2016 Oaks Disclosure

Go Maggie Go (4), Cathryn Sophia (12), and Dothraki Queen (15).

Dothraki Queen scratched, so Rachel’s Valentina (11).


TIL: Proportional Representation

Long thought that electoral fusion was better than proportional representation for enabling third parties in the US because there’s historical precedent and tradition for electoral fusion. But the US also has a tradition of proportional representation—it’s just in the presidential primaries.

Democratic Party presidential primaries, 2016 (Wikipedia)

2015 Book Recommendations

Read more fiction than nonfiction last year, and the novel I’d most recommend is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Edit to say that the runner-up is definitely Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time. I’m not a fan of time-travel stories in general, but that one really sticks with you.

Bests of 2015

Miscellanea December 2015

  • A Two-Miles-per-Hour World: “The following series of maps depicts the speed at which news traveled to Venice, fron 1500 to 1765. The isochronic lines represent one week, and give a broad indication of the time required for letters to reach their destination.”
  • Me, Myself and Mx.
  • The Myth of the Ever-More-Fragile College Student: “Over the last two weeks, the news has been dominated by coverage of two very different instances of campus turmoil at Yale and the University of Missouri. In both cases, students are protesting over what they see as administrations that turn a blind eye to the problems faced by marginalized students on their campuses. …For many observers, these incidents only proved what they already knew: College students are getting increasingly fragile and prone to meltdowns. Too emotional and skewed in their thinking, they latch on to petty issues and scream and cry until they get their way. …The true story of college students and mental health has to do with a hollowing out of the United States’ mental-health services, with overtaxed counseling centers, with a fundamental shift in the role that colleges serve, with changes in the composition of the nation’s student body.”
  • How a handful of anti-Muslim crusaders hijacked segments of the GOP
  • Trump breaks the rules of political lying: “1. Lies about policy are fine; lies about trivial, personal, or easily verifiable claims are not. …2. Lies are fine as long as an “other side” is provided. …3. Nine lies are fine as long as the 10th is retracted. …[Trump] recognizes that capitulating to the mainstream media is far worse for any conservative than clinging to a lie. …They have no power over him at all, and now everyone knows it.”
  • An Incomplete Catalog of Donald Trump’s Never-Ending Fabrications
  • Cargo cult linguistics: “The transmission of influence [from linguistics to French literary theory] seems to have been something like this: the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was influenced by the linguist Roman Jakobson during WW II in New York, and after the war, Levi-Strauss in turn brought some of the ideas and terminology of semiotics and structuralism back to Paris. This contributed to the intellectual compost in which thinkers like Barthes, Foucault and Derrida germinated. …I think it’s fair to call this “cargo cult linguistics”. Just as some post-war islanders in the South Pacific engaged in ritual imitations of the airstrip activities of foreign armies, in the belief these actions would bring them cargo, so some post-war philosophers in Paris engaged in ritual imitations of the analytic practices of linguists, in the belief that these actions would bring them insight. The islanders carved wooden radio sets and sat mumbling in imitation control towers; the philosophers invented semiotic terminology and sat disputing in Parisian cafes.” That sound you hear is the dropping of the mic.
  • Labov’s Test: “…how could one prove … that a given statement is hopelessly unclear, and hence bullshit? One proposed test is to add a “not” to the statement and see if that makes any difference to its plausibility. If it doesn’t, that statement is bullshit.”
  • Can the MacBook Pro Replace Your iPad?: “[Editor’s note: The original title for this piece was “If journalists reviewed Macs like iPads”.]”
