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Last night, I went back to Taibei to play chess with my old co-workers. It’s kinda scary, really. They’ve all been playing regularly, Martin’s been reading books on strategy, and I fully expect to get left way behind in terms of ability shortly. Mike W. was there, though and the topic turned to gambling. As many of my friends know, Matt and I got really interested in poker, especially Texas Hold ’em. Matt wrote a program to analyze the strength of various opening hands against different numbers of opponents. I wrote a Perl program to help train myself to group various opening hands in terms of strength based upon where one is sitting. For example, if you’re in a 10 person game, sitting to the dealer’s left and holding an unsuited Ace-Queen, it’s time to fold. If you’re holding the same cards and sitting to the dealers right, you’ll definitely want to pay to stay in and see the flop.

Game Theory

Then game theory and optimal bluffing came up. Sometimes, there are situations in which a consistent strategy will always fail, and yet a somewhat random strategy, or a mixed strategy will prevail. It sounds irrational, but it is true. Mike asked me to explain it, and I wasn’t able to do so very clearly. So, I’ll have another go at it here. First, there are a few important distinctions to make, though.

Optimal Strategies vs. Exploiting Strategies

There are two kinds of strategies used in poker. In optimal strategies, the opponent is assumed to be strong and adaptive. Optimal strategies are evaluated based on how well they would fare against an optimal opponent. Exploiting strategies are designed to exploit a weak opponent as fully as possible. For example, if you play against a timid opponent who never calls, you can win money from him more quickly by bluffing every time (a strategy designed to exploit his weakness) than you could by using an optimal strategy. The bluffing strategy I’m about to describe is an optimal strategy that will work even if opponents know you do it.

An Example in Which Random Betting is Optimal

Imagine that you are playing a poker game in which the first four cards are dealt out face up, and the last card is dealt face down. After each new card is dealt, each player may bet and raise once. In this game, you and your opponent have just been dealt your final cards, there are $40 in the pot and he has bet $10. The maximum bet is $10.

Opponent’s hand:3♣ 3♠ 6♦8♣
Your hand:K♠ J♠Q♦10♥

There are 8 cards on the table. Your last card, which your opponent has not seen, is one of the 44 remaining cards in the deck. Of those remaining cards, any of the Kings, Jacks, Queens or Tens would give you a bigger pair than your opponent’s threes, and any of the Aces or nines would give you a straight. In other words, of the remaining 44 cards, 20 will give you a winning hand and 24 will give you a losing hand. However, you are still in the stronger position if you use an optimal bluffing strategy. Consider these three cases:

You Never Bluff

In 24 cases out of 44, you have the weaker hand and you fold. In the other 20 cases you bet $10. Your opponent, being a strong player, recognized that you do not bluff and never calls your bet. You win the $40 pot in 20 games out of 44. Since half of the money in the pot was yours to begin with, you earn $20×20 = $400. In the 24 games in which you fold, you lose $20×24 = $480. In the long run, if you employ this strategy, you’ll lose $80 every 44 times you play this way.

You Always Bluff

In 20 cases out of 44, you have the stronger hand and bet $10. Your opponent knows you always bluff, so he calls. You win $40 from the pot, plus his $10 from calling. Since $20 of the pot is your money to begin with, you win $30×20 = $600. In the 24 games you lose, you lose your $20 in the pot, plus a $10 bet each time. That’s a $30×24 = $720 loss. In the long run, if you employ this strategy, you’ll lose $120 every 44 times you play this way.

You Use Game Theory to Bluff an Optimal Amount

It is possible to use your opponent’s pot odds to determine how often to bluff. In this case, always bet on the 20 winning cards plus four of the 24 losing cards, and you’ll have the edge. It doesn’t matter how you determine when to bluff, as long as it’s random (at least to your opponent’s perspective). You could say, I’ll bet if I draw a winning card OR a two of any suit. You could ask your friend to give you a random number and then divide it by 24 and only bet on losing cards if the remainder were under 4. Anything random will work. Bet on the 20 winning cards, plus 4 losers. Unless you give tells or your opponent can crack your “randomization” scheme, there is no strategy he can employ that will give him the edge.

Your Opponent Folds When You Bet

You bet on your 20 winners, plus 4 of the losers. Your opponent folds every time, so you win $20 from the pot 24 times for a total of $480. You fold on 20 of the 24 hands in which your last card was a loser, losing $20×20 = $400. In the long run you’ll win $80 every 44 times this situation comes up against an opponent who folds.

Your Opponent Calls You

You bet on your 20 winners, plus 4 of the losers. Your opponent calls each time. On the 20 hands in which you really do have the stronger hand, you win the $20 he put in the pot, plus the $10 call. That’s a total of $30 x $20 = $600. On the four hands in which you bluff and lose, you
lose $30 x 4 = 120. On the 20 hands you fold, you lose $20 x 20 = $400. In the long run, you’ll win $80 every 44 times this situation comes up against an opponent who calls.

Conclusion

Don’t underestimate math geeks! By utilizing game theory, it is possible to construct a mixed strategy that can win in some situations when any consistent strategy would fail.

Notes: I realize that I didn’t address the possibility of the opponent drawing a 3rd three or a 2nd six or eight, each of which would beat a high pair, but not a straight. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. This is a simplified example. For a more realistic one, see the comments below.

