KFC and Coke
Chinese people LOVE Kentucky Fried Chicken.
It costs about 25 RMB for a meal there, which translates to between 3 and 4 dollars, about the same as in the USA. But that same price in China makes it a mid-scale restaurant instead of a cheap restaurant.
Can you find the KFC in the above image?
The Chinese name of KFC is 肯德基, pronounced Ken(3) De(2) Ji(1), which means something like "willing virtue basis". It's a pun because it sounds the same as another Chinese phrase meaning "chewable chicken". "Ken De Ji" also has the advantage of sounding somewhat similar to "Kentucky". Clearly, creating Chinese names for foreign things is quite an art form.
Chinese has nothing like Japanese katakana, no characters which are simply phonetic. Every character has a meaning. This means you can't simply take a foreign word and "write it in Chinese". You have to construct a new Chinese phrase for it. Take my name, which Sushu rendered as 忠诺, pronounced Zhong(1) Nuo(4) and meaning "Faithful Promise". I'm really impressed that she came up with this. It's a lot better than "Evil Brain".
We've all heard the story about how Coca-Cola accidentally gave themselves a name that meant "bite the wax tadpole" in Chinese. Actually, the real story is slightly less schedenfreudeful — it was a local affiliate that came up with the "bite the wax tadpole" name, not the Coca-Cola company itself. They're way too savvy at marketing to make that mistake. The current name is 可口可乐, pronounced Ke(3) Kou(3) Ke(3) Le(4) and meaning "allow the mouth to be able to be happy".
By Monday I was feeling confident enough to start having rudimentary conversations in Chinese with strangers on the street. Like when I bought a bootleg DVD set of "Micheal" Jackson videos:
I bought the wrong one at first (it turned out to be a collection of biographical clips rather than music videos) so I went back to ask if I could exchange it. Sushu coached me first, but then I went back alone and said:
请问. 我要音乐. 这个不是音乐. 能不能换一换?
And it worked! Hooray! This is a very small thing but it feels like an important milestone on the way to being able to speak Chinese for real.
The set was 2 DVDs for 8 yuan = just over $1. If you've ever wondered what a world with no copyright law would be like, come to China. Despite rampant bootlegging, they still have a functional, if not thriving, movie industry and movie theaters. (Although the movie theaters are very expensive, probably because fewer people buy tickets.)
I finished Book 1 of Integrated Chinese on the airplane home. I bought this book waaaaay back in like my first year at U of C, before I even met Sushu, just because learning Chinese was something I felt like doing. I bought the Traditional Character edition because I didn't know any better; it would have been great if I was going to Taiwan, but for mainland China the Simplified Character one would have been the way to go.
When I say learning Chinese was something I "felt like" doing, that means "enough motivation to buy some books, but not strong enough to go through with the hard work of studying", so the textbook languished on my shelf until just recently.
But on the honeymoon trip, whenever we had downtime and were sitting around in lobbies or on trains or in people's living rooms, I'd bust out the textbook and work through a chapter. Sushu was my Tone Police and made sure my pronunciation was OK. She is strict but patient, like Mary Poppins.
If you're looking for a textbook, Integrated Chinese is pretty decent, although it doesn't include writing practice (they might sell a separate workbook for that).
I'm now at that awkward stage in my Chinese learning where I know enough to ask many of the questions that I want to ask people, but not enough to understand their replies. This is about where my Japanese was when I first went to Japan; maybe my Japanese vocabulary was a little bigger than my Chinese is now.
But the good thing is that from here on, the learning starts to get easier; I have enough of a framework in place now that when I learn new words, I can slot them into place and relate them to words I already know, instead of just having a bunch of arbitrary sounds to memorize. Plus I can hear other people using words, and ask what they mean, and thereby start to learn new words by listening to people. I remember this stage from learning Japanese, and I'm excited to be getting there in Chinese.
To do list for 2010
Not so much resolutions as a to-do list.
When I was in Seattle, Alexis teased me mercilessly about my abandoned comic. She teased me so much that I actually started drawing again. It's something that has been back-burnered for much too long (I only wrote two strips in 2009) and I've been wanting to get back to it anyway; I just needed a kick in the pants. So doing my comic is going to be my top personal goal for this year. To have a measurable goal, I'm going to aim to finish the first story arc by the next Hackers conference.
My other goals are to...
Finish the five presents I promised to make. Two are done, one is mostly done, one is like half done, and the last is barely started. Hmm.
Then there's my programming projects...