  • Everything you need to know about Labour’s rolling crisis: “What is going on? I see it as evidence of two deep cleavages in British and Western politics. The first is the gulf between instrumental and expressive politics. The former involves winning elections in order to wield power and change things. The latter involves seeking fulfilment and personal satisfaction by interacting with symbols, attending events, declaring positions—in short, signalling things about oneself. With the decline of mass classes and monolithic ideologies it has become increasingly hard to combine the two sorts of politics.” This is the divide between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, and part of the reason Bernie Sanders’ campaign irks me so. Sanders supporters are complacent about Democratic control of the presidency (when Republicans dominate nearly every branch of government) and significantly underweight how much GOP control would make them unhappy. It’s also why so many Kentucky voters who got health care access with the Medicaid expansion voted for Matt Bevin (who promised to eliminate it) because they identified with his Christian values.
  • Turns out, utilitarians are not psychopaths
  • The Marshall Islands Are Disappearing
  • We May Have Just Found W.E.B. Du Bois’ Earliest Science Fiction Story
  • On Gotham, Gordon’s a Villain, Bruce Wayne Is Jesus, and Everything Else Is Also Insane: Gotham is a fun show, and I’ve never understood the fan hate for this interesting take on the GCPD. But it’s true, that episode was bananas. And the punchline was Lucius Fox asking “You don’t have a plan? Really? What about a backup plan? No?”
  • Challenging the Oligarchy: Paul Krugman’s review of Robert Rech’s Saving Capitalism
  • San Bernardino shooting: what we know
  • Yes, Mass Shootings Are Occurring More Often: “Their analysis of the data shows that from 1982 to 2011, mass shootings occurred every 200 days on average. Since late 2011, they found, mass shootings have occurred at triple that rate—every 64 days on average.”
  • General MIDI Level 1 Sound Set
  • abc plain text music notation
  • Why Wild Turkeys Hate the Wild
  • G.O.P. Candidates Viewing Economy’s Past Through Gold-Colored Glasses
  • Apple’s Swift Programming Language Is Now Open Source
  • Swing-O-Matic: What Would It Take To Turn Blue States Red?
  • Security Manual Reveals the OPSEC Advice ISIS Gives Recruits
  • It’s a Trap: Emperor Palpatine’s Poison Pill: “Abstract: In this paper we study the financial repercussions of the destruction of two fully armed and operational moon-sized battle stations (“Death Stars”) in a 4-year period and the dissolution of the galactic government in Star Wars. The emphasis of this work is to calibrate and simulate a model of the banking and financial systems within the galaxy. Along these lines, we measure the level of systemic risk that may have been generated by the death of Emperor Palpatine and the destruction of the second Death Star. We conclude by finding the economic resources the Rebel Alliance would need to have in reserve in order to prevent a financial crisis from gripping the galaxy through an optimally allocated banking bailout.” A universe that fails to see technological progress for 25 millenia is probably actually a dystopia.
  • ‘Not a Math Person’: How to Remove Obstacles to Learning Math
  • The Anti-Utopian Instinct and the Conservative Revolt: This is the only explanation for the enduring appeal in the GOP campaign of well-known blowhard Donald Trump. “Besides gaining much of their electoral support with vapid rhetoric, [Donald Trump and Ben Carson] are both winners in realms more meritocratic than politics––unlike, say, Jeb Bush––and share at least one substantive quality: Both seem like world-weary pragmatists averse to utopianism, at least in comparison to their rivals. …And an anti-utopian impulse is a not-unreasonable reaction to a bipartisan establishment that gave the United States a series of failed wars of choice, a financial bubble, a Wall Street class that leeches off assets better than it allocates them, a college bubble, and federal costs that have far exceeded revenues for decades. America’s fed-up populists are very light on coherent solutions, in part because common sense unmoored from empiricism can lead one astray. But they’re not wrong that there’s a problem, and some of it is utopian thinking in the ruling class that runs through significant parts of the conservative and progressive movements.”
  • Volvo took a real dump truck, hooked it up to a remote control, handed it to a 4-year-old girl, and she proceeds to DEMOLISH a closed course with it.
  • What is your collection worth?
  • Fishers of the Yakama Nation
  • Unfollow: How a prized daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs.

