March 27th, 2010

I seem to have misplaced my muse. If anybody has seen my muse, please let me know in the comments.

Actually, I have a few ideas for two or three things I want to be writing, but I am really struggling to convert ideas into pretty patterns of pixels. I have about a dozen projects sitting on back burners waiting for me to find the energy and inspiration to get stuck in. But…

One thing that has been really bugging me lately is work. Well, one aspect of work. A large part of my job is teaching Academic Writing. This means equipping young Chinese with the English writing skills they will need to succeed at a Western university. Yes, there are many problems with that statement, but they’re not the issue. What’s really bugging me, and this is a bugging that has been building up over a long, long time, is the textbooks I have to use.

Now, let me start by saying that all the Academic Writing textbooks – indeed, all the English writing textbooks – I have ever seen have been American in origin. And let me continue by saying that I’m really glad that I’ve known enough educated Americans over the years to not believe that what is contained in these textbooks is in anyway representative of what passes for academic writing in America. Y’see, these books never actually teach academic writing – and that is the least of the problems. What these textbooks invariably teach is a lot of sentimental, saccharine-laden nonsense with the occasional thrust of the lance at the op-ed pages of your local newspaper. What you find in these textbooks is certainly not the kind of writing that would actually earn you a degree. Let me emphasise: The Americans I know know what academic writing is. The Academic Writing textbooks I have to use teach something that is not academic writing.

And the second reason for the need to point out the American origins of these textbooks is that almost all of them I have used have been Chinese editions of the American books. That should be fine, except that the books were very clearly written for an American audience. The topics chosen for each chapter are topics relevant to American society. The model essays were clearly written for an American audience. If I were teaching one of these “freshman comp” courses that American universities seem to have, that would not be a problem. But I’m standing at the front of a classroom in China with 30-odd young Chinese people and an American textbook having to constantly take a step back, explain the topic, alter it to suit the audience I have in front of me, and move on. See, none of the publishers seems to make even the slightest attempt to adapt the books for a Chinese audience beyond slapping a Chinese cover over it and adding the necessary publishing details and perhaps, if you’re lucky, a Chinese-language “How to use this book” page.

To give you one example (because today in class we were doing Chapter 10: Examples), the book I am currently using, in Chapter 16: Argumentation, uses as a model essay one entitled Ban the Things. Ban Them All. by Molly Ivins. It reads like the kind of cheap, easily thrown-off op-ed piece one would find in any random newspaper of more-or-less “liberal” leanings. It argues in favour of stricter gun control. My first problem with using this essay is that it appears in the Chinese edition of the textbook I have to use to teach Chinese students here in China. Here in China where gun control is not an issue. Alright, I can, based on what I have seen of the American media and conversations with a wide variety of Americans I have met both here and back in New Zealand, fill in at least some of the background information necessary to understand what this essay is all about, where the author is coming from, and where she is trying to take us to, but:

To make matters worse, Chapter 16 sets out five strategies for argumentation that I am to teach my students, namely:

  1. Use Tactful, Courteous Language
  2. Point Out Common Ground
  3. Acknowledge Differing Viewpoints
  4. When Appropriate, Grant the Merits of Differing Viewpoints
  5. Rebut Differing Viewpoints

That’s all good, and with a greater expansion on Strategy 5 and a lot of time spent on logically developing and presenting one’s own argument added in, is precisely what I’d teach. The problem is that Ivins’ essay is presented as a model of argumentation for the students to learn from and yet it starts with sarcasm and ends with ad hominem attack, makes no attempt to find common ground, only acknowledges differing viewpoints in so far as we can all acknowledge the incoherent babbling of people obviously in desperate need of psychiatric treatment (that ad hominem attack I was referring to) and therefore makes no attempt to find out whether any other viewpoint may have any merits, and therefore can’t even come close to rebutting anything. And with that, I have only just begun to critique that attempt at an argumentation essay. And I’m supposed to use this rubbish as a model to teach my students to write good academic essays?

