Photo by Piotr Zurek

Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico is legendary among Boy Scouts and those who work with them--214 square miles of desert, forest and mountains in New Mexico. A Philmont trek is the highest ambition of many a scout troop. A Philmont "crew" carries their food and shelter on their backs for 50 miles or more over varied train. They sleep in a different place each night, some of which offer activities such as rock climbing or horseback riding, others being nothing more than an X on the map and great scenery.

I don't know who coined the precept Be present, but I heard it first from Leo Babuta. I find it particularly appropriate to the Age of Distraction that we live in. I doubt that medieval peasants needed reminding to "be present"; what else did they have to think about? For me personally, this precept is best embodied in an experience I had at Philmont.

To set the stage both geographically and spiritually, this story takes place on the last day of a six-day trek that I undertook with my sons, both scouts. Most treks are ten days, but our troop favored the short treks that come at the end of the season. Certainly after five days I felt satisfied with the amount of sleeping in the dirt I had done. A shorter trek is not necessarily less strenuous, because one may cover much the same distance in a shorter time period.

The Philmont experience begins at base camp--a huge city of semipermanent tents. I imagine this is how refugees must live. In contrast to most Boy Scout camps, which offer a varied program of sports and naturecraft and sing-alongs and ceremonies, the Philmont program is all about the trek--either preparing for it, or undertaking it, or cleaning up afterward. The first day is spent with an instructor/guide (called a "ranger") who helpfully describes the many ways one is likely to die out there.

Base camp is literally at lower altitude than most of the reservation. A rugged spine of peaks stabs toward base camp and barely misses it. (You can see this on the map below--click for a larger version) The highest peak on this ridge, the Tooth of Time, is suitably imposing (though by no means the highest point in Philmont). Hiking along the Tooth of Time ridge and down into base camp is a popular finale to one's trek.

Water is the critical variable at Philmont. Sources of drinkable water are fairly scarce and far between. Human beings need lots of water, and water is heavy, so carrying more than half a day's supply is not easy. Thus each day's trek is organized around the water sources to be found along the way.

Our crew's itinerary called for us to set out on the next-to-last day from the Clark's Fork camp, climb up to the Tooth of Time ridge, hike along the ridge to the Tooth Ridge camp and spend the night there, and then make the hike down into base camp the next morning. This was a great finale to our trek, but it also meant having to carry all our water for the last two days. There are no springs atop the ridge--consider that water runs downhill below ground as well as above and you'll see why.

So for the final two days even foregoing all cooking and no washing, we would still have extra water weight to carry. We coped with this (as other crews do) by eating up our cookable food on the previous day and planning to subsist on crackers and trail mix, etc. for the final day and a half.

The next-to-last-day's hike up to the Tooth of Time Ridge was naturally strenuous but enjoyable. After five days on the trail you start hurting in places you never noticed before. I had it easier than one of the other adults in our group, who was doggedly marching along on a trick ankle that had locked up, but I was feeling decidely sore all along the soles of my feet. But once atop the ridge we could look out over the landscape for miles in both directions. We tried to triangulate the visible landmarks to fix our location on the map (a pastime of diminishing utility in the age of GPS).

We hit the Tooth of Time peak about half an hour before reaching Tooth Ridge camp where we were to spend the night, making it just in time to seek shelter from one of the common sudden brief torrential storms--half of us under a hastily-erected sheet of plastic, the other half hiding in holes in the gnarly rock formations that dot the camp.

You can imagine the mixture of satisfaction and anticipation we felt as we got up for the last time on the trail. A few more hours of hiking--all downhill--and we would be tasting all the comforts of civilization. Chairs to sit in! All the water you can drink! Toilets that flush!

It was a beautiful clear morning. All we had to do was pack up our gear, wolf down our last few bags of crackers and trail mix, and hit the trail.

And this was the morning I learned that crackers and trail mix can be the best meal of your life, if you pay attention to your surroundings.

All it took was an extra fifteen minutes. Our crew decided to make an event of our crude breakfast by having it atop one of the large rock formations around. The view was unexpected. Looking out over the valley, we found that the sky was clear only from our vantage point--the valley was hidden under a carpet of clouds. As we ate, the sun came up from the other edge of the carpet and illuminated it.

Since then, I try to remember in throwaway moments--standing in line, waiting for a movie to start--to stop and look around. You never know what's there to be seen.

Another Good Reason to Study Languages

Because it helps keep you from going senile. Barking up the Wrong Tree points to a study showing that multilingual persons maintain better mental function in late old age. This effect is seen even after controlling for correlated but distinct variables such as general level of education.


One of the most regrettable decisions of my misspent youth was not taking the typing course offered by my high school. Others may have foreseen the huge amount of time I was destined to spend in front of a keyboard, but not I. At the time, typing was something that secretaries did, or maybe college students, but not most people.

Another skill I wish I had developed better is that of shorthand. Although my high school had no such classes, we did have quite an old shorthand textbook at home. I learned the rudiments and used it to take notes in college, but I never became a real expert.

