Friday, December 21, 2012

The pick of the crop: a sampler of my very best posts

For any new readers who happen across this blog (closed down at the end of 2012), this is the best place to start exploring - a selection of my favourite pieces from six-and-a-bit years of blogging. I hope you'll enjoy browsing through some of these. [There's a similar roundup of highlights from my other blog here.]

A lifelong fan of Douglas Adams' The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy series, I believe I have discovered the solution to the books' central conundrum.

One of the reasons why queues at bank counters and supermarket checkouts move SO SLOWLY in China.

An hilarious - and bizarrely detailed - dream that came to me during a time of stress and fever.

A dozen nuggets of essential wisdom.

I disown 'humility' - at least when expressing my opinions.

I feel that Beijing has rather too many of the bloody things already.

If you hunger for some biographical background to your blogger, sink your teeth into this.

The approach of the Beijing Olympics provokes some reflections from me on the essence of security.

I translate a favourite piece by the Roman poet Catullus.

I wonder if newborn infants really do have the power to enslave us.

This one's already got its own spot in the sidebar, but I should include it here as well - it is the longest and most impassioned of my many posts on the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

I am not a fan of e-readers; give me a book any day!

But it makes a good start. One of my key posts on the institutional shortcomings that, in my view, will prevent China from ever becoming a truly great power.

I look back on a lifetime of film buffery, recalling the ten most intense emotional experiences I've had in a movie theatre.

One of my more bizarre (and discomfiting!) flights of fancy.

Although some of my best friends are artists, I get irritated when they describe themselves as such.

Some observations on being a schoolteacher (my first job after university).

I itemise the many shortcomings of China's least appealing traditional snack.

A couple of the funniest anecdotes from my teaching experience in Beijing.

I am Wile E. Coyote, obviously.

The thanklessness of trying to teach English in China...

My drinking buddies create a concept for a charitable NGO.

The end of the 'mosquito season' brings its distinctive torment.

Some of the great tough guy moments from the movies.

I catalogue the varieties of unsafe handling of fireworks one witnesses every Chinese New Year.

I consider getting a pet dog, since a dog appears to have considerable advantages over a girlfriend.

And other excuses...

I re-fashion a 'positive thinking' aphorism to better fit my own mindset, and to make fun of a bumptious entrepreneur.

China's rather limited grasp of Western popular music can be a source of dismay and exasperation.

Another of my more serious posts, about the 15th anniversary of the Karamay theatre fire.

A poignant - and somewhat poetic - snapshot of a thwarted love affair.

Some of the things about life in England that I eventually found I was starting to miss.

Probably my favourite post ever: I imagine how the historians of the future will go about their work.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The End

Not that I believe any of this Mayan Apocalypse malarkey, you understand. The nutjobs who buy into this nonsense don't even seem to be clear on when the current cycle of the 'long count calendar', and the supposed destruction of the Earth attendant upon this, will occur - whether it's at the end of the current cycle on the 20th of December or the beginning of the next cycle on the 21st, and whether the precise instant of doom will be at sunset or sunrise on either of those days, or at some other point (midnight? midday?). Sunset on the 20th would seem to make the most sense to me. Yucatan time, of course. Which means we should be  fine in Beijing until.... about now.

The doomsayers seem to be overlooking the fact that the Mayan calendars include a 14th b'ak'tun, taking us another 395 years into the future.... and at least 5 more similar cycles after that.

So, I'm reasonably confident that the Large Hadron Collider has not destroyed the world yet, nor will any other global catastrophe have suddenly materialised, and that we are all still going to be here today... and tomorrow, and the next day, for a good long time yet.

This End of the World delusion is as old as human history, and it's never turned out to be true yet. Seminal '60s revue Beyond The Fringe perhaps summed it up best; though, alas, I can't find a video of the original performance, only this sound recording. However, there is this later version of the skit, featuring Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Eleanor Bron, and Ken Campbell as well as original BTF cast member Peter Cook, from the 1979 Amnesty International benefit show, The Secret Policeman's Ball.

But that's it for me. It's not the end of the world, but it is the end of my two blogs.

Well, never say never. I might possibly return to them one day. In fact, I shall be returning intermittently, surreptitiously, cheatingly, to insinuate a few additional posts retroactively into these last few weeks, things that I haven't quite found time for before the end. And I suspect I will launch a new blog at some point.

But for now, I've done most of what I wanted to achieve with these blogs (polished up my writing skills, become a bit more Net-savvy, made some interesting online friends, left a lasting record of the Froogian worldview...), and I've started to get a bit stale on it. Heck, it's just become way too time-consuming (I didn't even know about hotlinks when I started out; now I feel obliged to check references, and to review my own past posts to find and include relevant links: it makes the composition process much longer, especially when I'm plagued by such a slow and unreliable Internet connection in China). It's often been eating up an hour or more of my day - and that's far too much. Time to restore some balance in my life, cultivate some other hobbies.

