Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why study journalism if there are no jobs?

I came across this question about whether or not there's any point in training journalists if the industry they are supposed to be going into doesn;t have any jobs to offer them - and have posted a video response via this video conversation website Seesmic, which looks like a great way to get opinions. It's the next generation of comment boards - video rather than written comments.

Monday, July 07, 2008


Here it is then, Chinese-language graffiti on the West Bank Barrier. Look for the 平 or "píng" meaning "peace" on the 3rd slab from the left. Nice bit of soft diplomacy there - not on anyone's side, in favour of a solution that benefits everyone...

(last frame in this slideshow - agency picture, not sure which)

Am posting using AnchorFree VPN - virtual private network - which creates a tunnel between me here in China and their server somewhere in the internet free world -

Hotspot Shield creates a virtual private network (VPN) between your laptop or iPhone and our Internet gateway. This impenetrable tunnel prevents snoopers and hackers from viewing your email, instant messages, credit card information or anything else you send over the network.

- thus enabling me to hurdle the Great Firewall and enjoy sites deemed bad for the public Chinese mindset, which at the moment appears to include the Blogger posting page.

Just noticed some Chinese language graffiti on the West Bank Barrier, on the last photo in this Guardian audio slideshow.

It's the character 平 - "Píng" - which means "Peace".

I've now visited probably the three most famous walls in the world - The Great Wall of China, the West Bank Barrier and the Berlin Wall. They are all laughably small compared to the environments around them, even the Great Wall, which lies like a very long piece of string atop huge crags. But symbolically they are big - really big, even defining. I wonder if sections of the West Bank Wall will be retained in the future as a kind of museum or memorial, even if we are talking way way into the future after years of it serving as an international border.

Enjoyed this in the Observer:

Chilling out with Charles Bukowski and Lord Jim

The backpacker
By William Sutcliffe

Looking back on all the times I went backpacking, and all the hours I spent agonising about what I should cram into my pack, I now realise that my clothes were usually ditched in favour of ethno-tat, my toiletries usually got lost and my medical kit was never opened. Only one thing really mattered: my choice of books.

No other activity can approach backpacking for the amount of time spent waiting: for trains to arrive, for buses to leave, for broken-down buses to be mended, all in order to get to some remote spot where you can 'chill out' (i.e. wait). In these circumstances, your choice of reading matter is extremely important. Without a good book, backpacking can resemble an obscure punishment.

Novels are the hard currency of a book-bartering economy that thrives in backpackers' hostels all over the world. The books you take have to be not just good, but swappable. The first thing to be aware of is that there is a Backpacker Canon, which is rigid and unchanging. These books have been read by every generation of backpackers since the Sixties and are, for no apparent reason, compulsory.

The chief pillars of the canon are Catch-22, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, On the Road and Steppenwolf. These books all fulfil the criterion of changing the way you see the world, often for up to a fortnight. One of these four titles is an obligatory accessory for any self-respecting backpacker.

The value of a book in the backpacker barter economy has nothing to do with its cover price. The gold standard of swappability is set by classics of the late 20th century set in backpacker-friendly countries: say, Midnight's Children and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Shortly behind this come novels either about drugs, or by authors who are known to have taken drugs, or which make no less sense when the reader is on drugs. Favourites authors in this category are Hunter S Thompson, Carlos Castaneda, Will Self, Irvine Welsh and Charles Bukowski.

It is a mistake to think you have to read about the country you are visiting. Backpackers spend much of their time complaining about the place they have chosen to visit. The job of your reading matter is often to take you away from where you are. I once spent three days on a bus crossing the Gobi desert and, frankly, I needed a book about something other than sand. I read Lord Jim and The World According to Garp and the two books are forever curiously miscegenated in my head. Because of the movie, Robin Williams is somehow in the mix, too. I feel almost as if Williams, Joseph Conrad, John Irving and I spent three days together hanging out on a bus in the desert, with me as host, proud to have introduced them to one another. I hope they keep in touch.

