Rewiring My Brain: Escucha y Repita

Despite five years of German and two years of French in middle school and high school, I retained none of it. I think I am not a “language person,” and I have often envied friends who seem to acquire languages like adding an extra car just because they can. Nevertheless, it’s been on my radar for years to learn Spanish. It is California; we are practically a bi-lingual state. I decided 2019 was the year to give it the full welly. I discovered ways to learn and not to learn, I started exercising parts of my brain that I didn’t know where there, and learned all about el hombre con seis dodos. Español, aquí voy!

Duolingo language app
The Duolingo free language app

How Not to Learn Spanish

This started three years ago when my daughter showed me the free Duolingo app, which purports to teach you a language five minutes a day. Since I enjoy a challenge, most of my focus has been to keep my streak going. (200 days in a row as of today). I have learned a decent amount of vocabulary, particularly about chicken with rice, fish burgers, and wine.

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Studying Works, Too

The coach of the Yale soccer team was paid $400,000 to recruit a wealthy student, who may or may not have even played soccer. The wealthy family paid the “admission coach,” Rick Singer, $1.2 million. Tidy little profit, there.

The admissions cheating sting reported by the FBI yesterday is sending ripples through the media today, notable in particular because 50 people were charged with bribery, including some TV personalities. Multiple parents, mostly in southern California, paid the consultant anywhere from tens of thousands to millions for his assistance in ensuring their children access to a handful of elite universities, including USC, Stanford, and Yale. Since, in the interests of full transparency, I happen to work as a college test preparation instructor, the story is resonating quite a bit with me. However, what strikes me the most in the Op Eds and sound bites, is the immediate focus on blaming the system, the test, and the colleges, rather than blaming the cheaters.

Rick Singer
Rick Singer, Key to the bribery scheme, photo by Steven Senne, AP

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We, the Juries

Jury in a movie
The jury in To Kill a Mockingbird, Universal Pictures

I was called for jury duty this week. Like clockwork, the postcard arrived in the mail just about 13 months to the day from the one that arrived last year, an unbroken chain of annual requests that stretches back for at least two decades. In the abstract, I welcome the idea that we the people participate in our civil processes to adjudicate the actions of our fellow citizens. In the concrete reality of the postcard, however, I would prefer not to.

This contrast of opposites—our desire for fairness and search for justice set against the practical realities of daily life plays itself out repeatedly—it has in history, it does today. I could not help but muse on the history of juries as I watched the drama of Congressional hearings and waited to find out if I would have to traipse down to the courtroom myself.

Trial of Socrates–Imagine the Jury Pool!

The use of juries—a group of potential peers—to weigh evidence in a trial has ancient roots but a far more restricted use and history than I realized. The word “jury” originally meant simply “to swear,” or “to pronounce a ritual formula,” an idea that ultimately transformed itself into the formula of law. This slightly differs from the origin of the word for “judge,” which meant “to speak about the law.” The Greeks used juries in one of the early recorded instances of the practice, although their juries were 300 to 500 men or more. Continue reading “We, the Juries”

Live Longer: Eat Cheese & Do Push-ups

Not necessarily, of course.

Like the rest of the human race, I am always in search of better health. I am an intrepid explorer of the findings of scientists, digging into the abstracts. What were the actual findings? Who was the study based on? How did they know? Was it correlation or just causation? It’s disappointing how often it turns out to be hogwash.

Today, it was the push-ups article in the NY Times. Last week, the cheese. I can’t tell, once I read enough to discover, Aha! I knew it! whether I should feel smug or irritated. Should I blame the scientists or the journalists? Or myself, for continuing to search for the easy fix and the fountain of youth? Could I solve it by combining them, say, to get push-up cheese?

Push-up cheese
Push-ups and cheese, Photo at

The Pattern

The pattern of scientific study recaps is fairly standard. Headline: Do This! Because a recent study says so. The photo is vaguely related, usually exaggerated. In a reputable paper, the digest of findings is somewhat specific, although it may blur some rather key details. If it’s not a reputable paper, the digest is plagiarized summarized from somebody else’s write-up, with most of the key details omitted or exaggerated. Sometimes, scientists are quoted trying to explain causality, though that’s really guesswork given the nature of studies which can’t control for variables enough to make that connection. Never mind! At the end, there’s a snappy quip, often a nonsequitur. If you read the online comments (but don’t!), people responding seem to completely miss the point. Perhaps it’s just as well. Continue reading “Live Longer: Eat Cheese & Do Push-ups”

Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái! Happy Lunar New Year!


(simplified Chinese)

I hope I haven’t already insulted somebody.

San Francisco, my homeland for the last forty years, has one of the largest Chinatowns in the world, so the Chinese New Year festivals here have always been spectacular. The elaborate parade, which will be held on February 23, is deemed the largest celebration of its kind outside of Asia, even featuring a 288-foot-long dragon (“Gum Lung”).

SF Chinese New Year
SF Chinese New Year Parade, photo by sponsor Southwest Airlines staff

News stories talk about where to get the best traditional food (e.g. dumplings) and fanciest red envelopes. People do wish each other Gung Hay Fat Choy enthusiastically, which seems to be where some of the argument starts. Continue reading “Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái! Happy Lunar New Year!”