The NSA’s Guide to the Internet

Recently an internal National Security Agency Handbook titled “Untangling the Web: A guide to internet research” was released just recently through a Freedom of Information Act request. It’s over 600 pages, but the introduction makes for interesting reading and there is a chapter on Google hacks has some very, very savvy hacks that can dig up lots of hidden information on the web.

I’m not sure this has strict implications to language learning, but it’s fascinating reading and has useful tips for anyone who wants to be a more efficient and clever user of the internet.

Here is the Wired Danger Room article reporting on the release of the document, and which also helpfully condenses some of the more cunning googlehacks.

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Student Reflections on a Skype Learning Experience

As I research more and more into second language acquisition, acculturation, cultural awareness education, as well as the educational applications of various Web 2.0 technologies, I have become even more convinced that in the right circumstances, Skype (and other tools like it) can be somewhat of a holy grail for language learning and cultural exchange, particularly for true EFL environments.

Today I co-conducted two Skype lessons at the junior high level which were an outstanding success.  My co-teacher called them “epic.” More on those and the interesting technological setup we used later.

In this space, perhaps just for posterity, I want to put up some feedback that I got back from 5th grade student questionnaires after a class-to-class Skype session in March of 2013. It’s interesting what the students had to say. (note that some of these points were repeated by many students across questionnaires – this data does not weight any of them over the others, rather it is merely a cross-section of the types of thoughts and feelings students took away from the activity.)

It was good that…

  • Everyone spoke in big voices and the Alaskan kids weren’t shy at all, and easy to understand.
  • We got to people in Alaska. It was really great.
  • Everyone used big voices in their presentations, and the students in Palmer understood us.
  • We used big voices and were easy to understand
  • We weren’t shy.
  • We were able to speak loudly and be understood.
  • We got to do Skype sessions with Sherrod twice in the year.
  • We spoke loudly without being shy.
  • That we stayed in Japan but were able to talk to people in another country.
  • The gestures were easy to understand and we all used big voices.
  • We worked together to speak in English and the people in Alaska understood us.
  • We presented in big voices.
  • We presented in big voices.
  • The gestures of the Alaskan students were easy to understand.
  • That we were able to speak easily over the TV.
  • That we were able to communicate the English that we studied to Palmer, and that the students there understood us.  We had fun talking.
  • I spoke to people in America.
  • We presented with good attitudes, and the students in Alaska had really good and funny reactions to what we said.
  • We were able to speak in loud voices.
  • We got to talk to people in Alaska on the TV.
  • Students in Palmer were so friendly and spoke clearly.
  • All the groups did a good job and we sang our song well.
  • We got to speak to students and have fun with a quiz and song.
  • None of us were shy.
  • We used clear voices and the students in Alaska spoke at a tempo that was easy to understand.
  • We presented in big voices.
  • We spoke in clear voices.
  • The foreign students spoke to us in clear voices.
  • We presented in big voices.
  • Our pronunciation was good.
  • We spoke loudly.
  • When we said “see you” we said it at the same time.
  • We presented in big voices.

I learned…

  • Kids in Alaska go to school for more than eight hours
  • Alaskans are good at gestures.
  • Japanese and English are different languages.
  • Kids in Alaska are really tall.
  • The time difference between Palmer and Saroma is 18 hours.
  • Students at Sherrod can eat breakfast at school.
  • In Japan we call our language “kokugo” (country language) but in Alaska they call it Japanese.  So, in Alaska, they call English “language”.
  • There are two ways to say 体育 (taiiku): gym or PE.
  • That the “national language” they study in school is English.
  • That Alaskans call “kokugo” English.
  • Alaska’s national language is a foreign language for us and they call it English.
  • There is a big time difference between Japan and Alaska.
  • All about how to say different subjects in English.
  • That what we call our “language” in Japan is Japanese, but what Alaskans call “language” is English.
  • The national language over there is English.
  • They study different subjects for different lengths of time.
  • That we study a lot of the same things here and in Alaska but that we have different names for them.
  • That between the time students come to school and when they have lunch, they only study two subjects.
  • That students go home close to 4 o’clock.
  • When students in Alaska study for an hour, they really study for an hour.
  • That what we call our “language” in Japan is Japanese, but what Alaskans call “language” is English.
  • That they had smartphones.
  • That students in Alaska can eat breakfast at school.
  • That students in Alaska have a class called technology.
  • The gym there is really big.
  • That what we call our “language” in Japan is Japanese, but what Alaskans call “language” is English.
  • School in Alaska starts later than school in Saroma.
  • The names of the days of the week and subjects.
  • That Alaskan students use smartphones instead of computers to study.
  • How to say the days of the week in English.
  • How fast people in Alaska speak English.
  • That I can speak English a little.
  • Different subjects have different lengths of time.
  • The gym and classrooms were large.
  • They learn math just like we do.
  • That I can understand English.

