Tag: John B


Nov 2010

Why Learning Chinese Is Hard

I can’t agree with anyone who says that learning Chinese isn’t hard, because it’s got to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sure, it’s been extremely rewarding, but I personally found it quite hard. Hopefully you’re not someone who chooses to learn a language based solely on how difficult it is perceived to be. But as someone who has chosen to learn a language for the wrong reasons before, and who also once shied away from Chinese, daunted by those terrifying tones, I can tell you that it is definitely difficult enough to scare off the casual dabbler. But what exactly is difficult about learning Chinese?

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. When I say “difficult,” what do I mean? Here’s a definition from the Oxford Dictionary of English:

> needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand

So when we talk about difficult, we shouldn’t confuse this with time-consuming. John Biesnecker recently wrote a great post explaining why the time-consuming nature of studying Chinese does not make it difficult, followed by extensive, patient clarifications in the comments.

But John also says:

> …learning Chinese is a long, drawn out series of really easy things — learn a character, learn a word, listen to a song, talk to someone, watch a movie, write an email, 等等. Not a single one of them is hard. Not one.

While I agree with most of John’s premise, I can’t agree that nothing about learning Chinese is hard. I found learning Chinese very difficult in the beginning. Although difficulty is subjective, I think there’s an important part of the equation missing here. First, two examples from my own life.

Putting in Time vs. Acquiring a Skill

When I was in high school I played a video game called Final Fantasy II. It was an RPG for the Super NES which can be beaten with the characters in your party at around level 40. Nerdy kid that I was, I loved that game so much that I continued playing it long after I had beaten it, until all my characters were up to level 99. You might call that feat silly or sad, but it was essentially a very long (but somehow enjoyable??) slog to reach increasingly higher level-up points. It was a ridiculous time investment. But one thing it certainly wasn’t is difficult.

Another example from my awkward teen years. My cousin Kevin introduced me to juggling. He insisted that anyone could learn it in one day, if they just stuck to it. After trying a few times, this seemed hard to believe. Juggling just three balls for even 10 tosses was deceptively difficult. But for some reason I dug in and kept at it. After 30 minutes I could do those 10 tosses. After an hour, I was starting to look like I could juggle three balls.

Does it seem wrong to say learning to juggle is difficult? It honestly takes less than an hour if the learner keeps at it. I’ve tried to teach quite a few people to juggle, and the conversation usually goes like this:

> Learner: Wow, you can juggle?

> Me: Yeah. It’s not very hard. You can learn in 30 minutes if you try.

> Learner: Really? Let me try.

> [I demonstrate the basics and hand over the balls. The learner takes a few tries, quickly dropping the balls.]

> Learner: This is harder than it looks!

> Me: Yeah, but if you keep at it for 30 minutes, you’ll be able to juggle.

> [5 minutes pass.]

> Learner: This is too hard! See ya.

So why is juggling hard, even though 30 minutes is enough to get the basics down? It’s because it requires the mastery of a new skill, which, our brain reasons, “shouldn’t be too hard.” The logic of the task is quite simple. Throw ball. Catch ball. Repeat. The brain grasps the concept immediately. But the hands do not comply. The skill is too foreign.

The Jazzy Juggler

photo by Jeff Kubina

In essence, it’s “hard” because it’s frustrating. Actual performance does not live up to one’s reasonable expectations for one’s performance, and this is a blow to one’s ego. It’s emotional, not rational. What’s worse, if this simple task cannot be accomplished as easily as estimated, how can you be sure you’re ever going to get the hang of it?

This is the crux of the difficulty of learning juggling, Chinese, and many other worthwhile skills: the sheer frustration of the endeavor, and the ever-present fear that one is attempting the impossible. It takes a lot of effort to acquire an entirely new skill. Many people simply get discouraged and quit. “It’s too hard.”

The Hard Part

When I say that learning Chinese is hard, I don’t mean everything about it is difficult. For me, the hard part about learning Chinese, without a doubt, has been mastering the tones. The worst part was arriving in China after a year and a half of formal Mandarin study to make the horrifying discovery that no one in China understood my Chinese. I’m not one to give up easily, however, and I eventually made it. In my experience, tones are the single most frustrating thing about learning Mandarin Chinese.

Why? Well, to begin with you can’t even distinguish the tones. It seems impossible. Then, once you start to be able to distinguish them, you can’t reproduce them on your own. It seems impossible. Then, once you can produce individual tones in isolation on your own, it all falls apart when you try to string tones together. It seems impossible. Then, once you can start to string tones together with some semblance of accuracy, adding in sentence intonation screws everything up. It seems impossible.

