Miao, pussycats

Cougar Town.
Jules is 40-41, a successful real estate agent and divorced with a teenage son. Her best friends are her bitchy neighbour, Ellie, and her slutty lackey, Laurie. Jules’ cretinous ex-husband, Bobby, comes and goes as he pleases and there seems to be no enmity between them. Ellie’s husband, Andy, is the bitch in that relationship, and across the road is Grayson, who, in spite of his name, isn’t actually gay (but is sarcastic), but recently divorced as well, and who has has a constant stream of twentysomething hotties coming and going from his place even although he doesn’t really like them that much once the sex is over. Hands up if you haven’t already guessed that Jules and Grayson (sounds like a camp circus act) are meant to get together. Well, they do get together, and that’s how the series ends.
Can Courteney Cox get away with pretending to be 40-41? Not really. Is Christa Miller reprising her character from Scrubs? Yes, she is. Is that guitar riff in place of audience laughter somewhat annoying? Yes, it is. Does this show have any long term prospects? No, it shouldn’t.
What’s the audience demographic? Divorced, wine-swilling forty­some­things? The programme seems to have been conceived as a story about a divorced fortysomething who’s trying to be twentysomething again because she missed out on that decade after getting pregnant. That’s now the series seems to have started, but the whole idea that Jules might chase twentysomething boys seems to have been replaced by Jules the social linchpin, whose house is the constant centre of social activity and may as well be a wine bar.
Cougar Town needs to find its focus and decide what sort of audience it’s pursuing. I can’t imagine it appeals much to younger viewers even if that’s about the level of the humour, and it lacks the sophistication to appeal to the fortysomething market.

Mr Bamboo the voiceover artist

Smooth and mellifluous.
Yesterday, Peter asked me if I’d be up for some voiceover work for the telly. “When?” I asked. Some time, he said. I got to school this morning, sufficiently inebriated eager to babysit PAL 2, when Polly wandered into the office and said that people from the TV station were waiting at the gate. It was most inconvenient because I was right in the middle of a tollbooth challenge in NFSMW, which I was on course to complete.
We were taken to the local educational TV station, which is south of the school, this side of the canal. The script was about the internationalisation of education in Wuxi. I had to fix some of the English, but that was mostly a matter of the overuse of compounding, especially “education internationalisation”. Try reading that a few times in succession. The recording was all relatively quick and painless, but I kept omitting “study” from the phrase “study tour”.
Today we’re also celebrating the fourth day of decent weather in a row. The weather gods have decided that some variety was in order with two days of absolutely clear, polluted skies and another two of cloud and sunshine; not bad cloud, though. Well, not bad cloud so far.
It seems that while there will be no more Vanilla Coke (global catastrophe), Smoovlatté has been appearing on the shelves of Wuxi’s shops. Even Aierma and the shop at the gate had a small stock, although I’d have to say even² Carrefour had a small supply (which has now vanished) because it usually doesn’t stock any decent coffee drinks.
I seem to be attracting invitations from spam-skank.com or спам-сканк.рф at the moment. Oh well, I suppose it’s practice deleting unwanted cyber detritus.

Here be dragons

Terra incognita.
china01 The BBC doesn’t have a good reputation when it comes to science journalism. The boys on Language Log often poke holes in the BBC’s science stories, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a Cartography Log which pokes holes in the BBC’s maps. Planning a trip to Fuzhou? Don’t follow this map from the BBC which places Fuzhou a few hundred miles inland from its actual location in Fujian Province.
Actually, I have a feeling that I’ve seen such accuracy from the BBC cartography unit before, although before I crow too triumphantly, it’s not impossible that there is a Fuzhou in Jiangxi. It’s just not the one I lived in for a year.
I’ll take a guess that Fuzhou was marked on some other map, but the f ended up in Jiangxi and some graphics jockey at the Beeb couldn’t be bothered to check whether the city was in Jiangxi or somewhere else. Guilin and Shanghai are roughly in the right place, though.
Meanwhile, today has gone from being overcast and louring to being partly overcast and partly sunny with a smidge of blue sky. I’m going to need quite a lot more blue sky and sunshine than that, but I’ll take what I can get at the moment.
Update for Live Writer today. First time I’ve had one for quite awhile and the first I haven’t had to ask for since forever. Nothing new that I can see, but I’m sure that if I looked under the bonnet, I’ll see the hamster has a refurbished treadmill. All right, perhaps a patched treadmill.

