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One of the great things about teaching EFL is seeing the different responses of each class to the same material. My old Monday/Thursday class finished reading Pocahontas (the 45 page Oxford Bookworms version) a bit back, and they enjoyed it quite a bit. One student had a few difficulties with all the new words, and the Indian names in particular, but even she got into it by the end. The interesting thing with this class, though, was their reaction to the story.

Most classes talk about how they think it was great that Pocahontas lived with in Jamestown and learned English, or how it was exciting that she went to England, or how John Smith should have married her, or how the Indians should have killed the English settlers. Not this class, though. Nope. All they wanted to talk about was how bad John Smith was. And not for how he handled the Algonquin, either. Nope. He was veeeerry bad because he went back to England while nearly dying from an illness and didn’t send a letter to Pocahontas, who was only 14 and didn’t know how to read yet anyway. What an insensitive jerk!

Over the last month, I’ve really noticed Scribd taking off. It seems like it’s just about got the critical mass it takes to go big time. To the right is a map comparing its traffic with Reddit’s [1].

Today, I found an old George Orwell essay about the way advances in weaponry have tilted the balance of power towards authoritarians or libertarians. Specifically, he speculates on the political and social effects of the atom bomb.

It’s a thoughtful essay, and now that it’s been 72 years since he wrote it, it’s interesting to see how accurate his predictions were.

Note: Click on on the Scribd button and it will take you to it in on their site.

[1]: Reddit and Scribd are both Y-combinator start-ups. I can’t believe how many cool things Paul Graham has his hands into.

It was 10 years ago that Hong Kong returned to the mainland. It was also the first time in my life I had gone over-seas. I came to Taiwan, hoping to learn something about myself, and hoping to experience something really different than the life I knew back in Colorado. With very little planning, no ability to speak Chinese, and no idea what to expect, I put the plane ticket on my credit card and came for a few weeks.

At the time, it was a breath-taking experience- the humidity, the Chinese written everywhere, and the rain. It was pouring when I got to the train station. I don’t know how the heck I managed to find a youth hostel, but I did. It was a run-down place named “Happy Family” up on the fifth floor of a concrete building. I must have been quite a sight when I got to the top. A gangly hundred and sixty something pounds, lugging three suitcases, dripping wet and grinning like crazy.

In the hostel I met all sorts of free-spirited people who had abandoned various degree programs or goals to become travelers. There was a bare-chested Canadian guy with long curly hair, who had dropped out of school because he was sick of just reading about anthropology and wanted to see something. There were a pair of Australian girls who were interested in New Age philosophy and wanted to learn something about Chinese traditions. There was a middle-aged American guy who came for a fresh perspective on life after his wife had left him. Dozens of others were just stopping by for a couple of months to fund the next leg of larger travels.

Everything about those weeks I spent here is etched into my memory. What strange, though, is to be able to examine those same memories from my current perspective. I couldn’t understand much Chinese at all then. By necessity, a great deal of my contact was with with the foreigners in the hostel. The area around the train station was torn up for construction and I didn’t know why. At the time I never would have imagined that I’d return to Taiwan six years later, much less still be here now, another four years after that.

I watched the Hong Kong handover on TV then. Seeing it again on Youtube now brought back this wave of nostalgia.

That trip changed my life. There’s no doubt about it. It was my first time going anyplace truly alien. It was the first time I shaved my head (actually the two Australians shaved it for me). It was the first time I went to a bar or a dance club. It was the first time I really got the idea that entire huge places are filled by people speaking a foreign language. If I hadn’t come to Taiwan, there’s no way I would have abandoned my math major for linguistics and then later Japanese.

Related: Former HK Administrator Chris Patten Reflects on the HK Handover (The Guardian)

During the time I’ve been living in Taiwan, I’ve occasionally been shocked at the way Hitler is portrayed here. His image has been used by (completely ignorant) marketers, and there have been occasional restaurants and exhibitions themed in a way that could never happen in many countries. A couple of years ago, a Chinese video game of the same genre as Civilization had Hitler as one of the playable characters. Still, it came as a shock when I heard that a group of college students here have actually formed a Nazi association.
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In Taiwan, it seems that media is even more partisan than it is back in the States. Recently, the Liberty Times, a pro-Taiwan independence newspaper, suggested that English speakers not use the phrase “Chinese New Year” and that they replace it with “Lunar New Year. Here is an excerpt from the article:
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It’s often said that history is written by the victors. Most of the time, when people say this, they are referring to victors in war, not politics.
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From the time I started writing this blog, my intent has been to make an apolitical blog. Truth be told, I’m not a very political person, and I don’t like politics. There comes a point, though, when I feel I have to take a stand, and my one vote back home isn’t enough. Just continuing to write letters to my representatives isn’t enough. About hundred and fifty people read this blog each day, and from what I can tell from sitemeter, about 40 or 50 are Americans. If I don’t speak up now, it may be hard to forgive myself in the future.
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A few days ago, John (of Sinosplice) sent me a link to an article titled, “How public education cripples our kids, and why“. Interestingly, it was written by John Taylor Gatto, former New York State and New York City teacher of the year. He goes into a long explanation about how public schooling is used more as a tool for promoting social conformity than as means to an education. Quite a bit of the article rang true in my ears. Indeed, I’ve found a very large disconnect between schooling and education in my own life. continue reading…

Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder how we got from there to here. How did Bill Gates end up becoming the richest and arguably most powerful man on the planet? For anyone old enough to remember computers before the Microsoft era, it’s pretty amazing. At pretty much every step along the way they’ve had the inferior product, but still managed to prevail due to “sharp” business practices. Here’s a time-line of how MS has used leveraged monopolies to win in markets they couldn’t otherwise dominate.

