Friday, June 19, 2009
The good news: I don’t need glasses yet.
The bad news: I got told to sit further away from the computer monitor or else. I think ‘or else’ is going to occur, because I have this urge to lean in whenever I’m playing computer games and watching films on my computer; I think it’s the effect of immersion, or maybe one required condition for immersion is me leaning in close to the screen. Either way, I’m not giving up computer games and films just so I don’t have to wear glasses some day.
So yeah, that was the 20/20 part of the test. Not really funny, exactly, but mildly interesting.
But the other part of the test was fascinating. The colour blindness test. I already knew I was colour blind, and there is in fact a great story behind that, which I’ll tell first.
I started in 2007 when I got the medical test needed for my Chinese visa (I was still in Brisbane at the time). The nurse giving me the colour blindness test laughed her head off while I kept on failing to see the numbers I should have been able to see. Everything was going according to the standard type of colour blindness until the last two pictures. I couldn’t see anything, but apparently normal colour blind people can see those last two. Me and the nurse just shrugged it off as a little weird.
Later, another significant event occured while I was studying in Beijing. In between classes me and my friends would meet in the corridor and joke around. My friend Haakon from Norway turned up wearing an interesting shirt. It was just a plain black t-shirt with some cool patterning in the shapes of circles of various green colours and some red circles too. I’m writing this from my perspective at the time, naturally.
I strongly believe that my friends were telling me the truth about what follows. They have never lied to me before. What happened was they started giggling as though I’d made an odd comment. They stared at me quizzically. And then Haakon asked me the question which gave birth to my growing suspicion of empiricism.
“You can read it, right?”
There was a moment’s pause, and then my friends all broke into uproarious laughter.
They were laughing at what was written on the t-shirt. I couldn’t read it so I didn’t realize what was funny. It was this t-shirt:
Now, my recent test:
The optometrist was cool and collected for the majority of my negative answers. But when we got to the last two, she sounded irritated. What she was about to say blew my mind and made me burst into laughter. I’m sure she didn’t like that. But I couldn’t help it; what she said ranks quite highly on my mental list of contradictory quotes which I’ve had the pleasure of hearing within my lifetime.
“Look closer. If you are really colour blind, you should be able to see something there.”
But let’s put the surface absurdity of the statement aside for a moment… Should? Based on what? There are two possibilities here.
A. I can see the answer
B. I can’t see the answer
If it is A, then I’m lying when I say B. Surely there is nothing to be gained from lying to her. There is no draft that might send me to an overseas military conflict. There are no financial aids given out to the colour blind. All factors are equal, and given that she doesn’t know what the likelihood of me telling a lie is (i.e she has no record of the truth/falsity values of every statement I’ve ever made which could suggest a tendency to lie), how can she assume that I “should be able to see something there”? There is some probability for B according to the small amount of reading I’ve done on the subject; there is a type of colour blindness with a much lower presence in the population than other varieties.
Now, here’s my question (and please do answer in the comments if you have an opinion, or especially if I have gotten something wrong factually):
Is it something to be concerned about that a philosophy student can (apparently) have a better grasp of critical reasoning than someone who told me a contemptuous tone that she was “more scientific [than people who are enrolled in non-science courses]”?
There's something else really interesting at work here though. We seem to be running into an epistemic barrier in a situation like this. My optometrist can't actually see the world the way I see it, no matter how hard she wants to. And I can't see the world the way she does. This is starting to scratch the surface of what the Australian philosopher David Chalmers talks of when he uses the phrase "hard problems". Although I think some of his arguments are quite weak, I think he's right to speak of the hard problems. I’m really curious as to what condition I actually have, so I have requested to go back for another appointment. We’ll see what happens.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
I sent the following reply:
Ah, the classic ivory tower attitude to languages! Blame the students for not taking the subject seriously enough! I'm surprised he's not a Latin professor! But then again I guess French is the closest thing these days.
