Categories
Life Programming

Hacker learning Chinese

I guess when a hacker learns a language it is different from the way “others” do that. I guess this, because I think I’m a hacker, I’m learning a language and it feels different. I see two main factors coming in the picture:

  1. I’m connecting things in my life, so the things I do usually need some motivation or purpose behind them, without which they are abandoned. The activities I keep up the best are the ones that connect multiple different things.
  2. I want to do things as efficiently as possible. Hack the tools, hack the process to make it better. If there are no tools, make some. If no processes, come up with ideas.

Okay, these are pretty vague expressed like this, now let’s give the example that prompted this post: I’m learning Chinese. Living in Taiwan for two and a half years now, so “high time” doesn’t even start to describe it. Finally I got a tutor, and a good one at that, so twice each week I have a good session of chatting and learning. After each of the sessions we have at least 30 or 40 new words and expressions written down. Those would normally be just forgotten, so I take an effort (about another hour or so after the session) to type them into a Google Document, this very one on the picture:

Google Docs Chinese vocabulary
The Google Document that powers my learning (click to enlarge)

Enter the English expression, the Chinese original and the pronunciation in Bopomofo (which I prefer to Pinyin). This last is possible because of Yahoo Chinese-English Dictionary (one service that is generally better than Google’s own Translate, though I frequently need to use both). The other three columns I’ll came in just recently.

At the moment I’m up to 307 expressions, and that’s just not possible to practice from a spreadsheet like that. I remembered, though, checking out a fellow StartupBus participant, Pamela Fox‘s Google Spreadsheet Flash Cards some time ago. It was fun but followed a different logic than me so couldn’t make complete use of it. But then: why not make a new practice system for myself? This goes back to the precious points: 1) connecting programming and languages – in both I’ll learn something new and they’ll reinforce each other’s motivation, 2) use the exact tools that I need even if I have to make them (because it’s possible to do).

Also after having done Who Said That? (that is currently down due to the AWS fail), I was into guessing games: let’s make a vocabulary guessing practice app that uses the above spreadsheet that I have anyways. What format it should be? Well, for the very first test, to see how to interact with Google Docs and such, just made it as a simple, console-based python app, something like this:

Chinese learning console
The console app to practice me Chinese vocabulary (click to enlarge)

Each practice round has 30 questions, randomized, 4 possible solutions, with the pronunciation as hint. Simple, though very ugly in the inside at the moment (here’s the repo, I still need to write a ReadMe). It works and now I know what to look out for in terms of implementation (how to log in, how to get and update data, stuff like that).

The other 3 columns in the above spreadsheet are explained as well: they are keeping score such as the total number of times a word/expression is practiced, the number of good answers and the number of current good-answers-in-a-row. These provide a rough-and-ready way to diagnose and manage the learning process – until I come up with better ways. Anyway, right now I get about 50%-70% good which is more than I expected, but still a lot more room for improvement.

A list of improvements to the program that I’m thinking about:

  • Making it into a site, so I can use my phone on the go to practice. Also, potentially others can use it as well to practice anything based on any spreadsheet with “one side – other side – hint” structure.
  • I’m pretty sure this whole things could be done in a single Javascript powered page. I don’t know enough Javascript to pull it off yet, but I’ve seen that all the components separately, and that would make a very portable and compact solution.
  • Need to figure out some easier setup of the spreadsheet if this is to be used by others later. I cannot rely on them understanding what they way I was thinking. Maybe in-app option to add more fields?
  • I remember reading somewhere that the most effective practice is that I reduce the frequency of checking words that I know well. That’s where the last column comes in: as one has more right answers in a row, one can tast that word/expression fewer times. If there’s a mistake then go back to the original method and test it more until score builds up again. This can potentially be a very complicated algorithm, I got to think of a way that scales well (ie. it is not too bad compared to an ideal method but does not require extensive amount of calculation). Have some ideas, but they need more polish.
  • After watching Salman Khan’s TED talk this year it grabbed me just how much information is there in one’s actions (they do amazing feedback to teachers on how the students study), how much better you can understand why did people what they did if you have all those diagnostic information (ah, the temptation of Big Data:). To apply this idea of extended diagnostics I could have a logging system instead of keeping (a simple) score. From there the system could get: how much you practice, how are you doing / getting better, what are easier or more difficult words for you, what two words you mistake with one another, suggest things to practice more, suggest words from topics that you know well to extend your knowledge… And more (this was just a little brainstorming). I don’t think I’d have time to extend it like that, and ideas are a dime a dozen, but one never knows…
  • Adding more modes of learning not just multiple choice, multiplayer learning, more game mechanics (achievements, pins anyone? :)
  • If there are central datasets instead of self-provided ones, then the system can anticipate what are the difficult parts from other students’ performance before you.

