Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why no one is watching the Watchmen

The Watchmen is a triumph of creativity. It is a re-imagining of a medium upon which all subsequent works shall be judged. It has layers of depth that are a commentary upon the politics of the times, the pop culture that surounds it, and a meta-commentary on the medium and its place in culture. Of course I am speaking of the comic, as the movie is a dolled up piece of pablum that we have seen countless times before and an embarrassment to the source material.

The movie suffers from the same problems as the director Zack Snyder's last effort, shot for shot devotion to the source material. Where Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used violence sparingly in order to maximize its effect, Snyder has limbs cracking and heroes galivanting around like low rent X-Men. None of the Watchmen have powers except for Dr. Manhattan, but looking at the movie you'd think radioactive spiders were hiding beneath all the masks.

The violence while beautifully shot as is everything else a distraction from the story and the philosophies that the characters embody. This is part of the movie's greatest failure, it can not stand on its own. An adaptation no matter how faithful to the source, even if scenes and dialogue are lifted word for word, has to stand on its own as a self contained narrative. It has to use the techniques of its medium or create some of its own to tell the story. If it needs external sources to make sense of what is being presented it is not a movie version of the comic but a poorly written companion piece.

I am a huge fan of the comic and would say that it is one of the best pieces of writing in any form to come out of the '8os. The fanboys who argue that the only people who don't like it just don't get it and should read the book miss the entire point of making a movie in the first place. If it is only for fanboys spending $150M to shoot it is ridiculous, there is no way to recoup the cost by relying on the fans that already exist. The purpose of a film adaptation is to expose the material to those who never read the book and hopefully inspire them to read it.

The movie has remarkable graphical flourishes but the story is poorly served by the writers and director. The comic is about the characters' psychology and philosophy but they can be lost in the movie to those unfamiliar with the source material. It also suffers from the fact that the idea of the dark hero, while revolutionary 20 years ago is a bit cliched now. The ending while changed is still faithful to the spirit of the comic and is a parody of the comic book genre.

Frankly, the precipitous drop in box office should be foreseen as the trailers are a lie. The trailers make it look like an action movie but the comic is moved forward by dialogue, the movie is mired in it. There are only a few set pieces of violence but they are so over the top and more graphic than the comic that they stand out and make the pacing of the movie all wrong.

Alan Moore and others were right Watchmen is unfilmable, Snyder proved the point. The dense amount of backstory and character development is done in the comic with flashbacks, letters, excerpts of text etc. With the movie it is done mostly with leaden dialogue delivered by wooden actors. It would have been better as a miniseries so that the characters and story could breath.

If you read the book it is a good movie if you haven't read the book before do so before thinking of seeing the movie.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Learning Japanese on a moderate budget

It has been an inordinate amount of time since my last post so here is some info that others may find useful. I already covered some books to learn Japanese. If you want an immersive leaning environment and are willing to pat with a few hundred bucks to get it you can supplement your education quite nicely with just a few items.

Genki is an integrated immersion course with materials published by The Japan Times. It is geared towards those in college with a lot of the vocabulary but it isn't as if one wouldn't need to know how to say college or physics in Japanese. The entire course materials include a textbook, workbook, CDs, flash cards etc. The Japan Times has an entire course site of useful resources. Some elementary courses at universities and colleges use the materials. Retailers have them at varying prices but you can buy them directly which ships from Japan or you can search for local retailers. Of course some of the materials can probably be found in the usual dark alleys of the internet.

JapanesePod101 is a great way to take in a short daily lesson. You can find it in iTunes or just go to their website. The basic podcast is free which is a few minutes of vocabulary or grammar with practice phases thrown in. This is a simple way to lean something new or practice in the car or at the gym. The paid memberships add access to the forums which can be useful with the community feedback. The forums are great if you are stuck on something o need help finding a tutor or school.

You gain access to the dictionary and quiz area which help to get you off of the romaji crutch. The most useful, to me at least, are the transcripts and the videos. Nothing quite like seeing the phrases on the page as you listen or watching someone speak a language.

