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Red Felt Star December 26, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Does anyone – FAQ? Ben? Yuhang? (all I can understand from Yuhang’s post is the word S-Bahn standing out like an ugly sore thumb amongst all that calligraphic beauty and I am instantly convinced that China has nothing to learn from Europe) (OK, apart from when it comes to trains. Didn’t the Germans build that Shanghai train that goes at 400lyps (light years per second)?) – know what the Chinese for ‘red felt star’ is and is there a town in China called it?

The only sign that it’s been Christmas in the BiB household at all, apart from me feeling as rough as a cat’s tongue, but that sensation doesn’t have to wait for Christmas to come round, is that, as I traipse around the place prissily thinking of things to divert me from work and blogging, I keep stumbling across these little red felt stars which have dropped out of our Christmas tree (a bit of whirly Ikea bamboo). And naturally this all got me thinking about the state of capitalism with a Chinese face and China’s own industrial revolution.

So does anyone know how it all works? Does China do it Soviet-style, only better? Is it localised, so that one town does red felt stars (for all occasions) and another does blenders and another does Santas and another does computer chips? That’s a bit how things worked in the Soviet Union (but without the Santas). And is a bugger if your country’s going to go and insist on ripping itself to shreds. Belarus was left with tractors and machinery for heavy industry carried out elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Now you can never have too many tractors, of course, especially in countryside areas with a high homosexual population density, but you can have too many bits of machinery if you’re in Belarus and the process they’re needed for is taking place in Uzbekistan. Now I am not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am awfully clever, so this is my warning to China, because their spate of growth might easily be improved with advice from me. Concentrate your bits of industry here and there if you please, but don’t put your spare parts industry in breakaway regions because you’ll be buggered then if the country tears itself apart. And, while I’m at it, my warning to Uighurstan and Tibet is not to concentrate exclusively on making things for other things made in the rest of China or you’ll be berating yourselves like nobody’s business if your breakaway dreams come true.

Phew! That’s China saved. And one fewer resolution for 2007.

I also began to wonder what sort of place Red Felt Star Town, if it exists – which it probably does, let’s face it – might be. A former fishing village upcoast from Shanghai three weeks ago and now a sprawling, exhaust-fumed metropolis of skyscrapers and 20 million souls? Rich, definitely. Obviously we didn’t choose to purchase the red felt stars which are now practically crowding us out of our flat but some viral product placement campaign which we were too weak to resist somehow got them placemented with us. So someone is buying their product. Red Felt Star Town would probably have quite a slew of red-felt-star-themed recreational facilities. The Red Felt Star ten-pin bowling alley would be next to the Red Felt Star hypermarket. There’d probably be a Red Felt Star beer (though that would admittedly come from a satellite village – 3 houses and 12 people last week, skyscrapers, motorways, congestion charges and 14 million this – down the road). The Red Felt Star factory would be the town’s main employer and would dominate the formidable skyline. It would have helped fund the construction of the city’s rapid transport system. It would run kindergartens. Children’s theatres. Homework clubs. It would finance twice-yearly trips for the staff. The day would begin with employees chanting the Red Felt Star philosophy and mass physical exercise. The town’s inhabitants would wear protective face-masks.

The Soviet Union produced its fair share of Red Felt Star towns. Up shit creek now of course, many of them. (Although I hasten to add that I’m sure many are blossoming back into life in new guises and hope that my fantasy Chinese megalopolises will never meet the same fate.) I have a friend who is the most positive person in the world. I want to be her. She is beautiful and charming. Incapable of complaining about anything. Can only see the good in everything. And just as well, as her job is to single-handedly transform the former Soviet Union into a Western-style paradise. She actually gets to give the advice and warnings that I don’t get to give to China to bits of the old SU. I was in awe as, a second after graduating from university, whilst the rest of us went off to work as people-smugglers, or think of doing another degree, or wondering where it had all gone wrong, she whizzed off to Shymkent in Kazakhstan to transform it overnight. By all accounts, it was not the brightest jewel in the silk route’s crown. (Oh my god, I see it’s twinned with Stevenage, ACTUALLY the most horrible place on earth.) Its main industry – I think it was making tyres. Perhaps for the tractors in Belarus – had collapsed. I wondered how positive girl was going to find a bright side. But she did. “It has a lovely market,” she explained.

Christmas is a fearsome pain, but hopefully we’re keeping the red-felt-star-makers happy.



