Thursday, September 30, 2010


I don't get sucked into playing war games very often, but when I do.... oh man, can it get serious.

I probably hadn't played Risk in 15 years or so, but last week - during what was supposed to have been a restful couple of days away in the countryside - I got embroiled in a game of it that threatened to go on forever.  After 5 or 6 hours of play, at around 3.30 am, we were still nowhere near to reaching a conclusion.  I seem to recall that it is almost always thus.  You have to tweak the rules a bit to create a more playable game.  It's too easy to earn reinforcements by collecting game cards, and the size of those reinforcements escalates so rapidly that battles and campaigns soon assume enormous - and tiresomely time-consuming - proportions.  I was about to receive 80 new divisions for my next game turn, but it was almost certainly still not going to be enough for me to achieve a decisive advantage over my last remaining opponent, who was tactically in a slightly stronger position than me.  I had become the first player to wrest control of the whole of Asia, and had also won myself a valuable little enclave in Eastern Europe; but my hold over North America, with only a very thinly spread occupying force, looked tenuous.  My wily Bengali adversary was well entrenched in Europe and Australasia, and had just swept through South America, eliminating the last of the other players in the game.  Fatigue eventually won out over our competitive pride, and we grudgingly accepted a 'draw' - retiring to bed with the world divided more or less equally between us.

In fact, I was mightily grateful just to be still in the game.  I had for a long period been hanging on by my fingernails, reduced at one point to having just two or three countries and a handful of army units under my control.  Paradoxically, that made me too weak to be a priority target, as the other four players battled to stop each other gaining possession of a whole continent.  The only reason I survived, and was able to make such a dramatic late resurgence, was that during the crucial middle phase of the game I just hadn't seemed worth bothering about.

Relief and exhilaration at my lucky escape, and satisfaction in my eventual success, was tempered by a due sense of guilt about what a reckless sacrifice of a good night's sleep this had been.

I was also reminded uncomfortably of the intensity of emotion that these combat-based games can arouse, the lingering grudges they can engender.

I was reminded particularly of 'The Ontario Incident' - a truly grim example of fanatical grudge-bearing that occurred in a game of Risk I played back in the early or mid-1990s with my Indian doctor friend, The Younger Dr P (he of the notorious 'IPD Theory of Attractiveness'), and one of his old medical school buddies.  Dr P and I had agreed a non-aggression pact for three turns, to pool our resources in order to try to force the third player out of the game.  We had very nearly succeeded in doing so, and I suggested that we should extend the pact for at least one more turn, until we had finished him off.  However, I had by this point gained control of the whole of North America, with the sole exception of Ontario, which was still held by Dr P with only one or two armies.  I sought his 'permission' to attack and take over Ontario, without detriment to our pact, since the province was of no possible use to him but would  be of significant value to me in earning a bonus of additional troop reinforcements for possessing the whole continent.  He testily refused.  I tried to reason with him.  He still refused.  I reiterated the considerable advantages that would accrue to both of us if we extended our pact through another game turn.  He was unimpressed.  I think I tried to offer him additional incentives - offering to let him direct where I should attack our opponent, or 'allowing' him to take over certain weak and isolated territories of mine as exceptions to the pact.  He wasn't having any of it.  I might have refrained from attacking Ontario if he'd been a bit more reasonable about things, but he was so obstinate and bad-tempered that he turned his back on any possibility of renewing our pact.  So.... I repudiated the pact early and took Ontario off him.

He was very, very annoyed at this "betrayal".  He made it his primary aim through the rest of the game to recover Ontario, and then take the rest of the Americas from me as well.  He concentrated all his efforts against me, almost completely ignoring the third player.  North America became a scene of internecine strife.  I lost count of the number of times that Ontario changed hands between us.  And, of course, the third player quietly rebuilt his position and eventually prevailed over both of us.

There's a lesson or two in that, I fancy.

[I suspect Dr P, like me, occasionally recounts this story ruefully to others.  But we dare not raise the topic with each other.  Our friendship barely survived this savage 'virtual' dispute.]

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

China snapshots

A few random observations from the past few days... some of the quirky 'charms' of living in China:

Jarring juxtapositions
The Chinese can be endearingly uninhibited by any sense of the incongruous.  During the protracted drizzly spell we suffered a week or so ago, I happened to see two young soldiers - in full camouflage combat uniform - stopping to buy umbrellas from a street vendor.  There was quite a range of sizes and colours they could have chosen, but they both opted for dainty little PINK ones.

Unimpressive footwear
The PLA guards assigned to Embassy protection duty are usually rather better turned out than your average soldier, but their uniforms are still conspicuously cheap.  And the new shift I saw taking over at the US Embassy a little while back were wearing plimsolls.  Camo plimsolls, at least, but still plimsolls.  Again, it was during the rainy spell, so perhaps they didn't want to get their 'dress shoes' muddy.  But even their dress shoes are rather cruddy, plasticky-looking slip-ons.  In fact, I'm not sure that there's any standard issue or uniform regulation on footwear; these soldiers often look as if they're wearing their own shoes (and they'll invariably buy whatever is most inexpensive).  You hardly ever see a soldier wearing boots.  That does rather diminish the sense of threat that the Chinese armed forces seek to inspire in their potential foes.

Astoundingly BAD road design
Pedestrian crossings don't count for much in this country, since drivers pay them no attention.  But we do have them.  Quite a lot of them, in fact.  Far more, probably, than we actually need.  It's just that most of them are in utterly daft places.  On Jiadaokou Nandajie (a street that I cross quite a lot), there's one right next to a bus stop - so, when a bus pulls in to the stop, it completely blocks the crossing (even worse, the approaching buses pull right over to the edge of the road, forcing you to scoot out of their way [there is no sidewalk to stand on, so you have to wait on the edge of the road while looking out for an opportunity to cross]).  And just the other day I noticed (I can't think how this has escaped my attention for so long; I suppose I just don't spend very much time on the city's Ringroads) that there are bus stops on the city's East Third Ringroad.  Yep, actually on the Ringroad.  And right next to the off-ramp.  I kid you not.

