Self-spaced repetition software

Screenshot Sims 3

Games are usually the enemy of studying, but some elements of games can be used to improve learning.

Spaced repetition is an amazing technique for learning without understanding. Understanding is certainly superior and in a league of its own, but it is hard to command or even predict; and sometimes you need to memorize for a while before you can understand. One may compare this to gathering ingredients before you can cook. Before you can read sentences, you must know the words, and so on.

Spaced repetition takes advantage of a particular memory effect: The best time to repeat something is just before you forget it. Repeating many times in a row adds little after the first couple repetitions. Repeating at fixed intervals helps, but the best effect comes with increased intervals. You may for instance double the intervals, which is more effective than fixed intervals. But the best effect is when one actively recalls a fact just as it is about to be forgotten: It should take a little effort to remember it, but one should be able to do it.

Since our brain is not under constant surveillance, the only person who can know this time is ourselves. Conventional Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) starts with a standard model of human memory, then adjusts intervals down if people keep forgetting, or up if they remember everything. Good SRS lets the user mark the difficulty with which they remember. But there is an even better solution, at least in some ways, and the Duolingo online language site has found it.

When you start a study unit in Duolingo, the “learning meter” is empty. As you learn, it fills up until it is full. But as time passes afterwards, the learning meter begins to slide down toward empty again. You can see this for each topic, and for each “workbook” in a topic. (This is a session that typically takes 10-15 minutes to go through.) You can then go back and test yourself.

If you go back and run the test while you remember everything, you will certainly get the learning meter back to full again, but the experience will be rather boring. Duolingo is a very game-like learning system, where you have to translate back and forth, listen to sentences in the target language, describe pictures or pick from multiple choices. You never know what the next question will be. But if you know everything by heart, it is not very exciting. It is like winning chess against a small child.

On the other hand, if you wait too long and have forgotten the words or phrases, you will be thrown out after three mistakes and have to start that workbook over until you get it right. That is not too much fun either, even though it only costs you a few minutes.

The result is that the users themselves find out how long to wait to get the most rewarding “game” experience. If it was too easy, you learn to wait longer. If it was too hard, you make sure to return earlier next time. There is no need for the software to know whether you learn fast or slowly. All it needs to do is reward you when you get the balance right, and it does so with an exciting learning experience and a feeling of winning against a worthy opponent: Your own forgetfulness. You pick your battles, so with a little experience you pick the best time yourself.

I am not sure how easy this is to translate into other forms of learning, but I think it may be easy with anything that requires memorization of facts. Geography and history come to mind. Make small, focused units and a table where one can see which ones begin to slip. Adjust the speed at which they slide depending on past performance. It can probably be done better than it is in DuoLingo, but the principle works amazingly well. Humans are very good at learning things when having fun.

Back in the real world?

Screenshot anime Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai Next

“I’ll just escape to the 2D world and console my broken heart.” But the 2D world is not just for escaping anymore – it is invading the “real” world on a broad front, or at least mine.

The Sims 3: University Life is fun and all, but perhaps it did not really deserve four entries. Then again it seems harmless, and does not require lots of special training and strange thinking. The Sims games are a great way to connect to people.

Back in the real world, I will gladly admit that I have mixed feelings about my own scarcity of higher education. I only took two winters of tertiary education. It was a lot of fun, but I was broke and living on my own. My parents were also poor and could not really have helped out much. Student loans were available, but the truth is that I had (and have) no ambitions of career in this world. I enjoyed learning just to learn, but I had no interest in competing and using my elbows to get ahead in the world. As such, I would not fit in too well with the type of people who took higher education in Norway in the early 1980es. It was still some years before college became a natural part of young people’s lives.

If I were suddenly to become rich, I might enroll at a college or university just for the fun of it, but at my age it has no monetary value at all. I would not be finished with a Master of anything until I was 57 or 58, and with the lower bound on retirement age now at 62, no employer would even consider me. We lack qualified workers of many kinds, especially engineers, but the best one can hope for when over 50 is working for a temp agency. I have every intention to work until 75 (the current upper bound on the flexible retirement age) unless some dire illness strikes me down. Which is certainly possible, but what I mean is, I have no intention to ever retire. I intend to work until I die or become disabled, whichever comes first. Work is love. Work is service to God and country and humanity. It is what we were born to do. But learning, learning is fun.

