Sunday, December 14, 2014

America-envy, and why Brits are unsufferable

Not really a rant so much as an opinion-dosed observation...

I landed upon a YouTube video of American's eating food from British McDonalds. To be honest I think it was amusing, especially the last sound bite* of the video.

As you can expect, the comments section was a mess of nation-based bigotry. It amused me that one person pointed out:

"... You want talk about how americans piss you off? People from UK Piss me off. Any american that goes there gets shit talked 24/7 do we shit talk people their? no. They just are jealous of our country to be honest. That's the only reason I can think of, as to why dumb ass british people make fun of americans all time." - AnimeGirl

To be honest, I think AnimeGirl was generous to us Brits in assuming that the root of this anti-American sentiment is jealousy. Many, many British are overtly, and mindlessly of the British-is-best camp. Maybe this is a psychological compensation for the fact that -geographically- the British Empire waned long-ago; however, my personal experience of 26 years living in the UK has led me to the alternative conclusion that we deride the Americans not because of jealousy, but because we're gits. Brits will gladly deride any culture, even ourselves. To an extent, I think there is even a perverted sense of pride in this stance, but I don't count myself among that number.

I lived for a year in Japan initially out of curiosity, but I moved out here more permanently in part due to feeling fatigued at the general hostility one encounters in the UK. I can remember no instance of even being so much as unduly criticized here in Japan, let alone outright insulted, by a stranger. There are likely other factors at work**, but as it stands every year here reinforces the illusion that the gits are more numerous in the UK. Whether or not the same is true of America, I couldn't say. I've only spent a week (working) there. The only observation I was able to make was that people seemed more keen to interact than in the UK***.

Anyway. To regain some balance to the topic, perhaps I'll switch sides of the fence again when I've been here 20 years; there's only so different people can be while sharing >99.9% of their genetic data, and Japan, like anywhere, has its problems. No doubt gits will be gits in different ways depending on their culture. But hell, at least we're not at war, and hell, I have the freedom of time to write such a flaccid rant inspired by YouTube comments (never a good start to a discussion), and you had the time to read it. Apparently that's progress. What a strange world we live in.

* in a punning mood today, sorry..
** e.g. perhaps people are less inclined to insult a foreigner here either due to anticipated lack of understanding or reciprocation of the hostility; or differences in my commuting habits etc. Additionally, I've heard that my racial profile gets a better deal than some of the other minorities.
*** About which I hold the paradoxical view that this is both a good thing, but at the same time I don't like talking to strangers very much.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why atrocities occurred in the Far East, why it still matters, and what we should do about it

Yesterday I watched through a BBC documentary on war crimes committed by Japan during WW2. The documentary discusses -in sometimes horrifying detail- the crimes against humanity committed by the Imperial Army of Japan. I think it is a pretty good introduction to the subject, and to summarise further, part 1 frames the atrocities in the context of increasing militarism in Japan, increased brutality of training in the Imperial Army, and nationalist/imperialist propaganda, before embarking on a tour of the first half of Japan's war with acts of brutality being the landmarks.

After watching part 2 (which completes the tour by focussing on the horrifying result of the belief in death-before-dishonour, as well as some of the American-inflicted suffering of the Japanese), I sat thinking about how it is both sides were willing to indiscriminately kill civilians.

As part 1 illustrated, POWs were treated very well by Japan during WW1, I'm not sure if this extends to non-Europeans, but it goes some way towards confirming that the Japanese are not intrinsically inhumane (I sincerely hope this doesn't need stating, but there it is anyway), but rather the social environment at the time was the root cause. Looking at the domestic history of Japan, it seems fairly obvious this was the case; however, why did America end up indiscriminately firebombing Japan?

Let's assume you're asked to run a bombing mission over civilian area during a war. Whether you agree is probably going to be based on: 1) whether you are blindly obedient, 2) whether you feel the mission will prevent defeat/danger to your homeland or allies, 3) whether you respect the people who will die. That is the order I would have written those items had I not watched the documentary, but now I think 2 and 3 are in the wrong order. Firstly, its evident that the Japanese soldiers -revelling in their early victories- had a contempt for their victims. But to an extent the same contempt is shown by the Allied soldiers, and while this is usually towards the Japanese soldiers, it seems that the bomber pilots (if not contemptuous) were indifferent to whether their targets were military or civilian, and they surely could not have been concerned for the safety of their homeland while dropping bombs on an increasingly crippled Japan, right? Perhaps they just wanted a quick end to the war to save their comrades the risk of being shot down, but even so, to weigh the lives of so many civilians (arguably they don't know how many civilians they will end up killing; however, I expect these people were fairly conversant with the power of their weaponry) against their comrades still hints to me of a disdain (or at least indifference) towards their victims.

OK, so what does this matter? Well firstly we can say with relative certainty from the above that atrocities will occur when there is disrespect for the opposing side, and these atrocities become worse with increasing disrespect, and increasing distance. Asking combatants to "please, very kindly respect the people whose government you are at war with" is just plain stupid because soldiers have a job which is psychologically devastating (killing people and exposure to mortal danger - how is that better than minimum wage?), which will inevitably lead to some level of unwanted behaviour, and when such behaviour is not systematically guarded against, and additional negative propaganda is imposed on top of that, you get the Imperial Japanese Army.

In other words, any war will lead to some atrocities, and propaganda makes things much, much worse. The problem is we have a number of warmongering nations (I'm looking at the US and UK here, but things have gotten more complicated than I've had time to keep up, recently), and a number of nations with state-run media (China, and Russia are often accused, but they're not the only ones). The examples in brackets are unlikely to go to war right now, but situations change (Japan was allied with the UK in the first World War, and with the Nazis in the second).

In this respect, the relative (and mutual) animosity* between Japan and China has to stop, because in the remote possibility that a war did happen between them, it would be terrible.

But what should we actually do? Well, here I think some politicians should take heed of a psychological experiment called "Robber's Cave Experiment". In that experiment, it was found that a group of boys separated from each other would naturally come into conflict when competing at given tasks, but that this could be overcome by integrating the groups and having them work towards common goals.

Translated to the world stage, this means we need to focus less on the transgressions made against each other, and more on cooperating on common goals. Note this doesn't mean letting ourselves get trodden on, but simply that we shouldn't ostracise countries because they do not conform to our expectations, rather we should use some of that energy create more opportunities for collaboration.

To an extent this is already happening due to trade. Trade has become essential to our societies, and this necessitates some degree of cooperation. When we go into our favourite shop, where we have a good relationship with the owner, and we comment that the paint job on the door looks like it needs redoing, that owner is far more likely to take on that information than if we said the same in a shop where we have no such relationship.

We all want the world to change for the better, and we want to do it now. Unfortunately, we simply cannot do it directly, the relationship must be built first, otherwise our clamouring for change simply drives us apart. Even when we have the power to impose the change, has this really worked for us in the past?

The problem with this is implementation. There is little we can do but vote for the moderate political candidates, promote tolerance, and focus on the benefits of collaboration (trade, science, and the arts are all exceptional examples).

*I've heard a number of my Japanese friends talk about the Chinese is really quite disturbing ways, and you really don't need to look hard to see that the Japanese are thought less-than-well of by a proportion of China too. Then again, perhaps looking harder would reveal otherwise.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Background checks for renting in Japan

Summary for applying for an apartment in Tokyo

-Have your proof of income ready
  -Easiest if you're an employee
  -Bring your bank books and any relevant invoices etc.
-Be ready to substantiate your reasons for moving
  -Be ready to share relevant contact details
-Be prepared to wait ~4 working days for the application to go through
  -Be available. You will likely be called by guarantor companies, management companies/landlords

There are a lot of articles, forum posts etc. on renting apartments in Japan, all of which are pretty easily accessible from Google; however, I thought I'd share my experience on background checks for renting, which I couldn't personally find much information about.