1. MountPenguin - December 27, 2006

Well, at a guess (and especially for you I made a brief trip to the shelf with the lines of lesser-used backup dictionaries, not having the faintest idea what “felt” is in Chinese), I’d say 紅毡星 (Hongzhanxing). However Google knows of no “紅毡星”, though I now know Google calls itself in China “valley song”.

2. MountPenguin - December 27, 2006

Correction: in Red China it would of course be written “红毡星”, somehow my faithful iBook managed to confuse traditional and simplified characters.

3. pleite - December 27, 2006

…I was wondering how long you were going to take to correct that error.

Thank you for your splendid efforts. In anticipation of your dutifulness, I went and installed Japanese fonts on the computer, hoping that Chinese would be thrown in for good measure, and it was, so hurrah! But is there a town called 紅毡星grad?

4. MountPenguin - December 27, 2006

Oh, ’tis nothing, a little light relief after spending the evening persuading my computer to algorithimically split Thai text blocks into individual words while not getting confused by umlauts (the things I do for money).

Oh yes, I forgot so say, Google China knows of no “红毡星” either, although it comes up with a fair few “Hongzhanxings”. But not knowing how they are written, they could well mean something with a subtly different meaning, such as “wild-goose bus-stop prosper”.

5. pleite - December 27, 2006

A bus stop adds a touch of the prosaic to a wild goose chase, doesn’t it?

My brain has short-circuited at trying to work out how umlauts can interfere with algorithimically splitting Thai text blocks into individual words, and then at trying to work out what algorithimically splitting Thai text blocks into individual words involves, and wondering if text blocks have anything AT ALL to do with breeze blocks. I think you probably deserve to be paid a great deal.

Perhaps we could found 紅毡星grad – it could be a modern-day Harbin – and branch out into those much-sought-after (in all likelihood) language-learning flashcards too.

6. MountPenguin - December 27, 2006

Viz the text blocks, the basic problem is that when the Goddess Lingua was handing out the common space to the languages of the World, Thai (presumably along with its mates Khmer, Lao and possibly Burmese) were sitting out in the alley drinking cheap Mekong whisky, as a result of which written Thai consists of contiguous blocks of squiggly, higgledy-piggledy characters. This is not only a problem for the humble learner of the language but also for computers who wish to perform searches on blocks of Thai text, because for reasons I won’t bore you with it is necessary to extrapolate semantically meaningful units (aka individual words) to create a decent search algorithm.

There are, fortunately for my sanity, solutions for this – albeit of varying quality. And, alas, from experience I just know these kind of exotic language processing thingies are generally not designed with other exotic languages in mind, and at the slightest hint of a non-native, non-ASCII character tend to go *poof* and if one is lucky just push back a stream of garbage. As the system wot I am working on will also be used by people of an umlaut-using persuasion, I thought it best to do a little stress testing – and true to expectation barfed on the double dots.

7. Ben - December 27, 2006

I’ll go ask (my current Chinese knowledge is barely > nil) and pass on your generous macroeconomic advice… As for Chinese Christmas, we had three of Yuhang’s compatriot visitors this weekend and they all find the holiday fun but incomprehensible in roughly the same way that westerners ‘celebrate’ Chinese New Year. In China on Christmas they go shopping (makes capitalistic sense, right?) and have dinners–and, I’m guessing, some karaoke afterwards. A picture of Santa is shorthand for all things western and it’s not uncommon to see containers of imported food labled with a tiny Santa icon or a western-style restaurant with a year-round Santa poster on the wall. Funny, I spent this Christmas mainly with Chinese and Jewish people–oh, how my Christ-loving family would be dismayed.

Don’t the Russians celebrate next week?

8. pleite - December 27, 2006

Penguin, I can already feel bits of my brain which had turned to sponge being all springy and wiry and bouncy again. ASCII is my new word for the day. And I’m trying hard not to confuse algorithm with logarithm, even if they are anagrams. Do log tables still exist? And have alg tables ever?

Ben, my Christmas was similarly inexpert. The Russians are doing their best to cotton on to Christmas, and some Orthodox countries celebrate Christmas on January 6th because of going by the old calendar. Is it Julian? Or Gregorian? Can never remember. Greeks, Bulgarians and Romanians celebrate on December 25th. Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Serbs do it in January. But it was certainly never a biggy in Russia when I was there. For god-based holidays, Easter’s where it’s at for the Russians. Mind you, the Russian New Year celebration – January 1st. No calendric oddities here – is similar to our Christmas. Family, gorging, presents.

