This year

Screenshot anime Kimi ni Todoke

The new year is about to begin. Now if only I could remember the old one.

This was the year Netflix came to Norway. Actually, that happened in the fall. Things must have happened before that too. I think I read books. I am not sure how many, but a number of them. Most of the books I bought, however, I did not read out. I read part of them and then decided to read the rest someday. Unfortunately there are only seven days in the week, and none of them is Someday. I think Someday should be between Saturday and Sunday, judging from its name. That would solve a lot of problems, but only if it really was an extra day and not taken from our limited number of other days.

Anyway, with Netflix offering free gawking for the rest of the year to its early adopters in Norway, I finally got to see Groundhog Day again. It is one of the few movies that I could see over and over. But unfortunately I don’t have time to do that, and with Netflix I have even less time than before. I definitely wish Groundhog Day was an on/off feature in my life. I would go to bed with my Groundhog Day switch in the “on” position 99 days out of 100. I really love my days, but they are so few and short. If I could go through them 99 times each, I am sure I could solve more cases at work, and read more books, and learn to play Go reasonably well, and learn thousands of Japanese words, and watch every Doctor Who episode on Netflix, and find out to every feature on my Galaxy Note 2.

Right! I bought a Galaxy Note 2 this year. It is an amazing little thing, indistinguishable from magic. It has a lot of features that I haven’t taken the time to find out, but those that I have found out are easy and fun to use. Basically it is… Shiny. It radiates a small amount of happiness which kind of seeps into you simply by holding it in your warm little hands. Something like that. I guess I can sympathize more with the brainwashed iPhone users now. Except they are deluded fools, mistaking a false shiny for the True Shiny…

(Please do not take this too seriously. It is bad enough when the Apple worshipers do. ^_^)

Now I remember something from earlier in this year: I bought a Galaxy Tab 7.7 tablet as well. It was Shiny, but not nearly as Shiny as the new Note. Well, the hardware is extremely Shiny, but the operating system is much too old. I think it is called Honeycomb or something, actually it is so old that I don’t remember what it’s called. It’s a version of Android at least. In most of the world it has been upgraded to Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. But here in Norway I have never had the option to upgrade. Because of this I am probably not going to buy a tablet or cell phone that is not a Nexus ever again, unless it is incredibly Shiny. (Nexus devices are automatically upgraded when a new version of the operating system is available.)

Another Shiny thing that arrived this year was Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12. Actually the last three or so versions of Dragon have been certified Shiny, as far as I am concerned. But this speech recognition system is growing steadily more Shiny with each new version (although version 11 was mostly an improvement in the user interface rather than the speech recognition engine itself, in my experience at least.) I love the things that make me feel that I am living in the future, and this is one such thing. I physically cannot speak much, because I have spent so many years in silence. But on my days off I can dictate several paragraphs, and I rather enjoy doing so. For ordinary humans who speak incessantly anyway, this must be a godsend.

I mentioned learning to play Go, further up in the text. Yes. This fall was my longest and most serious attempt to learn the ancient Asian strategy game, which takes five minutes to learn but centuries to perfect. I watched the 75-episode anime Hikaru no Go and even read the manga to find out what happened after the anime ended, immersing myself in the serious Go-study atmosphere. For many weeks I watched other people’s games on Pandanet IGS (Internet Go Server), mostly high-ranking players so I could absorb their style, but also some low-level players (by IGS standards, at least) so I could learn from their mistakes. This was a part of my daily routine for weeks. I printed out game record forms (which are not called Kifu Paper, but this is the best phrase to use to search for them on the Net) and recorded some of the high-ranking games or at least the first part of them. I bought a physical Go board (goban) so I could replay those recorded games with actual Go stones (although they turned out to be plastic, not stone) and learn with more of my senses. I studied web sites with advice and strategies for beginners. Week after week I kept it up. And now and then I would play a game against my Galaxy Tab on the lowest difficulty setting. And it would crush me mercilessly, every time.

I  continued until November, when I wrote the first draft of a novel about Go, Happy Science and the Japan that only exists in our hearts. And since then I have practically not touched the game. Or the novel.


I probably did something in summer, and spring, and last winter. But I have no idea what. Even without Groundhog Days, time flows differently for me, thank the Light. Half a year is like an ocean of time to me. Wait … I remember now. I was walking and jogging all over the town and surrounding countryside! And there was May 2nd.

