Friday, August 31, 2012


In the last 48 hours.... a dozen or more unpublished posts were deleted from my Blogger account, and I've had my primary e-mail account failing to send out or receive messages for a period of about 6 hours (although I think everything went through eventually). Even more worryingly bizarro, a filter had appeared in the e-mail account that was seemingly intended to direct all messages originating from my own address to the Trash folder (that wasn't what was interfering with my sending or receiving of messages, but it might have caused additional problems later on, since I typically do Cc or Bcc myself on important correspondence - to check what kind of delays are afflicting my e-mail transmission).

And then my computer suddenly CRASHED altogether. And failed to restart for the next several attempts.

And when I did finally get it going again, I found my VPN - which I thought I'd managed to restore to full functionality in the morning - was being blocked again.

I disconnected from the Internet for a good long spell, rebooted and reset everything I could think of, crossed my fingers, and swore profusely.... and after that unfailing ritual, everything (touch wood) seems to be back to rights again.

It is, however, hard not to believe that I have been targeted for some special attention by hackers.

The coup de grace was that the bastards changed my clock as well!

Haiku for the week

Small consolation -
Nothing now left to go wrong,
Broken-backed camel.

That's been my week...

Thursday, August 30, 2012

And worse and worse and worse....

Yesterday, Blogger impetuously deleted all of my scheduled posts from here on Froogville. There were quite a lot of them, as I had spent several hours preparing in advance my 'Bon mot for the week' series for the rest of the year. And, of course, bloody Blogger has NO CUSTOMER FEEDBACK mechanism, so I can't get any help from them on this bizarre and evil glitch. All they have - which is just even more annoying - is an invitation to set up a BBS forum on your problem; since this is almost impossible for me to find my way back to, I am fairly damn certain that no-one else is going to see it or contribute a solution. [Still, I suppose it could have been even worse. During my summer vacation, I was sometimes preparing nearly all posts for a week or two ahead, to cover for periods of no Internet connectivity, including a bunch of music posts over on The Barstool - which sometimes take hours to compile, just for one post!]

Then my cable TV feed froze.

Now, Yahoo Mail has gone down (for quite an extended period, even though I'm now - finally - on my VPN, and thus getting a more stable, less interfered-with connection).

I have so much SHIT to deal with at the moment that I actually made a to-do list this morning (something I usually hate). Most of the items on it were complaints or fixing problems: three different banks and an international money transfer service and my VPN provider and Microsoft and Dell were due to be on the receiving end of my wrath. But all of that's rather on hold while I have no f***ing e-mail!

Oh yeah, and my printer just died.

Icing on the cake - we're suffering a late resurgence (hopefully a last gasp!) of the smoggy 90% humidity that blights most of the Beijing summer (but is usually dissipating by late August).... so, I haven't been able to sleep much either for the last few days. 

There's nothing for me to do at home, but it's too sweaty and polluted to think of setting foot outside. Oh, it's LOVELY to be back in Beijing, all right!!!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It just keeps getting worse...

I hadn't got around to installing the software for my Witopia VPN on the new laptop I bought in the States over the summer before I returned to China.

That was an unfortunate oversight, since Net connections here are SLOW and unreliable at the best of times, and the online censorship regime is particularly intense just now. Most of the Witopia sites I'd used in the past are comprehensively blocked at the moment. Moreover, even when I found a temporary way around that, the links they'd sent me for activating my account and installing my software were no longer valid, so I had to wait a while for them to e-mail me a way of accessing my account again.

When I did finally get the VPN up-and-running, I quickly found that it was rather conspicuously not working at all.

I assumed at first that this might just be because of particularly heavy blocking in my neighbourhood (the methods and severity of Internet censorship in China vary considerably from city to city, and even from district to district; central Beijing, of course, is almost invariably the toughest locale to be in). So did the folks at the Witopia helpdesk, and they suggested a number of things I could try to get a successful VPN connection - configuring 'custom gateways', changing the DNS settings, and so on.

None of that worked. I kept getting a false positive message that my connection attempts were succeeding, but all the websites I want to access - Youtube, Blogger, Blogspot, Wordpress, non-interfered-with Google and Wikipedia, and now even IMDB (what the...?) - were still unavailable to me. Even Gmail and Yahoo Mail were being hobbled by frequent 'connection resets'. Eventually I discovered that, even though the new all-singing, all-dancing Witopia interface was giving me a reassuring 'Connected' display, in fact my IP address was still registering as my undisguised central Beijing location, from which nothing was reachable (the new-look user interface displays your IP address for you, together with a location map; but my connection speed was so bad that this feature was taking several minutes to load, and so I hadn't been bothering to look at it; hadn't even known it was there to be looked at!).

I began to wonder if this was a repeat of the problem I had a couple of years ago - that, at least with Windows Vista, you had to launch the program using the 'Run as Administrator' option (otherwise, bizarrely, you got a 'zombie' version of the program which appeared to be behaving completely normally, but wasn't in fact doing anything). I'm using Windows 7 now, which hopefully has fewer of these weird incompatibility problems with launching and running the Witopia software. And I was pretty damn sure that I had been launching the program using 'Run as Administrator' anyway. Perhaps the problem was that I now had to launch it without using 'Run as Administrator'?? I tried it both ways; it didn't seem to make any difference. I asked the helpdesk folks (twice!) if there might possibly be a problem with this, but they didn't respond on that particular point.

Eventually, after poring over my failed connection logs for a couple of days, the techies divined that, for some reason, the 'virtual adapter' tool that is a key part of their software bundle was failing to operate on my computer (even when enabled; and it was reverting to 'disabled' every time I rebooted).

Utterly flummoxed by this problem, they offered me a 'remote access' session during which one of their team would get online to poke around inside my computer to fix the problem.

I was heartened by this. Very concerned customer service. An end to my difficulties was surely now in sight.

Er, NO.

I had thought that the girl I'd been corresponding with about this by e-mail all week - and who was thus well-versed in the nature of the problem, and what we'd already tried as a fix - was offering to do this herself. But in fact, immediately after making the offer, she went silent on me. For two full days, I heard nothing more, got no further replies to e-mails to the helpdesk (up till then, they'd mostly been getting back to me within the hour, if not within minutes). Vexing.

