Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Lately I've been really busy with school. One of the fun things we do is organize an Astronomy Club to run the observatory. So far we've been learning about the planets and our solar system during the day, and then having biweekly observatory sessions at night. Our last session on November 25th ended in... rain, so I'm looking forward to next week.

As prep for our observation nights, I prepare a little report that tells us what will be in the sky that night. To do that I use several online tools:

  1. Calendar Date And Time To Julian Day And Sidereal Times (calculate where we'll be looking),
  2. NASA - 12-Year Ephemeris (gives exact planetary positions),
  3. Your Sky (sky map showing planets and stars), and
  4. The Messier Objects (a list of interesting interesting celestial objects to target).

And then draw up a Word document with the full report.

Friday, November 24, 2006

 Via the mailing list of Chinese Bloggercon organizers, Sina reports that leaders in 12 government departments in the city of Suqian in Jiangsu province have opened 实名 (non-anonymous) weblogs. The entry with the most comments (443!) on the weblog of Municipal Party Secretary Zhang Xinshi is titled "How to understand the idea that 'Party Cadres Serve The Needs Of Entrepreneuers'", where he explains how government working to help local businesses does not mean that the government is neglecting the needs of the people.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

I guess it's time to announce this:

We're babied!

It's about 3 months old, 4.5 cm long, heart beating at 132 beats/second. We don't know the sex yet. Suggestions for names are welcome, English and Chinese. Due date is late May.

My uncle just forwarded these to me. He teaches astronomy at a private school:

Sunday, November 19, 2006

This weekend I actually listened to music. All oldies, but all goodies:

  1. Smashing Pumpkins (anything of theirs, really, but Melancholly and the Infinite Sadness is a true rock symphony).
  2. Butter 08 (Sean Lennon, members of the John Spencer Blues Explosion and Cibo Matto; doesn't even have a Wikipedia page).
  3. Shanghai Underground 2000 sampler (just downloaded; check the upcoming concert at Yuyintang).

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The reason Comic Sans survives is that it's the common font that most closely resembles standard printing as taught in American kindergartens. Elementary school teachers would be at odds without it.

My daily commute:

Friday, November 17, 2006

I remember a long time ago watching cooking shows in the USA and thinking how it would be such a hassle to actually follow the show while you cooking because you'd have to tape it and play it back during the actual dinner preparation process.

Now, Web 2.0 comes to the rescue. Youtube is great for watching cooking shows as you prepare a meal. Do a search for "cooking class" or "cooking show" or "apple pie recipe", and take advantage of Youtube's uncannily accurate "Related" list to surf to other interesting clips. Even try 肉 or 菜 if you're looking for Chinese. If only they had English subtitles...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Not in China! Blogger Beta is blocked by the GFW so on the day that the upgrade is pushed to all users I'm left out in the cold. And I'm not the only one who is feeling blue.

i can eat a fig
i can dance a jig
i can see a pig
i can say sittig

By my sister.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

City notes:

As I rolled into za' Park (Zhongshan Park!) this evening, I saw those new "civilized passenger" kids they hired to stand around in suits and look polite pasting notices on the escalators that say "the left side is a walking zone". That's GREAT; one of my deepest impressions of Hong Kong is still the crowd of people at the bottom of the escalator lined up to get on the right—standing—side of the escalator while the left side was left relatively free for me to walk up... Then again, signs don't get much attention here. Hopefully they station staff will add a little "spine" to go with their "sign". If they do as good a job as they guys with megaphones do at rush hour, we should be good to go in a month or two.

And second, who said the market always gives rise to unsafe conditions? As I exited the metro station by the Cloud Nine Mall, I was met at the top of the escalator by a greeting line of moto-taxi drives waving spare helmets at me. I'm guessing the Zhongshan Park white-collar MM show preference to moto-taxis with helmets for passengers.

And today's Xinmin Wanbao had no metro news. I was disappointed.

The other day on AskMefi, someone asked how to deal with stress as a grad student. Somebody suggested taking up a hobby such as reading, and I almost died laughing inside. Now I can't get it out of my head.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Why is life so easy for everyone else?

On Sunday afternoon Jodi and I went out to buy stationery supplies, and I made two cool discoveries.