Luckily, unlike my sims, I can study online, and even for free. I can learn math at the Khan Academy, languages at Duolingo and Livemocha, all for free. There are also several traditional universities that offer online lectures and courses, some of these for free as well. I haven’t looked into that yet.

(Livemocha, despite its random name, is a website that helps arrange community-based language learning online. You study some small piece of the language with their course, then practice it with real people who already speak it. Or that is what it looks like from the description. I hear good things about it – it has a lot more languages than Duolingo, for instance – but I would not impose on real people unless there was some dire need. And since I am trying to learn to read, not to speak Japanese, it is anyway not what I am looking for. But it sounds awesome for neurotypicals, who love to do all kinds of things together with real people.)

When not playing The Sims 3, I find myself “playing” with French on Duolingo. It is quite a bit of fun, actually. Between the two, I am even lagging behind on my favorite anime. There are several decent series this year, and I am a couple weeks behind on most of them. What is the world coming to, when learning a random language is more fun than watching anime?

And of course, by now we have to wonder what I meant by “real” world. I suppose studying is more real than watching my sims study, kind of, but I am still listening to a robot voice on the Internet. Between studying French on the Internet and Japanese on my smartphone, playing games and watching anime, there isn’t much that is “real” in the way my grandmother would have meant “real”. But at least i eat real food (noodles are real food, yes?) and sleep in a real bed! Long may that last.


Screenshot anime Osaka-okan

To someone from Osaka, there may not seem to be much difference between Jalapeno and Frappucino. Today’s topic: Learning languages for free on the Internet!

When I wrote about the Khan Academy, I mentioned that it was very good for math but you would have to go elsewhere for languages. Well, I’ve found one place you can go, but the range of languages is a bit limited yet. Still, the idea is very interesting. And, it is free!

One day, one of those university intellectuals was pondering the troubles of the world: Not only was learning a new language too expensive for most of the human population (typically costing $500 for a self-learning kit, and most of the world does not have hundreds of dollars lying around – let us not even talk about going to a school that teaches foreign languages). But in addition to this, most of the world did not have all the information of the English-speaking Internet in their own language, either. Spanish is a big language used in rather advanced nations, but the Spanish Wikipedia is only 1/5 of the English. Life is unfair, and then you die. Intellectuals know this.

But this particular fertile egghead came up with an idea: How about we teach people a second language for free, and in the process make them translate the Internet? And so, Duolingo was conceived. Some months later, as is good and proper, it was born. It’s been going through some childhood diseases, or at least warts, but it is thriving now.

The website presents you with a range of exercises, starting at the most basic with words like “the” and “woman”. As you begin to get an idea of the language, you get to translate expressions and short sentences between your starting language and the target language. You translate both ways as part of the basic training. Several possible translations are often possible. You get used to all that. As you gain confidence, you learn to translate longer sentences.

At some point in your linguistic ascent, some of the translations you are given are actually from the Internet, not from your teachers. The website then uses “crowdsourcing”, in this case a kind of election system, to determine what translation is best. If enough people try to do the right thing, the right thing will likely emerge, if it is within their skill level.

(We are not talking about religious truth here, where it is an axiom that the majority is always wrong…)

The learning process is “gamified”, much like at the Khan Academy, with skill points and small data sets which you complete to “level up” to more advanced sets. At the beginner level, you typically go through around ten words at a time. Or at least that is the case for French, my test language.  (English is already my third language, so I am doing this just for the test. The only other language I want to learn right now is Japanese, since it is the only language I don’t understand but still hear pretty much every week, besides being almost impossible to translate by machine.)

The available languages at the moment are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and German. Or English for those who speak those other languages. Thus the “duo” – it works both ways. This will come in handy when we translate the Internet, since it is always easier to translate into a good-sounding form in your native language. (For instance, I doubt a native English-speaker would say “good-sounding form”! ^_^;)

The languages just happen to be those used by the imperialist powers of the 19th-20th centuries. This may sound like a bad idea, but it has some benefits. Remember, the problem was that the developing world could not afford expensive language training? Much of the developing world is former colonies, where one of these languages is used either as the national language or as a second language. (Actually, I am not sure any of the former German colonies speak German anymore, and if any speak Italian, it is probably just one or two countries. But still, they are among the more popular second languages.)

