Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Japanese Front

Now that yet another semester has come to a close, I'd like to write down some thoughts concerning my Japanese course.

But first, a response to a comment on the Cobbly Post:

It was interesting to read up on various approaches to the learning of kanji, but — to be frank — the Heisig method doesn't appeal to me. When I first began learning kanji, I learned the characters individually, and in an artificial order (i.e. according to the order used in a book). Whether the order was a good one or not, and whether my memorization technique was effective or not, the result was that I learned many characters for which I had no use (at least not at the time). Even if I don't bother about the readings, memorizing characters I don't use strikes me as meaningless, so I don't enjoy it.

In any case, as has been mentioned by others, the idea that the traditional method of learning kanji consists of memorizing sequences of strokes is rather far-fetched. I'm sure it's common practice for Japanese teachers to explain the meanings of the radicals, and it's not like the order of the strokes is randomly decided.

In short, I find the points made by the author of the Shiawase Blog valid, and — as far as is possible, considering that I've never tried the Heisig method myself — I share his opinion.

Now for an account of the Japanese course I took this semester:

In general terms, the course was very enjoyable and worthwhile. We were thrown into the deep end (namely, newspaper articles and the attendant wealth of unknown kanji) during the first week, so I was initially overwhelmed and pessimistic. Once we settled into the normal rhythm, though, I found that the level suited me perfectly — challenging, but not disheartening. The instructors had a good sense of humour, too, so the classes were never dry or devoid of energy.

There were four 90-minute sessions per week. On Mondays, we mainly read texts aloud and discussed them. On Tuesdays, we were introduced to new vocabulary and grammar constructs. On Thursdays, we memorized the conversations in the textbook, came up with our own variations, and recited them. On Fridays, we did much the same, along with some listening comprehension.

There was no time set aside in class for kanji (apart from the weekly kanji tests/dictations), but we were provided with lists of kanji, along with readings, meanings, and example sentences, so we weren't entirely on our own.

Compositions were assigned nearly every Monday. They didn't need to be particulary long (about 350 characters), but — at least for me — the writing process was very time-consuming. The topics were generally vague, so deciding what to write in the first place was no trivial matter. The subsequent formulating of sentences and paragraphs would have been a chore no matter what the language. Looking up words and turns of phrase, at least, was rendered halfway agreeable by the Denshi Jisho website (particularly the "Sentences" feature).

Compositions aside, we were required to write and present four speeches (each about five minutes long, preferably memorized) over the course of the semester. The topics were standard fare: our future, our hobby (I spoke about my inline skating adventures), an unpleasant experience (dropping out of UBC), and something we like (Moomins!).

My speeches generally went well. Answering questions afterwards was the most difficult part, since any knowledge I had of Japanese grammar and vocabulary tended to fly out of my head at those times.

The textbook we used was Minna no Nihongo (specifically, the second half of the second volume), which was convenient for me, since we had covered most of the first half in my courses at the Technische Universität.

The exam, which took place this Monday, went well. I began with the kanji section, which went swimmingly, and finished the exam just as the time ran out. Although I had a good feeling throughout, there were a few problematic bits. For example, there was something along the lines of:


The を particle threw me off. I ended up replacing it with に and filling the blank with 間に会わない (which should of course be 間に合わない — embarrassing!). I was going for "If you're (going to be) late to class, please make sure to contact the teacher", even though it doesn't really make sense . . . :.o(

By the way, I just remembered a Japanese-related incident that occurred on the way to a family reunion in western Germany. We'd departed Berlin by train some time past midnight and were stopping over in Magdeburg for a few hours. It was the middle of the night, and surprisingly cold for June, so we were happy to discover that a fast food restaurant was open (even if there was a rather large rat outside the door). Once inside, we ordered some food and drink. Having consumed my share, I promptly did my best to sleep with my head in my arms.

An hour or two later, a group of rowdy youngsters (probably in their late teens) came in and made fun of us for sleeping in such a place and (in the case of my tootly friend) for using a magnifying glass to read. I gave up trying to sleep and began working on one of my speeches for my Japanese course.

The strange writing soon drew the attention of our neighbours, who — upon finding out that it was Japanese — asked me to write their names for them, which I did (though probably incorrectly in some cases).

