Ninjas are deadly. Chipmunk Ninjas are just weird.
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Marc Wandschneider is a professional software developer with well over fifteen years of industry experience (yes, he really is that old). He travels the globe working on interesting projects and gives talks at conferences and trade shows whenever possible.

My Publications:

My book, "Core Web Application Programming with PHP and MySQL" is now available everywhere, including

My "PHP and MySQL LiveLessons" DVD Series has just been published by Prentice-Hall, and can be purchased on Amazon, through Informit, or Safari


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GLint zeroOpacity = 0;
[[self openGLContext] setValues:&zeroOpacity forParameter:NSOpenGLCPS...
Posted to: Things I've learned about CoreImage (and Quartz, and OpenGL) in two weeks
Jul 17, 2010 | 08:10:23
On the Subject of Police and Birds
By marcwan

In the spring and summer of 2001 I lived in Italy, mostly studying Italian. For the first few months of this period, I was in Rome living with a family and studying at a local campus of Seattle’s University of Washington. My host family was working out well because the married pair were both roughly the same age as me, didn’t speak a word of English, and eager to teach me things that I would never learn in class — including the word for “bird”, uccello.

It was conversation time in class on a Monday morning, and three girls were recounting how they had spent the weekend in Siena, taking the train there. While they were on the train up, as recalled one girl, their neighbor in the seat one over was a member of Italy’s Carabinieri, the national police force.

Either being enamoured by the prospect of talking to a man in uniform, or just otherwise eager to strike up a conversation with with a native on their first real trip overseas, one the girls starts asking him questions in broken Italian about his life and job. She extracts that he’s been a Carabinieri for a few years, works in Rome, and is going to Siena for the weekend to visit his mother who still lives there.

Curious about his weapon and the relative levels of safety in Italy, the girl proceeds to ask him: “Quando lavori, hai un grande uccello?” (Do you have a big gun when you work?), recalling that uccello means “gun”. The man’s face first turned deathly white, and then beet red.

“What?”, he stammered. The girl repeated the question, and the poor officer just continued to look flabbergasted and wild-eyed. Unable to get an answer out of him, the girl then proceeded to make the gun symbol with her thumb and forefinger — “Uccello? Quando lavori?” (Gun? When you work?).

Relief flooded over the man’s face as he breathed “Aaaah, fucile! Si, Si!”, reminding her of the correct word for gun. The conversation ended soon after and they made it to Siena without much further ado. At a bar that evening, they recounted the weird conversation with some English-speaking locals they met at a bar, who all immediately proceeded to burst into uproarious laughter, but wouldn’t tell them why.

So, it was only finally on that Monday morning, when both the teacher, myself, and one other girl in the class suddenly started giggling uncontrollably that the poor girls found out that uccello, the Italian word for “bird”, is commonly used to mean “cock”.

[Read Rest of Article]
Comments (1) Add Comment | Tags: italian learning mistakes uccello fucile language linguistics
Jun 23, 2010 | 09:46:47
The Great Chinese Online Dictionary Showdown
By marcwan

In the spring of 2001, I spent a few months living in Rome studying Italian. Upon coming across the word ghiro, I opened my handy dictionary and was given the translation “a great tit”. My jaw hit the floor. Only after further searching through other dictionaries and even English dictionaries, was I finally able to determine that a ghiro is actually just a titmouse — a small field rodent. Move ahead a few years where Mandarin Chinese now takes up most of my time, and a good dictionary is more critical than ever. Fortunately, in today’s world of online dictionaries and powerful Internet applications, there is a lot of help available. But the question is: with such a wide selection of resources, which dictionary should one use?

I conducted a 2-3 week long experiment, where every single time I needed to look up a Chinese-English or English-Chinese translation, I would actually look it up four times. I used the following dictionaries:

I then took notes of all the terms I looked up, which dictionary gave the best results, and how easy it was to get the results from each of them. In addition to the quality of results, I was interested in the “URL programmability” of the individual sites — would I have to load each site up, wait until it’s done, and then type in the search term, or could I directly type in the term to search for in the address bar along with the URL. I was also interested in translations that are more than just translations, but indeed proper localisations of terms. For example, a dictionary that tells me 绿帽 is a green hat is only a partial winner. A dictionary that mentions that this refers to being cuckolded gets full points.

