Winter holiday time


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JISHOU, HUNAN — I had meant to post this a few days ago, but my webhost was having serious server issues, so I had to wait.

Exams ended Jan. 11. I had two days free before teaching four middle school students two hours a day for a week. That was basically my only time commitment until the 20th, when it was time for all of us to begin the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) holiday.

Most of the students on campus vacated as soon as exams ended. A few stayed to work short-term jobs before heading home, and even fewer are staying here for the entire holiday. So, at least I had some company. I’ve also spent time with friends in town. Most of the time, it’s blessedly quiet, so I can pursue projects that I’ve put off for months.

One was to get better wireless Internet service. China Mobile, my cell service provider, has WiFi service, but it’s spotty in Jishou and on campus. They are reportedly building it out over the next few months, so that I might actually have WiFi available in my classrooms and home by April. I wanted something a little quicker, so I asked a friend to help me get 3G service from China Telecom, China’s version of Ma Bell. (China Mobile only offers 3G service with new phones.)

In a few days, I will leave for Jiangmen, Guangdong, where I will teach in an English camp for 12 days. There is no room Internet access in the hotel we teachers will stay at, and only two terminals in the business center. So, having 3G service would be a big help, both there and here in Jishou.

China Telecom sold me a USB dongle for 398 yuan ($60) and three months’ nationwide 3G service for 300 yuan ($45) — $100 gives me 90 hours a month, a little pricey, but I only intend to keep it until China Mobile’s WiFi buildout. The USB modem (a Huawei EC122) works perfectly on my Lenovo notebook, but getting it to work on the Android tablet I had bought in August was not so easy. That’s the subject of another post.

Since this is only my second time staying on campus during Spring Festival, it took me a day or two to realize that ALL the shops would be closed on the 22nd and 23rd for the New Year holiday. When a couple of my students and I decided to go out to eat, we to walk quite a bit to find a restaurant near the campus that was even open on the 20th. A trip to a downtown restaurant the next day was more successful, but twice as expensive as normal. So, I got the hint and went to the supermarket to buy some provisions.

None of which I have even used yet. Last night, four of us had so much food for dinner that we had leftovers to take home. I reckon I have enough food to last a week, but in fact I’m leaving in three days for Jiangmen. So the leftovers will get eaten first, and the other stuff will keep till I get back.

The weather here has been cold and damp for the last two weeks. Two nights ago, it snowed, but that had melted by the afternoon. The temperature has been hovering around freezing, which means basically only my bedroom is comfortably warm. The living room can be made warm, but the portable heater sucks up so much electricity, I only use it when I am actually in the living room. The temperature in Jiangmen is about 10 degrees C (18 degrees F) warmer than here, so I am really, really looking forward to being warm for two weeks.

As for other happenings so far, I’ve made some new friends, relatives of one of my students: a middle school teacher, her husband (a police officer) and their daughter, a college student in Beijing, and the teacher’s sister and niece, a high school student. I had lunch at their place New Year’s Eve, and then we all went to sing at a KTV (karaoke club). They picked me up at the university in a police car, so now I can joke I was picked up by the police in China!

So, that’s the latest news here. It’s now the Year of the Dragon, the most important animal symbol of China. Important things are supposed to happen in Dragon years, so 2012 should be an interesting year.

Incidentally, the Chinese word for dragon is lóng 龙, which is also a common surname or given name. One famous namesake (and Dragon year baby) was Bruce Lee, whose name in Mandarin is Li XiǎoLóng 李小龙 — “Little Dragon Lee.” Lee would have been 72 this year.

10th Circuit slaps Oklahoma anti-Sharia law down like bug on a wall


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JISHOU, HUNAN — Oklahoma’s anti-Sharia law violates the US Constitution, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

The ruling states that the law — which amended the state constitution — violated the Establishment clause of the First Amendment by singling out one religion, Islam. In addition, the court noted that the proponents of the law, which passed November 2010 in a state referendum, could not identify one occasion in which Sharia was used in Oklahoma.

Too bad courts can’t comment on the stupidity of laws, too.

Oklahoma’s Islamophobic factions took the lead nationally in pressing for such a law, creating a nontroversy about “creeping Sharia” and Muslim infiltration of the USA. After the Sooner State’s successful ballot initiative, other states jumped on the bandwagon, fabricating Muslim threats from whole cloth.

