Sunday, September 30, 2012

More exasperation with Chinese television

For the last few years Beijing TV's sports channel has bought the rights to show some of the English Premier League football games live. Not that many, unfortunately. Usually only one or two per weekend; and often not the biggest match-ups, because they are often allocated midday kick-off times which clash with early evening games in the domestic premier league here. (I suspect most Chinese football fans would rather watch a top English game than their domestic league, but BTV is not going to pander to consumer demand!)

Still, I've got the opportunity to watch occasional footie in the comfort of my own home. I shouldn't complain. 

This weekend BTV was showing the Chelsea v Arsenal match. Nice. Not live, mind you - because the game between Beijing and Changchun (we lost, miserably, at home) was given priority; but a full recorded rerun was shown immediately after the local game.

I think there was another complete re-rerun at some point today as well. (And probably on several more occasions through the coming week; they like to make the most from the fees they've paid, our Chinese TV stations.) I dipped into the channel several times at random this morning, hoping perhaps they might have another game to show in full as well. NO.

Or at least some highlights of the other games played yesterday - because there were a whopping 29 goals scored in Saturday's 8 Premiership fixtures. NO. They only showed the goals from the Chelsea v Arsenal game I'd already seen.

Now, BTV does have the rights to show highlights of all the Premiership games. (I'd kind of expect that to come automatically bundled with the live game package they've bought.) And it seems unlikely that the English Football Association would place restrictions on when those highlights can be shown (really, is there any value to them in insisting that a highlights reel can't be shown until later in the week?). BTV does have one or more weekly Premiership review shows with all of the week's goals (I just saw one on Friday). But apparently they are unable or unwilling to provide one over the weekend - WTF??

[And, of course, when they do finally show full highlights of all the games, they spoil the suspense for anyone who's been avoiding checking the results by displaying the final score on screen from the outset of each game!]

Beginning of The Great Curmudge

Today is the traditional festival of Mid-Autumn Day in China.

All fine and jolly, I suppose, if you have been brought up in this culture, and have affectionate memories of the event from your childhood. For many people, it is an excuse for a rare family reunion, and may be cherished for that alone.

However, there doesn't seem to be that much ceremonial associated with the day: the core traditions are 'moon-gazing' (which must get boring quite quickly; and, in a city as polluted as Beijing, is often impossible anyway) and the exchange of 'mooncakes'. 

I have railed against mooncakes before: they are quite possibly the most disgusting snack 'treat' in the world. I haven't come across many Chinese people who really like them. Perhaps the most telling evidence of their lack of appeal is the fact that Western-inspired 'novelty' mooncakes have been rapidly displacing the traditional inedible ones in recent years; Haagen Dazs' ice cream-filled range are now the single biggest selling variety in the country. (Hmm, I might try me some of those...)

And, unfortunately, the family reunion idea seems to be weakening amongst the modern generation; or, at any rate, it isn't feasible for many people. So, the only leisure activity that is within the imagination or the budget of many Chinese city dwellers these days is shambling along the streets gawking at stuff. We get quite enough of this in my neighbourhood as it is (the Gulou area of central Beijing, becoming increasingly boutique-ridden and touristy in the last few years). On this night, roads and sidewalks across most of the city are likely to be thronged, impassable; and around Gulou and Houhai it will be a complete nightmare. There won't be a hope in hell of getting a taxi to go anywhere either.

Heck, it's like that on a 'normal' Mid-Autumn Day. I can't remember the last time the dratted festival fell on a weekend. And this year it's the weekend at the beginning of the 'Golden Week' National Holiday as well (the National Holiday is fixed in the Western calendar as the first week of October, but Mid-Autumn Day is defined by the Chinese Lunar Calendar, and so can occur at almost any time during September or early October). With this unfortunate combination of circumstances, the crowds are going to be unimaginably HORRENDOUS. I don't think I'll set foot outside my apartment all day. (If the sky is clear tonight, I can get a nice view of the moon from my terrace. I'd invite people over to join me, but there's very little chance anyone would be able to get here.)

The Chinese holidays can seem quaint to expats in their first few years here. But after that, they become increasingly tiresome, an ordeal to be endured.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Film List - More Posters

Six months ago, I did a post on some striking posters that I'd dreamed of buying for myself when I was a boy or in my later teens (but never in fact acquired). In the course of researching that, I turned up quite a few more rather memorable designs. Here is a selection.

One of my favourite Westerns.... Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars.

It was only in the last few days that I unearthed this poster for Richard C. Sarafian's Vanishing Point, one of the most memorable of my early experiences in the cinema.

Here is one for Terence Malick's debut picture Badlands: not a great poster (I would have preferred a photo still rather than this over-lurid painting), but the film has a special place in my heart - one of several that I first saw as a boy, late on a Sunday night on BBC2, in their occasional seasons of modern American cinema that was considered too edgy and disturbing to appeal to a wide audience.

Brian De Palma's Scarface was perhaps the most iconic film of my undergraduate days.

And Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, of course, has spawned a lot of great artwork. This was the classic poster we mostly saw in Britain.

But I rather like this one as well. (I'm pretty sure I have seen this used in promotion for the film; but the only version I can find online at the moment is this text-free one.)

Doug Liman's Swingers was another classic from around that era (odd to think that Vince Vaughan has been a star for over fifteen years now!).

And among more recent releases, I particularly liked the self-deprecating joke in this promo for The Simpsons Movie.

Gosh, I still have quite a lot more of these I'd like to share with you; but I think this is enough for now.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Life mirrors Art

While home in England over the summer, I became moderately addicted to the TV series Borgen, a sort of Danish version of The West Wing. It's a rather less intense experience than the Aaron Sorkin show (less frenetically paced, of course; and there isn't that stressful sense of the fate of the Free World hanging in the balance - the doings of the Copenhagen parliament don't have much global impact), but quite compelling nonetheless. And a key part of its charm, no doubt, at least for a male viewer such as myself, is that Danish ladies are all so darned attractive. The protagonist in Borgen (=The Castle, the seat of the Danish government), Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (superbly played by the very beautiful actress Sidse Babett Knudsen), is a wife, mother to two teenage children, and an unremarkable middle-of-the-road parliament member until a political scandal suddenly unseats the government and she finds herself with the opportunity to stitch together a moderate coalition that will make her the new Prime Minister.

She's really much too nice for all the backroom wheeling-and-dealing that this demands, but her intelligence and innate decency carry her through. No-one this gorgeous ever gets to run a country in real life, surely? (Well, Yulia Tymoshenko, I suppose.)

And yet, in October last year, a little over a year after the first season of Borgen had begun to air (we are promised a third and final series early next year; I still have quite a lot of catching up to do), Helle Thorning-Schmidt became Prime Minister of Denmark - of similar age to Birgitte Nyborg, similarly married with two children, similarly cobbling together a rickety centrist coalition... and similarly a bit of a fox. Spooky, no?

Now, I can sympathise with Xi Jinping skiving off a meeting with Hillary Clinton earlier this month. She's a rather intimidating personality. But he stood up Birgitte Nyborg... I'm sorry, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, as well?? This, to me, seems the strongest indication that Xi's leadership career may be washed up. I would have made it to that meeting even with a very bad back.

Haiku for the week

Autumn comes early,
Bringing samples of winter.
Wind whispers warnings.

Damn, the chill has set in early this year! The temperature has dropped more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the last week or so, and I woke to a howling wind this morning. I have a hunch we might be in for a brute of a winter.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Truer than he meant?

I have been having quite a lot of e-mail correspondence with my landlord lately (most recently in regard to whether and how long I might extend my lease for). Bringing this to a close with a bit of friendly small talk the other day, I had given him and his family my good wishes for the upcoming National Holiday Week and had enquired whether they were going away anywhere.

He replied, "Yes, we're going to Huangshan. Have fun for both of us!"

Now, I'm sure he meant, "I hope you have fun too." Well, reasonably sure...  But his English is usually pretty good. And the 'Golden Week' holiday at the beginning of October brings out such enormous crowds of Chinese sightseers that any vaguely appealing tourist destination (and the scenic Yellow Mountain area is one of the top draws in this corner of the country) is going to resemble a scene from Soylent Green. I couldn't help thinking that the poor man had imagined the hell he is likely to be subjecting himself to next week, and it was a sudden upsurge of despair that had distorted the goodwill message he had intended to give me.

I'm glad I'm staying at home. Quite literally AT HOME. I might not set foot outside for the entire week.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A diverting read!

Heck, it seems I have nothing but diversion in my life these days. There are at least half a dozen (mostly unsolicited) mailings I regularly receive each day now, pointing me to various alluring online articles - to say nothing of the Yahoo News headlines alongside my e-mail every day, and the various oddities that friends regularly pass on to me. 

It's so hard to resist that one impulsive click - thinking that you'll just scan for a few seconds, dismiss it as worthless and close the window - which leads to... a long read.... and following up half a dozen supplementary links.... and scurrying off to research some tangentially related issue that it's brought to your mind... and striving to catalogue all the links for future reference. Oh, it's the curse of the Internet age!

However, every once in a while, alongside all the stuff that was basically serving only as procrastination, I come upon a real gem. And a week or two ago I happened upon a piece on Business Insider with the rather portentous (but undeniably attention-grabbing) 47 Mind-Blowing Psychological Facts You Need To Know To About Yourself.

I knew quite a few of them already, but it's an engaging read anyway. And with the welter of supplementary links to related articles and supporting research, I found that, even trying to ration myself to 10 or 12 pages at a time, it was eating up two or three hours of my time each time I sat down for a browse through it. (The URL is misleadingly labelled "100 Things..." Thank heavens it wasn't quite that long!)

It's written by a woman called Susan Weinschenk, who's been applying cognitive psychology to the field of user interface design for over 20 years now. You can find more of her observations on her own website, The Team W Blog.