Finally, a guy got assigned to the job. He didn't endear himself to me by ignoring all the times I'd said I'd be available to join such a 'remote access' session (which his colleague had asked me to submit), and instead telling me what times he'd be available - which, since he was working a day-shift in the States, were both in the middle of the night for me. Worse, neither of these times was immediately clear to me, since he'd used some garbled version of time difference notation that appeared to be stating the time at GMT rather than the time difference from GMT (and it really wouldn't be rocket science for him to have worked out what that was in my local time). Even worse, the first of these suggested times had already passed by the time I received his e-mail. I think, in fact, it had already passed when he sent the e-mail. He claimed he sent it with a couple of hours' warning (completely inadequate for a late-evening appointment!), but it didn't show up in my Inbox until the following morning; and I had in fact checked my e-mail late the night before as well, long after he claimed he'd sent it. So, basically, the only option he was giving me, at very short notice, was the middle of Friday evening. I said 'no'. Now that he'd been assigned the case, this dude seemed strangely determined to see it through... even though he wasn't working over the weekend. At least he booked me for first thing on Monday... which, unfortunately, was again in the middle of the evening for me here in Beijing. (I believe Witopia's 'Help' service is supposed to be 24/7, so I don't get why they've assigned me a guy who only works weekdays, and is in the wrong timezone to be much use to me.)

Can you guess what happened next??  I bet you can't!

[I'll delay the denouement of this story for a few days (well, it's NOT OVER yet!!), to see if any passing IT bods would like to speculate on the cause of the problem with the VPN adapter... or ponder how spectacularly the Witopia guy failed to solve it.

John, one of my most regular commenters over the past year or two but on a bit of a break recently, has shown himself to be quite a computer nerd in the past. Now would be a felicitous moment for you to emerge from your hibernation, sir.]

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Chinese worker in action

Yesterday afternoon, an engineer from China Unicom called round at my apartment to install a new phone/Internet socket in my office. (The previous arrangement, I discovered upon my return from vacation, had involved no actual plugs, just bare wires loosely bound together with ancient - and no longer sticky - insulating tape.)

He hadn't brought a socket with him. So, he had to cannibalise one from the living room. (That one had never worked either, but I was never likely to want to use it for anything.)

Nor had he brought a screwdriver with him. At least, not one small enough for the tiny screws that are used to hold copper wires in place inside an electrical socket.

He demanded to borrow one from me. As it happens, I have quite a wide selection of tools (nearly 20 years' experience of China has taught me that you often have to be prepared to try and fix things for yourself): a sturdy torch, pliers, wire-cutters, an adjustable spanner, a ball-and-claw hammer, and several screwdrivers in assorted sizes, both regular and Phillips-head.

But I didn't have a screwdriver quite small enough. So, obviously, it was my fault now. The worker pantomimed disbelief and disdain at my lack of preparedness in the screwdriver department.

There is, in fact, a pretty decent hardware store directly over the road from my apartment building. But I didn't fancy my chances of being able to persuade the worker that he should go and buy the right screwdriver. And I was damned if I was going to buy one for him!

So, I left him to bodge up some kind of makeshift solution. (I couldn't really bear to watch, but I caught a glimpse of him struggling to fold the wire ends over and over until they were fat enough to - just about - stay put in their mountings without adjusting the retaining screws.)

This, in a nutshell, is why I believe China will NEVER be a world-class power.

Oh, sure, incompetence like this happens in every country in the world. There are doubtless many other countries where it is fairly commonplace. But none of those countries, I think, is ever touted as a likely global superpower. And in no other country, I think, is this kind of foul-up not merely commonplace, but routine.

And it's not just the elementary foul-up that so appals and depresses me, but the way the chap made no apology for or even acknowledgement of his shortcoming. And the way that he made no attempt to correct his mistake (other than with a half-arsed bodge-up).

Oh yes, and the way that he then tried to shift the blame for this on to me. That is China in a nutshell.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Martyrdom is the only way a man can become famous without ability."

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Breaking an addiction

My name is Froog, and I am a recovering Internet addict...

I knew things were going to be bad in China, but I hadn't realised - had foolishly forgotten! - just how bad they might be.

Just getting my China Unicom Internet service restored at home has proven to be quite enough of a trial.

My landlord (lovely man) told me I could reactivate the account and pay for it at the same time as I paid for my telephone service from the same provider. That proved not to be the case, because the Internet account is in his name, while the phone is in mine. My landlord (lovely man) then took a wodge of money off me, promising to pay for the restoration of the service for the next three months, but told me he wouldn't have time to do this until Monday or Tuesday. When I checked with him on Monday, he told me he'd done it on Saturday... but hadn't thought to tell me.

As it happened, that didn't make much difference, since I couldn't connect to the service even after it was supposedly restored: my computer was only intermittently detecting a network. It turned out that this was because the connector cable was no longer fully attached. It had been crudely spliced together with bits of insulating tape, which had evidently lost all of their stickiness in the recent humid weather, allowing the connection to simply fall apart. My landlord (lovely man, and evidently well practised in the art of twisting electrical wires together) has helped me bodge up a repair, and has promised to summon a Unicom engineer to build a proper connection socket for me - although we are both sceptical as to whether he'll want to do any more than apply some new pieces of tape. In fact, I'm sceptical as to whether he'll show up at all, or whether my landlord will even remember to make the call. Fingers crossed.

Still, I am - sort of - connected at long last... after being back in the country just four days. Well, except that my wi-fi router is being perverse - pretending it has acquired a password which locks me out (it hasn't, shouldn't have) and refusing to reset to its default password. I eventually manage to overcome this little problem by resetting it 17 times in quick succession while swearing at it continuously. However, I can't handle the configuration because the interface is entirely in Chinese. I have to enlist the services of my landlord again (lovely man, a Chinese native, of course, and an IT professional), but the UI is so obscurely laid out and so hard to read that it takes him several minutes of baffled and frustrated squinting at the various screens before he works out what he needs to do.