Produce a playable demo of Beneath An Alien Sky.
Make the music program usable. (That thing needs a name, too.)
Then there's the skills I'm trying to learn...
Get good at the accordion! My plan is to practice playing some anime theme songs, then bring the accordion to ACen and play a show for my friends there.
Become conversationally fluent in Chinese, enough to participate properly in a dinner table conversation with Sushu's family.
Get back in shape. I joined a group from Moz that's been doing exercise classes. I went to one Wednesday and another one Friday. My whole body aches now, especially my abs and my lateral muscles. They were even more out of shape than I realized. Well, the first couple classes are the worst. It should get better from here. These exercise classes will make it easier to...
Start Aikido again, which I haven't done since summer 2008 when the Obama campaign took over all my free time. After that I got married, went to china, moved... my life turned upside down and hasn't gone back to normal since. But things should be calmer in 2010.
In order to have any chance of doing all this stuff, I'm going to have to fundamentally reorganize how I spend my free time. I'm going to have to make some sacrifices and cut out some stuff.
So, sadly, no painting miniatures or making terrain for me in 2010. (Or reading about them on the internet). You would be shocked at how much time and creative energy I spend on tiny army men for a game that I don't even play. There's just something about painting miniatures and painting terrain that I find very addictive and I can easily blow hours of free time a week on it. If I put all my miniature painting time since 2004 into comics instead, I would have a lot of comics done now, and I would be much prouder of the end product.
Even more sadly, I'm quitting my saturday role-playing group. It's been fun, but it's going to have to end so I can have my saturday afternoons back for creative projects. (Dave sent me an email with six sad-faces in it when I told him this news.)
Not sure how much I'm going to travel this year, but traveling is really time consuming (especially when it means flying between California and anywhere back East) so I want to keep it to a minimum. I got a webcam for my family so I'm going to try to do video chat or something with Aleksa so I can keep in touch with my family more without traveling so much.
Am I going to care about politics in 2010? It is an election year. But on the other hand, caring about politics is a time-consuming hobby, and mostly it makes me angry and depressed. Is it really worth it to me personally to spend energy reading, thinking, or arguing about?
Finally, I have to try to cut way back on internet stuff too. As for this blog, I think I'm going to try writing MUCH shorter posts. Like, one sentence posts. Both to practice brevity in writing, and to burn through the backlog of post topics I have built up while spending less total time on blogging.
Chinese words of the day
I'm trying to learn a few new Chinese words each day, and use each one in sentences as often as possible so I remember it.
Yesterday's words: 文明，葡萄，爽，帽子 (civilized, grapes, refreshing, hat)
Today's words, so far: 成功，八号线 (success， number 8 train line)
I have a ton of cool pictures from the World Expo, so I'll publish a giant picture-heavy post about that within the next few days.
Stages of language acquisition
Standard disclaimer - this is just my own experience, your mileage may vary, void where prohibited, etc.
1. Dabbling phase - wherein you learn a few basics like hello/goodbye, yes/no, numbers, etc. You might also learn a lot about the language, like grammar rules or phonemes that are (from your perspective) unusual and interesting. This is fun because you can show off what you know to your friends, but you can't do anything with the language yet.
2. Flashcard phase - wherein you cram and drill and memorize a lot of vocabulary and sentence patterns, do translation exercises, etc. It's tough going, because there's no way around the need for massive amounts of rote memorization. You're drilling on colors, family members, modes of transportation, foods, clothing, moods, days of the week, basic action verbs, etc. Many of the words in your new language sound almost identical to your untrained ear. It can be easy to despair when you realize just how many things there are in the world that you need to learn words for...
3. Textbook phase - you're still memorizing stuff, but it starts to get easier since you can now relate new words to words that you already know. So it's more like slotting bricks into place in a growing edifice, instead of accumulating a pile of random facts. You can form complete sentences now. You know how to decline verbs and how to phrase questions, and you're starting to get into the fancy stuff like passive voice and dependent clauses. You're doing translation exercises and starting to feel really smart...
4. ...Until you encounter a native speaker and realize you still can't understand a word they say. It's the rude awakening phase! Listening comprehension is by far the hardest skill to learn, and it's the most important, but you can't learn it from a textbook or even a set of CDs. There's really no way to get it except by hanging around native speakers a lot and repeatedly making a fool of yourself. Classroom study alone won't get you beyond phase 3: that's my experience anyway. This is why people can study a language for four years in college and get straight As, but still be completely unable to hold a basic conversation in that language.