URL Programmability (otherwise known as API)

Iciba and lead in the ease of use category hands down. If you are looking for a translation for the word gardening, you can just type the following into the address bar of your browser:

Nciku and youdao are both weaker here in that they have more complicated URL schemes and require you to keep these in your history so you can come back and just replace the term to search for. Both can be remembered, but just take too long to type:

User Interface Notes

Iciba has a pretty unattractive user interface, with dated looking interface elements and the most annoying flash-y ads of all the sites. It does have a good catalogue of sentences and corpora in which it searches for words, often coming with the exact context you were looking for. There are also some neat UI elements to hear the words and sounds that you looked for (when looking up English words, it will give these to you in both British and American English). Finally, the site always shows you a search history, so if you’re like me and forget a word 20 seconds after you looked it up, you can just click to go right back there. has a much cleaner and more pleasant looking interface, with the content well presented in the middle and colours that aren’t jarring to the eye. It also has audio playback of words, although only in what seems to be American English, and implemented in a manner that makes it slower than _Iciba_’s audio playback. does have one extremely cool feature that none of the others have, and that is a small mouth next to the word. Hover over this and click on it, and you’ll see a mouth showing movement of the teeth, lips, tongue, and jaw as the word is pronounced. As a former student of linguistics, I find this unbelievably cool. There is also a word search history.

Nciku definitely has the best user interface. It is clean, well thought out, and really quite pleasant to look at, with lots of blank space punctuated by content in a way to make everything easy to find. They want you to sign up to their site, and then give you vocab lists you can build and store, and they have a great details view when you hover the mouse over a Chinese character. There is audio playback of words, although again not in multiple dialects of English, and there are also playbacks of stroking through characters and hover-for-detail views of words and characters, although I’ve had problems getting all of these to reliably work on non-Internet Explorer browsers. Nciku also has reliability problems. Their website can become unbearably slow or unresponsive for a while, which is annoying.

Youdao wins the prize for most spartan interface. There are only the results of your search in the middle, and a few menu items and history items on the left. It’s simple, not unattractive, and with very little in the way of distraction. The downside to this is that, apart from single-dialect playback of words, there are no bells and whistles on this site, at all.

As I wrap up this section, it is worth noting that I use a browser plug-in for Firefox that lets me hover the mouse over any Chinese or Japanese character to see its pronunciation and meaning(s), so I never actually used any of the forementioned bells and whistles. I came to the sites to find translations and that was it.

Dictionary results

Over the course of a few weeks sitting at my desk at work, I searched for about 75 different terms, in English and Chinese. Sometimes these were simple words (fish), sometimes grammatical structures (If I were …, I would …), and other times sayings or phrases (there is no hope for mankind). Here is a summary of my results:

Youdao rocks. It consistently has the best translations — from both English to Chinese and Chinese to English — and these translations almost always have the appropriate contexts as well. Searching for function in one of the other dicitionaries might return something similar to a gala or important dinner, but Youdao would definitely also be sure to give you the meaning in a programming context. Iciba would frequently have this as well, but it would be so buried in depths of characters and messy text that it would be hard to find (in its defense, Iciba is targeted at local English learners).

Nciku is unparalleled for simple lookups. If you want to know what a pretty common character or Chinese word means, or a reasonably common and unambiguous English word, Nciku does extremely well in this. One nice touch that made me smile and for which it deserves mad props was that it even will include Getty images tagged with what you’re looking for. When I search for 灯箱 (dengxiang), all the other dictionaries floundered, whereas not only did Nciku tell me what it was, but also gave me some sweet pictures of it too.

Nciku also had the neat feature of being very actively maintained. I found on multiple occasions that a word that Nciku completely failed to find on my first search would suddenly have a translation and full description when I came back a week later and looked for the same thing. Nciku’s ultimate undoing, however, is that it falls pretty flat as you get beyond simple searches. It struggled with things in particular contexts, and would come up empty for some not-too complicated words. was one of my early favourites before finding Youdao, but looking back at the results, there’s very little reason to go to it any more. The Youdao results are consistently much better, and the user interface doesn’t offer significant bells and whistles that would compel me to com back to it. It fails surprisinly on some simple results, but then does exceedingly well for some complicated searches. I attribute a lot of this to it having a large corpus of text from which it can draw results, but not having a huge investment in simple use for beginners. This to me suggests a company run by few people, but with clever brains and lots of computing power.

Iciba was my first — we had some good times together, and I’ll never forget it for that, but sadly… it simply doesn’t compete. Hands down the most difficult to find results for most of the things I searched for among the clutter of the user interface, and just generally mediocre generic results. Now, it’s fair to say these aren’t way behind the other dictionaries (it really is a pefectly fine dictionary), but the combination of unattractive UI and mediocre results make it uncompelling. As mentioned above, however, I suspect that this is because the site is really targeted at local Chinese people trying to learn English. It has lots of “sentences of the day” and similar features that look like they’d be invaluable to English learners.

The Results
Iciba Nciku Youdao
Wins 5 11 8 22

A “win” is defined as “giving me a result or results that appear to be most what I was looking for and were subsequently confirmed by native speakers understanding exactly what I meant to stay”. It’s not a 100% precise measure, but then in spoken language, little is.

Honourable Mentions

There were times when all four dictionaries would fail to find results for something I was looking for. For thoses cases where the thing I wanted translated was Chinese, I found two additional tools were surprisingly useful:

  • Google Images. Sometimes I could just type the words into a google box, click 图片 (for pictures), and see exactly what I was trying to translate.
  • Google Translate. I use the GTalk interface for Google Translate. You can friend or and then just send words via your favourite IM client, to get the translated results nearly instantly as the reply.

