Thursday, December 31, 2015

Hacking Chinese

I was recently asked an unusual question: What was my biggest non-technical hack? How had I found a workaround or trick that let me do something that ordinarily wouldn't be possible or allowed.

That made me think. The best example I can think of involves the study of Chinese. I was able to study the language in a way that reaped major benefits for my career and overseas lifestyle in just six months.

Backstory: I arrived in Taiwan in early 1993 to study Mandarin and continue an overseas adventure that had started in London two years prior. While Chinese grammar and syntax is quite simple, Western students are often tripped up by two extremely difficult elements: Tones in the spoken language and characters in the written language. Most curricula emphasize the latter through rote memorization (necessary for reading) and stroke order (necessary for writing). Writing/memorization exercises take up 75% of a student’s time.

Speaking was given short shrift in many programs at the time -- it’s difficult to effectively teach tones and vocabulary is always taught in conjunction with reading/writing. This really slows progress, as a single term takes extra long to learn, thanks to the emphasis on learning the characters as well as the spoken form.

The result is many people who have formally studied Chinese for a year or more are unable to effectively talk in Mandarin, but will be able to understand characters and even write calligraphy. I had actually taken this approach in the United States in high school and college for two years total, but only knew the words for numbers and a few simple phrases when I arrived in Taipei.

My "hack" was to skip writing and concentrate on the spoken language, with a minimal amount of attention devoted to learning characters. In other words, instead of spending 25% of my time on verbal exercises and practice, I spent 90% of my time on learning how to speak Mandarin.

 My first experiment involved self-immersion, living with a family on the outskirts of Taipei, where I thought I could have a chance to practice talking. It didn’t work -- the children in the family wanted mainly to speak English, and the parents spoke a different dialect that is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin. The experiment failed. I learned almost nothing.

I then decided to take formal classes. Most Western students studied at local universities, but I found a private language school that didn’t force character study at the early levels, and had teachers that really emphasized spoken Mandarin (to the point that no English was spoken in class).

Ten hours of study in school and hours of additional practice every day on the streets of Taipei really worked. I was intensely focused on getting the tones and pronunciation right. Within two months I had the local accent and tones down cold, to the point where some people hearing me answer the phone initially supposed I was local. Within six months I had learned enough vocabulary and grammar to become a highly proficient speaker. I could barely read and my stroke order was positively embarrassing, but it didn’t matter -- I was interacting with local people at a very high level on a face-to-face level and really becoming immersed in social life there.

 The proof of my competency came in mid-1994, less than a year after I had restarted my studies, when I was invited to take part in a highly competitive job interview for a news editor at one of Taiwan’s largest television networks. The interview was completely in Mandarin with three station executives. I passed with flying colors, beating out 300 other applicants. A few years later, I wrote and composed a Mandarin song for my rock band that became a minor underground hit in Taiwan and Hong Kong. It wasn't fine calligraphy, but it made it possible for me to interact with people and improve my own career.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lamont genealogy and the lost hamlets of Glengairn, Aberdeenshire

For years I have been researching the origins of my family. One of the most perplexing mysteries concerned the origins of my forebear James Lamont who emigrated from Scotland to the United States in the mid-1800s. I knew his name, his year of birth, the names of his parents and children, but little about where he came from. In the past few months, with the aid of a professional genealogist and a local historian in Scotland, I have narrowed the search to a remote area of Aberdeenshire, a historical district in Scotland.

Any American who attempts genealogical research of Scottish forebears is likely to run into a records gap when going back before 1850. The quantity and quality of census records, church records, newspapers, and other written documentation is poor -- for instance, the UK did not begin a census until 1841 and Scottish civil records (marriages, births, etc.) weren't really formalized until 1855. In the U.S., record-keeping tended to be somewhat better but there are still many gaps.

For James Lamont, we have a copy of his newspaper obituary in New York state, which was a trove of information, as well as his death record (kept on file in a small town in western New York) which listed his parents' names -- James Lamont and "Ann Mechie." Through the obituary and New York state and federal census records I was able to determine the year of birth (1814, most likely between January and May). While the obituary confirmed he was from Scotland, the only information about where in Scotland he came from was a reference in an 1870s "who's who" of Niagara County, New York, which listed "Knearden" as the family's place of origin in Scotland.

