Friday, September 30, 2011

The 'momentous month' draws to a close...

There hasn't after all been much of an air of 'celebration' about this landmark month in which my two blogs passed their 5th anniversaries. Commenting, it seems, is all but dead in this new Era of Ephemera where "everybody" tweets instead.

Also, alas, I have been just too gosh-darned busy over this past month or so to devote very much time or thought to the blogs (these days, I seem to churn out 30 or so posts a month autonomically). I have this year, somehow or other, become a more or less full-time professional writer: just in the last four weeks, I have written two business articles totalling about 8,500 words, and begun work on another two; I've written PPT slides and handouts for a series of seminars, again probably amounting to at least 8,000 words or so; I've written a critique of a company prospectus, and knocked up some sample copy for a website to be based on it; and I've edited (= heavily rewritten!) 5 or 6 long academic articles, running to about 25,000 words all together. RSI is becoming a significant concern.

The one piece of anniversary frippery that has enjoyed some modest success is the What's your unusual super-power? thread over on The Barstool. I've had to do a fair amount of chivvying of old friends and semi-dormant commenters to get them to contribute, but it's been ticking over nicely, and we're now closing in on 30 comments.  Please go and add yours!

Remain calm, all is well

Just when I thought my 'recording career' was over (no work at all in that field for 4 or 5 months now), out of the blue I got a gig this week to do some listening practice dialogues for Shanghai middle schools (it seems Shanghai is one of the very few administrative areas of the country that still favours British English over the American variety - hurrah!).

Transport, of course, is a fairly typical topic in materials of this sort. Usually, there will be a simple comparison of the different options, with rail usually being applauded for its cheapness but air travel invariably winning out for its speed and convenience. But not any more. Oh no. Now the rail network seems to have become definitively the best option, warmly praised for being both cheap and SAFE. That message came up three times in one fairly short book we recorded yesterday.

This is how the state propaganda machine works. It is quite awe-inspiring, in its way. Before long, people here will have quite 'forgotten' this summer's Wenzhou train crash.

Haiku for the week

Autumn came early.
Now the wind whispers winter.
A whole month stolen!

It is officially COLD this morning. Not just cool, but decidedly parky. What the hell has happened to the weather this year?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The thing that annoys me most about China

Well, a little nexus of related things, I suppose...

The lack of respect, the lack of foresight, the not-being-able-to-organise-a-pissup-in-a-brewery
Throughout the early summer I'd been teaching a series of Business English classes at a foreign tech company, intended to culminate in the students - in teams of two or three - preparing and delivering a PowerPoint presentation on some suitably work-related but engaging-to-a-general-audience topic. The presentations themselves had been scheduled for Week +1, the week after the end of the course proper; the whole idea was that the course, or most of the second half of it anyway, was geared towards practising the sort of language forms and analytical skills needed for such a task, and the last three weeks would be spent on my guiding them through the preparation of their talk and a final dress rehearsal; then, they should do the thing in earnest - before various of their managers - a week or so later, while what they'd learned, and the work they'd put in on assembling the presentation, was still fresh in their minds. But... the powers-that-be at the client company put the final presentations day off to the next week, the week after, the week after that...  It ended up being nearly a month after the end of the course (which was pretty much pointless, or at least very much non-ideal, because the students would all have gone stale on the material by then). But they were still very eager that I should attend, to act as MC, and to help assess the performances. And I was very eager to do it, since I was curious to see how well my charges would do under pressure, and I wanted to show my support for their efforts (although I was not going to get paid anything for this 'extra-curricular' participation). Unfortunately, the 'organizer' of the event shifted the goalposts so many times that my patience was quickly strained to breaking point. The date, the venue, the time available, and the starting time were all discussed endlessly, all changed needlessly (after we seemed to have reached an agreement). Eventually, reluctantly, I'd agreed to the date and time finally set, even though it meant having to re-jig my holiday plans in August a little: the event was now supposed to take place on the one day that I was in Beijing between two gruelling out-of-town excursions. Then, they told me on the morning of the event that they had shortened the running time (annoying, but should be manageable - and, actually, a better thing for me!), changed the venue (particularly annoying, since all the previous wrangles about start and finish times had been based upon the limited availability of the large conference room we wanted to use; if there was a suitable alternative venue, why had there been all that brouhaha? if there wasn't, what kind of broom-closet were we going to find ourselves in this afternoon?), and moved the start time forward again (to the middle of the lunch hour: very, very annoying). I was fuming, but.... I had promised to go, so... Then, after I had set out, and was in fact almost at the venue, I received a message that they had screwed up the room booking for the new venue, that there was another meeting in progress there, and it looked like we were going to have to start 40 or 50 minutes later than planned. At this point, my tether snapped: I hadn't slept well, I had a dose of gippy tummy, it was a ferociously hot and humid day, and I had about a million and one other things I needed to try to shoehorn into the next few hours (not least, visiting a travel agency to pay for the ticket I'd booked for my flight the next day, and claiming a refund on a flight that had been cancelled the week before). I decided NOT TO GO. Jeez, people, I rearranged my whole f***ing holiday schedule for you, to be available on this day, between these times.... and you can't even stick to that.... and you can't even let me know that there's a problem until 20 minutes before showtime??!!