Neither of these two were good enough to see regular use, but they were helpful on occasion.


The net result of this experiment is that there is no clear 100% winner in the battle of the online Chinese dictionaries. Some are clearly better than others, but none can claim to be the “Gold Standard” of dictionaries.

I now always look up all my words words only twice using:

  • Youdao
  • Nciku

Nciku has an iPhone app which is my most frequently used application, but, again, tends to break down pretty quickly beyond the basics. There are also other iPhone dictionaries that I did not look at all for this article (since it is for online web apps only), but that’s a story for another time.

[Read Rest of Article]
Comments (3) Add Comment | Tags: chinese language mandarin online dictionary showdown fight
Jun 13, 2010 | 06:50:40
On the Subject of Eggs
By marcwan

In 1999, my then girlfriend Dalene and I went on a motorcycle trip around Europe for nearly half a year. A few short vacations aside , it was my first real major trip abroad and I was surprisingly nervous about how weird and crazy Europe would be. I carried a small Sony laptop, a Sony Digital Mavica camera (into which you had to insert floppy disks to record the photos), and we documented the entire vacation and updated it via FrontPage nearly every day (you can see the results at Apart from theft of our BMW motorcycles, the thing about which I worried the most was: food.

In this regard, the trip went quite well. Out of over 150 days abroad, eating three square meals a day in restaurants or strangers’ houses, we only had three incidents where the food would be described “not good”. The first was in a smaller city in France called Chatellerault, where we ordered an entrecôte with fries (me) and sausage and potatoes (her). She had eaten a little of the sausage when she suddenly gave me a weird look and said “this thing tastes kinda funny”. So I took a bite, and immediately had a nasty suspicion of what I was eating. I pulled out the dictionary (only paper ones back in the Stone Ages of 1999) and – sure enough – we were eating chopped up intestines stuffed into intestines and fried into a nice intestine sausage. Which explains why it tasted like vomit.

The second experience was in Badajoz, Spain, an entirely awful place. The only reason that anybody seems to come to this city is to stop-over on the way to Portugal — exactly what we were doing. We ended up at a nice seafood restaurant, where I decided to play it safe and ordered fried fish with french fries. The girlfriend was feeling adventurous though, and chose squid. What we had failed to notice on the menu, however, is that they were served in their own black ink. Now, the dish wasn’t inedible, or awful per se; it was just really weird to be eating something solidly black that stained your mouth and teeth every time you took a bite. Wouldn’t recommend it.

The strangest meal, and the ultimate object of this story, however, was about week later, after we had finished visiting Lisbon, Portugal, and were on our way back into Spain. We were in the mountains to the northwest of Sevilla, and found a nice little truck-stop-like roadside restaurant.

Now, previously on the trip, we had stopped at a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Spain (otherwise known as Herrera del Duque), and begged the owner to open a bit early and make us lunch as we were famished. We were immediatley served an awesome fish dish (her) and I had something fantastic with tomato sauce, eggs, and sausage. We never learned the dish’s name, but I remember the combination of the eggs and sauce vividly. So, when I sat down in that roadside restaurant in the mountains, opened the menu, and saw some dish called huevos abliñados (huevos being the Spanish word for egg and abliñado being some word that no dictionary seems to have heard of), I had to give it a try. Dalene, wisely, ordered fish and fries.

What came out to me a few minutes later was completely unexpected, and couldn’t have anything less to do with eggs than you could imagine. Indeed, what was placed in front of me would be described as looking like “cold chopped up brains”, with a few pieces of bell peppers, and sprinkled with some olive oil. Being adventurous about it, I took a few bites. It was awful — the taste was simply not good at all. I had completely struck out on the meal, and ended up choking down about a quarter of the dish before resorting to stealing some of the lady’s fries. As for the rest of the weird gray brainy matter, I just did what any smart 5 year old child would do, and bunched it all up into a corner of the bowl to make it look like I had eaten more than I really had, so as not to offend the chef.

And that was the end of that meal. I never really thought about it much after that, even when talking about food on the trip, and it remained a complete mystery as to what I had really eaten.

Jump forward one calendar year to 2000 — new city (San Francisco) and new girlfriend. We were talking about learning Spanish, and she was recounting to me stories of her Spanish mishaps at work, where many of her employees were native Spanish speakers. In one story, she was telling me how she confused the the word for keys ( llaves ) and eggs ( huevos ). She had misplaced her keys and asked one of her colleagues “¿Donde estan mis huevos?”, which immediately caused her entire Spanish-speaking staff to burst into uproarious laughter and roll around on the floor laughing.

“So, it turns out”, she said wrly, “that I had just asked them where my balls were. It’s a euphemism, you see.”

