About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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The rule of thumb to remember is that your own desire to believe something or your own opinion about how great the belief is will not convince anyone else. To do that, you need logic and evidence.

— "How to Win Informal Arguments and Debates"



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 8/25/2022

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Posts - 2641
Comments - 2653
Hits - 2,520,603

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Entries/day - 0.37
Comments/entry - 1.00
Hits/day - 355

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 7:45 PM Pacific


  04:13 PM

I get to celebrate a handful of anniversaries today, this month, and this summer, and I thought I'd reflect on them.

Today

Back in February (my birthday month), my wife had the ingenious idea of getting me a monthly pass to our local recreation center, which has a pool. They had just tentatively reopened after Covid, and as I discovered, hardly anyone knew they were open. On February 25, I made my first trip to go swimming. This kickstarted a looong-overdue effort to exercise again.

As I've gotten older, I naturally have gotten heavier, but the pandemic era was particularly bad for me. I sat at my desk for two years, basically, and shoved food into my face the whole time. At the beginning of the year—resolution time—my wife asked what I wanted to accomplish. My answer was that I wanted to lose enough weight that I didn't gasp when I tied my shoes. Hence her idea of the swimming pass.

I started tracking my exercise and my weight in order to stay motivated. As the weather got warmer, and as the pool became more and more crowded, I switched my exercise regimen to walking. In the last 6 months, I've swum 45 miles, walked 650 miles, and climbed 13,000 stairs. I've also started playing occasional pickleball and I recently replaced my stolen bike and started riding again.

This was part of my overall ELEM plan: eat less, exercise more. In addition to moving more, I, er, adjusted my diet. I ate less, and I substantially cut down (but didn't eliminate) sugar, rice, pasta, bread, and alcohol.

At the six-month mark, I can say that I achieved my goal. I lost 13% of my body weight and, hey, I can now tie my shoes without gasping.

This month

This month marks my five-year anniversary at Google (or Googleversary, as we say at work, since we Google-ize everything). The time sure went fast, boy howdy.

People often ask how I like working at Google. My answer is that I've enjoyed this job as well as anything I've done in decades. I really do love editing, and I get to edit engineers who are doing interesting, complex, high-impact things for customers. Back when we were still going into the office, we would get into fascinating discussions about all manner of topics, since the editing crew and the folks who sat near us had widely diverse backgrounds. (Well, the humanities is probably overrepresented on the editing team, it's true.)

Doing this type of work under the auspices of a large company has also been great. Unlike the situation at some (many?) companies, we're treated like adults—people who have lives outside of work that we also need to look after. I have appreciated this aspect of Google immensely.

Anyway, I don't want to blather on too much about this phase of my career, because another anniversary is …

This summer

I went into the tech world in the summer of 1982, meaning I've been at it for 40 years this year. I'd been in graduate school and had gotten a summer job working for a company that did [*waves hands*] computer stuff for law firms, using a minicomputer. When I decided to quit grad school in June of 1982, it was easy to move full time into computers.

The timing was fortuitous. The IBM PC had just come out and there was a lot of interest among professionals—like, oh, law firms—in what people could do with these things. The place where I worked got hooked up with a company that made a database product for the PC, and we put together some applications for document tracking and such-like. So I started doing work on the PC. I did training, I did support, I did a bit of coding. It was all new in those days, the demand for computer stuff far outstripped the supply of people who had formal training, so many of us learned on the job. (And pre-internet, I guess I could add.)

I was in my go-go 20s then, and for the next couple of decades I put in very long hours. That first job gave me (and the family) an opportunity to spend a couple of years in the UK. I moved around in the industry—Asymmetrix, Microsoft, Amazon, Tableau, now Google—doing mostly documentation work at different places.


Portrait by my friend Robert

Forty years is a long time to be in any type of work, and I've certainly considered retirement. My financial guy claims I could do it if I wanted. (He and I differ in how rosy our view is of the coming global economic meltdown, haha.) But I have no urgent reason to retire—I like the work, and it seems like I can now do it from almost anywhere on the globe. I still learn new things all the time, which is definitely an upside to working with such smart people. Another plus is that I experience twinges of impostor syndrome only rarely now. :) And to be honest, I worry slightly that retirement would remove me from a stimulating and rewarding environment. For now I'm playing it by ear. Check back in a bit.

