Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gun & Pawn

Law and stop shop for all your divorce needs!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Field Study

I finally gave in and got a DSLR camera, Nikon3100. With my trip to Austria coming up, I have exactly one month to familiarize myself with the basics of shooting in manual mood. All exciting stuff to hopefully distract myself from the horrors of the workplace.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Revolution is Contagious

When one officemate breaks free for a better opportunity elsewhere I feel an overwhelming urge to slam the door on the toxic office environment myself. Working here hasn't been easy. Like that mother I saw at the airport, I do believe that this truly is a test of my character. It's not the subzero temperature or the isolation in a small town that bothers me but the product of the environment, more specifically the people. I've been through a lot, seen a lot and met a lot of people from all walks of life. Never before have I experienced so much back stabbing and negativity at a workplace. And you know it takes a lot for me to say that.

Even through we all have our own opinions at the office, one peer is always micromanaging and picking apart everything I do. The leaving officemate wasn't perfect but she was nevertheless a good buffer. I have a small anxiety attack every morning when I walk into the office. Today I was so annoyed by everything I couldn't even make it through the whole day. I left shortly after lunch for an afternoon nap.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

An Education

I've been reading a lot more lately with my new kindle, mostly popular business, communication and cognitive science books (interesting topics to help with my communication skills).

My readings and the electronic class have really made me think more about my early education in both countries and how they have impacted me as a person. Rote learning has always been a big controversy both in this country and also in modern day China. The naysayers preaches that they believe in learning based on critical thinking. Surely that sounds like an attractive method; however, having experienced education systems in both countries I personally feel my early education holds more water than anything I've experienced here from 7th to 12th grade.

To me, the problem with rote learning is not rote learning itself but inflexibility in creativity. Present day arguments tend to make the two methods mutually exclusive, which I don't believe is true. Critical thinking, in my opinion, just can't happen without fundamental knowledge and the only way for most people to retain and recall basic facts is through repetition, simple as that. In order to produce well rounded students, it's absolutely essential to use the best of both methods.

The sad thing with K-12 education here is that neither methods are utilized successfully. I've endured countless math classes in many different subjects where the center focus was based on the procedure to solve a problem rather than theoretical understanding or repetition of the fundamental theory. Amongst many other factors, we mainly use three methods for memorization: repetition, association and elaborate understanding. Teaching based on artificial procedures is one sure way for failure.

Many year has past since one particular math class in 5th grade but the memory of it seems to have permanently ingrained into my brain. To this day I can vividly recall every little detail about that class, the room, the students, the teacher and most importantly the subject: volume of a cone. It was a sunny spring day and math was the 2nd in the morning. The teacher walked into the room with two see-through plastic containers with the same sized base: 1 cylinder and 1 cone. The cone was full of water. Without saying much, the teacher held up two containers, and poured the water from the cone into the cylinder. The whole class immediately came to an aha moment! It was a beautiful thing!

Up until that class, we've been working on geometry and everyone in class could recite formulas for the area and volume of most common shapes in their sleep. We memorized formulas through repetition and endless homework problems. Because of our fundamental understanding in geometry, we did not have to memorize the formula for cone through repetition. And because of that demonstration in class we didn't even have to learn the volume formula for a pyramid. In short, the students came to realize those two volume formulas completely on their own. The same scenario simply could not have taken place if the students did not first internalize the volume formula for a cube or cylinder.

I am completely convinced that without existing fundamental knowledge in geometry for basic shapes, it would have been impossible for the class to share that eureka moment back in 5th grade. We memorized basic formulas until we were blue in the face and through utilization we arrived at the relationship between shapes on our own and developed deep and elaborate understanding. Even until this day I can recall geometry formulas like the area for a trapezoid in Chinese without thinking.

Of course, memorizing formulas were just the beginning of our geometry studies. Majority of our time spent after the initial memorization process was to solve complex problems both in irregular shapes and word problems. It was my favorite subject. At the time there was nothing more thrilling than being able to calculate the area for complex and irregular shapes with limited information through critical thinking. Our brains were endlessly exercises for reasoning skills: the ability to make inferences, isolate shapes, derive more information based on limited facts and fundamental understanding in geometry. From there we advanced into trigonometry in 6th grade. The same subject wasn't taught in the States until 11th grade.

I don't believe my brain was ever challenged or exercised the same way after I moved here in 7th grade. I received no new information in math since 6th grade in China until late 11th grade in pre-calculus and 12th grade, AP calculus. By then I believe my cognitive skills in math greatly lagged behind most other students in China for the same grade level but I was for sure above average here.

Towards the end of my high school days I volunteered as a math tutor at my school. It was a total eye opener for me. I recall trying to work through algebra with someone who lacked basic arithmetic skills or the ability to multiply and divide. The student had no understanding of a simple equation and how to move factors from one side of the equal sign to the other. It was shocking. And to make matters worse...that was at one of the top 50 public high schools in the country. Surely, I am not suggesting the problem was widespread. However, people tends to forget that acquiring knowledge is an additive process. Most advanced concepts are simply impossible to teach without solid fundamentals and when we're young, much of those fundamentals have to be memorized through repetition. It's a lot of hard work and for somethings there are no short cuts.