It came crashing down on me like a tonne of bricks. One year after that meal in the southwest corner of Spain, I suddenly knew exactly what I had eaten: bull testicles. Balls. Junk. Gross.

I have eaten a few strange things so far in my life; cobra, kangaroo, sparrow skewers, and sheeps’ eyeballs, but testicles still remain my least favourite.

[Read Rest of Article]
Comments (2) Add Comment | Tags: travel spain food eggs
Apr 22, 2010 | 09:14:49
西班牙人 (The Spaniard)
By marcwan

In late summer 2008, I found myself in Mumbai living in a Hindu temple and doing about four and a half hours of yoga every day. It was a very solitary existence in the city balanced between yoga, eating, sleeping, and reading. With no Internet in my room (I had a little USB card but it worked extremely poorly), I was by and large cut off from the rest of the world when not in yoga class. Thus it was all the more strange that one week when I met the Spaniard.

I would typically wake up at 6.40am and rush down the stairs to make the 6.45am class start; living in the same building as the classroom had its advantages. After breakfast I would usually shower and nap for an hour to let the local breakfast restaurants clear out a little bit before I myself would venture out to get something to eat. Afternoons, being unbearably hot and thus best spent inside, would be spent reading books, programming, or otherwise snoozing. Three more hours of yoga in the evening, and then a quick dash to get some late dinner and then off to bed. It was a really pleasant and simple life.

After a couple of weeks of this, though, a new student appeared in some of my classes. A lanky, tall guy with a big bushy beard, with legs that just did not want to bend in the way he wanted them to. He struck me as German, or perhaps American, and I had little interaction with him. He would scoot out of class as soon as we were done, and I wouldn’t see him until the next day. But then one day, we bumped into each other in the elevator and struck up a conversation — we were neighbours. He was not from either of my guessed nations, but was indeed Spanish, from Gránada.

His English was as good as my Spanish; which is to say workable, but not great. We would speak in our respective languages, and have slow, painful conversations about motivations for coming to India, what we did, and what we imagined doing in the future. And then we discovered a remarkable thing:

He had lived in Nanjing studying Asian art history for four years. His Mandarin Chinese was really, really good. Much better than his English. Mine was, similarly, better than my Spanish.

And so it came back to pass that this tall hippie-ish looking Spaniard (full disclosure: I didn’t look much better. I didn’t bring a razor and was too lazy to go buy a new one) and a Canadian guy would hang out in restaurants in Matunga, Mumbai, chattering happily away in Mandarin Chinese. The looks from the locals ranged from “oh, that must be english or something” to “what the hell kind of language is that?”

It’s a long way away from being a lingua franca, but for one week in metropolitan India, Chinese helped bridge a cultural gap that might have otherwise gone unfilled.

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Comments (2) Add Comment | Tags: china spain spanish chinese mandarin english yoga
Apr 22, 2010 | 08:59:06
China & Tech Links, April 20, 2010
By marcwan
[link] Myths and truths about Chinese criminal law (great article)
[link] China’s middle class under great pressure
[link] Off’l Press: Bursting China Housing Bubble ‘Necessary Choice’
[link] China NBS: Price Pressures Build, Inflation Target Difficult
[link] How to Think about China
[link] 3G in china
[link] The Myth of One China
[link] Obama’s ‘deal’ with China is oversold
[link] Chinese women like diamonds
[link] Is Jim Chanos Right About A China Real Estate Bubble?
[link] Beijing’s hutong heirs grow greedy
[link] U.S. Waiting for China on Iran Issue (gonna be a long wait)
[link] Analysis: Three simple lessons in Chinese for Julius Malema
[link] China’s Market. Too Hot? Too Cold? or Juuuust Right?
[link] China is a nation of ‘money worshipers’
[link] A trade war with China isn’t worth it
[link] More on China’s overcapacity issue
[link] China’s top four social networks: RenRen, Kaixin001, Qzone, and
[link] Unsafe ingredient in some flours
[link] President Hu warns Chinese officials against temptations of beautiful women, power
[link] 80 percent of napkins in restaurants unsafe
[link] Quit trying to blame China for American decline
[link] Deadlines and Delays: Chinese Revaluation Will Still Not Bring American Jobs
[link] Peking University gives the boot to Women’s Law Center
[link] Beijingers richer but unhappier
[link] Still way too soon to gamble on the potential US decline
[link] A flawed American political model aids China
[link] Colour photos from Beijing from 1946.
[link] China, Concubines and Google
[link] Journalists’ E-Mails Hacked in China
[Read Rest of Article]
Comments (0) Add Comment | Tags: china news links politics economics
Mar 31, 2010 | 01:48:55
Links for March 28th, 2010
By marcwan