I find it rather galling to reflect that so much is now understood academically about how to make websites etc. right, and yet 90% of what we're given (even by the 'big boys' like Yahoo and Blogger) is still so egregiously wrong. How does this happen??

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Oh, the paradox! [Why I don't learn Chinese - 19]

I actually made a bit of an effort to scrape the rust off my Chinese recently, the first time I've really bothered in 7 or 8 years.

And curiously enough, it happened while I was out of the country (and on the brink of quitting the damn place for good!).

It may just have been a case of being on holiday, having time on my hands. But I have time on my hands NOW, and I am finding it difficult to continue to apply myself to Chinese studies here.

I have a 'teach yourself' type self-study book given to me by a friend years ago, some time before I even moved to China. I have several times tried to work my way through it, but I've never got to the end. In fact, I think I've only once got much more than half-way. Time and again I break down about a quarter of the way into it.

Perhaps it's just not a very good book. Though I think it is; I've dipped into several other similar textbooks, and this one appears to be the pick of the crop.

Perhaps it's just that my motivation is stymied whenever I'm in China, and I am being constantly reminded of how little day-to-day utility there is in trying to speak the language (not to mention being constantly irritated by foreigners here tiresomely showing off the little bit of Chinese they know, when there's no real need for it).

And then again, perhaps it's just a matter of habit: I've never bothered to study Chinese while living here, but I have studied it intermittently in the UK. However, I am usually quite good at taking conscious control of my habits and modifying them. If I can give up drinking (such a central part of my life!), surely I ought to be able to cultivate a regular study-and-practise habit with learning a language.

I think it's primarily a matter of reaching a practical threshold of language competence with which you're comfortable. I've always been curious about whether I might be able to learn a little more Chinese, and whether this might markedly change my experience of the country; and, after a couple of months or more away, I was starting to fret about perhaps having forgotten all the Chinese I ever knew. So, I started dabbling with a bit of self-study again. But I reached that point about 4 or 5 chapters in (as I have so often in the past) where it just started seeming unreasonably difficult - and I couldn't find sufficient motivation to continue. The reason why it gets hard at this point is that the first 4 chapters are basically the Chinese I know. And the reason why this is all the Chinese I know is that this is all the Chinese I've ever seemed to need to know, for basic survival. And that, for whatever reasons (that might be another post or two on its own), is all the Chinese I've ever wanted to know.

Drat! Blogger pisses me off again!

For the past six months I've had links near the top of the sidebars on both my blogs for a rather useful 'list view' - summarising the last 30 posts on each.

This feature was obtained by simply adding /?m=1 to the end of the blog URL. I'm not aware that Blogger ever advertised this anywhere; so, perhaps it was only ever a fortuitous glitch. And it now appears to have been "repaired": those links now direct only to the regular blog homepage. Damn.

I am particularly saddened by Blogger's withdrawal of this facility not because it was being widely used and appreciated (I suspect it wasn't), but simply because the tip on how to set it up had been sent to me as a parting gift by Tony B, a very entertaining blogger who had also become an e-penpal of mine over the last few years. He was fairly elderly and in ailing health, and he passed away only two months later. I had liked having this permanent reminder of him in my sidebars. Dang you, Blogger!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Out of control

I'm dealing with China quite well at the moment.

After taking a long break from the country this summer, I have perhaps recovered some of the sense of wonder, the excitement of novelty that I felt when I first moved here. And having now determined to leave for good, probably early next year, I am feeling rather like a tourist - inclined to be readily entertained by what I encounter, and tolerant of irritations. Being actually on holiday - since I have no work at all at the moment - may also be a help, since I am under no pressure to be out and about getting things done, having to criss-cross the city via public transport, submitting to an external timetable. Although having no income is stress of a different kind...

But, yes, in general I am remarkably relaxed at the moment; perhaps more so than I have ever been in my ten years here.

Even when I'm crossing the road...

But this is the area where my calm is most challenged, where the 'China Rage' is most likely to re-emerge; I feel it bubbling up inside me more and more often. Vehicles driving directly towards pedestrians, without making any attempt to slow down or take evasive action (and perhaps without even noticing - or caring - that they are there, much of the time) is something that I will NEVER get used to, accept, learn to tolerate.

One example from a couple of days ago:

I had successfully crossed the busy and hazardous 2nd Ringroad service road near my apartment, and had only the railed-off 'bicycle lane' at the side of the road still to negotiate. I was just a couple of yards from the (comparative) safety of the sidewalk.

Then, a woman on an electric bicycle came across the junction at full tilt and made a left turn heading towards the entrance to the 'bicycle lane' I had just started crossing.

By the standards of Chinese road users, she was in fact far more alert and considerate than many: she saw me; and, realising that she was heading straight at me, she took ameliorative action.

Did she try to steer around me? Oh no. Did she brake?? Of course not!

No. She took her hand off the throttle. Right off, letting go of the handlebar as if it had burned her. Since she was using her other hand to talk on her mobile phone, she was no longer steering her e-bike. And engine-braking doesn't slow them down very quickly.