Bonus anniversary!

September 1 is also the anniversary of the date on which I arrived in Seattle. I've reflected on that in the past, so I'll just link to an earlier post about that.

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  01:23 PM

Over the last year and some, we didn't dine out, obviously, since we couldn't. Now that we're easing back into more normal life, I've realized that a year away from the lure of going out to eat has changed my thinking about it a bit.

Of course, many restaurants survived by offering take-out food. We got take-out a few times. But I realized that I didn't like this very much. For one thing, the third-party delivery services have been accused of some shady practices. But even if you order directly from the restaurant, it's a suboptimal experience. My summation of the experience of take-out food is this: cook something; leave it sitting for 20 minutes; serve and (probably don't) enjoy. Now I get take-out only if I intend to eat it more or less immediately.

One of the first things that changed was that we cooked more at home. I'm a, dunno, utilitarian cook: I can make a certain number of things, but I don't aspire to fancy cooking. What the enforced time away from restaurants did, though, was to encourage me to work on cooking things I like. For example, I like going out for diner-type breakfast. Over the last year I actively worked on re-creating that food at home. This was a success for me: I've made waffles, hash browns, eggs over easy, French toast, and hash that to me was entirely satisfactory. (I emphasize that I can now cook these things the way that I like them, not that I should work in a diner.) There are also lunch and dinner foods that I feel that I've perfected for my individual taste. (Same caveat.)


Homemade hashbrowns and eggs

This success has made me ponder the purpose of going out to eat. Certainly I (you too?) have paid for pretty indifferent restaurant meals. At this point, I ask myself why I should go out for a breakfast that I can probably do better (same caveat) at home. Should I wait in line on a Sunday morning to eat a mediocre breakfast? Do I really want to go out for another meal of American Mexican food? I'm beginning to wonder.

Then there is the cost. Any sit-down meal is going to cost $18–20 per person and of course can cost many times that. If I go out for dinner with my wife, we can easily be looking at, what, $50 at even a two-$$-sign restaurant, especially if we get drinks. If one or more of the kids come along, multiply that number. It's not that these prices are unreasonable; it's that it adds up. How much per week should I budget to get meals that have a likelihood of being pretty forgettable?

But dining out is not just about meals that you might or might not be able to make at home. Going out is about third places—not home, not work, but a third place. For example, unlike my parents' generation, we don't "entertain" at home in the way that seemed to be a premise in many 1950s-era cookbooks. If we want to socialize with people, our custom (and I suspect that of many folks) is to meet up for coffee or lunch or a beer. Obviously, socializing over a table—socializing at all—was severely constrained over the last year and some.


Pages from "The Joy of Cooking" (1975) about entertaining

My wife and I also enjoyed taking our laptops to a coffee shop or pub and working or writing. (I wrote many blog posts at an ale house that was within walking distance of our last domicile.)

Did these protocols change over the pandemic time? I have started meeting people again to catch up, and it's the same as before—find a place convenient to both parties, and then have breakfast or a beer or whatever. But I am much more aware now that I'm paying to socialize, so to speak, and I'm maybe a little more resentful when I shell out a hunk of money for something that wasn't very good, the company itself of course excepted. (It's great to see people in person again.)

Based on my limited experience again of working or writing away from home, I know that I still enjoy that. Coffee shops are opening up again to allow people to sit and work; my wife and I spent a couple of pleasant hours at a coffee shop a few Sundays ago plugging away on our respective writing projects.


Back to writing at coffee shops

It would be easy to get back into a habit of going out 4 or 5 times a week to do this. But it's possible that pandemic-time habits have made me rethink all this. Although it will be easy again to think that I'm too tired to make dinner at home and go out, I've gotten out of the habit. I think about whether I'll enjoy it and how much it costs. The same is true for grabbing the laptop and settling at a table somewhere to work. Fortunately, our libraries are opening up again to allow people to sit and work: a third place that doesn't cost anything to use (though the hours are not always convenient).

