DVD mania continued…

Posted on December 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

Going DVD hunting seems as casual these days as picking out ripe avocados in a grocery store; you look for the best ones but aren’t disappointed if you buy something subpar.

I didn’t see a lot of movies this year- I was a starving student for the first three months (you mean all the beer you drank must have been free, then?–ed) and was traveling in Europe before coming here.  I’ve made a point in the past few days to pick up some of the more provocative films.  I’ve bought Fahrenheit 911 and am looking for The Passion of the Christ.  Now that I can be assured my money won’t end up in Mel Gibson’s hands, I’m freed from any moral quandary associated with the latter.

I’ll watch both soon enough and let you know what I think.  Regardless of quality or box office earnings, these are the two films that got the most people talking this year.  Ad buys on blogs reveal that Michael Moore is more unpopular on the right than he was ever beloved on the left.  And Gibson’s film glorified the crucifixion of Christ, something our numerous fundamentalists devoured with pornographic thirst.  So I’ll be viewing both with a jaundiced eye, to be sure.

One film I did see just recently was Kill Bill (Vols I and II), Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering.  These films were so terrible yet so terribly entertaining.  Certain scenes showed his flair for genius- especially that of the Japanese assassin in the schoolgirl uniform battling Uma Thurman (the bride) with medieval weaponry in a large banquet hall.  For the most part, QT made a gory yet rather mundane revenge flick.  He’s fallen far from his Pulp Fiction glory days.

I also picked up three CDS for four dollars:  Neil Young’s Greendale, something by Tom Waits, and the latest by the Beastie Boys.  I just bought speakers ($5) so I can now annoy my neighbors with scratchy voiced rockers and gray haired hip hoppers.  Splendid!…

A Giant Disappointment

Posted on December 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

With the signing of Moises Alou, The Giants appear to have all of their major pieces in place for the 2005 season.  Without question, Brian Sabean has improved the team.  I can’t help but be a little disappointed, though, in how he went about doing it.

Sabean spent roughly $18m in acquiring four new players: SS Omar Vizquel, RP Armando Benitez, C Mike Matheny, and OF Alou. 

Getting Benitez was a good move.  The Giants would have won several more games last season save for the terrible bullpen- Benitez makes it much, much better.  Adding him alone improves the entire pitching staff immensely.

I can’t say I’m particularly pleased with the other three acquisitions.  Vizquel can pick ‘em, but he isn’t a young man anymore (37) and won’t be much better than the incumbent Deivi Cruz at the plate.  Alou comes off a strong year with the Cubs but was helped immensely by the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and he, too, is pushing 40.

Matheny must rank as one of the worst signings by any team this offseason.   Yes, he has the reputation as perhaps the best defensive backstop in the NL.  Yes, he can "call a good game".  Yes, Pierzynski didn’t hit well in the second half and was unpopular in the clubhouse.  But three years at three million?  What a waste.

Let’s suppose Sabean instead spent the $13m or so on one player, like Carlos Beltran.  Yorvit Torrealba takes over at catcher and Deivi Cruz remains at shortstop.  Beltran’s dazzling speed and defensive prowess compensate for the aging legs of Barry Bonds in left and Marquis Grissom in right.  He and Bonds form a devastating combination in the middle of the order.  Plus, Beltran is a young man, entering the prime of his career, and  becomes the franchise player the moment Bonds retires. 

I weep to dream of such a scenario, plausible not six weeks ago.

Fortunately, the NL West is weak.  The Dodgers inexplicably didn’t resign Adrian Beltre, and aren’t any better on paper than they were a year ago. Arizona has added players, but have a long way to go after losing 111 games in 2004.  San Diego has yet to make a significant upgrade.  Colorado, well, Colorado has existential problems that they have to solve before they become a force.

The Giants are the favorites on paper.  Then again, the chances of a Mariners-style collapse have increased dramatically this year with such an aging team.

I am loath to criticize Sabean because the team has enjoyed winning records in each season he has been the GM.  I just can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that he undervalues statistical analysis in choosing which players to go after.  This year, the first "Moneyball" team won a title.  Expect more to come.  Character, calling a good game, and veteran leadership won’t amount to a hill of beans if the team vastly underperforms.…

Susan Sontag

Posted on December 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Christopher Hitchens fondly remembers Susan Sontag.  …

In the friendly blogosphere

Posted on December 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Jascha has his first celebrity encounter in DC

And Michael has arrived in China!