Routine cleaning
As I was walking home late one night, I encountered a couple of skivvies from a local restaurant cleaning their meat-grinder on the sidewalk outside.  Well, 'cleaning' is probably not the appropriate word.  The larger, fresher lumps of meat they were picking off with their fingers and depositing in a bowl for future use; the older, more dried-on fragments they were just ignoring.  I begin to doubt if I will ever have the nerve to order shizi tou ('lion's heads' - large, faggot-like meatballs) again.

Foot binding
While taking a break in the country for a couple of days last week, I came across a toothless old granny who appeared to have had bound feet.  I can't be quite sure, but there was definitely some disability in the way she walked, and her feet did seem very small and oddly shaped.  I would have been embarrassed to ask her about it, though - even if my Chinese were up to it.  And I doubt if I would have understood any of her responses: she spoke in some thick rural dialect, further garbled by her toothlessness, that neither I nor my capably Sinologue friends could fathom at all.  Foot binding, I gather, wasn't finally eradicated until the beginning of the Communist era, and was still relatively common in certain areas through the 1920s and 1930s - so you do still occasionally see a very old lady with these tiny, broken feet.  It's a disturbing reminder that the feudal past is not all that distant in China; in fact, much of its legacy of brutality and superstition is still very much with us.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Panda fury

A friend sent me this yesterday.  I gather it's one of the latest 'viral' favourites on the Internet - a TV ad campaign for the 'Panda' brand range of cheese products from the Cairo-based Arab Dairy Products Co.

This is possibly the most sinister advertising premise I've ever seen (I suspect those sticky-beaks at the British Advertising Standards Authority would veto something like this on the grounds that it might terrify young children or encourage random acts of violence by rejected salesmen), but it is very, very funny.

[I feel such 'panda moments' coming on all too frequently myself of late, especially whenever I cross the road.  "NEVER accelerate towards a laowai!"]

Bon mot for the week

"We are strange beings: we seem to go free, but we go in chains - chains of training, custom, convention, association, environment - in a word, Circumstance; and against these bonds the strongest of us struggle in vain."

Mark Twain  (1835-1910)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Film List - let's get non-fictional

Another short and sweet one this month, just a roundup of what DVD titles I've been purchasing recently.  I'm having a run on documentaries.  The other week, I happened to be up in the north-east corner of the city - an area I rarely venture to any more (once upon a time, I had both a job and a girlfriend in that part of town, and was thus a regular visitor; but now I can go for months at a time without straying out that way); so, I thought I'd nip into one of the city's most venerable pirated DVD stores, Tom's DVD (now hiding in a basement, but otherwise untroubled by the succession of supposed 'crackdowns' on IP infringement here), to see what titles they might have there.  In fact, I was looking specifically for Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, which I'd spotted in there (but - foolishly! - failed to purchase when I was last up there a month or so back), but.... well, there was such a wealth of intriguing features on the 'Documentary' shelves that I didn't get any further in my browsing; I hoovered up 9 or 10 of these documentaries, and then had to impose a budgetary curb on myself.

My latest DVD purchases

(Dir. Terry Zwigoff, 1994)
This portrait of the eccentric cartoonist Robert Crumb (and of the rest of his oddball family, particularly his possibly even more talented but even more mentally troubled brother, Charles) is arguably the best documentary biography ever made.  Even if you don't like Crumb or his work (and he's not really a very likeable character), it's a beautiful, haunting, heartbreaking film.

102 Minutes That Changed America
(No director credited,  2008)
A History Channel special chronicling the 9/11 attacks on New York through contemporary footage and eye-witness testimony.  It will be harrowing viewing, I'm sure.

Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country
(Dir. Anders Østergaard, 2008)
A study of the work of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a tiny dissident "TV station in exile" which  strives to record the oppression of the Burmese people by the ruling military junta with on-the-spot film footage shot mostly by 'citizen reporters' on mobile phones and miniature camcorders.

Manufactured Landscapes
(Dir. Jennifer Baichwal, 2007)
A film following the work of art photographer Edward Burtynsky as he studies the transformations of environment and culture wrought by rapid industrialisation (mostly shot in east China, I gather).

Brother's Keeper
(Dir. Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
This won all sorts of awards when it first came out, and I remember hearing a lot of good things about it, but somehow I never got around to watching it.  It follows the case of Delbert Ward, a reclusive and mentally compromised man in a small farming community in New York State, who was accused of murdering the brother he shared a bed with.

Power Trip 
(Dir. Paul Devlin, 2003)
An American company struggles to upgrade the power grid in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, faced with a population who, after decades of Communism, obstinately expect their electricity to be free and contrive endless ways to steal it.  Another multi-award winner that somehow passed me by.... until now.

Visions Of Light
(Dir. Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy, & Stuart Samuels, 1992)
A ravishing history of the art of cinematography, including interviews with many of its greatest practitioners - like Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor), Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven), Michael Chapman (Raging Bull), John A. Alonzo (Chinatown), and Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke).  How had I missed this for so many years?!  For a film nut like me this is a little slice of heaven: I think I could watch this once or twice a month for the rest of my life.

The Genius Of Photography
(Dir. Tim Kirby, 2007)
A six-part BBC television series on the history of photography.  I think this is going to bring on the raptures in me as well.

