When You Are Engulfed in Flames

By David Sedaris.
 
This is a collection of short to medium length autobiographical vignettes as Sedaris narrates different parts of his life in, it seems, roughly chronological order. Sedaris is a readable writer as he chronicles episodes such the babysitter from Hell, the New York neighbour from Hell, various stays in Paris and Tokyo, and his attempt to give up smoking.
 
I suppose the articles appeal because they’re readable, and because Sedaris has the knack of taking the mundane and doing something with it that makes you feel vaguely interested about him and his life. About the only miss in the book, I thought, was the final part, The Smoking Section, about Sedaris trying to give up smoking once and for all. It’s the longest part of the book and, I felt, the least interesting, although perhaps that’s because I’m not a smoker. The more interesting parts of The Smoking Section were about life in Japan, which resembles life in China more closely than I already thought.
 
However, as I read the book, I wondered where the money was coming from as Sedaris and his boyfriend, Hugh, jetted off around the planet to live in France or Japan as if the expense didn’t matter. Sedaris seemed to have no actual job during these periods and yet he was never short of money for booze, fags or dope. Did writing pieces for Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker etc. really earn him enough money? I’m just a bit curious. All right, I also admit I’m a little irked that here is yet another person with no visible means of support who’s still able to fly off to exotic locations for a life of apparent leisure.
 
Overall I did enjoy the book, and that’s the main thing. I ended up reading most of it during the more interminable parts of Neverwinter Nights. Now, on to Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

70s babe and barking loon die

An excellent day for burying bad news if I had any.
The news is (apart from the deaths of Farrah Fawcett – no surprise – and Wacko Jacko – uh-oh! hype tsunami; I see The Guardian has a picture of him when he still looked normal) that the boys from CRE came round yesterday and packed up my kit. Twenty-five boxes this time, not all of which can be blamed on trying to take as little with me as possible when I actually depart. Out of ¥2000 I get ¥98 change. This is why goods and chattels such as chests-of-drawers, heaters and bookcases aren’t really a good idea. Two years ago when I arrived in Chengdu I had eighteen boxes and the move from Fuzhou cost ¥1100.
I’ve read that id software has been bought by ZeniMax, who own Bethesda. Various informed people have suggested the ties between Splash Damage and Bethesda’s new project were probably a hint of some such alliance. Perhaps id will now be forced to do it when it’s done a little more rapidly because somebody is standing over them with a big stick +2. Also, it’s been announced that EA has merged its various RPG franchises. [15.01.14. Since then, Bethesda does seem to have waved its stick, making id go back to the drawing board with Quake V or Doom IV. I did predict when Doom III came out that it would take until about this year to see the next id game. I think that was optimistic. Rage came and went without leaving a ripple. John Carmack himself has also jumped ship after turning his attention to Oculus Rift.]
I’ve been making a little more progress with the weird and wonderful world of the music industry. I got my Dad to send me scans of various albums by Telemann. I looked through the rest of the music to see what else I needed. I discovered that the tracks from the fourth disc of Telemann’s Tafelmusik had labels for Wassermusik and that the names of the tracks and titles of one album by Vivaldi were totally at odds with each other. On the other hand, I managed to find a listing of the tracks on Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I’m sure that the album should’ve come with a list of tracks and the lyrics. In fact, I’m sure it did.
The hit count for GB has gone a bit wild this week, with over 1200 visitors so far. The overall hit count for the blog smashed through the 56,000 barrier without blinking. I don’t know why I’m suddenly Mr Almost Perceptible Popularity again. Most of my hits are come from Windows Live searches (unless this actually means Bing), but I have no information about what’s bringing most of them here.

Skateboard Squad

Vehicula quadrirotata.

The self-propelled vehicle of 2009 has been this two-wheeled skateboard-like contraption which seems to be propelled like a Venetian gondola by wiggling the aft wheel from side to side. I have no idea exactly what they’re called, but as a former skateboarder, I feel compelled to regard them as rather risible. They seem to be a skateboard designed by overanxious parents. You know the sort – they’re busy ensuring their children’s obesity by ferrying them to and from school because a.) you should see the amount of traffic on the roads (that’s all those parents taking their fat brats to school) and b.) the streets are crawling with perverts (it was in the Daily Mail or some other reputable fish-and-chip wrapper read by the cred­ul­ous).

