New Year forth looking out of Janus’ gate

Will just have to wait a second.

The end of the year brings a leap second, which is really, er, meaningful (2008 to last a second longer). It gives me an extra second to contemplate 2008.

That started with a holiday in Hong Kong during the Spring Festival and the coldest winter the Territory had experienced in a long time; but then again, the rest of the country was pounded by snow storms.

The second term had Quincy and me teaching all three Senior 2 classes, and just as things were going well, the Dowager Empress remembered IELTS, resulting in the remainder of the term (i.e., most of it) degenerating into a mess as we rotated the IELTS and General English classes so that neither of us would have to endure the latter beyond reason. That didn’t work because “beyond reason” with the GE class was about a minute or two.

Then there was the Sichuan earthquake – 12th May 2.28pm – which largely spared Chengdu, but devastated other places such as Dujiangyan. We had another slight tremor a couple of days ago, and I’ve been told of others, although often I haven’t felt them.

I went back to the UK for the first time in three years in July, but that was soured by the ineptitude of the banking system. But I did get a new laptop, which has turned out to be a pretty decent piece of kit, although the screen left something to be desired.

My encounters with Pudong Airport left me absolutely hating the place, which I hope I’ll never pass through again, but while I was in that part of the world, I actually managed to see Shanghai – without my camera. Bugger!

Because the school pulled out of the programme, there’d only be three of us here to teach Senior 2. Then Row decided enough grief was enough and departed, leaving Glen and me to deal with all three Senior 2 classes until the arrival of a new teacher (who, coincidentally, arrives late tonight). I wasn’t expecting these classes to be any better than last year’s, and I wasn’t disappointed. Glen, on the other hand, has been disappointed. Classes he liked teaching last term have morphed into Senior 2s.

Elsewhere in the world, the year ends in an economic mess thanks to American banks. The UK has been knocked down and is now being given a good kicking. A few days ago the exchange rate was ¥10.17 to £1. When I checked the night before last, it was ¥9.85. Things are looking bleak in Blighty. China may not be immune to all this, but it’d seem to be a better country to be in than a lot of others.

At least the Americans ejected Ayatollah Dubya from the White House, but Barack Obama now has to clean up an enormous mess and will, I continue to predict, have to deal with the usual smear campaigns from the right.

In the New Year’s honours list, Terry Pratchett has been knighted. So has Chris Hoy for riding his bike. Now if that’s all it takes to get a knighthood, then I’m long overdue for one, having ridden bikes most of my life, although there were those three gold medals he won at the Olympics. Rebecca Adlington also gets a gong – an OBE. Lewis Hamilton only gets an MBE, whereas I would’ve thought he’d get an OBE at least. If I had to rationalise the difference, I’d guess that because the last British F1 champion picked up that honour not so long ago, the achievement might be regarded as less significant than winning three golds for the first time in a century or getting two golds by swimming from one end of the pool to the other without getting lost somewhere in between.

Looking forward, 2009 will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Maddy’s cif piece about it (Darwin shouldn’t be hijacked by New Atheists – he is an ethical inspiration) claims that he’s a standard-bearer for atheism in the 21st century. Is he? Really? No, Maddy, I don’t think so. When I first started nosing around on line into Humanism and atheism, I found that the old adage about the enemy of my enemy being my friend was true. Two things which get religious nutters all overexcited are homosexuality and evolution, which then pushes these things into bed with atheism. Of course, being gay doesn’t stop someone from being a religious head case.

Evolution tends to leave things to nature, which doesn’t have flora and fauna springing, like Athena, fully formed from the head of Zeus. As a response to environmental conditions, evolution shouldn’t really bother anyone and, as I noted some time ago, humans have manipulated plants and animals to their own ends every since agriculture was invented, which means we’ve been mucking around with evolution ourselves. The religious cranks could comfort themselves that the formulation of evolutionary theory is merely a clarification of the grand design of their particular deity, and which human is supposedly able to understand the mind of any god?

I expect that this’ll be my last year with the programme because it’s time to move on or move no further. A slight change of scenery without a change of location is necessary. There will be no repeat of the second term this year because they’re all going to do IELTS – eventually.

As for the rest, I’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Happy New Year. 新年快乐

The news from where?

Madagascar.
 
If you could create an animated map of the world which could show how many column inches of news all the countries in the world generated in the English language papers (outside the country in question; no passing references from other stories), it wouldn’t be hard to guess which ones would dominate the globe. The Middle East would be constantly pulsating and Israel would need to be subject to a complete news embargo to reduce it to more svelte dimensions.
 