But it's all done. Oh yes. After just four days. I now have an Internet service (very, VERY slow), a working connection (bare wires hanging out of the wall, twisted together), and a secure wi-fi signal.

What I don't have is a connection worth having. Because the censorship regime here is ramped up to the max. My longtime favourite VPN is completely squelched. Even their super-secret extra special emergency fallback 'This even works in China' option doesn't currently work in China.

I've just been browsing Google to track down a bunch of other possible VPN services. Of course, I can't actually reach their home websites to download any of them! (The Kafka Boys are getting smart??) Well, I did manage to download ONE, but... I couldn't then access the company's set-up page to acquire my activation code. Frustrating? VERY.

On Monday, I was so desperate to check my e-mail that I took my computer out to a couple of coffee shops(!!) in the neighbourhood to try to use their wi-fi service. The Chinese Internet was especially treacly on Monday, colossally so (massive filtering initiatives butting heads with massive Netizen curiosity about the Gu Kailai case): so much so that even Yahoo Mail was getting timed out. I was occasionally able to see how many dozens of unanswered messages were waiting in my Inbox, but I couldn't get any further.

At least I can now get into Yahoo Mail at home (I'm having to resort to Blogger's post-by-mail facility). That is about the only website I can access.

After three months of fast and unfettered Internet access in the civilized world, this is a very cruel shock to the system. I am becoming resigned to the fact that I basically don't have ANY Internet access at the moment... and might well not have for the rest of the time that I stay in this wretched country.  Sigh.

However, I am trying to persuade myself that this may be A GOOD THING for me after all. The rages of tears I was reduced to on Monday were not, I think, just the result of pardonable frustration exacerbated by jet-lag induced exhaustion but... withdrawal symptoms. A vexing but essentially trivial inconvenience such as this really ought not to be so emotionally devastating, it ought not to be able to induce such a spectacular nervous breakdown. I am concerned at the level of dependence this mental collapse revealed in me. I am trying to be much more philosophical and unconcerned about my ongoing difficulties now. Trying. It will be a long hard road... but at least I've admitted I have a problem.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Come grow old with me! The best is yet to be."

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

I've been living in China nearly 10 years: the anniversary is tomorrow. I am trying to be optimistic about this, but... I've probably been here 5 years too long already. I think this party will be a farewell.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Reception committee

I'm supposed to be back in China round about now.

I hope I get a warmer welcome than Jake and Elwood did in the Cook County Assessor's office.

Haiku for the week

Always on the run
Avoiding the hard questions -
But they run faster

One foot on the platform, the other on the train. I'm going back to old Beijing, to wear that ball and chain...

But - hopefully! - not for too much longer. It's supposed to be just a 'farewell holiday' this time. 

So long as (oh, god!) no-one offers me a job....

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

You don't get rid of me that easily!

After much anxiety and tribulation, I have managed to get a visa to return to China.

It was, in the end, a surprisingly straightforward and painless - though fairly expensive - process (the new visa applications agency is impressively streamlined). It was finding out what paperwork I needed to support the application (in a context of constantly shifting and unpublished regulations), and then procuring that paperwork that ate up so much of my time and mental resource over the past few weeks.

I was very gratified by how many offers of help and support I received from Chinese friends and colleagues. In the end, I found myself with four or five possibilities for obtaining the bothersome 'invitation letter' that I needed in order to procure a 'business visa'.

Noticing my discomfort on this issue, one of the brainsick fenqing abusers dropped in here to snipe at me last week (a familiar irritant: I'd banned this particular one from the site years ago, but a goldfish memory seems to be among his mental deficits). He gleefully suggested that I would never get another visa: none of my Chinese contacts would give me the help I needed with the invitation letter because they all - quite rightly! - hated me. How wrong he was! As usual.

In fact, the great majority of Chinese people I've met - colleagues, business contacts, friends, acquaintances, landlords (well, maybe not landlords - other than my present one), neighbours, students, or casual encounters - regard me with considerable affection, and vice versa. Most Chinese, most of the time, are extremely outgoing, friendly, and helpful towards foreigners. It's a pity there's this nasty undercurrent of xenophobia that occasionally bubbles to the surface, but it mostly only finds expression through this unlovely minority of rabid Net-nerds.

Most foreigners who, like me, come to work in China long-term do so out of a fascination with and affection for the country. We put up with a lot of unpleasantness (a toxic environment, extreme weather, abysmal driving standards, an ungracious and unaccommodating government). We work, usually, for much less money than our expertise is really worth; for much less money, in many cases, than we could earn in other countries. We often do favours for people, contribute to charities, accept work with low pay or no pay if its object seems worthwhile. We pay our taxes, if asked to do so. We spend most of our money in China (even, in some cases, money which was actually earned overseas). And we make no demands on the Chinese welfare, education, or healthcare systems. Foreigners make a huge contribution to the Chinese economy, not only in the unique skills and knowledge they can introduce, but in concrete financial terms. And most of us are really nice about it, too.

We live in China because we like the country and we like the people - and we want to help. Only a handful of hate-filled dingbats would seek to exclude us because we might occasionally utter some uncomfortable truths about the country's social and political institutions.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Here's one I missed: coffee shops!

In my rant the other week against all the recent innovations in modern living that I most loathe, I got into a bit of a groove on IT-related things, and omitted to consider broader aspects of fashion and commerce. And thus I overlooked one of my biggest bugbears of all - the coffee shop.

I can see this might be one of my harder pet hates to justify. With Twitter and smartphones and so on, there are a good many people - substantial minorities, at the every least - who share my 'Luddite' stance. But everyone LOVES coffee shops, right? How else could they have become so popular, so ubiquitous in the last 20 years? Certainly the resistant minority, I would suppose, is much, much smaller.

But I most emphatically do NOT love coffee shops, and here are some of the reasons why.

I am not a coffee snob
I like coffee. I'm curious about it. I appreciate the good stuff once in a while. But it's never become a major obsession with me. I don't have that restless desire to be trying out new styles and varieties all the time.

'Instant' is good enough for me, most of the time
So, the antithesis of a coffee snob, in fact. We love things that were comforting elements of our childhood; and I came from a very modest background, a family with very unsophisticated tastes. We always drank instant coffee in my house, and thus I still find it perfectly enjoyable. (Although I'm really more of a tea man.)

