Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why isn't it March yet?

I never could get the hang of Leap Years.

The writer Bruce Chatwin was notorious for occasionally over-imposing as a house-guest (something I always try to remind myself of before setting off on trips to the UK or the US to catch up with old friends), leading one of his most long-suffering hosts to observe: "For a nomad, he stays in one place for an awfully long time."

I'm getting the same feeling about February: for a short month, it has been dragging on for an awfully long time now.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Here endeth the lesson

I finally managed - with a further follow-up e-mail - to goad the senior guy at that law firm I was griping about a few weeks ago into giving me an answer as to whether he'd even received my last e-mail about the training/editing position we'd been discussing.

His reply was in flawless English, but decidedly snooty in tone. He claimed that he had been "too busy" to reply (for the whole of the past 5 or 6 weeks, much of which was a holiday in China?), and that he felt that my original e-mail (admittedly quite a detailed discussion of the topic, but with bold-labelled bullet points to facilitate skimming, and a nifty one-paragraph 'executive summary' at the beginning which obviated the need even to do that) would have required a long response which he just didn't have time for.

So, I'm not quite sure what his defence/excuse is here:  bad e-mail management (I meant to reply to you, but I omitted to do so promptly, and then forgot about it), bad time management (I really wanted to reply to you, but I just couldn't find the necessary 5 minutes in my schedule), arrogance (I'm TOO IMPORTANT to bother with little people like you - an unfortunately common mindset in China, particularly amongst 'Red Guard generation' types like this guy), or - most likely - the inveterate Chinese vice of being incapable of delivering 'bad news' (It's just SO embarrassing; I can't bear to be communicating with somebody who might become unhappy with me!).

Well, guess what, shithead - you did make me UNHAPPY with you. And I'm not the sort of person to let something like this lie.

And I'm not so unusual in this. Many Westerners, if you fail to reply to an important e-mail of theirs with even a token acknowledgement (which will only take a minute or two, perhaps just 30 seconds, for heaven's sake!), will send a follow-up e-mail querying the omission; and perhaps a follow-up to that follow-up; and a follow-up to the follow-up to the follow-up. It can go on for a very long time, choking your Inbox, and "embarrassing" you afresh every day. How's that for saving your time? You may eventually feel hounded into giving a response; if so, you haven't even managed to avoid the dreaded "unfortunate confrontation"; and, in fact, it's much worse now, because your correspondent has become pissed off with your cowardly evasiveness.

I continue my Quixotic battle against this most frustrating and self-harming of Chinese business traits. This was the reply I sent to my annoying lawyer:

Dear Mr Wang,

Thank you for getting back to me at last.

It would have taken you no time at all to acknowledge my e-mail, and to tell me briefly that you did not wish to pursue further discussion with me (even if you didn't have time to explain why).

A discussion is not terminated until one party notifies the other that it is terminated.

Of course, it is very difficult to deal with the high volume of e-mail we all receive these days; but it is conspicuous that Chinese people tend to be much worse than most other nationalities at dealing with e-mail promptly and appropriately. In particular, it is an unfortunately common problem that the Chinese seem to prefer to terminate a conversation unilaterally, without letting the other side know, especially if they feel embarrassed about having to give a response that the other side may find disappointing.

As you should know, around most of the rest of the world, and certainly in Western business usage, this is seen as unprofessional, childish, and rude. It makes an enormously bad impression on any foreigners you have contact with. It is probably the No. 1 problem in inter-cultural communication between China and the West. It seriously harms your ability to grow your foreign clientele.

Even if you do not want to make use of my abilities to deal with your English editing needs at present, it is possible that my help in this area might be of value to you at some time in the future - even if only for one-off emergency cover, for example. There are also a number of other ways in which I might be of assistance to you, such as recommending suitable editors/polishers or editing agencies for you, or introducing potential new clients. If you treat someone rudely, they will be unlikely to offer you such help; if you ignore someone's e-mails, they may ignore yours in the future.

Failing to respond to e-mail is a very bad and damaging habit, and I hope that you will succeed in eliminating it at your firm.


Froog - Champion of Good E-Mail Etiquette

Monday, February 27, 2012

No Admittance

I have received a few complaints that the word-recognition comment security feature on Blogger has been getting a little cranky lately, rejecting all requests for approval. I fret that this may be partly responsible for the withering away of comments in recent weeks. I hope this will just be a transient glitch; but if it persists much longer, I will consider disabling the feature. (Torrents of spam will be unleashed, no doubt! But it might be amusing, for a while.)

Of course, I was reminded of the implacable Gatekeeper in Kafka's crushing fable Before the Law, who sternly refuses to grant the supplicant entrance, as decades pass and they grow old together. 

In looking around the Net yesterday for that link to the text of the story, I happened upon this charming oddity created by Brandon Brizzi - described as a 'desktop game', it's really just a quaint animated version of the tale (although the minimal interactivity does allow for a second possible ending, it's no less disheartening than Kafka's).

Bon mot for the week

"He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have."

Socrates  (c. 469-399 BCE)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Film List - I nearly walked out

I would never actually walk out of a film, of course.

I'm far too thrifty, always feeling the need to extract maximum value from every penny I've spent, even if it's proving to be torture for me.

I'm far too reverential about film. Watching a film - especially in the cinema - is almost a sacred act for me, highly ritualistic; and you can't depart from any detail of the ritual. You can't miss the start; you can't take any breaks in the middle; you can't leave before the end. (It took me quite a long while to get over a hang-up that films should always be consumed as a continuous real-time experience, and that it was thus not permissible to use the 'Pause' button on the DVD player, no matter how badly you need to go to the loo.)

I have a weird sort of optimism about bad films as well: I stick with them in the hope that they might reveal a few redeeming features later on, or at least cross over into the so-bad-it's-good zone of bathetic comedy.

