My Summer In China (2009)

I have just found this write-up of my summer in China. I don’t really remember writing it, so having a fresh read through evoked lots of nice memories. I’ll leave it so not to lose it in the future!
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As a child, the Far East always fascinated me. I attended a karate class for my whole childhood, watched old martial arts films many times over and had my bedroom painted with Chinese characters and a Taijitu – the Ying and Yang symbol. Whether it was influenced by my love of the food, or the fact that some say I look East-Asian, my search for the opportunity to actually go there and explore never stopped.

The opportunity came when I started university. With a large Asian community (especially in Electronic Engineering), Imperial College offered me the perfect language immersion, second only to actually living in China. I took evening classes in Mandarin and thoroughly enjoyed them, which really gave me the drive to take this chance and get to grips with perhaps the most notoriously difficult language in the world. This is when I decided to go to China in the summer.

Whilst booking the flight tickets to Beijing, I felt an intense sense of excitement and adventure. Spending 2 months in a country so different from my own was a very daunting prospect, but with the encouragement from friends and family I closed my eyes and clicked “place order”. That was it. As the next month of revision and exams passed, the departure date quickly approached.

The first interesting thing happened before I even left England. On the train to London, a Chinese man sat opposite to me. One hour of hesitating later, I plucked up the courage to break the ice. “Ni hao?” I said. After his initial shock, he replied and conversation continued, although in a somewhat broken manner since my vocabulary didn’t stretch further than introducing people and giving directions. Just the fact that I could have a simple conversation with him imbued me with confidence for the rest of my trip.

14 hours in a plane later, and I had arrived. The weather was hot, the city was crowded and, despite the long flight, I felt energised! Instead of taking a taxi from the tube station to the hotel, I decided to walk, taking in the sights of this unfamiliar place. Tall, high-tech buildings adorned with huge TV screens cast shadows on the people selling fruit from wooden carts below. The contrast was astonishing.

I soon started at my school: 3 hours of intense 1-1 lessons per day. Talking for such a long time was exhausting, but the rapid improvement in my spoken Chinese, and my teachers’ funny stories gave me the motivation to continue. Soon outings became much easier, and I visited some of the sights of Beijing. For me, the must-sees are Yong He Gong Lama Temple, which has an absolutely huge and beautiful statue of the buddha carved from a single sandalwood tree, the beautiful Hou Hai and its vibrant nightlife, and obviously the Great Wall.

 

For 2 weeks of my time in Beijing I stayed in a youth hostel, sharing a room with 7 other people, which surprisingly was perhaps the best part of the whole trip. Living in close quarters with so many Chinese around my age was a great way to experience their culture and I learnt many new things, particularly about hospitality. The many friends I made their were, after overcoming an initial shyness, extremely thoughtful and good fun!

Originally I planned to travel across the east coast after my studies finished, but a great opportunity came my way. I was invited to teach English to a university student from Hunan, a central Chinese province. While we talked English, we traveled around this beautiful mountainous and lake-ridden part of China. After lots of fun, fishing, boating and rafting, it was almost time to return home. But there was one last stop, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was perhaps the most inspiring place to me. As an electronic engineer, to look across to the island from Kowloon, and seeing the big company’s names in lights was exciting. I was in a place where I felt I could easily live, the bustle, weather and culture all suited me perfectly. My favourite places were the fantastic planetarium in the Hong Kong Space museum, Hong Kong park with its turtle filled lakes, and Lantau island.

Normally, when people talk about Lantau Island, they mention the big Buddha statue, the Po Lin Monastery, and the cable cars, but the afternoon I spent on the island didn’t contain any of those, despite a plan to go and visit them all. Instead I rented a bike and got lost! But it turned out to be my favourite and most enjoyable time in Hong Kong. Cycling off the beaten track, there were many interesting and untouched-by-tourist places, one of which is a great waterfall. After the business of HongKong island, this day was a breath of fresh air and it was astonishing to me that two such very different places were linked by only a 20 minute ferry ride.

