Sunday, October 05, 2014

Our review of Chinese summer camp in Taiwan

Over the summer, our kids attended Chinese summer camp in Taiwan. Actually, they attended two camps: the Mandarin Training Center (MTC) camp at National Taiwan Normal University (師範大學), and a shorter program called Camp Taiwan in Wanli, near Keelung. This blog post will serve as a brief review of the two programs and also to share some of our thoughts about Chinese education for non-native speakers. Overall the programs were wonderful, but there were a few unexpected issues that we had to deal with.

There are a few reasons why we chose these unconventional summer camp programs in Taiwan:
  1. We have family and friends in Taiwan, and for our children, it is important to maintain these family and cultural connections.
  2. We wanted our kids' Mandarin to improve. For our oldest, it was shaky before she started (despite lessons in her American public school), and for our youngest, it was practically nonexistent. An immersive language program was the ideal situation for us.
  3. Since I started my own publishing company, it is possible for me to work practically anywhere, including overseas, so I could supervise them in Taiwan.

For those readers who are unaware of Taiwan's history, it is a modern democratic island nation of more than 20 million people that China's communist government claims as its territory. Most people in Taiwan speak Mandarin (the same dialect spoken in China) as well as a much more difficult dialect known as Taiwanese. Taiwan uses Chinese characters, although the more traditional "difficult" characters that China largely abandoned in favor of "simplified" Chinese more than 50 years ago.

We began to research summer language programs in Taiwan late last year. I quickly discovered there were very few resources to turn to. Of course, there were about a half-dozen programs that had their own websites, but there were no independent reviews that I could find for any of them, other than some short posts on expat forums. Besides having a strong Mandarin language component, we wanted to make sure the programs we selected were age-appropriate (many are aimed at kids under 8) and affordable.

We eventually settled on the NTNU program. The university's reputation was an important reason -- it's the premier teaching school in Taiwan, and the Mandarin Training Center has been running the camp for more than 5 years, which seemed to validate the quality of the program. The cost was surprisingly affordable compared to American camps, although our Taiwanese friends with kids who are used to more subsidized experiences thought it was expensive. It came to roughly $1500 per student per 4-week term, with classes starting at 9 and ending at 3. They also fed them lunch and a snack, and had all kinds of activities, from arts and crafts to limited sports. I thought that was very reasonable, considering many American day camps cost more than $2,000 for one month, and sometimes a lot more, particularly if there is some special sports activity, technical specialty, or artistic element involved.

We also decided to enroll them in Camp Taiwan, which was billed as a "North American-style" overnight camp for a week in rural Taiwan. It targeted Taiwanese parents who wanted this sort of experience for their kids (the official camp language is English) and it was staffed with a mixture of Taiwanese and foreign young people, and had all kinds of outdoor activities, from archery to kayaking to ziplining. Importantly, there were no electronics which was very appealing. The cost was about $500 per child per week, which I also thought was reasonable, although most of the other kids appeared to come from well-off families.

