Stuff I Say

iPhone App Review: Puzzle Quest Ep. 1&2

Posted in Uncategorized by 51future on July 31, 2009

While the concept of Puzzle Quest is both frighteningly addictive and a whole lot of fun, the actual iPhone implementation reeks of a quick DS port without any attention to the detail or performance that iPhone users deserve. This review will be divided up into two sections, one reviewing the gameplay and the other reviewing the software itself.

Puzzle Quest’s basic gameplay involves matching colored gems in groups of 3, 4 and 5. Matching these gems supplies you with mana to cast spells that change existing runes on the board, deal direct damage to your opponent and/or provide you with bonuses like double-damage or improved defense. Matching skulls causes direct damage to your opponent and battles consist of taking turns back and forth until one of you wins. While random chains and luck will always play a factor in battles, the ability to level up your character, gain enemy spells, ride mounts that give you special powers, and improve yourself via gold and items means that over time you’ll feel your more powerful, while still being challenged due to a number of factors. Furthermore, the depth of all these things, including the ability to siege cities, do quests, gain special items and hunt for new runes means something like 40 or 50 hours of gameplay, really. And you’ll want to, because all this is far too addicting for its own good.

As far as the iPhone port itself is concerned, there are a number of issues that exist even in the current version. Small locations on the map are difficult, if not impossible to select, sometimes and on my 3G there is a little lag when you open certain screens (leveling up, doing things at your citadel, getting rumors) that makes pressing certain on-screen buttons infuriating. You’ll be jabbing the screen over and over, trying to put that one point in Air Mastery, only to accidentally dump all your points into when the screen finally catches up to you and then when you go to try and remove them, you’ll depress the button and watch as Puzzle Quest flounders. Navigating the map can be a pain as well, as you’ll often move to the wrong place and have to fight something you didn’t want to because you couldn’t properly select your final destination. While the fighting itself is mostly fine, selecting spells, especially spells that target specific pieces on the board introduces further frustration, because it’s unresponsive enough to bug you, but far from unplayable. Meanwhile, the graphics are somewhat unclear and muddy, and you’ll come across a number of benign graphical glitches on your quest, some of which require a restart or two to fix themselves.

My final opinion is as follows. The game itself– the concept and the intellectual property, is fascinating. It’s addictive enough that you might just alienate your friends and lovers playing it. If you’re a perfectionist like me, you’ll play 40, 50 hours just to complete all the quests and catch all the monsters. However, the responsiveness of the game will frustrate you, and you’ll wonder why they didn’t take the time to create a native iPhone version of it, one with crisp, new art, larger and more responsive buttons and touch zones, basically, something that was designed for this device, rather than an obvious port from some other device.

Buy it, play it, and review it with the hope that Puzzle Quest 2 will have more polish than its predecessor does.

Romanization or Why I hate X, Ys and Zs

Posted in Uncategorized by 51future on July 13, 2009

I’m going to go ahead and start this off with two hypotheses: Blue is blue and green is green, and also, Japanese romanization is a linguistic orphan, whose only real strength is conciseness, and (to a lesser extent) interoperability.

So let’s talk about romanization first.

The Jesuits back in the 1600s, more specifically a Japanese Catholic priest or group of priests, were responsible for the first iteration of romanization, which was created for interoperability with their Western printing presses. They spread the word of God and his romanization of the Japanese language until Japan eventually closed itself off from foreign intervention. It wasn’t until a man named Hepburn popularized another romanization system in the late 1800s, which eventually came to be known as Hepburn romanization, that it came back into use. Now it’s unclear to me, just how the next series of events transpired, as I’m not a scholar studying romanization, but according to my digging, Hepburn popularized Japanese romanization proposed by the Society for the Romanization of the Japanese Alphabet (社団法人日本ローマ字会). Shortly thereafter, a Japanese physicist, Aikitsu Tanakadate, created his own variation of romanized script– Nihon-shiki (日本式ローマ字). His intention was to completely replace kana and kanji with the roman alphabet, in order to make Japan more competitive with the Western world. Had he succeeded, he would have at the very least heralded great change, for better or worse, to the Japanese language. After that, in the 1900s, the Japanese cabinet declared Kunrei-shiki (訓令式ローマ字) as the unified standard, which was based on Nihon-shiki, probably because it is more “regular” and thus more logical to the Japanese who are used to the logical progression of kana along phonetic lines and columns. While this is not something I’ve ever really understood very well, learning kana in phonetic groups can aid one when it comes time to conjugate verbs, apparently. Kunrei-shiki was abolished by the Allied occupational forces, and then later reinstated by the Japanese cabinet. A modernized version of the Hepburn system is used for the majority of official documents and public works (road signs, place names, etc.) in Japan today.

Now, on Twitter, @Tomoakiyama notes that Japanese psychologically assign the さしすせそ line of hiragana to sa-si-su-se-so and za-zi-zu-ze-zo respectively in romaji. This is an unfortunate consequence of bureaucracy. Japanese children learn Kunrei-shiki romanization in elementary school in order to write their names and practice the alphabet. However, when they graduate and go on to junior high school, they spend their first month in English classes trying to unlearn Kunrei-shiki so that they can write their names according to the Hepburn romanization that’s outlined in their junior high textbooks.

Kunrei-shiki “makes sense” to Japanese people in that it remains regular down the phoneme lines. The sa-si-su-se-so line is easy to write because all you have to do is change the vowel, however, unfortunately it isn’t very accurate. In my opinion, the ultimate goal of any system of romanization should be to map the roman alphabet to corresponding Japanese sounds in the way that allows a reader to render the sounds accurately. Thus, it makes sense that sa represents the sound さ in Japanese– it is the phonetic equivalent. Su, se, and so furthermore adhere to this rule. This happy go lucky world falls apart at the “siems” so to speak, as “si” doesn’t correspond to the Japanese sound for し, which is most certainly “shi”.

Now here’s where I’m going to lay a few things out.

First of all, the only reason “si” psychologically appeals to Japanese people is because they learn it first. If you taught your children at home than an apple was an orange, and vice versa, they’d be confused and upset to find out the opposite at school. Similarly, if you spent most of your early life memorizing kana from a chart that had the first kana in each line redacted or omitted, you’d find yourself crippled and confused when the time came to correct your mistake.