Edvard Munch
(Dir. Peter Watkins, 1974)
Originally a four-part series made for Norwegian TV (though I'm not sure if I may have bought the slightly pared-down three-hour version later prepared for theatrical release in America) written and directed by an Englishman, Peter Watkins; this won a BAFTA in 1975, but I don't recall it being shown on British television back then. I finally caught it on BBC2 in the early '90s, and it is jaw-droppingly good: exquisitely acted and photographed. Ingmar Bergman apparently described it as "a work of genius".  My recollection of seeing it nearly twenty years ago, though, is that its muted palette, its languorous pacing, and perhaps rather excessively lugubrious voiceover narration (and its subject matter: Munch didn't have a very happy life, and almost all of his circle of friends and associates from his time in Berlin in the 1890s - the main focus of the film - died young from drug and alcohol abuse, TB, or suicide) make it a very, very, very depressing experience.  I'll have to choose my moment to try this one again....
[Watkins is perhaps otherwise best remembered for making The War Game, a docu-drama about the impact of a nuclear attack on the UK, commissioned by the BBC in the mid-60s, but considered so disturbing that it was suppressed for nearly two decades - only finally getting a showing on British television, as far as I recall, when the similar Threads was aired in 1984.  Despite the Beeb's misgivings about the film, it did get a limited theatrical release, and went on to win the 'Best Documentary' Oscar.]

Friday, September 24, 2010

Strange foods

I don't have a functional camera at the moment (well, I don't have a functional version of Photo Shop for my computer... long story...), so I'm not able to provide visual proof of this for you.  You'll just have to take it on trust.  The other day I discovered in my local 7/11 Lemon Tea-Flavoured Potato Crisps.  Why?  Why, in the name of god, why???

Unnecessary experimentation with flavourings for simple snacks is by no means a uniquely Chinese quirk.  (I'm far more annoyed by the unfathomable discontinuation of flavours that actually work than by the relentless introduction of new varieties that are obviously pointless.  I will never forgive Lay's for withdrawing their delicious chilli-flavoured crisps ['chips', if you must, Yanquis] from the market a few years back.)  No, this seems to be a common vice across East Asia, with the Japanese regularly hogging all of the 'most exotic'/'most unbelievable'/'most disgusting' prizes.  Their inventiveness in the field of ice cream is particularly notorious.  (An even longer list here!)  Hmm, a garlicky ice cream to keep those pesky vampires away, anyone?

And I just recently discovered this blog (by a Canadian who spent several years in Japan), which features the improbable wonder of Genghis Khan brand Lamb-Flavoured Caramels.

You know, I do find my curiosity piqued by this last one.  I mean, they can't be as bad as mooncakes, can they?

Haiku for the week

How soon the air cools,
The leaves redden and then fall!
How quick the bones chill!

The transitional seasons here in Beijing have been attenuated to the point of non-existence this year.  Repeated relapses into frost nibbled great chunks out of what should have been our spring and early summer; and now, although the skies are dazzlingly clear in this holiday week, there's been an abrupt drop in temperature, and it feels as though winter is already on our doorstep.  Bloody 'global warming'!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Favourite posts from the 2nd quarter of 2009 (Pt 2)

Continuing my round-up for April to June last year, which seemed to be a particularly rich period here on Froogville....

Pick of the Archive:
Favourite Posts, April-June 2009 (Part 2)

1)  Three timely bons mots  -  18th May 2009
The beginning of the annual Internet crackdown in the run-up to the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen 'incident' prompts me to post three wise observations on tyranny and censorship (plus another over on The Barstool).

Some advice on how to handle interview situations, such as the oral test in the IELTS English exam; including examples of what to say about James Cameron's Titanic.

3)  Chinese condom brands  -  19th May 2009
Hours of entertainment for the easily amused foreigner! (More of the same here and here.)

4)  Staring at the sun  -  24th May 2009
One of my Sunday cultural offerings: three favourite poems (one of them in Greek!) and a thematically related cartoon joke.

5)  Dark humour  -  27th May 2009
A couple of jokes about the Tiananmen crackdown (something of which one still cannot speak openly in China) led to a little more general philosophizing about the possible psychological underpinnings of 'bad taste' humour, how it serves as a necessary catharsis.

6)  Quiz - favourite film quotations  -  30th May 2009
A challenge to fellow film enthusiasts: 10 humorous (but hard-to-place!) lines from favourite films of mine.  [The answers are here, along with a clip of the marvellous closing scene from one of the films.]

7)  Why it matters  -  3rd June 2009
Perhaps my most impassioned post yet on the 6/4 anniversary (and the potent iconography of the 'Tank Man').  There was more (of course) on this topic here (a haiku) and here (a bon mot); but, to mark this 20th anniversary of the crackdown, I suspended both of my blogs for a week.

8)  Tiananmen anniversary roundup  -  12th June 2009
I return to blogging with an anthology of links to the most interesting articles I've found online about this year's Tiananmen anniversary - including this newly released photograph with a unique view of the 'Tank Man' incident, and Hillary Clinton's official statement on the anniversary.

9)  Avoiding the Square  -  13th June 2009
I didn't visit Tiananmen Square on the day of the anniversary this year.  Here are my reasons.

10)  Nuance  -  17th June
One of the oddest, subtlest ineptitudes in English I've yet encountered from a Chinese educational publisher...

11)  My Fantasy Girlfriend - Isabelle Huppert  -  20th June 2009
An appreciation of the gorgeous and talented French actress (inspired by the fact that this rather stunning exhibition of photographic portraits of her was visiting Beijing at this time), one of the earliest and most enduring of my cinematic crushes.

12)  Tell me WHY  -  22nd June 2009
 I wrap up my brief commentary on the latest depressing political campaign ("We can't possibly change because... we just can't, OK?") from the Chinese Communist Party with a clip of Bob Geldof (and Johnny Fingers) giving a wonderful live performance of the classic Boomtown Rats hit  I don't like Mondays.

13)  Censorship was never so SEXY!  -  24th June 2009
Ah, who now remembers 'Green Dam', the Chinese government's comically inept initiative to try make Internet filtering software compulsory on all computers bought in the country?  However, some of the online cartoons it gave rise to during its couple of months of being the No. 1 story in China were pretty amusing... and pretty raunchy.  This is my favourite: a manga babe policewoman in fascist uniform.... and bunny ears!

