Saturday, March 31, 2012

Film List - Cool Posters

I have mentioned on here before that in the small town where I grew up there was only one cinema, and only one film per week - to which most people would go on a Friday or a Saturday. My brother (seven years older than me) was friends with the son of the cinema owner, which not only gave him privileged advance information on the forthcoming programme but also occasionally offered the opportunity to purchase one of the posters that had been displayed in the foyer for a supposedly knockdown rate. Unfortunately, most of the posters really weren't all that impressive: they tended to have too much text and not enough picture, and so didn't seem to me to be something I'd want to look at on the bedroom wall for long (on our bedroom wall; I was sharing with the bro at the time). Moreover, poster design in the '60s and '70s seemed to be mostly very weak: I didn't generally like painted posters because the quality of the art was often so crude, and the imagery so cluttered. At least photo posters usually concentrated on a single still from the film, but even these were not usually very compelling.

Moreover, I was unconvinced that my brother's mate was really offering him such a good deal. I believe the sum usually quoted was either £15 or £20, which was a bloody fortune back in the early 1970s, especially for two schoolboys. Because of this stiff asking price, we would have been obliged to pool resources to buy one, and we were rarely all that tempted - or could rarely agree on a poster we both liked enough. And when we did get close to buying one, that came about more because of a morbid curiosity about the film in anticipation than because of the poster, which we hadn't yet seen. The film was a documentary about Great White Sharks called Blue Water, White Death (some years before Jaws made them universally scary/sexy). I could readily imagine having a shark poster on the wall: sharks were undoubtedly cool, in a mind-bogglingly terrifying way. Alas, when I saw the poster, I backed out of the deal. It was not this one.
If it had been this one, I think I would have agreed to buy it. I seem to be remember I'd been expecting something like this, but then the actual poster had far too much white space devoted to text, and a diver in a shark cage much more prominent in the photo than the shark.

My brother had been strangely keen to proceed with the purchase, and was deeply miffed at me for pulling out. And so, a year or two later, when I'd been bowled over by this poster for Norman Jewison's Rollerball (still one of the best posters I've ever seen, I think; although I of course felt disappointed, cheated, on discovering that James Caan didn't really have spikes on his helmet), he snottily declined to help me procure it.

I was also tempted by this poster for David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (a film I already knew of, even at the age of about 8 or 10, because I'd become smitten with the soundtrack, one of my favourite items in my parents' record collection), which enjoyed a major re-release at around this time. The brother, alas, was still obstinately refusing to cooperate, and there was no way I could afford such an expensive treat on my own.

And so, I got through my teen years without ever having a film poster on my wall. When I made it to university, though, it seemed de rigueur that all students should have at least one such poster (even though I would have very little space left, since I had already acquired a set of posters of characters/columnists from the satirical magazine Private Eye, photo portraits of elaborately grotesque 3-D statuettes crafted by the caricature artists Luck & Flaw, who had recently lent their skills to the great latex puppet TV satire show Spitting Image), and the Oxford Union held a poster sale at the beginning of each year.

As a young man, I was naturally drawn to strong loner types, men of power and violence, like Dirty Harry...

... or Mad Max...

... or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.

I might also have been tempted by the poster for Apocalypse Now...

... although I prefer this one of the helicopters silhouetted against a burning sunset, which I think only appeared rather later.

These, of course, were all enormously popular choices, and thus had invariably sold out within minutes of the sale starting; so, in two or three attempts over the course of my undergraduate career, I never managed to get hold of one of them.

What I ended up with instead was this classic still of silent screen comedy genius Harold Lloyd hanging precariously from the hands of a clockface hundreds of feet above the street in Safety Last. Not quite a film poster, but close enough.

In researching this post, I came across quite a few more that are worthy of consideration, but this is enough for now. I suspect I'll have one or two follow-ups on this theme later in the year.

Footnote:  Online film critic TC Candler has compiled a particularly good selection of posters, on which I may feel impelled to comment in more detail at a later date.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ideal for home defence

I read a few weeks back - on the eclectic Cool Hunting blog! - of a planned exhibition at the American Design Club in New York on the theme of baseball bats customised for "more effective" defence against home invasion. It's described as an "upcoming fall show", although no date is given, and all the exhibits appear to have been manufactured and photographed already - so, I'm wondering if maybe it was last year.

Check out the rest of these freaky creations here.

Zombies, beware!!

Haiku for the week

Wallet in trousers,
Trousers in washing machine:
Money laundering!

Jeez, it's been years since I made that mistake! I'm not sure I've ever done it in China before. Chinese money is very absorbent. And it picks up colour - and, er, loses some of its own - rather easily. I don't know if I'm going to be able to use some of these notes now: a moment's inattention may have cost me some hundreds of renminbi.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A difficult question

I read at the start of the week in the New York Post (via a short, flippant piece in the UK Sunday newspaper, The Observer) that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is once more in trouble with the authorities, this time being investigated by the French police in connection with procuring prostitutes for his notorious sex parties, which may expose him to possible charges of 'misuse of corporate funds' or 'aggravated pimping'.

