Resources for learning Japanese

Posted on June 30, 2013

Having recently accepted a job here and getting the work visa to stay long term, this marks the start of a new adventure in Japan. Despite having been to Japan for quite a few times for holidays, I never spent much time learning the language apart from the common basics like “Hello” and “Thank you”. This time around, I intend to make sure I commit to improving my Japanese language skills. However, rather than going to formal Japanese classes, I’m going to see how much I can learn on my own and then after about 2 months assess whether I should take formal classes to continue my improvement.

Kana (consisting of hiragana and katakana) are syllabic symbols used in Japan and one of pillars of the Japanese writing system. You could consider kana almost equivalent to the English alphabet and usually will remain true to the attached phonetic reading. Though like in English, sometimes there are exceptions to the way it is written versus the way it is pronounced (one example I can think of is “は” when used as a particle). Katakana is pretty much dedicated for words that come from outside of Japan (a.k.a. foreign loan words) and basically sounds out the word using the Japanese phonetics. As an example, “computer” is “コンピュータ” (which is never written in Hiragana so as to make it clear that this word came from another language). Japanese writing actually uses kanji too (adopted Chinese characters), but I’ll get to that later. The following websites have been extremely useful to me for learning the kana writing system:

  • – Assuming the website navigation hasn’t changed, you can start with Hiragana by going through the menu: Learn -> Lessons -> Beginner and choose Hiragana (or you could learn Katakana first I suppose). The reason why I like this website a lot is because of the way they teach you how to recognise each of the kana symbols – some of the suggested memory aids are actually quite hilarious (e.g. one I recall well is “い” and you’ll see what I mean when you look at the site).
  • – I used this frequently to test what I’ve learnt of hiragana and katakana. It allows you to choose which set of symbols you want to test, which is really nice when you want to reaffirm only the kana you have learnt.

It took me maybe a few weeks to get to the stage where I felt somewhat comfortable to read most kana – as long as it doesn’t just flash up briefly on screen like it does on certain Japanese TV shows (when I can work out how to turn on subtitles 😛 ).

Kanji is actually quite a different beast, because in Japanese the pronunciation of these characters can be different depending on usage. This is because when they adopted the characters from Chinese, they basically substituted them into their language where it has the similar meaning – sometimes keeping the original Japanese pronunciation, but other times the same kanji would be pronounced in a “Chinese-way” (pretty much like how katakana is used to bring in foreign “loan” words via Japanese phonetic reconstruction). This I found quite confusing due to my background of studying Chinese throughout high school. Also sometimes the kanji adopted in Japanese have quite different meanings or used in quite a different combination from those taught in Chinese and some kanji I’ve never even encountered before because they used some kind of rarer kanji that does not get used in Chinese (or at least not anymore).

At the moment, I’m not doing anything that specifically caters to learning kanji in isolation. Instead, I’ve been focusing my efforts on learning Japanese as a whole (kanji inclusive). The following resources have been helpful (and yes, I’m afraid I own an iPhone so sorry if this doesn’t cater so well for those with other device platforms):

