Saturday, July 30, 2011

Film List - the hero dies at the end

Yes, of course - SPOILERS!!

I was struck at an early age by how powerfully attracted I was to dark films and tragic endings. So many of my favourite films are distinguished by concluding with the (unexpected?) death of the lead character(s).

Off the top of my head....

My Favourite Films Where the Leading Character Dies at the End

El Cid
(Dir. Anthony Mann, 1961)
Rodrigo Diaz, 'The Master', iconic general in Spain's wars against the Moors, according to legend, rode out into battle for the last time already dead (after being mortally wounded by an arrow in the chest during the previous day's fighting), strapped into the saddle of his faithful warhorse Babieca, intimidating the enemy and enabling their rout. And Charlton Heston somehow makes it completely believable. I saw this on TV about a gazillion times during my early childhood, and never failed to be moved by the final scenes.

Cool Hand Luke
(Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
Possibly my favourite film ever - if I really have to choose just one, one that had a particular resonance with my personality or a particular impact on its development. You don't actually see Luke die, but you know that he's dying when they take him away in the ambulance - shot in the throat, unable to speak, slowly bleeding to death, but still beaming his trademark smile in mute defiance. And you know that he's destined for death through most of the story - the Messianic imagery overlayed on his self-destructive, suicidal tendencies builds up a sense of inevitable doom, even from the opening scene. (One might, of course, also mention Milos Forman's 1975 One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but that is essentially the same story transposed to a slightly different setting; and, for me, not such a moving or convincing realisation of the idea of the transformative but martyred hero as Cool Hand Luke.)

Bonnie and Clyde
(Dir. Arthur Penn, 1967)
The infamous hoodlum lovebirds (Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty) are shot dozens of times in a ruthless ambush in the final scene. Of course, most crime/gangster films (and the careers of most of America's notorious Depression-era criminals) have ended like this - I also particularly liked John Milius's 1973 Dillinger (with Warren Oates in the title role).

Midnight Cowboy
(Dir. John Schlesinger, 1969)
OK, so young Joe Buck (Jon Voight) escapes his life of sleazery in New York to attempt a new start in Miami, but his friend Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) dies in the bus seat beside him before they get there. This was an image that haunted me throughout my childhood, and returned - unwelcome, unbidden - to my mind every time I rode a Greyhound myself (which I did a lot during the 1990s).

Ring Of Bright Water
(Dir. Jack Couffer, 1969)
One of the most beautiful stories ever made about the love that can exist between a man and an animal, a thoroughly sappy, feelgood film... right up until the moment when the otter gets killed. I cried when I first saw this in the cinema at the age of about 7 or 8. I probably still would today. Absolutely heartbreaking!

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
(Dir. George Roy Hill, 1969)
No, you don't actually see them die. But you don't need to: the inevitability of death has rarely been so movingly established in the closing minutes of a film. And you do hear - as the final frame, that wonderful image of self-deluding bravado and defiance, freezes and fades to sepia - the volley of shots from the dozens of Federales surrounding them on the rooftops. (Of course, the annihilation of the hero subsequently became somewhat commonplace in the more gritty, demythologising modern Westerns, Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and - I think - even better Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid being the most notable examples.)

Easy Rider
(Dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969)
Our counter-culture heroes have run up against a fair amount of Middle American hostility and incomprehension in the film, and have already witnessed the murder of their travel buddy George (Jack Nicholson); so, we're probably not expecting them to come to a good end. Even so, the suddenness and sheer randomness of the denouement is deeply shocking: a pair of rednecks in a passing truck shoot Dennis Hopper by accident, and then return to murder Peter Fonda to cover their tracks - and it's all over in just a few seconds, a brutally abrupt ending that is all the more of a jolt because the pacing of the rest of the story has mostly been so self-indulgently leisurely.

Get Carter
(Dir. Mike Hodges, 1971)
This classic British gangster film is one of the most relentlessly bleak and amoral ever made. London mob enforcer Jack Carter has completed his private revenge against the local villains he deems responsible for the murder of his brother in his native Newcastle, but he has ruffled too many feathers in the process - including those of his own employer, a London crime kingpin - and is shot by a sniper in the very last scene.

Vanishing Point
(Dir. Richard C. Sarafian, 1971)
This great, existential road film provided one of the most vivid of my early experiences of the cinema. The protagonist, Kowalski (Barry Newman), Vietnam vet and former race driver, has run out of reasons to live. While delivering a suped-up Dodge Challenger across the south-western States to California, he becomes involved in a huge police chase; and, in the final scene, commits suicide by driving at full speed into a roadblock.

Harold and Maude
(Dir. Hal Ashby, 1971)
Ah, so this one is a semi-cheat: teenage death-fetishist Harold (Bud Cort) appears to have killed himself by driving his car off a cliff at the end, but in fact has faked his death. However, his septuagenarian lover Maude (Ruth Gordon) really has committed suicide just prior to that. This is an extremely black comedy that tramples on as many taboos as it can; but, for a film that's almost entirely about death, it's remarkably life-affirming. I once decided to break up with a girlfriend when she didn't 'get' this film: there are some incompatibilities that are just too large to be worth trying to overcome.