And you know, in typical 'French scholar' fashion, he completely misses the point. Notice how actual language competence wasn't mentioned once throughout the article? And how he blames people not taking foreign languages seriously enough? In fact it didn't actually mention the current rate of bilingualism in Australia, and whether it's higher or lower than in the past.
My answer to him would be, if you had a program which worked, and was fun, then people would do it. Maybe the real reason for drops in enrollment is that people are finding out that there are better ways to study languages, and that it's a massive waste of university credit (and, by extension, money) to take uni language classes. I would point out to him how I will never take another university language class again, and indeed failed at Russian, yet my Chinese is pretty good. Not perfect but good enough to take university subjects for native-speakers of the language, write essays, and generally understand everything a native speaker would (films, the news, etc). And I'm in the process of acquiring Cantonese. Yet people double-majoring in Chinese, with high distinctions, still can't order a coke in a restaurant without repeating themselves five times and gesticulating like an orangutan.
Or maybe mention the possibility that since it IS a fact that the Anglo-Saxon population of Australia is declining, people don't feel the need to take courses in a second language because they already speak one. Or more than one!
I mean, for example, sure Indonesian enrollments may be lower. But maybe that's because Indonesian native-speakers form a larger part of the student population, whilst the English-only percentage drops. Seriously, when I walk around UQ campus, the last thought on my mind is "these people need to learn a language other than English". On the contray, it's unusual if I do hear a conversation in English! I would in fact put my money on genuine 'polyglottery' being on the increase in Australia- which is a fantastic thing. But it certainly wouldn't be reflected by higher enrollment rates in langauge courses in universities.
He also, being a French scholar and all, should have mentioned Canada's 'French Immersion' system. I read about it with great interest. Except of course he wouldn't mention it, because that program- in spite of it's huge net of enrolment- fails to produce even 1% of graduates who have a proper command of French!
ARRGGHHHHHH IT MAKES ME SO MAAAAD
On a more positive note, I've got an appointment at Clarity optometrists this afternoon, so I may be joining the hallowed ranks of the bespectacled.
Monday, June 15, 2009
But I digress. It was raining when I was planning on walking back home from uni, so I took the ferry instead. They have some banal television program on for people who don't want to look at the awesome view of the river, and as my eyes were passing contemptuously over the screen I saw "Words of Wisdom" in large comic-book letters next to a broadly drawn tree. And then the following faded in to the center of the screen:
"May all your wishes come true." (Ancient Chinese Curse)
This sounds off to me. The only way I know of saying something like this in Chinese is 万事如意 wanshiruyi, and I'm pretty sure it's never used as a curse.
I mean, seriously. I could be totally wrong, but...what kind of Fu Manchu bullshit are they trying to pull here? Even if this was an ancient Chinese curse, it would still be stupid. Can you imagine the bearded villain wriggling his fingers whilst uttering some incantation, to harness the forces of darkness so that the hero... loses some weight, meets a nice girl, gets the kid through college, becomes an astronaught and dies peacefully surrounded by family and friends?
It's moronic, is what it is. "You might not know the entire consequences that would follow from a particular set of conditions" or "If you could see the entire chain of events, you would not wish for it" seems to be the point they're trying to make. Which is actually quite different from getting everything that you wish for.
Let's assume that there really is a curse you can make, which will bring about the actualisation of all of someone's wishes. Firstly, you can't wish for something that you have no conception of. That's not what wishing is. Now, say that drinking a beer would entail stumbling across the street which would entail getting hit by a bus. Unless I harbour a deathwish, it's unlikely that getting hit by a bus is one of my wishes. In fact, I probably would wish for the non-occurence of that event.
Now assume that I didn't know about the causal necessity which would bring about my flattening, and we've established that you can't wish for something unknown. So suppose I wish to have a beer, and I wish that I don't get hit by a bus. If some asshole has put a curse on me so that all of my wishes come true, he clearly hasn't thought it through very well. I will drink the beer. And I will not get hit by a bus; non-contradiction ensures this.