Second, teachers who teach romanization, and, I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate too, that this includes most Japanese people in general, don’t understand the concept of phonics (in relation to say, Hangul or the Roman alphabet). In Japanese, kana represent one sound and one sound alone. In the cases where the spoken sound changes or diverges, so does the kana. In English, “ki” can be “ki as in kit” or “ki as in kite.” Letters are like tinker-toys. You put them together and you create a larger whole (say a robot) that dictates the way the different parts of the whole sound (suddenly, those connected bits become arms and legs, and are labeled and perceived differently than they were before the whole came into view), whereas Japanese kana are like predefined computer variables, no matter where they appear, they have the same value, always. This leads to the situation where teachers teach romanization from a chart. They tell their students, who are tiny and have absolutely no exposure to anything comparable, that “si” corresponds to し and that’s that. I think that most Japanese children internalize “si” as a unit, much like they do し in Japanese, and that if you were to ask them whether, say, two consonants sitting together, say, “sk” were a valid construction, they’d almost surely respond in the negative. (And they’d be correct, as far as the romanization of their own language is concerned.)

Really, the blame here lies upon the Japanese government’s wishy-washy policies regarding official romanization and in fact, highlights how apathetic Japanese people are about creating ONE MORE writing system for a language that already has two more than most.

Now that I’ve reached the end of this diatribe, I have one other thing to say, and that is that Japanese culture fosters a lot of memes that gain noteriety specifically because they are Japanese and supposedly indicative of Japanese philosophy, even though when you really sit down and think about it, they’re really more stupid than anything. Failure to come to terms with one, single, worthwhile way of romanizing the Japanese language is just one example of this fervent desire to do it the Japanese way, irrespective of practicality. Two other examples I can think of off the top of my head involve color: namely, the color of the sun and traffic lights.

Scientifically, the sun is closer to white than yellow, but when viewed through the atmosphere, the scattered wavelengths of light appear to be yellow– most of the time. As the sun sets, this scattering becomes more pronounced and the sun can take on a red, orange, or even purple hue as it sinks beneath the horizon and colors the surrounding sky. I’m not sure how I was first introduced to the color of the sun, but I surmise that I just looked up in the sky one day and make that deduction on my own. In Japan, however, children are told, over and over again, until it permeates their very being, that the sun is, in fact, red. Ask any Japanese person what color the sun is, and aside from a few scientists who know better, they will tell you that it’s red. This comes from the flag and traditional Japanese tradition. The Rising Sun, the symbol of the Japanese empire, is red, and thus, culturally, the sun is red. The same red they paint their postboxes with. In the same vein, green lights in Japan are blue. Japanese people will tell you that blue (青) can mean either green or blue, but while a green traffic light can be called blue, a blue sky can’t be referred to as being green (緑). There are a number of traffic lights, some blue and others green, that tell you to “GO.” There are some green and some blue lights in both Japan and America. I’ll even go as far as to say that colloquially, Americans might refer to the “go-light” as a “green light,” when discussing lights that tell you it is legal (and safe) to go. However, the color green does not and will not ever equal the color blue. If you were to show an American a Japanese traffic signal that had a blue (rather than green) signal in it and then ask them what color the light was, the American would tell you it was blue. Whereas, if you were to show a Japanese person an American traffic signal that had a typical green bulb in it and ask them what color the corresponding light was, the Japanese person would invariably tell you it was blue.

This allegiance to specific cultural memes in spite of the ultimate truth to the contrary being both easy to grasp and widely understood, is too responsible for the notion that [psychologically "si" is closer to し than "shi" is], even though the truth is simply that the government mandates that “si” is taught to kids before “shi” is taught to them and that their teachers, teachers who have been teaching “si” before “shi” for who knows how many years, don’t really understand the difference anyway, because, aside from romanization’s function in the modern QWERTY keyboard, its usefulness on road signs, it’s role in helping to compact J-E and E-J dictionaries, romaji as a replacement for kanji or kana in written documents is all but useless to both Japanese people and Japanese language learners alike.

Note: Tomo notes that you can type “zi” on a computer keyboard and get じ and while this is absolutely true, I think this is less about linguistics and more about the QWERTY keyboard and corresponding IME software being flexible enough to accommodate everyone, Kunrei and Hepburn enthusiasts alike.

More Analysis on the iPhone’s No. 1 Sales Records Last Week in Japan

Posted in Uncategorized by 51future on July 6, 2009

So I saw this story via a friend on Twitter, and after reading it I had a lot to say about it, which you can see on the comments over there. However, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about it here, on my own site a little too.

The premise of the article is that the weekly sales numbers of the iPhone 3GS in Japan on the week it launched– namely its No.1 spot, aren’t all that indicitive on it’s popularity and I agree. Weekly sales numbers represent short-term gains which are generally skewed towards new products emerging at the top.

However, delving deeper into the article, we are presented with a few observations about why the iPhone isn’t all that great for Japanese people, which I think, deserve a little discussion.

First, this article has a comparison of iPhone 3G features compared to other cell phones in Japan as of 2008. He uses this data to show that Japanese phones are basically pretty slick and furthermore, to infer that Japanese people don’t really need fancy smartphones to do the things they like to do. At the top of that list are things like One-Seg (TV), which is more of a curiosity than anything else, as reception tends to be terrible, among other problems, followed by things like hardware customization (namely the little loops that you hang ornaments off of) and subscriber IDs for Japanese-only cell phone sites. The article is old and some of those things, like One-Seg, skins, etc. have been mostly remedied, so in the latest article he notes that the iPhone can’t subscribe to the big three mobile social networking sites in Japan, Mixi, Mobage-town, and Gree.

This is true, but it isn’t the iPhone’s fault. These sites lock it out and they tell you why too– because when you go to those sites on the iPhone, they tell you that you aren’t using a phone! You’re using a PC to access them. Get off your PC and go get your phone silly! He asks whether you would use a phone that doesn’t have access to Facebook, Myspace, etc. and the answer that an American person would give you, would probably be a resounding YES. We’ve been buying phones for years that can’t access the internet or popular social networking sites, but then again, the culture is different. Japanese people, I think, feel safer when they can cloak themselves in the odd veil of anonymity on sites like Mixi and communicate with people who may or may not be advertisers or criminals in disguise. And they typically use their phones for things other than calling people, because mobile minutes in Japan are more expensive than typical American plans. So while the question isn’t applicable to Americans as much as it is to Japanese, I think that the logic is sound. Access to social networking in Japan is probably a big deal, but the better question to ask is, as I mentioned in the comments there: “Would you continue to use Facebook if they locked you out of it based on your hardware or OS?” The fact that Mixi doesn’t allow iPhone users to register is really Mixi’s problem, not Apple’s or Softbank’s, and I think that anyone who’s thinking about an iPhone is probably smart enough to figure out where the real blame lies and make their own decision.