A swift back-step took me out of danger. And the look-no-hands! woman continued happily on her way, although she had come within an ace of cartwheeling over the kerb.

And I chuckled to myself about HOW CRAZY China's roads are. But, deep down, I felt The Rage stirring.

Bon mot for the week

"If you are brave too often, people will come to expect it of you."

Mignon McLaughlin (1913-1983)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Goals and objectives

I should, round about now, be returning from my first training run of full half-marathon distance.

Since Sunday is the traditional day for the Beijing Marathon (if it goes ahead this year; the country's political insecurities seem to be threatening to cause a cancellation), and for most other international marathons, I am intending to make Sunday my 'Big Run' day - forcing myself each week substantially beyond the distance I've so far achieved, and trying to replicate the race-day situation (i.e., getting up early, ready to start the run by 8am). I have, in fact, already run close to the half-marathon two or three times, and had hoped to push for the full distance for the first time last weekend; but I'm still having some stamina issues, so decided to wait another week. Hopefully, 21km won't be too much of a stretch for me now. Despite suffering a bad cold this week, I've still forced myself to run a couple of times, and I feel my confidence and pacing are slowly coming back to me. I'm managing to sustain a pace of nearly 10kph now, and I'm hopeful I can achieve a 10%-15% improvement on that over the next few months.

Whether or not I attain that increase in speed is almost entirely dependent on whether I manage to lose weight. I am alarmed, disgusted by how portly I have become in the last few years. Since I'm tall and have quite a broad frame, I don't think I'm yet in the zone of being considered 'clinically obese', but I'm uncomfortably close to the threshold of that category now: officially, in medical terms, 'overweight'; and, for someone who's been moderately lean and athletic for most of his life, I feel like a fat bastard.

I reached 80kg during my final growth spurt when I was in the 6th Form, but my weight then remained remarkably stable for a long time. Despite prodigious consumption of beer and kebabs during my student days, my youthful metabolism was more than capable of burning it all off (and I suppose I was doing quite a lot of exercise in those days; I began distance running back then, to get in shape for the Army reserve unit I had impetuously joined). My weight in kilograms might have crept up into the low 80s by the end of my undergraduate career, but that was mostly a gain in muscle rather than fat. And my weight continued uncannily stable for several more years - with only a few derangements

At the beginning of my second year as a schoolteacher, I tore up the cartilage in my right knee rather badly (playing football in the gym with the kids), and wasn't able to do any exercise at all for several months (even walking was a bit of a trial for a time). During that period, my weight quickly ballooned above 95kg. However, I gave up drinking for the summer term (I had been rather over-indulging in the cheap - and very fattening - lager we had on tap in the Masters' Common Room), which helped to reverse that trend; and when I was able to begin running again in the autumn, the weight fell off, and I was soon back down to within a kilo or two of what I'd been before.

My teaching career was abruptly ended a couple of years later by a violent - and mysterious - dose of food poisoning, which nearly killed me and had me laid up in hospital for three weeks. During the onset of that illness, in the space of just a week or so, my weight plummeted to 75kg - the lightest I'd been since I was about 10 years old! However, a big chunk of that weight loss was probably just dehydration; I'd recovered a lot of it by the time I left hospital, and within a month or two I was back to my 'normal' weight of 82-83kg.

During my backpacking year a couple of years later, my weight also fell dramatically - particularly during my last few months in America, when I had basically run out of money and was subsisting on a starvation diet. When I got back to the UK, I was again not much above 75kg - but this time I was lean and wiry, rather than ravaged by dehydration and muscle wastage. That's the fittest I've ever been in my life. However, despite continuing to live fairly frugally and to run 10 or 12km almost every day, my weight soon bounced back to 80-something kg; that seems to be my 'natural weight' - or, it was then.

I've always been mildly bothered by a propensity to gain weight quite easily in the short-term; noticing myself put on a kilo or so whenever I've gone through a few days of particularly heavy beer consumption, and to add 2 or 3 kilos each winter as protection against cold weather. However, when I was a young man, I found it fairly easy to lose that weight again. Since I moved to Beijing ten years ago, it's become much harder. Now, a few days of heavy drinking can bloat me by 2kg, or more; the 'winter coat' gets thicker year by year - 4kg or 5kg, or even 6kg; and it takes a few months of determined effort to get that weight off again. In fact, I haven't been able to get it all off: my weight has begun to creep up insidiously year by year, as, despite my best efforts, I only manage to shed two-thirds or half of the weight I've piled on over the winter. I don't think this is anything particularly to do with the environment of Beijing (although many expats point a finger of blame at the fattiness of stir-fried food - or the cheapness and ubiquity of the local beer!), just a matter of metabolic slowdown as I hit middle age. In fact, I think I'd started to notice it in my last couple of years in England; the turning point probably occurred some time in my early-to-mid-thirties. 