I have to say that the registration and pre-start communication for both camps left a lot to be desired. Here were the specific issues that we encountered:
  1. Fees for international students had to be paid by bank wire, which is an absolutely terrible arrangement that is prone to error and extra fees. I understand why a Taiwan business would be reluctant to accept a personal check from someone in another country, but credit cards are widely used in Taiwan and offer various protections for all parties involved.
  2. There was no confirmation in writing that our payments were received and the kids were all set. We had to circle back to the staff via phone and email to confirm, and even then it was like "we have recorded the deposit" not "we have received the deposit and your kids are confirmed for term X." NTNU had a website confirmation, but it was simply a "Yes" next to our kids' registration numbers. The fact that the confirmation was not clearly explained in writing meant if we were asked by anyone -- such as airport immigration officials -- what we were doing in Taiwan for the summer, it would have been quite difficult to prove that we had registered and paid for camp, and had a legitimate reason for being in Taiwan for such a long period of time. 
  3. Communication from the time we paid to the time the camp started was poor. American camps send emails from the directors, reminders about XYZ, and lots of other information before camp even begins, but this sort of communication was practically nonexistent from NTNU and only partially handled by Camp Taiwan, which sent a big information packet to my brother-in-law about two weeks before camp started. However, once camp started daily communications was great (see below) -- maybe even better than most American camps.
While both programs had nurses on staff, neither one asked for health confirmations/vaccination history/physicals. We did them anyway before we left for Taiwan in case they asked, but the two programs didn't ask for the forms. I suspect it probably relates to local regulations (or lack thereof) as well as differences in the way countries handle vaccinations and health information.
We arrived in Taiwan in early July. We stayed with friends in a suburban area of Taipei, which was conveniently located near the MRT, which is the capital city's inexpensive and well-run subway system. It took us about an hour to get to camp each day, via walking, the MRT, and a bus. It was roasting hot and very humid. My weather app said "Temp: 91, feels like 105" and it was true. Fortunately, the NTNU camp was almost entirely indoors with air conditioning.

The NTNU camp started the following Monday. It was the second term, which ran until August 8. There were counselors outside the building on Taipei's Heping East Road to point us to the right place to go on campus. We had to finish up some registration details (including giving local phone numbers and addresses) and then the kids had a placement test while the parents went to the orientation.

Immediately it became clear the NTNU program staff were very, very serious about Chinese language instruction. The materials, pedagogy, and other elements were very well thought out, and it was immensely reassuring.

To give you an example, the textbooks used both traditional and simplified characters, and students could use pinyin (the romanization system used in China) or bopomofo (the phonetic system used in Taiwanese schools). The faculty understood that some students may have studied Mandarin with mainland teachers or teaching materials based on simplified characters, and wanted to make them feel comfortable. On the other hand, if the kids wanted to learn traditional characters, that was OK, too.

We were warned that the teachers would not speak English in class, but that was not completely true -- if someone was struggling, or didn't get a particular word, the teachers and their assistants would switch to English to help them.

All of my interactions with the teachers (usually the assistants, who I would see every morning when I dropped off my kids) were in Mandarin. The orientation was also in Mandarin, although they translated some parts of the presentation (not the Q&A session, though). For parents who couldn't speak Mandarin, this might have been difficult, although at the end of the day everyone seemed to make it through the program OK. NTNU was very good about communication during the program, compared to the lack of communication before the start of camp. 

There were about 85 students in all, most of them American- or Canadian-born Chinese with parents or grandparents from Taiwan. There was a sizable number of students who attended expat schools in Hong Kong, some Europeans and Australians, and a small number of Japanese and Korean kids. About a quarter of the kids were mixed race. When they all got together, they were loud (or louder than Taiwanese students in the presence of teachers) but clearly they had a fun time being together.
NTNU Mandarin Training Center Summer camp

The camp was organized according to age and ability -- five classes for "big" (大) and five for little (小). The youngest students in the little classes were about 7 or 8, while the youngest in the big classes were 12, going up to about 15 or 16. Our children were placed in the beginner levels for their respective age groups. We found that the range of abilities even within a group was large -- for instance, there was a child in the little beginner's class who could actually speak Mandarin pretty well, but could barely write.

There were four core activities that were emphasized: Listening, speaking, reading and writing. My youngest, who had almost no Chinese language skills before he started, made very great progress in all four, to the point where he could ask and answer very simple questions and even write down the characters after a few weeks. I was so impressed.