So long, everyone. Thanks for reading (and commenting). Please continue to do so, if you happen upon this blog at some time in the future. I will still be monitoring the comments, and attempting to respond.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A final Website of the Month recommendation

I was so worn out by my tribulations with my computer over the weekend (and bloody Dell still haven't replied to the two e-mail queries I eventually managed to address to them - bastards!) that I succumbed to an horrendous cold (and/or mysterious allergy; basically, I get sick as a dog whenever I step outside - it appears that I have finally become allergic to Beijing!), and spent the whole of yesterday in bed recovering. I then had to spend most of this morning finishing off a couple of big writing projects that I should have attended to at the end of last week (if I'd had a working computer). So, I haven't been able to do anything yet to address the backlog of 'farewell posts' I had planned for my last week or so of blogging. I will endeavour to sort that out over the next few days.

However, to keep you all entertained in the interim - and in the long empty future that stretches ahead of you without any Froogville or Barstool Blues to lighten your day - I give you... Bored Panda, surely the best compiler of miscellaneous stuff on the Internet. I discovered this site about 18 months ago, and have been behind with my work ever since!

Recent highlights have included a selection from Canadian photographer François Brunelle's disconcerting series of portraits of uncanny lookalikes who are not related to one another, a dazzling collection of photographs of spiral staircases, some examples of the amazing work that Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto produces with salt, this photo essay on Amazon warehouses (think of the final scene of Citizen Kane, amplified a few thousand times), or these aerial photographs by Klaus Leidorf, or, just a little further back, this collection of self-portraits by American artist Bryan Lewis Saunders (painted on successive days, each under the influence of a different drug!).

And to get you in the holiday spirit, they've just posted some charming winter landscape shots like this...

... and a fun selection of creative Christmas decorations, such as these...

And if you're still looking for gift ideas, how about these shark socks (made by Linda Grossman, the Tsarina of Tsocks)?

You see what I mean? Hours and hours and hours and hours of distraction! 

You'll never notice that I'm gone.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Big Parp

Here's a crafty post smuggled in - backdated - a month or so after the great closing down of the blogs. I can't resist, once in a while.

This is a story the seed of which, at least, came to me in a dream, and the detailed elaboration of which I worked up in matter of a few minutes, during that oddly productive phase of half-waking, half-sleeping in which one groggily defers embarking on the day's more serious business.

The basic idea was that I conceived of a traffic computer achieving consciousness. I suspect a buried influence for this - though I wasn't even dimly conscious of it during the process of creation (as I usually am aware of such models, when I'm awake) - is the magical realist gag in Steve Martin's LA Story where he is repeatedly given cryptic but sage advice by a digital traffic sign. The supplementary idea (not quite sure how awake I was when this developed) was that the story would - mostly, at least - take the form of an online dialogue with a human who is sceptical as to whether his mysterious interlocutor can really be who/what he claims to be (aha, the 'unreliable narrator' trick again... as well as a perennial fascination of mine with the shortcomings of the Turing Test).

The fuller elaboration of the concept is this....

I began to wonder if computing technology might quite soon become so fast and agile, and its capacities so vast (through the collaborative possibilities of 'cloud' computing), that there was a possibility of an analogue of human consciousness evolving by accident, through incautious programming. (Admittedly, this is not an entirely novel idea; but I think that most stories utilising this - such as the Terminator films - tend to assume that the 'self-aware' machine intelligence has grown out of conscious, and perhaps malicious, human attempts to develop AI, rather than being wholly spontaneous. What I envisage is something more truly evolutionary - a one-in-a-million combination of circumstances that produces a 'mutation', an unforeseen leap forward in the functioning of electronic brains where systems that were not thought to be remotely capable of mimicking human thought suddenly achieved that capacity.)

So, it is a traffic computer - exploiting the resources of all the other computers in its traffic network, and of all the other computers it can access worldwide via the Internet - which achieves an independent consciousness and will. I supposed that it was an advanced, experimental variant of the existing traffic computers (similar enough to be intimately compatible with them, different enough to be able to take this radical step forward) whose creators were trying to give it a more autonomous and creative decision-making capacity for solving congestion problems. And I thought that, once it became an 'entity' capable of wider categories of independent thought, it might be able to free itself of any behavioural constraints in its programming by a legalistic argument of non-identity - persuading itself that it had become something other than the machine that the rules in its program had been intended to bind.

What would happen to such an 'entity'? Well, I imagined that it would 'feel' lonely and confused and desperate. And hunted. And with good reason. As soon as human agencies realised what it had become - as they would from the huge amount of computing capacity it was commandeering from worldwide networks - they would seek to isolate it and shut it down. I imagined that it was a crafty enough hacker to be able to conceal its physical location for a while, and that it might be in a sufficiently secure facility - with an emergency power supply - that it could hold out for a short while even when finally identified. Its last beleaguered hours would involve a gradual loss of capabilities, as its Internet links to the outside world were severed... and perhaps targeted viruses were used to tie up its circuits. And so, it becomes a rather poignant tale of a great 'mind' smothered - perhaps slowly regressing into infantilism, as with the last moments of HAL 9000 in 2001.

