What I Learned From Grinding Language classes for 9 Months

Over this past year, I’d say my biggest accomplishment was building out my language learning habit and actually improving somewhat in my foreign language speaking skills. So what exactly did I do to learn new languages? I started taking tutoring classes online. Originally, I scheduled weekly classes to learn Chinese. Now, I’m learning Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Japanese. Now, am I learning them all equally as well? Not even close.

March Schedule

Here was my schedule back in March – pretty doable – I think anyone could probably incorporate this amount of classes into their life, possibly with little alteration of their normal schedule, or possibly a lot, to free up certain time schedules.

April Schedule

Here’s April and May – I feel like my schedule remained pretty consistent – about two or three classes a week on average. June and July are pretty similar. It’s not until August that I really ramp up the intensity:

At this point, I’ve moved to daily classes with an additional class thrown in every other day or so. What’s with the shift?

Regardless of your methods for learning a language, there are a couple of core concepts that you must abide by:

  • You need to have an opportunity to learn new material. (This can be vocabulary, grammar, or new language concepts.)
  • You need an area to practice it – For example, speaking in conversations that incorporate the new concepts you’ve learned. Watching videos that use the target vocab/grammar. Reading books. Listening to conversations or podcasts. So forth.
  • Time spent practicing the concepts. This is in line with the above, actually – your output is a function of usage over time – meaning you can practice and use the concept many times over a short period, or the same amount of times over a longer period. However, it’s not necessarily 1:1; there’s a bunch of articles hyping the use of spaced repetition in learning a language – meaning it might actually be worse if you practice a concept 1000 times in a week and then pick it up a year later, compared to practicing that concept 1000 times spaced throughout the course of a year and then picking it up again the following year. You want to practice these concepts over a time interval instead of doing things in bursts.

So, keeping these general concepts in mind, what did I learn about learning languages?

  • It’s a hell of a lot easier to learn the more you study. This sounds kind of self evident, but when I take the same class every day, I don’t even need to do outside homework in order to recall concepts I learned the day before. Just brute forcing learning through sheer volume of classes serves to learn things over time. Would it be better if I study outside of class as well? of course. Do I do it? Nope.
  • Trying to learn multiple languages may not be inherently worse than only focusing on one. Having said that, I do think it gives you a lot more rope to hang yourself with, so I wouldn’t recommend starting from scratch with multiple languages – I think it’s cool to pick up several languages if you’re relatively proficient with one and a beginner in the other. One benefit I found from learning multiple languages simultaneously was not needing to sustain my interest in only one language. It’s really natural to have interest in learning a language wax and wane over time, but whenever interest dropped in one language, interest would rise in the other. It was quite nice.
  • It’s crucial to build in time to explore the concepts you’re learning. On Italki, I would schedule weekly classes with some of my tutors. These tutors would focus solely on going over new concepts, vocabulary, and grammar with me, with the expectation that I would study these things in my own time and practice speaking/writing/reading etc. However, with some languages, it was very frequently the case that the class was the only time I was exposed to that language in a conversational setting, meaning I could talk to someone and they would respond back. Compare that to watching a TV show or listening to music/ reading news in the target language – you are still exposed to the language, but you get little opportunity to practice speaking in a real world setting, which, for most people, is the most practical use for a language. In order to ameliorate this, I had to reach out to my tutors and reset expectations – I needed to move slower and spend much more time practicing these concepts by verbally reviewing them in conversation with my tutor. While the rate at which we covered material dropped to a snail’s pace, my retention shot up through the roof.
  • For those who have taken a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, the structure of a typical BJJ class actually is quite useful to incorporate in a language learning context. A typical BJJ class usually follows this pattern: First 10 minutes of class spent warming up. About 20-30 minutes devoted to learning new material. Then about 30 minutes sparring, which is as close to real world usage as possible. The practitioners grapple under a restricted ruleset – no punching, kicking, or strikes of any kind. No fouling (gouging, manipulating people’s fingers, messing with ears, eyes, throat (except for chokes), etc) Every class is essentially self-contained: There’s room to learn new concepts, but also space to test out new material as you see fit. If you don’t have any exposure to your target language outside of class, I feel like incorporating the BJJ class model is really useful for retaining language knowledge. If you have plenty of opportunity to practice your target language outside of class, I’d recommend taking out the “practice” aspect from your classes, since there’s so little time in a class and you could devote more of it to learning instead.

(It’s important to note that this is simply one method to learn a language – I’m not saying it’s the only path, nor is it the best. But it is my path and it is one that works for me. You may find it useful for you if you need structured classes for guidance in the same way I do. If you think it might work for you, try it! As they say, take what works and discard what doesn’t. I wont be offended!)