There's probably an element of perverse pride involved too, a sense of achievement in having masochistically persevered all the way through to the end of a very bad film. Bragging rights, indeed: it can be pretty cool to be able to talk about a film that almost no-one else has seen, and to know in detail exactly what makes it so bad.

Now that I watch almost all of my films on DVDs or satellite television, I suppose it has become harder to maintain such a stern moral code. I will, occasionally, if I happen to start watching a film by chance on HBO, give up on it after 20 or 30 minutes (there is a lot of straight-to-video dreck on HBO Asia). But if I've started watching something as a deliberate choice, I do still feel committed to watching it through to the end - however disappointing it turns out to be. And I don't think I have ever given up on watching a DVD I've purchased (although, obviously, I try to be discriminating in what I buy).

The handful of titles below, then, represent experiences that linger in my memory unusually potently - levels of irritation, disappointment, tedium or dismay that were really extreme.

Films I've (Nearly) Given Up Watching Before The End

Prospero's Books
(Dir. Peter Greenaway, 1991)
I don't know quite how this one exhausted my patience so quickly and so thoroughly. In general, I have quite a high tolerance for Greenaway's overdone quirkiness, and a few of his films I really like: if I could fall for the gently insistent tempo and dreamlike imagery of Drowning By Numbers and the exuberant self-indulgence of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, why did this leave me utterly unmoved? I like Shakespeare, I like The Tempest. And we were supposed to relish the fact that this was a swansong performance from the venerable Shakespearean actor John Gielgud as Prospero. But I found it unutterably tedious, like watching paint dry. This remains the one and only occasion on which I have walked out of a cinema: I knew the film ran a little over two hours, and after an hour or so - which had felt like five - I simply couldn't take it any more.

The Usual Suspects
(Dir. Bryan Singer, 1995)
I know, I'm shooting at sacred cows again. This is widely acclaimed as one of the best films of the '90s, one of the best thrillers of all time. I HATE it. I hated within moments of its starting, and my irritation grew minute by minute, to the point where I very nearly did quit the cinema in despair right before the final 'big reveal'. Oh, sure, it's got a few things going for it: good cast, a few decent action sequences (especially the hold-up near the start). But right from the opening moments, I was picking up an overwhelming sense of smugness from the writer and director, a constant feeling that they were beating you over the head with how damn clever they thought they were: you don't know what's going on, do you? it's all just too convoluted, isn't it? what's this, another impossible twist? you're lost now, aren't you? you'll never work it out without our help, because we're just so much damn cleverer than you are. You know, I might have put up with that, if it really were all that clever. I get that sense with directors like Tarantino and the Coen brothers sometimes, but I put up with it because they really are pretty damned clever. This was just trite and ridiculous, 17 twists too many, none of which really made any sense. Frame stories with unreliable narrators do NOT make for a very satisfying cinema experience. And that ending was a big SURPRISE? Really? Did anyone not see that coming well before the mid-way point??

Boxing Helena
(Dir. Jennifer Lynch, 1993)
This is one I stayed with just to see if it might redeem itself through unintentional humour. It didn't. It's just bad - pointless and boring. Probably the worst film I have ever seen; or at least, the one with the most complete absence of any positive qualities whatsoever.

Dead Ringers
(Dir. David Cronenbourg, 1988)
Cronenbourg is a good action director, but whenever he's tried to go 'art house', the results - Crash, Naked Lunch - have been embarrassing. This is the worst of the lot: pretentious, repellent, and silly. I notice one of the IMDB discussion threads on this is headed 'Was it meant to be funny?' Yes, it's one of those films: such an outrageously bizarre concept that you can't take it seriously, but too distasteful to be amusing. I've never liked lugubrious Jeremy Irons much, either - although I suppose he's pretty good in this, as good as you can be in such an utterly absurd story. As soon as you see the synopsis on the back of the video box saying "a pair of mad gynaecologists who just happen to be identical twins...", you know this can't possibly work. It's a long film, too: long, and very boring. It's really very similar to Boxing Helena, but at least with better performances and production values.

Secret Window
(Dir. David Koepp, 2004)
Yet another of Stephen King's whiny It's hell being a writer, you know? stories. Stephen King is another of the sacred cows I often take pot-shots at: I concede that he's an unusually good writer at the nuts-and-bolts description level; but I think he's absolutely terrible, TERRIBLE at story construction. It's difficult, I know, to achieve any originality in such a well-worn and formulaic genre as horror; but King's approach, instead of trying to come up with a genuinely unusual idea, or to develop a stock idea in an unusual way, or to just see one idea through to its conclusion, is to pile up more and more ideas - giving his yarns a false semblance of uniqueness that is actually nothing but a tiresome over-elaboration. Again and again he finds a good idea, and then buries it under a welter of formulaic 'twists'. Here, for example, the initial premise is a writer's paranoia about being unable to prove the authorship of his work. That's a promising idea, but it is soon drowned out by a more conventional psycho stalker plot. And then that in turn is supplanted by a split personality idea - haha, it was the writer himself doing all this crazy stuff the whole time! Bet you didn't see that coming! Yawn. Yes, we did. After about 5 minutes. Johnny Depp is miscast here: much too young, much too cool, much too Johnny Depp to play this tortured, geeky writer. And his performance is somewhat bizarre: it seems like he doesn't want to be in this awful movie, and is just sleep-walking through it. I was watching this on HBO a few weeks ago, but it was so dire I went back to working on my computer - leaving it on in the background, just to see if it would confound my expectations of how it was going to turn out. It didn't.

