Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Party Members

Party Members
By Arthur Meursault

This is a satirical novel about a lowly Chinese bureaucrat whose penis starts talking one day and begins telling him how to live his life.

Your reaction to the above sentence is a good indicator of whether this book is for you.

The humor is black and the book would be really unpleasant if it were remotely realistic. The two main characters, our bureaucrat hero and his penis, are both terrible beings. Don’t make the mistake of getting attached to anyone -- the only reason the story has characters who are not 100% reprehensible is so that the main characters can treat them horribly. And of course there are some big gross-out moments. I’m not necessarily being negative -- all of this is by design. I rather enjoyed it, but then I think I have a high tolerance for both scatalogical humor and surreal insanity.

Yang Wei is a low-level government bureaucrat in the fictional Chinese city of Huaishi (Badville?). He has led an utterly mediocre life, and he has a wife he doesn’t particularly like and a lazy son who shows no promise.

The turning point in Yang Wei’s life comes when his penis starts encouraging him to be (yes, I’ll say it) a dick to everyone. And he finds that the more dickish he is, the better his life becomes, as doors begin opening for him that he hadn’t known existed. How low can he sink? If he wants to rise high in society, he’ll have to sink awfully low indeed.

China, we can infer, is a society run entirely by dicks. Not because the Chinese people are inherently dickish, but because of the twisted incentives in place that reward dickishness as a way to get ahead.

Towards the end of the book, our phallic protagonist lets loose with a rant indicating that this is simply the natural condition of humanity everywhere, which may help shield Meursault from charges of being a Westerner up on his self-righteous pedestal, inappropriately bashing Chinese society blah blah blah five thousand years of history and so on.

It may be true that people are dicks everywhere, more or less, but I would rather be part of a society that doesn’t reward dickishness quite so much.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

History of Rome Volume I

History of Rome Volume I: The Republic

by Mike Duncan

For me, this book was a review of material already covered. Practically all the important stuff i know about Ancient Rome, I learned through podcast. My education took me through only the barest details of Roman history -- togas, Caesar, Vesuvius -- and the classes I took as a history major in college covered far later eras. The first time anything stuck was when I discovered Dan Carlin’s podcasts on the Punic Wars and on the fall of the Roman Republic. Carlin has a knack for making things memorable, giving me a mental framework on which I could hang additional information.

At that time Mike Duncan was diligently working away on his History of Rome podcasts, but I didn’t know about him yet; I only discovered him in 2013, when he’d finished with Rome and was starting his Revolutions podcast. Revolutions was (still is) a brilliant cast for anyone interested in political history, and I was sucked in by its first season, which covers the utterly fascinating (and bloody) events in the British Isles between 1640 and 1660. (Apparently Britain wasn’t just ahead of the rest of the world when it came to industrialization; they also had one or two modern military coups in the mid-1600s as well!)

I started listening to The History of Rome very soon after. I came to admire Duncan’s ability to tease apart very complex (and potentially very dry) history and make it interesting and comprehensible without simplifying or dumbing it down.

So when Duncan edited the transcripts of the first quarter of his old podcast’s run into book form, from Rome’s founding to Julius Caesar’s assassination, I decided to spring for the Kindle edition immediately. For one thing, even though I’d heard it all already, it couldn’t hurt to consolidate it all. Besides, I figured it was about time I spend real money on something Duncan put together.

I enjoyed reading what I had listened to back in 2013-14. The editing is good enough that it doesn’t generally seem like a written record of spoken English (though there are more than a few comma splices and spellcheck-invisible typos) and although I’d forgotten a whole lot of the details of 700 years of ancient history, I did smile with recognition when I came across a witty aside that I remembered Duncan making in the podcast.

So, how about the content?

In the first half of the book, we read about Rome’s mythological founding, and then follow the city as it establishes itself as a force to be reckoned with in Italy, suffers growing pains (sacked by Gauls), recovers, becomes the master of all Italy (Samnite Wars), branches out and establishes colonies, and then becomes the master of the western Mediterranean Sea (first two Punic Wars). All interesting enough, but mostly because the stage is being set for what’s going to happen later on.

I feel like things change with the Third Punic War. I hate the Third Punic War. Rome is the bad guy. I can’t think of any way Rome isn’t the bad guy. And Rome wins, because in this era, Rome always wins.

But in the aftermath of the Third Punic War, things become very interesting for their own sake, as Roman politics become the center of the narrative. This isn’t Game of Thrones-style medieval politics where the only question is which ruler gets to rule; no, this politics seems weirdly modern, with ideological factions and competing interest groups. The modern history geek looks at the Optimares and Populares of ancient Rome and thinks holy crap, they kinda had right-wingers and left-wingers back then. And then, after a few decades, the Republic fell apart, the Empire rose, and and the era of politics that looks so oddly familiar to us was over.

In the end, the basic impression I am left with (and this is not something I specifically remember Mike Duncan or anyone else specifically saying) is that throughout the era of the Republic, Rome never really stopped being a city-state. Even as Rome took over the Italian peninsula, Sicily, Spain, and much of northern Africa, it wasn’t so much a large country with Rome as its capital, but rather a powerful super-city with lots of colonies and vassal states. If you weren’t in Rome, you were ruled by Rome. The political issues of the city of Rome were the issues of the country as a whole. This eventually changed, but only well after the Republic had been replaced by the Empire.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Welcome Home, Master

Welcome Home, Master: Covering East Asia in the Twilight of Old Media

By J. D. Adams

J. D. Adams’ memoir of his years as a Taiwan-based reporter actually opens with a reporting trip to Japan he took in 2010. He went there to do research for a weighty piece about how Japanese companies increasingly rely on temporary workers. These workers get far less job security (and kind of a raw deal overall) compared to standard employees.

While in Japan, he also does a puff piece on a local fertility festival that has become a kitschy celebration of the penis. One of these stories was far more click-worthy than the other -- anyone want to guess? Such is the life, it turns out, of the Old Media journalist nowadays.

