Sunday, January 31, 2010

A day to stay at home

Yet another of Yang Liu's posters illustrating fundamental differences between the cultures of China and 'The West': here we have 'Sundays on the road' (or 'in the park').

I'm not sure why the city is so thronged with people on Sundays (even more so than Saturdays, it seems). Perhaps it's that there's less flexi-time working, less ability to take time off during the week; or perhaps it's a result of the low level of average incomes - people can only afford to go out once a week, and for most of them Sunday is the day. Then again, maybe the folks here just haven't cultivated the concept of the lazy Sunday at home (or the wild Saturday night out that so often necessitates it!)..... or they haven't yet adopted our stay-at-home hobbies like D-I-Y and gardening (nobody in Beijing has a garden!). And driving out into the country is, I think, only just starting to take off as an interest (perhaps people lack confidence - rightly - in their driving ability, and are wary of trying to go too far, frightened of taking on the crappy roads and even-crazier driving that you find in the countryside); most people seem to prefer to stay in the city at the weekend. The area near where I live regularly encounters late Sunday afternoon traffic jams as bad as any in the mid-week rush hours. And the subway is best avoided.

If I go out this afternoon, it'll probably be on foot.

Once more, with feeling

I received a text message out of the blue on Saturday lunchtime from an engineer at a recording studio I'd never heard of before. Apparently, one of the American voice artists I know had recommended me. There was a short gig in the offing, doing a voiceover for a corporate promotional video.

However, they had to get me approved by the client first, so they were hassling me to provide voice samples (yes, of course, this was all supposed to be happening at no notice at all, and over the weekend). So.... I frittered away a chunk of my afternoon figuring out how the Recording accessory on my new computer works. (Isn't it amazing how Microsoft manages to make such a basic utility..... a) almost impossible to find; b) extremely non-intuitive to use [WHY can you not simply delete or discard unwanted recordings?? Oh no, you must save everything - as, e.g., 'Untitled 17' - before you can delete it!]; and c) completely different in appearance and operation every year or two??)

Once I'd e-mailed off some samples I got another text message back from the engineer. He thought my voice was "too soft". I'm not quite sure what he meant by that - my voice has been called many things, but rarely "soft". I suspect he meant that I was too understated, unemotional.

The remainder of his 'direction' was even more perplexing: "more high, strengthful, cheery, adventure, tough".

I asked him to send me a sample of what he meant - and the script he wanted me to read. It turns out that what he wanted was fulsome, gushing, near-hysterical. It's hard to get that passionate about annual production targets for a bus factory, but I did my best.

They were much happier with my new set of samples. Oh yes, that's the stuff!

But, belatedly, they remembered I wasn't American..... and the client had specified an American English voice.

I hate it when that happens! And it happens all the time......

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Film List - what else I've been watching lately

A very quick and simple one again this month (feeling lazy again...). Penury has been keeping me home quite a lot recently, so - in addition to my planned 'Christmas treats' (I didn't quite get around to watching all of them, because a few got mislaid in my move to the new apartment, but I did watch most of them) - I've watched a fair few other DVDs over the past couple of months since I moved in here.

Here is a rundown.

Other Films I've Watched Recently

The Thin Man
(Dir. W.S. van Dyke, 1934)
One of the great drinking films - pretty terrible as a detective yarn, but it zings with great lines.

To Live And Die In L.A.
(Dir. William Friedkin, 1985)
Very brash, very 80s - rather like a more grown-up, edgier, more morally confused Miami Vice; and it has probably the best car chase ever.

The Longest Day
(Dir. Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Darryl F. Zanuck, 1962)
Epic, multi-faceted account of the D-Day landings that I remember from my childhood. Probably hadn't seen it in nearly 30 years, but it holds up very well.

Lola Montes
(Dir. Max Ophuls, 1955)
A random recent discovery in my favourite 'golden oldie' DVD store, and a very pleasant surprise: an unusual and stylish treatment of an extraordinary life, and Martine Carol is radiantly beautiful - if perhaps a little too determinedly enigmatic - in the title role.

La Cité des Enfants Perdus
(Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1995)
The story here is a bit of a meandering mess (requiring an awful lot of clunky exposition to make any sense of it at all), and not nearly so engaging as the macabre masterpiece that is Delicatessen; but there is some fantastic, dream-like imagery in this (as well as actual dream imagery), and two of the scariest ever renditions of Santa Claus.

(Dir. George Stevens, 1953)
One of the best Westerns ever, and one of the best bar fights.

The New Legend Of Shaolin
(Dir. Corey Yuen & Ying Wong, 1994)
Also known by numerous other names, including Five Founders of Shaolin, Legend of Future Shaolin, and Red Dragon, this is a delightfully cheesy Jet Li comedy martial arts flick that I discovered amongst a batch of DVDs bequeathed to me by a departing friend last year.

Singin' In The Rain
(Dir. Stanley Donen, 1952)
I loathe Gene Kelly, but there's so much else to enjoy in this silly tale of '20s Hollywood making the transition to talkies - notably Donald O'Connor's Make 'Em Laugh routine.

The Red Badge Of Courage
(Dir. John Huston, 1951)
A great version of Stephen Crane's classic Civil War novella, although it might have been even better had the studio not slashed almost an hour of footage. This is another one that I hadn't seen since I was a kid.

American Graffiti
(Dir. George Lucas, 1973)
Lucas's last good film (though not as good as his debut, THX 1138), a classic slice of small town Americana.

(Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1991)
A strangely overlooked minor classic, probably my favourite Soderbergh film after Sex, Lies and Videotape. I usually can't stand drippy Jeremy Irons, but his constipated lugubriousness is just right for playing Kafka here. And Lem Dobbs' script is brilliant at conjuring paranoia out of the most trivial incidents: in true Kafka style, the mundane details of life suddenly become fraught with potential menace.

Destry Rides Again
(Dir. George Marshall, 1939)
Jimmy Stewart at his best, and Marlene as the ultimate saloon chanteuse - wonderful!