So, I'd found some places on that I liked, emailed the estate agent involved, and arranged a meeting. As seems pretty typical, none of the places I'd found were available, but they showed me some other places instead. I found one I liked, and we headed back to the office to start the application.

During the application (which took about an hour) I filled out a couple of forms. You might save a minute or so by knowing your birth date in the Japanese calendar. You'll probably save considerably more time if you're not self-employed. I am self-employed, so I also had to show reasonable proof that I could make the rent. I had 2 months worth of invoices (they would have preferred 3) and my bank book, of which they took copies.

They also wanted to know the reason I was moving to Tokyo. Now, in my head, the reason is that I'm more likely to find a research position in Tokyo than in rural Japan; however, in actuality I'm only in relatively preliminary discussions with one of the professors over here. Nonetheless, I opened my big mouth, assuming any old reason would do. This actually ended up with me having to provide the aforementioned professor's contact details (thankfully the professor is a nice guy, and was willing to help out), and these were not just retained by the estate agent, but passed on to both the guarantor company and the apartment's management company. To try and avoid making myself look like a complete ass from my prospective professor's point of view, I stressed to the estate agent, guarantor company, and management company that unless something firm was decided upon, my main subsistence was from my translation work.

At some point, and I don't recall exactly why, the estate agent took a copy of my PhD certificate. It was probably relevant to something I said.

After making the application on Saturday, I got phone calls from the guarantor company and management company on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Basically they just went over the contents of the forms I'd filled on Saturday, and concentrated on the weakest part, being the reason for moving, to which I basically said moving to Tokyo will also be helpful for my translation work, but I intend to do research if possible. I think they were also keen to double check my earnings.

On Wednesday, I got the call from the estate agent to say the application had been successful. Just 4 days from applying! I'm pretty thrilled about that: I thought they were going to keep me hanging for at least a week, and I was half-sure they were going to reject it.

On reflection, I'm not sure how useful my case is. I imagine most people will not be self-employed,  which will mean they have all the proof of income and reasons necessary to make things as smooth as possible. Also, perhaps having a professor (and a PhD) to vouch for me made a difference? Mine is a pretty unique case, so all I can really offer in advice is to have all your proof of income and be ready to substantiate your reasons for moving. For example, I really should have contacted the professor beforehand.

Still, as far as time scales go, you can probably expect to wait just a few days for the check to go through before you know you'll be able to move in.


Lastly, if possible, I advise using a Japanese-speaking estate agent, I went both the a gaijin-friendly and to a normal estate agent, and found that the normal estate agent tended to have the better deals, or in the very least was more inclined to show them to me. If you have the patience to go to 2 or 3 estate agents, then I would highly advise it.

Oh, and never take flats on the ground floor. Maybe my nose has been over-sensitized by damp, dingy England, but the first-floor apartments I viewed universally smelled of mold. Given that I've lived in a house for the last year, and that the ground floor here is fine, I didn't really believe it, but having actually gone to 3 first-floor rooms and taken a good whiff (as well as inspect the cupboards for mold, and found it in 2 of them: use a torch or the light on your phone and look at the corners of the most difficult to clean part of the cupboard, usually the underside of the lowest shelf to the floor -ignore any strange looks from the estate agent- any fluffy specks that come off when applying pressure with your finger are probably mold), I'm never going to consider a ground-floor room again.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Technology and translation

Before I got into freelance translation, I thought of it as completely detached from computer translations. Indeed, when we talk about Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT), we are not referring to a computer translating for us, rather we're referring to the fact specialised software is used to assist in the translation.

Every now and then, I come across some complaints in the translation industry about technology, usually this centres on CAT tools, but here is an extreme example: In it, a translator is described who essentially was using a typewriter and fax machine into the age of email and word processing. Granted, to continue doing that, they must have been both an excellent translator and precise typist; however, resisting technology in today seems like a very, very bad idea.

Let me explain. A good CAT tool today will analyse the sentence you are currently translating, search through your previous translations, and if a decent enough match is found, it will automatically perform a translation. This spares the translator anything between 10-100% of the time translating that sentence (depending on how well the current context matches the context of the previously translated sentence). Clearly, anyone already using such tools has a competitive advantage in terms of speed. They can also offer lower rates.

The problem with CAT tools is that often one is forced to offer a lower rate, because the translation agencies know the translator is doing less less hours of work for the same work. Thus, you either keep up with technology or spend longer on a project for which you'll be paid less. At the moment, the situation isn't too bad: only one of the agencies I work for requests a lower rate for translations due to the CAT tools' ability to assist with some of the document.

However, are CAT tools going to become more or less efficient at this? I think you can guess the answer. At the moment, the CAT tool spiel touts that they make translation 20% faster (or more, depending on which spiel you're looking at). As technology progresses translators will be spending less time translating, and more time checking the CAT tool's work.

Then of course, at some point one of the big technology companies is going to come out with a computer that can do the whole thing for you, then we'll only need to review. Seriously. Did you imagine 15 years ago that you could ask a phone the weather, or mark appointments in the calendar for you? I'm possibly not being realistic*, but it is undeniable that the situation can only become more technology dependent.

*I imagine that when it comes to increasing translation speed, CAT tools will find it progressively difficult as they push past +50%. But machine translation is a bit of a black box to me: words go in one side and half-understandable gibberish comes out the other. The problem is that machine translation only needs to get to the point where words go in one side and really bad English comes out the other before one can basically say "we don't need translators any more! But we are hiring reviewers!". There are already companies that offer human-edited machine translations. The other problem with this being a "black box" is that is difficult for people on the outside to work out when the algorithms are going to reach that level of proficiency.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Fix zoomed-in webcam on the Windows 8.1 Asus Transformer Book T100

A departure from my usual forays into all things Japanesey (unless you count the fact my Asus Transbook T100T is the Japanese version), I thought I'd go over how to fix the camera on this forsaken device*.

My advice is basically a duplicate of stuff already out there, but somehow I managed to miss it the last couple of times I googled, so if there's a chance it will make the info more available, perhaps it's worth the blog post.

Anyway, if you try to use Skype with the webcam on the Asus Transbook T100T, you'll find that a cropped section of the webcam's total field of view is displayed; it appears as though the webcam is zoomed in.

If you download ManyCam, install it, and run it, Skype gives the option (Tools-Options-Video settings-Select Webcam) of using "Manycam Virtual Webcam". Just like magic, the field of view is repaired, and the "zooming" effect gone! ... Assuming of course that you have the same problem as I did.

So what happened? As has been discussed previously (link), this may be a driver problem. Metro's camera program shows the webcam working normally. However, Skype doesn't appear to have the same access as that Metro app, so we provide it an alternative source (ManyCam) which does have proper access to the webcam. Whether or not this is a driver issue seems like speculation to me, but in any case the workaround sorted this problem for me.

* I actually love my Asus Transbook.. It's constantly starved of memory, could do with an extra USB port, and I went through such hell to get the thing to wake up from sleeping for extended periods of time that I manually disabled the sleep function and made the power button act as a hibernate button. However, it runs Skyrim, and all manner of goodness, whilst being capable of handling my research, translation and surfing needs, and still functions as a decent Windows tablet with a decent battery life.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Japan "Enters the era of smartphones"

According to BBC News, Japan has freshly entered "the era of smartphones", and now everyone is worrying that we'll all be bumping into each other over here because we're too inconsiderate to look up from our LCD displays while crossing the street.

I'd like to point out that, if Japan has really been slow to adopt smartphones, there are two very good reasons for this:

1) The preexisting phones in Japan were unimaginably superior to the pre-smartphones of Europe. I remember coming to Japan for the first time in 2007 and being amazed at the capabilities offered by my Japanese mobile. In addition to the basics such as a camera etc., it had navigation (maybe GPS, or perhaps based on triangulation of transmitters), and email. My wife -then girlfriend- had a slightly better mobile that supported even nicer features such as TV: it honestly made phones on the UK market look absolutely laughable.

