A year with Duolingo learning Spanish

via A year with Duolingo learning Spanish

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Some chance photos

Sometimes, while geodashing we stumble on something unexpected like these photos:


No, not a explosion or war, just a tornado. We live close to the center of tornado alley and so get used to hearing about some tornado nearby but it’s rare we actually see anything. We were geodashing and passed through the town of Wayne Nebraska, just a week or so after there had been a tornado. At first we didn’t remember we had heard about it on the weather reports but driving into the town we saw a swath of damage.

Much of it occurred out near the small airport. In addition to the smashed planes like many airports it was an industrial zone of fragile frame and metal buildings, several of which were really smashed to pieces (don’t have shoots of those). The area where the tornado passed through was a bit north of the main part of town so there was relatively little damage to houses, but one motel along the main road was demolished.

When you did see damage like this (or even the worse stuff on news) it reminds one of how fierce nature can be. The tornado doesn’t care what it destroys.

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More food in China

Since I did some of the cliche food pictures in previous post I’ll continue with a few more from that same trip.

One of the surprising things, to me, was the attention paid for presentation in the nicer restaurants in China. Sometimes it’s just something simple, like the photo above, but these items just add a very nice touch to a pleasant meal.

And another surprising thing was the glorious breakfast shown below.

This is the breakfast on the mezzanine, up a grand staircase from the beautiful lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Beijing.  This was hardly just a breakfast but instead a grand brunch buffet. There are massive self-service tables behind me (as I’m taking the picture) which would feed an army but then the two chefs are supplying the freshly prepared hot food. I had the best fried eggs I’ve ever had in any restaurant, expertly prepared. Once back home I read up on optimal cooking technique and tried to imitate what the chef had some easily and casually done. Having the eggs at room temperature certainly helped but I still couldn’t duplicate the perfectly cooked white part.

Of course he’ll prepare any kind of egg dish you want. Many of those bowls you see are for the added ingredients so you can select exactly what you want and as much as you want. For guests that don’t want an American style breakfast the bowls on the right contained many different types of fresh noodles (in cute little bundles) which would be cooked in broth with other added ingredients. Many of the ingredients I couldn’t even identify. The eating area itself was very pleasant and service was crisp and attentive with excellent coffee and juices.

Now this hotel is one of the more luxury hotels in Beijing that caters primarily to the international visitors. Despite the luxury, the hotel itself and the food, the prices were remarkably low for this level of luxury (not low by many standards, but just relative to the level of luxury). I ate breakfast here multiple times and never even managed to sample all they had to offer. I was very lucky this was a business trip and all this got piled on expense account as it would be a bit pricey for a visit.

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Something entirely different

I know that some social media sites are clogged with pictures of food, usually mundane “what I had for lunch today” shots, so this will be my contribution to that “art form”. But relax I only have a few of these and I think these are a bit more exotic.

Note: This is one of my rare multi-photo post so even if you find the narrative uninteresting scroll down for a few more photos.

I’ll start with this one.

You might think this comes from somewhat in Napa Valley or LA. Well, the restaurant was more “modern” and “trendy” than any I’ve seen anywhere in the US and just happens to be in Beijing. It’s just around the corner from the Grand Hyatt which itself just a few blocks from the Forbidden City. But the “cool” factor on this place was through the roof. It might not exist any more since I can’t find it (to get the name I forgot) but it was wow-squared. Incredible presentation, especially for the prix fixee dinner my colleagues enjoyed.

Going to China, on business, was remarkable to me. My sister had visited not long after the early thawing of relations with the US and I was prepared for a fairly primitive 3rd world kind of experience. Instead, at least where we were in Beijing I was in the most modern city I’d ever seen, a kinda Houston (in its heyday) with Asian flare. It seemed like everything had been built yesterday.

But it was food that was even more remarkable. Our colleagues there weren’t serving as guides, but they took us around to their favorite places (my company picked up the tab so our local co-workers were happy to be an our expense account.) Even the local eateries were fantastic. An interesting wrinkle was that prices were negotiated between the restaurant and a company, so our local guys just showed their badges to pay.

The local company my US company owned and was contracting to had offices in both Beijing and Xi’an, so this was a wonderful opportunity to throw in a little tourism plus some adventures in food. So here’s another bizarre item from a really great restaurant in Xi’an.

This creation was designed to look like the seed pod from a lotus blossom and in fact had the “nuts” from a lotus pod. Like a number of items it was a bit more pleasing to look at than eat. But it was a long way from the really icky chicken feet in duck intestine that our hosts (colleagues) decided would be fun to gross us out (you didn’t see them eating it either).

And here’s another mystery.

I have no clue what this is and it’s another item that looked better than it tasted. We often asked our local colleagues what some of these things are and after much discussion we’d get “weed that grows along the road” since there was no English name. At least with the professional (software) people we were with we discovered that the Chinese eat very well, lots of diversity in the food, often quite tasty, usually quite pretty, and rarely like anything you can find in the US.