I don't think we'll change our socializing habits, though; I anticipate that we'll still meet people out in the third place. But the pandemic reset expectations about socializing, I think. We went months without seeing anyone in person, and I'm still okay with limiting face-to-face socializing to just occasionally, maybe a couple of times a month at most. In this regard I think I differ from my wife, who is not as content as I am to have long periods between visits.

I've read a number of articles about how there's pent-up demand for things to get back to how it was in pre-pandemic times. I suspect, though, that for some of us, the forced changes over the last year have done a reset on our expectations and, possibly, on our habits.

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  10:26 PM

Covid and name-spelling

I've always had an issue in trying to tell people what my last name is. As I've written about before, people have a hard time understanding the name Pope. "Hope?" "Polk"? There's just something about that combination of consonants that's always hard to hear, especially over the phone.

Well, Covid certainly hasn't helped. I'm not a particularly clear talker under the best of circumstances. Add to that wearing a mask and talking through a plastic shield, and I feel like I practically have to yell to transact business when I'm at a store. One of the local shops posted the following sign, which might seem vaguely rude, but I think everyone understands the issue.

However, even yelling is often not enough to make my name clear to people across the counter. For some people, it can help to spell their name. But the letters P-O-P-E sound similar to other letters, like B, D, E, and spelling my name can just generate a second round of "did you mean …"? Another option is to say something like P as in Peter, and so on. When I talk on the phone with people who are accustomed to the problems of transcribing names, they'll sometimes do this.

Long ago the military solved this problem by inventing a so-called spelling or phonetic alphabet. You probably know this alphabet, which starts with Alfa (or Alpha), Bravo, Charlie, and finishes with Yankee, Zulu:

The beauty of this particular alphabet is that the names were carefully chosen to be unambiguous. Although the letters B and P sound similar, the words Bravo and Papa don't, so there's not much chance of them being confused, or Delta and Golf, or Mike and November. If you look through this alphabet, you'll see that none of the names sound like any of the other names.

So now when I am masked up and talking through a shield, I've taken to preemptively spelling out my name using this alphabet. I'll go to the pharmacy, and when they ask what name the prescription is under, I'll say "POPE, Papa-Oscar-Papa-Echo!" I sometimes get funny looks after this, but so far, no one has misunderstood what I'm spelling out.[1]

[1] Many people who were in the military know this alphabet, and a guy I used to work with who was ex-military taught me the term Charlie Foxtrot as a way in polite company to refer to a clusterfuck.

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  12:19 PM

In an effort to improve my sleep regimen, I was recently prescribed a CPAP machine. This device helps with obstructive sleep apnea, where your throat closes during sleep. The CPAP machine basically pushes air into your nose and/or mouth to keep things open.

The concept is relatively simple, but it involves technology. You wear a mask; the mask is connected via a hose to the device itself, which blows air and has sensors to adjust the pressure and temperature. There's a water reservoir so the machine can humidify the air it's blowing at you. There are air filters that need to be changed periodically. The mask, hose, and water reservoirs need to be washed regularly.

So how does the manufacturer (Philips) make and distribute a machine that's a this complex but is intended for a wide variety of people? I count four ways, and am wondering about a fifth.

First, before you can take home your CPAP machine, you get a 20-minute training session slash demo. The trainer walks you how to assemble and use the machine, and they give you the schedule and some tips for cleaning.

I read once that people retain 10% of what they hear during a presentation. The exact number (10%) isn't that important; the idea is just that people don't retain everything you tell them.[1] And I think about all the people who use a CPAP machine. Is a 20-minute demo going to be enough to train this wide range of people? My guess is no.

So second, the machine comes with a manual—two, in fact, a quickstart and a detailed manual. These reiterate a lot of what you learn in the presentation, so you have at least the possibility of hearing it all twice. The quickstart has a lot of pictures. (The manual, a few line drawings.) For me, it was an interesting case of reading documentation for something that I felt I kind of already knew but that I needed some refreshing on.

A third way that Philips tries to help their users is through design. For example, when things connect, they go together in only one way. There's only one way to plug in the machine. The hose goes into the machine only one way. The filters and water reservoir go into the machine only one way; you can't close it if they're not right. The nosepiece in the mask has clear markings right on it for how to put it together. These are all versions of self-documenting features: you literally do not need to read the manual to understand how to put together the components.