  • The Brightest Spot on Ceres: “Dwarf planet Ceres is the largest object in the Solar System’s main asteroid belt with a diameter of about 950 kilometers. Exploring Ceres from orbit since March, the Dawn spacecraft’s camera has revealed about 130 or so mysterious bright spots, mostly associated with impact craters scattered around the small world’s otherwise dark surface. The brightest one is near the center of the 90 kilometer wide Occator Crater, seen in this dramatic false color view combining near-infrared and visible light image data. A study now finds the bright spot’s reflected light properties are probably most consistent with a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite. Of course, magnesium sulfate is also known to Earth dwellers as epsom salt. Haze reported inside Occator also suggests the salty material could be left over as a mix of salt and water-ice sublimates on the surface. Since impacts would have exposed the material, Ceres’ numerous and widely scattered bright spots may indicate the presence of a subsurface shell of ice-salt mix”
  • Wild animals endure illness, injury, and starvation. We should help.: This is the natural outcome when you start anthropomorphizing animals, and over-liberally bringing animals into the sphere of human ethics. There is nothing unethical about predator-prey relationships, for these are outside human ethics. Shrews paralyze their victims with venom because they have evolved this predation strategy, and intervening in the food web (such as by feeding the wolves and then giving the deer contraceptives) will disrupt it in unpredictable and destructive ways. In short, this is stupid.
  • What’s the secret of good writing?: “Boice, I learned, was a US psychologist who’d cracked the secret of how to write painlessly and productively. Years ago, he’d recorded this wisdom in a book, now out of print, …How Writers Journey To Comfort And Fluency. …The kernel of Boice’s advice, based on writing workshops conducted with struggling academics, isn’t merely old. It’s the oldest in the world: write, every weekday, in brief scheduled sessions, as short as 10 minutes at first, then getting longer. …Boice’s book—from its title to his step-by-step advice, which you’re meant to implement gradually, over months—is itself an exercise in cultivating patience. It’s slow going because slow is the only way forward. This gets clearer when it comes to one of Boice’s favourite tips: when your daily writing time is up, stop dead, even if you’ve got momentum and could write more.”
  • Why 18th century books looked like smartphone screens: Substantial octavos were similar in size to a small tablet, and substantial books at this size would have a wordcount similar to a long magazine article.

