Category Archives: Operating the Noodle

it’ll do. next

I used to be a perfectionist.  Maybe I still am – not sure.  Maybe more realist?

Anyway I’ve been thinking about how, not only some of the time, but pretty much all the time, good enough is, well, good enough.  Perhaps it just comes down to having a good eye for the point on the curve of diminishing returns where the slope goes uncomfortably vertical.

Robert Lundberg talks about this in his book on lute construction.   Since my ambition is to become a luthier, I read this with great attention to every word.  Of course, my instruments must be perfect!  So when he said that his standard was simply “good enough”; you can imagine that that caught my attention and I’ve been ruminating on it ever since.  (Granted that Lundberg’s version of “good enough” would seem “utterly flawless” to most people.  But the simple fact that if one cut was close enough that making a second cut was more trouble than it was worth, then the first cut would do – well, that certainly played a large part in his amazing productivity.  This is the man that once made about eighty experimental lutes to test a theory, after all.)  Certainly for a beginner, at the end of a year who will be more skilled; the luthier who slaved over five instruments, attempting to work them to perfection, or the luthier who built thirty to a standard of “good enough”?

Then there was my Q45.  I’ve spent inordinate quantities of time in my life pondering upon what car to get next.  Now my Q45, well, it has its issues, no doubt.  Lots of miles, and right now it needs a fair bit of work again.  But the fact is that every time I think of what to replace it with, I conclude that the upgrade simply wouldn’t be worth it.  I like it; it’s good enough.  At any rate at this point it seems that it has become “my car”, like something that’s nearly a part of me.  The notion of getting rid of it seems odd and ridiculous, like upgrading a body part.  So I’ll just keep fixing and upgrading it and save myself the time and trouble of replacement (with something that would certainly not be “good enough” in some other way).

I started a blog yesterday for my Japanese studies, and WordPress gives you around 80 themes to pick from.  You can of course also upload your own theme or modify the CSS, although they charge a bit extra for that.   There were amongst those six or eight themes with a look that appealed to me.  (Note that I didn’t have a set style in mind and try to match what I was imagining.  That way lies frustration, because, again, it’ll never be good enough.  Instead I looked at all of them with an open mind.)  The first two I tried wrapped my longish blog title in an awkward way.  The third one fit everything correctly and looked pretty good so I didn’t bother trying the rest.

There’s a great deal to be said, I’ve concluded, for stating simply that “this is how it is” and not worrying about it.

what are your japanese goals this year?

This is a typical new year’s post, typically late.

I was thinking of this issue a few days ago in an attempt to provide a little guidance to my efforts.  Wandering is perfectly fine mind you; constant contact, as Khatzumoto says, is more important than regimented progress.  Too much of that though and I end up just watching anime and calling it study!

So with Japanese, unlike most languages where your two fields of study are essentially the grammar and vocabulary, you have an additional field in the kanji.  Truth be told, I find it almost a little puzzling how for some people the kanji are a dreaded obstacle more than anything else.  In fact I suspect if it weren’t for the kanji I’d probably have picked a different language.  I find them utterly fascinating.

At the same time, they are just as much of a challenge as you’d think.  In essence, it’s as if you were going to a school or a workplace with 2000 colleagues and had to remember each of their faces and first and last names.

1) So for this year, I intend to go through Heisig with my trusty Kanji LS Touch loaded up and memorize the writings and meanings of all the general use kanji.  I’d also like to get a start on the readings, but most of that will probably come from –

2) the vocabulary, in which I would like to master the 3700-odd words from what used to be the JLPT 2.  I can see already that that’s going to require a fair bit of SRS work with sentences/phrases in addition to the regular use of Japanese Flip which I’ve been doing up till now.  Then,

3) in terms of grammar I don’t really have a set goal as such, other than I do want to finish my Japanese For Everyone text, which ought to take me to the point that I can hold a reasonable conversation.

Looking at it laid out like that and comparing it to my achievements up till now, this does look awfully optimistic.  However I am definitely much more seriously into Japanese study now since late last year than I’ve ever been before.  So while this represents what I would like to accomplish, it is certainly more of a direction than a destination.  The important thing is simply to stick with it every single day.

I guess you could say that about pretty much anything you’d like to achieve.

So if you’re studying Japanese as well, where do you see yourself at the end of the year?

RTK list for Kanji LS

Balancing my interest in the kanji etymology with my desire to learn them as fast as possible, I finally broke down and ordered Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, like everyone else already has.  I still want to study Henshall’s book but I’ll do that afterwards as it will make an excellent introduction to etymology study; it will do that a fair bit better than it will help learn them in the first place, I think.

Naturally the first thing I did was try to find a pre-compiled list that I could import in order to study the kanji in Kanji LS in the same order as the book.  Despite the long odds of this, someone has in fact already done this 🙂  So thanks to user “exxel” on the Reviewing the Kanji forum for his excellent work.  Download the list here.

