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Smart.fm Rocks, With Two Exceptions

May 31, 2010 Leave a comment

In a nutshell: Smart.fm is a free, web-based flash card service. If you crack the nutshell open to get a look at the details of how it works, though, it’s far better than that. Here, let the official Smart.fm video introduction explain what I mean.

Smart.fm is not the only software based on spaced repetition. It does, however, have a few advantages over the other ones I’ve tried.

The first is that it’s web-based, instead of being a software program you have to install. That means you can access it from anywhere with a decent internet connection and reasonably updated browser software. Your progress data is saved on their servers — no need for frustration over the fact that the computer available to you has no clue how far along in your studies you are.

The second is just as wonderful, and can save you time. Since everyone’s data is stored on the Smart.fm servers, you have access to every flash card item anyone has created. These can be added to study lists you create. I recently created a Japanese vocabulary study list for terminology that’s been popping up in news articles related to professional Go, and most of the words I needed were already in the database. It’s actually simpler to add an existing item to your list than it is to create a new one, though not all items are created equally.

The service is very well-suited to learning vocabulary in another language. It seems useful for pretty much anything you can make physical flash cards for, too, though, with the added advantage of managing your study time for optimal learning efficiency.

A Couple of Downsides

It’s difficult to study the writing of kanji on a computer. This is a downfall that all computer-based kanji studies share, and Smart.fm is certainly no exception. The system throws kanji at you as rapidly as you can go through them. I find no fault with Smart.fm for this; it’s unavoidable. I mention it to be thorough.

No, the only real problem I have with Smart.fm is that there is currently no way to avoid having to transliterate hiragana to roman characters and vice-versa as part of your studies. While a fantastic feature for beginning Japanese students, someone who’s advanced well past the point of learning hiragana is really only hampered by having half of the quiz questions asking you to transliterate kimono back to きもの. I spent a good hour or two yesterday trying and failing to manipulate the Smart.fm item creation system to avoid this problem.

Any card with kanji in the vocabulary to be learned requires furigana input as well. While that’s a good thing, since most kanji have multiple possible pronunciations and some kanji compounds just have irregular phonetics, the system automatically includes hiragana-romaji quiz questions for all furigana. The furigana input you use when creating the flash card item can be changed to anything but blank. At first I planned to just use – in place of the furigana input, but I quickly realized that the result of that would be a whole lot of missed questions. When you have 5 quiz questions in a row ask you for the proper spelling of -, you’re gonna be in trouble.

Setting the meaning “side” of the flash card item to the furigana in an attempt to avoid English altogether crashed and burned as well. When shown a multiple-choice prompt for the English meaning of a Japanese vocabulary word, the correct answer is the only one displayed in Japanese. There’s no opportunity for learning there — you don’t even have to read it to know it’s right.

Attempting to create the flash card item with both “sides” in Japanese instead of one “side” in Japanese and the other in English worked almost as poorly. In my trial, the furigana I’d put in for the “meaning” of the word stood out just as horribly from the kanji-ridden meanings that took up all the other multiple-choice slots.

Fixing the Smart.fm system to allow advanced students to avoid transliteration exercises is the single biggest change I can think of to improve the Smart.fm students for Japanese students. I don’t know if the same is true of, say, Chinese and Russian language learners. I do know that Smart.fm — perhaps because the company that created it is based in Tokyo — already has a huge base in Japanese language studies.

If you’re a Smart.fm user and agree with me, please visit my post on their feedback forum and vote it up so they’ll pay attention.

iPhone/iPod Touch App

There is an official Smart.fm iPhone app. It is pathetically simple, compared to the web site quiz applications. It shows you one “side” of the flash card item and you have to match it to the other “side”. No kanji-furigana pairings, no sentence usage. And I’ve never seen it give me new material. Whether that’s on purpose or not, it’s only good for review at best, and for my purposes it’s practically useless. Goes right back to being great for beginners.

Jumping for Glee

May 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Several months ago, I started seeing Glee-related entries on My Life is Average. Then praise for Glee gradually started to appear before me in other places on the internet, as well. I got curious and started watching the first episode. After about 15 minutes, I decided the show wasn’t worth my time; I’ve become rather cynical about United States TV these days, and the show was looking like nothing special.

Skip ahead a few chapters to a few weeks ago. During rehearsals and between performances and in the green room during performances, many of the cast members were buzzing about Glee. On Facebook, they and some other friends of mine were buzzing about Glee. Finally I got to the point where I realized I needed to try again, to really give that first episode a chance. And I’m really glad I did, ’cause Glee puts glee in my heart.

