Archive for December 2016

Thoughts on Language Learning

I went to a good private school (Kinkaid in Houston, if anyone knows it).  I didn't really know how good it was until I went to an Ivy League college and found I was ahead of most of the other students in most every subject.  The thing  I thank Kinkaid for more than anything is that we had to write -- and write, and write.  Every test was an essay test.  By the time I was 18, I could write a well-organized and reasonably coherent (but not well-proofed, as readers will know!) five paragraph persuasive essay in my sleep.   (My ability to communicate was not really advanced at all in college, and I only began to learn more about persuasive, organized communication when I joined McKinsey & Co. and was taught the pyramid principle).

Anyway, that is all background to my one gripe about primary school -- I hated language learning.  Hated it.  I took Spanish from Kindergarten through the 11th grade, but counted the years and months and days to when I could quit.  From when I was 18 until I was about 45, I never had any desire to learn another word of any language again.

But about 10 years ago I picked up a Pimsleur language course (Italian, I think) and I loved it.  Knowing some Italian really enhanced my trip to Italy.  From there on, I have been studying a number of languages.

I want to pause for a minute and reflect on why I hated language learning so much in school but like it now.  It could just be a function of age -- I was bored stiff plowing through Les Miserables in high school but re-read it as an adult and loved it.  But I think there is a bigger problem:  I think schools suck at teaching languages.  My kids, who generally love learning and are good at school, hated language class.  My guess is that people just want to be able to converse, which is what courses like Pimsleur are geared towards.  When I go to Florence, I want to be able to order dinner in Italian and talk to the shopkeepers.   But in high school we seemed to spend a lot of time learning two (!) forms of the pluperfect subjunctive in Spanish.  Great for the AP, but my guess is that the bartender in Barcelona is going to give you a pass for messing up the subjunctive.  "If I were to have a beer, how much would it have cost me yesterday and  how much might if have cost if I had come tomorrow instead?"

So I have taken about 60 hours each of Italian, Spanish, German, and Mandarin.    I seem to be able to remember them all in deep memory but I can only hold one other language in my short-term, immediately-available recall buffer.  So I have to do 5-6 hours of one of these again before I go to the country to shift that language into the top of the memory heap.

I like the Pimsleur approach, which is pure auditory (which matches how I learn, I have a much higher ability to remember what I hear than what I read).  The courses use an approach called spaced repetition that works well for me, and must work for others given that these courses, which are pretty old and predate all the new Internet tools, are still quite popular.  The one oddity about them is that they almost never explain any points of grammar.  For example, they really don't explain the rules of verb conjugation.  You are expected to figure out the rules as you go based on the examples -- essentially you back into the rules based on use.  This works pretty well, though certain situations can drive English speakers crazy.  For example, we are not used to having a command form of verb conjugations, as Spanish and Italian have, so I have seen folks get confused for a while when the verb in "You can come with me" and "Come with me" are conjugated differently.   At some point one needs more structure for grammar, which means I almost always buy a basic grammar book and one of those 501 verb conjugation books for each language I do on Pimsleur.

People always ask me which languages were easiest and hardest.  The answer is that it depends.  Each have hard and easy parts.  Here are a few thoughts on each (all from an English-speaker's perspective):