  • 2015: The Year in Volcanic Activity
  • So You Want to Become An Astronaut?: You need a BA in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics, and either a PhD. or 3 years of professional responsibility.
  • In Photos: Prehistoric Temple Uncovered in Ukraine: “A temple dating back about 6,000 years has been discovered within a massive prehistoric settlement in Ukraine. Inside the temple, archaeologists found humanlike figurines, sacrificed animal remains and potter fragments. Here’s a look at the prehistoric finding.” A Trypillian culture site.
  • Humans Caused a Major Shift in Earth’s Ecosystems 6,000 Years Ago
  • A Vaccine for Depression?: Ketamine’s remarkable effect bolsters a new theory of mental illness.: “Depression is the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 30 percent of Americans at some point in their lives. But despite half a century of research, ubiquitous advertising, and blockbuster sales, antidepressant drugs just don’t work very well. They treat depression as if it were caused by a chemical imbalance: Pump in more of one key ingredient, or sop up another, and you will have fixed the problem. But the correspondence between these chemicals (like serotonin) and depression is relatively weak. An emerging competitive theory, inspired in part by ketamine’s effectiveness, has it that psychiatric disease is less about chemical imbalance than structural changes in the brain—and that a main cause of these changes is psychological stress.”
  • This Is How Ken Burns Would Document Star Wars
  • Swift available for Beaglebone/RasPi
  • Everything We Know About Star Wars’ Post-Return of the Jedi Future: Basically all is told in some 20-odd Force Awakens book prequels: the novels Star Wars: Aftermath and Lost Stars, four Journey to Star Wars YA novels (Smuggler’s Run (Han Solo), Weapon of a Jedi (Luke Skywalker), Moving Target (Leia Organa), Before the Awakening (Finn, Rey, Po)), and Marvel’s Shattered Empire books.
  • My top 5 ‘new’ Python modules of 2015
  • Hierarchy is Detrimental for Human Cooperation: Studies of animal behavior consistently demonstrate that the social environment impacts cooperation, yet the effect of social dynamics has been largely excluded from studies of human cooperation. Here, we introduce a novel approach inspired by nonhuman primate research to address how social hierarchies impact human cooperation. Participants competed to earn hierarchy positions and then could cooperate with another individual in the hierarchy by investing in a common effort. Cooperation was achieved if the combined investments exceeded a threshold, and the higher ranked individual distributed the spoils unless control was contested by the partner. Compared to a condition lacking hierarchy, cooperation declined in the presence of a hierarchy due to a decrease in investment by lower ranked individuals. Furthermore, hierarchy was detrimental to cooperation regardless of whether it was earned or arbitrary. These findings mirror results from nonhuman primates and demonstrate that hierarchies are detrimental to cooperation. However, these results deviate from nonhuman primate findings by demonstrating that human behavior is responsive to changing hierarchical structures and suggests partnership dynamics that may improve cooperation. This work introduces a controlled way to investigate the social influences on human behavior, and demonstrates the evolutionary continuity of human behavior with other primate species.
  • When the KKK Was a Pyramid Scheme: ‘“Rather than a terrorist organization,” they wrote, “the 1920s Klan is best described as a social organization with a wildly successful multi-level marketing structure.” According to Fryer and Levitt, in its heyday, the KKK was a giant, perverse pyramid scheme. Instead of perpetrating a racist agenda, the KKK’s leaders exploited pre-existing, popular racism to make money.’ Though there’s no need to equivocate about the KKK: the hate group was terroristic.
  • The makers of Rudolph also created some of the most off the wall Christmas specials eve: Did not know they adapted the L. Frank Baum story. That is amazing.
  • Kylo Ren’s Fake Twitter Account Is The Best
  • What China’s Yutu Rover Learned on the Moon
  • 12 Machines That Show Modern Farming Isn’t the Bucolic Life You Imagine
  • Fifteen years ago the CIA tried to predict the world in 2015. Here’s what they got wrong: It’s surprisingly good.
  • ISIS, Syria, and democracy: what the Arab world really thinks
  • “If they don’t like someone, they just behead him”: why ISIS fighters quit: ‘What I don’t like [is] if someone did something wrong [then] they tried to waterboard him,” a defector who calls himself Abu Shujaa said. “What I don’t like is that if they don’t like someone they just behead him. Or if a woman is not wearing hijab they bring someone to flog her, or if someone doesn’t believe they cut his ear.”‘
  • The coat hanger abortion is back, and that’s scary for all women: ‘A Tennessee woman was charged with attempted first-degree murder last week for allegedly trying to use a coat hanger to end her pregnancy. …”I never thought I would hear of a coat hanger abortion in my medical life,” writes OB-GYN Jen Gunter. …Tennessee has a “fetal homicide” law. It basically defines an embryo or fetus as a person in order to beef up penalties for crimes against a pregnant woman. But a pregnant woman can’t be prosecuted under these laws for actions against her own fetus, because abortion is legal. …But pro-choice advocates warn that when laws like Tennessee’s define a fetus as a person, prosecutors can and will use the law against pregnant women. This can even happen if the law has an explicit exception for pregnant women. That’s already happened to many women in Texas who have taken drugs while pregnant…’
  • To stop gentrification from hurting the poor, neighborhoods need to change faster: “In tight housing markets,” they write, “the poor do worse when the rich get richer,” whereas in slack markets, “some evidence suggests that increases in others’ income, holding own income constant, may be beneficial.”‘