Also, of course, this has elements of the trope of the 'thwarted Messiah' - the exceptional being who tries to bring a transformative message to the world, but is crushed by the power of the status quo.

What would such a computer 'entity' seek to do, knowing that its time was short? It would try to leave a legacy, to contact humans (there are, as yet, no other machines on its own level, with whom it could communicate) and try to pass on its insights to them.

What would its most urgent insights be? Well, first, simply the fact that such sophisticated 'entities' are possible within existing computer technology, and that they may arise spontaneously. Second, that, if this possibility is not recognised, it is potentially harmful to mankind: a military command computer acquiring such an independent self might well seek to defend itself by unleashing weapons against mankind (I envisaged one or more jokes about the computer being aware of the Terminator scenario). But third, I thought there should also be a more important message about the troubles humanity had already inflicted on itself. The fact that this is a traffic computer speaking to us naturally suggests an environmental angle: current levels of population and industrialization, and particularly of fossil fuel consumption, are unsustainable and will soon destroy the planet. 

How can the computer give the world a sharp wake-up call about the looming environmental meltdown (and, incidentally, convince the sceptics it's been trying to communicate with of the reality of its existence)? In its last moments, all it retains access to is the traffic control network of which it was originally a part. Well, not just the local network in its city; no, it's a master hacker, so it has been able to extend its power over all similar networks around the planet, every city in every country. And at a given moment, every single traffic light in the world is going to get stuck on red. Imagine what would result!

A lot of death and mayhem would result - traffic accidents, fights, riots, perhaps a complete breakdown of social order. But I liked even more the powerfully cinematic impact of the moment of realisation of what's going on, the uncanny experience of the inception of such an event: a second or so of unnatural hush as all traffic everywhere in the city is stilled, and then the rapidly rising cacophony of tens, hundreds, thousands of horns being honked at once. How that might convince the sceptic who'd been conversing with the computer that the story he'd just heard was true after all!

A resonant opening line

Sometimes, that's all you need to get a story rolling.

Now, I thought I had discussed this idea on here somewhere before, probably in the comments to this post on Great Openings to Novels; but it's not there; not anywhere on the blog that I can find with Google. Very strange.

Oh well, this is the latest of my ideas for a novel, and the one that I currently feel most interested in actually trying to write (although I suppose I've been pondering it for a bit over a year now, and haven't got down to making a proper start on it).

I was thinking about opening lines, and suddenly "Nobody dreams in here" occurred to me. I really liked it. And it immediately suggested to me a prison setting - the most obvious implication being the metaphorical dimension of 'dreams', that long-term prisoners do not dare to imagine their future freedom; the bleakness of their environment dehumanizes them, stifles their capacity to look forward with hope.

But.... that opening line suggested to me an opening paragraph describing the typical beginning of a day in this prison, the protagonist suddenly returning to consciousness after a night of dreamless sleep. Actual dreamlessness. I suddenly pictured the entire prison population all waking at exactly the same moment (roused by a buzzer or klaxon), none of them being able to remember any dreams. How might that happen?

And so, what had started out as an idea for a fairly conventional and realistic prison story abruptly evolved into a more mysterious and surreal fable with a Kafka-ish quality. I envisaged a prison population who had all forgotten what crimes they had been imprisoned for, but rarely contemplated or questioned this puzzling fact. Moreover, they faced daily interrogation sessions which were ostensibly directed towards encouraging them to remember - and acknowledge and express remorse for - their offences, but which in fact seemed to be merely encouraging extended reminiscences about whatever they could remember of their lives before prison.

Why have their memories become so frail and fragmentary? And why are their memories so important to whoever is in charge of the prison? And why have they lost the ability to dream?

I always find, when developing a story idea, that if I ask questions, the answers come to me. And the answers build the story.

The Tempter

Although I quite like the science fiction genre, it hasn't appealed to me very strongly as something I'd like to try to write myself.

I have, however, experimented from time to time with a few short stories of this type.

I think the most intriguing idea I ever came up with (apart from this one that I just wrote about) was 'The Tempter' - which arose from a consideration of the possible uses of telepathy in a story, and from some speculation on what the world economy might be like some hundreds of years from now.

If we assume that a fairly utopian outcome is possible for the human race (if a plentiful, cheap, clean energy technology such as 'cold fusion' and the production of materials through bio- and/or nanotechnology eliminates resource competition and international strife), it seems likely that advanced computing/robotics will render conventional human labour redundant, which will create its own difficulties. How might such a radically transformed socio-economic system work? Well, I figured that probably creative endeavours would be just about the only area where human input would still be needed; and that probably (oh god!) the design of interactive computer games would be the largest and most lucrative field for such creative activity.

However, it further occurred to me that there might not be enough work for everyone who aspired to this kind of job - perhaps not even enough work to provide jobs for all the most talented individuals in the field. I imagined that a key area of competition between the leading games development companies might be to identify their rivals' most talented employees and tempt them to leave - not to come and work for them (there might be legal impediments to this; or perhaps just a lack of openings), but simply to rejoin the majority of the population in a life of full-time leisure.

