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Archive for 2005

I always knew it would happen eventually. My boss, who has the fastest motorcycle in Taiwan, broke a leg in an accident. Was it from enjoying his bike’s awesome power to go from 0 to 200kph in four seconds? No. It was from some idiot lady deciding to cut in front of him and do a U-turn against traffic. He was only going 18kph when they hit (the speedometer got stuck from the crash), and he got up right afterwards. It turns out his protective boot was all that was holding his ankle together. He walked around, made sure the other driver was okay, borrowed someone’s cell phone, and picked up his bike, all without any idea that he was walking around on a broken leg. As soon as he took off the boot, he got dizzy and had to go to the hospital. Now he’s got a pin in his ankle and he’ll be on crutches for a month. Stuff like this really makes me feel uneasy about riding around on my scooter.

As a result of all of this, I’ve been ridiculously busy. I’m teaching all of his classes that don’t conflict with mine, and grading about 90 test books and homework books a day. I guess I’m not going to make much progress on the curriculum for a while.

I got this email from my old friend Mike last week:

I don’t suppose there’s
much going on in Taiwan at Christmas. Do you have any
plans? Do you get a break from teaching? I figure
most people there are Buddhists… do they have
holidays? Maybe the first Buddha’s birthday. I don’t
know.

I guess maybe Christmas here is something worth explaining for those of you back home. I don’t have to teach today, fortunately. At most schools, there is a strong pressure to have a Christmas activity day, though. My first year here, when I was teaching at Sesame Street, I had to go into work and cut out pictures, color them and glue them into books and eat candy with my students. Since the day wasn’t a “real class”, I didn’t even get paid for desecrating the holiday. Thank goodness my current boss is a Canadian who won’t have any of that. His Chinese partner is still organizing some kind of Christmas day activities for the school, but us foreigners don’t have to participate.

There is Christmas here. It’s just completely messed up. All religious aspects of the holiday are missing. Since it’s a religious holiday, that means the Chinese celebrate it quite a bit differently. People do know about Santa Claus, but they also see Christmas as a day to go out and have fun. The idea of staying at home and spending it with your family is a little strange here. As a result, bars, dance clubs, and restaurants all have special Christmas events. To some people it’s a dating holiday, though that idea hasn’t caught on here like it has in Japan. The real family holiday here is Chinese New Year. That’s when everyone in the Orient, by which I mean Greater China, Japan and Korea, gets a vacation and whole families spend time together.

What am I doing for Christmas? Not much. I’m over at my girlfriend’s place, she’s playing World of Warcraft, and I’m just web-surfing trying to decide if I want to play WoW, Age of Empires III, or maybe ready my new Orson Scott Card book. The thing is, I’m not really bummed out about not doing anything Christmassy. The Orient does not really have Christmas, it just has enough little reminders everywhere to alert you to what’s missing: the religious significance, the family gathering, and the eggnog. Why bother to celebrate Christmas in a place that has commercials where everyone watches a big clock count down to zero and then jumps up screaming “Happy Christmas!”?

To me, Christmas is something that only happens at home. I’d rather not go through the motions of some weird Chinese celebration that vaguely resembles Christmas. On the other hand, Christmas will be all the more special to me next time I actually am home for it. I would absolutely love to be at my Grandmother’s house with my entire family right now, but I’m not. I’ll have to settle for a few phone calls again this year.

So does the fact that I’m fine with not doing anything for Christmas for me here mean I’m “settled in”? Does it mean my values are more “Chinese”? Or am I becoming the soulless Mr. Grinch, my old nickname from when I played Warcraft II in the computer labs at CU?


Integrated Chinese 1 (中文聽說讀寫一) is by far the most used introductory Chinese textbook at US colleges. In fact, it was with this book that I began my studies of Chinese as a college freshman. According to the preface, Integrated Chinese uses a modern communicative approach. The book covers about 800 characters, not counting supplementary vocabulary, and is meant to be used for one college school year in a five hour per week class. I’ve never seen the book sold in Asia.

Like most Chinese textbooks, each lesson of Integrated Chinese 1 includes a Chinese dialogue, the same dialogue repeated in pinyin and then English, a vocabulary list, and a grammar section. In my opinion, the approach really isn’t that communicative. It’s just as focused on grammar and translation as any of the old school Chinese texts, such as the Practical Audio-Visual Chinese (視聽華語) series. It certainly isn’t as communicative as the modern Japanese textbooks, such as the Yookoso series. Integrated Chinese is extremely well laid out, though. The dialogues really are useful as spring-boards into class discussion. I think this is the one place where the communicative intent of the authors comes through.