As another example, there are very few controls on the machine. For basic use, you need to press only a single button to turn the machine on and the same button again to turn it off. There's a second button if you want to adjust the "ramp"—that is, to set the air pressure to increase gradually when you start up the machine.[2]

And there is a fourth way in which Philips can help people. The machine phones home to report a bunch of statistics about the user's sleep. (That part of the machine required no setup at all, which was great.) This feature has several purposes (some of them a little uncomfortable to contemplate), but at least if the distributor is getting odd reports or no reports from the patient, they know something went wrong. Perhaps they contact you if that's the case.

I imagine that with these efforts on Philips's part, most people can manage to put on their mask and get the machine running. But how well Philips does attempt to help users with ongoing maintenance? It's easy to forget to fill the reservoir. Similarly, the training emphasized that you should wash the hose every week. Is everyone really going to do that? I mean, we're all supposed to floss every day, but how many people really do that?

So I wonder. Does the machine stop and display a message if the water reservoir is empty? Does it tell you when it's time to change an air filter? Does it (somehow) figure out that it's time to wash the hose? I don't know, and I'm reluctant to get into a situation where the machine has to tell me these things. But given the many ways in which the machine, once running, can go wrong, I hope that the manufacturer has taken steps to try to keep it going.

All in all, giving out a complex piece of technology to people and expecting them to all use it right is a hard problem. It's clear that the folks at Philips have thought a lot about this and come up with different ways to try to handle it. Still, I am curious how many people fail when trying to use the machine—they never figure out how to use it, they use it wrong, or they don't maintain it and the machine itself fails. As someone with a professional interest in communicating complex concepts, I find this to be an interesting challenge.

[1] Someone on my team at work has a variant on this idea: you need to hear something 7 times before you learn it. ^

[2] There is also a dial that you can use to make a bunch of other settings, and the dial is multi-modal: turn left for one mode, turn right for another mode, and push for a third mode. Arg. I hate multi-modal controls. But at least this one is optional after you've done the initial setup. ^

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  08:15 PM

I spend a lot of time on social media—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. There's value here; for example, I "know" many people only through these media, and I much appreciate what I've learned from them. For example, I know hardly any linguists IRL, but I follow many on Twitter, and it's great.

But even I can tell that I overdo it. It's a time suck, and it's an easy way to procrastinate when I need to be doing, you know, work. ("While this documentation is building, I'll just check Twitter quick-like.")

More insidiously, too much social media starts making me cranky. And when I get cranky, I do unfortunate things, like respond in pissy ways to innocent posts by other, nicer people. Or, gah, I give in to the temptation to respond to morons and their idiotic political opinions, a no-win situation if ever there was one.

So I decided recently to implement what I'm calling Asocial Sundays. Between midnight on Saturday night and midnight on Sunday night, I don't visit any social media sites, period.

This is a new experiment, but I can see some benefits already. Not having the option of social media redirects my attention to more productive things. If I'm sitting at my desk and finish some task—paying bills, say—I don't just mindlessly switch to FB or Twitter to see what's up. Instead, I might actually get up from my desk and wander into the rest of the apartment.

It also has been a way to unplug from a source of stress. We all know that it is distinctly not conducive to good sleep to doomscroll Twitter before bed. Politics and COVID are inescapable on social media, and both are not only inherently stressful, they're sources of endless arguments, outrage, scolding, shaming, uninformed opinions, and on and on. It's nice to take a break from that.

I'm far from ready to withdraw altogether from social media, the way some of my friends have. (A social media detox or social media fast, as it's sometimes called.) I've occasionally considered unplugging permanently from Facebook because their ad models are scary and because Zuckerberg is an incorrigible weasel. But as I say, I still get a lot from my social interactions.

If the experiment goes well, I might at least expand my lights-out policy for social media. I suspect that the more I do it, the easier it will be to use social media in a healthier way.

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  08:25 AM

We've been without a microwave oven for about 9 months now.