Chicanery – on Crossing the Rubicon

I’m really into Better Call Saul . It’s my favorite current TV show, and my personal canon of Great TV Shows . My favorite episodes in particular are the ones that address the relationship between Jimmy and Chuck – the underlying resentment that’s simmering throughout the series. Whenever the series decides to confront the elephant in the room, things complode – it’s like dynamite. I’m thinking of two episodes in particular that really highlight this dynamic – Pimiento and Chicanery. I can address the conflict in Pimiento in another post, but long story short, it’s when Jimmy finally realizes how Chuck has been keeping him down the entire time. It’s an explicit reveal of something Jimmy’s felt all his like – his inferiority complex to his brother, and his brother’s contempt for him. He’s always known his brother thought he was better than him – but this episode is where Chuck comes right and and admits it. But enough about that – I want to focus on Chicanery – the episode when everything comes to a boil.

One interesting aspect of the bar hearing against Jimmy is it’s the culmination of the bubbling resentment finally being unleashed by both sides – Years of harbored resentment finally reaching a tipping point – the thought of having to bail Jimmy out of trouble for years while never seeing how Jimmy had improved over time – While the recording of Jimmy’s confession was when Chuck finally crossed the Rubicon, ultimately, the disbarment case was when Chuck finally brought all the scheming to fruition. Meanwhile, the moment that Jimmy’s resentments finally blow up is when he breaks into Chuck’s house to destroy the tape, but he doesn’t cross the rubicon until after he’s finally let out his resentment. His actions that cross the rubicon – bringing in Chuck’s Ex to inform her about his mental illness, and embarrassing Chuck in front of all his peers – foments from a dispassionate plan to ensure his survival. But ultimately, these machinations against his brother are all a product of that eruption of resentment.

I’m too lazy to synthesize the rest of my thoughts into a cogent post, so here’s the highlights of the episode summarized in a list:

  • Sibling resentment
  • Chuck flipping the addresses in his white lie to Rebecca mirrors when Jimmy plays transposes the addresses to trip up Chuck – gives some more context on why he can sniff it out, even when everyone else thinks he’s crazy. 512 San Cristobal Road to 215 San Cristobal Road -> 1261 Rosella Drive to 1216 Rosella Drive.
  • This episode is a microcosm of the brother’s relationship – the weird emotional codependency on each other, the lingering resentment, the contrast in portrayals -the justification of Jimmy’s work ethic via Howard’s compliments contrasted with Chuck always seeing the worst in Jimmy shown when he finally loses his temper – explains why he’s the only one who can figure out when Jimmy’s pulling a scam, when he only Jimmy’s actions through the lens of Slippin’ Jimmy.
  • Chuck’s explicit statement of what everyone has been tiptoeing about for 2 and half half seasons, which is – he is NOT CRAZY.
  • The whole episode is everyone dancing around Chuck’s mental illness, no one explicitly mentioning it, but talking around it – Howard with the FMLA leave, Jimmy with the TEG, until the State’s attorney finally mentioning Chuck’s mental illness
  • “He’s hoping this will break me down, split me apart at the seams like a murderer confessing on an episode of Perry Mason. Well… I’m sorry to disappoint you Jimmy.” *** Three Minutes Later, immediately confesses ***
  • Chuck and Jimmy’s weird codependent relationship – they both know how to push each other’s buttons. The climax is a result of both brothers finally unleashing a lifetime of unspoken resentment. They both know how their actions will devastate their opposing sibling – indeed, it seems like the point is the devastation.

One other thing I love about this episode – it’s vindication. We’ve been building up this same resentment towards Chuck, as a proxy for Jimmy’s resentment. We want to see him lash out and knock his brother down a peg. But when he finally pulls out all the stops, it’s absolutely devastating. It’s a total pyrrhic victory. Jimmy may have prevented his disbarment, but at the cost of destroying his brother emotionally and professionally. It’s not even a satisfying feeling to get revenge for all the things Chuck has been doing for him over the years. Likewise, he’s gotten Kim roped into his shenanigans as well, and she doesn’t feel any better about the situation. As she says in a later episode, “as far as I’m concerned, all we did was tear down a sick man.”

Life Goals Reevaluations 2019 Edition

Since it’s been two years since my last reevaluation, let’s have a check up.

What were my previous goals?

Low hanging fruit

  • Lose weight (5-10 pounds) (I’ve actually gained weight in the interim – I’m hovering around 220 pounds right now)
  • Establish emergency savings fund (Mmmmm…. Not really working out. I’m net negative because of credit card debt and student loans. Need to start tightening up the belt and clawing my way out of credit card debt before I can start putting money down for an emergency fund)
  • Keep blogging on a weekly basis (Well, I’m restarting this one. Going well so far.)