One benefit of having only European languages is that they are very similar. They may not look that way to you, gentle reader, but if you have ever tried to learn more than a dozen words of Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Hebrew or even Finnish, you will realize that all of the big European languages are siblings of English on one side or another. English is originally a Germanic language (actually more related to the Scandinavian languages than to High German) but with a large vocabulary from the Latin-derived (or Romance) languages, most of which are quite similar to each other. Again, they may seem alien to you if this is your first time learning a new language, but they present minimal challenge compared to learning a language with completely different cultural concepts, like personal pronouns that depend on who you speak to as much as who is speaking.

Basically, you cannot translate a simple sentence into Japanese without knowing the relationship between the people involved. If there are no people in the sentence, then at least the relationship between the speaker of the sentence and the listener. (What other language programs usually do is default to formal or polite speech, which is great for business but quite different from what you’ll hear in a movie or on the street or in a family.) I am sure other non-European languages have other hurdles that I cannot even imagine. I know Chinese have tones that “sing” the same syllable differently, although they sound much the same to us. Hebrew and Arabic have sounds that seem more like a symptom of strep throat than a part of western speech. Some languages don’t have past and future tenses, and so on.

But for now, you can learn a related language with Duolingo. That seems like a good start. The sooner you get going, the more time you have to open your mind and realize that words and reality don’t map exactly one on one. If you live in America and only speak English, you should have at least learn Spanish before your first Spanish-speaking President. I am sure you have time if you start now. And it’s fun!

Because it is so different

Two translations from Japanese

A tale of two translations.

If I say that I am trying to learn Japanese because it is so difficult to translate, your first thought will likely be that I am trying to challenge myself, or perhaps to impress others with my linguistic genius. Those who have read some of my recent entries will know that there is no such genius: Despite my decent IQ, I have a super hard time with this language. Nor am I primarily doing bodybuilding for the mind. The real reason is Google Translate.

If I want to read something written in Spanish, there is little additional value for me in learning Spanish. The languages are similar enough, and the overlapping body of literature large enough, that Google Translate can give a decent representation of the text.

For the purpose of illustration, I will now take my first paragraph, let Google translate it into Spanish and then translate it back.

If I say I’m trying to learn Japanese because it is very difficult to translate, your first thought will likely be that I’m trying to challenge myself, or perhaps to impress others with my linguistic genius. Those who have read some of my recent posts will know that there is such a genius: Despite my decent IQ, I have a hard time with this great language. Nor am I doing first bodybuilding to mind. The real reason is Google Translate.

Again, this time translating to Japanese and back:

I say because it is very difficult to translate it, and I have been trying to learn the Japanese language, the first thought you, I might to impress others with the genius of linguistics probably I will have been or are trying to challenge yourself that may. Know that the genius there is no such person who have read some of the recent entries of I: in spite of IQ decent, I struggled more than use this language are. I have been bodybuilding for Lord of the mind. The real reason is using Google Translate.

Invoking the Lord of the mind may indeed be a reasonable impulse in this situation. And yet, the translation into Japanese preserves some of the European way of the thinking – I am not actually thinking in Japanese. Text written by native Japanese is even more alien, because your language influences your thoughts. I know this not just from theory; I have grown to become truly bilingual, to the point of thinking to myself in English without noticing until later. Knowing two languages deeply helps me think better in both of them, but the language still subtly influences what and how I think within each.

In my next example, someone who respects the Japanese medieval monk Nichiren has some choice words about how Happy Science represents his teachings:

Although this is the case It’s a religious organization does “science of clothing – can” to preside over the so-and-so Okawa, the methodology of ass in a lion’s skin as seen in is also a provenance that saying “the spirit of Nichiren” Hayate the pretense of what Nichiren says, as if its real, and Nichiren is the thoughtless words have no Maki flyer also Shoen edge.
  It is a fallacy on parade, alongside the names of delusion and nonsense “Ryoma Sakamoto” “Socrates” “Amaterasu” “Christ” “Kukai” after that.