  • Spanish and Italian are incredibly similar, so similar it can be confusing knowing both, as I forget exactly which word is which when their words for something are very similar.  Both have a lot of borrow words in common with English and have sentence structures and word order reasonably similar to English (except for having adjectives follow rather than precede nouns).  Like other romance languages, they have gendered nouns which are unfamiliar to English speakers and generally I find gendered nouns add complexity without any really gain in meaning.   I consider both Spanish and Italian to be easy languages for an English speaker to learn.  In terms of which of the two is easiest, I have studied Spanish since I was 4 so I can't really be unbiased here, and they are similar in many ways.  Spanish plurals are more natural to English speakers, and I think management of adjectives with the genders is a bit easier and it seems to be more regular.  Italian verb tenses are a bit easier, without as much complexity in past tenses as there are in Spanish.  Overall, though, both are fun and easy to learn.
  • German is a mixed bag but was generally a lot harder for me to learn.   If you hate the two genders in Romance languages, you are going to love having three (!) in German.  German has pretty rigid rules about sentence order which in many cases will be unnatural to English speakers.  For example, there are certain types of sentences where the verb goes at the very end, after everything else (something Mark Twain made fun of).  When you have a list of adverbs or prepositional phrases in a sentence, there is a correct order for them (e.g. time before place).  In English we would consider "I ate in the kitchen in the morning" and "I ate in the morning in the kitchen" to be equally OK but not so in German.  The articles and possessive pronouns not only have different forms based on the 3 genders of the noun, but there are different forms if the noun is in different parts of a sentence, eg the direct or indirect object.  I found myself having to diagram each sentence and plan it out in my head before I let it come out of my mouth.  I can say a fair amount in German, but it never became natural.  The good news about German is that pronunciation is very regular, though there are a few sounds you have to learn to make that we don't have in English.  There are a ton of borrow words, so a lot of vocabulary comes easily.  And verb conjugation is pretty straightforwards, with what seems to be fewer cases in use than in, say, Spanish (never learned a future tense and no special command tense, though I suppose one could be snarky and say all German verbs are in command form.)
  • Mandarin is a mixed bag but it may surprise English speakers that it is easy in some ways.  First the hard parts:  Speaking it is really hard for a westerner, as every sound has at least four possible tones, plus variations such as falling  and rising.  I am a terrible singer and believe I would have done much better at Mandarin if I were good at music, since the hitting the tones right felt a lot like singing to me.   The other hard part about Mandarin is the almost complete and total lack of borrow words.  Every single word is new and unfamiliar.  But there are aspects that are surprisingly easy, such as basic grammar.  There are no gendered nouns, there are really no plurals, and within a tense there seems to be no very conjugation -- For example the form of "to be" for I, you, she, they are all the single same word.  Many things from numbers to prepositions are very logical, in some ways almost like it was designed by a group of scientists.  Past tenses are also surprisingly easy to form.  There are a few quirks, like special count words -- it is not just one beer, but one count of beer, and the word for "count" changes whether you are counting beers or people or something else.  But all in all, a very easy language to learn -- if it were not such a royal pain in the butt to pronounce for westerners.

By the way, I find that being able to speak the languages has different value depending on the language.  People in Italy and Spanish-speaking countries are just absurdly delighted if you can speak any of their language -- there is a big payback in goodwill.  Also, it is far easier in Italy or Latin American (than, say, in Germany) to find oneself in a place where no one speaks English.  In Germany, the homeless people speak better English than my German.  When I insisted on trying to use German, the Germans were generally willing to let me try but you could just see their impatience, knowing they could have finished the exchange two minutes earlier in English.  Mandarin turned out to be a virtual non-starter.  I just did not have enough experience conversing with natives to be comprehensible.  Also, it was easy to run into many other dialects, or other languages like Cantonese.  Others have reported that many Chinese hate when Westerners try to speak Mandarin and will pretend not to understand it -- I can't confirm or deny this, though my Chinese exchange student loves it when I try to speak Mandarin.

Postscript:  Mark Twain on German:

A dog is "der Hund"; a woman is "die Frau"; a horse is "das Pferd"; now you put that dog in the genitive case, and is he the same dog he was before? No, sir; he is "des Hundes"; put him in the dative case and what is he? Why, he is "dem Hund." Now you snatch him into the accusative case and how is it with him? Why, he is "den Hunden." But suppose he happens to be twins and you have to pluralize him- what then? Why, they'll swat that twin dog around through the 4 cases until he'll think he's an entire international dog-show all in is own person. I don't like dogs, but I wouldn't treat a dog like that- I wouldn't even treat a borrowed dog that way. Well, it's just the same with a cat. They start her in at the nominative singular in good health and fair to look upon, and they sweat her through all the 4 cases and the 16 the's and when she limps out through the accusative plural you wouldn't recognize her for the same being. Yes, sir, once the German language gets hold of a cat, it's goodbye cat. That's about the amount of it.
- Mark Twain's Notebook

Much more here.   I would swear I saw a quote from Twain that said he had read a whole book in German but did not know what was happening until he got to all the verbs on the last page, but I can't find the quote.