There was essentially, without it being a deliberate trend, a strong farm-to-table movement. Due to jet lag I was up just before dawn one day and walking around and everywhere there were guys with motorbikes stacked unbelievably high and precariously with crates of mysterious vegetables, making deliveries to the restaurants. It turns out these guys come in from the countryside on buses (equipped to transport their motorbikes) and make daily deliveries.

We also learned another interesting tidbit. Naturally one of our first lunches including Peking Duck (still labeled that way despite the more correct name of Beijing). In fact, many restaurants have large sculptured (and cute) ducks near their door. Anyway the server (a sous chef) must have specific training to serve this item. So the first customer gets served the best parts. Since the food has only been handled by the server it can then be served as a second (cheaper) serving to another customer. And when that part is done it was used a third time to make soup from the carcass, nothing going to waste.

And as a final comment I was discussing cooking with the most senior member of our local team. He’d actually gotten a PhD from Stanford in Physics and worked years in the US and was now managing a software company after returning “home” after some of the liberalizations. Anyway he was an accomplished cook and I fashion myself as a decent cook so we were comparing notes. Almost immediately he objected to my use of the term “Chinese food”. He explained China is far too large with far too many culinary styles to be lumped under a single term. His simple statement was “you wouldn’t call French or Italian food European, would you?” Point taken. He wasn’t objecting that I’d made some insensitive cultural faux pas, but just that I was drastically under-estimating the complexity and sophistication of food in China. Point taken! And much good food enjoyed.

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Why are people more friendly in campgrounds?

This is an old post but I continue to think about this. While I have no more recent experience it is still something I don’t understand.


I meant to write this post a few weeks ago while on my camping trip, but better late than never.

I’ve noticed when traveling to western U.S. vacation spots but also while camping or hiking trails that there seems to be a different behavior than normal life that people, at the very least, speak to strangers, even if just to say hello. However, rarely did this surface friendliness lead to much conversation. But when I began to travel solo I discovered that longer and pleasant conversations with strangers was common. It means that while traveling alone I rarely feel “alone” and that is an unexpected consequence.

So I wondered why this is. So here’s some of my ideas.

  1. herd effect: Everybody does it so quickly all people accept this is the standard behavior. At home it’s different, contact with strangers is rare, but under these circumstances most people seem to…

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Spring snow in the mountains

Continuing with some pretty outdoor scenes here is an unexpected scene.

This is a shot of the turnaround loop in the North Tongue campground in the Bighorn Mountains in early summer. Over night it got cold enough to produce a light snow on the ground. Earlier in the morning the ground was almost entirely covered with wet sloppy snow but as the sun came out it quickly began to melt.

This was not my first visit to this campground but the campground was my first visit to the Bighorns. I literally had no idea where to go so I just piled camping stuff in the car and did the long boring drive, about 1000 miles, to Sheridan Wyoming. There I expected to get information at the US Forest Service office but found it was closed for remodeling. Not sure what to do and very much needing a good forest service map and information I had noticed there was a bike store on the main street in Sheridan.

I went in there and discovered it was a general outdoor outfitter with camping stuff and more importantly a good forest service map. But even better the proprietor was friendly and happy to provide lots of information, especially recommendations about campgrounds. I choose one of his recommendations and headed into the mountains. I’d never been here before so it was great fun to drive the very steep road up to the top. The Bighorns are not really a range of separate mountains so much as a high plateau with then some peaks so everywhere was the “mountain”.

I’d passed the Tongue River driving up through Dayton and Ranchester and then discovered it had a North and South Fork that join in the mountains and then flow east, eventually into the Missouri. The North Tongue campground is quite small, L-shaped, with just a few sites (like 12, IIRC) on the upper (southern) leg that ends in this turnaround so the RVs can get back out of the campground. On my first trip the campground was almost empty and so I had my choice of spots.

On the drive in there had been a lot of moose down in the North Fork of the Tongue which is about 1/2 mile from the campground loop (which is just off Burgess Junction). In the campground loop there was lush spring growth, tons of wildflowers and a bunch of deer munching away on the new growth. It is hard to imagine a more pastoral and tranquil scene. Even when the crowds descended a week later (for 4th of July weekend) the campsites are large and far apart so it’s a great place to camp, especially when you only have a tent instead of RV.

So just lucking out to discover this spot a couple of years later I came back (when I made this photo). By then the campground had been privatized and completely fenced, thus disrupting my almost wilderness experience (I’d parked my car on the campsite pad but carried my tent back in the woods a ways, now behind the fence). So on this trip the campsites were not so good and I ended up putting my tent in the parking pad. After a couple of days this snow came.

