How to make a telephone queue particularly irritating

Phone queues are never very much fun [1] though, sadly, they seem to be a fairly inevitable fact of modern life.

This afternoon I had to spend a certain amount of time in a phone queue and, while it was actually fairly short compared to the average in-queue waiting time, I was feeling quite tired and slightly grumpy before I started the call and even more so by the end of it (though I think I did a fairly good job of being polite to the person I finally spoke to, as I realised the queue wasn’t his fault).

What made this queue especially annoying, apart from the inherent annoyance of having to wait in the first place [2], was the fact that while the hold-muzak was actually fairly good by hold-muzak standards (something by Tchaikovsky, I think), they kept on interrupting it with a message to say that I could also get information from their website.  That would have been fine – perhaps even useful – if I’d got the phone number from somewhere else and hadn’t realised they had a website.  However, I had already been on the website and it was from there that I found I could only achieve what I needed to do by phoning them up, so I wasn’t at all impressed to be invited every 30 seconds or to visit the website!



[1] I suppose it’s conceivable that some people may enjoy waiting in a phone queue; I’m certainly not one of them.

[2] At least this time I was able to do some useful stuff on my computer while I was waiting.  I remember one time I made a phone call (I think it was to renew my car insurance) and ended up stuck in a queue for a very long time; fortunately one of my housemates (as I lived in a shared house at the time – this must be at least 10 years ago) had left a fairly interesting and not especially short book by the phone, and I managed to read a substantial chunk of it (my memory says about half, but it’s probably exaggerating slightly) by the time I reached the end of the queue.


Not Forever Young

I don’t, as a rule, tend to think of public toilets as good places to indulge in photography.

However, I was in a pub/restaurant this afternoon (the Fairy Glen in Dwygyfylchi, in case you were wondering – NB I recommend their roast duck in cherry sauce if you happen to be passing through and looking for a tasty, large and reasonably priced meal) and, when I nipped to the gents’, I saw a poster that amused me.  Since there was nobody else in there at the time and I happened to have my phone (with built-in camera) in my pocket, I decided to take a quick snapshot of it for posterity.

Here it is:
Young Once

In case for some reason the image doesn’t show up, it says:

You’re only young once but you can be immature for ever.

Something to smile about :-)

As I’ve previously mentioned, the main impetus for me to get a smartphone (nearly 2 years ago now!) was the decidedly cool Google Sky Map app.

I still rate this as my favourite app ever, as I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of being able to point my phone at a patch of sky and have it tell me what stars I’m seeing (or not, if it’s in the middle of the daytime or a cloudy night, or there’s a building, a tree or the bulk of the planet Earth in the way!).  However, it’s not an app I actually use on a daily, or even weekly, basis.

By contrast, the keyboard is a feature of my phone that I use regularly.  Another of the attractions of a smartphone for me was the opportunity to use a proper, albeit touch-screen, keyboard rather than faffing around with a standard mobile phone multi-letters-per-key setup.

The standard Android keyboard is not too bad, and certainly much better (for me, at least) than the aforementioned clunky keypad on my previous (non-smart) phone.  However, there exist many alternative keyboards and after trying out a few I settled on one I’m very happy with – MultiLing Keyboard by Honso.  It’s available on the Play Store if you have an Android device and want to check it out (I don’t know whether they do versions for other phones).

The thing that first attracted me to this keyboard is the facility to switch quickly between different languages, with suitable keyboard layouts and predictive text dictionaries.  Not only does that make it easier to flip-flop between Welsh and English, which I do frequently (sometimes within a single note or text message), but it also makes it possible to write in a completely different script (e.g. Cyrillic if I want to write something in Russian, which does happen from time to time).

In addition to being able to fully switch between languages (which is accomplished by holding down the spacebar and selecting the language of your choice from the ensuing menu; NB you have to select the list of available languages in the app’s settings first), you can access menus of accented or otherwise-related versions of characters (or in some cases, unrelated punctuation symbols etc.) by holding down (as opposed to tapping) the various letter keys.  The ones I use most often are undoubtedly the numbers, which are obtained by holding the top-row letter keys (there is also a separate numeric mode, which is useful if you’re entering more than a couple of digits at once).