The big news in recent days, of course, has been Google shutting off their Chinese internet service and redirecting all traffic to their Hong Kong servers. In general, they’ve been getting pilloried for this decision — nobody seems to buy Sergei Brin’s argument that this is about persecution such as that faced by his father in Russia decades back. Why didn’t they worry about this in 2006 when they first came to China? Nobody can find anything good coming out of this situation. R.I.P or good riddance [link]
Congress On China: Google Gets A Big Wet Kiss. Microsoft Is “Enabling Tyranny” [link]
Why Google should stay in China [link]
Disingenuous piece on Google China (all of the examples he states came to light because of Google IN China): [link]
Opposing view: Google’s big mistake [link]
Analysis: Google-China flap déjà vu for Microsoft [link]
The Google Shuffle and the Hong Kong Twist [link]
Brin Drove Google to Pull Back in China [link]
Google Isn’t China’s Problem. Press Freedom Is. [link]
Baidu is just a bad company [link]

More general links on China’s economy, the RMB, and the other big case this week, the Rio Tinto case (where a complete and utter lack of transparency alarmed more than a few people):

Property prices to see steady climb [link]
ANALYSIS-China’s influence silences Asia on yuan peg [link]
Volvo Seeks to Wean China Officials From Audis to Boost Sales [link]
The Chinese legal system and the Stern Hu case [link]
Stern Hu’s trial and its legal and economic implications – Weekly editorial [link]
Life in Chinese prison (Rio Tinto) [link]

And finally some other stuff, including the huge drought facing much of the country since last autumn (which we weren’t allowed to talk about until about a week ago because nobody wanted to be a buzz kill for the National Day celebrations last October or for Spring Festival this February.

What’s it like being black in China? [link]
Now that Spring festival is over, we’re allowed to talk about this: [link]
Beijing to sweeten stench of rubbish crisis with giant deodorant guns [link]
Shanghai restricts sale of knives during Expo [link]
People, people everywhere in China, and not enough to work [link]
[Read Rest of Article]
Comments (0) Add Comment | Tags: china links economy google
Mar 22, 2010 | 03:37:07
China & Tech Links, March 22nd, 2010
By marcwan

We’ll start out by looking at the RMB valutation debate raging on in the US. On the US, the “RMB is hugely undervalued” drums are being beat in Washington, and have a surprising ally in Paul Krugman, a normally quite rational and thoughtful person. The first article in this list by James Fallows, somebody whose thoughts on China are usually dead-on, and always worth reading.

[link] How to think about the RMB, “currency manipulation,” and trade war (James Fallows)
[link] Has Paul Krugman gone completely insane?
[link] The Chinese are not the source of our problems, …
[link] Paul Krugman’s China (RMB) fallacy

Next, a bunch of articles on Google’s departure from China:

[link] China state media accuses Google of political agenda
[link] What a Google China exit would mean
[link] China appears to be preparing for Google departure
[link] Google denies ‘exit China’ rumor

Understanding China:

[link] Behold China (Good content, nutty presentation)
[link] Too few deciphering the Chinese puzzle
[link] If You Want to See Entrepreneurs, Go to China
[link] What Won’t Work With China, And What Might

General Interest stuff:

[link] How Richies are influencing Chinese political policy (and tax debate)
[link] What Chinese Censors Don’t Want You to Know
[link] Beijing Becomes 3rd-Busiest Airport, Beating Chicago
[link] China’s Reverse Price Wars
[link] Land price record broken twice in day
[link] More attempted measures to cool Beijing’s housing market.
[link] How to manage your reputation online in China (hint: $$)
[link] China orders journalists to retrain in communist theory
[link] Soaring drug abuse in China’s south
[link] South Africa expects influx of Chinese prostitutes for World Cup
[Read Rest of Article]
Comments (0) Add Comment | Tags: china links interesting articles
Mar 08, 2010 | 02:39:44
China & Tech Links, March 8th, 2010
By marcwan

Interesting China reading for March 8th, 2010.

[link] Fascinating old Chinese menu from 1935
[link] Goldman betting that Chinese Yuan is no longer undervalued, warns of shrinking surplus
[link] Hackers of Google systems stole source code-
[link] In spite of an urgent need to cut emissions, fossil-fuel consumption in China is soaring
[link] Questions for the author of “Driving in China”
[link] Violent crime rate in China rises for first time in 10 years
[link] Rumours of a Chinese bubble are great exaggerated
[link] China’s English Teaching Boom may be about to burst
[link] Lies, Damned Lies, and Chinese Statistics
[link] Understanding (or not) China’s financial transactions
[link] China Warns Hong Kong
[link] Foreign Firms bet on Larger Chinese consumption
[link] Defying Global Slump, China Has Labor Shortage
[link] China pledges to ensure fair, high quality education in decade ahead
[link] Yang Yahui, cause of death: a glass of water
[Read Rest of Article]
Comments (0) Add Comment | Tags: china chinese language culture country tech links
Mar 01, 2010 | 02:40:26
China & Tech Reading
By marcwan

I’ve been really busy with my new job here and haven’t been writing as many blog articles as I’d like, but I have still been coming across lots of interesting things I’d like to share with people.