Due Date
(Dir. Todd Phillips, 2010)
What is it that is so unlikeable about Zach Galifianakis? Is it just the difficulty of pronouncing his name? Is it that scruffy beard? Is it his apparently unshakeable belief that he is likeable, really? Or is it the fact that after his having had such a big breakthrough in The Hangover, Hollywood now condemns him to play the same cretinous goofball role for the rest of his career? Frankly, I didn't like him in The Hangover: the character was annoying, unbelievable, and unnecessary; the film was carried to success by the ensemble dynamic of the other members of bachelor party, not by Galifianakis's socially retarded man-child. Due Date takes that character to another extreme, stripping it of the few redeeming features that it had in that earlier hit. It's a road trip buddy movie about mismatched travelling companions who eventually discover an affection for each other through their shared misadventures - that old thing again. I should have watched Planes, Trains, and Automobiles again; John Candy is colossally irritating at times, but he has a human vulnerability about him; he's not a complete jerk all the time. In this film, Galifianakis is a complete jerk, all the time: preternaturally dim, self-absorbed, irresponsible. He drives drunk, he drives while smoking weed, he drives despite being apparently narcoleptic; he causes two enormous road accidents, either of which would certainly have been fatal to his put-upon travelling companion (I am not comfortable with that level of extreme violence in a comedy), but which miraculously leave him with just a few broken bones. Later, he gets the guy arrested by the Mexican border police - what a hoot that is! Oh, yeah, and he accidentally shoots him in the leg as well. Are you laughing yet? Maybe the masturbating in public will do it for you, that's such an amusing quirk of behaviour! In fact, the cruellest indignity he inflicts on his companion is to respond to a confidence about his childhood desertion by his father... by laughing hysterically at him. Robert Downey Jnr is the victim. I used to feel that I would watch anything with Robert Downey Jnr in it, but this monstrosity really put that to the test, and may have undermined my faith in the principle for the future. I have never seen such a relentlessly, painfully unfunny 'comedy'.

A supplemental note: I had an experience once that brought home to me very powerfully how one's impressions of a film might be radically distorted if you quit on them. Admittedly, this is not a wholly apposite example for the question of suffering bad films, because this was clearly a very good film that just happened to be too violent for some tastes. Nevertheless, it reinforced my conviction that you can't afford to give up on a film, because there might be a little gem of something wonderful and unexpected just around the corner in it. This example occurred during my first viewing of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, on a matinee showing, fairly thinly attended, at the Phoenix Cinema in Oxford in the summer or autumn of 1992. There's a notorious sequence in the middle of the film where a psychopathic gangster tortures a helpless hostage policeman with a razor... and then pours petrol on him, threatening to burn him alive. One of my fellow viewers in the Phoenix that day huffily stormed out at exactly this point, the more violent than usual flapping of the swing doors behind him underlining his outrage. I imagine that chap believes to this day that the cop was set on fire. But that, of course, is not what happened at all (that might be just a bit too much even for Tarantino!). I sympathised with the stormer-out, I really did. I don't think I have ever felt so uncomfortable in a cinema before, and I might possibly have considered bolting myself. But even in the midst of my horror and disgust, I couldn't help admiring Tarantino for managing to get me this emotionally engaged. And the film had been so compelling up to this point, I simply had to see how it was going to turn out - even though this one sequence might prove to have been just too darned offensive, even for someone of such robust unoffendability as myself.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Now, where did that come from?

Where did she come from?

I experienced another unusually vivid and memorable dream at the start of the week (I've had a bit of a run of them just lately).

As in the last one, denial of age and decay (and dissatisfaction with China?) was probably a large impetus: I once again found myself winding the clock back some 18 or 20 years, to when I was still in my twenties.

I was, in fact, back in the period of my life when I was a schoolteacher, my first job after university (that might have been in my mind, I suppose, because I'd recently mentioned it to a friend who's just started teaching high school in America). The school was understood to be the one where I had actually taught - although, in that devil-may-care way of dreams, its layout was nothing like that school; and none of the staff or pupils seemed to be the same. It was an entirely imaginary recreation of what my teaching experience might have been like.

Also, curiously, I was aware that I was just returning to the school after a year or two away. I'd had to quit that job abruptly because of a health crisis. I had half-heartedly considered trying to return there when I got better, but I don't think that was ever likely to come to fruition (my sudden departure was harshly judged by staff and students alike; I learned from ex-pupils I subsequently met in Oxford and London that there was a prevalent rumour I had AIDS). I suppose there must have been some wistfulness in me to return there; or at least to undo, to erase the horrific period of my illness. Over the next few years, I dreamt so often of having returned to the job after a year that I almost began to believe it must indeed have happened. (And in these early dreams, the school and its personnel were always accurately detailed, completely lifelike - unlike this most recent one.)

The dream seemed to start off as a wrestling with the question of whether or not I might return to the teaching life. I think I was not fully recovered from my ill health, and somehow only provisionally committed to a trial term, to see if I could yet cope with the workload again. It was the first day of term, so it was really a bit difficult to back out - but I did seem to be undecided, on the brink of succumbing to cold feet.

But then the dream suddenly branched off in an entirely unexpected direction - a rather pleasantly erotic direction. I found I was feeling a strong attraction to one of the older girls. She was not really very beautiful, but she had a poise and an intelligence that I found fascinating. However, I have always been sternly moralistic about the inappropriateness of romantic liaisons between teachers and students, and staunchly resisted these feelings. Well, I always have done so in real life. In the dream, my ethics proved much less robust. When the girl made it clear that she reciprocated my interest in her, I couldn't resist the temptation for long, and we were soon indulging in a furtive snog. Very nice it was, too.

That was about it for the dream. I soon awoke in a ferment of shame and self-loathing.