The 10th Circuit got to the heart of the matter in its ruling: “Sharia? What Sharia?”

Appellants do not identify any actual problem the challenged amendment seeks to solve. Indeed, they admitted at the preliminary injunction hearing that they did not know of even a single instance where an Oklahoma court had applied Sharia law or used the legal precepts of other nations or cultures, let alone that such applications or uses had resulted in concrete problems in Oklahoma. See Awad, 754 F. Supp. 2d at 1308; Aplt. App. Vol. 1 at 67-68.

Given the lack of evidence of any concrete problem, any harm Appellants seek to remedy with the proposed amendment is speculative at best and cannot support a compelling interest.15 “To sacrifice First Amendment protections for so speculative a gain is not warranted . . . .” Columbia Broad. Sys., Inc. v. Democratic Nat’l Co., 412 U.S. 94, 127 (1973).

In other words, it’s a bit like locking the barn door to keep the horses from escaping before they are actually inside. Except in this case, there aren’t any horses, either. So, it’s both stupid and crazy.

Isn’t all bigotry like that?

Mean girls


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JISHOU, HUNAN — I suppose I should not be surprised that Chinese adolescents can be as catty and mean-spirited as Americans are, but two incidents this week still bug me. I need to vent, so if you want to skip all this drama, go ahead.

To set up incident number 1, I need to explain my oral English examination format. Modeling the Cambridge Business English Certificate exams, I meet two (sometimes three) students at a time for about 20 minutes. I test them on vocabulary and pronunciation, then give them a topic on the spot to talk about between themselves for a few minutes. There is usually time left for me to ask them a few questions to verify listening comprehension and coach them on pronunciation issues.

Students sign up for these sessions in class about two to three weeks in advance. With more than 200 students to evaluate, I’m booked pretty tight.

A couple of days ago, I was scheduled to meet three girls — roommates, as it turns out — who I will call A, B, and C. And B are among my best students in their class; their spoken English is not perfect, but they can chatter away at fairly high speed in English. C is a less motivated student, and much quieter in class. If students had been picking members for softball teams, I suspect she would have been one of the last ones that one team would have reluctantly picked. You know what I mean. I certainly do.

Anyway, C told me that A and B, seeing that their roommate (and supposed “best friend”) was the odd girl out, told her she could join them for the examination.

The hour of destiny arrived and I found only C outside my office waiting. She explained, abashedly, that her “best friend,” A, had called her 20 minutes before the appointment and told her that, since C’s English skills were so poor, A and B didn’t want to share their exam time with her. She should meet with me alone.

Mind you, this poor girl, C, had to explain this to me in English with less than 20 minutes to prepare. She was able to do it lucidly and unambiguously, and even request that I not tell her fair-weather friends that she had shared this information with me. Poor English skills? Uh-uh, girl friend.

OK. They aren’t perfect. She has some pronunciation issues. She confused the word “taxi” with “test,” which had me totally confounded for about five minutes. Why would two girls agree to share a cab with her, then at the last minute tell her to get out? When I realized taxi = test, it made a lot more sense. Well, in a way.

C suffers from a serious lack of self confidence. She swore to me that her pronunciation was poor, yet did as well as, and in one case better than, A or B. Her original college plan, she told me, was to study interior design, but her parents required her to study English on the mistaken assumption that English majors stand a better chance in the crowded Chinese job market than design majors. They clearly don’t hang around with the rich folks who inhabit the big cities here with ginormous flats begging for some original design work.

[Amateur’s aside: Interior design in China is, I am sorry to report, boring. I love my friends here dearly, but their homes are stark and cookie-cutter like. I feel like I’ve been transported back to a 1980s Architectural Digest photoshoot every time I visit someone’s new home.]

C told me that she had to obey her parents, though she does not especially love English. Convinced that her skills were atrocious, she was visibly surprised when I told her that, in fact, her pronunciation was not at all poor — I have a few freshmen who are nearly unintelligible — and that with some effort, she could overcome her vocabulary and grammar issues. I also suggested she pick up a sketch pad and some pencils and start drawing in her spare time. The five-week winter holiday starts next week, after all.

As I promised, it didn’t let on to A and B that C had spilled the beans, nor did I point out to any of the three that their internal divisions totally fouled up the rest of my schedule for that afternoon. I’m still debating how to address the schedule fuck-up with the class next term without pinpointing the ABC team as the culprit.