9. MountPenguin - December 27, 2006

I believe IKEA does a nice line in log tables in their gardening section. (Personally I wouldn’t know what a logarithm was even if it came up and introduced itself, I’m sure there was a “log” button on the “scientific” calculator I had for my GCSE, but any memory of what purpose that may have served is long gone).

Your word, nay phrase, for tomorrow is: “Unicode round trip conversion”.

10. pleite - December 27, 2006

Unicode round trip conversion… Oddly, I’ve heard all those words separately, even the first one – imagine! – but never together. Unicode sometimes assaults me if I ever try to send an e-mail in Russian and sometimes I press the wrong button and the whole thing turns into question marks. Very depressing.

Aber GCSE! You horribly young person! And, gosh, you emigrated young. Good for you!

11. MountPenguin - December 28, 2006

The Japanese have an interesting phrase for the coding problem (which is particularly prevalent because Japan has managed to acquire three different methods of character encodings besides Unicode): “moji bake”, meaning something like “character ghosting” or “haunted characters”.

GCSE… yes, I think I was in the first or second wave to go “over the top” for Maggie’s education reforms. Two years later I walked out of the country on a “gap year” and omitted to return.

12. BiB - December 28, 2006

That’s a hefty gap. Do you mean there’s still a place waiting for you at some university in the UK somewhere? If you’re lucky, they might still be willing to waive the fees.

13. MountPenguin - December 28, 2006

Naw, I think I wrote and told them I was very sorry and all that, but I wasn’t coming after all. Partly because I had worked out it didn’t make much sense to trail all the way back to some provincial northern city to learn German for four years when I was doing perfectly well in situ, and partly because the German taxpayers had a generous deal on which enabled me to spend most of the 90s with that magical discount-enabling status of “student”.

14. BiB - December 28, 2006

SNOW! Isn’t it wonderful?

Anyway, no, quite right. Germany beats the northern provinces hands down, I’m sure. Mind you, I wish I’d had a bit of academic German behind me before coming here. Learning a language on the hop without any idea of the basis is a bit like building an upside-down pyramid, or a house with no foundations, or something. My German teeters precariously whenever I open my mouth and I can see people all around me wondering whether I’m going to get to the end of an utterance without the whole god-damned pack of cards landing in a heap on the floor. And then sighs of relief all round.

15. leon - December 28, 2006

I recall reading that China has a “Sock Town” which produces three-quarters of the world’s socks.

16. pleite - December 28, 2006

Leon, hello. I trust you had a nice Christmas? Was it spent in the bosom of your family? And, if so, was that nice or nasty?

There is now proper snow here, which is so exciting I might wear two pairs of socks tonight when I venture out to dinner with Ed of http://berlinbites.blogspot.com/ fame, (I will learn to link unassisted one day) thus keeping Sock Town afloat. Do you know – you a wannabe Russian ‘n all – the proper winter is about the only thing I miss about Russia. Taking ten minutes to wrap up before leaving the house was almost as sacred a ritual as the tea ceremony in Japan (he says, clutching for suitable stereotypes). Thermal socks – cost about a million pounds. Worth every penny – followed by huge, woolly things, followed by enormous boots. Here I saw a man smoking TOPLESS on his balcony the other day. The scandal of it!

17. MountPenguin - December 28, 2006

Somewhere in China there’s an “artist village” where hundreds or possibly thousands of quite talented young people churn out replicas of all kinds of art for overseas clients. I vaguely remember seeing a programme about it on one of Germany’s many 24-hour documentary channels (“coming up next: an in-depth look at a cheese processing factory near Magdeburg, and that’s followed by ‘The Life and Times of Joseph Goebbels'” etc.).

18. pleite - December 28, 2006

I’m sometimes rather impressed by German TV, but perhaps only because we have 8000 channels so are always bound to find something tolerable. Of course I can only ever understand 2% of it, unless it’s all nice and official and in Hochdeutsch, i.e. the news, which then makes me regret I understand, because it’s only about the commission investigating the visas-to-Ukraine scandal, which is no match for cash-for-questions, or cash-for-honours. Some things the British just do better, parliamentary theatre being one of them.

…but I do get hooked when watching the cheese processing near Magdeburg, I must say. The war mostly makes me turn over. The 40 programmes a day on Russia occasionally throw up a goody.

19. MountPenguin - December 28, 2006

Ukrainian visas? That’s so 2004. Currently the hot news is “reform”, which is a secret political codeword meaning “you, the taxpayer and consumer, will end up paying more”.

