. We don't know if he, or anyone, has recovered the money. We don't know if Chigurh is going to survive the injuries he receives in a random car accident near the end of the film. The final scene shows Bell now settling into retirement: he reflects on his career in law enforcement, but never mentions the outcome of the events we've been watching.

Yes, I know, real life isn't like the movies: stories are messier, often incomplete; crimes often go unsolved, unpunished; sometimes the bad guys win; sometimes the final outcome remains forever unknown. Pretentious Coen brothers fans will try to praise this fragmentary, incomplete narrative as a bold and brilliant experiment, a thought-provoking challenge to conventional expectations. It isn't. It's just an irritating mess.

I suspect that McCarthy's original preoccupations have been unbalanced, or completely lost, in this cinematic representation. The disillusionment of the aging lawman, Bell, with a rising tide of brutal and often random violence in modern society, and his vague meditations on what may have changed since "the old days", seems likely to have been the main focus of the book; but in the cinema, it becomes bafflingly irrelevant, since Bell never meets any of the other characters, and never actually does anything about the unfolding events. In this film, the demonic killer, Chigurh, becomes the centre of the story - playing to our prurient fascination with extreme violence. In his superhuman resilience and his enigmatic lack of character or motivation he is reminiscent of that other great screen monster, Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs. (An aside: Anthony Hopkins was nominated for Best Actor in that film, despite it being a fairly tiny role with only, what, 10 minutes of screen time. Here, Javier Bardem was repeatedly nominated for Best Supporting Actor awards, although he is quite clearly the most important of the three leads. Oh, the strange politics of the awards circus! I admit, though, that Bardem is very, very good, utterly chilling in the role.)

It is a diverting enough little thriller, raised above the average by some superb performances - but fatally let down by its lack of an ending.

I suppose this would be a good time to remind people of my long-running Which is your favourite Coen brothers film? thread. Would anyone nominate No Country For Old Men for this accolade??

A post-Olympic Daily Llama

We haven't had one for a while, so.......

Doesn't this one look like Jah-Jah Binks??

Bon mot for the week

"The heart that is soonest awake to the flowers is always the first to be touched by the thorns."

Thomas More (1478-1535)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Taking a break

I have a rare chance this weekend to escape the city's hubbub and spend a couple of days in the country. This may be the restorative to the spirits that I so badly need. I just hope the weather improves by tomorrow. And that my flaky health bears up.

So, no blogging for a few days. Sorry.

A missed opportunity: The Cornetto Torch

It occurred to me a few weeks ago that the distinctive shape and decoration of this year's Lenovo-designed Olympic torch really would have made a superb novelty Cornetto...... perhaps with a huge, swirly peak of strawberry & mango syrup encrusted cream on top to represent the flame.

Maybe the London organizing committee can take this idea forward?

Alas, I fear, it is probably the least lucrative (for me) of any of my 'great business ideas' - what are the chances of my being able to co-ordinate the development of the ice cream with obtaining the necessary licensing from the torch designers and the IOC, and still being able to keep a piece of the 'idea' to earn something for myself?? Just about zero, I think.

But I did work with the guys at Wall's here a few years ago. Possible guanxi? Maybe I should make a few calls.....

Haiku for the week

Patience exhausted.
Sickness chafes the nerves, lowers
The flashpoint of rage.

No, I'm not having a good week - altogether the wrong week to be trying to put up with a visitor sharing my apartment. Particularly when that visitor is the most annoying person in the world. I am trying to avoid him as much as possible.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The police & the law

A friend of mine lost his passport recently.

He thinks it must have been when he went to watch some Olympic athletics at the Bird's Nest a few weeks back, and thought he might need ID to get in.

In fact, there were no ID checks at all at any of the stadiums (not even for holders of Olympic passes that gave access to restricted areas?? I did hear of some people swapping theirs around for a day, or lending them to friends.....). However, it is a long-standing 'law' here that everyone must carry ID at all times - and for us foreigners, that means our passports. No-one has ever paid a blind bit of notice to this in the past, but this 'law' was being heavily emphasised in the run-up to the Olympics, and, since the early summer, there have been numerous stories of people being randomly stopped and challenged to produce their ID, and threatened with spot fines of some hundreds of RMB if they were caught without (and this was usually being done not by policemen but by officious neighbourhood volunteers, whose authority to do this was highly questionable).

My friend had to go and report the loss at a police station, before he could make his application for a new passport at the British Consulate.