Silent Running
(Dir. Douglass Trumbull, 1972)
This touching low-budget science fiction eco-fable from special effects wizard Trumbull (the VFX director on 2001) seems to have been all but forgotten these days, although I fancy it still enjoys 'cult' status amongst those of us lucky enough to have caught it on TV in our childhoods. Rogue astronaut Bruce Dern blows up himself and his spaceship at the end of the film, in a bid to ensure the survival of a 'space ark' he has been tending, a huge glass dome that is the last repository of Earth's extinct flora. I was intrigued to discover (on IMDB, just now) that the screenwriters included Michael Cimino (a few years later to be become a noted director himself) and Steven Bochco (creator of the superb '80s cop show Hill Street Blues).

Electra Glide In Blue
(Dir. James William Guercio, 1973)
Police Officer John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) doesn't have a very happy time in this determinedly untypical, unpredictable early-70s cult favourite: uptight and nerdy, scarred by his experiences in Vietnam, he has to learn to compromise with the incompetence and prejudice he encounters all around him, both inside and outside the police department, and - despite his success in the murder investigation he undertakes on his own initiative - his dream of escaping from uniform police work into the homicide detective squad seems unlikely to be realised any time soon. Nevertheless, as far as I recall (and I've only seen this once, 30 years or so ago - on a BBC2 Sunday night season of recent American movies deemed too oddball even for a late-night audience on the more mainstream BBC1 [though it was on BBC1 that I saw most of the rest of these picks, usually in the 'Monday Film' slot from 9.25 till late]), there was no prefiguring of tragedy as there was with most of these other selections (except insofar as, it seems, all great American films of the early '70s ended tragically). So, the final scene, where - quite out of the blue, unexplained, unmotivated - he is blasted off his motorcycle by a shotgun, is quite devastating. And it's followed by a long, long closing shot: the camera pulls away, leaving Wintergreen sitting motionless in the middle of a desert highway, with the familiar stone towers of Monument Valley clustered on the horizon; the camera keeps on moving down the road, for 3 or 4 minutes or more, until the slain cop has disappeared from sight. It's a stark, haunting image of the hopelessness and meaninglessness of human endeavours, the murder soon being eclipsed by the desolate beauty of the landscape. [Here's that scene on YouTube, accompanied not by the original soundtrack, but by a Yo La Tengo song called We're An American Band.]

Dark Star
(Dir. John Carpenter, 1974)
Carpenter's film school graduation project is another of the films that have won a very special place in my heart, certainly amongst my top 5 or 10 personal favourites, perhaps in the top 2 or 3 (it is, after all, the origin of my online alias). A computer-controlled nuclear bomb becomes self-aware and decides to 'fulfill its destiny' by committing suicide, destroying the deep space scoutship Dark Star and all of its crew members along with it. Well, OK, Commander Powell appears to have miraculously 'survived' the explosion, frozen in a huge block of ice (but he was 'dead' already, his brain kept barely ticking over in cryogenic suspension; and the ice obviously won't preserve him forever). Talby the mystic, floating free of the ship in a spacesuit, survives the blast, and is seemingly 'rescued' - absorbed - by a passing group of 'living' asteroids; but that might be just a dying hallucination. And Dolittle, the acting commander of the ship, also survives for a short time in a spacesuit; he has the wacky idea of trying to use a piece of metal wreckage as a surfboard on which to fly down to the surface of a nearby planet; inevitably, he burns up in its outer atmosphere, the final image of the film. The other two crew members - including Pinback, the only character with whom we really identify - have perished aboard the ship in the explosion. So, basically, everybody dies: it's the Hamlet option for plot resolution.

(Dir. Brian De Palma, 1983)
The strangely admirable Cuban drug baron, Tony Montana (Al Pacino), ends the film trying to defend his mansion against the onslaught of a small army of hitmen hired by his vengeful former partner, the Bolivian cocaine producer Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) - with only his personal armoury of large automatic weapons and the pyramid of coke on his desk to assist him. Obviously, he is not going to prevail, but he puts up a damn good fight: "Say hello to my little friend!" [This is inevitably going to get pulled from YouTube soon, but for now you can watch that closing scene here.]

The Vanishing
(Dir. George Sluizer, 1988)
The creepiest ending of any film I've seen, and one of the most devastatingly effective uses of character identification (we become completely absorbed in Rex's obsessive quest to learn what happened to his disappeared girlfriend, we come to accept, to share his determination to find out at any cost) merging with camera POV, where in those terrifying final seconds we discover, as Rex (Gene Bervoets) does, waking from his brief, drugged sleep, that he has now suffered the same fate... being buried alive.

The Hairdresser's Husband
(Dir. Patrice Leconte, 1990)
I suppose this is nominally a 'romantic comedy', though done as only the French can, with dark undertones and unsettling weirdness intruding from time to time upon the quirky fun - particularly at the end, when Mathilde (the impossibly gorgeous Anna Galiena) becomes disquieted by the excessive happiness of her claustrophobic but idyllic relationship with Antoine (a typically nerdy and lugubrious Jean Rochefort, who really should never have got this lucky in the first place), and decides to drown herself rather than face the risk of their love ending in some other way. Has there ever been an American romantic comedy that ended with a suicide (other than Harold and Maude, above)?