Here are some of the problems I encountered:
  • There is no town called "Knearden" in Scotland that I could locate.
  • Most Lamonts came from western Scotland -- Argyll. Family lore stated he came from Aberdeen, a small city in the east. But that did not make sense, considering James Lamont took up farm work when he came to America. He did not seem like a city fellow.
  • James Lamont was Catholic, an extremely tiny segment of the Scotland's population in the early 1800s (the entire Catholic population of Scotland was estimated at about 30,000 people in the mid-1700s, or about 2% of the population)
  • "Mechie" was probably misspelled, and perhaps a variant of Mackie, Mackaye or McKie.

After spending years trying to crack the "brick wall" I contacted the New England Historical Genealogical Society and commissioned their experienced genealogists to see if they could go further. Here's what they found:
We began our research by looking for the birth of James Lamont in Scotland. We were not able to find his record and decided to broaden our scope. Next, we looked for Scottish birth records for children of James and Ann (Mechie) Lamont. We were able to find one birth record for a couple of this name. Donald Lamond, son of James and Anne (Michie) Lamond of Ardoch, was born and baptized on 13 March 1814. Donald was baptized in St. Nathalan Roman Catholic Church in Ballater. The village of Ballater is in the parish of Glenmuick, Tullich and Glengairn in the Kincardine O'Neil district in Aberdeenshire [Aberdeen County], Scotland. Ardoch is located about 2 miles north- west of Ballater. It is possible “Knearden” is referring to the Kincardine O'Neil district. ... Next we turned to passenger arrival records. If James Lamont arrived in New York City about 1850-1851 it was before Castle Garden or Ellis Island were in operation. However, no arrival records was found for James or Helen/Ellen (____) Lamont in currently available digitized sources. It is possible the couple travelled via Canada to Niagara County, New York. Unfortunately, records for this time period in Canada are sparse and nothing was found for the family.
Interesting. The "Knearden" misspelling was plausible -- I could see the editor of a rural "who's who" in New York making the mistake, especially if the source had a heavy accent or wasn't sure of the spelling himself. This could also take care of the issue of James Lamont being a farmer - he wasn't from Aberdeen city, but rather a very rural area of the highlands in Aberdeenshire, a county-like district reaching deep into the Scottish Highlands. Even more interesting was the James Lamond/Ann Michie couple. I had been searching on "Lamont" and ignoring variations, but "Lamond" is actually a common variation. "Michie" is a rare Scottish surname.

Nevertheless, there were still problems with the NEHGS findings. This couple only had one child, born the same year, but with a different name (Donald, not James). What was going on here?

I searched the records of Scotlands People for other children born to this couple. Nothing. This was odd, as most families at the time tended to have many children.

What about this place called Ardoch? It was listed on historical maps:
Now it is only ruins, as shown in this photo collection. It's one of about a dozen abandoned hamlets a few miles north of Ballater in the valley of the river Gairn, known as Glen Gairn or Glengairn. It's not far from Balmoral, the British royal retreat. Until the mid-1800s most of the people of Glengairn were Catholic, in a mostly Protestant Scotland. They were protected by the fact that Glengairn was so remote and several powerful landowners in the area were themselves Catholic. But changes in the economy of the area -- including the creation of "deer forests" for nobles, the expansion of sheep farming, and the sales of large tracts of land -- encouraged many to move elsewhere or emigrate. A large number of Glengairn inhabitants emigrated to Australia, as well as some to Canada. And, perhaps, some to the United States.

As for the origins of the Lamonts in Aberdeenshire, I found this account taken from a 1938 clan history (The Lamont Clan: 1235-1935):
The earliest appearance of a Lamont in the Braemar district was in 1483 when an Archibald was in trouble for cattle lifting. Tradition insists that the first of the clan in that airt was a daughter of a Laird of Lamont who was married about this time to a McGregor of Inverey. Following the old Celtic custom of leine-chneis she took her retainers with her, and so was founded a new branch of the clan still to the fore to this day.
Braemar is located to the west of Ballater, perhaps 10 miles distant -- certainly not out of the realm of possibility for Lamonts from Braemar to settle in the hills north of Ballater.

