personal


16

Jan 2010

Streaming Netflix Movies on a PS3 in China (FAIL)

I got a PS3 late last year, and soon after Netflix announced a new feature: the ability to stream unlimited movies on the PS3 for only $8.99/month.

This got me thinking… even if you only pay 5 RMB per pirated DVD in China, it only takes about 12 movies per month to hit the equivalent of $8.99. I know many people here who watch far in excess of 12 DVDs per month, and they rarely ever watch the same DVD again, leading to piles and piles of unwanted DVDs, and just tons of DVD waste in general. And this Netflix plan is actually a legal alternative.

The way it works is you sign up online (yes, with a credit card), and then they immediately mail the Netflix PS3 disc (required for streaming) to your US address. Your two-week free trial starts at the same time.

There’s not really time to receive the disc in the States, and then ship it to China and still have time to enjoy the free trial. The people at Netflix are very nice and accommodating, however. So I had my dad mail the Netflix disc to me in China, then called up Netflix’s toll-free number (a free international call using Skype). I explained that I had received the disc, but hadn’t been able to try it yet (they can verify this), so the free trial had expired. Could I have another free trial? Oh, and by the way… I’m in China.

The customer service representative was happy to help me out, but let me know she wasn’t sure if it would work in China. Netflix is working on offering the streaming service internationally, but the movie studios are holding it up. I was hoping that Netflix was depending on very few people going to the trouble of shipping a disc to a US address and then re-mailing it to another country.

Anyway, after I inserted the Netflix PS3 disc, there was a rather long wait (2 minutes?) before the screen came up with the verification code. My customer service representative used that to reactivate my free trial. I could then browse all movies through the PS3 interface. I was told to try playing one. That’s where I got this message:

FAIL!

So Netflix is quite thorough in their streaming setup, it would seem. I’m disappointed; I was hoping Netflix could give me a (almost) legal alternative to buying pirated DVDs in China, and at a competitive price point. I would definitely pay Netflix a monthly fee for this service because:

1. It reduces waste
2. It rewards the creators of the films and the legitimate distributors
3. It’s super convenient and competitively priced

For now, the best similar alternative is very illegal: download movies to one’s home computer via bittorrent, then stream them to the PS3/TV across the network using PS3 Media Server.

What Netflix is doing really gives me hope that a legal, economically feasible alternative is on the way, though.


14

Jan 2010

Worry about the Internet in China

If you’re not in China, it may be hard to imagine the extent of the worry caused by Google’s recent announcement that it may just pack up and leave China. Sure, you can analyze the political and financial angles, but for most of us, this recent news forces our minds to leap straight to the worst-case scenario that will affect us personally: what if all Google services get blocked in China?

Many (including this Chinese language summary of the situation) are concluding that using a VPN might just have to become an essential “always-on” part of using the Internet in China. My fear is that if that day comes and VPN usage becomes so widespread, it might not be long before that method too is struck down by new GFW technology. I’m really afraid of being stuck in that information void.

It’s not just about one big company operating in China. It’s about how in recent years, various internet services have made us feel much more connected to our loved ones half a world away. It’s about how the internet is becoming such an integral part of our lives, through email, through IM, through social services, through smartphones… and wanting to be a part of that progress. No company is more key to that progress than Google.

A Chinese friend of mine recently admitted to me what I didn’t want to say myself: “if they go so far as to block all Google services in China, I don’t even want to stay here anymore.

This is how deep the worry runs for many of us.


If you’re not up on the situation, I recommend these articles:

Google and China: superpower standoff (a good blog post roundup on the Guardian)
Earth-shattering news and a faked interview (Danwei’s angle)
Google’s China Stance: More about Business than Thwarting Evil (TechCrunch)
Soul Searching: Google’s position on China might be many things, but moral it is not (TechCrunch)
Google v. Baidu: It’s Not Just about China (TechCrunch)
The impact of Google’s bold move


12

Jan 2010

Cosmetic Surgery Culture

ChinesePod co-worker Jenny had occasion to visit the plastic surgeon’s office recently, and she took away some interesting (although not terribly surprising) insights:

> 1. Most popular form of plastic surgery in China: an even divide between all-time favorite double eyelid operation (双眼皮/shuang1yan3pi2) and new comer face-slimming injection (瘦脸针/shou4lian3zhen1).(Note, many Asians are born with single eye lid, but double eye lids are considered beautiful. We are also obsessed with a small face. My take is that Asian faces tend to be flatter (hence bigger). I don’t know what’s ugly about that, but there is an industry dedicated to making one’s face smaller, everything from lotion to plastic surgery).