According to the wiki, the iPhone came out that year, but it was at least a year before it even entered the Japanese market. And if you already had a decent "standard" Japanese mobile, you might wonder at the advantage in getting an iPhone back then. In fact, according to Wikipedia "In 1999, the Japanese firm NTT Docomo released the first smartphones to achieve mass adoption within a country".

Basically, either the features Japan's phones were too competitive compared to our notion of "smartphones", or they were already fully-fledged smartphones. Effectively, Japan was using smartphones before anyone else. Maybe they weren't touch-screen, but they were powerful beasts for their time.

2) Utilising smartphones to their full potential requires a decent internet connection, and the mobile companies over here are very happy to charge an extraordinary amount of money for this service. There is very little choice when it comes to data plans, and if you go with one of the "big 3" providers here, you options are all or nothing. I'm not sure if this has been the case previously (there is a 6 year gap between 2008 and 2013 where I was in the UK), but I suspect expense will have been a big motivator for holding onto older mobile technology.


With that out of the way... I do wonder about the whole "dumbwalking" thing. I guess with the increases in functionality, there is a greater likelihood that people will be walking and doing something on their mobile, especially now things like LINE allow you to message without spending any yen. Increased adoption of phones in general is also likely to be a big contributor (even my 10 yr old nephew has a dumbed-down phone). Nonetheless, Docomo's simulation of everyone crossing the road while staring at their phones is really just a bit of sciency fun. I'm sure the simulations may have some use when realistic parameters are used, but you don't need me to tell you that most people will actually be looking where they are going. This is illustrated very cutely in the end of the BBC's article, where the author sets himself the goal of walking across a busy junction, deliberately not looking up from his phone, and the fact that "I'm sure I'm going to get hit, but after a few seconds I relax. It's OK. Everyone's reacting for me", and "It's so silly I have to look up". This is how the real world works: people try to get out of the way, but they are generally aware of the need to stop, and look up when necessary.

To be honest, its a nice little article, but I just get the feeling the author is trying to write life into an issue that simply doesn't exist.

Then again, I've yet to live in Tokyo.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Translating typos with Google search

Its probably fairly evident that I love Google's services by now, and I thought I'd just highlight a particularly useful feature in Google search.

When translating documents upwards of 10000 characters (10+ pages long), the chance of finding a typo somewhere is not by any means small. I have on numerous occasions banged my head over a frustrating translation, where a word would simply not make sense in context.

My usual procedure is to double tap Ctrl+C to bring up Golden Dict, into which I've plugged in an offline version of the indispensable WWWJDIC, which will resolve 90% of my queries immediately. If this fails, I alt-tab to my browser where Weblio is waiting with a whole host of dictionaries (including WWWJDIC, and the Life Sciences dictionary by Kyoto University), which will catch the remaining 9.9% or so (and also tends to give some very nice technical usage examples).

If a word fails at this point, frustration sets in as I splice and dice the word to see if the supposed word is actually 2 or more words strung together, but even this will not help if the word is a typo.

In this case, there are few options left available, but a Google search is often invaluable, not only providing some nice usage examples, but sometimes even finding a definition in some obscure internet glossary. In the case of typos however, Google will automatically search using the "correct" spelling. At this point, the fact the search term is actually a typo becomes clear and we can start at the beginning with the correct term*. Lovely! Imagine trying to work this out for yourself with paper dictionaries back before computers were on hand. Eugh.

A word of warning, though. Google love search terms that are common, and it isn't necessarily obvious whether the Google search is deciding against using your search terms because of a typo, or because it is just prioritising what it thinks you want to read about.

*Today I came across "胚葉体形成" in a source document, which can be split into "胚葉" germ layer, "体" body, "形成" formation, which I initially translated as "germ layer formation", but was unhappy with the context, and while dropping "body" improved the flow I wasn't happy about it: "body" could have referred to cells in a germ layer. I decided to Google the term and see if there was a useful precedent, only to be bombarded by results for the similar: "胚様体形成". At this point, I realised "胚様" and  "胚葉" are homophones, and that this may be a typo. Sure enough typing in "はいよう" with Microsoft Japanese IME puts "胚葉" at the top of the candidate suggestion list. "胚様体形成" translated to "embryoid body formation", which fit better into context.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Reinterpretation of the Peace Constitution. Does it matter?

Japan's government has recently begun implementing its reinterpretation of the Peace Constitution. For more than 60 years, Japan has foregone the right to use military force except in self-defence, but the new changes being implemented by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) mean Japan will now exercise the right to "collective defence".

Here, collective defence means providing military force in defence of an ally. What does this mean in real terms, though? I think its fair to say that if a nation allied to Japan came under attack, that the Japanese government would be quick to forget the peace constitution and make ready to commit troops anyway, where such a conflict was endangering Japanese security. One example often touted by the media is the new ability for Japan to shoot down missiles from (for example) N. Korea, that were headed for an allied country (i.e. the USA). I would conjecture that even without the reinterpretation of the constitution that Japan would do this, because it cant risk losing face to America because of its dependence on the US for trade, and it could easily justify the action after the fact. The same goes for any conflict involving major trading partners.

In this light, the reinterpretation seems very much like what Japan has been continually doing: posturing. There is overwhelming support among the political parties of Japan for the reinterpretation, and so we can probably assume that (for example) shooting down a couple of North Korean missiles would be received relatively positively over here, regardless of the constitution. The real power of the changes is political: PM Shinzo Abe will gain a fair amount of domestic support from this move.

The problem with such reinterpretation of the constitution is the same problem with Japan that it has always had from posturing: international relations. China and S. Korea have both objected to the change, and the reinterpretation of the peace constitution provides a tempting foundation upon which to criticise Japan. It would be easy at this point to paint Japan as re-militarising, increasingly extremist, and unwilling to resolve disputes diplomatically.

It makes me wonder, is the gain in domestic support really worth the loss of respect in Asia? Then again, does this political posturing really have any impact on trade?

EDIT: Reading the paper this morning, while Abe managed to push this through through the government, it isn't riding well at all with the public: Polls suggest public support for the Abe cabinet has dropped under 50%, with 54.4% disagreeing with the move, and only 34.6% agreeing. Its kind of nice to know the Peace Constitution is valued by the Japanese people, and this raises some questions over the validity of Abe's actions; however, I'd like to think that the Japanese people don't in principal object to the idea of shooting down missiles en-route to their allies..

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

C25K, cardiovascular risk, and running in the morning

My wife's first words to me this morning were "You shouldn't run in the morning, it increases your risk of stroke" - in the background a man in a white lab-coat gesticulated on the TV, but I didn't stop to listen*.

The reason for this permutation of the words "good morning, treasured soul-mate" is my recent foray into exercise, particularly the morning run which I've incorporated into my week in an attempt to make my body more resistant to the risk factors incurred by my inability to peel myself away from a computer screen.

In particular, I've gone through the podcast-based "C25K" training program, with some minor alterations**. My main aim here was to bring my resting heart rate to a more reasonable level (I measured 90 or so, which is right on the upper limit of normal), so I recorded it the whole time I was doing the program.

For the record, heart rate is a pretty strong indicator of cardiac risk, and being at the high end is probably not what you want, especially when you factor in the proportion of deaths due to cardiovascular problems in developed countries.

So what did I find? The C25K program was effective at reducing my heart rate. I'm not sure by exactly how much, however, due to my somewhat inconsistent method for taking my pulse (I became more fussy about when I took my pulse in the latter half of the program, which is probably a big source of bias considering how much my pulse changes during the day). Nonetheless, maybe I reduced my pulse by 10 beats per minute or so, 20 beats per minute at the most.