At which point, I like to think that the prick who cursed me has a Cronenberg moment, looking something like this:
In fact, if that curse existed, I would want someone to try it on me. Because one of my wishes is that those dropkicks who try and justify ridiculous ideas by claiming that the idea is ancient and Chinese will have their heads explode. Not to mention all the other awesome states which would be brought about.
Not such an ingenius curse now, is it? My points here are that a) most 'ancient Chinese' stuff is not that ancient, not that Chinese, or just plain fabrication, and b) rationality doesn't discriminate.
Saturday, June 06, 2009
The artist looks up his folder for the correct character. There it is, man. And so the shoulder goes under the knife, ink goes in, and all is as it should be.
Or is it?
See, the thing was that it was not the character that means man, but the character that was pronounced man. With the fourth tone. Written: 慢
And that word means slow.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
My flatmate recently lent me a spare reading stand. It's strange how such a seemingly small thing can be so marvelous in its operation. For the first time ever I can sit down with a drink in one hand, relaxed, head leaning on my other hand, whilst still being able to read a book held upright. Particularly if you're reading a physically heavy book- like the textbook in the photo- it makes life much more pleasant.
It might be implicit in this posting, or the gap between this and the last post: nothing too exciting has been happening for the past month or so, though I have been reading more than I think I ever have before at any time in my life. I'll probably write a bit about that soon, but I'd like to make sure I have something to say before I do.
One thing that has been on my mind, that I'm quite sure of, is the way in which philosophy these days is often treated as not much more than an extension of fashion, and taken not much more seriously (maybe less seriously) than any other type of fashion. There is a view that there is no 'correct' philosophy, that each viewpoint is just as valid as the other. Now, this might be true of clothes, but I don't think we should be so casual when dealing with how we live our lives.
If I can figure out a way of writing about this in a non-academic, straightforward manner, I might start doing more posts on the subject. Because I feel that it is certain philosophical trends that are quite prevalent within academia who are responsible for philosophy's nosedive into unbearable pretentiousness and irrelevance.
Sunday, April 05, 2009
And it really was.
He pointed me in the right direction where I spoke to a woman who had one phone-card left. I wanted another one for Julia so I went off walking in the opposite direction and found an official China Mobile store. It's actually less convenient buying the legitimate phone-cards, and I sat there as people argued about whether my drivers license was acceptable to use as identification.
I had some dumplings for an early lunch, and the place was packed. When I got back to the hotel, registration had opened. As I signed my name I saw two familiar names- Brendan and Jim, from Beijing. Then on the elevator up I met Nicky, who contributes to Paper Republic, and whose posts I've always enjoyed. The world suddenly felt much smaller and friendlier.
In the evenings we'd head down the historic street to the Bookworm cafe, which had a pretty good selection of beers. I think we drank them out of Boddingtons and Leffe.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
I've only ever been in Suzhou for a day-trip before, so I'm looking forward to seeing what it's like. More than anything, though, I'm looking forward to meeting and learning from some fantastic, experienced translators.
Friday, February 27, 2009
There's two big problems that result out of this pedagogy. Firstly, unfamiliar Sinographs become associated with tension and embarrasment. Some might argue that this will encourage people to 'know their shit' in order to avoid getting caught out, just like doing your homework well might have saved you from the cane. I disagree. In my own experience, when I had that mindset it meant that I'd avoid doing extra reading where possible, because the more I read the more foolish I felt. This of course meant that my reading didn't get much better, and so I felt even worse about it. (-This is a period from when I started learning Chinese in mid 2004 to some time towards the end of 2007 when I changed the way I thought about literacy-)
The second problem is that since the focus is purely on pronouncing properly, it is likely that people will pay less attention to what the actual meaning is of the text, and become more concerned with having the proper pinyin annotation. This arises in a false sense of what understanding really is, thinking that so long as all the characters are individually pronouncable then the flowers of imagery that grow out of comprehension will shoot-up with no further nurturing. What is more likely is that people will fail to see where the various words and phrases are seperate, and what they are really describing, since the concentration is consumed with not screwing up, rather than appreciating whatever is being read.