It was with some surprise that I saw a couple of kids with skateboards earlier this afternoon. If I have seen kids on skateboards in China, it’s been so long since I’ve seen one that I’ve forgotten the last occasion I did. But this is not a skateboard-friendly country outside of parks where the surface might be flat, smooth and unobstructed. The pavement here would give you average council in the UK nightmares because of the unevenness of the surface.

But a couple of skateboarders was nothing when a whole horde came thundering down 总府路 this evening, perhaps numbering about twenty-five to thirty. I noted that not one of them had a helmet, knee pads, elbow pads or any sort of protective kit. One of them turned to video the others on a stretch of road which is reasonably smooth, but has various manhole covers which might topple an unwary skateboarder.

I managed to pass them all just ahead of the next intersection where they did a little chant. Anywhere else, the police would probably have stopped them because what they were doing was dangerous to the skateboarders themselves. On that stretch of 总府路 there are only barriers between the cars and the cycle lane as you approach the intersection.

After that, I don’t know what happened to them. When it comes to taking off, I’m normally first across the road when the light goes green and I was anxious not to find myself negotiating my way through the horde along the cycle lane to 天府广场.

Idaho

Achtung, baby!
idaho t_shirt
Two T-shirts spotted in Hotwind this evening. The first one says “Idaho. It is incumbent upon us to do so”; the second, you can read for yourselves. I can only assume that Idaho is some weird reverse rendering of Adolf Hitler in Chinese. I don’t know whether this is something Hitler said, but a quick nose in Google yields nothing immediately. The phrase is fairly generic.
Oh well, I suppose Chinese people go into clothing shops in the west and see the weirdest things in Chinese.

The end

The complete full stop.
This has been one of those weeks when on those occasions I’ve had leisure time, I’ve felt disinclined to do anything that might require my brain to make some effort, hence no updates for the past few days. Quite a lot of this week has been taken up by preparations for the final exams; in fact, more time than I was expecting.
I had my last actual class two days ago when most of Class 5 (my original half; Glen and I swapped back) did some work. Yesterday when I saw them formally for the very last time, I decided it was a good occasion for a media studies lesson. I was less impressed when Class 5 indicated that they didn’t want to see more of Arrested Development because, instead, they wanted to watch the end of Shrek II, another of that great collection of sequels that should never have been made.
And today was the final exam itself. I ended up watching over my half of Class 6. Like the exam at this time last year, the day was horribly humid. As I should’ve known, the usual idiots violated exam protocol, but they’ll probably get such bad marks that it’s not worth giving them zero. That would be an improvement. There was also the kid who rushed through the reading exam in about 25 minutes flat. This is an IELTS reading exam, which takes me, a native speaker, 40 minutes to complete and get 98% – 100%.
But that, I think, is a symptom of the deeply flawed education system which, unwittingly, encourages pupils to do absolutely as little as possible to an absolutely minimal standard. The clown in question thought he’d then be allowed to leave the room, but you don’t get to do that in an IELTS exam and I didn’t let him on this occasion.
So I’ll never see these smug, arrogant little bastards again, except in passing next week perhaps. Hopefully, I’ll never see them again.
Thus this week marks the end of seven years of working for the programme and the same thing year in, year out – obnoxious spoilt brats who lack the wit to appreciate the knowledge you’re trying to impart to them. The era comes to an end but it engendered no particular emotional response in me except that anxiety you feel when the end is nigh and you wish it’d arrive a little sooner. But things should be different next term because I’ll be teaching obnoxious little brats who are going abroad and who don’t have us as the extra class they don’t want.

Music is painful

I don’t want my MTV.

I discovered that the reason why my MP3 player [probably my Aigo a5 –Mr B] is so contrary about the order in which it plays music is because it does it by title instead of the more reasonable folder and file name. As a consequence, I’ve been going through the music that I ripped off my CDs and editing the title information so that I’ll get the tracks from each album grouped together and played in the right order (sort of).

[28.07.14. I assume that Sony, Apple and other companies which ma­nu­fac­ture MP3 players only conceive of music in terms of modern albums where every track is a discrete entity. On the other hand, most of the music I listen to comes in suites in particular keys. Such suites could be randomised so long as they remained suites, and not three Courantes followed by five Sarabands, etc.]

When I ripped the albums in the first place, I found one or two oddities such as information listed in Chinese or Japanese or some other language when I might’ve expected English. But such linguistic quirks were only the half of it.

When I reached disc 2 of Corelli’s Op. 5 (violin sonatas), I noticed that the tracks all seemed to have the same file names as those from the first disc, although the music was different. Fortunately, the Hyperion website supplied a listing of the tracks so that I was able to edit them and their titles.

