Monday, January 30, 2006

Ancient Chinese Gossip Confirmed
Picture: Me and Liz "flying" down the steps of the emperor's tomb. Perhaps not the most reverent activity.

A few months ago, I mentioned I had been to the First Emperor's tomb in China, and talked about the legend of what is supposed to be inside it:
The written plans and descriptions they have found for the tomb say that the emperor called for a jeweled representation of the heavens to cover the ceiling, and a jeweled map of his empire to cover the floor, complete with a flowing river of mercury, which the emperor believed would make him immortal.
Last night, there was documentary on the Discovery Channel all about the latest research that has been done on the tomb (as well as the history of the emperor's life), which I thought was really interesting. They've done a lot of radar imaging to get a much better picture of what is actually down there, and built 3D images off that. (If you can ever get it to load, this Discovery Channel page is supposed to let you do a virtual walk through: Open the Tomb.)

The most exciting thing to me, though, was that they had also taken core samples of soil from all over the burial mound, analyzed them, and plotted out the high and low concentrations of mercury, which when put together... form a map of China at the time! So it looks like the grandiose written accounts describing a tomb with flowing rivers and seas of mercury, being continually circulated via machinery through the model of the empire in the floor, may well be true! It will be fascinating to see if and when they ever get the tomb open.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Meditating on Neuroscience
I happened to pick up my dad's February copy of Wired last week, and my eye fell on this article about the furor that erupted over the Dalai Lama being invited to speak at the Society for Neuroscience's annual conference.

As a quick background on why the Dalai Lama would have anything to do with a bunch of neuroscientists:
Over the past few years, he has supplied about a dozen Tibetan Buddhist monks to Richard Davidson, a prominent neuroscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Davidson's research created a stir among brain scientists when his results suggested that, in the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the monks had actually altered the structure and function of their brains.
Interesting, right? I thought so. It was mentioned in National Geographic last year, too. Of course, the first thing I noticed when reading the Wired article about some neuroscientists protesting against the Dalai Lama's appearance was that every protestor they interviewed had a Chinese name. Hmmmm. However, the article eventually got around to acknowledging that bias, so I don't have issue with that.

What I do have issue with is the fact that the article seems to be trying to present the argument that research on monks, and their brains, and the general effects of meditation is going to cause horrifying and unprecedented blurring of the line between science and religion. The last two paragraphs of the article read as such:
A few days before the Dalai Lama addressed the Society for Neuroscience, he stood before a similarly eminent crowd at the Mind & Life Institute's 13th annual meeting. The audience of 2,500 consisted mostly of scientists and clinicians, yet the mood was more dharma than Darwin. Sessions opened to the guttural chants of Tibetan liturgical music. Everyone stood and bowed when His Holiness entered the room.

During one presentation, Duke University professor of medicine Ralph Snyderman paused to tell His Holiness, "This is one of the most wonderful moments of my life, being here with you." It was a touching gesture. It also crystallized the dilemma. Scientists can try to test the validity of the Dalai Lama's first-person perspective. But if they allow reverence for him to cloud their judgment, they will cease to be scientists and take rebirth as something quite different: acolytes.
As if no scientist in the history of, well, science had ever had any kind of religious conviction. How many Enlightenment thinkers were extremely devout Christians? How many of them claimed they were trying to prove the existence of God through scientific enquiry? Descartes, for one, not to mention Newton, and no one is accusing them of being bad scientists. I suspect there are any number of current day scientists who would be insulted to be told that they cannot practice science adequately unless they also dedicate themselves to aetheism. Why is it that wishing to practice meditation in addition to studying it is being presented as tantamount to declaring yourself a religiously blinded fraud? I hardly consider myself a devout anything, except possibly a skeptic, but even in the public schools I had enough scientific history education to recognize this conclusion as ludicrous.

Given the problems we already have in the US over a growing divide between the scientific and conservative religious communities, it hardly seems that this kind of attitude is at all helpful. These two groups are not, and should not be made to be, mutually exclusive. It's harmful to the free pursuit of science, and I, for one, am tired enough of seeing it impeded already.

Friday, January 27, 2006

More Required Chinese
This time in Zimbabwe. As the BBC reports, the government of Zimbabwe plans to institute offerings of Chinese classes in all the Zimbabwean universities. However, they report heavy criticism of the plan:
The Zimbabwe National Association of Student Unions criticised the government's plans.

