In the end, I was just passing through

I’m gonna leave old Fuzhou Town.
On Friday, we had a mail message from Central Command to say that it was taking a bit long to make the decisions about the lead teacher positions than anticipated. Just before the last class of this morning, I had a phone call. I am being offered a position – in Chengdu. I might regret leaving the climate behind because this is the first winter when my hands haven’t been perpetually cold; I might regret leaving XXKX behind (although I’ll be able to get authentic Sichuan cuisine in Chengdu, of course); and I might regret leaving this area which is so seeped in history, where I got to watch the Lantern Festival. As for most of the rest, I shan’t regret it at all.
My original intention was to be here for a couple of years because I didn’t want to be moving again for a second year running; but I have no hesitation in accepting a position in Chengdu. I’ve now added to my little empire a TV, and I was thinking about buying a bookcase from Metro, but that idea will have to be shelved. Bookcase? Shelved? Geddit? [Will you shut up if we threaten you with violence? –ed.] In other words, I have a bunch of stuff to drag quite a long way. In fact, properly speaking, I’ll be at least one time zone back from where I am.
I’ve heard good things about Chengdu from James and Katie who are there at the moment. I’ve also heard good things about Chengdu from other sources as well. I know the school there is ancient, over a thousand years old if I remember rightly.
Anyway, I’m slightly floaty right now what with leaving for Kirsten and Nick’s wedding tomorrow and now learning that I’m going to Chengdu.

What kind of humanist am I?

Quiz time.
I signed up for a year’s subscription with New Humanist (editor’s blog – blogspot) and have been nosing around the latest edition of the magazine, and the website which has the obligatory fun Net quiz – What sort of humanist are you? Apparently, I’m a Hardhat, which seems to be a fair enough assessment, although my ideal holiday is buying piles of books and reading them, preferably in Hong Kong, but somewhere in the Med (villa in Italy overlooking the sea; perhaps Horace’s old place is available) far from the maddening crowds would be also be agreeable. Have to be Internet-free, though so that the little cyberdemon wouldn’t tempt me.


You are an atheist, a rationalist, a believer in the triumph of science and of reason over libido. You can’t stand mumbo jumbo, ritual, spiritual nonsense of any kind, and you refuse to allow for these longings in others.
Astrologers, Scientologists and new–age crystal ball creeps are no different in your view from priests, rabbis and imams. They’re all just weak–minded pilgrims on the road to easy answers. Nature as revealed by science is awesome enough for you, but it’s a nature that needs curbing and taming by us on our evolutionary journey to perfection.
Your heros are Einstein, Darwin, Marx and — these days — Gould, Blakemore, Watson, Crick and Rosalind Franklin. Could you be hiding a little behind those absolutist views, worried that, if you let in a few doubts and contradictory ideas, the whole edifice might crumble? Loosen up a bit and try to enjoy the amazing variety of human belief systems. Don’t worry — it’s unlikely you’ll end up chanting your days away in some distant mountain cult.
What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.

One Ring to etc.

The Children of Húrin.

I see from The Indie that Christopher Tolkien has finished of his father’s story The Children of Húrin. According to the article, the contents of the book “are being jealously guarded by publisher HarperCollins”. But we do kind of know the story already, both from the Silmarillion and from other books which Christopher Tolkien has been publishing from his father’s writings for many years now. I believe that the story features in Unfinished Tales, so I rather doubt whether we’re going to be getting anything significantly new. The article claims there’s a major twist (don’t tell me, Morgoth is Túrin’s real father), but I smell the puerile hype of a greedy publishing company that’s milking this one for more than it’s worth.

Some of Christopher Tolkien’s earlier volumes are worth having, but I felt that the later ones about early versions of the Lord of the Rings were pointless because you were getting into the world of

Final version: The orcs had shot Boromir with many arrows…
Draft version: Orcs had shot Boromir with many arrows…

Perhaps as a source for scholarly investigations of the evolution of the text such volumes might have a purpose, but otherwise what’s the point?

If you think about it, in a modern-world version of the Lord of the Rings, Sauron’s ring would be on offer to the highest bidder.