Hmm, perhaps killing off your leading character at the end was a fashion at the time, a trope of the early '70s 'indie' cinema on which I grew up. I note that all but four of these films were made in the space of a few years at the end of the '60s or the beginning of the '70s; and all but the last three of them got their first showing on British television during the 1970s, mostly towards the  end of that decade, when I was just on the cusp of my teens. Coincidence? Probably not.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Further adventures in HELL

I'm supposed to be in Dalian today - but I'm not.

My anguished post about the unreliability of air travel in China 10 days ago proved to be all too prescient.

A string of heavy rainstorms over the past few weeks has been causing massive disruption to China's internal air travel. We had two monster thunderstorms over Beijing on Monday night and Tuesday night, and the knock-on effects of diversions and airport closures occasioned by that are still leading to flight cancellations days later, when the weather's cleared up again.

So, my Wednesday morning began early with a phone call from Ctrip giving me the unsurprising 'news' that my flight to Dalian was cancelled (and, given the domino-effect snafu paralysing the airways, I was told that it was extremely likely that my return flight from Dalian on Sunday would also be cancelled). I received this information particularly grumpily, because the electricity to my building had also been knocked out by the storm at around midnight, and so I had been without air-conditioning all night; and, of course, after a heavy rain, the humidity goes through the roof -  I was painfully dehydrated, and had hardly slept a wink. I managed to get the air-con back on and finally started to doze off around 6am. Thus, to be wakened a couple of hours later by a phone call telling me that my holiday plans were in the toilet was..... unwelcome.

There are only three or four flights a day to Dalian. And, apparently, half of them were cancelled for the rest of the week. Which meant that the remaining ones were hopelessly overbooked. I'm not sure that I really believe my flight was 'cancelled'; I suspect I was just bumped off it, because demand was so high, and I was a low-priority customer. I was offered the opportunity to rebook on a flight that left after midnight (was supposed to leave - things at Beijing airport have become so chaotic these last few days that I wouldn't have wanted to take a chance on it) and would get into Dalian in the middle of the night. No good at all for rendezvousing with the friends who had offered to put me up. I decided to decline that option.

Were there any alternatives open to me? Well, I couldn't readily investigate, since my Internet service had also been knocked out by the storm. And my landlord was insisting that - although this pretty obviously seemed like a central network problem with the server or whatever, not a problem at my end - everyone's connector box had to be re-set manually. Yep, allegedly all of the 200 or so of the neighbours in my xiaoqu who use this service would have to wait for a visit from the repairman - the sole repairman - before their Internet connection could be restored. It might take days. After some vigorous lobbying, I managed to get the Internet company to agree to prioritise me: they promised they would come that same day. But they couldn't say exactly when. Then they gave me a time. Then they changed it. Then they changed it again. So, basically, I had to stay at home all day in order to get my Internet "fixed". And when the guy finally showed up, he said,"Oh, I don't think I need to do anything here. You're probably reconnected by now." As I had supposed all along.  Ggrrrr.

So, anyway, I wasn't able to investigate the train options until the next day. I was amazed to find that The Man In Seat 61, ordinarily the oracle on all things chemindeferrous, is reporting that Beijing West station has recently introduced a spiffing new English-language ticket office... which can sell tickets for any journey in China. This seemed too good to be true. China's railway network still flounders with a hopelessly uncoordinated ticketing system and no worthwhile IT infrastructure: only rarely, if you're lucky, will you be able to buy a 'return ticket' (you can usually only buy single-journey tickets from the origin station; so, you have to arrive at your destination before you can try to buy a ticket from there back to home); you can never buy a ticket for a journey between two points other than where you are. Until now?? I was deeply sceptical; but this was too wonderful a prospect not to be checked out.

Unfortunately, Beijing West station is: a) HUGE; b) almost completely devoid of worthwhile signage (in English, Chinese, or symbol); c) as crowded as New York in Soylent Green; and d) a long way from anywhere (it's supposed to be getting connected to the subway network, and to the main Beijing railway station, one day; but that day is still far off; at the moment, it's a mile-and-half from the nearest subway stop - and yesterday was a day of sweltering humidity and choking pollution). After an hour or more of exploring this nightmarish station, I concluded that The Magic Ticket Booth was nought but a beautiful myth. In fact, they didn't seem to have even one English-language serving point in either of the two enormous - but unconnected, and unsignposted - ticket halls that I managed to find (there may well be others; the place is a labyrinth).

I decided to try my luck at the main Beijing railway station on the other side of town (which was probably where I'd be departing from anyway). And, in the past, they used to have a 'foreigners only' ticket office - unsignposted, of course; discreetly hidden away in one of the 'Soft Sleeper Waiting Rooms' off the south-east corner of the main departure hall. They don't any more.

I don't know if this is a sign of the country's increasing unconcern - if not outright bolshieness - towards foreigners, but efforts to provide foreigner-friendly assistance seem to have declined rapidly in the last few years. Many stations around the country used to have such a - small, hidden - 'foreigner' ticket booth (I can, in a pinch, manage to buy a train ticket in Chinese; but the queues at the Chinese service windows are LONG and often undisciplined); but I'm betting they've all now been phased out. It didn't really matter that much for those of us who live here, because over the past 5 or 6 years there's been a proliferation of small agencies which can sell you train tickets in your neighbourhood. But a month or two ago, that option was snatched away from us. New 'security' regulations have been brought in which require you to show ID when purchasing a train ticket; for foreigners, that means a passport; and these local agencies are not empowered to process passport information (apparently, this is in Beijing only; everywhere else in China is implementing the same regulations, but no-one else seems to have a problem with continuing to allow the local ticket booths to sell train tickets to foreigners). So, we now have to go the train stations in person.... where we find that there is no English-language ticket service any more.

