Thursday, March 31, 2011

Three little words

Abbreviations have become one of the special banes of my life.  The Chinese - especially Chinese "academics" - seem to have a particular predilection for them.  And they rarely observe the sensible convention of only using one after using the full name/phrase for which it stands on its first appearance in their text.  And they are, of course, hopelessly dyslexic - or, rather, just astoundingly inattentive and uncaring - in their use of them: you see UNSECO, and you assume they probably mean UNESCO.... but sometimes you have to check, just to be sure (because sometimes they mean UNSCO!).  I spend far more time on Acronymfinder than is good for my mental health.

In the IT industry - in which I have often worked here, because it is one of the few sectors to apply a decent amount of money to staff training - the use of acronyms has got completely out of hand... moving from tic through fetish to incessant compulsion.  Three-word phrases are especially beloved by the computer nerds.  When I worked as in-house training co-ordinator for one big American software developer, I discovered they had evolved so many of the damn things that they actually needed a company directory to keep track of them all - a very substantial volume.

It was called 'The List of TLAs'.  That's Three-Letter Acronyms.  True story.

Season of Dust

The hoped-for spring doesn't quite seem to have arrived in Beijing.  There's still a bit of an underlying nip in the air, the winds are often unpleasantly brisk and coming down from the north, and temperatures fall off dramatically at dusk.  Even during the daytime, despite the bright sunshine, it feels to me as though the temperatures have been a good 5-10⁰ F cooler than the 60-70 we've been regularly promised by the weather websites since last Sunday (75, a couple of them said, yesterday - I don't think so).  One friend reports that some magnolias flowered in her compound last weekend, but all I've seen so far are a few catkins appearing and two trees - a paltry two: one in Ritan Park on Monday, and one just outside my study window this morning - nervously just starting to open their buds... but certainly nowhere near committing to blossom yet.

I wonder if there's some adaptive mechanism by which trees "remember" the viciously cold April we had last year and have set their 'bloom threshold' higher this year.

On top of this hesitant warming and absence of budding, the sky is thick with dust.  Not the apocalyptic dust storms we occasionally get - especially during the windy days of mid-March and October - just a limitless aerosol of fine, dry dirt hanging in the sky.  Apart from two or three light snowfalls late in the season, there hasn't been any precipitation in Beijing since... what, October, maybe September?  That's right - there's been NO RAIN in Beijing for around six months now.  The place is becoming a desert.  And the gritty air scours the throat.

Usually, we get a cool damp spell for a week or two in the middle of next month, with a few 'April showers'.  This year, they can't come soon enough.  Cough, cough....

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Now I really have seen EVERYTHING!

Chinese academics purporting to deconstruct South Park!  Top that!!

The latest in the long line of depressingly awful 'academic' articles I've had to edit was attempting to survey the interaction of popular culture with the realm of international affairs. It was, as usual, a ragbag of disparate points, with no overarching structure or original analysis.

It is an habitual problem with these articles that the authors are - quite literally - 'cutting & pasting' long extracts from native English sources, with little or no real grasp of their meaning. Hence, for example, the doltish duo responsible for this latest abomination note the use of the derogatory term 'South Park conservatives' by journalists such as Andrew Sullivan (an Oxford lao tongxue of mine, who was once kind enough to give me a plug on his blog on The Atlantic), but fail to explain what the connotations of this expression are, or what kind of people it is applied to (in their original text, before I clarified it, they appeared to suggest that this was a comment on the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone).

Better yet, they assert that the fact that accidents and disasters in the show are usually Cartman's fault somehow establishes an argument that the theory of global warming is bogus. Come again?

The humour in South Park is so densely layered, so profuse in its cultural references, and so scattergun in its targets that it is scarcely susceptible to analysis at all. Matt and Trey boast of being "equal opportunity offenders" who deliberately avoid adopting straightforward or consistent political atttitudes in their humour: they ridicule anyone and anything; they make jokes just because they're funny, not because of their content or implicit viewpoint. I know that - since I am not an American, not living in America, not immersed full-time in American news and media and popular culture - at least 50% of their jokes go right over my head. But at least I'm usually vaguely aware that I'm missing something. Chinese professors attempting to dissect the show apparently don't have this consciousness of their limitations, this humility.

A brief bit of online research reveals - unsurprisingly - that most of this passage on South Park (and the entirety of a lengthy section on the villainy of Lord Voldemort as a parable of fascism and international terrorism) was lifted word-for-word...... from Wikipedia!! (But the extracts were selected so ineptly as to remove all the crucial linking or introductory sentences which provided the necessary context for any of it to be readily comprehensible or logically relevant to the arguments supposedly being made.)

I find this kind of work often reduces me to tears. And it's not just laughter.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"The obscure we see eventually. The completely apparent takes a little longer."

Edward R. Murrow  (1908-1965)

Particularly appropriate for this month's film trivia challenge??

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Film Quiz - taglines

More fun-and-games for my end-of-the-month 'Film List' - this time, a selection of memorable (or not?) advertising slogans.  Can you spot which films they were plugging?