Adams then takes us back to the dawn of the 21st century, when he started his career in Asia hanging out with old-school foreign correspondents in Hong Kong, most notably the venerable and legendary Clare Hollingworth. (Remarkably, as of 2016 Hollingworth is still living in Hong Kong, more venerable than ever as her age is now well into three-digit territory.)

Deciding this was the life for him, Adams eventually settled in Taipei, where he worked as a copy editor at the Taipei Times while also reporting as a stringer for Newsweek, which over the next decade would slide into irrelevance (good luck, Old Media). Taipei would become his primary home for the next several years, and so in Welcome Home, Master he goes into more detail about Taiwan than any other place.

If you’re already a Taiwan expert, you may not learn much new here, but newbies will gain a sense of the country’s politics (Adams arrived midway through the Chen Shui-bian presidency and stayed for much of the Ma Ying-jeou administration) and issues (apart from the usual cross-strait diplomacy, he does several stories dealing with traditional Taiwanese religion in its myriad eclectic forms, reports from the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung and does a story on an Aboriginal village willing to take in nuclear waste in exchange for financial support).

Adams writes in a clear, compelling prose style which is about himself to exactly the right degree: he describes his accommodations in Taipei and his degree of fluency in Mandarin to add color to his writing, but he never lets the writing be about him. Until the final chapters, I didn’t know he had a significant other/girlfriend/wife.

The final Taiwan story Adams includes is the tale of the Hsichih Trio. In 1991, three teenagers were implicated in a brutal murder in the Taipei suburb of Hsichih (or Xizhi, in this country that confuses the hell out of foreigners by using multiple Romanization systems at the same time and sometimes follows none of them). The principal suspect in the case was convicted and executed, but the police were convinced that he had accomplices, and so the three young men were allegedly tortured into providing confessions. In 2010, Adams interviews the man he calls the most articulate of the three, who describes the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of the police and of the time he spent in prison wondering if he would be executed. By discussing the public controversy around the Hsichih Trio (who would be exonerated in 2012), Adams turns the focus on elements of the same politically-oriented civil society that J. Michael Cole has written about recently, as Taiwan transitions from the brutal state it once was to the more gentle society it is in the process of becoming.

While based in Taiwan, Adams wrote stories from neighboring countries as well. He describes reporting trips he made investigating the the tiger-parts trade in China, insurgencies in the southern Philippines, and the whale meat industry in Japan, to name just a few. (Also while in Japan, he writes another trendy ‘quirky Japan’ piece about a cafe where the clientele is waited on by girls dressed as maids acting all subservient -- the source of the book’s title, for those of you who have gotten this far in my review and are still scratching their heads at it.)

Throughout Welcome Home, Master, Adams provides a fascinating description of what it’s like to be a foreign correspondent for declining Old Media behemoths in the first decade of the 21st century. He ends his book getting out of the business completely in 2010, and while he clearly believes an end of the glamorous era of the foreign correspondent is at hand, he is not all doom and gloom: he is optimistic that low-paid part-time stringers, more versatile and with a deeper understanding of the place they are covering, can pick up the slack. I am not 100% convinced that this is desirable, either for the quality of international news reporting or the quality of life of these ‘stringers’, but it is true that decent reporting requires a deep understanding of the local situation -- perhaps deeper than a professional foreign correspondent who parachutes in is capable of providing.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Black Island

Black Island
By J. Michael Cole

Black Island describes how the pivotal years 2013 and 2014 exposed the pitiful inadequacies in both the two-party structure of Taiwanese politics and the narratives we use to talk about Taiwan. These were the years when a new set of groups rose to prominence, unaffiliated with any political party, in response to the failures of Ma Ying-jeou’s second term.

The first and final thirds of this book are a narrative made up of opinion pieces published by Cole during this period. This narrative tells the story of grass-roots protests against acts of high-level overreach: plans by Chinese-sympathetic corporate behemoths to acquire Taiwanese news media, and the land expropriation scandals at Huaguang Community in Taipei and Dapu Village in Miaoli in 2013. These protests represented a blossoming of Taiwanese civil society’s confidence to make its voice heard against government actions it saw as cold-hearted, greedy, and/or lacking in transparency.

Cole makes it very clear that these protests cannot be made to fit into the standard ‘blue vs. green’ dichotomy traditionally used to make sense of Taiwanese politics; in the Huaguang Community land expropriation case, for instance, young student protesters (traditionally ‘green’ voters) championed the cause of elderly residents who had been born in China (the most stereotypically ‘blue’ people one could imagine).

Cole also demolishes the idea that these protesters were agents of the DPP in a proxy battle against the KMT, a framework used by some hack journalists and pundits to explain the increasingly tumultuous events of 2013 and 2014. Not only have the protesters kept a careful distance between themselves and the DPP, but Cole does not hesitate to point out how DPP officials have been duplicitous and hypocritical while promising to help the ‘little guy’. Where DPP officials failed to lead, public protests rose up.

The second part of the book is quite different from the first and third sections, as it deals with the gay marriage battle here. Taiwan is on the whole one of the more progressive countries in the non-Western world when it comes to LGBT issues. Social issues have not been politicized to the extent that they have in the USA (they don’t fit neatly into Taiwan’s traditional Blue v. Green political polarization) and while many families are still run under traditional lines (anecdotally, I’ve heard many gay Taiwanese are ‘out’ to their peers but not to their parents), there is little anti-gay sentiment in society at large. It is easy to be optimistic that same-sex marriage will become a legal reality in Taiwan soon, as polls show a majority of people either actively support legalization of gay marriage or are indifferent to it.

In this section, Cole examines the gay-marriage fight in Taiwan and the segment of society that seems most opposed to it: Christian church groups. According to Wikipedia, less than 5% of Taiwan’s people are Christian. However, Christian churches have been able to mobilize to the point that they pull significantly above their weight on this issue, despite the fact that there’s not much traditional anti-gay bias in Taiwanese culture. (Or in the teachings of Jesus, for that matter. Sure, there is anti-gay stuff in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but as everyone who’s actually read them knows, most bible-thumpers have to cherry-pick liberally from those books.)

As Cole delves into the background of the Christian churches leading these anti-gay movements, he uncovers connections to the creepier side of American evangelical Christianity. Many of these connections involve the Bread of Life Church, which sent all sorts of weird feelings up and down my spine because I’ve walked right past this church’s Taipei location on Heping East Road countless times over the years.