Shorthand still appeals to me. Not for practical reasons--I almost never write anything out in longhand any more (except mathematics, where shorthand is little help). But then I frequently undertake to learn things for impractical reasons. I like shorthand as a prime example of lucid thinking and brutal efficiency.

Several shorthand systems have been devised. I studied the Gregg system. Based on a superficial glance at the others, I still like Gregg the best--it seems the most fluid and natural.

The example above shows the Lord's Prayer. The first mark, that looks like a smile, is the letter r, which also represents the word "our". The last mark in the first line consists of the shorthand letters k-m representing the word "come". The last squiggle in the second line shows the shorthand letters b-r-e-d (see the smile in the middle of the squiggle?), or the word "bread" (Gregg shorthand works phonetically). Generally one squiggle corresponds to one word, but sometimes a phrase of short words is also written as a single squiggle. For example, the second squiggle in the second line consists of the letters l-b-d-n, representing the phrase "will be done".

Every communication channel has a certain (greater or lesser) level of redundancy. For shorthand, the level of redundancy is sacrificed as much as possible for the sake of brevity. A shorthand message carries more potential for misunderstanding than an ordinary handwritten message, but the system is designed to be error-tolerant. For example, the inverted smile is the k sound (as in the word "come" above). Lengthen the inverted smile (maybe by accident), and it becomes a hard g, so "come" becomes "gum". But the two words are similar enough in sound that a reader is likely to understand that "come" was intended.

By contrast, suppose you write in a letter to your Aunt Sadie that you "reamed the clog out with a plumber's snake." But you have sloppy handwriting, so "clog" comes out looking like "dog." Suddenly your Christmas checks from Aunt Sadie are a lot smaller and you have no idea why. This would never happen with shorthand. "Clog" might come out looking like "glog" or "clock" or "croc", but never "dog."

Shorthand is almost a lost art, destroyed by recording machines and the now universal necessity for everyone to use a keyboard. Shorthand could be extremely useful in the coming era of touchscreens. It would be the ideal interface for entering text into an iPhone, for example. I predict, however, that it would never catch on--because in our day anything demanding effort without immediate gratification has gone out of style.

A Drunkard Walks Through His To-Do List

Photo by St Stev

Sometime in my adult life I acquired a fascination with time management. (This marked part of my transition from slacker status.) The most basic stage of time management is making a to-do list. Over the years I've noticed an interesting phenomenon with this list. I've talked to friends who maintain similar lists and found that their lists show the same behavior, although they never notice it until I point it out and don't necessarily understand it even after I explain it.

This phenomenon is related to what mathematicians (and probabilists) call a drunkard's walk. The name comes from the idea of a drunk attempting to walk home starting from a lamppost. This is not your ordinary everyday drunk, but a mathematically idealized drunk, so that each step he--he because the concept of the drunkard's walk dates back to the dark ages before women were expected to engage in public drunkenness--each step he takes has a completely random direction unrelated to the steps before or after. It turns out you can analyze the drunk's motion in considerable detail, and although it is of course impossible to predict the drunk's exact location at any time (except at the very start), you can make a lot of other predictions, such as that the drunk will return to the lamppost with probabilistic certainty (meaning it is theoretically possible that this would happen, but the probability is zero).

You can model a simple version of the drunkard's walk using coin flips. Suppose he can only choose to go north or south along the street. Start flipping the coin. Every time it comes up heads, move him one step to the north. Every time it comes up tails, move him one step to the south. Probability theory tells us several things about his path, even though his exact position is impossible to predict. Some of these may seem paradoxical:

1. The drunkard's average distance from the starting point (more precisely, the standard deviation) equals the square root of the number of steps taken. For example, after nine steps , the drunkard may be anywhere from zero to nine steps away from the lamppost, but if you take a large number of drunkards each staggering away from his own lamppost, their average distance from the lamppost after nine steps will be very close to three steps. After a hundred total steps the average distance from the lamppost is ten steps, and so on.

2. With probabilistic certainty, the drunkard returns to the lamppost, not once, but infinitely many times.

This is assuming the coin is perfectly fair; that is, the odds of getting heads or tails are exactly the same. If there is even the slightest imbalance--say heads comes up slightly more often than tails, then something quite different happens. The drunkard, although still taking both northward and southward steps, slowly drifts to the north. Pick any spot on the street north of the starting point. The drunkard is likely to cross this position several times, traveling northward the first time, southward the second, and so on, but eventually he crosses the point in the northward direction for the last time, and never comes south of that point again. Given enough time, he travels northward a mile--or a thousand.

Here's what does not happen--in any scenario: the drunkard wanders back and forth within a certain section of street, without going outside it. Even a thousand-mile section of street is not enough room--the drunkard eventually will exit from one end or the other (although he might later go back, depending on the scenario).

Now back to my to-do list. For a long time I assumed that items got added to the list at random. Stuff happens--your car headlight burns out, a raccoon crawls under the porch and dies--and you have to deal with it. And items get subtracted from the list essentially at random, because different tasks require different amounts of time to dispose of. And in the decades that I have been keeping a list, the number of items has always fluctuated between 15 and 50, usually averaging around 30. In particular, I have never completely cleared out the list.

