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...?