Life is dull

And then it drags on a little more.
My little darlings had the listening exam today, which also means that that’s their final official English exam with our programme. From now on, their English, which doesn’t have to be exceptionally good to do well in the ESL exam, will decline as they delude themselves that they are sufficiently linguistically competent not to need to make any effort in English classes ever again. But their own ignorance will mislead them because they’ve done so well in previous ESL exams and will probably average a good B at least without understanding that the exam is a fairly mechanical exercise in which it’s quite easy to score well. Thus because my students have never done and will never do any real, advanced English which requires any real thinking, they’ll never know just how much of a chasm their is between their English and mine. On the other hand, I suspect that their English and that of their native English speaking contemporaries may not be quite as disparate as I might expect.
I’ve been growing even more bored over the past two weeks and wanting to resume lessons again because this whole idea of study classes is a complete and utter waste of time. I can go round at the start of the class to make sure they’re doing something, but the smart money says that for the remaining 44 minutes of class time after I’ve done my rounds, they’re just arsing about. That page which they were on at the start of the class is still the one that they were on at the end of the lesson.
I skimmed my way through some more of Human Traces and then glanced at the rest, concluding the book is a big, fat vanity novel desperately in need of an editor brave enough to tell Sebastian Faulks that Select and Delete are his friends, and brave enough to ask who his audience is supposed to be if it isn’t the author.
Meanwhile, blue sky and sunshine has been in short supply here as we go through yet another grey, hazy day. It might rain; it might not.

What do you do when you’re out of gum?

Kick Ass.
Dave is a typical schoolboy, but when he gets his lunch money stolen once again, he decides to fight back and becomes Kick Ass. But when he does step in, he gets knifed and run over. Once he recovers, the girl he fancies, Katie, misinterpreting his post-heroic nudity, promotes him to her gay best friend.
After Dave dons his Kick Ass suit again, he intervenes in a gang brawl, which is filmed and uploaded to YouTube, making Kick Ass famous. Katie asks Kick Ass to deal with an abusive boyfriend, which is when Hit Girl and Big Daddy enter the picture. Unfortunately for Dave, local crime boss, Frank d’Amico, thinks Kick Ass is responsible.
But after Frank’s son, Chris, poses as a superhero called Red Mist, they find that Kick Ass can’t be behind the attacks on Frank’s henchmen and use Dave to get to Big Daddy and Hit Girl.
Kick Ass and Big Daddy get beaten up live until Hit Girl arrives to save them. Big Daddy dies from his burns and it’s time to take out the trash.
Hit Girl ploughs her way through Frank’s bodyguard, but when she runs out of ammo, things look bad until Kick Ass flies in on a jet pack with shoulder-mounted Gatling guns. In the ensuing fights, Kick Ass battles Red Mist (draw when they simultaneously knock each other unconscious) while Hit Girl fights Frank d’Amico and is about to buy it when Kick Ass turns up with a bazooka and blows Frank out of the window with an explosion as a satisfying denouement.
So justice is done, Dave gets the girl, and Hit Girl goes to school.
It’s cartoon violence, but now with added adult dialogue and an eleven-year-old superhero. It’s a laugh if you’re not a Daily Mail reader or some other species of hysterical reactionary.
Weak point: Katie. Didn’t seem to be any good reason for the character. Redeeming feature: none of that usual, faux dislike of the boy when he reveals that he’s not gay after he’s seen her naked.

A biopic about Amelia Earhart, whose wikipedia page appears to be blocked from here. Seems to have been a vanity project for Hilary Swank. Little bloodless. The final part of the film where Amelia and her husband have that one last loaded conversation was inept. We all know that she disappeared in the Pacific, but the implicit we-ain’t-never-gonna-see-each-other-again dialogue laid it on a bit thick. By the end, I was wanting the aliens to beam her aboard the mother ship.