14)  Beijing landlords  -  28th June 2009
My decision to start househunting in the last week or two before I go on holiday was probably unwise...  Stress I could definitely do without!

15)  Baiting session  -  28th June 2009
I anticipate an opportunity to pillory the film director Lu Chuan (a talented guy, but also - according to most reports - a colossal arsehole... and he owes a friend of mine money!) at a screening of his new film, Nanjing! Najing! (City of Life and Death).  Alas, he doesn't show up.  However, this post is of more interest for the fact that one of my regular-ish commenters provoked me into an unrelated speculation in the comments on the likely future development of China - culturally and politically.  I probably ought to elevate this stuff to a post of its own some time.

16)  1729  -  29th June 2009
What????  Well, it's 'Ramanujan's number', you see. 

17)  Time to go  -  29th June 2009
China has been bugging me just a little too much over the past month or two - I am well overdue for a holiday. [Again, there's some rather interesting - not really related stuff - in the comments here.]

18)  Flu Corner  -  29th June 2009
My parting shot before I fly out to the States: a piece of whimsy on the raging 'bird flu' panic.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

You are old, Uncle Wang

A few weeks ago, I was picked up by a cabbie with the registration number 0175**.

I think that's the oldest taxi driver registration number I've ever had.

The very low numbers aren't always a good thing.  Some guys who've been on the road that long degenerate into cantankerous misanthropes or homicidal/suicidal loons.  Others appear to have taken a twenty-year break from the profession soon after qualifying, and are every bit as clueless in their car control and geographical awareness as the bumptious newbies.  Others, perhaps, are just bewildered by the pace of change in the city, and suffer an anxiety attack if called upon to operate outside of a narrow 'home turf'.  And sometimes you find a number that has fairly obviously been "reassigned" to a nephew or grandchild - there is no way that this baby-faced twenty-something has even five years' experience on the road, let alone the twenty-plus years his registration number would seem to indicate!

But this chap, Mr '0175', was the real deal: he knew how to drive a car, he knew how to get around the city, and he was affable and laidback with it.  And, oh boy, he's been in the job a long time.  He still had his original photo on the registration card on the dash: the scrawny youth with a shock of unkempt black hair was only just recognisable as the stout, shaven-headed man sitting beside me now; he couldn't have been more than about twenty years old in that picture, I would guess.  He told me he was now 55 years old.

When you find a guy like this, you want to take him home with you as a full-time chauffeur (ah, if only I had that kind of money!).  At the very least, you try to get his phone number, so that the next time you need to get to the airport in the rush hour... or get to a wedding way out on the west side of town on a national holiday... or...

[Please note:  my invitation to contribute your own observations of impressively ancient cab driver registrations - or general anecdotes of your experience with taxis in China - is still open... HERE.]

Monday, September 20, 2010

The most important lesson of The Tank Man

Yield to pedestrians!!

I was hit by a vehicle in the street a couple of days ago.  This is at least the fourth or fifth time that's happened to me while I've been living in China.  As opposed to NEVER in the thirty-odd years I've lived in other countries.  That's a fair indication of just how murderously bad driving standards are here.

I think driving is particularly awful here in Beijing, where the people seem to be imbued with an especially robust bloody-mindedness, a selfish conviction that rules don't apply to them.  Such rules as there are, that is.  There don't seem to be many.  And even the few pathetically inadequate traffic rules are not backed by any significant enforcement (again, it may be that the situation is particularly bad in the capital: nearly all the police here are busy monitoring potential 'subversives'; traffic police are just about invisible, non-existent - trying to curb homicidal incompetence on the roads just isn't any kind of priority).  Driver education is minimal.  Road junctions are poorly designed; traffic light timing is illogical, insane.  The problems seem too numerous to begin to address, impossible to rectify.

But the No. 1 problem - at least here in ME, ME, ME Beijing - is that nobody pays any attention to pedestrians crossing the road.  A green crossing signal means nothing, because drivers will often have a green left filter light at the same time (and you can turn right on a red light!); and drivers turning left or right at a junction will not slow down - much less stop - for pedestrians attempting to cross the road; indeed, at times it seems they actively delight in trying to scare you, aiming straight for you and trying to force you to scurry out of their way.

Of course, I tend to take them on: I'll keep obstinately to my chosen path and pace, refusing to be hurried out of the way; sometimes I'll even stop in my tracks and turn to face them, demanding that they STOP, or detour around me.  It's a dangerous game, and I'll probably get splatted one day.

Drivers turning left are a particular problem because the major roads in Beijing are so wide that they are given a very generous turning circle and scarcely need to slow down at all to make their turn; they'll just steam straight across the junction at 25 or 30 mph, or even more, heedless of the vulnerable pedestrians in their path.  

That's what happened to me the other day.  I got creased across the left thigh by a lightweight mini-van taking a turn at well over 20 mph.  The driver saw me, but made no attempt to moderate his speed or steer around me; he expected me to avoid him.  The dozen or so other people attempting to cross with me saw the lunatic gleam in his eyes and either ran to the far side of the road or scuttled backwards out of his way.  Me, I just kept on walking at a normal pace, expecting that the guy would realise I was going to be slap bang in front of him when he reached the crossing and that he would have to deviate just slightly to the left or the right to avoid killing me.  He didn't.  He just kept on coming - way too fast to have had any chance of braking to a halt.  And, at the very last moment, realising the bastard was going to run me down, I had to check my stride, take a swift half-pace backwards, and flinch away from the speeding vehicle.  And the bastard still clipped me quite hard.

Such murderous lunacy on the roads is one of the most depressing things about living in China, and one of the things that most disposes me towards giving up on the country and moving somewhere else.

Bon mot for the week (Sun Tzu is crap series)

"Never let your enemy choose the place of battle."