On to incident 2. The night after the ABC caper, I was chatting with my friend, K, on QQ. In the course of our conversation about her employment woes, which I will share later to give you an idea of how Chinese bosses work her, I told her about these girls. K asked me if they were roommates, and when I said they were, replied, “Oh, then it definitely wasn’t about her English. It was some girl thing.”

Then K offered her own experience as a for-instance. Basically, in their senior year, one of her roommates would spread nasty gossip about her when she was out of the room while the girls played cards. When K returned to the dorm, the others would fold up the card game and go about their nightly ablutions, not speaking one word to K. This went on for months, until their graduation.

I have no idea why that one roomie had it out for K. Maybe it was some personality problem — K, dear girl, is rather outspoken — or jealousy about K’s academic prowess. Or something else that I, as a mortal man, will never fathom because I’m male and they aren’t.

It gave me added insight into my friend, and her classmates, whom I have all taught, but it also made me realize that people are people, no matter where they live or how they grew up. I suppose that’s good to know, but in these two cases, very sad.

Wonder Girls: ‘Nobody’


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JISHOU, HUNAN — Wonder Girls are a Korean pop group, whose 2008 single, “Nobody,” is a big hit in Korea and in China. I swear everyone here knows the song’s tune and the Chinese/English version’s lyrics.

I like it, too. So for your viewing pleasure, here is the Korean version.


There’s an English version, but frankly the lyrics are nearly unintelligible and don’t match up well with the choreography and melody.

Their official website has the same version as the one I’m sharing.

Greetings from 2012!


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JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s 11:33 am on Jan. 1 here. So far, 2012 looks good. The sun might come out again, breaking a week of dreary skies. I have a four-day weekend, giving me enough time to catch up on all the grading I have to do.

In other good news, I reconnected with someone I haven’t talked to in months a few days ago. I was elated. I have three invitations to spend Spring Festival with friends. I have a short-term teaching assignment in Jiangmen, Guangdong province, next month. And I will visit Zhuhai and maybe Macao soon after that.

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades. Cheers, everyone!

Two historical photos, for different reasons



JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve been too busy to post anything lately, and now I’ve got a tidy little head cold, so here’s a couple of cheerful photos.

First, the much-talked-about Navy kiss, from Dec. 21.

gaeta-snell kiss

Fire Controlman 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta, left, assigned to the USS Oak Hill, kisses her fiancée, Fire Controlman 3rd Class Citlalic Snell.

From what I understand, each boat’s crew runs a lottery to see who will be the first off the boat to meet their sweetheart, and of course, kiss her/him. Gaeta was the winner.

For some reason, that photo reminds me of this one.

V-J kiss Times Square

The iconic V-J Day kiss in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt

This couple (actually, two strangers in Times Square) were caught up in the moment following the surrender of Japan on Aug. 14, 1945. The sailor saw a cute nurse, and spontaneously kissed her. (Wiki entry) Eisenstaedt and another photog were lucky enough to capture the moment.

Granted, the circumstances were different, but both couples were celebrating a victory in some sense.

The Florida skills exam revisited


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JISHOU, HUNAN — A few days ago, I wrote about an Orange County, Florida, school board member who took a version of the 2010 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) for 10th graders and did very poorly on it: he only got 62% on the reading portion and completely bombed the math section.

Rick Roach, who has two master’s degrees, argues that his results suggest that the test is not really testing what students need to know and that the tests pigeonhole students unfairly.

One could also argue, as a few commenters on that post have already, that Roach’s poor reading and math skills are to blame, not the FCAT. He does admit in an email to educator Marion Brady that his math skills are rusty, but I contend that Roach and his detractors are also not considering the time factor.

For example, 10th graders have 70 minutes to answer 58 or so math questions, and 70 minutes to answer about 45 reading questions, from what I can gather from the 2006 exams available online.. That works out to an average time of 1:12 for each math question and 1:33 for each reading question. If any Floridians can correct my information, please do, because those figures don’t seem realistic.

Anyway, my challenge to people who dis Roach and refuse to criticize the test is this. Try these math questions from the 2006 FCAT for 10th graders and time yourselves. I’ll be generous: you have 2 minutes for each one. No cheating. You may use your calculators.

