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Archive for March, 2006

After living here for over three years, there’s still a commonly used Chinese word I just can’t bring myself to say: 拜拜

Last week, John suggested to me that a tool for converting big Chinese numbers into Arabic numerals could be useful for a lot of beginning students. I completely agree, so I’ve written a Chinese Number Tool. This tool has a bit different functionality than most Chinese number converters, so it needs some explanation.

The primary purpose of this tool is to help foreigners reading online newspapers, who come across big numbers such as 百萬 or 120億. Every number to the left of a 萬 (万) or an 億 (亿) will be interpreted as a number. Chinese conventions for and omitting trailing s, s, and s are supported. There also is support for a wide variety of input that I haven’t seen in other similar Chinese math tools, though. Here are some examples:

InputOutput
五千八百5800
兩百五十250
三百萬3000000
三百万3000000
7十70
九億900000000
二十万零三点一八200003.18
6.25亿625000000
1500万15000000
五億三千九百二十萬四千四百四十一539204441
壹仟叄佰柒拾捌1378

I think the tool is pretty much what you’d expect. If see buggy behavior, let me know. Tell me what kinds of numbers you come across that are inconvenient to convert and I’ll see if I can add support for them into the tool. Suggestions are welcome.

Updates:

  • As per Micah’s suggestion, the tool now supports 大写 numbers.
  • Conversions can have commas added automatically
  • Decimals are also now supported.
  • A clickable interface has been added so users can input Chinese numbers without an IME.

One thing David questioned about my school last week is why my boss is looking for North American teachers as opposed to British, Australian or other native English speakers. I can completely understand how this sort of policy would be annoying to those it excluded, much like the fact that high paying IELTS jobs prefer teachers from the UK or commonwealth countries is frustrating for some Americans. There’s no doubt that the preference of schools skews heavily towards American English. However, I think there are a few rational reasons for this.

  1. There are a lot of Americans- 67% of all native English speakers are Americans. Another 5% are Canadians.
  2. American speakers are wealthier on average than other English speakers. The amount of money English speakers control is a crucial reason, if not the reason so many people around the world study English. There are more native Spanish and native Mandarin speakers around the world, but as they represent smaller markets to sell to and do business with, neither of those languages have achieved anything close to the dominance English has.
  3. The US has the best colleges in the world. According to SJTU, seventeen out of the top twenty are in the US. While it’s ridiculous for Asian parents to expect their children to get into Yale or MIT, many secretly harbor that hope. Even disregarding the very top schools, there are still more east Asians and foreigners in general that choose to study abroad in the US than in any other country.
  4. There is some regional variation in dialects of English in the US, but not nearly as much as in the UK.
  5. Due to mass media, the British, Australians, and other English speakers understand US English much better than Americans understand other English dialects. The first time I saw an episode from a British TV series (The Young Ones) when I was thirteen, I couldn’t understand any of it. Many of my classmates couldn’t either. I would be very surprised to hear of any British or Australian thirteen-year-olds who saw an episode of Friends and couldn’t understand it due to the American English.

At my particular school, there is an even bigger reason why it would be difficult for non N. American teachers. All of the CDs our first year students listen to have Ron’s voice on them. Even the small differences between his accent and mine are enough to cause difficulties at times. When I give his first semester students oral spelling quizzes (of words they’ve never heard), they make about 15% more errors than when he gives them quizzes. My own students struggle a bit with “-orr-” words, such as “tomorrow” since I pronounce them differently than Ron does on the CD. There would be massive problems for students of teachers who speak with a British (or god help us an Irish) accent. Learning how to pronounce R’s is already onerously difficult. Most students get it within a month, but some take several. Learning from a teacher who pronounced them radically differently than the CD did, would be that last back-breaking straw for most of our students. Aside from accent differences, there are also many spelling differences (which would wreak havoc on our phonics system), word usage differences, and grammatical differences (especially with perfect tenses). Since all of our materials use American spelling, word usage and grammar, it would be very confusing for students if our teachers did not.