Mandarin Homework at NTNU

Learning Chinese at National Taiwan University Mandarin Training CenterThere was a lot of homework, but it was varied -- sometimes they had to practice writing, other times they were supposed to read sentences or ask questions. It was about 60-90 minutes each day after camp. I found that I had to be involved with this -- my kids didn't understand some of the characters in their homework, or needed to practice Q&A with someone speaking Chinese. Fortunately, my own Mandarin and Chinese reading was sufficient to assist (I lived in Taiwan in the 1990s) and I was happy to help them and keep track of their progress (it even boosted my own Mandarin and Chinese reading comprehension, which was a nice bonus). The only drawback to this is I had planned on doing work every evening, and between homework, getting dinner, doing laundry, and making sure they cleaned up, there was very little time (I was the only parent in Taiwan in July). This impacted the amount of work I could do, which was basically limited to about 5 or 6 hours during the day (I went to a local coworking space not far from NTNU called CLBC).

The NTNU program wasn't all work, though. One of the teachers told me they did not want to cram the kids with Chinese, because they wouldn't be able to remember it all and they would be miserable. Therefore, there was a daily limit of about 6 characters, plus speaking and listening exercises, and lots of opportunities for other activities, from field trips (glass and pottery factories, kung fu) to arts and crafts and basketball on campus.  It was just the right pace, in my opinion. Of course, we had lots of other family and cultural activities on our own (see my video about this, called Quick Taipei), and there is so much to do in Taipei that we rarely felt bored.

The program had a nice graduation ceremony, which included performances and the receipt of certificates and grades. The school also made sure that we had access to all kinds of online resources, although in our case we try to keep up their Chinese at home with one-on-one instruction from my wife.

Camp Taiwan


After NTNU ended, we got the kids ready for Camp Taiwan. We had to get some supplies (poncho, flashlight, etc.) but once we dropped them off at the bus they were the camp's responsibility for the next 5 or 6 days.

Before Camp Taiwan started, I was honestly worried because of the heat and humidity, but it turned out that the camp was in the hills near the coast, so it was notably cooler. There were all kinds of outdoor activities except swimming, but they did manage some water activities -- river tracing and kayaking for our older child. The camp was a lot of fun for them, even for my oldest who is not an outdoorsy kid. The camp was also great with communication -- there was a daily password-protected blog with pictures and an account of the day's activity that we could review every night. The camp warned parents about attempting to contact their kids or drive to the camp during the session, which I think speaks to the fact that overnight camps are a bit unusual for most Taiwanese kids and parents.

One other thing about Camp Taiwan: Even though the official language of the camp is English, and some of the counselors only speak English, practically speaking it was mostly Mandarin when the kids were amongst themselves. There were very few non-Taiwanese kids at the camp -- I'm guessing maybe 5% or 10% during the session they were enrolled in. This was fine with us -- it gave our children more opportunities to practice Mandarin and make friends from different backgrounds.

Camp Taiwan review
Overall, both NTNU MTC Mandarin Camp and Camp Taiwan were positive experiences that really expanded our children's perspective and language ability. It is something they will remember for the rest of their lives. I would definitely do it again, if the flights to Taiwan weren't so expensive (about $1500 round trip, Boston-Taipei).

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Odd jobs: Working on the conveyor line at the Newtonville Star Market

This is an unusual post. It was prompted by a website I spotted on Hacker News, devoted to conveyer belts.

As a teenager I briefly worked at the end of a delivery conveyor belt for a supermarket. A conveyer belt was unusual for a supermarket, and the supermarket itself was unusual: It's located over a major highway. It's the Star Market (since purchased by Shaw's) over the Mass Pike/I90 outside of Boston:


Why does a supermarket straddle six lanes of an interstate? The story dates back to the 1950s and early 1960s when the state and city of Boston were undertaking a series of massive infrastructure and redevelopment efforts, including the construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Whole blocks of homes and businesses in Boston and Newton were razed to make way for the toll road. The Star Market in Newtonville was one of the businesses that was demolished. However, the Turnpike Authority was simultaneously developing the idea of "air rights" over the new highway, and the first two development projects that benefited were Star Market in Newtonville as well as the Prudential Center in Boston. Both opened in 1963. Additional air rights were granted for other Pike parcels, including the hotel in Newton Corner (opened in the late 60s) as well as more buildings in downtown Boston.