And then there’s the structure of the books. My current textbook, for example, waits until chapters 21 and 22 to introduce such things as using the library and internet and writing a research paper. Such things as plagiarism, citations and bibliographies are buried in those chapters with far too little detail or development of the topics. My problem is that in my student days, the first thing one would do on receiving an assignment would be to pop into the Union to see who was hanging out there, or wander round to Governor’s for a coffee, or perhaps the Cook for a beer with your mates go to the library and start researching the topic. The point is, you can’t even begin to write a proper essay until you at least have the information you need to understand the topic. Shouldn’t the order be more like:

  • Chapter 1: What is academic writing?
  • Chapter 2: Decoding the assignment.
  • Chapter 3: Get thee to the library, or at least online (but no playing on Facebook!)!
  • Chapter 4: Now that you have some information, perhaps we can start brainstorming or planning this essay you have to write.


Sure, get a new book. But every writing textbook I have ever used has had problems of these kinds. It seems to be less a matter of finding a better book, more a matter choosing which mixture and arrangement of problems to deal with this time round.

Not much is grabbing my inspiration right now. Besides, it’s hot and sticky and I’m worn out.

I also have a new passport, which is currently in the PSB getting my residence permit transferred and extended.

But that’s all irrelevant.

For a while now I’ve felt about ranting on one particular subject: The ipod. Well, no, MP3 players in general. And I don’t mean the software you can install on your computer allowing you to listen to music, I mean specifically the ipod-style machines you can carry around so your life gets its own, personal soundtrack.

I just don’t get it. Why do so many people feel a ridiculous need to walk around with plugs in their ears off in some dreamland where their life, Hollywood-style, has cool music accompanying every step?

Yeah, alright, music is cool, I like music, I’m listening to music as I write this, but….

But these ipod-types are a pain in the arse. I mean, you see them, you try to talk to them, they look at you blankly like, huh? somebody can intrude into my little dreamland? They eventually remember to pull the bloody plugs out their ears, and you can finally communicate.

But, and here’s an even bigger but, life already comes with a soundtrack. It’s not always as aesthetically pleasing as that on your ipod, but it is better. Much as I like music, when I’m out and about, or even most of the time I’m sitting here at this computer, I definitely prefer to hear that natural soundtrack. Well, it’s not all natural, but even the roar of an expressway is more important to me than whatever’s on your ipod.

It’s like this: I do not understand why you ipod types feel the need to cut yourselves off from the real world. You seal yourselves into a little bubble and cease to interact with the world around you. Why? I just don’t understand why you’d do that.

Unplug for a minute or two, wherever you are. If you’re at home and north of the equator, where it’s getting warm again, open your windows. If you’re out, pull those bloody plugs out your ears. Let it soak in: The rumble of distant traffic, children’s laughter or crying, grandparents gossiping, the distant rumble of traffic, wind in the leaves…. That, kiddywinkles, is the world you live in. It’s a beautifulfuckedupcool place. It comes with a soundtrack pre-installed. Open your ears, kick back, relax, absorb.

See, I dunno, seems to me that just as all this fancy new technology is increasing our options for social interaction, it’s also increasing our ability to seal ourselves off, and as generally anti-social as I am, I don’t understand why anybody would want to do that. One thing I like about the warmer months of the year is to sit here in front of my computer with the sounds of life as it is lived wafting through the open window. It’s part of being human. Part of the beauty of the silence of Jingshan Park is the distant murmur of the inner-city bustle from beyond the park walls.

Somehow Eleanor Rigby seems appropriate for this particular rant.

But there’s no need to be so disengaged, isolated, lonely. It’s a simple matter of choosing to hear what’s happening around you instead of listening to some silly, contrived attempt at Hollywoodising life.

Pathetic, I know, but rant 完了.

how not to help

March 7th, 2009

Unfortunately racism is a problem everywhere around the world, and even more unfortunately New Zealand does have a history of specifically anti-Chinese and more generally anti-Asian (Asian usually meaning East Asian or more specifically Chinese) prejudice. I would like to think that is very much history, but it does rear its ugly head in modern New Zealand with frustrating regularity. But when an incident of racially-charged violence happens in your town, this is not how to help improve your town’s image:

“Two of them [Asians] were in school uniform and an adult was with them. One had two baseball bats, [and was] flinging them around like bloody chopsticks,” a witness said.