Sun Tzu (ostensibly 6th Century BCE, but probably legendary)

"Don't make a big deal out of whether it's you or your enemy who chooses the place of battle.  Nine times out of ten he chooses badly."


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Time's arrow reversed

I had meant to post this a few weeks back, but wasn't able to find it online.  I am indebted to occasional Froogville reader Nick (or perhaps a regular reader but infrequent commenter?) for passing it on to me.  It is one of my very favourite Larkin poems.

As Bad As A Mile

Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more

Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier: the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.

Philip Larkin  (1922-1985)

And - finally, after years of occasional fruitless searching - I've found this, Renaissance, an early film by Walerian Borowczyk (who would later become famous/notorious for quirky and macabre erotica like The Beast), dimly remembered from a festival of short animations I saw at the Phoenix cinema in Oxford while an undergraduate two dozen or more years ago. It is, I think, the best piece I've ever seen using the 'time goes backwards' device.
[It's posted by a user called The Motion Brigades, "dedicated to showcasing stop motion animation from the masters of the genre, with focus on rare and hard to find titles". I can see I'm going to be spending a lot of time noodling around their collection. I might have to have another 'Short Animation Festival' on here soon!]

And, well, I am hesitant to recommend this, since I absolutely loathe Coldplay, but ... it is another stunningly well executed example of this idea: the video for their song The Scientist, directed by Jamie Thraves.

[And do you remember this poem of my own on a similar theme - not following time backwards, but bringing it to a standstill, in the way that only a really good kiss can?]

Saturday, September 18, 2010

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Rachel Manija Brown

Because, sometimes, attraction is purely intellectual.

Since she appears to have made the progression from being (the, I gather, Jewish) Ms Manija to (the very un-Jewish-sounding) Ms Brown, she's probably not 'available' any more.  And I very much doubt if I shall ever be fortunate enough to meet her.  But since discovering her by chance on the Internet a week ago, I have been quite fascinated.

Rachel Manija Brown is, I have discovered, a talented and funny writer, who keeps two blogs (though largely overlapping), here and here[I also wonder if perhaps she's somehow related to the great Ron Manager?]  She's also the author of what sounds like a really fascinating childhood memoir, All The Fishes Have Come Home To Roost, about the years she spent with her hippie parents on Meher Baba's ashram (there's an interview with her about the book here, and an anecdote about how she came to write it on her own website here).  Her website also includes some great lists of 'recommended reading' in various genres, and three diverting short essays on aspects of writing.

Another of her works is a graphic novel called Project Blue Rose (preview here), advertised with the tag: Black ops, black helicopters, secret government projects, hot men kissing each other.  If Mulder and Scully were gay men... if Alias were set in East Texas... you'd almost be prepared for...

Make me laugh, and I'm yours.

[On the other hand, my propensity to be attracted to eccentrically brilliant women with troubled childhoods hasn't thus far made for a very happy 'track record' in my romantic life.]

Time for some Hendrix

Today is the 40th anniversary of the untimely death of legendary electric guitarist Jimi Hendrix.  I'd rather be commemorating the day of his birth than the day of his death, but I can do that in a couple of months' time.  For now, any excuse is welcome to while away a rainy morning looking at old concert footage of the great man doing his thing on YouTube.

My favourite, this version of Red House which I just posted over on The Barstool.  Go and check it out.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A perfectionist out of water

I had a new recording job at the start of this week.  Not just the usual crappy Chinese educational publisher gig, but working for a prestigious foreign employer; not just a done-it-a-million-times-before batch of Chinglish dialogues, but a proper voiceover.

I was actually a little nervous, for once.  But I was also looking forward to being able to take a little more care over the work than usual - to discussing with the client exactly what they wanted, to experimenting a little with the phrasing and the style of the delivery, to laying down alternate takes for the client to choose from or edit together.

Unfortunately.... my liaison was not a foreigner but a Chinese girl... with fairly limited English, and no interest whatever in the job she'd been given to do.  And we were having to use a recording studio in a Chinese media company, so... the engineer wasn't very adept or very industrious either.  He wasn't going to attempt any editing; he just wanted to throw the switch once and then forget about me.  When I did - inevitably - stumble over a word here or there, he huffed and puffed for minutes in trying to locate the right place to resume the recording (on one occasion having to play through almost the whole recording up to that point - twice; although, luckily, we hadn't laid down very much by that point).  He seemed to be attempting to communicate to me by this incompetence that he had something else he'd far rather be doing, and that I'd better get this shitty little job done in one take.  The girl representing the client was even more uninterested: she didn't pay any attention to what was happening at all. I could have been making gaffes left and right, pronouncing all the proper names incorrectly or inconsistently (I have recurring moments of guilty panic that perhaps I did on occasion), or peppering the recording with under-the-breath obscenities.  She wouldn't have known or cared.

It is fortunate that I've been doing this work for so long now - and almost invariably trying not only to get everything down in a single take, but to do so while sight-reading - that I have become fairly skillful at reading without errors, and at deciding on appropriate phrasing and intonation impromptu.  And for this job, I had at least been given the scripts a few days in advance (an unheard-of luxury!), so I'd had an opportunity to do a few small polishes and re-writes, check up on the pronunciation of some tricky names, and have a couple of full practice read-throughs.  Without that little bit of advance preparation, I might have made a right pig's ear of it.  I'm still a mite dissatisfied with the standard of my work on this - but it was done in such a headlong rush (ONE TAKE!), what could the client really expect?

I found it a very depressing experience.  I had been hoping that this might be a really interactive session, that I'd be collaborating with the client's representatives and the studio staff to try to produce something really good.

But in China, nobody gives a damn.  I think they have a conceptual blindspot about the pursuit of perfection, about trying to make something "as good as we can make it".  Here, all they seem to care about is making something "good enough".

Asking for trouble

Continuing my occasional series of illustrated puns.  Not sure where this one is from; but I've always had a special affection for jokes and stories featuring The Reaper.