But this doesn't add up, because if the addition and subtraction of list items is random, the length of the list is essentially a drunkard's walk. The drunkard takes a northward step--add an item to the list. The drunkard takes a southward step--subtract an item from the list. The one big difference is that once the list reaches zero, you can't subtract anything else. It's as if there is a wall at the lamppost which keeps the drunkard from traveling further south.

So, two possible scenarios: First is that on average I am able to clear things off the list as quickly as they come in. Because it's random, the list would grow and shrink randomly, but the analysis of the drunkard's walk shows that the drunk would occasionally come back to the lamppost again and again--i.e., the list would shrink to zero sometimes. But my list has never been at zero since I started keeping it.

So the second scenario: Maybe I can't clear items off the list as quickly as they come in. In this case, the analysis shows that the drunkard drifts to the north without limit. In other words, my list would still grow and shrink randomly, but over the long term get longer... and longer... and longer. But that doesn't happen either.

Conclusion? The list is not random. Someone (face it--probably me) is controlling the length of the list. And if I'm not happy with the average length of the list (which I'm not--it's a little long for my taste, although I've decided that zero is not the optimum length) it is within my power to change it.

I've asked friends about their to-do lists, and everyone has the same story. The list fluctuates around some average number of items but never gets too long or too short. Everyone feels controlled by the list but generally doesn't recognize that they must be controlling it.

(BTW the analysis of the drunkard's walk is very robust--pretty much all you need is some randomness either on the addition of items to the list or the subtraction therefrom, and you can draw these same conclusions.)

America's Secular Religion

Everybody knows somebody who claims to be religious but adheres to his or her professed religion only inconsistently, or maybe hardly at all. Less widely noticed is the phenomenon of the person who claims to be irreligious but is actually driven by blind faith. Some of the most popular religious creeds fly under the radar thanks to shrewd marketing by their adherents (although thereby missing out on the tax exemption). So it's important to keep in mind what "religion" is exactly. Well, it's a lot of things, among which:

1. Religion provides a moral code, a method for distinguishing right from wrong;
2. Religious truth flows from the top down (frequently originating with God at the very top);
3. The religious are loyal to their creeds. The creed becomes the prism through which they interpret the facts of the world around them.

Science, by comparison, has no concern with moral questions of right and wrong—its job is to tell merely what is or is not, not to make judgments of good or bad. Science does not demand belief on the basis of authority; any scientific theory should be verifiable (or falsifiable) by anyone willing to replicate the necessary experiments. It's the ultimate democracy (in theory): the truth is equally accessible to everyone.

(If at this point you object that real scientists don't always--or even usually--just bear with me until reading the rest of this post.)

People think of the old Soviet Union as devoid of religion, but in fact there dominant religion was called Communism. Communism was a religion by every one of the criteria above: it provided their moral compass; the creed was defined and promulgated by the central authority of the State; and true believers shaped their entire world-view around the logical demands of Communism.

A recent report by the Pew Forum finds an increasing percentage of Americans profess adherence to no religious creed. I'm not so sure this would hold if we included some of the new "non-religious" religions. In particular, while communism never caught on big in the U.S., the younger creed of psychiatrology, as I call it. has a definite grip on a large segment of the population.

So many people how are skeptical of what they read in the newspaper or even in the Bible are suddenly credulous when it comes to a book written by a self-help guru, especially one with "Dr." in front of his or her name (which always strikes me as a sign of insecurity--like the Seinfeld character who insisted on being called "Maestro.") If you want to just make stuff up, and then have it become widespread conventional wisdom, then psychology is the field for you (although politics gives it a run for the money).

So we end up with such "everyone knows" phenomena as the five stages of grieving, or the mid-life crisis. (Here's a fun thing to do. If you know a guy over the age of 35, start commenting on every change in his lifestyle--for example, if he decides to go to the gym, or seek a promotion at work, or maybe grow a beard: "You must be having a mid-life crisis." He'll love it.) The problem with these ideas is that if you look for actual research supporting them, it isn't there, or you might find a single study with marginal results, not supported by follow-up work.

Pure science doesn't touch on questions of right and wrong, but psychology, especially pop psychology, is not reticent about telling people what they should or should not do. The terms "right" and "wrong" are not used, but terms such as "healthy", "deviant", "syndrome" are used with the same force. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of homosexuality. Up until 1973, the "Bible" of psychology, that is to say the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (let's call it the Psychobible for short), listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, and in 1973 it was removed. Now I claim the word "disorder" carries a value judgment attached, in that it implies here is a condition which demands to be corrected, or is at least regrettable. And as such when we use a word like "disorder" we are now outside the realm of science.

Was there some kind of scientific breakthrough in 1973 that suddenly revealed homosexuality to lie within the normal spectrum of human behavior instead of outside? Of course not, just as there was no scientific basis for the original classification. The change simply reflected a change in psychiatrists feelings about homosexuality.

