Friday, December 31, 2010

TODAY, on The Barstool

This morning over on my dark side, boozing blog Barstool Blues, I put up my traditional year-end post reviewing all my favourite (and least favourite) places and events on the nightlife scene in Beijing -

It's a bit of a MONSTER, but there are lots of bright, eye-catching section headings on it.... so you can scroll down quickly if you're just mildly curious what life in Beijing is like these days.... and pause perhaps to consult my thoughts on which hostelry produces the capital's best bar food, or what was the year's best rock gig.

Once again, a Happy New Year to my long-suffering readers!  

Have a great night tonight!!

Looking forward...

Looking back on 2010, I think to myself that I must have had better years.  Probably at least 40 of them.

2011 has got to be an improvement.  Hasn't it?  YES!!!

A big thank you to everyone who's dropped in for a read here (or at the other place) this year, and especially to everyone who's left a comment  (well, almost everyone...).  I hope we can hang out together some more in the year ahead.

Health and Happiness to you all in 2011!

Haiku for the week

The blue hurts the eyes,
Windchill pares you to the bone;
Watching, you shiver.

This is one of those days that looks absolutely gorgeous, but you can tell it's going to be savagely cold to be outside in it - and you realise that contemplating it out of the window is all that the day has in store for you.

Unfortunately, it's been like this for the last 8 or 10 days.  Cabin fever is starting to set in....

I really can't see myself going out tonight in this sort of weather, though.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Altered ego

Readers with obsessively keen memories might just possibly recall that back near the start of this year I gave a brief shout out to MaxRally, a new website devoted - primarily - to the sport of rallying, which one of my old university buddies had had a hand in setting up.  Readers with outright stalkerish tendencies may recall that No. 5 of my 8 Resolutions for this year was to find myself a paid writing gig this year.

No??!!  Surely not?

Well, no, not really.  Remuneration has only been discussed in the sketchiest of terms, and is, I fear, likely to take the form of alcoholic beverages rather than hard cash.... the next time I manage to get myself over to Blighty.  Moreover, I'm not convinced that the fledgeling MaxRally has substantially more readers than my humble blog here, so even the 'boosting the portfolio' argument seems a little limp.  Never mind - it's been good fun.

I have been contributing - with erratic frequency - a number of short columns under the byline of 'Giles Wade' (an alias I'd long been hoping to foist on somebody; the realisation of this frivolous ambition was for me recompense enough for the minutes of hard labour at the keyboard).  

I rather liked the idea of trying to write about rallying.... or, more generally, motorsport.... or, even more generally, driving in China when I know next to bugger-all about any of these things, and am not in fact a car owner or even [cough] a car driver myself.  One of my inspirations was Richard Ingrams, one of the founders and (I think) the longest-serving editor of the UK's leading satirical magazine Private Eye.  During my childhood back in the '70s I was a devotee of the (mostly) amusingly right-wing magazine The Spectator, in which Ingrams was at that time writing the TV column.  He professed a profound distaste for the medium, and, if I recall correctly, claimed not even to own a television himself, insisting that he experienced only occasional bits and pieces when he went home to visit his mum.  The only programme he would admit to liking was The Muppet Show.  Thus his column was rather more about his perception of how other people perceived the world of television - very post-modern, and all that.  I haven't yet begun to scale such heights of whimsy myself in my 'Giles' columns, but I aspire to one day, I aspire.

Anyhow, for those of you who don't get enough of my burbling in these parts, there are more truffles (possibly?) to be found over here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stand by me

Two weeks ago, I walked out of one of my voice recording jobs.

It was perhaps a tad petulant of me (but I was provoked!).

It has perhaps permanently wrecked my relationship not only with that particular employer (who was just about the most irritating and incompetent man I've ever worked with here) but with the studio concerned (one of the major educational publishers) and with my recording partner (just about the only person I do this work with any more).  It cost me a few thousand renminbi that week, and untold tens of thousands over the coming year or so.  It's not inconceivable that I may never work recording educational materials again.

But do I have any regrets?  Not at all.  These people were arseholes, and I've never liked working with them.  And I especially did not want to be working on that particular day: it was (as always!) a last-minute booking, and I had a ton of other stuff I needed to do in the last week  or so before Christmas; also, it was way too gorgeous an afternoon to be stuck inside a windowless room for three hours or more.  I felt elated to have escaped from the engagement.

Trouble was, you see, we began with the inevitable dispute about whether or not we were going to read Chinglish (or in some cases, not even Chinglish - which is at least vaguely comprehensible, if jarringly inelegant - but outright gibberish, idiotic typos).  We have this discussion just about every time we record anything.  And we usually persuade the studio to accept our corrections - even if the book or whatever has already gone to press (just because the book's wrong doesn't mean the audiotapes have to be as well).  We will, if really pressed, occasionally record the printed Chinglish versions as an alternative take, but lobby very strongly for our correct English version.  And we willl refuse point blank to read anything that is just nonsense - however insistent the studio engineers or publisher's representative may be.  Always the same rigmarole: we've done it hundreds of times now.  Usually this takes only about thirty seconds or so, because it is such a well-rehearsed routine for both sides, such a token resistance from the studio, such a quietly determined professionalism from us.  But this guy, Mr Irritating, whenever there's any problem at all, talks around it in circles quite unnecessarily for minutes at a time.  It bugs the crap out of me, but I've learned to expect it and put up with it.  However..... on this occasion he just came straight out and said, "If you don't read it like we tell you, we'll find someone else to record these books."  And then he sat there with an odiously smug grin on his face.