But there’d also be a lot of countries which would barely even feature in such a world map. They’re the Madagascars. Every so often I’ll wonder what goes on in Madagascar. I have no particular interest in the place, but it’s a large island about which I know almost nothing. I know it was called Malagasy for a time. I don’t know the name of the capital; I don’t know what sort of government it has; I don’t know what language or languages are spoken there; I don’t know anything about the culture; I don’t know its currency; I know nothing of its history; I can’t name a single world-famous Madagascan; I can’t recall the last time anything newsworthy happened there. Indeed, the only news about Madagascar I can vaguely recall might’ve been about some rebellion or something, but that might’ve been 25 or 30 years ago. For a moment at the time, Madagascar became onymous, and having had its five minutes of onymity, it became anonymous again.
 
I have to wonder whether if we lived in a world of Madagascars, countries where people get on with their lives and their governments don’t go off adventuring around the world or screaming and shouting in such a way that attracts attention all the time, the planet would be a better place for it. I don’t suppose it’d last long before new adventurers and new sandpit bullies appeared until, if Gaea set all the nuisance countries in the world adrift in space, perhaps only Madagascar would be left, innocuously minding its own business.

The disc spins; the laser scans the surface; you get

Hamlet 2.
Steve Coogan plays a second-rate actor who has to work as a second-rate high school drama teacher. Because of budget cutbacks, he suddenly finds his drama class full of students. He needs a project, but his recent efforts – stage versions of popular films – have been panned by the school’s diminutive critic. Instead, he comes up with Hamlet 2.
 
So far, so all right. But then we hit that point in such films where it seems the production is dead in the water for one reason or another until the cast pull together to make dreams happen, and the audience gets to see some of that dream in all its awfulness.
 
The film isn’t quite as dreadful as I feared, although Coogan can’t do a decent American accent. Might’ve been better if it’d been set in Britain with a great deal more pathos as his Broadway-style musical (“A touch of America – in Altrincham.”) falls flat on its face.

We’ve already seen it.
In other film news, The Dark Knight isn’t going to be released in cinemas on the Mainland because it’s likely Nanny would react immaturely to it of cultural sensitivities. Never mind, I’ve already seen it here on DVD. Now if the reason was that the film’s kind of bloated crap, then I might applaud.

Do not pass Go; do not collect £200

Monopoly.
When I was in Ito Yokado just recently, I was surprised to see Monopoly on sale, although I oughtn’t to be, living, as I do, in a one-party capitalist state. But that got me thinking about Cluedo because one of the speaking activities in the book I’ve been using with the conversation classes is called Death at the Manor, and is based, obviously, on a murder mystery. As it stands, the scenario is unusable because the class needs to be small and have plenty of space, which is why I’ve been wondering whether it’d be possible to adapt Cluedo for use with large classes or even my usual bunches of lazy idiots. The aim would be to preserve the detective work, but without the complication of constructing multiple sets of the game. Perhaps some sort of card-based game might work.
In turn, this has got me thinking about classroom culture again. There are often times when we think that a particular lesson should be fairly interesting and fun, but instead ends up falling flatter than the surface of an ironing board. Thinking about this situation, I’ve been wondering whether this is an effect of so much work being foisted onto our pupils in other classes. That is, Chinese school children live in a world of minimal effort in which any task is done to the minimum required to complete it and no more. There’s much at any school in any country which is merely something to be done, but every so often, there was always something which was a bit fun to do. I don’t recall school being a constantly dull grind.
I’m not sure that school children in China get to do much in class which might be called fun. I don’t, of course, mean leaving the entertainment industry to take the strain, but rather something they do for themselves which engenders a sense of pleasure and enjoyment. We have the added problem of having classes of kids who are generally either thick, lazy or both in a society where everyone else is a potential source of entertainment, but few people think to entertain themselves through what they do. I learnt to occupy myself a long time ago, but here in China, it seems by and large that someone else has to supply the occupation for others.
Appendix
Since my previous entry, the day has not only got duller, but it’s been raining as well. Right now it’s just after 3.30pm, but could be 5.30pm or 6.00pm; or even 7.00am.

Christmas 2008

Dinner and a tragedy.

(Before I begin the main entry: I’m sitting here at home listening to We wish you a Merry Christmas blaring out of the primary school. I assume that it must be morning exercise time there.)

