Thursday, 29 September 2005

Chinese mindblock

Just a quick comment on Chinese web-censorship, coming at you from Chengdu in Sichuan province, where it is currently raining pandas and pangolins (local for "cats and dogs").

I just want to add that flickr.com seems to have been added to the list of banned sites. You might ask how I figure this out? Well, I'm sure there are more scientific ways, but when my browser refuses to connect a few times, or from different computers, I try to use one of the anonymous proxies available on the web. If I then manage to connect it means flickr is in fact out there, but not reachable from China. In the process though I also found some of my favourite anonymizers have also been added recently to the Chinese blacklist.

Steve Biko said (and I might have quoted this before): "The greatest weapons in the hands of the oppressor are the minds of the opressed." It has a special relevance in China, where the people almost completely homogenously support almost anything the government does, but not out of some ideological conviction, but out of either complete and utter disinterest or complete and utter apathy. Or, wait, that's kinda the same thing. Or is it?

Certainly a different kind of apathy from the kind we know in the West. This is almost a time-honoured tradition of ignoring or tolerating government as being some very far flung phenomenon that has no influence on daily life whatsoever. The few Chinese people who do seem concerned express a feeling of complete and utter helplessness in the face of their government's and culture's complete and utter monolithicness (copyright: me 2005).

A good name for this post would have been "complete and utter". Truth is if there was an election tomorrow the CCP government would win 100% of the vote, pure and simple. It's a shame really, that the Chinese have been through so much in the 20th Century, and have lost so much, and are completely and utterly unaware of how oppressed they are.

Chengdu is laid-back, leafy, filled with parks and friendly people. Armies of backpackers pass through here, 3 Gorges-bound or tibet-bound or both. Coffee can be had, and at some places even reasonably. English is considered a language with multisyllabic utterences surpassing the two in "hello". Old men approach foreigners in the street and ask questions like: "What's the difference between 'telly' and 'television' because my dictionary doesn't say." There are antiques markets where you can browse at your leisure, drink beer next to the river, and are not bombarded with ridiculous trinkets and loud "looky, looky"'s while doing so. In short a very agreeable place, not at all Western, but a good, polite, cultured Asian.

Tomorrow off to see the pandas at the breeding centre, then to an irrigation project built in 120 AD to divert the Jiang river, and still in use. Returning to Xi'an is going to make a dull, clunking noise.

Monday, 26 September 2005

Don't know the name of the mountains in the back



Some better pictures of my new and improved skorro korro.

A hobbit and his car



Some better pictures of my new and improved skorro korro.

Metamorphosis



Here she is. I got my Fiat 124 Sport Coupe back today after a three week transformation from fire engine red to batman black. It was done in Wellington and the guy did an excellent job, even respraying the dashboard and replacing all door and window rubbers. I still need the left indicator lens, though, part of the reason it initially needed some fixing up, but that's up to Ebay to solve.

Please show your respects by observing a minute's silence for the dog that appeared out of nowhere the night Cerebus and I were driving from Stellenbosch to Cape Town (the damage to the left nose can be seen in the left hand picture). I won that fight, and even though the panelbeater was 4 times cheaper than the big city people, that dog still cost me money.

Sunday, 25 September 2005

InTRAnet

China has updated its Internet access policy and its pretty scary. While it has always been difficult to get access to international news or "unwanted" views via search engines, it seems that a more severe clampdown is coming.

News24 reports that China has updated its Internet news policy to "standardise the management of news and information" and this will mean only "healthy and civilised news and information that is beneficial to the improvement of the quality of the nation, beneficial to its economic development and conducive to social progress" will be allowed, adding that "[t]he sites are prohibited from spreading news and information that goes against state security and public interest."

It is obvious what those interests are and what the topics and viewpoints are that are banned: Taiwan, Japan, democracy blah-blah, we've commented about it before (see one of Cerebus's recent posts).

