Thanks on Thanksgiving

Posted on November 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. 1 Comment

It isn’t quite Thanksgiving yet in this part of the world, but I wanted to express thanks this year for:

Waking up in my apartment, getting dressed, gathering my books, going outside and realizing: “whoa. I’m in the middle of New York City. How did this happen?”

Being able to sit in rooms full of smart people all day, listening to even smarter people tell me things I didn’t know before.

Being able to go to the ‘2010 San Francisco Giants’ page on Baseball Reference.com and see the ‘World Series Champs’ banner.

Breaking out laughing at the gym because I’m listening to ‘Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!’ while running on the treadmill.

That I live in a time when amazing tools like Skype, GTalk allow me to keep in touch with my China friends- free.

That Bob Dylan wrote all those songs

That I can sit on the subway, listen to two people speak Mandarin to each other, and surreptitiously understand.

That people sometimes read my blog, and comment, and when they’re being very nice say that they’re even fans.

So to my readers- thank you.

Obama in 2012

Posted on November 24th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. No Comments

I agree here- Obama’s likely to be re-elected in 2012 if only because one-term presidencies are somewhat rare. If the economy improves significantly, something I still view as unlikely but is at least possible, then he’ll win easily. A foreign policy crisis is also likely to improve his chances, and odds are there will be one at some point in this term.…

Speaking of Harlem…

Posted on November 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

…here’s a young Willie Mays playing stickball on a Harlem street, probably sometime in the early 1950s. Hat tip to the Notgraphs blog, which calls the photograph a ‘coolgasm’. Nice.

House Censure for Rangel

Posted on November 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

As expected, an ethics panel with the House of Representatives voted to formally censure Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) last night for ethical misconduct, the most serious punishment a Congressman can receive short of expulsion. I found the last paragraph in the Times piece oddly moving:

The committee announced its vote just before 6 p.m. A weary Mr. Rangel walked out of the room, declining to speak to the swarm of reporters who chased after him. Then one woman in the crowd called out to him. “God bless you, Congressman,” she said.

He turned his head briefly. “Thank you,” he said, and walked on.

Rangel has been the Congressman in this district, encompassing mainly Morningside Heights, Harlem, and bits and pieces elsewhere, since 1970 when he unseated Adam Clayton Powell Jr in a primary election. In that time, Harlem has gone from being a Hobbesian nightmare to being one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods, as this article in The Morningside Post details.

Harlem’s urban renewal isn’t only because of Rangel’s efforts, as there have a number of factors at play. But I do think the role of a Congressman in shaping his district is often underrated and shows that the earmarks process, while certainly vulnerable to corruption, has a firm purpose and shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of ‘limited government’.

Harlem likes to name its streets after prominent black leaders- Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, and the aforementioned Adam Clayton Powell are so honored. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a Charles Rangel Ave. in place soon after the Congressman dies.*

*There’s actually a law stating that no street in New York can be named after a living person, so current efforts to name a street after Willie Mays have met with some opposition for this reason.

Autumn Wonderland

Posted on November 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

I took a few photos of the beautiful fall colors on campus, and will be sharing those later. But in the interests of laziness here’s one I have appropriated from the SIPA Morningside Post blog

The Art of A Grad School Question

Posted on November 16th, by matt_schiavenza in School. No Comments

In a large, crowded lecture hall this afternoon, at roughly 5:30 pm, a bearded classmate of mine sitting near the front officially asked the longest, most convoluted question in the history of human interaction. The setting was a lecture by Mahmood Mamdani, a Columbia academic most recently known for his criticism of the Save Darfur Coalition, and the question in, uh, question was posed shortly after Mamdani concluded his remarks.

‘Hello professor, I’d just like to ask a two-part question. (Ok, already we’re in trouble. The dreaded ‘two-part question’ reflects a person seemingly unaware that there are 250 other students sitting in the classroom and that it might not be fair to hold the floor like a senator trying to filibuster legislation.) In regards t0 (lengthy summation of articles, ideas, or other bits of knowledge irrelevant to the actual discussion and purely intended to make the questioner sound more intelligent than he actually is). I’d just like to know (actually already know) how you can differentiate between (something from the professor’s lecture and something entirely random).

‘And the second question (at this point, the professor has given up trying to listen attentively and is numbly trying to formulate a feeble response to the ridiculous question) is whether (obscure academic that the questioner likes) was accurate in his juxtaposition (any SAT word would do here) of (two other barely relevant topics), because as we all know (the questioner knows we don’t ‘all know’, only he knows, which is why he brought it up to impress the professor) Dr (another academic who isn’t really a doctor) debunked this notion in (insert year preceding the questioner’s birth by several decades just to show his grasp of history). So (the rest of the audience begins laughing uncomfortably as they realize the questioner STILL HASN’T FINISHED HIS QUESTION) what do you think?