See a pattern? Mastering tones is a long, frustrating process. I think there comes a point in almost every learner’s experience (me included!) where they say something like this:

> What’s wrong with these people? I said everything perfectly. I know all my tones were right. But they always act like they can’t understand me!

This is pure frustration. It happens to every learner.

Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Sometimes acquiring Mandarin’s tones seems perilously close to this definition!

The Good News

The good news is that although Chinese has a steep learning curve, the worst part, by far, is right at the beginning. You have no choice but to tackle the tones right off the bat, and they’re just hard. But once you get a handle on them, the worst is behind you. (This is, however, where John Biesnecker’s “time-consuming does not mean difficult” argument kicks in, and you still have a long road ahead with the characters and vocabulary acquisition.)

I essentially expressed this point a while back when I compared the difficulty of learning Chinese and Japanese:

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

Because the hardest part is right at the beginning, I think advanced learners can sometimes forget how difficult and frustrating it was. But it’s a key issue I face on an almost daily basis in my work at AllSet Learning. For beginners, the learning curve can be a bit brutal.

You’re not afraid of a challenge, are you?

Mastering tones may be difficult, and memorizing all those characters may be time-consuming, but learning Chinese is definitely worth it. Difficulty is a subjective thing, so there may be those with an uncanny knack for acquiring tones (or perhaps indefatigable, saintly patience) who honestly don’t find it difficult (or frustrating). I’m willing to bet that some learners simply have a penchant for blocking out distant painful memories, and there may even be a few out there with devious plans to trick you into falling in love with Chinese. It is, after all, one of the world’s most fascinating languages.

There have been a number of excellent articles already written on this topic. I’ve linked to some of them below. Please note that David Moser’s article is tongue-in-cheek. Brendan’s conclusion is spot on, and I think Ben Ross’s views are also very close to my own.

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard by David Moser
…so, you want to learn Chinese? by Brendan O’Kane
Journey Across the Great Hump of China: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World’s Most Difficult Language by Ben Ross
How Hard Is Chinese to Learn, Really? by Albert Wolfe
Learning Chinese: How Difficult is It? by Truett Black
Learning Chinese isn’t hard by John Biesnecker

Relevant Sinosplice content:

The Process of Learning Tones
Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills
Chinese Pronunciation
Tone-related blog posts


Oct 2010

WooChinese Does Q&A

My friend John Biesnecker has been working hard on a new site called WooChinese. He’s been covering a lot of topics related to learning Chinese, and has been specifically addressing some of the big questions that absolute beginners to the language typically have. Here are some samples from the “Questions Newbies Ask” series:


QNA #1: Do I really need to learn to read Chinese?

QNA #2: Do tones really matter?

QNA #3: Should I learn traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese characters?

QNA #4: Do I need to learn to write Chinese characters?

Last week he asked me for some help on the question, “what is the best textbook?” Honestly, that’s a really hard question and it is affected by so many factors, so the default answer is the always-annoying, “it depends.” This is the kind of thing I tackle in a very personalized way through AllSet Learning.

Still, it’s nice to have a relatively straightforward answer (even in imperfect starting point is better than a never-ending search for perfection), so I gave my answer here:

QNA #9: What’s the best textbook for learning Chinese?

Be sure to check out WooChinese. Lots of good stuff over there.


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.


Aug 2009

The Spaced Repetition Party

So you’re at a party. It’s not some crazy kegger, it’s just one of those social mixers you go to every once in a while to meet people. A homely guy walks up to you and introduces himself as Craig. He’s a financial consultant. He soon moves on.

Photo by Wallie-The-Frog

A few minutes later, he walks up again, and asks, “Remember me?”

“Uhhh, Craig, right?” you reply.

“Yes,” he says. “And what do I do?”

“Uhhhh,” you say intelligently as you draw a blank.

“Financial consultant!” he says snippily and walks off.

A few minutes later he’s back again. He walks up to you and looks at you. “Hey, Craig the financial consultant,” you say. He nods and moves on.

He shows up again an hour later, and then one more time before the end of the event. He’s satisfied you know who he is.