I learned that his lawyer, Henri Leclerc (it was not stated whether M. Leclerc had himself attended any of these parties), had some months ago made the following facetious statement in an attempt to make light of the matter:
“He could easily not have known [that the women were being paid]... because, as you can imagine, at these kinds of parties you’re not always dressed. I defy you to tell the difference between a nude prostitute and a nude classy woman.”

Google's image of 'classy'

... and not so 'classy'...

It would serve this asinine lawyer and the loathesome DSK right if the judge in the case accepted this argument along with its implied corollary that one can easily tell the difference if one sees these women at any time clothed: that would lower the evidential threshold required to secure a conviction very substantially.

I would have thought that a willingness to get naked with such a priapic old sleaze as DSK was in itself strongly suggestive of being a paid sex worker.

Perhaps France should follow Italy's lead in creating signs to increase public awareness...

Although, you know, M. Leclerc, prostitutes can be "classy ladies" too (and non-prostitutes decidedly 'unclassy'). That was such a monumentally inept and tactless remark, betraying so many smug patriarchal prejudices, it really did make me choke on my muesli. Funny, yes, but horrifying at the same time - especially when one reflects that people like this are running the country, running the world.

[I have also just discovered that DSK - rather than his buffoonish lawyer who made the remark - is now inextricably linked with the words 'naked prostitute'. A Google search on that term (innocent research for this post, I assure you!) currently returns mostly pictures of the lecherous old git.]

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Band Naming landmark approaches

My silly Invent a band name challenge thread (originally BIG in 2008; I revived it just a couple of weeks ago), is now closing in on its 200th comment.

Can you claim the glory of being the 200th commenter?

If you can (and come up with a decent band name suggestion in the process), I may produce a prize of some sort for you. No promises, but I'll do my best.

Head over there now and get naming!!

[Oh dear, this has been a bit of a fizzle; the thread seems to have run out of steam this week. I fear part of the problem is that my blogs - and that post, in particular - have become just about the most heavily blocked thing in China... thanks to my pal Brendan suggesting Bo Xilai's Political Future as a possible band name. And I then couldn't resist querying whether this was a re-branding of the self-destructively named band Cancelled Due To Lack Of Interest, which someone had proposed earlier in the thread. A few days later, band-naming stalwart Gary chipped in with the dangerously plausible (as a band name, I mean!) Bring Back Bo & The Chongqing Counterstrike. I now really have NO CHANCE of getting another visa this year!

However, we are now - 2.30pm my time on Thursday 29th, that is - ONLY TWO COMMENTS away from the bicentennial.]

Monday, March 26, 2012

Oh, that felt good...

Broke though I am, I walked away from a job offer last week.

And I felt an exhilarating thrill of satisfaction in doing so.

I fretted for a while that it had been a rash decision, that I was perhaps being unduly irritable, even a little unreasonable.

But I shouldn't doubt my gut instincts: they are invariably sound, an astute subconscious appraisal of factors that I haven't yet fully realised or clearly articulated to myself.

Do I want to teach any more?

No, I'm done. Bored. Stale. I need to take a complete break from it for a while.

Do I want to teach a one-to-one business class?

No. They're a waste of time for all concerned, an ineffective or at least a very inefficient and unsatisfying mode of study. And they're a vexingly unreliable source of income, since the students invariably cancel something between 30% and 80% of the classes (usually with little or NO notice).

Do I want to teach senior executives from a bank?

No. People in jobs like this are almost invariably arrogant twerps who'll treat you with complete contempt and constantly try to reschedule classes just for the power-trip, just for the sadistic pleasure of inconveniencing you.

Do I want to work for 250 rmb an hour?

No. That was barely above my get-out-of-bed threshold 8 or 10 years ago, and the cost of living in this city has doubled in that time. With my skills and experience, I'm worth way more than that. High-end business teaching ought to pay at least twice - if not four times - that much.

Do I want to work evenings or early mornings?

No. That's when this kind of class is invariably scheduled, and it's a complete pain in the arse - utterly destructive of one's social life and one's peace of mind. It's not so much the anti-social timing itself that wears you down as the misery of having to travel for 45 minutes or more in each direction at the height of Beijing's wretched rush hour.

Do I want to do a job set up by a Chinese university?

No. Absolutely not. Never again. These people are complete headless chickens, and I would rather starve than expose myself to any more of their mind-mangling incompetence.

My patience snapped with this bunch of dingbats when my contact insisted that she was UNABLE to tell me when the class would be scheduled (even approximately - like, mornings or evenings, weekdays or weekends?), how many hours a week it would be (one session or ten??), or exactly what it would pay ("more than 250" she teased [as I'd already turned down an offer from her for a job that - after tax deductions and unreimbursed travel expenses - paid considerably less than that], but she couldn't say how much more - probably not very much!). But she wanted me to give up an entire afternoon to journey to her remote campus to "discuss" the prospect with her. "If I don't know whether I'll be able or willing to accept the job, that would be a complete waste of my time and yours. If you can't give me the basic information I need to make that decision, then I'll just have to turn the job down right now."

I can just see her whingeing to her colleagues about how "foreigners are so unreasonable!" Yeah, right: WE'RE the unreasonable ones.

Bon mot for the week

"An author values a compliment even when it comes from a source of doubtful competency."