Things have got particularly bad in the last few years, though. I don't know if I should blame further metabolic changes or a more sedentary lifestyle or a shift to drinking a lot of premium lager or a drastic reduction in my running due to a succession of persistent injuries, but... in the last three winters my seasonal blob-out has amounted to 6kg or 7kg, and I've struggled to get any of that weight off again. A couple of times early this year my weight briefly peaked at around 105kg, a full 10kg more than it had been barely two years earlier.

I'd managed to shed a few kilograms of that before I quit Beijing in May. And I thought that, having mostly lived fairly healthily and done quite a lot of running, I would have shed quite a bit more during my extended summer holiday. But it seems that a few big beer sessions here and there had done their damage, and I was still a bit above 100kg when I came back here a month ago. I had briefly got down below 97kg, maybe closer to 96kg, a couple of weeks back - but that was perhaps partly dehydration after a long run in hot weather. Whatever - a few big nights out quickly set me back a few kilos again. Now I've given up beer for the coming month, and am committed to a more intensive programme of exercise, I feel I can achieve a substantial weight reduction. I seem to have been managing to lose 1kg or so per week quite easily, even when I was still drinking beer; so, I figure if I ramp up the amount of exercise I'm doing, and maybe throw in a bit of fasting, I should be able to drop 1.5-2kg, perhaps even 2.5kg per week.

At present, I am just over 97kg. By the end of the National Holiday Week (8th October), I aim to be 92kg - the weight I was when I last ran a marathon, six years or so ago. By my birthday (20th October), I aim to be 88kg - an even more psychologically significant milestone for me, since this is the weight I was just before I came to China

If I can achieve these goals, I may push on a bit further with my dieting (and avoidance of beer!) to see if I can get down below 85kg. And if I can manage that, I'll try to see how much lower I can push it. I don't think I can reasonably, or safely, expect to get back down to 80kg. There are certain fat deposits that obstinately refuse to shift at this time of life; and my bones have got bigger since I was a teenager; heck, my liver has got bigger! But if I could get back to around 83 or 84kg, the weight I was in my mid-twenties, I would be very, very happy. This is MY MISSION for the next few months.

"A man needs goals and objectives to give his life meaning."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Some languages have a word for it - or do they?

Last week's Friday treat from JES introduced me - indirectly (I followed one of his links, as these posts of his so often tempt me to do!) - to the word mamihlapinatapai. This word is alleged to have been acclaimed by The Guinness Book of World Records as 'The World's Most Succinct Word'. This seems an improbable accolade to me, too unquantifiable for the demands of the Guinness people; indeed, their website makes no mention of this supposed record, and the Wikipedia citation of The Book's 1994 edition is a dead link.

This, alas, raises doubts as to whether it is a genuine word at all (numerous citations on the Internet, including Wikipedia, can hardly be held to be conclusive of anything; the similarly evocative word which JES highlighted from the same book - They Have A Word For It, by Howard Rheingold - has been exposed as bogus); or, if it is really a word, if its meaning is quite as subtle and complex as has been suggested. 

The Guinness record citation is supposed to have defined it as meaning looking into each other’s eyes, each hoping that the other will initiate what both want to do but neither chooses to commence. I think we should perhaps beware the temptation to over-romanticise and over-elaborate a word/concept of which we have no direct knowledge. It is beguiling to suppose (and most commentators on it appear to have done so) that the word must apply particularly to that look of incipient longing exchanged between potential lovers - the eyes meeting across a crowded room phenomenon.

However, the Guinness definition - and slight variations on it found in Rheinhold's book and elsewhere - doesn't seem to be limited to this romantic context. It could apply to a wide variety of social situations, whenever there is a potentially awkward hesitation, a moment of uncertainty over whether to laugh at something (particularly a faux pas or an unintentional joke), or when to start eating a meal, or who should order the first round of drinks, or whether it's OK to start leaving a party or start leaving the room at the end of a meeting, or simply how to initiate a conversation with someone... and so on. The Wikipedia article on the word analyses its morphology (it is said to be a word in Yahgan, one of the native languages of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Chile; it is on the brink of extinction, with an elderly woman now the only surviving native speaker) as indicating that it perhaps means rather more prosaically the situation of being mutually at a loss as to what to do next; there's not even any necessary component of looking innate in the word.

In subsequent discussion, JES pointed me to this item on TED which lists 21 words - chosen by a conference of translators - which are so subtle and/or culturally specific as to be almost 'untranslatable' into other languages. This post - perhaps more rigorously researched than other similar online articles? - omitted mamihlapinatapai; but a reader nominated it as a suitable addition in the first comment. Amongst the TED selection, I particularly liked pretoogjes (Dutch for ‘fun-eyes’ - the eyes of a chuckling person 
who is up to some benign mischief), merak (Serbian for the pleasure derived from simple joys such as spending time feasting and merrymaking), and sobremesa (Spanish for the time after lunch or dinner spent talking to people you shared the meal with).

Mamihlapinatapai also headed up this list of '10 Relationship Words That Aren't Translatable Into English' on the bigthink blog. Of these, I liked best the Japanese koi no yokan - the sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love. As the author of the piece, Pamela Haag, aptly notes: 
This is different than “love at first sight,” since it implies that you might have a sense of imminent love, somewhere down the road, without yet feeling it. The term captures the intimation of inevitable love in the future, rather than the instant attraction implied by love at first sight.

