r e l a x

At last, another art post. I was listening to some data analysis lectures to add data science to my repertoire, and since I need something to do with my hands when I listen to audio, I doodled this.

Since motivation unfortunately never comes pre-packaged with inspiration, I needed some of the latter. In my search, I came upon this excellent prompt site. If you so happen to be an advanced artist looking for inspiration, this may be for you. I selected an “elaborate” prompt; these seem to give you not only ideas about subject and/or situation, but also hints about color schemes and/or art style. I’ve never seen something so cool (or useful!) from an art prompt generator before. Anyways, the prompt I was given went something like this: “Reflect the emotion of rolling thunder in the distance. Use a Renaissance art style.”

Well, for the emotion, I’m honestly not sure how I went from “distant rolling thunder” to “rooftop swimming pool at dawn”, but heck, they convey the same emotion to me, anyway.

For the art style, though, I’ve never tried to do anything “Renaissance” before. My standard art style is vaguely Impressionistic but mostly anime, so I was wondering what the hallmarks and techniques of Renaissance painting were. After I figured that out, I’d figure out how on earth I was going to do that using markers.

It seems to me that the end result was vaguely Impressionistic, mostly anime, and with a hint of Renaissance. Some of the hallmarks of Renaissance paintings are strong dark/light contrast and several layers of glazes to create fuzzy outlines around things. I tried pretty hard to use a consistent color scheme but to use contrast as much as possible. The subject is mostly light-colored, with the exception of his hair and eyes, which are dark. A strip of light, washed-out yellow contrasts the warm greys of the surrounding pool deck. The opaque glass in the railing contrasts with the dark rails. Then, those rails contrast with the bottom of the sky (light), which itself contrasts with the top of the sky (dark). Even the water, which might otherwise be uniformly colored, contains shades from pure white to prussian blue. (Note: I used no black in this piece, just very dark greys, blues, and browns. This is in keeping with the style of most classical painting.) Lastly, for the fuzzy outlines, I simply didn’t bother to outline each form in pen (technique for cartooning called “inking”). I allowed the marker colors to bleed lightly into each other.

The end result was a kind of post-modern realism with a charming conflict of light source. Enjoy.

Value Proposition: Innovu

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m participating in the Praxis internship program. As a part of that, I’m creating value propositions for potential employers, under the theory that they’re not hiring me because of some vague skills list I have, they’re hiring me for what specific things I can do for them.

The first company I chose to do a value proposition for is Innovu. Essentially, they collect and analyze data related to benefits and risk programs (such as employee healthcare and workers’ compensation), so that businesses can make sure that they can create the best possible programs for their employees and avoid fines from accidental non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) regulations. Here’s where they talk about that.

As I was sifting through their website initially, though, I had a difficult time figuring out what exactly it was that they did. The first thing you see on their homepage is a giant picture of something unrelated to their product coupled with some words about benefits and risk programs, and a link. The link took me to a page that presumed I already knew what they were doing. Overall, their marketing copy was very vague everywhere, and my basic understanding after I’d been on their site for half an hour was “something involving healthcare?” Now, this is at least partially because I don’t know their industry, but still: I decided their marketing copy could be improved, not only to better pitch their product, but to better explain it.

The best explanation I found was on the page linked above, which you find if you get onto their homepage and, instead of clicking either of the links in their neat little scroll bar, you actually scroll down past the screen-filling image, then scroll even further past the three links to their different solutions (which will all take you to pages filled with vague copy), then click on the “Read More” link after the heading “Data Transparency In Benefit And Retirement Plans”.

On top of the unintelligible marketing copy, there were a large swath of images on the website which, though they had been recolored to match the color scheme, didn’t reflect the product at all. There were random pictures of strangely-cropped bar charts, blurred streetlights, collections of hazy colored dots and lines, and one picture of some peoples’ arms. They didn’t help explain what problem their business was solving, they didn’t complement the already-unclear text they were associated with. They basically existed for no reason other than to make the website look modern, because modern websites are supposed to include lots of images.

As I explored further into the site, I started finding some genuinely good marketing copy, but it was buried in strange places. Further, on their careers page (where I also happened to find out that they were looking for a JavaScript developer, a skill I have, though not to the level they want: they wanted two years’ professional experience and knowledge of full stack development), I noticed a very nice slideshow with that explained its points will and contained images that worked well with the text. This stood in stark contrast to the rest of the website, what with its vague text and mostly-unrelated images.

All of this brought me to the realization that they probably had an awesome web developer who had just been given very little in the way of images or marketing copy to go on, and thus had done the best they could with what they had. After that, I presumed, they had continued to build the site, around what they already had. It was probably on somebody’s to-do list to fix the marketing copy and images on the main parts of the site.

Taking things off businesses’ to-do lists is always a great thing to do, so I decided to use that as the meat of my value prop. I wouldn’t have a terribly strong case as a JavaScript developer alone, but if I combined it with a demonstration of my ability to diagnose business problems and my drive to fix those problems, I could have a unique and nice value prop where I could create value for them from day 1.

Here’s my current value prop. I’m planning on adding some images and doing some nice formatting in InDesign so it’s more visually appealing!

How I Accidentally Ran a Small Business For Six Months

Every year since I was very young, I’ve volunteered at the Schenley Park Learn-to-Skate program that my skating club runs. Even for the four years I wasn’t skating, if purely because the entire rest of my family did it.

Nearly every year, the program has had an experienced coach take on the role of program director. The program director’s job is to organize just about everything to do with the program, from creating name tags for students and coaches to tracking the finances to organizing everyone physically on the ice sheet during classes, and much more. Fortunately, just as in any business, the director delegates some of these responsibilities, but even so, it’s a very big job.

