personal


29

Dec 2007

Best Beijing Bad Air Quality Metaphor Ever

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

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

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

Read the rest of the entry.


28

Dec 2007

Kung Fu Dunk

I enjoyed Shaolin Soccer, and I like Jay Chou (周杰伦), so I’m really looking forward to more mindless fun from Kung Fu Dunk (大灌篮):

A film by Stephen Chow (周星驰), of course. [Sina page]

UPDATE: The film is not by Stephen Chow at all. It’s by Zhu Yanping (朱延平). Sorry about that. Now it looks like a pretty shameless ripoff. (Thanks to commenter Ken for pointing out that error.)


26

Dec 2007

Karen Mok Makes Puppies Sad

I personally have nothing against Karen Mok, but I present you with Exhibit A:

Karen Mok Makes Puppies Sad

That is one mournful-looking puppy. Case closed!


19

Dec 2007

How Taiwan Became Chinese

So I’m caught up these days with an experiment (I hate humans!), work, and now even Christmas. So I decided to just throw up a link.

I found this interesting-looking online book: How Taiwan Became Chinese.

Has anyone read it? Any good? The title smacks of propaganda, but I’m willing to eat a little propaganda every now and then in the name of good education…


16

Dec 2007

Filthy Delicious

Here’s a picture of a place near work where I occasionally eat:

Filthy Delicious!

I have nicknamed it “Filthy Delicious.” The name says it all.

What’s interesting to me, though, is the name of the cuisine boldly painted in red on the wall: 麻辣汤. This is interesting because once upon a time I was under the impression that this was the correct name, but enough chastisement from Chinese friends converted me to the “real name”: 麻辣烫. And yet there it is, in red and white, on the wall in the picture (in traditional characters, which, as you can see, totally adds class).

Search results for the two terms:

  麻辣汤 () 麻辣烫 ()
Google 199,000 2,590,000
Baidu 127,000 4,940,000

The name 麻辣汤 makes sense, because the final character means “soup,” and the dish itself is a kind of soup. (As I’ve mentioned before, it’s sort of a spicy “poor man’s hot pot.”) The final character in the latter, “correct” one is , which means “burning hot.” This makes a kind of sense, except that the name becomes then a bunch of adjectives without any noun (like “soup”) to anchor it. That noun would usually come last in a Chinese dish name (as in 麻辣汤).

So what’s going on here? I haven’t had time to research it (ah, the advantages of blogging!), but I suspect it’s about tones. The name “málàtàng” likely comes from a dialect where 汤 (soup) is read “tàng” rather than standard Mandarin’s “tāng.” This kind of thing happens all the time in China’s rich linguistic tapestry, and the questions raised go something like the following:

1. Can the character 汤 have the reading “tàng” as well as “tāng”? This is not ideal, especially if there is no precedent in standard Mandarin. This would amount to a “corruption” of the character’s original reading.

2. Can we change the pronunciation of “málàtàng” to “málà tāng” for consistency? This seems ideal except that it would never work. It’s awfully hard to control how people talk, especially after they’ve settled on something.

3. Can we change the character used to represent “tàng”? If it comes from a dialect, it likely doesn’t have a standard written form anyway. If we can find something similar in meaning, a practical compromise is reached.

It seems to me that in my imaginary scenario path #3 above was selected, and character did the dirty work. I call it “dirty” because while it is no longer “a corruption of the character’s original reading,” it is instead a semantic corruption. originally means “burning hot” or “boiling hot,” but now you’re making it mean “soup,” or, if you choose to put it another way, you’re making it a non-semantic syllable in the three-character unit 麻辣烫. I don’t buy that, though, because the characters 麻辣 clearly keep the meaning of “numbingly spicy.”