I would never have suspected it during my own school days (however, I went to a single sex school), but, I later learned, teacher-student liaisons are a surprisingly common phenomenon. I was startled to discover that many of my female friends at university claimed to have had such an experience, or to have had a schoolfriend who had. And a few years later, these same ladies mostly expressed shock and disappointment that I hadn't enjoyed such a relationship myself when I became a teacher. They joked that it was no more than an expected perk of the job. I was aghast.

I worry that it's really rather too easy to impress a young woman you're teaching - particularly in high school, and most particularly in a boarding school, where they may have a limited social life, limited access to male company other than boys of their own age (and boys tend to be much less mature at the same age; so, rather unsatisfying companions, usually), almost no access to adult males other than their teachers. Familiarity alone breeds affection: you tend to become fond of people you live in close proximity with, see almost every day. And the classroom can be an unusually intense, and an extremely intimate environment. Of course, they tend to admire you disproportionately as an authority figure and a fount of knowledge. And they feel grateful to you for imparting your knowledge to them, inspiring and encouraging them, helping them to get into university. No, it's not surprising that girls fall for their teachers.

I find it harder to comprehend how teachers allow themselves to fall for their students. If you do enter into such a relationship, you are unfairly exploiting a situation of unbalanced power (feminists might argue that there's almost always a situation of unbalanced power between a man and a woman, but it is particularly pronounced between a teacher and a student). And you can never really be confident how much the girl likes you, and how much she likes rather the idea of you, the role that you play in her life. I don't think many of these relationships have much longevity.

Perhaps I was lucky not to feel the temptation all that strongly. Admittedly, girls in their late teens are often in their finest bloom of prettiness; and they do generally seem to be much more 'grown up' than boys of that sort of age. The gap between a young teacher in his early twenties, fresh out of university, and a senior year student of 17 or 18 isn't so very great, is it? Well, yes, I find there is a huge gap in experience and attitude. University is a fundamental rite of passage for most of us, the point at which we begin to emerge into adulthood (although I'd venture that for most people the process is not in fact complete until two or three years into their working life). I couldn't really see myself being interested in a girl of 18 even when I was 20 and still an undergraduate, and certainly not by the time I was nearly 25 and working. (As I recounted on The Barstool the other day, I did briefly go out with a girl of 17 - when I was 31! - but it didn't work out; belated proof of my long-held prejudice.)

Moreover, I take teaching way more seriously than most people. I have a reverential awe for the function, and particularly for the notion of standing in loco parentis. You are not just responsible for your charges' education, but for their physical and moral well-being; it is a sacred trust, not to be abused.

I held myself to that principle, even though I was sorely tempted on occasion. Well, in four years, I suffered two very bad crushes on Sixth Form girls in the school where I was teaching. (We only had girls in the Sixth Form - the upper two years. I think that might have made our circumstances particularly difficult: if you've known a girl from an age where she is definitely too young for you to fancy her, I think you get used to not fancying her, to not allowing yourself to fancy her - even when she subsequently blooms into womanhood. That seems to be how it works with me, anyway.) The second of them I regard as one of the great loves of my life - we got to know each other pretty well over two years: she was a remarkable intellect, a remarkable person. And I did contemplate trying to initiate a relationship with her after we'd both left the school (the episode of life-threatening illness rather scuppered that plan; although I think I'd stepped away from it anyway - not wanting to bother the poor girl at this great transitional phase of her life [reading history at Cambridge], feeling that she could do better for herself than a physically broken down, penniless and unemployable wreck like me). But while she was a student, and I was a teacher, I kept my affections in check - never acted on them, never gave any indication of them (well, I hope; I think she suspected, towards the end).

The only person I could confide in about this moral torment was my best friend on the staff, another novice teacher I would later come to think of as The Arts Entrepreneur. Ever the cynic, he was sceptical of my supposed high ideals, and suggested it was perhaps only embarrassment, the fear of getting caught that was really restraining me. 

He proposed a taunting hypothetical to test my resolve - The Secret Tunnel. Imagine, he said, that there was a hidden underground passageway connecting your room here to hers on the other side of the school, and that you could visit her at any time you liked, with no risk of detection - would you still cling to this supposed sanctity of the teacher-student bond?

It was a very difficult question! Thank heavens it was only hypothetical.

Haiku for the week

Winter's last surprise?
Or spring's first emissary?
From nowhere, 'flu strikes.

Man, this is a nasty one, debilitating. For the past 36 hours I've had so much headache, muscle pain, fever, and lassitude that I've barely been able to drag myself out of bed.

I had something similar round about the time of the start of the SARS outbreak (partly psychosomatic?). And, these days, when you get something like this, you can't help wondering if it's the 'Spanish Influenza v. 2.0', the nightmare avian/human crossover virus that's going to spark a global pandemic.

My illness in May 2003 proved not to be so serious, and blew over in 3 or 4 days. I hope this one will do likewise. Feeling very poorly at the moment.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to lose friends and antagonise people

Take a bazooka to their sacred cows, that's how.

Just in the last few weeks, I have risked outraging and appalling large sections of my potential readership by... averring that The Shawshank Redemption is not the best prison movie ever made, but the worst; mocking the achievements of Chairman Mao; characterising Withnail and I (an enormous cult favourite among UK students) as unengaging and strident; and wishing that The Lord of the Rings might have been written by anyone other than Tolkien.

I don't accommodate myself well to widely held opinions; I don't tolerate misplaced enthusiasms; and I don't pull my punches in deference to brittle sensitivities.

You might say that rubbing people up the wrong way is something of a speciality of mine.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Which part of this do you not understand?

As I explained recently, I hate talking on the phone, and rarely answer it.

The other day, I was out and about in the afternoon. After a meeting, I happened to notice that I'd missed a call. Luckily, the caller had sent me a text message to explain who he was.