In the comments, we started talking about the fact that DoCoMo couldn’t secure the iPhone and while I think this is interesting, I’m not really sure what that means as part of the greater picture. Although Akky claims that Apple has managed to secure contracts with the biggest/most popular providers in America and other places, I’d like to think most Americans and Europeans might disagree that Apple has secured the best carriers in their respective areas. For every person who’s used AT&T, there’s someone who would rather have an iPhone on Verizon or T-Mobile, and, interestingly enough, I imagine Verizon didn’t take the iPhone contract initially, because, like DoCoMo, they wanted too much control over the software– control that Apple wasn’t willing to give up because it would defeat the purpose. Softbank’s new subscriber rates have soared recently because of the iPhone and I’m sure DoCoMo would have loved to claim the same thing, had they been able to loosten their iron grip on the handset enough to have taken it under their wing. DoCoMo couldn’t allow the iPhone on their network because they didn’t want people to A) use a non-iMode browser to access the internet, and B) have access to 3rd-party applications on the App Store. i-Mode is DoCoMo’s moneymaker and lovechild and they think it’s the greatest thing in the goddamn world. When Apple was like, “Here, check out the whole internet,” they probably recoiled in surprise and told Jobs to shove off. Really, the only thing DoCoMo has going for it right now is it’s huge subscriber base. You talk to Japanese people who are on DoCoMo and all they do is admit that, “Yeah, it’s expensive,” and that they “should probably change service providers, but I dunno– my friends use it and I don’t want to bother changing to save a bit of money.”

Akky comments that new Japanese phones surprise and enthrall viewers when you show off their features, but I disagree. I still remember when I went into the DoCoMo shop to cancel my contract a year ago. The employees there all stopped what they were doing and ran over to check out my new phone. When I show people things like this (my latest RunKeeper run): it blows their mind. Show me a Japanese phone that does that and I’ll agree that Japanese phones are all that and a bag of chips. Until then the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen a Japanese phone do is One-Seg, and I got to watch that for exactly 3 seconds before it cut out and the guy spent the rest of our lunch trying to find a signal again. (The iPhone does One-Seg now anyway, with an add-on.)

The final bit I have to say involves cell phone-only sites in Japan, things like Mixi and blogs and stuff. People say that these are important– that since the iPhone doesn’t support them (again, this is not a question of support, but rather, sites locking out Mobile Safari) it’s not that popular. Just how popular these sites are generally, I don’t know. Lots of really popular things (SMAP, Greeen, etc.) are only popular within specific groups in Japan (中学生、高校生, for instance). My girlfriend uses AU’s mobile net to find us hotels and information sometimes, but when it comes to the real heavy lifting, like the hotel we booked today, she does it on a PC because on a phone it’s just inconvenient or impossible. I’ve only met one or two people in real life who bother with Mixi, et. al, and I used to know a high school girl who had a cell phone-only blog that I didn’t end up reading, because, well, my iPhone was locked out. Furthermore, cell phone sites in Japan are hotbeds of criminal activity and online bullying, mostly because (I imagine) people think they’re more private than full-on computer web sites, coupled with the fact that the average young (ie. stupid/exploitable) person in Japan is more likely to have a cell phone than a computer. My point is that I’m not sure these perceived uses are really as popular as the typical Japanese person might think and I think the greater issue with the iPhone is that Japanese hardware moves faster than Apple’s American design focus in regards to things like Suica railpass access built into phones and the digital wallet features that are catching on here in Japan.

In closing, I agree with Akky that the numbers aren’t everything. However, I disagree that the numbers aren’t substantial. Softbank is the weakest carrier, as far as subscriber numbers are concerned, in Japan and those sales represent more than just hardware– every iPhone comes with a Softbank contract.

And another important aspect of all this that no one article has really touched on is the sales of iTouch devices in Japan. Those devices can download applications from the App Store too and as far as I know iTouch sales in Japan are doing well on their own. If the iTouch gets as much market penetration as the original iPods have in Japan, sales in the App Store are going to explode regardless of how the iPhone does, and this will push other Japanese industries, namely websites and other gateways to support Mobile Safari out of necessity. Taking this a step further, I postulate that kids in Japan growing up with an iTouch today, which they will be, given that Apple has all but pushed the other, older iPod designs out to pasture, are going to be buying iPhones in droves when they grow up and grow out of all the microblogging and (anti?)social networking they do on their phones when they’re young. Why? Because they can use all their applications they’re already purchased across all their devices. And hell, the iPhone even has proper cross-carrier e-moji now!

So, yes Akky is right. Those numbers aren’t specifically important or indicative of anything major, but the underlying trend, I think, is pretty clear.

Some Thoughts on Learning, The Brain, and Why AJATT Isn’t ALLTHAT Without Any Work

Posted in Japanese Language by 51future on June 25, 2009

There are really only two or three things I do in my spare time anymore: study Japanese, play Halo 3 on Xbox Live!, and take pictures. I would like to say that I’m adequate at all of these things. I possess a functional level of Japanese, I typically fall within the top three in any given Halo match, and my pictures aren’t always total shit.

Now recently on Twitter I’ve been getting into arguments concerning ways to study Japanese and I feel I’m qualified to talk about studying Japanese because I’ve been doing it for a while now and I’ve tried all sorts of things. I have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. What is effective and what isn’t. I think that while studying is very personal, learning isn’t. Learning happens pretty much the same way in most brains and studying is really a question of how best to cram information into your mind now so that you’ll know it later.

This is all very non-scientific, but I think that the majority of things we learn are internalized in basically the same way. Think of drawers or compartments in your brain. Before you can learn anything, you need a place to put it. If it helps to have a word for this, let’s call it context. Now, when you’re a kid you spend lots of time constructing that infrastructure. I think learning language learning is so effective then because absolutely everything you do is intrinsically connected to learning your native language. Every time you turn on the TV or fight with your parents, crack open a book or fail a test, all of these situations and the feelings associated with them become a framework for knowledge. I’m picturing a sort of mental beehive– perhaps just the wrinkled surface of the cortex is a tantalizing enough memory.

