Mar 30, 2009

Concert: Battles at MAO Livehouse

Saw a very good concert Friday night, Battles at MAO Livehouse. This was a great live show, with really good music. I wasn't very familiar with the band's work prior to the show, but they've got some good songs I'll be putting on my iPod. The music sounds much better on a system that has good bass, so don't attempt to enjoy it on the build-in speakers on your laptop.

At the show there was a very authentic concert atmosphere with a miniature mosh pit, a couple crowd surfers, and even the opportunity to get a nice contact buzz if you were standing in the right place.

Does the lead singer remind anyone else of South Park creator Matt Stone?

The drummer is awesome (lower left corner of the photo below). I thought he was going to give himself a heart attack five minutes into their set, he was so wound up and sweaty. One thing though, with that polo shirt he was wearing, he reminded me a little too much of Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore.

One of the warm-up acts prior to Battles was a local group consisting of three girls, Ourself Beside Me. More than a few articles give this group favorable reviews, but they were just abysmal when I heard them. After ten minutes into their set, most everyone in the audience had enough with them and were giving them strong encouragement (Get the f*** out of here, F*** off, etc.) to finish up. As far as the music went, just off the top of my head, what I can recall was that the bassist played half the set with her back to the audience, almost all of band's vocals were mumbly and unamplified, and their harmonicas were almost inaudible when they tried to incorporate them.

The benefit of having Ourself Beside Me play right before Battles was that they made the main act seem even more outstanding in contrast. As unfavorable as that review sounds, I'd still be willing to give another chance to a Ourself Beside Me live performance in the future. Maybe they were having a bad night, or the venue was too large for them.

Check out the bass player in the middle, back to the audience:

The lead singer blows, while blowing into a harmonica:

[Photos: borrowed from here]

Mar 27, 2009

Robin Quivers' Chinese tattoo

Something Chinese-related on the March 25, 2009 Stern show I thought I'd mention...

They're discussing the topic of ditzy girls getting tattoos, and how some of them get Chinese character tats that they can't read. It turns out Robin has a (star) tattooed on her boob. Howard had a friend that told him incorrectly that it meant "queen", but Robin seemed to know the right meaning.

The thing I wanted to point out was a comment Fred made, which was something like, "For all you know, your tattoo could mean 'I blow donkeys'." My off-the-cuff translation of that phrase would be "我爱吸允驴". Just in case it comes up in conversation you can throw that in.

Mar 26, 2009

Narcissistic personality inventory

On the March 18 Howard Stern show, one of the guests was Drew Pinsky, who came back with the results of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory that he gave out on a previous show. The results were fun to hear:
Robin is an "off the charts" narcissist

Drew laughed that Robin scored off the charts on the test: "She is the winner." Howard said the average score was a 15 and for a celebrity the average was 18 – Robin, however, came in at 34, which was the highest score of anyone...anywhere. Robin insisted Drew had fabricated the results, but Drew's co-author, Dr. Mark Young, insisted the results were very real - he's given the test to hundreds of people, and has yet to come across a higher score: "There are seven categories of narcissism, and she scored close to the maximum in every one...higher than 99% of the population."

Robin joked that the doctors might want to study her, and Drew replied, "The answer's yes. Of course." Drew then said Howard had a very healthy score, a 15, and credited his thrice-weekly treatment for keeping him grounded. Howard repeated his idea that Robin should undergo treatment/psychotherapy, but Robin resisted: "I work on myself! Drew, I'm really sick of you at this point...I believe these are all made-up numbers." Howard laughed: "Dr. Drew smiles when he looks at me and frowns when he looks at you."
I was curious to take the test myself, and it turns out that I'm pretty close to average, with an overall score of 16. They say that important thing is not just the overall number, but to figure out which traits are dominant. Vanity, entitlement, exhibitionism and exploitiveness is more cause for concern than someone who scores high on authority, self-sufficiency and superiority.

Here's how I scored by category:
  • Authority: 5
  • Self-sufficiency: 2
  • Superiority: 4
  • Exploitativeness: 3
  • Vanity: 1
  • Entitlement: 0
  • Exhibitionism: 1
Not sure how accurate or useful any of this is, but it's fun to see this sort of analysis. I would have guessed that I'd come out with a higher score for Self-sufficiency and a little higher for Entitlement, so the results were surprising to me.