The weekly haiku

Streets awash with filth,
The sewers bubbling over:
A Beijing shower.

And it wasn't even proper rain - more of what we would call back home a mizzle. We probably had only a few millimetres of rain over the course of twelve hours, but in no time the drains were clogged, the sewers overflowing, the streets flooded.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

An e-commerce idea for China

I feel China really ought to have an online shopping Website where you can attempt to whittle down the price demanded through protracted bargaining - a real-time haggling process, albeit probably conducted with an AI counterpart rather than a live sales assistant (even the most limited AI program could scarcely be more unintelligently obstinate than your average Silk Street stallholder here in Beijing).  I envisage an animation of a desk calculator like the one above, hovering to and fro between you and your cartoon antagonist as you exchange a long series of offers and counter-offers (the cartoon trader squawking from time to time, "How much you really want to pay?  No, really, what's your best price?  No, I can't feed my children on that.  I lose money if I sell that low!" etc.).  A randomising element in the AI could give you a widely varying, unpredictable range of final outcomes, from no sale at all to bargain of the century - thus combining the exhilaration of shopping with the even greater adrenalin rush of gambling!

I had wanted to call this site, or maybe - but, alas, these both exist already (the latter cheerily exhorts us to "Learn about wood carving now!").  However, still appears to be available; maybe that'll work.  Watch this space....

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Favourite posts from the 2nd quarter of 2009 (Pt 1)

Gosh, early summer last year seems to have been a particularly productive period for me.  I'll have to split this selection into two in order to keep things to a manageable size.

Pick of the Archive:
Favourite posts, April-June 2009 (Part 1)

1)  More chuckles in the studio  -  April 8th 2009
Yet another example of one of the risible scripts I am often asked to read for Chinese English-teaching audiotapes prompts a little rant about the habitual Chinese ineptitude with foreign names (rather different, but equally hilarious, examples here and here).

2)  Who on earth is Katrina Grinsley?  -  April 8th 2009
A name randomly encountered on the Internet - but I find it rather striking, and fantasise a character for it.

3)  Dao-le!  -  April 10th 2009
Some more thoughts on Beijing taxi drivers (including my buddy Big Frank's suggestion that the qualifying test for the cabbie's licence should be nicknamed The Ignorance).

4)  The ming pian game  -  April 11th 2009
12 more things I might have printed on my next set of business cards.

5)  A Vonnegut bon mot  -  April 13th 2009
A great line from Kurt Vonnegut inspires a sour observation of my own on the state of modern China.

6)  Just the facts, ma'am  -  April 15th 2009
An hilarious - but disturbing - anecdote about the difficulties encountered by artist/activist Ai Weiwei and his team of young researchers in attempting to compile a comprehensive list of the schoolchildren victims of the previous year's Wenchuan earthquake.

7)  Apologies for obscurity  -  April 16th 2009
More amusing literary odds & ends, offered in 'explanation' of some enigmatic post titles I'd used recently.

8)  The weekly haiku  -  April 17th 2009
One of my best, I think - on the topic of lost love.  One lost love in particular, the most recent; she also inspired this poem.

9)  Snapshots from the countryside  -  April 17th 2009
A recent weekend away in Huairou allowed me to indulge my penchant for the abstract in photography.  (A pity my digital camera is so SHITE!)

I commemorate the 15th anniversary of my first visit to this country with an extended reminiscence.

11)  Who stopped the rain?  -  April 22nd 2009
I speculate on the possible causes of the ongoing severe drought in north China and Beijing.  Not unrelated to all the weather-manipulation shenanigans and rampant over-watering of the capital during the Olympics the year before, I suspect.

12)  "Ma Lin says hello"  -  April 22nd 2009
The favourite of my 'Olympic' stories: the 'conspiracy theory' behind an unfortunate accident that befell my best friend during the Olympic summer.

13)  Cartoon  -  April 23rd 2009
My idea for a visual joke with a Chinese reference.  It's such a shame I can't draw well.

14)  6 favourite cinema experiences  -  April 25th 2009
In a lifetime of passionate cinema-going, these are the six theatres which have left the most lasting impression on me.

15)  Great lines not to use  -  April 30th 2009
A couple of thigh-slappingly hilarious bits of 'love talk' from a charming North Korean romantic comedy I saw recently.

16)  Conspiracy theory  -  May 1st 2009
My buddies and I wonder if there may be a sinister, ulterior motive behind the gradual purging of the foreign population from Beijing in the summer leading up to the country's 60th anniversary celebrations.  (Well, of course, it turned out that there wasn't.  But our idea didn't seem so far-fetched back then.)

17)  How to make Chinese friends  -  May 2nd 2009
This provocative article on the CN Reviews blog about whether foreigners in China make enough effort to socialise with Chinese people leads to some extended self-reflection.  I'm long overdue for a return to this topic; there's a lot to say about it.

18)  A happier kind of anniversary  -  May 6th 2009
I encounter an upbeat personal reminiscence related to the June 4th crackdown in Beijing.  Even in the midst of tragedy, life goes on.

19)  It's not just the Chinese...  -  May 7th 2009
... who invent bizarre new words or conjure inspired misspellings.  I am reminded of a couple of favourite examples from my days teaching back in England.

20)  Delivery  -  May 9th 2009
Amongst the reasons why I would never eat fish in this country...

21)  The feeling of Sunday afternoons  -  May 10th 2009
A nostalgic weekend reverie leads me to post two favourite poems about the emotional resonance of music, by D.H. Lawrence and Edwin Muir.  (Don't omit to check out the comments as well for some favourite film trivia quibbles.)

22)  The Gender Divide  -  May 13th 2009
Some very funny - but rather discomfiting - pictures from a children's book striving to perpetuate crude gender stereotyping in the early 1970s.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Any time you like

I've been discussing the possibility of taking on a university teaching job again.  The finances have been so dire this year that I have to consider such dread options.

