personal


11

Jul 2010

Churchill and Hitler: Evil Supervillains?

Yesterday in the bookstore I noticed these two books, titled 丘吉尔 (Churchill) and 希特勒 (Hitler):

Churchill and Hitler

Now am I crazy, or do these two historical figures both look really evil, perhaps Churchill even more so than Hitler??

Apparently this was just a bad choice of photo (and color) in the cover design, though; if you click through to either Churchill’s or Hitler’s Amazon.cn pages, you see lots of other books in the series. Only Mussolini looks as evil as these two.

According to the introduction on Amazon, the book about Churchill is not an explanation of how he was actually Britain’s greatest supervillain. That’s a relief.


09

Jul 2010

Joris Ivens Week

I just got a tip from an AllSet Learning client that there will be some special screenings of the films of Joris Ivens at the Expo’s Dutch pavilion this weekend (July 9~10). So maybe after checking out the new Shanghai Apple Store we can go get a dose of real culture. (Wow, that sure sounded snobby. I own a Mac!)

Here is the description:

Joris Ivens

Joris Ivens

> During the weekend of 9 and 10 July at the World Expo in Shanhai, Joris Ivens will be honored in a true “Joris Ivens weekend.” On Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and evening 13 films by Joris Ivens are screened. The films are grouped around six themes: Introduction / Stories in China / Against Facism / Avant-garde / China / Poetry and Cinema. Mrs Loridan-Ivens and the European Foundation Joris Ivens will be present to introduce the films. The theatre space at the Dutch Culture Centre will also host a small exhibition of photographs of Joris Ivens and Mrs Marceline Loridan-Ivens.

> One of the films is The 400 Million (in 1938), showing Mr. Zhou-Enlai and Mr. Zu De [ed. Zhu De?] with music of The March of the Volunteers (which later became the National Anthem of the People’s Republic of China). Don’t miss the unique opportunity of viewing the Chinese culture and the turbulent 20th century through the camera of Ivens.

Sounds interesting. You can reserve tickets on the Joris Ivens site.


01

Jul 2010

Green Tea Sprite

Green Tea Sprite

Once upon a time I blogged about a short-lived beverage experiment known as Spicy Sprite, and before that, Mint Sprite. Recently someone called to my attention the new Green Tea Sprite. Being the long-time Sprite connoisseur that I am, I had to try it.

It tasted like Sprite, but only… (wait for it) …with green tea in it.

It wasn’t altogether bad, I guess. Not nearly as bad as Mint Sprite, anyway.

The Chinese name is 冰+茶味雪碧. I’m not sure exactly what that “+” in there is trying to prove.


28

Jun 2010

PHP Developer Wanted in Shanghai

This is just a quick post to say that I’m looking for a PHP developer in Shanghai for some project work. It’s one project, but it could lead to many.

(And no, this is not related to the WP plugin I’ve mentioned. Different project. This one pays in pink bills, but you need to be in Shanghai!)

Just send me an email if you’re interested.


17

Jun 2010

Chinese Restaurant Worldwide Documentation Project

I recently stumbled across this Flickr group called Chinese Restaurant Worldwide Documentation Project. It has this intriguing description:

> Chinese Restaurants – Worldwide, except China and Taiwan. Here you’ll find the culture ‘clash’ and culture ‘mash’ with all the societies they have adapted to.

Below are a few examples of photos from the group pool, taken at locations all over the world.

Genoa, Italy:

Santa Cruz, Bolivia:

Brooklyn, New York, USA:

Antwerp, Belgium:

Aguas Calientes, Peru:

Paphos, Cyprus:

Of course, there are many more in the pool.