Mar 25, 2009


If you're a güero traveling outside the first tier cities in China, you're going to be stared at a lot. If you're by yourself, or in a very small group, the countryside locals will shout stuff at you to try and get a reaction. This is nothing new at all if you've spent more than two days traveling here. It's just something you have to either adjust to, ignore, or block out with your iPod.

Anyway, we ran into this cheerful fellow near Wutaishan. I must have had a million people yell "Hello!" at me since visiting China for the first time, but this guy was one of the most hilarious I've encountered. I made a little video to prolong my amusement. I'm still trying to figure out if this guy is:
  • slightly effeminate, and this is his normal speaking voice and body language
  • trying to taunt me
  • trying to impress his friends with his vast knowledge of English greetings

[proxy link to video ]

Mar 24, 2009

Shanxi photos

Here's some photos from our recent trip to Wutaishan and Datong, in Shanxi province.

You can get from Beijing to the top of one of the five peaks of Wutaishan via an overnight train. You can be there in time to see a beautiful sunrise, as long as you're properly motivated. The night train leaves from Beijing and arrives in Wutaishan around 3 AM. You switch to a minibus and you can get dumped off around 4 AM at the winding road leading to a peaktop monastery. At this point you should have, at a minimum:
  • warm clothing (since it's below freezing and windy)
  • a flashlight (since it's pitch black; you get some excellent star viewing)
  • good cardiovascular health (since you're hiking at an elevation of around 10,000 feet in the middle of the night)
Once you're to the top of the road, it's pretty cold and windy, and if you can hang on until around 6 AM, you'll get treated to a very scenic sunrise. We ended up with about an hour to spare before sunrise at the mountaintop monastery, and thankfully we gained access to an unlocked building outside the monastery. Second and third choices for shelter would have been the cab of a diesel truck, or a plywood dog house, respectively.

Here's the very nice Wutaishan sunrise. The picture doesn't really do it justice.

We hired a driver for the day for around 200 yuan to drive us to some other peaks of the mountain and visit the temples there. Here are some prayer flags at another mountaintop temple:

At another temple we came across a friendly monk that reminded me of Billy Bob Thornton:

The Buddhist temples have a lot of similarities, but they each have unique details. The iron work and wood carving at each place was different. Check out this tripod incense burner with Bart Simpson-esque devil head legs:

At the center of the peaks of Wutaishan is a valley with a little town where we stayed. There's a chairlift up to a peak beside the town. This is the view looking towards the town, with some rain clouds overhead:

Driving from Wutaishan to Datong, you can visit the famous hanging temple. Again, this is a place that is so much better to visit in person than to see in pictures. The temple looks so precarious hanging there against the cliff face, it seems amazing that it's been around so long. Once you climb up and start walking around, you can't help but become acrophobic. There are only thigh-high wood railings in most places to separate you from the sheer drop on to the rocks below. You look down and you can see that the whole place is being held up by skinny telephone poles. We were fortunate to visit this place during a non-holiday period, so we had the run of the entire temple but for a couple other visitors. I can't imagine seeing this in the midst of many pushy tour groups. Our visit was excellent, though.

Outside of Datong is another major attraction, Yungang grottoes, with many Buddhist cave carvings. It's yet another place that's best visited in person. Everything is three dimensional and big, and you can't really see the detail in photos, photos flatten everything too much. This page has a pretty decent set of photos. My favorite on is cave 6. It's impressive in very much the same way that seeing the Sistine Chapel is.

I put a video up on YouTube from some clips I took inside of cave 6, where you're not really supposed to be taking pictures or video. I think the video gives you a better sense of the scale and depth of the grotto.

[proxy link to video]

Here's another Buddha carving in Yungang, with people at lower left corner:

And an outside Buddha carving at Yungang:

Mar 23, 2009

Rabbit head

Rabbits are well-utilized animals. Their meat gets used in stews, their fur is made into clothes, and their feet are turned into good luck trinket key chains. The part of the rabbit that you might forget about, however, is the head. In the city of Datong, that piece is put to good use also.

