Friday, July 25, 2008

Digital Map Making with GPS

This time in Hubei 湖北, we taught the high school students how to use the GPS (Global Positioning System) to make a digital map. A GPS receiver uses signals from a system of 27 satellites flying over the earth to determine the location it is at, in terms of longitude and latitude. (The GPS receiver has to be able to receive the signal from more than one satellite to determine its own position. Why? And from how many satellites?) This receiver is actually displaying the coordinates of a famous secondary school in Hong Kong. (Do you know which one it is?)

Walking around the campus with the GPS receiver in hand, we determined the location, shape and size of each landmark on campus, and then drew the campus map with some simple tools. The GPS readings could be off by a few meters or more, hence manual adjustments had to be made. We also took some pictures of the campus locations and linked them to the landmarks, making a clickable map.

It was a lot of fun for both us as tutors, and the high school students. A tremendous amount of preparation went into acquiring the proper equipment, designing the overall plan and specific tasks, doing the many trials and dry runs, coordinating the ~200 students involved in the data collection, and then finally integrating everything to make the map. I have some amazing colleagues and students who worked very hard together to pull the whole thing off. We are justifiably proud of what we have achieved. Now that we know the method works, it can be applied to other related tasks.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


I have seen lots and lots of sea birds on the Pacific coast of California in the past several days. Particularly seagulls and pelicans. They are so elegant. They can go wherever they want, and see things from a completely different angle. It is no wonder men would want to imitate them. And indeed men have been trying to truly fly for a long long time.

But how did the first bird came up with the idea of flying, if God had not made it to fly in the first place? It was imaginative enough for men to want to fly after seeing flying birds. But the first bird had not seen anything flying yet. How did the idea of flying came up?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Love English Camp 2008

This is the third time we took our university students to HuangShi in Hubei to help run a summer camp. This time I have my two older daughters with me. They turned out to be very helpful. Both of the group leaders in their respective groups were full of praise for them.

My group was assigned eight students from 10 to 13 years old, most of them entering grade 1 in high school in September. This was quite unexpected because the camp targeted senior high school students. For this reason our group were called the “intensive care unit”.

The students with the best English in our group could barely speak simple sentences in English, the worst could barely pronounce simple words. This was a huge challenge. We eventually decided to divide them into two smaller subgroups for the English lessons, and I got the group with the three boys who could barely pronounce any words at all. We ended up learning how to pronounce simple words such as “cat”, “ship”, “sheep”, “name”, “lame”, ..., and to speak simple sentences such as “My father is a teacher.”

They were very bright though, and very eager to learn. M wrote down every single word and sentence that I wrote on the blackboard. Jo would scream with joy whenever he learned to pronounce a word correctly. Ja was easily distracted, but he turned out to be very curiously and have learned many things about Hong Kong browsing on the Internet. I make each of them pronounce each word many times, correcting their mistakes, showing them how to move the mouth to get the correct sound, and to distinguish between correct and incorrect pronunciations. They told me their previous English lessons were very boring and nobody had taught them English that way before.

At first, J refused to participate in any activity or game that involved saying anything in English. I took him aside to confirm with him that it was because he was ashamed of being very poor in English and simply did not wish to lose face. I gave him a short private lesson to show him that he could learn English if he tried hard enough. I also told him I would be willing to tutor him individually if he participated in the group activities. Afterwards he started to try harder. J, like many of the other kids, had a short fuse and can be easily provoked. I told him he needed to discipline himself if he wished to be successful in life - and he agreed.

All the kids were full of energy. They were always pushing each other, teasing each other, jumping on the tables, rocking their chairs, falling over their chairs, throwing things around, playing balls in the classroom, literally climbing on to us, and coming close to fighting many times. It was extremely exhausting trying to keep some semblance of order in the classroom.

Byt they were also very fond of us, clinging to us and asking all kinds of questions. We were able to discuss with them many many things: about English, computers, Hong Kong, their families, their schools, their aspirations, why we came to HuangShi, ... In the end we were able to share with them our view of life and our beliefs. And they were very receptive.

That’s why I found the trip to be exhaustive but satisfying.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Four Days - Four Places

On Saturday morning, I bid an emotional farewell to a bunch of high school students in HuangShi in Hubei 湖北, after a challenging week teaching them a bit of English, making digital maps, and sharing with them about life. In the afternoon, I left HuangShi for Wuhan, exhausted but on a high. On the one hand, these students are in a better position than many generations of predecessors. On the other hand, they still so desperately need exposure to the wider outside world, and opportunities to escape from their current stations.