When the officer processing the complaint heard that my friend had taken his passport with him to the Olympics, he chided him that this was "Very, very foolish."

"But it's the law," objected my friend. "We're told that we have to."

"Oh, yes, it's the law," responded the policeman. "But it's very, very foolish."

Or "more honoured in the breach than the observance", as the English idiom has it - like so much of the Chinese legal code.

Second Closing

So, the Paralympics are over too.

We can perhaps expect one or two more days of 'blue skies' and enhanced civility, to cater to Paralympic athletes who might be trying to do a bit of tourism now the Games are over, but then..... it will quickly be back to 'normal', I fear; 'normal' for Beijing meaning crazy traffic, choking pollution, crappy weather, etc.

That second Closing Ceremony was a bit lame, wasn't it? Definitely just a pared down version of the original. And I had been hoping for a more impressive way of extinguishing the Flame, rather just slowly turning down the gas. Perhaps London can come up with a gigantic candle-snuffer.

Darn, some of the imagery was pretty obscure, though. What was with those blimps? Those turd-shaped, gray camo-coloured blimps? Was it a reference to the cloud-seeding that has made these Olympics some of the rainiest on record??

Most of the rest of it seemed to be about posting a 'Good luck!' letter (or, more plausibly, a taunting 'Ha-haa! Yours'll never be as good as ours!' letter) to London. The slogan that appeared on the turf appeared to say: A letter for the fufure. But I think we know what they meant.

Then..... jeez, that extended bit with the beaming granny surrounded by the weird kids was a major embarrassment. It is possible to do that jerky, 'robotic' style of dancing without looking as though you're making fun of cerebral palsy sufferers - but this choreographer didn't manage it. Ouch!

Of course, we still had the reappearance of the London bus to look forward to - but even that seemed very muted and token: no celebs this time around. Instead of Jimmy Page, we got Lord Nelson jamming away on guitar; although a barely recognisable Nelson, since he had both his arms, sunglasses instead of an eyepatch, and his costume was a strange metallic grey colour - rather than the familiar veneer of guano that we see in Trafalgar Square (and his column was disappointingly small, too).

At least someone had told Boris Johnson to keep his hands out of his pockets this time. I suppose he had to make another speech at the London House afterwards. I wonder if it's on YouTube yet?

Anybody else think that the International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven looks strangely like the late John Peel?

That Michael Phelps diet again

Breakfast: 24 Krispy Kreme Bacon Cheeseburgers


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Who are you calling a pussy?

Michael Phelps, that's who. And it's the Chinese that are doing it, not me.

The WSJ had this article last month on the bizarre 'Chinese names' accorded to some of the famous foreign athletes in the Olympics.

America's multiple medal-winning swimming sensation was rendered (in pinyin, the system for representing the sound of Chinese characters using the Roman alphabet; I couldn't tell you what the characters are) as: mai ke er fei er pu si. That's pronounced, roughly: MY-KER-ARR FAY-ARR-POO-SUH.

Not really very close, is it? Of course, Phelps's name presents particular problems for 'translation' into Chinese. The language doesn't really have any final consonants; so these have to be rendered by whole syllables with a consonant-vowel combination. Hence Phelps, with his unfortunate cluster of three consonants at the end of his surname, ends up with a Chinese version of it that is a staggering four syllables long rather than the simple monosyllable of the original. Oh yes, and then there's the problem with the letter 'l'. Although Chinese does have an 'l' sound, it seems that its 'r' sound (which is not rolled in the back of the throat, and is thus strangely close to the English 'l' sound) is usually preferred for representing the English 'l'. Hmmm, but a final 'r' sound - which we have in this er syllable (and at the end of almost every syllable in Beijinghua - a phlegm-gargling throat-rattle is the most distinctive characteristic of the capital's accent) - is more rolled, less liquid, so.... it really makes no sense twice over. Why not use the 'l' sound of li or le or lu? Why not use the liquid 'r' of ri or rou? Using er is just bonkers!

It seems to me to be one of the most serious shortcomings of the Chinese language that it is so woefully incapable of accurately rendering the sounds of other languages (thus making it difficult to adopt words from other languages, and almost impossible to recognise and pronounce names of places and people in other languages). And it is one of the gravest failings of the education system here that almost nothing is done to remedy this deficiency: although most Chinese study English, and are reasonably familiar with the English alphabet (which is in some circumstances used alongside Chinese - for example in addresses, where buildings or staircases are often differentiated as A, B, C, D), no attempt is made to teach children the Roman alphabet spelling of names of famous people or places, or the main rules of pronunciation for the major European languages; and although Chinese kids are taught how to pronounce their own language using international phonetic script, no use seems to be made of this for teaching them how to pronounce foreign names.