Returning home, the 12 hour flight gave me time to reflect on the whole experience. I loved China – its busy cities and beautiful countryside, the shy yet immensely hostipitable friends, and the many memories i brought back. Yet I still felt relieved when stepping off the plane, back on British ground. Not only did the trip fuel my passion to travel more, to China again and other places, but it also made me realise how much I take for granted in my own country.

My trip to China has matured me greatly, in terms of character, and in my Mandarin fluency. Through meeting so many people, with backgrounds vastly different from mine, I have learnt many things and I suspect others have learnt from me. I hope to return to China in the near future, but next time more focussed on voluntary work. And finally, I’d like to thank the Ogden Trust for their generosity in helping me.

Online Shared Whiteboards

In an attempt to make Google Hangouts better to for teaching, I’ve decided to make a start on a high-quality shared whiteboard, designed with education in mind. I came across the need for one whilst tutoring my brother for his GCSE exams. There seemed to be nothing online which was simple, easy, free, fast and fluid. I want something that is easier to use than paper, so I’m going to make one. Here’s some small reviews of the sites I’ve had a look at:


Scribblar – Lots of cool features, but it is flash-based and feels a little slow to respond after a while. The sampling rate slows down after a while, unbearably so in Linux, but it’s just manageable in windows, resulting in the following-looking text. Also, I’d rather there was no signup for private rooms.

Written in scribblar

That said, I quite like the graph-paper option, the shareable cursor (although a huge green arrow is a little annoying) and the large scrollable work-surface.


Aww – This is a really cool, simple app, which is built upon the HTML 5 canvas and websockets. It’s free to have a private collaborative whiteboard session, and there’s no signup needed. The app is responsive and the text looks fairly nice, but there is very little in the way of extra functionality – pretty much just 7 colours and 3 brush sizes.

Written in Aww

Aww also has the ability to be embedded into your website, but if you want both that and sharing then you’ll have to pay $9.99 per month.


Dabbleboard – Another quite mature flash-based whiteboard, but much faster than Scribblar. It also has a pretty unique shape-recognition input, which replaces your strokes with the shape it thought you were trying to draw. I had a little trouble with this though because it seemed to think most things look like diamonds and squares. For example, when trying to draw a set of axis, I needed to try 4 times before the shape recogniser would put 2 lines down.

Dabbleboard's nice stylus UI

In freehand mode, everything is much simpler and more natural. Other good-points of this site are the touch-friendly user-interface, the one-click pen colour selection, and the personal library of saved shapes. There are free and paid plans, with free plans including unlimited collaborators, with limits on document size and download format (no SVG).


Scriblink – This is a java-based applet which was built with teaching and not profit in mind, which is fantastic. It is completely free and the homepage is in fact the whiteboard, which is nice. The drawing is smooth and responsive, and the user interface is quite easy to use (although it is nearly impossible to select the same colour twice). One thing which really caught my eye was the sending files feature. I’ve needed to send files a couple of times to my brother when teaching (pdfs, Anki decks etc) but had to resort to google docs or email attachments. Doing it from the whiteboard screen is a pretty neat idea.

Drawn in Scriblink

A particular disadvantage of Scriblink is the updating of the display with your friends’ scribbles. Only when you put the pen down will the new lines display, meaning you can’t just sit back and watch someone drawing. Other than that, this is a pretty solid tool.


Cosketch - A useful little app which looks somewhat dated and abandoned. It uses HTML SVG as a drawing canvas and has a load of little novel features, some good and some not so good. The drawing itself is nice and smooth, and there is a small library of useful symbols and signs which can be placed into the document. Also, there’s a very clear and comprehensive set of hotkeys to switch between the various tools. This could be good for power-users.

Drawn in Cosketch

On the downside there are some really quite random functions, like the possibility to set your background to a place from Google maps, and individual clear buttons for different types of drawn object. These clutter things up a bit. Also, the strokes of collaborators aren’t sent live, but only when they are finished, giving a less fluid feel when watching someone draw. Also the drawing area is pretty small and not expandable.


