Dang Beijing, you crazy!

On April 16th through 20th, I stayed in Beijing, China for a conference on cyberphysical systems. The conference was OK, but the city and culture of Beijing were far, far more interesting. I won’t cover the smog because I didn’t really take any good pictures of the ridiculous mixture of dust from the Gobi Desert and oppressive exhaust from the many cars on the streets. What follows instead is a tale of communist Obama, scorpions, food poisoning and concubines. Dang Beijing, you crazy!

So, I had to do conference stuff on the 17th, but on the 18th, I got a tour of Beijing from a graduate student at Vanderbilt who had lived in the capital. We didn’t stick to the tour routes. We went all local-like, and one of the first things we noticed at a shop on the way from the Forbidden City was the image to the left, which is hilarious for two reasons. First, Obama is dressed in Mao Zedong communist-party garb. Fox News should have a heyday with this one, right? I mean, obviously this is just further proof that he’s a closet muslim, communist, whatever! Well, actually he’s just popular over there like he is everywhere else. For a communist country like China, he represents an American that understands what it means to put the people in front of himself. Their words. The second really funny thing about this image is the caption of the shirt underneath Obama. “Knowledge likes pants. Invisible but very important.” My guess is that this is meant to say “Knowledge is like panties: invisible but very important.” The way it is phrased right now is quite simply hilarious. Before you ask, pants are very visible in China.

Next stop on the crazy China train is “Snack Alley”, which is off the main shopping district a couple of blocks from the Forbidden City. Snack Alley literally has everything you might possibly want to eat, including a lot of things you probably don’t want to eat. For instance, live scorpions on a stick. Now, our graduate student told us that she’s never eaten them, is afraid of them, and has no idea who eats them. In her defense, I didn’t see anyone purchase a single scorpion on a stick from the dozens of places that were selling them. But that’s the point. There are dozens of places selling live scorpions on a stick. I found out the next day from a different, more official tour guide that scorpions tend to be fried. She said they taste like shrimp, and that snake on a stick tastes like chicken. I never saw the snake on a stick, but now I’m quite fascinated. Should I have tried the scorpions on a stick? Well, if they were fried, it was probably far less likely to cause the explosive happy time than the restaurant we chose shortly after seeing Snack Alley.

Hot Pots. In China’s defense, we went to a very nice restaurant the previous day called “Quan Ju De”, which is apparently one of the originators of the Peking Duck but better than the Americanized version. We ate extremely well there, and I might cover that in a follow up post about the Great Wall, Forbidden City, etc. But right now, we’re going to talk about the magical world of food poisoning/getting sick at a Hot Pot.

A Hot Pot is a simple enough concept, but there are two variants. The first involves everyone throwing a bunch of food into a soup base and sharing that among all the party-goers. The second involves each person having their own soup base and throwing a bunch of food into it and privately suffering through the consequences. We chose the second one. I had a hot-and-sour base and picked sliced duck, pumpkin, and rice noodles for my attempt at soup awesomeness. For those chefs out there, it will likely be obvious that I am not an expert chef from my ingredients. I could probably burn poptarts if sufficiently distracted. Anyway, I get control of the burner underneath my “hot pot”, and I drop in a fourth of the duck, pumpkin, and rice noodle and keep it going for 20 minutes or so, despite the fact that I’m absolutely starving. They give you this soy-based sauce packet that was simply delicious, and I devoured the duck, rice, and pumpkin very quickly once I transferred them from the pot onto a plate. So far so good. My guide, the graduate student and another researcher at our lab sort of laugh at me for cooking duck for so long. They claim such a thin slice of duck should only take 5 minutes to cook. Feeling like an idiot, I decide to drop my 20 minute cook time to 10 minutes, just to be safe.