No, the Chinese seem to rely solely on this bizarre system of transliterating these names into Chinese characters - which often leaves them completely unable to recognise the actual names of, for example, Audrey Hepburn, Albert Einstein, or Nelson Mandela; and completely unable to communicate about such people in English with native English speakers, because the Chinese versions of names like these are often so garbled as to be quite unrecognisable. I have come up against this problem time and time again in teaching in Chinese universities and businesses, and it drives me potty.

By the way, in case you missed this last month, do check out the truly flabbergasting Michael Phelps diet - as detailed in The Guardian, amongst other places (their correspondent, Jon Henley, gamely tried it himself for one day!).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Same old story

I was planning to go to the final of the Men's Wheelchair Rugby with some mates today.

The plan foundered because they omitted to get in touch with me until about half an hour before kick-off. A rather too common occurrence here in everybody's-so-preoccupied-with-their-frenetic-lifestyles-that-they-can't
-organise-a-piss-up-at-a-brewery Beijing.

I wasn't really too regretful, because I am still miserably ILL. A rather too common occurrence here in the high stress and seriously toxic environment of Beijing. (I've been more or less continuously ill for 6 or 7 weeks now, and I'm starting to get a bit panicked about it.)

It's probably just as well I didn't go, since the skies opened in another torrential thunderstorm just around kick-off time. A rather too common occurrence here over the past month or so; you may recall that I got caught in downpours almost every time I went to the Olympic venues last month - something that is perhaps not entirely unconnected with my wretched state of health of late.

I was hoping to catch the game on TV at home, but...... well, only one of the national television channels (and none of the local ones) seems to be carrying full-time Paralympics coverage (whereas nearly every channel was showing something from the Olympics last month). And the editors here have no interest in showing the final of an event in which China is not represented. Oh, no: let's have an entire evening of wheelchair table tennis (re-runs of earlier matches and documentaries about the Chinese players, as well as live coverage of tonight's Men's Team Final)! A rather too common occurrence over the past month or two - when the always dismal local TV coverage of sports has reached new lows.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I fear we are in something of A RUT here.

Boy soldiers

Whilst scouting round the edge of the Olympic Green yesterday, I came across an astonishingly young-looking soldier in one of the sentry boxes.

We are used to the private security firms who provide the gate guards for offices and apartment buildings here using mostly gawky country kids who are not far into their teens - but this, this was a private in the PLA, assigned to a prestigious, on-display-to-the-public duty. And he looked like He Kexin's younger brother - maybe 12, at most!

Is it just another sign of my own advancing age, that I imagine all the soldiers look younger?

China LOVES the Paralympics

There were bigger crowds around the Olympic venues yesterday afternoon than I've ever seen before. The Chinese do seem to be getting rather excited about these Paralympics. The bits and pieces I've seen on TV seem to be very well-attended. I know the TV cameras and the organisers are very canny about arranging the rent-a-crowds to fill up sections of the stadiums covered by the most common camera-angles.... and I wouldn't even put it past them to try to paste in some CGI of happy, applauding onlookers (didn't everyone in that block of foreigners look suspiciously like Da Shan??), but the Bird's Nest on TV today looked far closer to capacity than I ever saw it during the 'main event' last month.

Of course, the tickets are much more readily available for the Paralympics, and much, much cheaper. And many people may perhaps - like me - have thought that this will be their opportunity to see inside the famous stadiums.

Moreover, yesterday was a national holiday; and the weather was gorgeous.

As far as I could see - stalking around the perimeter fence, reconnoitring some camera angles for touristy shots of the Nest and the Water Cube - the open areas of the Green were fairly deserted, but there must have been lots of people bound for the late-afternoon sessions in the various stadiums. There was a big ruck of people milling around outside the main entrance, and the security lines inside seemed to be moving very slowly. (The only time I'd been there to see an event during the Olympics proper - an evening Finals session near the climax of the Games - the crowds had been far smaller, and it had only taken a couple of minutes to clear the ticket and security checks.)

There were plenty of tickets available from touts/scalpers, but we decided we really couldn't be bothered with all that queueing.