The optimal bluff is calculated based on the pot odds your opponent would if you bet. Advantage is maximized when the odds that your bet is a bluff are equal to your opponent’s pot odds.

One peculiarity about Chinese ESL learners is that they usually want “English” names. Back when I was learning French, I didn’t take to calling myself Jean-marc; when I was learning Japanese, I didn’t call myself Taka. I just used my English name phoneticized into Katakana. I saw no need to change my name to learn a new language. Maybe I’d change the pronunciation, but no more. Most of my foreign friends from back when I was in the states were the same. Try telling my Japanese buddy Tomohiro that he should adopt an English name, like Tom and he’ll tell you he’s Japanese and that Tomo’s his name. The same went for my other friends, Yoshi, Naoki, Tadashi, Tomohiko, and even the notoriously unpronounceable Ryuta.

Chinese people aren’t like that. To suggest to a mother that she just allow her child to be called 專文 (zhuān wén) in my class, is blasphemy. She’ll insist that without a proper “English” name, the chance to “soak American culture” just won’t be the same. I’ve heard this opinion from dozens of parents. Heck, I even saw one kid who didn’t want an English name get in a yelling match with his dad over it. Nearly all the kids want English names, though. Some even want two.

Naturally enough, a lot of the “English” names they pick aren’t very English at all. I don’t think I ever met or heard of a single Coco before I came to Taiwan (though I did know a dog named Cocoa), but I must have taught or met at least 30 Cocos since coming here. The same goes for Kiki, Yoyo, Mimi, and several other popular “English” names here. I’m not really a big fan of these names, since they AREN’T going to familiarize the kids with commonly used English names. But, hey. If it makes them happy, then why not?

There is one kind of “English” name, though, that I can’t stand. It’s the mis-spelt name given by Taiwanese teachers from the public schools. My new students of this type have included an Anterny, a Cynphia, an Avy, a Jesper, a Weever, a San, and a Weanston. The problem with these “English” names, beyond the fact that they aren’t English, is that English speakers (including myself) always think that the kids are mispronouncing real names. I already have a lot of names to remember, and it really sucks trying to remember if Jesper is the one who insists that is name is pronounced as “Jeesper” or if it was Cynphia that insists she’s “Seenvia”. Worse yet, after practicing with each other for a few years, the kids will have the exact same problems with real English names. I don’t really want to be some sort of “cultural imperialist”, but there is a point at which I can’t take the Engrish. I sat the parents down and explained that their kids’ names were the result of letting non-natives with really screwed up phonics try to remember real names. At first they were incredulous. “Are you sure Weanston’s not a popular English name?” Fortunately, by the end, I got Cynphia to become Cynthia, Avy to become Amy, Jesper to become Jasper, Weever to become Webber, San to become Sam, and Weanston to become Winston. Anterny isn’t budging, though.

There are tons of ways to try to absorb American culture. Aside from Hollywood, there’s great access to US video games, children’s stories, American restaurants, American music… the list goes on. I’m not sure if picking an “English” name will help students assimilate any more of the culture or not, but I’m positive picking a name like “Weanston” won’t.

Tonight, I saw my old friends Aubrey, Lisa and Robb again. I’ve known Aubrey since middle school. Along with Jason and Dan, he was a constant member of my “group” since before our voices changed, before we were interested in girls and before we realized how unyielding reality is. In high school, several other friends including Robb and Lisa joined us as companions in role-playing, video gaming, fencing, martial arts, CCGs, board games and just about anything else we were involved in. Unlike many other groups of friends, most of us stayed friends through college and after. Heck, Aubrey and I even bought a house together when we were 20 and rented it out to our friends… We used to throw parties all the time. Some were big, with 30-50 college buddies, but my favorite ones were smaller. Things weren’t perfect, of course. But all in all, high school and college were good times.

DSC00015

It was both a great and a terrible feeling to see everyone again. On one hand, it was great to hang out. Lisa and Robb moved into a new house and have kept stable jobs after they got married, and now Aubrey’s studying bio-chemistry of all things, but they’re all pretty much the same as when I left. Aubrey is still one heck of entertaining conversationalist, Robb still has half-assembled computers on his living room floor, and Lisa is the same personable gal she’s always been. We all went out for Beau Jo’s pizza, had a lot of laughs, talked of old times and got caught up with each other. Tomorrow, I’ll see some of my best friends from college- Matt (who also lived in our house), Nicole (who ended up marrying Matt), and Mike. It will be a blast for sure.

And the bad part? Well, I guess seeing everyone has forced me to look at exactly how much following my dreams costs me. The whole time I’m in Taiwan saving up money, and later studying, I’ll be away from the friends who will be my friends for the rest of my life. I have an interesting job and I’m learning new things everyday. I know I’d be restless if I lived here now, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I think Neil Peart said it best,

It’s cold comfort
To the ones without it
To know how they struggled
How they suffered about it
If their lives were exotic and strange
They would likely have gladly exchanged them
For something a little more plain
Maybe something a little more sane

We each pay a fabulous price
For our visions of paradise
But a spirit with a vision is a dream
With a mission.

I’ve been actively participating in some discussions about the Japanese whaling issue over on Darin’s blog. I don’t want to discuss the ethics of hunting endangered species, nor do I want to get into the complex legal background of the issue. What I’m more interested in is this question: Do right and wrong depend upon culture?

