Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

A hell of good trick

There's a scene in Oz the Great and Powerful where the Wizard declares that he is about to pull off his greatest trick. It's appropriate because among all the great tricks that the movie pulls off so well there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

The film has a decent story embedded in a gloriously magical world realised so perfectly that only a genuine curmudgeon could find fault. The 3D is beautifully done without being obtrusive. The characters, human and animated, are all spot on for the roles they carry in the narrative. In short it's a good film. A very good film.

Since the original Wizard of Oz movie was made way back in 1939 technology has moved on immeasurably. Special effects that couldn't even be dreamed of then are routine now in the most commonplace of TV advertisements. We can no soar high above a fully detailed emerald city, swoop down between its towers and under its bridges. We can look in through windows into appartments or out through windows at the vistas of the city.

Or we can race at breakneck speed through the Dark Forest with the trees so close we, the audience, flinch away from their flailing branches or stroll alongside fields of golden corn that roll on up the hillside.

Or we can gaze from the tree line across a field of poppies that stretches right to the horizon.

In 1939 all of those things were simply in our imaginations. Now they are on the screen.

And that's where the great trick comes in. The Emerald City in Oz the Great and Powerful is the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. The Yellow Brick Road is exactly the same Yellow Brick Road that Judy Garland skipped down all those years ago, complete with the vanishing spiral in the square of the Munchkin village. The Munchkin village is the same Munchkin village. The Munchkins are the same strange folk prone to break into the same song and dance routines for no apparent reason.

For all the amazing spectacle that is now possible, Oz is patently and obviously the same Oz that generations have grown up loving every Christmas and Easter on TV. And that's the trick. It doesn't miss a beat. Everything in this new movie is lovingly crafted to match or reference the original.

It's a hell of a trick if you can do it, and they have.

Well That's Different #4

What I didn't mention about yesterday, though I have talked about it before, was the fraught nature of the drive to get there. The highways are modern, clear and efficient but the drivers here are certifiable.There isn't one who would keep his license for a month in England.
Overtaking on blind bends as coaches or trucks race towards you, driving for long distances on the wrong side of the road for no reason in particular, driving an inch behind someone else making the same insane manoevres and sounding the horn. These are troutine driving techniques. I am assured that they are as illegal and stupid here as they would be at home but it seems no one cares.
I hate riding in the front seat because even if your own driver is being autious you still have the terrifying spectacle of the ones coming the other way who aren't. There is the constant heart-stopping feeling that there is about to be a head-on collision.

An incident from this morning will illustrate.

There was a lorry, a big lorry, maybe a forty-footer that was reversing into a building site gate. It was big enough that it was blocking about three-quareters of the road width as it made the manoevre.
Now in England the cars on the blocked side would stop and wait and the cars on the other side would, perhaps, try to edge past the front slowly, maybe even mounting the pavement if they had to.

Here cars in both direction didn't even slow down, simply steered, at high speed round the front, bouncing up onto the pavement with utter disregard for either the pedestrians walking there or the traffic attempting the same trick from the other direction. As I watched at least a dozen cars narrowly missed each other in this frantic quest to save about a minute while the lorry completed its reversing.

My contract here says I can have a bicycle.
They can keep it. Nothing on earth would tempt me to use it. When even the pavements aren't safe, I'd have to be crazy to risk the roads.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Return of the Demonstration Lesson

Last year I did a lot of demonstration lessons in schools all over the county but this year they have mostly dried up. Until today, that is.

Today I did two lessons out at a Junior school in the town of Jingyuan.

Now the information I had before I went could best be categorized as "sketchy".

I knew the school location.

I knew the age of the students (approximately).

I knew the length of the class.

And that's about all.


So I decided to give the lesson I'd used last week in my own classes of the same length and to the same age group; a lesson on giving and getting directions, and with the vocabulary of buildings in a city.


There were just one or two things they had forgotten to mention.