All this stuff I discovered quite a while back (having installed this keyboard probably within about a month of getting the phone).  This morning, however, I accidentally stumbled on another nifty feature.  Actually, it’s another one of the extra-character menus accessed by holding down a key but it’s not one I’d thought to try.  The “enter” key, located at the bottom right of the keyboard, gives you a fairly comprehensive selection of smileys (aka emoticons), as well as a tab and a few other random symbols.  I doubt I’ll be peppering my text messages with hearts or crosses (or, indeed, most of the available smileys) anytime soon but it’s nice to know there’s a slightly quicker way to insert the old standby : – ) than constructing it laboriously by hand (not that entering three punctuation characters is that laborious; NB I’ve added spaces to ensure the ASCII emoticon doesn’t get automatically converted into one of those new-fangled graphical gizmos).

I doubt this emoticon menu would, on its own, be a major selling point of the app for many people and I was certainly happy enough with MultiLing Keyboard when I was blissfully unaware of this feature.  Still, it’s quite a nice extra and has certainly given me something to smile about. 🙂

Bad breath

My recent foray into Euclid’s Elements has rekindled my interest in Ancient Greece, so I have decided the time has come to have another bash at learning Homeric Greek.  As well as being an interesting project in its own right, which will enable me to appreciate two of the classics of world literature (and, arguably, pillars of European culture) in their original language, I hope the exercise will enrich my understanding of Koine (aka. New Testament) Greek and provide a good doorway to other Greek dialects.

I already have some Homeric study material from a previous fling with the language, the main one being Clyde Pharr’s classic textbook Homeric Greek.

Working through some of the early exercises in the book this morning, I found a sentence which seems to demonstrate in quite an amusing way the range of variation possible in translating a sentence, due to the range of meanings of each word.

The sentence (lesson IV, no. 5) reads: καλη ἐστι θεα, ἐχει δε ψυχην κακην.

I don’t have a copy of the key to Pharr’s exercises, if such a thing exists, but I’m assuming the translation he had in mind was along the lines of the goddess is beautiful but she has an evil spirit (or perhaps an ugly spirit to contrast with her physical beauty).

However,   καλη can mean good, beautiful or several other things (all generally positive) while κακη is bad as well as ugly, evil etc. and ψυχη can be spirit, soul,breath or life. So there are several other possible translations for this sentence, including the goddess is good but she has bad breath.

Two phone-related observations to finish with:

I wrote the bulk of this post using the WordPress app on my phone, though I finished it on my PC (mainly to access the polytonic Greek keyboard, so I could put the breathings on the Greek sentence – I decided to leave out the accents though).  I notice that I seem to have written much shorter paragraphs than usual (indeed, several of them are just single sentences) and I wonder if this is largely due to the phone having a much smaller screen so a paragraph that is short on the computer screen looks quite long on there.  As you will probably have noticed, the current paragraph (which I’m writing on the PC) is just about the longest one in the whole post.

Yesterday I discovered what appears to be quite a promising app to help with my study of Homeric Greek.  It’s called Phlash Cards and is basically a set of flash cards designed to be used with Pharr’s textbook.   I’ve not made much use of it yet, but so far it seems to be working well.  It offers flashcards to test the vocabulary for each lesson (going Greek -> English or vice versa) as well as the paradigms for verbs, nouns etc. that are to be learned, and it has all the lines from the Iliad (all book 1, I think) that are introduced in the later lessons (as I recall from my previous outings with Pharr, the student is encouraged to memorise these).

Space Watching

When I decided to get an android phone a few months ago, there were several reasons why I thought it would be a good idea (some of which I wrote about at the time).  However, there was one single app that tipped the balance from “I’d quite like to get an android phone sometime” to “I must have one NOW!!!”.  That was Google Sky Map.

As the name indicates, this is a planetarium app, i.e. one which provides a map of the night sky.  I’ve used several planetarium apps on various computers over the years, since first seeing one demonstrated in the early 1990s and then getting one for my Amiga a couple of years later.  However, what sets Google’s offering apart from the herd is that this one makes use of the position / location detection features on your phone to provide a map that updates in real time as you hold your phone up to the sky and move it round.  This makes it ideal for identifying stars, planets and other astronomical features that you can see (no more guessing whether it’s Venus or Jupiter that you’re looking at).  For those of us who live in cloudy climates, you can also identify where the astronomical features would be visible if the clouds weren’t obscuring them, and you can similarly locate them if hidden behind tall buildings, trees, or even the earth itself (i.e. you can always use it to find Uranus, no matter where you are).