“What is it, Sam?” said Frodo sitting up sleepily in bed.
“Another message, master,” said Sam handing him the envelope.
Frodo opened it and read the letter inside while Sam bobbed about the room pretending to be busy.
“It’s from Saruman, Sam. He’s offering me a palantír and another suit of mithril chainmail.” Frodo cast the letter indifferently on to the bedside table along with all the others he had received. “Wake me up when we get a serious offer.”

300: the review

I showered instead.

I dropped by the DVD shop near KFC this evening and bought a copy of 300. I was expecting some cinema-taped rubbish, but whatever the source, this is a good quality copy, both sound and vision. Even the English subs are the actual subs to the film. I was expecting them to be absent or ripped from another film.

This is the sort of film which you need to see at the movies. You should either be inebriated or be able to suspend disbelief to such a degree that the Antisceptic Club will be sending you a memberhip form because you’re going to need the power of antiscepticism to endure this film. And a large amount of alcohol. Yeah, there’s no either… or… about it. Drunkenness and antiscepticism.

Since I wasn’t drunk, and I’m much too sceptical, I decided to go and have a shower during the film since I didn’t feel for a moment that I’d be missing anything. I probably didn’t. I did manage to endure much more of this than Troy, but I think that was a mistake.

The Persians were either monsters in form or behaviour, or, in the case of Xerxes and his court, effete. But every time I saw Xerxes, I couldn’t help but think of the goa’uld from Stargate SG1, and kept expecting his eyes to glow. The Persians were a ridiculous caricature which failed to stir any feelings of animosity, just as the Spartans failed to rally me behind them. Ephialtes conformed to that ancient and crude notion that ugly is bad, and he was so ugly that he must definitely have been very bad.

But Frank Miller has distorted the source material in an ugly way, which explains why the film is so bad. Ugly=bad, right?

Is there meant to be a message? As other reviewers have noted, the Spartans can hardly stand for America, if this is meant to be some sort of anti-Iranian statement. After all, in global terms, the Americans are today as the Persians were then. Is this hyperbole? Does Frank Miller believe that America faces an overwhelming horde or religious fanatics from the east? The Spartans are not the best choice of poster boys for the defence of Western Europe because Sparta existed as a brutal, militaristic state with an appalling human rights record for about three hundred years. If you’re homophobic, you might not want to know some of the other details about Spartan society.

Bloody awful film, but it might appeal to the Lord of the Rings fanboys.

I know there’s a film based on Xenophon’s Anabasis. It’s set in New York and is the story of a gang trying to return to their turf through hostile territory after a meeting with other gangs that went badly wrong. I can’t remember the name of the film, but it was a vastly better use of source material than 300.