He said as soon as the youth with the baseball bats appeared everything escalated. “It was just like a rat’s nest being disturbed by a fox terrier, they were going everywhere.”


First of all, you don’t fling chopsticks around. And I find it hard to imagine a context in which it would be appropriate to fling baseball bats around- in a fight, wouldn’t it be better to hold on to your baseball bat? That way you have something to continue beating your opponent with, whereas if you fling it around, your opponent can pick it up and use it against you.

Secondly, chopsticks are considerably smaller than baseball bats.

Thirdly, why? I mean, why use this word “chopsticks” in your seriously warped simile? Could it be the Asian-ness of those doing the flinging around? Some bizarre stereotype of kung fu movies?

And to then follow that up with rats? Wow, you really are trying to reinforce the image of Timaru as a racist, redneck hole, aren’t you?

And perhaps I’m being a little oversensitive, but it seems to me that this article focusses more on the actions of the Asians than the Europeans, despite one girl claiming she was with White Power. There is talk of a fight and offensive racial remarks and gestures, but that’s it. Flinging chopsticks around like baseball bats, smashing a car window, and climbing on to a car are rather extreme reactions to offensive remarks and gestures, aren’t they? Am I wrong to suggest that the real story goes deeper than this?

drought, water…

February 9th, 2009

It was the headline that got me:


And it got me with a “Hang on, wait a minute…”:

  1. How could the drought- the biggest drought in 50 years, apparently- not affect the supplies of water to Beijing? and:
  2. Aren’t Beijingers kinda spoilt? I mean, when I lived in Taiyuan, I had mains water supply only 3 times a day. The rest of the time my water came from a tank on the roof- but not for the washing machine, that was mains-only, which meant I had to be really organised about doing laundry. And my in laws in a village in Beijing’s Yanqing county get their water from a tap in the courtyard. And their mains supply is frequently cut off- especially, but by no means exclusively, over winter nights. Therefore (and because Yanqing is Beijing’s coldest county) they store water in a large vat in the kitchen. Isn’t it about time city Beijingers were made to understand the Damoclean sword that is the severe scarcity of water this city faces? Especially in a time of severe drought? (says he who showers habitually every morning and has never been much good at cultivating water conservation habits)

And so I went scanning through what turned out to be a compilation of short investigations into various drought-related issues looking for answers to the questions running around my not-yet-breakfasted brain, and here’s what I found:

“由于去年春夏秋季的降水量非常多,整个土地的含水量一直很足”,孙继松说,“就算100多天没有降水,但地表以下20厘米的含水量还是不错的,因 此,今年的干旱还比较轻。”孙继松说,如果某地区某一段时间的降水量明显低于常年平均水平,那么就可称为气象上的干旱,而真实的干旱取决于土壤含水量。

“Because rainfall last spring, summer and autumn was unusually high, the land’s water content has been very sufficient,” said Sun Jisong [chief forecaster in the Beijing Met Office], “Although there’s been no rain for over 100 days, the water content 20 cm below the ground surface is still not bad, therefore this year’s drought is relatively light.” Sun Jisong said that if a certain region had markedly less rain than the annual average for a certain period of time, that could be called a meteorological drought, but a true drought is decided by soil moisture content.

根据中央气象台资料显示,本市自2008年10月26日以来,仅出现一次降水,降水量为0.1毫米,较常年同期降水量11毫米,创下自1971 年以来的无降水的最长记录。孙继松介绍,从目前的资料情况分析看,未来十天左右下雪的可能性很小,北京旱情还将继续,并有发展趋势。根据目前气候资料分 析,进入本月中旬后,本市才有望出现一次降水过程。厚度预计在4到5毫米,接近常年的降雪厚度,但此次降雪不会对干旱形成太多改善。据《新京报》报道,北 京市人工影响天气办公室工作人员称,只要有降水天气系统出现,就会进行人工增雨雪的作业。

Data from the National Meteorological Centre show that from 26 October 2008 this city has had only one rainfall of 0.1 mm compared with an annual average of 11 mm for the same period, setting the record for the longest period with no rain since 1971. Sun Jisong said that from an analysis of current data, the chances of snowfall over the next 10 or so days are very small and the drought situation in Beijing will continue, and has a developing trend. According to an analysis of current data, this city could hopefully see precipitation from the middle of the month. The amount is predicted to be 4 or 5 mm, approaching the annual average snowfall, but this snowfall won’t significantly ameliorate the drought. According to a report in The Beijing Times, a worker at the Beijing Artificial Weather Influencing Office said that if any precipitation weather system appears, they will undertake artificial rain- and snowfall work.