I am now reading Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China by Ian Johnson, and it struck me, as someone who have visited but one city in China, how much more goes on below the surface, even though the signs of control are evident. For me it is worrying, given the tacit support China gets from the money-hungry West. The dilemma, aptly summarised by a Chinese reviewer on Amazon in his/her response to the book (after admitting not having read it in the first place), is how do you change the views of millions of people who enjoy the material benefits of modernisation? Here's an excerpt:
Now as a Chinese, I will tell you the truth: People there do not care, they are enjoying their lives too much to care. They have learnt that you have to be indifferent to be able to enjoy. That is to be indifferent to all the unfortunes happening around them and to be indifferent from all the sympathies that foreigners have towards them.
Hmmm. Show, don't tell, that's what they taught us in the student press donkey years ago. Cerebus might want to say more....

Saturday, 24 September 2005

The bats are restless...



Soon to be unveiled... my new BLACK Fiat. This is the hood ornament, still taped up under a layer of undercoat. I wanted to document the whole thing more, but haven't had the time. This picture was taken last week, when I delivered new door rubbers to the panelbeater. It was supposed to be finished last week, then yesterday, then today, now hopefully... DEFINITELY... tomorrow. And then I'll post more piccies on the actual transformation.

Monday, 19 September 2005

COMMUNION

(for PJB)

[commūn’ion, n. Sharing; participation; fellowship; intercourse]

Clockwise. That is how the bathwater exits into the drain. You only notice it if you make a point of it.
We had elk burgers and oddly non-bitter beer imported from Germany for dinner.
Breakfast will offer smoked reindeer and three kinds of strangely delicious-yet-pungent herring infused with pepper corns—amongst other things. I must remember to try the cheese again.
Our taxi drives on the wrong side of the road.
The seasons are all weird.
The sun never quite sets at night.
The locals speak in gentle little phrases and end their sentences in question marks. Even the neo-punk on the metro politely, shyly, smiles an apology after stepping on my foot.
The letters on their vowels are different, too.
The world is quietly, violently counterintuitive up here. We are so far north that tomorrow’s plane will fly south for two hours before we land in continental Europe, separate, and find our respective connections.
Respective cities. Respective lives.
Respectfully saying goodbye.

The air is eerily clean here. And if you walk along the banks of the islands that create this impressionist city, you notice bathers swimming in the water connecting urban lives. We are staying in a hotel on Södermalm—the island just south of the tiny old city. From our window you can see into the night for miles. The night is defined by a sky that seems to be creating its own light. An ink blue illumination that pulsates in the absence of the sun, creating its own life. It rebels against the darkness. At the summer solstice this lasts for only about two hours, until the sun reappears and reveals an even brighter Stockholm than the one remembered from the day before. The greens, yellows, oranges and browns that define this city are interspaced with the blue from the water and the white sky.

I recreate this memory carefully when I miss him—which I often do, these days. I recreate an image of my lover in my mind, and place him in the room that we shared. I am aware that everything is a construct. Fleetingly I wonder whether I am actually recreating the images as they were, or whether I am acting in an attempt to create a facsimile of the emotion that accompanied those days. It is the same thing: brute fact and emotion, I decide, and I leave it there. I have made peace with the fact that the self is the only knowable, or the only existent, thing. Solipsism does not insult me; does not render me more lonely.

I have a friend who says that I romanticise the past. I protest, denying it, but she is right. In fact, it is worse than that: I romanticise the lover I am with. I call it my nostalgia for the future—that perfect future containing idealised me and idealised him. I suppose it is inevitable that all my relationships end in metaphoric tears. As reality and the banal evolution of our soporific lives slowly erode the ideal I start to hate the projection, blaming my lover for not living up to the ideal. Unfair, cruel even, I know, but for a while it works.

…With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.

