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Archive for January, 2009

Anki is a free software program designed to help people remember what they have learned.anki-logo It’s a flashcard program, with support for a variety of media, including text, sound files, mathematical equations (using Latex) and even images. My use of it so far has been restricted to foreign language learning. Anki runs on Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux.

The value of spaced repetitions

Anki is a spaced repetition learning system. Unlike traditional flash card systems in which the user decided what to practice and when, spaced repetition systems schedule practice for you. The first time someone learns something, it will be forgotten quickly. The next time, it might stay for a day or two. The time after that, a learner can usually remember an item for over a week. The length of time increases exponentially. If an item is forgotten, though, much of the progress is lost. By scheduling review for each item right before the learner is expected to forget it, Anki makes it possible to learn material well enough to remember it for months or even years in just ten to twenty repetitions.

My own learning experiences have made me a big fan of spaced repetition review. I have been a reasonably hard-working student ever since my last stint in college, but a depressing amount of the work was wasted. I have entire notebooks full of things I’ve painstakingly learned, probably reviewed more often in the early stages and then forgotten because failed to go over them months later. As much as I like the idea of deciding when and what to review, following the algorithm is more effective.

Differences from Supermemo

As far as the algorithm is concerned, Anki is very similar to SM2. When answering correctly, you still get three options (easy, good and hard), but there is only one option for wrong answers. Anything you answer wrong is put back into the stack, to be reviewed after you finish your other cards for the day. One very good change is that wrong answers don’t really affect the card’s “difficulty rating” before you’ve really learned a card well, i.e. to the point at which you have about a month between intervals. In other words, you won’t keep seeing a card too often a year from now just because you hadn’t really learned it before putting it into your deck.

The biggest way Anki is different from Supermemo is the clean interface. It’s a nice, simple program and it’s a joy to use. You can also copy decks to the Anki site for free (up to 10MB), and sync decks after you finish with them so that you can review from other computers. This isn’t a very important feature for me, but it would be if I had a decent cellphone.

Other features

Anki has some specific features for learners of Chinese and even more features for learners of Japanese. There are “deck models” for both languages. Each card has a field for the “question” (the word), the “answer” (the English translation) and a special third field for the reading. Upon entering a Chinese word, Anki fills in the pinyin for you! For example, if I enter the word 嫻靜, Anki fills in xián jìng for me. This is a great time saver. Unfortunately, it’s still necessary to choose the right pronunciation in the case of 破音字. The recognition for Japanese characters is far better. Anki has automatically selected the correct hiragana for the vast majority of the Japanese words and phrases I’ve entered so far. It’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, it would be necessary to choose from half a dozen readings on a regular basis. On other feature for Japanese study is that the program tracks how many of the Jouyou and Jinmeiyou Kanji have appeared in your deck so far. It also tells you what percentage of the kanji for each grade of elementary school you have learned.

Graphs and Statistics

Anki’s charts and statistics are outstanding.ankichart You can see charts of when cards will be up for review, of how much time you’ve studied each day, of how hard your cards are for you, and all kinds of other things. Deck statistics are similarly impressive. Have you ever what percentage of the time you answer correctly on cards you’ve been studying for a long time? Or what percentage you get right in your first review session? Anki can tell you. In fact, the charts and statistics might be a little bit too good. I’ve found myself checking them more than I really want to.


Anki is free software. As a proud free culture supporting geek, this makes me very happy. On the practical side, it also leads to cross-platform support and it’s easy to extend Anki. In fact, I’ve taken advantage of this by getting the Traditional Chinese localization of the program started. Damien, the original author and maintainer, was very helpful via email explaining to me how to edit the localization files. I’m sure others, with native Chinese skills, will build upon that work. If enough Chinese students get interested in Anki, I bet it will start keeping Hanzi statistics, too. By virtue of its license Anki is certain to keep improving for as long as it’s popular.


Anki is great. I’ve been using it daily for most of this month and I’ve even put in some time localizing it so that I could give it to one of my students. He’s been hard working, but continues to struggle to build his vocabulary. I’ve put all the vocabulary from my first semester CDs into Anki decks for him and have high hopes. I wouldn’t be using it myself and I certainly wouldn’t be recommending it to my students if I didn’t think Anki was the best of its breed.

Rating: 4.5/5

I’ve had a passing interest in the concept of spaced repetition ever since I read the Wired article about Piotr Wozniak’s fantastic human experiment.