I'll post the answers next week.

1)  "If he's crazy, what does that make you?"

2)  "They're young, they're in love, and they kill people."

3)  "The strangest story ever conceived by man."

4)  "One man's struggle to take it easy."

5)  "Nothing on Earth could come between them."

6)  "Some called him a hero. Others called him a heel."

7)  "It knows what scares you."

8)  "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water..."

9)  "Only one man can make the difference."

10)  "Mighty miracle show of 1,000 delights!"

11)  "The most dangerous combination since nitro and glycerine."

12)  "Never give a saga an even break!"

13)  "I don't smile for pictures."

14)  "A new breed of hero."

15)  "The story of a man who was too proud to run."

16)  "The next war will not be fought - it will be played."

17)  "He loved the American Dream - with a vengeance."

18)  "Bombed out in space with a spaced-out bomb!"

19)  "He chopped down the family tree."

20)  "If you don't remember the '60s, don't worry - neither can they."

And here's a reminder of what they sound like. It's not "The Voice", Don LaFontaine, who created this style, and these clich├ęs, but died a few years ago.  It's Hal Douglas, still going strong, and continuing Don's legacy.

Answers now posted here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A man has his price

The other day a friend referred a work prospect to me, a lengthy stint of voice recording.

It seems they were offering only a flat fee of 1,000 rmb. This wasn't really much of a fee, since it seemed the script was going to be rather hefty - probably the narration for a lengthy film documentary (or perhaps a series of 1-hour TV pieces). Solo recording usually pays 600 per hour, even for bog-standard work for the academic publishers; sometimes you can get 700 or 800; rather more for anything vaguely 'corporate' (or, ahem, professional). And this sounded as though it was going to take a minimum of 4 to 5 hours; perhaps substantially more, if it did have to be sync'ed to film.

But, you know, times are hard; I'm pretty desperate for cash right now. The guy giving me the introduction thought they were probably being cagey in their initial offer on the fee and might bump it up a bit. I thought I might give it a go for 2,000 - even though there was a distinct chance I'd be stuck in the studio for 8 or 10 hours, and it wouldn't seem like very good recompense at all.

Further problem: it seemed it was probably going to be some sort of Tibetan propaganda piece. I could just imagine:  "See how happy the peasants are! See how spontaneously they launch into their quaint traditional dancing to express their happiness! See how proudly they fly the Chinese flag from their rooftops!"

My friend pressed me for a firm quote that might enable him to close a deal, wondered if I'd accept 1,500 or 2,000 as a flat fee, regardless of hours required. I told him: "I'd rather quote an hourly rate of 500 rmb.  Or, if it's a propaganda piece, 10,000 rmb per hour."

Haiku for the week

All work and no pay
Anxious days counting pennies
Month's end far away...

Yes, it's been a difficult time these last few weeks. I have, in fact, been extremely busy since I got back from Malaysia at the start of the month, but... a lot of it has been running around trying to set up new jobs; a process which can be hugely time-consuming, and for which, of course, one does not get paid. The one new regular teaching gig I have already started is at a university, so... well, I'll be grateful (and not a little surprised) if I get paid at all. It's quite likely I'll terminate the engagement in a righteous huff before long. It seems their payment system involves paying mid-month, a month in arrears - so they'll give me two weeks' pay after I've done six weeks of classes. Hmm, that's rather a long time to work on trust for a Chinese university! The other stuff I've been doing has all been writing or editing - about 8 or 10k in total, but... I haven't been paid for any of it yet. And when/if I do finally get paid, most of it's going to go into a bank account. And that doesn't feel like being paid at all. It's unreasonably hard to check whether payments have been made (the Bank of China still doesn't seem to have a decent e-banking service; not in English, anyway). And I try to leave that account untouched, as an 'emergency reserve'; I prefer to try to get by on cash-in-hand.

And that works out just fine, most of the time. This month, however, nobody's been paying me in cash. And I've had an unusually large number of 'phantom jobs' that were offered to me and then evaporated: reviewing the English subtitles on a documentary about migrant workers, writing the bid for Beijing to become a World Design Capital (I kid you not - that's worth a post or three all of its own!!), transcribing the dialogue from a documentary about Western supermodels (nice), narrating a film about Tibetan culture...  There might have been another 8 or 10k in that lot. And then, well, regular recording work has been thin on the ground; and the two gigs I did have lined up in the past week - last Friday's was gallingly cancelled/given to someone else (scheduling screw-up!), and this Monday's was postponed a week or so.

I thought I'd done pretty well to get through three weeks on less than 3,000 rmb. I didn't think I was going to have to make it last all the way to the end of the month. But it seems I am. And it's not going to last. In fact, a couple of minor alcoholic indulgences in the first half of this week have left me quite literally FLAT BROKE.

It's going to be a bread-and-water weekend, unless I dip into the money under the mattress....

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A conundrum

If someone suggests you come to a meeting at 9.30am out by the airport, and you accept.... who is the bigger fool?