François and Louis Couperin were this morning’s pains in the arse. Under artist information for each track, the latter had the name of the former. I have two different editions of François Couperin’s Concerts Royaux, one of which has them in their due and proper order (but the track names are generic), the other of which does not. One also has a couple of extra harpsichord pieces which I can’t identify.

Whether you can find a listing of the album tracks is a bit hit-and-miss. My attempt to find information about Louis Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin played by Bob van Asperen revealed that it seems to be a back catalogue album which has probably been superseded by another performed by van Asperen which was released in 2007. What information I could find did not include a detailed listing of the album contents. I wasn’t even sure whether I’d found the right album. In fact, trying to find information about Louis Couperin’s works listed par ordre (or whatever the correct French phrase is; apparently en règle) seems impossible. When I found the a site selling the sheet music, it had the table of contents from the book in which the works were listed according to their key.

On the other hand, I found a good listing for the tracks on the album For Lute and Base Viol by the Geneva Baroque Duo. wikipedia has also been hit-and-miss. For example, it give precious little information about the Music for the Royal Fireworks by Handel. The album I have is the one with that work and Concerti a due cori (No.s 2 and 3) which was released in 1985. The re-release I’ve been finding online is for a 1997 album. But because I’m more cunning than the Count of Cunning (I’m sure this is a name which Shakespeare used for an exceptionally obscene pun in some play of his), I use Amazon to find the current album by Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert which has the two Concerti a due cori (No.s 2 and 3 – if I haven’t already mentioned that), and find the information I need.

The titles for the Water Music are a little better, but I need to do some editing to ensure they’re in the right order. Bugger. More tedious, repetitive work. And now, having listened to Bach’s French Suites and then the Complete Harpsichord Concertos this afternoon, I find myself listening to the French Suite in E flat major for some reason. More editing required. Ugh.

[Later.] Turns out that the tracks were merely on the album, but not actually part of the French Suites.

[Even later.] I thought I’d see what actual classical music I had on CD only to find that I have both Water Music and The Music for the Royal Fireworks, but played by the Academy of Ancient Music. I thought I’d already ripped the disc, but when I checked, I could only find the content of the second CD, which had apparently been ripped over the content of the first. I changed the folder name and ripped the first CD again, but as I was editing the title information, all the tracks, apart from the first one, suddenly disappeared. I found them in the original folder as the tracks as they had been ripped not as I had edited them. My suspicion is that WMP was behind it, but I don’t know.

The discs of the concertos by Vivaldi were the same in that ripping the second disc wrote over the firs, but this time, at least, there was no unexpected moving of files from one folder to another. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to separate the concertos into individual folders for tidiness if for nothing else.

[Even, even later. Well, 07.05.14. Since I wrote this nearly five years ago, I’ve acquired two Walkmans, which are a good deal more sophisticated than my original Aigo players (which are also still around, still sound, but only good for people who want to listen to individual songs rather than organised suites).

I did not originally appreciate WMP, which I thought was cantankerous, but which I now quite like for editing the metadata with music and for transferring music to my Walkmans.

I also have iTunes, which if I owned a Mac, I’d no doubt use in the same way. I’m not sure whether WMP does it’s job more efficiently or differently from Apple’s media player. At the moment, I’m using it for the creation of play lists of single suites.

I have a copy of Winamp, which was recently killed off, but which may see life after AOL. That’s the player I turn to when I want to play some music, but without a huge amount of fuss and bother. I normally use it in the mornings, playing music before I head off to school.

I’ve got Real Player at school, although I forget why. I think it might be because it enables me to download some videos and other things without a lot of fuss and bother, but I rarely use it like that.

I’ve just installed the latest version (RealPlayer Cloud) here at home, but it’s very slow and cranky, and seems to be obsessed with videos. I think I’m going to uninstall it, which won’t be the first time I’ve done that within half an hour of installing RealPlayer.]

On Secret Service East of Constantinople

By Peter Hopkirk.

Hopkirk’s book is about the activities of the Allied and Axis powers in Central Asia during World War I. The Turks were trying to re-establish the Ottoman Empire; the Germans were waiting for it to collapse so that they could take control of it; the British were trying to protect India; and the Russians were hoping to take control of Constantinople among other things.

The new Great Game was marked by marked by heroic events such as the trek Niedermayer and von Hentig made to Afghanistan, and their subsequent trips back to Germany; disappointments – the German embassy to Afghanistan; the bravery of the soldiers on both sides in the face of extreme odds; and murderous internecine rivalries among the various indigenous peoples in the region.