However, I didn't feel like talking to him right away, since the cocktail hour was just about upon us and I wanted to cast aside any thoughts of work. Moreover, I was walking from Jianguomen to Sanlitun, alongside the monstrous cacophony of the 2nd Ringroad in the middle of the rush hour - so, it wasn't practical to attempt to speak on the phone anyway.

So, I sent the guy a text message: "Sorry, busy in meetings all afternoon, not convenient to talk. Please send me an e-mail, and I will respond later tonight."

Whereupon, of course, he immediately tried to call me back.

I did not answer. No. But I did pause for a moment to bang my head three or four times against a convenient lamp-post.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Something we all need...

I confess I've been looking out for this now for some years, convinced that it was only a matter of time - one of the great,  glorious typos waiting to happen.

It took the near-infinite number of monkeys attempting to write business English in China rather longer than I had anticipated, but, finally, last week I came upon an instance of.....

Hunan Resources

This south central province, in addition to its celebrity as the birthplace of Mao Zedong, is, in my opinion, the place where all of China's prettiest girls seem to come from. A valuable resource indeed!

Monday, February 20, 2012

The latest episode of suicidal stupidity

A few minutes ago, as I was trying to cross the fulu ('service road') adjoining Beijing's 2nd Ringroad on my way home, I became exceedingly vexed by the wobbly lane-changing of a car approaching me - a taxi, as it happens (you feel that full-time professional drivers, even if not very experienced when they first took the job, should quickly acquire a more attuned road sense than your typical once-or-twice-a-day or twice-or-thrice-a-week driver; alas, it is not always so).

This is a tricky, and often dangerous, piece of road to get across - even at this time of night, when the traffic has thinned out. So, you really do not want vehicles approaching you to be changing speed and/or direction repeatedly, and for no obvious reason. If you are the only vehicle bearing down on me, I might take a chance on being able to dodge your random movements. But if you are one of three or four vehicles I have to pay attention to, not knowing which of four lanes you're going to be in from one moment to the next makes it impossible for me to plot how I can scoot across the highway avoiding these other buggers as well. It's like playing Frogger all over again.

So, this particularly annoying taxi is initially in the left-hand lane, closest to me. This should mean that he's about to make a left-turn, and so will have to slow down - which means he'll take even longer to reach me (though he's unlikely to slow down in a controlled or steady manner, and might well decide not to make the left turn at all), and is effectively blocking my path to start crossing the road.

But then he pulls across into one of the middle lanes, obscured from sight behind a van. I can start crossing the nearest lane to me, wait for the van and taxi to pass, then cross the remaining two lanes which are both empty. 

But then the taxi pulls back into the left lane, and slows almost to a stop. Even if he's completely stopped, it's not going to be all that safe to start crossing in front of him (because he probably hasn't seen me; and he wouldn't necessarily brake or slow down to avoid running me over even if he had); so, I have to abandon my crossing attempt, retreat to the edge of the road again.

Then, 100m short of me, he suddenly pulls across into the middle lane again. I assume (ah, assuming - always a dangerous thing to do in China!) that he's realised he doesn't want this left turn after all, and will start speeding up again - and so get out of my way.

But no, almost immediately he starts dawdling again, virtually slows to a dead stop.

I get fed up of waiting for this clown, and dart across the road in front of him (attempting to make eye-contact to make sure he's aware of my presence before I do so).

He starts trying to make a left turn from the middle lane.

Then, he realises that is wrong (cut the guy some slack: maybe his passenger was dicking him around on the directions?)... and stops dead in the middle of the road. This is a major four-lane highway along which traffic regularly hurtles at 40, 50, or 60 mph.

Now he starts to execute a U-turn. This is, of course, illegal, impossible on a road like this. But there is an entry ramp into an international hotel on his right, which he's just slightly overshot; so, maybe he's trying to turn in there.

Of course, he's not paying any attention to anything else around him - like the road behind him, for instance.

There is a truck behind him, approaching at speed. Luckily for all concerned parties (including me, watching aghast from a few metres away on the other side of the road, having finally managed to get across), this truck was not very large nor very heavily ladened. And the driver was (unusually!) awake and alert. And thus he managed to drop his anchors in time, and screech to a halt just shy of t-boning the idiot cab driver.

This is the closest call I have seen in a long while. But I haven't been going out much lately, and have been avoiding travelling in cabs, or walking along the major roads at all.

Sadly, this kind of thing is a routine, dozens-of-times-a-day event in Beijing and many of China's other major cities.

Bon mot for the week

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."

Charles Darwin  (1809-1882)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

My Fantasy Girlfriend - sexy biker chick (mannequin)

I'm not getting out enough lately. And, odd as this may seem, when I'm not encountering any (even remotely) potential real-life girlfriends, my libido - indolent at the best of times - pretty well shuts down completely: I don't even find myself reminiscing and fantasising about lost loves and unattainable beauties any more.

However, I had a neat idea for this month's 'Fantasy Girlfriend' post: the one female figure to catch my eye in the past month or two has been the rather svelte (and red-haired!) shop-window dummy in the sex shop just down the road.  For the past few weeks, she's been all studs and leather - tight-fitting jacket, very tight-fitting skirt, and a leather cap. Quite an appealing look, I find.

But... I wanted to get a picture for you; and that proved a gumption test too far (A little throwaway motorcycling allusion for you there!).  The sun reflecting on the shop window made it impossible to get a decent shot of her from outside (I began to suspect that they'd treated the glass in some way, to confound the cheapskates like me who wanted to try to derive some pleasure from their merchandise without actually making a purchase).  And I was, of course, much too shy to go inside the shop and ask if I could take a picture (or to snap and run!!).

In any case, she has recently been re-costumed: she's much more demurely - or, at any rate, more conventionally - attired now in a skimpy cocktail dress. The allure has waned.

But I shall always have fond memories of her biker chick period.