The scene described above is a fictional dramatization of how spaced repetition works. Just like you forgot unmemorable Craig’s profession only 5 minutes after meeting him, you forget most things you learn. That is, unless you’re reminded. And it turns out that there are optimal times to be reminded, and that the more you’re reminded, the less often you need to be reminded. This is the “spacing” of “spaced repetition,” and its rules been pretty well figured out.

The famous Pimsleur language learning system is based on the principle of spaced repetition. It was designed for a time when static audio recordings were cutting edge, however, and the latest adaptation of the spaced repetition principle is spaced repetition software (SRS), which has been refined quite nicely in recent years by a Polish man named Piotr Wozniak.

With SRS, you “join the party” by starting up the software. You’re presented with various “cards” or “facts” which you want to remember. Some of them, like Craig, aren’t particularly memorable, and when they come up again, you may falter. No matter; SRS is infinitely patient. The more you have trouble with a fact, the more often it shows up in your review cycles, until eventually you get it down pat and it gets spaced out to the point where you hardly ever see it again.

Sound like fun? In my experience, the idea of efficiently offloading the work of memorization to a computer program tends to appeal mainly to programmers. I was introduced to it by programmer friend John Biesnecker, who was seduced by SRS evangelist and blogger Khatzumoto (also a programmer). I’ve seen another programmer friend, Mark Wilbur, go fanatical about SRS. Meanwhile, linguists and language teachers tend to go, “meh.”

Photo by Tom Lin

Personally, while I have my misgivings about SRS (a topic for another post), I think it’s a fantastic concept. The idea that, through science, we can understand how we forget, describe it in algorithms, and then systematically counteract it through software and learned behaviors is nothing short of amazing. The problem is that most of us aren’t willing to simply plug in and “trust the machine.” We prefer to live our lives unplugged… or at least not to be ritually spoon-fed our knowledge.

Like any innovative new form of technology, SRS has its early adopters. Those people swear by SRS, daily executing their spaced “reps” with the leading software: SuperMemo, Mnemosyne, and Anki. At the same time, though, something bigger is happening. Behind the scenes, SRS methods are infiltrating other learning software, such as Pleco (a popular Chinese dictionary). Although perhaps not completely obvious, SRS methods are a cornerstone of innovative Chinese character writing service Skritter. Cerego, the company behind another learning system earning lots of praise, Smart.fm, describes itself thusly:

> Based on years of applied research, Cerego has built adaptive, web-based applications that accelerate knowledge acquisition. Cerego’s patented core learning engine is driven by algorithms that generate optimal learning schedules for discrete chunks of declarative learning content, called “items”. This intelligent scheduling is achieved by gathering metadata on individual user performance and modeling memory decay patterns at the granular level of every item.

Guess what? It’s SRS.

The fact is, the average person doesn’t need to learn to change his habits to adapt SRS. As various companies and developers realize the value that SRS integration offers any kind of learning system, they’re integrating it into their existing products and services. It’s starting to appear in more and more products we already use. In the next few years, you can expect the slower ones to join the party as well. SRS is coming to you.


Apr 2009

Translator Interview: John Biesnecker

John and Son

John Biesnecker has worked in Shanghai as a translator for several years, both as a salaried translator and as a freelance translator. He is a language-learning enthusiast, and writes a blog called Never Stop Moving. This is the fourth interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.

1. What formal Chinese study programs have you participated in?

I took two semesters of Chinese at university, the year before I came moved to China, in classes full of Chinese American kids that already spoke the language. Upon moving to China I discovered that I had learned effectively nothing. 🙂 In 2004 I spent a semester at Jilin University, but mostly didn’t go to class because I was broke and had to work. Everything else has been self-taught.

2. How has living in China helped prepare you to become a translator?

Living in China has made massive input a lot more practical. I don’t think you have to live in China (or Taiwan, or any other Chinese-speaking place) to develop your Chinese skills to the point that you can do translation, but if you don’t you have to be a lot more disciplined. Personally, had I not been surrounded by the language every single day, I don’t think I would have been able to do it. I just didn’t have the “Chinese acquisition drive” to do it in any other way, especially in the beginning.



Mar 2009

The Many Paths to Translation Work

I succumbed to the lure of translation work just as I was about to start grad school in 2005. Although I had long avoided “real translation work,” I figured if my Chinese was good enough to get into grad school in China, then I should be able to handle a few translation jobs. The truth is, even after 4+ years of living in China studying the language, I was terrified of putting my language skills to such a tangible, transparent trial, subject to judgment and criticism. Well… all the more reason to give it a shot, right?