Whose Brain Did I Put In? Abby Someone. Abby....Normal

Sorry, I can't get that Young Frankenstein scene out of my head when I read this story:  Wrong sperm may have fertilized eggs of 26 Dutch women in IVF mix-up


Solar Roads -- Remember These When Environmentalists Accuse You of Being "Anti-Science"

I have written about the horribly stupid but oddly appealing idea of solar roads many times before, most recently here.  As a quick review, here are a few of the reasons the idea is so awful:

 Even if they can be made to sort of work, the cost per KwH has to be higher than for solar panels in a more traditional installations -- the panels are more expensive because they have to be hardened for traffic, and their production will be lower due to dirt and shade and the fact that they can't be angled to the optimal pitch to catch the most sun.  Plus, because the whole road has to be blocked (creating traffic snafus) just to fix one panel, it is far more likely that dead panels will just be left in place rather than replaced.

But the environmentalists are at it again, seem hell-bent on building solar roads with your tax money;  (hat tip to a reader, who knew these solar road stories are like crack for me)

France has opened what it claims to be the world’s first solar panel road, in a Normandy village.

A 1km (0.6-mile) route in the small village of Tourouvre-au-Perche covered with 2,800 sq m of electricity-generating panels, was inaugurated on Thursday by the ecology minister, Ségolène Royal.

It cost €5m (£4.2m) to construct and will be used by about 2,000 motorists a day during a two-year test period to establish if it can generate enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents.

The choice of Normandy for the first solar road is an odd one, given that:

Normandy is not known for its surfeit of sunshine: Caen, the region’s political capital, enjoys just 44 days of strong sunshine a year

Wow, nothing like a 12% utilization to really bump up those returns on investment.

The article follows the first rule of environmental writing, which is to give the investment required or the value of the benefits, but never both (so the return on investment can't be calculated).  This article follows this rule, by giving the investment but stating the benefits in a way that is impossible for the average person to put a value on, e.g. "enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents".  Since we have no idea how well-lighted their streets are or how efficient the lighting is, this is meaningless.  And by the way, they forgot to discuss any discussion of batteries and their cost if they really are going to run night-time lighting with solar.

But, the article does actually give something close to the numbers one would like to have to evaluate another similar investment, and oh boy are the numbers awful:

In 2014, a solar-powered cycle path opened in Krommenie in the Netherlands and, despite teething problems, has generated 3,000kWh of energy – enough to power an average family home for a year. The cost of building the cycle path, however, could have paid for 520,000kWh.

As a minimum, based on these facts, the path has been opened 2 years and thus generates 1500 kWh a year (though probably less since it likely has been open longer than 2 years).  This means that this investment repays about 0.29 percent of its investment every year.  If we ignore the cost of capital, and assume unlimited life of the panels (vs a more likely 5-10 years in this hard service) we get an investment payback period of only 347 years.  Yay!

Christmas Advice for Those Worried About Global Warming

If you are worried about greenhouse gasses and global warming, then I have some Christmas advice for you.   When you are done with your Christmas tree, do NOT take it to one of those "recycling" locations most towns have.  The recycling process is typically chipping and mulching the trees, which just accelerates their decomposition into greenhouse gasses.   If you are really concerned about catastrophic warming, you want to use your tree as a carbon sink.  Have it shrink-wrapped in some sort of plastic what won't biodegrade and then landfill it -- the deeper it is buried, the better.  Those folks trying to get you to "recycle" your tree are secretly in the pay of the Koch brothers and trying to trick you into ruining the environment.

Create Your Own Star Wars Title Crawl

Darwin Award in 3, 2, 1....

Computer Gaming Update

Well, I have now spent scores of hours playing Factorio and have almost completely ignored, so far, the excellent new Civ 6.  I was about done with Factorio when I discovered Bob's Mods, a set of game mods that about triple the number of resources and chemical intermediaries and make the game one or two orders of magnitude even more complex.

This is going to have incredibly niche appeal, so be forewarned.  If you spent most of your time in SimCity or City: Skylines trying to optimize road flow rather than making a pretty city, or if you like Space Engineers, this may be your game.

Awesome Web Site - Radio Around the World

This is a pretty cool site - spin the globe, click on the dots around the world, and listen in on local radio.  There are other web sites with links but I find this interface way more fun to play with.