This is not because we have some sort of philosophical objection to microwaves; the reason is much more practical. Before we remodeled the condo, there was a built-in microwave above the stove, which doubled as the no-vent/recirculating range hood. We knew that we didn't want this 1980s-era microwave, and we replaced it with a dedicated range hood:

Our initial idea was that we would get a countertop microwave. But once we'd moved in and sorted out the kitchen, there wasn't really an obvious place to put a microwave, because there's just limited counter space, alas.

So we've been doing without. This means we've had to explore substitutes for how we used to use the microwave. Like, how do you reheat leftovers without a microwave?

We use our oven or toaster oven. The room we might have given over to a microwave is taken up by a small toaster oven. That appliance is more useful than a microwave, I think, because it can heat and toast and broil. I make toast all the time, and we have no toaster-toaster, so this is a daily-use device for me.

One of the advantages of a microwave is that it's fast. But heating things in our little toaster oven doesn't take that much longer. It's a little oven, so it heats up pretty fast. It also has a convection setting (which I think just means it has a fan that blows the hot air around). All in all, what might have taken, say, 2 minutes in the microwave takes maybe 8 or 10 minutes in the little oven.

We heat things on the stovetop. Anything that's got liquid—soup, stew, whatever—we can throw in a pot and heat on the stovetop.

There are definitely dishes that would be easier to reheat in a microwave. Leftover pasta, for example. What I've been doing is putting these into a pan on the stovetop with a glug of water and a lid. It's not perfect, since it inevitably steams whatever you're reheating, but it's tolerable.

We (mostly I) heat things in a frying pan. Some dishes can be fried or refried. Heat a splash of oil in a frying pan and toss in your leftovers. If I fried up hash yesterday and have leftovers (unlikely), I can reheat it by giving it a short version of the same treatment again. And if we've got something like leftover rice, I can steam it again, or I can make fried rice.

I never much liked defrosting things in the microwave anyway. These days, if I have to defrost a hunk of hamburger, for example, I'll put it in the Dutch oven on very low heat on the stovetop.

And then there's popcorn. I love me my popcorn, but I never used prepackaged microwave popcorn anyway. I did have a series of microwave poppers, but they have an unfortunate tendency to break. So I went to the discount store and got a cheap 6-quart pan that is my dedicated popcorn popper. I heat it on the stove and do that classic thing where you shake the pan as the popcorn pops merrily.

I don't miss the microwave as much as I thought I would. It's been interesting to, in effect, return to our pre-microwave days. I didn't grow up with a microwave (back when they were known as "radar ranges," ha), and it wasn't ingrained in me to rely on it. We might still get one someday, but I think that the longer we make do without it, the less likely it is that we'll want to house one more bulky appliance in our limited kitchen space.

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  07:30 PM

As I explained in part 1 and part 2, Duolingo's pattern- and repetition-based instruction is supposed to teach you a language without grammar instruction. How's that working for me?

I should note that I've had a lot of language instruction—I rassled with two-way prepositions in German and with the subjunctive in Spanish. I can explain phrasal verbs in English. I know what vocative means in "vocative comma."

So I'm probably an outlier in Duolingo's audience. Still, language learning is language learning, and even when you're studying a language the traditional way, you're only going to get better if you practice and practice, which is one of Duolingo's mantras. Could I learn Latin through repetition alone and with no explanations?

Possibly, but I wasn't patient enough to find out. Even at the very beginning, when I was presented with a new pattern, I was both learning it and analyzing it. To repeat an example from earlier:

Feminae domi sunt. (The women are at home)
Viri domi sunt. (The men are at home)
Pueri domi sunt. (The boys are at home)
Puellae domi sunt. (The girls are at home)

From this I abstracted that one plural ending was -i and another was -ae. I might have even concluded that -i is a plural for masculine nouns and -ae for feminine ones. (I guess I also abstracted the idea of noun genders and singular/plural verb conjugations, none of which Duolingo has breathed a word about.) So I'm not just learning the patterns, I'm starting to fill in a chart in my head of noun declensions and verb conjugations.

The first thing that threw me a bit was encountering this contrast:

Femina domi est. (The woman is at home)
Estne femina domi? (Is the woman at home?)

My previous language experience had not primed me to expect that when a verb is used as a question, it takes (or can take) an -ne suffix. Because this was novel to me, I stumbled over it repeatedly until—just as Duolingo hopes—I just went with it. (Mostly; I still forget sometimes.)