The school took us to 老房子 (lǎo fángzi) for dinner last night. The restaurant is on the side street just south of Wuhou Temple. The food was good, but I’d had a biggish lunch yesterday and wasn’t that hungry.

Last night, Tianfu Square was full of policemen with others in coaches and police vans waiting in reserve further up Zongfu Lu just near the mobile phone district. I think it must’ve been inflatable bat night last night, which we went along to last year, although fun was verboten. I saw some people with those inflatable bats a couple of days ago, although no one in the square appeared to have them.

I had to go over to school this morning on a small matter of business this morning. I wondered what the security guard was looking at and could see a crowd of people outside the library. There’d been an accident. Some old woman had been knocked down and killed by one of those large construction site trucks. She was lying there in full view while the police cordoned off the area. As I stood there, a bus full of people stopped right beside the body.

The intersection is dangerous because the back street behind the school is quite narrow and usually has little traffic, hence cyclists and the electric bike jockeys ride through there against red lights. I have no idea what the exact circumstances of the accident were, but all things considered, I wouldn’t be surprised if both parties were culpable in some measure. Pedestrians and cyclists don’t pay proper attention; motorists are arrogant bastards who think they own the road.

It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a dead body and a death from a traffic accident in China. It’s a surprise that I haven’t seen a great many more, although I’ve seen the aftermath of a fair few crashes. I don’t think I mentioned another road safety campaign I saw not so long ago. The images in this were even more gory than the images in the other, including a sequence of pictures showing some guy trying to cross a motorway, getting hit by an SUV and getting flung into the air. But such campaigns seem ineffectual because people still go around as if they still live in a pre-industrial age.

Chinglish and the strange case of “though”

Where did the article go?

This afternoon, Amrita in Class 5 asked me about the answer to the following question

11._______, he does not know the answer.
A. As he is a teacher
B. As he is teacher
C. A teacher as he is
D. Teacher as he is

This is one of those typical Chinese questions about English. A. might be the correct answer in context and would mean to me that because the person is a teacher, he doesn’t know the answer to a question (perhaps about some other job). B. is ungrammatical for want of an article. I’d also regard C. and D. as ungrammatical because the conjunction as is a barrier to the fronting of NPs. My first inclination (pretending that there was nothing untoward about the utterance) was to opt for D. (which is the correct answer according to the answer key), but I then thought about it, and wondered about C. because of the absence of the article in D. when “teacher” was fronted.

But the conjunction which I felt ought to be used here is though; and it’s clear from other questions in the set that they’re all about fronting of the sort in the question above. Though A. is actually the only grammatical answer (as far as my grammar is concerned), the sentence obviously isn’t supposed to mean “Because he’s a teacher etc.”, but is, rather, adversative.[1] It was when I was thinking about this in the shower (where I do all my best work) that I realised that something may go missing when an NP in a though-clause gets fronted, namely the article, hence “Teacher though he is etc.” beside “A teacher though he is etc.”[2] I can only say “Though he is a teacher”, but not *though he is teacher.

There are very few instances of this construction to be found via Google[3], which suggests that it’s literary. The only instance of this phrase which I can recall is from Chapter 6 (Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire) of The Hobbit:

Now you can understand why Gandalf, listening to their growling and yelping, began to be dreadfully afraid, wizard though he was, and to feel that they were in a very bad place and had not yet escaped at all. (My italics.)

Now if I put “wizard” back where it came from, I end up with the ungrammatical *though he was wizard. Has the article vanished, and if so, why? Was the article never there in the first place, and if it wasn’t, why would my grammar allow this ungrammatical intermediate stage? Not being a syntactician, I have no answers to offer. I do note, though, that this construction sounds less natural when the conjunction is although.

Notes

  1. This may be a common error in the peculiar world of school-quality Chinglish. A search for the phrase “teacher as he is” yielded “Teacher as he is, he cannot finish task in an hour” from another Chinese source.
  2. I have a preference for the former, but find nothing objectionable about the use of the article in the latter.
  3. Unfortunately, Google ignores punctuation, which yields a large number of useless results. A brief search through a few pdf documents has proved fruitless, although I’m not surprised because of the apparent rarity of the construction in the first place.

Poll finds 29% of science teachers are irrational

Never mind the facts, feel the belief.
You may remember that I mentioned an e-mail survey of teachers (and education professionals) a few weeks ago (Talk about mad scientists) which revealed that 29% of them thought that creationism should be taught as science. At the time I was a little sceptical about the value of the survey because it wasn’t exactly done with the greatest scientific rigour.
 