The one hundred and ten students in each class, for example, packed into a classroom built for about forty. And their quite low level. And the tiny blackboard. And the way that the board wasn't magnetic so I had no way to attach my map.


Problems however can be overcome. Unable to easily walk around and check what the students were doing, unable to even get them doing anything much at all, I went into full on entertainment mode. The class loved it. Soon they were joining in, repeating everything I said or responding with the other halves of dialogues. Their level didn't matter. They were vocal and enthusiastic. That was enough to carry one lesson.

The tiny blackboard? No worries. Just restrict the new vocabulary to half a dozen words and do everything else orally.

Nowhere to put the map? Solves that with a blank wall and a large role of sellotape.


In short the two lessons went very well indeed.


After that things went on getting better. The school head took us out for any amazing lunch; a delicious mutton and potato noodle dish, a local specialty, was the main item on the menu. Then we drove off for a visit to a temple, which was fascinating. The temple was small but beautiful and the rituals interesting to watch.


On the drive back we also stopped off in one of the villages to have a little time chatting with the owners of a small shop. They gave us fresh fruit and we sat and chatted (to the extent it was possible to do so lacking a common language) while Richard demonstrated his proficiency on the piano standing in the corner.


It was an unexpected opportunity to see the real local China that we all too often miss in the city, even in a city as small as Baiyin.


Allin all another great day out. And paid for it too!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Well That's different #3: Jingle Bells

If you are sitting in your room on a hot sunny day and you hear the tinny, jingly-jangly sound of "Pop-Goes-The-Weasel" or "Jingle Bells" outside, don't go rushing off for a choc-ice. You may well find a smallish white vehicle but it won't be an ice-cream van. Over here in China, well in Baiyin at least, it will be the dustbin lorry (that's garbage truck to all you left-ponders).

Why exactly the dustbin lorries play Jingle Bells is a mystery to me but that's what they do.

Actually rubbish collection is all a bit of a msytery to me. There seem to be large numbers of people who make their living picking through other people's rubbish. I can throw away a large bag of mixed rubbish, walk past an hour later and find that any glass has gone, any paper and cardboard has gone and any plastic bottles have gone. That ice-cream van sound-alike has a couple of people on it who shovel up whatever is left.

If I watch from my window for half an hour there will be three or four different people spending time searching through the bins.

It's a very different kind of recycling to our bottle banks and recycling centres back home.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Well, that's different #2: Thermal efficiancy

Here in Baiyin, as in most cities in China, heating is controlled centrally. You don't turn the heating on in your apartment when you get cold or off when you get warm: it's done centrally. Heating comes on and goes off on set dates in the year automatiucally for the whole city.

You might think this is efficient. It isn't. At the moment the weather is hot: T-shirt and sunscreen hot. The heating isn't due to go off for another month so my apartment, like everybody else's, is like a sauna. All around the city everyone has their windows open trying to let out some of the heat when, if only we had some control, it would be better to turn the heater off.

I'd love to see a satellite thermal image of the city.

So much for global warming and carbon footprints.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The trouble with technophiles

There has been quite a lot of complaining going on, justifiably so in my view, since Google announced that Google Reader is soon to be discontinued. People want to know what they can do now for their feed updates.

However, in among the complaining there are bloggers voicing the opposite view. Google Reader will be no more? Good riddance, they say. It's a dinosaur. It hasn't changed for years. It hasn't moved with the times. They rail at its lack of social networking features. They abhor its text only interface. Where are the pretty pictures of their newsfeeds. Where is all the bright, flashy moving imagery? How do I share all my amazing feeds with all my friends? Why doesn't it tell me about the gazillions of newsfeeds that I might be interested in but haven't discovered for myself? Where are the bells and whistles?


That's the trouble with technophiles. They can't comprehend that not all of us are the same. They can't understand that some of us don't want all those things. Some of us don't share their passion for bells and whistles. Some of us are simpler souls with simpler needs.


