Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Remains of Elmet

I found this book at the London Review Bookshop, a place I had long dreamed about visiting. I wanted something small to take as a souvenir, so I picked this. Admittedly, Ted Hughes is always a mixed bag for me. Some of his stuff is complete genius, and other things strike me as trite and dull. This book, unfortunately, falls into the trite and dull category. Especially this edition! Ted Hughes explains in the introduction:

The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees. Then in the early 1800s it became the cradle for the Industrial Revolution in textiles, and the upper Calder became 'the hardest-worked river in England'.
Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. Within the last fifteen years the end has come. they are now virtually dead, and the population of the valley and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, is changing rapidly. 
Fay Godwin set out to capture some impressions of this landscape at this moment, and her photographs moved me to write the accompanying poems. 

Okay, so, get it? He grew up here, and Fay's photos inspired him to write poems to accompany the photos. But you know what this edition doesn't have? The photos! Naturally, when the book was first printed, it was printed, duh, with the photos. Now, I have not looked at the photos, or seen how the poems fit with them. But... I have a feeling that this poems would seem much better with them. As they stand, they seem to be to be ripped in half. It reminds me of how I felt when I read this.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Decision Book

The Decision Book, by Michael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppeler, is pretty simple, a good book for a short airplane ride. Using diagrams, it summarizes fifty popular models for thinking strategically. Classics like the Hype Cycle, and the Long Tail are here, and obscure ones I hadn't heard of before. Sadly, I don't think I remember a single new thing I found in this book. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Small Collection of Poetic Artistry

I don't remember where I was, exactly, (maybe DC?) but an older african-american fellow calling himself James F. Harper approached me on the street, and said he was selling copies of his poetry. The copies were simple Xerox copies of his handwritten poetry. It excited me, somehow -- I think all poets should sell their works on the street this way. He asked for five dollars, but I only had three. "Better than nothing," he reasoned. My favorite of the poems was "The President":

"The President"
If I was the President
I'd give everybody a ride on Air Force One,
I'd let you see all parts of the world
We'd have a whole lot of fun. 

If I was The President
All of the little children
Would have a home, and plenty of food to eat,
Plus, everybody would say hello - and how are you
To everyone they meet.

If I was The President
They would elect me on a Friday,
Assassinate me on a Saturday,
Bury me on a Sunday,
And everybody would take their asses
back to work on Monday.

If I was The President

So, yeah, if you see poems for sale on the street, buy them!

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Blob

This is one of those movies everyone thinks they have seen -- but most people haven't sat and watched it, beginning to end. It has a weird subtext about the nature of authority, and the roles we fall into. The way the camera dwells on the moment when the school principal contemplates smashing the window is clearly meant to be the pivot point of the film. What's strangest about the whole thing, really, is that for a goopy teen sci-fi movie -- it's artfully done. It clearly really meant something to the man who created it. Who were you, Irvin Yeaworth? How does a Hollywood outsider like you make something like this happen, and make it succeed? And why are your other films so bad? There's something important here. I wonder if I'll ever know what it is.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pimsleur Conversational Swedish

I have gone through life convinced I am bad at language learning. I remember being in first grade, and excitedly finding language learning books at the library: "Learn French" and "Learn Italian". The books looked simple, cartoony, and fun. My parents dissuaded me from getting both: "It's hard enough just to learn one language." But I insisted. When I got home, my heart fell as I realized that reading and memorizing word after word was painfully difficult. I had fantasized that all I had to do was read the book, just as I'd read any book, and the knowledge would stay. Later, I took classes in French at school, and still later in Latin. The experience was mostly dismal. A difficult struggle all along, with lots of repetitive copying and tedious memorizing. And with very little payoff. In some ways it seemed strange to me -- I delight in learning arcane nooks and crannies of the English language, and I seem to have a natural gift for spelling words properly. In second grade, a fellow student was challenged with his spelling, and the teacher grew frustrated teaching him. "Richard," she growled, "for goodness sake, just sound it out! Jesse, that's what you do, right? Tell Richard how you do it." I became nervous, because her system of "sound it out" always seemed strange to me. And I tentatively explained, "Actually, I don't sound things out. I just... taste the words in my mouth, and I can see how to spell them." I believe it was the first time I saw an adult cry.

