Friday, November 13, 2009

Chinese diploma, see?

I was just working on a translation of a college transcript, and learned two interesting things that I thought I would share with the universe.

Not all diplomas are created equal
I have found that there are three different types of certificate issued by Chinese universities.

1) Diploma - 毕业证书 (bi4 ye4 zheng4 shu1) - GOOD. This is for students who have completed and passed all of their classes. The best type of certificate to have, it is accompanied by an academic degree certificate, BS, BA, MA, etc.

2) Certificate of Completion of Studies
- 结业证书 (jie2 ye4 zheng4 shu1) MEH. This means that the student has completed all of their classes, but has not passed all of the classes, or at least they didn't pass their graduation test. I am not completely sure, but it means the student did not pass something and therefore does not qualify for graduation, but they did complete everything. Not a good thing to have, altho probably better than nothing.

3) Certificate of Study - 肄业证书 (yi4 ye4 zheng4 shu1) - BAD. This is apparently the worst type of certificate to have. I've only ever seen one out of the hundreds of academic documents I have translated. According to the Internet, it is worse than not having anything at all. Basically this says that yes, this person did study at this school, but they did not finish school. Here is what happens when you present this piece of crap at a job interview:
"But, Mr. Interviewer for a Good Job, I didn't finish because I ---"
"Zup! Zip! I don't want to hear it. Thanks for coming in today. Bye."
"But I -"
"Zup." [pinches lips shut as a subtle message]

Progress in the classroom!
OK, that is a very subjective statement, but I am basing it on a transcript from 2008, which had some classes I have not really seen before. Oh, there was the usual
马克思主义基本原理 (ma3 ke4 si1 zhu3 yi4 ji1 ben3 yuan2 li3), Basic Principles of Marxism, but then right under that was
儒道佛文化及其精神 (ru2 dao4 fo2 wen2 hua4 ji2 qi2 jing1 shen2), which is Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist Culture and Spirit. In the transcripts I usually translate, which are usually from the 1990s or before, I have never seen that class listed. The fact that it is taught now is kind of cool. I mean you still have all of the Communist BS, but at least they are branching out. And then I was really surprised to see this class: 动物福利 (dong4 wu4 fu2 li4), Animal Welfare! I have absolutely never heard of that being taught in China. So that, too was encouraging. Well done, Chinese educational system.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Home improvement 101 and NaNoWriMo

I have decided to undertake the National Novel Writing Month challenge. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel within the month of November. And since it usually takes me several months to write a 16K- word short story, it is a real challenge.

But I have been keeping on track so far, and hopefully I will be a winner! Which in this case means that you complete the challenge. Here is a brief synopsis of the novel so far:

Thirteen-year-old Waverly Yancy finds an ancient amulet in his freezer. Somehow it seems connected to unexplained incidents in his own life. And when his parents find out the source of their African heritage, Waverly goes along for the ride of his life.

The working title is "The Sky Stones of Tombouktou." Essentially it is the black Harry Potter. Hear that, agents who are googling around, looking for the next great novel? "The Black Harry Potter." Heeeere, Google spiders. You might think: Dude, how can you write convincingly about a 13-year old African American kid? Well, you will just have to wait and see! It's gonna be awesome.

In other news, I fixed not one but 2 household items over the weekend. The first was the sink disposal. It was jammed and I was basically waiting for whatever crap was in there jamming it to
rot away and the problem would take care of itself. However, this was not happening. So I looked on the International Network of Computers (they have that now) and figured out that you don't have to take the thing apart in order to fix it.

All you have to do is cut off the power to it, get underneath with a 1/4" allen wrench and insert it into the access hole in the bottom of the unit. You then turn the blades manually with the wrench, and it works the blockage loose. Then you can grab whatever it was (spoon, bag, etc) with tongs and it is fixed! In my case it was just gunked up so after spinning it a few times it started moving freely again. Then Michala poured some dish soap in the drain and it was good as new. Amazing.

I also fixed the water dispenser that comes out of the fridge. I learned via the International Network that the tank for the water that comes out of the fridge door is in the back of the crisper drawer. Who knew? I had noticed a day or so earlier that a pepper in the crisper drawer had some ice on it. Hmmm. Maybe the tank was frozen? So I took out the drawer and found the tank. There was a tube coming out of it and when I fiddled with the tube some ice seemed to crunch and loosen up. I tried the dispenser again and -- holy home improvement Batman -- it worked!

Amazing Lesson: If something does not work in your house, go to the Internet and then fiddle with said broken item. With enough fiddling, you can fix anything!

Random Chinese factoid to keep blog relevant: 冰箱 (bing1 xiang1) means "refrigerator" in Chinese. Literally it means "ice box." Very to-the-point, if a bit old school. But some Chinese words are just old school, and the word for a thing does not necessarily change along with the technology of the age. For example, the word for "rocket" is 火箭 (huo3jian4), which is literally "fire arrow." And the word for spear and gun are the same exact word, 枪 (qiang1). Oh, and "black Harry Potter" in Chinese is 黑 哈利・波特 (hei1 Ha1 li4 Bo1 te4).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Nonsense and the curse of the lazy blogger!

In the interest of posting a post in September, I present with no introduction the cover of a nonexistent graphic novel: "Curse of the Dagger!" This was an idea I had and messed around with for a while. Finally I inked it and scanned it into Photoshop for the colors. Fun!

A young pharaoh finds a mysterious dagger stuck in a strange looking skull in the desert. As he pulls the dagger from the bizarre, deformed skull, a brilliant red light flashes across the landscape.