This year, almost by accident, I was the one to take it on. 

My mother, who organizes how Schenley Park runs as a subsidiary of the Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club (our home club), couldn’t find anyone to be this year’s program director. Since she was swamped with other work, she managed only to delegate the marketing responsibilities. With two days until the first class, we were freaking out: we still didn’t have a program director, and fortunately for the club’s coffers but unfortunately for our sanity, our marketing person had done an astounding job, and we had literally twice our usual number of students signed up. 

Faced with this situation—twice the standard signup numbers, no program director in sight, and two days to deadline—my siblings and I were all given a prompt order to get everything ready. At first, it seemed it might be working, but eventually, between the sheer amount of work, the stress of trying to coordinate multiple people as efficiently as possible, and other miscellaneous factors, it became apparent to me that this wasn’t working.

I evaluated the situation and decided the most reasonable plan would be for me to simply take everything over. I had the most experience with the system overall; and primarily because of my good handwriting, I was always the first choice for the largest task, namely, creating student name tags. Because of the color-coded system we used to group name tags by level, the process went something like this. First, large quantities of colored card-stock had to be precisely cut via guillotine and sorted. Then, the names of all hundred and twenty some-odd students had to be written with Sharpie onto the cards, and the cards had to be put into name badge holders. Finally, the cards had to be put into gallon plastic bags, sorted by level, and organized cohesively into large bins so that the volunteers could hand them out to the students on class day.

For two days, I did nearly nothing else. Not only did I do the name tags, but I also organized the student names and other information into a database, deposited all their checks, acquired cash for the concessions stand, and organized our volunteer instructors. 

Honestly, I’m very happy with how it all turned out. Everything was ready for the first class, my siblings and my mom didn’t have to worry about it, the kids and instructors got organized well, and the rest of the year ran pretty smoothly. On the day of class, since I knew everything about how everything had been organized, I also became kind of the go-to for volunteers with questions.

After a few weeks of this, on the drive home from class, my mom asked me, “So, you kinda seem to be running Schenley this year. Do you want to be program director?”

And I said, “Meh, sure. Seems like I already am.”

How To Make A Resolution

I have never once made a New Year’s resolution. I have never decided to change something significant about my life, starting on January 1st.

That isn’t to say that I’ve never decided to change something significant about my life. I decided I was sick of being overweight and out of shape, and I started hitting the gym. But I did that in April. I decided that I wanted to learn how to speak Japanese. But I did that in September. I’ve resolved to do a lot of things, but I never hung around twiddling my thumbs until January to start actually doing them.

This seems, at least to me, to be the reasonable course of action. If something about your life needs changing, it makes sense to start changing it as soon as possible. If you decide you want to quit smoking, program in Python, speak Mandarin Chinese, lose thirty pounds… start right now, not at year’s end.

Now, perhaps people make resolutions on New Year’s because the start of a new year prompts people to look over their life and actually make the decision that they want to change their lives. This seems like a reasonable argument at first, but then you have to consider that the culture of making resolutions on New Year’s is really more a method of putting people under the gun and demanding that they find a Grand Way To Change™, rather than a way of sparking consideration or discussion on the possible ways one’s life could change direction.

Furthermore, a lot of people don’t even keep their New Year’s resolutions. Actually, a frankly huge number of people don’t keep them, to the extent that I frequently wonder whey people even bother setting them. (I read a statistic around 8%, which seems likely, but I can’t find the original research, so I won’t tout that as fact.)

What’s wrong with people? Why do we have a societal expectation where, once a year, people will set goals, then fail to follow through with them? Why do we harbor a culture of annual disappointment?

Part of the reason people don’t keep resolutions is that there is no actual change happening between December 31st and January 1st. They’re two days which are right next to each other, just like March 18th and March 19th. The only significance to that particular collection of days is the cultural expectation we’ve attached to them: that is, a new year should be a quantum shift of progress.

The cultural expectation of some kind of quantum shift, coupled with the fact that no such quantum shift actually happens, leads otherwise reasonable people to set incredibly unrealistic goals for no good reason. People who, if they made this kind of goal in mid-March, would say “I’m going to try and start hitting the gym once a week on Sunday afternoons”, suddenly go off on ridiculous moonshots like “I’m going to start hitting the gym every single day as soon as I get home from work, and I’m also going to cut my carbs in half and become a vegan” as soon as December 31st rolls around.

As such, my best recommendation for how to set resolutions and then follow through on them is to not set them on New Year’s. Any other time of year will have much less pressure attached to it.

Actually, I amend that statement. Don’t set resolutions at all. Just decide that you want to improve in an area, and get started with the baby steps right away.

A big goal like “I want to become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese”, even if you have a pretty good idea what ‘conversationally fluent’ means, can be incredibly daunting. That kind of thing will absolutely take you years, maybe decades, and looking at the whole thing at once can just make you want to quit outright. On the other hand, googling “beginner Chinese lessons” and watching a handful of funny animated Youtube videos on the subject is easy.

This works with every big goal. “I want to lose thirty pounds”. Okay, how about we start with keeping track of what you’re eating? “I want to find a life partner.” Okay, how about we start with making a list of qualities you find attractive in another human? Break it down until you’ve found a thing you can do right now. Then do it. Right now.

These kinds of “resolutions”—goals with no particular time limit that you’re setting purely for self-improvement—should theoretically be the easiest kinds of goals you set. Whereas in the work world, you have specific deadlines and deliverables, you don’t have any of those in your personal life. You don’t need to learn Chinese in five years. Maybe you want to, but that’s not actually the same thing. Personally, I’d like to learn Japanese in less than a decade. But I’m not going to be fired from my job if I don’t achieve that goal on schedule.