I firmly believe that there are lots of people like me who want a feed aggregator to do one thing and one thing only – aggregate feeds. I  have no desire at all to share my feeds with anyone else or have anyone else share their feeds with me. If I wanted to be on social networks I would be. I'm not. Not on Twitter or Facebook or Linkedin or Livejournal or any other kind of social networking site. I don't want them. I don't need them. I don't join them.

I just don't care.

Similarly I don't want to do my computing on the move. I don't own a smart phone* and I don't intend to buy one. I am happy to check my email when I get home from work thanks. It is a matter of utter indifference to me whether there is a version optimized for the i-phone.


I am aware that in many peoples eyes this makes me some kind of Neanderthal that's how it is. And I am certain there are plenty of other people out there who feel the same way.


Google Reader did exactly what I wanted to do and no more. It told me when the sites that interest me had new content so that I could go and look at it. It saved me having to trawl around all the sites that interest me only to find that ninety percent hadn't changed since last time.


And it did it cleanly, efficiently and using words not pictures. I like words.




If others want flashier tools to work with, fine. I have no issue with that. Just let me work on in my Neanderthal way and don't insist on taking away my tools because someone invented different ones.


(*Even so my decidedly non-smart phone has internet connectivity and a camera. I have never used either. It has them because these days its next to impossible to find a phone that doesn't. I use it for making and receiving telephone calls and sometimes sending and receiving text messages. And that's all.)

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Learning Curve

My efforts to learn Chinese continue to fail.

No matter how much I try, the problem remains the same and the various people who have tried to teach me seem unable to appreciate it. I simply cannot hear the difference in tones in anything but the most ludicrously slowed down and over-enunciated speech. And I couldn't make them if my life depended on it.

They seem to think that I am, if not lying, at the very least exaggerating the problem.

I'm not. They say the words and I can genuinely hear no difference. I can say what I think is exactly the same word four times and they tell me that I have used all four tones and said four different things.


Why is such a problem? Well...


Last week we were doing a lesson which involved poetry. Most of the classes were unfamiliar with the word "poem" so I was trying to say it in Chinese. The Chinese for poem is shī (first tone). Now this is an awkward word. My online dictionary lists 385 different meanings for the word in its various tones. They range from "poem" to "be" to "ten" to "earwax" to "corpse" to "raincoat" to "turtle-dove".

And therein, I suspect, lies the reason that my attempts to say "poem" caused such hilarity. I have a sneaking suspicion that my shī (first tone) sounded more like shǐ (third tone) which has many meanings but which (all for the same Chinese character) can, among many many other things, mean either shit, earwax or snot.


That's the kind of trouble not being able to hear or say the tones gets you into.

Well, that's different #1

A new series of very short posts on differences, good or bad, between China and England.

That shower I mentioned is actually a fifty litre water heater and shower unit.
It was ordered at two O'clock. It was installed and working by four thirty on the same day. Free.

When did that last happen to anyone in England?

Three weeks next Tuesday, mate. Fitting? No that's delivery. Call us when it's delivered to arrange a fitter. That'll be an extra twenty quid.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Just because I'm paranoid...

I'm starting to think they're out to get me - specifically that my administrator is trying to kill me.
Now of course I know that's nonsense. My administrator doesn't want to kill me. She wants me to stay for another year in Baiyin. She says (and of course she's right) that I'm the best teacher they've had in Baiyin. All the same...