On that day I had an appointment with a heart specialist in the city where I work. For some months before, I had an increasing number of tachycardia attacks, where my heart raced at double speed for no discernible reason for a quarter or two or three, before gradually slowing down over a number of hours. I never found out what the reason was. During the weeks before the appointment, I lost a few more pounds due to broad-spectrum antibiotics which did unspeakable things to my digestion. It has not quite recovered yet, but almost. Anyway, I walked with a device that measured my pulse and my blood pressure day and night, and had my heart and arteries scanned with ultrasound, and was tested on an exercise bike.

The doctor was, like all health personnel who have had anything to do with my heart, of the opinion that I was super healthy, like a high-level athlete. Not world level obviously, but enough to take part in national competitions. Obviously I don’t do that because of my asthma, but I decided to exercise as hard as my asthma allowed for an hour or more each day. And mostly I did so until November, when it rained almost every day, and December, when snow and ice settled on the roads.

Since I could not do physical exercise when I was a child (because of the asthma), I have assumed all my life that my heart never developed to its full strength either, and that it would probably stop working if I ran more than a few steps or walked up a long hill without stopping now and then. Sporadic tachycardia attacks and the occasional fainting confirmed my theory. So the notion that I have some kind of hidden superpower is kind of hard to get used to.

Speaking of superpowers, the superhero MMORPG City of Heroes was closed down on December 1st after over 8 years. I played it pretty much every week from the closed beta until last year, when I slowed down a bit. But I was still playing it off and on until the end. It was a game that attracted particularly noble souls, it seems to me. It even spawned its own charity. I have met some of them again in the other superhero MMORPG, Champions Online, but it is not really the same atmosphere. Well, perhaps it is … if not a hint, at least an opportunity to prune that particular part of my life. Perhaps. Someday.

But for now, I have Japanese vocabulary to Memrise. You have to have superpowers of the brain to learn an unspeakably alien language like that, it seems to me. But then, that fits my self-image after all (although I may be the only one having that image of me!)

A little progress in Japanese

Screenshot anime Minami-ke (Kana, Chiaki)

I apologize in advance if I make any of my readers look like a slacker, but I am sure you are all eagerly studying something in this fascinating world! Let us do our best today too!

As I have written occasionally this past month, Japanese is a fiendishly difficult language to learn for us Europeans. Not only is almost every word different and the grammar also quite alien (to the point where Google Translate gives mostly gibberish), but the language is written in three different scripts, two of them with several dozen characters and the third with more than a thousand! (Several thousand if you want to read older books, but let’s not go there.) Even Japanese school children, who presumably can speak the language from home, learn only around a hundred characters per year, or so I have read. My Japanese readers should correct me if I am wrong. ^_^

Even with Memrise, the website which combines mnemonics and spaced repetition, I have a hard time remembering more than two out of three words when I revise them. But at least this proportion mostly stays the same, even though I add 15-20 words each day, usually more on the weekends. So the number of words that remain in my head must be increasing, although I am not sure which words I remember and which I forget.

Today, I noticed a couple things. I watched an old anime that I had not seen for years, and I recognized a word in the anime that I had learned from Memrise. Usually it is the other way around, but this is how it should be.  A few days ago I recognized another in a Japanese pop song. So they are not kept in a separate locked room, they are available to my brain. If I keep adding words, they should pop up more often, until I don’t even remember where I learned them the first time.  But for now, I do.

Another thing I noticed today was the hiragana, the most common script, with around 50 characters. Since the JLPT N5 course on Memrise uses mostly hiragana both when it shows the text and when I respond, I keep seeing them all the time. Because of this I no longer think of Hiragana characters as separate data points that I have to memorize. They are becoming a skill. I can read a word I have never seen before and know roughly how it is pronounced. And for the most part I am not in doubt. I don’t have to wonder which sound this character stands for, and then combine the sounds afterwards. I just combine the sounds. This is not quite the case for katakana, the less common script, but it will probably go the same way, only more slowly since I see it less often.

Even so, at this speed it will take months before I can read actual texts in hiragana, even children’s books or comics. I simply don’t have enough vocabulary. But months are a modest price to pay to open the door to one of the world’s greatest cultures. (Not to mention finding out the truth about Ryuho Okawa, the man who wrote 900 books.) Since I yet haven’t been diagnosed with anything terminal except life itself, I intend to forge ahead. Even if it goes slowly, it goes forward. At the least, I feel it is worth a try.

Too young at heart

Screenshot anime Chuunibyou

“Everyone has eight-grade syndrome all their lives.” Well, I certainly have. The fact that I roleplay a superhero online pretty much every week is proof enough of that. I wish I could grow up soon though.

I turned 54 today. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!  I find that I am still in many ways young at heart. I really want to change that, but I am not sure how. I have tried so many things. There is a saying here in Norway that “youth is not a big drawback, you outgrow it”, but this seems to take its sweet time for me.