Drop the aitch

And leave linguistics to the professionals.
David McKie has written Why I ate the Haitch mob on commentisfree. It’s one of those articles that is typically grist to the Language Log mill, although I doubt whether they’ll pick this one up. He notes the frequent use of haitch for aitch, the former obviously being analogical so that the name of the letter includes the sound of the letter as it does throughout most of the rest of the alphabet. (There may also be some hypercorrection involved.) When I was very young I would say "zee" rather than "zed" by analogy with b, c, d etc., because it fitted the pattern. Indeed, I can remember thinking how "zed" grated on my ear. I got over it. McKie is more diplomatic about haitch users:
The other day I rang a public library and asked if they had any files on a man called William Black. "Would that be William Haitch Black?" the librarian asked after due investigation. It might, and it might not, I was tempted to say; certainly he himself would have preferred William Aitch. But that would have been insufferably pedantic; so I meekly agreed.
Haitch makes me shudder, but I recognise the principles involved in its usage.
I was curious to know what the etymology was, but found, to my disappointment, that my etymological dictionary let me down on this. A little online research reveals that it’s from French hache, which explains the absence of /h/ in standard English (although I don’t know whether it’s one of those h-aspiré words in French).
/h/ is called a voiceless glottal fricative, but I believe that that is not really phonetically accurate. For a start, /h/ isn’t really a fricative, yet cannot be classified as an approximant. In native English words, it is historically derived from the voiceless velar fricative /x/. In Old English, h was /h/ word-initially, but [x] ~ [ç] elsewhere, these sounds being lost during the Middle English period. In standard English, it’s restricted to the onset of stressed syllables. In other varieties such as, I believe, Mancunian English, it’s been lost throughout. Among speakers of such varieties, it may then be a target of hypercorrection with speakers of h-less dialects adding it to vowel-initial words. (It’s an old gag.)
There are a few words which have an otherwise silent orthographic initial h- (e.g. honest, honour etc.); and others which have initial /h/, but older generations of speakers were taught to use "an" in front of them (e.g. an hotel etc.). I believe that in the early modern English period, it was standard to use "an" before all h-initial words. (Don’t quote me on that.)
In Classical Greek, /h/ was marked by a rough breathing, a left single quote placed above the vowel, and was the remains of the left half a capital letter eta (Η). It did not count as a consonant, hence the 3rd pl pres indic active ending before a word beginning with a vowel or rough breathing was -ουσιν. On the other hand, when followed by a rough breathing, the voiceless stops π, τ, κ became the corresponding aspirates φ, θ, χ. οὐ "not" was found before consonants; οὐκ before vowels; and οὐχ before the rough breathing. This can also been seen in English words from Greek, hence catalogue (κατα-) beside cathedral (καθ-; with elision of the vowel). If I remember my Greek historical linguistics correctly, /h/ was derived from /s/, /w/, /sw/ and /j/. (Word-initial /s/ then arose by the assibilation of /t/ before /i/; my memory is wanting the exact details.)
In Latin, /h/ came from the old aspirated stops, typically IE */gh/, which is how English guest and Latin hostis "enemy" happen to be related (cf. goat < PrG *gaitaz and haedus "goat"). The historical origin of the sound is sometimes reflected in forms derived from it, hence traho "I drag", past tense traxi "I dragged", past participle tractum "dragged". From what I recall, /h/ was not especially durable in Latin. In verse, word-final vowels and –um were elided before words beginning with h-. I’m not aware of the standard variety of any Romance language having the sound /h/. (I can’t speak for Romanian, a language about which I know almost nothing.)
Sorry, getting myself distracted.
And my granddaughter tells me that when she used "aitch" at school, one of her teachers insisted that the right way to say it was "haitch".
Interesting, although no more correct than if I insisted that the teacher should say aitch. Which I would and I’d whip out my PhD to prove the rightness of my argument.
BoredwithLabour (and who isn’t?) says
Has anyone noticed that we are failing to educate our children? The GCSE pass rate is terribly sad.
The ‘haitch’ problem must be related to a phonetics teaching method that has gone terribly wrong…?
While I truely dislike hearing ‘haitch’, I would prefer that we prioritize our efforts and first work on the country’s inability to pronounce ‘th’. But, can we really be bovvered?
Oh dear, how embarrassing. Truely? Prioritize?? I feel a fit o’ th’ vapours coming on at the gross incorrectness and vulgarity of it all.
rockinred declares
I agree with the writer and most of the comments above. Sadly, it’s all part of the tumbling decline in literacy in the UK over recent decades.
But McKie’s article is to do with speaking not reading. Punters! Know your language skills!
Lucath thinks
I blame the loss of the teaching of English Grammar.
That’s right. I don’t know the grammar of the language I speak natively and thus need someone to inform me of it. (The nearest I come to countenancing this is, say, the teaching of style which can have a practical use.)
Among the many things that MichaelBulley has to say, there’s this:
On unpronounced hs, there is an advanced exam in France called the Agrégation and the candidates in English for it are taught to make a phonetic transcription of phrases like "send him away" without an aspirate for the h. One French Anglicist was surprised when I said that, although some native speakers may well always pronounce it like that and that I myself might do so sometimes, I would still consider it a lazy variant of the version that had the aspirate.
Ack! "him" bears low sentence stress, so that, as I noted above, /h/ is absent from the onset of such syllables. I’ll bet most of the time MichaelBulley says / (where /@/ is shwa), which is exactly what I say myself.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are quite a number of comments (MichaelRosen seems to be leading the charge) striking back at the amateur prescriptivists.
That’s enough commenting on the comments. (But not quite. Check out mojito’s comments, including gems such as "We speak a language that has evolved, and which does have a proscribed list of rules." Proscribed?! Yeah, I know what he meant; so did he I expect, but "petard", "hoisted" – you know how that sentence goes. And there’s more from that particular comment, but I’m really going to have to shut myself up. There are some really classic howlers to be found.)
And now a word from our sponsor: Xin Phoenix, the blog you read when Green Bamboo, the light at the end of the tunnel, has apparently been snuffed out (except when unattended during holidays and weddings).

