Thursday, October 29, 2009

George Orwell, from "Homage to Catalonia":

In practice the democratic 'revolutionary' type of discipline is more reliable than might be expected. In a workers' army discipline is theoretically voluntary. It is based on class-loyalty, whereas the discipline of a bourgeois conscript army is based ultimately on fear. (The Popular Army that replaced the militias was midway between the two types.) In the militias the bullying and abuse that go on in an ordinary army would never have been tolerated for a moment. The normal military punishments existed, but they were only invoked for very serious offences. When a man refused to obey an order you did not immediately get him punished; you first appealed to him in the name of comradeship. Cynical people with no experience of handling men will say instantly that this would never 'work', but as a matter of fact it does 'work' in the long run. The discipline of even the worst drafts of militia visibly improved as time went on.

I think this applies to teaching as well.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Tonight I finally set the stage for an evening of "Sidewalk Astronomy". The place: the square outside the Science and Technology Museum subway station, for its high evening traffic and wide-open sky. The time: right after dinner on October 26, about 8pm, when Jupiter and the half-full moon were less than 15° away from each other.

On the way there I think I scared some people on the subway. First, the telescope I use belongs to the school so I carry it home in a long, black bag that looks just about the right size for carrying a firearm. I actually felt pretty spooky carrying it around, with my hoody and black jeans on. Second, I also brought along a homemade accelerometer and took some measurements of the subway acceleration and deceleration going from Longyang Rd to Century Park. It's just a piece of cardboard with a protractor made of paper taped on it, and a metal nut on fishing line hanging down, but I had placed it up against the wall and was staring at it intently trying to line it up to 0° as people were getting on at Longyang Rd, so it probably looked strange. The good thing is that the top acceleration I calculate based off the measurement falls within the ranges I found online; 1.2 m/s² is between 1.0-1.5 m/s².

At the Science and Technology Museum square, I set up just off the bridge where people cross over to walk toward the taxi line. The spot was central-ish, away from lights, and off to the side from where bikers and rollerbladers tend to ride. When I pulled out the telescope I immediately drew a small, curious crowd, which I satisfied with some conversation and a chance to look at the moon through the telescope and binoculars. Then when things settled down I lined the scope up with Jupiter on the higher power eyepiece and demonstrated what we were seeing in Stellarium on the laptop. Most of the people who stopped by were either older couples or families with kids; usually they drew near and smiled, at which point I asked them to take a look and they universally accepted. This usually lead to a bit of chit-chat about why I was there, or about astronomy. One grandfather was very cute; as his wife and their son and grandaughter walked away he ran back with… "One more question. Why can't we see so many stars these days? When I was young the sky was filled with them!" so we chatted a bit about the atmosphere and light pollution. Another man visiting Shanghai from Fujian got to talking about the time he had spent up north in Heilongjiang and how the sky up there was so vast and yet so near, the he felt like he could have reached up and touched it; he also recommended getting out of Shanghai and shared with me about how, American is great and all but, his dream is to first go to Tibet to find peace for his heart. By nine o'clock I was spending a lot of time on the laptop and practicing navigating the sky with the binoculars, and visitors were getting less frequent, so I closed up shop and took the subway/bus home.

Overall I consider the trip a success, but felt like the major advantage of the site, a wide open sky, was lost to the fact that light pollution (and a possible light cloud cover) washed out pretty much the whole sky, especially near the horizon. With that kind of sky I could just as well go to a more peopled site like People's Square or somewhere with more buildings, as long as I had a clear line of sight to the interesting objects for that night. This is a success I'd like to repeat.

Signs that "Maryann (our one-year-old) Was Here":

  1. Cucumber crumbs on the floor.
  2. Magazines stacked on the bathroom stool.
  3. A particularly stinky trash can.
  4. Shoes strewn around the entryway.
  5. The remote control is missing.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Adam Minter just posted a photo and a question about a game he spotted being played in an older Shanghai neighborhood. Since my research turned up a real Shanghai connection I thought it'd be good to put it here and just share the link back.

Photo by Adam Minter.

