Tea, snails, and a night market

We began our next day with a short stop at Florida Bakery, which despite the name didn’t seem American at all. After some breakfast, we took the MRT to Daan area to visit Wisteria Tea House. On our way, we walked through Daan Forest Park, a large and beautiful park with a pond in the middle where herons, egrets, and birds I couldn’t identify congregated. We also saw our first Taiwanese squirrels, which are darker in color and have a slightly different head shape than their US counterparts.

Wisteria Tea House was built in the 1920s and was once home to a Japanese governor during the occupation. It’s named for the four very old wisteria vines growing just outside, and walking in felt like stepping into another world. Their tea list was excellent, and we sat on tatami and drank Baozhong and Da Hong Pao, accompanied by dried starfruit and some of the best mochi I’ve had. We left reluctantly, and then it started pouring rain.

Wisteria Tea House

Wisteria Tea House

Seattle rain has nothing on Taiwanese rain. It’s like you’re getting buckets dumped on you. We had been planning on taking a gondola to Mao Kong, a tea area that is mostly outdoors and has great views, but we decided to visit Taipei 101 to wait out the rain instead. We caught a bus, got off one stop too late, and ran through the rain into the first entrance we found – a fancy Hyatt hotel.


You can see the rain bouncing off the edge of the awning over this doorway.

Eventually we found a way to get from the Hyatt to Taipei 101 without getting soaked again. Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world from 2004-2010, and while there’s an observatory on the top, the rest of it is filled with stores for all the fanciest designer brand names you’ve ever heard of and a few that you haven’t. One store was full of huge coral that people could buy for display, and we were disturbed that something that takes so long to grow would be harvested and sold. We figured the rain would obscure a view from the top, so we wandered around a little and made reservations at Din Tai Feng on the bottom floor.

Din Tai Feng is an upscale chain restaurant that started in Taipei, known for its excellent xiao long bao (soup dumplings). There are two of them in the Seattle area, and we wanted to see how they compared to the original. We tried the original and crab xiao long bao as well as a noodle dish and some garlic green beans. Honestly, while the dumplings were good, I thought the ones at the Seattle location were a little better, and the atmosphere there is definitely more upscale.

Crab xiao long bao

Crab xiao long bao

As we’d suspected, a thunderstorm had closed the Mao Kong gondola that afternoon, so we took the MRT to Beitou instead, as we’d heard their library had won accolades for its architecture. While walking towards the library, we encountered a playground full of what looked like toy exercise equipment.

Playground elliptical machine!

Playground elliptical machine!

Continuing on our walk, it soon became evident that Beitou is famous for its hot springs. There was a steaming stream running next to the sidewalk, and we went past the hot spring which had, unfortunately, just closed. The area was weirdly eerie at dusk just after the rain. At one point we wandered down some stairs which ended abruptly at a drop off in an area teeming with giant snails.

Giant snails getting it on.

Giant snails getting it on.

Unfortunately, Chris felt some stinging bites and found some tiny ants on his legs, so we escaped to the library where he discovered that Taiwan is home to fire ants and started feeling some mild paranoia around Taiwanese insects.

The library was beautiful and had a large outdoor deck and little seats hidden between the shelves. Of course, most of the books were in Mandarin and we couldn’t read more than a few words.

The Beitou library

The Beitou library

Inside the library

Hiding between shelves

Hiding between shelves

On the library deck

On the library deck

On our way back to Nathan and Yushan’s place, we stopped at Shilin night market, which is the largest in Taipei. It was definitely big – multiple blocks dissected by alleys full of shops and people. I ate some fried crabs, shells and all. It was a good end to a busy day.

Whole fried crabs with garlic. Yum!

Whole fried crabs with garlic. Yum!


These fruit stands were everywhere, especially at night markets.