We live in a society that sees youth as a good thing, and for the body that is certainly true. It reaches its peak shortly after 20, and by my age it is already declining fairly rapidly. (Although some people take up long distance running in old age, most other physical feats are getting rapidly harder after 50.)

When it comes to the mind and personality, though, I agree with the ancients: While old age does not always bring wisdom, youth is almost always foolish. The current flood of education does not really change that. There is a fundamental difference in how the young and the old brain process information. As children we start with no insight and no connections, but a sponge-like ability to absorb random data we come across. As we grow up, we gradually lose the ability to learn random unrelated things simply by stumbling across them, but instead we develop our ability to learn by association, like filling in the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Now that I am in my mid-fifties, the images of the jigsaw puzzles should be what I see, not a jumble of pieces. To some degree that has happened, yes, but the picture is still so flat, it has not really become the real thing. It has not come alive. I learned, now I understand, but I don’t really understand, for I am not changed, I am not transformed. How long will that take? How long before I become wisdom lived rather than wisdom perceived? I could write books, innumerable books of timeless wisdom. Except I am not that wisdom, it is not really mine and certainly not me. So it is not finished, and will be destroyed if poured at this stage. One should be the wisdom before sharing it. Like valuable beverages that need years of processing alone in the dark, wisdom needs to be kept under lid to transform into its final and valuable stage.  Will I even live to see that happen? What can I do to move on, except shut up? That would probably be for the best, but it makes for a lousy journal…

I don’t want the impatient heart of the young. At least I have shed the seeking of popularity and even attention. I don’t write this journal to impress or be looked up to; Light save me from that for as long as possible. I write it for those who travel the same path as me, for friends known and unknown, and for the future yet to be seen. I write it because I don’t have children that can bring a part of me into that future. At this age I often think of the words of wisdom I heard from my father and my mother, but for many reasons I am not going to bring that wisdom into the future the same way they did. Luckily I have my brothers for that. The world is teeming with small Itlands, so that is good. But I shall have to bring my memes into the future without my genes. (Although they are mostly very good genes; I really undervalued them when I was younger. Oh well, a bit late now.)

I was never cut out to be a parent, but I think I would have made a decent grandparent. Well, that is not how the world works. But I look forward to becoming old at heart. I’ve been young long enough, I think.

Habit and understanding

Screenshot anime Hikaru no Go - Hikaru

I am not like I was before – is that not the defining element of understanding? It is not something that requires work to maintain, because it changes the very way we look at things.

While I am still trying to learn basic Japanese, I have reflected on the different ways of learning: By association, by repetition and by understanding. These are complementary, that is to say they complete each other, but they are also very different. In particular I would say that understanding is in a class of its own.

Associations fade over time, and habits take time to build. But understanding happens in a moment and lasts for a lifetime. In light of this, we might wish that we could learn by understanding only; but in this world that is not possible. On the contrary, the “inferior” forms of learning seem to be necessary to lay the foundation for the experience of understanding. “Before we can make apple pie, we must grow the apples.”


I have reflected a little on how this applies to our spiritual life, if any. I can’t help but notice that the monasteries of the various religions all seem to be focused on habit (pun not originally intended). There are routines to be followed for every hour of the day, and they are followed strictly. It may seem to the casual bystander that people are reshaped into robots, mindless machines of the religion. And certainly that could happen. But I believe that the purpose of all this habituation is to lay the groundwork for understanding. Whether that happens in each individual life or not, is another matter.

The secular reader may discard the possibility that there is a human spirit, but look at it this way: Even if we know today that Earth rotates, rather than the Sun circling around us, the experienced reality of the sunrise and sunset is spot on. In the same way, even if we should be able to find another way of looking at spiritual realities, the experience of them will remain, as it has remained for thousands of years.

And in light of this, I hope we can agree that understanding seem to take place at a deeper level, which may be that of the spirit or at least the soul. These words are not interchangeable, the soul is personal but the spirit not so much. And when you gain and understanding, the flash of profound insight that makes your view of something suddenly tilt and you see it from a whole new perspective, I think that may belong to the deeper part of you that is not entirely personal.

For instance, say you are 12 years old and live in a poor family and one day you realize why Pythagoras had it right about those right-angled triangles. (It really is very obvious once you see it.) Before then, you had just read it in a book and accepted it as a fact. Now that you understand it, it becomes more true than your current personality. Even if you grow up and become affluent, even if you fall in love and marry and have kids, even if you divorce and suffer from depression for over a year, even if you lose your religion and gain another, the understanding you had that day remains unchanged. You are never going to look at those triangles the same way again, even if decades have passed.