Glee takes place in a high school setting. The glee club’s coach just got fired for supposedly molesting a student, and the Spanish teacher has decided to take up the slack. This teacher, William Scheuster, has fond memories of his days as a member of the glee club. But the club has fallen from it’s former glory. Scheuster wants to bring it back from the precipice of uncoolness and make it into the nationally recognized team it once was. As he goes about getting enough students to qualify for competitions and does everything he can to whip the club into good shape, the principal of the school starts pulling from the cheerleaders’ budget to fund the glee club a bit. The cheerleading coach thus becomes the enemy of the glee club, out to destroy it in any way she can.

It’s is a fairly unique show, at least in my experience. It’s a drama show that leans over the fence a bit to chat with its friends in the land of melodrama. Every episode is punctuated with song and dance numbers that pull the show together perfectly. Just about the time I’m ready to facepalm over how silly or dumb the characters are acting, they get all Pirates of Penzance on some classic pop or rock song and I find myself forgiving the melodrama because they found the perfect song to offset it with.

On which note, they do an excellent job of choosing songs for the show. Every song is a cover, and most of the songs they pick are big hits from the last three decades. Most of the episodes have a theme they whip out — songs which have the word hello in the title, mash-ups, and old bad-boy/bad-girl songs to resurrect, to name a few. One episode was chock full of Madonna songs and another was inspired by Lady Gaga’s extreme makeovers.

I’m kinda ashamed of myself for not getting through the whole episode the first time I tried to watch it. After the complaints I’ve been making about what it takes to keep a show on the air these days, I realized that attitudes like that are part of the problem. This is no sweeping epic with a complex story fraught with foreshadowing and/or a deep pool of a story, like Babylon 5 or the original V miniseries; it doesn’t need multiple episodes to build up to the meaning of the show and let the plot develop. It does, however, take most of the first episode to kick into full gear. Watch it until they perform Don’t Stop Believin’, and then decide whether or not you like it.

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The Sound of Music Rehearsals: Iz Over

May 21, 2010 Leave a comment

:'(

The play closed several days ago. There were a lot of crying actors during the final curtain call. I managed to refrain from crying until my first bow, and then my tear ducts refused to dry. When we took the cast bow, I got to watch one big, fat tear fall to the ground from the end of my nose. Looked pretty cool, actually. I cried again when they started dismantling the abbey and mountain.

Overall, the second weekend went better than the first, I’d say. There were fewer hitches in the performances, since we’d worked out a lot of the problems we’d had.

We also had bigger audiences — word got around. For Saturday’s matinée (during which we were competing with both a radically sunny day and the library’s Reading Rendezvous) the theatre was about 3/4 full; for the final performance, Megan and her helpers crammed extra chairs into every nook and cranny they could get away with and still had to turn 40-50 people away.

The audiences were more responsive, too, on average. For those of you who have little to no experience with performing, let me explain why that matters.

Performers have a symbiotic relationship with their audiences — the performers provide entertainment and work off the energy that the audience’s reactions return to them. A dead-quiet audience is harder to perform for than one which comes into the theatre inclined to laugh at all the jokes and cry in all the right places. Every audience has its own character, and that character colors the performance. Generally, matinée audiences are quieter and more reserved; audiences for evening performances usually laugh and clap more freely; and the school performances feature kids aged 6-19, so their reactions are impossible to guess at ahead of time.

Audience reactions can take many forms. You can think of some, I’m sure — clapping, laughing, gasping, etc. There are variations within those basic types, as well. Take laughter, for instance: you can separate laughter into giggles, chuckles, sniggers, snorts, belly laughs, nervous laughs, laughing silently, and many others. But there are other possible reactions, as well. Dead silence with no whispering in the audience at all is just as much a reaction.

Sometimes, especially during the school performances, we get unexpected audience reactions. One boy whose class has been studying WWII recently saluted back at the Nazis during one of our shows. During another school performance, when I was holding the list of music festival winners out from behind the curtain and shaking it in an attempt to get Max’s attention, a few kids near the front yelled out, “Behind you! It’s behind you!” At the beginning of one of the public performances, when I was hurrying out the back of the audience with the other nuns, nattering about finding Maria and where did we see her last and where oh where oh where could she be, I heard an audience member mutter, “Maybe she’s in the bathroom.”