So I did. I tried translation for a while, and it went smoothly enough, but I realized I hated it. Most of the jobs I got made me feel like a machine. (Perhaps this was because I expected the kind of work I was doing to be replaced by a Google service in the near future, my hours of mental anguish reduced to the click of a button.) Still, there were things I enjoyed translating… bad subtitles, maybe, or an interesting name. But those are the kinds of translations I could only do strictly for fun.

These days I rarely stray too far from translation, because my academic work at ChinesePod is inherently tied to translation for pedagogical purposes. It really is a whole new game, and one whose challenges I find rewarding. Fortunately, translation nowadays is accomplished with a slew of digital tools, ranging from online dictionaries and databases to desktop reference tools (I’m looking at you, Wenlin!). It seems like the translator’s biggest headache these days is non-digital source text.

Despite all the technological advances, the issues a translator faces are, at their core, very human, and so human minds are obviously our best weapon for this task. What’s not obvious is where these translators are coming from. Proper translation from Chinese to English requires a native speaker of English, but the translators I meet aren’t typically the graduates of some kind of translation academy, and the translators out there now precede the new wave of China-focused graduates. They’re a mixed lot with completely different backgrounds, and they share a peculiar passion for translation that I certainly was never able to muster.

Translator Interview Series

This is why I did a series of interviews with translators in China that I know personally. I asked what I was curious about, and received a surprisingly diverse set of answers. Over the next five days I’ll be publishing one new interview every day. As I publish new interviews, the links will appear below, making this page an index for the series.

The interview lineup:

1. Brendan O’Kane (Bokane.org writer, freelance translator)
2. Peter Braden (ChinesePod translator and host)
3. Joel Martinsen (Danwei.org contributor/translator)
4. John Biesnecker (blogger, freelance translator, Qingxi Labs founder)
5. Ben Ross (barber shop anthropologist, translator/interpreter)
6. Megan Shank (blogger and freelance translator and journalist)

Specifically, I ask them about what kind of training/preparation they had to become translators, the role of technology in their trade, and the challenges and joys that translation work brings. Whether you aspire to become a translator, or you just have an interest in language, be sure to catch what these guys have to say on the topic.

[Apr. 8 Update: An interview with Megan Shank, originally planned for this interview, has been added to the lineup.]


Apr 2008

Office Moved, Life Improved

Life has just gotten way better for me. Last Friday Praxis Language (home of ChinesePod) moved to the Zhongshan Park area (where I live).

Why is this a big deal? Well, it means I can walk to work. It’s about more than convenience, though.

I used to take the subway to work every morning, and then back home at night. My commute took me down Line 2, through the People’s Square exchange, over to Line 1, at rush hour. Hey, millions of people do this every day in this city, so why shouldn’t I? Well, eventually I learned why. Over time the crushing commuting hordes really got to me. I would start every day lying in bed cursing my alarm clock, dreading my commute, and then, after running the gauntlet again, arrive at work in a foul mood. At the end of the day when work was finally over and I could relax, my bad mood would be reinstated by the commute home. It all added up to a significant amount of unhappiness, far exceeding the daily hour and a half I spent in commute.

I tried carpooling, but that didn’t work. Eventually I started taking taxis a lot more. It was kind of expensive, but I learned it was well worth it. I was buying back a pleasant emotional state, and it was a good value.

Toward the end, John B and I started carpooling by taxi in the morning and taking the subway home after work. We had to leave a half hour earlier in the morning to ensure that we’d get a taxi every day, but we could split the fare. Totally worth it.

Starting Monday I’ll be walking or biking to work every day. It’s going to be sweet.

If you’re planning on living in Shanghai and wondering how close to work you want to live, I say VERY.


Jan 2008

Arashi no Yoru ni: DVD Audio as Listening Material

A while back John B introduced me to a blog called All Japanese All the Time, in which the author describes how he became fluent in Japanese while living in the States, in a relatively short amount of time. The key, as the name implies, is to immerse oneself in Japanese as much as possible. In our world of digital media, it’s not too hard to find listening material for a language like Japanese. Load this stuff onto your iPod or whatever, and soak it in. Obviously, you’ll need to be doing lots of studying as well.

Khatzumoto, the author of All Japanese All the Time, advocates finding a DVD you know well that has audio in the language you’re studying, getting familiar with the movie in that language, and then ripping the DVD audio. The idea is that you start out familiar, and with enough repetition, all those lines in the movie become yours.