"Lamond" is apparently a medieval spelling, and the same 1938 account explains more history about the Braemar branch and their connection with the main body of the Lamonts in western Scotland:
(In 1682) the Braemar branch of the clan, realising that Archibald [Lamont] was now a power in the land, applied to him for recognition and protection. Their petition, which is still to the fore in the National Library, is striking evidence of the strength of the bond between chief and clansmen though living beyond the ken of one another. "Ther will be in this countrey of the bray of Marr," it commences, " about fourtie men of our name of MackLamond trewlie come from your honor's country long since and be reason of some accidents hes turned our right name as is knowne to be verie usuall in highland countreys. Wee all of our race knowes our owine genelogie our selfes. Wee live heir honestlie altho' not rich nor in great power be reison we want on above the rest as a cheiffe to owine us & keip us unwronged." The bearer of this appeal, which must have been personally presented at Ardlamont was to explain in detail a particular grievance: “…all these who descended of him were commonly called Gordones, altho' the right name is Lamond. Otheres of us be reason of our predecessor's blackness are called Mcgildui.”
I called a local historian, who confirmed that the Lamonts were "thick around Braemar," not so much around Ardoch or Ballater. There were not any census records of Ardoch or the other forgotten hamlets in the Glen Gairn area, north of Ballater.

One thing I have learned in years of doing research is always look at the original source -- sometimes clues lie in the records themselves which may not be apparent from database searches or second-hand information. So I went to Scotlands People and downloaded an image of the baptism of Donald Lamond, born to James and Ann Michie and recorded by St. Nathalan Catholic church in Ballater:
Transcription listed below
One thing that was immediately apparent was other Lamonts lived in the area closer to Ballater -- a Donald Lamond of Lary was listed as the sponsor (Godfather) while a birth from February 1814 listed another Lamont birth, Margaret, born to Alex Lamont Margaret Farquarson.

I was curious. What was on the other side of the notebook of the baptism list from St. Nathalan? I downloaded it from Scotland's People:
Transcription listed below
Not only were there even more Lamont/Lamond baptisms listed, one of them was a James Lamond, born the same month as the infant Donald. James' parents were Donald Lamond and Helen Farquarson. They resided in another hamlet, Shenval, located less than a mile from Ardoch.

Wow. Was the elder Donald Lamond of Shenval who sponsored infant Donald Lamond the same person as the father of James Lamond? Probably not, as on April 6 1814 another birth was recorded for Donald Lamond of Lary and his wife Elspet Lymon. But considering the closeness of the three hamlets (Ardoch, Shenval and Lary) and the common forenames (two James and three Donalds) suggests some family connection -- most likely brothers and cousins -- is possible, or even likely.

Here are some other hypotheses: Was it possible that infant Donald Lamond had a middle name James, or the infant James Lamond of Shenval was for some reason brought up by James Lamond and Ann Michie of Ardoch? In the 1841 Censuses for the Parish of Crathie and Braemar and the Parish of Glenmuick, Tullich & Glengairn there are no traces of Donald Lamont or Lamond, but there are many households in which infants or young children are living with adults with different surnames -- perhaps relatives, or paid guardians, or orphans. Here is one household in the Glenmuick, Tullich & Glengairn census from 1841:
Enumeration District 5: From the junction of the Gairn with the Dee up the North bank of the Dee until opposite Terquach; thence to the top of the hill above Terquach; then east along the top of the hills above Terquach Micras & Gaelic in a straight line until it reach the Gairn at a point west of Culsh.
Place: Kylacreech
Euphemia Christie 70
Jane [Christie] 50
Jane McHardy 25
Lewis Symon 1
These are hypotheses, not definite answers. Still, the origins of this family loosely match the data we have from James Lamont of Niagara County, NY. The birth year of 1814 matches, and there were no other James Lamonts or Lamonds born that year. James Lamond and Ann Michie were the only couple in Scotland having a similar name to the parents on the Niagara County death certificate -- I did extensive searches of the Scotland's People database to see if any other couples with similar names were recorded, and came up empty. And then there's the family lore, which has the family coming from Aberdeen and the Niagara County book of local notables which lists "Knearden" but is very likely to a misspelling of "Kincardine."