These proceedings piqued the interest of the restaurant's manager (at least I think it was the manager), who had been hanging around. He went off to gather the names of his co-workers on slips of paper, and brought them to me to be translated (transcribed?). He brought us some sweets, too, as thanks.

Basically, it all ended on a good note. A testament to the usefulness of learning Japanese. :o)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cobbly Post

The weather has been lovely lately. Since winter began unusually early and wasn't particularly eager to end, I am all the more grateful for the deep blue skies and the budding leaves on the trees.

In honour of spring, here are two photos of long since wilted flowers on our balcony. I was going to take a picture of the rather larger amaryllis as well, because it was blooming splendidly until a few days ago, but, as you see, I versäumt it (as the French say).


The following daffodils remind me of a bed of daffodils at UBC. The daffodils there were arranged in a semi-circle and, what with their gaping yellow mouths and their little green arms thrown up in horror, they looked for all the world like witnesses to a crime.

Daffodil Shadows

On a completely different note . . . Now that the Japanese course has begun, I've been learning kanji again. I'm being a bit more sloppy about it than before, because I don't really want to memorize all the readings each time, even if it would be better (and easier in the long run) to do so. My current approach consists of learning how to write some words using kanji, then adding these new words (in hiragana) to a slowly growing list, with which I test myself whenever I have the time and inclination.

A handy tool for the testing is the whiteboard that my mother ordered some weeks (months?) ago.


A few remarks: First, the "nigeru" character is there (at the very left, third from the top, beside the problematic "kin" of "kinkyuu"). Second, you'll note that one of the characters near the bottom right has a box around it. That's because I'd forgotten what the left half of it looks like. Third, I didn't write most of the words out completely, because that would have meant writing some characters (like the "sei" in "seiji", "seifu" and "seitou") out several times, and it would have taken up rather more space (especially with the okurigana, which somewhat ruin the aesthetics in any case).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Unseasonable Halloween Post

Hoping to contribute to this blog's obviously lacking spontaneity, I shall present a decidedly unseasonable account of Halloween.

I am the last regular celebrant of Halloween in this household, or at least the only celebrant who celebrates in ways that are not (only) devouring the candy that was not robbed from us by greedy children. To be fair, I do sometimes manage to convince one of my siblings to neglect the bowl of candy for a moment and join the fun. As such, fueled not inconsiderably by the presence of face paint and the wish that it not go unused, I dress up. My costumes have included that of a pope, a watchman such as those that inhabit the top of several totem poles of the West Coast of Canada and, last year, Pulcinella, better known to the West as the original Punch.

Pulcinella hails from the Commedia dell'Arte, whose band of eccentric companions, crude though their activities may be, are admirable if only for their eccentric characters and impeccable taste in clothing.

The question as to how any of the above would qualify as frightening, or spirits to be chased away, should probably remain without answer. Or rather, half of the answer should remain unstated. The other half is that they (yes, even the pope) present good possibilities in the use of face paint.

Not to sound obsessed with the matter, but it is that desire to use face paint, and to introduce a bit of originality into a holiday which now mostly breeds ghosts, witches and, perhaps, the occasional Frankenstein's monster, which has led to my looking for more and more obscure models to base my costume on. Pulcinella, as I was shocked to find out, was a little too obscure and, despite the addition of his apparently iconic implements, went right over the heads of the rest of the family. Such is life.

Seeing it again after several months, this picture bears an eerie and doubtless ominous resemblance to certain African death masks. I saw a picture of another mask before in which the resemblance is considerably stronger, but haven't been able to rediscover it.

I suppose that, in the end, the above is only to explain that the attached photos of last Halloween are not, in fact, of black-face, but rather black-mask.

Or rather, it serves as a platform to mention my own opinion on Halloween: however admirable, a holiday in which the only form of celebration is eating and giving out candy seems rather pointless and, even with the presence of candy, oddly unfulfilling. Much like St. Valentine's day, I do not see why the sentiment need be restricted to a single, annual holiday. Taking the opportunity to put on ridiculous and, what is for me far more important, inspired costumes is, however, pointful, according to my own strange standards, and appeals to the tradition still present in various carnivals and other celebrations for large crowds of people to dress up and wander the streets; a venerable if somewhat shady-sounding tradition shared by many cultures.

Or rather, this post provides a weak disguise for my discussion of my favourite subject: me.

