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Archive for January, 2010

State of the Union Address

I just finished watching the State of Union Address to the Joint Sesssion of Congress.  I must say that it was nice to be able to pause the program while I put the little one in the bath and then get back to where I was–the extra money for the DVR is worth it.

So I watched the address on C-SPAN as there was no way I was going to watch it on CNN or some other news network with a bunch of talking-head pundits offering their opinions and pollution.  I never really paid attention to such these big political speeches in the past, but a lot happened this past year.  I never noticed how the congressmen and senators stand-up or remain seated due to how they feel about what the President says.

So some observations:

  • Obama came out strong and gave Congress the good public slap in the face it needed.
  • Obama is dreaming if he thinks this country can ever be a leading and export-driving nation in Green Energy.  Especially not when the Green Energy businesses currently in the US are looking to move to China to–wait for it–reduce manufacturing costs.
  • It was nice to see Obama address the budget issue, particularly, pointing out how much the budget deficit grew from 2000 (a surplus) to 2008 (huge hole).  He is unfairly blamed for much of the deficit by the Republican party, yet they didn’t vote it against the spending in 2000-2008.
  • I enjoyed watching the body language between Obama and Congressman John Boehner–I guess they both know they have a fight coming…
  • Three year spending freeze…yeah right!
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Sometimes it just works?

I bought a new printer today because I have grown tired of having to pay the office supply store $15 to fax a twelve page document or pay $0.15 per page for photocopying, which really does add up.  I bought the Brother MFC-225CW, a machine with fax/copy/scan/print, all controllable by the computer over the wireless home network.

As I unboxed the machine I started to feel the dread coming over me–how many hours would it take me to get this machine working?  To my surprise, after following the quick-start guide step-by-step, I was able to get the printer configured and connected to the wireless network, and I even was able to print a document while sitting in another room.  It all worked in one go!  Just thought I’d share my moment of bliss, it probably won’t ever happen again.

Now I ought to buckle down on the income tax forms…

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This year I have a couple of things I’d like to learn to do on my computer.  The first is that I’d like to figure out how to edit home videos and create DVDs from the videos.  The second task is that I’d like to create better language learning materials from podcasts and old cassettes. The latter seems much easier, so I decided to give it a shot today.

While I find listening to podcasts or recorded audio for language learning is fun and interesting the first time, when I want to review the core material, I don’t want to fiddle with rewind/fast-forward, and I certainly don’t want to hear the hosts’ banter and idle chit-chat.  What I want is repetition so I can practice getting the flow of the language.  Unfortunately, many podcasts and many language learning materials don’t offer the repetition that I’d like, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I found a free tool, Audacity, which offers the ability to chop up audio data into pieces visually on your PC or MAC. This tool is very easy to use–you do not have to be an audiophile or a computer expert to make use of it.  I first played around with recording my voice from the mic, and seeing what I’d get on the screen.  After fiddling with the settings, I saw that the tool can also use a PC or Mac built-in audio input jack to read an input signal.  This is the same jack you might use for a hands-free headset or an external mic.

I got out my old copy of  Communicate in Cantonese, which is a great little Cantonese course that comes with an audio tape containing the dialogues, vocabulary banks, and audio exercises.  While I don’t want the exercises for review, I would like to separate the vocabulary banks and dialogues into separate audio files so that I can listen to them for review whenever I’d like.

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The Audacity GUI – while it might look technical, it is quite intuitive and user-friendly

Working with Audacity was very simple, and the following was my basic work-flow:

  1. I connected my cassette player’s headphone jack to my Mac’s input jack with a stereo patch cable.  This will work whether you have an old walk-man (you didn’t throw yours out, did you?) or a cassette deck in your component stereo system.
  2. I clicked the record button in Audacity, and then hit the play button on the walk-man.
  3. After I had a few minutes of input, I stopped both.
  4. Using the play, pause and stop buttons in the software, I found the sections of the recorded input that I wanted to isolate, and I selected a section by clicking on the start position and holding the mouse down, not releasing it until I came to the end position of the section.
  5. Using the copy/paste options from Audacity’s Edit menu, I copied the selected audio data
  6. From Audacity’s File menu, I created a new window, and in this window I pasted the previously selected data.  For the dialogs, I pasted the selected data ten times, each time moving the cursor to the end of the previous paste-action such that the next “paste” would be appended.
  7. Once I was satisfied, from the file menu, I exported the contents of the new window to MP3, and voila, I was in business.

Skip this paragraph if you’re not interesting in the technical details, but for the curious: Audacity reads from a built-in mic or input jack and saves the data in pulse code modulated (PCM) format to a temporary file, which is simply the amplitudes of the input signal recorded serially in time.  From this format, it is possible to export to many different audio formats, such as the ubiquitous WAV on Windows(and Mac) or AIFF for Mac.  With the proper free plug-ins, it is also possible to save your files in MP3 or AAC encodings for your iPod, or any other popular encodings such as WMA or OGG.