I'm thrifty
Coffee in coffee shops is obscenely expensive - compared to the cost of making it (even the good stuff) for yourself at home.

The chief joy of 'good coffee', for me, is not drinking it... but making it
On the odd occasion when I do fancy treating myself to a really good cup of coffee, I'd far rather make it for myself, regardless of cost considerations. It's the ritual of preparation, and the gorgeous smell permeating your apartment for hours afterwards that make it such a potent pleasure - rather than the drinking, which is over in a few minutes.

I've never understood the supposed social dimension of coffee shops
I loved Frasier and Friends, the two best American sitcoms of the late '90s; but I couldn't help wondering if they received covert sponsorship from Starbucks. Even though they were largely set in what appeared to be small independent coffee shops, it was likely to be the great franchise behemoth that would most benefit from the further popularisation of the coffee shop idea. That idea might already have been well-entrenched - nearing saturation? - in the States, but in the UK, and around the rest of the world, it was only just taking off; and I suspect the success of these two shows made no small contribution to that. But to me it was a complete mystery: why would people want to - or be able to?? - 'hang out' during the day? If they did, why would they not go to a bar or a restaurant instead? And WHY would they choose to drink coffee to accompany their conversation - caffeine having way more of the diuretic property of alcohol but none of the desirable effects of relaxation and disinhibition? Does not compute. I don't want to spend an hour or two watching my friends get progressively more wired while my bladder fills up.

Haven't you got no homes to go to?
In a country like China, where people don't do much socialising at home, and often, indeed, do not have much of a 'home' to do any socialising in, coffee shops (along with McDonald's) have been ecstatically welcomed, especially by the young, as a comfortable place to spend time, whether with friends or alone. Unfortunately, this tends to make them even less attractive to a foreigner, as the IKEA syndrome takes effect -  Chinese punters taking up residence all day long (without buying anything, if they can get away with it), making loud telephone calls, watching noisy films on their computers, taking their shoes off to air their feet, taking a snooze for an hour or two...

They're so bloody twee
I have some kind of psychological allergy to soft furnishings. I would never decorate my own home in the way that coffee shops are typically decorated. I do not find coffee shops 'comfortable' because I am constantly fighting to master my aesthetic nausea.

I prefer bars!
If I'm meeting friends for a chat, I prefer a dark interior to a light one, hardwood fittings to soft cushions, alcohol to caffeine, and a range of proper foods on offer rather than just muffins and cheesecakes. That's my idea of 'cosy'. One of my great problems in China has been that most Chinese 'bars' go for the coffee shop aesthetic, and thus have no appeal for me (or to most other Westerners, I think). A more global problem, I suspect, may be that the spread of the coffee shop phenomenon is damaging the bar trade; people who are hanging out in coffee shops (even if it's mostly in the daytime) are not hanging out in bars (even in the evening). That's a very worrying trend for someone who loves bars as much as I do!

And of course... Starbucks is an evil empire
The numerous competitor chains and the little indie outfits are no more appealing to me in terms of their basic offering, but the market leader is achieving a global domination that is truly scary. Resist now, while you still can!

Monday, August 13, 2012

The cone of silence

I believe I've mentioned in passing, though I haven't previously given it its own post in the notorious Why I don't learn Chinese series, that one of the things I most enjoy about not knowing much Chinese is not being bothered by other people's conversations all the time. In any country in the world, a great part of the conversation surrounding you in public places is crude, dumb, unfunny, and objectionably ill-informed or bigoted. I suffered from this sensation of almost continual annoyance particularly acutely during the years that I lived in South London, just before moving to China a decade ago. And it felt absolutely blissful to escape from it, to enter an environment where I was spared having the soul-crushing inanities of everyday conversation obtrude themselves into my consciousness all the time.

The curious thing is I've found myself similarly insulated from the background babble now that I'm back in the UK. Part of this might be that there are a lot of foreigners around (in the centre of Oxford, tourists and language students probably outnumber the locals two or three to one at this time of year), and so a lot of the chatter I overhear is still in incomprehensible foreign languages. And part of it may be that I am detuned from the English of British native speakers, grown unfamiliar with the thicker regional accents, and never been familiar with more recent slang terms and styles of speech and pop culture references: much of the 'English' I'm hearing sounds like a foreign language to me now.

But I suspect the main reason is this. When you know that the language surrounding you is going to be opaque to your understanding, you stop paying attention to it. The key to not overhearing the conversations of everyone around you is not to listen - but that is a very difficult knack to acquire. Now that I've done so, I hope I don't lose it again.

Who was it said, "I'm not an eavesdropper; I just have an Attention Surplus Disorder"? Ah yes, it was the compulsive epigrammatist Robert Brault.

Bon mot for the week

"The truth is a bully we all pretend to like."

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Another 'Fantasy Girlfriend' from way back: Gillian Duxbury

I did a long post in this series a couple of years back on a girl called Joanne Latham, a young glamour model of the late '70s with whom I and most of the rest of the male population of the UK (or the pubescent segment of it, anyway) had inevitably been deeply smitten. However, there was another of her profession who had attained a deeper, or at any rate an earlier place in my heart - a striking Lancastrian lass called Gillian Duxbury. She must have started appearing in the papers a good 4 or 5 years earlier than Joanne (i.e., when I was not yet 10!), and her career had, I think, run its course by the time my hormones started mandating an obsessive, round-the-clock interest in women. That is why the younger girl took a dominant place in my recollections of my evolving sexual awareness. But, in retrospect, I think my infatuation with Gilly was a rather fonder, purer (unsullied by thoughts of sex!) kind of admiration: I simply idolised her prettiness.

Of course, it was an acute embarrassment to me that most of the pictures of her I encountered were topless. She was for some years in the mid-1970s one of the best-known of The Sun's notorious Page 3 Girls, and the most prolific, appearing in the paper far more regularly than just about any of the others. But for some reason, she always seemed to finish as runner-up in the paper's 'Girl of the Year' poll - an early example of those unfathomable small injustices of life that rankle with me so disproportionately. 