As a slight digression, I think this is why foreign learners of English often overestimate their reading level- they can pronounce all the words, and conflate ability to pronounce a word with understanding its meaning (apologies in advance to my Dad, who hates the word conflate). This was made clear to me recently reading Anthony Burgess' autobiography: I had no trouble mouthing any of the words, but often I found myself at a loss to specific meaning, and so had to consult a dictionary about once per page (Burgess writes with an archaic, though mellifluous, vocabulary).
My thinking changed, as is often the case, outside the classroom, when I was thinking more about film than about Chinese. In particular, I was reading the few English interviews with a personal hero of mine, Christopher Doyle. Out of curiosity I entered his Chinese name 杜可風 into Google (I believe this was the first Chinese web search that I ever did). Up came many, many more interviews and articles than existed in English. I clicked on the first. My reading ability was really bad at that stage, but using an online dictionary I persisted through the whole interview. In fact, persist isn't quite the right word. The dictionary was more like a spoon I was using to get honey out of a jar. You don't persist your way through a jar of honey. I wanted to know everything that was being said. If there was a phrase that I didn't know, and Christopher Doyle was saying it in Chinese, then I wasn't intimidated. I had to know it. Just like how I will finish off every last molecule of a creme-brule, I was interested in absorbing every single word or turn of phrase in that interview.
It's no surprise that the first topic I was ever able to speak articulately about in Chinese was the lustful cinematography of Wong Kar-Wai's films. If we are, to use David Hawkes' felicitous expression, interested in more than just 'speaking to people on trains', then literacy is vital. And the best way to get there is through lust, not caution.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Phil and I took the jieyun to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Station. I asked Phil’s aunt about what the difference between the ditie and the jieyun was, which I understood as mass transit system and subway, respectively, and which I can’t really distinguish in English. The ditie is the ditie, and the jieyun is the jieyun, she said. It’s a station which has interest for various people, since it also leads to the national library, and maybe that’s why there was often a busker of considerable talent in the hallways of the station.
It would have been about 7pm when we arrived, and it had just been raining lightly. It was an odd journey into Liberty Square, because we didn’t arrive head on, the way you would in a tourist commercial or the establishing-shot of a film. Rather, we came in from the side of one of the large imitation Qing structures, which didn’t reveal anything except groups of young people practicing synchronized hip-hop dancing with the backing of a boombox. I don’t remember seeing anything like that at the Forbidden City, though I could be wrong. Apart from these groups there were very few people around. Then we came before the glittering ocean of cement with the enormous marble-white gate off to the far left, and the gigantic steps leading up to a ghostly statue on the right. It was not particularly well-lit, but the neon coming from the surrounding skyscrapers illuminated the low-hanging remnants of rainclouds, such that it felt like an abandoned stadium. We walked slowly in the middle and Phil remarked that you’d think more people would come here, since it’s so quiet and the massive space lets you vent all that’s pent up. I agreed with him; I really felt much more relaxed and tranquil than I had at any time during the past couple of days. The way to the statue was flanked by the occasional lamp-post which at first I mistook for crucifixes. When we got up the long set of stairs the view was very good, though we didn’t get to see the statue up close. Just as we’d gotten to the top step- joking and taking our sweet time- the massive doors to the statue room began to swing closed, just like a scene from Indiana Jones. So we stood there looking around us, and took a photo for a Korean tourist.