I liked this idea, but I wanted to try it a slightly different way. Not long ago, my wife bought a cute animated Japanese movie called Arashi no Yoru ni. She was listening to the original Japanese dub, and watching with Chinese subtitles. I noticed in passing that the original Japanese was not difficult at all, and the plot was quite simple.

Here’s the plot (from the Wikipedia page):

Arashi no Yoru ni

> A goat named Mei wanders into a barn during the night for shelter from a storm. In the barn, the goat finds another refugee. The two can neither see nor smell each other, yet huddled together fending off the cold, they begin to talk and eventually develop a friendship. They decide to meet at a later time using the password “one stormy night”. The next day, when the two meet, Mei learns that his companion from the night before was a wolf named Gabu. Despite the fact that the two are naturally supposed to be enemies, they share a bond and begin meeting regularly. However, Mei’s flock and Gabu’s pack eventually find out about this and forbid their friendship. Mei and Gabu, hoping to preserve their friendship, cross a river during a storm, hoping to find an “emerald forest” free from persecution for their friendship.

> However, Giro, the leader of Gabu’s old pack, holds a grudge against all goats, and views Gabu as a traitor to his kind. Gilo and his pack go on the hunt to track down the two companions. Gabu and Mei, having reached the summit of a mountain and exhausted from fighting their way through a snow storm, stop and rest. Gabu hears his pack approaching and hides Mei in a nearby cave, ready to defend his goat friend to the death. As he is about to go face the wolf pack, there is an avalanche. The next morning, Mei digs through the snow blocking the cave and sees the “emerald forest” they had been searching for in the distance. However, Gabu has gone missing…

(If that’s not enough for you, there’s also an online trailer.)

OK, so now the basic question is: how well could I understand this movie in Japanese only by listening to it? That’s the point of the experiment.

The good news is that this same movie also has a high-quality Mandarin track (those Taiwanese do good work!), as well as a Cantonese track. There is no English track. I’m putting all these MP3s online for other people to give it a try as well.

Arashi no Yoru ni (Mandarin) – 16 Chapters, 128kbps, 97.3 MB
Arashi no Yoru ni (Cantonese) – 16 Chapters, 128kbps, 97.3 MB
Arashi no Yoru ni (Japanese) – 16 Chapters, 128kbps, 97.3 MB

If you give this a try, I’d really love to hear about the results. For example:

– Do you find there’s too much music to concentrate on language-learning, or does the music help?
– Can you follow the story?
– Is it enjoyable in audio-only format?

(And if you’re an angry lawyer representing Arashi no Yoru ni, just e-mail me.)


Dec 2007

Best Beijing Bad Air Quality Metaphor Ever

I haven’t had time to read many blogs these days, but fortunately John B forwarded me this gem from Imagethief, which discusses Beijing’s air quality:

> How bad was the air the last two days? If it was a person it would have been a seedy, broad-shouldered thug, dressed in filthy leathers and reeking of grain alcohol, last-night’s whorehouse and cheap cigarettes, that hauled you into an alley by your collar and beat you senseless with a lead pipe wrapped in duct tape, emptied your wallet, found your grandmother’s address inside, went to her house and beat her senseless with the same pipe, cleared out her jewelry box and sodomized her golden-retriever on the way out the door before setting fire to her cottage, coming back to the alley and kicking you in the ribs one more time for good measure.

> It was that bad. And even that may not quite capture the sheer evil of it.

Read the rest of the entry.


Sep 2007

Chinese Test for Foreigners: A Fantasy

So while some of us foreigners are feeling eager to be tested by the HSK, a portion of the Chinese population is wishing a more arduous kind of standardized testing upon us:

> When China becomes more powerful, we’ll make all the foreigners take band 4 or 6 exams! Classical Chinese would be too simple; it’ll all have to be answered using calligraphy brushes, but that’s going easy on them. Going hard on them would be a knife and a turtle shell for each person, and they have to carve in the oracle-bone characters! The essay topic would be: discuss the Three Represents! For the listening comprehension section, it would all be Jay Chou‘s songs, two listens for “Shuangjiegun” and one for “Juhua Tai“. We’ll tell them this is a totally normal speed that Chinese people speak at! Reading comprehension will be all government work reports, the spoken component will require Beijing Opera, and the practical component will be wrapping zongzi.