Incidentally, exxel has intelligently put the whole list in one file, using the range selection capability of Kanji LS; I should’ve done the same thing but never thought of it.  If I am very bored one day I’ll redo my lists into one.

GRJC files for Kanji LS Touch

Bit of a specialized interest here.  This is for people who are learning kanji using Kanji LS Touch and who would like to follow the order in the excellent text, A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters by Kenneth G. Henshall.

With the new functionality in Kanji LS Touch that allows you to import your own sets of kanji, this becomes possible.  But it’s still a lot of work to get that many kanji in a row.  I’ve now done this for you, dividing the book into sets of 34 characters (yes, this is the same set size that KingKanji uses; this is not a coincidence 😉 ).  These files can be found at

I hope this is useful to at least one other person!

the creaking machinery

… has reluctantly begun to move again.  Gears mesh and groan, shafts grind and twirl, bearings screech, steam erupts from my ears – OK fine, it isn’t quite that dramatic, but the news is that I’ve seriously started Japanese study again after a too-long period of benign (?) neglect.  (Is there such a thing?)

Two factors conspired to create this happy state of affairs.  First was the fact that at the new job I have an hour lunch break and I decided that rather than spend an (additional) hour goofing off on the ‘net, I’d use the time for something useful.  I began with my main study book (Japanese For Everyone – highly recommended) but soon found that I was burning out on it yet again, perhaps because of the limited time I had during my break.  So then the second factor came into play, and that was my iPod Touch.  I would never have purchased such a thing, being way too cheap, but having had some good luck at the company Christmas do I got one for free (thanks John!).  It turns out I don’t use it for music much, but for small applications it’s a wonderful portable computer with some unique advantages – mainly, the touchscreen.  I had a look around and as it happened there has been a felicitous intersection of talent between iPhone developers and Japanese instructors.  These are the apps I mainly use.

For vocabulary I settled on Japanese Flip.  This is the app I use the most.  It’s almost addictive!  The app divides the vocabulary you will learn into five lists; untested, new, recent, old, and ancient.  As you correctly identify the meanings of the word flashcards, it moves it into an older list.  If you’ve been struggling with a word, it’ll require you to get it right more times before it moves it.  Sometimes it’ll test you from the recent list, less frequently from the old list, and once you’ve correctly answered a question from the old list it will move the word to the ancient list which you won’t see again until all the words in the set are mastered.  The lists it comes with are the standard JLPT lists, which you’d think are too big to deal with, but it simply chooses a random selection and then keeps the new list at 29 or 30 words.  The AI could use a little improvement, and of course the addition of sound files would be a massive improvement (at a massive cost of time and no doubt price of the app), but as it is it is simple and highly effective.

As a classroom replacement I have found Human Japanese to be exceptionally well done.  There are forty lessons (I think – I don’t have it in front of me) and I’m up to lesson fifteen.  So far it’s been mostly review but I expected that.  Should be getting into new material fairly soon.  It has plenty of interactivity and the text is written in such a tone that you can imagine a friendly teacher giving you a private lesson.  The cultural notes provide additional interest.

And lastly for my favourite part of this fascinating language, I really enjoy Kanji LS Touch.  I never thought I’d find a replacement for King Kanji but this is definitely it.  There are still some details to be ironed out though.  The latest update added the ability to import your own sets of kanji, which is invaluable if you are following a book as I am.  But it’s an awkward process, requiring the creation of text files that have to be in precisely the right format and encoding, and requiring access to a webspace.  Overall though, it’s a simply brilliant program.  I liked it so much that I also purchased the kana version, even though no one should need an app to learn kana.

In addition, I also installed the Kotoba dictionary program, which looks like it’s very nicely done, but to tell the truth I’ve almost not used it at all.   I used to use the Dokusha dictionary a fair bit on Palm devices, but mostly for the flashcard sets you could make and study in it, and that function is now achieved better by Japanese Flip.

The highly interactive approach to learning afforded by these different apps has, I must say, reignited my enthusiasm for Japanese study.  So much more than using my lunch break for study, often enough I find myself flipping through flashcards long after I should have been asleep at night.  Results have been steady and encouraging.  Watching anime is more enjoyable the more of it you can understand (although some fansubbers’ approach to translation results in more confusion if you understand half the dialogue than if you understood none of it!).  I’m now seriously planning to go through the JLPT tests as I near completion of the vocabulary set for the first test.

very well said

The wonderful thing about art is that it is always new.  This is because a work of art is not merely the sculpture in marble, the print on paper, the notes on the staff; the truth and essence of it is in the interaction between the artist and the audience.  And while seeing something for the first time is perhaps the strongest experience one can have with it, with a really good work one can appreciate new nuances and a fuller flavour over years and years of familiarity.  Perhaps the trick of it is simply to see it for the first time every time you look at it.