(Dir. Alexander Payne, 2004)
Another of the great drinking films - although the undertones of this are so dark, it's at times very uncomfortable viewing, it scarcely feels like a comedy at all. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church pull off a remarkable trick here in being likeably unlikeable.

A Walk In The Sun
(Dir. Lewis Milestone, 1945)
I'd never heard of this one before, but it turns out to be quite a diverting war film - made when the war was barely over. It's interesting in the narrowness of its focus (based on an autobiographical novel by Harry Brown), following a single US platoon through the 1943 Salerno landings and their first morning on Italian soil; interesting too in its lack of bravado or idealisation. These soldiers don't really know what's going on, and have lost their commanding officer; they're just improvising as best they can; some are dumb, some are cowardly; their senior sergeant suffers a nervous collapse and is unable to lead them - these are not things you commonly see in American WWII films, certainly not in those made during or shortly after the War. Director Lewis Milestone, of course, was also responsible for the classic All Quiet On The Western Front.

Nanook of the North
(Dir. Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)
A mesmerising documentary about the life of the Inuit. Nanook's family are constantly on the edge of losing their battle for survival in the harsh wilderness, and I'd forgotten that 'the great hunter' did in fact die a year or two after shooting finished, starving to death on a failed deer hunt.

(Dir. Alexander Payne, 1999)
There are two marvellous performances from Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon in this scathing satire of small town ambitions adapted from a Tom Perrotta novel. This is one of my favourite American films of the last ten years or so. I hadn't previously clocked that it had the same director as Sideways - I should look out for more of this guy.

It really ought to be a word

My 'Social Secretary' - the young lady who's been helping me organise parties lately - felt that she'd been overdoing things a bit in December, and decided to renounce booze for a while. Over the New Year she told me she was going to spend a few days in a monastic retreat.

I was a little taken aback. It seemed so out of character for her. Moreover, since she is an extremely vivacious young woman, I was concerned for the monks, I feared that their asexual tranquility might be catastrophically disturbed by her presence.

Of course, it didn't help that she's a sloppy speller on SMS, and one of the messages she sent me about this actually said: "I'm going into a molestary for a few days."

I wonder if there's one of those anywhere near me?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Recently, on The Barstool...

A couple of days ago on my parallel blog I added a rundown of recommended posts from the 3rd quarter of 2008 (a companion to the list I provided for Froogville here last week). That was a particularly productive spell of blogging for me, producing a wide variety of good posts. My particular favourites would be this alcoholic bon mot, this humorous thumbnail sketch of a night out, this silly flight of fancy (attempting in vain to get the attention of the British Embassy!), and this sombre (but not without a joke or two) reflection on the Olympic year in Beijing.

Earlier this week I turned up an hilarious story from Singapore about a nightclub running a drinks promotion called 'Fill My Cups'.

And I marked Australia Day on Tuesday by posting a couple of pieces of classic humour depicting the stereotypical Pommie perception of Aussies, courtesy of Barry McKenzie and Monty Python.

One for The Cowboy

Well, two, in fact....

I am attempting to shame my old university buddy - and erstwhile leading commenter - 'The British Cowboy' into returning to the fold by dedicating this post to him.

He has been living in the States for getting on for 16 years now, and is thoroughly converted to the 'lifestyle' there - in particular, to the massive portions of tasty but unhealthy food. When I used to visit him in Philadelphia (10 or 12 years since; he had a house just a couple of hundred yards from the best bar in North America - great days!), our favourite snack from his local corner store was 'Pennsylvania Lard Chips'. In my memory, that was what it said on the packet - but I suspect that memory, as so often, plays me false, that this is just what The Cowboy and I called them. I think they were probably the brand below, Good's (although I am pretty sure there at least used to be a prominent banner on the packet back then saying something like 'Cooked In Lard' - it seems they've become more discreet about advertising the lard factor in these increasingly "health-conscious" times).

So enthusiastically did The Cowboy embrace the pleasures of lard that he bought a t-shirt (from Viz magazine, I think) with the picture above on it (purporting to be a genuine 1950s advertisement, but I'm pretty sure it's a spoof). I always rather coveted one myself; I wonder if they're still available. [I'd downloaded this picture from the Net ages ago, but only just noticed it was tagged with the name of the StrangeCosmos website.... which I visited for the first time a couple of days ago, and got rather bogged down in for an hour or two!]

Darn, I wish we could get a really good potato chip (or 'crisp', as we like to call them in the UK) here in Beijing. Lay's and Pringle's don't quite cut it, and the local brands are mostly just horrible.

So..... come back, Cowboy. We miss you.

Haiku for the week

Chill nights, dazzling days;
Not a single cloud in sight,
Only endless blue.

Pretty amazing sky today....

Thursday, January 28, 2010

More computer vexation

My adoption of a subscription VPN five weeks ago has not entirely ended my online troubles.

Oh no. Firefox's baffling refusal to download Blogger comment pages has forced to me to revert to using Explorer as my default browser.

And Explorer, as some of you may have discovered for yourselves, has this maddening habit of deciding - for no apparent reason - that you are "Working Offline" even when you are in fact still connected.

In all the vast armoury of user-unfriendly idiocies that Microsoft has visited upon a suffering world, this surely has to be one of the most pointless. Why does the browser get confused like this? Why can't it detect the actual connection state? What the hell is wrong with just going ahead and attempting to load or refresh a webpage as requested (and judging from the result of that whether the computer is in fact online or offline)?? Why must they insist on us repeatedly going back into the 'Tools' menu to manually uncheck the 'Work Offline' setting?? To me, it just makes no sense at all.

Now, this was plenty bad enough when it just happened once or twice a day - when I was resuming an earlier Web-browsing session after a spell offline, and Explorer hadn't recognised that I'd come back online again.

But over the past few days - for some reason I can't fathom - Explorer has started switching to 'Offline' status repeatedly, in the middle of a browsing session, without any break in the connection at all. It's happening dozens of times a day; sometimes every few minutes, or every few seconds. It is rendering Explorer well-nigh unusable.