Most of the problems described above disappear quickly as students advance to higher levels. When I give Ron’s third semester students oral spelling quizzes, they perform just as well as they do when he gives the quizzes. A British accent might still be a bit difficult for them at that point; but the higher their level, the easier it would be for them to learn how to understand one. I completely agree with David that the more different kinds of accents the students can understand, the better. As it is now, my school’s students keep the same teacher from their first class all the way through graduation. If there were a way to hire a small number of teachers from the UK and commonwealth and have each student learn from them during their third year of study, there would be some definite advantages. The students could probably adjust to a new accent pretty easily at that level, and they could continue to get exposure to UK accents through our OUP materials in their final year. The problem with this system, is that I can’t imagine any teacher wanting to be the “token British guy” and just teach one year of everybody’s classes. It is something worth some serious thought, though. Here are some advantages of learning British English:

  1. Even in the US, British English is the “prestige dialect”. Amazingly, this isn’t limited to RP. Even “lower class” British dialects are treated as signs of culture, refinement and coolness
  2. British literature is also prestigious. All over the English speaking world, British literature is studied. The English, on the other hand, study far less American literature.
  3. Many movies and television programs that deal with scenes of a historical or fantasy/RPG nature, employ British or pseudo-British accents.
  4. 60,000,000 people is still a lot of people living in the UK.
  5. The IELTS, which is rapidly becoming the dominant test for non-native English speakers wanting to go to college in English speaking places, uses British English.

Earlier, I wrote about how happy I was that my boss doesn’t have racist hiring practices (as nearly every boss I’ve met in Taiwan does). Far from the outpouring of, “that’s great!” comments that I was expecting, commenters generally attacked all kinds of side topics in my post. Nobody was impressed or even seemed to think it was good that he interviewed an American of Asian ancestry or that he was willing to hire black teachers, both of which are big no-nos at many schools on the island. One topic that came up was the fact that my boss won’t hire “fake ABCs”.

All over the greater China region, the term ABC means “American Born Chinese”. I’m not too fond of the term. First off, it implies that “Chinese” is a race, which it most definitely is not. Beyond that, the term is used to separate foreigners based on their ancestry. Can you imagine Germans calling me an “American Born German” and then not really considering me a “true foreigner” despite the fact that neither I nor my parents have ever set foot on German soil? Extending it a step further, can you imagine if the German government made special regulations so that “ABG”s could get residence and work visas more easily? I can’t; but in effect, this is what the Chinese do with the term “ABC”.

What’s a “fake ABC”? A fake ABC is a Chinese (in the case of my example, Taiwanese) person who studies abroad in America. After some period of time, this person returns home and tells everybody that he or she is an “ABC”. I’ve had a couple of co-workers at English schools of this type. One, who I’ll refer to as “Jenny”, was such an gutsy liar that it was shocking. She was barely comprehensible to me. Despite the fact that she had a large English vocabulary, nearly every sentence she uttered had both pronunciation and grammatical errors. When I asked her where she was from, she replied “I am come from Meesooree in Amereeka”. Sure enough, she had studied at a college in Missouri, come back and retroactively became an “ABC” in her own eyes. Her English was terrible, but since it was better than the boss’s, nobody else at work ever knew she was a fake. I think some of the local teachers (who earned half what she did) had their suspicions, though. I felt pretty conflicted about it at the time, since her kids and her boss were obviously getting ripped off. Not wanting to make any waves at the time, I kept my mouth shut.

The way I see it, the whole situation is caused by one critical problem. Way too many bosses who run English bŭxíbāns can’t speak English themselves. It’s for that reason alone that Fake ABCs able to pull it off at all. Since so many bosses are incapable of evaluating English abilities of their applicants, the only way they can be sure their employees can speak English well is to hire native speakers. Thus, ABC is a title that will get a teacher higher paying jobs, and some less scrupulous local people will start telling people they are from other countries.

The results of the “fake ABC” phenomenon are bad all around. Bosses get tricked, students get short-changed, and teachers willing to lie get higher paying jobs than their more honest peers. Worst of all, it makes it tougher for real ABCs to get jobs. My (Asian-looking) friend Jack, who is from the same state and attended the same college that I did back home, is constantly questioned by his students’ parents. Despite the fact that his English (and Chinese) skills are pretty much identical to mine, they’re worried that he’s a fake.

For the record, my boss would love to get employees like Jack. He just won’t hire people like Jenny.

The whole concept of “race” in general annoys me. It’s horribly vague and imprecise. People base all kinds of ridiculous decisions based on it. Only when there are clear scientific distinctions, is it more tolerable to use race to separate people. The concept may be useful for doctors when dealing with certain specific race related ailments, but on the whole it’s not one that deserves all the attention than it gets. Especially in the orient, this concept is maddening. I must read something in the news or hear something on the radio about the “Chinese race” nearly every day.

The whole idea is a sham. “Chinese” is a nationality. “Chinese” is an (extremely broad) umbrella under which various cultural ideas are grouped. But “Chinese”, is most definitely not a race. Northern Han Chinese people share more genetic similarities with Japanese, Koreans and Mongols than they do with the southern Han. Similarly, southern Han Chinese people share more genetic similarities with Vietnamese than they do with the northern Han. Readers interested in this topic should see this technical, but very thorough explanation of the concentrations of various haplogroups in east Asian people.