I feel there is a family connection, but more research is needed. The smoking gun could come in several ways:
  • Another paper record from Scotland, the U.S. or Canada which confirms something about James' origins.
  • A document from the U.S. that states James' exact birthday -- if I can match it with one of the dates in the St. Nathalan records for March 2014, I would have confirmation of the line.
  • A DNA match with someone descended from the Aberdeenshire Lamonts/Lamonds. I started this line of research but unfortunately not many Lamont descendents from anywhere are in the 23andme or GEDMatch databases. (Note: if you have Lamont/Lamond/Michie names from Aberdeenshire in your tree, and use genetic genealogy tools, please search for my 23andme profile OR check your GEDmatch kit number against M841892)
  • A piece of information from someone reading this blog.
On this last point, if you have something to share relating to James Lamont (James Lamond) or his family, or know more about the Lamonts of Braemar and Glenmuick, Tullich and Glengairn, please write me at

Transcription of St. Nathalan, Ballater, baptism records from November 1813 to autumn 1814:

November 30, 1813
TO Andrew Thomson and Marge Gordon[Tamedour Grashie?] a daughter 27 [Cur] and baptized Anne. Sponsor John Youll and Ann Callanach  Fergach

Dec 2 1814
To Alex Durevard and Jannet Farquarson [Dyke-head Corgall] a [daughter] born 28 [Ult] and baptized Elisabeth [ipie] & Jane Farquarson [Cochbridge] Sponsor

Feb 20 1814
TO Alex Lamont and Mary Farquarson [Dalduna Corgark] a daughter born 18 [Curt] and baptized Margaret. Alex and Mary MDonald sponspors.

March 5, 1814
To James McGregor and Jannet Mitchie [Clashindrian PG or “Clashinruich” where Father Lachlan McIntosh had a chapel?] a son born 3rd and baptised James. Donald MKenzie here and Jannet MIntosh sposnors.

March 13 1814
To James Lamond and Anne Michie Ardoch a son born this day and baptized Donald. Sponsor Donald Lamond Lary and Mary Duresand Ardoch.

march 21, 1814
To John McIntosh and Jane Shaw [Tonghaoith] Braemar a son born 20 [Cur] and baptized Alexander. Alex and Shusanna Shaw Corgallie Braemar are sponsors.

March 26 1814
To James MHardy and Jannet Lamond Auchindryne Braemar a daughter born 23 Cur and baptized Marg. John and Jannet Lamont their sponsors.


March 31 1814
To Donald Lamond and Helena Farqu [Ghenvae …] [probably SHENVAL] a son born 28 Cur and baptized James. Sponsor John and Margret Grant, Torran [a hamlet next to Shenval and less than a mile from ARDOCH]


April 5 1814
To John Lamont and Mary Farquarson [Corga] a son born Cur and baptized Donald ipse Marg Durnward Sponsors

April 6 1814
TO Donald Lamond and Elspet Lymon Lary a daughter born & Cur baptized Elspet. James Donald and Marcelly Lamond Sponsors

June 17 1814
To Jane Fleming Aberarder and one calling himself McDonald whom she never saw before or after. A daughter born May 26 and baptized Agnes ipse and Agnes Fleming Tullochnacraig sponsors.

June 18 1814
To Robert McKay and Ann MHardy Cockbridge [Corgar] a son birn this day and baptized George. [William] MKay Glenlivat and Sophia Wallie Cockbridge, sponsors.

[Next page]

To Alex MDougall and Elisabeth Donald, Lary, a daughter born 24 and baptized Jane. Sponsored James Donald and Jane Donald Lary.