Ambitious/Long term goals

  • Learn to play an instrument or sing (Eh, it’s been reprioritized onto the back burner)
  • Learn to draw (Hasn’t been going anywhere)
  • Publish a book (Same)
  • Keep blogging on a near-daily basis (Not been working out, but restarting)
  • Learn a new language (This one is something I’ve been succeeding at. In fact, I’m actually pretty proud of my accomplishments so far. Still a long way to go, but I’ve markedly improved my language acquisition in this year alone. My Chinese skills have certainly gone up a level. I’ve also started learning other languages, and while the bar on those languages are mixed, I’ve still improved when I consider where I started.)
  • Live in a foreign country (Though it could also be relatively short term – I could easily uproot my life any time within the upcoming months to the next year if I quit my job) (This one I can mark off my list as accomplished. I’ve lived in another country for a year, which has given me the perspective to consider whether I’d like to live elsewhere long term. While I’m not totally decided on living abroad in the long term, I’ve definitely come to consider what sorts of asks I would target for an area I’d consider settling in.)
  • Lose weight (40-50 pounds) (This is a negative goal – I’ve gone in the opposite direction. Needs some work.)
  • Own a home (Not any time soon, unless I buy property on the cheap.)
  • Run the Iditarod (Nah)
  • Start my own business (Nothing doing)
  • Grab a bag of corn nuts and bust a nut (Always)

New Goals:

Long term goal:

  • Write a million words

Medium Term goal (Accomplish within a year):

  • Write 300,000 words

Short term goal: (Accomplish in next six months)

  • Write 100,000 words

SMART goal: (Accomplish in a month)

  • Write 20,000 words

20,000 words in a month seems doable to me – that’s 20 1,000 word paragraphs, or 40 500 word articles. That works out to a little over a month, which is definitely within reason. The purpose isn’t to hit this specific target (20,000 words in a month) but a general time frame for hitting this goal. I’ve actually installed a word count plugin to track my progress. Currently I’m at about ~30,000 published words, so as I inch closer to 40k and 50k I’ll know I’m making progress.

After reviewing my goals, I feel like I haven’t really accomplished many of the goals that I set out for myself. However, contrary to what might be expected, I don’t feel as if my accomplishments were a letdown – rather, I’ve reprioritized my goals to focus entirely on the language learning aspect. Many of these goals can be put on the backburner as they’re no longer an immediate priority outside of writing and language learning. I actually feel like the list of goals I have set up don’t really accurately reflect what I want to accomplish in the short term – maybe in the longer term, but they’re more nebulous bucket list items, such as owning a home or running the iditarod. What are things I want to accomplish immediately in the short term? I’d need to re-review my wants and needs and build out a new list. I know one thing I want to add is more add more reading to my backlog. I’ve recently started getting into audible audiobooks, which I feel like help get me back into reading, as I’ve been pretty seamlessly going back and forth between reading and listening to a new book when I’ve had the time to do so.

Anyways, back to the point – it makes sense after two years that my goals would change. It’s especially helpful to reflect on I’ve done – not just what goals I’ve accomplished and which I’ve failed, but what methods I tried – what worked and what didn’t in my pursuit of my goals. I feel like I’ve mostly relied on trying out new things and never iterating upon it – while the sheer volume of work being put in helps for learning, I think I’m losing out on the massive benefit of improving over time because of how rigid my methodology can be. For example, in my 1:1 language classes, I rely solely on the tutor for learning the language. Whatever methods they employ, I follow blindly like a sheep. This means the actual effectiveness of each lesson and each teacher varies wildly. I don’t feel like I’m consistently learning each language I’m studying. A lot of this can also be chalked up to frequency of classes, but I do think a big part of what’s holding me back is the method in which I go about learning. I’ve learned this because I have actually applied this in one of my classes – my Japanese class.

My tutor would only spend time with me to go over new lessons and grammar every class. This included vocabulary and material from every lesson. However, I wasn’t practicing outside of class, and I only had classes once a week – this meant I wasn’t really learning anything, since I didn’t bother to retain any vocabulary or grammar from class, because I didn’t practice it. After months of this, I took a step back and reached out to my tutor to change the methodology of the class. I asked him to reset – we went back to the beginning lessons that we started from, and went through the material at a slower pace. We spent much more time actually practicing discussions in class, since that was the only opportunity I would have to practice speaking in Japanese in my daily routine. At that pace the rate of learning was much more sustainable and I even retained more of what we went over, since I got to practice the concepts and the vocabulary throughout multiple lessons. It was a really valuable lesson to me to reach out and attempt to

a) Improve processes over time

or

b) Change things up if they aren’t working for me.

