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What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog
Part 2: meeting other bloggers (you are here)
Part 3: how blogging helped me as an entrepreneur
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging


Blogs were popping up everywhere in 2005

Soon after I started writing this blog, and sharing one post about teaching English as a foreign language in Taiwan, other bloggers started adding me to their blog lists. Notably, John of Sinosplice added me to his China Blog List and Michael Turton of The View from Taiwan added me to his massive blogroll.

From there, people started showing up and commenting. Even with only 300 visits per day, I often got 20 or more comments on a post. This seems to have been more common back before Facebook sucked up so much of people’s online writing time. It was an interesting time since nobody really knew what blogs were or were supposed to be, but it was very social.

Meeting the actual bloggers

It wasn’t long before, I started meeting this site’s commenters in real life. In Taiwan, there were a number of meetups. When I visited Shanghai, John put me up at his apartment for a week! In Beijing, I met David (then running Adsotrans), Brendan (a more fantastically talented foreign learner of Chinese than I’d imagined existed) and a number of other online friends. Other online friends, like Angelica actually moved to Taiwan from elsewhere and ended up in my offline social circle.

It was an odd world. In 2006, none of these people, except maybe John were making any money online and everyone’s focus was on the ideas they wrote about. Though some of us wrote about language learning or ourselves, others wrote mostly about politics, photography or travel. And we all put each other on each other’s blogrolls—lists of links to other bloggers on the side of our sites—just because we were foreigners with websites in Taiwan (or China). Sure there were some overlapping circles and others that didn’t. Some of the Taiwanese bloggers focused on politics weren’t adding a bunch of China bloggers to their blogrolls. They probably weren’t adding TEFL blogs from outside of Taiwan that I was following either.

People were almost always wonderful

It was really refreshing and eye-opening seeing how nice everybody was. I had originally created this blog with the goal of helping other teachers and students, but for some reason I hadn’t expected the internet to reciprocate.

Other than being offered a place to crash when I visited China, I got immeasurable help from people who had learned more Chinese than I had, people who knew more about getting around Taiwan, people who knew more about running a blog, people who knew more about programming and people who were just really friendly in general. People I met on this very site helped me find apartments, set up websites, set up a business in Taiwan (which was an entire story itself) and all kinds of other things. Even the people who constantly argued with me helped sharpen my ideas about language teaching and my understanding of cultural differences and local politics.

Arguing on the internet

duty calls

XKCD: Duty Calls

Given how many bloggers in Taiwan at that time were focused on politics, it’s inevitable that there were arguments. It wasn’t just politics, though. For me, the longest and most contentious arguments were about language teaching and search engines. I also argued about using standard Pinyin. Actually, my biggest comments on politics generally revolved around issues that related to foreigners in Taiwan, which included romanization. At the time, the DPP very much wanted to adopt or create a romanization system different from China. Due to squabbling and repeated attempts at this, the signs were really confusing for me before I knew enough Chinese to understand the characters and I hated that. “The locals don’t read romanized signs anyway!” I thought. At one point, I had a protracted debate about the merits of including tone marks on signs!

All in all, I feel the online arguing was worthwhile but that there were rapidly diminishing returns. It was fantastic for getting new ideas and seeing how others thought of my ideas. On the other hand, habitually digging in and making a third pass at an argument is very costly, not only socially but also in terms of personal growth. I certainly don’t agree with everything I’ve written here in the past, and in more than one case I’ve gone back and appologized to people I’d interpreted uncharitably in the midst of a disagreement.

The dark side of online visibility—safety concerns

Given how blogs and the internet in general make it easier to put oneself in an echo chamber filled with agreeing voices, online communities tend towards polarization. Paul Graham, a prominent essayist, believes the effect goes far beyond online communities and is a society-wide refragmentation. I think he’s probably right. People, at least within the US and the Anglosphere generally, have diverged into increasingly separated cultural camps. Nowhere is this more visible than in online mob behavior. Twitter has probably been a net positive, but it’s very possibly 45% destructive.