20. leon - December 29, 2006

It wasn’t bad, thanks. I did spend it in the bosom of my family, so it was pleasant if uneventful (I’ve got a slightly more interesting bosom or two marked down for the New Year to make up for it)

21. BiB - December 29, 2006

Penguin, yes, VAT’s about to go up, isn’t it? As I don’t understand anything about anything, am I likely to get a big shock the first time I queue up to pay for my apples in the supermarket in 2007? And, more importantly, what are fags now going to cost?

Leon, excellent. I hope your 2007 will be fantastically bosomful.

22. narrowback - December 29, 2006

ah BiB, count yourself lucky…fags are still a relative bargain in Berlin. In some parts of the States (NYC,Chicago) they’re the equivilent of 7 Euro a pack…it’s rednered otherwise law abiding middle class citizens into black marketers/cigarette smugglers…

all the best for ’07

23. pleite - December 29, 2006

Narrowback, and all the best to you too. Did you ever avail of the Ukrainian wares sold by loitering Vietnamese folk in Berlin? (Get-out clause: you don’t have to answer in case this will ruin your reputation and you are a Very Important Person.) I did, once or twice, but was hopeless at dealing with the criminal fraternity. When I was broker than broke, but still had to smoke, mysteriously, I started buying some really cheap West cigarettes in Berlin which, to convince myself I wasn’t being an utter desperado, I tried to convince everyone were delicious. Other smokers would willingly give them a try and then politely desist from ever trying them again. Cigarettes in the UK also cost some ridiculous price, and I never buy duty free fags before I go because, in another display of madness, I also pretend I am a non-smoker and won’t smoke while there. This should all have me shaping up nicely for a predictable 2007 resolution, but I think I’ll dispense with that little myth for this year.

24. MountPenguin - December 30, 2006

Yup, VAT (Mehrwertsteuer) will be “adjusted upwards” slightly on Jan 1, from 16% to 19%. Though if passed on directly to the consumer that would result in a net rise of about 2.6% or something (VAT inhabits its own bizarre mathematical world). And I get the impression the rise has already been factored in to many prices (after all it’s been half a decade since the last big price-raising opportunity, the introduction of the Euro), so the subjective rise may not be much.

Had a nice letter from the Krankenkasse the other day informing me that I have the pleasure of paying 0.3% more (partly due to the aforesaid VAT rise they claim). Oddly enough I also notice I am paying a 0.9% “gesetzlicher Zusatzbeitrag”, whatever that’s all about. And they haven’t even got the “Gesundheitsreform” through the Bundestag yet.

Dunno about fags, though I do see cigarette vending machines now no longer accept cash, only EC cards with a chip in them.

25. BiB - December 30, 2006

Looks like I lost my bank card in the nick of time. I don’t think the lost one had a chip, so hopefully the new one will. I have been living in cardless limbo for quite an age now, it seems, which means relying on the Russian to cough up, or transferring money to him and then hoping he’ll cough up. All a pain.

Hah! My Krankenkasse wrote to me too to tell me something or other. Once I realised it wasn’t a bill, I didn’t bother reading it, of course, but I’m sure it’s something about me paying more.

I quite fancy a drink.

26. narrowback - December 30, 2006

nah, my reputation is questionable from the get go

the only things I’ve purchased from Vietnamese in Berlin have been the odd meal…some divey place in Schoneberg… and a red rose to place on the graves on LL Tag…always thought the latter was kinda cute – remnants of socialism makin’ a buck off of other remnants of socilialism

A sister in law did get into a bit of a tangle with customs & excise here over some Ukrainan mail order scam but now just goes to the nearby indian reservation. Talk about hopeless in dealing with the crimminal fraternity her situation is akin to a suburban hausfrau walking into a crackhouse…pearls and all

quitting the cigs is one of my resolutions for 07 but don’t want to talk about it… ‘fraid I’ll not follow through if I talk about it too much. my plan is to utilize the 14 hours without cigs on a trip back from Berlin in the next few months as the first step in quitting them for good

27. pleite - December 30, 2006

OK, I won’t mention The Resolution. Actually, I’m considering finding the resolve to go out and get some fags now, at the unglodly hour of 8.33am, although it is an unwritten rule that I don’t leave the house before showering, but I’m in a serious chain-smoking-and-chain-coffee-drinking mood. If I wear a hat and cover most of my face in a scarf, maybe I won’t be arrested.

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