The past two weeks, I’ve had occasion to visit two different hospitals in Shanghai. Both were large, public hospitals that served a huge volume of patients every day. I came away from both feeling that Chinese train stations and Chinese hospitals are very similar.
– Both serve huge numbers of people
– Both contain a wide cross-section of society
– Both involve a lot of helpless waiting and nerve-wracking purchases
– Both offer VIP options which offer English-language services and a quieter, more private atmosphere
– Both leave you with a sense of wonder and hopelessness at the magnitude of the problems heaped on a government which has to provide for 1.3 billion people.
(I can also totally understand why many of the doctors and nurses had attitudes scarcely better than train station ticket vendors.)
I haven’t been blogging much lately because I’ve been looking for a new web host in my spare time. I’ve been with DreamHost for years, but recently their service has become unforgivably bad.
My main complaints are:
My site was hacked while at DreamHost once. (One time is forgivable)
My site was later hacked again, which was probably due to outdated web app installations (and not the previous hack). But DreamHost proved amazingly unhelpful in shutting out the hacker. I thought I had shut him out once, but I was wrong. The best solution in this case, then, is to back everything up, make sure it’s all clean, then wipe the original installations and start anew. But if I’m going to do all that, I might as well move to a new host that offers better service and better security.
Last weekend my site was down for three days, and DreamHost support never replied to any of my tech requests. I eventually got the attention of a tech support person via live chat, and that person let me know that the security team had actually just moved my site to a different location on the server. Moving it back was trivial. They did it because DreamHost’s WordPress automatic upgrade script creates a backup of the old install (good), but it has a bug which places that directory in a predictable, public location, leaving previous versions’ security exploits online and vulnerable to attack (bad). I was a victim of this bug when I upgraded my WordPress installs, so DreamHost pro-actively (for once) took security measures by moving my entire site’s public directory. They just never told me, and refused to answer my questions. Amazing.
I understand what’s going on here. Basically, I’m the victim of the 80/20 rule. I’m one of those demanding customers who runs multiple sites, and has special needs. It makes a lot more sense for the business to focus on the “easy” customers who have one website that consists entirely of a WordPress install. (Never mind that I’ve brought in lots of referrals over the years, which means more business.)
Anyway, I’ll soon be moving on to a host that still cares more about customer service, and that will be happy to meet my needs. I think I’ve found a good one, but if you have any suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them.
(Incidentally, the first one I tried was Media Temple. The server they randomly assigned me was blocked in China, and when I asked to be switched to a server not blocked in China, the support staff promptly directed me to the refund page. Unbelievable.)
2016 Update: I later switched to WebFaction, and have been very satisfied for years. I recommend it!
I just recently had the pleasure of trying out the beta version of the new Pleco iPhone app. In case you’re not aware, Pleco is the software company behind what is regarded as the best electronic learner’s Chinese dictionary for any mobile device (and possibly the desktop as well). Given the dearth of really good Chinese dictionaries for the iPhone, Chinese learners have been eagerly awaiting the release of this iPhone app for quite some time. The wait has not been in vain; Pleco for iPhone is an outstanding app.
The Video Demo
Michael Love, Pleco founder, has made a two-part video of the new Pleco iPhone app:
I’ve never owned a device running Windows Mobile or Palm OS, so I’ve never been able to own Pleco before, but I’m familiar enough with previous versions to make basic comparisons.
The Pleco user interface received a much-needed makeover for the iPhone. While older versions of Pleco squeezed a plethora of buttons and options onto the screen (you have your stylus, after all), this iPhone Pleco had to find ways to increase buttons to tappable sizes and limit button clutter by hiding options on screens where you don’t need them all. Compare (Windows Mobile on the left, iPhone on the right):
I just learned recently that in mainland China there’s a whole business centered on getting pregnant women into Hong Kong to give birth so that the babies get extra Hong Kong citizenship privileges. This trend has been dubbed “maternity tourism.” Surreal.
Of course, there’s also a backlash. But anyway, the reasons to do it:
> Giving birth in Hong Kong not only guarantees them world-class health care but in many cases secures citizenship in the city of 7 million for children who would otherwise be entitled only to a Chinese passport.