Many citizens, on the basis of folk sayings such as “At Greater Cold and Lesser Cold it doesn’t snow, at Lesser Heat and Greater Heat the fields crack open” speculate that Beijing could have a drought this summer. Sun Jisong said that although the sayings make sense, but a winter drought does not mean drought will continue in the summer. There is no necessary connection between them, therefore on the basis of the current drought one cannot infer that Beijing will experience a drought this summer.

So, as usual, parts of the translation have been thoroughly mangled under my incompetence. But this time I’m also going to admit to playing fast and loose with a couple of things:

I mean, I quite deliberately chose to translate ‘非常’ as ‘unusual’ although other options are available. I perhaps shouldn’t have, but I wanted to make a point. See, Beijing experienced one long, continuous drought from.. when? 1999? up to 2007. Yes, plenty of rain and snow fell during that period of drought, but the total was considerably below the long-term average. It’s true that Beijing did get plenty of rain last year- in fact, on September 10 last year the Miyun Reservoir was brimming with 260 million cubic metres more water than at the same time in 2007– but that’s only one year. I dislike what strikes me as the rather cavalier attitude shown in the first paragraph I translate- geez, you’d think Sun Jisong was a Kiwi- “Yeah, she’ll be right mate, got plenty of water stored up from last year.” What happens if this drought continues? What’ll they tell us next year? Shouldn’t all that water stored up be used as conservatively as possible? Y’know, save it for a rainy dry day year?

And sure, judging by what I’ve read on the subject, global warming is supposed to bring more precipitation to Beijing, but higher temperatures will lead to greater evaporation, which apparently means this promised extra rainfall will not relieve Beijing’s chronic water shortage. That means things like water recycling, rain-water storage and conservation are still absolutely essential.

Alright, enough ranting. Let me just state yet again that one of my biggest worries about Beijing’s future is water. And I think far too little emphasis is placed on rural China (especially in expat circles). And therefore this drought really worries me.

Alright, people, this is getting silly. As others have pointed out, it’s one thing for an Iraqi man to throw his shoes at the man responsible for the state his country is in, quite another for people with no direct involvement in the issues they claim to be protesting to go throwing shoes around.

Now it’s Israel’s ambassador to Sweden, but not just a shoe, apparently other objects, too (the escalation). And the thrower is a better shot than that loser in Cambridge, and Mr Ambassador’s shoe-dodging gongfu isn’t as good as Bush’s- apparently he was hit by one of the objects. This article does not identify the shoe-throwers except to say a 35-year old man and  a 25-year old woman were arrested. The accompanying video starts with what appears to be some kind of argy-bargy, then the camera flips round to the shoe-thrower, but blacks him out- I can only assume some Swedish law means he can’t be identified. And despite the flag at the end of the video, it certainly seems the people making the noise are shouting in Swedish- although the sound quality isn’t clear and I have to admit I don’t speak Swedish.

Anyway, this really is getting a bit silly. Could everybody please just keep their footwear on and find more intelligent ways to express themselves?


December 31st, 2008

I know I’m not the only one who’ll be glad to see 2008 shuffle off into the realm of memory. But now I see that we have to wait a little longer for 2009:


2009 will be one second “late”

WHAT?! Can’t even trust the year to show up on time anymore?


2009 will be one second “late”. Yesterday, your correspondant learned from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Time Service Centre that in universal time (aka Greenwich Mean Time), the whole world will together add a leap second after the last second of 2008, and at the appointed time all the world’s clocks will be put back one second. This means 2009 will be one second “late”.

Now, I personally don’t feel a need to go into all the technical details. But I do note this sentence appearing in the article:


2008 is the longest year in 16 years.

Ya don’t say. I hadn’t noticed.

random stuff online

November 20th, 2008

Somehow a bunch of random stuff all came together just before dinner inspiring me to post a few links, at least. Two are hillarious, one is infuriating, one is awe-inspiring, one is moving.