[The meeting in question was accepted on my behalf by a partner; but I was arguably a fool as well to go along with it. I did at least express my reservations. Well, I believe my exact words were: "You've got to be kidding me! How on earth are we supposed to get all the way out there that early? We'll have to leave at 7 o'clock!! And the traffic will be a nightmare."  Call me Cassandra.]

A vision of Hell

Beijing in the morning rush hour.

I do from time to time have to get to early work appointments - but not usually very early, and not usually in the CBD. It's four years now since I last had a job that required a regular early-morning commute.  I reflect that whenever I have had such a job in Beijing, I have become homicidal/suicidal within a month or so.

And this, four, five, six, seven years ago.  Things are so much worse now.

I had been blissfully unaware of just how much worse.

The subway lines - between 8am and 9am - are jam-packed.  We don't yet have liveried attendants pushing people into the trains as in Tokyo, but we do occasionally get enterprising - impatient - punters trying to take on such a role themselves.  Even Line 10, which is relatively short and has rather limited connections to the rest of the network, nevertheless, because it serves the CBD, is - in the eastbound direction - absolutely heaving.  The line 10/Line 5 interchange is so overcrowded - and the connection between the two lines so poorly designed - that the station staff, in order to ease congestion by opening up separate entry and exit points for the Line 5 platform, have to disable the ticket barriers so that transferring passengers can, in effect, leave the station and come back in again. It is utterly daft. And a woeful indictment of the massive underestimate of the number of users the city's subway planners have evidently been guilty of.  Yesterday, at around 8.25am, people were queueing twenty or thirty deep to try to get on to an eastbound Line 10 train, and they wouldn't get to the front of the line and be able to board until two or three trains had come through. I very nearly gave up and left the station - to get a gulp of fresh air.

When I did go above ground - which I did twice, at Dongzhimen at around 8am, and at Sanyuan Qiao at about 8.40am (I was trying to get to a meeting out near the airport) - I found eastbound traffic at a virtual standstill and NO CABS FREE.

So, I began yesterday by spending nearly two-and-a-half hours trying - and failing - to get to a business meeting, fully two thirds of that below ground, being compressed by a smelly mob.  I did not, in fact, manage to get more than a few miles from my home in all that time.  The airport, a tantalising fifteen or so more miles away, might as well have been in another country.

As is the invariable way of the world, I finally located an available cab just as I'd given up and started to head home. By that point, I was probably going to have been at least half an hour late; with heavy traffic on the Airport Expressway, maybe an hour or more. And it was going to be a completely bloody pointless meeting, anyway.

Beijing, ah, Beijing - Beijing is a city in crisis. Its transport infrastructure has completely melted down. The roads are so congested that the CBD - and, as often as not, pretty much the whole east side of town, and the airport too - is effectively inaccessible during the working week (other than via the oppressively overcrowded and not terribly efficient or comprehensive subway network). The city is ceasing to function. And I don't think anyone's got a clue what to do about it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An incredible journey

New blog-friend and commenter Cedra Wood is a talented painter. She's very excited about having an opportunity to go on an amazing field trip to Australia this summer with some fellow New Mexico artists - but she could use a little help with the travel expenses.  Please check out the great video about her work below - and follow this link to her Kickstarter appeal if you'd like to contribute something.  You can find more examples of her work on her blog, Lights All Askew In The Heavens.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Salt of the Earth

There's been panic buying of sea salt in China these past few days - in the belief that the iodine in it is some kind of magic talisman against the risk of radiation sickness or cancers from possible Fukushima fallout.

I didn't really need to buy anything myself, but I thought I'd look in at my usual supermarket, just to see how crazy things were getting. Indeed, two whole aisles had been given over to varieties of salt products, and there was a mighty throng around them, snatching up the last few remaining bags.

One old granny was hovering diffidently - or perhaps with amused indifference - at the edge of the crowd.  A younger woman noticed her, asked if she could help grab a bag of salt for her.  The old lady replied, "I think I'm all right, thank you. I've still got 10 kilograms of the stuff I bought during SARS."

[Me - I'm working on a home chemistry kit to extract the iodine, so you can ward off the thyroid cancer without fatally overdosing on salt. My next million dollar idea... if only I can get it to market quickly enough.]

Bon mot for the week

"Chaos is order to which you do not have the key."

Robert Derr - who appears to be a sculptor

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Equanimity (?)

It's been a rather stupidly busy week - mostly unpaid, but hectic - of fixing up appointments and then having them shifted all over the place, doing 'demo classes', attending pitch meetings... and, yesterday, enduring a job interview.

One of the most important job interviews in my life.  Possibly the most important - in that it is a very good job, and (hopefully) will provide a steady and reasonably lucrative (but, above all, steady) income... at a time in my life that has come to seem to me particularly precarious... when, indeed, I have seriously questioned whether my position in China is any longer tenable.  I've had two-and-a-half very lean years since the world economy collapsed.  A steady job now - especially a job that's only 'half-time', but for a rather prestigious employer - could prove to be a life-saver.