(In fact, I wasn't sure if tickets were required for admission to the Green alone; and the crowds were such that it might have taken quite a few minutes to progress even as far as the preliminary ticket check. Were there any signs outside specifying if tickets were required, or where they could be obtained from? NO. [Advance tickets for the Green had been required during the first week or so of the Olympics, but that had meant that attendance was mostly very sparse indeed; and I heard that the sponsors had eventually lobbied BOCOG into allowing open admission..... or at least into selling cheap tickets at the gate. I never got around to checking if this were so or not, since I'd been lucky enough to score some free tickets in the first week. And I wasn't convinced that this change of policy would be quite so necessary in the second week, when the Bird's Nest was in daily use.]

I found a couple of young Olympic volunteers and tried asking them.

Did we need tickets just to enter the Olympic Green?

We didn't want to go to one of the events?? No, we just wanted to look around the Green a bit, go to the souvenir store, take pictures of the Nest.

Er, they thought so - but they weren't sure.

Did they have any idea how much such tickets might cost? No.

Or where we might buy them? No.

They then suggested we buy some tickets from a scalper - although we were stood only a few yards away from a large notice [in English] warning that scalping was strictly illegal.

Ah, god bless 'em! The Olympic volunteers have been commendably friendly and enthusiastic, but most of them know absolutely fuck-all. Their training has been lamentable.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Alas, poor kitty

The "All that glisters...." line I used to head yesterday's post about Olympic medal counting is, of course, from Shakespeare - The Merchant of Venice. However, it was also famously echoed in this delightful poem by Gray.

On The Death Of A Favourite Cat,
Drowned In A Tub Of Gold Fishes

'Twas on a lofty vase's side,
Where China's gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow,
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purred applause.

Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched, in vain, to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretched, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between:
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to ev'ry wat'ry god
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye beauties undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.

Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

Dodging the mooncake bullet

Today is the Mid-Autumn Festival - the 15th day of the 8th (or is it the 9th??) month in the Chinese lunar calendar. Of course, the date of this holiday in the Western calendar migrates all over the month of September, and occasionally strays into early October. This year, for once, it's actually falling reasonably close to the Autumnal Equinox which it is supposed to mark (one can't help thinking that if the primary purpose of this calendar is, as it is with most calendars around the world, to chart the seasons accurately for the benefit of farmers, well, the Chinese calendar is a bit crappy).

As I recounted last year, a major element of this holiday is the giving (though not necessarily the eating) of huge numbers of the traditional 'sweet treats', mooncakes.

Since I no longer have any regular employment, I have been largely spared this ordeal of corporate gifting this year (last year I was inundated with the bloody things). However, one of my editing employers has been trying to fob some off on me for the past 10 days. I really didn't fancy committing myself to staying home for a half-day - or even perhaps a full day - to take delivery from a courier (although in fact I have been at home for most of the week, laid up with a terrible cold), so I just kind of ignored their last e-mail about it. I hope they won't be too offended.

This year, for the first time, the government here is giving days off work for a few of the traditional Chinese holidays (reallocating some of the former 'golden week' holiday that was given for Labour Day at the beginning of May); so, tomorrow is a holiday. It's a three-day weekend. Woo-hoo! (Of course, it doesn't really make any difference to me.)

Happy Mid-Autumn Day, everyone.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

List of the Month - 10 Things To Love About Beijing

My blog-buddy Jeremiah ran a post over on The Peking Duck a month or two back on why people love Beijing (the comment-thread got hijacked a bit by pompous gits from Shanghai who think it's somewhat of an unsophisticated hick town - well, so it may be, but for those of us who choose to live here, that too is part of its charm).

As an antidote to my recent Olympic curmudgeonliness, I thought I'd give you a 'List of the Month' on this theme. Here goes.

Top 10 Things That Are Fabulous About Beijing

1) Street food - jian bing, you tiao, rou jia mo, and more. Fantastic stuff - an almost endless variety of tasty and filling snacks for a couple of kuai, or less.

2) Street life - kids playing in the streets, old codgers playing cards or chess, women doing their laundry on the doorstep in a small plastic washing-up bowl, everywhere people drinking and chatting on chairs and stools on the sidewalk outside restaurants and neighbourhood stores. The streets are so vibrant and diverse here, and there's such a touching sense of community, especially in the older neighbourhoods.