5. Idiot phase - Now begins the task of getting your practical ability caught up to your theoretical knowledge. In this phase you can ask people for directions and how much something costs and where the bathroom is and whether they would like some tea, but you still have a lot of trouble understanding the responses, because real people don't restrict themselves to words in your vocabulary list. You might catch one or two words of what they're saying and have to guess the rest. You know grammar on paper, but you may still have trouble figuring out what order to put your words in when speaking. Sometimes people don't understand you and you're not sure what you did wrong. You may have to fall back on gestures and pidgin to get a point across. Basically you feel like an idiot.
6. Survival phase - Finally, you can have a back-and-forth conversation in the language with a native speaker. Your vocabulary is still small so you can't exctly discuss philosophy or nuclear fusion but at least you can talk about jobs and family and stuff and ask for help if you're in trouble. In this phase you begin to notice words and phrases that native speakers actually use often (which can be quite different from the words and phrases that are used often in a classroom) and copy them. Circumlocution is an important skill in this phase: Maybe you don't know the word for "faucet" but you can say "that thing in the kitchen that you turn it and water comes out".
7. Bootstrapping phase - This is the point when you can learn new words in the language. You start picking up new words just by hearing them in context, or by asking native speakers, in the language, "that word you just used, what does it mean?" and understanding the answer. This phase is really fun because you're now acquiring new vocabulary the way the native speakers do. You can move beyond just reading signs and try to read your first book or magazine (get a dictionary; you'll still need to look up several words per paragraph). Also by this point you've probably mastered just about all the grammar you need for common use, and are confused only by obscure literary constructions. You still make mistakes but they're the kind that make people smile and correct you, not the kind that impede understanding so much.
8. Fluency phase - Congratulations, you've now reached the point where you don't feel like you're lying when you say you "can speak" the language. But there's always more to learn! From here on, it's a matter of deciding what you want to do with your language skills and pursuing advanced study in particular specializations. You can learn the subtle nuances of usage so that you can express your feelings, make jokes, and imply things without stating them outright. You can learn specialized vocabulary for your areas of interest, to have a professional conversation or read technical materials. You can attempt to read a newspaper (it's hard - newspaper writing in any language is chock full of ten-dollar words and is much denser than normal communication) or a novel. You can learn the archaic forms of the language in order to understand the ancient philosophers. You can learn to sing songs, give speeches, or do translation work. You can keep learning for the rest of your life. The sky's the limit!
In Chinese I'm currently in phase 5. In Japanese I experienced a taste of phase 8 during my last year in Japan but I'm so rusty by now that I'm back down in phase 7. I've never studied Spanish but like most Americans I have at least phase 1 just from childhood exposure to Sesame Street.
Readers: If you've learned another language to a high level, I would love to hear about how your experiences compare to mine.
Your [language] is really good!
There was a weird phenomenon I noticed back when I was in Japan. When I, or another gaijin, was at a point in our Japanese learning where we were really struggling with it and able, at great effort, to make ourselves understood, we'd always hear "日本語が上手ですね。" ("Your Japanese is so good").
But when we finally started getting good at Japanese for real, we stopped hearing this. It always confused me a little.
But just recently I found myself on the other side of it. In Brazil, I noticed I was complimenting people on their English who seemed to be trying really hard. But I wasn't saying it to people who spoke English effortlessly. It seems kind of condescending to say "Your English is really good" to somebody who speaks English like they grew up speaking it, right? At that point you're more involved in the conversation and, like, why shouldn't their English be good?
So when somebody says this, it's not about your skill level, despite the literal meaning of the words; it's about your effort. It's a way of acknowledging somebody's effort and encouraging them to continue studying.
Treading water: summary of a typical frustrating week
Monday: get up, regret leaving my bike at work on Friday so I have to take the bus. Get in just in time for my first meeting of the day, have meetings non-stop one after another until 4 or 5 pm. Too exhausted and irritated to get any coding done after that. Regret not having done more coding last week.
Meet Sushu for dinner, eat out because there's no time to go home before my accordion lesson. Drive to accordion lesson. Regret not having practiced accordion more last week. Apologize, make excuses.
Tuesday: put clothes on, notice "University of Chicago Aikido Club" t-shirt in closet, regret dropping out of Aikido in 2008 and never finding the time to go back to it.
Try to catch up on my never-ending flood of email, or at least flag the most critical ones to respond to and delete the rest. Regret not responding to old e-mails or instituting some better kind of e-mail sorting system. Think about all the people who offered to work with me on cool ideas, regret never having had the time to write back to them.