Cast Party

The cast party was held Saturday after our evening performance at Shane & Erin’s [lovely] house. Erin remarked at one point that there were enough people in each area (several rooms on the main floor and out by the fire pit) to be its own party. And indeed, it was packed. Most of the cast and crew were there, some with spouses and children. Shane spent a lot of time out at the grill cooking meat — hamburgers and hot dogs — for everybody. Bonnie, mother of one of my fellow nuns, decorated a cake for us, too, which was delicious.

I took asparagus and bacon and prepared bacon-wrapped asparagus on sticks for Shane to add to the flame. They were a big hit. I had told a couple of people who professed a love of turkey bacon that I would get some of that, too, so some of them were turkey-bacon-wrapped asparagus on a stick. I felt really bad buying the turkey bacon — it was just turkey sandwich meat, cut into strips and colored to look like bacon. Heresy! I didn’t try any of those ones myself, but they were the only ones left by the end. The ones wrapped in real bacon disappeared as fast as they came off the grill.

It was an evening of chatting, and laughing at pictures taken both of the play and backstage, and more chatting. It was what Thanksgiving would be like if your family had 50 people in it. I ended up being one of the last to leave. Had some good conversations with the other people whose brains work well late at night.

And I found out that Erin collects stuffed animals the way Shane & Wayne collect Pez dispensers — by the hundreds. She has three teddy bears that would be six or seven feet tall if you stood them on their legs. Dana had to bribe Grace (who played the second youngest Von Trapp child) with cuddles to get her out of her burrow in the pile of giant teddy bears to go home, even though Grace was only hanging on to consciousness by a thread.

Strike

Strike is the process of dismantling the set and putting the set pieces, costumes, and props away. In community theatre, everyone helps with striking. We don’t have a paid set crew who do it for a living. It’s a short process with everyone’s help, though. Well, a shorter process.

People dropped out after varying lengths of time, starting with little Anna (the adorable 6 year-old who played little Gretl). I was there ’til about 9 PM, if I recall correctly. I started out on props, then moved to a power drill to take apart sections of the set. I had a few odd jobs in between. By the time I left there were a dozen people left at the most. I’d have stayed later, but the only job left to do at that point was repaint the stage… and I was wearing pants I use for work. The pants were the same color as the paint, but it’s still bad principle to get paint on your work pants. (Unless you’re a painter, of course.)

Fin

P.S. No really… :'( I miss everyone already, even though it hasn’t been a week yet and I have most of them on Facebook now.

The MacEpic Legacy: Two Deaths, a Marriage, and Three Births

May 13, 2010 Leave a comment
The death of Zelda MacEpic. (RIP)

Sorry, lady, you overworked yourself.

I’ve actually gotten quite a bit of Sims 3 in, even though I’ve been busy with rehearsals and work and school. It’s easy to play 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there… and harder to chronicle things as I go in the process.

Zelda MacEpic perished as soon as she got off work one day. Literally. I failed to get 100,000 aspiration rewards points for her. However, she fulfilled her primary function — giving birth to the heir. I was so close to getting her Lifetime Wish granted, though. Very sad.

I made Frederick go pick up her grave and move it to the graveyard. I was too busy having Kevin perform experiments on everything in sight, trying to get as much use out of his science career as I could before he kicked it. I managed to set things on fire three times in one day doing that, but no one died as a result. In fact, in two of the instances, we got the fire put out before the firemen arrived.

Frederick MacEpic

Frederick MacEpic, Heir the First.

Name: Frederick MacEpic

Favorite Food: Fish and Chips
Favorite Music: French
Favorite Color: Sea Foam

Traits: Neurotic, Natural Cook, Easily Impressed, Hopeless Romantic, Never Nude

Lifetime Wish: Illustrious Author

Frederick MacEpic has reached adulthood. He quickly picked up Illustrious Author for his Lifetime Wish, and I agreed. He stays home, writing and painting while his lovely wife works her way up the Military career track. (When she isn’t popping out children, that is. She ended up having about a week and a half off, by the time the third one was born.) And speaking of the wife…

Elisabeth (Donner) MacEpic

The second MacEpic matron.

Name: Elisabeth (Donner) MacEpic

Favorite Food: Hot Dogs
Favorite Music: French
Favorite Color: Blue

Traits: Loner, Loves the Outdoors, Friendly, Family-Oriented, Evil

Lifetime Wish: Martial Arts Master

Her Evil trait has been the most interesting one to deal with. When Kevin was setting things on fire in the name of science, she had a wish to see a family member die in a fire. She also keeps wishing to steal candy from her own children. Although I’m kind of curious to see how that would affect her relationship with her children, I’m on a mission and have resisted that temptation.