Getting back to the conveyer belt: The supermarket had an unusual layout. Customers had to take an escalator to the second floor to do their shopping. After checking out, their groceries were loaded into carts. There were 2-3 paper grocery bags per cart, each of which was numbered from 001 to about 500. The customers were given plastic cards with the corresponding numbers for their carts.

The baggers swung the carts onto the top level of a double-decker conveyer belt. It went down to the first floor (street level) and into a long, basement like room with a conveyer belt and a road paralleling it. Customers would drive their cars into this long room, pop the trunk, and hand me their cards. I would match up the bags, and place them in the trunk. The empty carts were placed on the bottom level of the conveyer belt, to be brought back to the Muzak-filled main level of the supermarket.

The room was filled with fumes and noise from the waiting cars and the Mass Pike tunnel that was next to it. The incessant rattling and squeaking of thousands of metal rollers on the conveyer belts were irritating -- upstairs where the customers were it was an actual belt, which was quiet, but down where we were it was those damn rollers, which were like 1950s-era metal roller skate wheels. We were paid $3.85/hour (minimum wage at the time). But the things that worried us from day to day was the cry of "mix" (human error, wrong bags placed in wrong car) or a spill.

Here's what happened with the spills. As the carts came from the 2f to 1f, they went through a series of turns, including at least one 90 degree turn and a full 180 at the bottom of a decline. This spot was where most of the spills took place. It was apparently unavoidable, owing to the layout of the store, the needs of the customers to get their cars loaded quickly, and the location of the slopes on the belt, the road and loading area. The nature of groceries (heavy/light loads, multiple packaging sizes, etc.) and the technology used at the time made it hard to find an easy fix to the problem. Watermelons rolling around the bottom of the carts were the worst.

I don't have any profound observations about this, other than spillage is a consideration for people who design and manage conveyer belts, and that the cost can be made manageable for both small and large systems. And these belts can be engineered to last years or decades. The belt that we used in that market was in use for more than 20 years by the time I started working there in the 1980s, and it (or a similar system, using the same route) is still in use today, some 50 years after it was installed.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

February 2014 Update

I haven’t posted to this blog for five months. This post is an update for old readers, and an introduction to new readers of what’s going on in my professional life.

For those of you coming to this blog for the first time, I am the founder of i30 Media, which publishes In 30 Minutes® guides. We publish information that helps people understand the complexities of the world around them.

Starting with a Dropbox user guide in the summer of 2012, we now have 10 guides available for the Kindle, iPad, Nook, and Android tablets. Besides the technology guides, there are also titles that help people understand health (C. Diff In 30 Minutes) and even a title about cooking (Easy Chinese Recipes In 30 Minutes).

Some people may think it’s crazy to start a new publishing or media company, but there is incredible opportunity in an industry that’s being disrupted.

My 20+ Year Perspective On Media

I’ve worked in media for most of my life. It includes stints in the music industry, broadcasting, newspapers, IT trade publications, and for more than 10 years, online and mobile media. I was also an MIT Sloan Fellow from 2010–2011, which really gave me a chance to learn about new media innovation, entrepreneurship, and business among some incredible faculty and peers.

In the past 20-odd years, I’ve learned that in the media business, no matter what you are producing, you have to stay on top of the platforms. If you stay focused on the past, or place your bets on a losing platform, you’re going to be in for a world of hurt.

You also have to focus on your customers, whether it’s readers, gamers, audiences, or whatever. That may seem obvious, but I still see many media products that are devised in a conference room, built over a period of a year or more, and then launched without any real idea if there are audiences out there who want to consume them. The crop of slick iPad apps pumped out by magazine publishers in the early part of this decade are examples. They were expensive gambles, and most failed.