> Hong Kong citizenship entitles the children to free education, health care and other benefits throughout their life, the equivalent of a lottery win for children from poor families in southern China.
I understand that Hong Kong citizenship means a much easier time getting visas to other parts of the world. What wouldn’t a parent do for her baby’s future, huh?
I’m a bit of a sucker for Venn diagrams. When I was recently asked by a student about the Chinese modal verbs 会, 能, and 可以 (all of which can be translated into English as “can”), I recalled a nice Venn diagram on the topic and dug it up.
What creates the most confusion with these three modal verbs is not that they can all be translated into “can” in English. The problem is that they are usually explained over-simplistically something like this:
> 会: know how to
> 能: be able to
> 可以: have permission to
This is not a bad start, but this sort of definition is eventually revealed as insufficient to the learner because in usage, the three modal verbs actually overlap. Enter the Venn diagram. The image below is a reconstruction of the one on page 95 of Tian Shou-he’s A Guide to Proper Usage of Spoken Chinese:
> A = ability in the sense of “know how to” (“会” is more common than “能“)
Oh, and by the way, in this instance, Google Wave wins, 65% to 35%, making it part of an exclusive club of things harder to understand than Google Wave, which also includes “women, Scientology, the United States Tax code, Chinese telegraph code, Microsoft Visio 2004, and Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.”
During our recent trip to Beijing, conversation naturally turned to comparisons of Shanghai and Beijing. I don’t want to rehash that tired topic (again) here, but there were three particular anecdotes told by Chinese friends which I found amusing. All involved interactions with the locals in which the storytellers’ values clashed with the locals’.
I’ve recreated them below, in spirit, at least, and translated them to English, but I’m not revealing the cities. See if you can identify the city from the story.
> I wanted to take the bus to the nearest supermarket, so I asked a middle-aged person on the street. The conversation went something like this:
> Me: Excuse me, which bus can I take to the supermarket?
> Man: Bus? What do you want to take a bus for? It’s not that far, and you’re young! Just walk. The weather is great. Go straight up that way 5 blocks, then turn left.
> Me: Thanks, but I’d like to take a bus, so…
> Man: I’m telling you, it’s a great walk! You don’t need a bus! Just walk up that way 5 blocks…
> I wanted to buy a bottle of water in a small store.
> Me: I’ll just take this bottle of water. All I have is a 50.
> Shopkeeper: I can’t change a 50.
> Me: Well, I don’t have change, so…
> Shopkeeper: I told you, I can’t change a 50. Come back when you have change.
> I needed to buy a lighter, so I sought out a nearby convenience store.
> Me: I’d like to buy a lighter, please.
> Cashier: A lighter? You don’t want to buy that here.
> Me: What do you mean?
> Cashier: Lighters are way cheaper at the shop down the street. You save 2 RMB!
> Me: Thanks, but I’d like to just buy one here, so….
> Cashier: I’m telling you, they’re cheaper down the street! You don’t want to throw money away, do you??
My wife and I spent most of our time on Bei Luogu Xiang (北锣鼓巷) or Nan Luogu Xiang (南锣鼓巷). We stayed in a nice little 四合院 hotel in the area called 吉庆堂. Thanks to Brendan, we ended up at a bar called Amilal both nights, which was a pleasant 20-minute walk from our hotel.
We had a good time, and my Shanghainese wife is liking Beijing more every time we go.
You may have heard of Sa Dingding before. Shanghaiist wrote about her a long time ago, and fans of “world music” will have known about her for quite some time. As I understand it, she’s only recently been catching on in China in a big way, which is how I was introduced to her music by a Chinese friend.
> Sa Dingding is a singer and musician born in Inner Mongolia. She sings in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Lagu, and Mandarin, and also in a self-created language. She plays several instruments, including the zheng, the Chinese drum, Chinese gong, and horse-head fiddle. Inspirations include Buddhism and Dyana Yoga.
You can see why Sa Dingding is an artist that might appeal to linguists! Her unique style is a great example of Chinese creativity, as well.