Now, let’s just see how will my Chinese improve during all this hacking, since that’s the main point, isn’t it? :)

New Formosa Restaurant Signature Dishes
Some motivation for learning, loads of Taiwanese food :)

Ps: If you have any language learning tricks, let me know in the comments!

Categories
Life Programming

Hopped on a bus

It’s been about two weeks since I came back from the adventure that is called the StartupBus. Things just start to sink in, soon the glare will fade and see what remains of the total awesomeness that is the Bus. I think a lot will stick with me, it was just way beyond what I could have imagined and I can already feel the changes the trip & the people made to me. The best possible changes, to say. :)

So, the StartupBus in a nutshell: 6 buses from all around the US set off a journey, with about 30 “buspreneurs” on board each, who ideally don’t know each other or haven’t worked together before. First, whoever has some business/product ideas, can pitch to the others. Groups are formed and everybody starts to make their idea into reality – and have to do that frantically, since there’s only about 48 hours before the buses arrive to their destination. Sounds like fun? If it doesn’t, you should just give it a try :)

Palm Springs morning before heading out.

I had no idea what to expect and when I heard the pitches that Tuesday morning, rolling out of San Francisco on the highway, I was thinking to myself: what do I do here? What can I contribute? There are just so many amazing developers, setting the bar. But I could choose a project in the end, something that was close to my heart since I do love to travel: Fly By Miles (the site went back to pre-launch mode for a bit, but that’s where it will be ;) – a site that wants people to use their frequent flyer miles well and easily. Our team had 8 members altogether: 5 developers (with yours truly), 2 designers and a business strategist. Of course these are lines drawn in the sand, everyone chipped in a bit in each role.

I have to say, thos ~3 days are close to a blur now. Should have continued writing my journal but there was just no chance for that. We were mostly hopping from co-working spaces to hotels and back, all through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. I should know where, I wrote the Android app that told the map where we all are. There were some very nice places, interesting scenery that I haven’t seen much of. There were challenges like walking up to people in Santa Monica and getting feedback on our project – and taking a video of it (before this I’ve never thought I could do that. But got our 3 recorded videos and a few people’s thoughts off-the-record). There was always something to do and I enjoyed being left to my own devices and coming back with a solution. Not the best solution usually, so there were usually more than one iterations for solving each of the problems I tried to tackle, but at least there was a good modus operandi: give Greg a task, some time, maybe a couple of Red Bulls and he’ll come back with something.

By the way, Red Bulls: don’t let them anywhere near me for the time being. Lost count at 7, but the shakes stayed for a couple days after I stopped so it must have been more than that. Haven’t had it since high school (which has been a while) and under this hackathon circumstances they are very addictive…

Startup bus life snapshot
Life on the bus: laptops, getting contacts on phone, powernaps… Intense and awesome.

Well, after a few hotels and sleepless/frantic nights, we arrived to Austin. Finished up a proof-of-concept, working prototype and got some sleep. The next days were about taking Austin in, with Ignite, with SxSW, flashmob, friends, places, food… There was some programming as well, since Fly By Miles got into the semifinals, then into the finals, held in the Hilton. It was great, I really enjoyed it, an albeit we didn’t win, there was a lot to take home. Also, since that was my last night in Austin, I haven’t actually slept (again) and it was surreal to leave the place at 5am. Missed our CNN interview, but well, if we do it right, there will be more than enough to make up for that. ;)

What do I think I learned:

  • Now I can code everywhere. In the park, on the curb, on the plane, on the bus… Though Taiwanese buses have more hectic drivers and their suspension is worse than the Bus was so better hold on to that computer. Haven’t been coding on a motor-scooter yet, but I will…. probably won’t try that. :)
  • It is worth knowing the popular tech in the field I’m interested in even if I’m not using it (yet). In our group Ruby on Rails was the thing – and I’m a Python hacker. It was quite confusing for the first time, but I can see the advantages. This stands for other fields as well: mobile development, databases, design, front end interface…. There’s a lot of interesting tech out there, and I believe that one should try things out before the need arises. That makes educated choices down the road.
  • Have a niche. I might be biased, but I think this is even more important than the previous point. Know something else than others. Networking, game development, Big Data, Python, functional programming, myriads of 3rd party APIs (Google, Twillio, …), and so on. Anything that excites you.
  • Be quick learner. Before the trip I had to (well, wanted to :P ) pick up Android development in a week. And it produced something that crashed fewer times than I thought it would. :) After coming back I wanted to pick up Django in a week because I was curious. There’s even a result (Wanna see? There will be a proper post about that). I believe everyone can do that, so no excuse for not learning a new things ever week.
  • Choose carefully in what things you rely on others. It is easy to get burned and few things are worse than having your fate in someone else’s hand.
  • Take note what people say, but don’t have to take them too seriously. Everyone’s been excited at the end of the trip and wanted to continue the project. Two weeks passed and 2 (and a half) people left of the 8. No hard feelings, that’s how things work and there will certainly time to work with them together.
  • Getting in touch with people is easy. Not just technically, but nothing should hold you back. Fire off that email to the big shot you met, talk to the 2nd level contact on Linked In if you need to… Most of them will love something personal, just keep it simple, honest, and no hard feelings if it doesn’t work out. This liberated me on so many levels
  • Startup life is a test on one’s liver. I’d thought it is a marginal issue, but better be prepared. Not sure what way (no, I don’t mean training), but got to.
  • The best is always what you have but it’s always good to look out for more. For example. the Silicon Valley bus was undoubtedly the best bus of them all! :D But that won’t stop me from knowing as many amazing folks from each of the buses and off the buses as well.
  • Silicon Valley at least was Mac World. Been an outsider with my Lenovo, but I don’t mind if I cannot share the power plug with the other 29 peeps on the bus. Penguin power!
  • Laptop stickers are cool. I’m late to the party to say that (seeing some of the laptops there) but anyways…. I got to be selective, though, otherwise just too many stickers flying around.
  • Now I just cannot stop the flow of ideas. It is not a question that I’m a “starter”. What I need to learn how to select the good ones (or, probably I should select the “ridiculous” ones, they seem to work the best), and how to be a “finisher”.
Todo list
Morning results of the todo list after a whole night of hacking

Probably there are more lessons, but that’s enough. Now off to do some practice. Let’s see what happens until next year’s Bus :)

Categories
Life Programming

The power of not caring

I’m reminded time and time again, that the best things I do come from fun and passion, not mere sweat and grinding teeth.

Recently I read about a project called The Startup Bus. It’s a bunch of strangers getting on a bus going from A to B, for 48 hours, in which time they build a startup company from 0 to launch. It looked very intriguing and I applied even if I couldn’t imagine going there (after all, it’s in the US and I’m in Taiwan). Wrote up an introduction that was… how shall I put it? Ordinary? Bland? (maybe even that’s generous). Then I started to hear from more and more people on Twitter that they got on it and I did as most people do when they cannot get something: started to want it :) On the other hand, looking at who got on I had no hope that I’d be selected, none at all.  So instead of revising the application I had, just gave it up…. but also just wrote another one application. In true nerdy fashion in a programming language. And made it actually run. Just for fun. It is not perfect (can see it on Github) and actually I cannot imagine that no-one else thought of it… When I was satisfied, just sent it in, closed the browser and walked out. Not even an hour passed, I got my invitation…

So I’m heading off to San Francisco this weekend to mingle with a bunch of very clever people, do a lot of programming, most likely things I’ve never tried or even imagined trying, go all the way to Austin, when maybe could pitch to possible investors. What will come out of all this, I have no idea. But certainly glad I “didn’t care” for long enough that creativity (no matter how shallow) started to flow.