Integrated Chinese 1 is accompanied by a workbook, a character workbook, and CDs with workbook exercises. Both simplified and traditional character versions are available. I found the workbooks to be difficult, but extremely helpful. The workbook CDs are absolutely the best I’ve ever used in any language program. For that matter, I can’t think of a single better workbook for any language course. Maybe the most telling thing is the comparison I saw the first time I left Taiwan to visit home. I met up with some friends studying Chinese in college with the Integrated Chinese series. In 9 months of attending class for 1 hour a day, they knew more characters and had better pronunciation than my friends at Shida (師範大學), who had been living in Taiwan and using the Audio-Visual series for 2 hours of class a day over just as many months. Nearly all of them credited the listening homework sections in the workbook.

I can’t emphasize enough how every thing in Integrated Chinese 1 is useful once you get to China. If you go to Taiwan, like I did, you’ll find a few word usages are different but you’ll still be well understood. Unfortunately, at times the book seems more like it was written for linguists than for 18 year old college students. The phonics section at the beginning was particularly intimidating. I remember that it described the pinyin “x” sound as an “alveolo-palatal fricative”. I had to look up each word in the dictionary to figure out what that meant. On the other hand, the book was very precise and I did figure it out, unlike many people I’ve met who have studied for years and still don’t differentiate their “x” and “sh” sounds very well. The grammar explanations are dry, but thorough. One final thing I’d like to say about Integrated Chinese 1 is that it is NOT an easy textbook work through in the time frame allotted by most colleges. If you work through it in one year in a 5-credit class, I guarantee you’ll be spending at least a couple of hours a day on your homework.

Pros:

  • Very accurate grammar explanations
  • Excellent workbook and workbook CDs
  • Good dialogue topics
  • Gives students a good foundation for further study
  • Very widely used

Cons:

  • Makes for a very difficult one year course
  • Explanations are sometimes overly technical
  • The traditional character fonts aren’t very good; complex characters look like ink-blots
  • The teaching method is not as modern as the authors claim it to be

Rating: 4/5
Level: Absolute Beginner

UC Berkley has some multimedia excercises for Integrated Chinese.

Just after I finished teaching a 補課 (remedial class), one of the students came up to me. She was a cute little 4th grader and a really outgoing one at that. She said she had a question for me, so I stopped to help her.

Girl: What color is Spiderman?
Me: Well, he’s red, blue and…
Girl: No! 他是白的! (He is white!) Hahahahaha!

Then, she ran away and went home. For those of you who didn’t get the joke, keep in mind that most Taiwanese people pronounce “sh” as “s”. When spoken in a Taiwanese accent, 是白的 sounds like “sbaiduh” or “spider”.

Today on slashdot I saw an article talking about how the DNA of the wolly mammoth has been fully sequenced. This reminds me of another article I read a few years back about Japanese researchers going to Russia and collecting as many frozen mammoth bodies as they could get a hole of.

This is from the BBC:

The research, published in the online edition of Nature, gives an insight into the elephant family tree.

It shows that the mammoth was most closely related to the Asian rather than the African elephant.

The three groups split from a common ancestor about six million years ago, with Asian elephants and mammoths diverging about half a million years later.

Any bets on how long before we see an elephant-mammoth crossbreed based on the techniques used to clone Dolly?

A few days ago, I went back to 台北 to hang out with one of my old co-workers one more time before he went back to America. It was pretty cool to hang out with him, and it turns out he’d been reading my blog. He said he liked the News in Chinese link I have up here, though it loads a bit slowly. The pop-ups with pinyin and English for every character make it possible for you to read Chinese news articles really quickly, even if you only know half or a third of the characters it would take to be literate. Then he mentioned that it would be nice if there were some java script tool that would do the same thing for you on any Chinese page.

Back when I was learning Japanese, there was a tool just like that: rikai.com. Rikai, or りかい (理解) means “understand” in Japanese. At that page you can either type Japanese into a box, or type in a URL of a Japanese page. Then, rikai.com generates a page that has the same text, but also javascript pop-ups with English and romanji for every word. It was an awesome tool. I used to use it to read several articles a day from major Japanese news sites like Yomiuri or Mainichi.

As I was talking with my friend, I realized something. Yomiuri translates Chinese too! I never cared about that before, while I was learning Japanese, and by the time I started learning Chinese I’d forgotten all about Rikai. I tried it out on an article from the 工人日報, and I found it to be even more convenient than newsinchinese.com since it loads so much faster. Since it is also usable on nearly any Chinese page, there’s no contest between the two tools. I’m removing my newsinchinese.com link, and replacing it with rikai.com. To use rikai.com for Chinese, go to the main page and select “Chinese to English” from the drop down menu on the right. Then, you can either start clicking on news articles on the bottom or enter a URL into the box to the upper left.