In case you are wondering, the only pictures of me you will find here will indeed probably involve some sort of blur, facial covering, distorted expression and/or considerable distance to the camera. Perhaps I am not so much a wandering gnome as sasquatch?

Or rather, it serves as a place to store the pictures which decorate it. Which, I suppose, only serves to support my hypothesis in the preceding sentence.

Or rather, I posted this because I feel I don't post here very often and my sister, not to mention cold, hard fact, seems to agree.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Grammatically Questionable Habits

Overuse of "less": "Less" should be used in answer to the question "how much?", and "fewer" in answer to the question "how many?".

Overuse of "weil": Both "weil" and "denn" mean "because", but "weil" should only be used at the beginning of a dependent clause.

Consider, for example, the following sentence: Ich gehe heute nicht zur Vorlesung, weil ich bin müde (I'm not going to the lecture today, because I'm tired). The "ich bin müde" part is a legitimate sentence on its own, so "weil" should not have been used. Correct alternatives would be:

Ich gehe heute nicht zur Vorlesung, weil ich müde bin.
Ich gehe heute nicht zur Vorlesung; denn ich bin müde.

Neglect of "whom": Since "whom" is a such a lovely word in itself, I find it a pity that it is fading into obscurity. It isn't even particularly difficult to judge when "whom" should be used. One can simply consider the analogous "I" vs. "me" problem.

I ate the gingerbread. (Who ate the gingerbread?)
Her Majesty permitted me to enter. (Whom did she permit entrance?)
It concerns me. (Whom does it concern?)

The King and me: Some people, in their eagerness to avoid the "Bob and me went to the zoo" mistake, go too far. What results is the "Fido bit Bob and I" abomination. The best policy is to consider what happens when "Bob" is left out. "Me went to the zoo", for example, is clearly wrong, as is "Fido bit I" (unless my name is Yoda and I did the biting, perhaps).

Did you yet?: If you're going to use words like "yet" or "already", the appropriate verb is "have". Some examples:

Did you let the dog out yet? (questionable)
Did you let the dog out this morning? (fine)
Have you let the dog out already? (fine)

"They" as a singular pronoun: As we all know, this phenomenon did not arise out of ignorance, but from a wish for greater gender equality in the English language. However, even if the noble motive serves as an excuse in most cases (which I bezweifel), it certainly doesn't excuse using "they" when the gender of the person in question is known.

Would of, could of, should of: Nooooo!


Now that the Blockkurs is over, here is a little addendum to the recent update:

Anwendungssysteme (1,7): The idea, as I understand it, was to open our eyes to the non-technical aspects of Informatik. We considered questions such as the following: What effects do new technologies (e.g. cars, e-mail, Facebook) have on society? What should we consider when developing technologies (e.g. privacy, usability)? How can human nature and human interactions affect the success of an endeavour? How can they lead to accidents (e.g. as in Chernobyl or the Therac-25 case)?

Neither the course nor the exam were (was?) as bad as I thought they would be. The discussions in the tutorials, in particular, were a welcome departure from the usual dry procedure. I suppose my main complaint is that the concepts covered in the PowerPoint slides didn't really call for thirteen two-hour lectures (well, one-and-a-half-hour lectures, technically). Fewer would have sufficed.

By the way, since I ended up getting a 1,0 for ALP V (and since there is no Nachklausur for Anwendungssysteme -- not that I would bother, even if there were) I won't be writing any Nachklausuren this time around! Glorious freedom!

I will, however, be taking a Japanese placement test at the beginning of April, so that I can (hopefully) finally take a proper Japanese course at the Freie Universität.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Another Update

The winter semester came to an end on Tuesday, so here is the usual report.

First, a note concerning Topologie II: It was, indeed, way over my head. The problem was not so much that I hadn't taken Topologie I, but that I hadn't taken Analysis II, where many of the basic terms and concepts are introduced, and that I was only able to attend one of the two weekly lectures. In that respect, I suppose it was an unpromising (aussichtslos!) endeavour from the start. Incidentally, I found it a pity that the professor held the lectures in English. However good his English may have been, it didn't have nearly as much charm.