For me this whole story is brings up a poem by Dallas Clayton:

Good/Bad

How a bad idea starts:
“That looks easy… I could do that.”
How a good idea starts:
“That looks fun… I should do that.”

I like this way of thinking a lot, I even got it on a bag to remind me. :)

Now all the preparation is on the way, I’m helping by making an Android app to be able to track the buses en route. I week ago I didn’t know anything about Android apps. But there you go, it’s working, more or less. :P

BusDroid running on HTC Desire
A little side project for the Bus.

… and soon I’m hoping to use the power of not caring for many other things in life.

Categories
Life Maker

Monocle and the one idea

I’m always looking for new and interesting magazines that I can read. I do believe there’s still future for printed journalism, even if most of the things I read now is online (Hacker News, myriads of blogs on Google Reader, links shared on Facebook and Twitter…). During my time at the university, a perfect weekend program was having brunch in the Common Room and checking out the latest issue of The Economist. My interests are mostly in analysis, world affairs, getting insights from people with much more experience, but not shoved down on my throat like many dailies seem to do but giving me space to make up my mind myself.

Monocle Issue 40 cover
Cover of Monocle Issue 40

Recently I was checking out Monocle in my local Eslite Bookstore, it was wrapped up since it’s not one of the cheapest (NT$520, almost twice the cover price elsewhere). The cover promises to have ABCDE: Affairs, Business, Culture, Design and Edits – which is all good and could be very interesting. I checked out on the web a little bit what did others write about it, and it is all good. With all the accolades, about their worldwide reach (apparently they have offices all around the globe), that they do their own photography because they want the best, with all the enthusiasm by the staff… I actually felt that this might be the real life embodiment of the Millennium magazine. That’s certainly a lot to live up to, isn’t it?

So, last week I bought it. First impression: I was pretty underwhelmed. The features are thin on content, most the content feels like an IKEA catalogue and how can I relate to something that advertises £190 polo shirts? I wasn’t that excited about it anymore, and it certainly wasn’t the Millennium.

Nevertheless, I took it out every now and again, reading more of it and things did change. I think I was wrong to hype it up for myself, should have judged it on its on merits. And on that, the writers are certainly clever. Maybe their bread is focusing on short observations but making many of them. The topics are actually worthy. The photography is indeed top-notch. The designs they show are really cool (and living in Taiwan, where I’m quite spoiled with good design, that is tough). In the end, I’d say it is a good magazine. Maybe not for me, or not every single issue, but if I’ve found in a library I’m sure I’d check it out. If design was my business I’d subscribe.

The One Idea

Nevertheless, there was idea that stuck with me (and maybe that’s one reason I’ve started to change my mind about the Monocle), which came from a rather short editorial titled “What Ireland can learn from Finland”. The writer argues, that Ireland’s crisis is pretty much inevitable, since no economy can survive on only the service industry. They should instead start to make things again, rolling up the sleeves and creating something tangible.

After reading this I felt a bit shocked. Looking at the things I’m doing, how I’m reading the hymns for software developers and Web 2.0 startups every day, how I’m positioning myself to become a better programmer. And despite doing all that, I do remember now, that I wanted to make things – and I haven’t. It feels like a wake-up call, that there are things that I value more but I forgot about.

This got me thinking: instead of being an awesome programmer (good luck with that), I really should think out how can I leverage my maker background (every experimental physicist is a maker) and programmer ambitions to create something new. Don’t give up either (I couldn’t) but find what unique combination of skills I might have. I really feel this is what would bring the much desired sense of achievement.

Got me thinking that I have all the issues from Make: in the last two years or so, but never actually did anything. That I planned to set up a hacker space in Taipei, but never got beyond asking my friends who would be interested in it. That I admired and saved so many things on Instructables but always had it linger on my Next-Action List.

“If not now, when? If not you, who?”