I know this was meant to be bad film, but I was curious to see it for myself. The first copy I bought many years ago didn’t work in my DVD player. It’s not cult bad, but it is bad enough. Batgirl, sorry, Catwoman, works in the art department of a cosmetics company. Her boss yells at her and makes her stay after school to redo some art. When she goes to the secret laboratory to deliver the artwork herself, she discovers that the company’s newest product turns women into mutants unless they keep taking it. Anyway, Batgirl gets flushed down the toilet and when she comes to life, she’s been turned into Catwoman.
Hilarity, kinky leather gear, and a whip ensue. Sharon Stone turns out to be the bad guy with stone skin (10 mins. per level, which means she’s a level 1 witch). There’s a big fight. Sharon falls to her terrible demise.
Well, I’ve seen it. It wasn’t there to entertain. It wasn’t there to educate. It was just there.


Series 3.
The first series of Torchwood tried to be adult, but the idea was a miserable failure. The second series reverted to sci fi and was the better for it. While the third series was also sci fi, it concentrated on a single story about a bunch of aliens who came to Earth demanding 10% of the planet’s children so that they could get stoned on them.
Civil servant: So you’re technologically advanced.
Alien [long pause]: Yes.
Civil servant: And you need to wire children up to you to get stoned.
Alien [long pause]: Yes.
Civil servant: Then why can’t you use your advanced technology to synthesise the chemicals instead?
Alien [long pause]: Dude, we’re like totally stoned.
Civil servant: Worst aliens evah.
I’m sure the story is meant to be some sort of satire on something. Are the aliens meant to represent overprotective parents who have their children perpetually tied to them?
Anyway, Cap’n Jack had to sacrifice his own grandson to defeat the stoner aliens, alienating his daughter in the process, before alienising (it’s a word; no, really; all right, so I’m using it with a different meaning) himself at the end of the final episode.
Not RTD’s finest hour or so.

A dog and his (potential) masters

Come ’ere, boy!
I woke up this morning to find that the sun was shining after a cool, grey weekend and variable Monday, that Gordon Brown has offered to resign and that the Conservatives are now offering a referendum on PR or AV (Alternative Vote) as both sides try to entice entice Rover, er, I mean Nick Clegg to join them. Although a Lib-Lab pact would seem a little more plausible than a Lib-Con one, such an alliance still wouldn’t have a majority in the Commons. I know that minority government is possible, but I can’t see such an arrangement leading to effective government.
The news yesterday was that an agreement between the Lib Dems and the Tories was nigh, but it turns out that Clegg had also been having secret talks with Labour at the same time. What’s a boy to do? Labour are also offering some sort of referendum on another system of voting, although that would only be after MPs vote on whether to hold such a referendum.
I have occasionally thought about the nature of government and have come to the conclusion that the people in power may change, but the nature of government remains the same. America, for example, may be a republic, but the president is an elected king, and the Senate and Congress are the Lords and Commons respectively, just as it was in the 18th century. I suppose the one difference is the absence of an equivalent to a Prime Minister. In Russia, democracy doesn’t seem to have affected the desire of one person to be the tsar, just as the ousting of one autocrat back in the early 20th century saw his replacement by another because that was the only system the Russians knew. The same seems to be true in China where things may have changed over the past 60 years, but the government and the abuses of those in government haven’t changed because it’s the only system they know.
In the UK, the divine right of kings became the divine right of Prime Ministers under Thatcher and Blair. The pattern seems to be the same as it was 500 years ago with the rulers being contemptuous of one group or another. 500 years ago, Charles I ignored parliament (both Thatcher and Blair were the same and they both seem to have believed that they ruled by divine right); 500 years later the attitude seems to be that because we voted for them, we must agree with their decisions (that’s democracy), and thus whatever objections people might have can be ignored because uox gubernationes, uox populi maioris partis. The people have become the equivalent of parliament under Charles I. It doesn’t seem to matter who’s in power, the UK is governed by an elective dictatorship.
The news is that there are no more 8th periods and, today, no classes at all this afternoon because the Californians are in town trying to lure money from the capacious wallets of our little darlings’ parents into their own coffers. Exams start today, but no matter. I note that quite a number of students in all three of my classes seem to be making no real effort to revise. In AS1, that’s the majority of them, but even in the PAL classes little effort seems to be being made. The problem is, I think, that cultural stumbling block of self-responsibility which is so wanting in this country. I go round the class to see what they’re studying, but I know perfectly well that when I return ten or fifteen minutes later, the book will still be open at the same page.
The World Chess Championship is still a tie with one full-length game to go. In a change from the advertised programme, the eleventh match was an English Four Knights opening (1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. e3/g3) after a series of games starting 1. d4. Topalov has white for the final game, which starts later today, although I won’t know the outcome for certain until tomorrow. So far I’ve had a pretty good idea of the results ahead of time by following comments about each game on chess.com. At the moment, I’m predicting another draw.

