Friday, December 29, 2006

An earthquake near Taiwan has damaged some cables and now the internet is pretty much broken. I can access Google and stuff inside China but that's about it. Here's a China Daily article about it and an update.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Seasons Greetings!

I had originally intended to do a short podcast for Christmas but I've had a pretty bad cold and feel that listening to me cough and splutter over the internet probably won't be the kind of fun experience that anyone would really want to listen to.

Last week we had the school Christmas party. That caused a pretty hectic week with something of a clash of cultures as the Chinese teachers took it far too seriously. The would basically take the kids out of mine and Ann's classes without permission and then argue when we complained that we actually wanted to teach them, or maybe even prepare them to do something for the party ourselves. They also got themselves into a very wound up state - one was practically throwing up with the stress she put herself under - shouting at the kids when they got the slightest thing wrong, pretty much taking any fun to be had out of the event and hiding it far away beneath the needs of their own egos. It was bizarre, disappointing and frustrating to witness.

Despite all this the party itself worked out fine with good performances from the kids and the parents seemed to enjoy it. Mr Cai, the head of the school, was there for a short time although more than one parent commented that it was strange how he could come to the Christmas party but cold not be bothered to attend proper meetings with parents. He also disappeared pretty quickly too. After the party Ann and her partner, Joop, came back to our apartment where the other foreign teachers came along for a few xmas drinks as well. Friday the kids and the teachers felt we deserved a rest after a very difficult week so we took it easy.

Saturday was Christmas shopping. Going into Ningbo any weekend is like Christmas shopping and Christmas itself made little difference as it is not observed here except as an opportunity to decorate the shops. We got in and out early enough for it not to be too difficult. In the evening Zak and I went to the Web school Christmas party at the Sheraton. Although neither of us has worked for Web for a while we helped bring the number of foreigners up. It was a fairly formal do, mostly in Chinese, and the food was a little disappointing. Still, there was plenty of free wine and all the smoked salmon I could eat so I can't complain. Afterwards we went to Le Cargo and then on to some smaller bars on the other side of town.

On Sunday we decided to visit Wanda World, a new mall that has opened up next to the school. It's a mall, so there's not a lot to say about it. Of course it's nice to have some restaurants and shops near the school as otherwise it would remain a bit of a wasteland around here but it's just a mall. I started feeling a bit ill while there though and by later in the afternoon my cold had come on in full force. Sore throat, sore nose, sore head, sore ears. I managed to get out to the Indian Kitchen for their Christmas buffet which was nice but a bit of a waste as I couldn't taste very much.

Christmas day we opened presents (for the record: an 80GB USB hard drive, a 2 GB memory stick for my phone, some incense and a bottle of whiskey) and I slept. In the evening we headed out to Josh's, a new Web teacher, for a Christmas party and by then I was starting to feel a little more human. Had some great food - pasta, dip, potato salad - and then came home as I was shattered and Zak had to work.

Watched A Scanner Darkly the other night. Really good film. Pretty much captures the book (at least it does a better job than any other PKD adaptation I've seen, wonder if they'll do Valis next? LOL) . The rotoscope effect works really well to give it a timeless feel. It could almost be set back in the sixties/seventies or in the future. Sometimes it is a little jarring to go from almost photo-real images of the outside world to the very cartoony indoor scenes but in a way that feels like part of the point. Importantly the story retains the power to shock, too, as it hints at the effect of Substance D on society - not just on the users but those who would exploit it for their own ends and power. It's a film that has all the bits but doesn't make it easy for the viewer. Intelligent, well made SF. It's a rare thing and should be treasured. I am also really looking forward to The Fountain.

Yesterday did not do very much at all apart from reading and some writing. Today is Zak's birthday so we are out for a meal tonight. My cold is still with me, my head is still bunged up and I spent what felt like half of last night coughing, but I guess I'm on the mend.

Friday, December 22, 2006

never drinking baijiu again. ever.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

This is an interesting article on the Chinese economy in the Guardian:

"If anything, the Chinese response has been churlish, dishonest, petulant, hectoring, and patronising. Instead of addressing American concerns head-on, the Chinese reminded a country less than three centuries old that being older, China deserved respect and a different treatment....
It requires a particular form of chutzpah to roll out convenient aspects of Chinese history, which show foreigners in a bad light, while glossing over their own policies which have impoverished their people, if not keeping them imprisoned. And so China showed images of the opium wars, attempting to imply that China is a struggling country, emerging out of centuries of misery, and none of it was the fault of its own leaders, and the world must be patient with this fragile nation."

Monday, December 18, 2006

Only one week to go until Christmas. Here at the school things are a little chaotic as the kids are mostly practising for their concert on Thursday evening. In the mornings we are running classes as normal but in the afternoons it looks like it's all change for this week.

Other than that things are pretty much as they are. Anne, the other Primary School teacher, has put in a letter to ask that her pay be increased (she is being badly underpaid) and the head of the school has basically ignored it and made no effort to talk to her in the week since. As for me I'm pretty much convinced that it would be best to leave at the end of this semester as I have not had anything happen to make me think otherwise. It seems a shame in some ways but I don't have any regrets. I've mostly enjoyed the past year in China but it is time to move on.