All in all, this is a subject Cole feels strongly about: a very close family member of his is gay and married, so it's easy to understand his righteous anger at homophobic church groups peddling anti-gay slander as religion (not that he needed an excuse of course). As the subject matter is quite distinct from the first and third chapters, Chapter 2 does fit slightly awkwardly into Black Island as a whole, but I suppose one could see it as a dark side of the Taiwanese civil society whose awakening Cole celebrated in Chapter 1.

The final section of Black Island opens on the eve of the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan on March 19, 2014.

For me personally, though I lived in Taiwan for the entire period of time covered by Cole’s book, I never really paid enough attention to the events covered in Chapter 1 while they were ongoing to fit them into a larger mental framework. I saw stories in the news about anti-government protests and worries about Chinese influence in Taiwanese media, but seldom gave them more than a passing notice. The Legislative Yuan occupation was very different though -- a real ‘holy crap, is this actually happening?’ shock delivered straight to my brain.

Unlike certain people whom I am married to, I never actually ventured to the vicinity of the Legislative Yuan while the occupation was going on to hang with the protesters. That said, I did go to the mass protest of March 30. While I don’t have the expertise to estimate numbers, I can say it felt like the largest gathering of human beings that I have ever personally witnessed, and I am easily inclined to believe the higher estimates of how many people actually came out that day.

I’ll admit that when the occupation began, I was antsy and nervous -- dudes, is this really a good idea? Will it really help your cause? Think about the optics, people!

In retrospect, I was wrong. The images left in people’s brains are ones of overwhelming civility -- protesters being kind to police, and occupiers cleaning the Legislative Yuan to make it nice before vacating it. Whatever you may think of their politics or their methods, the Sunflowers won the optics.

The short-lived Executive Yuan occupation of March 23 left a very different impression. I remember sitting on the couch at home that night, nervously watching a livestream of the events, wondering just what the people involved could possibly be thinking. Every time I heard a siren in the distance I assumed it was headed toward the Executive Yuan (and as I live in central Taipei, there’s a good chance I was right at least some of the time). And when I went out the following day, after police violently evicted the protesters, I felt as if there was a noticeable sense of dazed glumness hanging over the city -- a sense of ‘geez, what is this country coming to?’ (With that said, I must point out that in a country just a few decades removed from tyrannical military rule, the biggest police crackdown of the pivotal year of 2014 produced zero fatalities. This is, by global standards, an extremely civilized country. May it always stay that way.)

I am absolutely not defending the violence of the police crackdown at the Executive Yuan, but I never really warmed up to the protesters’ actions when occupying it -- a bit too much like prodding the beast to get a reaction. Fortunately, the aforementioned mass protest of March 30 took place a few days later, and helped cleanse the EY occupation’s bad taste from my mouth.

And it does feel as if the country has been different, post-Sunflower. It’s not just the two devastating KMT electoral losses; there’s also been a blow struck against the condescending old “we know what’s best for you, so sush your mouth and let the adults run things” mentality of the past. There was more reason to feel optimistic about Taiwan’s future at the end of 2014 than when the year started, and in the time since, my optimism has only grown.

In conclusion, Black Island is a better read than Officially Unofficial, because Cole is reporting and opining on events rather than writing a memoir, which means he spends far less time explaining and defending his own actions and far more time describing the political situation in Taiwan, which is presumably what the reader is more interested in. The essays that make up the book all deal with Cole’s two main topics, which means the reader will have to look elsewhere to find coverage of other issues in Taiwanese politics during this time, such as President Ma Ying-jeou’s attempts to oust Speaker Wang Jin-pyng in the autumn of 2013.

The fact that the book is a collection of previously published essays means that the prose has a certain amount of repetition, and of course this is a collection of opinion pieces, not a magisterial work of history. I note that no publisher’s name graces this book; there are several typos and malformed sentences that likely would not have gotten past a professional editor. Also, twice in the book the reader is presented with a paragraph of Chinese text, for which no English translation or gloss is given, but the reader is still apparently expected to read and understand. (I choose to view this not as an oversight, but rather as a vote of confidence in my language ability.) If you’re on board with these issues, Black Island is an excellent look back at several interesting aspects of the last few years of Taiwanese political history.

My own views don’t always match up exactly with Cole’s. I think I am more of a free-speech absolutist than he is. In the Chapter 2, when Cole spoke of anti-gay groups that defended themselves by saying they had freedom of speech to speak their mind, I wish he had pointed out yes, these groups do indeed have a right to free speech, but asserting it’s not illegal to state your opinion is literally the weakest possible argument in favor of your opinion that you can make. Also, Cole’s tendency toward pomposity, while less pronounced here as in Officially Unofficial, still pops up from time to time; see the occasional overblown metaphor and his silly cliched rant about smartphones at the opening of Chapter 3.

In the end, the lessons learned from Black Island can be applied beyond the shores of Taiwan. Of course in many ways Taiwan is unique -- most countries do not have an enormous neighbor threatening annexation or war. But Taiwan is not the only country with an ostensibly democratic government that acts like an authoritarian regime when convenient. Cole describes how Taiwanese civil society is capable of spawning groups that can exert pressure on governments, independent of established political actors. This lesson applies outside Taiwan, and it will keep governments around the world on their toes in the coming years.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Mandarin Learning Material: FluentU

So I’ve been practicing Mandarin listening comprehension and building my vocabulary with FluentU. The site comes in Mandarin, Spanish, French, Japanese, and German-learning flavors as well as sections for EFL learners. I would assume that, apart from specific issues related to Chinese characters (more on those below), it offers basically the same experience for all languages.

The Content

FluentU takes the vast already-existing corpus of YouTube videos and puts them in an easily-digestible format for language learners. For Chinese, users get subtitles in English, pinyin Chinese, and traditional or simplified Chinese characters, any of which can be turned on or off at will. The user interface makes it easy to skip around in a video, or to listen to the last few seconds again and again repeatedly.