Any techie types out there able to offer me any insights on this? (I do hope it's not more mischief from The Kafka Boys....)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

God on their side

I was relieved to learn that the US military is to stop displaying Bibilical references on its hardware (apparently, coded citations of New Testament verses were being added alongside the serial numbers of image-intensifier rifle sights - a personal quirk of the Jesus-lovin' Michigan manufacturer which the Pentagon was supposedly unaware of until recently).

However, in noodling around just now on Strange Cosmos (a rather haphazardly laid-out and hard-to-search group of interrelated websites, but rather fun: full of weird news and pictures), I found this. It looks as though the manufacturers of this mortar may be another Bible Belt proselytizer. General Petraeus is going to be a busy man, sorting all this stuff out.

While flicking through some of the stories and commentary on the Bible-bashin' nightsights story, I came upon this piece on the Huffington Post by Chris Rodda, a member of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (even some Christians are concerned about the prevalence of Christian zealotry in the US military). Her HP article from last September, Top Ten Ways to Convince the Muslims We're On A Crusade, is also well worth a look.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


One of the unusual skills one has to learn when recording English listening materials for China's educational publishers is a self-awareness about the speed of your speech.

Speaking speed is strictly graded according to the English level of the intended audience.

Fortunately, most of the work we do is practice drills for the English listening element of the gaokao - the national universities admission exam, held each June. This is paced at a fairly normal 160-165wpm.

Materials for the final year of senior high are also paced at about that level, although - unless they are specifically for intensive gaokao practice - we usually take a little more care to enunciate each word precisely, to lengthen our pauses just slightly. Second year of senior high is about 150wpm, first year 140wpm. Middle school materials are generally in the 110-130 range.

Beginners' materials get as slow as 90-110wpm. Materials for very young learners can get as slow as 70 or 80wpm, occasionally even 60wpm - which is just painful to do, really exhausting for the vocal cords.

The only exception to this framework seems to be Guangdong province in the south, where - whether through their greater historical exposure to English speakers in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, or a natural quickfire garrulousness in the local culture and temperament, or just from a perverse desire to be a little bit different from the rest of China - they ramp up the speeds by 10-15wpm across the board. This means that for gaokao, you're getting up towards 180wpm - which is way faster than most native speakers normally speak; gabbling, in fact. (It's also really hard to do, because you don't have time to read ahead, and so make far more stumbles. We're never given any time to pre-read or rehearse these scripts; they're all sight-read, so you have to try to read a line or two ahead of what you're actually speaking in order to get a sense of the context, decide on appropriate phrasing and intonation, edit out any Chinglish mistakes, mentally prepare for any tongue-twister moments, and so on. This is the other great skill of this work, which some people never really master. Voice recording work is often derided by other expats, but to do it well actually requires a lot of concentration and experience.)

So, a couple of weeks ago, my partner and I are asked to record something for a middle school listening practice book. We know how fast this should be, from long experience. And I think the scripts are actually marked as 120wpm. They also play us a snippet of a recording of one of our American colleagues reading the same script, as an example (as they usually do at this particular studio): yes, that's about 120wpm.

So, we start off recording it at 120wpm. But almost immediately we are interrupted by the young girl representing the publishers - can we go a little faster? Well, OK; you're the boss; anything to oblige.

Five minutes later, the same thing - faster. And again, faster. What?? Is this for Guangdong? No, no, north China, regular speed. Is this wrongly marked as being for middle school, then? Is it actually for 1st year senior high? No, no, middle school.

We're baffled, irritated - but we do as we're told.

The publisher girl is just going crazy: 4, 5, 6 times she interrupts us to urge us to go even faster. By the end, we're rattling through it at a full-on, gaokao 160wpm.

And you know what? That bloody girl butts in yet again with a request to speed up - on the very last page of the goddamn script!!!

It was no great surprise when we received a call from the recording studio last week to tell us that the publisher wasn't happy with our recording; it was much too fast; could we come in to re-do it?

Well, yes...... IF we're going to get paid for re-doing it. Fortunately, they were prepared to do that. So, yesterday we went in to give it another crack.

The same girl was there supervising the recording for the publisher. After 5 minutes, she came into the booth to ask us to go faster!! Ahem. NO. You know what, lady - WE know our jobs, and YOU don't. Just shut the f*** up, and let us get on with it.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that having cost her employer several hundred renminbi with her previous screw-up she might have learnt a lesson. It seems not. Some of the people I have to work with are just inconceivably dim. And it vexes me a good deal.

Deep breaths.

Ways and means

Three weeks after the heavy early-January snowfall, there's still a lot of snow uncleared in Beijing. Although the daytime temperatures have been climbing close to or a bit above freezing over the last few days, the remaining mounds of snow are so deep-frozen now that they refuse to budge.

The roads and sidewalks, at least, are (almost) all well-cleared now: the snow has all been shovelled into heaps at the side of the road, or dumped on the grassy central reservations.

Yesterday, however, the snow shovellers were out in force once again.

This time, they were shovelling the frozen snow back on to the roads.

Yes, somebody had had the bright idea of spreading the remaining snow and ice across the roads, in the expectation that passing traffic would help to melt it - or at least disperse it.

I'm not convinced about the efficacy of this tactic, but.... even so, I am sort of impressed by the ingenuity on display here.

Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with attempted snow dispersal, really. Perhaps the city authorities' only concern is with keeping their small army of workmen busy with something.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Strange dreams

I don't often have dreams that I can remember, but when I do, they're usually pretty kooky. I've had a string of late-ish nights, and a very long day yesterday, and on turning in last night was starting to feel a bit poorly from some iffy chuanr. So.... conditions ripe for something such as this....

I found myself dozing in an unfamiliar place. I seemed to be adjacent to, overlooking Beijing's Bell Tower Square.

I kept half-waking, looking out of a window, wondering why I was there, and then..... being too tired, or apathetic, or mired in sleep-paralysis, to get up and look around.