Think of the word “fail” or maybe “unsatisfactory” for instance. When I think of these words, I feel a renewed connection to childhood and my grade school education– unsatisfactory particularly, has a certain strong connotation for me. I was an honor roll student for most of my life, but I remember once in grade school when I got a U on my report card for behavior and my teacher told me that U meant “unsatisfactory”. That day that teacher basically traumatized me and my mind, in response to that stress, hollowed out a cavity in the hive and cemented that word with that connotation in there, resulting in a very strong image of just what it feels like to be “unsatisfactory”. I don’t feel physcially sick when I hear it, like I did that day in school, but the meaning of the word and better yet, the exact circumstances where I believe the word accurately describes the situation are crystal clear. There is absolutely zero doubt in my mind with regards to what is and isn’t “unsatisfactory.”

Now for the meat of my thoughts: AKA, “Foundation, Foundation, Foundation.”

First, I don’t think that immersion-based learning for adults works the same way for adults as it does for children. Now, when I say this, I’m not referring to effectiveness. Children pick up language more quickly than adults do– that much is clear. As to why, I think it’s because as a child, words and experience are often one and the same. The brain, in its frenzied desire to communicate, interweaves the two such that your experiences shape your perception of meaning to a great degree, but as you learn more, your words begin to shape your experiences. The younger you are, the less robust your library of context is, and thus, when you have a new experience, you tend to internalize that experience so that you can apply words (and therefore meaning) to it later. However, as an adult, your working lexicon far exceeds your propensity to experience new sensation and therefore, when you experience something, you tend to label it with words, rather than the other way around. Picture a chest of drawers, OK? As a kid, each experience becomes a sort of drawer that you stuff words into later, adults on the other hand tend to see and experience things and then go rummaging through their existing drawers in order to look for applicable words. So what does all this mean for immersion-based learning like AJATT? That, I’ll get into in a moment, but for now it’s important to understand that I’m saying that the young brain spends time internalizing context, whereas the elder brain dedicates itself to sorting and applying labels (aka. words) to that context.

Now, these rules are not hard and fast, and while you’ve probably experienced a majority of all the stimuli you’ll run into growing up by a certain age somewhere in the midst of the terrible teens, as an adult there will be things you experience that are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before and those expereiences will likely trigger the same sort of context-mapping you did as a child– HOWEVER, and this is important, the majority of context you run into as an adult will be context you’ve already experienced. Even context in a place as fantastic and terrible as Japan.

The reason why Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji is so effective, I think, is that it forces you to use imaginative memory to sculpt out new containers for each and every kanji BEFORE you begin to incorporate those characters into Japanese words. These new containers, combined with Heisig’s “keywords” are tenuously linked to existing context (namely: words in your native tongue) so that these links can later be strengthened and easily incorporated into the greater mass that is your greater understanding.

So what does that have to do with immersion then? Well, we function well in our own country, because no matter what the situation, we have words in these spaces I’ve been talking about. If, at a business dinner, someone says, “Hey, get up and give a little speech about your latest project,” your brain processes that request at a very high level. You might weigh the pros and cons of lying about it, or of laughing the request off and/or if you do decide to grant that request, you’ll then start considering exactly how long you should be doing what you’re doing and what’s on the line. Language comes into play only at the moment you open your mouth and thinking about the words and sentences themselves, depending on what brand of psychosis you subscribe to, is often the least of your worries, because while it may be hard for some of us to figure out what words in what order might be best, the brain faces no situation where every drawer (the lexicon, in this case) it opens is empty or lacking, as it often does when you asked to produce foreign language on the spot.

What all this means is that when a kid sits down and watches a drama on TV, or gets into a fight with a friend, or fails a test, that experiences shapes the vessel that related words will eventually occupy, whereas when you, an adult, sits down and tries to learn from immersion, you spend more time rummaging through your existing words and meaning trying to classify and label than you do err.. sculpting out new places to put all the new words you’re hearing. Because of this fundamental difference in the way the brain deals with incoming information, it’s my humble opinion that a foundation in the target language– namely words and meaning is all but necessary for dealing with immersion-related information overload in a way that facilitates long-term learning. If every language learner came to the table with 8000 lexical items and started to immerse themselves, I hypothesize that they could become fluent in absolutely no time at all, complicated grammar notwithstanding.

Now, I realize that this all sounds very easy to swallow, after all, if you know 8000 words, wouldn’t you be 90% of the way to fluency anyway? And what is fluency, after all? Isn’t it just being able to say things– sentences, words, phrases correctly? No, I consider fluency as a measure of your ability to properly navigate complex social interactions using appropriate language in a grammatically consistent manner. So no, knowing 8000 words, just like saying you know 2000 kanji, really has nothing to do with fluency, per say. Without these words, most people are likely to revert back to their native language when processing new, foreign stimuli. However, people who possess a large vocabulary but lack the proper experience can use their adult brain’s habits to their advantage– they can focus on the context and use their superior ability to sort, list and label to apply the right words to their new containers, rather than trying to stuff a bunch of foreign words into their preexisting hierarchy.

With that said, I don’t proclaim that you should abandon all that prime real estate you already have sitting around in your brain completely. Far from it. It’s actually incredibly effective to use those existing spaces as temporary receptacles for vocabulary you can easily learn now and catagorize later. (That’s another article for another day, but for now, just know that I’m talking about learning Japanese words and associating them with their native English counterparts by studying them a certain way.)

The point of this article, I guess, boils down to a few simple facts:

1. Yes, immersion works. So that means things like AJATT, watching dramas on TV, and reading newspapers are effective exercises. However…

2. Immersion without a proper lexicon is inefficient. Unless you’re a child, your brain is actively sabotaging each and every effort you make to immerse yourself, slowing down your progress.

3. SRS (Spaced Repetition Systems) make it easy to fortify your existing lexicon, and with the proper amount of determination, one can streamline the process of learning vocabulary, such that future immersion results in a different sort of learning that is far more conducive to fluency than simply immersing yourself and waiting for epiphany.