If I have a point with all this, it’s that you can’t control the evolution of a language. Sure, a writing system need not necessarily do that, but when you encode individual characters with both semantic and phonetic information and then try to keep either from changing, you’re just kidding yourself. This is only a small example, but it’s a pretty widespread phenomenon now that the writing system is being used by the literate masses as a whole rather than a few elite (and the internet is certainly exacerbating the situation). Given enough time, so many characters will have their meanings muddled that the writing system will be reduced to the world’s most cumbersome “phonetic” system.

I’d be really curious to see what the written Chinese language looks like in 2000 years. It’s not going to look at all like it does now.


15

Dec 2007

Plan G

The experiment continues. The human element complicates any experiment, but having to gather my data from human sources and then to also have human help (not me) gathering the data is rather… vexing. Fortunately my experimental design allowed for some flexibility, because I have gone from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C… and I think I’m on something like Plan G now.

I’m not sacrificing quality; it’s still going to be good, but I will be glad when it’s over.


11

Dec 2007

Newsflash: Chinese-English Machine Translation Is Getting Better

“Better,” i.e. less obscene.

Brendan recently wrote a post in which he discusses the possible origins of offensive translations of the word . He strongly suspects bad machine translation is the culprit.

Then just the other day Victor Mair wrote on the same subject on Language Log, in which he basically proved that newer versions of popular translation software 金山词霸 (AKA Kingsoft, AKA iciba) don’t make these same mistakes. The real kicker to the post was the update provided by internet superhero Joel Martinsen, in which the old Kingsoft translations were revealed in all their linguistic horror. Check it out, and make sure to scroll all the way down.


09

Dec 2007

Experiment Underway

Thanks to everyone that wrote to me when I asked for subjects. I ended up having to get students from ECNU after all. I spent the weekend finishing up the preliminary work, and this week the experiment begins in earnest. Whoo-hoo!

I was disappointed that actual experiments seem to be discouraged by the faculty at my school. (Come on! This is supposed to be science! How can you discourage experiments??) Well, I’m starting to realize how much extra work it is. And, for someone that is already working full time and doesn’t have a lot of time to do everything on his own, that amounts to more expense. When all this is over and the “veil of secrecy” is pulled back, I’ll share some of the figures.


06

Dec 2007

LaoZi Academy Podcasts

From the site:

> Audio recordings from formal training. In these recordings, Master Dong Yang talks about different aspects of Dao and Daoist cultivation through the refining and growing of the internal elixir and how to prevent physical damage in the process.

Hmmm, I think some things were not meant for podcast format.

What do you think?


04

Dec 2007

Suckers for Math

One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of Chinese citizens (especially the college-age-ish) have great pride in their math skills. They have heard time and again that their math skills are superior to most other nations’ students’, and they believe it. This can be sort of fun to mess with.

I recently stumbled across the World’s Hardest Easy Geometry Problem. After working on it for about half an hour and realizing that it really was pretty tough, I decided to see if I could entice my wife to try it.

Now, my wife is intelligent, but she’s no math person. She earned her degree in law (and not the mathy kind). To be honest, I can’t remember her ever showing much interest in math or geometry. But I decided to tempt her with the problem.

She ended up spending the rest of the evening working on it. Ah, pride is a fun thing.

(Anyone got any other deceptively difficult math bait?)


02

Dec 2007

Shanghai Cops Do Stuff Sometimes

On my way to work each morning, I ride Line 2 to People’s Square, where I transfer to Line 1. Considering the volume of people going through People’s Square during rush hour, it’s a bit insane. What makes it much worse, though, is when there are large groups of people going the wrong way through the one-way transfer channels. They make the whole transfer process much slower and more miserable, and no one is very good-tempered about it.

Honestly, if there’s anything that’s going to embitter me about living in Shanghai long-term, it’s that damn commute.

Fortunately, police officers started enforcing the one-way status of these transfer passageways a few weeks ago. This has made everything much more pleasant, and, well, orderly. Still, Shanghai police are not known for being “badass.” They’re much better known for patiently taking a barrage of verbal abuse from the very people to whom they would be giving a savage beatdown in other parts of the world.