Shilin night market street


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Auspicious Fungus

Chris was feeling a little nauseous on our second day (maybe from the night market food?) so we took it easy in the morning. In the afternoon we took our first trip on the MRT and went to the National Palace Museum. The MRT is a light rail train that uses a card for payment, similar to many in the US. What’s especially nice is that you can use the EasyCard for the MRT, buses, and at quite a few chain stores in most major cities in Taiwan, plus some tour buses in remote locations. Often, you get a 10% discount if you use your EasyCard.

The National Palace Museum was huge and full of tourists from mainland China, but we enjoyed exploring. We saw the bell of Zhou (Zong Zhou Zhong) and cauldron of the Duke of Mao (Mao Gong Ding) that were used for ceremonial purposes and contain some of the longest ancient Chinese inscriptions. They’re one of the major sources historians have used to study the evolution of character design.

There’s a teahouse on the top floor of the museum that has food and drinks and a great view, despite being a little spendy for Taiwan. It was a good place to sit down and rest and give Chris a break.


We saw a beautiful carved jade Bok Choy with a grasshopper on it, similar to others we’d see later in the trip. It must be a common design. I’ve seen one in Seattle’s Asian Art museum as well, but the one in the National Palace Museum is definitely very high quality.

We were amused by a statue of an auspicious deer covered in spirit fungus. There were a few things that looked kind of lumpy, and the English translations claimed this was a coating of spirit fungus. This is apparently a kind of mushroom called Lingzhi that has been used in Chinese medicine for a long time, but I’m not sure why it’s depicted as covering things in statues and artifacts. You can buy a black fungus drink at 7-11, but I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet. I’d add a picture, but my phone seems to have lost most of them 🙁 I’m still trying various things to see if I can get them back, but for now I’ll have to use the ones Chris took.

We went out for Japanese food with Nathan and Yushan that evening, and it didn’t disappoint. You can get a rice bowl with a good amount of sashimi on top with tea and miso soup included for about $7 USD. Luckily, one good night’s sleep later, Chris was feeling much better and our trip was back up to speed.


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First day in Taiwan – Taipei

After a 12-hour plane trip where we slept and watched a weird and interesting movie, we landed at Taoyuan Airport. Unfortunately, since we landed at 5:20 am, the counters for buying Taiwanese SIM cards for phones weren’t yet open, and it turned out Google maps was wrong about when the buses started running towards our friend Nathan’s place. Ultimately, we got on the airport’s free wifi to e-mail Nathan about the delay, figured out how to buy a ticket and caught the 8 am bus.

The ride from Taoyuan Airport to Taipei City took about 45 minutes and wound between tiny villages nestled in tropical green hills. There were a few tall apartment buildings with fields of crops just outside. The roads were well marked, and we soon learned to recognize the characters for “Exit.” I don’t think scooters are allowed on the highways, because they’re absolutely everywhere else.

We met Nathan and went back to the apartment he and Yushan share, which is small but cute and well laid out. There’s also an air conditioning unit in each of the 3 rooms, which is wonderful, as it’s very hot and humid (84 degrees when we landed at 5:20 am). After some rest and planning, we all went out in search of lunch, which ended up being Teppanyaki. For 560NT total (about $18), Chris and I each got rice, tea, and 3 plates of food grilled fresh in front of us – fish, shrimp, garlic, pork, and veggies.


This is the first of 3 plates.


Nathan helped us find a place to get SIM cards so that we can use our phones without international fees. It’s really helpful to have a little bit of Mandarin, though once you use it people tend to start speaking as if you understand everything they’re saying. We seem to have communicated that we each need 14 days of service, with internet and some minutes for calling friends locally. Hopefully we managed to communicate that, anyway – we’ll see if everything works the whole time. It ended up costing $850 NT each ($28) for the SIM cards and service, which is a little spendy because the closest package that met our needs actually goes for 30 days. It was a little tricky getting the internet working, and we had to go back to the FarEastOne store later to get them to fix the settings, but I think it’s fine now.