A resolution should be a matter of fun, personal self-improvement, not of disappointing annual self-loathing. So, even and especially if you’re not reading this on New Year’s – what’s your new resolution?

Speset.com: The Process

You know that thing you used to do as a kid in elementary school, where you learned handwriting by copying boring phrases and sentences over and over? That has a name. “Copywork.” And several years ago, my mother decided she wanted to make it interesting. How? Instead of those boring phrases and sentences, she would create copywork books with quotes from great fiction, literature, and even U.S. presidents.

Here’s the story of how I helped make that into a company.

Growing up homeschooled as the kid of an entrepreneur, I ended up using a lot of resources that were created by my mother. I took whole classes that my mom made up, start-to-finish. (These, of course, were in her areas of expertise.) One of these resources that she created early in my homeschooling life was copywork books.

If I hadn’t stood in awe behind her red patchwork recliner as she typed up a line in one of them, I would never have known that she created the books. They were professionally formatted and bound—my dad is a graphic designer, so I imagine he did that part— and there was even one of those little promotional blurbs on the back.

As we all gradually grew out of needing copywork books, she moved on to selling them to other homeschooling parents in our area. And then, one morning when I was around fifteen, she sat me down in the living room.

She talked to me about the fact that she wanted to make this into a real business, which would be able to sell not only her copywork books but also other homeschooling resources that she might come up with in the future. In order to do that, she would need two things: an online presence, and a name. Evidently, she wanted my help with those.

Having only recently started web programming, I decided to tackle the easier thing first, and I started brainstorming names. After a few minutes, I came up with the Latin half-sentence “spes et”, which means “life and”. I figured that leaving the part after “and” blank would let the reader fill in whatever they wanted. My mother and I contracted the phrase into one word, and at last, Speset was born.

Once I had a name, I got started on the graphic design. I sketched out on paper the general idea for what I wanted to do—a young person standing in front of a bookshelf with “S P E S   E T” spelled out on book spines—then imported the image to Adobe Illustrator to create the real vector. I made sure that the image was a web-worthy 960px wide and used the “save for web” function in Illustrator (back when that was a thing, it’s called “export for screens” now) to make sure that everything rasterized nicely.

One of the biggest problems I had when creating the graphics for Speset was the color scheme. My dad’s aesthetic is dark wood and leather, so he created the book covers with that in mind. Unlike a book cover, though, a website looks kind of ugly with a leather texture, so I had to find a way to convey the same idea with only flat colors. I ended up settling on a bright gold, a dark red-purple, and a light reddish-brown. I thought I might add a wood-grain texture to the background of the site, but I decided it would be too distracting and opted for a simple warm grey instead.

After the graphics were finished, I had to get started on actually coding the website. To start with, though at this point I knew almost no PHP, I used the .php file type because there was one thing I’ve always loved to do in PHP: includes. Though I knew how to import an external stylesheet or script, I didn’t know it was possible to import another HTML file. Because I wasn’t a fan of copy-pasting code over and over, or of accidentally failing to copy a closing div tag and thereby ruining everything, I loved to use PHP includes. I still do; though I now know that HTML can do includes, and though HTML5 can do forms now (I used to need PHP for that), PHP is still more powerful than HTML, so I use it to keep my doors open.

I put my nice header image into an include, made other includes for the nav bar and footer, then went about writing content. I already had the blurbs I wanted to include—they were the same ones on the backs of the books—but I needed to figure out how to format them. Given the very small amount I knew about CSS at the time, creating a two-columned list next to an image that used a specified font size and amount of space between columns was a daunting task!

After a lot of fiddling and finnicking, I’d added all our books, the final thing I needed to do was add the mailing list from Mailchimp. The code wasn’t the hard part, since they provided the form and I just had to style it; setting up the account in the first place was a little more challenging. I eventually managed, though, and I set it up to send me emails whenever I gained subscribers to the mailing list.

Over the course of the next few years, I made a handful of improvements to the website, but mostly just added new books as they were published. One thing happened that I wasn’t expecting, though. I didn’t figure it out until earlier this year, when I started cleaning out my inbox, but when I did, I realized I had a lot of emails from Mailchimp.

At that time, I hadn’t sent out a single email to any of the Speset subscribers. I hadn’t even done a single ounce of marketing. Beyond the mere existence of the website, I had done nothing at all. And yet, I kept seeing emails from Mailchimp. After a few scores of them I thought to log in to my account and check the subscriber statistics. I blinked a few times when I saw the number. Over a hundred?! Dude!!

I’ve since realized the probable reason this happened. Before I’d created the website, the books already had a niche following on homeschooling forums: my mom had done a good job at word-of-mouth marketing. But, they were all just floating about in the Amazon aether, without anything connecting any of the books to each other. Once they all had a single home, the people who’d already cared about them were able to get to them more easily, and to recommend our products more easily. The mere existence of the website promoted both brand loyalty and word-of-mouth.

Here’s the website, by the way. Thanks for reading.

Japanese Journal 4: Food and Culture

I decided to make カツ丼 (katsudon) for New Year’s this year. It’s definitely the most complicated thing I’ve ever made for New Year’s—our family’s usual dinner is fried chicken and New Year’s pretzel—but I really wanted to make it for everyone and I hadn’t thought of it in time for Chanukah and I was too busy making cookies during Christmas.

It was a wild goose chase of strange Asian markets to try and find the ingredients. I found a surprising number of them in my local grocery store—who knew Giant Eagle carried mirin?—but at the end of my day of shopping, during which I had asked かつおぶしはどこですか (katsuoboshi was the thing I was looking for: it’s dried tuna flakes) more times than I can count, I ended up in a strange little Oriental market in a tiny strip mall that shared a parking lot with a Red Lobster.