If you have a Nintendo DS you are in luck since there are some great games that can be supplementary aids to your learning. My Japanese Coach is the most obvious. It features a quiz when you first start it up and create your profile that tests your knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, basic phrases etc. Once it determines your level it proceeds though a series of courses. These courses cover the elementary level of Japanese. I wouldn't recommend it as your only source but the writing practice, speech practice, and fast recognition of words in the mini-games are a decent supplement to Genki and JapanesePod101.

If you have the desire for true mastery, a DS, and a little cash you can do a lot worse than Zaidenhoujin Nippon Kanji Nouryoku Kentai Kouinin: KanKen DS. This game is basically a huge amount of kanji that you practice writing correctly. This is designed to prepare you for the kanji certification. This can also be useful to improve fluency even if you're not looking to be certified. There are other software options such as Kageyama Method - Dennou Hanpuku: Tadashii Kanji Kaki to Rikun. I'd also recommend checking the prices between PlayAsia and National Console Support.

Games are a good option along with movies to give yourself some immersive practice. You might as well take advantage of the fact that the games for DS, PSP, and PS3 systems are region free. Especially, with the PS3 setting up a Japanese PSN account and downloading a demo from Japan isn't that hard. Understanding what is being said in the movies or the games? YMMV

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Language Instruction Part 3: Russian Books

There aren't as many good books for Russian instruction, surpassingly considering the Cold War. Saying that I can unqualifiedly recommend Live from Moscow: Russian Stage One. This is the textbook series that I learned from in college so take my recommendation with a grain of salt. The series has a textbook, workbook, audio cassettes, and VHS tapes. The textbook gets the learners toes wet with some loan words before getting into some of the grammatical differences as well as some of the more complicated subjects. The audio is used to reinforce lessons with exercises in conjunction with the workbook. The VHS tapes presents a soap operaesque story of an American visiting Russia. This reinforces the lessons of the textbook and shows how they would be used in conversation.

If you are looking for a comprehensive Russian-English Dictionary you can do much worse than this. They also do a decent job presenting the grammar and basic verbs of Russian.

Fortunately for language learners, Russian has a lot of its greatest writers who are out of copyright. You can find the odd poem by Pushkin on Gutenberg or through the links on Wikipedia. If you are yearning for a dual language printed book this may fit the bill. I personally love Mikhail Kuzmin whose books are pretty expensive if you are looking for them in print but are available on-line. He wrote on of the first gay novels in Russian, Wings.

Community (data) properties

The use of community generated metadata is an interesting example of the potential of social networking. The community can generate terms that are meaningful for them instead of having them generated by an intermediate body such as the Library of Congress does for cataloging.

I'm looking at Delicious, which has revamped their site.

The lack of comma delaminated tagging seems like an oversight and adds to the potential for mislabeling but it can be overcome with a slight redesign. I've used Delicious in its previous incarnation and will check it out further. One of the problems, or at least oddities, that I noticed before is that many of the metadata tags that users create are not that descriptive, relevant, or just plain bad. Tagging a website as cool is useful on an individual basis but not so much on a community basis.

Another site that I'm excited about for a number of reasons, mostly game news related. However they are using community generated content and metadata in a very interesting way in a wiki site.

Video games would seem to be a nightmare to tag. Some of the problems such as the widely creative staff sizes and similar titles have been solved in relation to movies. Some of the issues such as repeated themes, character archetypes etc. have been solved in literature. The means of interaction however is unique. It will be interesting to see how much of a distinction, if any, is made between approaches to linear story telling for example. There are linear games that go from A to B, branching games where on decision effects chooses later on, and there are free roaming games. Some games have a mix of all three. It is always interesting to see how an untrained person approaches metadata creation and descriptive analysis.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Video games, child-men, and anti-feminist editorials

There were a few editorials about men who play video games and how they are immature. The cause of the immaturity is put to women not being subservient enough. I was going to write something talking about how idiotic the whole thing is but someone beat me to it.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Language Instruction: Part 2 Japanese Books

Here is the second part of the list of language instruction resources. There are a lot of resources for Japanese some of which are of dubious quality. Even if you ignore my list take my advice and try to avoid materials with a profuse use of Romaji. Written Japanese can be represented by Romaji the phonetic spelling of the language in Roman characters, in other words English with phonetic symbols. Books that use a lot of Romaji can make the learner dependent upon it and prevent one from picking up the writing systems of Japanese (Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji). Books with CDs or tapes should be preferred the sounds of the consonants and vowels in Japanese is a little more consistent than English which can take awhile getting used to hearing or saying.