Mike Johnston, as usual, says it better than I can.

music, change, frustration

Just taking a break here from working on a Barrios study.  Now, this piece was I thought making reasonable progress.  That was until my lesson, where my teacher changed nearly half the left hand fingerings and also added a bunch of right hand fingerings that were quite different to what I normally do.

And I found that it has pretty much set me back to the very beginning.  Seriously, it’s almost exactly like learning a whole new piece.  Very little of the work I did on it before applies now.  It’s frustrating to say the least.  The new fingerings will definitely be an improvement in the long run, but it feels like – no, it isn’t just a feeling – that my whole effort at first was essentially wasted.

It’s a little disturbing to be honest, because it calls into question how much of the music is really in my head, how well do I understand the music itself, and how much of it is simply my fingers making the same movements that they have been accustomed to, in the nature of trained mice navigating a maze.

Well, lesson is on Tuesday and there’s no way I can get it to sound better than the last time we looked at it.  I’m going to start a new piece entirely, and with luck we can get it all sorted out and ready to learn with no changes so that I don’t have to go through this two steps forward, one-point-nine steps back annoyance again.

thoughts, on becoming a fish

Well, still swim training every morning (more or less, this week I got there every morning).  Steady progress, is good.  Today I started “overswitch” which is the last drill in the TI system before actual swimming … it’s basically a standard freestyle swim stroke without the breathing (yes you do breath, you just pause the drill to do it).  Went well.  It’s strange though, been doing the “zipperswitch” all week and sometimes it feels just perfect and sometimes I feel so unbalanced that I seem to be about to tip over in some direction or other.  Got a bit of that today but not much.

Learning swimming is basically the same as learning kanji.  Or anything else.  You master the skills in blocks, start with the micro-segments of it, eventually that series of strokes or whatever it is becomes “one thing” and now you can use that as a single block that can be incorporated into a meta-block that will in its own turn become a single block for the next level up.  And the next thing you know you have it.

And then you go back to the beginning and polish the micro-segments that you started with to perfection.  Because a building is only as good as its materials.

kanji wa muzukashii ja arimasen

So I just restarted learning Japanese, … again.

When will I ever learn that it’s more effective to stick with something than to take three runs at it from the beginning, before quitting yet again.

Anyway the Kanji to me are the soul of the Japanese language, and are a large part of why I want to learn it. I am making good progress now with King Kanji on my PDA and Heisig’s book. The mnemonics in the book are sometimes indispensable, sometimes worthless. Sometimes I can remember a character just fine with only the appearance of it (and stroke order, very important I find) and don’t need a mnemonic at all. Sometimes I make up my own mnemonic. Also I think using just the book would be ten times as difficult as using it in combination with King Kanji.

So far I’ve been at it again for about two weeks and have learned approximately 200 Kanji, so I’m about 10% done. A lot of those were just review, but the latest study set (35 characters) I seem to have pretty much mastered in two days using this system.

Oddly though I have not yet started learning the pronunciations. Just the meanings and stroke order. Not sure of why I’m so reluctant to start aside from my usual reluctance to begin anything.

What I wish there were though, is a system for learning based on the radicals that make up the characters. Heisig does this to a considerable extent, but what I would like is a learning order, not by grade level as Heisig does it, but rather by building block; where you would learn first the characters that are also radicals. I think this would make it a great deal easier to use the mnemonic system. As it is, I often find that I am expected to remember a character based on the meaning of a radical that I haven’t yet learned.

I think to a large extent I am approaching Japanese learning backwards to what most Westerners would do. Most learn the spoken language first, and if they ever do learn to read and write, that’s much later. I heard somewhere that Japanese people use a completely different part of their brains for language than Westerners. Makes sense, because it’s so visual. Japanese writing has an extra dimension than writing with alphabets – the characters themselves hold meaning, which you don’t even have to map to a particular sequence of sounds in order to understand. Contrast that to alphabetic writing where the letters themselves only represent sounds and nothing more. That’s why I think that learning the Kanji is central to a real understanding of the Japanese language.

Anyway just some thinking aloud about this interesting subject.


So, went to see the Simpsons movie on the weekend.

In my defense, we were pretty bored.

I was expecting dumb slapstick and we got that.  Lots of very funny stuff, it must be said.

But why must they feel it necessary to have the mocking of Christianity be a major theme of the movie???*  and it was a major theme, not just a dash here and a pinch there.  Have to say, if it had been the “religion of peace” du jour they offended instead, there would be hundreds dead already from the “protests” (riots).

Funnily enough though, Grandpa Simpson’s prophecies that he spoke in his “Holy Ghost fit” actually all came true.  Which is more than you can say for the vast majority of real life Pentecostal “prophecies”.

*yes, don’t answer that, we all already know.