My siblings, who made the mistake of deciding to come along, petered around the market, whispering to each other because speaking English in the market felt a little bit like infringing on the delicate island of Asian culture within the massive sea of English-speaking America. When I muttered to myself, I very deliberately did so in Japanese, for the same reason. It felt like a heinous act of cultural appropriation to so much as exist in that store, and even more so to speak in a non-Asian language.

I failed to find what I was looking for, so I bought a poor substitute (dried scallops) and we went home. During the car ride, we talked about the way it felt to be Jews infringing on Asian culture. Then, as we walked into the house, I saw that my sister was carrying a bag with some brightly-colored packages in it. Knowing that she had a hard time even navigating the store since everything was in some combination of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, I wondered what it was that she had picked up.

“What is that?” I asked, gesturing to the packages.

“Oh! This is a dessert dumpling thingy that we all had when we went to Hong Kong! Everyone loved it, and I saw it, so I picked up some!” She proceeded to rant enthusiastically about how good the thing was, and as soon as we got home, she took out one of the packages and made it right there and then. She was right. It was awesome.

After we ate our dessert dumpling thingies, which turned out to be called milk yolk buns, I started cooking my カツ丼. The first thing I did was boil the dried scallops to make a poor substitute for だし (tuna broth). Then, I went about making とんかつ. I heated the oil and set up everything I needed to bread the pork tenderloins, then breaded them as I watched the oil heat up in the pot. When the oil was hot enough that a panko crumb dropped into it would float right to the top, I started frying the breaded pork. At some point, my sister put on some 80s rock.

As we all cooked and ate and hung around, I remembered something. One of our first missteps on our wild goose chase for katsuoboshi was an Indian market. While searching up and down the aisles, one of my sisters asked for help from an older Indian man. He said that he’d never heard of what we were looking for, since the store didn’t even carry Japanese foods, but he was very happy that we were here, and he recommended trying some Indian food if we’d never had some. He even gave us a specific restaurant at which we should do so.

And that got me thinking. If I was walking around a Jewish market—I’ve never been to one, since Giant Eagle has a good Kosher section, but if I had—and somebody came around and clearly had no clue what they were doing, I would have been happy to help them out. Obviously, if they’re here, they have some interest in Jewish food: how awesome is that?! Somebody who isn’t a part of my culture wants to learn about it! I couldn’t imagine myself thinking of it as anything other than flattering.

On a regular basis, my family has goyish visitors over for the High Holidays. We love sharing our culture with people who aren’t a part of it. And as I thought about it, so did that Indian man who saw clearly non-Indian people trolling through an Indian market looking confused. So did the person who hosted my siblings when they stayed in Hong Kong, who taught them about the milk yolk buns. And so would I, if I had been in either of those positions.

Nowadays, we hear all about cultural appropriation. It’s a terrible, awful thing to do, they say. But what exactly is it? What counts? Because if I saw a goy wearing a yarmulke or making latkas, my first thought would be “wow, that’s neat!”

As a member of a minority culture myself, I’ve never understood why “cultural appropriation” is a separate concept from “ridicule” and “theft”. The times when it makes sense for people to shout “cultural appropriation” seem to fall into those two categories: either someone is imitating a kind of cultural stereotype that ridicules the culture in question, or else a corporation is stealing art made by a culture without paying the people who actually came up with the art in the first place.

If cultural appropriation is just ridicule and theft as they relate to culture, then obviously it’s bad, but ridicule and theft are already bad. Why have a separate word? And further, I’ve heard some people calling “cultural appropriation” when someone does something like show genuine interest in a culture, or want to combine parts of that culture with parts of their own. And, speaking again as a member of a minority culture… I appreciate the effort, but I think people are trying to protect me from something I really don’t need to be protected from.

When some other culture steals American majority culture, nobody complains. In Japan, people celebrate Christmas, but they do it in some notably Japanese ways. Notably, there is no “Christ” in Japanese Christmas: a very small fraction of Japanese people are Christian. Further, they have a specific Christmas cake; Christmas is time for couples, not families; and on Christmas Day, they eat KFC. Basically, Japanese people stole American Christmas and made it theirs. They committed the sin of cultural appropriation. Right?

Not really. Here’s the key difference, and it doesn’t have to do with minority vs majority cultures. The things that we call “cultural appropriation” that are genuinely despicable happen when someone steals a culture or cultural tradition and pretends that it’s theirs, that they own it. The sorts of things people call “cultural appropriation” that are actually fine happen when someone uses aspects of a culture or cultural tradition, but respects the origins of the culture and defers to the people who actually have that cultural background. They borrow, they don’t steal.

You don’t need a “get out of cultural appropriation free” card from a Real Member Of That Culture™ in order to be able to borrow culture. You can borrow whatever culture you want, so long as you do it respectfully. Understand that the Real Members Of The Culture are the keepers of their culture, if not the proprietary practitioners of it. And ask them questions, not permission.

We native Jews are the keepers of our culture. If you would like to borrow it, we would be flattered. Yes, you should learn about our culture before you try to imitate it, since otherwise you might accidentally imitate a stereotype. Yes, you shouldn’t mass market Jewish art without compensating the Jews who did the art. (Art theft is still art theft, and it’s still bad.) But none of that means you’re not allowed to have latkas for the Fourth of July if you like. In fact, they’ll fit in perfectly with all that deep-fried American goodness. (Please eat latkas. I love them and I’m sick of having to explain to people what they are.)

Here’s a passage from the Passover Haggadah. “All who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy, come and make Passover.” Basically, if you want to come in and celebrate our holiday with us, we’d be happy to grab you a yarmulke and a place setting. I think if everyone had that kind of attitude towards culture, the would could be a better, more unified place.