In other words, could hunting endangered species be “wrong” in western countries, but “right” in Japan? Could inflicting pain on dogs to cause them to release chemicals that make them taste better be “right” in Korea, but “wrong” in Australia? Could creating absurd quantities of greenhouse gasses be “wrong” in Europe, but “right” in America? My feeling is that if something is “wrong”, it’s wrong regardless of culture. Maybe the things I listed above are all “wrong”, but only a little bit so.

Think about slavery. Would anybody actually defend slavery as just part of the “culture” in the southern states of the US 150 years ago? Could anybody defend the concentration camps and gas chambers in Nazi Germany, or the chemical and biological toxins experiments the Japanese performed on the Chinese during World War II as “culture”? Obviously, some things that large numbers of people think are ok, or at one point thought were ok, are still wrong. It’s my contention that relative ethics are no ethics at all. Still, boundary cases, such as cases in which one thing is good for an individual’s rights and another is good for society in general, require that conflicting values are weighed against each other. Obviously not all people and cultures will put the same weight on the same values. What are your views? Should you ignore what happens outside of your own culture and let other cultures decide what is right for themselves, or should you stand up for what you think is right?

I’ve been posting a bit on a great new Taiwan podcasting blog, Wan An Taipei. First off, let me say it’s got the potential to be a great blog, and that JT’s English pronunciation is good enough that I couldn’t tell he was Taiwanese through the first half of his podcast that I listened too. One thing that struck me as odd though, was the way he said 晚安 and then “Taipei” right together. I’ve seen the handouts at the airports saying to pronounce it “tie-bay”. I know tons of foreigners ignore those. Still, it sounded weird to hear a Chinese guy to pronounce a Chinese name in the middle of a Chinese sentence based on a messed up romanization of said Chinese word. To me it was kind of like and English speaker pronouncing “tennis” as “tennie” the way a French person would, but doing so in the middle of an English sentence. Maybe it would be like this: “Let’s play tennie if it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” JT asked for feedback on his site, so I told him it sounded weird to me. Today, he posted a great question:

Recently there’s a question that really intrigues me. Why is Taipei not “Taibei”? It’s actually the first time that came across my mind.

I spent a while writing what is possibly the longest comment I’ve ever written on someone else’s blog. Then, I decided that if I’m interested enough in the topic to write so much, it might as well go on my blog. Here’s my comment in its entirety:

The reason is this: in the past, Taiwan used a method of romanization called Wade-Giles. Wade-Giles uses apostrophes to denote whether or not a sound is voiced. For example, “p” in pinyin is “p`” in Wade-Giles, while “b” is “p”. In a similar way, “k” in pinyin is “k`” in Wade-Giles, and “g” in pinyin is “k” in Wade-Giles.

Unfortunately, the Taiwanese government decided to use Wade-Giles WITHOUT the apostrophes. As a result, it became impossible to distinguish between voiced and unvoiced sounds. All p’s and b’s, were written as p’s; all k’s and g’s became k’s; and all t’s and d’s became t’s. Thus, all words that would be “taipei”, “taibei”, “daipei”, OR “daibei” in standard pinyin became “taipei” according to the ROC.

When I first moved to 臺北 (tái bĕi), all of the MRT stations used this horrible system. For example, 古亭 was written as “kuting”. From this, it was impossible for me to tell if those characters should be pronounced as “kuting”, “kuding”, “guting”, or “guding”. It turns out the third choice was the correct one (gŭ tíng).

I cannot even begin to explain how many difficulties I had asking people how to get to places back when I didn’t know many characters. Fortunately for everybody, the mayor of 臺北 (tái bĕi) actually listened when a lot of foreigners complained about this problem 3 years ago. Unlike most politicians who felt that romanization should be based on political agendas, he actually considered the needs of the people romanization was originally made for (non-Chinese speakers who can’t read hanzi).

Now, nearly all of the street signs (in Taibei) and MRT signs have been corrected and now use standard pinyin. The one biggest exception is the word “Taipei”. Since it has been a well known name for a long time, it is much harder to change its written form to match the way it is pronounced. Just think how long it took people to start writing “Beijing” instead of “Peking”. It may be just as long before “Taibei” starts appearing on street signs.

If any of you are interested in how to write words in Wade-Giles, there is conversion chart on Wikipedia.

This piece is about ways in which Intensive Reading can be employed in the EFL classroom as well as in children’s native language classes. One way to understand Intensive Reading is by contrasting it with extensive reading. The goal of one exercise is to push oneself to build specific skills by taking on difficult material in a focused session, while the goal of the other is to spend as much time as possible reading and building a strong language base.

Intensive Reading

Nearly anyone who has taken a foreign language class in North America is familiar with intensive reading. Maybe you have to read a paragraph, or maybe you have to make your way through Le Petit Prince, like I once did. In either case, you’d be reading something with a great deal of vocabulary and/or grammar that is beyond your current reading ability. If your instructor is kind, maybe the vocabulary and grammar that is new to you will be glossed page by page. If not, you’ll be spending more time looking up a dictionary than reading. Assuming vocabulary is supplied for you, the most efficient way to do this kind of reading is to first drill yourself on the new vocabulary for an hour or so, and then read. Diligent students will be able to use the reading to learn 10 or maybe even 20 vocabulary words within a couple of hours. However, even they will probably be reading word by word rather than taking in the language a phrase at a time as they would reading in their native languages.