I've never been much of a breast man (I wonder now if this over-exposure in my early years somehow drummed it out of me?), and I really did try not to look at her breasts - even though they were, as the saying goes, jumping out of the page at you. Well, I suppose I may have been trying to concoct a defence for myself, in case my parents caught me sneaking a peek. There were no strict rules, as far as I recall, as to whether I was allowed to look at that paper, or as to what I was allowed to look at in it; but my own innate sense of propriety counselled that I probably oughtn't to be looking at that page. And so I cultivated the pretense that I wasn't really looking at the pin-up picture... or was looking at it only with a Platonic disinterest. I think perhaps this continual subterfuge may have led me to fixate on other nearby features of the anatomy - arms, neck, collarbone. I became convinced that Ms Duxbury had uniquely lovely shoulders.

She had exquisite legs as well (I discovered, when I occasionally chanced upon a full-length picture of her in a magazine advertisement or a clothing catalogue) - a rather tall young lady, I believe (another long-standing, perhaps genetically programmed frailty of mine). But, most of all, there was a quality about her eyes, a liveliness or friendliness that seemed to suggest she was always smiling, even if she wasn't (I suspect she probably always was in these pictures; but I paid much less attention to her mouth than to her eyes). I hope my childish assessment is borne out by this recent photograph of her I just discovered. That kind of beauty - the zest, the radiance, the entrancing eye-glimmer - tends to concentrate rather than dissipate with age. And does she not look utterly stunning now?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Haiku for the week

War zones and deserts
The hard reality of maps
On which dreams founder

I had been trying to get 'serious' about the crazy plan I hatched at this time last year to walk home from China to the UK, following the ancient trading paths of the 'Silk Road'. Tracing the route on Google Earth, however, soon becomes deeply dispiriting. For one thing, it's hard to determine a single definitive route, since there have been numerous variations over the centuries. And then, of course, the terrain is pretty extreme: one tries to skirt the deserts and mountain ranges, but they can't be avoided altogether. Even more importantly for me, the most commonly followed parts of the route have usually evolved today into major highways, which don't make for very pleasant walking. (Hitch-hiking might be a more realistic way of approaching the journey; but I had my heart set on walking, dammit!)

And then, of course, on the 'home stretch' the last three capitals you pass through are Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus. With luck, the Syrian civil war should be over long before I'd be attempting this. And Tehran, though challenging, should be survivable, I think. Iraq, however, is likely to remain a death-trap for the solo Western traveller for years to come.

I haven't completely given up on the idea. But finding a route that is actually walkable - 'cross-country' rather than on the hard shoulder of busy roads - is a big problem. Finding a way across Iraq without getting mugged, kidnapped, or blown up is, strangely, a slightly lesser concern at the moment. If the rest of the trip starts to seem doable, I might just take my chances there. After all, attempting to traverse Asia on foot (apparently, it's 4,311 miles from Beijing to Damascus, as the crow flies - probably rather further, as the Froog limps) is in itself recklessly self-endangering, just in terms of the physical challenges posed by geography and climate - without the additional risks of the human violence one might encounter along the way. Recklessness is exciting, invigorating, up to a point; but I'd draw the line at 'suicidal'. I don't mind facing danger after a rational calculation of the risk, but I wouldn't want to be putting myself in any situations where the chance of death is starting to look more likely than not.

[Unfortunately, it's the first leg of the journey that would probably be the biggest hassle of all. China is very safe for foreign tourists, but it's not amenable to extended solo travel. Outside of the major cities, foreigners are still a rarity, and apt to provoke suspicion and panic in the local authorities. There are many areas of the country where it is still supposedly 'illegal' to travel as a foreigner; and many more where that is de facto the case because the local policemen aren't comfortable with the idea. The physical hazards waiting further down the road may start to seem appealingly straightforward after a few weeks of trying to progress through the bureaucratic minefield that is China.]

Thursday, August 09, 2012

More of Fate's sly mockery

I've just undergone a 48-hour fast.

I suppose it was my own silly fault that I'd left lying around a philosophy primer I'd been dipping into earlier in the week, open at the chapter about ethical relativism - headed 'One man's meat...'

I didn't find the challenge all that difficult. It is not hunger that assails one during such a relatively short spell of abstinence, but missing the habits and rituals of regular eating, and the sheer bloody pleasure of it (and the pleasure of preparing food, too). Most of the time, we eat not because we need to, but because it helps to pass the time and we enjoy it. And we're so used to that being a major part of our day that we get very discombobulated when it is suddenly removed. The nagging internal voices do not say, "You must be starving by now. You'll die if you don't eat something soon." They say things like "How can you possibly get through an evening's TV without a snack of some sort? Doesn't it feel weird not to be making yourself at meal at this time of day? What else can you be doing at 6pm??"

My stomach hardly complained at all during those two days. But every time something reminded me of food, my mind went into a bit of a tailspin for a moment. I could have just closed that damn book; but I suppose I wanted to give myself that additional challenge - to face up to the taunting it presented, to begin mastering the spectre it invoked of my habituation to eating.

Having pulled it off once, I think it would get progressively easier if I attempted it regularly. Indeed, I think the mental demons are almost slain by this first emphatic demonstration of will-power. I'd like to do it at least a few times more for confirmation, though. And apparently there are health benefits as well...

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Favourite posts from the 3rd quarter of 2011

Another roundup of highlights from this time last year...

Pick of the Archives:
Favourite Posts, July-September 2011

1)  Oblique introductions  -  2nd July 2011
Rather than give out my blog addresses, I guide interested parties here by giving them one of these unique phrases that will enable a search engine to find the blogs.

2)  Something IMPORTANT  -  6th July 2011
By happy chance, I get to see the first of Aung San Sun Kyi's Reith Lectures, and am moved to tears.

3)  A sleepless haiku  -  8th July 2011
One of my better efforts in this genre, 'inspired' by a recent spell of ill health - and leading to a long rumination on the history of my relations with the medical profession.

4)  Classical Sunday  -  10th July 2011
Another of my poetic doodles, this time triggered by a famous line from the Roman poet Horace. (See also the comments, for my confession that, contrary to popular belief, knowing Latin doesn't really mean you're clever.)