Trump Silver Lining: Liberals Are Now Defending Trade Deficits

Thanks to Trump, it appears that some of the Left have discovered economic reality and are defending trade and suddenly seem less unsettled by trade deficits.  Here is Kevin Drum with one in a series trying to downplay panic over trade deficits, in this case with Mexico.    Here are some of my recent thoughts on the trade deficit.

International trade is such an obvious benefit to the country that it is simply incredible that we are, hundreds of years after Adam Smith and Ricardo and Bastiat, still trying to explain and defend it against ignorance.  It's like we have to constantly battle recurrences of the phlogiston theory of combustion.

Why Is the Diet Coke Always Out of Stock?

As a purchaser of Diet Coke in the medium-sized bottles, I have come to notice that all the other Coke products are often fully stocked, but the Diet Coke is sold out.  In hotels, when I hit the vending machine, if one type of soda is sold out, it will be the Diet Coke.   Here is my grocery store this morning, with a sight I have seen many times at each of the three stores where I shop.  Note that there is full stocking of all the Coke SKU's with a huge gap where the Diet Coke should be.


I like business analysis conundrums like this, so I can think of three explanations:

  1. Observer bias:  It could be all the other SKU's are out of stock an equal amount of time, but since I am not looking for them I do not notice.  I will say that I began thinking about this years ago and over the last year I have tried to pay special attention each time to what is and isn't stocked, but this is still a very likely possibility.
  2. Diet Coke loses money:  It is possible that Diet Coke has the lowest margins for the local distributor.  They are committed to stocking it by Coca-Cola, but they intentionally keep the shelf stock short to minimize sales of a bad product for them.
  3. Lack of granularity in distributor stocking plans:  By this I mean, if a distributor uses one stocking plan and set of product ratios in all stores, it may be that certain products sell out in areas that are over-weighted towards liking that product.  My gut feel is that Diet Coke, vs. Coke, skews more suburban and affluent.   So if they stock to a single standard plan across Phoenix, there may not be enough Diet Coke inventory in suburban grocery stores and fancier hotel vending machines.  This is a sort of variation of the observer bias issue -- Coke has a stocking problem only in a few locations, but I preferentially shop in those locations.

I Was Right About the December Surprise, But For the Wrong Reasons

I have observed in the past that the media will run negative pieces about legislation they favor, but only after the legislation is passed and the information is not longer useful to the debate.  I suppose they do this to retroactively create a paper trail for being even-handed.  So I hypothesized that we might see a December surprise once Hillary won, raising issues about her more forthrightly than they were willing to before the election.

Well, I was sortof right.  We are seeing a December surprise -- the silly Russian hacking story being pushed by the Clinton campaign and the White House -- but for completely different reasons.   These stories are clearly to try to de-legitimize Trump's election, either just as general battle-space preparation or more specifically ahead of the Electoral College vote.

By the way, speaking of fake news, it strikes me there is an interesting bait and switch in how this story is presented.  The story itself is about the appropriation and publication of the emails of Democratic insiders.  To my knowledge, no one has claimed the emails have been altered or faked, so one could argue that most of the damage is self-inflicted on Democrats -- if they had not been writing about inciting violence at Trump rallies, there would be nothing salacious to leak.

But the media shorthands all this as just "hacking" which I suspect many low information voters think refers to actually altering vote tabulations.  Certainly this is the assumption that Jill Stein and all the suckers who donated to her money-hole recount effort ran with.  But of course there is zero evidence of this and it is almost impossible to imagine happening in any kind of wholesale manner.  But I think that some in the media and many in the Democrat camp are purposely throwing around the "hacking" term in the hopes that people will get this false impression.

Postscript:  I have a new standard we should apply to any government regulatory effort aimed at a private company selling a product or service thought to be fraudulent:  No private individual can be prosecuted for selling any product or service that is less of a scam than Jill Stein's recount eff0rt (which, oh wait, may get spent on something else, anything else they want).   Ordinary people are being suckered into giving money to this on completely false, really absurd, principles.  It infuriates me when politicians get all pious about, say, Exxon misleading the public about global warming when they sell crap like this.  At least when I pay my $3 to Exxon, I get a gallon of gas that actually runs my car as promised.  What will any of these donors get from Stein's effort?