Advantages

Intensive reading has two key advantages. For low level readers, intensive reading is possibly the fastest way to build vocabulary. Some foreign language students are able to successful add 10 or more comprehension words per day. Additionally, reading difficult material forces a learner to develop strategies for for dealing with texts that are too hard to read comfortably.

Reading Strategies

When deciphering a difficult text, readers are forced to use a variety of strategies that they wouldn’t need while engaging in extensive reading. While these strategies don’t build overall language skills, they are very important for a learner’s ability to use what they do know. Skimming is critically important. Even travelers who may have only a basic knowledge of a language may need to read menus, look for an apartment or fill out forms. In fact, classroom exercises in doing just these tasks is an excellent way to build students ability to skim partially incomprehensible text. For younger learners, TV listings and search engine results are good tools. Dictionary use is another skill that can be developed through intensive reading. Equally important is guessing. Both children and foreign language learners often learn what words mean gradually as they make educated guesses when seeing it in context.

Drawbacks

The biggest drawback, by far, is the large amount of time spent reading a small amount of text.

nose hana

The meaning of a word can be broader in one language than another

While most people assume that this is necessary in order to be “learning”, it isn’t necessarily the case. Many studies have shown that the only way people really learn how to use new grammar or vocabulary correctly is by encountering them in a large variety of contexts. In other words, even after you have “learned” a word, it is still extremely beneficial to keep reading material which includes it. Words frequently don’t map one to one from one language to another. Take for example the word, “nose”. It seems like a simple enough word. It’s a noun and it refers to a body part that everyone in the world has, regardless of mother tongue. However, like many things in language learning, the word “nose” is much more complicated than it appears.

In Japanese, the word 鼻 (はな), means nose… sort of. Consider this sentence:


elephant

as for

nose

be
長い
long

but

pig

as for

nose

be
短い
short

.

“Nose” and “鼻” aren’t quite the same. Japanese doesn’t have any one word that means exactly the same as “nose”. The word for “nose” in Malay, “hidung” is different from both “nose” and “鼻”:

Gajah
elephant
panjang
long
belalainya
trunk.its
tetapi
but
babi
pig
pendek
short
hidungnya.
nose.its.

As we can see, “nose” applies to people, but not pigs or elephants; “hidung” applies to people and pigs, but not elephants; and “鼻” applies to all three.

Intensive reading, by its nature takes a lot of time. Reading material with a lot of new vocabulary and grammar is a slow and tiring process. As a result, even if you spend an hour a day reading (which quite a bit for a language student), you will only get 3 or 4 pages of input. As a result, you won’t encounter the word “nose” in enough contexts to realize when it’s used. This may seem like a small problem, but consider the fact that many, if not most, words cannot be mapped 1-1 from one language to another.

Words don’t have a 1 to 1 relationship between languages

The nose example may seem to be a hand picked, but I can assure you it’s not. While I was learning Japanese I encountered literally thousands of words that were just a little bit different than the English words into which they are commonly translated. Here’s one more thing to consider: The more common a word is, the more likely it’s usage (and conjugation if it has one) is irregular. Think of all the different meanings of the extremely frequently used word, “get”. Is there any other language in which “get up”, “get even”, “get better”, “get a new bike”, and “get to go on vacation” are all translated the same way? Worse yet, the forms of “get” are so irregular that not even American and British English agree on them.

What can be done about these misunderstandings? In most classrooms I’ve seen, intensive systems are used. This means that students not only have to try to memorize 50 words a week, but they are also told to memorize rules. “Nose” can be used for people, but not pigs, elephants or birds. If the “get” in your sentence means 變得 (biàndé), then you use an adjective to modify it (ie. get mad). If the “get” in your sentence means 到 (dào), then you have to use an adverb to modify it (ie. get home quickly). Can you remember all of these rules while memorizing new ones? Maybe. It’s sure not the most efficient way to go about learning a language, though.

Collocations

Another issue with intensive methods popular in textbooks is that of collocations. There are certain words we tend to use together and others that we don’t. For example, if someone asks how you are doing, both “pretty good” and “absolutely fantastic” would be natural responses. However, “pretty fantastic” sounds a little unusual to many English speakers and “absolutely good” would be a very strange answer. The reason isn’t due to grammar. It’s just that we use some words together more often than others. More rigid examples would be “crystal clear” vs “glass clear”, or “painful reminder” vs “aching reminder”. With a great deal of reading and listening, these collocations become second nature, but brute force memorization is daunting, time-intensive task.

An effective reading balance

I recommend investing a small portion of reading time (10%-15%) into intensive activities and making the remainder extensive. A small amount of intensive work will regularly inject new words and sentence patterns into the curriculum and extensive activities provide a wide base of reinforcement, input to model and cultural background.