3) Park life - like the street life, but taken up a notch or two: dozens upon dozens of people playing chess or go, flying kites, showing off caged songbirds, doing t'ai chi or fan dances, playing in ad hoc accordion ensembles or on classical Chinese instruments, singing Chinese opera or revolutionary songs, whether individually or in huge choirs. Jingshan is my favourite, but Tiantan is pretty good too. Heck, each of Beijing's parks has its distinctive charm.

4) Restaurant life - more than any other Chinese city I've been to, Beijing is a city of restaurants. I have been told that this originates from the fact that there has always been a lot of official entertaining amongst party functionaries here in the seat of government, and the culture has somehow worn off on to everyone else. It seems that most Beijingers eat out at least once or twice a week; many eat out almost as often as they eat at home; quite a few eat out just about every single day. Hence, there are a huge number of restaurants. Gui Jie ("Ghost Street"), the famous 24-hour restaurant strip a couple of miles from where I live, is unusual only in its delusions of grandeur, in the size and prices of some of its larger establishments. Almost every street in the city is bristling with restaurants. Everywhere else I've been in China - even in famously foodie Shanghai - there are some districts where it can be hard to find a restaurant at all; and in many parts of town, you might have to walk a whole block before you find one. In Beijing, you rarely have to walk more than 50 yards to pass a restaurant. (I was thinking here mainly of cheap-and-cheerful Chinese restaurants; but there is also a huge variety of good foreign restaurants here now - you can find cuisine from almost every country in the world here.)

5) The music scene - Beijing is pretty well served for classical and theatrical music, both from domestic musicians and visiting international stars; and, of course, there's a lot of traditional Chinese folk music and Chinese opera going on too; and a little bit of jazz here and there too (not very much, but quite good). But it's in the rock'n'roll scene that Beijing really stars: most of China's best modern music is happening here. Where most other Chinese cities, as far as I can gather (and again, even Shanghai lags woefully behind in this), have, at best, 1 or 2 decent venues and a handful of worthwhile bands. Beijing has scads of good bands, and a wonderful range of venues - from tiny, tiny bars like What and Jianghu that can hold only a few dozen, through mid-size bars like MAO Live and Yugong Yishan that can hold a few hundred, up to the big-ish Star Live which can take a thousand or more. We are home to most of China's most interesting record labels (Modern Sky, Tag Team, Maybe Mars) as well, and to some of her best outdoor music festivals (especially the Midi Festival in Haidian Park each May).

6) The art scene - again, though art and artists originate from all parts of China, most of them seem to gravitate here, and there seems to be way, way more going on than in...... oh, say, Shanghai, for example. Caochangdi and Dashanzi have become internationally famous artists' colonies. Whatever your feelings about modern art - and I'm not, on the whole, a great fan of it myself - some of the most unconventional and subversive commentary on modern China is coming out of this community, which makes it not-to-be-missed for me.

7) The bar scene - bars here are so numerous and so diverse that in amongst the 95% of pure shit, you'll find the occasional gem that suits your taste (and pocket). Most other Chinese cities I've visited (and I've visited a fair few) seem to have a very limited bar scene by comparison, and very, very little at the extreme budget end of the market. In Beijing (though I detect a worrying drift upmarket in the last year or two) things are still dominated by the budget end: most places only charge 15 kuai for a small local beer, and a few still charge only 10.

8) Yanjing beer - the local product: clean-tasting, refreshing, and yes, it has alcohol in it (not much, but enough). And it's only 2 or 3 kuai for a 700ml bottle - bargain!

9) The hutongs - yes, they are slums; but as slums go, they ain't so bad. And they are staggeringly picturesque slums. I am lucky enough to live adjacent to the largest surviving hutong district in the city centre (huge swathes of this traditional single-storey housing have been bulldozed to make way for pre-Olympic redevelopment).

10) The city never sleeps - there's always something going on. Many - if not most - bars and restaurants have no formal closing time, and will let you stay as long as you want to. You can find people - locals even more so than foreigners - chewing the fat over a beer at almost any hour of the night. I don't have the stamina to do this very often, but...... there are few things I enjoy more than sitting up till 4am or 5am in a cheap neighbourhood restaurant and then walking through the hutongs down to Tiananmen Square to catch the dawn flag-raising ceremony.

I could probably go on a while longer yet, but 10 is a nice round number - and I think I've covered most of the really important things. Gosh, yes, we LOVE you, Beijing, we really do. Please don't be mean to us any more.