Politicians Are Going to Use "Fake News" Panic as A Wedge to Enhance Censorship

This is simply a terrible idea and demonstrates the point I made after the last election, that "fake news" is the new "hate speech" -- in other words, an ill-defined, amorphous term that will be the excuse for censorship.  Every politician thinks that every criticism of themselves is "fake news".   Note the absolute relish with which the millennial Endgadget author greets this awful idea:

Fake news and hate speech are sadly unavoidable on social media, but that might change soon... in Germany, anyway. Late last week, Thomas Oppermann — chairman of the German Social Democratic Party — proposed a stringent law meant to hold companies like Facebook responsible when fake news makes the rounds. As reported by Der Spiegel(and translated by Deusche Well), Oppermann's plan would require Facebook to actively combat fake news all day, everyday. Here's the fascinating bit: if a fake news item pops up and Facebook can't address it within 24 hours, it would be subject to a €500,000 (or $522,575) for each post left untouched.

Oh, it gets better. Facebook and other "market-dominating platforms" would be required to to have teams in Germany dedicated to fielding reports of fake news and hate-filled posts. Fortunately for Oppermann — and German web users, most likely — the push to penalize companies for letting false, misleading or malicious content run wild has received plenty of support from the other major party in German politics, too. The country's Christian Democratic Union hates all of that stuff just as much, prompting one senior party member to promise definitive action "at the beginning of next year." The CDU has also proposed legislation (with backing from Chancellor Angela Merkel, no less) that would make it illegal to post fake news entirely.

Intelligence Failure, December 15, 1944

I love these US Army intelligence maps from Western Europe on December 15 and then on December 16, 1944 (before and after the German invasion).  A useful lesson for folks who do not greet all intelligence reports with a lot of skepticism.

Finally, Passing the Mantle of Responsibility to the Next Generation

Years ago I got tired of store-bought cards and cards with pictures of the family taken at Disneyland or skiing or whatever, so I created my own holiday card.  We got positive feedback, so I did another (past examples here, here, here).  I kept on with it, though over time it became a burden -- the weight of it would hit me about November 15:  What am I going to do next year for a card?

But this year my daughter, who is off to art college in Pasadena this January, picked up the mantle and drew our family portrait for our card.  Wow, what a relief.  I feel like a tired 16th century farmer whose son just grew old enough to do the plowing.

So Merry Christmas, or happy whatever holiday you celebrate this time of year.


PS -- OK, I don't want to nitpick, but I guess the 16th century farmer probably criticized the straightness of his son's furrows.   She made the drawing square, which necessitated a square envelope, which in turn cost us 20 cents extra in postage for each since square letters take special handling at the post office.  But it was a small price to pay.

Update:  To the comment that the choice of 16th century for my farmer analogy was sort of random, I happened at the time to be listening to yet another in the Great Courses series (love them) and it was just discussing agrigulture in the 16th century.

I Hate to Repeat Myself, But Trump Did Not Win: Clinton Lost

This article by Damon Linker totally mirrors my take on this election -- a competent Democratic candidate without Clinton's many flaws should have wiped the floor with Trump.  Biden would have won, I am absolutely convinced.  Anyway, I liked this bit from Linker:

Most of all, I don't want to hear about how unfairly Clinton was treated by the media. In comparison to whom? All the other candidates who've run for president while under criminal investigation by the FBI? (Maybe that substantial handicap should have overridden the party's presumption that she was owed the nomination because it was "her turn.") Or do you mean, instead, that she was treated badly in comparison to her opponent? Really? You mean the one whose 24/7 media coverage was overwhelmingly, relentlessly negative in tone and content? Either way, a halfway competent campaign should have been able to take advantage of the great good fortune of running against Donald J. Trump and left him bleeding in the ditch.

I am exhausted with folks talking about some fundamental political shift to a white male resurgence, or whatever.  There was no shift.  Trump got about the same number of votes as Romney and McCain.  He won no more white male votes than those guys and if anything performed better than them in traditional Democratic categories like single women and blacks.  The reason Trump won is because Clinton had 10 million fewer votes than Obama had in his first win.  Traditional Democratic supporters were unenthusiastic about Clinton and stayed home.

Good God -- California Unfunded Pension Liabilities Estimated at Over $92,000 per State Household


via here.