Language Study in the US

Posted on December 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Here’s a joke I’ve heard many times:

What do you a call someone that speaks three languages?  Trilingual
What do you call someone that speaks two languages?  Bilingual
What do you call someone that speaks one language?  American

Want a humbling experience?  Go to the tourist information center in Amsterdam or Brussels. Watch in amazement as the guide deftly handles questions in six or seven languages.  I don’t mean they can count to ten and ask for a cigarette.  They can have useful, witty conversations using proper grammar and even idiotmatic phrases.

Yes, tourist offices hire only those competent in several languages.  But these are often young, not very well-paid citizens.  They aren’t professional linguists or intelligence experts.

Americans, on the other hand, tend to be flummoxed at the slightest exposure to a foreign language.  There are many, many exceptions, of course.  But why are we such dunces with foreign languages?

Yes, most Americans live thousands of miles from the Mexican or Quebecois border, preventing them from gaining much exposure to Spanish or French.  Europeans can travel for two hours on the train and pass through three different countries.  Americans don’t have that luxury.

Our education system is partly to blame, too.  I didn’t take a single class in any language until 6th grade, when I had rudimentary Spanish.  6th graders are usually 11 and 12 years old.  Most linguists agree that language acquisition becomes very difficult after that age. 

Why don’t we start earlier?  My students in China began learning English at age 8.  Europeans begin taking lessons in foreign languages even earlier, right out of kindergarten.  By the time they reach their teenaged years, most have at least learned the basics and some can communicate very well.

Californians should have mandatory Spanish classes beginning in first or second grade.  Other languages could be optional. 

Why do schools across the nation continue to offer French lessons?  French is beautiful, but it’s also pretty irrelevant these days.  Ditto German, Italian, and Japanese. 

We should be tangled up in Arabia for several decades.  Why not make Arabic a major language of study?  I understand the difficulty of locating Arabic-speakers, but wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to fuse  a sounder immigration policy with a sounder education system?  We could allow qualified Arabic teachers to immigrate here and teach Arabic to our students, much like the rest of the world does with qualified English teachers (like me).

Likewise, the rising global power in Asia isn’t Japan, it’s China.  Unlike Arabic, there are many qualified Chinese teachers currently living in the United States.   Multiplying the number of qualified English/Chinese speakers will greatly improve our capacity to deal with trans-Pacific relations.

Americans will never match the Dutch for linguistic dexterity, nor should that be our goal.  I do think greater attention ought to be paid to foreign languages in schools, for the benefits (to me) are patently obvious.…

Tsunami

Posted on December 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

Terrible, incomprehensible tragedy in South Asia.  Rather sobering considering that I’m due to be in the region in less than a month.…

Christmas in China

Posted on December 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Christmas is a holiday with a very long build-up and a short climax.  Even in China, people felt the Christmas spirit well before yesterday.  Trees and lights went up.  Carols came over the loudspeakers at the market.  For a self-professed atheist country, China certainly went through the motions.

My holiday was a veritable whirlwind, a full day affair filled with several different commitments.  The day begun with a large package sent from home, which I was forbidden to open until the real Christmas.  Thank you to everyone who sent me a gift!

Then, I was to attend my first proper Chinese banquet.  Mr Wu, our liaison, invited the four of us foreigners: Murray, Jacky, Fiona, and myself to eat with him and our respective form teachers: Wei Wei, Cindy, James, and Henry (all Chinese).  We sat around a large table with a Lazy Susan of course.  A waitress waited in the corner of our private room.

Banquets do not resemble their counterparts in the US: first of all, they serve massive amounts of food, far more than any reasonable group of nine could consume.  This habit reflects the Chinese belief that to flaunt your prosperity you must provide excesses of food.

Mr Wu also ordered a bottle of baijou, traditional Chinese whiskey.  I’d heard lots of (mostly negative) things about the drink, but I knew I needed to try it myself.  It was, predictably, awful.  The Chinese find it delicious.  All four of us Westerners tried our best to not make an exaggerated face, like falling into a pile of manure.