Mark Twain  (1835-1910)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My Fantasy Girlfriend - 'Roxette'

I should, of course, more properly say Marie Fredriksson - since I have absolutely no interest in threesomes, nor in men, however hunky and rock-starry they may be (sorry to disappoint you, Per). Marie, however, the statuesque blonde singer with the Swedish pop duo who were so big in the late '80s and early '90s, has always had quite a hold over me.

The severely short hairstyle was a key part of the appeal. Though I like long hair too, a woman's neck is an area of particular fascination for me, so I do, on the whole, prefer short haircuts which show this off. She wore a lot of leather, too; that always helps! And, of course, there's something about Scandinavians (I am rather more often smitten with Norwegians and Danes, but it's hard to say no to a Swede).

Moreover, Ms Fredriksson is closely associated in my mind with my first trip to China (which was 18 years ago this month). Near the end of that three-month adventure, I found myself playing host to a motley crew of English teachers from various schools and colleges I'd visited out in the sticks, who were treating themselves to a rare weekend of 'excitement' in the big city of Wuhan, where I'd been based. On the Saturday evening they dragged me off to a nightclub - quite possibly the city's only one at that point - where we were just about the only people present and the drink was unaffordable. We stayed about an hour or so; a torture made bearable, I think, by the mellowing effect of one of my mate Toby's 'special cigarettes'. I kept myself entertained by watching the continuous loop of Roxette videos being shown on the TV screens. They were evidently very big in China at the time (I think they'd been one of the first foreign acts allowed to perform in the country, just a year or two earlier). I hadn't known they'd released so many songs and videos: there seemed to be at least 7 or 8 in the loop, most of which I'd never heard before. It was in these rather odd circumstances that I developed a slight fixation on the lovely Marie.

She's an inspiringly tough and brave lady too, returning to performance after a very serious run-in with cancer a decade ago. And she's still looking very striking in her fifties. The band played in Beijing a week or two ago... but I'm not quite enough of a fan to pay top dollar for a show like that. My music-mad buddy Badr went to see them and had a good time, although he noted that the attendance was a little disappointing (the gig didn't seem to be that well promoted, and it was on a Monday, for heaven's sake - NOBODY goes out on a Monday! - but the Wukesong Arena is a HUGE venue, so even a 60% turnout is a lot of people).

Here's one of their biggest hits, The Look.

Hmm, I find it's not nearly so arresting when I'm not spliffed up in a dreary Chinese nightclub....

When I started searching YouTube just now, I was reminded that the great English blues-rock band Dr Feelgood did a song called Roxette back in the '70s (I wonder if that's where our Swedes got the idea for the band name?). I think I'll throw that in for good measure.

Ah yes, that's much better!!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Recently, on The Barstool...

It's been a bit longer than usual - 9 weeks - since I last did a roundup of what's been going on over on the dark side.

Well, we had a new entry in my 'Great Dating Disasters' series - an account of a rather lovely, but inevitably very brief, liaison with a much younger girl. There was this frivolous piece on interactive video games you can play at the urinal - inspired by a genuine news story (from Japan, of course). And I was delighted to find that YouTube finally has Pete and Dud's pillar-box scene (from the film Bedazzled), which I have always considered the best ever explanation of the fall of Lucifer. I've shared the recipe for what is currently my favourite cocktail, come up with a novel bar promotion idea or two, and expounded on why very cheap drink is actually a BAD promotional idea. I've also recently discovered a rather wonderful new (time-wasting!) website.

Overall, a rather slow couple of months, though. Well, slow for bar reviews and such, because I didn't go out very much over the holiday period. However, the slew of 'significant' days following each other in quick succession gave me plenty of excuses to post some great music...

I celebrated the advent of the Chinese New Year with the opening scene from Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, in which Kate Capshaw sings Anything Goes "in Chinese" (comment discussion evinced some scepticisim about how good her language coaching had been), while Australia Day - this year, only a few days later - was marked by posting a version of Down Under performed just a few years ago in LA by Colin Hay with the Ringo Starr All-Star Band (there's also a brief clip of former Aussie PM Bob Hawke sculling a beer at a recent cricket match!). A couple of days after that, I sought to dispel the holiday blues with the irresistibly bouncy Birdland from '80s electro-jazz outfit Weather Report. Then, on Bob Marley's birthday we had Stop The Train (actually a Peter Tosh song rather than one of Bob's, and I found a version of his to accompany the early Wailers one - double happiness!). A few days after that, Jorma Kaukonen was in town: I didn't go to see him because he was playing at bloody Yugong Yishan, but I did taunt myself for the omission by posting a performance by him of Hesitation Blues. Then, on Mardi Gras, I posted Tom Waits singing his I Wish I Was In New Orleans, followed up a few days later by some other versions of the song (and another song of the same name by a young star of American roots music, Ben Prestage). Then, last weekend, for St Patrick's Day I posted a few versions of Whiskey In The Jar. Lots to enjoy there.

But of course, the BIG NEWS over on my other blog has been the 'return' - after 3 years or more of silence - of the once highly popular Band Names Game. Please go and check that out, and leave some band name suggestions of your own.