At one point, a driver - presumably drunk or very tired - drove his open-topped car directly into the corner of the big stone wall around the perimeter of the Bell Tower. It wasn't a particularly high-speed impact, but he didn't brake at all, and wasn't wearing a seatbelt: he hit his head very hard on the on the top edge of the windscreen, and I was pretty sure he was dead on the spot. This was just before dawn, and there was still not a soul around. I felt I should get up and go and check on the crash victim, but I succumbed to overpowering sleep again. I woke again, perhaps 20 or 30 minutes later, and the poor chap was still there motionless in his car. Still, it seemed, no-one was up and about; no-one had reported the accident, or come out to take a look at him.

I passed out again. When I woke again, I felt guilty as hell about not having gone to the aid of the crash victim, but it was now evidently sometime later: the square was bustling with people, and the crashed car appeared to have been removed.

Funny thing was, though, that now it was full daylight, there was something not quite right about my surroundings. The two large buildings looked very like the Bell and Drum Towers, but the other buildings around the square were different. I had no idea where I was!

What was perhaps even more disturbing was that I discovered I'd been sleeping in a car. In a taxi, in fact. (During the night, I was pretty sure I'd been on the upper floor of a two-storey house alongside the square, but.... later on, this had changed, as things are wont to do in dreams.)

I was convinced that some rogue taxi driver had decided to take advantage of my having fallen asleep on the way home to take me miles out of my way, and jack up my fare through the roof. However, the driver had completely disappeared.... and the dream ended rather perfunctorily with me making a swift exit before he could return to try to extort an enormous fare from me (I think I found another cab to take me home, but I was starting to wake in real life at that point, and the conclusion of the dream is just a series of vague impressions rather than fully-formed images).

It's not too hard to piece together the origins of the various elements here. I do live very close to Bell Tower Square; it's one of my favourite parts of Beijing. I have often commented on the untrustworthiness of certain Beijing cabbies, and was reflecting to a friend just recently about how they will occasionally refuse to recognise even the most famous addresses and landmarks in the city; indeed, at times, they will wilfully misunderstand you, and try taking you far out of your way (I did once - in my early days here, before I could give directions very well - have one chap who'd been asked to take me to the Bell or the Drum Tower make a huge detour to the north, up towards the 4th Ringroad!!). And it's not inconceivable that there might be other less famous Drum and Bell Towers elsewhere in Beijing (it's quite a common combination in Chinese Imperial architecture: there are small drum and bell towers in some of the city's parks, and large ones in some other cities, such as Xi'an and Nanjing). It's not even inconceivable that, with the Chinese love of faking up historic landmarks (and creating tacky 'world parks' with copies of famous buildings), someone had thought of creating life-size facsimiles of the two famous towers in another part of the city.

Also, of course, when one is coming home a little late and a little drunk, falling asleep in a cab is a constant hazard - something that I have indeed suffered several times (although I've only ever dozed off for a moment: occasionally enough to allow the cabbie to get in a wrong turn, but not to hijack me to the far side of town), something that I am regularly a little anxious about. However, it was not an especially present fear last night, since I'd only been out in the neighbourhood and had walked home.

I think the main real-life input into the dream was that some friends I'd been talking with earlier in the day had mentioned alarming rumours that there is to be some new development in the area around the Bell and Drum Towers (there's already a huge - mysterious - construction project going on at the Air Force base a few hundred metres to the east: the fact that this is happening on a military installation does not at all preclude the possibility that it is a commercial real estate project!!); however, the immediate vicinity of the two Towers is supposed to be under some kind of preservation order. Alas, in China, such 'orders' are extremely flexible: if someone with powerful enough connections (and/or enough money to distribute in bribes) comes up with a plan for redeveloping the area, then I am quite sure 'exceptions' could be made.

So, the disturbing unfamiliarity of very familiar surroundings (and, perhaps, the incompetent driver's kamikaze charge at the Bell Tower?) were, I think, probably expressions of my disquiet at this news.

And the element of very broken sleep, sleep in an inappropriate place, may well have been connected with the fact that I had crashed out on my sofa when taking off my shoes. I woke up several times, but as in the later dream, I was too exhausted to summon the willpower to move into my bedroom until shortly before dawn. So, that part of my dream was constructed from very recent experience.

There is something particularly disturbing about dreaming about being asleep, and hence becoming uncertain as to whether you're really 'awake'. I'm glad it doesn't happen to me often.

Bon mot for the week

"Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going."

Paul Theroux (1961- )

Saturday, January 23, 2010

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Vanna Bonta

I first stumbled across the remarkable Ms Bonta via a quotations website about a year ago (she furnished a 'bon mot of the week' last February), but somehow didn't get around to elevating her to Fantasy Girlfriend status back then.

She is quite the renaissance woman! Encouraged by her grandfather, the celebrated Italian writer Luigi Ugolini, she began writing as a child, and had a first collection of poetry published when she was barely 14; a short story of hers was taken up by Gene Roddenberry and turned into an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation; and she's written a successful sci-fi novel, Flight, an innovative, genre-defying piece she describes as 'quantum fiction'.

She started out (a surprisingly long time ago; she's past 50 now, but still looking very fine) in a career as a model and actress (best remembered for a cameo role as the hero's mother in cult fantasy romp The Beastmaster), but soon withdrew from public view to specialise as a voiceover artist instead. She was - allegedly - the model for the lissom female figures in Frederick Hart's 'Ex Nihilo' series of bas-relief sculptures at the Washington National Cathedral. From time to time, she comes up with some very good lines in her writing, and in her conversation. She plays the piano acceptably as well. And she has the most stunning blue eyes.

As if this were not enough, she's also made a name for herself in recent years as an advocate of sex in space, and to facilitate this has designed the 2suit - which uses the miracle of velcro to allow two people to get, and remain intimate in low-gravity environments.

And she's created this music video celebrating the human conquest of gravity.

And did I mention she has the most amazing eyes?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Haiku for the week

Time for something new?
Leaving begins in the heart,
And may end there too.