Using the diagrams on the previous link ("High heart rate: a cardiovascular risk factor?" - Cook et al. 2006), that corresponds to a reduction in risk of heart failure by anything up to 50%. Given the reduced cardiovascular risk, I'm fairly sure I'm better off running, and risking a morning stroke, than not running at all. I cant run in the day because it is simply too hot***, and I don't fancy running in the evening on a belly full of dinner, or in the dark*4*.

While I had a hard time finding any evidence to the contrary*5*, I just managed to dig up this paper, which states that "the protective effects of exercise were more significant in the afternoon and evening group than in the morning and forenoon group". This sounds fair enough to me: its not a bad idea to run in the morning, but its likely a better idea to run in the afternoon.

*TV/radio knowledge is somewhere behind oral tradition in my mental filing cabinet. In my mind, anything heard on a program not even ostensibly about science means nothing more than something to perhaps look up on the internet later. Of course, the internet can be far, far worse, but at least you can find peer-reviewed science on it.

**specifically, I juggled around the order of the runs slightly so that the length of the runs increased more linearly. Those familiar with C25K will remember looking at week 5 and thinking "WTF!?". I recommend juggling around the days as you see fit: the person who made C25K doesn't appear to have had any formal health/exercise qualifications at the time he designed the program, so I can't imagine you'll do yourself any additional harm by applying logic, especially since it will make the progression less intense.

*** To me, this sounds like a damn good way of getting heat stroke.

*4* And this, a pretty good way of distributing my brain on the bottom of an irrigation ditch. Morbid? Me? Noo...

*5* Maybe more due to lack of familiarity with the subject than an actual lack of evidence

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Virtual touchpad for touchscreen (AKA MMB for a touchscreen part 2)

Only yesterday I was complaining about the rather poor mouse emulation and gestures offered by Windows 8.

For a Windows 8 touchscreen, it seems a middle mouse button (MMB) click has a much more elegant solution: TouchMousePointer.

This adds a new button to the taskbar that allows for a whole host of new mouse-like functionality for your touchscreen:

1) You can create an onscreen touchpad or turn the WHOLE screen into a touchpad (this is very useful for applications/games that are not optimized for touch, for which the precision of a mouse is necessary.
2) You can use the screen similar to a normal touchscreen*, but a click is only initiated when you put a second finger down (to the left for a left click, to the right for a right click, or 3 fingers for a middle click; this does mean you'll be using your middle finger for operating the device, but its not a huge change)

I had a play with option (1) above, along with StrokesPlus to try and make some action games like Skyrim playable (I did have better things to do.. But damn it). It kind of worked: A three finger swipe up to start walking forwards, a swipe back to start walking backwards etc. Using the screen as a touchpad instead of a touchscreen certainly made navigation much easier, however frankly having to use a gesture to move around feels pretty clunky compared to on screen controls. That said, there is a program called VirtualPad by PalmTime, which might make things much easier.

I've spent far too much time on this... In part a tribute to how poorly the interface is implemented in Windows 8**, and in part to the fact probably noone imagined these kinds of games would be used on a touchscreen.

*Presently, the author appears to be calling this "relative" mode, whereas it should probably be "absolute" mode since the mouse moves relative to the absolute position of your finger, not itself... But English aside, everything is very nicely implemented.

** At least as far as MMB is concerned, I mean how hard can it be? My touchscreen allows 5-point touch, and yet Windows doesn't actually utilise that ability.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Custom gestures in Windows 8 (AKA middle mouse button on a touch screen)

Another departure from all things Japanese, today I want to give a shout out to the people at StrokesPlus for their free gesture program. Why? Because customization of gestures on Windows 8 is terrible, despite the limitation that loss of a keyboard and mouse has on a windows environment. Yes, you can use Metro apps, but frankly that isn't why people buy a Windows machine. Custom gestures are a valuable tool for making up for the lack of peripherals essential to many programs past and present.

Doing a Google search for "custom gestures in Windows 8" brings forth a wall of results about the Windows 8 default gestures*, which is punctuated by the odd reference to "TouchMe Gesture Studio" a piece of "free" software that requires you to pay out for the "gesture engine" that actually allows the program to function. Ahhh, how I miss the old days when "free" used to actually mean just that. Anyway, anyone who has read this blog knows I'm a miser when it comes to supporting apps where a free alternative exists (Aedict3 being the notable exception**).

StrokesPlus is free, which is great. It perhaps loses out on some functionality against its rivals in that it isn't really built specifically for touch, but for mice, and so there is no multi-gesturing. However, it remains powerful: after all, we're all so used to using pen & paper, that we're generally comfortable with one finger on the screen. I suspect our brains are also more used to memorizing single-touch gestures in the same way it takes time to learn to use both hands on a piano etc. but that is just my speculation, and certainly multi-gesture might be more elegant.

My particular use for StrokesPlus was to allow middle-mouse button clicks*** without having to plug in a mouse. It only took a short while to work out how to implement this in the StrokesPlus framework (some scripting experience is handy here, but not necessary as everything is annotated). And now I can initiate the gesture with the RMB (long-touch from the Win8 default), and drag a simple symbol which I assigned to the middle mouse button (MMB) down*4*. I then assigned a simple click with a modifier for the MMB held down to call the middle mouse button up *5*. This way I can drag the MMB after making my gesture, then just long-touch the screen again to stop using the MMB. If I wanted to I could have just done a single MMB click using the following function: acMouseClick(gsx, gsy, 1, 1, 1), which sends both the down and up command, but I wanted to be able to drag with the MMB too. This explanation is probably a bit cryptic, but once you've downloaded StrokesPlus and played with it for a minute or two, it should be pretty clear.

In summary, StrokesPlus adds some useful functionality and customization, and while by no means fills the gap entirely, it does help bridge the gap between tablet and PC functionality.

*and frankly, who isn't frustrated by these stupid gestures? In desktop mode I have no need for the charm menu, and since Metro apps now appear in the taskbar, I have no need for the app switcher when I'm in desktop mode. Generally what happens is that I'll accidentally activate one of these stupid gestures while trying to type on the onscreen keyboard, something I never have to worry about on Android. Then again, Android can't run 99% of my games.

** I say that, but to be honest, I've yet to see a free alternative that can do half of what Aedict3 can do.

*** The game Tropico 3 requires a middle mouse button or keyboard to rotate the camera around, a bit frustrating if you don't have a mouse!

*4* in StrokesPlus speak: acMouseClick(gsx, gsy, 1, 1, 0)  -- with no modifiers
*5* that is to say: acMouseClick(gsx, gsy, 1, 0, 1)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Japan and China: get outta my airspace!

Recently, a Japanese surveillance plane was tailed at close proximity as it flew within the overlapping area of Japan and China's Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ)*.

The Japanese media is very keen to point out the more ominous points of this encounter: Namely, the exceptionally close proximity of the Chinese fighter aircraft (approximately 30 m), the lack of radio communication (despite supposedly having been hailed by the Japanese pilots), and the interpretation of these events as the implementation of China's recent expansion of its ADIZ. These reports are often mentioned in the same breath as the expansion of China's influence in the South China Sea, and paint China much like a dangerous animal that needs to be contained..

Listening a little closer reveals that the Chinese and Russian forces were doing military drills in the area, and China has painted the issue as a kind of invasion of military privacy. This made me laugh at first: So far as I can tell, the Chinese and Russians had every right to do their drills there (I believe it was international waters.. My world politics isn't great), but given the Chinese ADIZ was only extended in the last year, it seems pretty hypocritical to complain of Japanese surveillance planes peeking at your naval tactics when you are conducting drills near/inside the Japanese ADIZ.

The next little tidbit, that I've yet to hear mentioned in the Japanese news**, is the fact that the Japanese unilaterally expanded their ADIZ in 2010, to encompass Yonaguni island. To be fair, Yonaguni is inhabited by Japanese citizens, whereas the Chinese expansion does not increase the Chinese ADIZ area to encompass any of its inhabited islands, so far as I'm aware. But it does include the Senkaku islands, which it does claim. Additionally the Japanese expansion of the ADIZ caused the Japanese ADIZ to overlap the Taiwanese ADIZ, apparently causing some upset (see above link).