44 Scotland Street

By Alexander McCall Smith.
44 Scotland Street is a serialised novel which appeared (and still appears) in the Scotsman. Pat, who is on her second gap year, starts sharing a flat with the narcissistic and excessively pretty Bruce, whom she initially despises, but with whom she then falls in love. She ends up working for the feckless Matthew who “owns” an art gallery which his wealthy father bought to keep his son out of mischief. Together, they have the adventure of the Peploe?, which Bruce found hidden in the cupboard in the flat and donated to the under-attended Conservative Association Ball. It then got sold to a charity shop and bought by Ian Rankin, who was kind enough to return it.
Bruce works for a surveyor, but decides he wants to go into the wine trade only to make an unwitting fool of himself.
One of the other flats is occupied by Stuart and Irene, and their allegedly gifted son, Bertie, who has been learning Italian and the saxophone, but really wants to be a normal boy in spite of his domineering mother’s attempts to mould him. Bertie eventually ends up in psychotherapy, although the sessions are more for the benefit of his mother who remains blithely unaware of her own failings.
The other flat in the building is the home of Domenica Macdonald, a rich widow and anthropologist who drives a mustard-coloured Mercedes in which Bertie would like to ride if his mother wasn’t such a perpetual ass. She acts as a kind of mother-confessor to Pat and introduces her to local artist, Angus Lordie, who eventually identifies the painting as a not-Peploe and spots a Vettriano underneath.
Reading 44 Scotland Street as a book is rather like running a 100m race where you stop every 10m and either keep going the same way or change direction. It’s a consequence of the story being serialised in a newspaper, which also means that you can read the whole thing fairly quickly. Nonetheless, I enjoy McCall Smith’s writing, which seems rather effortless, and I can forgive him for occasionally indulging in some philosophising.
I wonder whether Chater Books in Shanghai might have the others in the series.
I see from the website that I’m quite a few episodes adrift. Matthew is now married; Bertie has a younger brother, Ulysses, who, he notes, bears a resemblance to Dr Fairbarn; Pat is studying art at Edinburgh; Bruce seems to have survived being sacked and is now engaged to his boss’s daughter, Lizzie; and Domenica and Angus are doing the will-they-won’t-they dance (which becomes a they-will dance in a more recent episode). I do seem to be rather a long way behind the latest doings.

Pizza and politics

A hung combination.
(Yes, I know the subheading makes no sense, but I was at least aware of that when I wrote it.)
I tried Red Hat pizza for tea last night. They’re principally a pizza delivery outfit, but you can go to their shop in the Trust Mart building and buy a pizza directly from them. Their range is small and expensive, and I was expecting one of those travesties of a pizza that I once had at the Western restaurant with its over-sugared base (the same problem which afflicts almost all bread in this country; if they want that amount of sugar, let them eat cake, I say), but was pleasantly surprised to find the base had a proper, neutral bread flavour. I think I might indulge myself once a week, although I’d really prefer to go to High Fly in Chengdu.
So, the election. As predicted, we’ve ended up with a hung parliament. The results aren’t all in, but it’s clear the Conservatives have the largest number of seats, but will still fall short of the necessary majority. Even with the help of a certain unsavoury minor party from the Emerald Isle, they can’t form a government. Labour and the Lib Dems might be able to muster more seats, but would still have no majority. Just when you thought the show might be over, there’s going to be a sequel. And while that’s happening, I expect the Civil Service are enjoying running the country without their political masters interfering.
The Lib Dems held Cambridge and increased their actual majority, but in percentage terms, the BBC said that there was a 7% swing to the Tories who came out marginally ahead of Labour.
There were a couple of high-profile scalps in the form of Jacqui Smith and Charles Clarke, but Ed Balls didn’t get portilloed as predicted. Lembit Opik is now the former beau of Sian Lloyd, the former beau of one of the Cheeky Girls, and a former MP. Perhaps he should change his name to the Former Lembit Opik.
I was a bit disappointed that the Lib Dems didn’t do better, but I wasn’t surprised either. On the other hand, they might yet have a part to play in the formation of a government, and although I have doubts about PR, some change in the electoral system might not be such a bad thing so that voting trends are more accurately reflected.