So, I’m going to start an Interesting Reading / Links type of blog post. Almost entirely centred around China and Tech (if not Tech in China). I hope to get back to regular blog-article writing soon.

  • [link] Apple Supplier United Win Technology’s factory in Jiangsu suffers more labour troubles, with 62 workers poisoned by n-hexane
  • [link] Recent government changes to house buying rules that make it harder for foreigners to buy will not affect the local market in Beijing
  • [link] “Research without Google would be like life without electricity,” one Chinese scientist said. What would life without Google in China be like?
  • [link]
    For those of you who continue to doubt, more evidence that MySpace is in terminal decline
  • [link] Americans continue to freak out about China
  • [link] “China’s local governments, which ran up huge debts during the record-breaking lending spree of the past year, are now feeling the pinch as authorities in Beijing tighten credit.”
  • [link] How Chinese football matches are rigged:
  • [link] How ready is the US for cyberattacks? (Hint: not)
  • [link] China is misread by bulls and bears alike
[Read Rest of Article]
Comments (0) Add Comment | Tags: china tech links
Nov 19, 2009 | 13:25:37
China: 2, Afterlife: 0
By marcwan

Like a few other cultures in the world, modern China comes with thousands of years of tradition behind it. As with those others, it sometimes struggles to find a way to make that tradition and history mesh well with modern life (most often by simply jettisoning the former). However, every once in a while, you’ll see an example of how the Chinese will take a tradition and … get a little carried away with it. The results are as breathtakingly brilliant as they are horrifying.

The first example I came across was in late 2006, early 2007, when I read about the practice of minghun, or ghost marriages. Essentially, having an unmarried son in traditional China is bad enough — having him die without being married is nearly unbearable for some, so they endeavour to find him a bride. Various members of the clergy will offer to help the family find a family recently bereaved of a daughter whose horoscope is compatible with that of their son, and then arrange to have the couple ‘married’ and then buried together, so that they may enjoy a happy (and apparently quite frisky, according to academic Ping Yao) afterlife together. In some cases, the family of the male will compensate the family of the female for the hassle.

And that’s where the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese comes in and things start to get carried away. Normally, families will rely on networks of friends and relatives to find these deceased single women to marry to their deceased sons. But in some cases, there are none to be found, or those found are too long dead to be appropriate for the deceased son. Suddenly there appears a market for brokers who will help expand the search and find an appropriate bride, for a fee of course.

Now, in order to earn that fee, sometimes brokers will start bending the rules. For those cases where they truly cannot find an appropriate corpse, some will find themselves resorting to grave robbing. Knowing that a newer corpse will do better than an older corpse, some will stake out funerals, wait until the evening, and then nip the fresher corpse in return for a higher fee.

Which leads some extreme people to just start murdering women to get the freshest corpse possible and the highest price. Sure, they’ll target prostitutes, the mentally handicapped, the infirm, and other easy targets at first, but even those will get hard to come by and it’s only a matter of time before they’re arrested after abducting somebody off a city street at night.

I more or less forgot about this over the years, however, and it was only recently that I came across another example that made me put it all together and brought back memories of the ghost marriages. The second incidence came from a news report about arrests at a funeral.

Again, centering around burial traditions, it was noted that many people in poorer parts of the country believe that the larger the send-off you give somebody into the afterlife, the more the deceased is honoured. Families will thus try to ensure that as large of a crowd as possible will attend the funeral.

When mere appeals to people’s decency or sentiments doesn’t work, you start bribing people to show up, perhaps with free booze and food, or by making important people attend the proceedings.

But when even that fails, once again, the enterprising business mind comes to the rescue: why not hire strippers to perform at the funeral. It’s never hard to find farmers who are willing to hang out somewhere for a few hours when there are hot naked women to be had.

This, in fact, led to the formation of funeral stripper troupes, and subsequently government “funeral misdeed” hotlines. Thus, the arrests in Jiangsu province (interestingly enough, also in 2006, although the news has just come around again) of five people involved in organising these funeral strippers.

Now, before you decide to berate me for looking down on the Chinese or otherwise laughing at their silly traditions and beliefs, please note that my intention is exactly the opposite — to show how the magical combination of a massive population (1.4 billion and counting), thousands of years of history, and a mercantilist / entrepreneurial spirit I have not seen elsewhere in the world can, on extremely rare occasions, come together to produce brilliantly bizarre results. You can say a lot about China, but you can never, ever say it’s boring.

Further reading:

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Nov 17, 2009 | 08:17:10
Understanding China in 3 Cities?
By marcwan

A local photographer of Malaysian/Singaporean origin by the name of Stefen Chow (no, not Steven Chow) once uttered what I find to be a brilliant way to understand China and its history:

If you want to understand the first 3000 years of China’s history, go to Xi’an.
To understand the last 300 years, go to Beijing.
For the last 30 years, go to Shenzhen.