Unfortunately, one of Ms Haag's list is ilunga, supposedly an African word meaning a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, and to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time - once acclaimed by a group of 1,000 linguists as "the world's hardest word to translate". This has also been exposed as a fake. (It's just a surname, it seems.)

Of course, I was reminded also of The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff, two stocking-filler books co-authored by Douglas Adams and his radio producer John Lloyd in the early 1980s which hit upon the brilliant notion of co-opting various charming, quirky, or unlikely British place names to serve as words representing useful concepts for which there were as yet no words - such as shoeburyness: the vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else's bottom.

Ah, WORDS! Endless fun, endless.

Mamihlapinatapai also led to me to this German blog where I found the Laurel & Hardy portrait above (of course, Tierra del Fuego in German is the rather less musical Feuerland), and to this diverting photo blog (apparently kept by a teenaged girl). 

Even if it isn't a real word, it really ought to be. And if only, if only it were just a little easier to pronounce!

By the by...  I just found another (rather better) list of 'hard to translate' words on the rather interesting the hot word language blog (I had originally read its title as The Hard Word, which I think would have been a better name; funny how the mind is always unconsciously improving things!). There I learned that Scots has a word tartle, meaning the awkwardness you feel when you are about to introduce someone and find you have forgotten their name - a very useful concept that might well have been a Meaning Of Liff invention.

One of the commenters on that post again nominates mamihlapinatapai as a worthy addition to the list, though the author(s) had not seen fit to include it. This reinforces my hunch that the word is bogus, simply an Internet fad.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Recently, on The Barstool...

Darn, it's been three months since I last did one of these rundowns on what's been happening over on my other blog, but... well, posting was a bit light during my long summer holiday, and I wasn't able to post at all for the first couple of weeks after I got back to China; so, hopefully there won't be too much to catch up on.

Let's see. Well, back at the end of June some musings on the phenomena of 'last call' and 'closing time' prompted me to post videos of two great songs on this theme, Semisonic's Closing Time and Tom Waits's I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You. A week later, I posted a tribute to the late Donald 'Duck' Dunn of Booker T & The M.G.s, with five of his greatest basslines (prefigured by an extra bonus track a couple of days before). I've also compiled a 'Top Five' selection of the songs that are most likely to make me blub

Other recent musical offerings included the traditional 'Drinking Song' that Beijing-based Mongolian folk-rockers Hanggai like to close their set with, Song for Whoever and Liars' Bar by The Beautiful South, Afroman's hilarious singalong Because I Got High (with an accompanying video montage of remarkably appropriate clips from The Simpsons), The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's energetic instrumental Return To Dismal Swamp (the most appropriate track I could think of to signal my return to Beijing!), two classics blues tunes - Worried Life Blues (played by Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy; also a vintage recording by the song's original composer, '40s blues pianist Big Maceo Merriweather) and Serve You Right To Suffer (played by John Lee Hooker), upbeat love song Wow and Flutter by (my newest musical discovery!) April Smith and The Great Picture Show, and classic '80s stick-it-to-The-Man anthem We're Not Going To Take It, by Twisted Sister. Gosh, yes, there's been more and more MUSIC over on The Barstool this year: something for people of every taste... and for people who have none!

I commemorated my month spent in America with accounts of four great bar crawls: in the Del Ray district of Alexandria, VA., where I was mostly based; on nearby King Street; and on 3rd Avenue and 9th Avenue in Manhattan.

My imminent return to China prompted me to reflect on how bar prices compare between Beijing and the UK these days, and also to question whether I really wanted to return to the land of baijiu - the (almost) undrinkable local white spirit.

New entries in my 'Unsuitable Role Models' series have been the larger-than-life and frequently half-sozzled TV chef Keith Floyd and - much less 'unsuitably' - Aussie wilderness survival expert Les Patterson Les Hiddens.

And just last weekend I turned up some curious new excuses for having a knees-up (and a reason to post some Monty Python!), and discovered a thing or two about barstools while searching for a way to celebrate my 'drinking blog's 6th Birthday. What?? Yes!  WOW.  Happy Birthday, Barstool.

Moreover, yesterday saw The Barstool's 2,500th post. Oh, my!

Haiku for the week

Blue skies taunt and tease,
So soon giving way to fog.
A brief week's bliss.

The summer swelter hung around a bit longer than usual this year, but for the past week or so the weather in Beijing has been absolutely gorgeous. Well, except that an autumnal chill seems to have been injecting itself into the air a little prematurely over the last few days. And I awoke this morning to a dense smog. More mist and fog is predicted in the coming week - which means the air quality will be atrocious. And my lungs are in meltdown already, from some virus or other. Oh, it's grand to be back, to be sure.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Advice to would-be writers - a final word

In two long posts last week, here and here, I summarised the lessons I've drawn from some three decades of experience of writing groups, writing classes, and trying to scratch a living as a writer.