This week's memorable offerings have included Single-Click Generation, Freddy's Fingers, Zombie Snot, Full Metal Jackass, Haunted Spouse, Rhythmic Pastimes, The Glass Melangerie, Archbishop Of Hell, The Mostly Deads, Barefoot Actors, and My Personal Spammer. Think you can do better? Click on the link!

Haiku for the week

Gunfire in the streets?
Denied news, we dream and joke;
Rumour runs amok.

I hadn't been paying too much attention to all the talk of a coup in China this week. But then, just after midnight last night, I heard some "gunfire" of my own - away off down to the south-west, in the area of Tiananmen and Zhongnanhai. Oh, it could have been any number of other things (somebody letting off firecrackers for a wedding or an ancestor rite of some sort, I expect). And it didn't last very long. It was just unfortunate that it coincided almost to the second with my losing my Internet connection (my VPN is being very thoroughly squelched by The Kafka Boys; I'm currently having to route via Cairo - oh, the irony!). That had a powerful impact on my easily over-stimulated imagination, and I've slept very poorly.

My rather selfish anxieties currently centre not so much on the possibility of vicious in-fighting in the leadership ranks of the CCP as on the fact that the prospects for being able to renew a visa in the next three months have just been downgraded from 'difficult' to 'impossible'. It seems that I must start thinking in terms of a permanent departure rather than just the long holiday I had been hoping for.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Go on, Guo'an!

Last Friday night, I went to see Beijing Guo'an Football Club play their opening home game of the season against their most reviled opponents, Shanghai Shenhua. [The club's website has got much better in the last couple of years. It still doesn't have any English on it, alas; but it works reasonably well with Google Translate - I love that it labels the game venue as the "battlefield".]

The quality of the football was not that impressive on the whole (we make allowances for them not having much of a pre-season build-up, and then plunging straight into a frenetic early programme that sees them playing the opening games of the Asian Champions League alongside the domestic Chinese Super League; both teams were clearly short of match fitness and stamina), but it was a lively game; and - after an unfortunate wobble in the middle - it ended in the right result. Frankly, Shanghai were never really in the game, and if Guo'an's finishing had been more incisive, they might have come out winners by 7-0 or 8-0. As it was, goals just either side of half-time had put the home side comfortably in front, but they promptly let the visitors get back on terms by gifting them a brace within a few minutes of each other (a dumb handball on the edge of the area, quickly followed by an even dumber square pass at the back that let in the Shanghai strikers behind the defence). Fortunately, Guo'an were not too dismayed by this misfortune, and were soon steaming forward again, and could have, should have bagged three or four more goals before they finally managed to nab the clincher 10 minutes from the end. (Too much drama for one evening! It did almost feel scripted, like a professional wrestling bout. Hopefully, those days are over: there was a huge match-fixing scandal here a few years ago.)

It was a much needed win for Beijing, after they'd stumbled to a 1-2 away defeat to last season's K-League runners-up Ulsan Hyundai in their Champions League opener, and then went down 1-3 to newly promoted Guangzhou R&F in their first CSL game. This result should have given them a big lift; although a 1-1 Champions League draw against Brisbane Roar the following Monday was another disappointment. Let's hope they can get three more points from this Sunday's away game at Hangzhou, to boost them into the top third of the table.

Fans show some love for new coach, the Portuguese Jaime Pacheco 
(despite a shaky start to the season)

The traditional bad blood between China's two biggest cities is exacerbated at the moment by the fact that Australian striker Joel Griffiths, Guo'an's leading scorer for the past three seasons, traitorously declined to accept a new contract with us and departed for the hated rivals on a free transfer over the winter (we console ourselves that, at 32, he's probably past his best). He was joined up front by the notoriously selfish and ill-tempered Frenchman Nicolas Anelka (also 32, but probably still capable of shattering the scoring records at this level of football, if he can be bothered...), who is China's most expensive football import to date. Shanghai Shenhua, 75% owned by online gaming billionaire Zhu Jun, is looking set to emulate the unlovely example of Chelsea and Manchester City in the UK by seeking to secure a title with a massive spending binge. Both forwards scored (Griffiths converting the dumb penalty, and Anelka taking advantage of the even dumber back-pass), but otherwise looked fairly lacklustre. Anelka, though, had a few scary moments: he definitely has a bit more composure on the ball and more of a nose for goal than we're used to seeing in Chinese football; our defenders were a tad intimidated by him, and doubtless most other defenders in this league will be as well. It will be interesting to see if he will take this season seriously, or just go harumphing off in search of another huge signing-on fee.

My football-mad Austrian chum Andreas Laimboeck, Director of the Live the Language Mandarin school, is running a Guo'an supporters' club for his students this year, and managed to assemble a group a couple of dozen strong for the Shanghai game. He assures me that next Friday's clash against Tianjin will be even more of a grudge match (it's only 80 miles or so down the road, so it counts as a local derby)... but I'm not sure if I can take that much excitement again quite so soon. It's an unfortunate quirk of scheduling that two of the most important - or at any rate the most emotive - games for Beijing fans are coming back-to-back, right at the start of the season.