All that money you thought you were saving for retirement -- it may be you were really saving it for your friendly neighborhood DMV worker's retirement.

I Owe An Apology to My Fellow Skeptics -- Apparently I Underestimated How Stupid the California Legislature Can Be

There was a period of time -- now a decade ago at least -- when folks were actually willing to have debates on climate and I was invited to participate in a number of them.  In several of these, fellow skeptics would try to mock alarmists by saying that cow farts are a big source of methane (a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2) and thus alarmists were going to be regulating cow farts soon.  On several time, I criticized my fellow skeptics, calling this both a conspiracy theory and a distraction from the real debate -- once someone says "cow farts" in a discussion, it is almost a lock that you will have a hard time getting back to serious science.

Well, I was wrong.  I am sorry to all those skeptics I derided for pushing the cow fart meme.  Because the California legislature did passed a law to regulate cow farts.

Well, sort of.  In fact, even the California legislature is not really stupid enough to require that long vent hoses be hooked up to the rear ends of all the cows in the state.  While you will hear this law derided as the cow fart legislation, it actually about cow poop -- specifically the collection of all the cow poop so it can be put into devices that contain and harvest the methane emissions from the poop.

What this is far more likely to be is not the cow fart or cow poop legislation, but the "send California's dairy business to other states" legislation.

Understanding the Two Parties on Immigration

Frequent readers know that I am a strong supporter of immigration**.  Unfortunately our two major political parties have more mixed feelings, at best, about immigration.   Here is your one-sentence guide to the two parties' positions on immigration:

Republicans want immigrants to work but not vote, while Democrats want them to vote but not work.  Latest proof here.

I will add that I don't understand this line from the linked article:

I don't personally care all that much about the level of illegal immigration. The current numbers strike me as reasonable.

I am not sure how anyone can consider the levels of illegal immigration reasonable.  Some Republicans obviously consider these numbers unreasonable because they want the immigrants gone.  But I, even as a strong immigration supporter with many immigrant acquaintances, think the number is unreasonable as well.  If we are going to de facto let these folks stay, why should we make every step of their life, from driving to banking to working, a total hassle?  Why make all these hard working and generally law-abiding people afraid every moment that they may get deported, or make them subject to the harassment whims of some jerk like Joe Arpaio?

There seems to be a large portion of the country that is willing to allow these folks to stay but want to create some kind of lower-tier immigration status for them.  Fine, then let's do that.  Let's create a lower-tier (e.g. reduced access to government services and benefits) of legal presence in this country -- guest worker, whatever -- that is simple to obtain and does not involve waiting on lists for a decade.


** This is something I have probably moved the furthest on in my life.  At sixteen, when I was a traditional Texas Conservative Republican, I supported immigration restrictionism.  Since then, I have found such a position incompatible with my belief in individual rights and free markets, and through my experience in life have come to appreciate the value immigrants bring to this country.

In Case You Were Tempted To Have Any Respect for Arizona's State-run Universities: Professor Says Human Extinction in 10 Years is "A Lock"

From New Zealand:

There's no point trying to fight climate change - we'll all be dead in the next decade and there's nothing we can do to stop it, a visiting scientist claims.

Guy McPherson, a biology professor at the University of Arizona, says the human destruction of our own habitat is leading towards the world's sixth mass extinction.

Instead of fighting, he says we should just embrace it and live life while we can.

"It's locked down, it's been locked in for a long time - we're in the midst of our sixth mass extinction," he told Paul Henry on Thursday.


"I can't imagine there will be a human on the planet in 10 years," he says.

"We don't have 10 years. The problem is when I give a number like that, people think it's going to be business as usual until nine years [and] 364 days."

He says part of the reason he's given up while other scientists fight on is because they're looking at individual parts, such as methane emissions and the melting ice in the Arctic, instead of the entire picture.

"We're heading for a temperature within that span that is at or near the highest temperature experienced on Earth in the last 2 billion years."

Instead of trying to fix the climate, Prof McPherson says we should focus on living while we can.

"I think hope is a horrible idea. Hope is wishful thinking. Hope is a bad idea - let's abandon that and get on with reality instead. Let's get on with living instead of wishing for the future that never comes.