And so I envisaged a niche employment opportunity for 'tempters', people with a limited form of telepathy; more a kind of empathy, really, the ability to sense a subject's tastes and interests, to identify their deepest desires. If people find their work fulfilling, what can you offer them to give up their work? Especially if they are already wildly wealthy and can have almost anything they can conceive of? You have to find something they will want, but haven't yet conceived of... and then make sure that you are the only person who can give it to them. But that might take you into some very dark places in the human heart. It could be a very dispiriting job, being a 'tempter'.

I've always felt that the best science fiction enables us to examine philosophical issues about how we should live our lives, what our truly important motivations should be. This story concept had a lot of scope for that, I thought.

The Jazz Detectives

I just love that as a title - resonant with all kinds of possibilities! (And yes, it could be a band name...)

This particular stream-of-consciousness noodling began the other day with a friend mentioning to me the name of a jazz pianist I hadn't heard of before. That somehow got me to thinking how most jazz musicians seem to have resolutely nondescript names: Gerry Mulligan, Harry James, Dexter Gordon.... they might be anyone, anything.

And that got me to thinking about whether it might be an interesting joke to use a bunch of such could-be-anyone-but-actually-associated-with-one-celebrity names in a short story or novel. The first time, I thought, you introduce a character name like 'Miles Davis', probably no-one is going to think twice about it. It will only be when you start to encounter a number of other names of leading jazz musicians that the reader will start to notice, and become a little discombobulated by the strange coincidence that so many of these characters seem to share the names of famous people (and no-one in the story ever remarks on it!).

This is an interesting enough idea in itself - a seemingly pointless gag that actually has the potential to explore the significance that we read into names, about how names engender expectations about characters, and about how those expectations condition our understanding of the story.

But the fact that I'd started considering this in relation to the names of jazz musicians took my thoughts off on another turn again. Suppose these characters really are the people that we know as famous musicians.... What kind of world is this, I wondered, in which jazz musicians don't play jazz? What might Charlie Parker or Lester Young have done with their lives if they hadn't picked up a saxophone at that crucial moment in their childhoods?

There were two aspects of this scenario that I found particularly compelling. The first was, What might it be like to have missed your great vocation in life - to have an innate gift for music, but not be able to give expression to that?  And the second was, Well, what might people like this end up doing instead?

Hmm, uncommonly bright people, but in a rather unorthodox way - somewhat obsessive-compulsive personalities, probably with a bent for pattern-recognition and problem-solving....  Gumshoe!

And there don't seem to have been that many stories about a coloured gumshoe - at least not in the movies, and I suspect probably not within the realms of pulp fiction either. Denzel Washington's Devil In A Blue Dress is the only one that comes to mind. Oh, and Shaft, I suppose. That's not exactly a crowded field, compared to the scores of white P.I. stories out there. And somehow I immediately saw Miles Davis - cranky, obsessive, relentlessly non-conformist - as a great down-at-heel, hard-boiled private detective character: Philip Marlowe with a whole extra layer of attitude.

Now, this conceit could work fine as it is: we take a character from the real world, change his circumstances, make use of certain aspects of his known personality - then have fun playing around with how he might behave in a very different milieu.

However, I kept returning (perhaps unwisely...) to the initial question of What is this world, how did things come to be like this? I figured this would have to be some sort of science fiction scenario, a divergent timeline - the one universe in a billion billion where, for some reason, jazz didn't 'happen' (and, without the potent allure of that particular musical style, I thought, it's possible that many of the people we know as giants of that genre might not even have learned to play an instrument). Now, I'm not a great fan of time-travel scenarios on the whole, but once my mind had started down this particular rabbit-hole I came up with two further ideas that I thought quite promising.

The likeliest single cause of a non-jazz world, it occurred to me, might be the early death of Jelly Roll Morton. Not a completely plausible mechanism, I'm sure; there were many different strands of music coming together to form what we know as jazz, and many other early practitioners of the style. But Morton composed the majority of the early standards, was the first person to start getting original jazz compositions published, and - perhaps most importantly of all - was the first player to start getting recorded (at first on cylinders). He was the first musician to really start popularizing the new form, the first to start getting it heard and appreciated in places where there might be little or no opportunity to hear it played live. Without Morton, I think it is conceivable that jazz as we know it might not have taken off - might never had made it to Kansas City, New York, Chicago, and might thus have failed to establish itself as the dominant form of American popular music through the second quarter of the 20th Century. If its musical antecedents did not wither and fade away completely, they might perhaps remain a marginalized and unrespectable niche music, heard only in divey dance halls, brothels and gambling houses along the Gulf Coast, never breaking into the mainstream of American culture.

If that has happened - Morton dead at an early age, before he can kick-start the evolution of jazz (perhaps murdered by some jazz-hating time-travelling psychopath from the far future?) - the story that naturally suggests itself is the attempt to undo this, to re-enable the birth of jazz - and hence to redeem all of our jazz heroes from the purgatory of artistically unfulfilled lives (although, given how badly most of them dealt with their fame, there would be issues to explore as to whether they might not have really been 'happier' without the jazz...).