Like with any language in general I prefer to have a good textbook first. As with Spanish I'd recommend the Living Language series of books since they are comprehensive and well structured. Of course the main problem with this particular series is its high cost. Like most of the Living Language series the glossary leaves a little to be desired but that is solved with a good dictionary.

If you don't want to put up the money for the Living Language books and are willing to deal with a college textbook Elementary Japanese is an easy to follow gentle introduction to the language. There is only the briefest use of Romaji to introduce the phonetics of Japanese. Some of the exercises and vocabulary make it clear that it is aimed at college students. There is also a good mix of vocabulary and discussion of the different levels of politeness.

The Genki series from what I've seen of it is geared mostly towards students in college who are going to be studying in Japan. A lot of the vocabulary and drills are of situations that students living abroad may find useful. It can be a great book if couple with a good teacher or other resources. It seems designed for increasing your score in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

The textbook I had in college is Japanese: The Spoken Language. My general recommendation is unless you already have the language almost mastered or have a really good teacher skip the title. It is geed very heavily toward grammar but is very slim on vocabulary. It is all Romanji and doesn't introduce the Kana or Kanji until later in the series. The presentation and exercises are a little unwieldy but some people may benefit from the mostly Romaji approach though the Romaji used here can be hard to grasp.

Japanese in Mangaland is a decent way to back up a more comprehensive textbook especially if the interest in Japanese comes from manga or anime. For the teachers and parents out there be aware that a lot of the more colorful language is presented. So if you are worried about your kids cursing behind your back in a foreign language it is something to keep in mind. If your interest in Japanese is only in reading manga then this can be a primary book, you'll get basics of the language without a complex approach to grammar.

Now that you have an idea of the textbooks on the offing it's time to get serious with some vocabulary and grammar. One of the main considerations is the Japanese writing system. There are three main writing systems in Japanese. Katakana and Hiragana are collectively called Kana and are syllabaries, meaning they represent phonetic elements. Katakana is used to represent foreign words and in manga represents mechanical sound effects. Hiragana is used to represent native words in books for children, grammatical particles, sounds by humans in manga. Kanji is the other main writing system, it consists of ideographs borrowed from Chinese. Kanji is used for writing native names, words, it can be used for numbers etc. There is no one system that can be ignored since all of them could be used on one page of a manga or a newspaper.

The complexity and sheer number of the ideographs being what it is you'll need a few books and I would suggest gravitating to the ones with the Kanji "spelled out" in Kana. This reinforces your understanding of the phonetic systems which can help learn new words.

Modern Japanese Vocabulary is a good up to date resource for vocabulary. The words are broken into sections with the Kanji, Kana, and meaning in separate rows. You'll find many computer, business, and science terms listed here as well as the general vocabulary of colors, directions etc.

Kanji Pict-O-Graphix is a book of Kanji with little drawings that act as mnemonics. It works off of the principle of relating a ideograph to an easy to remember visual. If you are a visual learner it can make the study of Kanji a lot easier than the usual rote method. I bought the similar Kana guide for my nephew, it's really helping him pronounce them on site.

If you are looking for more of a systematic approach to learning Kanji you may wish to check out Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters. The book presents the 2000 Kanji that are needed to be considered proficient in Japanese by the Education MInistry. The ideographs are presented in the order in which they are learned by Japanese children so you won't get into the 20 or more stroke ideographs until you are fairly comfortable. This book also has the etymology of many of the ideographs which is quite helpful as they can be mnemonic devices. I know it helped me pick up some of the roots of other ideographs and get the meaning quicker, seeing the trees in the ideograph for forest for example. Some people may hate the etymologies but for those language nerds like myself we can't get enough of etymologies.