This is one of only a handful of 'serious' job interviews I've ever attended in my life, and only the second in China.  (I was actually successful in that previous one; but the job imploded within 6 months.)

I should, by rights, be quite nervous about my prospects.  I should have been keyed up about attending the interview.  I should be obsessively reviewing the pros and cons of my performance.

But I'm not.  I don't think I've ever felt so blissfully indifferent about something important (not without the benefit of powerful painkilling drugs, anyway).  I don't think I'm quite ready to make the step up to being a bodhisattva.  But I've experienced something this week that gives me an insulating sense of perspective, something that reminds me that a job isn't that important at all.

Ah, they said 'NO'. Or rather, 'NON' - with a Gaullist dismissive hauteur. I am trying very hard to be disappointed, and even a little pissed off - but I just don't have the emotional resources at the moment. Instead, I shrug and sigh and think... Kismet... plenty more fish.... their loss. I am a duck's back.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Recently, on The Barstool...

The stultifying 'suspension of normal life' we endure for a month around the turn of the Chinese lunar New Year, followed by a 10-day break in Malaysia, has meant that I haven't done one of my intermittent roundups of recent highlights from my dark side 'drinking blog' in quite a while - but perhaps there hasn't been that much of note happening over there lately.

One of the posts I most enjoyed doing was this disparate assortment of videos of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, culminating in a remarkable cover version by American 'rockgrass' band Hayseed Dixie.

Other music offerings have been Tom Waits's marvellous love song Hold On and - for St Patrick's Day yesterday - The Pogues' riotous singalong Sally MacLennane. [And, speaking of P-Day, I just indulged in an epic curmudge against my younger "countrymen"...]

On a further St Patrick's Day note, I posted my favourite Father Jack moment (you might as well just follow this YouTube link, since embedding of Father Ted clips is comprehensively prohibited).

I've also issued a call-to-revolution against the ridiculous level of pricing we now suffer in Beijing's bars (a call thus far largely unanswered - you know how that goes in China!).

And a run of posts about my Malaysian jaunt prompted me to collect my various more exotic drinking experiences (non-UK, non-USA, non-China) under a new tag, Around the world.

Lots of entertainment for you there.

The weekly haiku

One day more than all,
More than birthdays or death days,
Connects to the past.

St Patrick's Day is becoming a dangerous time.  It holds too many great memories from the distant past for me, too many rather glum or unsatisfying ones from more recent times. Nostalgia jumps out and beats me with a great big stick.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Oirish llamas!!

Well, who would have thought it? I only tried Googling "St Patrick's Day llamas" in a moment of idle jest, scarcely imagining that I'd turn up this....

... and this....

... and this...

However, the most intriguing discovery from this half-hour wasted on the Net this morning (access from China is SLOW at the moment) was that there are at least 10 people called Patrick Llamas in Southern California. Not surprising, really, just intriguing.

[PS   I just posted a little musical treat for Paddy's Day over on The Barstool.]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

It depends what you mean by...

This past week or so, I've been going through quite a little whirl of job applications, interviews, negotiations.... 
frustrations.... disappointments.

It's become a bit of a spring ritual for me: I emerge from my hibernation of 'no work from December till March', realise that I'm not going to have any work for the rest of the year unless I do something about it, and start desperately cruising around all the 'situations vacant' online bulletin boards until..... after a month or so, I remember why full-time employment and I are destined never to enjoy a long-term relationship.... but by then, usually, with a bit of luck, a raft of part-time positions have materialised out of the ether to keep me vaguely solvent until the end of the year.

During this annual frenzy of pretending to try and find a regular job, it's the repeated collisions with vapid HR-speak that most vex me.

I get particularly irritated with companies who boast that their rates of pay are 'competitive'.

That word can be interpreted with widely differing nuances.

I'd like to think it might mean: "We're keen to hire the best people, so we pay a little bit more than most of our competitors."  ('Competitive' in the sense of wanting to win.)

More realistically, you might suppose, it would usually mean: "We pay about the same as everyone else; no more, no less."  ('Competitive' in the sense of not wanting to be out-competed by everyone else; not really 'competitiveness' at all, more a sort of de facto cabal.)

And, sometimes, it seems to mean: "We pay the 'industry minimum'. Well, yes, we pay less than everyone else; but it's not that much less that you'd dismiss us out of hand. We like to think we're still just about 'in competition'."  ('Competitive'.... in a bottom-feeders do OK for themselves way.)

I've recently been in contact with a company whose pay scales are 'Type 3' competitive.... and I'm in no hurry to get back to them. In fact, I'm tempted to dismiss them out of hand. 10% less than anyone else's minimum rate? Really?? You dare to call that 'competitive'??

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Chinese way of doing things

I was offered a slightly out-of-the-ordinary job over this last weekend. Well, the nature of the work was a little different; the manner of the approach was all too depressingly standard. The job was to do a final check on the English sub-titles for a documentary film. It sounded potentially interesting. It sounded worthy. I might even have waived a fee, if the people had struck me as earnest and competent.