Read about the Japan tsunami, regret never finding the time to keep in touch with the people in Kamaishi.
Go to the game store on Tuesday night to make my toy soldiers fight other people's toy soldiers. Regret all the time I spent painting them instead of doing something more useful.
Wednesday: deal all day with interviews, write-ups, debriefs, random people asking me questions on IRC, random people stopping by my desk to interrupt me with questions, random people with test pilot data requests. Regret not having written more code on Tuesday. By the afternoon I've almost caught up to where I was when I left work the previous Friday. Right when I'm on the verge of starting to be productive, it's time to go.
Go to Chinese family dinner, regret not having studied Chinese at all during the last week and not being able to follow the conversation any better than I could a week ago. Apologize, make excuses.
Thursday: look at the newly filed Test Pilot bugs, try to remove the duplicates, close ones that need closing, test and accept patches where they've been uploaded, requrest code review where something I wrote needs code review, and correctly sort the rest. Regret not having a better unit test suite. Regret not having written more code on Wednesday. Feel like the bug list never gets any shorter.
Come home, think about what to do on my one night of the week with nothing scheduled, think about all the creative projects I've started, regret not finishing any of them.
Friday: It's a nice day out. Look at the mountains in the distance and regret not spending more time outside enjoying nature.
Look at emails about upcoming all-hands Mozilla meeting, regret not having had the time to pay attention and plan a session for it.
Leave work just when I'm starting to be productive, once again. Time to go to my Smallville role-playing session. Role-playing is supposed to be fun, so why does this feel like an obligation? Have to take the car since it's too far to bike and not near public tranist. While driving, notice expanding waistline, regret not biking more, regret eating out at restaurants so much and not cooking at home with Sushu more.
Smallville role-playing session is mediocre because I'm not putting in the time and effort to make it good. Regret not having read the rulebook during the last week. Regret not having made characters who gel better together.
Saturday: go to taiko. Upon leaving taiko think of how little I know any of the other members and regret not spending time to get to know other them better. Rush to roleplaying sessiona fterwards (Mouse Guard this time); regret not having finished reading Mouse Guard book and not having prepared better. Eat out again.
Sunday: think of all the creative projects I've started, wonder which one to work on today. Play Wizards online with Aleksa, regret not being able to see my family more than a handful of times a year. Do laundry for the week and regret never having time to fix all my pants with holes in them. Buy groceries and regret not eating healthier or cooking more often. Write a blog post, think about all the other things I meant to write about, regret not blogging in the last week. Whoops, the day and then the evening slipped by without any work done on any of my other projects.
Where does the time go? How can I always be rushing from one activity to another and never feel prepared for anything or feel like I'm geting anything done?
Even at work, it seems like I never have time to get any work done, because I always have a full plate of all this... I don't even know what to call it... these trivial tasks that never stop multiplying, and somehow each one is too important to skip, but they never add up to anything either.
It's like I never do anything properly because I'm always too busy with all the other things, that I'm also not doing properly?
How is it that I've trapped myself in obligatory activities six out of seven days of the week, and although they're all things I chose to do, none of them is what I really want to be doing? Have I sliced my time up into chunks too small to be useful?
It seems every few weeks I'm getting on an airplane to somewhere, and when I get back I'm even farther behind on everything. That's not helping.
I keep telling myself "I'm really busy right now, but I just gotta get through this busy chunk and then I'll have time to do all the things I wanna do". But I've been saying that for years now. I think it's a lie. It feels true, but that's just because the future always seems free. Problem is, the wide-open future keeps turning into the cluttered present.
Ultimately if I want to do more of some things I'm just going to have to do less of other things.
The worst part is all the creative projects I've started and can't finish.
Sushu asked me recently, "Have you ever... finished a project?"
I was quiet for a long time. I can name some small projects I've finished (making a costume, learning a song, making a present for someone, making a comic page), and some projects for work, but I've never finished a big, personal project. I just kind of work on them until I get distracted by a newer, shinier idea. I'm always starting and not finishing so the list of projects just gets longer.
Another day, Sushu got very frustrated that I haven't followed through with any of the projects I said I would do with her. Jiang Hu and learning Chinese, especially. I'm always busy either with work stuff or with self-imposed obligatory social activities and when I'm not doing one of those things, I'm getting absorbed in yet another solo project I've invented for myself to do. It's like, when I do finally get some free time, I want to use it on something that doesn't take a lot of mental energy, and that usually means a solo activity.