(paraphrased slightly).

That really about sums it up.

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Sep 18, 2009 | 09:47:56
JustLooking 3.3.3 Released
By marcwan

Visit the JustLooking home page

I am happy to announce the immediate availability of JustLooking 3.3.3. This is a minor maintenance release, and includes the following:

  • A couple of minor bug fixes related to resources and window sizing.
  • Romanian translation (ro) by Silviu Turuga
  • Arabic translation (ar) by Mohammed Al-Yousef
  • Portuguese (Portugal) (pt_PT) translation by André Lamelas

The JustLooking home page has links to the new files to download.

As always, any feedback, comments, or gifts of bottles of wine are appreciated! :)


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Aug 27, 2009 | 03:23:22
Everybody should use Twitter, at least for the writing
By marcwan

How things have changed in a few short months since I wrote an article commenting on my lack of understanding of the Twitter phenomenon. I now use it daily, and even much more so than Adium or Skype for much of my chattering with Beijing locals (you should absolutely be following me, @marcwan). In some ways, writing little 140 character messages in twitter space is like farting in the wind – who knows who’s going to notice. But there is one surprising side-effect of these short messages that I’ve decided I really enjoy: It encourages better writing.

Of course, many people will smply strt wrtng lke ths 2 get thngs 2 fit, but for those people who use Twitter for more professional goals, and attempt to maintain a (reasonably) polished appearance there, the 140 character limit forces you to really think about what you’re going to say and how you want to say it.

As somebody who all too often uses words like actually, really, absolutely, reasonably, and softens many sentences to make them avoid seeming too concrete or prescriptive, Twitter has really forced me to cut these out and start writing more succinctly. This is a good thing™.

(Interesting side note: you can type a lot more Chinese in 140 characters you can Western languages. Those characters pack a lot of meaning, and you can basicaly write a paragraph or two per Tweet. Contrast that with the struggle to fit a single sentence in the same space).

So, here’s to hoping my blog posts become increasingly less long-winded. All thanks to Twitter. Who’da thunk it?

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Aug 01, 2009 | 05:18:00
The Beijing Subway: Feeling the Pace of Growth in China
By marcwan

One of the things I have always enjoyed about Asia is the feeling of constant change. As a self-confessed junkie of experiences new and different, I find seeing everything slightly different every day soothing and intriguing, as opposed to stressful and disorienting. Watching a country like China not only change and evolve, but do so in a loony-short period of time is nothing short of intoxicating. While many people I know don’t exactly understand the scope or speed of these changes, I have a perfect example to show this: The Beijing subway system.

When I first moved here in 2006, the subway system was dominated by Line 1 – the straight east-west line – and line 2 – the line that follows the second ring road around the core of the inner city. Add in an extension in the east and a big sweeping line to try and catch the area north of the city, and you have the following map:

Creative Commons images from Wikimedia - Click to expand

As an interesting side note, while circular subways and roads look really pretty on paper, I firmly believe they are an urban planning disaster. The rest of your transportation system basically degenerates into short straight routes to get people onto those circular systems, which then become massively overloaded and break down, yet remain the only way to get around anywhere. Witness Beijing’s 5 ring roads. The inner 2nd Ring Road is a giant parking lot. The 3rd, with a radius maybe 3km wider, is also a mess. Only the 4th and 5th Ring Roads, which stay well away from the city, finally have reasonable traffic. But to get anywhere, you basically have to still get on the 2nd or 3rd rings, which means you’re not going anywhere fast in this city.

Fast forward two short and very exciting years to the 2008 Olympic games, and the Beijing subway system already looks like this:

Creative Commons images from Wikimedia - Click to expand

Ignoring the Feng Shui people screaming about how asymmetric or ugly the new lines are, the city is trying new lines that cut across key neighbourhoods requiring coverage, and also trying to get people to other key neighbourhoods (i.e. Guomao where Lines 10 and 1 meet up) without pushing them onto the circular Line 2. The new Airport Express line lets you choose between Lines 10, 2, or the giant Dongzhimen Bus Terminal, which is right where it meets the Line 2 station.

This is what we have now, although the map will be out of date in 6-8 weeks: Line 4 from the Northwest corner of the city down to Beijing South Station (trains) will be opening then.

But the city is still woefully undercovered by subway tracks. Unlike other metropolitan areas, however (poor Toronto comes to mind), that limp along with outdated and overused undergrounds, the Chinese are determined to solve this. Behold the plan for the next 6 years.

Creative Commons images from Wikimedia - Click to expand

The nice thing is? It will happen. From simple and toy like to world-class in 10 years. Nice.

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Jul 23, 2009 | 08:24:33
How expensive am I?
By marcwan

I was doing a bit of ego-searching on my name today to see how my websites and books were doing in search rankings.