Bearing silly grudges
Now, the client company didn't give too much of a good goddamn. My students were disappointed I couldn't come to support them, but I think they appreciated that, a month after the end of the course, and after so many reschedulings, it was a tad unreasonable to suppose that I would be available. I'd never met any of the 'organizers' of the presentations competition or the senior managers who were supposedly going to be present. And my liaison with the client was supposed to have apologised for my absence, and explained that I was unwell (which was in fact true). So, there shouldn't have been any problem there. But my employer, the guy who'd set the course up, he got in a ridiculous tizzy with me. Some sort of 'loss of face' thing, I suppose. He'd promised the client I would be there (even though it was clear that it was going to be very difficult for me to be there, impossible for me to guarantee it [owing to the uncertainties of travel in China]; and even though he had refused to pay me anything for this), and so felt embarrassed when I wasn't. And he blames me for it terribly. And he will probably never forgive me - even though we'd previously enjoyed a very warm relationship, and the feedback on this and a couple of previous courses I'd done for him had been extremely positive.

Lying so blatantly
When I finally got around to collecting the last tranche of money this employer owed me for that course - two months after I'd finished teaching it, a month after the aborted 'guest of honour' appearance - I was hoping that he might have cooled off a little, got over his peeve. Alas, no. I asked him how plans were shaping up for a repeat of this course (it had supposedly been a done deal months ago, with four groups being lined up for this training, and us only being able to take on two at one time; and there had already been discussions about the same or similar course being run shortly for even more groups). And he muttered about 'Nothing having been decided yet', while avoiding all eye contact. It was the most painfully transparent lying I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot in this country).

Ah, well... at least it put me in mind of a song...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Weird China (2)

Last week, I was strolling through the Sanlitun district in central Beijing when I came upon a line of three or four tour buses parked up, end to end.

In the leading one, the four drivers were playing cards.... in the luggage compartment.

Granted, it was a moderately hot day. And I suppose they didn't feel they could run the air-conditioning in a stationary bus just for their own convenience. But.... I'm not at all convinced that the luggage hold would have been less warm than the cabin of the bus... or the breezy sidewalk.

I wondered if it was some sort of forfeit game. The next time somebody screwed up, perhaps they'd all have to try to climb inside one of their tourists' suitcases to continue their game?? 

Weird China (1)

This lunchtime, I saw the strangest... erm, accessory, I suppose I should call it.

It was an outsize bow-tie. Cream and pink. Crocheted.

It looked like a child's toy, something to adorn a particularly gay teddy bear, perhaps. Well, actually, it was so old and dirty looking, I was reminded rather more of a dog's chew-toy.

But a woman was wearing it as a hair-band!

An otherwise quite expensively dressed office worker type, at that. It certainly didn't 'go' with anything else she was wearing. In fact, it made her look like a crazy cat lady.

The mix-and-match thrift store chic of the modern Chinese woman occasionally throws up some rather striking (and inadvertently stylish?) combinations. But more often it throws up the most horrendous and embarrassing incongruities. And then, just once in a while, it produces something like this, which is disturbingly suggestive of mental illness.

The fashion philosophy here seems to be anything goes. Unfortunately, it just doesn't.

Ah, that reminds me of a song...

Monday, September 26, 2011

The march of "progress" - stalled?

Yahoo Mail is foisting another "upgrade" on us. Or, it has been trying to.

For two or three weeks, every time I tried to access one of my accounts, I'd have a promo page thrown in my face, wheedling me to make the switch early. It took a minute or two of close scrutiny to identify the tiny "Don't bother me with this crap, I just want to get to my Inbox" link.

Then, a week or so ago, we stopped getting that annoyingly over-familiar but now easy-to-bypass promo page popping up in our faces, and instead found a new obstacle page denying access to our Inbox: this one did not appear to have any links or buttons allowing you to exit it, other than the dratted 'Upgrade Now' option. I tried everything I could think of to get around this obnoxious cyber-roadblock: backtracking and attempting to re-enter e-mail, crashing the browser and deleting all cookies before trying again, spitting in palms and muttering favourite passages from the Necronomicon... But it was quite beyond my limited IT ingenuity. Eventually, I had to "accept" the upgrade option.

Well, in one of my e-mail accounts I reluctantly "accepted" it. In another, it seemed to impose itself automatically (unless I somehow clicked the damn 'upgrade' button inadvertently? I suspect that the whole of that page may have been turned into a live link for the upgrade acceptance - a particularly dirty trick!).

As a further incentive to switch to the new system "voluntarily", the Yahoo people seemed to be making their regular service almost unworkably glitchy (although that's something that tends to happen from time to time here in China anyway). Thus, the supposed advantages of the new system - "twice as fast" - could seem mighty tempting. But, of course, I was sceptical as hell.

And with some justification - the new e-mail system is currently free of the maddening glitches that have recently been plaguing its predecessor, but it does not appear to be significantly "faster" in any other way. And, in fact, since several elements of the functionality have been needlessly changed, in practice, it is rather SLOWER for many day-to-day operations. The most egregiously pointless change has been the removal from the 'E-mail sent' page of the ability to do anything further with the e-mail you were replying to; there used to be a simple options box allowing you to return to reading it, or delete it, or send it to a folder; but now you have to go back to the Inbox to select further actions for that e-mail - TWO unnecessary further clicks. As a piece of UI design, that is just.... MADNESS.