Perhaps it wasn't meant to be such a blunt ultimatum as it sounded.  Perhaps he wasn't taunting me with that sneering grin, it just happens to be the only facial expression he's got.  But I'm afraid that really hit one of my hot buttons.  We have been doing this same series of kiddie books intermittently throughout most of the year, and have done some very good work on it; we had been told that we would be retained for the entire series.  Yes, this is a pretty substantial sum of money.  You don't just threaten someone with the sack as soon as there's the smallest dispute over something (well, in China you do, but..... it's not to be recommended when dealing with foreigners).

Paradoxically, I think I might have had some chance of shrugging the insult off if I'd been less financially vulnerable - not much chance, but some.  But in my present desperately cash-strapped state, the threat to the wallet tended to hurt rather.  And I couldn't allow that arsehole to see that it hurt, so..... I didn't feel I had much choice but to walk out.

Ah, but the thing is.... it didn't need to be a walking out walking out.  I'd envisaged it being like the standard haggling tactic in the markets here, where if you walk away from the stalls the traders come meekly running after you offering big reductions on their initial asking price.  My partner and I are about the best at what we do.  And it was the week before Christmas: almost everyone else who does this sort of work had headed home for the holidays.  And the studio was very heavily booked, had struggled to schedule a session for us.  And Mr Irritating had told us that he was under a lot of time pressure, had to get 4 or 5 books done by the end of the week, which meant that he had to get 1 or 2 finished right then and there, that afternoon.  He could not replace us immediately, and would struggle to replace us (with anyone any good) in that week.  In those circumstances, my partner and I had all the power in the situation - and if she had backed me up by offering to walk out with me.... well, I am 99% certain the guy would have come after us and asked us back.  Heck, we wouldn't even have had to walk, so long as we'd both made the threat together.

But she didn't - despite the fact that she had basically initiated the argument, had agreed that we should be unyielding in our principles, had egged me on to make a stand (she told me, in fact, that the sentences in question were re-do's from a session she'd recorded there with another partner a week or two earlier, and that he'd refused to read them, thrown a strop and begun to walk out [before being conciliated and asked to return to the microphone]; and she urged me to do likewise).  No, she didn't back me up.  In fact, she caved in completely... and was on the phone trying to find a replacement for me before I was even out of earshot.

Perhaps she needed the money even more than I did.  Perhaps she is not so passionate about her principles.  Perhaps she's just a bit obtuse in the field of human psychology and bargaining strategies.  Or perhaps she just doesn't like me all that much....

However, I couldn't help reflecting that in general I find women to be disappointingly deficient in this regard: loyalty, camaraderie, solidarity seem to be almost uniquely masculine virtues (which is not to say that men are not sometimes lacking in them as well, but... not as often as women are).  Perhaps it's some sort of genetic imperative in them to always seek conciliation rather than confrontation; but there's a difference between 'conciliation' and completely undermining your companion's position.  Women don't seem to realise that these 'conciliatory' behaviours are often inappropriate, that they can serve to exacerbate confrontation.  There are times, I have come to believe, when you simply have to back someone up in an argument; whether or not you think they are in the right, whether or not you really understand what's going on at all - you have to back them up.  Or, at the very least, not sell them down the river by dissociating yourself from their position (especially if it is one which you had just a few moments earlier avowed!).  Because if you do that - if you abandon someone in a moment of conflict, or fail to give them adequate and appropriate support.... you will make the situation worse.... you will leave your friend completely up shit creek.  Women, alas, almost never seem to understand this.  End of rant.

Anyway, I thought this was a good excuse for a classic song.  I was going to post John Lennon's great cover of Ben E. King's Stand By Me, but I just discovered on YouTube this marvellous compilation of street performers around the world doing it (I've seen Grandpa Elliott play in N'Awlins - awesome!). It's part of a project called Playing For Change, and there's a lot more glorious stuff on their website and their YouTube account.

[The wonderful Ben E. King original can be heard here.  And - great YouTube oddities!! - here's a studio video of Iranian singing star Andy Madadian performing it with John Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora (JBJ sings part of it in Farsi!)]

Monday, December 27, 2010

Updates - the spirit of giving

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a link to  an online appeal  for funding to help a couple of talented Mongolian contempoary artists visit Europe.  The appeal is being made through the Kickstarter arts website by a friend of mine, a Belgian photographer and film-maker called Vanessa De Smet.  They got off to a strong start, but seem to have run out of steam a bit over the holidays: they're just over half-way to their hoped-for minimum target of US $9,000, but they only have 12 days left (Kickstarter limits appeals to 30 days, and pledges are void if the minimum target is not reached).  So... if you haven't had a look at that link yet, please do so at once - and forward it on to anyone you may know of philanthropic bent and artistic interests.

And there is still no word on a date for the resumption of the trial of my Chinese artist friend Wu Yuren.  However, you are encouraged to demonstrate your support for him by joining a postcard writing campaign. [The link's up there in the sidebar too.]

Congratulations to Vanessa and her Mongolian friends!!! They just squeaked home in their appeal, after hitting a dangerous lull in momentum around the middle of the month (one might question the wisdom of trying to do this over Christmas!): 100 backers pledging a total of $9,320.  I'll try to post updates on the art projects and the European tour later in the year.  Thanks to everyone who pledged some money, or just checked out the video and wished them well.

Bon mot for the week

"Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised."

Denis Waitley  (1933-  )

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Daily Llama

Season's Greetings 
to all my readers (such few as remain)!!  

Here's hoping 2011 has some better things in store for all of us.

How did I miss that?

After more than a week with bothersomely limited Internet access, the nice people at Witopia were able to sort me out yesterday evening with a promptness that was downright embarrassing.  