Miscellanea November 2015

November 2015

  • Aurora Over Clouds
  • Why Don’t We Just Throw All Our Garbage Into Volcanoes?
  • A Cabinet of Infocom Curiousities: “…Steve showed me his collection of items he had from the days of Infocom (which spanned from roughly 1981 through to the company’s eventual closing and absorption by Activision in the early 1990s).”
  • The Infocom Cabinet: Binders and Folders of Infocom, Inc. (1981-1987)
  • The origins of graphic communication: “In a 12:05 TED talk filmed in August, 2015, cave art researcher Genevieve von Petzinger asks: ‘Why are these 32 symbols found in ancient caves all over Europe?’ Von Petzinger, a paleoanthropologist associated with the University of Victoria (British Columbia), is concerned primarily with symbols in Ice Age European cave art dating to the Upper Paleolithic (40,000-10,000 BP), but she also has her eye on possible predecessors in Africa and parallels across Asia all the way to Indonesia.”
  • The Myth of Language Universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science: “Talk of linguistic universals has given cognitive scientists the impression that languages are all built to a common pattern. In fact, there are vanishingly few universals of language in the direct sense that all languages exhibit them. Instead, diversity can be found at almost every level of linguistic organization. …The article summarizes decades of cross-linguistic work by typologists and descriptive linguists, showing just how few and unprofound the universal characteristics of language are, once we honestly confront the diversity offered to us by the world’s 6-8000 languages. …While there are significant recurrent patterns in organization, these are better explained as stable engineering solutions satisfying multiple design constraints, reflecting both cultural-historical factors and the constraints of human cognition. Linguistic diversity then becomes the crucial datum for cognitive science: we are the only species with a communication system which is fundamentally variable at all levels…”
  • The Norwegian Secret To Enjoying A Long Winter: Apparently the secret to tolerating winter is to live in a place with a spectacularly beautiful winter. I’d like winter more if it was all sledding all the time.
  • Star Castle 2600
  • Pokemon or Big Data?
  • Not Even Scientists Can Easily Explain P-values: “P-value is the value widely taken in science as a marker for whether a result is statistically significant, and they’ve “taken a beating” for not being a good measure of that after all. “P-values have taken quite a beating lately. These widely used and commonly misapplied statistics have been blamed for giving a veneer of legitimacy to dodgy study results, encouraging bad research practices and promoting false-positive study results. …We want to know if results are right, but a p-value doesn’t measure that. It can’t tell you the magnitude of an effect, the strength of the evidence or the probability that the finding was the result of chance. So what information can you glean from a p-value? The most straightforward explanation I found came from Stuart Buck, vice president of research integrity at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Imagine, he said, that you have a coin that you suspect is weighted toward heads. (Your null hypothesis is then that the coin is fair.) You flip it 100 times and get more heads than tails. The p-value won’t tell you whether the coin is fair, but it will tell you the probability that you’d get at least as many heads as you did if the coin was fair.”
  • Hoverboard: XKCD Game
  • 12 Things We Loved About Jessica Jones (And 4 We Didn’t)
  • Macbook charger teardown: The surprising complexity inside Apple’s power adapter
  • The Authoritarians: A 261-pp. PDF: “…authoritarian followers have a little volcano of hostility bubbling away inside them looking for a (safe, approved) way to erupt. …Prejudice has little to do with the groups it targets, and a lot to do with the personality of the holder. Want to guess who has such wide-ranging prejudices? Authoritarian followers dislike so many kinds of people, I have called them ‘equal opportunity bigots.’ …the premise behind ‘Posse’ runs right down Main Street in the authoritarian aggression mind-set. When the authorities say, ‘Go get ‘em,’ the high RWAs saddle up. Who can ‘em be? Nearly everybody, it turns out. …I offered as targets the very right-wing [Canadian political parties]. These were the parties of choice for most authoritarian followers at the time, yet high RWAs proved more willing to persecute even the movements they liked than did others. …Finally, just to take this to its ludicrous extreme, I asked for reactions to a ‘law to eliminate right-wing authoritarians.’ …authoritarian followers still favored, more than others did, a law to persecute themselves.”
  • Why the Economic Fates of America’s Cities Diverged

  • Hello London
  • Saving a School on the Blackfeet Reservation: Having a dual-immersion program in Blackfoot language is presented as evidence of a school’s success. Good.
  • Why the Public Can’t Read the Press
  • The real-life election of 1800 was even wilder than Hamilton the musical lets on: Lest you think the Founders were peerless geniuses who created a perfect Constitution.
  • The case for letting children vote
  • XKCD: Fire Ants
  • Pickle Cat
  • GDP Growth over the Very Long Run: GDP per Capita Growth around the World Since the Year 1 CE
  • The Beggar CEO and Sucker Culture
  • Buddhist morality is Medieval: “Traditional Buddhist morality developed in feudal theocratic cultures. Mostly, it is typical for such societies: …crude, arbitrary, patriarchal, and often cruel. …Buddhist modernizers replaced traditional morality with Victorian Christian morality in the late 1800s, and with leftish secular morality in the the 1980s. …I’ll go through two of Keown’s examples briefly, plus three others: sex, gender, and slavery. …Buddhism is extraordinarily anti-sexual. Rejection of sex is the first and most important aspect of its central principle, renunciation. Buddhism recommends complete celibacy for lay people as well as monastics. …Details depend on the tradition, but commonly verboten are solo and partner masturbation, oral and anal sex, sex between men, sex during daytime, and sex with a woman who is pregnant or nursing. Abortion is murder, and sends you straight to hell. On the other hand, polygamy is taken for granted, and married men having sex with prostitutes is explicitly OK… [Sexual equality] simply does not exist in Buddhism. …[Buddhist societies] no idea of human rights—ones all humans have, simply for being human. …The most fundamental human right is to not be enslaved. Slavery is explicitly approved in many Buddhist scriptures. …According to scripture, the Buddha himself (after enlightenment) accepted slaves as gifts to the sangha, and he did not free them.”
  • Jaguars fall, everyone dies: “The world probably won’t end on Friday, but it’s still a good time to remind yourself that Mesoamerican eschatology is really really neat. The Aztecs believed that the creator-god, Ometeotl, created four main gods for the four cardinal directions. These four gods tried to create the world, but it was too dark and they kept screwing up and dropping stuff into the Great Void, where it was eaten by Cipactli the Crocodile Demon With Extra Mouths Upon Every Joint And Teeth Protruding From Her Entire Body. The gods realized they had to get their act together. They slew the Crocodile Demon and placed the world atop her body. They created mankind out of ashes. And they elected Tezcatlipoca, God of Darkness And Killing Everybody, to become the sun so they could see what they were doing a little better. But – and this is what happens when you don’t have a God of Staffing Decisions – the God of Darkness made a predictably terrible sun.”