July 3, 1814
To Charles Anderson [Loinchork] and Dianna [xxx] from the south both unmarried a son birn March 31 a baptized Robert Stuart sponsors John Callanach and Anne MGregor [Remerafo]

July 20 1814
To James Callanach nd Mary [Symongleach] a son birn 19. Cur and baptized Alex. Sponsors John Fleming and Mary Ferguson [Auchintoul]

July 27 1814
To Callum Keir and Elisabeth MKenzie, Morven, a son born 24 Cur baptised John. Sponsors John Keir Mulloch and Jane MGregor, Morven

Aug X 1814
To Will Callanach and Jannet Coutts [Gleach] a daughter birn this day and baptized Anne. Sponsor Mary Furguson and Charles Coullyty.

August 28 1814
To William and Anne Michie [or Ritchie] Ardoch a daughter born 27 and baptized Mary. Sponsor Donald Coutts [Benebroch] and Mary Reid, Dalfad

Sept 1 1814
TO Donald McDonald and Elisabeth McGregor [Blarglas] a daughter born 28 and baptized Anne. Sponsor Ann xxx MGregor Morven.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

A great music documentary reveals an unusual medical case

Ever since subscribing to Netflix nearly 10 years ago, I've been addicted to music documentaries. The stories of bands are the stories of artists creating great music while dealing with the pressures of family, bandmates, and business associates. Last night, I watched Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon. I've also caught great documentaries about Pulp, Pink Floyd, Harry Nilsson, Ginger Baker, The 13th Floor Elevators, Levon Helm, and many others.

Not long ago, I watched Filmage on Amazon Prime. Filmage tells the story of Bill Stevenson, who is like the Buddy Rich of punk rock. Before I saw the film, I knew his performances on Descendents and Black Flag albums (including one of my favorite albums of all time, My War). But I knew nothing of his story, including his teen years working as a fisherman or the fact that he was the leader of Descendents and All (unusual for a drummer!).

There was another interesting tale about Stevenson. About 5 years ago his health deteriorated, his weight went up to ~400 lbs and he seemed out of it, according to his friends and bandmates. One friend interviewed for the film feared he might die of a heart attack on stage.

One day, a neighbor near his home in Colorado saw his dog wandering loose and checked on him, determined something was not right, and called 911. He was rushed to the hospital where staff determined there was something seriously wrong.

This quote is from Mark Neagle, MD, a pulmonologist (and coincidentally a huge Black Flag fan) who was interviewed for Filmage:
“I got a call from the ER doc who said he had a patient who was in pretty bad shape, pretty large pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot. It travelled up to his lungs, got stuck in his lungs. This was a clot probably a foot and a half long. I actually recall at the time showing someone the CT scan, and they were like, ‘oh, did you get the autopsy?’ and I said, ‘he’s still alive!’”

“... It was apparent that when he came out to see me, that not everything was OK, and he had the MRI that revealed he had a meningioma about the size of a tennis ball, more or less compressing both of his frontal lobes. The cure for the tumor is surgery. You can’t do surgery when they are on blood thinners. But he has an enormous blood clot in his lungs. You have to wait. I think it was about 5 months. I thought, I don’t know if he’s going to get any better. He was in the operating room in like 3 days.”
The good news is, Stevenson not only recovered from the surgery, he thrived. He is back performing and producing music, and really seems to be at the top of his game.

Bill Stevenson medical All

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Unearthing a forgotten Taiwan music video: 廢物樂隊:這不是一首芭樂歌

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I was a member of the Taiwan indie rock band Feiwu (廢物樂隊). The band existed from 1997 through 2001. Here's how I described the band in 2012:
The songs we wrote were original. Some were English, some were Mandarin. We recorded two CDs, and were signed to a local music label. We played all over the island, at clubs, festivals, universities, on the streets and under highway overpasses. One of the songs, "我愛台灣啤酒" ("I love Taiwan Beer") was a minor underground hit, and is still covered by local bands today.