The original:

> 等咱中国强大了,全叫老外考中文四六级!文言文太简单,全用毛笔答题,这是便宜他们。惹急了一人一把刀一个龟壳,刻甲骨文!论文题目就叫:论三个代表!到了考听力的时候全用周杰伦的歌,《双截棍》听两遍,《菊花台》只能听一遍。告诉他们这是中国人说话最正常的语速!阅读理解全是政府工作报告,口试要求唱京剧,实验就考包粽子。

I love the humor with which the poster handled (1) the frustrations of being forced to learn English through a horrible impractical exam, and (2) the ridiculous complexity of his own native tongue, while (3) it was all set against the backdrop of China’s coming ascendancy as a world superpower, which isn’t a joke at all.

Thanks to John B for finding this.


Aug 2007

Design Update for the CBL

The China Blog List recently got a design update. It looks like this now:

China Blog List: site design update

For a while now, the CBL has been suffering from massive spam attacks. John B, the original architect of the current version, had already helped me implement simple filters and batch delete functions, but I was still just getting bombarded by automated spam blog submissions. Recent additions of a captcha on the submission page and a “check range” greasemonkey script (which allows me to check hundreds of spam submissions for deletion at once) have enabled me to get the problem under control.

Being back in control inspired me to do the long-overdue layout update. Now that I am back in control, I also have a lot of blog submission approving to do. If you’re one of those people that submitted a while ago and you feel like you’ve been waiting forever, this is the explanation. And I will get to your submission.

I still have a bit of work to do on the layout. It breaks in IE. I’m not overly concerned though. (Do real web designers still care about IE??)

Oh, and while I’m on the subject of web updates, be sure to check out Dave Lancashire’s latest contribution to ChinesePod: the ChinesePod Dictionary. Very cool!


Mar 2007

Buying God of War 2 in Shanghai

I recently went to my local video game store and asked when God of War 2 was coming out (yeah, I’m a little excited about this game). They told me March 15th. Well, this past week at ChinesePod was really busy, working hard to implement all kinds of new features.

Yesterday (March 16th) after work, I met my wife for dinner. She asked about God of War 2. I had forgotten about it. We rushed over to a nearby video game store, and the conversation went something like this (keep in mind that the normal price in Shanghai is 5 RMB per PS2 game):

> Me: Do you have God of War 2?

> Shop Owner: (not looking up from his game) Yes.

> Me: How much?

> Shop Owner: (not looking up from his game) 20.

> Me: 20?! Why??

> Shop Owner: (not looking up from his game) It’s DVD-9 and it’s brand new.

> Me: So how long is it going to be 20?

> Shop Owner: (not looking up from his game) Come back tomorrow and it’ll be 10. No, wait, 15.

> Me: Forget it.

Then my wife and I headed to our local video game store. We were afraid it would be closed, but it wasn’t. They had God of War 2, but the boss told me it wasn’t working on a lot of people’s PS2 machines. When I tried to pay, he insisted on giving it to me for free, because I had recently helped him out with something.

When I got home it took about 5 tries, but it worked.

Today John B informed me that that same shop is charging 15 RMB for the game.

Oh, and by the way… yes, it is awesome.

P.S. Piracy is bad!


Jan 2007

Roujiamo Delivers!

Some of the best news I got all last week was that my favorite food in the Zhongshan Park area now delivers. It’s just this tiny stand, but they now bring this deliciousness right to your doorstep. I think it’s something like a 10 RMB minimum order. Sounds like a good excuse for a 肉夹馍 party to me.


If you don’t have the fortune of knowing what roujiamo is, check out these photos. If you detest the vile weed as much as I do, you’ll also want to make sure you know how to tell them to hold the cilantro.

OK, I have to admit: the main reason I took this photo was for the phone number. Now John B and Micah have it too. Anyone else in the Zhongshan Park area? You’re welcome.


Jan 2007

The Computer Buying Game

Last Sunday I bought a new computer. I’m about to move into my new place, and I suppose I’m still in the throes of consumerist passion. It just seemed like a good time to plunk down a neat stack of cash to buy the system I’ve been wanting for a while. I haven’t had a new computer since 2002, when I bought one in Hangzhou with Wilson. It was time.

Then this week I learn from a blog post that my friend John also bought a new computer. Only he bought it at The Xujiahui Best Buy. Best Buy?! Yes, Best Buy.

He reports it as a very satisfying experience in which he paid a reasonable amount and took home quality merchandise which he can be sure is the real thing.