There's a new colour scheme as well (horrible).  And a lot of the buttons have been repositioned and/or relabelled, so it's taking a while to get used to navigating my way around again (the 'Move to Folder' button now bears a picture that looks like a garbage bin or a toilet, and it is very hard to overcome the conviction that this must be the 'Delete' button - more MADNESS!).

Dear Yahoo, 
I have been using your e-mail service for something like 13 years. By all means, "improve" your service by making it FASTER. But do not change anything else. After 13 years, I like it just fine the way it is. Even if I don't completely love everything about it, I am content with it - because I know exactly how it works... and most of the everyday operations I conduct on it, I now do AUTOMATICALLY. Any changes you make to the layout or the appearance or the functionality - even itty-bitty little changes - are a HUGE F***ING ANNOYANCE to me, because I have to unlearn what I've been doing almost daily for 13 years.  Do you have any idea how hard that is? DO YOU???

As I have observed before (when Yahoo destroyed its Yahoo Photos facility a few years ago), upgrades of website facilities should leave the look & feel of the user interface ALONE!!!

But these idiots will never learn.

However, I find that I am still able to continue my Canute-like resistance to the rising tide of Yahoo stupidity. Somehow or other, one of my e-mail accounts (the one that I use most) has been spared either an automatic 'upgrade' or the devilish coerce-you-into-accepting-an-'upgrade'-by-locking-you-out-of-your-Inbox ploy. I am still able to enjoy using the old - much better, much easier, much faster - interface.

And I figure I will continue to be able to do so until I have to re-enter the site; so, I am endeavouring to stay logged in FOREVER. Or until the Yahoo drones forget about their forced upgrade protocols and allow us handful of stick-in-the-muds to continue with the old system.

Who else is with me in this fight?

Bon mot for the week

"When you hit a wrong note, it's the next note that makes it good or bad."

Miles Davis  (1926-1991)

Oh, there are all kind of metaphors in that! How come I'd never come upon this line before in all my years of listening to Miles?

[A musician acquaintance of mine somewhat spoiled things by explaining that MD might just be acknowledging that the saxophone is a relatively easy instrument to play. Well, he said saxophone, which is what he plays - is it the same with the trumpet? He told me: "You can't be more than a semitone off; so, if you just keep on playing, people hardly ever notice a single bum note." I prefer to think that the great man was talking about musical logic, about how an inadvertent misstep might become a springboard to an unexpected but more satisfying development.]

Saturday, September 24, 2011

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Zuleika Dobson

As an old 'Oxford man', I found that Max Beerbohm's celebrated femme fatale in the eponymous 1911 satirical novel - the irresistible but not-so-innocently destructive siren who could drive all mankind to despair and suicide - necessarily became an early archetype for me of the unattainable beauty. I think I first read the book at the age of about 12, and it probably had a damaging effect in shaping my expectations of what undergraduate life, and my first experience of romantic love, might be like. We had a Zuleika figure in my year at Corpus, and she took a mischievous delight in breaking my heart and the hearts of several of my friends when we were Freshmen; at least having a confraternity of victims able to console each other eventually helped us to get over our moping, and prevented any of us from succumbing to the fleeting impulse to chuck ourselves in the river to end our misery.

I don't think I'd ever seen John Singer Sargent's Impressionist evocation (above) of the Edwardian belle before, but I rather like it. I also turned up some of Beerbohm's own sketches (though there's no indication as to whether they are supposed to be of Zuleika) which suggest a rather more Pre-Raphaelite vision. *

My favourite, though, is this illustration from The Folio Society's edition of the book.

*  The Beerbohm sketches come from the dangerously addictive 'commonplace book' blog of Canadian Mark Woods - well worth a look (but make sure you haven't got anything else important to do for the next two or three hours).

Friday, September 23, 2011

The numbers don't add up

Last week, I had to write a business report on the growth of the Internet in China (a lucrative but all too occasional gig for an international management consultancy, spinning their researchers' raw data into a coherent narrative overview of a particular industry sector).

And one of the figures they threw at me was that Tencent - one of China's most successful Internet companies - has a customer base of  >800 million people.

I transcribed it without engaging my brain in my initial draft; but on a readthrough, I found that a big mental speed-bump - what the hell?

That's a figure that is often bandied around, often repeated uncritically by Chinese and foreign analysts alike. But is it.... um, plausible?

Well, NO. The entire population hasn't reached 1.4 billion yet, for heaven's sake. The key data point at the outset of my article was that China had allegedly surpassed 400 million Internet users last year (most estimates put the number at something just over 420 million as of the end of 2010).

So, Tencent's online customer base is around twice the number of actual Internet users?! How did this happen?

Tencent's Internet empire is based on its QQ instant messenger service, which has been around for 12 years and completely dominates the domestic market. OK, but a large proportion of China's 400+ million Internet users (maybe 480 million now) are only very recent adopters, and an even larger proportion are probably only occasional rather than regular users - the kind of people who'd be unlikely to use an IM service. And it's difficult to know what the impact of the smartphone/tablet PC explosion in the last year or two has been, but I'd guess that traditional IM services are losing ground to microblogging platforms like the hugely successful Sina Weibo.

QQ has an 80% share of the IM market, but I'd guess that probably no more than 60% of China's nominal Internet users bother with an IM service.