I could yet be tempted, though... I'd forgotten how exhilarating live football can be! Even if the quality of play isn't that wonderful, it's the atmosphere of the event that makes it special; and Guo'an are now drawing some big and extremely vociferous crowds (everyone stands throughout; and shouts almost continuously; and vuvuzelas have become very popular since the last World Cup). I hadn't been to a game here since before the Olympics. And, in my early years in Beijing, Guo'an games were relatively poorly attended. In the last few years, they've started pulling in some HUGE crowds. For the really big games like Shanghai and Tianjin they're managing to completely sell out the stadium, which was unheard of until quite recently (Gongti, the Workers Stadium, has an official capacity of 66,000). Unfortunately, this means that the piao fanzi (touts, scalpers) are having a field day; tickets are becoming hard to get hold of through regular channels, and - for "sold out" games - are changing hands for two or three times their face value (even on Taobao, the online shopping forum that usually produces the best bargains to be had on anything).

I think I'll definitely go to another game or two at some point this year... but perhaps not until the climax of the season. Since this is likely to be my last year in Beijing, I would like to see my 'home side' claim the championship again. (They've only managed it once in the eight previous seasons of the Super League, in 2009.)

Three final plugs...

Plug 1:  There's a new sports shop recently opened on Gulou Dongdajie, a couple of hundred yards west from the north end of Nanluoguxiang. I doubt if it's an officially licensed supporters' shop, and its Guo'an kit might well be shanzhai; but it seems to be very good quality (much better than most of the stuff the street vendors are hawking around the Stadium on match days), and is less than half of the price of the official Gongti store.

Plug 2:  The best place to follow Guo'an news in English is the football blog Wild East Football.

Plug 3:  If you fancy going to a game with a big group of laowai, drop Andreas a line and he'll try and get you tickets so you can join up with his Live the Language students. I think he's hoping to go to every game this season. 

And two footnotes...

Footnote 1:  There's a rundown of team news for all the clubs in the Chinese Super League at the start of the new season on the Time Out Beijing website here, and lots of information about the current Guo'an squad on Wikipedia here.

Footnote 2:  I'm curious as to why Guo'an games have developed such a big fan following lately. The Wikipedia page on the history of the CSL shows that their average attendance was a paltry 10,864 in 2004, the first year of the new league, and only 14,641 in 2008. Last year it had soared to 40,397; and this year looks set to be even higher - at least if we can mount a decent title challenge. Winning the championship in 2009 was obviously a big boost. I suspect the opening up of so many new subway lines in the last few years, making the city centre more accessible to the distant suburbs, has made a contribution too. I also wonder about the impact of the period of exile, when Guo'an was banished to Fengtai, a district far to the south-west of the city, for a couple of years while the Workers Stadium was undergoing renovations for use as an Olympic football venue. I think the return to their traditional home must have been a great relief to the original fan base (who may not have been able to get out to Fengtai very often), and probably lifted attendance in the first few months of the '09 season. However, I wonder if Guo'an didn't build up a new body of supporters in Fengtai, who now trek into the city to watch them. And whatever happened to Beijing Bird? There used to be a second Beijing football team, but I haven't heard anything of them in some years now, and I suspect they've been wound up (couldn't find anything about them in a brief Google search just now; obviously a job for Baidu!); it's possible that Guo'an has inherited their supporters as well. To go from 10,000 supporters to 40,000 in six or seven years is pretty remarkable, even in everything gets bigger very quickly all the time China.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

'Like' me!


An old university buddy - somewhat younger, part of the quick-click generation - was suggesting the other week that I "needed" - needed, mind you! - a 'Like' button at the foot of my blog posts, so that indolent readers could express their appreciation of my efforts without needing to bother writing anything in the 'comments'.

I was disdainful of the idea. However, disdain lost out to curiosity as to whether it was in fact possible to install such a feature on the Blogger platform. (It turns out it's not possible on my other blog, Barstool Blues, because of an apparent incompatibility with the blog template I use over there. Although this may perhaps be just a temporary glitch; I'm sure The Barstool used to display all of those other similar widgets for 'sharing on Twitter' and other such nonsense, but they seem to have disappeared at the moment. Strange. Blogger is perpetually out to get me!)

Harvster, are you still out there? I hope you're grateful. You'd better start 'liking' posts (and 're-tweeting' them and whatever) with a feverish devotion... or I shall discontinue this populist experiment.

[I had thought perhaps I should provide a 'Dislike' option as well; but that might be tempting Fate - and the fenqing - a little too much...]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The rich get richer...

And also more visible.

I recently came upon the staggering statistic that China was reckoned to have around 2,000 renminbi billionaires at the end of 2010, nearly twice as many as in the preceding year. And in 2008, the official number of the country's billionaires had been just 24!

Now, sure, a lot of people made a pile of money off the Olympics; and even more have done so courtesy of the huge government-backed infrastructure projects with which the country defended itself against the effects of the global recession over the next few years. But did the number of billionaires really sky-rocket 80-fold in just two years? No, I suspect a lot of that gilded elite had passed the billion-renminbi threshold years before, but are just now starting to become less bashful about the fact (perhaps because they're feeling secure about the escape routes to Canada or wherever that they've set up for themselves, in case the taxman or the regulator starts asking too many awkward questions).