This article is an updated version of one originally posted in 2005
The Malay example is from the 1999 ALT-J/M paper

At this point, just about everybody who follows the stock market at all has heard of Băidù, the Chinese search engine company whose shares rose from $27 to $150 on IPO day, setting a NASDAQ record. This same company’s site http://baidu.com is currently the 5th most visited site in the world. On top of that, the name Bǎidù supposedly comes from some nifty, classical Chinese poem. However, analysts are nearly universal in their critique that Bǎidù is over-valued. Goldman Sachs initiated coverage on Bǎidù last month with an “underperform” rating, valuing the dominant Chinese search engine at $27 a share. The market on the other hand, still values it at about $67 a stub at the time of this writing.

In this post, I’ll investigate two things:

1) What poem exactly did the name Bǎidù come from anyway?
2) Is the valuation fair? Should I invest in it directly or maybe just pursue indirect ownership through shares in google?

The Name

After sniffing around on baidu.com itself, I turned up this interview with the founder. (Those of you who can’t read simplified characters might like this tool.) After that, it didn’t take too long to come up with the original poem by 辛棄疾:

青玉案

東風夜放花千樹,更吹落、星如雨。

寶馬雕車香滿路。

鳳簫聲動,玉壺光轉,一夜魚龍舞。

蛾兒雪柳黃金縷,笑語盈盈暗香去。

眾裡尋他千百度。

驀然回首,那人卻在,燈火闌珊處。

The man was desperately searching for his loved one in a festival. In the red line above you can see the word 百度 bǎidù appears to be an intensifier. I’m no translator, so I’ll just go word by word:

In the crowd, I searched for her a with an intensity of a thousand-hundred degrees.

Or maybe like this: In the crowd, I searched a million faces (and didn’t see hers).

I can understand how this name would convey the intensity of their baidu.com’s search for your information, but is this really the image they should give users? Would anyone really want that kind of searching experience? You search a million times in failure, only to find what you were looking for later after you already gave up. It makes a good love poem, but if there must be something about the Chinese psyche I seriously don’t get if those connotations make for an appealing search engine name.

The Valuation

Let’s start by looking at their revenue and income for the last 3 years:

Financial Performance

200220032004LTM*
Revenue$1.3$4.7$13.4$21.5
Revenue Growth238%185%60%
Net Income($2.2)($1.1)$1.5$3.0
Net Income Growth100%

*Through 6/30/2005; revenue and net income in millions. Data from Capital IQ and Baidu.com SEC filings.

That revenue growth is nice. However, it is clearly decelerating. It’s not easy to keep up %50 growth for more than a few years. Looking at these numbers Baidu’s (Nasdaq:BIDU) current valuation of over 2.1 billion dollars looks absolutely insane. Let’s say we assume that BIDU remains a fast growing stock worth a P/E of 40 even after five years. What would earnings need to be to justify a market cap of 2.1 billion? The answer is, somewhere around $54 million per quarter. This would be to achieve zero growth in the market cap. I don’t know about you guys, but I want to see a good chance for at least a 20% yearly growth to even touch risky growth stocks like this one. In order to achieve that earnings would have to be as follows.

YearMarket
Cap
P/EEarnings
Need to Be …
Today$2,15040$53.5
2006$2,58040$64.5
2007$3,09640$77.4
2008$3,71540$92.9
2009$4,45840$111
2010$5,35040$134

This means that if Baidu were to receive a generous P/E of 40, it would have to grow earnings from its current 3M by 213% per year every year for five years. Looking up at the my first chart you’ll see that it isn’t even growing at that rate now. It seems pretty clear that Goldman Sachs knows what they are doing. Until you look at the history of similar companies when they were making similar earnings, that is.

CompanyYearRevenueNet Margin
Google2000$19.1 million-76.9%
Google2001$86.4 million+8.1%
Yahoo!1996$21.5 million-29.8%
Yahoo!1997$84.1 million-51.6%

Data provided by Capital IQ.

Google needed to get 4 times larger than Bǎidù’s current size before it was profitable. Yahoo had to get even larger than that to become profitable. While Bǎidù’s valuation of 2.1 billion is outrageous by traditional metrics, consider this: Yahoo is capitalized at 46 billion, or about 20 times what Bǎidù’s is. It’s only been nine years since Yahoo was earning 21.5 million, just like Bǎidù is now. Yahoo was losing money then, and Bǎidù is not. Just five years ago Google was earning what Bǎidù is now, and doing so at net losses. Google is now capitalized at 92 billion, or about 46 times what Bǎidu is.

CompanyYearRevenueProfit
(Loss)
Eventual
Market Cap
Yahoo!1996$21.5($6.4)$46 billion (9 years later)
Google2000$19.1($4.3)$92 billion (5 years later)
BaiduTTM$21.5$3.0???

Bǎidù is certainly run more efficiently than its predecessors. Not only that, but it is pursuing a MUCH larger market. The growth of China’s entire GDP has been triple that of the US for decades, and the differential in computer usage uptake is even greater. On top of all of that, tax burdens are MUCH lower in China than in the US.

Just as I’ve made very profitable investments in the past by ignoring the advice of wall street, I plan to do so again. The major firms have research at their disposal that individual investors couldn’t hope to match, and yet their “buy ratings” have underperformed the market consistently for decades. Searching a million times does no good if you’re searching in the wrong place .

Legal Disclai
mer: I own stock Amgen, and Middleby. I previously owned but do not currently own Apple. As of the time of this writing I do not own any interest in Yahoo or Baidu.

