Astonishingly bad teaching materials

JISHOU, HUNAN — Multiple-choice tests may be one of the easiest kinds of tests to take, but they are the hardest kind for a teacher to write. This may explain why some MC tests are so astonishingly bad, such as the ones highlighted at Jonny Scaramanga’s blog, Leaving Fundamentalism. Scaramanga’s blog includes MC questions from the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) series, which are widely used among homeschoolers and so-called “schools” run by fundamentalist churches. Most violate every known principle of designing useful MC questions. Let me explain. Most MC questions give three to five choices, from which the test-taker must choose the best. Good questions challenge the student’s knowledge and understanding by providing answers that seem plausible, but are not quite correct. Some choices are called “distractors,” because they are there to mislead an inattentive or ill-prepared student into choosing them. Some teachers (like me) throw in a few joke choices from time to time, just to lighten things up. At my former school, there is a teacher surnamed Miron, which made for a perfect joke answer for a question involving subatomic particles: proton, electron, meson, miron. But designing MC tests is a nightmare, especially if you want the test ...

Wherein I dip my toe into the bitcoin sea 3

Wherein I dip my toe into the bitcoin sea
JISHOU, HUNAN — Bitcoin may be the greatest thing since hard money, or the biggest flop since the 17th century tulip bulb bust, but I wanted to give it a try, just in case I could make some money. Bitcoin is a computer- and Internet-based currency, although some say it’s more a commodity than a kind of money. It’s decentralized, meaning there is no one authority (like a national bank system) controlling it, and it’s virtual, meaning it exists only in digital form. As I write this, 1 Bitcoin (BTC1.0) is worth about US$864, a considerable decline from the week before, when it crossed the $1,000 mark. How do you get bitcoins? There are four ways. Sell something for bitcoins. Trade something for bitcoins. “Mine” bitcoins on a computer. Buy bitcoins with regular, old-fashioned money. A fifth way, stealing bitcoins, is supposed to be nearly impossible, because bitcoin “wallets” and transactions are heavily encrypted. Hence the alternate name for bitcoin and its many cousins: crypto-currencies. Well, I wanted to get ahold of some bitcoins and another crypto-currency, peercoin. This was last week, when both were flying high relative to the dollar. I had nothing to sell or trade. My mid-range ...

‘Why can’t China be like America?’ a student asks

JISHOU, HUNAN — One of my students posted this in her Qzone (It’s like Facebook.) It’s not only a compliment to the USA, but a criticism of China. A while ago I saw John faxed docs to the USA [That was my absentee ballot]. I wonder when we can do this in China … Just listened to Obama’s speech: “Michelle, I’ve never loved you more, I’ve never been more proud of you…” And I think in China this would NEVER happen. Meditation: why the United States in a little more than two hundred years became a world power and China with more than five thousand years’ history still is a developing country. … This is all a big disparity… The common people of China have no say in who will be president. The Party leadership does all that work for them. Thus, we already know who will be the next president of China, even before the Party Congress rubberstamps his appointment this week. Chinese politicians are as likely to mention personal feelings in official speeches as they are to start dancing the Gangnam Style horse riding dance. So, we may gripe about our politicians and our messy political system, but ...

My Winter Holiday, part 1 3

JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s been a while since I posted anything here, since I’ve been basically living out of a suitcase for the last five weeks. Now it’s time to relate the story of my journeys. There were three stages: USA for family reunioning, Changsha/Jishou for Chinese New Year, and Sanya for sunny (actually partly cloudy) beaches. Universities in China typically knock off for at least four weeks for the Winter Holiday, I suspect to encompass the times when Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) falls in the Western calendar. Traditional holidays follow the lunar calendar, while civil holidays and university skeds follow the Western calendar. I still get confused which calendar to use when people refer to their birthdays. I was looking forward to my holiday for a variety of reasons. The main one was getting back to the US after 17 months’ absence to see my kids and relations. The other was to enjoy a week in a tropical climate during the winter for the first time in my life. (Yeah, I lived a deprived life.) It may surprise you to learn that I wasn’t all that excited about being in the USA. Since I’m essentially rootless, coming back ...