Hopkirk’s book paints an interesting picture of a region which seems little different today. It’s the same complex ethnic patchwork in which no one seems to be able to get on with anyone else, where the Great Game continues mostly with the same old players and a few new ones.

On the other hand, I sensed that this was a book written by an elderly journalist (he was born in 1930, I see from wikipedia). The language is often repetitive and emotive as if Hopkirk had forgotten what he’d written a couple of sentences previously and had forgotten that it was the 1990s not the 1930s. Nonetheless, the book is more enjoyable to read than those books by academic historians whose attempts at producing something populist never quite seem to work.

Back on the menu

Cyberian life sort of returns to normal.
 
Spaces is viewable once again, and Twitter and Flickr may both be back as well (according Danwei). blogspot is not back, but Live Journal is. (I don’t believe it. Actually, saying that you don’t believe something when you can see it’s true is a little stupid, but I’m too surprised to say anything sensible.) I need to find a wordpress blog. I’ve found one. It’s probably blocked, but Nanny is being dilatory about informing me of this and I can’t be bothered waiting for the inevitable disappointment.
 
I spoke to my parents on Skype yesterday afternoon, although my Mum had taken a funny turn earlier in the day because she’d forgotten to take the medicine which thins her blood. But she’s all right now and has been to see the doctor.
 
After two glorious days, yesterday turned seriously grey and gloomy, although there wasn’t any major rain until later in the evening. Today, on the other hand, was mostly bright and sunny (enough to get burnt), and fairly light this evening in spite of some cloud.
 
Today’s expedition was to the computer centre to see whether I could get a new toner cartridge for my aged laser printer. I could, but it’d cost ¥500, which is about quarter of the price of the machine when I bought it six years ago. In fact, for the equivalent model today, I’d be paying about ¥1000. Since that’s the case, I’ll wait until I get to Wuxi before I buy a replacement. I suspect that I may still need my own printer because the ones we use at school aren’t always reliable, which is why I bought a laser printer in the first place. In fact, neither of the two we had in our office have been behaving, but they are cheap crap.
 
While I was talking to my Dad yesterday, he showed me his new Sony MP3 player, which prompted Linda to buy one for herself today, although a more basic model. When I bought my Aigo player at about the same time as I bought my laser printer, it cost about ¥1600, I think, for a model with all of 256Mb of memory. From a quick search online, Aigo products seem to be a little on the expensive side in general (even more expensive than Sony).
 
I don’t know whether I’ll buy something to replace my old MP3 player, which is a decent enough piece of kit even although it’s a little feeble in the memory department. My main reservation is that I never listen to it because I’m seldom in a situation where I might want to listen to some music while I’m away from my computer. One thing that I like about Linda’s player is that it’s rechargeable. Mine takes an AAA battery, which adds to the weight.

Neverwinter Nights 2

Sword of destiny.

When you were a child, someone decided to leave a shard of a broken magical sword in you, which didn’t kill you or even inconvenience you in the slightest. Until now. Your village of West Harbour comes under attack from Grey Dwarves, githyanki and their allies. That sends you to Neverwinter where you find a job with the local police routing out corruption in the force before making sure that some local orcs get their names on the endangered species list.

In Chapter 2, you’re accused of committing a massacre (no, not of the orcs) in the village of Ember. Don’t worry, they make you a squire and you get off on a legal technicality after you fight a duel against Black Garius’ chief minder. You even get knighted and a castle, which might sound nice until you find out that the previous occupant, Black Garius, wasn’t too keen on maintenance, leaving you saddled with a massive mortgage and recruitment problems.

In Chapter 3, when you’re not crippled by debt repayments, you’re a diplomat forging alliances and a sword, which happens to be the one weapon that can vanquish the King of Shadows. (Handy, eh?) And then it’s off to war. You start as the Captain of the regular infantry before joining the SAS to whack Black Garius (who must be a Diarrhoea Demon – he keeps coming back) and the King of Shadows. Unfortunately, the ceiling caves in and kills everyone – probably. The place must’ve had the same builders as the keep.

Unlike NWN, you actually get to run a party of PCs, although I still have a preference for the way things were organised in BG 2. The game seems to be trying to preserve some vague semblance of the grid-and-miniatures version of D&D as it inexorably shifts towards becoming a full-blown third- or first-person RPG like Morrowind or Oblivion. Although the final version of the game is less buggy than it was on release, there still seem to be a few hiccups such as occasions when PCs would become all shy, hang around doors, and refuse to come when called. They also seemed to display the usual sort of behaviour, either running off the leash or doing nothing. My character was quite good at doing nothing even although you’d think that the main character would move on to the next monster within a reasonable distance.