Google is one of the most resourceful organizations in the world, especially in matters related to computing and the Internet. Yet a meaningful translation of a Japanese text for adults is far beyond them. If I want to read anything written in Japanese, I will have to do so in Japanese. Whether this is worth spending years of my life on, I am not sure. That depends on what I will find there, right? But since I have already many interests related to Japan, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Another thousand words and I should be able to read texts written for first-graders, with some effort.

That some mental heavy lifting may also be good for my brain is welcome, but not sufficient to motivate me. Your motivation may vary.

Concupiscence and OKCupidsense

"How about trying out sex..."

In our inner life, concupiscence is the part that is always eager to try out some expected pleasure, common sense be damned. If our will agrees, sin is conceived, meaning “mistake”, “error”, “missing the goal”. When the sin is mature, it causes death – the removal of our link to eternity, so that our physical death becomes an end to the meaning of our life. Apart from the actual vocabulary, I think any serious religion or spiritual philosophy will recognize this. Not all have a word for it though.

I learned a new word! That’s not often. Actually, I had a kind of vague idea of what it meant and would not have fundamentally misunderstood the text; I have a talent for that, absorbing words from context. But in this case it was pretty specialized: “Concupiscence.” I am mildly surprised that my spell checker recognizes it, even.

The only places I have seen this word, that I can remember, is in Catholic theology (or psychology, I guess, since it is about the human soul; God has none of it). Concupiscence is our natural tendency to want the wrong things. The word is indeed related to “cupid” and sexual lust is one of the typical ways this manifests, but it is not so limited. The tendency to seek pleasure in this world in any form outside of God’s will falls under concupiscence.  So it is pretty nearly a description of my whole life up until now. 0_O

In the Christian Church at Brunstad, we called this “the sin in the flesh”. Unlike Protestants, we believed that it is not a sin that condemns, until we give in to it. Rather it is a tendency to sin, and because of this it is really hard to live a pure life. But some people become free from it, bit by bit, eventually. Not many, it seems, but some.

Strangely, it seems the Catholic view is more similar to ours (for I still hold this belief, though without the specific vocabulary, which is too saturated for modern man. Mention “sin” and an elaborate defense mechanism is triggered, ending any rational discourse; so I rarely use the word when explaining how we humans keep hurting ourselves. Like it or hate it, language changes over time. In Norway today, “sin” means “sex”, more or less, and I hear this is getting common in America as well.)

Speaking of which, a quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Hence desires contrary to the real good and order of reason may, and often do, rise in it, previous to the attention of the mind, and once risen, dispose the bodily organs to the pursuit and solicit the will to consent, while they more or less hinder reason from considering their lawfulness or unlawfulness. This is concupiscence in its strict and specific sense.” Bodily organs to the pursuit! Oh, the stories one could tell.


The word became a lot easier to remember once I realized the “cupid” part. It reminded me of the American matching site OKCupid, of which I have been a member since before City of Heroes came out. I know this, because the reason I joined them was a City of Heroes quiz an online friend linked to, and it was based on the Alpha build of CoH. It was already changed when I took part in the closed beta, so it must have been around 8 years ago.

Anyway, that was how I came to OKCupid, and I am not sure it even was called that at the time. It started – as far as I knew, at least – as a collection of quizzes of all kinds. The idea was that people who had similar results on the quizzes would be interested in getting to know each other, I think. It has developed into a full-fledge dating site, including a mobile app that finds users near you (if they consent to being found). But it is still full of quizzes and questionnaires, so you can hang out there without outing yourself as a desperate loser. “I am just here for the quizzes.”  Actually, that’s more or less what I write in my bio. I certainly don’t need a puny human or its shallow interests. ^_^

But even so, I have plenty of concupiscence of various kinds. It is just that it doesn’t really lend itself well to dating sites. Computer games, on the other hand… I am still occasionally looking for that Fluffy Tails mod for Skyrim. They had one for the previous game, after all. No matter what your concupiscence, the Internet will deliver!