The above is likely to be seen as the most useful part of the site for most learners, and it has been a very valuable resource of listening materials for me. The listening material -- which FluentU carefully explains they’re using 100% legally through Creative Commons licences -- is harvested from YouTube’s corpus of Mandarin-language content (and as such, tends to skew towards Taiwan-based material). I’ve used FluentU to watch music videos, advertisements and publicity campaigns, a campaign ad put out by Ko Wen-je during his run for Taipei mayor, and snippets from TV shows.

There’s also Mandarin-language learning material already on YouTube that is accessible via FluentU, which somehow seems dodgy to me -- I wonder how the hard-working creators of material made accessible to the masses on YouTube feel about it being used by FluentU to make handy little exercises for its paying subscribers?

Finally, FluentU does put out some of its own material. For Mandarin learners, there are a few video stories aimed at lower levels, mostly revolving around social interaction, going out with friends, and so on. No moments of great drama, but frankly I find them far more tolerable than the famously awkward videos that NTNU puts out.

The language is of course graded for learners. The video of two college students making small talk improves tremendously if you imagine it actually shows two extraterrestrial spies who are practicing authentic hu-man communication before they go out to live amongst the hu-mans.

But those are mostly too easy for me. Unfortunately as of June 2016 there’s only a single solitary in-house video story for upper intermediate learners, the tale of a guy who goes in to interview for a job. I would like to see more videos at that level. Yes. More, please.

FluentU also has a lot of audio-only dialogue out there, much of it at upper-intermediate level, not dissimilar from what ChinesePod puts out but without the English commentary. It’s all hosted on YouTube so it’s tricky to put on an mp3 player, but accessing it through FluentU means you get all the nice FluentU support: subtitles, easy playback, and vocabulary practice.

Ah yes, the vocabulary practice.


For users willing to pay, FluentU offers its practice software. First and foremost, this includes vocabulary practice. When you choose to ‘learn’ the material from a video or audio dialogue, the vocabulary gets fed bit by bit to you in flashcard form. Ideally, you can hear the same word being used in different contexts across different videos in FluentU’s library. In practice, FluentU often gives you its own sample sentences instead, which you can hear read by a flat computer-generated voice. Better than nothing I guess, but with all my reading in second-language acquisition, I have yet to hear an SLA expert advocate listening to awkward computer-generated speech in the L2.

It is your job as the learner to supply the word, either by typing in pinyin (including tones) or in characters. The latter is much easier, as here it doesn't ask you for tones; you just have to type the pinyin and choose the right character from a menu. (Oddly, even though my FluentU is set to traditional characters, whenever I have to type I get simplified ones. Not a huge problem, as it’s not bad for me to develop a modicum of familiarity with them, but it’s weird anyway.)

At the moment I have 86 words in my vocab pile, of which the algorithm feeds me about a dozen to review each day; when I feel a word is sufficiently imprinted on my brain, it goes into the ‘Already Known’ repository, which is currently at 609 words, including those words I deemed too easy when FluentU first presented them to me.

There’s also sentence construction, where you hear a sentence spoken along and then reconstruct it by putting jumbled words in order. (You’re also given an English translation, but especially when it comes to song lyrics, the translation is often so clunky as to be useless.)

Context is key

A big part of what keeps me coming back to FluentU is that it gives me memorable context for the words I learn, even if the context is silly. Here's an example.

There's a video on YouTube called 中文Siri是這樣子的 (translated by FluentU as 'Siri, What Should I Do?') about a girl who regrets partying at KTV all night and asks Siri how to keep her boyfriend from noticing the bags under her eyes. Silly stuff, but I'd like to focus on one bit of contextualized language. When Siri suggests plastic surgery, our protagonist responds 'How could I have time for plastic surgery?!', or, in the original Mandarin, '整容怎麼來得及?!' The verb she uses -- laideji -- is one I've known about abstractly for years but have never used in speech, even with my Chinese tutors, because I have no subconscious sense of how it's meant to be used. But the sound of this lady complaining 'Zhengrong zenme laideji?!?!' into her iPhone is now etched into my brain, thanks to a silly comedy sketch on YouTube and FluentU's learning software. I could even produce a similar sentence more or less on command (and probably swapping a different noun for zhengrong), probably using my brain's interpretation of that girl's intonation, for better or for worse.

How much? And what’s the verdict?

$15 USD a month if you just want to watch videos through FluentU’s interface and enjoy the subtitles and playback options -- that is, if you want to use it for listening practice alone.

$30 USD a month if you want all of FluentU’s vocabulary practice options.

I’m paying the higher price, as I feel that for all its weirdnesses, FluentU’s learning software has been very helpful to me. We’ll see how far into the future I continue to feel that way.

Next up: Skritter.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Officially Unofficial

Officially Unofficial
by J. Michael Cole

J. Michael Cole is one of the best-known Western journalists based in Taiwan. His 2014 book Officially Unofficial details his first several years in the country and his time working for the Taipei Times, which of course spiraled into unpleasantness, culminating in his angry breakup with the Times in 2013.

Huge swathes of this book felt as if Cole was recounting various controversies he has been involved in primarily to make sure his side of the story was getting out there so it could be read and understood by everyone. Of course he has every right to do that, but I won’t necessarily trust him as an objective source of information on what went on at the Times during his tenure. (That said, I do agree that the paper has declined precipitously in the time I've lived in Taiwan, or perhaps my standards have just evolved. My subjective impression is shown by the fact that in the time I’ve lived in Taiwan, I have gone from buying a paper edition of the Times to read every day, to skimming the headlines online when I bother doing so. For me, the nadir of stupidity came in May 2014 when they ran 'Game of Thrones may be based on Taiwan' on the front page. Seriously, on page 1!)

But Cole is still a compelling writer (though I never fully warmed to his writing the book in occasionally awkward 3rd-person prose) and there is no doubt that he is well-informed about Taiwan affairs. His clear writing gave me a modest education about two things that I felt I could trust him to teach me about objectively.

First, I learned a lot of background information about political events in Taiwan during Cole’s tenure at the Times. I’m somewhat ashamed of this, as most of this recent history happened when I was in Taiwan and so I feel I should have been more knowledgeable already. I think I’ll have to be more observant of what’s happening in this country in the future.