Lean Media And In 30 Minutes Guides


My philosophy toward product development in the media world is something I call “lean media”, which draws upon the lean startup methodology as well as the MIT spirit of product development, which zeroes in on prototyping, metrics, and iteration. The lean media idea is to get products, marketing, and business models out in the marketplace as soon as possible. Make a true connection with your audience/customers. Measure the impact, iterate, and improve.

The term “lean media” may be new, but over the past half-century decades many successful musicians, game studios, blog sites, magazines, and app developers have used these ideas to get established. As a guy who grew up with classic rock, one example I like to point to is Led Zeppelin. Most people think of them as the bloated supergroup from the 1970s, but the way they established themselves starting in 1968 was totally lean — touring in small and medium sized venues, and recording on a shoestring. Their first album was recorded in 3 weeks, and their second, Led Zeppelin II, consisted of songs they wrote in hotel rooms and recorded in studios along their tour route. They had an instant feedback loop with their audiences, and man, is that stuff good! I see the same lean media spirit in some of the blog/news/new media companies that emerged in the mid–2000s, including Mashable, Gawker, and TMZ.

More recently, book publishing has seen the same sort of lean media innovation, enabled by powerful new platforms and business models. The Internet is only part of it. Amazon has been the provider of not only a platform for sales of ebooks and the devices to read them on, but also provides a platform for self-publishing — the KDP program.

For In 30 Minutes guides, I’ve leveraged these platforms and applied lean media concepts to new products, design, pricing, marketing, and more. Lean media methods help clarify what’s working, what’s not, and ultimately, what readers are willing to pay for.

While I will continue to post entries here, they will be infrequent ... I am simply too busy. The best way to keep up with what I am doing is to check out the In 30 Minutes blog and follow me on Twitter at @ilamont.

Onward and upward!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Camping on Lovell's Island, Boston Harbor

It's strange to think there is this almost-abandoned place not ten miles from one of the great cities of the world. It's rural, and surrounded by ocean. One beach has the best skipping stones we've ever held. Weird things wash up here, including water-worn clay pipes and bricks. There are old ruins of houses and chimneys and rusted metal. Gigantic military fortifications from 100 years ago dominate parts of the landscape, with watchtowers guarding the eastern approaches and walled-off tunnels leading to secret bunkers. There are views of the city skyline, Boston Light, and incoming 787s. On summer weekends, it's surrounded by boats. Weekdays, only the ferries and freighters and screaming jets. There were few animals, just snails and crickets and at low tide, barnacles. Blackberries run riot.

Camping on Lovell's Island, Boston Harbor:


















Saturday, May 04, 2013

What it means to be an entrepreneur

An examination of what it means to be an entrepreneur, by Ryan Allis, the creator of iContact. I don't agree with everything he says (particularly, the charts/timelines for what to do in year 1, year 2, etc.) and I don't have experience running a startup with full-time employees, but some of his early stage experiences really resonated. Some excerpts:

"... Most people are talkers. Investors know that investing in someone who has figured out how to create something from nothing (creating a solution to a need that people will pay to have solved) provides a much higher chance of generating a return than investing in someone who just has an idea and “needs” your money to even get started."

"... The act of “creating something from nothing” cannot be modeled in a Goldman Sachs spreadsheet. It is the magic that entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial engineers have. This is, definitionally, what entrepreneurs do–bring together the resources of land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurial ability to create something of value that is greater than the cost of the sum of inputs and sell it to the marketplace."

"... An entrepreneur is someone who takes initiative and who has a bias toward action. An entrepreneur has the ability to take feedback, has a high tolerance for stress and is very determined. An entrepreneur also has decisiveness, courage, and the ability to deal with failure. An entrepreneur is often someone who is quite creative, has the ability to learn quickly, and perseveres through nearly anything. An entrepreneur can delay gratification. An entrepreneur has a drive to achieve and the abilities to plan, build a team, inspire and lead, and prioritize."

Via Hacker News.