As I progressed, I kept mental tabs like this on grammatical aspects as they were introduced. For example, from sentences like this[1]:

… I tucked away that the 2nd singular form of verbs (present tense) ends in -s and that in the singular, direct objects (i.e., accusative case) have an -m at the end.

Eventually I got to something that I just could not figure out. Compare these sentences:

ego litteras latinas lego. (I read Latin literature [lit. "Latin letters," how poetic])
ego litteris latinis studeo. (I study Latin literature)

Here's where my need to analyze the grammar worked against me. In both sentences, "Latin letters" is the direct object. But which is the form for the direct object, litteras or litteris? I kept seeing both, it seemed to me, and this made no sense to me.

Maybe I could have just accepted this contrast, the way a Roman toddler would have eventually gotten it through sheer repetition. But after I'd already spent some time deducing that the -as ending was an accusative (direct object) ending, what was I to make of this seemingly arbitrary difference?

On every exercise, when you've submitted your answer, there's a Discuss link at the bottom:

When I was sufficiently flummoxed by this direct-object thing, I clicked the link. Sure enough, I was hardly the only one to have had this question. Someone who knew Latin had explained: the verb studere ("to study") takes a dative object. That's why it's ego litteris latinis studeo.

This is where Duolingo's philosophy and traditional instruction really part ways. The term "dative object" instantly cleared this up for me; I'd encountered this in German and in Old English. I imagine that the folks at Duolingo assume that the term "dative object" would be gibberish for many (most?) of their students, so of course they don't formally provide an explanation. But they've provided the discussion forum as a backdoor, so to speak, where learners can talk to one another and where you can often get the grammatical explanations you won't get directly from Duolingo.

At this point, I decided I wanted to supplement Duolingo. This was a learning experience in itself. The teaching of Latin was the template for language instruction for, what, the last 15 centuries? And boy, a lot of Latin coursework is the epitome of old-skool (haha) language learning. The classic approach, it seems, is that after a quick lesson on how to pronounce the letters, you learn all 6 cases for the first noun declension! Fun times.

After looking around and reading a lot of reviews, I settled on three books:

And I've got a notebook and I even went and got 3x5 cards to make flashcards with. Not to mention that I can find stuff on the internet.

I'll keep doing Duolingo, because I do actually have faith in the principles they're following. Daily practice and repetition are powerful learning tools, and I've learned stuff by adhering to their philosophy. Plus they have some excellent and useful sentences, like Uxor maritum senilem habet ("The wife has an old husband") and Velisne vinum rubrum ("Would you like red wine?").

Overall, though, I'm not sure if the Duolingo/ALM approach can ultimately work all by itself. Maybe for others, but I guess I'm not going to give it a chance to be my sole way to learn Latin.

[1] By coincidence (or was it?) I started seeing sentences involving graves around Halloween last year.

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  09:40 PM

As I said in part 1, when I started with Duolingo, I realized that it used the principles of the audio-lingual method (ALM), which emphasizes patterns and practice over grammar instruction. But how do you teach someone a language starting from nothing? And, as per the ALM/naturalistic philosophy, without explaining anything?

When I started with Duolingo, I didn't know how the app worked. Now I'm sorry that I didn't start capturing screenshots right at the beginning. But I'll try to recapture some of it by showing you roughly how the teaching progresses.

1. Start with pictures

Duolingo started by introducing basic vocabulary with pictures, like this:

As you can see, they make these as easy get as possible. Hey, Latin is fun!

2. Solicit sentences where it's hard to make errors

The next phase is to have you recognize words that you've been introduced to. They do this in a couple of ways. One approach is the classic multiple-choice answer. In my exercises, there have only been 3 choices, and I've found that the 2 incorrect answers are pretty easy to eliminate. They're not trying to trip you up; they're trying to make you successful, so they're asking for just a tiny bit of effort. So far.

(By the time I got around to snapping this screen, I'd gone quite a bit beyond the intro to the words puer ("boy") and urbs ("city"), obviously.)

Another approach that they use is to give you a short sentence and then have you assemble the translation by selecting (clicking) words from of a limited set of choices. In this phase, they again give you choices that make it pretty easy to get the right answer.