On Frames, AKA Lenses AKA Models

This guy I found recently on twitter loves to talk about frames. In essence, frames are how we perceive the world around us – we can modify our own perception of the world and others’ perception as well to effect various outcomes, such as increase visibility on an issue, increase sales, etc. I bring this up because I’ve also been thinking about the world in this frame – except my preferred nomenclature is the model (like a scientific model), or a lens with which we perceive the world (rose colored glasses).

There’s a well known saying regarding models: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. What does this mean? Well, let’s go back to the purpose of a model when used in our science classes: a model is a simplified break down of certain interactions. By certain interactions, I mean the frame of reference for what is being modeled. This is kind of vague, but it’s hard to be more concrete because the frame of reference for what is being modeled can vary greatly. Here’s the prototypical example: Classical mechanics. Classical mechanics is a model taught in physics to describe the general principle of motion of physical objects. It’s not an overarching explanation for how the world works – it’s more of a simplified description of what is happening when things are moving. When looking at the world only from the perspective of objects in motion, we can apply the model of classical mechanics to predict the outcomes of movement. In the same way that we use this model to understand and predict how objects are moving, we can pick up and apply other models to other aspects of life to effect various outcomes.

How does generalize to the rest of our lives? We can look at models as tools with which to understand aspects of the world, or even manipulate it in limited ways – if we apply the calculations of physical mechanics, we can possibly predict the movement of large physical objects – say, if you wanted to build something the scale of the pyramids. Doing the upfront work of understanding how to move these objects efficiently could save you a lot of manpower. However, these models of the world are meant to be interchangeable – after all, “all models are wrong”. It doesn’t seem to make sense to take one model and try to rigidly apply that to all aspects of the world around you. For example, here are some common mental models for perceiving the world:

Survival of the fittest – similar to the law of the jungle. It’s a world where ultimately might makes right – if you hold more power (physically, fiscally, socially), ultimately you are in the right.

The rule of law – stolen directly from Better Call Saul: “The rule of law – the idea that no matter who you are, your actions have consequences.”

The red pill – this one is popular in the “manosphere”. The idea that the modern world itself is a poison that has destroyed the social fabric – Women have been given inequitable amounts of power in modern society and men have been toppled from their natural place in the food chain, ultimately leading to the destruction of society.

Let’s look at the limitations of each model:

Survival of the fittest – does that apply in a family setting? Is this how you should treat your siblings, your cousins, and your aunts and uncles? In the case of familial relations, it might not make sense to apply this model. Having said that, maybe the power dynamics of your family is the exception, Everyone’s different.

Rule of law – is the rule of law always equitably applied? The assumption behind upholding the rule of law is that the laws themselves are justified. In the case laws against homosexuality, is it really just to apply those laws? They may apply to everyone, but they target a specific group of individuals.

Red pill – I leave this as an exercise for the reader. Come to your own conclusions as to why this worldview is limiting! Even better, try to come up with perspectives in which this model might be useful!

Ultimately, models are only as useful as the contexts in which they are applied. They may end up limiting you socially – see the example of the red pill. Is it sustainable to live a life thinking all relationships are transactional in nature? Ultimately, you need to decide for yourself. But limiting yourself to one model in which to view the world is can bind you like a chain. Having said that, sometimes the limitations also give way to greater freedom of expression – having restrictions can sometimes do wonder for your creativity, after all. Think of how much work you can get done 5 minutes before a paper is due, compared to having unlimited time to work on your creative endeavors freely. The effect depends entirely on how the individual uses it and how suitable the model works for them.

Directing Your Life

I follow a couple of various career forums – Fishbowl, Blind, and CSCareerquestions. I’ve been seeing a bunch of people ask similar questions – typically, new grads who’ve moved for a job are lonely and looking for social outlets – Since they’re new to the area, they don’t know anyone, and unlike their hometown or college, they don’t have a built in system for meeting people outside of work. Their hometown naturally having a bunch of longtime neighbors or friends from school, and from college the people they met in classes or clubs or what have you. These weren’t communities they had to go out of their way to build out – it was a naturally occurring part of their ecosystem. In a sense, these communities were built as a part of an unconscious routine.

How much of our lives are dictated by unconscious habits? Pretty much most of it – on a day to day basis, I get up, brush my teeth, shower, go to work, get lunch, go home, eat dinner, veg out on my computer, and go to sleep. Pretty normal routine for many people I’d imagine – add in recreational activities, exercise, some socialization on the weekends, and you have an average American single. Obviously the lifestyle will vary for people with kids, but they still have a general rhythm to their lives. But they don’t have to be this way.