> 2. The consumers: girls in their 20’s top the list. The aforementioned operations were monopolized by these girls. There were literally 5 girls coming in for one of those treatment every hour.

See her blog post for the rest.


06

Jan 2010

Avatar IMAX 3D Tickets Selling Well in Shanghai

Peace Cinema (和平影都) in Raffles City (People’s Square) is the place to see Avatar (阿凡达) in IMAX 3D in Shanghai, but it’s still hard to get tickets, days after the Sunday midnight opening. I went tonight, hoping to pick up a pair of tickets for sometime in the next week, but the theater only sells two days in advance, and all popular times were sold out. You can see the crowd in the picture below. The crowd never got too big, because everyone kept showing up, finding out it was sold out, and then leaving unhappily.

Avatar 3D IMAX, Shanghai

Avatar 3D IMAX, Shanghai

Tickets there range from 30 RMB (non-IMAX) to 50 RMB (IMAX, morning), to 150 RMB (IMAX, prime time on weekends). The soundtracks are all English, with Chinese subtitles. The theater’s (?) website has the price list for the current day.

Avatar has been out on DVD in the streets of Shanghai for a while, but I’m still patiently waiting to experience IMAX 3D for the first time (eventually).


Jan. 7 UPDATE: A friend of my wife offered to buy tickets for us. She showed up at 7:30am to get in line. The theater opens at 9am. When she arrived, there were already 200-300 people in line, some of whom had been there since 4am. Still, with so many showings every day, and a pretty decent capacity, you’d think that person number 300 could still get tickets. No dice. Everyone was buying up lots of tickets, so the theater was sold out of Avatar 3D IMAX tickets by the time our friend’s turn came.

I just found out that the theater is raising prices to 180 RMB per ticket next week. Suddenly I’m losing some of my enthusiasm for Avatar in Shanghai…


Jan. 11 UPDATE: Over the weekend the price rose again from 180 RMB to 200 RMB, caused a furor, and then was changed back to 150. Also, the sale of tickets was opened up for all of January, after which all IMAX 3D tickets promptly sold out. (I’m OK with this; I gave up on IMAX and watched it in regular 3D yesterday. It was awesome.)


17

Dec 2009

Default Social Activity: Murder!

It wasn’t until after I’d been in China a while that I started thinking about a culture’s “default social activities.” Friends like to get together, and there’s often no special occasion, so they tend to rely on the defaults. If you’re sports fans or gamers, you might have ritual activities, but most people I knew growing up in Suburbia, USA relied on a small number of default activities:

1. Go to a movie
2. Go to a bar
3. Go to a party
4. Go bowling (or mini-golfing)

After staying in China a while, it took some time to realize that most Chinese people don’t go to movie theaters often, hardly ever go to bars, and don’t really do the party thing. Bowling only happens on rare occasions. China’s “default social activities” list looks more like this:

1. Go to dinner
2. Play cards (or mahjongg)
3. Go to karaoke
4. Play 杀人游戏 (“the murder game”)

It wasn’t until recently that I realized the status and ubiquity of the 杀人游戏 (a game usually known as “mafia” in English). A few years ago I thought it was just a fad, but I just keep hearing about it everywhere, from all kinds of people. It’s just not going away. Recently my friend Frank brought to my attention that some players in China are so fanatical about it that they join clubs (with 6000 members), and even pay to play.

Anyway, if you live in China, definitely give it a try. It’s almost certain that all your young Chinese friends know the game, and you can play it almost anywhere. If you ask me, it’s way better than cards, mahjongg, or karaoke, and if you’re learning Chinese (or your Chinese friends are learning English), it’s good fun practice.

I’m not sure how many versions are played nowadays (it’s been a while since I’ve played), but the Baidu Baike page has an extremely lengthy “version history” with tons of different roles. All you really need to get a game going, though, are the words “杀人游戏.”