The two funny ones are from Hecaitou’s blog. The first is a video, which is good for those who can’t read Chinese, because I’m not even going to attempt to translate the second.

The infuriating one involves a skifield in Yanqing County that we usually pass on the way out to the village. The bastards are wasting Yanqing’s (and therefore Beijing’s) precious and extremely limited water resources again. Just to emphasize how much this infuriates me: Every time we go up to the village during ski season (at least, those times we catch the bus up the G110- sometimes we hire a car and take the back road along the edge of the reservoir) we pass the skifield in question and everytime it’s a stark strip of white running down the mountainside just above the Longqingxia turn-off with dusty yellowgreybrown mountainside stretching along the face of the range for dozens of kilometres east and west, and dried out fields of the same colour forming the basin floor below. Yeah, if we’re passing just after a snowfall- a very rare occurence- there is some white on the surrounding mountainsides, but the contrast between natural mountainside dusted with snow and almost purely artificial skifield is just as stark.

The awe-inspiring makes me glad I wasn’t in Yantai on the 17th. Nothing more needs to be said.

And the moving: There’s a fair bit of text, but the pictures of these pupils in a Yunnan mountain village primary school say more than enough. Nah, I won’t translate, I’ll just let the pictures speak.

oh bloody hell

November 19th, 2008

Really, in this day and age, we still have to put up with this kind of bullshit here in Beijing? In a part of the city that has been attracting foreigners for years already? “Yes, absolutely” is the answer, apparently, and certain sections of the linked report had my wife, a native Mandarin speaker fluent in English (for the one or two vaguely possible new readers’ benefit) just about wetting herself laughing. It’s already half past nine, I have an eight o’clock start tomorrow, and there’s too much bollocks to rant at, so let me just cut out a few key excerpts:

“我听不懂你说的”,在朝阳区女人街经营外贸服装的一名商户摊位前,一个老外听了一通“鼓捣普瑞斯”(Good price 价钱很公道),“闹欧迪斯康特”(No discount不讲价)之类的“土产英语”,显得一头雾水,还是只能在计算器上敲价钱完成生意。

“I don’t understand what you’re saying”. In front of a foreign trade clothing stall in
Chaoyang District’s Nvren Jie [English name? Lady Street?] looked bewildered on hearing “local English” like “gu dao pu rui si” (good price) and “nao ou di si kang te” (no discount), and still could only do business by typing the price on a calculator.

Yeah, because using Chinese characters to sound out foreign words only ever results in confusion- at best. The pronuciation of Chinese characters just isn’t that flexible.


Experts say this local method is not advisable


But in the opinion of experts, this method of using Chinese to sound out English is not advisable. Yesterday, a worker at the Beijingers Speak Foreign Languages Office said using Chinese characters to sound out and remember foreign pronunciations is most inadvisable, and can not become a shortcut to learning English. This local method of learning English put forward by the market, on its surface solves an immediate worry, but sets up an obstacle for future learning of English and is not worth encouraging.

And some more examples, with some quick and toneless pinyin thrown in for those who don’t read Chinese:

谢谢/thank you/三克油 [san ke you] 完美/wonderful/万得佛[wan de fo]

问:欢迎光临/May I help you?/美爱嗨扑由?[mei ai hai pu you]

答:我只是看/I”m just looking./爱目炸斯特路科应。[ai mu zha si te lu ke ying]

答:我想买件套装/I”d like a suit./爱的赖克饿秀特。[ai de lai ke e xiu te]

Note: Pinyin you does not sound like the English second person pronoun you. Pinyin you sounds like more like yohoho and a bottle of rum kind of yo. Zha sounds like the Rasta Jah. E sounds like the sound you’d make on finding something unexpected and unfortunate on your dinner plate. Xiu sounds like shee-oh, but with the sh softer than in English, and the whole thing being one short syllable. No part of this note should be taken as an accurate guide to Chinese pronunciation. Don’t copy the market and find some lazy approach to learning a language; get out there and learn it properly. This note was only written to make it clear just how loose an approximation of English pronunciation the market’s silly attempt at a pronunciation guide is.