The purpose of spiritual practice, I believe, is not to simply accustom you to living outwardly a life that is compatible with your religion. That is certainly not a bad thing, but the idea is that at some point a revelation will strike like lightning in your soul and you will realize The Truth. From then on, even if you make mistakes, even if good people happen to do bad things, even if your outward conditions and even your state of mind may vary over time, you will never look at life the same way again.

“Enlightenment is like being hit by lightning” say eastern Buddhists, meaning that you cannot train yourself up to enlightenment by practice; “but meditation is like being outside in a thunderstorm.” In other words, you can reduce your chance of being hit by Enlightenment, or more generally by Understanding, if you don’t stay in the zone where it is likely to happen. Sometimes it happens anyway, to the undeserving and unaware. Often it does not happen even if you seek it for a long time. But you can increase your chances, and it is not like you are doing anything criminal in the meantime. Just don’t mistake the habit for the understanding.

Well, that was a strange revelation from memrising Japanese vocabulary. But then I live a strange life, filled with small things. I guess my life is a bit like a bonsai garden. ^_^


Screenshot Hikaru no Go

When I first saw this in the anime “Hikaru no Go”, I thought it was fiction. But masters of Go really can remember hundreds or thousands of games, and can stop in the middle of a game and resume it later in their life. So why can’t I remember a word for five minutes without repeating it?

I am slowly making my way through the JLPT N5 vocabulary on Memrise. While I am learning faster than I am forgetting – at least for now – the margin seems entirely too narrow. Shouldn’t forgetting be reserved for things we know we are unlikely to meet again, like a phone number called only once?

Scientists assure us that there are more connections in the human brain than there are atoms in the observable universe. Furthermore: Poking around in a patient’s brain with electrodes for some other purpose, the doctors accidentally woke to life memories from the distant past, in lifelike detail. So it seems we wander around with a library of a million books, but only a thousand of them are indexed. Why? Why do we forget? What’s in it for us?


Forgetfulness could just be a not-so-intelligent design, of course. My previous main computer had 4 GB of RAM, but 32-bit Windows could only access 3.25 GB. Even if I had doubled the computer’s memory, it would have been useless, because the limitation was elsewhere. So it is thinkable that our brains have enormous vaults of storage but the retrieval system can only handle a small fraction of it. When I refer to this as unintelligent design, it is because brains are expensive. The human brain uses a disproportionate amount of the body’s energy, somewhere in the range of 20-25% despite its limited size. The brain of the Peking Man would be plenty enough to store the memories we can recall after a long and eventful life. Probably an Australopithecus as well.

As if to further confuse us, there are a few scattered individuals who can remember pretty much anything. You can give them a long list of random numbers or syllables, which most of us would not be able to recite even right after hearing it; a year later, they will recall it perfectly with only a slight pause. Occasionally someone seems to be born this way, while others have found some system or practice that lets them remember anything. Several of the latter have written books in which they try to teach how to do it. But despite the widespread sale of such books, humankind has not been transformed into their likeness. I am still not surrounded by mnemonic supermen, to put it mildly.

On further inspection, it turns out that memory masters – at least those not born that way – can remember anything, but not everything. That is to say, memorizing random data requires intense concentration, and also deliberate practice beforehand building up the memorizing skill. So the lunch is not quite free after all. We are simply not made to remember our whole life in full 3D color vision and surround sound. Perhaps just as well: If we remembered everything, nothing would stand out. As one Amazon reviewer put it: If life is defined by the moments that take our breath away, holding your breath is just not the same!

In addition to the general memorizing ability, there are many professions and arts that have impressive but specific memories. I have mentioned high-level Go players, who can remember every game in their career move by move. Considering that there are more possible Go games to play than there are stars in the galaxies, this is quite uncanny. But they still need a list to remember their groceries. The deliberate practice of their craft creates a mental model that interacts directly with long-term memory, without going through the usual channel of recalling item by item into short-term memory. This is perhaps similar to how we learn “wordless” skills such as biking, which involve many muscles and senses. Decades later, we can resume where we left off, without any conscious effort to “recall” how we did it.

Learning to speak in the first instance is also a pretty intense practice, and usually involves not only a steady effort from the toddler but also from the surrounding family, which acts selectively on meaningful words before the child even knows their meaning. I could also learn Japanese if I lived with a Japanese family that thought I was the most interesting thing since the world was made. ^_^ But as adults we just have to provide both sides of the learning enthusiasm ourselves.