The religion of psychiatrology is distinct from the legitimate science of psychology, which includes plenty of solid, fascinating research. Unfortunately the dividing line is not a sharp one. Even professionals in the field sometimes draw conclusions based on faith rather than facts. In 1973 David Rosenhan experimented with admitting perfectly sane people to psychiatric hospitals with a single report of hearing voices. Perfectly healthy test subjects were thereafter judged as insane and kept confined for up to several months.

Currently one of the most damaging tenets of psychiatrology is the concept of so-called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This initial appeared in the 1980 version of the Psychobible as Attention Deficit Disorder, which was replaced by "ADHD" in 1987. The rate of diagnosis has exploded from 0 in 1979 to include about 10% of schoolchildren today (and 13% of boys). But only in America (and lately in Great Britain as well, it seems)--this concept essentially doesn't exist in Japan, Russia, or other countries that routinely outperform us in education. The U.S. accounts for something like 90% of the world's consumption of Ritalin.

I hope the absurdity of labeling 13% of boys with a "disorder" is self-evident. If not, then consider: is a condition affecting 20% of the population a "disorder"? How about 50% ? 90% ? In this country, only 2% of the population is redheaded, but we don't label them as having some "disorder" of the hair. If 13% of children are unable to meet the schools' expectations for sitting in a chair and listening passively, does the fault like with the children, or with the schools?

In Defense of Grammar

Here are some other language blogs worth checking out:

Steve Kaufmann at The Linguist
Benny at Fluent in 3 months (not sure about Benny's last name, although I have a theory that "Benny" is his last name and "Irrepressible" his first).

If you read both of these regularly (as I do) you will find some fundamental disagreements between them on the best ways to learn languages; on the other hand, they seem to agree on other points, specifically:

(1) Traditional language classes are a waste of time; and
(2) Studying grammar is a waste of time.

Today I'm out to refute hypothesis (2). I'll leave hypothesis (1) for the future.

As I understand it, the main arguments against grammar study run as follow:

1. Grammar is scary and frustrating. The terminology is unfamiliar and confusing.
2. Real fluency in a language demands speaking intuitively, without stopping to analyze what one is saying.
3. Listening and repeating (the way babies learn) is more "natural" and preferable to the "artifical" approach of learning rules and memorizing vocabulary.

Overall, I think the attitude of wanting to study a language but not wanting the study the grammar is misguided. It's like wanting to learn ones way around a foreign city but not wanting to use a map, because maps are covered with intimidating symbols, and someone who really knows the city wouldn't need a map, and babies don't use maps anyway. However, to address these arguments point-by-point:

1. Grammar is scary and frustrating. This sounds to me like the real issue is grammar doesn't yield immediate gratification. Someone looking to learn a new language ought to be the last to object to having to learn new words. And of course the terminology is unfamiliar, because the concepts are unfamiliar. This is an important part of what you get with a new language anyway--a new way of looking at the world. And this particular new way of thinking ultimately streamlines language learning.

I experienced this myself just recently, in Arabic class, when it comes to understanding why nouns end with the vowel a in some situations, u in others, and i in yet others. Having previously encountered noun cases in Russian and Sanskrit, or even Latin (after which Arabic noun cases are a day at the beach), the explanation made immediate sense. My younger, nimbler, but naive classmates, unfamiliar with the concepts of "nominative", "accusative", "genitive", had a vastly more difficult time understanding what's going on.

2. Real fluency demands speaking intuitively. It's true that a fluent speaker can't be stopping to think about "rules" in the course of formulating a sentence. But the ability to step back occasionally and consciously analyze a sentence is also exceedingly useful, and makes one a better communicator. Drivers instinctively keep to the right side of the road and stop at red lights, but when asked, all drivers can explain the rules underlying their behavior. This makes them better drivers, not worse.

For Sanskrit or Arabic, for example, the development of a formal grammar was an important cultural milestone, and indeed a major achievement of civilization--the realization that this "thing" (language) that everyone uses instinctively could be analyzed and codified. In the age of computers and software, the idea of "grammar" has become an essential ingredient of our technological civilization. Why take pride in one's ignorance of it?

3. Grammar study is "artificial." As pointed out by Khatzumoto (although perhaps in gentler terms) babies are actually lousy language learners. Who else can spend an entire year in a completely immersive environment and acquire only a handful of words and be unable to form even a simple sentence? Children do have a talent for mimickry and the ability to soak up large amounts of vocabulary, but adults can more than make up the difference with rational, analytical thinking.

What's more, what you hear in any language is only the surface layer of something that runs far deeper. Consider the English word "resign". The "g" is silent, so why not write the word as "resin"? Because the "g" still exists below the surface, as you see when you pronounce "resignation."

When I first started Romanian, I used the "child" method--just listening and repeating phrases. Meanwhile I tried to analyze what I was hearing (probably part of my personality, but it's a good idea for anyone). I noticed early on that nouns came in masculine and feminine, but a particular puzzle was that a particular thing could be masculine in one sentence and feminine in another. It was cleared up only when I started reading about grammar and learned that Romanian nouns also have a third gender, which is masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural. Instant clarity.