I didn’t understand…

  • when Sean and Mr. W (teacher in Alaska) talked to each other.
  • when Alaskans spoke English really fast.
  • how many students were in their class.
  • their voices sometimes.
  • how they say “yasumijikan” in English (recess).
  • their quiz question about “reading” but I thought that the book was maybe Cinderella because it had a picture of a pumpkin on it.
  • what Sean and Mr. W were saying to each other.
  • what the Alaskan people said.

I was happy…

  • when I was able to talk to the students in Alaska
  • when they listened quietly to us, and clapped for us when we were done.
  • that we got to have such a great experience talking to people in Alaska.
  • about the fun quiz that they gave us.
  • when they clapped for us after we sang our song “Mata au hi made” (See you again).
  • when they gave us a fun quiz about subjects.
  • when my english was understood.
  • when we spoke, they listened quietly to us, and clapped for us when we were done.
  • that even though we got some questions wrong in the gesture game, we were able to use English.
  • when they clapped for us.
  • that the students in Alaska were good at gestures.

I was surprised…

  • when Mr. W suddenly showed his face on the screen.
  • that when Alaskans study “Language” they are studying what we call “English.”
  • when the time difference in the video made everyone laugh.
  • when I saw how big Alaskan people are.
  • by how big Alaskan people are.
  • that students eat breakfast at school.
  • that everyone had smartphones.
  • by how long their recess is.
  • by how much later it was in Alaska.  I thought that was so great.
  • that the schedules at our schools are totally different.
  • that sometimes they study some subjects for a really long time.
  • that Alaskans are so tall.
  • she I saw that there were oranges in the hallway.
  • by how fast the people in Alaska spoke.
  • that they get to play with balls during recess.  I’m jealous.
  • by how tall people were.
  • how tall students in Alaska were.
  • that a student there played the clarinet.
  • that they had smartphones.
  • that students in Alaska are tall.

Escape to the Pachinko Parlor:

A Cultural Exploration of Japan’s Game of Chance

This paper and accompanying video detail my explorations into the game of pachinko, which was invented and popularized in Japan. As a western foreigner who has lived in Japan for six years, I had never before played the game, and I entered this project with very few expectations besides my own general disinterest in gambling. What I found is a complex and odd game that is ambiguously accepted in society, and profits off of those who may seek respite from the oppressing burdens of daily life.

The game is difficult to describe without visuals, so I have also made an accompanying video that shows what the game looks and sounds like, as well as few of my own conclusions from this paper.

Pachinko is a game of chance, similar to slot machines and other gambling devices. While gambling is illegal in Japan, pachinko exists within a grey area straddling legality and illegality. The popularity and sheer ubiquity of the game cannot be underestimated – the industry had receipts of 230 billion US dollars in 2008. more than the entire revenues of the Japanese domestic car market (Takiguchi & Rosenthal, 2011). Pachinko halls, “parlors” as they are called, can be seen in nearly every city and town of reasonable size, with over 18,000 scattered across the country (Thompson, Tanioka & Fujimoto, 2005).

I have never been interested in pachinko, and I feel that is the case among many Japanese as well. At first glance, it seems like an utterly pointless activity, and I’ve never felt any urge to take it up. A Japanese friend of mine, a university professor, once told me that he felt that Japanese pachinko players were part of a different subculture, one that he didn’t belong to and didn’t understand. He only sought out pachinko parlors because of their free and spotlessly clean restrooms. This seems to ring true for me as well. How, in six years, could I never had have a real opportunity to play within my social circles of foreign friends and Japanese teachers? But I also knew that pachinko has an appeal that lures many into the parlors, where they spend hour upon hour of their day slowly losing money inside of a bright, smoke-filled, noisy room full of strangers.

Learning to Play

As I set out to play pachinko, I knew I needed a guide. Over the years, one teacher I have worked with has jokingly invited me to play with him. I had never seriously considered it, and even he was surprised when I walked up to him and suggested we finally go play. Through one session with him, two by myself, and one interview with a pachinko parlor manager, I came to a better understanding of the game.

Pachinko is not viewed favorably by the Japanese public, and the industry spends heavily on maintaining its image, and on creating an image of amusement and fun, rather than gambling and risk. So it was not surprising that my friend suggested that we drive 40 minutes to the nearby city to play, rather than doing so in our small town, where parents, students, and other community members may see us.

