Ken Carroll talks a lot at work about the movement of learning from the classroom to the network, and how that’s a game changer. He’s right, and at Praxis we’re helping to push the revolution forward.

It’s nice, though, to see the power of learning networks in practice. A two message exchange between my friend Greg and I, over SMS.

Greg: where’s karachi again?
John: pakistan

Simple, to the point. He needed information and he got it in the most effective way possible. The information was delivered in context (he got an answer to his question at the point where he needed the information), and it was exact answer to his question with no extra fluff to parse through.

Mobile devices and connectivity are changing the way we do everything, including learn.

It’s been said that a single sharp knife is more valuable than a drawer full of dull knives. This is probably true in most fields — being really fucking good at something is more useful (and marketable) than being mediocre at many things (really, being mediocre at something isn’t marketable at all) — and it is certainly true in language learning. While sort of being able to speak a language may help make your vacation to a country where that language is spoken more enjoyable, it won’t get you very far in your professional life — but real fluency will. From All Japanese All the Time (whose author, Khatzumoto, certainly has a few very sharp knives in his kitchen):

Too many of us language learners are dabblers, dilettantes, hobbyists. Of course, it depends on one’s goals. But if we really want the maximum benefits of knowing a language, I think those max benefits only come with (native-level) fluency. If you want to be able to actually cut stuff, you need a sharp knife. You want to be able to use your languages to do (cut) ANYTHING. And fast. Understand everything from standard to regional dialects, read fast, speak fast and correctly, write fast and correctly. Otherwise you just have a collection of blunt mental; it looks good on paper, but it doesn’t do anything or it doesn’t do enough.

This is, basically, my goal for Chinese, and I have yet to reach it despite living here for almost half a decade. While my Chinese is better than a lot of, perhaps even most, Westerners living in Shanghai, it’s not nearly good enough. My ability to speak, listen, and write have holes in them large enough to drive semis through (my reading is pretty decent, but you could still drive a couple VW Rabbits through the gaps). I still occasionally find characters I don’t know. I make silly mistakes with aspect particles. It’s frustrating.

I’ve been on this plateau for a long time, in which I am able to handle my everyday needs with ease and finesse but am still not able to represent myself in Chinese like I can in English. I know the steps that I need to take to get off this plateau, but I have not yet made them.

There’s no time like the present.

February 21, 2013

So I have decided to do some DIY around my house and I am short a number of tools. So its shopping time….man-shopping time :). One of the issues though, is that having made my earlier life in another continent, I have had to leave behind most of my electrical goods because it was just not worth dealing with all the hassle of getting them to work here in China. That unfortunately included all my power tools of which I had a truck load ready for all sorts of jobs around the house. This time around I think I might try something different: Air tools. As the name suggests, they are powered by air from an air compressor. If and when the time comes for me to move on from here to another land far away (read: with different electrical standards), then I will be able to carry most of my tools with me and just get a new air compressor which is the only part of the equation that is powered from an electrical socket.

i have never bought air tools before so I was initially pretty excited about delving into this new power tools field, but it is turning into a lot more complicated a subject than I initially anticipated. You have to be a bit of a physicist and know about air volume and air pressure, etc because apparently there are an almost endless number of air compressor types and air tools and you need to make sure that the compressor you go for has the characteristics necessary to power all air tools you plan to use with it. Anyway, enough of me trying to faff around the subject, others have provided much better explanations on air compressors and their complimentary air tools, so I will leave it to them. All I have to do is buy them.  Should be simple enough but even though this is the land of almost everything manufactured, I have been hearing some horror stories as to how many fake products there are here in China, so I have decided to stick with some name-brand tools to ensure that I get something that actually works as it’s supposed to. That’s assuming that they haven’t faked the brand as well!

January 20, 2012

Tudou is the largest online video site in China and, seemingly unfettered by the pesky IPR laws that keep full-length pirated material from lasting on Youtube for more than a few minutes, it’s loaded with TV shows and movies.

As a student of Chinese, this is a great boon. Chinese TV shows are available at any time, and can be stopped, rewound, and watched again (and again, and again…) if you missed something the first time. Since most shows in China air with accurate, burned on Chinese subtitles, you’ll have a transcript of what’s being said sitting in front of you as well. Even better, Tudou users have grouped popular shows into playlists so you don’t have to hunt around for the next episode.There are many, many more shows (and movies, and pretty much anything else you can imagine) available in Tudou’s archives.

One of my coworkers sent a fast and easy way to donate money to the relief efforts ongoing in Sichuan province. If you have a China Mobile phone, just text a number between 1 and 30 to 10699988, and the corresponding amount will be deducted from your China Mobile account balance and donated. I just tried it and got this message in response:


It’s nice to see ubiquitous technology put to work for a good cause. For those of you without a China Mobile account, you can donate directly through the Red Cross.

Post: The Chinese Language and Me, by Jack Perkowski. Managing the Dragon, 30 May 2008.

First, respect where it’s due: Jack Perkowski founded Asimco, a multi-billion dollar automotive parts business, in China. When he talks about learning Chinese not being necessary for commercial success in China, he’s probably right — at very least, he’s an excellent case study in why that’s true.

Still, I get this feeling that he’s bought into the whole “Chinese is inscrutable” myth. He asks “What amount of effort would it take for me to get my Chinese up to a level where I could rely on it in business?” He’s been here since 1992 — 16 years. Relatively little sustained effort applied over the last decade and a half would most likely have sufficed.

I wonder, if he had known in 1992 where he’d be in 2008, if he would have started studying the language.

Post: The Refugee as a User Segment: Ideas for Mobile Services, by Rachel Hinman. Adaptive Path Blog, 1 June 2008.

Intriguing, particularly the bit about “products and services designed for emergency situations have proven boons for innovation because they approach the problem from a non-market-centric mindset.” Mobile connectivity is slowly but surely changing everything.

Related (and fascinating in its own right): Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase’s TED presentation, Our cell phones, ourselves.

Article: China has 15 million underage smokers: govt. Agence France-Presse, 2 June 2008.

Does this surprise anyone? After years of seeing the number of smokers decline in the US, coming to China was quite a shock. The prevalence of smoking here is still surprising — seldom can you go to a restaurant and not be seated next to a smoker (something of which, after my wife became pregnant, I became more and more acutely aware). According to this CBC story, lung cancer rates have risen 30 percent over the last five years (likely more a result of better medical services increasing detection rates) and there’s no end in sight. Given the well-known link between smoking in parents and children, it comes as little shock that in a country of adult smokers there are lots of adolescent smokers as well.

Up at 12:30am with a cranky baby, sitting on the couch trying to rock him to sleep, I realize the remote control is within reach. I flip on the TV and immediately stab the mute button, not wanting the results of my hours of rocking and soothing torn asunder by three seconds of Beijing Opera. Knowing that Chinese TV — even with sound — isn’t the most entertaining, I decide to head for an old standby that, through years of insomnia, has never let me down — sports.

Flipping to CCTV-5, or CCTV Olympics as it’s called now, I’m treated to a rousing match of…


Goddamn it.

June 24, 2008

In no particular order:

  • 2.5 hours of sleep is starting to feel like it’s enough
  • I now know exactly how far to put the bottle’s nipple into Will’s mouth to facilitate optimum feeding
  • The terror of picking him up has subsided
  • My hands constantly smell like wet wipes
  • I know the difference between “something’s wrong and I’m uncomfortable” crying and “come here and pick me up you heartless bastard” crying

This being a dad thing is going to work out just fine.