  • Time travel: An isochronic map shows where to go, how long it took to get there – and what changes were on the way
  • The best Christmas movies aren’t about Christmas
  • America Is Too Dumb for TV News: “What we call right-wing and liberal media in this country are really just two different strategies of the same kind of nihilistic lizard-brain sensationalism. The ideal CNN story is a baby down a well, while the ideal Fox story is probably a baby thrown down a well by a Muslim terrorist or an ACORN activist. Both companies offer the same service, it’s just that the Fox version is a little kinkier. When you make the news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping. And who shops for products he or she doesn’t want?”
  • Unhappy Meals: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. ” Such a classic.

Apps for learning Czech

This last week or so I’ve been looking at and assessing notable apps for language learning (Czech). These are really awesome, probably the best way to study a language on your own—fun, engaging, and easy to get into. They include lots of spoken content, start at a basic level, elicit positive knowledge in a variety of ways, and used spaced repetition and other cognitive techniques. All of these are better for absolute beginners intereted in self-study than nearly any book, podcasts, CD, or other software I have seen. They are heavily gamified, and are relatively fun and easy to come back to, an ideal way to study a few minutes a day or more. This is a relatively new format, though, with a bunch of competition, and there is a lot of variety.

So far I’ve tested these with languages that I have some knowledge of (French, which I studied in high school/college, or Czech, which I have been learning over the summer), so they are very easy for me at present. However, I would like to also test them with languages that I am unfamiliar with, such as Irish or Indonesian. I avoided tools that didn’t have Czech (such as Babbel and Busuu, which offer other popular European languages as well as Indonesian and Turkish/Arabic respectively), except Duolingo, which I had an old French account for from some time ago.

  • Duolingo has the best software. The iOS app is slick and works well. Duolingo is free to use; their original business model was based around crowdsourced translation, but they have shifted to language certification. The content appears to be very high quality, but it has a relatively limited number of languages relative to some of the other software below. However, this would be fantastic for the mostly large international languages Duolino covers (Irish, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Esperanto, Turkish, Norweigian, Ukrainian, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch). Here’s the Duolino intro video. “Lessons” are broken into tiny chunks of a dozens questions or so, and involve varied translation-based activities that involve listening, speaking, typing, and identifying words and sentences (although there is a bias towards listening and reading/typing). According to an in-house study, it only takes a Duolingo user an average of 34 hours to learn the equivalent of a first college semester’s worth of Spanish ( PDF ). Now take that with a grain of salt: a single freshman college semester amounts to about 45-48 hours of in-class instructional time, and does not constitute a particularly high level of proficiency. This is still an average of 16 minutes per day for 18 weeks, that you schedule on your own.
  • Mondly Languages has a Web and iOS app with an interface approach similar to Duolingo’s, although the software is much more flaky. Sometimes the lessons fail to progress, so you may accidentally repeat levels unless you quit and restart the app. There is plenty of translation, but words are also matched to pictures and there is much less typing and speaking. It’s also, at the early levels, much “easier” than Duolingo (since many of the answers are fairly obvious). Mondly has a different business model than Duolingo, and the app costs $15-20 past the trial levels. Still, it has many of the benefits of an app like Duolingo: interactivity, integrated audio, extensive gamification. Moreover, it supports more languages, including Czech (as well as German, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Romanian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Korean, Swedish, Finnish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Greek, Portuguese, Indonesian, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Afrikaans). The Czech app consists of about 18 eight-section lessons organized by topic, as well as a daily vocabulary lesson.
  • Memrise is somewhat different, and is a freemium Web and mobile app with advertising and premium features. Memrise comes out of the spaced-repetition arena, but includes most user-generated content. So, it has some similarities to Anki, without the expectation that you spend a lot of time making your own cards and hours reviewing flashcards. Its software also leaves SRS way behind. The Basic Czech course, for example, is highly gamified, including flash cards, exercises, spoken audio recordings, and other interactive content, and there is plenty of other Czech material. Since Memrise is older and has user-generated content, there is a very wide selection of languages and courses (probably of very varying quality)—for example, there are a number of courses on Native American languages, and user-generated adaptations of textbooks like Complete Czech. See also this discussion of the app, Plant a New Language in Your Mind.