Little does the young king know, he has released an ancient curse that will ravage the kingdom and threaten to destroy the very fabric of reality!

OK, I thought of a translational subject:

The Chinese phrase: 胡说八道 (hú shuō bā dào) means "nonsense." It is what Rep. Joe Wilson would have yelled at Pres. Obama during his health care speech if he spoke Chinese. Literally it means: "Outrageous speech in eight ways." What is the origin of this strange saying? Let me regale you with the tale...
A young pharaoh finds a mysterious dagger stuck in a strange looking skull - No, no that's not it. Here is the story that makes most sense to me (from Baidu).

In ancient times, Chinese people referred to the minority populations to the north and west as the "Hu." The who? Yes. The Hu. So the unintelligible language of these groups was lumped under the phrase, "hu shuo" 胡说 (Hu speak).

The 八道 (bā dào) part of this expression comes from the "Noble Eightfold Path" 八正道 (ba1 zheng4 dao4) of Buddhism. So in other words, the phrase means "an ignorant barbarian trying to talk about the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment."

See, now isn't that much more interesting than a moronic outburst of "you lie!" ?

Monday, August 17, 2009

District Awesome

One of my all-time favorite science fiction movies (aside from Star Wars) is Aliens 3. I know, probably not a popular choice with you die hard sf fans. But the dark tone, bizarre prison characters, and the overall general feeling of the film really appeal to me. It came out in like 93? Anyway, -I went to see District 9 this weekend. (第九区 (di4 jiu3 qu1) in Chinese.)
Hands down the best original science fiction movie I've seen in years. Usually "science fiction" films are some kind of sf-horror hybrid which suck. This year's Star Trek was awesome, but based on an old series so not counted as "original."

The movie takes you to a near-future South Africa in which aliens are a part of society, although an unwelcome part. They are relegated into ghettos and treated like crap, and without giving anything away - THEY ALL DIE!!! Just kidding. It deals with prejudice and racism and other bias issues and it does it in a way that is really clever and not in your face, but it is pretty obvious: the good guys are compassionate and the bad guys are the bigoted monsters. It is obvious, that is, unless of course you are a complete idiot.

Which brings me to the point of this missive! As I was walking out of the theater, a guy in front of me was wearing a t-shirt that said: "No Mas," (no more in Spanish) and had a graphic of a circle-slash through the Mexican flag. It was funny because in the movie there are signs like that all over but they say "humans only." I had a strong urge to tell the guy to go see the movie again and think about it fer-gods-sake. I didn't, but I was sort of dumbfounded that a person would bother to go see a really good movie but have the message completely lost on them. Not that I see movies for their "message" necessarily, but in this case the irony was exquisite. Oh well.

So, here is my latest sketch! It is for a drawing contest with the theme: Time-switched battles. I drew the pencils, then scanned it and printed it out in really light blue. THen I inked over it, and finally colored it in with colored pencils. So much fun! Her face is a little weird, but overall I like it.

There, I posted in August. Phew!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Conan connundrum

For some reason I have veered away from blogging about Chinese stuff and have begun drawing a lot. I know I will get back to writing, but drawing stuff is so much fun I have to take a crack at it!

Anyway, this is a pencil drawing of one of my favorite comic book characters Conan the Barbarian. He has just slain a giant serpent ind his sword is stuck, meanwhile marauders from the temple are coming to attack him, since he disrupted the sacrifice of the girl on the left. Probably doesn't need that much explanation but I thought I should have some text on here!

Here is a link to the full size version

More later ...!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


First, let me say that our wedding was beautiful, even though a massive deluge interrupted the ceremony! It was lots of fun, and I recommend our method to anyone, which is to have a three-day party with friends and family and just embrace and enjoy every second! More on that later.

So, while I was back on Long Island just before the wedding, I was going through my many boxes of stuff that was in the barn. Among said stuff, I found a business card... This card did not bear my name, but it was mine for a few days back in 1997 or '98. I have contacted the only person I could find in all of Googledom with the same name as this guy, and will post his response if it ever comes. In the meantime, I've blurred out his last name just in case.

What follows in the whole sordid tale.....(note: I wrote this shortly after getting back from China in 1999, and have edited slightly since then. )

The Garry Identity

One day while sitting at my computer at work in Beijing (at website company,) a colleague, Xiao Hou, sat down next to me and asked me if I would do her a favor. She was cute and always put a hand on my leg when she talked to me, so I said yes.

She gave me a phone number and asked me to call her friend, Helen, who worked for an Australian textile machinery company. She said Helen needed a translation, so I said no problem, as I always look for translating experience and extra cash.

When I called Helen the next day, however, I found that this was no simple translation. This was a covert operation that would involve finesse and deception of the highest degree.

Helen’s company had a problem. A large textile machinery exhibition was coming up in rural Shandong province, and in order to appear as a major player, the company wanted to have a representative from its parent company in Australia make an appearance. But they could not afford to fly anyone over. Helen said that her company would pay me 1,500 kuai, three days of my salary, to impersonate an Australian manager at the two-day conference. All I had to do, she said, was come along, not speak any Chinese, and not talk to any other people who might ask technical questions about the products.

I was skeptical, but as it was an insane and highly questionable endeavor, I figured it would be “good material,” as my mom would say, so I agreed. Helen’s boss, Mr. Wang, said he would make up some fake business cards and my name would be Mai Ke’r — Mike.