Her Lifetime Wish has made China the new cool place to go on vacation. Every time her travel debuff goes away, I send her back so that I can work her up the tournament. I need to work on her visa level a bit more, though… the more days she can stay at a time, the more likely she is to make it to rank ten in the tournament before going the way of Zelda. Since practicing martial arts works the athletic skill, too, she’ll have no problem keeping her athletics high enough for promotions at work.

Frederick and Elisabeth have had three sons. Their names, by order of birth, are Heath, Caspian, and Tertius. They were born just far enough apart that I was able to get by with only two cribs. I’ve been building bedrooms in a 6×4 square format with bed, desk, and laptop. Since you can recolor anything and everything in this iteration of the franchise, I’ve just been using the same textures with new color schemes. The basic scheme of the common rooms of the house are remaining red and pink, in honor of Kevin and Zelda.

The death of Kevin MacEpic

Kevin has also gone the way of Zelda.

Kevin MacEpic perished without seeing the birth of his third grandson. He never retired from the science field, stocking up enough money for the family to live on for a while until Frederick’s and Elisabeth’s careers get off the ground. He was in the middle of writing his third book at the time — a pastime he took up in his later years after Elisabeth took over the gardening.

I’m planning to encourage Heath to take up music as soon as possible; I’d like to shoehorn him into the Rock Star Lifetime Wish in grandma’s place. I have no particular plans for the other children. I may feed them to the time stream… or I may keep them as eternal bachelors against the event of Heath’s demise.

I’m also undecided about having more children. Elisabeth will only be of childbearing years for so long… but on the other hand, I’m bringing in more money from traveling and completing adventures than I am from either of the adult’s jobs. Decisions, decisions.

The Sound of Music Rehearsals: Here We Go!

May 13, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s been awhile since I wrote one of these, since I’ve been busy with work, rehearsal, and school. In fact, we’re already past the first weekend of performances and moving right along into the second.

The remaining rehearsals were a time of steady improvement. We continued to do one act per day up until the last Friday before tech week, on which we ran the whole play. Saturday was a work call day; some people helped dismantle the set at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium, move it to the APU Grant Hall, and rebuild it. I went to the later work call at the TBA studio, where I helped with costumes. I learned how to add ribbon to things; as a result of my inexperience, it took me way longer to do the task I was given than I had hoped. However, I was surrounded by friends engaged in other needlework projects with whom to chat. It was a great way to end the week.

Tech Week

Tech week was brutal — but then, tech week always is. Tech week is all about melding cast performances with costume and sound cues and lighting and the set and hoping that everything meshes together the way it’s supposed to. The process is made more interesting by the fact that it’s the first time the cast gets to rehearse on stage, as well. Before that, we were practicing in the TBA studio, which is a considerably smaller working space and where the set was represented by tape on the floor.

In short, tech week necessitates a lot of adjustments.

As Shane put it, it’s no longer the actors’ time to grow; everyone stops caring about the actors during tech week because it’s when the other artists involved in the production get to focus on getting their parts right. And things evolved quite a bit over the course of the week. That evolution was perhaps easiest to see in the development of our costumes. Charlotte and her team of costumers ran themselves ragged finishing up our garb. (And they did a fabulous job! I less than three them.)

Tech week is exhausting for everyone, really. After our school performances that Thursday, we had no evening show, so I went home and took a nap. A six-hour nap. After which I only went to bed an hour late. I got a LOT of sleep that day.

School Performances

The TBA in TBA Theatre stands for Training Better Artists. The staff are devoted to both helping people improve their theatre skills and encouraging youth to take interest in the arts. To the latter end, every play they put on has school-day performances on Thursday and Friday which are set up specifically for grade school (K-12) field trips.

Due to the limitations of bus transportation schedules, we are unable to give them the full two-and-a-half hour performance. We have to cut out a lot of the show and forego an intermission for the school performances. This has a couple of unfortunate side effects. The school audiences miss out on some good songs sung by good singers, for one. And for another, while we still give the audiences our all, the missing scenes make it more difficult to really get into the moment later — both for the audience and the actors. It’s just a shame. :(

In General

What can I say? The cast is fantastic, the set, lighting, and costume crews have outdone themselves… the show rocks. I’m so glad to be a part of it. It makes me sad that the copyright contract forbids us to record the show, ’cause I want to take it with me. The show closing this weekend is going to be one of the saddest things that’s ever happened to me.