I have never been quite so dissatisfied with my life in Beijing, but I still have no likely escape route...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Favourite posts from the 3rd quarter of 2008

My Internet access was so disrupted during the last year that I fell out of the habit of providing quarterly rundowns of my favourite posts. I would generally produce such a list of recommendations 6 months on, but now we're 18 months behind. Never mind - it may be better this way, the longer perspective refining the judgement.

This was an especially prolific spell of blogging (what with the Olympics and all), so this may get to be quite a long list.

Here we go.

Pick of the Archive:
Favourite Posts, July-Sept. 2008

1) Chinese pronunciation classics - 2nd July 2008

Two hilarious examples of typical Chinese mispronunciation of English - really very, very funny. (And a little later there was another great one here; and an Olympic one here.)

2) List of the month - If I had a man-bag - 5th July 2008

I don't think I ever will get one of the dratted things, but if I did - it might be quite useful for carrying these daily essentials of Beijing life.

3) More Olympic "regulations" - 7th July 2008

I suffer a particularly daft example of the country's pre-Olympic anxiety.

4) My favourite book - The Wind In The Willows - 9th July 2008

An extended appreciation of my best-loved childhood read, reprinted from Moonrat's 'Celebrate Reading' Month.

5) The long arm of coincidence?? - 11th July 2008

I keep on bumping into people I know on Beijing subway trains. I mean, really, it happens a lot. This sets me off on a contemplation of the nature of coincidence and statistical probability.

6) My Fantasy Girlfriend - Daniela Hantuchova - 12th July 2008

My selection of the dazzlingly pretty Slovakian tennis player as my pin-up of the month is mainly an excuse to dilate further on my love of the game of tennis and my childhood recollections of the Wimbledon tournament.

7) A Classical Sunday - 13th July 2008

I offer my own translation of one of the best-known poems of the naughty Roman poet Catullus.

8) What the Chinese complain about - 19th July 2008

Via the online Wall Street Journal comes a pie-chart analysing what Chinese netizens most often gripe about. Quite enlightening, in a depressing sort of way.

9) A new 'game' for everyone - 19th July 2008

I publicize my new 'Misheard Song Lyrics' game from The Barstool with Annie Varner's superb video montage illustrating the 'lyrics' of Christina Aguilera's Ain't No Other Man.

10) Are we feeling "Olympic" enough yet?? - 21st July 2008

My bitter summary of everything our control-freak government is doing to try to ensure a "harmonious" Olympic Games in Beijing.

11) A question of taste - 22nd July 2008

During one of my voice-recording assignments I encounter this egregious example of Chinese bad taste. (Warning: Not for the faint-hearted.)

12) Let's talk about Security (1) - 28th July 2008

On the eve of the Olympics, I was much concerned with the city's security arrangements - or rather, the lack of them. There was lots of huffing-and-puffing and looking busy, but just about bugger-all that would actually make any of us safer. This was a topic I also considered here and here, and in this bon mot (and later, here and here and here). These misgivings proved sadly prescient when a mentally disturbed Chinese man murdered an American tourist on the opening day of the Games.

13) The chai Olympics - 5th August 2008

With the help of an artist friend, I create an image of the Olympic flag with chai (the Chinese character for 'demolish') inserted into each of the coloured rings. The wild property 'boom' in Beijing - chiefly characterised by poorly planned and largely unnecessary bulldozing of large sections of the old city, a wretched act of cultural desecration in the service of blind entrepreneurial greed - is what these Olympics should be chiefly remembered, and regretted, for in years to come.

14) What if they held an Olympics and nobody came? (1) - 6th August 2008

Bizarrely enough, that was what the Chinese government aimed for with the Beijing Olympics. Ridiculous visa restrictions and accidental-on-purpose foul-ups with ticketing meant that conventional tourism in the city dropped to almost zero this month.

15) List of the Month - that Opening Ceremony, huh?! - 12th August 2008

A jokey commentary on the highlights of the Olympic Opening Ceremony (as seen from a bar).

16) Olympics round-up - Week 1 - 15th August 2008

A rundown of the most interesting news stories and commentaries from the opening week of the Beijing Olympics.

17) The great mismatch: China & the "Olympic spirit" - 16th August 2008

My take on the great age-faking scandal in the women's (girls'!!) gymnastics. (There are follow-ups here and here.)

18) An Olympic Daily Llama - 22nd August 2008

A more humorous look back on the Olympics, via one of my frivolous 'Daily Llama' pictures.

19) Ping-pong's coming home! - 28th August 2008

Although I had earlier mocked Boris Johnson's sartorial shortcomings, I had to admit that his speech launching the London Olympic bandwagon was pretty damned funny, and added the YouTube clip of it.

20) Why pandas are going extinct - 30th August 2008

Because they're wusses! I reprint a very funny photo of panda timidity.

21) What was I expecting? - 31st August 2008

At the end of the month I sum up the reasons for my disappointment with the Beijing Olympics.

22) The weekly haiku - 5th September 2008

This one celebrates the sound of mah jong parlours, one of the favourite details of neighbourhood life that I savour when out jogging.

23) We need a new chant! 6th September 2008

An observation on Chinese sporting chants; or, rather, on the paucity of them.

24) Great job titles in the film industry - 11th September 2008

On watching Darren Aronofsky's excellent Requiem For A Dream again, I discovered that the credits included a Refrigerator Puppeteer. I had hoped to kick off a new 'collecting box' for similarly bizarre film credits, but this post has been sadly neglected thus far.

25) All that glisters is not gold - 13th September 2008

A final (well, not quite...) Olympic post on the issue of 'medal tallies' and rival approaches to comparing national team performances in the Games.

26) List of the Month - 10 Things To Love About Beijing - 13th September 2008

As a counter-balance to all of my Olympic curmudgeonliness, I offer a celebration of the best things about living in this city (and, incidentally, of reasons why Beijing is better than Shanghai).

27) China greets Paralympians - 15th September 2008

A very silly, very funny picture - from (now sadly defunct) FrostFireZoo.

28) Who are you calling a pussy? - 17th September 2008

My discovery of the - truly bizarre - Chinese transliteration of Michael Phelps' name prompts more observations on the shortcomings of the Chinese language and education system.