I get it- I truly do. I get how us lowly Masters students want desperately to impress the renowned academic standing at the lectern, to ask that truly memorable question that will lead the professor to, in the rush of students leaving the auditorium, approach the questioner and offer him a prized research position.…

Being Alone in a Strange Land

Posted on November 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Navel Gazing, Travel. No Comments

Cafe de Paix, Paris

Roger Ebert may no longer be able to speak, but it is clear he hasn’t lost his voice. In this blog post, he writes movingly about being a stranger in a strange land, a theme that I can certainly relate to.

I’m one of those people who likes to travel alone, despite being outgoing and extroverted by nature. This isn’t necessarily contradictory- in a way, traveling alone can be more social than traveling with others due to the range of people you’re likely to meet. Nothing makes a man more talkative than having to spend twenty-four hours by himself, after all. I still keep in touch with people I met briefly on trips many years ago, even though we’re unlikely ever to meet again.

Yet it’s the anti-social aspect of solo traveling I find more beguiling. When you’re alone, you’re not bound by an agenda or influenced by peer pressure. If you’re in Athens and don’t want to see the Parthenon, no one is going to stop you. You don’t have to compromise with anyone. It’s liberating.

Most people travel to see things they don’t have back home. After all, what’s the point of sitting in a cafe all day if you can do it anywhere? Why spend a few hours in a bookstore, go to the movies, or sit in a park?

I understand the conventional wisdom behind sightseeing, but it doesn’t do much for me. There are exceptions- I can still remember audibly gasping the first time I saw Angkor Wat- but generally things like museums, temples, churches, castles, and other historical relics leave me cold. This can make me a grouchy and frustrating travel companion, I’m aware.

So when I travel, I normally do the things I do when I have a day off at home- like the things listed above. I like imagining what it’s like to live in these distant places- what a normal routine there might be like. In July, I found a little bar in Vientiane, Laos that seemed to have expats as regulars. I sat outside each afternoon with a book and a mug of beer and eavesdropped on their conversations. Nobody said anything noteworthy- their observations were as banal as anyone else’s, anywhere. Yet to me, solitary episodes such as these encapsulate what I love about traveling. I was just a guy sitting at that cafe at that moment, among others. Nobody knew a thing about me, nor I them. This was a very comforting feeling.

I used to encounter backpackers quite a lot in Kunming, and invariably they’d ask me what there was to do there. Not wanting to waste their time, I’d give them a perfunctory listing of the city’s sites- the ones already written in their Lonely Planet. But to be honest, had I been sincere I’d have said that the best thing to do was to rent a bicycle, pick a direction, and just observe people living their life. Sit in a tea house and watch old men play cards. That kind of thing.

Maybe I’m like this because I’ve spent a quarter of my life in foreign countries, or maybe it’s just a matter of personality. I certainly don’t begrudge people who travel differently. Everyone has their own style. But anyway, now that you’ve read my two cents, check out that Ebert piece. He as usual puts it more eloquently.

(Paris cafe image from this site)

No, Chinese Is Still Hard

Posted on November 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. 10 comments

John Biesnecker has an interesting post in which he declares, in bold print no less, that learning Chinese isn’t difficult. Rather, he writes, ‘it’s a series of small, fun, easy things that you do over and over and over’.

In response, John Pasden says that while learning tones is difficult, once you get over the hump the rest of Chinese isn’t too hard.

Both Johns have lived in China for years and have excellent Chinese, and their ideas here have a lot of merit. But I think they are underestimating the difficulty of the language.

As John P does, it’s important to define our terms. What do we mean by difficult? John compares the study of Chinese to mastering a video game and juggling, but I think for the sake of simplicity it’s best to compare it to learning other languages. Is Chinese difficult compared to, say, Japanese or French or Arabic or Urdu or Greek?

Even then, we still haven’t found a good basis of comparison because we haven’t considered relative difficulty yet. An Italian would find Spanish much easier than, say, a German. A Japanese person has a significant advantage in learning Chinese over an American due to the Japanese use of Chinese characters. It’s a rather banal point, but judging the difficulty of a language depends entirely on perspective.

Since John and John are Americans who write in English about the Chinese language, it’s safe to assume that their audience  is comprised mainly of native English speakers interested in Chinese. In that case the only relevant question is whether Chinese is difficult for native English speakers.

The answer to this question I think is unequivocally ‘yes’. Again, I would like to point your attention to the David Moser essay I linked to in a prior post.

For an English speaker, Chinese is conceptually difficult. When I began to study characters, every textbook said that Chinese characters are comprised of both a ‘meaning’ part (called a radical) and a phonetic part. Seems simple enough, right? Yet it took me a surprisingly long time to internalize it. Now, it seems obvious to me that 元 and 远 and 园 and 院 all are ‘yuan’. At the time, though, I had to memorize each word independently. At an even more basic level, it took me awhile to realize that each character corresponded to a mono or disyllablic entity and that Chinese words were usually comprised of two or three of these characters. Again, it seems obvious now but understanding this point was a major conceptual breakthrough for me at the time.