Now, Sushu is talking about wanting to "form babby" (or, as people who have not had their language corrupted by internet memes call it, "have a baby") sometime within the next few years. This thought kind of terrifies me because if I am feeling the time crunch now, imagine the time crunch when I am one half of the team responsible for foiling a human larva's attempts to kill itself 24/7. I keep thinking about how my mom said she didn't get one solid night's sleep for the first six or seven years of Aleksa's life. It sounds like a safe bet that work and family duties will be all I get to do.
So basically any idea for a creative project I have, I either need to get it done in the next let's say two years; or I will have to postpone it until like 2025 when the baby is old enough to ignore for a few hours. (Longer, if there is more than one baby)...
Damn. Two years. It's like finding out I have two years left to live. I need to seriously rethink my priorities. I need to start saying "no" to a whole bunch of things and just eliminating them from my schedule entirely.
Just Two Things
Alright, my number of hobbies is out of control so it's time to get some focus here. I'm going to focus on just two things for now, and I've decided that those two things are studying Chinese and finishing Pencilbox.
Sushu said the christmas present she wants from me is for me to study Chinese for ten solid weeks. How can I say no to that? I think if I can make a concerted effort for ten weeks (now until the end of October roughly) then I can reach a level of conversational proficiency where things will get a lot easier.
And Pencilbox is tantalizingly close to done, or at least close to a 1.0. It seems like nobody else is writing the drawing app I really want, so I might as well do it myself. I want to knock this sucker out. Then I can resume my original plan of using it to draw comics. Then my two things can be learning Chinese and drawing comics.
Tonight I put the Pencilbox source code on GitHub so that it will be easier for other hackers to look at and maybe contribute to. Soon I will put up a beta version of the webapp and start looking for beta testers (beta testers will need a device with a multitouch-enabled touchscreen; an alternate UI for mouse/keyboard is a low priority feature for me currently.)
Oh, and pencilbox.com is taken, so I will need a different name for the public website, maybe something a little more sexy and exciting instead of descriptive and utilitarian (although pencilbox will remain the name of the underlying software project).
My first real attempt at Chinese calligraphy
A present for Sushu. 良师益友 (liang2-shi1-yi4-you3) is a phrase from Confucius describing "Good teachers and good friends" which certainly fits Sushu!
Man, my strokes are sloppy. I have a lot to learn.
¡El español es muy fácil! 但是中文很难！
I bought "Spanish Now! Level 1" from Barron's, with the four CDs inside, and I've been cramming Spanish all week trying to get at least a basic asking-directions-and-buying-train-tickets level of comprehension for our upcoming Peru trip.
OMG it is so much easier than Mandarin it's not even funny. The exact same amount of effort applied gets me ten times further with Spanish than it does with Mandarin. (Japanese was somewhere in between.)
With Spanish I already know the alphabet, all the words are spelled phonetically, and most of the vocabulary is Latin cognates. Sure I have to deal with noun genders and irregular verb conjugations, but those are easy compared to Mandarin's tones. And I took Latin back in high school, so a lot of the verb conjugations (e.g. -mos ending for "we") seem vaguely familiar. Spanish really is just modernized Latin. Between that and Sesame Street teaching me numbers and colors, I'm finding that I already knew more words than I realized. I'm not even feeling a need to make flash cards: I see a word a couple of times and I basically just remember it.
I plan to keep studying it after I get back, since there are plenty of countries where I can use it and plenty of Spanish speakers right here in California. It seems like a generally useful skill to put a few points into.
Sushu was really sad last night that I'm progressing so much faster in Spanish (and enjoying it more) than in Mandarin despite her best efforts to teach me her mother tongue. I still want to master Mandarin, it just does not come naturally at all. My biggest problem isn't the writing or even reproducing the tones, it's that most of the words sound the same to me. Which is to say, distinguishing one word from another in Mandarin depends heavily on phonetic features that my brain is in the habit of discarding as irrelevant. I learned at a young age not to distinguish between "qi" and "chi" or between "shi(2)" and "shi(4)". As a result, most words feel mentally slippery, like they lack a distinct shape for my brain to grab onto.
I don't know if there might be a different method of studying possible which would work better for me, or whether I simply have to do what I was doing but try harder and keep it up longer.
More thoughts on learning Chinese
Here I am in Shanghai, trying to learn Mandarin.