So where does distilling the whole ADIZ business leave us? Both countries have expanded their ADIZ unilaterally in the past 5 years; however, the ADIZ is basically just a courtesy, like "knock before entering", except rather than being the door to your room, its a door at the end of a long hallway (an ADIZ generally expands well beyond the territorial waters). The problem is that neither country is really obliged to recognise the creation of an ADIZ. Generally its a good idea, because it minimises the chance of getting yourself shot down just for doing surveillance***, but an ADIZ doesn't appear to actually have any basis in international law.

My interpretation is that the Japanese forces were effectively just being rude, by failing to knock on the door. I'd go as far as to say they may as well be rude, given the fact the ADIZ was unilaterally constructed by the Chinese government; however, I think the Chinese response (to scramble fighters) is fair enough, in fact it is standard procedure for encroachment of an ADIZ (they need to make an identification of the "invading" aircraft). The fact these fighters flew within 30-50 m (and out of view) of the Japanese plane can be seen as the Chinese forces being proportionately rude in reaction.

Of course, the fact the incident occurred where the Chinese and Japanese ADIZ overlaps left plenty of room for escalation, but we didn't see that, and I don't think we will. The main escalation was done (as ever) by the media. Exactly what could have been expected to happen happened: an ADIZ was trespassed*4*, and a response was incurred.

The fact that China has been expanding its influence is relevant, but given no blows have been exchanged, and the relative balance of power between China and Japan isn't changed by the incident, this remains, as is so often the case between these two countries, another petty exchange.

What I will say is this kind of thing is awfully convenient for Shinzo Abe's designs for reinterpretation of Japanese Constitution, and I wonder whether the Japanese media's reaction is influenced by this. After all, on the scale of international incidents, this is practically a non-event: the UK does this all the time *5*, and I didn't hear about it until it hit the news following the whole Russia-Ukraine thing...

*An ADIZ is just an area in which a country claims any aircraft that enter must submit their flight plans to the claimant country.

** Though, given my inexperience, I'll be lucky to catch it, even if it is mentioned..

*** No idea if that ever happened..

*4* There must be a better term, seeing as a crime wasn't committed..

*5* Dear Russia, if you're listening, you make beautiful aircraft, but do you really need to do flybys of the North Sea in tactical nuclear bombers? I don't doubt pilots get pretty bored without a few hours in the sky, but you have the whole of Russia to practice in! In any case, you'll make our Tornado pilots jealous..

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Swype vs Google vs Wnn. The best Android Japanese input method?

To summarise this needlessly long blog post:

Google Japanese Input
+Excellent intelligent 12-key keyboard
+Integrates with other apps
+Japanese style emoticons
-English autocorrection non-existant

Wnn Keyboard Lab (best for phones?)

+Good intelligent 12-key keyboard
+Good English autocorrection/prediction
+Integrates with other apps
+Japanese style emoticons

Swype  (best for tablets? Or if you always have 2 hands on your phone)

+Superior English autocorrection/prediction
+Superior Japanese handwriting recognition
+Copy/paste functionality
-Costs money
-Writing Japanese time consuming with 1-hand
-Quirky Japanese autocorrections

(EDIT: Other input methods summarized at the bottom of this post)

I've used a few Japanese input methods for Android both on my tablet and my phone, but having recently had to use these on a daily basis for messaging friends and looking up words, I wondered which method was the fastest.

I've seen others using the 12-key "flick" systems, which I suspect is the main contender to the QWERTY layout. Other layouts exist, such as those that display ALL the hiragana (but this necessitates a lot of buttons, and I've shied away from them because of the tiny screen on my phone).

I've used lots of input methods of the QWERTY and 12-key layout, my favourites when I started this were the Swype keyboard for the former, and Google Japanese Input for the latter. I also added the Wnn Keyboard Lab halfway through, since it had a nice blend of features from both of these. But which is faster? I did a little test on the following sentence:


Computer QWERTY keyboard: 40 s
Samsung Galaxy Fame
    Swype Keyboard (2-handed): 115 s
    Swype Keyboard (1-handed): 161 s
    Google Japanese Input 12-key (1-handed): 126 s
    Google Japanese Input 12-key (2-handed): 107 s
    Wnn Labs 12-key (1-handed):  118 s

Turns out that Google is just a tiny bit faster, especially for 1-handed input. I should point out I was NOT using the swiping method, but was punching the Swype keypad, because the swype functionality is actually pretty awful for Japanese. Also, there are probably some fairly large error bars on these figures (no, I didn't do this test in triplicate!), so no input method is really standing head and shoulders above the rest.

Most people reading this far will probably also be doing a lot of typing in English. So I thought I'd do another test with the following text, typing each word in full..

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Computer keyboard: 26s
Samsung Galaxy Fame

    Google Japanese Input QWERTY (2-handed): 96 s

    Google Japanese Input 12-key (1-handed): 119 s

    Google Japanese Input 12-key (2-handed): 107 s
    Swype Keyboard (1-handed): 63 s
    Swype Keyboard (2-handed): 50 s
    Wnn labs QWERTY (2-handed): 67 s

Here, on what I guess is its home ground, Swype keyboard puts Google Japanese Input to shame, mainly because English for Google Japanese Input has no autocorrect! Ouch. Of course, you could argue that for English I should be using the English Google input (which would probably fair similarly to Swype), but switching between input methods has always been a bit clunky on Android, and with the 2 programs above, I don't need to change input methods. The additional advantage of this is that I don't swell the RAM usage (which is a critical point for a budget phone like mine). Noteably, Wnn labs' keyboard performed almost as well as Swype in this instance, just a few seconds behind due to the less accurate autocorrection.

So speed-wise, Wnn labs and Swype are pretty much tied.

What about other functionalities?

Swype has superb Japanese handwriting recognition. Possibly the best handwriting recognition for Japanese on Android, in my experience. For looking up unknown characters, this is great stuff, and having it built-in to the keyboard, and thus usable within just a second or two, makes it great at quickly looking up words. Great if you're reading a paperback, or especially if skimming new words from the TV, since they'll only be around for a very short time in most cases.

However, if you're not in a rush, there are other handwriting recognition programs that will get the job done. Google translate can be coerced into this role by copying text, as can kanji draw (which will do so without an internet connection). Neither of these options are quite as nippy as Swype, though.

Both Wnn Labs and Google have the Japanese style emoticons, which are missing from Swype. I have to admit to missing these on Swype..

Swype makes some strange autocorrect choices. Swype's autocorrect is the best (overall); however, there are some quirks that you wont find when using the other available options, such as "mo" never wanting to be converted into "も". You can choose "もう" instead, and delete the "う", or add a newline, but it seems very strange, considering "も" is a spectacularly common particle, for it not to default to the hiragana upon pressing the space bar... Additionally, the proximity of "u", "i" and "o" to each other on the keypad makes autocorrection very difficult for Swype in some cases. Using Wnn labs or Google's 12-key keypad mostly negates the need for autocorrection, because the keys are big enough that you'll not miss a button. Nonetheles, Swype's English autocorrection is near flawless.

Wnn Labs and Google can launch external apps. For me this means aedict3. Your current text gets sent automatically to whichever programs you have set up to receive, effectively turning any textbox into a dictionary shortcut when you need it.

Wnn Labs and Google have intelligent 12-key keypads. 12-key keypads (as shown above) are actually pretty fast for Japanese input. This is facilitated by intelligent prediction of characters, so that one can type "しやない" instead of "じゃない" (which would require 50% more keypresses to change the し into a じ, and to make the や small), and pull the correct phrase from the predictions bar. Swype has a 12-key keyboard hidden in the settings under "日本語", but is not intelligent. For Swype, you're better off with the full keypad.