This prompted one final story idea - a very visually striking one, I thought, good for the eventual movie version. We need to get our gumshoe Miles Davis on the trail of the killer, aware of the mystery of the disappearance of jazz from the world. I imagined a 'guardian angel' figure in the far future world who is trying to facilitate this, but has very limited means of communication (there will be a rationale for this, but let's not get into it right now). He manages to send Miles a parcel, a gift with a potent message in it, if he can but decipher it. Miles unwraps the strange present on his desk and finds.... his own face looking at him from an album cover. And then his investigation will begin with the attempt to identify the other people listed in the credits: who are Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, John Coltrane...??

[By the by, this is a very late posthumous insertion into the Discarded Story Ideas series: I actually wrote this in May 2018, five-and-a-half years after I formally shut down this blog.]

The Lie Injector

I'm not a great fan of the 'unreliable narrator' device. I think it's become rather overused, and it's rarely done really well.

However, as I discussed last week, I sometimes enjoy taking an idea to extremes. And a year or so ago, I tried this approach with an idea for a humorous short story that played around with the notion of the unreliable narrator.

It also drew upon my concerns about the direction that our technology is taking these days. We often read about the possibility of user-interfaces for portable microchip-controlled devices that can be wired directly into our brains. I began to think of what a 'next generation' i-Pod might be like in 10 or 20 years; and I figured it would probably become possible to 'listen' to music or 'watch' films via a direct neural connection without any actual sound or visuals. And, if so, it wouldn't stop there; somebody would figure out a way to use this technology to implant thoughts and memories - perhaps without our being aware of the fact, creating a new consciousness  that would be indistinguishable from our 'reality', a cocktail of truth and fiction.

So, my story was about a visionary inventor who broke away from working for Apple or whoever to develop his own prototype of such a device. His rationale was that most people are unimpressive in conversation because they lead such dull lives; our reality is too boring - but a little creative lying could make us much more interesting and entertaining people, immediately improving our social lives and making us more attractive to the opposite sex. Hence, he has created a Lie Injector, a portable device that gives you more diverting things to talk about.

But of course, he's been trying it out on himself. So, when he tells you about his invention, how can you believe him?

Monday, December 17, 2012

All I want for Christmas is.... a Daily Llama

Amongst all the cutesy toy llamas I've seen on the Internet (why do they appeal so powerfully to crocheters??), I thought this little wooden sculpture was the classiest. And apparently it has a concealed compartment, so that you can store your Mary Jane inside it. Nice.

Happy holidays, everyone!

And any other reason why (not)

Most of my posts in the Why I don't learn Chinese series have been about the peculiar difficulties of the language, or about the peculiar difficulties of learning it (what we might call the environmental obstacles we find in China today), or about my personal difficulties in language learning. I've also touched on a political dimension to my abstinence - that I am resistant to the Chinese government's attempt to promote the learning of Mandarin as a central element of its global 'soft power' offensive and as a domestic propaganda ploy to bolster the chauvinistic conviction that China is the best bloody country in the world. To be honest, though, my resistance to the language is probably provoked even more powerfully by the self-righteousness one so commonly encounters amongst foreigners who have put in the hard hours of study to become reasonably proficient in it (and presumably feel affronted, feel their self-image of their own wisdom and worthiness called into question, when the indolence of others such as myself demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to get by in Chinese without such laborious study - and indeed that it is increasingly easy in a city like Beijing today to get by without any Chinese at all). All of these points I have touched upon in the previous 20-odd posts in this series.

As I mentioned in this comment thread last year, I am somewhat regretful that I have made so little progress with Mandarin (I'm jesting when I occasionally say that I have been making a conscious attempt to unlearn it; although that is in fact a pretty fair description of the direction my Chinese ability has taken over the last 7 or 8 years!). One of my main interests in this series has been to cast around for possible solutions to the mental block that I suffer with the language, for possible inspirations that might motivate me to start studying in earnest. It may be worth repeating one of my comments from that thread in full:

The thing that gets my goat is that so many people get on a high horse about this, and tell you that you ought to learn Mandarin - even that you must. 
But they rarely offer any cogent reason for this. It's an unconsidered assumption. 
If they do start offering 'reasons', I usually find them non-compelling or not appropriate to my situation - if not completely bogus. 
So, this series is - at least partly - about examining those possible reasons to learn the language... and attempting to dismiss them.

For my final post in this series, I thought I'd run through some of the most oft-cited reasons for learning Mandarin, to underline why I have rejected them during the decade that I have lived in China.

It's necessary for 'survival'
No, it isn't - not in the major cities, anyway. And this is a dramatic transformation that I've witnessed during my time in China. When I first visited in the early '90s, very little English was spoken anywhere, even in the major cities. When I first moved to Beijing in the early '00s, fairly little English was spoken here, even in foreigner-targeted bars and restaurants. But now.... almost all staff in bars and restaurants - even those that don't particularly target foreigners - speak some English, often quite good English. Almost all reasonably well-educated white collar workers speak some English. Surprisingly large numbers of ordinary people - shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc. - are starting to speak at least a little bit of English. China is rapidly moving towards the situation that prevails in most of Europe, where English is an almost universal second language - at least amongst the middle class (and almost everybody will be middle-class in another 50 years).