I should probably have consulted their e-mail support desk earlier, but.... the added frustration of the past week has been that, lacking a credit card of my own these days (and for more than a decade now), I had to rely on one of my friends to renew my subscription to their VPN service.  And the friend I'd chosen is one of my least reliable friends: he'd been promising to do it and then, er, 'forgetting' to do it almost daily for the past 10 or 12 days.  My expiry date was Tuesday.  I managed to get nearly a day's grace (it's probably just that they run on US time, and don't cancel the expired accounts until the beginning of office hours the next day - which is late at night for us here in China), and then my frustrating friend finally got around to renewing for me.  But I didn't have time to check if the renewed account was having the same problems as the original one (it was) and get in touch with the help desk until Thursday evening.

Anyway, I hadn't thought there was any point in consulting them when my account was about to expire in a day or two.  And, to be honest, I hadn't anticipated that their support service would be so QUICK (replies to my queries within minutes!), or that my problem would be so straightforward to solve.

And the problem was basically this: if you're using crappy old Windows, you need to select the 'Run as administrator' option every time you launch the VPN program.

Now, having been a regular Witopia user for a year now, and having consulted several other - more techie-minded - friends who also use this VPN here in The Jing, and having spent at least an hour or two reading through all of Witopia's online help wikis.... how had I managed to miss this?  The oversight bugged me more than the interruption of service.

On reviewing my thought process through all of this, though, I don't think I can blame myself too much.  It is a truly bizarre combination of circumstances that had led to my misperception of the problem and overlooking of the solution.

1)  The onset of the problem coincided with a major ramping up of Internet censorship by the Chinese authorities in the middle of last week, following on from Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.  This had begun with a few days of occasional problems - both for myself and other Witopia users here in China - in connecting to certain of the VPN's overseas servers (luckily they have lots, and the glitches only ever seemed to be affecting a handful, temporarily; but it was an ominous sign that the Kafka Boys were trying to target the service).

2)  I had ascertained that the problem was specific to me, and specific indeed to one computer (a fairly new and fast Dell Studio model).  However, I was inclined to think that the censors must have 'spiked' this computer - perhaps by somehow red-flagging it when I tried to connect through local servers, or even by smuggling some sort of invisible trojan program on to it.  This is not such a far-fetched notion, since the censors here are pretty inventive; and I have suffered special supervision/harassment/interference - with phone and e-mail as well as general Internet access - once or twice before.  During the really crazy censorship regime we had here in the early summer of 2008, I had experienced a very similar problem where my main computer became completely useless (on any network), while my creaky old back-up was mysteriously unaffected.  And back then, I was attempting to use a selection of web-based proxies or the Tor or Xerobank proxy services, not Witopia; so... it seemed not unreasonable to assume that I was again the victim of some individually targeted censorship interference, rather than that there was just some problem with the setup of my computer.

3)  The problem with more recent versions of Windows being glitchy in running the Witopia VPN is well-known, and is mentioned in several places on the Witopia advice pages.  However, these pages do not (as far as I recall) explain exactly how these glitches manifest themselves.  Nor do they emphasise - not with sufficient prominence, anyway - the necessity of using the 'Run as administrator' option every time you launch the program.  I had thought this warning applied only to the initial installation!  However, it seems that every time you shut down your computer, the VPN icon is removed from your toolbar, and to get it back you have to do a mini-install from the desktop shortcut to the program - this stage also requires you to 'Run as administrator' every single time.  (And, if you've inadvertently launched the icon to your toolbar without using 'Run as administrator', you have to 'exit' the program before you can correct your error; and that also is a slow and glitchy process.)

4)  This requirement to 'Run as administrator' is easy to overlook, if - as I have - you've been using the Witopia VPN program trouble-free without bothering with this for an entire year.  Moreover, mind-buggeringly irritating bloody Windows freezes your computer to demand 'administrator' confirmation almost every time you try to use a non-Microsoft program.  Well, with just about every single non-Microsoft program I've got except this one.  When you've got used to being asked for 'administrator' authorisation to run a program half a dozen times a day, it is particularly difficult to train yourself to remember that you actually have to manually select the 'Run as administrator' option whenever you relaunch Witopia.

5)  Most bizarrely of all, if you inadvertently launch Witopia without having selected 'Run as administrator', it gives you a 'false positive' display: i.e. it appears to launch as normal and go through the rigmarole of connecting to the secure network; and it even gives you a notification that you are successfully connected; heck, it even appears to assign you an overseas IP address.  But, apparently, none of this is real.  WTF???

6)  However, perhaps 'inappropriate activation' of this kind does in fact sometimes give you some sort of 'partial connection' to the service - because I was getting some strangely erratic results over the past week when using the VPN in this way (e.g., sometimes being able to connect to English-language with uncensored results, but more often being redirected to Chinese-language with heavily censored results; or, even more strangely, sometimes being able to reach IMDB and sometimes not).  Then again, maybe these inconsistencies were just down to the vagaries of the censorship apparatus here (I found - using the same Net connection, only a few minutes apart - that one of my ancient back-up computers was able to access Blogger and IMDB without a VPN while the other wasn't; and then, with the VPN [which should have been fully functional on these pre-Vista computers], that one of them was able to access Blogspot and Wordpress, while the other was only able to access Blogger.  Bizarre, no?).

All very, very, very vexing and confusing.

And how come - given that this is one of the most longstanding and well-known of Witopia's shortcomings - I had remained so long in blissful ignorance of it?  I had been using this VPN for a year without bothering about any of this 'Run as administrator' malarkey!

Well, the thing is - the thing I'd missed in my endless ruminations about my connection problems - that I'd never had to bother with this 'Run as adminstrator' stuff because I'd disabled Windows' 'User Account Control'.  The feature just seemed utterly bloody pointless to me.  It interrupts your computer use every few minutes to ask if you're really sure you want to do something; and it does it in the most ominous, terrifying way - freezing your computer and dimming the screen as if you're about to suffer a catastrophic crash.  It is the most colossal pain-in-the-arse.  It might be a useful option for computers shared between multiple users, particularly in a business environment (or, I suppose, for parents concerned to limit the programs their kids can download or use); but I am the sole user of this laptop, there is only one user account; of course I am the bloody 'administrator'; and when I click on a program, yes of course I'm bloody sure I want to use it!  Even by Microsoft's perpetually dismal standards, this seems like a particularly wretched piece of system design.  Sigh.