Ultimately, given an infinite amount of time, one can do pretty much anything, however, for myself, at least, I don’t have an infinite amount of time and for me, efficiency is key. Sitting around and reading a story in Japanese, or watching a movie is only fun if I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what it is that I’m missing. In fact, I stopped mining compounds and sentences from the books I was reading and instead began to skip over words I didn’t know, simply to streamline the experience and make it more fun– and I can do that because I’m also going through Kanji in Context and I know that I’ll see the words I didn’t bother looking up at some point in my systematic study. And I’ve since postponed the other books I was planning on reading until I get through a good bit of KiC in order to maximize their impact and get the most out of them.

Next time, I’ll talk about how I study, as my methodology will cast some more light on some of the things I’ve talked about in this article– namely, the methods the succeeded vs. the methods that failed, and what all that experience has contributed to my hypothesis presented here.

Sore Losers in the App Store

Posted in Uncategorized by 51future on January 27, 2009

There are a lot of devs bemoaning the app store for it’s lack of quality applications and blaming customers (and Apple) for driving down app prices and making it impossible to create high-end apps that will sell for premium prices.

It’s called competition, folks. I know it’s hard, understanding how business is outside of the little Apple-shaped bubble you’ve been living in, but $30 or $40 dollars for an application that adds perspective to pictures? You can sit there and tell me it’s worth it, but it’s also crazy. To expect to then go and charge, on the iPhone, anywhere near the same premium prices that drive the mac piracy machine is completely unreasonable. These are iPhone applications. I tap in the price of my meal after dinner or spend 5 minutes playing a game while waiting in line at the bank. You’re competing against a candy bar or a phone call to my girlfriend– both of which fall squarely in line with a lot of the most popular iPhone app prices: $0.99 and free.

That’s ignoring the fact that Apple isn’t doing anything to encourage low prices– as far as I know, they’ve never dictated the price of any app on the app store. If your competition lowers their app to $0.99 to get on the top 100 list, well, damn, you’ve just been bested by your fellow man. Build a faster application bundle or a prettier UI. Update your program and play with the price until you’ve reached a happy medium and then create something new that Joe Schmoe can’t price out of relevancy. Bitching about it on the internet, especially when your app, Twitterific doesn’t hold a candle to Tweetie (and/or Tweetdeck (when comparing the mac versions), even), just proves you should go back to your contract job and stop trying to compete in a market that doesn’t bend over backwards to suit your whims.

Ultimately, this is one of those awkward “It’s not me, it’s you,” situations.

I think the second paragraph was a little unclear, so I’ll mention that yes, I know that Picturesque is a mac app. My first point was that even the simplest mac apps are stupidly expensive. Following that, I think it’s stupid for developers to think that they can just go and charge the same crazy prices for applications on the iPhone with greatly reduced functionality. It’s also stupid that the most prominent developers blame Apple, of all things. Apple has given developers a completely captive audience (jailbreaking is the fringe science of the iPhone world– yes, I know it’s easy. Yes, I’ve done it. But most people don’t and even the people who do still tend to shop at the app store) and they’ve given developers a DIRECT way to reach everybody with an iPhone and they’re complaining that Apple is colluding against them on the price front? What? What ever happened to advertising anyway? Instead of making you advertise your shitty iPhone app on your backwoods “company” website, Apple’s given you a storefront that’s availible 24/7 AND you can still put your marketing on your own site.

Oh wait, you still can’t fund/market/burn piles of money while laughing about your iPhone application? Then maybe you need to find another job.

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Progress and Happiness are Inversely Proportional

Posted in Japan, Japanese Language by 51future on September 17, 2008

I went to my small school today and as soon as I got there I was accosted by my vice-principal who pulled me into the little counseling room next to the principals office and told me some grave news. The story starts last week on Friday. I took pictures at the Sport’s Festival which I had printed and brought in to show the staff. My original plan had been to give the students I had taken pictures of their own photos, you know, distribute as many of them as I could, and then throw the rest away. I mean, I didn’t print them out for myself, because I don’t really have any use for the prints when I have the original RAWs and JPEGs on my computer. The point is, I had printed these out for the students. Anyway, on Friday, my vice-principal told me she wanted me to make a poster the next time I came in. I had mixed feelings about the idea (mostly because I’m not very creative in that sense) but agreed to it anyway. However, this week (Wednesday) when I came in, she dropped a bomb and told me that *WE* had a situation on our hands. Why it was “we” and not her, I’m not sure. I still blame her for the whole thing, because it was clearly her fault.

What happened was, in her zeal to show off my pictures, she’d tipped off the student body (about 60 or so students at this school) about the existence of the prints. They came to look at them and loved them. They told her they themselves wanted to make a poster from the shots and she, not really thinking about it, gave them the pictures and her blessing. This is where it gets stupid. They took the shots and made an awesome poster– by cutting all the original pictures up and coming up with something really creative and unique; far more interesting than anything I would have come up with. Of course, when vice-principal realized what they had done, she told them that both she and the students might have to reimburse me for the photos because they’d cut them up without my permission. She told me that they’d be coming by today to prostrate themselves in front of me and apologize for their misdeeds. I, on the other hand, was somewhat perturbed by the whole situation since what they did is exactly what I would have wanted them to do, had I known there was interest. The poster was awesome.

So the first thing I did was to explain to her that it wasn’t their fault, since she gave them permission. She should be the one apologizing to me. But I told her she didn’t have to. No problem. I liked the poster. Put that up and let’s all get on with our lives. God knows these kids need some kind of ray of light in their life.

But no, the comedy of errors continued.

The kids apologized to me and I explained that I liked the poster. Let’s put that sucker up. But no. The vice-principal tells them to come and fix a few things at lunch to get it ready for posting. Whatever. I think she was angry because they had pasted a funny picture of her on the poster and then told her that they were poking fun at her. Well, actually I know this. That and a few other pictures were slated for removal before the poster went up in the hall.

By the time lunch time rolled around I was sweaty and in pain. I had a terrible fucking headache and no classes in the afternoon (both a blessing and a curse). The rest of the day sort of coasted on by while I studied kanji and eventually at around 4PM I started packing up. One of the kids “studies English” for 5 minutes after school so I stayed after to give him a vocabulary test and it was after that that I found out the true fate of the poster. Somehow, through a combination of both teachers who didn’t want the poster to go up because there wasn’t a picture of EVERY student in the school in it, combined with the protests of a few girls who didn’t want THEIR picture on the poster, the whole thing– everything, had collapsed. As far as I know, they’re going to throw the damn thing away so as not to hurt everyone’s feelings.

Progress and happiness are inversely proportional folks.