The customer base Tencent can tap into via its QQ constituency has certainly got to be a lot less than 800 million. That figure is supposed to be the number of "active user accounts" - but I think anyone who makes that claim is being careless in their research or wantonly economical with the truth. Tencent in its annual report acknowledges that this number includes a lot of defunct or duplicate accounts, though it can't say exactly how many

The most useful measure for gauging the true number of QQ customers, I believe, is the "peak concurrent user" total - which they currently give as 136 million. I would think that mid-week, during the working day, probably at least 80% of QQ's users would regularly be logged in; and the record high would probably be something above 90%. And again we may have the figure being inflated by some people logging in under multiple aliases simultaneously.

I'd be very surprised if the customer base Tencent can hope to tap into for its e-commerce ventures is any more than 150 million. That's still a HUGE number - more than twice as many as the total registered users Sina Weibo currently claims. But it's a believable number, a number that makes sense.

Unlike 800 million - which is clearly IMPOSSIBLE, clearly off the mark by a factor of at least 3 or 4, if not 6 or 8 times.

And yet so many people fail to notice this sort of thing, they note and pass on statistics like this without ever questioning them.

The weekly haiku

Inadvertent insult
Salts wounds with its bitter truth
Taunting from afar

An occasional e-mail correspondent summed up my life here the other day in one devastating word - inertia. I would be reeling from the shock of it, but I don't even have the energy for that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Favourite posts from the 2nd quarter of 2010

Another round-up of my best posts from a little over a year ago...

Pick of the Archives:
Favourite Posts, April-June 2010

1)  Inappropriate laughter  -  1st April 2010
One of the things I find hardest to deal with in China; one of the biggest disincentives to persevering with trying to learn the language...

2)  Friday Frivolity  -  2nd April 2010
Thanks to blog-friend JES, I discover OK Go's marvellous 'Rube Goldberg machine' video for their song This Too Shall Pass.

3)  China and Me (How it all began...)  -  3rd April 2010
An epic post describing the history of my fascination with the country (on or about the 16th anniversary of my first visit here).  I followed up with some more soundbitey 'explanations' in my April List of the Month. And there's another even pithier - and more idealistic! - answer here.

4)  The dog ate my homework  -  6th April 2010
Or... how the eccentric work schedules of Chinese accountants can be used to avoid paying you.

5)  It really ought to be a word  -  7th April 2010
I come up with the perfect word to describe my career-fecklessness.

6)  One for JES  -  9th April 2010
My great blog-friend has a weakness for puns; so, I dredge up a favourite story remembered from my high school days, what might very well be the worst pun in the world - but brilliant.

7)  What are they thinking?  -  12th April 2010
The HR department at the British Embassy in Beiing, that is. Although, god knows, HR departments the world over seem to have a strange knack for concussed bee behaviour.

8)  The Hurt Locker  -  22nd April 2010
I did NOT rate this year's Oscar winner, and here's why.

9)  Faces  -  29th April 2011
Two favourite cinema moments, incredibly powerful uses of extended close-ups: Gérard Depardieu at the beginning of Tous Les Matins du Monde and Glenn Close at the end of Dangerous Liaisons.

10)  Ultimate bank queue nightmare  -  30th April 2010
An hilarious-but-true Chinese news story about a man who bought a bus with small change.

11)  Face - not such a good thing?  -  6th May 2010
I have little time for the Chinese obsession with "saving face", and here's why.

12)  There's Alot about  -  7th May 2010
The Alot, I discover, is a cuddly furry monster - at least in the conception of cartoonist Allie of the wonderful Hyperbole And A Half blog, my 'Website of the Month' recommendation.

13)  The Chinese way  -  13th May 2010
A favourite anecdote about one of the bizarre inefficiencies which seem so rife in this country.

14)  My Fantasy Girlfriend - Miss Scott  -  22nd May 2010
The formidably poised and outrageously sexy personal assistant (extremely well played by the beautiful English actress/model Tracy Reed) to George C. Scott's manic Air Force general in Dr Strangelove is the latest of my fantasy swoons.  [Alas, the clip I'd embedded from the film including her memorable scene has now been deleted from YouTube, and I haven't yet been able to find an alternative.]

15)  Who do you think I am?  -  28th May 2010
I am offered another 'token foreigner' gig - but my ethics stand firm.

16)  Film List - Crowning Moments of 'Awesome'  -  29th May 2010
Stumbling upon this definition of 'Crowning moments of awesome' on the TV Tropes website, I am inspired to compile this list of 10 of my favourite 'tough guy' moments from the movies.

17)  List of the Month - Beijing types  -  5th June 2010
A ruthless dissection of the expat community here: a category for everyone but me!

18)  My Fantasy Girlfriend - Louise Brooks  -  12th June 2010
The silent screen siren is one of the most fascinating selections I've had in this series; and I found a wonderful compilation video of clips from her greatest film, Pandora's Box, to embed at the end of the post.

19)  The view from elsewhere  -  18th June 2010
I wonder how the Football World Cup is being covered in North Korea...

20)  The Chinese have a word for it  -  22nd June 2010
My enjoyment of the World Cup had been rather hampered by the dismal coverage on the local CCTV5 sports channel, but the limitations of Chinese commentators provoked a little nostalgic reverie about sports commentaries back home in the UK.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Is it that time of year again?

Yes, goddammit - less than two weeks to go until Chinese National Day.

In the last few years, government anxieties about possible 'subversion' in the vicinity of the great annual pageant of isn't-the-Communist-Party-wonderful? have been even greater than they are in the lead-up to June 4th. And so the crackdown on Internet traffic has been even more extreme.

