Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Heisig Method - can you read 蛇油?

It's been asked before, what do I have against the Heisig Method? Put simply, I strongly believe this method gives learners a significant short AND long term disadvantage over traditional study methods, and the only reason people think the Heisig Method has helped them is because they either a) have not themselves tried investing equivalent time and effort using a traditional method, and/or b) are way overstating their own progress, something the Heisig Method actually encourages.

Remind me - what's the Heisig Method again?
It's a system of learning the Joyo (standard officially recognised) Kanji, on which the Japanese writing system is based. Book 1 teaches you to recognise and write the entire kanji set by associating each character with a keyword using mnemonics in just 6 weeks/months. They are taught in a "logical" order whereby key component parts are introduced followed by the bulk of the characters that use them. In principle, mnemonics are a good way of *holding* abstract information in short to mid-term memory until such time as it's properly internalised, and the logical ordering certainly makes more sense than the traditional order that native children are taught. The catch though is that the logical order bears no relation to frequency of usage, so you will learn characters right off the bat that I have never seen used in context, while some simpler characters that you'll use 100 times a day aren't introduced until the final chapters. Ignoring the less than minor detail that you're likely to retain the characters you learn early for much longer due to their relative head start and the much more detailed analysis they all get, this ultimately isn't deemed important as you're very specifically not given any means to use the characters until book 2. Book 1 teaches you each character, a keyword, and a way to associate the two. Anything else will detract from this. Do not use in conjunction with any other learning. Heisig is crystal clear on this point.

Book 2 expands on book 1 by teaching you the readings, or the Chinese readings anyway - Japanese readings which are much harder to remember seem to have been skipped. Nobody I've spoken to has ever had anything positive to say about the second book, and most that swear by the method skipped over it altogether, so for the sake of argument we'll take “The Heisig Method” to refer predominantly to Book 1.

2000 odd kanji in 6 weeks/months sounds great! What's your beef?
My beef is that recognising is not reading, and writing is not using. After 6 weeks/months of dedicated study to Book 1, you may feel a great sense of achievement, but you've really learned next to nothing. You've internalised even less. Your Japanese skills will have progressed not even slightly. Now you may think you've invested your time wisely creating a vast skeleton of knowledge that can now be fleshed out with useful information like the readings, and build such a skeleton you most certainly have, but invested time wisely I think otherwise. The reason I say this is because remembering how to recognise and write each character and associate them with a concept is the easy part, and once the characters are properly internalised you no longer need the skeleton of keyword associations. What's hard is remembering the different ways to read them, the different compound words that use them, and that is what takes the bulk of the time and causes the misery in learning. Learning to recognise and write them is so instinctive and natural that the whole process of memorising them in the abstract beforehand can safely be skipped in its entirety. Being able to recognise the characters before you learn to use them really offers you no advantage.

So let's take a look at how this works in practice. We'll take two equally motivated twins of equal background and ability, both starting from zero on the same day. Adam takes the Heisig Method and ONLY the Heisig Method as directed in the preface. Bob takes a more traditional approach by studying the kanji in the same order that native children learn them, picking up the Chinese and Japanese readings, and a few examples of usage as he goes along. He's also studying the spoken language, and practicing by reading the news (which he finds he can do almost straight away because the most commonly used kanji are learned first, and he knows the readings so he can look up compound words in the dictionary quickly).

After six months, Adam has come to the end of book 1 and is confident that he can recognise (by Heisig keyword) and write all 2000 odd kanji. He cannot read any of them, and still speaks no Japanese because that's forbidden by the method, but is overall pleased by his progress. By this point, Bill's progress appears more slow - he only knows 1006 kanji. However, that 1006 kanji are the most commonly used and are required to be considered functionally literate. The really common ones he learned early and has now fully internalised. For each character he knows a concept, all the main readings, a number of words he's already familiar with from reading practice, all of which provide a plethora of hooks to aid recollection. His motivation is as strong as ever because he can see his progress every day. He's also conversationally fluent. For Adam to reach this level, it will take him another 5-6 months because what he already learned is almost completely non-beneficial. An during this time Bill will have become similarly fluent in the remaining 1000 kanji. Adam's use of the Heisig Method has basically given Bill a six month head start.

According to Bill, the best part about learning using a traditional method is that each time you go back and revise, you spot new uses of characters you already learned, which serves to constantly reinforce them. “Making a little story to explain the composition of the characters was useful for the first 100, and I'm glad I had that $5.99 book ‘Kanji for Beginners’ to help me with that, but after I had that base, remembering characters became instinctive.”

So remember kanji learners, the Heisig Method does everything it claims to. Why not find out for yourself just how little that means.