I'd only finally decided to try activating this 'User Account Control' feature again last week.  I forget now exactly why.  I think it was probably that I needed it to download some Windows updates, and I was becoming concerned that being so out-of-date with my operating system might possibly be increasing my vulnerability to Net blocking or hacking (my Internet access was already getting a little troublesome before this).  I'd soon forgotten just when I'd done this.  It never occurred to me that this could be in any way connected with the sudden catastrophic breakdown of my formerly very steadfast VPN.

Sorry.  Very boring, techie post.  Just needed to get it off my chest.  There'll be a llama along in a minute...

[And I hope this might conceivably be of some interest to someone who's been having similar problems.]

Haiku for the week

Work comes in snowdrifts;
Seasonal cheer forgotten,
Staring at the screen.

I have only in fact had two half-days of 'work' this week; work, that is, that required me to leave the apartment.  However, it being the end of the year, and the end of a couple of long-term courses I've been teaching, I've been hitting deadlines to conduct assessments, produce reports, and finish off handouts that have been in gestation for ages.  And then I landed a new editing job for a local law journal, and... the second article they sent me was just horrendous - required a substantial critique and very heavy rewriting, more than 12 hours' work for only 7,000 or 8,000 words.  And on top of all that, my VPN's been acting up all week (but, strangely, only on my main computer), so I've been obliged to use one of my two old laptops (a 9-year-old Sony Vaio with a completely maxed-out memory, and a 7-year-old IBM Thinkpad with a burnt-out fan) for most of my Net access.  And on top of all that....

Yes, it's been a week from hell.  But it's just about over.  It could be time to start feeling Christmassy at last....

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Send Wu Yuren a postcard

There's still no word on a date for a resumption of Wu Yuren's trial.  The furore about Liu Xiaobo over the past couple of weeks has probably disposed the authorities here to try to keep 'political cases' out of the news for a while (Wu is a Charter '08 signatory, though that may not be the motive for the authorities' persecution of him).  Also, it would appear that the presiding judge's order that the prosecution produce a fuller version of the videotape "evidence" is causing substantial embarrassment to the police (who have probably by now lost or destroyed the original tapes; and even if they haven't, they won't want to release them to the court - since they will tend to exonerate Wu and incriminate the arresting officers).  We are hoping the trial can be concluded as soon as possible, but it's started to look as though the adjournment could drag on for weeks.

Wu's lawyer, Li Fangping, has advised that it's quite common at this time of year for friends and families of prisoners here to send greetings cards to them as a gesture of support; and his wife Karen has made an appeal for all those following Wu's case to do this for him.  It's not certain that the cards would be passed on to Wu for him to read (although I don't see why they wouldn't), but the point is more to make a public demonstration of support - to remind the Detention Centre authorities, and the police and the government, that Wu is not forgotten, and that large numbers of people, both in China and abroad, are taking an interest in his case.

If you would like to join in this campaign, please send a simple postcard to Wu Yuren at the following address:

 Beijing City, 
Chaoyang District, 
Chaoyang Criminal Detention Center
#29 Chaoyang Beilu


If you're writing from within China, you might want to withold your own name and address, or use a fake one.

It's probably a bit late now to reach him by Christmas (I wasn't able to give this a shout out last week because of my Internet problems), but it's the thought that counts.  The cards will be noticed, whenever they arrive.  [And Christmas isn't a Chinese holiday anyway.  The New Year is more significant here; and, even more than that, the Chinese Spring Festival a month later.]

Please write as soon as possible.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Pain

In addition to all my other problems with work hassles and Net censorship persecution.... last Thursday morning I was awoken by a strange, dull ache just under my lower left front ribcage.  I didn't give it too much thought at first.  It felt like a muscular problem, a stitch.  It seemed odd that I would have a stitch when I hadn't been exercising, but....

It didn't go away.  And, as tends to happen with unfamiliar, unexpected, unwelcome things that are suddenly a constant presence in one's life, I began to pay more attention to it - rather too much attention, really; I admit it's become something of an obsession over these last few days.  I find myself morbidly fascinated by it, constantly trying to analyse it, categorise it, map whether the pain is moving or changing or spreading.

It began as a 'stitch', but instead of being intermittent, it is constant; and instead of slowly getting better, it has got rather worse.  It's still perhaps not really acute enough to warrant the name 'pain', but it is a very bothersome discomfort.

I am now paying so much attention to the sensations in my abdomen that there is a danger I'm imagining things, or at any rate of exaggerating the possible significance of things that are in fact utterly unimportant.  For instance, I feel as though my stomach - just below my ribs - is swollen, and the muscles across it feel tight.  I look at my belly and fancy occasionally that I can see it bulging unnaturally; but then I look again and it appears just as it ever did.  This odd feeling of 'fullness' in my belly has deranged my appetite, robbed me of any desire to eat; and yet I can eat without any difficulty.... so perhaps it's all in the mind?  And perhaps the general feeling of unease in my abdomen, and the occasional ever-so-slight twinges elsewhere in my stomach and lower back are also mere mental phantoms, pesky agents of hypochondriac self-torture.