Life has been pretty quiet. It's cold but the weather has recently not been too bad except for a heavy fog one day last week. We've been going out for meals but nothing major. Yesterday we went to the gym as we had some free guest passes. The gym was quite nice, modern and well equipped but as it is in the city centre it's not really a good option for regular use. And the sauna doesn't seem to be used at all which is the best thing about going to the gym in the first place. I have lost a lot of my fitness, which is kind of shocking except that I've done little exercise for the past year except for walking around town. I can't even really get into the countryside very easily and there's not much in the way of hills around here anyway. Most are being scoured away to help build roads and buildings. The whole province will probably be completely level in ten years time.

Christmas is here in a small way. The shops are decorated and playing Christmas songs but, unsurprisingly, there's little else to indicate it's coming. We are planning on seeing some friends on the day itself and then probably going to a bar. I have the week off but Zak doesn't so that limits our options. Still, a rest will be nice and it should be a good opportunity to catch up on some writing. I was hoping to go to Beijing to meet Wu Yan, a Chinese science fiction writer, but I am not sure if that will be possible now. I need to check the details and decide. Soon, I guess.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Grrr. One thing with regularly using different computers to access the various sites that I publish to or read or use to (attempt to) manage my life - logging on generally sucks. Most sites you visit and you have a big advert for signing up and a tiny link hidden away somewhere for regular users. In the case of Flickr, because I joined before it was taken over by Yahoo, I have to visit three pages before I can actually log in and see my account. It's moronic. Bloglines, Remember the Milk, are all the same. What is so bad about letting the people who actually use (and in some cases pay for) your service get access to them quickly and easily?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Every so often I will think about taking another look at Linux. Usually the pattern is that I install it, play with it, and then uninstall it after a week when I need a Windows application or realise that, actually, Linux is kind of ugly and not that nice, or get fed up of having a simple task like sticking a CD into the drive made complicated. It has been a few years since I last tried it and I have been seeing frequent references to a new, easy to use distribution called Ubuntu. This itself still was not really enough to convince me but then I read that Mac users were making the switch. Maybe Linux is finally ready to be a desktop replacement that you can enjoy using instead of putting up with. I wanted to find out.

I downloaded the iso to burn it to a cd. You boot from the cd and the operating system starts so you have an opportunity to try it and see if it works before you commit yourself to installing. It seemed to work fine on my Acer 5500 laptop apart from a lack of correct screen resolutions and I liked the look of it. The default theme is orange which makes it really stand out from pretty much every other operating system out there. I admit I do like it but, if I get bored of it this is Linux and it is a simple job to changed pretty much every aspect of how it looks.

I lacked the courage to actually install it on my laptop as I was concerned about losing XP. Fortunately my work PC, which was pretty much not working due to the number of viruses on the school network, had a couple of very large, empty partitions and I decided to give it a go on that. After playing with it and using it for work pretty much full-time Nanowrimo came along and I needed to use the rather rubbish computer the school provided for my apartment. Because of the difficulty it has with XP I decided to give Ubuntu a try on that too. For the whole month of November, then, I have been almost exclusively using Ubuntu and for the first time I did not miss Windows at all. I decided to take the plunge and install it on my laptop.

All three installations have gone without any major problems. There is some great online documentation for helping fix up some of the little issues with Ubuntu hot off the cd and tools like Easy Ubuntu made the work of getting MP3 working, installing Skype and getting the correct video drivers very easy. I also decided to give Beryl a try. Beryl is a kind of extra layer for the UI which makes windows transparent, or wobble when you move them, and generally look like a very modern, Vista-like operating system. It can be a bit flaky and crash (it is still in development) at times but it does look really good, once some of the more extreme effects have been turned off.

I've also found applications to match everything I need and want to do with my laptop. Amarok is an excellent music player with some really good features, like lyric look-up and a feature that downloads all the missing album covers for you. Picasa is available for Linux too so I get to keep my favourite photo organiser. Stellarium is a really good-looking star map program and Democracy TV looks really interesting, offering easy downloads from various channels, You Tube search and download and the ability to add torrents. Open Office and Abiword are decent replacements for Microsoft Office, although they are not quite as good (and I miss the ribbon) but they do everything that I need them to do. I spend most of my time in Google Docs now anyway - pretty much all of my novel was written in it. The only thing I can't do is play the latest games, but I got out of the habit of doing that a long time ago.

So, is it all it's cracked up to be, a Linux for the masses? Well, not quite. It is very usable once it has been set up. Installing applications is easy, and free, but some things do still require a trip to the console to run commands. There's no mp3 support on a fresh install and, although it's easy to sort things like this out using Easy Ubuntu or a guide it is an extra burden. I would say, though, that once it is all set up then it is easy to use (And, to be honest, how many people can really set up Windows themselves, easily, getting it all right? At least with Ubuntu you also end up with all the software the average user needs already installed. Except for mp3.) I will keep using it and now feel I have pretty much made the switch. Of course I'll still need to use MS Windows for development and the odd thing that I can't do with Linux (update my horribly proprietary Sony mp3 player or play Rome:Total War) but I feel comfortable with Ubuntu now and plan on sticking with it for a while. Hasta la victoria siempre.