Twenty years ago, Wozniak realized that computers could easily calculate the moment of forgetting if he could discover the right algorithm. SuperMemo is the result of his research. It predicts the future state of a person’s memory and schedules information reviews at the optimal time. The effect is striking. Users can seal huge quantities of vocabulary into their brains. But for Wozniak, 46, helping people learn a foreign language fast is just the tiniest part of his goal. As we plan the days, weeks, even years of our lives, he would have us rely not merely on our traditional sources of self-knowledge — introspection, intuition, and conscious thought — but also on something new: predictions about ourselves encoded in machines.

Given the chance to observe our behaviors, computers can run simulations, modeling different versions of our path through the world. By tuning these models for top performance, computers will give us rules to live by. They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we’ve read, help us track whom we’ve met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak’s scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational self-control.

The reason the inventor of SuperMemo pursues extreme anonymity, asking me to conceal his exact location and shunning even casual recognition by users of his software, is not because he’s paranoid or a misanthrope but because he wants to avoid random interruptions to a long-running experiment he’s conducting on himself. Wozniak is a kind of algorithmic man. He’s exploring what it’s like to live in strict obedience to reason. On first encounter, he appears to be one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

It was a long but thoroughly engaging piece that inspired me to try out Piotr’s software Supermemo. At that time, it never really stuck. I found the interface frustrating, and I wasn’t really interested in buying the full product. At the time, my motivation to study Chinese was on the ebb anyway.

Recently, spaced repetition has come back onto my radar, thanks to what John’s writing about his study of classical Chinese.

In fact it’s motivated me enough to not only give it a try for my own study, but I’ve decided to try to contribute to an open source spaced repetition program, Anki, over the Chinese New Year. The interface is great, it’s easy to use and I love it. I’ll definitely be writing more about it soon.

The program is fully free (gratis and libre), and I can see it as not only helping me with my studies, but with a bit of localization it can also help my students and other students as well. Maybe not being able to get a plane for a visit home wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

If anybody is interested in helping me translate the Anki interface into traditional Chinese, I’d love to have your help. I’m only a small way through and there are still about 6000 lines of messages left to go through. I’m not exactly a real translator either.

Tonight I met up with Angelica, Eli, Tetsuo, Brian and many others at The Brass Monkey to share Obama’s inauguration speech and some Hoegarden on-tap.

As usual, his speech was excellent. It was uplifting, inspirational and unifying. It was only a speech, but seeing him sworn in was a great feeling. Especially as an American who has spent most his adult life abroad, I feel optimistic about seeing a president with such an international perspective as Obama.

I’m feeling more excited about America than I have in a long time. Here’s to change!

This is a few links. Last week, Seth Godin put to words something I’ve felt for a few years:

Here’s a trick that’s as old as the web: Run a popularity contest with public voting. It could be anything from a listing of the top blogs to a creative contest for best tagline or ad.

The nominees run around like crazy, hoping to get their friends to vote. Which of course brings you more traffic.

My feeling is that most of the time the cause is too thin and the prize is too lame. If your blog gets picked as the most popular woodworking blog by some other blog, it’s really unlikely that you’ll find many benefits other than a nice smile for your ego.

Traffic Magnets

Coincidentally, I came across an older piece on Dreamhost about sites that “rank” the best web hosting services… entirely based upon how much money they can extort for their publicity. Like Seth’s piece, the topic is serious, but the writing is very amusing.

Now it’s all clear. Our $97 affliate payment is small potatoes but they’re eager to work with us! Let’s earn their trust by showing up on that Editor’s Pick page. $299 for a month? Whateva! We’ll pay you $349 to show you we’re serious.

May 1st rolled around and we set our sights a little higher. We asked what it would take to appear in the coveted front page Top 10 list.

Web Hosting’s Dirty Laundry

I love Dreamhost. I really do. Not only has the service been great, but the various update announcements they sent me look like they were written by a bunch of San Fransisco techno-hippies.

And finally, I came across this gem on Joel on Software, talking about the frustration on modern programming frameworks. Benji uses the task of building a kitchen spice rack to illuminate just how ridiculous some frameworks get.

So I go to the hardware store to buy the tools, and I ask the sales clerk where I can find a hammer.

“A hammer?” he asks. “Nobody really buys hammers anymore. They’re kind of old fashioned.”

Surprised at this development, I ask him why.

Why I Hate Frameworks

This last article continued so far past the point of absurdity that I laughed my head off.