Well, that's not quite true. In the main ticket hall at Beijing Station, one of the 50 ticket windows had been designated as a 'foreigner service point'. There was no sign to this effect above the window itself (a discreet notice - in English only - advised of this arrangement as you entered the hall), so, most of the people waiting in line were Chinese. I can't blame them. The ticket hall was close to capacity, a seething mass of people (though not as bad as one of the ones at Beijing West, where the lines were snaking out of the door). Perhaps there were some notices in Chinese discouraging locals from attempting to use this window, because the queue was significantly shorter than any of the others - only about 25 or 30 people (most of them in pairs or threes). I was morosely speculating that it might take me a couple of hours to get served. I determined to wait until 3pm (about 50 minutes), and then give up on the exercise.

Both of the stations I visited yesterday were packed out. Well, this is a peak holiday season, I suppose. And the meltdown of the domestic air traffic system in the last week or two has undoubtedly added to the demand. The recent high-speed rail crash has probably had an effect, too: I hear that the high-speed services have been radically cut back (probably less as a safety precaution, and more because of a failure of public confidence: nobody wants to use them any more - whether or not the number of services has been reduced, I would imagine that a lot of people have been switching to the regular rail network)

So, Chinese railway stations, always reminiscent of one of those 17th Century depictions of hell, are even more than usually overcrowded at the moment.  My queue, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find, was moving quite quickly. I got to the front in only about 40 minutes - comfortably ahead of my self-imposed deadline. And the girl at the window did speak a little bit of English - not much, but some.

Alas.... well, as I summed up the situation to my friends in Dalian, and to various interested parties in Beijing who had been giving me encouragement during this long ordeal...

"Today: midnight slow train only, standing room only. Coming back Sunday: midnight slow train only, hard seat only. Gentlemen, we just lost the Moon."

No, no Dalian for me. And I'm beginning to suffer anxiety attacks about next week's expedition to Yunnan going the same way...  Oiveh!

[This is the only 'live' post you'll get from me for a while. I spent a good chunk of Sunday and Monday 'pre-cooking' 20 or so posts to keep you entertained on the blogs over the next two or three weeks. I may not actually be able to leave Beijing on my planned holidays. If the weather remains this debilitatingly humid, I may not even be able to leave my apartment. But I can at least take a holiday from blogging - oh yes.]

Use the power of the imagination

After a couple of days of glorious respite, the Beijing weather returns to its typical July-August rut of overcast and thundery.

The last run of 10 sunless days got me so down, I dug up this to use as the desktop wallpaper on my computer. I really think it helped. A little bit.

Haiku for the week

Salt air and seaweed,
A cry of far-off childhood
In the sound of gulls.

I am visiting the seaside in China, for the first time in 5 or 6 years. Indeed, I haven't looked upon the sea anywhere since I last walked on the beach at Portobello in Edinburgh almost 2 years ago.

I miss it very profoundly. When I was a boy, I spent most of my summer holidays at the seaside, down in the south-west of England. My German grandmother used to live in the little south Devon fishing town of Brixham, overlooking Torbay, and summers spent there with her - when I was only 2, 3, 4 years old - comprise most of my very earliest memories. Later, family camping holidays were always based down in Somerset, just outside a tiny village called Withypool, far inland; but they always included a few expeditions to the coast, mostly north to Porlock. And then, when I started university, my parents went to live down there for a while, at Lynton, on the north Devon coast - just a few minutes walk away from the spectacular Valley of the Rocks, and the steeply winding path down to the secluded Wringcliff Bay, a small rocky beach that was seldom visited by anyone other than me.

I love the ozone-laced air and the tang of brine in my nostrils. And I love staring at the sea - the vastness of it at once terrifying and yet supremely serene. I can stare at the sea, alone, unstirring, with scarcely a thought in my head (not a verbalised one, anyway), for hours at a time: it's wonderfully conducive to relaxation, meditation. I miss that. If I don't get to do it at least once every year or two, I find myself going a little crazy.

I hope I'm going to have a chance to do it over this weekend. However, since I am visiting friends, and since it is an unfamiliar place I am going to, and a very large city, at that (Brixham, population 18,000; Dalian, population 6 million!), I fear the opportunities may be limited. I shall do my best. I have a lot of craziness to flush out of my head at the moment.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

War on Weibo??

As I mentioned a couple of days ago (flippantly, in passing - but that doesn't make it not true), I really think the Chinese government needs to stamp all over the micro-blogging fad as soon as possible. I speak from their point of view here, not my own.