My lover and I have the same first name. He jokes that it is quite useful during sex; that it renders inoffensive calling out one’s own name as you orgasm. I smile at this, and pour him another glass of wine. He is so sensitive, sensual, sensory: he loves the hues of Stockholm, the crystal skies and the remarkable tastes of the food. He claims that one is free to reclaim one’s childhood here—to rediscover the pleasures of the senses as a child might. I think he is being dramatic; the hyperbole makes me frown. I don’t say anything. After our last supper we will make love. Tomorrow the plane will take me south. He will be gone. I need to make our final communion as free as I can. I must keep it light and unencumbered. The memory must be created. And survive.

My lover attended the same conference where I gave my paper. After my presentation on the politics of memory he extended a hand (palm up, I think) and said that he wanted to talk some more. That was four days ago. Entirely random. And here we are, going through the ritual one last time. I will give myself to him completely. I will take from this last night what I need to sustain me into tomorrow. And the day after. And the one after that.

We are on the bed. The curtain is not closed, so from beneath his body I can look through the glass and see the sky. It is not dark in the room. I take slow breaths, I suck in his scent and listen to the sounds our limbs make as they pass over the bright white sheets—in this light they are almost shining. I tilt my head to his ear and whisper,

“This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance…”.

He opens his eyes and looks at me before resuming our play. He is getting close. The breathing is quickening. I marvel at the automatic thrusting that seems to be hardwired into the males of all species. We are face-to-face; he had entered me from the front. I taste the air from his mouth, and as he climaxes I stretch my left arm out across the bed. His fingers are intertwined with mine.

He has not yet taken a breath. As the orgasm subsides, he exhales, and just as he readies to waken to the present, draw in air and open his eyes, I slide the blade gently from just beneath his right ear, across his Adam’s apple and exit a few centimetres later. There is a lot of blood, and I hold tight his spasming right hand, whispering,

“This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you”.

He is already dead by the time air re-enters the severed pharynx; the last breath goes in, not out. The eyes are open and seem almost surprised. He is suspended in time.

I love him most right then.

We disentangle. I cover him gently with the remaining sheet. I shower in water that is slightly too hot for my liking.

After breakfast the shuttle will take me to the airport.

The memory remains intact. I will remember. Everything is as it should be.

It is perfect, our last night.

Our communion.

Thursday, 15 September 2005

Murakami stole my theory. Again!

I'm still working on how Haruki Murakami went forward in time to steal my theory about life after death, and include it in his book Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I will find out, Haruki, and then I'm coming for you! Beware. Or, you know, just do a risk assessment.

Page 285 in the Vintage edition:

"Your body dies, your consciousness passes away, but your thought is caught in the one tautological point an instant before, subdividing for an eternity.

"[...] expanding human time doesn't make you immortal; it's subdividing time that does the trick."

I remember trying to explain this thing in some philosophy class to the lecturer a long time ago. I was thinking like this: we can only be aware of being aware, right? We can, therefore, not be aware of the moment at which we stop being aware, right? So when we die, we will be endlessly aware of the last moment of which we can be aware, eternally. It's so bloody simple it hurts.

The lecturer wanted me thrown out. Less for saying anything heretical, and more for not making any kind of sense whatsoever. So, ever-since I've nurtured this theory of mine, keeping it safe and secret against the slings and arrows of outrageous misunderstanding. I.e. I haven't bothered making it any more coherent. I was figuring, in the end everyone will see I'm right. I will be famous, but very privately in a little world inhabited by every person all on her own, for all eternity.

Great. Well, if you read the book, you'll know the "End of the World" is in fact just such a state of being: the eternal subdivision of time in the moment before awareness and consciousness cease. Cool. And Haruki Murakami invented it completely independently! And he put it in words that makes sense. Here they are:

"... thought goes on subdividing that time for ever and ever. The paradox becomes real. The arrow never hits."

It's like that old thing about always halving your next step, ending up never reaching the other side. So, when you die, time for the living observers goes on the same as before: your body crumples up and turn very dead. But for you, time becomes a little subdividing paradox and you never in fact reach the other side.