The absolutely most unpleasant experience I’ve had on this site was with a certain person from a country in the southern hemisphere who had an online presence in Taiwan. We had a disagreement which had originally seemed a hope trivially minor misunderstanding—I had corrected a couple of minor errors in what he’d written about me on his site—but his reaction was over the top. He left disturbing sexualized messages both in my email and voice machine, and contacted my business partners threatening to sue over a blog post. Years after I had moved away from Taiwan and I’d had no contact with him whatsoever, he emailed out of the blue swearing to follow me the rest of my life, to ruin it and that if he had half a chance he’d “pay somebody to knock me off”.

Though I had heard others speak of his behavior enough times that I knew I was far from the only person on the internet he’d unexpected flipped out, it was terrifying. I lived in a different country than he did, so there wasn’t a completely credible death threat or anything concrete that the police in the US could do. That one blog post that upset him is the only one I’ve ever taken down at someone else’s request.

I feel hesitant to write about the experience even without naming the individual. Hopefully this serves as an alert to my peers who might think that only huge or exceptionally contentious sites have real risk associated with them.

Also, FWIW, writing online has been a net positive despite this experience.

Lasting bonds

One really great thing about an online presence, or putting yourself out there in general, is that you can choose who you want to spend more time with and who you don’t. I didn’t like everyone I met. Guess what? I don’t follow them online or hang out with them now! Conversely, most of the people I got along with best in 2006 are still friends. Some are close friends, some are weak ties and others are just people I’ll follow online.

I many ways, this is the good side of the societal “refragmentation” mentioned above. In this past decade more than ever, people have been able to find kindred spirits and form like-minded communities.

Next is Part 3: 3 Comments Read more

The newest version of the Sinosplice Tooltip plugin for WordPress is out! I chipped in and helped John and Andy a little bit this time with code from my pinyin tools, so it now displays pinyin with tone marks in its pop-ups.

If you have a wordpress blog and you ever put Chinese phrases into your posts, this is definitely worth checking out. With the plugin, you can enter translations or pinyin to pop-up when when your readers mouse over the Chinese characters in your post.

Here’s an example: 中秋節

You can download the plugin at its page and you can see a usage and installation tutorial on Sinosplice.

Over the years, I’ve offered an extra bed or at least a couch to a number of online friends who have stopped by Taipei or wherever I happened to be living. I’m not sure my grandmother would approve, but I think the conventional wisdom about is wrong on this topic. The risks are mostly over-stated and the benefits are often overlooked. People are mostly good and on the whole and as far as I can tell, helping travelers out is a net gain for both the traveler and the host.

The online friends I’ve invited over fit into three groups. Some, such as Brian, keep mostly to themselves, spend a lot of time on their laptops blogging or doing whatever it is they do and don’t really impact my routine one way or the other. Without exception, they’re always good for an interesting conversation or two. Hosting them is definitely a net positive. The second group are people like Darin. They make plans to come and I offer them a place to stay, but then they end up canceling the trip. Nothing is lost and nothing is gained… except maybe an increased chance of them offering me a place to stay when I visit the country where they live. The third group is those like my friend Wayne who end up becoming great friends and hanging out with me regularly for months or even years. That’s not only worth it, but it’s enough to upset the risk of a really bad guest (which I haven’t experienced yet).

One other thing that has been absolutely wonderful is that an unusually large number of people have let me crash at their places. John, when I visited Shanghai, PR when moving in Taipei, Matt before I left Colorado and now Ben in Kunming. I can’t really draw any connection between me having other guests at my place and them inviting me to stay at theirs, but if I did believe in earthly karma this experience would certainly reinforce that belief.

Matt has republished some of our best iDrone posts:

Writing an accumulator generating function in Ruby (Mark Wilbur)
Thoughts on the Subset Sum Problem (Matt Ball)
On Google’s Evilness (John Pasden)
The Perfect Programming Language (Matt Ball)

We had some serious geekery going there while it lasted.