Twiddla – Another very professional and mature app, built on canvas. I liked the ability to share a webpage with your friends with it, but like some others this doesn’t have live drawing. Full strokes are shown only after they have finished being drawn. Also, the gridded view doesn’t show on all participant’s screens. I prefer it if everything is the same on all screens, otherwise it can be confusing as to which features are on in who’s instance of the app.


DoodleToo – This is more like a chatroom site than a collaborative web whiteboard. The thing I like about this was the liveness. You could see everyone’s cursors moving around the screen, their names next to the cursors and the you could see everyone drawing live. This gave it a very real and fun feeling. It lacks a lot of productivity functionality for teaching though, but then that’s not what it was designed for.


Muro – This has no collaboration functionality, but it is the most beautiful app I found. The drawings people make on here are fantastic, done with a huge assortment of high quality brushes. It’s a bit too much for what I’m after, but I think some lessons can be learnt about aesthetics. It’s just so much more pleasant to use this that the others, and that’ll be important when getting kids to enjoy online teaching.

Drawn in DeviantArt Muro

Another thing this site has is support for Wacom tablets. This means that various properties of the brush can be controlled by the pressure of your pen on the tablet, something which is really useful and gives much more lifelike handwriting/drawing.


Summary

Through doing this I’ve found that I want my app to have the following features:

  • Simple, stylus-friendly UI
  • Support for drawing tablets
  • Live drawing synchronisation between participants
  • Cursors and possible name tags shown
  • Nice, anti-aliased line drawing
  • Grid background support
  • Free (possibly add-supported)

Google Hangouts: First Impression

Google Plus has really started to grow on me this past week, and it’s mostly, if not completely down to Hangouts. Whilst wandering around the public hangouts, watching live high-quality talkshows and using it to help my brother with his studying, I’ve started to think that this might be a little better than Yet Another Video Conferencing technology. Although there’s still a lot to be done on this front in terms of reliability and functionality, the bar to talking/interacting with people from across the world seems to have been lowered yet again.

Public Hangouts

Public Hangouts

As with most things on the internet, hangouts can be pretty chaotic. When hosting my own public hangout, in an attempt to meet other people who were learning Chinese, the room was quickly swamped by people not interested in the topic much, but just browsing around to see what what was happening. And it’s not really this that’s the problem. It’s more that most people’s microphones were badly set up, with lots of feedback/echo, or loud noises in the background. With all of these fleeting disturbances, it was a little difficult to have a conversation with anyone. I’ll admit though that I was perhaps a bit ambitious in trying to find more Chinese learners in a community that seems to have less than 100 active users at any one time. Had I titled the chat “Language Learners” there might have been more interest.

After that, I stumbled upon Paul Snookes, a fellow Brit and an English teacher who was hosting public hangouts to teach English. When I joined, there were 5 or 6 students really engaged with the class, practising new words by reading, speaking and listening. It lasted around an hour and I took part as an assistant answering questions that anyone had. We all had great fun and it seemed the students learnt a lot! This is what makes me think that hangouts are really something to look forward to and something to consider in the trend towards taking learning online. I’ve tried Khan Academy, and I freaking love it. I’ve also had a great experience with ChinesePod. The interactivity and ease of use that was possible with Paul’s classes though opened up a much more social side to this kind of education.

Apps available in Hangouts

Another cool thing about Hangouts is that they support apps and an app store. While the current offering of apps does contain some useful tools (shared youtube viewing, google docs, whiteboard) they are a little unpolished and very few in number. I was pretty impressed with the API. It seems really easy to create an app which shares data easily between participants of the session. I’d really like to see some progress on a app to assist teaching in hangouts, improving on the current doodle app (which is far too slow at the moment, so your curves get recorded as a few straight lines). Something which supports stylus tables and pressure sensitive inputs would be great too, because it really helps when drawing to be able to write finer and thicker by just pressing lightly or harder. Wacom have released browser plugins for Windows and Mac which give access to cursor pressure information from their tablets.

I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen in the next year regarding online education, and it feels like Hangouts have real potential and a lot of benefits to offer to this cause. I’ve started tutoring my brother every night for an hour, and so far, apart from a little instability in the linux stack used for webconferencing, the whole process has been really painless and a pleasure to use.