This was a strange coincidence because not two days before, I had been hanging out at my favorite bar, the Palm Tree, with friends Rao Shan and Hong Lin, when an older man came in and began drinking heavily. He explained that he was a teacher, and was pretty unhappy with his life. We tried to talk him out of his depression, and he eventually cheered up, but as he got progressively more drunk, he started calling me Mai Ke’r. I told him my name was Ben, but since “ben” is a Chinese word for “stupid,” he refused to call me Ben and dubbed me Mike. When we all stumbled out of the Palm Tree and said goodbye to that guy, I thought I had been called Mai Ke’r for the last time.

A few days later, I had been approved for time off from work (I did not reveal my true plans to my employer) and we were set to leave. I met Wang and a couple of the company's Beijing salesmen at the long-distance bus station and we boarded a mini-bus bound for Quzhou, Shandong. Wang said hello and handed me a small box.

“Ah,” I said. “I’m Mike now.”

“Not Mike,” Wang said. “Garry.”

I opened the box and looked at the cards. Sure enough, there were about a dozen cards that said Garry [last name redacted for now], Regional Manager. These were not some fake business cards of a made-up person. This was an actual manager’s card. We boarded the bus and I settled in to my plastic seat and tried to get into Garry’s mind, wondering what kind of person the real Garry was, and if any one at the expo would know him. I figured I would conduct myself in a professional manner to reflect well on the man, in case his textile machinery career ever took off and he happened to make an unlikely trek to the backwaters of Shandong Province.

Seven or eight hours later we got to the town of Quzhou, and I soon discovered how far off the beaten path we actually were. The Beijing sales reps took me to a small restaurant, which was supposed to be the best in town. The magnificent repast was going to take a while to prepare, so I went off in search of cigarettes (I used to smoke, but have since quit).

In China, smoking is very common, especially among men. It is still pretty off limits for women, except for really old women who nobody could take for a promiscuous harlot. Smoking and cigarettes are a huge part of the culture, as it stands now. Exchanging smokes with a person is an easy icebreaker, and makes an immediate bond. As the saying goes: “yan jiu bu fen jia.” “Cigarettes and alcohol are shared like we are family.”

Also, every province, and many cities, have particular brands of cigarettes that the locals smoke. Some are better than others. Beijing has some really good cigarettes, including the famous “Panda” brand, Deng Xiaoping’s favorite, which cost about $25 a pack. They also have really, really bad ones, such as “Heaven,” which are green in color and are about the foulest tobacco product available. You can feel your alveoli self-destructing in despair with each puff of a Heaven. Regardless, when you go on a trip, it is fun to look for the local brand of smokes and buy a couple of packs to bring back to your friends.

I spied a cigarette kiosk, and was scanning for the local brand. All I saw were “Double Happiness,” a Shanghai brand, a couple of other national brands, and Marlboros, probably fake ones manufactured on a boat in the South China Sea. You can usually tell the counterfeit Marlboros by the typos in the Surgeon General’s warning on the side of the box. It says: “Smoking can cause petal deformities” (instead of “fetal deformities”).

As I was considering my purchase, I suddenly realized that a group of about six men was cautiously gathering around me. I was a little bit nervous, but I realized that they were more likely curious than threatening, and were probably not spies sent by the textile people. So I just said hello: ni hao.

They looked at each other, and one of them spoke up. “You speak Chinese,” he said.


“We were wondering, where are you from?”

“America,” I said.

“Can we have your autograph?”

This took me by surprise. I was used to the daily “conversation” I had when meeting new Chinese people. “The conversation” was usually exactly the same, and was a sort of daily affirmation for me of how smart I was and how good my Chinese was. It usually happened in a taxi and went like this:

Taxi driver: “Where are you from?”

Me: “America.”

TD: “Wow, your Chinese is excellent! How old are you?”

Me: “25” [or whatever I was that year]

TD: “Great! How much do you make?”

Me: “7,500 a month.”

TD: “That’s so much! How long have you been in China?”

Me: “Four years.”

TD: “Your Chinese is so good!”

And so on. Usually the driver would ask about my family and if the ride was long enough we could get down to some myth explosion like how there is actually poverty in the United States, too, and how prostitution is generally not legal.

I had been to a couple of out-of-the-way places before in my travels around China. In one case, a Tibetan man had asked me how long a train ride it was to get to the United States.

But this request for my autograph was a new ego-bending twist on “the conversation.” I told the man that I was nobody famous and my autograph was really not a much sought-after commodity where I came from. But they explained that they had never actually seen a foreigner before and they wanted my signature just the same. So they walked with me to the small restaurant where my Beijing “colleagues” were eating and asked for some paper napkins, which I signed in both English and Chinese.

My fans waited patiently by while I signed all six napkins, and then politely thanked me and filed off down the street. The more-metropolitan Beijingers had a good laugh about it, and we all sat down for the meal, now ready.

The local delicacy was a greasy mutton soup accompanied by a rock-like “mo,” a round biscuit that appeared to be regulation size and density for the NHL. You are supposed to soak the bread ingot in the gray mire of the soup for about 15 minutes to get it soft enough to eat. The mo then deconstructs itself into the soup and the whole thing becomes a gnarly porridge. I am usually open to fresh culinary experiences, but this was a new low. Luckily there was plenty of 100 proof baijiu, distilled liquor, to go around, which was strong enough to render my furious taste buds temporarily senseless.

After dinner we went back to the hotel to prepare for the next day.

“Remember,” Wang said. “No Chinese.”