I'd not eaten rabbit head before, so I had to ask the restaurant owner to give the play-by-play instructions. Here's the quick overview from what I learned from the owner and from my own experimentation, so you can impress your Datong friends next time you go out to eat rabbit heads:
  • The stewed rabbit head gets served intact in a stainless steel bowl, long teeth, tongue, and all.
  • If you're going to make a meal out of it, it's recommended that you order about 5 or 6 of them per person (3 yuan each).
  • You'll be given a set of plastic gloves to use, since this is a hand-on type snack.
  • To start off with, grasp the top of the head with one hand and pull on the bottom of the jaw with the other. The jaw will separate with ease, and you can munch on the muscles attached to the mandible (lower jaw). This part of the head tastes kind of like stewed pork or chicken.
  • Feel free to eat the tongue. It tastes like duck tongue, if that helps.
  • The skull has a fair bit of meat, but you need to work for it. It's more about the flavor and texture than the quantity of meat.
  • Use your finger to scrape out the eyeball and meat from the eye socket. There's a hard black circle on the surface of the eye. I believe that it's the iris. Anyway, you want to throw that black part away according to the restaurant owner, it's not good eatin'. Suck down the rest of the eye socket meat though, it's nice and tender.
  • When you're done with the eyes, use your fingers to split apart the skull. Do your best to suck out the small bit of brain inside.
On the spectrum of foods made out of things that might otherwise be thrown away, my opinion is that stewed rabbits head ranks better than pig's feet, but not as good as sheep's stomach. The hardest thing about it is the unpleasant look. It's just very unappetizing looking if you're not used to it.

Here's an exterior of one of the ten or so rabbit head restaurants in this one little area of Datong. This one is called "Mom's Rabbit Heads".

This is another restaurant nearby that's stewing and cooking rabbits with peppers and spices.

Mar 17, 2009

Video on Beijing music scene

This is a nice report on the Beijing music scene.

Mar 16, 2009

What to say when you run into someone

In my apartment community, there's some fountains and sculptures in the center courtyard surrounded by lots of smooth pavement and stonework. It's an ideal place for kids to play in the evening while their parents chew the fat with each other.

The other evening, there were about five kids, I'd say eight to ten years old in age, riding waveboards, doing laps around one area of the courtyard. As I passed by, one of kids was looking down instead of up, and ran smack into me and had to jump off his board.

Right away, he jumped back on and continued doing laps, and as he skated away, he turns back towards me and says under his breath:
Interpreted literally, this sentence means "For this (accident), I blame you." Translated idiomatically into English, it would be, "It's your fault".

I was highly amused by the encounter. The nonchalant manner with which the kid told me off was pretty funny, but most of all, I loved the grammar. If I was asked to translate the sentence "It's your fault" into Mandarin, I would have said "是你的错". However, the waveboard kid's sentence, "这事我怪你", sounds so much cooler to me because the sentence construction is more similar to classical Chinese. It makes me think of some knights smack talking to each other before a joust using Middle English.

Next time I get cross-checked by someone as I try to get on or off the subway, I'll have a new phrase in my Chinese arsenal.

Mar 12, 2009

Baby gorilla

When you see an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that has a title like "Zoo baby gorilla gets name", isn't it hard to think about anything except the Don Rickles scene in Dirty Work, and you start giggling for no obvious reason? I had to watch that scene three or four times before I could get the baby gorilla image out of my system.

Mar 11, 2009

Hiking in Mentougou

There's some good hiking to be had in the Beijing suburbs. Transportation logistics are the most difficult thing, but once you're there it's very nice and relaxing. This place is called Longmenjian, in Mentougou (门头沟, or possibly "门头儿沟儿" depending on how you want to pronounce it).

It's only about 70 miles outside of Beijing proper, but it takes a pretty long time to drive there by car, between 2 and 3 hours. There's lots of windy roads and obstacles to watch out for, and the speed limit is usually somewhere from 35 to 50 MPH. I think you could take a public bus there if you wanted, but it would take a lot longer.

For this hike, there was no one else in the area other than the park worker at the main gate. The vegetation hadn't yet come back to life after the winter, and there rivers were still mostly frozen over with ice and snow. It made for a very scenic walk. Here's some photos.

