Smart.fm and the Death of a Free Learning Tool

I haven’t been on it for a while, but smart.fm used to be one of my favorite websites to study Japanese. One I’d been meaning to return to recently. But it looks like that is not to be. Smart.fm is switching over to iKnow.jp (which it already was before, I think) and charging a monthly fee at the door.

Free, the site seemed invaluable, but for ¥1000 a month it seems superfluous. It is an annoying shock to see that the service is just going behind a pay-wall with nearly no warning. More or less it seems they’ve basically abused the goodwill of a community of language learners who’ve spread the word in addition to contributed content and ideas. ¥1000 a month may not seem like a lot, but there are far better ways to spend ¥12000 a year (around $120 USD) on language learning.

The move seems as boneheaded as it is heavy handed. Why not introduce premium services to maintain a large user base? Why not give current users more than a couple months to check out the new site, especially when the site is (by their own admission) buggy? In one stroke they’ve turned a former user and cheerleader into an alienated and upset loudmouth.

Interestingly, smart.fm seems to be keeping & profiting from the user generated content:

Very importantly, the perception of some users is that the majority of content studied in Smart.fm has been created by the user base and that the move to iKnow! is somehow an attempt to take all of this user created content and profit from it…

We appreciate the work that many users have put into creating content and we’re certainly not going to delete it…

Check back for some free sites and methods to study Japanese, along with suggestions where to better spend your $120 USD a year.


Jon versus The Chikan (or why yelled at a Japanese person in English before throwing him off the train)

Last week I played the part of a confused and then horrified observer. I was on my way to work, riding the always overcrowded Saikyo line, when a nervous and (frankly) gross looking man got on the train. He seemed to be with his girlfriend, a man-ish looking woman dressed all in white with a knee-length frilly skirt. During the train ride I was sure some funny business was going on, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it. At first they seemed to be together, but I had a nagging feeling they were not. As a foreigner I was also hesitant to step into a situation I knew nothing about. As we all left the train the pieces fell into place, though. The woman seemed slightly disturbed, the man’s hand left from her side and they parted in opposite directions without so much as a look. Clearly, this man was a Chikan! A chikan is a man who rides (usually crowded) trains and gropes women. The word chikan translates to “molester” or “pervert.” At that time I still didn’t know what I could or should do. I was shocked. After a few moments the shock wore off and was replaced by a nauseating wave of disgust. I was sicken by this sleazy looking man’s actions, but (almost more so) I was also sickened by my useless inaction. I felt like an accomplice and a victim at the same time.

Today on the crowded, crowded train I found my chance for a minor redemption. To my surprise I found myself looking across the train at the same black hat with gold waves, the same scruffy face and beady eyes, the same nervous look of arousal and guilt. The Saikyo is almost always packed so full that people literally can’t move, sometimes moving even an arm is impossible. At first he was surrounded by men, but then after the next stop he managed to get next to a young girl as people shuffled off and on the train. I was separated from him by ten feet. In the packed train it might as well have been a mile. I glared at him as hard as I could and managed to catch his eye. At the next stop he moved from the girl. I saw in her face the same look of disgust and shame that I felt just a week before. I walked towards him.

As I approached I had no plan. He half looked at me and in the moment everything became action. I didn’t think, I moved. I yelled in English, “get off this fucking train!” and I pushed him hard. I am not by any means a large man, but to my surprise he flew off the train like he’d been shoved by Andrea the Giant. Having gotten him off the train my senses began to return and I yelled, “fucking chikan!” to make the situation clear to him and everyone who’d witnessed my actions.

Once I arrived at work I told the staff about what had happened and filed a report with the police.

The shame of having done nothing the first time is still a cinder burning in my gut, but today’s action has dulled that ache a bit. I hope that the people who were around me tell their coworkers and friends about the strange occurrence they observed. I hope that my small action plants a seed that allows people to do something if they see this kind of thing happening. But most of all I hope that this girl he attacked felt some small piece of what he’d stolen from her return.


My iPod Touch has a bad sense of direction

The iPod Touch has had some weird glitches and bugs, but this one pops up for me often. It seems that sometimes the iPod Touch get’s confused about whether it is horizontal or vertical. Instead of choosing one it tries to hedge the bet by taking a little from column A and a little from column B. If you shake it or just leave it alone for a while it’ll figure things out and get back to normal eventually.


Travel by (local) train for cheap in Japan

There’s a little known ticket in Japan called the Seishun Juhachi kippu (literally “Youth 18 ticket”). While it was originally conceived as a ticket for the young people, nowadays it’s used by anyone and everyone who likes traveling on the cheap. The ticket costs ¥ 11,500 and is good for five (consecutive or non-consecutive) days of travel. That means you only pay ¥2,300 a day!

You just show the person at the ticket gates, get it stamped the first time you use it, and you’re traveling for next to nothing all day. You can even have multiple people traveling on the same ticket (one day per person though).

The one big drawback is that you can only travel by local or local rapid train (and the Miyajimaguchi ferry). Depending on where you are going that could mean a very long train ride. But on the bright side you’ll see a lot more of Japan through the train window. All things considered this ticket is for people who have time to spare or like traveling slowly.

Sold: Feb. 20-Mar. 31
Valid: Mar.1-Apr. 10

Sold: July 1-Aug. 31
Valid: July 20-Sep. 10

Sold: Dec.1-Jan. 10
Valid: Dec.10-Jan. 20

I used it to travel from Tokyo to Kamakura to Kyoto to Nara, and then back up to Fukushima. In US dollars that trip would have cost a bunch, maybe $600 instead I paid about $120.

business, technology

Paywalls and Crowdsourcing

I saw this in the NYTimes recently:

The Lede is tracking reports of the damage and the tsunami warnings. Are you in an affected area? What are you seeing? Send your photos to pix@nyt.com

What’s interesting to me is that they are basically asking people to work for the NYTimes for free. This isn’t a new idea, it actually already has a name, it’s called crowdsourcing.

What makes it interesting is this:

Taking a step that has tempted and terrified much of the newspaper industry, The New York Times announced… that it would charge some frequent readers for access to its Web site

I seems that the crowdsourcing was popularized on a paradigm of openness and freeness (ex. wikipedia). It’ll be interesting to watch how (if) the goodwill of the “crowd” changes when The New York Times’ paywall comes up.


Using the JP (Japan Post) to Send Money

If you want to send money from Japan you can use the post office. The JP (Japan Post) used to be the best deal in town. Nowadays there are other ways that are just as good. Short of setting up an account with CitiBank (which is marginally better), it’ll be pretty much the same no matter where you send money from.

Below you find the important pages from the JP booklet. You can send money in two ways.

One way is to send a money order to an address, this is the most annoying way because you have to pay for the EMS mail service and the money order can only be up to a certain amount per check— which means you may have to fill out six money orders.

The second way is to send money to an account. You can do this with cash or from one account to another. I recommend cash, because it is easier. You’ll need to have some bank account info (see below) and you’ll probably be charged by your bank to receive the money.

JP Post booklet (PDF)


How American movies change when they are exported

Translation has always been interesting to me. It is interesting to me how something like a movies are translated. Even before making it to the theater the movie can be changed dramatically through translation. The name of the movie can reshape the expectation and focus of the movie for example. While not lingual, the movie poster can also be “translated” for a different audience.

Meryl Streep’s It’s Complicated is an example of those two things happening at once. The result is that the bakery (which isn’t featured at all in the American marketing) and the character’s family become the focus. While the American version seems to focus on the character’s complicated love life.

It’s really interesting. The big question is how these two marketing campaigns reflect cultural values and whether these reflections are pleasing to witness.