Game play was the usual sort of thing – pausing, trying to organise the troops and attacking. It seemed to generally ensure that no matter what choices you made, you kept going in the right direction, although there were times when a little more guidance was necessary. Some of the battles seemed to suffer from Custom Level Syndrome™ which states

If the number of monsters in an area is n and their Challenge Rating is m, then n and m must be greater than or equal to a number that can only be described as unreasonable.

In the battle against Black Garius, who’s merely a level 14 wizard (by this stage of the game, the party is about level 19 or 20), a balor (CR 20) appears along with a whole bunch of monsters. Out of curiosity, I checked the DMG to see what sort of odds the PCs might face. The answer was five or six CR 14 monsters or one CR 20 monster. Even with the larger party in the final two battles and a wand of resurrection, the Encounter Level is ridiculously high.

Unlike the traditional form of D&D, the game runs too quickly to take any reasonable action. Start quaffing healing potions and you’ll probably be cut down. Go to heal some other character, and someone’s going to die because you can’t be in eight places at once.

On the other hand, while the action in the game can be overly rapid (even if the entire battle sequence drags on), the cut scenes can be tediously long at times.

Anyway, my next stop is the original version of the game which I started a couple of years ago, but failed to complete partly because my old laptop was persistently overheating even in the depths of winter and partly because I was getting bored with the game. My main motivation this time is to find out what life is like beyond level 20 in the expansion packs.

This will hurt me more than it does you, boy

Electoral thrashing.
 
The news this morning is that Labour got about 16% or 17% of the share of the vote in the European elections, putting it behind Ukip. Not exactly unexpected, considering recent events, although it seems that everyone’s conveniently forgotten that the Tories are no better than Labour. It’s more surprising that the Lib Dems didn’t do better.
 
The BNP have also won their first two seats, although how are their MPs going to cope with having to mingle with a bunch of foreigners? The wins were condemned, but even although the policies of the BNP may be odious, the result is democracy in action; the people have spoken. You have to wonder what they were thinking, though.
 
In non-electoral news, Spaces is still unavailable for direct viewing. I see from my Live home page that I have a network invitation, but I can’t respond to it because that page is off the menu as well. I was hoping that things would be back to normal today, or perhaps Spaces is following in the tradition of blogspot and wordpress when it’s been immune from Nanny’s capricious behaviour in the past. Oddly enough, typepad blogs now seem to have developed some sort of immunity from unreasonable prosecution. A Welsh View is still visible, although the blocking of YouTube and Flickr diminishes its value to some extent.
 
According to a report in The Guardian, C4 is going to make its whole back catalogue available online. I’m guessing that like the BBC’s video content, it probably won’t be available outside the UK. Pity. I wouldn’t mind getting the chance to see Father Ted again or some of the telly that I’ve missed over the past seven years. It’s about time the pirates here got some new series in because the selections in the DVD shops have been somewhat stagnant in recent weeks. Well, months.
 
I went to the Foreign Languages Bookshop yesterday less from some plan to buy something (I don’t really need any new books right now) than from the need to get out of the house. I ended up buying On Secret Service East of Constantinople by Peter Hopkirk, which is about Germany’s role in the Great Game, when it tried to foment rebellion in the British Empire during World War I. I suppose the book is the prelude and main series to Lawrence’s epilogue, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I hope the book will be interesting, although I keep seeing the word “evil” being used, a term which I’d avoid no matter how reprehensible the person, place or activity to which it’s being applied happened to be at the time.
 
After two or three days of brilliant weather, the sky was especially heavy and grey yesterday. There was a little rain in the early evening, but not heavier until later last night. It was a little dull this morning, but has now brightened up, I’m pleased to say.
 
However, there does seem to be a correlation between rain and cockroaches, which seem to appear when it rains. I found one scurrying across the bench in the kitchen, which I terminated with extreme prejudice. I gave the bench a good clean afterwards, but I’m careful not to leave anything which might entice these disgusting creatures. The fly spray was seriously lethal, though. It only took a couple of seconds to take effect.
 
I keep being sent multimedia messages. I was outside the Post Office on Friday when I got the first of them. Linda said she’d got the same thing as well, and I’ve just had another. There. I’ve deleted it.