Corollary 1: “Japanese” is not a race.
Corollary 2: “Korean” is not a race.

Taizhongers-03-2006
I went back to Taizhong today to hang out over at Patrick’s place. I met his wonderful wife, his exuberant children, as well as Michael Turton and family. There was also another blogger, by the name of Carl, whose URL I can’t remember. Like Michael, he’s also been in Taiwan for a long, long time. Everybody had interesting things to talk about, and it was a great time all around. Micheal snapped a few pics and put them up on his site. Check it out!

Update: The geeky tools Michael said I showed him are Google Finance and Zooomr.

Update: Patrick put up some more great pics on his new blog at http://thenebulonfry.com/

One of the most frustrating things about living in Taiwan (or anywhere as a minority) is all of the racism one sees. One of my good friends when I first showed up, was a black guy. He graduated from a school pretty much equivalent to mine, had good grades, and a degree in linguistics. Neither bŭxíbāns, nor high schools would touch him with a ten-foot pole. Seeing that his work opportunities were so terrible here, he left. Friends have told me not to buy clothes at Hang Ten, because “That’s where Thai people shop.” On one occasion, I was kicked out of my apartment for being white. The landlady wanted to “get rid of the foreigners”, but the Asian-American guy and the Asian-Canadian gal could stay. Stuff like that happens. It’s part of life. Most frustrating of all, is that nearly every Taiwanese person I’ve met is convinced that racism doesn’t exist here; it’s just a “western problem”.

One area in which I’ve seen particular prejudice is in hiring practices. When I first moved to Táibĕi and was looking for computer-related jobs, I was turned down for my whiteness on a number of times.

We’ll hire ABCs as programmers, but not lăowài. Would you like to do some editing on English versions of our technical manuals?

It was often the same story. Interestingly, the situation is frequently reversed in bŭxíbāns, where it’s an advantage to be obviously white (preferably blue-eyed). The Sesame Street and Joy branches where I worked only hired Asians and whites, no blacks. Kiki did the same thing, but took it further by only hiring Asians and whites, and keeping an all Asian (including ABC) management. At both Tomcat and Modawei, blacks were hired, but no Asians. I guess it’s because those schools require that the teachers can speak Chinese. Maybe it worries the parents to see Chinese-looking people speaking Chinese in an English class when there’s no fresh off the plane blond haired Canadian there to back them up. Since my school also requires that teachers explain things in Chinese (in lower level classes), I figured we had the same rules. But we don’t! Yesterday, I saw a new interviewee visiting our school. There were two things special about this teacher.

  1. She’s female!
  2. She’s Asian-looking!

I’ve never seen any women working at HFRBs, and all of the ones where I’ve previously worked also had “no Asian” policies (to the best of my knowledge).

I asked Ron about it today, and was really pleased with what he had to say. He won’t hire “Fake ABCs”- the Taiwanese people who study abroad for 4 years and then come back saying they’re from Los Angeles. He will consider any native English speaker from north America, who has the Chinese skills, the teaching skills and the stability to stay long enough to take classes from the basics to graduation, though. “Black teachers too, right?” I asked. “Yep, I refused to bend on that,” was his response. I guess his local partner leaned on him pretty hard to NOT accept any black, Latino, or S.E. Asian looking applicants, but he stood his ground. There’s no way he can guarantee that applicants will be able to overcome the racist stereotypes of the parents to the degree necessary to open classes. But, anybody who’s qualified has a shot at the job, regardless of race. I know it may not sound anything to brag about to some of my friends back home, but believe me—it is here.

When I was growing up, I loved the rain. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in Colorado, which has more days of sunshine than any other state in the US. In other words, I loved the rain because I didn’t get enough of it. Add in the fact that I used to regularly spend hours a day sweating away outside, wishing for a way to cool down, and it makes even more sense.

Now, I can’t even remember a single good thing about those supposedly wonderful “April Showers” of my childhood. I just have this vague idea that I used to have some idiotic fondness for it. It’s rained here every day for a week, and it’s nasty acidic rain. Worse still, I’m not a runner anymore. I don’t need to keep cool while exercising outside. I drive a scooter now. On a clear day, zipping around, weaving past stopped cars, and fleeing the bigger, more dominant vehicles on the road (with cockroach-like reflexes, I might add), is pretty fun! Doing the same while soaking wet, freezing one’s #@# off, and struggling to keep traction on the road isn’t. I could really go for an arid climate right about now…

I’ve often heard people talk about “investing ethically”. What they mean, of course, is that they believe in supporting companies that they feel do good things, or they at least avoid supporting companies that do bad things. The one crucial problem with this line of reasoning is that except in a few special circumstances, investing in a company doesn’t really “support” it at all.