[I couldn't help but be reminded of the occasion of the most profound sexual embarrassment I have suffered in China (other than in bed, of course...).  I once found myself taking a cab in the far south-west of Beijing, an area where few laowai ever ventured, and where the drivers were even more aggressive/psychotic than we are used to in the city centre. My driver for this trip was unduly excited about having a foreigner in his passenger seat, and became extremely talkative. I played along at first, because he seemed quite a jolly fellow. But he soon became relentlessly inquisitorial about my love life: did I have a girlfriend? what kind of girls did I like? I wasn't gay, was I? so, what kind of girls did I like? did I like Chinese girls? which part of China did I think produced the best girls?... and on and on and on. I made the mistake of trying to terminate the conversation by mentioning that I had recently started going out with an American girl.

He shook his head sadly. He felt obliged to demonstrate to me why this was a misguided choice. He rummaged under his dash for something, pulled out a very well-thumbed pack of playing cards with nude pictures of Chinese girls on them. He proceeded to show me most of the deck, commenting in detail on each girl's assets, and challenging me to guess where she was from; and then laboriously explaining to me how I should have been able to tell.  ("Such a long neck! Probably a Manchu girl. Oh, she has tits!  Must be from the north." etc., etc., etc.)  And he was still driving through heavy traffic the while, although looking almost exclusively at me or his mucky playing cards.

It was on this day that I determined not merely to give up any further attempt to study Chinese, but to assiduously endeavour to unlearn the little that I then knew.]

Friday, February 17, 2012

Ford Prefect's verdict on Mao

Another of my occasional visual puns - verbum sapienti sat est, and all that.

This picture is by Chinese photographer Kuang Huimin, part of a photo-essay on images of The Great Helmsman in China today, for which he won one of the prizes in World Press Photo's recent annual awards. 

[Brought to you via the excellent China news blog Ministry of Tofu, a relative newcomer on the scene, having only launched a bit over a year ago.]

The slogan I had in mind was:   Mostly Armless.
(Nobody seemed to get it.  See Comments below.)

Haiku for the week

Not slavery itself
But pointless orders oppress,
Masters' stupidity.

Spending a third of your life working wouldn't be so bad, if you didn't have to take instructions from other people about how to do it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Suppressing the noble rage

The other day, I suffered an employer experience so galling that I felt compelled to write a long e-mail explaining to said employers exactly why I was so galled. Essential catharsis, you know.

I maintained sufficient self-control to file it in 'Drafts' until the next morning, when the version of the mail I actually sent - though still mildly laced with exasperation - was very much toned down.

I'd written some website copy for them. And apparently they weren't happy with it. They weren't unhappy with it. But they had 'feedback' they felt they needed to share with me, slight misgivings on certain points of style.

First aggravation is that they decide to call me up about it. I have explained to them many times that discussing things on the phone is a huge waste of time. If you can't express yourself effectively in an e-mail, then you can't express yourself effectively. Really, I am pretty sure you could have expounded your position in writing in much less than half the time that we were on the phone; and I am damn certain that I could have read that e-mail in 1 minute, rather than the 25 minutes of my precious life that you just raped. (Oh well, my fault, I suppose: I shouldn't have answered the phone.)

Second aggravation was that there were two people involved in the feedback, but they hadn't discussed the material together first: so, I found myself suddenly being double-teamed in a phone conference by guys who were giving me an inconsistent - sometimes flatly contradictory - message.

Third aggravation was that they hadn't given enough thought to the matter to actually come up with any concrete examples to support their nebulous quibbles. When pressed, they eventually managed to cite 3 or 4 points.... 3 or 4 isolated and unrelated points that were not really representative of any prevalent, recurring feature in the text.

I give them credit for managing to identify the only 3 or 4 potential problems in the entire text. But, really, they weren't problems. My clients' misgivings arose - as is so often the case - from their having a shaky grasp of grammar, a fixation with jargon, and a tin ear for what sounds right.

In order to placate them, I reluctantly agreed to revisit my copy and apply a few additional tweaks. After going through it with a fine-tooth comb, I identified around a dozen instances of the sort of language features they were apparently uncomfortable with. In about two-thirds of those cases, I concluded that there was an overwhelming argument for leaving things unchanged. In another 4 or 5 cases I made small changes - which weren't really necessary - just to demonstrate that I had done my best to respond to their 'feedback'. I don't know if that will be enough to satisfy them.

You know, people, if that's it - if you have only half a dozen or a dozen trifling issues in a 3,500-word document, you could a) ignore them (nothing is ever perfect: 99.5% is about as good as it gets), or b) fix them yourself (really, if this adverb offends you so much, just DELETE it right away, when it's there on the screen in front of you; it will take a matter of seconds, less time than it takes you to dial on the phone to bother me with it!). A handful of non-generic 'flaws' does not constitute a systemic 'style problem', it does not compromise the overall quality of the document - and it does not warrant a full rewrite.

I don't take criticism well, I'm afraid. Particularly not when it is ill-conceived and poorly communicated - and when it entails me having to put in another 80 minutes of work on something to no purpose whatsoever.

I'm a professional. I know what I'm doing. Trust my judgment.

Or, if you really think you know better than me what 'good business English' sounds like, write it yourself.

Otherwise, shut the hell up.

[It's a pity these people are my only substantial source of income at the moment. My intolerance of working with idiots may have scuppered the relationship. It certainly would have done if I'd sent Version 1.0 of that e-mail!]

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The warning bell

I had a particularly odd dream last night - short, but extremely vivid; for once, highly realistic, rather than occupying imagined settings or exhibiting surreal jumps in logic as so many of my dreams do; and very, very disturbing.