Her most popular song is 《万物生》 (Alive in English). Here it is in Mandarin [Youku video]:
And here is 《万物生》 in Sanskrit:
If you’re in China, all of Sa Dingding’s music is available for free online from Google.cn music: 萨顶顶 (if only Google would properly ID3tag it!).
You’ll also note that most sources write Sa Dingding’s name as “Sa Ding Ding.” I find this interesting. You don’t write “Deng Xiao Ping” or “Zhang Zi Yi.” The surname is capitalized, and the given name is written as one word, also capitalized. Do people feel that a given name with a reduplicated character must be written so that each syllable is also exactly duplicated?
In case it’s not immediately obvious, here’s the focal point of the piece:
> So-called transracial adoptions have surged since 1994, when the Multiethnic Placement Act reversed decades of outright racial matching by banning discrimination against adoptive families on the basis of race. But the growth has been all one-sided. The number of white families adopting outside their race is growing and is now in the thousands, while cases like Katie’s—of a black family adopting a nonblack child—remain frozen at near zero.
> Decades after the racial integration of offices, buses and water fountains, persistent double standards mean that African-American parents are still largely viewed with unease as caretakers of any children other than their own—or those they are paid to look after. As Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson has asked: “Why is it that in the United States, a white woman can have black children but a black woman cannot have white children?”
This article made me think back to the time I saw a big group of foreigners at the Shanghai Pudong airport, each couple carrying a precious newly adopted Chinese baby, getting ready to fly back home. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but now I do realize that all of them were white.
So this does make me wonder… Would a black couple have trouble adopting a Chinese baby in China?
We live in a world of fascinating, interactive web services, but unfortunately, those of us in China are cut off from some of the leading websites. Most conspicuous among these are YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. None of these websites are currently accessible in China, cut off by the Great Firewall (GFW) of China. Twitter and Facebook, most notably, have APIs, which enable other software, web services, and mobile phone apps to connect to and interact with them. But since all of these uses of the API make direct calls to Twitter or Facebook’s servers, none of these work in China either.
Working with Reign Design recently on OpenLanguage, I happened to browse Reign Design’s blog and came across this entry: Posting to Twitter via SMS in China. This interested me because I used to enjoy the convenience of posting to Twitter via SMS, and it’s a way to circumvent the GFW. I stopped because Twitter quit offering local numbers, and international SMSes are a bit expensive just for a tweet.
Anyway, I read the article, and the PHP script looked simple enough, so I headed over to Fanfou, where I already had a seldom-used account. I was surprised to discover, though, that Fanfou is gone. Nothing but a smoking crater where there used to be a lively community. Considering some recent events in China and the immediate, individual-empowering nature of microblogging, it’s not hard to imagine what happened.
With that option closed to me, I decided to check out the other big Chinese microblogging service I was familiar with, Zuosa (做啥). I really liked Zuosa, where I found a lot of advanced features that even Twitter has held back on. Then I went into settings, where I saw the familiar Twitter “t” next to the 同步到微博客 (“Sync to microblogs”) section.
When I clicked on that section, and then on the Twitter “t,” I got this message:
The message says:
> 抱歉，该服务不可用；你可以通过 zuosa->buboo.tw->twitter 实现同步！
> We’re sorry, this service is not available. You can go through zuosa -> buboo.tw -> twitter to accomplish the sync!
So I set up an account on Buboo.tw (ah, traditional characters!), easily synced that with Twitter, then synced my Zuosa account with Buboo. And hey… it works (1, 2, 3)! A tweet on Zuosa appears on Twitter in seconds. And since I synced my Twitter account to Facebook long ago, Facebook is actually at the end of the tweetchain: Zuosa -> Buboo.tw -> Twitter -> Facebook.
I haven’t tested SMS tweeting yet. One of the disadvantages of this method is that you can’t not post “downstream.” So for now, I can’t post only to Zuosa without posting to the other three, or post to Buboo without posting to Twitter and Facebook, unless I turn off the sync.
Anyway, I thought this was pretty cool… all made possible through international open APIs.
I got the Google Pinyin input working for my HTC Hero Android phone. It turned out to be quite simple. The only two things holding me back were (1) a bad install of Google Pinyin, and (2) lack of proper documentation for switching input methods.