Digital Research Inc.

In the early 90’s, DRDOS rose up as a popular OS. At the time, the market had been split between a clunky IBMDOS and MSDOS. Digital Research’s product, DRDOS had features that were clearly superior to the competitors. Most notably, DRDOS 6.0 was not bound by 640k ram limit that hobbled MSDOS. According to Microsoft’s own documents and internal email messages, DR DOS 6 was a superior product to their own upcoming “MS DOS 6”, it was cheaper, and it would be out first. Fortunately for them, Windows 3.1 was a big hit. All they had to do to save the OS was break the law.

Microsoft’s David Cole emailed Phil Barrett on September 30 1991:

“It’s pretty clear we need to make sure Windows 3.1 only runs on top of MS DOS or an OEM version of it,” and “The approach we will take is to detect DR DOS 6 and refuse to load. The error message should be something like ‘Invalid device driver interface.”

Sure enough, that did the trick. By leveraging one monopoly, and lying to customers who called tech-support, MS defended their OS market.

Novell

Novell acquired WordPerfect in March 1994. At the time, WordPerfect was the undisputed standard in word processing. Try as it might, Microsoft simply couldn’t make head way with its MSword. In fact, even after windows 3.1 was in wide use, WordPerfect 5.0/5.1 for DOS was hugely popular. People liked it enough to buy a DOS word processor, even though they had already paid for windows.

However, things changed sharply with the release of Windows 95. After crushing Digital Research and IBM, Microsoft truly had monopolistic power in the domain of operating systems. Microsoft used this power to steal the word processing market, and this is how: they closely guarded their APIs until Windows 95 was released, and they shipped Word for Windows on the same day. It took Novell months to perfect a Windows 95 version of WordPerfect, and in that time they lost their market share. To be sure, many loyal WP users continued to buy their product. However, with MS Office shipped pre-installed on so many computers, it was not possible to regain their market… regardless of which product was “better”.

Netscape

In 1996, the Netscape Navigator was the ubiquitous browser of the new-born web generation, Marc Andreesen’s picture was on the cover of Time Magazine, and a new era was beginning. Microsoft’s had completely underestimated the web and feared for its future. First, it acquired one of Netscape’s competitors, and then it improved it and marketed it as the “Internet Explorer”. IE was a complete failure for over two years. Netscape was the standard, and its built-in javascript was a hit.

Microsoft had a solution, though. All it had to do was break the law… again. Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer into Windows 98. After that, everyone who had Windows (over 90% of all computer users), would have IE immediately and not have to download anything. Microsoft could afford to do this of course, because it made billions on its OS and word processing markets. Netscape on the other hand, found it impossible to compete with “free” and “pre-installed”. Especially since Microsoft bullied vendors who tried to pre-install it. IE won and then Microsoft, despite all of its claims of innovation, stopped adding features into IE for years. Mozilla has had tabbed browsing and javascript pop-up blocking for five years, but IE still doesn’t. Only the recent threat from the Mozilla foundation’s Firefox has got them started working on it again.

Real Media

In mid 1999, Real Media was had over 85% of the video on demand market. It was high flying IT company making waves in both the tech and general media. Both Apple and Microsoft made competing products, Apple Quicktime and the Windows Media Player, but neither were making much headway. What did Microsoft do? Can you guess? They bundled it into the OS! What does breaking the Sherman Anti-Trust act matter one more time after doing it so profitably for so long, anyway? Windows ME, had the Windows Media Player built into the OS. It can’t be uninstalled, and it’s the default choice for any video content. Real is currently on a long downhill slide, and will likely never again be dominant.

ICQ/AOL/Korea’s previously dominant messenger

Once again, Microsoft took a product in a market in which they were losing badly and bundled it into the OS. While Microsoft still trails ICQ/AOL Instant Messenger (which merged), it’s only a matter of time. Everyone who buys a windows based computer (which make up well over 90% of PCs) has the MSN Instant Messenger. Messenging being what it is, you have to use the same software everyone else does. I give it two years tops before Microsoft owns this market, and innovation in it grinds to a standstill.

Personally, I hope the EU grows a pair of balls that the US didn’t have and punishes MS for each and every law they’ve broken. As for Korea… it’s hard to say. Microsoft has suggested that it could simply stop selling in Korea. I’m sure it won’t come to that as the last thing they want to do is drive a tech-loving, mostly developed country into the arms of Apple or open source, but a small country doesn’t have the kind of power it takes to restrain Microsoft.

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.