Until last week, I had never realized how difficult uploading large files to a web site can be. HTTP isn’t really that well suited to it, and PHP has a couple of glaring weaknesses that make it nearly impossible. It all started when I ran into a minor problem at school…
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As I’ve written before, getting a debit card can be a serious dilemma for long-term foreign residents in Taiwan. Today, I’m happy to write that I’ve found a work-around for one of my previous debit card needs.

Recharging a Skype account is doable, even if you initially funded the account with an international debit card and you no longer have access to one. Better yet, there’s a vendor of Skype credit in Taiwan that doesn’t require a national ID card number– Family Mart (全家).

Just go in, ask for a Skype kǎ and tell them how much you want it to be for. Instead of a physical card, they’ll print out a receipt with a PIN code near the top. Then go to the PChome Skype voucher redemption page, enter the code and you’re good to go!

Light-bot is a pretty fun, if simple flash game that I wrote about last year. At that time, I realized that by giving the robot recursive solutions, it was possible to reduce the commands needed to win from the previous bests of 160 or so down to 132.

Recently, Mark Beyers has found an even more compact solution.

Already a lot of people have worked on improving their score for this game. I wanted to either beat the best known score (132 commands) or prove it to be minimal by trying every possible solution for every level and seeing if it completes the level.

To cut a long story short, the solver managed to beat the best known solution for level 8, reducing it from 10 commands to 9 commands. The solution is complex and I find it difficult to imagine how a human could discover this solution without assistance from a computer.

Mark Beyers: Light-Bot in 131 commands

Here is my old video for level 8 (apologies for the sound):

Here’s Mark’s solution, which uses one fewer command. Level 8 starts 45 seconds in.

Once again, I find myself looking back on a year past, remembering what I’ve done and evaluating the changes in my life. A year really is an arbitrary measurement, but it’s a familiar one and one that’s easy to use as a metric.

Last New Year’s

I don’t think I really did any sort of systematic goal setting during the last new year. At the time, I was having too much fun hanging out with my girlfriend of the time, working on the school and reading the sci-fi books Poagao had lent me.

I do remember what my goals were, though. I wanted to really turn the school into something great– not just a competitive business, but something my students would someday look back upon and consider to have changed their lives for the better.

I wasn’t too terribly focused on learning Chinese at that point. I was already well past the level required for daily living, and I’d finished my two children’s books that I’d assigned myself on my 28th birthday. My social life was also great, especially during the summer while Eric was in town.

I think fitness was something of a minor goal, but I can’t remember too well.

Progress with the school

The one thing I put the most of my heart into, the school, has done relatively well. It’s still not really making much money, but I’m really, really happy with the quality of the education. My highest level class, which I took from absolute beginners 2 years ago, has read over a dozen level two graded readers (OUP, Penguin and Cambridge), and had few problems understanding a level 3 reader, Sleepy Hollow, entirely from listening to its accompanying CD. Not bad for just 4 class hours a week for two years.

The parents seem to be pleased, too. I still have 80% of the students from my very first class that I opened just over two years ago. One who had left for a year even came back this summer!

It’s a bit difficult to calculate school growth, though. Some of the growth in the size of the school was bought and probably at a higher price than we should have paid when we bought out Ding’s. With the school came a lot of students, many who left when we moved in, and a couple of part time teachers, one of whom is still with us.

Just looking at the total number of students in our evening classes, our growth is an astounding +181% from December 2007 to December 2008. A fairer comparison would be to look at just the number of students in my own evening classes, and that comes up to a less impressive +84% over the past year. The afternoon classes, which I taught for the last two years, but which a new teacher has taken over for this year are up about 40%. Student numbers for our advanced classes have been pretty flat, but we’ve revised our definition of “advanced” sharply upwards.

Being such a small school, growth is pretty easy to come by. The coming year will be the real test. If we can grow by anything like the same rate this coming year, then it will be clear we’re offering something people really want.

Other stuff

I made limited progress in terms of Chinese learning or getting in better shape.

I’m working my way through a children’s book, which seems devoted to making sure Taiwanese children believe in precursor civilizations, the Loch Ness Monster, the bermuda triangle and the existence of great pyramids and a sphinx on Mars. I’m only reading a few pages a week, though.

I’ve been running once or twice a week, but I push myself hard occasionally. My resting pulse is now down from about 67 to 55, and my blood pressure is now on the low end of normal, but I have pretty much the same weight as before.


For the time being, I feel content to continue down my current path. I do want to see if I can start using my Japanese a bit more than I have been, though. Watching Heroes, all the parts with Hiro Nakamura and his adventures have been making me think about looking for a conversation partner some podcasts and a JLPT study guide.

Other New Year Posts:
Thoughts on 2008(