Monthly Archives: March 2010


Mar 2010

Introducing AllSet Learning

I’m excited to finally publicly announce a project I’ve been working on since last year. I’ve started a new company called AllSet Learning. It’s a learning consultancy focused specifically on solving the problems faced by expats in Shanghai trying to learn Mandarin.

I’m especially happy that in this new venture I have the support of Praxis Language CEO, Hank Horkoff. Hank is one of the most driven entrepreneurs I know, and he has had no small influence on my own decision to start a company. So the good thing is that I will continue to work on the academics and podcast recordings at ChinesePod (which I love), and also have my own operation. AllSet Learning will not produce its own content, and will emphasize face-to-face (offline) learning, so it will complement rather than compete with Praxis Language’s products. Over the next year, AllSet Learning will also be the first official ChinesePod Partner as ChinesePod opens up its resources to third parties more.

In this new business I’m really looking forward to talking to individuals about their own specific problems learning Chinese, and really getting into the nitty-gritty of it. ChinesePod is the best online resource for practical study material in Mandarin, but online discussion is just not the same level of personal interaction that working as a consultant on the streets of Shanghai makes possible (and yes, I am going to take it to the streets!).

The AllSet Learning office is located at Xindanwei, a really cool, creative community which has hosted events like Barcamp and Dorkbot, and regularly has interesting characters like Isaac Mao passing through.

I’ll mention developments at AllSet Learning here from time to time. I have a lot planned in terms of offline events and research. If you’re interested, please visit the website, and don’t hesitate to get in touch.


Mar 2010

Anki Reset (sometimes it’s necessary)

I’ve written before about SRS. I stated that I had my “misgivings” (a post still unwritten), but that I think it’s a good technology which will eventually become more pervasive. In the meantime it’s very DIY. It’s hard for most of us to like, and it’s easy to get it wrong.

Yes, it’s easy to get wrong. Khatzumoto frequently tells us about some of the mistakes he’s made and how to avoid them, and John Biesnecker has some tips as well. I’d like to share one of mine.

The mistake I made was big enough to destroy my enthusiasm for SRS and Anki (a great program). In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way forward, short of abandoning SRS as method, is a total Anki reset. Deleting all your SRS data is something you don’t ordinarily want to do (it builds on itself and evolves over time), but in my case I have no choice.

I made two major mistakes:

Mistake #1: Adding word lists

Yeah, this is kind of a newbie mistake, but I wanted to learn lots of obscure country names, so I just entered them all in. Only problem is I never talk or write about those countries in Chinese. I don’t even like politics or geography. I was entering data into Anki, which was dutifully passing it on into a “memory black hole.” And then I kept having to review those names over and over again, and then forgetting them.

Lesson learned: Don’t enter language you’re pretty sure you’ll never need.

Mistake #2: Adding all unfamiliar words in my readings

Around the time I was getting more enthusiastic about Anki, I was also reading a lot more Chinese literature as part of an effort to sophisticate my Chinese. So I added a bunch of semi-archaic vocabulary from Lu Xun stories. Mistake!

The problem was that these were words I would basically only see in writing, and many of them were fairly easy to figure out in context. Driven to totally master that vocabulary, I was trying to force into my active vocabulary quite a few items which really had no business being there. They would have been perfectly fine just chilling in my passive vocabulary, and simply continuing to read more would reinforce them enough.

Lesson learned: Don’t enter language you’re pretty sure you’ll never need.

What I’m doing now

So after learning my lessons, I’ve wiped my Anki data clean. Now the data I enter is vocabulary I can imagine myself actually using. This does wonders for my motivation to use Anki, becomes reinforcing these fun and useful terms puts me that much closer to better speaking ability. Rather than (potentially) improving my reading speed, I’m working on enhancing my human interactions. That is way more motivating.


Mar 2010

Stand on the Right, Walk on the Left

I remember when I first arrived in Shanghai, thinking, “I wish that people in Shanghai, when riding the escalators, would stand on the right and let people by on the left, the way they do in Japan.” It’s just such a more courteous and efficient way of doing things.

But yeah, I know… this is China, not Japan.

So when recently riding the Shanghai subway for the first time in a while, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this practice is finally really being adopted in Shanghai. Not only are there signs asking people to do it, but people actually do it.

Stand on the right, walk on the left Standing on the right

Could it be due to the Expo? I don’t really care… I’m just excited to see a change.


Mar 2010

Chinese Characters Spliced into English Text

Kanjilish screenshot

There’s a Firefox add-on called Characterizer (originally Kanjilish, for Japanese) which replaces parts of words with Chinese characters. My initial reaction was that it was just gimmick without much real value, but I’m starting to wonder.