In Taibei there are quite a few schools of this type. There are also a few in Taoyuan; I don’t know of any in the south, though. Almost all of these schools are about the same. The first one was Mòdàwèi 莫大衛, started in the heart of Taibei, near Sogo, about 20 years ago by an Australian guy named David. He paid well, and was able to attract foreigners who could speak Chinese, could control a large class, would work hard, and would stay for a long time. As a result of having good teachers who stay from day one until graduation day 3 and a half years later, the students learned well. Studying at Mòdàwèi for one year was nearly as good as putting in three at a big chain school. Amazingly, with no marketing, Mòdàwèi grew into a large branch through word of mouth alone. However, David wasn’t interested in letting other teachers open franchises or other branches. One of the best and brightest of his teachers, a guy named Tom, eventually got tired of making a fortune for somebody else. So, Tom opened his own school, called Tomcat (湯姆貓), across the street. Nearly all of his students came with him. Naturally, being a bilingual foreigner with a great deal of teaching experience, and 200 loyal students, it wasn’t too hard to make a success of it. In fact, Tom later let his most experienced teacher, Rich, take over a branch. Around the same time, an American guy named James, a VERY good example of a black man who has made it as a teacher in Taiwan, was opening another Mòdàwèi clone called Cortland (科特蘭). As of now there are 8 Cortland branches and over a dozen Tomcat franchises. In addition, there have been at least 4 other schools started by former Mòdàwèi employees since Cortland that I know of. Mòdàwèi hasn’t grown much, but it’s still around. More importantly the HFRB (Hard-core Foreign Run Bŭxíbāns) style of teaching is here to stay.

Curriculum & Teaching Methods

These schools have a simple no non-sense curriculum structured around sentence patterns, core-vocabulary, and constant pronunciation coaching. The meat and potatoes of their classes is the Question Around the Room. In this exercise, first all of the students must stand up, then one student makes a question based on a certain grammar pattern. The student the asks another student who must answer and in turn make another question which will be answered by another student. It continues until all of the students have asked and answered a question based on whatever sentence pattern being practiced.

Unlike the big chains, these schools require correct pronunciation and have teachers who can tell the children how to correct their pronunciation. For example, if a kid is saying “How ahh you?”, the teacher will say, “Every time you see an ‘r’, you have to curl your tongue.” And he will say it in Chinese. Also unlike the big chains, KK isn’t taught at HFRBs. Instead phonics is taught the way we learned it back home: i.e. They learn about long and short vowels, basic phonics rules like “when two vowels go walking the first one does the talking”, and so forth.

One other major difference between HFRBs and other schools is that at HFRBs, the kids have to do their homework. If they don’t do it, they fail. Yes, kids actually can fail at these schools. Also, the teacher has to grade books and listen to tapes after class to ensure that the students are doing their work correctly. All of this work is unpaid.

Compensation

If you are in Taiwan to make money and you are a teacher, there is NO other place to be than bŭxíbāns of this type. At the time of this writing, Modawei, Cortland, and most of the Tomcat schools (but not all franchises) pay new teachers $600/hour during training, and $900/hour for teaching. $50 raises are given every six months up to a maximum of $1100 or $1200. After 2 years at Cortland, or 3 at Modawei, profit sharing bonuses are awarded every 6 months. Tomcat has pretty inconsistent rules about this. Bonuses can range from about $100,000 to $300,000 depending on a variety of factors.

Be warned that unlike lesser schools, these schools usually entail a significant amount of training. In the most extreme case, at Modawei some teachers have spent a full 6 months in training before opening their own classes. While training you can expect to put in a significant amount of time, and only make $65,000 to 70,000 per month. Once you have a full schedule you’ll make $100,000 per month and once you’re receiving the bonus you’ll likely make over $150,000 per month. If you become a branch manager or, better yet, open a franchise, you’ll make even more.

Requirements

It is only natural that a school that delivers superior education despite large class sizes and pays its staff well will also have high requirements. Unlike big chain schools who will basically hire any living & breathing young westerner they can get regardless of skills, HFRBs are quite a bit more selective. If you want to work at this kind of school you need some teaching experience, the confidence to control a class of up to 30 kids, and enough Chinese ability to teach them well and communicate with their parents. The most difficult requirement of all is that you must be willing to stay for at least 2 or 3 years. Not many foreigners in Taiwan want to do this, but having one stable teacher who can lead the students from ABCs to essay writing is perhaps the strongest point of all for HFRBs

A Word for the Wise

Naturally, businesses don’t tend to speak fondly of their competitors. However the level of animosity some HFRBs hold for each other is downright malevolent. Much of this is rooted in the fact that all of these schools were formed by rouge teachers who, feeling severely underpaid, left their original school and started their own schools nearby with their own kids. As a result, don’t be surprised if you see a non-compete agreement in the employment contract if you interview at one of these schools. I myself ran into a particularly egregious contract problem at a HFRB. My boss brought me into a room with 2 other managers, sat me down, and told me to sign a contract stipulating that ALL creations I make (at work AND on my own time) would belong to his school… OR ELSE! I have done a fair number of personal programming projects (Quake III mods, video editing, etc…) as well as essays, some of which relate to L2 acquisition. Signing this contract would have given them claim over any further works or, in other words, the whole creative output of my brain would have belonged to them. It would have also made it pretty much impossible to open my own school later on since they would claim that any curriculum I wrote was written during my employment there and was therefore theirs. Sometimes it doesn’t matter who is right if you don’t have money to defend a lawsuit. I didn’t sign the contract. About a week later I had an even better paying job at a school started by a former teacher of the school I’d just left.