This same vice-principal wonders why Japan doesn’t have very many top-tier athletes in the Olympics, even when most students in Japan spend more time running and playing soccer than they do in class. Instead of putting up a great collage of shots at the expense of a few modest girls, the whole project was canned after it had been completed, all because the vice-principal decided that a doctrine of mediocrity for the sake of fairness was the way to go. I don’t blame her specifically and I’m not writing this to call anyone out. She was only doing what any other Japanese person would do in that situation. Eliminate individuality for the sake of the group.

So what then, does this have to do with studying Japanese?

Well, this is basically where my argument for the importance of Heisig’s method for studying the kanji begins and ends. See, in a typical Japanese language class at the college level, one learns words– sounds, basically, and then as the course progresses, you apply those sounds to Sino-Japanese characters forthwith known as kanji. The kanji aren’t treated any differently from anything else you learn in Japanese class. They’re just these complicated figures that are typically taught with little or no rhyme or reason, mentioned only in passing with the implication being that you need to memorize them in order to progress in the class.

In my own Japanese classes, no one ever explained the differences between on- and kun-readings, or that there even were such things. Often, kanji were introduced with only a single reading, for instance, 食べる — たべる without any mention that the kanji was functionally different as soon as you started seeing it in compounds. Stroke order was talked about. It’s important, they said. Memorize it. Only through my own personal study did I realize that most modern electronic dictionaries use stroke order to tell what kanji you’re trying to look up on the touch pad. Or that learning proper stroke order improves your handwriting and is absolutely necessary in order to correctly write some of the more complicated radicals. Nobody told me about radicals either, what role they played in the formation of any given character. I learned the SKIP method, probably the easiest way of looking up kanji in a printed dictionary, on my own. I specifically remember one instance in my college career where this lack of knowledge came to a head:

“I’m having some trouble in Japanese, Sensei. I can’t remember kanji very easily and I don’t really understand how I’m supposed to study them or anything. Like, why is it sometimes 新しい and other times 新聞. I don’t get it. How do you know when to use one reading and not the other?”

My professor got up and fished an relatively new Japanese newspaper out of his trash bin; crumpled as it was, he pointed to an advertisement on the front page and said, “You know both these kanji, right?”

“That one is new… and the other one is car.”

“So read it.”

I stared at it for a minute and shook my head. “I don’t have any idea.”

“Aww, come on! Shin… Right? It’s the shin in “shinbun” and this one is…”

“I don’t know? Shinkuruma?”

“No, shinsha. And it means?”


“New car. Easy.”

I remember it so well because it wasn’t easy. And I didn’t understand it. In retrospect, that compound is so stupidly simple that I feel like an ogre talking about it, but the fact of the matter was, back then, I didn’t understand it. I had no guidance. Kanji were just another thing to learn in the classroom. The weren’t any more important than learning combinations of hiragana that made up kanji compounds that weren’t yet taught with kanji.

Before I get to my final point, I have one more story to talk about. I’ll just summerize this one, as its less important than the others and is really only relevant because it sort of changed the way I thought about Japanese in general and I feel that, in the context of this entry, that sort of revelation might be useful.

I’ve heard it a lot since I’ve come here: “This reading has so many meanings. How the hell is anyone supposed to keep track of all of them?” かける for instance. There’s 書ける to be able to write, 描ける to be able to draw pictures, 掛ける to sit down (as in 腰掛け) or lock a door (カギをかける), etc. etc. etc. Now, the last time I heard this, I was somewhere at the 1600 mark in Heisig (able to write and identify the meanings of, but not read that many kanji) working on my reviews at the Board of Education on a non-school workday. Something clicked in my mind then and I realized (well, perhaps hypothesized) that a lot of Japanese learners, like myself, learn the sounds first and the kanji later. So when it comes time to integrate all this information into actual knowledge, learners use sounds as the building blocks for their morphemes in Japanese rather than starting out with the associated kanji. Yes, かける is a phoneme– it has meaning; but at the same time, I postulate here that those phonemes are first derived (in subconscious processes in native speakers) from their respective graphemes (kanji). Have you ever seen Japanese television? A lot of it has subtitles! Have you ever been in a conversation with a native speaker where they write out kanji on their hand to aid in understanding? It happens often enough to not be a fluke.

More importantly though, learning the kanji for any given Japanese homonym strengthens the meaning in my own mind tenfold. I never could quite understand the word 受ける until I learned the meaning of the corresponding kanji. As soon as I dedicated it to memory, I realized that I could use the word 受ける correctly in conversation, because whenever I thought of trying to say, “take a test,” the kanji would pop into my mind and I’d instantly remember the appropriate phoneme to go along with it.

Ultimately, as I said before, happiness and progress are inversely proportional. To tell university professors that every student needs to leave their classes with intimate knowledge of the general-use characters is tantamount to claiming that Japanese is impossible to learn. It is all but impossible to teach the general use characters in a classroom setting to students in 4 years who are also learning grammar and other pure Japanese vocabulary from scratch. But it’s what needs to be done. And yes, if you’re learning Japanese, you need to learn the joyo kanji. Learn them before anything else. Do it with Heisig. Leave the readings for later and just study the meaning and writing. You’ll learn the readings over time as you begin to read and converse in the language– that much is inevitable. Ignoring the Joyo kanji to persue, say, a specific level of the JLPT or grammar or whatever– that’s the biggest mistake you can make, aside from brute-forcing 2000 characters with little or no guidance.

At the end of the whole poster debacle, which may, even now, still be raging, I told my vice-principal that the only way kids grow up is to face a little hardship. Your tired-running-face on a poster full of your peers doing the same thing is not going to ruin your social life at school. The world isn’t going to end if you aren’t on the poster. I mean, at the end of the day, the fact of the matter was that I didn’t even take pictures of every student at the school anyway. Kids had been left out from the beginning and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. Instead of embracing that, they decided to toss the baby out with the bath water and start over, resulting in no pictures for anyone and no poster.

With Japanese, it’s the same damn thing. You have to treat kanji with the importance they deserve, despite the fact that they’re confusing and numerous. Single them out and learn them. I suggest Heisig, but I know of at least one person who’s brute-forced it. (Don’t do what he did, because he’s a genius and I doubt you’ll experience the same sort of results.) With Heisig, you learn the grapheme first and later integrate phonemes into that existing framework. You pour in a foundation and then start to work on your house. You can’t treat Japanese like every other language written in the roman alphabet and just brute-force a bunch of sounds and hope that your memory is good enough that synonyms and whatnot can be pulled up quickly and without error. However, when you have a full catalog of 2000 different concepts, applying sounds to those concepts is easy as hell. Trust me, I’m doing it right now.