15

Jun 2010

Quotes from Tales of Old Peking

It’s been a while since I got my copy of Tales of Old Peking. I’ve taken my time going through it. It’s a patient a book, its contents largely magazine-style, most articles only indirectly related to each other. A book like this doesn’t demand your attention or keep you frantically turning those pages until the end. But it’s still a fascinating collection of accounts of old Beijing, through the eyes of foreigners. Below are a few of the quotes I enjoyed the most:

On the City

Page 92:

> I visited Peking about thirty years ago. On my return I found it unchanged, except that it was thirty times dirtier, the smells thirty times more insufferable, and the roads thirty times worse for the wear. —Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, The Breakup of China, 1899

Page 14:

> … But in spite of so much that disgusts and offends one in this wreck of an imperial city, who can deny the charm of Peking, that unique and most fascinating city of the East! –Lady Susan Townley in My Chinese Note Book, 1904

Page 135:

> …if you have once lived in Peking, if you have ever stayed here long enough to fall under the charm and interest of this splendid barbaric capital, if you have once seen the temples and glorious monuments of Chili, all other parts of China seem dull and second rate… when you have seen the best there is, everything else is anticlimax. –Ellen N. LaMotte, Peking Dust, 1919

I may be a member of the Shanghai faction, but I’m not totally immune to the charms of Beijing either.

On Foreigners in China

Page 26:

> As I am here and watch, I do not wonder that the Chinese hate the foreigner. The foreigner is frequently severe and exacting in this Empire which is not his own. He often treats the Chinese as though they were dogs and had no rights whatever – no wonder that they growl and sometimes bite. —Sarah Pike Conger, Feb. 1, 1899

Page 72:

> He has been in Peking nearly four months now, in a comfortable Chinese house studying Chinese history, smoking opium in spite of the prohibition, and frequenting only the Chinese with whom he appears thoroughly at home. He is really very original. –D. de Martel & L. de Hover, Silhouettes of Peking, 1926

The more things change, the more they stay the same?


11

Jun 2010

Pinyin Tooltips: a Plugin Is Coming

Over the years, I’ve been asked by quite a few people about how I do the pinyin mouseover tooltips on Sinosplice. (Here’s an example: 中文.) It’s a combination of HTML, CSS, and javascript, none of it terribly complicated. (My friend Brad helped me with the javascript parts.)

Anyway, now that Sinosplice has been redesigned, it feels like it’s time to do the tooltips right: as a WordPress plugin. That way WordPress upgrades will be (mostly?) unaffected, and I can easily share the tool with other bloggers. I’m working with a developer now to create the plugin, free and opensource.

Basically what it will do is:

– Add the CSS you need, giving you a few options
– Add the javascript you need
– Add a quicktag to the HTML text editor to facilitate addition of tooltip code

The good part is that the effect is general enough that it doesn’t have to be pinyin-specific, meaning it could work for regular English blogs, blogs about Japanese, etc. I know there are a few WP tooltip plugins out there, but none of them offer quite what I want, as a blogger frequently writing about Chinese for learners.

I’ll be presenting the idea at Shanghai Barcamp tomorrow; maybe I’ll get some good ideas there. Good ideas are always welcome in the comments, too, of course!


08

Jun 2010

Barcamp, ShanghaiSolved

I’ve been especially busy with AllSet Learning lately. Lots of exciting developments there; pretty soon I’ll be starting up a news blog for that site. If you’re in Shanghai and interested, it’s a good time to get in touch.

Next Saturday I’ll be attending Shanghai Barcamp. I meant to do it these past two years, but never quite got around to it. Third time’s a charm, I guess? ChinesePod CEO Hank will be there, as well as Xindanwei CEO Liu Yan. I expect to see some other familiar faces, such as Micah and Kellen. Should be a thought-provoking, geeky day.

I noticed one of the sponsors of Barcamp this time is ShanghaiSolved. I’ve heard this idea before, and this implementation looks pretty good. Basically, some people ask questions about Shanghai, and other people answer them. Kinda like Ask Metafilter, or Yahoo Answers, or Aardvark, but just for Shanghai. I’m curious to see if this will take off. It’s got some questions up, about “must-see places” and rock climbing and VPNs, but there’s not a ton of activity yet. (Maybe it’s the picture of Haibao in the header that’s driving people away?)


Fetion Integrates SMS Text Messaging with the PC

10

May 2010

Fetion Integrates SMS Text Messaging with the PC

The idea of being able to send or receive cell phone text messages on a computer is not a new one, but this Chinese software called “Fetion” (飞信 in Chinese, literally, “flying letter”) is new to me. In a recent AllSet Learning teacher training session, we were discussing various types of technology for learning, including ChinesePod, Anki, and Skritter, when 飞信 came up (weird English name: “Fetion”).