29) That Michael Phelps diet again - 18th September 2008

A photograph making fun of the extraordinary dietary regime of the phenomenal Olympic swimming champion (not for those with weak stomachs!).

30) The police & the law - 18th September 2008

A very funny but rather shocking true story: a journalist friend of mine loses his passport, and is reminded by a policeman of the difference in this country between what the law says and what it means in practice.

31) A missed opportunity: The Cornetto Torch - 19th September 2008

Rather belatedly, I come up with a brilliant Olympic marketing gimmick for Wall's ice cream.

32) Fingerlickin' good! - 25th September 2008

'Redneck Art' - a YouTube clip of someone doing a rather good finger-painting on a diner tablecloth..... in barbecue sauce!

33) Red sky at night - 26th September 2008

A photograph of a particularly beautiful sunset out of my kitchen window.

34) And another thing..... that bugs me about Chinese behaviour on the roads - 27th September 2008

I lose my patience with the murderously stupid propensity of Chinese cyclists to always try to cut corners.

35) Sacrilege - 27th September 2008

I have to say that, up close, I find Beijing's 'iconic' Olympic venues, the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube, to be severely unimpressive.

36) "Unffhh!" Jesus takes a hit! - 28th September 2008

Somehow or other I happen upon the you-won't-believe-it-but-it's-real, among whose stupendously kitsch highlights is this porcelain statuette of Jesus playing American football with a couple of young boys.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

There you go, China

During a particularly long and dull recording session this morning.... my big corpsing moment came when I had to say, "Here's a ruler for you."

I think I was supposed to be a kindly elementary school teacher handing out measuring sticks to his students, but, you know, it could be taken in other ways.....

This is Qin Shihuangdi, the notorious 'First Emperor of China' - a figure unduly revered here for supposedly originating the concept of a "united China". In fact, his reign was almost entirely devoid of positive qualities. Alas, he nevertheless seems to have set a template for subsequent Chinese rulers to emulate: self-aggrandising personality cults, aggressive expansionism, anti-intellectualism (he may not have created the notion of "one China" but he was a pioneer in the field of book burning) and rule by fear. [It is rather depressing that Mao Zedong is so often compared to him - as if that comparison's a good thing.]

It should also be noted that his "empire" covered only a small portion of present-day China, and fell apart almost immediately upon his death. If I were feeling really snarky, I might suggest that he also set a pattern for future Chinese governments - down to the present day - of achievement that is largely illusory or superficial, and non-sustainable.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Daily Llama for the New Year

Are you inspired by the great vistas of possibility spread out before you?

Or do you just think, "It's a long way down!"?

Bon mot for the week

"Knowledge is gained by learning; trust by doubt; skill by practice; and love by love."

Thomas Szasz (1920- )

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Oh my god - it's full of stars!"

What else could I have for Post No. 2,001??

Bonus Extras: Here's the beginning of the Stargate sequence set to Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother. Here's the original trailer. And here's the opening of the film.

Have a nice trip.

Continuing the numerical theme

Gosh, strange to think that this came out nearly 15 years ago - when the turn of the new millennium was still five years away. Pulp's Different Class album always brings back a flood of memories from my days at law school. Jarvis Cocker was sharing a London flat at this time with one of his old school friends from Sheffield, and one of my law school friends started dating him (the flatmate, that is). I think that relationship surprisingly survived and prospered, despite her idolizing - and having a bit of a crush on - his pop star housemate. She said that she always got very bashful and tongue-tied going round to the flat, and struggled to act normally, to supress the impulse to gush excitement like a teeny-bopper - "Oh my good god, it's JARVIS!!!" He was a very big deal in the British music scene at that time. Alas, this anecdote is going nowhere: I never got to meet the man myself (although I think there were a few near-misses) - just another of those quaint one-degree-of-separation coincidences.

Bonus extras: here's a great live performance of the song from the long-running BBC music show Later... with Jools Holland. And good grief, Nick Cave has covered it too - no video, but an excellent version.

This has been Post No. 2,000 on Froogville. That's about 1,800 more than I ever imagined writing when I set out on this blogging experiment just over three years ago. How many more will there be, I wonder?

Friday, January 15, 2010

End of the week silliness

Ha! I just happened upon this excellent montage of clips from the wonderfully cheesy '70s sci-fi series Space: 1999 (one of the great 'guilty pleasures' of my childhood), featuring a selection of their invariably risible (but, I suppose, quite scary when you're 7) aliens - set to The Monster Mash, of course.

OK, that wasn't entirely random YouTube browsing. This - believe it or not - is Post No. 1999.

War on Chinglish (14)

Only several...

Mandarin doesn't seem to differentiate between several and few (there's a common word - I think it's , ji - that's used for both). Anyway, Chinese speakers of English never seem to differentiate between them. Certainly the Chinese-produced English teaching materials that I am asked to edit or record never do.

Both words mean an indefinite small number, but several implies a slightly greater number: whereas few strictly means only "about 3" (and is rarely used of more than 4 or 5), several tends to mean something in the 5-10 range (there is a common - though I suspect false - belief that it is related to the word 'seven', and thus originally implied "about 7"; I'm afraid I don't have an etymological dictionary available to me at the moment to look into that).

In common usage, the key distinction is that several emphasises that the number, though unknown, may tend towards a higher range, may become significant. Therefore, it is illogical to use it in combination with the limiting adverb only, which should emphasise its smallness or insignificance.

If your boss tells you he needs to talk to you "for several minutes" , it means that the conversation is important and may drag on to take up quite a chunk of your time. If he says he needs you for "a few minutes" (or "just a few minutes" or "only a few minutes"), he is emphasising that it should be a very brief chat, reassuring you that it won't be an inconvenient imposition on your time. In practice, such a conversation might well take about five minutes, regardless of whether the boss has suggested it would take "a few minutes" or "several minutes": it's not the actual length of time of the meeting that matters so much as the attitude and expectation surrounding it - is it an important or difficult topic, is it possible that the conversation could take longer than you'd planned or hoped?