All that glisters is not gold

There was an interesting article on the WSJ website last month about the history of Olympic medal tables. At present, it seems, there is - surprise, surprise! - a certain unreality, a certain hypocrisy in the IOC's position on them: officially they are discouraged, but in practice they are condoned, if not promoted.

It's odd that, after all this time, no standard method has been developed for assessing the collective value of medal wins in all three categories, gold, silver, and bronze. Most countries seem to have adopted the method (tacitly supported by the IOC, since organizing committees - not just Beijing's - always seem to use this on their 'official' medal tally rankings) of counting only the gold medals to determine the ranking, and referring to the number of silver (or bronze) medal wins only to break a tie on golds. Obviously, this procedure is unsatisfactory, since it fails to accord any credit to these other medal-winning performances. And it would seem unjust if a country which had amassed a significant number of silver and/or bronze medals were to be 'ranked' lower than one which had achieved but a single gold medal. This year, for example, Sweden - with a creditable haul of 4 silvers and 1 bronze - found itself ranked behind four countries which had managed only a single gold medal win. (Moreover, as the WSJ article points out, there is a danger that an only-gold-matters attitude may be damaging, unbalancing the allocation of funding: sports where your country has no strong gold medal contender may find themselves starved of cash, coaching, and training facilities. One wonders if this may be a problem in China, which won a disproportiately high number of gold medals this year. [Few countries won more golds than silvers. Of the ones that did, Jamaica - thanks to the Lightning Bolt - won twice as many golds as silvers, and Germany and Great Britain around 1.5 times as many. China won 2.5 times as many!! Something strange going on there.])

The Americans - alone in the world? - or at least their sports media, have adopted an alternate system whereby all medals are counted in the tally. According to the WSJ article, they have been doing this for years - it's not just a convenient innovation in 2008 to keep them at the top of the medal table above China (although, hey, anything that stops the Chinese getting too full of themselves about their medal performance in this Olympics is OK with me!). Obviously, this procedure is unsatisfactory, since a bronze or silver medal is plainly not quite such an important achievement as a gold.

What we need is some sort of points system for weighting the value of the three types of medal, enabling us to produce an objective valuation of overall medal performance.

We Brits tried it, way back in 1908 when London hosted the event for the first time: we accorded 5 points for a gold, 3 for a silver, and 1 for a bronze. I've heard numerous other systems advocated in bar conversations over the past month: 10, 7, and 4 seems to be one of the most popular point distribution suggestions. The problem with all of these, it seems to me, is the inequality in relative weighting between gold and silver, and silver and bronze - particularly with the 5-3-1 system: it seems unjust that a silver medal should be rated three times as valuable as a bronze, but a gold medal only just over 1.5 times as valuable as a silver. I tend to think that the proportion of weighting between the different levels should be constant: i.e. if a silver is worth 1.5 bronze medals, then a gold should be worth 1.5 silvers. However, this doesn't really work conveniently with any number ratio except 2:1. Is a gold medal really worth two silvers, and four bronzes? Actually, that sounds about right to me. In which case a 20-10-5 points system would be conveniently straightforward..... and reasonably fair...... and, we can but hope, satisfactory for all parties?

I think we should start lobbying for the introduction of this approach to medal-tallying for the next London Olympics. (However, I don't think that any such medal-weighting system would be likely to alter the 2008 final rankings, at least at the top - a relief, since I was acutely conscious of the danger of promoting Australia above Great Britain in this year's list!)

Ah, and wouldn't it be a nice elaboration if there was a graded weighting also for medals in different sports (rather as with university sporting colours; at Oxford and Cambridge, 'blues' are awarded at half, quarter, eighth, and even, I think, sixteenth levels for the more minor sports and games; only a handful of the biggest sports - like rugby and rowing - are accorded 'full blue' status)? The Chinese wouldn't be quite so dominant if only the athletics and the swimming carried full medal points, while the sillier games - like table tennis and badminton - received only one-quarter or one-eighth value.