I was 'at home' - the house (not quite the same, but clearly 'intended' to be) where my parents lived 20 years ago. I seemed quite a bit younger than I am now, but my mother was very old and frail (I suppose, how I imagine she'd be now, if she hadn't died 9 years ago); my father was absent, already dead. No other characters were involved, neither physically present or impinging on my thoughts (this was quite a remote countryside spot, no neighbours within some hundreds of yards).

So, here I am, in the prime of life again, with my mother alive again, back in probably the last home I felt really happy in, and calmed by a tranquil and deserted rural setting... and I've been immersed in this peaceful idyll for all of a few seconds... when the sound of an air-raid siren - very, very distant - is carried to me on the breeze.

Yep, the end of the world was - potentially - at hand. And it was China's fault. This much I "knew", it was the automatically understood background setting to the dream. Some major diplomatic face-off had been brewing for days or weeks between the eastern giant and the US/EU, and suddenly it seemed as though nuclear war was a real possibility.

I was, as usual in my dreams (at least, the ones I remember because I've woken from them), very detached, rational, self-aware; not quite lucidly aware of the fact that I was in a dream and able to influence its development, but very astute and calmly analytical about my apparent situation. I remember wondering how far away is that siren, they don't have one here in the valley, surely? I remember thinking/hoping it's probably just a drill, or perhaps a false alarm; we don't know for sure that there are missiles incoming. I remember thinking maybe we've activated the warning just as a precaution because we've chosen to launch a first strike. I remember thinking perhaps it's just a limited strike, perhaps we'll come through this. I remember thinking how long have we got, it's supposed to be four minutes, isn't it; but it could be more; or less; it might be only seconds...

I remember assessing likely targets in our area, and concluding that our chances of surviving the initial onslaught at least (but not the subsequent insidious radioactive pollution, of course) were pretty good.  Hereford, city of my birth, 20 miles or so to the north, really just a farming market centre, little industry of note; the SAS base might possibly make it a target (or the 900-year-old cathedral, if the enemy is just being culturally vindictive, as in Hitler's Baedeker Raids).  Newport, 20 miles or so away to the south and west, a rather minor port. The nearest major targets would be Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, Birmingham - all more than 50 miles distant. And we were in a steep-sided river valley: we'd be pretty well shielded even from a detonation just a few miles away. So, I was trying to reassure myself that our lack of blast protection wasn't too much of a problem: I drew curtains, thought of bracing the window panes in the room where we were taking shelter with tape or digging out a big sheet of cardboard to use as a shutter. I also began to wonder about the challenges of survival in the aftermath (the situation had developed very rapidly, and we hadn't had much chance to make any preparations). How were we off for food and water? Which of our neighbours' houses would be most likely to have a shotgun?

Yes, most of the content of this dream concerned my mental processes in confronting this scenario. There was almost no action; and no dialogue, really. I heard the siren, went indoors to find my mother, accompanied her into the small back room we'd decided would make the best shelter (partly below ground level, and only one window); brisk, but unhurried; anxious, but eerily calm. My mum didn't say a word, just lay down forlornly on a little camp-bed. I sat down on the floor beside her and held her hand. There we were, in a dark, quiet little room, in a remote cottage, waiting for the end.

Profoundly unsettling. I've had a few apocalyptic dreams before - dreams where I actually witnessed a nuclear explosion and/or its aftermath - but nothing as acutely personal and overpoweringly melancholic as this.

Yet this experience was also strangely cathartic. I suppose, after facing up to the worst thing that could possibly happen, the present troubles of your life start to seem unimportant. And there's a great relief, a flood of exhilaration to find yourself escaped from such a terror.

And it was emotionally restorative to 'see' my mother again, I think - however briefly. I've been feeling particularly lonely of late, missing my family (my mother and brother died just either side of Christmas; it's a season of unhappy anniversaries for me).

So, I see where much of the impetus for the dream comes from - craving the comfort and security of family, yearning to escape from current stresses, wishing I could turn back the clock... and having those desires tantalisingly quasi-realised, and in the same moment devastatingly frustrated. Hmm, it's the origin - and 'meaning' - of that darker element that bothers me. Where does the nuclear holocaust imagery spring from? Has "China" really become an ultimately destructive force in my life, a catastrophe from which I must try to escape?? It may be so...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Don't mention the war!

The war between the sexes, that is.

Or rather, perhaps, the war between Rationality and Commercial Brainwashing.

I am NOT a fan of Valentine's Day. Oh no.

I had hoped to gather a group of like-minded curmudgeonly singles for a bit of a party tonight; but I realise that just about all of my buddies (er, including the female ones...) have wives/girlfriends now, and so they are all PRISONERS on this day. I face another glum evening at home with the television.

I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

You cannot be serious!

It's getting hard to sign up for anything online these days. IMPOSSIBLE, in fact.

Two or three times in the last week, I've tried to register on a site - and been rebuffed because of inability to come up with a unique username. One was an online golf game (I eventually bitched to their customer service e-mail address about the problems, but they never got back to me), one was a dating site (ahem... I invoke the Pete Townshend Defence: it was for research, honestly!), one was a music site - same story with all of them. All conceivable usernames were taken!

I'm not sure that I believe that. I have four or five aliases that I use fairly regularly online, and I can swap them around with the similar number of passwords I employ (not counting the two numeral-only ones I use for my banks). And some of them are pretty damned unusual. I've never encountered this sort of problem in the past.

Now, guys, please, if you're going to make it this hard to register a username, you at least have to give people some prompts as to what's available. OK, so there are already a dozen Froogs on your site (it seems unlikely to me, but your automated pop-ups insist that it is so); but I assume not all of the numbers from 13 to 100 have been taken - give me a hint!

My cyber-wounds were salted by a run-in over the weekend with the British Chamber of Commerce's website here. Their nice marketing manager had set up an account for me ages ago, to make it easier for me to reserve a spot at speaker events; but I hadn't yet had cause to activate it. When I finally did so, the first thing I was invited to do was to select a new password for myself.