In any case, I duly abandoned that course and concentrated on the remaining ones:

Algebra und Zahlentheorie (1,0): I was disappointed by this course, much as I was disappointed by Analysis I. Partly to blame, I think, is the fact that much of the material (mainly, of course, at the beginning) had already been covered in Lineare Algebra I.

Übersetzerbau (1,0): This course was also a little disappointing. I enjoyed the professor's humour and use of language very much, but I found that she explained concepts at rather more length than necessary. In short, the pace was slow enough that I was able to drift off during lectures without suffering negative consequences.

Netzprogrammierung (unknown, probably bad): This course was the most inspiring one this semester, mainly because of the assignments (few though they were). The web-related ones, in particular, gave me some experience with tools and concepts (e.g. Java Servlets and PHP) that have a myriad of exciting, concrete applications. In general, the assignments allowed for creativity and freedom, which rendered them enjoyable in themselves.

That said, I do not have high hopes for the exam result. Although I wrote something in answer to every question, I suspect that the answers were lacking in quality, if not outright wrong.

Technische Informatik: I was in charge of two groups: a small one on Thursdays and an average-sized one on Fridays. I had actually looked forward to having a smaller group, but it ended up being by far the more difficult one. There were two main problems: First, I wasn't able to connect with the students. Second, I didn't feel confident in my understanding of the material. Insecure as I was, I tended to ramble on in my little bubble, rather than making the necessary effort to communicate.

The larger group was easier, because there were several outgoing students in it -- students who raised their hand to answer questions or ask their own, and students who cracked jokes from time to time. It is not, of course, students' job to make the atmosphere of the tutorial pleasant, but I am very grateful if they do it anyway, because it clearly isn't my strong suit.

Well, so much for the past semester. Some plans for the future (more or less immediate):

I'll be attending a Blockkurs, with daily lectures and tutorials, starting on Monday. Like Softwaretechnik, it's an ABV (career preparation) course, so I'm not particularly enthusiastic. The exam will be in mid-March, which leaves me with about three or four weeks of holidays before the summer semester begins in mid-April.

Speaking of the summer semester, it won't be my last, although six semesters is the official number of semesters required to obtain a Bachelor's degree. I've been taking things slowly, and want to continue doing so, so I plan to write my bachelor thesis (dissertation?) in my seventh semester (i.e. next winter semester). Before that, during the summer holidays, I'll complete an internship (also a graduation requirement).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bleak House

I have been reading again lately. Well, re-reading books, to be precise. The book I am currently reading is Bleak House, which is my favourite of the few Dickens novels that I've read.

In Bleak House, Grandfather Smallweed (a villainous moneylender) is the subject of some well-crafted passages (and the source of the delightful phrase: "you brimstone chatterer!"). He is, as is customary with Dickens, described in detail, the following being a particularly poetic excerpt:

Everything that Mr. Smallweed's grandfather ever put away in his mind was a grub at first, and is a grub at last. In all his life he has never bred a single butterfly.

Grandfather Smallweed is by no means the only villain in Bleak House (or indeed the main villain); in fact, there are several others, each with his own distinctive brand of villainy. I have found it interesting to compare these characters and to consider how and why I feel a strong aversion to some, indifference to others, and what might almost be called fondness for still others.

Grandfather Smallweed falls into the third category, which goes to show that my reaction to the various villains doesn't necessarily have to do with the magnitude of their sins. What I find endearing in Grandfather Smallweed is the fact that he is (at least relative to his comrades in villainy) unabashedly nasty and, more importantly, because he is not nearly as intimidating as the others. His physical infirmity (helplessness, in fact) is made clear from the start, and his easily angered, easily threatened disposition only reinforces the impression of weakness.

"My dear Mr. George," says Grandfather Smallweed, "would you be so kind as help to carry me to the fire? I am accustomed to a fire, and I am an old man, and I soon chill. O dear me!"

His closing exclamation is jerked out of the venerable gentleman by the suddenness with which Mr. Squod, like a genie, catches him up, chair and all, and deposits him on the hearthstone.

"O Lord!" says Mr. Smallweed, panting. "O dear me! O my stars! My dear friend, your workman is very strong--and very prompt. O Lord, he is very prompt!"