We visited a large pachinko parlor that is part of a national chain of 270 parlors. These large chains have huge halls, with bright neon lights and massive parking lots. Often they are the largest buildings in the area. This parlor is one-story, with high, 30-foot ceilings. Inside, there are six aisles running the length of the hall, each lined with soft black chairs. The two aisles on the left have the 1-yen pachinko machines, with 4-yen machines taking up the next two. 10-yen slot machines occupy the final two rows. Each aisle contains 80 seats, for 480 seats in the entire establishment.

Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was the noise and the cigarette smoke. There was a constant, thrumming din of clattering balls, ringing bells, and alarms, like an electronic waterfall. We walked up to a kiosk that looked like a change machine and I put in a 10,000 yen (about 100 dollars) note, and received an electronic card. With the card in hand, we went and found two open machines in the 1 yen pachinko aisle and sat down.

Each pachinko machine has a theme – mine was an undersea theme with different sea creatures that came across an LCD screen in the center of the machine. The game machine itself is a combination of physical, pinball-like levers and chutes, and a screen game that can cause these levers to act in different ways. For example, if the types of fish on the screen will line up in the right order, this can cause all of your balls to be worth double, or triple, etc.\

The basic premise of pachinko is that you put money into the game machine, and it shoots out balls, which fall down vertically through a maze of metal pegs. You control the velocity of these shooting balls with a dial in your right hand. If you shoot them too weakly, or too far, they won’t fall in the right place. Once I found the “sweet spot,” I didn’t move my hand at all. After 30 minutes, I began to appreciate the rubber handrest underneath the dial.

I chose to first use 200 yen, which is 200 balls. Somehow, I got lucky and the game started multiplying the points I was getting for balls, which then gave me more balls, and so on. Some people around me looked my direction and told me I was lucky. I was still embarrassed to even be there, as pachinko is something that is hardly considered a wholesome activity. In fact, some other teachers at my school couldn’t believe that my wife had let me go play.

In the end, after about 20 or 30 minutes of playing, I had turned my 200 yen into over 3,100 yen. I decided to cash out. To do this, I pressed the “return” button on the machine which gave me back my original card, and a new card that contained my winnings. I took the original card back to the change machine and got back the remaining balance on my card, and took the new card up to the counter where a neatly dressed clerk gave me a pack of gum, a box of chocolate, and three casino-like plastic chips. These plastic chips are useless inside the parlor. In order to exchange these for cash, we exited the back door of the building where inside a small lobby we found a small bank-like window with bulletproof glass and two clerks. I put my three chips in the tray and the clerk gave me back three 1,000 yen bills.

The Lure of the Parlor

It doesn’t take long even for a skeptic to begin to feel the rush of excitement that comes with games of chance. In pachinko, the cultivation of that urge seems particularly insidious and well-timed. During my second visit, I was alone, and I had fewer apprehensions about how to play. I ended up winning. After spending around 600 yen, I had won 3,800 yen. I could have left then, but I still had 400 yen in credit to spend. And I did, with absolutely no benefit. I knew that I should call it quits and leave, but I felt that would be a poor choice. Just look what I had turned 600 yen into. 400 yen more, and I could be up another 2,000!

Why is pachinko so popular, and why is its popularity unique to Japan? What keeps people coming back? Brooks, Ellis and Lewis (2008) outline the addictive aspects of the game: “Pachinko has a low initial stake; can stimulate visual and aural senses; has rapid and continual cycles of play; provides the opportunity to experience frequent and regular ‘small wins’ and can seduce players into continuous play.” It is the game’s geographical ubiquity and ease of entry that makes me view pachinko differently than other forms of gambling. But these very same features also make it seem more insidious, more likely to lead to inadvertent addictions by everyday people.

It is interesting first to consider the environment of the parlor. It is bright. It is clean. It is exciting. The staff are helpful. And no one around you gives you a second look. In fact, I almost felt a sense of relief inside the parlor. As a foreigner in Japan, I am accustomed to being stared at whenever I go out in public. It is something I am used to, so I quickly notice when the stares become absent. In the parlor, no one stared at me, because no one even noticed me. Everyone had their gaze locked into their machines. You can’t look away, not even for a moment. David Plotz, in his essay “Pachinko Nation,” describes the situation eloquently:

It is impossible to take your gaze away from the board. If your concentration breaks for a second, you lose: Your groove vanishes… …One of the great paradoxes of pachinko parlors is that they are among the most crowded and noisiest activities in a crowded and noisy country, yet they are great places to be alone.

