Current Works in Progress

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My first post about writing... mostly.

Like most people with a creative bent, I am frequently plagued by consistently low self-esteem and crippling bouts of self-doubt. This often causes me to question both the wisdom and the motivation behind many of my decisions, although not usually until long after it is possible to make a different decision. This is why I'm dedicating my first writing post to answering the same question every other writing blogger has answered for their first post since time immemorial; "why do I want to be a writer", or more specifically, "why do I want to be a professional writer of fiction?"
I won't lie to you and say that people often ask me why I want to be a writer. They don't. The only writing related questions anyone ever asks me are, "when will your novel be finished" and "can I read it?" I won't be addressing those questions here though, as they are too easily answered ("eventually", and "only if you are willing to either buy it or edit it" respectively), and don't provide me with adequate space to be witty and charming on a blog that no-one few people read.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How "The Voice" ruined TV for me

I'll begin this, my first TV related post, with a few caveats. I don't actually watch very much television, and what I do watch has been Tivoed* and de-commercialed. I haven't seen more than 4 or 5 commercials in the last 15 years and I probably don't even know how to deal with a commercial break anymore. I very seldom watch a show on the same day it airs, and I would be lost if I couldn't rewind and fast forward at will.  I also watch a particularly eclectic mix of shows. The idea of turning on the TV and watching whatever comes on seems very foreign to me.

I can’t watch America’s Got Talent any more. Or Canada’s Got Talent. Or Britain’s GotTalent, for that matter. I used to enjoy all three versions of the “Got Talent” franchise, as well as both the British and American versions of X Factor, but they are no longer on my “to watch” list, and it’s all because of The Voice.

The Voice is, much like X Factor or Got Talent, a competition show primarily for singers (AGT has been won by a singer every season). The format of The Voice, however, is different in some very fundamental ways. On The Voice, in case you haven’t seen it, contestants are pre-screened by the producers and only the best are invited back to audition in front of the judges. The judges listen to the auditions while facing away from the stage, and judge acts based solely on their voices.

If they like what they hear they can hit their button and turn their chair, indicating that they would like to add the singer to their team. If only one judge turns their chair, they get that singer. If more than one judge turns, the singer chooses who they want to work with. After selecting their teams, the judges mentor the singers as they compete against each other. It is a format that emphasizes the skill and talent of the singers and minimizes the popularity contest element prevalent in the other shows.

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoy the variety aspect of the Got Talent shows. It isn't all singers doing much the same thing, with much the same songs. The sheer variation and the creativity people put into trying to make unlikely things entertaining is, in and of itself, entertaining. What I've never liked about the Got Talent series is the open mockery of people who plainly have no business being on a public stage, who generally seem unaware of their complete lack of ability, and who in some cases seem mentally ill.

What makes it worse is that what you see on the show has been prescreened by the producers. We are supposed to be laughing at the poor, hapless schmuck belting out an off key rendition of some tune that was barely popular in 1983, let alone now. I’ve never liked that aspect of the show and, after watching The Voice, I find it turns my stomach.

The Voice shows that you can have an extremely entertaining show based only on actual talent, where making a mockery of some person’s dreams and ambitions is as unnecessary as it should be. On a recent episode of Canada’s Got Talent, Stephan Moccio actually said to a fellow human being, “The best part was that you actually thought you could win.” What a smug little... well, let’s keep this post family friendly. Needless to say I don’t think I’ll be watching much of the “Got Talent” audition shows any more. I may stop watching the rest of the season entirely.

The only things I really have against the X Factor when compared to The Voice is the quality of the performers and the judges. During season 1 of The Voice, at one point Adam Levine made a comment that any of the contestants on the show would have won Idol or X Factor. I find it difficult to argue with this, as I was thinking much the same thing myself. With the exception of Josh Krajcik, I didn’t find any of the contestants on X Factor to be compelling enough that I wanted to hear more of them. I have bought both DiaFrampton and Javier Colon’s albums (didn’t care for Javier’s, but loved Dia’s album) and am planning to have a listen to Beverly McClellan’s album in the near future. Overall, a much higher quality of performer, I think.

Likewise, The Voice has better and more interesting judges than X Factor. Nicole and Paula (replaced for season 2) were clueless numbwits for most of the season. I cringed any time either one of them opened her mouth. L.A. Reid was competent but lacked anything resembling a personality, and Simon Cowell is Simon Cowell.

On the Voice, Blake Shelton seems like a genuinely nice guy, Cee Lo is 5’2”** of awesome, and Adam Levine is one of the smartest and best spoken music industry insiders I’ve seen. Christina Aguilera… well, she believes her own press too much, and doesn’t seem to believe in wearing clothing that actually covers anything, but is otherwise not overly offensive.