Once we have learned to talk, we never forget how to do it. (If anything, we forget to not speak.) When there is a particular word we can’t recall, the reason is not forgetting but a psychological block. (For instance, a struggling alcoholic may have trouble with the word “bottle” because the very thought of a bottle sets off a fierce battle in his subconscious.) Only when Alzheimer’s or some such illness unravels the fabric of the mind do the words eventually fail us.

I conclude from all this that the natural “garbage collection” of the brain will take away my Japanese vocabulary unless I manage to grow it to a level where it stops being data points and becomes a skill. My plan is to give some priority to drilling basic vocabulary and reading hiragana until I reach the level where I can actually read Japanese manga (comics) in the native language. Comics tend to have a simpler and more limited vocabulary and grammar compared to articles and books. If I can sustain my deliberate practice until I have the skill of reading manga, I should be able reach a “safe haven” against forgetting. We forget data points, but we don’t easily forget skills. That’s just how our minds work, and it is always easier to ride the horse the way it wants to go anyway.

Overwatering memories

I want to praise myself! But that’s not easy when I have forgotten every third word pretty much every time. Time to bring a bucket!

Nearly two weeks ago, I wrote in praise of Memrise, a website that teaches (mostly vocabulary) by a combination of mnemonics and spaced repetition. Since then, I have discovered a problem with it. Not a showstopper, but an irritation. Luckily, there is a built-in solution.

The problem is that the system is way too optimistic about my ability to remember the words. Actually it is pretty good when it comes to very simple pieces of knowledge, such as the katakana (a Japanese syllable script I have not made the effort to try to learn before). But for more complex information such as Japanese words, I have frequently forgotten them by the time the next repetition comes around. This is particularly bad with longer words. The website uses the same interval by default for single syllables and long words, but my fail rate is much higher for the longer words.

The goal is a 90% memory retention, but my average sessions tend to yield 60-70%, depending on the mix of words. That is not optimal – the perfect time to repeat a fact is the moment it is about to be forgotten. You should ideally have to think for a moment before recalling it; having it at the tip of your tongue but not getting at it is also acceptable. Remembering without effort is less effective, and having to re-learn it even less so. The closer you get to just barely remembering, the better.

The second effect of this, apart from less than ideal learning, is that it is a bit demoralizing. Failing a third of the time feels like failing a lot, even though technically I remember most of the phrases. Failure has a stronger emotional impact in the short run, although psychologists say that we remember our successes better in the long run.

Strangely the Memrise website comes with a tool that fixes this, but subtly discourages its use. The tool is called “overwatering”. The very name is a discouragement: If you overwater your plants in real life, they will sicken and wilt eventually, just not as quickly as if you forget to water them in the first place. To further discourage its casual use, the “overwater” button is white, the same color as the background. (The “water” and “harvest” buttons are in bright attractive colors when they appear at all.)

But the interesting part is that when I overwater, I get pretty close to the target rate, and also have a much more positive feeling. Yes, the short words are now too easy, but correspondingly I spend very little time on them, just write them and press enter to get to the next. The easy words don’t get much attention, as well they shouldn’t. According to the site forum, overwatering does not directly affect the timers. So you won’t get a longer pause if you get a word right during overwatering. This fits with my experience – new words to water appear fairly soon after an overwatering session, and may randomly include words from that session. It seems to be a stand-alone feature, more or less.

I am a bit baffled by the choice to deflect attention from the overwater tool, and the lack of explanation of it anywhere on the site. Only in fragments of discussions on the forum do I get some idea as to why it was included (by very vocal demand, it seems) and the almost fanatical disagreement between its supporters and opponents. I am surprised: Everything I have read about long-term learning implies that memory retrieval fades quickly once you pass the threshold where you can no longer recall it at will, even with effort.


One possibility is that the average user of Memrise learns much more easily than I do. That is certainly not beyond imagining: I am almost 54 years old at this time, while college students are probably the most likely to use a site like this. The ability to learn random data tends to drop off over time, whereas the ability to learn by association remains high until dementia sets in. Hopefully I am not quite there yet, although I feel painfully incompetent at work as well. (Then again, judging from the speed at which our pool of cases is solved, many of us are probably like that. I have no idea whether the others actually feel it though.)

Anyway, if college students remember 90% of the phrases through the ordinary watering process, they will not feel any need to press the white button. So that is one possibility. But I don’t have that luxury. If I want to actually learn enough Japanese to read Japanese books one day, I have to forge on. Even if it means overwatering, by the standards of other people.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2

I bought this a few days ago. To be honest, it was a case of gadget lust rather than necessity. If you want to judge me for spending my money unwisely or unjustly, I will not hold it against you. My previous smartphone is still under warranty for a long while yet, and would have been sufficient. If I have an excuse, it is my principle of trying to buy the kind of inventions I hope to see more of in the future.