Fearing, however, that this might perhaps be an early indicator of a grumbly appendix, I conducted a self-examination of my abdomen, prodding here and there to check for any sign of swelling or undue sensitivity or rebound tenderness.  I was reassured by this exercise: I could find no hint of anything untoward.... anywhere in the lower abdomen.  However, I was surprised - and alarmed - to discover that, although I have little or no awareness of any discomfort there most of the time (though now I've started attending to it, I fancy I detect just a little 'stiffness', similar to the original ache in my side), the area around my solar plexus is acutely sensitive to touch (a sharp, sore sensation when I apply pressure, followed by a lingering ache for several minutes afterwards).

I've done some digging around on the Internet, and find that there are quite a lot of discussion forums reporting symptoms exactly like these - and there doesn't seem to be any suggestion that they are the result of anything serious.  Then again, people generally only seek this kind of outlet for their anxieties when their doctors are confounded by their symptoms, so I'm not sure that I can take much comfort from this.  And perhaps these people are mostly just hypochondriacs - whereas I really am ill.

Ill and scared.

Ill and scared and too poor to get medical help.

Well, too poor, and also too distrustful of the medical profession.  On the handful of occasions in my life when I've  had some health problem I considered serious enough to take to a doctor (nine times out of ten I just self-medicate), my condition has been categorised - every single time - as 'idiopathic'.... doctor-speak for "We don't know what it is."

I am reluctant to put myself through that frustration again.  Particularly here in China (I wouldn't trust a Chinese hospital as far as I could spit; and a foreign hospital could very quickly wipe out my life savings).

But if it doesn't resolve of its own accord in a couple of weeks, I fear I'll have to fly back to the UK to try to get some free treatment on the NHS.

"They muttered as they took their fees, there is no name for this disease."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bon mot for the week

"Always give without remembering and always receive without forgetting."

Brian Tracy  (1944-  )

Who?  Well, I had thought for a moment he was one of the Thunderbirds, but no - apparently it's this guy, a Canadian management guru.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Classical Sunday

Hope on the horizon

A peninsula people,
born with the tang of brine
teasing their nostrils
and the wave-sound
soothing their cradles,
seafarers, or sea-watchers, by nature,
but landlocked these many months
and down on their luck,
months of mountains and dust,
the unfriendly sun on their backs,
now, cresting a ridge, they see
in the distance shimmering bright
the memory of home,
and an electric ripple of hope
races through the long weary column
so that even those down below
still at the foot of the slope
who have not yet seen
the familiar stripe of blue
between land and sky
taste its heady joy –
though still far from sanctuary,
a promise of journey’s end –
and the whisper becomes a shout,
ten thousand hearts and voices
swelling as one:
“The sea! The sea!”

Does anyone get the reference?  [Well, apart from you, Weeble.]  If uncertain, and intrigued, look here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Haiku for the week

Not paranoia -
When this much goes wrong at once,
They ARE out to get me.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Kafka Boys win?

I hate it when that happens.

But it does look rather as if they have.

I have just spent the entire afternoon.... wading through Wikis on VPN problems and connection speed issues in China; re-installing my VPN software (complete with some updates I seem to have missed, and lots of lovely new servers available); tweaking my DNS settings; and experimenting with every f***ing server (and every local wi-fi network I can tap into) to see if ANY of them still work for me.

And NO, they don't.  None of them.

Half of the Witopia servers do not even seem to be accessible to me any more.  And the ones I can get on to.... no longer seem to be providing me the immunity from Chinese government Internet tampering which they are supposed to.

Blogger, Blogspot, Wordpress, IMDB (what the f***???!!!), and parts of Wikipedia (parts only??!!) are thus denied to me; and Google is very erratic, very heavily filtered.

And the most paranoia-inducing aspect of all this is that nobody else seems to be having too much of a problem.  The chaps down at Kafka Central have been ramping up their efforts to piss us off since the end of last week (I hear even Google searches on 'Noel' have been getting blocked because it's too close to 'Nobel' - no, really); but their efforts haven't amounted to much more than occasional irritation to those of us on VPNs - the occasional glitch in service, a few of the dozens of server options going offline temporarily (scary lapses from our formerly "censor-proof" darling; but not too much of a hassle).

Well, until today, that is.  Except for ME, that is.

Am I really getting special attention??  [Er, no, it seems not.  But the problem - not quite unique to me, and muddied though not caused by the censorship regime here - was very, very strange.  It took me a week to sort it out.]

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An appeal for Mongolian artists

One of my arty friends, the very talented Belgian photographer and documentary film-maker Vanessa De Smet, moved from Beijing to Ulan Bataar at the start of this year to work on a project.  She's liking it so much, she looks set to stay for quite a while; and she has quickly become an enthusiastic booster for the contemporary art scene there.

Now, she's teamed up with two Mongolian artist friends, Dorjderem Davaa and Enkhjargal Ganbat, to launch an online appeal through the Kickstarter website - they're hoping to raise around US $9,000 to help fund completion of a couple of major projects and a tour of Europe.  Please follow this link for full details.  And please forward this on to anyone you know who may be interested in new Asian art (even Twitter is permissible in these circumstances!).

Check out the video below to see who these people are and what sort of work they're making.

Kickstarter appeals are limited to 30 days, so Van and her friends need to reach their minimum target in pledges before January 9th. I hope some passing visitors here may be able to help.

Congratulations to Vanessa and her Mongolian friends!!! They just squeaked home in their appeal, after hitting a dangerous lull in momentum around the middle of the month (one might question the wisdom of trying to do this over Christmas!): 100 backers pledging a total of $9,320.  I'll try to post updates on the art projects and the European tour later in the year.  Thanks to everyone who pledged some money, or just checked out the video and wished them well.

Yesterday, on The Barstool

Gosh, I'm getting a bit 'political' even on my boozing blog, Barstool Blues.

Go and check out my latest idea for how we can show our support for Liu Xiaobo (and Wu Yuren, and everyone else unjustly imprisoned in this country).  It doesn't involve Santa costumes, but it does involve singing.