"It seems they are trying every political gimmick to lure the Chinese into this country to bankroll their bankrupt regime," the association's president, Washington Katema, told the South African newspaper, The Star...

Investment and tourism revenues from the west have plummeted in recent years, prompting President Robert Mugabe to look increasingly to Asia to try to help his country's troubled economy.
In contrast, the BBC story last week, which I commented on then, on the private British high school instituting mandatory Chinese was much more inclined to be positive.
The move at Brighton College, in East Sussex, was said to reflect China's position as the fastest-growing economy in the world...

New head teacher Richard Cairns said he would join the first classes in September to learn the subject himself.

"One of my key tasks is to make sure pupils at Brighton College are equipped for the realities of the 21st Century," said Mr Cairns.
It seems even the teaching of Chinese is rife with politics, or at least can be viewed in that light.

Interestingly, actually learning Chinese doesn't seem to have a stigma attached to it, even as some governments try to paint China as the latest, greatest enemy. I remember reading accounts from the WWII era of people who hid the fact that they knew how to speak German because of the scare of persecution. Now, though, the US government is actively encouraging students to learn the languages of countries considered "enemies", given that Bush apparently announced a plan earlier this month to promote language-learning as a "strategic goal." I'd say this was an encouraging sign for the status of foreign languages in the US, except it strikes me as a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Notice on Comments
I apologize to anyone who had left me comments recently via the old Haloscan commenting system, but they are now lost. I noticed that any comments older than a few months had disappeared into the ether on that system anyway, so I am now attempting to implement Blogger's own commenting system.

Taiwan Debacle Follow-Up
Some interesting news on the whole Taiwan horror has come in. Earlier this week, I got an email from the other person who was supposed to be working at the same school as me in Taiwan. She stayed to see what it would be like once she was actually transferred to the regular school, instead of doing the summer camps. According to her, I didn't miss a thing.

She reports that the school was indeed located on the extreme outskirts of Taipei, which we were told, but that there was only one bus to get to the school from the nearest (and last) train stop, so on one night she counted that she was the 80th person in line for the bus. The nearest place to buy food was a half-hour walk away, and when the typhoon hit and she was rained in to the teachers' dormitory for 2 days straight, she survived on a bottle of soda and some crackers. Of course, no one from the program (nor the school) called to see if she was okay. She also found the lizard in her room and the flying ants in her bed to be quite charming.

She admits that she knew she wanted to be in the city in the first place, and so wasn't particularly inclined to enjoy living so far away, but from everything else she said, combined with my knowledge that we would still have been required to teach from extremely questionable material, I'm truly not sorry I left when I did.

There are so many good international teaching opportunities out there, it really seriously annoys me that programs like this are out there to ruin the experience, and additionally try to pass themselves off as being the height of credibility, heaping blame and guilt on any teacher to express dissatisfaction. Putting the employees in the status of semi-legal workers wholly dependent on the good graces of the recruiting agency isn't a particularly good sign, either. *sigh* Maybe someday I'll try it again, somewhere.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Walt Wolfram: Dialectologist Extraordinaire
Envy me! I got to meet Walt Wolfram! These are the special perks I get by knowing Grinnellians far and wide and, um, right down the street from me. Sarah, who was in many of my Spanish classes at Grinnell, is now doing her PhD under Wolfram, and invited me to go see a presentation of the latest North Carolina Language and Life Project documentary. Given that I am currently reading Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks for fun at the moment, it seemed serendipitous.

This particular documentary, The Queen Family, was more on the music of Southern Appalachia, rather than the dialect, but it was still just as interesting, though I fear that the poor director of the film got overshadowed in the question and answer session by people asking dialect study questions of Wolfram.

The interesting thing that came out in that session was what Wolfram wants to do with all the materials he has put together on the various dialects of North Carolina. He wants to make a curriculum for 8th graders in NC, which is when they take NC history in social studies, on the linguistic heritage and history of the state. He has already started a curriculum for students on Ocracoke Island, which he takes interested college students with him to teach every spring break, and he says there is a whole new generation of children there that have a much greater pride in and knowledge of their particular dialect. It makes me wish I could take 8th grade over again. Almost.