Was no one listening?

I told you this months ago.
As I’ve mentioned, my sister’s getting married in New Zealand at the end of the month. I’m sure you’re all aware of this. When I got the ticket for the trip on Wednesday, June wondered how it was that I was going off on my summer holidays about three months early. As Todd and I were leaving the school yesterday afternoon, Tracy seemed to think that I’d omitted to mention this to her. In fact, I’d been surprised when she’d signed the leave form and sent it to Beijing without comment. Then I’ve arranged to meet Barby, who was one of the girls in the IELTS class and who is now waiting to get a visa to go to Australia, on Sunday. Where am I going? she wants to know, and Why?
I’m sure that since I’ve known about the actual date of Kirsten and Nick’s wedding, I’ve told all of the people I’ve mentioned that I’d be off at the end of the month etc. I wonder whether Daisy knows. She’s the only person who I haven’t seen since all this supposedly became public knowledge.

Perhaps I’m just not used to it

The new curriculum.

Just at the end of last term, we got sent the new curriculum which unifies the programme at all levels. For the past couple of years, we’ve had slightly different versions of the curriculum, one for each level. It makes sense to bring everything together under one aegis. At the moment (all right, earlier this afternoon between classes), I was trying to devise a term plan. Central Command does tend to want something that’s a little detailed, whereas I  know that I don’t know what I’m going to be doing until I get there, and the second term is usually a messy affair with May Holidays, practice tests for the NMET, and the NMET itself. Post-NMET June promises to be an interesting month, and by “interesting” I mean “month better avoided” because the school want us to then make up the classes the Senior 3s missed. If you happened to be reading back in about June last year, you’ll know that the school in Benniu pulled the same daft stunt, which ended up being a colossal waste of time.

Anyway, term plans really shouldn’t be more than a general suggestion of what unit is being done when. Certainly, it helps no one in a world where we have to be flexible to know what time we should be doing what exercise long before we get there. You might do it in foreign countries which have a history of long-term planning, but in China “long-term planning” means you’re thinking about what you might be doing in the next two to five minutes. I remember when I first came to China that I did try to work out roughly when I’d be doing what, but even at a general level, it never worked like that. The term plan, in my view, is merely a fig leaf which, if anyone tries to follow it religiously, is never going to work as it should.

I’m trying to use the new curriculum, although we don’t have to start using it until the start of the 2007-08 academic year. It doesn’t really matter whether I do so or not, because the material remains the same as last year and, therefore, the coverage remains the same as last year. However, I’m not much inclined to wait until then, so the new curriculum (I should say, “the ‘new’ curriculum”, because it’s not really doing anything significantly different) is being used.

The document itself is not well-formatted, even if the content appears all right. Nonetheless, it’s the content which bothers me and has me itching to do a critique of it. If only I was Kant. I could do the critique, although no one would understand what I was talking about. But I’m no Kant, of course. Who said, “Thank God for that”? Yeah, well you can sit at the back of the Internet.

The problem is that I’m looking at exercise, determining what the principal aim of it is, and frequently wondering which part of the curriculum is relevant. My biggest issue is detailed reading, which is conspicuously absent. It seems to have been subsumed by scanning, but scanning is the art of looking for specific information (I feel that I should be writing “ars petendi indicium certum”, but just as I am no Kant, I am no Dryden or Swift either), not detailed understanding of the text. It’s wrong, therefore, to be mistaking a detailed understanding of the text with detail (i.e., specifics) in the text. If I’m looking for “Carla Gugino” in the text, that’s specific information, but I needn’t understand anything further about her presence there. Detailed reading, to me, is kind of a combination of skimming (gist) and scanning, thus resulting in a fuller knowledge and understanding of the text.