よいお年をお迎えください。(Happy New Year.)


Japanese Journal 3: Resources

I’ve been studying Japanese off and on (accommodating a busy schedule) for about two months. During that time, I’ve accumulated a number of Japanese-learning resources that work incredibly well for me. So, here’s a short list!

Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide. Tae Kim is my best source for grammar so far. He teaches Japanese grammar from a Japanese perspective instead of trying to translate English phrases into Japanese. This guide is easier for me to understand and use than Genki, and it’s got the only decent explanation of the は vs が distinction that I’ve ever read. He absolutely does not skimp on the kanji though, which can make for slow going through his lessons.

Remembering the Kanji. This book lets you learn kanji the same way that people come up with kanji in the first place: by using your imagination. It gives you a key word for each kanji, and introduces them all in an order that builds on itself. You’ll be introduced to simple kanji, then more complicated kanji that combine the simple ones together. RTK contains all 2200 common-use kanji as approved in 2010.

For reference on the usefulness of this method: as of the date this was posted, I have seen 200 of the 2200 kanji in the book. I remember every single one, despite a complete lack of any kind of spaced repetition system, or in fact any memorization method besides the book itself. I made a handful of flashcards and I review them on rare occasion just to make sure I still remember everything. I always do.

(Note: RTK book 1 does not teach you to read the kanji. That comes afterwards, in RTK book 2. I have not used this book, so I can’t recommend it. However, once I finish RTK 1, I’m absolutely planning on buying RTK 2.)

Rikai extension for Firefox/Chrome. For Firefox, it’s Rikai-chan. For Chrome, it’s Rikai-kun. They’re the same thing. Basically, Rikai is a dictionary. You can hover your mouse over a word, and it will pop up with the pronunciation (in hiragana) and definition(s). It’s really helpful for figuring out unknown kanji readings, for unknown words in general, that kind of thing. Be sure that you know the grammar, though: beyond telling you which form a verb is in, Rikai will not tell you anything about the grammar of the sentence, or even which words are which. You hover over the first kana in a word. If you hover over a kana that is not the first one in the word, you will get the wrong definition. Rikai is a dictionary, not a language god, so treat it as such.

HiNative.com. HiNative is a super useful website for asking specific questions about any language. Basically, you put in your native language and your language of interest, then you answer non-native speakers’ questions about your native language while native speakers of your language of interest answer your questions about their language. My current questions-to-answers ratio is 1:50, but yours can be lower than that. Just to be courteous, try to make it at least 1:1.

Italki. Everybody needs conversation practice, and this is italki’s specialty. On italki, there are a whole bunch of teachers for a whole bunch of languages, Japanese included. You can get a professional teacher, who has an actual degree or teaching certificate to teach the relevant language. Or, you can get a community tutor, who is a knowledgeable native speaker with whom you can converse. This is the single most expensive resource on this list (RTK is $20 on Amazon and everything else is free), because you pay per lesson. Still, it’s also one of the most important resources. Conversation is the single most important part of learning a living language.

Japanese Youtubers. I cannot stress the importance of just hearing Japanese spoken by actual humans who are not actors. Just like people in America don’t actually talk the way characters do in American dramas and cartoons, neither do Japanese people talk the way that characters do in Japanese dramas and anime. My favorite Youtube channel is Dogen. He makes a series called “Advanced Japanese Lessons”, which are basically just ultra-dry-humor comedy skits in Japanese about the oddities of Japanese culture. Dogenさん is not a native Japanese speaker, but his accent is so absolutely perfect that he might as well be. (Don’t take my word for it. This native speaker with a penchant for nitpicking Japanese nitpicked Dogen’s Japanese.) I also occasionally listen to Japanese vlogs.

Finally, the built-in Mac dictionary. If you happen to have a Mac, make use of this. Not just for a dictionary, but for pronunciation practice. If you’re not already aware, Japanese is not stressed like English. (In English, we say “chopstick”, with the first syllable said louder. In Japanese, however, they say はしwith the first syllable higher pitched. It’s the same syllable that’s accented, but in English we use stress, whereas in Japanese they use pitch. This is why the accentuation of Japanese words is called “pitch accent”.

That being said, the Mac dictionary has the ability to tell you which syllables in a word have what pitch. Here’s a Dogen video where he explains how to use the Mac dictionary to find the pitch accent of Japanese words. I’ve been using this for some time, and evidently my pitch accent is pretty good, because in my very first ever Japanese lesson on italki—literally the first time I ever spoke Japanese aloud to another human being—my sensei thought I was capable of having actual conversations.

There is one main thing that I do not have a good resource for. Vocabulary. In absence of the “perfect” resource, I’ve been using Duolingo Japanese. There are a number of things I don’t like about it (pretending that が indicates the subject, for example, or not teaching all the kanji readings systematically), but it’s good for now. However, I am still on the lookout for good resources for this, and whenever I find one, I’ll be sure to post it here.

Have any good resources that you’d like to talk about? Put them in the comments!

Japanese Journal 2: Why I Love Kanji

“I love kanji.” It may seem strange to hear from a foreigner. Aren’t kanji what make learning Japanese impossibly hard? Wouldn’t it be easier for me to learn Japanese if they stopped using kanji?

Quick background for those who don’t know: Japanese has three writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are both alphabets, with ~50 letters each. Kanji are Chinese characters, and there are 2200 of them in common use. Not only that, each kanji has multiple different ways it can be pronounced. This is understandably a point of annoyance with foreigners trying to learn Japanese, and even among native Japanese speakers.

“I love kanji.” It may seem strange to hear that from a 外人 (がいじん, foreigner). Aren’t kanji what make learning Japanese impossibly hard? Wouldn’t it be easier for me to learn Japanese if they stopped using kanji?