And this invention, gentle reader, is about as futuristic as you can get on a Norwegian working class budget. It looks and acts like something out of a recent science fiction movie. One could imagine Tony Stark carrying around one of these. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but it gives a hint about how I feel about it. In other words, I am impressed. I am very impressed.

After a couple days, I started writing a lengthy review, listing many impressive features. But it just kept getting longer and longer, and at the same time I realized that there were already many great reviews on it, including several on YouTube where you can actually see it in action.

(I sometimes read positive reviews or watch YouTube presentations of products I already own, so I can feel the happy glow of owning them. Ideally, at the end of the review, I should feel ready to run and buy the product… Except that I already own it. I mean, I have already wasted the money, so why shouldn’t I milk it for all it’s worth? ^_^)

So rather than compete with the expert reviewers, I will just list a few things that impressed me in particular.


Handwriting and “Han writing”: The handwriting recognition impressed me so much that I found myself handwriting instead of using the on-screen keyboard, which is incidentally the best smartphone software keyboard I have ever seen, with the possible exception of Swiftkey 3. And I generally dislike handwriting.

I mean, handwriting was a great invention back in ancient Egypt or wherever they first tried it. And it is very versatile, you can bring a pencil and a scrap of paper pretty much anywhere except the shower. But I have preferred typing for as long as I can remember, at least from the age of six. (Well, with the exception of the few times when I had acquired a new fountain pen or some such.) From shortly after the first IBM PC, I have written by hand mostly in “emergencies”, to jot down a name or phone number or some such. Well, this is like having my first fountain pen again, except it is magic.

The handwriting area is a black slate at the bottom of the screen where the keyboard usually is when you’re writing. Writing with the built in S-pen makes the letters appear in thin white lines. I write a few words without stopping but with spaces between the words. When I stop, the phone pretty much instantly converts the text into typed text in the field where I am supposed to write – a comment field on Google+, for instance, or an email. At this point the slate goes black again so I can start writing from the upper left corner again. Even though my handwriting is ugly – especially after decades of disuse – the only recurring problem is that it occasionally capitalizes the first letter in a word if the letter looks the same when small or large. So for instance it might write Can Spell, but not Take Flight, because I write these letters differently when capitalized. With a quarter hour of practice I have mostly gotten rid of the extra capitals though. I am not sure whether the slate has learned from me or I have learned to write better.

I have failed to enable recognition of Hanzi / Kanji characters (Chinese / Japanese logograms). It was selectable in the phone’s setup, but for some reason it reverted to Scandinavian (my location) handwriting recognition, which incidentally works too. Perhaps you need to go all Chinese / Japanese to get it to work, although I doubt you need to physically be there. The Hanzi keyboard input worked though: You type the English letters which the word begins with, and immediately a long list of relevant signs show up. Chinese writing is far more compact than alphabetic languages, and expanded to 3 lines you get dozens of alternatives. It must be a bit of a nightmare learning all those characters, but man, Orientals must be able to read and write at a crazy speed with this thing.

The English word suggestions can also be expanded to three lines, but with only three words to a line, that is merely 9 suggestions. They are good suggestions though. As I’ve said, I think Swiftkey 3 may be better once it has learned from your writing, but I don’t know yet how well Samsung Keyboard learns from experience, so “the jury is still out” on this one.


Split screen: As the biggest smartphone on the market today, it makes some sense to use that space to run two windows at once. Only certain applications support this, I am sorry to say. You start them from a separate docking are to the left. To bring this up in the first place, hold the back button on the phone a couple seconds, and a small marker will pop up to show you that the pop-up dock is available. Pull on the tab to get to the dock, launch the first program, then hold the next program icon and pull it to either the top or bottom half of the screen. This will tell the Note 2 to run both of them at once. You can do this with movies without slowing down (unless you are streaming on a bad line, obviously). More likely you will want to open a Google search window while writing an email so you can copy some information…

Mouseover: You are probably used to being able to hover your mouse cursor over various fields without clicking and getting a tool tip, a preview or an expansion of a link. With the S-pen, I can do this on my Note 2. I can’t do it with my fingers, alas. Perhaps at some later time? It looks like pure magic: The pen does not even touch the glass (the distance is about the radius of a pinky finger) when the small mark appears in the picture, and if I do this over a feature that supports it (typically Samsung programs, at least at first) the mouseover effect will turn on. This is what Arthur C. Clarke must have meant when he said “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