Occasionally, you get several used in an inappropriate situation, even without the rogue only. The other day in the recording studio I came upon this example: "My father is much better now. He will come home from hospital in several days."

You just wouldn't use several in an instance like that. It doesn't matter how many days it will actually be (unless you know precisely, in which case you'd say so: "in a week" or "in three days" or "next Friday"); if you want to say something positive, to emphasise how agreeably short the timeframe (or how small a number) is, you'd say "only a few". "My father is making a quick recovery. He should be out of hospital in a few days."

If it's definitely going to be a fairly small number, and it's good that it's going to be a fairly small number, say a few (or only a few or just a few). If it might be a slightly bigger number, and it's bad that it could be a slightly bigger number, say several. NEVER use only with several. Simple enough, surely?

I often feel there's something strangely apposite, however, about the Chinese quirk of saying things like "I'll be only several minutes late" or "This editing job should take you only several hours". It seems to fit the common attitude here: never being able to plan or foresee how long things will take; having no concern for the magnitude of the imposition they make on you; trying to make light of things that are actually a pretty goddamn big irritation. All too often, phrases like this decode as "I'm probably going to waste half your day, but you can't possibly have a problem with that, can you?"

A nasty scare

Yesterday, at noon, my spiffy new VPN service Witopia crashed - for about an hour or so.

Maybe it was just "routine maintenance". Maybe it was an idiopathic glitch of my computer or my local network.

Or maybe it was the Kafka Boys playing with new toys, just messing with our heads a little, letting us know, "No, your VPN isn't secure; we can fuck with you any time we want."

I hope I'm being unwarrantedly paranoid again; but that little interruption of service quite ruined my week.

Haiku for the week

Warmth but a memory;
Heart and brain are permafrost;
Mid-winter doldrums.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Frank Zappa says it best (A bon mot for the Millennium)

A couple of days ago I discovered, via the endlessly surprising Other Men's Flowers, the website, which promotes the worthy cause of atheism in the still-benighted-by-Catholicism land of my ancestors, and in particular campaigns against Eire's just introduced blasphemy law.

On the 1st January this year, the day the new law came into effect, the website challenged its provisions by publishing a selection of 25 comments on the world's major religions which would seem to meet its definition of criminal 'blasphemy'.

My favourite of these (though many of them are wise or amusing or both) is this one from the late Frank Zappa:

“If you want to get together in any exclusive situation and have people love you, fine. But to hang all this desperate sociology on the idea of The Cloud-Guy who has The Big Book, who knows if you’ve been bad or good – and cares about any of it – to hang it all on that, folks, is the chimpanzee part of the brain working.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Losing my patience with Yahoo Mail

Since the Kafka Boys' interfering ways cover not just Net-surfing but also sometimes the use of e-mail (and, indeed, at times they have appeared to perhaps be targeting me individually), one cannot rely on e-mail always going through promptly - or at all.

Therefore, I have over the last few years developed the habit of Bcc-ing myself on any important e-mails, so that I will have an immediate confirmation that the mail has gone through (and it has been interesting, on occasion, to note delays in transmission of several hours, and - once - a whole day).

I did this with some job applications this morning. On one of them, the 'blind copy' didn't come through. So, after an hour or so, I re-sent it.

Then I discovered that both copies had been diverted to my Spam folder!!

How, HOW is it possible that e-mail originating from my own account can ever be identified as spam??? (And why did it only happen with this one e-mail, not with the other near-identical ones I'd Bcc-ed to myself earlier?) That's just CRAZY.

I think there used to be a tab that allowed you to label mail as 'Not Spam'. I assumed that this function automatically adjusted the spam filter to allow mail from that address - but maybe that was hoping for too much. Anyway, that facility now seems to have disappeared. Moreover, the 'edit filters' menu seems to be (temporarily?) unavailable - so I have no way of finding out why my own address is being identified as spamming, nor of correcting this error.

Oh yes, and I did for a while yesterday suffer a return of this irksome glitch where it becomes impossible to add attachments to e-mails.

There are numerous other - great and small - irritations and lapses in functionality I've been putting up with in Yahoo Mail over the past couple of years; I am just about reaching the end of my tether. I've been using the service for, oh, at least a dozen years now, I suppose; it will be very hard to adjust to anything else. I tried G-mail a few years ago, but never warmed to it. I am, however, fairly seriously on the lookout for a new e-mail provider now. I would welcome any recommendations.

The End of Days

The signs and portents just keep getting worse.

Now I find myself applying for straight jobs.

My emotions are a jumble: despair and self-disgust that I have sunk so low; a suffocating horror in my contemplation of a possible return to an office-based existence; sneaking hopes that I won't be offered the jobs, coupled with depression in anticipation of the likely rejection (and a raging resentment against the stupidity and injustice of such a decision: it's a pretty fair bet that I would be the best candidate they'll have for either position, so I ought to be a shoo-in, but....); mounting terror about how I am going to continue to support myself in this country, as all the work I have been relying on for the last five years seems to be leaching away.

The horror, the horror.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A rock god has landed

I have been in the same town as Jimmy Page before (no doubt often in London; but in musical terms, Beijing is still a very small town, whereas London isn't). I have even been in the same room as him once (at a small, private gig some twenty years ago).

But the thought that he is here, at large, on my turf, and that I might just possibly bump into him..... is all a bit discombobulating.

Problem? What problem?

Another of this useful series of visual representations of the "East-West Cultural Gap". On the left we have our typical Occidental way of approaching problems..... and on the right, how they tend to do it in China. (The drawback with "the Chinese way", alas, is that it doesn't solve the problem, it just avoids creating a scene.)

Apparently, these amusing diagrams are the work of a Chinese graphic designer called Yang Liu (she relocated to Germany over a decade ago; if you blow the picture up to full size, you may notice that the captions are in German).

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bad signs

I don't usually take on one-to-one tuition any more because.... well, it's one of the least satisfying, least effective types of teaching.... and I don't really like to think of myself as a teacher any more.