First, as we walked south from the Nanjing East Rd metro station, née Henan Middle Rd, we raw across a bookstore that I'd seen before but never been inside. Since it had the looks of a small mom-and-pop place I got Jodi to duck inside with me and found an honest-to-goodness second-hand bookshop. Not only that, it's a foreign-language second-hand bookshop. This means magazines, fiction and non-fiction in English, German and Japanese, including Time magazine, the Economist, and some Japanese near-porn. The selection isn't that great, but I say 支持 because second-hand bookshops are GREAT in my book. 山西南路36号

Second, I'd been in the one state-run stationery store before, the one with all the first-rate imported goods that you can't find anywhere else in Shanghai, eg scissors with blades longer than a couple inches. But I'd never gone upstairs, and that was a mistake: ride the escalator to the fourth floor and find a Chinese-style mall a la Xujiahui computer malls, but for art and paper supplies. I dunno if it's the atmosphere or the shady dealing, but I just felt like I was getting better deals than on Fuzhou Rd itself.

So check them out if you're in the neighborhood.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Jodi, Jodi's mom and I took Poopy on a trip this morning to the pet market to buy chinchilla feed. The owners of both chinchilla stores said we'd done a good job raising him (we knew that) and they had fun petting him. The lady who runs the whole chinchilla retailing business owns both stores, the location just outside the actual 江阴路乌鸟市场 pet market by People's Square, and the original store/warehouse inside. She said that if we mated him and had babies, we could trade them in for more chinchilla feed from her store. Jodi got excited but I'm not too keen on the idea of breeding chinchillas. Then you have to deal with temperatures, genetic issues, keeping who separate from who, etc.

People on the street had a fun time watching and guessing what was in the cage. We have a hamster cage used expressly for taking Poopy outside because it's too easy for him to slip out of any of the three leashes we've tried buying for him, and his normal cage is much too large to carry. I like to overhear what people are guessing for Poopy's identity; these days, it's about 10% rabbit, 60% squirrel, and 30% chinchilla. The trash sorting guy downstairs still thinks that we say it's a cat, no matter how many times we tell him otherwise (in Chinese, the word for chinchilla is made up of the characters for "dragon" and "cat").

Friday, November 03, 2006

One year ago:

It feels good to be 28.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lately I've been thinking a lot about homework. Do we give students too much homework? It's obvious that the natural inclination on the students' part is to complain that we do, and from some angles they have a lot of support. On the other hand, both common sense and experience tell us that kids need to practice the skills they learn at school for more than the 45 minutes alloted per subject.

Those two seemingly opposing statements are not diametrically aligned, though, and I think the answer lies somewhere in the creative space between them. My idealistic side says that kids should be motivated by inspiring parents and by interesting teachers to challenge themselves and expand their mental horizon, and then be given as much a homework burden as they are willing to bear.

After all, isn't this the attitude we want to instill in them for their lives as adults? Do we want them to be workhorses, sacrificing human interaction for another degree or project completed? Or to be well-rounded individuals that have learned to judge the value of things, and balance their time between improving themselves and helping others?

Today I read an essay that touches indirectly on this topic and inspired me to finally write this post. One resource that I've found very inspiring in my teaching this year is the On Course Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter promoting a workshop series that always has an article teaching a strategy or two for helping your students achieve greater success. It's actually directed at high-school and college level instructors, generally in the humanities, but it's still applicable to some extent to middle school math. This issue's "Feature Strategy" talks about giving writing students a sample called a metacognative reflection essay, which is an essay with flow-of-consciousness thought process from the author embedded in it with square brackets.

The idea of the metacognative reflection essay is to encourage students to think critically about what they write by showing them the thought process of a writer as he composes an essay. This process resonates with me as a person who writes recreationally. Critical thought is the difference between a well-written essay that communicates effectively, and a page of obfuscated drivel of hardly any value to reader or writer. When writing a post, I have to consider word choice, sentence structure, literary devices, and the flow of ideas that leads, most of the time, to new insight into the topic at hand.

So how is this of use to a middle-school math teacher? Well, I also want my students to think critically and reflectively when they work on a math problem. The idea is not that they can look at


and find the value(s) of x, but that they see the question and think critically about how to add and multiply positive and negative numbers, about what it means for a variable to have a coefficient in front of it, and how an inequality means that x can take on any of a range of values.

Does assigning large amounts of homework encourage students to think critically? The answer, I think, is no.

Instead, I think, the way is to stress in class the value of thinking through a problem and then trusting (or verifying through work shown, or not shown) the student to spend the time reflect critically on limited number of problems. This sort of reflection will hopefull lead the student to self-motivated exploration and actually seeking out more homework for themselves. Believe me, it can happen!

(Though you end up fighting against ingrown training, and also a sort of "tragedy of the commons" where teachers vie for students' "mind time.")