So the other day as I was transferring to Line 1, I saw this sullen looking young guy blow right by a cop, going the wrong way. The cop placed a gentle hand on the guy’s shoulder to tell him not to go that way, but the guy swiftly shrugged it off, not even giving the police officer a glance.

At this point I was really transfixed. Would the cops just let the guy go, or would they actually do something?

That’s when another cop busted in from the side and grabbed hold of the front of the guy’s coat, yelling something at him. The young man foolishly started struggling angrily, at which point two other cops got involved and subdued the guy. Rather than just forcing the guy to go the wrong way, cop #2 roughly led the guy away, clearly planning to give him some more trouble.

It’s funny to admit it, but this incident really made my day: Shanghai cops, actively doing their job, for the benefit of the people. What a concept!


28

Nov 2007

SpanishPod Has Arrived

A while back I wrote about studying Spanish again. Well, I have a little secret about that to reveal. My teacher is none other than the vivacious Liliana of SpanishPod, and she’s a lot of fun!

SpanishPod is Praxis Language’s new website for learning Spanish. A while back they had one called SpanishSense that I wasn’t really involved in. Long story short, that one was a “learning experience.” Now I’m involved, and I’m happy to say that this time we are getting it right. We owe it mostly to the amazing new hosts: J.P. and Liliana.

J.P. is an awesome linguist (aren’t they all?) from Seattle who has done his time in the trenches (teaching Spanish in high school). He’s a fun guy with great fresh ideas about learning, and he’s even kind enough to help me with my thesis.

This SpanishPod promo was unpaid (unfortunately), but I’m doing it this time because SpanishPod is really good. Maybe it will one day be as cool as ChinesePod, with ninjas and Godzilla and alien abductions and everything. Check it out.

SpanishPod
The SpanishPod Team: JP, Liliana, Leo, and Adri
(this is the coolest pose they could come up with)


24

Nov 2007

The End of a Golden Era for Hello Pizza

Hello Pizza - logo

This news is almost two months late. Apparently I have been remiss in my pizza-eating duties recently. Nevertheless, it is earth-shattering news. Pizza news.

Hello Pizza, a Shanghai-based company which used to deliver 10 RMB pizzas to the masses of western Shanghai, was well loved by the English teachers, the students, the tight-fisted, and the poor. Its claim to fame was pizza which was “really not bad at all considering how cheap it is.” But Hello Pizza has recently changed its prices. Yes, gone are the days of (almost) 8 pizzas for $10. Now the cheapest pizza on the menu is 25 RMB (about US$3).

It makes good sense business-wise. But it definitely pushes me a little closer to ordering Papa John’s or New York Pizza instead of Hello Pizza every time I need my pizza fix.

Below are the menu scans featuring the tragic changes for you weirdos that like that kind of thing. (more…)


20

Nov 2007

Recycling When It Counts

Yesterday a Canadian was giving me a hard time at work because I threw away my plastic drink bottle instead of putting it in the recycling box. I thought this was kind of funny. Oftentimes in China you see waste receptacle with one side labeled “for garbage” and the other side labeled “for recycling.” Then you look inside the thing and you realize that both sides just go to one big garbage bag. Now, tell me… are you really going to make sure you throw your recyclables in one side of the garbage bag, and your garbage in the other?

At most other places, anytime you throw anything out in China, it’s going to be picked through later for valuable recyclables. I simply threw away my plastic bottle in the office because I felt very sure it would be rescued for recycling by someone whose livelihood depended on it, and they’d be going through the same garbage whether I threw away that bottle or not.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m all for recycling. But what’s the point in empty gestures when you know what’s going on? Let’s recycle when it counts.

Steve at Praxis Language told a good story which illustrated this.

> A friend was taking a cruise on the Yangtze River in China. He was enjoying the cruise, but disgusted to see many passengers throwing their garbage overboard, into the river. Determined to do the right thing, he made sure to always walk all the way to the far end of the deck to the one garbage can to dispose of all his trash. It was a pain, and he was only one person vs. the littering masses, but it was the right thing to do.