It may not be one of the most practically useful apps on my phone, since I don’t generally find myself needing to navigate by the stars, but it’s certainly one of the most exciting (at least if, like me, you have some interest in astronomy).  It is an example of augmented reality, which until fairly recently was very much in the domain of science fiction.

Very thoughtfully, they have programmed Sky Map with a night viewing mode that renders the map in dull red on a black background and hence preserves your night vision (a moot point if you’re in an area with lots of street-lights, but potentially helpful if you manage to find a nice dark place for stargazing), as well as an ordinary mode that uses a full range of bright colours.  As well as being able to pan the map round the sky and identify what you’re looking at, you can search for a specific feature (by name or by browsing through an image gallery) and it will then give you pointers so that you can line up your phone and your eyes in the right direction to see it;  of course, it can’t do anything about the clouds or terrain features that may be in the way, but it sure beats panning madly round the sky in the hope of being able to spot when M62 shows up on the map.

I haven’t yet tried using Sky Map in conjunction with binoculars (or a telescope, not that I have access to one) for viewing and identifying features that are not visible to the naked eye, but it has enabled me to know what I’m looking at when I stand and gaze up at the night sky on clear nights, or know what I’m missing the other 90% of the time.


Japandroid (Part 2)

Yesterday, I started talking about some of the Android apps I’ve been using to help me try and learn Japanese.   I shall now continue where I left off…

Another limited free version of a payware app that I have looked at is one called Survive Japanese!  This one’s a bit different from the others in that it is an adventure game.  The premise is that you have just arrived in Japan armed with little more than a desire to get stuck into learning the language; you have to wander round, exploring and interacting with things, gradually building up a knowledge of Japanese as you go.  There are regular quizzes, some listening-based and some reading-based, and you can initially approach them in a trial-and-error fashion if you don’t already know how to read hiragana or kanji.  I first tried the app when I was just starting on the hiragana (I had tried to learn them several years ago, but forgotten pretty much the whole lot) and found that it worked well in combination with the other resources I was using as a means of cementing the knowledge of the kana, as well as helping me to learn some basic vocubulary in context.  Unfortunately the free version seems quite limited in how far you can get (or perhaps I just wasn’t patient enough).  Again, I might consider getting the full version at some point if it’s not too expensive, but for now I’m concentrating on other resources.

In anticipation of a time when I’ve learned a bit more Japanese and will want to be able to look up words, I have installed a Japanese dictionary.  The one I found is called aedict, and seems to be a pretty good one.  You can enter Japanese words in kana (if you have a suitable input method – see below) or romaji (i.e. Japanese written in the Roman alphabet) or English words and there is also a kanji search option, which appears to offer several search methods.  The only one I’ve tried so far (since I haven’t yet done much with kanji) is drawing recognition, which gets you to trace the kanji on the screen with your finger and then tries to match it and gives a list of its best suggestions.   I have found that it quite often seems to completely miss the kanji I’m aiming for, even if I’ve drawn what appears to be a fairly good approximation, and offers some suggestions that look nothing like what I drew.  I assume that with a bit of practice I’ll probably get better at making it recognise what I’m drawing.

There were quite a few options available to enable Japanese input.  The one I’ve settled on, at least for now, is called MultiLing Keyboard. As the name suggests, this actually supports many different languages, so it’s potentially quite useful to me beyond my Japanese learning endeavours (for instance, its Welsh mode has a very handy dead-key feature for adding accents to characters, which is a bit quicker to operate than the default keyboard’s accented character input and supports accents on ‘w’ and ‘y’, which are needed in Welsh).  Regarding Japanese, it seems that you have an option of typing the characters in romaji and having them automatically converted to the kana syllabary of your choice (using the equivalent of caps shift to switch between hiragana and katakana) or having a keyboard arranged by initial consonant, where you hold down the key and flick in the required direction to select the vowel of your choice).  So far, I’ve mostly been using the latter method, as it gives extra practice at recognising the kana.  There is also a drawing recognition mode, a bit like the one in aedict (see above) and seemingly just as flaky; this can (in theory) recognise kana and various non-Japanese symbols, including Roman letters, as well as kanji.