I practiced saying “G’day” to myself as I drifted off to sleep.

In the morning we boarded a bus and headed downtown. It was immediately clear that this was this biggest thing to hit this town since 1949. There were banners everywhere and hundreds of people swarming in from all around the country. The main events were taking place at the industrial center of the town: a textile factory. The first order of the day was a lecture in an auditorium at the factory complex about the textile machinery industry, which was excruciatingly dull. It was not hard for me to pretend I did not understand a word of it because I was utterly bored.

Since the company I was traveling with was from Beijing, and since they had a foreigner with them, we were given special treatment, and a special tour of the factory followed. The factory actually had one of “our” machines.

Seeing the machine in action was interesting, because it was controlled by a computer. The design of the cloth was laid out on the computer, and the cutting machine interpreted the data and cut out the pattern on multiple layers of cloth. I wanted to ask questions, but restrained myself from saying anything in Chinese.

As always with any significant event in China, a banquet followed. The president of the factory took me and my colleagues to a local restaurant for lunch and drinks. Luckily, we were able to say that we had already sampled the local specialty, so we were spared having to deal with the gray soup again. The baijiu flowed freely, but I staid my tongue, an especially difficult task since once inebriated, my Chinese becomes more fluent than ever, or at least I feel like it does.

In the end, I believe I did well by Garry, and if I ever meet the guy, I definitely owe him a beer or 15.

Friday, June 12, 2009

magic tiiiime

OK, so here I am on the verge of nuptial bliss, smoking a cigar and drinking good whisky (Stranahan's Colorado). I am about to go back east to Vermont to get married in a couple of weeks, in case my dear readers did not know, so I thought I would post a little bit of Chinese-related marriage stuff!

But first check out this pencil sketch I did recently of an alien chasing a dude on a hover bike!! (No relation to how I feel about getting married, mind you, it is just something I drew recently and would like criticism on. Click for larger image)

OK. The first thing I can say is that I am glad we are getting married in 21-st century USA instead of feudal China. Back in the day, you would not even know your bride/groom or what they looked like/enjoyed eating/preferred activities/favorite color. It was all arranged in advance by the families. Michala and I have been dating for several years, with the engagement and wedding planning lasting for about a year and a half on its own! And no matchmaker!

The Chinese word for marriage ceremony is 婚礼 (hun1 li3). The second part of the character means simply "ceremony" or "rite." But the first part is interesting because it has the radical for female: 女 (nv3) and for dusk: 昏 ( hun1). Apparently this is because marriages in olden times used to take place in the evening. (according to

There are a million details on how marriages went down in China, but I think one thing that is quite interesting is that pretty much all of the characters associated with marriage have the female radical 女 in them. Here is a brief list of those words:

婚 (hun1) marriage, get married (woman + dusk)
姻 (yin1) relatives by marriage (woman + reason)
嫁 (jia1) to marry to a man (woman + home)
娶 (qu3) to marry a woman (woman + retrieve)

I am very excited to get married! I keep getting asked "are you nervous?" But I don't feel nervous, rather I feel a sense of destiny, a feeling of impending fulfillment, and a sense of connection with the millions of other beings (humans, obviously, but also our animal cousins, whose psychological and emotional dimensions remain largely unplombed by us) who have entered into similar committments, in whatever form, with whatever combination of individuals.

Next post: I will be a married man!

Monday, May 18, 2009


So. A few weeks ago I went to Comic Con in Denver, which was really geeky and totally fun. Before that, I saw the movie "Watchmen" and was really impressed, so I went and got the graphic novel, which was awesome. Having found myself in a writing job, I also find myself with little time or motivation to write for myself. As evidenced by serious slacking in the blog department.

My first idea was to write a story for a graphic novel and see if I could pitch it somewhere. But after writing to Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland who writes the "Daily Kick in the Pants" for writers, which is great), he said you have to be fairly well-established and then the artists will contact you. So I decided to come up with a graphic novel, or rather, a graphic flash fiction exercise and see if I could take it from concept to a final comic-book-looking type of product, doing all the steps (writing, pencilling, inking coloring) myself. Turns out I could! Not that it is the greatest story or art ever, but I am pleased that I was able to [here it is] translate an idea into an actual thing. With color. So, click on the images to see a larger version.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

My Dad at 70

Many days since last post, attempting to rectify...

I was trying to find a poem for my Dad for his 70th birthday, and came across this one. The poet is supposedly Yue Fu (not sure of characters), but I've never heard of him. Not that that means anything. Still, it is a nice poem, called "After Rain" (雨後, yu3 hou4):


yu3 hou4 shu4 lin2 run4
song1 jian1 yue4 jing1 xin1
xiao4 er2 si1 gu4 yuan2
yi4 ke4 zai4 yi4 xiang1

After the rain, the forest is slick
Through the pines, the moon startles me.
I smile and think of home,
A stranger in a strange land.

Siew Gin pointed out that the poem reminds her of another famous poem by Li3 Bai2 李白 (aka Li Po). This one is probably the most famous poem ever:

chuang2 qian2 ming2 yue4 guang4, yi4 shi4 di4 shang4 shuang1.
ju3 tou2 wang1 ming2 yue4, di1 tou3 si1 gu4 xiang1.

Before my bed the moon is so bright, it seems as though there is frost on the ground.
I lift my head to gaze at the bright moon; lowering my head, I think of home.