Could I have figured this out on my own? Maybe, but only by piecing together clues from many different sentences and gradually figuring out the pattern of masculine versus feminine. Why not take advantage of the pioneers who did the analysis before you got there?

A final argument, which may not apply to everyone: I like grammar. It's the same pleasure I get from watching a seagull soar or a dolphin swim--a naturally designed structure, beautifully adapted for the task at hand. The only difference is that seagulls and dolphins exist in physical reality, whereas grammar exists in abstract ideas. But then I'm a mathematician--I like abstract ideas.

(Image above from Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar.)

Practical Joke #8

Photo by TheLichfieldBlog

1. Go to the thrift store. Buy a used baby car seat and a life-sized baby doll.

2. Epoxy the seat to the roof of your car and strap the doll into the seat.

3. Drive around town. Even better in the rain and/or snow.

A Face Language

You know that strange nagging feeling you get sometimes when you meet someone new--that you've seen this person somewhere before? Eventually you might figure it out--the person has a resemblance to someone else you know, either a celebrity or a personal acquaintance. I had just this nagging feeling about one of my students last year. Eventually, to my great relief, I figured it out--he looked just like Dwayne Johnson's (hypothetical) younger, slimmer brother.

When you "get" the resemblance, you might be a little surprised--it may span different races, different ages, even different genders. My advisor said it once: "there are fewer possible faces than there are people walking around."

I thought of a game one could play to test his theory. Take a collection of passport photos. Process them to eliminate differences in skin tone, hair style, or size. Cut each into a top half and a bottom half. The goal is to match up the top and bottom halves. Who wants to bet that you could do much better than random matching?

Another variation on this game: make two sets of photos and have two players (or teams of two players). The game this time is that one member of the team picks a photo at random and describes the face, and the other member of the team needs to find the matching photo based solely on the description.

I suspect that the best strategy in this game is not to describe someone as "eyes close together, nose 35% larger than normal, etc." but rather as "Dwayne Johnson's slender younger brother," or "the missing love child of Walter Cronkite and Britney Spears," or so on.

Since one of the things I'm not very good at is remembering names and faces, I've often wished for a concise, yet precise way of verbally describing a face--again, not in terms of dimensions but in terms of the impression on the viewer: a face language, so to speak. Think of what a boon such a language would be, for example, to describe bank robbers.

I have no good idea how such a language could be constructed, but the proof that it should exist lies in the art of the caricature. A good caricaturist (for example, Mort Drucker's work above) can draw a face recognizable as a unique individual with a few deft strokes. Hirschfeld's work was positively cartoonlike and yet instantly recognizable. And maybe one way to identify such a language is to set a pair of caricaturists to play the face matching game and analyze what they say to each other.

A New Low

Photo by an0nym0n0us

So I sold my old car this weekend (not the one you see at the top of this post). With 185,000 miles, it was still in fairly good shape, but it had developed several small problems... the windshield wipers waved erratically, some of the dashboard lights were out, and so on. I had had the feeling for some time that any time when I was driving down the road all four wheels might pop off simultaneously like you see in the movies.

Among these problems was a slipping belt. This is not hard or expensive to fix--15 minutes with a wrench--but it makes the most awful noise, like the engine is about to tear itself apart. I didn't take the time to fix it because I knew I would be selling the car anyway. Friends who rode with my would hide their faces out of shame when the screeching started up.

Last week, I reached a new low. I was driving down a suburban street, when the screeching started up. No one was around, except a solitary dog trotting down the sidewalk. And even the dog stopped short and stared, clearly thinking "What is wrong with that car?"

Why learn languages?

Interesting perspective from Kató Lomb, Hungarian polyglot 1909-2003. Her book Polyglot: How I learn languages includes interesting anecdotes such as surreptiously studying Russian in WWII bomb shelter and running a tourist hospitality office that was mistaken for a bordello:

We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.

If someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.

Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan.

Launching Persian

Photo by alazaat

So I've embarked on the study of a new language: Persian, a.k.a. Farsi. I intend henceforth to report on my progress at intervals.

In once sense, I am starting from zero, since I know not a single word of Persian. In other senses, not quite. Having studied Arabic, I am already familiar with the alphabet (although Persian adds a few letters). Although Persian is fundamentally more closely related to English than Arabic, I would not be surprised to see some Arabic loanwords appear.

The language most closely related to Persian that I have previously studied is Sanskrit. I don't know how much to expect in the way of similarity.

To get the ball rolling, I am starting with the Pimsleur Persian program. If you are interested in studying a language, you owe it to yourself to try out a Pimsleur program, if one is available for your particular language. Even if I had a class to take, I would try to supplement it with Pimsleur.

With the Pimsleur method, you just listen to the recording and just follow the instructions. An example might go like this:

Tell her your son is a high-school student.

[You respond.]

How would she say her daughter is a college student?

[You respond.]

Ask her where the college is located.

[And so on...]

