Learning (or Re-Learing) a Foreign Language

September 27, 2008

Every once in a while, I feel the need to pick up the French I’ve learned in college and try to at least get it back up to a kindergartner’s level. I’ve found a few good free resources that are helpful in tyring to get your language skills on the path to improvement.

The first is http://www.oculture.com/2006/10/foreign_languag.html, which has a variety of audio language podcasts in a variety of different languages. There’s actually 37 languages that you can choose from and a lot of them have a variety of levels that you can start studying.

In French, there is a variety of content that you can use, and one of the most interesting to me is a daily news podcast from RFI (Radio France International) It gives you a 10-minute news summary that is read relatively slowly, so that beginners can more easily follow. It was still a challenge for me to keep up, but I’ve been picking up some of the phrases as I listen. I should also mention that since the RFI site is entirely in French, the key word you will want to download the podcast is “télécharger” which is not a word that I learned in French class in college.

Speaking of discovering words that you might not recognize, you’ll probably want to be aware of some of the free web-based translation services that are out there. The most well known is likely Yahoo’s Babel Fish translator. It does offer website translation along with blocks of text, although it does limit you to 150 words. Google also has their own translator, which can sometimes be a little better interpreting certain phrases. Both of these, and any automated service that I have seen is very limited in its ability to translate coherently. They do not understand idiomatic expressions and come sometimes struggle with nested phrases. Of course, this will very from language to language, so I don’t envy anyone who is trying to program this kind of service. Just understand going in, that you are not going to get flawless translations.

So if your language skills are in need of a tune up, then these tools may be just the thing to get you back into shape.

The E-Mail Registration Blues

September 21, 2008

Whenever you register at a new website, you always have to go through the same process. Fill out the form, give them your e-mail and watch the cascade of spam and “bacon” e-mails fill up your inbox. (“Bacon” e-mails are those e-mails you don’t really want from group lists, but that you had actually signed up for at some point.) I have a couple of tips for those of you who want to avoid this messy situation.

The first great website I has is called YopMail (http://www.yopmail.com/en/). What this site offers is free, “disposable” e-mail. All you have to do is either decide on or have Yopmail generate a username for their service and you’ll have instant access to that e-mail address @Yopmail.com. For example, I can type in techeap@yopmail.com, and tell any site I’m registering for that that is my e-mail address. I then click on check messages, and verify the mailbox.

As you’ve probably figured out, this e-mail has zero security on it. Anybody who figures out the name you’ve selected can go into that e-mail account. Therefore, be very careful about what information you give to the site with which you are registering. You don’t want them sending you an e-mail with private information on what amounts to a public e-mail address. I myself went into dave@yopmail.com and saw nine or so spam e-mail messages. The good news on this front is that you can’t send out e-mail from these accounts. This, of course, would be a spammer’s dream. An unlimited number of e-mail addresses that could send out spam e-mails constantly. This could be a limiting factor on the service, if the site you are registering with requires a reply from that e-mail.

Another method of fighting registration grief is Bugmenot (http://www.bugmenot.com/). On this site, you just type in the name of the site you want to have access to and Bugmenot will give you user-submitted names and passwords. This method might be stretching the terms of service for certain websites, so you might want to be careful in using that one. There’s also a pretty interesting set of discussions linked to from the Bugmenot’s FAQ on the ethics of using such a method.

The last method you can always consider is just getting an additional e-mail address and just register for stuff using that one. There are bunches to choose from, including the big ones, Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail and G-Mail. This is the method I use myself from a fairly obscure website that I’ll keep to myself for now. This gives you all the power of something like Yopmail with the added security of one more password to remember and the ability to send out e-mail in a pinch.

I hope one of these methods works for you.

Youtube Starts to Recognize Speech

September 17, 2008

Google has announced an interesting new beta (I’ll also make the obligatory mention that Google says Gmail is still in Beta.) that they call Google Audio Indexing. (http://labs.google.com/gaudi) The idea behind this interesting little creation is that speech recognition software developed by Google will go through Youtube videos and try to interpret what is being said. It will then create a transcript of the video that you can search using this indexer.

At this point, they are only using it on videos related to the US election. Their FAQ says that they are doing this for both technical reasons (my guess is that their software interprets speeches the most accurately) and since it is one of the more popular areas of the site. They also point out that it is an election year and ask “what information could be more important than what describes the views, actions and platforms of the two presidential candidates?”

I gave this new software a few basic queries to see what it found. The most obvious thing to me was to try “lipstick pig” to see what came up. The search only comes up with 2 results. The first is Barack Obama’s most recent news conference mocking the controversy, and the second is a reference that Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO) made in 2007. It is interesting that Obama’s original statement didn’t come up in it’s original context and neither did the video that has circulated of John McCain also using that expression.

You get a lot more interesting results when you use a search like “wall street.” This search term comes up with a variety of interesting results including campaign ads, stump speeches and even a Ralph Nader commentary.