For now, Fetion is PC only, although it also has mobile versions. Its “smartphone” version is aimed at Windows Mobile users, not Android or iPhone users. This all makes a lot of sense if Fetion is targeting a younger Chinese demographic rather than professionals.

Fetion mixes social networking properties with communications management properties. One of the benefits it boasts is the ability to store all of your text messages offline on your computer (which Google Voice is currently doing in the US, but in the cloud). Here are the features listed on the Fetion website’s 特性 page:

– A multi-platform system means you’re always reachable
– Free text messaging
– Super-cheap rates for group voice chat
– File-sharing
– Anti-harassment security functionality
– 24/7 customer service

I’ve got to say, this doesn’t seem especially impressive; this technology has been around for a while. It seems that Fetion has caught on with a sizable userbase, however. I’m curious how far it will go.

Have you used Fetion? What are your experiences with it? Is it useful? Do any of your Chinese friends use 飞信?


04

May 2010

Shanghai Sculpture Park is pretty awesome

OK, so its name isn’t terribly appealing, its logo is questionable, and it doesn’t even seem to have a website, but Shanghai Sculpture Park (上海月湖雕塑公园) impressed me. At a time when everyone else was heading to the Expo grounds, my wife and I, together with a few friends and our dogs, headed to the Sheshan (佘山) area outside Shanghai, where Shanghai Sculpture Park is located.

OK, so what is cool about this park? Here are some reasons I liked it:

1. You can take your dog. You actually have to buy a ticket for your dog (it’s 30 RMB), but there aren’t many places in Shanghai you can legally take your dog. Most people in the park seemed comfortable with dogs roaming around, and the whole place was quite clean (no doggy “land mines”). It seems to me this is “dog park” done right.

2. The place is huge. We stayed in a small area of the park, but it’s really quite big [map link]. I’m sure there were a lot of people there, but since they were so spread out, it didn’t seem crowded at all.

3. Giant bouncy hills! OK, this is a little hard to explain, and I’d never seen these anywhere before. But one of the attractions is this cross between a cluster of hills, an air-filled moonwalk, and a trampoline. It was a ton of fun. It was a great place for someone even as tall and goofy as me to attempt front flips, although I had to be sort of careful, because as badass as a flying trampoline head-butt is, I doubt it would be appreciated by the little 5-year-old tykes roaming around (or their parents). Pictures below.

Bouncy Hills

Bouncy Hills

Bouncy Hills

Does anyone know what these are called? I think I remember seeing the word “Fuma” on the sign, and this Chinese BBS thread uses the term 大型弹性球 (“giant bouncy sphere”). Anyway, I highly recommend it… the bouncing and the hills make for a really fun combination.

The park also has those things I once referred to as “hamster balls on water.” It looks like they used to have the spherical kind, but now they use a cylindrical kind. This appear to be a bit more stable, but honestly they look much less fun. Wasn’t the whole point that you couldn’t stay on your feet for longer than one second before you fell over thrashing and sent your ball splashing out across the water? The new cylindrical ones are also pictured in this Chinese BBS thread.

A few more things I should mention on the con side…

1. Shanghai Sculpure Park is a bit expensive. The normal price is 120 RMB per adult. Tickets were sold at a discount for 80 RMB each over the vacation. We spent over 300 RMB for a Chinese-style DIY BBQ lunch. On the pro side, though, the high price means it won’t be too crowded (unlike certain Expos I know).

2. The park closes at 5pm. Why so early?? I have no idea. It’s a bit of a bummer.

3. It’s all the way out in Sheshan. Yes, it’s somewhat far. It’s actually right next to the new Shanghai amusement park, Shanghai Happy Valley (欢乐谷). There’s just more space out there.

4. If you spend too long on the giant bouncy hills in your bare feet, you might just develop huge blisters on your toes. Yes, I can personally attest to the veracity of this statement. You really don’t want me to show you.

If you make it out to Shanghai Sculpture Park (上海月湖雕塑公园), let me know what you think.


