Learning Mandarin

We’re spending 3 weeks this summer on holiday in China. As soon as Helen suggested it we both immediately agreed it would be China this year. Plans are firming up – we’ll fly into Beijing, then move on down to Xi’ian, then a round trip ending up in Shanghai that’ll see us taking bus trips, one sleeper train and two internal flights.

Of course we know hardly anything about the country and we don’t speak the language. I’m trying to remedy this. Stacked up on my Kindle already are:

  • What Does China Think?
  • Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong
  • The Analects (Confucius)
  • The Book of Chuang Tzu
  • Tao Te Ching
  • Behind The Wall  (Thubron)
  • China: A History

…and I’m very much enjoying the Thubron at the moment. And I’ve started learning Mandarin.

There are two main problems for a westerner learning Mandarin. The alphabet, of course, which is not an alphabet but, I think, a ‘syllabary’, a huge barrier to learning and beginners like me have to rely on Pinyin, a Romanisation of Mandarin. The other big problem is that the language is tonal, with each syllable being expressible in 5 different ways – 4 standard tones and an ‘untoned’ version, with the added complication of ‘tone sandhi’ – variation of tones in response to other nearby tones.

The grammar’s pretty simple, with verbs not varying according to tense, gender etc, but with the use of ‘particles’ instead to mark tense, interrogatives and suchlike.

I’m using two podcast series. Serge Melnyk’s excellent Mandarin Chinese Lessons and Chris Parker’s Survive in Chinese.  I’ve been motoring pretty well with Melnyk until recently when I seemed to hit  a barrier. I just couldn’t get the vocabulary to stick or even understand some of the dialogue. So I’ve taken to writing out the conversations and creating Pleco flashcards for each podcast. 

To help with the reading and writing Helen bought me a copy of the beautiful and fun Chineasy  bu tI’ve just realised that it teaches Tradtional characters, which are used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, rather than Simplified characters, which are the mainstay these days on the mainland.

I’ve no idea if I’ll persevere and no idea either of how much I’ll be able to speak by the time we fly out but it’s fun so far and I always like to have a stab at speaking the language of the country I’m in. I have half   a mind to keep it up when we return


The film Compliance tells the hardly-believable but essentially true story of a sociopathic phone-pranker who, pretending to be a police officer, persuades a fast-food restaurant manageress to detain and strip-search a young female employee, then leave her to be sexually abused, under the direction of phoned orders, by the manageress’s middle-aged fiancé. It caused a little upset at Sundance, I’ve heard, but I found it a marvelously acted and beautifully shot, claustrophobic film that built quickly from mild humour to disbelief and offence then outrage and shock.

Compliance briefly offers Milgram’s classic experiment on obedience to authority  as some sort of explanation and makes a few references to Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment  throughout; but I feel that the the real-life Kentucky McDonalds case , mildly fictionalised in the film, and the 70 or so other hoax calls of varying degrees of nastiness are unfathomable enough to demand an extra dimension of explanation.

Charles Mackay’s classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds touches intriguingly on bizarre beliefs shared by relatively large numbers but I was reminded of psychoses shared on a smaller scale in the folie à deux, a syndrome where delusional beliefs may be shared with another person – or, more generally, the folie à plusieurs, known to DSM as the shared psychotic disorder. A startling example of the folie à deux is that of the twins Ursula and Sabina Eriksson who, among other things, deliberately and repeatedly hurled themselves in front of motorway traffic (the strange sequence of events is worth reading about for the sheer oddness).

In the film and in the real-life fast-food restaurant case the film lightly fictionalises it seems to me that the participants were doing more than obeying authority. They were sharing in a fiction that became gradually more incredible through the ratcheting demands of the hoaxer – but a fiction that was supported and maintained by the repeatedly tractable participants in the hoax. Halfway through the proceedings, the restaurant staff and even perhaps the principal victim were already suspending disbelief and supporting each other in a narrative that would have been preposterous to anyone who hadn’t been carefully prepped stepping freshly into their strange world.