When I first got the phone, it already had Google Pinyin installed, but apparently it was an old version that didn’t work properly. I had to uninstall it and reinstall it. To uninstall, go to: Settings > Applications > Manage Applications, and uninstall it from there. The applications may take a while to all load, but Google Pinyin, if installed, should be at the very bottom, listed by its Chinese name, 谷歌拼音输入法. Select it to uninstall it.
After you’ve got the latest version of Google Pinyin from the Android market installed, go to Settings > Locale & text, and make sure that you have Google Pinyin activated. (I turned off Touch Input Chinese because it didn’t seem to work.)
From the menu above, you can also turn on predictive input (联想输入, literally, “associative input”) and sync (同步) your custom words with your Google account. (For some reason this is not automatically synced like the rest of your Google account services are.)
One you’ve got Google Pinyin installed and turned on, you’re ready to type something. For my demo, I went into my SMS messages and opened up one of the recent ones from China Merchant Bank. To switch input modes, you tap and hold the textbox. A menu will pop up, and you choose “Select input method.” Then choose “谷歌拼音输入法.”
Now you’ve got the Google Pinyin soft keyboard. Start typing, and characters will appear. As you can see from my example below, it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good most of the time. You also have an extra keyboard of symbols in addition to punctuation, which is nice.
I have to say, it’s a bit annoying to have to go through a three-step process every time to change the input method. I could do it with one keypress on the iPhone, but that’s only if I have only one alternate input method installed. As Brendan has pointed out, it could be quite a few extra keypresses depending on how many input methods you have installed. For the time being, on the Hero, it’s always three keypresses.
Anyway, hopefully this helps a few other people figure out how to get Google Pinyin working on an HTC Hero.
On Thursday I went with coworkers Hank and Jenny to get an HTC Hero. Jenny’s Taobao research had revealed lots of vendors advertising the new Google Android smartphone, but with fluctuating prices and changes in stock. (The phone has not officially hit the Chinese market yet, so these are all unofficial imports, or 水货 in Chinese.) Anyway, we finally settled on a vendor near Shanghai Train Station.
When we found the shop on the sixth floor, Jenny also noticed that there were other shops selling the phone at competitive prices. We stuck to our original guy, though. His price was 3800 RMB, without SD card or GPS software installed. He was selling all sizes of SD cards, recommending the 8 GB one for 200 RMB. Hank and I both wanted the 16 GB card, which sold for 360 RMB. It was kind of funny… the vendor tried to talk us out of it, saying everyone gets 8 GB, and there’s no need for more than that. We both got the 16 GB (partly, I suspect, because we both had 8 GB iPhones).
The phone was evidently imported from Eastern Europe. The “Locale and Text” options included options like “Čeština (Česká republika)” and “Polski (Polska)” and “Polski (Węgry)”. The most appealing options for me, as an English speaker, were “English (Romania),” “English (Slovakia),” and the like.
The interface of the HTC Hero, when presented by the vendor, was entirely in Chinese. It looked great, but I wanted to try the smartphone out in English first, so I went to the “Locale and Text” setting and chose “English (Poland).” What I didn’t notice at the time was that Chinese was not an option in that menu. Once I changed away from Chinese, I couldn’t change back! In addition, once out of Chinese interface mode, you don’t have access to Chinese input. You can install Google Pinyin IME on the phone (awesome!), but there’s no way to actually access it when you type because it doesn’t appear in the input select menu like you’d expect.
This is a short-term issue; the phone clearly does have built-in support for Asian languages, and HTC is a Taiwanese company, after all. For now, I can receive Chinese SMS text messages just fine, I just can’t write them. I’m confident I can resolve this issue, either with or without the vendor’s help, but it’s one of the hassles of a buying a version of a product that wasn’t meant for your region and its special needs. Chinese vendors will likely solve this problem soon, but the Hero is still a very new arrival.
When I figure out how to add Chinese input to the Hero (and it’s gotta be Google Pinyin input!), I’ll post an update. [Update: I have figured it out and written a blog post calledGoogle Pinyin for the HTC Hero.]
