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The Cookie Monster Flaw

I have started to compile a list of common issues and problems I see in the various flashcard programs I have been reviewing. I have created a page which will gather this information for developer reference: The Issues Page

The first problem I write about on that page, I have called the “Cookie Monster Flaw” and so far I found it in both Mental Case and the “burn wheels” of Mindburn.

In the memorable words of a failed Sesame Student, “Me not continually review cookies at increasingly spaced intervals, me eat the cookie.” This flaw is, of course, exhibited by any flashcard software which offers no interval study but it is included here because it is also a problem with some approaches of applications which actually do support interval study: If an interval study system offers a finite number of interval stages, at which point the interval study for a given unit of information is said to be completed, it is guilty of the Cookie Monster Flaw.

The idea for this comes from the practice, prevalent among some students in places such as China, Korea and Japan, of learning vocabulary directly from a dictionary. In an ritual act of symbolism, once all the words, or chosen words, from a given page of a dictionary have been “memorized” the page is ripped out of the dictionary and consumed. My experience, admittedly not backed by evidence from a full empirical study, suggests that thus physically digesting the ink and highlighter fluid of memorized words does not in fact have much of an impact on long-term retention of vocabulary.

Developers should keep this principle in mind:

Even native speakers forget their own languages during extended periods of disuse; no interval study system should be designed in such a way that implies the complete and final memorization of any unit of information.

Review Update: Mental Case

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In this posting I offer some more comments on the desktop version of Mental Case for OS X following up on my review of the iPhone/iPod version of the application yesterday and an earlier review of Mental Case 1.2.2.

The desktop version of Mental Case is now strengthened by the ability to synch with its mobile counterpart, reviewed yesterday, but as I pointed out in that review, synch is slow and complicated to carry out. Like its mobile counterpart the desktop version has made some UI decisions, especially in the important flashcard arena, which make it frustrating to use for high-volume study. However, this remains one of the leading applications in its class. The price for the application has come down significantly and there is a further deep and welcome discount for educational users making this application good value for its feature set. (Continued)

Mental Case iPhone/iPod Review

Picture 26.jpg In May, 2008 I posted a review of Mental Case 1.2.2, an OS X flashcard application. While praising it for its design, excellent support for interval study and study on demand in its graded slideshow approach, coming from the perspective of students engaged in intensive language study I offered some criticism for its lack of support for three fields, lack of control over formatting, lack of true full-screen study, limited set management, limited keyboard control, and high price. I felt then, as I do now, that OS X application iFlash and the cross-platform application Anki are far better alternatives for language learners. However, the application is still one of the leading contenders in this field and now offers a powerful and reasonably priced client for the iPhone platform.

Below is a review of the iPhone and iPod Touch client that Mental Case has released. The review concludes that, with the exception of highly targeted applications such as Kanji Flip and other Andre Khromov applications, Mental Case for iPhone and iPod is currently one of the strongest offering for interval study on the mobile platform but hopes that certain refinements in the flashcard UI and Wi-fi synching features with the desktop will be made in future releases. (Continued)

iCards Review

iCards is a flashcard application for the iPhone and iPod touch that offers the graded slideshow method of study. It offers the ability to study with cards in random order, add and edit cards in a set, and supports three fields per cards which is useful for many language learners.

The installation of iCards comes pre-loaded with Japanese vocabulary (JLPT) and Japanese Kanji character cards (常用漢字 grades) but allows you to and manage new sets.

While this very reasonably priced application has a number of great standard features, serious students of language should probably consider some of the somewhat more expensive alternatives available. The lack of cycle elimination is especially problematic, while the lack of interval study, or reversal of field order compares poorly with other competing applications. The user interface during card study also could benefit from some further improvement.


Kanji Flip Review

kanjiflip.gif Kanji Flip is a powerful flashcard application targeted for students of Japanese Kanji. Using the graded slideshow approach offers an excellent interval study implementation that will serve even the worst of memories well. The developer, Andre Khromov, also offers a range of other applications based on the same basic features, including applications focused on Japanese vocabulary, the Russian language, and the Korean writing system.

While the feature range is narrowly restricted to serve its primary task, this enables Kanji Flip to do the one thing it sets out to do admirably: help you memorize over two thousand Japanese characters. It is somewhat more expensive than other offerings, could benefit from some minor improvements, but given its powerful interval study feature, as of this review Kanji Flip is currently the clear leader in iPhone/iPod offerings for students of Japanese characters.

Kanji Review


Kanji is a Japanese language flashcard application for the iPhone and iPod touch that offers the graded slideshow method of study. It offers the ability to study with cards in random order and create custom lists of Japanese kanji to study from.