Ah, well, it's only one morning a week, and the money's quite good.

And my contact is doing his best to be accommodating.  He promised they would rig the teaching schedule to my convenience.

"You can pick which day of the week you'd like to teach here," he said.

"Any day?"  I queried.

"Yes, any day," he confirmed.

"Well, I guess Wednesday would suit me best," I said.

"Any day except Wednesday," he said.

"Any day except Wednesday?" I tutted.

"Any day except Wednesday and Monday," he said.

"OK then, I'd prefer Tuesday," I said.

"Tuesday? No problem," he said.

Of course, today, a week or two further down the line, just as the course is due to start, he gets back to me again.  "Tuesday is not available," he says.  "You can choose another day.  Any day at all.  Any day except Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  And Friday."

I am hesitant to nominate Thursday, in case that day too suddenly becomes "unavailable", and I find that they are in fact trying to press-gang me into working on the weekend.

At the moment, though, they're saying Thursday is fine.

It is nice to be given choices, isn't it?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Gifts of randomness

I have mentioned before the strange pleasures to be derived from the bizarre word pairings offered up by the spambot-catcher system ReCaptcha, used by my friend JES over on his Running After My Hat blog.

A few days ago it confronted me with the enigmatic combo kabod shinork.

Kabod surrendered its meaning relatively easily (if you have the German).  But shinork?

Well, Shinork, I learned, is a personal name - but an astonishingly rare one; at least in the United States, where there is apparently only a single instance of it in the nationwide address directories.  (Almost a Googlewhack kind of phenomenon.  There really ought to be a word, didn't there, for names with a unique bearer?)  He (she?) is ranked by that listings website as having the 1,857,883rd most popular name in America; although the also unique Condoleezza is ranked only 1,090,964th, which seems a tad unfair.  Some kind of weighting going on for Web presence or celebrity?

Anyway, my search for Shinork led me to this - a rather wonderful little collection of reminiscences of an unusual childhood spent on an Indian ashram, which are outtakes from an autobiography called All The Fishes Have Come Home To Roost by Rachel Manija Brown.  Now I want to read the whole book.  It's not too early to set up a birthday wishlist, is it?  No, it is not.

All too often these time-consuming meanderings around the byways of the Internet prove frustrating and fruitless, but we keep on doing it because every once in a while we happen upon a real gem.

Bon mot for the week

"Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together."

Eugène Ionesco  (1909-1994)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday Linguistics Corner - the teaching of English

A couple of days ago I attended a talk by Dr Chris Hall, of York St John University, on the topic of 'Embracing Hybridity' in English language teaching.

He raised a number of interesting points, with most of which I found myself in fairly violent disagreement.  So, I thought I would outline my objections and responses here (because nobody reads the blog on a Sunday!).  I shall try to be brief.  I'll probably fail.

No 'Standard' English?  
Is 'Core English' a better way of thinking about it?

Dr Hall was espousing what seems to have become the 'new orthodoxy' in academic linguistics and EFL teaching circles over the past couple of decades: that it is misguided (and damaging) to cling to the notion of a 'standard English' amid the plurality of English varieties, 'world Englishes', that exist today; that it is, indeed, linguistically 'imperialist', since the 'standard' we most often attempt to adhere to is British (or US) English, with little attention or respect accorded to other varieties.

My response is that if you completely abandon any idea of 'standard English', you are also abandoning standards in English - throwing the baby out with the bath water.  The evolutionary tendencies of language are mostly centrifugal - the movement is towards diversification and divergence (and/or, all too often, towards a degeneration in precision, flexibility, usefulness): the road to Babel.  I believe that language teaching (in any language, but especially in English, since it has become established as the world lingua franca today, and might, I think, in a few centuries, become the sole world language) needs to provide a centripetal counter to that tendency, to establish a fairly stable centre which can help to join language varieties together, stop them diverging so far from each other that they become mutually unintelligible.

You can 'depoliticise' your ways of thinking about and talking about the teaching of English, without giving up on this 'core mission' to identify and perpetuate the crucial 'common ground' in the family of modern Englishes.  I accept the points that one should not be intolerant of colourful local variations in the use of English, should not be too slavish in adherence to a 'standard English', and should not over-correct learners, criticising them for unimportant 'errors'.  However, the position of linguists like Dr Hall threatens to lead to an ultimate permissiveness in language teaching, where we are required to honour the 'validity' of every single utterance of English from every single speaker and never 'correct' anything at all.  Without correction, there is no learning; and the naturally divergent tendency of languages could run completely amok.

I believe the idea of allowing all English speakers 'ownership' of the language is being dangerously overextended by the likes of Dr Hall.  Yes, it's psychologically helpful for learners of a language to develop a sense of confidence and empowerment in their use of the language, not to feel embarrassed or inadequate because of idiosyncrasies or 'defects' in the way they use it.  But it is possible for a sensitive teacher to engender that sort of confidence without entirely abandoning 'correction'.  There are core standards in the English language we should try to adhere to.  Divergences from this core, while we can acknowledge their potential attractiveness or usefulness, need to be identified and restricted in the basic teaching of English.

That, perhaps, is the key point.  Most of the practical examples Dr Hall gave towards the end of his presentation were directed towards enhancing students' communicative effectiveness in specific situations, and developing strategies for overcoming the particular difficulties that may be encountered between two non-native English speakers talking to each other.  These are techniques you would only introduce with fairly advanced students.  I'm not sure how far it is possible or useful to push back this 'approach' into the very earliest stages of learning the language.

In order to be 'politically correct' or 'politically sensitive', the English teacher today has to be able to 'correct' without diminishing a student's sense of self-worth, and has to be able to refer to a body of core standards in English usage (to which adherence is encouraged, although divergence need not be completely denied) which are not tied to any national chauvinism.