Alas, they felt obliged to follow the typical Chinese procedure for taking care of a job like this:

1) Don't do anything until the very last minute.  (Preliminary sub-titling not going to be finished until Sunday. Film supposed to be delivered to producer or distributor on Monday! I am approached about helping out LATE on Friday evening.)

2) Expect people to work at the last minute, over the weekend - as if it's nothing unusual or inconvenient.

3) Offer a ridiculously inadequate fee.  (In this case, only 500 rmb for a piece of work that might have taken up a whole half a day, or longer.)

4) Give a completely unrealistic time estimate for the job.  ("It'll only take 3 hours.  Well, 3 to 4 hours.  Perhaps 5 hours.  It could be a bit longer than that..."  Basically, they had no idea at all: it was a completely open-ended assignment, which might well have taken 10 or 12 hours, or 15 hours, or more... from a Sunday afternoon start.)

5) Thank me and agree when I suggest that an hourly rate of pay would make more sense for a gig like this, and there needs to be some kind of reasonable maximum time allocation.

6)  Give the job to somebody else instead (presumably someone who agreed to work for less money; and someone who expressed a willingness [i.e., lied about their willingness] to work up to and beyond midnight, if necessary?).

7)  Fail to tell me they've given the job to somebody else (until I chase them up about it).

There's almost certainly a generous overlay of dishonesty involved here as well. It seems improbable that they could have got somebody else to do the job at such short notice, so I suspect they just decided they'd do without a final check rather than work with someone as "awkward" as me. And if they did find a replacement for me, I'm damn sure they didn't tell the poor bastard he might be stuck in the editing suite all night and on into the next morning.

Unfortunately, this pattern is all too common here; pretty well ubiquitous, in fact.

Many of my Chinese friends and students are sensitive about the fact that foreigners here almost always seem so critical of the Chinese way of doing business, that we all HATE working for Chinese employers or making deals with Chinese companies. They are aggrieved and baffled by our negativity. Well, people, THIS is why. Incompetence, penny-pinching, lack of foresight, lack of consideration, evasiveness, dishonesty - these are not good things; and they are endemic here. I would like to think that things are slowly changing for the better; but I see very, very little evidence of this. Sometimes, it almost feels as if things are getting worse.

Bon mot for the week

"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting."

E.E. Cummings  (1894-1962)

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Sunday afternoon poetry browsing today led me to this... a piece of Lawrence I hadn't read before. It chimes rather too well with my own mood.

The Enkindled Spring

This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up and the watery, flickering rushes.

I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.

And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.

D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My Fantasy Girlfriend(s) - the girls of Dragonair

Yes - all of them.

Well, all the ones who were working on my flight from Beijing to Hong Kong three weeks ago, at any rate. That was definitely one of the high points of my whole trip. I don't usually have a strong susceptibility to East Asian womanhood, but these girls - wow! (And it's not just the uniform.)

I suppose it's akin to the allure of the barmaid - air stewardesses are friendly and they smile and they may even flirt with you a little (in your fond imagination, at least); and they are attentive to your needs, bring you food and drink. And then there's that unattainability thing again, the provocation of 'forbidden fruit'. And they wear cute uniforms....

[No pictures this week - because Blogger's picture uploader is still misbehaving. You'll just have to use your imaginations.

Eventually fixed by switching back to the old - ancient! - editing screen. Harumph.]

Friday, March 11, 2011

Haiku for the week

Dragon-heads cut off;
Our hydra grows another.
Can Herakles win?

[It's a Classical metaphor, don't you know?]

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mordor wins?

As of around the middle of this afternoon, Beijing time (I suppose around 6am or 7am GMT), Witopia - formerly the most robust and reliable of proxy services - got comprehensively squelched here.

None of their numerous proxy server locations seem to be accessible from mainland China any more.  None of their websites can be reached for information updates without a proxy.  And even their ordinarily ultra-prompt e-mail helpline is now unresponsive.

It would be nice to suppose that this Mother-Of-All-Internet-Crackdowns was evidence of the outbreak of significant opposition to the ludicrous regime we suffer under here, mass protests in several of the major cities, countrywide flour-bombing of Mao statues and so on.

But no, it's probably just the Kafka Boys playing with some new toys again.

Memo to the old farts in Zhongnanhai:  There's no better way to provoke rioting than to mess with people's Internet functionality.

OK, allowing food and housing to become too expensive for people to afford - that's a better way.  But you're already working on that.

And nepotism in the transfer of political power, that's never good either.  Whoah, you're on to that one as well!

Denying people their Internet is next, huh?

You really do want to get overthrown, don't you??

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

I am going to try to be a better person

Because, if I don't, I realise that my personal Purgatory is going to be a branch of the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, where I am going to be holding ticket no. 2152 forever....

The day before I went on holiday, I had to pay my next quarter's rent. I'm supposed to pay this directly into one of my landlord's bank accounts with ICBC using a passbook. If I'm lucky, I can sometimes get it done in half an hour or so. Usually, it takes more like an hour. And sometimes...