How safe was I? Do you see the picture to the right? I was squatting over that within 30 minutes. Now, for those Americans and Europeans out there, your eyes are not deceiving you. That is a porcelain hole in the ground. There are four important things to know about this bathroom encounter. First, there is no toilet paper. None. And it’s not an accident. Bathrooms outside of the 4 star+ hotels have no toilet paper. This is a “let-it-dry” culture. Second, I was nowhere near this bathroom. I was in the subway when it hit, and I had to run up three flights of stairs (from what I remember) to get there. And I was happy to be there (the previous fragment should be read in a grumpy old man’s voice complaining about how kids don’t understand how great they have it)! Third, and as a consequence to the 2nd important thing, by the time I got to the bathroom, I was in dire straits. My stomach was churning, I was seconds away from explosion, and I was moving past the bathroom attendant at a full run yelling “Ni hao! Now, get out the way!” Fourth, I have no experience in squatting and avoiding soiling myself in such a situation.

Now, as crazy as this scenario is to me, as a foreigner from more Westernized cultures, it wasn’t all bad news. I successfully avoided soiling myself, which after some hindsight resulted in me giving myself a high five. I made it up three flights of stairs without the party starting too early, and I didn’t have to become indoctrinated into the “let-it-dry” culture. My plan was simple. I waited until my friends got worried and came to my rescue. My heroes passed me a small package of tissues over the divider, and my spirits were immediately lifted. In fact, I left that bathroom in 1000x better spirits than I entered it with. I even high-fived the bathroom attendant before washing. No, I’m kidding. I washed my hands crazier than Rene Russo in the movie Outbreak (and she washed like a madman, even though she was totally too late.) We left the bathroom and the Hot Pot in our rearview walking mirrors and went about the rest of our day.

My next major stop was the Great Wall and Ming’s Tombs. I may cover that in more detail in a later blog post, but first, I want to cover something that is crazy. Concubines. Not the concept really. I understand how a supreme leader would be all “I want that one… and that one… oooh, and that one.” It’s just amazing to me how little rights the concubines had and how sad their existence and deaths were. First, at the Forbidden City there is the Cold Palace. The Cold Palace is the place where the emperor would send concubines that had fallen out of favor. Basically, after he decided he no longer wanted to “hit that”, he’d send the concubine to the Cold Palace where they would have no heat, no company, no comforts at all. They were sent there to die. But when they died, it was a death of dignity and love and remembrance, right? How about “no.” The first imperial tomb at the Ming Dynasty’s Tombs was Zhu Di (became Chengzu after he opened a can of whoopass on the Hongwu Emperor), the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, and his is the biggest tomb of the 13 at the Ming’s Tombs. It’s also the only one that hasn’t been opened or looted. The tour guide walked us around the rectangular section and talked about the crazy Death gate that you should only cross when leaving Zhu Di’s tomb area, and we gawked at the large bronze rectangle which has apparently been destroyed before from lightning and replaced.

Then, she showed us where the concubines were buried. I kid you not, the picture to the left is where they threw the concubines to their final resting place (after poisoning them without them knowing about it). It gets weirder and more feng-shuiey. To prevent issues in the afterlife and to honor geomancy concepts in feng shui, the concubines were buried outside of the main circular tomb area, on the side of the emperor so they would be sufficiently far enough away from the empress. Also, to create harmony amongst the 8 official concubines, the retainers constructed two pits, one on either side of the tomb entrance, and split the dead concubines into two groups of four. Problem solved! Now, just toss the women into a pit but far enough away from the official wife, so she doesn’t get mad in the afterlife.

So, if you were a concubine in ancient China and were lucky enough not to be sent to the Cold Palace, you got to be buried close enough to the emperor for him to enjoy your zombie loins well into eternity but far enough away that you didn’t bother the undead empress. OK, so the tour guide didn’t really tell me that anyone would become zombies. Everyone went to heaven where they maintained their distances and orientation for eternity… or something. Either way, I think you’ll agree that this is a bit nuts. Very interesting but certifiable in today’s world (and I think the Chinese would generally frown upon such practices today).