In the screenshot above, the characters are for Japanese; for simplified Chinese they would probably appear as:

> 读ead 练ractice 学earn

Unfortunately the add-on only works for older versions of Firefox, so I can’t try it out. The concept, as stated by the author, is:

> As a busy professional, I don’t always have time to practice Japanese as much as I like. I developed this add-on so that I could keep kanji characters fresh in my mind, even when I wasn’t reading Japanese.

So the idea is to semi-passively reinforce characters already learned. Makes sense.

One part that intrigues me about the add-on, though, is the missing letter. Every time your brain encounters a word with its first letter replaced by a Chinese character, for just that split second, it kind of freaks out, but then recovers gracefully. I feel that my brain, however, is definitely focused on decoding the proper English word, treating the mildly horrific character-letter hybrid as a sort of captchaesque nuisance blocking its way to comprehension. The characters are just mentally swept away by this process.

Actually, I find the whole mental process very much like the now-famous message below:

> Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a tatol mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.

What I really wonder, though, is: what effect would prolonged exposure to character-letter hybrids have on someone who has never studied the characters? Would they eventually start to form associations between words and characters?

The process needn’t be exactly like Characterizer does it. Here’s an alternate example by syllable:

– 北ei京ing

– 上hang海ai

– 香ong港ong

– 台ai湾an

– 西i安n

– 杭ang州hou

The longer ones definitely seem to work better. If you don’t read Chinese, how many of the place names above can you read?

Here’s another list (version 1):

– 姚ao 明ing

– 章hang 子i怡i

– 巩ong 俐i

– 张hang 艺i谋ou

– 葛e 优ou

– 周hou 立i波o

– 大a 山han

– 毛ao 向iang辉ui

Same list (version 2):

– 姚ao Ming

– 章hang Ziyi

– 巩ong Li

– 张hang Yimou

– 葛e You

– 周hou Libo

– 大a Shan

– 毛ao Xianghui

How did you fare in the two lists above? Was version 1 a lot harder? How about 2- versus 3-character names? The names are roughly in “fame order.” Did it get harder as you went along?

You could take the concept in a lot of directions. Definitely worth exploring some more.


Mar 2010

Chinese Radio on the Internet: a Platform-Agnostic Option at Last!

In theory, watching Chinese TV seems like a great way to expose oneself to more Mandarin. But somehow I can’t bear to watch most TV programs in China. It’s not that I’m immune to the charms of all forms of Chinese media, though. Strangely, I’ve found that I tend to encounter the most interesting Chinese programs while riding in a taxi late at night. It’s those call-in advice radio shows that taxi drivers like so much. I love those shows!

What’s so great about the call-in shows? Here are some of the reasons I like them:

1. They don’t come across as rehearsed, and if they’re not 100% real, the interactions sure seem spontaneous to me.
2. The callers are from all over China, so there’s a great variety of accents.
3. The language (of the callers, at least) is unpretentious and real.
4. As callers discuss their personal problems, you get some nice snapshots of various Chinese social issues.
5. Many of them are actually very easy to follow; tuning in feels like much less of a listening comprehension exercise than other programs.

Naturally, I don’t want to actually listen to these shows on the radio at their scheduled times, I want to listen to them online when I want to listen to them. So quite a while ago I started hunting for ways to tune into Chinese radio stations online. There are more than a few, but there are serious inconveniences associated with each. The types of shows I wanted were hard to find, and most stations required either Windows Media Player, IE6, or RealPlayer. No good!

Recently, however, I discovered a Chinese website that has gotten it right. It’s, 上海网络广播电台 (Shanghai Internet Broadcasting Station), an effort of SMG. So what’s so great about this site? Allow me to gush a bit…

SMG BBTV Radio Online: Home Page



Mar 2010

The Value of a Master’s in Chinese Economics

In a recent post entitled Why China for Grad School? I opined:

> Aside from reduced cost, there is one main reason a westerner might choose to go to grad school in China over a western country: because one’s object of study is inherently Chinese. This includes Chinese history, Chinese art, Chinese language, etc.

There are definitely foreigners in Shanghai that have elected to earn their advanced degrees in China, but in fields other than those mentioned above. Curious about how they see their education, I’ve decided to interview a few. The following is an interview with American Zachary Franklin, a writer who also maintains the blog Writer’s Block on his website, DeluxZilla.

John: Can you tell me what graduate degree you’re working on?

Zachary: I am currently a first-year master’s student working toward an M.A. in Chinese Economics from Fudan University, a two year degree program taught through the School of Economics.

John: So what kind of program is it? Is it meant for foreigners, or is it all Chinese?

Zachary: It is an English-taught, M.A. program, focusing on both economics and the Chinese economy in the context of the past 30 years of development and where the Chinese economy is heading in the coming decades.