I suspect many of these observations go rather against the general orthodoxy, especially in North America, where the teaching of "creative writing" has become a significant industry and writers' groups are now enormously popular. In particular, I imagine my extreme scepticism of writers' groups, and even of one-to-one mentoring, may arouse a fair amount of animosity.

I've already gone into the reasons for my scepticism in some detail in the second of my posts on this topic. In essence, I believe very strongly that writers should cultivate their autonomy and learn to rely on their own judgement; I don't think depending on anyone else's support or advice is ultimately conducive to that goal. With mentoring in particular, it is the status inequality between the two parties that most bothers me: I don't think it is good to "look up to someone". You should be looking up to yourself; or trying to become someone that you can look up to. For every positive story I've heard about mentoring, I must have heard four or five that were much less so. And I suspect most of the positive experiences were more to do with the strength of the friendship and the emotional support given than with the mentee's development as a writer. I tend to think that if you've got it in you, it's going to find its way out sooner or later; if you're lucky enough to find a mentor with whom you enjoy a very positive relationship, you may feel that's helping you to develop as a writer, but it's probably not really making very much of a difference either way.

The one exception I might allow - which is the substance of this final post in my mini-series on writing - is the 'writing buddy'.

You don't want to be sharing your early attempts at writing with a much more experienced writer, whose opinions you may feel obliged to defer to even if you are inclined to disagree with them, and measured against whom you may always feel yourself somewhat inadequate. You want to find a peer: someone who's in a similar position to yourself, in terms of their experience, their motivation, and - if possible - their level of ability.

And you don't want to have to be struggling to form a personal relationship with a mentor (or members of a writing group) at the same time as you are entering into this quasi-professional,skills development relationship with them. It's much better to find someone, if you can, with whom you already have a fairly close relationship, and share your work with, solicit feedback from them. They don't even have to be a writer; spouses and siblings have often proved to be a writer's best sounding board. However, I think their criticism is likely to be more astute if they are also writers; and it makes the relationship more balanced and reciprocal if you are each critiquing and encouraging the other's work.

If you already have such a close rapport with someone, hopefully that will mean that you are aware enough of each other's particular sensitivities and insecurities to express negative opinions as tactfully as possible; but also it should mean that there is sufficient trust between you that you can be fairly uninhibited in your critique, secure in the knowledge that, although such negative opinions may often cause irritation or distress, your relationship should be strong enough to survive any such strains. It's much, much harder to attain that sort of intimacy with strangers.

I've never done this myself, but it occurs to me that, if you can't find a suitable 'buddy' within your circle of family or friends, you might possibly try to find one online. I can see this might be fraught with the same kinds of difficulties one encounters in making friends or dating online, but similar caution can be exercised in the early stages of seeking out and establishing such a relationship. And there is something nicely insulating about non-face-to-face interactions, a distancing that allows us to be more forthright with each other. 

I'd far rather have a real-world social dimension to a 'writing buddy' relationship; but an e-buddy could also work. Ultimately, the most important thing is how much in common you have, how much sympathy or connection you feel in discussing your writing, and how that builds into a solid rapport between you - whether you are lifelong friends or you've only just met each other in a chatroom.

It's difficult to find a really well-matched 'writing buddy'; if you do, you are blessed. But don't worry if you can't; just forge ahead on your own. That's what most of the world's great writers did.

My HATRED of my bank grows...

I needed to pick up a wedge of cash to pay to my landlord yesterday, so I made a big detour to take me past the cashpoint of my bank. (There is only one that I know of in the entire city. And although my bank is supposedly a signatory to reciprocal arrangements with all the other major banks for sharing of cashpoint services, in practice the cashpoints of other banks always seem to be very reluctant to give me any money on this card... and probably charge me an arm and a leg if they do! So, I was rather keen to try and use my bank's own cashpoint, if I could.)

The cashpoint in question is inside the building which houses my bank. All the signs advertising it are - rather confusingly - outside. But the cashpoint is inside the building.

And the building, I discovered to my surprise, closes up at 5pm. Not even 5.30 or 6pm, mind you, but 5pm.

I found this flabbergasting. It's a large building that is home to several other offices as well as my bank - how on earth can it be shutting up shop so early in the day? And most buildings of this kind manage to keep their lobbies open till late in the evening - particularly when there are facilities like cashpoints in them.

This was a very, very prompt 5pm closure too. I got there no more than a minute or two after the appointed time, and found the building emptied, all the doors locked, and a surly security guard pacing up and down in front of the main entrance.

I can't believe how much BEA sucks! Even their cashpoint is f***ing useless!!  I really must change banks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

'Wartime' privations

Today is the 81st anniversary of the Mukden Incident, the contrived casus belli which led to the Japanese annexation of Manchuria and 14 years of subsequent hostilities with China. Hence it is a day when anti-Japanese sentiments are likely to be at a flashpoint. With the some of the insane sabre-rattling rhetoric we've seen in the media in recent days, things had already got pretty ugly over the weekend - with some of the government-orchestrated mass demonstrations against Japan here spilling over into acts of vandalism and looting.