There are tea shops everywhere here, but the quality varies a lot. We looked up some reviews and stopped in at MingShan Tea Store to taste some ShanLinXi and LiShan. We had some great language practice with one of the employees, who took a picture with us and drew us a map to show us what restaurants and foods he recommended in the area. We bought a bit of delicious ShanLinXi at a much better price than we’ve seen at home.

After some tea, we continued exploring and ended up in an underground book mall near ZhongShan Station. There were so many bookstores, and many of the books only cost 75NT (about $2.50)! Too bad we packed so light this trip, as it was quite tempting to buy some.


After wandering through a park full of mosaic tiled animals and small robot statues, we ended up at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is closed on Mondays. It was attached to a great cafe, though. We got a little more than we bargained for when ordering ice cream resulted in a bowl full of shaved ice, fruit, ice cream and some sort of jelly dessert. Yum.


We met up with Nathan again and went to a nearby night market for a light dinner of squidballs, clam stuffed with cheesy stuff, spicy chicken, and papaya salad. It was fascinating to watch the making of the squid balls – there’s a pan with round depressions where they pour the ingredients, then flip each one over with chopsticks after awhile. It looks like they’re making aebleskivers. Night market snacks run from about $1-3 USD.

Overall, Taipei seems very exciting – there are tiny businesses everywhere, and lots of people stay out on the street at night. Food is delicious and inexpensive, and we’re able to communicate a little bit. We’ll see how hard it is to figure out travel to other cities, but we can certainly buy food and understand prices just fine.


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Reflecting on 2013 and goals for the new year

I enjoy setting goals, and find that even when I don’t reach them, I tend to do better than I would have without the goals. Here’s what I resolved to do in 2013 and how it worked out:
– Don’t work after 6 pm (for my job). Based on my current work schedule, I might actually be able to manage this.

Verdict: Partially met. There’s no way this is ever going to happen at the very end of the quarter, but most of the time I did a pretty good job. However, my evenings have started filling up with cadaver dissection and Mandarin class, so it’s hard to avoid late prep work.

– Do weight bearing exercise at least twice a week. I renewed my gym membership and started this week. My muscles are sore, but I feel great. The hot tub and nice shampoos at my gym are great motivation to get through a few more reps.

Verdict: I did well during the first half of the year. A friend joined my gym and we went together. However, things got busy during the summer and I slacked off a lot.

– Cook at least twice a week. It’s really sad that I don’t do this already.

Verdict: Better than last year, but some weeks it still doesn’t happen. I cook a lot more when work is not busy. I did try a lot of new recipes this past year and started using the Pepperplate app, which lets me import my favorite recipes, scale the servings up or down, and add ingredients from specific recipes to a grocery list accessible on my phone.

– Do something inspiring every week, preferably something that gets me out of the house or involves other people. This would include things like going to Town Hall Seattle or Ignite, author readings, musical performances, book groups, or reading poetry with friends.

Verdict: This worked for a very short time, but once a week is definitely too often. With Mandarin class one evening and cadaver another, plus some evenings at the gym and tea club once or twice a month, there aren’t a lot of days left.

– Learn a new piano piece every month. Right now I’m working on Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind.

Verdict: Terrible. I did get pretty good at playing New York State of Mind, but that’s about it.

Overall, it was a good year. I built a large corner raised bed and we hired someone to build a patio and stairs down into our yard. I recaulked the bathtub. I got some experience interviewing for two full time tenure track positions, and was a finalist for one of them. I read a lot of great books and started regularly listening to audiobooks during my commute. I flossed my teeth almost every day, which was a major feat. I made about $10K more than I did in 2012. My students gave me a thoughtful group Thank You note on the day of their final exam, and they weren’t even trying to suck up to me. I went camping a few times. I joined two ultimate frisbee teams and played regularly, and I drank lots of good tea with good friends.


So what are my goals for 2014?