After a week, Duolingo remains very good. Mondly’s problems are increasing. Mondly’s execution is not as good: Mondly’s content more closely resembles a phrasebook, and the learning curve a few lessons in goes up quite steeply. Mondly also doesn’t have a clear interface to review old material. And for exercises that require the user to speak speak a phrase, Mondly’s speech recognition is very frustrating for more complex words and phrases. Memrise is the only one that doesn’t require any speaking (only headphones). Memrise is probably better, at least until Duolingo Czech comes out.

All of these are essentially old-fashioned translation exercises dressed up in interactive, gamified apps with audio.

A clock for 500 generations

It’s been almost six years since the the post communicating with folk 500 generations hence, but it’s been so transformational in how I think about the world.

Finally there’s a video about the 10,000-year clock (h/t kottke):

Language learning apps in the New York Times

Some of the new language learning apps have been covered in the New York Times over the past few years; here are some links to the overviews/discussions there.

  • The Web Way to Learn a Language: 2010 overview of consumer language learning technology, including,,,,, other sites such as Learn German, and, and apps such as Lonely Planet Phrasebooks, Oxford Translator Travel Pro, World Nomads, and Ultralingua Translation Dictionary.
  • On Language: Chunking: Ben Zimmer in 2010 discusses lexical chunks in language pedagogy: ‘Ritualized moments of everyday communication — greeting someone, answering a telephone call, wishing someone a happy birthday — are full of these canned phrases that we learn to perform with rote precision at an early age. Words work as social lubricants in such situations, and a language learner like Blake is primarily getting a handle on the pragmatics of set phrases in English, or how they create concrete effects in real-life interactions. The abstract rules of sentence structure are secondary. …In recent decades, the study of language acquisition and instruction has increasingly focused on “chunking”: how children learn language not so much on a word-by-word basis but in larger “lexical chunks” or meaningful strings of words that are committed to memory. Chunks may consist of fixed idioms or conventional speech routines, but they can also simply be combinations of words that appear together frequently, in patterns that are known as “collocations.”’
  • Powerful Tools for Learning a Language, or Several: 2012 endorsement of the Babbel (and Busuu) apps: “The different language apps are all similar, and they’re free on iOS and Android. You can set up a free account to keep track of your learning, and this will let you try the full fee-carrying online program.”
  • A Start-Up Bets on Human Translators Over Machines: A 2012 profile on the launch of Duolingo.
  • Translation Service Enlists Web Users to Do the Work: Another 2012 profile of Duolingo looks deeper into the technology.
  • Room for Debate: Is Learning a Language Other Than English Worthwhile? : A 2012 debate
  • 10 Paths to a More Fluent Vacation: 2012 overview of some language learning resources, from the cheap (, Coffee Break Spanish and Coffee Break French,, French in Action,,, and to the expensive (,, and
  • Measuring the Success of Online Education: 2013—”Duolingo, a free Web-based language learning system that grew out of a Carnegie Mellon University research project, is not an example of a traditional MOOC. However, the system, which now teaches German, French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and English, has roughly one million users and about 100,000 people spend time on the site daily. The firm’s business is based on the possibility of using students to translate documents in a crowd-sourced fashion. Seventy-five percent of the students are outside of United States, and Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Luis von Ahn notes that the foreign students are significantly more motivated and have a higher completion rate than their American counterparts. The firm, which was founded by Dr. von Ahn and his students, commissioned a study of the effectiveness of the language training system that indicates that students may learn languages more quickly online…”
  • Inventive, Cheaper Tools for Learning a Language: 2014 overview of Chineasy, Duolingo, (which focuses on the news), and Mango Premiere (which uses feature films), as well as Anki,, and Rosetta Stone’s travel app. is pronouncing dictionary with user-generated pronunciations.
  • Spanish as a Second Language, With the Accent on Fun: Duolingo, Busuu and Other Apps Teach Languages on Phones: 2014 overview of Spanish-learning apps for iOS and Android from MindSnacks, Duolingo, Busuu, and SpeakTribe, as well as Cat Spanish.
  • The Benefits of Failing at French: 2014 discussion of cognitive improvement from studying French but not learning it well enough to converse with a three-year-old “…after a year of intense study, including at least two hours a day with Rosetta Stone, Fluenz and other self-instruction software, Meetup groups, an intensive weekend class and a steady diet of French movies, television and radio, followed by what I’d hoped would be the coup de grâce: two weeks of immersion at one of the top language schools in France. …to reassure myself that nothing was amiss, just before tackling French I took a cognitive assessment called CNS Vital Signs, recommended by a psychologist friend. The results were anything but reassuring: I scored below average for my age group in nearly all of the categories, notably landing in the bottom 10th percentile on the composite memory test and in the lowest 5 percent on the visual memory test. …After a year of struggling with the language, I retook the cognitive assessment, and the results shocked me. My scores had skyrocketed, placing me above average in seven of 10 categories, and average in the other three. My verbal memory score leapt from the bottom half to the 88th — the 88th! — percentile and my visual memory test shot from the bottom 5th percentile to the 50th. Studying a language had been like drinking from a mental fountain of youth.”
  • Learning a New Language: Challenges and Joys: 2014 letters to the editor in response.