It is meant for foreigners. My class has 15 other students from around the world, including countries such as Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Hungary, Norway, Italy and the United States. This specific degree program has been around since 2006.

The difference between myself and the other 15 students is they are taking the degree completely in English, whereas I am taking half the degree in Chinese.

Both Fudan University and the Economics School have been extremely supportive and encouraging in allowing me to split my degree. What ends up happening is I take core economics classes — microeconomics, macroeconomics and econometrics — in English, learning theory and mathematical formulas, while getting to take more discussion-oriented classes in Mandarin. Last semester I took “World Economies” in Chinese, and this semester I am taking both “Regional Economics,” which focuses on why Chinese provinces have developed the way they have over the past 15 years, and “Chinese Dynastic Economic Thought.”

John: I mentioned in a recent blog post that I thought it mostly only makes sense to earn a graduate degree in China if the subject matter is inherently Chinese. I guess you would take issue with that statement?

Zachary: I don’t take issue with your statement so much as it is going to be a moot point. The invasion is coming. In the next 10 years there will be masses of foreigners from all corners of the globe coming to China to study in universities, in numbers far greater than what China has seen previously. In the United States alone, President Barack Obama said back in Nov. 2009 he wants to send 100,000 American students to study in China over the next four years. Even if you feel universities here need to change their methods and improve their standards, it won’t matter. The increased demand will naturally change the system. It has to.

Will foreigners be coming to China to study subjects such as Russian literature or peace and conflict studies in the Middle East? I don’t know, but it seems there are already several other universities around the world that have those programs and are more well-known for those degrees.

Instead, what we’re going to see is many coming to China to learn the language, but many more who already have a very accomplished level of Mandarin. To cope with increased overall demand, universities around China will have to adapt to handling a higher percentage of foreigners. They’re going to have to meet demands, change standards where necessary and offer a more diverse curriculum.

John: You almost make it sound as if the subject matter is only secondary, and the important thing is getting in with the Chinese before “the invasion.”

Zachary: Of course the subject matter is important, but as I am in China and studying economics, it is important to take stock in the economic changes happening all around and apply what I’ve learned in the classroom accordingly.

So, in terms of value, how do you see your M.A. in Economics from Fudan?

Zachary: I see an M.A. in Chinese economics from Fudan University to be three degrees — though I am certain I will only receive one of them from the school.

There is the obvious, the economics degree. There is also what I feel will be my completion of Mandarin. I spent 18 months in Beijing before coming to Fudan, reading, writing and speaking Chinese six hours a day, five days a week, in an intense program at a private language institution. Trying to earn a master’s degree utilizing my Mandarin was simply the next logical step.

The last degree is the least obvious, but nonetheless one that is of great importance. I feel my time as a student at a Chinese university allows me to understand the educational system in this country. For the majority of Chinese students graduating, what they study at school goes to the industry where they will eventually begin work. Understanding why they’ve chosen a particular major to continue their education, what their classroom activities are doing to prepare them for the real world, where they hope to see themselves in five or 10 years; all this contributes to understanding the people around. And 10 years from now, who knows where my former classmates will be and what field they will be working in.

John: How do you see your M.A. in Economics from Fudan compared to one you might get from an American university? What are the trade-offs?

Zachary: Economics is economics regardless of where one is studying. There are core principles everyone is taught and everyone understands. The differences come when one considers where I am located and the language I am using to obtain my degree.

I am studying economics in China, and I’m using another language for part of the degree. Physically being here is priceless in terms of the perspective I am being exposed to. You cannot compare studying economics in Shanghai — with so much going on around — and studying economics 9,000 miles away in the United States. I step out my front door every morning and see everything Americans can only read about in the New York Times. In my mind, there are no trade-offs when you think about it like that.

You can follow Zachary’s progress in his M.A. on Writer’s Block.


Mar 2010

Project A Update

I recently asked my readers to email me if they were interested in participating in a project focused on learning Chinese in Shanghai. The response was quite good, and I’d like to thank all of you that generously offered to participate.

I’m actually a bit reluctant to deactivate the email address, because the responses are still trickling in. Some of the details of the project are taking longer than expected to crystallize, however, so it’s not yet time to start. You’ll be hearing from me soon.

This means that there’s still time to email me if you’d like to participate. Once again, the project will start with an online survey, then will happen later this month (or possibly early April) at a physical location in Shanghai. (So yes, you must be in Shanghai to participate.)

Here’s the email address again:

Thanks, everyone, for your support! I’ll be posting future updates when the time comes.