And the nasty, nasty, HAL 9000-like site did not like any of my usual passwords. Nor, indeed, did it like any of the variations I tried on my usual passwords - adding an initial capital, and/or some numbers at the end, and/or an exclamation mark.

Yep, the prompts kept telling me that I should make my password "more secure" by using a mixture of upper and lower case, a mixture of letters and numbers, avoiding actual words, and throwing in some word-breaks or punctuation just for good measure. It appeared that they were determined I should create a password similar to the bizarre default one they'd initially given me, which was the utterly unmemorisable WskPAbmdpi.

Even more galling, the dratted machine seemed to be offering these comments as paternalistic advice for my own good, rather than giving me notice that my proposed password was unacceptable. So, I carried on hopefully pressing 'Enter' in defiance of these irksome pop-ups.... and eventually one of my 'inadequate' passwords was unexpectedly accepted!

Trouble is, after trying about 20 different ones in quick succession, all non-standard variants of my usual repertoire, I can't for the life of me remember what it is.

JES recently led me to this xkcd cartoon, which cogently explains why most computer passwords are dumb: we want words/phrases that are easy to memorise but difficult for a machine to 'guess' by laboriously working through options - rather than vice versa!

Where have all the flowers gone?

Or rather, where have all the readers gone?

Well, OK, according to my traffic-monitoring gizmos, numbers of visitors and time spent on the sites are much as they always are - even a little higher than average - but commenting seems to have STOPPED over the last 8 or 10 days.

JES we know about: he's very busy just now, only checks in for a marathon catch-up once or twice a month. Ditto Gary. Ditto Cedra.

But recent 'regulars' John and Carolyn have suddenly gone ominously silent again. And King Tubby (no relation), a frequent gadfly over on my booze & music blog lately, seems to have disappeared as well.

But for my old drinking bud The British Cowboy, rising Kraken-like from his long 'sleep' to school me in the matter of margarita recipes, things would have been utterly SILENT around here.

It's actually getting kind of creepy. What gives?

Bon mot for the week

"The things which are most important don't always scream the loudest."

Bob Hawke (1929-  )

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Birds do it, bees do it, even quirky Japanese do it...

I, of course, do not do it. At least not on the dratted V-Day, which once more looms balefully over us.

However, if you, like me, are single (as we approach this hideous annual shlockfest...) and would prefer not to be, here are some tips on how they find true love in the Land of the Rising Sun. For a deeper understanding, you should probably watch the instructional videos first (Lesson 1 and Lesson 2); but I think this illustrative short drama is reasonably self-explanatory.

[I have posted excerpts from this very funny series, The Japanese Tradition, on here a couple of times before: check out what these folks did with sushi and origami.]

Friday, February 10, 2012

Another phantom job

A few weeks ago I was given an introduction to a promising-seeming job prospect by a British businessman I know here. A Chinese contact of his was apparently setting up some kind of business course, and needed experienced lecturers.

So... I tried to call her on the number I'd been given, two or three times, and she didn't answer. And she didn't call me back. 

I sent her a text message, explaining who I was, and asking her to phone or e-mail me about the lectures. She didn't.

Eventually, after nearly a week, I managed to get hold of her on the phone. And all she said by way of apology was that she'd been "too busy" to respond to my messages. (Yeah, right: you haven't had even 30 seconds free - which is all it would take to send a text message acknowledgement - for the whole of the last week? Bullshit!)

But we're talking now - what can she tell me about the course? NOTHING. Oh dear.

But she suggests we have a meeting about it!! Look, lady, there is absolutely NO POINT in us having a meeting if I'm not adequately proficient in the topics you want to cover, or I'm not going to be free at the relevant times, or the money you're paying isn't enough. Can you just fill me in on these BASICS over the phone, or by e-mail? (Maybe this is why she has so little 'free time' - because she spends too much time having pointless meetings.)

She agrees to send me an e-mail.  But she doesn't.

I e-mail her. I send her a couple of text message reminders. I ask the guy who introduced us to give her a prod for me. NO RESPONSE.

This is depressingly TYPICAL in China. People here are absolutely hopeless at keeping in touch, keeping you informed, observing basic business courtesies. It riles me no end (particularly this last month, when I've had two of these vexing non-communications running concurrently!).

I surmise that this woman had just volunteered herself as a go-between for a friend (or a friend-of-a-friend, or a friend-of-a-... of-a-... of-a-...) who had some involvement in trying to mount this course, and didn't actually know anything about it... and decided it wasn't worth her while to try to help out after all. Or maybe the course was cancelled, the idea dropped as unfeasible - and they didn't want to tell anyone because of the dreaded 'loss of face'.

But, you see, the problem with this failure to communicate is that it is so unprofessional and RUDE that it creates a terrible impression of you, your company or business, and, indeed, your entire country and its people. And it scuppers any chance of you ever doing business with - or receiving a favour, a recommendation, a business introduction from - the person you've offended (or any of his friends or colleagues, or anyone who reads his blog) ever again.

The Chinese really need to start assessing the 'face' culture in purely commercial terms, and realise how much money it's costing them.

Haiku for the week

Every muscle stiff.
Hard to exercise again -
Idleness entrenched!

After two months of sitting on my sofa watching HBO, my weight peaked at 220lbs at the start of this week. That's about 20lbs more than it ought to be. And so, I have declared war on the middle-aged flab-out and the sedentary lifestyle, and determined to try and get myself back in shape. I thought I'd started in quite modest fashion, but I'd obviously underestimated just how out of condition I'd got... because after Day 2, everything hurt, to the point where I could barely move. 

I'm recovering slightly after a rest day: time to inflict some pain on myself again...