But an Ipsos/Mori poll reported in The Guardian (Would you Adam and Eve it? Quarter of science teachers would teach creationism), which surveyed 923 science teachers, also came to the figure of 29%. The per­centages for this poll and the other would appear to be coincidental, al­though you’d expect that in spite of differences between them, the results for a poll of science teachers would reveal that far fewer would teach creat­ionism.
 
Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that those who would teach creationism necessarily believe it. They might have pragmatic reasons for making such a choice; or they might think it’s fair, but that also means that every other creation myth should be mentioned, otherwise there’s no fairness. There’s no harm in discussing creationism in Comparative Mythology Class, but it shouldn’t be mentioned in sciences classes because it then appears to have some degree of importance or credibility. Since no one talks about Hittite creation myths or Tongan creation myths in such classes, why should creat­ionism be regarded as any different?
But there’s no excuse for thinking that this sort of material belongs in a science class no matter what the reason is.

The studio ending

The Deal.
William H. Macy is playing Charlie Berns, a Hollywood producer who’s fallen on hard times and is trying to kill himself until his nephew turns up with a script for a film about Benjamin Disraeli (called Bill and Ben). As luck would have it, Bobby Mason is looking for a film with Jewish content. Unfortunately, because Mason is an action star and black, the film becomes Benjamin Disraeli Freedom Fighter, which falls apart when Mason is kidnapped. But instead of acquiescing to the studio’s wishes, Berns de­cides to resurrect the original film, which wins a slew of awards, and he wins the girl.
It’s all right, but clearly Macy gave himself all the best lines. It seems a little odd that he should be trying to kill himself one minute and is then transformed into a slick Hollywood player the next. If he was that good, his career wouldn’t have stalled. Meg Ryan gives it up to him all too easily, but at least she’s not half his age. The ending is also a little too studio for my liking:
Macy: Let’s work together.
Ryan: No.
[Macy throws himself at the car.]
Ryan: You were meant to dive in front of the cat not onto it.
Macy: Lucky for me I co-wrote this.
Ryan: Yeah, I’ve been meaning ask about the direction, “Meg Ryan gets her head torn off by a giant space locust.” [Slight pause.] Can I work with Tom Hanks again?
[She tries to look cute and vulnerable, but merely looks like she has a sinus problem.]

Resident Evil: Degeneration
CGI entry in the Resident Evil franchise. If I remember rightly, it’s similar to the film before the previous one with the überzombie. Bit Final Fantasy. Yawn.

Christmas is banned until further notice

That is all.
decorations I got back to the office after class this morning to find that Linda had left a note about Christmas on my desk. All celebrations and decorations have been banned, which, I assume, is a continuation of the order about not praying in class earlier this term. I had thought that this was aimed primarily at me and Glen, but on my way home I saw the rubbish in the picture sitting outside the main building. These decorations must’ve been up in other classrooms. The order doesn’t come from the school, but from somewhere higher up the food chain, and may be another instance of puerile, hypocritical, overzealous nationalism.
I’d be lying if I said I was that bothered about it. The only decorations I had in my classroom were ones that hadn’t been taken down since last year. I’ve looked at them occasionally and thought I should remove them. The irony is that the school’s taking us out on Wednesday evening to celebrate Christ­mas.
Less ironic has been the behaviour of the little darlings. Class 6 keep nag­ging me about DVDs. I don’t respond well to nagging or overlook that they forget their place. They have no right to see DVDs; I’m not obliged to show them. I also get thoroughly sick to death of hearing them say, “Movie”, which makes them sound as retarded as they really are, or “DVD”, which I consider to be rather discourteous. Class 7 followed Class 6 with a bout of doing nothing. It was one of those lessons where I could just leave them to it, though, and I did. Class 5 took their usual pre-lunchtime approach to the lesson. If they did anything, it was done with minimal effort to produce a minimal answer.
The speaking exams are almost done. One more pair tomorrow, and that’s it. Hurrah!

No, actually, I want the cash

The X Files: I want to believe.
I guess David Duchovny needed the money to fund his treatment for sex addiction and Gillian Anderson needed the work, since I can’t think of a single film or TV programme (apart from the first X Files film) in which I’ve seen her since the X Files finished.
This is little more than an extended TV episode about people being hacked up for body parts to create Frankenstein’s monster. And just to satisfy the supernatural element of The X Files, Billy Connolly is a former Catholic priest (yeah, a pervert) with psychic powers.
You watch it once; you’re done.