[And if a little burst of a cappella singing just happens - incidentally - to piss off the authorities here; well, that's a noble and worthy aim in itself!]

Monday, December 13, 2010

Today is a good day (for a relationship) to die

Last month, the invaluable JES directed me to the endlessly fascinating Information is Beautiful website, where I discovered this graphic representation of the seasonal cycles of relationship breakups.  This is based on people's proclamation of their 'relationship status' on Facebook, so although it's a large sample, it's also a rather skewed one - with, I suspect, a heavy preponderance of American college students (hence the major peaks just ahead of the academic holidays).

I was gratified to discover that my own observation on the frequency of breakups around the dratted Valentine's Day is borne out by these statistics.

It's also curious that - throughout the year - Mondays are the most regular day for breakups (or, at least, for the announcement on Facebook of the ending of a relationship that probably imploded because of a fight over the weekend).  Combined with the huge seasonal surge of breakups in the weeks just prior to Christmas (fights over whose family to spend the holidays with, or a cynically thrifty urge to cut back on the expense of gift buying??), this leads to the conclusion that today - December 13th - is likely to be the peak breakup day in the entire year (for our young American friends, at any rate).  

This should mean that New Year is a prime time to go on the prowl looking for a new girlfriend....

Another close call

It seems to be happening more and more often...

A couple of days ago, I was crossing a road (with a green light on the pedestrian signal; not that that means anything in this country!).  It should have been simple enough, since I'd already attained the mid-point, getting past the really hazardous part where cars may turn in on a right- or left-filter light without regard to pedestrians in front of them.  On the other half of the street, the first two lanes were empty, and the far lane had a short queue of cars waiting for a right-filter light to turn green.

And yes, just as I was crossing the empty lanes - a tad incautiously, perhaps, because the lanes were, you know, empty - the guy at the back of that queue (of course, he was driving a black Audi!!) got impatient with waiting, pulled left into the vacant middle lane, and drove at speed around the outside of the cars ahead of him to make an illegal right turn... without pausing to check for any traffic approaching from his left, and certainly without paying any attention to any pedestrians unfortunate enough to be in his path.  I was obliged to not merely check my forward progress, but to take a hurried step or two back out of his way - and my agility was hampered by a pair of heavy shopping bags.  I only just made it: the car grazed my leading shin.  The driver was looking ahead and to his right, completely oblivious of me.

I can't think of any other country in the world where driving standards are so poor, where people behind the wheel routinely behave with such total disregard of traffic rules or of road safety.  'Common sense', it often seems to me, is an attribute which the majority of Chinese completely lack.

Vigilance, I fret, is no longer enough; I may have to stop leaving the house.

Bon mot for the week

"Whatever may happen, the sun will rise tomorrow as it rose today, beneficent and serene."

Paul Gauguin  (1848-1903)

[Of course, Gauguin didn't live in Beijing.  We don't have that certainty, that reassurance here.]

Saturday, December 11, 2010

List of... the year (what I've been writing about on Froogville in 2010)

I did a pot-pourri kind of post at the end of last year, with hints and snippets (and, of course, links) of some of the vast range of unlikely topics I'd touched on in the previous twelve months of blogging.  That proved quite popular, so I thought I'd attempt something similar for 2010, as my December 'List of the Month'.

Well, here goes....

What I've been writing about on Froogville this year

Well - unfortunately - a number of my most important (and necessarily unfrivolous) posts have been about the unjust imprisonment of my artist friend Wu Yuren; most notably this one on the reasons for his original detention and this one on the first part of his trial a few weeks back. 

In the world of work, I've contributed a long post on the future of the English language and the teaching of it.  And amongst my (many) gripes about my work, this one on the significance of pace in the speaking of English is probably of most interest to the general reader (interesting additional input in the comments from JES, as so often).
In the sporting arena, I've shared some of my favourite memorable moments from a youth mis-spent watching football, snooker, and motor racing (there's a lot in the comments to this last one); and during this summer's World Cup football, I celebrated the rare sense of global unity which the tournament had created, and boasted that my prognostications on the likely results had held up very creditably in comparison with those of the notorious Paul, the World Cup octopus.

Regarding matters Chinese, I've made observations on how long it takes Chinese people to get their small change out, and on how ripe the country appears to be for a spree of bank robbing.  I've catalogued the common 'types' we find among English-speaking expats in China, and joked about the typical life-cycle of a small Beiing bar (two posts that I borrowed and expanded from my boozing blog, Barstool Blues).  I've examined some of the most common Chinese expressions of approbation (with valuable comment contribution from The Weeble), analysed why the concept of 'face' is not a good thing, expressed my concern about ill-behaved children here (and the parents and grandparents who make them that way), met one of Beijing's longest-serving cab drivers, and tried to teach people when it is and is not appropriate to talk about "joining hands".  And, on a more seriously political note, I've also spoken on how the Chinese government ought to have responded to Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize award, and considered what else China needs in order to become a modern and successful country, in addition to democracy.

Amongst my 'Fantasy Girlfriends' this year, I think the wonderful Miss Scott (Gen. Turgidson's deliciously sexy secretary in Dr Strangelove) is the pick of the crop - although darling Lulu, velvet-voiced Margo, and the perfectly pretty Joanne are very close runners-up.

In the field of cinema, I've held my first Short Animation Festival (6 great short films embedded, with links to a couple more; and a bonus follow-up of a rare stop-motion classic added shortly afterwards).  I've pondered the question of what makes a zinging good - endlessly quotable - movie line, and offered up a quiz on that theme.  I've done another review of some of the Great Film Openings.  I also dug up two marvellous scenes - an opener and a closer - which rely on extended tight close-ups on an actor's face.  And I've compiled a list of favourite movie characters and the scenes that enshrine their "crowning moments of awesome".