Similar themes: The Moon. Thinking of home. Drunk old dudes writing poetry. Anyway, the line about thinking of home is very similar: 思故乡 vs. 思故园. Did these guys know each other? Since I can't find any info on Yue Fu it is hard to tell...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Grass mud horse your mom

DANGER: Foul language ahead! Yippee!

My friend Dan pointed out an article in The New York Times about an online video that thwarts the Chinese Web censors.

The Times article makes the video out to be some kind of heroic rebellion against the dark red Commie forces - and I guess it is. But it is also just funny in an immature, clever sort of way.

Basically, it is a song performed by kids (at least it sounds that way), about a beast called the Grass Mud Horse (草泥马 cao3 ni2 ma3). This illustrates the importance of tones in Chinese. The same phrase said with different tones is a common (but super vulgar) insult: 操你妈 (cao4 ni3 ma1), which means "f*** your mother."

Of course, the Grass Mud Horse is not real and even if you said the tones that way, people would still think you meant the naughty phrase, since you are a laowai (lao3 wai4 老外 - "foreigner") and can't deal with tones anyway.

The video is funny because it talks about this mythical beast, the Grass Mud Horse, but the background film is just some kind of advertisement video for somebody's alpaca farm (photo caption is wrong. Oops.). Also, you can't really sing the tones, so basically what it boils down to is, you are watching slow-motion video of alpacas chewing stuff and jumping around, meanwhile these kids are cheerfully crooning "f--- your mom's c---" !

The thing about censorship becomes obvious (according to the NYT - I didn't know this), when the lyrics talk about "river crabs," 河蟹 (he2 xie4), which the grass mud horses fight and eventually drive out of their homeland, the Ma Le Gobi (desert presumably). Incidentally, this part 马勒戈壁 (ma3 le4 ge1 bi4), sounds like mother's c---. But "river crab" sounds like "harmony" ( he2 xie2 和谐), which apparently is the word the censors use to describe censoring. So many layers of euphemism and deception!

So here are the lyrics. Remember, everytime it says "grass mud horse," they are really saying FYM, and Ma Le Gobi means "your mother's c-." Oh and River Crab means censorship.

The intro is the kids saying: "I am a Grass Mud Horse, this is the Grass Mud Horse song!"

In the vast and desolate Ma Le Gobi desert, there is a herd of Grass Mud Horses

They are lively and intelligent, mischievous and sensitive. They live freely on the Grass Mud Horse Gobi, and tenaciously and bravely face the harsh environment there.

噢,卧槽的草泥马!噢,狂槽的草泥马!他们为了卧草不被吃掉 打败了河蟹,河蟹从此消失草泥马戈壁
Oh! The Grass Mud Horse lying down, the Grass Mud Horse going nuts! To protect their grass from being eaten, they defeated the River Crab. From then on, the River Crab disappeared from the Grass Mud Horse Gobi!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Getting medieval on a Sunday

Note: This is a version of a story I wrote that appeared in the Westword online. The editor thought this version was too much like a newspaper article, but I liked it so here it is! I think I am OK in posting it here since the quotes are different and the story is different, it is just about the same event.

Suburban swashbucklers

I spent Sunday learning the ancient art of the “spada a dui mani,” or two-handed Italian longsword, at a place called the Rocky Mountain Swordplay Guild in Wheat Ridge. A bastion of medieval fighting tactics in the heart of the Front Range, the RMSG offers a great full-body workout, a history lesson and a chance to wield some serious heavy metal.

Not your daddy’s D&D

Before you start thinking “frustrated Dungeon Masters screwing around,” let me introduce you to one Maestro Fiore dei Liberi da Premariacco. Dei Liberi was an Italian swordmaster who wrote a comprehensive combat manual in 1409 titled “Il Fior di Battaglio,” or “The Flower of Battle.”

Dei Liberi’s manuscript (of which only three copies are known to exist) forms the basis of the core classes at RMSG. In addition to longsword, the book lays out a complete fighting system including grappling, and fighting with daggers, lances and poleaxes. Lead instructor and school founder Roger Siggs has worked on translating the “Flower” as well as other medieval fighting treatises. These works make up the main teaching materials of what is known as historical European martial arts (HEMA), or Western martial arts (WMA).

Siggs, who has a Master’s degree in medieval history from University of California - San Diego (with a concentration in Byzantine military history), started RMSG in 2006 when he moved to Colorado. He became interested in HEMA while he was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), but after 13 years he parted ways with the SCA in favor of a more structured and historical approach to getting medieval.

“Eventually I felt that the SCA didn’t fit my needs (it’s a club where fighting is an ancillary aspect of the organization) so I began working towards the development of WMA/HEMA as a distinct martial style, rather than relegating it to renaissance faires and that sort of thing,” Siggs said.

‘Ready … FIGHT!’

The daylong workshop started with a rousing game of Hooverball. This game – invented by President Herbert Hoover’s personal physician to get the portly commander-in-chief in fighting shape – involves two teams hurling a medicine ball over a net, volleyball-style. Players try to catch the ball and throw it back over the net (in this case a rope) so it lands without being caught. The act of chucking the 10-pound ball over the rope is a great warmup and activates the muscles that are needed to swing swords around (that is, pretty much all of them).

Then we grabbed the blades. Ssssshing! “Die, fiend!” Ahem, I get ahead of myself. Dei Liberi’s work outlines “dances,” or forms, with the longsword. These dances show the students how to transition between the various positions and guards. Then the class broke into pairs and began practicing “plays,” or brief snippets of combat, where one person attacks and the other performs a counterattack.