Face recognition: Not a Note 2 or even Samsung feature, but part of the more recent Android versions (Note 2 has 4.1, but I think face unlock came with 4.0). Still, it is the first time I have tried it, and it is indistinguishable from magic. When I turn it on, there is a lock screen, but when I see my face in the screen, it unlocks. It will only work with people who look like me, or at least that is the theory. On the down side, it reminds me daily of how ugly my face now looks up close… Well, I am not sure that reminder is a bad thing. If you are young and pretty, you may want to use that sharp front camera for video conferencing instead. ^_^

Power: The battery has very high capacity for a smartphone. You can use the device actively from dawn till dusk and still have some juice left. I mean, like continually watching video or something. For everyday use, it could easily last two days. That is how things should be, of course, but very few competitors come even close to it. And that’s with the big, high-resolution display and a four-core processor that runs everything I can throw at it at full speed. The machine responds immediately and in crisp detail, and it just keeps running. Extremely habit-forming. Don’t borrow one if you can’t keep it.

And here is the review I would have written, except it is not written, it is shown on YouTube. If you have the time, the awesomeness just goes on and on. I did not watch it until after I had bought it though. ^_^


Games, timers and recollection

Screenshot Sims 2

A certain discontent, or at least lack of joy, when playing games for a while.

With my renewed attempt to tell the story of the simulated neighborhood of Micropolis, I have once again encountered a peculiar experience I have written about before: When I spend too much time in a game, I experience a general feeling of discontent, restlessness, even irritation. This does not seem to be related to what actually happens in the game. It may seem reasonable to get a little upset if I play a superhero game and suddenly a bunch of villains ambush me. But I get the same feeling, if not more so and sooner, from watching my small computer people go to work, come home from work, cook dinner, play the piano all night and feel lonely because they have prioritized the piano over their friends, with no help from me by the way.

So I have been thinking that perhaps I should start a timer when I begin playing, and stop after one hour or half an hour – this will take some experimenting to find a reasonable value. The idea is to get out of there before the discontent sets in. I have mentioned my suspicions that the problem may be of a spiritual or metaphysical nature: That spending too much time in a lower-dimensional world, one less real than me, causes some kind of “essence leak” or something that diminishes me. But that is just a vague hypothesis. It is based on the polar opposition from spiritual practice, which is not fun but ultimately satisfying, whereas for gaming the opposite is true. That is not to say that gaming is evil – and especially when there is a noble purpose to it. But in terms of effect on my soul, I think there may be some negative effects. Interestingly there seems to elapse a certain amount of time before this feeling of discontent sets in.

One of the saints I read during the past year repeatedly used the word “recollection”, which is an interesting noun. It seems to refer to a kind of spiritual concentration that is basically remembering to be present. Perhaps I have misunderstood this, but the voice in my heart seems to like this idea, that staying too long in lower worlds – games, movies, daydreams – unravels my recollection, my experience of united presence in the face of higher reality.

There are times when I suspect that the so-called “real life” is itself a lower reality, not in the Matrix sense of virtual reality but in a spiritual sense, that the home of the soul is actually higher up, and that a certain amount of discontent is unavoidable if one accepts this life on earth as one’s home. The Buddha’s primary revelation – often translated as “life is suffering” – could refer to just this opening toward discontent that comes from living below one’s home reality. But is this the same for all of us? I do not know.

Anyway, it is time to experiment with a timer, I think, and report back to you. If I never do, I probably found it too cumbersome and forgot the whole thing.

Return to Micropolis

Snapshot from Sims 2: Micropolis, where happiness is the prosperity of the soul.

One strange effect of the song Into the West playing and replaying in my head: I felt the urge to return to Micropolis, my Sims 2 Prosperity Challenge. (I named it before I knew about the game with the same name.) I chronicled the history of the Micropolis neighborhood for years, until I was lured away by Sims 3. I regret now that I did not continue writing it. It may be too late to resume now: My readers have probably drifted away. But who knows. Perhaps someone will find it again, or someone new will find it.

I quoted the song twice during my writing of that saga, both at rather poignant scenes, so that would be why I suddenly thought of Micropolis when I heard that song. And I realized something, belatedly: My illustrated story of this imaginary neighborhood may have been one of the most important things I have done in my life. I have thought of this before but it kind of slipped my mind, among the many things going on. But the way I act as a “guardian angel” for the sims in Micropolis, my dialog with them and their life with each other, was a unique opportunity to bring across my view of life: What I really think is important, and how to get there.