The Voice is a talent show the way talent shows should be. It celebrates great singers without regard for image, age, gender (it's sometimes surprisingly hard to tell by listening), or any other irrelevant criteria. It promotes the enjoyment of truly talented people without resorting to the public mockery of those who aren’t (but think they are). It is judged by people who are demonstrated experts in the field they are judging, and who are interested first and foremost in the careers of the contestants rather than their own waning and inexplicable fame (with the possible exception of Xtina).

The Voice airs Monday nights at 8/7C on NBC, or whenever you like on the “Tivo”.

*The Internet is my Tivo.

** According to IMDB he’s 5’6”, but he looks shorter to me.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

So, You're Moving to China: The Sound and the Fury

Dear Imaginary Person,

[name redacted] mentioned that you were planning on spending some time in China and asked me to fill you in a bit about what to expect. As I do love the sound of my own voice (clack of my own keyboard?), I am happy to help.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived in China was the noise. Well, no, that’s not quite true. The first thing that struck me was the heat and humidity. I grew up in the Canadian prairies; 30°C is a hot summer day, and 0% humidity is normal. I arrived in Hangzhou on July 9, 2004. It was in the vicinity of 45°C with a relative humidity of sauna%. I had trouble breathing for the first few days.

Once I got used to the weather, though, the first thing I really noticed was how noisy China is. Chinese people will tell you that it’s because China has too many people1 and it’s true that, at least along the heavily developed East coast, there is an awful lot of traffic, construction, and crowding – all of which contribute to the elevated level of ambient noise.  The thing is, while I lived for 7 years in Hangzhou, a wealthy city of about 10 million people (many of whom own cars), I currently live in a small city (DongYang) of only 1 million people and I have spent a lot of time in small villages of a few hundred people. They are all noisy. All of them.

I have developed a theory to account for this. The theory is this: Chinese people are loud. They talk loudly, they eat loudly, and they blow their noses loudly (and often without the benefit of a tissue). They watch TV loudly, and they listen to music loudly. I’m still not entirely sure why they are loud, but it isn’t because of too many people. On the contrary; the smaller the village, the louder the villager. Two middle-aged DongYang ladies having a conversation in an otherwise empty room are audible from three buildings away, and their cell phone ringtone can be heard in the next village2. The default volume setting on most televisions here is “distortion”, and the majority of shops in most downtown shopping areas put large PA speakers outside their doors to blast passersby with the latest Japanese and Korean pop super-hits (and Lady Gaga, of course)3.

Don’t let any of this bother you, by the way. You’ll soon develop the ability to tune the majority of it out completely. You might not even notice it as much as I did. Keep in mind that we Canadians are a pretty quiet bunch (3 Chinese people make about as much noise as 30 Canadian prairie-dwellers), so it was a bit of a shock to my system. If you are from a bigger city, or a large family (especially a large Chinese family) you might not notice anything out of the ordinary at all; until Chinese New Year, anyway.

Chinese New Year makes the rest of the year seem like the cozy confines of a library or crypt by comparison. Everyone (and this will include you) who is in China for Chinese New Year makes a video of themselves “reporting from the front lines” of wherever the US is currently dropping bombs. The unrealistic aspect is that the US never drops that many bombs, that steadily, for that long. In the major urban centers they have restrictions on the fireworks and actually enforce them much of the time. In the country side… not so much. This most recent CNY (old-timer speak for Chinese New Year, of course) was our first in DongYang.

In Hangzhou the fireworks go on for two or three days. They are non-stop the whole day leading up to New Year’s Eve, and then peter off towards 3am or so. In Dongyang, we experienced 2 solid weeks of non-stop bombardment. I’m serious. For two weeks there was not a single moment of a single day that we couldn’t hear the explosions of fireworks. Day time, night time; it didn’t matter, stuff was exploding. Fireworks were being set off at the base of our building. We live on the ninth floor. Most fireworks sold in China explode between 8 and 12 stories up, so we had firework sparks hitting our balcony doors pretty regularly. It was insane.

At any rate, I hope none of this has scared you off or made you second guess your plans. I also hope you aren’t a light sleeper. You may want to acclimatize yourself by trying to have a conversation while blow-drying your hair or by hanging out with airplane mechanics while they work. The noise isn’t really a huge problem; it’s just one of the many differences I had to get used to.


1. This is the reason Chinese people will give you for almost any oddity you mention about China. It is almost never the actual reason. China does have a lot of people, but the population density isn't that much greater than in many other places.

2. I'm exaggerating slightly.

3. I'm not exaggerating at all.