15

Dec 2009

Bits from Beijing

I just got back from a business trip to Beijing. I was representing ChinesePod at the Hanban’s recent “Exhibitions of Resources of Confucius Institutes and World Languages.” Despite having lived in China for over 9 years, it was my first time in northern China in the winter. Here’s what I noticed:

– Chinese 暖气 (central heating) is awesome. I’m used to winters in Shanghai, to only being warm for short periods of time during the winter, to the floors being freezing for months on end… so I was not prepared for my hotel being “boxers and a t-shirt” warm the whole time. And the floors weren’t cold at all. (Now I also see why visitors from the north are so wimpy here in the winter.)

国家会议中心Wow, the former Olympic Village is a desolate ghost town (but the “You and Me” theme song is still playing on a loop there). It’s such a huge space; you’d think that it would be utilized a little better post-Olympics. The exhibition I attended was in the “National Conference Center,” but drivers didn’t even know where that was; when I asked to be taken to the 国家会议中心 (National Conference Center), I was invariably taken to the nearby 国际会议中心 (International Conference Center). I guess even the massive new conference center isn’t getting much use yet.

LED ChristmasThe world’s largest LED screen at “The Place” is impressive… but it’s kind of sad. That mall doesn’t seem to have a ton of traffic still, and the screen already has more than a few dead pixels. (The screen faces downward, by the way, and it’s only on at night.)

"Hawaiian Pizza"When I ordered a “Hawaiian pizza” at a cafe, I got a pizza with spam, dragon fruit, banana, apple, and kiwi fruit on it. Yikes.

(Normal blogging to resume soon… Recent spottiness is due largely to lots of time spent on some “new research.”)


02

Dec 2009

New Host

I haven’t been posting much lately, but I’ve still been working on this site. I finally chose a new web host so that I can leave DreamHost. The new host is WebFaction, and so far it’s excellent. It’s not quite that simple, though.

WebFaction is excellent because:

– It allows for easy hosting of multiple websites
– It makes its policies on application memory usage completely clear to users (this is the major sin of DreamHost and its ilk)
– It’s fast
– It has affordable dedicated IP solutions (important in case you get blocked by sheer bad luck)
– I wrote the support team on three separate occasions at different times, and each time, they got back to me within 5 minutes. (These weren’t very difficult questions, but still… that’s amazing, coming from DreamHost, which responded in a few hours on good days, in a day on typical days, and NEVER on bad days)

WebFaction is maybe not great for everyone because:

– The control panel seems quite rudimentary after using DreamHost’s, seeing Media Temple’s, and seeing a few others. It really seems quite bare bones. (A few features I asked about were “in development,” but they had other somewhat techy workarounds.)
– The company uses its own unintuitive system for installing “Applications” and pairing them with domains. (I use the word “application” in quotes because not only web apps like WordPress, but also even things like static directories for hosting files count as “applications.”)

The system is actually kind of cool once you get used to it, but it’s definitely not for someone who just wants one simple website. I’ll probably write more about it once I’m fully moved over.

The other way I’ve been spending time on Sinosplice is with a long-overdue redesign. The whole site! More on that later…


12

Nov 2009

China Ruined the Android Experience

I was pretty excited when I first got my Android phone. Yeah, the Hero a bit sluggish, but that’s been fixed, and the Sense UI is even being updated to support the latest version of Android. So far, so good.

Starting about a month ago, however, I could no longer download anything from the Android Market (Google’s version of the iPhone app store). I figured it was a network glitch that would clear up soon. No, it’s not going to clear up soon. China has blocked all downloads from the Android market.

To be perfectly clear, then, this is what I lose out on, simply because I’m in China:

– No native Facebook integration (Facebook is blocked in China)
– No native Twitter integration (Twitter is blocked in China)
– No new apps of any kind (all downloads from the market are blocked in China)

I bought a phone that does some amazing things. But it depends on the internet working correctly in order to do them. By “working correctly,” of course, I mean not being blocked.

If I want to get around this, I have to pay for a VPN service, and I have to learn how to set it up on my Android phone (potentially complicated). Oh, and the Android phones have just hit the China market. (Not a coincidence.)

On a related note, I was once excited about Google Voice, hoping it could bring me closer to family and friends back home. Now I realize, though, that the idea of Google Voice’s revolutionary services extending to China are simply naive.