Swype has easy copy-paste functionality. You can swipe from the swipe button to C (to copy) or V (to paste). Intuitive and effective, perhaps occasionally saving you a second or so?

To conclude, I recommend both Swype and Wnn Keyboard Lab. Swype is spectacular for English, and handles Japanese fairly well. Additionally, Swype will make character look ups a breeze with its superior offline character recognition. Wnn Keyboard Lab is great if you're using a phone to write Japanese 1-handed, and certainly isn't a sloth when it comes to English either (which is where Google Japanese Input fails pretty badly). On top of this, it integrates into aedict3. I can see myself using Wnn Keyboard Lab for my phone, which often gets used 1-handed, and Swype on my tablet, where 2 hands is a given.

P.S. You know your procrastination is getting really bad when you spend the best part of an hour typing the same thing into a phone again and again and again.. Still, maybe this will be of use to someone. (^^;

Here are some other input methods I tried at a later date.

Simeji 2015/03/03 - looks great, and integrates into the aedict dictionary (nice!) but the predictive text isn't as good as Google's and Wnn lab's
IQQI 2015/03/03 - Intriguing - has a full hiragana/katakana keyboard in addition to the normal keyboards; however, the "predictive text" again doesn't match up to Wnn or Google.
Go Keyboard 2015/03/03 - Pretty standard, same criticism as above.
I'll also add the criticism that Swype seems to load up much slower than the other keyboards.
KK Keyboard 2015/03/03 - Not bad; has advanced predictive text like Wnn and Google, but no flick input, and the English prediction is fairly terrible, like Google's
Swiftkey 2015/03/03 - Comes up in searches on the play store for Japanese keyboard, but doesn't actually have Japanese support (there is a beta, but you have to sign up - I don't have the time right now)
Multiling/O-keyboard 2015/03/03 - a complete pain to install, as you need to install each of the dictionaries individually (so 3 packages if you want multiling, and an EN dic and a JP dic - a 4th if you want handwriting.. I understand the desire for modularity, but this is a little awkward for the user) Has advanced predictive text for the 12-key JA keypad, as well as highly predictive text for the 12-key EN keypad

Still, as of March 2015, Google seems to be the only input method that can guess how to dice a Japanese sentence so if you type "かつこうにいく",  "学校に行く" appears as a candidate. Add to this the fact that the Google keyboards seem to be switching more fluidly between each other now, and it seems that going with the Google keyboards is the way forward now.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Japanese Radio & Android part 2

Some time ago, I reviewed some internet radio apps for Android. In particular, I was keen to point out the ability of MediaU to run on my old HTC Tattoo.

In attempting to set something similar up with my Samsung Galaxy Fame, I was surprised by the poor quality of the TuneIn app, unlike my previous experience with this on my Nexus 7, I found it would cut- out- every- few- seconds.

Finding a replacement for TuneIn was (as before) a complete pain, probably because of my ridiculous necessity that my radio apps can play a selection of Japanese stations (this selection, to be precise). MediaU worked well; however, there are a number of stations from that do not make an appearance..

I found a couple of apps to bypass this problem. Firstly, VLC for Android beta, which handily adds file associations that allow you to click on the links from the site and automatically start streaming. However, VLC takes an eternity to actually start playback, during which time you're left guessing whether VLC has crashed, as there is no visual cue to tell you buffering is occurring (I assume that is what is happening anyway).

My current favorite app for listening to Japanese radio turned out to become FlowAudio, which (despite being almost invisible in the Play store [probably due to its low user base]) boasts very nice presentation, and the ability to search, find, and play all my favourite simulradio stations, as well as some stations such as FM Kushiro, which appear to stream in a format that leave most apps baffled (VLC is another exception here, so long as you're patient enough to wait for the playback to start).

Critically, the playback is very good (I don't recall any cutouts so far). However, some basic functions like saving a station to a list of favourites, appear to be missing. On the upside, FlowAudio will also play music stored on the device, keeping all my audio in one app, if I so wish.

I should also point out that the Fame, as imported from the UK, does have an FM radio, but this radio is locked onto the UK frequencies, and consequently the only station I can pick up sans wifi is NHK Okayama..

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Japanese and the Samsung Galaxy Fame S6810

So, I decided that, nice though the tablet/keitai phone setup was, having a working smartphone is much more handy when moving around. As much as it excels at documents and surfing, I don't terribly like using my old Nexus 7 tablet as a mp3 player. Also, its not as convenient a dictionary as a dinky smartphone you can quickly whip out whenever you spot an offending word*.

For my last trip to Tokyo, I resurrected my old HTC Tattoo by I rooting it, and swapping in my Softbank SIM card (Rooting it was a complete pain, as all the rooting instructions I could find (supposedly specifically for the HTC tattoo) didn't work**). The advantage was that I gained the ability to run programs like LINE and aedict3. However, the Tattoo simply doesn't have the required oomph to operate newer versions of Android, or the apps that run on it. Both the aforementioned apps ran terribly slowly.

So, I spent a couple of days mulling it over before deciding on a Samsung Galaxy Fame S6810 *3*. My primary concerns on purchasing were: Price, a version of Android where I could use the aforementioned apps, and a decent-ish camera. Despite numerous reviews complaining about the sluggishness of the Fame, I anticipated that compared to the 2009 smartphone technology that I was used to, that the Fame would feel nippy enough for me.

Having dabbled with the Fame for a day, I think my anticipations were on the mark. The device feels very powerful in comparison to the Tattoo, and my bread-and-butter apps (currently aedict3, ankidroid, and LINE) run very smoothly, almost as smooth as on my Nexus 7. The budget price only really became much of an issue for me when switching between applications, but the lag-times there are only on the same order as the Tattoo, despite using more intensive applications.

The disparity between the cameras is considerable, as one would hope. This makes optical character recognition very viable on the Fame, which is something that didn't really cross my mind before (I've not been using it up 'till now because the Tattoo sports a terrible camera, and the old Nexus 7 doesn't have the forward facing camera). Google Translate appears particularly competent here, and while I don't go much on some of the machine translations, you can select the source text and paste it into aedict3, or ankidroid, so it remains very useful. Google Translate's handwriting input also seems fairly friendly to slap-dash kanji stroke orders, and again can be copied. I somehow overlooked this feature previously, but may be using it a lot in future.

So in summary, the Fame excels as a handy pocket dictionary, while seeming able to cope with my other modest demands. Certainly a phone I would recommend to anyone after a cheap device that gets the job done.

*ie any word that I don't happen to know..

** that said, anyone with a working knowledge of the linux command line can solve the conundrum with a little thinking. Unfortunately I didn't document the efforts, but I doubt anyone still uses the Tattoo now.

*3* For the record, I purchased from Eternal Communications Ltd. via Unlike most of the suppliers in England their prices and delivery rates were both reasonable.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Tracking Royal Mail deliveries to Japan

Just a quick pointer, if you have something sent from the UK, and have a 13 digit tracking number (of the form ○○##########GB, where ○ is a letter, and # is a number), you can use this with both Royal Mail Track and Trace, AND the Japan Post tracking service. I believe Royal Mail will track the parcel from beginning to end, whereas Japan Post will only track your parcel once it arrives in Japan. Nonetheless, the Japan Post service seems to offer more detail. As to the utility in knowing that my parcel is in an "inward office of exchange", I don't suppose it makes much difference; but somehow its nice to watch the cogs turning, even if you know the clock will chime at noon...


Royal Mail tracking:

"Your item, posted on 24/03/14 with reference ○○##########GB has arrived in KAWASAKI and is being processed for delivery."