Learning purely based on repetition can be a bit ineffective for fields of science. However, it's a little different when it comes to language, especially languages not based on an alphabet system or Romance languages with root words. Anyone who's familiar with Chinese characters knows that the only way to learn them initially is through mindless repetition. It has worked for the Chinese people for five thousand years and they have yet found a better method. If you are not familiar with Chinese characters you may think, oh, they're just pictographs so you can recognize a character based on what it looks like. That does hold true for a few isolated cases but overall, Chinese language is simply learned through repetition (and lots of it!).

The suggestion that rote-based learning prohibits creativity is flawed. One need to have a balance of both to get somewhere in life. Having experienced both education systems in China and US I do believe there is huge advantage in repetition in early education because it lays solid fundamentals for advanced education in college. The teaching/learning method must evolve over time to produce the best result. You have to first know the facts and then perform critical thinking.

Try naming one composer, poet, scientist, artist who can't recall a famous piece of work from memory he/she retained through repetition. It's just not possible. Having studies music professionally I know musicians spend countless hours memorizing pieces through repetition regardless of their instruments or disciplines (musicology, history, theory, composition, etc.). The same process applies to most creative composers, artists and performers.

How has rote learning impacted me? For one thing I learned memorization skills at an early age. I can memorize things better than average people I encounter here. When I moved to Indiana in 7th grade I didn't speak English but I consistently got 100% on vocabulary tests for English classes. I'm pretty sure I was the only student to achieve that percentage in a class full of native English speakers. The teacher gave us vocabulary lists each week and tested us on spelling. I memorized every word on every list through repetition (and yes, I did memorize what each word meant too but my limited English skills at the time might have prevented me from using all of them in complex sentences).

Those early geometry classes really developed my problem solving skills. Simplify complex irregular shapes is very much like simplify, divide, isolate, categorize any other problems in life. My Chinese math teacher was tough enough to bring most students (and even parents) to tears in class. It was tough love that shaped who I am today.

And if you are still having a hard time understanding that cylinder/cone eureka moment...the water from the cone filled up one-third of the cylinder. Volume for a cylinder is base times height; therefore, the volume for a cone is one-third base time height. Sames logic applies to a cube and pyramid.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Heat Wave

The groundhog didn't see his shadow this year and according to the Chinese calendar spring is suppose to come early. It's above freezing for the first time since last November. Sunday was so warm and sunny I didn't know what to do with myself. Still, I will remain cautiously optimistic until we are well out of the winter months and any possibility of spring blizzards.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Electronic Basics

"Human beings," Deci said, have an "inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn."

With nothing to do here I decided to take a basic electronics class complementary of my employer at the local community college just across the road from where I live. In fact, my apartment complex used to be a student-only dormitory/apartment, which explains the rather unusual binary setup for four equally claustrophobic bedrooms.

The weekly classes are 3 hours in length and the first three could have been easily combined into a one hour session. The teacher is very calm and thorough. I think it comes with age. But even as well tempered and patient as he is I can see he’s becoming increasingly annoyed by the fact that I’m the only a*hole in class who refuses to use a calculator and so far it has not impaired me from coming up with the right answers. Today he launched into a speech on that fact that our employer paid good money for these calculators so we must make good use out of them! I didn’t have to look around to know who he was talking to. Surly the class and study material are subsidized by our employer and it may seem wasteful for me to not use everything. However, most of us human beings are blessed with a 3 lb calculator in our enormous heads as a result of millions of years of evolution (and not to mention the billions of years it took for our solar system to line up correctly to make earth an inhabitable place!). To underutilize ones brain, to me, would be the biggest atrocity of them all.

Sadly to say, I can be the slowest math student in China and still be above average here. And really, for a while I was one of the slowest math students in class when I was in 2nd grade (as a result of moving to a new school with a different curriculum in Beijing)! One day the teacher told me to go home and copy the multiplication table 100 times as home work. My mom had to go to school the next day to plea for more time for me to catch up. At fist, the teacher completely ignored us and looked at my mom as if she should be ashamed of herself and her daughter! Mom talks about it until this day. Fortunately for everyone, I did catch up quickly on math! Geez, people are all bent out of shape about “tiger mom” here. If only they could see and experience the combined force of a “tiger mom” and a “tiger teacher”!!!

When people talk about literacy they typically mean the ability to read and write. In reality, any one who can't carry out simple arithmetics in his/her head might just as well be illiterate.

And out of respect, I will bring my calculator to class but no guarantees that I will use it...

Monday, February 7, 2011


Yes, I'm almost half way to somewhere! -40*F windchill again. Winter is brutal. I just want to make it through in good health. A coworker in my office has been out of work for three weeks now with double pneumonia. Serious stuff. I'm taking my vitamins and picked drinking water and going to the bathroom as my new hobby.