Well, it was the day after the end of the Chunjie holiday. There weren't many staff on. And there may have been a minor surge of people seeking to take care of bill paying or whatever that they'd been neglecting during the preceding holiday fortnight.

In fact, in my section of the bank, only three of the nine or ten windows were manned. I drew no. 2152 in the hellish lottery of the queueing ticket machine - and discovered, with sinking heart, that the numbers being served had only just advanced into the 2000s. I settled myself down for a long wait.

Long? Hah! It would have been interminable. I've often complained about the astonishing capacity of certain Chinese workers - bank clerks, in particular - to 'work' in slow motion. The trio on duty that morning were taking the art form to new heights. They only managed to process 10 or 12 enquiries in the first hour or so I was there. That's collectively, not each!

Ah, but a glimmer of hope - a fourth member of staff appeared behind one of the windows.  But didn't do anything. Just sat there, dumbly, provocatively, pretending to busy herself with trivial administrative chores for half an hour... while a mob of customers on the other side of the glass seethed on the brink of riot.

The irrelevant extra member of staff never did open up her window (not while I was there). I was still more than 100 spots away from my number coming up, and the queue had scarcely shortened at all in over one-and-a-half hours. And now it was lunchtime: it was inevitable that the three working clerks would soon be taking a break to inhale some pot noodles and then indulge in the customary 90-minute power nap. And, on this woefully understaffed day, it seemed likely that no-one would replace them. Anyone who was forced to continue 'working' over the lunch hour (which, in China, is often more like two-and-a-half hours) would lapse grumpily into a hypoglycaemic torpor and process customer requests even more slowly, if at all.

It was looking very, very unlikely that I would get to the head of the queue before the bank closed 5 hours hence. Luckily, my landlord took pity on me and agreed to come around to collect the rent in person later that day.

I won't have that option in Hell....

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Topicality thwarted

Felicitations to all of my women readers (who are, as far as I can tell, in a substantial majority - although they mostly have better things to do with their time than write comments).

I had dug up a couple of cute (non-sexist) cartoons on the theme to share with you, but....  Blogger's picture upload tool is currently dysfunctional (AGAIN, in any browser).... so you'll have to wait until next year.... or the year after.  Gggrrr!!!

Monday, March 07, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"If you know you're never going to see a place again, you can make whatever you want out of your experience there. Living in a place for an extended period requires commitment, responsibility, routines, compromises. Travelling is a series of one-night stands; home is a relationship."


Sunday, March 06, 2011

Waking to a new world

Many years ago, I developed the habit of taking a photograph out of my bedroom window whenever I woke for the first time in a new place. Since one so often arrives in darkness, with little or no idea of one's surroundings or orientation, a delicious sense of shock attends the moment of revelation on the first morning. I have particularly fond memories of a striking shot I took on a school trip twenty-odd years ago - pure reflex rather than conscious craft, still fumbling half-asleep - in a little family hotel in the Peloponnese, of the clay-tiled rooftop opposite and the fierce blue Mediterranean sky above.

This was what greeted me a fortnight ago in Kuala Lumpur: a ramshackle backpacker hostel behind my hotel (not much less grungy), and half a mile to the north, the city's enormous TV Tower.  (I'm not sure what the pink, classical-looking building that looks as if it's hovering in mid-air is. The Telekom Museum perhaps?)

Saturday, March 05, 2011

List of the Month - Swings and Roundabouts

My recent excursion down to Malaysia was not the most wonderful holiday I've ever had. There were a lot of stresses and hassles, disappointments and small disasters, health problems and financial embarrassments and nights of very limited sleep...  I'm feeling rather as though I'll now need a week at home in bed to recover from it!

However, overall it wasn't too bad, either. And I'm trying to cultivate a 'positive thinking' habit about these things (what NLP enthusiasts call 'reframing'): non-ideal incidents usually have some redeeming value. Usually.

So, here we have....

Examples of how, when travelling, the 'bad' is not all bad

I missed out on a really cheap direct flight to KL on Air China by booking too late in the day (and dithering: the fare was still being advertised when I started rooting around on Ctrip and E-Long, but had evaporated by the time I was ready to commit half an hour later). However, the alternate fare I dug up on Cathay/Dragonair was only a smidge more expensive... and it is a much nicer airline (very pretty stewardesses!).... and the threatened 5-hour layover in Hong Kong airport on the return leg was avoided by a nifty change of flights.

I didn't have time to buy any new luggage (all of mine seems to have fallen apart), so had to make do with a very small backpack. At least this forced me to pack light (always a good thing; though I did rather regret not having room for a spare pair of shoes). And, of course, it enabled me to breeze through the airports with only a carry-on bag.