Second, I learned a lot about the daily life and struggle of reporting; of cultivating and maintaining contacts, of schmoozing with your contact over drinks to get useful tidbits of info out of them. I don’t have the right personality traits to be a good reporter, but Cole’s description of the life of one was genuinely interesting to me.

Officially Unofficial contains Cole’s occasional rant about how he feels the hidebound, traditionalist nature of Taiwanese society is dangerously holding the country back. (He admits that many societies in the world suffer from similar problems, but he points out most of them do not sit next to extraordinarily large neighboring countries that want to annex them.) His ‘Afterword’, written midway through 2014, paints a far more optimistic picture. By this time the younger generation of Taiwanese was beginning to make its political power felt and respected, and Cole’s hopes for the country are buoyed by young activists such as Lin Ting-an and the future Sunflowers Chen Wei-ting and Lin Fei-fan, all of whom he mentions in the book’s final section. We get the first appearance of the word ‘Sunflower’ in what is literally the book’s final paragraph.

One almost expects a dramatic … at the end.

Friday, June 3, 2016

First entry since 2013? Awesome.

I’ve decided to start updating this blog again. I really have very little excuse not to, as I’m not snowed under with work. It’s really a matter of getting around to writing something semi-regularly.

Well, I still read books on a regular basis, so I’ll start writing about them again. Recently Bookish Asia published my review of Patrick Wayland’s The Jade Lady, which encouraged me to start putting book-reactions (they seem too short to be called reviews) on Balancing Frogs again.

So here are four novels I’ve read since the beginning of 2016.

Josh Fruhlinger’s The Enthusiast is a comic novel about two very different things: the Washington DC Metro, and a fictitious soap opera-style comic strip that (in this novel's universe) had its heyday back in the 1960s. What ties them together is our protagonist Kate Berkowitz and her work for an unusual public relations firm that specializes in covertly stoking enthusiasm for its clients’ products. Kate and her colleagues haunt Facebook and message boards and infiltrate in-person meetups to give people’s enthusiasm just a little nudge to help it organically grow, whether it’s for new subway cars or a film adaptation of a cult comic strip.

I suppose I’m making it out to seem like a biting social satire, but in fact Fruhlinger’s book is actually a highly sympathetic exploration of some of the quirkier areas of 21st-century pop culture. I read the book because I like Fruhlinger’s site The Comics Curmudgeon, where he’s cultivated a modest online community of geeky enthusiasts. Fruhlinger’s affection for cheesy daily comic strips is obviously genuine, and he must have enjoyed crafting the ficticious ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ and its heavily ironic online fan community.

Mark Rosenfelder’s Against Peace and Freedom is a far-future science fiction work about politics. In a universe where human civilization has spread across dozens of star systems, a secret agent named Morgan arrives on the planet Okura, tasked with working to bring down its tyrannical government. (The narration is 2nd-person. This facilitates the fact that Morgan’s gender stays ambiguous throughout the story. Our hero eventually gets an explicit sex scene, a narrative challenge that I bet Rosenfelder had fun writing.) The writing is lighthearted, supplying a wry commentary on the often brutal violence (formenting revolution is not a nice, innocent pastime) and the reader also gets several doses of political philosophizing in the deal. As someone who read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, found the long ‘beauty of Mars’ passages to be boring, but was fascinated by the politics, this was to my taste.

This was another book I read on the strength of the author’s reputation online; I’ve been aware of Mark ‘zompist’ Rosenfelder as an online personality for years, having read several of his web-based essays on politics and culture way back in the very early ‘00s. The universe of Against Peace and Freedom is a place he has clearly thought out thoroughly. I particularly appreciated the fact that although the culture of Okura is clearly derived from East Asia, rather than the West, I never detected a hint of cliched outsider-writing-about-the-East silliness.

Only quibble is, I was rather befuddled by the appearance midway through of a boorish 21st-century American who gets thawed out from his cryogenic suspension, makes an ass of himself over several pages, and then disappears without having added anything worthwhile to the story. I know Rosenfelder has written other works set in this same universe; maybe Mr. Stupid American is connected to one of those?

Speaking of politics, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is old-fashioned court intrigue. When the Elvish emperor and most of his sons are killed in an airship crash, the crown passes to the half-goblin Maia, the emperor’s least-favored son and the offspring of his least-favored wife. The earnest but naive eighteen-year-old Maia was raised out in the boonies far away from the imperial court. He faces a steep learning curve. As said above, politics matter far more than traditional fantasy heroics: we get a deep look at the inner workings of a national government in a world where cable news doesn’t exist.

Two things to say about the world of The Goblin Emperor. First, it’s remarkable how few traditional fantasy tropes make it into the main narrative. Aside from very occasional references to magic, and technology such as airships and pneumatic tubes, this could easily be a fictional royal court in a pre-modern Earth. Elves and goblins aren’t magical beings here; they’re just people. Second, the amount of world-building that the author did is impressive. Although the action mostly stays within the confines of the imperial Elvish court, it’s clear that Addison lovingly worked out the geography, politics, and languages of this world.

One quibble: I read this on a Kindle, which means it is a bit inconvenient to flip back to confirm that the character that just showed up is the same guy who was mentioned twenty pages earlier. This gets annoying given the profusion of characters, as well as the universe-specific titles they are known by. Score one for paper books!

Moving back to the 1980s, I also read Iain Banks’ Walking on Glass this year. Banks is an odd critter -- while he was alive, I kept hearing about how brilliant his science fiction novels were, but I never got around to reading them. Only after his premature death in 2013 did I try him out, and I found that I actually preferred the thrillers of Iain Banks to the SF works of Iain M. Banks (although I have his Player of Games sitting on my bookshelf unread, waiting for me to give middle-initialed Banks another try).