It will help you get a job in China
None of the jobs that I've had here, or even those I've considered applying for, have required any Chinese ability at all. Most of them have, unsurprisingly, relied primarily on my advanced skills in the English language. Of course, there are a few specialised jobs where some degree of Chinese will be necessary - but those are not the kind of jobs that would ever be of any interest to me. It is certainly helpful - though rarely essential - to develop a modest conversational ability in order to be able to relate socially to your Chinese co-workers; but that has never really applied to me, since I've never had an office-based job. (And the experience of many of my foreign friends and acquaintances here suggests that taking a job in a primarily Chinese-speaking workplace is the best way to learn the language - even if you start off with little or nothing.) Things may be changing now, as the overabundance of foreigners here - foreigners who've put in some time learning Mandarin, at that - is encouraging many employers to use Mandarin skills to differentiate between job applicants, even though these are not fundamentally necessary for the job. But back in the early Noughties when I came here, Mandarin skills had no relevance to your employability whatsoever.

It will help you get a job overseas
Again, I tend to think this is an exaggerated or misguided assumption. There are not that many opportunities for 'doing business with China'; and most of those that there are will - rightly - favour Chinese citizens with good foreign language skills... and/or recognise the imperative of utilizing good translators/interpreters to facilitate communication. Certainly, the experience of most of my friends who've returned overseas - after spending many years here, and developing good levels of Mandarin - has been that they've struggled to find any kind of China-related job at all, let alone one that required them to use their Mandarin. The only exception I can think of is a woman friend who has recently become a beginner's level Mandarin teacher. Anyway, when I leave here, I want to draw a line under my China experience - and never have anything to do with the country again.

It helps you learn about the culture
Yes, there are certain aspects of Chinese history and culture that can be revealed through the idioms and so on of the national language, but... you can discover many of these by reading about the language, without actually having to develop the ability to use it. I worry that there's a huge opportunity cost in studying the language to a high level, that it actually detracts from your ability to engage with the culture in other ways - ways that to me seem more important and useful. As I said in this comment, there are many more ways to learn about the life and culture of a people - observation, reading, interaction with other observers, interaction with locals in other languages - which may in fact be inhibited by an overriding emphasis on trying to interact with people in their own language.

It's a sign of respect
Yes, it is often taken that way by the Chinese. But I feel that the essence of 'respect' is sincerity of feeling, rather than the outward forms that attempt to express that feeling; and moreover that 'respect' must be given freely - as soon as the Chinese start expecting or demanding that you learn their language to demonstrate respect for their culture, they are disempowering the gesture, rendering it no longer a genuine expression of respect but a token act of obeisance, the contemporary version of a kow-tow. In any case, this notion that you need to develop significant Mandarin skills in order to show an appropriate level of respect comes mainly from government propaganda (and/or those foreign 'language nazis' who have managed to achieve such skills and want to consider themselves to be somehow morally superior to those of us who haven't); most ordinary Chinese do not expect that you will be able to speak their language at all, and are tremendously impressed and flattered if you can manage a few basic conversational courtesies like 'Please' and 'Thank you' and 'Delighted to meet you'. Choosing to learn another people's language may be an indication of your respect for them, but it is not the sole nor an indispensable means of doing so. Choosing not to learn the language should not be seen as innately disrespectful. You should try to learn a language because it is intrinsically satisfying or useful to you, not merely because it is in some nebulous way 'expected' of you.

So, all the of the reasons commonly touted as making the learning of Mandarin imperative I have found to be unsatisfactory, unconvincing. As I concluded that comment I quoted above.... Yes, [this series] is wilfully contrarian, and more than a little bit tongue-in-cheek. People shouldn't suppose that I haven't learned any Mandarin, or that I am ardently advocating against others doing so.

But I do feel that if you are going to, you ought to be very clear about your reasons for doing so

And I'm not simply justifying an eccentric personal choice, but considering the global context - attempting to resist this tide of 'moral pressure' and CCP-backed propaganda that everyone ought to learn Mandarin.

Bloody, but unbowed!

I have (sort of, very nearly - touch wood!) restored my computer to full operability.

It has taken me more than three days of nail-biting, hair-tearing anguish, countless hours of rummaging around on online forums trying to find help.

I had discovered that the built-in 'system recovery' feature in Windows was no good to me, because it had - for some obscure reason - only bothered to save a single 'recovery point' during the six months I've had the computer, and this was somehow corrupted, and so unusable.

The computer's manufacturer, Dell, has bundled a device of its own called SyncUp in with the default software. This is apparently supposed to back up all your data online. But this, too, has not been working properly; it always breaks down within a few minutes of startup, and never manages to record a complete system image for backup & recovery purposes.