You will never have more time to read than when you are backpacking - until you retire - so if you have any sense, you will use it as an opportunity to read books a little longer and more challenging than you are likely to pick up when earning a living intrudes. No trip will ever be entirely wonderful or relentlessly terrible, but if you get back home having read Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, A Suitable Boy, Earthly Powers and Underworld, or even just a couple of those, your journey will have been worthwhile. You will have travelled the world in your mind, regardless of where you have been.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Olympics - its our party, not yours...

China is getting weirder and weirder.

Just staying in the country has become a full-time job in itself. Visawise, the place has really clamped down. To get the 2nd 30-day extension to my tourist visa I had to open a Chinese bank account and deposit $100 for each of the 30 days I wanted to stay in it - $3,000. I couldn;t understand what the point of this was - what real tourist (ok, I'm not really a tourist here) wandering around China would open a bank account here? How will this help security? But an American queueing at the Public Security Bureau in Beijing said the move was probably aimed at poorer migrants from developing world countries who come to China looking for opportunity and have in the past fallen into destitution and petty crime.

This new bank account rule has cost me about GBP 200 in credit card charges, exchange rate charges etc etc. And I will have to leave the country anyway at the end of the month, which will cost loads more in travel and so on, including potentially the loss of a month's rent. My media visa application - I'll be astonished if I ever hear anything about it ever again.

China doesn;t want to admit it is making the country an expensive pain to be in - the first swingeing changes came in early spring but it's only this week that the country has actually fessed up to making any changes at all. To quote an Arab diplomat I was chatting with today, it is quietly building another Great Wall as the Games get closer. The Games may in theory be a global party - but China seems pretty determined to keep as much of the world out as possible (as well as non-Beijing Chinese).

Check out the 57 rules for foreign visitors during the Olympics. Note that tourism to Beijing was down 14% in May and that hotels are deserted.

I could sort of understand some of this - it's been a crazy year for China: ridiculously heavy snow in February, T-bet riots, the Sichuan earthquake. Maybe they want to make sure there are as few lank foreign scruffs wearing Free T-bet t-shirts hanging around as possible.

But this NY Times piece puts it all into a new kind of context. According to the writer, China doesn;t give a toss what the IOC or anyone else thinks - these Olympics are for domestic consumption only. The real battle was winning the mandate to stage them in the first place - a new "mandate from heaven" to stay in power.

Now perhaps the Chinese government doesn't care if there's no real party. And any criticism from outside about crackdowns etc will just be badly received by Chinese at home who are particularly sensitive to what they see as foreign attempts to humiliate them. Their hysterical nationalistic responses thus bolster the government. Check out this screamer from China Daily - "The Chinese people don;t want Sarkozy to attend the Olympic Opening Ceremony - survey". Today this was the banner headline across the top of the site's front page.

Here's the message to the world from the Chinese authorities: "Go away - we never wanted you here anyway! These are OUR Olympics and no one can take them away from us. Just try it - we'll jump on these funny segway scooters and shoot you..."

I like China a lot. Maybe I'm just annoyed that my individual plans haven't borne fruit exactly as envisaged. Maybe I just resent all the stress and wish I had planned better. All that's true - but there's still a kind of clenchedness setting in here, hard-edged and gripping ever tighter.


In other weirdness, the US discovers that Guantanamo was Made in China. The methods of torture used at Guantanamo are in fact Chines in origin and were used against US POWs in the Korean War. That's nuts - but it might yet afford the US a way to dissociate themselves with the newly "un-American" place.

And Israeli border guards humiliate and assault a young prize-winning Palestinian journalist while he is accompanied by Dutch diplomats. Astonishing really. I'm continually waiting for the moment some of these guys rip into the son or relative of a big US personality - the rebellious son of a Congressman or TV presenter perhaps...