I can ask similar questions about 敬語 (けいご, honorific speech), 高低アクセント (こうていあくせんと, pitch accent), or any other thing that notably distinguishes Japanese from English.

But first I’d like to know, who is the person who picks up Japanese—a language so obviously distinct from English that before you can even start speaking, the writing system is intimidating—and then proceeds to complain about the ways that it’s different from English? If you want to learn a language that’s easy for an English-speaker, learn German!

So right off the bat, there’s the reason that I don’t dislike kanji. It’s a critical part of the language, and I signed on for it when I signed on for the language. But I haven’t said why I might love it. Isn’t that kind of a strong claim to make? I don’t think so. I’ll go ahead and make that claim! 漢字は大好きです。I love kanji. (I’m sure you can tell, I used rather a lot in that sentence.)

Here’s my main reason. I’m learning Japanese because I adore the culture. Maybe it was the fact that my dad rewarded my siblings and I for doing chores with episodes of Wolf’s Rain and Tenchi Muyo, but I’ve always liked Japan.

And language reflects culture. Japanese people use kanji because they stole them from China, then altered them to fit their purposes. We English-speakers did the same thing when we stole the Roman alphabet from, uhh, the Romans. And along the same vein, Japanese people use 敬語 because they’re a very polite people, with a highly stratified society built on respect.

In short, I love 日本語 because I love 日本.

That’s one reason. But I’ll go a step further than “I love kanji because it’s culturally important”. I’ll say I love kanji because it’s linguistically important, too.

Us English-speakers are used to only one half of what turns out to be a two-sided coin of writing systems. English uses a “phonographic” writing system. If you can parse the Greek, that’s “sound writing”. English, more or less, writes symbols that translate to noises. We then translate the noises to meaning inside our brains. Two of the three Japanese alphabets (hiragana and katakana) are phonographic, just like English. (Actually, they’re easier than English, because they’re phonetically consistent: か always says “ka”, whereas the letter “a” in English sometimes says “ah”, sometimes says “ay”, sometimes says “uh”, etc.)

However, there’s a different kind of writing system: a “logographic” one. Logographic writing systems include hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, and kanji. They don’t represent noises, they represent meaning. If I say a little box like this 口 means mouth, because it kind of looks like one, then I can say that this 言 means speak, because the lines are words coming from the mouth. Congratulations, you now understand how kanji (and Chinese characters, they’re the same thing) are put together.

The benefit of phonographic systems is that it’s really easy to pronounce words once they’re written down. The drawback is that unless you happen to know what the sequence of noises means, being able to say the noises out loud doesn’t do you any good.

On the other hand, as an avid student of kanji who occasionally forgets the readings, I frequently end up on the other side of that coin: “I know this word means outside, but I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce it.”* In other words, logographic systems do a great job at telling you the meaning, but they tell you diddly for pronunciation.

If we step back and think logically, both of these systems have advantages and drawbacks. Ideally, the best way to do a language would be to combine the two, so we can have a best of both worlds, and reading some text can give you both the meaning and the pronunciation, to some extent. Maybe, in our imaginary perfect language, the central meaning of a word is conveyed using a logographic system, and auxiliary things such as conjugations, for which pronunciation is more important than meaning since the meaning is so abstract, we could use a phonographic sys-


Japanese already does exactly that. The central meaning of a word is conveyed with kanji, whereas verb and adjective endings are written in hiragana. To make our lives (as 外人) even easier, there’s a third writing system for words that Japanese stole from other languages (90% of which are stolen from English). If you write ぱーちぃ like that, I’ve got no idea what word that is. I don’t recognize it. But if you write it like this パーティ, it’s like the text is screaming “turn your English-speaking brain back on!” at me, and so I do, and I sound out the katakana and figure out that パーティ means “party”.

So you see, instead of thinking “oh god, there’s three different writing systems, that’s so complicated, I’m going to die, I can’t learn this”, you should think about the reason why there are three writing systems. Humans are lazy. We don’t make our lives complicated for no reason. If something seems needlessly complicated to you, maybe you’re just thinking about it the wrong way.

And that is why I love kanji.

*In case you were curious, the kanji for “outside” is 外 and, by itself, it’s pronounced そと. You might also notice that this kanji is present elsewhere in this essay: a 外人, foreigner, is an “outside person”. Literally, that’s what the kanji mean.

Japanese Journal 1: My Linguistic Background

My native language is English, like most people who live in America. However, unlike most people who live in America—and probably unlike most people who live in any country—I had an interesting choice in second language: Latin.

I spent around ten years studying Latin, starting with Rosetta Stone Latin (yes, that exists), and culminating in the AP test: a high-stakes exam taken in American high school that’s equivalent to a college course. If you asked me to write an essay in Latin, even now—when I haven’t touched a single Latin word for nine months—I could probably do it. Well… if you let me use a dictionary to supplement the vocabulary I’ve forgotten, I could.

Basically, to the extent that a person can be fluent in a dead language, I was. (Don’t believe me? I got a 3 on the Latin AP exam. I got the exact same score on the English AP, which I took in the same year.)

To be fair, dead languages are exactly like living ones in most major areas. They’ve got grammar and writing systems and vocabulary. Even pronunciation! Some scholars, who obviously have nothing better to do with their time, have reverse-engineered Latin pronunciation from root words and poetry. There is only one thing dead languages don’t have. Conversation.

In all my time studying and speaking Latin, I never had a single conversation in it. I translated Vergil’s Aeneid and Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and yet I don’t even know how a Roman would say “um”. They never wrote it down!

This gives me a very strange handicap when I try to learn a third language, because my third language, like my first, is living. I know how to say “um” in Japanese, because there are real Japanese people I can talk to who say “um”. (Well, えと.) And in my third language, I can have conversations.

