A service offered sometimes in Leicester Square in London, and I'm sure in other public squares around the world. A gentleman will actually write your name on a grain of rice. Amid all the buskers, mannequins, rose sellers and pickpockets, this makes a walk through the square worthwhile.

You can get this done at any respectable tourist spot in China, artists sit by places such as the Great Wall and the Terracotta Soldiers and wait for the crowds of pale devil tourists. The quality is great, and it makes a much better souvenir than say, a ripoff plastic figurine "antique". In addition to an uncooked grain of rice, you can also choose from any of the alternative surfaces: Good places package their newly carved wares in a nice embroidered box along with a magnifying glass for your viewing pleasure. Given the complexity of most Chinese characters, I am very surprised that each brushstroke of the tiny words was still very well-defined. The brush used in these pieces is very thin, not a brush at all, rather a needlepoint dipped in watered-down ink.

Makes for better "Been there, done that" China bragging rights than a fake piece of jade souvenir, IMHO. Ahh, the wonders of tourism. The one I got in Nanjing only cost me US$5.

By the way, these two characters make my Chinese name:

http://zhongwen.com/d/167/d245.gif - li, my surname
http://zhongwen.com/d/176/d183.htm - jian, my given name

Li Jian is my Chinese name. Jian means healthy, strong. Many Chinese people have three characters instead of two for their names. My family decided to keep mine simple.

Hmmm... I see nothing pathetic about a homeless person's attempt to make money and break away from homelessness. More power to them!

I may not be interested in having my name written on a grain of rice, but if I saw a homeless person doing it, I'd probably buy it.

Obviously, writing a name on a grain of rice requires considerable skill: One needs very good vision, excellent hand-eye coordination, and quite a steady hand. Nothing pathetic about that!

Nor do I see anything wrong with helping a homeless person, especially when that person is genuinely trying to do something about overcoming his/her predicament.

At a folding card table festooned with cheap bangles, somewhere on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley, an asian woman sits next to a sign offering this very service. Also available the last time I walked by was a grain of rice with the entire "Apocalypse according to Saint John".

I have seen this service performed by several people in different countries. The most interesting things about it, which I think deserve to be especially pointed out, are:

1. Not only do these people draw relatively complex(or in the case of Chinese characters, very complex) lines that are only a few millimeters high, they do it on the fly, while you are waiting. Imagine programming or plumbing houses or whatever you do for a living while someone is watching and waiting.

2. I have seen people who do this but who are able to create only a subset of the alphabet, and who put up signs to that effect. This is very interesting, because it serves as a guide to the complexity of the alphabet and can also be used for a Shannon-like analysis of the distances between characters.

or something... pretty cool anyway!

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