Most Japanese businesses in China have decided to close down for a little while, in the hopes of avoiding any further such incidents. I hadn't realised, but one of the largest '7/11' convenience store chains here is apparently Japanese-owned (ah, that would explain the sushi), the one that has a branch right next door to my apartment - and is the only place within a mile or so that sells milk. This local outlet - and all others in Beijing, I gather; and probably across the whole country - went dark yesterday, and draped a Chinese flag over the logo above its door. I doubt if most Chinese folks are any more aware than I was that this was a Japanese company, and if they were, the flag ruse isn't much of a disguise. On the contrary, it's likely to draw attention to the place. I suppose the thinking is that patriotic young Chinese wouldn't - couldn't - attack somewhere that was displaying their national flag. I'm not sure that xenophobia-crazed looters would feel so constrained. But there are unlikely to be any such gangs of hotheaded youngsters in my quiet suburban neighbourhood, I think.

No - violence is far more likely to arise from frustrated customers who resent being cut off from their supply of ice cream and fruit salad and pot noodle and other yummy snack foods. I'm already getting quite wound up about it myself, and it's only been just over 24 hours. And I suppose we've got no Yoshinoya either. I know a few people who might be driven to riot over that.

It would be nice to think that all this jingoistic nonsense might soon die down. But Xi Jinping, the heir presumptive to the Chinese leadership, has once more disappeared from sight; there's still no word on the timing of the next National Congress and the announcement of the new Politburo; and Wang Lijun is due to go on trial.... TODAY, funnily enough. (Wang is the former Chongqing police chief whose falling out with Bo Xilai at the start of this year upset everybody's applecart.)

So, I fear the state-run media will be stoking up this anti-Japanese 'distraction' for a few more weeks at least. Ah, China.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Now you see him, now you don't

After two full weeks in limbo, Xi Jinping suddenly showed up in public again this weekend, with a walkabout at a children's science fair at the Agricultural University in Beijing. No, not exactly the most prestigious or high profile event - but a good way to avoid the pesky attentions of the foreign press. After such a mysterious and disturbing absence from public life since the end of last month, there is now inevitably some facetious speculation that the avuncular figure who strolled around the campus on Saturday beaming with good health was a body double. Or an animatronic mannequin. It's been announced that Xi will be representing the Chinese leadership at an ASEAN trade fair in south China at the end of of this week; a full international press corps there will be less easily convinced by a robot or an actor standing in for him.

As Reuters, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal, among numerous others, have commented, the episode has been yet another PR disaster for China - precipitating wild speculation about what might be ailing Xi (heart attack, stroke, assassination attempt, slipped disc), along with renewed rumours of political infighting within the Party hierarchy (was Bo Xilai or one of his faction yet attempting to stage a comeback, a 'counter-coup'? was Xi falling out of favour with his peers for some other reason and in danger of being passed over as Hu Jintao's successor - a transfer of power that was to have been affirmed within the next month??). The old school Communist instinct to keep all aspects of the government's inner workings shrouded in secrecy is becoming more and more harmful. In this Information Age, the age of Weibo (China's equivalent of Twitter), attempting to restrict the flow of information about the Party leadership actually threatens to create instability rather than contain it. Xi is already one of the half dozen most powerful men in China, probably de facto the No. 2 by now, and is in the process of assuming the role of paramount leader over the coming year. You can't have someone that important just vanish off the face of the earth for two weeks - without unleashing a shitstorm. 

A few token official engagements aren't going to quickly undo the damage wrought by this disappearing act. After all, Zhou Yongkang, supposedly Bo Xilai's leading ally in the Politburo, has effectively been sidelined since May (at least, according to Jamil Anderlini, the China correspondent for the Financial Times) despite nominally retaining his various roles and titles; going through the motions of official business and making the occasional important-sounding pronouncement is not, in the Through-The-Looking-Glass world of the Chinese government, necessarily any guarantee that you are actually 'in power' any more. Uncertainties about the imminent leadership transition still abound, with the date of the next National Congress - at which the new Politburo line-up would be unveiled - still to be announced. It's usually some time in October, so they're leaving it rather late in the day to finalise the details of the event. And while this dithering continues, much else is up in the air too: major public events in Beijing are postponed or cancelled; the prospects for any large concerts or music festivals around the upcoming National Holiday week at the beginning of October seem grim; even the Beijing Marathon, originally scheduled for the 14th October, has now been put indefinitely on hold. It's a crazy, chaotic situation - something that tarnishes China's international image and gravely undermines the credibility of her leadership.

A Public Relations '101' for the Chinese Communist Party

A plausible lie is better than an implausible one.

But the truth is better than any lie. Even the most awkward truths can be 'spun' to limit the damage they may cause; lies will destroy your credibility if exposed, and may never be fully accepted anyway by an increasingly astute and sceptical populace.

And the worst thing of all is to SAY NOTHING.

Come on, chaps. It's really not that difficult.