I replied on his post that I knew the game as Carrom from playing it as a kid in the US, but looking at his photo I suspected something deeper because of the workmanship that went into the board; the ones I'd played had always been flimsy things mounted on tripods (though I'd seen some more durable ones at a park near my grandparents' house in Buena Park, California). Wikipedia has this to say about the history of Carrom:

The origins of carrom are uncertain, although western sources suggest that the game is of Indian, Portugese, or Burmese origin.[1] Variations of the game played with a cue stick similar to those used in billiards-type games may have independently developed in several cases as a mixture of billiards and shuffleboard.

The game is very popular in India, and in Punjabi it is called fatta. Similar games are played throughout the world, and may or may not share common origins with carrom. In Denmark a similar game called bob is played with cues rather than fingers.[citation needed] There is a carrom-like game also played with cues in China. Games similar to carrom appear all over Asia, for example vindi vindi in Fiji and szhe szhe in Israel. Some variants make use of discarded objects instead of fashioned playing pieces; bottle caps are used for games similar to carrom in both Mexico and Java.[citation needed] Various North American games bear a resemblance to (and may be related to) carrom, including crokinole, pitchnut and pichenotte.

The Japanese Wikipedia page for Carrom yielded the Chinese 康乐棋, and googling with that phrase turned up 康乐球. That last variation combined with 上海 turns up a lot of links that suggest that Carrom is embedded in and particular to the local Shanghainese culture. Among the search results was the blog of one 露香园, who had this to say about the history of Carrom in Shanghai:


So it seems likely that the British brought it over to Shanghai from India, either in the form of Carrom or as its predecessor snooker (Wikipedia confirms the Indian origin of the latter). The "Kangle Rd" theory seems like it may hold water, but I'd be interested to know if the game has another name in Shanghainese that might sound closer to the Punjabi "fatta" mentioned by Wikipedia, or some other Indian variant. Another site talks about the rise in popularity of Carrom in Shanghai after the closure of snooker halls in the 1950s, roadside Carrom rentals as sources of income for the unemployed, and the organizing of neighborhood Carroom tournaments during the SARS quarantines.


The site also attributes the 康乐球 name to the English "cornerbool", a word Google says is used exclusively by Chinese manufacturers trying to sell Carrom equipment to English-speakers; so I'm not too sure about that one.

In any case, it appears that Carrom is indeed a Shanghai institution. SMG's Sports TV channel did a short report on it, interviewing a Mr Li who credits it with keeping him healthy and improving his sight to the point where he stopped wearing glasses. The report does note that the average Carrom player is 50 years old, so this is likely an institution in decline. Which means that now is a better time than any to order yourself a custom-built Carrom/康乐球 board, only RMB 1200 and made in Shanghai.

Friday, October 02, 2009

A random sampling of interesting things from around the city, captured by my cellphone.

Wheel of mops at the Zhangjiang Carrefour.
Wheel Of Hygiene (by Micah Sittig)

One of those 2-D cellphone codes on a People's Square subway exit sign.
Photo-0042 (by Micah Sittig)

My favorite Shanghai skyscraper: that wavy one.
Photo-0043 (by Micah Sittig)

Great vocabulary builder for kids.
ungrateful basterds (by Micah Sittig)

I've said before that photographs of clouds are cheating, it's just too easy to get beautiful shots.
Clouds are cheating (by Micah Sittig)

The Concordia Int'l School middle high school cafeteria converted for a college fair.
Photo-0053 (by Micah Sittig)

The Shanghai American School (SAS) Pudong front gate.
SAS Pudong front gate & security

Walking through the front gate, an elegant Chinese-style courtyard (SAS Pudong).
SAS Pudong entryway (by Micah Sittig)

The courtyard outside of the cafeteria (SAS Pudong).
SAS Pudong courtyard (by Micah Sittig)

The cafeteria has a Starbucks-style coffee shop (SAS Pudong).
SAS Pudong "Starbucks" (by Micah Sittig)

A bit of wishful thinking; saw this trio on several models of magnets in shops at Chenghuangmiao.
Wishful thinking (by Micah Sittig)