What came next is something I don’t think I could have ever foreseen. We were walking back between the superstructures of the square, with the only other humans in sight being two or three couples walking down the darker sections, arms interlocked. We were, as I think I’ve established by now, really enjoying the feeling of the enormous open-space, and perhaps a little bit dizzy with the flood of relaxation. I say that because I really don’t know where the two junior-high kids came from who suddenly asked me if I had a minute to help them with some homework. I was immediately interested and was not suspicious like I normally might be. Instead of pretending to be interested in where I was from or asking to be my friend within seconds of meeting me, they were just open about what they were after. Sure, I said, I had a minute. Phil was born in Taiwan so I guess they didn’t think he’d be able to help them with an English assignment, although Phil probably speaks English better than I do. Lucky Phil. I got handed a print-out of English, which I thought was either poetry or lyrics, I couldn’t tell as I was unfamiliar with it. Then I got to the third page and saw the title “Last Christmas”. What an evil English teacher these young lads must have: they were tasked with cornering some foreigner and videoing a trio-performance of an a cappella rendition of Last Christmas. I don’t really like singing, though I have had some formal training and have sung in front of audiences before. I just can’t take it very seriously and treat it more like a comedy performance than anything else. So it was with this particular performance; it was too ridiculous to get embarrassed about, so after I had read over the lyrics and hummed out something resembling the song in my memory, Phil took up the lads’ camera and we sang the whole song in a tunnel lined with Japanese vending machines.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
My throat started causing me massive pain on Sunday afternoon, and it’s been getting worse since. I thought some gargle would have done the trick, but I also started getting feverish and aching all over, and sweating profusely. Walking up a hill required all the energy I had. So this afternoon I made a trip to the doctors and found out I have a throat infection. 10 days on a course of antibiotics will solve the problem, said the doctor. Not too bad I thought, but it was even better when I found out that symptoms should clear up after 2 days.
As I lurched out of the chemist I felt a burning need for fruit, since I was really thirsty and a little hungry but had no way of stomaching a cooked meal (it’s like something pinches my throat real bad each time I need to swallow something, it really hurts). I stocked up on pears, strawberries, bananas, oranges and grapes at the Fruit n Veg, then decided I needed something like Gatorade to accompany the fruit (as you can see I am a bon-vivant).
There’s a store down the end of my street which I’d never been into, so on my way back I stopped by there. As I was browsing the various flavors of Gatorade- Blue Bolt, Fierce Grape, all very manly names- I heard the mellifluous tones of Northern accented Chinese emanating from the corner of the store (or rather, the corner of the corner-store, to be specific). It turned out to be the store owner and his wife. I waited until all the customers in the store had been served and then approached him, and had a really good chat in Chinese. His family emigrated from Tianjin, which is a city I’m really fond of, partly because there’s a lot of Xiangsheng performers from there, and I really love the accent. I told him this, and in return he remarked that I didn’t speak Standard Chinese, I spoke Beijing dialect. Flattery, to be sure, but it’s much better to hear than what people used to tell me: that I spoke like I was from Taiwan.
So, anyway, that’s all kind of why I haven’t finished the next post in my series on Taiwan yet (it will be about the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall).
Friday, February 06, 2009
My friend and I would always eat out for breakfast, around 9.30-10am. Taibei doesn’t really seem to wake up much before that so it’s quite good for sleeping in, and in any case you’ll probably need the sleeping-in with all the late-night adventures that’ll take place. The attendance of my friend was particularly impressive, since he is still deceiving all of his relatives into thinking he is a vegetarian, so would first eat breakfast at his place, then meet me for a second breakfast less than half an hour later.
I guess the craving for meat is just that strong. And besides, I don’t blame him, because the breakfasts were truly delicious. Bacon pancakes, cheese pancakes, ham pancakes, all served with a sort of BBQ-sauce, and doujiang to wash it down with. In fact I’m getting hungry just thinking about it (though, it has been about 7 hours since I last ate).
Other times, if we missed the breakfasts (there was some serious sleeping-in taking place) we’d usually go for xiaolongtangbao soup dumplings, and possibly some noodles to go with (I like zhajiangmian, a Beijing dish which I theorize to be the basis for spaghetti bolognaise).
After breakfast we’d often stroll down a few stalls to the comic-store (more accurately a private comic-library) and read us some manga for an hour or two, before deciding what to do for the day…