Hello, my name is Rob, and I’m an iPhone addict. No, I’m not addicted to Farmville, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, or any of the other hyper-addictive Apps that have come out for the iPhone. I managed to avoid all of those handily because I had no interest in wasting my time or money on something so pointless as those tricky games. I admit, I even considered myself better for not falling into those time-sucking traps and laughed quietly to myself at the people who did. But then, I found the most diabolical iPhone App I’ve ever seen, one that is now the first thing I do in the morning, and the last thing I do at night. I have dreams about this App now, and find my fingers twitching in patterns from playing the App. When I’m cooking or doing housework, I think about the App. I even learned how to play one-handed so that I could play with my poor dogs while I play with the App. I am hopelessly and totally addicted. So, what did this App do that none of the others did? How did it burrow so deeply into my brain that I can no longer even keep track of time? Those bastards made it educational! They made it fun to LEARN! God help me, I’m actually learning useful real-world skills, and I’m loving it. So what is this sick App? It’s called Skritter, and it’s a program to help people learn to write Chinese and Japanese. Available originally as a website in 2009, and now for iPhone and iPad as well, Skritter is an extremely advanced piece of Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) similar to Memrise (which I blogged about last week). In fact, it was while I was talking online to other Chinese learners about Memrise that I learned about Skritter and decided to check it out. Like Memrise, Skritter is quizzing you on decks of what are essentially Flashcards in an extremely advanced way that maximizes your chances of remembering the information you learn based on new neural research developments. Unlike Memrise, however, Skritter also includes a physical element where you don’t just have to recognise the Japanese and Chinese words and characters, you have to actually write them out.This really maximizes your chances of learning these characters, and makes it a lot more practical (since you’re developing motor skills for writing) and just plain old fun. Skritter’s iPhone app is lively, with sound effects and other extras to make it more like a game, and instead of learning being boring, you always want to do just one more character or word to see how far you can go. The knowledge that you’re learning real skills while you’re playing what feels like a game really helps push you forward, and maybe that’s why my chart for my first week with Skritter looks like this…

Week One

Week One

Yes, you’re reading that right, as of this screen capture I’d learned 406 characters, in a week, in a little less than 2 hours a day with a retention rate of 88.9%. However, before I toot my own horn too much, I should note that this isn’t my first time studying Chinese, and when you see that big jump between the 9th and the 12th, what you’re seeing is mostly Skritter refreshing me on characters I already knew to some degree. You could say that my real learning started on the 12th at around 370 and continued to the 16th at 406, so I only learned and mastered 36 new Chinese characters in 4 days. Still, not too bad, though. And that’s just characters, it doesn’t include actual words using combinations of those characters. (I learned 160 of those.) I love checking my stats each day to see how far I’ve progressed and testing myself to see what new words have managed to stick into my head. Getting back on the Chinese studying bandwagon was one of my projects for the Summer, and thanks to Skritter it’s now taken a huge leap forward. Now, if you choose to check Skritter out, I have a few recommendations.