Quoted in Takiguchi & Rosenthal (2011), Iwasaki (1998) and Hahakigi (2004) echo this observation:

…the experience of the players is a solitary one. Each is transfixed by the machine in front of him, alone in a pursuit from which all distractions, including those of reality, have been excluded.

And so I found myself happily alone, surrounded by hundreds of others, enveloped in a cacophony of electronic noise, the reality outside excluded from view. Perhaps this is part of what players seek – a chance to unwind, to zone out, to forget about reality. They don’t have to worry about what someone else thinks of them, or what they need to do for someone else. In a collectivist culture in which selfish pursuits are often discouraged, pachinko offers a completely self-absorbing and single-minded escape. My friend Kento told me that in the pachinko industry, one rule of parlor design is that two things must not be visible inside the parlor – mirrors and clocks. Mirrors, I suspect, would jar people from their fantasy. Looking at oneself in a mirror, one might be forced to consider the question “why am I here?”, and then remember the family or the job they have waiting for them outside in the real world. And the absence of clocks is obvious. Time flies by while playing pachinko, but it is impossible to lose a lot of money all at once.

Exiting the parlor feels like stepping between worlds. Suddenly breathing clean air, seeing natural light, and hearing only the background noise of the suburbs, one realizes just how loud the interior of the parlor was. During my third visit, I used an iPhone application to measure the decibel level of the parlor. I measured the ambient noise, walking down each aisle with the microphone of my phone pointed forward. I measured an average of 94 decibels with a peak of 105. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends no more than four hours per day of exposure to noise at 95 decibels, and no more than one hour of exposure to levels of 105 decibels. But I doubt the players are aware of this – the noise is mesmerizing to such an extent that while inside it, you don’t even realize that it is loud.

Denizens of the Parlor

Based on my observations, it is hard to generalize and say who frequents these parlors. There was a mix of young and old, men and women, but overall, the clientele seemed older, and more male. People kept to themselves, focused solely on the screens and balls in front of them. It was hard to see their faces, but based on how I felt during play, I imagine they are expressionless and slack.

In an interview with with Kento Arata, my friend who manages his family’s pachinko business, he told me that the majority of their customers are people who work low-wage jobs, often manual labor. Of course, salaried workers and those with financial means visit the parlors, but according to him, they spend less time and less money on average. Thompson et al. (2005) looked at data from a 2001 national general survey and found some results that run counter to my expectations. Frequent players are significantly more likely than the general public to be smokers and drinkers, and are overwhelmingly male. However, they are equally representative of a wide range of incomes and are just as likely as the average person to own their own home. In the end, their conclusion is that frequent players do not constitute a distinct subculture. My own experience leaves me wondering, particularly as pachinko becomes less broadly popular yet still maintains its profits (Takiguchi & Rosenthal, 2011).

I am still left with the question – who are these people? They are mothers, fathers, sons, friends, uncles, grandparents, and they are spending their free time alone, slowly whiling away their earnings one steel ball at a time. Thompson et al. (2005) describe the social cost of time that pachinko takes, stating that “many players are identified as neglecting their family obligations to play.”

While my on-site observations cannot confirm this, I asked some of my adult students in my evening conversation class what they thought about pachinko. One woman told me a story about how her husband took their 6th grade son shopping, but actually went at the same parlor that I visited and left the boy by himself for two hours at a nearby shopping mall. She was obviously angry about this. Another student told me a sad story of a farming family in our small town who years ago lost their livelihoods to a pachinko addiction. They began to spend more time at the parlor, and less time taking care of their dairy cows. They reached a point where, to finance their pachinko habit, they began to sell off their livestock, and eventually ended up with nothing.

Most research on pachinko focuses on its legality, or its cost to society. My interest here has been only to explore the pachinko parlor as a gathering place within contemporary Japanese culture, and to try and gain a sense of who plays and why. It is an interesting game in many different respects, almost bewildering to an outsider. Leaving questions of morality, legality, and the social good aside, I can see why many people use the game as just another form of recreation, as a way to “cope with stress,” to “pass the time” or “to be solitary.” (Takiguchi & Rosenthal, 2011). It is impossible to lose a lot of money at once, and easy to frequently “win” small sums. The atmosphere of the parlor is exciting and lively, and nothing is required of the player except to turn a dial and watch the balls and pretty lights. No one will bother you – no one is likely to even recognize you. The world of the parlor is an utterly different one than the world outside. Pachinko parlors offer a convenient and somewhat burden-free escape from the daily pressures of work, family, and society that people face each day. Whether this is good is a wholly different question.