Now just stay tuned as I try to follow through. :)

Categories
Computers Life

New Laptop or You Had Me at “No OS”

I’ve been wanting to upgrade my laptop for quite a while. It was a good ol’ Acer Travelmate 4501wlmi from 2004. I’m not sure why I have kept it for such a long time, maybe I liked torturing myself. In the end the screen was barely hanging on its hinges, the video card memory was corrupt so the screen was all funky sometimes, but what finally did it is the flaky/failing wireless.

Lenovo X201i
Artificially arranged desktop:)

I did check out before what are the acceptable alternatives for a new laptop. Then last weekend I went and got myself a new Lenovo X201i, When I first went to the store, I wasn’t sure whether I’ll get it, or which model to go for. Tried to get some information from the clerk about the available options, but with this communication gap I usually have here in Taiwan, due to my limited Chinese, wasn’t for an advantage. In the end all I did is pretty much confirmed what I have already known: the Lenovo X-series is their smallest ultraportable, they can be quite powerful, and pretty popular. When he asked me what kind of system I wanted and I told him: none, I got a good confirmation that I came to the right place. All other stores the reactions range from apological raised eyebrows to statements that “selling laptops without Windows is illegal” (true story). Here on the other hand, he just got out his “No OS deals” sheet, and I just checked out of the most powerful of them: it had everything I needed and was altogether about 20% cheaper than the other model I was considering before. He was saying that there were only 3 left, so I just galloped off the the nearest ATM, and there I had it, good times.

A few days later I went back to get a few small details sorted out: exchanged to a larger battery (6 to 9 cell), upgraded the memory (2 to 8Gb) and switched the keyboard cover to the right one. This time the limited Chinese was for my advantage. I was talking to a different person this time, who knew even less English than my previous clerk, so whenever the new one was contradicting the deals I was promised, I just had to question it and they gave me the deal, instead of going into any conversation why I couldn’t have it. It’s all fine, I wasn’t abusing this “power”, but not going to be taken advantage of that easily either. All in all, it was quite good deal, even if it would have been cheaper to order it directly from America on the internet.

Experience so far (~5 days):

  • This machine does not compete for any beauty prize, so don’t mind that the 9 cell battery does not improve on that front. It is still okay for me. The matt finish on the cover picks up every touch, so it’s going to be pretty “used” looking soon. The keyboard cover is a good idea, knowing myself, but does not improve things either.
  • It is not really fair to compare it to a computer 6 years its senior, but it’s such a breath of fresh air how snappy it is. Not the most powerful computer I’m using (hard to beat the office’s quad core) but certainly a small powerhouse on the go.
  • The size is just right. Had an EeePC before, and I thought I could get really used to it, but in the end the limitations were just too much. Still got to find a good, small, laptop-enabled backpack, but with its 12″ it shouldn’t be a big deal
  • With the 9-cell I got about 6-7 hours of light use out of it. This is before I did any real power optimization. Linux does have a lot of tricks and even things like sound card power saving can go a long way. Still has to investigate
  • Installed my usual Arch Linux, now with all encrypted filesystem (not that I’m planning to let it be stolen). It will take a while to get my old settings back again, but at least I can organize them better.
  • That ESC key is at some weird place in the corner, keep pressing F1 instead. Even if No OS version (and they saved the “Windows7” sticker) I still have the Windows button. Will try to find some appropriate role for it.
  • Haven’t had a chance to try the WiMAX or the built in camera. The first will probably stay like that, the second I should get going with Skype.
  • Keyboard lighting is ace for nighttime stuff, just like now.
  • The pointing stick does not really like the keyboard cover. It is no big deal, I’m more of a touchpad fan. That touchpad has 5 different buttons but none of them emulates a mouse wheel as far as I can tell. Want to find out what does emulate it, should be very useful. The pad itself acts up sometimes, but nothing too annoying.
  • The 320Gb hard drive is not bad at all, but I’ll look out for a good SSD – should save on power and improve on speed.
  • The screen is a bit picky of the angles it wants to be looked at from. I know the tablet version (X201t) is muc better, this one I just got to live with.
  • Built in fingerprint reader – got to get the drivers working, but it would be awesome to use it for the constant sudo goodness that is required for a well secured system.

Now I have no excuse to be very productive anywhere and everywhere.