All of this reduced the fun of this campsite so I explored and eventually found a better one, Tie Flume and site #22, on the South Fork of the Tongue. Actually I’m glad the adverse changed to my favorite campground forced me to find another since Tie Flume was better, at least those few sites along the river.

The Bighorns are mostly neglected by most tourists on their way to Yellowstone or Tetons and thus more used by locals or people looking for a more isolated nature experience. Having that good forest service map and an AWD vehicle allows lots of exploration. Much of the Bighorns is grasslands, rather than dense forest, so there is good hiking everywhere. It’s a great spot and much better than the other overcrowded spots in Wyoming.

And there are a ton of good scenes for photography. I mostly only took “snaps” while there on previous trips and now with a better camera and more interest I’d love to go back and really focus on some more serious shooting.

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Learning languages – 4

I’ve previously posted, under the tag ‘language’, about my latest adventure in attempting to learn a new language. My main tool is the free online application Duolingo which is similar to other online tools, but a bit more oriented to “fun” to try to keep you motivated. So now I want to report some progress.

I’ve now managed to do 213 consecutive days of meeting my daily goal (three lessons). I’ve usually gone far beyond that (that goal would take about 15 minutes) and have averaged more like 14 lessons in my main language (Spanish) and then playing around a bit in other languages. Altogether I am probably spending at least an hour a day on Spanish and a half hour on the for-fun stuff.

So all that has given me 837 crowns (a Duolingo award for advancing through a level in a particular set of drills, known as ‘skills’ (there are 150 of these in the Spanish course). Of these only 270 are for Spanish so all the rest come from “playing”. That said, I decided to go ahead and start the so-called “reverse tree”, that is learning English from Spanish which actually puts some pressure on how well I’ve learning Spanish from my native English. Interestingly the English from Spanish is much easier than the Spanish from English.

But also strangely I finally have my first “golden owl”, that is the award for “completing” an entire course (AKA tree). I’ve done that in my worst language, i.e. German. But with German, a language I don’t particularly like, I have really done the minimum. The first level of each skill (which you must reach, at minimum, in order to “complete” a tree) is actually just introducing you to new material so those questions are both easy and “cheats” (hints, i.e. hover over a word and you get the translation). I always thought Level 1 was too easy so initially I was trying to reach Level 3, at minimum (in Spanish I go through all five levels, plus a lot of repeated drills, since I’m serious about learning that). After a while it got hard to reach Level 3, in German, since I really hadn’t done enough serious study on earlier lessons and therefore wasn’t retaining much, so I just decided to blast through at Level 1 and finish the tree (all the “gamification” Duolingo does to create incentive to keep going does work on me a bit).

Anyway on one hand my record is a big success at this. I’ve stuck with it, I’ve definitely learned a lot (including some just casual learning in French and Portuguese, as interesting contrast to Spanish, given a historical common origin). So Duolingo’s approach has worked for me.

But at the same time I’m disappointed. I’ve found some sample tests online for the levels of CERF, a standard for European language learning level. I’d hoped I was beyond the lowest level A1-1 and well into A1-2 and headed to A2-1 but doing the sample tests it’s unlikely I could pass A1-1 (yet). That’s pretty basic beginner. So one hand I’d failed at learning any Spanish in several previous tries so I’m pleased I now know some but then it also seems like I have such a long way to go.

I’m keeping my own detailed records in an application I wrote for myself to plan how (and which and when) to repeat drills. If you don’t go back and repeat old stuff you’re just going to forget things. In that app, now that I have 83 days of actual data in it, I also coded a simulation. That showed me at my current pace I’ll finish the Duolingo Spanish tree sometime in 2021! Ugh, too slow. And that would only, at most, put me at the A2-2 level (and that’s unlikely). So over another year and I’m still just a beginner.

And to top that off, while I get some practice at hearing Spanish (still very hard for me, but better than it was when I started) I’m essentially getting zero practice speaking. So a conversation would be a long way off for me and that’s actually my goal – to go to Spain (or possibly Ecuador) and get outside the tourist areas where I could get by with English and actually manage my travel needs in Spanish (ordering food, lodging, transportation, getting information).

So despite a sense of progress I also have this nagging notion that I’m advancing way too slowly. There is a known effect in learning a language of “fatigue” with too much study so just increasing my hours per day (I have the time but it would be hard to do more) isn’t the answer. I am working on trying to read simple stories which is quite different than the Duolingo exercises but I think I still need more. Thus far the code I’ve written for “drill” applications (glorified flashcards) hasn’t really worked.

So in short, I’ll keep doing what I have been doing but I need more.

btw: I have also investigated real F2F courses, not just online stuff. Some, with the immersion approach, but also in a Spanish speaking country make a lot of sense but it’s unlikely I’d be able to do these (for reasons more complicated than I want to share here). But I do believe that as helpful as online learning is (any course, including the more expensive paid ones) it’s just not enough.

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