They have, very wisely, suppressed Facebook and Twitter for the past couple of years. (I facetiously argued in that earlier post that this might be misguided, because these services actually had little potential to foment revolutionary idealism, but, on the contrary, provided an addictive distraction that might serve to defuse rising social discontent. Events in North Africa earlier this year might be said to have proved me wrong on that. And anyway, there are plenty of mass media 'opiates' with which the CCP can stupefy its population. Foreign social networking sites are of little interest to anyone here, but the government would mess with World of Warcraft at its peril.)

However, by some strange (ahem, probably 'commercially motivated' - did anyone say bribe? OK, now I did) oversight, they have allowed a Chinese micro-blogging site, Sina Weibo, to become enormously popular.

Enormously. It was only launched just over two years ago, and only seems to have really been gaining major traction during the last year. But it now has over 60,000 registered users (hmm, query Wikipedia on that - I suspect it might well be 60 million!), and  between 100 million and 150 million regular readers, and is starting to eclipse rival domestic services, with a survey earlier this year showing  it had more than 50% of active users and more than 86% of browsing time in the micro-blogging market. Very nearly all urban middle-class Chinese now have at least occasional access to the Internet; and perhaps 35-40% of them are fairly regular users. Sina Weibo is well on its way to achieving 100% penetration of that powerful demographic wedge.

It has now announced plans to launch an English version of its service before the end of this year - initially, one supposes, with a view to wooing the expat population in China who may be growing weary of having to 'tweet' via a VPN all the time; but before long, one suspects, they aspire to try to go toe-to-toe with Twitter and Facebook and the rest in overseas markets. And, oh yes, Tianjin Airlines last month launched a passenger jet in the Sina Weibo livery; it's the first Chinese website to sponsor a plane in this way (though I bet Jack Ma of Alibaba is kicking himself that he didn't think of it).

Well, good luck to them!

The thing is, since the rash of Jasmine Revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East at the start of this year, the CCP is crapping its pants at the now dramatically confirmed potential of these social networking tools to coordinate mass protests. And it would really, really, really like to squelch poor old Sina Weibo. Sometimes, filtering isn't enough. With that many people taking part in the conversation, you can't expect to effectively moderate the conversation - you've just got to put a STOP to it.

But it's too late to put the genie back in the bottle. Sina Weibo has just got way too big, too successful, too famous, too popular. They've got their own airplane, for heaven's sake. And they're getting ready to fight for the pride of the nation against the most powerful brands in the worldwide Internet. You can't shut down an operation like that.

All you can do is make it less and less easy to use, especially from mobile devices - by outlawing the provision of free wi-fi in public places.

A 'pilot scheme' of this sort seems to have been launched in the past few days. Cafés, bars, and restaurants in several parts of central Beijing - such as the trendy shopping streets of Nanluoguxiang and Wudaoying Hutong, near where I live - have been receiving visits from the police, gruffly warning them that they face stiff fines if they continue to offer wi-fi services without installing a 'security package'. According to this item in yesterday's New York Times, this package is a piece of software which purports to 'identify' users who log on to the Internet through a wi-fi network. God knows how that's supposed to work, since the idea of introducing 'real name registration' for China's Internet users has been mooted a number of times in the past, but has, predictably, never got off the ground.

The software's developers claim they charged $310,000 to create the program. The PSB are attempting to extort around one percent of that from every café owner who wants to continue to attract patrons by offering a wi-fi connection. Major franchises like Starbucks and McDonald's will presumably shell out, just to keep on the right side of the government. But the fee being asked is so outrageous that it seems inconceivable that any small independent business will agree to pay it. If the amount had been a painful-but-affordable 5,000 or 10,000 rmb rather than 20,000, we might have supposed that this was just another little scam - another way of soliciting "contributions" to the Policemen's Benevolent Fund or whatever. At this price level, however, it is plainly an attempt to outlaw wi-fi altogether.

Will it work? Well, probably not. People, after all, can log on to Weibo using their work or home computers. And there are lots of unsecured wi-fi signals bleeding out of offices and apartments (there are at least three neighbours in my xiaoqu that I piggyback off occasionally when my own connection's gone on the blink). Maybe you can access it via the cellular phone network as well - I don't know.

And I doubt if there'll be any real follow-through on enforcement. It would take a HUGE commitment of manpower to try to monitor every bar and café (and restaurant and shop and hotel and gymnasium and...) offering a wi-fi service in Beijing.

As so often with this sort of initiative, the implementation is going to be completely half-arsed (remember the census-that-wasn't-a-census last year?); the guys on the ground don't really give a damn about it anyway, and the high-ups will eventually realise how hopelessly impractical it is and quietly forget about the whole idea. And the majority of venue owners will probably ignore the crackdown as well, perhaps making a show of compliance for the next few weeks, but then putting their wi-fi beacons back into service, and only discreetly turning them off again for 10 minutes or so when a neighbourhood copper is seen ambling down the street with an i-Phone in his hand.

Let's hope so, anyway.

Not that it bothers me. I never use wi-fi. And I loathe Twitter and all of its ilk (even if they might occasionally be useful for starting a revolution). But I feel sorry for friends who do rely on wi-fi for their work (and their 'tweeting', if they must; some of them assure me that a lot of it is 'work related'). And I feel sorry for bar and café owners whose business might be seriously impacted by this measure.