Despite the lack of a middle initial in the author’s name, Walking on Glass does not keep the SF genre out completely -- not by a long shot. The very weird narrative follows three plots simultaneously, one of which seems to be set in an entirely different universe from the other two. In ascending order of strangeness: in one, a young Londoner is doggedly trying to pursue a relationship with a lady he is smitten with; in the second, we follow the troubled life of a man struggling with mental illness -- or perhaps he really is being persecuted by extraterrestrial oppressors. The possibility seems more than a little plausible, because the third plotline deals with two exiles from an interstellar war imprisoned in a castle in a deserted snowscape, whose only hope of release lies in their ability to work together to figure out a series of fiendishly-designed board games.

Banks’s taste for unpleasant imagery may not be for everyone, but I’ve read three of his thrillers now and I have never failed to be engrossed by them.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Delta Module 1

I've posted close to nothing for several months, as I've been focusing my mental energies on work and study. On December 4, Jenna and I both took the Delta Module 1 Exam, following a several-month online course managed by International House that incorporated plenty of reading and several assessed practice assignments.

I believe I turned in a thoroughly mediocre performance on the actual exam. Not bad by any means, but mediocre. I fully expect to come away with a 'Pass', unadorned with a 'Merit' or 'Distinction'. To tell the truth, I am satisfied with this -- I know I learned a lot in the run-up to the test, and I don't need the additional fancy word on my certificate.

Overall the course was well-designed and worthwhile. It was the first serious online course I've ever taken and invested substantial time in (sorry, Coursera and Udacity), and it exposed me, even more than my CELTA course did, to English teaching as a serious discipline. Not to sound too hoity-toity elitist, but there are probably cram school teachers with twice my experience working in East Asia who haven't consciously thought about teaching to the extent this course forces you to.

I also appreciated the online forum as a means of communicating with fellow Distance Delta students, although I didn't make use of it nearly as often as Jenna did. (Come to think of it, I think 10% of course participants probably accounted for 90% of forum posts.)

I was disappointed as the course ended, as International House unceremoniously pulled the plug on the website just before we took the test on December 4. I understand the logic of shutting down the forum on test day. There's no sense in letting us East Asian candidates go online and screech 'Omigod omigod Paper 2 Task 4 is all about teaching pronunciation!!!' before candidates in Europe have even taken the test. But IH had been telling us for weeks the forum would be shuttered at midnight December 6, so I'd assumed it would go back online after test day had finished for us to spend a final few hours sharing reactions and commiserating with those feeling glum about their performance. But we got no such sense of closure.

The Good:

I learned a hell of a lot by studying for this test. My knowledge of English grammar is now stronger than it has been at any point in my life. In addition, I now have a much larger vocabulary of pedagogical terms than I did a couple of months ago. This is valuable not so much so that I can drop terms and impress fancy ESL people, but rather because it's carved out real estate in my brain which has been occupied by actual concrete concepts. In other words, knowing that a test can have 'face validity', 'content validity' and 'construct validity' is useful, but even more useful is having the concepts behind those terms fully developed in my head.

Additionally, it was very, very good for me to feel like I should go and become familiar with what the key commentators on the state of English-language teaching have to say -- people like Lewis, Krashen, Thornbury, etc. This is my job, it's what's earning me money, and what I've read just in the past few weeks has already noticeably affected my teaching in my IELTS prep classes.

And this is because I wanted to be prepared for what the actual test would throw at me. Paper Two, Task Four presents some issue in ESL teaching, such as contrasting two different approaches to class planning, or the value of teaching writing in a class environment, and asks us test-takers to comment on it. The way the test is marked, writing something stupid does not detract from your score (apart from taking up valuable time) but everything you write that's accepted earns you marks. So it's in your best interest to make as many points as you possibly can. Students are motivated to have a great deal to say on any topic they could potentially be asked about.

The Bad:

I have nothing bad to say about the online course that International House put together.

As for the test itself, I have to admit I am a bit unsure what I think of Paper Two, Tasks Two and Three. In these two tasks, you are presented with a series of exercises from a commercially published ESL coursebook. In Task 2a, you comment on the purpose of selected exercises, as they are meant to relate to the lesson as a whole. In Task 2b, you list at least six assumptions about language learning that you can discern behind the design of these exercises, and provide reasons for these assumptions.

In past exam reports, Cambridge complained that many candidates seem to be memorizing assumptions that were accepted in past exams and slotting them in where they seem appropriate. But the design of the task continues to encourage students to do just that. Most of the coursebook selections used in Task 2 seem broadly similar to each other: there's a reading or listening that students process in order to do tasks, then students' attention is called to the lesson's target language which the reading/listening text used in context, then students manipulate the target language in controlled and freer practice exercises/activities. (The June 2013 test, which we took as a mock, differed from this and used a lesson from a Business English textbook teaching presentation skills instead. But our December 2013 exam was back to the same familiar pattern.)

Additionally, the guideline answers published with each exam report tend to list the same sorts of assumptions in exam after exam. So can Cambridge really fault students for thinking, Hey, it's a presentation of language in context! I'm gonna pull out my 'grammar should be presented in context' assumption! It's a guided discovery exercise! I'm gonna use my 'guided discovery' assumption!

I did. And if previous guideline answers are any indication, I'm going to get marks.

There's also the fact -- and Jenna has much more to say about this -- that the reasoning behind what Cambridge does and does not include in its guideline answers is often opaque, to say the least, and to ace the test you basically have to learn to think like a Cambridge assessor.

Overall, though, I'm happy with the whole experience -- it's taught me a lot and has pushed me in a more professional direction. It's also pointed me in the direction of a decent-sized pile of reading material I would like to work my way through before I start to seriously think about Delta Module 2.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Good Omens

Good Omens
by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Published in 1990
Published by Harper Torch

The Plot: Six thousand years after the world is created, it's time for it all to end. The Antichrist assumes human form and the armies of heaven and hell line up to do battle -- although the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley, longtime frenemies who battle each other largely through witty banter -- are rather wistful and sad to see Earth go. As it happens, Armageddon is in trouble from the start, as babies are mistakenly switched and as a result the Antichrist receives the wrong upbringing...

My Reactions: This book is very well-known in the right circles, written by two of the most popular (maybe the two most popular) names in modern English lighthearted tales of the supernatural, back before either was nearly as famous as they are now. It didn't change my life. It didn't hold me in rapt attention.  But it was a pleasant read, and I snickered and giggled a lot, and on the whole it was not badly done.