My frustrations at learning other languages, though, made me decide I must be one of those people for whom foreign language does not come naturally. When I learned of the research showing that toddler minds are specially wired for language learning, I nodded along with it. "Of course. No wonder it is hard for me to learn another language. My brain just isn't wired for it any longer." It seemed as impossible as learning to fly -- but that didn't make it any less fascinating to me, for I generally find the impossible challenges the most intriguing.

And when I stumbled across an ad for a "Revolutionary Method of Language Learning" (in skype of all places) it caught my interest. I watched a short video explaining the Pimsleur method, how it was based in speaking, not in reading and writing, and how it was a pure audio experience, I became intrigued. I know I am an "audio reader" (that is, I turn words into voices in my head, not pictures) and I prefer audio books to printed books in most cases, so I became curious about trying it out. I had an upcoming trip to Sweden for a conference, and my wife and I had taken a try at learning a little Swedish from "Complete Swedish" that we'd found at the bookstore, and it was going badly. "Complete Swedish" thought the best way to learn the language was to focus on learning the peculiar alphabet, and the subtle differences in vowel sounds. Then it hits you with a baffling array of tongue twisters in Swedish. We quickly decided that, wow, Swedish must be way too hard for us to learn. This video does a good job of capturing our bafflement. So, I figured, why not put the Pimsleur method to the test? And see if I can learn some Swedish from it?

I bought an 8 disk, 16 lesson package on Amazon, and I was blown away. NEVER have I found language learning so easy. The system is simple. You listen to the CDs, one lesson a day, half hour a day, and do what they say. They generally ask you to do three things:
1) Listen to a phrase, and repeat it. "The Swedish word for 'Hello' is 'Hej.' Say 'Hej.'"
2) Translate a phrase back into the foreign language. "Say 'Hello' in Swedish."
3) Take part in this Swedish conversation. "Hej .... Är du Amerikan? .... "
And really, that's pretty much it! The whole thing is paced in such a way that it challenges your memory, but doesn't overwhelm it. I was sure that when I went to the second lesson, I'd forget everything from the first, and quickly fall behind. But instead, the second lesson consisted of a lot of review and expansion of the first lesson, and quickly I felt my facility with the language growing. By the end of 16 lessons, I could confidently:
- Exchange simple greetings
- Ask for directions
- Count to 100
- Have simple conversations about money
- Order things from a restaurant
- Have simple hotel conversations
- Explain that I understood a little Swedish, but not much, and that I'm an American who speaks English

And the key word is *confidently*. I had NEVER had this feeling before, with any foreign language. Normally, when I would try to remember words in another language, my mind would seize up. I was in Paris, last year, for example, and when I would try to make use of the two years of French instruction to speak, words would fly from my mind, and natives would just roll their eyes at my stammerings. But after going through the Pimsleur system of Swedish, where you speak and speak and speak, the speaking came naturally to me. I felt confident that if I kept going with the system, and spent time immersed in the language, that I could learn more and more. This was a liberating feeling for me -- I felt like I could fly.

So -- was it useful when I got to Sweden? Only a little, honestly. I think everyone we met could speak confident English, and I quickly learned that the question "Förstår du Engelska?" (Do you understand English?) was kind of insulting, since most educated people in Sweden speak English fairly well. It was enough to say "Hello," which communicated that I would prefer to speak in English. In fact, the natives often seemed excited to show off their English (I found the attitude in France was often the opposite). But still, my limited Swedish helped me to understand lots of little things, and Swedes I met were impressed that, as an American, I knew any Swedish at all. But for me, it really wasn't so much about practical necessity, it was much more about connecting and understanding, and exploring a culture.

So, in short, I'm thrilled with the Pimsleur system. I can't imagine it works for everyone, but for me, it works wonderfully. I'm learning Mandarin Chinese now, in preparation for a trip to Tianjin this September, and already, only four lessons in, I feel like I have a handle on the basics, and I'm thrilled to have some insight into a language that had always been a total mystery to me. After I finish the basic Mandarin (or 普通话, or "Putonghua"), I bought a complete set of Spanish -- over 100 lessons, since my wife speaks Spanish fluently, and my daughter is learning it in school, I figure if I catch up, we can all learn together. The "complete sets" are very pricey, especially the CD versions (the MP3 versions are much cheaper), but I found a used one on Ebay for a pretty reasonable price.

To my surprise, it is possible to learn to fly -- and as it turns out, I love flying!

Hej då! Zài jiàn! Goodbye!