I wrote the original version of this article in 2005 in order to share some of my experiences working as a foreigner teaching English in Taiwan. Since that time, I’ve taught at a wider variety of schools, designed a curriculum, done sales, managed and then later run a school as a 50% partner. Now that I have moved on from life in Taiwan and EFL, it’s time to share what I can to make the journey a bit easier for the current crop of foreigners moving to Taiwan. That way maybe they won’t have the same bumpy ride I did.

Are you here mostly to make money?

If your main reason for coming to Taiwan was to learn Chinese then obviously you won’t have the same goals as you would if you just finished liberal arts degree and came over here to pay off massive college loans. The same would be true if you came here to get to know your grandparents who didn’t move to immigrate to California with the rest of your family, or if you came because you’ve seen a TV show in Canada that made you want to teach in Taiwan.

I came to Taiwan with the goal of learning Chinese really well. It was slow going at first, but I never gave up. Like many others, I ran out of funds and had to become an English teacher. Like many others, I started at

Big Chain Schools

There are a few really dominant buxibans, or cram schools, in Taiwan. The biggest bŭxíbān is Hess (何嘉仁). Close behind are Kojen, Giraffe (長頸鹿), and Joy (佳音). Sesame Street (芝麻街) isn’t the force that it once was, but they’re still around. Most foreigners start out at one of these schools, and more than half leave within the first year. All of these schools are pretty similar.

Curriculum

They all have a decent curriculum despite some occasional English errors. On the whole, I’d say they’ve improved a fair amount in the past decade. For example, Hess books used to confuse the past participle “gotten” with the past tense form “got”. It would be ok if they were teaching British English, but they claim to be teaching American English (美語). As a north American, I can say it used to sound really weird when kids said things like, “He has already got back from the store.” After having spent most my adult life in Asia and having gotten a lot of exposure to people from England and the commonwealth, it doesn’t so much any more. Aside from these kinds of minor issues, outright Taiwanese Chinglish errors show up in texts from time to time, too. I’ll never forget the time I had at Joy English school when we came across the common Taiwanese mistaken translation of “toast”. According to their books, once bread is sliced, it’s toast. The idea of actually toasting it was alien… and worse yet since the kids had been misinformed by their local teacher, they didn’t believe me when I told them what toast actually means to English speakers! I also remember another mistake in a book for a GEPT prep class that had some passage about a bird escaping its cage during a birthday and “creating a small chaos”. Obviously this passage was not written by a native English speaker. One thing about the big chains is that they usually correct these kinds of mistakes within a couple of years. The problem is that the majority of their curriculum designers are Taiwanese natives who have majored in English. Unfortunately the correlation between a degree and a person’s ability in a foreign language are slim. A P.H.D. in the hands of someone who grew up speaking Chinese rarely means that they can write better ESL materials than native speakers could. So, while the curriculum mistakes are corrected as they’re found, there’s also steady stream of new Chinglish-ridden materials coming from the main office.

Errors aside, a lot of the materials are entertaining and well grounded in teaching the kinds of English that Taiwanese children will be able to relate to. I would love to see more reading as opposed to brute force vocabulary memorization. Unfortunately, most schools expect perfect spelling skills just as soon as students have reading comprehension of a given word.

Teaching Methods

This is the real weakness of the big chain schools. Every single one pushes the “100% English” method, which involves having “real foreigners” (with blond hair and everything) speak nothing but English, flapping their arms to communicate the word “chicken”, and giving dramatic renditions of the actions of “crying”, and “sleeping” if necessary. This method of teaching was very popular amongst linguists about 40 years ago. However, due to very poor results, it has long since been dropped by L2 acquisition linguists. Modern research shows that other methods such as Massive Comprehensible Input are much more effective. The key word here, is comprehensible. By denying teachers the option of using the children’s native language to explain things, the children will either require more time to learn the same material, cover it as quickly but with much worse understanding, or worst of all misunderstand it. Naturally, enforcing homework, inspiring the class and pronunciation coaching all suffer as well. I was responsible for giving entrance tests at a couple of my old schools, and I often saw children who had spent 4 hours a week for 4 years at a big chain school fail the skills we taught in the first 6 months. Sadly, most students who have invested a years of their lives, not to mention their parents’ money, are deficient in all sections of the exam: grammar, listening comprehension, spelling, phonics, and pronunciation.

Effectiveness of the teaching is only one factor amongst many in determining a school’s success.

Compensation

Most big chains pay about $600 per teaching hour. Usually, if you have 4 hours of paid work in a day, you’ll also have about 30 minutes to an hour of prep work to do, too. Sometimes there are Christmas parties and the such. The biggest schools usually pay for these, but some don’t. If you are interested in finding this sort of job, check out the listings at tealit.com.

Requirements

In my original writing of this article I said that “if you are white, under 40, eligible for a visa and not hideously deformed, all you have to do to get the job is show up for the interview”. This isn’t as true as it used to be in Taipei. Still, many teachers who have no experience at all a questionable grasp of their own language have few problems getting a job. Most schools prefer Americans, but a British accent won’t stop you from getting a job at any of the big schools or even very many of the smaller ones. After all, many South Africans are doing very well in Taiwan.