My first reaction to reading this entry was, “Did I make a mistake?” I could have bought my new computer at Best Buy too. Instead, I bought it at the Metro City (美罗城) computer market in Xujiahui (very close to the Best Buy), from a shop I’ve bought parts from before and had no problems. I can’t be sure that the store is totally honest, but it seems decent. The shop is on the fourth floor, which is good, because the higher you go the fewer customers you get. So on the fourth floor, they’re more willing to cut you deals and to help you find the equipment you really want at other shops if they really don’t stock what you’re looking for.

Still, John seemed so content that he had gotten a good deal, and now I was left with doubt.

But then my mind came round again. How could he abandon the game? Buying a computer in China is not walking into an immaculate store manned by a grinning, competent staff. Buying a computer in China is to play the game, to be full of suspicion, to take risks, to engage in the battle of wits.

You have to carefully select your computer store. Don’t go with one on one of the first floors, and don’t go with one that is too loyal to certain brands. Don’t go with one that is too small or too big.

You have to choose your parts from their list. It’s all in Chinese, but they often know the English names of the brands… if the brands even have English names. The crux is knowing when it’s OK to get Chinese brands (key word: 国产), and when you have to insist on brands you know and trust. If you really have to have something that’s not on their list, you have to push them to go out and get it.

You have to know that there’s always wiggle room in the price, but also that they usually won’t even try to rip you off too much because the competition is right next door. So you can’t cut their price in half, but you can’t pay the initial price either. It helps to be familiar with hardware prices before you go. Shop around.

You have to inspect each and every piece of hardware they install to make sure you’re getting what you pay for, and then you have to keep your eyes on that hardware until it’s actually in the machine. It’s so easy to pull the ol’ switcheroo on the unwary customer, and most are clueless college students who’ll never know the difference anyway. Watching like a hawk keeps them honest. (I didn’t trust my store that much.)

You have to really badger them if you want a copy of English Windows XP. Regardless of what language you get, make sure it’s SP 2 they’re installing, because anything earlier will likely be crawling with viruses the moment it connects to the internet. Also make sure they partition your hard drive how you want it, because sometimes they do ridiculous things.

You have to make sure you’re getting the proper warranties and receipts. Stuff breaks, even when the shop is honest.

You have to get their business card with phone number. Make sure they know they’re going to be hearing from you if you have any problem whatsoever. It’s best to do this before they actually start assembling your new machine.

This is the game. It may seem a little sick, but I kind of like it, and the game might not be around for much longer. I think that megastores like Best Buy are going to destroy these sketchy computer markets in the long run, but until they do, they won’t have my money. I play the game.


Jan 2007

Yellow Snow

Q: What do these Chinese women have in common?

yellow snow

A: They all have the Chinese name 黄雪, which in English means “Yellow Snow.” (Comedic gold, this is!) The surname Huang is fairly common, and it’s not unusual for girls’ names to include the character 雪.

If you want to see more Chinese yellow snow, you can do a Baidu search for 黄雪. Unfortunately, the term more often seems to refer to snow in northern China (and Korea) that mixes with the yellow dust. Not as funny.

Thanks to John B for bringing this Chinese name to my attention!


Jan 2007

Thoughts on Simplification

A lot of people have strong opinions on the PRC’s simplification of Chinese characters. You typically hear the “traditional faction” decrying simplified characters as ugly and deformed, a brutal aesthetic assault on one of Asia’s most revered art forms. Meanwhile, the “simplified faction” is equally brutal in its pragmatism; why should I write when I can write , or when I can write , or when I can write ? They’re all commonly used characters.

I’m not posting this to get back into that debate, because quite frankly it’s a rather silly one that ignores some important points. From a linguistic perspective, the simplifications were rather well thought out in many ways (although perhaps less so in others). It’s rather refreshing, then, to read a linguist’s perspective on the issue that acknowledges valid points on both sides of the arguments and brings attention to some key points. On the excellent linguistic blog Language Log, check out: Notes on Chinese Character Simplification and Doing what comes naturally (which includes commentary by Victor Mair).

An interesting quote:

> There are many characters that have 雨 “rain” as radical. These include: 雪 “snow”, 霏 “to fall (of snow)” 雹 “hail”, 露 “dew”, 電 “lightning, electricity”. This last, however, has been simplified to 电; it has lost its radical. Many people dislike simplifications of this type because they think that delinking characters from their radicals disrupts the system. I’ve chosen this example in part because this is a case in which one might argue that the principal current meaning is “electricity” and that this has so little relationship to “rain”, “snow”, and so forth that it is not a disadvantage and indeed is perhaps a virtue to dissociate it from the characters with the rain radical. In most cases, however, the semantic relationship persists and the semantic information provided by the radical is arguably useful to the reader.