5)  That reminds me of a song  -  14th July 2011
The departure of one of my oldest friends in China prompts me to dig up on YouTube a fine version of Leaving On A Jet Plane sung by John Denver and Mama Cass.

6)  Loophole!  -  15th July 2011
I discover that the Beijing municipal law that purports to outlaw the offering of sexual services in massage parlours in fact does nothing of the kind.

7)  A close call?  -  17th July 2011
A particularly miserable bout of ill health leads me to 'laugh at Death' in a short humorous poem.

8)  Collision  -  19th July 2011
I give in to a moment of road rage; well, pavement rage... exiting a shop rage.

9)  Example edit  -  21st July 2011
Most of my work these days involves polishing Chinese "academic" articles for publication: this is a taste of what it's like (more here!).

10)  Price gouge!  -  22nd July 2011
Airfares in China are just getting silly!

Recollections of a great, cheesy television ad campaign of my childhood... and of the statuesque glamour girl who starred in them.

I have another little dig at the Twitterati, with the help of a cartoon I recently found online (followed up with another cartoon, on text messaging).

13)  A seaside haiku  -  29th July 2011
An aborted trip to the seaside in China provokes some reminiscences about childhood holidays in Devon and Somerset.

14)  The hero dies at the end  -  30th July 2011
I come to a disturbing realisation in this end-of-the-month Film List: ALL of my favourite films end tragically.

15)  I wish I could still do that  -  3rd August 2011
I discover a video of the gravity-defying Canadian martial artist Joe Eigo.

16)  A country so vast  -  5th August 2011
My weekly haiku leads me into some bitter reflections on the depressing homogeneity of China's modern cities.

17)  List of the Month: wacky album titles  -  6th August 2011
Some of the records I bought just for the name.

18)  A plan of escape?  -  12th August 2011
My haiku this week on the nature of 'travel' triggers some thoughts on how I might end my time in China - perhaps by walking all the way back to the UK!

19)  The caged bird sings  -  14th August 2011
I find a nice little animation of Charles Bukowski's poem Bluebird.

20)  Kindle™, schmindle  -  15th August 2011
I deplore the sudden popularity of e-readers, and the horrendous impact this is having on bookshops and libraries. (It provoked a lively comment thread, including a recommendation from one blog friend of a rather excellent sci-fi short story on the shortcomings of electronic information storage.)

21)  Look familiar?  -  17th August 2011
A note about one of the earliest known maps of China, currently undergoing restoration at Oxford's Bodleian Library.

22)  Scarily prescient  -  24th August 2011
An unsettling moment of danger on my recent holiday was uncannily described in a haiku I wrote before I left. Spooky, eh?

23)  Film Quiz: 20 Memorable Character Names  -  27th August 2011
An end-of-the-month trivia challenge - identify the films these characters appeared in, and the actors who played them.

24)  Billy's House  -  31st August 2011
My new 'dream home', a possible bolthole away from the hell of Beijing.

25)  A momentous month  -  2nd September 2011
As my two blogs approach their 5th anniversary, I describe how I came to start them.

26)  The most useful Chinese words  -  3rd September 2011
I nominate a dozen words in Mandarin which I think have a chance of muscling their way into the vocabulary of 'global English' over the next few decades.

27)  Once Upon A Time In China  -  14th September 2011
A frivolous sketch for a film treatment of the expat experience in China - the life of impoverished EFL teachers rendered as an action movie, with the scarily intense Jason Statham taking the lead role.

28)  Only connect  -  19th September 2011
I find a fascinating infographic about the interrelations between various fields of study in American academe.

29)  The numbers don't add up  -  23rd September 2011
One of my writing projects brings me into contact with a particularly egregious example of how unlikely/impossible statistics about China are too often accepted unquestioningly by Western analysts.

30)  My Fantasy Girlfriend: Zuleika Dobson  -  24th September 2011
A selection of paintings of the famous fictional femme fatale (while compiling which I stumbled upon another dangerously diverting blog).

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The curse of The Olympics?

Or 'the blessing', as it may be....

I was up in London three times last week. I had been dreading it, because of the turmoil that had been widely anticipated due to additional traffic restrictions and increased tourist numbers while the Olympic Games are on.

In fact, it was a delightful experience. I have never seen the West End so uncrowded. At times, indeed, the city seemed almost deserted. On Tuesday morning, the biggest concentration of tourists I encountered anywhere was in front of Buckingham Palace, and they amounted only to a few dozens, rather than the hundreds that you more usually find there. Passing through Victoria station at around 8.30am - the tail-end of the rush hour, when trains and platforms are usually still packed like sardine tins - I found the Tube about as pleasant as I've ever known it during the working week, the volume of passengers more like what you'd find late in the evening or on a very slow Sunday afternoon.

Now, of course, this was early on in the Games, before the glamorous athletics events had started. And most of the venues are far out in the East End of London. So, I can't really judge what attendance at the Games has been like. And perhaps central London is becoming busier this week.

But... I think the expectation of the return-on-investment for the Olympics is not only that there will be a huge number of additional tourists attending the Games themselves, but that there will be a knock-on effect to boost overall tourism and tourist spending as well. That clearly wasn't happening last week: London was, compared to a regular summer, devoid of tourists. And I suspect much of the rest of the country has been as well (I'm hoping Edinburgh might be a little less frenetic than usual during the festival season there this month!). I've been hearing anecdotal evidence from people in the tourism and hospitality industries that numbers of visitors are massively down this month. It would seem that fears of excessive crowds, transport difficulties, limited availability (and consequent price-gouging) of accommodation, and so on, and perhaps for some people just a distaste for all the hoopla surrounding the Olympics - these are all powerful factors dissuading people from visiting an Olympic host country while the Games are on.

Most of the revenue from the dratted event comes, I imagine, from the major sponsors and the TV companies (ticket sales, I would guess, are not a major contributor). But I wonder how far this revenue can offset not only the massive costs of creating the infrastructure for the Games but the danger of a huge DIP in tourist revenues.