In other strange coincidences, when he heard I worked for the Autism Society, he mentioned that he has a grandson with autism, so my job once again proves to make interesting connections.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Zhongwen: Language of the Future
The BBC reports here that Brighton College, an independent college, (otherwise known in the US as a senior high school,) in Britain, has added Chinese to its required foreign language curriculum. It joins French, Spanish, and Latin.

Given the recent craze in the US and other parts of the Western world for all news of China, receiving it either joyously or with paranoia, this addition isn't that surprising. The thing I found more interesting was the idea that it is being instituted as a compulsory subject. I'm actually rather torn on my opinion of this.

On the one hand, it has not been my experience that compulsory foreign language education does much to produce happy, excited users of the target language. Very, very few of my students in Japan are ever going to become proficient English speakers, and not many of them seemed to think there was any use in taking the class, except that they were required to pass exams in it. Compulsory classes in a foreign language seem increasingly less likely to take situations where the target language is unlikely to come in useful on a realistically frequent basis. Teaching other European languages in England, other Asian languages in Japan, sure, these might be actually useful, but there's a reason only a few students in the US choose to take Japanese or Chinese.

On the other hand, look at the general American public. As a country, we are woefully ignorant of language. We have little knowledge of our own language, because we just grow up speaking it, and grammar isn't really a priority in the schools anymore. We also have little understanding of language in general, because foreign languages aren't a big priority either. After all, how often are we going to travel outside the US? And if we do, how often are people not going to understand English, especially if we speak real loud? Seriously, though, it's sad how many people finally learn the structure of English by taking a foreign language class and having to relate Spanish/French/German grammar back to English. Even if we didn't end up with a bunch of proficient Chinese speakers, who is to say that a little forced familiarity with a language from the other side of the world wouldn't prove to be useful?

My students in Japan, and later in the US, were envious of the US policy of letting students choose what foreign language they wanted to learn. In my own foreign language classes in middle and high school, the classes seemed to move at a faster pace, because the students were at least somewhat motivated by interest in the subject. But these foreign language classes are looked on as an academic luxury, not of core importance. Would it be better to sacrifice enjoyment and choice for broader, enforced foreign language education that might encourage more international understanding? I can't decide.

(But if I was going to design a foreign language overview curriculum for the US, I'd try to cover more language families than usual. I'm envisioning something like a choice between Spanish or French for Romance, German, Russian, a choice between Chinese and Japanese [even though I know they're not linguistically related, except by writing style], Arabic, and something Native American. This is completely unrealistic, it leaves out lots of languages, but maybe it could be squeezed in, say, with a month for each language, or something? Then the next year make the students pick the language(s) they'd like to study further. Oh, and a basic linguistics class at the high school level, too. Yeah, right.)

Friday, January 13, 2006

Eastern vs. Western Robots: Good vs. Evil
One of my friends sent me a link to this article in The Economist: Better Than People: Japan's Humanoid Robots. In and of itself, the article is interesting, but what struck me was the part comparing Eastern and Western societal views of robots.
Few Japanese have the fear of robots that seems to haunt westerners in seminars and Hollywood films. In western popular culture, robots are often a threat, either because they are manipulated by sinister forces or because something goes horribly wrong with them. By contrast, most Japanese view robots as friendly and benign. Robots like people, and can do good.

The Japanese are well aware of this cultural divide, and commentators devote lots of attention to explaining it. The two most favoured theories, which are assumed to reinforce each other, involve religion and popular culture.

Most Japanese take an eclectic approach to religious beliefs, and the native religion, Shintoism, is infused with animism: it does not make clear distinctions between inanimate things and organic beings. A popular Japanese theory about robots, therefore, is that there is no need to explain why Japanese are fond of them: what needs explaining, rather, is why westerners allow their Christian hang-ups to get in the way of a good technology. When Honda started making real progress with its humanoid-robot project, it consulted the Vatican on whether westerners would object to a robot made in man's image.
Though I hadn't really thought of it, that there is a divide seems to be true. Look at the stories in the Western canon about robots. The short story where the word "robot" first came from (as an acronym for something I can't remember) was all about the robots taking over the world and driving humans into extinction. We've seen that same theme again and again, certainly most noticeably recently in The Matrix movies. Asimov's Robot series books don't necessarily feature robots as pure evil, but do make a very big deal of the rules that must be imposed on robots to keep them under control, rather like malevolent genies one can never quite trust.