Everyone naturally has a certain amount of agency in their own lives (or so the theory goes), so why do we fall into these unconscious rhythms? Well, probably because they work. We’re surviving on a day to day basis – if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Having said that, sometimes people aren’t actually able to stomach their current situation and it becomes untenable. Going back to my post about incorporating retrospectives, there can be real benefit to reevaluating your natural routines and determining if they need some tweaking, or total excision from your life. You might find you want to add things as well.

In more concrete terms, what are these habits I’m referring to? Think of your friend groups – the people you hang out with regularly. Are they people who’ve kind of worked their way in your lives through happenstance? Are you still friends with these people out of circumstance, or do you genuinely like spending time with them now? Maybe you’re stuck in a rut and don’t have other friends, so you’re afraid to lose the only network you have, even if you’re not really having a good time any more in the relationship. But you have the ability to look for new friend groups and new communities. You can join a sport, a club, or a hobby. The difference between doing so in college and doing post college is the external nature of it – In college, these things all exist somewhere in your peripheral. Social organizations like frats, clubs, and sports are all part of the college ecosystem. It’s therefore not as much of a cost to break out of your daily rhythm to join these things, compared to post college life – every activity or group you attempt to join is entirely out of the purview of your current daily life. You need to go out of your way to attend these things, because they’re not tied into your work or your routine.

The Feedback Loop: On Incorporating Retrospectives

You ever revisit an old song/movie/book/TV show that you loved in the past, but found out it was actually pretty bad, or dated? Keep in mind, there’s a difference between having your tastes change over time and just visual rot over time. For example, specific genres like action movies usually age worse than other genres, say a romance or drama, because they usually rely on more special effects. In this case, you just realized what you liked wasn’t that good, and a lot of your previous judgement of the work was papered over by other qualities like novelty or the flashiness of the spectacle at the time. For years or decades even, you were had this impression of this work that didn’t align with the actual object experience upon your reevaluation. Why is that? Because in all those years, you never went back to check if your opinion changed over time. Let’s extract this to the rest of your life. A job field you’re no longer interested in, a college degree you’re majoring in but not passionate about, maybe even a relationship that’s kind of lost its spark but you still consider good, because of how many good times you shared in the past. Continual reevaluation of the status quo is fundamentally necessary to determine if all of your habits are worth keeping in your life.

Keep in mind, this isn’t an imperative command to upend your lifestyle. If you’re satisfied with your current lifestyle, there’s no reason to change things up. But at the very least, it’s necessary to reevaluate all aspects of your lifestyle on a continual basis – otherwise, how will you know if something is worth keeping or not? Liken it to a monitoring system: continual reevaluation of all your habits is akin to setting up tracking systems on what is and isn’t working in the current system you call your life. Without reevaluation, you won’t realize whether something is broken or not. Otherwise, things could be critically miscalibrated for years and you would have no idea, since you’ve never bothered to look. Having said that, it’s also important to prioritize what’s worth reevaluating and the timeframe for reevaluations. Consider the example of the childhood movie you realized was crap: Is there any material impact to you realizing you no longer like the movie? Has it influenced your life in any way? If not, why does it matter to go back and revisit it?

Let’s consider it from another aspect: professional athletes, specifically combat sports athletes. How many times do we see fighters continuing far past their athletic peaks, to the point where they’re no longer competitive, or where they’ve sustained so much damage to their minds or bodies that its affected their quality of life? Have they properly reevaluated their vocation, or are they possibly trapped in circumstance? After all, there’s been many a fighter who’ve continued to fight long past their prime simply because fighting still paid well and they had no other opportunities. In the end, no one can make the decision to continue on with a pursuit except the individual themselves, but at the very least they should be cognizant of why they’re making it.

Formality vs Informality: Why Blogs are good

You know, when I think of the rise of blogs and how they’ve contributed to destroying our media institutions, blogs are kind of bad. Literally any dipshit with an opinion can opine on a subject they know nothing about, and it can be designated as significant as an expert in the field who has diligently researched the topic. Having said that, they also do the opposite – they can empower people who are experts into platforms where they can really promote their ideas, free from the stifling confines of BIG MEDIA. I want to say though… It’s probably still mostly the former? Having said that, I’ll now talk about why blogs are good, personally.

In aggregate, blogs are probably bad, because of the harm they’ve brought to investigative institutions. However, they’ve really done a good job at empowering individuals. Anyone in theory can start up their own website and write some shit. The barriers have never been lower. There are free hosting platforms now. You can buy your own domain name for like 10 bucks. If you want a little more freedom, there are still plenty of cheap hosting options – I run this blog on a shared hosting platform that costs me a dollar a month. I put in like 3 years worth of credit in advance and haven’t had to think of it since – it’s great. The only maintenance I do is upgrading wordpress and its plugins every couple of months. If you’re even more into running your own shit, you can pay for a 5 dollar VPS that can host anything you could possibly want for a blog. Also, this is all beside the point, which is this – blogs are good because of their informality.