One of the best things about Feiwu, besides writing and performing music with a group of close friends, was becoming a part of the local indie music scene. It was small when we started, but very dedicated. There were about three or four dozen bands around the island writing and recording their own music, a few practice spaces and recording studios in the main cities, clubs where we could perform, and the Spring Scream music festival (春天吶喊) which we played in 1998, 1999 and 2000 (see the inset picture below). There was a very strong DIY spirit throughout the small scene, and a feeling that people who loved music could make special music on their own terms.
Feiwu disbanded in 2001. We had two reunion concerts in 2013 in Taipei and Queens that were well-received -- in fact if we weren't so dispersed geographically (with members living in Taipei, Taidong, New York, and the Boston area) I am sure we would have done a few more shows.

As we were preparing for the Taipei reunion show, we unearthed lots of old photos, flyers, magazine articles, and even some practice videos which you can see on our Facebook page. As we went through the old materials, Andrew (guitar and vocals) mentioned a low-budget music video that I dimly remember being shot at some of our shows in the late 1990s but never saw in its completed version. I'm not even sure where we could have distributed it, as this was in the early days of the Internet when streaming video was rare and expensive (there was no YouTube at the time) and local television shied away from indie rock. Andrew said he had a tape somewhere, but we never got around to finding it or converting it to digital formats.

Earlier this year, I opened up my 20th-century media vault, which contains old audio cassettes, digital audio masters for music projects, videotapes of the newscast I used to work on, and even old film reels. I was looking for the old betacam tapes of the newscast to convert to digital, but I also found an old VHS video tape marked simply "KD Studios." Something clicked -- "KD" was the guy who had shot the concert videos so many years before! Someone had probably sent me a copy and I never got around to watching it (I didn't own a VHS player). I thought, I am already converting the betacam, why not convert the music video too?

This week I got the USB drive with the mp4 of the videos. The music video was awesome -- it's a song that Andrew wrote and sang, called "這不是一首芭樂歌" which translates to "This is not a ballad" but we often referred to as "Ballad." KD had spliced together concert footage from 1998 and 1999 along with Taiwan street life. Here's the video:

There are a few rough patches, but overall it's a lot of fun to watch and brings back some fun memories.

If you're interested in learning more about the band, check out our Facebook page or the interview we did with GigGuide. We also have two Feiwu albums for sale on Amazon.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The fall of tech media and the rise of PR

I was employed as a journalist from 1994 to 2010, with breaks in 1996, 1999, and 2002-2005. I worked for a TV station, a newspaper, a trade magazine, and then in various online news ventures. In this post, I will share a short history of the decline of traditional media, and how many talented news veterans have ended up working for PR.

In October 1999, I began working in the tech media. This was the height of the dot-com era, when magazines were as thick as phone books and money was pouring into high tech advertising. From 2000-2002, after the first dot-com bubble burst, the industry experienced the first wave of mass layoffs. At that time, the newspaper and magazine sectors were still relatively strong and were able to absorb some displaced writers and editors, but some started to go over to the "dark side" (PR). At my company it was also possible for senior writers and editors to go into research, which was seen as a more respectable alternative career path than corporate PR.

There was a slight recovery from 2003-2004, but then an interesting thing started to happen: a steady trickle of slow-motion layoffs, consolidations, and other cost-cutting measures. The weaker pubs began to fail as demand for print advertising dried up, and events began to feel the heat too as new entrants muscled their way into the scene. In some cases, staff were shifted to growing online units, but overall there was a net loss of staff in editorial, ad operations, and events.

Starting around 2005 or so, I began to notice a curious thing: Many of the 30-something journalists in my organization were voluntarily moving to industry. Some started to work for PR agencies, but in many cases they moved to in-house marketing units of large tech companies -- Microsoft, CA, Bose, etc. Certainly the pay and benefits were attractive but my own sense was there didn't seem to be much of a future staying in journalism. Why keep a job which offers little chance to advance and could probably lead to layoffs in the near future?

People stopped using the term "the dark side" around that time. It's hard to make some ethical stand about the purity of the profession when people are getting laid off or taking a salary cut while serious journalism is being sacrificed for the sake of pageview-heavy slideshows and blogs.