My trusty VPN appeared to get squelched for a while this morning (although that might have been just a temporary 'local' problem); it has been serially losing proxy servers for some time now, with most of the North American options and increasing numbers of the European ones denied me. My Internet connection, often vexingly intermittent, has been crashing on me every few minutes today. And even when it is working, pageloads are treacly SLOW.

You might not be hearing much more from me for a while...

Monday, September 19, 2011

Only connect

A week or so ago, my online meanderings brought me to this article (in The Chronicle of Higher Education) on the fascinating work of a team led by two biologists, Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West, and a physicist, Martin Rosvall, who have developed sophisticated algorithms for weighting and mapping cross-citations between academic articles in various fields "to reveal larger patterns in the scholarly literature... tracing the flow of ideas among disciplines, or identifying fields as they take shape. For instance, using citation data from about 7,000 journals, the team pinpointed a period in 2004-5 when a distinct neuroscience literature emerged" as a stand-alone discipline (more detail on that example in this scholarly paper by the team).

The graphics they produce are strangely alluring (and, occasionally, inadvertently amusing: how can you not feel sorry for poor old 'Slavic Studies', so pitifully isolated - at least in American academe - from Literature, Linguistics, Art History, or Anthropology?!). I thought this seemed a particularly apt follow-up to this morning's quotation from Herr Einstein.

A double bon mot

"Out of clutter, find simplicity."

Albert Einstein  (1879-1955)

"The most important thing for poets to do is to write as little as possible."

T. S. Eliot  (1888-1965)

Friday, September 16, 2011

TODAY, over on The Barstool....

It's my Birthday! Well, my Blogsday. Yes, again. Last week, it was Froogville's turn to pass the 5-year milestone, and now it is The Barstool's.

By way of 'celebration', I have concocted a new audience participation event (probably doomed to be universally and ignominiously spurned, but we shall see):

Please go and take a look.

Haiku for the week

Season of changes
So many old friends gone now
The leaves fade and fall

The round of leaving parties at this time of year gets to be one of the more depressing features of expat life. Of course, there are a lot of new arrivals around this time too. It ought to be a great time for making new friends. But some of the losses are irreplaceable. I thought last year was bad, but this year... this year, well, there are suddenly two (three, four) very big holes in my life.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Once Upon A Time In China

A couple of weeks ago, at the onset of this 'celebratory month' when both my blogs turn five years old, I was challenged by a regular commenter (JES, of the most excellent Running After My Hat blog) to come up with something "cinematic" to mark the anniversary. And so, in an idle moment a couple of days later, I knocked off this frippery.

My thinking was... any film treatment of my experience in China would have to ramp up the levels of conflict and excitement. I am mostly far too introverted and intellectual and easy-going (yes, really!!) to get myself into situations of danger. My erstwhile teaching colleague Big Frank was much more apt to get himself into dramatic confrontations, and was a better model for a cinematic story. So, I began thinking it might be fun to try to transform the typical experiences of your average China expat (coming over to sample the life and finding easy work as an EFL teacher) into something of an action movie. Jason Statham was the obvious choice for the central role (not that he looks anything like me; but he could portray Big Frank quite well, though significantly less formidable in stature): he's one of the most readily recognisable British film stars in the world now, and with just the right combination of being essentially good-natured but hard-as-nails. I pictured him as basically playing himself (for a change!); and, for ease of recognition, and to play up the jokey incongruity, I thought we'd use his own name too. Also, I confess, I was striving to work in as many reminiscences as possible of Sergio Leone's classic Western Once Upon A Time In The West, and so was rather taken with the pun on his surname (read on, and you'll soon see what I mean). It's not finished, of course; only the beginnings of a sketch of an outline... But I think it has some promise...


An empty parking lot in front of Beijing Airport (the small, grotty, pre-2007 one), shortly after dawn. Three minivan drivers are standing around, waiting for pick-ups from the first inbound flights that day.

One them is relentlessly picking his nose, examining the pickings closely for a few seconds before wiping them on the cuff of his jacket, picking again. The second is methodically chewing watermelon seeds, spitting out fragments of husk. The third is rhythmically clearing his throat, the exact same hawking-rattling noise every four or five seconds, never quite leading to a spit. Several minutes pass with no variation in these activities. Occasionally, a flimsy orange plastic carrier bag scuds across the tarmac, filling the office of a tumbleweed.

... Some time later, inside the terminal building. One of the Chinese minivan drivers is scanning the arrivals board. All flights are listed as 'Delayed'.

... Much later... a group of weary, bemused Western European travellers emerges through the 'Arrivals' door, among whom we recognise the charismatic British actor Jason Statham. One of the drivers is lolling against the railing beside the door, holding a piece of cardboard with the word 'Station' clumsily written on it in felt marker. JS notices the sign as he walks past, does a slight doubletake, then attempts to ask the driver if he is waiting for him. Driver insists he is waiting for a 'Mr Station'. JS sees which way this is going, and agrees that he is Mr Station.