Everyday that one of my (fellow ALT) co-workers calls me crazy for studying the general-use characters like I do, claiming that its farcical to learn the kanji that every adult Japanese person should have learned in school, acting as though I’m going above and beyond what is necessary, I say, “No. I want to learn Japanese. What, exactly, are you studying?”

Reasons You Might Like Japan

Posted in Uncategorized by 51future on September 15, 2008

The more I thought about Evangelion, the more I realized that that particular anime is actually pretty relevant to Japan as a whole, perhaps as culturally relevant as Superman in America, maybe. I mean, sure, a lot of it is stupid, but then again, the themes transcend boundaries because a lot of Japan is stupid too. Without getting into it too much, here are some points to consider:

  • Prominent authors like Murakami Ryu (and people in general) believe that middle school students are the ones who possess the power to truly change Japan.

    Most Japanese men want subservient woman. Some want a new mommy, others just want a wife who’ll stop complaining and let them do their pachinko. (Shinji jerking off to a bandaged Rei… See where this is going?)

    Kids piloting giant mecha suits in Tokyo fight off huge killer aliens that may or may not be God trying to unmend the world pretty much every day.

  • Ok, so maybe some of the themes work…

    Anyway, in short, this entry is about cool stuff in Japan. Reasons why you might want to live here. Things that you might not find in other countries that makes this one a unique, exciting place to be.

    1. Good Cell Reception

    Japanese cell phone reception is pretty awesome, no matter how far from the beaten path you travel. When I lived in Nagoya I was with AU and my reception was great. Sure, I had 0 mins. of talk time, but damn, had I paid the exorbitant fees I would have been able to make calls anywhere. Last year, for the whole of the year I was with DoCoMo in an area where AU reception was trumpeted as being being better. I did sometimes have trouble getting a good signal in the teacher’s room, but other than that, I had full bars most of the time such that I had no shortage of places to use my 20 minutes that came with my $30 plan. Now I’ve got an iPhone with Softbank and I pay by the minute (20円 per 30 seconds?) and again, I can’t fault the reception at all. It’s great pretty much everywhere I go.

    2. Beer

    Japan is a great place to drink beer. Most people do it alone or in large groups of the same sex. There are delicious seasonal brews and three main brands of beer (Suntory, Asahi and Kirin) to choose from based on your budget and taste tolerance. (Hint: Kirin is the high end.) Then of course, for the adventurous, there are local brews too that vary as far as taste is concerned. Out here where I am we have a brand called “Cyonmage”. It’s really delicious.

    3. Fast Internet

    I have fiber to my living room that is touted at 100Mb/s. However, I’ve seen it go as fast as 200Mb/s in controlled bandwidth testing. I’ve uploaded TV shows to the pirate intranets at 3MB/s (yes, megaBYTES per second) and have downloaded builds of Anki at 6MB/sec. Ultimately my connection is usually limited by the other side, rather than my own. Unfortunately, for the purposes of gaming, even a connection this fast is limited by latency. Everything has to pass through thousands of miles of oceanic fiber to reach most North American server facilities. It’s not bad, but it could be better, sometimes. Also, there is very little IP enforcement, here in Japan. FTW.

    4. Long Life Expectancy

    People here live a long time. There are some 36,000 people and counting in Japan over the age of 100. I think its a combination of low crime rates, healthy food with lots of omega oils, and the lack of any real or imagined dangers. There are fences and security guards everywhere, people to help you pull in and out of parking lots, and speed limits that barely breach 50mph on the highways. It’s a paradise for long life.

    5. Ramen Shops

    Ramen is an amazing fast food that pretty much everyone likes. Need I say more?

    6. Tons of Comics and Television Dramas

    If you’re a 12 year old boy who speaks fluent Japanese, there are tons of really awesome comics available for your perusal. And, if you’re a 30-something housewife lush at the idea that you’ll be able to pursue your dream of being a stay-at-home mom, there are a ton of great television dramas with over the top acting and terrible, terrible scripts jam-packed with hot Korean stars fresh-off-the-boat that will woo you with their feminine wiles. (Ok, ok, so there is some sarcasm here. The fact is that while there is a ton of anime, there is very little that broaches topics of any depth. Most manga is about emo kids succeeding in basketball, baseball, or soccer with the help of their coaches who have a heart of gold and a little temper to go along with it.)

    7. Health Insurance

    Japan has great national health insurance that ensures you’ll be able to pay for the doctor visits, all of them, whether it be one for a cold, or 10 for your wisdom teeth.

    Next up: Reasons you Might Not Like Japan.

    Life in Japan is Not a Manga

    Posted in Japan, Japanese Language, Stuff by 51future on September 11, 2008

    So let me tell you a thing or two about life in Japan: It’s not a manga. First and foremost, that’s the gist of this article. And I guess the second point is that even if it was, you’d find it sorely lacking.

    So let’s talk about comics for a second. There’s a movie coming out soon in the states called Watchmen based on a DC comic of the same name. Even if you don’t know much about Watchmen, the point here is that “remains the only graphic novel to win a Hugo Award, and is also the only graphic novel to appear on Time’s 2005 list of “the 100 best English-language novels”, an annual feature of the magazine since it was founded in 1923.” Yes, I realize this is sort of an odd man out as far as comics are concerned, but if Watchmen doesn’t convince you that American comics are both interesting and relevant, then take a look at say, The Dark Knight or 300.

    Japanese comics, on the other hand, are not interesting or relevant. Sure, there are cash cows. Evangelion has been around forever, and I still see the damn figurines every day I walk into a convenience store, even out here in the countryside. But there’s nothing particularly relevant about it. I mean, the gist of it is that a bunch of middle school students in big mecha are the only thing standing between a strangely-familiar ultra-futuristic Japan and total annihilation. Now, when the series first came out, the producer basically shit his pants on the last two episodes and put the main character (who had, about 3 episodes earlier gone into the hospital room of a cloned, emotionless sort of human-autopilot and jacked off on her full-body bandages while crying) in a room at school with all the other characters who then proceeded to tell him that he could reshape the world however he wanted. All this was mashed up with random footage shot in different places in modern Japan. Suffice to say, the ending was shit. Trust me, if you haven’t seen it, I’m not spoiling anything. A few years later, they came out with a proper ending, appropriately titled “End of Evangelion” which was good, if only because of the very visceral violence and appropriate suspense. However, at the end of that, the main character (who again, gets to choose how to reshape the world) turns it into a wasteland consisting of him, his love interest, and an ocean of blood. And then he spurns her.