  • When you sign up use a Referral Code (here’s mine), it gets you two extra weeks free. For better or worse, Skritter isn’t free, after the first trial week it costs US$8-$15 a month depending on how long you sign up for. That said, the program doesn’t stop working if you stop paying, it only stops adding new characters, so you can keep practising your current lineup for the rest of your life for free if you want, or pay for another month from time to time to add more content and then stop again.
  • My advice is to just do the free one-week trial, then if you like it do a month, and finally if it’s really something you want to invest in then get a longer subscription. View it as a language class you’re signing up for, not like a normal App. This is a life-long investment of time and knowledge. Viewed this way, the price of a single meal at McDonalds isn’t that much.
  • It’s best used on a Tablet Computer, Writing Tablet or Phone, since you want the real hand motion involved and not a mouse so you’re really learning to write the characters. I also recommend getting a Stylus of some kind so that it’s like you’re practising with an actual pen or brush. (You can also make your own stylus, and there are plenty of YouTube videos which will show you how.)
  • Don’t freak out or get intimidated when you see a large backlog of characters waiting to be reviewed. I’ve cleared away as many as 500 items in less than an hour, and if you feel overwhelmed it has various options to slow down the flow so you don’t get swamped.
  • Don’t be afraid to let the App guide you when you meet a new character. (Just tap the middle of the screen for the next stroke.) Yes, it means you don’t know it (duh! it’s new!) but it’s not about scoring points (since there are none), it’s about having the App repeat it often until you do know it, and if it doesn’t know you don’t know it, it can’t give you the right amount of repetition for your memory.
  • You’ll hate tones, we all do, just do your best.
  • You can’t share a Skritter account with another person. It’s customizing itself to your own personal learning patterns and what you know and don’t know. If you try to share it with someone else for any length of time it will mess up your own learning.
  • If you’re going to Taiwan or Hong Kong, then study Traditional Chinese characters, if you’re going to the Mainland, study Simplified. Skritter defaults to Simplified because China itself is the more likely place learners will go. You can also go back and learn Traditional or Simplified later once you’ve mastered one set. (Roughly 20% of the characters are different between the two writing systems.)
  • Skritter is a writing and vocabulary learning system, but they don’t teach grammar or  give you speaking practice (beyond repeating what you hear), you can’t really learn Chinese (or Japanese) just from Skritter, you’ll need other resources like a textbook or classes. However, it does make it easier to focus on grammar when you’re learning if you already know all the vocabulary in your textbook!
  • You can try the iPhone App free for a week through the iTunes App Store without creating an account or using any kind of credit card. (Be warned, any coupons or referrals can only be used when you first create your account!) I’ve heard the Android App is still under development, but you can use the mobile website on Android devices if you have an account.

The future of learning is all about Gamification (making learning into games), and if Skritter is any example, it’s going to be a great time to learn new skills! Now, if you’ll excuse me, my fingers are getting twitchy and I’ve got some Chinese characters calling to me! Rob

Memrise This!

A year or so I found a site called Memrise, which is basically a really advanced memorization card system for helping you memorize stuff. I puttered around with the Mandarin course they had on there, found their system so-so and promptly forgot about the site.

Then in May of this year I happened across the App for it on the iTunes store (it’s also available on the Google Play store) and decided to give it another whirl. It’s free, and so are the courses, so I selected the Introductory Chinese deck they had on there and began to use my phone to study Chinese hanzi characters.

To say I was blown away was an understatement.

Suddenly, I was not only learning Chinese, I was actually remembering what I learned and it was sticking like it had never stuck before. Memrise’s system of testing is amazing at helping you remember what you’re learning, and I have to say I’m a true believer! The learning itself uses several different methods to help you remember whatever the information is, most of which are fun or at least enjoyable, and then the system also comes back and has you review the material you’ve learned on a semi-regular basis to reinforce it at key intervals to improve retention. Pile onto that an interactive community-based approach to learning where people trade memorization tips and can have memory competitions, and it’s a whole new way to learn.

To date, I have learned 1076 items, most of them since the start of May, and I can say I easily remember 80-90% of them very well. Today I finished Level One of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) Chinese proficiency test vocabulary, and I can say with confidence  I could write the actual test tomorrow and pass by a wide margin. I couldn’t wait to start Level 2 of the HSK, which has just over 1200 items itself (a single item in this case is the Chinese character and its Pinyin pronunciation guide, so that’s really 600 words in Chinese, not 1200) and am already at Level 8 of 54.

All this in little chunks of 5-10 minutes, 2-3 times a day when I have spare time. Each level is broken down into smaller “lesson” chunks that can be finished in a few minutes, so it’s easy to just do them on your phone when you’re waiting for something or someone. When you need to refresh your memory of older material, your phone will also notify you, which is handy, since there are certain key learning times. It’s easy, convenient, and most of all, it’s actually fun, especially when you find yourself really remembering the material and being able to call it up at will.

Now that I’ve gushed about Memrise as a tool, I should put in a few comments as someone who’s been using it for a few months. First, the App version for your phone or tablet (see the video above) is way better for learning that the actual website itself, the website turns the learning into a timed pressure game, whereas the App version uses a series of more fun visual learning exercises. Second, not all Memrise decks are created equal, as most of them are made by the users themselves by borrowing material from textbooks or other sources, so you have to hunt around for the best decks. I recommend sorting the decks by Popularity, since the most popular decks tend to be the highest quality ones. (And are often ones made by the Memrise staff or employees like Ben Whatley, who made the amazing Mandarin ones!)