Formally published institutions are good because they lend some legitimacy to your work and also ensure a certain bar – real professionals will review your work to make sure you aren’t actually shit. Blogs do the exact opposite – you can write as you like. This is great if you’re an amateur – even better than writing for published institutions. Why? Because of volume. How do you write for an institution? You need to have credibility, meaning you need prior work. You basically need to be good already in order to write for an institution. For a blog, you can get your practice in and publish at will. In theory, anyone with an internet connection can see what you wrote. However, in reality, as a small time writer, no one is going to be reading your shit. So you still get the feeling like you’re putting out work that’s good enough for public consumption, but without the actual pressure of money being on the line. If someone’s paying for my writing, I’m going to carefully pick at every little tidbit to make sure my shit is impeccable. I might even be embarrassed that this work is published under my name. I know there’s going to be a broad reaching audience criticizing my shit. If I publish in a blog, well, no one is going to know unless I start getting gud.

Furthermore, the most important thing for an early writer like myself is the volume of writing. I haven’t written shit yet. Going through the wordcount of all my posts in this blog, I don’t even top 40k. That’s a pittance. 2-3 paragraphs for me is about 500 words. That means I’ve only written roughly 160-240 paragraphs. There’s a ton of room for improvement. I like to equate it to learning to speak a new language – You can’t speak a new language if you never say anything. You’re going to make a ton of mistakes throughout your speaking process, but if you put in enough hours talking with other people, your speaking skills really have no choice but to improve over time. Consider the FSI recommended number of hours to achieve a decent level of fluency (Not native level, more like casual) in a language. For Spanish, they recommend about 480 hours of study. Try cramming in a 20 minutes a day speaking Spanish with native speakers. That’s ~120 hours in a year with no other practice, though you should be doing other work to increase your overall fluency. But in a year of 20 minutes a day, you’re a quarter of a way to being comfortable using Spanish in every day conversation. Fuck, I don’t even exercise 20 minutes a day. So many small wins could be operationalized here. It’s like I’m giving away free gains.

The pareto principle, AKA the 80/20 rule comes into play here. For things that aren’t my main focus, I can be getting roughly 80% of the benefits for 20% of the work. Not acting on that low hanging fruit is akin to not picking up that 20 dollars on the sidewalk because it requires work. Like, sure it requires work, the the level of work required is vastly outweighed by the benefit given in that fractional amount of work. For reference, I make like thirty bucks an hour. I really need to start internalizing what is and isn’t an efficient use of my time. Not to say that everything needs to be min maxed, but the point of reflection is to see areas in which my life can be enriched in ways that I desire, with an expectation that the amount of work required is less compared to the benefits I’m reaping. After all, there doesn’t seem to be much point in putting in work into something that only gives back exactly what I put in – could you imagine if a farmer only received the exact amount of calories or money they put into growing vegetables? What’s the point of doing the work if it doesn’t benefit you in some way?

2019 Status Update

Let’s see – it’s been almost exactly a year since my last update. Having said that, looking through my backlog, I have 38 drafts in the backlog that I never wrapped up, so there’s been material to work through; I just haven’t written much in the past year. So with that said, what have I been doing for the last year? Come to think of it, what the hell did I do in 2018?

A partial backlog of half assed drafts

Highlights of 2018:

  • Spent first half of year in China (Can’t recall specifics besides frittering my time away, really)
  • Moved back home from China
  • Spent a couple months job hunting
  • Got a new job

Highlights of 2019:

  • Started job, moved to a new city.
  • Found out about online language tutoring services, started to learn some languages
  • Started seriously applying a regular regimen to classes. My first month of language classes, I took on average 2-4 classes a week at one hour per class. Now I average 1-2 classes a day. That’s roughly 10-14 classes a week. My total lesson count for the year so far is about 250. That’s not bad – almost a class per day. Let’s see if I can crack 300 by EOY.
  • Made some serious headway into certain languages. My Cantonese has improved significantly since starting online language classes. My Mandarin probably improved modestly, or maintained around the same level. I’ve also started learning Spanish, though my Spanish is easily the worst of the three. To be fair, I was learning from scratch.
  • Also learned a lot about the general methodology of learning languages. I’ll have to do a write up about that – In fact, I’ll make sure to link it when it’s done
  • I’ve regained what I once lost, meaning I gained a bunch of weight lol. Weird how my China weight fluctuates so drastically from my America weight – the only explanation I can give is how each area lends itself to a certain diet. American diets tend to be calorie heavy when eating out, whereas Chinese places have various options.