I still love living in China, but I have to say, the single most frustrating part of living here for me is watching this government shoot down every single new way the internet is connecting the world.

So yeah, I have a VPN. And yeah, it’s time to get geekier.


09

Nov 2009

Hospitals and Train Stations

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.)


03

Nov 2009

No Longer Happy with DreamHost

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:

  1. My site was hacked while at DreamHost once. (One time is forgivable)

  2. 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.

  3. 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!


22

Oct 2009

The Pleco iPhone App (beta)

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:

For those of you in China, visit Pleco’s mirror site for the videos.

An All-New UI

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):

maindict.gif Pleco for iPhone (beta)

aisearchdict.gif Pleco for iPhone (beta)

(more…)


15

Oct 2009

Hong Kong Maternity Tourism

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?

Of course, overcrowded hospitals is resulting on more unhappy deliveries in Hong Kong.


13

Oct 2009

Chinese Modal Verb Venn Diagram

I’m a bit of a sucker for Venn diagrams. When I was recently asked by a student about the Chinese modal verbs , , 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:

> : know how to

> : 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:

Chinese Modal Verbs: A Venn Diagram

> A = ability in the sense of “know how to” (“” is more common than ““)

> B = permission/request (use “” or “可以“)

> C = possibility (use “” or “可以“)

> D = permission not granted (use “不可以“)

> E = impossibility (use “不能“)

Yeah, grammar needs more Venn diagrams.

Update: I’ve been informed that this diagram is actually a Euler Diagram. Oops. I stand corrected. I should have read up on the requirements for Venn Diagrams first! (Hey, some of those extensions are pretty cool!)


10

Oct 2009

Chinese Telegraph Code

I wasn’t expecting to find anything Chinese-related on the new site, Easier to Understand than Wave (referring to Google’s new software, called Wave). But this was the first thing I got:

Chinese Telegraph Code
Obsolete Chinese Telegraph Code
[Source: Wikimedia Commons]

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.”


22

Sep 2009

Three Tales of Two Cities

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.

Anecdote #1

> 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…

> Etc.

Anecdote #2

> 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.

Anecdote #3

> 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??

> Etc.

Can you identify the cities?


20

Sep 2009

Weekend in Beijing

Light posting lately… I just got back from a weekend in Beijing. No sightseeing, no business… just hanging out, taking it easy, and seeing a few friends. Got together with Pepe, Brendan, Joel, Syz, Dave Lancashire, Roddy, and David Moser. And also happened to bump into Rob of Black and White Cat.

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.


15

Sep 2009

Sa Dingding is interesting

Sa Dingding

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.

From her Last.fm page:

> 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?

You can see the same tendency for Fan Bingbing (“Bing Bing”) and Li Bingbing (“Bing Bing”) as well, but the Wikipedia pages for those two actually follow the proper pinyin name-writing convention [see section 2.3]. (Perhaps the “Sa Ding Ding” page will be wiki-harmonized soon? [Update: It was changed within 24 hours! Wow!])

Her own website uses “Sa DingDing” in the HTML title, but “Sa Dingding” on the site pages themselves.

Sa Dingding


12

Sep 2009

Pushing the Limits of Transracial Adoption

My sister Amy forwarded this thought-provoking article to me: Raising Katie: What adopting a white girl taught a black family about race in the Obama era.

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?


29

Aug 2009

Chaintweeting over the GFW to Twitter

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:

Zuosa.com Microblog Sync

The message says:

> 抱歉,该服务不可用;你可以通过 zuosa->buboo.tw->twitter 实现同步!

Translation:

> 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.


27

Aug 2009

Google Pinyin for the HTC Hero

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.

Go into "Manage applications" to remove apps Loading apps takes a long time
Google Pinyin will be at the bottom of your apps list Uninstall old version of Google Pinyin

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.)

Choose "Locale & text" from the Settings menu Make sure Google Pinyin in selected

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.)

Google Pinyin Input Settings

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.”

In normal text input mode Tap and hold on the textbox Typing Options Menu Input Method Switch

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.

The Google Pinyin soft keyboard Typing on the Google Pinyin soft keyboard
The 更多 symbols on the Google Pinyin soft keyboard Even more 更多 symbols on the Google Pinyin soft keyboard

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.



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