But work is so thin on the ground at the moment that I relaxed this principle for once. It was a supposedly able and well-motivated student, a friend-of-a-friend introduction (aren't they all in China?), and a short course with a very clearly defined goal. This I could do. Oh yes, and I'd split the 'classes' with a friend who needs the money even more than I do.

But still I fretted. This was Bad Sign No. 1. I hate to work just for the money; and if I'm honest with myself I have to say here that I would not have taken this job if my financial circumstances were not so straitened at the moment.

Then I meet the guy and discover that he is a complete emotional basketcase. He irritates the crap out of me. He disgusts me on occasion. He scares me a little bit. He is very tightly wound, almost completely socially dysfunctional, and a borderline psychotic. And, not surprisingly, a very, very bad student.

Bad Sign No. 2 was that he cancelled his session today - at about 10 minutes' notice - and my only emotional response was RELIEF.

Bon mot for the week

"There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It's not just me that has a problem with this time of year

At least we've passed the dread solstice now, the afternoons are getting longer again, and in a couple of months or so, we should be out of this. It could be a long couple of months, though....

There's a certain Slant of light (# 258)

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes —

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings are —

None may teach it — Any —
’Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Saturday, January 09, 2010

List of the Month - Randomly generated names for characters in a novel

It all began with Katrina Grinsley - remember her?

My most esteemed blog-compadre JES uses an anti-spam security widget called ReCAPTCHA. It's a word-verification system, but - unlike the single, randomly generated nonsense words that Blogger's word verification entertains or mystifies us with - it uses random pairs of words (or word-fragments, or numbers) taken from actual texts. It's a worthy project, you see, to try to use a small fraction of our time spent online in contributing to the task of producing digital versions of hard-to-read conventional texts (more details here, apparently - although I can't get it to download just at the moment). It's a great little gizmo; but, alas, I don't think Blogger allows it as a plug-in, so I'm stuck with boring old single-word spambot-catchers here on my blogs.

I've spent such a lot of time on JES's marvellous blog over the past year or so that I must have been exposed to many hundreds, if not thousands of these ReCAPTCHA word pairings by now (I don't think any other blog or website I visit regularly employs this system, so it's entirely down to JES). There's always one waiting for you down there at the bottom of the comment form, even if you're not commenting yourself. And I'm such a tech-ninny that I can't be bothered to work out how feed-readers work; I just leave favourite blogs more or less permanently open in their own browser windows, and 'refresh' every few hours to see if there have been any new comments - and hence I get to experience a number of different ReCAPTCHA pairs almost every day, even on just the one blog.

When I first encountered that siren of the Yorkshire Dales, Ms Grinsley, I was struck by the apparent unlikeliness of the coincidence that ReCAPTCHA would produce such a plausible British name. At that time, it seemed to me, proper nouns - or any words with an initial capital - were cropping up very rarely, even as one half of its word-pair puzzles.

Since then, however, they do seem to have been becoming much more common. There was a bit of a 'hot streak' at the end of the summer where possible names seemed to be coming up more often than not.

And, of course, I got into a habit of recording them. I thought they might come in handy one day - for filling out the bit parts in a novel or something, you know.

Here, then, is my List of the Month.....

Randomly Generated Names For Characters In A Novel

Pauline Babbitot

Chester Behring

Dave Westminster

Henry Wise

Felix Meisner

Mary-Anne Dupree

Susanna Norplant

Arthur Vicente

Howard Woolley

Ernie Rockwood

Crispino Doty

Lord Bost

Kerkam Geiger

Grandmother Hodgman

Marc Bartik

Lawrence Striker

Shirley Fermat

Wallis Hemphin

Neil Bendix

Benjamin Medleys

Friday, January 08, 2010


I have been pottering around my two blogs during this holiday doldrum period, tidying things up, and adding the odd update or supplement to key posts here and there.

I have, for example, added a few new photos to The Cast List, my frivolous attempt to find actors or other celebrity lookalikes to represent all the people who figure in my blogs; and I've also supplied a - long promised, long deferred - list of who those celebs are (in case you didn't recognise some of them).

I've added a new postscript to my comprehensive post on Beating Internet Censorship - to reflect the fact that since the Tibetan riots in March '08, the censorship regime in China has got so tough that just about all of the web-based proxies and the other cunning little workarounds (and even some of the less robust VPNs) that we used to rely on have now been snuffed out, and we really don't have much choice any more but to employ a subscription VPN service like Witopia.

There's been a similar update to my Where To Dine In Beijing post - noting, sadly, that a number of my recommended restaurants have closed down this year.

Earlier this week I posted a new, improved set of New Year's Resolutions for 2010 (an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the old faithfuls that I've been pursuing, valiantly but with limited success, for the past two years).

Also, of course, last week saw the major event of the Barstool year, the publication of my 2009 Froog Bar Awards - a comprehensive rundown of the best (and worst) places to drink in Beijing.

Finally, I have begun once more to update the sidebars to each of my blogs with a Pick of the Month 'random recommendation' from my early archives. (This month's selections I think I have in fact nominated before, so perhaps it's not as 'random' as all that! However, that just goes to show how good these two posts are.)

And, ah yes, the dratted sidebars. Oh dear. You might not be seeing them at all at the moment - try scrolling down to the very bottom of the page. Are they hiding there, underneath all the posts?

I think this problem is caused by the fact that for three months or so I was writing all my posts via e-mail, and somehow or other this managed to scramble the HTML so that the font sizes occasionally became ENORMOUS - hence, I suppose, leaving "no room" for the sidebars (even though the fonts are displaying as normal size on the blog) and causing them to be bumped to the bottom of the page, at least in certain browsers under certain conditions. I seem to have managed to restore Round-The-World Barstool Blues to normality by painstakingly resizing the text in all the afflicted posts, but I haven't got around to Froogville yet - it's a terribly slow and tedious process. Bear with me.

Remember, if you crave a peek at my sidebars (and why wouldn't you?), they're probably hiding at the foot of the page.