This might be a relatively new phenomenon: as the Games have grown so much bigger over the past couple of decades (with improved TV coverage and the abandonment of amateurism), they have perhaps become progressively more disruptive and offputting to non-Olympic tourists. But not all Olympic cities will have felt this effect so acutely. Sydney may have done to some extent; but it is too remote to attract very large numbers of visitors from Europe or America, so I'd guess that the Olympics were probably a net boost for them in overseas tourism, though perhaps not much of one. Athens almost certainly did suffer from this effect; but other reasons, such as concerns about the city's preparedness, were blamed for poor attendance figures there. Beijing of course suffered very dramatically, but that was a self-inflicted wound: the Chinese government more or less banned foreign tourism during the Games, in the name of 'security' (i.e., heading off any possibility of embarrassing political demonstrations by visiting human rights activists). London might be in a uniquely vulnerable position, since it is such a huge tourist draw without the Olympics. However many people may have come to London from overseas specifically to watch the Games, I'd be willing to bet that there is a significantly larger number who have chosen to stay away.

Again and again we have seen that venues built for the Games are put to little use thereafter. If the argument that the Games boosts tourism is shown to be fallacious, there will be very little reason for any city to seek to host the event any more. I think this could be the beginning of the end for the Olympic Games: they have got TOO DARNED BIG, and are starting to sink under their own weight.

It's a great pity for the UK's national coffers, and potentially a disaster for the tourist industry here - but for ordinary folks like me, it is very, very pleasant to be able to walk around London streets and to ride London trains and buses that seem to have lost 70% of their normal population.

Dubious statistical footnote: I saw on the news this evening (8/8) that tourist spending was allegedly up by 8% in the first week of the Olympics. They weren't very clear on what this was "up" over - average tourist revenues in the last week of July over a spread of recent years, or just last year? Nor were they very clear on the area to which the statistic applied - the whole country, the whole of London, or just the area around the main venues in East London? I suspect it was supposed to be for the whole of London measured against this time last year. If spending at the venues is going really well, I can imagine that raising the total slightly. And theatre ticket sales were mentioned in the report as performing particularly strongly (nighttime, when most of the Olympic events are over). But from what I saw last week, there can't be any doubt that most non-Olympic tourist spending (during the day, in the centre of London) is hugely down on a normal year at the moment.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Oh, Fate, you tease!

Revisiting some of my old stomping grounds from my Bar School days in the West End of London, I found myself last week trying - and failing - to relocate a favourite sandwich shop that I'd used a fair bit back then. I had no clear recollection of where exactly it was, or what it was called, but I rather fear that - as a small, privately-owned venture - it may have been driven out of business by the proliferation of chains like E.A.T. and Pret A Manger.

A day or two later, I found myself dreaming about this experience - once again scouring the streets around High Holborn for a half-remembered sandwich shop. Except that in the dream I had a slightly clearer image of where I thought it should have been (half-way up Chancery Lane, which is not where the real sandwich shop was), that it was an Italian place (which the real sandwich shop was not), and that it was called Bandolli's (needless to say, not the name of my lost sandwich-maker; I can't remember what its name was, but I'm pretty certain it wasn't that).

Still, this name was very prominent in my consciousness as I emerged from the dream. I seemed to feel absolutely sure that such a place really existed, that the name was of some significance.

Perhaps I had been mistaken in dismissing it as a false memory; perhaps it really was the name of my lost sandwich shop?

Of course, I did a quick search online to check. There is no such food vendor in London, it would seem.

But.... I discover that Bandolli is the name of a chain of pizza restaurants in Kraków.

Is 'Fate' trying to tell me something, I wonder??

Bon mot for the week

"Back-story is an easy refuge when your main story isn't strong enough."


I'm not a fan of back-story, on the whole. I think it's significant that the one genre where it really thrives is in superhero comic books, where the genesis of the super-powers and, sometimes even more so, the prior life of the hero as an ordinary person are far more interesting than the established superhero premise. It's a perfect illustration of my point here.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The return of 'Poetry Sunday'

We haven't had one in a while, and I happened upon this in an anthology at a friend's house a few days ago. 'Fate' once again giving a little prod.

Larkin always seems to strike deep chords within me. And I hold him significantly  - if indirectly - responsible for the curiously meandering path my life has taken. Particularly avid readers may also recall the last time I mentioned him on here...

I believe a leading literary critic once described Larkin as "a gloomy bugger" - and I suppose that summation fits me rather too aptly as well.

Love Songs In Old Age

She kept her songs, they took so little space,
  The covers pleased her: 
One bleached from lying in a sunny place, 
One marked in circles by a vase of water, 
One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her, 
  And coloured, by her daughter - 
So they had waited, till, in widowhood,
She found them, looking for something else, and stood

Relearning how each frank submissive chord 
  Had ushered in 
Word after sprawling hyphenated word, 
And the unfailing sense of being young  
Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein 
That hidden freshness sung, 
That certainty of time laid up in store 
As when she played them first. But, even more, 

The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love, 
  Broke out, to show 
Its bright incipience sailing above, 
Still promising to solve, and satisfy, 
And set unchangeably in order. So 
  To pile them back, to cry, 
Was hard, without lamely admitting how 
It had not done so then, and could not now.

Philip Larkin  (1922-1985)

Saturday, August 04, 2012

List of the Month - Rejecting the 'modern'

One of the things about being away from one's homeland for so long - haven't lived here for ten years, haven't even visited in three - is that it brings home especially forcefully how much things have changed in the last decade or so. Almost everyone, even my Luddite friend The Bookbinder, now has a 'smartphone' (with the result that it now seems to be impossible to buy pay-as-you-go credit for calls only; all the credit plans are based on megabytes of Internet usage, with a certain number of calls and/or text messages thrown in for 'free' - which actually makes things very economical for me). Everyone now has a multi-channel digital TV package and a flat screen. Though no-one I know in the UK uses Twitter, amongst the younger generation and in the media it seems to have become quite important. And so on.

I continue to get by quite happily without any of this stuff. And I think I always will do. I do not see any of these things as genuine improvements to modern life. Their supposed advantages are trivial, superfluous - and offset by their more negative consequences.

So, for the new 'List of the Month', here are the...