The problem with conversations is that they happen fast. When you write, there’s a moment where you can stop to consider what word you want to use. When you write, you can go back to edit what you’ve already put to paper. But when you talk, there’s none of that. You have no time to think, and it’s all permanent.

My brain, which is used to having time to think, does not like this.

“What,” my language-processing center yells at me, “are you asking me to do? When you made me learn a language before, you never made me come up with words so quickly. You gave me a moment to think, okay, which word do I use here. You’re moving your mouth too fast! I can’t keep up!”

I pat my language-processor on the head to try and calm it down. I say to it, “You seem to do it perfectly fine when I speak English.”

At this point, my language-processor storms off in a huff and refuses to speak to me anymore.

I write this dialogue because there seem to be two types of language learners: absolute beginners, who have no idea what fluency in a language looks like, and seasoned language veterans, who know what fluency looks like and just have to figure out how to get there with this new language.

I’m in a strange middle-ground. I can tell you exactly where I stand on the fluency scale as it relates to reading comprehension, translation, or listening. But if you ask me about conversation, I have no idea where I stand (though I assume it’s towards the very bottom). Further, I have no idea how to improve.

From here on out, I’ll be cataloguing my journey of trying to figure out how to do the fluent-in-a-living-language thing. All such posts will go in the category “japanese”.

I tried to not write this for some time, but unfortunately, I have too many thoughts and my hands can’t stay off the keys. I believe my thoughts are restless ghosts who wrongfully inhabit my brain and desperately wish to be somewhere, anywhere, else. So, I’m giving them a home on this electronic page. I can only hope that these restless spirits may become useful to someone.

Something Hurts. What Now?

Our educational system does a pretty terrible job at teaching the majority of important life skills. The general retort seems to be “those things are the parents’ job to teach”, but that doesn’t generalize: what if the kid’s parent doesn’t know? What if the kid doesn’t have parents? It’s a silly argument.

One of the most basic things that our education system fails to teach is how to take care of yourself. If you have an ache or pain, is it serious or not? If it isn’t, what palliatives should you use to mitigate the pain?

Today, I’ll be discussing all those things, and also some easy remedies you can use to prevent potentially costly problems.

Diagnosing Problems

  1. What hurts?
  2. What kind of pain is it? (i.e., is it aching, shooting, stabbing, etc, and how bad is it)
  3. How long has it been going on? (this includes whether it’s constant or intermittent)

That’s it. Three-step system to help you diagnose your pain. Here are some illustrative examples of how it works.

What hurts? The back of my head. What kind of pain? Moderate ache and stiffness. How long? Pretty constantly all day. This would be a tension headache, caused by knotting of the muscles in your neck. When you use muscles, the muscle fibers get torn apart a bit. If you don’t stretch properly after a workout, or if you stay in a position that uses a muscle for too long, that muscle doesn’t mend correctly after it’s torn. This causes the muscle fibers to get tangled, or “knotted”.

What hurts? My ankle. What kind of pain? Severe stabbing when I move my foot in a particular way or try to stand on it. How long? Since I fell a few minutes ago. This would probably be a sprain. You can distinguish a sprain from a broken bone with two factors: 1, a sprain is much less painful. My skating coach fell and broke her ankle, and described it as so painful she couldn’t stop screaming. 2, a sprain will only hurt when you try to move it, whereas a broken bone will hurt constantly. Still, there are very minor breaks (called ‘fractures’) that can feel more like a sprain; fortunately, there’s an easy test. A sprain will feel better after a few days using the RICE method (see the next section); if a fracture isn’t mending easily, it will take longer, and in that case you can see a doctor for an X-ray.

What hurts? My eyes. What kind of pain? A moderate ache, like there’s pressure inside my head. How long? Constant for a few hours. This is a sinus headache, likely caused by a minor head cold or some environmental irritant. Your sinuses run from your nostrils up through your forehead and around your eyes, such that sinus pressure can result in headaches.

So you see, first you match your symptoms up to a cause. If you don’t know what something means, ask people. Look stuff up and do research online (using reliable sources of course). This way, you can build your own library of pains and causes for them.

The next step is to match up the cause with the way to heal it.

How to Heal

Muscle pains, as characterized above by aching and stiffness, can be remedied in four ways. You can do all of these or just some of them.

  1. Take two 200mg tablets of ibuprofen. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory, which means it reduces swelling. Knotted muscles tend to get swollen since blood can’t move through them normally. Ibuprofen is also an analgesic, so it helps relieve pain.
  2. Stretch the muscle out. If you don’t know how to stretch it, look up “muscles in the [body part that hurts]”, find the specific muscle or group you need to stretch, then look up stretches for it. The internet is a wonderful thing.
  3. Give yourself a massage. This will not feel nice, but it will ease your pain. First, get into a position such that you’re not using the muscle. Some muscles are easier to not-use than others: for your leg you can just sit on the ground, but for your neck you’ll have to rest your head on a steady surface (your knees, a countertop, etc) in such a way that you can still breathe. Then, press into the muscle, starting at one end and working toward the other steadily. If you feel a lump, that’s a knot. Put a little more pressure on it. Keep pushing on it harder until it starts to give way. If it slips out from under your fingers, don’t worry, just find it again and push on it some more. If it starts to feel like you’re going to get a bruise, stop with that knot and keep moving. After you’ve either rubbed out the knots or can’t work on them any longer, you’re done.
  4. Put a heating pad on the muscle. This is best used in combination with stretching and/or massage, because heat relaxes the muscle, but doesn’t inherently remove any knots by itself.

For sprains (i.e. knee, ankle, etc) or other kinds of strain, use the RICE method. For this, it is important that you do all the steps.