So, Communist overlords, you must think again. You have to find a way of killing - or emasculating - Sina Weibo, before it does the same to you. But you have to do it by such gradual increments that nobody notices enough to make a big fuss about it (think Gramsci's Frog). I'd have a look at that 'real name registration' idea again - not for wi-fi Internet surfers, but for Sina Weibo account-holders.

I'm not really here (again)

I wasn't here in February, and I'm not here again now.

Well, only intermittently anyway. And subject to the vagaries of Chinese domestic flight schedules.

I'm expecting to be away from Beijing for most of the next three weeks.

I have pre-baked some goodies for you, to maintain the illusion of my continuing presence at the keyboard.

However, I'm not taking my computer on the road with me, and expect to be getting online seldom or never while I'm gone (isn't that the key element of a holiday these days??). So, if you do want to comment on anything, play nice.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On a related note...

Following on from yesterday's grump about changing fashions in communication in our modern age...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sometimes, when I fear I'm blogging too much...

... I console myself that at least I'm still refusing to join the Twitterati.

do not approve of that medium at all. No, sirree. Even more self-important and time-consuming and pointless than blogging (and that's saying something)! And I am far from being alone in this aversion.

A number of science fiction writers have pointed out that anyone who achieved a telepathic ability to read the thoughts of others would soon be driven mad by the incessant inanity he 'overheard' all around him, and would strive to find some way to inhibit or discard the 'gift'. I think we've reached a similar situation with Twitter and its clones. Whether some of the individual messages might have value or not ("Anyone up for a revolution? See you down the Wangfujing McDonald's on Sunday afternoon!") is rather beside the point. There are far too many of them, and they are fundamentally ephemeral. Twaddle might have been a better name for the service.

We need to free our minds of this worthless, distracting babble. Renouncing the medium altogether is the only way.  Are you with me, brothers and sisters?  No, probably not; but you gotta try, dontcha?

[And yes, I am doing the Chinese government's nefarious work for them here. They've finally realised that they've got to squish Weibo in a hurry, but they've no idea how to do that now without unleashing a mighty shitstorm.]

Make it stop

This is the 9th, no, 10th (11th??) day with no sunlight we've endured in Beijing. And there's no sign of the weather breaking yet, despite a big thunderstorm and heavy rain yesterday evening.

I am getting cabin fever.

Unfortunately, nowhere else in north-east China is any better at the moment. I had been planning to escape on a short trip this last weekend, but there seems to be nowhere to escape to.

I think I need to get myself a UV lamp....

Bon mot for the week

"What is now proved was once only imagined."

William Blake  (1757-1827)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Valerie Leon, the Hai Karate girl

Way back at the dawn of my consciousness - the early 1970s, that would be - there was a strange obsession in the UK with cheap aftershave. Brut 33, Blue Stratos, Old Spice, Denim, and a few others - all similarly pungent, similarly unclassy - were engaged in a vicious battle for market share. But only at Christmas time. I don't think many people actually wore this stuff, but it was for a while a standard Christmas gift for men. I almost certainly bought some for my father or my brother once or twice; and - karmic retribution! - I was myself an ungrateful recipient of the stuff a few times in my early teens.

And it was all down to the power of advertising. These were disgusting products. People, I'm sure, even at the time, used to joke about how bad they were. But the TV commercials for them were great. Perhaps, subsconsciously, we were buying this rubbish out of gratitude for the entertainment provided, or in hopeful anticipation that if we could keep the companies in business, we'd be rewarded with another rousing commercial at the end of the following year.

The most rousing - the most arousing - of them all were the ads for the Hai Karate brand. The concept was a precursor to the hugely successful Lynx/Axe range of grooming products that seem to have come to dominate the lower end of the market over this past twenty or so years: i.e., this stuff had a magical, fatal power over women - as soon as they caught a whiff of it, they would be enslaved, obsessed, unable to keep their hands off you. It's a potent fantasy, right enough. It's just a pity you have to shell out so much moolah and make yourself smell weird to achieve this effect.

Hai Karate's unique marketing gimmick was that each pack included an illustrated 'self defence guide' - to help you ward off the unwanted attentions of lust-crazed women. The slogan was: Be careful how you use it.

Valerie Leon was a British glamour girl of the '60s and '70s. She had numerous small roles on TV during that period, as well as being the token crumpet in a number of the Carry On films, and appearing as one of James Bond's ephemeral bedmates at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me, and as a scantily-clad Egyptian princess in Hammer's Blood From The Mummy's Tomb.

However, for Englishmen of my generation, she is remembered first and foremost as 'the Hai Karate girl': for six or seven years, she was the face of the brand, the unstoppable sex bomb who - in a variety of scenarios in the annual succession of pre-Christmas ad campaigns - would throw herself at some unwary nerd who had slapped on some of the fragrance without reading the warning label first. The ads were more slapstick than sex: the weedy guy assailed by the relentless vamp would attempt to protect himself using the martial arts skills supposedly taught by the package insert, but panic and ineptitude undid him - he'd just strike spastic poses and inadvertently demolish everything around him. The slinky Ms Leon never had to resort to physical violence to subdue her prey (he always managed to incapacitate himself!), although there was an air of power and menace and determination about her that suggested she would be capable of it, if necessary. She definitely had something of the intimidating-yet-provoking kickass allure of The Avengers' Emma Peel.