(I don't say this just to be a China-basher [although, gosh, that is fun once in a while]. I happen to think that the essential ethos of the Olympics is about individual endeavour; and I would therefore remove all of the team sports and all of the adversarial, 1-on-1 sports. I'm really not too happy about anything that requires advanced technology - like shooting and archery - either, although I suppose the argument can be made that they are sports which are indeed a test of the individual, and that they are sports which are too small to survive without the boost of interest and cash support which the Olympics provides. The Olympics, I feel, are completely irrelevant to football, basketball, baseball, and tennis, since these are already well-established and extremely well-funded professional sports with mass participation and mass TV coverage. That's enough digression. Ed)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Website of the Month - FrostFireZoo

I've mentioned (and re-posted photos from) FrostFireZoo a couple of times on here already: it has become a delightful 'daily dipper' for me in recent weeks. Now is the time for a formal recommendation. There have been many, many wonderful photos and cartoons on there in the past few weeks, but this is perhaps my favourite. Go and check out the rest of the site.

It's official: I am A Guru!

Strange as it may seem, quite a number of people do seem to look to me for advice and opinion, insight even...... indeed, perhaps, on occasion, for moral example or spiritual guidance. Yes, I have been called sensei by many.

A blog-friend recently put me on to this Perception Personality Test on the HelloQuizzy website (a treasurehouse of these insidiously time-wasting personality tests). It rates me as...... A Guru. Apparently, though interested in humanity, I am ultimately more in tune with Nature; I tend to absorb the background rather than obsessing about foreground detail; I am primarily a 'big picture' kind of guy. See more detail on my result here.

That all sounds reasonable enough (though I'm not quite sure how that makes me a Guru....); but I think that, like horoscopes, these analyses are couched in such generalities that anyone can find something pertinent in them. And I think the results for this one could be very dependent on which pictures they show you (in my batch, there were very few with any human figures at all, and none of them were very interesting; I think almost anyone with an interest in photography - and a classically conditioned aesthetic sense - would have given the same responses as I did to the pictures I was shown).

Anyway, give it a try yourselves. Harmless fun.

The weekly haiku

Blue skies, unwelcome,
Mock the prisoner, the worker,
Taunt the invalid.

The weather's now back on track: we've had three straight days of gorgeous sunshine. I spent the whole of Wednesday in the recording studio. Since then, I've been too ill to leave the apartment. Rats!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Great job titles in the film industry

This, I feel, might become another long-running reader contribution thread, rather like the Misheard Lyrics collecting box I just reminded you of in that last post.

A couple of nights ago I watched again Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream (I don't have time for a full review just now, but I love this: one of the best-ever films about drug-taking), and noticed that the credits include a.........

Refrigerator Puppeteer.

Beat that! (His mother must be so proud.)

Misheard lyrics on Chinglish listening practice tapes!

A classic moment in the recording studio yesterday: I was required to read the lyrics to Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World (well, it said Louise Armstrong, but....). My partner DD of course wanted me to sing it, but I wasn't having that - even with the extreme huskiness brought on by my latest cold, there's no way I could begin to do justice to Satchmo's gentle growl. (It is unclear why they couldn't have dispensed with me and DD for this bit, and just used the original Armstrong recording. Well, apart from the copyright issues, of course. But this is China - that's never held them back in the past!)

Anyway, nobody had been bothered to source the lyrics from the Net (the Chinese seem to be very, VERY bad - I know not whether it's laziness or incompetence or something else; maybe just a failure of imagination ["Ooh, you mean they have song lyrics on the Internet? I never would have thought of that!"] - at searching the Internet for anything in English), so some poor flunkie had had to try to transcribe the lyrics.

You know that bit where he praises
The bright blessed day,
The dark sacred night ?

No, no, we've been mistaken all these years.

It's actually:

The dogs say goodnight.

Accidental genius!!

This seems like a good time to remind you that a month or two ago I set up a thread for recording misheard lyrics like this.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"You'd be perfect for the role!"

Dropping into a favourite bar with my buddy The Chairman on Sunday night, I bumped into a young Chinese girl I know slightly (a friend of the bar owner that I met at his wedding a few months back). She was there with another Chinese girl who is apparently some sort of production assistant with a small film company.

Within a couple of minutes they were trying to offer me a leading role in a film.

The character is apparently a retired NYPD officer doing some private detective work in Chinatown. It would appear that he is expected to speak, or at least to understand Mandarin fairly well (though Cantonese would surely be more appropriate).

My Mandarin is negligible. My Cantonese is non-existent. I am probably not really old enough for this part. I am not American. I can't do an American accent. I have no real acting experience (apart from a few workshop games I took part in with a theatre group I was a member of for a while at university....... 20 years ago!).

How desperate are they to fill this role? Very desperate, it would seem!