All the vocabulary, etc. is introduced gradually, in context. There are no explanations of grammar as such (not that I don't like grammar).

A "complete" course consists of 30 half-hour lessons. The most popular languages (French, Mandarin, etc.) have volumes I, II, III--90 lessons in all. You'd be amazed how much you can pick up in those 45 hours. Less popular languages (like Persian) only have Volume I (so far, that is). They are still working on new courses.

Advantages of the Pimsleur program:

(1) You get a lot of speaking practice. In a classroom, you spend most of your time listening, maybe reading and writing, and you speak only when it's your turn. With Pimsleur, it's all you. And dealing with an inanimate object frees you from self-consciousness (although this is not an issue for everyone). The extensive practice really lets you wrap your mouth around the language. Speaking a language is a physical activity, just like dancing or skiing, and just so, practice helps you avoid stumbling.

(2) If you spend a fair amount of time driving alone, as I do, it lets you make good use of otherwise dead time.

(3) You don't have to plan, or make many decisions. Just follow the program.

(4) The program is designed to reintroduce previous terms at a rate to keep you from forgetting them. Paul Pimsleur actually authored several articles on this approach, referring to research on the rate at which new terms are forgotten.

Disadvantages of the Pimsleur approach:

(1) Since it's strictly audio, you don't learn to read and write. (However, many courses include perfunctory "reading lessons." Since these can't be done while driving, I usually don't get around to them.

(2) Your accent may be so good that people will expect you to understand better than you actually do. I'm not kidding. I've heard several people report this.

(3) They don't come cheap. A full course runs more than $300. You can find abbreviated courses of 8 or 10 lessons cheaper, if you just want to try it out. You can also find the full courses cheaper if you search the Web, or rent them, or (best of all) maybe borrow them for free from a library.

Some people that I have introduced to the Pimsleur method are so enthusiastic after completing the first lesson that they immediately go on to the second lesson. This is a bad idea. It's like a second piece of cheesecake--just too much. As a matter of policy I won't go faster than one lesson per day. If I have extra driving time, I use it to go over the same lesson a second time.

Within somewhere between one and two months, I should have finished the Pimsleur Persian course--at which point I'll need to find something else to make progress with. Reports to follow.

Scenes from the Cold War at P.F. Chang's

So I'm waiting for a table at P.F. Chang's. At one end of the hostess station is a stack of paper menus--at the other end is a sample gift card in a little gift bag. I'm sure I've seen both items many times before, but now, seeing them juxtaposed, I notice something interesting.

I go over and ask the blond teenager snapping her gum behind the desk, "Do you have any extra bags like this?" She goes off and returns with a bag and hands it to me. I take one of the menus and show it to her.

"Did you ever notice that the characters over here are different from those over here?"

"Yeah, they're different."

"See these over here [on the left above] are traditional characters that have been used for thousands of years. And these [on the right] are simplified versions instituted by the Communist government in 1956."

At that, her eyes took on an icy blue cast that raised the hair on the back of my neck. "So--you have discovered our little secret! For too long have your firecracker-shrimp-fattened feet trod on the necks of the honest, hard-working peasantry. Soon our network of bistro installations will be complete, and your pitiful, trusting country will fall into our hands like an overripe lychee fruit!"

Okay, that last paragraph was made up, but the rest of this story is true. In a sense the characters on both right and left of the image above are the same, in the same way that "theater" and "theatre" are the same. It probably says something about how the mind works that the difference is easy to overlook unless you see them side-by-side. (BTW the first character [in either version] is pronounced hua with a high level tone. It means "splendor" and in this case "China." The second is pronounced guan with a falling-rising tone and means "building" in the sense of a restaurant, for example.)

As noted, the Chinese government instituted the first round of simplification in 1952. I wish they had asked me about it ahead of time--I could have told them it was a bad idea. The simplified forms have just one advantage (less and less relevant in the age of the word processor): they can be written more quickly. They are not particularly easier to learn--the old forms, although more complex, are more pictorial in nature.

Most especially, the simplified characters violate Serge's Second Principle of Engineering: A single bad standard is better than two good standards. All students of the Chinese language, both native and foreign, must learn two versions of most characters. Not withstanding the fact that Taiwan continues to use the traditional forms, even on the mainland books printed prior to 1956 did not suddenly vanish when the simplified forms were introduced.

Some of the simplified forms are naturally easy to recognize. This character, pronounced jian with a falling tone, means 'see':
Others are more like WTF? This one, pronounced wu with a rising tone, means "nonexistent":
Wikipedia has a nice summary of the many different ways in which particular characters were simplified.

Finally, the increasing numbers of people who elect to study both Japanese and Chinese now sometimes need to learn three different version of the same character, as the Japanese government also simplified some characters (though not as many, nor generally as drastically); but often the Japanese and Chinese simplications differ:
(BTW this character, pronounced fa with a high level tone [or hatsu in Japanese], has a meaning difficult to sum up in a single English word. It appears in words with meanings such as "discover", "explode", "speak out", "put on the market", and it carries a sense of something suddenly appearing or opening or becoming prominent.)