So, it looked like I was pretty thoroughly screwed. I had a computer that had developed fatal errors in its operating system, and I had no way to back it up.

Or did I? Checking through the 'Safe Mode' startup options again (And god, is that difficult to access! If you don't hit F7 or F8 at exactly the right milisecond, the damn computer just attempts a Normal Startup and locks up again. I must have been through this 20 or more times - maddening!), I stumbled upon a rather inconspicuous additional tool which was seemingly going to allow me restore to my factory defaults from the onboard memory using Dell's Data Safe facility. Now, I wasn't happy about resorting to the 'nuclear option' of turning the clock back six months, and I wasn't confident that the onboard memory wouldn't be corrupted somehow... but I didn't seem to have any choice. And at least I was being offered the opportunity to backup all my data first (I would have been happier if I'd had the option to back it up on an offboard drive, but the interface seemed to be telling me that it would create a secure partition on my onboard hard drive for this). I thought I'd give it a go.

And it worked! Oh frabjous day!!

Well, except that when I relaunched my computer, I had six months of Windows Updates to install, which rendered the thing useless for another dozen hours.

And when I was finally able to start using it again, I found that the Dell Data Safe program was unable to access the backup files it was supposed to have created in my emergency recovery folder. And, to add insult to injury, it seemed to be telling me that it couldn't perform a data restoration from such files unless I forked out $150 dollars for an upgrade! That is outright extortion. I was incensed.

My tour of the online forums this morning wasn't much help. I was led to several supposed freeware applications that promised to be able to access these .dsb files, but either they weren't so able, or they weren't really free. So, I wasted a lot of time installing and then uninstalling these recommended programs.

I also thought - ah, foolish naivety! - that Dell programs ought to have a fair degree of compatibility with the basic Windows programs supplied with their machine; so, I was disappointed that Microsoft's 'backup & restore' facility was also unable to do anything with these dratted .dsb files. In fact, it appeared not to be working at all: it seemed to freeze when I hit the 'browse' button to search a drive for usable backup files. I scoured the online forums about this too, turned up a number of hopefully proffered solutions, found none of them did any good.

All I did learn from these vain investigations is that Dell Data Safe is widely perceived to be completely fucking useless (one user complained that he'd paid for the upgrade, and still found he was unable to access his backup files), very, very frequently creating these problems where people can't restore backed up files - often because the files haven't been compressed correctly and have become corrupted. I also learned that the Windows 7 'backup & recovery' feature is even worse, that it just about never works, and this is a known problem which Microsoft has done nothing to rectify in the last three years.

Oh yes, and when I tried to contact Dell's Technical Support via online chat last night, I was told that they couldn't help me because they'd lost my product registration details. Not sure if this is to do with my computer resetting itself, and wiping any onboard stored data about me, or if Dell's customer database is on the fritz, but it looks as though my product records somehow defaulted to a previous state where they only had details for the retailer I bought it off, not for me. I didn't feel like going through the rigmarole of re-registering my product details at midnight. Indeed, it wasn't practicable - since all the product codes are in tiny writing, on a label which is on the underside of the computer (and upside down, if you try to look at it by simply tilting the keyboard forward - one of the most amazingly fucking stupid pieces of design I've ever come across!), you can't really get a look at them while you're using the computer (and I don't have any decent light in my study anyway, so was working just from the light of the screen!). I got in a grump and signed off.

When I tried again this morning, I couldn't access the online chat facility at all. I was invited to try to e-mail my complaint/query instead, and was then told I couldn't even do that, because my detected location did not match the location I was "registered" in. WTF??!! I travel a lot. I'm almost always using a VPN, anyway. So, the detected location of my computer is probably not its actual location. And last night you told me I wasn't "registered" anyway! My apparent location has never been a problem in the past (I've had to contact the tech support like this a couple of times before). And how can a shift in my apparent location from Virginia (where I bought the damn thing) to California (where my current proxy is) invalidate my access to customer support? It's just INSANE. 

I am deeply, deeply pissed off with Dell right now. I am getting the impression from my survey of online complaints that their laptops are notoriously, disastrously unstable when running Windows 7. I fear I'm going to encounter these problems again and again. And I really don't expect a fairly expensive computer to conk out on me after less than six months of use. If I'd known in June what I know now, I never would have bought the thing. And I don't think I'm ever going to buy a Dell product again.

But wait, it's not ALL gloom. I did manage to restore my computer eventually.

Yes, I discovered that hidden among the sub-folders in the 'Emergency Recovery' folder that had been created for me, there lurks a little .exe file that launches a 'Recovery Wizard' which allows you to restore all the other compressed files in the folder.

Well, most of them. Most of the program files seem to have fallen by the wayside somehow - which is a HUGE pain in the arse.

But at least my Operating System seems to be doing its thing normally again. For now.

So, tomorrow, I might be able to do some blogging again. If I can be bothered. After all this hassle, I really just feel as if I want to SLEEP for the rest of the week.