According to last year's Hurun Report - China's leading 'Rich List' survey - Shanghai alone has 350 renminbi billionaires. Wikipedia, somewhat behind the times for once, it seems, maintains that only 115 Chinese mainlanders have yet passed the US$1 billion mark; but an expat magazine in Chengdu has recently cited Hurun as claiming that there are now an astonishing 7,500 renminbi billionaires, around 600 of whom are said to be dollar billionaires (however, it omits to give any reference for these figures, and I can't find them on the Hurun site; their annual China Rich List, which comes out in September, usually only gives information on the wealthiest 1,000 or so individuals). Hurun's just published 'Global Rich List' says that China's 5 wealthiest individuals have now surpassed a net worth of US$10 billion, joining an elite club with just 83 members worldwide; though they're still a long way short of breaking into the Top 10 (Mark Zuckerberg is the newest entrant, with a personal wealth assessed at US$26 billion).

Now, those figures I opened with - 2,000 billionaires in 2010 as against 24 in 2008 - came to me via one of my employers, a management consultancy; so, I have no idea what the original source was, and I take them with a very large grain of salt.

Most of the statistics these folks give me to work with are, erm... extremely soft, to say the least. If I were being harsher, I might say fudged, flawed, unreliable, or plucked from an overworked researcher's fever dream.

I had to do a lot of tiresome re-writes on my latest piece for them about China's wealthy elites because they'd chosen to update some of their figures after they'd sent me the data they wanted me to write up. Well, not update: the figures were still a year or two out-of-date (which is a lot for anything to do with China, since things move so quickly here). No, they had chosen to change some of the category definitions they were using; although High Net-Worth Individual is a commonly used concept, conventionally defined as someone having investable assets in excess of US$1 million, they decided to produce a new variant of their own with the bar set at US$1.5 million (perhaps because that approximates quite neatly to RMB10 million?).

The curious thing is that this had resulted in the number of HNWIs doubling - for a similar survey sample, in the same year. None of their analysts or researchers seemed to think there was anything ODD about this. So, be warned - all such figures coming out of China should be treated with a certain scepticism.

[Even more bizarrely, these new sets of figures showed almost zero growth in this segment from 2010 to 2015. A lot more dollar millionaires seem to be expected to migrate into the "ultra-wealthy" category (defined as having assets in excess of US$30 million), but new millionaires would barely be emerging at more than a bare replacement level, and the number of HNWIs would remain below 1,000,000. This completely contradicted the original figures I'd been given - and hence the whole tenor of the article I'd written based on them - which projected continued strong growth in the domestic luxury market over the next few years. When I pointed this out, the powers-that-be decided to ignore the newer research ("obviously flawed"), and revert to the more optimistic assessments we'd been using originally. I am intrigued - baffled! - as to how this kind of thing can happen.  

And note, this is not Chinese sleight-of-hand I'm talking about here; foreign companies are every bit as capable of blinkered over-optimism and tactical (self-)deception.]

Monday, March 19, 2012

It depends what you mean by...

I recorded a couple of years ago that Beijing's "official definition" of the arrival of spring is a run of five consecutive days where the temperature rises above 10 degrees Celsius (seemingly without even a proviso about an absence of overnight frosts!). By that rather lax measure, 'spring' arrived last week, if not the week before.

In fact, using this criterion, spring usually arrives two or three times every year; and perhaps as many as four or five or six times in a particularly schizoid year.

Since last Thursday, it's turned COLD and wet again. On Saturday night it SNOWED quite heavily.

We'll have one or two more nights of sharp frost, and then things are supposed to be cheering up again. We should get our second 'spring' this weekend. I imagine there'll then be yet another little cold snap. Third spring might be the real one.

[I saw some blossoms on a tree beside the Sanlitun SOHO mall at the weekend. I could hardly believe my eyes! A closer look revealed that they were FAKE. I wish I'd had my camera on me to take a picture of it. No sign of real blossoms anywhere yet. Give it another week or two.]

Bon mot for the week

"All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name."

André Breton (1896-1966)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

My theme song

Today is St Patrick's Day. And I am a person of Irish ancestry - albeit somewhat remote, since it's is only in the paternal line, the family moved to England more than a hundred years ago, and the migrant grandfather died long before I was born. That doesn't stop me getting sentimental over redheaded girls and wild moorlands, or feeling a shiver in the bones when I hear the old songs.

So, for a timely celebration, here's The Dubliners performing that greatest of all drinking songs, The Wild Rover.

Here's a more raucous electric version by Boston Irish band The Dropkick Murphys.

And here's something of a rarity, The Pogues' version - from their very early days together, and sounding as if it was recorded down the pub; this appeared on the B-side of one of their singles (I forget which; I suspect Dark Streets Of London or Streams of Whiskey - I only knew this because it was on the jukebox at the Bullingdon Arms, one of my favourite Irish pubs in Oxford), and has, I gather, been added to the remastered CD of their debut album Red Roses For Me. I've only previously heard it a handful of times myself, and have seldom met anyone else who knew they'd recorded this. (A still photo only, unfortunately; but a great version of the song.)

Happy St Pat's, everyone!!

A double celebration, since I've also got some great versions of Whiskey In The Jar posted over on The Barstool today.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Band naming is BACK!