  1. Rest. Stop using that part of your body. Sit down, lay down, generally use it as little as possible. Rest will help it to heal. If you’ve sprained your ankle, say, use crutches to get around if you need to. (Crutches are not expensive, they’re like $10-20. I own a pair, and I’m young and broke.)
  2. Ice. Grab an ice pack, or simply a bag of frozen veggies in a pinch, and put it on the affected area. Leave it there for about 10-20 minutes, then take it off for the same amount of time. Repeat for the first day or two after your injury. When you injure something, your body sends lots of blood to the area to try and mend it, but your body does not know the meaning of the word “moderation”, so it frequently sends too much blood and the area swells up, making it actually harder to heal. Ice works to fix this because your body doesn’t want its blood getting cold, so if the area is cold, it takes the blood back to a warmer part of you so that your core temperature will stay the same. It’s the same reason the blood drains from your hands and feet when you’re outdoors in the winter. Important Note: ice hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. Don’t put thick towels under your ice pack until it doesn’t hurt anymore, because then it’s not doing any good. You need nothing more than a thin sheet to prevent frostbite.
  3. Compress. If you have Ace bandages, use them to wrap the affected area. If you have a compression sock, that’s even better. If you have neither of those things, buy some Ace bandages. It will serve you very well. Compression works for pretty much the same reason ice does: it helps stop inflammation. Be careful not to make your bandages too tight; it should feel like a necktie, not like a noose.
  4. Elevate. This is yet another method to remove excess blood from the area. (Yes, all of this is necessary. I told you your body has no idea what moderation is.) As a rule of thumb, you should elevate the injured body part in such a way that it’s above your heart. Do this as often as you can manage it, but unlike rest, you don’t need a great reason to stop: “I’m sick of this for now” is enough.

Middle and outer ear infections are the least problematic types of ear infections. You can treat them by disinfecting them.

Middle ear infections are characterized by aching pain in the ears and/or difficulty hearing, and are remedied by doing something to disinfect the ears. Use either isopropyl alcohol or hydrogen peroxide solution: you can find both at your local drugstore. Just stick some in your ear, leave it there for a few minutes, then drain it. Repeat 3 times daily till it goes away.

Outer ear infections are characterized by an itching or redness on the external, visible bit of the ear. You can fix them with antibiotic ointments.

If either of these things doesn’t go away within a few days, you probably have a more serious infection and need prescription antibiotics. Further, if you’ve got symptoms like fever and nausea, that’s probably an inner ear infection, which is very bad, see a doctor. (I sound like a warning label on a pill bottle, sheesh.)

Ingrown toenails are best treated early on. If you notice a stabbing pain in your toe when you walk, employ this remedy straight away. If you let it get bad, the surgery to get the nail removed is $150-200, but on the other hand, you can buy all the supplies to fix it early on for less than $10.

  1. Grab some toilet paper or tissues. You’ll need less than one piece. Get a pair of tweezers, a pencil, or some other relatively pointy object. Finally, get some epsom salts, and a container big enough to fit your foot in (you should probably buy one specially for this purpose, since you don’t want to use the container for anything else afterward; epsom salts are toxic).
  2. Fill the container with very hot water (slightly hotter than you can stand to stick your hand in) and mix in the appropriate amount of epsom salts (it’ll say on the box, but it’s probably about a quarter cup of salt to a gallon of water or something). The mixing process will cool the water down slightly such that it’s now about as hot as you can stand. Stick your whole foot in and soak it for half an hour or something like that. Your foot should get super wrinkly.
  3. When you’re done with that, take your foot out. Rip off a tiny corner of your toilet paper or tissue, wad it up, and shove it under the offending ingrown toenail. Shove as much as you can under there, then wait. The pressure from the wadded-up tissue should push the nail up, and since the epsom salts have softened everything up, this is an easy enough job.

Go through this process in full every day until your toenail pokes right out where it belongs, and in the future, don’t clip your toenails too short.

Sinus headaches and sinus problems in general (including a stuffed-up nose as a result of a cold) can be remedied with a very strange but simple method: neti potting.

A neti pot is a small piece of plastic or pottery shaped like a squashed teapot. There are two holes: a big one in the top that you put the saline water into, and a little one at the end of the elongated spout that you stick up one nostril. Here’s a modern one with a fancy soft tip that comes with saline packets.

Basically, what you do is you fill it with saline solution (I know the exact formula for this one since I do it so often, I’m very susceptible to sinus problems)—1/4 teaspoon salt to 1 cup water—and stick the spout in one nostril, doesn’t matter which. Tilt your head to the side and tilt the neti pot up such that it’s pouring the saline into your nose. Since your nose and sinuses are actually just one long tube, the water will wash out all the gunk and come out the other side.

Make sure you tilt your head forward and lean such that the water isn’t coming down your throat and out of your mouth. (Oh yeah, those are connected too. Basically the whole human body is one long meat hose.) It might take some work to get right, but it’s not difficult. If I was able to get it right at age six, you can do it.

Also, if the saline doesn’t come out the other side the first time, don’t worry. That’s just because your sinuses are too blocked for the saline to flow through. Just drain the saline from that side (lean over a sink, then wipe your nose) and switch to the other side. Pouring saline in from both sides will help to loosen and eventually dislodge the gunk that’s causing the congestion and also probably the headache/infection/post-nasal drip/whatever else. It’s weird, but it works.

As with the pain to cause relationship, you can do research regarding the cause to remedy relationship. Just understand that companies want to not get sued, so they’ll tell you to go to a doctor if anything even potentially bad might happen. Look up “home remedies” before you go hit the UrgentCare.

Questions, comments? Any good remedy you’d like people to know? Add it to the comments section below!