The students, all of who had varying degrees of experience in HEMA or other martial arts, did not fit into any particular mold, but all shared a love for things medieval.

“I’ve always pursued somewhat anachronistic hobbies,” said Douglas Wagner, 38, of Denver (shown fighting me in red pants at right). Wagner, a curatorial assistant in the Denver Art Museum’s Asian Art Department, also studies jousting and participates in jousting tournaments. In HEMA he found a way to express an old dream in new ways.

“With martial arts you find there is no such thing as an ultimate goal. The goal is to always improve,” he said. “I get to become that vision of myself as a Renaissance or medieval character that I’ve imagined myself to be since I was a kid.”

Actor and stage combat director Benaiah Anderson, 32, said he studies at RMSG to improve his martial arts skill and get ideas for his work. However, he doesn’t use the material directly, even in his current role in “Richard III” at the Denver Center for Performing Arts.

“The audience wants an exciting visual story, not the most direct way to kill your opponent,” Anderson said.

Siggs, a black belt in aikido, judo and kyokushinkai karate, gleefully directed the controlled melees.

“I’m gonna smack him down, then I’m gonna hit him, then I’m gonna hit him again,” said Siggs, demonstrating a parry and two swift sword strokes.

Looking on, class participant and acupuncturist R. Scott Malone said the action reminded him of something.

“It’s like a steel bitch slap,” Malone said.

An important question

After minutes of contemplation, I finally thought of the most profound and deep question I could ask Siggs about his art: Who would win a fight, Fiore dei Liberi or Bruce Lee?
“Personally, I’d have to say Fiore,” Siggs said. “We know that he fought five duels at the sword with only regular clothing and no armor.”

However, Siggs does cede the Little Dragon one point:

“Bruce Lee is famed not just for movies, but also for his development of Jeet Kun Do – his method of martial arts – which posits the idea that all fighting is systemic and by following a series of core principles, you can gain ability and skill in any situation,” Siggs said. “Amazingly enough, this is the same mindset Maestro Fiore details for us, but 600 years earlier.”

Siggs said that people who are interested in the material would do well in the class. But, if your only goal is to be a “bad ass,” then the class is not for you, since there is a lot of hard work involved.

“Personal development, alongside of butt-kicking, is really the primary focus of our work,” he said.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chinese grafitti

For some reason, a couple of Chinese poems remain clear in my mind even now, 10 years since I have been in China.

Two of the poems I remember are dueling poems. The first one was composed by one of the top Zen Buddhist monks of the 7th century. The other was written by a lowly cleaning dude at the temple, who turned out to be the monk's rival for the much vaunted position of Sixth Patriarch.

The tale of Hui Neng (慧能 Hui4 Neng2) begins with a young lad (Hui Neng, A.D. 632-713) who grows up very poor and sells firewood to support himself and his single mom. His name was Lu (庐 lu4) at the time (Hui Neng, meaning "intelligent ability," became his monastic name later). One day on a firewood delivery run Lu (I'll just call him Hui Neng now) ran into a dude reading outside of a small inn. He asked the guy what he was reading and where he was from. Turns out he was reading the Diamond Sutra (金剛經 jin1 gang1 jing1), a Buddhist scripture that teaches awareness of the mind and its various ways of tricking you.

So Hui Neng (now 24) learns that his guy was studying at the Huang Mei Temple in Hubei Province, and he decides to go there to study. Long story short, Hui Neng meets the head of the temple, the 5th Patriarch (meaning the 5th Zen Buddhist master since the religion arrived in China), whose name was Hong Ren (弘忍 Hong2 Ren4).

Hong Ren says "what do you want, kid?" and Hui Neng is like "I am from Ling Nan, I want to study Buddhism." So Hong Ren tests him and says "What makes you think a peasant from Ling Nan can learn Buddhism?" Hui Neng says "Men are from the north or the south, but the true nature of Buddha knows no north or south." Hong Ren is like "whaaaaat?" and is super impressed, but in order to keep the 700 unruly monks from getting angry about a young punk coming from the countryside and gaining monk status just-like-that, he makes Hui Neng a laborer, cleaning up after the other monks and threshing rice.

Eight months later, Hui Neng is still happily cleaning up after the other monks. One day Hong Ren announces that he wants everyone to write a verse displaying their understanding of Buddhism. That night, the senior monk Shen Xiu (神秀 Shen2 Xiu4) (who realizes the poem thing is a test to see who is worthy to become Hong Ren's successor) puts a lot of thought into it (big mistake in Zen Buddhism). He sneaks down in the middle of the night and writes - on the wall of the temple - this verse:

(shen1 shi4 pu2 ti2 shu4, xin1 ru2 ming2 jing4 tai2
shi2 shi2 qin2 fu2 shi4, mo4 shi3 you3 chen2 ai1)

which means:

"The body is the Tree of Enlightenment, the mind is like a bright mirror stand.
Always be diligent in cleaning it, and allow no dust to land."

All the monks see it in the morning and are all like "whoa, that's deep." Except for Hong Ren, who just sort of looks at it and says nothing. Then, Hui Neng hears about the ruckus in the hall and heads over for a look. Upon seeing the verse, he asks Hong Ren if he too can have a crack at a Buddhist verse. He gets permission and ad libs the following ...

(pu2 ti2 ben3 wu2 shu4, ming2 jing4 yi4 fei1 tai2
ben3 lai2 wu2 yi1 wu4, he2 chu4 re3 chen2 ai1)

which means:

"Enlightenment has no tree, the bright mirror has no stand.
Originally there was nothing, so where can the dust even land?