Do an inspiring group activity at least twice a month. I haven’t been to Town Hall Seattle or Ignite for awhile, and I’m missing them. This is slightly less ambitious (due to frequency) than last year, but should be more realistic.

Build a reading nook above the fireplace (I’ve been planning this for awhile).

Do at least 30 min. of one of the following every day: Practice Mandarin, practice piano, clean the house, work on a MOOC (massive open online course).

Make a budget and evaluate my spending, investments, and net worth at least once a month. I recently started using Personal Capital, which should help.

Donate 5-10% of my income to well-researched charity or nonprofit organizations.

Visit China and/or Taiwan, or at least plan our trip and set dates.

Keep a daily classroom journal documenting what is and isn’t working.

Make at least 1 major change in my class(es) and evaluate its effectiveness.

Have a 5-10 minute one-on-one interaction with every student at least once every 2 weeks.

Exercise 3x a week (ultimate frisbee, gym, long walk, etc.)

Cook or eat leftovers at least 4x a week.

Blog every week.

Update my website to create a consistent look, and make a decision about migrating class materials to Canvas.

We’ll see how it goes! If you have a good way to track your progress towards goals, feel free to share. I tried a couple of goal tracking apps last year, but never found anything perfect.


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On being concise

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
– Mark Twain

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Food for Thought

This is the third in a series of posts about some of my favorite sessions at NABT’s 2013 conference in Atlanta, GA.

Project NEURON, which pairs graduate students in teaching with neuroscience researchers and high school teachers to develop curricula, gave a presentation called Food for Thought. They focused on having students draw conceptual models to highlight what they do and don’t understand. This session focused on the body’s glucose usage and the endocrine system.

They like to organize students into small groups with mini-whiteboards made from shower board (you can get it at hardware stores in large sheets for cheap; they’ll cut it up for you if you say you’re a teacher). Students draw models of a “glunculus” showing disproportionate glucose usage by the body. After some more instruction, the instructor shows a short video of someone jumping out of the way of a moving car. Students discuss what caused his reaction – nervous or endocrine? Then they draw a model of how epinephrine works in the body and do a short powerpoint quiz to identify pictures of people who are and aren’t under the influence of epinephrine (pictures include dilated vs. constricted pupils, heart rate and blood pressure monitors, graphs of glucose usage, etc.). As participants in the session, we got to act as students and do some of these activities, which was a lot of fun.

The curriculum unit, as well as others, are available here: https://neuron.illinois.edu/curriculum-units (you have to create a free login, but it’s definitely worth it).

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Paul Andersen’s NABT talk, Lessons of a Half Life

This is my second post in a series about my favorite sessions at the 2013 NABT conference in Atlanta, GA. You can read the first, about Dr. Rita Colwell’s keynote, here.

Paul Andersen, best known for his extensive series of Bozeman Biology youtube videos, spoke on the lessons he’s learned during his teaching career. Before his talk began, a long line of biology teacher fangirls lined up to get his picture, and people  excitedly tweeted their images. It was hilarious.

Mr. Andersen compared our classrooms to the Red Queen hypothesis: we are constantly learning new things to try in our classrooms, and we have to keep running just to stay in the same place. He started teaching high school at a tiny college in Montana where he taught a wide variety of science classes, plus coach track and direct the band. As a coach, Mr. Andersen collected data from the newspapers on runners in Montana and published their races and times on a website, which got very popular with track runners in Montana. This taught him that people are always waiting for you to share. He gets many questions about how he makes his videos, and he has a standard response he sends out with detailed instructions. In his response, he always asks people to share their videos with him after they try it. Very few share their videos back with him. He compares the red record button to taking the red pill in The Matrix. It’s scary. The first time he ever made a video, his students told him it was really boring. He added techno music in the background in an attempt to appeal to younger generations, which only made it worse. However, he kept making videos and soliciting student feedback and soon learned what makes for a good video.