> Another factor is that many Simplifications violate structural principles governing the well-formedness of Chinese characters. Here is the traditional form of “to study” 學. Its Simplified counterpart is 学. The simplified form has been standard in Japan since the reform of the writing system after the Second World War. I’ve never met anybody who objected to the Simplified form. It looks just fine. In fact, the traditional form is difficult to write without making it look topheavy, though I think it looks rather dignified in such contexts as the bronze plaques at the entrances to universities.

Via John B (the latest blog iteration).


Nov 2006

Medicine Ingredients = Pun Ingredients

Ever since I started doing my Chinese pun posts, I’ve been deluged with requests for more*. So today I am finally getting around to posting one that I’ve been seeing for something like a year in an ad on the subway:

> 药材好,药才好。

> Only good ingredients can make good medicine.

The pun is with the words (medicine), (an adverb meaning something like “only if”), and 药材 (medicinal ingredients). You have two three-character phrases with exactly the same character pronunciation, but the difference of one character in the two phrases (材 and 才, both read “cái”) gives the sentence clear meaning.

The two parts can’t be said to be entirely identical, because read naturally, there would definitely be different pauses in the first part and the second part. Still, the identical pronunciations still make it kind of charming.

* This is a total lie.

UPDATE: John B has provided a picture of the ad. Thanks, John B!


Weight Loss Pun
Weight Loss Pun #2


Sep 2006

Papers, New Classes, and Friends

Recent events:

– Saturday, Sept. 2, I stayed home and wrote a 4,000 character paper for a class.
– Sunday, Sept. 3, I stayed home and wrote a 4,000 character paper for another class.
– Monday and Tuesday nights, Sept. 4-5, I worked on a 3,000 character paper for still another class.
– Wednesday night, Sept. 6, Pepe helped me clean up my papers. Alf showed up.
– Thursday, Sept. 7, I turned in my three papers and attended my two new classes for the semester: Semantics and Pragmatics and Critical Discourse Analysis.
– Friday, Sept. 8, I went to meet Greg at the airport with Alf and John B.
– Saturday, Sept. 9, I went to meet my friend Nobuhiko at the airport.


– Procrastination is bad. I know this. Sort of.
– Not much beats seeing good friends again. Especially over hot pot and beer.
– A new semester is here already, and I still have a list of linguistic topics I meant to blog about over the summer. (Does anyone enjoy the linguisticky posts?)


Aug 2006

Chinese Style Snakes on a Plane

I watched the much “celebrated” Snakes on a Plane with John B and our wives last night. I picked up the DVD on the way over to his place. The DVD guy outside of the 好得 (AKA “All Days”) convenience store had it. Here’s what the cover looks like:


A very evil-looking Jackson on the pirated Snakes on a Plane DVD

Thanks to Matt at No-Sword I knew what to expect in terms of the movie’s Chinese title, but I certainly didn’t expect the French title, or this camcorder edition’s laughtrack (yes, a French laughtrack). Really, though, when you’re expecting ridiculous, I guess it only adds to the experience.

The main and secondary titles on this cover confirm two of the mainland Chinese titles that Matt dug up:

空中蛇灾 — “Midair snake disaster”
航班蛇患 — “Snake woes on a flight”


May 2006

Chinese Character Stroke Stats

Yet another blog has risen from the ashes over at JohnBiesnecker.com and yielded an interesting entry called Characters aren’t really that hard. (Read this entry before it’s gone, as John is quite the nihilistic blogger and all content is ephemeral.)

This time John has attacked the theory that Chinese is hard. The chief reason that full (or even half-ass) mastery of Chinese is difficult is those darned Chinese characters, so that’s the focus of John’s analysis.

He provides stroke count statistics for groups of the most commonly used Chinese characters. The result is somewhat heartening. Check it out.

This kind of statistical work has certainly been done before by Chinese scholars, but it’s not very easy information to find online. I made a half-hearted attempt and didn’t find it. (Yes, that’s a challenge to you readers to prove that you’re better than me.) Plus, John offers it in English.

What I did find was some software that could be interesting: 汉字经 and HanziStatics [sic] (汉字统计程序). If anyone has some free time to check those out, let me know what you think (Chinese ability almost certainly required).

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