By Sebastian Faulks.
Stephen Wraysford has been sent to Amiens by his employer to study French industry. But instead, he falls in love with his host’s wife, Isabelle, and they have an affair which is revealed after her husband finds that she has been aiding and abetting striking workers. They move away and live together for a time before Isabelle finds herself pregnant and, unable to tell Stephen, she returns to her husband.
A few years later, it’s World War I and Stephen is a lieutenant fighting in the trenches and mostly working with the sappers. He’s involved in some action and manages to survive, but does get wounded and is left for dead. Eventually he returns to Amiens where he meets Isabelle’s sister, Jeanne, and manages to secure an interview with Isabelle. Since they parted, she has had an affair with a German officer, Max, while the Germans occupied Amiens, but she was also wounded during a bombardment and has been scarred. She still doesn’t tell Stephen about their child and later moves to Germany after Max is badly wounded.
Stephen continues to survive the war and he begins to see Jeanne on a regular basis and starts having a relationship with her. But as the war comes to a close, he find himself down in one of the mines which the sappers have been digging when the Germans set off charges trapping him underground with the wounded Jack Firebrace. Somehow, he manages to escape, partly through his own efforts and partly through the efforts of the Germans who realise that someone must have survived the blasts they set off. Jack dies of his wounds and Stephen emerges from beneath the earth to find that the war is over.
While all this is happening, Stephen’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth, is trying to learn something about her grand-father. She manages to get hold of his diaries, which he wrote in a kind of code, and track down some of his former comrades-in-arms. She has her own problems at the same time such as her relationship with a married man who is never going to leave his wife.
Elizabeth eventually finds that she’s pregnant, learns something of Stephen from his diaries, and gets the rest of the story from her mother, Françoise, who was not Stephen and Jeanne’s child (they married in 1919), but Stephen and Isabelle’s. Isabelle died during the Spanish Flu epidemic and Max, who was in no state to take care of the child, sent her back to France. Elizabeth gives birth to a boy and names him John in order to keep a promise that Stephen made to the dying Jack Firebrace whose own son, John, died of diphtheria while his father was serving in France.
Overall, a good read, although I thought that the final part of the WWI story dragged a little and strained plausibility as Stephen managed to save himself below ground quite literally single-handed because he was unable to use one arm. I also note that Faulks seems to have a thing about reticent pregnant women because the same inability of la femme enceinte to inform anyone of her condition also crops up in Human Traces.
Stephen is a displaced person. He comes from a troubled background, but was taken under the wing of a wealthy patron and managed to make something of himself. His elevation to the officer corps was also at the prompting of a patron. There isn’t much to like about him because he’s not especially personable, but he’s not dislikeable either. He just is. He seems to be the sort of person who is still an outsider even when he’s on the inside, although that is a state partly of his own making. Eventually, he marries Jeanne.
Isabelle is the Edwardian wife of the much older Azaire, who abuses her. She treats Stephen with proper hauteur at first, but he discovers that she is also helping the impoverished workers who work for her husband. From what I can tell, she seems to be modelled on any number of oversensitive female characters from Victorian or Edwardian literature, but she actually has sex. Her reluctance to tell Stephen about her pregnancy is derived from what little he has said about his own childhood. She herself seems to transfer her affections rather easily as she presumably looks for some security in life.
The sections of the story about Elizabeth are less engaging than those about Stephen. She’s in her late thirties, single, and a mistress to a man who (cliché alert!) is never going to leave his wife. I like the idea of the two generations working to meet each other in a hypothetical middle, but the deciphering of the diaries is passed to someone else, and it’s from them that she gets most of her information. She could also have asked her mother about her grandfather, but that doesn’t occur to her until the end of the book.
Along with Stephen there are his comrades-in-arms who have been affected by the war one way or another, and who are likely to be casualties from the next bombardment or suicidal assault. Weir is a superstitious alcoholic; Gray is the patron who has to keep prodding Stephen; the sappers are the supporting cast of British Tommys. I suppose I shouldn’t forget to mention the lice, but I don’t know who’d play them in the film.