One of the things I love about living in China is that I just keep on discovering bizarre things. I thought I had already seen pretty much all the “alien” fruits China had to offer, and then recently a co-worker brought some “姑娘” back from China’s northeast. Apparently these are called physalis in English. (How did I miss them all this time??) Anyway, bizarre, and kinda good!
> The typical Physalis fruit is similar to a firm tomato (in texture), and like strawberries or other fruit in flavor; they have a mild, refreshing acidity. The flavor of the Cape Gooseberry (P. peruviana) is a unique tomato/pineapple-like blend. Physalis fruit have around 53 kcal for 100 grams , and are rich in cryptoxanthin.
Here are some photos from Flickr, all taken by their respective owners:
Unfortunately, none of the photos I was able to find on Flickr included a picture of what the inside of the fruit looks like. I attempted a photo at night with my iPhone, and it didn’t turn out great, but you get the basic idea:
The seeds kind of reminded me of green pepper seeds, but smaller. Here’s a Chinese article with more pictures and info in Chinese.
> Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.
> I hope that my system gives a context, even for non-visual learners, for distinguishing between the four tones in Mandarin and providing a mnemonic system to help them remember which tone goes with a particular word.
From the moment I first heard of this idea, I was intrigued by it. Associating tones with colors does open up a lot of possibilities. Once the system is internalized, you can drop tone marks and tone numbers altogether, and you can tone-code the Chinese characters themselves using color. (The best non-color approximation to this would be writing the tone marks above the characters, which you will find in some textbooks and programs.) So I was very receptive to this idea.
Despite being very open to the concept, when I saw the actual colors chosen to represent each tone, they just felt wrong to me. The pairings Dummitt chose were:
Why would these colors feel wrong to me? How could the tone-color associations be anything but arbitrary?
The reason that the colors felt wrong to me was that I had already thought about the relationships between the tones and my own perceptions of those tones. I had even (briefly) considered color when I sketched my “Perceptual Tone Contours” idea:
Specifically, I felt that first and fourth tone feel similar, and that second and third tone feel similar. I believe that perceived similarity is strong enough that it affects both listening comprehension and production. This is why I purposely colored first and fourth tone red in my diagram, and second and third tone blue.
An Alternate Color Scheme
OK, so now we’re getting down to the point of my post. As a thought exercise I asked myself: If I had to assign colors to the four tones, which colors would I use?
In answering this question, one has to believe that there are underlying principles which, when followed, might produce better results. Otherwise, arbitrary assignment is fine. So what are the principles? I have two:
1. The colors need to have a high degree of contrast so that they will stand out on a white background and not be confused with each other.
2. The colors chosen need to reflect the appropriate perceptual similarities.
There are other considerations you might take into account if you want to be super-thorough, of course. From an Amazon reviewer of Dummitt’s book:
> If a person was going to design a color code tone system they would probably want to avoid using red and green in the same color scheme. Red – green color blindness causes an inability to discriminate differences in red and green. Hence the testing when you get your driver’s license. 5 to 8 percent of males have this color blindness.
> Using red and orange in the same scheme is also not very bright. Much language learning is done on buses, trains, planes and their attendant stations. Lighting is sub-optimal in all these situations and much worse in China. Low light intensity impairs the ability to discriminate red from orange.
These points have some merit, I suppose, but I’m not sure what colors they leave. I’m sticking to the two principles I listed above. I don’t see how you’re going to avoid either red or orange altogether if you need easily distinguishable, high-contrast colors.
Regarding the principle of high contrast, I can’t disagree with Dummitt’s choices. You can’t choose yellow, and the ones he chose are easy to distinguish quickly.
As for perceptual similarities, I would reflect these similarities by grouping the four tones into two warm and two cool colors. In my Chinese studies over the years, I have often associated fourth tone with aggression or anger, both concepts which I would associate with the color red. Red = fourth tone is the strongest association I have, but from there, all the others fall into place. You can’t use yellow (poor contrast), so orange is your other warm color, going to first tone. My diagram has fourth tone and second tone diametrically opposed (falling versus rising), and green is directly opposite red on the color wheel, so I would go with green for second tone. That makes third tone blue.