Learning mandarin may be one of the hardest things I've ever done. Certainly in terms of effort-to-results ratio. But I am determined to become fluent in this accursed language no matter how long it takes!
Sushu is on a side-trip to Tanzania right now, so I'm by myself this week. Well, sort of by myself; I'm staying with her aunt and uncle, who don't speak a word of English, and her dad, who does.
(I've been having this conversation a lot:
person: what brings you to Shanghai?
me: me and my wife are visiting her family
person: oh, where's your wife?
me: in Tanzania.
person: wait what???)
Next week I'll start the language class I signed up for, at (Shanghai foreign language university). I've already finished working through the language textbook I brought with me, so I'm out of new material for study. For now I'm just reviewing stuff -- and having lots of practice in the form of awkward, mutually semi-comprehensible conversations with people on the street. I feel like the sink-or-swim environment is forcing my "survival Chinese" to improve, finally.
I had a dream last week that I had to fight like seven giant blue-skinned space vampires. The giant space vampires were called "Di(3)hang(2)". Yes. My subconscious is now making up bogus Chinese words complete with tones.
People who haven't studied Chinese, when I tell them about the difficulty of speaking with tones, they seem to imagine that when I get tones wrong Chinese people go "Oh, haha, you got your tones wrong, you sound dumb." No. When I get tones wrong, Chinese people react with utter confusion, as if I said "My hovercraft is full of eels".
The hardest part isn't speaking, though, it's listening. Sometimes people use words that I theoretically know, but I don't catch them because I'm chunking syllables into words the wrong way, or fixating too much on the parts I don't know. I ask people to repeat stuff a lot.
When learning a language you have to accept embarrassment. Accept that you're going to sound like a moron, that you'll have to repeat yourself, ask people to speak slower, get misunderstood, and sometimes fall back to pointing at things you want like an illiterate child. Embarassment is good for you! A single awkward misunderstanding in a face-to-face conversation does more to forever fix the correct word in my mind than any amount of poring over textbooks and flashcards.
Sushu's aunt and uncle have upgraded from "not speaking to me at all, or asking Dad to translate" to "speaking to me real slow like I'm an idiot". That's exactly what I need, so: Huzzah! Progress!
I don't know aunt and uncles' actual names because everybody just calls them Shushu and Shenshen. Chinese has an amazing vocabulary of extremely specific words for relatives. Your father's older brother, father's younger brother, mother's brother, father's sister's husband, and mother's sister's husband, who are all "uncles" in English, are all called different things in Chinese. There are eight different words for what we call "cousins", not even counting the formal variations.
So although Sushu has several aunts and uncles, "Shushu" (father's younger brother) and "Shenshen" (father's younger brother's wife) are unique, and thus can serve as name replacements. Referring to people by relationship seems more commmon than using names in Chinese culture, as Sushu described here.
There's no single moment you can point to and say "I speak Chinese now"; it's more like each day I try to hack off a few more chunks of loose rock from the massive cliff face of my ignorance.
Last day of my Chinese course
Today was the last day of my six-week intensive Mandarin course. It was three hours a day for every weekday, with reading, writing, listening, dialogues, presentations, tests, etc. I think I made some good progress and it made me feel like I was accomplishing something with my mornings instead of wasting them on the Internet.
Here's the class, minus a few people who didn't show up today.
It's a very eclectic mix of backgrounds. There's a whole lot of Russians, a few Thai people, a couple of Japanese, one Korean, one Spanish woman, a Greek guy, a Canadian, and me.
Our teacher, Ma laoshi, is the one with the glasses in the middle.
A few of my good friends from class joined me for lunch at a fancy restaurant called Waipojia ("Grandmother's") to celebrate our last day together. Left to right: Claire, Shannie, me, and Yuki.
People have told me that once you get over the (large) initial hump, Chinese starts getting a lot easier. I think I may finally have reached that point! More and more of the new vocabulary I'm learning consists of new combinations of characters I already know, which makes things much easier.
The class was all taught in Chinese (it has to be, as many of the students don't speak English) so it was seriously a sink-or-swim environment from the first day. I think that helped me a lot.
I'll need to find some good ways to continue my study now that the class is done. My reading/writing is OK but I need a lot more listening comprehension practice, so I'm going to try watching some Chinese shows or movies (with remote control in hand to rewind and replay each line of dialogue until I get it.)
My next job
A lot of people have been asking me what I'm doing next now that I'm done working for Mozilla.