Though, on that note, we found out from the tour guide that China has a one-birth-only policy for each couple that can be circumvented by 1) the death of a child and an application for another birth certificate, 2) having twins, triplets, etc. which count as a single birth, or 3) paying for the extra children. The tour guide said that a second child sets a couple back 880,000 yuan or roughly 146,666 dollars. Most couples obviously cannot afford this, but what was really curious about her explanation was that China currently has a 52% male to 48% female ratio, which is the exact opposite of the rest of the world. What might cause that? Well, I have heard from others that it’s caused by the first circumvention mechanism. If a baby dies, you can have another one for free if you file the paperwork properly. So, if you had a girl and you didn’t want one, she might mysteriously die and you try again until you get a baby boy. Now, again, this is urban legend. I have no idea if this is actually going on or not, but after seeing the concubine pit and hearing about the Cold Palace, the myth came back in my head and whispered in my ear.

And then that thought was completely interrupted by one of the tour guide’s final questions, and I kid you not she actually asked us this right after talking about the one-birth policy.

“Do any of you eat dog?”

It was the most casually atrocious thing I’ve ever heard. I actually laughed aloud because this is the kind of thing that one of my old gaming friends might say over Ventrilo during a boss fight to make everyone laugh. But she was serious, and she was genuinely curious.

“No,” I said for the five people from Spain, Japan, and the USA in the tour. “That’s generally frowned upon in our countries.”

So, should you take a trip to Beijing, China? God, yes! Take three. It may be crazy, but what is life without a bit of adventure! I’ve also heard that Shanghai is amazing.

P.S. See your doctor before you go. I had to get seven or eight shots that combined vaccinations for everything from Polio to measles to Hepatitis and the Bubonic Plague (yes, you can even munch of the old Black Plague in Snack Alley :D).

I miss you, Mitch

Why do we always lose our best comedians and actors to drugs? Mitch Hedberg was one of those guys with a crazy, unique delivery style and a truly random source of inspiration–every day life. He died of an overdose of cocaine and heroine in a hotel in Livingston, New Jersey on March 30, 2005 (tomorrow will be 7 years, so I’m making him a post in remembrance). Here are some of my favorite videos.

His long-awaited introduction to the Canadian market (lol)

David Letterman stand up (one of two, I believe)

Purple people and twin beds:

Another trip to Canada:

His delivery took a while to develop. Earlier, he didn’t have the pauses. Here’s one of his from 1995.

One of his best comedy CDs was Strategic Grill Locations. Youtube has a few of the excerpts from the live show of this (no video). I’d recommend picking up the CD if you like the above. Pretty sure he’s extremely high here.

The CD you buy at stores was edited by Comedy Central and is much better quality.

Anyway, raise a glass for Mitch tomorrow. The world needs more laughter, and he brought the funny well.

The Story of Sarah Churman

So, I watched the original video of Sarah Churman getting her first Esteem hearing aid, but I hadn’t seen the Ellen interviews or any of the other ones about her getting her second Esteem device. This is a really touching story, and if you haven’t seen the videos before, I think it’s worth a moment of each of our time.

First video of Sarah getting the hearing device:

Ellen interview:

Getting the second device so she has stereoscopic sound:

Random Internet Videos #Eleventy-Five

So, I’ve had a string of serious posts, and for that I apologize. I haven’t posted a kitten video or a short song about someone wanting to fornicate with a writer in months. You deserve better. So, here’s some random internet videos for you, fresh out of the oven.

Dollar Shave Club. Hilarious

Darth Vader is a terrible golf buddy

On the topic of Vader, he’s a fantastic dancer.

2010 – Dance off with the Star Wars Stars

2008 – Dance off with the Star Wars Stars

Conversations with a reader: Happy Endings

I’m striking out the reader’s name, but I have a feeling many people have similar questions and thoughts, so I wanted to share my thoughts with others on these topics. If you have a question for me (even if it’s insulting or filled with disappointment), feel free to contact me at rexjameson at gmail.com, where at is an @ symbol. I love hearing from you guys and gals, and I appreciate your opinions and viewpoints–even if they’re quite contrary to mine.