... Some days later, in a small neighbourhood restaurant in central Beijing: six or eight seating booths, only a few of them occupied by Chinese diners. The lights suddenly go out. The owner shuffles around, one by one lighting the candles which had already been put out on the tables for such an eventuality. When he lights the last one, he is mildly shocked to discover that it reveals the glowering face of JS in one of the booths that had previously been empty. JS makes several attempts to order a beer in bad, toneless Chinese. The owner looks at him in bafflement. 'Beer!' moans JS despairingly. The owner's face lights up in recognition, and he replies in fumbling but serviceable English, "Why didn't you say so?" JS rolls his eyes slightly.

... The next morning. JS is teaching English to a group of Chinese teenagers. He has brought along a hammer, with which he mimes that he will smash any mobile phones he sees being used in the classroom. Three students immediately try to SMS their friends about this hilarious behaviour, and duly have their phones smashed. The class is reduced to stunned silence. Some of the girls begin to weep.

... A few weeks later, Mid-Autumn Festival. JS, now known as 站老师 (Zhan laoshi - Teacher Station), has been invited to an all-night Karaoke party by his female students, who take it in turns to make gauche attempts to seduce him...

... Three months later, the end-of-semester 'thank you' dinner for the foreign teachers. The evil Dean of Studies, jealous of JS's popularity with the students, challenges him to a baijiu-drinking duel...

'Ganbei' that!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An anniversary Daily Llama

The Daily Llama feature was one of my later inventions on the blog, not making its debut until 2008, when, in the wake of the Tibetan riots that spring, any mention of the Dalai Lama was likely to provoke unwanted 'special attention' from the Kafka Boys; a friend suggested I could use this visual pun as a facetious provocation to  our control-freak government here and its daft Net censorship regime.

This example of the species looks particularly pleased with himself, doesn't he? And with good reason. I would be if I lived there.

The latest round of annoyances

I had thought that my little holiday last month had acted as a safety valve, helped to dispel some of the tension and irritation and impatience with the craziness of China that had been building up to the point of explosion after two years without a break from the country. But it seems not. Or I need another holiday again already, anyway.

Amongst the bizarre things that have been getting my goat in the last week or so....

The cordons of bunting introduced for the crossing guards on Gongti Beilu (and possibly other major roads in the city centre as well, but this is the only one I've walked on regularly); it seems that, during the evening rush hour, they are supposed to raise these strings of little triangular red flags (they have characters written on them, but I haven't paid them much attention; presumably they are road safety slogans such as "Walk, don't run" or "Don't walk until the crossing guard tells you"?) to block the crossing points at the corners of major junctions and keep pedestrians safely penned on the sidewalks. In principle, there might be something to this idea, since having clumps of pedestrians try to scoot across the road between moving traffic can be dangerous, and may interrupt traffic flow slightly (well, it would... if cars actually slowed down for pedestrians crossing the road in front of them - but in Beijing they don't). In practice, it is insanely restrictive, since the official 'crossing window' is very brief, and is not actually the most practical or safest time to cross the road (cars make right and left turns without paying any attention to pedestrians on a crossing, so the roads are often busier and more hazardous when the pedestrian crossing light is green; however, even at the busiest times of day, the traffic lights stay green for so long that queues of cars usually clear, and there's nearly always a window when the road is completely empty and it's safe to cross while the pedestrian light is still red). Moreover, it's not feasible to block off all access from the sidewalks to the road; so, people - if they do not want to risk the ire of the crossing guards by stepping over or ducking under the bunting - move a little further up the street, and attempt to cross without using the designated crossing points. Hence, this system of bunting cordons is in fact diminishing safe crossing behaviour by pedestrians. A staggeringly dumb experiment! I give it a month. What's really depressing and exasperating about this is that it is evidently the best idea the Beijing government can come up with to try to improve road safety.

And when you do find yourself with unrestricted access to a pedestrian crossing (the one on the corner of Sanlitun remains mysteriously bunting-free).... a car will stop right in the middle of it.... for no good reason.... right in front of you, just as you're trying to cross. This has happened to me not once, not twice, but three times in the last week or so (and I don't even go to Sanlitun very often! this is every time I've tried to use that crossing!). Idiots who are unsure whether this is the turn they want and, instead of pulling over just short of the junction, pootle across it at walking pace; and then stop when they get to the other side, still undecided as to whether they should turn here or not, but presumably contemplating a three-point turn to rectify their overshoot, reversing into the middle of the junction. And while they're making up their minds - which could take a few minutes - the obvious place to park is right in the middle of the pedestrian crossing.

But no-one would really try to pull a three-point turn in the middle of a busy junction at the height of the rush-hour, would they? Oh yes! It happens all the time. The other day, I saw a bus do it. Well, one of those luxury tourist coaches. It was approaching the 3rd Ringroad on Liangmaqiao Lu when the driver suddenly realised he was supposed to be pulling into the Kempinski Hotel on the other side of the road. No problem: you can just do a U-turn across both lanes of traffic, enter the fulu (a narrow service lane, separated from the main road by a kerb), and drive up it 100 yards in the wrong direction in order to reach the hotel forecourt. No problem - except that he didn't have the turning circle to pull it off. If he'd been in the outside lane, with the full width of the road at his disposal, he might have had a chance; but he was in the inside lane, and he barely got half-way round. So, he had to do several back-and-forth shunts - reversing on to the jam-packed 3rd Ringroad auxiliary road - in order to complete the manoeuvre.