(Note: 蛇油=Snake Oil)

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Question for Encryption Experts

This one's been bugging me for a while now, and concerns dual key encryption systems as implemented in web browsers for the purposes of secure transactions, as well as people exchanging public keys before encrypting their own mail.

First off, the basic principles of encryption as I understand them - Alice wants to exchange messages with Bob by email but doesn't want her ex-boyfriend Chris to be able to intercept them. Chris unfortunately is in an ideal position to intercept them as he works at Alice's ISP running largely unchecked with root privileges, and is highly motivated. Any internet communications coming from or too Alice's machine he can access invisibly. Hence the need for encryption.

Alice and Bob had previously tried exchanging messages using a single key encryption system - one where a single key both locks and unlocks the document. This relied on both of them knowing the key, so in order to prevent Chris from getting access to it, they had to find another way to communicate it. In the end, Alison decided on a key and mailed it to Bob. She has no idea if Chris intercepted it along the way by way of his twin brother who works at the post office.

Then they discover dual key encryption. The principle works by both Alice and Bob having their own unique private key and their own unique public key. A document locked by a particular public key can only be unlocked by the corresponding private key, so they can freely exchange these public keys by mail safe in the knowledge that Chris cannot use them to unlock their communications. The process would look like this:

Step 1: Alice mails Bob her public key.
Step 2: Bob mails Alice his public key.
Step 3: Alice writes a mail to Bob and encrypts it with Bob's public key.
Step 4: Bob opens the mail using his private key, which only he has.
Step 5: He replies, encrypting the response with Alice's public key, etc. etc. etc.

Meantime Chris intercepts all communications, but only having the public keys, can do nothing about them. A system so perfect that secure transactions via regular browsers invisibly follow a similar routine.

So the part I don't understand... As Chris is in a position to intercept and interfere with all incoming and outgoing communications from Alice, what is to stop him replacing both Alice's public key in step 1 and Bob's public key in step 2 with his OWN public key? Then at step 3.5, the mail gets as far as Chris, encrypted with what Alice assumes is Bob's public key but is actually Chris's. Chris decrypts the mail, then re-encrypts it with Bob's real public key, and allows it to continue. Likewise at Step 5.5, Chris intercepts the mail from Bob just before it gets to Alice. Again, Bob assumes it's Alice's public key but it's really Chris's, who then decrypts it, and re-encrypts it with Alice's real public key. The whole set-up is automated, so there's no time lag, and neither Alice nor Bob are any the wiser.

Put this into a secure web transaction scenario and it starts to look even more feasible, as the key exchange would not be done via cleartext mail but via an easily identifiable, fully automated protocol based exchange. And given that most likely credit card information is being exchanged, the motivation factor is also there. What is it that stops a malicious ISP employee, or a zombie ISP server from being able to use this to harvest its users' credit card details?

Answers anticipated and appreciated!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Open letter to FOX Japan (and related networks)

Dear sirs

Is it really necessary to constantly stretch 40 minutes into an hour by relentlessly interrupting the programmes with the same never changing set of overly long advertisements for the exact channel and in some cases the exact programme I'm already watching? What is its purpose? It clearly isn't revenue, as the traditional advertising model relies on the advertiser being a different entity from the broadcaster in order for money to change hands. And if it's because of time slots, then have you considered revising them to fit more content and increase consumer value? It's very annoying, and the sole reason that I've ended up only watching your network as an absolute last resort.

Stop it immediately.

Peeved in Tokyo

Hmmm. While I'm at it...

Open letter to advertisers

Dear purveyors of unoriginal and unimaginative claptrap

Stop recycling the same actors and actresses in every single advertisement. Nobody believes that they actually really endorse the product, and nobody can remember what the product they're supposedly endorsing is because they've done so many. Big name actors cost considerably more than regular actors, and those costs I'm sure get passed straight onto the consumer, which is why I'm careful not to purchase products associated with anybody I've heard of.

And please please please immediately stop the ridiculous habit of airing advertisements starring a particular actor or actress during a show that they are performing in. I can't even begin to describe the extent to which this damages both the product AND the show.

And why not try advertising on FOX. They're flushing advertising space down the toilet over there!

Disgruntled non-consumer

Friday, March 02, 2007

Japanese Tradition DVD - NOW ON SALE!!

In Japan only for now, with no subtitles, except on “Shazai” which was also a nominee at the Berlin International Film Festival last month, and “Onigiri” and “Tejime” which have enough captions that non-Japanese speakers could easily follow the gist. I got my retail copy last night thanks to Rakuten's speedy shipping, and it's a very glamorously presented piece of merchandise! I feel special just holding it.

Now my question for the great internet abyss. Who is that handsome chap of western semblence that suddenly lights up the screen with his awe inspiring presence approximately half way through the series? I looked at the credits, but saw no western names...