"Trying to spend a lot less money" is the immediate answer. Honestly, I'm exploring several different opportunities at the moment. I've been tripping up and down the bay for job interviews with green-energy startups and internet-assisted education ("ed tech") startups.
There's a couple of companies who seem interested in hiring me. My current round of interviews is more about me trying to figure out whether I want to work for them. Is their business model legit? Are they likely to be able to achieve the results they're going for? Is it a job that would lead to further opportunities in the field? Are they people I would want to work with? And would I have to move closer to their office?
At the same time as I'm doing all these interviews I'm also continuing work on the backup plan: my own game business. I'm hacking on an game for learning Mandarin, since that's what I've been struggling with myself lately. I'm trying to land a bare-bones beta version by Tuesday. Sushu has volunteered her Mandarin 1 class as our first beta testers.
So even if some companies make me job offers, I might not take any of them -- if the educational game stuff looks like it could turn into a viable business, I'm going full time on that. (I've been up-front about this possibility during interviews).
I'm also turning down a lot of job leads. It's unreal - people are contacting me out of the blue several times a week to ask if I want to work for some startup or other. Most of the startups are boring and/or ridiculous. Some of them are OK, but if I just wanted to work at a software company I would have stayed at Mozilla.
I keep thinking aout all my friends and family members who are unemployed or stuck in jobs they hate, and I can't believe how lucky I am to be in the position of turning down job interviews. I feel like kind of a spoiled brat being so picky when so many are struggling to find a job at all.
I wish job offers were transferrable! I'd be forwarding these along left and right. But my unemployed friends and family aren't programmers, sadly.
Chinese practice game (work in progress)
Remember when I said I was working on educational game software for learning Chinese? Here is a beta version:
Sushu's Mandarin 1 class is my first group of beta testers. All last week she was coming home from school and reporting bugs, which I'd try to fix as quickly as possible for the next day.
Thus far it's not very fun - it's just a set of practice tools. I've got the educational part, not so much the "game" part yet. It's also extremely bare-bones visually -- it lacks colors, images, animation, etc.
But it does offer the following features:
- Three practice modes: typing in pinyin, drawing hanzi, and listening.
- To make drilling more interesting, each round is timed and scored; you earn bonus points for speed and for getting a lot of words right in a row.
- It tracks how many times you've got each word right and wrong; the more you get a word right, the less often it reappears, while the words you've gotten wrong recur more frequently.
- See your scores with all words, including the words you are having the most trouble with.
- Study any set of words you want to study by uploading your own vocabulary set, which you can also make available to other students.
- For teachers, there's a page where you can see an overview of how every student in your class is doing with the words they've been assigned. So you can see what's giving the class the most trouble.
I've tested it on Firefox and Safari so far; the hanzi drawing works with a mouse, or with a finger on a touchscreen (e.g. iPad).
The pinyin-entry practice is very awkward. Currently you have to identify the tones by typing numbers. I want to replace that with something less artificial. Especially since pinyin itself is a poor proxy for pronunciation. Ideally I would want the student to be able to speak into their microphone and have the program grade their pronunciation, but that will be (as mathematicians say) Non-Trivial.
Drawing hanzi is currently graded on the honor system: You draw them, then it shows you the right ones, then you tell the program whether you got it right or not. I'm poking around with some possible handwriting-recognition code to automatically judge whether you wrote it right or not, because right now it's easy to cheat. Then again, if you cheat, you're only cheating yourself, so maybe it's OK the way it is?
Eventually I want to write "Learn Chinese: The RPG". The infrastructure I've been building so far is designed to support that as well as be a practice tool in its own right.
I'd love to hear some feedback from any readers who know enough Chinese to try out the beta version. (I think that's... two of you? Unless there are some lurkers I don't know about?) Thanks.
Studio Xia update: Handwriting recognition demo
The Studio Xia Chinese program currently asks students to grade themselves on writing hanzi (Chinese characters). It shows what the hanzi is supposed to look like and then asks you to click right or wrong; the score is entirely on the honor system.
Which works pretty well, as long as everybody is there to learn. If you cheat, after all, you're only cheating yourself.
But as I try to develop this software from a set of drill activities towards something more gamelike (the eventual goal is "Learn Chinese: The RPG"), it would be really nice to have some automatic scoring of hanzi input. Maybe the amount of damage you do to a monster depends on how fast and accurately you draw one of the hanzi from your current working set, for example.
I started out a couple weeks ago by trying to compile an open-source OCR (optical character recognition) package called Tesseract which supports the simplified Chinese character set. Ran into a bunch of dumb Linux linker dependency problems, but finally got it working -- only to discover that its accuracy was really awful.
