The Casual Blog

Tag: Rosetta Stone

What just happened? My working theory


Up until recently, I woke up every morning with a sense of pleasant anticipation. Chances were good that in the course of the day the Republican candidate for President would speak, act or Tweet so as to further demonstrate his ignorance, poor judgment, lack of impulse control, racism, or dishonesty. And I was seldom disappointed!

Sure, it was disturbing that there were hollering crowds enthused by his racist taunts and taken in by his ridiculous lies. But coming down to election day, I was confident they were in the minority. I still think that. Now I’m struggling to understand how a lot of others, including people whom I know to be decent and upstanding, people who are neither racists nor ignorant, saw their way clear to vote for him.

My working theory is that there were three main justifications. 1. Tribalism (such as, I’m a Republican, and he’s a Republican). 2. Optimism (his extreme and off-the-wall statements can’t be serious). 3. It’s a package deal (like with the cable company, to get the channels you like, you’ve got to take on board some channels you don’t care for).

Last week I was called for jury duty in N.C. state court. The case was an ordinary criminal one — a DWI charge. It took the lawyers about three hours to pick a jury. They settled on twelve before my number came up, so I was never called up to the box for questioning. As a former litigator, I enjoyed watching the lawyers trying to ferret out the jurors’ biases and other proclivities. But with limited time and the limits of language, they weren’t able to get very deep. Watching them and thinking of my own experience in front of juries reminded me of how hard it is to understand or predict the thinking of others.

Anyhow, whatever the reasoning, I continue to think voting for the President-elect was a terrible mistake. But it happened, and we need to carry on with our lives.

I’ve almost finished Level 2 of the Rosetta Stone course in German, which I like. In preparation for our ski trip in February, I’ve been refreshing my French by listening to the news podcasts from Radio France Internationale, and continuing with the news in Spanish from Voz de America. On the piano, I’m practicing new pieces by Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy. Their music is transporting.

I’ve seen struggling, though, with pain in my right hand, and finally went to see my hand doctor this week. According to his reading of the X-rays, the arthritis in the area of my middle finger had gotten worse, and he recommended surgery to replace the knuckle joint. Surgery! This shook me, since cutting there could end badly, such as, no more piano. I declined the surgery, and asked for a Plan B. He recommended Aleve. It does help.

It’s especially good for jangled nerves in these parlous times to spend some time walking in the woods. On Saturday I took a hike in Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, which is near Hillsborough. There was a bit of smoke in the air from the big forest fires in the western part of North Carolina, but it was mild and sunny. I took the Mountain Loop trail, which went up for a while and then down to the Eno River. The leaves were mostly yellow, with bits of orange and red, and some were falling.

Our ice storm, Eugene Onegin, getting ready to ski Lech, and learning some German

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On Friday much of the East Coast was walloped by a big snowstorm, but here in Raleigh, we got mostly sleet and freezing rain. It left a treacherous coating of ice on the roads. Sally ventured out once in the Subaru for groceries, but otherwise we hunkered down till Sunday, when it warmed up and most of the ice melted.

That afternoon we went to the N.C. Opera’s concert production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. It was really good! I was particularly struck by Joyce El-Khoury as Tatiana, a brilliant young singer, with amazing dynamic range, subtlety, and feeling. Eric Barry’s Linsky was also very fine. Indeed, all the principals were excellent, and the chorus and orchestra sounded good, too. Hats off to maestro Timothy Myers! I’m happy to say that Red Hat is sponsoring a broadcast/webcast of this performance on WCPE on May 5.
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Next Saturday we’re headed to Lech am Arlberg, Austria for a week. Skiing the beautiful and challenging Alps, in the birthplace of the exhilarating sport of alpine skiing, has been a long time dream, and we’re finally going to do it. I settled on Lech based on recommendations of friends and data indicating that it is one of the snowiest places in Europe. The snow reports haven’t been looking great, but in the last few days coverage seems to be improving. As of today, they claim 55 inches, with 93 of 97 lifts open, and 193 miles of pistes. And close by is St. Anton, with lots more. With mother nature, you never know, but I’m optimistic.