References

Thompson, W.N., Tanioka, I., & Fujimoto, K. (2005). Pachinko players in Japan: Subculture, cult, or ordinary citizens at leisure?. Gaming Law Review, 9 (6: 592-598)

Brooks, G., Ellis, T., & Lewis, C. (2008). Pachinko: A Japanese addiction?. International Gambling Studies, 8 (2: 193-205).

Takiguchi, N., & Rosenthal, R.J. (2011). Problem gambling in Japan: A social perspective. Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 11, (1).

Plotz, D. (2002). Pachinko nation. U.S.-Japan Foundation Media Fellows Program.

Uses for Flickr in the Language Classroom

I’ve been familiar with Flickr since soon after its inception, but I for some reason never liked it.  Maybe I was turned off by the interface, or maybe by its social aspect.  But I am beginning to realize what sort of possibilities exist for it as an educational tool.  I thought I would keep an ongoing list here.

  • A photo scavenger hunt, either taking pictures of a list of things, or finding an ideal list of those things on Flickr (or interpreting a list of more abstract words through pictures that express those ideas).
  • Using images as a starting point for a story-telling activity.
  • Translate a poem using images and language.
  • “Pre-activities,” e.g. pre-writing (brainstorming) or pre-reading (prediction, activating vocabulary) and so on.
  • Take photos around my town of familiar locations and let the students write the caption and description (say 50 words) for the photos.
  • Create photo books with text explaining what the image is.
  • Keep a journal with photos.
  • Create a story out of their images.

As a teacher of EFL to young learners, it’s very hard to give a 10 year old with a 250-word vocabulary (mostly fruit names and animals) the means to express themselves.  But as my colleague Anthony states, Flickr “can be beneficial particularly in the early stages of second language acquisition because of its universality and capacity to connect cross-culturally…”

I could see elementary learners easily being able to create simple stories out of photos.  Just today in 5th grade we had a Skype class with a classroom in Alaska, and our students gave short presentations on what their school schedule is like, using days of the week, time, names of subjects, and simple greetings and connecting words like “first” and “next”.  Prior to the lesson, I took some photos around the school and put them up on my Smugmug account (in a password protected gallery) for the teacher in Alaska to show his students. Students here had designed their own “ideal” class schedules in groups, using some flashcards, construction paper and glue.

Monday

Now, I think if I had been savvy enough, those two activities could have been combined or expanded.  Students could have made their schedule, then taken photos of those classes, and then posted them (or had me post them) to a Flickr account that told the story.

YouTube & t1m3c0d=s

Update: YouTube now has this functionality built-in.  Some of the below information is now rather moot, although the information on embedding in WordPress may still be useful.

Case in point:

Screen Shot 2013-03-15 at 6.21.55 PM

Any student or teacher who plans to link to youtube videos in powerpoints, blog posts, wikis, emails, or other forms of new media, will probably encounter the need to link to only a specific portion of a video.

For example, let’s say I want to link to Cookie Monster singing about his love for the first letter of the word “cookie” but the youtube video I find actually starts a few seconds before the song.  Or let’s say for dramatic effect, I want the video to start right when he starts singing the good part.  Well, I can do that just by adding an extra string at the end of the YouTube link.

Here’s my original Cookie Monster link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BovQyphS8kA

I want the video to start playing at around 17 seconds, so I’ll add &t=17s to the end of the link. Check it out!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BovQyphS8kA&t=17s

Apparently, instead of an ampersand [&] you can also use a hash [#] to separate the time string from the original link.

So now when I want to link to the scene in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Q-Less” in which Commander Sisko punches Q in the face, I can skip the first 2 minutes of dialogue set-up and just get to the part I like.

The only problem with this is when I want to embed this video in a blog post here on WordPress. Apparently, adding the &t= language to embed code doesn’t work on WordPress. For it to work here, you need to use the start function. The syntax here is different because you must calculate your timecode in total seconds, so to link to 2m16 into the video, I need to add this to the end of my link:

&start=136

And that gets me this:

And for the lazy, just use youtubetime.com which will set the link for you without having to remember all the fuzzy URL stuff.

For a lot more tricks, check out this useful page at techairlines.

State Department EFL Resource

Thanks to a link by Roberto, I found this 14-part teacher training course for teaching English around the world.  It is commissioned by the US State Department and is titled “Shaping the Way We Teach English: Successful Practices from Around the World.”  Each part consists of a video that takes a different look at how to effectively teach American English abroad.

It reminds me of a resource that I encountered as an undergrad, the Annenberg Learner series of videos for foreign language teachers.  The video library “Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices” is especially useful because it contains interviews with real teachers and shows clear video of real classroom practices which can be a model for other teachers.