> Later in the cruise, the garbage can filled up. A custodian went over to take care of it. To the friend’s horror, he lifted the garbage can and upended its contents into the Yangtze River.

Hmmm, on the one hand, always “recycling” (even when it’s pointless) reinforces good habits. On the other hand…


14

Nov 2007

Food Budgets for China

Friends planning to visit China always ask me how much they should budget per day for food, and I always give them the same very helpful answer: “it depends.” It depends mostly on: (1) how you want to eat, and (2) where you’ll be.

“How you want to eat” includes not only price range, but also type of food. If you’re in Shanghai (expensive!) and you want to eat good Western food (expensive!), you’re going to end up paying a lot (expensive + expensive). If you can eat all Chinese food (cheap!), and your vacation is to the forgotten corners of Shanxi Province (cheap!), you won’t spend much at all. Most travelers can manage a balance between the two. So with these two factors in mind, I give you my three simple budgets (the numbers are per person):

The Shoestring Budget

– 5 RMB breakfast
– 10 RMB lunch
– 20 RMB dinner

On this budget you’ll eat fine if you stick to cheap Chinese food. Shanghai will be a little tough, but you can still do it. You don’t have to eat street food all the time, but you can’t afford fancy restaurants. As for Western food, you can afford a McDonalds value meal for dinner, or maybe a cheap Taiwanese chain’s version of Western food, but not much else. You can also afford the cheapest cup of Starbucks coffee… for dinner.

For breakfast you’ll probably be eating at one of the little stands on the street. Just notice what Chinese people eat. Lunch is probably going to be some kind of cafeteria or small restaurant (look for the meals ending in , because they come with rice). Dinner will be a similar small restaurant.

The Modest Budget

– 10 RMB breakfast
– 20 RMB lunch
– 50 RMB dinner

This is not a hard budget to do. You can buy bread and juice and yogurt for breakfast. You can afford McDonalds for lunch if you must, and you can eat better dinners. You can also have a few cheap dinners to save up for a more lavish meal. (Obviously, eating Chinese is the way to go.)

This budget is also nice because it works out to a little over US$10 (damn you, falling US dollar!). I actually loosely follow this budget in my daily life here in Shanghai.

The Comfortable Budget

– 10 RMB breakfast
– 40 RMB lunch
– 100 RMB dinner

If you find everything in China “so cheap” and you have the money to spend, this should do it. You can’t afford all-you-can-eat buffets at the Radisson on 100 RMB, but if you eat cheap for several nights you can. If there are two of you, you can afford to eat at most places (even in Shanghai), provided you don’t go crazy (especially with the alcohol). If there are four of you eating Chinese-style (sharing the dishes), you can definitely have some really great dinners on this budget.

This only works out to about US$20.

A few final notes:

– If you’re planning on drinking a lot at these meals, that is not taken into account
– Eating in larger groups, especially for dinner, will get you more for your money
– I’m assuming a pretty modest breakfast, so if you eat a lot in the morning, you might have to adjust the figures

Enjoy!


12

Nov 2007

How to Evaluate a Random Language for Acquisition in an Hour

Ever since reading Tim Ferris’s book, The 4-Hour Workweek, I’ve been reading his blog occasionally. He has some interesting ideas on language learning, and I value his opinion because he’s a smart guy and he’s apparently gained competence in many languages. I’ve considered writing about some of his ideas before, but when his latest article hit the internet hotlists last week, I had to put in my two cents.

My overall impression of Tim Ferris is that he’s a very bright, enthusiastic go-getter. He has written an inspirational, interesting book with valuable information in it, but I think ultimately the man is not in touch with his audience, i.e. the people who actually read his book in order to put the ideas to use. To put it another way, Tim Ferris’s ideas are interesting and they work for Tim Ferris, but they’re not going to work for most people. Whether Tim Ferris knows this or not is unimportant; he’s still making big bucks.