And then, a couple of nights ago, as I'm walking home, a young man rides his bicycle on to the sidewalk directly in front of me, and deftly dismounts in order to go into a 7/11 convenience store. And instead of leaning his bike against the wall, he lays it flat on the ground, at right angles to the road, right in my path. Really, he does this not 2ft in front of me: I have to check my stride quite abruptly to avoid stepping on the damn thing. I let out a loud exclamation of dismay, but he seems oblivious of me, has already turned his back and begun striding into the shop. So.... I give his rear wheel an almighty kick to clear it out of my way.

It's not China, it's just Beijing. I'm beginning to wonder if there's something in the water here that turns everyone into a cretinous sociopath.

I'm beginning to wonder if I should leave.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"Intuition is cosmic fishing. You feel a nibble, then you've got to hook the fish."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 years on

One of my first posts on here was a reflection on the 5th anniversary of 9/11. And it doesn't seem appropriate to write about anything else on this, the 10th anniversary of that terrible day.

A few days ago, I came upon Time Magazine's 9/11 tribute, a gallery of black & white portraits of people most intimately affected by 9/11 or its aftermath, accompanied by videos of them recounting their stories (obviously created through guided interviews, but presented as seamless monologues). The collection of stories is not confined to survivors or rescue crews, but also covers people involved in the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq wars, including some senior members of the administration (Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bush himself). There's a great deal of material, and it probably all deserves a look. This webpage has eaten up a lot of my last few days (and has probably contributed the glum mood that's been paralysing me).

Naturally, it is the testimony of the firefighters that is most moving. One senior Fire Department officer, Joseph Pfeifer, describes an encounter with a fellow officer - fleeting, apparently almost wordless, as they passed each other in the lobby of one of the WTC towers shortly before it collapsed - with a simplicity that is quite beautiful, and, when the full context emerges towards the end of his monologue, utterly devastating.

There is some great storytelling - and some great filmmaking - in this project; but it is too profuse, and too emotionally draining, to take it all in at a single sitting, or even in several sittings. I think I'm going to have to limit myself to one or two of these video testimonies per day from now on.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Famous Film Characters Quiz - answers added

I have now added the answers to last month's little Film Quiz (follow this latter link, if you want to test yourself) - in case anyone was still losing sleep over that!

Friday, September 09, 2011

Recently, on The Barstool...

My 'other' blog is also approaching its 5th anniversary, a week from today.

But what's been going on over there more recently, say, just in the last four weeks? You never go and check unless I remind you, do you?

Well, recently I formulated some important Rules of Drinking (goaded by the discovery that Modern Drunkard magazine had produced a cumbersomely long list of its own, which has achieved great prominence on the Internet).

Following my recent holidays, I have celebrated the ready availability of the marvellous Beer Lao in Kunming, and identified a possible spot to open a bar of my own! And despite all that travelling, I still found time to come up with a promising theme for a new bar in Beijing, and to unearth the obscure origins of lager.

To cap it all, we have had some excellent music from Roger Miller (King of the Road, the song that set the pattern of my life) and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (playing in Beijing this Sunday - yay!).

Haiku for the week

So much to be done,
Strange reluctance to do it:

Yes, it's been one of those weeks. I could blame poor sleep and depression and a dozen irksome distractions, but, really, I am just a lazy arse.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Today's THE DAY

Gosh, yes, it was five years ago today that I first set up this online repository for the overspill of my hyperactive brain.

For most of the last 1,826 days, there has been quite a lot slopping out of my brain. Some days, however, my brain is empty. Today is one of those days. Sorry.

[Well, empty... except for this, a brief frippery promised to JES a few days ago.]

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Grey days

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is coming up on Monday, and so I am enduring the annual ordeal of having to dodge proffered gifts of the inedible 'mooncakes'.

Although it wanders around quite a bit in September, and sometimes even strays into early October, the Festival, whenever it falls, seems particularly ill-named: even here in Beijing, at the far north end of the country, it's scarcely "mid-autumn" until well into October. In early September, autumn isn't usually even really beginning. I have made similar gripes about the so-called Spring Festival which - at least, here in the north - falls in the dead of winter.

This year, however.... well, there's been a distinct chill in the air for a couple of weeks now. It's been feeling positively nippy at night a few times. And the oppressive hot steamy humidity that mars our summers has this year - instead of disappearing completely for 5 or 6 weeks as it usually does, making September the pleasantest month of the year - segued directly into the cool clammy humidity that typically mars the middle of October. It does feel as though autumn's arrived way early (and Chinese friends are crowing that their lunar calendar does make sense, really!).

And today we've endured one of those misty, sun-free, soul-withering days that make Beijing such a foul place to live.  We have dozens of them in the summer; but usually only a handful in the mostly bright clear autumn, just a handful - in October. What's going on? Our weather is up the creek.

The prospect of arse-freezing winter descending on us a month or more early is quite alarming. But at least we'll have some blue skies again then.

Update: Thursday was even worse: the temperature was below 60F for most of the day. What is this bullshit?!

Monday, September 05, 2011

The man with one watch...

... knows what time it is. The man with two is never sure.

I think I may have quoted that on here before sometime. [Yes, here.] It used to be quite a popular saying amongst London lawyers of my acquaintance (15 years ago, when I was trying to become one of them), as an oblique way of counselling against seeking second opinions. If someone asks two different lawyers for advice on the same problem - well, two professional advice-givers in any field, really; but lawyers, especially - he will almost certainly receive two very different answers; and thus will be beset by desperate uncertainties about his position, and feel obliged to seek yet a third opinion (which wouldn't be so bad for lawyers; except that lawyers never like to share their bounty with others).