... showing his really deep and innate understanding of Zen, and he gets the patriarch's robe, thus becoming the Sixth Patriarch! Whereupon he is immediately sent into hiding for 15 years with Cantonese pig farmers so he won't get attacked by a mob of furious monks.

The End

Note: I really like the phrase 本来无一物, (ben3 lai2 wu2 yi1 wu4). Literally it means, "In the beginning, there was not one thing." It sums up the universe nicely in like 5 characters. 物 (wu4) is a nice word, too, because it can mean any "thing." Chinese philosophy somtimes refers to the 万物 (wan4 wu4) or "myriad creatures," but you can also take it to mean "matter" in general so he is kind of hinting at the pre-Big Bang void. Maybe. Anyway I like it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What's the 419?

This is the world premiere of a video I made to go along with my rap song about getting spam e-mail. I wrote this rap during a Williston (Vt.) Selectboard meeting that I was reporting on a couple years ago. (It was a slow meeting). It was fun making the vid! The title is "What's the 419?" as in the 419 Internet scams. You know, where the Nigerian banker says if you give him your contact info they will send you like 50 million bucks? 419 is the section of the Nigerian penal code dealing with money scams apparently.

I am now bracing myself to become in Internet superstar. Here goes...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Animal House: Holes in birds, stalking the wild ass and other tales from the NAVC

I have just returned from Orlando, Fla., where I was attending the North American Veterinary Conference. The conference is one of the big veterinary gatherings in the United States, and as you can imagine A) has nothing to do with Chinese translation and B) is totally zany.

My job was to report on the various sessions and to make contacts in the veterinary world.

The main focus of the conference is the "scientific programs," which are various classes and lectures for vets to get continuing education credit and learn from some experts in their field. As a non-veterinarian, I found some of the talks absolutely mystifying, and others were really interesting or gross, while some were just hilarious.

I found that one big difference between veterinarians and laypeople (me) is in viewing pictures of animals. For instance, when shown pictures of open wounds and dead animals in various stages of being necropsied (the animal version of an autopsy), the vets will nod and be interested, while I am trying to suppress a gag reflex. But when shown cute animal pictures of fluffy kitties and puppies in silly situations, they all go: "Aaaawwwwww!" meanwhile I am rolling my eyes.

Animal exotica
One of the subjects I explored while at the conference was the world of "exotics," which includes birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals like ferrets. I took one class called "Shell repair in Chelonians," which was presented by Dr. Greg Fleming, a veterinarian with Disney World. A chelonian is a turtle or tortoise, and Fleming said people often bring in the animals to his clinic after they (the chelonians) have been run over by cars.

Triage is the first step. If the spine has been broken he said there is little hope. Turtles have a strange, primordial nervous system, and their back legs will continue to move reflexively without a connection to the spinal cord. However their quality of life would be pretty low and he just euthanizes them.

"Basically those guys are toast," were his exact words.

But surprisingly, even if large pieces of the shell have been broken or cracked off, he can still repair many of them. You are probably thinking "epoxy" right now, but that just seals in any infection. The trick is to drill screws into the shell and wire the pieces together. Flushing out the wounds is also important for the first week or so, but make sure the animals are positioned correctly.

"You kind of have to hold the dude upside down," the Alberta, Canada, native said.

The avian programs were also pretty cool. "Case Study: The Screaming Parrot" was a tempting selection, but I passed it up (another one I skipped was "The Vomiting Cat"), and instead went to the bizarre and intriguingly titled "There is a Hole in my Bird."

Basically this class was about birds who pluck out their own feathers. The interesting thing is, I go to these classes thinking people know everything about the subject. And while they might know the most of anyone about something, the actual body of knowledge on the subject has as many holes as the self-plucking bird. That is not a criticism of the doctors, it is just that there is tons we don’t know, especially about animal behavior.

"Feather destructive behavior" is different from "feather picking," but essentially they are both pretty common problems with pet birds. Why do they do it? Nobody knows for sure! But Dr. Natalie Antinoff (who was a great presenter) had some good ideas. One reason could be that the bird is nuts. They are smart and live really long lives - in small cages - hence they occasionally go insane. Another possible reason is disease. She talked about one bird who picked out all of these feathers on one part of its body for no apparent reason. But when it finally died she did a necropsy and found a huge testicular tumor, which was located right around the site of the picking.

Yeah, there were pictures of that. Giant testicular tumors in a splayed out bloody parrot -- not pretty. But other birds plucked themselves in a certain area and it turned out they had some medical issue internally right under where they were picking.

Stress is another cause. Take the case of Forbes, a 20-year-old African Grey. After Forbes' owner moved the bird from his original place in the house, Forbes started freaking out and plucked himself bare. Then one of the veterinary technicians was bird-sitting for him, and pointed out that there was a giant statue of an eagle sitting right outside Forbes' window! The owner took away the statue and the bird stopped picking since it was no longer crapping itself in fear every day.

That case was a demonstration of why, as Dr. Antinoff said, "I don't reach for the Prozac with every single bird." (She was talking about giving it to the bird.)

Some people think it is due to allergies (don't give them benadryl though because "histamine is not the allergic mediator in birds" – nobody knows what is), but it could also just be a weird habit, like people biting their nails. The problem is that their "flock" is a couple of humans who don't know anything about them except they are cute and fun.

"There are things we can't teach them, because we don't have beaks," she said.