Perhaps I would be more gung-ho about it if the writing style hadn't already been familiar to me from various works by Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore, and Pratchett working solo. If any of these names appeal to you, you'll probably enjoy Good Omens.

I want to say something about this story's universe. At first glance, the events of this book appear to hinge on random chance. It's thanks to miscommunication among Devil-worshipping nuns -- in other words, ordinary human error -- that the Antichrist is given to the wrong family. Everything that happens subsequently, up to and including the way the Apocalypse unfolds, stems from that mistake. So it would seem this is a universe where Chaos reigns.

But this was all foreseen by the witch Agnes Nutt way back in the 1600s. It was always going to happen this way. The cosmos' vast orders of angels and demons sincerely believed the world was going to end, but they were misinformed because they couldn't see the big picture. This is, underneath it all, a deterministic universe, and primal Chaos (or the illusion thereof) is only a tool used by the hand of unfolding Fate to move people and things to the places on the cosmic chessboard where they were always going to be.

Aziraphale and Crowley make such a big deal over humans and their supposed 'free will.' But I see no free will here.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Movie: V for Vendetta

In which Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving fight to free Londoners from a tyrannical dictatorship. At least I assume that's Hugo Weaving, which is something that must be taken on trust.

The Plot: Britain is a repressive dictatorship headed by the autocratic High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Our story centers on Evey (Natalie Portman), a low-level employee at the state-run TV network, who meets a masked crime fighter named V (Hugo Weaving).

My Reactions: I have not read the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and my ignorance will no doubt be glaringly obvious at several points in this post. I had some interest in watching this movie when it first came out, but I never got around to it.  A couple of years later it was playing on a long-distance bus and I sorta-kinda paid attention to it; what I gleaned from it was little more than 'Huh, Stephen Fry's in this'.

Meanwhile, the visuals of the movie grew in popularity, as anti-establishment protestors the world over took up V's mask as an iconic symbol. V's mask is based upon the old Guy Fawkes masks that British kids used to wear, but the masks you see at demonstrations nowadays use the specific style Moore & Lloyd invented. I realize V's mask design dates all the way back to the original 1982 graphic novel, but (as is so often the case) it was the movie that propelled the story and its accompanying visual look to the attention of mass culture.

So finally I decided that I ought to watch the movie properly, for the purpose of increasing my cultural literacy. I liked it, while at the same time I understood it's a movie that relies more on looking really cool than on having a coherent plot and characters. I'm not convinced the story is as substantial or as unproblematic as its blossoming fame among the young and disaffected, who I generally sympathize with, deserves. Perhaps I should read the graphic novel.

If you care about spoilers stop reading here. My thoughts, in no particularly well-organized order:
  • V is really a jerk, isn't he? His treatment of Evey is absolutely appalling. He does manage to transform her into a badass and this is a universe where being tough is an important asset, but that doesn't retroactively excuse all that he puts her through. Now, this doesn't wreck the movie, as it might if V were the sole main protagonist and we were supposed to empathize with him fully. In fact, I find it strengthens the movie, as it makes V into less of a sympathetic human and more of a symbol of an impersonal force.
  • We never see V's face, but we are led to believe it is a horrific ruin, a wreckage of burned flesh completely devastated by fire. But there's one part of V's face that we know was spared: his lips. He can speak perfectly well, producing the full range of English consonants without impediment, including his favorite consonant, which requires an intact lower lip to produce correctly. See for yourself: try to say 'V for Vendetta' out loud without using your lips. Just once I'd like to see a tragic hero with a facial scar whose injury causes them to lisp.
  • The fact that Stephen Fry plays himself (more or less) makes it all the more shocking when he dies. He's called by a different name in the movie, but he plays a highly cultured, homosexual, articulate, erudite comedian and TV personality, and many viewers probably saw him and thought 'Oh, this universe has a Stephen Fry too'. Then the High Chancellor's goons murder him.
  • Speaking of which, I really feel sorry for the two guys who play High Chancellor Adam Sutler in the comedy skit that gets Fry killed. Think about it. They were probably young aspiring comedians who thought themselves lucky to get minor roles as on-screen clowns on national TV. When they had to do the fateful skit, they probably thought, 'Well, this seems like it's treading on dangerous ground, but Mr. Fry says it's OK, so I'm sure we'll be fine.' We never find out what happened to them, but the consequences could not have been pleasant.
  • The idea of using Guy Fawkes as a symbol strikes me as problematic. Fawkes didn't want to blow up Parliament to free the people from tyranny. He wanted to blow up Parliament in order to replace an autocratic Protestant regime with an autocratic Catholic regime, which I hope most British people nowadays would consider a lateral move at best. Maybe there's something I'm missing as a foreigner.
  • That subplot with the police inspector nudged the plot forward a few times and provided some exposition. But I won't remember anything about it a year from now, even though the rest of the movie has lots of memorable scenes that will stick with me.
  • I can't be the first person to point this out, but let's think about V's final battle logically. V is facing down a half dozen bad guys, led by chief goon Creedy, and he invites them all to take a shot at him. They open fire and keep shooting him until they run out of ammo, tearing apart his body armor and fatally wounding him. Then it's V's turn to move, and he kills the bad guys with his knife, one after another. (This particular part, I can suspend my disbelief for.) V expected to die in this battle, but he also expected to have at least a chance of killing Creedy first. Isn't it remarkably lucky for him that not one of the bad guys shot him in the head?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Prague Cemetery

The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco
Translated by Richard Dixon
Published in 2012
Published by Vintage

The Plot: Simone Simonini is a forger and spy in 1890s Paris. He is our protagonist -- or shall I say one of our protagonists, for he seems to share an apartment with one Abbe Dalla Piccola, although the two men have never met. Deducing that they are probably a single individual with two personalities, they communicate with each other via a shared diary, and piece together the events of their life. Simonini is a terrible person, a sociopath who spreads mayhem wherever he goes -- which in this case includes many of the key events in 19th century French and Italian history. (In reference to Simonini's ability to influence so many disparate events, the New York Times review describes him as 'a Forrest Gump of evil'.)