In the realm of autobiography, I've reflected - deeply and darkly - on my experience of the classic board games Risk and Monopoly, produced a list of 10 more suprising personal revelations about myself, disclosed (in soundbite form) the reasons that brought me to China, penned another poignant little anecdote about the most recent of my lost loves, and attempted to explain why I am glad to have escaped from a career in teaching.

And, filed under 'other'....  I've celebrated Christopher Logue's wonderful renditions of Homer's Iliad, 'War Music', posted a poem of my own on Auschwitz, considered what it is to be WEIRD, got briefly excited about the notion of 'poetry farming', designed an add-on program to make Microsoft 'Word' more fun, recounted the world's most outrageously punning anecdote, fantasised a youthful romance based merely on an e-mail spammer's name, come up with a promising idea for a Chinese e-commerce website, dreamed of a strange city in the desert, attempted to identify some of the defining elements of 'Englishness', produced a new take on the myth of Sisyphus, juxtaposed three very different versions of John Lennon's song Across The Universe, discovered a psychotic panda (being used to advertise processed cheese!), and wondered why people style themselves 'artists'.

Quite a varied mixture!  Did you miss any of this first time around?

'No Fun' Day

I hear the police were out in force over the last couple of days around the little bar district centred on Nanluoguxiang (a short walk from my apartment). They were asking if there had been any party bookings for Friday night. (I don't know if this activity was repeated all over town, or if it was just a local initiative.)

On the day itself, they got even more anxious, and were starting to tell restaurants that they should not accept any group bookings for that night.  Unfortunate for anyone whose birthday falls on December 10th!  Or for anyone celebrating Christmas a little early, having farewell drinks before flying home, or just wanting to let off some steam with friends or colleagues at the end of another working week.

It certainly put the kibosh on my plan to throw a costume party where everyone would come dressed as a Nobel Prize winner.

[And I fear it bodes ill for today's SantaCon.  Or perhaps it's panic over and everything back to normal on December 11th?]

Friday, December 10, 2010

The empty chair

[This image from a Holocaust memorial in Kraków.]

Liu Xiaobo's seat at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo today will stand empty.

There could be some potent iconography in that.  Every unfilled chair in the country could become a reminder of this latest lunacy of the Chinese government, a taunt to the corrupt and cowardly Party leadership.  I hope so.

The Telegraph yesterday reported a speech made by Liu a few years ago, shortly before he launched  the Charter 'O8 campaign for human rights and democracy in China.  In it he said:
"Being closely monitored by the police for the past 19 years poses no challenge to my courage. When a government resorts to using its state security apparatus against a defenceless intellectual, it only means the regime has long been rotten at its core, and its violence is only an expression of its waning power."   

Quite so.

Haiku for the week

Tyrants grow nervous.
No day of celebration;
Rather, day of fear.

Liu Xiaobo should be taking his place among the other Nobel Laureates at today's awards ceremony in Oslo.  Of course, he isn't.  And the Chinese Communist Party is obsessively eager to try to ensure that no Chinese citizen is in attendance: all the "usual suspects" (including his family) have been - if not under effective house arrest - at least under close surveillance this week, and denied permission to travel outside the country.

And the tinkering with the Internet censorship apparatus is gearing up for another major suppression-of-communication on this day.  Even Witopia had a serious wobble for a while yesterday.  The Kafka Boys have evidently been given instructions that no-one within China should be allowed to hear about or discuss what is happening today.

And I think, Why only today, you morons?  The rest of the world is going on with its business every day; and every day China is getting left further behind - socially, intellectually, morally.  It's time to tear down the wall, guys, and let the truth in.  The Ostrich Policy has had its day.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Casual insolence (War on Chinglish - 18)

Are you going to send that postcard to Mr Robert?

No, I'm not.  Unless he's French, in which case I should more properly refer to him as M. Robert.  In all probability, though, I'm sending a postcard to my good friend Robert.  Or to someone I know less well called Mr Roberts.

This came up in one of my recording scripts the other day.  I've commented before on how a large part of the Chinese ineptitude with foreign names is down to how rarely they use them (outside of English lessons, that is; in history or science lessons, and in their domestic media, foreign names are invariably transliterated into Chinese characters, a process that usually transforms them so horrendously as to render them completely unrecognisable to non-Chinese).  I've also lamented - in talking about my frequent academic editing work - that the Chinese seldom or never seem to have any appreciation of consistent orthography when using the Roman alphabet: spelling, punctuation, and use of capital letters can vary wildly from one sentence to the next (I once had to deal with an author who contrived 9 different ways of referring to the United States in one article!).

But even so, their propensity to mangle people's names in English is quite staggering.

They can almost never recognise which language a name comes from (it's just not the kind of thing they pay attention to).  So, they'd completely miss my opening point about Robert being a common surname in French, but generally only a personal name in English.

They can almost never distinguish between personal names and family names.
[In English, a few names can serve as both personal names and family names (Robert or Robin or Richard as a surname, for example, are just about possible, but rare and unlikely), but most are one or the other.  Personal names are often converted into family names* by adding a final s: hence, Robert is (almost invariably) a first name, but Roberts is a surname.]

They always seem to forget that the English naming convention is to use the personal name (Christian name) first and the family name (surname) second.

They also forget (or never learn?) the simple rule that titles - like Mr, Dr, Prof. - may be used with full names OR with surnames only, but NOT with first names only (although you'd think that this would be just about Lesson One - or certainly Book One - of any English course they follow in schools).

And no-one ever seems to tell them that it is RUDE to refer to people by their surname only; that in formal writing, you should always use title + surname or full name (this is a particular bugbear in my editing work!!).