Just hope you die in a nice way, then. We'll see, won't we. (And that is, in fact, my theory.)

This post has no links in it whatsoever.

Sell your soul

Now that I can post, thanks to my new best friend, I will.

Headline in today's China Daily: Hu: China to provide US$10b for poor countries

Suspicious? Here's the catch:

"Hu said in order to increase assistance to other developing countries, China has decided to accord zero tariff treatment to certain products from all the 39 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) having diplomatic relations with China, covering most of the China-bound exports from these countries."

So, what are the conditions for having diplomatic relations with China? As the Vatican found out:

"As usual, China also repeated one of its own conditions for diplomatic relations: that the Holy See sever its relations with Taiwan. "

So that's it really. If you want a piece of the Chinese pie, you have to sell your soul to Mr. Hu Jintao first. But hey, many coutries have done so, prefering to line their own pockets rather than stand up for their beliefs, like democracy, freedom and the right to have a Starbucks on every corner.

Proposal for phonetic Chinese

The disadvantages of Chinese orthography have been discussed repeatedly elsewhere. The most amusing is an ironic proposal to design an English logography/syllabary based on the principles of the Chinese character system.

I'm not going into the details again, except to highlight one particular argument in favour of maintaining Chinese characters -- the argument I hear most frequently from what I'd have to call Chinese patriotic laymen.

First, however, the disclaimer: discussing someone else's culture and language borders dangerously on tremendous cultural chauvinism. In fact, it regularly makes little cross-border forays, blows things up and disrupts communications. I make no excuse for this: I am a cultural chauvinist of tremendous proportions. I honestly think Chinese characters are clumsy, arbitrary and above all way too round for my square brain. They are not congruent with the absolute laziness of my mind, and something needs to be done.

So, bring out the guns, Martha, we're going in.

My proposal for simplifying Chinese characters and thereby making the world a safer place for slackers everywhere.

"Too many words sound the same. We need the characters to tell them apart," they say.

Read this bit explaining how Chinese has only around 1280 discrete sound combinations, including those dreaded tones, and how English has around 4030. Just a comparison. No-one is boasting.

Then read about how Chinese seems to have a crazy proliferation of homophonic syllables (including tones) that are written with different characters and have different meanings.

Or... just take my word for it.

Let's move it along. Example time: "Li" in my tiny dictionary has a whole seven pages of entries. That's actually a little unfair, because that includes all four tones, plus the neutral non-tone, which Chinese people can readily tell apart, and therefore won't classify as the same "li".

So, I'll choose one tone (the 4th): There are in fact 37 different characters for 4th tone lì. You can be sure there are a handful more in bigger dictionaries, mostly names. Certainly looks like you're going to need a way to distinguish between them.

Here they are:

lì:
丽 例 俐 俪 利 力 励 历 厉 吏 呖 唳 戾 枥 栎 栗 沥 溧

疠 痢 砺 砾 立 笠 篥 粒 苈 荔 莅 莉 蛎 詈 跞 轹 郦 隶 雳


But let's loose the ones that would only ever be used as syllables inside longer, multisyllable words.

唳 栎 栗 痢 砺 笠 隶

Leaving eight. So in spoken Chinese all the other syllables are found inside words where the rest of the word would nail down the meaning pretty accurately. The problem seems less severe now.

And, as this learned sage argues, these lì's probably exist as different characters because the written language never had to reflect the differentiation needed when speaking out loud. This brings me to spoken language.

IF

you need so many characters to distinguish the meanings of homophonic syllables

THEN

how on earth can people speak Chinese to each other?

What's different in the spoken language? Many things. Most notably there is pressure/responsibility on the speaker to clearly differentiate her vocabulary. We do that too in English. I'm sure everyone does it. It's not more or less difficult to do in Chinese. Chinese writers simply never had to do this, because of the huge overabundance of information carried in the rich complication of each character.