It started on Friday when she texted to invite me to go hiking with the local rambling group on Saturday morning. I went with them at eight o'clock and by about nine we were at the start of our hike. Initially  it was a flat stroll along a rubbish strewn riverbank but when we reached the hydroelectric station we turned off and headed uphill. It wasn't especially strenuous but it wasn't especially pleasant either - a dry dusty hike up a narrow path. Here and there as we climbed it was better with some nice views back across the lake. The path climbed and dipped and climbed again with the trend being upward so that after a couple of hours we were quite high and at a small flat area where we rested. Then came the start of my problems. The next section was an awkward scramble down through rocks. There was no path as such but it should have been easy. It would have been except that I seemed to have twisted my hip. It was becoming quite painful and the twisting and turning nature of the descent didn't help. By the time I reached the bottom I was in quite a lot of pain. My friend Richard who speaks excellent English, asked the leaders of the hike how difficult the rest was and if there was any more climbing. They told him that there was only a little climbing left - a small hill.
First though we had to get to lunch. The walking was increasingly painful but I got to lunch and sat down and rested. By the time we were moving on I didn't feel too bad and as we started off along a flat riverbed I thought it was OK. Two hundred yards on we turned out of the riverbed and started to climb again. The path was narrow and awkward and my hip was soon aching again. It got worse and worse as we continued to climb and I was at the back of the group by some distance. Then there came a bit that I thought I might not manage, a steep slippery downward slope followed by an equally steep rocky climb back to the path. I started to hobble down but the leader called me back and indicated a long but flat path round. It would add about forty minutes at my current pace but was, he said, easier. Half way round the awkwardness of my walking started to throw pressure onto my knees. I have had trouble with my knees in the past but rarely has it come on so quickly and so violently. Within minutes I was in agony with every step feeling like knives were being driven under my kneecaps.
Then we came to a section maybe thirty feet long where the path had been destroyed by a rock fall. All that was there was loose dirt on a sixty degree slope. It would have been easy enough to manage with properly functioning legs but it was damned difficult as things were. Jane, my administrator, watched impassively as I struggled. Behind was a drop of about a hundred feet. Somehow I made it. And I made the next one too and eventually arrived at the point where we rejoined the original path. The leaders were waiting. Now I was sure it would be an easy descent.
Imagine my surprise when we started uphill. It was a struggle. It would have been a struggle in any circumstances. Narrow paths alternated with non-existent ones. Hands and knees scrambles across rock faces with vertical drops onto sharp rocks alternated with ploughing across slopes of loose dirt. Every step was agony but eventually we made the road. There was a man loading a truck and we tried to negotiate for a ride to the bus station but he wanted a ridiculous amount so we hobbled on. The next group, shoveling soil onto a flatbed, were more amenable. They called a cab for us and Jane, Richard and I took our leave of the guides who scurried on down the hill while we waited.

An hour later we were arriving back in town and if that were the end of the attempts on my life, then fair enough, but of course if that were the end then this post wouldn't exist.

Both Richard and Jane insisted that I should get checked out but, as I have frequently remarked, this is China and China is the land of woo. so rather than the doctor or hospital that I was expecting we arrived at a massage clinic. Inside the shelves were covered with the paraphernalia of acupuncture and cupping and with those mysterious little wooden boxes that contain the bits of dried twig and assorted animal parts that make up traditional Chinese medicine. If they had suggested I use any of that I would have had to risk offending them but they just wanted me to take a massage. While the posters showing "energy flows" through the body were more of the same I was pretty sure that a massage would do no actual harm so I went along with it.
It was quite possibly the most painful experience of my life - to the extent that I was almost convinced that the masseuse was in on the conspiracy to rob me of my life. I survived the hour of torture but by the end of it in addition to my aching hip and knee I had every other bit of my body aching.
It was a broken and hobbling man that dragged himself up the five flights of steps to my apartment and collapsed onto the bed.

Next day Jane had arranged to have anew shower fitted to replace the hopelessly inadequate one my apartment was previously equipped with. Richard came along to communicate with the plumbers. They came, they fitted, they left. Once again TIC. It's an electric water heater in a bathroom and the only way to plug it in is by stretching an extension cable from the diagonally opposite corner and plugging it in MID-AIR in the middle of the bathroom. Health and Safety seems to be an unknown concept here. I expect I shall be electrocuted one day but in case that plan failed there was more to come.