Such, at least, is the outcome to be feared where your problem is unusual and convoluted, and a judicial decision on the matter might be particularly uncertain.

However, if you ask a dozen bright young lawyers a bread-and-butter sort of question, you might hope that they'd all give you at least a recognisably similar answer.

Um.... not in China, it would seem.

Last week, I was marking the assessment exercise I had set at the end of a series of workshops on legal writing I'd delivered for a large Chinese law firm a month or so back. I'd asked the participants to describe the process of setting up a small business in China as a foreigner (i.e., founding a company with the special status of a "wholly foreign-owned enterprise").  Admittedly, I threw one or two little curve-balls at them, one or two details of my hypothetical case that were not completely straightforward. But even so, it was nothing really very difficult (the kind of stuff that I have mostly come to know as an intelligent layman - I have not practised in well over a decade, and have never been involved in the law in China). And this is the kind of thing that they must be doing in their work nearly every day.

From the answers that they gave me, you would not even know they were addressing the same topic half the time. 12 students, 12 completely different - muddled, contradictory, mostly WRONG - answers.

It's not just that they can't write about the law in English; they don't know the law. Even worse, they don't seem to realise that they don't know the law. 

An awareness of one's ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, Socrates said.

I have a feeling Confucius is supposed to have said something similar. Unfortunately, the notion never seems to have caught on here.

Bon mot for the week

"Sticks and stones may break your bones, but a bad haircut will keep you indoors for longer."


Saturday, September 03, 2011

List of the Month - the most useful Chinese words

At this time of daunting milestones - 9 years in China, and 5 years blogging about it - I thought I should find some positive observations about the country and its language for this quirky start-the-month feature.

And even such a determined Mandarin-recusant as myself has to acknowledge that there are some words in the language that are quite useful, quite memorable, quite fun; words that one learns in spite of oneself!

My criterion for this brief selection is: 'Chinese words most often used in English sentences by foreigners living here.' (However, I exclude the filthier language that we learn from cabbies and football supporters. This accounts for rather too high a percentage of the Chinese words that foreigners most commonly use, whether speaking in English or in Chinese.) With the growing numbers of 'Westerners' visiting, studying, or working in China, it is quite likely that this addictive adoption of key Mandarin words by foreigners who've been exposed to the language here will gradually lead to the formal acceptance of many such words into the lexis of worldwide English. Here, then, are my nominations for the words likeliest to achieve that breakthrough.

Froog's Favourite Chinese Words

laowai  -  foreigner; it's supposed to be respectful (the lao preface means 'old'; it always feels good to be called 'old', doesn't it?), but it doesn't always sound that way when used by the locals. If this makes it into wider English usage, I imagine it will serve to designate only expats in China.

gemenr  -  mate, guy; at least, in my understanding (I can't find it in any of the online dictionaries; maybe it's Beijing dialect only?).

chabuduo  -  almost, similar; though its most common use seems to imply something like near enough, when excusing or dismissing some supposedly unimportant mistake or discrepancy.  [I am tempted to use it in the title of a book about the Chinese concept of 'quality control'; where the West has Six Sigma, China has Chabuduo.]

mafan  -  trouble, hassle, vexation; such a little word for such an important concept!

bu yao  -  not want; used when declining to make a purchase from over-solicitous traders, and so on.

zuoyou - approximately; literally, left-right, maybe a little to one side or the other of what you actually want (again, this seems to be an idiomatic use unrecognised by the online dictionaries!).

meinü  -  pretty girl; hopefully, an admiring and respectful - respectable - phrase, although so much depends on circumstances and manner of use; the way some people use it, I am more reminded of slang terms like fit bird or hot mama.

shifu  -  master; most commonly used as a lightly ironic term of respectful address to a taxi driver; of course, it has now become widely familiar through its use in Kung Fu Panda, although this has encouraged people to mistakenly suppose that it is merely a name.

bu hao not good; covering the full spectrum of unsatisfactoriness, from slightly less than ideal to Orwell's doubleplusungood; probably the phrase most commonly used in English conversation by laowai here!

hao bu hao - OK? (Literally, good not good? I find this very simple construction for asking questions - a rapid-fire triplet, blurted out as a single word, almost a single sound: the key verb or adjective repeated either side of a negative - to be one of the more charming quirks of the language. you meiyou is another very common one, meaning Do you have it? - but, literally, got not got?)

hexie  -  harmonious (harmonise); the government's favoured buzzword for imposing conformity and 'right thinking' in the name of maintaining social stability; Chinese Netizens' favoured buzzword for mocking the government's insane censorship initiatives (usually punningly transposed with its homophone 河蟹, 'river crab').

chai  -  tear open, tear down, destroy, demolish; depressingly familiar because of its use, crudely daubed on walls and doors, as a notice of imminent demolition; the ominous symbol spread like wildfire through Beijing's old hutong districts over this last decade; also quite a popular word amongst young Mandarin students these days for getting wrecked on booze.

And, to make it a Baker's Dozen...

aiah!  -  which is hard to find in online dictionaries, because it doesn't really mean anything; but it is a tremendously useful all-purpose exclamation of surprise, dismay, disgust, worldweary acceptance - a sigh and a shrug and a contemptuous spit all rolled into one.