Mar 2010

The Singularity and the Chinese History of Chess

While reading up on one of my favorite topics, the technological singularity, I recently came across this interesting passage in an article by renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil entitled The Law of Accelerating Returns:

> To appreciate the nature and significance of the coming “singularity,” it is important to ponder the nature of exponential growth. Toward this end, I am fond of telling the tale of the inventor of chess and his patron, the emperor of China. In response to the emperor’s offer of a reward for his new beloved game, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice on the first square, two on the second square, four on the third, and so on. The Emperor quickly granted this seemingly benign and humble request. One version of the story has the emperor going bankrupt as the 63 doublings ultimately totaled 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this requires rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included. Another version of the story has the inventor losing his head.

exponential growth

> It should be pointed out that as the emperor and the inventor went through the first half of the chess board, things were fairly uneventful. The inventor was given spoonfuls of rice, then bowls of rice, then barrels. By the end of the first half of the chess board, the inventor had accumulated one large field’s worth (4 billion grains), and the emperor did start to take notice. It was as they progressed through the second half of the chessboard that the situation quickly deteriorated. Incidentally, with regard to the doublings of computation, that’s about where we stand now–there have been slightly more than 32 doublings of performance since the first programmable computers were invented during World War II.

> This is the nature of exponential growth. Although technology grows in the exponential domain, we humans live in a linear world. So technological trends are not noticed as small levels of technological power are doubled. Then seemingly out of nowhere, a technology explodes into view. For example, when the Internet went from 20,000 to 80,000 nodes over a two year period during the 1980s, this progress remained hidden from the general public. A decade later, when it went from 20 million to 80 million nodes in the same amount of time, the impact was rather conspicuous.

the singularity

I’d never heard the claim that the Chinese invented chess; I’ve always heard that the game was invented by the Indians or Persians and then later iterated by the Chinese. Kurzweil’s story also seems a bit suspect to me because of its reference to “squares,” which does not match the forms of Chinese chess I’m familiar with, but then again I’m no expert on any kind of chess. Wikipedia has this information on the history of chess in China:


> Joseph Needham posits that “image-chess,” a recreational game associated with divination, was developed in China and transmitted to India, where it evolved into the form of modern military chess. Needham notes that dice were transmitted to China from India, and were used in the game of “image-chess.”

> Another alternative theory contends that chess arose from Xiangqi or a predecessor thereof, existing in China since the 2nd century BC. David H. Li, a retired accountant, professor of accounting and translator of ancient Chinese texts, hypothesizes that general Han Xin drew on the earlier game of Liubo to develop an early form of Chinese chess in the winter of 204–203 BC. The German chess historian Peter Banaschak, however, points out that Li’s main hypothesis “is based on virtually nothing”. He notes that the “Xuanguai lu,” authored by the Tang Dynasty minister Niu Sengru (779–847), remains the first real source on the Chinese chess variant xiangqi.

In my half-assed 5-minute Wikipedia/Baidu Zhidao research, I don’t see reference to the emperor of China sponsoring the invention of any form of chess. Could this be an inaccurate reference to Han Xin (韩信), who is connected to the history of Chinese chess (象棋)? If anyone has more info, I’d love to hear it. Is Kurzweil’s story about Chinese chess, rice grains, and exponential growth just another fake Chinese anecdote, or is there anything to back it up?

Chinese Chess, 中国象棋


Mar 2010

Creative English with Chinese Characteristics

Just in case you missed these English language Chinese coinages, here’s a sample:

> Smilence 笑而不语

> vi. When you are expecting some answers from your Chinese audience, you may just get a mysterious smile and their silence only.

> 动词 当你期望从中国听众那里获得一些回答的时候,你只得到了神秘的微笑和他们的沉默。

The rest of the list is here, but here’s a taste of what you’ll find:

– Democrazy
– Togayther
– Freedamn
– Shitizen
– Divoice
– Animale
– Amerryca
– Innernet
– Yakshit
– Departyment
– Suihide
– Don’train
– Corpspend
– Jokarlist
– Vegeteal
– Sexretary
– Canclensor
– Carass
– Harmany

Smilence is definitely the best one. It’s interesting how some of them don’t work very well from the perspective of a native speaker of English, while others are pure gold.

Via China Digital Times.


Mar 2010

Chinese New Year Line Dance

Overheard near Jing’an Temple, a conversation between a Chinese woman and an American woman:

> Chinese woman: It is Chinese New Year, time for line dance.

> American woman: Really, line dances? You do line dances for Chinese New Year?

> Chinese woman: Yes, line dance.

> American woman: What kind of line dance?

> Chinese woman: You know, Chinese line. Like that stone line.

> American woman: Oh, lion dance! OK, I see.

I don’t mean to make fun of anyone’s pronunciation, but the idea of a “Chinese New Year Line Dance” was just too good. (Maybe for next year’s craptacular?)