This can be illustrated with a few examples. Let’s say that you are a wealthy investor and that company A sells children’s books. You feel that company A’s books are educational, wholesome, and deserving of your financial support. They earn $7 million per year, and are currently valued at $100 million dollars. Seeing some growth potential in the company and wanting to support their cause, you buy $1 million of company A’s stock. The question is, how much did company A earn from your million dollar purchase? The answer is nothing. They still earned $7 million dollars this year; the only difference is that you now own 1% of company A and they will pay you next time they issue dividends.

If company A’s business improves, you will make money from your investment; if it deteriorates, you will lose money. Either way, your effect on them is non-existent unless you buy the stock directly from them (e.g. in an IPO), or they decide to sell more shares after you’ve made your purchase. Had you simply bought a million dollars worth of books, you would have increased their earnings from $7 million to $8 million and had a huge effect on their business for the year. Investing though, won’t help them a bit. If their earnings falter, you’ll lose your money, but it won’t have done them any good.

Likewise, if you don’t want to support company B which sells oil refinery equipment, you’ll have to find a better way than just not buying their stock. In fact, even selling their stock would do nothing to them in the long run. Suppose Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, the Vatican, Opera Winfrey, and the estate of Colonel Sanders managed to secretly buy all of company B’s stock and then agreed to sell all of it on the open market at a prearranged time.

The stock price would plummet, yes, but company B’s earnings and business prospects would stay the same. Opportunistic people, such as myself, would recognize how under-valued the stock was and buy it at a fraction of its true worth. Very quickly, the stock price would climb back to its actual value, give or take a factor of two, and our sneaky “pentavirate” would have accomplished nothing more than throwing away their own money.

When it comes to ethics and corporations, I have to make rational choices. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the effect of my actions is too small to matter. It just means that making investments based on ethical evaluations of companies doesn’t make much sense. If there’s a company I want to support, I’ll buy its products. If I don’t want to support a company, I won’t buy its products. If it’s a really evil organization, such as the RIAA, I might even try to get others to boycott it or write to my congressional representative. However, barring an IPO or an SPO, I’d buy stock in any of the RIAA’s member companies if I found the valuation attractive. Heck, I might even be able to influence them with the voting privilages that came with the stock…

I’m not a big fan of blogging about politics. I see two problems that usually happen. The first problem is, everybody congregates towards bloggers who they agree with. Most political blogs link to several other political blogs that share the same views, of course. The result of this is that everyone can just vilify those they don’t like, and only rarely encounter or have to deal with sharply differing view points. The second problem is that when visitors of different view-points do show up, the result is usually nasty but rarely educational. Don’t get me wrong, I love to debate with people about politics, religion, and many other sensitive topics. When it’s in a more personal setting, people will often hear out opinions that conflict sharply with their own and sometimes even learn something new in the process. I just haven’t seen it work out so well online. People usually just get angry and learn very little. I don’t feel that way about the three political blogs I link to, of course. Even though all three are lean very strongly to one side or another, they’re run by people who are more open-minded and polite than I could be running a political blog!

Anyway, I recently took a quizilla quiz to see where it ranked me on the U.S. political spectrum. It ranked me right in the middle of the liberal half of the scale (i.e. halfway between moderate and “far-left liberal”). The thing is, it’s a pretty useless quiz. During the occasional online political discussions I do find myself involved in, I find myself arguing about all kinds of political topics with other people who have been placed on the exact same spot on the spectrum that I have! The problem of course is that the American definitions of “left” and “right” include such a motley assortment unrelated political and economic issues that most people don’t really agree with either “side”. I did some reading on the topic online, and found a much better political quiz, called the political compass.

The political compass is a two-dimensional representation of a person’s political views. It separates issues of political control such choice of religion, from issues of economic control such as taxation and welfare. This is from their site:

The old one-dimensional categories of ‘right’ and ‘left’ , established for the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789, are overly simplistic for today’s complex political landscape. For example, who are the ‘conservatives’ in today’s Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wing views of conservatives like Margaret Thatcher ?
On the standard left-right scale, how do you distinguish leftists like Stalin and Gandhi? It’s not sufficient to say that Stalin was simply more left than Gandhi. There are fundamental political differences between them that the old categories on their own can’t explain. Similarly, we generally describe social reactionaries as ‘right-wingers’, yet that leaves left-wing reactionaries like Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot off the hook.

I took the test and put up my results, along with the rankings of various world leaders and 2005 Canadian political parties for comparison.