While the process is very straight-forward, here are a few suggestions:

  • input jack gain – in the GUI the gain is set rather low, and I recommend that you don’t increase the gain over 0.5.  Increasing the gain causes more “hissing” and white noise in your audio data
  • cassette player volume – if the input volume is too small, try increasing your cassette player volume to the max volume.  This avoids the “hissing” noise that comes from increasing input gain on the audio input jack, but increases the level of your input signal
  • When trying to copy/paste audio data, make sure the original data has been “stopped.”  When I tried to do so with the original data “paused,” the copy/paste actions were greyed out and unavailable
  • If you export MP3s, for music, audiophiles will want a 256 kbps bit-rate, but for  language tapes, a bit-rate of 128 kbps is fine and it keeps the file size smaller
  • for language learners – if you’re very patient, you can try inserting gaps between sentences in a dialog so that you can repeat the previous utterance, or perhaps take a stab at answering the question in the previous utterance before the actual answer comes.

While it does take time away from your study to make custom learning materials, I believe that we gain more from the ability to focus on the areas that of interest to us.  While I’m commuting to work or even sitting at my desk and doing my job, I can listen to the dialogs passively as I won’t be distracting trying to rewind or fast-forward my language learning materials.  Hopefully this will help make me more productive with my language studies this year.

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Happy New Year

It’s New Year’s Day and I’m writing this with a perfect cup of Dong Ding Oolong Tea (凍頂烏龍茶) here in “Chas” where the high is 11 and the low is 8 degrees.  I was hoping for a walk outdoors today, but the New Year has not chased away the “monsoon”–it is raining…again.  The rain has been highly oppressive, and from the beginning of November the weather has been cool enough to really enjoy the outdoors, yet the rain never ceases.  Some days the rain is so heavy that the streets flood.  Other days the rain is off and on in short, heavy bursts.  I’m told this is life in a sub-tropical climate.  I always thought I’d like to live in Seattle, but if Seattle has this type of rain, I am seriously rethinking the city.

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Notice the ground is wet…the rain did more to take the leaves from the trees than anything else

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Autumn came and went in about three weeks, but the colors were spectacular

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Enough talk of the weather though, I complain too much.  So 2009 has come and then gone, what a fast year!  Last year at this time I was enjoying Osechi Ryori (お節料理), the traditional Japanese meal on New Year’s Day, but my head was spinning due to politics and trouble at work, with doubts about my abilities and career prospects turning in my head. 2009 turned out to be a rather good year though, as I watched my son grow from an underweight infant to a healthy one-year old busy-body. I left a high-stress job I didn’t enjoy in Hachioji and am now working in a challenging and interesting work environment with a balanced work/home life-style and lots of potential for growth.

09122009151This skyline reminded me of the rolling, open skies of the Saitama prefecture plains

Japan feels so distant, almost like a another lifetime.  The next time I visit Japan I’m not sure what I am going to feel.  I’ll be a tourist and not a resident, and I hope that will bring back that feeling of interest and curiosity.  I still miss the urban lifestyle, and being able to walk and jump a train to anywhere–I’m already sick of my car.
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I sure as hell miss the miso (味噌) ramen!

I miss the small shops you find when wondering around a neighborhood anywhere in Japan, such urban exploring is not really possible in most US cities.  I very much miss the mountains always sitting on the horizon and the rice fields of Sakado and they change through the seasons…  I really wish I would have taken a picture of the rice paddies once a month for at least a year, I regret never getting around to that.

Well, it is time to look forward though, and not to the past.  It is time for New Year resolutions, and if you’re the type that tries to be superior and says, “Oh, I don’t bother with them,” then bugger off you Scrooge!

11122009155Christmas went by quickly too, but we managed to put up a tree this year.  I don’t think Liam knew what to make of Christmas yet.

For 2010, my goals:

  1. Jogging, three times a week – I’m coming up on the two-nine this year, and it won’t be long before the big three-zero.  I say it every year, but I really must get into a good aerobic habit.  My brother gave me the Nike+iPod receiver unit for my iPod, and I’m interested in getting out there and collecting stats–never give an engineer a data collection device.  I hope the community aspect will help keep me motivated too.
  2. Explore – I may not be that impressed with “ol’ Boot” (South Carolina), but the state has a strong identity and a lot of history.  I hope to try to get out more this year and find some interesting sites, historical or simply natural.  I would also like to take a few weekend trips during the course of the year.  “Hotlanta” (Atlanta) is just four hours away and it seems to be the center of the Japanese community in the Southeast.  I know my wife would enjoy visiting the groceries, book stores and the restaurants there.  Savannah is just a little over two hours away and it has a small historic district like Charleston.  On a longer weekend, Northern coastal Florida is not out of the question, perhaps there is something interesting?
  3. Improve my Mandarin – I may try to hire a tutor to correct my writing and with whom I can practice speaking.  For sure though I will work on my reading skills.  I won’t worry about language tests, my Japanese never improved by studying for Japanese proficiency tests.  I’m also going to look for a new listening practice method.  I’ve kind of fallen out with podcasts, there is just too much English, and not enough repetition of the core dialogue.  For reviewing, I want the dialogues only, I don’t want the banter and chit-chat from the hosts.  Or maybe I just need to learn how to chop up mp3s into parts…

IMG_0022Playing with the hats at the baby goods shop in Charlotte

Well, that’s it for now.  Happy New Year, world.  Let’s hope it will be a good one.  Please take away this rotten rain!

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Watching the ice drift down the St. Lawrence River – I’d like to go back to Quebec again some day…

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