All this rather makes me appreciative that the English language is out of anyone's control. Can you imagine the government trying to dictate that henceforth "night" will be spelled "nite"?

Language Blogging

You can't be Jason Bourne without mastering a bunch of languages. During the course of the series we get to see him speak French, Swiss German, Dutch, Russian, and Spanish, all with exceeding fluency (except he seems slightly less comfortable in Russian). This scene shows him speaking French and Dutch at a less frenetic moment, when he still knows nothing of his identity. The point is: Jason Bourne has learned so well that he's not even sure what his native language is.

…whereby this blog introduces a new feature. As a rule I don’t use this blog to imitate what I see others doing elsewhere. This is why, for example, I rarely blog about politics.

Lately I’ve been reading several language blogs (that is, blogs about foreign-language study). I particularly like Steve Kaufmann’s Linguist blog, Benny the Irish Polyglot, and Tim Ferriss’s occasional posts on language. I’ve noticed two things: (1) There is a lot of valuable information to be had out there; however (2) In line with the theme of this blog, there are also blind sports that most everyone seems to be overlooking, Henceforth I’ll be working to fill in some of the gaps (starting with a small tidbit at the bottom of this post).

Time-honored language-blogging tradition now demands that I display a few foreign-language credentials, and henceforth periodically report on ongoing progress.

Rule of thumb: Never ask a polyglot how many languages he or she speaks. The problem is that if the answer is large enough to be interesting the only honest answer is It's complicated. Such as: Well, I read this one fairly well but can’t speak much. Or: I can ask for directions and get the price of a train ticket but I got in big trouble the last time I tried to pick up a girl in a bar.

So with this caveat, here is my current list. These are arranged in roughly descending order of proficiency, ranging from serious fluency at the top of the list to the ability to ask directions and order dinner at the end. Future posts will flesh out some of these descriptions.

Languages so far:
English (my mother tongue)
Mandarin Chinese

The three starred items at the bottom are dead languages (which most language bloggers apparently won’t touch). These are difficult to compare with the others on an apples-to-apples basis—the concept of “conversation,” for example, has little meaning in a dead language.

Languages in progress: The list above also doesn’t include the languages I am actively studying at present: Arabic and (modern) Tibetan, both to be the subject of future progress reports in future posts.

And some for the future: I haven’t started these yet, but I hope to someday. This list is extremely fluid--I just added one today. In no particular order: *Latin, Hebrew, Czech, Mongolian, Modern and *Ancient Greek, *Akkadian, *Avestan, Indonesian, Swahili, Farsi, Nepali, Norwegian, *Mayan, *Old English, Vietnamese, *Hittite.

Chinese-English wordplay: To close out this post, here’s the exclusive tidbit I promised: a bilingual pun. It makes a good icebreaker when you meet someone from China—provided he or she speaks English fairly well.

First, write the following Chinese character:

(It helps if you can write it with the proper stroke order, but that’s a subject for another post.) Ask them what it means. (In fact, this is pronounced “yan” with a falling tone and It means “to swallow.”)

Next, write the following character:

…and ask them now what does this mean? Notice it looks almost exactly like the first one except the little square on the left is missing.

Generally at this point your Chinese acquaintance will display momentary bemusement followed by amusement. See, this second character is also pronounced “yan” with a falling tone, and it also means “swallow”, but it’s the name of the bird.

(Linguistic note, for those who like to know what’s going on: The fact that the two words sound the same in both Chinese in English is total coincidence, but the fact that the characters look similar is not. These two characters illustrate two out of several methods of forming Chinese character.

The bird character is a pictograph, a picture of a swallow, although so highly evolved and stylized that it no longer looks like a bird. The four dots on the bottom were originally tail feathers.

The other character is formed by adjoining the Chinese character for “mouth” (the little square). The bird is there to show the pronunciation. In other words: “Something to do with the mouth, that sounds like “swallow.”)

Lip-Reading Update

It was some five months ago that I announced in this forum the inception of my formal lip-reading training, namely using the Read My Lips! DVD series. Halfway through the series now, I'm back for a progress report.

First, I have been successful in at least one respect: I have managed to consistently work at it a bit each day. This counts as at least a partial victory for any kind of resolution. In comparison to other self-improvement projects (such as going to the gym), this one does not require a lot of energy--so it's not that hard to sit at the end of the day and watch people's lips move for twenty minutes or so.

Here's a sample of what the series is like. This is in fact the very first few seconds of the first video, complete with what I have come to think of as the lip-reading national anthem:

It definitely gets harder as you go along. Some of the sentences are hard to understand because they are things you never hear in real life. For example, "June is busting out all over." Honestly--who says that? On the other hand, a later lesson has "That rhinoceros reminds me of your mother" (I am not kidding). Oddly enough, I frequently hear this in real life.

The series works pretty well, but I have thought of improvements. For example, it is surprisingly difficult to distinguish "eight" and "nine". How about a series of snippets with people saying one or the other at random--or other difficult-to-distinguish phrases. I have noticed that women are distinctly easier to understand then men. I read also that women tend to make better lip-readers. Oh well.