Reactions: I've now read every one of Eco's novels except for The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona. He is very good at making me feel like a simpleton who is not quite educated enough to appreciate him fully. I felt that way when I read The Island of the Day Before, and I feel that way again with The Prague Cemetery.

The more familiar you are with 19th century Europe, particularly major events in Italy and France in the latter half of the century, the easier a time you'll have with this book. As for me, I know who Garibaldi is, I'm vaguely familiar with the Paris Commune, and I can give you enough information on the Dreyfus Affair to fill two, maybe three sentences, but don't ask me for details on any of these. Eco presumes his audience is up to speed on its history, and I'm sure as a result there are plenty of in-jokes and ironic asides that flew over my head.

All that said, the novel held my interest, partially because of a perverse fascination I had with the character of Simonini. Not since I read Akhil Sharma's An Obedient Father several years ago have I encountered such a repulsive main protagonist in a novel. Readers who cannot stand such a disagreeable character are filtered out early on, as the book opens with Simonini explaining, in quite lurid detail, exactly what he thinks of Jews. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that Simonini goes on to express equally hate-filled feelings for the Italians, the Germans, the French, and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. But it is Simonini's anti-Semitism that remains at the heart of the novel, and drives the plot towards its final conclusion. And Simonini's vileness goes far deeper than simple bigotry. He has a knack for stabbing his comrades in the back, often in ways that cause the deaths of many innocent people.

Umberto Eco is no anti-Semite. But he's fascinated by the history of human thought, and he loves his conspiracy theories, albeit as objects to play with rather than as things to believe. The book often seems like a spiritual prequel to Foucault's Pendulum, as the sprawling universe of 19th-century nuttery concerning the nefarious doings of the Jews and the Freemasons and the Catholics all turn out to be traceable back to Simonini's damaged mind and his remarkable knack for forgery. Simonini is the only fictional character in the novel. Apart from possibly some background extras of trifling importance, every other person is real, and the book takes us from one historical event to another, showing us the events as they looked from Simonini's quirky perspective.

As for the conceit of having the narrative alternate between Simonini and Dalla Piccola's viewpoints, the two of them almost certainly two halves of the same personality (but we don't find out for sure until nearly the end), it was quite unnecessary as far as the main plot was concerned. But it's clearly a game Eco is playing with us, another layer of complexity on top of an already complex novel, and I'm happy to have him lead me through the labyrinth.

Despite the nagging feeling that I wasn't getting quite as much out of the novel as Eco intended me to, I enjoyed what I read. I just feel I ought to go do my homework and bone up on history, and come back in a few years to read the book again and see if I can glean more from it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Bookseller of Kabul

The Bookseller of Kabul
by Asne Seierstad
Published in 2003
Published by Back Bay Books

In November 2001, journalist Asne Seierstad arrived in Kabul, and soon made the acquaintance of a bookseller she called Sultan Khan. Over the next few months, she lived with Khan's family and got to know them closely. Upon her return to her native Norway, she wrote The Bookseller of Kabul, a look at the lives of middle-class Afghanis in the months after the collapse of Taliban rule.

The picture she paints is of a socially conservative land, one where the family, not the individual, is the basic unit, and young people's decisions are made for them by the family. Any notion among Westerners that the fall of the Taliban resulted in the liberation of Afghan women is erroneous. In the society Seierstad describes, young women's lives are not their own; they are not free to make their own choices, and who they are going to marry and whether they are allowed to work outside the home are dictated by their elders.

The main difference that came with the fall of the Taliban is that now women can play music as they do their sixteen hours of daily chores without the fear they will be taken to jail. That's assuming their family says it's OK, of course.

In her book, Seierstad delves into the heads of several members of Khan's family. Two of the most prominent are Khan's son Mansur and his much younger sister, Leila.

Mansur is torn between hating his father and wanting to earn his approval. Mansur is inefficient and lackadaisical at running the family bookstore in his father's absence, but he forces himself to become utterly cold-hearted when a former employee pilfers postcards to sell and Sultan Khan insists he be punished severely. Despite the fact that the employee's family is clearly in extremely dire financial straits, and literally on their knees begging for leniency, Mansur acts as his father's representative and brings the full weight of the law to bear on the thief, who ultimately ends up spending several years living under terrible conditions in prison.

Leila, is a very different character. As the youngest of I-don't-even-remember-how-many children, Leila is the perpetual workhorse of the family, but she would dearly love to achieve a bit of independence. She wants to work as an English teacher, but there's an enormous amount of bureaucracy that she has to navigate before she can get herself hired. This is nearly impossible, with her family obligations.

Now, this book is a work of narrative nonfiction. I approach this kind of writing by treating it as realistic fiction. When I read narrative nonfiction, at the outset I assume at the very least that the author has performed acts of artistry such as rearranging events for dramatic effect, or consolidating two or more people into one for clarity. If I think of these characters as people who could very easily have been real, but who aren't necessarily based on any specific people, then I can keep myself from feeling cheated when it turns out the author took liberties with reality.

That is all very well and good, but when characters in a work of narrative nonfiction can be associated with specific people in real life, you get problems. 'Sultan Khan' is an invented name, but the character was drawn in enough detail that the specific real person he was based on could easily be identified, and boy oh boy was he unhappy. He took the author to court to sue her for defamation and an assault on his character. I have some sympathy. All my high-minded talk about how narrative nonfiction should be read doesn't mean much when there's this guy in a book that everyone knows is based on you.

The real person behind Sultan Khan drew up a list of specific complaints. The first was, 'Depicting me as a fundamentalist, when I have been against fundamentalism all of my life and have suffered personally from it.' I'm sorry, I don't see that. The Sultan Khan of the book is not a fundamentalist, unless the meaning of 'fundamentalist' is so loose that the word means nothing.

He is on much firmer ground when he says, 'Is it nothing to depict me as a domestic tyrant when I have preserved my family through a quarter century of war only through sacrifice, sweat, and tears?' He's right. Seierstad really does depict him as a domestic tyrant, and a really nasty one at that. The question is whether that depiction is accurate. I have no way of knowing.

That's why this is best read as a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.