Question 1:
Tonja and Edward are participating in a jog-a-thon to raise money for charity. Tonja will raise $20, plus $2 for each lap she jogs. Edward will raise $30, plus $1.50 for each lap he jogs. The total amount of money each will raise can be calculated using the following expressions where n represents the number of laps run:
Tonja: 20 + 2n Edward: 30 + 1.50n
After how many laps will Tonja and Edward have raised the same amount of money?
A. 3
B. 6.5
C. 14.5
D. 20

Question 2:
Which of the following is equivalent to √50?
A. 5√2
B. 10
C. 25
D. 25√2

Question 3:
Highlands Park is located between two parallel streets: Walker Street and James Avenue. The park faces Walker Street and is bordered by two brick walls that intersect James Avenue at point C, as shown below.
What is the measure of ∠ACB, the angle formed by the park’s two brick walls?
F. 96° G. 84° H. 60° I. 36°

Question 4 (last one!)
In music a certain “A note” has a frequency of 440 hertz (vibrations per second).
This is called the first harmonic. The second harmonic of that “A note” is 880 hertz, and the third harmonic is 1,320 hertz. According to this pattern, what is the frequency of the fifth harmonic?
F. 880 hertz
G. 1,760 hertz
H. 2,200 hertz
I. 2,640 hertz

If eight minutes have passed, your time is up. Put down your pencils and close your test booklets.

Here are the answers. If you got them all right, you can maybe pass 10th grade algebra. If you got none right, or you guessed, then you’re in the same boat as Roach. In that case, shut up and listen to what he says.

1. D 2. A 3. G 4. H

Another eclipse picture


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Moon near end of totality

The Moon near the end of totality.

JISHOU, HUNAN — I had to Photoshop this one a bit to clean it up. I mistakenly had the Tamron’s vibration control on, and the resulting movement smeared the Moon’s image, but left the star images intact.

This is a 10-second exposure with the lens zoomed to 230 mm, taken near the end of totality around 11:00 pm local time. Everything else is the same: Nikon D60 on tripod, Tamron 70-300 zoom lens, f5.6, ASA 200.

The stars surrounding the Moon are fainter members of Taurus: from top left going clockwise, 13 Tau/HIP23900A, iota Tau/HIP23497, HIP23589, 15 Tau/HIP23883 (closest apparently to Moon here), and L Tau/HIP 23871. Iota Tau is a member of the Hyades star cluster, whose V-shape outlines the horns of the bull. The stars of the Hyades are about 150-160 light-years away from Earth.

How do I know which star is which? It’s not an encyclopedic memory or fancy astronomy equipment. I used Stellarium, a free planetarium application for your computer. Here’s a screen shot of Stellarium showing the same view on my desktop.

Stellarium simulation

Screenshot of Stellarium view of Moon at 11:00 pm Dec 10, 2001

Stellarium will give you details about any object you click on.

Interestingly enough, 15 Tau, which in this photo appears closest to the Moon, is actually the farthest star of the five from us. It’s 1032 light-years away. That’s some old light there.

Lunar eclipse, December 10, 2011


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Eclipsed Moon and Alnath (Beta Tauri)

Alnath (β Tau) and the eclipsed Moon -1 sec exposure

JISHOU, HUNAN — I caught the total lunar eclipse about halfway through totality. I didn’t do all the good stuff, like wait for the equipment to cool to ambient temperature (0°C here), because I almost forgot to go out. So, out of 25 shots I got three halfway decent ones. The focus seems to be a bit off, I fear.

The three images here are of the Moon toward the end of totality. You can just barely see it brighten on the lower right edge as it leaves the Earth’s shadow. The star to the left is Alnath (β Tauri), the second brightest star in Taurus. Alnath is a bluish-white B-class star, about 700 times brighter than the Sun, 4.5 times heavier and 5 times bigger. It’s 131 light-years away.

I used a tripod-mounted Nikon D60 with a 70-300 Tamron zoom lens at 70 mm, f5.6, ASA 200. The three exposures are 1.0 sec (above), 1.6 sec and 2.5 sec (below).

Alnath and Eclipsed Moon - 1.6 sec exposure

Alnath (β Tau) and eclipsed Moon - 1.6 sec exposure

Alnath and eclipsed Moon - 2.6 sec exposure

Alnath (β Tau) and eclipsed Moon - 2.6 sec exposure

Totality ended around 11:00 pm here.