30

Apr 2010

The Calm before the Expo

The Shanghai 2010 World Expo officially kicks off tomorrow. It would be an understatement to say that “Shanghai has been hyping the Expo a lot.” I’ve been taking pictures of various Haibao sightings and a few other Expo-related scenes over the past few months, but it’s finally all coming to a head.

For all the hype that’s been building up, though, there’s been at least as much cause for concern. I’m getting reports from multiple sources that the Expo is disorganized, that it’s a mess, that it’s chaotic, that it will take a miracle for it to not be a disaster. These latest Chinglish pictures don’t exactly inspire confidence that it will be a “world-class event.” Then again, the Chinese do have a way of pulling things off at the last minute. I don’t want the Expo to be an epic fail, but it could certainly happen.

Either way, it’s going to be interesting.


18

Apr 2010

The Wall Street Journal on Chinese Humor

I’ve been interested in Chinese humor for a while. Most recently, I’ve written about a few Chinese comics and Shanghainese stand-up comedian Zhou Libo. So I was quite interested in the Wall Street Journal’s take, which is initially about Chinese comedian Joe Wong. Apparently Joe Wong’s comedy works in the U.S. but not in China. It’s not your typical cross-cultural story.

This is the part which caught my attention (emphasis mine):

> Younger audiences are starting to warm to the stand-up style, with a Chinese twist. There are footnotes: after the punch line comes an explanation of why it’s funny.

> In Shanghai, Zhou Libo’s stand-up show has become a top event. His repertoire spans global warming, growing up poor and, that perennial crowd-pleaser, China’s emergence as a global economic power.

> He jokes about China’s massive purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds: “I am really confused about why a poor guy lends money to the rich. We should just divide the money amongst ourselves,” he says. “But on a second thought, each of us would only get a couple of dollars!” Then Mr. Zhou adds: “Because the population is so big.”

This is one of the observations I made in 2004 in a post titled When Humor Runs Aground, in which I give an example of a Chinese joke, with the punchline and also the “post-punchline explanation.”

I’d be interesting in seeing more examples of this “post-punchline explanation.” From a sociolinguistic perspective, I wonder how universal it is, and if it follows certain rules. More examples are welcome!


16

Apr 2010

Gag Chinese Documents (very official-looking!)

I was quite amused to stumble upon a whole array of fake (but humorous) Chinese documents last weekend. The documents adopt the official style of Chinese 证书 (official documents), but the names are a lot more fun. Here are the three I bought (for 5 RMB each):

Three Gag Certificates

The three types of documents above, left to right, are:

美女证 (Babe Certificate); “PLMM” stands for “漂亮妹妹” (pretty girl)
帅哥证 (Cute Guy Certificate)
白痴证 (Moron Certificate); “SB” stands for “傻屄” which I’ll politely translate as “dumbass”

There were at least 10 different types, including things like “World’s Best Mom,” “World’s Best Dad,” “Certified Genius,” “Certified Virgin,” etc.

The insides even look official, with space for a photo:

白痴证: Inside

For comparison purposes, here are some real Chinese certificates, collected from the internet:

Chinese Official Documents

I can’t imagine the government will be particularly happy about these things, especially with the Expo looming. I wouldn’t be surprised if these became scarce really quickly (especially in Shanghai).

Looks like my Flickr photos aren’t showing up for the time being; you can thank the GFW for that. The photos are viewable via proxy.


13

Apr 2010

An American Master’s in Education, in Shanghai

Following a post entitled Why China for Grad School?, I interviewed Zachary Franklin about his half-English, half-Chinese economics master’s program. This time I interview Micah Sittig, who is earning a master’s in education through a quite different program in Shanghai.


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

Micah: I’m working toward a Master’s in Education from the University of Oklahoma (OU). I’ve been teaching math and science in the English division of a private school on the outskirts of Shanghai for four years now, and this is the first time that the school has teamed up with a university to offer this kind of opportunity. Naturally I jumped at the chance because it means being able to stay in China and earn what I feel is a US-quality advanced degree.

John: What kind of program is it? Is it meant for foreigners?