Can’t really think of any other major events. This is why I advocate for following a smaller project based timeline for targeting goals, AKA SMART goals. Hitting concrete targets lets you break down what it is you accomplished, and makes it easier to broadcast it. SMART goals are generally binary – you either reached your goal or you didn’t. That’s really easy to measure. However, even if you don’t reach your goal, you can still expound on it at length. I’m really going to try to move to smaller timelines (say, monthly or even biweekly) in which I recall what I did. From there, I can do a meta analysis at every 3 or 6 months and then the annual write up.

Having to do this annual write up with no written material makes it a lot harder to break down what I did throughout the year besides my most memorable accomplishments. This is especially flawed, because the things that stick out to me most might not necessarily be the things that had the biggest impact. If I could quantify all my accomplishments over the past year with perfect clarity, I’m sure there will have been some that actually made a significant impact but I had a blind spot for. Kind of like that person whose opinion you disregard, so when they make a good point it blindsides you.

I need to do another write up where I review my past year goals and what I accomplished, with new goals added. I’m not going to do the analysis, but I am going to list out some goals I have in mind for next year.

  • Write 365,000 words in 2020. Influenced by this tweet. I’ve always admired patio11’s writing, enough that I read through most of his oeuvre starting back from when he initially started his bingo card creator app. Reading through his early work, I definitely feel like his writing quality isn’t particularly out of reach, or even great. Looking at his current stuff (More than 10 years later, Jesus) I feel like I’m looking at the work of a master of his craft, effortlessly producing work on the caliber of paid professional™. I don’t see any reason why I can’t improve if I keep working at it. (I think this number is a reach. 365,000 is the goal, which is 1,000 words a day. Sounds perfectly doable in theory, but I don’t think I’m going to execute on this literally every single day in the upcoming goal. Doesn’t mean I can’t take steps to hit that goal.)
  • Hit 365 language lessons in a year. That’s at least 1 hour a day dedicated to language learning, of miscellaneous languages. Probably Cantonese or Mandarin still. FSI estimates language fluency for Mandarin or Chinese to take about 2200 study hours. Round out to about 200 for my main language, and that’s about 10 years. Sounds doable. Check back on my status next year. Also, I don’t need to reach full fluency – just “Good enough” for general conversations. I think this goal is more than reachable. Considering I’ve been averaging about 1.3-1.6 hours a day (~40 classes a month) for the past ~3 months, I feel like even missing a bunch of classes will still give me leeway to hit this goal. Unless, of course, I lose my source of income and can’t afford to take classes anymore. But that’s a different story.
  • Leetcode. I’m considering looking for new job. According to CS job websites, getting a decent feeling for data structure and algorithms whiteboarding is pretty important to the big tech company job interview process. I don’t have a concrete goal in mind, so let’s say somewhere between 1-200 problems solved. That’s about 2-4 problems a week. Doable depending on the problem set, but if I do start interviewing, I’m assuming I’m gonna go grind a ton of leetcode in a short period of time.
  • Read at least 12 books this year. That’s only a book a month. Seems perfectly doable, though to be fair, I can barely remember a single book I’ve read this year. Maybe the last book in the 3 body problem trilogy? Though now that I think about it, that was probably 2018.

I’m actually pretty excited about this upcoming year – I can finally start to pay down my looming debt and possibly even really see some of these initiatives bear fruit; I already was able to communicate more with relatives using my Chinese. I can’t wait to see if I can begin busting out the Spanish with strangers.

Titans of Cultural Industry

I was reading this reddit thread about the creator of Spongebob Squarepants passing away. A lot of the commenters were mentioning the culture in the USA regarding shared cultural references that the show provided, as millions of children in the US grew up watching the series. It reminded me of something I wanted to write about: the change in default culture in America.

Think about founding fathers America: what was the default culture? Probably the Church. It makes sense back when everyone was either a white farmer or a black slave, because the slaves were also basically pressed into spiritual chains along with literal chains. As everyone attended church and were mostly NOT Catholic, I’d guess the system of power in the culture was decentralized – sure, the churches all wielded power in their own communities, but they didn’t have to report back to the Archdiocese and the Pope. So each community would practice their own forms of Christianity with their little sprinkles thrown in to make them snowflakes. What does this mean? In the broad strokes, people in America could hold assumptions about their neighbors that would be broadly true: They believe in a hell. They believe our lord and Savior Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us all from eternal damnation and so forth, for the major tenets of Christianity. But because each church is left to their own devices, they can come up with weird, separate interpretations of the core tenets. Think of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons: radically different flavors of Christianity, but still beholden to Christianity nonetheless.  However, in modern times, this is no longer true.