I have fretted before that Mrs Peel - and other powerful/threatening/dominating/unattainable women of that ilk, such as the smouldering Hai Karate glamourpuss - does not perhaps provide an ideal template of desirable womanhood for a young boy still only dimly aware of the mysteries of sex (actually, that description probably still fits me alarmingly well today!). Those raunchy Christmas TV ads were, I now realise, setting me up for a lifetime of broken hearts (if not broken bones).

This is the only one of those famous ads I've been able to find on YouTube this morning (although the nurse's uniform is a nice erotic bonus!).

[Ms Leon, I'm glad to discover, is still alive and well, and still strikingly beautiful in her sixties. Check out this career summary and interview, and her own website.]

Friday, July 22, 2011

Price gouge!

Now, we know that the summer months are 'peak period' for the airlines.

Even in China, these days, it seems. Perhaps especially so in China; more and more middle class Chinese are finding themselves with some discretionary leave allowance, and the disposable income to do something with it. And the long school vacation is the ideal time to take a trip, within the country or overseas.

And then, of course, if you're trying to book at short notice, the best bargains have disappeared. Indeed, there are very often automatic ramp-ups of the fares as the number of remaining seats on a flight falls below certain thresholds.

And the high oil prices brought on us by the political instability in the Middle East/North Africa have made things even more painful.

I found it a very unpleasant surprise this week to have to pay over 5,000 rmb for two return air journeys within China.

But a friend of mine has to fly home to Australia at short notice, and.... checking seat availability online last night, he suffered the unfortunate experience of seeing a one-way fare ramp up from 4,600 to 6,600 rmb right before his eyes.

If he'd wanted to fly today, Air China's website was quoting a colossal 16,000 rmb for a one-way ticket. It was quoting that. Minutes later, it had gone up to 18,000 rmb. This morning, he told me, it had risen to 27,000 rmb. Airport taxes not included.

What the f***?  Does anyone really pay that kind of money for the last seat on a plane? Are airlines really happier to have a few seats left empty? Whatever happened to the good old days of the 'bucket shops', the little agencies the airlines would use to dump off their last few seats at bargain basement prices??

I rather suspect this is the kind of commercial madness that would only happen in China.

Haiku for the week

These grey, sultry days,
The bringers of depression,
Will they never end?

When did we last get a clear view of the sun for more than an hour or so? Has it been a whole week yet? Perhaps not. But it already feels like it. Beijing's summer weather can be wretched when it settles into a long rut of overcast humidity like this. Wretched.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Example edit

I'm working on another foreign policy paper.

The author had titled it: In-Depth Analysis of.....

Of course, I unleashed the red strikethrough on Word 1.

It sounds like bragging. It's otiose. And it is, alas, completely inaccurate.

As is usual with these dunderheads, the quality of research and "analysis" is, at best, what you might expect from a moderately bright 16-year-old who reads the newspapers regularly.

I was tempted to replace with Superficial Survey, but I restrained myself and made do with the deletion of In-Depth.

First word, first edit - this is usually how it goes.

Well, in fact, (as you might have spotted, eagle-eyed reader) the first edit was Word -1: I inserted the indefinite article An at the beginning.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Who'd be a traveller in China?

Well, it seems I would.  

Or will be, anyway. It's not exactly of my own volition; but ties of amity dictate.

I'm going to be heading out of Beijing at least twice, maybe thrice, in the next few weeks.

Darn, it's getting difficult to do, though.

Beijing has recently - alone amongst China's cities, it would seem - made it impossible for foreigners to purchase train tickets from neighbourhood agencies (it never has been possible to book them online, and probably won't be for a good long while yet; but the numerous kiosk arrangements dotted across the city made buying rail tickets a relatively painless process in the past). Having to go to a railway station to buy one, where there are almost always insane queues, is just a little bit too much mafan - even if the savings over a flight are substantial (and they're often not that significant these days).

So, I think I'm going to have to fly.

And I discover that China's airports are gamely maintaining their long-time dismal record for poor punctuality: just yesterday, it was announced that around 25% of internal flights last year were officially 'delayed'. It's the same every year (well, in 2007, Beijing Capital Airport managed less than 33% on time departures, making it a close second to the chaotic Brasilia airport in Forbes' 'World's Worst' ranking). Extreme weather is usually cited as the main culprit.  Extreme pollution is more like it.  Well, that, and the fact that ALL of China's airspace is controlled by the military, and they arbitrarily shut down passenger routes at no notice.... just to prove that they can, I suppose.

And I suspect that headline figure of 25% might be severely under-representing the problem. I haven't been able to find any online definitions of 'delay', but I should think that, for most countries, the threshold is not going to be more than an hour, perhaps only 20 or 30 minutes.  In China, I can well imagine that it might be 2 or 3 hours, or even longer; half a day, a day, even longer.

I also note that nothing is said in that article (from the English edition of government mouthpiece, The People's Daily) about the percentage of flights that are 'cancelled' entirely. As I see it, that presents two rather troubling possibilities (probabilities!): a) flights are never deemed to be 'cancelled' in the glorious People's Republic of China, they are merely indefinitely 'delayed'; or b) 'cancelled' flights are not counted among the 'delayed' flights, and thus the actual total of 'delayed and/or cancelled flights' may be much higher.