In happy anticipation, I’ve been learning some German with the Rosetta Stone program. I’ve gotten my basic greetings, numbers, colors, days of the week, basic types of housing, furnishings, appliances, food and drink, transportation methods, payment methods (e.g. Kreditkarte!), body states (e.g. ich habe Hunger!), and a other very practical words and phrases.
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It helps that there are a lot of cognate cousins with English, and the vocal sounds correspond closely. But there are also a lot of little, intense puzzles. Whoever thought of the devilish declension system? And irregular pluralization? Etc. But it is quietly absorbing, much like learning music. As with music, you work as your own programmer, becoming something a little different, expanding.

But I’m under no illusion that I’ll be a fluent German conversationalist by next week, or even next year. For possible language emergencies in Austria, I downloaded Google Translate onto my smartphone, and practiced with it a bit. It receives spoken messages in English and broadcasts them back in German (or other languages), and vice versa. In my tests, it was quite accurate. Amazing!

What do we do? Good and bad habits

Periodically I get the bug to improve my Spanish, which has been stuck for a while at the low intermediate level. Rosetta Stone’s relentless marketing finally overcame my defenses, and I found myself signing up for its web-based offering on an all-you-can-eat-in-one-year basis. I like it.

It’s all in Spanish (no translations), with photographs to guide you toward basic vocabulary, and is broken into little bite-size challenges. It works well on my tablet device. Part of the genius is that it constantly quizzes you, asking you to think and make your best guess as to each new bit of vocabulary, and gives a small musical reward (a harp arpeggio) for a correct answer. (Wrong answers are punished with a less pleasing sound.)

When you’re a beginner at Spanish, or anything else, you have to exert a lot of conscious effort to accomplish anything. This “beginner’s mind” (see Zen) is fun, in a way. It’s involving. But eventually, if you keep at it, you advance, and you are no longer a beginner. Conscious incompetence changes gradually to unconscious competence — a habit. You can communicate more successfully, but without any particular feeling of accomplishment. Then you’re ready to begin German, or whatever. Education is, in part, the accretion of useful habits.

I wrote a bit last week about developing the habit of exercise, and have been thinking more about the significance of habits. A few moths back I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. It has the air of one of those airport bookshop books that’s more like a padded-out magazine article, but it has a few worthwhile ideas.

According to Duhigg, hundreds of our everyday activities are just chunks of behavior that require no conscious thought. We may think that our days are spent considering and deciding on our actions, but typically we spend lots of time on autopilot. Think of getting up, showering, eating, brushing teeth, walking, driving, saying good morning, turning on your computer, web surfing & etc.

This is not in itself a bad thing, because it’s energy efficient. Once we’ve learned to drive and gotten to be experienced drivers, we don’t need to think about driving our daily commute, which frees up energy for other things — like texting. Just kidding! Kids, please don’t text while driving. But seriously, as much as I think conscious thinking is a worthwhile thing, life as we know it would be impossible without a large repertoire of behaviors that require no conscious thought.

Habits, like bacteria, get a bad rap because we forget about the good ones and mostly notice the bad ones. And we should give attention to those bad ones. Over and over, we do things that we know very well are bad for us, and it doesn’t help that we know it. Some bad habits just waste time, but others, like smoking or overeating, can take years off your life. What to do?

Duhigg proposes a simple approach to changing bad habits. Researchers have found that all habits have three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. For example, you feel bored and fidgety (the cue), you go to the snack station and grab a candy bar (the routine), and devour the sweet gooey thing and feel a moment of bliss (the reward). Then you feel unhappy that you ate something against your better judgment.

According to Duhigg, the trick to changing a bad habit is recognizing the routine, and experimenting with substituting a new routine that gives the same reward. He gives the example of his own snacking, which he thought was a function of hunger, but realized had more to do with needing social interaction. So instead of having a cookie, he started having a chat with a colleague, which yielded the same psychic reward.

This seems like a reasonable approach. Good intentions and raw willpower are usually not enough to dislodge entrenched bad habits. A bit of playful experimentation is worth a try.