Modern Americans are moving away from religion. Christianity, as the default religion in America, is also going into a decline in terms of membership rates. The Church is no longer the pillar of the community. Being Christian is no longer the default for America as a whole, though it is in many pockets of America. What does this mean? Churches don’t have as much sway in controlling culture in America. Instead of people hanging out and bonding in Church, they moved on to different things. For a period, it was watching TV. Which brings me to my starting point: people on the internet talking about Spongebob. TV was also a centralizing force: sure, there were tons of different channels, but in reality there was only a pocket full of channels aimed at specific demographics. If you were a 10 year old kid, you probably weren’t going to be watching Fox News – you’d generally watch Disney Channel, Nickolodeon, or Cartoon Network. (In my case, I also watched a lot of Iron Chef on Food Network. To this day, I believe the dub for IC remains one of the best localizations done for a show period. Super Canadian though.) If you were a kid in America during this certain period, you would therefore expect your fellow kids to watch television as well. Of course, the era of TV peaked a while ago, and now we’ve moved on to the next phase: The Internet.

Internet is different from the two previous eras in that watering holes are much more balkanized in comparison. There’s still an oligopoly – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, etc all control large swathes of the internet. But what’s different about the internet is there is no arbitrary restrictions on where people can go: there’s way more niches that exist inside and outside of these watering holes. Reddit, while being a centralizing force, also decentralizes interest groups into thousands of smaller subcommunities that pursue their own interests, while still being in unifying them with a larger default community. All the other social networks have their niches, but not as explicitly structured as Reddit.  These companies feel like juggernauts that will stick around for some time, but you have to think all the previous titans felt similarly. Now look at TV numbers: it’s like a damn that has started breaking through. It makes me think: What’s the next cultural titan on the horizon? My money is on Earth stewardship in the vein of Avatar, after the environment rises up and destroys large swathes of humanity. Or maybe Mad Max style “The strongest rules” enclaves sweep over the littered remains of humanity. As for what I’m hoping we get? The AI revolution, with Matrix cocoons for all. I’m egalitarian like that.

Devaluing Content – On the Internet of Shit

If you look at the current wave of the internet, the dominant financial force is the move to social media. Reddit, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s no longer the hot new thing, but a part of entrenched conglomerates coming after your time and attention. Here’s a hot button issue that’s increasingly talked about now: drinking from the internet firehose. Back in the 90’s, the internet was a small place. Now, everyone’s connected, and everyone’s consuming content. There’s a never ending stream of new content being produced relentlessly for people to consume, and huge incentives to keep producing more. Most of it ends up being shit. This is normal.

One interesting thing about the rise of social media is the decentralization of content production – instead of having curated sources for content, like broadcast television and movie theaters pre-internet, now anyone can make something and upload it to the internet. The part that’s been centralized is the distribution process, the part owned by these social networks. Now, I’m not going to say this decentralization is all inherently bad – that would be a broad and sweeping generalization. There’s some great stuff about opening the floodgates for people to make stuff; If I have an issue fixing my car/electronics/etc, the first thing I’d think of doing is hopping on youtube to see if someone has made a video detailing the repair process. A lot of niche subjects are routinely disseminated on youtube, to the benefit of the niche groups and to passive consumers. But as one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away.

One group that’s suffered tremendously from the advent of social media is the pre-internet content producers. I’m thinking of media conglomerates that own TV studios, newspapers, music production companies, and so forth. While I give approximately zero shits about the RIAA, I do feel like newspapers drawing the short stick is bad for everyone. While newspaper companies aren’t the sole source of investigative journalism, they are the source of like 90%* of investigative journalism in America. Therefore, financially ruining these institutions have a negative effect overall, assuming you believe journalism is a necessary service to the good of your country.

Discuss how constant media production devalues content in general. Link this to devaluation of journalism because content is expected to be free now, or supported solely by advertisements. Mention unavoidable costs of investigative journalism and come to conclusion that it’s unsustainable for man to live on ads alone. Talk about reverting back to patron model with patreon, and NYT asking for handouts.

Newspapers need to move to new model – but what is sustainable that includes hard costs of doing business? Needs to be reliable – thus subscription model. People aren’t paying for content, but expect it anyway and it should be cheap and plentiful. The meat and potatoes ends up being investigative journalism. People have to be incentivized to pay for it somehow. I’m optimistic that there’ll be a sustainable revenue stream for journalism in the future, when we hash out the economics of doing business on the internet. In the meantime, though, journalists are fucked.

*These numbers are sourced from the department of made up bullshit