And finally, Memrise is a place for memorizing rote material, not advanced concepts like grammar. So, for example, I’m learning vocabulary, and only Mandarin vocabulary, I have to go elsewhere for grammar or dialogues. This is a great way to build up large amounts of knowledge, but Memrise isn’t there to help you use it, just remember it. This isn’t a flaw, it’s simply what Memrise is designed to do, and if you need more helpful resources you can ask about them or discuss them with other learners in the forums that go along with each learning deck.

Overall, Memrise is a great example of using gamification (making things into a game) to make learning easier and more effective, and I can only wish we had something like this years ago when I was studying Japanese in University or French in High School. If you’ve got something you want to learn, check Memrise out, it’s free (for now) and is a lot more productive use of your time than playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush, but just as fun!


Google’s Great New Tool for Finding Royalty Free Images for Blogs and Covers

Google has recently added an amazing new tool for bloggers to its image search function. You can now search for images that you can use on your blog or whatever based on the license the image is released under. Using this, you can easily find blog-safe images you can use for different topics and not have to worry about the copyright police hunting you down and hauling you out of your house in the middle of the night. (Always a plus!)

Here’s how you do it:

Go to Google Advanced Image Search and enter your keywords.

AdvanceImageSearch1 AdvanceImageSearch2

Now, there is another similar option in the basic image search, but the wording is very different for the options so I’m not really sure how to interpret that. It’s probably better to stick with the Advanced Image Search since it has clearer wording, but in case you want to know, here’s the other way to do it:

Image Search 1

Image Search 2

Image Search 3

A Neat Trick for Finding and Getting Rid of Passive Verbs in MS Word

I was hunting for a good site today to give advice on Passive vs. Active verbs to another writer and came across this little nugget. The article it’s from is good, but this part is gold! Serious kudos to the author!

“MS-Word has a great and quick method to finding those “to Be” verbs.

The “Reading Highlight” feature is one of the most useful tools in the MS-Word arsenal, but the RH is an especially neat way to check your writing for passive voice use.

What Reading Highlight does is perform a search, but instead of taking you to the next instance of your search terms, it highlights all instances throughout the text.

To use Reading Highlight,

  1. –select a highlight color from the “Home” tab, then hit CTRL-F to bring up a search window.
  2. –Enter your search term or phrase, click the “Reading Highlight” drop-down, and select “Highlight All”.
  3. –Click “Close” and watch your highlights appear.
  4. –To remove the highlighting, re-open the search box, click the “Reading Highlight” drop-down, and select “Clear Highlighting”.
  5. –Again, click “Close” and the highlighting will be gone.

How do you use this to find passive sentences and those “Here is”, “There are”, and “It is” beginning phrases?

Well, we know most passive statements use the verb “to be” in some form or another. So we want to search for “be” in all its variants: is, was, are, am, were, etc.

Open the search dialog (CTRL-F),

  1. –type “be” as your search term, and click the “More” button.
  2. –Put a check in the box next to “Find all word forms”, click the “Reading Highlight” button and select “Highlight All”, and click “Close”.
  3. –Now, every permutation of “to be” will be highlighted.
  4. –Not all of them are going to be passive — or too passive, anyway — but many will.
  5. –Rewrite all those sentences to have more active verbs.

Using “to Be” verbs for anything other than linking verbs or helping verbs is a bad habit.

Any habit learned can be unlearned.”

via To Be, or Not To Be: Getting Rid of those Pesky “to Be” Verbs | Recipes for Writing.

I tried it myself on the work I’m editing. I had it hunt for “be” and “have” verbs (which also tend to be passive) and highlight each type it found. In a 91,000 word document I found roughly 2000 BE verbs and 1000 HAVE verbs. Not all of them are full words, though, and for the length of the document that isn’t bad.

Still, it’s a new tool in my editor’s toolbox I intend to make great use of!


Thought for the Day: Photo Bots

I was listening to This Week in Tech today, and in this week’s show Brian Brushwood pointed out something I hadn’t thought of. There are two things on a collision course right now- Facial Recognition Technology and Privacy.

As more and more people put their information into Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and whatever else pops up, they’re leaving a huge data trail which can be used to build a profile of who they are. This is nothing new, of course, and anyone using the Web should be well aware of this. What people might not think so much about, however, is the visual presence we’re also leaving.