I had asked Richard to accompany me to a pharmacy to help buy some painkillers - I was thinking of Ibuprofen or Paracetamol. What I got was something called Diclofenac Sodium. As the name was the only thing on or in the packaging in English I decided that before taking any I would take the precaution of looking on the internet. I discovered that outside China it's a prescription only drug, not sold over the counter and was alarmed in the side effects to see this

"may cause serious internal bleeding (rarely fatal)".

Call me a sissy if you like but "rarely fatal" isn't nearly rare enough for me. I shan't be taking any of those, thank you! A few days pain is probably a safer bet.

So that's it then?

No, actually it's not. As I was reading these grim warnings I got a text from Jane asking me if I wanted to join her Richard and some of their friends for dinner at the Little Sheep. The Little Sheep is a hotpot restaurant - and a damned good one, at that, so along I went. Now for those who don't know hot pot is a large bowl of bubbling liquid into which you drop vegetables and meat and pluck them out when cooked. This one, as many are, was divided into two sections - one with a tomato-based liquid, the other a chili-based liquid. Both were delicious and I tucked in with enthusiasm. About half way through the meal Jane tipped in a large plate of something that was black and shiny. Because I am allergic I have a very keen ability to identify the perfidious mushroom in all of its forms and these were clearly mushrooms. Jane knows I am allergic. When I pointed out that I could no longer eat anything she said that she had only intended to put them in one side but a few had fallen in the wrong side. No matter, she assured me, they had only been in for a few moments before she took them back out.

And so far that's it.

Death by falling down a cliff.
Death by assault and battery.
Death by electrocution.
Death by internal bleeding.
Death by poisoning.

I wonder what new possibilities tomorrow offers. You may be sure that I am checking the stairwell for roller-skates whenever I go out.

(And no, of course I don't think they really are trying to kill me. That would be ridiculous. Wouldn't it?)

End of lesson

Most of the schools here signal the ends of lessons with music - usually something bland and inoffensive, Richard Clayderman is popular - but one of the schools I work at is differeent. It signals the ends of lessons with a long spoken text - in English - about the companionship of books. The full text may be found at

I found this with only a minimal amount of web searching (one search actually on "companionship of books") and as you can see my first hit is dual text English and Chinese.
I have no idea why this particular text seems to have captured the imagination of the Chinese education system but it clearly has.
What I do know is that in the whole school there are probably two people who can fully understand it - me and the other foreign teacher. A few of the teachers will understand most of it and a very small number of students will understand some of it.

Seems an odd choice but I hear it every day. Maybe they think that it will sink into people by some alchemaical osmosis, absorbed through the pores if not the ears.

Well, at least it beats  Richard Clayderman.

Monday, 4 March 2013

A brief note of explanation

I have recently received an email from one of my small pool of dedicated readers asking why I don't enable comments.

The short answer is that I cant, blogger* is banned here in China and I have no access to admin functions. I can post by email but that's it. I can't even look at the blog to see the results or correct the typos.

The longer answer as to why that matters is this. I used to have a couple of other blogs which have now been shut down completely. Shortly after arriving in China one of them suffered a massive spam attack in which dozens of fake comments and, worse still, fake posts purporting to come from me started appearing. These were advertising dodgy web sites and fake gold watches and couldn't, because of the ban on blogger, be cleared up from here. Even if I could have cleared them up I might still have shut the sites down. The last time this happened to me in England it took two weeks of almost constant work to fix the problem.
Spammers and virus writers should have their hands chopped off.
Draconian? Yes, but it would be fair deterrent.**

I can occasionally use a computer enabled with a VPN to check this blog and I may get my own VPN but without it I simply dare not enable comments because I have no way at all to control them.

So if you wish to comment and you are a personal friend who has my email - do it that way, email me. If you wish to comment and you aren't a personal friend who has my email address, then I'm sorry but for the time being you can't.

(*Before anyone suggests switching to wordpress, that's banned here too.

** I am of course not seriously advocating such violent measures but it's certainly true that the current risk is clearly insufficient to deter anybody. There must be something that can be done.)