I'm not sure when robots entered Japanese culture, but in their movies (Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed, etc.), cartoons, and comic books, robots generally seem to be accepted as things that just are, and generally coexist with humans peacefully, helping society as a whole. They do deal with what the difference should be between humans and machines, in Appleseed making it more of a race issue, but the robots are never considered evil. More often, it is the humans who are trying to control the robots/cyborgs who are shown to be flawed.

The article goes on to try to conclude that people in Japan are in general more inclined to interact with robots because as a culture, they tend to be shy and antisocial.
In Japan, says Mr Ishiguro, people are even more reluctant than in other places to approach a stranger. Building robotic traffic police and guides will make it easier for people to overcome their diffidence.

Karl MacDorman, another researcher at Osaka, sees similar social forces at work. Interacting with other people can be difficult for the Japanese, he says, "because they always have to think about what the other person is feeling, and how what they say will affect the other person." But it is impossible to embarrass a robot, or be embarrassed, by saying the wrong thing.
I'm not sure I'm convinced that this argument is the whole reason people in Japan view robots so positively, just as I am not convinced that there's a religious reason behind why Westerners view them so negatively. It would be interesting to know if anyone else did more research on the philosophical difference behind this divide.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

On Neal Stephenson
I finished reading the last of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle books today. Though I know a lot of people, whom I know to be quite avid readers and in many cases admirers of Mr. Stephenson's other work, who will disagree with me, I found the trilogy fascinating. One complaint I heard was that the Baroque Cycle broke from the more sci-fi elements of his previous writing, and was therefore less satisfying. Given that it is a work of historical fiction, taking place in the years between 1650-1714, this can't really be avoided, but I didn't find it that big of a break. He wrote the Baroque Cycle, a more-or-less fictionalized history of the budding development of technology, as an (extreme) prequel to Crytonomicon, a more-or-less fictionalized history/modern day story of cryptography. In this context, it makes sense. But it also seems to follow quite well in the tradition of his prior book, The Diamond Age, which fused a resurgance of Victorian principles, an explanation of the development of nanotechnology, and a cyberpunk setting and plot. For people who wanted more sci-fi, cyberpunk goodness, clearly the Baroque Cycle would be a disappointment. For me, though, it was still excellent.

What puts me in awe of Neal Stephenson is his ability to take a huge chunk of historical research, from what seems to be one of the more confusing and turbulent eras of Western European history, and weave two or three fantastically intricate plots through it in such a way as to leave the reader wondering what was truth and what was fiction. These are dense books, so full of plots, characters, and information that they can't possibly be considered a quick read, but they left me with the feeling that I probably had learned something in the end. They make me want to learn more, too, as I realized just how weak my knowledge of European history is. To be able to turn a feud between Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Liebniz over who invented calculus first into adventurously riveting reading, full of political import and far-reaching impact, is surely a gift. To be able to immerse a reader in the court life of England, France, and Austria; the sailing life of a ship full of world-traveling Vagabond schemers; the development of Natural Philosophy and the fall of alchemy in the Royal Society of England; the development of modern currency and financial transaction; and the personal romances of several pairs of people of high and low rank within one overarcing story is, well, amazing.

There are many authors whom I like, and whose work I very much enjoy reading, but there are only a few who inspire actual awe in me. Neal Stephenson is one such. I will never in a million, billion years ever be able to concieve of writing something like he does, but I fervently hope he continues to.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Spread the Word
Last weekend, at church, I had one of those, "Excuse me, where's the rewind button for life? I don't think I heard that right." We had a Polish woman as a visitor who stood up at the microphone for Joys and Concerns to say how happy she was to be there, how interesting she thought our Japanese New Year's service was, that she was trying to visit every UU church in the US, and it was her goal to bring to everyone the good word of... Esperanto.

No, I'm not kidding. Esperanto. I did not think there were still people around who were dedicated to the Esperanto movement, but I suppose this proves that if you attend a UU congregation long enough, you will see many, many strange and wonderful things.

Completely unrelated to Esperanto, but still in line with the entry title, please note that Geoff Pullum over at Language Log supports the use of "they" as a singular pronoun. Now with Shakespearian examples! New... er, rather, old... and improved!

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