They use this approach a lot, and it's one way that they introduce changes in the pattern. Here's a variant form of urbs in a sentence:

In the first example, Corinna built four cities. In the second example, I built the city. What you're supposed to deduce from many repetitions of these types of related sentences is that when "city" is singular and the direct object, it's urbem; when it's plural and the direct object, it's urbes. But as I keep saying (sorry), they never utter terms like direct object, or for that matter, singular or plural. With enough repetition, you start picking up patterns like these.

They also use this "click the word" approach to introduce vocabulary that doesn't lend itself to pictures, like verbs. They give you a sentence where, by process of elimination, you figure out which one is the one you don't know. In this example, it's almost impossible (imo) not to figure out what venis means, given the choices they provide:

Up to now, you're just clicking. This seems weak—as someone on Twitter said, "I dislike clicking things to try to learn a language." A fair point, but there's a method here: you're simply seeing vocabulary, with a minor boost of having to actually pick from a small selection of choices. Now they change it up.

3. Solicit sentences aurally

The next step is that they dictate a sentence to you and you type it out:

This does a couple of things. One is that you encounter the new terms in a different medium, namely through the ear. (If I were studying a modern language, this listening skill would be critical[1].) An important benefit is that you're writing the terms that up to now you've only been reading and occasionally clicking. This is stepping up your language acquisition; you're now actually producing the language, albeit in a highly prompted way.

4. Translate to English free-form

Another form of exercise is where you produce a free-form English translation of what you're reading:

This takes away the training wheels (no hints via the clickable words) and it exercises your ability to understand what the different word forms actually mean. For example, in this example, you have to recognize that sunt means "are" and that Philadelphiae means "in Philadelphia," even though there's no "in" in front of it. (These are things that you would have been introduced to and drilled on before you see this exercise.)

5. Solicit translations into Latin

The most advanced exercise I've encountered so far is when they give you a sentence in English and ask you to translate it into Latin with no clues at all:

This requires everything you've learned: what words to use, how to inflect them, and what order to put them into (lexicon, morphology, syntax). With Latin, that's as much as you'd theoretically ever need to learn, but I guess I'll see down the line.

How to make this work

Although you do these different types and levels of exercises, the information is not presented in this strict sequence. Each lesson mixes up these different approaches in a set of 10 exercises.

The teaching also relies on these principles:

  • You get immediate feedback as to whether you got the exercise correct.
  • If you get an exercise wrong, it's repeated later in the lesson, though not immediately; they seem to follow a practice of intermittent reinforcement. As far as I can tell, you can't finish the lesson until you've gotten them all right.
  • You repeat and repeat and repeat. Even as you make progress, you do the same exercise again and again.
  • The lessons are short, no more than a few minutes. Their idea is that you can spend 5 to 10 minutes a day and make progress as long as you do it every single day.[2]

I'm probably overlooking some aspects of the pedagogy here, but I think that this is the gist of how they've designed the lessons for progressive learning: see, copy, listen, produce. As I say, I'm not sure I'll get to a phase where I have to respond to a question by writing a free-form answer, which would be to create novel sentences that have no direct pattern. (That would be hard to machine-grade, I think?)

I did make progress with this approach. However, as someone's who's studied other languages before, I found the no-explanation approach a little frustrating. More on that in the next installment.

[1] Language mastery consists of four skills, in order of difficulty: reading, listening, writing, speaking. Latin might be different from other Duolingo languages in that they have you read sentences, listen to them, and write them; but so far in my experience, they don't ask you to produce any spoken language. Then again … conversational Latin?

As an aside, they don't explain Latin pronunciation; they just show you words and then say them, and you sort out how the letters correspond to sounds. That's pretty easy in Latin, although I did eventually discover that I was learning "classical Latin" pronunciation as opposed to "ecclesiastical Latin," which sounds more like Italian.

[2] These principles are similar to the ones used by Kumon for teaching math and reading.

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  10:19 PM

A couple of months ago, I started learning Latin by using Duolingo, a language-learning app for your phone or browser. I sort of knew about Duolingo because my kids had been using it, one to work on Spanish and the other to work on Japanese. They'd shared with me some of the amusingly strange sentences that Duolingo produces, like "A cat does not play piano" in Japanese.