Wild-ass beasts
The place I work for only deals with companion animals, but I just could not pass up this class: "Capturing and collaring the Asiatic Wild Ass."

The presenter was an Austrian I believe, and he was talking about his adventures in Mongolia and parts of Asia and the Middle East trying to capture these endangered wild asses (they look like donkeys) and put satellite collars on them. He must have said "wild ass" like 15 times in the first 3 minutes, and of course being fairly immature I was holding back snickers. But he said it like it was an adjective, like you might say "that was a wild-ass party last night." However, he started showing amazing pictures of the central Asian steppe and I was entranced. Although I did kind of chuckle at one picture, which he described thusly: "that's obviously a male."

He said the job is not very glamorous and not everyone should attempt it. Lots of mosquitoes and lots of waiting around for the animals to show up. It still sounded really cool, though. He talked about how he created a remote control tranquilizer gun using parts out of a video supply catalog, a Sony watchman, a CO2 rifle and the automatic door-lock mechanism from a BMW (used to activate the trigger).

"It's surprising, actually, what you can bring into other countries and no one notices," he said.

Some of the risks are pretty gnarly (the worst thing is having vehicle problems), and you should always have a backup plan when stalking wild ass. In addition to cars or planes breaking down, injury and illness, some of the governments are also kind of unstable. At one point he said: "When you hear your name on Iranian radio, you know things have gone badly wrong."

There are other hazards, too. This guy wrote a paper called “Human Exposure to Wildlife Capture Drugs.” Oh, and when the wild ass is in the initial stages of sedation it starts pacing all over the place, so you are supposed to stand in front of it and when it rams into you, you “grab the ears and thrown them down.” Don’t worry it is perfectly safe. For the wild ass, that is.

Good times

I wound up writing about an economic symposium and also a series of talks on animal forensics, which was awesome. For that I got to interview Dr. Melinda Merck, the ASPCA veterinarian who brought down Michael Vick by proving the various terrible ways his fighting dogs were killed. I also interviewed one of the 13 forensic entomologists in the country, Dr. Jason Byrd.

Basically forensic entomology is using information about insects to figure out how long a body has been decomposing for. This guy was cool. I asked him how he got into the field and he said that he had two interests in life: forensic science and entomology, and he was able to study them together and voila. His great quote was: "A carcass is the singles bar of the fly world." Not only were there pictures of dead animals in his presentation, we also got to see human bodies in various stages of decomposition and being eaten by bugs.

Later, when I asked him about how he got into animal forensics, he said that although people in the field of human forensic science don't grow callous to the crimes they study, they do become somewhat desensitized to the human bodies they see. But people hurting animals is a different story, and when he was approached by Dr. Merck he wanted to help.

"We don't have some of the minimum defense mechanisms when we hear about animal cruelty," he said. "Some cases really shocked me."

Oh, I almost forgot! I went to Downtown Disney, the free part of Disney World, and I ran in a 5K! I figured I should use my increased blood oxygen levels (from living in Denver) and try to beat my previous 5K record. I did it, finishing in under 30 minutes! It was not hard to beat my previous time, which was in 2000, with Columbia friend and "innerer Schweinehund" blogger Brian Morrissey. I was about 50 pounds heavier, hung over and had gotten about 3 hours of sleep after a wild night in Hoboken, N.J.

OK, there it is: the whole experience in a nutshell. Next time I will head to the AAHA conference in Phoenix in March. Stay tuned for more veterinary madness!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Kung Fool

One of my favorite Chinese sayings is: 大智若愚 (da4 zhi4 ruo4 yu2), which basically means "very wise people appear to be fools." I like it because sometimes I do dumb things, and then I can say that to myself to feel better.

It is actually part of a larger saying: 大勇若怯,大智若愚 (da4 yong3 ruo4 qie4, da4 zhi4 ruo4 yu2) "A great hero may appear timid, the wise may appear foolish." So it is saying that people with great talent or great characteristics are often not recognized for what they are.

It also means that a truly wise or brave person does not go around saying how brave or wise they are. A wise person knows that, as Confucius said:
三人行,必有我师焉(san3 ren2 xing2, bi4 you3 wo3 shi1 yan1)
择其善者而从之, (ze2 qi2 shan4 zhe3 er3 cong2 zhi1)
其不善者而改之。(qi2 bu4 shan4 zhe3 er3 gai3 zhi1)

"Of any three people I walk with, one will be my teacher.
I can learn from their good characteristics,
And I can change myself by noticing their faults."

(Or as we liked to joke in grad school: 三人喝,必有我醉。(san3 ren2 he1, bi4 you3 wo3 zui4). "Of any three people I drink with, I will definitely get drunk.")

The point being that you can learn from eveyone you meet in some way or another, so it does not pay to pretend you know everything. Hence, you may appear to be dumb if you are actually listening to say, the Information Technology person at work talk about opening and closing Microsoft Word, BUT she might say something you don't know such as "The longest recorded flight of a chicken is 13 seconds," which you would not catch if you just said "I know" and left the meeting.

Another word besides "愚 yu4" for "dumb," or "idiot" include this one, which caused me some grief at first, but now I embrace it: (ben4). Yep, my first name in Chinese means dummy. But, that's OK. As a kid I called myself Benjy, which would equate to 笨妓, ben4 ji4, or "dumb prostitute." Naughty cross-translations are always good for a laugh at parties. And if the truly wise appear as fools, then surely those who appear (via their name) as "dumb prostitutes" are practically omniscient, no?