More important note: I am in no way mocking any genuine attempt to learn English. I am saying this horribly outdated and thoroughly discredited method of learning really should have disappeared a long, long time ago, especially from a part of Beijing that has been attracting foreigners for years and years now. Trust me on this one: Although finding loose equivalents in your native language can help you learn the pronunciation of a foreign language in the initial stages of language learning [I’ve done the same myself many times], it is a technique that should be kept only at the very initial stages and should be dumped as soon as possible. It can never be substituted for an honest attempt at learning to communicate in a second language. And that first quotation from the article shows you that the market’s silliness has not benefitted anyone.

And I have to say that I suspect- although I could well be wrong on this point- that most foreigners visiting the market in question would be local residents. Unless they are tourists or have only recently arrived in China, then they should be capable of navigating their way through a market and buying the things they need at a price they can accept in at least broken Chinese, Chinese good enough to express their needs and negotiate a price. If they can’t manage that, they shouldn’t be here.

Fortunately the journalist seems to agree with my view that this is all utterly absurd.

oh for crying out loud

November 2nd, 2008

Somebody needs to grow up. Really, (assuming the article is actually an accurate representation of Dawkins’ views) this is pathetic. Now, I kinda almost agree with his characterisation of certain aspects of “religious” education, upbringing and labelling as ‘abuse’, but, having grown up in the church myself, and knowing many people from several countries with similar backgrounds, I feel quite safe in stating that one has to have been raised in a very extremely fundamentalist church (used in a pan-religious sense: insert mosque, synagogue, temple, other religious term as appropriate) before such an upbringing can be reasonably called abuse. Plenty of people have seen through the church and gone on to lead perfectly healthy, well-adjusted lives. Plenty of others still believe, attend church, and lead perfectly healthy, well-adjusted lives.

But what pisses me off most about this is that if we were to take Professor Dawkins’ comments as reported to their logical extreme, we would be raising kids stripped of imagination and entirely incapable of seeing anything more than what is immediately in front of their faces. Really. Prof. Dawkins should step back, take a good, hard look at the development of human societies, and ask himself why all cultures have developed a system of myths and legends and a set of folk- and fairy-tales. These things really are about the education of the children, the teaching of all the necessary skills and abiltiies- emotional, intellectual and, ummm, imaginational- necessary for adult life. Imagination is necessary- how the hell else would we have science? And all these fantastical stories engage and develop that imagination.

Books simply encouraging children to deal purely with rational, scientific facts are simply inappropriate, because without that background of imagination and its attendant curiosity, the kids will not have the intellectual skills to move beyond what can be immediately perceived, and that is no basis on which to continue the development of human society.

And if Prof. Dawkins were to carry his sentiments, as reported, to the logical extreme, we would soon be banning toy cars and dolls, because it is simply unscientific to see a Matchbox car or Barbie doll as being in any way comparable to their real world equivalents. Trouble is, toys are essential to a young child’s education, because in engaging the child’s imagination one develops the intellectual, imaginational, and emotional skills necessary to proceed in society.

In other words, I hope the reporter did a piss-poor job of reporting Prof. Dawkins’ views and has taken a few comments way, way out of context, because articles like this leave me thinking there is no real difference between militant atheists and the Pat Robertsons or Osama bin Ladens of this world.


November 1st, 2008

Going away parties are always usually fun, but it’s never good to be saying goodbye to yet another friend. But it’s worse when you have to bail on a party because you suddenly get sick.

There I was in The Tree with some friends enjoying good pizza and a De Koninck when suddenly I feel hot and a little light-headed, my mouth goes dry and my stomach goes into reverse. The worst part was I had a mouthful of pizza at the time. I thought, rather hopefully, perhaps it’s just a reaction to this Western food I don’t eat that much of anymore. But after about half an hour trying to sit it out hoping the feeling would pass, nope, time to go home. And I must’ve gone really pale or something, because everybody’s looking at me funny asking if I’m alright. Well, I was hoping I would turn alright, but I didn’t. So, home, medicine, crash.

I’m still feeling a bit tired and headachy, but better than last night.

And while I’m ranting: Laptop screens are not supposed to flicker, and this one is supposed to have been fixed. Gah.

So, yeah, great start to the weekend.