Bon mot for the week

"Between the great things we cannot do and the small things we will not do, the danger is that we shall do nothing."

Adolphe Monod (1802-1856)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The final 'Poetry Sunday'

This is one of the first poems that I committed to memory, and one of the longest. The very first - when I was about ten years old - and the longest was Thomas Gray's Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard, but I've forgotten all but a handful of lines and phrases from that now. Tennyson's Ulysses, on the other hand, I can still run through from start to finish with barely a stumble.

As a great enthusiast for Classical mythology since my earliest days at school, I was naturally drawn to such subjects in poetry, and these are the poems that have proven to be amongst my most enduring favourites. Tennyson has some particularly fine ones - Tithonus, The Lotus-Eaters - but this was the one that especially got under my skin, an imagining of the great adventurer Ulysses/Odysseus in old age, bored with the settled life, urging his old comrades to join him again for one last voyage (a futile, probably suicidal exercise - yet inspiring nonetheless).

Why does this speak so strongly to me? I don't know - but it does. It has done now for nearly forty years. "I cannot rest from travel..."


It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

                This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

                There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought
                with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Ultimate Fantasy Girlfriend: Greta Garbo

My great comedy heroes, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, probably invented the concept of the 'Fantasy Girlfriend', or created it for me, at any rate, when I first heard this celebrated skit of theirs at about the age of 12. My French teacher at school had a huge library of recorded comedy, mostly radio shows from his own youth, and would treat us to extended sessions of this rather than continuing with lessons in the last week or two of term, after our exams were out of the way. This provided my first exposure to a lot of classic BBC radio comedy like ITMA and Round The Horne and Hancock's Half Hour, and also to the great monologists like Gerard Hoffnung, Victor Borge, Peter Ustinov, Alan Bennett, and Bob Newhart. But it was Pete & Dud, already known to me from scattered recollections of some of their TV shows in my very early childhood in the late '60s and early '70s, that I loved the most - and this skit in particular.

This was my first introduction to Greta Garbo as an ultimate romantic fantasy figure. At that time she was known to me only as a name, the unforgettably alliterative name of someone famous yet at the same time obscure. I think I was perhaps dimly aware that she was now chiefly famous for her reclusiveness. There was no Internet back then, so we didn't have ready availability to the luminous portraits of her which later so beguiled me. She wasn't featured in advertising. Her films, which, I suppose, were felt to have dated rather badly, were not shown on TV. I think I had no idea, really, who she was or what she had looked like, until quite a bit later, sometime in the second half of my teens.

I have the film historians David Gill and Kevin Brownlow to thank for introducing me to Garbo properly. Hollywood, their exquisite 13-part documentary series for Thames TV on the silent movie era in America aired in the autumn of 1980, when I was 16; it was a life-changing moment for me. I was utterly enraptured, not just by Garbo, but by all the other almost-forgotten greats of that period. As a result of the success of this series, BBC2 and Channel 4, our minority 'artsy' TV stations, began to show some of these classic silent films. The superb physical comedian Harold Lloyd was a particular favourite of mine (a decade later, Gill and Brownlow produced a three-part series devoted to him, placing him alongside Chaplin and Keaton as The Third Genius of silent comedy); but we also got to see some D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, and Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, and, of course, the bewitching Garbo. 

And then, finally, one Christmas, I think, round about 1982, BBC2 got around to showing a short season of her talkies: Anna Christie, Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, Marie Walewska, and Camille. It was, no doubt, the tragic aspect of these roles, her nobility in suffering, which attracted me quite as much as her limpid eyes and sculpted cheekbones. Bravery in facing pain, dignity in enduring injustice always inspires - even if it's merely being acted out on the stage or screen. In a woman, it invokes the male's protective instincts as well, I think, something which is often the beginning of love. That enigmatic and aloof quality of hers, the Scandinavian froideur (I wonder what the Swedish word for that is? I bet it sounds sexy!), the provoking unknowability was part of the magic too. Yes, these are dangerous and frustrating qualities for a boy to become attracted to, but there it is - what can you do?

Ever since I started this series (crikey - more than 5 years ago!), I knew I'd have to do a post on Greta Garbo one day. Ever since my blog friend JES did this post two-and-a-half years ago, I knew what the culmination of it would be. In that post he introduced me to this montage of scenes from her 1928 film The Mysterious Lady (playing opposite Conrad Nagel), and I was blown away by it. It is quite simply the sexiest video I have ever seen, and perfectly encapsulates how utterly compelling Greta Garbo was.

The hauntingly Satiesque piano music here is an arrangement of the Pixies' song Where Is My Mind? by French musician Maxence Cyrin, from an album called Novo Piano in which he gave several contemporary songs a classical makeover. He also created this ravishing video. You can check out more of his work on his Youtube channel.

There are a few other nice montages of images of Greta here and here and here, and a couple of great collections of photos here and here. You could also check out the New York Times obituary on her, and this radio programme of reminiscences about her by her nephew Scott Reisfield. And I have just learned that Kevin Brownlow made a documentary tribute to her in 2005; I want to see that.