Finally in this round-up of Japanese learning apps I must mention one that I’ve actually been using for some time and have just started using for Japanese.  This is Anki, a multi-platform flashcard program that operates on the spaced repetition principle (essentially, reviewing material less frequently as you get a better grasp of it).   The Android version is actually called ankidroid.  There are desktop Anki clients available for various operating systems (I have one running on Linux) and also a web interface.  You can synchronise all these together using a free web account, which enables you to create or revise flashcards wherever you are.  I’ve found that having it available on my phone makes it a lot more convenient than having to go to a computer in order to run a set of flashcards.  There are quite a lot of shared decks of cards available or you can create your own.  So far, I’ve mostly used my own decks (although I did download quite a good one of frequent New Testament Greek vocabulary) and I’ve only really used Anki for language learning purposes, although it can also be used for all kinds of other things.

Japandroid (Part 1)

Amongst the many languages I’ve dabbled with over the years is Japanese.  I’ve always (or at least for quite a long time) had  an interest in the language and culture of Japan, partly because they are very different to what I’m used to.  My previous attempts to learn more than a few basic phrases of Japanese have, however, been hampered by the difficulty of learning the writing system.

Having recently acquired a new Android phone, I decided to have a look at the facilities that had to offer for learning Japanese, especially how to read it.  I was pleasantly surprised.  So far I have only explored some of the free apps that are available, but there are plenty of these and some of them are extremely useful.  All of these apps are (or at least were) available on the official Android Marketplace.

I won’t go into great detail about the Japanese writing system here, since there are plenty of good sources of information available, such as this Wikipedia article.  However, learning to read the two kana syllabaries (especially hiragana) is a high priority for learning the language, as is beginning to get a grip on the basics of kanji.  Learning to write them too is not a bad idea.  Repeated exposure is essentially the only way to achieve these goals.

The main app I have been using to learn the kana is one called TenguGo Kana, which provides a series of quizzes on both hiragana and katakana,  with diagrams and animations to show how the characters are written (stroke order is quite important for correct writing of Japanese; the same is true for kanji), as well as examples of words using them.  I’ve just finished working through all the quizzes, but they will still be useful for revision purposes later on.  The app also includes handy kana charts for reference.

For learning to write (or draw) the kana, I have found an appropriately named app called Kana Draw, which has been quite useful.  This puts up outlines of the various kana and gets you to trace them using the appropriate stroke order, which helps to get the shapes better established in your mind so that you can more easily write them as well as recognise them.  I’ve found it quite helpful to name each kana out loud as I trace it, as a means of consolidating my knowledge of the sounds represented as well as the way of writing them.   Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward way of selecting just a subset of each syllabary to test, which means that while I’m still learning the katakana I’m getting faced with a few symbols I don’t yet know (I had already become familiar with all the hiragana before I found this app).

I have also installed an app called Kanji Flashcards.  You can probably guess from the title what that one does :-).  I haven’t made much use of it yet, as I’m still concentrating mostly on learning the kana, but when I get on to learning kanji this promises to be a handy study tool.

Another useful app I found is an interactive textbook called HJ Lite.  This is actually a free, limited preview of a payware app called HumanJapanese, which is essentially a complete basic Japanese course with about 40 chapters.  The free version is limited to the first 8 chapters, which introduce the hiragana and a few basic phrases.  There’s quite a lot of discussion surrounding the basic information that’s presented, including useful observations such as several observations about how perceived difficulties in the Japanese writing system are in fact similar to features of our own system, e.g. the addition of a single stroke can completely change the meaning of a word, just like there’s only a subtle difference between “interior and inferior” if you actually stop to think about how the letters are written. It also has some advice for things to look out for when writing the characters. I was impressed enough with this course that I am seriously considering getting the full version, although I’m inclined to give some of my existing Japanese learning materials another try first, now that I’ve got my phone to help me learn to read and write.

As this post is getting quite long and I still have several other apps to mention, I’m going to split it into (at least) two parts.  The rest will follow shortly…