When I learned that Duolingo had a course in beta for Latin, I thought I'd give it a shot. I'd somehow managed to never study Latin, a language that's always seemed not only inherently interesting but useful for understanding Spanish and, of course, for grokking English word origins.

We pause briefly here for my favorite scene from the movie "Life of Brian":

As soon as I started Duolingo, I recognized the pedagogic technique they were following. When I was learning German in high school, we knew this as the audio-lingual method[1]. To quote one source, this "foster[s] naturalistic language acquisition in a classroom setting." The idea is that you learn (internalize) patterns of the language. They don't explain any grammar. Instead, the instruction teaches you short snippets that it then changes in very controlled ways so that you can follow along. Here's an example:

Femina domi est. (The woman is at home)
Vir domi est. (The man is at home)
Puer domi est. (The boy is at home)
Puella domi est. (The girl is at home)

The hope is that you internalize xxx domi est for "xxx is at home." Once they've drilled you on this for a while, they change the pattern:

Feminae domi sunt. (The women are at home)
Viri domi sunt. (The men are at home)
Pueri domi sunt. (The boys are at home)
Puellae domi sunt. (The girls are at home)

Now they've introduced the concept that xxx domi sunt == "xxx are at home". You spend a fair amount of time drilling these variations until you seem like you've mastered both domi sunt and the various plural forms.

At no point do they stop and say that est and sunt are verbs, and est is used for 3rd person singular, or any of that stuff that you get in traditional language learning. The "naturalistic" approach of ALM is supposed to follow how children learn a language (I guess?), since we all learned our mother tongue without a single grammar lesson.

How can you use this to learn a language from scratch? I'll show you in the next installment.

[1] When I got to college and was studying German, one of our professors who specialized in pedagogy was from Germany and had a strong German accent. Ever since those days I only hear this as "ze odd-yo ling-val messod."

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  09:33 PM

One of our accomplishments for 2019 was to complete the next phase of our downsizing. In 2017 we sold our big house and moved into a nice urban apartment. In 2019 we had a small condo remodeled that I owned, and then moved into that. This involved initially making many decisions (cabinets, carpeting, fixtures) and then doing some work (painting), and then of course actually moving and arranging many things. So many things.

I decided recently that I was going to mentally declare this remodel-and-move-in phase done. From here on out, I decided, we weren't crossing off the last items on the remodel-and-move-in list; we were starting a new things-to-improve list. But there was one final thing I wanted to get done before I could do this.

Bear with me a sec while I explain the situation. A feature I like of our new place is what we call the "book nook." In the area that was originally designed to be a little dining room (emphasis on little) we put a wall of bookshelves:

As you can see, there's a corner bookcase. It turns out that a "corner bookcase," at least as conceived by IKEA, is not a bookcase that fits into a corner. It's a bookcase that's angled against the two bookcases to either side and held in place with some brackets. As a result, there's space behind the angled bookcase. The following schematic shows the arrangement, looking down from the top. The bookcases are outlined in blue, and the open space is shaded:

I didn't think much about this until one of the kids visited shortly after we moved in and asked "What if one of the cats gets trapped down there?"

I had never thought about this. The cats are not bookcase climbers, or they hadn't been in our earlier places. But who knows—maybe the move would make them anxious and they'd try to hide on top of the bookcases or something. The bookcases are 7 feet high, and if a cat wound up behind one, it would mean dismantling a good part of the book nook. Not to mention a seriously traumatized kitty.

That very evening I jury-rigged a pile of big books and notebooks to sort of cover the top of the open area. This looked sloppy and it detracted from that nice book-nook look.

So I decided that my last move-in project would be to deal with this, which I did on December 31. I used a piece of pegboard that I happened to have around. As you can see from the earlier schematic, there's nothing really to hold up the board on the wall. I ended up screwing an angle bracket into the wall in a way that the pegboard can rest on it. Here's the finished cover:

It's nothing you'd want to show in Architectural Digest, but I think it will work to prevent a cat from falling down behind the bookcase. And better yet, I can now declare that as of the last day of 2019, we were finished moving in.

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