This will be no surprise to people who use Google’s Picasa photo organization software, but facial recognition technology that allows computers to recognize individual people is becoming faster and more accurate by the minute. The previously mentioned product automatically begins categorizing all your photos by the people in the pictures without you needing to tag them. You just need to “train” the software what people’s names are, and say whether a few unclear shots of them are that person, and it’s off and running through your collection finding them. Each new version of Picasa has gotten better and faster at this, and did I mention it’s a Google product?

So how do these two things combine, and what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that very soon it will be effortless to match that profile they’re building of you with every photo of you ever put online- even the ones you don’t know about. By this, I mean the ones where you’re in the background, or part of a group shot, or the ones that were taken at that party in high school where you were so wasted you don’t remember dancing naked on the coffee table.

Those pictures.

No picture in which you appear (unless you’re in makeup or really fuzzy) that has ever leaked online will disappear ever. Right now, they’re buried in the mass of the internet, but thanks to Bots (automated computer programs that sift through data) they can and will be found.

By the school you applied to.

By the job you applied for.

By your children.

By your friends.

By that person you just asked out… Nothing will stay buried.

It sounds like science fiction, but we already have photo search engines. Searching for people within those photos is child’s play.

It won’t be long before this includes finding people in videos online as well, it’s just a matter of time.

Make sure the image you leave is one you want remembered- because it will be.


CLANG! A Realistic Swordfighting Game Kickstarter Project

Author Neal Stevenson has put his name behind a new kickstarter project to produce Clang, a realistic swordfighting game for the PC. I’ll let him explain the details below.

Interesting. I’m not quite as excited about it as I was the space combat game, but it’s a neat idea and I hope he makes it happen. I do think a more realistic swordfighting game is needed, but I wonder how much detail you can pack into it before it becomes either a simulation or just a movie where you occasionally push buttons. Do they really expect gamers to pull off combos that take professionals years to master? I don’t think so. But, if you don’t, then it just turns into a movie of you initiating combos and letting the character/computer actually do them according to pre-scripted motion-captured patterns.

TorchShips – Real 3-D Space Combat by johncarlgillespie — Kickstarter

As anyone who knows me, or reads this blog knows, I’ve got this thing about Space Combat (as in, I’m fascinated by it) and have often wondered what a realistic space combat simulator would look like. Well, today I got a message from John Gillespie, who has a kickstarter project to create exactly that!

The Game

This isn’t your grandpa’s space fighter. You’re not looking out a grimy cockpit window using a joystick to kill an enemy a kilometer away who flies like they’re an airplane in an atmosphere.

You are the captain of a TorchShip – powered by a Gaseous core fission / nuclear thermal reaction drive and armed with nuclear missiles, laser cannons, and a kinetic lance. You will maneuver in 3-D space in a crowded gravity well and engage hostiles at ranges of up to 20,000 kilometers.

  • 3-D combat & UI – space is not flat, and neither is TorchShips.
  • Newtonian physics – your ship maneuvers in 3-D space using a reaction drive.
  • Damage & Systems control – detailed damage model and systems control – you’ll have to manage heat build up, fuel, and reaction mass levels.
  • Weapons include your own reaction drive, kinetic lance, missiles/mines, and laser cannons.
  • Procedurally generated single and multi-player campaigns against human and non-human opponents.
  • Fast set up skirmish modes.
  • Crew development
  • Customize your ship, name and weapon/system load-out.
  • FTL is used to link scenarios and battles. (yes… we know Faster Than Light travel is handwavium – but it allows us to add many more masspoint systems and environments to the combat scenarios without bogging down in multi-year transit times…)
  • A rich background with hundreds of human cultures and dozens of alien races.

via TorchShips – Real 3-D Space Combat by johncarlgillespie — Kickstarter.

Novelty – Visual novel maker

Ahh, the things I would do if I had the time. 🙂 Especially with Daz Studio still being free, it could be a lot of fun to make a visual novel. Not that I’d expect to make money, or that anyone would play it, but I think it would be a fun and challenging exercise.

I discovered this program today- Novelty.

Novelty is a free game maker tailored for making visual novels. Contrary to most other visual novel makers, Novelty is designed for people without any experience in scripting or programming.