A basic civics lesson 3

JISHOU, HUNAN — Some citizens of the USA seem to forgotten their basic civics, if in fact they ever learned civics in the first place. So here is a primer. Feel free to share this among your anti-Obama associates. The United States of America is a constitutional republic, in which legislators (Congressional representatives and Senators) are elected by popular vote, and the president and vice president are elected in a two-stage electoral process – a popular vote and an Electoral College vote. Whoever gains the most votes (a plurality) in an election is the winner of the election. In the USA, which has two dominant political parties, practically speaking this means whoever gains a simple majority of the votes is the winner. For example, in the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama and Joe Biden received 52.9% of the popular vote, and John McCain and Sarah Palin, 45.7%. The remaining votes went to nominees of several smaller parties. In the Electoral College, Obama/Biden netted 365 votes and McCain/Palin, 173. Thus, Obama/Biden won the election by a clear majority. In a republic, an elected official serves everyone, regardless of who voted for him or her. This precept has been the basis of ...

Happy Fourth of July! 3

JISHOU, HUNAN — Since I don’t have easy access to baseball games, parades and big fireworks displays here, I have had a little time to contemplate our nation’s 233rd birthday. My mostly rambling thoughts follow. Roughly one-fourth of my ancestors were colonists in New York, New Jersey and New England. The rest of my family emigrated from Sweden in the late 1800s. So I like to think of myself as a representative of two kinds of American: the “founders” and the immigrants who came after the nation was founded. [The third kind are the original inhabitants. As as I know, there are no Indians among my ancestors, but my family research has turned up surprises before.] My great x 3-grandfather served in the New Jersey militia during the Revolution, and his in-laws — mostly seamen — served in the navy (or were pirates — the distinction is a bit murky). One was held prisoner in a British warship in New York Harbor. Unfortunately, we don’t know why they came to the colonies. My family has never been especially religious, though those colonial ancestors were Baptists and Quakers. It’s possible they came to the colonies to worship freely, or to take ...

Local American population surges twice 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — I live in a small city in the western fringes of Hunan. The usual American population here is normally four in a city of 300,000. Last week, the American population briefly surged, twice. The first influx was on Wednesday. A group of ethnobotanists (folks who study people’s uses of plants) arrived from Zhangjiajie to spend two nights in Jishou. The US national basketball team was the second wave. They played an exhibition game against Lithuania Saturday night (a close win for USA, btw), and left the next day. [The US basketball team was involved in a intercultural faux pas earlier that day. Details are here.] It was fun while it lasted. Dr.Gordon Tucker and Zhiwei Liu of Eastern Illinois University have brought a group of students to China four times now. EIU and Jishou University are sister institutions, so part of their time was spent at the campus in Zhangjiajie and here in Jishou. Typical of communications at educational institutions, I learned of the Americans’ visit only by the way. My neighbor, MeiMei, a Russian translator for the university, told me about it on Monday. So, I asked my foreign affairs officer, Cyril, if I could meet ...

Russian expert, American right wingers drinking the same Kool-Aid?

JISHOU, HUNAN — There’s a Russian scholar who’s been drinking the same water as some right-wing crazies in the US of A. According to Igor Panarin, an important figure shaping Russia’s future diplomats, President Barack Obama will declare martial law sometime this year, leading to a schism of the United States into six parts. The sudden breakdown of the USA’s government will then enable Russia and China to become world leaders. If you google “obama martial law,” you will find a host of right-wing-crazy sites that have been predicting the same outcome since last fall, before Obama was even elected. One site even suggests that former President George W. Bush would declare martial law to prevent Obama from being elected! All wishful thinking, I guess. I learned about Panarin after one recent English Corner at the old campus, during which two students deviated from the usual routine questions about my birthplace, love of China, etc., and instead floored me with completely surprising questions. One boy asked me, quite seriously, if I liked Obama and whether I believed the US would split into six parts soon. He explained that his politics professor had read a book by a Russian expert (Panarin), ...

Only Powell could support Muslims

JISHOU, HUNAN — In a fortuitous example of synchronicity, Colin Powell reminded the United States that, yes, Muslims are people, too, while Al Jazeera reminded the world’s Muslims that, yes, Muslims are actually happy in America. The silver lining in the cloud of bigotry against Barack Hussein Obama may very well be the recognition that Muslims in the USA are also Americans, that white Protestant “hockey moms” and “Joe Six-Packs” are not the only “real Americans.” We all are. Being a Muslim does not automatically make you an enemy of the state. The haters of Obama have tried to link him both to domestic terrorists and to Al Qaeda, largely by using the old “guilt by association” gambit. Colin Powell, a Republican with a long, unhappy history with the current administration, came out Oct. 19 on Meet the Press to endorse Obama as president. In the midst of his endorsement, he said this: I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a ...
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