It was a great trip to the States. I had been bracing myself for wacky cross-cultural antics, but nothing particularly noteworthy transpired. I didn’t have many surprises of my own, either. Rather, this time I enjoyed seeing my country through my the eyes of my in-laws.
Here are a few little notes:
– My father-in-law cooked himself a waffle at the hotel breakfast buffet and then ate it with salt and pepper, lamenting that there was no hot sauce.
– On the very first day in Tampa, I woke up to my Chinese family all watching TV. Curious what show they had been sucked into, I was amused to discover that it was Jerry Springer. “Why are these people so angry?” they wanted to know.
– When there’s no common language, gestures can be quite misleading. Trying to communicate, “I’m full and it was a great meal, but I need a toothpick” can somehow become, “I have heartburn and I need medication immediately.”
– My in-laws exclaimed at how crisp and sweet fresh American corn is. I was horrified to learn they preferred it mushy and/or chewy.
– American food comes in enormous quantities, and is frequently way too sweet. (My wife demanded to know why American cake always has so much frosting… which she weirdly calls 奶油, a word which more commonly means “cream.”)
– No one would go on the Montu at Busch Gardens with me except for my mother-in-law. That was pretty awesome.
– My father-in-law, who thought he could eat spicy food, has a newfound respect for Mexican chilies, courtesy of a dish called camarones a la diabla, from Del Valle on Fowler Avenue, Tampa (best Mexican food I’ve had outside of Mexico!).
– In the absence of a gas range, an electric wok is pretty all right for home-cooked Chinese food.
– My in-laws were impressed that total strangers kept greeting them everywhere they went. The friendliness of strangers was something they felt they could really get used to.
– No one took much notice of how fat Americans are.
In China and Japan, it’s common to see company names printed in Chinese characters on the sides of buses and vans. Unlike English, which is always written left to right, these names frequently appear left to right on the left side of the car (running from the front end of the vehicle to the back), but right to left on the other side of the car (still running from the front end of the vehicle to the back).
I’d like to show a few normal examples of this, but I’ve found them surprisingly hard to find online. (Anyone have some examples?) It makes me suspect that photographers consciously avoid photographing the right side of a vehicle in which characters are printed right to left, simply because left to right is much more natural nowadays if there is a choice of orientation. Even so, I didn’t expect photos of the phenomenon to be hard to find.
Here’s an example of that practice where the company website is also included on the side of the van. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but this doesn’t seem like such a good idea to print the URL right to left.
In normal orientation, the characters on the van read:
I’ve spent the last few weeks reexamining my priorities and trying to free up a bit more time to do the things I enjoy most. Work remains both rewarding and demanding, but progressing in piano and continuing to work on Sinosplice are important to me. So far in July, however, I’ve needed to spend a lot of my free time just trip planning.
I’m preparing to go back to the U.S. this weekend for a two-week visit, and I’m taking with me not only my wife, but also my in-laws. My mother-in-law has never left China. Oh, and we’ll be attending my little sister’s wedding. It’s going to be an interesting little cultural affair.
Also, at already over a year since graduation, I’ve finally started putting my master’s thesis online. Now that all the pain of the actual writing is nearly forgotten, I’m starting to recall more clearly that my topic was, in fact, pretty damned interesting. It deserves a few posts.
First, though, it’s time for a visit to Obama’s America. I’m looking forward to it.
I wasn’t planning on writing anything about Michael Jackson’s passing, but when it came up again and again and again in my conversations with Chinese friends, I was forced to acknowledge something: although the average American pop star goes largely unknown in China, Michael Jackson really mattered to China. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting the reaction which his death provoked — the text messages, the email tribute forwards, the many conversations. What made this pop star so important in China’s eyes?
Michael Jackson (迈克尔杰克逊) rose to stardom as a solo artist around the same time post-Mao China was starting to get re-acquainted with the world outside. He was a singer that young and old alike (both then and now) knew, across China. You’d be hard-pressed to find a foreign star of that magnitude now.
It’s never easy to predict how one country’s stars will fair in foreign markets (David Hasselhoff in Germany?), and the Chinese market can be tricky. Something about Michael Jackson, though, hit all the right notes in China. I do wonder what, exactly, it was.