I find some sentences are impenetrable at first try, and others surprisingly clear. When the lip-reading succeeds, its almost as if one can hear the voice (although the DVD's never let you hear anyone's voice at any time). Just like a foreign-language class in school, I don't expect the finish the last DVD and be ready for the real world. I have some thoughts about how to continue from that point, but that problem is still a few months away.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, here is Ethan Hunt's lip-reading scene from MI-III:

MI-III is fantasy, of course. If you want a real-life equivalent to Ethan Hunt, you might consider Sue Thomas. A highly proficient lip-reader, she worked for the FBI reading what people say in surveillance videos, etc. This is good to know, because in watching my DVDs I sometimes am tempted to think "Nobody could possibly do this." It's good to know others can really succeed at this. What one person can learn, so can another.

I just started reading Thomas's book. Maybe I'll be able to pick up a few pointers. Thomas is Ethan Hunt in real life, minus the explosions and jumping off of buildings. Or maybe those are included--ask me again after I finish the book.

Practical Joke #7
(Special Lower Merion Edition)

(Inspired by this recent story reporting allegations that a Pennsylvania school district used laptop webcams to spy on students at home. The school claims they only turned the webcams on if the laptop was reported lost or stolen, but some of the facts reported cast this into doubt.)

1. Be a student in the Lower Merion school district. Get your school-issued laptop. Take it home.

2. Find a photo of a guy in a hot tub with two hookers.

3. Photoshop your school principal's head over either the guy's head, or one of the hookers' (depending on gender). School vice-principal is also a good option.

3. Print the photo out and set it up in front of the laptop.

4. Call the school up and report your laptop stolen.

Some fortunes for Chinese New Year.

Photo by tim ellis.

Are you, like me, disgusted with the increasing blandness of fortune cookie fortunes? Remember the good old days when you used to see fortunes like this?

1. I saw what you did. Pervert.

2. WARNING: Toxic lubricant leak detected in fortune cookie machine. Recalibrate according to section 6 of the Manual.

3. You don't know me, but we were meant to be together. Meet me behind the moo goo gai pan.

See This

Garry Kasparov's thoughts on computers, chess, and the human mind. A lot of non-obvious stuff.

The Best of the Bond Women

Photo by Rob Beyer

There never has been, and never will be, a Bond film without women. Women are an essential ingredient of the formula--although the best of the Bond movies don't stick too closely to the formula. I came across a rather depressing interview with Roald Dahl in which he describes the formula the producers gave him when he was writing the screenplay for You Only Live Twice. There had to be three women--no more, no less. The first woman had to do this, and the second had to do that, and the third had to do the other thing... it's little wonder that Dahl's story seems perfunctory.

The worst of the Bond women are pretty faces with no personality and nothing interesting to do. I'm thinking of you, Lupe Lamora, and you too, Manuela. Sorry you had to hear it from me. Another common device is to introduce an educated female character with some specialized knowledge that Bond needs. Holly Goodhead knows space travel; Natalya Simonova knows space-based weapons; Christmas Jones knows nuclear weapons. But these characters end up just tagging along with Bond, offering technical advice and falling into bed at the appropriate time--ultimately, not very interesting.

The best of the Bond women has these characterics:

1. She is her own boss;
2. She takes a hand in shaping events;
3. She is clever;
4. She is fun to be around.

Before I reveal her identity, I'll discuss some of those who don't qualify (trying to avoid detailed spoilers).

Pussy Galore from Goldfinger: She is clearly thinks of herself as a strong, independent woman. But in fact she merely goes from taking orders from one man at the start of the story to taking orders from a different man at the end of the story. She does nothing on her own initiative. (And moreover, she seems rather crabby and generally unpleasant to be around.)

Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale: Clearly intelligent--her sharp tongue is part of her appeal--but not clever. She never does anything that makes you think Huh! Look what she did.

Ruby Barlett from On Her Majesty's Secret Service: Perhaps the most fun of all the Bond women, and clever as well. But really no more than pawn in the big game.

Tracy Di Vicenzo, also from On Her Majesty's Secret Service: I'm sure I'll get flack from this, because Tracy is supposed to be the one. But I could never take a woman seriously who calls her father Papa, with the accent on the second syllable. And consider how she attempts to flirt with Blofeld:

Tracy: I want to see the dawn.
Blofeld: So poetic a pleasure!

Does anyone talk this way? Gag.

Okay, so the winner revealed is... Tiffany Case from Diamonds Are Forever. Technically she's working for the bad guy, but she is much more concerned with her own plans. Even at the end, on the boat with Bond (and that's not a spoiler--practically every Bond movie ends with Bond on a boat with a lady) she is still pursuing her own agenda. And clever? At one point she outwits twenty government agents and disappears with an important item, which she wants for her own purposes. None of this stops her from being fun to be around.

(P.S. Barbara Broccoli, if you're reading this, you seriously need to employ Goldfrapp to write the next Bond theme song.)