Innovations I will never embrace

Personal Stereos
I did once have one of the early Sony Walkman cassette players. I took it on my round-the-world backpacking trip in the '90s, as the only means of giving myself some access to music (though mostly via the radio; I only brought 4 or 5 tapes with me). And I wouldn't usually take it out with me: I didn't feel the need, and was afraid of losing it. I just kept it in my room, to listen to occasionally before turning in for the night. Even when I was doing a lot of Greyhound journeys in the States, I found I didn't want to try to listen to music while travelling: there was far too much else to pay attention to. The technology, I suppose has got better now: earphones do a more thorough job of blocking out ambient noise and minimizing the bleed-out of their own noise into the surrounding environment. But these continue to be serious problems: the tinny buzz (at best) emanating from personal stereo earphones can be a huge annoyance to anyone else in the immediate vicinity; and the sound quality for the user is fairly abysmal (a problem compounded by the vogue for digital downloading and file compression: MP4 etc. doesn't even sound as good as a cassette, and cassettes were pretty dreadful). But quite apart from the fact that it's a lousy music experience and potentially irritating for bystanders, it's the fundamentally anti-social nature of personal stereo use which most offends me - WHY are you making this (partial, futile) attempt to isolate yourself from the rest of humanity and from the world around you?? The big problem with this - as has been emphatically demonstrated with mobile phone use by drivers - is that when you're not listening to the world around you, you're not paying attention to it with your other senses either: people who use personal stereos when cycling or walking down the street fully deserve to become road death statistics.

I really like the recent counterpart coinage 'dumbphone'. I am proud to be a 'dumbphone' user! It is quite bad enough that the ubiquity of mobile phones now tempts us to take or make calls (or, even worse, use SMS) when we're out in company; the additional allure of the Internet is altogether too much for most people to deal with. I am too enslaved by the Internet as it is; when I go out, I want to leave it behind. I suppose having access to my e-mail while out and about might occasionally be "convenient", but it's something I'm happy to get by without. The essence of e-mail is the trade-off between time-lag in reply (you have to accept that people might not see it straight away, might not be able to respond for a while, might not deal with your message until the next working day) and the ability to produce a more considered and more substantial response. You can't reply properly to e-mail on a phone anyway (when Blackberries first broke big 8 or 10 years ago, I could tell which of my friends had got them because they stopped replying to e-mail [usually without noticing that they had done so!]); if you need a short but quick response, use SMS instead. What else is a 'smartphone' supposedly good for? I came across an 'app' in the States recently that helped you locate taxis; a lot of people seemed to find that quite useful (in a locale where taxis were not thick on the ground; it wouldn't apply in a major city), but... a well-run taxi despatcher ought to be able to give you the same information in a phone call - where is the real improvement in your service experience? I suppose map services might be quite useful sometimes; but I have a long-standing affection for paper maps; and I figure that if ever I'm really lost, it's likely to be out in the wilderness where there's no phone reception anyway. That gizmo that identifies snatches of music for you can be quite fun too, but... it does cut short the jocular arguments about what the song might have been, and encourages the atrophy of your memory; and if a song really gets under your skin that much, a snatch of the lyric will enable you to identify it on the Internet when you get back home. The main impact of smartphones has been to truncate conversations by knee-jerk resort to Internet research whenever somebody raises a point of which they are uncertain or which is doubted by others - this is tiresome and anti-social. I tolerated this as an amusing and occasionally "useful" novelty for a while, but now I will have no part of it.

Tablet computers
An awkward and pointless half-way house between smartphones and personal computers: a little too large to be truly convenient and portable and not offering any significant advantage over an Internet-capable phone, but far less useful than a not-much-bigger notebook computer. I use a computer primarily for writing, and a tablet is bugger-all use there. Even doing Internet searches is a pain-in-the-arse on those touch-screen keyboards. People are buying tablets because they're 'cool', not because they're actually any bloody use for anything.

I have ranted about this before. Reading a book off a screen is an irksome and unsatisfying experience, and probably very bad for the eyes. The tactile qualities of a book make reading a far more ritualistic and immersive experience. Moreover, as with all of these personal electronic devices above, an e-reader is rather too easy to lose (or tempting to steal), and rather a lot of hassle and expense to replace. (I don't think I've ever lost a book. The few times when I have carelessly left one behind in a bar or a restaurant, it's been handed in and I've been able to recover it the next day. I doubt if that often happens with an abandoned Kindle.)

Multi-channel TV
I suppose we don't have any alternative these days - other than to voluntarily restrict ourselves to the handful of channels we grew up with (this is pretty much what I do in the UK; although BBC 4 and a few of the Sky channels also have some worthwhile programmes), or to forego television altogether (which I have mostly done during my years of exile in China, and even during much of the '90s in the UK). The existence of multiple channels today seems to mean that we must suffer endless repeats or reality shows, and that at least 80% of the offerings at any one time will be complete SHITE. On-screen menus are awkward to navigate, making it difficult - sometimes impossible - to find a programme you might want amid the morass of dross. And we've lost the sense of community that TV fostered when it was an almost universally shared experience. I miss that.

I've ranted about this before as well. Of course, the preening narcissism and the mind-numbing inconsequentiality of Twitter and its ilk are odious enough, but what really bugs the crap out of me about this fatuous craze is that many of its converts become such zealous cultists about it that they - unthinkingly - renounce all other forms of communication, and create their own little closed community of tweeters, ignoring former friends who decline to sign up to the service.

Facebook et al
Not so much 'social networking' as 'anti-social non-networking'. The narcissistic urge is obviously a very common and powerful human foible, but I still find it amazing that the idea of parading trivial details of your life on a public website (for the convenience of stalkers and burglars) could ever have struck anyone as a worthwhile idea. I deplore the impersonalizing tendency of such communication, that it is blanket transmission to an unknown audience rather than a series of targeted, thoughtful, purposeful one-to-one interactions - which is what we ought to be cultivating in our social relations. I am gratified that so many business analysts these days are starting to suggest that the writing could be on the wall for Facebook; perhaps my prophecy of its collapse a few years ago will indeed be borne out before the end of this decade. I sincerely hope so.