His latest article is called How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour. I have to say first that the title is entirely misleading. The whole point of the article is to describe a method for assessing a foreign language that will help you to determine how easy it will be for you to acquire. This is not what “learn a language” means to me. I know Tim Ferris is good at hype, but this is pretty blatant false “advertising.” It just makes him look bad.

Now suppose the title were not misleading. Suppose he titled it How to Evaluate a Language for Acquisition in an Hour. What’s the point of this? How many of us are really just looking for a foreign language–any language–to learn? It seems to me that the reason so many Westerners are starting to study Chinese is that they feel it will be useful to them in the future. Or maybe they feel a personal connection with it. It’s pretty safe to say there is some reason for it. The only person who’s going to choose a random language to learn based solely on ease of acquisition is a linguist with too much time on his hands… (perhaps someone who only works four hours a week?). If you’ve already got your language picked out and just want to evaluate it using Tim Ferris’s method, that makes sense, but it seems like the method would be really useful only to someone trying to decide between Japanese and Spanish or some similar situation.

Despite all the misleading hype, it’s still an interesting read, and what he says makes sense. Check it out.


11

Nov 2007

Photocopying an Entire Book

One of the nice things about living in a country with a total lack of respect for intellectual property laws is that if you really need to, you can have an entire book photocopied for cheap.

I borrowed a book from my professor which compiled the results of various investigations into foreigners’ studies of Mandarin Chinese. There were quite a few investigations with some relevance to my own research, so I really wanted to buy a copy of the book. None of the bookstores in Shanghai carried it, though, and the bookstore employees seemed to indicate that special ordering it would be a long, difficult process. Even good old 当当网 (China’s most famous online book seller) didn’t have it.

Rather than launching a long crusade to track down a seller of the book, I finally just had my professor’s copy photocopied in a little shop near the school. The book’s cover price was 29 RMB. My photocopied version, bound and all, was 25 RMB.

I still would have rather bought the official book, but this convenient alternative is not so bad.

[For those of you interested in the specifics, the charge was 0.1 RMB per page, but each page was A4, horizontal, covering two pages of the original. So the 450 page book came to 22.5 RMB total, plus 2.5 RMB for binding. I dropped the book off in the evening and picked up my copy the next day around noon.]

08

Nov 2007

Chinese Learners Wanted

I am doing a small experiment for my Masters thesis, and it involves recording the Mandarin Chinese of Westerners. If you’re a “Westerner” (exactly what that means will have to be defined after I examine the size of the pool of learners I can work with), and your Chinese is at the elementary to intermediate level (equivalent to 1-2 years of formal study), then you’re who I’m looking for!

The recording session will be in Shanghai at the end of November, and should only take about an hour. I will try to make it as fun as possible.

I can’t tell you the exact nature of the research until after the recording (and it’s changed a bit from what I may have posted earlier), but let me assure you that it’s utterly fascinating. Don’t miss out!

Please e-mail me if you’re interested. My e-mail is at the upper right corner on my website.

Update: Thank you to all the readers that have e-mailed me trying to help out. I really appreciate it. Let me answer a few common questions, though:

1. Yes, it has to be at the end of November. (My thesis comes with various deadlines.)
2. Yes, it has to be in Shanghai, in person. (It has to be a controlled experiment; it’s not just for fun.)


05

Nov 2007

Examining the Halfpat

I don’t know how I stay ignorant of some things for so long. Take the term “halfpat,” for instance. I just learned it the other day. I might be one of the last foreigners in China to learn it.

halfpat: also known as a “local hire expat.”

> Attracted to China by either a sense of curiosity, or a strong belief in China’s potential, the halfpat (including overseas-born ethnic Chinese) is generally a recent graduate or young professional who have moved to China without a predetermined career path.

I got this definition from the white papers and reports page of a website called All Roads Lead to China.

I find this term interesting because it applies to me, but I’m not sure if it’s actually useful or just some annoying buzzword. I can’t really imagine myself using it in normal conversation.



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