I think it goes without saying that an English speaker studying German, Italian, Russian, or Arabic doesn’t have to grapple with this process at all.

Most persistent learners of Chinese do reach the point where they understand characters conceptually, and after that point John B is correct: mastering Chinese is simply a matter of time and effort. But no other language I’ve encountered requires a conceptual leap like Chinese, and that alone is what makes it difficult for English speakers to learn.…

Public Service Announcement About Smoking

Posted on November 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. 2 comments

Saturday marks a personal milestone for me: it is the second anniversary of the day that I finally quit smoking cigarettes. I had been a smoker on and off for nine years. If that doesn’t seem like a very long time, at that point 9 years was exactly a third of my life.

Recently a friend who is trying to quit smoking asked me if I still think about cigarettes. I replied that I do, and I could see the look of frustration on his face. It would be impossible not to, I explained. I smoked on and off  for 9 years, often quite heavily. When you stick 20+ cigarettes in your lips every day, it becomes the most pertinent aspect of your life. It is what you do. Smoking in many ways is like a job. Except instead of receiving a salary, you pay through the nose to do it. Instead of receiving satisfaction, you get self-loathing, poor health, and public scorn.

Yes, I still think about smoking. What matters, though, is what I think when I think about it. Mostly, I find it difficult to believe I did it for so long. I also feel an overwhelming sense of relief that I never have to do it again. I feel pity for those people I see here in New York, shuffling around in the cold, clutching a pack that they paid almost 13 dollars to obtain and breathing foul disgust into their lungs. My pity is mixed with disgust when I see a pretty girl sit near me in class and notice that she stinks of cigarettes. But I feel sympathetic, because I know what it is like to feel that kind of shame.

I used to think of myself as a sort of libertarian. I remember writing snotty little essays about the evils of trans-fat legislation or of other trappings of the regulatory state. I now understand that part of that voice came from a false sense of defiance about my smoking. This isn’t to say that I’m a full-fledged believer in the nanny state. But when I see articles like this, talking about adding graphic images to the cigarette packs sold in this country, I applaud. When I read in the article that 1,000 people become smokers every day, I wish I could put them into one of those big auditoriums every university has and tell them, with all the powers of persuasion that I can muster, to stop while they’re ahead.

Many of them will. Almost everyone, I suspect, tries cigarettes at some point in their lives. Most decide that it isn’t for them. They’re the lucky ones. The rest who get addicted have little idea what they’re in for. The coughing sessions that greet each new morning. The yellow teeth and fingertips. The ashen, gray color of your skin. The constant discomfort of nicotine withdrawal. The having to go outside, stand alone for five minutes, and feed your addiction. The futile attempts to quit, cold turkey, and the feeling of shame when you inevitably give in. The foul smell that hangs onto you with annoying tenacity. The dirty looks of strangers. The knowledge that you, an intelligent, rational human being, are spending a fortune to engage in an activity that may eventually shorten and cheapen your life.

When a young person puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it, he undoubtedly thinks that he’s engaging in a five-minute ritual to punctuate his day. Instead, he’s choosing to accept a lifetime of self-inflicted punishment.

If you’re reading this and you’re a smoker, don’t be afraid to quit. I did- so have millions of others across the world. If you’re a teenager who feels pressure from others to start, just don’t. The easiest way to quit smoking is to never start in the first place. If you’re the parent, or sibling, or relative or friend of a person in his teens vulnerable to the lure of smoking, do what you can to deter him.

As I start my third year of smoke-free bliss, I’m sure I’ll continue thinking about it. It gives me strength, after all. When I face other challenges, knowing that I quit smoking gives me an extra jolt of confidence.

If you or anyone you know wants information about quitting smoking, please feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

And now back to regularly scheduled programming……

Overstating (and Understating) US-China Brinksmanship

Posted on November 11th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. No Comments

The commentariat is making too much of Barack Obama’s decision to skip China on his current Asian tour. Obama visited China last year, and Hu Jintao is scheduled for a key state visit at the beginning of next year. Despite the usual sniping over currency, oceanic sovereignty, and human rights, US-China relations haven’t changed much in a tangible sense in the past few years.

That being said, as time passes the US will be forced to take a confrontational stance against China due to the shifts in relative power between the two countries. Barring an unlikely economic collapse in China, it’s fair to assume that China’s economy will continue to grow faster than America’s for the foreseeable future. Therefore, China’s relative power is likely to grow too, which means that the US will face a strategic choice: either make increasing concessions to its new rival, or push back.

The American public seems to believe that the US should remain the world’s preponderant power forever and ever, so the odds that any US leader will voluntarily make concessions to China are low. Therefore, conflict between the two is almost certainly destined to accelerate over time.

Any evolution of US policy toward China should not be viewed as a reflection of Obama’s personal policy but rather as a reaction to present shifts in relative power. In other words, Obama seems like a ‘China hawk’ in comparison to Bush not because he feels any differently toward China but because the circumstances have increasingly dictated it.…