Japan Post tracking:

State occurrence date
(In local time if occurred overseas)
Shipping track record Details Office Prefecture / Country
ZIP code(Postal code number)
03/27/2014 23:54 Arrival at inward office of exchange
03/28/2014 09:00 Held by import Customs
03/28/2014 10:20 Departure from inward office of exchange

EDIT: added some more detail

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Trains in Japan > Trains in the UK

When heading for Heathrow by train, ready to head out the following morning, I had the pleasure of bumping into some of the people from South West Trains management (at least, that is who they purported to be, and given the reaction of the guard, I don't have any reason [or am too apathetic] to doubt them much). They overheard me asking the guard whether the next stop was Woking (for the airport), and asked where I was going. When I told them Japan, they said some of them had been on a business trip to Japan to have a look at how things were done in the Land of the Rising Sun. The general consensus was that things were OK in Japan, but not really any better than in the UK. Oh yes, this talk about Japanese railways is all very exaggerated... This struck me as a somewhat odd standpoint at the time, even with my relatively sparse experience of the Japanese railways.

Lets start with reliability, and fast forward to February. I had my flight from Tokyo to Takamatsu cancelled by snow. My initial reaction was to phone what felt like every hotel in Tokyo (actually it was about 15-20), and sit put (particularly easy to do in Tokyo, it seems: there is a lot to do, and its not that expensive). Unfortunately, this turned out to be impossible as everywhere I phoned was fully booked. I decided instead I'd risk using the trains.

To be honest, just the fact that Japan can operate train services when there is actual snow on the ground is a novelty in and of itself.. But exaggeration aside, I got from Tokyo to Kagawa in just a few hours (arriving before the time the flight was due into the airport, although I did leave Tokyo 2 or 3 hours early). I suspect a similar feat would be impossible in the UK given the level of snowfall.

Next, cleanliness. Japanese trains are kept in far better shape. Seems the general rule here is the faster the train, the cleaner it is. But perhaps that isn't surprising.

Price. A last minute trip into London from West Dorset is going to set you back upwards of 60 GBP and take almost 3 hours for a ~200 km journey. A journey from Kagawa to Tokyo by bullet train is about 120 pounds, takes 4hrs 20 minutes, and covers a distance of around 700 km. I'll do the maths for you; you pay 30p for each km in the UK, versus ~17p in Japan, while traveling almost 3 times faster, on average (I'll also point out median household incomes are comparable between Japan and the UK, so direct comparison like this isn't unreasonable, but I'll admit the caveat that I'm not sure how the cost-of-living burden differs between the two).

Speed. See above with regards to the bullet train. Perhaps not a fair comparison, though. Most trains in Japan don't seem overly speedy compared to what I'm used to in the UK. But fair or not, Japan has a bullet train, the UK hasn't even started laying track, so far as I know... I could try and weight things back in favor of Blighty by pointing out the UK high speed rail is going to be a good 80 km/h faster than the current Japanese bullet trains; however, just a couple of years after the UK line is due to open, Japan may have superconducting maglev train services between Tokyo and Nagoya. These could go an extra 100 km/h faster at 500 km/h*...

In conclusion, Japan is a very rich country, and has a high population density, it makes sense this would lead to railways that are more efficient. Clearly I think Japanese trains are the better. I suspect the opposite opinion I got on my way here back in November was not in any small part weighted with national pride. Then again, when its so plain to see that the grass is greener on the other side, I can see the merits in taking the good ol' British attitude of sticking up a middle finger, and not giving a damn. A way of life much under-used over here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Japanese on Android 2014

I've been writing a lot recently about the aedict 3 Japanese dictionary. I guess that says a lot about how important the app is for me, plus its one of the topics I know gets attention (there's no point talking to an empty room, right?*). In my previous post I touched on the various problems with Japanese on Android, and how far things have come, and I think now is an interesting time to look at the situation in more detail.

Firstly, some background: I first got a smartphone to integrate my mp3 player, phone, and my (super-chunky) electronic dictionary into one device. Juggling all three on the bumpity bus to work each day was somewhat tiring. That was something like 2010 or so.

Four years have passed and my phone has retired**, I've transitioned to a 7" Google Nexus tablet (the first version), and gone back to using a non-smartphone***. This reflects the fact I now get my Japanese literature in electronic form (Kindle can be coaxed into downloading Japanese books, even if you're living abroad), and the Nexus 7 is just small enough to fit into my trouser pockets if necessary (though given the comments from my wife, I wouldn't say it was a fashionable approach... *4*).

This brings me onto my first point: reading e-literature in Japanese has really become viable now. There are a plethora of pdf readers, and book stores are also adapting to the Android format. The obvious example is Kindle, which is a very nice reader. It includes a dictionary feature, too, which makes things decidedly easier.

However, if you want to read material from a PDF (the format is standard in the sciences and technical journals worldwide, including Japan) standards slip. English in PDFs is easy, I've used several PDF readers before; however, if you're reading Japanese text, you will inevitably come across a character you don't know, at which point you'll probably hold your finger down on the said character and one of three things will happen:
  1. Nothing; Your PDF viewer is rubbish. Do not pass go, do not collect £200.
  2. You'll select just 1 of the 4 characters you want; You must fiddle with text selection widgets. Miss a turn.
  3. The whole sentence will get selected; You must fiddle with deleting the unwanted text. Miss a turn.
Problem 1 is spectacularly common, and can only be overcome by getting another PDF viewer, which will often be exactly the same, or will lead you to problems 2 & 3.

Recently I happened upon Radaee PDF Reader. The text selection works on a more Japanese-friendly basis by initiating text selection after a long press, and allowing you to select more text by simply dragging that press along. Sounds great? Maybe not. Given the "long-press, fiddle" orthodox that almost all the other apps employ, Radaee's method doesn't come naturally. Worse, Radaee's whitespace detection is buggy; for those documents which Adobe exhibits problem 3 (those odd, old-looking, grainy documents), Radaee will insert a space between each letter, so you end up having to edit the copied text anyway.

The above problems are inherent to a host of apps; Kingsoft Office defaults to problem 3, Google's apps default to either 1 (e.g. quickoffice for PDFs) or 2 (web browsing and such).

Where the text selection is robust, as is my experience with most of Google's apps, this isn't much of a problem; however, there is a huge population (I assume Chinese, which also lacks whitespace, also has this problem) for which the text selection is not greatly intuitive.

My next observation is that of input methods. I spent more than 3 years using freely available input methods, and the Google Japanese input is still a pretty solid input method, especially if you use a keyboard much. Nonetheless, I've always dreamed of the ability to write Japanese characters by hand; a function so necessary to looking up words in Japanese. I had high hopes for Hanwriting, which enabled handwritten input; however, in practice it is pretty terrible. Newer input methods appear to have made up the ground; however, and with Swype input, I could easily, and consistently get the right character, despite my terrible handwriting and funky stroke order. My hope is these features will get integrated into Google's default input methods, but I'm not sure what the chances of this are (Google will make more money if you have to buy a keyboard app than if they spend the hours to implement the feature, though it could be argued that increasing usability makes Android more appealing to customers from the start..). I should point out that I now have a Windows 8.1 tablet/notebook and it has Japanese handwriting recognition out-of-the-box (well, I did buy it in Japan, but for overseas users, it should just be a simple, free IME download)

Flashcard programs have been around for ages, and I still use Ankidroid now. I don't think there is much development that can really occur on that front, nor do I think it is needed.

Combine all of the above with email/LINE and a friend or two, and you have pretty much all the resources you'll ever need to learn, and enjoy Japanese, all in your pocket. A handful of enhancements are all that are really needed to make Japanese on Android completely seamless.

*I do that too, mind...

**It no longer connects to any networks, effectively making it a terribly slow, terribly small tablet.. *5*

*** That said, even the "normal" phones in Japan have always been more functional than non-smartphones in the UK, for as long as I've known them. But it looks like non-smartphones are on their way out now, the guy in the Softbank store say they're the only company signing new contracts on traditional phones. Not sure if that is true.