Micah: It’s an intensive, two-year master’s offered by the University of Oklahoma. The College of Education sends professors to Shanghai during vacations for one week of class, 62 hours total, including a practicum that we’re just finishing now. It’s a general Master’s in Education that is meant for teachers from preschool up through high school, and includes courses like Intro to Teaching and Learning, Educational Psychology, Theory and Research in Education, and Instructional Technology. Enrollment was not limited to foreigners, but only 3 out of 15 students are native Chinese, probably because the entire program is being conducted in English. I suspect that some of the professors were mentally prepared to teach a majority Chinese class, but that doesn’t mean they lowered the pace or difficulty of the material.

John: In terms of course content and professors, how does your program compare to comparable programs in the States?

Micah: In theory the content is offered at the same level as it was in the United States. Some professors have tried to get our input from a Chinese perspective, but the majority of the students are from the US or other nationalities, and the Chinese students either don’t participate much in discussions or have a hard time bridging the cultural gap with the professors. The Tech Ed class also had a heavily modified syllabus since many online tools aren’t available in China; thanks a lot, GFW! The professors are what you’d expect anywhere—some good, some bad—but overall I’ve been very happy with the caliber of the instructors and the level of instruction.

John: Education in China has long been the focus of various debates. Has Chinese-style education impacted the content of your program?

Micah: Due to the nature of the program, it hasn’t been impacted by Chinese-style education. However, my wife Jodi is concurrently studying for a second undergrad degree in early childhood education at ECNU and what has been interesting is comparing the teaching style and content in courses or topics that we’ve both studied. Jodi’s classes, of which I’ve been able to sit in on a couple, place a much greater emphasis on content than on practice. One particularly bad teacher would just spend the lecture talking through the text and pointing out facts or passages that test questions would be taken from; it was a textbook case of teaching to the test. Add to that the Chinese reverence for (their 5000 years of) history and you have a lot of content to cover. On the other hand, I felt like my program emphasizes practice over content, sometimes to a fault. In some classes the professors spend a lot of time talking about how we feel and what we do in our classrooms, and neglect to give us a framework on which to organize our ideas. As you might expect, the teacher with the most organized notes and Powerpoints was the one prof of Korean heritage.

John: Can you share any information with readers interested in the program?

Micah: The first OU cohort will be graduating this summer and a second cohort is being considered that would start classes early next year. Please contact me if you are interested in joining the next cohort or just want more details, and I will put you in touch with the program coordinator at my school. [SEE UPDATE BELOW]


Micah’s website has his contact information, as well as links to his blog and his Twitter account.


July 16, 2018 Update

Micah has written to let me know that this program through Oklahoma University is no longer being offered in Shanghai, but he recommends the following programs as alternatives for international educators looking to upgrade their skills or become certified in the US:


08

Apr 2010

Xindanwei Chit-Chat Event #1

Tomorrow, Friday April 9th, at 4:30pm Xindanwei is having a “Chit-Chat.” It’ll be a mix of Chinese and foreigners, and the guest speaker is Andrea Pan, AKA @popoever, who will be talking about social media (quite possibly mostly in Chinese). Admission is free.

I’ve invited a few Shanghai blogger friends already. It’ll be a good chance to meet up and chat in a relaxed setting, and to check out Xindanwei, the co-working community where my new business AllSet Learning is also based.


01

Apr 2010

Google Strikes Back with New Firewall Software

A friend of mine works at Google headquarters in Shanghai. He said Google Shanghai has been working on a new type of firewall software for a long time, uncertain of the correct time to release it. He shared with me this screenshot from Google, however:

Google Firewall screenshot

Apparently the software has two forms: a Gmail plugin to keep your account secure from Chinese hackers (AKA the “human rights activist version”), and a desktop application which filters out requests to or from Chinese IP addresses (especially Shaoxing).

It will be interesting to see if Google actually releases this “GFW” software. (I’m guessing if they do, they’ll redesign that ugly logo…)

I’ve closed comments for this post because I promised to protect my Google friend’s anonymity and the comments are a bit of a risk.


April 2 Update: OK, the joke is over and comments are now open. This was my April Fool’s Day hoax. It was fairly obvious if you looked at the full size image (or compare to this page), but it appears most people did not. Anyway, now I will return to being fully serious about the Google issue, because I seriously don’t want Google to be completely cut off from China!


28

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.


23

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.


12

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.


07

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:

chess

> 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



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