Really. I used to work with a statistics bureau: this is how statistics are massaged here - terms of reference are not properly defined, sources are never checked, slapdash methodology is the norm, and nothing is ever challenged. Official figures about anything in this country are, at best, deeply inaccurate, at worst, largely fabricated, and, as a result, almost invariably quite meaningless.

Encountering at least one delay of an hour or five is almost inevitable if you fly four times in a couple of weeks. That sort of thing you learn to take in your stride, with a weary smile. I'll be GRATEFUL if I don't suffer another day-long hold-up like my horrendous experience in Hangzhou a few years back....

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


I've been up since before dawn, unable to sleep in this sticky heat.

I've been labouring at the computer on a variety of dull admin and writing tasks for 5 hours or so.

Then I try to buy myself some air tickets through Ctrip (usually love the site, but...). I get the unpleasant shock that airfares have more than doubled in price since the last time I flew anywhere within China. Then I get the even more unpleasant - well, deeply irritating - shock that Ctrip's website appears to have stopped accepting cash orders (although it does allow you to tick a 'credit card or CASH' option and then proceed through about five more screens before finally telling you that, NO, you can't pay with cash after all). So, I have to order my tickets over the phone instead. And it takes quite a while.

So, I am late setting out for work at lunchtime.

And then it suddenly starts pissing down with rain out of an apparently clear sky, and I get modestly soaked walking the few hundred yards up to the end of the lane.

This is shaping up to be rather A BAD DAY.

I reflect that my mood is probably not helped by hypoglycaemia: I haven't really had anything to eat all day.

I step into the 7/11 on the corner to pick up a Snickers bar and a can of Coke.

As I am exiting the store, a middle-aged Chinese man - perhaps seeking shelter from the rain; I make what allowances for him I can - dismounts from his bicycle directly outside, and leans it against the door.

Yes, I could have gone through a what-the-f***? dumb-show to urge him to move it. I could just have yelled at him.

But, you know, I was in kind of a grumpy mood. And I was IN A HURRY. And the door only opened outwards....

So, I just pretended I hadn't seen him, and proceeded to open the door at speed.

The bicycle fairly flew... carrying a good three or four feet through the air, clearing the flight of steps leading up to the shop door and landing in the middle of the adjacent bicycle lane (no serious damage was done, fortunately - either to it, or to any passers-by).

Ah, and this is the best bit.... the chap was shaping up to tear into me with a torrent of invective, but I fixed him with my most piercing 'And your point is WHAT?' stare, and he withered instantly, went all goofy and sheepish on me.  (Well, perhaps he was just intimidated by the fact that I was at least a foot taller and 50lbs heavier than him, and had steam coming out of my ears...)

Yes, I am a bit of an arsehole sometimes. Sorry. But this parking bikes in stupid places - particularly across doorways - is one of my pet hates in this country. And you can't suppress the rage forever: sometimes, every once in a while, you've got to let the volcano blow its top (while doing your best to make sure no-one gets hurt).

I am, yes, ever so slightly ashamed of myself.  But, boy, it felt GOOD.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"When one door closes, another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us."

Alexander Graham Bell  (1847-1922)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A close call?

Just like the buses! You wait for months between sightings of a 'poem' of mine, sometimes, and then two come along in as many weeks!

I believe I knocked out this little frippery the last time I was so miserably ill I could scarcely leave my bed for a week and was assailed by fever dreams (it just happened again the other week), round about 18 months ago. I had completely forgotten about it, but stumbled upon it by chance a few days ago when rummaging around in my files.

Death sits in the corner
Idly reading a magazine
And drinking tea,
Looking at the crossword.
No ‘Reaper’ accoutrements;
Just a humourless, businesslike young man
In a grey suit.
He says it’s just a courtesy call,
But I don’t believe him;
I think he’s lying
To soothe my anxieties.
It’s hard not to be anxious
With Death sitting in your bedroom.
I think to myself, As soon as he’s finished that crossword
That’s going to be IT.
Death dozes off in the chair.
I check on the crossword:
He’s not very good.
I fill a few clues in wrongly,
Hoping he won’t notice.
Death stays with me all week,
Fretting over the crossword.
Then, one morning I wake up
And find him gone.
His bony butt has etched its outline
In my chair.
He’s taken the magazine with him.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

An unfortunate coincidence

The climax of the three-month business class I've been teaching this summer is a presentation exercise in which my students will form teams of two or three to try to impress their managers with how much they have improved their spoken English - by giving a PowerPoint-assisted lecturette on some topic at least loosely relevant to their work.

Since they work for an IT company, one group has chosen to discuss the competition in the Internet browser market. I learn from them that over the past 8 or 10 months, Google Chrome has really been kicking Firefox's arse, gobbling up its market share, mainly on the basis of its supposedly much greater 'stability'. Well, that was indeed why I made the switch myself about 4 or 5 months ago.

Then, of course, by one of those taunting cosmic coincidences, the very day after my students have treated me to this illuminating presentation on the virtues of the Chrome browser.... it has started crashing every time I try to use YouTube.  


Is anyone else having this problem?

I don't want to have to go back to Firefox or IE; but I fear I have no choice.