Building Power in Japanese is a book on suffixes and prefixes. It's a decent way to increase your vocabulary with little effort if you memorize a few affixes to attach so that your speech and writing becomes a little richer.

Japanese Particles are one of the hardest parts of grammar to get a handle on. How to tell the Difference between Japanese Particles does a good job of making it all more digestible. The included quizzes are great for review and drilling.

The fact that Japanese adjectives and adverbs conjugate makes learning them a little hard to master. The Handbook of Japanese Adjectives and Adverbs makes it a little easier to get through.

Now that you have some vocabulary and know how to conjugate some adverbs let's move onto the verbs. Japanese Verbs: Saying What you Mean is a good introduction. You'll need some grounding in the basics and some vocabulary but it gives decent coverage of verb conjugation. Has loads of examples of usage. It presents the verbs in Kanji, Kana, Romaji and English translation.

A little cheaper but harder to follow as well is The Complete Japanese Verb Guide. There are less examples and no glossary so you'll be doing a lot of flipping to find the right word. If you don't need the usage information you can save a few bucks.

Now on to everyone's least favorite part of language learning, but arguably the bone structure of the corpus. Japanese grammar requires a good book since the sentence structure isn't close to English. If you want to speak fluently or at least move your sentence patterns out of a kindergarden level don't skimp too much here. A dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar is laid out like the grammar guides in the backs of dictionaries so you can find relevant sections quickly. It's part one of a series. The intermediate book goes further in depth to help in the mastery of the language.
The books covers the particles, politeness etc. Not all of this is used in everyday Japanese but the same can be said of guides to English grammar. If money is tight don't get a book on the particles or affixes but get this book.

The last part of the foundation is a good dictionary. Fortunately, one can find a few inexpensive Japanese-English dictionaries. The Oxford Beginner's Japanese Dictionary has the best layout. You can look up words in English to find Japanese equivalents or vice versa using Hiragana. The Kanji are presented beside the Hiragana so the learning of them is aided.

Another option around the same price but is usually a few bucks cheaper in most bookstores is the Random House Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary. The layout is a little more conventional, presenting Romaji forms of Japanese Words beside Kanji. Some may find this easier to use but it does delay learning Hiragana if you use the Romaji as a crutch.

Now that you have a foundation it is time to jump to that higher level, reading for fun. Seeing a language used in entertainment tells the learner a lot about the intricacies of the language and the culture that are hard to find anywhere else.

Breaking into Japanese Literature is a parallel text covering seven graded stories. There are downloads of sound files, dictionaries etc. A good choice if you are looking for a guided approach and just getting your feet wet.

If you want to take the manga approach, let's be honest anime and manga re the main reason many people learn Japanese in the first place, there are a multitude of choices.

The Japanese in Mangaland Workbook is a good companion to the main book and it can be approachable for Japanese learners in general. The book presents a manga story with exercises to translate the text from Japanese.

For those looking just for a good manga to read in the original Japanese Amazon has a whole category just for you. For those low on cash and without concern for copyright you can just do a search for raw manga and you'll find resources. Some comic book stores carry raw manga, if you are in a big city.

If you are looking for Japanese books but not a fan of manga resources are not as readily available as with SPanish but you can find the occasional book in the foreign language section of bookstores from time to time. or you can always try Amazon's Japanese website to have something shipped.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Language Instruction: Part 1 Spanish Books

I like to spur my nieces' and nephew's interests in language. Their grades have gone up overall since they have more confidence and they are doing something they find enjoyable. The only problem is that my nieces are into Spanish and my nephew is interested in Japanese. I try to help them with the languages and am also tying to improve the Russian I learned in college.

In the spirit of Larry Ferlazzo and his list of tools I'll make lists of some of the books, websites, podcasts, etc. that are indispensable to me. Here are the Spanish books that I've bought for myself, the kids, or borrowed from the library.