Can I still teach English in Taiwan if I’m an ABC?

If you are Asian-looking, you may encounter more difficulties at first… especially if you don’t know any Chinese at the beginning. I’ve had several friends in this situation. Take heart, though! Your Asian looks are a tremendous advantage if you want to learn Chinese. I can’t even begin to enumerate the times people ignored my near-fluent Mandarin and directed their replies to my non-Mandarin speaking ABC or even Japanese friends!

And it’s doubly advisable for you to learn Chinese. Once your Chinese is moderately good, you’ll be very employable not only as a bŭxíbān branch manager, but there will also be opportunities as a programmer, fitness trainer, sales rep, journalist or a number of other interesting jobs. I’ve had three Asian-looking foreign friends who were bŭxíbān managers, one who managed at California fitness, and two others who worked their way up at tech companies fairly quickly. Though you will face “reverse” racism as an English teacher, racism will be all in your favor once you make it into management. There is occasionally an odd phenomenon of locals who feel that ABCs are “arrogant” about speaking English, but I think that’s mostly sour-grapes and insecurity. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ABCs, are at the top of the social ladder. You will be assumed to be more educated, cooler, etc… than other locals. It’s no co-incidence that many of Taiwan’s biggest stars grew up in California.

If you are black… all I can say is that you face an uphill battle. One of my friends from back home came here after completing a degree in linguistics. Despite being more qualified than I am, he had great difficulties in getting a job. It is possible, but you’ll really have to be the best at what you do and dress well to even get your foot in the door. That said, my manager at Modawei was black and he was loved by students and teachers both.

Big Chain Kindergartens

In most ways these are about the same as the bŭxíbāns. The only difference is that you will probably have less prep time required of you, and you’ll have to do more special events like Christmas plays, etc…

Teaching Methods

The teaching methods are about the same as those in big chain bŭxíbāns, but usually with more singing, exercises, coloring and such. Actually most of the big chains run kindergartens in addition to their bŭxíbāns. There are a few big chains like Happy Marion (快樂瑪麗安) and Kid Castle that just do kindergarten.

Compensation

The pay is sometimes a little bit lower than it is for bŭxíbāns. $550-$600 starting is the norm.

Requirements

Kindergartens can be hard on the voice; make sure you take care of yourself. Also, don’t expect the kids to learn much. Just try to keep it fun for everyone. One other thing is that even at schools that don’t let you speak any Chinese, you’re better off if you can understand a bit. Otherwise you may find out that Chinese sentence the kid in front of you was saying wasn’t, “what’s that thing?” It meant, “Ughh…. I’m gonna puke all over you.”

Public High Schools

There is definitely a big variety in the English teaching jobs within the public school system. There isn’t much central planning, or if there is, it’s not effective. In theory only high schools can hire foreigners directly, but in practice many middle schools and a few elementary schools do too. At most schools there is only a very bare-bones curriculum and the teacher is left to his or her own devices. Speaking some Chinese is usually but not always tolerated. Classes usually have a HUGE variance in English proficiency. Some students are also attending bŭxíbāns, or did in the past. Those who haven’t are, naturally enough, way behind.

Compensation

At public schools, there is large variance in not only pay, but also in duties. Many schools require that you stay from 8:30 A.M. until 5:00 PM and grade tests, help the local teachers with their English, or perform other administrative duties. Usually the pay is a salary between $65,000 and $80,000 per month.

For Long-term Foreigners in Taiwan

Do you want to make $1.5 million (about $50 thousand USD) or more a year while only working part-time? Do you want to be on a career path that will allow you to open your own school and make still more while staying in Taiwan? Do you want your kids to really learn to speak English really well? If you’re willing to learn some Chinese and stay at the same school for a few years, there’s another kind of school where you can. I described it in this article.

As a caveat, I should point out that this is not easy. It takes hard work, and a time investment in training that most teachers aren’t willing to make. Once you get through that, though, it’s a pretty great gig to have.

Trends in the English Teaching Market in Taiwan

There are two trends that have made the EFL market much more competitive than it used to be. First of all, Taiwan has one of the lowest if not the lowest birth rate in the world. Last I checked it was 1.1 children per woman. Unsurprisingly, even public schools are merging classes and hiring fewer teachers. As the primary market for EFL in Taiwan has been children, the demand for EFL classes is down. At the same time, there are more westerners than ever living in Taiwan. It’s a wonderful place, people are nice, there’s health care, there are convenience stores on every block… more and more foreigners are deciding to settle down for good. Some are even trading in their original passports for shiny new Taiwanese ones! Since most foreigners in Taiwan don’t learn that much Chinese, their primary long-term jobs are either teaching or opening western style restaurants or bars. The supply of EFL classes is up.

This means that teaching jobs are harder to come by than they used to be. It’s still not difficult by any means, but just being a foreigner doesn’t yield the bargaining position that it did 10 years ago… or that it does for teaching in China now. When I moved to Taiwan at the end of 2002, it was probably the best place in Asia for a teacher to save money, along with Korea. Now it’s just the best place to live.



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I’ve noticed a bunch of you are looking for teachers or jobs in the comments.

Here’s a document for you to add yourself to instead 😀