Note also that the story is supposedly set entirely in America (albeit within Chinese communities in America), yet is to be filmed entirely in Beijing. I don't get the impression this is a production that can afford to spend much time on studio hire or set construction, so I think they're going to be trying to film most of it on location. Any suggestions for bits of Beijing that look most like New York (or San Francisco)?? And I would probably be the only non-Chinese cast member.

A U.S.-set film with no American actors and no American locations? This is quite a breakthrough in film-making!

This sounds like an even more chaotic and worthless project than the last one I nearly got involved in, 4 years ago. Some guy from the Beijing Film Academy was making a film to mark the centenary of the 1904 British invasion of Tibet (I think it was also probably his graduation project from the Academy). Originally they were going to offer me the part of Francis Younghusband, the adventurous diplomat who led the expedition. When I complained about the dire state of the script, they downgraded me to Major MacDonald, the military commander. I complained about the script some more, and they replaced me altogether.

I think I may have pulled off a similar trick this time. The production assistant's initial enthusiasm cooled noticeably when I asked to see the script. "The script??" she boggled incredulously, as if perhaps there wasn't one. The director was supposed to have been calling me today to discuss the project in detail, but..... not a peep. I am relieved.

The money wasn't great (not bad - but probably a bit less than I'd earn in a good spell of 3 or 4 weeks noodling around doing what I do anyway; and taking myself out of circulation for 3 or 4 weeks could cost me work with my regular casual employers for weeks or months to come). And I think I'd rather not be involved with what sounds as if it is almost certainly going to be a steaming pile of crap - even for 2 or 3 times as much money.

Of course, if the director calls tonight and offers me 2 or 3 times as much money, he may unearth my inner hypocrite. Who knows?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Two years of blogging!

Yes, today is Froogville's 2nd Anniversay.

Happy Birthday, Froogville!

I note that in two of my first posts (here and here, if you should happen to want to view them in their original context, complete with comments) I pondered the question of why I was bothering to start blogging at all - I felt disdainful of the activity in general, and wary of where it might take me. Two years on...... these questions are still tormenting me!

Good stuff; so, I reprint them below.

In dispraise of blogging

I don't like the idea of blogging. Not at all.

Yes, partly it is my Neo-Luddite distaste for technology. The Internet is too profuse: it challenges, overwhelms my inner calm. But I've never liked the idea of keeping a paper diary either. There seems to be something so desperately needy, attention-seeking, praise-demanding about it. (Nobody ever keeps a really private diary, do they? I'm sure all diarists have half an eye on publication of some sort, yearn to have their thoughts read by others - whether the public at large, or generations yet unborn, or the intimates from whom they supposedly strive to keep the book hidden.) A strange mix of insecurity and megalomania - it's all so "Look at me! My life is so interesting and unusual and special!"

And I've always been sceptical as to whether anyone who spends that much time writing about their life can actually be living one. Maybe Pepys et al could toss off a few thousand words in a mere fifteen minutes or so, and then call it a night, slipping immediately into deep repose. Me, I'm a slow writer. Careful. Thoughtful. And if I try doing too much writing late at night, the turbid brain runs out of control, condemning me to hours of insomnia.

If there's a problem with diaries and the kind of people who keep them, then that problem is 100 times worse with blogging, where the writer dispenses with any pretence of recording his thoughts only for his own benefit, and actively seeks to parade them before the whole world. The blogosphere (and what a portentous, comically ugly word that is!) is, I fear, an orgy of narcissism.

So why am I doing it?

Hmmm. An interesting question. Let me ponder

The Odysseus challenge

After some minutes of pondering my last self-directed question, this is what I came up with.

Why am I blogging, when the very concept inspires the deepest contempt in me? Well, I think a large part of it is my wariness of narcissism, and a desire to examine whether I really am as proof against it as I'd like to think. By exposing myself to this supremely narcissistic environment, I am testing my strength of character. If I can be a blogger and not succumb to the myriad temptations to preen before that huge (?) unseen audience out there, not descend into the rampant self-regard, self-importance, self-love that I see in so many sorry blogaholics out there, then I will have achieved something, some comfort, some peace of mind, a reaffirmation of myself.

I fancied it was somewhat like Odysseus' celebrated ordeal of exposing himself to the ultimate temptation of the Sirens' song. Except, of course, that he was cheating. He'd had himself tied to the mast, so he didn't have to resist temptation. No such luxury for me. I'm out here on my own, with nothing to hold me back from disaster.