A frivolous conversation a week ago inspired me to make an effort to revive the infamous Band Names Game (the most popular feature ever over on The Barstool... but that was four years ago).

I hadn't had much expectation of success in this venture, but... things are looking quite promising this week, with a number of the former regulars re-entering the fray. We've already enjoyed such memorable band name suggestions as Meatmonkey, The Plural Noun Formula, Hydroxylamine (Ukrainian techno?!), Machete Don't Text, Climate of Denial, The Tearful Zombies, One Nation Army, The Circular Arguments, Zen and the Art of Unicycle Maintenance, Walt's Frozen Head, Entourage Of One, and my own Llama-rama. (We still await - with a mixture of hope and trepidation - the possible reappearance of The Bookseller....)

Keep 'em coming, folks. Follow this link to share your band name ideas.

Haiku for the week

Streets become greasy;
Wet air dampens everything -
A rain without rain.

Strange weather we had last night. I didn't see any actual drops of rain, but there was a lot of moisture in the air...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nature's Way

A few weeks ago, I chanced upon this article from the BBC which suggests that for much of human history it was common for people to 'retire to bed' for most of the hours of darkness, but to wake up - and enjoy a reviving spell of activity - for a few hours in the middle. Apparently, this didn't really change until public streetlighting first started to become commonplace in Europe towards the end of the 1600s. Before that, the limitations of lighting technology meant that it wasn't safe or appealing to go out of doors at night, and even options for entertainment at home were fairly few. People used to dine at or shortly after dusk, and go to bed soon afterwards.

However, most people found it hard to sleep for more than 4 or 5 hours at a stretch, particularly when retiring so early; hence, it was supposedly a standard habit to rise for 2 or 3 hours in the middle of the night, and then return to bed to sleep through until dawn. In one of my earliest posts on here, I wondered how on earth Samuel Pepys had found the time for his prolific diarising; I assumed that he'd put in an hour or two before he went to bed each night, but perhaps in fact he was finding his writing hours between midnight and 2am.  References to 'first sleep' and 'second sleep' used to be commonplace, both in medical textbooks and in literature, and persisted through most of the 19th century (this brief anthology of such quotations, inspired by the BBC piece, begins with one from Dickens' Barnaby Rudge). Cervantes made gentle fun of Sancho Panza for his rare ability to make one sleep last the whole night long.

Nowadays, when most of us have longer days, harder nights, and turn in much later, one sleep is all we have time for; but we're usually exhausted enough to sleep for 6 or 7 hours at a stretch, and wake up reasonably well rested the next morning. Scientists speculate, however, that many sleep disorders - and particularly sudden wakefulness in the wee small hours - may trace their origins to this; they suggest that human diurnal rhythms favour the pattern of two shorter sleeping periods separated by an interval of activity, and that the eight-hours-a-night formula is an unexpectedly stressful imposition of modern life - 'unnatural' and potentially harmful.

Neither the BBC item nor anything else I've yet found on this discusses how or when eight-hours-a-night became the standard prescription. Nor is there any consideration of the custom of afternoon sleeping - siesta - in hot climates. Nor indeed of how cycles of perpetual night and perpetual daylight affect the sleeping habits of Lapps and Eskimos.

I did, however, discover a chap who is convinced that standing on one leg "to exhaustion" at least four times a day ensures a sound night's sleep, and a would-be scientific study that purports to confirm the benefits to creativity of REM sleep.

I have slept rather badly through most of the time I have lived in China, or, rather, in Beijing (I have slept very well in most other parts of the country I've visited). I attribute this to the fact that half of the city is a building site, and thus heavy plant is frequently rumbling up and down the street at odd hours of the night.

Monday, March 12, 2012

To borrow a zombie analogy....

Spambots these days seem to be stumblers rather than runners.  And not very numerous, either - as if this is the very early (or very late) stage* of the infestation.  Only a few feeble, slow and dim-witted ghouls have been battering at my door with their improbable advertisements.

And the Blogger filters seem to be well on top of them.  Since I removed the word-verification defence last week, the feared tsunami of spamming has not materialised; it's scarcely even been a tidal bore, in fact. Just five or six lame attempts per day, all of them reliably ending up in the Spam Bin. And the number of these attempts seems to be dwindling already, down to a couple a day over the last few days.

It's almost disappointing - and, indeed, somewhat of a reproof, I suppose, that even these automated marketing tools recognise the limited advertising potential of my blogs.

*  It occurs to me that I might here attempt to recreate the brief popularity of this post from two-and-a-half years ago on the population dynamics of vampirism. The great - usually unaddressed - question that undermines the credibility of most stories in the zombie genre is how long do zombies 'live'?

In most representations, they are still subject to decomposition. And their compromised intellect usually renders them almost entirely heedless of their physical safety: they are not only woefully inept in defending themselves against any human survivors, but prone to inflicting grotesque injuries on themselves by accident.  It wouldn't be long before such creatures rendered themselves completely dysfunctional - even if undead 'life' still somehow persisted in the crippled remnants of their bodies.