The story of Micropolis is one of six very different families, all of which had lost loved ones and all that they owned in a hurricane. Together they settled in an abandoned village in the foothills. When I began writing the story in 2007, my “near future” setting seemed unreasonably austere: Everything was more expensive, jobs were hard to come by and almost impossible without college education, which was in itself quite expensive. My founding families were mired in debt from the day they set foot in their tiny houses far from the city. I wrote this toward the very end of the long boom, during its last frothing frenzy, long before the bleakness had sunk in among common people.

Over the course of decades, we follow the families as they go about their lives, but with a very unusual addition: An invisible higher-dimensional being, generally called “the Angel”, who observes them, converses with them, comments on their actions and thoughts, advises them and encourages them. Rather than using brute magic to give them prosperity, the Angel teaches them to use the opportunities in their everyday life to learn useful skills and improve their lot in the long run. Often a very long run, as they continue to rack up debt for a while until they have the skill and the free time to start paying off.

But the long-term project to turn the economy around is not even the most notable part of the project, despite the subtitle “a Prosperity Challenge”. The Angel is first and foremost concerned about the long-term happiness of his people, and help them make friends, find love, and steer each toward their life goals. The purpose is for each of them to achieve during their lifetime what in the Sims 2 is called “platinum mood”, or what we in this world would call “an unshakable mind”, a mental state where an individual is virtually immune to despair and able to always remain happy and do their best even in the face of adversity and disappointment. The wish of the Angel is that each and every one of his people will achieve this during their lifetime, a permanent feeling like the constant fulfillment of all desire.

So no, this state of mind is not permanent in me yet in the real world. But with the help of my higher-dimensional overseer, I still hope to spend more and more time in it until it becomes permanent. In a way, I am preaching to myself with this story, but the funny thing is, in The Sims 2 this really works. Living this kind of life really does bring happiness, peace of mind and peace among people. I don’t need to cheat or hack the game. Doing unto my sims what my own invisible friend does unto me works. Since most of those who will read the story are avid Sims players themselves, they will recognize this. That’s why I can tell a funny and heartwarming story about a small cluster of bereaved families growing into a happy and prosperous town, rather than trying to convince people of some ideology or religion. “Show, don’t tell”. ^_^

The already super long story of Micropolis begins here:

“Into the West”

“What can you see on the horizon? Why do the white gulls call? Across the sea, a pale moon rises; the ships have come, to carry you home. And all will turn to silver glass; light on the water, all souls pass.”

For about two days, this song has kept playing in my mind. Not quite continually, but pretty much at any time when I was not concentrating enough on something else to crowd it out. I found myself humming it at various times and places, albeit softly (because after rarely ever speaking for two decades, my vocal cords cannot speak or sing except softly and briefly, for which I am mostly thankful.)

What is particularly bothersome about this song, unlike others that may have a special promotion weekend on my brain at other times, is that it is about death. It is all phrased very poetically, and so that a young child hearing the song will mistake it for a lullaby. But to the adult (and older child, probably) it is clearly about the immediate passing away of a loved one. As such, I hope with all my heart that it is not an omen in any way for anyone. Personally I like to think that it suddenly came before me because of the surge of interest in the Hobbit movie, which also has shown up in my Google+ stream. Thus my memory of the previous Tolkien blockbuster and the departure of the hobbit main character into the West.

Yet in Tolkien’s story, the hobbit leaves across the sea to live forever with the elves and their demigods; but to those left behind, hobbits and men, they had only the words of the elves for this, if even that. It was only a hope, whereas his parting from them was definite and final. “To part is to die a bit” say the French, and with a parting such as this, it was very much so. It was to die completely from everyone and everything he had held dear in his old life, if he had not already done so in his heart.

I wonder if I would have been able to do that.

When my great-grandfather was young, many people sailed here from Norway into the west to seek a new life in America. They had no illusion of living forever, but they hoped for a better life. They also left behind most of what they knew and had relied on until that day. But unlike our hobbit friend, they knew it was physically possible to return. The ships sailing back were as many as those who sailed over in the first place, although they had fewer passengers. If I remember correctly, one of my ancestors (great-grandfather or great-great grandfather, I can’t remember) actually went to America, but returned after some years. If not, I would have been an American. (Actually, I would not have existed in anything like my current form, but there might have been another descendant around my age instead.)

But when the time comes to cross The River, it will be a final journey, to an unimaginably distant shore, if we reach it at all – it is a journey we cannot watch on a documentary in advance or travel in the comforting company of relatives or neighbors. I hope to board together with my Invisible Friend when the time comes, but to be honest, I am in no hurry. No hurry at all.

“Into the West” – Annie Lennox – Spotify. And on YouTube, complete with heart-tugging comments, until the appropriate corporation sees fit to remove it.