To see the article I was reading in the picture above, follow this link.

The backdorm boys have released another video, and here it is. Tian took his copy down, so I linked to a different one.

In this video, the 後舍男生 (The Backdorm Boys) cover a song called 不得不愛, or “Irresistible Love”. I’ve been hearing it quite a bit on the radio recently, especially when riding in cabs. 黄艺馨, the guy on the left, puts on a performance sure to give even mildly homophobic viewers the creeps. Still, it was a well done cover. I’ve written about the Back Dorm Boys before.

As you can see from my browser share statistics from sitemeter, 37% of my readers are still using IE. Unfortunately, over the last week my page hasn’t looked to good from IE. There have been some sidebar and font issues every now and then seeing as I edit primarily with standards-compliant tools. I’m not going to say sorry to those users who have had problems viewing my site with IE. No, I’m going to go farther. I pity the fools who are still saddled with that ugly, bug-ridden, insecure, penetrable as swiss-cheese security, CRASHES on some valid JPGs, worthless excuse for a browser.

I pity you for not being able to browse with tabs without installing more insecure software to mod your browser. I pity you for the fact that your browser is integrated with, and thus can transmit viruses to your whole system. I pity you for having a browser that can crash your media player and above all else, I pity you for having a browser that doesn’t display my page as well as it should.

Don’t think that those funky pages linked here have messed up sidebars that don’t start until below the whole post because of some CSS mistake on my part. The CSS that generated those pages was checked and validated. The pages displayed correctly not only in Mozilla/Firefox, but also in Opera, Safari, Konquerer, and even my friend’s cell phone. The IE6 sidebar issue has been a blight on web publishing for years. Some people have even gone so far as to put their whole layouts into tables in order to be sure that IE would do the right thing with them.

Do you know how I fixed the problem? I used this for my sidebar margins:
margin: 0px -10 10px 545px;
Notice that the left margin is “-10”. Not “-10px”, but an utterly rediculous “-10”. Due to the widths of various portions of my page and other layout constraints, changing that margin from “0” to “-10” had absolutely no effect on how my page displays in Firefox, or Opera. But for some mysterious reason, it makes IE play nicely with my sidebar. The sad thing is that someday my page may render incorrectly in a standards compliant browser just because I bastardised the CSS for the sake of oh so loathsome IE. The thought makes me feel tainted.

CSS from Michael's blogBefore, whenever I wanted to test a new layout, I edited page and reloaded it. That’s slow. Then, I found a great Firefox (Mozilla) plug-in, called editcss. After installing it, all you have to to is right click on any web page you are viewing. Then, right below “view page source”, and “view page info”, there will be a new option, “Edit CSS”. When you click on it, the CSS of the site you are currently viewing will be loaded up into a sidebar on the left. You can edit the CSS, and as you do so, the layout of the site you are viewing will change.

Instead of actually changing any files on your server, you can just edit all of your blog’s CSS from your browser. You can see all of the changes immediately, and you don’t have to worry about breaking anything on the server and annyoing visitors. Best of all, once the site looks just like you want it to, you can save the edited CSS into a file and copy it over on to your server. You can also use this as a tool to see exactly what CSS layouts other sites use. I love this tool!

The screenshot above is from Michael Turton’s blog.

In my second coding job, I was as a web programmer at a start-up broadband ISP in 1999. Admittedly, it was a pretty messed up company. Still it’s pretty depressing to be this inept at using wordpress. I spent 3 hours messing around trying to get my new site’s colors to match the old’s. It was maddening. It was as if wordpress simply ignores CSS. I’d change the background-color of some or another block in my styles.css file, and reload my blog to see that NOTHING had changed. I then hunted around in vain, looking through all the other files which I thought might be over-riding my settings: the page template, the main template, and the post template. It turns out that the background colors set in the style sheet of the default wordpress theme, are all over-ridden by background graphics. In what file were all of them placed, you might ask? The header.php file, of course. That’s exactly where you put background images to be loaded across a whole page IF YOU’RE TRYING TO “WEED OUT” THE “WEAK” USERS!

I’ve been sick since Sunday, and haven’t had much to do except work on migrating my blog. Still, I’m not too happy having wasted my moments of relative clarity between fitful half-fevered naps figuring out somebody else’s non-intuitive page layout system.