I don't teach 'British English'.  I don't even speak it (or write it) any more.  After many years of living overseas in mixed expat communities, one loses a sense of connectedness to one's home country and becomes very 'internationalised' - both in general outlook and in use of English.  When Chinese students ask me the differences between British and US English, and ask which I will teach them - I chortle!  What differences?  The differences are trivial, unimportant (if you can absorb that -or/-our divergence in spelling, you've got about 50% of it down) compared to the massive commonality between the two varieties - and compared to the massive commonality in all major varieties of modern English around the world.  And it is that common ground - rather than the regional variations - that most of our attention is directed to in teaching English, at least at the more basic level.

Therefore, I believe we need to establish a 'Core English' we wish to try to maintain as a stable centre linking the vast family of modern Englishes together - but strip it of any identification with one particular variety of the language or any sense of national superiority attaching to elements of it.  We can't expect that 'core' to remain completely stable over time, but we need to try to maintain it as a unifying reference point, and absorb new divergences into it only cautiously.  British English may have furnished most of the current 'core', because Britain was where the language originated - but that is an historical curiosity, of interest only to philologists; it has no relevance in the English classroom.  In future, the 'British' elements of Core English will become less dominant - and less and less readily identified as British - as fresh input from all over the globe (primarily, of course, from America which is now culturally dominant in the world, even though its number of native English speakers is relatively small; but potentially from every other country too) slowly modifies the 'core'.

I think I'm usually at the more permissive end of the spectrum in teaching English: I refrain from correcting very much, and praise students' communicative effectiveness regardless of any technical flaws in their English.  But I do think there are flaws in English usage - flaws which can be identified, and which should be resisted; flaws which, though they may not prevent communicative effectiveness, nevertheless tend to obstruct or diminish it; flaws which students, ideally, should become self-aware about, and should seek to eliminate or restrict.  The extreme position of linguistic theorists is that all varieties of language usage are equally valid - not just all major national or regional varieities of a language, but each individual's unique usage, their idiolect.  That, as I said earlier, is the path to Babel.

We can acknowledge that flavour, flavor, and flava are all widespread variant spellings of the same word in different language communities/situations; but flavur, flaivor, phlava & co. are just plain WRONG.

There has long been a divergence in the academic study of language, and particularly in the analysis of grammar, between a descriptive and a prescriptive approach: the former merely attempts to catalogue and categorise how language is used, accepting the indistinguishable 'validity' of all new variations; the latter tries to identify an ideal core set of rules, and is usually resistant to linguistic innovation.  Although I don't believe these two approaches necessarily have to be completely exclusive, I suppose I'm in the latter camp.

Why is linguistic innovation to be resisted?  Well, for one thing, I believe that, even if such variations are potentially useful changes or additions to the language, there is a danger that if we accept them too readily, they'll start coming at us too frequently and too fast - the 'Babel effect' can become overwhelming.  More importantly, I worry that large numbers of such innovations, probably the majority, are not in fact useful; and we need to apply some sort of filtering to try to restrict the entry of these non-useful novelties into wider usage.

I am not at all opposed to linguistic innovation per se.  I don't advocate that language should remain unchanging.  I welcome much innovation in the English language, particularly the absorption of vocabulary and idioms from other languages.  But I apply three criteria in appraising the value of new usages: aesthetic appeal (is this neat, is it elegant? is it an intrinsically attractive word or phrase, or a particularly striking way of expressing something?), sophistication (does it enable me to say something I couldn't say before? does it enable me to say something better than I could say it before? does it at least provide a useful alternative way of saying something?), and clarity (does this express an idea effectively, or is there too much risk of obscurity, lack of recognition, imprecision, ambiguity?).  So many new English usages seem to fail on all three counts.  One might hope that such apparently valueless usages would wither and die naturally; but there's no harm in fighting actively against them, to hasten that end.  And alas, the evolutionary process in language is not particularly meritocratic.  Most people are lazy, slovenly, unself-critical in their use of language: they are subconsciously attracted to usages that are superficially simpler or more 'convenient' (but may in fact not even be that), or sometimes, perhaps, they are simply attracted to novelty for the sake of novelty.  The general trend of the English spoken by 'the masses' is, I fear, a predominantly degenerative one.  It is usually only a minority of intellectuals - the practitioners of literary or academic English - who introduce and promote improvements in the language.

Ah, there I go being all elitist again!  Come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough.

[By the by, Dr Hall had a lot to say about 'China English', and so have I.  But I think I'd better leave that to another quiet Sunday...]

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A familiar story?

I could have sworn I'd told this one on here before, but.... well, an exhaustive online search seems to indicate that I am mistaken.

Another of my dream stories; this time, one that I had, I think, about a dozen or so years ago, when I was living in Canada.

I am in a desert environment, a hot, dusty plain - almost completely featureless but for a large hill just in front of me.

Half-way up the hill, I see a brawny man grunting and sweating as he struggles to turn over a large, round-ish boulder.  He eventually succeeds in flipping it over once, pauses for just a few moments, and then sets to trying to do it again.  The stone is clearly enormously heavy, and it is painfully hard work: he is endeavouring to move it uphill.

I approach, fascinated.  I'm tempted to offer to help him move this rock, but feel embarrassed as to how to do this; and the man is anyway too intent on his labours to notice me.

At last, he manages to get the boulder to the top of the hill, and then, with one last huge heave, he sends it toppling over the crest and rolling - skipping, bouncing, crashing - down the far slope under its own weight, raising a cloud of dust behind it as it goes, scattering smaller stones left and right, smashing the occasional withered tree or cactus that stands in its path.

The man whoops and hollers with delight as he watches the boulder's descent.  Then he trots down the hill after it.

I catch up to him at the foot of the hill, just as he has once again started toiling to roll it back to the top.

"Say, that does look kind of fun," I say, sheepishly.  "Could I have a try?"

And Sisyphus (for it is he) replies, "Get your own f***ing rock!"