I know plenty of people don't have the funds to buy all the books and some people just hate books versus on-line materials. I've always liked books as a primary or secondary source of instruction since they are portable, easily browsed, and can be a nice change of pace.

I think a comprehensive textbook is always a good place to start. The Ultimate Spanish Beginner-Intermediate gives a decent coverage of Spanish. It does cover vosotros and the intricacies of the Spanish of Spain, as the reviewer on Amazon points out the Spanish of Latin America is the most common. It's very comprehensive and worth the expense.

Spanish Now! is a flawed but serviceable textbook series. There are some typos and inconsistencies which can get in the way of a true understanding but it's good for the price. If you are really tight on funds you might be able to find Ultimate Spanish or another text in the library or use the Internet sites I'll list as primary references.

Once you have a decent textbook books on verbs and grammar are a good way to refine you understanding. The Big Red Book of Spanish Verbs is a great way to familiarize yourself with common verbs and their conjugations. The included CD is good for getting some practice with the verbs.

501 Spanish Verbs is an old standby, it is widely available in most bookstores. There isn't a CD just common verbs conjugated for study.

Only a brave few actually enjoy grammar but it is a necessary evil. Spanish Grammar for Independent Learners is a good reference in an easy to follow format. If you can deal with a more regimented format Spanish Grammar is an inexpensive option.

Once one has a decent foundation and has refined their understanding of verb conjugation and grammar the last part needed for the basics is a good dictionary. The cock of the walk would be the Oxford Spanish Dictionary which has CDs, Latin American and European Spanish words and phrases, etc. The only problem is unless you have a lot of money lying around you'd do better with a cheap dictionary and some web pages.

Short stories, poems, novels are all great ways to see the language in use. Spanish Short Stories is a good parallel text suitable for a intermediate learner. For the more advanced learner there is Short Stories in Spanish. Poetry is a great way to see the possibilities in meter and turn of phrase of a language.

Of course who someone would prefer to read is very subjective, personally I love reading Frederico Garcia Lorca. There are quite a lot of manuals, novels et al. that have been translated into Spanish so one isn't limited to works created in Spanish but can also pick up works that you've already read in English. Whether one is looking for Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, or Stephen King.

I'll write up the Japanese and Russian books as well as the podcasts, web sites, computer programs etc. If you have any suggestions leave a comment.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Google: Statistical machine translation

ArsTechnica has a mini review of Google's translation service. They have switched from the rules based machine translation that they used to have and most machine translation services use.

I remember studying linguistic rules and statistical machine translation methods in college. Like the article suggests neither one is great but they can work well enough for someone to feel their way to the actual translation. The linguistic rules approach parses texts into an intermediary state using former grammar rules of the source language. The intermediary text is transformed into the target language former grammar rules of the target language.

The main problem with the linguistic rules approach is that it is similar to taking a sentence and marking it a parse tree and rearranging it into the parse tree of the target language and then changing it word for word. Another major problem is the grammars do not do too well with slang since there may not be a direct translation. The other problem is one of syntax there may be structures missing from the source that are needed in the target. For example, to properly translate "I went to the store" from English to Russian one needs to know if I traveled on foot or in a vehicle, since that changes the verb.

The statistical approach basically uses an algorithm to weigh the probability of the part of speech and/or meaning of a word. The statistics can be modified with the help of volunteers marking up a sentence or providing a more accurate translation. Given enough corrections and a large enough corpora the system can improve. Google appears to be using their index of web pages as a potential corpora and users of the service as the volunteers instead of the usual college student looking for beer money.

Googles approach reminds me of a few journal articles on using web pages as an inexpensive means to develop a corpus. Most corpori are rather expensive proprietary collections of text of language in everyday use. The statistical approach seems like a no brainer for Google since they have a corpori lying around and harnessing users even a poor algorithm is bound to get better. The linguistic rules approach only gets better with the development of more elaborate syntactical and transformative rules. The only question is what took Google so long to figure this out?