As a designer you have a lot of artistic freedom in Novelty. There are no templates or presumptions on how your game should look. The visual tools that come with Novelty enables you to give your game a unique look that will stand out.

via Novelty – Visual novel maker.

Here’s an example of someone using the software, which looks pretty easy to use, actually.

GIMP – The FREE Open Source Photoshop

For those who might not be familiar with it, there is a free alternative to Photoshop called GIMP – The GNU Image Manipulation Program which is surprisingly powerful and useful, and has a tonne of plugins and tutorials out there. I’ve been using it in lieu of Photoshop recently (since I can’t afford the $600 for Photoshop at the moment just to do some minor photo editing) and so far I’ve found it quite easy to use and well documented.

Romancing the Three Kingdoms II

For most of my life, I’d heard the name “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” tossed around, and back in 2006 I decided to finally bite the bullet and give it a read. I sought out Moss Robert’s translation Three Kingdoms (he skipped the “Romance” part, which no longer works in modern English) and after acquiring the two hefty volumes I sat down to give it a read. (For those who lack cash, a free older translation is available online here.)

Well, to say I was hooked and enthralled would be an understatement. Suddenly “epic” fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings seems so…small. Events like the story of LoTR happen in single chapters of Three Kingdoms, and then the next chapter will prove to be even more epic! People often focus on the “human” side of Three Kingdoms, giving focus to Liu Bei and his trusty band of heros, but the truth is the work is a historical chronicle more than it is about any single person within it. Many people (I should call them people, since most of them were real people) come and go within the story, but the epic tale and it’s focus is so much farther reaching than a single person.

When I discussed this work of literature with my friends, I quickly discovered that most of them were already very familiar with Three Kingdoms- in a fashion. Not being a major video-game player, I hadn’t paid much attention of Koei’s line of Three Kingdoms video games– but my friends sure had! They knew most of the major characters by heart, but ironically enough, they didn’t actually know the stories that were connected with them.

That was something I set out to rectify, but getting people to read a 3000+ page book is hard at the best of times, and in the end I think I only managed to get 2 or 3 of them to read it. So, I’ve always been looking for different ways to get others hooked on Three Kingdoms, and luckily time has made this progressively easier.

Last year the amazing movie Red Cliff was released, which is over 4 hours long (in uncut form, and I wish it was longer!) and is still only a tiny piece of the book! Sorry I could only find the crappy English version of the trailer, which tries to make it look like a typical period action film (“a small band of heroes fights against an evil warlord” is like trying to describe D-Day as a “a plucky band of Americans faces down against an evil Nazi war machine” :-P) but it will give you at least some idea of the visuals involved. I was lucky enough to see Part 1 of this in the theatre (it was released as two, 2-hour+ movies in Asia) and wish I’d been able to see Part 2 this way as well!

So, if you want to learn about Three Kingdoms in a “quick” way, I highly recommend the film (uncut, subtitled) as a way to do it. However, that is still only a piece of the story, so what about if you want more, but aren’t into reading long books?

Well, I’ve got you covered, after a fashion, although be aware none of these covers the complete story….

There was an animated Three Kingdoms series released in Japan a few years ago. I’ve only watched a bit of it, but it seems okay. It’s pretty much tightly focused on Liu Bei and his comrades without the broader scope, and most of the violence is censored, but if you like anime this might be your thing.

Then there’s the manga versions for people who want something quick to read over the lunch breaks in small parts. Both of which diverge quite a bit from the original text in different ways, and have radically different styles, but are quite well done and will still give you the main ideas of the story.

The (much) older manga, SanGoKuShi (the Japanese name for Three Kingdoms) is done in a very Tezuka-like style, and changes the opening somewhat, but is very readable and actually gives background material not found in the original text! It’s been fan-translated by HOX, and you can find it here.

The other manga version is much more recent (it’s still running, and unfinished) and is done in a much more modern storytelling style. It diverges wildly in it’s interpretation, being more focussed on the side characters of the original epic and adding a bunch of new ones, but the story is compelling, and the art style is gorgeous.

I highly recommend anyone interested in history or just plain action storytelling to give it a read! I pray weekly for a proper English release of this one in book stores, but until then I thank profusely the amazing fan-translators who work to let us read it!