I was egregiously screwed on the exchange rate, getting barely 2.5 ringgit to the US dollar during my outward journey, while moneychangers in Malaysia proved to be plentiful, hassle-free, and paying 3 RM to the dollar. However, having been unable to obtain any ringgit in China, I certainly saved myself some time (and potential hassle, and anxious uncertainty about arriving mid-evening with no local money and having to find a bureau de change in KL airport before I could head into town) by changing money during my afternoon stop in Hong Kong. And I learned (re-learned!!) an important lesson: never change money at an airport, especially not airside. I should have been paying more attention, too; I shouldn't have changed so much money at once (my sleep-deprived gormlessness cost me about 250 ringgit, which would have been another two or three days' spending money!); but I only noticed how unbelievably lousy the rate was after the nice girl at Travelex had printed off the forms for me to sign, and I didn't want to make a fuss at that point (most unlike me!).

Malaysia is one of the most expensive countries in the world in which to drink (way the most expensive in south-east Asia!), but... I had been planning to give up drinking (well, cut down) anyway, so this was a useful introduction to a new regime of moderation.

I picked a budget hotel based on its advertised convenient proximity to the Puduraya long-distance bus station in the centre of KL. Unfortunately, that bus station no longer exists; like so much of downtown Kuala Lumpur these days, it is just a huge building site. Its temporary(?) substitute at Bukit Jalil is a hangar in a field on the south-east edge of the city, a chaotic hellhole of jabbering touts and unlabelled bus stands. However, once you've worked out how to get there, it's really not that hard to reach from the city centre (although a lot harder than just crossing the road, as I had thought I'd be able to do). Moreover, this small unexpected additional hassle in arranging transport discouraged me from undertaking originally planned side-trips to Melaka and the Cameron Highlands - which, given my dodgy health all week, would probably have seriously overtaxed my stamina. (It's good to leave something for a return visit in a year or two, I think.)

The hotel room had paper-thin curtains, and was uncomfortably close to (on top of!) a busy main road, but.... traffic wasn't too bad overnight, and it wasn't getting light until after 7am... and who wants to sleep in any later than that? Not me. (Not usually.  Being able to sleep in after 4.30am or 5am, though, I do rather covet - see last item below.)

The nightclub hosting the music competition I'd gone to KL to see was the only completed element (well, there was a nice little Japanese restaurant downstairs as well) of an otherwise ongoing construction project. It was, thus, extremely difficult to find, or to access once found. However, this meant that the crowd was not too large, and there was no danger of the tickets having sold out in advance (something I'd been fretting about a lot before I left: it would have been wretched to go all the way down there to support my favourite China band and then find I couldn't get in to the show!).

And my Kuala Lumpur hotel's curious decision to promote itself as a transit lounge rather than a hotel? Well, I still struggle to come up with any consolation on that one! I discovered, to my intense chagrin, that they fairly regularly book in large groups of people to use single rooms as a 'bag drop' for a few hours (when folks don't fancy waiting at the train station or the airport - where there'd be more room and facilities for them... and no-one to annoy??), taking no account of the fact that such tour groups - wanting to use their room themselves to rest or sleep or at least sit down, as well as to deposit their luggage, but finding (to their surprise?!) that it is much too small to accommodate them all - will colonise the entire corridor, block fire exits, and bug the crap out of all the regular guests. I don't know - is this a common practice in Malaysia, in Asia?  I haven't come across it anywhere else. For me, it completely destroys a place's prime function as a hotel - to provide a quiet space where you can rest up for a spell in between your sightseeing and so on. In the wee small hours of last Saturday morning, a dozen or so middle-aged Muslim ladies camped themselves right outside my door and proceeded to have a very NOISY 'tea party' all night - which limited me to about two hours of sleep, and very nearly ruined my entire weekend.  [The hotel manager evaded my attempts to complain to him in person, but I'm now doing so by e-mail - and hoping to get some financial compensation out of him, or maybe at least an offer of a free stay there next time. Although, frankly, I'd rather extract a promise from him that this ridiculous practice will be discontinued. It makes no commercial sense at all. The place is otherwise a fairly decent low-end hotel, but routinely allowing gabblesome rabbles to take over entire floors like this - it was not a one-off incident! - renders it valueless to the ordinary guest.  Ggrrrr.....]

Friday, March 04, 2011

Disturbing neighbour(s)

Last week, I stayed for a few days in a rather quaint colonial era hotel on Burma Road in Penang. Next door was this business with the huge sign Pathlab above it. It looked just like a regular shop, so I assumed at first that this was just another charmingly inept piece of Asian business naming - choosing a word at random from an English dictionary to give your grocery or hardware store a little more of that international cachet. But no, it really was your friendly neighbourhood pathology lab. Cutting out the middlemen, those pesky doctors, and pitching their services direct to the man on the street - Do your own biopsy, and bring it to us!

Not really the sort of place you expect to find on a suburban street; not the sort of place you want to be living next-door to.

Even worse, right next to the 'path lab' there was a pet store. Late at night, a plaintive mewling of animals was often heard, and it could be hard to tell from which of the two premises it was emanating...

These things are sent to try us

My honeymoon period with GoogleChrome didn't last long.