> I thought that Michael and Gabriel are good guys.

They are good guys, if you’re on their side. However, the Old Testament is not exactly a children’s story, and the side we’re on is pretty brutal. As the oldest child of my family, I’m hoping I’m not a descendant of a Philistine. Things never go well for the first born Philistines and Egyptians :). In fact, the more innocent you are in the Old Testament, the more likely you’re going to be murdered.

Take the story of Samson, for instance. Samson seeks to marry a Philistine because “it is of the Lord”. He kills a lion, and bees make honey inside of the carcass. So, approaching his wedding day, he goes into the wedding feast and proposes a riddle to his Philistine groomsmen. Being a humble man, he chooses a riddle about himself–concerning the lion he killed and the bee tenants–and promises them 30 pieces of fine garments that he doesn’t have if they get it right. They don’t guess it and badger Samson’s fiancee to give them the answer. She does, and Samson decides that the best part of the riddle is yet to come.

He goes into the streets of Ashkelon and kills 30 innocent people, collects their garments and delivers the fabrics to his groomsmen. Joke’s on them, right? Samson refuses to marry the woman and leaves. The woman’s father gives her to the best man who is still interested. Samson changes his mind because maybe he has another riddle to give to the groomsmen or something, and comes back, but the father informs him that his daughter is now engaged because Samson refused her. He actually offers his younger daughter, but Samson’s having none of that.

Samson does the only logical thing available. He attaches torches to the tails of 300 foxes and sends them into the Philistine fields and cities, burning down innocent people’s farms and homes. The people get so infuriated that instead of killing Samson, they trap the woman and her father in their house and burn it down. In revenge for someone else killing the father and the wife he should have had, Samson goes about killing a whole bunch more Philistines.

The Philistines finally go “OK, we’re sending an army to bring this guy to justice for killing so many innocent people,” but unfortunately for them, God puts a magic, non-brittle ass’s jawbone on the ground, and Samson uses it to beat 1,000 Philistines to death with it.

I won’t go into the story of Delilah, but the good news is that Delilah doesn’t appear to get punished for betraying her husband. Samson just gets a chance to kill more Philistines at a temple.

Not exactly a happy ending for the Philistines. I’d argue that none of the Old Testament is a happy ending unless you’re one of God’s chosen people. Michael and Gabriel (and angels in general) are more often than not involved in slaughter and retribution against the people outside of God’s chosen. The perspective of much of the Primal Patterns series is from outside of God’s chosen, and so, it’s not much of a happy ending for some of the protagonists, and that’s perfectly OK if you’re in God’s chosen. God gets even more smitey as the series progresses.

> Have fun writing and write a book soon about light, love, good folks and
> happy endings. I need happy endings.

If you’re a fan of the New Testament, there’s a happier ending that comes by the end of Book 3: Shadows of our Fathers. (redacted) That’s a spoiler obviously, but this is a retelling of much of the Old Testament that takes into account the breadth of God’s creation–namely the billions of trillions of stars and 350 billion known galaxies and 7 trillion dwarf galaxies. God’s chosen is expanded drastically in this series.

> Can’t wait to read the happy book.
>

I have two other books that are only available on Kindle:

Elves and Goblins: Perspectives of a Father’s Rebellion
www.amazon.com/dp/B0078ZV1U8

Angels and Demons: Perspectives of a Violent Afterlife
www.amazon.com/dp/B005L7AMXW

Both of these have good guys ultimately thwarting evil, but the path is not as black and white as you’ll like. In Angels and Demons, God wants to show the Devil how good mankind is so he agrees to a wager with the Devil that humans who are murdered go to Hell and those who die of natural causes go to Heaven. If mankind follows the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and the teachings of the New Testament (forgiveness of an enemy, etc.), then Heaven wins by default. War and murder will obviously cause the Devil to gain the only power he has available–that of numbers of souls, and mankind’s tendency to kill causes Michael and Gabriel (those good guys) to have to try to convince humanity to stop killing.