*4* Is that a 7" tablet in your pocket, or...?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Racism in Japan

A Google search for "ANA CM 批判" (ANA advert criticism) on the 29th: Almost all the hits on the first page are either completely neutral Japanese news articles, or news regarding LiLiCo's comments on the issue: "Do foreigners who come to Japan have so much free time [to make comments like that]?", and "as a foreigner myself, I find it very embarrassing".

Now, there are 2 points about this. Firstly, there are foreigners over here who feel, as I do, that crying out racism over adverts like that of the ANA actually is more of an embarrassment than the ad itself.

Secondly, LiLiCo's sentiment was regurgitated on the 2nd, 3rd and 7th results of a page full of otherwise neutral news.

On reflection, there is racism towards us with lighter hair and bigger noses in Japan*; however, I'm am dubious that the advert plays a significant role in this, and when criticism of the advert leads to news and blog articles that portray such criticism as childish (as I said it would), then I suspect that does more damage to the image of Westerners in Japan.

In my opinion, this is a cache 22. I'm beginning to think the advert should never have been released, and if someone finds the advert offensive, they have a right to speak out; however, the very act of speaking out makes us a target for more confusion.

It could be argued that we should speak out anyway, and this has been a way forward for a lot of civil rights movements. However, I don't feel oppressed here, and all while that is the case, I'm happy to find other ways of changing people's perceptions than complaining.

*that said, I've never been the victim of such racism, nor do I know anyone who was. In fact the closest I've come to Japanese racism is being told that my friend's friend (whom I didn't know) had been victimised, which represents 1 of more than a hundred overseas students at that time. Either I was lucky and surrounded by lucky people, or racism just isn't as big a problem in Okayama, where I did my exchange. In contrast, I've heard racism on my handful of visits to London, but again, perhaps that is more to do with location, the rest of the South that I've been to seems pretty OK.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Aedict3, all grown up

I know I've been going on somewhat about aedict 3 recently, but it has been developing at a considerable rate lately, and after giving it some more thorough use, I thought it worth a little note here.

I'm not sure exactly when it was brought in, but aedict now has a "live search" function. When I read that in the changelog, I wasn't particularly impressed; I figured how much time does it save having to not press a button? However, it is surprising how convenient this little feature is!

Firstly, I found the time savings are actually fairly considerable in most cases (qualitatively speaking). However, what I love most about this feature is that it provides a text glossing functionality akin to the Electronic Dictionary Research and Development group's very own site*.

What is the fuss about text glossing? Well, a lot of well-known apps like "Kingsoft Office" and "Adobe Reader" are terrible at selecting Japanese text. The problem appears to be that they are used to separating words by spaces and punctuation, as we do in English. However, Japanese doesn't use whitespace characters, and so when you hold your finger on a word in either of the above programs (and I'm sure they're not the only ones**), it selects between the two nearest punctuation, which might contain several words.

After selecting Japanese text in such a program, you then have 2 options: Firstly, you can use the fiddly text selection controls to highlight just the word you want to copy into the dictionary. Secondly, you can copy the whole sentence, then edit it once you've pasted into the dictionary.

The advantage in having text glossing is that you can just dump the whole sentence into the dictionary's input box, and you get a translation of all the words in the sentence. No fiddling with text selections, no editing of the sentence; a huge time saver, especially considering the text glossing is included in the live search, so you just paste, sit back and watch the magic.

Ultimately, my praise here is as much a reflection of my frustration with other programs (such as Kingsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat) that do the bare minimum to support Japanese text. Nonetheless, if you do a lot of work with Japanese documents (I do some freelance translation, and read the odd scientific article**** in Japanese), then you will frequently need to work around this problem. Aedict3 has made this process about as painless as I expect things will get, and for those who do a lot of reading of Japanese on their android devices, I highly recommend dishing out for Aedict3.

* For the unaware, the EDRDG is the home of edict and JMdict, which is integral to aedict. I'm not sure about the specifics, but without it, and the work of Jim Breen, we'd probably be a lot poorer in the dictionary department.

** Because how do you write a program to detect word edges in Japanese? It would be very difficult, I think. A work around would be to only select contiguous kanji characters. This would make selecting hiragana words more difficult***; however, because hiragana is phonetic, it is easy to reproduce by typing elsewhere, if needs be.

*** you'd have to drag the selection over the characters you wanted, which people do when they want to select more than one word of English anyway. So not spectacularly more difficult, really.

**** scientific articles are commonly distributed as pdf files.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Racism bad! Naughty Japan!

So, recently ANA pulled an advert because it was deemed racist. Go ahead and watch that link.

Personally I thought it was hilarious, but then I've been absorbing Japanese comedy for a few years now. Sure it picks on a stereotype, but I think Rupert Wingfield Hayes' analysis on this is pretty much on the mark*.

What annoys me more than anything is the reflex RACISM! reaction that lead to the advert getting pulled.

I'm not sure where the apparent outcry originated, but by the gods I hope it wasn't foreigners. Why? Because it does foreigners much more harm to the reputation of Westerners to complain about the advert's racism than this advert itself does.

In case you don't follow my logic here, remember what happened to all the foreigners when Fukushima underwent meltdown? About 500,000 of them smegged off, and as a result, the term "flyjin" was coined. Yes, that's even more derogatory than the advert, and twice as funny, in my opinion.

The point is, every time a kneejerk reaction like this occurs, it will make us foreigners look like complete pansies. As I commented on that article (see the link. Let's see if it passes moderation! **):

The cry for racism at every conceivable opportunity paints us increasingly as childish. Respect is earned by your actions, when one's notable actions consist primarily of such demands for respect, it to an extent undermines the other favourable attributes one might have.

Finally, A non-racism argument for you: If you had to employ someone, would you choose the one that was defensive when you accidentally laughed at a mistake on their CV, or the one who laughed with you?

In other words, if one's default position is to complain about racism in this way then it is closed minded: insofar as having a default position is closed minded. The open-minded stance is to try and understand the person stood opposite you, and work on what we have in common. You can have virtues such as justice, but equally when your sense of justice is causing you pain, is this indicative of injustice, or of a flaw in your sense of justice? Since laws change between countries, we can assume that justice (to some extent) is different between people. I'll leave that as a thought exercise for the reader ***.

Anyway, foreigners say worse things about themselves, and being big-nosed and blonde-haired actually puts you at the nice end of Japanese racism which is actually probably more fun than living in Japan as a Japanese (but I evidently have little experience in that area).

Finally, and more seriously, there are far, far worse aspects of Japanese media**** we could be picking on, like the biassed reporting of the war, or appeasement of far-right stances.

*For those too lazy to click the link (or if it dies), Mr Hayes reminds us that in Japan, blonde hair and a big nose aren't traits that are looked down upon. I would add that I'm not so sure when it comes to nose size... I never heard of a Japanese person getting a nose-job to look more Western.. But blonde hair is something commonly praised over here.

**To be honest, given the awful puntuation, I've half a mind to ask they delete it anyway, haw haw haw

*** all 2 of them, lol, though I think they are both clever enough to work out where I was going with this

****e.g. the insistence on popularising the band AKB48, even though everyone knows it causes bleeding in the ears of humans and other intelligent animals.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Aedict3 Slow and steady wins the race

A while back I posted about the glaring deficiencies between the paid-for Aedict3 and the freely available Aedict 2.

This week, Aedict 3 was updated and with it, so far as I can see, all of the features from aedict 2.

Its reassuring that the author is still working on the project, and I feel that my meagre investment in buying the paid-for version is starting to go the distance. That said, I'd still say that aedict3 has done little more than catch up with its predecessor. There are some nice changes, but these are entirely cosmetic so far as I can see. Nonetheless, it feels like there is momentum in the project, and perhaps aedict3 will soon surpass version 2.

The bottom line at the moment is that I still recommend version 2 if you're starting to seriously read in Japanese.

EDIT: Aedict 3 has finally overtaken it's older sibling, and I think people should now start seriously considering getting hold of it, especially if they read a lot of Japanese on their device see this blog post