These musings cause me to wonder then if some similar folies à plusieurs aren’t perhaps the stuff of our everyday lives. Perhaps we might expect to find our families and our workplaces relying upon this penchant for shared delusions and our willingness to maintain implausible fictions.

In the film the bubble is burst when a maintenance worker who hasn’t been at the restaurant all day is confronted with the horrifying consequence of the hoax and simply says ’No!’ Similarly, a few weeks after you’ve left a long-held job, say, the day to day urgencies seem very like a strange psychotic episode, and the hierarchies, demands and necessities of what was just a short time ago so terribly important suddenly vanish – not only because you’re no longer working at that particular job but because the delusion that that job and that company were so very vital and important is no longer being shared.

After Darwin

I started automating  tweeting real-time excerpts from Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary several years ago, beginning just in time to coincide with the bicentenary in 2009. I jumped into the Beagle voyage already underway in 1833, so I missed about a year of travel.

In Beagle time it’s now 1836 and Charles, Fitzroy and The Beagle are heading north for Ascension Island and then home to England and then that’s the end.

So here’s the question: what should I do with the Twitter account?

Biologist and Galapagos-visitor Karen James has asked if I’ll keep tweeting from it. Academic and author J F Derry (new book project here) makes me wonder if I could use it to promote various Darwin-related stuff.


I don’t know. The diary has a natural end so while I could carry on tweeting from Darwin’s subsequent life there’s no obvious and easy narrative source to use and the account’s pretty specific – it’s the Beagle Diary – so I’d feel it wrong to use it for another, very different purpose. 

If anyone has any ideas I’d be interested in hearing them

Goddbye Sony. Hello Kindle.

I while back I bought a Sony PRS-505 eBook reader. I’d contemplated the slowly growing eBook market for a while, I’d heard good things from the US about the Kindle, and I thought it about time I dipped a toe in the water.

After reviewing the eBook landscape I plumped for the Sony. The Kindle was still pricey and didn’t have a separate UK store; The Nook hadn’t been released; Sony used ePub, an open XML-based standard. The touch screen Sony PRS-700 had just been released but was getting somewhat mixed reviews, with some users pointing out that pushing greasy fingers over a surface you’re supposed to read was bound to cause a few problems, so I opted for the Sony PRS505 which had had very good reviews when it first came out.

Since then I’ve been disappointed with it for the following reasons:

  • Speed
  • Display
  • Lack of integration with store

Taking them in turns:


The page turn isn’t fantastically quick but it’s quick enough not to be a problem. However. My PRS-505 can be unbelievably slow to display the index of books when it first starts up after being switched off and it can also be very, very slow when loading a book. It didn’t take quite as long as the time needed to make a coffee but it was getting on for that. If you change the font size of the display then the book would be repaginated and I would experience that very long wait again.


The e-ink display was supposed to be about the best around when I bought the device but it is still disappointingly grey. I don’t suppose this irritation is confined to Sony eReaders

Lack of integration with store

I buy my books from Amazon. But Amazon was competing with Sony and had the Kindle so I couldn’t buy books from Amazon to read on the PRS-505. I didn’t want to open another book-buying account with another seller; and then, Google announced the availability of thousands of freely downloadable ePub books which Sony made accessible but only through their US store, at least to begin with. That was frustrating. I reinstalled the Sony software and claimed to live in the US just to be able to access the free classics Google was making available.

And now the new Kindle is out. It’s significantly reduced in price. It has WhisperSync, which allows you to pick up reading where you left off on different devices; it has free 3G and WiFi to allow you to contact the Amazon store wherever you happen to be, whenever you want to buy a book. It’s Amazon – and that’s where I buy my books. It’s a smaller device, it looks smarter, it has better battery life, the display is better…and Amazon will allow non-DRMd eBooks to be sold in their store if that’s what the publisher wishesl Sony won’t. And it uses Amazon as a permanent store for all your books.

So it’s the new Kindle for me. I might be just as disappointed by Christmas with the Kindle as I was with the Sony; but I think this iteration of the device might be the the one that tips me over into buying the bulk of my books as eBooks in future. I hope so.