I was presented with the following adwords link on the right:

I wonder how much Marc Wandschneiders go for. I bet it’s not very much.

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Jul 15, 2009 | 19:07:10
JustLooking 3.3.2 released
By marcwan

Visit the JustLooking home page

I am happy to announce the immediate availability of JustLooking 3.3.2. This is a minor maintenance release, and includes the following:

  • An important JPEG image rotation bug fix.
  • A completely new Croation translation by Orlando Mali (thanks!).

The JustLooking home page has links to the new files to download.

As always, any feedback, comments, or gifts of bottles of wine are appreciated! :)


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Jun 28, 2009 | 04:20:13
JustLooking 3.3.1 Released
By marcwan

Visit the JustLooking home page

I am happy to announce the immediate availability of JustLooking 3.3.1. This is a minor maintenance release, and includes the following:

  • A quick bug fix for image blurring in the main window that I accidentaly re-introduced in 3.3.
  • A completely new Turkish translation by Oğuzhan Öçbe (thank you).
  • Updates to French and Korean

The original 3.3 release announcment has links to the new files to download.

As always, any feedback, comments, or gifts of bottles of wine are appreciated! :)


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Jun 25, 2009 | 20:35:29
Is it worth upgrading your iPhone to OS 3.0?
By marcwan

In a word: yes.

Features aside, which those of us stuck with older iPhones won’t be able to use (No compass? What will I do when I’m lost hiking on the Great Wall?), the new operating system has made some serious performance gains in the web browsing arena. The graphic going around the intarwebs right now:

Image from

Even on the same old iPhone 3G, browsing performance is massively improved. Hopefully there are other performance improvements in the OS, such as app launch times or general lagginess you tend to see.

I absolutely love how these results are still all an order of magnitude slower than a reasonably low-end mac laptop. 15-45s vs … 1.3s. Excellent.

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Jun 19, 2009 | 22:07:00
JustLooking 3.3 (Mac Image Viewer) now available for Download
By marcwan

Visit the JustLooking home page

I am thrilled to announce the immediate availability of JustLooking 3.3.2. JustLooking is a program to view pictures and images on your Mac OS X (Tiger or newer) based computer. JustLooking is a Universal Binary, and can be run on both PowerPC and Intel Macs. The program is and will always be very free

Version 3.3.2 of JustLooking is the best version yet, and contains some massive changes and improvements over previous versions:

  • Switching between images is significantly smoother and less jerky than before.
  • Images can now be sorted by the same order as “Finder”, or by date, with support for reverse sorting.
  • Shuffle mode for full screen slide show.
  • You can now rename files or move them to a different folder
  • When you ‘save as’ or move an image to a different directory, you can now tell JustLooking not to switch folders and reload the file list.
  • Image properties and meta data (i.e. Exif) are now properly saved along with files. Colour Profiles are also correctly managed now.
  • Zooming is fixed to be a bit less unpredictable
  • File resizing and saving is also much better than before, although, due to limitations in the CoreImage filters I’m using for resizing, still not perfect. The huge white lines seen in previous versions after resizing are now gone, but there are still some unfortunate artifacts on occasion. I will completely rewrite this code for the 4.0 series of JustLooking.
  • The JustLooking application icon looks less horrible now.
  • New Slovakian translation!

JustLooking 3.3 ships in the following languages:

  • French
  • Italian
  • Chinese (Simplified)
  • Portuguese
  • Spanish
  • Dutch
  • Slovenian
  • Polish
  • Korean
  • Catalàn
  • Finnish
  • German
  • Slovakian (new!)
  • Turkish (new!)
  • Croatian (new!)

Swedish, Russian, Traditional Chinese, and Norwegian have not been included in this version as they are getting too out of date now.

Feedback and Bug Reports

I will soon begin work on 4.0, although I have a full time job now (gotta pay the bills, y’see), so the progress will be a bit slower again. If you have any feature requests, please do let me know, and I will endeavour to add them.

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Jun 17, 2009 | 22:42:12
Super Special - Getting your own Chinese Character
By marcwan

A few hundred times a day, I run across a Chinese character that I’ve never seen before. Or – quite frequently – one that I’ve seen and looked up a dozen times, but for which I can never remember the meaning. I make a point of getting off my butt once or twice a day to look it up again. On rare occasions, I will be rewarded with a character whose meaning is: itself.

My favourite two examples so far are:

  • 崂 (láo)
  • 兖 (yǎn)

The first is typically defined as “The 崂 in 崂山 (láoshān)”. 崂山 is a national park / nature area near the city of Qingdao (青岛) in Shandong (山东) province. The 崂 character really has no other use apart from the occasional transliteration of a foreign sound

Similarly, 兖 refers to the Yan River and the major city which lies on it, Yanzhou (兖洲 – yǎnzhōu). That’s it.

You know you’ve made it big in China when you get your own character (汉字 – hànzì) that a zillion Chinese kids have to study and memorise.

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