Many of the kanji cards provided by the application come with a selection of Japanese vocabulary compounds that can be studied alongside the Kanji characters themselves.

The application by Lima Sky is highly targeted to Kanji learners and performs its task quite well. It provides excellent cycle elimination, the ability to create custom lists of Kanji, and its inclusion of vocabulary adds to its usefulness. Though it lacks interval study feature and there are some areas for improvement mentioned below, this is an excellent offering for its price range. (Continued)

Mnemosyne Review

Picture 3.tiff Mnemosyne is a very lean and straightforward flashcard application created originally by Peter Bienstman with powerful spaced repetition options. It is open source and written in Python with the Qt user interface libraries making it, together with Anki, one of the rare cross-platform flashcard applications currently available. Mnemosyne uses a graded slideshow method, cycle elimination and supports two or three fields on each card.

Mnemosyne is quite limited in its features, but its open source status, its sheer simplicity and the strong focus on the core task of spaced repetition makes it a strong minimalist offering for students of language using windows and Linux, and with the recent appearance of a binary download for OS X, Mac users can now also use the application without having to go through the incredibly complicated source building and installation process.


Wenlin Conversion Script

Wenlin is the the best piece of software around for students of Chinese. Among other tools, it has a powerful and handy offline dictionary with very flexible and fast search options as well.

I know many students of Chinese that use Wenlin to get their definitions and input vocabulary into flashcard software. Most recently I saw someone do this in a coffee shop here in Taipei, and it brought back a lot of memories of me doing the same in Beijing almost a decade ago.

Wenlin doesn’t make it easy for you, however, to get the word entries into a format that can be easily imported into flaschard applications. There is no “export” feature, presumably because the developer doesn’t like the idea of large parts of the Wenlin dictionary getting out of the software and into a separate database. However, the lack of such a feature means that students have to copy and paste words from Wenlin and add their own tabs. In my case, I also like to delete the alternate hanzi to keep my flashcards more clean.

Although a more experience programmer with good regular expressions skills could easily take this further, I am releasing the results of an evening spent trying to learn how to program in the programming language Ruby:

Wenlin Conversion Script

Here is a screencast explaining how to use the script:

Wenlin Conversion Script Screencast

This script takes a text file with a list of Wenlin dictionary entries (Saved in TextEdit, not in Wenlin) and puts tabs between the hanzi and the pinyin and between the pinyin and the definition. It saves the converted file which can then be easily imported into your favorite flashcard program.

It is made up of two scripts: the applescript application which you is what you use to run the script and the convert.rb ruby script which does the actual conversion. You can customize three options in the convert.rb script. Just open it up and set the three option variables at the top to true or false according to your preference for that option. There is a description of what each option does in the ruby file but basically they control whether the alternate traditional/simplified hanzi are removed, whether the “|” character is changed to “Example: ” and the “~” in examples replaced by the pinyin of the word.

I haven’t tested this too extensively so if you see it do strange things with the wenlin vocab items let me know and I’ll tweak the script in the future.


-I just noticed in the screencast that it split the word “fandong fenzi” and put “fenzi” into the definition – I need to update the regular expression so that it looks for the part of speech rather than a space to separate the pinyin from the definition. I didn’t realize that Wenlin sometimes puts spaces into its pinyin words. I’ll release this soon.

-I just updated a 1.1 version. See the enclosed Read Me file for things I have fixed and changed in this new version of the script.

Managing Keyboard Inputs Methods

One problem that makes it difficult to quickly and efficiently enter large numbers of vocabulary directly into flashcard software if you are dealing with non-Roman languages is the fact that the user has to keep switching the keyboard input back and forth between English and the other language, whatever it may be. This is a problem for all the flashcard applications I have seen so far, with the exception with some older versions of iFlash.

I’m wondering if this is a completely insurmountable programming problem in OS X or if perhaps the Cocoa programming API does offer some way of overcoming this issue.

Today I found this in the reference for the NSTextFieldCell class:

setAllowedInputSourceLocales – Sets an array of locale identifiers representing input sources that are allowed to be enabled when the receiver has the keyboard focus.

allowedInputSourceLocales – Returns an array of locale identifiers representing input sources that are allowed to be enabled when the receiver has the keyboard focus.

I don’t know much about Cocoa programming but I wonder if these two things (OS X 10.5) or something similar can be used to help remedy the problem?

Also, programmers might want to read over this posting about keyboard events and non-Roman languages.

Tweaked Review Grading

I have tweaked the review grading a bit, making the final score an independently determined score out of 10, rather than a cumulative score out of 100. I have gone through and updated scores on existing reviews to reflect this. Next review coming up: Studycard Studio.