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Archive for July, 2010

When you’re not able to practice a foreign language, it gets rusty. The best way to practice, of course, is to surround yourself with native speakers. I have always spent a good amount of time doing this, and it always takes some effort. Even when I was studying in China, it took a little push to get out of the foreign student bubble at the university, and now that I’ve been back in the States a while, I’ve had to put in even more effort.

Those efforts led me to discover the Morgantown Chinese C&MA Church (摩根城華人宣道會). Let me preface by saying that although I was raised in a traditional Methodist church, I am not a religious person. A friend of mine needed a ride to church, and I was curious about the place and how it might differ from other churches I have attended.  What I walked into was a very traditional service that could have occurred in the church I attended as a child, save for the fact that it was bilingual.

Most of the hymns I readily recognized, though I was not confident enough reading the Chinese lyrics (projected on a screen up front in traditional characters) to attempt to sing with the congregation.  The sermon itself wasn’t necessarily my kind, it was heavily reliant on an analysis of a fairly long scripture passage, meaning that the Chinese was somewhat difficult and the English translations felt a little boring.  Other than the formality of the affair, the only particularly “Chinese” thing I heard in it involved a part at the beginning where a Chinese emperor was quoted — unfortunately I have forgotten the quote.

Of course, there was also the inevitable reaction of the Chinese congregation to the only white person in the crowd.  I was immediately singled out to introduce myself as a new attendee, and did my best to introduce myself explain my reasons for being there in Mandarin.  Afterward quite a few of the congregation came to me specifically to compliment me on my Mandarin (“你的中文很好 / Your Chinese is very good” was heard a lot) and didn’t seem to mind that I was more interested in language practice than religion.  Of course, I couldn’t help showing off by trying to read the bulletin (mostly in Chinese), just as much as I couldn’t resist talking to the little kids in the congregation.

Will I be going back to that church?  I may.  Perhaps not every Sunday, but once in a while it may be fun.  The bottom line is that often you can find cultural experiences where you would never expect in — in little pockets near where you live.  Get out and try it.

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EDIT: Video (I forgot that wordpress.com doesn’t like YouTube embeds.)

I was waiting a while to see if English-language press would pick this up.  Unfortunately, the only news I am finding on my searches from English langauge sources involves another robot in Mexico.

The robot in the video, however, was developed by Cinestav (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Avanzados / Center for Advanced Research and Study) in Guadalajara Mexico, and here’s the kicker (via Once TV):

La ligereza de su estructura y el bajo costo de su construcción lo hacen uno de los desarrollos más competitivos en el mundo. En él se han invertido apenas 100 mil dólares comparado con el millón y medio de dólares que han costado otros androides similares.

It’s light structure and low cost of construction makes it one of the most competitive developments in the world.  Only 100,000 dollars have been invested in it, compared to the one and a half million dollars that similar androids have cost.

And if you’re wondering why it’s just a tourso, don’t worry, they’re building the legs in Boston.

Another interesting thing is that the robot has an advanced learning capability, and it seem that it can even dream (via La Cronica de Hoy):

Su cerebro son dos computadoras conectadas a un servidor inalámbrico que serán las procesadoras de información del robot incluso cuando “duerma”. Al desconectar el robot, este cerebro artificial podrá refinar el equivalente a miles de redes neuronales, optimizar parámetros usando algoritmos geométricos y encontrar reglas de inferencia que almacenen la información útil que acumuló durante su actividad, crearle memoria.

Its brain is two computers connected to a wireless server that will process information even when the robot “sleeps”.  When the robot is disconnected, this artificial brain wil refine the equivalent of thousands of neural nets, optimize parameters using geometric algorithms and find rules of inference that store the useful information that it accumulated during it’s activity, creating memories.

Ok, this android may not be seeing images of electric sheep, but this is something like what our brains do when we sleep, and that makes us just a bit closer to building intelligent robots.  The plan, according to reports, is to improve the robot through several successive versions to develop robots ever more intelligent.  The engineers are already thinking of applications such as household servants and education.

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I listen to the Popup Chinese podcast feeds (for free, no I don’t have the money to pay for lessons) in order to get a little listening practice while I have no Chinese classes and don’t always have the time or persuasive power to get my Chinese friends to talk to me in Chinese.  The last elementary session brought up a vocabulary term that I have been wondering about for some time: 方便

方便 (fang4bian4) is a Chinese euphemism for using the toilet.  It’s literal meaning is “convenience”, and it is believed to be derived from translations of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures, and that the use as a euphemism for our unpleasant excretions started among Buddhist monks.  What has confused me about this term is the way Chinese friends have reacted to it.  Here are the reactions I’ve gotten:

  1. pleasant surprise (the usual response when you use something Chinese don’t expect you to know about)
  2. saying it’s unnecessary (some prefer me to use the slightly cruder 上厕所)
  3. not nice enough (a few female friends have told me this, saying I shouldn’t even imply what I am doing)

As  I stated, #1 is pretty much expected.  Saying even a single word of Chinese will get praise from strangers, partly out of flattery and partly from surprise at seeing a white guy who speaks Chinese.  But #2 and #3 have always interested me.  It seems that in some cases, I’m being “too polite”, like someone who uses very bookish and sophisticated language while hanging at a friend’s house, while in other cases I end up feeling my friends seem a bit like uppity Victorians.  It seems a lot more complex than, say, when I decide to show off my vocabulary of curses (which almost invariably ends with people labeling certain terms as too vulgar or dangerous for a foreigner to use … EVER).  I wonder, if any Chinese are reading, how do you deal with 方便?  When is it appropriate, and when isn’t it?  When it’s not appropriate, what do you say instead?

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