Drinking is competitive sport in China.  Men enjoy challenging themselves to contests, taking shot after shot after shot.  Foreigners are obliged to follow suit.  Fortunately for us, the Chinese all have an extremely low tolerance to alcohol so it doesn’t take much to drink them under the table. Their faces turn bright red and suddenly they feel much, much more inclined to speak English with you. 

I stopped after about five shots but that was enough to thoroughly enjoy the banquet.  The food brought out was all unfamiliar but much of it was tasty.  I like octopus, I discovered. 

We then hurried back to the school for the annual foreigners Christmas party.  All of our students were present, and in full Ed Sullivan mode with a suit and a microphone, Murray was the Master of Ceremonies.  My kids were running around, drinking Coke, popping balloons, dancing and singing- it was chaotic but fun.  They brought the obligatory karaoke machine and sang sweet, tender Chinese pop songs.  Lovely.  Harold and Dorothy, two foreign teachers at another school, were "Father and Mother Christmas" which went over well.

I couldn’t stay long because I then went over to Fredo’s apartment for our own Christmas dinner.  We had chicken, mashed potatoes, butter, bread, and pot stickers lest anyone thought we weren’t in China.  For dessert, we had apple pie and some strawberry sweet that tasted delicious.  Jane brought us all silly presents and we had fun playing with them.  Great, great party.

And with that, the holidays are nearly over.  We’ve still got New Years, and I’m pleased to announce that Michael Moewe will be flying out to the hip-happenin’ LYG for New Years festivities and then a short jaunt to Shanghai. 

Globetrotting, indeed.…

An End of the Year Post-Mortem

Posted on December 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Since the election, there has been no shortage of post-mortems written by crestfallen Democrats wondering how to win elections again.  Just about every possible suggestion has been made and as of yet there has been little consensus among the Party’s various factions.

With the end of the year coming along, I feel I should add to the chorus with a link to what I consider about the best one of these I’ve read thus far, written by DLC policy director Ed Kilgore in his blog New Donkey.

I particularly endorse Kilgore’s belief that Democrats cannot copy Bush’s strategy of base mobilization.  Why?  Because Bush’s base (so-called conservatives) is far, far bigger than a putative Democratic base (so-called liberals).  Democrats, to survive, must persuade moderate voters to pull the donkey lever.

Two other issues repeated here and worth mentioning:  Democrats must frame their message through grand themes rather than a hodge-podge of special interests.  What vision of America does the Democratic Party endorse?  What does the Party stand for, broadly speaking?

Secondly, Democrats must remain credible on issues of national security.  I opposed the War in Iraq but I was continually peeved by Kerry’s inability during the campaign to articule why the War undermines our national security.  Kerry also failed to convince voters that he knew where to go from here in Iraq. 

These ideas aren’t new; just about every major liberal blogger has attempted a post like this and most conservatives have, too.  The 2006 elections are just around the corner (yes, really) so let’s hope the Party can begin it’s climb back to dominance.

Winter…

Posted on December 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

…has arrived, almost exactly on schedule.  The first snow fell last night, and today we awoke to a rather fresh layer on the ground.

Today was cold…couldn’t have been warmer than about 20 F and -5 C.  Suddenly, my jacket doesn’t seem too warm.  And my scarf doesn’t seem all that thick, either.  Maybe need to buy warmer clothes.

I don’t mind the snow- but the ice I could do without.  Our campus turned into a skating rink overnight. I almost felt like I could slide to school.

I also wish they had heat in the classrooms.  Writing on a chalkboard isn’t easy wearing thick gloves.  The students could probably concentrate more if they didn’t exert so much energy trying to keep warm.

Had a nice lesson, though, on haikus.  Our supervisors Rawiri and Nazli visited today from Beijing, mainly to observe our lessons and to give us feedback (and hear our gripes).  They sat silently in the back, taking notes.  I hardly noticed them.  My students were enjoying themselves too much writing poems.  My studious girls of course wrote poems about love and beauty and longing, while the boys mostly enjoyed making fun of each other.