Mr. Tulkinghorn, a rusty lawyer, whose calling is "the acquisition of secrets, and the holding possession of such power as they give him", gives a very different impression; physically, he is not much more threatening than Grandfather Smallweed (none of the villains are, really), but he is undoubtedly threatening in other ways, due to the aforementioned propensity for finding out secrets and due to his passionless, inexorable nature. He cannot be said to openly hate anyone, but he is immune to appeals and devoid of sympathy and mercy. Despite -- or rather, because of -- this lack of humanity, I dread Mr. Tulkinghorn more than I dislike him.

Strangely, the character that I dislike most so far is Mr. Skimpole, who might not even count as a villain in other readers' eyes. Mr. Skimpole is, to put it simply, characterized by his utter lack of a sense of responsibility. In his own words, he is "a child", who knows nothing of money or business or practical matters in general. Throughout the book, however, the reader is given the sense that Mr. Skimpole is not as thoughtless as he seems; that he, in fact, cultivates a childlike manner, so that he may more effectively live at the expense of others (without being blamed for it).

Whatever Mr. Skimpole's true thoughts may be, the effect is that he has no more sympathy or consideration for others than Mr. Tulkinghorn. He is the sort of person who, when asked to spare a poor friend's pocket, replies: "What am I to do? If he takes me anywhere, I must go. And how can I pay? I never have any money." He is the sort of person who would turn a destitute feverish boy out on the street for fear of contagion:

"You'll say it's childish," observed Mr. Skimpole, looking gaily at us. "Well, I dare say it may be; but I am a child, and I never pretend to be anything else. If you put him out in the road, you only put him where he was before. He will be no worse off than he was, you know. Even make him better off, if you like. Give him sixpence, or five shillings, or five pound ten—you are a mathematician, and I am not—and get rid of him!"

Well, I suppose it is not very reasonable to blame Mr. Skimpole, even if he is selfish and artful. To begin with, Mr. Skimpole would not be able to cause any harm if people didn't persist in indulging him and introducing him to new victims. Excessive indulgence of others at one's own expense is, after all, just as harmful to all parties concerned and (in its own way) selfish.

Anyway, in all honesty, my dislike of Mr. Skimpole probably has less to do with the harm he causes and more to do with his (presumed) disingenuousness and with my own unworthy resentment at the ease with which he abandons responsibility and coasts through life.

Monday, October 18, 2010

University Update

The new semester began today. My courses are as follows:

  • Algebra und Zahlentheorie (Algebra and Number Theory)
  • ALP V: Netzprogrammierung (Network Programming)
  • Übersetzerbau (Compiler Construction)
  • Topologie II (Topology) -- maybe
  • Technische Informatik I (TI I)

My role in the last case (TI I) isn't that of a student, but that of a "Tutor", i.e. a teaching assistant of sorts, whose typical responsibilities include marking assignments and exams, and leading two weekly tutorials (90 minutes each).

I actually applied for the two-year position at the end of February, so this is my second semester as a Tutor. The first (during which I was a Tutor for Grundlagen der Theoretischen Informatik) went unexpectedly well. I actually felt quite comfortable at the front of the class, especially since the students were so positive and friendly.

If I had to name a downside, it would -- without a doubt -- be the marking. I always used to think that marking, being mindless, repetitive work, would be to my taste. The problem is that marking, while often repetitive, can be far from mindless. Even with a clear marking scheme, it's a time consuming and thankless business.

Anyway, on a different note, I'm not sure whether I will have the time or background knowledge required for Topologie II, but I want try it out (mostly, in truth, because of the professor, whom I know from Lineare Algebra I and II). I only wish the class size were a bit larger than 30, because it's easier to try things out when one can do so inconspicuously.

Well, all that being said, here are some notes relating to semesters past:

To begin with, I didn't participate in any Nachklausuren this time around, even though my mark for Softwaretechnik (3,0) left plenty of room for improvement. Oh well. I have yet to feel pangs (or even mild tickles) of regret.

I did, at least, finally clear up the matter of the Proseminar:

What with the miracles of modern technology (specifically, an online service called "Campus Management"), students don't usually need to concern themselves with paper certificates for their courses any more. There are exceptions, though. In the case of the Proseminar, the instructor apparently didn't have the authorization to record our marks in Campus Management. She did, however, prepare certificates, which could be picked up in the Prüfungsbüro (literally, "examination office"). I finally picked mine up during the holidays. The mark (1,0) was also recorded in Campus Management, so that is the end of that.