In Elves and Goblins, a marginalized people (the elves) have been placed in concentration camps by goblins and are being starved to death. They can’t go to universities or receive health care, and over 300 years, they nearly die out. A father faces the imminent death of his son and decides that the only recourse is to go into town and find a cure for his son’s illness, a disease that is decimating the remaining elves. He has to kill for the first time in hundreds of years, but he’s doing so to save his innocent son.

To me, these are happy endings, but happy endings don’t come free. People have to work for happiness, and the path to redemption is often paved in tragedy and loss for the greater good.


So, to wrap up, I do believe in happy endings, but my happy endings are not the neat and tidy ones that many readers are desperately searching for. That’s OK. No book can please everyone. If you’re looking for recommendations of books that are much happier and generally death free, authors like Debora Geary may be more down your alley. Of course, she’s writing about happy witches and not angels and demons. The good news is that after the third book in the Primal Patterns series, I plan on tackling a different subject. Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely to be about happy witches.

Feature and Kittens

So, I was featured today on Kindle Nation Daily while I was at a conference in California, and it was pretty cool to see dozens of new sales on Lucifer’s Odyssey. No idea if that trend will continue, but it’s awesome to get on the internet and find an actual ranking for my book in the top 100 of its genre. Neat feeling.

More importantly, I found some really cute videos of cats and kittens today, so I’m posting those because I can. If they make me laugh and be happy, I’m sure they’ll help some of you too :D!

And for those of you who would rather watch videos of humans, how about a boy reacting very well to news of a new sister?

OK, Rachel Bloom. I heart you.

So, I’m married. I want to go ahead and admit that right up front. But every once in a while a video comes along that shakes me to my foundations. OK, it doesn’t really do that, but it’s super awesome. It’s also not safe for work. Rachel Bloom is a recent graduate student from NYU, and she’s working on a comedy CD and Youtube platform in the February/March time frame of next year. You can read more about her in an online interview here (I SWEAR I’M NOT STALKING HER OR ANYTHING :P).

I think she is definitely on the right track. Her first major video is a very modern ode to Ray Bradbury for… um… amorous relations. It’s not safe for work (the F-bomb is not only part of the title but also a recurrent refrain). I can’t recommend this video enough. 100% nerdy awesomeness is contained therein.

If there was ever a time to be a Sci-Fi author, it’s now, right? LOL.

The Cheaters video she has up is also pretty funny as well, and since it’s about a test for the Great Gatsby, it’s totally relevant to this blog, right?! That’s what I thought too!

Edit: Completely unrelated to books, but here’s another funny one I found of hers. It’s demented. I guess most of her stuff is (and will continue to be, I hope).

More movie reviews and a silly video

First, the silly video. Here’s a cat on a turtle.

Now, back to some movie reviews for Netflix titles. I love Netflix, and my wife loves to sleep. This could cause a lot of problems, but thankfully, Netflix has a large gallery of foreign films with English subtitles, which allow me to play the movie low and not miss dialogue. Not all foreign movies can be watched this way though and still have a decent enjoyment level. So, in this series of reviews, I also add a Sleeping Roommate Score (SRS) to indicate the likelihood of being able to watch the movie with a sleeping roommate or spouse in the next room and manage to not get yelled at and perpetual evil looks the next day.


First, the good. Max Manus.

From its interesting and casual storytelling of the work of saboteurs to its emotional and epic cinematography, this is a movie that keeps you interested and guessing. It’s a hero’s tale and though much of the story can be predicted, it was so well crafted that even predicting the plot felt rewarding. The dialogue mixes between languages so you’ll have some subtitles. Mixed with the action sequences and explosions, this means you cannot really watch this with a sleeping roommate nearby. But my wife stayed up to watch this one with me. It’s worth a watch.