I caught a great example of this latter ineptitude on the local English-language TV channel, the squirm-inducingly bad CCTV9, yesterday.  Yang Rui, the grammar-mangling goon who fronts the daily current affairs 'discussion programme' Dialogue had the great English golfer Tony Jacklin on to talk about China's golf boom.  And he brought him into the conversation - after the inevitable painfully long and rambling introduction - by saying, "So, Jacklin, what do you think?"

It wasn't just a one-off slip, either.  He continued to refer to his distinguished guest in this way throughout the rest of the show.  I think I would have punched him; but our Tony bore the  recurring insult with saintly restraint.

*  The final s in so many English surnames probably derives from a patronymic, i.e. a father-name form.  In the distant past, when people still lived mostly in very small communities, a single personal name was usually enough to distinguish people from each other.  If there happened to be two Johns in a village, they might be differentiated according to the names of their fathers: John, Richard's son and John, Robert's son.  These patronymics evolved into the surnames Richards or Richardson and Roberts or Robertson - which could be used for entire families down the generations.  Other common surnames developed from the names of people's professions (Butcher, Baker, Fletcher, Smith, Wainwright), from the colour of clothes they commonly liked to wear (Black, White, Green, Brown) or from the locale where they lived (Greenwood, Lake, Bridge).  If Chinese students of English took an interest in this sort of thing, they wouldn't find it nearly so difficult to differentiate between first names and surnames, and they wouldn't make so many embarrassing faux pas when addressing foreign friends and colleagues.  But, alas, the Chinese seem to be a depressingly incurious people in many respects.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

This is NOT the service you're looking for

In a Chinese Post Office...  the 'Comprehensive Postal Service Counter' (which is the designation of 9 of the 10 serving points in my nearest branch - 5 of the 6 in use when I looked in just now) is NOT equipped to sell stamps.

I think it might have been 综合 (zonghe), rather than 全面 (quanmian) [not sure if there's much difference between them, anyway - Weeble??]; but I can't help feeling that the Chinese concept somehow lacks a certain essential element of what we think of in English as 'comprehensiveness'.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A close call

I had one of my most disturbing brushes with death in a long time this weekend.

The more disturbing, I think, because I realise it was largely my own fault.

I've spoken on here often of how murderously incompetent Beijing drivers are, but I've also noted - taken some pride in - how highly attuned I've become to this peril, how alert and agile I am when crossing the road here.

On Sunday night, I suffered a brief and unnaccountable lapse in this alertness.

There was a long line of cars on my side of the road (backed up from a traffic light about 200 yards away), but nothing much in the far lane - so, I started crossing.  And, out of nowhere, a big black Audi appeared and nearly ran me down.

It had a very quiet engine (and, mercifully, it wasn't going that fast).  And I suppose the brisk wind was taking its sound away from me.  And I guess it must have been in a blind spot, concealed behind the stationary cars nearer to me as I started to cross the road.

My mind, I confess, was distracted with other thoughts.  And I had been lulled into inattentiveness by the apparent lack of traffic at this time of the evening.  Luckily, I still had my wits about me sufficiently to be checking for the possibility of bicycles - or the particularly dangerous, silent-but-deadly electric bikes - as I began to cross the far lane.... and was thus saved from a squishing.

It wasn't just the physical danger that so discombobulated me, but the reeling sense of cognitive dissonance: I really had no idea where that car had come from, I was convinced that it could not have been there.

Yes, I am being more careful now.  Even more careful.

Monday, December 06, 2010

I'm at it again

My scorn for the new wave of 'social media' knows few bounds.  I have discoursed on the topic a number of times this year - for instance, here and here (and here and here).

Now my America-based friend Sister Surly (until recently a Beijing drinking companion) has got me at it again.  She works in this sort of area, and thus has been an enthusiastic adopter of these novel forms of communication.  And I know that she found Twitter particularly welcome in rapidly introducing her to various social circles in Beijing when she arrived here earlier this year knowing just about no-one (my counter to this is that Beijing expattery is still a relatively small and very clubbable community, and she could have, would have - did! - meet people who could introduce her to all of these circles through regular real-world interactions; so, the supposed centrality of Twitter to her social life was somewhat of an illusion, I suggest).  Well, anyway... she can't resist ribbing me (in an opening aside to this long and interesting post about something rather different) about my Luddite antipathy to these media.  And I can't resist rejoining the battle (in the comments to that post)....  Anyone else care to join in??  Oh, go on!!

Blogging GOOD (not an absolute good, but more good than bad on balance); Twitter BAD  -  I say.

More unfathomably bad Chinese design

I found some plastic bottles of fruit juice taped together for a two-for-one special deal when I went into my local supermarket last week.  I suspected that they were close to or beyond their expiry date, but I wasn't too concerned about that.  And it's a brand I've tried before, found to be fairly good (as far as the local products go, which - in the field of fruit juices and soft drinks - is, unfortunately, very faint praise indeed).  So, I bought two of the double-packs.... and set off home to discover what was wrong with them.

Answer: the caps.  THEY WOULD NOT OPEN. No, not just a case of them being a bit stiff; or of needing to slit the ties to the anti-tamper seal with a knife (tried that - to no avail).  No, these sons-of-bitches were somehow fused solid to the bottle tops.  I gouged a groove in the palm of hand trying to twist the buggers off.  I tried pouring hot water over them - no help.  I couldn't even budge them taking a secure grip with a pair of pliers.  Rock solid.

Remarkable, really.  I have no idea how they achieved this.

I had to stab a hole through the top of the cap with a screwdriver.

(And then the orange juice wasn't very nice: altogether more sugar and articial colourings and minimal involvement of actual fruit than I thought I remembered from my previous experiences of the brand.  Oh well.)