- We already know which hanzi the student is supposed to be drawing, so we only have to compare against that one, not the entire corpus.
- We can observe the student writing the hanzi stroke by stroke in an HTML Canvas element, and analyze as they go; this is a much easier starting point than, say, a bitmap - no need to do edge detection when we can get the start and endpoints of each line directly.
- Observing the student write each stroke also gives us a rich set of data that would not be available from a static bitmap - such as which direction they were moving the "pen" when they drew each stroke, and the points at which they changed direction.
Better yet, by detecting where the students' strokes differ from the strokes of the hanzi model, we can offer feedback like "These lines are not supposed to cross here" or "You messed up the stroke order" or "You missed one stroke", etc.
After a couple of weeks of experimentation, I have an algorithm that I think is ready for wider testing.
Try the demo here! (For now this demo includes only a single character, ä½ , which means "you".)
If you want to help me out, please try it and let me know:
- Does that demo work on your browser? If not, which browser do you have?
- When you write the character, does the feedback that it gives seem accurate? Or is it marking something wrong that you think is correct?
(If you find bugs, a screenshot would be very helpful!)
A single-character demo isn't very impressive, but I have also created a page where a teacher can input new hanzi to the system. The teacher draws five or more correct examples of the hanzi, and my program uses them to construct what I call a "fuzzy model" to capture the range of acceptable variation in the shape of the hanzi.
Final note: Writing hanzi with a mouse (or worse, trackpad) really sucks. I know that. This program will work with a mouse, but touchscreen users are the main target audience. Touchscreens (whether phone, tablet, or laptop) are the wave of the future and in a few years mice will start to look very old-fashioned. So I'm especially interested in getting this to work well on iOS Safari, Android stock browser, Android Firefox, Amazon Kindle stock browser, Windows 8 tablets, etc. etc. If you have one of those, please use it to try out the demo and let me know what problems you run into!
Zelda backtracking as an educational game design principle
Zelda games are always showing you cool stuff just out of your reach. Like, a treasure chest up on the side of a cliff, or blocked by some weird statue, so you can't get to it. If you've played any of these games, you recognize it as a backtrack situation. "Oh, I can't get there yet, but probably later in the game there's an item I can use to get past that obstacle; I'll come back later."
Usually, making the player backtrack would be bad game design: it's boring and wastes time. You might think, if the player needs a hookshot to get that chest, why not put the chest after the hookshot? It's functionally equivalent but with no backtracking involved.
But in Zelda, backtracking is part of a really clever game design. I'd even say it's essential to the fun.
Because showing the player something that they can't get until later motivates them to keep playing. The player thinks "Oh man I can't get that yet... but if I had a hookshot, I could! GOTTA FIND THAT HOOKSHOT!".
Also, it rewards the player for remembering where they saw stuff, for exploring thoroughly and backtracking instead of just always pressing on to the next required plot point. Which reinforces the theme that Zelda games are about exploration.
And when you finally get the hookshot (or whatever item) it's much more exciting because you already know several places to use it. You've been itching to get your hands on it, so when you finally get to play with it you feel like a million bucks.
Then you backtrack through earlier areas collecting goodies with your cool new tool, and the old enemies that used to give you so much trouble are now a breeze, which makes you feel like a badass. Games based on a power progression have to keep upping the challenges, which sometimes makes the player feel like they're barely keeping pace, like running on a treadmill. Giving them a reason to backtrack lets them step off the treadmill and just enjoy all the power they've earned.
So if Zelda-style backtracking is so great for motivating players to keep playing, is there a way to apply that to the Studio Xia Chinese game?
Maybe if we show the player a situation that they can't solve yet using the Chinese that they know (for some meaning of "situation" and "solve"), they'll be motivated to keep playing in order to learn the Chinese they need? And then backtrack and apply their new knowledge to solve that situation?
The important point here is that the new grammar pattern / vocab word is the Hookshot, i.e. it's not the obstacle, it's the way of overcoming the obstacle. Most educational games are crappy because the educational material is mapped onto the gameplay role of "monster" -- defeat this endless series of identical Octorocks with math problems on them, or whatever. You just want them to stop coming. We need to make the educational material feel like tools instead, like power-ups, so the player's excited to get a new one.
But if you need 1,000 words for even basic conversational fluency... well, how do you design a game with 1,000 distinct, interesting power-ups? That I haven't figured out yet.