A couple days ago, Ryan and John pointed out to me that they had some usability issues with the color of the links on my site when you hover over them. I had been making them white, but that was just too hard to read on the light background of the site, especially for on some displays.

In a nod to all of the help and advice John’s given me, I immediately set the a:hover style to “Sinosplice Green“, i.e., the background color of John’s site that he’s been using since the bronze age of blogging. I was been busy with the school, and Google Docs had basically wreaked a gigantic curriculum document I’d been working on. There just wasn’t time to think about it. I just had to pick something that was readable. The only problem is that that particular color (#363) is ugly on this site. After giving my students a few new chapters in their textbook and getting their CDs burned yesterday, I finally had a little bit of time to turn my attention to fixing up my site a bit.

I ended up choosing just plain old blue for my link hover color. But, once I start fixing things, it’s hard to stop. As soon as I settled on blue for my links, I started getting irritated by other usability problems. For one, there were forty comments on my post about SEO. Most of them were from people, but a lot of comments were also just trackbacks from other people linking to the site. It was kind of hard for me to follow the discussion thread and read through them. In other words it was time to edit my comments.php and see what could be done.

Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Comments are now numbered.
  2. Comments made by me are now light blue, #eef, to be precise.
  3. I’m not quite sure what the difference between a trackback and a pingback is, but they’re pink now.
  4. All other comments still alternate between normal (#eec) and lighter (#ffd) shades.

Now, it’s easy to tell refer to comments by number, it’s clear which of them are from the me and which are from guests, and it’s easy to skip over trackbacks and pingbacks while reading a thread. I’m pretty happy with it, but feedback and suggestions about the layout are more than welcome.

For those curious about how I did it, I’ve posted the code below: continue reading…

Toshuo.com is in the process of changing hosts. Soon it will all be hosted on Dream Host, thus making it one of the cool kids again. I’ll have over 1.7 terabytes of bandwidth a month, too! Details will follow shortly!

Update: The migration is complete! Toshuo.com, as well as all of my other sites and the sites I’m hosting for other people have been moved. Bandwith is now virtually unlimited, and there’s over 175GB of disk space allocated to me as well. It’s also a $2/month cheaper than Hostgator, and automatically comes with full shell and support for Ruby on Rails, among other things. Thanks to John, for prodding me to make the switch.

When John recently designed a “please speak Chinese” T-shirt, I was immediately tempted to buy one. I always love it when locals talk to me in Chinese, instead of trying to use English first.

普通话

Putting this on a shirt worn by a foreigner is cool on multiple levels. Not only does it demonstrate that the foreigner can speak Chinese, but it is also a play on a PRC campaign that used the exact same line to encourage the Chinese to use Mandarin as opposed to Cantonese or any other local dialects. The only problem is that the shirt would be weird to wear in Taiwan. Nobody here uses the phrase 普通话, or even simplified characters for that matter.

As usual, John had a great idea that was in serious need of some Taiwan-ification. That’s where TC came in. He reminded me that there’s a completely analogous phrase that was plastered all over Taiwan for decades. It was even used for the same reason- getting Taiwanese people to speak in Mandarin instead of the Minnan, or “Taiwanese” dialect.

國語

I decided on the spot that it was time to design a Speak Mandarin shirt that can be worn with pride on either side of the strait. And in TC’s honor, I made one more shirt fitting for a foreigner who actually became Taiwanese.
(Readers have pointed out that former president Lǐ Dēnghuī introduced this phrase 新台灣人. Later, Mǎ Yīngjiǔ, a Hong Kong man by birth, gained popularity in proclaiming himself to be “New Taiwanese”.)