Perhaps it's just some odd temporary glitch, an unfortunate, freakish concatenation of circumstance brought about by the crazy Net interference we're suffering from the authorities here at the moment, but.... it is currently impossible to download attachments from Yahoo Mail in the Chrome browser.  I've had to resort to using Explorer again, just for my e-mail, just to get some work done.

I don't have much molar left to grind down...

Haiku for the week

Being elsewhere a while:
A reboot for the mind, and heart.
Then, ennui once more.

Ah, it's.... to be back.

The same, that's what it is.  The same.

I didn't go away for long enough.

And the trouble with taking a break from China is that you're reminded that everywhere else is nicer...

Thursday, March 03, 2011

New Picks of the Month

Two more picks from three years ago this month....

From Froogville, I choose Roll Call - a 'classic' post illustrating the perverse inventiveness of Chinese students in choosing 'English names' for themselves (all examples completely genuine, I promise).

And on Barstool Blues, I go for A little taste of Hell - an unfortunate bar experience which reminds me most powerfully that I must never allow myself to become a middle-aged drunk.

Traffic Report - the blog stats for February

Ah, finally I've achieved the sort of scaling down of output that I've long professed to aim for in my blogging habits.  But February is a very short month.  And I was out of town for the last 10 days of it.  So, we shouldn't get too carried away just yet.  Given that this was, in effect, only about 65% of a 'normal' blogging month for me, I suppose my rate of production was about as profuse as ever.  Oh well.


There were 37 posts and just over 10,000 words on Froogville.

There were 27 posts and nearly 7,000 words on Barstool Blues.

Oddly enough, the visitor stats held up remarkably well over the past week or so that I was away (and not posting), with 50-60 'unique visitors' daily on The Barstool and over 100 each day on Froogville. Were people just checking in to see if I was back yet, I wonder?? If absence makes the blog reader more curious, perhaps I should give up writing new posts altogether; maybe then I'd suddenly attract a vast readership to my extensive archives... (Well, that's always been my 'master plan'; but I think I have a year or two of wittering left in me yet.)

Not much news this month, other than that I appear to have picked up new 'regulars' in Canada (for Froogville) and Australia (for The Barstool - possibly my bar owner mate, JK), and have added Uganda, Kenya, and The Bahamas to the list of countries who've looked in just the once.

I wonder what the mad month of March will bring us?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

First impressions of Kuala Lumpur

(For that, indeed, is where I had been for the past 10 days...)

Well, I have to say, I wasn't that much taken with it. Dirty, noisy, disorganised, and debilitatingly HOT. An orgy of construction going on. Crass modernity trampling any sense of culture or history.

Yes, it was all rather depressingly reminiscent of China - particularly of one of the burgeoning new mega-cities on the south-east coast.

Except that.... the pace of life is conspicuously more relaxed there. And people are much nicer, much friendlier. Even touts and hawkers - who can be bothersomely intense - don't have that abrasiveness and aggressiveness and insane persistence that is so wearing on the soul here; if you tell them 'No', they give up and walk away - with a shrug and a smile.

What's KL like? my friends here ask me.

It's like Guangzhou - with nicer manners.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

I'm back! But....

The expected resumption of blogging might be thwarted by those darned Kafka Boys.

The tsunami of popular revolts across the Middle East is making our Communist Party overlords here in China very, very nervous.

So far, the only emanation of any similar discontent here - the so-called 'Jasmine Revolution' - seems to have been confined to a handful of gatherings at McDonald's and Starbucks, and these have posed no threat at all to the fabric of society.

The authorities, however, are in a fair old panic that the dreaded free flow of information could lead to the same kind of shitstorm here that unseated that nice Mr Mubarak a few weeks back, so they have begun stomping all over the Internet.  As so often in the past, the thoroughness of the 'crackdown' may be in part fortuitous rather than directly targeted: they're applying so much filtering - at a time when user demand is especially high! - that the system (creakily slow, at the best of times) is being completely overwhelmed.  Many key overseas websites are proving unusable - even via robust proxies - not because they're being actively 'blocked', but simply because the network is so hopelessly overloaded that all high-traffic sites are continually getting timed out.  It hasn't been this bad since an ocean-floor earthquake just off Taiwan severed the trans-Pacific Internet link for a while three or four years ago.

And I rather fear that this situation could drag on for months this time.

I hope the CCP leadership will see sense on this.  Yes, the Internet may be a dangerous means of organising dissent; but it is also a very useful way of monitoring that dissent.  And, frankly, the number of people who are sufficiently pissed off with the regime here to even think about getting out on to the streets - or into the coffee shops! - to protest is far, far, far smaller (at least as a percentage of the total population - and that's what counts) here than in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, etc.  And if discontent did exist on that scale, suppressing Internet communication wouldn't stifle it; it could spread by any number of other means, even by good old-fashioned word-of-mouth, direct person-to-person conversation.

Interfering with the Internet on this sort of scale is only serving to increase discontent (and to draw people's attention to the fact that there's something their government doesn't want them to know about or discuss).  It accomplishes nothing useful; it only makes things worse.