A speaker can't say, for example, shī (诗) for a poem. It's going to be mistaken for louse, lion or corpse. She'll have to say shī gē (诗歌), poem-song to be understood. Or she'll have to add an article and measure word: yī shǒu shī(一首诗): one unit of poem (?). Shǒu will be your measure word for today, and it functions as "one glass of water". In spoken Chinese the measure words have become indespensable in conveying meaning. If Chinese was written phonetically the word for poem might long ago have been changed to simply be shǒushī, with the separate meanings of the syllables rendered completely irrelevant.

Staying with measure words, one caught my attention recently in a children's book: 只 and支, both pronounced zhī. The first is for birds and some animals, and the second is for long, pointy things, like a single chopstick or a Buffy-like stake. At some point, before going to school and beginning the decade-long process that is Chinese literacy, kids must use these measure words without any inkling that they are, in fact, different characters. Then one day in the second grade (or whatever) their teachers mention to them that they are written differently. How, I want to know, would they possibly distinguish between them before they can read or write, and when they have only the sound to go on?

In fact, it gets more convoluted, in that you can apparently use the first one for chopstick-like objects too, but you can't use the second one for pigs. So why have the second one at all? The second one is clearly functionally superfluous. It looks nice, sure. Would make a great tattoo, but that's it.

So here's my culturally chauvinistic solution. The solution, according to me. (I hear the echoing of maniacal laughter.)

Phase Yi

Put spaces between words. Chinese characters are all written together, which makes looking up words in a dictionary utterly laborious if you don't know where one word starts and another word begins. (Remember, the are relatively few single character words. Most concepts are two or more characters long.) So the first thing to do is to lump concepts together in the way most Germanic languages link them up to form compound words.

Word breaks would also facilitate information management and keyword searches in Chinese, which at the moment needs quite convoluted algorithms.

Word-breaks would create the needed awareness to proceed to Phase Two.

Phase Er

Drop all the superfluous characters. Tall order. Which would you choose? Easy, actually. There's this list of the most common 3000 characters, in order of erm popularity. Use them. Chinese has this finite set of possible sounds -- around 1280, including (all together now) the tones.

From this list of 3000 we can choose 1280 characters that represent every single initial and final sound and every single tone. One sound, one symbol. End of story. With these characters we could write anything, phonetically, in Chinese.

But, of course, implementation would have to be slow, so here's an idea: when kids learn to read and write we give them reading material carefully written using these characters in their original meaning, so for a while they can then go on, later in their school careers, to learn the rest of the thousands of characters. The difference is that now, when they are stuck, they can go on writing phonetically and later look up the correct characters. These characters will be a well defined core that they can always fall back on. We'll leave it to a next generation to completely abandon the other characters, as this system hopefully becomes mature.

Phase San

All that remains then is to see how characters themselves can be simplified even more. Many of the core characters will contain strokes and elements relating to meaning, that can now gradually be stripped away. This should be a natural process and should reflect the new developmental pressures on the language arising from a phonetic syllabary. Writing style will surely change, but indications are it will become more congruent with spoken language since the pressures of phonetic intelligibility will be the same as in the spoken language. This is what happened to Korean after the introduction of the Hangul phonetic writing system.

Conclusion

No-one is ever going to do this. Fair enough, but it can work. Perhaps at least choosing a core character set could give foreigners a good place to start when they set about learning Chinese. It could be a good guide for elementary school teachers deciding which characters to teach and in which order. Using word breaks could certainly help in the electronic age, getting the information catalogued and searchable. Implementing this hare-brained scheme might completely change the way Chinese people think. That could be very dangerous. I do know for sure the children I teach could very well do with a little less pressure, from schools, parents and systems, and if they could dispense with the mindless repetition needed to cram 8000 characters into their heads just to read the newspaper, then I would love to help them.

PS. "Disappointingly, ping-pong doesn't come from Chinese; so Mandarin pīngpāng is a rare borrowing from English".