This is a tool that definitely has a lot of potential and a variety of uses. It will be interesting to see if it gets expanded beyond the initial set of video it has indexed. While the search function is pretty good, I would love to be able to see more of the surrounding text for each hit. I would also would like to keep out certain types of contents like ads as you can get of lot of extraneous hits that you did not want. Overall, I think the software does a pretty good job of interpreting speech and has a lot of potential.

Dominate Company Phone Tag

September 13, 2008

We’ve all been there. Sometimes you just can’t get your new gadget to work, or you have some question that is simply not answered any where on the Internet, especially on the company’s website. You decide to call customer support and begin the gauntlet. Prompts and voice-activated questions and long holds dominate the landscape.

My first tip for getting through this nightmare involves voice-activated questions. It may sound ridiculous, but it has really worked well for me. Most voice-activated prompts will understand you better if you talk in a British accent. I’m not exactly sure why this is. It may be because the British pronounce things more clearly and this comes through over the phone or you articulate in a way a machine can understand. Give it a try. (Preferably while you are along, if you don’t have a British accent and you don’t want to sound silly.)

My next tip is over at GetHuman (http://gethuman.com/), you can find the customer service help number for over a thousand companies and the series of button presses necessary to get in the cue to talk to a human being. One thing that you’ll notice if you scan a variety of companies is that a lot of them simply use ‘0’ as your tool to get to the operator. So if you are ever stuck, and the particular company you are talking to is not on GetHuman’s list, give it a try.

Finally, if you get through and the company still can’t help you. I sometimes try Yahoo Answers (http://answers.yahoo.com/). You may not get a response, or more likely you’ll get some useless responses, but you get real help often enough where I keep using it every so often. It’s free, so you really don’t have anything to lose accept a little time.

Tips to Save on Printing

September 8, 2008

I was heavily influenced to write on this topic, since I’m always amazed at how much people are still printing in this “digital age.” While I was musing on this, I saw an excellent article in PC World on some tips to save some money during the printing process. (http://www.pcworld.com/article/129141/six_savvy_ways_to_get_more_prints_for_less_money.html)

While those tips are great, there are a few more that I wanted to touch and a couple I’d like to augment.

First off, I’d encourage you to consider cutting back on printing in situations where you don’t really need to print. Especially, if you have some sort of digital device that you can carry the information you are printing with you, there’s no need for you to have it on a piece of paper. This obviously won’t work for everything, but pause just before you print and consider whether you really need what you are about to print in a hard copy.

While PC World’s article focused on ink, and with good reason since that is the most expensive part of printing, you can save money by thinking about the paper as well. The most effective one for me is to print on both sides of the paper. I see a lot of paper wasted that is only used on one side. If you are just printing out directions or something you won’t need for very long, why not print it on the back of something you were going to throw away anyway. I keep a box of discarded paper ready for printing near the printer and when I’m printing something for my own use, that is where I go first. I’ve saved a lot of money on paper just by using that very simple tip.

Finally, while PC World recommends FinePrint, many of your programs will do this for free without having to pay $50 to a software company. In Firefox, you can use the Shrink to Fit option in Print Preview to get started to try to fix the text in one page, however, I usually have to manually customize the size to get it just right. In Microsoft Word and in OpenOffice (which I plan on discussing in a later entry), you can print multiple pages to a single page using the page preview options. It takes a little bit of practice to get the settings right, but it should pay dividends in the long run.

Finally, I will re-emphasize PC World’s suggestion of draft mode. If you aren’t printing out something for presentation, this switch alone will save you quite a bit of ink depending on what model printer you have.

Cheap News Roundup

September 5, 2008

I had a few pieces of news that I didn’t really have to say about, but that seemed pretty interesting and relevant to readers here.

First, Slashdot had a very interesting post on attempts to create a sub-$100 laptop, which leads to the obvious question, how inexpensive can computers get, and I mean computers with more than than 64k of RAM.

Also, the New York Times had a great piece on free music. I’ve talked about a couple of the items in previous posts, but if missed any of those posts, or want more alternatives, you’ll want to check that out.

The last thing I wanted to mention is the new browser from Google called Chrome. It like all other major browsers is free to download, and I hope to give it a test drive soon. I’m not sure I’ll be reviewing the new browser since there is so much great content out there already on it.

That’s it for now, but look forward to some content on how to save on printing costs next time.

Amazon and Price Guarantees

September 2, 2008

I was getting ready to write an entry about an interesting website that will automatically track items you’ve purchased on Amazon for price drops. Since Amazon had a long standing policy of offering customers a “Post-Order Price Guarantee” within 30 days of purchasing an item, this would be a great way to automate the process. That site by the way is http://www.refundplease.com/index.html, however the bad news is that according to a couple of reports and an apparently updated Amazon pricing page, that offer has now ended.

This has raised the ire of some Amazon purchases and has even led to a petition to try to get Amazon to reinstate the program.

There are also a number of threads on Amazon.com discussing the change.

I’ll try and keep you up to date if there are any further updates on this story.