Although I don’t want to enter into an extemporaneous discussion of the elements of grammar in relationship to the four areas of language acquisition, I can’t help but feel that amateurs shouldn’t venture into areas of linguistics where they are simply not competent to be. (I should add, of course, that I’m not an applied linguist[1] and probably shouldn’t be messing about with this particular branch of linguistics. Even so, I may come back to this some time.)

1. Syntactician: someone who found phonology too hard; applied linguist: someone who found syntax too hard.


Oh cut it out.

You may have heard about the cuts to Babel so that it can be publicly released here in China. Of course, it’s a complete joke because you can get the film uncut on DVD. In fact, I saw it a couple of days before I first heard this news. Todd lent me his copy.

Frankly, too bloody long. Better than Chromophobia which was a film with a similar theme; that is, about how unrelated people and events can be connected together. Babel delayed making the connections explicit. The best of the three stories was the Japanese one and could’ve been extended to 90 minutes in its own right. The story about Cate Blanchett getting shot was tedious: the bullet was apparently magical since it was fired from above, but entered through the window on the opposite site of the bus from where Sure-shot Abdul was standing. I didn’t like Blanchett’s character who I had hoped was going to die, but I was disappointed. The Mexican wedding was a kind of comedy of errors.

Anyway, the uncut version of Babel is available from your local DVD retailer in China.

Now what?

Reading matter.

Having finished reading Raselas, I’m wondering what to read next. I did briefly go back to The Tale of Genji, finishing a chapter that I started reading some weeks or – more likely – months ago, but I find the story winning prizes for being both slow and dull, just like Genji’s anally retentive world. I may read a chapter now and then, but expect another report this time next year about how I’m a third of the way through and no more engaged by it. In other words, I’m not going to be focusing my attention on The Tale of Genji.

I did suggest David Hume might be my next port of call, probably the Essays which are perhaps more approachable than other writings. I don’t know whether I want to trouble myself with his Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion or not, although a little background research on it reveals that Hume was dealing with issues that are germane to that nonsense of the modern age, Intelligent Design. The argument back in the day was that if you were to find a watch in the desert (note the spelling, SparkNotes!), you’d know that someone had made it because such a complex mechanism couldn’t have come into being without cause. Thus if the watch was created by an external agency, then something like the universe, having a complex structure itself, must’ve had a designer. The flaw in the argument is that analogy isn’t proof. Analogy merely says that two things function in a similar fashion, and is a kind of extended metaphor. Just look at the opening paragraph of Hobbes’ Leviathan (and also think about the flyleaf picture at the start of the book):

NATURE (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the Artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of Nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength; salus populi (the people’s safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death. Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politic were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.

However, I’m distracting myself from the subject.

The other matter, whether we’re talking about Hume or Locke or Dryden’s Dramatick Poesie, is my purpose for reading them. I admit that I’d be reading them less for content and more for style and mental exercise, and even as linguistic curiosities.

But I’ve also been wondering about trying my own version of NaNoWriMo over thirty days, although probably non-consecutively. What would the story be about? Well, Gerald Nerdey, oppressed, humiliated teacher of English in China by day is Mr Bamboo, superhero linguist by, er, day and sometimes in the mid to late evenings as well, fighting the forces of arch-villain Prescripto, who is plotting to prevent the English-speaking world from using the passive, and to make them talk uninformed nonsense about what they think is wrong with the state of the language. Mr Bamboo would have powers such as being able to use constraint rankings to defeat his enemies, although his Achilles Heel would be opacity (the equivalent of kryptonite to Superman).

I think Lucas and Spielberg are going to be wanting to talk about the film rights to this one. Carla Gugino could play Mr Bamboo’s sidekick, Mane Clawse, and the role of their boss, I.P. Spec-Node, might go to Stephen Merchant. Or Barry from Eastenders. I’m so excited. I can’t wait to buy a pirated copy on DVD.

(Actually, I hear there’s going to be a sequel [prequel??] about how Prescripto goes back to the late 17th century and tries to create an English Academy, but it’s called – and this shows just how evil Prescripto is – Academie Anglaise. Naturally, Mr Bamboo and Mane Clawse go back in time to stop him with a little help from Aphra Behn.)