It was the sort of lesson I like- one in which I don’t have to talk very much.

At lunch, Rawiri and Nazli gave us some pointers.  First,  they noticed that Jacky and I (who both teach Level 1) are nowhere close to each other in terms of our book.  From now on, they said, we are to be as symmetrical as possible.  This means planning lessons together and keeping a firm grasp of lesson objectives and skill development.

Then, they reminded us to have students practice more and us lecture less.  This bit of advice was nothing new- my lessons at amTEFL in San Diego reinforced "student practice" daily.  We nodded and agreed and vowed to implement these changes.

It can be difficult, though.  In an ideal world, yes, I would have firmly set objectives and march evenly toward higher achievement.  My situation, though, remains far from ideal.

For one thing, each lesson lasts only 40 minutes.  When I was in school (even college), 40 minutes seemed like an eternity. Now, 40 minutes seem like no time at all.

I have to use between five and ten minutes purely for discipline. This entails shushing, pausing, yelling, and doing everything within my power to get a minimal degree of attention.  So that leaves, at best, 35 minutes of actual teaching time.

The second problem is the enormous discrepancy in ability in my classroom.  Some of my students are brilliant, some are decent, and some can hardly do anything at all.  This means I have to explain things again and again, even if my best students understood me the first time and are impatiently waiting to begin the exercise.

So, there often simply isn’t enough time to introduce a subject, explain it, model it, and then have them reproduce it.   

I was reminded today of one of my recurring internal monologues: what things are in my control, and what things are out of my control?  I suppose everybody thinks about this, but I have to make this decision constantly in regards to my job.

What things are appropriate to complain about, and which things can be improved with slightly more effort on my part?  I know I’m not the world’s best teacher (being a rookie and all), so I listened quite carefully when Rawiri and Nazli were giving pointers.  But I just can’t believe, as they insinuated, that my students would behave perfectly if I simply improved my own performance.

Jacky and I decided to just plod ahead the rest of this week and save implementation of Beijing’s proposals for next week.  After all, everyone’s looking ahead to Christmas.

A white Christmas, that is.…

Music Game

Posted on December 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Via Taina, I’ve decided to whittle away the idle hours with a music game.  Below, I will write down one line from songs selected at random from my ipod.  You have to guess the title and artist.  Fun! (there are about 2,900 songs, so this might be a bit difficult).

1. "Ain’t that a lot of love, for two hearts to have and hold"
2.  "think I’ll pack it in/and buy a pick-up/head down to LA"
3.  "got to be good-looking ’cause he’s so hard to see"
4.    " I’ve been down since before I began to crawl"
5. " Here/making each day of the year/changing my life with a wave of her hand"
6.  "you made me think I was someone else/someone good"
7.  "I’ll be the boy in the corduroy pants/ you be the girl at the high school dance"
8.  "and you know that notion just crossed my mind"
9.  "out here in the fields/ I fight for my meals"
10. "wham bam thank you ma’am!"
11.  "I’m so hard to handle/ I’m selfish and I’m sad/now I’ve gone and lost the best baby I’ve ever had"
12. I ain’t jokin’ woman I’ve got to ramble/ I can it hear it calling me the way it used to do"
13. "don’t give me that do-good-good bullshit"
14. "we named him baby/he had a toothache/he started cryin’/it sounded like an earthquake"
15.  "cry if you wanna cry/if it helps you see/if it clears your eyes"
16.  "Lady Godiva dressed so demurely/pats the head of another curly-haired boy/just another toy"
17.  "ahhhhh change is gonna do me good"
18.  "all in war is soooo cold/you either win or lose"
19. "I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be"
20.  "woke up this morning/smiled at the rising sun"
21. " you better stop/and look around/here it comes/here it cooomes/here it coooomes/here it cooomes!"
22. "we were talking/about the space between ourselves/and the people/that hide behind walls of illusion"
23."it’s close to midnight/something evil’s lurkin’ in the dark"
24. "maggie comes fleet foot face full of black soot"
25. "You are living/a reality/ I left years ago/it quite nearly killed me/in the long run/it will make you cry/make you crazy and old before your time"

Winners will receive, uh, congratulations!…