Title: Max Manus
Rating: 5 stars. Excellent movie.
SRS: 2 star. You should not try watching this with a roommate sleeping near you.


Now, the unusually surprising. They’re not five stars, but they’re 3-4 stars and worth watching as a cinematic experience. And just me admitting to this is something that brings up very mixed emotions. Uwe Boll… has managed… to direct… two decent films. Yes, the director of Blood Rayne and Blood Rayne: Third Reich (both very terrible, btw).

Now, a warning. Apparently, the only thing Uwe Boll appears to do decently right now is extremely graphic violence. So, keep in mind that I have an ability to try to look past gory scenes, especially if there is a purpose in it.

Title: Rampage
Rating: 4 stars. Not a perfect movie, but for Uwe Boll, wow. It’s important to remember that this is a heist film and an interesting perspective on society. If you can get past the slow build and the insane psychopathic rage, you may actually say “you know… that’s actually ingenious.” And then you’ll realize you just said that about a Uwe Boll screenplay and directorship. Worth a watch.
SRS: 1 star. Under no circumstances will you get away with watching this on Netflix, hear the dialogue, and not anger sleeping persons.
WARNING: Language and Extreme Violence

Title: Attack on Darfur
Rating: 4 stars. Again, not a perfect movie, but it is a powerful portrayal of the conflict. From what I’ve read, real Darfur survivors were cast in the movie and much of their parts were unscripted–Uwe Boll listened to them and let them re-enact things that had happened to them and their families and friends. The plot of the Americans? Very fantasized. But, it is a movie and the American presence may help ground the story for most viewers.
SRS: 3 stars. Mixture of English and subtitles for the Sudanese and Arabic dialects. The good news is that the loud parts will become very obvious to you. There’s a huge battle scene, and almost everything after that point can be watched and not heard (or heard softly).

BOTH of these movies were started before I realized they were him. I’ve picked up a few others after I find his occasional success. The successes are a rarity though.


Title: The Warring States
Rating: 2 stars. Mostly bad. I love Asian movies. I’ve seen pretty much every movie set in the Three Kingdoms period that has ever been made. This movie tries to romanticize the historical setting of a possible author of the Art of War back in the Warring States period, but it is no Three Kingdoms. The CGI battles look very cheap. Some of the fight scenes are good, but I didn’t use the word “great” and I certainly didn’t say “All”. The death scene was just ridiculous. You’ll know the one I’m talking about when you see it. It’s not the fact that the person died. It’s that they’re even able to interact as they did. And it happens at the end, which is 9x worse than this happening in the middle or somewhere less memorable and lasting.
SRS: 5 stars. You can totally watch this with the subtitles on and volume down.

This holiday season, give the gift of Louis CK

For several years now, my favorite comedian has been Louis C.K. The guy is just so brutally honest in his routine. If you liked George Carlin, you’ll love this guy.

Anyway, if you haven’t had an introduction to him before, check out the following (but understanding that he curses A LOT).

MATURE CONTENT WARNING: CRUDE LANGUAGE. LOTS OF CURSING.

“Why?”. Quite possibly the best skit ever (especially towards the end)

Louis C.K. on kids and secrets.

Louis C.K. on girls versus boys.

Louis C.K. on being white.

Louis C.K. on how kids suck

Louis C.K. on sex and dating

Are you having fun yet?

Some people may think that life comes down to a simple question: what did you do with your life? I would argue that all answers are meaningless if you didn’t answer it with “I had fun.”

Take nerdy kids for example…

People may laugh at us, but we nerds know how to keep ourselves entertained. And isn’t that what is ultimately important?

In my opinion, everyday should be filled with wonder and a glass full of laughter. If you don’t have those two things, then well… what the heck are you doing with your life? Watch a fun movie. Read a great book. Kiss a girl and run like crazy until she grows tired of chasing you.

Get out and dance…

Oh dear lord, nevermind. Don’t do that. Oh, who am I kidding, I watched that three times.

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