A lot of the gorge looks like this, steep walls and a river in the center. Definitely be careful if there's a chance of a flash flood.

Frozen over river:

Some ponds are unfrozen:

Checking out a little cave:

View of the valley:

Crossing a clever bridge, with pipes for handrails and two logs tied together to walk on:

The only vegetation that started to come back to life this early in the season was this stuff growing in the parts of the river that are unfrozen:

Frozen river and gorge:

If you decide to drive yourself out to his place, here's the general idea for how to go:


Drinking age

60 Minutes is one of the most consistently great shows on television. I got around to watching some episodes I hadn't seen yet, and there was an excellent segment from an episode a few weeks ago, "The Debate On Lowering The Drinking Age".

The debate comes down to a trade-off: if the age gets lowered from 21 to 18, there'll be less unhealthy binge drinking and overdosing, but there will be an increase of around 900 deaths. The person in the segment didn't say explicitly, but I assume that this was a reference to increased traffic fatalities.

The segment ends with a liberal educator-type, John McCardell, laying out his plan for teaching youngsters about how to drink responsibly starting before age 18. I think that this drinking age problem is really an engineering trade-off that needs to be balanced. Classes and instructors are going to provide limited value.

If you lower the drinking age to 18, you solve some of the problems of binge drinking by college students, but you create a new problem of more traffic fatalities, which taxpayers are not going to like. The solution here is to reduce the traffic fatalities problem which will balance out the situation.

To solve this problem, pick one state, or one large metropolitan area, lower the age to 18, and do some experimentation to see what drunk driving penalties will keep the traffic fatality rate back where it was with a drinking age of 21. At present, most people can have about two drinks before they start to border on legally drunk. I say lower that threshold to a BAC of 0.02%, which is about one drink for a regular person. Anything above that and you're fair game for a drunk driving conviction.

In California, your first conviction gets you between 96 hours and 6 months of jail. The second one gets you 90 days to 1 year. In my experiment, California (or some other jurisdiction) would double those sentencing guidelines. Then they'd run the experiment for long enough to gather reliable statistics. If we're still below the acceptable limit for traffic fatalities, they double the time durations each time until they find the right amount of jail time that keeps people from drunk driving. Of course, there's always going to be some people that misbehave regardless of the consequences; the key here is that we want those people to be few enough that the taxpayer can accept the 18 year old drinking age.

From what I've seen, it seems like they're doing just fine in the PRC with an 18 year old minimum age. I suspect that the difference with the US is due to the big contrast in automobile culture. Americans are learning to drive at 15 or 16 years old. Here, I have colleagues in their mid to late twenties that are finally taking driving lessons. The underage drunk driving problem is much less an issue, but that may change as lifestyles and incomes adjust here.

I always learn something new from 60 Minutes. One of my take-aways from this segment was that I learned what a Super Irish Car Bomb is. If I were a college student with a strong desire to waste a bunch of good booze by mixing it together and chugging it so I black out, maybe I'd try it.

Mar 10, 2009

Naval fracas: redux

After writing from one side of the fence on this naval incident, the interesting question is, how would this type of thing played out if the roles were reversed? For example, what if the US had a run-in with a PRC research vessel off the coast of Honolulu, or perhaps off of San Diego, where we tried to get in their boat's face about it, and they sprayed us with a water hose? I think it might have gone differently.

Let's start off with the setting where the decisions get made. The meeting room would be similar, but with some small changes. I couldn't find a picture yet of Obama with the Joint Chiefs, so this photo I came across will have to suffice:

First, the things that are similar:
  • Everyone has an identical white ceramic mug, however, they don't have lids, and they're probably drinking coffee
  • Everyone's got their legal pads
And, the things that are different:
  • Plates of delicious chocolate chip cookies instead of ashtrays
  • It's not just guys, there's at least one woman at the meeting
  • There's water in addition to the coffee or tea that they're drinking
  • The participants' outfits aren't quite the same; I see varying shades of grey, and even a few red ties
  • To me, this looks like a no smoking meeting room. But would there be some sort of celebratory joint passed around upon meeting adjournment? We'll never know.
Now for the military tactics. If this type of thing happened off of the coast of a US territory, it's unlikely we'd be nearly as patient about it. My speculation is that something like this would happen at the military level:
  • The ship's crew would probably be apprehended, sent off somewhere temporarily, same as the 2001 spy plane scenario. After some haggling and apologizing, they'd get returned home.
  • As a deterrent warning, maybe a submarine or two would be diverted in the general direction of the PRC, surfacing long enough for satellites to pick them and let everyone know they're around
  • Maybe one of the forward-deployed carrier groups would do training laps around in the Pacific more that it usually does; nothing deliberately threating, but just enough to let everyone know that the sleeping giant has been annoyed a little
At the citizen level, I think you'd have a lot of Americans screaming and yelling. A lot of people aren't in the greatest of moods lately, with everyone's 401Ks and houses going down in value more and more each day. Because of that, they could be extra aggressive. Then again, people may have already been drained emotionally worrying about jobs and the economy. They might not have the energy to get worried about a thing like this.

So, many things would be similar if the roles were reversed, but still a lot of other things would be different. If it ever goes down like this, we can come back and check my prediction list to see how right or wrong I was.

Mar 9, 2009

Naval fracas

This incident is almost the exact thing from 2001 with the spy plane collision over Hainan island, this time with ships instead of planes. Prior to the Beijing Olympics, I wrote a sarcastic post about how the local cadres must have little meetings to decide where to rip down trees in Beijing. I envision the same sort of meeting taking place for this naval business. (I'm lazy, so I'll reuse my pictures from before).

Picture the scene. It's a stuffy meeting room with a hanging cloud of cigarette smoke. There are a bunch of guys wearing identical looking outfits crowded around a table. They're drinking tea from white ceramic tea mugs with lids. An legal pad is on the table in front of each one. Suddenly, one of the guys pipes up with an idea:

The head guy says, "Let's hear it, Mr. Zhang."

Mr. Zhang proclaims, "Well, the Americans got this new Obama fella in office. He seems really sharp, but we oughta give him a little test. Feel him out a little, you know, like boxers at the start of a bout. For some time now, the Americans have had some ships running underwater reconnaissance right off our maritime border. It's a little too close for comfort. Let's get a little physical with these guys like in 2001 when Bush just got into office. But let's stick to the water this time instead of in the air."

The head guy raises his hand in a thumbs-up gesture and says, "Excellent idea Zhang, excellent. No sense in changing the game plan when the old plan worked so well. We can use the time we saved to do something fun, like go to a KTV bar and get some escorts. Excellent work, gentlemen, meeting adjourned. KTV is my treat."

And a New York Times story is made.

Mar 4, 2009

Stop snitchin'

A few months back, I recall seeing a "Stop Snitchin'" pendant like this one in a stall at a Xidan shopping mall here in Beijing:

I doubt that most shoppers in Beijing grasp the English meaning of the phrase on the necklace, let alone know about the whole snitchin' campaign.

The other day I was walking to work, as I do most days, and I observed a handful of dudes, as well as a dudette or two, spitting onto the sidewalk as they walked. Spring must be close, since the spit of late is looking pretty clear. Unlike during the harsh winter months, there's no yellow and green lumpy loogies. It's all healthy, liquidy saliva. The same day, when I was waiting for the elevator in the lobby of our office building after lunch, an office worker dude spit a stringy pool into the previously spotless metal pan atop the knee-high garbage bin. Par for the course, I know, but I was still a little unsettled.

Later that day, I was listening to Obie Trice's song "Snitch". I thought of the Stop Snitchin' gear, like the pendant I had seen in the market. A brilliant marketing idea occurred to me. We can make a localized version of these products, where instead of "Stop Snitchin'", they write "Stop Spittin'". These products would be highly applicable to the local scene, and they would have that cool-looking hip-hop flavor.

I would wear a Stop Spittin' pendant wherever I went. Every time I would see somebody spitting where they shouldn't be, I'd hold up my pendant with one hand and point at it with the other one. There'd be a new fashion trend. After it grew strong enough, all the spitters would start to swallow their saliva like normal people. Latent TB infections would go down, and I could find something new to complain about.

I'll keep my blog updated when I get some investors for this new venture. And, in case you weren't grossed out enough by my spit and phlegm anecdotes, here's a close up of salivary flora. Enjoy!