    I’m rambling though.

    If you had talked to me 5 years ago, you would have found me in a bad way. I was stuck somewhere I didn’t want to be without any friends and a lot of spare time on my hands. I was depressed and near suicidal at some points and generally stupid and emo. You know what I spent a lot of my time doing? I read manga. I read Love Hina, Chobits, all sorts of mass produced shit– all around the time that manga was really taking off in America. I watched my neighborhood bookstore turn a whole wall into a manga section, even. (Shortly thereafter it closed down. +1 Barnes & Noble) It took me all 8 volumes of Chobits (that’s $80 for those following along at home) to come to the 5th grade realization that I had to tell my crush that I was in love with her and willing to do anything for her.

    And you see, it was all that, coupled with the fear of doing real work in college that led me to taking Japanese. (Important for the next entry; take note of it.) I, like you may be now, was that guy/gal who thought that learning Japanese would help me find these wonderful emotional pastures where I could spend my days idling away entangled in the arms of my love. Japan is not that. Japan is not anything like that.

    I’m going on my third year here and try as I might, I’ve only ever met one person who I would have been inclined to date. And I was. Twice, actually. And then she left for America. Yes, people do get together here (I mean, hell, they must. Someone is having kids!) but it’s not like the manga. I was reading an article just the other day (how about that for anecdotal evidence?) that referenced a quote by some woman with some clout somewhere saying: “I have never met a Japanese man who did not want me to be his mommy.” This. This is what is happening in mangaland right now. As a 23 year old guy of modest looks and casual demeanor, I spend the majority of time talking to my “e-mail tomo.” That’s Japanese for “We talk about useless, pointless shit, but can never meet in person no matter what.”

    And I haven’t even touched on the bad manga dramas yet.

    I think that a lot of this probably sounded like a big long rant, but there is something here. I know that a lot of people come to Japan with plans to love the shit out of it. They can’t wait to go to drinking parties afterhours with their co-workers and be involved in crazy karaoke shenanigans. Or maybe they believe that coming here is going to miraculously improve their ability to draw their favorite emo basketball stars that start with nothing and rise to the top through a combination of luck, skill, and Shiseido hair gel. It doesn’t happen like that. Life in Japan is no different from life in America or life in China. Sure, there are school uniforms, perverted old men, shinto shrines and retarded video games, but you don’t need to speak Japanese to indulge in any of it. The only price of entry is to completely ignore any and all good taste and plunge right in.

    Once you learn Japanese and all the mystique of waiting for scanlations and subtitles, guessing at stuff that even anonymous won’t translate, and generally just bitching about all the games that don’t make it across the Pacific, is gone, you’ll soon realize that most intellectual property in Japan, beyond a handful of literary writing that you probably won’t have the stomach to get to reading in its native language anyway, is complete and utter shit.

    If you want to live inside a manga, I suggest you get a better brain. This is not a good reason to study Japanese.

    A Change in Direction

    Posted in Japan, Japanese Language, Maintainance by 51future on September 8, 2008

    Man, it’s been a long time.

    I bought that iPhone, headed home to the ‘States for some R&R and completely forgot about this little blog that had just started to attract a little traffic way back in July. Or so it seemed. No, I got home and I thought about posting and then I didn’t. I came back to Japan and thought about posting, but still abstained.

    Weeks and weeks went by and I realized a few things. First, I neither have the time (blah blah blah, I know) nor the expertise to write about technology like I thought I wanted to. If you really go back and look at my past entries, a lot of it was just me complaining about things there were out of my control (Softbank, 10.5.3, etc.). Really useless stuff. Second, I’m not really passionate about that anyway. Sure, I really really like my iPhone and my Mac. I like discussing technology and software. It’s fun. It’s a hobby. But I’m only passionate about it to a point. And there are plenty of sites on the web dedicated to tech– too many to name, really. This blog, as it was yesterday, was redundant.

    So today, I’m trying something new.

    As you may have guessed, if you a.) know me, or b.) were an avid reader here (hah!)– I am currently learning Japanese. I’m… on an offensive, so to speak. That’s where the new name comes from. I’m on an offensive against the Japanese language. This blog is the new headquarters of the JLO– the Japanese Language Offensive. I want to strike hard and fast, where it hurts, and by writing about my success and my failures here, on this blog, I hope to help people who are currently knee deep in their own version of my theatre– whether it be at college, in class, in Japan, at home wanting to read manga, whatever. Everyday, some idiot sucker like myself decides “Hey, I’ma gonna learn that moonspeak!” Nine times out of ten, like me, the reason is usually something along the lines of “I like manga/anime/Jporn/Jwomen, etc.” Sure, there are other reasons to learn Japanese, but only really rare or boring people decide (from the beginning!) that they want to say, study ancient haiku (which is practically a different language anyway, really) or translate Genji again. Those things take dedication. And if you’re like me, you probably lack dedication. Which is OK. You can still learn Japanese. Yes, the road will be long and hard, but eventually, even a real screw up like myself can make inroads in this god-forsaken language.*

    So that’s the reason for the sea change.

    If you’re interested in games and technology, go read Engadget or Cnet or something. If you want to know the real story behind learning how to understand that porno you’ve got sitting around (you know the one, where the two adolescent looking girls in sailor outfits are, well, yeah– you know) then keep your eyes peeled. I’ve been studying Japanese for 4 years now (on and off, 3 of those years in higher education) and only now am I finally really coming to terms with all the mistakes I made and all the time I wasted.

    Welcome to the JLO, private Nancypants.

    (Note: All previous entries will remain for the sake of people linking to them, reading the Brujipedia/DL2 review, etc. That stuff (at least for the moment) remains useful for people randomly searching Google and whatnot.)

    * Let’s get one thing straight too, while we’re at it… Yes, you can learn the language. The real question, however, is “Should you?” I’ll cover this in a post sometime this week. The answer might surprise you. (Har, har. Clever, I know.)


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