  • imiwa? ( – Everyone needs a good dictionary when studying a language and I’ve found this iOS app to be a very comprehensive dictionary for Japanese-English (and vice-versa). As well as offering example usage of the terms, it also provides a set of very useful kanji features. For example you can list kanji for each JLPT (Japanese Lanaguage Proficiency Test) level, where JLPT level 5 is easiest and level 1 is the most difficult. It can also show you stroke order of the kanji. Once you recognise some usual rules for writing kanji (which I got from studying Chinese), you should be able to work out how to write a lot of more advanced kanji. There is one thing missing from this app that would make it near perfect and it’s that it doesn’t seem to offer any audible readings of the terms or examples you look up.*Update: Actually with the normal dictionary entries (i.e. not those listed under Kanji) you do have the ability to hear it spoken if you hold your finger down on the term and then select “speak” from the popup menu and similarly holding down on an example will present a “speak” option too*. Romaji is supported as a method of lookup too, which I’ll get to a bit later. However, it still is great dictionary app and did I mention it is free as in free beer?
  • Tae Kim’s guide to Learning Japanese: Grammar Guide ( – Finally, possibly one of the hardest aspects of Japanese is grammar and I actually found the original hosting website (linked here) to be very helpful. The iOS app conversion seems to share the same contents of the website’s Grammar Guide, but in my opinion the app presents it in a much more aesthetically pleasing manner than the website itself. That said, the main website (the Grammar Guide is just one part of it) does offer other valuable resources area not available on the iOS app, which include tips on how to make your computer suitable for inputting Japanese. I have only scratched the surface on trying to learn basic grammar, but so far what makes the app nicer than the website is that certain kanji words introduced in the early stages of grammar are underlined and hyperlinked to show you their meaning when used in examples – e.g. when they demonstrate how a particle like “は” is used. I can only assume this continues throughout the content, which I find is a nice way to encourage learning of kanji.
  • Japanese sensei Deluxe ( – I found this to be a pretty comprehensive iOS app for studying Japanese yourself, but you must have learnt kana to effectively use it. When you check this app out, you will find that it offers different levels of units, which are further divided into lessons. However, the ordering of content in of the lesson seems a little arbitrary to me – unless they did some kind of research to realise that it is taught best this way (admittedly this is only my initial impressions having only gone through about half of Unit 1). Basically each lesson consists of flash cards to introduce a set of 10 terms, each displayed with kana markups for kanji terms and an audio track to hear its pronunciation. Also each flash card has an example usage that also has associated audio track to guide pronunciation.  Terms are also searchable, but the biggest plus I find is from all the different ways to review and reinforce what you learnt (I found the tests/games very effective). One thing I wish I could do in the app would be to choose a topic of interest (e.g. ordering food) and then it would provide me with lessons based on that. Note: I’m using the paid “Deluxe” version, but there is also a free “Lite” version if you need some more convincing before paying for the full version.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned a lot about romaji and this is because romaji is not something you will frequently see in Japan. Romaji is the romanization of the Japanese language, so for example: “konnichiwa” is the romaji for “こんにちは” in hiragana and pretty much means “Hello” in English. If you had Japanese friends sending you a text in Japanese, it will certainly not be in romaji unless they were catering for your language deficiencies. And if they were doing that, they might as well be typing to you in English (assuming they know enough). 😀

Well happy Japanese studies all! (and importantly myself too :P)

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Upgrade MacBook Pro with an SSD (part 1)

Posted on February 4, 2013


Recently purchased a the Data Doubler + 240GB OWC Mercury Electra 3G SSD Drive Bundle to upgrade my MacBook Pro 13″ (mid-2010). After performing the upgrade, it was now time to migrate my existing OS X and Windows 7 installations across. You’d think it was easy right? Well OS X was okay to deal with, but Windows was bloody annoying. First I’m going to start off with some background material, so you can see the reasoning behind the configuration choices I made.

Background Reading


Due to the difference in memory technology from traditional mechanical HDDs vs flash-based SSD, concepts relating to how the flash-based memory function within an SSD need to be considered. Let’s start with TRIM… What is it and why would you want to use it with an SSD? TRIM is a special command specifically used by an OS that supports it, to inform the SSD when a certain page is no longer valid (e.g.  typically issued after deletion of files). Without TRIM, older SSDs suffered faster from degrading write performance as it did not know which pages were actually ok to be blanked. This meant that if the OS thought the page was blank and proceeded to write to it, the SSD (being flash memory based) would have to perform an erase first before writing over it again – this is slower than writing to an already empty page. TRIM (and other new automatic garbage collection technologies) enable an opportunity for the SSD to perform an erase prior to the next write operation to the same page. Apparently Sandforce-based SSD’s (OWC being amongst them) has a very good background garbage collection algorithm that they claim will keep the SSD performing well even without TRIM enabled. In fact, OWC do not recommend TRIM being turned on for OS X and users have reported beachball issues if they manually enable it in OS X (OS X doesn’t automatically enable TRIM unless they are Apple-installed SSDs). Instead, OWC’s SSD apparently uses garbage collection and over-provisioning (extra memory hidden from the OS and thus user) to maintain the high performance without TRIM. Thus I will not be enabling TRIM for my SSD. References:

Partition Alignment

Due to the way SSDs store and erase data, partition alignment is also important because it helps avoid unnecessary read/write-cycles that would decrease performance (e.g. read/write across two pages due to misalignment when it only needed to access one page if aligned correctly). This means that at minimum the partitions (and the disk format’s block size) should be aligned to the SSD’s specified Page size. By aligning to the SSD’s Erase Block size as well, then erasures by the SSD will also be optimal. To help with alignment, here’s a link to an online partition alignment calculator that I will use. References:

SSD migration

The following references provided guidance and helpful tips for migrating to SSD (especially the first link):

OWC Mercury Electra 3G SSD

After reading the above information about SSD partition alignment, I revisited Other World Computing’s website to get the Erase Block size and Page size specs for my new SSD. Strangely this information was not available there. So I contacted their support. Instead of just telling me the specs, OWC support replied that it wasn’t necessary. At first I found this amusing because sure it’s “not necessary” to do partition alignment for the drive to work, just like it was “not necessary” for me to buy an SSD to have my computer function. So after a few insistent emails bypassing the excuses for not just giving me the specs (“it can’t be done on a Mac” – LOL. Yes, it can), I finally got my answer:

  • 512 KB Erase Block size
  • 4 KB Page size

As it will turn out, these are the defaults that the alignment calculator website starts off with.

Booting Mechanisms

By default a Mac is installed with OS X occupying the entire HDD, but after running Boot Camp Assistant a new partition for Windows will be created. Also there are a few hidden partitions that you may not be aware of (the Recovery one being introduced since Lion). A typical layout for a Lion OS X installation with Windows 7 installed via Boot Camp is:

  1. EFI (hidden) partition – apparently used for firmware updates
  2. OS X (HFS+ journal enabled) partition
  3. Recovery HD (hidden) partition
  4. Boot Camp (NTFS for Windows 7) partition

These will need to be replicated on the SSD, but with proper partition alignment. Note that GPT is the main partitioning method used by Macs, but for installing Windows via Boot Camp it is necessary to also have a hybrid MBR to allow Windows to boot. This MBR should start with a protective EFI partition (0xEE) to protect the primary GPT structures, but also MBR are limited to only having 4 partitions in total (so only 3 can be defined usefully). Confusing? Well it is I’m afraid and I only learned the bare minimum to partition the SSD with correct alignment and so that OS X and Windows still worked.


(To be continued…)

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WordPress 3.4.2 upgrade causes theme issues

Posted on October 16, 2012

Just upgraded to WordPress 3.4.2 and found out that my favourite theme (Mobius) is now broken – where the comments list looks hideous. Temporarily switched over to another theme till I can resolve the issue. Will update this post with my fix (if I manage it).

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Fixing WordPress after a sudden change in host URL

Posted on October 2, 2012

Apologies for the “outage” that occurred recently. I haven’t been active of late and when I checked today, I realised that my hosting service provider actually changed my host domain from to For WordPress this is quite devastating as it is configured with the URL of the original host domain – this means that most of the site was broken.

Fortunately, Google and documentation comes to the rescue:

I actually followed the steps under the “Relocate method” section. For those that can’t be bother clicking on the link, these are the steps I did:

  1. Edit the wp-config.php file (I used CPanel -> File Manager -> selected the file -> Code Editor)
  2. After the “define” statements (just before the comment line that says “That’s all, stop editing!”), insert a new line, and type: define('RELOCATE',true);
  3. Save changes to the file.
  4. Open a web browser and manually point it to wp-login.php on the new server. For example, if your new site is at, then type into your browser’s address bar.
  5. Login as per normal.
  6. Check I’m on the right server by looking at your URL before proceeding. In the Admin back-end, navigate to Settings > General. Check and if  necessary update both the  URL address settings to match the new URL from your domain change. Also check and update the email address too. Once you’re happy, make sure you click Save Changes.
  7. Go to your login name in the top right corner > Edit My Profile. Check and update the login profile’s email address if necessary. Click Update Profile once done.
  8. Check that the main WordPress site is back to normal again, but before we’re done – go back to edit the wp-config.php file and take out the define statement. I commented it out with // in front of that line just in case I need to relocate again.

So after following these steps, my WordPress is working properly like it should!

Thanks for visiting! 😀


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