台灣

New Taiwanese Person
Speak Mandarin

You can see a full list of my designs at the newly created Toshuo Shop.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been thinking about making an online drill for Mandarin tone pairs. I don’t think I’m very unique in that I had the four tones down within in pretty short time as long as they were in isolation, but struggled with pairs of tones for a long, long time. The homework book for Far East Everyday Chinese I included a pretty useful drill for pairs of tones, that got the wheels turning in my head. It was really useful for me, and it’s not really anything that would have been that difficult to put online. Being the procrastinator that I am though, it’s still not done.

Fortunately for all of us though, John had the exact same idea years earlier and got it done. He just put up a new section, titled “Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills” ,on his site.

The main idea behind these drills is that learning tones of individual characters is not enough. Learning tone combinations is the key. Mastering those combinations necessarily involves extensive practice with tone pairs. A mastery of tone pairs will lead to significant progress with any number and combination of tones in succession. Although I was not fully cognizant of the exact process at the time, I believe it was this method which lead to my own successes in correctly producing tones of Mandarin Chinese in succession.

It’s very similar to what I was thinking of, but it’s clear that he put far more work into the presentation than I ever would have. It has neat little graphics with mirror effects, little flash buttons for each mp3, and better yet, it’s also offered as a free download. It was clearly the result of a lot of hard work. Thanks, John!

You move me —
You move me —
Open sea and city lights
Busy streets and dizzy heights
You call me —
You call me —

The Analogue Kid

It’s 2AM, and my last night in Shanghai is drawing to an end. It’s hard to imagine that in half a day’s time my vacation will be over and I’ll be flying back to Taiwan. People say that when time flies when you’re having fun, but in this case it didn’t. This has been the best vacation I’ve ever had, and yet my two weeks here have felt more like two months.

After an enjoyable day of reading The Diamond Age, I met up with John and his wife and had some 火鍋 for dinner. Unlike most of the 火鍋 I’ve had before, it wasn’t buffet. Still, it was extremely good. Heck, I always love that kind of food. I also saw an interesting before dinner.

I arrived at our meeting place pretty early, so went walking around a bit. Nestled between skyscrapers, I found a relatively large Catholic church. The architecture looked like it wasn’t that far off of what one would find at home, or in Latin America. There were also some fountains in front of it. At the time, it really seemed like an amazing sight. In the middle of so many commercial buildings, in an area where I’d least expect it, was a a church. It was a nice looking one, too. I really wish I’d been able to get a snapshot of it. It wouldn’t have made quite the picture that the Starbucks in the Forbidden City did, but it would have been good.

After dinner, we went back to his place, and watched Ice Age 2- a pretty entertaining movie. Just as I was about to take off, I finally saw Lennet. I’d heard he wanted to ask me some stuff about living in Taiwan when I’d been staying at the apartment before, but he got back late every night and amazingly it was the first time I’d talked to him. I guess he’d lived in Taiwan before, but that was before he could speak much Chinese. Now that he speaks Chinese really well, he’s gonna move back to Taiwan. He was saying something about not letting the Taiwanese “corrupt his Chinese” or get rid of his ability to pronounce “zh”, “sh”, “ch”, “r”, etc… I’m really curious to see how it will go for him. I hope people don’t laugh at his “standard” accent.

Part of me doesn’t want to go to sleep. Right now, I know what’s on my mind. I know what I feel and I know what my plans are. By allowing myself to fall asleep, I’ll be yeilding control to my future self. Who knows how I’ll feel or what I’ll want to do tomorrow? Can I trust my future self to make the most out of my last few hours on the mainland? Sigh… now there’s a healthy line of thought. Bed, it is.

Yesterday was my first whole day in Shanghai, and it was awesome. After showing late the night before and crashing at John’s place, I was psyched enough about finally being here that I was still able to get up pretty early. John had a final in the morning, but after he got back from that, he showed me around the subway system a bit, and we grabbed some lunch. After that, he took me over to the Chinese Pod studio to check the place out. It was quite a bit different than I expected, but still very neat. continue reading…