On Sunday morning, I left Wuhan 武漢 for Hong Kong. The river flowing from the right (south-west) to the left (north-east) is Chang Jiang 長江, or Yangtse 揚子江. At the top of the photo, on the east side of Chang Jiang, is Wuchang 武昌. Wuchang is, of course, where the 1911 revolution started. The river flowing up the middle of the photo to join Chang Jiang is Han river. To the left (north) of Han River is Hankou 漢口. Hankou, at one point, had concession territories owned by five nations: England, Russia, Germany, France, and Japan. To the right (south), Hanyang 汉阳. Hanyang used to have one of the most importatn arsenals in China. So Wuhan occupies an important place in the modernization of China. Every time I come here, I was made to ponder the changes in China in the past hundred years or so. Having reeled from one disaster to another numerous times, China seems to be finally steadily climbing out of the depth of dispair. Yet the road to modernization ahead is still long and hard.

I spent Monday in Hong Kong, working in the university. A new head has been appointed to our department, and I am looking forward to have reduced administrative responsibilities. But the new administration has not said much yet and we are not sure whether there might be some major changes. Hong Kong is arguably the best developed among all of China. Yet it is facing an uncertain future and the leadership is not inspiring a lot of confidence.

On Tuesday, our family flew to Los Angeles and then went up to Shell Beach near San Luis Obispo up the California coast - on the opposite side of the Pacific. It can be considered one of the most developed place on earth. The people are prosperous. The houses are big. The roads are wide and straight. The sky is blue despite the soot from the forest fires. The oceanic view is just fantastic. We spent a lot of time watching the sea guls, the pelicans, the waves, and the sunset. From some perspectives, it can be considered paradise on earth.

In four days, I seemed to have passed through several ages of development. Is California the future China? I wonder.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


We flew above some interesting river formations en route from Hong Kong to Wuhan.

What do you think of the river bend at the left? Does it look like the head and eyes of a snake? Note how the smaller, greener river joins the bigger, muddier one at the right? The green one simply gets swallowed by the muddy one.

A good illustration of the Chinese idiom 涇渭分明. When the two rivers of comparable size merge, the demarcation line is very clear at the beginning, but gradually becomes more and more blurry.

A dragon flying through the clouds, with claws extended?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Love English Camp in Hubei

For the past week I could not access the Internet. It was because I went with 3 colleagues and 15 of our university students (and two of my daughters) to HuangShi in Hubei province again, to help run a summer camp.

Teachers and tutors from a number of Christian churches from Hong Kong, London and Los Angeles taught about 200 local high school students English, and our students taught them how to make a digital map of their campus. The high school students had to measure the longitude and latitude of assigned locations with a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, take photographs and make recordings of stories in English about the locations. Our university students then used the measured GPS coordinates to draw a digital map of their campus, and linked the photographs and recordings to relevant locations on the clickable digital map.

While they were not working on the digital map the students learned phonics, sang, and played a lot of games. The digital map project and the camp overall was a big success. The local students were happy, their teachers were happy, the English tutors were happy, and we are happy.

This is what we call service learning. While providing community service, our university students learned a lot: information technology, English, Putonghua, education in mainland China, coordination, teamwork, and make a lot of friends.

It was very hot in HuangShi, as expected for this time of the year. But it also rained almost everyday while we were there, and the rain cooled it down a bit. I just came back this afternoon totally exhausted. More on the trip when I have time to recuperate.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

1 July March

It was the first of July and the people were marching again. This time I went to the head of the march at Causeway Bay to take pictures. I saw the police motorcycles, the police vans, and the many police officers that cleared the way, the numerous reporters and amateur photographers (like me), and the volunteers that kept order. Perhaps a hundred people had gone by before the first real marchers appeared.

The main theme remained the demand for democracy and elections. But there were also demands for justice and equality, wage increases, migrant workers’ rights, sex workers’ right, rights of abode, independent radio broadcasting, justice for people who do business in the mainland, etc. It might not be a unified voice. But the depth of the discontent was palpable.

It was really hot. After standing in the sun for 30 minutes or so, I was drenched. Why would these ordinary-looking people be willing to endure such discomfort on a holiday? Unless they are really unhappy with something that the government is doing, or not doing? It is understandable that people (including those in government) prefer to listen to friendly voices. But a responsible government would also listen to those who are unhappy enough to march; and then to try to do something to reduce the amount of discontent.

Monstrous Tram Stops

These tram stops in Central used to be simple, unobtrusive structures: a flat top standing on slender pillars, all white.

Today, panels fill up all the space between the pillars, and a long one runs the full length of the station on top. Suddenly, a minimalist structure has been transformed into a monster. Now you cannot see the opposite side of the street.

It is understandable the tram company would want to maximize advertising space and revenue. But does that give it the right to block everyone’s view and stifle airflow throughout the busiest street in Central? And does the government even care?