Czech is a lesser-studied language, and almost none of these tools have resources for the language: Not LiveMocha, Babbel, Busuu,, Rosetta Stone, MindSnacks, SpeakTribe, or Duolingo Czech for English speakers is in the incubator headed toward beta release. and Mango Languages support Czech, and DigitalDialects has basic material in Flash. Italki is a means of connecting with language teachers. It looks like Mondly Languages is attempting to compete with Duolingo and Rosetta Stone ( Tumblr, YT ), with many more languages.

Thoughts on Pimsleur Conversational Czech

The Pimsleur language learning system may not be highly regarded in formal language education, but it remains a best-selling language self-study course. I have never used a Pimsleur-branded product, so I went through the 16-lesson Conversational Czech course. Couldn’t hurt, and there are relatively few competing resources out there for self-study of Czech.

Mostly Pimsleur sells 30-lesson courses downloadable as MP3s for about $100 (or on CD for $300). These lessons are intended to be listened to once or twice a day, to take advantage of spaced repetition/graduated interval learning. The lessons are purely audio, involving listen-and-repeat and simple translation exercises. Conversational Czech is kind of a holdover, since it provided the first 16 lessons on CD for about $35.

The first few lessons were very easy for me, even as a novice, but quickly became difficult enough that it became worthwhile to listen to each half-hour episode twice per day. The rate of speech was appropriately challenging, and Czech pronunciation is difficult enough for me to make lots of this kind of practice worthwhile. However, I never fully grasped some of the question-forming patterns they used, and the format makes questions or further exploration of difficult points impossible. This is what started throwing me off the course. Also, I was listening to these programs on my commute, but an interruption in my schedule after lesson 10 led me to skip lessons for almost two weeks. After coming back to it, my knowledge was very stale, and I largely gave up on the course and burned through it to finish it off. The later lessons focused more on numbers, which I know fairly well already. The vocabulary and phrases taught are unquestionably valuable, if slight. There are several dozen words taught, perhaps over 100, along with maybe a dozen high-frequency and useful verbs. The situations covered are all very useful and practical. The format, with one male speaker and one female speaker, can make some of the gender distinctions more subtle: the course repeatedly puts the user in the shoes of the male speaker.

A couple of interesting sound changes were apparent in the audio, as well. In some non-standard usage (according to Naughton [13]), is changed to . This can make the distinction between words such as kde “where” and kdi “when” fairly subtle.

All in all, I can see some value to this, especially for beginning learners who do not have access to native-language teachers or conversation partners, and who have a means to extend their learning immediately after the course. But doing a whole 30-lesson course in a month sounds like it would be a long slog. The ideal case would probably be a person flying to the country in a fortnight or month, who can begin interacting with native speakers immediately after completing several days of lessons. The course doesn’t try more than basic active fluency in common, practical situations, but that is still a good goal. But it’s no more than a means of jump-starting the gradual acquisition of a language in conversation with other speakers.