Mr. Andersen tried to get involved in helping teachers to add technology into their classrooms. Many teachers said they were interested, but they didn’t ever do anything about it. He got so frustrated that he decided to do the opposite of what he normally did. He quit asking teachers to change, and held secret meetings about technology and education in the library. Gradually, the group of participants grew and became great friends. He learned that professional development doesn’t work top down, it has to be bottom up.

A couple of years ago, Mr. Andersen changed his classroom into a video game and gave a TED talk about it. He was concerned that one of the major points of failure in classrooms is that everyone has to work at the same rate. He put everyone at different levels, gave them iPads, and they had to progress through the levels. He said that if you want to make huge, transformative changes in your classroom, you have to go all in – kind of like jumping into a freezing lake when you’re camping. If you try to get in a little at a time, you’ll chicken out. The video game change was very rewarding, but took a lot of work. He commented that the people who are famous for talking about flipped classrooms are all consultants who don’t teach anymore. It’s really hard to manage a classroom that is so decentralized, especially when not all of the students are internally motivated.

His class is now what he calls a blended learning cycle. During the video game experiment, his students had lots of resources, but didn’t know where to go or what to do. You have to make the path for them and tell them where to go. He starts each small unit with a question and a short investigation activity. Then students watch a video, do some reading, and have a review session. During review sessions, students have notecards with foundational terms and processes on the front. Once a small group gets the basics down, they come to the front and Mr. Andersen quizzes them on those concepts. Then he reviews the more complicated parts with them. The back of each notecard has reminders of his basic teaching progression for that particular topic to help him in reviewing with the students. At the end of the review session he gives the students a secret word they can enter into the computer to get points for their participation. He avoids grading except for exams and a few lab reports (something I’d love to be able to implement!).

I enjoyed this talk because I’ve encountered many of the same problems in my teaching. How do I help students when they are all learning at different paces? How can I reduce lecture time while still giving students the content they need to learn? How do I motivate students to practice all the concepts they need without getting bogged down in grading? I enjoyed hearing Mr. Andersen’s perspective on some of these problems.

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Dr. Rita Colwell’s NABT keynote

I went to the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) Professional Development Conference in Atlanta, GA this year and it was great! My husband tagged along and explored the city on the MARTA train while I went to the conference, and we stayed an extra night so that we could see the botanical gardens and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. I’m finally getting around to blogging about some of my favorite sessions, so this will be the first in a series of posts.

Rita R. Colwell, Ph.D., was one of the keynote speakers. Dr. Colwell is a professor and a former director of NSF, and her talk focused on the biology and ecology of Vibrio cholerae and how we can predict outbreaks of cholera. Apparently Vibrio cholerae and other Vibrio species are often symbiotic with copepods, and can be endemic to estuarine areas where these copepods live regardless of whether they are causing human infections. Traditionally, people have thought of Bangladesh as the native range of V. cholerae, but it probably occurs elsewhere, and they have found similar Vibrio species off the coast of Iceland and in deep sea areas near the U.S. gulf coast.

The copepods eat zooplankton, which are dependent on phytoplankton, which bloom when temperatures are warm. Based on this information as well as some other factors, Dr. Colwell and colleagues built a model predicting that cholera outbreaks would be most likely when events such as large festivals put a strain on sewer systems following periods of warm weather. Graphs showed that the model matched actual outbreaks quite well. It’s now even possible to use satellite data to predict outbreaks because the color of the ocean changes during phytoplankton blooms.

The recent outbreak of cholera in Haiti coincided with the highest temperatures in 60 years. In addition, the earthquake stirred up soil that led to the rivers in Haiti having a slightly basic pH, and in the lab, a pH of 8 is used to isolate V. cholerae from other species.

Dr. Colwell’s talk was extensive, and included data about the genetics of cholera, how genes that cause virulence in human disease are actually beneficial to copepods, high frequencies of multiple pathogens in cholera patients, reducing cholera incidence by filtering water through sari cloth in India, etc. I am definitely going to have to look up some of her papers.

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