And then, of course, there's the issue of what they would eat. Usually, they seem very hung up on only eating live flesh - live human flesh, and, in most cases, even more specifically live human BRAINS. Could they actually get by quite happily on canned goods, once the stock of live humans starts to run low?  Can they eat animals?  Or vegetables?  Or would they just have to start cannibalizing each other?

28 Days Later is about the only film I can think of that makes even a passing attempt to assess the longevity of its zombies. And that, of course, is a special case, since the 'zombies' here are still live humans - infected with a virus that reduces them to homicidal berserkers. I believe the conclusion was that the hyperactivity induced by the 'Rage' virus would burn out a zombie - kill it with exhaustion or heart strain - within a few weeks.

For the more conventional 'walking dead' zombie, these days we seem to be assuming some kind of super-virus - or nanobot - that can miraculously reanimate (recently) dead tissue, and sometimes also has considerable powers to regenerate damaged tissue; these wondrous animating agents may even have some unexplained capacity to generate energy from a source other than food. But however formidable their powers of regeneration are, and however limited their need for food, zombies in general still seem to be quite fragile creatures - they get damaged too easily, they will wear out.

The typical end-game of the 'zombie apocalypse' scenario is that the whole world turns zombie, that the handful of human survivors must inevitably be overwhelmed eventually. My suggestion would be that the zombies would quite quickly 'die out' - exhaust themselves, destroy themselves, decay, run out of food.  And so - unless the viruses/nanobots/whatever that caused the outbreak can survive and propagate when their hosts are no longer active - any remaining humans will have a good chance of survival... albeit in a ruined and depopulated world.

Bon mot for the week

"One shouldn't go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there."

John Cage  (1912-1992)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Unfair competition

Beijing institution The Bookworm - bar, restaurant, lending library, bookshop, live music and speaker meeting venue, favoured hangout for many of the city's foreign journalists and all-around 'cultural salon' - is launching its fortnight-long International Literary Festival today (well, actually, last night).

To mark the occasion, I dug out My Baby Loves A Bunch Of Authors, by the great Torontonian comedy group Moxy Früvous. These boys were BIG when I was living in Canada in the late '90s, and I got to see them once - but, alas, they disbanded shortly afterwards (nothing to do with me, I assure you).

Extra secure

It appears that large numbers of delegates from the National People's Congress, in session this week, are being put up at the hotel next door to me. One of its entry/exit ramps has been blocked off, one of the two main entrances has been closed, and access - by vehicle or on foot - has been restricted by the hasty erection of hundreds of yards of temporary fencing and concertina gates. And there are dozens of bored policemen loafing around outside at all hours.

I keep meaning to nip out early in the morning one day to try to catch these noble servants of the people being bussed off to their deliberations... but early mornings, alas, have not been happening for me this week.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The bottom of the academic barrel

It's not only the Chinese academic who can drive me to rages of tears with his/her laziness, ineptitude, inconsistency, and muddled thinking.

The latest huge batch of academic editing I had to deal with included a couple of pieces by European writers - and they were pretty nearly as bad as the Chinese articles.

There are two linking factors which I think may explain this.

The first, of course, is that this is a Chinese academic journal I was editing for - so, it has no profile, no credibility: it is a sump for talentless time-servers who need to rack up some token 'getting something published' brownie points, but have no chance of their work being accepted by any decent journal (with a peer review screening system).

I suspect that an almost equally potent reason, though, is the fact that these people are all from the field of 'Marxist studies'.  Marxism - and, even more so, its Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist and other derivatives - has ceased to have much credibility or relevance in the modern world. Most academic institutes specialising in this field today are sponsored by the former Communist countries for propaganda purposes. It's a niche that mostly only attracts third-rate intellects and loony obsessives.

Moreover, having sprung from the German philosophical tradition - Hegelian dialectics and so on - Marxism is heavily burdened with obscure and self-referential jargon. Enthusiasts get rather too intoxicated with this secret code, thinking perhaps that the circularity of their arguments is effectively concealed from their readers by the impenetrability of their vocabulary. Or perhaps they just derive the same giddy thrill from the exercise as a dog does from madly chasing its own tail.

Yes, I believe the nature of Marxism and Marxist studies largely explains the intellectual poverty of most of the people who choose to write in this field. It does not fully explain why such writers are incapable even of giving consistent citations or transcribing quotations accurately.  [The last jackass I had to deal with had relied for almost 10% of his bloated 12,000-word text on extended - and garbled - quotations from this excellent book on the art of Chinese propaganda posters from the Mao era. Fortunately, that book is on the shelf right next to my desk, so it wasn't too much of a bother to correct these quotations from the original source; well, it wouldn't have been, if the dingbat had even managed to get the page references right! This is not part of the service usually expected of a proofreader, or even of an editor/polisher. I invariably go the extra mile - and more - like this because I care about quality, in an abstract way, for its own sake... regardless of financial remuneration or whether my efforts will be noticed or appreciated by anyone. I fear this makes me something of an endangered species.]

Haiku for the week

Spring seemed almost here:
The winter wolf retreating...
Once more bared its teeth.

Sub-zero temperatures and 25mph winds out of the north-west seem particularly brutal after a few balmy days of faux-spring. March always does this to us in Beijing; but it never gets any easier to bear.